Spreading the Word
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*
In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.
As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.
At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.
When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.
After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.
In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”
So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.
The Rev. John Adams
One of my favorite series of books right now is the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, in which he has built an intriguing world around the insight that, at some level, religion is transactional. From this perspective, humans praise and worship gods, offer them sacrifices, and donate their time and wealth to the gods’ institutions, all of which increase the gods’ power and influence; the gods in turn use their power to bless their worshipers, offering tangible and intangible benefits both generally and to specific worshipers (in response to prayers or other petitions). With this insight, Gladstone then builds a world in which humans have identified and quantified the soulstuff that serves as the means of religious transactions, which in turn allows for the union of the religious economy and the purely human monetary economy.
The books take place in the aftermath of the God Wars, cataclysmic battles between the old regional divinities and Craftsmen and Craftswomen, humans who, having attained the power of gods through their study and accumulation of soulstuff, sought to replace divine authority with human power. Most of the surviving gods are in hiding or bound to humankind and the human economy by contracts far more quantified and detailed than the old covenants between gods and their worshipers. The post-war world is ruled by Craftsmen and Craftswomen who are simultaneously wizards and lawyers of the most careful sort.
The five novels of the Craft Sequence are thus an unusual but compelling mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller. In Three Parts Dead, the first published, a junior Craftswoman and a grieving acolyte team up to investigate the death of a god whose demise was engineered through manipulation of his contractual obligations. Another, Full Fathom Five, deals with strange happenings on an island where new idols with no native worshipers are used like offshore bank accounts.
Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable reads (where else are you going to find an amusing and plausible answer to the question of what happens when a caffeine addict is turned into a vampire?*), Gladstone’s novels are particularly thought-provoking for us as Christians. They force us to confront the possibility that we are treating religion as transactional rather than relational. Do I pray in the hope that God will do something for me or because I hope to deepen my relationship with God? Am I giving of my resources to help ‘the least of these’ in an attempt to love them as Jesus loves me, or to “score points for the afterlife” (as Weird Al phrased it in “Amish Paradise”)? Do I think of storing up treasure in heaven as the less tangible equivalent of saving money for retirement? And how might we be misunderstanding God if we treat worship in this way?
In a particularly resonant scene from Four Roads Cross, the leaders of a church confront this issue. Kos’ beloved consort Seril (the moon goddess to his sun god, as it were) was thought killed in the God Wars but has recently emerged from hiding, alive but greatly weakened. Kos has been covertly strengthening her with gifts of his soulstuff, but the human concerns to which he is contractually obligated have noticed something amiss and are threatening Craft action that will essentially lobotomize Kos if he doesn’t desist. During deliberations, Kos’ cardinals invite the novice who communicates directly with Kos to testify as to why he advised the god to continue aiding Seril despite the possible consequences. He says:
Last night, he led me to understand himself: Lord Kos loves, and he must fight to defend those he loves. He would not be himself if he let Seril fall, any more than I would be myself if I abandoned my friends, or my church. To turn from that truth is to turn from him – to deny our living god and satisfy ourselves with the worship of his dead image, of a picture on a wall that does not change or ask us to change. We must accept that he needs her, that he was less in her absence. You say I have endangered our god. I say I have grown to know him, and the greater danger lies in deafening ourselves to his purpose, in abandoning his truth for a version of him that may seem comfortable. Faith is a state of constant examination and openness. In faith we must be vulnerable. Only in this seeming weakness do we live with god.
We run a similar risk: it is too easy for us to follow a dead image of the divine that demands church attendance, tithes, or certain behaviors in exchange for wealth, health, and power. But the nature of our living God is to love, to give love freely in the hope that we will be similarly free in loving one another; the economy of divine love operates very differently from the monetary economy. That creates potentially scary uncertainty: there’s no price sheet telling us that a certain gift to the church will result in us getting a raise, handing this many sandwiches to the poor will bring victory to our football team, or saying so many Our Fathers will shave a year off our time in heaven’s waiting room. We can do everything right and still suffer bad things.
In that vulnerability and uncertainty, we must treat God as something more than an ATM which cannot help us if our account is empty. We cannot act as though Gladstone’s insight is true for us, that our religion is transactional, if we hope to deepen our faith during our journey through life. It is only in relating to God as a friend rather than a store clerk that we truly grow to know God.
*According to Four Roads Cross, it isn’t pleasant. Unlike those addicted to recreational drugs, who can drink the blood of human users to get their fix, coffee-loving vampires have to put up with the headaches and muscle cramps because “by the time I wake up, most of you have metabolized your caffeine.”
The Rev. John Adams
The Eggplant: April 27, 2017
The Fast and the Fictive
When I was in Seminary, one of my classmates would joke that, if she were not called to be a priest, she would spend her time painting supper scenes from the Fast and the Furious movies, under the name Dom Tintoretto. Most of the time, people didn’t get the joke: Tintoretto was a Venetian Renaissance painter perhaps best known today for a Last Supper that contrasts dramatically with Da Vinci’s famous depiction thereof in its use of shadow and showing the table from a diagonal. Dom Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, is the protagonist of the Fast and the Furious series, now at eight films and counting.
