Archive for September, 2015

St. Rachel Carson

// September 25th, 2015 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

This week we continue our canonization of the saints.  Don’t be distracted by that Pope guy trying to steal our thunder.  We totally came up with this idea first! One of the joys this year has been the engagement of the community.  Several of our saints are on the list because of the passion of people other than me.  That puts me in the wonderful position of having to learn about these saints so that I have something to say.  I love being taught by the people of Church in the Cliff!

I had never heard of Rachel Carson until Lisa suggested her canonization.  As I dive into Rachel Carson’s life and work, I can see why she came to mind.  She has been called “the patron saint of the environmental movement,” so we are not the first to trod this ground.

Carson was a marine biologist who spent most of her career working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries reporting data on fish populations.  Through this work, she began to understand how we are all a part of the vast interconnectedness of nature.  She also saw how humans have an almost unique power to alter that web of relationships, often for the worse, and sometimes irreparably.  She called for a new mindset among naturalists and policymakers, from conservation, the preservation of a few, isolated resources, to environmentalism, a consciousness of our power and our vulnerability in nature.

This was a monumental shift, perhaps enough to achieve sainthood, but it is unlikely she would have had the impact she had if it weren’t for her beautiful and passionate prose about nature.  She first showed her skill in 1937 in an article for Atlantic Monthly.  In “Undersea,” Carson takes the reader on a journey across the vast diversity of conditions and creatures of the ocean.  In an age before we had a dozen nature channels – and long before those nature channels gave up on showing us nature in favor of Nazis and aliens – her writing made this hidden world come to life.  For example, she describes the tide and its effects so vividly that it not only makes you see it, but you feel you are involved in it: “Twice between succeeding dawns, as the waters abandon pursuit of the beckoning moon and fall back, foot by foot, periwinkle and starfish and crab are cast upon the mercy of the sands.”  In one sentence, we understand how everything is connected and how vulnerable it all is.

She credited her love of nature to her mother and she sought more than anything to pass that love on to others.  The last book she worked on before her death, which she didn’t finish, but was published after her death, was called The Sense of Wonder.  It is, in a sense, a book of parenting advice about cultivating the sense of wonder in children.  But more than that, more than a simple how-to – she would never have made it in today’s world of listicles – she relates in her deft prose her experience of being in nature with her grandnephew, Roger.  She took him on walks on the shores and in the forests of her home in Maine before he could even do the walking.  She said, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, and an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”  I’m not yet sure what her religious beliefs or practices were, but that sounds a lot like worship to me.  Would that we all might rediscover that joy, excitement, and mystery.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we remember the life and work of Rachel Carson, the patron saint of environmentalism and a saint of Church in the Cliff.

Grace & Peace,

St. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

// September 19th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday begins our annual canonization of the saints.  Now for the explaining of the rules and the making of the disclaimers.  Candidates must have been dead for five years and they must have performed miracles.  In our understanding, a miracle is when the world is pushed off of the track it was on, knocked out of its orbit, so to speak.  Essentially, the world became a different place because of this person.  We understand that reality is often more complex than the hagiographies present.  The stories we tell about our heroes say more about the storytellers than the subjects of the stories.  We understand that our saints were not always virtuous or heroic and we try to be honest about that, but we are mostly interested in the miracles.  Those actions and their effects tell us something about how we might live more fully into the world of God’s dreams.

We begin our series with a pivotal figure in the struggle for women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Stanton, at the young age of 33, had the idea to hold a convention on women’s rights.  Along with the Quaker minister Lucretia Mott and other women, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19 and 20 of 1848.  At the convention, attended by such luminaries of progressive politics as Frederick Douglass, Stanton delivered her Declaration of Sentiments, which included her demand for voting rights for women.

