Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Groovin' on Gustav

With an undergraduate music major and a Master's degree in music history, I guess you could say I'm a music lover. But, for the same reasons, you could also say that I have fairly refined tastes, and I'm not easily impressed. Generally, my attitude is that "I've heard it all." So, to find myself falling in love with a piece of music that I've known for more than 30 years (having purchased an LP edition in 1976) is a bit of a surprise. But falling in love I am--with Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony ("Resurrection"), completed in 1894, when the composer was 34 years old. It's in the CD changer in my car, and I listen to a few minutes of it every chance I get. (What an odd way to listen to music, yet I find it strangely satisfying). And I keep playing it over and over again, which I am so not prone to do.

It is a massive work--about as long as an average feature film--employing a large chorus, two vocal soloists, and a huge orchestra, including an organ. Generally, the fruit of overripe Romanticism is not much to my liking, but this work has wormed its way into my heart. The thematic material is strong, and stands up under the pressure of extended repetition and development. The quiet sections are endearing--I'm especially fond of the principal theme in the second movement--and the climaxes are...everything a climax should be. Mahler is a master of orchestration; it shows that he was familiar with the operas of Wagner, having conducted them several times from his early twenties on.

I've been particularly intrigued by the text of of the poems he uses in the fourth movement (of five)--lines from the eighteenth century German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Here's the whole thing, first in German, then in a very literal (i.e. non-poetic) English translation:

Original German
O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
In English
Primeval Light
O red rosebud!
Man lies in deepest need!
Man lies in deepest pain!
Oh how I would rather be in heaven.
There, I came upon a broad path;
There, came a little angel and wanted to send me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be sent away!
I am from God and will return to God!
The loving God will give me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
Yeah, it's a little melodramatic and syrupy (at least in translation), but I'm drawn to the line "I am from God and will return to God!" It is reminiscent in form of the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." On the surface, these are contradictory assertions, but on the level of what might be called "poetic theology," I believe they can both be affirmed.

In particular, this sentiment reminds me of one of the hallmarks of the Anglican spiritual tradition, which is that ethics flow out of ascesis. And the fountain of ascesis is the transit of the soul from the God who creates it back to the God who redeems it--exitus et reditus in Latin. The moral life serves the ends of the spiritual life. In the confessional, a priest's overriding concern is for the spiritual welfare of the penitent. Yes, matters of law and infraction must be dealt with, but never for their own sake, but always configured toward the sanctification of the one making the confession. Talk of dust is appropriate for Ash Wednesday, but in confession and pastoral care, the Prime Directive is "Remember that you are from God, and to God you shall return!"

Mahler was a non-practicing Jew who got himself baptized in order to advance his career in a culture where anti-Semitism was only a half-century away from reaching its ugly zenith. Neither the Klopstock text nor the one he uses in the massive choral fifth movement are overtly Christian, though they are certainly not inconsistent with the paschal mystery, and a Christian may read the gospel back into them without doing them any violence, and thereby celebrate the peculiar resurrection hope that is the inheritance of those who are, per St Paul, "in Christ."

So now I'm bathing in Mahler for a while. This will pass (and I'll be back to Vaughan Williams). And I hope that I will yet have the joy of falling in love with another piece of music for the first time. There's nothing like the first time! I recall meeting the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms while in college, Mozart's Requiem when the film Amadeus came out in the '80s, and, more recently, the magisterial Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor of Bach, not to mention a large number of...what shall we say?..."one night stands"? At any rate, the recording of the Mahler second that I'm listening to is the one under the baton of Gilbert Kaplan, the amateur (a very rich amateur) who bought his way into conducting the piece and has literally made a life out of it. He probably knows it inside and out better than anyone else alive. At this moment, I envy him.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


A sign in the window of a downtown bar & grill:

Strict Dress Code

1. No hats or headgear of any kind.
2. No long T-shirts or tank tops.
3. No sports team insignia.*
4. No baggy pants.
5. No exposed gold teeth or grilles.

* The bar's decor has a baseball theme, and TVs are constantly showing sporting events.

"Anti-racism training" is all the rage in the Episcopal Church these days. It's required for new ordinands and, among others, members of the Executive Council. With some luck, I have so far managed to evade it, though I suppose that luck may run out someday.

I would like to think that I received effective anti-racism training growing up in the 1950s and 60s. I remember segregated waiting rooms at the train station in the small Arkansas town my grandparents lived in. I remember hearing stories about my uncles fighting over which one would have to deliver newspapers in the "colored" neighborhoods (only they used another word instead of "colored"). I remember the town officials closing a municipal swimming pool rather than integrate it. (I hasten to add that my parents consistently voiced negative value judgments on these attitudes and actions, thus contributing to the formation of my moral consicence.) I remember my southern-bred high school band director making (what he thought were subtle) racist comments about a black composer who would be conducting us in the performance of one of his own works at a regional band clinic. I remember the "Freedom Riders." I remember Bull Connor's fire hoses from watching them on the evening news. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach the night Martin Luther King was assasinated.

Interestingly, while the suburb in which I grew up was overwhelmingly white, there were more than a few Latinos in the area even then. In my experience, they integrated into the mainstream of high school culture easily and naturally. They were quarterbacks and cheerleaders and honor students. Dating across ethnic lines was unremarkable. It didn't occur to me that anyone might be prejudiced against Latinos. For that, I had to wait until I moved to
California to attend college!

