Posts Tagged ‘saints’

St. Fred Rogers

// October 24th, 2015 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

I haven’t really watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was a kid.  I don’t remember much about it except what has been parodied: the song, the sweater, the tennis shoes, vaguely the puppets.  So I decided to refresh my memory and watch a little.  It all comes rushing back, mostly this character: Mr. Rogers.  Although, by all accounts, it is not a character.  He is, as he always encouraged his viewers, simply being himself.

Fred Rogers complained of the parodies that they made him look too wimpy.  Lest I be sucked into that wimpiness, lest I be transformed into such a gentle and anemic form, I finally sat down to watch American Sniper this weekend as well.  It’s quite a contrast.  I’m not sure Chris Kyle watched Mr. Rogers growing up.

Kyle’s philosophy was simple: find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, make the world better.  However, the subtext of the film was the ultimate failure of this philosophy.  I have no doubt that Chris Kyle was a man of honor and conviction, a man who cared deeply about the people in his world, a man who would do anything to protect them.  He claims not to regret the people he killed, only those he was unable to protect.  It turns out that there are always bad guys.  It turns out that in seeking vengeance, we only create more violence and death, even to those we profess to love and intend to protect.  It turns out that finding the bad guy and killing the bad guy doesn’t actually make the world better.

It also turns out that those who are put in a position of finding and killing the bad guy are often traumatized by the experience.  Chris Kyle, like so many other veterans, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He couldn’t sleep and when he did, he was haunted by nightmares.  He drank heavily.  He flew into fits of rage.  He felt isolated, unable and unwilling to talk about what had happened to him and how it made him feel.

Fred Rogers famously testified before Congress to defend funding for public television.  What people don’t know about Fred Rogers’ testimony before Congress was the reason he had to fight for funding in the first place.  The budget for national public television was threatened in response to the first national episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which imagines war coming to Make-Believe.  War is overcome with creative “peace balloons,” but more importantly with the refusal of the governed to go along with the fearful policies of King Friday.  The analogy was obvious and Mr. Nixon was never one to let a slight go.  But Mr. Rogers was no wimp.

In that testimony, he said, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”  That sounds like something Chris Kyle needed to hear after four tours in Iraq.  Rogers went on to exalt conversation over confrontation as dramatic content.  He would rather depict two people working out feelings of anger together than show gunfire.  Mr. Rogers knew that honestly understanding our own feelings and being able to communicate about them, respecting ourselves and others as full human beings, was far more powerful than any weapon humankind has devised.  That sounds like something Richard Nixon needed to know.

Each saint we have canonized has some rough spots.  This sometimes produces some anxiety, whether it’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s disturbing coziness with Southern racists or Johnny Cash’s lifelong dance with amphetamines.  Our hope is that talking honestly about those things will paint a broader picture of healing and redemption, of the miracles that are possible in a human life.  With Fred Rogers, there is no such anxiety.  He knew exactly who he was and knew the power of being just that.  He made every person he encountered know the same thing.  Most importantly, he knew the power of such a posture to transform the world and he lived every day to spread that message.  Mr. Rogers was no wimp; he was a saint.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the gentle and powerful life of everyone’s neighbor, Fred Rogers.  Won’t you be my neighbor?

Grace & Peace,

St. Samuel Mockbee

// October 17th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I am so thankful to Fred Pena for bringing Samuel Mockbee to our attention.  When the saints series was originally conceived, I had in mind people who had some direct impact on who we are as a church.  My thinking has since changed for the better.  There are so many who labor out there in the world, who are doing work that could and should inform what we do.  Even if we don’t know who they are now, we are all a part of the same ecosystem.  It’s almost like there is something unseen flowing through all creation and history and we all find ourselves a part of it.  Probably no one has ever thought of that before.  I’ll have to come up with a name for it.  In any case, Samuel Mockbee floats in the same stream as the people of Church in the Cliff.

Mockbee grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, oblivious to the racial segregation that both tore apart the world around him and made possible the privilege he enjoyed.  But he was profoundly affected by the death of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers who was killed by the KKK near Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Chaney had also grown up in Meridian, a scant year apart from Mockbee.  Yet, their worlds never intersected in their youth.  When he entered a desegregated army, he was, for the first time in his life, shoulder-to-shoulder with people of color.  Over time, he became aware of all the many ways he benefited from being white.  He also began to understand how those benefits came at great cost in the lives of people of color.

Following his Army service, Mockbee attended Auburn University and received his degree in architecture.  As he began working as a young architect in the South, he realized that many of the victories of the civil rights movement were not present realities for impoverished people of color in the South.  As an architect, he wondered what he could do to change that, to affect the material reality of people living in poverty.  One thing he knew: architecture was the domain of the rich, safely distanced from poverty, and it was taught as an abstract, theoretical practice that sustains that distance.

