National Apostasy: Disaster Capitalism and the Episcopal Church

JohnIn the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. On a tree the Word was exalted in death, and in life emerged from a three-day tomb. Proclaimed first by the Jews, then the Gentiles, the Word reached disparate lands. He was preached in wide fields, in marketplaces, in churches—anywhere an ear was to hear. The Word was lifted high in spite of flame, dismemberment and drowning; then enthroned in cathedrals rising, in chants of high thanksgiving, and in myriad hearts yearning. Women preached, too, along with anyone who was called to give the Word, regardless of sexuality. In our day, though, the Church sits behind a nameplate, reads blogs and worries about the future.

A foregone conclusion: the Episcopal Church is dying. I need not give you numbers because you can recite them like creeds. It is the one paradigm uniting conservative and liberals, high and low church. We will die, or are dying, or have recently died.

Yet, it is important to remember no matter how many statistical soothsayers gaze into their PowerPoints, no one can predict the future. This is because the future does not exist. The only time existing is now—this very now as your eyes pass over these words. This is all there is. Before and after only exist in the mind of the present, in the heart of now.

Because of this, data and projections tell us nothing of tomorrow, but do tell us much of today. Into this made-up future, we project all our current feelings and longings. Odds are, if we’re feeling good today, the future looks bright; if we’re feeling bad, everything will be terrible. We bend numbers—the most malleable things in creation—to suit our current disposition. In the same way, numbers can also be manipulated to create current dispositions. A predicted future can be used to shape the present.

gen conThe 2012 General Convention asked the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appoint twenty-four members to form the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). Specifically, they were charged with contemplation of administrative and governance structures. General Convention resolved that TREC be diverse and “include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership.” After several months of meeting, they began publishing their thoughts for comment from the wider church.

In their most recent letter from September 2014, TREC shared some of what they’d been ruminating. Corporate language frames nearly all their suggestions. For example, TREC suggests at the churchwide level, leadership should be empowered to pursue “bold and disruptive ideas” and staff should work “as network catalysts and network builders.” The Presiding Bishop is “retained as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)”; the President of the House Deputies is “retained as Vice President”; the Executive Council would be “similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees”; along with new positions, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer.

Amidst all this corporate jargon is the sharp knife to many existing structures. The Executive Council—the voice of General Convention between General Conventions—should be reduced from forty to twenty-one members, and the various Provinces are no longer guaranteed membership. The committees of General Convention (CCABs) should be reduced. Those three new chiefs “would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop” and could be fired without anyone’s approval. Staff of the DFMS should be reduced to a “contractor-only model” and these will be judged by the Executive Council “against a set of pre-agreed metrics.”

This is surprising after the calls for change at the last General Convention. But one should realize TREC was criticized from the beginning for being full of insiders without the prerequisite “critical distance”. Or that TREC themselves were appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies.  Should it really be a surprise that they nearly conclude new expanded powers for both positions and less input from marginalized voices?

But, what’s hiding behind all of these recommendations is the expectation that they will stave off disaster. That, as TREC wrote in their September letter, we are like Lazarus who was held back from his bindings and if we just fix “the old ways of working,” we can save ourselves from future death.

kjsAs it is well known, several dioceses and congregations left the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Yet, less known is three years into Schori’s term, Mary E. Kostel was named “Special Counsel to the Presiding Bishop for Property Litigation and Discipline” in order to assist with these property disputes. She still holds this position in the Presiding Bishop’s Office. This is nearly unprecedented, by the way, for as far as I know, even the Roman Catholic Church with its various pedophilia lawsuits does not retain special counsel in this way.  In a memo shared with the Executive Council—the body TREC suggests a reduction of members—Mary Kostel wrote, “[the legal team] typically has counseled in favor of forbearance from dramatic or inflammatory action, on the view that the disputes over parish property will ultimately be resolved in court.”

