If at first you don’t succeed…

…seek a larger audience.

The skiing senator

Back in December, I wrote to my senator, Lisa Murkowski, and asked her to vote against the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. My case was fairly straightforward. Climate change is affecting the Arctic faster than any other part of the world and Alaska communities are already being forced to adapt to this new world. We need a EPA head who—at the bare minimum—acknowledges the truth of climate change.

I never heard back.

On Saturday, Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska’s largest news organization, published an opinion piece by me that makes the same case at greater length and to a much larger audience. You can read the article here:

It is possible to disagree with the actions of the EPA and how the Obama administration has sought to combat climate change. Indeed, Murkowski has at times voiced such disagreement. But it is not possible in 2017 to deny the reality of a changing climate and the role of human agents in this process. To put a man like Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency would constitute a major blow to Alaska communities looking to their elected representatives for help as they work to adapt to the new reality we face.

Scott Pruitt’s nomination will likely come before the full Senate in the next few weeks. Murkowski should vote against his confirmation and insist that Donald Trump appoint an EPA director who takes the threat of climate change seriously. It is the only reasonable move….

Sen. Murkowski is not short of reasonableness. In an unreasonable age, she must now find her courage.

There’s been a lot of talk since November’s election about how people who dissent from the Trump agenda can best make their voice heard. Write to your elected representatives and call them. But the weakness of local and regional news organizations makes them desperate for content and eager for prose they can publish. Don’t underestimate the significance of submitting unsolicited columns to your local paper. If no one else, you can be sure that your members of Congress will read it when their name appears.

But that strategy only works if other people make their voices heard as well. So if you live in Alaska and agree what I wrote in the ADN, write to Lisa Murkowski yourself and tell her she needs to vote against Scott Pruitt. Then call one of her offices and do the same.

5 things to read in preparation for a Christian response to a Trump presidency

In less than three weeks, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States. As I think about how Christians are called to live in the midst of this global moment of increasing populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, these are some of the texts I find myself returning to.

stringfellow-10William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. For the last eight years, it’s been possible to think that society is on a steady march forward. Not always in a straight line, of course, but we’ve had enough evidence to think that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That view seemed to shatter in the early hours of November 9.

The Trump presidency demands that Christians reclaim the apocalyptic. Early Christians didn’t believe in gradual incrementalism. They understood themselves to be fighting against powers and principalities that needed to be overthrown. One author who consistently and compellingly articulated these themes is the late William Stringfellow, Episcopal layman, lawyer, and theologian. An Ethic for Christians is an extended exegesis of the book of Revelation and the need to defeat “Babylon.”

The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgement of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.

Stringfellow is consistently challenging and creative in his writing and this book is an excellent introduction to his thought.

9780199747580John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Lederach has traveled the world to teach peace-building skills in zones of prolonged conflict. In this book, he sums up a lot of what he has learned. What we need to move beyond violence, he writes, is a new “moral imagination.” This has four aspects:

the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity….; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.

In addition to reclaiming the apocalyptic, Christians in the Trump era need also to learn deeply from the witness of Anabaptist Christians. Lederach starts us down that path.

The Kairos Document. In 1985, as the anti-apartheid struggle reached a crisis point, an ecumenical group of South African Christians published a document that critiqued what it called “state theology” and “church theology” and began to articulate “prophetic theology.” While it is shaped by its time and its context, it is still a document that speaks to our present moment.

There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace–the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants (Jn 14:27). The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness. At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension. As Christians we must say with Jesus: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth. No, I tell you, but rather dissension” (Lk 12:51). There can be no real peace without justice and repentance. (3.1)

Others might point to the Barmen Declaration, written by confessing Christians in Germany during World War II. You should also read that.

(The entirety of the Kairos Document is available online.)

P.D. James, Children of Men. James’ dystopic novel (set in 2012) envisions a world in which people have lost the ability to have children. It was turned into a pretty good movie about a decade ago, one I’ve thought of often in recent years, but the movie strays pretty far from the book. The novel is well worth reading in its own right, especially for the way in which childlessness comes to stand in for godlessness. I remember being struck particularly by the quiet insights into the role of the Christian liturgy in sustaining communal life in desperate times. Reclaiming the meaning of the liturgy (a cause that Stringfellow championed, among many others) is a vital task.

