Our problem with authority

by George Clifford

We Episcopalians frequently have problems with ecclesiastical authority. Here's some anecdotal evidence:

• Clergy and laity do not want bishops (or, for that matter, any other person or group such as a Canon to the Ordinary or Executive Council) providing authoritative guidance. At every General Convention, diocesan convention, or clergy gathering that I attend, I detect an undercurrent of suspicion directed toward our bishops. Admittedly, a few bishops are inappropriately authoritarian. The suspicion, however, extends to all bishops.
• When I mention to a clergyperson or layperson that I think we have a problem with authority, the person invariably agrees.
• The recent brouhaha at General Seminary was at least partially a conflict over authority.
• Debates about denominational restructuring are frequently couched in the language of power and authority.

More troubling, we Episcopalians often have a problem with biblical authority. We're sure (or at least the vast majority of us are sure) that we reject biblical literalism and idolatry. However, we're often unsure in what sense the Bible is authoritative or how to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Our denominational disputes over questions such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage reflect this uncertainty and unease with the Bible's authority.

Some of the roots of our discomfort with authority are readily apparent. Stories of clergy abused by a bishop are legion. Seminarians are trained to approach both the Bible and life with a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking, in part, who is exercising power and who stands to benefit from that exercise of power. This emulates important aspects of Jesus' ministry in which he challenged the destructive economic, political, and religious power structures of first century Palestine. Yet this also can breed distrust within the Church. Although we are a connectional Church, congregationalism dominates the American religion scene and increasingly taints The Episcopal Church (TEC). Post-moderns increasingly distrust authority, associating it with a proclivity to corrupt, oppress, and exploit.

Let's be honest. Authority is a form of power. And, like it or not, authority has a place in the Church.

In the absence of authority, we would cease to be both connectional and a Church. In the Navy, I met many Christians (and a fair number of chaplains) who had no understanding of what it means to have a connectional polity. They regard the Church as a gathering of independent, local congregations that have only a nominal (or no) direct relationship with one another. The most extreme version of this idea that I encountered was a chaplain who refused to conduct Communion services with anyone in the military because he believed the only permissible setting for Holy Communion was the local congregation of which he was a member.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, congregationalism becomes individualism: each person is the ultimate arbiter of right thinking, behavior, and relationships. In one respect, individualism is unavoidable because no organization or person can dictate what another person thinks or does. In another respect, however, radical individualism displaces Jesus from the very center of Christian life. This type of radical individualism is anarchistic and therefore anti-communal. Any commitment to be together requires a common ordering of communal life incompatible with radical individualism.

John's image of Jesus as the vine and his people as the vine's branches and Paul's image of Christians as the constituent parts of Christ's body are both inherently connectional. In both images, life flows through Jesus to us. It changes and invigorates us, i.e., the flow has a transformative, authoritative power because it is a metaphor for God at work in us.

One option for ordering our common life as the body of Christ is to make decisions based upon mutual consent. The Quakers have traditionally opted for this approach. Much can be said in favor of consensus, but two key disadvantages are that consensus generally requires a great deal of time to achieve and the larger the group, the longer time required. The largely dysfunctional US Senate, with its rules on filibustering and cloture, reflects problems intrinsic to requiring consensus. In some ecclesial situations, I value consensus; as a rule, I find consensus keeps Church groups from taking timely and effective action.

Another option for ordering our common life as Christ's body is to entrust decisions to an authoritative hierarchy. Few Anglicans, regardless of how much they admire aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, want to be part of a branch of Christianity that has such an authoritative (even authoritarian!) hierarchy.

So, we Episcopalians and TEC, as good Anglicans, seek a middle way. We do not want anarchy, nor consensus (we may pay the ideal lip service, but our actions indicate that we think the cost of always reaching consensus far too high), nor an authoritative hierarchy.

To find and then walk a middle way, we can beneficially:

• Cherish our theological diversity. In the Anglican tradition, our unity depends upon common prayer and not uniformity of belief. Thankfully, we have mostly abandoned prior generations' efforts to enforce doctrinal conformity.
• Invest time in developing strong connections. Being a connectional church is costly. The cost that receives the most attention is the money that flows from local congregations to the diocese and from dioceses to the national church. However, the more important cost, all too frequently ignored, is the time required to develop and sustain real connections across congregational and diocesan boundaries. If I spend no time with Episcopalians who are not part of my congregation, then my sense of connection is strictly notional rather than actual. Dioceses typically have a companion diocese in another province of the Anglican Communion. Dioceses could also have companion dioceses within TEC. Similarly, our congregations could engage in real mission partnerships with adjoining TEC congregations. I am willing to bet that currently less than one percent of Episcopalians have any direct involvement or knowledge of either their diocese or the national church. When was the last time that your congregation or diocese initiated a joint meal (aka the Eucharist) with another congregation or diocese? Having failed to spend (invest) the time required to become a connectional Church, we are now reaping a harvest of discontent and disinterest.
• Stop sweating the small stuff (and it's all, or mostly all, small stuff). Ultimately, TEC, its clergy, and its congregations have little real power. Our unity is more valuable than our differences. We cannot prevent God from acting; we cannot start a war (I'd like to think that we could stop a war, but doubt that we have that much power); we're not going to solve any of the world's major problems in the next triennium (or even three millennia). Therefore, let's value our unity and color our inevitable conflicts with the warm hues of love and mutual respect.
• Trust those with whom we pray to make good decisions. In healthy, functional couples, each partner makes some of the couple's decisions unilaterally, usually based upon expertise and interest; the couple makes a minority of their decisions jointly. Some couples intentionally choose who will make which decision; other couples establish the pattern of their decision-making more informally. Over time, as circumstances change, the pattern of decision-making will also change. A similar pattern should exist within a healthy, functional community: not every member has an interest in every decision; involving everyone in every decision is too costly and cumbersome; the pattern of decision-making needs to change as circumstances change. My sense is both that TEC's pattern of decision-making has remained stagnant too long and now is out of sync with circumstances and that too few Episcopalians trust one another to make good decisions about our common life. Furthermore, most of our contentious denominational issues, viewed from the broad perspective of God's creation, is small stuff. Generally, the fight is over resources. That battle masks the real problem, our weak commitment to the mission of Christ, our dioceses, and our national church that manifests itself in terms of a low level of proportional giving.
• Retain only the minimum levels of ecclesial authority compatible with being a connectional Church. What ministries and missions are only possible when we work together? What ministries and missions are best achieved cooperatively? What organizational structures, invested with what authority, will most effectively and efficiently accomplish those ministries and missions? For example, common prayer requires an authoritative set of practices (words and action), i.e., a set of practices actually required and used. This set can encompass a healthy, broad diversity but imposes some limits, e.g., our scriptures are the Bible and not the Koran or the Teachings of the Buddha. Setting these limits does not exalt our practices or demean those of others; instead, boundaries create our identity. The Book of Common Prayer's liturgies are too confining; alternatively, allowing bishops, priests, or congregations to develop their own liturgies would quickly erode both our common prayer and connections. We should keep the Book of Common Prayer and supplement it with a large, fluid collection of resources.
• Adopt an annual Advent discipline of self-examination to discern your personal level of comfort (or discomfort) with authority. The gospel narrative is ultimately a story about authority and power. Genuine dialogue requires participants try to understand their own issues and motivations. To what extent does the authority of Scripture—however understood—grate? Do you read the Bible in the hope that God will illuminate your life and path? When, for this is something we all do, do you read the Bible seeking to find confirmation of what you believe and how you live? When and why do you resent ecclesial authority?

