Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

by Kathleen Staudt

A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t believe. That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history). I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous. Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus. Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:

1. I don’t believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.). I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves. That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.

2. I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words. The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery. I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it. It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done. On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.

3. I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment. That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I can control the universe by my behavior. On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences. Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset. That story gives me hope.

4. I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, but I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today. I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories. In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us, who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side. They are stories, giving shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.

5. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell. A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story, it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in. At least that’s how I read it, and how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations. “Us v them,” “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me.

6. Lately I think the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions. I wish we could reflect more about the unique and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it, and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.

MerryOldSanta.jpgI often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “ If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims, then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand. But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition. I am grateful for this.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How Does the 40th Anniversary Inspire Us?

by Lisa G. Fischbeck

In July we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Though the first 11 women were ordained before the General Convention of the Church had given its approval (that would come two years later), the ordination of the “Philadelphia 11” was the beginning.

When our nation celebrates the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on MLK Day each year, we recall the stories of the Civil Rights Movement and of Dr. King’s pivotal role in that Movement. But also we consider how that story might inspire us to carry on the life and legacy of Dr. King in our world today. Many respond by illuminating and crossing, if only for a day, the racial barriers that still exist. Others look for ways to serve and engage with those who are on the margins of our society today, or to take a stand against current injustice.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, we remember the event. We tell the stories of the women who were called and who were willing and courageous enough to come forward. We tell the stories of the bishops and other male clergy who were willing to stand against the traditional and canonical ways of church polity and culture. We lift up the proponents, and we remember the opponents. We reflect on how those people, and that event, inspire us as a church today. There are many dimensions to that inspiration.

The first is to see the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 as a celebration of women in the Church. We trace the role of women throughout the history of the church, locally and globally. Time lines are created, short and long biographies written. The single event is seen in a context of an historical progression. Any obstacles or barriers to full involvement of women in the Church are illuminated as a focus for our future efforts. Many of these barriers are seen in developing nations, tempting American Episcopalians to become so focused on the church “over there” that we grow distracted from what needs to be done to clean up our own house here.

Second, the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of inclusion in the Church. The call for inclusion is very much rooted in an understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus pitched a big tent. Those who follow Jesus are continuously challenged to consider how God might be nudging us to open the tent of the Church more widely still.

Historically, the work for equal rites for women was closely followed by a call for equal rites for LGBT Christians. Not just access to ordination, but also to the church’s blessing of their loving and committed relationships. There is still a lot of work to be done in this regard. Not only for women and LGBT Christians, and not only for those excluded by our polity, but also for those excluded by our patterns and practices.

Third the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 can be seen as a celebration of justice. The ordination of women followed close on the heels of the women’s movement in the United States, which called for equal rights for women. For many outside of the church, and many within the church, the ordination of women was “a women’s rights issue”. Regardless of Scripture or Tradition, these proponents of women’s ordination believed passionately that women deserved full and equal access to all that men had access to. This, frankly, was off-putting to those who believed that consideration of women’s ordination was theological and not political. That rather than being a women’s right issue, it was a matter of following the teaching of Jesus, or expanding our theological understanding of the priesthood, or reinterpreting the Tradition of the Church. Nonetheless, the inspiration of the Philadelphia 11, calls us to be bolder in addressing issues of injustice in our church and world today. Immigrants, voters, victims of our criminal justice system and more, all cry out for help from a justice-minded Church.

A fourth, and perhaps the most challenging dimension to our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of 11 women, is to see it as a celebration of change in the Church. Whenever there is change, old ways of doing and perceiving have to die. The ordination of women fundamentally changed the way the Episcopal Church perceived ordination and church leadership. Beyond women, inclusion and justice, the church was called deeply to consider what ordination was all about. Who, and what, is the priest at the altar, and how do we determine who can be ordained? How do gendered appellations for church, God, and “Reverends”, shape our understanding of what is possible, and what is Truth? Even more fundamentally, how do we interpret the Tradition? How do we interpret the Scriptures? This 40th anniversary extends an invitation to us all to reflect on how change happens, or does not happen, in the church.

We know how it happens according to the Canons of the Church. Resolutions of General Convention lead to a re-working of the Constitutions and Canons and/or the Book of Common Prayer. But what happens before those resolutions are passed is not always so clear. Truth be told, change in the church often happens after a faithful few step outside the existing polity and practice of the church, and give witness to another way. ie: they are willing and able to “push the envelope”, as happened in Philadelphia in 1974. There is a certain “chicken and egg” aspect to change in our church. Resolutions of Convention move practice in the church. Practice in the Church moves resolutions in Convention.

The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to consider the aspects of our life and polity today that might need to be similarly challenged. How are we being called to step outside our polity, practice and pattern in order to push the envelope? Even more, what are we willing to let die in order for life-giving change to happen, in order for the church to be a more faithful witness in our own day and age?

It could be how we prepare people for ordination, or what is required of those taking on leadership in the church. Maybe it is how we worship, or who has the authority or the license to do what, and how do they gain that authority or license. It likely has something to do with how the Church will faithfully engage with an increasingly secularized society that grows more global and diverse every day, and also more entrenched in one polarity or another.

If the Holy Spirit is alive and well and moving in the Church, as we believe, change will come. The Philadelphia 11, and those who supported and ordained them, inspire us to embrace that change, and be faithful.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

13 Tell-Tale Signs of HR Problems in Your Parish

by Eric Bonetti

Do you attend a parish that’s large enough to have multiple employees? If so, you’re lucky—many churches these days have few employees beyond an administrator and clergy, and there’s no guarantee that these are full-time positions.

But how effective are those employees? Do you provide a nurturing environment where employees can grow and thrive? A place where people look forward to coming to work?
On the flip side of the coin, does your staff provide a fun, caring environment in which parishioners feel empowered and loved?

