21 February 2012


As Lent approaches, I was quite intrigued by the lengthy article, “Religion for Everyone,” by Alain de Botton, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal this past Saturday, February 18, 2012. Surely his book on the same subject expounds his argument; but clearly proposes that non-religious and secular people might learn something about “community’ from the Christian tradition.
Indeed, the article seems to urge a non-religious religion! He says “I, for one, believe that it is possible to reclaim our sense of community—and that we can do so, moreover, without having to build upon a religious foundation.” Hence, a “Religion for Everyone.”

I have two reactions. First, I certainly welcome the positive acknowledgements from De Botton:  He says, “Everyone stands to learn something from the ways in which religion delivers sermons, promotes morality, engenders a spirit of community, inspires travel, trains minds and encourages gratitude at the beauty of life. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both the believing and the secular variety, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.”

This is good and serious stuff. My second reaction, however, is to question whether the same sort of community that the Church has grown would be available to people who do not, or cannot, share participation in the specific Christian tradition. I remember a non-believing friend of mine, for instance, who spoke to me about church. “My church,” he said, “is the folk dancing group I meet with every Friday evening. We are a close and committed group. We care for each other, and dancing is our common ritual each week.” I think I knew what he meant, but I hope that the Christian Church is much sturdier than that.

Perhaps De Botton has the same sort of thing in mind when he proposes some sort of Agape Restaurant. He is right that eating together develops deep and ritual connection. But the Christian religion, in its history and complexity, contains much more than just dancing and eating. It is both those activities (well, we could use more dancing); and it is also story, and teaching, and service, and building, and prayer, and history, and pain, and wonder, and…the Transcendent. I question whether we can truly find imminent community without a genuine acknowledgement of its opposite: Transcendence.

I am flattered, and a bit proud, that someone wants to appreciate, and even to emulate Christian community in our time. But I am skeptical that one feature of Christianity can be genuinely duplicated without including much of our other ancient tradition and practice.

What a surprise, then, to read on the very next day (Sunday, February 20, 2012), a brief editorial in The New York Times that featured a similar argument to that of its “competitor,” The Wall Street Journal!  There, Verlyn Klinkenborg suggested that our culture might practice a kind of Lent without religion; “the idea of Lent can be embraced by all of us, religious or otherwise.” Well! I had the same two reactions.

So, I leave it to Martin Marty to have a definitive reaction here. In Sightings (February 20, 2012), Marty accepts the favorable comments of De Botton, but Marty also proclaims the futility of an enterprise that tries to recreate religion without religion:

“Let me plug my [Martin Marty’s] favorite analysis, George Santayana's words in Reason in Religion. A religion for everyone? He writes:

"Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is [just as hopeless as] the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. . . . Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life." Its vistas and mysteries propound "another world to live in," and "another world to live in. . . is what we mean by having a religion." (Sightings, February 20, 2012)

I agree with George Santayana through Martin Marty! Yes, every healthy religion has its marked idiosyncrasies, and its weaknesses. But it is our religion, our language, our life. Churches, and synagogues, and mosques offer the world another world.

In that spirit, I invite you to enter this season of our Christian life, this season of Lent. Come to Church, where we will engage in holy community yet again. We will hear as full a presentation of the Christian story as we can, in forty holy days: pilgrimage, suffering, death, resurrection. Yes, we will eat together, too. We will be participating in a holy community that is both intimate and transcendent: the fullness of Christian Incarnation.

15 February 2012


Dear Friends: This week, the Diocese of Atlanta will announce that I am among several nominees for election as the next Bishop of Atlanta. I am truly honored to be among some excellent priests in that assembly. The nomination is an honor for me, but I know that my nomination might present questions in the church as to why in the world I am doing this!
Let me explain, then, something of my own prayer and discernment during the last several months, as the Nominating Committee has been discussing this possibility with me. The prospect of running for bishop is a daunting one; as you know, I consented to nomination last year in Washington, D.C., and I was not elected. The emotional and spiritual twists of our Church’s episcopal election processes are grueling and very public. But this process is the process we have. Furthermore, I have am thriving and enjoying my vocation as Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip, a position which I consider one of the finest in the Church. I love it here, and this parish community blesses me.

However, the prospect of being bishop for the Diocese of Atlanta has also excited me. When I ran for bishop last year, I found myself actually having lots of ideas and vision for what a bishop can be in The Episcopal Church. Moreover, I love, not just Atlanta, but the entire Diocese of Atlanta. I grew up in Coweta County. I spent some formative years in Episcopal youth groups from Rome to Gainesville. My discernment about this position has been sincere and serious.