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Called to ordination in the hinterlands of the Holy

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

--Gerald Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"

The Rev. Pat Henking made some great observations about the advantages to a residential seminary experience in a recent Daily Episcopalian article, and she's right. Yet, at the same time, there's hope and excitement in the various other ways priests are being formed in our church. Both options, I believe, are needed in the 21st century institutional church.

I did have to chuckle, though, at the idea that the phrase "formed for the priesthood" implies a tidy little process. I am only five months into my postulancy, but it's safe to say that my process has been anything BUT tidy. It started with a call that literally was concealed for at least two years like Moses in the bullrushes (there were good reasons for that), followed by a convoluted four year discernment process, and punctuated with a cancer surgery and radiation. The untidiness continues as I juggle life as an online student at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific with my long-time job in Kirksville, MO, and my life as a grateful member of my home parish. When we insert Clinical Pastoral Education and Field Ed in this sometime in the future, we're going to be moving from untidy to downright messy--possibly even chaotic. Frankly, I've never had a single delusion of tidiness in all this.

But you know, as raw as this all feels, as uncertain as all this is, and as unsettling as all this seems these days, I'm settling into the pied beauty of it all, and discovering that even in the chaos, one can begin to discover an authentic spiritual center that, (to borrow from William Countryman,) can illuminate the fundamental priesthood of others--one that can "guide each person living and ministering in the border country that is the very presence of the holy."

Have there been times I wish I could have just packed up the truck like Jed Clampett and moved to a residential seminary experience? You bet I have. With a quarter-century of formal schooling under my belt, I KNOW how to go to school, and there are times I ache to be formed by a spiritual journey within a somewhat cloistered academic milieu. I have friends within the larger church that would have preferred this version of the journey for me, and they have not been shy about expressing that opinion. Yet at the same time, it also makes sense that, if we're serious about the institutional church being out there at the margins, it's equally as important that some of us be formed in the border country.

These innovative formation processes also create opportunities for wonderfully dappled formation communities. Clearly, the people in my home parish and my vicar are active participants in my formation. (I even manage to wheedle a little help in my academic studies from a couple of folks there.) Yet my formation community also includes my online formation group at CDSP, the Morning Prayer Webcast crowd at dailyoffice.org, the members and companions of the Anamchara Fellowship, and a whole slew of people in the larger church who share a social media life with me. I suspect all these people would claim a stake in my formation process, if asked. Granted, at times the introvert in me finds this incredibly public--I have days where I really do wish I could disappear a little out of the eye of these people who know my faults and rough edges oh too well, slipping out of view and returning at an unspecified date looking all spiffy and priestly. I wish I didn't have to display the awkward uncertainty of all this in such plain view. Yet, this may well be part of how the luminous radiance of a formation community's own fundamental priesthoods as believers shine. I am grateful for their light.

An additional discovery has been that God has been providing formation experience outside the residential seminary experience for a long time, but when residential seminary was the norm, we simply didn't pay as much attention to the rich formation substrate out there. For me, so far, this has mostly been illustrated in the process of learning to trust in others and beyond my own delusions of self-control--particularly as it pertains to the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit and in the power of imperfection. Anything (and I do mean anything) can become fertile soil for a formation experience, if we only remain open to possibility. Just recently it was manifested in an unplanned encounter between a deer and my Ford Escape, seven hours from home, as our vicar and I returned from a conference. We were catapulted into an alternative universe of waiting for a day and a half in a small town in southern Illinois until the repair could be made. Within that alternative universe, it was necessary to depend on the kindness of strangers and figure out how to live in community for a period longer than we'd anticipated. It brought me to a greater understanding as to how even having a workable vehicle buffers us from the plight of homelessness--something I pondered as I wandered the streets on foot in search of snacks and sundries. I worried I might get rained upon. I had to ask for information from complete strangers. I fretted that when I walked into the Dollar General for the third time, they might think I'm a shoplifter. Yet the flip side of that unplanned wait was it also gave me some wonderfully unencumbered time to listen and learn from my vicar and about some of the experiences that formed her.

We are an imperfect people in imperfect communities, called to be the church on the hinterlands of the holy. Yes, I believe we do need people called to Holy Orders who are led through this process of learning in the traditional way--and we also need some who have meandered along the blue highways. Glory be to God for the freckled, speckled mess that is priestly formation--in whatever form it takes.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

Episcopal "Identity"

by Donald Schell

Henry Fielding’s star shines bright in 18th Century Anglicanism. He’s a nuanced moral theologian whose comedy merciless satirizes simplistic moralizing and rigid theologizing wherever he found it including in his and our Anglican. It’s Fielding’s deep embrace of Anglican breadth and sanity that drives his satirical characterization of Rev. Thwackum, Tom Jones’s Church of England tutor. Thwackum reaches a point of exasperation in his argument with Square, the rationalist philosopher who is Tom and his half-brother’s other tutor. Thwackum wants to make clear that there is One Way and that he knows it - “…honor is not manifold because there are many absurd opinions about it, nor is Religion manifold because there are various sects and heresies in the world. When I mention Religion, I mean the Christian Religion, and not only the Christian Religion, but the Protestant Religion, and not only the Protestant Religion, but the Church of England. And when I mention honor, I mean that mode of divine grace which is not only consistent with but dependent upon this religion, and is consistent with, and dependent upon no other.”

