Alright Guy & Election Day (eCrozier #238)

I think I’m am alright guy, I just want to live until I’ve gotta die
I know I ain’t perfect, but God knows I try, I think I’m an alright guy
-         Alright Guy by Todd Snider & The Nervous Wrecks

The Nervous Wrecks is a great name for a band, isn’t it? And Snider’s song is quite perceptive about human nature. In the song, he catalogues a list of his own sins, but then ends each stanza with the above chorus. The song is a satirical expose of people who have forgotten how to blush and who have become indifferent to their own sin. Their sin is never the problem because they can always spin it to make it look otherwise or at least contend that it’s not as bad as other people’s sin. More often than we care to admit, we all fall into this category of Alright Guys. There are always worse sinners around than us, right? But I hope we know that’s not the point, is it?

Take King David for example. Now there was a sinner. At the height of his power and popularity, King David decides to steal another man’s wife, have that man murdered, and then lie about it afterward. Later, Nathan, his national security advisor, confronts him with the evil he’s done and David admits his sin. But why did he do it when he had everything? The answer the Bible gives us is that he did it because he could. A century later in Israel’s history, King Ahab sees a vineyard that he wants for his own, but the owner, Naboth, doesn’t want to sell it. So, Ahab plots to falsely accuse him of cursing God. For this trumped up charge, Naboth was stoned to death and Ahab got his vineyard. What made Ahab do such a thing? The Bible says he did it because he was the king and he could. A century and half later, King Manesseh was so notorious in his zeal to wield brutal power that the Bible says he shed so much innocent blood that “it filled Jerusalem from one end to another.” Manessah assumed he was impervious to judgment because he had the power and the authority as king.

These kings of the Bible thought their status gave them currency to do as they pleased. I’m sure that none of us have sins that rival Israel’s kings. We see our sins as small potatoes compared to the sins of the powerful. And for most of us they are smaller potatoes, but only in size and scope. Sin is still sin. And that’s true whether it’s done by a king, a nation, a church, or by the likes of you and me.

This Tuesday is Election Day when we elect our own “kings” to govern us. The people standing for election exhibit, at least in part, some Sniderly tendencies (Hey, they know they ain’t perfect, but God knows they try). Yet, they’re quick to blame their opponents, the President, or any other convenient target (but never we the voters because we’re all smart, good looking, and above average!). And they never seem to hold themselves to account. So, we’re stuck with the Alright Guys we elect. Why don’t we have candidates who can be honest about their own faults, be humble in their own use of power, and who aren’t always ready to blame everyone else for the challenges we face as a people? Must we settle for “the lesser of two evils” (or, “the evil of two lessers”)? We get the political leaders we elect, whether we deserve them or not. I’m still hopeful we can do better.



In 2006, I was Rector of St Philip’s Church in Durham, North Carolina. Not far from our family home and near the East Campus of Duke University, was the Duke Lacrosse house, a house rented by members of the team and infamously known in our neighborhood for loud parties, loutish behavior, and inane vandalism. When some team members were accused of raping an exotic dancer hired to perform at the house, many were ready to believe the accusation. I stayed away from jumping on that bandwagon, limiting my public comments to the known, unseemly behavior of some of the team members in our neighborhood.

Social Media was in its infancy then, but it lit up, as did the gossip around town. Some people in Durham jumped to conclusions and made prejudgments, and then defended such behavior by saying “I’m just expressing my feelings” or “I have a right to state my opinions,” thereby washing their hands of the consequences to real people by jumping to easy conclusions, rendering rash judgments, or making quick condemnations. Social Media has expanded greatly since then, but we who use it have not had an equal expansion in our ethical behavior or our moral compasses.

We’re called as Jesus’ disciples to have moral courage even as we confess our sin. As we sin, our sin should be one of missing the mark like an arrow falling short of a target (the Greek word for sin in the Bible actually means just that). So, in our discipleship we’re at least attempting to shoot the arrow, even if it misses wildly or falls short of the target. Yes, even our best efforts can be an occasion for sin. But they’re to be our best efforts shaped by mercy, humility, and compassion, even as we are sinners.

