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From the President

Connect the Dots

July 13, 2015 ♦


connect the dotsIt’s been quite an eventful few weeks since my last report. The rapid swings between good news and not-so-good news both in the church and in the public square have given many of us an acute case of spiritual whiplash. 

As regards good news, General Convention elected our first black presiding bishop, and added its voice to the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality by adjusting the language of the Prayer Book accordingly. 

But on the not-so-good counter-swing, Donald Trump’s racist announcement of his candidacy for president has given xenophobia a new lease on life, and drawn only mealy-mouthed responses from other candidates who should know better.

But then, Pope Francis embarked on a homecoming tour of Latin America, denouncing the ravages of global capitalism among the poorest of the poor in a way that does honor to the saint’s name he has chosen as his own. 

It is a good thing, too, that South Carolina has retired the Confederate battle flag at last.  But few if any politicians have connected the dots between the racist massacre that finally forced the argument and the steady increase of gun violence in this country, abetted by the radical right’s continued stretching and distortion of the Second Amendment.

It’s time for faithful people to connect the dots. 

Hard to believe, but we will soon mark the one-year anniversary of the events in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown. To mark that anniversary, Bexley Seabury will welcome Dean Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis as the keynote speaker for our Convocation Columbus 2015 on Wednesday, September 23. Mike has been a powerful voice in promoting racial justice in St. Louis in the aftermath of Ferguson. His working title for his time with us is “Faith After #Ferguson: We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Chains.” Mike will join the Bexley Seabury community—students, alumni, and friends of the seminary—on the 23rd for 10 a.m. Eucharist, the student I-group (the weekly small group discussion integrating faith and practice), a plenary address and workshop in the afternoon, and a reception that evening. If you will be anywhere near Columbus on that date, mark your calendars now.

And for those of you in the Chicago area, you should know that earlier that week the seminary will be partnering with St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church, in Chicago’s Near North neighborhood, to host Professor Walter Brueggemann, renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible and passionate teacher and advocate for a renewed sense of Biblical justice.  Professor Brueggemann will preach at Sunday Evensong at St. Chrysostom’s on September 20, and present a public lecture on Monday morning, September 21.

In the strident cacophony of our public square, it is a privilege for Bexley Seabury to host such powerful voices for reason, Biblical integrity, and racial justice. More details to follow.  But I hope you will spread the word about these two important events, and join us in Columbus and Chicago this fall.

God’s Healing Stillness

June 22, 2015 ♦ Yesterday’s gospel reading was Mark’s account of Jesus calming a great windstorm at sea. Perhaps you heard it yesterday, as I did, under a great vaulted Gothic nave.

That word “nave” comes from the same root as the word “navy.” As you read the passage from Mark, included below, imagine a great vaulted Gothic nave room upended, its gabled ceiling becoming the interior hull of a vast ship. Churches like this were designed to suggest such a shape, evoking a place of safety for all who attempt to sail the chaotic waters of this life, for all who seek safe harbor in Jesus.

Or to put it succinctly, when we gather in church, we are all in the same boat.

Mark 4: 35-41
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Now, imagine another ship, also created as a place of safety. I am thinking of Mother Emanuel, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where this past Wednesday evening 12 ordinary people boarded ship as usual, gathering there for Bible study—as they might have put it, with Jesus resting comfortably in the stern. They welcomed a young stranger to share the peace of Jesus’ presence among them.

And then all hell broke loose.

How many people in Charleston today are asking the question that the disciples put to Jesus in the midst of that storm:

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

The question resonates throughout the country this morning, as it always does at moments of senseless violence and deep hatred. When that young stranger shot those nine innocent people in cold blood, mouthing hateful propaganda, when that sea of racist hatred engulfed that chapel, was Jesus still asleep, his head resting on a comfortable cushion in the stern of the boat, oblivious to the violence, oblivious to the chaos that will forever mark Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, the chaos that will forever mark and mar that place of peace?

Perhaps at least a partial answer to that question might lie in last Friday’s news report.

