Friday, January 28, 2011

Virtual Church is Real Ministry

by Rev. BK Hipsher 

Who says virtual church isn’t “real” ministry?  This month marks the two-year anniversary of a virtual congregation that I have served since its birth: Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life <>.  I am an ordained minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) denomination, and Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is my main ministry supported by the real life Sunshine Cathedral in Ft. Lauderdale.*

Second Life <> is a virtual world based on highly evolved gaming technology.  People interact through “avatars” that are created and named by each person.  The service is free to join, as is creating an avatar.  Once you are in Second Life, there are thousands of places to visit including resorts, stores of all kinds, clubs, and twelve step meetings, as well as churches, synagogues, mosques, Shinto temples, Buddhist ashrams, and any other kind of faith community you can imagine.

Each week we offer a worship service experience for anyone who would like to attend.  Often we have folks from multiple countries, from time zones spanning 12 hours or more, representing various Christian denominations and other faith traditions. The service consists of readings, prayers, music, and a short reflection offered by the Virtual Chaplain of Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life, CristoferAslan Muircastle. . . ME! The service is broadcast in audio form, and all readings, prayers, reflections, and announcements are also presented in text format for those who do not have speakers.

Before you judge this ministry too harshly -- as some have -- consider that each and every avatar is animated by a living, breathing human being.  The people who show up at Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life are not playing a game. Often they are taking a few minutes out of a busy life to listen to music, hear the readings, participate in the prayers, and visit with their fellow attendees after the service.  (Avatars use text chat to converse.)

Often I am asked to engage in private conversation about pastoral matters.  These conversations are often intense, intimate, and of a deeply spiritual nature. The interaction between my avatar and others is real even if the physical body is not present. The same kinds of pastoral needs manifest themselves in Second Life as they do in real life.  People often need to talk about a spouse who is ill or has died, a sick child, a personal health problem, the loss of jobs or homes, or perhaps just need to be assured that God loves them.

This ministry is deeply satisfying for me.  As I prepare the reflection each week, it gives me an opportunity to read scripture and speak about how that text interacts with our daily lives.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet people I would never have known.  I’m able to bring a service to those who don’t have access to progressive theology or perhaps who have mobility challenges that prohibit them from attending real life services.  Ministry in Second Life is not intended to be a substitute for real life faith community.  Rather, it is intended to give people an opportunity to come back to a welcoming faith community and encourage them to reach out and become connected with a real life faith community.

Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life is currently making plans to host another MCC congregation for a book study of Karen Armstrong’s new book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”  It also will host the Theologies Team of Metropolitan Community Church, which will facilitate a conversation called, “Who is Jesus?”  We dream of a day when Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and other faith traditions have groups that meet in this one facility.  We are just beginning.
You are warmly invited to attend a service sometime soon.  We meet each week on Saturday at 2pm SLT (Second Life Time) which is the equivalent of Pacific Time in the US.  This translates to 5pm EST in the US.  Just go to <> and create an avatar.  Once there go to Orpheum Island 34/80/23.  Or you can search my name “CristoferAslan Muircastle,” and I’ll be happy to teleport you to the correct location.  Be sure you have speakers and come a bit early. I’m always there to welcome those who may be new to Second Life.  We’ll look forward to seeing you soon!

Rev. BK Hipsher, ‘06 is currently a candidate for Doctor of Ministry degree at Episcopal Divinity school working in the area of virtual church and online ministry. She is ordained in Metropolitan Community Churches and serves Sunshine Cathedral in Second Life.

Sunshine Cathedral <> is a Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) congregation that is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Spirituality located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, and the Chief Programming Minister, Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin, and myself are all alumni/ae of Episcopal Divinity School.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Dark Night of the Soul

 By Toby Johnson 

The dark night of the soul refers to a kind of affective state, also called aridity, that is said to precede direct mystical experience. It refers to the notion that you have to go through a certain amount of suffering before you can realize joy and pleasure.  

The dark night is characterized by dissatisfaction, and boredom with the way “normal” people live their “normal” lives. Underlying this dissatisfaction is a “spiritual hunger” for something more than the world offers. This is interpreted as the experience of union with God. While this image applies to all people, it has particularly appropriate application to the experience of gay men, especially spiritually conscious gay men. 

