24 December 2010


(a sermon for 19 December 2010,
the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A)

Matthew 1.18-25

It was a few days before Christmas. A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" “Oh,” he replied, “you’ll know the day after tomorrow.”

The next morning, she turned to her husband and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "You'll know tomorrow." he said.

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" He smiled back, “Oh, you’ll know tonight.”

That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. But when she did, she found -- a book! It was titled "The Meaning of Dreams."

What have you been dreaming about lately?

Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities. We’re dreaming of pearl necklaces and sugar plum fairies, new bicycles and upgraded computers. I hope all those dreams come true!

As I consider my own dreams, I realize that I dream in two major categories. I have two kinds of dreams. Sometimes, my dreams are dreadful. I imagine painful relationships. I live out meetings and deadlines that I have missed. I am standing in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say. These are nights that I spend wrestling like my ancestor, the patriarch, Jacob.

But on other occasions, my dreams are the most refreshing I can imagine. I have also dreamed about reconciliation. I have dreamed that enemies are at my table, and we are living convivially. I have dreamed of flying fancily through the air. I have dreamed of new life and hope. I have dreamed of lean years followed by wonderful years. These are nights that I dream like my ancestor, the patriarch, Joseph. Yes, Joseph in the Old Testament, too, was a dreamer.

During this past year, researchers at Harvard University “asked people to navigate a maze, and found that those who both napped and dreamed about their maze experience, in any way, showed a tenfold improvement when they did the maze a second time.” (The Week magazine, Dec 24, 2010, page 32.) The suggestion is that dreams make you smarter. The magazine called The Week, said that the process “isn’t necessarily rational or literal—but reflects a deeper process in which the unconscious mind consolidates what it has learned and produces new insights.” (The Week Magazine, Dec 24, 2010, page 32).

That is my answer to the question, “Why do we need sleep?” We need sleep in order to dream. We need to dream.

Today’s gospel lesson, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, is about a dream, Joseph’s dream. Besides the wise men, a few verses later, Joseph is the only person in the New Testament who dreams. Other characters have visions, and the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the Gospel of Luke. But only Joseph dreams.

And only Matthew tells Joseph’s story. The more familiar story, which we have known for as long as we have seen Christmas pageants, is about Mary receiving the word of the Lord, from an angel. But that story is only in the Gospel of Luke.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story from another point of view, maybe a forgotten point of view these days. Matthew tells the story from the man’s point of view, Joseph’s point of view. All the action in Matthew’s birth narrative revolves around Joseph taking action. Nothing against Mary and Luke, of course! But it’s good, once every three years in our lectionary cycle, to hear the story from Joseph’s point of view!

(By the way, in our two other gospels, Mark and John, there is no account whatsoever of the physical birth of Jesus. We have four gospels, and they differ dramatically in how they tell the story of Jesus’s birth. That’s why we have four gospels. And that’s why we have many types of Christians!)

Surely, Joseph was in a troubled way. Joseph, a man of decency and responsibility, realized that his betrothed was actually pregnant before they were married. What should he do?

Well, he took time to sleep. He took time to rest. He took time to dream. Somehow, it was in his dream that Joseph consolidated things; he put it all together. He realized something wonderful and astounding. Ancient scriptures, an angel, all sorts of theologizing, came flooding into his soul. Yes, God would enter the world. Immanuel, “God With Us” would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand.

Joseph had to trust the angel in his dream, but Joseph also had to trust someone else. Joseph had to trust Mary. I know Mary would be his wife, and surely Joseph must have loved Mary. But still, this took a lot of trust! For Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else.

This is why Joseph’s dream is so important. Joseph dreamed of the salvation of the world. And he dreamed that true salvation comes through someone else.

That is the lesson for us, too. Like Joseph sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our wife, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way.

Imagine young Mary, minding her own business, suddenly being overcome with news of a great conception, a great presence of the divine. It’s something to have an angel speak to you. Wouldn’t it be great to know that such a revelation might happen again?

Well, you know what? It did happen again.

The angel did appear to someone besides Mary. The story is recorded right in the Bible, but not in Luke. It appears in Matthew. The angel did appear to someone else. The angel appeared to Joseph.

Now, if the angel can appear to Mary, and then also appear to Joseph, that means that the angel can appear to you and me, too. In the Bible, the annunciation does not occur only once, but twice – not just to a woman, but also to a man. Not just to Mary and Joseph, but also to you and to me!

What are you giving for Christmas this year? I do not mean what are you getting. We all want something wonderful, I am sure. But what are you giving for Christmas?

The greatest gift you can give this year is to believe in somebody, to believe in someone’s dreams, to believe that God is working in the person beside you. That’s the gift that Joseph gave Mary, and, thus, the gift that Joseph gave the entire world.

Likewise, the great gift you can give is to have faith in someone else; believe in their dreams. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friend. Believe in their dreams!

And sleep comfortably this season. I know some folks do not sleep well. Too much worry. Too much food and drink. Take time to sleep.

The reason we sleep is to dream; and the reason we have relationships is so that we will have someone who will believe our dreams.

God works through those relationships. God works through both Mary and Joseph. God needs both Luke’s story of the annunciation and Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream. They are miracle stories.

God works through a young and wonderful woman, and her husband believes in her. It is a miracle repeated again and again. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear in the world.


The Very Reverend Sam Candler

21 December 2010


(a sermon for 2 Advent, 5 December 2010)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
And a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11.1)

My wife and I were watching a television newscast last week. At least I think it was a newscast. It was host with two guests. But the host was doing most of the talking –loudly, too, and commanding the conversation so roughly that the so-called guests could hardly get a word in edgewise. My wife finally noticed, “All they are doing is yelling. They are just yelling at each other. Turn it off,” she said. We did.

We were left with a question that many people are asking these days, “Can we have political engagement at all without yelling?” Without being enemies?

Maybe not. We live in hard times, high anxiety times with high decibel enemies. I do not need to review all of our anxiety for you. Maybe it starts with economic uncertainty, and the fear that we will not see the restoration of jobs and economic growth any time soon. It continues as we walk through airport security pat-downs. Anxiety seeps up through vast internet connections, whose messages are now known as leaks, screams, and bullying.

And, if you want to sense mere anxiety in the world, simply turn on the television news any night between the hours of five o clock and ten o clock.

It does not matter which network you watch, and it does not matter whether you are watching local news coverage or world news coverage. What sells is anxiety and enemies. The global economic situation is often too complicated to cover in a thirty minute broadcast, and so the local news stations cover fires and automobile wrecks, and traffic – oh the traffic! – and the inequity of salaries, and potholes in the roads, and flimsiest of threats to our well-being. We are a threatened people.

But if anything good might come out of the past three years of economic crisis and emotional anxiety, it should be an ability to relate to the tension times, and the crisis times, in the Bible itself. Most of us may not realize that much of the Bible was written during threatening times, especially during politically threatening and economically threatening times.

The New Testament, for instance, is not written from a country that knows power or dominion. The New Testament was written in a dominated, poor, obscure little area, far away from the powers of Rome, or of ancient Greece, and the previous powers of Babylon and Assyria. It was an area tossed this way and that, always under the threat of being captured and taxed to death, or of even being destroyed.

Most of the Bible was written during treacherous and politically uncertain times. Maybe there were calmer moments, during which editors compiled all the prophecies and pronouncements and rituals and liturgies into a smoother narrative; but the actual times were tough.

Isaiah, the great prophet Isaiah, wrote during one of these tumultuous and politically threatening times. We hear one of his great passages this morning, a passage we have come to associate with Christmas, or, at least with Advent. Advent would not be complete unless we heard these words,”

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
4 …with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
5 …Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10)

Of course, we have come to associate this prophecy with the messiah, Jesus. But that comparison is too easy. It is too easy to read these words in retrospect and pronounce that they have been fulfilled in Jesus as the messiah.

The times were tough. The times were tough when Isaiah wrote these words.

First of all, remember that the land we now know as “Israel” has very rarely in history been one unified region. There has always been division, among the various tribes, and especially between the North and the South. For most of Old Testament history, the two largest areas were Israel, in the North – and Judah, in the South. Again, we tend to think that “Israel” and “Judah” are just two different names for the same holy land. Not at all. Israel was the northern kingdom, and Judah was the southern kingdom.

The only real time these two kingdoms enjoyed unity, and a degree of peace, was under the great king David. Indeed, he is known as the greatest King in the Hebrew scriptures, because he held together both Israel and Judah. Outside of King David’s time, there is always a tension, in the Old Testament, between the North and the South, between Israel and Judah.