The Fast and the Furious movies are one of Hollywood’s more curious franchises. After a modestly successful 2001 film about street racing and two less successful sequels featuring mostly new casts, in 2009 the franchise began pivoting by assembling a team of the most popular characters from the previous movies, led by Dom Toretto, and telling stories of heists and vehicular warfare among the criminal underworld. The result is a juggernaut that has become one of the most financially lucrative movie franchises and is still going strong.
Even moreso than Kong: Skull Island, these are movies that you watch not for the plot and dialogue but for the ridiculous action: a chase with a bank vault attached to the cars, a tank fighting on a highway, a car chase on ice featuring the unexpected appearance of a submarine. But beneath all the fun mayhem beats a surprisingly strong heart: Dom’s version of ‘honor among thieves’ is his code about family. More often than not, his team winds up in these crazy schemes because “you don’t turn your back on family” even when doing so would be the only way to avoid a world of trouble. A common feature of the franchise, in its quieter moments, is a scene where Dom and his team sit down to a meal together and, in a prayer before eating, Dom or another character thanks God for their family.
Setting aside the curiosity that movies with such a high quotient of violence and death are among the only blockbusters to include such explicitly Christian scenes, it’s fascinating that Dom’s family, for whom he willingly enters all manner of dire straits, is almost entirely fictive. With the exception of his sister, who eventually marries another member of the team, none of Dom’s ‘family’ is related to him by blood. The team is a group of friends who, between common interests and shared experiences, have become as close as family and chosen to treat one another as such.
This sort of chosen family is a very Christian idea: St. Paul, in his references to his disciples as his sons and other Christian leaders as his sisters and brothers, frequently uses the language of this fictive kinship, that we who are not related by blood from our birth are related even more surely in the blood of Christ. Today, we most commonly see this in addressing priests as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother,’ but beginning with Paul saying that he has become father to the runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon 10), this notion of fictive kinship has often guided Jesus’ followers in our efforts to relieve the suffering of others as though they were our children or stand with the oppressed as our siblings.
And Dom Toretto’s family features several traits that ought to define our own fictive kinship with our fellow humans. Dom’s family is, at least by the usual standards of Hollywood casts, incredibly diverse. Men and women are equal members of the team, and a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds are present. Too often, our Christian families lack such diversity, with most or all of our fictive kin sharing our race and ethnicity and women being reduced to inferior members.
Dom’s team also features a constantly rotating cast of characters, as old family members are killed or retire from the criminal life and new members join the team. The ease with which new members are assimilated is sometimes startling, perhaps because Dom has a curiously optimistic view of human nature: he seems to be positively inclined toward almost anyone he encounters who doesn’t threaten his family, and even when he himself is endangered, he sometimes retains that positive view. *Spoiler alert: spoilers for The Fate of the Furious follow.* For example, in the Havana-set opening scene of the most recent movie, Dom engages in a street race during which his opponent uses several tricks that nearly get Dom killed and spectacularly total his car. After Dom wins anyway, the opponent admits that Dom has earned his respect and Dom chooses to neither take his prize for winning nor otherwise punish this cheating foe. Said foe later shows up playing a small but crucial role in Dom’s plan for getting out of the pickle he finds himself in, suggesting that this is a potential future member of Dom’s family.
We Christians would do well to emulate Dom’s willingness to forego revenge despite the harm he endured, but even that pales in comparison to Dom’s willingness to forgive. After a cyberterrorist kidnaps Dom’s infant son so he will betray his family and work for her, he seeks help by reaching out to the Shaws, a literal family who opposed Dom’s team in previous movies and were responsible for deaths among Dom’s family members. At the end of the movie, Deckard Shaw delivers the baby to Dom, who forgives Deckard for killing Dom’s ‘brother’ Han and welcomes this former enemy to the family table. Given how well many Christians bear a grudge, even against our fictive kin, Dom’s forgiveness and welcome of someone who killed his family into his family is remarkable.
So weirdly enough, those Dom Tintoretto paintings would be an entirely appropriate hobby for a Christian. For a culture that looks upon the Last Supper (both the Da Vinci painting and, often, the event itself) as stuffy, old, and irrelevant, the suppers in the Fast and the Furious movies offer a more contemporary vision of Christian fellowship, where gender and race do not divide, where radical forgiveness is extended, and where everyone is family.
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler Alert: The following Eggplant contains spoilers for Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla (2014), the Revelation to John of Patmos (~95), the good movies of M. Night Shyamalan (1999 and 2000), and Holy Week (~33).
For those who don’t spend time in the geekier corners of the internet, a spoiler alert indicates that plot details will be discussed, so if you have not yet seen or read the above and wish to do so without advance knowledge of their stories, read no further. If you have already experienced the above, have no interest in experiencing the above, or believe that knowing plot details will not detract from your enjoyment of the above, proceed.*
Earlier this month, Warner Bros. released Kong: Skull Island, an action-heavy monster movie that joins Godzilla (2014) in establishing the MonsterVerse (a shared cinematic universe analogous to the Marvel Universe in which fourteen superhero movies and six shows since 2008 have taken place). Immediately following the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Kong follows a team of scientists who are taken by military helicopters to a newly discovered, skull-shaped Pacific island. After the helicopters are destroyed by the gigantic gorilla of the title, the scattered survivors encounter further monsters and learn more of the island’s history during their struggle, inspired by Apocalypse Now (1979), to reach their extraction point before the appointed time. Among their discoveries is an isolated human tribe that, according to an American pilot stranded there during World War II, identifies Kong as their god.