Eric Bonetti—himself a self-described nonprofit professional—wrote an essay in the Episcopal Cafe defending these litigations. He writes, “Indeed, if there is any fault to be found in the church’s handling of the dissidents, it was in trying too hard to find a workable compromise.” The New York Times reported it was this kind of pressure to never compromise which Bishop Johnston felt during his amicable negotiations with his friend, the conservative rector of Truro Church. As The Vice President of the Virginia Theological Seminary commented, “The extreme on the right and the extreme on the left have much to lose if they give an inch.” As Kostel wrote, everything should be and “will ultimately be” settled in court.

This pressure seldom produces amicable results as in Truro. Consider The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York. Before 2007, breakaways could often work out solutions with their former dioceses. The congregation offered the diocese $150,000 for the building. The initial conversations were promising, but eventually they were sued by the Episcopal Church. After removing the congregation, the Diocese sold the building for $50,000 to an Islamic community center.

The Presiding Bishop defended this policy of settling everything in court to USA Today. She did not think it “was a faithful thing” to let the breakaway parishes keep their buildings. She said, “In a sense it’s related to the old ecclesiastical behavior toward child abuse. . . Bad behavior must be confronted.” Confronting this bad behavior has been very expensive for the Episcopal Church. Although a number is hard to estimate, one totals at $34.5 million over the last decade. As of 2014, there are over eighty cases being argued in courts over property disputes.  

The September TREC Letter does not mention these eighty litigations nor $34.5 million cost. Of course, it does specifically mention legal staff would not be impacted by the slimming for “efficiency” or “effectiveness”. TREC also suggests the addition of a Chief Legal Officer—one of those three Chiefs serving “at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop”. Ostensibly, this is an expansion of what has been called “the scorched earth” litigation policy. Katie Sherrod, one of Fort Worth’s faithful Episcopalians, argues the TREC letter is reminiscent of the power grabs by conservative bishops.

Strike magazineIn 2013 American anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for Strike! Magazine. In it, Graeber examines the rise of “professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers,” or the salaried paper-pushers. These are not doctors, but hospital administrators; not the violinists, but the managers of the orchestranot the professors, but the Dean. These people don’t actually produce anything. They judge and manage the people who do produce. And, very often, are convinced that their jobs have no meaning. Yet, as Graeber writes, through “some strange alchemy” as corporations downsize and exploit workers, these “bullshit jobs” continue to grow. Today, the Episcopal Church is run by people with “bullshit jobs.”

In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, the mission of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” I submit that any “bullshit job” in the Episcopal Church is anyone we are paying who doesn’t do this mission directly. These would be the Social Media Coordinators, the Marketing Gurus, the lawyers, etc. A pretty good bet of a “bullshit job” is anything having the title of “consultant.” You may find the likes of these padding the budget of most every diocese (and even a few parishes).

On top of this, consider how much of a “bullshit job” the role of Presiding Bishop has become. Originally, the Presiding Bishop was the senior-most diocesan bishop who presided over the House of Bishops. Back then, the Presiding Bishop still had all the apostolic duties of a bishop: tending the spiritual care of God’s priests, confirming, and ensuring decency and good order. Back then, a Presiding Bishop still did useful things that impacted the lives of those in their care. Over time, however, the Presiding Bishop garnered more national responsibilities and by the 1940s, it was expected a Presiding Bishop resign his or her diocese. Thus, we have a Bishop without a See. This is odd in Christendom, as even the Bishop of Rome is, well, the Bishop of Rome along with being the Pope. It is the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the months leading up to the formation of TREC, there were several calls to return the Presiding Bishop to the older formula of the senior-most diocesan bishop. Interestingly enough, the group picked by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies didn’t think this was a good idea. In fact, TREC went the complete opposite way. TREC saw the future death of the Episcopal Church as a corporate problem with a corporate solution of greatly expanding the powers of a “bullshit job.” Under TREC’s recommendations, once elected, a Presiding Bishop would almost be removed from accountability to the wider church.