Many times, the answer to these questions is murky, at best. Indeed, churches, which should be models of health and life, often are dismal places to work. And if they’re dismal places to work, you can bet that parishioners are feeling the effects, no matter how vibrant your parish may otherwise be.

If you’re wondering about the answers to these questions, check out these signs that your church may not be the employer you think it is, or want it to be.

1 .Decisions get deferred

Just like for-profits, deferring necessary decisions is a sign of a weak manager and trouble in the offing. Have an employee who’s just not working out? If you’ve been told multiple times that he or she will be going soon, you have a weak leader and quite possibly a trust issue as well.

2. Infrastructure’s lacking

If your parish has been around for more than a few months, you should have written policies and procedures and a personnel manual. And they need to be current. If that’s not the case, someone’ s not doing his job. And you’re really in bad shape if you don’t have a file for each employee, including copies of at least annual performance reviews, continuing education received, and other relevant information.

3. Here’s hoping….

“Maybe if we just give him a couple more months, he’ll do better.” Or, “Let’s hope Fr. Dave retires soon.” Sound familiar? If so, consider that an employee who’s the subject of this much concern already has had plenty of opportunity to solve the problem. Dream on. You’re not giving the person the benefit of the doubt. You’re avoiding the problem. And the longer you wait, the worse you make things for all involved.

4. Bullying goes unchecked

Have someone who likes to raise his voice to try to control situations? Sounds like a Marine drill sergeant when c hallenged? Or screams and yells in anger? If that person is still with you, it’s time to re-read your baptismal covenant (the little bit about the dignity of every human being), then take action.

5. Performance review? What’s that?

If you haven’t done performance reviews in a while, something is seriously wrong. Yes, we get that you are busy, but it’s not fair to deny your employees candid feedback or the opportunity for growth.

6. Letters of agreement haven’t been renewed

If your parish uses letters of agreement to set forth specific terms and conditions for each employee (hope you do!) these should be updated annually. If the last one you can find for a specific employee is several years old, you’re missing a great opportunity to periodically make sure that you’re current with legal and regulatory requirements, and that you’re keeping abreast with changing job requirements.

7. Your parish admin wouldn’t know the FMLA if it ran him over in a pickup truck

It’s unrealistic to think that your parish administrator will be an expert in all aspects of bookkeeping, HR, labor law and facilities management. But she has the right to professional development and training, and should be sufficiently familiar with issues like the recent changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to know when to head off trouble by calling in additional resources.

8. You’re not sure what folks do all day

This one floors me. If you’re reading this article, it’s pretty much a given that you’re very involved in your parish. And even so, you don’t know what someone does all day? You’ve got issues. Serious issues. Leaving aside the fact that a good supervisor manages to results, not to hours, start with communication and collaboration and go from there.

9. Your volunteers complain

Volunteers are the canary in the coal mine for any parish. If they’re making themselves scarce, or they’re visibly unhappy, it’s time to ask questions and get to the bottom of things. And you’re in double trouble if they are unhappy and underutilized. Nothing demotivates volunteers like realizing that they’re wasting their time.

10. The results aren’t there

Lights still out in your parking lot months or years after the bulb went out or the fixture went bad? Grass doesn’t get cut when it’s supposed to? Print materials have multiple errors in them? Sure signs that you have a performance management issue afoot, as folks are not being appropriately proactive.

11. Exit interviews aren’t happy events

In a healthy, well-run organization, exit interviews are marked with the regret of parting, but also the joyful promise of new opportunities for the person in transition. If instead your exit interviews are marked by lots of discussion about interpersonal conflict and challenges in the workplace, it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

12. People are developing survival strategies

Are parishioners seeking pastoral care over issues with staff? Or your well-adjusted employees hanging out together in order to provide mutual care and support? This shouldn’t have to happen if you’re addressing issues promptly. Time to dig in and ask some tough questions—and take action.

13. Your volunteers are filling the gaps

Every parish has a handful of go-to persons—folks who care enough to do whatever it takes. If you’re seeing that your paid staff is turning to them to get results, or you’re seeing your “Clydesdales” working long hours to keep your bulletins printed and your building in good repair despite the fact that you have staff, it’s time to find out from what’s going on. And if they point to an HR issue, address it immediately. Doing so is simply a matter of respect when you have someone who gives sacrificially.

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

New Church Planting Part 2

by George Clifford

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here)

In the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, The Episcopal Church (TEC) grew both in numbers of members and of congregations. That missionary impetus has dissipated; in 2012, TEC planted only three new congregations. The first part of this essay considered the demographic and theological imperatives for planting new churches and two impediments TEC must overcome. This second and concluding installment outlines practical steps that the TEC can take to recover its missionary momentum.

Attempting to reverse TEC's numerical decline can easily feel like retrenching. Instead, we should adapt an idea from Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who suggests that persons needing to downsize because of financial, health, or other reasons envision the change as a generative opportunity (How to Think About Downsizing Your Life, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2014).

On a congregational level, small congregations might envision their demise generatively by:

(1) Cherishing the opportunities for enrichment intrinsic to uniting with a larger congregation, even a congregation of another denomination
(2) Swapping the stress of trying to keep the doors open and the priest paid for the joys of engaging in the pro-active missionary endeavors possible in a larger, better funded congregation
(3) Celebrating their obedience as good stewards, easing the time and financial burdens small congregations impose on dioceses.

On a diocesan level, bishops might envision downsizing generatively by recognizing that diocesan clergy, not diocesan staff, are the bishop's primary resource for her/his ministry as chief pastor. Front-line ministry mostly occurs in the parish, yet most bishops tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time with their staff and rarely interact directly with the majority of their parish clergy. (How many rectors receive multiple calls or visits per from their bishop for which the bishop's only agenda is to encourage and to support the priest's ministry? How many bishops regularly attend deanery meetings to be available to their clergy? In what percentage of bishop-priest relationships do priests prefer, whether from suspicion or good cause, to keep her/his distance from the bishop?)

