Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Evil in “High Places”- Why This Week’s Convictions Belong to a Long Struggle for Justice

Jerry Sandusky was sent straight to jail following last night’s guilty verdict and will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Philadelphia’s Msgr. William Lynn will serve a prison sentence of 3.5-7 years.










For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. - Ephesians 6:12 (King James Version)

This week the man at the center of the Penn State scandal, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years.  (See “The Little Ones: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued.”) Coincidentally, Sandusky’s guilty verdict came on the very same day that Monsignor William J. Lynn was found guilty of endangering children, becoming the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision.  Also coincidentally, these almost co-occurring guilty verdicts came in the same state, sending (in the state of Pennsylvania at least) a strong message to sexual predators and the institutions that protect them.  Hopefully other states are taking note.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. was right- that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice”- then the arc in these cases has bent just a bit more, even if it has a long way to go.  The next harder and more elusive but equally important task will be to bring to justice the many others guilty by association- those in power who, by keeping silent or covering up these evils, colluded with Sandusky and his clerical counterparts.

Because I have to imagine that when the apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, reminding them that their struggle is not with “flesh and blood,” but with the powers and principalities that rule this world, institutionalized evil would have been at least one of the things Paul had in mind here.  Some translations render the last words of verse 12 as “heavens,” but I prefer the King James translation: the “high places” are where the powerful sit, clinging tightly to their vested interests in the forms of image, reputation, money and, of course, power.  And, I can think of few “higher places” than a prestigious academic institution with its reputation, endowment and loyal fan base to protect- or a 1.5 million-member archdiocese charged with the shepherding of souls and the coffers to show for it.

If the question that remains in the immediate wake of these guilty sentences, then, is why- whywhen predatory behaviors were not just suspected but witnessed and documented, were such evils allowed to continue?- the answer, I suspect, lies in this often hidden, spiritual realm to which the apostle Paul alludes. The “spiritual wickedness in high places” to which Paul refers is a realm in which I would venture to guess there are many co-collaborators like Lynn, whose consciences may or may not condemn them, but who, regardless, must be held to account for their devastating sins of omission and commission.

ESPN columnist Howard Bryant puts it well: “The mythology of the coach and the hagiography of the institution, the immediate reflex to protect the institution and the fear of crossing it, far more than Sandusky himself, allowed this tragedy to mushroom. Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat, whether it occurs in the church, the university or the Boy Scouts.”

Only the permanent destruction of that sort of deferential treatment of larger-than-life figures and trusted organizations will prevent a repeat.

A struggle?  I would say so.  But a worthy one, too.  Because as Bryant concludes, if the overriding lesson of these scandals is that power corrupts and blinds, it is also true that there is hope in the aftermath of great tragedy: “the failed culture of the past doesn’t have to be part of the future.”

I am hoping along with him.



The Missionary As Barefoot Nature Preservationist

Pearl Buck, a fellow “MK” (“Missionary Kid”) is best known for her bestselling work, “The Good Earth.”

Hillary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth is my current bedtime companion these days, and I’m probably reading it as a way to better understand myself.

You may know Pearl Buck from her seminal, best-selling work, The Good Earth, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and later the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.  But Pearl Buck was also the daughter of missionaries to China before she went on to become a writer.  Her parents, Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, served with the Southern Presbyterian mission in a tumultuous time in China’s history (think, for example, the Boxer Rebellion) at the turn of the nineteenth century.

I’m only midway through the book, but am struck most by the psychological portrait painted here of Pearl’s father, Absalom.  He was inhabited by a furious, all-consuming passion to convert “the heathen,” one that often placed his own family in harm’s way.  (Pearl lost three older siblings to sickness during the family’s overseas posts- a fact that Absalom barely even acknowledged in any of his writings, despite his wife’s resulting breakdowns and the strain it placed on their marriage thereafter.)

Some twenty years into his missionary labors, Absalom wrote this: “We are by no means overtaking these millions with the Gospel.  They are increasing on us…a great and increasing host against us…Heathenism with all its vices still living and active…The darkness, widespread and deep, sin in all its hideous forms, intense worldliness as well as hydra-headed idolatry.”

