Friday, October 27, 2006

Jawbone of an Ass

“These are tough times for the Church.” Frankly I am sick of hearing that. It’s a true statement, but so what? It has always been tough to be a faithful Christian; some times are just tougher than others. When I have been asked to address the brothers of the Society of the Holy Cross or the members of Forward in Faith, I have said that we should guard against a defeatist attitude and realize that, “We were made for this age! This is the age in which heroes are made! This is a magnificent time for the faithful, a great opportunity! The fields are white for the harvest!”

People have welcomed the message, but I think few have heeded it. “We’re all having a hard time,” I heard more than once the last time I went to a meeting of fellow orthodox priests. Well, I’m not having a hard time. “Times are tough.” True—but so what? Why the long faces? I give thanks for these times. It would be much harder to grow in sanctity if things in the Church were bland and easy.

I’ve had enough of being told that I and those who believe as I do are victims. Does anyone else remember that we are called to be warriors? The Society of the Holy Cross, the oldest and perhaps the strongest, most admirable fellowship of Anglo-Catholic priests in the Anglican Communion, was founded in 1855 in a time when to be an Anglo-Catholic guaranteed pretty severe persecution—far worse than anything we’ve seen in our day. One of the Society’s mottoes was, and is, “No surrender, no desertion”. I love that motto. Yet in spite of it, among the members of the Society and other traditional believers, I often—not always—see surrender (to complaint, discouragement, name-calling, weakness) and desertion (finding a safe place for oneself, leaving the Episcopal Church, keeping quiet when one should speak). Where are the warriors?

Do the orthodox bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people really believe that the modernists, revisionists, and apostates who are in positions of so-called “leadership” in the Episcopal Church are actually in charge of the Church?? I am stunned to find that many actually believe this bald, secular lie. Have they no knowledge of history? Have they so little understanding of Scripture? Are they not really convinced that Jesus is Lord? Are they unable to live as if God knows what he is doing? Are they so busy being victims that they have forgotten their calling? Every battle the orthodox have lost in the past century, they have forfeited. Orthodoxy cannot be defeated, but it can be surrendered and often has been.

Where are those who, like Saint Hilary in the age of the Arian heresy, alone defended the Faith in a council of several hundred enemies and weak bishops? He rang his assertion that he would not compromise the Faith, and then offered to debate Saturninus, his chief opponent. Daunted and cowed by his courage and argument, the council declined the offer. In the same era, the inspiring Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, proclaimed the Faith so effectively that it became a saying: Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the whole world! And he won!

Have we forgotten the many passages of the New Testament that describe Christian profession as a battle? Here are just a few—a few of the many!

“Contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) has often been quoted by traditionalists in these days. Though I have seen too few actually contending, the passage sets it squarely in our faces that we are involved in a battle.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of the present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12). The passage goes on to command and exhort, “Stand, stand, stand!” And as has often been pointed out, in the description of armor given to the Christian warrior there is no protection for the back. “No surrender, no desertion”.

The modernists, revisionists, etc. are not the enemies of the faithful. If anyone is a victim, it is these folks—not the faithful. The Church is fighting a spiritual battle, contending against supernatural evil with the salvation and welfare of souls at stake. And as far as fighting these principalities and powers, the outcome of that battle has already been determined: Jesus himself said, as he was about to enter the arena where the final battle would be fought, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul later wrote, “Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15).

The faithful share in that victory! “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37)—not just “conquerors” but “more than conquerors”.

When I first began training in martial arts in January 1985, a member of the church was surprised and bothered that I, a priest, wanted to practice martial arts. He thought it was contrary to my calling. “How often will you use it?” he asked with amazement and perhaps even disgust in his face. “Every day,” I affirmed. And it has proven true.

When I tested for first degree black belt in November 1987, the exam was a brutal ordeal. Even experienced martial artists said they had never seen anything like it. For more than two hours I pressed through trial after trial, the last of which was sparring with rested fighters, one after another and sometimes two at once, who were younger and stronger than I was. Toward the very end of the sparring matches when I was barely able to hold my arms up, the class psychopath was put against me. He wore boxing gloves and came in with anger and violence. Noted for being out of control, he hammered and pummeled me, used illegal blows, and once even struck me to the floor—but at the end of the round, while he was huffing and puffing and his nostrils were distended with anger, I was still on my feet and serene.

My instructor told me I had failed that part of the exam. Now that I have more than two decades of training in the martial arts and have become a master, I know that he was wrong. I didn’t fail. He didn’t understand. He himself designed that exam and scheduled the sparring partners to ensure that I would be beaten at the end of the matches. Beaten I was, but I was not defeated. (The “psychopath”, by the way, later became a Christian.)

In the Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church, I have probably lost almost every significant vote that has come up on matters of doctrine and practice, but I have not lost any battles. Saint Paul described his ministry in these terms: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; ... struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

The struggle for the Faith is indeed hard at this time. I find it hard. I’ve been under spiritual attack since midsummer and it has gotten me down more than once, but I have not buckled, and I will not buckle. To hell with the devil. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

The faithful are called to fight in ways we are not used to. We have few resources, and many of the faithful feel daunted and discouraged. They have forgotten that smallness and weakness are God’s greatest weapons. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Years ago I told the woman who would become my stepmother that, because of her life-changing ministry to the bereaved, she was an “earthen vessel”. I was thinking of this passage: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The faithful are just ordinary people, earthen vessels, who nonetheless are containers of the treasure of the Gospel. This is how God works. My stepmother responded that I was, “God’s little finger”. I had told her not long before that martial artists, in wielding swords, realize that when one is holding a hammer or a sword or similar item, it is the littlest finger that is the most important one. Small as it is, it grips the item more strongly than the other fingers. Similarly, small things are where God puts his power.