There is a certain knowingness that goes with being gay, a sense of understanding a hidden dimension of reality that most people don’t seem to realize is there. We learn this early in life. At first, it’s just in reference to self. That is, we sense, often inchoately, that there’s something about ourselves we have to keep secret, something only we (and God) can know. We may develop a magical or religious vision of the world out of this sense of secretness or sacredness.

As gay men grow older we may come to understand that what we had understood to be the “secret dimension” was, in fact, the homosexual dimension, and that there have been others before us who’ve lived lives in secrecy and “darkness” as fellow homosexuals. We become fascinated with the homosexual slant which we—and our fellows—can see throughout history and culture. We want to know who was gay in the past, which movies stars, which politicians and celebrities, which spiritual teachers, shared our secret (often in their own “darkness”).

The people gay men—perhaps too cavalierly—call straight, the “normal” people, may not perceive this hidden dimension at all. There is, after all, no reason for them to mistrust what they’re taught by their parents, teachers, priests, etcetera, what some may call: “the authorities”—at least, no reason felt in their flesh. Of course, as they develop and deepen their own psychological and spiritual lives, they are liable to realize there is a secret dimension. That is, after all, the discovery of all those called “mystics.” An important part of the gay contribution may be precisely the revelation of the hidden dimension to life.

The dark night is a common step in coming out as gay. That is, gay men often experience confusion, depression, and loss of social identity as they realize their homosexual orientation.

First, perhaps, we sense that something is missing in heterosexuality; we long for something more. Then when we realize what it is we long for, we may feel humiliated or betrayed or at least may feel this is something we must keep secret.

Later, often through a life-changing moment of emotional intensity, we come to understand what homosexuality really is. Then the guilt and misconceptions are transformed, and we experience relief and joy. We have gone through the dark night, through the way of purgation, and discovered a whole new world and new self-concept.

The dark night is an image from a poem by St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. To one who sees the gay slant, this poem is an account of an anonymous sexual encounter that results in a mystical experience.

It tells how John sneaks out late at night in disguise and goes to a deserted spot outside the city walls and there meets a man, makes love with him, then realizes that this is Christ making love to him and he goes into a swoon. He wakes to find himself and his Beloved lying in a field of lilies, an allusion to one of the loveliest of Jesus’ sayings: Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, yet even King Solomon in all his glory was not adorned as one of them.

Gay men go through that darkness as a necessary part of being who we are. And thus we potentially see the mystical message behind religion. We potentially discover what St. John of the Cross was talking about: in every man we meet, especially those we have sex with or fall in love with, we can see Christ. Indeed, this is what “Christ” means: the real divinity of human incarnate life, here and now. As Jesus said, “What you do to the least of my brothers, that you do to Me.” And also: “The Kingdom of God is spread across the face of the Earth, and men do not see it.” The trick is to open our eyes.

This is not the wisdom of family values which is understandably concerned with maintaining the status quo, holding on to certainty, protecting the nest for the sake of the children. But precisely because, as gay, we don’t fit into the status quo, we don’t experience certainty and righteousness, we potentially have available to us the mystical vision of the dark night.  We can open our eyes and see in the darkness.

The Dark Night*
By St. John of the Cross

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

*From The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, rev. ed., Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991.

+Toby Johnson, PhD, gay spiritual writer, novelist, former editor of White Crane Journal, freelance editor/publisher was a student and personal friend of the renowned comparative religions scholar Joseph Campbell.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Prayer for Our Nation: Be rid of hearts of stone

By Frank Clarkson

When I was a child in North Carolina, segregation was legal and was the norm. That we have come, in a half century, from segregation and oppression to electing an African-American president is real progress.

Progress is often two steps forward, and one step back. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr wrote, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people] willing to be coworkers with God.”

If you are discouraged by the news these days, as I often am, then take heart, and take the long view. We, who believe in freedom and justice, have come a long way. Do not let your hearts be discouraged. You need an open heart, a loving heart, for the living of these days. How do you get one? And how does our country trade in its heart of stone for a heart of flesh?

For the answer we need only look at Rev King, a living example of love in action. He shows us the power of nonviolence as a force against evil and for good, a transformative power for the oppressed and for the oppressor.

What do we need in this hard-hearted time in our country? How do we transform our heart of stone into a heart of flesh? It’s simple, and it’s difficult - we need to commit to nonviolence.