Like Godzilla before it, much of the conflict in the film derives from the problem that, upon discovering that such monsters exist, some of the human characters want to destroy them all while other characters recognize that the titular monsters are beneficial to people, at least insofar as Godzilla can fight other monsters far more effectively than human weapons can and Kong defends all the island’s inhabitants, including the people, from the predatory, reptilian Skullcrawlers. In one scene in Kong, the surviving soldiers, who are hungry for revenge against Kong for killing their compatriots, almost come to blows with the civilians who only want to escape with their lives, while in another the civilians, having recognized Kong’s nobility, initiate a Mexican standoff in an attempt to defend the gorilla from the soldiers who are attempting to burn him.
Given that the natives identify Kong as god, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a potential sliver of real world religious metaphor in that conflict. Two groups of people who ostensibly have the important things in common (they all come from the world outside of Skull Island and all want to get back there) part ways and almost kill each other over their different interpretations of god’s intentions: the soldiers see Kong as an oversized Vietcong, an enemy combatant who killed Americans and thus must be killed in turn, while the civilians see him as a king justifiably defending his home and dependents from potential threat. Like the people in Kong who struggle to come together to join the island’s god in fighting the Skullcrawlers, we in the real world fight one another, even Christian against Christian, over different understandings of God’s character, instead of joining with God to combat the real monsters of the world: violence, injustice, hunger, oppression, disease, climate change, etc.
Our inability to come together in the face of such ills is especially frustrating because, in Scripture, we have already read the ultimate spoiler: the monsters that would divide us from the love of God and one another have already lost. The God who defeated death also beats everything else that separates us from God. We spoil the ending every time we recite the Creed, celebrate with a Eucharistic Prayer, or otherwise remember Christ’s death, resurrection, and future second coming. Satan and Death and all those forces that sow hate and fear to prevent people from loving and serving each other as Jesus commands will be thrown into the lake of fire. Our failure as humans to unite against these monsters does no more than delay God’s final victory over them; one would hope that these spoilers in Scripture would galvanize us to join with God instead of feeding each other to the monsters.
But as those who at least occasionally visit the geekier corners of the internet are aware, not everyone responds to spoilers the same way. There are those who deliberately seek out spoilers as a way to whet their appetite; some folks happily go to the movies to witness the visual spectacle even after reading and dissecting a bootleg copy of the script (if you’ve enjoyed a movie that you saw after reading and rereading the book on which it was based, you’ve experienced something similar). But there are also folks who simply cannot find pleasure in the movie if they’ve already been told that, for example, Samuel L. Jackson is the villain or Bruce Willis is already dead.
As a story, Holy Week has been spoiled to the point that even folks who’ve never set foot in a church (and never intend to) know that the sequence of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday ends with Jesus’ resurrection. And with regard to Holy Week, many Christians react to those spoilers in the second way, having no interest in watching the story unfold but wanting only to join in the Easter celebration at the end. Perhaps these are the same sort who, knowing God will win, find more pleasure in conflict with other people than in joining God to fight monsters.
But for me, and I hope for you as well, when it comes to Holy Week I have the first kind of response to the spoilers. We don’t attend the services of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil) for the plot (just as I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island because I was interested in the story). We go to bear witness to what we already know we will see, in this case not the fun mayhem of a giant gorilla taking down a squad of helicopters, but what Jesus gave out of love for us. We take the time each Holy Week to bear witness to Christ’s love as expressed in washing his disciples’ feet and serving them his body and blood, in facing betrayal by his friend and whipping by his foes, in dying on a cross and rising from the grave. And by doing so, we can then bear witness of that love to others.
So I encourage you to spend extra time at church on April 13, 14, and 15, experiencing the story of Jesus’ Passion even though it has been spoiled for you many times over, because it is through reliving that familiar story for ourselves that we can share it in loving and serving our neighbors.
The Rev. John Adams
The Eggplant: February 23, 2017 – Lend Me Your Ears
When I was in Seminary, one of the lessons repeated in many classes and contexts was that to be a good pastor is to be a good listener. As a priest, both members of your parish and others will often tell you about things going on in their lives, and your first instinct is usually to identify the problem and propose a solution. To be a good pastor, we were told, you must unlearn that instinct and simply hear people out; sometimes they do want your advice or a theological interpretation of their troubles, but often they just want you to hear them, because others in their lives or the world at large seem not to be listening.
This lesson comes back to me during this week every year; on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, we always read the story of the Transfiguration, in which God’s voice tells the disciples present to listen to Jesus. One of my mentors, a retired Methodist pastor, asserted that “listen to him” was the most important part of that reading and that any Transfiguration sermon not emphasizing it was doing the congregation a disservice.
While I am not inclined to go that far, I do agree that listening is as important a skill for every Christian as it is for clergy. In general terms, listening to our neighbors is an easy way for us to love them, requiring only our time and attention. To love those we encounter and treat them with the respect they are due as fellow children of God, we must listen to them seriously. In more particular terms, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46 for example), so listening to such neighbors of ours today is one way we can follow the command to listen to Jesus here and now.
This Saturday (weather permitting), some of us Episcopalians from the Nebraska Panhandle will be engaged in such listening. Widening our Circle, a day of prayer and sharing organized by The Rev. Tar Drazdowski and led by Brother James Dowd, is an opportunity for us to listen to our neighbors on the Pine Ridge Reservation and exchange stories with them directly rather than repeating the narratives about their lives that we often hear in the media.
