Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When One’s Life is a Gift

I only think of Terry McLaughlin every few years. Each time I do, it surprises me that my recollection of him is so infrequent, even careless, because he saved my life.

When I was about seven or eight years old, I went swimming at a friend’s house. I remember his name: Gene Boyce. Terry was an acquaintance of us both, and we were all playing together on that day. Gene’s pool was completely round. It was shallow all around the edges but gradually became deeper as one came toward the center. Not a very smart design.

All unaware, I suddenly found that I had wandered too far from the edge and was in over my head. I couldn’t swim very well and I was drowning. Terry saw that I was in trouble and swam over to me. He grabbed me by the hair and pulled me back into the shallows. If he hadn’t, I probably would have died—one of those statistics you read about in which a child drowns quietly in a pool while people are standing around talking and not noticing. There were adults on chaise lounges on the deck, but they were chatting and had missed everything.

I don’t remember seeing Terry ever again after that day. In fact, it took me a long time even to recall his name when, two or three decades later, I thought about the day I almost drowned.

I strongly suspect that the connections between people go much deeper than we can possibly imagine. What we say or do to someone today can affect them for a lifetime. Today I was reading one of my favorite books in the Bible: Philemon. It’s the shortest of Paul’s epistles, more a personal letter than an official communication with a church. In it he writes to Philemon who had come to Christ through Paul’s teaching. Paul is making an urgent appeal to him and in the course of his plea reminds Philemon of his obligation to him. Paul concludes with the words, “—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self” (Philemon 19). Paul recognizes that there are ties between people that can be not only life-changing, but life-saving. Whenever someone’s life has been saved, then that person will know that every moment thereafter is a precious gift. All life is a gift, of course, but that fact is driven home hard when we have skirted the edge of death and been brought back by someone.

A dozen or so years ago a young woman walked into church during a Mass, carrying a bouquet of roses. She had tears in her eyes, and walked up to me and handed me the flowers. Then she blurted out that I had saved her life by some counsel I had given her fifteen years before. She had been on the point of suicide and came to talk to me before doing the deed. She didn’t tell me that she was suicidal—just that she needed someone to talk to about some heavy stuff. She said that because of what I said she decided not to go through with it. I had no idea of how serious the matter had been until she showed up all those years later. She had moved away, but felt suddenly that she needed to find me and thank me, and made the effort to locate me and undertake the journey.

I wish I knew where Terry McLaughlin is.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Remembering Eden

I have called this blog, “John One Five” after John 1:5, of course—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overpower it.” The underlying theme of the blog is holding fast to the Light in all circumstances. It is an aggressive statement of faith that there is always hope in every experience of adversity. Now that this blog has been up for a few weeks and I’ve written a dozen posts or so, I realize that the blog title is more accurate than I had imagined or anticipated in the beginning.

The first post, “A Little Bit of Green”, definitely had that theme, but as I glance through the others I have written, I see that all the others also did so in one way or another. I wholeheartedly believe that love is stronger than any loneliness, joy can triumph over all discouragement, peace can be found in any time of turmoil, hope exists in every circumstance, and light cannot be overpowered by darkness.

This conviction has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember, way back into childhood, and over the years has only grown. One expression of this confidence has been my enjoyment of the outdoors on a regular basis—even, or perhaps especially, in the cities and suburbs. “A Little Bit of Green” was an extreme instance of this, but I have become familiar with many places of delight (in Hebrew, Eden) in my own locale.

I know many parks near my home, and often go to them on days off; my monthly day of reflection; and occasional evenings, early mornings, or lunches on working days. The Fullerton Arboretum is one of my favorite places. There are also Hiltscher, Laguna Lake, and Hillcrest Parks in Fullerton, Parque del Arroyo Grande in Placentia, and similar oases of serenity in other local communities. Often I take my Bible, Office Book, and rosary and spend a half hour or so in prayer. Sometimes I take a picnic.

Once in a while, I find pleasure in taking someone with me who I hope will enjoy the great and small grandeur of a garden as I do.

Gardens do not have straight lines. These places have shadows, grass, and dark earth. Sunlight plays on leaves. One can hear a light breeze passing through the canopies of trees, and feel the warmth of rocks under the sun. Prayer is the natural language spoken in such a setting.

Even a wash adjacent to a shopping mall can draw my attention. Though it may have cement sides to contain any runoff from a rainstorm, at the bottom there are dry, yellow weeds clumped alongside water the color of strong tea. Dank and still as the water is, it still reflects sky, and there is splendor even in the weeds. The moss that grows in the stagnant place is a rich green

Most, but not all, parks are also accessible in the late evening or night. At that time, the silence is deepest. Moonlight, when it is present, alters the look of what is familiar during the day so that it becomes a portal of transporting delight. Prayer deepens into contemplation.