How could the faithful have forgotten this? Scripture rings with this theme! When Christians fall into purely secular behaviors and ways of thinking, they deserve the rebuke Paul gave to the wayward Corinthians: When you act like this, “Are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3) It seems to me that the orthodox in the Episcopal Church are bound up by their own hesitation, fears, discouragements, weakness of faith, and general unwillingness to fight. “The Elijah Complex”, I have called it more than once. Elijah, though a great warrior for the Lord, became depressed and discouraged. He dropped out of sight and journeyed to Mount Horeb where he encountered God, who encouraged him and sent him back to the battle where he found many others who, though quiet, had remained faithful. There is a time to be like Elijah, but it is not intended to be a long-lasting state. And Elijah went right to God when he was depressed; he didn’t just wander about aimlessly. It’s been long enough. It is time for the orthodox to stop being Elijah and become Samson.

At one time, Samson was being sought by his enemies the Philistines, and to avoid a battle his own people bound him with two ropes to take him to the Philistines. Samson allowed them to bind him, but when he was in his enemy’s hands at last, he didn’t just take it: “When Samson came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the ropes which were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. And he found a fresh jawbone of an ass, and put out his hand and seized it, and with it he slew a thousand men” (Judges 15:14-15).

I will be damned if I will give up. The orthodox Faith will never die. It is always triumphant. “No surrender, no desertion” means something. “Them’s fightin’ words!” My little finger is holding tightly to the jawbone of an ass. When I die, I want to be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

The next post on this blog is scheduled for November 1. It will have a very different theme.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

--. --- -.. .-.. --- ...- . ... -.-- --- ..-

“Modern inventions have brought into close relation widely separated peoples and made them better acquainted. Geographic and political divisions will continue to exist, but distances have been effaced. ... Isolation is no longer possible or desirable. The same important news is read, though in different languages, the same day in all Christendom. ... Every event of interest is immediately bulletined. ... So accustomed are we to safe and easy communication with distant lands that its temporary interruption, even in ordinary times, results in loss and inconvenience.”

This is a quotation from an address made by William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 5, 1901. (It was his last public address, as he was shot the next day and died eight days later.)

The turn of the twentieth century was a time of technological advance and much optimism. I have read McKinley’s entire speech and found it inspiring. In the portion I quote above, he was speaking of the telegraph—the earliest technology that made near-instantaneous long distance communication possible. Radio would not become widespread for another twenty years or so. Obviously he was not referring to the television, and most definitely he was not thinking of the internet. He was rhapsodizing about sending words in Morse code through a pattern of short and long clicks transmitted via electric wires.

A century after his speech, the ability to communicate has advanced astoundingly, far beyond anything McKinley could have imagined. Just in the past twenty-five years, people have been brought together by email, chat groups, message boards, instant messaging, cellular telephones (with cameras), text messaging, web pages, and no doubt plenty of other methods I don’t know about. And even blogs.

But the President was wrong when he said, “Isolation is no longer possible.” Now to be fair, the text of his speech shows that he didn’t intend to address spiritual matters, but only technological capabilities. But it hasn’t escaped me, nor many others, that even as human ability to transmit information has leaped forward, the sense of loneliness among people has increased. Isolation is certainly possible. It is always possible and sadly, all too common. In fact, it is probably growing.

Far more common than any other spiritual state that I deal with when people seek spiritual direction is a lack of assurance that they are loved—loved by God and other people. Even people who come from stable and loving families are often burdened by feeling “isolated” from God and other people.

Painful, sometimes even heartbreaking, as this situation is, I don’t think it’s all bad. It is evident to all that Blessed Sacrament is a vigorously loving community and many people have found great joy in being part of it. In fact, it is in this community that people’s need for love has been identified and expressed, and many have sought to address it. I think that in at least some cases, feeling lack of love is a way of recognizing one’s hunger for it. That is, a sense of being insufficiently loved is a call forward to discover greater love. The capacity for love can grow in individuals to the point that they realize that there is greater depth of love possible than what they have known, and they want more. Getting it will always mean growing in the ability to love others as well as to be loved by them.

But loving and being loved involve risk, for love always means trusting God and others with one’s heart, and the pain of having one’s heart hurt is intense. Of course, no one on Earth loves perfectly, so every love will always involve a measure of pain. The greater the love, the greater the potential for pain. So even those who want to love and be loved better, can fear the very thing that they want. Being caught, then, between the desire for true love and the fear of taking the risks necessary to get it is itself a painful place to be. I am personally quite familiar with that particular landscape, and suspect that it is, in fact, the basic human dilemma.

It is possible to break out of that dilemma. In fact, I wonder if “breaking” out of it is the only way to do it. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when he said that some people must enter the kingdom of God by violence. “Love” is a command that Jesus has given us, and therefore something that can be obeyed (or disobeyed)—that is, it is something that we have some control over. Love is about choices, not just feelings or states of being.

Recently, I have found that the love I have for people has grown to the point that it often gets “out of control”. That means that the love is not rigidly contained; on the contrary, it leads the way forward and compels me to burst my normally comfortable confines. This is mostly good. I am sure that it would not have happened without the robust, triumphant environment of Blessed Sacrament.