Like most of us, bishops are busy. Bishops, therefore, need to re-focus by intentionally minimizing the time spent on problem clergy, vacancies, etc., to maximize the time they spend energizing, coaching, and encouraging their stronger parish clergy. Effective bishops are chief pastors who become the wind that provides the lift clergy need to soar like eagles. To some significant degree, a diocesan bishop as chief pastor must shoulder responsibility when a congregation well situated for growth either stagnates or declines.

Concurrently, bishops and dioceses will seek to identify people whom TEC (and the larger church!) serve inadequately or not at all. Where we find those people is where we want – need – to plant new churches or to attempt to revitalize dying congregations. Adapting a regenerative focus, with the accompanying changes in priorities, effort, and spending, will provide the resources these efforts will require. Critically, revitalizing and new starts both require expertise as well as adequate financial support.

On a national level, a generative focus will seek to reduce national staff and budget to free resources for dioceses and congregations. Legacy programs continued primarily out of inertia and programs that are minimally effective, regardless of how vocal their constituency may be, need to give way to developing and sharing expertise on church planting. Unlike numerical decline, ending those programs will not pose an existential threat for TEC.

The TEC Treasurer, in his latest report, noted that 42 dioceses have committed to the full 19% of diocesan income asking level adopted by General Convention in 2012 and 39 dioceses contribute between 10% and 19% of their income. The remaining 30 dioceses give less than 10% of their income to TEC. The list recording the percentage that each diocese contributes to TEC is revealing. Some dioceses (e.g., Honduras and Colombia) are essentially missionary dioceses, underwritten by TEC. Some dioceses pledge little, probably reflecting a lingering history of conflict between the diocese (or its parishes) and TEC (e.g., Dallas and Springfield) or conflict within the diocese (e.g., Pennsylvania). And some dioceses are simply poor: ten domestic dioceses report income of less than $500,000 and another 15 domestic dioceses income between $500,000 and $1 million. In short, the declining few increasingly carry the heavy burden of denominational support.

If we don't get busy with these tasks today, a tomorrow very soon will be too late. TEC will have dwindled into an irrelevancy that no amount of heroic life-support efforts can resuscitate. New branches on the vine that is Christ will have replaced the dead and useless branch that TEC will have then become.

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.

Church Planting Part 1

by George Clifford

Part 1 of 2

Incredibly, TEC started only three new churches in 2012, the last year for which data is available according to research by the Rev. Susan Snook (she planted, and is now rector of, a thriving parish in the Diocese of Arizona). Jim Naughton, reporting Snook's research at the Episcopal Café (Why doesn't the Episcopal Church plant more churches?) wondered why The Episcopal Church (TEC) plants so few new churches. Two factors, one demographic and the other theological, underscore the poignancy of his question.

First, the US population grew from just under 180 million people in 1960 to 308 million in 2010. That significant growth suggests that a flourishing church would also have been a growing church during those five decades. Yet the increase in US population sharply contrasts with TEC's decline from 3.4 million members in 1960 to fewer than 2 million today. In other words, during the last five decades, the US population increased about 70% and TEC's membership declined by roughly 42%.

Second, God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God's love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.

Yet that shift in beliefs does not leave us bereft of a missionary impetus. We value both TEC and our local congregations, an assessment obvious from hundreds of posts on the internet (including the Episcopal Café!) and comments from people in thousands of pews across the country. We Episcopalians find our liturgy and communal life personally helps us to connect with God and enriches our lives. If words really indicate how Episcopalians feel, why don't we extend a warmer and more persuasive invitation to family, friends, and even acquaintances to explore – if not to join – the religious tradition and community that we allegedly value so highly?

The claim that TEC has a shortage of clergy is a bogus explanation of why TEC is failing to plant new churches. In 2009, TEC had 17,868 clergy compared to 9079 in 1960, or about twice as many as when we had one-third more members. In spite of a sizable number of clergy retirees, we still have ample numbers of active clergy. However, TEC does have a clergy distribution problem. Rural and small town TEC congregations often struggle, both to raise the funds needed to pay a full-time priest and to find clergy willing to serve in those locales (a majority of our clergy, based on their choices about where to reside, apparently prefers to live in more urban areas).

Although we have plenty of congregations, they, like our clergy, are maldistributed. Our approximately 6,700 congregations – if they had an average of 750 members – would comprise a Church of five million. Unfortunately, the US is experiencing significant internal demographic shifts. These changes have left many Episcopal congregations in locations with a static or even diminishing population. Meanwhile, numerous areas with growing populations lack a conveniently located TEC congregation.

So, why doesn't TEC plant more new congregations to proclaim the good news to the growing US population? Scripture plainly depicts Jesus enjoining his disciples to make disciples. At least two impediments exist.

First, TEC utilizes its resources inefficiently and ineffectively. We waste much effort and money keeping small congregations in geographic places with diminishing populations on life support long after any realistic hope of revitalization has faded away. Well-intentioned efforts to develop alternative approaches to theological education to staff these dying congregations will only prolong the misery and drain additional resources. Closing these outposts can cost a great deal of political capital, but not closing them will only expedite TEC's demise.

I've served a congregation with an average Sunday attendance under 20. I know how much those people valued their congregation, its worship, and its other ministries. However, two vibrant parishes were located within a one-mile radius of my small congregation. None of my parishioners wanted to ask, let alone answer, the question of whether we would be most faithful by closing our congregation and joining one of the other parishes. In the meantime, keeping the congregation alive cost a great deal of money and contributed less to the body of Christ than we would have contributed by shuttering the doors and joining one of the neighboring congregations. My parishioners prioritized loyalty to a location, preserving a congregational identity, and perpetuating a dwindling community over doing the most for God's kingdom. As their priest, I failed to realign their priorities more closely with the gospel imperatives. Loyalty to God's purposes rather than loyalty to place, building, or tradition best defines Christian fidelity.