These places are very poor substitutes for Eden, but in my spirit I can draw a direct line from Eden to these oases of water, leaves, light, and enchanted gloom. Even our technological age with its abundance of buildings, concrete, asphalt, and noise cannot eradicate completely the ancient, racial memory of our spiritual origin.

Our sorry race may be cast out of Eden, but those who love the Lord always long for their true home. And in this world, God in his mercy places for us constant reminders of where we have come from, where we belong, and the hope of what will be when our great homecoming occurs.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Good Old Days

Some people know that between 1998 and 2005 I wrote nine novels and a few short stories that comprise the Starman series, a saga of a little more than half a million words. (Interested folks can learn more by checking out The saga is set in the middle years of the 22nd century. I wrote it in partnership with two friends. My partners were Christians, and the theology and spirituality of the saga is deeply Christian and orthodox. One plotted the books, another provided innovative ideas and scientific advice, and I did the actual writing and filling in of details of plot and characterization. It is a science fiction adventure story with the theme of personal responsibility and courage in a time of profound danger.

Although they were self-published, statistics show that during the years of their publication the books sold in the top 20% of all books sold in the U.S. (Note: you don’t have to sell very many to achieve that level. We have maybe 400-500 fans.) In addition, a publisher produced them as audiobooks on cassette tape and CDs. Our publisher was not very honest and so the actual sales figures given to us are vague, but their lowest estimate is that about five to ten thousand audiobooks were sold across the nation.

My partners and I were extremely pleased by the reception the books received, and found enormous fulfillment in writing them.

Although it was written for older children and adults, our saga was invested in the high moral quality of the series books written for juveniles in the 1950s, along with the sense of adventure, optimism, and encouragement of those days. Anyone who wants to know more about the classic series books of the 1899-1973 era might browse my website dedicated to one of the classic series,, especially the part that talks about the appeal of all the classic series books:

The plotter of the Starman series, Jon Cooper, and I have been collecting series books for years. In addition to writing our own books in the same genre, we were meticulous in making our books scientifically accurate by today’s standards. Among our readers were NASA scientists who were drawn to the series for that reason, among others.

One of our readers—a grandfather named Roy who came across the books just three months ago—wrote to us and said, “The story has that fine patina of 50s pulp fiction that I remember so well.”

I was born in 1948, but Jon was born in 1980. I read the classic series books as they were being published, but Jon came to them long after their era had ended. I recently came across the Ted Wilford series, a set of fifteen books written 1951-1967. It is one of the finest and best-written of the classic series. On my recommendation, Jon collected these books also.

When Jon began to read the books, his foray into the 1950s world of Ted Wilford, coupled with the compliment paid our own series by Roy, led to an exchange of emails between Jon and myself on the subject of how the world has changed in half a century.

I’ve been reading the first Ted Wilford book [published in 1951]; I’ve read maybe 25% of it and have been enjoying it – the book is a lot of fun. One thing that has particularly struck me is how strange Ted Wilford’s world is. Has that much really changed in 50 years?

Well, yes, it has.

Ted Wilford actually went with his friends out into the hills for days at a time, completely without any sort of supervision, and no one seemed to mind. I realize that Ted is not nine years old, but even so I wonder how many parents would feel comfortable with an expedition like that today. The whole world seems so innocent; in the second book Ted actually gets into trouble for writing an editorial in which he expresses an opinion, and was told that in newspapers a person’s personal opinions must never enter into articles. The world seemed so open and devoid of any real evil and there was so much care and concern put into newspaper articles – it just amazes me. I can’t imagine a world like that.

Did a world like that really exist at one point, not that long ago? In the old black-and-white TV show “Dennis the Menace” you see young kids wandering all over town, all without adult supervision; they seem to have free reign to go wherever they want.

Yes, the world really was like that. It is how I grew up in the 1950s. I imagine that the way the newspaper business is presented in the Teds is somewhat idealized, but not much. I remember being taught in journalism classes in the early 1960s that one’s own opinion must not influence how one reported news. The news was to contain only facts, and quotes were to be direct and accurate.

When I was growing up, kids could wander all over the neighborhood and older preteens and young teens could ride their bikes miles away to play. High schoolers camping for a few days on their own? Well, I never did that, but I suppose that in small towns of 3,000 population or so it could well have been common. There are many series books from that era that imply that this was commonplace. And now that I think about it, I did actually do that once or twice with friends—we went into the hills near my home and camped alone for a night or two by ourselves.