Her support for women’s rights was tireless and fearless, even at the risk of alienating supporters.  For example, she opposed extending voting rights to black men without also extending them to all women.  This view produced a schism in the fight for women’s suffrage.  Later in her life, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, a commentary on all mentions of women in the Bible written by women.  She took the position that organized religion created a society in which women were expected to be subservient to men, so changing religion was at the heart of changing society.  For this, she was pushed aside in the suffrage movement with the thought that such radical thinking might undermine the chances of success.  As is often the case, the suffrage movement succeeded by embracing a mainstream idea: a world bounded by home and hearth, womanhood as keeper of morality.

It is an interesting coincidence then that this week the lectionary presents us with Proverbs 31.10-31, the Woman of Worth.  For many women growing up in church, this became the ideal for womanhood.  Some embrace it; some reject it.  As with any biblical text, it is not often read with much nuance.  People tend to focus on the woman’s devotion to husband and family, whether they find that posture comforting or alienating, so it becomes a bludgeon of expectation or an effigy to be burned.  That’s definitely a part of the text.  However, it also contains the potential for liberation.  In contrast to how we might normally think of women in the ancient world, the woman is active, strong, and productive.  She makes business deals and advises the men with her wisdom.  She brings home the not-bacon and fries it up in a pan.  The wealth and status of the family depend on her, not the man.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we put the life of St. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in dialog with the biblical Woman of Worth as a frame work for talking about women in church, society, and politics today.

Grace & Peace,


// September 12th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

A Note from the Board: Co-Pastor

The first time you came to Church in the Cliff, you probably heard some things you had never heard in church before.  I’m not talking about our foul-mouthed taco vendor, our secret Enneagram code words, or the occasional obscure philosopher.  I’m talking about Sophia.  You’ll hear this term in our welcome and in many of our hymns.  You might have read the footnote on the program that briefly explains it.  (Yes, we’re nerds; our program has footnotes.) You might have gone home and googled Christ-Sophia and found something that might be a cult.  (We have no connection to them, FTR.)  Perhaps it seems a little weird and disorienting.  Some hear that language and never return.  Nevertheless, we are committed to it.

I’ll explain in more detail what (or who) Sophia is on Sunday, but I’ll provide something brief here, just so we’re on the same page.  Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom.  It is used frequently, sometimes in reference to Jesus.  At times, such as in Proverbs 1-9, in Sirach, and in the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom (Sophia) is personified as a woman.  Even more important, she is understood to have some intrinsic relationship to God, coeternal, coessential, and co-creative with God.  One could fairly say that she is a person within the Godhead, as one would speak of Christ or the Holy Spirit.  But all of that is kind of abstract.  In my experience, most Christians don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Trinitarian doctrine or the essential nature of the Godhead.  So, while these things are important to consider, our real commitment is something more pragmatic.

As Mary Daly pointed out more than forty years ago, “If God is male, then male is God.”  If God is a man, then God is for men, concerned with the things of men.  I’m not using the term “men” to refer to humankind; I mean the gender.  Most people would admit that God does not have a gender, but might insist that we should speak of God in masculine terms because that is how the Bible often refers to God.  However, as Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  If we don’t speak of God in feminine terms, then women are excluded from the life of God.  We automatically construct a hierarchy that diminishes the lives of women.  Women do not hear their presence in the life of the Church.

Fortunately, the Bible provides many ways of speaking of God. God is bread, water, breath, a shepherd, a gate – and God is a woman.  God is a mother hen gathering her brood.  God is a mother bird hovering over her nest.  God has a womb.  And God, as Sophia, stands on the street corner trying to coax people to her way – to the Way.  If God is All in All, then that must include some notion of the divine feminine.  If that is the case, then we must speak of God in all that God is.  Women must hear their lives reflected in the life of the Church and the life of God if our God-talk is to be the Good News.

It does seem strange at first.  When I first came to Church in the Cliff, inclusive language hit my ear wrong.  I didn’t understand.  It was disorienting.  That’s good!  In my experience and in my study, God is in the business of undoing us, pushing us out of our comfort zone so that we see the world anew.  It didn’t take long to adjust.  After about six months at Church in the Cliff, I had trouble attending churches that use exclusively male language for God.  It now hits my ear wrong in the exact same way that inclusive language did before.  Even more, really; I wince when I hear it.