Second, TEC, in common with a great many organizations, finds dealing with small issues easier than dealing with large issues. Numerical decline represents an existential threat for TEC. A growing number of congregations devote a disproportionate (often almost 100%) of their resources to paying a priest and keeping the building open. We find the latter two issues – how to reduce what we pay a priest (e.g., by reducing educational debt) and funding the building – easier to address than the overarching issue of numerical decline.

Blaming the numerical decline on either the ordination of women or the 1976 Book of Common Prayer constitutes a red herring. TEC's serious numerical decline did not begin until the 1980s, well after both of those changes.

The real issue is that the interpretation and praxis of Christianity passed to people in the US in the second half of the twentieth century no longer speaks to people. Theoretically, every generation must claim the faith for itself, putting ideas and practices into wineskins appropriate to that generation. In fact, we tend to change the wineskins only when forced. The wineskins that I received in seminary are an increasingly poor fit in a globalized, electronically connected, scientifically oriented world. Creating new wineskins is no easy task.

Many Episcopalians, clergy and laity alike, thus choose an easier option. We find a cause to support: we fought poverty, we fed the hungry, we campaigned for civil rights, we supported the full inclusion of women in church and society, and now we work for justice for gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and bisexuals. In short, we walk some of the Jesus path. We do good things and we should keep doing them; none of those worthy tasks is yet finished. Meantime, we avoid giving too much thought to disturbing questions about who God is, how we connect with God, and how we can discern God's presence and activity in our midst. We love our neighbor, but we do so incompletely because we ignore our post-modern world's pervasive spiritual hunger. We are most faithful and best incarnate the body of Christ (i.e., be the Church) when we integrate loving God explicitly and consistently into our efforts to love our neighbors.

The second part of this post will offer practical ideas for reversing the decline.

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.

Lucy: a film where violence and theology coexist

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

91px-Lucy_%282014_film%29_poster.jpgDon’t let the trailers of “Lucy” deter you. The new Luc Besson film starring Scarlett Johansen and Morgan Freeman is smart, philosophical, and offers great questions about afterlife and evolution. Warning: It is filled with more violence and destruction of property than any of the worst vestry or buildings and grounds committee meetings you’ve encountered.

One has to hand it to Besson, (almost). For a male action writer/director, Besson, keeps trying to get it right with female action leads (La Femme Nikita). But really Mr. Besson, near the close of the film Lucy was using 90% of her cerebral capacity and was smarter than anyone on the planet. Did she really have to ask the gaggle of guy scientists for help?

Aside from that backward slide, Johansson as Lucy, is singularly focused, tough, and violent. An American student in Taiwan, Lucy is unwittingly roped in to being a mule for a crime ring involved in smuggling and selling a synthetic drug that enhances brain power. The blue colored drug is in a pouch sewn into her stomach, then it leaks, and she begins her transformation. It doesn’t kill her. It gives her incredible powers to control time and consciousness.

The film’s special metaphysical effects, time travel, morphed body parts, magnanimous car crashes and lots of gore, keep the film goers who like that kind of stuff grinning happily and only having to use 1% (or less) of their brain capacity.

But the truth is, there is something quite courageous in this film. But you have to watch for it. The film is full of raging action and outrageous special effects, which are gently tempered by the occasional appearance of National Geographic-type clips of animals – doing normal animal stuff but placed in juxtaposition to the bizarre stuff that is happening to Lucy in the film.

It’s a movie about self-awareness, transformation, drug smuggling, eternal life, and even the interconnectedness of all creation. At various times this movie has elements of “2001 A Space Odyssey” (evolution of consciousness), “The French Connection” (drugs and a marathon car chase), “Tron” (human existence in cyberspace), “Phenomenon” (brainpower) and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (for those who like women action figures killing men).

But the film artfully shows the links between humans and nature, and gives filmgoers glimpses of creation spirituality, whether they recognize it or not. The links between Lucy and the ape that appears in the film are particularly profound. As Lucy time travels in the film, she and the ape touch fingers, providing viewers with a strange knock-off version of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”.

For an “in your face” action film, the theological subtleties are even more striking. For example, the ape scenes are subtle, yet critical. The title of the film is the name of a 3.2 million year old fossilized skeleton, discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson. The fossil skeleton, named Lucy by the crew of archeologists who discovered her, is the first in the Hominid Family Tree to walk upright.

Anyone who has studied Teilhard de Chardin or Matthew Fox will appreciate this movie. As earthly forces continue their greedy journey for power and control, Lucy becomes more aloof to them and more concerned with her deepening consciousness. She wants to share her knowledge as her mortal existence faces a violent end.

A person of faith might see her journey as headed in the direction of the “Omega Point” (de Chardin) or the cosmic Christ consciousness (Fox). A person of science might see it as a natural, albeit speeded up, step in evolution.

“From evolution to revolution”, says Professor Norman (Freeman). “There are more connections in the human body than there are stars in the galaxy”, Professor Norman continues as he drones on about the minimal use of human cerebral capacity (3-5%) and compares humans to dolphins at 20% brain use. At the same time he sets up the filmgoers to anticipate the possibility of what increased cerebral capacity might mean.

During the spectacular car chase the Paris police captain who is helping her confesses his fear of dying. “We never really die,” says Lucy. Immortality for all? Where else have we heard that?

And in the beginning of the film Lucy says,“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?”

Well, after many special effects, lots of shooting and car chases Lucy gets her full injections of the blue drug. At 100% cerebral capacity, Lucy melts away like the wicked witch of the west.

“Where is she?” they ask. The cell phone vibrates with a text, “I’m everywhere”, it reads.

So is God. That kind of leaves the theologians in the audience (all 2 of us) wondering if the writer/director gets it after all.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pontiac, MI. She is the immediate past president of the House of Deputies in the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

"Lucy (2014 film) poster" by http://www.impawards.com/intl/france/2014/lucy.html. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Lucy (2014 film) via Wikipedia

Redemption by repetition

By Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster

Live. Die. Repeat. Is that the story of Jesus in our church’s liturgical calendar?