If the Ted Wilford books are to be believed, the world has changed enormously since the 1950’s – changed beyond recognition, really. It seemed like a nice world – not a bad place to live, really – and I wonder how long it will be until we get it back again.

The 1950s were a great time. In a lot of ways, so were the 1960s. Things began to change, I’d say, in the mid-sixties. The series books of that era are pretty consistent in presenting the time as it was: the Rick Brants, Ken Holts, Tom Swift Jrs., Hardy Boys of the 1950s, and lots of other series, do reflect the time in which they were written. Certainly there was crime and immorality, but the overwhelming aura of the culture was upright. Divorce was extremely rare. Most moms with young kids stayed at home. Most people went to church.

Of course, there was still a lot of evil in the 1950s—racial hate crimes were common in the U.S., there was political oppression and atrocity in other parts of the world, etc. Air raid sirens went off once a month, to ensure that they were in working order. The fear of nuclear war was real. There will always be evil. It’s just that for mainstream America I think it actually was a better world. I really don’t think that this is just nostalgia for the “good ole days”; I think the days were really good.

I think that what I like most about the Ted Wilford books is the general atmosphere of the books – the little things that tell of an era that is as alien to me as the far side of the Moon. I would dearly love to live in a world like Ted Wilford’s – but then, one day I’ll be living in a much better one, and that’s something worth thinking about.

Rick Brant had such a sense of family; everyone on Spindrift Island knew each other and cared about each other, and you had the feeling that Rick knew the people in Whiteside just as well. You didn’t have an individual in a sea of individuals; you had a group, working together, caring for each other, and pitching in as needed. Honest people, doing the right thing, even if the right thing came at great personal cost – now there’s a world I’d like to inhabit.

In Ted Wilford you really get the feeling that you could trust the newspapers to give you an honest shake, and that the reporters were good-hearted people who were more than willing to go out of their way to help someone when they needed it. Even the Wilford family was close; Ted and his older brother got along just fine, and clearly had a close relationship; Ted thought nothing of spending time taking care of the much-younger Tim, and the two enjoyed each other’s company. I have trouble imagining an era where it’s perfectly ordinary for older teenagers to take up with a young kid and enjoy spending time with him – I’m sure it still happens, but it is most definitely not normal.

When I was plotting the Starman books I didn’t include any of the Ted Wilford sense of society because a world like that is just alien to me. You were able to draw on your own experiences and add touches of that – glimpses of a better world and a safer place. I can see the devastation and could write about a blasted New York City, but you came in and added the hope and renewal that was so needed to balance the equation. It just all came together.

I’m reading Arthur C. Clarke’s entry, or one of them, in the Winston Science Fiction Library [a set of 36 science fiction books written in the 1950s and ’60s] now: Islands in the Sky. What Roy described as the “patina of the 1950s” in the Starman series is easily found in the Winston library. It has a marvelous feel to it. As I read, it is effortless to move back into the era when I was a preteen in my neighborhood, with fields and orchards nearby, and the world just seemed fresh and clean. I think that Roy’s line, so easily tossed off in his initial email to us, is maybe the greatest compliment we have received about our writing. Man.

I suspect that nostalgia is something serious. Even where memory colors the good things and forgets the bad things, we human beings are longing for something beyond the world we live in. We are longing for heaven, our true home. As Jon wrote, "one day I’ll be living in a much better [world], and that’s something worth thinking about." If we cannot be fully satisfied until we are there, then we are in a good place—no matter where we are.

Friday, November 10, 2006

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

I must say that I have been surprised at the responses to my post “Office and Person”—pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. More than one person told me a few months ago that when I allowed myself to be seen as vulnerable they respected me more, not less, and saw it as leadership rather than weakness.

Maybe “Office and Person” struck a note. It is the (fallen) human condition, I think, to desire to be known and to fear it at the same time. In Christ, we are called, even commanded, to know and to be known, to love and be loved, and to learn that “perfect love casts out fear”. It is an essential part of the spiritual life, of sanctification, to move through fear and beyond it into “knowing, as we ourselves are known”.

Jesus did not command us to “love our neighbor”; he commanded us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. That’s a much harder thing to do. When the command was first given in the days of Moses, it must have been electrifying. Well, it still is.

One person has observed that my blogposts express several themes, including “perseverance in the face of challenge” and “determination to follow the way of love” without being a sucker for the false allure of substitutes for or counterfeits of love. I think these themes are connected, even mutually dependent. Seen that way, maybe my posts “Hugs and Kisses” and “Jawbone of an Ass” are just different ways of saying the same thing.

