Benediction Online

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dwelling in the shelter of the Most High and Abiding under the shadow of the Almighty.’
Deut 26:1-11, Psalm 91, Luke 4:1-13

Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to about 45 students at Cal Poly about Religion and Homosexuality. I was there with a very liberal colleague from another denomination. He was concerned that the group should understand that since the Bible was written in a totally different cultural context it should not be taken literally. There is, in his mind, no reason to believe in heaven and hell and Jesus did not die to save sinners but because his approach to life infuriated the authorities. Eventually one young man pointed out that he kept saying what he didn’t believe and asked him what he did believe. Personally I hate that kind of question because I have no way to summarize my own faith in a few words, so I was eager to hear what my progressive colleague would say.

He replied that Jesus told us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves and that was the basis of his faith. Today’s readings are all about faith and faithfulness.

In the first reading we hear the faith statement of the ancient Hebrews, which many scholars believe is the oldest passage in Scripture,
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This statement is similar to our own creeds, because it outlines the faith of the people, but it is in narrative form rather than a list of things which ‘we believe’ – it is an account of God’s dealings with God’s people. Which is what my colleague yesterday was offering – a faith based in how we relate rather than based in statements of belief. But while his quick statement focused on how we relate to God, the Hebrew statement talks about God’s faithfulness in relationship to us.

It is that faithfulness which is the basis of Jesus’ response to the devil in the Gospel reading. Following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness - a reminder of the forty years the Israelites wondered in the wilderness before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land – during that time he confronted sin and evil, personified by the devil. Each of the temptations that Luke outlines is a temptation to question God’s faithfulness.
Each is a temptation to take things into his own hands rather than trusting God.

Jesus is understandably hungry, and is tempted to use his supernatural power to turn stones into bread. We need to balance this story against the feeding of the 5,000 when he did use his abilities to provide bread. What’s the difference? In this story he is tempted to think that God will not provide adequately for him, and to take things into his own hands. In the feeding of the 5,000 God is providing through him, by using his abilities.

That is a difficult one for us, I think. When do we trust and when do we act? Do we trust that God will provide, sit back and wait to see what happens, or do we rush into activity using our own abilities to help God out? The key is surely in our relationship with God. Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and so it was probably easier for him to discern than it often is for us. He was able to rest in God, as the psalmist puts it,
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty.

That is our rightful place as faithful people, dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. When we dwell in that place then we can look at the challenges, the apparent lacks, the complexities of our lives, from the perspective of God’s faithfulness, and we can do what needs to be done without anxiety or fear. We can know when to wait and when to act. We will know when it’s OK to be hungry and when it’s time to make sandwiches. God made us a creative people and expects us to use our creativity in meeting the challenges of our lives, but not from a base of fear, rather from a base of the knowledge of God’s faithfulness.

I think that this is the very center of the gospel. We are free because nothing can separate us from the love of God. We no longer have to worry because whatever happens is just that, whatever happens. We can be at peace with ourselves and the circumstances of our lives because, again quoting from Psalm 91 – this is Yahweh speaking -
Because he is bound to me in love,therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble;I will rescue him and bring him to honor.

This does not mean that nothing bad ever happens to those who live in faithful and faithfilled relationship with the Most High. It does not mean that we never get sick, that we don’t experience pain, that we’re never short of money, that everything goes well. It doesn’t mean that at all.

What it means is that none of those things threaten who we really are, centered in God. Jesus is not swayed by the temptations that come to him. He can be hungry, unnoticed, powerless and marginalized because he knows that everything is ultimately OK. His Abba is faithful and will ultimately protect him. I think this is why the early Christians could face martyrdom with such equanimity; they knew that the most important, the most precious was the peace of dwelling with God on their innermost beings, and that knowledge freed them to face terrible deaths.

So much of our energy is spent in concern about what might happen or regret about what has happened. That is pointless. What is really important is what is happening here and now, and here and now God is with us. I want to suggest a spiritual practice for all of us this Lent. I want to suggest that we consciously practice ‘dwelling in the shelter of the Most High’.

Whenever you notice that you are anxious about the future or worrying about the past, whenever you are spending energy unnecessarily fussing about something over which you have no immediate control, remind yourself ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’

The spiritual writer Caroline Myss has said that it is as if everyday we start the day with a certain amount of energy, say fifty units. If we spend 16 of those worrying about the past, and 32 anticipating the future, we only have two left for today. When we ‘dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty’ then we can release the future and the past into God’s hands and use our energy today.

