Am I My Brother/Sister’s Keeper?

In the Episcopal Church has anyone ever questioned, or, even enquired after what you believe? Maybe they have, or even if no one has you may have had an occasion to volunteer the contents of your beliefs. If that is the case can you ever remember a member of the clergy or anyone else for that matter contradicting you? Maybe someone has said, Oh, I have a different take on that!

In the Episcopal Church has anyone ever told you that you believe the wrong things. It’s possible I imagine that someone may have questioned the veracity of your beliefs. Yet, I seriously doubt if anyone, especially among the clergy, has ever said to you ‘don’t believe that’ or, ‘you shouldn’t believe’, or, ‘that’s just plain wrong’ or, what you believe is not the truth, or, unless you correct your views and accept the truth then there’s no place for someone with your beliefs here!’

I don’t imagine any of these scenarios have ever befallen you in the Episcopal Church. Haven’t you ever wondered why no one, even among the clergy seems concerned about whether you believe the truth or not? This could be an indication that the Episcopal Church doesn’t care what its members believe. Maybe this is a further indication of what other Christians often say about us – that we don’t believe anything, much.

After all we don’t seem very worried about the issues of sexual morality or even issues concerning the right to life that seem to drive many Roman Catholics and especially their clergy to distraction. We don’t seem to be much concerned about how many times you have been remarried. We certainly seem rather lax on letting women do things that in other churches only men can do. I don’t just mean the obvious – like becoming ordained and celebrating the Eucharist, but other things that the Bible clearly says are wrong – such as women exercising authority, speaking- out in church of all places while not even wearing a hat when they do so.

To cap things off, we now seem to be prepared to risk God’s wrath by letting Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered people be themselves and extend to them the same level of rights and privileges the heterosexual community takes for granted as their birthright. We seem to have departed from the age-old tradition just reaffirmed by the Mormon hierarchy in their recent call for tolerance towards the GLBT community of: love the sinner but hate the sinwhich is nothing more that old smoke screen for the maintenance of systemic discrimination.

Maybe this is because it’s true what many Evangelicals say. Many say that the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in the Bible anymore, and maybe never did. Two popular descriptions of the Episcopal Church as catholic-lite, and all of the pageantry with none of the guilt are stereotypes assailing the Episcopal Church from conservative expressions of Christianity.

Stereotypes are easy to draw. Stereotypes function as caricatures because they have enough accuracy to be believable. The Anglican Tradition doesn’t seem to mind being sent up. We even send ourselves up- as in the joke about the Episcopal priest on discovering his salad fork still in his hand as he started on his main course was horrified at the realization he had committed a mortal sin. The irony here, as Cousin Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham would be quick to point out, is that Anglicans don’t catalogue sins into those that are venial -forgivable sin, and mortal – death-dealing to salvation sin.

Maybe it’s that Anglican DNA thing again. Aren’t we such awful Anglophiles panting over Downton Abbey. Sunday PBS viewing has become a feast of double chocolate as Downton is now followed by The Grantchester Mysteries, another romantic parody of English life with ever such a nice-looking young vicar, to boot.

There is that Episcopalian sense that it’s rather bad form and just the tiniest bit embarrassing to take one’s religion too seriously. Yet, history shows, there is good reason not to take one’s religion too seriously.

The easy parodies of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church point-up the fact that the origins of the present form of Anglican Tradition lie in a 16th-Century solution to religious tensions – the National Church.

The National Church of England brought together the post-Reformation religious divisions in England that elsewhere in Europe led to a hundred years of inter-communal strife, every bit reminiscent of the violence raging across the Islamic World in our own day. In England, conservative adherents of the old religion of pre-Reformation Catholicism met the radical proponents of Lutheran and Calvinist reform at the Church door. Compelled by the law of the land, representatives of opposing factions were forced to sit alongside one another in the same pew where in the course of several generations their spiritual imaginations were shaped by the soaring poetry of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

This produced a context in which Truth, characterized as right belief had of necessity to give way to Love, characterized not so much as warm feelings but as right relationship. Shared doctrine was replaced by common worship as the means of defining community. The differences, both theological and political remained under the surface, erupting into violence finally in the English Civil War a century later. Yet, the Civil War only underscored the importance of a Church structured, not around right belief, i.e. truth, but around common worship, i.e. right relationship. Over a period of some three hundred years the Book of Common Prayer incubated an Anglican religious identity rooted in worship. It is this rich legacy that we in the Episcopal Church, are the present-day heirs.

