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Upon My Fiftieth Year of Ordained Ministry
Father Larry

I wish on this day of such significance to my own life, that I had something especially wise and profound to say to you; or, at least something that while simple might be extraordinarily helpful. But the reality is that as the years glide away with ever increasing rapidity, I know less and less of what or how to say anything to anyone. Although, as for that, my comfort and confidence now grows stronger, almost daily, that the pathless path I chose all those years ago, or that chose me, what the first Christians called “the Way,” was the right path – none of Robert Frost’s regret that I could not have been one traveler and traveled both divides, where the road bent in the freshly fallen leaves of the yellow wood. If I have any regrets or discontents, it is that I have not been a better exemplar or expositor of the beauty of Jesus – especially to those closest and dearest to me.

I know formally, both when I first committed myself to the Christian Way and to the work, the ministry, of Christ. But I do not know even informally, perhaps none of us do, when I first accepted the invitation to this whole great adventure of the spirit. When I was a very young boy, four, five and six, I would sometimes play at the back of our property near an abandoned oil sump –Jesse James stealing from the rich folks and giving it to the poor or Geronimo fighting against all odds to save his little ragged and hungry band of Apaches from the white man’s greed and genocide. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, in the midst of my wild play, I would hear a voice I did not recognize, distant but distinct, one clear single call — “Larry.” I would freeze and listen with the utmost intensity. No one would be around. No one talking in a nearby field. My beautiful protective Collie, Prince, the only living presence to be seen anywhere. I think, although I can not prove this with analytical logic, that the Spirit of Christ, which is the Holy Spirit of God, often speaks to children, calls to children, not necessarily in an audible voice, but in subtle response to their own muted cries of loneliness, of sadness, of helplessness.

By the time I was eleven or twelve I worried, a lot, about the possibility of a meaningless life. The way I framed the question in my own youthful mind was: “Is life nothing more than getting up in the morning, tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching television, untying your shoes, brushing your teeth and going to bed?” If I had known about Henry David Thoreau and his experiment on Walden Pond, I would have strongly resonated with his assertion: “Most people are asleep, and in their sleep lead lives of quiet desperation.” I did not want to sleep my life away. In the desire for “something more” to life we all hear the mysterious voice of God, distant but distinct, calling as we go about our funny little games.

Did you notice how Saint Paul refers in the reading from 1 Timothy 4:14, to “the gift” given Timothy at Timothy’s ordination? The gift Timothy received is the gift of ministry itself. There are no words in any language capable of saying what a magical, blessed, gifted life I have lived. I have had hours and days, months and years to ponder those things that matter most. Time to seek the face of God and to find in Christ the chief glory of my life. And work to do that is of ultimate significance and therefore, ultimately fulfilling. To paraphrase the British mystic Evelyn Underhill, the opportunity to be a tiny part of God’s vast transformative work — the triumph of charity. For this gift my soul often cries out in silent exaltation and gratitude, “Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord.” Of course, the reality is that one need not desire, or ever become, clergy to receive this gift – the only requirement is a listening heart!

So, are you familiar with the Robert Frost’s poem that begins:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have out walked the furthest city light.

Sometimes, as a young teenager, at night I would walk up and down the quiet country road that ran in front of our house. If I had been asked then what I was doing I probably would have answered, “Nothing.” An objective observer might have said it looked like I was pacing; or, like I was thinking. But what I would say now looking back, is that I was praying. For prayer can be and is many things, and the Holy Spirit makes them all plain in heaven. Walking and praying, I came to the conclusion that all the things of this world, in the end, come to nothing. That the writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, was right: “All is vanity.” We spend our lives, “Chasing the wind.” Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, like all the greats who came before and after them, and who are yet to come, dust and ashes. Their empires – historical curios. “Vanity of vanities its all just chasing the wind.” A number of years ago I cam across this aphorism: “No life can be counted a success that is not lived for something or someone that time and circumstances cannot destroy.”

In the night, walking and praying, I experienced a second moment of spiritual clarity in which I saw that the One time and circumstances could not destroy was the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, of Paul and Dorcas and Phoebe, and Mary Magdalena. I knew that God was not a person as we think of persons, not even a super person, but I also knew that God was not merely a sort of nebulous Star Wars force, or the sort of “loving feelings” espoused by the modern self-help movement, and could only be truly known as we might think of knowing another person – a dear friend or a loving mother or father. All such words are, of course, metaphors, symbols pointing to something we cannot describe, but that does not mean that what they are pointing to is not real. I saw that my only hope in this life — and beyond — was this warmly parental, but mysterious unseen God, who had been revealed in the love, joy, peace, and sacrificial strength of Jesus the Christ. And so one Sunday morning I walked to the front pew of our little one room ramshackle church of poor Southerners, Texans and Okies as they sang an old Gospel hymn. The Pastor, Dennis Campbell, asked if I believed that Jesus was Christ and Lord – Son of the Living God? And upon my simple confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ — a confession that millions upon millions have made across the centuries in spite of torture and death,  and that thousands will make and die for this very year — I was baptized by immersion. This is the sign, and has always been the sign, we call it a sacrament, that one has embraced and been embraced by a new reality. It was the sign that I had died to my old life, and my old self, and had risen from this “watery grave” to live a new life, that was to be nothing less than Christ living in me, and my living in Christ. Of course, none of us ever fully grasps all the spiritual implications of our baptism, so I remain a spiritual novice to this day.

When I was a boy there was a pastor, W.J. Lynch, who occasionally visited in our home, and I always stayed in the room for those conversations. I somehow sensed that they were significant and were about the chaos in which our family was nearly always engulfed. What was utterly amazing was that each time, at the end of his visit, it was like Bill left the peace of Christ with us. Sometime in the year after my baptism, I heard that Bill, who had moved a couple of hours a way, was in town and was going to hold what we called a “Gospel Meeting.” And so that Wednesday night I drove to our little church on the wrong side of the river to hear him preach. Like many teenagers, I was in an intense period of questioning what to do with my life. There was an inaudible desire in me to be able to do for others what Bill Lynch had done for our family. That is probably part of what drew me there that night. But there are so many ways to really help people, and many of them far more lucrative and secure than pastor or priest. That was a time when I wrestled with the angels. From my conversations with you I know that sometimes you also wrestle with the angels. Bill began his sermon with the reading of Matthew 16:24-27 which is our reading this morning. And this is how I heard it in the English of the old King James Version of 1611:

16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

W.E. Sangster the great English Pastor said in his book, The Secret of the Radiant Life, “The most sublime moments of the spiritual life, are those in which we understand in our hearts what we may have known in our minds all along.” I don’t know how to describe it. My mind stopped at the end of the reading. The sermon stopped at the end of the reading. The service stopped at the end of the reading. The whole world stopped at the end of the reading. I have no idea how many homilies I had heard on this text by that point in my life – and could have given my own acceptable explanation of its meaning. I had always understood it as a dire warning of the consequences of faithlessness, and of valuing and pursuing what is ultimately worthless, but in that sublime moment I heard it as a beautiful promise, an elegant invitation and an exquisite gift offered by Jesus in pure love. The possibility of seeing each moment, choice, and incident as an opportunity for communion with God through Christ, in the Spirit. If you have consecrated your heart, mind, and soul to another, I have no criticism as long as it makes you a better person, but as for me, my heart belongs to Christ alone.

I am sometimes asked rather dismissively how can I think all this business about Jesus is possibly true? Or that Jesus can be trusted? This homily is hardly the place to attempt to answer so large a question. So, I will just say I trust Jesus because in him I find an unsurpassed goodness and beauty – a unique goodness and beauty that I have at times also seen in his followers; and, I believe the ancient Greeks were right, that what is both good and beautiful is most likely also true. Jesus himself suggests a rather pragmatic test, “Follow my teachings,” he said, and discover for yourself where they come from.” Knowledge of the divinity of Jesus, insight into the true nature of Christ, comes only by living into it.

