Archive for the ‘Interfaith’ Category

Be My Guide To Know Your Path

September 4, 2017

When I was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa in 1988, I knew that my world was about to change in more ways than one. I was moving from a growing diocese in Central Florida to a demographically challenged one in the Midwest. I was coming into a totally different ministry than anything I had ever experienced before (contrary to what some believe, being bishop is not like being rector of an even larger parish; it is much more complicated than that). And, I was leaving a wonderful support system of friends and colleagues and, most of all, a trusted spiritual director.

Among the first things I did was to contract for monthly sessions with a young clinical psychologist whom I had met while he interviewed me as part of the screening process and medical/psychological exams required of bishop candidates. I liked him very much and he agreed to let me check in with him regularly to see if being a bishop had made me any crazier than I already was! The next search was for a spiritual director.

One of the priests in the Diocese of Iowa suggested Sister Mary Dingman who was then about seventy years old and a sister of the School Sisters of St. Francis out of Milwaukee. For a number of years then, she and a series of Jesuit colleagues ran something called “Emmaus House” in a struggling urban neighborhood in Des Moines. Mary and her colleague opened the house for retreats and quiet days, offered a daily mass, and often provided a simple lunch for their guests. They also engaged in spiritual direction and led retreats and conferences all over the Midwest.

I made an appointment to see Mary and we hit it off immediately. She was one of those deeply-grounded, gentle, progressive spirits which one can find in so many Roman Catholic women’s Orders. For the next twelve years, I made almost monthly “days of recollection” at Emmaus House. I would arrive early in the morning, be assigned a simple room, and spend the rest of the day reading, sleeping, praying, journaling or whatever else I needed to do to refresh my body and soul. In the afternoon, I would meet one-on-one with Sister Mary and she would gently listen, guide, encourage, and sometime challenge me to take the next steps on my spiritual journey.

Mary walked with me through diocesan crises, dealing with clergy sexual misconduct and putting in place procedures to handle such tragedies, wrestling with whether or not I should let my name be submitted as a candidate for Presiding Bishop (I had been asked by several as Ed Browning’s tenure came to an end), and finally — most significantly — the sudden death of my wife of thirty-two years, the grieving period that followed, and the putting back together of my life in a variety of ways in the following years.

I lost touch with Sister Mary a bit during the nine years that my new wife Susanne and I lived in New York, but got back in contact with her (now officially “retired”) when we moved back to Iowa as part of the “regional-ization” of some staff positions at the Church Center in 2009. We did not resume the same spiritual direction relationship, but simply met together, as dear friends, every so often when I would drive down to the little town of St. Paul, Iowa for coffee and conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a niece of Mary’s and told that she was very weak and might not have long to live. The next morning I drove to St. Paul and found her sitting up in her recliner with a nasal oxygen catheter, but strong enough to have a brief conversation, a prayer together, and a gently kiss as I departed. On August 26 at 1:15 in the morning Mary’s spirit-filled heart gave out and she died.

Again, I was notified immediately by the family and was able to attend a Memorial Mass for her at St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul on Saturday September 2. Her funeral and burial the day before had been in Milwaukee at the Mother House of her Order. In St. Paul, I was welcomed warmly by the family who seemed almost as glad as I was that I had been able to see her and tell her how much I loved her and valued our friendship in those last days. The priest who presided at her Memorial Mass was kind enough to mention that “the retired Episcopal Bishop of Iowa” was among the many ecumenical guests and colleagues in the congregation.

I quite literally do not know what I would have done without the ministry of this devoted sister. Perhaps this prayer from the School Sisters of St. Francis which graced her service bulletin says it best:

Be my guide, God of love/ Lead me daily to search my heart.

Be my guide to know Your path./ That I may follow You each step of the way.

Grant me courage to trust and risk/ That I may have peace on my path to You.

Amen.

 

 

This Is The Gate of Heaven!