For most of us our biggest temptation is fear in one of its many forms, insecurity, anxiety, depression, regret, jealousy, anger. When we notice that fear creeping in let us practice remembering, ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’

Let’s take just a moment now to use this as a breath prayer. Please close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Find that place inside you that feels like home. Now as you breath in say to yourself ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High” and as you breath out say ‘I abide under the shadow of the Almighty’.
I dwell in the shelter of the Most High… I abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday, 2007

Most of the time when we remember who we are, we are reminding ourselves that in our baptism we are resurrected with Christ and live in a new creation. Today is different. Today, the first day of the Lenten fast, we remind ourselves of the opposite. We remember that we are mortal and will die. We remember that we are made of dust, of the same kind of atoms and molecules that make up the rest of creation.

In the time of the early Church there was a philosophy known as Gnosticism which came to be understood as heresy. One of its key ideas was that humans were divine sparks trapped in matter. Matter, that is all creation, was negatively contrasted with spirit. In fact some Gnostics went as far as to imagine that the world was created in error by a lesser god. Their elevation of spirit resulted in a denigration of matter.

Gnosticism was a powerful influence in Hellenistic thought and has continued its influence in Christian theology through the generations. The duality, or the extreme contrast of pairs such as spirit and matter, light and dark, male and female, good and evil, which is especially evident in John’s Gospel comes from this line of thought. Its influence in Christian theology and popular philosophy has helped us to feel separate from the planet on which we live.

But tonight we remind ourselves that we are one. We are part of creation. We are made up of the same dust, the same carbon, as the rest of the created world. Our fate is tied up with the planet. Global warming threatens all of us, human, animal, plant and mineral.

As we consider the spiritual discipline of fasting, I would like to suggest that we consider a fast in relationship to the planet. A fast that will benefit the environment, a ‘green fast’ if you like – one that acknowledges that we too are dust and that we’re interdependent with creation.

This might take the form of fasting from using plastic carrier bags – as you know, they don’t break down, they can get into the ocean where sea mammals eat them and suffer dire consequences, they use energy to make and to recycle; or it might take the form of fasting from Styrofoam which also doesn’t break down, and cannot be recycled locally.

You might consider fasting from imported food. Transporting food significantly adds to global warming because of the gas used. Here in California we have a wonderful assortment of locally produced food. Perhaps this Lent you will buy only food produced locally.

What might it mean to fast from gas? To use your car only when really necessary – to carpool to church – get Dial-A Ride or the bus? This is not an easy community to radically cut your gas consumption, but it is possible.

You might consider a water fast. Clean water is a scarce commodity. Do you use more than you need? Might you wash the dishes by hand rather than running the dishwasher, or wait for a full load of laundry before running the clothes washer?

A green lent would mean something different for each of us. But it would mean using less, recycling more, caring for the environment a bit extra every day.

Fasting usually implies denying ourselves, having extra discipline, for a season.
But I don’t think that was what the writer Isaiah meant when on behalf of Yahweh he wrote,
Is not this the fast that I choose:to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,and bring the homeless poor into your house;when you see the naked, to cover them,and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I think he was talking about a change in lifestyle that would continue not just for a season but for a lifetime and beyond. Lent is a time for us to seriously consider how the way we live impacts our world and to repent. It is like an annual checkup.

What difference does your faith make to the way you live? Are you a little kinder, a little more aware? Do you live simply so that others may simply live, or are you taking more than your share of the world’s resources and throwing them away, just because you can? We live in a world of abundance while others live in serious need. Today about 18,000 children died from hunger and preventable disease…

As the people of God we need to find ways to live frugally, to fast, and to call our community to a fast that will improve the lives of all beings and will preserve our environment for our grandchildren and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Schism Averted?

It’s the end of Day 4 and we still don’t have an answer. The press briefing room was remarkably subdued this evening as we heard that there was still no report on the Primate’s discussions of the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. Bishop Aspinall, the spokesperson of the week, was unavailable as he is part of the drafting committee for the final communiqué and was busy working.

So we moved on to more important things. Archbishop Ndungane of South Africa talked passionately about the urgency of responding to issues of economic justice. He described the situation as one of ‘global apartheid’ where the ‘rich are getting stinkingly rich’ and the ‘poor are getting desperately poor’. It is a sin he said, that half the world live on less than $1 per day. Our mission priority is to address these issues and ensure a sustainable livelihood for everyone.

Hellen Wangusa, the new Anglican UN Observer gave a stirring talk on her role as UN Observer and the importance of the Millennium Development Goals. These are intended to reduce by one half the number of people living in poverty by 2015. But she said, our Biblical mandate is greater than that. We know that ‘when one half of the world is sick, the world is sick’.