I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women that began this church so many years ago and sustained it for so long.  I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women who continue to assert that they have a place in the life of God.  I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women that are Bible scholars and theologians and who continue to consider the weightier issues of the Christian faith.  All of these continue to make God present in my life and in the life of the Church by showing a fuller picture of what divinity looks like.  Our church and the Church are blessed by the full participation of women in the living of the Gospel.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we discuss the feminine divine, the cross, and the relationship between wisdom and salvation.

Grace & Peace,

A Note from the Board: Co-Pastor

The Board would like to invite the congregation into a period of discernment about hiring Annette Thornberg Owen as a part-time co-pastor.  Annette has her Masters of Divinity from University of Chicago and was formerly a Pastoral Resident at Wilshire Baptist Church.  She has also worked as a chaplain and in non-profit through AmeriCorps.  We are thrilled to have Annette and her partner David in our congregation!

So that you can get to know Annette better in a pastoral context, she will help lead services in the coming weeks.  Also, we will have a couple of Q&A sessions coming up.  We’ll get you time and place as soon as we nail it down.  We will also provide details about pay, budget, and responsibilities over the next couple of weeks.  Our goal is to have a vote October 11.

The Cause of the Poor

// September 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Plus: Saints 2016

Y’all may have noticed that I’m not great at details or schedules.  That makes following the lectionary a danger zone for me, so I keep telling you we’re going to talk about things that, it turns out, we are not.  I am truly thankful for your grace.  This is all said to preface the news that we will not be explaining everything about Christ-Sophia this week.  The lectionary, unfortunately for a smooth pedagogy, decided to give us some wisdom from Proverbs a week before reading the beginning of Proverbs that sets up the whole thing.  The good news is that the text we are assigned is perfect for Labor Day weekend.

We seldom notice that Labor Day is not just summer’s last gasp, filled with swimming pools and grills.  It is actually about labor.  Not just a rest from working, but a celebration of the labor movement that created labor unions that gave laborers bargaining power against management – management that worked people to excessive hours in unsafe conditions for little pay, management that created company stores that kept their employees in virtual slavery.  In this period of unfettered capitalism, great wealth was generated, but most of that ended up in the pockets of the people at the top, the people who had the means to manipulate political and economic systems to their own ends.  Because laborers fought for their rights, corruption was contained and income inequality shrank in the first half of the 20th century.  When labor was at its strongest, the country prospered and the lives of ordinary people improved.

The power of unions has shrunk drastically over the last 50 years and the results are stark.  Those at the bottom of the wealth ladder earn low wages in mostly part-time jobs.  (I saw one study lauding the “increased leisure time” for people at the bottom!)  Those in the middle now inhabit a perpetual state of quasi-labor: cell phones on, checking email, retraining, laying awake at night wondering how to not be fungible.  Those at the top continue the hiring freezes, wage stagnation, and reduced benefits that they discovered people – unorganized people – would live with during the recession and make short-sighted investors happy in the recovery.  Corporate profits skyrocket while labor struggles: CEOs now make 354 times the wage of their lowest paid workers.  Perhaps most concerning, the graft of the 19th century is now mostly legal with the wealthiest people attempting to buy the political process.  It does not have to be this way.

Certainly, this is not as God would have it.  As Proverbs tells us this week, God pleads for the cause of the impoverished.  Repeatedly, we hear about how any regulation, any organization of labor, any protection of the common welfare puts a stranglehold on business.  Frankly, God doesn’t care.  God instructs farmers to leave a portion of their harvests for the poor.  God instructs lenders not to charge interest.  God instructs debt-holders to forgive debts regularly.  Such things do not maximize profits; they do not produce excess capital for investment.  Instead, they care for those who are impoverished.  They interrupt the cycles of poverty in which people find themselves to give hope.  They contemplate a common welfare that is only maintained when it is maintained for everyone.  God gives these instructions, but people must carry them out.