Exchanging stories with neighbors whose experiences are very different from ours helps us to recognize our common humanity rather than fixating on the ways in which we differ (religion, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc.). Exposure to more perspectives expands our appreciation of God’s creation and guides us to love our neighbors who are not ‘like us’ just as God loves them. Such listening can also illuminate ways in which we or our forebears have failed to show such love.
Probably my favorite author at present is N. K. Jemisin, who writes fantasy from a Black female perspective. Her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is set in a world reshaped by an ancient war among the gods; Bright Itempas, the victor, enslaved his surviving enemies and handed their chains to his priesthood, who conquered the world using the power of their divine captives. Jemisin tells her story from the perspective of Yeine, a young woman from the ‘barbarous’ fringes of the empire who finds herself summoned to the capital and thrown into the vicious political machinations of the ruling family and fallen gods scheming for freedom.
Besides being an intriguing story engagingly written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was an eye-opener to me as a male Christian of European descent. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that the war of the gods was primarily between Itempas, god of the sun and proponent of order, and Nahadoth, his brother who embraced night and chaos. The empire blessed by the former resembles the colonial expansion of western Christianity insofar as, in the name of religious devotion and the bestowal of order, it believes in conquering a people and then reshaping their religion and culture into the mold of the conqueror. Yeine’s experience as a conquered person partially exposed to both her own culture and that of the empire bears disconcerting parallels to the experience of Black Americans, Native Americans, and others who are not of European descent, particularly in the ways she is not accepted by her powerful family even when she does succeed in conforming to the capital’s expectations of her.
This story, this fictional version of the attitudes and dynamics that govern race relations in reality but which I often fail to notice, proved indispensable in helping me listen to my neighbors at a time when they were describing things so far beyond my experience that, even listening, I could not comprehend. But even when we find it difficult, we must listen to Jesus by attending to our oppressed neighbors, lending our ears to their voices and our eyes to their stories. Because we are called to love our neighbors, I encourage you to take the time to listen attentively, and to seek out the stories of those who look and act and think differently from you, so that in understanding their perspectives, you may come to love them as God does.
The Rev. John Adams+
Annual Council Address – 2016
My Dear Brothers and Sisters –
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. This morning, I have for you a Diocese of Nebraska, “Year in Review.”
Our last Annual Council was held in mid October at Saint Stephen’s in Grand Island. Not a week later, God answered one of my long-standing prayers … when a distracted Omaha driver ran a stop sign and totaled the little red Subaru that I’d been driving for four years. The answered prayer came in the form of a new pick-up, which it had long since seemed to me would be the perfect vehicle to haul around the variety of Bishop’s gear that always rides in the back, and to face down our variable Nebraska weather and roads.
That occasion was rather more seriously a reminder that life is precious and that we’ve got to make every moment in this beautiful creation count. I walked away unharmed and was left feeling deeply grateful for air bags – and for the fact that Canon Easton was not in her usual shot-gun spot. The passenger side of the car did not fare so well as the driver’s side!
Finally, that episode was a reminder that God does in fact hear our prayers and is inclined to answer them. We really do need to be careful what we pray for!
Just a couple of weeks later, folks from all over Nebraska met at Holy Apostle’s in Mitchell to celebrate the feast day of our new Nebraska saint, Father Hiram Hisanori Kano. Holy Apostles was also celebrating the arrival of their new co-rectors: Chris and Sheryl Kester-Byer. The Kester-Byers are ELCA clergy that in addition to serving at Holy Apostles share in caring for a Lutheran congregation in Scottsbluff. We packed the church that night, laughed as the Canon commiserated with the Kester-Byers about the difficulty of following AN ACTUAL SAINT in priestly ministry and shared in one of Holy Apostle’s world-class potlucks, which featured traditional Japanese dishes as well as the best of the pantry from a Scottsbluff County ranch. It was one of those occasions when the truly astonishing diversity of our diocese was on full display. And it was a beautiful evening.
There are now six parishes in Nebraska where Episcopal congregations are blessed to be served by Lutheran pastors and in one case a Lutheran congregation in northeast Nebraska is now served by one of our fine Episcopal priests. These cooperative, ecumenical ventures are a real grace to those churches participating. And they not only exemplify one, good hope for ongoing future ministry in some of our smaller churches and towns but are a powerful witness to the larger Church of the preeminence of shared life in Christ taking precedence over old, denominational boundaries and prejudices. We are one in the Lord.
All Saint’s Day we installed the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of our Episcopal Church. Presiding Bishop Curry has already been an extraordinary breath of fresh air for our denomination, especially as he has rallied us to be participants in the Jesus Movement as opposed to just members of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry is likewise doing a great job as a spokesperson for Christ and for our denomination in both traditional and new media, and he has brought a new level of professionalism and health to both our church offices in New York City and to the House of Bishops.
Now: pull out you cell phones to tweet, post and calendar this exciting news: as a kick-off to our 150th Anniversary Celebration a year and a half from now, Bishop Curry will be visiting Nebraska in earliest 2018. The PB will be at Trinity Cathedral on Sunday January 7th of that year. I want you to know that the Dean and I are absolutely committed to making that visit as accessible as possible to all of you’d who’d like to see the Bishop, and be part of the first party in what should be a terrific sesquicentennial year! More to come!