And that brings us to the recent unpleasantness at General Seminary, which you may know about. It became fueled in social media by quick condemnations of the Board of Trustees and prejudgments about the Dean. While decrying not having contact with the Board, 8 faculty members had their demands posted on social media and on their own website accusingly named “safe seminary.” The Board’s lack of official public communication was proof in some people’s minds of their unwarranted behavior. Many accepted the Dean’s guilt without waiting for an investigation. But those weighing in on social media didn’t have all the information, nor did they have the perspectives of all sides in the conflict. Some offered prayers for everyone involved, but many leapt to conclusions calling for the dean to resign and the Board of Trustees to repent.

I don’t know the whole story and very few of us do. I’m waiting, listening, and learning before reaching any measured judgment. Some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops have rightly requested all involved to seek repentance and reconciliation. Amen. I have no doubt there’s enough sin to go around on all sides. The bloggers, and the blog sites that were their enablers, weren’t included in that request. Those blog sites were just giving people a wide forum to express themselves. And those bloggers were just stating their opinions. Social media is a wonderful way to stay in touch with one another, but it’s a double-edged sword. We should all be careful how we wield it. It cuts deeply.



Extreme Exercise and Self-Sanctification (eCrozier #236)

“I don’t workout. If God had wanted us to bend over He’d put diamonds on the floor.”
Joan Rivers

“One time I felt like exercising. I sat down until the feeling passed.”
Jackie Gleason

This week the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Heather Havrilesky. The piece reflects on the current extreme fitness craze that’s gaining in popularity. These aren’t exercise programs to stay healthy. Rather these are programs that challenge participants to push themselves beyond their physical limitations. The goal seems to be something my old football coach used to yell out at us during summer training drills: “No pain, no gain!” In other words, if it’s not hurting, then you’re not working hard enough. It does sound more than a little masochistic.

According to Hevrilesky, most participants in these extreme exercise regimens are “well-to-do.” I find that telling. What is it about material and professional success that would lead someone to believe that he/she needed to engage in such extreme exercise? These folk aren’t “settling” for reasonable, healthy forms of exercise. They prefer “workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom.”

When we see the word “atonement,” then we should pay attention. I think her analysis is acute. It’s about self-worth and maybe trying to prove that you’re better than others who can’t run five miles with fifty pounds of rocks in a backpack. This is self-atonement and self-sanctification, pure and simple. Making lots of money, having the good things in life, and achieving status in one’s profession aren’t enough. It doesn’t bring contentment or wholeness. There’s still an emptiness that needs filling up, so “no pain, no gain.” But my hunch is that this too will fail to fill these folks up.

Now, of course, as Christians we should be good stewards of our bodies. They are a gift God gives us in our creation. We shouldn’t treat our bodies like amusement parks or production units. Exercising and eating right are faithful ways to honor our bodies as the godly gift they are. But we maybe should, as the old Anglican saying goes, do “all things in moderation,” recognizing that such extreme exercise, like extreme work-aholism, isn’t good for the soul because they both lead to the sin of self-atonement and self-sanctification where we believe we have the power in ourselves to save ourselves.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that this trend is growing in our culture. As we grow further from lives grounded in God’s providential care and grace and toward lives centered on our own merit and abilities, these sorts of manifestations of “selfism” will only become more ubiquitous. Havrilesky ends her piece with this reflection: “When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.”  That says it all. We must reach these folks with the grace of Jesus.



This week I attended two lectures by Dr. Charles Marsh at the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Convocation. Dr. Marsh is a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. His topic for the lectures was reclaiming “The Social Gospel for the 21st Century.” His lectures were magnificent. The Social Gospel historically came out of the Progressive Era in our country, a time when theologians were seeking a biblical response to the consequences of rapid industrialization. The Social Gospel provided the theological grounding for ending child labor, limiting the workweek, establishing health & safety laws for workplaces, etc. It was largely successful. It presented a positive, hopeful approach claiming, and this is a broad generalization, that if the church appealed to the populace’s sense of justice and fairness based on Jesus’ teaching, then our human community could get pretty darn close to utopia. As we know from history, what we now call World War I ended such positive expectations for human community.