Starting up a blog has opened up a new means to teach and encourage people. It is a way I can exercise these ministries where sermons, classes, retreat addresses, and spiritual direction sessions can’t. Self-disclosure can be done in a more appropriate way than in these other settings. “Risk-taking” is a little less risky, too. I’m glad I took the risk of posting “Office and Person”, and I thank those who posted comments. Glory to God whose love brings many people together.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Person and Parson

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since I put up the post “Office and Person”, and during that span of time I often pondered the wisdom of having done so. I was only moderately uncomfortable putting it out for public consumption, but people who care can’t read “heavy stuff” with indifference, and I suspected that most folks who read it wouldn’t know what to do about it except maybe feel ill at ease. Besides, it wasn’t my usual kind of post.

My doubts were pretty much resolved when “Rev. Sam” in the UK put this link up in the comments section: I am grateful to him, and grateful to that parishioner of Blessed Sacrament who referred him to my blogpost.

I deliberately did not refer much in yesterday’s post to the grace and workings of God. I am quite aware of his place in my life and growing ability to love. This post should be read alongside “Office and Person”.

Rev. Sam’s blog can be found at Rebecca Hatcher especially may want to follow the link and read his November 9 post.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Office and Person

There was a time when my father and stepmother attended Blessed Sacrament once a month, commuting from their home over a hundred miles away in Palm Desert. My stepmother is an ultra-dedicated and super-effective Christian grief counselor, and led a grief support group at Blessed Sacrament on a monthly basis. (In my opinion, probably her greatest triumph was ministering so effectively to my father at the time of my mother’s death that they were married two and a half years later.)

Often after church and before the grief group met, we would go to the rectory for lunch and a visit. More than once my stepmother observed a phenomenon that eventually concerned her enough to speak up. It was obvious that at church I was “up” and excited and full of delight being with the members of the parish in worship and fellowship. And in sharp contrast, at home I was silent, withdrawn, and depressed, just moments after leaving the church.

I ministered to people with confidence and usually a measure of effectiveness, but I did not make myself vulnerable in the love I showed, and over time that weighed on me deeply. Probably my self-protectiveness had grown during long years of near-unsupported struggle against intense opposition from various quarters, in which unjust and often anonymous ad hominem attacks were commonplace. Fortunately, this part of parish life has been behind us for six or seven years. Surely, however, my closedness was caused by something more, some unknown thing older than that decade of persistent attack.

In many helping professions, including the pastoral ministry to an extent, reserving one’s personhood is appropriate for maintaining a professional boundary, but I had made a brick wall of it. As a result, in some areas of ministry I had become super-sensitive and raw. I knew enough to recognize it, but did not have resources to address it effectively.

That created in me the curious dichotomy my stepmother saw of my being jubilant at church and despondent, almost vacant, short minutes later at home. It seemed to me that even in a healthy and vibrant, loving parish people praised me for what I did, but no one really knew me as a person. Mostly it was because I did not let them.

As time passed and many of my colleagues disappeared from my circle for various reasons, mostly having to do with the corrosiveness to one’s soul when one is an orthodox priest in the Episcopal Church, I suddenly realized that I was, for all intents and purposes, alone. Simultaneously the parish was growing, and the demands on my time and skills and people’s need for counsel grew commensurately while, without support, my own resources weakened and drained away. Gradually, as slowly as the descent of evening causes light to fade, my own sense of personhood was dimmed. I had almost forgotten who I was, and there was no one left who could tell me.

“My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:19).

My professional confidence and competence were built up in years of tempering through meeting opposition, learning, persevering, committing. Now, trying to find a way to minister in my person without abdicating my professional office is a knife-edge. It is, almost certainly, the most grueling challenge I have ever faced in my life. Attempting to do so is compelling me to address the subject of what it means to be a person and a priest at the same time, and truly and deeply grow in the knowledge of genuine, godly love. In some ways it has been happening with incredible power and speed over the past few months, though it has involved a dozen or more episodes of genuine fear, depression, elation, avid desire for intimacy, humiliation because of missteps, and other strident emotions that I am not used to.

Emotions now churn powerfully inside of me, but they do not come out into the open. For years I kept them in check, mostly for my own sake but also for the sake of others. My emotions are there now when I give counsel or spiritual direction; they are close to the surface when I preach and deliver retreat addresses. I do not wish to contain them so much now, but when I cautiously seek personal contact with people, I am intensely strained both with the desire to open my heart and the fear of doing so. Fear of being misunderstood, dismissed, or doing harm continues to smother my desire to be seen and valued as a person.