Fielding’s own broad, universalist Anglicanism, like the faith of most of my Episcopal friends, happily breaks free of Thwackum’s narrow, self-congratulatory certainties. Episcopalians do believe that honor and religion are manifold and diverse. We know that the Holy Spirit that breathes in our church blows where she will. Most Episcopalians believe there are more ways to God than we’ve dreamt of, and most of us would be quick to explain to Thwackum, if we had the opportunity, that we don’t believe that the Christian Religion is defined by English Anglicanism or even American Episcopalianism. But I’m writing because I worry that another note in the way we talk about ourselves and our way is uncomfortably like Thwackum’s “no other.”

Shortly after I’d become an Episcopalian, a clergy friend explained to me that all our Episcopal church repeated use of the word “Church” in names like “Church Publishing,” “Church Pension,” the “Church Club,” or the “Church Mission Society” which with Society for the Propagation of the Gospel planted Anglican communities all across the globe. Calling our work or gathering simply “church” reflected the underlying Anglican/Episcopal principle of deliberately claiming NO distinctiveness. We meant to resist uniqueness and exceptionalism. Beneath those names, my friend explained, the longstanding Episcopal and Anglican tradition was to aim for nothing more or less than the catholicism of the four or five first centuries when the church in its variety of practice across the Mediterranean world and into Europe and Britain was undivided.

Whatever we found in the broad tradition of Christian practice was ours, and whatever was ours was there for the whole church (hence no copyright on our Prayer Book). This was the spirit of the English Reformers whose catholic and reforming spirit freely borrowed and adapted ancient non-Roman practices they found among the Eastern Orthodox – leavened bread, married clergy, Bible in the vernacular. This was our Anglican principle of keeping ancient practice that wasn’t forbidden in scripture rather than including only what was mandated in the Bible. This was the vision of our great poets, writers, and scholars. I recognized that vision in seminary when one of our professors said, “there should be no distinctive Anglican theology.”

From our English reformation onward, we never aimed to be distinctly Anglican or Episcopal – we aimed to be church. I fear that’s changing. I’m guessing the pressure to change has come from the marketplace and a market inspired need to establish a clear brand – our “product” needs to offer something others don’t. Perhaps it’s also heightened in the wake of congregations built on generic conservative evangelism leaving the Episcopal Church. And I’ll admit that my clergy friend spoke his vision in the heady days of ecumenical rapprochement and conversations about church union. Still, in the past few years, I’ve become uncomfortable at a list of random moments when I’ve heard “Episcopal Identity” evoked

--in criticism of an Evensong/Lamplighting service that a Native American seminarian led that begin with prayers to the four compass directions and smudging the space

--by African seminarians in England explaining that their African Anglican bishop had forbidden dance in church so they would sneak away after liturgy to go sing and dance with the pentecostalists, when someone

--in the name of revival of the diaconate insists we had to have an Episcopal deacon read the Gospel at an ecumenical liturgy, or explained that thankfully, it wouldn’t be an issue since it wasn’t a Eucharistic liturgy we were doing, in a university or ecumenical seminary setting, Episcopalians determined to make a parallel Prayer Book prayer tradition apart from the very good liturgical ecumenical worship in the seminary or divinity school chapel

-- in fuss and anxious joking if anyone says an “Alleluia” in Lent

-- when clergy colleagues and laity insist Episcopal clergy really ought to be addressed as “Father” or “Mother”

-- in regretful judgments that others’ eucharists weren’t “really” eucharist or that others’ bishops weren’t genuinely apostolic like our own

-- in dismissive assessment of Lutheran bishops and the compromises that “allowed” us to join with them in a concordat

-- in insisting well-prepared candidates for ordination who have attended and completed a full three year M.Div. at an ecumenical seminary need an “Anglican year” in seminary to learn our ways and our ethos.

It is an odd list, but I think it reflects how belief in Episcopal exceptionalism creeps in at many levels of our church life and seeps into our conversation. In a time of increasing secularization, a time when church life seems more and more marginalized, are we hearing anxious clinging to our in group’s esoteric practices and secret knowledge? Does this sound like Gnosticism?

More often than not the people pushing for these markers of distinctive Anglican/Episcopal identity hold progressive social and political opinions. They wouldn’t dream of insisting with the Rev. Thwackum that we’re the one true church, but we do seem to hold out in our progressive way for things that still assure us that our kind of Christianity is truer or righter than our friends. Our assertions are exceptionalist rather than exclusivist, but to my ear these moments and gestures feel as arrogant or anxious as Thwackum.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

A Paradoxy Church

by Paul Bagshaw

What is it with institutions? You can't live in 'em, can't live without 'em.

I wish to suggest that institutions – specifically churches – are inherently paradoxical structures and, while it's hard to live in the midst of paradox, nonetheless paradox has helped the church survive.

Some paradoxes are inherent in all human structures. Time itself creates a central paradox: decisions about the future can only be made retrospectively. Decisions made yesterday in response to a problem which arose the day before are effectively determinative for the following day. Organizations that are ostensibly forward looking are in fact and inevitably walking backwards through a dark forest making blind guesses about its next steps.

Paradox is also built into the role of churches. Churches sustain and validate Christian identity, sponsor mission and substantiate faith, judge innovation and sustain continuity. None of these is a matter of Solomonic judgment. Validation, mission, faith, development and authenticity – the continuous enactment of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – are not so much decisions as agonistic processes that always remain unfinished. Canons and constitutions, decisions and declarations are merely truces for the time being. The practical consequence is that faith and holiness are evoked and sustained by horse-trading, argument, devotion and bitterness.

206px-Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites_01.jpgMoreover: a church that struggles together, that fights together, is a church that stays together. The quickest way to schism is to proclaim absolute and unnegotiable Truth. (Even this is paradoxical: the proclamation of Truth in such terms entails a claim to power greater the church which nurtured the claimant.) The second quickest is to stop talking to those who disagree with you. For the most part unity and identity depend on pragmatism and conflict: on accepting the coexistence of incompatible expressions of faith within the same organization, and on agreeing to disagree on proper and possible embodiments of God's will, all the while seeking to promote your own judgment against others'.

Churches are always insufficient for the formation of faith: they are also all we've got. Faith is both mundane and transcendent. The most sensitive formation can do no more than teach, lead, prompt, predispose, canalise faith. Faith is essentially God-orientated. In the evocation of faith churches point beyond themselves and yet, simultaneously, churches insist: 'keeping looking at the pointing finger'. Thus they fulfil and frustrate their own goal.