August 24, 2017

I did part of a sabbatical years ago at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem. One of the courses I took was called “the Desert Course” and it entailed spending time in the Sinai tracing ancient pilgrim routes to St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of the supposed site of the biblical Mt. Sinai. We took three jeeps with Bedouin drivers and an Egyptian guide, alternating nights spent in monasteries with camping on the desert floor.

One evening, as we sat around the camp fire on a crystal clear night, our guide pointed up to the endless night sky and said, “Welcome to the Sinai. One moon…ten million stars!” I believe that I could have counted each one. Later, as I unrolled my sleeping bag, I found a smooth stone to serve as a pillow and had very much the same experience as Jacob in this morning’s reading for St. Bartholomew’s day:

“Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it…(When) Jacob woke from his sleep (he) said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'” (Genesis 28:10 ff passim)

I cannot sing the hymn “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” without remembering that experience and giving thanks to God for the privilege of spending those weeks in the “Land of the Holy One” as the Anglicans in that part of the world call it, reminding us that the land is holy only because it is a gift from the Holy One. I doubt that it is possible for that same course to be offered in the Sinai today because of the troubled politics of the region.

When we pray for the “peace of Jerusalem,” let us remember all the people of God in Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East and hope that one day that part of the world will find the promised peace and become an international meeting ground for all of us who await that Day when “all nations and races may serve (God) in harmony…” (Book of Common Prayer, page 815)

May it one day be so!

The Kingdom, The Power,and The Glory Are Yours

August 18, 2017

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has written a book on The Lord’s Prayer entitled The Greatest Prayer.  And I have often thought how true that sentiment is. This ancient prayer (whether or not it goes back to the historical Jesus) seems appropriate for almost any occasion or situation one may be facing. In these troubled times:

Our Father in heaven — acknowledging what some may hear as patriarchal language in a three-story universe — this opening phrase can remind us that we are all sisters and brothers of the one Parent/Creator whose vision and reach far exceeds our little blue planet floating in space.

Hallowed be your name — reminds us that the very name of God is holy and unspeakable really, that no words can adequately described this Ground of our Being, this “Yahweh,” this One who is Being and Existence itself. “Holiness,” wholeness itself.

Your kingdom come — while we live in the midst of various empires, systems, governments and indeed owe a certain allegiance to them as long as they proved order and stability in society, we yearn for a day when they will all pass away and when all the peoples of the earth will be united in the one God whose Commonwealth will be for ever, and for all.

Your will be done on earth as in heaven — the very universe(s) in which we dwell seem marked by cosmic cycles of birth and death, of advancement and retreat, of contraction and expansion. Yet all seem “held together” by some unitive force which some of us can only call “love.” Our prayer is that the very yearning of our Creator for harmony and reconciliation, for balance and justice will one day be found on earth as we see it mirrored in the cosmos.

Give us today our daily bread — That really is all we need. Our bread for today. We do not need to hoard wealth and possessions, the very fact of which widens the gap between rich and poor and will always lead to the “haves” and the “have nots” which is the source of most of the violence and war all around us. We need only food for today.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us — there is a connection here. We can only expect to be forgiven by others if we forgive them. It is the very height of arrogance to expect forgiveness and yet fail to be forgiving ourselves.

Save us from the time of trial — perhaps originally intended as a prayer not to cave in during the early days of the persecution of Christians, this plea today is that we may be spared the greatest of all difficulties but, if we have to experience the worst, to stand strong and courageously.

And deliver us from evil — poverty, war, terrorism, racism, sexism, misogyny, anti- Semitism, environmental degradation, and so much more. This is our cry for “Help” from that power which is greater than ourselves for deliverance.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever — God is sovereign and we are not; all power in the universe(s) ultimately come from that one Source; and the splendor of this Reality fairly shines in the darkness of our world and of our minds. And it will do so for all eternity…to the ages of ages.

Amen – So be it!

The Prosperity Of The Wicked

August 4, 2017

What family comes to mind when you read these words? Be honest now…

“Because I envied the proud, and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others, they have no share; they are not afflicted as others are;

Therefore they wear their pride like a necklace, and wrap their violence about them like a cloak.

