Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

Keep Calm and…

I love T-shirts. I’ve never been flashy (save, perhaps, for an emotive personality!) in dress; preferring an über-casual mien. And now, in retirement, except for Sundays and special occasions, rarely will I so much as don slacks and a laundered shirt; favoring jeans and, yes, again, T-shirts.

And though tending toward an understated appearance, eschewing the display of labels or slogans, this T-shirt, showing all the signs of repeated wearing and washing, is my favorite.

my fav T-shirt

For a variety of reasons…

It plays on the theme of the British government’s World War II word of inspiration, Keep Calm and Carry On; meant to bolster the morale of the English people under the gravest threat posed by the German aerial blitzkrieg. Nowadays, multiple are the words following Keep Calm and…, ranging from the wondrously sublime to the supremely humorous; all advocating a serene and steely perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation.[1]

And it bears the image of the fish; long a symbol for Christianity.[2] As such, it proclaims to others without my having to say a word that I am a Christian.

And it completes Keep Calm and… with Love Your Neighbor, which, further in keeping with the Christian lore I hold dear, is the second part of Jesus’ summation of the Law, generally, the Torah and, specifically, the 10 Commandments.[3] As such, it expresses my daily conscious intent to love[4] my neighbor, who, in the light of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, is everyone.

And it sparks immediate responses and impromptu conversations with my neighbors, whether known or unknown, of all manners of humankind and in all places where I go…

I’ve been approached by Jews, Muslims, and Christians who, in a variety of ways, remark of their theological and ethical identification with the summons to love neighbors rooted in the Torah, the Koran, and the Bible…

I’ve been asked by some what I believe it means to love my neighbor, which, on one occasion, in a grocery store aisle, led to the inquirer’s confession of his struggle to love and forgive a relative whose words and actions had inflicted grave harm…

I’ve been hailed by folk, all strangers, walking by me on the street, once from a lady, smiling and waving to me, driving by in her car, with this astounding (at the first occurrence, but, now, it’s come again and again) greeting: “I love you, too!”

I treasure each and all of these encounters and interactions, especially given my awareness and sensitivity to what I consider the bitter-and-blaming-difference-disparaging-either-you’re-for-me-or-against-me zeitgeist of our days and times.

As T-shirts and banners of self-declaration go, Keep Calm and Love Your Neighbor is my favorite.



[1] For example, Keep Calm and…Be Honest, Be Yourself, Call Batman, Dab On ‘Em, Dream On, Eat A Cookie, Game On, Go To Hogwarts, Hakuna Matata, Innovate, Just Do It, Make A Change, Never Grow Up, Party All Night, Press CTRL ALT DET, Stay Strong, Use The Force… The possibilities are endless!

[2]The fish (or, in the Greek, ichthys) was adopted as a Christian symbol prior to the 2nd century of the Common Era; some suggest as a secret sign of identification during periods of the state persecution of Christians. Through the 3rd and 4th centuries, as it grew in popular recognition and use, the letters (i – ch – th – y – s) were viewed as forming an acronym for the phrase, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

[3] A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.35-40).

[4] By “love”, I do not mean my expression of kindly affection, which arises from how I feel about others, but rather, for me, always something more spiritual and substantial; that is, exercising my Spirit-bestowed power in active benevolence toward and for others. Do I fail in doing this? Yes. Usually when I am hurt and angry, and then allow my not-so-considerate-feelings toward another to get in the way of my loving that person. Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to love my neighbor ever rings in my mind and heart, soul and spirit, summoning me to act.

behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!


Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)


François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.


[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

An Opening Word

It would be more accurate to employ the title: Of my life in the still-Christian South Carolina

As I believe that no two people ever mean precisely the same thing when using the same words,[1] I favor self-definition.

To wit…

By my life, always speaking only for myself, my observations are my own.

By South Carolina, I write of my experience in the 8th state of the Union; and, specifically in the mid-to-upstate region where I live and move and have my being.

By still-Christian, I do not mean that no other region nationally or globally bears a Christian character, whether understood by its past or current existential ethos. Nor do I mean to infer that Christianity is the only philosophical/theological-ethical framework.

Speaking in broad historical terms, I do think that the Enlightenment period’s elevation of human reason to an exalted state of influence and the developing concept of the self, over time, has led to a greater reliance on individual authority and accountability and a lesser confidence in overarching principles of belief and behavior.

Concerning these “overarching principles”, as a Christian, I think of the existence of God as revealed in Jesus Christ as embedded in scripture and embodied in two millennia and counting of tradition, and, yes, as viewed through the lens of human reason (though guided by the Holy Spirit) and as refracted through the prism of human experience.

As these things I continue to behold, in manifold forms and in myriad ways, in the active, daily consciousness of the lives and labors of the folk of South Carolina, in posts to come under Of life in the still-Christian South, I will share what I observe.