I will not hide the fact that I am more than a little disturbed by the metamorphosis of the very idea of racism. As near as I can tell, the principal definition in circulation these days is "the exercise of unearned white privilege." Not overt prejudice based on skin color. Not concrete if subtle discrimination. Not irrational race-based hatred. Simply the exercise of unearned white privilege.

Note two corollaries of this definition: 1) Only whites can be racist, and 2) Racist behavior requires neither knowledge nor intention.

Call me ... well ... racist if you want to, but such a definition is patently ludicrous. It capitulates to the sort of identity politics that is the scourge of our society. Most fiendishly, it makes a mockery of the experience of the victims of the real racism that Dr King died fighting. When the purveyors of alarm against faux-racism decide to get real, then maybe the effort to combat racism in the Christian community will get my support. (But they will have to call it something other than "training," which is itself a massacre of the kind of plain speech for which Christians should be noted.)

Now back to that dress code sign. Without saying so directly, the kind of attire it seeks to prohibit is that associated with Hip-Hop culture (aka "urbanwear"). And the great majority of those who are inclined to dress in such a manner are Americans of African descent. So, is the dress code, by its very nature, racist because its effect is to exclude black patrons?

I must confess, I was glad to see the sign, because it happens to be a place my wife and I enjoy frequenting, but if we were to have to endure Rap from the jukebox as we munch our burgers and down some brew, that preference would change in a heartbeat. Interestingly, I noticed the sign during my customary Saturday morning ambulation. The place is pretty hoppin' on Friday nights, so much so that the Dragonfly and I don't even try to get in. Saturdays are a different matter, however, and when we slipped in after the Vigil Mass, the dress code sign was nowhere to be seen! Moreover, the clientele was decidedly white and middle-class (not to mention superannuated--Brenda and I were the youngest ones there!). So, was the removal of the dress code sign for the Saturday crowd a further act of racism? (I've been known to wear a baseball cap into that establishment--on Friday night I would have needed to remove it, but on Saturday I could have kept it on.)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pity the Holy Spirit

On the Eve of Pentecost (as I write), it may be worth observing what rough times these are for the Holy Spirit, and maybe show a little love his (her? its?--that's part of the problem, a serious gender-identity issue that the Father and the Son aren't saddled with) way.

First off, we have the Charismatics. They've been staking a proprietary claim to the Holy Spirit for more than a century now, if you trace the movement back to the flowering of early Pentecostalism in America. Some of my best friends are Charismatics. Really. One of the Holy Spirit's biggest problems is that he/she/it is...well...a spirit, which is by definition invisible and impalpable in any direct manner. But the Charismatics know when the Holy Spirit is in the vicinity, because the "power gifts" start to appear, including speaking in tongues (aka glossolalia--which, for the record, I have done, and still do fairly frequently in private; it's pretty neat, but by no means "all that," and it plays a rather secondary or tertiary role in my spiritual life), healing of various sorts, and other gymnastics that resemble the movements of freshly-caught fish on the deck of a boat.

I like my Charismatic friends just fine (by one definition, I guess you could say I'm one of them), as long as I don't have know...go to church with them. But I do get a trifle annoyed when they start talking like those who don't behave the way they do, or haven't experienced the "power gifts," don't really have the Holy Spirit. Call me affectively held-back if you want to (it's a large club), but this just doesn't sound orthodox, and, if anything, I'm an orthodox kind of guy.

Then we have the Liberal Revisionist Wackadoos (hat tip to Brad Drell). I've got some friends in this camp as well. (Let's face it, I've got friends in lots of unlikely places!) At this moment in the history of the Episcopal Church, they are very much the majority party, and, on a percentage basis, are gaining strength all the time because my "orthodox" confreres are bailing in droves. These are the folks who find the Holy Spirit in the democratic process, particularly when that process yields a result they are predisposed to like. Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire because the Holy Spirit guided the delegates in their electing convention. His election was consented to because the Holy Spirit obviously (what other explanation could there be?) guided the deputies and bishops who gathered in Minneapolis four years ago. It is the Holy Spirit who has led the Episcopal Church to declare "normal" that which the Christian tradition--with virtual unanimity before 30 years ago--has always understood to be aberrant.

As Saturday Night Live's Church Lady would have sneered a couple of decades ago, "How conveeeeeenient!" I hardly think it appropriate to envision the Holy Spirit as captive to majority rule. Definitely not very wind-like.

Then there's the widespread tendency to use the Holy Spirit--along with the vocabulary of "discernment"--as a sort of pious wrapping paper in which we cloak decisions that are reached according to much more pragmatic and prosaic criteria. In announcing to shocked and grieving parishioners and friends our decision to accept a call to another parish two-thirds of the way across the continent, I have felt squirmy about using too much Holy Spirit talk. Yes, I believe this move is a faithful response to the call of God the Holy Spirit; I believe that very confidently. But to say that, and nothing else, feels like a cop-out to me, and I suspect it would sound like a cop-out to others. So, when My Favorite Plutotian is not within earshot (she can be very severe with me if she thinks I'm misbehaving), I usually add some supporting data of a practical nature. (And usually something more than "Warsaw is only 120 miles from Wrigley Field.") I don't believe the Holy Spirit is above using concrete considerations through which to communicate his/her/its direction.