I wrote in my blog ( about love that might cause me to go up in “spontaneous combustion”; like the rest of that particular post, it was an attempt to relate a great truth through humor. I am drawn to the people of the parish almost like a magnet, i.e. beyond my control. I want total immersion, in a sense, in the hearts of my people. I feel it when I preach, and I overflow with affection when I give them Communion. More than one person has mentioned how moved they have been when I bless people and smile on them when they come up for their birthdays. (Egad! Am I becoming an extrovert?? And if so, is there a cure for it?)

A week or so ago, I posted something called “Hugs and Kisses” on this blog. In there, I confessed that I chose to become an affectionate person. Likewise, in my leadership of Blessed Sacrament and brought into confidence by being upheld within that community, I have chosen to love, regardless of risk. Like learning to hug people, it was an extremely frightening prospect, and I cannot say that it is entirely fear-free yet. There are still places in my life where I hold back from fear, but it does seem that I am moving in the right direction. I am very grateful to those who have encouraged me in the journey. As in almost everything I do, I am not in this for my own sake but am intentional about setting an example for others and providing encouragement that all our people can indeed know and feel that they are intensely, infinitely loved by God and called and commanded to love. In fact, that’s why I wrote this particular entry on my blog.

All the ways of communicating with others that technology has given us can be used for great good. I have made a large number of friends through websites and email whom otherwise I would never have met or even known about. One or two of these friendships have become very deep and, I suspect, lifelong. But nothing can improve on the first and greatest way of combating isolation: Loving God and loving one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. Whenever we take the risk, immerse ourselves in the ways of God and obey his commandments, then we find truly that, as a great man said over a century ago, “isolation is no longer possible or desirable.”

By the way, the title of this blogpost is Morse code for “God loves you.”

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Third Rector of Blessed Sacrament

A young man who is a member of Blessed Sacrament was standing in line in front of me while we were waiting to pay for the items we had won at the dinner/auction for the parish’s fiftieth anniversary. In our small talk about the occasion, we were talking about the future of Blessed Sacrament. When I mentioned what might happen after my retirement, he got a stunned look on his face and stuttered, “B-, b-, but I thought you’d kind of be here for ever!”

Well, it was rather affirming to have that reaction, but it’s not very likely that I will be Rector of Blessed Sacrament until Jesus comes again or the Earth falls into the sun, whichever comes first. (I hope and pray it’ll be Jesus coming again.) Remembering my excitement that the first Rector of Blessed Sacrament, my immediate predecessor Father Tony Rasch, had been present for the commemorative Mass that morning, I referred to myself as the second Rector. And then I mused rather wistfully, “Sometimes I ponder the fact that the third Rector of Blessed Sacrament is alive somewhere today...” (And that’s what elicited the young man’s reaction.)

Well, he is. He will probably be here in about eight or nine years, which means that my rectorship is about three-fourths over. Still, eight or nine years is a long time, so I’m probably not quite a lame duck yet. I guess that people will still have to pay attention to me for a while longer. And there remains much to be done as Blessed Sacrament continues to make its journey deeper into faithfulness and fruitfulness.

And an awful lot can happen in those years. Where will the Episcopal Church be? What will it be? Where will the Anglican Communion be? I’m confident that Blessed Sacrament will be in a good place at the end of that time, and there’s a good number of young, orthodox priests being formed right now. As is always the case when one is faithful to Jesus, everything will be fine. The transition is a long way off now, but when it does come, we will pass from faithfulness to faithfulness.

Unless Jesus returns first. In that case, there will be no third Rector of Blessed Sacrament. And that would be very cool.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

You're Welcome!

Caution—The Subject is Chastity; Therefore This Post Mentions Sex
Three couples that are getting married soon are getting “the sex talk” during their premarital preparation tomorrow night. The talk I give now is a lot different from what it was even a year ago, since about that time I added some practical advice and counsel to the preparation and put a lot more depth into the matters of relationships, respect, and honor than I had done before. I made the change after talking to a certain bride a few days before her wedding night, and realized that there was a lot of nervousness alongside her eagerness. It occurred to me that this might be fairly common, and in subsequent discussions with various other newlyweds learned that this was so.

The first time I really set out to give serious counsel on the subject was last March when I gave “the talk” to a couple that got married three months later. As the great day drew near, I realized that I had misplaced the wedding invitation that had the information where the ceremony—and the rehearsal—were to be held. The solemnities were taking place at a church near the bride’s home rather than at Blessed Sacrament, and I needed to be at the rehearsal the next day and didn’t know how to get there. It was too late at night to call the bride and I wasn’t sure I could reach her or her fiancĂ© the actual day of the rehearsal, so I did a search on the bride’s name: Rebecca Frassett. Up came her blog.

Searches on her blog under “wedding”, “church”, and “married” didn’t give me the information I needed. So I entered “Fr. David” into the search and this item appeared: I had no idea that she had posted this incredible bit of writing three months earlier! I now make it required reading for couples getting married at Blessed Sacrament. I suggest that you read her post before proceeding farther in this post.

(By the way, I did find out in time where the rehearsal was to be held.)

Since Rebecca put it on her blog, I suppose it’s okay if I refer to it in my own blog. (Actually, she gave me permission to use this link and said she’d be “honored”. The new Mrs. Hatcher is very cool. I plan not to use names on my blog unless people say it’s okay.)

Now, of course Rebecca’s post, and my teaching, assume that most of the people getting married are virgins on their wedding day. I suspect that, in many places, that assumption would cause people to laugh out loud.