This kind of hostile and combative relationship with the world as a parental inheritance was one that Pearl sought to navigate growing up in her Chinese environment.  She was at an early age and by her own admission more Chinese than she was American.  This meant hours spent listening to her Chinese playmates’ mothers and aunts “talk so frankly in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.”

Spurling as biographer here is revealing some of her own bias against missionary zeal, a bias that at times in the book comes across as a bit unfair. But she also is speaking to a sad reality in the history of the church: that historically its missionaries have been prone to view themselves as self-contained wielders of morality and salvation, always in the service of a God who stands in opposition to the world He created.  And Spurling captures the implicit irony here- that the result can be a people sent out into the muck and mire, looking more intent to protect themselves from the hard realities of the world in which we live.

So maybe a healthier way to view ourselves in relation to our world is to recognize that the divine footprint has been there- everywhere we go- before we ever even entered the picture.  Maybe we need to view ourselves more as “nature preservationists” whose task is to preserve that divine footprint- to gesture to it while all the while being vigilant lest we deface it with all of our own litter.

Peter Millar, in Waymarks: Signposts to discovering God’s presence in the world, captures the following sentiment shared in a cross-cultural workshop, which I think says it well: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy and we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream.  More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”

Maybe, then, one measure of a true disciple is whether she is willing to tread lightly in bare feet.



The Skimp on Recent Developments

This saint and sinner finally wears the infamous "little, black dress." Note: the kids' paraphernalia in the background has not been Photoshopped in.

Fellow saints and sinners who weighed in on a popular post from last year, “The Minister and the Little, Black Dress,” will be mildly amused to learn that I finally did it: on Monday evening on the occasion of my husband’s 43rd birthday and per his request, this mommy and minister found the excuse to wear the skimpiest little black dress she has ever worn and probably will ever wear again.  (How’s that for “dirty, sexy ministry,” by way of a tip of the hat to the popular blog of that name?)

The result?  My husband thought I was the hottest looking woman to dine at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant…in a strip mall off Buford Highway…on a slow Monday evening.  (He did say some other kind things which I won’t reprint.) But I wore that slinky, tightly knit, spandex dress that felt like crinkled selifan wrap and gave me curves I didn’t know I had- in all the wrong places- with enough pride to let my husband take a picture as proof that I did actually wear the dress.

For those of you mothers for whom “nightlife” nowadays generally means a glass of wine while folding laundry and then bed at the wild hour of 9pm, I would highly recommend the experience of the “little, black dress.”  And, for you fellow women ministers for whom the “big, black dress” is more common attire, usually on Sunday mornings, consider incorporating one skimpy cocktail dress into your wardrobe for your date nights.  (And then hope that none of your parishioners will show up to the Vietnamese joint on Buford highway. Chuckle.)

By way of other updates, our four-part interview with Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries caught the attention of The Christian Century, which will publish some further reflections from Saskia on the implications for theology of the latest discoveries in neuroscience.  I’ll keep you posted on when Saskia’s article is to appear.  I’m really thrilled about this!

Some of you may have caught my loud and rather random gripe that there is not one female “emerging evangelist” pictured on the “Emerging Evangelists” Facebook page.  Matt, from Emerging Evangelists, wrote a kind and patient response in reply: “Kristina, would love to chat sometime. We have asked several women over the past few years, but haven’t gotten any to jump on board besides Jon and his wife. Hope this helps.”  I have a note in to a Matt asking if he’d be willing to be interviewed on the subject of women  “emerging evangelists,” or their seeming lack thereof, and why they’re so reluctant to “jump aboard.”  Stay tuned- or be prepared to be disappointed if I don’t hear back.

Finally, fellow saint and sinner Adam (Atlanta, Georgia) had this to say about Bethel Church’s kingdom-come work, in response to yesterday’s inquiry: “Emily and I have been following Bethel Church for over a year now, and we have been extremely blessed by their ministry. They actually have a church plant here in Atlanta http://www.ibethelatlanta.org in which my brother attends. I have never experienced a church who is as hungary, and passionate for God and his Kingdom as Bethel. We were introduced to Bethel via the documentary movies “Finger of God” and “Furious Love” made by Darren Wilson. In the first movie Darren explores the supernatural, and “weird happenings in the church” in the second film he explores God’s love for people, and this summer a third film is being released titled “Father of Lights” which is about God’s heart. I highly recommend these films, which you can find and view online: Finger of God: http://vimeo.com/23558863Furious Love: http://tinyurl.com/cdwx687Father of Light trailer: http://fatheroflightsfilm.com.”