Human experience shows us that there is never a single truth, only multiple truths. Attempts to enforce a single truth lead only to intractable and insoluble conflict. This is a lesson the occupants of Capitol Hill seem in need of learning all over again. For contemporary America is a society where a sense of the common good is continually fractured by the seeming unfettered exercise of individual rights and competing experiences of truth. There are always contesting truths and this is part of what energizes a society – the vibrancy of its public debate. Yet, public debate results from a holding together of tensions around some sense of the common, the shared.

The Episcopal Church is living proof of how this works. It’s not that we don’t have a body of doctrine. We do and it’s very clear! The interesting thing is that the place where you can find this doctrine is in the same place as you find our patterns of worship – in The Book of Common Prayer. Go to the Historical Documents and the Outline of Faith sections of the BCP and you will find clear statements of what the Episcopal Church believes.

Our beliefs are rooted in the ancient Catholic Christianity of the first five hundred years of the Church. The way we believe this ancient Catholic faith has been strongly influenced by Reformation theology. More distinctively, our spirituality molded by a thousand years of Benedictine Spirituality seeps into us through the practice of worship. We say to others, as we worship so we believe i.e. if you want to know what we believe come and worship with us. For us, worship is the centrally defining element of what it means to be God’s people. Our individual identities, with our own experiences of truth give way to a common identity shaped by the experience of God addressing us as a community, in worship. When you jettison an addiction to truth, then multiple truths can be contained only within the practice of worship.

In the Epistle for Epiphany IV from 1 Corinthians, we listen to Paul’s development of his argument with the rich and proud Corinthian Church. This is a Church that would fit well into contemporary American life, where the rights of the rich and the powerful are exercised with a careless disregard if not disdain for the poorer and less powerful members of the community. The behavior of the Corinthians forces Paul to assert that as a follower of the truth he is entitled to exercise in full, the rights that his conscience as a follower of Christ allows. In this

The behavior of the Corinthians forces Paul to assert that as a follower of the truth he is entitled to exercise in full, the rights that his conscience as a follower of Christ allows. In this case, he has the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols since because idols don’t exist eating such meat can have no spiritually injurious effect upon him. This is the truth; in this Paul is exhibiting right belief. Yet, he gives up such rights in the interests of affirming his right relationship with other members of the community.

Being theologically correct, a disciple of truth is not enough. Giving-up one’s right in order to foster right relationship with others in the community who may not yet be ready to exercise the full entitlement of liberty of conscience is more important, says Paul.

In the Episcopal Church we don’t enquire after whether our members hold the correct belief because we understand that we are individually, members of a community of right belief. As I like to say, the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt. Some days I hold impeccably to orthodox truth. Other days I feel adrift in a see of doubt and uncertainty. None of this matters, because every day, my participation in the worship life of the Christian Community of the Episcopal Church places me in right relationship to others on the same spiritual journey.

I would go so far as to say that none of us individually are saved. What I mean is that because all knowledge is as Paul asserts only ever partial, our grasp of so-called truth is always incomplete. Individually we are saved not by our right belief but by our participation in the life of the community that is saved. The richest form that such participation takes, is found in the worship life of the community of faith.

Participation in that rich communal life owes less to holding a rightimagesbelief than it does to our life-long pursuit of right relationship! Or maybe put another way, am I my brother/sister’s keeper on the road to salvation? 

