Friday, May 22, 2015

The Homeless Holy Spirit

A normal Sunday morning at St. Augustine’s in Tempe usually includes a handful of homeless folks who show up for cup of coffee, a few snacks, a gift card to the local grocery, and communion. The homeless seem to enjoy the safe space. The parish folks are kind and hospitable. Matthew 25:35 is our guide—when we entertain those in need, we entertain Jesus.

A few weeks ago we had a typical Sunday morning that turned even more entertaining. One of our regular homeless visitors, though, was acting a bit out of character. His paradoxical behavior appeared to be sparked by his rare sobriety. During worship service he always sits at the back. This Sunday he sat up front. He and his friends are quiet during the service. This Sunday he commented on my sermon—his timing was impeccable. What he said was probably what other people were thinking just they were unwilling to say it out loud. Then after the Peace we offer blessings. None of the homeless had ever come forward for a birthday, anniversary, or memorial blessing. This Sunday he stepped up for a blessing. Actually he wanted to address the congregation, but I asked him to face me and tell me what he had to say. Of course he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, which was fine. He told me about the difficulty of his life and how he was trying to do the hard work of making life better. I prayed for him. He thanked me and returned to his seat. A poignant moment—all was well.

At the celebration of communion, I was in my normal place offering the Eucharistic Prayer, facing the people behind the altar. Somewhere in the middle of that Prayer, I saw our friend moving towards the communion rail to my right. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the ushers walk up front and quietly ask him to return to his seat. I could see the homeless man follow the usher to the back. A few minutes later, I felt a presence from my behind my right side approaching the altar. While continuing the Eucharistic Prayer I caught a glimpse of the homeless man tip-toeing across the area behind me. I fully expected him to be standing at my side in a moment. Then from my left, I saw the movement of our music leader heading towards the man. The homeless man quietly followed our musician. The usher was now on the left side of church to help escort the homeless back to his seat. At the distribution of communion, the homeless man was kneeling in front of me, with a curious and happy smile. His face had a gentle feminine hint to it at that moment.

After the service, the usher, our music leader, and I were having a good laugh about the whole affair. The musician, a monk, deacon, and soon to be priest, said, “Ah, the wily Holy Spirit, she showed up today, masking as a homeless man. She is so funny.” Indeed. We never know who will be entertained this day.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Could be Worse, He Could be Your Priest

Recently, a colleague asked if he could take a picture with me. I said sure, but had no clue as to why. The request seemed a bit out of place. As the picture was snapped, my colleague said one of his parishioners had a traditional image of a priest. Obviously he wasn’t fulfilling that parishioner’s expectations. He told me he’s going to show them my picture and tell them, “Well it could be worse, Gil could be your priest.”

I’m not sure how to feel about that? But, I’m going to take it as a compliment, I guess. Of course we all know that outward appearances are not the measure of the inner being. It feels so cliché to even write that sentence. Then, I have to ask, so what is my outward appearance? Is it what you see with your eyes? Or could it be how I appear to your soul, consciously or most likely unconsciously? I think I would rather trust my soul to communicate with your soul. Then there’s nothing lost in translation. Whatever happens at that level probably falls into the realm of something like God looking “on the heart.”

I’ve learned a bit about this seeing what’s in the heart stuff by spending the last sixty years trying to figure out how to listen to my sister. She has Prader-Willi Syndrome, the deformity of Chromosome-15, which leaves her mentally and physically handicapped. She also has great difficultly speaking. Even under the best circumstances, understanding what she is trying to say is a challenge. If we relied on her outward appearance and ability to tell us what she was thinking and feeling—we would be at a total loss and cut off from her life and reality. To know my sister is to learning how to see her heart, her inner being. To listen to her silence. To let her outward appearance speak the powerful words of her heart.

Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Myteries of Nature and Psyche is a good resource for how to do the difficult work of soul making, which includes deep soul listening. Plotkin challenges us to dive into the dark depths of soulcraft. The dark place, he says, is the inner world where the light rarely shines, the place where we encounter our ego, self, and soul. Here, Plotkin says, is where we can begin to see who we really are. In getting a true portrait of our self, we can then begin to integrate our disparate fractured outward appearances into our inner self, the soul. I think Plotkin struggles in his attempt to write about the soul. But in all honesty, if you don’t struggle publicly about how to articulate the subtleties of the unseen soul, then you’re probably not being honest with the reader. I also don’t like a few of his metaphors. I think he tried to slide around Carl Jung’s work with Sol and Luna and by doing so, confused the alchemist work of ascending and descending. But, aside from those few issues, Plotkin provided me with some very practical methods of doing soulcraft; something I am constantly striving to do in order to listen to the silent soul of my companions, especially my sister. For that I recommend his book.