The next thing I was aware of we were all standing for the closing song and prayer – replacing our hymnals. I walked into the night without saying a single word to anyone, and drove home through the olive orchards — quiet and gnarled old trees that seemed to possess some “secret and ancient wisdom.” And that’s how an ignorant, messed up, dysfunctional, Okie boy from Bakersfield felt the throb of angel wings, seraphim and cherubim, shake the temple, and heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? “And answered, “Here am I; send me.

May you each be given the joy and the grace of a listening heart. Amen.

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After The Election

After the Election
Fr. Larry

I never cared for Hillary, and was never enthused about her candidacy. She is the sort of insipid Democrat that creates the illusion that change is coming for the sick, the hungry, and dispossessed, but an illusion is all it it is – it’s not real change you can count on. She said it herself, she is “a proud moderate.” And Bill is not only a sex addict, but one willing to prey on a young vulnerable woman and dismiss the whole sordid thing as mutually consensual as if there was no gaping power differential. It was Bill who came up with the notion that the way for Democrats to get elected was to embrace both a progressive social agenda and fiscal conservatism – something of an oxymoron. So with his Welfare Reform he increased the poverty of the poor, while enhancing the wealth of the rich and powerful – and of Hilary and himself. I think Hillary was telling the truth when she told the Wall Street rich that her working class roots had been severed. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland is an apt description of Hilary: “There is no there there.” She is smart, knowledgeable, and competent, but there is no “presence.” I don’t think Hillary is totally corrupt and dishonest. I don’t think she did anything dishonest or that put the nation at risk with her e-mails. Her and Bill are smart and well educated attorneys who know how to stay out of trouble with the law even when squeezing it to their advantage. And it is just silly to blame her as being single handedly responsible for Benghazi – give me a break. I trust Hillary as a highly competent manager. The problem is we need leaders who are more than competent managers. We need leaders who exceed conventional thinking. I think often of Einstein’s comment, “You can’t solve a problem by thinking at the same level that created it in the first place.” The point is simply this, had Hilary won the Presidency, and the Democrats a majority in both houses, we would have felt and been safer, but the need to advocate for the poor, the dispossessed, and marginalized in America would have remained. The call to champion human rights, a non-violent society, and a politically, economically and ecologically sustainable society and world would have remained.

With Trump people are afraid. Trump suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder — DSM 5 301.81. That’s not good. His rhetoric is frightening and it is meant to be – lock them up (without due process), smash them in the face, take them out and shoot them – hang them. His scapegoating of minorities is a classic sign of evil. And what tyrannical regime has not called for an excessive enlargement of the military? That question itself is, of course, rhetorical. But there are other questions that are not rhetorical: What will happen to Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, food stamps for hungry children, medical care for 45,000,000 people, hope for a minimum wage capable of sustaining working men and women, the right of the poor and minorities to vote in fair elections, and what will be the end of belligerence and nuclear proliferation – not to mention the crisis of climate change? It is, as they say, “still early in the game, but the signs are not encouraging. It is all quite Orwellian. Of course, Orwellian “doublespeak” actually began in American politics with George W. Bush more than with anyone else. Bush you may remember referred, with a slight grin and twinkle in his eye, to “enhanced interrogation techniques” when what he really meant was torture – which he denied was practiced by the U.S. It appears we have made national progress, what once was abhorrent is now endorsed by the U.S. President. But I pray for Donald Trump. I do not pray for him as the fundamentalists and far right prayed for President Obama – for his failure and death. I pray for his success in everything that is right, and true, and good. Everyday I pray: “Lord, may it please you to rule the hearts of your servants, the President of the United States, and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy and walk in the way of truth.” Our focus must be on issues, principles, and actions, and not on whether we think someone personally objectionable; or, as Hilary might say, “deplorable.” So everyday I pray for Donald Trump, and everyday I pray, “Lord, keep this nation under your care; and, guide us in the way of justice and truth.”

The Gospel Reading for last Sunday was Matthew 5:1-10 – The Beatitudes. The last in that list, but of crucial importance in our time, is Jesus’ counterintuitive, as all the beatitudes are counterintuitive, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (the Divine love and truth, and goodness which underlies all things). Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.” I think this is Jesus telling us, as he so often does, to trust him, and not to be so afraid – but to be of good courage. Gerald Jampolsky tells a wonderful story that is pertinent here.

In his little book Love is Letting Go of Fear, Jampolsky tells how as a medical student he was, like most other medical students, afraid he would catch a terrible disease. For him it was tuberculosis. When he was an intern in Boston he had to spend one month on the TB service and was scared to death he would catch it and die. On his first day, at about 11:30 at night, he received an emergency call. A fifty-year-old woman who not only had tuberculosis, but was also an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, had just vomited blood and had no pulse. Jampolsky massaged her heart, removed the blood from her throat with a suction device, and when the oxygen machine wouldn’t work gave her mouth to mouth resuscitation. The woman’s pulse returned and she started to breath again. When Jampolsky got back to his intern quarters he saw himself in the mirror. He was covered in the woman’s blood. He was, he says, “a bloody mess.” All of a sudden it occurred to him that he had not been afraid at anytime during the episode. What he learned that night, what this bloody, alcoholic, TB patient with cirrhosis of the liver taught him that night, was that when we are absorbed in giving, in loving, we feel no fear. Regardless of who is president there is, in the words of Saint Paul, something significant required of us, given to us: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

Now, I can only write as a person of faith. I have nothing to suggest for anyone else. By “person of faith,” I mean Christian faith. And by “Christian faith” I mean following Jesus in the way of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). Quite frankly, I see little connection between modern Catholic or Protestant fundamentalism and the Jesus Way. Last February, I listened with keen interest to Republican House Representative David Brat’s assertion that “the conservative movement owns the entire tradition,” by which he seemed to mean the tradition of Christian love and compassion. Poor man. Poor man. But I am beginning to digress.

To be more succinct, Christian Scripture teaches us to speak truth in love, to care for and to champion the hurting and vulnerable, and to be messengers of peace and justice whether doing so is convenient or inconvenient. And in the practice of love our fears evaporate; for, as Saint John wrote so reassuringly, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

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The Essence of Christianity
An Advent 4 Homily
Fr. Larry

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
(The Gospel According to Matthew 1:18-24)

What are we to make of this Scripture? I don’t mean what are we to make of the virgin birth of Jesus, that’s not what is truly astounding and wonderful in the text. Although the virginal conception is what we most often get hung up on in reading this story, that is not what is most significant. That a virgin, literally a young unmarried woman, will conceive and bear a child, a son, is not what is most important here. What matters more is that in the birth of this child the Holy Spirit of God is mysteriously and marvelously at work — just as the Spirit was at work at the beginning of time and space and matter and energy – hovering over the primordial darkness, the primordial emptiness, the nothingness, like a mother bird over her nest hatching her chicks into life. So the Holy Spirit warmly “brooded” over the chaos, “void and without form,” until light and life burst forth – planets and stars, a world of stunning beauty teeming with life. But even more marvelous than the big bang, the formation of solar systems, and galaxies and universes and things that leap, and crawl, and walk and run, and swim and fly on the earth is something still deeper and more mysterious – “and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.” That is the center, not only of this text, but of life and reality itself – mysterious, profound, unfathomable. Matthew is not simply telling an interesting or entertaining tale, a sentimental story, nor is he asking us to believe Jesus had only one set of DNA, but he is inviting us into an experience, inviting us to feel the divine presence – “Emmanuel, God with us. God in us. God revealed to us.”