I’ve been a well-informed Episcopalian for nearly a decade and I still have no real clue what the Presiding Bishop does other than collect a paycheck, anger conservatives, pursue “scorched-earth” litigations, and not talk about Jesus. Even though we’ve been calling the Presiding Bishop our Primate since 1982, it seems the position is nothing more than a very powerful administrator, or as Graeber might call it, a very powerful “bullshit job”—or as TREC stylizes the position, a CEO.

kebleJohn Keble preached against a similar problem when he famously mounted the pulpit in St. Mary’s, Oxford in 1833. In his time, the Church of Ireland had too many bishops and not enough people. So, moved by efficiency and effectiveness, Parliament sought to amalgamate the dioceses. Few saw this as a crisis because in the mindset of the time, the Church was considered a ward of the State. Keble, however, preached this is a sign of apostasy. It was a power-play of the State over the apostolic authority of the Church. No one fought it, because as he likened the Church of England to the children of Israel crying out for Samuel to anoint a king, everyone in the Church of England wanted to be like the other nations.

It was clear enough for Israel, though: the Ammonites were at the gates, threatening annihilation, so a king would be effective and efficient to destroy the enemy. Likewise, for the Church of England to give up her own authority and be lead into bondage to the State, Keble theorized there must be some kind of threat. If not a threat, then at least a pretense of a threat. And these “Pretenses will never be hard to find.” Israel wanted to be like every other nation. The Church of England, Keble preached, would frighten themselves in order to become like everybody else, so they could be safe from these pretenses of a threat.

Interestingly enough, corporate America does this all the time. Naomi Klein describes this in detail in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008). If you keep telling everyone that everything is terrible, if you keep shocking the system with manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis, then, of course, people will give up their freedom in order to be saved. They will give up their voice. They will go gladly into bondage for safety. Are these not the trumped-up pretenses of threat Keble preached against?

Therefore, whenever I hear anyone prophesying the imminent downfall of the Episcopal Church, I consider the source. Typically, it’s not a priest or a deacon or a bishop. Usually, it’s a consultant or someone else with a “bullshit job.” Usually, it’s someone in power. Usually, they’re using this forecasted future (that doesn’t exist) to give their “bullshit job” meaning.  They’ll use these threats of a forecasted future to give themselves more authority. Make a CEO, TREC says, and you’ll keep the Church from dying. We only want to be like everybody else.

Once I consider the source, then I consider the other narrative no one mentions: if we can defend (and celebrate) $34.5 million spent over a decade in over eighty lawsuits, surely we can afford to pay staff; if we can (presumably) expand our litigations through a Chief Legal Officer, surely it’s not all terrible; if we can sue to get a building and then sell it for a third the price, then surely we’ll make it; if we can afford the $11 million facility at 815, surely we’re not in such dire straits to ask for a CEO; if we can afford to send the House of Bishops (whom TREC mentions no restrictions) to Taiwan, then maybe we’re not headed for the ash heap; if we can keep and expand (as TREC suggests) all these “bullshit jobs,” then surely it’s not too bad.

Once I consider the source and consider this other narrative, my mind is clear: I am no longer motivated by fear.

So, please pardon my incredulity when I hear the leadership of the Episcopal Church speak about mission and social justice and growing the church in the name of “efficiency” and “effectiveness.” After all, none of our leaders—even those in “bullshit jobs”—tell us not to be afraid. On the contrary, they tell us over and over and over to be very afraid. Thus, this oft-prophesized future has nothing to do with tomorrow, but has everything to do with today. This fear of the future is a powerful tool.

And so, the poor go unfed and songs go unsung. Souls go without the gospel while we go about in litigation against our brothers and sisters. And so, in our day, the Episcopal Church sits behind a very expensive desk, reads blogs and wrings her hands about the future, convincing herself day after day that she is not really the bride of the incarnate Word who was, and is, and will be God forever, world without end. She loses the moment for the future. She loses the moment for her materialism. She convinces herself deliverance is not at hand. And she will sell herself into corporate prostitution.

But, I say to you: do not be afraid.