Finally, I have discerned a vocation from the Holy Spirit to be particularly vigilant against any attempt to remove the "Holy" part of that appellation. (Note to Myers-Briggs wonks: This is where the 'J' part of my INTJ really kicks in.) When anyone starts talking about "the Spirit this" and "the Spirit that," I get the heebie-jeebies, because they probably mean "spirit" rather than "Spirit." I have a sister-in-law who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker. She doesn't see any inherent conflict in maintaining both religious practices, and from what I know of Buddhism and Quakerism, neither do I. In an amazing bit of serendipitous irony, she's also a huge fan of the Anglican choral tradition, and for many years has come to St John's to sing in our choir for Lessons & Carols. Now, I completely honor her faith commitments. But when she talks about "the spirit," I don't for a minute think she means the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit as defined by the Catholic creeds.

I don't get worked up about it, because she doesn't profess to practice Catholic Christianity. One cannot fault a cat for not barking. But when I hear vague "spirit" language from someone who does profess to practice a putatively orthodox version of Christianity (such as an Episcopalian, for instance), I have an urge to set my phaser on 'Stun' and give them a good talkin' to.

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Youth Ministry

At the Episcopal Church's General Convention last June, the deputation from the Diocese of San Joaquin was assigned seating next to the deputation from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. For endless hours of plenary sessions I sat behind an amiable young priest from that somewhat remote diocese, and subjected him to my running cynical commentary on the often mind-numbing proceedings of the House of Deputies. He took it all in good humor and leaned back in his chair several times so we could trade observations that were usually catty and sometimes substantive.

I remember thinking to myself, "He looks a little wet behind the ears (I guessed late twenties) to even be ordained, let alone be elected as a convention deputy, so he must have a lot on the ball."

Last Saturday he was elected Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Sean Rowe is 32. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2001. (WARNING: Narcissistic remarks to follow.) When I began the parochial work I am on the verge of concluding, he was a nineteen-year old college student. When I began my ordained ministry at the (apparently ripe old) age of 37, he was barely in high school. My God, the lad is only a year older than my own older daughter!

Conceivably, Father Rowe could have an episcopate that lasts a decade longer than he has yet been alive, presuming the mandatory retirement age remains where it is. Did the people who elected him think about the fact that he will probably be the last Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania that most of them will ever be alive to know?!

Beyond our casual contact in Columbus, I know nothing about the bishop-elect, and I wish him well. By all accounts, he has a daunting job ahead of him, as the diocese is in a palpable state of decline, along with the economy and social fabric of the region it comprises. May he take to heart St Paul's advice to his young protege and bishop Timothy: "Let no one despise your youth." (I Tim. 4:12)

In the meantime, as a Baby Boomer who is still only beginning to get used to the idea that my generation is running the country and running the church, and am by no means even close to being reconciled with the reality of my advancing age, being chased by Gen X is an unsettling experience.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Anglicans the world over have taken to honing their skills in the fine art of Rowanology. The Primate of All England and primus inter pares within the group of 38 provincial primates, surprised most everyone today by releasing the information, through the Anglican Communion Office, that the initial invitations to the 2008 Lambeth Conference have gone out, along with the text of the email message that has been sent to over 800 potential attendees.

The bottom line: Everyone who, under "normal" circumstances would expect to be invited is invited, with two notable (and in one case, entirely predictable) exceptions--namely, Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, whose election, consent, and consecration jump-started the maelstrom which rages still, and Martyn Minns, a bishop of the Church of Nigeria whose proto-diocese is on American soil, and who therefore heads a de facto Anglican rival to the monopoly heretofore enjoyed by the Episcopal Church.

Both ends of the Anglican ideological spectrum are acting like Brazilian soccer players staging a life-threatening injury so everyone can get a few minutes of decent rest in that insane sport. Integrity is outraged (now there's a news flash) and appalled by what they consider a snub and an "affront to the whole Episcopal Church." Anglican Mainstream is, to say the least, annoyed that the Archbishop could seemingly equate the ecclesial irregularity of Minns and CANA with the doctrinal and biblical irregularity of Robinson and those who were complicit in his consecration.

I, for one, continue to be impressed by Dr Williams' political and pastoral acumen. While, purely on the basis of principle, I might prefer that he be more lopsided in his approach to this question--i.e. inviting Minns and excluding Robinson--from a strategic perspective, I can see the wisdom of the decision he has taken. The installation of Bishop Minns a couple of weeks ago was a slap in the face of communion discipline, the Windsor process, and the spirit of the Dar es Salaam communique. A case can be made for not inviting Minns. More to the point, however, the exclusion of Robinson (and I do so hope the possibility of a "courtesy invivation" to come be an observer dies on the vine), combined with the ominous line about reserving the right to "withdraw" invitations that have already been extended, indicates that Rowan is using a carrot and stick approach.

The carrot is the information that "your invitation is in he mail." The stick will appear in September when the Archbishop visits the House of Bishops. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that he will back off from the requests of the Primates' Meeting in Tanzania and the September 30 deadline they imposed. The subtext of todays' letter, for those with "ears to hear," is that some--many?--of the invitations that have been issued will be withdrawn, depending on what action the House of Bishops, and its individual members, takes in New Orleans. Others have speculated that this is a signal to fall in under the banner of the "Windsor Bishops"--explicitly recognized in the Dar es Salaam communique--or risk not being welcome at Lambeth, and hence, having one's identity as an Anglican compromised.