There are experiences, noetic, ineffable, sometimes ecstatic but frequently subtle, and always completely simple, usually lasting only for seconds or a few brief moments, but possessing the power to determine the course and quality of a life forever, possessing the capacity to sustain with grace and courage in times of confusion, physical pain, emotional suffering, and intense darkness.
Here are three stories reported by the Oxford Research Institute for Religious Experience which may give you a sense of what I am talking about; although, if you have ever been present at a birth you may learn more from just remembering those feelings:

One man said, “I heard nothing, yet it was as if I were surrounded by ‘golden light’ and as if I only had to reach out my hand to touch Christ himself who was surrounding me with compassion.”

A woman wrote, “One night I suddenly had an experience as if I were buoyed up by waves of utterly sustaining power and love. The only words that came to me describing it were from an old Christian hymn, ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’ though this sounds like a picture, and my experience was not a picture, but a feeling, and there were the arms. This I am sure has affected my life as it has made me know the love and sustaining power of God. It came from outside and unasked.”

Another described her experience like this: “Suddenly I felt a great joyousness sweeping over me, I use the word ‘sweeping’ because this feeling seemed to be just that. I actually felt it as coming from my left and sweeping around and through me, completely engulfing me. I do not know how to describe it. It was not like a wind. But suddenly, it was there, and I felt it move around and through me. Great joy was in it. Exaltation might be a better word.”

Here is a fourth, one that strongly resonates with me personally, which I guess is why I tell it so often: “When I was in prison in Vietnam in solitary confinement, my captors would continually torture me. One day I was tied to a rack. A young soldier was ordered to torture me and break me. During this torture, when I honestly felt I was at my breaking point, a beautiful prayer came instantly to my mind, even though I wasn’t praying. The prayer was: ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.’ So, I prayed that prayer over and over again. The more I prayed it, the more I felt I truly was giving my life to the Lord. Then this peace came over me like a warm blanket, and I no longer felt pain–only peace. The soldier torturing me saw this transformation in my face and stopped his torture. He went to his commanding officer and said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do this.’ And they let me go back to my cell. From that day on, I continued to use that prayer of peace, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.’”

“And his name will be called Emmanuel, God with us. God in us. God revealed to us.”

I think Christmas should be fun. I have no need to complain about people celebrating the commercial Christmas of gift buying – I would suggest you not worry terribly about how the stores are doing or take personal responsibility for the Gross National Product at the Holiday Season but there is joy in giving, and if people think of Christmas as a time of family and friends and eating good things and sharing a glass of egg nog you will hear no grumbling from me. I think Christmas should be fun. If you enjoy making or buying gifts to give someone else as a way of saying, “I value you, you matter to me, I care about you, I love you;” that makes me so glad. If you feel the warmth of friends and family at Christmas gatherings, if there is any Christmas laughter in your home or in your heart, or in your mouth I am so happy for you. And if you should feel the presence of Christ this Advent or Christmas I will be full of gratitude, awe and wonderment with you – “Glory, glory, glory in excelsis Deo!”

For this is the simple essence of Christianity. A child, a son, is born “and his name is called Emmanuel, God with us.” The Christian faith is not about, as the White Queen suggested to Alice, “believing six impossible things before breakfast.” It is not about being good so as to avoid everlasting torture. It is not about being against something, birth control, divorce, or abortion. It’s not about being against premarital, extramarital, or marital sex. The Biblical texts dealing with human sexuality are not obsessed with loving healthy sexual intimacy as something shameful, but with the evils of cultic prostitution, which still exists in places like India today, with sexual exploitation and violence. If you want to worry about sex as a social problem, then do something about the tragedy of human trafficking. Christianity is not not about hating vice, but loving virtue. It is certainly not about being against anyone because of politics, religion, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social status. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates Philippians 4, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive.” No, Christianity is not about being against, but for others. And, it has nothing to do with the esoteric theories of philosophers or theologians, education or lack of education, wealth or the lack or wealth, intelligence or the lack of intelligence, physically attractive or unattractive there is no advantage. It is within the grasp of everyone, without exception requiring only the least amount of humility, love, and purity of heart to embrace the child in the manger – “Emmanuel, God with us, God in us, God revealed to us.” Amen.

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A Short Catechism of Liberation
Fr. Larry


Q) Who are the oppressed?
A) Those identifiable social groups who are used or manipulated by others for the sake of greed, self-gratification, power, or the need to control are the oppressed.

Q) Who are the oppressors?
A) Those leaders, groups, governments, or established authorities of any institution who use, manipulate, or control the well being of others, especially through the use of power or wealth, are the oppressors.

Q) What is the oppressed consciousness?
A) The oppressed often adopt the consciousness of the oppressor and even admire and envy their oppressor. The self-justifying point of view of the oppressor is thus internalized by the oppressed contributing to their own difficulty and suffering. It is true: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But, the opposite is equally true: “Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.”

Q) What happens when oppression becomes unbearable?
A) When their suffering becomes unbearable the oppressed may, as happens at times, rise up and overthrow the oppressor, but this is nearly always done in order that they might themselves become the oppressor. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, “The problem with revolutions is that they change who holds the power but not how power is held.”

Q) What, then, is the goal?
A) The goal is not to overthrow the oppressors, but to liberate the whole world so that no one oppresses another.

Q) How is the world to be liberated?
A) The problem is essentially spiritual and, therefore, intractable to all efforts other than those which are essentially spiritual. Love and ahimsa are the gifts of the spiritual life which make possible the creation of a new and liberated humanity.

Q) Does this mean that only Christians can can bring about liberation?
A) No, of course not. Christians must, therefore, be willing to join with and work with men and women of wisdom and purity of heart whatever their distinctive spiritual practices as long as those spiritual practices are bent toward compassion, nonviolence, and the good of all. The ordinary saints and satyagrahas of every faith, as well as humanists committed to the principle of gemeinschaftsgefuhl (community feeling) will have a natural affinity and appreciation for one another in this work.

Q) What are the liberating practices of the Christian community?
A) Those practices of prayer, meditation, contemplation, devotion and “charity,” which lead to an awareness of communion, of at-one-ment, with the Mystery we call God, and in which Christians experience Christ as our peace, are, for the Christian, the means by which human consciousness may be transformed and the despair of oppression rendered null.

Q) Are these individual or communal practices?
A) Spiritual reality, mystical reality, is inherently paradoxical. We are both many and one. Christians see themselves as individual members of one body; therefore, while spirituality is intensely personal it is never purely individualistic.

Q) How far does this unity extend?
A) Since “God is above all, through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:6), Christians will seek the flowering of that unity in peace, which itself has to do with what is complete and harmonious and results in respect for the dignity of every human being, reverence for all life, and a physically, economically, politically, culturally, emotionally, intellectually, environmentally, and “ecologically sustainable global civilization.”

Q) How are Christians and other spiritual persons to go about such work?
A) Love and non-violence must be a passion. Non-violence also calls for courage, for each votary “must be a messenger, a prophet, speaking truth and exposing lies.” But it is love that makes courage possible for one cannot be loving and afraid at the same time, and passion saves ahimsa from becoming a mere policy. “One with passion expresses it in every act” (Gandhi). The non-violence of the votary arises from having experienced the transcendent which brings peace and wisdom within. Violence is needed to protect what is external, love and non-violence protect one’s spirit, and make service to the anawim possible.

Q) Isn’t all this utopian?
A) Such a perspective assumes a disconnected duality of the “natural” and “spiritual” that is more illusory than real. It can only be good to do good everywhere and always — in life or death, on earth or in heaven. The worldly criteria of success measures nothing. However, even if we were to use the world’s criteria of success and failure, those of the Way believe it better to fail at love, and compassion, and liberation than to succeed in unkindness, malice, or oppression. There is only one possible way out of violence and oppression, and that is love and non-violence. Should we not pursue that possibility even if at times it sounds utopian or impossible? If the peace makers come to be known as the children of God, and the pure of heart come to see God, then ultimately love cannot be defeated.

