In Memory of Lisa Kennedy

On Thursday the 26th of April, my youngest sister Lisa passed from this physical life into the embrace of the love of God. This is my language and what Lisa would have understood a phrase like the love of God to mean is something that I don’t think I know. Always practical, my memories of Lisa are that she didn’t have a lot of use for conventional religious notions of an afterlife. Her energies were firmly focused on the life lived here and now, her children, her family, her job, and her beloved women’s hockey. I remember on a visit home some years ago Lisa turning to me and asking in all seriousness how many sports channels did I watch in England. The fact that I watched none spoke volumes about the difference between us.

Lisa was diagnosed at a relatively young age with breast cancer. The age of first onset seems to be a prime indicator of the likely reoccurrence of the disease. People marvel when I tell them that all three of my sisters have been diagnosed with breast cancer and that there seems not to be a family genetic explanation for this. I have reflected many times on how each of them, Lynette, Lisa, and finally Ali, came to terms with their cancer. Each did so in their own remarkably individual way. The way each has responded speaks to the depth of their character and dare I say the qualities of  their soul.

When we human beings are thrown into a life crisis, the walls which we build to protect ourselves from the storms of life begin to crack. It is only then that the quality of soul emerges. Through the cracks in the walls we are invited to change, to grow and to renew ourselves. In my experience it is soul-quality that connects me to the reality of life being lived-out against a backdrop of something bigger than what I can immediately touch, see, or know. The quality of Lisa’s soul revealed in her a deep commitment to life sustained by her enormous reserves of courage and love.

Stubborn, willful, bloody-minded are terms that come readily to my mind when thinking of Lisa. Yet, these are simply the qualities of her determined life-force that would brook no thought of easy defeat.  Over these last months as Lisa fought to delay the approach of her inevitable death, my mind has turned again and again to the Dylan Thomas poem that opens with:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Lisa bargained hard and won a space in which to prepare those she loved most for the time of her dying. For her, relationships were what mattered most. For me, the embrace of the love of God is simply a way of saying that in death the truth about what is most important in this life deepens. What is universally true is that relationships, be they good relationships or difficult relationships, are what most matter.  For me, God is not a solitary being. God is a community within which the interplay of relationships bring joy and delight. God is a Trinity – a Divine Community defined by relationships that share themselves with the life of the Creation and become the model for the way we are invited to live our own lives.

I am not sure what it is I should, or even am, feeling at the passing of my little sister. The distances of time, she was only 12 when I left home, and of location, my thirty years living in the UK, in many ways separated us from each other. At the end of her life in this world I remain separated, this time by immigration processes which currently restrict my ability to travel outside of my current home in the US.

Yet, these limitations of time and space cannot seriously inhibit the exercise of love. For the distances of time and the separations of location no longer inhibit Lisa and I. Lisa’s death acts only to strengthen and deepen my sense of  being in relationship with her. Despite my separation from others who mourn Lisa, I nevertheless rededicate myself to life lived motivated by the primacy of relationship. In this way I incorporate into my own life the priorities that Lisa expressed through her own living, loving, and gifting of love and friendship.

The Anglican Way. James C. Fenhagen

Contemporary culture always provides context, usually of the combative kind, to religious faith. Yet it provides opportunities as well. I have been struck by an observation of Walker Percy’s in his 1980 novel The Second Coming. One of the novel’s characters, Will Barrett, reflects on the religious dimension of contemporary culture:

Marion had been a conservative Episcopalian and had no use for changes in the Church. Leslie and Jason were born-again Christians and had no use for anything liturgy or sacrament, which got in the way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Ed and Marge Capp were Californians….Jack Kurl, the minister had no strong feelings about women priests or the interim prayer book…He attended ecumenical councils in the Middle East and Latin America …He wore jump suits. Kitty believed in astrology. Yamaluchi was a Jehovah’s Witness. He believed he was one of the 144,000 who would survive Armageddon and reign. Yamaluchi’s wife, the cook, was a theosophist who believed in reincarnation….Is this an age of belief, he reflected, a great renaissance of faith after a period of mass materialism, atheism, agnosticism, liberalism, scientism? Or is it an age of madness in which everyone believes everything? Which?

Percy’s biting commentary on the confusion which exists in religious America, as significant today as it was then, reinforces in me a conviction that is at the heart of the Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Christian faith. It does indeed make a difference how you understand the Christian faith, and it makes a difference what tradition enshrines it.