Just a few days ago, when I was in a good place, I wrote to my stepmother about these things, and she responded, “I think you are your ‘most bestest’ self in your thoughts and feelings shared this morning. A new you is emerging, you are cracking the shell that you've been captive in for so many years. I believe now your mind, your beautiful mind, and your heart, even more beautiful than your mind if that’s possible, are becoming new friends, perhaps for the first time ever. And you are finding safety in that, and newness and even exhilaration, yet you may be tempted to return to safer positions now outgrown.”

Though I expect it will return, my “good place” is gone now. Most definitely, at the moment I am not finding safety in whatever “progress” my stepmother saw, but I know that I cannot go back to the “safer positions now outgrown”. Things are too different now. That means that I am emotionally “homeless”. I am acutely wracked, with a relentless, grinding, heart-rending solitariness. Fear and desire, office and person battle inside me, and in the battle my usually confident self is a weak thing. Where my greatest need is, there my self falls most short.

I have almost forgotten how to relate to others on a personal level, and when I try I am painfully aware of what can charitably be described at best as “awkwardness”, but is more likely almost complete inability to connect. With ease and joy I can love people in the name of God. In my own person, I have almost nothing to offer.

John Lennon put it beautifully in the plaintive “Julia”, one of my favorite Beatles songs: “When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind.” But my heart does sing! It does! But almost no one can hear it.

Though I am no longer hated and despised by selected members of the parish, and in fact I am generally appreciated and valued by a wonderful and loving parish family, I cannot expect these beloved people to provide personal friendship. It is not fair to them. I know that most of them love and respect me as a priest; I hesitate to give them a chance to love me as a person. I do not know how to do it. When I have tried in the past, only in the most rare of instances have I been able to do so successfully; in all other cases it has been futile, and has put people into an awkward, unwelcome position.

I probably can’t describe the situation better than when I spoke to the Bishop in the presence of the Vestry last August. The words took me by surprise even as they emerged:

I have a fantastic parish and vestry. I need them now, in a way I never have before. The past six years have called forth a lot of new skills in me that I never had, but as the need for them is growing rapidly, I am becoming tired and not seeing or thinking as clearly as I used to. I am feeling hard-pressed and solitary, which I think is primarily the fruit of an accumulation of years of labor and finally becoming very, very tired.

I am afraid of asking for help from my parishioners, but I think that they are the only ones I can turn to for nurture—at least on a regular basis.

Of course, everyone has needs that only others can meet, but priests and others in helping professions are in a position that usually excludes them from getting those needs met by the people they spend most time with. But recently I have concluded that this is not the best pattern for Christian love. I believe that my people know that I love them, and I know that true love, if it is to be true, must be received when it is given. But I am not good at this.

Seeking support and strength from my parishioners is very hard. The few times in the past when I have done so, when I was in a hard spot, I didn’t know how to do it. I wonder whether I did more harm than good. Seeking support from my parishioners means shifting my boundaries and, once shifted, I don’t know where to place them. And shifting boundaries on people is not always fair to them.

Infused throughout my self is the immortal joy of the intimate knowledge of God, but I am always on the outskirts of human joy. For years I have loved the line in the psalms, “Whom have I in heaven but you? ―and having you, I desire nothing upon earth” (Psalm 73:25). But I know that this does not mean that personal intimacy is optional or an extra. Even though he was “ministered to by angels”, Jesus also longed for his disciples in his hour of painful vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moments before that he had said to them, “No longer do I call you servants; I have called you friends” (John 15:15). How to do this is a puzzle I have not yet learned to unravel.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Among the 70%

My post of October 27, “Jawbone of an Ass” ( provoked more comments thus far than any other post on this blog. Those from Jess are especially cogent. With her permission, I have taken excerpts from the “comments” section and reproduced them below. They deserve to be shared and engaged in their own right. They pick up where my blogpost left off, and have helped me to sort through my own frequent reflections on the issue of how one can be faithful to God, considering the current boiling of the Episcopal Church.

Referring to my “Samson” example, Jess wrote:
There are other Biblical examples though. Maybe we’re not Samson, maybe we’re Jeremiah, weeping because he knows Jerusalem is, for his generation at least, doomed. He stays, he is brave, he tells the truth, but he can’t save her. Or we’re Lot, and our family is not enough in number for God to spare the wicked city. Or we’re part of the church in Revelation that God is about to spit out of His mouth for its lukewarmness.