But these were difficult political times beyond the holy land, too. Syria, to the north, was almost always a threat. And, during the time of Isaiah, it was Assyria who was the far larger threat. In the year 738 BC, Tiglath-Pileser, of Assyria, threatened to come down through Syria and Palestine. Therefore, the northern king (that would be Israel) entered into an alliance with Syria. Together, perhaps Israel and Syria could resist Tiglath-Pileser.

But, remember, Judah was the southern kingdom. Judah, under King Ahaz, was not part of this alliance. They were in the south, not threatened by Assyria. So the kings of Syria and Israel tried to replace Ahaz with a king who might join them. What intrigue!

Ahaz, and Judah, were so offended that they did an end run. They sought to form an alliance with Assyria, with the dreaded enemy. And it worked. Assyria defeated Israel in 722 BC, while in alliance with Judah. 722 marked the last record of the northern tribes in human history; all able-bodied Israelites were exiled to Assyria.

Judah was spared, but the threat of foreign occupation still remained. In fact, perhaps the threat was even greater, for Judah had seen what had happened to its brothers in Israel.

It is in this circumstance that Isaiah the prophet meets King Ahaz, of Judah, on several occasions, with oracles of warning and judgement. And it is Isaiah, Isaiah himself, who has three children, three sons, whose names indicate a part of Isaiah’s message. This was not uncommon among the prophets of the Old Testament – to give their own sons names which represented their prophecy.

Isaiah’s first son was named “Shear-jeshub,” which means “a remnant shall return.” Isaiah’s second son was named “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Isaiah’s third son is named “Maher-shalal-hash-baz”, which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” That third name indicates imminent threat, doesn’t it? But all this is to confront Ahaz with both the judgement of God, and the long-term care of God.

It is these prophecies, and these names, as you all know, that are so familiar to us Christians around the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, it is critical for us to realize that these names were the names of real people. These prophecies had their roots in real and historical situations.

Isaiah was not simply sitting alone, peacefully, in some holy quiet retreat imagining the birth of Jesus Christ. Prophecy, and the word of God, always emerges from real situations, often from crisis situations, times of struggle and even despair.

And God’s word is the same in those situations. A remnant shall return. No matter what is destroyed, or looks destroyed, a remnant returns. The branch shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, the root of David. There is always, always, the possibility of new birth. And God is with us. No matter what the threat. No matter what the division. God is with us.

“The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” Isaiah says, the leopard shall lied down with the kid, the calf and lion and fatling together, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox. The young child shall put its hand on the snake’s den.” Natural enemies enjoying peace together is what Isaiah prophecies.

Today, in our own politics, everyone speaks of non-partisanship, but is it possible? Our political scene, and our nightly newscasts, seem to contain natural enemies who want to completely annihilate the other side. And, thus, it has become the easy reaction to complain –like I am doing right now—to complain of strident voices speaking past each other.

So it is that my wife watch a newscast that devolves into mere yelling at each other. Yes, everyone longs for more civil discourse, more true interaction, communication, even communion, like this beautiful peaceable kingdom that Isaiah imagines. Is it possible?

We need a messiah.

In times of similar anxiety, and even physical exile, Isaiah named his own sons with names of God’s truth. He used the naming of his own sons as a means of getting the point across. But the great truth of his prophecy is that these names had a more dramatic and far-reaching meaning. Isaiah was actually looking for a messiah that would come from history, but who would lead us to a place beyond history.

This is why the Church hears these dramatic lines each year in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The messiah of God is located in history, but the messiah of God is also beyond history.

And, as wonderful as we might consider our contemporary political leaders and messiahs, none of them will be able to lead us to that true peaceable kingdom, where even natural predators lie down with each other, and hold each other’s hands!

Yes, we need a messiah for these hard times. Today, we make alliances with all sorts of leaders and groups and parties and even nations, thinking that we will be delivered. They may fulfill our needs for a season. But they are not the heavenly messiah. No earthly leader should ever be mistaken for this righteous root of David.

The righteous root of David, that branch that grows from the stump of Jesse, is certainly the One we call the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, a Sign to the Nations. It is for that true messiah that we wait. Isaiah and Judah waited twenty-seven hundred years ago. We still wait today.

And in three weeks, that messiah will be here. Yes, the messiah was born in human history, in a particular time full of strife and anxiety, but so that he might address the strife and anxiety of every age. In whatever age, in whatever turmoil and defeat and collapse, God’s messiah will be born. God’s messiah will be born, from a root of what is already here, yes, but from above, too, leading us to that ultimate peaceable kingdom of God.


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

11 December 2010


A Sermon from the Very Reverend Sam Candler
for the Buckhead Community Thanksgiving Service, in Atlanta

(With the Churches and Choirs of The Cathedral of St. Philip, Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Wieuca Road Baptist Church, Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King.)

At Peachtree Presbyterian Church
21 November 2010

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  (First Corinthians 12:12–27)

My thanks for you!

I give thanks to our hosts tonight, all who worship and who lead, at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. I give thanks for the excellent and faithful musicians of our six parishes. I give thanks for the Buckhead community. And I certainly give thanks to my five colleagues, the other five senior ministers here tonight – pastors of what have to be the finest Christian parishes in the country!

But I give thanks, mostly, for you – you who are assembled as one body tonight, one body, with very many members.

It is a busy season. Many families and households are getting ready to travel. Some have already left. Many are already preparing to buy gifts and decorate for –dare I say it?—Christmas itself.

But you are here, gathered together as one body. One Body of Christ, from several denominations.

And so I want to remind you of the story I told a few years ago. Some of you have heard it before, but it bears repeating, especially on a night like this.

Do you know how many Christians it takes to change a light bulb?

Well, it depends upon your denomination. If you’re a charismatic Christian, it takes only one. Your hands are already in the air.

If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, the anwer is: Ten. One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against spirit of darkness.

Presbyterians: None. Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Roman Catholic: None. Candles only.

Baptists: At least 15. One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.

Episcopalians: Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Mormons: Five. One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.

Unitarians: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including: incandescent, fluorescent, three way, long-life, and environmentally sustainable, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Methodists: Undetermined. Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Church-wide lighting service is planned for Sunday. Bring bulb of your choice and a covered dish.

Lutherans: None. Lutherans don't believe in change.

Finally, the Amish: What's a light bulb?

Yes, we all have our ways of changing a light bulb, or lighting the room, or lighting the world with the light of Christ. We all have our ways, and they are good and healthy ways.

Every kind of Christian here tonight has a different way of lighting the world for Christ, and the world needs every one of your ways.

Tonight, in the Spirit of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all these ways of being a Christian. The body of Christ, as we heard in tonight’s lesson, does not consist of only one sort of member. The complete Body of Christ needs all the members.

The Body of Christ. You know, later this week, there will be lots of concerns about bodies. Thanksgiving seems to be one day of the year when we give ourselves permission to feed our bodies. Families have been planning for weeks what they will eat. Traditions are remembered. Some dare to start new traditions. Then we eat. We drink. We have second helpings. Our great aunt forces us to have third and fourth helpings.

Maybe next week, or next January, when the feasting is over, we begin to care about our bodies in a different way. We go back on diets!

I know the dieting is important. But, tonight, I want to say that the eating is important, too. Bodies are important in Christianity. It is part of our historic, orthodox, and catholic faith that Jesus Christ descended from the heavenly kingdom and was incarnate; he was a real live, flesh and blood, body.

It was through a body that Jesus Christ served and changed the world. It was through a body that God loved the world. And it is through a body that God still loves the world.

God does not work in the world through some dis-embodied spirit, like a kind of ghost. God works through people.

Have you heard the phrase lately, “I am spiritual, but I’m not religious” ? Of course you’ve heard it. Many of us have probably said it. I know what we mean when we say that. We mean that we enjoy the spark and the life of God, the wonderful spirit of love and wonder, but we don’t get so much out of organized religion.

Right. Organized religion can so often get in the way, can’t it? Even though I work in an organized religion, I know what people mean when they make that complaint. Sometimes, the church seems too obsessed with trivial matters.

Maybe that’s why people are always leaving church and looking for something else.

Have you heard about the man they discovered all by himself on a desert island a few years ago. Apparently, he had been living there successfully for years, all by himself. No one else there.

When they found him, they also discovered three buildings on the island, right behind him. They asked him, “What’s this building?” “Why,” he said, “That’s my home, my house. That’s where I live.”

“Oh, that’s good,” they said, “and what’s this second structure?” “Well, the man replied, “that’s my church. That’s where I go to church.”

“Excellent. How beautiful!” the crowd said. “And what’s this third building on the island?”

“Oh,” the man said, “that’s where I used to go to church.”