State of Parish Address

I arrived at St Martin’s on the Feast of the Most Glorious and Most Holy Trinity -in secular time the 15th June 2014. At the outset, I felt it was important to set a few immediate priorities, ones that would enable me to begin to structure my relationship with the parish. I wanted to respond with confidence to the very strong signal given me in my interview process – that the parish was ready for change. The experience of change is always ambivalent. Change is yearned for while simultaneously resisted. That which we most long for is also the thing we often most fear.

The quandary for any incoming rector is how quickly to make changes. One argument suggests making change quickly so as to make good use of the honeymoon period when the community is at its most generous, excited about new possibilities, and open to change. The counter argument counsels that important change needs buy-in from the community experiencing the change. The level of buy-in needed to tackle difficult issues comes only with time and the discovery that the new rector is someone who can be trusted.

My initial assessment was that I was coming into a parish experiencing the ebb dynamic in its growth cycle. Like the tide, organizations flow towards fullness only to find after a period of time their energy begins to ebb. I felt I had arrived in a parish, which despite being a community of undreamed-of strength in terms of its human potential was experiencing life at low tide. In the State of Rhode Island, it’s low tide time more generally. There seems to be a fearfulness among many who wonder how much further the tide might continue to ebb before needed change can be embraced.

St Martin’s is a church that for many years has hovered around the transition point that marks the movement from the pastoral, to what I will call, the participative rather than the usual term program culture of parish organization. The pastoral church is focused on the priest at its center. The Rector is looked to for not only strategic leadership but is expected to have a hand in nearly everything that happens. The Vestry tends in this culture to micromanage community life. The problem is that at the upper end of the pastoral organization’s size, and this is where St Martin’s is, being priest centered and Vestry managed, inhibits growth. The expectation of priestly involvement in everything means that the parish cannot move beyond the limitations of one person’s capacity. The preoccupation of the Vestry with day-to-day management prevents it developing a higher level strategic vision.

In the participative parish leadership and initiative are more shared between Rector, Vestry, and membership. This is a community that possesses a higher and more dynamic level of spiritual capacity. The Rector does not have a hand in everything; he or she supported by assistant clergy is thus freed to attend to the strategic direction. Lay-led ministry teams are more active and autonomous. The Vestry relinquishes the day-to-day running of the parish to the paid Staff and is thereby freed to assist the Rector in mapping strategic direction of travel.

St Martin’s has been hovering at this transition point for a good many years. Recent history shows how difficult it is to secure this transition from pastoral to participative organizational culture. In some years, the parish has crossed the line. This has been marked by confidence and growth usually reflected in the appointment of assistant clergy, the strengthening of the paid staff, and by a surge in the vibrancy of lay ministries. Yet the experience of increased flow has repeatedly been followed by ebb. Energy ebbs back from participative to pastoral cultural modes, as confidence and resources to continue forward, falter.

What is it that flows only to then ebb? At one level, it can be tracked in terms of the crude measurements of money and bums on seats. More significantly, it is the flowing and ebbing of what truly makes a Christian community viable – its spiritual capacity.

In response to my assessment, over the last six months I have been signaling and where possible, implementing changes designed to stimulate the parish’s spiritual capacity. Where have these changes been?

Where have these changes been?

  1. The empowerment of the paid Staff through signaling my confidence in them. I have invited them as a team as well as individually, into my confidence. I believe members of Staff understand that I have confidence in them as a team, as well as in them individually. I have seen my task as one of empowering them to function at their optimal levels of skill, enthusiasm, and creativity. I have invited them into my thinking with the aim of engendering a style of a collaborative culture signaled by my valuing of their advice, wisdom, and support. An empowered, highly functional paid Staff, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization is a hallmark of the participative parish culture.

There are budgetary implications to this empowerment. We will communicate about these in the presentation of the budget at the Annual Meeting. However, I want to emphasize that an increase in paid Staff capacity is the most effective way to lay the foundations for securing and sustaining our transition back t0 being a participative parish. By comparison the appointment of assistant clergy, while being infinitely more expensive, bears more limited fruit in supporting this transition, as this parish’s experience bears out.

