What We Can’t Control, Thank God (335)

The Broadway musical, Hamilton, is the story of the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. The musical ends with a mournful, chilling song that asks this question “Who gets to tell your story?” with these lyrics:
But when you’re gone,
Who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?

St. Benedict wrote in the Rule of Life for his monks: “Keep your own death before your eyes each day.” In writing this, St. Benedict wasn’t being morbid. He had no unhealthy fascination with death. For St. Benedict, keeping one’s death before one’s eyes was all about humility because death levels everything for us. It comes to all of us and as the old saying goes: you can’t take anything with you when you’re gone. This reality humbles us (or at least it should). It can help us in our learning to depend radically on God’s grace alone. By keeping our deaths before us, we’re nudged into a more spiritually healthy place where we must recognize (eventually) that we’re not in control of everything around us; that as our Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer says:
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

I try to remind myself (at least) weekly that I’m the 10th Bishop of Georgia. There was a 9th and there’ll be an 11th. I’m just the steward of this holy office for the time being. In other words, bishops come and bishops go. Some part of God’s Kingdom will come a little bit closer because of my ministry as bishop. Some will remain distant. I’ll at times succeed in being the bishop God has called me to be, but often I’ll also fail miserably to live into that calling. If there’s a story of my life or of anyone’s life who trusts in Jesus and his Cross, then it’s a story that’s but a footnote to that one, great, and true story.

Rather than hamstringing us or leading us toward spiritual apathy, this practice of keeping our deaths before us is, actually, liberating. It frees us from being held captive by the future, which we can’t control. It helps us release the stranglehold we so often keep on our lives thinking we can control every future outcome (which we must know we can’t). Thus, it opens us up to the possibility of the present, whatever is before us today, so that we may experience the action of God’s grace right in front of us.

We should look to the future, plan for tomorrow, save for retirement (contribute to your IRA!), etc., but we also should learn to be content with the day God has given us. When such contentment comes, our anxieties will take a back seat. That’s when there’s room daily for God’s grace to convert us.


We’re Not the Phone Company (334)

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times on April 17th is an insightful reflection on people and the institutions that shape them. He describes two kinds of institutions: “thick” and “thin.” He writes: A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. In “thin” institutions, on the contrary, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. Stanley Hauerwas has posed the difference in another way. He says people will die for their faith. They’ll die for someone in their family or community. But they won’t willingly die for the phone company.

Brooks contrasts the two types of institutions, writing: Thin organizations look to take advantage of people’s strengths and treat people as resources to be marshaled. Thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice. They take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings. In other words, thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

Brooks is describing what the church is called by Christ to be. We’re in the identity forming business as we lead people in Gospel practices that define our purpose in the world. Church, when we get it right, connects people’s heads, hands, hearts, and souls as we come together for Eucharist, for the Church’s Daily Office, and for regular reflection on our life’s purpose. We call people transcendentally to the vertical axis while much of the rest of their lives are lived out horizontally in quid pro quo transactions. Only as we get that reordered, are we equipped “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” As Evelyn Underhill wrote: One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service…Unless your life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which your life produces won’t be much good.

We’re about grounding people in the “thickness” of our faith and its practices, otherwise we’re just the phone company with some nice music, colorful windows, and elegant haberdashery. Church leaders have the primary task of shaping parishes into such “thick” cultures. Yet, too often, we spend more energy trying to be CEOs, community organizers, psychotherapists, political activists, or social directors because those roles are, if we think about it, easier to inhabit. When we lead in such a disordered way, we often then complain our people aren’t committed enough to the church. If we shape a “thin” parish culture, then we shouldn’t be surprised if people have a “thin” commitment to it. It won’t matter much to them at all. It’s just another group vying for their limited time and resources. They’ll pay their monthly “bill” to the church without much thought or passion, just like they pay their phone bill when it comes due each month.

But we’re not the phone company. We’re the Church, for Christ’s sake.



The Bishop’s Easter Sermon 2017

Then the disciples returned to their homes. (John 20:10)

It was his face that first caught my attention. It was filled with a combination of fear and awe. The face in question was on a painting of the crucifixion I saw years ago. But that face wasn’t the face of Jesus. It was the face of the Roman soldier nailing Jesus’ to the cross. That face was haunting. I wondered how the artist came up with that face. He had no idea what this Roman soldier should look like. So, how did he come up with that haunting face? After reading the background on the painting, I discovered an amazing thing. The artist had used his own face for the Roman soldier, the one who drove the nails into Jesus.

