Time For “Life And Work” Again

January 18, 2017

Today is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and marks the beginning of the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week will conclude on January 25 with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a week during which Christians are asked to pray for the unity of the church. The modern ecumenical movement, which has church unity as its goal, is sometime said to have started with the formation of the World Council of Churches after World War II.

But the Council itself came into being largely as a result of the merger of two already-existing movements — Faith and Order which focused on matters of doctrine and church structure/governance and Life and Work which explored ways the churches could work together around issued of justice and peace in the world. Those movements came into their own after the First World War.

For a long time, the emphasis was on Life and Work since the differences in Faith and Order among the churches seemed too great to overcome. However, a renewed emphasis on faith and order from, say, the 1960s has brought about a remarkable number of agreed statements, full communion relationships, and even mergers where previously separate communions (denominations) have become one. It has been a remarkable half-century.

As ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, I spent many years in bilateral and multilateral dialogues — Anglican – Roman Catholic, Lutheran – Episcopal, the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), Episcopal – Methodist, Presbyterian – Episcopal and others. While I would not take anything for those experiences and the advances toward the unity of the church we made, I believe we have gone about as far as we can go in the Faith and Order side of things. Now, especially now, it is time to focus again on Life and Work.

I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately because I sincerely believe that the United States is facing some of the same challenges Germany faced in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism and Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the fledgling ecumenical movement of his day and derived much strength and support from ecumenical colleagues in England and the United States as he became a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany which opposed Hitler and the capitulation of the established church in his rise to power.

Fortunately, Donald Trump does not have an established church in the country to co-opt. There is a reason we have a separation between church and state. However, his embrace of the so-called “evangelicals” (I recoil at letting them claim that hallowed title) and the “prosperity gospel” preachers may well give him a kind of cover and lead people to believe that the racist, misogynist, and xenophobic policies he is likely to promote are actually “Christian” positions.

It will be up to Christians in a renewed Life and Work movement (and, I would hope, a strengthened World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches) to bear witness to the truth of the gospel and resist any attempts to apply a veneer of “faith” onto right wing politics. We have seen this done before. The Confessing Church in Germany, however heroic, was a bit late in mounting resistance to Hitler and his minions.

We must not let that happen again.

The Time For Silence Is Over

January 16, 2017

Much has been written about the unconscionable irony of President-elect Donald Trump getting into a war of words with civil rights icon John Lewis virtually on the eve of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is just one more example of Trump’s insensitivity and tone deafness on the matter of race relations in this country over which he will soon preside.

It will be enormously difficult for Donald Trump to “bring this country together,” as he claims to want to do, if he continues to denigrate African Americans, women, immigrants, the press, allies in NATO and the United Nations, and so many others. One of Trump’s most dangerous characteristics (and he has many) is his prickly, thin-skinned nature which we see played our daily on Twitter. Presidents, even the most popular ones, are constantly being criticized — sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. Are we in for four years of daily rants about every such critical remark? Probably.

A more rational response to John Lewis’ (and others) opinion about the “illegitimacy” of his presidency and decisions not to attend the inauguration would have been for Trump to reach out to them or at least to state publicly that he would do all he could to win their confidence and trust in the days and months ahead. Alas, another missed opportunity.

I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth lately and considering the similarities between what we are going through in this country and the situation the German people faced in the 1930s during the rise of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler. I do not believe Trump is another Hitler yet, but I fear he might be. Hitler was “elected” by a population who felt that democracy was not working for them and that they therefore had to have a charismatic, unconventional leader who would “drain the swamp” and get things done.

Hitler began by embracing Christianity and the German church because he knew it was in his best interests to do so. Prophets like Barth and Bonhoeffer saw through this ruse and finally felt the need to set up a “Confessing Church” in opposition to the established church which has fallen under the dictator’s sway. We are fortunate not to have an “established” church in the United States for Donald Trump to co-opt, although his embracing of the so-called “evangelicals” and “prosperity gospel” preachers is troubling.