Nadine Collier is the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the victims of Wednesday’s self-confessed shooter. At the bond hearing on Friday, Nadine Collier addressed the shooter face-to-face. Here’s what she said to him: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Myra Thompson’s grandson Anthony, also in that courtroom, was even more direct: “I forgive you. My family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you will be better off than you are now."

How many of us could picture ourselves as Anthony Thompson, speaking on behalf of his sorrowing family? How many of us could picture ourselves as Nadine Collier, bravely facing down her mother’s murderer, and offering him not hatred but forgiveness? They are like Jesus rebuking the storm, cutting through the bloodshed and chaos with a clarity that stunned every person in that room into astonished silence:

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

I have a sense that it was that same dead calm that fell on that South Carolina courtroom on Friday, the dead calm of people’s stunned disbelief as they heard and witnessed the relatives of the Emmanuel victims, one after the other, speaking not of vengeance but of justice, not of retribution but of forgiveness, heard and witnessed those brave Christian people saying to that young man what God was saying in their own hearts:

Peace, be still, and know that I am God.

The great African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman, mentor of Martin Luther King as well as scores of Americans, black and white, who strove for justice and civil rights, had this to say about God’s healing stillness, a stillness that can calm even the most tumultuous storms experienced in what Thurman describes as every person’s “inward sea:”

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the "angel with the flaming sword." Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of inner authority.

It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Reverend Pinckney to invite that strange young white man to sit beside him and to study with him and to pray with him on that extraordinary evening in Charleston this past week. It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Nadine Collier to confront her mother’s murderer and treat him like a human being rather than a senseless monster, to forgive him. Nadine Collier’s act of forgiveness confirmed the peace in her own Christian soul, calmed the stormy waves in her own inward sea.

Peace, be still. And the wind ceased.

Peace, be still. There’s a way of hearing those words—whether in English or the original Greek—as somehow enacting what they express. It’s as if the sea is calmed by the intake of breath that occurs between the utterance of the first word and the answer of the next two. Try it with me, say it aloud, but take a deep breath between the first word and the closing phrase:

Peace. [Breath] Be still.

Let us pray in solidarity with those who died and with those who mourn, responding to every petition with the phrase “Peace. Be still.”

Pray for those who have died in Charleston: Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for those who survived.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for the families of the slain, and give thanks for their Christian witness.

Peace. Be still.

As Jesus taught us, pray for the Dylann Roof, whose racist ignorance and racist hatred continues to contort his soul.

Peace. Be still.

Pray that God may lift the burden of our history—the lasting legacy of racist hatred that continues to afflict us all.

Peace. Be still.

Amen.

__________

Adapted from a sermon preached Pentecost IV (June 21, 2015) at Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan by the Rev. Roger Ferlo

Let's Say "Yes to the Mess"

♦ June 11, 2015 ♦

As I write, Suzi Holding, our director of lifelong theological education and the doctor of ministry program, and I are preparing to welcome 35 participants to our three-day intensive Leadership Institute, in collaboration with our colleagues at the Kellogg School of Nonprofit Management at Northwestern. Several of those participants are also students in our DMin program, and will stay on for an additional two days to unpack theologically what they have learned. One of the books Suzi assigned, Frank Barrett’s Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz,* was new to me. I read it with mounting excitement, as it in so many ways reflects the work we have been doing here since we rebooted Bexley Seabury as a “seminary beyond walls.”

Musical Score crop web 061115Frank Barrett is a distinguished organizational theorist, but he is also an accomplished jazz pianist. Yes to the Mess connects the task of leading post-modern, post-hierarchical organizations to the practice of disciplined improvisation that every jazz player spends a lifetime mastering.

Jazz bands are chaordic systems, he writes (great new word, chaordic),

“... a combination of chaos and order … [with an] aesthetic that values surrender and wonderment over certainty, appreciation over problem solving, listening and attunement over individual isolation.” (p. 68)

Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, and brilliant sidemen like John Coltrane and Ken Peplowski who became solo artists in their own right—who would have thought that their style of leadership (and followership) could be a model for institutions like the church as it struggles to shed itself of top-down and self-protective leadership styles?