Sorry, I can’t get that moment I had my picture taken out of my head; me being the worse image of a priest. I wonder if my soul images have long hair? Maybe they wear jewelry? Must be the bare feet. Of course, that’s it—no shoes, no collar, no Eucharist.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Listening to the Talking Tree

We’ve recently moved into another house. Picking up forty-three years of living together and moving eight miles can be exhausting. The process has all gone fairly well. The house we’ve moved into was my parent’s home. With some work, we’ve incorporated their life together here with our future in this home. We already feel like we’ve lived here for years.

Part of moving into a new house is putting everything in its new place. Cathy has plenty of houseplants. She loves them dearly. She waters them. She’s been moving them around the house, assuring that they have the perfect light. She talks to them; asking each plant if they feel comfortable where she has set them. Cathy’s is a dialogue with the ancient.

Stephen Herrod Buhner in The Lost Language of Plants and David Abram in his book The Spell of the Sensuous present a strong case that before language, humans, animals, plants, and everything we consider inanimate shared knowledge. Humans have long had a communication connection with animals—it seems rather easy to image. With plants, however, we seem to have lost our innate ability to listen and learn from those of creation who provide us with sustenance and healing. Both Buhner and Abram point out what seems to be the obvious that in our loss of connection we are destroying the world around us and risking our existence.

My guess is, if you are reading this, you most likely agree with Buhner and Abram. Many of us are frustrated by the voices of denial and fear who have become strange bedfellows. Right-wing fundamentalists Christians have oddly enough joined forces with liberal atheists. Many politicians are in denial because global warming conflicts with capitalism. Many in the general public are in fear of scientific research, resulting in potential reoccurrences of diseases like measles. Those of us who are looking for some ground between common sense and twenty-first scientific research seem to be lost in the shouting from either side. The question is, "what can I do?"

For me, I’m going to start with admitting what neuroscientist David Eagleman suggests are the three most important words that science has given us, “I don’t know.” Honestly, I don’t know what is the best action to take. But not knowing what to do shouldn’t paralyze me. I can get involved. On the global, national, and local scene there are many worthwhile organizations with which I can share my resources and time. But beyond that, I have to take seriously my willingness to communicate with the world around me and ask them, the animals, plants, mountains, rivers, and stones, what they need from me.

While Cathy is talking to our houseplants, I’ve decided to make a connection with the trees, plants, flora, and stones surrounding our house. I’ve started the conversation with the largest, and what I surmise is the oldest, pine tree in the backyard. She seems to have been here before the house was built. My hope is she will tell me stories about the life before and clue me in how to best care for her and the rest of her friends. Sitting for a bit most every evening. Quite, expectant, hopeful—I’m listening. I’m ready to take action for the sake of my new friends and the world in which all live together.

Friday, November 14, 2014


“Do you have a Living Will?” the nurse asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you have a DNR clause? You know, ‘Do Not Resuscitate’.”
“Ah, yeah.”
“Have you had a heart attack?”
“Okay, good. Now relax while I take your blood pressure….Well…it’s a little high. But, that’s normal, given the circumstances.”

I thought I was fine. Jesus, it’s just cataract surgery. Why all the questions about DNR and a heart attack?

Welcome to sixty-one. I’ve crossed the barrier. DNR is a legitimate question, I guess.

Sixty was an awesome year. For one, I walked the Wicklow Way with my wife, daughter, son-in-law and some amazing friends. That was a hundred miles through the rugged Irish mountains. I put in another two hundred miles getting ready. And I carried my pack, fully loaded. I’m getting ready for another walk this coming summer.

Truthfully, sixty was great. My book was published. I spent an awesome four months on sabbatical, writing another book. Cathy and I started 2Wisdoms Way Spiritual Formation School. And some beautiful things are going on for our children. Our daughter-in-law and son are having another holy grandchild. Our daughter got an amazing promotion. Hell, I even got some extensive tattoos on my left arm and back. Sixty…well, was amazing.

Okay, the cataract and lens replacement surgery went pretty well. Actually, I didn’t realize how bad my eyesight was until I could see again.

So, what’s up for the sixty-one year? I don’t know. But, I feel good about it. And that’s the incredible part of it…every day I become more and more comfortable with, “I don’t know.” What I trust is my intuition. Maybe I should have answered the nurse’s questions by saying; “I don’t know, but I feel that all will be well.”