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Treating the Spiritual Wounds of War
And Why the Healing Efforts of the Military Are Inadequate
Fr. Larry

“War is Hell”

General Sherman, who knew more than a little about the value of shock and awe in waging war, was absolutely correct in declaring, “War is hell, and there is nothing you can do to refine it.” Of course, Sherman was thinking mainly about the fiery hell that the elderly, the sick, the pregnant women, the children whose fathers were away at war, or already wounded or dead, were about to find themselves in as he burned Atlanta to the ground –just as he had pillaged, ravished and slaughtered all the way there. But it is unlikely that Sherman thought much about the hell into which his own troops, in spite of victory, would descend as a consequence of carrying out his orders.

In countering the argument that the Iraq War would be a just and necessary war, there were voices questioning whether military action against Iraq met any of the criteria of a just war, including whether it would justify the costs – not only the costs in money spent and lives lost, but also with serious regard to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage it would do combatants. Sadly, the American people in their denial thought that if they applauded the men and women in uniform, that if they called them “heroes,” that if they “supported the troops,” all would be well in the end. This obviously has not proven to be true.

Distinguishing PTSD and Moral Injury

One cannot watch or read the news without being aware of the enormous suffering experienced by the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – not only the terrible ordeal of physical wounds, but also the psychosomatic anguish of PTSD; and, the hell of moral or spiritual injury. Actually, until relatively recently PTSD and Moral Injury, the Marines euphemistically prefer to call it “Inner Conflict,” were undifferentiated. However, although each causes intense anguish, and while in many cases a dual diagnosis of both is warranted, they are not synonymous.

PTSD is a physical response to prolonged extreme trauma. It is a fear reaction to danger. In fact, it triggers a bio-chemical process in the brain that affects the hippocampus which itself regulates emotions connected to fear and memory. The ability, then, to manage fear and process emotions is impaired by a traumatic event. And, a previous history of emotional trauma or brain injury will serve to exacerbate the most recent trauma. Recent studies suggest that blast concussions themselves may result in trauma to the brain which is then manifested with the symptoms recognized as PTSD.

Moral injury can be attributed more to the violation of one’s own basic beliefs and moral identity. For those who have experienced moral injury the world no longer can be regarded as orderly or trustworthy, or human beings as basically good. Killing someone, torturing, abusing dead bodies, failing to prevent such acts, or even handling human remains in the violent context of war can result in moral injury. Seeing a comrade in arms violate significant moral values, or feeling lied to or betrayed by those in authority, may be significant contributing factors. Violating one’s conscience, even if the act was unavoidable or seemed the right thing to do at the time, can have devastating consequences and lead to debilitating depression, profound remorse, excruciating guilt, and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Further, violating one’s conscious, or even unconscious, core values, precisely because they are at the core of our very being, throws any healthy or anchoring sense of self-identity into utter chaos.

In an open letter to President Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director John Brennan, four former drone operators told how they came to see themselves as complicit in the killing of innocent civilians. The four are Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis and Michael Haas. When he left the service Bryant was given a report of the number of killings he had been involved in – 1,626. What Bryant knew, and could not live with, was that in one study of a five-month period 90% of those killed were not the intended targets. He tells of one incident in which the drone team waited for five men traveling from Pakistan to Afghanistan with their camel to settle down for the night. And, then, without knowing who they were or what they were doing rained exploding fire down on them. “That,” says Bryant, “was cowardly murder.” What the military would do with Bryant and his three friends, is to help them in their rationalizations of the event – and that might even help for a while. But if the rationalizations begin to collapse, if as frequently happens the rationalizations, because they are after all only rationalizations, quit working, then hell returns.

Why the Military Cannot Heal Moral Injury

Sitting in a conference on ministry to the military, most of which dealt with the moral, religious, and spiritual aspects of PTSD, and how churches could be supportive of the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, I had an epiphany – a moment in which it became obvious just how incredibly difficult it is for anyone connected with and accountable to the military to be sufficiently helpful, not because they don’t want to help, or lack compassion or professional training, but because there are two simple propositions they cannot fully entertain.

The Two Propositions

First, helping professionals in the military cannot entertain the notion, or perhaps more correctly, they cannot accept the possibility, that those sent to the wars may have gone riding on a lie. After a presentation on Christian pacifism, a former Marine officer asked me about the possibility of a “just war.” My response was that even if one accepted the possibility of a “just war” it was an irrelevant concept for the person in uniform, since even if he or she thought the conflict unjust there was still no choice but to go and kill. The Pope, and the bishops and leaders of every mainline denomination in America, declared that an attack on Iraq did not meet the criteria of a just war. But when the U.S. Commander and Chief lies about weapons of mass destruction, imminent danger, and torture, it is a lie that has to be accepted, or at least rationalized, by those in uniform. So how, if you are part of the system, can you treat someone for moral injury who believes he or she has been betrayed by what they believed to be an honorable system? How, when you must argue against the very possibility, do you help someone heal who believes he or she has been manipulated into acting in ways so dark that they are a denial of one’s essential humanity?

Once it is accepted that the individual’s perception that he or she has been lied to, and betrayed by those in authority, is a valid point of view the question becomes, in terms of Cognitive Therapy, what does this belief or sense of betrayal mean, represent, or signify to that person? Using the downward arrow technique of Cognitive Therapy, Socratic questioning, or the sort of wisdom probing Jesus often engaged in, it should be possible to uncover those interpretations of the betrayal that are “unrealistic” and at the source of the suffering. Once that is done the work of reexamining and replacing those beliefs with more “realistic” beliefs and functional interpretations can begin. That is, the therapist must be able to say to the morally injured soldier, “So, if in going to war and killing you have been betrayed by our own government, what does that mean, symbolize, or represent about you personally? Let me play the devil’s advocate, so to speak, and ask, if this is all true, so what?” Note, it is necessary to “accept” the assessment of the injured person before exploring the event’s meaning. Cognitive Therapy is not a matter of disputing the facts of the situation, but of processing the implications even if they are true.

For example, soldiers who believe they were manipulated into an unjust war of aggression, may make the discovery that at a deeper level this sadly means to them that there is now no one and nothing in the universe that can be trusted, not even their own judgment, that there is nothing to hold to, nothing and no one to give guidance, nothing but deception and chaos everywhere. Recovery can only come when they choose to replace that belief by one that is more realistic; such as, “People and situations cannot always be trusted but God can.” Or, “There is nothing reprehensible about having been fooled, if we choose to change, with God’s help, what we can about ourselves once we recognize the truth.” Notice, however, that once again it is not the fact of what happened that is disputed, but what it means personally for the individual that is questioned.
Second, helping professionals in the military cannot acknowledge, dare not think, that the guilt and self-revulsion experienced by the morally and spiritually injured is a wholly valid response to a violation of real and non-disposable values – a betrayal of the Imago Dei. When someone like former Marine Captain Timothy Kudo, a veteran of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, sees himself as a “monster” it must be taken with a depth of seriousness and understanding sufficient to the problem. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Psychology professor at West Point, in his excellent book, On Killing, engages in the very sort of denial he earlier decries as he writes: “Over and over again I have said. . . (Said to veterans), You did all that anyone could ask you to have done, and I am truly proud to have known you.” Grossman says of the veterans who have written of how they were “sickened” by killing, “I believe that as veterans write such narratives, they do not mean to say that the war was wrong or that they regret what they did, but that they simply want to be understood.”
The problem with Grossman’s intervention is that it lacks the therapeutic quality of appropriateness; and, is offered prematurely. “Appropriateness” refers to a response or level of thinking and imagination that is congruent with the seriousness or playfulness or intensity of the event. Telling a soldier who has shot to death a wounded Iraqi pleading for mercy that he or she has done nothing wrong, that he or she is a good person who was simply placed in a bad situation leads to a premature pseudo forgiveness that can do little to heal the anguish that tortures him or her day and night. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, the authors of Soul Repair, are correct in asserting, “Positive thinking denies moral truth, and inflicting harsh judgment on those who understand their moral transgression in war deepens the inner condemnation of conscience and steals the will to live.” Moral Injury needs to be understood as a normal reaction to an abnormal morality. And, although beyond the scope of this article, it should be further noted that some soldiers become addicted to killing. Leaving us to ponder which manifestation of injury is the more severe and tragic.