Not so. The joke is on them. Who ever could have guessed that in the Episcopal Church there would be a congregation with dozens of young people dedicated to chastity. OH LORDY! Actually, maybe it’s not all that uncommon these days. There are signs of a return to chastity, at least in some circles. And about time, too.

I suspect that the notoriously “trendy” Episcopal Church is behind the times. Several times a member of the clergy in the leadership of the Episcopal Church has asked me what draws the college crowd to Blessed Sacrament, and they are staggered to learn that chastity is one of the appeals.

“I never ever expected just HOW AWESOME it would be to be good.” Oh Rebecca, you dear and admirable person!

And these Episcopal leaders are jaw-droppingly amazed that our high schoolers are so impressed with this example that they eagerly seek to follow it. It’s almost like the first Anglo-Catholic priests of the 1830s and ’40s, who were viciously accused of “practicing celibacy in the streets!” (Oh, those rascals!) But to the teens it seems to come naturally. Really, the Episcopal leaders I have talked to just don’t, can’t, or won’t understand the draw that chastity has. What I can’t understand is why they don’t. Perhaps I should make Rebecca’s blog required reading for all clergy who ask me what the “secret” is behind Blessed Sacrament’s ability to draw the college crowd, year after year.

I will readily admit the fact that most of the young people didn’t learn to value virginity from me or the Episcopal Church. They came to us that way. They had learned it in their evangelical backgrounds (maybe from people like Rebecca’s “old pruny pious ladies” and “church janitors”) and solid Christian families where they have been taught, convincingly, of the genuine vigor of chastity. However, these college students are teaching it to our younger folks—the junior highers and high schoolers. These teens are indeed learning chastity in their own Episcopal church, and several have asked for chastity rings—and been given them, too, and put them on after taking vows in the church on Sunday morning! OH LORDY!

Chastity is neither prudery nor fear of intimacy (though there may be elements of both in a misguided teaching about abstinence from sexual experience). Chastity is a true, genuine dedication to deep, Christian love. It does not come easily or automatically. The words “virgin”, “virility”, and “virtue” come from the same Latin word—vir—for “man”, with the implication of “strength”. This is why virgins were honored in the early Church in almost the same category as martyrs. Both states require courage and complete dedication to Jesus, and are held up for imitation.

At its best, rightly understood and pursued, chastity is a state of enormous power and freedom. It brings one into a place where there is deep respect for the opposite sex, the ability to shuffle off the culture’s leering jokes and immature preoccupation with tawdry sex, and where one can escape the tragic corruption and degradation in human relationships so widespread in our alleged civilization. And then one comes into a place where true love may be found. Note the responses to Rebecca’s post. These were not written by squeamish prudes, but by young people dedicated to the very powerful, demanding, and rewarding state of chastity.

“I never ever expected just HOW AWESOME it would be to be good.”

Of course, being dedicated to chastity or any other virtue does not mean that one has achieved it perfectly. Being a kind person does not mean that one is never mean. Being patient does not mean that one never gets angry. Being chaste does not mean that one is a complete stranger to lust. But it does mean that one rejects the false allure of sexual promiscuity pushed by our culture on everyone from children upward, and recognizes it as the toxic lie and lethal seduction that it is—and chooses instead, and pursues relentlessly in one’s heart, mind, and body, the way of True Love.

And with that, I think it is imperative that I publicly repeat and affirm my own personal and complete dedication to chastity. I have preached the subject in church, and concluded the sermon by laying my hand on a Bible and swearing before the congregation that I personally believe and follow my own teaching on the subject. I would not teach and exhort people to chastity, or any other virtue, if I were not dedicated to it. And I think I do pretty well, even if I do say so myself.

Note that this post follows the one on hugs and kisses. Coincidence? I don’t thi— Well, yeah, it probably is. But the two posts do make a nice pair.

So Rebecca—I’m truly gratified that you were blessed by my counsel, and thought enough to post “Thank you, Father” on your blog. You’re welcome! Glory to God.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hugs and Kisses

Without a doubt, I am taking a risk by posting this item on my blog. I have put more time into crafting it than any other entry so far—several hours over a week’s time—and have mixed its composition with much careful thought and prayer. Obviously, since here it is, I have concluded that it is worth the risk. Bearing in mind the nature of our incredibly loving congregation and (I hope) my own long-standing reputation of being a “safe” person, I think that people can benefit from this lengthy but well-considered post.

Okay. Here goes: I, who grew up with only rare expressions of physical affection, have become an affectionate person. I did it by choice. It was I who first brought hugs into my family of origin. It was extremely difficult and tense for me years ago when I began to do so, but now it has become quite natural to me, and my family has responded with equal fervor.

I do not often speak of my love for people, and that’s due just to my own reserved nature and (illogical but real) fear of rejection. It is still very hard for me to say, “I love you” to anyone, but I do try to show love and affection often, with hugs and tender touches. There are many people in the parish who are also comfortable displaying these signs of caring. We have a very cool church. I think that it is likely that my own transformation in these matters has contributed to the transformation of Blessed Sacrament that we have seen in the past half dozen years or more.

The New Testament exhorts believers to show proper affection to each other as a natural outgrowth of Christian profession. “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10) is one such passage. “Love each other wholeheartedly with all your strength” (1 Peter 1:22) is another. The very specific “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) is echoed in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. There are other passages. Their abundance shows that this practice was common, maybe even central, in first-generation Christian life.