Nonviolence means you don’t respond to hatred with hatred. You give up the
desire to get in the last word, or land the last blow, or make the final point. A commitment to nonviolence means giving up the use of power in the conventional sense - the power of intimidation, coercion, and force. You lay those weapons down. But what you gain is soul force, what Gandhi called Satyagraha: satya means ‘truth’ and graha ‘holding to’ or ‘power.’

Our times cry out to us, and ask, “Where are you going to stand?” On the side of distrust, fear and violence, or on the side of love, and faith and hope? Where are our leaders, and our institutions, and our country going to stand?

Will you say no to the violence in our society? Turn off the TV and radio when they spew hatred, and let them know you will no longer patronize them. Call our leaders to account when they malign others, and say “You will not get my vote when you tear down or target another person.”

For those who are privileged, because of skin color or national origin or wealth, these can be scary times. The old world is falling away, and the future is uncertain. What is certain is that violence is not the answer. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Now is the time to drop our defensive posture, lay down our weapons, and pray to be transformed. To pray for a new heart, a heart open to the beauty and the pain of this life, a heart emboldened with soul force--with the power of truth and love.

Rev King knew this because he lived it. He inspired others to stand up to their oppressors; to say, “I am no longer going to participate in my own oppression.” They put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom and justice. They suffered together, went to jail together, sang and prayed together. And together, they changed our nation.

Now is our time. These days, I’m praying for our country. That we will be transformed. That America will lose her heart of stone, and it will be replaced with a heart of flesh. That we will see what a gift we have been given to live in this country at this time, and we will commit ourselves anew to the work that lies before us. To build the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. To carry on the work of Rev King and all those who have brought us so far along the way.

Will you pray with me?

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Take away this heart of stone, and put in us a heart of flesh,
that peace and justice will reign,
and we will be your people, and you will be our God, Amen

*The prayer is adapted from the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson.

+ The Reverend Frank Clarkson, MDiv ’05 is the parish minister at Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Christ’s Light Shines in Haiti

By Robert T Brooks

I’ve found over the years that God uses my experience, gifts, and talents in unexpected and powerful ways. I left my parish assignment four months ago. People are asking me, “What are you doing with yourself in retirement?” During the Epiphany season, I want to reframe the question: “How is the light of Christ showing forth, manifesting itself in your life now that you’re retired?”

I find this question useful, first, because it reminds me that my vocation is to do my part to further God’s mission, the missio Dei, in my work and in my life. I’ve always defined my personal vocation as “serving God and God’s people.” Second, the question reminds me that as a disciple of Christ, I always look to Jesus as my fellow traveler, my mentor, my guide, my friend. Finally, I’m reminded that I’m called to walk the walk, that it is in the showing forth of Christ’s light in and through me that those I know and meet will see God’s mission in action.

The newest manifestation of Christ’s light in my life is my developing involvement with 1000 Jobs Haiti ( Shortly after I retired last fall, I accompanied the Reverend Deacon Buck Close on a five-day trip to Haiti. My mission was simple: to observe his work and to discern how I might be of assistance. I had no clue of the answer.

Half way through the trip, on our daily visit to the Central Plateau, I had an epiphany. “Buck, I think I know how I can help.” Before I could explain, Buck shot back, “Bob, I know exactly how you can help. I want you to be the non-executive chair of the board of 1000 Jobs Haiti.” Since I was going to propose that I work with 1000 jobs on governance and strategy issues, I immediately accepted his offer.

What interests me about this assignment, this epiphany, this manifestation of Christ’s light showing forth in and through me, is how it so perfectly fits with my theology, my experience, my gifts, and my interests.

Episcopal Divinity School trained, it continues to form me “to serve and advance God’s mission of justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” So to be involved in a project with a focus on the creation of sustainable jobs at fair wages in one of the poorest countries on the planet, on promoting employment and self-sufficiency, and on developing markets for Haitian products; all of this is consonant with my theological understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

So for a “late vocation” Episcopal priest whose training and work includes military service in logistics, graduate study in finance, work in investment management, and a variety of not-for-profit board work, Buck’s offer was providential.

As I prepare for my first board meeting of 1000 Jobs Haiti, I am comfortable and confident in knowing that this is indeed an Epiphany moment for me.