Churches are also always inadequate to the challenges they face in the realisation of faith. The challenge is perennial: to evoke, disclose and validate Christian faith in changing circumstances. Yet digitisation and global communication means that everything is changing so rapidly – think the invention of printing raised to the power 10, at least, – that no institution can possibly keep up. Decisions made yesterday are barely relevant today and forgotten tomorrow.

This is an emotional process. Evocation and realisation of faith has gone into a state of corporate shock. Consequently it can seem perfectly rational to react by diving back into barricaded redoubts and to reassert eternal verities to hold back the chaotic tide of change. It won't work: but it might give some breathing space. It also seems equally rational to articulate and embrace new Christian paradigms and emerging practices. They won't last, though they may enable some adaptation.

Schism and new unities, reclaiming the past and reinventing the future, are aspects of the same processes of uncontrollable change. And no-one can know where, or even if, we'll emerge from the storm. There is only now: all we can do is our faithful best in the moment.

And yet, curiously and positively, it may be that institutional paradoxes are themselves a hope in times of trouble.

Historically the church has repeatedly dragged words, formulae and the gospels themselves out of one intellectual and cultural world-view and re-articulated them in another, sometimes with horrendous violence, sometimes with hardly anyone noticing. It can and will happen again. The lack of a one-dimensional, single-meaning foundation for faith, the polyphony of biblical voices, that Jesus told stories rather than expounded a philosophical treatise, the paradoxical instability and persistence of the institutional church, the capacity of members to reach outside the institution for criteria of validation and action that can only be recognised inside the institution, all give hope for the future. Praise God for uncertainty.

Of course, whatever emerges in some new world, we will still be tormented by paradox and destabilised by doubt. We will still (if we live to see it) love and hate the institution, its heirs and successors. We will still make self-contradictory demands and resent each ambivalent answer. Our battles will be forgotten and new ones will have taken their place. Churches will still be necessary and insufficient, domineering and broken.
But that's the way of institutions: they give life and they stifle it; and hope remains.

The Revd. Paul Bagshaw Paul Bagshaw is priest in two parishes in North Tyneside, UK, not far from the North Sea coast.

"Church of Saint Simeon Stylites 01" by Bernard Gagnon - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution

Keeping Advent

by Paul Woodrum

I was in our local CVS a couple of days before Halloween and noticed that the next aisle over from the trick-or-treat candies was already stocked with Christmas decorations. Everyday our mailbox and e-mail are filled with catalogs and advertisements for that perfect gift or that perfect decoration, or that perfect outfit for the season. On the evening news are images of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree arriving in mid-town and announcements of which stores will be open 24/7 from Thanksgiving on and, refreshingly, even a couple that won’t be open Thanksgiving Day so their employees can have the day with their families.

While the rest of the world lights up for the mid-winter season’s crazy blend of commercialism, festival and cultural Christianity, most of our Episcopal Church’s remain externally dark, unadorned, and preciously uncontaminated by the happy secularism all around us.

But why? Of all places shouldn’t the church be the one manifesting some outward signs of its preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation? Something that says we are joyfully preparing the way and welcoming those who would join us on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem? Are we protesting the commercialism about which we can do little, or doing a futile exercise in liturgical purity? I’m not suggesting we put Santa Claus on the roof before Halloween. Just that, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, we do a little of our own welcoming decoration. Instead of shutting out the world, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs of joyful preparation: ChristmasTraditionalWreathOnDoor.jpgwreaths on the doors, a tree lighting for that evergreen on the front lawn with folks gathered for Advent carols and hot chocolate, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath marking the Sundays until Christmas, lighted evergreen around the doors, whatever seems suitable (and of course, tasteful) in the local situation.

Most of the signs of the season originated before Christianity, but the church adopted them, adapted them, reinterpreted them and preserved them through the centuries suggesting we shouldn’t be too proud to use them even if secular society has also claimed them. This season’s gift giving originated with the Roman’s Saturnalia that ended on the 25th of December with the feast of Sol Invictus. The Germanic tribes observed Yule, the imitative magic of burning a great log to urge the sun’s return. The Celts adorned their houses with evergreens as a sign of hope between growing seasons. Even the halos that frame Mary, Joseph and Jesus are derived from the symbols of the Egyptian sun deities, Isis and Ra.

Instead of shutting the world out, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs like wreaths on the doors, a community tree lighting with Advent carols and hot chocolate featuring that pine on the front lawn, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath, a sign inviting folks to join us in welcoming the Christ and preparing the way of the Lord, by embracing, rather than denying, the secular, seasonal joy. I’m not saying, “rush Christmas,” that we all know doesn’t really begin until its Eve on December 24, but at least let passersby know we are preparing for its coming even more than Macy’s, and welcome them to join us in celebrating God with us. Then keep the lights on and the decorations up through the First Sunday after Epiphany, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

We do this inside. Flowers give way to simple evergreens, Advent candles are lit Sunday by Sunday, medieval blue increasingly replaces the 19th century Roman purple reserved for Lent where the plainer beige array isn’t used. We have wonderful Advent hymns that hint at the joy to come and the discipline not to sing Christmas songs and carols until that season arrives. If we can mark our Incarnation pilgrimage inside, why not a few visible signs outside to share the joy with the secular by inviting them in to share the joy of our faith and to extend the season to its conclusion?

The Rev. Paul Woodrum is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Brooklyn, NY, and supplies in the Dioceses of Long Island and New York. Since 1985 he and his husband, Victor Challenor, have been partners in Challwood Studio, designing and crafting contemporary liturgical vestments and ornaments.

Image by Spirtu, via Wikimedia Commons

To: All Queer Folks Who Have Focused on Suicide

by Louie Clay

Warning: Get a large salt shaker
and sprinkle all over your CRT.
More than a grain is required.
I'm glad you've gotten
lots of electronic hugs
I'll take you to lunch
if you can show up here.

But I wonder whether you need
a harder kind of support?

To the extent that the person
remains rational, and that's difficult
to determine, suicide seems to me
the severest form of a disease
that has long infested humanity,
especially disliked minorities,
the dis-Ease called Self-Pity.

I speak with the authority of a quean.
Self-pity is the only VD any quean requires.
Suicide is its most lethal manifestation.

Self-pity is a severe trap.