Today's events should also send a message to places like the Diocese of Fort Worth, and those who are considering an alliance with them in some precipitous action prior to September 30, and the message is this: This is a Communion problem and the solution must be a Communion solution. Be patient. Don't burn any bridges. Don't force a resolution. In the end, a resolution that evolves organically will have greater strength and longevity than one which is forced.

I wish I didn't have such a vested interest, because, from the outside, it must be a fascinating chess match.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Strange But True

Both the Daily Office lectionary--via Ezekiel--and the Eucharistic lectionary--via Revelation--have of late put me in mind of the phantasm of creatures that are part human and part beast (using "beast" in the slightly archaic English sense of "non-human animal"). It is apparently a prospect (or is it a retrospect?) that lies buried deep in our collective unconscious. The faun is a compelling figure in mythology, one which Lewis creatively adopted and adapted and named Mr Tumnus in the first book of the Narnia series. Mr Tumnus is very much a "good guy" in the story. The recent film Pan's Labyrinth offers a rather more ambiguous representation of a faun.

It also shows up rather prominently in the symbolic vocabulary of the Christian tradition, with the "four living creatures" of Ezekiel and Revelation identified with the four Evangelists: the eagle with John, the ox with Luke, the lion with Mark, and--drum roll please--the half-beast/half-man with Matthew.

So . . . why?

As a Christian who is not uncomfortable with the theory of evolution as an account of how God brought human life into being, I could speculate that we retain some corporate memory of our kinship with other sentient beings, and that this sense of connection explains our fascination with the idea of an animal-human hybrid. But were I to so speculate, I would be exceeding the level of my competence in just about any relevant area.

But suddenly it's not just a matter of idle speculation. A few days ago, I ran across this article, which bears the news that the government of the U.K. is poised to approve legislation that would permit the creation of hybrid embryos (dubbed "chimeras") for purposes of research in the treatment of an array of diseases. The proposed rules would mandate the destruction of such embryos after 14 days and absolutely prohibit implantation in any womb, human or animal.

Wow. Aren't those restrictions reassuring?

Of course, this news raises a staggering number of ethical considerations, many more than I have either the energy or the intellectual horsepower (oops! perhaps not the best metaphor in this case!) to dissect at this time. Look at the comments on the cited article for a taste of some of these. But, amid the avalanche of seemingly more pressing concerns, both secular and sacred, it is worth making a mental note that this matter has shown up on the agenda.

Martins' Law #1: If something can be done, it will be done. (Regardless of whether is should be done.) Resistance is futile.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Today, as I write, is the Feast of the Ascension. In the calendar of the (1979) Book of Common Prayer, it is one of only seven occasions styled Principal Feasts. Three of the remaining six (Easter, Pentecost, Trinity) always fall on a Sunday. The other three (Christmas, Epiphany, All Saints) occasionally fall on a Sunday--or are so popular that it doesn't matter what day they fall on (Christmas), or may be observed on the Sunday following (All Saints). Epiphany, then, often gets neglected in actual parish practice.

But it is Ascension that, by definition, never falls on a Sunday. Why? Because it is, according to scriptural witness marinated in tradition, anchored to a position 40 days after Easter. Hence, it is always on a Thursday. I note that, for our Roman cousins, the day is of lesser rank than it is for Episcopalians--no longer a holy day of obligation. They have apparently surrendered to the pragmatic pastoral reality that people are simply not going to turn out in great numbers for a midweek liturgy when spring is in full bloom and thoughts are on graduation and summer and other such things.

I dare say that the great majority of Episcopal parishes in practice acknowledge that same reality and ignore the day's status in their own Prayer Book. But, idealist that I am, I'm willing to rattle a few cages to make sure the feast is duly celebrated. Tonight we had a Solemn Sung Mass with all the usual accouterments. There were about half the number of people there as would be considered "pretty good" for the principal liturgy on a Sunday. Yet, we managed to do it well, and those who did come were blessed in doing so. I was very grateful that we were able to do what we did.

I'm a big fan of liturgical "action shots" when I see them on websites and blogs. An obtrusive photographer, of course, is often not a price worth paying. These, I assure you, were taken so unobtrusively that I didn't even notice it at the time. For anyone who's curious: That gold chasuble is a exquisite work of art. It's several decades old, and we only haul it out for the seven biggies.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Change of Venue

I realize it's been a somewhat newsy day in the Anglican universe, and I shall in due time have something to day about it, no doubt.

But for me personally, and therefore for this blog, something else looms larger at this particular time.

Last week I accepted a call from the Vestry of St Anne's Church, Warsaw, Indiana (Diocese of Northern Indiana) to become their next Rector. My ministry at St John's will come to an end July 15th, and I will take up duties in Indiana a month later. (Yeah, I gave you a link, but they're not presently very adept at keeping the website updated, so it doesn't yet reflect the news.)

Obviously, this is the discernment project referred to in the post prior to this one. Brenda and I are at peace that this was a good decision for us--indeed, a "God thing." We genuinely look forward to our new life in Warsaw, and I find my sense of eagerness increasing daily as I think about St Anne's and the wonderful people we met there and the opportunities that a new ministry brings. But at this moment, we are still awash in the Tears-R-Us phase of the process as the news has now gone out officially to the members and friends of St John's. It's even being blogged about here and here.

