Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Here’s a paradox for you. I believe (that doesn’t mean I opine, that I think this is probably right – it means this s a conviction on which I base my life, this the basket in which I place my existential chips) – I believe evangelism is the most important thing we are on this earth to do. But I don’t worry much about the church folks who are against evangelism, hate the word, and oppose all our efforts to do it. The reason I don’t mind them is that those folks are often the best evangelists; while the ones who claim to support evangelism are actually gatekeepers excluding people from the church.

I want to name the major obstacles to evangelism, the barriers to doing the first thing Jesus told his disciples to do, proclaim the good news. People opposed to evangelism are not the problem. We have far larger obstacles.

There are plenty of good methods for evangelism, effective, proven methods. But churches use them only a little if at all. They don’t use them because the congregations are not spiritually evangelistic. Even if the staff used the proven methods, they wouldn’t work unless the congregation is authentically evangelistic. So the barriers to evangelism are really spiritual issues inside each congregation. These barriers are killers for many congregations, but only minor problems in others. It’s a matter of degree and we can work on the degree.


The biggest barrier to evangelism is the wrong motivation, which results in something that pretends to be evangelism but is actually just a sales pitch. It comes from this: “I just wish we could get some more people in the church.” “I wish we had more young families.” “What we need is more children in the church so we can have a Sunday School.”

Those natural and common attitudes – I hear those things said in our churches all the time! – are poison to evangelism. Why? Because they aspire to lasso poor innocent people who are minding their own business, reading the newspaper on Sunday morning while eating bagels and drinking coffee, and drag them into our churches to meet our needs. We need them to prop up our institution, which we are afraid is going to die out from under us. So we solicit people to join us to meet our needs. In other words, we want to use them for our own ends.

People are pretty smart. They don’t like being used. And they can smell manipulation. If we are after pledge units, a treasurer, or someone to chair building and grounds, then secular folks will run the other way and rightly so. That is not evangelism.

Evangelism is possible only if two things come together. And if they come together evangelism is inevitable. First, we have to have Jesus in our hearts. We symbolize that in the Eucharist when the people who will administer the sacrament receiving it first .We cannot give what we have not first received. If we don’t have a genuine relationship with God the Son who cares for us, redeems us, and shows us the path to joy, then we have nothing to offer anyone else. If we don’t have a relationship with Jesus that makes us want to share him with others, then we are dead in the water. So the starting point is our own spirituality, our own discovery of mercy and blessing.

Second, we have to have the other person in our hearts. If we don’t care about the well being of the other person, then we won’t share our spiritual treasure with them. We will be trying to get something from them instead. But when we have the other person in our hearts and we have Jesus in our hearts, they can’t help but meet.

I had the privilege of addressing the House of Bishops this month about several things going on in Nevada, including our stewardship and evangelism. This is part of what I said:

“A few years ago I was visiting congregations. I asked them, ‘What is the mission here?’ .The most common answer by far was ‘survival.’ That is a self-defeating mission if ever there was one. Jesus said, ‘He who seeks to save his life will lose it.’ That seemed to be true for congregations who were trying to survive.

There are other things we could be concerned about. Our suicide rate is double the national average. Our death rate from alcoholic liver disease is 1.7 times the national average.  We lead the nation in women killed in domestic violence. Las Vegas has more sexually trafficked minors than Bangkok. Our high school graduation rate is the worst in the nation. Some of us have begun to wonder if perhaps Jesus cares about those things. And if Jesus cares, maybe it’s our business to care too. That would be a different sense of mission . . ..

The final piece of the shift that I am beginning to see is Evangelism. There are two challenges. One is our methodology. The other is our motivation. As long as Evangelism is about our survival or vitality, it is self-serving, not Christ-serving. We are working to take the focus off a nostalgic wish that we had more young families. Instead, we hope to ask who are our neighbors and what do they need? Why are they committing suicide, drinking themselves to death, killing their spouses, dropping out of middle school? And what can we do about it?

Jesus may not be all they need. But Jesus is the first thing they need.
We are hoping for an authentic Evangelism that shares the love of Jesus
mediated by an accepting supportive faith community.”

The motivation leads inexorably to the plan. We invite the people we care about into a community that will heal them with the love of Jesus. That will include one part God talk to nine parts godly action. But it will include both.