Barrett is masterful in explaining how a jazz player thinks:

“Jazz works because the process is designed around small patterns, minimal structures that allow freedom to embellish—a system that balances between the extremes of too much autonomy and too much consensus. So often we hear that good leadership involves creating consensus for how to proceed. One way to think about jazz is that it minimizes consensus around core patterns and allows diversity to flourish.” (p. 71)

In that exhilarating but risky kind of chaordic world, leadership effectiveness, Barrett tells us,

“... is judged not by authority or how far up the pyramid people sit, but by how well they work with the resources at their disposal, no matter how limited, and how effectively they help free their own potential and that of others.” (pp. 137–138)

In a few weeks, my colleagues and I will join about a thousand Episcopalians at General Convention in Salt Lake City—our triennial attempt to get the Gospel right. Like many of you reading this, I have attended several of these family reunions, once even as a deputy. In my experience, General Conventions have a knack for seeming at once rigidly organized and charmingly chaotic. But “chaordic” in Barrett’s sense they for the most part are not. Neither are churches. Neither are seminaries.

It’s time to jazz things up.

(By the way, if you will be in Salt Lake City for GC78, plan to join us at our Bexley Seabury reception on “seminary night,” Tuesday, June 30 ($25 per person)—please reserve online).

*Frank J. Barrett. Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.

Where is that Fire...

May 20, 2015 ♦

“Where is that fire that once descended on thy apostles?” (George Herbert)

holy fireThere has been another Pew survey released, once again noting the steady decline in the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians, let alone religious. We are getting used to such reports, I suppose. The temptation is to lament our own failures as Christians in spreading the good news, and perhaps for some of us simply to get used to the fact that we are in a steadily dwindling minority—that’s at least the tack the various media pundits expect us to take.

Well, Christianity has a long history of ups and downs—times when the work of the Spirit seemed all too evident, and times when the work of the Spirit seemed all too absent. As Paul knew well, the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills. In fact, in Christian thought the sense of God’s absence is often as powerful as a conviction of God’s presence, and in some ways more accurate and, paradoxically, more attuned to the way God seems to work—in a negative way, a kind of via negativa.

As evidence, I offer two magnificent Pentecost poems, separated by more than three centuries, both of them by Christian priests for whom the opposite of faith was not doubt, but certitude. The first is by George Herbert, who knew something about the Spirit’s unpredictable presence (“... Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink: ...”). The second is by R.S. Thomas, whose faith found its voice in his sense of the Spirit’s persistent absence (“... He keeps the interstices/In our knowledge, the darkness/Between stars. ...”) They celebrate a Pentecost for the “nones” among us.

 

Whitsunday (George Herbert, 1593-1633)

    Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
    And spread thy golden wings in me;
    Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

    Where is that fire which once descended
    On thy Apostles? thou didst then
    Keep open house, richly attended,
Feasting all comers by twelve chosen men.

    Such glorious gifts thou didst bestow,
    That th’ earth did like a heav’n appeare;
    The starres were coming down to know
If they might mend their wages, and serve here.

    The sunne, which once did shine alone,
    Hung down his head, and wisht for night,
    When he beheld twelve sunnes for one
Going about the world, and giving light.

    But since those pipes of gold, which brought
    That cordiall water to our ground,
    Were cut and martyr’d by the fault
Of those, who did themselves through their side wound,

    Thou shutt’st the doore, and keep’st within;
    Scarce a good joy creeps through the chink:
    And if the braves of conqu’ring sinne
Did not excite thee, we should wholly sink.

    Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
    The same sweet God of love and light:
    Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

 

Via Negativa (R.S. Thomas, 1913-2000)

Why No! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Living Waters

Eastertide 2015 ♦

water reflection horiz

I was for 10 years rector of an historic parish in New York City where the baptismal font was placed not in the chancel but in the entryway to the church. It was the first thing you saw when you came in, and you had to negotiate your way around it if you wanted to make your way up the aisle. I liked that traditional placement of the font, and I preached about it often. I saw it as a continuing reminder that entrance into the life of the community—entrance into the resurrected life of Christ—was through the living waters of baptism. It was especially effective to have the font in place there during the Easter Vigil, within a few feet of where we ignited the new fire.

