Evaluation without Litigation

When I was updating the list of sermons I've preached, I noticed a pattern: Almost all of my talks have been about spiritual practices, some corporate but mostly personal ones like praying the Psalms, spending time in nature, or offering hospitality. But what about the latest sermon, Intervention: Risk, Folly, and Inner Healing? What personal spiritual practice is involved in the process of intervening in another's life?

Read More

Inductive theology and the real world

I'm not an Episcopalian, but I feel at home in Episcopal and Anglican churches in America and Europe, because they offer an open table -- some more explicitly than others, of course, but I never feel unwelcome at Eucharist. I also have several friends who are Episcopal or Anglican priests. Accordingly, I've followed with great interest the soul-searching that the Episcopal Church has undergone over the past few years, especially as it affected congregations close to me in northern Virginia.

Of all the articles coming out of this week's events at the Episcopal General Convention, the one by Otis Gadding III -- from St. Mark's in Washington, DC -- is to me the most profound and potentially powerful in its description of how theology can evolve through action. His specific topic is the resolution regarding the development of liturgy for blessing same-sex unions and, in states where they are legal, marriages. Redding uses that resolution to explain "inductive theology," a term that's new to me (not being even a wannabe seminarian), and how that was the method that led the early Church to accept fully its mission to the Gentiles. In a nutshell (and I do commend the entire article to you), Peter heeded God's call to move outside his safe, known space into forbidden territory and saw that action bear fruit over time. Only through those fruits was the theology developed that gave the Gentiles their place in the salvation story.

I think Gadding’s article appealed to me so strongly and rang so true, because I have seen this process in action in my own life, without knowing what name to give it. In fact, it was in an Anglican church, St. Andrew's in Moscow, that I saw for the first time an inclusive, liturgical church. People from a dozen denominations and probably a couple of dozen countries worshiped together, but each brought their own uniqueness. I can still picture the Russian woman at the back, keeping to the tradition of standing through the entire service. Samuel Witt, the greeter/usher from Sudan, taught me much about graciousness. ANZAC Day brought together in shared remembrance representatives of countries that had once been enemies. My lack of sight-reading skills were no impediment to joining in the choir for the annual Lessons and Carols service (which usually was more like 9 Lessons and 17 Carols -- a marathon). Through acts large and small, Father Simon Stephens, the chaplain during the last 2 years of my time in Moscow, reached out to the community to make St. Andrew's a welcoming place.

When I came back from Moscow, it was with a sense that this is what the Body of Christ really looks like, in all its multiplicity, and that led me to explore more fully both the nature of and the implications of radical hospitality, which has in turn led me to the Rule of St. Benedict, the writer and beloved teacher Esther de Waal, and beyond. Inductive theology has been working through my own life, taking the actions and experiences that I felt on a very deep level were spiritually true and building connections that not only explain their richness, but point toward what might be the next steps for me.

All of which is to say that perhaps a bit more inductive theology is what’s needed in many churches and religious institutions. Do what the Spirit seems to be calling you to do, and trust that the theological underpinning and other structures to sustain that Spirit-filled action will be revealed in good time.


Remarks for Ash Wednesday 2009

(Homily delivered in a shorter version at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC)

Traditionally, Lent has been that time of the year when people search the rhythm of their lives to discover something suitable that they can do without for six weeks. But what is the real object of giving up chocolate, alcohol, soap operas, Internet games, or something else dear for Lent? Is it to care for body and mind, soul and spirit more purposefully? To make ourselves more holy?

To find the answer, just look toward the end of Lent. What looms there is the crucifixion and the resurrection— in other words, death and new life.

Recently I have had the privilege of studying with Esther de Waal, a much beloved writer on Benedictine and Celtic spirituality. In her short book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, she explains how death and rebirth are lessons so important that they are written in the very soil we walk upon:

The dying of the grain of wheat and the growth of the new has to happen to us all, and the ways in which it will happen will be secret, hidden certainly, and quite different for each of us. . . . Without ... separation, which is a small death, the new life cannot spring up. . . . In times of the deepest depression part of the pain of darkness is the feeling that it is utterly pointless and useless, and even worse than useless, that it is destroying, annihilating. Only later, perhaps months later, as the inner darkness starts to lighten do I begin to see that here too the pattern of death and new life is taking shape within. . . . (pp. 73-74)

The purpose of Lenten discipline is to give this pattern of death and rebirth an opportunity to work within and to create space for God to enter. On the one hand, we knock down the idols worshipped with our attention but empty of spiritual meaning. Yet on the other hand, we open ourselves up to failure, to the small daily deaths, because any attempt at discipline — whether it consists of giving up something or adopting a new spiritual practice — eventually comes face to face with temptation. It is not God who leads us into temptation, but ourselves, as we are bold enough to imagine that we can bypass it. What we think to avoid, we inevitably find ourselves confronting.

In that impasse, the only solution is not to exercise effort to become more holy or even more mindful, but simply to be who we are. That true Self that we may begin to see in the mirror of Lenten discipline is the one that comes from God and will return to God. I look again to Esther de Waal, who explains how such self-knowledge, with its recognition of shortcomings as well as gifts, is a necessary step toward transformation:

It is a sign of maturity to rejoice in what I have and not to weep for what I have lost or never had. . . . I must live in this moment, not looking either forward or back, or to right or left, but realizing that unless I am what I am, there cannot be any growth. If I promise myself that life will be better, that I shall be a more agreeable person, that I shall be closer to God on the next stage along the way, then I am failing to live as I am called to live because I go on dreaming of that ideal which does not exist. This past has brought me to this moment and if I begin today anew I can also begin tomorrow anew and the day after that, and so I shall be truly open to change. (pp. 74-75)

Lenten discipline is like an unwanted pebble in your shoe. Eventually, you will come to a place where you can stop, pause, and remove the pebble, but until then, you may be acutely aware of every step. You change your gait, shifting the weight on your foot in a way that you would not ordinarily do, experimenting to see whether there is a sweet spot that makes it more bearable. You become absorbed in the walking, allowing the destination to take care of itself. And so I invite you to walk with God for these 40 days, in whatever way you feel called to do. Accept that deaths — large and small — are fundamental to the growth of new life. Look to those little deaths as a way to understand how God is reaching out to you and seeking your collaboration in your own renewal.


The secret of breath is so simple. In that natural act, what is outside comes inside, and what is inside goes outside. The transfer sustains life and creates a liminal moment in which anything can happen.