Chris Sugden of the conservative UK organization, Anglican Mainstream, hasn’t been getting enough sleep. He rose to ask how our faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord who forgives our sin was involved in this. How, he enquired, did what we were talking about differ from what a governmental agency might do? He hadn’t heard that explained. Mrs. Wangusa did not miss a beat, responding ‘I am really surprised, I am really surprised, because I already said…’ that our Biblical mandate is to go beyond the 50% threshold. When Jesus saw the people were hungry he looked at what he had and then he fed all of them, not half.

The Primates also discussed theological education today ‘in a long extended conversation’ and agreed on the importance of this throughout the Communion.

But we still don’t know what they are going to say about the Big Issue. Conservative bishops Duncan, Minns, Akinola and Oko (of Nigeria) met for several hours this evening in the upper room. We can only think that if they were content with things as they stand that they would have relaxed and enjoyed the evening, the band and the acrobatic limbo dancers by the pool. The fact that they are still here suggests that they have hope left that they will be able to remain in the Communion. The fact that Bishop Katharine is still here shows that their demands have not all been met. The fact that they couldn’t enjoy the evening suggests that they are still calling on the Name of the Lord to meet their demands, or trying to decide how they are going to behave tomorrow.

Tomorrow the Primates and the press (in separate compartments of course) take a boat to Zanzibar for a festive Eucharist at which Archbishop Rowan Williams is preaching, and a short sightseeing tour, including the old slave market and Freddie Mercury’s home. I take the flight home, but Colin Coward of Changing Attitude UK will be reporting out the rest of the meeting at (Also see Probably we won’t know whether schism is averted or just postponed until Monday afternoon.

The interaction between Chris Sugden and Mrs. Wangusa said a lot to me about the tension in the Anglican Communion. It isn’t really about lesbian and gay Christians and our full inclusion in the Church. It’s about priorities in mission; are we here primarily to help people find Jesus as their personal Savior, or are we here ‘to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?’ It can’t really be an either/or, but if a person is starving the first priority is to feed them and let God take care of their souls. If a gay person is oppressed and discriminated against, preaching the good news includes lifting that burden.

Tonight’s headline reads, “Hunger Kills 18,000 Kids Each Day, UN Says”. It’s time to get serious about mission.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Avoid Foolish Controversies
Thursday in Dar es Salaam

If it could get hotter, today it did, and journalists without immediate deadlines wilted gently under fans in the lobby while those with deadlines sweated and struggled to find ways to get their (sparse) information back home. Meanwhile in an upstairs room the leaders of the conservative coalition watched and prayed (I imagine). Archbishop Akinola made a couple of dramatic entrances and exits across the hotel lobby causing our languid pulses to race with excitement for a few fleeting moments. What was the paper he was carrying? Was he shielding his face with it or waving it triumphantly? Perhaps it was the statement that appeared on the Church of Nigeria website, or a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury? Could we enlarge a photo enough to see the words?

Meanwhile inquiring reporters were hard at work, and the human faces of the gay and lesbian community (Colin Coward, Davis Mac-Iyalla and myself) were in frequent demand. One young Tanzanian was determined to get to the bottom of things – how do gay people have sex? and is it satisfying? he wondered. Was that the oddest conversation of the day, or was it the cheerful banter shared by ultra-conservative David Virtue of Virtuosity Online, Davis and Colin following a joint interview with BBC Radio 4, or perhaps my own interesting and quite deep time of sharing spiritual experiences with Mrs. Angela Minns?

Alas, the Primates missed all of this by staying stubbornly in their own quarters where they spent the morning in a private meeting characterized by Archbishop Aspinall as moving from ‘intense listening’ to a ‘free and frank expression of views’ with ‘areas of tension’ to be worked through ‘as discussions mature’. They were still discussing The Episcopal Church’s report card, a conversation that will continue tomorrow. The Presiding Bishop, we are told, continues to listen carefully to her colleagues and will honor the commitment they have all made not to comment on the process until the end of the meeting.

This commitment was somewhat breached when a statement appeared on the Church of Nigeria website declaring that seven Primates had declined to participate in the Eucharist alongside Bishop Katharine. Observant commentators have already noted that this is half the number who declined at the last Primates Meeting in Dromatine, Ireland - which would appear to be a step forward in communion.

This sense of greater unity was underlined by the report we received from Archbishop Gomez who chaired the Covenant Design Group. They met in January in Nassau and within four days produced both a proposed covenant and a report. These were considered earlier in the week by the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council who commended them to the Primates. The Primates apparently liked what they saw but want to distribute both proposed covenant and the report to bishops throughout the Anglican Communion before releasing them to the hoi polloi. We may get to see them on Monday together with the final meeting Communiqué.