With this in mind, Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio.  Architecture students from Auburn spend a portion of their education building homes and civic buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama, one of the most impoverished counties in the South.  Students work in cooperation with residents as clients to build buildings that respond to the realities of their lives.  They not only design the buildings, but do the neck-down work of construction.  Because their clients are in poverty, they build sustainable, low energy footprint homes.  Because money is short, they use innovative building techniques that use recycled, salvaged, and waste products.  Yet they are not bland boxes in which we might stow away the undesirable.  Rather – to echo language that Mockbee uniquely applied to architecture – they are homes of distinct beauty, nobility, and decency.

Samuel Mockbee was certainly an imaginative person.  He must have been to be so innovative with such limited means.  In his paintings and assemblages, which feature his clients alongside gods and goddesses of the Alabama landscape, real objects and symbolic expression have equal weight, as if they inhabit the same world, as if they speak to one another.  If we understand one, we might have a key to understanding the other, and then we might understand something about the whole.  One commentator noted that Mockbee’s entire life and work “may have been simply the cast off foam from a vast imaginative sea.”  Somehow, out of that fecund abyss, Samuel Mockbee formulated a vision and made it real in the lives of students and clients.  He not only changed his corner of the world for the better, but created a model for how we might approach the most tenacious problems through cooperation, mutual respect, and living life together.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the life and work of St. Samuel Mockbee.

Proceed and be bold.

St. Johnny Cash

// October 9th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Perhaps more than any other person we have canonized, Johnny Cash exemplifies what we mean by saint.  Not that he was a pure, moral, and good person; he was not.  But integral to sainthood is the hagiography, the story of the saint that we tell.  We know they are not entirely true, but we tell them because we are really telling a story about ourselves and who we might like to be.  In the case of Johnny Cash, he has done much of that work for us.

Johnny Cash was a legend in his own time.  He was a walking, talking mythological figure.  Much of what he said about himself was not true.  His stories changed over time, often becoming inflated with each retelling.  Yet, the embellishments to the kernel of truth often told of a greater truth about the man.  Part of our task this Sunday will be to unravel the man from the myth.

What is true is that Johnny Cash was born in the midst of the Depression to a cotton farmer named Ray.  Ray was a mean man, passing on the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of the older brother that raised him.  Ray was an alcoholic and meanest when he was drunk.  When Johnny’s older brother Jack, a young man so virtuous that everyone knew he would be a preacher from the time he was twelve, was killed in a sawmill accident, Ray let Johnny know that God had taken the wrong son.  Johnny believed him; he carried guilt and grief all his life.

The only cure for the guilt and grief was faith and love.  Tragedy and the compassion and faithfulness he saw from others in the face of it strengthened his faith in God.  His love for June healed him.  Johnny Cash was able to take his suffering and his feelings of unworthiness and turn them into deep compassion for others and a yearning for social justice.  He was a champion of everyday folk, those who were down on their luck or had taken a wrong turn in their lives.  He thought everyone should have a shot at redemption.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we honor the life and legend of St. Johnny Cash.  If you are inclined, bring an instrument and join in the singing and playing.  We’ll do a run-through around 10:30.

Grace & Peace,

Vote Annette for Co-Pastor!

We will vote this Sunday to add Annette Owen to our staff as a part-time co-pastor.  This will entail an addition of $500 per month to the budget.  If you are unable to attend, please make your vote by emailing

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,

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.

St. Teresa of Avila

// October 18th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Perhaps Teresa of Avila was destined to be a saint.  Her grandfather, Juanito de Hernandez, was a converso, a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  Conversos were always held in suspicion by a Spanish Catholic Church concerned with proper doctrine and busily developing notions of race to export to the New World.  It was thought that Jewish blood made it impossible to really be a Christian, so conversos were accused of being crypto-Jews, refusing to eat ham and secretly keeping a Saturday Sabbath.  Juanito was condemned by the Inquisition.  Such a condemnation was very effective, inspiring subsequent generations to become the most pious keepers of the faith.

Teresa’s father bought a Christian knighthood and her mother enforced a strict Christian piety and education on Teresa and her brother, Rodrigo.  It was so effective that, when she was seven, Teresa and Rodrigo ran away from home to be martyred in the ongoing wars against the Moors.  Her mother died when she was 14, so she adopted herself to the Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother.  But, as teenage girls will do, she also began to explore popular culture: romantic tales of knights and damsels in distress.  She soon found herself cloistered with Augustinian nuns in Avila.

Soon after her arrival in Avila, she became ill.  In her fevered dreams she began to have visions.  She cultivated these ecstasies through mystical disciplines found in spiritual manuals that were available at the time.  The exercises taught her to journey inwardly, to examine her conscience, and endure an ascetic life.  These visions continued throughout her life, sometimes uninterrupted for years at a time.