98px-Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster.jpgNo. It’s the marketing slogan on the one-sheet for “Edge of Tomorrow,” another Hollywood shoot ‘em up, blood spattering 3D (and 2D), and wildly loud film that released June 6.

That it opened on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion was likely no accident. The battle in “Edge” is also an invasion on the beaches of France against slithery, tentacled creatures from outer space that spit fire bombs. The images are reminiscent of those from Normandy in WWII with its overwhelming casualties.

Like Bill Murray in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day,” Major Cage (Tom Cruise) finds himself in a time loop repeating the same day (and many of the same lines) again and again in this sci-fi/action flick.

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, intentionally or not, has interspersed a very subtle message of renewal and salvation into the film. Or he’s put on the big screen what happens in a violent video game that keeps taking you to deeper levels.

But unlike the insidious and elusive evil that slithers through today’s real world, the forces of evil in the film, called “mimics,” are right in your face with their slimy but glittering, tentacles (Even mimics wear Bling in Hollywood).

As Cage and the misfit J squad soldiers, dressed up like Robo Cop wannabes, train for the fight against the mimics they are “evangelized” as their Kentucky drill sergeant yells, “All men truly share the same rank. Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate. Tomorrow morning you will be baptized. Born again.” This mantra could capture a wide audience of Buddhists, Christians and perhaps even the “spiritual but not religious.”

Redemption and baptism appear only in the context of a military battle and only on this earthly plain. If there is any solution to the threat to humanity it will only come from technology, science or another explosion.

That’s a popular belief in our society. There seems to be no room for God or a spiritual side. Those who have the most weapons, the most trained fighters, regardless of their motive, will come out on top. That’s how the world works. Could that be changing?

In the beloved community we’re told love overcomes death, estrangement and alienation. Maybe there was good news from the box office receipts on opening weekend. “Edge” finished third behind “The Fault in Our Stars,” a story about love being stronger than death. But, by the third week, “Edge” was drawing more than “Fault.” The audience appetite seemed to shift for another Hollywood formula movie that glorifies the military, righteous violence (or “might makes right”) and defines gender equality as women acting like men. It took nine weeks for “Edge” to drop out of the top ten box office draws.

After big bombs, blow-ups, screeching mimics and repeated deaths and wake ups for Cage (and some of the filmgoers), and Rita (Emily Blunt), the Angel of Verdun, a symbol of hope, leads Cage and the rag tag J Squad into battle to deliver the final zap to the Omega mimic and conquer evil once and for all.

It is no mere baptismal font for Cage’s final death and new life scene. He takes the full immersion option and dives deep into the clear water dwelling to destroy the “Omega” mimic and save the world.

Right there the power of death is defeated and the newly baptized is reborn for the last time into a safer, saved world. Ahhhh.

“All things come of Thee,” even in Hollywood.

Bonnie Anderson is a lay leader (senior warden) at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ponitiac, MI and past president of the Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a former broadcast news executive.

"Edge of Tomorrow Poster" by May be found at the following website: IMP Awards. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Edge of Tomorrow (film) via Wikipedia

The problem with the Bible

by Sara Miles

Here is the problem I have with the Bible. Mostly, I spend my life lurching back and forth between the reasonable hope that I’m basically OK and things are going pretty well; and the sickening conviction that I’m a wicked, terribly mistaken lost cause and the whole world is on its way to hell in a handbasket. I can’t be sure which of my own impulses are genuinely good and which are sneakily greedy and conniving: how can I honestly sort out my tangled desires? Looking around, I notice generous, righteous people feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, but they’re surrounded by all kinds of evildoers---angry women screaming at refugee children in Texas, violent men kidnapping children in Israel and Palestine, ostensibly decent citizens like me who do nothing to stop the bad guys.

So I’d like the Holy Scriptures, which after all our tradition claims “containeth all things necessary for salvation,” to shed just a little light on the subject of good and evil. I’d like the Bible to show me how to reliably judge other people, recognize devil-followers, and teach me how to be a good person, and I’d like the Bible to offer instructive lessons about how things should be, in this miserably hard business of being a human trying to relate to other humans and to God. Is that too much to ask?

Well, apparently it is too much to ask. Because the Bible isn’t about showing how things should be, but about how things really are.

Let’s look at exemplary figures like Jacob. That little snake. Dishonest and tricky, Jacob is one of the least trustworthy characters in the Bible. First, he cheats his not-so-smart big brother Esau out of his birthright and gets away with it. Then he cheats him again, this time out of their father’s blessing, and gets away with that too. Finally Jacob lands in trouble, but his mom covers up for him and sends him off on a journey, and he winds up alone in the desert, on the outs with his people, and terribly afraid.

Jacob lies down on a pillow of stone, and God….does God set him straight? Punish him for his sleaziness? Teach him a lesson? No, God appears in a dream and announces that now Jacob is going to get vast tracts of valuable land, be blessed with family and honor and luck; God promises to stick with Jacob and his descendants forever and give them whatever they need.

Just like that. No retribution or wrath. No “aren’t you sorry for your bad behavior?” No, “Change your attitude and I’ll see about rescuing you from the pit you dug from yourself.” Just unconditional blessing. And Jacob has the sense, for a single second, to be afraid…. but then he acts tougher than he feels and reverts to his snake-like ways, receiving the blessing as if he deserves it. He even sets conditions on God. Gee, thanks, God, says Jacob. Well, I guess if you keep on like this, giving me help and clothes and food and fixing things with my family, I guess I’ll worship you, and hey, if you keep delivering even more goodies, I can give you back, um, ten percent of everything you give me.

What are we supposed to do with a God who insists on sticking with people like Jacob and his descendants, through all their lies and manipulations?