Episcopal congregations are not noted for being welcoming. There is a reason they call us “the frozen chosen.” But we actually do a decent job of welcoming, even inviting, people who are like us. “Like us” means different things in different congregations. But the dynamic is the same. If new people visiting a congregation are, in whatever way the congregation feels (often unconsciously) is important, the newcomers will feel welcome and “fit right in.” But newcomers who are different are not recognized.

One of our congregations has complained to me for years that they have no young adults. They are in fact an aging congregation. But I have never, not once, been to a service there that did not include young adults. I have generally not seen anyone acknowledge their presence. We sometimes seem to be downright blind and deaf to the presence of folks who are different. Congregations that claim to want children in general are sometimes hostile to families who actually dare to bring children to church – especially if the children are the wrong color.

It isn’t just the church. It’s human nature. They even have a term for it in marketing, “the congruity heuristic.” It means “birds of a feather flock together.” It is human nature. To do evangelism we have to overcome human nature with Christ nature. We have to drop the criteria that St. Paul would call “merely human” for another common criteria, our common brokenness and need for Jesus. In an AA meeting, there will be all sorts of people who differ in every way, but they all struggle with addiction. Christians all struggle with sin, mortality, and being cut off from others. We find forgiveness, life, and communion in Jesus mediated by a caring, supportive community.

This takes a constant intentionality. It takes alertness. Our limited efforts to publicize our churches tend to be aimed at people like ourselves. I even hear churches say they are focused on attracting people who are already Episcopalians. Episcopalians who are not in church probably don’t want to be. They have probably been effectively inoculated against the gospel. What about all those people who don’t know Jesus from Spiderman? Nevada is full of genuinely lost, alienated, lonely, despairing people – who just don’t fit our demographic. They are our mission field. They are the sheep of our pasture, the people God has placed in our hand. They are the ones who need what we have. And if we truly have it, we cannot help but share it. If we are not compelled to share it, then we don’t’ have it.

Obviously, we overcome these barriers often enough to celebrate. I have seen some real openness to others, some real sharing of Christ, and some willingness to see the congregational make up change in many of our parishes. I celebrate that. We all should celebrate it. But the obstacles are always there and always need to be remembered so we can keep our witness to the good news of God in Christ Jesus strong, authentic, and transformative.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


The last day of House of Bishops was full and busy but I find myself too tired to even remember much of it.

I do recall that my panel presented this morning on the subject of how our diocese had experienced loss opening the way to new possibilities. I presented on how Latino ministries had sprung up in the wake of parish decline; and how something new seems to be taking shape since the greatly regretted loss of the regional vicars (ministry developers). Other presentations were from Julio Holguin of the Dominican Republic about the new sense of structure and formation there; Diane Jardine Bruce of Los Angeles about congregations dealing with ethnically changing neighborhoods by walking the neighborhood and making friends; Todd Ousley of Eastern Michigan about using new ministry models in the wake of declining population and employment; and Jeff Lee speaking of the merger of the Dioceses of Quincy and Chicago. It was all actually quite inspiring. I was particularly touched by Diane’s account of connecting with the neighborhood.

We did plodding business in the afternoon, nothing anyone could get exercised about. Then we had our closing dinner tonight, including graduation ceremonies for those who have completed the College or Bishops and farewells for three retiring bishops.

I have loved seeing these special friends and look forward to connecting with then again next Spring.

Tomorrow, I fly to Reno for the Empty Bowls Benefit Banquet in Sparks, where I will be a waiter once again this year.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Yesterday, we worshiped and rested. For worship, we divided up into three groups. My group went to Christ Cathedral. It was a beautiful old building with traditional worship, incense, great organ, first-rate choir, and all the things that it is now popular to say are passé and dead. Maybe, but the Church was packed. There were lots of young adults. Their education and community ministry programs looked strong. I was pretty impressed.

Another group of Bishops joined the Church in the Park, an outdoor Eucharist celebrated primarily for homeless people who don’t like coming inside for things. The third Group worshiped with Karen refugees from Southern Myanmar, part of the extensive network of refugee resettlement ministries of the Episcopal Church. (This link is slow but it’s worth the wait. Videographer: Bishop Brian Thom of Idaho)

As we meet each other in these gatherings and as we worship in these different settings, we learn who we are as Episcopalians. We get a better sense of our identity when we meet the rest of our family.