Moral Questions and Recovery

So what if there is a “way” and a not the “way” human beings were meant to live? What if there is a way organic to our humanity? What if there is an essentially moral nature to being human – to reality? What if killing is not wrong merely because someone fancies it to be wrong, but because it is in reality an egregious sin? What if, “Thou shalt not kill” was etched not merely in stone, but somehow mysteriously written in the human soul? In that case wouldn’t it be incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to free people from the terrible grip of their existential suffering, by convincing them that they only imagine they have “sinned against God and their neighbor?” O. Hobart Mowrer, in his The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, is more than a little helpful here. Mowrer, a humanistic psychiatrist who offended his students by using the word “sin,” wrote: “But what is here generally overlooked, it seems, is that recovery (constructive change, redemption) is most assuredly attained, not by helping people reject and rise above their sins, but by having them accept their sins.” Mowrer was convinced that it is impossible for someone living with real unacknowledged sin, or in the fog of unexpiated guilt, to accept him or her self – “not if he or she has any character at all.” Every effort to reassure such people and to help them find self-acceptance through positive thinking is doomed to failure. “But,” argued Mowrer, “the moment they (with or without ‘assistance’) begin to accept their guilt and their sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up; and with this, the individual may legitimately, though not without pain and effort, pass from deep pervasive self-rejection and self-torture to a new freedom, of self-respect and peace.” Mowrer rejected what he referred to as “the theological baggage” of the Judeo/Christian tradition; and, yet, believed there are “eternal verities in that tradition with which we must come to terms or get hurt.” Those “eternal verities” constitute the insurmountable problem for the military in the treatment of moral injury.

Military Virtue and Spiritual Morality

In 2009 the Department of Defense invested $125 million in developing the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. The CSF program evaluates fitness in five different areas, including spiritual strength. The military sees spiritual fitness as those qualities that sustain a person in times of stress, hardship, and tragedy. If soldiers believe in something higher than themselves, then they are far more likely to embrace the sort of “higher values” inculcated by the military establishment: Never leave a fallen comrade. Never accept defeat. Place the mission first – all values which make a soldier effective in combat. At the beginning of the Gulf War a young, bright and articulate fighter pilot was asked by a television reporter how he felt about the civilians killed by his exploding rockets. He replied something like this, “Sometimes you just have to be guided by higher values and accept the collateral damage.” There can be little doubt he possessed a number of high virtues that made him an admirable person and resilient as a combatant – duty, honor, loyalty, courage. But CSF leaves out the highest values – empathy and compassion for every human being. The approach of the military to spirituality is mechanistic and amoral, so that the most spiritually fit are those who can best rationalize or ignore the deeper, often agonizing questions, posed by war.

The Final Word is Grace

Moral healing can only be effected by spiritually moral means. Corrupt or self-serving means always lead to corrupt and self-serving ends. But here, one must also question the end itself. People of faith believe, of course, that no matter what there is always, at every level, hope of redemption. There is no act we can commit so heinous that it is beyond the healing grace of God, but grace is never cheap, casual, or an easy short cut. Genuine “faith healers” know this.

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Faith and Politics 2016
Fr. Larry

I recently read an interesting article in the publication of a mainline denomination, interesting from the perspective that the author, an important leader in that denomination, was so careful not to endorse either of the two presidential candidates; or, to declare a position on any of the important issues, that nothing much was really said. Well the article did say we should be good people in the harsh political environment in which we live, and I guess that is something.

Many people think that the U.S. Constitution prohibits churches from all political activity, which is incorrect. It is not the Constitution but a little-known tax provision created by Lyndon Johnson that prohibits churches from endorsing or campaigning against candidates for federal elected office. The idea is that since churches are exempt from paying taxes they should not exert influence in the election of candidates.

I certainly would not want to get Saint Auggie’s, the faith community I serve, into trouble with the IRS by declaring my support for a particular candidate. Nor, do I want to offend any member of our little fellowship. However, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of life, nothing in the totality of our daily human existence, that is not inherently spiritual. Someone once asked Senator Ted Kennedy, “Where does all this concern for the poor come from?” Kennedy responded, “Haven’t you ever read the New Testament?” I feel it incumbent on me, therefore, as a pastor and priest to accept my responsibility to advocate for biblical justice. So, while I can’t say why you should or should not vote for Trump or Clinton, or Issa or Applegate,or anyone else I can say something about the issues:

  • The Jesus Way requires the unambiguous renunciation of violence in all its forms – physical, psychological, intellectual, economic, racial, and sexual to name just six. As for torture, it is a monster bred in the darkest depths of hell.To say that someone is both a professed Christian and an advocate of torture is a contradiction in terms. Neither of the presidential candidates embraces this sort of 1st century discipleship, so I look for the closest approximation. I look for the candidate least likely to go to war or to expand and escalate an existing war. Since I believe that the people of a nation may be basically good but that empire is by its nature evil, I look for the candidate who seems less interested in enlarging the military or its budget, and more interested in meeting the basic needs of the people, especially the most vulnerable. No man or woman, and certainly no child, should be hungry, or without shelter, or health care – or the opportunity for a quality education. I favor radical gun control, but reasonable controls would be a start. Guns are symbols. A symbol is something which points beyond itself to something else. A symbol not only points to something beyond itself, but it also participates in the reality to which it points. Guns are symbols then which participate in the reality of systemic violence, aggression, and hostility.
  • The Way of Christ is the way of self-sacrifice, “poverty,” generosity, mutual caring, humility, and fairness or justice. When 84 individuals possess as much wealth as 3.5 billion people combined, then something has gone terribly awry – mammon and what the Bible calls “sin” have become our master. Reality is, people don’t use money, money uses people. Consequently, I am for that candidate that is most for wealth equality, for a sustainable wage for workers, for taxing the rich who acquire and perpetuate their wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Reagan is the genius who came up with the idea of trickle down economics — the idea that the richer the rich get the more they will invest in enterprises that will financially benefit the rest of us. But the historical verdict is in – it just doesn’t work that way.
  • In 2001 I wrote an article for Episcopal Life under the title “Troubled by Simplistic Notions.” You can find it under the essays or reflections menu on my personal website (Father Larry’s Journal of Contemplative Living). In that article I drew attention to police brutality in Denver, Colorado – specifically in regard to two separate fatal shootings of young developmentally delayed black men. I was criticized as “a leftist priest who had lost his faith.” However, I can assure you that it is not out of an absence of Christian faith, but out of its presence that I look for that candidate who is concerned with the careful psychological screening, training, and accountability of police officers as well as their safety. The North Korean police are great at maintaining order – that doesn’t make them an admirable police force.
  • I have no idea how to solve the problem of illegal immigration – I don’t know that anyone does. I am not even sure what the problem is or if when all the numbers are crunched there is one. I have never seen a study clearly defining the benefits versus the deficits. So I just don’t know. What I do know is that the Christian path, going back to the Jewish Torah, requires that I treat “the stranger,” the alien, whether legal or illegal, with kindness, and respect, and with full regard for his or her human dignity and needs. As Christians this should be more important to us than whether someone can cut undocumented border crossings to zero. Our business, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of the New Testament, is to: “Let everyone we meet know we are on their side, working for them not against them.” It’s just the Christian way.

Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, said he would rather be ruled by a competent Moslem than an incompetent Christian. In our historical time and place, candidates cannot be evaluated by their religious faith – or lack of it. The fact that once upon a time Hillary Clinton taught Sunday school in a Methodist Church is, fifty plus years later, largely irrelevant. There is nothing to suggest that she has maintained a vital connection to her faith or faith community. And for Donald Trump to suggest that because he thinks he might possibly have been baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian Church, he is an Evangelical Christian is absolutely ludicrous. What we can do is to look at the trajectory of someone’s life and work and match that with the policies they articulate in order to get some idea of where they might go. And, to then pick the candidate whose destination is closest to our own. That shouldn’t be too difficult for you as a Christian if you have ever read the Sermon on the Mount.

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Pulse: A Response

The Pulse: A Response
Fr. Larry

When I am asked what I think about the slaughter at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I don’t have much of an initial response. Like the killing of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora, or the heartless and deadly violence visited on that welcoming shared Scripture study in Charleston, I just feel the horror, the sorrow, the insanity that is too intense for words. Mainly I just hold the injured, and the dead, and the suffering, and the grieving and the people of our country in the silence of my heart without words or thought and hope, that in spite of my being a sinner God will hear my Saint Francis Prayer.

And sometimes, viewing the world through the lenses of an old man who has seen evil as it seems to grow exponentially in our world, I remember what E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist clergy person and five-time nominee for the Noble Peace Prize, wrote seventy years ago in 1946:

The outer arrangements of humanity are awry, because the inner arrangements of humanity are awry. For the whole of the outer arrangements of humanity rest upon the inner. The breakdown in international comity is due to the breakdown in something back behind the economic and political – a breakdown of the spiritual. . . The outer collapse is simply an outer expression of a more serous inner collapse.

Jones went on to write that, “People cannot get along with each other because they cannot get along with themselves, and they cannot get along with themselves because they cannot get along with God.

What more is there to say? Well one thing we can say without fear of Biblical contradiction, is that people like the Baptist Preacher who rejoiced in the Pulse nightclub killings, do not have a Christian experience of God – are not Christian. If you need, as the old brothers and sisters of the poor little church I grew up in used to put it, “chapter and verse,” then you might begin with a meditation on Matthew 7:15-16; John 13:34-35; or, Matthew 5:43-44.

When I look into the night sky what I see above me is a great darkness with little pinpoints of light scattered across that infinite expanse. And what I do know without a doubt is that not only each individual Christian, but also each community of faith, is called to be a light in the darkness by which “wretched humanity” in all its despair, to use Br. Mark’s phrase from The Cadfael Chronicles, has the opportunity to be guided to a better and living way.

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Suspending the Episcopal Church
Fr. Larry

A number of people have asked what I think about the Episcopal Church “getting kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion;” that is, those churches throughout the world in fellowship with the see of Canterbury. I am no great expert on the subject, although I haven’t read anyone else who sounds like an expert either, but by simply being honest, and as someone who continues to love the Episcopal Church, I may be able to offer some clarification, and perhaps a somewhat larger perspective on what has happened and its significance for the future church, which includes, but is not limited to the Episcopal Church.

First, it should be noted that the Episcopal Church has not been expelled, ejected, or kicked out of the World Wide Anglican Communion. What has happened is that the Episcopal Church’s participation in those councils and events by which the Anglican Communion determines policy and doctrine has been suspended. There is obviously a big difference between suspension and expulsion. A high school youth may be suspended from school for a few days to consider his or her actions that are troubling to the school’s authorities, and given time in which to make some amends. If instead they decided to continue in the behavior that got them into trouble to begin with they may be expelled which is, of course, a more serious and permanent disciplinary action. The Anglican Communion has suspended the Episcopal Church for three years giving it time to change its mind primarily in regard to the ordination of gays and lesbians and performing same sex marriages. Bishop Curry, however, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has made it clear that the Episcopal Church is not going to reverse itself on this issue; nor is it likely that the Anglican Communion as a whole is going to reverse itself. I don’t think Bishop Curry is being the least bit obstinate – I think he is simply being realistic. So, I am neither particularly prophetic nor clairvoyant in predicting that in three years the Episcopal Church will very probably be expelled and that at some point thereafter those conservative churches which have coalesced into one of the new American “Anglican” denominations, will be admitted into the World Wide Anglican Communion in its place. This has in fact been the stated strategy of dissident “American Anglicans” for at least sixteen years.

For both sides matters of deep principle are at stake. For the Episcopal Church it is a matter of fundamental Biblical justice – to be in communion with God is to share God’s concerns, purposes, and desires of compassion, love, mercy and justice for all humanity. The majority of the Anglican Communion, interpreting the Bible far differently, believes the issue to be one of basic sexual morality – that there is a “sexual holiness code” to be found in Scripture, which if violated leads to eternal perdition – torment in a lake of fire for ever and ever. Who knows whether ages and ages hence this fracturing may be healed, for now it seems highly unlikely that the two sides will find a way to simply agree to disagree and continue on as institutionally one.

There are, course, many other factors in play so that this is far too simplistic an assessment. One of the major complications is that the field of Christian influence has shifted from the Global North to the Global South. A century ago four times as many Christians lived in the Global North (Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and North America) as in the Global South. Today 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South – 61%. About one-in-every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa and about one-in-eight in Asia and the Pacific. Nigeria has more than twice as many Protestants as Germany – the birth place of the Protestant Reformation. Brazil has twice as many Catholics as Italy. The American Physics Society compiled a list of those countries that would have no religion by the end of this century. They include the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Estonia, and Britain. Note: If there is no religion in Britain will there be a Canterbury Cathedral, a Lambeth Palace, or Archbishop of Canterbury? Even if there is the “polar” shift of Christianity to the Global South will mean, and already means, that fewer and fewer Anglicans will see any reason for their Communion to be centered in Canterbury England. African Bishops are already asserting, “The way to heaven does not necessarily go through Canterbury.” And what, in a hundred years, will all this mean for Rome as the center of Western Catholicism? Pope Francis who is so obviously a part of this movement to bring the Roman Church into the postmodern world is, after all, Argentinian, not Italian.

The age of traditional imperialism and colonialism is over. Whether we of the Global North like it or not, whether we like the conservative hermeneutics of the Global South, or find their attitude towards homosexuals reprehensible, or even diabolical, the reality is that they have, for a very long time, found Episcopal bishops condescending, rude, offensive and arrogant so that the relational or process issue is now deeper and more complex than the content question of homosexuality alone. No. It’s not likely that the World Wide Anglican Communion will hold together. I am not at all suggesting that one may not legitimately choose to enjoy its quaint beauty while it lasts, only that neither the beauty nor the enjoyment are infinite.

Welcome or unwelcome we live in a time of global cultural revolution. The conflict between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is but a small manifestation of the radical changes which have already occurred, are occurring even now, and others that will soon come to pass. The era of denominational Christianity is at an end. What the World Council of Churches could not accomplish mechanically (the organizational unity of denominational churches) ordinary Christian men and women have achieved — an ecumenical Christianity created organically by simply dismissing denominational lines as irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that denominations will disappear tomorrow, but that their relative importance drops further and further all the time. In the small congregation I presently serve people identify themselves in all sorts of ways — Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Anglican, Ecumenical Catholic, and frequently we enjoy the gentle presence of a Hindu. Denominations that continue to function primarily as permission givers and financial institutions will simply become irrelevant at an accelerating pace. Congregations will increasing ask why they need hierarchies that provide nothing but a bottomless pit in which to cast their valuables. Those denominations that function as resource centers for congregations doing contextual ministry, for the work of spiritual formation, and for the skill development, certification, and deployment of clergy will, obviously, lengthen their existence by their relevancy.
Christians of the Global North do not care much, then, about the doctrinal distinctions that once seemed so important to church members. At one time if you knew an individual’s denominational preference you knew an awful lot about what that person believed. Today Protestant fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have more in common with Catholic fundamentalists and other Protestant conservatives whatever their denomination than they do with more progressive believers, even where they are members of the same denomination – or the same congregation. And those who are drawn to something more like what Marcus Borg referred to as the emerging paradigm of Christianity, have far more in common with each other than they do with conservatives regardless of formal denominational ties.