Their iniquity comes from gross minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts.

They scoff and speak maliciously; out of their haughtiness they plan oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens, and their evil speech runs through the world.

And so people turn to them and find in them no fault.

They say, “How should God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

So then, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase their wealth.”

(Psalm 73: 3-12)

And what is their future? Well…

“When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me;

Until I entered the sanctuary of God and discerned the end of the wicked.

Surely you set them in slippery places; and cast them down in ruin.

Oh, how suddenly do they come to destruction, come to an end, and perish from terror!

Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord, when you arise you will make their image vanish”

(Psalm 73: 16-20)

May it be so. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

The Profane White House

July 29, 2017

I am not a prude. In fact, most days my language could use some cleaning up, especially when I hit my proverbial thumb with the proverbial hammer or experience frustration at some task. I grew up in a home where such profanity was common, if not frequent. It is a hard habit to break.

However, I must admit to being frankly appalled by the kind of language used quite publicly by members of the Trump administration. Of course the tone is set by our fearless leader himself. His campaign style of telling large audiences (of young people as well as adults) what he would bomb out of ISIS or just where in eternity undocumented immigrants or protesters might go, or where he is likely to grab women shows no sign of abating now that he has somehow (still unbelievably to me!) been elected President of the United States.

In fact, the least offensive thing he said to a recent jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America was “why the hell” he would want to talk about politics at such a gathering. (Just before proceeding to do just that for a large portion of his speech). The man seems incapable of monitoring his language no matter what audience he is addressing at any given moment.

The foul-mouthed fascist, Steve Bannon, appeared to be topping even his boss in the profanity department until last week. And then, Anthony Scaramucci appeared on the scene. Days after being appointed Communications Director for Donald Trump’s administration, Scaramucci decided to “communicate” in an even coarser style than his arch enemy, Bannon.

After a vulgar tirade about Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ mental stability the former Wall Street executive assured us that he did not have what the New York Times called Steve Bannon’s “dorsal flexibility” in describing his attempts at self-promotion. And then, of course, he concluded by telling us that he was going to “f—ing kill the leakers” in the White House.

Now, I know that this is a pretty trivial matter compared to what this constitutional democracy is facing under a President Trump or what new danger the entire world is in by having such an unstable leader with access to the nuclear codes. But I have long bemoaned the “coarsening” of society, seen in everything from the language used in movies and on TV, the lack of discretion in advertising footage, and in the misogynistic lyrics in contemporary “music” particularly much rap and hip hop.

It has been such a blessing over the last eight years to have a class act like Barack Obama as our chief role model for young people. This handsome, eloquent gentleman no doubt lets a curse word or two fly from his mouth from time to time. But at least we were spared hearing it on an almost daily basis from behind the presidential seal.

Yes, we are in less danger from the profanity emanating from the White House than we are its policies. But it would be nice not to have to remove my grandchildren from the television before the nightly news.

 

 

Vacation Or Holiday?

July 17, 2017

This evening Susanne and I will board a one-way flight to spend a couple of weeks in our little condo in Daytona Beach. A one-way ticket, not because we are leaving Iowa and moving to Florida full time, but because we will drive my Dad’s car back to Iowa at the end of our time there. He has decided that, at 96, he is unlikely ever to drive again (!) and, because his granddaughter Amanda totaled her car in an unfortunate run-in with a deer, he is giving her his relatively new Chevy.

The little place we have overlooks the Halifax River (which is what the Inland Waterway is called in Daytona) and we were so pleased that Amanda, her daughter Courtney and her boyfriend Ryan were able to spend a long weekend there just recently. It had always been my hope to have a permanent place in our “home state” of Florida that the kids and grandkids could use for vacations and where Susanne and I could perhaps get out of the worst of the Iowa winters. Now, circumstances have allowed us to do this while still keeping our primary residence in Iowa City, a wonderful university town in a state we now both call home.

