Saturday, August 29, 2015


Herr and Frau Birkenfeld were our landlords in Witten, Germany. We rented a portion of the second story of their house while I was writing my dissertation at the Ruhr University in Bochum.
They were a lovely retired couple and seemed like kindly substitute parents to us. From time to time they would invite us downstairs to watch TV or to share a meal.
At one of these meals the Birkenfelds were excited to share one of their favorite dishes with us: chopped beets and pickled herring. As Frau Birkenfeld served and as we took our first bites, they both leaned forward and looked expectantly for our delighted expressions.
My wife Joy and I are Southern. That means that we’re polite and perhaps a bit over accommodating. We would rather stick our tongue in an electric socket than to disappoint such sweet, gracious hosts.
“Mmmm,” I said. “This is wonderful,” as I ate with what I hoped passed for gusto. In all honestly, I was eating quickly to end my misery. My performance won me a heaping second portion before I could decline.
Zinaida Serebriakova's "Self-Portrait in a White Blouse"

Sometimes I’m glad that people can’t see what I’m thinking and feeling. Even more frequently I’m grateful that I do not have direct access to the inner life of other people.
Maybe this seems incongruous, even shocking to you. All of us want to be known and accepted for who we are. Right? And clergy—yes, even bishops—are supposed to set an example of Christ’s unceasing, unconditional love for others. So, it may sound as if I don’t want to know, and even refuse to love, people for who they really are.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Then again, maybe you and I diverge on what it means to be your true self.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Play It Like You Mean It

This is the final post in the series "Getting Our Bearings." Missed the earlier posts? No problem. Click on the these links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I play guitar. These days, my skills have eroded from neglect. 
Once upon a time, I spent hours working on bluegrass licks and delta blues tunes. Even so, quitting my day job would not have been a good idea. At their peak my abilities never rose above the level of enthusiastic amateur.
By contrast to my middling skills, there are genuine guitar virtuosos. 
Delta blues artists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters shaped that genre. Doc Watson stood out among bluegrass pickers. One of the greatest guitarists of all time was jazzman Django Reinhardt. And if I’m going to be really honest about my listening habits, Neil Young still rocks.

You may not agree that this is a list of virtuoso guitarists. Your list may include different names and different genres. But you probably know what I mean by “virtuoso.” 
A virtuoso has achieved a level of excellence that serves as an example to others. She or he influences how a community of musicians approaches their instruments. In guitar circles you learn to play by sitting with and emulating more accomplished musicians.
The Christian moral life bears a resemblance to playing the guitar. Being good means being virtuous.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Do All Dogs Go to Heaven?

I still miss Plato. Our Golden Retriever, that is, not the philosopher. He’s been gone a while now, but the rest of us in the family still frequently reminisce about him. 
When we open a jar of peanut butter, one of us will mention how he always assumed that he was getting a spoonful. He would retrieve our mislaid socks, hoover the floor beneath the kitchen table during meals, and sleep curled underneath the Christmas tree.
Scores of ordinary things remind us of him. He was part of the family. We had a common language, shared our daily comings and goings, and showered each other with affection.
Pierre Bonnard's "Woman with Dog"

I know lots of other people feel the same way. So I am not surprised when people ask me if our pets will be in heaven. 
Loving one of God’s creatures as dearly as we do our pets—and experiencing their boundless affection for us—leaves us feeling a profound loss when they die. And it also stirs within us a hope that this love extends beyond the horizons of this life.
The way many of us think about life after life makes this hope seem implausible. That’s because we are not listening carefully to what Jesus actually says about eternal life. To put this a bit more bluntly, quite a number of us think about life after the death of the body in terms that are not especially Christian.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to say that good church goers have intentionally rejected Jesus’ teaching. Instead, I think that many people have picked up ideas from the surrounding culture by a kind of intellectual osmosis and have mistakenly attributed them to the Christian faith.
The central Christian doctrine about life after life is resurrection. And yet, Christians think about the afterlife in terms of the immortality of the soul. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Eight Things to Know about Reading the Bible

This is the fourth post in the series "Getting Our Bearings." Want to check out the previous posts? No problem. Just click one of the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Years ago while I was serving a parish in St. Louis, a local funeral home director contacted me about doing a burial service. A man advanced in years had died. As a younger person he had attended the Episcopal Church in his home far away, but he had not been a member of one of the local Episcopal congregations and none of his surviving family attended an Episcopal church.
On the morning of the funeral, I greeted people as they arrived. A couple of days prior to the service I had met with a few family members to plan the service, but as people gathered to give their final respects I found myself meeting sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces, siblings and nephews, old colleagues and caretakers for the first time.
Mikhail Nesterov's "Portrait of Natasha Nesterova (On a Garden Bench)"

Just before we began, a woman in her late forties appeared. She thought to push her way around me without acknowledging me. 
Seeing that the aisle we both occupied was too narrow to avoid my greeting, she tilted her head back, pointed her chin at me, looked down the bridge of her nose, and snapped, “I am a Charismatic Episcopalian. We believe in the Bible.”

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Being Humpty Dumpty

“What breaks your heart apart and open?”
An interviewer with Work of the People recently asked Nadia Bolz-Weber that question.
She paused before speaking to let the question sink in. We’re accustomed to politicians and celebrities who respond with prepared statements and a polished camera presence. 
Most public figures have a prefabricated message and take every opportunity to deliver it. An interviewer’s question is just an excuse to say what they have already practiced saying.
By contrast, Nadia paused to listen to her heart. And she shared honestly with us what her heart was telling her.

Charles Blackman's "Fallen School Girl"

Nadia said something like this. 
What breaks my heart open and apart is being smack up against my limitations and my mistakes… stuff I haven’t done right or done well or done when I needed to and yet having someone forgive me. It’s when I receive grace and mercy from God or from another person. I’ll do anything to not need it. I would rather get it right, nail it every time.
Ain’t that the truth! Me too! I would rather keep kidding myself that I can nail it every time than to have to admit that I’m shattered and can’t put myself back together again.
To put that another way, nobody likes being Humpty Dumpty.