The church emerging in the postmodern world is less institutional than medieval and modern expressions of the church; that is, it is less concerned about protecting its physical existence as an organization, less entranced by money, power, and status; and, less inclined to give unthinking “obedience” to leadership based on authoritarian demands and threats. Instead, it understands that the heart must be consecrated to Christ alone, that leadership must be based on wisdom and service. The future church will be more focused on Christ’s work of compassion, peace, and justice, than with “personal salvation” in the fundamentalist sense. Biblical interpretation will be based less on superficial, literal, and intellectually incomprehensible readings, and more on underlying spiritual principles capable of transforming individual human lives and the world we live in. There are indications that the connection with classical liturgical worship and spiritual disciplines are being rediscovered, but practiced in a more relaxed and contemporary setting. In time the postmodern church that is now emerging in the Global North will very likely arrive where it begun – as a community of faith very much resembling the Jesus people of the first century.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one cultural era ends neatly with smooth ends as another begins – or that all the people of one generation think quite differently from all the people before or after it. Sometimes I hear people arguing anecdotally about things like church music. The fact that someone has a seventeen-year-old who prefers traditional hymns doesn’t prove anything more than does the seventy-year-old grandfather preferring Christian rock. What we know for certain is that regardless of their pace “the changes, they are a comin’.” And it is this to which the most recent rupture in the World Wide Anglican Communion is but one small pointer.

The real question is how you choose to love and serve Christ in an age of change. It may be that you feel called to be an agent of God’s goodness in a rigidly traditional and institutional church, and that doing so is just good for the health of your soul. If so, then I say as sincerely as I know how, “May God bless you, and in that setting work with you in accomplishing the Holy Trinity’s great eternal purposes.” Or, it may be that you have a vision, or at least an inkling, of what the future might promise. Like Robert Kennedy you may see things as they never were, and wonder “why not?” If so, may God bless you on your journey to the future church.

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The Ethics of Killing Cecil

Father Larry

Like many people I have been disturbed by the killing of Cecil the Lion — not only for the softer sentimental reasons but also because of what it says about the moral reasoning of humanity at the very moment in time that a deeper wisdom and a higher level of ethical maturity is required for the survival of the planet. I am disturbed by the killing of Cecil because it is indicative of the larger general problem of a world in which immature human beings confronted by enormous planetary problems must make highly mature ethical and moral decisions for the benefit of all God’s good and beautiful creation.

Ethics is simply asking the question: “What is the best way for people to live?” and “What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?” In doing so it concerns itself with such concepts as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. This means, of course, that different people will have different beliefs about what is ethical in a given situation. And it can also mean that situations arise in which there is a conflict between what is legal and what is just or virtuous. Historically some of the world’s most famous and insightful philosophers have argued that because a dog does not reason like a person it can be beaten by its owner without the owner having done anything wrong, immoral, or unethical. However, and it seems to me that this contradicts such a proposition, if a person beats his or her dog, so say the great philosophers, it does say something about that person’s character and is predictive of how he or she may treat other people.

Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil, says he did nothing “wrong” and nothing illegal.” If he had known that this lion was a protected park lion who was a favorite of preserve visitors who had named it, then he would not have killed it. But because he believed the hunt was entirely legal he “took the lion.” Hunting, he said, “. . . is an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally.”

Palmer’s own actions call his veracity on this point into question. In 2008 he got into trouble in Wisconsin for killing a Black Bear forty miles outside the permit area, but falsely claimed the bear had been killed within the legal geographical boundaries. Similarly, he asserted he did not know Cecil was a protected lion wearing a collar until after Cecil was dead meaning, I suppose, when they cut his head off and skinned him. One must wonder why if Palmer and his  “guides” (actually by definition “poachers”) were acting responsibly and ethically Palmer did not say, “Wow guys! Look at this! A collar! We had better call the authorities and tell them we have made a terrible mistake.” But instead they attempted to hide their contemptible act.

Sabrina Corgatelli, another U.S. trophy or tourist hunter, has defended Walter Palmer declaring that Palmer did nothing illegal, and that there is nothing unethical about trophy hunting. To make her point she posted a photograph of a giraffe she killed claiming that it was old and that locals had asked her to kill it because they were hungry. Corgatelli quoted, obviously out of context and missing its point, Genesis 9:3, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” She did not tell how she verified the age of the giraffe or anything else she was told by these people. But if she was really concerned about providing for the hungry she might have donated the money she spent on her self-indulgent Africa hunting trip to provide them with food. But maybe she was more serious in quoting the Bible than what I think. Maybe there is a big slab of giraffe meat in her freezer.

On-line Ms. Corgatelli commented beneath the photo of herself and the dead giraffe, “I have so much love and respect for this animal. It was the most ethical shot I have ever made!!! I have such a disbelief that I got a giraffe.” Notice the language of both Sabrina and Walter. Sabrina “got a giraffe.” Walter “took the lion.” Their language reveals their ethics — the ethics of the taking mentality. The taking mentality is antithetical to every spiritual and every wisdom tradition of every religion as well as philosophical humanism in that it is essentially manipulative and self-absorbed. It is an ethic based on how what “is” can be used for my pleasure, for my benefit, for my ends, and my purposes.

Tilden Edwards. author of Living Simply Through the Day offers a pertinent and wise perspective as he describes “Five Responses Upon Seeing a Flower:”


Oh, beautiful; I can sell it.

Oh, beautiful; I’ll take it.

Oh, beautiful;I want it; but I will let it be.


Sabrina Corgatelli’s  and Walter Palmer’s was clearly the third response. Of course, Walter did not “take the lion” and Sabrina did not “get the giraffe.” The vital essence of each of those animals, the soul or what Genesis calls the nephesh, if you are a believer, flew into the hands of the Creator; or, if you are an atheist into an indifferent oblivion, but they did not get or take anything.

The trophy the hunter possesses is merely a chemically treated skin stretched over some sort of manufactured apparatus and then furnished with clay or glass eyes — just decorated Styrofoam. I have no idea what such a “trophy” is supposed to prove, or what happily posing for a photograph with a dead giraffe evidences. Well, I suppose the trophy is supposed to represent the accomplishment of something difficult and therefore virtuous. But Cecil was lured out of the park by meat tied to the back of a pickup and drug to the well prepared place of ambush where Walter ineptly wounded him with an arrow from a powerful scientifically designed compound bow. Cecil fled and was killed some torturous forty hours later when he was shot by a rifle. I grew up with guns and with men who hunted and sometimes as a young boy I played Big Game Hunter. Many is the time, imagining myself as a rugged mountain man, I was attacked by a giant Grizzly Bear with nothing but a Bowie Knife with which to fight to the death. But what child would want to imitate tourists hunters (luring might be a better word than hunting) armed with formidable compound bows, precision rifles, shooting special ammunition, telescopic sights, jeeps and every human convenience. I am well aware that killing can be addictive, but that it gives a certain “rush” proves no special prowess or virtue. My fourteen and sixteen year-old grandsons and granddaughters could have done what Walter did.