At Nativity-tide, most of Nebraska got walloped by a grand snow-storm that delivered the perfectly timed gift of a white Christmas. It was a bit of a project to pull on heavy winter gear and plow to church on Christmas Eve, but it was well worth the trip. I loved imagining us one-and-all making our way to our parishes that night, as I do on all our other great Church feast-days. When we gather in common prayer across these 77,000 square miles and raise our voices to God as one in the beautiful, ancient, inherited texts of our Anglican tradition it is a powerful thing!
At the turn of the calendar year there were two, big, back-to-back celebrations in Omaha. Marisa Tabizon Thompson was installed as the Rector of All Saints and Sarah Miller was ordained at Trinity Cathedral as a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It was glorious to see priests, deacons and lay people from all over the diocese – including from spots in the furthest western part of the state – make the trip to be present at those parties!
We’ve grown from 17 to 22 full-time priests over the last five years, and we’ve got some exceptional folks currently in “the process” to be ordained priests and deacons in time, God willing and the people of God consenting. That’s a very positive change, indicating increasing health in our Nebraska parishes and a growing reputation that DioNeb is a place with a great clergy community, exceptional lay leaders and a spirit to boldly follow Jesus into the future.
I’d note that a good number of our aspiring clergy are women, and I want to add here that I believe Nebraska could be in the years to come an increasingly welcoming place to lift-up and celebrate the gifts of women in ministry. This was a year in which – for several reasons – I was reminded of the extraordinary challenges and roadblocks that are still present for women – both lay and ordained – who have a sense of calling to serve in Church leadership positions.
Our Church has made strides, but we have a long ways to go, and Nebraska is not perfect – perhaps far from it. The advantage we have here in Nebraska is a cadre of exceptionally hard-working and faithful women already serving in church leadership positions of every sort, and a culture that’s better than many in rewarding creativity and hard work whoever might be pushing the shovel. What if we could keep moving in this direction and become a church-wide leader in encouraging and supporting women in ministry at every level? I’m making a pledge right now to begin that work, by making three promises:
- I promise that female priests will always be paid equitably in comparison with their male peers in this
- I promise that all Letters of Agreement for full-time priests will include generous parental leave
- And I promise that your diocesan staff will work directly with parish search teams to understand how unconscious bias influences church culture and discernment work.
Can you even imagine what might come to pass if we loosed all the power and potential of the women of this diocese on the larger state of Nebraska? As our Chancellor often says: Katy, bar the door!
Lent and Holy week are surely the busiest times of the church year, and that was true for most of us in 2016. Canon Easton and I helped flip pancakes at Calvary Church in Hyannis, and visited Saint Matthew’s in Alliance for the solemnities of Ash Wednesday. Those evenings were representative I am sure of the kinds of work that happens across DioNeb in Lent. All the “regulars” report for duty, and take pride in keeping alive some of our oldest and best traditions. Folks from the wider community come around more often than usual, equally to support their friends in the Episcopal Church … and to try to feed that hunger for human connection and communion with the divine, that the Church, at its best, offers so truly. And Jesus is there in the midst of it all. Rousing the careless and forgiving the penitent. Comforting the lonely and the lost.
Calling us one and all into deeper relationship with each other, and with him, as friends and disciples.
On Memorial Day a hundred or more of us travelled to Eclipse Chapel, which is in Hooker County on the banks of the Dismal River. This has to be one of the most beautiful and remote church locales in our whole denomination! The Chapel was celebrating its 100th birthday, and folks made the pilgrimage to be part of that anniversary celebration from all over the Midwest and beyond. Though the Chapel is no longer an active Episcopal Church, it was powerful to be reminded of the sacrifices made by the first generation of Episcopalians in this state to establish the communities – and build the churches – that we now call home. We stand on their shoulders, as our grandchildren will stand, in their time, on ours.
Though Eclipse has long since been deconsecrated, that was not the case with any of our Nebraska Episcopal Churches in 2016. No churches closed in the Diocese of Nebraska this year. We stand strong at 53!
In June, Bishop Clarkson Grants were awarded to eight congregations by our affiliated Clarkson Foundation. Those grants totaled over $25,000, and are being used to help grow local parishes with program support for purposes as varied as beefing up a Sunday morning music ministry to collaborating with a local children’s dance troupe.
Remember those grants continue to be available every Spring to help fund new ideas for church growth and renewal! You should go get some of that money!
There were two milestone parish anniversaries this past June, celebrated on back- to-back days. Grace Church in Columbus turned 150 years old – ancient by the standards of this part of the U.S. – and Saint Mary’s in Holly turned 100. Both churches hosted big homecoming Eucharists and glorious post-worship feasts. In each case, people with church connections of old travelled from great distances to be present for the celebrations, including former rectors, parishioners and community friends. Christian churches have life cycles that include ups and downs. Comparatively few churches last for several decades, let alone a century or more. It’s a rare privilege to be present to such milestone anniversaries and they are not to be missed when they come around. Thanks be to God!