  1. We engaged professional help to design and launch a new website. I was able over the summer to devote the time needed to write the content for this new website. At the same time, I began stimulating the use by our members of our parish FaceBook page. In the digital age, our web profile is our main communication with the wider world. Hardly anyone will visit us on a Sunday morning without first looking us up on the web. An active FaceBook page is one of the key indicators of energy among the membership. The website is where we profile who we are, and sound our theological and community tone to the wider world around us.

We are not where I want us to be digitally speaking. Yet, we have made a good start. In addition to now posting sermons in blog form on our website the next step is for them to appear as video and audio podcasts. The next phase of development is to move towards greater video, and less text dominated web format.

The missing demographic at St Martin’s is the late 20’s-40 age groups. A more vital web presence, radical Biblically based preaching, traditional worship, and accessible teaching on daily spiritual practice as a support in stress filled lives, are the key elements of spiritual capacity that in my experience, attracts the spiritual seekers in this age demographic.

  1. Empowerment of worship and education ministries has been and will continue to be a key priority for me. As Episcopalians, we define ourselves not through statements of belief, but through the central quality of our worship, which is the key defining characteristic of our Anglican Tradition.

Ministries of welcome and new member incorporation are part of our worship life. Our welcome ministry has had a good restart, but we need fuller membership buy-in and participation. Our growth will be limited by the speed at which everyone comes to embrace a model of every member ministry. 

Our Christian Formation ministries are where we attract and nurture our members in the active phases of family life. The nurturance of Christian family life is a complex process today. Once, families defined their spiritual lives through participation in Church Communities. Today, many other demands draw families away from Church involvement and we continue to live in this place of cultural tension.

  1. In the fall, the Staff, and I, supported by the Wardens worked very hard to implement a structured, and theologically led, Annual Renewal Campaign. The theology of financial giving seemed to many to be something they had not considered before. Placing gratitude at the heart of our financial thinking is a long-term sell in many Episcopal Churches. Yet, I am encouraged by the start that we have made together. There is very good news to report and more about this will be shared by our Junior Warden Sean Mulholland and our Treasurer Dennis Stark at the Annual Meeting. However, let me note that both the good and bad news is that we now generate an equivalent dollar value with half the number of pledging units we had in 2005. Sean will talk us through that story and its longer-term trend implications at the Annual Meeting.

The Lections today offer us two images of discipleship. In our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jonah we have an image of reluctance and outright refusal in response to God’s call. Jonah shows a very pissed-off attitude towards God. First he refuses to accept God’s call for him to preach to Nineveh, instead sailing away on a ship in the opposite direction. After being punished by being thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by a whale, Jonah after the symbolic three days is eventually spewed up on the beach near Nineveh. He reluctantly enters the city and after traveling through the metropolis for a day calls the Ninevites to repent or else face the wrath of God. To his surprise, they heed his call, from highest to lowest. When God sees this he relents. In the next chapter, we read that Jonah is mightily pissed-off about this. He angrily tells God, see I could have told you back home that you would act like this. So why have you caused me all this grief only to go soft on Nineveh?

We can contrast Jonah’s call and response with the call by Jesus of his first disciples – Simon, his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee. They immediately drop everything they are doing and follow Jesus. Mark’s depiction of the call of the disciples is cryptic in the extreme. He presents a rather idealized image of a response to God’s call, unquestioning, completely trusting, and willing to give up everything else for the cause of following Jesus.

Jonah is a man who counts the cost of heeding God’s call and he seems to think the price is way too high. Simon, Andrew, James, and John seem heedless of the cost of the call to follow Jesus. Yet as we move through Mark’s Gospel we learn of the more mixed and ambivalent response of his disciples to God’s call.

Paul’s advice to the Corinthians tells us that we should live as if there is no time to loose. It’s just not possible to put off the call of God, thinking there is plenty of time tomorrow to think about this. Paul hints at the possibility of what if there is no tomorrow. How would this affect our decision-making process today?