What are we supposed to learn from seeing blessings showered on those who never appreciate the goodness God shows them, never mend their ways, never get over their insecurities? This is the way things are, says the Bible: God doesn’t care if we fail to appreciate what he does for us––he’ll just keep appearing with beautiful visions in the middle of the night, keep faith in the loneliest deserts, keep offering frightened little snakes like you and me another chance to receive his promise, his love, his Word.

And then there are the parables. Even in a parable as apparently righteous as the story of the darnel and the wheat, Jesus, infuriatingly, won’t tell us how things should be. They’re not up to us, is all he says. God has nothing to say about how we’re supposed to judge, to sort out good and evil; God refuses to give directions about how we should reward the righteous and punish the wicked. God just gazes at the whole complicated mess-- enemies and friends, devils and angels, good guys and bad guys, weeds and wheat scrambled together--and blesses everything, biding his time, saying, Let it grow. Jesus explains, Shut up. That is: if you have ears, listen.

Do you feel me? Is this fair? No, it is not fair. But it is the word of God.

Last Friday was a rough day at our church food pantry. It had been a rough week. Two of our regular volunteers, Elena and Tatiana, had gone home to the Ukraine to help their families, a few days before pro-Russian separatists shot down a commercial airliner. Their friend, Valentina, a big, bossy Russian lady, marched up to me at the pantry, beside herself, weepy. “Sara,” she cried, grabbing my arm, “I don’t hear nothing from Elena and Tatiana, I am so worry. I feel so bad, I am shamed to be Russian.” Valentina is kind of an over-the-top drama queen, so I just nodded and tried not to get sucked in. Then I asked Leah, an older Jewish woman from New York, about her family in Israel. She told me she hadn’t slept for days. “They’re shooting rockets where my sister lives,” she said, “I’m going crazy watching the news. And then I see those pictures of Palestinian mothers with dead kids. My people, we did this? It makes me sick; I’m so ashamed.” I hugged Leah, but I was afraid to express solidarity with her crazy settler sister. It’s all too hard: Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Valentina, Leah—and me, who doesn’t know how to decide which bad guys to be mad at. Me, who’s afraid I might love the wrong people. Me, who thinks God only loves some of us, and I better hedge my bets and be on the right side.

In the middle of the field, the world, Scripture says, all kinds of weeds are jammed up right next to the precious grain. The field, the world, is a total mess. And so often we believe we’re the ones chosen to clean it up. But if we think we can tell the weeds from the wheat, the purely good people from the purely wicked, we are kidding ourselves—about the shameful evil inside our own hearts, and the humanity inside our enemies. And if we try to root out what we think is evil by ourselves, we will also destroy everything that feeds us.

Anyone who has ears should listen to the good news: The life-giving wheat, the bread of life, is already in the field; the Kingdom of Heaven is already in the world, growing and growing: and the enemy cannot root it out. All the enemy can do is try to convince us to pull it up, trick us into being overzealous weeders who, in our eagerness to eradicate the bad guys, will step all over the tender green shoots of love.

In the middle of the heartbreak at the food pantry, Leah and I were in the kitchen, putting candles on a homemade cake that another volunteer had baked to celebrate someone’s birthday. “My friends here are liberals,” Leah said, “so they just want to blame Israel, like the Israelis are all evil and the Palestinians are all good.” I felt incredibly uncomfortable, but Leah went on. “Believe me,” she said, “I see how messed-up Israel is. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Everyone is so convinced they’re right, it’s all someone else’s fault, and before you know it we’re killing each other’s kids.” She wiped some frosting off the platter. “Thanks for asking about my sister,” Leah said softly. “The worst thing is how my friends don’t even talk with me about it. Couldn’t somebody just say, how are you doing, how’s your family? Like instead of being so convinced we know who’s right and who’s wrong, couldn’t we just have a little kindness?”

The problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t tell us who to blame for the suffering we endure, or the suffering we cause to others. It just tells us that we are living among all the other plants in the field. We must trust God, turn away from darkness, toward the light, and grow. Because God, the only judge, is busy sowing himself into the heart of all mortals, and changing us into himself.

Sara Miles is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and the author of City of God: Faith in the Streets

Part 2: The Pearl

Donald Schell

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here.)

Preparing to lead children enacting Jesus’ parable of the Pearl Merchant, I struggled to find a dramatic entrée. The parable is very compressed, just barely a story. It seems to hang entirely on a moment of purchase and taking possession of a pearl. What gestures and movements could our actors offer to show what’s happening? Paying out a price and having something in hand didn’t offer us much for a specific, wholly embodied improvisational scene.

Looking back, I realize I was struggling with an interpretation of the text I’d heard repeatedly, a formula for what we must do to possess the kingdom of God. The day before we’d be working with the Pearl Merchant, our Godly Play teacher for Friends of God Day Camp told me, “tomorrow I’ve got to tell a parable that has never made any sense to me. The man ends up with the pearl. Then what? Does he retire to look at it? Does he starve?”

I agreed with her. Over the years I’d heard fundamentalist and liberals preachers alike stick to a literalism that killed the story by preaching this parable was about “paying the price” to gain and possess God’s Kingdom as our own. And is the kingdom of God something we possess or a context for action, for living?

That evening, reading and re-reading the text, my mind kept drifting away to scenes from January, 2007, when I was with a Episcopal church lay and clergy leaders in the Mercato in Addis Ababa. The Mercato is Africa’s largest open-air market occupying many, many blocks and streets of Addis Ababa. I was trying to find a way to enact possession of the pearl, which, I assumed was the point of Jesus’ parable, and felt frustrated that my mind kept going to rich, sensory memories of the Mercato.

The Mercato wouldn’t let go. It had seized my imagination - its push of people, the noise, the smells of people, goats, donkeys, and diesel exhaust, savored whiffs of fresh roasted coffee beans and the incense vendors bins of resin. When I finally let myself enter the scene my imagination was making, a pearl buyer presented himself, pushing through the modern Mercato to find a stall where he’d heard someone new to Addis was selling precious gems and pearls.