9780674659681-lgHarvey Cox, The Market as GodThere is a lot of talk about economic inequality, both within countries and globally. But we don’t tend to talk about the penetration of market-based forms of thinking into more and more areas of our life and the resulting impact this has on how we see the world. The recent Christmas season is an annual reminder of the way in which a Christian holiday has been taken over and subverted by the great god of consumerism.

Harvey Cox recognizes all of this and in this recent book (itself an expansion of a 1999 article in The Atlantic) he argues that the market has become a god in our society.

To begin exploring the market theology is quickly to marvel at just how comprehensive it is. There are sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a liturgical year, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and even what theologians call “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.”…. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economy operates today is not simply “natural” or “just the way things work,” but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as ersatz religion.

To live in a Christian in this day and age means to be clear-eyed about the other gods that roam the religious landscape of our day and compete for the faith and trust of believers. The market is chief among them.

That’s my (non-exhaustive) list. What’s on yours? Recommendations for fiction are especially welcome.

UPDATE: Several good recommendations have been arriving on social media and other forms. They include:

  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (“or anything by Steinbeck”)—heartily agreed! I re-read Grapes for the first time since high school last fall and was struck by how painfully good it is.
  • “Something by Boenhoffer.” Also agreed. Recommendations welcome.
  • Paul Aster, In the Country of Last Things
  • Walter Wink, Naming the Powers
  • Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man

Keep the suggestions coming!

Jesse Zink (@jazink) is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and author, most recently, of A Faith for the Future.

Not Losing Heart: Praying for the Kingdom of God

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” -Luke 18.1

To look around the world today, it’s very easy to lose heart. People are drowning as they cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats to Europe. A once-fine Syrian city is being bombed into rubble. An oppressive and irrational dictator in North Korea has increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Oh, and the foundations of American democracy appear under threat by an unhinged demagogue who caters to our worst instincts.

In that frame of mind, I went to church this morning and heard a parable from Jesus—a parable that is told so that Jesus’ followers do not “lose heart.” Just what I needed!

But at first glance the answer seems depressing. Apparently, what I need to do not to lose heart is to pray. The parable is about a widow who badgers an unjust judge who finally grants her justice. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18.7) That’s it? In the face of all the truly frightening things in the world, the answer is to keep asking God for justice? God’s justice depends on my asking for it? It can seem an inadequate response.unjust-judgeOne of the primary concerns of the author of the Gospel of Luke is prayer. Jesus is frequently depicted as being at prayer. This parable about prayer appears in no other gospel. And prayer is linked with one other central concept: the kingdom of God. That’s most obvious in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus tells his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom, but there are other places where the connection is made. Shortly before this parable about prayer, Jesus tells his followers not to look for the kingdom of God “with things that can be observed… For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17.20, 21) And how does the kingdom of God come to be among them? By the kind of fervent prayer that is described in the parable of the widow and the judge.

Our common views of prayer seem to involve a person (or people) sitting around (often in silence) and asking God for various things. I don’t think Luke would recognize this. For Luke, prayer is active and engage, an activity in which followers of Jesus come into contact with the world. Prayer is the activity by which the community of Jesus’ followers comes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.

Next week in church we’ll hear another parable about prayer, about a righteous Pharisee and a sinful tax collector. The former prays standing up in the temple, the latter throws himself on the floor. This parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18.9) It’s a reminder about prayer: the prayer that brings about the kingdom is the fervent prayer (like that of the widow) of those who know their need for God’s mercy (like the tax collector). The values and virtues of the kingdom of God are brought about by humble and fervent prayers to live according to precepts Jesus taught.

In the midst of a deeply uncertain and terrifying world, I want not to lose heart. The answer Jesus gives me is to pray. How do we pray? We work for the kingdom in our midst. How do we work for the kingdom in our midst? We pray.

How do the prayer practices of a Christian community you’re associated with reflect the unease and tension which so many of us experience in the world today?

Cambridge Church Leaders Dinner

img_7815-1Last week, I attended a dinner in Cambridge that brought together the two bishops of the Diocese of Ely with about seven or eight leaders of black Pentecostal churches in Cambridge. (Picture above taken before everyone arrived.) You may have heard of these churches: denominations like the Redeemed Christian Church of God or Kingsway International Christian Church that were founded in non-western countries but are gradually establishing a presence in the U.K. and other western countries. There are two RCCG congregations in Cambridge, for instance. The idea was to eat, talk, and pray together so that in learning more about one another we could see where we were being called to work together.