So my question to all of us is what kind of disciples are we? How much time do we think we have to make up our minds? These are great questions on the Sunday of the Annual Parochial Meeting at St Martin’s, Providence. It’s the answers to these questions that will, or will not, catalyze us towards an increase in the spiritual capacity as the St Martin’s Community becomes more truly magnetic, thereby pulling more and more of those on the search for meaning and purpose beyond mere worldly satisfactions, into its heart.

Identity and Global Tensions and Other Good Stuff

Identity- a moving target

Last week in my entry titled Adoption I touched on the nature of identity. Identity remains a source of continual tension for the contemporary Western person because we have multiple, competing and overlapping sources of identity.

A simple example. Who is Mark Sutherland?  Mark Sutherland is an overly educated, white male, a New Zealander by birth, but British by adoption, living in New England. My identity shifts when I consider, as I recently had to, which passport do I travel on. Returning to New Zealand I left the US on my NZ passport but returned to the US on my British European Union passport containing my American Green Card. Each passport differently identifies me and my Green Card adds a further twist to identity. I am not speaking about legality here, but emotions. Each passport represents crucial emotional elements within an overlapping sense of identities.

My identity also shifts when considering other competing or overlapping elements of identity. Consider the attributes of middle class, overly educated, racially white, gendered male. Each signifies an aspect of identity which taken together construct an identity of someone well placed on the social pecking order – the only thing lacking is the possession of either a noble title or inordinate wealth to shoot me right to the top. However, my identity radically shifts when I add into the mix the element of being gay. In my identity as a gay man my experience of discrimination gives me an affinity not with overly educated white males, but with persons in society who are discriminated against because they are not male, or not white, or not educated.

Identity and global tensions

Differing notions of identity also go to the root of a growing tension between the West and Islamic societies. Although religion seems to be involved this is not a tension between Christianity and Islam. It’s rather a tension between differing notions of how identity is constructed. The capacity of Post Modern Secular societies and Traditional Religious societies to understand one another, never that great, seems to be deteriorating alarmingly. Religion- from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or the lack of it plays a part in this process.

In the world of Late Modern Western Culture, identity has become decoupled from family, clan, and religion because it is now firmly rooted in individual self-awareness.  While in Traditional Religious Culture identity is rooted not in an individual self awareness, but in a set of relationships that are structured by, and mediated through family, clan, and or religion.

The process of moving from relationally based identities fostered by the glue of religare, to secular individualist identity, decoupled from any notion of the existence of the divine has been chronicled by the philosopher Charles Taylor in his major opus A Secular Age. In the long progress of Western Society towards arriving at the first example of a secular society in human history, Taylor refers to the emergence of the buffered self.

Taylor defines secular to mean a social arrangement in which individual identity has not only become decoupled from family and clan with identity now residing in the unique and autonomous individual – the buffered self, but, and this is his main point, that the buffered self is a particular characteristic of the secular society, a society where identity is defined without any reference to the divine or God.

The notions of unencumbered right

Once upon a time, the framers of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution imagesunderstood the right to bear arms as the right of the community in the form of the militia to possess the means to defend itself against the encroachment of tyrannical government, acting unlawfully. The right the bear arms has now become the right of the buffered self to use or abuse guns in the pursuit of self defense against other members of the same community.

Once upon a time the right to free speech was the right of individual self expression free from the coercion of, and encroachment from, social and political authority.  Today, the right of free speech has become the right of the buffered self to say whatever is considered lawful to say, without regard to the consequences for others. Freedom of speech is now significantly decoupled from any sense of a duty to preserve social and political harmony. Free speech is controlled to some extend by legal duties that prevent speech that results in actual harm to another. Yet, there is no duty to refrain from intentionally giving offense through the unfettered exercise of free speech.

As we move further into the 21st Century, the world is increasingly characterized by a growing divide between societies in the Post Modern Western secular mode and societies that still adhere to traditional modes in which individual identity is defined by relationship to an extended community. In traditional societies social identity is still coupled to a sense of the presence of God and the social support afforded by religion.