*The Reverend Robert T Brooks '95 served three parishes as Rector: Christ Church (Kent, Ohio), Grace Church (Providence, Rhodes Island), and St Andrews (Little Compton, Rhodes Island). He is a faculty member of CREDO, chair of the Audit Committee of the Episcopal Church, and has served as a trustee of EDS since 2001.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Creating a future to support the exceptional

By Doug O Fitzsimmons

Across the world educational institutions are struggling with finances. In Britain university tuition has been increased 300%. In the United States and other nations schools, colleges and seminaries have been forced to close because of financial pressure. All are looking at ways to survive. The example of Episcopal Divinity School which sold some of its land and buildings and entered into agreements with neighbouring Lesley University to share certain resources such as the library, refectory and maintenance is instructive, for more go to the EDS press release of December 15, 2010  Here an EDS trustee explains the decision.

I voted for the partnership between Episcopal Divinity School and Lesley University in 2008 as a trustee of EDS.

Since then many people have asked me what it was I had in mind.

“Growth” was what I had in mind. Greater freedom for EDS to grow from its established strength. Years of further opportunity to help the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion strengthen parishes to meet the leadership needs of today and tomorrow. 

The context in the United States seemed clear: decades of membership decline and challenges around financial resources in the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations. We are all experiencing stressful, rapidly changing lives because of globalization and accelerating technology. US exceptionalism is being questioned. But with that all is a quest for spiritual growth.

And the context at Episcopal Divinity School also seemed clear. Decades of superior academic training and community formation for ministry with a progressive focus on issues of social justice: anti-racism, anti-oppression, gender equality, and a strong pool of candidates for enrollment but steadily fewer who were able to afford the costs of living in Cambridge.

Episcopal Divinity School has a track record of educating lay and ordained leaders with skills particularly well adapted to urban and rural budget-squeezed communities.

The prospect of a partnership with Lesley University illuminated a path forward. In addition to a residential program, we would have an opportunity to develop curricular modifications by which we might offer degrees to students across the country without requiring that they disrupt their lives, sell their residences, and experience the costs of moving to Cambridge. We would also be able to upgrade the quality of our campus facilities for the resident student body we hoped to grow.

In short, we saw opportunities for growth: more students from more locations, domestically and abroad. More graduates serving a greater number of parishes. Strong training for more lay leaders.

“But haven’t you failed to tell us about the financial story? Surely fiduciary obligations were uppermost in your mind when you voted for the Lesley arrangement.” Those who question me ask.

“Yes,” fiduciary concerns were prominent. For some years we were operating a campus of high market value, with elegant but aging buildings beyond the needs of our student enrollment. Deferred capital infusions would, in time, have created a very difficult financial picture for us, a difficulty our endowment would not have been able to meet. Fortunately, we were able to envision a creative a shift in our pedagogies that would make the partnership with Lesley work for us.

That is what I was thinking.

* Douglas O Fitzsimmons has been an EDS Trustee since 2003. He is retired from Mobil Corporation where he worked in Human Resources Management. Doug lives in Cambridge, MA and serves on the Vestry of Trinity Church in the City of Boston

Metanoia, while there is time

By Anne Primavesi

Thinking about global warming is hard work. It calls for reflection and action; for making connections between how we live day-to-day and how the planet “lives.”

The planet keeps the temperature level comfortable for us and for all living things. They include the lifeforms that build and sustain our bodies, families, homes and cities by fertilizing and pollinating crops, generating oxygen and recycling water. This life-giving-and-receiving-activity extends to earth’s limits and beyond them. It includes the sun’s warmth and the weather systems that encircle the globe.

While we appear to interact almost exclusively with other human beings and with the products of human technologies, the creativity and productivity of beings other than ourselves is essential for our survival. So is the contribution of inanimate structures and systems such as ocean currents, cloud formations, and soil composition. We are human only by living with, in and through what is not human.

It means that every meal is a community event:
From air and soil
From bees and sun
From others’ toil
My bread is won.
And when I bite
The soil, the air,
The bees and light
Are still all there

Science has given us some insights into the scale and depth of this interconnectedness and continues to expand our knowledge of it. It has revealed how, since life first appeared on earth 3.5 billion years ago, and despite many adverse events such as volcanic eruptions and droughts, the planetary climate and temperature has worked as a self-maintaining system. It has kept itself within the narrow range needed to sustain life.

That works for and against us. As we are tightly coupled with this very complex system it is vulnerable to the effects of our activities. All living beings are vulnerable to the effects of our activities within that system.