I have mixed feelings about our National Cathedral agreeing to participate in the inauguration by providing a choir and hosting the interfaith prayer service. On the one hand, we have had that role for many decades even when many Episcopalians opposed a particular candidate and surely it is right to pray for our leaders whether we agree or disagree with them. On the other hand, never before have we seen a President-elect who has made so many public statements which are at odds with the spirit of Christ and the teachings of the church. It would have been a powerful witness to respectfully decline the invitation to participate this time.

When all is said and done, on this Martin Luther King Day, we must heed the witness of John Lewis and his mentor, Dr. King, not to keep silent in these days, but to remain eternally vigilant lest the slippery slope that led the German people to plunge into the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust be our fate in the coming years. It can happen here!

King famously said that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” and I believe that. But, as this recent election has shown us, that arc has many twists and turns along its path.


White Privilege and Mansplaining

January 4, 2017

Susanne and I decided to check in with our first Iowa City Council meeting last night as they discussed the possibility of claiming the title “sanctuary city” for immigrants who rightly fear for their safety and the integrity of their families under the upcoming Trump administration. The discussion was a bit disappointing resulting in their stopping short of pursuing the sanctuary city label, but directing the city attorney to draft a resolution for a future meeting that would, in part, deny allocations of local resources to federal immigration enforcement officers.

The major expressed concern that the term “sanctuary city” has no agreed-upon definition and is controversial even in progressive Iowa City because it may suggest (wrongly) that the city would be breaking federal law or harboring dangerous criminals who happen to be immigrants. One councilwoman even used the tired argument that using the label would give a false sense of security to those who might not understand the limitations that local government has. (In other words, immigrants are too dumb to comprehend what the rest of us do!).

Susanne commented that the meeting was a cross between “white privilege and mansplaining.” It certainly had those characteristics. One bright spot was an articulate attorney who expressed his desire to send a strong signal in advance of any actions the federal government might take under a President Trump, given his rhetoric on the campaign trail. He acknowledged the good record of local law enforcement in the past in guarding public safety while not getting involved in immigration policy which is a federal responsibility.

The city attorney made it clear that any request from the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) for local police to detain people solely on the basis of questionable immigration status can only be in the form of a request and do not bind the city police department or the Johnson County jail. Unless there is a threat to public safety, local law enforcement is quite within its rights to ignore such requests.

The councilman mentioned above who was most concerned about Iowa City sending a message to the Trump administration now pointed out that this was all fine and good given present laws, but feared that such laws may change in the not-too-distant future. “If there was to be a federal law passed like that, saying that we had to help (ICE), then constitutional issues would come into play,” said the city attorney. In other words, the city might refuse on constitutional grounds due to lack of proper warrants, etc.

In the end the council agreed to ask for the resolution clarifying the city’s intent not to allow federal immigration enforcement officers to be assisted by local resources and also to consult University of Iowa law professors in order to be kept informed of any likely change in federal law which would require further assessment of the city’s response.

Overall, I am glad to be in a community where these matters are even being discussed on the highest levels. But I will continue to monitor the progress of the proposed resolution and will likely be back in council chambers for that debate.

A Post-Party 2017

January 2, 2017

No, the title of this post does not mean that I have given up partying after a crushing hangover yesterday (didn’t happen!). What I am seriously considering as my belated New Year’s resolution is to curtail my involvement in any political party this year in favor of focusing my energies on groups and organizations which will be fighting to preserve our civil rights and liberties which I fear may be very much under attack under a Trump administration.

Oh, I will still remain a registered Democrat. At least as long as that party’s platform and values best represent the poor and marginalized with whom my faith requires me to stand. I will likely vote Democrat in any upcoming elections, but I will no longer devote my time and hopes to a political party which so badly failed us all in 2016…and perhaps long before. I worked hard for Hillary Clinton and was assured by the party bosses that Donald Trump could not possibly win and that their strategies would carry Secretary Clinton with ease into the White House. Wrong!