So the so-called Social Gospel became discredited as being unrealistic. And there was good reason to question its claims. It did not, as Reinhold Niebuhr critiqued it, take into sufficient account the power of our sinfulness and our human propensity to mess even good things up. But the criticisms of the Social Gospel never denied the prophetic claims Jesus’ teachings had on society’s injustices. Nor did they deny that the results of ending things like child labor weren’t a good outcome. Skip ahead 100 years, as Dr. Marsh did in his lectures, and we find ourselves going through a similar economic shift when the Church’s social witness to social injustice is still much needed. What Marsh contends is that this time a Social Gospel must be based on a deep acknowledgement of human sin. In doing so, we all could have a stronger empathy for those who suffer on the margins.

Marsh’s insight is important. If we come to acknowledge our own sinfulness, our own propensity to mess even good things up, then we’ll be more understanding of those who have made bad choices in their lives (or had bad choices made for them) and are now unemployed, stuck in low wage jobs, or don’t have the education to climb the economic ladder. We’ll be less inclined to blame them exclusively because we know our own sin only too well. Marsh referred to what was known as “the hanging sermon.” In previous generations, the night before a criminal was hanged, the entire town turned out for a religious service with the condemned person in the front row. This wasn’t an occasion to focus on the one condemned, per se, but an opportunity for everyone to become more aware of their own real sin before God, realizing as they looked at the condemned man that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

That’s just the tonic our culture needs as we face present social ills like growing income inequality. These days we have the tendency to group people into “good guys” and “bad guys” (with “our tribe” always part of the good guys). This gives us de facto permission to ascribe our status to our goodness while concluding that those on the margins deserve their fate because they lack such goodness. That’s bad theology. A healthy awareness of all human sinfulness, ours especially, can correct such theology. I propose we bring back “the hanging sermon” (the lethal injection sermon?). But would anyone attend?



Whether we enjoy it or not, technological and economic abundance surrounds those of us living in the U.S.  Our culture has many ways to stimulate our appetites for the many things we didn’t even know we needed. And it’s not just that we have an appetite for all this abundance, many people feel it’s their right to have it. Those who want lower taxes still demand their communities have high quality education, services, and cultural amenities. They just don’t want it to pay for it. In such a world, it’s a small step from claims to certain rights to the violent rhetoric of some groups, who claim, with a certain twisted logic, that in our materialistic society only the language of violence speaks loud enough to get the attention of those bent on the gratification of their desires as a “right.”

The vineyard tenants in Jesus’ parable this Sunday aren’t all that remote from us. Their acts of violence first against the owner’s servants and then the owner’s son are simply extreme examples of a demand that weaves its way through our society: “What’s mine?” The judgment proclaimed in the parable is easy for us to serve on others. We can say that their claims are too extreme, illogical, or greedy, while our claims are legitimate, reasonable, and just. We ask only our due, while they demand too much! It’s easy to see where such colliding claims lead. They lead to some form of mutual degradation. A current example of this is our broken national political culture.

So, the temptation is to choose the tenant’s solution, which is the choice for violence in some form, even if it’s not actual physical violence. The logic of oppression, which the rich and powerful use to denigrate the claims of the poor and powerless, and the logic of violence, which uses fear to gets its way, are really two sides of the same coin. Each believes that the only way to protect its claim is by denying the claim of the other.

The Gospel of Jesus is a clear alternative to this cycle of claim and counterclaim. At the heart of our lives, God has given us all we truly need. This doesn’t mean we all begin life equally or that there’s no need to mitigate the extremes of wealth and poverty, but it does mean that we’re freed from the blind claim of demanding rights or what we see as our due. We’re freed from this desire because God has given us all we truly need by his grace. If we see God as the source of all that we have and all that we are, then we can begin to see others as neighbors to love instead of opponents to overcome. We’ll begin to see them as people, like us, for whom Jesus died on the cross instead of only seeing them as competitors blocking us from getting more of what we desire.

The Gospel of Jesus confronts our sinful desires that get in the way of our ability to attend to each other in love. The Gospel is the necessary antidote for us so we’ll have the ability to see the world with the eyes of a love that doesn’t demand our rights and desires at the expense of others. The real abundance surrounding us isn’t the abundance of things that we blindly believe will fill the gaping void in our hearts. What actually surrounds us is God’s abundant grace, incarnate in Jesus, which heals our hearts and makes us whole. The Gospel of Jesus enables us to see first ourselves and then the world around us with a clearer vision and less grasping hands.



