Wednesday, December 16, 2020



The Episcopal Peace Fellowship 

             wishes you and yours a happy holy season. 

This message is a gospel-based suggestion 

            for how you can find  that happiness right now 

                    -- in spite of everything.

It starts with knowing the story, the cast, and the location.


The Christmas story begins with time itself

            when Love looked out upon her whole creation 

            and called it good.

In the beginning, Love blessed existence itself.


But the Bible’s story of Jesus’ birth unfolds in a world 

            where people take a less charitable view.

For starters, when the people of Nazareth looked at Mary,

            through the cynical, judging eyes of the world, 

            they didn’t see the Blessed Virgin.

They saw an unwed mother. 

They didn’t say Hail Mary full of grace.

They said less pleasant things. 

The Gospel of Thomas suggests 

                Jesus was called the son of a harlot.

But when St. Luke looked at Mary t

             through the non-violent eyes of faith, 

            he saw the Holy Virgin, the Theotokos, 

                    the Mother of God.


People didn’t consider Joseph a leading citizen either.

He wasn’t a skilled craftsman like today’s carpenters.

He was more like a day laborer.

When grownup Jesus began teaching, 

            people threw his father in his face.

Is not this the son of the carpenter? they sneered.

But through the eyes of faith, Matthew saw Joseph as a saint,

            who listened to his dream angel 

            and married a disgraced girl

            who was in God’s eyes full of grace.


The Shepherds were a questionable lot too.

Their job made ritual purity impossible 

            and they were rumored to be larcenous. 

Priests wouldn’t allow them in the Temple.

But Mary welcomed them into the stable.

The angels chose the shepherds to hear the first Gloria. 


The wise men were not even Jewish.

They were Zoroastrian astrologers, foreign pagans. 

But Matthew says they were the first to worship our Lord.

Galilee wasn’t the Holy Land in those days. 

Being from Galilee was reason enough to reject Jesus.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel scoffed.

Prophets do not come from Galilee, the Pharisees claimed.

But Matthew quoted an obscure passage from Isaiah,

            Galilee of the Gentiles

            The people living in darkness have seen a great light. 

Matthew means God chose Galilee to be the home of our Savior 

            precisely because the world looked down on it.


Bethlehem then was an occupied city, as it is today.

The prophet Micah called it the least significant (town) in Judah,

            but Matthew corrected Micah:

         You Bethlehem are by no means the least of Judah

         for out of you will come a . . . shepherd for my people . . .


The stable was not just an unhygienic birthplace.

It was ritually unclean, dishonorable, a mark of shame. 

But St. Francis, through the eyes of faith,  saw it as a shrine,

            made holy by its very earthiness, its humility. 

He built the first crèche as a holy object for us to venerate.


The Nativity happens whenever the rejected is embraced,

            the one the village called vile names 

                        is seen through faith  as a holy virgin,

            and a smelly stable is reverenced as a shrine.


Adam’s sin, the primal violence,

             was to divide the world into good and evil.

The fundamental act of violence is dividing us 

            into in-groups and out-groups,

            acceptable and unacceptable.

In that system, no one can ever be safe.

Even if we are in favor today, we may be cast aside tomorrow.

How do we live in such a world? 

Judge others before they judge you.


But God doesn’t work that way. 

In Christ’s incarnation as the illegitimate, stable-born child 

            of a poor couple from backwater Galilee, 

            God broke open the domination system 

                        of in and out, admired and despised

God overthrew the established order 

        that keeps the oppressed down

        and the privileged perpetually nervous.

As a young man, theologian Virgilio Elizondo.

attended pastorelas, miracle plays about saints.  

He recalls, “. . . (T)he costumes . . . appeared very shabby.

            I was . . . tempted to give the(m) . . . some money  

            so they could buy finer materials . . . .

            Eventually I learned that . . . (miracle play costumes)

     may be made only from discarded materials (because) 

    in the Incarnation the rejected of the world 

     are chosen and beautified.”


Paul said, 

God has called not . . . .  the powerful, 

      not the important of society, 

      but the insignificant, the weak, and the despised.

Jesus said, the stone that the builders rejected 

     has become the cornerstone. 

Elizondo explains: 

        What the world rejects, God chooses as his own.

God chose Mary. God chose Galilee.


If God cherishes what the world scorns

how then do we regard ourselves and each other?

The world we live in is the world we see,

            and the eyes of faith see a better world. 