Take the version the alcoholic falls into.
"Nobody likes me," she says.
And then drinks to excess.
"Yes, we do; we love you"
say some nearby.
"No, you just love your reputation
for being good guys. You're nice
to me only because you pity me.
You do not really love me...."

That recording is broken, is broken, is broken, is....

"Oh, I'm the lowliest queer on the planet!
Life has not treated me fairly
and I have done a good job
of adding to the mess....."

Tempting? I hope not.

I am not trained in psychology,
only in friendship;
so if you need psychological help,
treat yourself to a professional.
Otherwise listen to a friend who cares.

One of the saddest things about self-pity
is the enormous self-absorption it requires.
I have first-hand experience of self-pity;
that's the source of my authority.
Sugar, it's not worth the bother.

I remember when the rednecks
had just stoned our house
for the third night in a row.
The first two nights I ignored them,
thinking, "They're just adolescents
with pubes starting to sprout.
They don't know what they're doing."

But by the third night, I remembered
that Hitler Youth were just adolescents
sprouting pubes too, and groaned
"Why am I here stuck in Middle Georgia...?"

I snuggled close to my husband
and started to cry. He pushed me away.

"Boo hoo! Boo how! Boo WHO?"
and "Ha, ha, ha!" he said.

"What are you doing? Won't you comfort me?"
I whined.

"Not tonight, baby.
Where's the man I married?
Quit worrying about those damn kids.
They'll be there in every town
and on every block when you and I
are dead and gone. I don't feel like
letting them control our bed tonight.

"Besides, you know how to make them
stop throwing rocks. You know
that you can quit going on TV
and writing articles. But do you want to?
Thank god, no. So show some
of the guts you're made of."

I slept like a baby after I found a healthier,
more adult way to get into his arms.

When we fall into self-pity,
we think we're the only persons
in the world who've ever had it unfair.
How absurd! Especially if we're U.S. citizens.
Most of the world is going to bed hungry tonight.
Even most Americans have not had anyone show them
the power and pleasures of the intellect
that you obviously know about
or you wouldn't be able to write so clearly
or listen to this prose poem.

Slap yourself in the face to wake up
to the enormous possibilities you're given.

Beware lest you come to like your pain.
Pain can make you feel real:
"I may be a bug. I may be a queer.
But at least I hurt; I know I am real...."

Find better ways to affirm your reality!

If you need a crying shoulder,
I have one, and you can rock
on my porch any afternoon.
But sugar, I hope you can find
your own inner strength
so that when you sit with me,
we can share and share alike.

Meanwhile, learn to laugh at yourself.
Schizophrenics never laugh at themselves.
Get enough rest.
Don't do things that depress you.
Learn to take itsy bitsy steps
in controlling your own life,
then bigger steps as you can handle them.
Associate with people who will nurture you,
not just commiserate.

Enough natter.

Love, Lutibelle

Hear Louie speak this poem:

Louie Clay (né Louie Crew) is the founder of Integrity and lives in East Orange, NJ with Ernest Clay, his husband of 40 years. He is the author of 2,375 published poems and essays.

"Priestly Formation" is a Term that Really Bugs Me!

by Pat Henking

I am developing a serious allergy to the idea of “priestly formation”. The term brings to mind two things: First is the setting of carefully mapped and measured strips of wood at precise angles on a bed of crushed stone or leveled sand that forms wet concrete into patios and walkways. This picture yields a vision of preparation for priesthood that is clean, neat, sanitary and programmatic. It presupposes that the candidate is malleable and in some sense wet cement, perhaps, in fact, unformed. And this vision fits tidily with contemporary expectations of education measured by well-calibrated assessments for the sake of specific outcomes.

Second is the image of military and sports “formations”. This image has the added benefit of suggesting – even conjuring - team spirit and mutual effort. But the overriding issue is that these formations are practice for war, for conquering, and for winning over others. Even though singing “Onward Christian soldiers” still makes me happily nostalgic, and more subtle forms of triumphalism still excite me, triumphal piety is no longer in vogue – and it does not suit my own theology and that of our Baptismal covenant at all. Furthermore, these sorts of formations are also planned carefully, executed deliberately, and complicit in a worldview that makes everything too neat and tidy for human life. There is a very good reason that professional football fields are some of the best manicured acres of real estate on the planet.

I find a threefold antidote to my allergic response: First, the fourth verse of “Glorious things of thee are spoken” sounds forth in my mind:

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in the Redeemer's blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
makes them kings and priests to God.
'Tis his love his people raises
over self to reign as kings:
and as priests, his solemn praises
each for a thank-offering brings.

I believe John Newton has it right: Jesus makes priests (I will leave aside for now all the issues about kings.) We only really become priests when we know our souls rely – in fact, must rely – on grace alone. The point is simple – to bring thank offerings. Or more precisely, to preside at that place where people bring their hearts to God and God provides the sustenance for their souls. Or rather – our souls. This is not to claim that there is no content to our faith, nor is it to suppose that the clergy ought not to be a learned clergy. It is to notice that all the content is vocabulary – it is a vocabulary and articulation of all that it means to affirm that, “It is meet, right and our bounden duty always and everywhere to give thanks.” It is also a content – in both rite and ceremony – that brings us full circle to the realization that the Peace of God passes all understanding – including most especially the understanding of God’s priests.

Thus the single, most critical thing that must imbue the souls, minds and countenances of those who would be priests is simply that it is not about us – it is about our Lord and Savior and all that He reveals to us and in us of the love of God. Be careful here – that revelation is God’s Self-disclosure, not our own. It is most apt to be discovered in us if we have discovered our utter dependence on Christ who saves us – and Who most particularly saves us from ourselves.

Precisely here is the greatest value of residential seminary in my view: At seminary we worshipped, ate, worked and studied together. These things are measurable and so far the tidy images of formation are workable. But must it be taboo to discuss the messes? Because it is through the messes and the continual need to cope with them that we learned in seminary to trust Christ’s forgiveness, mercy, friendship, shepherding and love in community. We did not only read and mark our Bibles, practice celebrating Eucharist and preaching, struggle with exegesis or doctrines of the atonement together. We also argued with each other, denied or even betrayed each other, walked the block in despair with each other. We knew who was having trouble at home, was going to bed with whom, didn’t have enough cash to go out to dinner, was drinking too much and who had been molested as a child. We knew who was exhausted, who was sick, who was seeing winter snow flakes for the first time, and who climbed up on the rood screen to replace the missing trumpet of one of the angels. We knew who was going to bed crying and who was waking up laughing – and who wished not to wake up at all. And then again, we knew that we had only begun to know and that we must respect the hidden legacies of one another’s lives. None of this can be gained through distance learning or occasional programs or reading at home – and what is gained is deep, abiding assurance of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Without dependence on the love and mercy, grace and presence of our Lord we would waste away in a priesthood we create in our own images.