A friend of mine I spoke with on the phone yesterday shared a piece of advice to clergy, ultimately attributed to a bishop: "Be sure and leave while you're loved." We didn't consciously set out to do so, but we're evidently following that advice. The experience is almost unbearably crushing at times. I can't say that I enjoy making people cry. No one has tried to heap abandonment guilt on us (well, maybe a couple have tried), but there's no need for it, because Brenda and I are quite capable of doing that to ourselves! No, the tears are of grief, and not, so far, of anger.

I will be curious to observe the extent, if any, to which this move makes me or my ideas less "interesting" to anyone, because I'm moving from a diocese that is on Red Alert to one where the alert level is more on the order of Pale Yellow. Neither diocese is in the the regnant mainstream of the Episcopal Church. San Joaquin is a "Network" diocese, and either may or may not be involved in an effort to take the struggle to the proverbial "next level." Northern Indiana is a mere "Windsor" diocese, and has not, so far as I can tell, even thought of asking for Alternative Primatial Oversight.

In San Joaquin, my position within the system has evolved to one that stands solidly with the Bishop in his theological and moral positions, but raises a host of pragmatic and strategic questions about any rush to action that we might regret after the die has been cast. In Northern Indiana, it remains to be seen what my role within the system will be, but it will be different than it is here. Brenda is banking on a lot less drama than has become the norm in San Joaquin. I've got to admit, that doesn't sound bad to me! But I will not shy away too long from finding my voice in the new environment. So don't go anywhere; I'll be right here in this corner of cyberspace.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

On the Work of Spiritual Discernment

My Plutotian wife, for reasons unfathomable to me, frequents the blogs of a group of students at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. (Here's the one I think is her favorite, with links to the others.) Anyway, in the spirit of keeping tabs on what the avatar of my Jungian anima is up to (must...not...let...the...dreams... return), I browsed around them for a while. This time of year, it's a cauldron of anxiety, especially among any seniors who are not yet "placed." One of them talks about how nice it would be to just get a letter from God, with full and clear instructions.

I can empathize. Not only do I remember the stress about placement during that senior year of seminary, but I have, many times before and since, wished that faithful discipleship were more like faithful military service: You put in your requests and then wait for your orders. When they come, you salute and execute to the best of your ability. No need to second guess or continually beg for clarity.

Knowing and doing the will of God--I'm talking about His specific will here; there's certainly enough about His general will that is amply evident--is, in God's own wisdom, a more complicated affair. On the face of it, it seems that God has missed an opportunity to foster efficiency in the Church's prosecution of her mission. There are apparently willing troops who are ready to charge into the fray if they only knew what fray to charge into, and when, and how; witness the Seabury seminarians. What could God possibly be thinking by making it so difficult?

In recently talking over a particular discernment task that my favorite Plutotian and I have been engaged in, the constitutional differences between us were highlighted along these lines.

The Earthling (well, she thinks I'm actually from one of the other planets...that starts with a 'U'): "Discernment begins with desire. God's will is incarnate in the nexus of concrete practical considerations and mystical nudges, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together."

The Plutotian (who, to her good fortune, is awfully cute): "I only want to hear about the mystical and spiritual. If we pay attention to the concrete and practical, we risk missing out on where the Spirit is blowing."

You can see how we're made for each other!'s a stab at why God made it difficult: It's all about ascesis. That's a wonderful word that denotes the concrete process--the technique, even--of becoming holy, of growing gradually into the image of Christ, of having the imago dei that was warped in the Fall restored to its proper shape and function, and then turbo-charged to make it even better than it would have been if Sin had never entered the picture.

The work of discernment is one of the tools at God's disposal by which He can bring our holiness to perfection. It's like professional basketball players who study ballet in the off-season. Do they expect to have a second career at the Bolshoi? Not hardly. They wouldn't even want such a thing. But they do hope that the discipline of ballet will have the ancillary effect of turning them into better basketball players. Christians are all saints-in-training. Holiness is our goal. We want to be able to stand up straight in the presence of God and look Him in the eye without being pulverized, and that can only happen when every wisp of Sin is removed. As it turns out, the very disciplines that foster faithful spiritual discernment also contribute to our overall general sanctification.

So, yes, God could make it easy and send us our orders by overnight courier--or, for the technologically savvy, by a PDF file attached to an email from But that would deprive Him of one important tool that He can use in bringing to completion the work of our salvation. In order to give God everything He needs to save my soul, I'm willing to do the hard and terrifying and even painful work of spiritual discernment. I will not always get it right. But even that is ultimately OK, because I still get the salutary benefit of going through the exercise.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Seismographic Clouds

My son and his wife are presently living in Salvador, the old colonial capital and third-largest city in Brazil (3 million+), though it's non-existent on the mental maps of most non-Brazilians. He is a graduate student in studio art at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), where he is on track to receive the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree (or whatever the Brazilian equivalent is called) at the end of this calendar year. Tangentially en route to that milestone, he has a show that he hung about a week ago and is running for about another week at a gallery in that city. This picture (click to enlarge) is one of the main pieces. I'll let Jordan describe it for you in his own words:

A brief introduction to the show: it's called "Nuvens Sismograficas", which sounds really stupid in english (seismographic clouds), but I like it in Portuguese. The seismology reference comes from a set of drawings I did starting when we first got here, all done in the car or, mostly, on the bus. They're small, and were made with Ouji board type principles: the drawing would emerge as a result of the contact between the pen and paper, registering the vibrations and movements of the bus, but also contingent on the tension in my hand--"calibrated" so to speak, so that the lines wouldn't simply run off the page over and over again, thus creating a more complex image--my posture, the mood of the driver, etc. I did about 250, and in this show I hung about 90 of them. I also xeroxed them, blew them up, and transferred them in a number of ways in other works: a set of larger drawings with superimposed elements (fingerprints, bureaucratic stamps, geometric figures), collages (seven vertical panels forming a long, horizontal composition, made of map fragments), and also drawings projected on the wall (see above, two superimposed bus drawings).