In our pluralistic world, we tend to blur denominational differences because of our understandable desire to be both charitable to our neighbors and open to expressions different from our own. I share this spirit. But I am concerned when our desire to be open to others cuts us off from what our own tradition holds to be true. I am committed to an ecumenical view of the Christian church, but not at the expense of denying aspects of my own tradition that I believe must be part of any ongoing dialogue. I believe there is an “Anglican Way” that has much to contribute to the whole church and to which we can witness with conviction. There are three elements of this tradition that I would like to affirm. I do so realizing that we share some of these elements with other churches, but that in our own tradition they take a particular shape.


From the time of the reformation in the sixteenth century, the Anglican Communion has been committed to doctrinal comprehensiveness rather than uniformity. Comprehensiveness involves being able to hold together a number of seeming opposites within a unified whole. It allows for consistent theological debate and inquiry, but others find it hard to understand. A Roman Catholic priest once asked me, “Where can I find clearly stated what Anglicans believe?” My response was, “In the Bible, in the creeds, and in the way we worship. It is all there, but it can only be spelled out in the living of it,” and I believe that to this day.

William J. Wolf, late professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the Anglican tradition as a “pastorally and liturgically oriented dialogue between four partners: Catholics, evangelicals, and advocates of reason and


experience.” And the word “partners,” he notes is deliberately chosen to emphasize the need for each aspect of our tradition always to cooperate with others.

This comprehensiveness produces a certain way of understanding Christian faith. It means that we take seriously the need for intellectual integrity that is often obscured by religious fervor. There is a difference between conviction and dogmatism. The difference is faith. Jesus does not offer us absolute certainty. He offers us a relationship of incredible intimacy and power. The church offers tradition and the world offers change. Faith involves living in the tension between these three realities – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the tradition of the church, and the change that reflects the ongoingness of the world. We remain open to the wonder and mystery of what we do not know and alert to the movement of God in what is new. If our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is serious, we need not fear the hard questions which the world presents to us. We need not fear uncertainty or new ideas or even doubt, for Jesus Christ is our hope and our promise, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our church has struggled to maintain this comprehensiveness down through the centuries. It is not always easy or without pain, but I think God for what he has allowed us to be.

Personal Spirituality

Secondly, as Anglicans we see personal spirituality emerging from the inter-relationship between liturgical participation, solitude and compassion. All three are necessary and interdependent. Our tradition weaves together a concern for personal freedom with an emphasis on beauty and joyfulness and awe – a tradition made rich by such notables as Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Evelyn Underhill.

Our greatest spiritual treasure is The Book Of Common Prayer – revised many times since its creation in 1549, and today enshrining many strands, shaped by the experience of countless millions. To be a liturgical church, however, involves more than having a book. It is a view of worship that is dialogical, where each person has a place and a part. We gather to pray not only for our own nurture, but on behalf of those who never pray or never darken the church’s door. This being an intercessory community on behalf of others is epitomized in our understanding of the eucharist where we share in Christ’s self-offering on behalf of the world. This understanding of worship does not depend on celebrities or charismatic preachers, but on the work of the people where clergy and laity each take their part and claim their ministry.

One of the phenomena of our time has been the surge of interest in Eastern religions, Christian fundamentalism, mega-churches, and the place of solitude in human life. Young people have left our churches because they did not see what they felt they badly needed. For Anglicans, the recovery of our spiritual roots – roots nourished in a liturgy but deepened and expanded in solitude. It is only in this way that we will become more compassionate and more centered people.

Thomas Merton once observed that the most pervasive form of contemporary violence is activism and overwork.

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the rot of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

These words, written by a Trappist monk (who himself was quoting a Quaker), reflect a strain that is deep in our tradition as well. It is a tradition of liturgy, solitude, and compassion that speaks to a profound hunger in our world – a hunger we see also in ourselves.

Holy Worldliness

Finally, I want to hold up that aspect of the Anglican tradition which might be called a holy worldliness. It is life affirming rather than pleasure denying. It calls people to faith not out of guilt or fear, but out of a vision of God that invokes response rather than commands it. It is a way of living shaped by words in the first book of the Bible, “And God created the world and it was good.” This is not to say that we are not serious about human sin, but rather that we emphasize what our redemption in Christ makes possible. We are a sacramental church that sees the presence of God’s love in the most mundane of things. We affirm wholeness, sexuality, and human pleasure, not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the love of God. This is why, when we distort or misuse these things God has given to us, the consequences are so serious.

