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The Ten Commandments and Moral Injury in a Society of Wounded Souls

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us the last few years of her life when I was in grade school. I have many fond memories of those years, including how grandma helped me memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third psalm (each one, of course, in the stately cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible).

That’s a classic collection of texts, which later in life I found perplexing and even abrasive. I mean, a set of commandments (carved into stone, according to the ancient story) on the one hand, and on the other, poetic verses about God as a gentle shepherd leading me through both verdant pastures and scary valleys alike and eventually bringing me safely to God’s own home.ten_commandments

As a young adult, that collection of memorized texts came to symbolize the dissonance I associated with the religion of my youth, constantly extolling the glories of divine grace while at the same time monitoring our adherence to rules and regulations.

That contrast is at least part of the reason why an increasing number of people today identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For some good reasons, many people today associate religion with institutional bureaucracy and rule-making. Or more pointedly, keeping institutional rules for the sake of the institution itself.

I sympathize with that critique of religion, which I myself have made many times. So I’ve surprised myself in more recent years by adopting a slightly different posture toward religion and its rules, or what I would prefer to call “disciplines and practices.”

That’s a linguistic difference worth making on this third Sunday in Lent when many Christians heard once again the recitation of the “Ten Commandments” and when most Episcopalians heard an intriguing prayer to begin their worship this morning, a prayer that reads in part like this:

Keep us, Almighty God, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…

Notice how the desire to be kept bodily and defended from adversities in that prayer is paired, nearly intertwined with the desire to be kept inwardly, in our souls. Whatever that vital, animating essence of human life is that we call “soul,” apparently it can be damaged, as that prayer notes, by “evil thoughts.”

Any rule worthy of being kept, in other words, ought to help protect our souls from becoming wounded.

That sounds terribly abstract and old fashioned; but it’s actually quite concrete and contemporary. Witness the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning from combat, most recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress may have nothing to do with being physically wounded; as some scholars and counselors are noting, these military personnel suffer from “moral injury,” or that which might assault and hurt the soul (see also the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University).

Or consider the psalm appointed for this Sunday in Lent, which begins by noting how the heavens declare the glory of God and how the skies show forth the Creator’s handiwork. In that very same psalm, the psalmist also glories in God’s law, which, declares the psalmist, revives the soul, just as God’s statutes rejoice the heart and should thus be more desired than even the finest gold!

I like to think this is why my grandmother helped me memorize the Ten Commandments—to treasure them more than material wealth and to protect my soul when it falls into danger.

I dare say, such danger lurks around nearly every corner these days, disguised as the ordinary routine of the modern world. Ana Levy-Lyons urges us to notice this with her recent book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments.  A society perpetually enamored with freedom and liberty, she writes, cannot begin to fathom why commitments, communal support, and shared rules are so crucial for resisting the temptations of modern life.

The “temptations” she has in mind infuse a corporate-driven consumer culture in ways we scarcely recognize, streaming toward us endlessly in advertising, entertainment, and the digital monitors populating nearly every public and private space. We’re fooling ourselves, she notes, if we suppose we’re smarter than that vast cultural machine, able simply to say No to what is actually slowly killing us.

To reach “escape velocity,” as she puts it, we need some serious counterforce—exactly what the Ten Commandments in particular, and religion more generally, provide.

I can’t help but wonder whether John had something like this in mind with the temple in Jerusalem, an obvious and potent symbol of religion, its institutions and rules, its disciplines and practices. The story from John’s gospel for this Sunday is sometimes described as Jesus “cleansing” that temple, healing it, as it were, of its moral injury. The “soul” of that sacred place had been damaged, its worship and piety reduced  to a mere mechanism of exchange, as if bartering and trading one item of value for another could ever reveal how deeply the Creator God delights in the Beloved Creation.

jesus_cleansing_temple_contemporaryNo, Jesus dramatically insists, the crude mechanisms of a marketplace do not revive the soul, do not rejoice the heart, do not come anywhere near the precious value of those religious disciplines that can clear the clutter and create space for the healing of our wounded souls.