I realize, of course, that one must be cautious in these days when misconduct is common, but I am not actively tempted in that direction. I trust that people know that. When one is free from the fear of acting inappropriately, the potent reality of what the New Testament teaches on the matter unfolds like a treasure map. And I am convinced that refraining from touching people at all is NOT the best way to avoid improper behavior. At the least, that would violate the plain teaching of Scripture, not to mention causing other kinds of harm. On the contrary, we must learn what it means to be faithful to the New Testament and follow it, for only that is the way of true love. My own desire to be faithful to God in this matter caused me to choose to change. Pursuing this course has made possible my journey from being a cerebral icicle a couple of decades ago to the gushy touchy-feely person I am now.

For long I have made it a practice to touch invalids in hospital and the elderly. It is common in such situations that people are rarely touched, and when they are, mostly by professionals doing a job. We know the term “starved for affection”, which aptly implies that signs of affection are godly and natural means of feeding and nourishing people; without such signs people can wither, like a plant with insufficient water. In addition to the hospitalized and elderly, there are plenty of young people who suffer from this tragic but easily addressed malady.

I also touch those who come to confession when I pronounce the absolution, and those who come to the altar for a blessing on Sunday. Jesus taught the apostles and their successors down to the present day about the “laying on of hands” as an outward and dependable sign of acceptance, mercy, strengthening, love, and conferring gifts of power. There was a time when touch was the only ministry I could use in ministering to a man dying of AIDS. It was effective, and quickly opened the door to a ministry of prayer and Bible reading that the individual had resisted at first.

“Greet one another with the kiss of love.” Though sometimes one may give or receive a holy kiss, most of the time New Testament affection is expressed today with hugs. There are hugs of greeting and leave-taking, and there are also hugs of affection and healing that can come in times other than saying “hello” or “goodbye”. They can all be expressions of pure and genuine heartfelt Christian affection.

Usually one doesn’t have to ask before hugging someone. You can just tell when it’s right, when it’s natural, when it’s wanted, and when it’s needed. Some people definitely ought not to be hugged. For various reasons such persons find it difficult to trust outward signs of affection, and need wide personal space and ample boundaries. There are others who need hugs, and even have the confidence and courage to ask, “Can I have a hug?” I am always glad to oblige, but I am personally nourished deeply by the only person who used to ask me, “May I give you a hug?” She always asked with the sparkling eyes of admiration. She doesn’t ask me anymore—she just hugs because she knows that I will always say Yes. Duh.

A child’s hug is in a category by itself. There hardly isn’t any child who doesn’t like a hug unless he or she has been poorly treated. It must be a strange experience to hug someone who is two or three times more massive than yourself, but that doesn’t seem to stop any of the children in our parish. After the children’s sermon, when I announce the Peace the children surround me like a football huddle. As they jockey for position, I have to struggle to keep on my feet. I am waiting for the day when I lose my footing and fall to the floor with several small persons on top of me. That would be undignified but delightful.

There is the nine-year-old girl for whom one hug is not enough. She hugs me, disengages, and then hugs me again. In this dear child one can see active and pure innocence in its fullest form.

By now everyone knows the recently-adopted little Ethiopian sisters. Whenever I hug the younger one, she giggles and wants more and more and more. One would never guess that she became an orphan at the age of six.

For adults with their greater emotional and relational complexity, there are many different kinds of hugs and embraces that communicate an enormous array of meaning. I keep in mind the admonition Paul gave to Timothy: “Treat the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger as your sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:2).

There is one young person who hugs with ribcage-crushing intensity, holding on tight for a long time. I think she may be clinging not to me alone but also to something that hugs might represent for her. I sometimes wonder if she will release me before I feel faint for lack of oxygen.

Whenever I promote people to first degree black belt, in the awards ceremony in church I always kneel before each new black belt and tie the belt around his or her waist for the first time. One of the great hugs of this year was the one given by the big, strong, gentle bear of a man as I hugged him after placing his black belt around him. He returned the hug and lifted me off the floor for a few seconds. My feet dangled, and the solemn moment was interrupted by a wave of laughter in the congregation.

There is a widow who greets me with a warm hug at the church door on Sunday, and always thanks me for it. She began to hug me only after her husband died. She always smiles broadly, but I discern the grief that remains in her heart that a hug can do only a little to assuage.

Years ago there was a retarded girl in the parish family. When she was in her early twenties, her hugs could crush barrels. I always had to prepare myself before I moved into place for her hug. She showed unrestrained exuberance in her affections, knowing that she was loved, accepted, and wanted wherever she went.

I often hug a young lady who delights in the embrace. We fit very well together. When I hug her, I can even place my cheek on the top of her head. There is strong warmth and dear softness to her. If there is pure affection indeed, this is it.

One tremendously moving hug was the one I shared with a man twice abandoned by family—abandoned by his birth family when he was given up for adoption, and years later abandoned again by his adoptive family when he became a Christian. I told him that he was part of a church family now, and he would always belong to us. Then I hugged him. He gasped with emotion.

There is a 90-year-old woman who smiles warmly and fully when I sit down next to her in the pew on Sunday before Mass begins, and hold her. She rests her head briefly on my shoulder. And then she says, “I always enjoy your hugs.”