There were a number of domestic and international mission trips emanating from our diocese this summer, including our annual youth trip to the Rosebud reservation lead by Father Tom Jones and his team, and our youth trip to the Dominican Republic, lead by Don and Melisa Peeler and their team. The folks out at Christ Church Sidney welcomed a group of youth from Georgia as hosts of a mission journey to exotic western Nebraska. The Georgia youth did service work in Sidney and Harrisburg both, and learned a lot while they were here with us about their larger Episcopal Church and our own Midwest culture. Your Diocesan Vicar for Mission Mother Tar Drasdowski conceived the idea for hosting a youth team here, and it worked very well. I wonder who else in this big, beautiful diocese might likewise find a way to welcome folks from elsewhere in the Church to make a pilgrimage to the Cornhusker State?
High summer means church camp – our second year in our new Fremont home as the re-branded “Camp Canterbury.” Noelle Ptomey is our incomparable camp director, and Noelle continues to build a camp that is an authentic incarnation of Christian community for our kids and a touchstone for our youth each summer. 2016 was our best- attended camp in several years, and I am especially grateful to the 22 intrepid adults who were at camp all week, a group which included many of your DioNeb priests and deacons.
Soon after camp – and as a part of our annual diocesan staff western residency – we paid a visit to Chadron, installing Father John Adams as Priest-in-Charge at Grace Church. Father John is our first Bishop’s Society Curate, and has now served for nearly ten months in Chadron after spending the first 18 months of his curacy at St. Andrew’s Omaha.
The Bishop’s Society Curacy program is one of the chief means by which we’re bringing great new clergy to Nebraska and through which were fielding priestly support to some of our small-to-medium sized congregations. In addition to Father John, we presently have two other Bishop’s Society Curates here in DioNeb. Mother Sarah Miller is just finishing the first half of her Curacy with the folks at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, and Deacon Amy Duggins began an 18 month term of service at summer’s end with All Saints in Omaha. I fully expect to hire a fourth curate at seminary graduation time this spring because of the amazing generosity of the members of our Bishop’s Society.
That group has now pledged – wait for it! – over $780,000 to support the ministries of the Diocese of Nebraska. As you will hear later today when our budget is presented, that generosity has also contributed to building our diocesan endowments which plays a part in our ability to lower our diocesan assessments yet again this year. My deep, deep thanks to all of you who are members of the Bishop’s Society. And if you’re not a member yet, I want to talk to you!
About a month ago, Brother James Dowd arrived in Nebraska. James is a monk in the Episcopal Benedictine Order of the Holy Cross. You’ve already met Brother James briefly as our worship leader his morning, and you’ll have the chance to get to know him better later on in this council and in the months to come. Brother James will serve here in DioNeb for the next two years, working about one-quarter time for the Cathedral and the rest of the time for the diocese. He will help strengthen our faith & prayer lives, teach us about Christian community, and help lead us in serving with and learning from folks on the margins of our communities.
Brother James’ salary is being paid for by the Clarkson Foundation, which you can take as a sign of that body’s determination to help our diocese grow in faith and discipleship as well as in numeric and financial health. I urge you to seek out Brother James while you’re here at Council, to get to know him, and talk a little about how he might support the ministry of your parish church while he is here in Nebraska.
Just a couple of weeks ago your western clericus gathered at Camp Norwesca in Dawes County and along with several leaders from the Episcopal Church in South Dakota, spent three days on an exploratory journey around the Pine Ridge reservation. This trip was intended as a way to get to know the people living on the reservation in a deeper way and to explore prospects for different kinds of partnership in the future. It’s seeming to many of us that the future of our Church must be driven in part by a bolder – and more sensitive – engagement with the world around us, a passionate and humble seeking out of Christ in our brothers and sisters that have different experiences, challenges, blessings and hopes than we do. And in all that finding new ways to be in community together.
As a next step towards that kind of mission engagement, we’ll be meeting with some of our new friends from Pine Ridge early in 2017 to continue in our mutual efforts to understand, appreciate and celebrate the differences that make us unique and the ways in which we might be Christ-bearers one to another in the years to come.
And that brings us all the way around to this moment. I’ve left out an awful lot – different prayer services & protests, searches & sabbaticals, feasts & fights. This is only a reflection of the amazing array of ways that all of you are seeking to be more and more faithful disciples of Jesus and joyful members of the branch of the Jesus Movement that is our Episcopal Church. One could easily fill many hours accounting how you meet the challenges of this moment and telling all the stories of the beautiful ways you seek and serve Christ in the world.
I wish to close by simply saying thanks.
- Thanks to a superb staff who are themselves a little church community and always lead by faith and with kindness towards one to another. Beth & Betsy, Lindsey and Liz … Brother James: it is a grace to serve with you every day and I am so thankful your ministry in this
- Thanks to a college of clergy that I believe are among the most loving, supportive and determined in this entire Episcopal Church. We are so blessed by the priests and deacons of
- And finally, my thanks to all of you and to the thousands of brother and sister Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. You are some of the finest, most faithful and hard-working Christians I have ever
It is an incredible privilege to work with you every day, and I look forward to seeing where the Holy Spirit will lead us together in the year and years to come!
Submitted this 7th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2016 – The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska
What a pathetic bunch of demons. Can you believe these guys? They’re a laughingstock. Fleeing into a bunch of pigs, and they can’t even drive them properly. Right over the cliff!
We want all the demons to be pathetic. We want them to whine to Jesus about not going back to the abyss. We want to laugh at them for fleeing into pigs, only to meet their end. We love to stand alongside Jesus in this tale, laughing the demons away.
All that pathetic little Legion.
But not all demons are pathetic.