Notice in this familiar story what is not so familiar about John’s version: how early it appears in his account of the gospel—the second chapter! Most Christians, I wager, usually think of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables as a story that comes rather late in the gospel narrative, something like a culmination of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But John puts this moment right up front, one of the very first stories he recounts in his account of the Gospel.

That is a prime story-telling location that every story-teller wants to leverage for the greatest narrative effect. So, why this story in this prime spot? Obviously, we can’t know with any certainty but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that John understood this story as one of the key components for framing the kind of account of the gospel he wanted to offer. This seems even more likely given what John has Jesus say about the Temple, or rather, how Jesus confused the religious leaders by talking about the temple of his body. This is, after all, the Gospel writer who declares in his opening verses that the Word of God became flesh.

This surely matters in a culture where far too many black and brown bodies are treated as disposable objects; in a culture flooded with #metoo hashtags, each one of them marking a moment of turning a woman’s body into a commodity to own and control; in a culture where a constitutional right to own guns takes precedence over the safety of our schools and the lives of our children.

If the language of “harming our souls” still seems just a bit too clunky, then let us speak instead of how many people today keep spiraling farther into alienation and loneliness (witness the British prime minister recently created a new governmental “minister of loneliness” to address this). Or we might pause to realize just how many turn to consumerist excess to medicate an epidemic of bodily shame, and when this fails, anti-depressants and opioids, or (which is often easier) purchasing and stockpiling assault weapons.

In such a world as this, religion and its disciplines have perhaps never been needed quite so desperately.

Or perhaps the world has never been quite so desperate to remember what it has mostly forgotten about religion: its purpose is the thriving and flourishing of life; and perhaps too many religious leaders themselves have forgotten this about religion.

Or as Jesus declares a bit later in John’s gospel, the point of all this is that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

That declaration from John’s Jesus can remind us how the ancient biblical writer introduced the Ten Commandments and the frame through which to read them and live them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(Exodus 20:1).

The rules worth keeping—the rules we simply must keep—are the ones that liberate and give life.

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Lent 1: Be Undone, Be Remade

The Spirit leads into a wilderness.pinecrest_lake_jan_2017

 

Surely goodness and mercy shall attend us at every step.steps_beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human One was in the wilderness with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

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God of the desert, may we recognize the tempter when he comes; let it be your bread we eat…you alone we worship.beach_wave_feb_2017_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***Images: Jay Emerson Johnson, 2016-17

***Text: the Gospel according to Matthew (4:1), according to Mark (11:13), the Psalmist (23:6), the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

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Beloved Dust, Take Heart

Almighty God, you created us out of the dust of the earth…

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you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent…

human_body_ludovic_florent_1

 

create and make in us new and contrite hearts…

human_body_olivier_valsecchi_3

 

…that we, too, may thoroughly love all that you have made.

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***Image 2 was created by Ludovic Florent for his 2014 exhibit, Pousièrres d’étoiles (“stardust“).

***Image 3 is part of Oliver Valsecchi‘s 2009 series “Dust,” that explores the figure of the phoenix rising from the ashes — and in this case, actual ashes from his fireplace.

***Image 4, Reiko Murakami, 2014.

Text taken from or inspired by the Book of Common Prayer, 1979

 

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Pay Attention: Everyday Mysticism in Lent

Resurrection in the throes of Lent? Many Christians had a big dose of exactly that this morning as we heard about the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel and the story in John’s gospel about Jesus raising Lazarus from death.lazarus_tomb

So, that’s a bit odd. Isn’t this season for journeying toward suffering, torture, pain, and death? What’s all this resurrection business doing lurking around in such a somber season?

My answer: the invitation to practice everyday mysticism.