Besides, I have never been a completely doctrinaire Democrat. I resonate with Republican concerns about our ballooning national deficit and want to “fix the debt.” I agree with them that the federal government is far too large and bureaucratic to serve the needs of the people. I am pro-life as well as pro-choice, and am uncomfortable with the Democratic party’s seemingly cavalier attitudes toward the taking of a human life even from the womb. I am sympathetic with the catholic church’s “consistent ethic of life” which opposes both abortion and capital punishment.

I am hugely attracted by the Libertarians’ non-interventionist positions with respect to our military and agree with Ron and Rand Paul that the U.S. rarely makes things better by military adventurism into foreign conflicts and usually make things worse (i.e. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt). I believe military force should be the absolute last resort and used only for our national defense and with Congressional approval! Bloated military spending could well be re-directed toward humanitarian support for the victims of foreign conflicts rather than entering them ourselves.

Right now, I am most concerned about the issue of immigration, fearing that the Trump administration is serious about making life difficult and even miserable with their proposed “build a wall, send them home” policies. So I intend to get involved in Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (www.iowacci.org) and our local interfaith coalition if they are serious about standing with immigrants, documented and undocumented. And I plan to attend the Iowa City Council meeting tomorrow night as they discuss the pros and cons of designating Iowa City as a “sanctuary city” as a way of publicly declaring our solidarity with our recent, and not so recent, newcomers.

As priest and bishop, I always tried to be political but not partisan. In other words, I spoke out on the issues but never advocated for a particular candidate or political party. In retirement, I felt free to involve myself deeply in the Democratic party, including being a delegate to our district convention, making phone calls, knocking on doors and pledging not-insignificant dollars for Democratic candidates.

In retrospect, I think my former posture was better.

“Comites Christi”

December 26, 2016

It used to sort of irritate me that three holy days — the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents — come right on the heels of Christmas. Just as we make the psychological shift from Advent as the season of expectation to the all-too-brief twelve days of Christmas, we must pause to remember the lives of these particular saints. “With all the ‘open’ days in the Calendar,” I used to wonder, “why couldn’t these saints be commemorated on other days outside the Christmas season?”

But, reading Dear Henri, a recently released collection of the letters of Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch priest and spiritual guide to so many of us in the last decades of the twentieth century, I learned for the first time that these saints are sometimes referred to as Comites Christi or the “Companions of Christ.” This, not only because their celebrations fall close to that of Christ’s birth, but because they share certain qualities with him.

St. Stephen, the most famous of the seven proto-deacons selected by the apostles according to the Book of Acts, was also the first Christian martyr, the first Christian to have his life taken because of his profession of faith. Jesus is sometimes called “the King of Martyrs” but Stephen leads a centuries-long procession of faithful souls who have followed him in giving their very lives rather than deny the One they serve.

St. John, author of the Fourth Gospel, is identified in the church Calendar also as an “apostle.” Anciently it was thought that the same John mentioned in the list of the twelve apostles was also the author of the Gospel of the same name. More recent scholarship suggests that this was unlikely for a variety of reasons. But, if the word “apostle” is defined here in its generic sense as “one who is sent,” surely the one who penned the stunning words of the last canonical Gospel written would be worthy of the designation. The theologian who first articulated that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” surely deserves a place in the Christmas season.

As do “the Holy Innocents,” those young children who, tradition tells us, were slaughtered by King Herod in his frustrated attempt to eliminate one who might rival him as “King of the Jews.” Like those Hebrew babies similarly murdered in the story of Pharoh’s attempt to thin out the ranks of the children of Israel lest they become one day a mighty army of rebellion, the Gospel of Matthew’s Holy Innocents share, with Jesus the fate of being unjustly slain because of the fears and ambitions of a tyrant.