Maybe today was exhausting or maybe it’s the cumulative effect of the past week. But I was just tired!!! Still the morning was inspiring. We had a panel on mission, featuring:

Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms and the Magdalene Program
Mary Francis, the Evangelical Lutheran person in charge of church planting
Tom Brackett, the Episcopal person in charge of emergent ministries

I found Becca’s program serving women in recovery from trafficking and addiction to be profound and exciting. They also serve women who have endured rape as a genocidal act in civil wars. Her program does incredible work, explicitly as an expression of the gospel and without government grants.

I hope the example of Thistle Farms might teach us at Nevadans For The Common Good something about how to create and fund a sustainable safe harbor for sexually trafficked minors in Nevada. We have a good law now, but we still need a program to rehabilitate victims. Phoenix has one. Sacramento has one. But there is nothing in Nevada. 

Mary Francis urged innovation and risk taking in general but particularly in church planting. Tom spoke more abstractly and metaphorically, but was essentially promoting emergent ministries. I found all the presentations engaging, creative, and inspiring. There were a few remarks about “aging bishops” repressing new initiatives that struck me as a bit fanciful. I am an aging bishop but I don’t recall repressing any creative new initiatives. I tried to prompt people to start emergent ministries for several years, even got a grant for it once, but got no takers. This year I finally found a priest willing to give it a try.  He is now running with it at The Peace Community In Action, which the Diocese of Nevada is helping to fund. I have been hearing for several years that we Bishops are constraining the liberty of people who want to do spiritual things in a non-institutional setting. But I just don’t know of any of us who are guilty of doing that. As I said, I am tired and aging enough to be grouchy; so I was less patient with the accusation today.

Over lunch I met with Bishops Against Gun Violence. We discussed our presentation at tomorrow’s session and upcoming events, particularly, Reclaiming The Gospel Of Peace, a major rally on the broader subject of violence in our society, appropriately held in Oklahoma City on April 9-11, 2014. Both the Presiding Bishop and Archbishop of Canterbury will attend.

In the afternoon, we had a report on the Episcopal-Methodist dialogue working toward a full communion agreement such as we have the Lutherans, Moravians, and Philippine Independent Church. I am sure there will be some sticking points, but it looks promising.

We then discussed the results of a church-wide survey on the assessment paid by dioceses to 815. The main questions, which are related, are what the percentage should be and whether there should be adverse consequences for those who do not pay it. Many different views were expressed but with great openness and interest in each other’s thoughts.

I was dragging by the time of the closing Eucharist. But the service began with rousing singing of a favorite hymn from my childhood, On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand. After a rather plodding afternoon of churchiness, hearing my fellow Bishops belting out On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand with real feeling restored my hope that we truly are here for the most important truth in the world. I left the Eucharist uplifted.

Then I went to dinner at a charming Cajun restaurant with Sean Rowe of N. E. Pennsylvania, Barry Beisner of Northern California, and Andy Doyle of Texas. They are intimidatingly smart and well read, but humble, humorous, and altogether congenial. I learn so much just being around them.

Tomorrow begins with a panel presentation on loss and new possibilities.  I am one of the panelists, so I’m a little nervous about that. But the House of Bishops is a forgiving audience so I know I’ll be ok. Still tired though.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The things we say, think, and believe about God are apt to turn bad, boring, and soul crushing if we do not speak God-language well. Before God Of Our Silent Tears begins to lay out an image, or rather complex mix of images, of God, we first consider the way we use words to speak of that which can never be expressed in words.

An Excerpt from God Of Our Silent Tears, Ch. 7. Now available for order on line through Cathedral Bookstore and Amazon.

I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering;
somewhere the strange beauty of the world must rest upon pure joy!
– Louise Bogan

            There are things you cannot reach. But
            you can reach out to them, and all day long.
                        The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
            And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier. . . .

                                                            Mary Oliver, “Where Does The Temple Begin,
                                                            Where Does It End?”