As you may have read, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori, has announced that she’s discerned she won’t stand for election to another nine-year term as Presiding Bishop. At our most recent meeting of the House of Bishops in Taiwan, she shared with us her discernment process. Her own letter to the Church described well that discernment. I think her decision is a wise one. She’s led our Church in a remarkable time of transition. We’re still in that transition. Indeed, our Church along with every other religious institution in our culture is going through significant transition. In such a time, no leader will find universal approval or support. While I haven’t always agreed with her decisions, I believe she’s shown remarkable and courageous leadership in this very tenuous time. I also believe she wisely discerned it was time for another bishop to lead the Church in the next decade.

A challenge of our present time is to recognize that we don’t need complete agreement in order to remain in fellowship with one another to support God’s mission through the Church. In our culture, where tribalism has taken hold, one instance of disagreement seems to mean one must condemn the other side for their perceived lack of purity (just look at our national political culture). This relatively new notion is disastrous to any group, especially the Church. We ought to be able to disagree on particular decisions or positions and still rest on our unity in Christ.

One point of disagreement I’ve had with our Presiding Bishop is the focus on the internationalism of our Church. We have 16 nationalities represented in The Episcopal Church. While this does provide a rich diversity to the Church, it runs counter to the Anglican ethos we’ve received over the centuries. At our Church’s core is the belief that our catholic heritage is best lived out locally. That’s why the Church in England became the Church of England. No Bishop in Rome could define particularly how the catholic faith would be lived out in England. As Anglicanism spread, we were faithful and effective when we deliberately indigenized the church. Throughout the world Anglicanism is most faithfully led by indigenous leaders who follow the local expression of the catholic faith. The strength (and some might say, genius) of our Church has been Anglicans who come together around the authority of a bishop and other chosen leaders to lead a local diocese in God’s mission. That bishop and other leaders then maintain communion with other Anglicans. An example of this is in the Episcopal Church of the Philippines. As long as the American Church directed and funded it, it didn’t grow significantly. But once it gained indigenous leadership and autonomy in the 1990s, it flourished. Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan of the Philippine Church presented their remarkable witness and story to us this week at the House of Bishops meeting.

Our next Presiding Bishop, I believe, needs to lead us to a more diocesan-based focus for God’s mission. That means we need a smaller national church with fewer resources leaving local dioceses to support the national church structure. My hope is that our efforts at re-imagining our Church’s structure for mission will lead us in this “back to the future” direction reclaiming our Anglican ethos for a new thriving Church.



My hunch is I never would’ve paid much attention to this particular newspaper headline and story if I hadn’t been in Taiwan at the House of Bishop’s meeting. The headline read: “Americans Neutral On Taiwan.” The story was about a survey done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the survey Americans ranked Taiwan 12th among 25 other countries. That score indicated that Americans were neutral about Taiwan. If I read that story in Savannah, I would’ve moved on to the sports page. But reading it here gives me a chance to experience how that story feels to the Taiwanese. It matters a lot to them that Americans have a more favorable view of Japan and South Korea than they do Taiwan. A story I would’ve ignored if I were elsewhere is front-page news here.

That’s why culture and context matter so much. We perceive the import of matters based on the context and culture in which we live. We do this all the time without noticing even as we think we’re being objective and dispassionate in our assessment of a situation. But pure objectivity is elusive, we must know. That’s why a healthy and humble stance in relationship to the world involves acknowledging our lack of pure objectivity and our, at least, semi-captivity to our own cultural prejudgments and proclivities.

And that brings me to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Taipei. Here I am pictured with the Rector, Mother Lily Chang. It seems to me this parish has, more than most, a healthy and humble stance that embraces Chinese culture while acknowledging its own limitations on objectivity. For example, they practice what the Chinese have traditionally called “ancestor worship,” but they do so in the context of the Christian tradition of the communion of the saints. It thus becomes not so much worshiping one’s ancestors as honoring those who have gone before us in the faith.