55 years ago, instead of painting himself as a Roman soldier crucifying Christ, Andy Warhol painted his self-portrait alongside stylized versions of Campbell soup cans. Today, our culture has taken Warhol a step further by adopting the selfie as our modern-day icon for self-promotion and self-flattery. Some profound changes have occurred in our culture, and they should give us pause. We now see ourselves at the center of the portrait rather than off to the side driving nails into the Savior’s hands.

Placing our self at the center of the portrait is both flattering and attractive, helping us to believe that the world really should be about the self. Such self-deception profoundly removes us from the witness we have in Scripture. The selfie, like the painting I saw, are examples for us. They represent competing narratives about what it means to be human. The painting’s story tells us that human meaning is found in the forgiving love of God for sinners like us on the cross. While the selfie’s story tells us that human meaning is found in our ability to promote and flatter ourselves.

That shouldn’t make us against the culture. There’s much good in our culture, especially as we learn and grow in our respect for all people, especially for those different from us, and deepen our compassion for those who are lost or left out. So, there’s a lot of good out there in the culture. But we should not be fooled by the pervasive promotion of the self in our culture. If we’re not attentive, we can lose touch with our identity and purpose in Christ, which calls us to be truthful about human nature, which means thus rightfully placing ourselves in a portrait of the crucifixion with hammer in hand.

That portrait paints a story that tells us the truth. The Good News of Jesus is a story that comes to us first as bad news. Before we can truly know it as “good” news, we must first recognize the “bad” news about ourselves.

Frederick Buechner makes this point in his book: Telling the Truth. He writes: The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that we are sinners; that we are evil in the imagination of our hearts; that when I look in the mirror what I see is at least partly a chicken, a phony, and a slob. But the Gospel is also the news that we are loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.

The Good News doesn’t make any sense until we accept “the news that we’re sinners.” If, however, we go home today and look in the mirror and not see that truth, then what that artist painted and what I’m preaching will seem nonsensical.

I’m afraid the Church hasn’t always told people that amazing and outrageous truth in such a way that people have really heard it. Well, my job is to tell you the truth, so I’m going to do my best to change that this morning. The truth is God forgives us and loves us and there’s nothing we can do about. You heard me right. There’s not a thing we can do about it. It’s called grace and it’s outrageous. The cross of Jesus tells us that God forgives us and the resurrection of Jesus tells us that God loves us, and not just for a little while, but eternally. And again, so it sinks in: There’s nothing we can do about it. Our sin, no matter how awful it is, will not stop God from forgiving and loving us, because Jesus on the cross has taken away the sin of the world.

But some people think there must be a catch. There’s got to be some fine print at the bottom of the contract. Sorry. You’re welcome to create your own fine print, your own conditions and exceptions, but just don’t count on the Gospel to back you up. OK. I admit there is one condition and it’s a simple one. We must die. We must die to self. We must take our stinking old sins and pile them on the back of Jesus so he can hang with them on the cross. We must be dead to our sins and trust Jesus, that in his death, our sins die with him.

I began this Easter sermon with what might seem as a rather odd verse to quote from St. John’s story of the resurrection. With all the rich imagery of the first nine verses, you might have wondered why I quoted verse 10, which reads: “Then the disciples returned to their homes (John 20:10).” After receiving the Good News of the resur­rection, the Disciples still had to go home. That means they still had to sleep, and eat, and live each day even though they had begun to realize that the entire world had just been turned upside down.

Just like the disciples, after our celebration of the resurrection today, we will go home and live our lives. The question is: Will we go home believing that we’re alive in Christ only because our sin has already died with him? When we leave for home, will we leave the burden of our sin on the strong back of Jesus? When we’re back home and we look in the mirror, will we see a selfie or the cross of Jesus next to our hearts?


Who’s Crazy? (332)

There’s a difference between what the world tells us and what Jesus tells us. The world says, “mind your own business.” Jesus says, “love one another.” The world says, “follow your heart and be happy.” Jesus says, “follow me and take up your cross.” The world says, “drive carefully, for the life you save may be your own.” Jesus says, “whoever would save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” The world says, “law and order.” Jesus says, “Love your enemies and turn the other cheek.” The world says, “Get.” Jesus says, “Give.” In terms of the world’s definition of sanity, Jesus is crazy. And if we think we can follow Jesus without being just as crazy, then we’re only fooling ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we should be against the world. After all, in John 3:16-17, Jesus says God loves the world and that he came into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it. But it does mean we should name things for what they truly are. The “world,” or as the Greek New Testament calls it, the Cosmos, is a beautiful place. It’s, after all, God’s creation. For all its beauty, however, the Cosmos isn’t congruent with God’s intent. It’s in open rebellion. God has decreed love, but we’ve practiced hate. God’s demanded we forgive, but we’ve trafficked in vengeance. In terms of how the Cosmos is currently ordered, Jesus does appear to be crazy, while the world’s leaders seem to be acting prudently and in the best interests of their people.