Bible stories sometimes make this difficult to see. Those highly stylized stories can sound as if they were unfolding in a mythological space far removed from the gritty particulars of ordinary, daily life. Those stories actually happen in real places with real people, people with particular histories and sensibilities, people with particular races and cultures and politics, people with joys, sorrows, triumphs, tragedies, and families.

I’m struck by the way John frames the story about Lazarus with touching details drawn from ordinary, household life. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were apparently close friends of Jesus. He spent time with them, perhaps even quite a bit of time, in their Bethany household.

I imagine Jesus going to Bethany to get out of the spotlight, a place to relax and to take some time off from a hectic public life, put his feet up, and unwind – just as many of us do in intimate households of good friends.

This makes the illness and death of Lazarus all the more poignant. This wasn’t a stranger that Jesus just happened to encounter; it was Lazarus, a friend, a companion, a confidant, someone like family. Upon seeing Mary and Martha grieving near the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus himself weeps.

John’s gospel presents what many theologians refer to as a “high Christology.” The very Word of God, present with God from the beginning of all things, through whom all things were made, this Word, John declares, becomes human flesh (John 1:14).

My own thinking and study on that stunning declaration is often enhanced by engaging with the great work done at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. I’m thinking particularly of the recent public forum they hosted on “deep incarnation.”

Rather than seeing Jesus as only a significant historical figure of the past, on the one hand, or on the other as a unique and thus isolated moment of divine revelation, incarnation is instead the story of God’s reach into the very tissues of material and biological existence.

Ponder that for a moment: the infusion and penetration of the divine deep into matter itself, down to the very cellular even quantum level. Ponder if you can that uncanny, unfathomable, and mysterious bond between God and God’s creation.

John, I think, would heartily concur with that view, and then quickly remind us that this very Word of God made flesh actually wept over the death of a friend, a friend known in the ordinary, everyday intimacies of household life.

John charts what Bill Countryman (among others) has called a “mystical path” into God’s own life. I used to think that meant that I needed to find a different path. “Mysticism,” after all, is for spiritual Olympians – monks and nuns, desert hermits, anchorites, abbots, and abbesses – or at the very least, for those who are better than I am at the daily discipline of prayer and meditation.

dinner_partyBut no, John’s mystical path can also be traced by crashing at a friend’s house after a long day, or by trying to comfort dear friends in the midst of grief, or by tidying up a dirty kitchen after a household meal.

Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century monastic and mystic in Paris, spent most of his working hours in the monastery’s kitchen, cooking and cleaning. He once said, “I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as I ever did in the Blessed Sacrament.”

He could say that, it seems to me, because he paid attention.

There are many different ways to observe this Lenten season, whether getting away for a silent retreat, giving up chocolate, or volunteering at a food bank.  What we do matters far less than paying attention while we do it. I’ve come to appreciate Lent for precisely that, the simple but profound invitation to pay attention and to notice the deep incarnation of God in the most ordinary rhythms of daily life.

Whatever it is you need to do to pay attention and to notice, that is your Lenten discipline. And it’s never too late to start.

It’s never too late to pay attention and encounter the mystery of God in the embrace of a friend, in the convivial chatter over a shared meal, in the random exchange with a grocery clerk, in workplace politics, in the backyard bloom of a rose, in the wag of a happy dog’s tail, in a hike through the nearby regional park.

John insists on this: the mystic lives an ordinary life in ordinary rhythms every day. That’s where God is. And it’s never too late to notice.

It’s never too late to notice the mystery of divine love that draws people together in households of intimates, a love that sometimes, perhaps inevitably, breaks our hearts.

It’s never too late, as Martha and Mary discovered, to notice that mystery of divine love stirring deep within us, even in our grieving.

It stirs there with the promise of new life.

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Holy Solidarity: Lent & Liberation, Part 5

Trayvon Martin. Adrienne Rich. Shaima al Awadi.

I’m taking these names with me into the Christian Holy Week that begins this Sunday. I suspect that the first two names are far more familiar than the third. So here I offer some observations about all three and then why they help me to engage with Holy Week for the sake of profound social change.