Last weekend, many of us were rocked to hear about a mass shooting in Orlando. 102 people were shot in the deadliest attack on a gay target in American history. Forty-nine people died; forty-nine families will have an empty chair going forward. A generation of young gay and lesbian Americans learned that they might be killed for who they are and who they love.
Not all demons are pathetic.
There are larger demons here than one man, and his two or three guns. These demons thrive on divisions and barriers. These demons cheer every time we divide into “us and them.” These demons carefully spend every quiet moment encouraging us to take one little step more towards hating someone else, stoking a sense of self-righteousness in ourselves until it can erupt.
We don’t know exactly which demon whispered to the gunman. We don’t know if it was homophobia, or if it was some message of self-hate he’d been taught, or if he’d learned to hate the latino community in Orlando, or if he’d heard some hateful thing from people far away.
Was the demon’s name Homophobia? Was its name Self-Hate-turned-outwards? Was its name Terror?
Or was its name, too, Legion, for it took many different demons to orchestrate this wild moment for this young man’s mind, twisted by their dark whisperings.
Whichever voice Omar heard, all of these demon shrieked their victory when Omar Mateen bought his weapons and loaded them to kill, targeting a club for gay men on Latin night.
And we are left to wonder at their success.
We would love for all the demons to be pathetic, whining to be let into the pigs. We would love to laugh as they stupidly careen off a cliff, cheerfully gone from our community as the swineherds cry out for their lost trade.
But the demons aren’t pathetic.
So we can’t be either.
Today is Father’s Day, and I’d like nothing more than to preach a sermon only about the gifts fathers can give their children, and the love of God as a father to us all.
But the demons don’t get the last word on last week. The demons don’t get to count on silence from this pulpit this week.
The demons aren’t pathetic, but neither is Jesus. And that’s where our strength is.
Jesus taught us to love.
Jesus taught us to talk to one another.
Jesus walked across every human barrier that had been erected, meeting a person instead of a label.
Jesus let a Samaritan woman give him water in broad daylight.
Jesus touched an unclean leper to heal him.
Jesus spoke to Romans, and pagans, and Samaritans and tax collectors — those who worshipped the wrong gods, or the right God in the wrong way.
Jesus gave EVERYONE love, and mercy, and healing.
And you can too.
Every time you choose love instead of anger, Jesus wins.
Every time you choose to heal instead of harm, Jesus wins.
Every time you take a bullet instead of firing a bullet, Jesus wins.
Every time you make a space safe for gay or lesbian persons, Jesus wins.
Every time you make a space safe for Muslims, or refugees, Jesus wins.
Every time you decide that a Latino man or Latina woman is equal in your eyes and in your heart, Jesus wins.
Every time you teach a child to value every other person, Jesus wins.
Every time you correct the angry outburst that mocks someone’s race or religion or sexuality, Jesus wins.
Every time you choose to listen instead of shouting someone else down, Jesus wins.
The demons want you to think that nothing can be done. They want you to think that love is cheap and worthless. It’s one of their favorite lies.
And if you forget about Jesus, you might believe them.
Jesus healed the man in Gerasene, and that man sat at his feet.
It’s what you do, when the teacher appears.
And that God-healed man wanted to go off with Jesus right then and there — surely that was better than the life he’d been living, raving madly in the tombs.
But Jesus tells him to stay and proclaim what he’s learned, right where he is. And so he stayed, and told what he had seen, and what had been done for him.
To proclaim Jesus. And healing. And the grace of God.
The demons don’t get the last word. Not when they laughed at Jesus on the cross, and NOT in Orlando last Saturday.
We say instead, healing for gay and lesbian youth. Healing for bi and transgender youth. Healing for American Muslims and Latinos, worried that this may spark more violence against them. Healing for everyone who’s been dismissed with an angry slur, or shouted down by some madman in a demon’s thrall.
And healing also for those the demons seize. Healing for those who feel strength from hate or violence. Healing for those who ignored the man in the tomb while he was naked and raving, imagining there was nothing left to do.
The demons don’t get the last word. Not when we speak their names and do the work to send them over the cliff.
So begone, Homophobia. Begone, Hate. Begone, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Begone, Racism. Begone, Violence and Rage.
Begone, you demons who think you can hide in the pigs until Jesus leaves, and afflict the world once more.
The demons don’t get the last word. Not unless we don’t proclaim any other words.
– Fr. Benedict Varnum, St. Augustine of Canterbury, Omaha.
The Voice of a Christian
One of the strange realities of our newly-dawned “Information Age” is that we can become acutely aware of every great and serious topic from every sphere of life. Our local community hears news from our town, our state, our region, our nation, and the world.
One challenge this creates within the life of faith – and especially faith lived out in community, including our own parish, is that we can get hold of full or partial information about many of the great topics of our age. I confess that this is one of my greatest satisfactions from technology: it means quite a bit to me to be aware of the movements of history and nations, and to feel secure in my sense of my own place within them. I love to take up serious topics in conversation. The challenge of this is that our opinions, formed by diverse experiences and the different aspects of a story that we come to hear or experience, can become sources of tension, anxiety, or even division within our friendships, families, and churches.