There is a careful, guarded young woman who sometimes asks to see me, bearing a burden of hurt that occasionally gets her down. My words of counsel seem to be only moderately effectual, and I know that words alone cannot address her needs. At length I stop talking and, with her permission, sit next to her and just slowly, gently, and wordlessly enfold her while she nestles inside my arms. It is more than a hug—it is fatherly holding. NOT to hold her at that time would be heartlessly cruel. It is completely one-way—I give, she receives. No, it is not one-way at all; she gives me her hurt, or at least trustfully allows me to hold her as she holds her hurt. It breaks and heals my own heart all at once. (Quite often breaking is healing.) The tenderness I feel when I hold her both brings tears to my eyes (I do not yet have the courage to let her see them) and makes me soar. Surely, if ever there was a reason to call a priest “Father”, this is it. I remember the times when I was a child and my father held me the same way, and I felt my smallness safely enveloped in his strength and warmth.

In the August meeting of the Vestry (church board) I spoke briefly about my awkward attempts to draw personal strength from my parishioners’ affections in a time of lonely leadership. Two women who were visiting the meeting gave me hugs as my comments were drawing to a close. One who has known me for thirty years simply got up out of her chair, walked purposefully around the tables as I was speaking, and wrapped me up without hesitation. Another quickly followed her example and approached me confidently with a bold, open expression, knowing that she was bent on doing something wonderful and welcome, and which obviously gave her great pleasure. Woo!

“Greet one another with the kiss of love.” There are three men who kiss me: two go to Blessed Sacrament and kiss me on the cheek when we share the Peace. The third is a huge man, a former professional football player and police officer who is now our bishop, whose embrace is all encompassing. Being hugged by him is not only a demonstration of affection but also an act of trust. (I think of that scene in the classic Disney movie “Fantasia” in which the crocodiles dance with the hippopotami.) His kiss is genuine and full of meaning.

A few years ago, just a few months apart, two girls, one of them neurologically and the other emotionally handicapped, kissed me spontaneously on the lips as I bent down to play with them: the child in our parish family who suffers from Rett Syndrome, and a two-year-old. Their kisses amazed, impressed, and pleased their mothers, for neither had seen their children show such affection before outside of their own family. The kisses gave me a huge lift, too!

A caution: it is possible that some of those whose compassionate moments I described above may read this blog. I expect that they will be able to identify themselves, and I trust that they will not mind that I have opened my heart in these reflections. If they do mind, I apologize and hope that I have not provided enough information that others can identify them. I have tried not to. In most cases (just one or two exceptions), I wrote only of what is publicly known. If I have made anyone uncomfortable, please come to me and let me know. I will apologize and give you a hug.

Every one of my expressions of affection is genuine and heartfelt—I never just “go through the motions” or “do my job”. Probably my personal history makes it impossible for me ever to treat signs of affection lightly. In these matters there should be not too little, not too much, and maybe not too often. Overdo these signs of affection and they lose their power.

But oh, I would be so diminished if it were not for hugs and kisses! So would our whole parish. We are a loving, safe, affectionate church, authentic in this way to the New Testament, and I exult to be a part of it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Oh no! A teenager!"

Gwen Brashear, an active member and prominent leader at Blessed Sacrament until she died in 1998, told me years after the fact that when she saw me ascend the altar on my first day as Rector, she thought, “Oh no! A teenager!” That was 28 years ago today. I definitely don’t look like a teenager any more, and I must admit that on occasion (extremely rare, of course) I can’t quite move like one. But usually I still feel like one.

Thank you, blessed Lord, that Blessed Sacrament is such an indescribably wonderful parish, filled with such remarkable people! One of your servants, a priest named James Thompson, visited and ministered briefly in our parish early in 2000. When he finished his labors among us, he predicted that we were on the verge of a "golden era", and he was sooo right! More right than I ever could have hoped! Lord, I love being a priest--especially a priest at this holy place. Thank you for these 28 years.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


The front page headline on the October 6, 2006 edition of The Los Angeles Times reads: Study Says Lab Meltdown Caused Cancer. The story mentions a 1959 nuclear incident at a research lab near Simi Valley called Rocketdyne, a facility owned by the Boeing Company, in which radioactive emissions from a nuclear meltdown are suspected of causing “between 260 and 1,800 cases of cancer over a period of many decades.” News of the meltdown had been kept from the public for twenty years. Then in 1979 the U. S. Department of Energy and the Boeing Company “did not provide key information”, according to an impartial study released on October 5. “This lack of candor...makes characterization of the potential health impacts of past accidents and releases extremely difficult,” says the report.

Boeing officials vigorously dispute the findings. Their own internal studies indicated that overall cancer deaths among Rocketdyne employees were lower than in the general population.

Critics chided Boeing officials for failing to provide information for a new study. “The pattern of secrecy and misrepresentation that began at the time of the accident continues to this day, where sloppy practices are done under a cover of darkness.”

Why is this report significant to me? My wife showed me the headline without comment. I looked at it, scanned the story briefly, raised my eyes, and asked, “What am I supposed to see?” She was surprised I couldn’t connect the dots. “Your mother...,” she began. BAM!

My family seems to be almost immortal. We don’t get sick very often or very severely. Other than alcoholism, I don’t know of anyone in the family tree who had a major disease. We just seem to wear out slowly. My mother’s family is long-lived. My father is 83 and acts about 40. His mother, my grandmother, reached 100 effortlessly and lived alone and independently until a few weeks before her death. Her husband had died 66 years earlier after carrying damaged lungs for sixteen years after World War I, in which he had been gassed. Other than my mother’s parents who died when I was out of the country, he was the last person in the family to die...

...until my mother died in 1999. She died of cancer. She had worked at Rocketdyne.