Provinces are to consider the Covenant and bring changes to the Lambeth Conference next year for a final revision, after which it will go back to the provinces for ratification. Asked about its position on human sexuality, Gomez said that it does not deal with subjects but with faith and commitments. Its purpose is to ‘provide a mechanism for mutual accountability’ and a ‘means for dealing with difficult situations’, in the absence of a central authority. He described it as ‘a statement of classical Anglicanism’ and ‘faithful to our tradition’.

The Panel of Reference reported on the difficulties they have faced, which included the effort required to establish the facts of disputes, especially given the large volume of paperwork produced by the aggrieved; constraints caused by legal action; and the difficulties of getting timely responses. The Primates noted that there has to be a will for reconciliation between the parties for the Panel’s work to be useful, and that there needs to be a mechanism for feedback when the Panel does not fully understand the facts of the situation. The Archbishop of Canterbury will address these questions with the Panel after this meeting is over.

The Primates also listened to a report on The Listening Process. Canon Philip Groves is compiling reports on the action provinces are taking to listen to gay and lesbian people. He reported that there is increased awareness around the Communion but that in order for gay and lesbian people to be able to speak there has to be ‘safe ground’ (Duh!) and ‘it has not always been possible to develop such safe ground’. Apparently Groves also shared preliminary proposals for Lambeth which include the preparation of high-quality materials covering the experience of lgbt folk, what science has to offer on the subject, reflections on scripture and tradition, legal and cultural considerations and training materials on listening and facilitation. I understand that about two thirds of the provinces have responded to requests for information about their listening activities, though some reports have been only a paragraph or two long.

Bishop Katharine read the lesson at Evening Prayer (from her laptop Bible). It was Titus Chapter 3. I finish my remarks this evening with some classic words from verses 9-11.
But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

No ‘Talk of Schism’ Today
from Dar es Salaam

Today (Thursday) the Primates met in a session of ‘intense listening, characterized by graciousness, patience and care’, according to their spokesperson, Archbishop Aspinal of Australia. That’s a very different picture from the threatened refusal to sit down with Bishop Katharine. We are told that she joined with Bishops Duncan, McPherson and Epting in a ‘passionate’ presentation of the different voices within The Episcopal Church (TEC). This seems to have raised concerns that the majority perception of TEC is the experience of a minority within the church itself.

This presentation happened within the context of a review of the Report of the Monitoring Committee which was convened to assess TEC’s response to the Windsor Report. The measured tone of the report (which was completed six months ago but only released today) is perhaps not surprising given that four of the six members of the committee were Brits. They found that although the language adopted by General Convention was not the same as that of the Windsor Report, that the response ‘as a whole’ was positive. Two of the three specific requests of the Primates meeting at Dromantine in 2005 were found to have received adequate responses; the infamous B033[1] meeting the request for a moratorium on ordaining anyone as bishop who is ‘living in a same-gender union’, and the expression of regret for straining the bonds of affection also just making the grade. Alas, our continuing differences of opinion and practice on same-sex blessings received an “F – needs further work”.

Where does this leave TEC? is a question that continues into tomorrow. All the American bishops are described as looking to the Instruments of Unity[2] for assistance in ‘creating a space for healing and reconciliation within TEC.’ Some specific proposals were suggested, and we can be sure that an alternative Anglican Communion province is one of them, but nothing was decided. We are assured that there was ‘no talk of schism in the meeting at all’.

All this has ramifications way beyond the borders of North America. The recent Civil Partnership Act, for example, highlights the issue of same-sex unions within the Church of England. The Windsor Report addresses the world-wide church, not just the US, but today it is TEC which is being judged and found wanting. The Anglican Church of Canada has not yet completed its formal response to the Windsor Report, and as usual, boundary crossing bishops received nothing more than a mild ‘tut-tut’.

The agenda is, we are told, flexible and tomorrow morning will continue with the responses of the Primates to the Episcopal Church, followed by a presentation from Bishop Peter Carnley on the Panel of Reference and then discussion of the proposed Anglican Covenant which is ‘anticipated to provide a way to healing’.

It was a quiet hot humid day around the pool, with bored journalists interviewing the conservatives and our small ‘inclusive’ contingent on and off the record. In the absence of walkouts or other action from the Primates, Davis Mac-Iyalla of Changing Attitude Nigeria has been the star of the media. Our presence here is a reminder that we are not just a problem that will go away but real baptized Christians who have as much right to be included in all the sacraments and orders of the Church as our conservative brethren.