No matter where we are, it seems, we can find a reason to leave church. We can find a reason to leave organized religion.

Tonight, however, I want to say something about organized and institutional religion. I give thanks for it tonight. I give thanks for churches, and for an important reason. These communities of faith, even if we struggle and fall short time and time again, these communities of faith are exactly the way we are spiritual in the world.

I do not believe it is possible to be a spiritual person in this world without being religious. Oh, I realize along with everyone the great thrill and excitement of feeling one with God. Sometimes we feel that on vacation, or at the mountains, at the lake, or at the beach. Or even on the golf course, or just early on a beautiful morning.

It’s great to feel spiritual. But the moment we try to do something with that spirituality. The moment we try to connect it to other people. The moment we try to take it out into the world – well, right then!—is the moment we become religious.

Religion is spirituality in the flesh. Religion is spirituality when it takes on a body!

The word “religion,” comes from the Latin word “ligio,” meaning “to tie.” The word “ligament” comes from the same word, Ligaments tie together the muscle and the bone in our bodies. “Relgion,” “re-ligio,” means to tie back together. To re-connect. Good religion is about tying things back together.

Can you be spiritual without being religious? I don’t think so. I suppose you could try it, but it’s a very lonely life. Being spiritual without being religious is to be by yourself, maybe enjoying yourself fine, but being removed from the give-and-take matters of community.

Good spirituality is about being religious, about being connected to people, to other bodies, to other denominations, to friends and to strangers.

Tonight, I give thanks for bodies. For muscles and tendons and bones that are tied together in a magnificent Body of Christ. I also give thanks for the traditions and structures and routines that many of us will participate in this Thanksgiving. These are the flesh-and-blood ways we give thanks. And they are good things. They are religious things.

Yes, be spiritual this Thanksgiving! Give thanks in your heart and soul.

But, also be religious. Connect your spirituality with another body of flesh and blood. Be connected. Join a community of faith. Healthy spirituality is always connected. Healthy spirituality is always religious.


The Very Reverend Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

12 November 2010


On 8 November 2010, the Downtown Atlanta Rotary Club featured Cynthia Tucker and Ralph Reed as a panel reviewing the previous week's election results. To open the meeting, The Very Rev'd Samuel G. Candler delivered this invocation:

O God, in the days following elections, some are exultant, others despondent. Some are wary, some are triumphant. Some will forge forward, or back, depending upon the issue. Some will gather, harvesting fruit whose seeds were planted long ago. Some will seek to sow new seeds, into soil now plowed, turned up and over, but also fertile and expectant.

The political life is a rough and tumble life. It is for those who inspire fresh vision, but who also know how to scrap and scrape. It attracts the wise and savvy, and also the naïve and boisterous. It lifts up the lowly, and it humbles the exalted.

And so we remember the words of the Preacher of old. "For everything there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up. A time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together. A time to seek, and a time to lose. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak." (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Or, as the Singer sang, "To everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn."

The United States of America, at our best, turns gracefully. We engage the dance of politics every two years, or every four years, or every six years, with some trepidation and some missed steps. Some of us stumble, or step on each others' feet, or even knock down our partners. But some of us twirl splendidly, knowing exactly when to grasp and when to let go. Some of us leap to heights which we have never before ascended.

Then, after two, or four, or six, or sixteen, years, our dance ends. We tire, or watch a new troupe come forward, with new moves and routines - or maybe it is an old routine with some fresh twists. We turn, turn, turn.

Gracious God, we thank you for those who offer themselves for public service; we thank you for those who participated in last week's elections. Teach all of us us to turn gracefully. Teach us to win gracefully. Teach us to lose gracefully. In grace, we realize that you, O God, have created us all. We are, together, citizens of a greater community than our fenced-off political pastures. And you, O God, have loved us all - winners and losers, the exalted and the humbled.

Wherever our political loyalties lie, O God, show us grace in our relationships and deliberations in the days to come. Show us love of God, and love of neighbor.   AMEN.

The Very Reverend Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip
Atlanta, Georgia
8 November 2010

(this prayer has also been published at Episcopal Cafe, on 12 November 2010)

23 October 2010


For you who do not know baseball, and who are thus far east of Eden, and way beyond Paradise, let me deliver the sad news that Bobby Cox has retired from his job as manager of the Atlanta Braves baseball club. Those of us who follow baseball knew this day would come; indeed, Cox announced it almost a year ago. Nevertheless, the day is sad and sober. I pause to salute Bobby Cox and the game of baseball, with an abiding tribute to A. Bartlett Giamatti.

When the Braves arrived in Atlanta in 1966, I was ten years old, the perfect age to become a baseball fan. I fell in love with Tony Cloninger after that first major league baseball game in Atlanta when he pitched ten innings – far too long for the first game of the season, his arm was never the same—and then, later, when he became the only pitcher in history to hit two grand slam home runs in the same game. I will always revere Henry Aaron –Hammerin’ Hank Aaron—who still is the best athlete this city has ever known.

I was somewhat of an athlete, certainly not a great one. And I was a fan of math of science. Though I won the science fair award in the seventh grade, I was not great at those disciplines either. Baseball became my passion because it combined the life of sports with the life of the mind.

But the Braves were a truly dreadful baseball team during most of their first years here. 1969 and 1982 were strange aberrations (when they won their division). There were moments of hope, and some occasional great players, but little else of interest except the antics of one Ted Turner, an entertainer if there ever was one, and who entertained us one day by naming himself as the manager of the forlorn Atlanta Braves.

Their woeful performance did not deter me. My wife, Boog, and I, serving our first church in Smyrna, Georgia, would often get to the stadium at around four in the afternoon, a full three hours before the game was scheduled to start. We bought two tickets and got a whole section to ourselves. Nobody else was there.

It was during those lean and losing years that I really did learn to love the game of baseball. In fact, love and loss go together in baseball. Baseball is about loss, and no one truly understands baseball until he or she knows how to lose. And no one truly loves baseball until he or she knows how to lose.

In fact, baseball is actually a game for losers. The sheer odds reveal it. The best batters get hits only three out of every ten tries. The best teams still lose thirty to forty per cent of their games during a season. Baseball teaches us how to lose, how to lose gracefully, and how to return the next day with a new record, with the attitude that nothing is impossible, with the glory of resurrection! (Baseball has much more to teach us about the beauty, elegance, and humility of life; but that’s another story.)

It was around the mid-1980s that one of my other baseball heroes entered the game. His is the only autograph I have truly treasured in my sports life, but it does not adorn a baseball or a bat or a souvenir program. He signed my diploma from the School of Divinity at Yale University, where I graduated in 1982, and where he was President of Yale University. He resigned the presidency of Yale in order to become President of the National League and then Commissioner of (all) Baseball. From glory to greater glory; I believe in that progression.

When he became President of Yale in 1978, he was, at forty years old, the youngest president Yale had ever had; he still holds that record. When it was rumored that he might be named president of Yale he said, “The only thing I want to be president of is the American League.” He was a Renaissance scholar, and a truly renaissance man. He loved baseball.

In fact, he is the only person in history ever to go from being president of a major university to being the Commissioner of Baseball. I thought that was wonderful! But he was tough. He dealt forcefully with unions at Yale, and he dealt forcefully with Pete Rose in baseball. It was while he was Commissioner of Baseball that the great player, Pete Rose, admitted to gambling on baseball.

Now, remember that baseball is really a metaphor for life. Baseball teaches us about life. Even though baseball teaches us about human frailty and futility, Giamatti would condone no easy penalty for betting on baseball. He arranged for Pete Rose, one of the greatest players of all time, to be banned from baseball for life. Eight days after that arrangement, Bart Giamatti suffered a massive heart attack and died at Martha’s Vineyard. He was fifty-one years old.

His was a death reminiscent of tragic literature. But it was Bart Giamatti who had already written so eloquently about the inherent tragedy of baseball. “It’s designed to break your heart,” he wrote in an essay called “The Green Fields of the Heart.” (in A Great And Glorious Game, 1998). Listen to this great passage:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

…Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

In another book of his, a little masterpiece called Take Time For Paradise, Giamatti developed the lovely theme that baseball is the narrative of epic romance and of the Odyssey of Homer; home –home plate—is where the adventure both begins and ends.

“Virtually innumerable are the dangers, the faces of failure one can meet if one is fortunate enough even to leave home. Most efforts fail, Failure to achieve the first leg of the voyage is extremely likely. In no game of ours is failure so omnipresent as it is for the batter who would be the runner...The tale of leaving and seeking home is told in as many ways as one can imagine, and there still occur every season plays on the field that even the most experienced baseball people say they have never seen before.” (p. 94, Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise).