[1] To put this another way, I believe that given our individual experiences and observations, histories and memories, perspectives and opinions, no matter how similar, whenever two people seek to communicate, there always is difference between what is said and what is meant, what is intended and what is understood; thus, the constant individual necessity of defining one’s terms.

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]


Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.


Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).


[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

truest thanksgiving

thinkinga personal reflection on an American holiday from a Christian perspective for Christian folk, based on John 6.25-35, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish, feeding and filling 5000 famished bellies. The people, amazed by this miracle, perceive Jesus as a great prophet, like Moses, who they will compel to lead them in throwing off the shackles of their Roman oppressors. However, Jesus’ empire is not of the world, but of the Spirit, its methodology, not overpowering force, but unconditional love, its market, not self-interest, but justice, its manner, not avarice, but service. Jesus, recognizing the people’s misunderstanding and refusing their misdirected acclaim, withdraws in solitude and silence to the other side of the lake.[1] The people, still hungry for signs and wonders, pursue Jesus. Knowing they mistakenly have made physical sustenance the greatest good, Jesus challenges them to labor for “the food that endures for eternal life”. The people, barely comprehending that Jesus points to something spiritual (thus, beyond the material, yet, paradoxically, no less real), ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” In other words, how do we get this spiritual food? Jesus answers, “Believe in me.”

Belief. Not mere assent to an intellectual proposition that Jesus is Messiah or prophet or wise teacher or Lord or Savior (whatever any of these titles might mean), but rather an attitude arising from a relationship of trust, calling us to follow him…


One of my finest mentors, Verna Josephine Dozier wrote: “Jesus did not call us to worship him, but to follow him. Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal…enshrining him in liturgies, stained glass…biblical translations…pilgrimages to places where he walked…Following him is doing what he did.”[2]

Thanksgiving Day. Historically, an annual occasion to express gratitude to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony persevere during the harsh winter of 1621. Later, for the harvest. Later still, for all the blessings of this life.

Today, looking through the lens of doing what Jesus did – loving unconditionally, acting justly, being of service – I see Thanksgiving Day as a yearly reminder that Christianity is an incarnational religion; at its heart, the ongoing, never-ending story of the Spirit of God’s love and justice taking flesh, yes, in Jesus and in his followers, and through his followers that Spirit being alive and active in this world.

I oft have said that Jesus would have a good reputation if not for the church. Through two millennia, the community of his disciples frequently wielding instruments of force, wedded to self-interest, and well-versed in materialism have strayed from his path.

In truest thanksgiving, I pledge anew, paraphrasing the song, to “follow Jesus more nearly, day by day.”[3] Again quoting my beloved sister, Verna: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do we believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that we believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what we believe?”[4]

For me to answer humbly, honestly, “Yes!” is my thanks giving for bountiful blessings and, even more, my prayer that I, in my living, will be a thanksgiving, a blessing for the world.



[1] See John 6.1-24.

[2] From The Dream of God, page 98 (my emphases), by Verna Josephine Dozier (1918-2006), retired District of Columbia public school teacher and administrator; theologian, biblical scholar, workshop leader, church consultant, and lay preacher; an advocate for the authority and ministry of the laity in religious communities; and, at the time of her death, a 50+ year member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015).

[3] Words by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

[4] The Dream of God, page 105 (my emphases)

The Prince of Peace?

preaching a sermon, based on Luke 12.49-56, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

During his ministry, Jesus knew that the message of the gospel he preached and the baptism, the immersion into the life he proclaimed would bear the bitter fruit of division. For he stood against the powers and principalities, the authorities of his time, principally Rome and a religious hierarchy that practiced more outward observance of God’s law and less inward allegiance to the Spirit of the law of love and justice, the life of unconditional generosity and equality. He knew that to follow him inevitably would stretch, strain, shatter allegiances among even the nearest and dearest, thus his warning of households divided between and among parents and children and in-laws.

So it was and is that the Prince of Peace – peace, that is, union, communion, at-oneness, wholeness with the God – whose coming we commemorate in Advent and celebrate at Christmas, has been causing a ruckus ever since he was born!

Perhaps in our time, most of the time, there is little disagreement in our individual family’s Christian practice or, at least, what we believe it should be. So, arching an inquisitive, perhaps incredulous eyebrow, we might ask, “Jesus, what, pray tell, do you mean by ‘division’?”