Mother Chang said Protestant churches who first evangelized Taiwan forbade “ancestor worship” and thus were less effective in their evangelization than those who contextualized the faith while maintaining the larger tradition. Before we forbid or condemn something we discover in another culture, we should ask ourselves: Is this coming from the Gospel or just from our own subjective cultural lens on the Gospel?

One other interesting and compelling thing I discovered about the Church of the Good Shepherd, Taipei. In the Taiwanese form of Mandarin, the Church’s name is Mu Ai Tang, which literally translated means the Church of Shepherding Love. I find that both interesting and compelling because at the heart of the church’s name is a verb not a noun. That means the church’s identity is shaped by the action of a verb more than by the subject of a noun. The church’s mission then is activating the love of Jesus in the world rather than simply being subjects receiving that love. Their name compels them outward rather than inward. It identifies them more by how they believe rather than only by the content of their belief.  In western culture, we too often fixate only on what we believe and fail to put those beliefs into action. Mu Ai Tang reminds us that what we believe cannot be separated from how we believe.



Where I’ve Come in my Football Journey (eCrozier #231)

Gentlemen, this is an oblong spheroid made of pigskin. It’s called a football.
– allegedly the first words Coach Knute Rockne said to his players at Notre Dame

I’ve had a lifetime relationship with football. Mine was a football coach’s family. One of my earliest memories is sitting next to my father in our living room watching game film and helping him grade his player’s performance from last week’s game and then breaking down film trying to figure out how to defeat next week’s opponent. I can’t remember a fall Friday night of my childhood that did not involve football. I played the game myself from grade school through college.

Being around and playing the game of football has taught me good things: how to win humbly and lose graciously (sportsmanship) and how to work with others toward a common goal (teamwork). It also allowed me through the sweat and struggle and sometimes ice and mud to have the sheer joy of playing a game I loved. Nothing brought out more primal joy in me than a clean, hard hit on the opposing team’s running back, especially when he was actually carrying the football.

I’m now, however, reassessing my love of football. I remain thankful for what I learned from the game and for the fun playing it, but it no longer has that primal joy for me. Maybe it’s my age and the creaky knees and back issues that X-rays show are a result of playing. I was concussed twice. Back then, you just got your “bell rung” and you went back in the game. But now, we know more about the long-term corrosive effects on players, particularly those who played longer and at a much higher level than I ever did.

And maybe it’s also the commercialization of the sport even down to youth leagues where apparel companies bid for dominance. It’s become a business to many. If schools, leagues, associations, and sponsors get rich off the player’s skills, then how can anyone deny them financial compensation? After all, it’s a business where everyone else makes money except those who play the game. It’s downright un-American to deny someone payment for their toil, especially if that someone, because of what they do, may need their orthopedist on speed dial for the rest of their lives.

But I think the real reason my primal joy of football is leaving me is that I’m just not as violent as I once was. Or maybe I’m still so inclined, but since I’m not as physically capable of it anymore, I don’t get the joy out of it I once did. While players might not intend to permanently hurt an opposing player, they do want to hurt them enough so the opposition will give ground and allow their team to win. And I don’t know whether football players are more violent off the field than everyone else. Recent and persistent news reports, though, should give us all concern about football’s repetitive violent collisions and its derivative impact on players’ neural and emotional health.

I don’t offer this eCrozier in my teaching role as a bishop. It’s adiaphora. If you still love football, then good for you. It’s merely where I’ve come to in my football journey.



Loving our Enemies without Needing our Enemies (eCrozier #230)

Love your enemies – Jesus
Defeat your enemies – Most of Us

The reason Jesus commands us to love our enemies is because he presumes we’ll have them. Having enemies is an unavoidable part of human life. And it’s naive simply to assume that our enemies will become our friends. I’ve had that happen. It’s glorious when it does. But, more often than not, our enemies will remain our enemies. So, the question becomes not “how can I make friends out of my enemies?” But rather, “how can I love my enemies when they still remain my enemies?”

To get at that answer, I believe we have to focus on the “love” part of the command rather than “the enemies” part of it. Focusing on our enemies will only create a spiral of self-justification and claimed victimhood that leads us away from love. This spirals unabated as each offense by our enemy gets reacted to and internalized. It also leads us to define ourselves by who our enemy is rather than by who we are as Jesus’ disciples. When that happens, we create a symbiotic relationship with our enemy where our identity gets defined more by who we oppose rather than by Jesus’ command to love.