The second thing that comes to mind is a discussion at a recent vestry meeting: In some now-forgotten context, we were talking about Heaven. Several people said that Heaven is a place of perfection, and that in that perfection there will be no problems and no suffering. Simultaneously several faces looked transfigured and someone asked, “What does the Bible say happens in heaven?” “God will wipe away the tears from every eye,” several members said at once. So, we agreed that our work as leaders of our congregation is not to make life perfect, but to make our life together one where we learn to wipe away one another’s tears in God’s Name. Years ago one of my colleagues wrote and published a paper about psychological transference and the role of priests: His idea was that people need to know that we are people. He wrote that if they cannot tell we are really people, folks will push us and push us and push us until they find out whether we cry and whether we bleed. In seminary, many, if not all, of us learned we cry and learned we bleed. And we learned to wipe away the tears. We learned how to find authentic spiritual ground within ourselves and within our Church so we could live and work and have our being among the people without making our needs their burdens. To be rather Evangelical about it, we learned to “be washed in the Blood of the Lamb” so we could come into our sanctuaries both humble and real.

The third thing on my mind is something I have heard attributed to Arthur Michael Ramsey’s pre-ordination retreats when he would explain that the work of the priest “is to come before the people with God on [his] mind and before God with the people on [his] mind.” I think this is the main reason I resent all efforts to quantify my hours at work as a priest. It is true that eternity can be found in a grain of sand, and some of the richest, grace-filled moments are small and fleeting. At other times birthing the nearness of our Lord can be an enormously long and painful labor. And yet this is the stuff of priestly ministry.

Nevertheless, this ministry is not simply ethereal or purely spiritual, it is incarnate. And here I return to the ugly word, “forms”. Our ministries take on myriad forms, and for some few of us the forms are tidy and neat like the color blocks of a balanced Mondrian painting. For others of us the forms are like Seurat’s work, filled with billions and billions of singular dots. There are those of us who make ministry look like Michelangelo’s Pieta and then there are the Picassos and Salvador Dalis among us. No matter our forms and styles we need skills. I, for one, am very sorry I didn’t learn about conflict resolution and the means of collaboration until a professor at a business school asked me to teach sections of his classes. But as long as someone would show us – kindly – that the fruits of the Spirit don’t go very far without commensurate skills, we can take ourselves off in any number of directions to gain the skills that go with the forms and styles and roles into which we are called. And that is the fundamental and the ultimate word – called. We are called and made by Christ to serve in the world He came to save.

The Rev. Pat Henking (General Theological Seminary 1979 and 1997) is Vicar of Faith Episcopal Church, Merrimack, NH. Pat has served several terms on Commissions on Ministry, the NH Standing Committee, the GTS Board of Trustees and various other committees. She has been an adjunct instructor in theology, Christian ethics, philosophy and organizational behavior. Pat is an avid fan of "Star Wars" and of the Boston Red Sox, with apologies to Yankees fans.

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

by Linda Ryan

Not long ago, the House of Lords in London undertook a consideration of physician-assisted death and whether or not it should be made legal in Britain. It has also been a topic here in the US, most recently about a young woman, newly married, who has an inoperable and incurable form of cancer and who has indicated she will pursue physician-assisted death (PAD). Death, however, is not a topic not discussed easily or often. It's not usually a topic for dinner-table conversations, lessons at school or even mentioned at church. It is, though, a very important topic because it is something we all have in common: all of us will ultimately die, and avoiding the topic does not make it any less final.

The objective of physician-assisted death is to enable people to have some control over their lives when there is really not much anyone, including physicians, can do to either postpone the inevitable or mitigate its effects on both patient and family. We hear stories of people passing quietly in bed with little fuss and seemingly no pain and that's the way I think most of us would like to go when our time comes. It doesn't always work that way, though. Death can be very painful, prolonged and, unfortunately, messy. That in itself, as much as for the sake of everyone being aware of the wishes of their loved ones, is all the more reason we need to talk about it while it is still distant enough for us to be objective about it, or as objective as we can be about confronting our own mortality.

The older we get, the more we think about death, willingly or unwillingly. Young people may think they are invincible but they die too, mostly due to accident, murder or even suicide. Older folks, though, see family and friends pass, and their own declining health makes the specter of death more real, whether or not they want to consider it any more than a teenager would. We don't like to think of being incapacitated, dealing with excruciating pain, being frozen in immobility, having to have people change diapers for us like we were infants, or losing the mental acuity that made us who we were. We are told that palliative care, care that allows us the greatest quality of life possible at the time through medications and sometimes machines, should be sufficient to get us through death's door with as little loss of dignity as possible, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes we just want to feel we still can make decisions for ourselves about how we want to live -- and how we want to die.

Map_of_U.S._states_that_allow_physiian-assisted_suicide.pngIn the US, several states have already given electoral approval to physician-assisted death, where it should be available, under what circumstances, and with what restrictions. Their laws are fairly clear: the person must have their full faculties but have been diagnosed as terminally ill with six months or less left to live, and having made a clear declaration of their desire to have control over when they feel their life is no longer bearable. A form stating the desire and intent has to be witnessed by two separate medical professionals who have no relationship, professional or otherwise, to each other or to the patient so there is no chance of ulterior motive in the death. The medications must be self-administered or administered on the direct orders of the patient. It sounds pretty straightforward, but nothing this side of heaven is totally straightforward it seems.

There was and still is a lot of controversy surrounding such a law or bill, mostly from those who claim religious beliefs and strong pro-life convictions. It is claimed that it is a slippery slope which, once passed, will allow others to euthanize relatives and others who they deem as unnecessary, too much of a burden or too expensive to care for. Statistics have shown that not all who are facing fairly immediate end-of-life issues have an interest in physician-assisted death and of those who are, even fewer request the service. Of those requesting, not all go through with it. Some die naturally without any intervention and others decide to opt out of it. So the actual number of such deaths is a few percentage points of total deaths, but it gives the terminally ill the choice they may want and feel they need.

It is compared, in a simplistic way, to taking a suffering cat to the veterinarian to be put to sleep when there seems to be little else to do other than watch the cat die in pain that could be alleviated by euthanasia. It is often said that we treat our sick and dying pets with more compassion than we do our fellow humans.