Looking back over two millennia of Christianity, there is a notion, still believed by some, that the early Christians were all of one mind and divisions happened over time. That is fiction. If it were true, portions of the New Testament epistles of instruction directed at factions within the various churches would not have had to be written.[1] Even more, the first Christian community centered in Jerusalem fell into dispute with Christianity’s chief apostle, Paul, over the issue of whether Gentile proselytes to the faith had to convert first to Judaism, then Christianity.[2] Still more, the fourth century councils[3] that produced that orthodox doctrinal statement, the Nicene Creed, were called together in the face of controversy over various beliefs about the nature of God. And let’s not forget that from the 11th century split between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches centered in Rome and Constantinople, respectively, and through the Protestant Reformation in Europe and England of the 16th and 17th centuries, we have come to this present day with 33,000 or more Christian denominations in over two hundred countries and some 10,000 Christian organizations, each with its own view of what it means to be Christian![4]

So, if or as division is the norm, the nature of Christian life, let alone the life of the world between and among disparate communities of peoples and nations, ideologies and religions, then how do we, as Jesus says, “interpret the present time”? Even more, how do we make sense of his gospel, so that we, in the words of the hymn, can see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, day by day?[5]

Good question! An answer to which, I believe, rests in the very thing of which we’ve already spoken. Division.

Jesus, describing his ministry, declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Fire, an ancient element and symbol of purification. Concerning Jesus’ intention, I recall the words of another hymn:

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,

My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;

The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.[6]

Jesus wants, wills to purify us that we, again, as at the dawn of creation, may dwell at one with God, live at peace within the will of God. Thus, the search for division need not go even as far as our relationships with our nearest and dearest. Rather let us look first and only to ourselves. Where is the division within you and within me between God’s will for us as revealed in Jesus and our self-will? Where is the line of demarcation between our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions, our words and deeds in following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”[7] and our obedience to Jesus’ call, “Follow me”?

To answer these questions is to engage the sacred labor of interpreting our present time.

As I never ask of you what I will not do, for me, it’s all about love and justice, unreserved benevolence and fairness that by the grace of God’s Spirit I am empowered to do, emboldened to be. The boundary, the barricade of division separates me from Jesus whene’er I choose my very human preferences and prejudices and, thereby, refuse to be loving and just toward you. And whene’er that happens, every time I sense the presence of the Spirit’s fire burning the barrier I have erected to the ground of my soul that I once again might see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, and, day by day, love you.

Where’s the line for you?



[1] For example, see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 1.10-15, 11.17-22, Galatians 5.20.

[2] See Galatians 2.1-14 and Acts 15.1-6f.

[3] First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople (325 and 381 Common Era, respectively)

[4] Statistics drawn from the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2001)

[5] Day by Day; words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

[6] How firm a foundation, verse 3; words by K. (attributed to George Keith or R. Keen, c. 1787)

[7] From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41

belief matters

The list of announced and probable Democratic, Republican, and third-party and independent candidates for the U. S. presidency grows. Seemingly, by the day.

These aspirants for the highest office in the land have begun to articulate their political viewpoints and policy concerns, with more details to come in the ensuing days, weeks, and months. I also anticipate that we will hear statements of the candidates’ beliefs – their perspectives on God and their personal histories regarding religion and faith. We will hear these sacred stories because we will ask. For, I think, we Americans care that any potential President of the United States believes in God and not especially, but rather particularly, decidedly in a Christian God. (Remember the 2012 presidential campaign and the intense scrutiny of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, whether it was a Christian religion and if so, how much, and if not, how far removed? With John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1960 election, we resolved that Roman Catholicism was, indeed, acceptably Christian despite some skepticism about undue papal influence over Roman Catholic office holders; though JFK has been our only Roman Catholic president.)

If my characterization of our American predilection, indeed, prejudice about religious belief and presidential candidacy is accurate, then, it seems to me, it signifies that a need-not-apply banner, verily ban is imposed on Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, in a word, all other religions and faith traditions, and, needless to say, agnostics and atheists. Although I am a Christian and an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I find this problematic.

America, from the time of its founding and before in recognition of Native American societies, has been, is, and will be a richly heterogeneous tapestry of peoples and cultures, together embracing, embodying varieties of religions and non-religions, theistic and non-theistic beliefs and rituals. To make Christian profession a sine qua non for a presidential contender is necessarily exclusionary and, in my mind, not in a self-evidentially commendable way. For we eliminate the possibility of hearing, honoring different worldviews. Moreover, we commend, compel a candidates, depending on the audience, to form and frame their religious views in ways that potentially violate individual integrity (and, truth be told, no matter what candidates say about their Christian beliefs and values, as human, their behavior and, in fact, what they truly believe will fall short and distant from what “Christian” means in the understanding of any given voter). Furthermore, we also put ourselves as a nation in the position of failing to esteem one of our sacred liberties enumerated in Article One of our U. S. Constitution, the freedom of religion, which also inherently bears within it a freedom from religion.

Now, some do cleave to the viewpoint that America is a Christian nation. (Of course, it depends on what one means by that statement. That most Americans are Christian? That our national formative documents, principally, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, prove that intent of our founding forebears [and that, of course, can be a matter of interpretation]? That America, by official governmental enactment, should be made a Christian nation, thus, a theocracy?) However, for me, in the light of our national origins and historical evolution, again, ever and always a richly heterogeneous tapestry of peoples and cultures, I respectfully disagree. I also disagree with our national request, demand, whether publicly declared or tacitly understood, to have our presidential candidates be Christian.