One thing that often strikes me in meeting leaders of diasporic churches is the nature of ministry. Every one of the black Pentecostal leaders at dinner was in what, in C of E parlance, we would call self-supporting ministry. In the U.S., the word would be bivocational. Every one of them had a full-time job to which the church leadership role was additional. One was a nurse, one a software engineer, one a solicitor, and so on and so forth. (They are, of course, not alone in this: the Latter Day Saints have an almost exclusively non-professional leadership class.) By contrast, the Anglicans at the dinner all earned their living working in the church.

Listening to their stories of leadership, I was struck how they seem to do as much or more with their congregations as many full-stipend clergy: Sunday services, Bible studies, collections for the poor and needy, and large festival celebrations. They also plant new churches. One difference we noted in our conversation was that the black Pentecostal churches are more active in church planting than the Diocese of Ely. They certainly do more of it. Not all of the church plants of the main RCCG congregation have been successful, but a couple have been.

I began to wonder if there’s a connection between their approach to ministry and their ability to plant churches. In the C of E, we have this idea that you need a fully-trained cleric to lead or plant a church. In the RCCG if all you’re looking for is a committed lay person, the task becomes easier. It was easy, sitting in that dinner, to think that the requirements of the priestly class of the C of E are actually stifling the church, not enabling it. It takes a long time to make a priest in the C of E (sometimes not long enough, I think) and I am deeply committed to that process. But still.

But there was a flip side to our conversation. Many of these black Pentecostal leaders wanted further theological education themselves. Some of these denominations have training colleges that they may have attended but this is more in the way of continuing education. These people wanted to study for degrees to fill in what they felt they were lacking. I can’t speak for them but from their perspective I sensed that an educated leadership class seemed like an asset they wanted to develop as well.

Perhaps there is a way to square this circle: on the one hand, theological education remains vitally important. The church should support it in every way possible. On the other hand, ministry cannot be seen as the preserve of an elite professional class. Lay people are leaders in ministry just as much as those who get paid for it.

The word that I left the dinner with was this one: permission. These black Pentecostal churches give permission to their members to fully engage in ministry as they are called. They experiment with new approaches. Sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes they do. But it’s a low cost approach. How can we create a culture of permission-giving in our churches?

It was a great dinner—and this is only a small piece of the puzzle. There are diaspora churches from Asia, eastern Europe, and many other places all active in Cambridge and we want to expand the network of relationships as we go forward.

Hillbilly Christianity

The presidential candidacy of one Donald J. Trump has driven members of the coastal elite looking for explanations for his success: who is voting for this guy?

162224This summer, many members of the media thought they found an answer in a book by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even the normally staid Economist declared: “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”

Vance, a veteran and a Yale Law graduate, writes of his upbringing in Rust Belt Ohio, the child of transplants from Kentucky, and the family instability, economic crisis, and cultural values he experienced. His conclusion, more or less, is that the problems facing the white working class are not just the result of economic displacement as a result of globalization but also a set of cultural values that don’t nurture the necessary attitude to survive in the world. When he told his father he had was going to Yale Law, his father asked if he had “pretended to be black of liberal.” “This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen,” Vance writes. “We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.” (p. 194)

You can make what you will of that argument. But when I read this book, I was struck by his passing references to Christianity and its role among his hillbilly family. He describes his grandmother, who played the most significant role in his life, as someone who, every night, watched Law & Order, read the Bible, and fell asleep. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers.” But she also hardly ever attended church, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt,” and “saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers.” Her faith was, in his words, “unsophisticated.” Once, when she nearly caused a car accident, scaring Vance, she turned to him and said, ‘We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (pp. 85-86)

This theology, Vance concludes, was what he needed to hear: “To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.” (p. 86)

As a pre-teen, Vance became associated with an evangelical church, read the Left Behind books, learns how there is a war on Christmas, discusses whether the Antichrist is already alive, and realizes the world is “lurch[ing] toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah.” (p. 98) Before long, however, he rejects this, realizing in retrospect that this version of Christianity was “sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (p. 99) (There are hints towards the end of the book that he has returned to church as he is writing.)