I consider it a show of studies really, as the pieces were done in preparation for my final show this fall. The larger drawings especially were done to play around with different auxilliary elements that are coming into play in the collages.

More generally, it's a study of line and surface. In the paintings that I did after Sewanee, lines were becoming more important as a way to fuse together different collaged fragments, by overlapping, etc. The bus drawings were a good way for me to absorb a different quality of line and expand a fluency with them so that they could be re-employed later in larger works. I'm really pleased with the whole set of them together, showing different types or species that repeat in the whole distribution of them. I was also happy with how they looked painted on the wall, and I hope to do more with that later.

The quote on the wall is from Deleuze (The Logic of Sense): "The phantasms of the surface have replaced the halucination of depth."

Here's a view of a portion of the show where you can see several of the smaller drawings made as he described:

I'm not going to engage him at the level of art theory, about which I know not even enough to be harmful, but as a one-time graduate student myself in music theory, I can observe a couple of broad musical parallels with Jordan's artistic vision. There's a certain dialectic going on here. (OK, I'm not really a philosopher either, and Jordan is, but there was a Hegelian hue to my own master's thesis, which was The Unaccompanied Latin Mass in the Twentieth Century: A Dialectical Study, U.C.S.B. 1975). The dimension of randomness in the technique he used for these drawings is akin to the experimental genre of composition known as aleatoric--the heyday of which was around the middle of the last century and was typified by the works of composer John Cage, who was fond of incorporating the ambient sounds of the performance environment into the music itself.

But there is also a strictly-disciplined dimension in Jordan's drawings, which he names as "calibration"--i.e. he never let the pencil wander off the paper, and he exercised the freedom (whether consciously or not) to relax or tighten his grip. Just about anything was allowed to happen within the corral, but there was a definite fence that could not be breached. In this, there are parallels with particularly heady approaches to musical composition associated with the Burgundian school of the 15th century, wherein a the creative impulse was strictly channeled by a pre-existing melody (cantus prius factus) and/or rhythmic figure (the genre known as the isorhythmic motet). Of course, a century or so ago, Arnold Schonberg (many thanks to anyone who can tell me how to make an umlaut in this blogger software) took this idea and ran with it with all of his twelve-tone row compositions, the epitome of the principle of objectivity governing creativity.

Now...I've just written about things I've barely even thought about for 32 years. How 'bout that? Maybe I could have been a musical scholar.

Oh...Jordan will be looking for a nice tenure-track college teaching position for the fall of 2008. So spread the word!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On False Dilemmas

I delivered one hell of a sermon last Sunday.


The subject was Hell. I think it's probably the first time in more than twenty years of regular homiletical ministry that I have preached on Hell.

My text was from Acts 13:46, part of the appointed second reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C (BCP lectionary). Paul and Barnabas respond to being snubbed by some members of the Jewish community in Antioch of Pisidia: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”

What caught my attention was the implication--obviously an indulgence in sarcasm on the part of Paul and Barnabas--that their interlocutors were responsible for their own condemnation. The theme I developed was that, in the end, God does not actually send anyone to Hell. Such souls as end up in a state of eternal separation from God have elected that for themselves--not overtly and consciously, perhaps, but as a consequence of habituating themselves in this life to living in God's absence. Eventually, we will choose to live where we feel most at home, and if we have not accustomed ourselves, in the little decisions we make every day, to living in God's presence, a loving God will, through tears, abandon us to the choice we have made.

Then I ran across this article (Travelling towards an open heaven--hat tip to Titusonenine) in which the writer, one Savi Hensman, takes on the subject of eternal salvation--and, implicitly, then, Hell and who goes there--particularly from the perspective of the ongoing debate about pluralism: Must one be a Christian to be saved, to avoid Hell and gain Heaven, or are there alternative pathways? This, of course, is the very tempest into which the Presiding Bishop sailed before she even took office last year, and one of the bases for continuing assertions of her sub-orthodox christology and soteriology. The funeral service for President Ford in Washington Cathedral encountered the same storm when somebody (no one has claimed credit, to my knowledge) omitted the last clause from John 14:6, the gospel reading for the occasion. What was left out? "No one comes to the Father but by me" (Jesus speaking).

For some reason, this is a particularly interesting question to secular journalists and pundits and social critics who attempt to "cover" religion. By professional disposition, they are on the outside looking in. Yet, they can't really be on the outside--they're actually only on the margins--because they swim very much in the stream of our still vaguely Christian western culture. They may even have some formal religious connection, though uncomfortably so, and therefore likely coming under the heading of "non-practicing" (whatever that means).