I don’t know why my theological education over these last seventy years did not include the identification of these “Christmas saints” as “Companions of Christ.” But I am grateful to my brother Henri Nouwen, now himself a member of the Church Triumphant in Paradise, for leaving behind so many beautiful letters for those of us who also might dare to call ourselves

Comites Christi


“I’ve Been Thinking A Lot About Mary Lately”

December 23, 2016

A number of years ago, I ran across a little article in the Des Moines Register by a woman named Cynthia Mercati with which I was quite taken. I put it in a computer file and often open it up around this time in the year and take another look. Let me share it with you:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary lately.  I don’t mean the manger/angels sweetly singing on high/Mary.  I don’t mean the blond, blue-eyed Mary I was taught about in Catholic schools…the only woman ever to give birth without mussing her hair!  No, the Mary I’ve been thinking about is the one we know only fragments about – but what fragments they are.  When she is told she will be the mother of God, this gutsy Jewish teen-ager declares that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

“If anybody was listening, they might think this girl was a social activist!  After her baby’s birth, Luke tells us that Mary ‘kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.’ Some folks think it was the shepherds and the sweet smell of the stable Mary was thinking about…but most mothers know what she was thinking: Why him? Why my son? Why couldn’t this great honor have been bestowed on the kid down the block? Why can’t my child just live a peaceful, uneventful life?  Yet by the time we see Mary at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, she is urging – some would even say nagging – her son to get on with his life’s work…”

“The Mary I have been thinking about was a single mother.  Somewhere along the way from Bethlehem to Golgotha, Joseph drops out of sight…Whatever happened, Mary ended up a woman alone.  No health benefits, no old age pension.  The Mary I’ve been thinking about lately would not fit well or easily into today’s celebrations of her son’s birth…Most likely Mary would put a crimp in all our modern festivities with our relentlessly grim determination to be cheery.”

“How, she might ask, can you possibly ‘keep’ this thing you call Christmas without thinking first and foremost of all the people who will spend this day, and all their others, with holes in their hearts?  The newly bereaved, the newly single, the jobless, the depressed, those the world deems misfits, and those the world views as ‘having it all” and who still can find no peace?  These are the people my son spent his time with, and gave his life for!  Any anniversary of this birth can have no meaning apart from pain – theirs…his…ours.”

Well, as I say, I thought it was a good piece and perhaps sums up for many of us why we find Mary such an attractive figure.  One who, from the brief accounts we have of her in the New Testament, would probably have been considered a saint no matter whose mother she was!  But, of course, as Christians we do know whose mother she was, and so she becomes an example for us in still another way.  Not only was she a strong woman who models for us what sensitivity to the poor and the marginalized looks like, but she also had a unique role in receiving…carrying…birthing…and nurturing…Jesus of Nazareth in this world.

And so do we! Because sadly, in many ways, Jesus Christ is as little known – or at least as little heeded – by people in the world today as he was in Mary’s time.  Our task, as Christian people, is to introduce the person of Jesus to those who know him not.  And the way you do that effectively is the same way Mary did – by receiving him, carrying him, birthing him, and nurturing him in the world today!

First of all, you need to “receive” Jesus yourself!  You can’t give away something you don’t have.  So you need – as our evangelical sisters and brothers are wont to say — to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. Our Confirmation service asks us to do the same thing.  And you need to continue to “receive” him every Sunday in word and prayer and sacrament as part of a Christian community.

Secondly, you need to “carry” Jesus…with you… outside the doors of your church and into your daily life letting every decision you make be impacted and influenced by him. By asking, in every situation with which you are confronted, “What would Jesus do?” Yep, WWJD –what would Jesus do? That may sound a little simplistic, but it’s actually at the core of Christian ethics and moral theology — the imitation of Christ. To ask ourselves, in every situation, what would Jesus do?