Hoosier Memories

Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_Ewing-cropI have seen miles of corn upon corn, waving in noonday’s light as if plucked by child’s finger on her way to school. I have seen great swaths of shade roam freely as finger-painted clouds processed the firmament: rising before falling as rain. I read once that the ancient men of great wisdom rode on these when women held stars in their hands and strode upon the moon at night. I have heard the sound of creation in the silence of dirt roads, in forearm sobs, in looks around the kitchen table. I have seen bending trees dip ecstasy in their leaves and fling it into the sky. Under the shelter of May Hydrangeas, resting in shadow’s dirt, I dwelt secure.

I have heard a president stopped here once, riding a whistle through his land, surrounded by crimson and ivory bunting. He spoke, then flew into memories as a pigeon under an overpass. Warren G. Harding, I think.  A lesser light, but a light still the same. 

A Rude Little Story of Boone Lake


I overheard this recently in a truck stop bathroom on I-26 near Grey, Tennessee. Two men walk into the bathroom and carried on this conversation to their separate stalls:

“No, man. He’s got to be making this shit up. Every day?” His friend asks.

“Yeah, every day. At least, that’s what my buddy said.”

He scoffs. “Every day?”

“Yeah, man. This guy went out to his dock in the morning—every day—with a thick rope and throws it into Boone Lake. Then, he sat at the edge of his dock and watched the rope in the water. But it’s not that he’s just watching it. It’s like he’s studied it, watching the way the frays of the rope float. The guy did this for like hours on end, very intense and everything.”

“Bro, I think your buddy’s pulling your leg.”

“Naw, man. I trust this guy. He lived in the same neighborhood. He’d wake up and start drinking his coffee, and this guy would be out there in rain or shine watching his rope in the water, every single morning.”

“What was he doing?”

“Well, that’s the thing, man. My buddy never knew. Last Fourth of July, he was invited to another neighbor’s house for a cookout. So, he asks around at the party, ‘Hey y’all seen this guy out on his dock with his rope?’ They all nod. He’s just like a feature of the neighborhood, you know. He’s harmless and everything. All they know is he lives alone and keeps to himself. And every morning he’s out on the dock. It’s like in the South, man, you let your crazies out.”

His friend said, “Oh man, it’s like my Mamaw was telling me when she was growing up, she had a crazy auntie who would sit on her front porch and hiss like a cat at everyone who would walk by. I was like, damn, Mamaw, why didn’t they lock her up? My Memaw’s all like, she didn’t hurt nothing. My Mamaw said everyone in the town was like, oh, it’s just crazy Mildred, don’t mind her and they’d bring their out-of-town friends and relatives to walk by their house just so hissin’ Mildred would do her thing.” 

He continues: “Exactly. So, my buddy asks all these people at this cookout if they know why he does it. And you know what’s crazy, it never even occurred to nobody to ask. They’re all like, nope, sure don’t, and they all chuckle and eat their burgers. And the kids run around with their sparklers and shit. But they all know who he is. They all watch him from their windows, too.”

SPARKLERS_-_sparklers_5-9-09_white_bursting_LARGE“Well, curiosity gets the best of my buddy. A few days later, he’s drinking his coffee at the window and sees the man come out of his house with the rope over his shoulder. He walks down to the dock, gathers some of it in his hands, starts lassoing it above his head, and throws it in. He sits on the edge of the dock and starts to study it. And my buddy is like, well hell, ain’t no time like the present and walks over to the dock.

“When he gets closer, my buddy sees the guy’s face. He’s like way more intense than my buddy could see from his house. Furrowed brow, lots of tilting of his head, some hms and hrms and all that scratching his head and stuff. And my buddy’s real tentative and is like, pardon me, mister, but every mornin’, I sees you throw out this rope and I was a’wonderin’ if you could tell me what yer’ doing. The guy just keeps sitting there like my buddy didn’t even exist. So, my buddy slowly starts backing away because this is some weird shit. And the guy just sits there watching the rope in the water. My buddy’s like, alright, what the fuck?”

“What the fuck, man. That’s some creepy shit,” his friend says. They flush their respective toilets and move to the sinks. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever heard men wash their hands in a public restroom.