If we want to see the world as God sees it and call it good,

            we befriend the outcast whether they are cast out 

            on grounds of race, class, religion, political opinions, 

                      or legal status.


But we can’t extend grace to others 

      until we find grace in our own lives.

So, how’s your life this Christmas?

After the fires and hurricanes, the political turmoil, 

            and the racist brutality,  during COVID, 

            are you having a Jennifer Lopez Most Wonderful Time 

            with parties for hosting, marshmallows for roasting, 

            and caroling out in the snow?

Well, neither did Jesus. 


It’s the parts of our lives that don’t measure up 

    to worldly expectations that touch God’s heart. 

It’s when life feels empty, God fills that emptiness with grace. 


But who we are matters more than our circumstances. 

So, what judgments are you laboring under?

Are you looking at yourself  through the violent, cynical,

            judging eyes of the world?


What is it we have been taught to hate about ourselves?

Are we the wrong height, the wrong weight, the wrong gender, 

              the wrong color?

Is it our voice, our mannerisms, our ineptitude at this or that?

Maybe some of these things are faults in the word’s eyes, 

          but not God’s.

Zephaniah says, God  has torn up the judgements of the world.

God has ruled. To God, we are already a delight.

That’s the good news we call gospel.

God has ruled: we are the beloved -- just as we are.


Joy to the World isn’t just about what happened long, long ago.

It’s about what started long ago 

            but is still happening in you today.  

At Christmas, we discover that any shame we carry

            is the world’s judgment – not God’s.

As Paul said, If God is for us, who can be against us?

            . . . If God declares us justified, who can condemn us?


So I invite you to repent. Repent of shame. 

Dare to believe that God enjoys you just as you are.

You are the Christmas miracle happening right here, right now. 

Then, repent of your judgements.

If we stop the violence against ourselves, 

            we’ll be free to let up on our violence 

            against everyone else.

When we root our self-worth In God’s love,

            we can share that love with somebody else 

            – show some kindness to a stranger

             – regardless of their race, 

            religion, gender identification, or yes, even their politics.


Brothers and sisters, 

            if we practice the Christian paradox 

            of accepting the unacceptable,

            the night sky will lighten faintly in our East 

            and the Star of Bethlehem will rise in our souls.


Thursday, December 3, 2020



              N’ allez pas trop vite. (Let us not go too fast.)

                                                   -- Marcel Proust


             Love, the new moon, grows slowly, stage by stage;
            We should progress like that, deliberately, with patience.
            I hear the new moon whispering, "Impatient fool!"
            It is only step by step you climb to the roof.
            Be a seasoned cook, let the pot boil little by little;
            A stew cooked in mad haste tastes terrible.

                                                                                                -- Rumi




            The volume is turned up this year. All the feelings are heightened. That can be a strain but it also puts things in bold relief so that we may be able to read them better. Take resistance to Advent. There’s nothing new in that. Even people who plunge masochistically into Lent each Spring, have been grumbling and kvetching about Advent for as long as I can remember, but perhaps this year they are pleading more desperately to skip go and rush straightway to Christmas. More clergy than ever are ready and willing to do exactly that. As I say, this is nothing new. The last Church I served greened the Church for Christmas services the day before Advent I. Obviously, December is the commercial Christmas Seasonthe market shapes the culture, and the Church wants to conform, fit in, be accepted. Hence, we take our orders from Wall Street. But I sense there is more afoot than being manipulated by the market (a market which by the way I have nothing against).

            Do not push delete yet. I am not going to bemoan change such as the demise of the liturgical year like the curmudgeonly retired bishop I am. It is the nature of the world to vanish before we have left it. I will not shout against that tide.  But since resistance to Advent now by laity and clergy alike shines in such bold relief, this is a chance to ask a question, perhaps learn something, whether we choose to let our learning influence our life or not. Knowing things is more satisfying than not knowing them. 


            So I want to ask: what is Advent saying that we are so desperate not to hear? I do not pretend to know the answer, at least not all of it. But I will suggest a couple of strands from the Advent theme that pose interesting challenge to our usual way of life in this Year of Our Lord 2020.


I.               PACE AND PERCEPTION


            This may seem far afield but stay with me. When I was an adjunct law school professor teaching client interviewing and counselling, I realized how seriously wrong I had gotten it when I was practicing law. My legal training had taught me to recognize the issues. I knew which facts were relevant (!!!). My clients did not, so they wanted to tell me a great deal more than I wanted to hear. They wanted to tell me rambling tales that were not relevant to the legal issue that I had already decided was the nature of their case. I did my dead level best to hurry the meeting along – time is money – guiding the conversation through the strait and narrow gate of relevance as I had defined it. 