In the growing acrimony and increasing violence that characterizes communication across the divide between Post Modern Western and Pre Modern Traditional societies, freedom of speech has become a litmus test, the core defining value for Western Society. We see this in the way freedom of speech has become a recent rallying cry following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. We rally to the cause in collectively identifying with the cry – je suis Charlie! 

Living in the tension

I am a product of the secular West. For me the right to individual free speech is inalienable. I believe the achievement of the right to individual freedom of speech to be one of the crowning achievements of our Western social development. Consequently, I too feel the surge of passion in the proclamation je suis Charlie as a protest against the forces of mindless and brutal terrorism. This form of terrorism is so called, Islamic. Yet, under any sane analysis this kind of violent response is anything but Islamic. Terrorism in the name of Islam is the distorted and perverted response from the authoritarian mindset to the challenges presented by the Western value of freedom of speech. Yet, a question continues to haunt me.

Islam has not undergone a process of secularization. It still posits a worldview in which society and religion are not separable. In this worldview disrespect shown for the Prophet is not severable from an experience of being disrespected as a Muslim. The question that haunts me is: given that we know the offense felt by Muslims in the visual characterization of the Prophet, how is our freedom of speech commended or defended by gratuitously publishing images of the Prophet justified on the grounds that we are only treating Islam with the same degree of disrespect and mockery we accord to our own Christian and Jewish faith traditions? It is only within our worldview where religion is separate from society that ridiculing of its more ridiculous antics is fair game. This right does not extend, in my view, beyond our own worldview context.

Individual isolation the reification of individual rights

I value the development of the buffered self in the way it has enabled individual identity for the first time in history to stand out against collective definitions of personal identity. Yet, I agree with Taylor that an unintended consequence of secularization has been our increasing sense of personal isolation from one another. Reification is where something essentially abstract is made into something concrete. Is the exercise of our individual rights immutable, i.e. fixed and unchanging regardless of circumstances, or relative and contextual?

I believe that our total emphasis on individualistic rights decoupled from corresponding duties beyond the minimum stipulation of the law, is damaging for our society. Rights become distorted when we exercise them without any regard for a corresponding duty towards others. This is not only a somewhat remote duty towards societies that see the world differently from us, but when we increasingly exercise our rights without basic regard for one another’s wellbeing within our own society, something is un-balanced. I do not want to exercise my right to free speech as a weapon that causes gratuitous offense and hurt to my neighbor. My right to free speech is a right only to defend myself from social and political forces of coercion.

Religion and personal identity in a secular society

Another level of identity complexity resides in my notion of the baptized buffered self. Even if I am guilty of a certain selectivity among the various claims urged upon me of my baptism, as a baptized buffered self I recognize a higher duty towards others enjoined upon me by my Christian faith These claims impact my exercise of my legal rights.

A Christian voice

It is somewhat timely, that as the terrorist alert ratchets upwards and Western voices are raised in somewhat belligerent defense of our freedom of speech values we find ourselves being addressed by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. There is a context and a specific content to this exchange between Paul and the Corinthians that relates to sexual behavior. It seems that the Corinthians are still acting like Greeks in terms of a freedom to consort with prostitutes that Paul sees this as inconsistent with being Christian. It’s easy to read Paul as advocating a Jewish, puritanical attitude towards the sexual freedom, otherwise considered normal in Corinthian society. However it’s not the context or the content of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians that interests me here.

What grabs my attention in this reading is Paul’s assertion that because he has a legal –here read moral as well as narrowly legal – right to a certain action or behavior, it does not automatically follow that it is beneficial for him or others that he insist on exercising his right. Paul is advocating a degree of self-restraint in the interests of promoting social harmony. This seems obvious in societies where identity is relational, i.e. a sense of identity being conferred through networks of extended social relationships like a family, clan, or tribe, supported by the adhesive function of religion. It seems less obvious when identity resides in individual self awareness.