This mutual vulnerability raises some difficult and important moral questions. As an individual, my actions appear to have no effect on the climate. So how could they affect the planet as a whole? Those actions are, for the most part, ignored or unnoticed by others, except for those immediately affected by them. How do I accept and deal with the notion that global warming is increasing because of rising carbon dioxide levels resulting from my activities and lifestyle?

This exposes an alarming gap between accepting responsibility, to some degree at least, for the effects of one’s actions on other individuals and accepting the fact that, as a species, over the past 200 years or so, human industrial activities and the demands generated by consumerist cultures worldwide are responsible for global warming which is impacting on all creatures worldwide, including ourselves.

Yet scientific research shows the increasingly lethal effects of human activities on the diverse life forms and inorganic planetary systems that constitute the boundless, priceless resource base on which global climate as well as all living beings depend. Their conservation is increasingly problematic because of our reluctance or inability to change our lifestyles and value them in terms other than monetary profit.

The problem is compounded by ignorance. We cannot begin to count most of the creatures upon whom our lives depend; nor do we know how they interact with and depend on others. Yet, we are beginning to realize that we are destroying this common resource base at a rate unparalleled in the history of life on earth.

Think about it and begin to see this as violence inflicted by us on all life.

We need to change; religiously it can be described as metanoia. Usually translated as “repentance,” this also means “to change one’s mind,” “to feel sorrow for or regret,” “to be of a new heart,” “to change one’s view and purpose.”

If not now, when? And if we don’t, who will?

* Anne Primavesi is an independent scholar, researcher, and freelance writer and lecturer. She is a Fellow of the Westar Institute and Jesus Seminar at Willamette University. She is the author of Sacred Gaia (2000), Gaia’s Gift (2003) and Gaia and Climate Change (2009) all published by Routledge, and of Making God Laugh (2004) published by Polebridge Press.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Virtual Hypocrisy: Postcolonial Friendships and Facebook?

By Joseph F Duggan

The internet is revolutionizing academia.

People from around the world are becoming Facebook friends blurring historical divisional boundaries. Facebook friends are learning about each other’s different cultural, gender, racial and class experiences. There is potential for these Facebook friendships to become real friendships that produce social and ecclesiological changes in the way people live together in postcolonial societies.

Are you skeptical?

A 2010 Google survey of words showed that the term “postcolonial” did not even register sufficient statistical data to demonstrate patterns of interest. But Pramod Nayar is hopeful about “postcolonializing cyberculture” as “NGO’s, trans-governmental organizations and activists’ link across the globe through these technologies.”

Facebook predisposes more people to extend learning rapidly. The power dynamics of the delivery of and access to scholarship are rapidly changing.

Leela Gandhi in Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship and Ashis Nandy in The Intimate Enemy tell stories of little known friendships between colonized and colonizer. Gandhi introduces and describes Edward Carpenter as, “the late nineteenth century socialist, animal rights activist, prison reformer, homosexual…(who) excoriates England for the dubious blessings of empire...Writing in passionate if somewhat purple register, he condemns unequivocally all acts of imperial exploitation.” How many people interested in postcolonialism know of Carpenter’s 1883 work, Towards Democracy unless they are scholars reading erudite books such as Gandhi’s? It is safe to say very few.

Nandy highlights the importance of “the numerically small but psychologically significant response of many who opted out of their colonizing society for the cause of India.” Gandhi reminds readers that “very rarely…did this enterprise register on the center stage of colonial encounter, its protestations scarcely observed on either side of the imperial divide.”

Gandhi and Nandy don’t give up hope, as there is a kernel of possibility for postcolonial friendships to emerge through Facebook even in the midst of annoying reordered profiles, silly pokes, arbitrary likes/unlikes, trite wall postings and mind numbing games like Farmville.

It will probably be a long time before Facebook is a postcolonial tool of decolonization that transforms racism into friendship. But these changes are transforming academia:
  • Online peer review journals in less than a month draw readers in 60+ non-English speaking countries through Facebook publicity.
  • Scholarly books that once were successful if they sold to 450 research libraries will be replaced by the success of online tools where a popular journal paper, by an otherwise unknown scholar is downloaded and read by1500 readers within 24 hours of being published. Unpopular papers receive as many readers as the “one run” published books.
  • While prestigious publishers still make a difference in tenure applications, Amazon distributes books without regard to the power of prestigious named presses and enable little known presses to share the power of the same global distribution channel.