But now, on reflection, I realize that I may have oversimplified matters. I regarded that font as our parish’s sacred well, like the well where Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel. But what signal were we really sending, locating it where we did? How easily the whole thing might be misconstrued by the seeker, the stranger, the uninitiated. Were we trying to bar the entrance, to protect our turf, to create an obstacle that would trip up the undeserving or the uninitiated or the undesirable? What if we encountered Jesus himself standing there at that font? Did the water in our well truly live? What if he asked us for a taste? Would we dare to offer it? How would we explain its bitterness? How explain the fissures and fractures in our common life, our habit of seeing the face of the stranger or even the enemy not just in outsiders, but in our own brothers and sisters in Christ? We church people guard our separate wells pretty fiercely at times, damming up the living spring and hoarding those living waters for ourselves.

What would the reign of God look like if we allowed that dam to break?

I know a woman, a Roman Catholic Sister of the Poor, who worked for years in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, living among the village women whose fate it was to spend almost the complete day traipsing back and forth to the communal well outside the squatter camp, their only source of water. When I first visited her, Sister Monica was serving as a social worker for a local clinic in Mtata. One of her colleagues, a poor Xhosa woman who was being trained as a nurse, had been living in a tiny hut in the squatters’ settlement, dividing her time between work at the clinic (several kilometers away) and caring for her disabled brother. A storm had destroyed her ramshackle hut, and Monica had organized a work group to build a more stable mud brick house, fashioning the bricks from the very ground on which the house would stand. They had put out a large rain barrel to collect the water necessary for their brick-making, and supplemented it in the dry spells—which come all too often to the Eastern Cape—with water carried on their backs and shoulders from that distant well.

I treasure two photographs of the site. One is of the still unfinished house, a view through one of its rough-hewn windows, by which you get a glimpse of the setting sun and the harshly beautiful hills beyond the settlement. But it’s the other, more pedestrian photo that I cherish more. It’s a shot of the rusty rain barrel, full to the brim with water. From the side of the picture you can see Monica’s outstretched hand extended toward it, pointing toward the water, in a joyous, gorgeous gesture of triumph and compassion. I would have liked to take that barrel home with me, to place it near the door of the church in place of the font we already had. For me that rain barrel is what any baptismal font should really look like, the work of many hands, a source of living water, a wellspring of liberation and homecoming, destined for building up and not for tearing down, a fountain from which the resurrected Jesus would have gladly drunk his fill.

May that living water of reconciliation, compassion and service be yours to drink as well in this holy season.

A Gospel Built to Last

President Ferlo on Reconciliation

March 6, 2015 •

As I write this I am preparing for a week at Kanuga (the Episcopal conference center in western North Carolina) to spend time with six Old Catholic bishops from Europe who are visiting the U.S. as guests of the Episcopal House of Bishops. Although I suspect that very few Episcopalians are aware of it, the Episcopal Church has enjoyed a long friendship with the Old Catholic churches in Europe — progressive congregations whose disapproval of the pope’s declaration of infallibility in 1870 moved them to break away from the Roman church, adopting a polity of dispersed authority similar to our own.

editorial DecoMeetsModern

What is on the minds of the Old Catholic bishops during this visit is what is on many minds here in the States — the diminishing role of the Christian church as an arbiter of values in an increasingly secular culture. We live in a paradoxical time. European culture especially is beset by a postmodern mistrust of any religious “meta-narrative” (to use a favorite post-modern phrase) that claims universal acceptance. At the same time, in France, in Denmark, in the Netherlands, there is a resurgence of a new and violent meta-narrative spreading among disaffected young Muslim men — the jihadist dream of a universal caliphate, better known as the nightmare of ISIS. This resurgent Islamist meta-narrative breeds, no doubt by intention, a troubling xenophobic and racist reaction among people who should know better.

In all this, the Christian churches in Europe seem less and less relevant. The stakes are high. In spite of claims to the contrary — including those made by people who call themselves Christians in this country — the Gospel is a gospel of peace and reconciliation, where xenophobia, institutional racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have no place. Whether American Episcopalians or European Old Catholics, our temptation is to focus on our institutional survival. But face it, institutions — even institutions as old as ours — come and go. Europeans know this from their own experience, perhaps better than we Americans. The Gospel, though, is built to last.