Secular Western societies are comprised of buffered selves, individuals who compete and conflict with one another in the exercise of the rights they enjoy under the law. The law is the ultimate guarantor of our rights and is also the minimal referee between competing rights in the interests of a minimum of social order. However the law is selective. For instance, racial or gender abuse is no longer protected under the right to freedom of speech, but abuse of gays and religious believers still is. Beyond the minimal constraint imposed by law we are left to exercise our rights as if we lived in isolation from one another. There is little sense of duty owed towards one another. Yet, Paul reminds us that for those of us who recognize God’s claim upon us through our allegiance to the Christian faith, we must consider our duty towards others as a primary factor influencing the way we do or don’t exercise our rights.

In this way our religious identity becomes another significant element in our experience of multiple identities. Christian faith moves from the purely private sphere to influence our behavior in the public sphere. Paul goes on to develop his argument in 1 Corinthians. He says that although the gospel frees him to do all that his conscience allows, if the free exercise of his rights causes another to stumble, then the duty he owes to those not able to exercise the full degree of freedom is to restrain himself in his otherwise lawful exercise of his rights.

The giving of grave offense to Muslims cannot ever be a justification for acts of terrorism in the name of the Prophet – peace be upon him. Yet, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the danger in exercising rights unfettered by a sense of duty to others. Translating this into our current global context, freedom of speech is not an absolute right exercised as if in a moral vacuum, mindless of consequences. It is limited by our duty not to give gratuitous offense to another. It is doubly so when we very well know that grave offense will be the consequence of our insistence on our legal rights.


Initial Reflections

I am so glad to get back to Mark’s Gospel. There is a radical immediacy in the Marcan presentation of Jesus that leaves the reader in little doubt that God is breathlessly at work in the world. There is the drama of urgency in Mark’s language and so he begins: in those days whenthis and that were happening, God did this really amazing thing.

What amazing thing is this? Well, we are so used to the storyline of Jesus’ baptism, which both Matthew and Luke follow, that we miss the drama of Mark’s image of God ripping apart (schizomai) an opening in the heavens. In Matthew and Luke, the heavens merely open (anoigo) like the curtain parting to reveal the opening scenes of a play – except that in both these gospels, Jesus’ baptism is not the opening scene.crop

Only in Mark, do we first meet Jesus at his baptism. Mark presents Jesus’ baptism within the messianic transgenerational vision, here instanced by the presence of John the Baptist. However, the most dramatic aspect ofMark’s presentation is the way God rips the heavens asunder and declares in a booming voicethis is my son and I am just ripped, i.e. ecstatic about him. When something is ripped it remains tattered, leaving a gaping hole in that which was previously whole.

Mark’s gospel begins and ends with images of something being ripped or torn open. Through the resulting rend a new set of possibilities flood in. Mark begins with the heavens being ripped open leaving a rend in the heaven-earth continuum that cannot be sown up again. Through this tear the Holy Spirit pours down upon Jesus, and through him deluging the world in a completely new way.

wpd062c01b_05_06Mark ends his gospel with the veil in the Temple, separating the sacred from the profane being ripped in two. The holy is let loose from the confines of sacred space into the open space of the world.

Continued Reflections

I’ve literally just returned from two weeks visiting with family and friends in New Zealand, the land of my birth. With this in mind, the contrast between Mark’s introduction of Jesus and the way Matthew and Luke introduce him is striking me very powerfully. The Jesus of Matthew and Luke is born-into his identity as God’s son. We might say his identity is a matter of birth. In Mark, Jesus’ identity as God’s son seems to be a matter not of birth, but of adoption. The coincidence of my visit home? with Mark’s Gospel being set for the Baptism of Christ has led me to reflect on my experience of the contrasting interplay between the significance of being born into, and adoption. Home – where I wonder is home? Is home birthplace or place of adoption?