            Through teaching client interviewing, I realized that my approach was grievously defective. First, I was failing to get to know my client. And the client is more important -- even to the outcome of the case -- than is the issue. Second, I was cutting off conversation that might have revealed relevant facts I had not anticipated. Third, if I’d been willing to hear the whole story, I might have learned that there were other issues that I was missing. By rushing clients through interviews, I was aggravating my tunnel vision and erecting a barrier against personal relationship. I was instrumentalizing my client, reducing the living person to a litigation  party. This was my failure as a lawyer and as a human being.


            I now look back over my 70 years of life, including my years as clergy, and am struck by the speed at which I have moved and the corresponding narrowness of my vision. Granted, I was more goal-oriented and project-focused than many people. But today’s world teaches most of us to rush toward our goals. Life is a race. It’s all about speed, and as the highway signs used to say Speed Kills! My analogy is this: We know Advent is leading to Christmas, so let’s just get on with it. Celebrate Christmas now. But what might there be in Advent, like my clients’ stories I did not want to hear, what might there for us to learn; and if we learned it, might Christmas arrive in a new and unexpected way?


            Three times over the years I tried to read Proust and simply could not endure his ambling, rambling, verbose attention to detail. The first publisher he approached with his great novel was a friend but said he would not publish a book that spent 30 pages telling how a boy went about falling asleep. Now, however, I am reading, marinating in Proust, not marching through to see what happens next. He doesn’t write that kind of book. It is more a matter of soaking in the experience, and soaking takes time. 


            Alaine de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells the story of Proust meeting a young diplomat at the Versailles Peace Conference at a party. Proust asked him to describe his days at the Conference. He began with neat summaries, but Proust kept interrupting, N’ allez pas trop vite. (Let us not go too fast.) He wanted as much detail as possible. He wanted to look closely at the diplomat’s experience because he was interested, he valued it. Proust learned that each morning the diplomats ate macaroons with their tea. The young diplomat found the conversation quite gratifying. It’s good to be heard.


            What we do not deign to notice does not matter to us, and that turns out to be most of our life. This is why Rumi teaches us, It is only step by step you climb to the roof.
Be a seasoned cook, let the pot boil little by little
And Max Ehrman begins his classic Desiderata


               Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
              and remember what peace there may be in silence. . . .
              Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
              and listen to others,
              even the dull and the ignorant;
              they too have their story.

            The Southern novelist Walker Percy asked, Is it possible for a man to miss his life as he might miss a bus? The answer is all too clearly yes, and the way we miss our life is by rushing through with our eyes closed. Our life is all we’ve got and we are apt to miss it through speed. The foundation of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic spirituality is hospitality, making space, taking time for each other. This is a discipline of sitting still and waiting. The practice of hospitality is openness to others, but not just others – it is also openness to our own experience.

            Even if we want to push on toward our goals, speed can get in the way. In this June’s issue of Forbes, Chris Cancialosi said we sometimes need to stop and reboot if we hope to move on.


In a recent discussion with one of my colleagues, she compared the work she is doing with teams to rebooting her computer. Every once in a while, we realize that we have opened so many files, folders, web pages, and software programs in the course of our work and life that things just aren’t operating as smoothly and quickly as we might expect. To get things back in working order, we need to carve out some time to reboot- to close everything out and to start over. To go slow in order to go fast again.

            Stillness is our Advent practice. We slow down, reboot if you will, as we begin a new year. But the prospect of slowing down to take in Reality prompts an anxious response. We want to rush onward, eat our Christmas raw. Why is that? I don’t know but I’ll ask this. When we are running so headlong, so desperately toward a goal, is it possible we are actually running from something? Is it possible the goal is a way to keep whatever is behind us out of our consciousness? 

            Proust’s Recovery Of Time Lost explores the power of memories, especially repressed memories, to shape our lives, but also with the power we have through memory to redeem the past, to forge meaning that was not apparent at the time. I wonder this Advent what we may be avoiding by rushing toward a feel-good Christmas. I wonder if slowing down and letting our past catch up with us might not be a way to heal. But we cannot heal what we will not face. 