The question we will ask at Kanuga — and the question we all must persist in asking ourselves — is how churches like ours can look beyond our own survival, to embrace instead God’s mission of reconciliation in a time, in both Europe and the United States, when the urge for self-protection and retribution is everywhere to be felt.

We know that in Christ, the agents of death — and the fear of death — in the end had no dominion over him. That’s what the resurrection was all about. The challenge for us now is to act as if we believed it.

Breaking the Silence

President Ferlo on Lenten Discipline

February 12, 2015 •

It’s no surprise that we think of Lent as a time to cultivate some silence. Like other Protestants, Episcopalians can be a noisy lot, what with all our preaching, hymn-singing, coffee hours, and all-too-public controversies. But like other Catholics, we also prize a bit of silence, even though moments of ritual quiet in our typical Sunday liturgies tend to get cut short, either by presiders used to filling the air with talk, or congregations who start fidgeting because they suspect someone forgot their lines. For all our good intentions, we tend to be ill at ease with silence, perhaps because we tend to be ill at ease with the possibility that God might speak to us in ways that our ears wouldn’t normally want to hear.

editorial slience

There’s a history to this uneasiness, and it’s not always a pretty one. Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the magisterial Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, has now published a shorter, more pointed, and more personal book: Silence: A Christian History (Penguin, 2013). Written with his usual wit, verve and often unsettling candor, MacCulloch’s book tells a double story. What begins as a thorough, balanced, richly detailed and often entertaining history of Christian silence as religious practice, turns in the second half of the book to a startling exposé of the uses of Christian silence to mask all manner of evil and shame, what he calls “building identity through forgetfulness:”

The history of Christianity is full of things casually or deliberately forgotten, or left unsaid, in order to shape the future of a Church or Churches. Institutions religious or secular create their own silences, by exclusions and shared assumptions, which change over time. Such silences are often at the expense of many of the people who could be thought of as actually constituting the Church.

MacCulloch describes in calm and therefore devastating detail many “conscious silences of shame and fear:” silences about the abuse of power, about racial prejudice and the religious defense of slavery, of unspoken misogyny and homophobia, of silence about clerical child abuse amounting to sinful cover-up, silence in the face of genocide and holocaust. These pages are painful to read, but he writes them, in a way, to clear the decks: “as a necessary penitential work of stripping the altars, or, more cheerfully, the anticipatory clearance of the house before the party begins.” I can’t think of a better description of Lenten discipline. MacCulloch exposes the misuse of Christian silence as a step toward its redemption, restoring “an approach to divinity that portrays what God is not, rather than what he is” — a theology that grounds itself in a religion of Spirit that, as Paul said so long ago, lies too deep for words.

May that restored silence be yours this Lenten season. And may we all be bold enough to break our pious silences when justice is at stake.

Episcopal Seminaries United in Diversity

President Ferlo on the Council of Deans meeting Jan. 11-13, 2015 •

Last week I had the privilege of hosting the Council of Deans of our Episcopal seminaries at Bexley House in Columbus. It was a time of renewed friendship and striking cordiality, considering our doctrinal and institutional differences. It is good to have such colleagues, especially in times of change and stress. The press and blogosphere thrive on institutional crisis. But in spite of recent difficulties, our Episcopal seminaries remain strongly committed to fulfilling our historic purposes. We are about Christian lives formed, Christian leadership shaped, and theological inquiry boldly encouraged, with God's mission of love and reconciliation in Jesus Christ as our compass. At a time when graduate-level theological study for lay and clergy leaders is dismissed in some quarters as an unnecessary luxury, and when our seminaries are caricatured as out of touch with and unaccountable to the real church, it is all the more important that our true story be told, a story in which our own "seminary beyond walls" at Bexley Seabury continues to play an essential part.

Here is the communiqué we drafted as we reflected on our time together:


 

Communiqué from the Council of Episcopal Seminary Deans
January 14, 2015

The Council of Deans met in its annual meeting at the Bexley Seabury campus in Columbus, Ohio Sunday, January 11 to Tuesday, January 13, 2015.  