It is the Odyssey of Homer. Baseball is the Odyssey. My point is this: the Atlanta Braves, from 1966 through 1990, could not get home. They were adrift and aimless. They helped us learn about loss and life, but they were terrible.

Then, from 1991 through 2005, Bobby Cox led the Atlanta Braves to fourteen straight division titles – a feat no other professional sports team, in any sport, has ever matched. Bobby Cox became their hero, and he became my hero. It was a beautiful run, but it has no meaning without the previous futility of the Braves’ first years in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Braves played their heart out because they knew Bobby Cox valued them. The greatest strength of Bobby Cox (besides his sheer knowledge of the game), and maybe also greatest weakness, is that he was loyal to his players. Cox stayed with his players, even if it was a split second too long.

Of course, Bobby Cox has been criticized for winning so few World Series championships, only one, in 1995. I think this has something to do with his ability to create a winning team atmosphere, a true team, which values every single one of its players and not just the super stars. Players loved playing for Bobby Cox because he valued them and played them.

Essentially, Bobby Cox played to win over the long season, one hundred and sixty-two games. He did not manage for the short series which depends upon only a few of the great players. He depended on the entire team, and time after time, they rewarded him. Even this year, 2010, when the Atlanta Braves were surely not one of the most talented teams in the major leagues, and when their most talented players fell, one by one, by the wayside to injury –even this year!—they were in first place much of the season. They played their hearts out for Bobby Cox, who, in turn, had them playing far above their stature.

This is why he did not win the short series championships, and only one World Series. But that fact does not bother me, nor does it damage my respect for his managerial genius. I would much rather have a fine manager and a winning team over a season, with day-in and day-out good baseball. Fourteen straight division titles are testimony to quality baseball over time. His success has been proven over time, just like baseball always teaches us. Talent in baseball can be measured only in small ways, but over a season – and over fourteen seasons—those small ways add up to stardom. What a ride it has been.

But, “it’s designed to break your heart.” That’s what Bart Giamatti, the great renaissance scholar, said about baseball. And he’s right. Our hearts were broken again this year when the Braves fell to a very good San Francisco Giants team. Our hearts were breaking all year whenever we remembered this would be Bobby Cox’s last season.

But so be it. Here’s to Bobby Cox and to green fields in the sun, and even to the summer having slipped by. Things do change over time, and our illusions always meet reality. On the other hand, we all do get home one day, too. Bobby Cox has taken us around the bases, around the basepaths of both jubilation and defeat, success and loss. His greatness is measured in all the small things done well, over and over again, and in an amazing loyalty to his players. He has exemplified baseball at its finest and loyalty at its most stubborn. Now, he is safe at home, and so are we.

Sam Candler
23 October 2010


 a sermon for 17 October 2010

"All scripture is inspired by God…”   -2 Timothy 3:16

“I’m selling Bibles, ma’am. God’s holy word.”

Those are the words of young Henry Dampier, in Clyde Edgerton’s delightful novel of a few years ago. It’s called, simply, The Bible Salesman, a kind of coming-of-age story in which a young Bible salesman actually begins to read the Bible.

That’s right. He is a Bible salesman before he has even read the Bible. The novel is about his beginning to read the Bible, and about his beginning to grow up, and about his experiencing the good and the evil of human life.

“I’m selling Bibles, ma’am. God’s holy word,” he says, without ever having read the Bible.

There’s a lot of people these days who talk about the authority of the Bible, or who believe in the literal and inerrant authority of the Bible, but who seem never to have actually read it – or at least have never actually pondered, and critiqued, and truly examined it. I am amused by proclamations about the infallibility of scripture that so rarely ever actually use scripture.

The fact is that scripture only occasionally talks about itself! Today is one of those occasions, and so I pause to talk about what scripture is and what it isn’t.

Upon their ordination, Episcopal priests take a vow declaring that they believe the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God, and that the Holy Scriptures “contain all things necessary to salvation.” (You can read the full vow on page 526 of The Book of Common Prayer.) That sort of vow has been in place a long time; it was part of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in sixteenth century England.

Notice what the vow does not say. It does not say that everything in scripture is necessary to salvation. It says simply that scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation.” Furthermore, our vow does not claim that the Bible is inerrant, or without error. That sort of claim has never been a majority claim in the Episcopal Church, or the Anglican Communion of Churches.

The inerrancy of the Bible is not part of our tradition.

But let me note something else. The Bible itself never claims to be inerrant! When I am arguing with people who believe in the inerrancy and the authority of the Bible, I ask them for one thing: “If you believe so much in the inerrant authority of the Bible, give the chapter and verse where the bible itself claims it is inerrant.”

It’s not there. The Bible itself never claims to be inerrant.

But the Bible does make some extraordinary claims for itself, or at least for the scriptures. One of its major claims for itself is today’s passage in 2 Timothy. We think it was Paul who speaking to his young disciple Timothy; it was certainly some authoritative figure speaking to a larger church. And he mentions scripture, the sacred writings. Remember, if he writes during the middle of the first century, AD, much of the rest of the New Testament has not been written yet, or certainly regarded as scripture yet!

He says, “As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,… and how from early childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3: 14-17).

This is a beautiful passage, speaking of the merits of sacred scripture for teaching and correction and righteousness, yet the passage never claims that the sacred scriptures are inerrant or without error.

Unfortunately, our Christian past is littered with outlandish attempts to interpret the Bible so that it can be symbolized as without error. Some of the more amusing have to with harmonizing various accounts of the same event. In case you haven’t noticed, the Bible contains many stories which seem to refer to the same event.

In fact, the very first two chapters of the Bible contain two very different accounts of creation – two different accounts of the same event. So, according to “the Bible,” who was created first? Humanity or all the other animals? Genesis 1:24 ff. declares that all the living creatures were created first, before humanity was created in Genesis 1:27. But in our Bible’s second story, Genesis 2:19 says that God created all the other animals after it was found that the man was alone and had no helper.

Two different stories. There is no need to harmonize them or even talk about inerrancy. But this “harmonization” principle has persisted among fundamentalists and inerrancy believers. The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple occurs at the beginning of his ministry according the Gospel of John, and at the end of his ministry according to Matthew, Luke, and Mark. How do inerrancy believers harmonize that difference? They claim that Jesus must have cleansed the Temple twice in his ministry!

That’s all well and good, until you get to something like the Ascension. Luke, chapter 24 seems to indicate that the ascension of Jesus occurred on the very same day as the Resurrection? Yet, Acts chapter 1 explicitly says that the Ascension occurred forty days after the resurrection. James Barr, in his book called Fundamentalism claims that he has heard conservative scholars offer, in all seriousness, the explanation that Jesus must have ascended twice – once on the Day of Resurrection, then he came back down, and he ascended again forty days later.

Obviously, this is a silly and extreme example. The point is this. There is a difference between inerrancy and inspiration. I believe that sacred scripture is inspired of God. That inspiration is why I read scripture, and contemplate scripture, and study scripture. The words contain the breath and energy of God. I do not read the Bible because it is inerrant and literal; I read the Bible because it is inspired. God breathes through the Bible’s words.

Even though we often speak of the Bible as the Word of God, even that phrase deserves explanation. “Word of God” is not the same as “words of God.” It is difficult to make the claim that the very words of the Bible are also the literal words of God. It is far more accurate to say that the Bible contains the “the capital W” Word of God.

For Christians, the ultimate Word of God is not even the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. That is what the Gospel of John means when it says, at chapter one, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That Word of God is the living Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate standard and guide of our faith.

I have one more favorite passage when it comes to Bible study. Hebrews 4.12 claims that “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” I believe that verse refers to both concepts of word: Jesus as the Word and wisdom of God, and the Bible as the Word of God.

The point is that the Word of God is alive, not objectified and literalized and harmonized into rigidity. It is because the Word of God is living and active, that it really does mean different things from generation to generation. Indeed, it speaks differently to us this year than it did last year. The text has certainly not changed, but our lives and cultures have changed. Only a living and active Word of God is worth studying year after year, and week after week,

So, the discipline of Bible study is serious stuff. (I say to my Bible students, “take the Bible seriously, but not always literally!”). But it is also fun stuff. God speaks to us in various ways in each of the various sixty-six books of our scripture.

It is when we actually read the Bible that we discover its brilliance and authority. It is when we actually read the Bible that we discover it is certainly inspired stuff. The authority of scripture is that it is inspired. And it is when we actually read the Bible that we find it points to someone else. The words of scripture always point to the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In Clyde Edgerton’s novel, young Henry Dampier introduced himself by saying he was selling Bibles, “I’m selling Bible’s, ma’am. God’s Holy Word.”