My grandfather used to tell me, “With age comes freedom.” At the time, I had no idea what he meant. He was a truck driver. I wasn’t sixteen at the time. I figured he was telling me, when I got a driver’s license I would have a lot freedom. Turning sixty-one, I realize now my grandfather was talking about the freedom that comes from being old enough that you don’t sweat the small stuff, but instead focus on the more important issues of life. A friend used to tell me, “Major on the majors and minor on the minors.” That’s been a good lesson for me to learn—and be reminded of, often, as I get older.

For me, one of those “majors” is the desire for wisdom. I used to think that simply by the virtue of getting older and having more experience, I would automatically acquire wisdom. What a naïve thought. Wisdom is one of those paradoxical virtues in life. According to the scriptures, we must seek the instruction of Mother Wisdom—while at the same time we pray that she finds us. We search for wisdom with the desire we will be found by that same wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-20). You can’t find wisdom unless you search for it, but you can’t find it unless it finds you.

It’s like me wanting to see better—I had to go to the doctor—and I had to trust the doctor to cut open my eye. In the same way, if I desire wisdom, I have to go on the search for wisdom. Then trust Mother Wisdom to cut open my soul and pour in her light so that I might see the way of wisdom much clear. Paradoxical truths can bring the greatest rewards—and simultaneously an equal amount of risk and pain. No wonder my blood pressure goes up every time I contemplate what is the wisest approach to the problem confronting me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Cathy and I love to try out new restaurants. We like a funky setting that offers fresh and surprising food. Because I’m a vegetarian, unique entrees are a rare find. Usually, we check out the menu on line, or call, before we head out for some new place, just to be sure there is something I can eat. So, when we do find some new place, it’s a real treat for us.

If the vibe is good, and the server asks, “Can I answer any questions for you?” I just can’t help myself. I have to ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” Typically I get a smile, as in “I’ll oblige you because you’re the customer.” Sometimes the server says, “Wish I knew?” I’ve asked the question more than a hundred times. Rarely do I get an answer worth keeping. Until a few months ago, we were in Tucson visiting my sister. We went to a unique place we hadn’t been before. The server asked my favorite question, “Can I answer any questions for you?” I said, “The meaning of life?” He said, “42.”

Of course, the server’s answer was from Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At a pivotal point in the book, two alien beings ask a giant computer “The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The computer tells the questioners to come back after she has had 7.5 millions years to work on the answer. Upon their return, the aliens receive their answer, “42”.

There are hundreds of speculations as to why Adams choose “42” as the answer to the meaning of life. He skirted around the question from interviewers most of his life. At one point, apparently bored of being asked why he selected 42 as his answer, he said he was staring out the window, over looking his garden, pondering his book, and the number popped in his head. Being a writer myself, I am fascinated to read biographical stories of the authors I’ve read and enjoyed.

Admittedly, Adams’ book dates me—but so do a lot of other popular cultural references. They are awfully hard to avoid, because life is exponentially more time sensitive with each passing day. While the answer “42” is time relative, the question is timeless.

Adams was an atheist. Scientist and atheist Richard Hawkins acknowledged Adams at his death as a man that scientist, atheist, conservationist, and the animal kingdom would dearly miss. The fact that Adams was an atheist is germane to his question about the meaning of life. He was poking fun at religion’s weak attempt to provide an answer to every unanswerable question.

Apparently, most religious leaders believe they have found the simple answer to unanswerable questions. They proclaim an absolute undeniable answer to the meaning of life and how to find eternal purpose. While those types of questions haunt most of us, religion in general, and especially Christianity, demands that its followers accept their version of the correct answer. Without regard to the fact that the answer seems fleeting, out of context for the culture, or worse, irrelevant, Christianity (and I think most religions) holds onto to their illusionary ideas of the truth.
In the twenty-first century, more and more people in Western culture, Americans, see religion, especially Christianity, as out-of-date and meaningless. To make matters worse, recently we have witnessed betrayal, hypocrisy, and an abandonment of the faith from prominent leaders.

In a most recent article in Huffington Post, Bart Campolo, well known in his own right and son of the famous Evangelical academic, writer, and speaker, Tony Campolo, announced he was no longer a Christian.

He left Christianity to become the humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. The younger Campolo left Christianity, he said, after deconstructing several of the tenets of the faith, most prominently, the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Scriptures. The final blow to his faith came at the hands of a near fatal biking accident in 2011. It was then he decided that when the body dies, that’s the end.