Religion-wise, those who object most to the bill are those with religious convictions they claim are firmly pro-life. They are very much against abortion, usually not approving of any form of birth control, and unwilling to allow women and their doctors to make decisions about the continuation of a pregnancy caused by (a) rape or incest, (b) a fetus with severe birth defects that will lead to a very short and painful life after birth, and (c) when the life of the mother (who may have other small children to consider) is at risk due to the pregnancy. Now they are also focused on how aged, infirm and/or terminally ill adults should live out their final days, whether or not they know the patient, the circumstances, the patient's wishes or religious beliefs. It comes down to who gets to make the decisions about how that patient's life should be lived -- and how it ends.

In the case of the House of Lords' consideration of the matter, what is somewhat surprising is the stance of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lord George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quite conservative on most issues; however, he is firmly in favor of passage of the bill. At odds is the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, who is very much against it. A third archbishop, Desmond Tutu, formerly of South Africa, is equally firmly in the pro camp. I wonder if his battle with cancer gives him a clearer view of the ramifications as much as the prolonged treatment and death of his friend Nelson Mandela.

No doctor can say for certain when a person is going to die. They can guesstimate, based on symptoms, test results, and experience, but doctors are not omniscient. They tell a person that they have six months and that patient may die by week’s end or go on for years. It’s a crapshoot. PAS is intended to give the patient some control over when they feel their quality of life is compromised beyond any hope of redemption. It allows them to make a decision while they are still of sound of mental state, to say, “Here is my line in the sand; beyond this I do not want to go.”

There is a lot of concern that if a general physician-assisted dying law is passed, it would mean a wholesale slaughter of the mentally incompetent, the disabled, and others deemed unworthy of life, and that is a slippery slope nobody wants to go down. There are some families who, burdened by the care of an elderly, handicapped or terminally ill member, take the decision in their own hands. They usually end up in court for murder, no matter whether their intentions were in accordance with the patient’s wishes or not. There are also many doctors who believe their Hippocratic Oath holds them to preserving life at all costs, not ending it, even if their patient actively asks for it.

In the House of Lords, the outcome of the recent debate was a 65 to 63 vote in favor, not enough to make it law but enough to continue the discussion in another session. In the United States, PAS is legal in three states, Oregon being the first to pass the legitimization of Death with Dignity in 1994. So far people have not been beating down the doors in Oregon, Washington or Vermont (the other two states in which it is legal) to have either themselves, a loved one, friend, or even someone they barely know ushered gently out of this world and into the next. Quite a few people don’t seem to mind using physician-assisted death when it comes to executing criminals, but when it comes to the elderly, terminally ill, disabled, living in extreme pain, or even just lying there hooked up to machines without thought processes, it is a different story.

Where I think faith comes into this is in the realm of compassion. It is compassion that allows us to take our pet to the veterinarian for euthanasia. When it comes to human life, though, it is a different ball game. People take “Thou shalt not kill” seriously, and that becomes a place where the discussion dies. What place does compassion have when faced with this commandment although most are perfectly comfortable breaking or ignoring the other nine? When should a person be allowed to make their own choice? Should the religious beliefs of some take precedence over all, including those who have no religious beliefs on the subject at all? Who makes the decisions as to when life is worth living or is merely an existence? Would God really eternally punish someone who has been tried beyond their limits? Is that the kind of God we have?

What I think it comes down to is who has the right to make a decision about their own life? Who knows what the person is experiencing and how much they feel able to bear and for how long? Ultimately, the questions that have to be asked is, "What would God expect us to do? Whose life is it, anyway?"

A Parish Crisis: Reflections and Lessons Learned

by Eric Bonetti

Last January, when I was elected junior warden in my parish, things started off with a bang -- or more appropriately -- a gurgle. Right about the time of our parish meeting, a large swath of the undercroft had flooded in the night, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damage and a major rebuilding project that swallowed countless hours of my time, and many late nights.

LIttle did I know that things soon would get worse. Far worse.

On February 10, our rector had a serious accident. The details aren't particularly relevant, but he was rushed to the hospital, underwent major surgery, and was out on disability until June.

As a result, folks in our parish scrambled to care for our rector and his family, each other, and the mundane tasks keeping a large, vibrant parish running.

So why write about this topic? I'm not entirely sure, as I don't feel like my observations are particularly insightful, groundbreaking, or even all that unique. But I hope that, by writing from the heart, perhaps I can help others who may, now or in the future, face a similar situation. If nothing else, I hope that those facing crisis may look back on this article and know that they are not alone. Others have been there, lived through it, and even seen good come of it.

My initial thought is that it truly axiomatic that you can never be prepared for a situation like this. Crises, by definition, are almost always unexpected. But it wasn't so much the fact that the situation was a crisis; it was instead the extraordinary and unexpected level of pain and fear that came with the tragic news.

Normally, I'm pretty good in a crisis. Indeed, I've had several jobs in which I worked closely with people who have experienced serious accidents, life-threatening injuries, and profound psychological trauma. I'm also no stranger to personal pain and suffering; my younger brother died unexpectedly almost 20 years to the day before our rector's accident.

The issue, I came to understand, is that pain and suffering in the context of a close-knit, loving parish is pain and suffering multiplied. One's pain and suffering isn't only about the immediate issue at hand; it also is about one's grief and sense of powerlessness when confronted with the suffering of fellow parishioners. In essence, a crisis within a parish has a rawness and intensity that personal crises may lack.

Of course, one's grief is exacerbated by the fact that there's no real "how-to" guide for vestry members dealing with a crisis of this sort. No one calls and says, "Here's what you should do next." As a result, a surprising amount of time is spent figuring out who does what, how it happens, and how to make even relatively mundane tasks happen.

I also was impressed in short order by the complexity of parish life. Like a good game of tennis, in which success is marked by making the match seem effortless, behind the scenes lots of hard work goes into even relatively small parish programs and activities.

Right about now, you're probably saying, "I already knew that," but I can tell you this: Even as a life-long Episcopalian, I had no idea just how much work goes on behind the scenes. And my fear is that I may still not completely apprehend the full extent of this issue.

Another lesson learned is the extent -- almost shocking -- to which God turns suffering into good and personal growth. To be clear, I don't believe that God causes accidents of this sort in order to teach a lesson, promote personal growth, or for any other reason. The God I know and love is one of infinite love, kindness, acceptance and inclusion. God doesn't cause suffering, but God does turn suffering that has happened anyway towards a greater good. And time and again throughout this ordeal, I saw situations in which a bad situation resulted in positive outcomes.