            We have made important headway by repudiating the image of God that makes the problem of evil intractable and blocks our way to a God who could do us some good. We have done necessary groundwork by saying a few things about what God is like. But the way we have been describing God is still woefully inadequate. It has been a list of adjectives, not a real image of God. It has been too abstract, just a cold naming of characteristics. We can know all these things about God without really knowing God at all. Popular Christian writer Robert Farrar Capon says:

                          . . . [T]he first word in theology has to be not about God,
                        but about the way we use words. Specifically, it has to be a
                        firm warning that no words of ours can ever be trusted to mean
                        the same thing when predicated of ourselves and God. Not even
                        the florid ones with Greek and Latin roots. True enough, God is
                        merciful and God is good, and you may make him out to be as
                        omnipresent, immutable and omniscient as you please. But never
                        think for a minute that you have anything more than the faintest
                        clue what it’s actually like for him to be all those things.[i]

Talking about God is tricky. It requires a special language – language that can suggest something about the extraordinary truth of God, but not reduce it to something so simple we dare to presume we have got God figured out. Remember Augustine, “If you understand it, it isn’t God.”[ii] We have made good headway, but we have not yet come to a way of talking about God, a way of imagining God, that is particularly helpful when it comes to suffering. There is such a way of talking about God, a way of imagining God that can sustain us instead of oppress us.

            Joseph Campbell taught that the deepest, most important truths cannot be expressed directly. They cannot be described or explained in a straightforward way. The deepest, most important truths can at best be suggested, pointed toward, by stories and metaphors. Accordingly, the language of Christianity is not a literal description of God. It is a kind of divine poetry with God between the lines. The characteristics of God in Chapter 6 are all true and helpful to a degree – but they fall short of the image of God that is the heart of Christianity – the Holy Trinity.

            In the next chapter, we will see why the Trinity is the key to understanding God’s relationship with our suffering. But first, we need to understand a few things about the way we use language to talk about God. God is not ordinary so God-language cannot be ordinary either. If we try to use God-language as if it were ordinary language, we will find ourselves in an utter muddle and the beauty of this image will elude us.
1.     Analogy, Metaphor, and Paradox

                        The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.
                                                                        Tao Te Ching

(A)ny God of whom an image can be made is shown thereby not to be the God of Israel.
Robert W. Jensen in The Triune Identity, explaining the Second Commandment 

            Doctrines describe God, not literally but poetically – theologians use the word “analogically.” It has to do with the nature of God and the limits of language. We cannot put into words anything that is not first inside our minds. We cannot express in words everything we can conceive in our minds. Indeed, we cannot even find words for all the things we sense and intuit. God is vastly more than we can conceive. Trying to speak of God is almost an exercise in futility. Ludwig Wittgenstein[iii] suggested that we should therefore “remain silent.” Jacques Derrida[iv] said we cannot speak about God, only to God. The God we can define with doctrines is not God. Yet, for several reasons, we have to speak about God:
                        First, the experience of God compels us to speak. It is our nature to speak of what we experience; and we do experience glimpses of God. T. S.  Eliot’s term was “hints and guesses.”  Like Jeremiah, we must speak of God. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in. I cannot.”[v]

            Second, we are symbol-making creatures.  Even ordinary experience calls for       interpretation, and we interpret our world through symbols, including the ultimate symbol, “God,” representing the source, destiny, meaning, and order of all our experience.[vi] By speaking of God, we strive to make sense of our lives and deepen our understanding. It is like making art.  We grow in the process. Thought, reflection, and conversation enrich our experience by interpreting it.

                        Third, language about God sets the stage for us to experience God in ways we couldn’t experience God without the language. Cambridge theologian, Nicolas Lash, says that traditional images shape our current religious experience.[vii] Rene Dupre’ argues that we cannot have a religious experience until a symbol exists to open the door to that experience.[viii] We interpret ordinary experience in religious terms, and those terms establish the foundation for future religious experience. Traditional images and concepts of God provide a structure of meaning. Without those images and models, we wouldn’t be able to take in, grasp, and interpret even our own experience. For example, Tibetans rarely have visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary because she is not part of their tradition. Conversely, Western Christians are not apt to have visions of Dakinis (dancing feminine spirits in Tantric Buddhism). Religious language, our symbol system, shapes and interprets experiences, which might otherwise go unnoticed.
                        Finally, we need language about God so we can talk to each other about our deepest values, so our religion will not be a private speculation, but a spiritual table at which a community can gather to support and sustain one another. Sigmund Freud disparaged religion by calling it a collective neurosis. But the psychoanalyst, Eric Fromm, retorted to Freud that neurosis was a private religion. Fromm is probably right. Religion becomes problematic when it is not rooted in community, and community is possible only with language. A faith community must devise a shared language of faith. Holy Scripture, rituals, and doctrines exist to give us a common language for sharing our religious experience.
                        Our dilemma is that we cannot speak about God, but we must speak about God. Rilke wrote,