I followed my imagined merchant down a narrow alley lined with coffee sellers. A donkey train laden with sacks of coffee pushed into the alley, swaying to its own complex music of clattering small hooves and jangling warning bells, it crushed us into coffee stalls. When they’d passed, the merchant rushed on As the alley opened out into a wider street of the Mercato, a blunt-nosed diesel produce truck beeped and just avoided him in a slow motion swerve. The crowd parted and when it came back together the merchant stopped to greet a someone pushing a wheelbarrow mounded with big sacks of tef flour (for making injira flatbread); behind his friend two women waited stock still with produce purchases balanced on their heads. The cook at some cafe is expecting those three, I thought.

As the merchant hurried on, I realized this was return visit to the stall where he’d already found the pearl and where the seller had quoted a high price. I was following him as he returned with more in his purse. After he’d bargained to the limit of the money he had in hand, realizing as he bargained that, even with the high price, he saw the value of the seller’s treasure more clearly than the seller.

I realized that, although Jesus only tells of the merchant seeking and finding the pearl, gathering more resources and then returning to buy it, first century listeners would certainly have supplied a first scene of lengthy and even heated bargaining and a second scene of renewed bargaining when the buyer returns to the stall.

And would he return and pay the last price the seller had asked? Of course not. He might even make a lower offer than the last one he’d made before! He’ll continue bargaining carefully and strategically hoping to bring the seller’s last price down further.

Real, impassioned Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bargaining means strategy, drama, and dynamic relationship. Jesus’ listeners would know the buyer’s bargaining moves, how ever they imagined them. Their experience would supply bargaining and a buyer’s eye for pricing pearls to complete this brief parable. I smiled to think that Jesus’ listeners would be as baffled by a store with non-negotiable marked prices as some of us American Episcopalians in Addis Ababa were at bargaining in the Mercato.

Our group’s Ethiopian guide (who had visited the U.S. more than once) was well aware of this cultural difference and asked us to leave our sense of “price” behind. She told us “price” in Ethiopia meant something quite different than the display place in a U.S. store. Neither buyer nor seller thought the opening offer should name an actual market value. The first asking price began a game and initiated a relationship. “The merchants feel disrespected when you don’t bargain. If you pay the first asking, the seller feels offended that you think he actually believes his inflated asking is a real value. The seller’s first price is only supposed to start a conversation. When you don’t take it that way, they feel personally rejected, as if you were saying, ‘I’ll pay you more than both of us know this is worth so I can avoid having to really deal with you.’”

At the beginning of our trip, she’d bargained for us so we could learn to bargain ourselves. When we saw something we wanted to buy, she explained, “Note it carefully with cautious glances, act you might be interested in something else. Then be a little disappointed or distracted as you walk away. Come and find me. Point out what you’re interested in discreetly, and then watch carefully while I get you a proper Ethiopian price.”

A good-hearted artist in our group protested, “I’m happy to pay the first price they ask because I know their prices are absurdly low. Even paying their full asking price, I feel bad because I’m paying so little. Bargaining just seems rude to me.”

Our guide shook her head “no.” She was a fierce bargainer, proud of what she could do bargaining on our behalf even with sellers who were old friends of hers. Rudeness would be seeming not to care about the price and buying casually.

That last day in Addis, when one of us showed her a lot of crosses and small icons he’d just purchased from one stall, she asked what he’d paid. She was outraged at what she heard and said, “NO!” and took our American friend back to the stall shouting at the merchant in Amharic. For a while the seller shouted back, but eventually he got quieter and just listened. Finally he gave her a handful of cash that she took with a nod of acknowledgment and handed to our friend.

Later, when I asked what she’d said, she replied,

“I called him a thief. I said that if he charges prices like that, I’d never bring my guests to his stall again. I said that when our friend compared what he’d bought with what his friends had bought, he would learn he’d been cheated. I told him that hurts me and shames Ethiopia. I named him a fair price, and told him if he didn’t pay back the difference, I’d tell all the other guides what he’d done.”

Remembering her teaching and how she enforced traditional market values of respect and relationship (our relationship with the merchant and the merchant’s with our group and guide) began to open up the Parable of the Pearl Merchant for me.

I started to wonder -

When there are no price tags, who decides what’s a fair and legitimate price?

What’s the bedrock of relationship between seller and buyer?

And what does the buyer do when the seller doesn’t seem to realize the full value of what he’s selling?

Next day at Friends of God Day Camp, before making ourselves pearl merchants and pearl sellers, I talked asked the children whether they’d seen their parents bargain in flea markets or antique markets, the remnant of ancient practice in our country. They had seen how different those markets were from regular stores. From experience of flea markets, the children explained offers and counter offers to me. They knew your opening offer should be much less than you were willing to pay. Then we wondered whether in the parable, the merchant would literally sell everything to buy just one pearl - did he sell his house? his furniture? his clothing? everything? really everything? Just what has he gained?

The Pearl isn’t the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a merchant who has learned to live in the wisdom and freedom of graced moments of chance and choice. The pearl merchant enters, lives into, the kingdom as he seizes the moment of grace. Being able to buy that pearl and knowing how to buy it changes his life completely - that’s the kingdom.

Of course he’ll sell the pearl a few days after he’s bought it. He probably knows who he’ll offer it to when he’s buying it. Someone who will see its enormous value, is passionate about pearls, and has the money to pay for this one and more. The day of his purchase, our merchant has bought the winning lottery ticket, he has become an important person, suddenly he has wealth enough to see to the needs of family and friends, and his work as a pearl merchant will be changed for ever with this huge boost in his own net worth. His word will have real weight. People will send new pearl lovers to buy from him because people will know that he’s an astute buyer and seller of pearls.