But let’s assume for a moment that the opposite is true. Let’s assume that the world has gone completely crazy and that Jesus is the one who’s sane. That changes everything, doesn’t it? But that places us in a dilemma. We can’t follow Jesus faithfully by playing both halves to the middle. We can’t say that the truth is somewhere in between the Cosmos and Jesus. We can’t claim that the world’s just a little crazy, but mainly sane and that Jesus, too, is on the crazy side, but mainly sane. We can’t have it both ways.

It might be easier to have it both ways if all we were talking about was the sleight of hand trick of changing water into wine (John 2). It gets tougher when we’re speaking about feeding five thousand people fully from a few loaves of bread and some fish (John 6). It becomes even harder when we’re talking about new sight to those born blind (John 9). And it becomes downright impossible when we’re speaking of the dead being raised (John 11). So, what’s it going to be? The Cosmos? Or Jesus? There’s no possibility of choosing both, because Jesus is either completely crazy or he’s the Lord of Life. He either raises people from the dead or he doesn’t.

Jesus never met a corpse he didn’t raise. If you doubt that, then read the four Gospels. In every instance where Jesus is confronted with a corpse, that corpse doesn’t remain a corpse very long. Whether it’s Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5 or the Widow’s son in Luke 7, the result is always the same. It’s like in John 11: “Lazarus come out, get out of that grave.” Now, why does Jesus do that to every corpse he meets? The answer is simple. It’s God’s will for us to be raised from the dead and receive the gift of new life. I’m just crazy enough to believe that. Are you?



To be Honest, We Need Help (#331)

In reading The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, I learned how our dishonesty in personal and professional relationships is nearly universal. Yet, we still contend we have high moral standards. Ariely writes: “we cheat for our own benefit while maintaining a positive view of ourselves — a facet of our behavior that enables much of our dishonesty.” So, ironically, a “positive view of ourselves” while we’re being dishonest “enables” us to be more dishonest. We absolve ourselves of our dishonesty by steadfastly insisting we’re “good” people. St. Paul wrote as much in Romans.

Ariely’s research shows having laws against dishonesty help, but they don’t (obviously) end dishonest behavior (not a news flash). In one experiment he conducted, people were given a 10-question quiz and then told to grade their own answers. Participants were then paid for how high they scored. The higher the score, the more money they received. They self-reported their scores to the quiz monitor and were given cash on the spot. Ariely says he’s done this experiment many times and each time about the same percentage of people lie about their scores. But, if study participants were given a copy of the Ten Commandments before taking the quiz, later they lied less about their quiz scores. It seems when we’re reminded of our moral code, we’re more likely to follow it.

The most fascinating part of Ariely’s book for me, however, is how we justify our own dishonesty. Ariely researched how often people leave restaurants without paying their bills. He asked wait staff how easy it would be to get away with it. They said quite easy. All they’d have to do is excuse themselves to the restroom and then duck out the side door. But the data show it rarely happens. Switching gears, Ariely asked a classroom of his students how many of them downloaded music on their electronic devices that they had not paid for. Most acknowledged they had done so and saw little wrong with it. Again, many studies confirm this behavior. Both leaving the restaurant without paying and not paying for downloaded music are easily done, but one rarely occurs while the other is commonplace. What’s the difference between these two?

Ariely contends it’s about proximity and relationship. In a restaurant, we see the staff working. We’ve made eye contact with them. There’s a human connection. Their job depends on our paying our bill. With music downloads, we don’t see the artists who wrote and/or performed the music. It’s harder for us to imagine how our dishonesty will hurt them. Ariely also says it’s about the threat of being caught. Although it’s easy to walk out of a restaurant without being caught, we still might be. Behind the anonymity of a computer, we feel the odds of us being busted are much less.

So, we do better, honesty-wise, when we’re reminded of the moral codes we’re called to live by and when we stay in proximity and relationship with others who’ll help us do that. The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said: “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” It’s seems however, it really helps us if we’re not left to our own devices. We need others to watch us, or at the very least, be present in our lives reminding us who we are and who Jesus calls us to be.