Thanks for reading, everyone- and most especially, thanks to those of you who respond.  It’s always an encouragement to know folks  are not just reading but engaging these “thoughts at the intersection between life and God for anyone converted, unconverted or under conversion.”


The “Signs and Wonders” of the Kingdom of God

The 2012 Kingdom Culture conference is happening here, starting today.

The  “2012 Kingdom Culture” conference hosted annually by Bethel Church, in Redding, California, starts today- and I’m intrigued.  (Are any of you participating? I’d be curious to hear more about what you know or have experienced here.)

I’m most intrigued because of the way that Bethel Church describes itself: their web site reads that “the personal, regional and global expansion of God’s kingdom through His manifest presence” is Bethel’s mission, with one implication being that “every believer is a supernatural minister” and that “signs and wonders follow thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

And, I’m cautiously optimistic about what seems at least from first impressions as a church living into God’s mission.  A mission that is very much about the unleashing of the kingdom of God.  (Here in the United States I don’t see this sort of intentional kingdom living modeled by churches very often.)

That said, I’d also like to know more about the emphasis here on “signs and wonders.”  To be sure, the Jesus we meet in Scripture is always healing the sick in miraculous ways; but Jesus Himself would ask, “Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’” (Luke 5:23).  In other words, what measure, if any, in the way of “signs and wonders,” is Bethel Church using to define this dawning kingdom of God in people’s lives?

The other day an acquaintance was once again marveling at the amazing things God is doing through the healing ministry to which he belongs through his church, “Three in One Church.”  (For some reason the Triune God is always last on my shortlist of associations here, with golf and the world of retail sales vying for first; and if you’re wondering, yes, this really is the name of his church and I did not make it up.)  This time my friend had been wowed by what he described as a kind of “manna from heaven” experience- only this time the “manna” falling from the sky came in the form of a small, rough-cut diamond.  This was not the first time apparently that a diamond had fallen from the ceiling of the building where “Three in One” worships.  But it was the first time my friend had witnessed it; and he had quickly become a convert to the notion that God randomly drops diamonds from ceilings as a sign of God’s favor.

Another “sign and wonder”? Maybe.  There seem to be all sorts of things that might qualify under this rather broad rubric of God’s sovereign omnipotence.  Still, I couldn’t help but be skeptical.

It seems to me that when we begin to set our expectations on dramatic healings from cancer or diamonds that fall from the sky, often at the expense of more “ordinary” but equally mysterious happenings, we actually limit our vision of what God is doing in inaugurating a kingdom that is truly cosmic in scope.  Afterall, we worship a God who can reveal Himself both in roaring thunder and gentle whispers (1 Kings 19).

So, what do you think about all this “signs and wonders” stuff? And, got more info or firsthand experience on Bethel?  Send it along!

Tomorrow, an update to “The Minister and the Little, Black Dress” and other miscellany.


Can a High Christology Accommodate Genuine Interfaith Dialogue?

On the limits of interfaith dialogue…and they hadn’t even begun to talk about Jesus yet.

Is it possible to take seriously the unique, “once and for all” saving work and person of Jesus Christ, while also respecting the views of friends from other faith traditions and engaging in genuine interfaith dialogue?  Is it feasible to have a high Christology and a robust soteriology, without treating every interaction with a Jew, Buddhist or agnostic as another “come-to-Jesus-or-else-eternally-burn-in-hell” moment?  These are my questions lately.

And, if a big part of real dialogue with people of other faiths is withholding judgment about their eternal destination, then it would seem by extension from a reading of Paul Dafydd Jones, who teaches in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia, that it is indeed possible to answer “yes” here.  Dafydd Jones’ “hopeful universalism” is an answer to intonations of, on the one hand, what Dafydd Jones calls “populist neo-Arminianism” in Francis Chan’s recent work, “Erasing Hell”- namely, the notion that a decision of faith on our parts is “needed to complete the salvific process that God initiates;” and, on the other, the Augustinian-Calvinist understanding of “limited salvation,” by which God in God’s sovereignty chooses and predestines some for salvation and some for eternal punishment.