For each one of us, the interplay between the significance of being born-into and adoption of identity will vary. I have known a number of persons for whom this interplay is a painful one resulting from the experience of being adopted by parents other than those who gave birth to them. The experience of infant or child adoption for some can raise excruciating questions of identity because for most of us identity is primarily shaped by that which we were born-into. For others, and I count myself among this group, identity is a process of shaping within contexts of adoption.

I am aware that the distinction between being born-into and adoption, even if drawn differently in each of us, is also an artificial one. Identity for each one of us is a multilayered complex comprising awareness of both the experiences of being born-into and of adoption-by. Within each of us, the boundaries between our identifications with the significances of birth and adoption continually ebb and flow. Yet, each of us will tend toward a conscious valuing of one over the other.

The recent experience of traveling to the land of my birth, to my family of origin, and the friends that were part of my growing-up within that context, and Mark’s opening presentation of Jesus at his baptism is causing me to reflect anew on my experience of the interplay between the significances I attach to birth and adoption. It also leads me to pose a more general question: to what extent is our identity consciously shaped by either something we are born-into or by a process of adoption and being adopted?

For the first 22 years of my life, I lived in the land of my birth. While I have no wish to underestimate the significance of the formative influences of time and place, my subsequent 37 years are years in which my adult identity has been shaped by contexts not of birth, but adoption. One result of this is that for me, family is less a matter of blood than it is a matter of choice. Most of the time, for peace of mind sake, I want to say this matter is settled. Yet after my recent visit, I am reminded that identity is never quite so neatly settled, or so it would seem.

Renewed Reflections

I. All of this leads me to a renewed reflection on what is given and what is chosen. This is not simply a reflection on Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism and the interplay between the significances of what is given (birth) and what is chosen (adoption). I am led to a renewed realization of the significance for each Christian of our baptism as an expression of the interplay between birth and adoption, between what is given and what is chosen.

II. Mark’s message is that even for Jesus, identity is a matter of choice and not simply a given of his birth. Jesus chooses to come to John and to receive the baptism of water at the hands of one who freely admits he is not worthy to untie his (Jesus’) sandals. Can we see in Mark’s depiction of the Baptism of Jesus, God choosing to use this event as the opportunity to affirm that the nature of the relationship between them is less a matter of birth than adoption? This seems a bold assertion coming so soon after the celebration of the Nativity. Yet, I do think that this is what Mark, who is deeply influenced by Paul, intends.

III. If Jesus’ baptism is the moment when God tears open a rend in the heavens through which the Holy Spirit deluges the world, what then is the meaning and purpose of our own baptism? Following Augustine it has often been difficult for Christians, fearful of their place in the scheme of things, not to erroneously connect baptism with personal salvation. Yet, isn’t the gift of life, in and of itself a gift from God that is complete according to the beauty and order of Creation. All human beings by birth are made as an expression of God’s love for the world. Being loved by God is a gift we enjoy because through biological birth it is given to us. This realization leads me again and again to want to assert that: To be human is to be most like God.

IV. Yet, the natural, material order is only one strand in an experience that contributes to our sense of possessing multilayered identity (ies). There is the identity as child of God through the natural processes of birth. Yet, Christians understand that there is a second birth that takes identity to a new level. This is not a material birth but a spiritual birth. The characteristic of spiritual birth is choice. We are not born into the spiritual life, we adopt and are adopted into it. Unlike our physical life, it is not a given, but a choice!

V. Baptism is entry into participation in the active life of Christ. It is an entry into a set of community relationships through which we come to the spiritual life not as a journey undertaken alone, but as one undertaken in the company of one another. Together, through our baptism into the Body of Christ in the world, we become conduits for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s deluge of the world through the tears in a universe where before Heaven was separated from earth and the sacred walled off from the profane. Baptism is the choice to become adopted sons and daughters and God is ripped, i.e. well pleased with us!

If being born human is to be most like God then being baptized is to be adopted into a new level of identity as those who know that to be human is to be most like God. Such knowledge is not only an immense responsibility, but also a humbling privilege!

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