Sabrina speaks of her love and respect for this wonderful, exotic, and magnificent giraffe. But it is impossible to treat even a flower with awe and as an “it” at the same time. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, spoke of our experiences in terms of “I–Thou” and “I–It” events.  In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey says he went into the desert of Moab Utah because he wanted to learn to see and experience a tree, a rock, a cactus, a flower, a bird, or a desert animal as it was in itself — to grasp something of its essence in relation to himself — to experience, to feel, the “I–Thou encounter.” In talking like this Abbey is talking about some of the highest experiences, spiritual experiences, to which human beings can aspire. Albert Schweitzer, the brilliant theologian, concert organist, and medical missionary to Equatorial Africa in the early 1900s, rounded a bend in the river and as his boat passed through a herd of hippos he suddenly understood the deeper meaning of his work as Biblical scholar and theologian, as a musician, as a medical doctor, and as a human being in three word — “reverence for life.”

Ethics and moral reasoning are developmental. People like Lawrence Kohlberg have studied the stages of moral development in the same way Piaget studied the cognitive development of children. Mary Wilcox in Developmental Journey notes that in the earliest stages of moral development right or good is what is pleasant or exciting — it is what I like and want. “Oh, beautiful; I’ll take it.” With normal maturation children pass through the lower to the higher stages of moral and faith development to where ethical and moral decisions are based on universal principles, and where all creation is seen as a worthy end in itself rather than as the means to an end. Because of the rarity of people who exhibit the highest levels of moral reasoning and spiritual development there really is no definitive description. A description of the higher ethical plain is further complicated because it is best understood as an experience and involves an empathy with all things. Sabrina is most likely correct — at the lowest level of moral reason killing the giraffe was an ethical shot. At the higher ethical levels it was an act unworthy of a woman as intelligent and articulate as herself.

Ethics and moral reason are in a very real sense also socially, religiously, and culturally developmental. It would seem bizarre, for example, to hear someone in the United States today defend slavery, as was commonly done in the nineteenth century, as moral. Recently the Connecticut High Court abolished that states death row stating that capital punishment “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency.” In that one little sentence the Connecticut Supreme Court drug judicial thinking another step into the postmodern world. It seems to me the Connecticut Court was saying there has been a development, we might even hope a quantum leap, in societal ethics so that the death penalty can no longer be made to harmonize with the human quest for the true, the good, and the beautiful. In brief, men and women increasingly reject the notion that the death penalty is ethical; nor, as the outrage over Cecil’s killing demonstrated, can they find anything admirable in “tourist hunting.” Like some great river ethics moves and flows to a distant sea.

The killing of Cecil is not the most challenging problem to confront us of late — nor the most tragic. But it is sad, and it is symptomatic. I have no great insight into what is to be done immediately — other than to keep walking toward the light that often seems so  distant and trust that divine process of hope that will lead us ultimately to the Omega Point.

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My Descent into Kierkegaardian Madness

Lawrence Hart


What as a younger man I could be flattered into believing was the eccentricity of creativity or avant-garde thinking, I now, as an old man, recognize to have been early signs of an insidious disorder. As a “left-handed Okie” and “oilfield trash” I knew nothing of the lunatic Kierkegaard or his wild scribbling before a class in Christian philosophy where the passion of his lunacy was reduced to harmless academic categories and analyzed as sterile intellectual propositions – but no one talked about the enormous weight of suffering freighted by such madness.

Poor Soren deteriorated to the point he thought he was a goose — a lean goose with strong wings capable of bearing him upward in heavenly flight. In his delusional thinking he came to believe that the “church” is a flock of geese – plump, delicate, and incapable of flight. Quite frankly I am afraid that this same eusebegenic malady (a disease you can only contract in the church) may consume me as it did Kierkegaard. My only hope lies in the fact that my spiritual imagination simply lacks the amplitude of power to plunge me into such depths.

Researchers who have done the most thorough examination of Kierkegaardian madness are fairly definite in their conclusions regarding its etiology. Those who look too long into the abyss of the institutional church lose their mind; their grip on sanity, and the prognosis for a complete recovery is poor – although not a few are able to maintain what passes for normalcy in our culture by either cutting the roots, submitting to lobotomies, or becoming prostitutes.

That one very occasionally meets men and women of immense integrity, profound spirituality, and purity of heart who see the institutional church mired in the sins of arrogance, injustice, selfish ambition, willful blindness, bureaucratic inaction, banality, and guided more by the politics of power and control than the Spirit; and, yet nevertheless, having looked into the abyss continue to love and serve with complete equanimity, only deepens my despair. Surely their ability to see what is with such clarity while remaining completely sane must be by sheer grace, pure gift, but why is it a gift reserved for so few – I don’t think I can endure it.

Whether it came from someone quite sane or entirely mad I don’t know, but there is a saying that keeps swirling around in the fog of my mind: “The simple church of Jesus went from Palestine to Greece where it became a philosophy, then it went to Rome where it became a government and an institution, and finally found its way to America where it became an enterprise.”

Eugene Peterson is one of those who has managed to hold on to his sanity in spite of anger and frustration with the “shop keeper” mentality of clergy and laity. The entrepreneurial church with which Peterson is so disturbed is about catering to select customers, and always anxiously watching the bottom line. It is about – well it is about “the golden calf” and all that sort of thing. The institutional church is about preserving itself – about protecting money and property and playing the politics needed to accomplish that end. It is about cliques and “in-groups,” and about seldom accepting the risks of love and service. With a wise nod of its head it speaks of “loving fearlessly,” but it is neither loving nor fearless. In his mad ravings Kierkegaard shouted that Christendom is infested with “twaddlers” – cordial, helpful people, institutional insiders, who show up with their little pales, basins, and squirts where there is a fire, but lack the requisite “seriousness” to deal with the crisis. “Superficiality,” goes the lament, “is the curse of our age.”

The church as a philosophy is the church in the grip of “sophists” – academics who grind and sift all the nutrients from Scripture. Like expert illusionists they dazzle and amaze with misdirection, brazenly advertising their work as objective science when it is neither. The truth is while Biblical scholars announce their conclusions as certainties their work is based entirely on conjecture and their reasoning is as circular as a dog chasing its own tale. Their theories, no matter what evidence to the contrary, are like zombies, no matter how many funerals are planned they cannot be put to rest. God becomes a concept, Christ an abstraction, and Scripture a self-help book.

What is to become of me? What am I to do? SK launched a foolhardy frontal assault against the “church” – fool hardy like the last desperate act of a kamikaze pilot in the face of unacknowledged defeat. Or to change the metaphor somewhat, Kierkegaard thought he could dismantle the whole apparatus by shining a light, so to speak, into the dark abyss. But unmotivated people cannot be changed by insight. It is said his early death was due to natural causes – natural causes if one thinks death due to a fevered spiritual imagination is natural. But I digress. Kierkegaard’s response offers no guidance. Perhaps I should flee to some desert hermitage, but my wife probably wouldn’t let me take the dog, and what of the innocents I have now led out into the desert. Should I tell them there is no water in the springs of Raphedim other than what can be squeezed out of the wet mud? Should I companion with other desperados in disparate places without stained class, without incorporation, without exemption, without “twaddlers,” lawless except for Yahweh’s law of love and compassion, and without authority except for the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit? Is there a hidden diocese somewhere, a kind of safe house, with a Kierkegaardian Bishop? Should I call Francis? Or might Francis call me?

I know! I know! You think I am joking, am the joke, or speaking gibberish, the language of Bedlam. Or, that I am either intentionally or unintentionally trying to be annoying. And I do remember a time when my first born declared himself to be “Son of Annoying Man.” But I cannot stop my raving. God help me. God remove this fire in my guts.

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