As marginalized scholars once excluded from scholarly discussions increasingly leverage online access to publish, more will hear of subversive thinkers like Edward Carpenter. Facebook will be transformed from a predominantly white privileged luxury of the elite few into an effective tool for postcolonial activism where colonizer-colonized become more friendly allies.

* Joseph F Duggan, MDiv’06 is founder of Postcolonial Networks and editor of Journal of Postcolonial Theory and Theology.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lesson from Tucson: It needs to be easier to get help

By Elizabeth Magill

The violence in Tucson has generated much discussion about the church’s responsibility to discuss political civility, gun laws, personal versus group responsibility, the death penalty and more. I am in favor of discussing all of those things, plus working to change secular support systems for people living with mental illness.

It needs to be easier to get help, we need more research and better medications, and it needs to be easier to require someone to get help.

But more than that, I am asking if the church can create connections to those who are on the outermost fringes of society?

Imagine a church that looks for, and reaches out to people missed by social services; people who fall through our safety net, people crying out for hope?

The church’s redemptive response to individualism should be to make connections to those who are lonely, and isolated, those who are lost. Some of those isolated are living with mental illness. It is easy, and acceptable, to disconnect from people who don't fit society's norms.

When Jared Loughner couldn't meet the social boundaries of his school he was kicked out; he was cut off from community, this happened again when he couldn't meet the requirements of volunteering. Both organizations were right to enforce behavioral guidelines; the school was right to offer counseling as a prerequisite for continued enrollment.

But we have not asked about what happens to those individuals who are cut-off from one organization, and another, and another.

We are unrealistic to hope that all people will simply decide to start following rules if pushed away often enough.

People living with mental illness will not get better from being disconnected or sent away. Mental health does not improve when we are isolated or lonely. Connections pull people back into community; connections eventually move people to get help; connections provide hope for the future.

Schools must focus on education, and volunteer organizations on their mission. A church can decide to focus on people who are lost, lonely, alone; people who society is pushing to the sidelines.

We can invite the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to train us to support people living with mental illness. We can reach out to those who have been asked to leave one program or another and invite them in.

We can preach God’s love, and work to stay connected even when the individuals try to break away.

A church’s behavioral guidelines can require you to leave today when you are violent or out of control, and then invite, and welcome, you back again.

And then call to ask what happened if you stop showing up.

A church can be a place that encourages getting professional help and love you even if you don’t. A church can be a place where the isolated are accepted and loved, a place where connections are made and supported.

Almost everyone living with mental illness is not anti-social, not anti-community, not anti-rules, and certainly not violent. But I am explicitly suggesting that churches hang on to those people who seem beyond the pale, beyond our tolerance, beyond redemption.

I am suggesting that church is the place for redemption of those who are violent, who don't listen to reason, who don't respect others, who cannot adapt to social norms, and will not get help. I don’t believe that reaching out will make people suddenly peaceful and miraculously healed. Mental illness is a serious condition that is sometimes accompanied by drug use, alcohol abuse, anger, loss of social connections, and violence.

Churches reaching out to people with mental illness will not prevent all violence. It may even be that violence would occur more frequently in churches and less frequently at political rallies, or schools.

But fear of violence is not the deciding factor in creating a missional church. Churches are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, reaching out to the fringes of society, confronting those who are isolated in the way that Jesus connected with the Gerasene demoniac, and the woman with the hemorrhages, the prostitutes and tax collectors.

We are called to make real contact with those most in need, to make real connections, and preach God’s unfailing love. Imagine how society could be changed by a church, by many churches, doing that?

*  The Reverend Elizabeth M Magill works for EDSConnect, Resources for Theology and Practice

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tucson and the myth of redemptive violence

by Carol Bradsen

I write to you from Tucson. Many are in shock and mourning. Flowers and notes are piled outside of the hospital where our congresswoman and several others still need healing and our prayers. Thousands have packed into synagogues and churches over the last few days to find solace. To hear that we are not alone. To attempt to make meaning out of this madness.

Meanwhile, across the nation some are saying this act of violence means we must change our gun laws and tweak our political dialogue. Perhaps. But we fool ourselves if we think this is the answer. Guns and tongues are not the root. We need to go deeper.