What do I do now? Only one thing: grieve. There is no indisputable proof available that a nuclear meltdown caused her cancer. Apparently there is proof that the U. S. government and the Boeing Company covered up, and are still covering up, the facts—but does proof of the cover-up do anything helpful? There is no benefit in my becoming angry or seeking some sort of redress. This is just an imperfect world, comprised of sinners—of whom I am one. Ever since someone said, “It wasn’t my fault. The woman You gave me made me eat it,” human beings have tried to paper over their sins and avoid blame for them.

My mother lived to be 76 and was happy nearly all her days. In her last months, she was the most joy-filled terminally ill person I have known, and I have known many. She drew her last breath in the predawn hours of October 14—seven years ago today.

Grieving her death has been hard for me. Showing emotion of any kind is hard for me. So I am grateful for the L. A. Times story. It has helped me to grieve a little more, a little better. If I were to get angry, and then become frustrated because I couldn’t do anything about it and carried rage, it could make me sick inside. Maybe even give me...cancer. I guess that could be called second-hand cancer.

But it won’t happen. I am not even tempted to get angry. I am just sad. And that’s good.

Because deep inside, where it always resides, is the invincible joy of Jesus who has conquered the world, conquered death, and wipes away every tear—who is the Light that came into a world of darkness, where the darkness could not overcome it.

Now, maybe, I have a reason for my mother’s cancer. But it doesn’t mean anything—really and truly, it means nothing at all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


I had thought that, in my years of hearing confessions, I had heard just about every possible sin. One day not long ago the word “cannibalism” leaped unbidden into my mind and I couldn’t figure out why. I screwed up my face in puzzlement and then it dawned on me that it was a sin I had never heard in confession before.

Surely for everyone, it is scary to make a confession—especially for the first time. I still get a little scared when I make my own confession, which I do about four to six times a year. I wonder if anyone ever considers how scary it can be to hear one! At least it was scary for me the first few times. Now, hearing confessions produces in me an amazing but predictable mixture of great love and respect for the penitent coupled with the tedium of hearing another list of sins. There really are only a few basic sins that people can commit, and hearing confessions very quickly becomes repetitive and forgettable.

I remember teaching about the joy of confession about thirty years ago to a junior confirmation class, and then finding myself suddenly made captive to more than twenty 12-year olds for over an hour as each one made his or her confession. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might actually take me seriously. What followed was one of the most boring hours I’ve ever spent, coupled with wry affection for those dear children.

I suppose that I have heard hundreds of confessions now. As a priest, I am called to exercise the ministry of “God’s garbage man”, as it was described to me when I was on retreat prior to my ordination as a priest back in late winter 1974. Hearing confessions is one of the ways I have learned to give love to my people. Whenever anyone is penitent and humble before God, it is a powerful experience. It takes a measure of courage to make a confession, and I am myself humbled to be, by invitation, in the presence of such an intimate moment between an individual and God, and to see that moment almost invariably turn out to be such a grace-filled experience.

Whenever people want to know that God loves them, they pretty consistently find that assurance in the experience of making a confession. The Prayer Book gets it right in calling this service “The Reconciliation of a Penitent”. It’s not about sins; it’s about making peace with God and finding the assurance of his love—personal, deep, dependable, and emotionally fulfilling. You can’t beat it. I think that the anticipation of making one’s confession is more scary than actually making it. I admit that there have been times when I have responded to a penitent during confession in such a way that both of us have erupted into laughter. I don’t think that is mentioned in the textbooks on how to hear a confession, but it should be.

The so-called “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is about making disciples—which is truly great, don’t get me wrong—but Luke’s version of the Great Commission is much more specific. It is about proclaiming to all nations the resurrection of Christ and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 24:46-48). That sins could now be utterly forgiven was one of the major hallmarks of the earliest Christian preaching. That hasn’t changed. From the first centuries of the Church, the making of a confession to a priest has been one of the ways by which reconciliation with God can be made—and the only one that comes with a guarantee: absolution. “By his authority given to me, I absolve you from all your sins.” (James 5:16 and John 20:23.)

My role in hearing a confession is to be almost transparent—neither anticipating, interfering, nor remembering, and taking no personal harm from what I hear. I’m probably about 95% successful. And of course the priest must always keep the confidentiality of the confession, which is unlike any other kind of confidentiality that there can be. The Prayer Book calls it “morally absolute” (page 446). Once completed, for the priest it must be as if the confession had never happened, although his love for the penitent is a little deeper and remains so.

So when the word “cannibalism” popped into my mind out of the blue, and I realized that I was guilty of a small measure of smugness over “having heard it all”, I was convicted. I concluded with some chagrin that I had to remember that for the next time I make my confession. I expect that my confessor and I will laugh out loud about it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lord, Let Me Know My End

During more than three decades of ordained ministry, I have spent much time with the terminally ill. There is a lot that is uplifting about such a ministry—at least if one is dealing with someone who has a living faith. There was a priest once who wrote in his memoirs about something that cheered him up “almost as much as reading the Episcopal burial service!” We do believe in eternal joy and glory and triumph and endless love, and we let the congregation know that very thoroughly with every funeral we do.

In 1981 I wrote a letter to a terminally ill person so he would have something to read repeatedly during his last days. He was one of the early members of Blessed Sacrament. His name was Jack Suiter. In the letter, I wrote, “Recognize that you have been given a magnificent gift which many desire but few receive: you know about how and when you will die. The prayer that we occasionally use in church–that we might be delivered ‘from dying suddenly and unprepared’, has been granted you.” He really liked the letter. Said it gave him a lift. He was full of jokes right to the end.