Since Christianity is “my tribe,” to quote the elder Campolo, I have to wonder if Bart ever felt safe in a community of Christians, aliens in a foreign land, to discuss his doubts and to wonder about the writings of Origin, Clement of Alexandria, Meister Eckhart, the Gnostics, Carl Jung and the likes of Marcus Borg. I wonder if having a safe community where he could be an atheist and still be a part of tribe was in reach for him?

Now as a humanist chaplain, Bart Campolo ministers to people who don’t believe in God but are looking for community. Maybe community where people seeking the answer to life’s illusive questions gather to find solace in the face of the dark void? Maybe 42 is the answer to the meaning of life? Four, the number of wholeness, plus two, duality, equals the complexity of simplicity—maybe that is the answer? No, too simple. Anyway. Healthy communities can, and do, exist to provide a safe place for us, atheists and Christians alike, together, to work out our stuff. The keys are that the community must be safe, let us do our work without providing the “answers”, and allow my stuff, no matter how wyrd, even if I do believe 42 is the answer to life, in the room. Religious, humanist, atheist, agnostic, we’re all probably searching for a place of safe community to work out our wonderings. Isn’t 42 a card game? Or is that dominos?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?

This week Kirk Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, my bishop, wrote this on his Facebook page.

“Doing some research this afternoon for my convention talk, I came across this great quote from the always thought-provoking theologian Leonard Sweet: ‘Let me say first of all that for me, New Age rhymes with sewage. I have such a low threshold for Gaia worship that in the middle of the movie "Avatar" I had to take a break, so severe was my attack of Gaiarrhea. In fact, I have challenged "new age sensibilities" (which now are known as "integral spirituality" or "Enlightenment," not "New Age") for the way in which they goddify the self and expect others to orbit in a Youniverse that revolves around them as if they were a god. "The Secret" of the universe is not that you can have life your way. "The Secret" is that Jesus is The Way (Colossians 3). Jesus did not come to make us divine. Jesus came to show us how to be authentically what God made us to be--human. Because of the culture in which we live, I have encouraged the daily ritual of starting the day by standing in front of a mirror and saying: "God is God and I am not."

Indeed, Leonard Sweet in thought provoking, however, I think his quote is a sad commentary on the current state of the church universal. His comments of negation, what he is against, are in response to criticism from some evangelical Christians. They say he is a heretic, a “New Age” mystic. The largest amount of arrows being flung at Sweet, are quotes taken from his book, Quantum Spirituality, which he wrote in 1991. In his post, he writes, now twenty years later, he would have not written the book. That is unfortunate. His early books, along with Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart, Teillard de Chardin, and others, kept me in the Christian tribe long enough to find the Episcopal Church. Our Church has allowed me to continue my pilgrimage. Traveling with the likes of J.A.T. Robinson, Rowan Williams, Evelyn Underhill, Martin Thornton, William Countryman, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Carl Jung, Ken Wilber, and many many others. They have shined a light on my path. We are all mystical pilgrims in a new age.

Sweet’s critics accuse him of “New Age mystical heresy” simply because he quoted a few writers they have determined are not orthodox. These same critics have also declared that Sue Monk Kidd, Richard Foster, Rick Warren, and Rob Bell are also heretics. Going to war over what others call you is a losing battle.

Sweet’s response sounds too much like a recantation while standing in the flames of the Inquisitor’s fire licking at his feet. Leonard, my friend, it’s too late. No matter what you say, they will not put out the fire. You are a threat. You made Quantum Spirituality available free on your website. The congregants of your naysayers are reading your books.

My humble advice to you is to walk away. Let it go. We are all someone’s heretic. If you want to repeat something daily in the mirror, try this on for size. “God is God, and I am called to be who God created me to be.” Living into who God calls us to be, can liberate others to be who God has called them to be. You wrote your books to set people like me free. You did. Thank you. Keep writing your heresy.

At the end of Sweet’s post, he quoted an old German (unnamed) schoolmaster, who carved these words over his door. “Dante, Luther, Goethe, Barth, Heiddeger, live here.” Sweet says, “I only want to write one thing over the doorpost to my heart and life, “Jesus Christ lives here.” That’s sweet, Sweet, but doesn’t say much.