What such erstwhile dispassionate observers often do, I find, to my annoyance, is posit a dilemma that looks something like this: Either one takes what is presumed to be a sort of strict constructionist view of John 14:6, which consigns to Hell anyone who does not at some point in this mortal life consciously and intentionally "turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [their] Savior," or one takes the full-blown pluralist position that there are several equally valid paths to the Divine; Christ and Christianity being one of them, and possibly the default mode for those formed by the European cultural inheritance. But faithful Muslims and Hindus and practitioners of Native American religions et al are not at any disadvantage by virtue of their not being Christian.

Well, I don't like either option, and I don't think it's necessary to choose one or the other. The strict constructionist view does, in fact, make God awfully petty. It is not consistent with the larger picture of what else is revealed about the nature of God in scripture. I believe there is a Hell because the Bible tells me that human beings are created with free will and that the quality of God's love is such that He will not hang on to somebody who doesn't want to be hung on to. God is a seducer, not a rapist. But I don't believe Hell is populated with the souls of Lower Slobovians who, by accident of birth, never heard the name of Jesus. Nor do I believe that a practicing Buddhist or Sikh or Zoroastrian is necessarily Hell-bound simply by virtue of practicing one of those less-than-fully-true religions rather than Christianity.

But, is this the same thing as saying that there are many paths to God and each is equally valid?


It is manifestly not the same thing. I fully affirm every word of John 14:6. Christian pastors and missionaries are not at liberty to set aside the kerygma enunciated by Peter in Acts 4:12--"There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." It is fundamental to the Church's mission (yes, even more fundamental than the Millennium Development Goals--sorry, General Convention) to present the good news of God in Christ in such a manner that all people everywhere are called to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Catholic Church. Any church leader who says or implies otherwise has not understood the Gospel.

As is so often the case--among other places, we see this in the sexuality debate--it is vital to maintain a clear distinction between pastorally-driven speculative theology and order-driven dogmatic theology. Both are good and necessary. Yes, there can be some dissonance between them. I believe I have smeared myself with such dissonance in this very post. Affirming both points of view requires one to drink from the well of paradox. But it is in such limimal terrain that the truth is usually encountered.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My Lips Are So Sealed

Several comments and private notes have inquired as to whether I have anything addition to report with respect to some speculations I voiced week before last.

The answer is: No.

I have no information that I can honorably share without engaging in an overt breach of trust.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

My Roman Fantasy

In a recent post about the perduring Anglican drama, I closed with a throwaway comment about wishing I could will into existence some reconfigured relationship between the churches of the Anglican inheritance and the Apostolic See of Rome. Much to my amazed amusement and amused amazement, a handful of commenters and bloggers ran with that statement as if it had some substantive connection to what came before it, and some really frenetic speculation ensued.

There was, in fact, no connection. It was random firing.

Yet, outside the present sturm und drang of whatever my fellow Episcopalian dissidents are plotting and hatching, the idea of some kind of corporate rapprochement with Rome is one that a certain stratum of Anglicans--the stratum in which I reside, apparently--is not going to let loose of. Over the years, I've had more than a few friends and acquaintances make (what used to be called) their "submission" to Rome. The very reason I'm in the parish position I hold is because my predecessor swam the Tiber (and is now a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton, with a wife and six kids!). Yet, I have to admit, that whenever I hear of one of these individual conversions, part of me dies inside, because this sort of thing can only forestall the day when there is an opportunity for Anglicans en masse to be restored to communion with the Patriarch of the West, which is (or should be, in my view) the normative state of affairs.

If I could write my own scenario for this, here's what it would be: An Anglican Rite Church, in communion with Rome, but not part of the ecclesial structure of the Latin Rite. This would be in every way analogous and parallel to the relationship of the several non-Latin Rites of the Catholic Church--e.g. the Maronite (Lebanese), the Melkite (Greek), the Ruthenian (Russian) and the Ukranian (in Ukraine, obviously, and also quite numerous in the Canadian prairie). These jurisdictions geographically overlap the diocesan structure of their Latin Rite (the "mainstream" of Roman Catholicism) cousins in areas where both are present, with no formal ties. They maintain their own liturgy and ecclesial culture, their own codes of canon law and disciplinary regulations. Married clergy are commonplace in most or all of these churches.

The Anglican Rite of my dreams would, of course, have a doctrinal and moral foundation that would be consistent with the teaching of the Roman Church, though not necessarily identical with it in tone, emphasis, and articulation. For instance, it would have its own catechism. Its liturgical life would be based on the broad tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, of course. Its ethos would be comprehensive of all the streams of Anglicanism--not just the Anglo-Catholic wing sliced off and grafted onto the Roman trunk. Rather, the spiritual eclecticism of Anglican piety--music, devotional practice, etc.--would be one of its hallmarks.

To be a little more pragmatic and less fantastical for one paragraph: Clergy, of course, would be allowed to marry, though it is difficult to contemplate that this would be extended to the episcopate, given the number centuries that have elapsed since married men have served as bishops in either the east or the west, save in those churches reconfigured at the time of the Reformation. Given the present position of the See of Rome, it is also surpassingly difficult to imagine that women could be allowed to serve in Holy Orders, though it is perhaps slightly less unimaginable that there could be some iteration or permutation of diaconal ministry that would be open to women.