What I am struck by in this description is the pervasive influence of Christian rhetoric—the Bible, Jesus, Christianity all figure as important ideas in his life—but also the apparent insufficiency of this rhetoric. The Christian answers he and his grandmother have  do not help them cope with the situation they find themselves in. And it’s no wonder: the version of Christianity his grandmother presents strikes me as one version of what I have called in the past “just do it Christianity,” that is, it’s clear what you have to do—work hard, take care of your family—so just do it already. But what if there are no jobs to work at or the jobs that there are don’t pay nearly enough? What if your mother is—like Vance’s—an addict who gives rise to immensely complex feelings in her children?

Meanwhile, when he does attend church he is directed to apparently central issues—the end times—but is offered no convincing resources (theological or otherwise) to cope with the situation of family and societal breakdown in which he finds himself. Gradually—and understandably—he drifts away.

From my privileged, outsider position, it is relatively easy to point this all out (and wish that Vance had written more about Christianity in the book). But it’s much harder to figure out how to respond to it. I can offer a theological critique of it—Christianity is precisely not about our hard work, but the work done by Christ in his death and resurrection; Jesus had some very hard things to say about family relations; Christianity is concerned with our lives here and now because God in Christ comes into the midst of them and transforms them now—but none of this changes the fact that the version of Christianity he describes holds great sway among many people.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the state of American Christianity is its segmentation: there are correlations between socio-economic status and both church attendance and the kind of church one belongs to. People like Vance’s grandmother have given up on church—or has the church given up on them?—but they haven’t given up on the rhetoric of Christianity. There are clear opportunities for churches to minister alongside such communities. But if we cannot overcome the vast social distance between our churches and such communities, such ministry will never even begin.

One bishop without a home, and one bishop with two

In January, there was an odd story from the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan: Precious Omuku, an Anglican priest from Nigeria who currently works in Lambeth Palace for Archbishop Justin Welby, was made a bishop in ECSSS.abpandbps

He’s not a diocesan bishop, but has rather a roving, ambassadorial role.

According to the Revd. Dr. Joseph Bilal, a board member of the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation of the Province of ECSS& S, Bishop Omuku will continue to work in his base at the Lambeth Palace as special adviser of Archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion Affairs. “He will not necessarily be move out from his base at Lambeth Palace, but he will continue with his duties as adviser of the archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion affairs. He will be keenly involved on issues of sustainable development, justice, peace and reconciliation in South Sudan and Sudan,” Dr. Bilal explained.

What’s odd about this? It’s not odd that a person ordained in one country became a bishop in another country. (The bishop of Waikato in New Zealand was ordained in the Church of England. Desmond Tutu was once the bishop of Lesotho.) It’s not odd that a bishop is doing a non-diocesan role. (The bishop of Algoma is about to become the principal of a theological college. There is a “bishop at Lambeth.“)

The oddity has something to do with place.

For Anglicans, geography shapes the church. The Church of England, for instance, divides the entire country into parishes, groups parishes into deaneries, deaneries into archdeaconries, archdeaconries into dioceses, and dioceses into provinces. The bishop is the head of a diocese and an archbishop is the head of a province. Other Anglican churches do things in various different ways but all still maintain in one way or another that a bishop is linked to a particular place, called a see. You can give up that see later on and still remain a bishop, but to become a bishop you need to be linked to a place.

So it’s odd, then, that the church in the Sudans should consecrate someone to be a bishop without a place but rather with a role.

I probably would have let this oddity pass me by except I then read another odd story about bishops and place recently: the suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, Susan Goff, has now become an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool. The oddity here also has to do with place: a bishop is to be linked to a place, as Bishop Goff, already is, but it is to be one place. Now Bishop Goff is a bishop connected to two places. I have no doubt that the link between Liverpool and Virginia is strong and important to both dioceses. I want to take nothing away from that relationship. But in ecclesiological terms, this particular move doesn’t make much sense. (And, indeed, Bishop Goff had to post a video clarifying that she’ll only be in Liverpool up to two weeks a year.) To ask one particular question: who is Bishop Goff’s metropolitical authority? Is it the Archbishop of York (through the bishop of Liverpool), as it is for other bishops in the northern province of the C of E? Or is it the rather diffuse metropolitical authority of the Episcopal Church (through the bishop of Virginia), as it is for other Episcopal bishops?