I agree that the Church eternal is the Lord’s. And so are we. So in the end, our faithfulness will serve the Lord’s purposes, and we will be seen to have been on the winning side. But the Episcopal Church may yet fall. Many temporal divisions of the Church eternal have. I hope not. But it’s not as without precedent as all that.

Also, how do we know the ECUSA is the Lord’s church, when it’s not the whole Church (that is, the Church universal), and some “churches” sometimes become apostate? Going back to the Sodom and Gomorrah idea, what’s critical mass for apostasy (or righteousness)? If there aren’t “ten righteous” left, should we make like Lot and run for our lives?

I’m not sure all of the examples can all apply at the same time to the same people . . . though I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them applied at the same time to different people.

New material from me:
Many blogs and other sources of material that are around are rife with complaint, name-calling, or simple listings of “what’s wrong”—a list of the offenses. Although it is important to know what’s going on, I think that this approach is hardly helpful. It’s little more than a prod—or shove—toward discouragement. In this material, there’s very, very little about the greatness of God and the solid grounding of hope. Giving a solid grounding of hope, I think, is one of my gifts—to myself, my parishioners, and the wider Church.

Jess’s reflections are among the most thought-provoking and serious I have seen anywhere—they are Scriptural, faithful, and realistic, and invite real engagement. Blogs of other members of Blessed Sacrament also feature cogent reflections on this subject, including Sarah's ( and Jonathan's ( Even though my public comments (sermons, teachings, blog) are strong, I really do not think that I know it all, and I am blessed by people who help me stretch my mind and soul.

As Jess has pointed out, there are several Biblical models of leadership and direction when the people of God are under attack or in need of warning. Here is her list, plus some more that I have added as a result of the inspiration her comments gave me:

LOT was living in a city whose citizens were so rebellious to God that their city was slated for destruction. When warned to flee, Lot dragged his feet for so long that he had to be pushed out to save his life.

SAMSON fought his enemies with courage and effectiveness, even when hopelessly outnumbered.

GIDEON was hiding from the enemy when the Angel of the Lord appeared and called him a “mighty man of valor” who would deliver his people, even when he was just seeing to his own safety.

ELIJAH was discouraged and depressed (but not for too long) after fighting for the Lord alone and unsupported.

JEREMIAH prophesied to a heedless nation, repeatedly telling truth to those who refused to hear it. When the land finally came under judgment, he was taken by friends against his will into exile—but he bought a piece of land first to show that he was not giving up and to show that the Lord would restore his people in time.

EZEKIEL had one of the most chilling visions anywhere in the Bible. In sharp contrast to the magnificent vision of the Glory of God filling the Temple when it was consecrated by Solomon, Ezekiel saw the cloud of Glory depart from the Temple and leave it a secular hulk. But he also saw the purifying river that flowed from the precincts of that same Temple and swelled into a great spate that flowed into the Dead Sea and made it sweet.

DANIEL in exile maintained the tradition and became a visionary who inspired the people to return to their faith and practice it even among their enemies.

LAODICEA was the city whose people who were “spewed out” of the Lord’s mouth because they were so worldly that either faithfulness or enmity to God was preferable to him.

Of course, there is JESUS who sent his followers into the world like “lambs in the midst of wolves”, but also said that whenever someone refused to listen to them, they were to “shake off the dust” of the place from their feet and move on.

In the light of these Scriptural patterns, I discern questions in three areas:

1. What good am I doing those who differ from me? Is my witness effective or merely provocative? Is it good stewardship of my time and labor and commitment to be a voice among those who disagree with me? Even though they differ from one another, most Scriptural models lie in this area: Gideon, Samson, Elijah, Jeremiah. These are “sheep among wolves”.

2. How is the current situation affecting me and those who are with me? When does “perseverance” become toxic to me or others? When does one “give up”? The example of Lot cannot be ignored. This is where one “casts off the dust”. I think it is significant that Lot hesitated to leave, but “pushed out” he needed to be.

3. Finally, how will I know? Ezekiel and Laodicea provide some guidance, but there are no easy or clear answers. What lies in the future and what does faithfulness look like when one is swept along by forces beyond one’s control? Daniel shows how fidelity can be maintained and even flourish.

There are weaknesses and temptations in every course that is before us. If it were easy to know what to do, there would not be controversy in which dedicated Christians striving for fidelity take different courses of action.