Trayvon Martin

The blogosphere is bloated with important, scandalous, insightful, stirring, and stupid posts about this tragic event (and if you don’t what this about, read about it). I won’t try to add to the bloat here except to say this: I can’t remember the last time I was this disgusted by the so-called “criminal justice” system in this country. As many others have already noted, just imagine if Trayvon had been white and George Zimmerman black. In that scenario, and less than a century ago, Zimmerman would already be dead – lynched. (Just go back and watch the wonderful film Places in the Heart.)

White supremacy is a deep poison in U.S. history and culture. It won’t be extracted but by sustained force of will, honesty, and deep conversion.

Adrienne Rich

If I see one more obituary headline about this amazing woman describing her as a “feminist poet,” I’m going to run from my house screaming into the streets (much to the annoyance of my neighbors). So when’s the last time you saw a description of T. S. Eliot as that “white poet”? Ever see Ralph Waldo Emerson described as that “male writer”? I bet you’ve seen Langston Hughes described as an “African-American playwright.”

A standard-issue human being is white and male. Everyone else needs a label. Until that stops, justice will be elusive and human flourishing will languish.

Shaima al Awadi

Just last week an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five died from injuries inflected by a severe beating in her El Cajon home (in San Diego). At the scene there was a note warning the family to “go back to your own country.” El Cajon police said they are investigating the possibility of a hate crime. (The “possibility”? Really? Give me a break.)

So, you haven’t heard about this case? I hadn’t either until it leeched into my FaceBook feed nearly unnoticed (read some more here). Then I did some digging. Shaima al Awadi actually worked for the U.S. Army, translating, helping, consulting about Islamic culture. Where is the news media on this story? Where is our collective FaceBook outrage? Do we hear or see virtually nothing about this because she was a woman and also not an “American”? Probably. Sit at the intersection of white supremacy and male privilege and all this makes horribly twisted sense.

Shaima was beaten, apparently, with something like a tire iron. And she died from those injuries. How can any of us stand this? How can we go on living in such a xenophobic society, such a white supremacist, such a patriarchal society?

Of course, those are just three names, three human beings, among countless others few if any of us will ever know who endure the ravages of white male privilege every day. I can’t possibly try to “solve” all this. Who could? But here I’ll offer some brief reflections about why I find all of this important as I enter into Holy Week. I pray that this will inspire fresh ideas for action.

Christians will remember in this holiest of Christian weeks that Jesus faced a critical choice, quite literally a choice of life and death. He belonged to a rich and vibrant religious tradition that offered a number of options for his mission. He could have, for example, chosen the path of a Levitical warrior to liberate his people by force from Roman occupation. I say “Levitical” warrior because the culture of tribal warfare from which that biblical book arose was constructed on an economics of masculinity in which topping one’s enemies – with violence, if necessary – demonstrated covenantal faithfulness.

But Jesus chose instead to follow the path articulated by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. In that book, the Levitical warrior becomes the “suffering servant,” and rather than topping one’s enemies, that servant leads all the nations instead to God’s holy mountain where they learn war no more and beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

In the gospel according to John, that choice is described as nothing less than the glory of God. Resisting the violence of imperial (read “white”) male privilege and choosing instead a deep solidarity with all those who are oppressed by such violence is, for John, the quintessential revelation of divine splendor.

In the light of that glory, recommitting ourselves to ending white male privilege is a recommitment to saving this planet from the ravages of imperial patriarchy. How could that not mark a week that Christians insist is “holy”? I should surely hope that Christians the world over would find that kind of path as marking our way toward Easter.

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Life After Patriarchy: Lent & Liberation, Part 3

The promise of new life marks the Lenten journey toward the cross and the empty tomb. I believe that journey is incarnated right now in the struggle for life after patriarchy. That’s not how most Christians think about such things. So how might we recalibrate Lent toward liberation?