One of my own spiritual practices during periods of discernment is to “contemplate my loves.” As I face a major decision, I ask: Who, and what, do I love? I pray, that, as I consider my loves, God’s direction becomes clearer for the calls in my life. Where God is calling me has something to do with my loves.

So, first of all, I truly love my family – my wife, of course, who has been companion and friend with me for over 35 years now. Together, we have our own children, their wonderful spouses, and their friends; and we have wider family, throughout Georgia and in Maryland. Both my parents still live on the land where I grew up, outside Newnan. Those are dear commitments for us. I am blessed with several close circles of friends, too; we have broken a lot of bread together (Will Campbell once said that a friend is someone you’ve “spilled a lot of salt with.”).

I also truly love the parish of the Cathedral of St. Philip. We, too, have spilled a lot of salt together (and bread and wine!). I love Atlanta, one of the great cities of our country. But I also love small towns, which have more varieties of people than outsiders realize. I love the outdoors, where I grew up; I love being outside, under the stars, in the woods, walking in fields.

I also love outsiders. I pay attention to people who seem outside the system, perhaps forgotten or ignored. My ministry as a priest has been drawn to the outsiders and to the marginalized. I love to write. I love to teach. I love to preach. I love to experience God in new places, and in new people.

Finally, I actually love The Episcopal Church. This Church has blessed me. Of course, the Church has not always been good to me, and I have often disagreed with The Episcopal Church. But I love this Church, and I believe we have something powerful and graceful to offer the wider world.

So, with the consideration of these loves, I believe that God is calling me to imagine being Bishop of Atlanta – at least to be part of the nomination and election process. The church needs me to offer my gifts and ministry –and my loves—to a wider system; and I need to offer them, too. I know I might not be elected. That particular call is not clear yet, but this first part is.

The motto of my old school, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, is “in illa quae ultra sunt” – Into The Regions Beyond.” That phrase meant both our mission and the place where we meet God. I pray God will meet me, too, as I accept an invitation to explore the “regions beyond.”  Please pray with me – for ourselves, for the Diocese of Atlanta, and for the world. Thank you.

10 February 2012


(written 5 February 2012)

Who is number one this week? The question has become relentless.

Political candidates, of course, and their most committed supporters, are obsessed with the question. And there seems to be no escape. Every day, someone is conducting, or releasing, another type of poll. Who is number one with this group, or that demographic, or that region?

Our media distributors sell magazines and television shows and internet sites because of our temptation for rankings and lists. So we have show after show devoted to some sort of competition –from challenging mental games to goofy survival gimmicks. (We even have television shows about the best television shows.) Sometimes I think that our political debates this year have resembled television game shows.

My former colleague at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Elizabeth Rechter, once delivered a memorable sermon in which she lamented our culture’s obsession with lists. She did not want another article labeled “Best of…,” she said, as if everybody, and everything, in the world were being ranked.

Our current lust for competition can be exhausting. It might be because our culture uses politics and sports as the wrong sort of model, a model that is too limited. In most political campaigns, and in most sports events, we dramatize and exalt only one human winner. In a league, for instance, of thirty-two teams, all with excellent players, only one team will win the final game. Thus, at the conclusion of the Super Bowl this Sunday, one team will feel like a loser, even though thirty other teams wish they had been there. Competition can depress us if we believe there is only one human winner.

Competition is truly dangerous when our desire to win includes destroying our competitor. We have all seen that reality. Competition can also be dangerous when it motivates theft, lying, or cheating. We have all seen those realities, too, perhaps in certain financial circumstances. The drive to win, at any cost, can also drive some people to lose their humanity.

But there are healthy elements of “competition!” In the best sense of the word, a competitor is someone we “strive with.” To compete with someone is to strive toward a goal, with another person, not against another person. With, not against. A true competitor brings out the best in our own gifts and talents. Sometimes the runner will not run so fast alone as she does when with someone, when another competitor is matching her stride for stride.

I, for one, do not mind some of the displays of religious faith on the athletic field year after year. Of course, I believe some of those displays can be rude and arrogant and condescending – just like some religion can! But sometimes, the displays can be reminders that no one, not one of us, is actually “number one.” If an athlete points to the sky after a touchdown, perhaps that gesture can mean, “ The real Number One is up there, not down here!” Maybe the losing team should start pointing to the sky, too, after the score, as if to say, “The real Number One is up there, not down here!”

I pray for all those who strive, whether they be candidates or athletes, bankers or business executives, even lovers or siblings. I hope we all strive for things, and I hope we all strive for truly good things. At their best, competitors help us to do that; they help us to see a larger reality, a larger goal, even a common goal, a common good. Competitors often become our best friends when we realize how much we have in common. Competitors can also be our best friends when they help us to see that “the real Number One” is larger than we are.