                        I want to utter you. I want to portray you
                        not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark.
                        There is no image I could invent
                        that your presence would not eclipse.
             The Christian way of dealing with the unspeakable reality of God – speaking only in metaphors -- is very old. It is implicit in St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine. Dionysius the Areopagite made it explicit in the 6th Century. In his Treatise On The Divine Names, Dionysius set out an approach to theological language that has been the rule ever since. According to Dionysius, we cannot make any direct affirmative statements about God. God is simply beyond the reach of our language. It is impossible to say God is this or God is that. We can speak of God only by analogy, saying God is in some respect like this or like that.  A medieval council of the Church affirmed that principle.[ix] St. Thomas Aquinas endorsed it again. It persists today in the teachings of modern theologians such as Karl Rahner. The rule that we speak of God only by analogy is a settled, basic principle of Christian thought.[x]
                        But analogy does not mean two things are the same. It means they are somewhat alike and somewhat different.[xi] For example, God is like a rock in that he is steadfast and dependable, but unlike a rock in that he is not hard, unresponsive, silicon-based, and insensate. Moreover, in the case of God, Dionysius says, God is always more unlike than like whatever we are comparing God to. Whatever we say about God is more wrong than it is right. We need to say it anyway, but we need to speak reverently and humbly, acknowledging that we are stammering about something utterly beyond us.
                        Making statements about God is called the via affirmativa.  Denying those statements is called the via negativa. The via affirmativa and the via negativa work together. We hold our claims about God in tension between saying God is sort of like this, but not really like this. God is love, but not like in a romance novel. God is just, but not like a human judge.

                        If we keep in mind that all our speech about God is analogical and not directly descriptive, it will save us from confusions that sometimes befuddle even good theologians when they get too caught up in their own imagery. A metaphor or image of God is intended to tell us something true about God. It will also invariably tell us something false. We must be careful to follow two rules: (1) Do not extend the metaphor beyond its true point to include the false one. (2) Do not discard the metaphor just because there is a false point that can be drawn from it. For example, when we call God “Father” we mean that God is our source and that God cares for us as a parent does. We do not mean that God is male.[xii]
                        In addition to being analogical, the things we say about God are almost always paradoxical. Christian truth is often expressed as paradox, two claims that are logically contradictory, but both true. Paradox serves three purposes. First, it keeps us honest, keeps us from conclusively and absolutely saying things about God that are not quite right. Second, it keeps us reverent, prevents us from thinking we have God figured out. Third, it keeps our minds open because we cannot get them closed around a paradox. One of the great dangers in religion is fixed concepts about God. It is all too easy to close our minds around them. Any such concept would be an idol. Paradox keeps our hearts and minds open to the mystery.

[i] Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox: Images And Mystery In Christian Faith (New York: Seabury Press, 1985) p. 7.
[ii] Augustine, Sermons 52, Ch. 1, no. 16.

[iii] 20th Century German linguistic philosopher.

[iv]  Late 20th Century French deconstructionist philosopher.

[v] Jeremiah 21: 9.
[vi] Karl Rahner, at 45-51.
[vii] Nicholas Lash, Easter In Ordinary (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), particularly at pp 57-58 where Lash responds to William James’ claim that authentic religious experience must be private and untainted by institutional or traditional faith, “Our ‘private’ experience is never entirely ‘naked’ . . . The symbolic, linguistic, affective resources available to us are given by prior experience, and by the culture, the traditions, the structures, institutions, and relationships that bring us to birth and give us such identity as we have. . . The innocent, naked, newborn ‘ego’ is a figment of the philosophical imagination.
[viii] “There is no religious experience prior to religious symbolization.” Louis Dupre’, Symbols Of The Sacred (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) p. 6.
[ix] The Second Lateran Council.

[x] The idea that all speech about God is “analogous language” or metaphorical language is not just Dionysius’ quirky idea. In 1215 C. E., the Fourth Lateran Council instituted Dionysius’ teachings about God talk as official Church doctrine. Great theologians from St. Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner have reaffirmed that language about God can only be analogy.
[xi] Alister McGrath describes analogy and metaphor as separate ways of describing God. However, they are the same in the one respect that concerns us here. Both mean that God is somewhat like the image we use, and somewhat different. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001) pp. 253-257.
[xii] Alister McGrath, pp. 253.