Being still fairly new in this time of life called “retirement,” I am still trying to figure out what a “vacation” is when basically our whole life is a vacation now! Well, not really. Susanne is heavily involved in some ministries and activities here in Iowa and I do some supply work and consulting both for the Diocese of Iowa and the Diocese of Chicago when asked. But clearly, out time is more our own these days and we are free from the multi-tasking and busy-ness which consumed so many of our years in the past.

Some light has been shed on this dilemma recently by considering the word “holiday” rather than “vacation” to describe time away from work and responsibility. Vacation indicates an “empty” time; while a holiday suggest a “holy” time. Holiness bespeaks healing and wholeness and appreciation of the sacred. Long walks on the beach, watching the endless tide and waves will be coupled with seeing the sun set over the river from our balcony as the sail and power boats return from a happy day of cruising or fishing to nestle in their slips for the night.

We’re looking forward to a holy time rather than an empty time in the days ahead.

May your summer provide such experiences as well!

 

Shaken By The Wind, Speaking With Boldness

July 3, 2017

It was an honor and privilege last weekend to participate in and address the 22nd DIAKONIA World Assembly meeting at Loyola University in Chicago. This quadrennial meeting brings together some 400 deacons, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers from a variety of Christian communions and from 26 countries including Germany, others in Western Europe, Africa, to the the U.S. and Caribbean, right across the globe to the Philippines.

The diaconate is, of course, an historic Christian ministry tracing its roots to those seven “proto deacons” in the Acts of the Apostles who were selected to “serve table” (feed the hungry) leaving the apostles free for prayer and the ministry of the word. Across the centuries, diaconal ministry has included the likes of Sts. Stephen and Phillip, Phoebe, Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas Farrar, David Pendleton Oakerhater, Harriet Bedell, and in our own day Deacon Ormond Plater.

As my wife, Susanne Watson Epting (who is also a deacon), has demonstrated so clearly in her book Unexpected Consequences: The Renewal of the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church, this ministry has been a constant down the history of the church but has involved and changed over time and in different places. She traces some seven waves of development at least as we have experienced them in the Episcopal Church.

The theme of this recent DIAKONIA Assembly was “Shaken By the Wind” and various speakers and workshops explored just how it is that the diaconate itself, the church it serves, and the world in which it exists are being shaken by the wind in some quite surprising ways today. In my talk “Shaken By The Wind: Speaking With Boldness” I tried to trace some ways the diaconate itself has been shaken by the winds of change, but how deacons, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are called to respond to two particular “windy challenges” facing the the world and the church today — declining church membership and the simultaneous rise of right-wing extremism we see today in the United States, Europe and indeed in other parts of the world such as in the Philippines. I concluded my address with these words:

I hope that deacons, and those they form and lead in the church’s diakonia, will increasingly see their primary ministry as incarnating themselves in our changing and often troubled communities, listening deeply to the voices of need and concern and yes sometimes hope, and being bold enough to try and interpret those voices in ways the church will be challenged to respond to. Do not be afraid, dear friends, to tug on the sleeve of those in authority in church and society and to demand that those voices be heard! It’s your ministry.

It is challenging and perhaps even risky ministry in the context of the world in which we find ourselves. A world which is increasingly frightened by, and suspicious of, “the other” – the one who looks different, speaks another language, has unfamiliar life experiences, worships in a different tradition (or not at all). But this vocation is nothing else but the proclamation of the kingdom of God which is the church’s essential role. The Realm of God looks like this! It looks like a community of diversity which finds its unity in the worship and service of the one, true God.

Nationalism, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and unbridled greed must be named for what they are – sin! Sin is that which falls short of the values of the gospel and which separates us from God’s purposes and impedes the in-breaking of the kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Deacons, and the church they serve, must be clear about this kind of sin, and willing to confront it whether it appears in the world or in the church.

That is indeed a challenging and risky vocation. But we must know that it is the vocation into which we were baptized. For we were baptized in the Name of the Triune God we heard about in our scriptural readings for today: the One who created this good earth out of the formless void and called it Good (Genesis 1:1-5); the One who is the mediator of a new covenant and a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29) ; and the One who filled the apostles (after the house in which they prayed had been shaken by the wind!) so that they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31)!