We are living in a new age. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is also not well liked by those in the anti-Sweet crowd, wrote that we are living in the “World Come of Age.” We live in the age when the world is changing so we cannot keep up with the Tsunami Sweet wrote about twenty years ago. Daily, I would prefer to ask Bonhoeffer’s simple yet complex question. “Who is Jesus Christ for me, today?” The emphasis is on, today. My answer to that question, as was Bonhoeffer’s, evolves continually. Because I learn something new every day about my self and about God, Jesus Christ, and the world in which we live, move, and have our being. I learn from scripture, as well as from those who espouse eco-spirituality, feminist spirituality, and Celtic-spirituality, and yes Gaia spirituality, just to name a few.

Dear Bishop, the anti-Sweet crowd would think you are actually a worse heretic than he is. You’ve vocally supported women’s ordination and gay rights. The list could go on, but that’s enough for many to light their fires (including some in our own Church). My Southern Baptist Christology professor, J. Niles Puckett, would say to his critics, “You may believe whatever you like.” I find his words are often my best response. Instead of defending my faith by identifying what I don’t believe in—I continue to do the hard work of learning and trying to communicate, who Jesus Christ is for me, today? Bishop, at the Convention, I would rather hear you lead us into a twenty-first century exploration of Bonhoeffer’s question, much more than hear you quote Leonard Sweet’s desperate confessional attempt to hang onto his readership.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World

The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World
by Derek Penwell at
Chalice Press 2014

I had never heard of Derek Penwell until I read his book, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-denominational World. Now I’m a fan. He has something vitally important to say to the mainline church. Actually, he lays down the gauntlet and challenges its leaders to “embrace (denominational) death as a liberation from having to succeed, and learn how to live,” by “rediscovering the radical Jesus of the Gospels.”

As a seasoned pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church and a lecturer at the University of Louisville, Penwell is well qualified to speak his prophetic word to the mainline Christian church at large. I’m a pastor in the Episcopal Church and I am a part of the community Penwell is addressing. His words are timely.

This book is a response to the overwhelming “vortex of doom” that is consuming the mainline church as it continues to decline towards extension. His ideas will make most denominational leaders cringe. Some will look for a way to dismiss his work. He boldly states that, “Whether mainline churches survive is largely beside the point.”

His point, he writes, is that the church’s constant focus on the problem is feeding the negative downward spiral. Penwell challenges his readers to move their focus beyond an over-reaching desire to save the church and instead to pour their energy into doing God’s work in the world. He says the church should “start celebrating the work of the faithful, and let God worry about the finish line.”

He doesn’t avoid the question of the missing “Nones;” the largest growing segment of young adults who declare they have no faith tradition. Instead, he offers excellent current research as to what the Emerging generation is seeking. He says they have a hunger for a “commitment to theological inclusivity,” that is “suspicious of a universalizing meta-narrative that imposes orthodoxies.” The Emergents have a passion for equality, mission, social justice and a radical distrust of established religious institutions. The younger generations seek community, embrace diversity, and want to explore new spiritual frontiers. Penwell is quick to cite a variety of interfaith sources. He says it is time for the church “to move past ecumenism (and) recognize we live in a pluralistic world.”

His “Survival Guide” challenges the church to create spaces of community by moving beyond their walls and provides practical means to do so. He says, though, it’s less about bars and coffee shops, and more about being authentically present among the people of our towns and cities wherever they hang out. He speaks frankly to church leaders, challenging them to create a theology of inclusivity, embracing the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, and Queer person. Including them in all aspects of church life. He challenges the church to develop a meaningful theology of creation, which is truly green and relevant. He also questions the notion of certain church leaders who are unwilling to tackle these difficult issues, for fear of losing members by stating, “The church must be more concerned with relinquishing any idea of success that doesn’t begin with death, sacrifices, and laying down. The church must focus on letting go of the need to ensure its future more than on grasping for its survival.”

My only critique of the book is personal. I could have done without the church and American history lesson, harkening the church to the post-American Revolutionary days and the Second Great Awakening. I get it. I understand it. I even enjoy history. But, I doubt it was necessary for him to build his book on the premise that the mainline church has been in this situation before, and confirming God continues to do God’s work despite the climate of the church.

Aside from my own minor pique with Penwell’s book—when I finished it I had a long list of people I hoped would read this excellent work. I wanted “them” to read it because I knew he wrote it for “them.” I didn’t think his book was written to me. I agree with what he wrote. But, by the time I was at the end of writing this review, I realized, indeed, his book was written to me. First, by encouraging me that I am not alone in my thoughts about the church. Second, and more importantly, Derek Penwell has challenged me to dare and be as bold and prophetic. When my resolve gets weak, I’ll need go back and read the book again.