Saturday, February 6, 2016

Who Are Your People?

For several of my preschool years, and then again in middle school and high school, my mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents. My mom had emigrated from Austria shortly after the Second World War, and my grandparents had followed after a couple of years.
Marc Chagall's "Exodus"
German was their default language at home. My mom’s English had a slight Germanic tone and was littered with poor grammar. My grandparents spoke with thick accents. Their English vocabulary was very limited, and they frequently strung English words together in what I recognized as German syntax.
My mother had finished the Austrian equivalent of technical high school. Neither of my grandparents had completed elementary school. Each of them held jobs that earned hourly wages.
While I was in my teens, and even into early adulthood, I was embarrassed by them. At least, that’s how I understood it at the time.
In the Deep South, we get to know you by asking, “Who are your people?” It seemed to me that all my peers had professional parents with college educations. Their people made them somebody. In my young mind, my people made me an outsider and placed me at the bottom of any ladder I might hope to climb.
I figured that if I were going to be somebody worthy of respect and affection, I would have to get there through my own achievements in school and on the athletic field and then later in my career.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Happier Place

My fourth grade teacher took a dim view of me.  At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. Take for instance her response to a playground incident I was involved in.
It was a sunny late spring morning. The whole class was playing softball. I was up to bat, waiting for the pitch, when a hard blow to the back of my leg knocked me to the ground. A boy named Steve had hit me with a bat before anybody realized what was happening.
John Singer Sargent's "A Dinner Table at Night"
For the record, I have to admit that Steve and I had run-ins from time to time. We also played together fairly regularly. Boys. Right? And on this occasion I had probably trash talked him about something, but I hadn’t laid a hand on him.
Our teacher ran up as I lay on the ground fighting back tears with only minimal success. Her precise words escape me now, but she was scolding me and saying something about knowing what I was like. She imposed some punishment on me and began comforting Steve as if I had stuck a hot poker in his eye.
I do remember a girl named Julie telling our teacher, “But he didn’t do anything. Steve just snuck up on him and hit him for no reason.”
What Julie said didn’t matter. I got punished and I got the message. My teacher was almost as glad that I was nearly out of her class as I was to be on to fifth grade. Hope came to me in the form of a rapidly approaching summer break and a new teacher in the fall. I would soon escape to a happier place.
No matter how sweet and good this life can be, millions of people find comfort and hope in the belief that when this life is over we will be in a happier place. In a paradise where the cares, sorrows, and trials of this world are forever in the past.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

An Old Tune

Among other things, I mark the various eras of my life by the music I was listening to at the time. The Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Neil Young were at the top of my list for my first years of college. So the news of Glenn Frey’s death last week transported me back to those days.
A founding member of the Eagles, Frey had teamed with Jackson Brown to write the group’s first single and first big hit: “Take It Easy.” A line from that song stuck with me at the time and came back to me as I looked back on that juncture in my life.
“I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.”
Charlie Demuth's "The Jazz Singer
Now Frey and Browne weren’t talking about God. They had a girl in a flatbed Ford in mind. But they were also talking about a deep yearning that something, someone beyond themselves could make them whole. Grant their lives meaning, bring them peace, and give significance to all their striving and struggling. 
Like them, I was looking for something to save me. And I thrashed about looking for it in places profound and profoundly stupid. I just wouldn’t have talked about my longing and my search in terms of salvation at the time.
This may sound odd, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for a savior more profoundly than at any other point in my life. 
To tell the truth, the way a lot of people talk about salvation these days, I’m not sure that salvation language works so well to describe the yearning that today I identify as the longing that draws us all toward God.
Lots of my fellow Christians announce with proud confidence, “I’m saved,” or they interrogate near strangers with a creepy, menacing joy by asking, “Are you saved?”
Look, I love Jesus more profoundly today than ever. And I am viscerally aware of his love for me. You might be thinking, “Dude, you’re a bishop! If you really believed in Jesus, you would just know you’re saved and quit worrying about it.”
I’m not worried about being saved. I profoundly feel the need for a savior. And there’s a difference.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


My father Sam was the youngest of thirteen children. The Owensbys lived in a tiny house typical of their Depression-era mill village. Jammed into tight quarters, the older sisters doted on their baby brother like a little prince.
Norman Rockwell's "Surprise"
His older brothers took a dimmer view of my dad. In their book, he was a pest. He tagged along wherever they went. Try as they might to discourage him with teasing and by running ahead, he doggedly trailed after them.
So one day, my uncle Basil and my uncle Ralph decided to teach him a lesson once and for all.
“Hey, Sam!” they said, “We’re going down the river to go fishin’. You want to come along?”
Of course he did.
The three of them walked a few miles through the woods and down the riverbank. Once they were far enough from listening ears, the two older boys grabbed my dad, took off all his clothes, and tied him to a tree.
They tied him with weak enough knots for him to slip out after a little while. Their thought was that he would get loose in an hour or so. Then he’d make his way through the woods and, at the edge of the village, wait in the brush until he could slip back home under cover of darkness.
They obviously had no idea who they were dealing with.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Response to the Primates Meeting

The Primates of the Anglican Communion have been meeting over the past several days. While their agenda addresses a range of significant challenges facing us, news outlets have focused on a communique that someone leaked prematurely and has, as a result, been issued prior to the end of the meeting.
As the headlines read, a majority of primates has voted to sanction The Episcopal Church for a period of three years for our actions extending access to marriage rites to same gender persons.  Here are the precise words of the document:
“It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
This is a difficult and painful time for our Communion. We disagree about weighty matters. All parties to this conversation are people of deep, abiding faith. The Episcopal Church remains committed to our inclusive understanding of the Gospel, understanding that some within our own pews as well as many across the sea disagree.
What seems to have been missed in the headlines and in the words of various commentators is the first line quoted above: “It is our unanimous desire to walk together.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby opened the meeting by calling for reconciliation, not agreement.  The primates took up his call by acknowledging the distance between us and reaffirming that our relationship in Christ is too valuable to abandon. We are showing the world that in love and faith we can walk together even when it is painful and difficult.
We continue to walk together as we disagree about divorce. Some provinces outlaw it. We hold fast to our relationships while some provinces reject the ordination of women or the elevation of women to the episcopate. Our bonds of affection have been strained, but the love of Christ that unites us remains unbroken. 
Granting access to marriage for same gender persons joins the list of points of tension among members of the Communion. Nevertheless, the love that makes us one remains undiminished. The Holy Spirit reweaves the torn fabric of our shared community. Our role in the process of reconciliation is to persevere in our common life, loving each other as the imperfect gifts to one another that we are.

I am grateful to be an Episcopalian and a member of the Anglican Communion. There is no corner of my life in which love is always easy and seamless. It would be unrealistic to expect that to be the case in the Church. But abiding in that love always stretches us toward holiness, because that love issues from Jesus Christ.
Here are some additional links: