Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. – Francis of Assisi

This Sunday thousands of churches across the world will hold annual pet blessing liturgies on St Francis Day. There’ll be the usual dogs and cats, less common animals like guinea pigs and ferrets, and the occasional exotic snake or two. I’ve always been careful to keep my distance when asperging such exotic animals. You just never know how holy water might be received in such circumstances. I think it wonderful that the Church holds such liturgies. It’s a celebration of the whole of God’s creation, something our brother Francis daily encouraged.

Yet focusing only on this part of Francis’ witness doesn’t do justice to his genius as a transformational leader of the Church. You’ll no doubt recall that Francis came to adulthood in the early 13th Century in Europe when the Church seemed everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As an institution it controlled vast wealth, but as a movement following Jesus it had grown poor. It was more concerned with keeping people chained to rules than liberating them through the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus. It was like a big, old leaky barge still afloat going down the river, but it needed transformation.

Enter Francis. Whether Francis deliberately set out to be a transformational leader is unclear from the historical record, but he actually followed closely what has come to be known among organizational theorists as Gleicher’s Model for Change. This holds that change happens when there’s dissatisfaction with the way things are, a vision for the way things might be, and then the first few concrete steps toward that vision for change. If all those steps are greater than the resistance one encounters, then the change will occur. Gleicher’s Model for Change is written like this: C = D x V x V1 > R.

Francis first tapped into his personal dissatisfaction with his own life. By acknowledging his own dissatisfaction, he invited others to do the same with their lives. He and they did not need to go along with the way things were. But dissatisfaction alone just produces grumbling and complaining. It never brings transformational change. Francis also had a vision for how things might be. What if we followers of Jesus sowed love where there was hatred, hope in the midst of despair, or pardon where there was injury? That was the vision Francis put before himself and the first folk who gathered around him. They then took steps to incarnate such virtues in their life together. Soon others shared this vision and the movement grew. The old, leaky barge of the Church never did accept Francis’ vision. In fact, he faced powerful resistance from bishops and princes who were threatened by such a simple vision for living the Gospel together.

While Francis didn’t change the whole Church, he transformed some of it. His witness continues today. His vision calls us in the Church to really become instruments of God’s peace in all parts of our lives.



You can observe a lot by just watching – Yogi Berra

As I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, whether they be in his Sermon on the Mount or in his parables, he seems to be less concerned with the purity of his disciples’ arguments or the rigidity of their doctrine and more concerned with the purity of their hearts and their steadfast commitment to live out the Good News he was ushering into the world.

Yet, like with Mr. Berra, we can observe a lot by just watching how many of us maintain a death grip on the purity of our arguments and the rigidity of our doctrines, whether in religion or in politics. My hunch is that the death grip we’ve deployed is caused by our fear that we’re somehow losing what we once hoped we could control. But that was always a fantasy. Our culture is changing and people different from people like me are now a part of the conversation about what we will become. Religious and Political leaders sense this fear and exploit it for their own ends. But such fear mongering about people who are different than me will lead only to our collective downfall.

One of my favorite episodes of the old TV series, The Twilight Zone, is about a meteor that lands near Maple Street somewhere in Middle America. Soon rumors begin on the street that aliens disguised as humans have invaded. Everyone’s electricity goes out on the block so people gather in the street. One neighbor begs for everyone to remain calm. But then the lights in his house go on, while every other house remains dark. One of his neighbors shouts that he must be an alien. As suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are produced. In the faint distance, an “alien” is spotted and promptly shot, but when they run up to confront the alien, they discover he was no alien. He was simply a neighbor who had gone for help. The next scene is on a nearby hill where two real aliens are seen with a device that manipulates electricity. One tells the other “there’s no need to attack the humans. All you have to do is turn a few of their machines on and off and then they pick the most dangerous enemy imaginable: themselves.” Rod Serling then appears on camera concluding the episode with these words: “The tools of conquest don’t necessarily come with bombs and explosions. There are more powerful weapons; the ones found in the thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices of men.”

We seem to take great delight as a culture in arguing about who’s acceptable and who isn’t; who has the correct position on a particular issue and who doesn’t. And then we listen to the voices of those who tell us to fear those who are different than us; those on the outside of whatever side we’re on.

I’d rather spend my energy trying to follow Jesus. When we stand before the great judgment seat of Christ, I don’t think Jesus will ask you and me about the correctness of our beliefs or how rigidly we stood on principle. I believe he’ll ask if we tried in our lives to bring good news to the poor, hope to the hopeless, comfort to those who suffer, and mercy to the sinner. I may well be wrong about Judgment Day. I’ve been wrong before. But I’m willing to stake my eternal life on it.



But you’re gonna have to serve somebody – Bob Dylan

When I was a child I often wondered about the life I’d have when I grew up, what I’d end up doing with my life. Being a bishop of the Church, by the way, was never a part of that. It just never occurred to me. As children, we all dream of what we’ll be when we grow up. Often those dreams are rather grandiose: we’ll become a professional athlete, or a doctor who cures cancer, or a famous movie star. I’ve always found it more than fascinating that people who believe in reincarnation never seem to have been mere cobblers or maids in previous lives. They always seem to have been more exotic people like kings or queens. As children, we dream of greatness in some form some day, at least as our culture defines greatness.

Our human desire for greatness, or at least to have a lasting name for ourselves, is related to the fear that our death will be our end. It’s not entirely rational, of course, but it’s still real. It’s an avoidance technique. But our fear of death also makes us servants, not of God, but of whomever can promise us a denial of the truth of our existence. Politicians, advertisers, and, yes, preachers regularly tell us that if we don’t heed their guidance, we’re dead. Not dead literally, but metaphorically, as in the academic sense of “publish or perish.” For students, “if you don’t get above this SAT score, then you’re dead.” Or politically, “if the candidate doesn’t win in New Hampshire, she’s dead.” Or in sports, “The Reds still have a chance to make the postseason (I can dream), but they must win their next series or they’re dead.” Dead, in this sense, means a loser. Death, after all, in our culture is for losers. Death isn’t for the great. It’s for the insignificant.

Recall Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias, whose empire covered the known world of his day:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Ozymandias is long dead. Nothing remains of his great empire, except a small part of the huge statue he had created. Shelley’s sonnet exposes the futility of those who want to see themselves as great, for like everyone else, the “lone and level sands stretch far away.

The disciples struggled with this issue of greatness. They were mostly poor fishermen who before meeting Jesus had no hope for greatness. They’d die as unimportant people. But as they followed Jesus and the crowds grew, their egos expanded. So, they argued about “who among them was the greatest.” When Jesus asked about the topic of their argument, they fell into a sheepish silence. Jesus then used that opportunity to tell them the true purpose of all human life. It has to do with whom we serve, and not who serves us. Human life isn’t about receiving honor or fame or power. So, the question really can’t be avoided: Whom are we serving these days?




The human race has always produced refugees, people who’ve had to flee from violence and oppression. There’s no point in our history when this hasn’t been so. Our Christian tradition reaches back with our Hebrew forbearers to remember the crossing of the Red Sea as they fled the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. The Exodus story is the paradigmic story of Israel. Once Israel became established as a nation the Hebrew prophets reminded the people, especially those in power, of their past as refugees and thus insisted on showing hospitality to the refugee who came anew into their land.

This story also is paradigmic for Christians. Early theologians saw the refugees at the Red Sea as experiencing a precursor to baptism. On one side they were oppressed slaves, but in passing through the waters of the Red Sea, they came out on the other side as a new community of God. Indeed, we’ve even adopted the Exodus story into our Eucharist as we proclaim Jesus as our “Passover” who is “sacrificed for us.”

Of course, the Hebrew people weren’t the first or last people to be refugees. Many people came to America as refugees from religious oppression in 17th & 18th Century Europe. They weren’t technically refugees in the strictest sense. Refugees are displaced people who desire to return home when the violence or oppression they’re fleeing comes to an end. Some might prefer to call them immigrants, those coming to a new place where they, as the words on the Statue of Liberty say, “long to be free.” But whether one is called an immigrant or a refugee, the human experience is similar: One feels displaced, ungrounded, and vulnerable in the new, unfamiliar place. All of us, to various extents, have known what it’s like to be in such a vulnerable and uncertain place.

That’s why hospitality has always been such an important Christian virtue. Those who came before us in the faith knew what it was like to be in need of it and thus insisted it be a virtue present in Christian practice everywhere. The Greek word for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia, which literally means “to love strangers.” It’s the exact opposite of xenophobia, which is “to fear strangers,” a disease many in our world seem to have these days. It’s natural to fear what’s different, but it’s not faithful to allow such fear to set in and determine our practice as Christians.

Some in Europe today want the refugees from the Syrian civil war to go someplace else, although it’s heartening to see how many are embracing them. My hunch is those refugees would gladly go someplace else if they could. They’d actually prefer to stay in the home that they’ve known with their friends and families. But the violence of the past years has made them desperate enough to risk life and limb to go to a safer place. That’s no different than the young folk who have in recent years showed up on our southern border fleeing the violence of gangs and drug lords in their home countries. Imagine the fear that drove them to make such a trek and the courage it took for them to make it. Christians have no borders when it comes to those suffering from violence and oppression. It’s not a minor tenet of our faith to show mercy to those who have been forced to flee their homes. It’s at the heart of our identity as Christians.



Vester Flannagan stood on a balcony at the Bridgewater Plaza shopping center near Roanoke, Virginia and adjusted his smart phone camera. He then walked toward Alison Parker, a local TV reporter doing a live interview, filming himself as if he were part of video game. Flannagan aimed both his gun and camera and murdered Ms. Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, and severely wounded the person being interviewed. I have not and will not watch this video. I’ve only heard it described in writing. But millions of people have watched it. Flanagan put his own version online through Twitter and Facebook. He apparently did not have that many “followers” or “friends,” so that means people thoughtlessly assisted in the distribution of his demented video.

Dr. Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, presented a paper this week to the annual conference of the American Sociological Association. His presentation showed a strong correlation between the availability of guns and the frequency of gun massacres. He postulates that America’s high rate of public mass shootings is connected with the number of guns circulating in the country. “A nation’s civilian firearm ownership rate is the strongest predictor of its number of public mass shooters,” he explained. Apparently, we are at the top of a very shameful category: public mass shootings. That should be a shocking piece of information.

But truth be told, we’re not shocked by this any more. We’ve lost that particular capacity sometime over the last few years. Stories such as these are now regular parts of our news cycle. We hear or read about the latest one, shake our head, and pour our morning coffee. In addition to what happened near Roanoke, last month a police officer near Houston was brutally executed while pumping gas into his patrol car; and, in June, a sick young man slaughtered 9 people in a church in Charleston. These three are just recent examples. You know there are many, many more. You’ve read or heard about them, as have I. We just have to hear the name “Sandy Hook” or “Aurora” and our minds go right to those horrific murders. But, sadly, we’re no longer shocked. We just sigh and say: “that’s just the way it is.”

We have made a collective decision, rational or not, faithful or not, that all these murders are just the price we must pay so we can continue to have all these guns circulating so freely in our country. Can there be any other explanation for why we have done nothing after witnessing all these murders? Our inaction speaks volumes. Our inaction says that however much we deplore these murders, they are acceptable losses of human life if it would mean any restriction to our free access to guns (and not just any guns, but guns specifically manufactured, not for sport, but for killing our fellow humans). I’ve actually heard purportedly rational people say that such murders are the price we must pay for the current Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The rationality of that eludes me.

But we need to regain a sense of shock for what we’re becoming, for what we now find acceptable, for what is becoming a new normal in our common life.  


One of the most important spiritual gifts for church leaders is the gift of empathy for others, particularly those whom we lead. It’s important for leaders to be able to place themselves in other people’s shoes, so to speak, and to try to understand what they’re experiencing from their perspective. But having the gift of empathy for others is not all that is needed to lead a church (or any group) to become collectively more spiritually vital and healthy. Such leadership requires both a good knowledge of how change happens as well as the gift of patient determination.  

For example, most clergy I know have a pretty good idea of what a healthy Christian community looks like and acts like. But many of those same clergy are reluctant to lead the congregation to incarnate such communal practices and norms. Why is that? They’re rightly concerned that they might run afoul of individuals or groups within the parish who have a stake in maintaining an unhealthy status quo. In other words, people don’t want their turf messed with even if what they are doing is failing or ineffective. So, unhealthy practices around, for example, children’s Christian formation, or music in the liturgy, or a particular community ministry continue because attempts to change them are seen as attempts to take away the authority of the Sunday School teacher or the organist or community ministry coordinator.

Some of this leadership reluctance is based on a natural desire to avoid conflict. Conflict can be hard and unpleasant. Another part of the reluctance of leaders to make changes that would bring greater spiritual health to the congregation has to do with a misunderstanding about the nature of change. We often mistakenly think people don’t like change. That’s not true most of the time. People don’t dislike change, per se, but they will probably dislike any change they don’t understand or a change they had no say in. Also, if they cannot see the blessing the change could produce, they aren’t likely to even consider embracing it.

And that’s where the leader’s gift for empathy comes in. If the leader exercises genuine empathy for the people who are being asked to accept some change, then the change has a good chance of succeeding. But if those folk are treated as obstructionists, or saboteurs, or “standing in the way of the Gospel,” then they’re likely to dig in their heals and become real obstructionists or saboteurs. The one leading the change must consistently stay in the role as leader and not withdraw, listen to all the voices in the congregation, and retain empathy for the people who oppose or question the proposed change. And the leader must do all that while not allowing those folk to take over the agenda or control the emotional climate. That’s a lot for the leader to handle and it takes real skill and training to negotiate it all well.

This is why we in the Diocese of Georgia have put so much time, energy, and resources into training programs like the Church Development Institute, Emotional Intelligence, Human Relations, and Conflict Management training, and peer coaching. Church leaders today more than ever need these practical skills to lead effectively.



George Herbert & The Liberation of Grace (eCrozier #238)

Pride, as we know, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. It celebrates the self and the self’s accomplishments over others and their accomplishments. In extreme form, pride places the self above God and what God’s accomplished in our creation and in our redemption in Jesus. Even so-called “self-help” can be a form of pride. Books published with the moniker “Christian self-help” are really no help (“Christian” and “self-help” in the same sentence should give us pause). Such books approach sin as if we can cure it by faithfully working harder. But there’s no self-cure for sin. Yet, we think we can balance our pride with a healthy dose of modesty, limiting ourselves to a humble satisfaction and only a diffident delight in who we are and what we’ve done. From my experience, such a balancing act ends up being self-delusional. In his poem, Jordan II, George Herbert tries to pen a poem celebrating God, but gives up when he realizes the object of the celebration is himself (“So did I weave my self into the sense”). Even our efforts that seem selfless can end up serving our self-aggrandizement. He writes:

When first my lines of heav’nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell. 

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much lesse those joyes which trample on his head.

 As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn’d;
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

Balance, in this way, isn’t at all helpful for me. The only help is my clear-eyed, full-hearted (Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights!) acknowledgment of the mixed bag sinner I am. Seeking a balance between selfishness and selflessness is a dead end (or between greed and generosity, or envy and admiration). What is helpful is an unfiltered honesty about myself, mixed bag sinner that I am. As Herbert concludes in Jordan II, God’s love for us is a “sweetnesse readie penn’d.” It’s the “onely” cure. All else will delude us into believing that we can strike a balance between our sinfulness (say 49% of the time) and a more faithful life (say 51% of the time). It’s Sisyphean. It’ll produce in us an all-encompassing exhaustion rather than set loose in us the liberation of grace.



A woman and a man were walking down a busy, noisy city sidewalk when the woman suddenly stopped and said: “Did you hear that songbird singing?” The man said: “Are you crazy, who could hear a songbird singing with the sound of jackhammers, car horns, and people yelling all around us?” She looked around at the people walking passed them and nobody seemed to notice. She replied: “But I heard it clearly.” Then she reached in her purse, took out a handful of coins and dropped them on the pavement. Immediately, the passersby all stopped, got on their knees, and began picking up the coins. The woman turned to the man and said: “We hear what we learn to hear.”

And that brings us to the parables we have as this Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Mark 4. I’ve heard numerous sermons on these two parables over the years. I’ve read many commentaries about what they mean. I have to conclude that most get it wrong. I did, too, for the longest time. After all, “we hear what we learn to hear.” Since most of us we’re raised in an American culture that worships the almighty self, we learn to hear things through that filter. When hearing something new, we filter it through our cultural shaping, which is individualistic and self-oriented. We can’t hear the proverbial songbird singing, because all we hear is the sound of coins clinking on the pavement.

So, when we read the Parable of the Growing Seed or the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we tend to place ourselves at the center of both parables. In the Growing Seed, its the seed of faith growing in us, which eventually grows into a full grain at the harvest (our resurrection). In the Mustard Seed, it’s smallest of all seeds growing in us, but even though it’s small, eventually it becomes a substantial tree by the time we’re resurrected. Notice how the self is at the center of both parables. The problem is: That’s not what Jesus says. Inconvenient that. Read both and you’ll hopefully hear what he’s saying.

Jesus says the seed is God’s Kingdom growing and not the seed of faith in us. In both parables, humanity isn’t in control. Yes, in the Growing Seed the sower scatters, but then she takes a nap, heads to the gym, does her business’ books, and then picks up the kids at carpool. All the while God’s Kingdom is growing, but she “knows not how” (4:27). And in the Mustard Seed, God’s Kingdom is this seed, which defies appearances and grows beyond expectations. We had no role in it becoming the “greatest of all shrubs.” We’re merely the blessed knuckleheads that get to nap in its shade (4:32).

But our culture has taught us that we should have a more prominent role. Don’t we have to toil, sweat, and from our cleverness and productivity produce the harvest of the Kingdom? It must depend on us because it’s all about us, isn’t it? Sure, go ahead and believe that. Yet, that’s not what Jesus says of the Kingdom, whose harvest comes about by God’s grace and not our mistaken merit, no matter how clever or productive we are. Our role is simply one of “praise and thanksgiving” as the Eucharist tells us. We’re the blessed knuckleheads that get invited into the shade of God’s restful grace. And there are lots of other knuckleheads out there who’d be amazed to learn that there’s a God who’d bring about such grace. Let’s show them what that looks like.



Later this month the Supreme Court of the United States may make a definitive ruling on what many call “marriage equality,” that is, whether same-sex couples will have the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples in legal marriage. To me, this is a basic issue of justice and civil rights under our Constitution. Two people, provided they’ve reached the age of majority, should have the right to choose to whom they wish to be married. And I pray that’s how the Court will decide.

The Episcopal Church, however, has a different standard and set of expectations when a couple enters into Christian Marriage as this Church has received that sacrament in our tradition. So, in the Church we aren’t primarily discerning justice and civil rights, but the theology and doctrine of Christian Marriage. It’s one thing to support justice and civil rights for all, but it’s another thing to contemplate changing how the Church understands her sacramental theology. Of course, The Episcopal Church significantly changed its theology of marriage about 50 years ago when we allowed remarriage after divorce. This sacrament, which had been understood as life-long, was now not necessarily so. Since that time, a divorced person can remarry in the Church, provided the Diocesan Bishop grants the required petition. With divorce so prevalent these days, very few people question the wisdom of the Church’s action then. So, we’ve changed our sacramental theology rather recently. The question remains: should we change it again?

My hunch is that everyone in our Church has different standards for what they see as acceptable sexual behavior. For example, how about consensual premarital sex? Is it OK after one becomes an adult, but not before? How about once one is engaged, but before the wedding? What about retired couples who, because of social security and pension reasons, see marriage as out of the question? Is it OK for them? If we’re honest with ourselves, we didn’t answer all the above questions the same. Yet, the traditional answer for all of them is “no.” In other words, we each have our own line that can’t be crossed, but it’s our line, and not necessarily God’s line.

We’ve already declared that a priest of our Church can bless same-sex relationships in God’s name. I wholeheartedly support such blessings and I see such blessings as an analogous, yet distinct good, from the practice of Christian Marriage. It’s similar, but it’s not the same. An example of analogous, yet distinct goods is the orders of ministry within the Church (laity, bishop, priest, deacon). Each share vocational virtues, but each is still distinct, offering particular charisms for building up the whole Body of Christ.

About the same time that the Supreme Court issues its ruling, our Church’s General Convention will gather in Salt Lake City. There, we’ll prayerfully debate and then discern what we believe God is calling us to do in terms of same-sex marriage. I don’t perceive there’s a consensus in our Church for one particular way forward. There are strong convictions on all sides concerning this discernment. But, because we tend to resolve hard questions like this by majority vote, my guess is we’ll in some way resolve this question in such a manner…at least for the next three years.



Our Anglican tradition provides us with tried and tested practices that, if lived into, profoundly shape our discipleship. These spiritual practices, or disciplines, are specifically enumerated in what’s often called a Rule of Life. Such a Rule provides coherence and shape to our daily lives. The consistency created by a Rule creates space for us to rest in God, to listen in obedience to God’s word for us, and thus to be open to the continual conversion of our life so it may be lived, as St Paul says, “not for ourselves, but for Christ Jesus.” So variety, novelty, and surprise aren’t helpful in a Rule. They’re the last things we need. When such things don’t distract us, we have the capacity and space to listen to God, which is a needful thing if we’re to live as disciples of Jesus.

My friend, Fr Ken Leech, loved to tell the story of Fr Neville who was a long-serving chaplain at a theological college in England. Fr Neville was quite committed to his Rule of Life and its spiritual discipline. His Rule shaped the whole of his life and ministry. He was much loved by the college’s students and faculty for his gentle demeanor and good humor. While they found him to be a bit of an odd duck, they cherished and valued his witness to them of a life given over to God. Every afternoon, part of Fr Neville’s daily spiritual practice was to take a nap from 2 pm to 4 pm. Regardless of what was going on in his life, in the life of the college, or in the life of the world, at 2 pm he’d stop whatever he was doing, retire to his quarters, and take that nap.

One morning, the dean of the college received an urgent message that the bishop of the diocese needed to see him that very afternoon. This presented the dean with a dilemma. He was hosting a visiting bishop from Africa and this bishop was scheduled to speak and then to lead a symposium for the entire student body and faculty that afternoon. The dean couldn’t stand up the bishop (hear, hear!), so he went to Fr Neville and asked him to host the visiting bishop for the rest of the day, introduce him at the symposium, and close the gathering with prayer. This visiting bishop was scheduled to speak at 2 pm.

Fr Neville readily agreed to stand in for the dean. The dean, much relieved, made plans for his trip to the bishop’s office. That day after lunch, Fr Neville met with the visiting bishop, and after a good visit during which they became acquainted, he escorted him to the auditorium for the symposium. Fr Neville welcomed the students and faculty, gave a warm and thoughtful introduction of the esteemed visiting bishop, and as the bishop came to the podium, Fr Neville quietly excused himself and went to his quarters to take his nap. He arose, as was his custom, at 4 pm and returned to the auditorium just in time for the symposium to conclude. He stepped to podium, thanked the visiting bishop for an outstanding presentation, and closed the symposium with a prayer.

While I’ve always found this story “laugh out loud funny,” I’ve also appreciated what it’s taught me about my own spiritual practice. As Jesus helped Martha see in Luke 10: 40-42: We are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, doesn’t he? A Rule of Life helps us all to create the capacity to choose what Jesus clearly called “the better part.”