In the meantime, powerful and fantastic things are happening in the Anglican world. As Bishop Ackerman said when he visited Blessed Sacrament last April, the Anglican Communion is in wonderful shape! It is sad, unfortunate, and trying that we live in a part of it where it is not so. We must remember that our Church is more than 75,000,000 strong, at least 70% of which is healthy and godly and amazing and faithful and fruitful. Blessed Sacrament is a part of that 70%, and I intend to remain a part of that Anglican Church.

For me, then, the question is this: what if the Episcopal Church is removed from the Anglican Communion? Should that happen, perhaps that will be the time when the wonderful people of Blessed Sacrament will come together as a body to seek the Lord’s will. We know that there are many, many Episcopalians who will be answering that same question. Whatever we discern, I am sure that the direction we take will be faithful and ... Scriptural.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ave Maria, Gratia Plena

On this glorious All Saints’ Day, my heart turns to you above all, O Mary, O blessed, beloved Mary. I can never forget the life-changing moment when I first fell in love with you. Years ago I was standing on a pier on a moonless night while ocean waves sighed beneath me in darkness. I gazed at the evening star, beaming with solitary, stunning beauty. Its pure silver light in a deep, deep blue-black starless sky inspired a spontaneous outburst of praise to you. I knew, of course, that it was the second planet, but in an instant of mystical insight I understood why one of your many ancient titles is “Star of Ocean”. Your ethereal loveliness ravished me and I was won to you for ever. I had known you before, but now I loved you from my heart.

Your loveliness is unsurpassed, for your beauty arises from being the one who is closest to Jesus. Surely, next to your Son, you are the greatest and most beloved human being of all time. All of us mortals, even the greatest of the Saints, fall behind you, made immaculate, and taken from the tomb and lifted body and soul to heaven.

When we see you, beloved lady, we see what redemption looks like. In praising you we know the amazing work of God our Savior. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, and you are the firstborn of the redeemed.

Only you of all mortals knew Jesus throughout his earthly existence, from his conception to his ascension. Only you are the mother of the Messiah. It was you who nursed him, who taught him to walk, who heard his first word. It was your hand that taught him to hold a spoon. It was your face that his infant eyes sought, your voice he wanted to hear. In the hidden years, only you and Joseph saw his infancy and childhood. As a young widow alone, you watched him grow into strong vigorous manhood.

When he manifested himself to Israel and then to the world, all humans were called to learn who he is and choose either to love or reject him. But when that manifestation began with his disciples, you had already come to the fullness of discipleship. At that beginning you taught others the essence of what it means to know your Son: “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.”

Less than three years later, when he had become loved by many thousands, you saw the perfect Man, your son, your only son, whom you love, die on the cross, cursed and outcast by leaders of his own people. Ah, dear mother...

There was a Christian man in a post office one Christmas not long ago who refused to purchase postage stamps that featured the likeness of yourself holding your infant Son, because, as he said, he “didn’t worship Mary”. When I heard that, my soul slumped within me and I felt such sadness for him. I thought, What a dreary love for your Son he must have.

O holy Mary, how can anyone think it possible to love Jesus and not love his mother? How can anyone think that one honors Jesus by ignoring his mother? I have loved you now for so long that I cannot understand very well those who don’t love you and yet claim salvation in the name of your Son. How could any son even of earth be pleased when someone closes eyes to his mother?

Yet I must not be too severe, for I can dimly remember the first time I spoke to you, and how my palms became clammy with nervousness. I was timid then, for I had been poorly taught, and somehow feared that by talking to you I might possibly diminish my love for your Son. I know now how foolish that was, and I flush with embarrassment! Who can possibly love you truly and not love your Son more than before? For your life, like ours, is hidden completely in him. Only in him does any love at all have merit.

O fair Virgin, when I addressed you on that pier, my heart was opened and I suddenly comprehended how vast and marvelous the world of our Faith is, and I was awed into adoration of our great God. I was drawn across the line from thinking just of “me and Jesus” and entered the vast eternal universe of wild and endless, immeasurable love. I discovered that far from being a sole voice, I belonged to an infinite orchestra of voices, a choir of uncountable millions bursting with the praise and joy of our Lord—a kingdom, as the Scriptures tell us, of “myriads upon myriads” of saints and angels! Of that kingdom, you, good lady, are the Queen, acknowledged in our hymnal as “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” who leads their praises.

From you alone, most blessed Virgin, your Son took his human nature. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he said. But since he is True Man as well as True God, surely whoever sees him sees also his mother—he has your skin, your eyes, your hair, your mouth, your gestures...

When you exulted with Elizabeth over your calling, you sang, “all generations shall call me blessed.” You sang in the rhapsody of your jubilation over the fulfillment of the holy promise of God to his people and all the world, that was being achieved in you. Your voice was the first on earth that proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. You are the first evangelist, and you have never ceased.