All 10 seminary deans were present at the meeting, joined by their academic deans, as well as the dean and president of St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary in the Philippines. Across a range of theological viewpoints, there was a shared commitment to theological education and formation as well as mutual recognition of the distinctive gifts of each school.  

CouncilofDeansMtg Jan2015
The Council of Deans recognized the many opportunities and challenges facing theological education in the United States. There was an appreciation of the sheer variety of programs that, collectively, Episcopal seminaries are providing in response to our changing world and church. In addition to the three-year residential MDiv, the MDiv can be taken in hybrid, distance, and part-time forms. Theological studies can be as short as a summer or a January term, to a quarter, to a semester, to a full year or more. Training is provided in Spanish language and Latino/a culture, and different tracks are offered in missional leadership; hospital, school, and military chaplaincy; and community organizing. MA and other degrees are offered in counseling, Christian formation, ministry, and all the major academic disciplines. There is a plethora of certificate and short-residency courses for lay and ordained leaders.

In recent years, three seminaries have completed or are in the process of completing capital campaigns. In all, over $40 million has been raised thus far. The demographics of Episcopal seminary student bodies are increasingly young and diverse. Placement rates are high, with many seminaries reporting over 90% of graduates placed within six months. This confirms the data from the Church Pension Fund that established the high placement rate and subsequent vocational progress made possible by an Episcopal seminary education. Several seminaries are engaged in thoughtful restructuring and reorganization that will ensure long-term sustainability and relevance.

The Council of Deans will seek conversation with diocesan leadership to recruit gifted candidates for leadership in the church. Discussion began about sharing opportunities for cross-cultural immersion among the 10 seminaries, as well as exploring cross-registration among our programs.

The Council of Deans concluded its meeting by affirming its commitment to continue to serve the church both domestically and globally. The Council welcomes conversations with all parties in the Episcopal Church about the future needs of the church.

  • The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South
  • The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, Dean and President, General Theological Seminary
  • The Rev. Roger Ferlo, President, Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Seminary Federation
  • The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean and President, Seminary of the Southwest
  • The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary
  • The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan, Dean and President, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale
  • The Very Rev. Gloria Lita D. Mapangdol, St. Andrew’s Theological Seminary, Quezon City, Philippines
  • The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, Dean and President, Episcopal Divinity School
  • The Very Rev. Mark Richardson, Dean and President, Church Divinity School of the Pacific
  • The Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon, Dean and President, Nashotah House
  • The Very Rev. Justyn Terry, Dean and President, Trinity School for Ministry

On Being a God-bearer: An Advent meditation

"1918 in Petrograd" by Kuzma Petrov VodkinHaving grown up as an Italian-American Roman Catholic in the 1950s, I have spent most of a lifetime recovering from what felt like an overdose of plaster statuary. It seemed that statues of the Virgin Mary were everywhere in my childhood — on my grandmother’s vanity bureau, to the right of the high altar at church, on the little prie-dieu where I posed for my First Communion photo.

But I have learned, the older I get, that life is all about paradox, and that you never know when what you thought you left behind will turn out to be the source of your greatest strength, or, to use Gospel language, when the stone the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone.

Those statues of the Virgin glow now in a different light. I am still protestant enough to declare that doctrine of the virgin birth tells us nothing about biology. But as the philosopher would say, it is a paradox nonetheless good to think with. It tells us everything about the mystery of God’s presence among us, about what it means to be Immanuel, about what it means for us to be God-bearers, what it means for us to be present to God.

To be a God-bearer: that has been a challenge for all of us in the past several weeks, where we have seen the most vulnerable among us targeted in the streets, where stories of torture, cover-up and vicious bureaucratic incompetence have made us wonder whether humanity is even redeemable. Who are the God-bearers among us? To be a God-bearer: that is the identity that every Christian in this season is being challenged to embrace, an identity mirrored in the image of the Virgin Mother who, in the ancient prayer, puts down the mighty from their thrones, raises up the humble and meek, and shows us the fruit of her womb in this Jesus, the source and goal of all our desires.