Now, in my wildest dreams, this whole arrangement would come about as part of a covenant that would include the entire Anglican Communion, with the Archbishop of Canterbury being granted the status of Patriarch in the Catholic Church. But just remembering a word like "Sydney" reminds me how utterly insane such a hope would be. In fact, it could only be a wish, never a hope, and Christians are people of hope.

So, what I suspect is the best my Catholic heart might hope for is that, emerging from the debris of the atomized Anglicanism that looms so darkly across our path--though I pray daily against it--an Anglican Rite (or something like it by another name) could be created that would enable significant numbers--even including whole parishes and even dioceses--to make the Romeward journey together, rather than as a mere aggregation of individuals, and all the while, then, maintaining a sense of Anglican culture and continuity with the inheritance not only of Alban and Cuthbert and Bede and Julian and Anselm and Becket, but also with Hooker and Donne and Herbert and the Wesleys and Simeon and Wilberforce--and, for that matter, Gore and Maurice and Temple.

We don't want to sit down by the Tiber and weep as on alien soil, pipe organs in our hands, so to speak, hearing cries of "Sing us one of your Choral Evensongs!" We want to stay in our native land, only to be fully attached once again to the living, pulsing, messily dynamic Body of the Catholic Church--fully, unambiguously, joyfully, without the sort of asterisks and qualifiers ("We're Catholic, just not Roman Catholic") that we've had to exist with since the Elizabethan Settlement.

Of course, speaking as a priest who considers himself already to be a Catholic priest--no asterisks--the process would be greatly lubricated if Rome could find a way to receive me as a priest, rather than purport to make me one for the first time. It is presently unthinkable for me to do or say anything that could be construed as denying what I know I have been for nearly 18 years--that the sacraments over which I have presided are anything less or other than what they were intended to be, which is nothing less or other than what the Catholic Church intends them to be. They haven't come to this point yet in the exercise of the Pastoral Provision (the process that allows married former Anglican clergy to be ordained as Latin Rite priests). But I have boundless regard for Roman creativity--where they have a will, they always find a way. Even if it were a very quiet, private, overtly conditional re-ordination, that would do the trick.

Like I said, this is a fantasy--and, when I dare let it be so, a hope. If a hope is more solid than a wish, it is less solid than an expectation. In any case, I suspect no harm can be done by putting these thoughts into cyberspace, trusting that God, in His own providence, might take and bless and break and give them somehow for the glory of His Name, the benefit of His Church, and life of the world.

Friday, May 04, 2007

An Irony & A Milestone

The Irony:

After more than eight weeks since taking delivery of my new Ford Escape Hybrid, the license plates finally arrived in today's mail. For as long as I can remember, I've made a minor sport out of treating the three letters that usually appear on most states' license plates as initials and then arbitrarily determining what they stand for. Years ago, living in Oregon, I had a Honda that bore the plate CSA619, and, based purely on my southern roots through my mother's ancestors, those were the initials for the Confederate States of America. More recently, the last of the four Chrysler minivans I have driven displayed tags that sported the letters BLM--what else?--Bureau of Land Management, right?

So, today, my new license plates show up. About time, I said to myself. Now, here I am, with a bit of a reputation for being mixed up in the thick of polemical diatribes over ecclesiastical conflicts, and known generally as a conservative who would be uncomfortable with anything smacking of syncretism--the active or passive assimilation of aspects from foreign religious traditions into the practice of Christianity. It isn't that I don't think there might be, serendipitously, a stray insight from, say, Buddhism or Hinduism that might enliven one's appreciation and experience of Christian faith. But, by default, I'm skeptical, and would usually resist any sort of wholesale systematic cross-pollination between religions.

And what, then, is ID badge by which my personal vehicle now announces itself to the world?
5ZEN556. Yes, folks, that's ZEN. "Zen & the Comedic Irony of License Plate Numbers."

And now the Milestone:

I have a confession. For the last, oh, seven years or so, I have disciplined myself to avoid reading any fiction. I have not read a single novel during that time. Why? Because I've been trying to write one! It's been damn frustrating, I'll tell you, because the pace of my life is such that I have precious little time to focus on writing. And then, when I took up blogging, that made things worse!

Well, tonight I broke ground on the final of the eighteen chapters in my story. With any luck, I can see myself finishing this magnum opus before triple-digit temperatures encamp in the San Joaquin Valley. At that point, I will make an attempt to find a publisher, with visions of an impressive advance and a promotional tour. It will be an earnest attempt, but it will not be an endless attempt. I will "take the hint" sooner than later. When I began this effort, of course, the blogsphere didn't exist, and I expected the one hard copy of my novel to languish on a shelf in my basement until being discovered and celebrated posthumously. But now, for everyone's literary edification, I commit here to putting it up, all at once, on its own blog site.

What's it about? Well, I was always told in school to write about what I know. So it's about an Episcopal priest named Miles, about to turn 50 (as I was when I began), who lives in the fictional Chicago suburb of Grove Lake and is rector of a parish called St Alban's. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Art of Pitching

Lifted from Elizabeth Kaeton's Telling Secrets. Elizabeth and I have had our spats over theology and church politics--we view one another from across a fairly wide chasm--but no one who loves both baseball and poetry can be utterly reprobate. What a beautifully apt summary of what the denizen of a hill 60'6' from home plate attempts to accomplish:

by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at.
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.