Tucson is a flashpoint for our times. The loneliness, fear, anger, violence, and misplaced hope that seemed to have spurred the shooter are buried everywhere. In communities. In government policies. Even our own hearts to some degree, if we have the courage to be honest.

Something is clearly broken. Something needs to change.

If we really wanted to get at the root of things, we’ll need to do something much harder than changing some laws and being nicer; we’ll need to discard redemptive violence.

For far too long we have put our collective hope as a nation in the myth of redemptive violence. Redemptive violence is the idea that good, that peace, that healing and reconciliation can come from violence. If we want to see a different future, we will need to loosen our grasp and untangle ourselves from this deeply rooted lie. And it will not be easy.

“But I would never shoot anyone,” you say. “Jared Loughner acted alone. And he seems mentally ill.” “What does redemptive violence have to do with me? With him?”
Redemptive violence is systemic. It is in the air we breathe. And it will shape us if we do not have a clear vision of our true, God-given nature.

Redemptive violence is a spirit that has woven its way into the very fabric of our nation’s life and cultures. Our wars, weapons, military conflicts, execution chairs, gun laws, even many popular movies, are evidence that we as a nation have bought the lie that good can come from killing.

And this unchallenged, and very old belief, is killing us.

Jesus did not provide an easy path to follow. But he did show us another way. A life-giving vision of domination-free community that is just as radical and needed as in his day of Empire. He said to love our enemies. He had a special fondness for those discarded by the powerful. He said our allegiance was to be to God and to God’s way of love. He said to put the weapons away.

Within this new beloved community of God, the dignity of every human being is respected. We have not done a good job of this in Arizona. Many here call other humans “aliens” and “illegal.” It has been reported that a note found in the alleged shooter’s home said, “Die Bitch.” It is easier to dominate, and eventually, eliminate, another if you think they are not quite human. It is anticipated that the alleged shooter, if found guilty will be given the death penalty and eventually killed by the state of Arizona. Where will the violence end?

Are we brave enough to say, “Stop this.” Can we disentangle ourselves, our livelihoods, our language, and even parts of our liturgy from domination, war, and redemptive violence? It may leave us vulnerable. And in some places, we will be seen as un-American.

Are we creative enough to create spaces in our community where we love across our differences to share a meal, stop an injustice, build a home, really listen to one another, and lament instead of plan retaliation? It may leave us uncomfortable.

Are we faithful enough to live counter-cultural lives when the gospel demands it? Are we willing to let go of all violence once and for all as an option, even if it seems “just” or “needed.” It may leave us unpopular.

But this is the path of life. And joy. And hope. And God knows we need it.

The African-American theologian, Howard Thurman once wrote that God’s way will create, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”

May it be so. And may Christians and the church have the courage to really live into this vision and bring it to reality, with God’s help.

* Carol Bradsen, MDiv '05 is a cofounder of the Restoration Project community in Tucson, Arizona, an ecumenical community dedicated to hospitality, playful spirituality, simple and sustainable living, and peaceful, prophetic action. (