But that’s not me, Sam Candler. I am not selling anything. I am preaching Jesus Christ as the Word of God. I want people to be inspired by Jesus. “I’m preaching Jesus, ma’am. God’s Holy Word.”

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip


for the Dean’s Forum at the Cathedral of St. Philip
17 October 2010

The subject for this Dean’s Forum is inspired by the lectionary text for today, a passage from Paul’s Second Epistle To Timothy: “All scripture is inspired by God,” it begins, “and is useful for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for training in righteousness.” I have also preached on this text today. My remarks in this forum will repeat some themes of that sermon, but I will also expand on the sermon, too.

“All scripture is inspired by God.” That is our text today. Does it mean that the Bible should always be taken literally? Does it mean that the Bible is always inerrant?

You all remember the story of the young fool, who thought he knew what the authority of the Bible meant. It meant that all of the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God, no matter what culture or context. He could turn to any page for guidance. So, he thought, “I’ll just turn to any page in the Bible and do what it says!” The first verse he turned to Matthew 27: 5. It said “Judas went out and hanged himself.”

“Wait a minute!” he cried out. “This could not be right. I’ll try again.” He opened the book and let the pages fall again. This time his fingers came to Luke 10:37. It said, “Go thou and do likewise.”

“No!” He tried a third time. This time, the Bible, the holy Word of God opened to John 13.27: “What you must do, do quickly.”

The Bible does not come out well when it is interpreted by folks who do not use their heads. Like someone once said (including Mark Twain and William Sloane Coffin), “The Bible is something like a mirror. If an ass looks in, you cannot expect an apostle to look out.”

But the Bible does not come out well even when people do use their heads!

When Henry the Eighth struggled to have an heir to the throne of England, he thought his wife’s miscarriages were a result of God’s judgment. After all, that wife (Catherine of Aragon) had been, first, his brother’s wife! When his brother had died, Henry had married his deceased brother’s wife, Catherine. Folks had used the bible to justify that marriage.

It is right there at Deuteronomy 25.5 : "If brethren dwell together and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry unto a stranger; her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him as wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her." (That is certainly a scriptural injunction if I have ever heard one.)

But when Catherine did not have a male child, Henry began to sense that another section of scripture took precedence. Maybe Leviticus 20.21 was correct. Leviticus 20.21 says that “if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; and they shall be childless." Maybe, thought Henry, that was why he was childless.

This was a serious issue!

You know, as well as I, how often certain verses of the Bible have been used to justify our arguments. People thought hard and long about these issues. The Bible was certainly used to justify the continuation of slavery. Consider Ephesians 6.5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” It took a long time for folks to raise up those principles in the Bible which show slavery as a travesty; we created a whole difference culture, a healthier culture, that foreswore slavery.

The Bible has also been used to deny women leadership roles in the Church. First Corinthians 14, verse 34 clearly says “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (emphasis mine). It took a long time before we relied more on Galatians 3:28: “In Christ there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.”

In fact, as soon as we begin reading the Bible, the observant among us notice the major difference between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, the very first two chapters in the Bible!

If we believe scripture is inspired by God, must we also believe that wives are subject to husbands? Must we believe that slaves ought always to obey their masters? Must we also believe that we should not eat shellfish, like lobster and shrimp? What do we make of certain cultural assumptions in scripture that are no longer part of our world?

Must we believe that the sun stood still? Must we believe that Moses had horns? One version of the inspired Bible said that.

Must we believe that God is literally a rock? Must we believe that Jesus is literally a Lamb? Is belief in the inspiration of scripture the same as taking every jot and tittle as inerrantly and literally as we can?

No. Bible interpretation is a careful and sacred art. It is not served well by absolutists and litigators. Inspiration does not mean inerrancy; and inspiration does not mean literalism.

The inspiration of Scripture is a much higher doctrine than inerrancy or literalism. Because the word “inspired” here at 2 Timothy 3:16 means “God-breathed.” Inspiration means that God lives in these words of scripture. Every piece of scripture, Paul tells his young student, Timothy, “all scripture,” is breathed of God. Of course, Paul was not even speaking literally of his own writings when he said this, and none of the four gospels had even been written yet! Yet, Pauls’s words do mean something sacred to us; something lives in them. When Paul speaks of scripture, we know that God uses his words to mean something for us, in our time.

The inspiration of scripture means that we can know God through these beautiful writings. There is an undeniable air of God, breath of God, in the words of the Bible. Sure, we have relatively minor concerns about certain historical errors or differences. But those minor details are blown away by the mighty gale of God.

The breath of God becomes a gale of grace when we read about the magnificence of creation, when we read about the prodigal son or the good Samaritan, or the story of the Exodus, or Psalm 23, or the feeding of the five thousand, or the hymn to love at First Corinthians 13. The story of Job is in scripture because even suffering is close to the life of God. The painful psalms, the disappointments, even the sins of Bible are there to remind us an overwhelming grace of God.

The inspiration of scripture means that we find the breath of God in scripture. We find the air of God. We find the whispering wind of new life. We discover the gale of grace. This is why the church shall always read scripture together. If any of you are not in a Bible Study these days, join one! Ask one of the clergy to begin a Bible study for you.

There is nothing more foundational to our spiritual life. These words have formed communities of faith for two thousand years. This wind of God is not subject to our strange, absolutist rules about inerrancy. This wind of God cannot always be seen by the lens of literalism. The spirit of God, the breath of God, goes way beyond literalism and inerrancy.

Let’s take a look, then, at how the Spirit of God interprets scripture within the Bible itself. If the Bible is so authoritative, let’s look at how the Bible interprets itself.

First of all, as I said today’s sermon, the Bible never calls itself inerrant. The Bible itself never claims inerrancy for itself. If we were inerrancy believers, we might think that it should. We might wish that it did. But it doesn’t. The Bible, through its writers and speakers, calls itself inspired, but it never calls itself inerrant.

Second, the Bible itself knows that events have to be interpreted. For instance, dreams must be interpreted. Consider all the places in scripture where people dream. Joseph becomes a hero in Genesis 40 and 41 because he is able to interpret the dreams of two prisoners and then the dreams of pharaoh. Another Joseph, engaged to be married to Mary, had a dream in which he was told Mary was with child. That dream had to be interpreted!

And then, there are events that seem like dreams, such as that day when Peter and James and John climbed a mountain with Jesus and their eyes were heavy with sleep. They saw Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. What does that mean without some interpretation?

In the Book of Daniel, chapter nine, the prophet actually claims to be re-interpreting the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke quite clearly of a seventy-year exile of the Jews; Daniel re-interprets those seventy years to mean the devastation of Jerusalem.

In other words, the Bible often re-interprets itself.

And there is probably no one better at re-interpreting the Bible than Jesus himself. Jesus, of course, often interprets his own material. He spoke often in parables, which were not always clear, but which certainly allowed for variances in interpretation. Jesus was good enough, on occasion, to interpret his own parables –like he does for the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mark 4)—but sometimes he implies that the parables are told deliberately so that people would not understand.

Should we ever re-interpret scripture? So that it seems to mean something different from what it originally said? Well, again, if look to Jesus for an example or model, the answer is clearly Yes.

Does anybody hear remember this phrase: “You have heard it said… but I say to you?” What about this magnificent phrase: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Where had they heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth?” Well, right in scripture! At Exodus 21:24! Jesus himself is saying that Exodus 21 does not apply in the way it seemed to apply in earlier generations.

Now, this is a particularly fascinating example, because this law –“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—is generally thought to have been quite a progressive development in religious law. In the early Near Eastern times, much retribution was designed to be stronger and more forceful than the original fault. So, if someone killed one of your tribe, you were to kill ten of their tribe. If someone knocked out one of your eyes, you were permitted to actually take the life of the perpetrator. In that environment, Exodus 21:24 was thought to be quite a progressive and rational development. “No, you can’t kill someone who took out your eye. Rather, let it be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (This law is known as the lex taliones.) Jesus actually re-interprets what was a progressive law at the time!

Scriptural injunctions, we might therefore conclude, are not set in stone – even the laws. We have Jesus’ own example of how we might interpret, and re-interpret, scripture.

And then we have Saint Paul, too. In Galatians, chapter four, Paul refers to Abraham and his two sons: Ishmael (the older) and Isaac. He says, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, etc. etc.” Then, Paul says something very curious indeed. That was chapter 4, verse 22. Two verses later, in verse 24, Paul says, “Now, this is an allegory: these women are two covenants.” And then he proceeds to interpret what may or may not have been a literal event as an allegorical event, about whether we should lives as slaves or as free!