I offer two thoughts in response. One is that Scripture is as true for us today in our Information Age as it was for the early churches to which Paul wrote – and in particular the community of the church in Corinth. I encourage you all sometime to read Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (you can finish it in about 20 minutes). It’s a letter to a church divided: they’ve chosen different leaders, and they’re unclear about what public Christian behavior should be, what sexual morality should be, and whether they still have a need of the Jewish law or not (any of this sound familiar?). Paul writes wonderful things to them, including a reminder that no human vision is perfect (“now we see in a mirror, dimly” 1 Cor 13:12), and that we all have a need of one another (“For just as a body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. […] 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.’” 1 Cor 12:12, 21). Paul understood that those who seek to follow Jesus would disagree in good conscience, but that it’s Christ who gathers us all together again, in spite of the visions and expectations we have – as scattered today as they ever were after Babel way back in Genesis 11!
The other thought is this: Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and head of our sister church, the Church of England, wrote this in a Lenten book called Christ on Trial (one of my favorite spiritual reads): “In the late nineties, Britain and other countries took up arms against tyrannical regimes elsewhere in the world. These military adventures may or may not have been justified or helpful, but the underlying problem for the Christian is how to be truthful about them. Yes, there is a cost in civilian deaths. Yes, such and such a policy, at home or abroad, will cost resources that will not therefore be available for other things. Yes, politics is frequently about the choosing where the cost will come, not about finding a cost-free option. The Christian is certainly called on to take up the unpopular position of being the person who asks about specific costs, about the tragic element in public decisions – not to turn the screws of guilt, but to remind us that facing cost is the only adult way of understanding the full nature of freedom. The Christian may also be the person who has the still more unpopular task of saying that this particular cost is unacceptable in terms of social or international wellbeing or public integrity,” (p 115).
It strikes me that we are in a time where that is precisely the public conversation we are having. Christians, and others, are raising our voices to face costs: the cost of taking on risk in our own nation if we seek to shelter others and someone who would do us violence might slip in amongst those fleeing that same violence, and the cost of locking in the innocent with the terrible. Each of these comments is a matter of facing cost: each has at its core a hope that human lives will not remain in danger.
I have already valued at Saint Augustine that we are able to have these conversations and understand that our higher commitment is to remain a part of Christ’s Body the Church together. That whatever cost is paid, we will acknowledge it soberly with our prayer and, when possible, our relief. We have had Syrian refugees as visitors at our parish on several occasions, and they have been treated with respect and hospitality. Few of us have the ear of the powerful, to offer our voice directly to them, but I believe we take on fully the challenge of living out the faith that demands that we follow Jesus, and not our own simple pleasures, and I believe that we have the capacity for loving conversation even around the weightiest topics of our age.
May we never neglect to face the true costs of our choices, nor the actions of our nation, and may we always speak to one another what we could also offer to God in prayer,
Fr Benedict Varnum,
St. Augustine of Canterbury, Omaha
There is still time to fill out an application for your parish to be a Project Resource partner. As you learned at annual council, five Nebraskans are now trained as parish consultants to assist with your annual parish stewardship campaign and with soliciting major gifts. The application form to work with one of our diocesan consultants can be found here.
Here is the annual council presentation text:
One day, a local parish church whose mission is hampered by a lack of gifts or low membership will be able to reach out and get free expert counsel on theology, spirituality, and tools for raising money and people.
One day, a local diocesan leader will be able to respond to a call from their Bishop or diocesan leader from a local parish seeking help.
One day, no church will be held back because their clergy or lay leaders do not know how to raise money, manage strategic communications, manage membership, manage membership invitation programs, of encourage investment in mission.
One day, no clergy person, no new stewardship chair, no senior warden, no campaign manager will need to re-invent documents, models, systems, or processes for raising money or membership.
One day, no church will wince at not having the financial and human resources needed to accomplish the call of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, a diocesan team consisting of Bishop Barker and four others—two clergy and two lay persons—joined leaders from around the Episcopal Church for the pilot of Project Resource, a movement dedicated to increasing philanthropy and raising membership in congregations of every size. Our Nebraska team was trained in Project Resource to provide model documents to all so that no mission needs to go underfunded because a church does not know how to raise money and people. We were trained in Project Resource with the understanding that we would “pay it forward” to congregations in our Diocese that want or need help developing an annual stewardship campaign, soliciting major gifts, or establishing a legacy society.
Project Resource is more than just another stewardship program: This is a culture change in the way people of faith understand their relationship with money. In an age of deep debt and over-consumption, Project Resource is deeply rooted in a Christian spirituality of stewardship, providing people with the liberating tools they need to loosen the chains of power that money so often holds, finding instead the joy and true freedom of sacrificial giving. The ambitious goal our Project Resource Team has set is to train leaders in each of the 52 congregations of the Diocese of Nebraska in the next five years. Beginning in January 2016, we will train six Diocese of Nebraska congregations to join the Project Resource movement. Today we invite those congregations that are interested in being a part of this pilot group to submit an application. Applications can be obtained from Canon Liz Easton. There is just one caveat: Congregations who choose to participate in this pilot group must be prepared to “pay it forward” to other congregations who also seek to accomplish the call of the Holy Spirit unhindered by the lack of financial and human resources.
One day, no clergy will wish they had been taught financial development or marketing in seminary.
One day, no senior warden will wish they took classes in school or had money to hire consultants for general campaign management.
One day, all the congregations of the Diocese of Nebraska will have immediate and free access to Project Resource, the best and most effective tools available to raise the money and the people they need to engage God’s mission.