Always, always you point the way to Jesus. No one could possibly truly love you for yourself without growing into the fathomless depths of love for your Son. All love that is true simply cannot be divided nor enter into any kind of competition—rather it expands and flows to cover all, and cannot ever be diminished.

My favorite of the ancient titles for you, my beloved mother, is Rosa Mystica—Mystic Rose. The rose is the world’s favorite flower, for its inestimable variety and limitless enchanting beauty. In every rose, I see you. My rosary is made of pressed rose petals that exude their fragrance whenever I hold it in the warmth of my hands. For more than a quarter of a century I have used this rosary every day. O holy Mary, my eyes are tearing up even now as I write, for love of you.

Loving you, my lady, has not only vastly deepened my love of Jesus. My love for you has enriched and enlivened my devotion to all women—little girls, children, teenagers and college students, virgins, new brides, mothers, the middle aged, the elderly, and widows. All of them can find themselves in you, for you were like all of them. So to me, their eyes look upon the world with your eyes, the eyes that saw Jesus, and in all of them I see you. With every hug and kiss I give them, I am praising and adoring you in gratitude that you consented to be the Mother.

You are the Echo of God himself, who created all things with the words, “Let it be,” and it was so. In the fullness of time you also said, “Let it be [to me according to your word].” Our merciful and humble Lord waited upon your consent before he began the new creation, the re-creation of all that had been spoiled. “Behold, I make all things new,” said your exalted and perfect Son in his triumph. Your words with his show the indissoluble romance of humanity with God, where love is beyond measure, an infinite and eternal ocean of joy. Oh, Mary! If only I could love God as you do!

This title was given you from the fourth century, to assure the faithful that your Son was God from his conception, a title designed to proclaim boldly who Jesus is. And from that title, devotion to you arises naturally. I especially love the four seasonal anthems that sing your praises throughout the year. For centuries the faithful have lauded you with these anthems. They are all exquisite, but I love best singing the Salve Regina, “hail, holy queen”, with its haunting, passionate, and intimate entreaty that ends, “O gentle, O tender, O gracious, Virgin Mary.” Oh! Whenever we sing that at Evensong, I want the song never to end. The extended notes cause the love they express to linger in the adoring heart, and such mine is.

From the cross your divine Son confided you into the care of your foster-son John. He, with whom you spent your last years, wrote the Gospel in which you are adored with such reverence that he could not even write your name. He only calls you “the mother of Jesus”. I believe that, next to your Son, he of all human beings knew you best, and put the mystical splendor of your own holy life into his Gospel. O Mary. Each time I open his Gospel, I can sense his devotion to you. You always point to Jesus, and, like you, John always points to Jesus: “These things are written that you might believe.”

You are the possessor of something that I can never have, even in heaven: femininity. As the firstborn of the redeemed, you are the archetype of the universe’s salvivic romance with God. Though I am a man, I am a member of the Bride of Christ, the Holy Church. Yet how can I, or any man, be bridal? Only by making you my mother and queen, the leader of those who pray, the first among the redeemed among whom I am numbered.

Only in the Church, of which you are the Mother, can I, or any man, participate in the nuptials of the Kingdom. Though I can never plumb the depths of what it means to be female, you have shown me its meaning. I explored that mystery in the retreat addresses I called, “God, Love, and Gender”. The women who heard that retreat were astonished that I understood femininity so well. But it was easy for me, beloved lady, because of you.

Our first mother came to be called “the mother of all living”, even after she fell into sin and disgrace, and brought all our race that followed into a place of hopeless grief. But in that dismal place you became our second mother when you said to the angel of the Annunciation, “behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” As your Son is the second Adam who bore our nature into the realm of death and then lifted it to the right hand of the Father, so your obedience reversed the disobedience of our first mother. Like her, you are “the mother of all living”. You are even her mother.

In the face of all our race’s failures, rebelliousness, and atrocities, if humanity has any reason to boast to the universe, surely that boast would be you. You are the first, greatest, and deepest lover of God. The medieval Anglican ascription is mine also—you are “my life’s light, my beloved ladye.”

Subjects being considered for future blogposts:
+ What it is like for an orthodox Anglican priest to have good friends who are atheists
+ Finding places of quiet in a busy world, and the necessity of doing so
+ Reconciling being a priest and a person—how can a priest enjoy personal relationships with his parishioners without compromising his ministry?
+ What it means to be an “evangelical Catholic”
+ Growing up in the “better world” of the 1950s