Is the event meant to be taken literally or allegorically? Saint Paul states literally that he takes it as an allegory!

Saint Paul does the same sort of thing at Second Corinthians chapter three. He is talking about the literal veil that surrounded Moses when Moses came down from the mountain; but he now interprets it as a metaphorical veil, referring to the misunderstanding of those who follow the old covenant.

All this is to say that the Bible has the spiritual freedom to interpret itself. The Bible never claims inerrancy and infallibility for itself. The Bible, through its writers and speakers, re-interprets itself. It does not always adhere to the strict and literal, absolutist and fundamentalist interpretation.

This is because, at its best, the Bible is about spirit, inspiration, the breath of God. The Bible is authoritative because it is inspired, because it is of the Spirit.

And the Spirit of God will always show us the Word of God. Remember, the Word of God, with a capital “W,” is not the Bible. The “capital W” Word of God is always Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became incarnate and dwelt among us.” (John 1.1, 14). I believe that the words of scripture are not meant to be scattered and thrown about like bullets in our little theological wars. We study the “small w” words of scripture so that God can show us the “capital W” Word in Jesus Christ.

Is all scripture inspired by God? It sure is. I cannot prove it by logic or history or by pointing to some feeble human idea of inerrancy. I know that scripture is inspired by God through its own evidence. I know that scripture is inspired by God because the Bible has taught me grace and truth. The Bible has taught me that Jesus is the Word of God.

The Very Reverend Sam Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

20 September 2010


For the Sunday “Dean’s Forum”
The Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta
19 September 2010

Bishop John Shelby Spong has been visiting Atlanta and the Cathedral during the last three days, and I devote this Dean’s Forum to a review and response of his work.

I like Jack Spong. I invited him to speak at the Cathedral of St. Philip because we are a place of prayer for all people, and I admire his intellectual courage. He is a thinker, and he takes history and logic and science seriously. As many of you know, I love science and astronomy and physics. I like to take those subjects seriously, too!

This morning, I respond to his recent words with respect. He has a wisdom accumulated from many years of reading and teaching. He was educated at Charlotte, North Carolina public schools. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served as an Episcopal priest in Lynchburg, Virginia, and in Richmond, Virginia. Though I think he loves the South, as I do, he was also the Episcopal Bishop of Newark (New Jersey)!

And he was a loyal and controversial Bishop of Newark. He did much for the role of women in the Episcopal Church. He did much for the acceptance of the ministry of homosexual persons in the Church. And, as most of you know, I am in his camp on those issues. During those years, he was willing to tackle, and to talk about, all sorts of other important and critical issues.

But the other reason I like him, besides his being a Southerner, is that he knows the Bible! (Maybe he knows the Bible because he is a Southerner!)

However, I do not always agree with Jack Spong’s approach; and, thus, I do not always agree with his conclusions. I do think he is a man of faith. He claimed yesterday that he believes Jesus is Lord. That little phrase is key in the Christian life. He is a follower of Jesus. And anyone who follows Jesus is also a friend of mine.

Today, I want to review some of what he talked about, and I also want to respond. Some of what he produces can be quite unsettling to churchgoers. I heard from several people in this parish who were wary about his coming. I heard from others who were thrilled he was coming! In several respects, his questions are not my questions, but I know his questions are shared by many here at the Cathedral.

Thus, I need to respond. And, in fact, I love responding to him! I will speak first about what I admire and support in his presentations. Then, I will present some of my own concerns and differences in our way of thinking. Then, I will open this forum to questions and comments.

First of all, I admire the way Spong takes science, history, and contemporary scholarship seriously. This is critical in the spiritual life, and in the Christian life. He correctly joins the physical and the spiritual life. A good spiritual life is always physical!

He is right to complain that so many Christians avoid the hard questions. How can we believe that God lives somewhere high in the sky when we know that galaxies exist so far away from us?

Some of his examples are rather ridiculous, but when Spong obsesses on old literal features of the faith, he essentially reminds us that our belief system cannot be literal. Our faith should not depend on old scientific categories of sex and biology and physics.

I honor, and will always honor the liberal intellectual pursuit of truth, and I speak with Jack Spong against all forms of naïve fundamentalism. It is a shallow and fearful way of thinking; and it is a dangerous way to follow God.

I have many non-church friends in Atlanta, and around the world, who appreciate Spong’s willingness to tackle hard issues and engage the world. These are people who are seekers, who have not always found the institutional church accommodating to their questions. I want to say to them that we at the Cathedral of St. Philip do accommodate their questions. I believe God accommodates their questions.

I also admire the way Spong knows the Bible. He gets a few biblical citations wrong, but he knows his stuff. “It’s in the book,” he kept reminding us; and he’s right. The best way to learn not to take the bible literally is to read it.

Here is what he said at The Chataqua Institute recently: “Anything that is written down is always finite, mortal, human, and filled with error – error of perception if nothing else. For all words are time bound, all words are time warped. All words are the product of the age in which they were created. That never produces unchanging truth. That never produces literalism.” (from a recording of his Chataqua lectures –June 29, 2010.)

And this: “The bible has been used time and again for causes for which it is not worthy. When the Bible is used in public debate, it almost always loses…” (Chataqua lectures, June 29, 2010). This is so true.

“So much of the bible makes no literal sense,” he says. Spong tells the story of an astrophysicist who sarcastically posits that the doctrine of the Ascension of Jesus, when taken literally, means that Jesus has not left our galaxy yet, that is, if he was travelling at the speed of light, roughly 186,000 mile per second. This is one of those rather absurd examples, but it’s a fun one.

In particular, I like Spong’s dependence upon Paul Tillich, who wrote predominantly in the 1040s through the 1960s. I am a student of Paul Tillich myself – not literally, I mean; but I drank deeply at his well when I was in college and seminary. I wrote my college comps on Tillich.

Tillich talked of the God beyond god. He reminded us that every definition we have of god ultimately falls short of completely describing God. And he is right. Spong picks up on this when he says, repeatedly, over the weekend, that “our experience of God is not the same as our explanation of God.”

“Experiences are eternal,” Spong said at one time, “Explanations are not.” That is good stuff. Paul Tillich was acutely aware of how our explanations and descriptions of God could actually become idolatrous for us.

Our inclination is to defend our notion of God so vehemently that we miss understanding the real nature of the real God. And so Tillich set about re-framing even how we speak about God. He called god, “the God beyond god,” and “the Ground of our Being.”

I agree with Tillich. Those of you who have heard me preach and teach know that I like that phrase, “the ground of being.” God is that greater than which nothing is. Our very earnest and very thoughtful and very erudite descriptions of God cannot, and can never, completely contain and describe all of who God is.

Jack Spong speaks eloquently on these matters, and I enjoy listening to him. He is witty and insightful and very well-informed. And, finally, he is loving. Yesterday, here at the Cathedral, he ended up talking beautifully about the God of love.

It is by “living fully, and loving wastefully,” he said, that we experience the fullness of God in our lives. Living fully and loving wastefully.

I agree with that! But those are not new phrases in the Christian religion. “Loving wastefully” is what the prodigal father did, in the parable we name “the prodigal son.” (The word “prodigal” means wasteful or extravagantly lavish). Ireneaus, back in the second century AD, is famous for uttering, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Living fully. That is exactly what Jack Spong is saying 1900 years later. The glory of God is a human being fully alive.

However, let me say some words, some important words, about how I see God – and religion—differently from Jack Spong.

Again, it may be that he and I understand and speak of God in quite similar ways. But Spong is far more critical of religion than I am. He continues to complain that our language is outmoded, that it cannot carry the meaning that it should anymore. He complained all through his talk about the old prayers of our prayer books. Too much emphasis on miserable humanity. Too much singing about blood.

On the surface, he is right. (That’s why we don’t use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer anymore!). Religion cannot be based literally on the wretchedness of humanity and the blood of Jesus. Religion is always in danger of stifling human creativity and oppressing people with its power. Religion can be a burden. I hope we all know that.

But here’s a major difference between Jack Spong and me. Jack Spong takes things far more cerebrally and materialistically and objectively than I do. He takes things like religious language far more literally than I do.

I believe that religious language, and biblical language has a far more poetic and imaginative dimension than he seems to. For that reason, religious language can carry the weight of many, many more interpretations than just a literal one.

When I say the Nicene Creed, for instance, I am not thinking about the literal circumstances of how Jesus might have been born of a woman who had never had sex. That is just not part of what I am doing when I say the Creed.