The struggle to liberate women and women’s bodies from the power of white male privilege will take as many resources and tools as we can collect and figure out how to use, all of them bathed in fervent prayer and compelling worship. The effects of white male privilege are complex and deeply entrenched in daily life and they won’t simply dissipate just because anyone says they should.

Lent is a great time to reflect on those complexities and consider them carefully as we journey toward the promise of Easter. (In addition to these blog posts during Lent, I also recently offered a version of this particular post at All Saints’ Church in Pasadena; you can watch a video clip of it here.) I have some ideas about how all of this relates to the traditional biblical passages we so often hear during Lent, but for now I want to offer a bit more framing for this struggle.

First, I think it’s important to reiterate that I engage in this struggle as a white gay man. I am, frankly, perplexed and dismayed by the near-deafening silence from so many of my white gay brothers about the twin poisons of sexism and racism that infect western society, both today and historically.

We must all note carefully that “homophobia” is not the cause but the result of an insidious confluence of white supremacy and male privilege. I hereby confess my failures in recognizing that confluence in the past and call on all my white gay male comrades to do the same. I urge this not to wallow in white male guilt (which is totally wasted energy) but instead to re-energize our commitment to building a different world.

By committing myself to this struggle, I need not (and actually must not) denigrate being white, gay, or male. We’ve witnessed far too much of that “zero-sum-game” rhetoric of late, to wit: if someone else has rights, I’ll lose some of mine; if “those” people get married, my marriage is weakened; my success depends on your failure. None of that is actually true.

Moreover, I actually enjoy being gay, male, and white. That’s not the issue. The issue, rather, is this: My status as a beloved and cherished creation of God isn’t diminished in the least by insisting that others are, too.

I also believe we must keep the historical trajectory of this struggle over women’s bodies in view. There are so many milestones in that history, but here I offer just five to keep us grounded in the broader struggle.

Greco-Roman Culture. Christianity emerged in the crucible of empire, traces of which have lingered in our churches ever since. Not least among them is the tight bond that emerged among household arrangements, religious institutions, and the political ideologies of empire. This was especially true after the Emperor Constantine wedded Christianity to imperial sensibilities in the fourth century. Note this well: the State will never consider household arrangements a purely private matter; how households function, especially with respect to women and male privilege, is part and parcel of imperial ideology. That was true in the fourth century; it’s true today.

Basic Biology. Let us not forget that the 18th century witnessed the discovery of the vagina and the uterus. Yes, that would be the eighteenth century after Christ. We can, of course, be thankful that those vital organs finally had a name of their own, but this served to provide a supposedly empirical basis for women’s “natural” domesticity. Thomas Laqueur wrote a truly eye-opening book on the history of gender and sex in western culture, which I highly recommend: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. This is, among other things, an important cautionary tale for anyone who thinks “science” alone will save us.

Anti-miscegenation Statutes. White people mostly prefer to forget those laws in the 19th century forbidding mixed-race marriages, which suddenly necessitated the need to refine what in the world race is. Moreover, those statutes were often applied unevenly depending on the gender of the parties. It was, for example, far more egregious for a black man to try to marry a white woman that it was for a white man to try to marry a black woman. Why? The reason in part, both then and today, is the need to emasculate black men for the purpose of propping up white supremacy. Notice the logic: a black man would become the white woman’s superior by virtue of being her husband; this is repugnant from both a racial perspective and a racially gendered perspective (the black man would then be considered an actual man). I recommend Peggy Pascoe’s recent book on this, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America.

U.S. Jurisprudence. It was only in 1979 the last state in the U.S. finally repealed its “Head and Master” statutes, which gave husbands ultimate control over all household decisions. Can you imagine something worse? How about this: it wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape became a crime in every state of this country – 1993! Prior to that time, it was simply the wife’s legal obligation to have sex with her husband whenever he demanded it.