The church is full of oddities, ecclesiological and otherwise, and I’m usually content to let them go unremarked upon. But these particular oddities reveal some deeper confusion in our Anglican thinking about bishops. There are many voices (with which I heartily agree) that tell us about the importance of all orders of ministry, about the need for priests and lay people to take an active role in governance and decision-making, and so forth. In the Anglican tradition, bishops are not the sole locus of authority. Readers of this blog and my books will know how frequently I have nattered on about the importance of involving more voices in determining the direction of the church, rather than just those that wear purple shirts.

Yet at the same time we have this fixation on bishops: who they are, what they do, what they say. We develop fancy ways of referring to them (+ or ++, which is an oddity for another time). We struggle to call them by their first names. We surround their visits with a kind of aura. The result of all this is that we are developing this unstated assumption that the only things that matter in the church are what bishops say. There’s no reason that ECSSS could not have appointed a priest or lay person as its roving ambassador. If the Diocese of Liverpool wanted to cement its ties with Virginia, the bishop could have made a priest or lay person from Virginia a canon in his cathedral. But in each case, it was decided the role needed to be filled by a bishop—a response to and a furthering of this over-emphasis on episcopal ministry. And that emphasis has real world impacts, not least the proliferation of bishops and dioceses in a church like ECSSS so that ever-smaller regions of the country can feel like they have an adequate voice at the table.

If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably as far into the weeds of Anglican ecclesiology as I am. These situations are not the most pressing issue facing the church or the world. But they are odd. And in their oddity, they reveal a rather worrisome trend in the life of our churches.

3 things you might have missed at #ACCLusaka

The 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council comes to a close in Lusaka, Zambia today. Many worthy topics have been discussed and there has been good coverage from a handful of Episcopal/Anglican news organizations. But it’s easy to let meetings like this slide by. I wasn’t there but here are a few things I noticed from afar that are worth highlighting.

You might have missed that the meeting happened at all. In stark contrast to the gathering in January of senior Anglican bishops, the ACC meeting has received almost no coverage in secular global press. It’s probably a safe bet that you won’t hear a report on the ACC on NPR or see it on the front page of the Guardian, as you could after the January meeting. No news editor will ever run the article, “Anglicans meet, read Bible, celebrate Eucharist, and discuss climate change, discipleship, and transitivity in Anglican-Lutheran agreements.” Plus, Lusaka is a lot harder for international media to get to than Canterbury.

This is a recurring problem in the Anglican Communion: our perceptions are formed by media coverage that is decidedly selective. Yet meetings such as the one in Lusaka have as a great a claim to represent the mind of the Communion as anything else does.

You might have missed the discussion of finances. In the past, there has been a curious divide in discussions about how the Anglican Communion Office is funded. On the one hand, conservative Anglicans claim it is funded by the Episcopal Church to spread its liberal influence around the world. But some Episcopalians say their church should not give any money so long as the Anglican Communion is unresolved on questions related to sexuality. This issue occasionally crops up at Episcopal General Conventions with proposals to cut back on the amount given to the ACO. Then there was the curious announcement a year or two back (with great fanfare) that the Episcopal church would give more—but still less than was being asked (there was less fanfare for that).

But in the middle of this, it’s never quite been clear just what the ACO is asking for from provinces. This year’s ACC had an open conversation about precisely this subject. It raised some good questions about reasonable expectations for contributions from churches. Above all, it raised the issue directly. That’s a good thing.

(Amidst all these debates in recent years, the staff of the ACO have continued to do important and innovative work that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the Communion. But that’s a post for another day.)

You might have missed the steps taken on an Anglican archive. In a passing reference, we read of how the Standing Committee (meeting before the actual ACC meeting) “adopted objectives for the management of the Anglican Communion Office Archives.” Why does this matter? In the Anglican Communion, we lack a good historical narrative. Events, actions, and reports from even just a few years ago are forgotten, even as we talk through the same set of issues. Having consulted these archives myself in the past, I can attest that they are a valuable resource for the Communion if they could be made more widely available.