When we got to playing the market scene and the children imagined they’d sold nearly
everything they owned to make a better offer on the pearl, I asked them if they offered everything they now had available for purchase. “No way,” they responded. I know I’ll pay it if I have to, but I’ll start out offering less.”

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, the kids were becoming pearl merchants in the kingdom.

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

Part 1: The Joys of F.O.G.

by Donald Schell

Part 1 of 2

Last month my congregation offered a free week-long day camp called F.O.G, an apt name for a summer gathering in San Francisco with perennial summer weather report, “Foggy near the coast, clearing by noon.” I think the joke is deliberate, but as an acronym it also refers to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa that Christian life in community makes us “Friends Of God.” To the fourth year of our summer F.O.G, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, St. Gregory’s associate rector and the founder of F.O.G. asked me to lead daily Bible drama workshops for the children, each day exploring a different Gospel parable through improvised dramatic enactment of that day’s Godly Play story.

Until F.O.G. my only experience of Vacation Bible School had been summers growing up in a fundamentalist church. I still treasure that first learning of Bible stories, and am also grateful for good support in conversations with my parents for shrugging off the creationism, anti-Semitism, and horrifying interpretations of the atonement some of the teachers offered. What caught my heart, even in that fundamentalist setting was the offering generous-hearted teachers made when they really gave us the stories with room to ask questions and make our own interpretative discoveries. And as we come back to the stories, the discoveries seem to on through a lifetime.

Over the years between that long ago Vacation Bible School and my happy experience with F.O.G., I’d begun doing drama work with Bible stories, starting in summer camp chaplaincies – Family Camp summers in Idaho when I did my first parish work there, and then a couple of decades of summers of both Family Camp and Kids’ Camps in the Diocese of California.

Improvising theater to encounter and interpret Bible stories uses imagination something like Ignatius Loyola’s method of using imagination and the senses to read ourselves into familiar stories to feel how the stories live for us when we’re in them. For my drama workshop version of Ignatius Bible study I’ve worked with stories about Jesus and with the stories Jesus offered as a story teller, the parables.

As preacher/teacher/theater director I learned to spend time ahead with the text, reading it over and over slowly and looking for ways to guide actors recruited from the congregation or gathering to make simple, wholly embodied, interpretative gestures and actions to flesh out the stories.

Sometimes the Gospel story gives specific gestures, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Syrophonecian woman,“…a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

The Gospel says she “came and knelt,” two simple gestures to offer our actors in an improvisation. But each gesture contains more choices - HOW does the woman come and HOW does she kneel?

Does she approach very respectfully and kneel as if in church?

Or does she run to Jesus and throw herself at his feet?

And if she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, does she touch him?

Acting gestures need to be energetic and, as actors say, “specific.” How ever the preacher/director, actor or congregation decides the gestures should be enacted, “kind of walking” toward Jesus and “sort of kneeling” won’t give life to an improvisation.
Sometimes specific choices aren’t just the “how” of a gesture in the story, but discovering spatial arrangement and response of one character to another that aren’t given, but still have to be specific. As in Ignatian Bible study, we mae choices about gestures and movements that the Gospel story omits.

For example, in the story of the resurrection appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, does Thomas take Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds in his hands and put his hand in the wound in his side? When I’ve worked with this text and asked the congregation, we discover that some people feel strongly the text assumes that he did reach out and touch Jesus’ hands and side. Others feel equally strongly that for Thomas hearing Jesus’ invitation and seeing the wounds was enough – often those people feel the writer of John wants us to picture Thomas dropping his skepticism and doubts in a moment of overwhelmed worship.

Some questions of “how” only show up when we’re planning or even guiding the congregational volunteers creating an improvisation. In this same resurrection appearance, it simply says that eight days later Thomas and the other disciples were gathered again in the upper room. And then, “Jesus appeared.” Embodied enactment demands more specifics. Different, specific blocking (the placement and movement of our actors) shapes the story differently. If the actor playing Jesus “appears” by slipping in to stand between or among disciples facing our Thomas, Thomas may see Jesus’ first. The actor can use his face and body to show his startled transition from not seeing Jesus to seeing Jesus. The other disciples might see Thomas experiencing something before they see Jesus. But if our Jesus actor comes and stands directly behind Thomas --where other disciples see him before Thomas, perhaps Thomas seeing his friends’ faces makes him turn to face Jesus, even before Jesus speaks. Neither is the “right” answer of how to enact it, but we do experience something different either way.

In the first instance, perhaps we’d find ourselves wondering how the other disciples might see Jesus’ presence through Thomas’s revelatory moment, while in the second instance, we might sense how the other disciples’ faces and faith move Thomas to a very literal turnaround conversion.

GP1.JPGOne of our stories this year was Jesus’ parable of the pearl merchant. I’d never worked with that story before, in my difficulty preparing to work with that particular parable made some unexpected interpretative discoveries. The essay that follows this describes my difficulty, the process of discovery and what I and we learned about the parable from enacting it. But to conclude this first essay, I’d like to encourage readers to visit the F.O.G. website to learn more about embodiment in prayer and teaching. Sylvia Miller-Mutia has been developing Friends of God Day Camp for the children of St. Gregory’s and other children in the church’s neighborhood. Sylvia’s approach to inter-generational liturgy and storytelling, like mine guides a congregation to embody text and song together. You can see additional ways of praying with our bodies and our senses Sylvia has developed at the resource website she’s made for F.O.G. leaders and parents.

Seeing what she’s creating for children and adults, you won’t be surprised to learn that before becoming a priest, Sylvia danced professionally with the Utah Ballet and then in modern dance was a member of Carla de Sola’s Omega West Dance Company. Improvisational interpretation of Bible stories and Sylvia’s embodying prayer in movement invite experience and questions, like a Godly play “I wonder.” Rooting interpretation and reflection in imagination, feeling and intuition leads us to discover new possibilities in familiar readings.

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

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