            The Feast of the Incarnation, aka Christmas, ritually enacts God with us. It celebrates our experience of God’s presence. But we also have the experience that God isn’t fully manifest yet. If God is fully manifest, then why is there carnage in Azerbaijan and Ethiopia, why is a plague killing us by the  hundreds of thousands, why are suicides, gun violence, drug overdoses, and political insanity so prevalent? New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, said the New Testament characterizes the era after Jesus and before the final consummation of history as the time of Already/ Not Yet.Both are part of our experience. We live in that tension. Jesus taught us to pray Thy Kingdom come precisely because it hasn’t come yet. And our experiences of God, blessed as they may be, are not the full experience of God. We are not ready. Paul said, Now I see as through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. T. S. Eliot called what we can know of God in this life hints and guesses. Christmas celebrates the Already. Advent acknowledges the Not Yet. 

            This goes to how we hope to love God. How, in this mix and muddle of mortal life, do we love a God whom we know only a little. I said in a recent essay that there are different ways of loving God, for different times and different people. All are good and holy. But the one we practice in Advent is not comfortable. It’s just real. Advent is a season of longing. Part of love is longing and the Bible is rich in expressing human longing for God who is not yet fully with us. 


                  As the deer pants for streams of water, 

                  so my soul longs after You, O God.

                  My soul thirsts for God, the living God. 

                  When shall I come and appear in God’s presence?    

                                                                  Psalm 42



                 O God, you are my God, and I long for you                                                                              

                My whole being desires you;

                like a dry, worn out and waterless land

                my soul is thirsty for you. 

                                                                     Psalm 63


              Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
               that the mountains would tremble before you!
              As when fire sets twigs ablaze

              and causes water to boil,
              come down to make your name known to your enemies
             and cause the nations to quake before you! 

                                                                    Isaiah 64


This is no blissy everything’s all right spirituality, but an acknowledgement of our nagging sense that something is missing.  St. Augustine’s love of God is first a foremost a longing. The God Augustine loves is shaped by the God Augustine seeks. He says, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee. Augustine is restless. He looks within himself and finds something missing. God is the missing piece, the deus absconditus, the hidden God

            Paradoxically, Augustine’s love of God has a quality of longing for someone far away even though he is looking for God within himself. At the same time, he senses that God is longing for him, that God is not the one who has left. It is Augustine who has left God. His love is a kind of homesickness and a restlessness. His love is not a self-satisfied I’ve found it as evangelical bumper stickers used to proclaim. It is more of an I’ve lost it and yearn to find it again. It is love as a discontent and aspiration. This inner search for God, not as an answer but a question, not a Presence but a Poignant Absence, will live on in the Christian Tradition. In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal would say in Pensées VII (425)


                 What else does this craving, and this     

                 helplessness, proclaim but that there was   

                 once in man a true happiness, of which all that 

                now remains is the empty print and trace? This he 

                tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking

                in things that are not there the help he cannot find in

                those that are, though none can help, since this 

                infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and 

                immutable object; in other words by God himself.


            So what is the message in Advent we do not want to hear? It is the message of longing which utterly defeats our pretense that everything will be all right if we just imagine it to be so. If the President persists in saying loud enough and often enough that he won the election, he will be inaugurated again. We cling desperately to denial as a way to deal with all we experience as Not Right. Advent leaves no room for denial. It sings, 


                                    O come, O come Emmanuel

                                    And ransom captive Israel

                                    Which waits in lonely exile here . . . .


            Advent acknowledges the Not Right of lonely exile, but immediately transforms that Not Right into Not Yet.Advent carries a certain emotional contradiction. On one hand, there is a distinct pleasure in deferred gratification. As Andy Warhol said, Waiting for something makes it more exciting. The adage goes, Anticipation is half the fun. But it also faces up to the Not Right in this moment. And in a time of pandemic, racial injustice, and political instability, we would much rather sing Silent Night on a Sunday morning and pretend it all away. 




            Slowing down in order to be hospitable to each other and to our own lives opens our consciousness to the reality of things as they are. It faces facts and feelings, the ones we actually have in our gut. It allows our memories to catch up with our consciousness. It’s always a hard time. This is an especially hard time. So we want to hit the fast forward button. But I wonder something. My wondering about Advent has made me wonder about something broader, perhaps deeper. If the Jews had skipped the Exile, we wouldn't have Ezekiel or 2nd Isaiah, two of the high points of Hebrew Scripture. So, I wonder: is there something of value in this hard time, something we might not want to miss? Might we learn something? Might we change and grow in some vital way? If we hit the pause button instead, what might we see? Do we dare to see it?