She began to write when she was in her fifties.  Her writings were autobiographical, but were intended as manuals for the contemplative life. She described her practices and the visions that resulted from them.  She advised aspiring mystics on the meaning of her experience.  Perhaps her greatest work was The Interior Castle.

In The Interior Castle, she describes the soul as a beautiful castle made of diamond.  God lives inside, in the deepest part of that castle, but God’s light shines out into the world through the crystalline walls.  However, in sin, the walls become dingy and clouded, covering the Divine Light.  Our task, as Christians, is to journey inside, to meet and know God’s presence in our own souls, to keep the windows clean, so that God’s light can shine out.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we invite St. Teresa into our local canon.  We will simulate some of her contemplative practice and talk about the possibility that religion can actually be transformational.

Grace & Peace,

The Holy Ones: St. Your Name Here

// October 26th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

One thing I love about Church in the Cliff is that the conversational format allows for dissent and dialogue.  As soon as we began our series on saints, questions were raised:  “Isn’t canonization really a political process?”  “Is anyone really a saint?”  “Aren’t we all saints?”  Another thing I love about Church in the Cliff is that everyone came along for the ride.  We raise questions, talk about them, and then see where it takes us.  In this case, it seems to have taken us, completely unplanned by Genny and I, back to the beginning.

We began by adopting the Catholic definition of sainthood – dead, miracles – but the New Testament doesn’t seem to support that understanding.  The word translated as saint (hagios) simply means “holy one.”  It usually refers to believers, Christians.  It is a standard component of the greeting in most of the Pauline letters, e.g., “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.”  There is much discussion of the needs of the saints, the care of the saints, and support of the saints throughout the NT.  There is even a little discussion of what it might mean to be a saint.

One clue is that root word meaning “holy.”  When the text refers to “the holy ones” it is translated as saint.  However, the same word is used to refer to Jesus, to God, to the Holy Spirit, to the city of Jerusalem, to the interior of the temple – to anything that is set aside for God.  It is contrasted with koinos, which often means “profane.”  These interpretations set up a binary in which it is hard to locate ourselves.  The holy is the exalted realm of the wholly other; the profane is queers and booze and musicians.  (So maybe it’s not so hard to locate ourselves.)  But there is another way to understand koinos that might open up a little space: it is the common, the everyday, that which we share together.  The holy stands apart from the everyday, not because it is better or more real, but because we experience it as set apart, as something different that acts on us and changes us.  It is not an end-point, but an opening, a crack in the everyday through which we see ourselves and world differently.  What does that mean for us, then, the holy ones?

Well, it can mean a lot of things.  In traditional theological terms, it might mean that we are counted as holy even though we are clearly not.  That can be good news for many of us, but I think there is more to it.  For my mind, this marks it too much a position of favor and privilege.  Instead, the holy ones are not those who have arrived, but those who have committed to a kind of open space in which we might encounter the other – and the Other.  In that space we are transformed, little by little, as are those we encounter there.  We become that open space where others can meet themselves and God.  The holy ones, the saints, are those who open themselves up to the world and to God, to “abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess. 3:12).

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about the call of sainthood, the priesthood of all believers, and the responsibilities that come with calling ourselves holy.

Grace and Peace,

A Hoping Machine, a Working Machine: St. Woody Guthrie

// October 18th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

If Bayard Rustin is the architect of the progressive movement in America, perhaps Woody Guthrie is the soundtrack.  He seems to be rediscovered as each generation finds itself, once again, in lean times.  Then he is forgotten when people forget that hard times can happen to them, too.  Woody always remembered because he lived it.  Although he started life in a comfortable home with some wealth, by his teenage years his family was fragmented and destitute, the victims of one tragedy after another.  By the time the ground fell out from under the U.S. economy in 1929, no one was in a better position to be the voice of that generation.  More importantly, despite success as a radio star, musician, and writer, he never forgot suffering because he constantly put himself alongside those whose lives had taken a turn for the worse.

In the 1930s, Woody headed west.  As he travelled, he met thousands like him, driven by terrible drought that had turned the middle of the country to dust.  Massive storms buried whole towns in dirt.  There was no food, no water, and no work.  They left Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas because their farms and homes had been repossessed.  California was said to be a land of plenty where everyone could get a fresh start.  However, when they arrived, they discovered that they were unwanted.  The L.A. Police Chief went so far as to send 125 policemen to the border to turn back undesirables.  Refugees were told that there was “nothing for them” in California.  One man responded, “Well you ought to see what they got where I come from!”  Woody heard their stories and turned them into songs, saying: “I cannot help but learn the most from you who count yourself least.”  WWJD, indeed.