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Opportunities to start over

By Jim Merritt
I once weighed 384 lb. I was a bariatric surgery patient whose weight is now normal. My last round of blood work was absolutely perfect for the first time in my adult life.  
We are blessed here in North Central Florida with a variety of good food options. Farmers Markets abound offering an amazing assortment of locally grown, often organic, seasonal vegetables. We enjoy a number of health food stores along with a nice offering of vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants. Many local options make it easy for me to follow through with my commitment to good eating.
Another important aspect of my good health is my own spirituality and spiritual practice. The church where I am pastor sits on nearly seven acres of heavily wooded land. There are nature trails cut out all around the property. Quite often, in the middle of a busy day, I take a few minutes out to walk the trails, notice the changing colors of the leaves, and in the Spring take note of each day’s new offering of flowers. I return to my breath there, quietly breathing in and out while releasing whatever stresses or worries have come my way.
Sometimes I lie down at a particular spot on one of the benches in the outdoor sanctuary. From this position, the trees offer a clearing to the sky where I can look up and simply breathe.
I remind myself that interruptions are merely opportunities to start over.
These moments are very important for my overall well being and good health.
I am an avid student of Buddhist Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn. I listen to his recordings in my office and in my car.  On many Sunday mornings I listen to the nuns and monks of Plum Village chanting as I prepare to lead worship. Because I have been on retreat there, I can return in my mind and soul to places and times at Plum Village where I experienced complete peace and harmony with the world around me. I read and reread his books about peaceful living. These moments nourish my soul in wonderful ways.
I have been blessed by the presence in my life of a few very effective spiritual directors and spiritual teachers.  Because it is my tendency to rush through life from one event to another, at least two of them frequently told me I needed to make bread. They knew making bread would slow me down for a few hours.
I began that practice a little over a year ago and it worked!  Tonight I am making bread. I thought about the sugar and the place from which it came and all the various people who worked to bring it to my pantry.
I remembered the water and the sun and the soil that nourished it and said a prayer of thanksgiving as I added it to the newly forming dough. I did the same with the flour and with the butter and with the salt and with the yeast.  With each new element I prayed for all those involved in making them available to me for my own physical and spiritual nourishment.
This will be very good bread because it contains all the good energy of those who have assisted me in making it. It has also been prepared with a loving and grateful heart.
One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books is called Peace is Every Step. Peace is essential for my own good health; peace with my sisters and brothers of the all inclusive human family, peace with this amazing planet on which I am blessed to live, peace with the animals and elements around me, and peace with God. My practice of peaceful living leads me both to good physical health and to good spiritual health. 
These are the ways I do it in North Central Florida. What’s your practice? Peace and good health to you!
Jim’s Special Bread Recipe
*  1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast or 2 1/2 teaspoons
1 cup warm water
4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon garlic salt
3/4 cup sour cream
1 cup pitted black olives, sliced
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, diced
1 1/2 cups pitted black olives, sliced

Dissolve yeast in warm water.
In a bowl, combine flour, garlic salt, sour cream, and 1 cup sliced black olives. Stir in the yeast mixture and knead to form a soft dough.
Add diced cheddar cheese and the remaining 1 1/2 cups sliced black olives. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to coat, cover, and allow to rise until doubled; about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down, form in a greased loaf pan, and allow to rise again; about 1 hour.
Bake at 350*F. for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top is browned.
* The Rev. Jim Merritt, MDiv ’08 is Senior Pastor of Trinity Metropolitan Community Church of Gainesville, Florida.

Monday, January 10, 2011

We need to recommit ourselves to non-violence

By Kwok Pui-lan

We need to end the violent and incendiary language in our national political discourse.

The shootings in Tucson, Arizona, cannot be separated from the culture of vitriolic rhetoric we hear on talk radios and some TV programs. Since the election of President Barack Obama as the first black president, such rhetoric has escalated, especially during the health care debate last year.

The comments of Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County have resonated across the world. He spoke on Saturday after the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured along with 14 others injured and six dead.

Dupnik said: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."*

In this month when we ponder the lives of two leaders slain by assassin’s bullets, Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy, it is time we considered these issues anew.

In 1965, Episcopal Divinity School student Jonathan Daniels heeded the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and went down to Alabama to take part in the Montgomery March. He stayed behind to work for the Civil Rights Movement and to integrate the Episcopal churches. On August 20, he was shot while trying to protect a black teenager at a grocery store. He is considered a martyr of the Church and an icon of him hangs in St John’s Chapel at EDS.

In my teaching, I and other faculty members are careful to promote tolerance and critical engagement with those whose opinions are different from ours. One important guideline used from Visions Inc, is “it is OK to disagree, but it is not OK to blame, shame, and attack.”

In worship and meditation, many of us involved in theological education invoke the words and prayers of spiritual leaders, who have dedicated themselves to non-violence: the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Amid riots and police brutality, King said, “I am convinced that for practical as well as moral reasons, non-violence offers the only road to freedom for my people.”

Most importantly, we take to heart the message of Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Jesus has modeled for us the courage of pursuing justice, while affirming the radical love of God for all. He said that the sun rises on the evil and on the good, and rain falls on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Today as a nation we kept a moment of silence to honor the victims of the tragedy, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Federal Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Dorothy Morris, Gabe Zimmerman, Dorwin Stoddard, Dorothy Morris and Phyllis Schneck.

I recommit myself to work for peace, to the non-violent resolution of conflict, and a democratic future in which diverse opinions can be expressed with respect.

* Editor’s note: Dupnik has already come under attack from some in the media, with one talkshow host calling for his resignation.

**Kwok Pui-lan is William F Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School. She has written for Episcopal News Service and her blogs also appear in Religion Dispatches and Patheos.