Third, you and I need to “give birth” to Jesus in the lives of others by being willing to talk about him openly and without embarrassment.  In other words, to talk to your friends and loved ones, not only about your local church or your denomination or even about “God”, but about the personality and ministry of Jesus. That’s what our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, means by “the Jesus Movement.” To talk about Jesus, rather than only the church.

And finally, we need to “nurture” Christ in this world just as surely as Mary did. How? By taking care of his Body!  In the tradition, Mary cared for the body of Christ from infancy until she cradled that body when it was taken down from the Cross.  We need to take care of his Body today. The Body of Christ – the church!

Jesus needed to be fed and clothed, strengthened and encouraged, in his earthly life. And the church of Jesus Christ in the world today has precisely those same needs!  By your active participation in and support of your congregation and its outreach, you are exercising just such a “nurturing” ministry. Because the church is the Body of Christ just as surely as Jesus was!

So, like our friend, the columnist Cynthia Mercati, let’s all take Mary as our “companion” this Christmas.  Not only as an example of compassion and concern for the poor and marginalized, but as an example of just how it is that we can receive…carry…give birth to…and nurture Christ Jesus in the world today.  For, in the words of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…and …blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Re-Thinking Sanctuary Cities

December 20, 2016

I have been somewhat conflicted about the establishment of “sanctuary cities” so designated because of certain communities’ commitment to immigrants and to protecting even undocumented immigrants from forced deportation and other draconian measures enacted by the federal government. Conflicted because I just couldn’t see how a local municipality could simply refuse to obey federal immigration law no matter how much we may disagree with it. “If you don’t like a law,” my usual logic says, “change it.” But you can’t just disregard it.

In this, I am afraid I have fallen for the definition of “the word ‘sanctuary’ as Mr. Trump deploys it – a place where immigrant criminals run amok, shielded from the long arm of federal law…” (New York Times article, December 18, 2016). But this understanding of sanctuary, according to this same article, “is grossly misleading, because cities with ‘sanctuary’ policies cannot obstruct federal enforcement and do not try to. Instead, they do what they can to welcome and support immigrants, including the unauthorized, and choose not to participate in deportation crackdowns they see as unjust, self-defeating and harmful to public safety.”

My own community of Iowa City (home to the University of Iowa) is debating whether or not to identify itself as such a sanctuary city. So far the City Council has decided to adopt and support many of the policies and stances toward immigrants of such cities without actually claiming the politically volatile handle “sanctuary city.” This seems to me a reasonable first step, but I would now prefer that we go the whole way and bear witness to our compassion by going on record as a sanctuary city.

People of faith have a long history of providing sanctuary for people – from the “cities of refuge” named in the Book of Leviticus to churches and monasteries historically being understood as places where accused people might flee and at least buy some time to be sure appropriate legal protections were enforced and that they were to be treated fairly under the law.

And, since it is our role to try and shape society to reflect, however imperfectly, the values we hope to find in the coming Kingdom of God, attempting to influence our local communities to welcome and protect immigrants would be a good way of “doing unto the least of these” as we have been commanded to do.

Another Troubling Appointment…

December 16, 2016

Another troubling appointment has been made by President-elect Donald Trump. For U.S. ambassador to Israel, he has selected one David Friedman. Among other things: Friedman is the President of an organization (the American Friends of Beit El) which supports the continued building of Jewish settlements in the disputed, occupied territories most of the world believes belongs to the Palestinians; he opposes the two-state solution which would provide a homeland for the Palestinian people; and he supports moving the capital of Israel from Tev Aviv to Jerusalem (a position Trump himself has advocated).

Why are these bad ideas? Israeli settlements provide “facts on the ground” which makes is ever more difficult to negotiate land for peace in any eventual  peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Giving up on the two-state solution which has been the constant position of the United States (and, additionally, by virtually all Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities) for nearly half a century. It is the only way forward for a just and secure peace in the region. Finally, moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv risks further politicizing the Holy City of Jerusalem which many of us believe should always remain an international holy place, a city which the three Abrahamic faiths call sacred.