The great mystic Bernard of Clairvaux knew all about desire — the desire for God that is mirrored in the desire of one human being for another, a desire that for him was channeled into an extraordinary, even over-the-top devotion to the Virgin Mother.

In the Divine Comedy, that great 14th century epic of desire, when Dante the pilgrim at last approaches the mystical Rose — the stadium of the saints — in the heaven of heavens, it is Bernard of Clairvaux who appears as his final guide into the Divine Light, and he does so by guiding the pilgrim’s eyes toward the Virgin Mother herself, sitting at the very top tier of those celestial bleachers:

Look now on the face that most resembles Christ,
For nothing but its brightness
Can make you fit to look on Christ

And then, in the greatest prayer of devotion to the Virgin ever devised, Dante has Bernard ring the changes on the paradox of Incarnation:

Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta piu che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio


tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti si’, che ‘l suo fattore
non disdegno di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si racesse l’amore...

Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
More humble and exalted than any creature,
Fixed goal of the eternal plan,

You are the one who so ennobled human nature
That He, who made it first, did not disdain
To make Himself of its own making.

Your womb relit the flame of love….

“To make Himself of its own making.” To put it in another way, a way likely more familiar to those of you reading this column: We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God, truly human, born of the Virgin Mary. Does it ever strike you at once how absurd that statement is, and at the same time how absolutely right? Truly God, truly human: We live with that paradox week in and week out as we recite the ancient creed. It is a paradox that puzzles the mind and redeems the heart, one that proclaims that the God whose name cannot be uttered is as close to us as a newborn baby is to its mother’s breast. And that mother is daughter to her own son, at once humble and exalted, a daughter who so ennobled human nature that the God who created human nature did not disdain to Self-create out of the stuff of God’s own making, entering a human womb that relit the flame of love in a world grown old and torn.

Bernard had his faults (a penchant for armed crusades among them, echoing today’s jihadists of every stripe, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim). But he could preach true Gospel when he had to. In a sermon addressed to the Virgin, he imagines the charged moment before she answers the angel, a moment of uneasy silence in which Bernard believes the whole fate of humankind rests.

“Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel quickly; or rather, through the angel answer God. Speak the word and receive the word. Offer what is yours and conceive what is God’s. Breathe one fleeting word and embrace the eternal Word.”

“Offer what is yours, and conceive what is God.” Let that be our prayer as we enter this season of Incarnation, especially in these mean times of prejudice and violence and deep inequality. What Bernard says to the Virgin, we also, in her honor, must also allow him to say to us. In all our sinfulness and folly, can we in this season offer what is ours — offer no less than all that we are — and allow ourselves, in solidarity with Mary, to “conceive what is God’s,” in whose image we are created, and by whose birth, death and resurrection we all of us stand redeemed?

Dies Irae, Libera me: A sermon for All Saints and All Souls

One of the many odd features of this glorious score of Faure's is the prominence of the viola players. Usually in pieces like this it's the violins who rule the roost, with the violas meekly supplying the middle voice. But not in Faure's famous Requiem. A violin player has to wait for half the piece to pass before she even has a chance to play. No, it's the violas who rule the top line in this piece. To get a sense of how good this must feel for the viola section, just Google the keywords "lame viola joke." You'll have hundreds to choose from, pretty much along the lines of this:

Question: What's the difference between a viola and a violin?

Answer: you can tune a violin.

You get the idea. But as you have heard, these violas are wonderfully in tune. Nothing meek about them. And as this morning's gospel assures us, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the score.

There are other odd features of this piece. It is said that Faure started writing following the deaths of both his parents, but pretty much all he produced in that year was the Libera me, the section you heard just before the Gospel. It wasn't until 1888 that he completed five movements, and it was four more years before he had seven. But nothing was published until 1900, and that score was so riddled with printer's errors and oversights that it's driven editors crazy ever since. It's as if Faure really couldn't figure out precisely what he wanted. And the fact is that the piece wasn't performed all that often in Faure's lifetime. It was only in the 1920s that it seemed to catch on with the French listening public. And the rest, of course, is history, as your presence today testifies.