What I am doing is stretching the limits of my imagination about the holiness of Jesus, and the open and willing faith of Mary his mother. For me, the doctrine of the virgin birth is a miracle – or sign, because I do think “sign” is a better word – because transcendent God deigns to be manifest in ordinary human flesh. I do not need a biological answer to the virgin birth question. Jack Spong’s questions, on the other hand, do seem to need a biological answer.

I simply do not read the bible, either, as pure science or pure history. I am not bothered about whether Jesus literally ascended from the earth forty days after his resurrection. The doctrine means much more to me than a man flying around after his death.

You who come to church Sunday after Sunday, and you hear us Episcopal preachers take on the themes of feast days – like the Ascension, Pentecost, even Easter itself—you hear us do the work of translation. You hear us translate the biblical and liturgical and religious images into something – we all hope—is meaningful today!

There was one line in Jack Spong’s last book that was most revelatory for me. Now, many lines were revelatory; but there was on passage , in particular, that described a major difference between him and me. It is towards the end of the book, when he describing how much he has read. (You who heard Spong know that he likes to talk about how much he has read and who he has talked to!)

He says that, as Bishop of Newark, “I developed a passion for reading books on tape. This was before the days of iPods. While driving around the diocese, I was always listening to a book via my tape-player. I managed in this way to read some eighty books a year during my twenty-four-year career as bishop. Almost none of these books were novels, which appealed to me almost not at all. They were rather history, biography, science, political science, economics, and psychology.” (page 199, Eternal Life.)

He says that he took time to read, but that he read no fiction, no novels, no poetry. That is the difference. That is the difference between his study and mine. I need the poetic and artistic imagination. For me, authentic religious language is about creativity and imagination. It is poetry, not science.

Apparently, when he was at Chataqua earlier this summer, Jack Spong mentioned that he had had a conversation with Alan Jones, the former dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Alan is an old friend of mine, too; and I know Alan thinks far more like me than like Jack Spong. Anyway, Spong mentioned that he had decided how he was different from Alan Jones. Spong said that he, Spong, was a left brain thinker; and Jones was a right brain thinker. That’s another way of describing how I, too, part ways with Jack Spong. I am a right brain thinker; he is a left brain thinker.

Right brain thinking has driven my own poetry and imagination and art and music. Left brain thinking is about objectivity and mechanics. This may be a reason that, while I like Jack Spong, I do not follow him closely. His dilemmas are not my dilemmas. It does not bother me that the virgin birth cannot be described scientifically. That is exactly its power. Christian doctrines are not meant to be scientific and literal for me.

I need church, because I need the history of words and traditions that have carried many, many levels of meaning. The word is “multivalent.” Religious language, and religious symbolism, have multivalent meanings. Good words of any sort carry a multitude of meaning. They do not mean only one thing. Poets know this. Fiction writers know this. Religious people know this. So, liturgical words are difficult, but they are important.

I cannot follow fundamentalism of any sort, whether it be conservative fundamentalism or liberal fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the inability to admit that one might be wrong. Fundamentalism is any closed system which cannot admit questioning and critique.

Let me say a word here about the wider Episcopal Church, beyond Jack Spong. In the Episcopal Church right now, fundamentalists of both liberal and conservative persuasions are commanding most of the public conversation. Their polemic, and the way the media presents the polemic, has made much of the public oblivious to a vast and broader Episcopal way that refuses to be constricted by fundamentalism. Some people call this vast and broad way a “Middle Way.” I prefer the phrase, “Comprehensive Way.”

An Episcopal comprehensive way discovers truth along both extremes. A comprehensive way does not simply stay in the middle and avoid extremes. The greater way is able to see truth at both poles of an orbit, but the greater way does not stay at either particular pole.

There was one more thing Jack Spong did say yesterday about the Church that I appreciate. Someone wisely asked him, “If he believed all this, why should anyone go to church?”

He replied that our task was to be fully human, fully alive, and no one becomes fully alive, no one loves fully, as an individual. Becoming fully human, and loving fully, is a communal activity. I agree. That is one of the great reasons to participate in the messy, crazy, faithful, betraying community we call Church. We stumble over language in the church, we hurt each other, but we also forgive each other, we get it right a lot, and we love one another into the fullness of humanity.

Finally, Jack Spong has declared in many places that that religion is dying. I suppose that comment is designed to wake people up, so that they will become aware, and do something. But, again, that is not a new comment for me.

For me, everything is dying. We are always dying. That is one of the chief pieces of religious wisdom that informs and inspires me. That principle is at the heart of classical Christianity.

So, if someone asks me, “Is traditional Christianity dying?” I answer, “Of course it is.” Christianity is always dying, but it is always being reborn, too. We are always carrying about the death of Christ, and I quote two magnificent passages from Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).

And, one of my favorite verses of all time, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51).

We will not die. But we will be changed. Paul spoke of our individual bodies. But he could as easily been speaking of the Christian Church. A healthy church is always dying to something, and being reborn into something else. That cycle is at the heart of who we are.

In fact, it’s another reason to belong to church, to belong to a Christian community, to participate in religious ritual. That ritual, and that rich, poetic, language, teaches us how to change gracefully. How to die gracefully. How to be born again gracefully.

The reason I disagree with Jack Spong on the matter of religion is that I take the word “religion” in a much broader way than he does. I think religion is inevitable. Many of you have heard me speak on the question, “What does it mean to be spiritual and not religious?” My answer is, “It doesn’t mean much.” The person who is spiritual and not religious does not have a community; does not a body. Probably does not have a life.

Because every structure is a religion of some sort. Religion is inevitable! If you are a Jack Spong groupie, you could gather all his books up and compile your own ritual and liturgy. Of course, he would be appalled if you did that. But the point is that you can take his words, too, and create a limiting, finite structure that would qualify as a religion. But if you didn’t build on those words and thoughts, they would be out of date by tomorrow.

At its worst, science can be an unchanging religion, too! The scientist who refuses to grow, who becomes a fundamentalist, is also dangerous. A few years ago, Krista Tippett interviewed on her radio show (“Speaking of Faith”) a geneticist named Lindon Eaves. A curious part of Dr. Eaves’ life is that he is also an Episcopal priest. Lindon Eaves, an Episcopal priest and a geneticist, offered these remarks:

“If you really look at human experience, the truth is that we're all living a life of experiment, and I mean in every aspect of our lives. I mean, you know, the — so you can — you can either think of let's say the creeds of the great traditions, as it were, as telling you what you ought to think, or you can say they are in some sense comparable to theories of science. They are the best distillations of where we've been. But we don't approach reality treating those models as if they're the last word. We treat them as operational hypotheses.”

I loved that comment. What if the creeds are operational theories in the same way that scientific theories are? That makes a lot of sense! We need both of them to live fully and to love wastefully

Every structure, and organization, in our human life is a religion of some sort. And every religion is a “theory” of some sort. I do not mean a theory like a guess. I mean an operational theory, a theory that we need. I mean a theory that works, like the theory of evolution. There is no way to be a scientist without a theory, and there is no way to be spiritual without being religious.

So, yes. Traditional religion is always dying, but it is always being born again, too. I believe in the Resurrection part. I say, “Be a part of its death if you must, but try to be part of its resurrection, too.” It’s the reason I am gladly and faithfully, not just a Christian, but also a member of the Christian Church.

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip
Atlanta, Georgia
19 September 2010

01 September 2010


I live today because someone has labored. I live today because many, many, people have labored. On this Labor Day, I give thanks for them.

I eat today because someone served. Someone cooked. A grocer sold me the food. Or a local farmer at a farmers market sold it to me directly. A distributor supplied food to the grocers. A laborer tilled the soil. Another farmer planted and planned. Years before that, someone else prepared and cared for the very soil.

I wear clothes today that someone else sewed. Someone designed. Someone developed the store. Someone else marketed and advertised and kept the books and answered the telephones.

I wake up in a house that someone planned and built. Someone financed. Someone loaned. Someone brokered. I used money that someone paid me. Someone advised the investments. Someone did the banking. Someone else arrived to repair plumbing and wiring and appliances.

I drive a car that someone built. Someone marketed. Someone built the factory. I use public transportation, busses and trains, that someone else built. Someone planned. Someone else sold the bonds. Someone else drove.

I live in a city that someone manages. Someone leads. Someone polices. Someone administers and protects and cleans and keeps the utilities going. Someone teaches students who will be my neighbors and future laborers with me. Someone provided all the communication devices and techniques around us.

I am alive today because someone diagnosed my illness in a hospital. Someone nurses. Someone prescribes medicine and attends to medical emergencies and advises my future health.