In their place, Dafydd Jones proposes a biblically rooted account of God’s love and sovereignty that succeeds in simultaneously taking sin seriously and emphasizing the cosmic significance of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  He does this by first appealing to a term familiar to those of us steeped in more Calvinist, Reformed traditions- that of “election”:

Following the later Barth, I favor an account of God’s love for humankind that identifies Jesus Christ as the “electing God” and “elected human.” These terms, I hasten to add, aren’t a tip of the hat to ardent Calvinists. Talk of election helps to connect the doctrines of God, Christ and salvation. It’s a way of saying, specifically, that God’s loving advance toward us, realized in Christ, has ramifications for human being as such. The incarnation makes a difference to who we are. It renders us people who bear the image of “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15); it marks us as those whom God “can choose . . . in Christ before the foundation of the world [and] destined for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4–5).

This allows Dafydd Jones to enlist a very high view of Christ’s work and person that also takes the problem of sin and evil seriously:

Christ, on this reckoning, isn’t merely a focus for Christian thought and action (although he is certainly that). Christ is the basis for a soteriology that delights in the fact that none of us are the sum total of our awkward, sinful and frequently disappointing lives. Through Christ, God has bound Godself to us, and us to God, in the most radical way imaginable. And this binding is not occasional or temporary. It cuts to the heart of who we are, while speaking volumes about the person that God is and the actions that God undertakes. Precisely because the scope of the Son’s intercession is as broad as the humanity that he assumes, precisely because Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of the Father” (Acts 2:33, cf. Acts 7:55–6 and Mark 16:19), there is good reason to suppose that God’s saving work has no limits. It’s not theological overreach to hope that salvation will come to all. Such hope follows directly from an awareness of God’s love and power, articulated by Christ and distributed, mysteriously, by Christ’s Spirit.

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

There really is a “consuming fire,” then, as Edward Fudge supposes. But this fire doesn’t await sinners in the future. This fire—the fire of God’s holy love—concentrates itself in Jesus’ own suffering and death. And because Christ takes to heart the entire shocking history of our sin, sin is wholly burned up, whollyfinished, when Christ breathes his last. Is this not the meaning of Jesus’ cry of dereliction? Doesn’t this cry show that God has accepted Christ’s thoroughgoing identification with sinners and that God’s contestation of sin has run its course? And with the fire of God’s holy love burned out, doesn’t the resurrection show God relating to God’s children in a new way?

Hopeful universalism, on this reckoning, does not require the Christian to downplay the past, present and future fact of wrongdoing. It requires only that the Christian acknowledge the nearly unimaginable price that Christ paid for our salvation: being the sin that God condemns and rejects, so that those who live “in him” (that is, all of us) might receive the blessings of God’s favor.

[Correction: Dafydd Jones' article, "A Hopeful Universalism," appears as the cover story in the current issue of "The Christian Century."  I originally posted the article in full, but because it is behind a subscription wall, have decided to take it down and excerpt it in a few key places instead.]

What I Learn From Comedian Russell Brand

Comedian Russell Brand, a.k.a. rock star Aldous Snow, poses for the camera.

If British comedian Russell Brand (of the movie “Get Him to the Greek”) can be crude, he can also be downright hilarious, as evidenced by the below videos.  “We’ve Got To Do Something” and “African Child” are ridiculously funny caricatures of celebrities and rock stars who trumpet their various “do-good” crusades in high-profile ways.  (I considered posting the whole Youtube clip of “African Child,” but because some of the later parts may really offend some of you, I’ve gone with this abbreviated version.)

But, as I watch these I can’t help but see some biblical irony in Brand’s critique.  Isaiah 64 describes “all our righteous acts” as little more than “dirty rags.”  Even our best works- maybe especially when we do them in plain view for all to see- are little more than efforts to justify ourselves.  To make ourselves look good or earn ourselves a distinguished reputation.

And it seems Brand’s lampooning need not be reserved just for celebrity rock stars.  It might also be generously dished out to celebrity pastors and churches whenever they run up the flagpole a particular cause.  After a while they can start sounding an awful lot like Brand’s “African white space Christ” (for full context you’ll have to check out the full Youtube click, without my endorsement, of course).

In short, there’s a lesson in addition to the laughter here:  God’s mission asks us to leave our self-inflated “do-good” impulses and savior complexes at the door, even as it gestures to a non-negotiable life of service to God’s world.