I will come back to that delayed popularity in a moment. But I should note what is perhaps the oddest thing about this piece, at least as ordinary requiems go. As Christian Clough explained in his on-line essay, most big nineteenth-century Requiems, like Verdi's or Bruckner's, featured a crash bang setting of the Dies Irae, "Day of wrath, Day of Terror," that ancient feature of the Roman funeral rite that was meant to scare the daylights out of those who mourn, setting them back on the track of righteousness with pounding tympanies, clanging brass and stentorian choruses. There's almost nothing like that in Faure's Requiem. All is serenity, lush harmonies in low registers, the plangent singing of a soprano soloist, the peaceful obbligato of a solo violin. That peace is broken only once, at bar 53 of the Libera me--do you remember?-- when out of nowhere brass and chorus launch into a deafening Dies Irae. The world of righteous judgment breaks in when one least expects it. But not for long. By bar 70, all is quiet again, as if the Day of Wrath never happened, as if the composer intentionally liberates us from fear.

No one can really explain why Faure's piece took so long to catch on in France and elsewhere--published in 1900, but not performed regularly until at least 20 years later. But I have a theory about this history of delayed performance. Those 20 years in France and elsewhere in Europe were punctuated by unspeakable carnage and pestilence, with millions dead in a savage war and millions more dead in the great flu epidemic. No wonder people clamored for the serenity and harmony of this great piece, for the consolation of a paradise imagined and restored, in the company of all the saints. What would it have been like to hear this requiem for the first time, with the memory still fresh of all those deaths, at whose graves on days like All Souls those who survived repeated the ancient refrain: "Libera me! "Deliver me, from the injustice of violence and an early death."

Which brings me at last to Matthew's gospel on this mash-up of All Saints, All Souls morning, In a sense, the Beatitudes have their own kind of performance history in liturgies like this. Like Faure's Requiem, the Beatitudes have offered generations of believers a gospel of consolation. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who mourn.

But there's an edge to this consolation in Matthew. Matthew's gospel was likely written for a community of believers still reeling from the blood and smoke of the first Jewish revolt in the year 70. The Roman juggernaut all but leveled Jerusalem, demolishing the Temple and the Temple Mount sacred to both Jews and Jewish Christians. So there's an edge to it when Matthew has Jesus bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or bless those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Righteousness is one of Matthew's favorite words. Protestant Christians especially prone to interpret this righteousness in an individualistic way, where the thirst for righteousness amounts to a thirst for personal salvation, a hunger, to use the evangelical catchphrase, to get right with God.

But just think of the difference it would make if we translated the word Matthew uses not as righteousness but as justice: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice! Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice's sake, persecuted because they thirst for justice--thirst for a more just world for the poor in spirit, the weak, for those who mourn, for every victim of violence, neglect, oppression and avoidable pestilence. Matthew's call to righteousness is meant to call us up short, like a Dies Irae in the middle of a Libera me: it is a cry for justice as the means and sign of liberation from oppression.

What would it mean if we read Matthew's gospel this way and then responded accordingly, seeking not the delayed consolation of a future life but a just future for our neighbors in this one? Ours too, after all, is a time of pestilence and war. As the Ebola epidemic rages among the poorest of the poor, who will step forward as the merciful ones? And as violence and carnage once again threaten to consume the Temple Mount, who will risk support for the peacemakers? What would it take for us to be counted among the blessed, to be admitted to the company of those saints who have gone before us, to be faithful to those who will inherit the world we have created?

On this All Saints Day, on this feast of All Souls, we remember the dead, we pray for the dead, consoled by the beauty of this requiem. But in the spirit of this gospel, regard that consolation not as an end, but as a beginning. Seize the blessing. To paraphrase the advice of that great secular saint, Mother Jones: Pray for the dead, but then go out from this place, and fight like hell for the living.

--The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo
Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer
November 2, 2014

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo came to Bexley Seabury in 2012 from Virginia Theological Seminary where he was associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership and also served as professor of religion and culture. 

Earlier, Ferlo, spent 19 years in parish ministry, in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.