Woody is not a religious figure, so it might seem odd to canonize him as a saint.  However, embodied in his songs is a theology, certainly unsystematic, but absolutely clear.  In 1940, “God Bless America” was a hit song.  He hated it.  Saccharine sweet and, in his estimation, completely untrue.  He looked at America over the previous ten years and saw a battered people.  If that was God’s blessing, he wanted no part of it.  He sat down and penned “This Land is Your Land.”  If America was to be blessed, it was because its people loved it and worked for a common good.  He once described the human race as “a hoping machine, a working machine.”  America – and humanity – is best when it remains hopeful and works toward that hope for the flourishing of the whole.  That hope and working toward justice is Woody’s God.  I hope that it is ours as well.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss the life and theology of Saint Woody Guthrie.  Be prepared to sing!

Grace & Peace,

Vote on Genny’s Ordination

The board has voted to recommend Genny Rowley for ordination by Church in the Cliff.  I enthusiastically support this nomination!  Genny has tremendous gifts for ministry and it has been a pleasure to see her find her voice and place in this church.  We are not sure where she is headed after her residency ends, but CitC would be fortunate to have our name attached to her future endeavors.  If you would like to join us in supporting her ordination, please do so by voting via email to or in person at the community meeting on November 3.  Her ordination service is tentatively scheduled for November 10.

Changing Change: Saint Bayard Rustin

// October 12th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Today, as I write this, it is National Coming Out Day.  It is fitting, then, that this week we will canonize Bayard Rustin.  He was, in many ways, the architect of the 20th century American protest movement.  In 1942, thirteen years before Rosa Parks, he refused to move to the back of a Louisville-to-Nashville bus.  He was arrested and beaten, but he did not fight back.  Instead, he tried to communicate to his attackers a message of peace rooted in the fertile ground of his Quaker faith and his Ghandhian training.  So, when Rosa Parks was arrested and the Montgomery boycott began, it was only natural that he go there to teach nonviolence to the flock of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

A funny thing happened when he arrived, however.  He thought he would show up and teach people the philosophy of pacifism and then action would arise out of that.  But the boycott was already a month in and things were afoot.  The white citizens of Montgomery had already promised violence in leaflets distributed at a rally opposed to the boycott: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead n—–s.” Rustin tells of visiting King’s apartment for the first time to find guns lying around everywhere.  It was a movement for change, a movement rooted in the African American church, but not a movement of nonviolence.  Fortunately, for us, for King, and for the civil rights movement, Rustin had seen for more than a decade that pacifism was not just opposition to war, but a way of being that erases division while resisting injustice.  If equality was to be won, it could not be at the end of a gun barrel.  Rustin shifted gears and taught the lessons of nonviolence in the midst of active protest.

Unfortunately, a not-so-funny thing happened to Bayard Rustin a few years before his trip to Montgomery.  He was gay, somewhat openly, at a time when it was illegal everywhere.  A gay man could be arrested for looking at another man wrong.  While in Pasadena on a tour sponsored by a Quaker pacifist organization, he was caught with two white men.  He was arrested and spent sixty days in jail.  At a time when everyone agreed that gay was not good, it made him toxic.  His opponents knew they could shame him, even arrest him at any time.  His friends and supporters in the movement shunned him, fearing guilt by association.  Coming to Montgomery was a redemption of sorts, an opportunity he would not have had if he had not been precisely who he was: a black man of faith who lived a life of nonviolent resistance.  There was no one else in America at the time who could speak of nonviolence to a black church filled with people so tired and angry and beaten down, that they were willing to do anything to get justice.  If not for Bayard Rustin, the history of civil rights in America would be quite different, but because of his sexuality, he has been virtually erased from our history, shoved back in the closet.

Although Rustin was not killed like Martin and Malcolm, he was still martyred.  He was never ashamed of his sexuality, but he was painfully aware of what it cost him.  I imagine a little part of him died each time his possibilities were curtailed.  He fought for justice across lines of race and class and international borders, but he never really imagined justice for that part of who he was until the final years of his life as the gay rights movement gained some traction in the 1980s.  Even then, he declined to identify himself as a leader of the movement, regretting his inability to come out on his own terms.  His final message: “Prejudice is of a single bit.”

There is much to be discussed in the life and career of Bayard Rustin.  For me, his status as a saint rests somehow on his sense of himself and his place in his world.  Rustin was a hybrid – a particular intersection of race and class and sexuality.  This posture of standing in multiple worlds allowed him to see the world as it really was, but also to see what might be.  The Christian notion of calling can be problematic, but Rustin seemed to know from an early age that he was destined for something and that something had to do with who he was particularly.  He overcame steep obstacles and never lost his integrity.  By committing himself to a way of being, he changed the way we think about change.  If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about this very modern saint.

Grace and Peace,