We are surrounded by forces that play on our guilt and our fears, our understandable frustration and concern over much that goes on around us. There are days when, in the words of the song, we want to cry out, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” There are days when it seems that only simple answers and clearly defined enemies will satisfy the uneasiness we feel. But to give in to these feelings is to deny something fundamental in our baptism. We are people of promise who even in the midst of death can proclaim hope. We are part of a tradition that affirms that life is richest when it is given away on behalf of others. It is a tradition that refuses to live by fear or by coercion – regardless of how noble the aim – and lives instead in freedom and in loving response to what God has given us. This is holy worldliness.

Henri Nouwen tells a story that illustrates what such a view of the world might mean: There was once an old man who used to meditate early every morning under a large tree on the bank of the Ganges River in India. One morning he saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current of the river. As the scorpion was pulled closer to the tree, it got caught in the long roots that branched far into the river. It struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. When the old man saw this, he stretched himself onto the extended roots and reached out to rescue the drowning scorpion. The animal jerked and stung him wildly. Instinctively, the man withdrew his hand, but then, after having regained his balance, he once again stretched out to save the agonized scorpion. Every time the old man came within reach, the scorpion stung him, so badly that his hands became swollen and bloody and his face distorted by pain. A passerby saw the old man stretched on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool risks his life for the sake of an ugly, useless creature. Don’t you know that you may kill yourself to save that ungrateful animal?” Slowly the old man turned his head and looking into the stranger’s eyes, he said “Friend, because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

Well, that’s the question: Why should we give up our nature to be compassionate, life- affirming people, even when we get stung in a stinging world? Should we give in to biblical fundamentalism and moralism because we are told this is what makes the church grow? Why should we cease to give of ourselves on behalf of others simply because the world says to protect yourself and draw back lest you be hurt?

As members of the Episcopal Church we belong to a worldwide family that shares a common heritage. In our commitment to Jesus Christ we are at one with all Christians, but in our expression of the commitment we have something unique to give: a tradition of comprehensiveness, personal holiness shaped by a common liturgy, and a life-affirming spirit. Episcopalians treasure other things as well, but these speak with grace and power to a world divided and afraid.

Story, The More Than Truth.

The transition from Good Friday to Easter necessitates a dramatic change of gear. I am particularly thinking about my own experience at the moment. The great cycle of our Christian faith, which for liturgical Christians unfolds through the vehicle of the Calendar is unvarying. Yet, my experience of moving through the cycle, year by year, brings out different responses depending on what is coming-up in my own internal spiritual and emotional process.

With all the hoopla stirred up by the Republican Party’s presidential nomination process these past months, this Holy Week I became particularly sensitive to the political nature of Jesus’ challenge to the political and religious status quo of 1st Century Palestine (note my last posting).

The arrival of Easter Day bursts open the tomb of my existentially-rooted spiritual reflections and my sights are raised to the Divine Action in the drama. This experience is like the sensation I have every time I travel north from Phoenix on Highway 17. Being still relatively new to Arizona I am not sure exactly where it is but there is a point where after climbing up through a rugged and hilly terrain one arrives at a point where suddenly a huge plateau expanse opens-up to view. What strikes me each time is that this expansiveness is both a horizontal and vertical expansiveness. It’s not just a sudden widening of the horizon. It’s also at the same time an opening up of the depth of sky.

I am reminded that at the human level of Jesus’ road to the Cross what has been taking place is the necessary element of human willing co-operation that brings events to the point where God is able to act. God’s expression of deep love for the world is contingent upon a human participation in the sacrifice of love. Suddenly the horizon and the sky opens in breadth and depth leading to something that is truly unimagined by us.

We human beings are story-telling creatures. In an age when a narrow scientific paradigm has substituted explanation for narrative, Faith reminds us that the need to tell stories is deeply engrained in our human DNA. The right hemisphere of the human brain is the gateway for sensory experience. The left hemisphere of our brain continually performs an editing and cataloguing function that creates narratives to articulate the multilayered depth of our experience.

Easter involves recalling the stories beginning with the Creation in the first chapter of Genesis and moving inexorably through the stories of the Exodus, the Prophets, arriving at Jesus and the Cross and Resurrection. These are the fundamental themes of the shared Divine-Human story unfolding through a repeated pattern of divine invitation and halting human response.  On the whole the story shows that human beings prefer to hide in the safety of the familiar. Yet, every-so-often we become overwhelmed by the constriction of our timidity. At these points, often points of crisis in our lives, we find that we can ill afford not to open to God’s invitation to the new.