Gendered Bullying. Increased media attention to bullying in our schools is a good thing, but I have yet to read any incisive analysis of its cause. The bullying of “effeminate” gay men and “masculine” lesbian women and increasingly transgender people has nothing to do with whom these people love; it has everything to do with violating the gendered order of things in which men are dominate and women are submissive. The war on women is a war on everyone.

Those and many other historical markers should, and I believe must, inform how any Christian preacher preaches during Lent. I have some ideas about that for Lenten themes, which I’ll offer in future posts. For now, I would urge all Christian faith communities to embrace the struggle for women’s liberation as a fundamental Lenten discipline. After all, what kind of resurrection life do any of us really imagine? If it isn’t marked by the full thriving and flourishing of women, then it’s not really Easter.

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Ending the War on Women: Lent and Liberation

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

We are currently in the midst of a cultural and political war on women and women’s bodies. Perhaps you’ve noticed. If you had any doubts, the recent and truly creepy image of an all-male panel testifying before Congress about contraceptives should convince you. (Just imagine an all-female panel testifying about the virtues of vasectomies.)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. If Lent can be retrieved as a practice for liberating humanity from the chains of oppression, then ending this war on women must take priority. This will involve attending carefully to the propaganda machine (both secular and religious), mobilizing people to vote when appropriate, repenting where necessary, and recommitting ourselves to the hard work of creating a different world, a world where all can thrive and flourish (if that’s not a suitable goal for a Lenten discipline, I don’t know what is).

I’ll begin with three observations:

First, the current war on women is not new; it is of course many, many centuries old. (I was reminded of this recently by reading a great analysis of the ancient Greek three-cycle play, The Oresteia, and it’s recurrent theme of the fear of powerful women.)

While none of this stuff is new, the current iteration of this power struggle is particularly virulent and insidious in the United States. By “current,” I mean the cultural trajectory that began taking shape more explicitly in the 1970s after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision – a decision that acknowledged what should have been the case long ago, that women have rights over their own bodies. (Yes, abortion is complicated, but my friend and colleague, Susan Russell, recently wrote eloquently on this very topic.)

Second, I believe the current virulence in the war on women is fueled by having an African-American man in the White House. African-American men in American history have quite frequently been the subject of emasculating rhetoric if not also castrating violence; they still are today. Make no mistake about this: white men in power keep their power by subjugating women and treating non-white men like women. If we fail to link sexism and racism we do so at our own, very grave peril.

And third, I am a white man. That means a lot of different things, not least that I enjoy a remarkable amount of privilege in western society. That doesn’t make me bad or evil. It does make me accountable and it should make me responsible. I have, alas, too frequently failed to live up to the responsibility of that privilege for the sake of women’s thriving.

In a recent professional gathering, I was witness to a blatant form of sexism – in both rhetoric and posture – yet I said and did nothing. I hereby repent, and I resolve to do better. As just part of that commitment and for my Lenten discipline this year, I’ll devote regular blog posts to analyzing theologically and culturally the pernicious peril our world faces from the twin threats of sexism and racism.

Notice that I didn’t mention homophobia. I believe the disdain and opposition toward LGBT people is but a symptom of a much deeper and more intractable poison in western culture: the confluence of misogyny and white supremacy. Upon that “wedding” rests most if not all of the truly hideous moments in western society. (Pictured here is Sojourner Truth, from the 19th century. A perfect icon for the incarnation of race and gender.)

One further observation needs to be made here: Religion (including Christianity) has contributed significantly to the subjugation of women and women’s bodies, both historically and today. In that regard, my obligation and responsibility deepen as I am not only a white man, but also a Christian and a priest in the Episcopal Church.

I believe the peculiar character of Christianity, for all its severe faults and foibles, can still help us achieve a better world where all can thrive and flourish. I have some ideas about how to do that but I need help. As I post my own suggestions this Lent, I hope you will add your own. Let’s create a great toolbox for planetary thriving!

At the very least, let us commit ourselves to ensuring that no one ever again has to see a panel of all men making decisions about women’s bodies. That would be a small but nonetheless significant step on the Lenten road toward new life.