When I wrote that letter—which has since been published and distributed in many places—I was only 33 years old. Other than being as old as Jesus was when he was crucified, I didn’t think very often about my own death at that age.

Now that I am middle-aged—admittedly, a term I use loosely since it can apply to me today only if I live to be 116—I sometimes wonder about my own death. As I read through the Psalter regularly, I occasionally stop and muse on Psalm 39:5— “Lord, let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short my life is.”

Except for my own sinfulness, I am not terminally ill, so I can only guess what’s ahead. Father Hope Patten, the restorer of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England, died in 1958 of a heart attack while presiding at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament for a church full of bishops on pilgrimage. When I read that, I thought it was extremely cool. If one is going to die, what better way than to do so during the most thoroughly Anglo-Catholic service before a most prestigious congregation. The only way one could top that would be to be martyred under similar circumstances. Trouble is, I cannot envision any way that our Placentia church will ever have a churchful of bishops when I am presiding at Benediction, during which I am liable to be shot. Still, in today’s Episcopal Church, as we know, just about anything is possible and I have not entirely abandoned hope of such a glorious consummation.

Sometimes I have a weird premonition that I might die by fire. Now this is a frightening thought. I would really forgo this experience if possible. But sometimes it seems that I have a fire within. Sometimes the love I feel for God and people surges and roils like a blaze inside of me that I know I cannot contain for long. I could see myself going up in spontaneous combustion, and I suppose that would be okay. I just hope it wouldn’t happen while I was at an airport about to go through the metal detectors. There would always be someone who was convinced that I had been carrying a flammable substance that got out of control, and my reputation would be ruined.

Or perhaps it would be fitting to go out in a whimsical way. It would be a laugh to be a priest who was hit by lightning. Or a science fiction writer who was walloped by a meteorite. People wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face during the funeral. And that would be alright. But I’d be relieved that I wasn’t the priest who’d have to preach that sermon.

Best of all, of course, would be if Jesus returns first. Then I wouldn’t have to die at all. And I could ask him personally if I could take my favorite books with me. I suspect it’d be a lot easier to ask him if I weren’t dead at the time.

“To him everyone is alive” (Luke 20:38).

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Little Bit of Green

Nearly twenty years ago, I was very far away from home in a large city on a trip. I was feeling particularly lonely that dark night, and stepped out of my hotel room to wander through the streets in the last hour before midnight. Everywhere I looked, there was concrete and asphalt--streets, sidewalks, alleys, parking places. There were buildings everywhere, tall and appearing almost to lean in over me to cut off the view of the sky. I felt almost compressed, somehow, and it seemed as if my lungs had to work a little to bring in enough air.

All at once, as I strolled down a narrow alleyway, I saw a teeny garden outside the back door of some shop. It was about a foot and a half by four feet. There were only a few plants in it. The tired, perhaps even hunted, look left my face as I smiled widely, and I stared at the plot for several minutes with joy. I felt a kinship with the shopkeeper or whoever had scraped together a little bit of green out of the concrete desert that surrounded me for many miles in every direction.

I have thought about the teeny garden a number of times over the years. It is a fitting symbol of my understanding of these times we live in, and of my place in the world and the Church. It was one real reminder that, "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overpower it."

The first Rector of Blessed Sacrament, Father Tony Rasch, and I had a private conversation just before he drove away on the Saturday he had come for the celebration of our parish's fiftieth anniversary. In the 1970s Father Rasch and I, with many others, had been friends and part of a phalanx of priests who thoroughly enjoyed each other's company, support, and humor as we preached, taught, and lived the Catholic faith within Anglicanism and the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Tony was among the first to leave the Episcopal Church in 1978 when its departures from orthodoxy were only beginning to become apparent. Since that time nearly three decades ago, the Episcopal Church has departed incredibly much farther "from its first love" than it had when Father Rasch left, and many, many others of my friends have left too. Toward the end of our conversation, Father Rasch gazed into my eyes with an earnest and searching expression, and asked, "Do you see yourself as one of the last of a dying breed?"

"No," I answered firmly and confidently. "I may be almost alone now in our diocese, and there is no one left with whom I have the same kind of camaraderie we had decades ago, but the youngest generation of believers is here, and they are orthodox. We will win."

It is an act of faith, and I maintain it without any doubt, even in a time of vanished support and little apparent reason for encouragement. I didn't even realize how burdened I am until a couple of months ago, because I had been trying for so long to uphold others that I had not been looking at myself. (That might sound selfless but it is NOT automatically a good or right thing.) Now it surprises me that I have endured as long as I have, for the leaden weight of being solitary and beleaguered pulls downward heavily.

But I remember that Gandalf was paradoxically exultant with joy as he waited in Gondor for the forces of Mordor to surround the city. I recall how Don Camillo was frantic with anxiety for the welfare of the Church and its Faith as the culture around it turned into its enemy, and Jesus said to him, "when you cannot reap a harvest, you must hold onto the seeds. The time to sow will come again, and then the sowing will bear so rich a harvest that you cannot imagine it now." So I choose the defiant joy of Gandalf rather than the soul-destroying despair of Denethor. God can use six square feet of garden embraced inside several hundred square miles of cement to prove that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it."

Thinking of that little bit of green has reminded me that the concrete and asphalt were all laid over rich soil, an entire planetful of fertile earth. The pathetic little garden in a midnight alleyway was proof that all the square miles of barrenness around me could only exist at all because of the earth beneath it, and even a little effort from a shopkeeper I would never meet could penetrate the hardness and reveal that which gives life.