Less Complements, More Jesus (#330)

The Principle of Complementarity states that a person’s emotional state tends to evoke complementary responses in others. When a spouse is depressed similar emotions are induced in the other. Likewise, when one is happy, the other is inclined to be as well. We have a propensity for deducing the emotions of others and matching them in ourselves. Such complementarity shows itself in our normal interactions. For example, if a waiter serving our restaurant table is pleasant and charming, we’re likely to be so in return. The opposite is also true. A rude and unfriendly waiter will naturally draw from us a like reaction. This isn’t limited to people with whom we have close relationships. When we’re around strangers, if the emotional vibe is strong, we’ll find ourselves being caught in up those emotions, for good or for ill, that is if we don’t check ourselves.

Complementarity makes sense from our social evolution in tribal cultures. It’s a way we’ve evolved to be in tune with others and to build alliances. So, we tend to go along with the emotions around us without reflecting on them. It’s an effective bonding response within groups. Most often the stakes aren’t very high when complementarity is unconsciously occurring. But, of course, it has a shadow side. It explains how quickly mob behavior forms and just as fast turns mean or deadly. With the advent of social media, mobs also occur in cyberspace. Read comments to new stories on social media and see how emotions get ginned up and shared with each additional comment posted.

It takes considerable self-awareness to notice how our emotions are driven by those around us and to not always go along with them. Those emotions may lead to harmless behavior (and thus we can ignore them or just enjoy them). But if such emotions are leading in a sinister direction, we can try to exercise non-complementary behavior. Jesus was a master at such non-complementary behavior. It’s throughout the Gospel.

Consider Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. The self-righteous emotions of the people around him build until they are determined to stone her. Jesus doesn’t “fight fire with fire.” Rather than “complement” their anger with his own, he calms the situation down by kneeling and doodling in the dirt. He then turns the emotional tables and says: “If any of y’all are without sin, then go ahead and cast the first stone.” In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father, the older son, and the entire household upon seeing the younger son return could’ve said to him: “You little degenerate, go to the bunkhouse, take your place with the hired hands.” Given what the younger son had done, that would’ve been a justifiable emotional reaction to his behavior. But the father turns the tables and declares the young man will have the finest garb put on him, a feast thrown, and his place restored.

The Good News is God’s non-complementary behavior toward us. Jesus doesn’t “complement” our sin with judgment, but rather with grace. We don’t get our “just deserts.” And he calls us to such non-complementarity with the world. Love rather than hate our enemies. Be tender when others choose toughness. Exercise mercy when those around are calling out for blood. Forgive when others want to condemn. We’re going against powerful evolutionary forces when we do. Still, it’s God’s way with this world.



Consider the Odds Against Refugees

The odds of things fascinate me. For example, the odds of being struck by lightning while outside in a thunderstorm are only 1 in 12,000. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits have better odds to win this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. They’re at only 1 in 5,000. There are much higher odds when it comes to winning a typical state lottery jackpot. Those odds average out at 1 in 292 million. And according to the Cato Institute, a rather conservative policy think tank, the odds of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a refugee who’s been vetted through our government’s 18-month to 24-month process is 1 in 3.6 billion.

And yet, our government sees these folk as such a threat that the whole refugee program is being brought to a halt. Based on the odds, our government’s action makes no rational sense. A ban on people going outside in lightning storms would make more sense. Of course, this refugee ban isn’t based on any sensible data or rational reality. It’s grounded in emotion, fear, and scapegoating. Refugees aren’t a physical danger to us. They’re not taking our jobs. They’re not ruining our way of life. They’re absolutely no threat to us, existential or otherwise. Nevertheless, our government has mean-spiritedly banned them from receiving hospitality from faith-based refugee resettlement ministries like our own Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM).

I know people in our country are scared and anxious about the future. We live in a time of great economic uncertainty and global change. Demagogues pick up on our fear of uncertainty and our anxiety about change, and then they offer up convenient scapegoats to blame. They tell us to listen to them and they’ll protect us from harm. Throughout history, demagogues have had a penchant for such scapegoating. In the great narrative of redemption that we call the Gospel, Jesus was named a scapegoat by the demagogue Caiaphas (John 11:50). The resurrection was, among other things, God’s word to humanity that such scapegoating must end. The scapegoats du jour are refugees.