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Happy Father’s Day!

When I was fifteen, my dad took me to Russia and Europe to fulfill a promise he had made to each of us kids: we could each have one trip of our choice to anywhere in the world.

At the time, Dad in his work organizing global prayer initiatives with World Vision International had been racking up frequent flyer mileage like it was going out of style, traveling to all the most dangerous places on the State Department’s travel warning list.  (Or, at least that was the joke.)

Russia, in those years, seemed pretty tame by comparison.  Glasnost had just begun, and Westerners had begun to stream in like it was the 1849 Gold Rush.  The country seemed both exotic and safe enough for a teenager, sans parents, to visit and explore.

I’ll never forget that first night in Moscow, though.  The plan was that Dad would drop me off before continuing on with his work itinerary to somewhere in the middle of Siberia or the likes.  I would be meeting up the next morning at the hotel with my tour group.

And it was the first time I can remember seeing Dad cry.  Because there we were in my room at the Interpol hotel, a bustling tourist locale, just minutes before Dad was to make his next travel connection, when the phone in my room rang.  I had picked it up to hear a man with a thick German accent making obscene comments.

When the phone rang again, Dad picked it up to hear the same man on the line.  He angrily reprimanded the man and told him not to call again.  And then to me: “Don’t pick it up again,” Dad had instructed, his anxiety palpable in the sternness of his tone; and, “whatever you do, do not open your door for anyone!”

Then, this seasoned world traveler who had narrowly escaped death- on winding roads in the Himalayas and from food poisoning in Pakistan, who had lost his passport somewhere in Asia and would be airlifted out of Sierra Leone, began to cry, just a bit.

Now, as a mother myself, I can appreciate those tears: to have to leave my teenaged daughter in a foreign city in a hotel room with a sick German man badgering her on the telephone would be scary, to say the least.  I would feel helpless, maybe even guilty.

With a hug, Dad was off.  The phone did not ring the rest of the night, and I fell asleep all aflutter with the pride and excitement of being all grown up and on my own.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, He tells us to go to God with the words, “Our Father in heaven.”  And, I don’t think this is a coincidence.  God as a father is available and attentive to us, and most fundamentally provides for us and protects us, Jesus seems to be saying.

Today as we celebrate our earthly fathers, I’m grateful that when they- like all of us who parent- come up against their limitations, we can know that we have a heavenly father who is perfect in every way.



Shaking the Dust

“[Jesus] said to the apostles, ‘If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’” – Luke 9:3-5

The chaplain was making her usual rounds at one of the companies she served.

By way of my usual greeting, I had poked my head in his office door to say “hello.”

“Hello, dear,” he had replied.

I winced at the unwelcome display of familiarity implying a relation other than one of equals here. “Maybe I’m being too sensitive,” I thought to myself. “We are in the South after all.”

This time I had found him at his desk poring over an open Bible, his notes from Sunday’s sermon splayed out before him.

The sermon proved a natural conversation starter.  He was happy to tell me in excited tones all about its impact and then move on to the proud origins of the denomination in which he now served as an elder.  I was content to listen.

His denomination prided itself on its missionary identity- at which point I had volunteered that I had grown up as a missionary kid and that my parents had once worked for a mission organization that this man in his denominational milieu would be familiar with.



“Oh, really?”  A smile of ringing endorsement broke out across his face.  Then, “where do your parents live now?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“That must be so hard.  That’s where all the liberals are!” he had exclaimed.

The conversation seemed to be shifting a bit.

“Liberals? Albuquerque?” Albuquerque was not the first place that came to mind on a short list of America’s “liberal hotbeds.”

“There are all those artists out there…”

(My grandma, now senile, was one of them.  Before her fingers began to tremble so much that she could barely hold a pen to sign our birthday card greetings, she used to spend hours in her studio painting themes like the Holy Spirit.  Big, bold, abstract personifications that still hung on my grandparents’ living room wall.)

“I guess.  But I wouldn’t call the church that my parents are in really ‘liberal.’”

“Oh I’m sure the church isn’t.  Where do they worship?”

“They’re in a Presbyterian church.”

“Does their church ordain women?”

“I think so.”  (I’m not too familiar with Cumberland Presbyterians, but so the rumor has it.)