The solution to the problem of poverty is complex, so complex that it might seem to be impossible, but if we begin, as God does, by pleading the case of the impoverished, maybe there’s a chance.  Rather than concerning ourselves with the economy as an abstraction with its own intrinsic value, perhaps we should, as God does, concern ourselves with those in need.  Perhaps we should, as God suggests, organize our lives, our society, our political will around those who struggle the most.  This may deny a few the opportunity to amass the wealth of Solomon, but it might more closely mirror the world of God’s dreams, a world where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone can eat their fill.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about poverty, equality, and labor.  And probably robots.  Robots are important.

Grace & Peace,

Saints 2016

As is our annual tradition, we gather the Tribunal for Canonization of the Saints (that’s you!) to consider the cause of certain individuals, now deceased a minimum of five years, who have performed miracles that have set the world on a different (and better!) course.  In particular, we select people who are in some way indicative of what Church in the Cliff is about and, in some cases, without whom Church in the Cliff would not exist.  We have five slots and seven nominations this year, so I’d like to get some feedback from people.  I would also appreciate it if people who are passionate about one of these individuals would participate in the canonization service.  Here are the nominees:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Church in the Cliff was formed, in part, to provide greater opportunities for women in ministry.  Almost everything we do is informed by feminist discourse.  More importantly, the life of Church in the Cliff is enriched by the strong, brilliant, passionate women who have participated in church leadership from the beginning.  It is unlikely that any of them would have done that without Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She was one of the first to assert the equality of women in the church, to suggest a liberating reading of the Bible, and to advocate for the use of feminine language for God.  To that effort, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895.

Martin Luther King.  It is unusual that a Sunday passes at Church in the Cliff without mention of Martin Luther King.  In fact, his name is invoked so regularly that it has seemed cliché to canonize him, so we have chosen to highlight others ahead of him.  But perhaps the time has come.  In addition to the profound effect he had in civil rights, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” could arguably be an amendment to the canon.  He was truly a martyr, his life cut short just as he was setting his sights on even larger problems than those in which he had already triumphed.

Fred Rogers.  Many of us grew up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  We learned about kindness, compassion, and puppets.  Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, became the moral center for a generation growing up in a world wracked with cultural upheaval, violence, and corruption.  Even now, any time something bad happens, there is probably a Fred Rogers quote to give us hope.

Samuel Mockbee.  Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, Samuel Mockbee was driven by a need to right wrongs using the talents that he had in art and architecture.  He created the Rural Studio program at Auburn University, which taught students about the social responsibility of architectural practice. The program built sustainable architecture in impoverished areas of Alabama using novel materials that would have otherwise been waste.  He helped revitalize Hale County, Alabama, while protecting the environment and inspiring young people to shape their world for the better.

Pseudo-Denis.  Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Denis wrote a body of literature that was hugely influential in Christian theology, particularly Christian mysticism.  His work often functions as a bridge between Christianity and non-Christian thought and practice, ranging from Zen meditation to deconstructive philosophy.  If you practice centering prayer, you owe a debt to Denis.

Johnny Cash.  This almost needs no explanation.  Not only was he one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, the Man in Black was driven by his faith and his experience of the shadowy sides of life to care for those that no one else cared for.

Roger Williams.  Williams founded the colony of Providence, in what was to become Rhode Island, on the principle of religious freedom.  Though he was a Christian, he had the novel idea that Christianity should succeed or fail on its own merits rather than by government coercion, that each faith is enriched in dialog with others.  As a result, Providence was open to all.  In fact, in addition to founding the first Baptist church in the New World, Williams helped build the first synagogue.  He advocated for fair relations with Native Americans and was an early abolitionist.  Whatever Baptist identity Church in the Cliff clings to, it is embodied in the life of Roger Williams.

Please email your thoughts to pastor@churchinthecliff.