This isn’t a political issue although it’s lived out in the political realm. This is a profoundly moral issue that cuts to the heart of our faith in Jesus who spent his first two years of life as a refugee from the violence of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-16). I can’t see in this refugee ban anything that remotely looks like Jesus. Thus, I must reject our government’s action as profoundly counter to the Gospel of Jesus and antithetical to his teaching. I repudiate the false notion that a refugee ban will do anything to address the fears and anxieties present in our culture. Even though a judge has temporarily blocked the refugee ban, I ask us all who seek to follow Jesus to support and pray for the important ministry of Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine national agencies responsible for resettling refugees in the U.S.

For more information about how you can help refugees, please visit the EMM website: http://episcopalmigrationministries.org. I also commend to you the statement of my colleague in Atlanta, Bishop Rob Wright. We share a strong opposition to this refugee ban as being incongruent with following Jesus as Lord and Savior.



Plumbing Life’s Complexities (#328)

In the The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach investigate how our minds work by, of all things, a toilet experiment. We use toilets daily, but do we really know how they work?

Toilets, it turns out, are complicated. In a study, they asked graduate students to explain how toilets work. Most participants were confident they knew, but the study revealed just how much they didn’t know. Even after showing them how wrong they were about how toilets worked, participants continued to insist they knew a lot about toilets. Sloman and Fernbach refer to this as the “illusion of explanatory depth.” We assume we know a lot more than we really do. And this assumption comes from the evolutionary process. Throughout human evolution we’ve always relied on and benefited from other’s expertise. As new tools for living (like toilets) were invented, new ignorance was also introduced. That’s fine if we recognize our ignorance. But, for example, if everyone had to become an expert on glass blowing before anyone could use a drinking glass, then drinking glasses wouldn’t be used by many. This makes it hard for us to discern where our expertise ends and someone else’s begins. So, we simply learn to rely on others to make the toilets and drinking glasses and then we benefit from their expertise.

But it’s in other areas where our “knowledge illusion” can be more problematic. What if we’re not talking about toilets or drinking glasses, but the health care system? Then it does matter if I don’t know what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach refer to a 2014 survey about Russia’s military takeover of Crimea and how the U.S. should respond. Participants were also asked to find Crimea on a map. The results? The farther off base respondents were geographically (the median was 1800 miles off base!), the more likely they were to favor military intervention. Similar results were found from other surveys. “Strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” they wrote.

What transpires from there often goes something like this: If my position on, say, fixing the health care system has no factual substantiation, but I insist it has merit, then my position must be groundless, even though I feel strongly about it. And when I share my opinion with another person and he concludes that I’m right, now his position also has no merit. And because there are more of us sharing the same meritless position, we believe we’re right because other people share our position. This is how passionate groups form around clearly false claims and then simply reinforce one another even though there’s no real basis for their position other than their strong feelings about it.

This is good for us to hear during Lent when we reflect, as the Ash Wednesday Litany in the Prayer Book says, on “the pride and hypocrisy of our lives.” At the very least, it should give us all pause when we start pontificating on an issue or event when we really don’t know the real complexities involved. Now back to toilets: I’ve been trying to repair our downstairs toilet for two years now. During that time, I’ve replaced every part, first on the inside of the tank and then the outside hose and water valve. It’s still not working right. “How complicated can it be?” I ask my wife, adding ” I can’t get it to work right!” Kelly shakes  her head and says to me for the 50th time: “Please, just call the plumber.”


Saving Starfish, One at a Time (#327)

A parable is told of a writer who rented a cottage on a hill overlooking the sea. As he sat writing each morning he saw a man on the beach who looked to be doing an elaborate dance. After a week of watching this daily ritual, he went down for a closer look. When he got to the beach, he saw that the man wasn’t dancing at all. Rather, he was picking up live starfish that had washed ashore in the night and hurling them back into the water. The writer saw thousands of starfish on the beach, so he said to the man: “You can’t save them all. Why are you doing this?” The man smiled, bent over, picked up a starfish, and threw it into the sea. He turned to the writer and said: “Saved that one, didn’t I?”

This parable reminds us that while we can’t make a difference in everyone’s life, we can make a difference for some, possibly more than we realize. Last week, I ended my eCrozier about Charity’s Cheap Absolution by offering my own confession of failure to help someone, metaphorically, “get back into the sea.” I ended it there, without further thoughts, because I wanted readers to struggle with their own memories of “things left undone,” as our Prayer Book confession puts it. You see, charity involves making sure the “starfish” is comfortable that day, but it’s still going to die on the beach. Making a difference for a “starfish” requires a long-lasting effort beyond offering immediate comfort. It takes determined action and focused commitment. Like the effort of the man in the parable, he couldn’t save them all, but he could save some.