And then suddenly out of the blue his next question seemed almost to sparkle momentarily.  A bit like fool’s gold, maybe.

“Are you ordained?”

“Yes,” I had answered, smiling.

At this his own smile had evaporated, and in one moment the tables had turned: I had become one of them- those “liberals.”

“Wow, now that is something our denomination will never do! We will never ordain women! We take the Word of God seriously- we follow (emphasis his) the words of Scripture in 1 Timothy and Titus.”

He had turned his face from me now and was looking down at his Bible with a note of solemn, uncompromising authority in his voice.  His sermon notes had almost jumped off the page earlier: “an uncompromising presentation of the Gospel,” they had read.

And I guess I was grateful in the moment that he was looking somewhere other than in my direction: now he wouldn’t see me begin to tremble just a bit as the hurtful sting of his words set in, quickly turning into raw, unadulterated anger.

“Don’t lose your cool,” I was thinking to myself now.  I had just finished reading The Male Factor- all about how men view women in the workplace; and “too emotional” was one of the biggest male gripes about women colleagues.  The last thing I wanted to do now was lose my temper when serving on the job in a professional setting and as this man’s chaplain.  Losing my cool would only add to his arsenal about why women should not be ordained.

I glanced at the picture of his family on the wall above.  His two young daughters were beaming back at me.  What would their futures hold? I wondered.  Momentarily I returned to my childhood days and a father who once also believed as this man did, only maybe not so staunchly.  (It had taken his daughter saying she was going to seminary to train for ministry to change his mind.)

Then, realizing I could not let this man go on pretending that the female ordained minister standing before him was not really there now because the Bible had told him so, I found myself manufacturing my best forced laugh, and then this: “So, since you know your Bible well and take it seriously, I’m assuming you also insist that the men with long hair in your congregation get regular hair cuts?”

A rebuke hidden within a thin veil of humor.   It had gone unnoticed.

“Oh no, we don’t go to that extreme,” he had said.  (As if banning women from positions of church leadership is not extreme in a day and age when in every other sector women now serve equally alongside men? Hello, Clive, is anyone there?)

I had been waiting for him to scribble out his church information on his business card.  Now it seemed an interminably long wait.  I feigned some interest when he returned to the topic of his sermon, and even made a tepid display of agreement in response to one of his points.

“Come and visit our church sometime, dear” were his last words, as I turned and made for the door, wincing as I shook the dust off my feet.

What would you have done?  Leave your thoughts below.







Vatican “Nunsense”: Why Old “Habits” Die Hard

Catholic school never had been so fun, thanks to Sister Bernice.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” – Genesis 3:15

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” – Luke 24:11

I’ve been following with interest the Vatican’s crackdown on women religious and in particular one group of American nuns, the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”  There’s something laughably ironic here: only recently the Vatican was coming out with loud censures of the movie, “The Three Stooges,” for the movie’s caricatures of nuns as loose and naughty; now the Vatican is denouncing these same women in orders for their “unlicensed” theology, and with a similar effect; women like Elizabeth Johnson or Margaret Farley, brilliant, thoughtful theologians in their own right, are made to look like loose, naughty hussies with little respect for authority- “radical feminists” out to bring down centuries of church tradition.  (I guess the implicit assumption at play here is that you have to first belong to the family if you want to throw chauvinistic insults at the mothers and sisters of the household.)

Just last week the Franciscan friars became the first Catholic religious order to come to their sisters’ aid, calling the Vatican’s crackdown on the women “excessive.”  I applaud this move, and hope it signifies the beginning of more support in the direction of genuine, mutual dialogue in which power and authority are no longer wielded as weapons but as instruments in service of truth and love.

That said, I’m also pessimistic in my optimism here.  The Bible describes the reality of the world we live in as one in which, after the Fall, men and women’s enmity against one another is an abiding sign of their accursed state.  This world is one in which men do not believe their female friends and sisters- even when these women bring joy-filled tidings of a God who has conquered the grave out of love for us.  The men dismiss their accounts as mere “idle tales.”

Does this reality justify complacence with the order of things? I don’t think so.  The kingdom of God is a place in which there is no male or female, Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28).  It is an oasis where lambs peacefully lie down with leopards (Isaiah 11)- where, in fact, the one who rules is both the Lamb and the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5).