He continues: “Yeah, but you don’t know my buddy. He lives for creepy shit. So, every other day, he starts going over to the man’s house and just stands near him. Each day he gets closer. Finally, he’s sitting next to the rope guy on the edge of his dock. They never breathe a word to each other. Until three days later, my buddy is like, I am with you every morning, sir, and I ain’t got no clue what yer doing. The man turned to him real slow. He said, I’m trying to gather the lake in this rope. I know if I watch it closely enough and the sunlight glints just right and the humidity and the twelve vectors are in alignment, I will pull this lake to the shore.”

“I know, I know. So, my buddy’s trying real hard not to laugh. He’s like, but why do you want to catch Boone Lake? The man turned back to his rope and said, because it’s like fire shut up in my bones if I don’t try. But my buddy can’t hold his laughter in anymore. He’s like, hey, guy, whatever floats your boat but that’s some fucked up shit right there. My buddy gets up and walks home, chuckling.”

TN01lk001“A few weeks ago, my buddy had his nephews staying with him. These guys are around, I don’t know, twelve or thirteen. So, my buddy is like, hey fellas you wanna see something weird? And, you know what it is being that age, they’re hoping it’s a stack of titty mags or a new video game. So, that next morning, he wakes these guys up and gets them to the window.”

“Sure enough, there he is with the rope around his arm, walking down from his house. He twirls it above his head and throws it into the lake. But, then after a few minutes, the rope guy starts swearing. He’s yelling about how he ain’t got nothing but a wet rope. He pulls it back in and marches over to a really tall tree on the edge of his land, right by the waters. He climbs the tree and starts tying the rope to one of these big limbs. My buddy’s like, oh hell no. He tells his nephews to go to their rooms and not come out until he gets back. He runs over to the guy’s place, to the tree. But, by the time he gets there, he can hear the sound of the wet rope creaking. My buddy sees the man’s feet dangling moving back and forth, back and forth in the wind.”

“My buddy runs back to his place and gets a machete from the garage and his nephews. Figured they’d wanna see a dead body. Hell, when I was twelve, I would have loved to see a dead body. So, he cuts the man down. But, then he starts cleaning the rope guy like a deer. His daddy taught him how to field dress when he was just a little kid. He figures It was past time for his nephews to learn, too. So, my buddy starts showing them how to take out the intestines and everything. One of the little nephews would take the organs and drop them in the lake. Then, after the field dressing, my buddy starts hacking the guy into pieces: feet, shins, knees and so on. Both nephews just taking the pieces and dumping them in the lake. It was very efficient until there was nothing left. Finally, they take a large rock and tie the wet rope around it. My buddy coils the rope with the rock over his shoulder and walks to the dock. He lassos it over his head. They watch as it uncoils into the calm waters, before disappearing to the bottom, man.”

“You know what’s really fucked up? My buddy said they looked up from the dock and saw one of the neighbors they met at the Fourth of July party standing at their window, drinking coffee and watching them. The neighbor waves. The nephews raise hands red-soaked to wave back. My buddy said there were like at least a dozen faces in the windows all around the lake, all watching them . . .” their voices trail off in the hallway as the door closes behind them. 


For Now, A Rude Little Story of Carter County

netnmapOnce upon a time in the southern wastes of Carter County, where the eastern winds blow westerly from North Carolina, there is an immense tree in a forgotten valley. The tree is so large that a thousand Cadillacs could be parked three deep in its shade. The branches extend so far that they scrape the surrounding mountain paths. Under its canopy, the roots bulge the dark earth in alien formations for miles. Herds of deer and all manner of foxes and even bears find respite from the summer heat there. It has been so for thousands of years. 

In the course of time when spring gives way to years and decades give way to stories, the surrounding land was purchased by the Dunn family of coastal Virginia. Old Colonel Dunn had a limp from when he fought alongside General Washington in the French & Indian War. But, by the time he purchased the land, he was a man advance in years and frail in health. It was during the War for Independence that he sent his son to survey. The Young Mr. Dunn was to take notes of his journey.