To take one example: there was considerable debate in the run-up to this ACC meeting whether the American church should even be present after actions taken in January at the Primates meeting. The debate turned on interpreting a sentence or two in the statement from that meeting. But few people in the debate looked to past precedent. In 2005, at a similar Primates meeting, the Primates requested that American (and Canadian) representatives withdraw from a forthcoming ACC—and they did. In 2016, it seems that if the Primates had wanted the Americans to stay away from the ACC in particular, they would have directly said so as they have in the past. History can help give some context and specificity to our conversations.

And another thing you might have missed: the guy who is taking a selfie during the group shot at the top of this post. Can you find him?

Praying for Paris—and everywhere else?

More than other comparable events, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have led to a critical appraisal of our response. In the midst of expressions of prayer and support, there’s been a consistent thread that has said, essentially, Why don’t we care when this happens in the rest of the world? People point to a bomb attack in Beirut a day before Paris that didn’t generate nearly the same level of attention as Paris. Oddly, a BBC story about the attack on Garissa University in Kenya gained considerable social media momentum. It was as if people were saying by sharing it, “See, I do care”—though the point was somewhat undermined by the fact the attack happened in April.

Hard to project a cedar tree on this canvas.

The disjuncture between the attention paid to Paris and the lack of attention paid to other attacks is used then to make arguments about race, the role of media, our rhetoric of mourning, and much else. Somehow, the focus shifts away from the immediate pain and onto ourselves.

But there is a serious question here: in a world of violent outrages, only some of which receive the full-court press from our media, how are we supposed to respond in a way that seems even-handed and, well, fair?

I’ve dwelt on this question many times in the past as I’ve traveled to various parts of the world that experience great suffering but generally do not merit more than passing attention in media outlets. I’m thinking here primarily of northern Nigeria and South Sudan. But there are other places that, for one reason or another, are close to my heart, if not often in our headlines.

Over time, I’ve adopted this strategy: I’ve jettisoned fairness. I cannot pray for the pain of the entire world in all its variety. Instead, I have consciously committed my attention and prayer life to a handful of locales in the world. I actively seek out news about those places, I keep them in prayer, and I try to be in relationship with people from these places. In some cases, like South Sudan, that means I actually e-mail with (and occasionally call) and know people who live there. In other cases, social media proves to be a helpful tool. With a little searching on Twitter and elsewhere, you can easily find firsthand sources from all over the world to follow and learn from. As the conditions in Burundi have deteriorated in recent weeks, for instance, my Twitter feed has been full of material that has been really helpful in educating me about what is going on there. It’s not the whole story, but it is helpful in some way.

A short list of the locales I pay close attention to includes South Sudan, the Great Lakes region of east/central Africa, northeastern Nigeria, the life of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and the migratory situation in southeast Asia, particularly the Rohingya people of Myanmar. I don’t mean to say these are all equal—there is far less overt violence in the Arctic, for instance, than in parts of South Sudan and each place is a unique and particular context—but for whatever combination of reasons, these places have been put close to my heart.

What this also means is that there are situations in the world I know little about. I wish I knew more about Ukraine or Libya or the opioid addiction crisis in rural America. But my hope is that these places—and any number of others—are close to the heart of other people and that together our prayers can hold the brokenness of the world. I find strength and help in the knowledge that there are Christians in the places I pray for that are praying for where I live.

While I do sometimes wonder if I am narrowing myself unnecessarily, I’ve found that my approach can be empowering. Rather than being overwhelmed by the tide of senseless and seemingly indiscriminate suffering and violence that pops into our news cycles with too little context and too quickly disappears, I am encouraged by the close links I have with particular places that have evolved over time. These close links yield stories not only of pain—which is what the media will cover—but also of hope and new life.

I’ve also found in my own life and that of others that the bonds formed in prayer can often lead to action. Prayer is about a lot more than sitting in silence every so often and sending “good thoughts” someone’s way. In my experience, attentiveness to a particular location can lead to deeper engagement and action.

Christians are called to enter the suffering of the world not simply because it is the “right thing to do.” We are called to enter the suffering of the world because we believe that somewhere, through pain and heartbreak, there is a path to new life. But that path to new life will only begin as it has always begun: in patient, loving attention to the particular circumstances of individual lives around the world.

As the collective body of Christ is attentive to the collective suffering of the world, we may find that we are collectively led into Christ’s new life.

George Bell, prophet for peace and pedophile

As it happens, this week I am correcting the proofs of my new book. In a section on the communion of saints, I write: “Saints are not saints because they are perfect people. None of them were.”