For example, a close friend of mine, also a parishioner, has never been all that interested in pastoral care issues. It's not that he lacks compassion; far from it. He's simply never learned to proactively care for others outside his immediate family and close friends. Yet he quickly stepped up to the plate to provide meals and other care for our rector and his family, and as a result has come to embrace the joy of serving and caring for others. At the same time, his experience in caring for our rector and his family has helped him develop a sense of perspective; he has markedly backed away from chronic irritation and anger at the petty slights and controversies of parish life. In short, my friend experienced a modern version of the conversion on the road to Damascus.

Concern for our rector and his family also helped me plumb the old adage about not appreciating something until it's gone. My sense is that, over the years I've developed great affection and respect for our clergy, so it's not clear to me that our rector's accident led me to a renewed appreciation for him and his ministry. Instead, what I did realize is that, caught up in an endless swirl of leaking toilets (pun intended), burned out lightbulbs, vendor meetings and HVAC repairs, I probably spend too little time expressing my appreciation. Yes, it's possible to go overboard in that area, but how often do we actually come right out and express our love and respect for our clergy? I suspect the answer is, "All too rarely."

Yet another lesson learned from our recent crisis is the value of maintaining a sense of normalcy and business as usual. Following our rector's accident, we strove to accelerate various repair and improvement projects around the church, with an eye towards demonstrating stability and focus. As a result, we did a lot of painting, landscaping, improvements to building security, and more, all with the goal of providing a positive alternative to sorrow, anxiety and fear.

I have no empirical evidence to show whether this approach worked, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this was a useful distraction, and a demonstration of our parish as a loving, caring community that would thrive no matter what.

Overall, while there were some rough, rough moments, I have to say that the crisis brought out the best in people. Our other two priests, both relatively newly ordained, stepped up to ensure continuity in pastoral care, liturgy, worship and even pinch-hit on some building issues. Parishioners pulled together, and we got phone calls and messages from literally hundreds of former members, couples who had been married in the church, and others, seeking ways to help. This willingness to work together as a community illustrated for me the real value of parish life, which is as a place to share life's joys, sorrows, and tribulations.

In closing, has your parish experienced a similar situation? If so, what did you learn from it? I'd love it if you would share your comments.

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

Faith and a Flashlight

by Linda Ryan

I have a small book of quotations I've come across at various times and on various topics. It was inspired by Jan Karon's Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes which gave me the idea to begin my own favorite quotes book. I used one of those little black-and-white composition books, small enough to put in a pocket and have added to it periodically over the years. There are barely five unused pages left, and I have a second little book just like the first waiting to be put into use.

This morning I wanted to find a quote to write about so I began looking for my little book which is always somewhere either on or close to my desk. I couldn't find it. I searched various piles of papers, books and magazines to no effect. I moved the calculator and the small pile of cards to be sent out but again, to no avail. So I resorted to my go-to implement, a small but bright flashlight. It took a few more minutes but I located the little book. Then it came to me: the flashlight was helpful not just for shining light on what I was looking for but gave me an epiphany as well. flashlight.jpgI could see many things with the available light of my desk lamp, but by using a small flashlight it concentrated my focus on only a few things at a time. An overwhelming task had been reduced to a small focused one, and it worked. I found what I was looking for and in very short order.

Then I began to think about what a flashlight does. It creates a beam of light that helps illuminate things. If I walk around in the dark where there are no lights, On every episode of CSI, the team begins their investigation by clicking on flashlights and, even in fairly bright areas, they find tiny clues that lead to the solution of a crime. There's never an area so bright that it can't use a little more light.

I can stumble over things that I would have seen had there been more light. A flashlight helps prevent that stumbling. It puts light in dark corners of the closet where things I had forgotten about were stashed or perhaps hiding. It shows me where the vacuum has missed small masses of cat-lace (hair shed by my boys which hides under chairs and tables and sometimes sits defiantly in the middle of the floor) and also the toy for which they've been groping under a chest or media rack. It makes what was difficult or impossible to see visible, and it forces me to focus on a small area. Perhaps that's the word I'm looking for -- focus.

I remember when I had panic attacks. It was an effort even to breathe and making a decision as to what I was supposed to be doing was almost impossible. I had written an essay on mental health issues that referenced panic attacks and gave some clues on how to get through them. It had to be a God-thing in that I remembered some of those tips several years later and in the throes of something that had just been a subject to write about. The major tip was to focus -- focus on the next thing that had to be done. The first step to focus on was taking a breath, then another one. From there the next thing was to stand up, then walk to the kitchen. By focusing on one small thing at a time, I got through the 20 minutes or so that, if I remembered correctly, was about the length of the average panic attack. When I was thinking about the flashlight today I remembered the whole episode and thought how similar that remembering to focus was so much like using my flashlight to illumine one small area.

Then I started thinking about faith. What exactly is it, where did I learn it and how does it affect me and my life? That's a big question because faith encompasses a whole range of beliefs -- who is God, what is God, who is Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, what roles do they play in my faith, etc. In Education for Ministry (EfM) before our last curriculum change, we had an exercise that attempted to nail down precisely what it was that each of us believed, why we believed it and where we had learned it. We referred to it as the Grid because it began as a table with a number of columns, each with a specific word like "God.". Under each column heading was a series of questions, each in its own block under that topic and those questions asked for specific answers. When I worked on it as a student, I put six solid weeks of thought into it and still never finished the exercise. I did it again when I became a mentor, and still never finished it. It isn't really part of our new curriculum and that is a relief, in a way. I'm also sorry to see its demise because I think it was a great exercise, just maybe too daunting in its depth. But then, wasn't the whole purpose to gain depth? To use a kind of flashlight to lighten up the dark corners?

It's easy to recite the historic creeds on a Sunday morning but if someone asks me what a precise phrase means and why I believe it, I have to stumble around and try to come up with the answer. I think maybe I need more flashlight work when it comes to that subject. Like CSI, I need to focus on small areas and not be overwhelmed by the larger issues.

Maybe being able to explain my faith isn't something that will change the world or even solve one of its myriad problems, but then, I have to remember that as huge as the world's problems are, individuals and groups shining the equivalent of flashlights on small areas have helped to change things, whether things solely of faith or where faith intersects good works.

The world could use a little more light in a great many places.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Advertising Space