Easter burst open the tomb of my human-centered perspectives. The experience of the Cross and Resurrection confronts we with my love of the familiar. A familiar that deadens my awarenesses. I am afraid I have to be confronted by new life. It’s a surprise, because my tendency is to forget and return to making the same old choices always expecting different results.  So each time the promise of new life breaks open my self-centered-ness, I am truly surprised by joy.

The Scarier Road

Extrapolating from my experience to a generalization about human beings it seems to be that we leap-frog from the remembrances of things past to intimations of things yet to come. What matters about this is that an engagement with the demands of the present moment is neatly sidestepped.

For those unaware of the Church Calendar its Holy Week. For liturgical Christians this is a big deal with liturgies galore culminating in the solemn Triduum cycle. Triduum refers to the Great Three Days of Easter and their marking through a dramatic liturgical enactment of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

Many of us were brought-up in traditions that emphasized a kind of sentimental identification with Jesus as he journeyed on the road to the Cross. Again, risking another pesky generalization – we humans find it easy to identify with the drama of Christ’s physical pain, emotional suffering, and spiritual angst. For in our own lives we know well the echo of these states.

All this encourages us towards an interior or psychologically internal identification with Jesus in the events of Holy Week and Easter. In this way we revel in the remembrance of things past, i.e. our identification with the personal suffering of the historic human Jesus. Yet, at the same time we are engrossed in the intimation of things yet to come. For are we not hoping that our emotional and spiritual fidelity with Jesus will fruit into the promise of the future, i.e. eternal life?

The journey from Galilee to Jerusalem as reported in Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus inviting the disciples on a kind of study tour. His focus time and again is on inviting them to understand the nature of the journey they have started. It is a journey through confrontation and death that ushers-in the promise of a new life. This new life is something beyond their imagining. So they fill in the gaps with fantasies of sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory. They are caught-up in intimations of things yet to come. Because this is presently unimaginable to them they imagine only what they already know.

Jesus, meanwhile is firmly focused in the present moment as moment by moment the tension between him and the Temple Authorities grows. What is going-on in the present moment is much to frightening for the disciples to really contemplate hence their flight into intimations of things yet to come. When this psychological flight fails, they are forced to physically flee, abandoning Jesus to a solitary path.

I have spent much of my life being tempted into wanting my religion to be vacuum-packed against becoming contaminated by the mess of the world. This approach makes things much less scary. A vacuum-packed approach to religion offers an interpretation of the events of Holy Week and Easter in which Jesus is seen as challenging the flawed theology of Temple Judaism. As I take a closer look it seems to me that Jesus’ tension with the Temple Authorities has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with politics. Jesus is not a theological threat. It’s the politics of his message (the in breaking of the Kingdom) that terrifies the religious authorities. It seems that religion can’t be kept separate from politics defined as the way the world works.

As I look around my world of the early 21st century I note a lot of scary things going on. Chief among these many things that scare me is the way a strident, fear-driven Christian voice is increasingly raised in defense of a vacuum-packed religious world view. This is a world view that insulates itself from the societal processes that perpetuate violence and injustice. This fear driven voice echoes the concerns of the Temple Authorities and not the message of the Prophets which culminates in the ministry of Jesus. Confronting and challenging the way power operates in society to the benefit of the few and to the disadvantage of the many is what accompanying Jesus to the foot of the Cross means.

For me, this is all very personal. Identity and identification is all very complex. I am part of systems that oppresses others by virtue of my privilege – a privilege that in my case is rooted in gender, race, and education. Yet, I am also one of those who knows the fear of the violence that can be unleashed when Christians refuse to interrogate their theologically based protection of homophobia.

I catch myself. What I catch myself doing is appearing to promote and image of Jesus as social activist along with an image of myself as potential victim. So as I catch myself I am reminded that the way of confrontation and challenge is none other than the way of love.

Macrina Wiederkehr OSB in her re-imagining of the Divine Office in sevensacredpauses 2008 Sorin Books, quotes a Sufi saying: when the power of love overcomes the love of power then there will be peace on the earth. Following in the Way of the Cross through which God confronts human politics defined as the defense of the world as it is, requires the action of love.

Love in this instance always holds within itself the potential of leading us to becoming an uncomfortable and maybe dangerous challenge to the status quo. The religion Jesus reveals to us offers us no protection from such love.

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