Pray for that boldness, beloved. The times we live in…cry out for it!

I don’t think I was telling the wonderful multi-hued, deeply spiritual, and hard-working assembly at Loyola anything new. But I hope I encouraged them to rededicate themselves to the witness of “the diakonia of all believers” for the sake of the church — and the world!

 

We Must Do Better!

June 17, 2017

“Sometimes it’s not that we want to break your laws,” said the handsome, blue-black Congolese man, “It’s that we do not know what those laws are!” This was one of the amazing insights I gained in attending the Eastern Iowa Refugee Summit in Iowa City yesterday. And then the young man gave us an example:

“In my country, when the police stop you, it is a sign of respect to put your hand in your pocket. (This probably hearkening back to the time-honored possibility of offering some money for a bribe). Here, they believe you are reaching for a weapon.” One wonders how many times this innocent gesture has had tragic results.

These are the kinds of insights we only get when we take time to get to know newcomers to our country, be they immigrants (those who have chosen to come here) or refugees (those fleeing persecution in the lands of their birth). And this was the unanimous recommendation of the many presenters at yesterday’s summit. The opening panel “Refugees as New Iowans” consisted of representatives from Lutheran Services, Americorps VISTA, the Iowa Department of Human Services, and the founder of EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma, Advocacy and Resource Center) in Cedar Rapids.

Workshops during the day consisted of five topics: Advocating for Refugee Children and Youth, Investing in the local economy: Refugees and Employers; Empowering You for Political Action; Becoming an Effective Volunteer and Ally; and Enhancing Health in Refugee Communities. My only frustration was that I could not attend them all!

The day concluded with a powerful address by Anesa Kajtazovic, a 20-something former member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 2011-2015 and a Bosnian refugee settled with her family in Waterloo in the 1980’s. This feisty and brilliant young woman left many of us with tears in our eyes as she received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her story.

In this dark time of our nation’s political life, it was so encouraging to see how many people do care about immigrants and refugees and how it is possible to make a difference at the grassroots even in the face of great opposition. Next steps may include the formation of an Eastern Iowa Refugee Alliance which could serve as a clearing house and coordinating mechanism for the many organizations and entities which already seem to be working together, but could do so much better in and through such an Alliance.

Iowa has a long history of refugee resettlement. In 1975, Republican Governor Robert Ray became the first in the nation to respond to President Gerald Ford’s request to assist in the refugee crisis. Since that time over 3 million refugees have resettled in this country from all over the world. Yet today there are 21.3 million refugees out there. Of these 86 % are hosted by developing countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled.

The world must do better. We must do better.

Yesterday’s summit convinced me that we can!

 

 

Rhetoric Did Not Injure Anyone Yesterday

June 15, 2017

Let’s be clear about one thing. Yesterday’s shooting of Republican congressmen and staff persons in Virginia was not about rhetoric. It was about the violence inherent in human nature coupled with easy availability of “weapons of mass destruction” in the United States coupled with a mentally and emotionally unstable person.

Oh, we hear yesterday and today all kinds of cries, mostly from the Right, to tone down our rhetoric, to realize that we are one nation, and to work together to find solutions to the problems. Where were those sentiments when proposals to take away health care from millions of Americans, plans to build a wall across our southern border, and a “travel ban” affecting mostly Muslim-majority countries were floated with very little conversation “across the aisle?”

Actually, politically-motivated violence of the kind we saw yesterday is not very common in this country, compared to earlier times in our history and to many other nations around the world today. However, if the ever-widening gap between rich and poor continues to increase, if the “forgotten” people pandered to by Donald Trump (and, to some degree, by Bernie Sanders) do not actually begin to feel that their voices are being heard somewhere in the halls of power, and if some actions are not taken to regulate the sale and possession of firearms to people who should never have them, incidents of this kind are likely to increase exponentially in the coming years.