All parables fall short (except for Jesus’, which never seem to). From my reading of the Gospel, Jesus never just “fixed” the presenting problem of someone he encountered. He also helped them go to a new place in their lives. In other words, Jesus was going after the whole enchilada, if I can use a theological word. So, while ministry that provides food or clothing to people is truly Gospel work, it doesn’t make a lasting difference in people’s lives. A coat or a meal provide short-term help. Jesus was about more. He was about transformation. So, I ask: How might we go further and partner with God in people’s transformation? Or as St Paul might say: How might we help them “work out [their] own salvation in fear and trembling?” (Philippians 2:12)

Going further would demand that we partner with people on a way out of their current condition. I envision a community-living house with skilled staff, life coaching, the Daily Office prayed, community support, job placement/development (when needed), the whole deal. Residents would contribute a percentage of their income and/or do in-kind work to cover operational costs. We’d respect their dignity too much to give them a handout. So, nothing free, except for God’s (and our) grace-filled acceptance. This will demand from us lots of forbearance and love, the determined kind that Jesus brings.

We need some “angel investors” to fund the upfront costs. Who might those people be? Can you help us find them? We need the right property to start. Who knows of one? Who will help us raise the money to initially staff this self-sustaining ministry? We could have a ministry like this in every town in south Georgia. We may fail a bit more often than we succeed, but when we fail, it’ll be a magnificent failure!

The Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase
Bishop of Georgia


Charity’s Cheap Absolution (#326)

Luke Sanders was a sweet man. He and I would exchange greetings outside the parish office where I served as rector. He’d always smile and offer an encouraging word for me. “What’s the good word today, Luke?” I’d say. And he’d say something like, “God’s good all the time” or “I’m blessed today.” Luke lived on the street when he wasn’t living in our shelter for homeless persons nearby. Sometimes he’d be denied entry to the shelter if he were too drunk and disorderly. So, he’d just hang out around our church block that included the shelter as well as a community kitchen that fed him and hundreds of others each day. When he was “plastered,” he wasn’t easy to deal with. I recall the times we had to pull him from the middle of our busy street where he had been “directing traffic” (in his altered state, he saw that as his important public service).

When Luke wasn’t wild-eyed drunk, he was a pleasant companion. Earlier in life he’d been an accomplished Golden Gloves boxer. I know this because he showed me old pictures of him in the ring wearing a boxing belt with his name on it. He had family (we all have family, somewhere, right?), but I could never know when he talked about his wife and children whether they were real or just a distorted memory from an alcoholic fog. Of course, I was always too busy to listen to him more.

One hot summer we didn’t see Luke for a few days. That wasn’t at all unusual. He’d occasionally get arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and spend time in jail. But then we noticed an awful odor from the window well in front of the Parish Hall. We found his body there. The autopsy determined he died of heat stroke and dehydration. A few days later, with the full Burial Office of the Church, we buried his remains in our church’s columbarium grounds. Presiding at his burial didn’t assuage my conscience.

We failed Luke Sanders. More accurately, I failed Luke Sanders. We housed him. We fed him. We pulled him off the street when he was a danger to himself and others, but we failed him. Our charity toward Luke, as Dr. Bob Lupton of Focused Neighborhood Strategies in Atlanta would say, was “toxic.” I knew his addiction was a disease and not a personal moral failing, but along with others, I settled for dispensing charity toward him. We did this, all the while patting ourselves on the back for how “Christian” we were toward him and toward others, who like him, were suffering.

We in the Church dispense charity because it’s easier than the more difficult work of transformation and conversion of life. Dispensing charity makes us feel good about ourselves. Such charity dispensing though keeps the other person as an object of our good works. It doesn’t, as our Baptismal Covenant says, “respect their dignity.” Our behavior won’t change until we make our work to be more about the “good of the other” instead of “our good feelings.” Luke’s face still haunts me today. And appropriately so. I don’t want the haunting to go away. It’s a kick in my conscience’s backside reminding me that I had a hand in his death. I don’t want the cheap absolution from voices who say: “He was a drunk. You did the best you could.” I’ve heard such voices too many times and I know them to be lies. We didn’t do the best we could. I know I didn’t.