I write these words on a computer that someone researched and developed. Someone labored for the electricity that powers it. I read a book that someone wrote. I read a newspaper that someone laid out. For all our industries, someone fabricated the designs, mined the metal, built the machines, and then recycled the metal. Someone developed the commercial building that houses offices for all these laborers. Someone sold the land.

My soul is inspired today because someone sang, someone else painted, someone wrote, someone kissed me. Someone preached, someone taught, someone challenged me.

I live a fruitful life because many, many people have labored. I know that they did not always labor for me in particular. Maybe they labored because they needed a job. Maybe they labored because they loved someone and wanted to help them. But their labor has also helped me.

All our labor, together, is what makes us a society, a culture, a civilization. I give thanks for that labor today, for each and every vocation that God has given to each and every one of us. For those without jobs, I pray for their quick relationships with a fruitful vocation. God wants each of us not just to have a job, but to have a vocation - a calling-through which we can be proud that we are serving the world. When our labor makes a positive difference in the world around us, we truly have a vocation; and vocations, working together, create a beloved community. I give thanks for those vocations this year. Thanks to each and every one of you who serve!

19 August 2010


I pause this day to give thanks for the ministry of Clark Pinnock, who died unexpectedly on August 15, 2010. It is fitting to link here to the obituary published by Christianity Today, which is, of course, the leading magazine for evangelical Christianity.

Clark Pinnock was one of my heroes during the height of my own journey within evangelical Christianity. In college in California at the time (1974-1978), I was a leader in the Occidental Christian Fellowship, and I attended both Hollywood Presbyterian Church (where Lloyd Ogilvie preached) and All Saints Episcopal Church (when George Regas was rector). I also participated at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, and I actually attended classes at Fuller Theological Seminary during my free time.

I believe it was at a retreat sponsored by Lake Avenue where I first met Clark Pinnock, and I was immediately attracted to his quick intellect and his warm, engaging, and open spirit. He was thoughtful, orthodox, and open to the Spirit. I liked those qualities.

Apparently, those qualities also created friction in the more partisan evangelical circles of the day. Pinnock began to question his own views on scriptural authority, and he allowed that non-Christians might gain heaven. He wrote more progressively on both those issues, and I usually agreed with him. I loved those collegial arguments within evangelical Christianity, of good will in those days.

Then, I lost track of Clark Pinnock. Every now and then, I would read with interest that certain evangelical groups had ostracized him. But I was proud of his journey, and I was especially appreciative of his concept of "open theism," a fairly direct refutation of classical Calvinism.

Most evangelical groups, and certainly all Calvinist and Reformed types, have been quite wary of me, too, for some time, though I share deep commitments to biblical revelation. I want to be on Clark Pinnock's side. There's a wideness in God's mercy, and I believe fervently in that mercy which welcomes Clark Pinnock into the kingdom.

18 August 2010


Today, 18 August, is the remembrance of my man, William Porcher DuBose. I have spoken of him previously (my post of 26 Aug 2009), when I quoted these lovely words of his:

“Contraries do not necessarily contradict, nor need opposites always oppose. What we want is not to surrender or abolish our differences, but to unite and compose them. We need the truth of every variant opinion and the light from every opposite point of view. The least fragment is right in so far as it stands for a part of the truth.” (from The Gospel in the Gospels (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1906, page ix).

William Porcher DuBose remains a pure representative of stained and incarnational Anglican theology for me. In particular, he was faithful, in a comprehensive way, to God through Jesus Christ our Lord, while also living authentically as a Southerner through the tragedy of the American Civil War.

He was, if you will, “entangled.” His lot in life was to live in several places at once. In fact, I believe that is the lot for all of us in life. We live in the Body of Christ, the Christian Church, which nurtures and challenges and informs us in the catholic faith. But we also live as human beings in our space and time, in a particular culture during a particular generation. It is absurd to consider any of us apart from our culture and generation.

William Porcer DuBose was able to use his entanglement to forge an incarnational theology that was revelatory both for his time, and for succeeding times. Actually, one might make the case that his theology is more valuable for our time than it was for his time.

10 August 2010


In a wise and provocative essay, Simon Critchley demonstrates again how the existentialist hero of Christianity, Soren Kierkegaard, speaks equally as forcefully to atheists as to believers. In "The Rigor of Love" (from "Opinionator," in The New York Times, 8 August 2010), Critchley argues that non-believers might come closer to meeting the exacting demand to "love one another" than do creedalistic and ritualistic believers.

Says Critchley, "...faith is a proclamation or pledge that brings the inward subject of faith into being over against an external everydayness. Such a proclamation is as true for the non-Christian as for the Christian. Indeed, it is arguably more true for the non-Christian, because their faith is not supported by the supposed guarantee of baptism, creedal dogma, regular church attendance or some notion that virtue will be rewarded with happiness if not here on earth, then in the afterlife. Thus, paradoxically, non-Christian faith might be said to reveal the true nature of the faith that Christ sought to proclaim. Even — and indeed especially — those who are denominationally faithless can have an experience of faith. If faith needs to be underpinned by some sort of doctrinal security, then inwardness becomes externalized and the strenuous rigor of faith evaporates."

Critchley's argument here uses the unfortunate straw man of simplistic and non-thinking Christianity, the "Christian" who claims that merely because he/she attends church and believes perfunctorily the ancient doctrines and creeds, then he/she is a proper believer. (Though I acknowledge that most Christians these days, and probably most of humanity, do not think strenuously enough, I do not agree that Critchley's sort of simplistic Christian actually exists; every Christian I know also proclaims that he or she is a Christian through "faith" or "action," not merely through having been correctly baptized or through believing the correct cerebral doctrines).

Be that as it may, Critchley has uncovered, in this essay, the challenging force of Kierkegaard's examination of faith. It is a deeply subjective, existential, voluntary appropriation of the infinite -- either of the infinite God or of the infinite existence of another person. Critchley wisely notes that, for Kierkegaard, the deep faith in, or even love for, another person, is also a reaching out for the transcendent God; and this is where Critchley claims that some non-believers are better able to sense transcendence than are believers.

Critchley's argument would be wiser had he settled for the more modest claim that non-believers are equally able to apprehend faith as are believers. There is no need here to posit a superiority of atheistic faith over believers' faith. The mere equating of the two is forceful enough.

Of course, as a believer, I would claim that the equating of the two provides another argument for a transcendent God. I would use Critchley's argument, from subjective faith, as the foundation for the existence of some sort of transcendence. It is this transcendence, whom Christians name God, that drives us beyond our inner selves.

Again, the fierce subjectivity of Soren Kierkegaard shines as a beacon for both the faithful and the faithless in our age. Even for Simon Critchley, an admitted atheist it seems, Kierkegaard's examination of faith provides a route into transcendence, into a reality beyond our ordinary human existence. I am grateful for his essay.


I admire, and often agree with, the opinions of Ross Douthat, who has the moral courage to contribute comparatively conservative essays to The New York Times. On 8 August 2010, he tries to put forth an argument for the distinctive and preferential nature of lifelong heterosexual marriages (in "The Marriage Ideal," New York Times, 8 August 2010).

He wisely refuses to accept the more common arguments against same-sex marriage, such as: "Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril. Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children." He acknowledges that these arguments are wrong.

However, his inability to state clearly the positive and preferential arguments for heterosexual marriage should be an example to us all. Douthat can say that such relationships are "unique" and "distinctive," but he cannot tell us why their distinction should be preferred over the existence of same-sex marriage.

All he can say is:

"So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

 This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support."

Again, Douthat is surely correct to point out the distinct features of lifelong heterosexual marriage. But he has not therefore made the argument that same-sex marriages should not be permitted. Thus, he represents a perspective that is surely prevalent across the generally tolerant United States of America. Most people are heterosexual and would prefer heterosexual marriage if marriage is in their plans. However, more and more people also do not want to deny gay and lesbian neighbors the opportunity to make a similar sort of lifelong, monogamous commitment.

Still, there are many people (including many politicians running for office this year) who do not want to admit that heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage are the same thing. If they are not the same thing, then, is one institution to be preferred over the other?

I do not believe that one needs to make the case for preferential treatment. Douthat's inability to argue an actual preference for heterosexual marriage should be a lesson for us. It is difficult to argue successfully a rational or logical preference for heterosexual over homosexual marriage. Therefore, let them both exist.

The existence of homosexual marriages will not be a threat to legitimate and life-giving heterosexual marriages. In fact, the willingness --and need-- of homosexual persons to enter into the same types of lifelong and life-giving commitments as heterosexual persons is actually part of the conservative argument for marriage itself. It is a conservative position, not just a liberal one, that gays and lesbians should order their lives and relationships by entering into lifelong and disciplined relationships with the one they love.