I am left wondering how we as brothers and sisters in Christ are to incarnate this kingdom of God when the conflicts before us, often in the form of hot-button issues such as abortion or gay marriage, threaten to undo us.  What does it look like to live as if our prayer, “thy kingdom come,” is coming true?  Maybe a realistic start is simply remembering how our world works and vowing to be different.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts below!



It Takes an Imagination to Raise a Faith

"God just talked to me as a burning bush." "Sure he did, Moses. I think you've been 'burning some bush.'" -Jim Gaffigan

I wonder if we tire of or become bored by the life of faith because we have stopped using our imaginations.  Maybe we’ve never learned how to use them in the first place.

Just imagine that you and I are “living tabernacles.”  Outward and visible signs of God’s grace.

Just imagine that everyone else is, too.

Just imagine that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God,” in the words of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Will we live the day before us differently?

Maybe we need to ask God to ignite our imaginations.

The below sermon, “Living Tabernacles,” by fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell, is an implicit invitation to do this very thing:

It’s not unusual for me to get taken for a Roman Catholic priest.

Sometimes, it’s easier to just go with it, rather than try to explain everything. After all, explanations tend to kill mysteries.

Just ask Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is best known for writing some of the most highly developed theology that we have about the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or simply, the mass.

One might say that he went so far as to explain away all of the mystery, and that he reduced what happens here at this altar to a logical proof.

Perhaps that’s why, near the end of his life, he had a vision of all of his work and declared that all of his writings were nothing but straw.

The nature of a sacrament is that it’s an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.

But we have to train our eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.

Let me give you two examples of this that happened to me last week.

As I said, it’s not unusual for me to be taken for a Catholic priest … on the other hand, most days when I’m wearing a collar on the subway riding to work at the Episcopal Church Center on Second Avenue, absolutely nothing happens and no one notices me at all.

Last Friday morning was different.

People were noticing. Moreover, they weren’t just noticing, they were engaging me.

The first person to notice me was James.

“Excuse me, are you a Catholic priest?” he whispered to me as the subway lurched out of the station.

I hesitated.

“No,” I finally answered, “I’m Episcopalian.”

“Ah,” he smiled as his English accent became noticeable, “I am a seminarian with the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.”

How funny, I thought, because I knew I was getting ready to preach a sermon today on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

James was dressed neatly in a white shirt and black pants. But he also looked like he’d been out all night.

No sooner did I think it then he confessed it.

“I had a little too much beer last night.” The train pulled into the station and he got off to hurry back to the rectory where he was staying.

“God bless you,” he said, and then asked me my name.

“Jake,” I answered. “And yours?”


Hmm. James, I thought. James, the brother of the Lord and training to be a priest in the order of the Blessed Sacrament fathers.

Coincidence, yes; but I was also beginning to let my imagination take over and to think sacramentally … that is: I was starting to look past outward appearances to inner meanings.

No sooner did James get off, than a young woman approached me.

Now often it’s the crazies who approach me on the subway to talk. They want to tell me about the end of the world and the coming one-world government ruled by the Antichrist.

But this woman clearly was not crazy.

She had been watching my conversation with James and apparently it gave her the courage to come up to me.

“Excuse me, are you a priest?” she asked.

Again, what good are explanations at a moment like this?

Should I tell her I was a deacon? Should I tell her that I was an Episcopalian? Both of which were true, but neither seemed at all relevant right then and there.

She was responding to an outward sign — my clerical collar — with her inward and spiritual need.

She asked if she could pray with me.

I told her, “Of course!”

Then I asked her what her name was.

“My name is Miriam,” she said. “That means Mary,” she added.

I knew that.

But still, here I was talking to Mary, like in Mary, the mother of God.

And Mary wanted me to pray with her.

Mary told me that she was facing lots of “stressors” in her life; that she was afraid that she was losing her way in life, and most poignantly, that she was afraid of losing her faith.

Here I was, minding my own business, and a woman comes up to me and tells me that she is afraid of losing her faith — something that is so essential to our inner life and that it’s hard to go for very long without it.

How’s that for bringing something inward and spiritual to the surface so that we can see it?

I put my hand on her shoulder and she and I prayed. I told her that she was loved and that she was not walking alone. I prayed and we asked God together not to let Mary lose heart.