A vivid example that bears this out is the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both have come to define themselves symbiotically by who their enemy is. Those in power on both sides have come to literally need the other to be their enemy because that provides self-justification for their own behavior. So Israeli leaders need Palestinians to continue to fire rockets at their cities and bomb crowded buses to justify their own actions, all the while providing cover for their continued settler expansion in the West Bank. And Palestinian leaders need Israelis to bomb civilians in Gaza and to keep the borders closed to commerce in order justify their indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians. Both sides can then point to their enemy as the one responsible for all the death and destruction. They’ve come to symbiotically need their enemies.

But what if they both chose to define themselves, not by who their enemy is, but by who they are when they are their best selves? Both peoples have long histories of compassion and generosity. I know. I’ve seen them first-hand when they are their best selves. Such movement would require both to let go of their claim to be solely in the right (self-justification) and the only true sufferers (claimed victimhood). Like in all cases, “love” can’t be lived out as a sentimental feeling toward the other. Such feelings may never be present. Rather, it must be an act of will to let go of self-justification and claimed victimhood and to embrace a visceral humility and an empathetic love for the other.

And this is true for you and me in our relationships to the enemies who are nigh to us (maybe in the next pew?). The act of love should never only be about our feelings. It must be grounded in our own humility and our empathy for the other, whoever that other is. After all, our actions are the only actions over which we have control. As Jesus stresses it: This is about his command for us to love. It’s not about our enemies.



A lot’s been written already about Robin Williams’ suicide. Here, I’m less concerned with a hagiography of Mr. Williams or any analysis of the all too real problem of clinical depression in our society. Of the former, let me just say that he was a brilliant performer who brought much joy to millions of people, including me. Of the latter, all I can say is that far too many people suffer alone with such soul-deep depression and the disease’s very nature often dissuades people from seeking the help they desperately need.

But I’m more concerned here in the reactions I read from many people after Mr. Williams’ suicide. My hunch is that most people’s reactions were an effort to be kind or maybe helpful or, as Monty Python might sing, they were trying to “always look on the bright side of life.” Their reactions, however, probably masked their own unease with death, and particularly, with suicide. Many of the comments made, however, were at best not helpful, or at worst, theologically problematic. Let me explain.

I heard many comments that basically said something like: “Well, now the pain he endured for so long is lifted and he’s at peace.” I know such statements were an effort by some people to make suicide theologically intelligible, but to a person presently suffering soul-deep depression and hearing such statements, it’s actually an invitation to imitate Mr. Williams’ act. Their thinking could well go: “If so many people think that’s the way he found peace, then maybe that’s the way I can find peace, too.” Like I said, it’s theologically problematic, for suicide doesn’t bring peace to the living.

I had a dear friend who committed suicide four years ago. Like Mr. Williams, he was brilliant. His brilliance, however, was in a different vocation. He was a palliative care physician. The irony of his life was that he could relieve everyone’s pain but his own (like Mr. Williams who brought so many people joy without finding joy himself). My friend knew he had many people who loved him dearly. I don’t know what was going through his mind and soul when he chose suicide. Clearly, he was in emotional and spiritual pain. Maybe he thought his suicide was an act of love and kindness to us who loved him? It was not. His act was neither loving nor was it kind. It was selfish. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.

What my friend needed and still needs from me isn’t the cheap grace and absolution of the well-intended “well, I guess he’s at peace now.” No, what he still needs from me is my forgiveness for what he did to himself and to those who loved him. This in no way diminishes the deep pain he suffered or the pain anyone else suffers when they experience soul-deep depression. It’s merely to say that the solution they choose deeply hurts the people who love them. And such hurt, we must know, breaks God’s heart. Yet, with all I know to be true, God’s broken heart is strong enough to envelope the life of Robin Williams and my beloved friend. It’s strong enough for the entire hurting human race. And God’s broken heart is strong enough to hold our grief and anger when those we love take their own lives. After all, God isn’t a stranger to death. We worship the crucified, yet Living God.