[1] ‘Resolved, That the 75th General Convention receive and embrace The Windsor Report’s invitation to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation; and be it further Resolved That this Convention therefore call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopacy whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains upon communion.’
[2] Archbishop of Canterbury, Anglican Consultative Council, Primates Meeting and Lambeth Conference

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jesus Loves Me, This I know
Dar es Salaam (Tuesday)

It’s been a quiet day in Dar es Salaam, my (temporary) home town. Apparently Canterbury had breakfast with Archbishop Akinola and the Primate of South East Asia, John Chu at which they discussed a letter from Akinola whose contents have not been revealed but can safely be assumed to continue in the established trajectory – to change the agenda in order to contest the presence of Bishop Katharine, and of John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and Primate of England (Canterbury is Primate of All-England).

Bishop Katharine is reputed to be in good spirits. She met today with local missionaries from the Episcopal Church, including Henry and Priscilla Zeigler from the Seattle area who are setting up a medical center here in Dar es Salaam. She spent the afternoon with the other new Primates (fourteen in all) reviewing a paper from the Anglican Communion office on the role of a Primate, and introducing herself and the concerns of her province o her new colleagues.

Tomorrow the meeting starts in earnest. After adoption of the agenda (which might take most of the day) the Primates expect to spend the rest of the day considering The Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report, and the reaction of the Primates’ ‘monitoring committee’. It is likely that the presentation/discussion including Bishops Duncan, Epting and MacPherson will take place during this larger debate.

Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion shared the history of this discussion with journalists. Once again, he mentioned the Communion’s ‘teaching’ about sexuality as expressed in Lambeth 98 Resolution 1.10 (that homosexual practice is in compatible with scripture) without questioning the ability of Lambeth Resolutions to delineate the ‘teaching’ of the Communion. But more interestingly he said that at their Dromantine meeting, the Primates had recognized that some of the episcopal boundary crossings were ‘too sensitive’ to cease immediately, despite the clear recommendations of the Windsor Report, and that this had created the need for the Panel of Reference.

Some boundaries were established and crossed today. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared that Bishop Katharine has an ‘absolute’ right to be here as a duly elected Primate. Archbishop Akinola shook hands with three gay and lesbian persons, including Davis Mac-Iyalla whom the Nigerian church has declared to be non-existent. No longer can Akinola claim that there are no Nigerian gays or that he has never met one. Archbishop Ndungane of South Africa went the extra mile and took the opportunity to sit down for a real conversation with Davis and Colin Coward of Changing Attitudes UK

But the last word goes to Mrs. Minns, wife of new CANA bishop Martyn Minns, who went out of her way to assure me that ‘Jesus Loves You’. I am so glad, but fortunately I hadn’t been wondering about it, because the Bible tells me so.

Schism Tomorrow but Never Today

Rev. Caroline Hall in Dar es Salaam

I watched fourteen young Tanzanian security guards march proudly across the front of the hotel this afternoon before beginning their long lurking evening dedicated to making sure that no-one invades the inner sanctum where the Primates live, eat, move and have their being. It’s reasonable that a meeting of world leaders should have security concerns but it also seemed a curious symbol of where the Anglican Communion is today - attempting to defend its boundaries against marauders of uncertain origin.

In a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria was quoted as saying that God always looks to Africa to save His Church. Well, here we are in Africa, but salvation seems to be delayed. The Primates Meeting was originally slated for February 14-18 with a possible pre-meeting on Tuesday 13th. Now the meeting proper starts on Thursday. But tonight we heard that the ‘pre-meeting’ with additional American bishops in attendance won’t be until then – so does that mean Thursday’s agenda will happen on Wednesday, or is everything being postponed until Friday?

And why the change? Bishop Duncan’s laptop has apparently been stolen… was there vital information on it? and if so, why didn’t he back it up? Or is it an attempt to controvert the carefully laid plans of the conservative coalition who met here for two days before the rest of the Primates arrived? Is it a careful liberal plot to prevent anything ‘really important’ being discussed and so putting off the ‘Day of the Lord’ until Lambeth next year? And why did conservatives bundle Archbishop Akinola into their car and speed off together? Was it really a dire need for Chinese food, or something even more sinister?

Here in Dar es Salaam there is a severe absence of any hard news and so little incidents become much more important than they really are – which perhaps also says something about the Anglican Communion. In the absence of a galvanizing mission based on the gospel of God’s unconditional love, are we just sitting around trading gossip while we wait for the schism which will surely come tomorrow… or the day after?