Mary, our Lord’s mother, and the one who pondered many things in her heart.

We finished our prayer and I got off at 59th Street to change to the E train to continue my journey to Penn Station.

Transferring to the E at 59th Street is like walking a labyrinth.

You get off one train, do an about-face, walk to the center of the platform, walk up a flight of stairs to a mezzanine, turn left through a corridor, take an escalator ride up, walk down a corridor past the “Infinity Shoe Shine” and then take a long escalator ride down.

The escalator shaft is so long you cannot see the landing at the bottom.

The shaft is a tiled tube that goes down and down; and I as I was riding it, the sound of someone moaning and groaning was echoing and reverberating off it.

It was a racket; it was a din and it seemed to be coming from a child.

But it wasn’t a tantrum. This wasn’t a disobedient child in the throes of acting out. This was someone having a fit; perhaps due to some kind of mental disorder.

It was a disturbing sound — other riders on the escalator were commenting — and, as we descended, the moans and the cries became loud and shrill.

“How odd,” I thought. First, I meet James, then Mary and now it seems like I am descending into hell.

I reached the lower platform and the train came. I could no longer hear the moans.

As I stood on the subway heading downtown, I looked at the people around me.

I was still praying for Miriam. She may even have been praying for me then too.

For a moment I stepped into God’s eye. And I saw as he sees. There is a prayer that some priests pray after mass that goes:

“Blessed, Praised, Hallowed and Adored be our Lord Jesus Christ upon His Throne of Glory in Heaven, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.”

And then in that moment, right where the hearts of each of these people should be, I saw a small, round wafer.

A communion host.

Sometimes these hosts were in a small monstrance; that decorated stand that holds the consecrated bread.

Other times they were in a ciborium, which is the dish or cup that priests use to hold communion wafers.

Now you may say that I have an active imagination, and you’d be right. And I think that’s okay.

Imagination and the Christian faith go hand-in-hand.

Imagination can serve the faith well, provided one doesn’t become unhinged.

And the point of my vision of the little communion wafers — of the little Corpus Christis — on the hearts of all those subway riders was to remind me that God is active in outward and visible ways in this world.

Most especially, he is active in the people we meet every day.

When I first moved to New York three years ago, I was overwhelmed by the number of people.

I used to think as I looked at them all, “How can God keep track of them all?

“How can he care about all of their problems as much as he cares about all of mine?”

Moreover, I wondered, “How can God love so many people?”

And I have to confess, I even doubted that he could.

Last Friday morning, he answered my question.

When I saw those communion wafers emblazoned on the hearts of all the subway riders, I knew that I was in the real presence of Christ.

For a moment, in my mind’s eye, the subway was full of living tabernacles. Human beings made in the image of God.

Each person on that train: black, white, Asian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Christian or of no faith at all; young and old, male and female, gay or straight — all of these outward labels and orientations no longer signified.

They fell apart.

Those old wineskins were bursting as the love of God radiated from one living tabernacle to the next.

If you’re like me, then you’ve fallen in love once or twice in your life.

If you’re like me, then you tend to adore whoever you’re in love with!

It’s an adoration that’s intense enough to see past any flaws and content to gaze only on perfection.

Of course that kind of adoration is hard to sustain.

And no woman (or man) can survive for very long on that kind of pedestal. It is, after all, a form of idolatry.

But that is not what is going on here.

In a moment or two we’ll take a consecrated wafer of bread, place it on the altar, and adore it.

And as we adore it, I want you to practice seeing it with a mystical eye.

The gateway to the mystery of God is your imagination, so use it.

You may see something right away, or you may not.

The sacraments can work like that. Sometimes they can affect you immediately.

Other times, it can take years before you start to notice what’s happening.

So suspend your disbelief for a moment or two. Let yourself “play along” with the idea that this bread and this wine have somehow become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

You see, God makes a good playmate. If you ask him, he will play along with you.

He’ll make you into his own outward and visible sign of grace.

He’ll send people into your lives with uncanny names and uncanny stories.

He’ll help you see things you never saw before, yet were always in plain sight.

Like the crucified, risen and victorious Lord in a thin wafer of bread, or in a sip of wine.

Have you been using your imagination lately? Got something to share with the Fellowship? Leave it below or send it my way: kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

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