This evening, I turned away from the proofs and came across a piece of news that devastatingly confirmed this: George Bell, an Anglican bishop and prophet for peace in World War II, sexually abused a young child during his ministry. The Church of England has recently settled a legal claim relating to this abuse.

Bell is someone I have admired through the long gaze of history. He is not a “saint” in the conventional, Catholic sense of the term, but he is commemorated in the calendar of the church. He spoke out against the carpet bombing of Germany in the House of Lords, doing in the (very credible) chance he had of becoming archbishop of Canterbury. He was later deeply concerned with the reconstruction of Europe after the war. Three years ago, I wrote this short post about him. I’m hardly the only one: Paul Zahl, an Episcopal priest, wrote a really excellent reflection some years ago remembering Bell in the context of drone warfare. Rowan Williams preached a sermon on Bell’s consecration in 2008. Re-reading it now is heart-breaking.

To have lived in England for the last several years is to have lived in the midst of a constant stream of sexual abuse allegations against figures in the establishment: media, politics, and church. A retired bishop was recently jailed for sexual offenses. Bell, were he alive, would no doubt be joining him. This is clearly a time of reckoning that is not coming to a close anytime soon.

We can and do pray for those who were assaulted by those in power. We affirm with the bishop of Chichester and others the truth (so often occluded in the church) that “the abuse of children is a criminal act and a devastating betrayal of trust that should never occur in any situation, particularly the church.” We make sure we listen carefully (in a way that has not always happened in the past) to their stories of pain and woundedness and praise them for speaking up over many decades. We work to prevent it from ever happening it again.

In my book, I write that rather than saints being perfect people, saints are people whose lives pointed beyond their current existence to the future God will fulfill. George Bell is commemorated because in some small way a part of his ministry did this. But we know now that even as he did that, he was hopelessly, inescapably rooted in the fallen, sinful present.

I hardly know what to think, except to return to the Bible: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.23) It is a tragic reminder of that central Christian truth.

A single wish for a new Book of Common Prayer

BCPThe Episcopal Church is beginning to think about revising its 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This will spark all kinds of feelings in people and generate, one hopes, an immense amount of reflection on our liturgy. If Episcopalians really mean lex orandi, lex credendi, then we should approach this process prayerfully and hope-fully. (Whether it is a process that should be happening at all is a question for another post.)

Any final revision is many years away. But that won’t stop me—and I’m not the first—from expressing a wish for this new book. It’s a simple one.

I hope that the new Book of Common Prayer will be—wait for it—a book.

Actually, that’s two wishes in one. Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the “a”: whatever is produced from this liturgical revision, I hope it can be contained in a single volume. Common Worship, which is the Church of England’s ongoing liturgical revision, spans multiple volumes. Someone said to me recently that Common Worship was no longer a liturgical revision but a publishing industry. There are different books to celebrate the Eucharist, conduct daily prayer, baptize, marry, and bury people, and celebrate special holy days.

This has all sorts of negative effects, not least of which is that it means that every parish has to produce its own orders of service because there is no single book it can point its congregations to. This sounds nice—let people choose their own liturgical adventures—but it’s an epic administrative burden and for small parishes, it is one more thing to do when resources and people-hours are in short supply.

It makes me think of my own experience with the 1979 BCP. When I was confirmed, my congregation gave me my own copy of the prayer book. I still have it. In that book, I could—and did—read how to pray daily, participate in the Eucharist, celebrate special days, find answers to my questions about the faith, read the historical documents that undergird the church’s teachings, pray the psalms, and read how I was baptized, would be married, and will be buried, not to mention ordained, which my teenage self didn’t foresee at the time. There is this powerful pedagogical and catechetical effect to having all of this contained in a single volume. When someone gets confirmed in the Church of England these days, there’s no single gift that is like it.

Second: a book. For all the reasons I just outlined (and many others), books still matter. By 2021 or 2024 or whenever, no doubt books will have retreated even further. But there is something about the tangibility of a book—I’ve had my BCP on so many bookshelves over the years, connecting me to that congregation and my confirmation—that will continue to endure. Of course, our liturgies should be available electronically (as they currently are), but they should also continue to be printed on actual paper with actual ink and bound between actual covers to create an actual book.

So there it is—a new Book of Common Prayer that is, in fact, a book.

Easy, right?