We may think that we are protected from “class warfare” of the kind history has witnessed time and time again. As long as there was an ever-expanding middle class and people had some hope that their children would be better off than they are when they grow up, that was probably true. But we are quickly reaching a time when frustrated, angry, and desperate men like James T. Hodgkinson will not be so exceptional, but rather may begin to gather in decidedly “unregulated” militias and we may find ourselves with blood in the streets, not just on an isolated baseball diamond.

Heated rhetoric did not injure anyone yesterday. Anger, frustration, and emotional instability which found its outlet in the use of assault-style weapons which no one except the military and possibly the police should own did. When will we begin seriously to address the underlying causes of such violence? And when will we enact sensible gun-control measures which can at least mitigate the damage done in the meantime?

Movement Politics

June 7, 2017

Attended a workshop last night put on by local organizers for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It was entitled “Doing Politics Differently” and I found the whole evening encouraging. First of all, the leaders were all very young people as were approximately half the 35 to 40 of us who were in attendance. There was a a young woman who is a union organizer sitting in front of me, several one-time local politicians, and a contingent of “100 Grannies” a group of activists actually formed years ago by one of our Iowa Episcopal priests.

These folks are mostly left of Hugo Chavez on the issues. They were mostly Bernie Sanders’ supporters (but who harbor no desires for him to ever run again — “It’s time to move on”). They were openly critical of the Obama years (drones, support of the TPP, etc.) and were scathing in their disdain for the Clintons, seeing them as one more example of compromised baby boomers who are as much in the pocket of the 1% as Donald Trump.

Even though most of these folks have been involved in political campaigns in the past, they despair of the state of politics today and about the only thing they look back on with nostalgia was the “Occupy” movement which had such potential, but which failed to sustain itself because of a lack of an organizational strategy. The motto of this group is “We talk. We act. We get things done.” And they are clearly committed to make those more than words.

After opening introductions of ourselves and Iowa CCI, there was a fast-moving presentation of “the political moment we’re in.” The main takeaway here was the disastrous influence of big money in politics and the fact that Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of this. We discussed how politics are currently being done in Iowa and how we want to do politics differently. The final segment was a definition of “movement politics as opposed to business-as-usual politics. A summary of that presentation follows. Forgive its length, but I believe every couplet is important.

Business-as-Usual Politics                                           Movement Politics

*Runs on  money power (corporate)                                    *Runs on people power, donations

*Top-down, bureaucratic structure                                      *Bottom-up, grassroots structure

*Candidates have access to big money                                 *Candidates are everyday people

*Campaign on issues, but don’t act on them                        *Govern as you campaign

*Define democracy as voting every 2 years                         * Organize day-in and day-out

*Winning is its own justification                                           *Winning is a way to move issues

*Focus on swing districts considered winnable                  *Don’t write off any areas

*Staff and consultant driven                                                   *Volunteer-driven

*All about the candidate                                                           *All about the issues

*Maintains political and economic status quo                     *Changes the establishment

*Reliant political party organization                                      *Reliant on people’s organizations

 

As one who made phone calls and knocked on doors in both the Obama campaigns and for Hillary Clinton and who is now almost completely disillusioned about party politics in this country, I find all this true and immensely appealing. I rejoined CCI because I wanted to focus on the issues rather than on partisan politics after being assured by our Democratic party bosses here in Iowa that Hillary Clinton could not possibly lose to Donald Trump and that, therefore, we needed only shore up her base and not bother phoning or visiting Republicans or even Independents. Right!

Next steps for us in Iowa CCI will be our 2017 Convention in Des Moines featuring keynoters Bernie Sanders and Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter co-founder). Workshops will be led by Bree Carlson (People’s Action), Erika Andiola (Our Revolution), Judith LeBlanc (Native Organizers Alliance) and Michael Lighty (National Nurses United) as well as an Illinois State Representative and a Chicago Alderman.

It’s time to take our country back. It’s time for Movement Politics!