It is hard to fathom what kind of international outcry would result from these actions should they be taken or the depth of anguish sown in the hearts of Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike. If frustration at the slow pace of justice and peace in the Land of the Holy One has led to violent outbreaks and multiple “intifadas” in the recent past, one can only view with apprehension the future under a President Trump and Ambassador Friedman.

As if these matters were not serious enough, like so many of Trump’s appointees thus far, Friedman is completely unqualified. A bankruptcy lawyer, he has absolutely no diplomatic experience and has long been identified with Israel’s far right and openly critical of pro peace, pro Israel organizations like J Street who he has likened to Jews who aided the Nazis in the Shoah (Holocaust)! This is an “ambassador?” I cannot imagine what Donald Trump was thinking when, out of an incredibly rich store of qualified candidates, he appointed this naive and deeply biased individual to represent the United States in this most volatile part of the world.

My fear is that he was not thinking. No one questions the fact that the President-elect is smart. But, if you refuse to receive adequate foreign policy briefings and to take advantage of the collective wisdom of Republican and Democratic administrations which go back at least to the Second World War, you cannot possibly make good decisions.

The appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel will hardly make the headlines or catch the attention of most Americans. But it will speak volumes around the world to the dangerous path this country is about to take. Dear friends, never have we needed to pray together these words from Psalm 122, and to pray them with fervency:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:/May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls/ and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions’ sake,/ I pray for your prosperity.

Miss Them Already!

December 14, 2016

I shared a Facebook post yesterday with a stunning picture of Michelle Obama and words about what an intelligent, classy, and scandal-free family we have had in the White House over the last eight years. Had a lot of “Likes” and agreements, but a surprising number of hateful comments one of which stated that he couldn’t wait until the Obamas “slithered out of the White House.”

I responded that I could understand disagreeing with Barack Obama or even believing that he had been a bad President, but saying (as he did) that the Obamas were “hateful, arrogant and crude” was beyond the pale! Anyway, my original caption on the post was “Miss them already.” Today, I realize that it is not only the First Family that I will miss, but so many of his Cabinet members and appointees who have made me so proud representing us around the world.

Today, I watched Samantha Power lambaste Syria and Russia on the floor of the United Nations with a powerful speech. She said, of their brutal siege of Aleppo,”Is there nothing that can shame you? Are you truly incapable of shame? No act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin…?” And much more. I was so proud of her…

I have had similar moments of pride watching Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Secretary of State John Kerry and so many others in the Obama Administration. And I have compared them, in my own mind, with the embarrassment I used to feel when we were represented to the world by the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft and so many other sterling members of the last Republican Administration.

Now, shaking my head every day at the next outrageous appointment by President-elect Donald Trump, I fear we are in for another four years (please, please….only four years!) of embarrassment on the domestic and foreign stage. I can only hope that Congress will step forward and be not only a moderating influence but provide a “face” for the US government in which we can feel some pride.

Actually, Senator Rand Paul (for whom I actually have a lot of respect, even while sometimes disagreeing with him strongly) has begun to do just such a thing by vocally opposing ridiculous Trump appointments like John Bolton as Deputy at the State Department.

Even if such Senators and Representative do step forward with some regularity, such figures will get much less attention from our sensationalist media than Donald Trump’s outrageous Tweets and, undoubtedly, those of his Cabinet. Ah, if we just had four more years of the Obama Administration…

Miss them already!





A Timely Psalm

December 12, 2016

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness/ against the godly all day long?

You plot ruin, your tongue is like a sharpened razor/O worker of deception.

You love evil more than good/ and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt/ O you deceitful tongue.

Oh, that God would demolish you utterly/ topple you, and snatch you away from your dwelling, and root you out of the land of the living!

The righteous shall see and tremble/ and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge/ but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God/ I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

I will give thanks for what you have done/ and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

Psalm 52 (Monday in the 3rd Week of Advent)