One unbelievably hot August day, the young Mr. Dunn asked his Cherokee guide to show him something most magnificent—some vista or mountain so beautiful to take away his breath—in short, something interesting for the old Colonel. Over their months together of exploration in the dense forests, young Mr. Dunn and his guide became quite close, like brothers. The Cherokee mulled it over. He then told young Mr. Dunn to stay put. The guide had to consult his elders and his ancestors. In the meantime, the young Mr. Dunn should fast and pray; more importantly, though, he should listen to the wind. The Cherokee offered no explanation before disappearing into the woods.

For six days and six nights, the young Mr. Dunn read his prayers, fasted a little and lay on a rocky outcropping nearby to hear the wind. He didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to hear, but the wind roared up in these mountains. It moved from far to near, and then out along the way in one fluid motion as if crafted by a hand dipping in water. If he listened closely enough, it overwhelmed him. On the fourth afternoon, he spontaneously sang a Te Deum. He forgot some of the words, but the young Mr. Dunn had never been so moved. The wind blew his tears across his face.

True to his promise, though, his friend returned from the woods without warning on the morning of the seventh day. He asked if young Mr. Dunn was ready. Young Mr. Dunn claimed he was as they set out on a hike of three days. The Cherokee never asked what he heard in the wind or if he even fasted. Whenever he thought about that Te Deum, though, young Mr. Dunn blushed.


The third morning, they came to the trail descending to the base of the tree. From the ridges above, the expansive foliage of the tree hid the valley beneath it. Young Mr. Dunn had no clue what lay ahead. As they began to descend, they came across a shaman sitting in deep contemplation around a smoky fire. The dense woods were dark, even at noon. When he was roused, the shaman’s lazy eye never left Mr. Dunn. The shaman wiped them with ash and purged them with burning sage. The other eye, the good one, never left the distant woods behind them.

Like they were descending the edge of some great bowl, the path kept curving to the right. At each successive turn, the temperature dropped. By the time they neared the bottom, the Cherokee covered himself with a great skin and Mr. Dunn’s breath puffed out. By Mr. Dunn’s estimation, it was only two-thirty in the afternoon. Yet, here they were freezing in the Appalachian wilderness, hidden from the sun.

Like colonnades, the trees opened to an immense clearing surrounding the tree. The tree itself was nearly a mile away, but could be clearly discerned due to its size. The roots ribbed and jumbled the barren earth in a thousand ways for as far as he could see. In their stationary positions, the substructure pulsated, appearing to twist one on top of another like the weave of a basket. Off to the right, Young Mr. Dunn could see a herd of white stag bounding the roots with ease. The men, however, had to climb and manage carefully.

When they neared the tree, it took up their entire field of vision. They circumambulated it. Then, circumambulated it again, both heading in different directions. It took the friends the span of a cat’s nap to reach each other. The wood itself was like nothing Mr. Dunn had ever seen. He took careful drawings and notated this in his leather book.

I have seen this book, by the way, in a small library in Carter County, where I was commanded to handle it with gloves. The drawings of young Mr. Dunn show a knotted and gnarled tree, looking so brittle as to break. Most historians believe the young Mr. Dunn had an active imagination. Even a team of Botanists and Dendrologists from the North could not identify the drawing of the tree with anything in the known world.

After careful study, young Mr. Dunn turned to his guide and said with visible breath in the cold, “Friend, this tree is useless. I cannot make a house from its wood, nor warship, nor anything for that matter. No man can make art or utility of this wood. Which is just as well since it is out here next to nothing. What can my father do with it?” The teeth of the Cherokee chattered.

Three_CherokeeThey ascended back to the known. When they passed the shaman’s spot, he was not there nor was there any sign of his fire. By now, though, it was late in the day and they were tired. They lie down and slept. The wind blew in the night.

In a dream, the tree appeared in the form of a bent old man to the young Mr. Dunn. “You, my boy, are stupid,” the tree said. “You are useful to your fathers. And you will die being useful to your sons. But you will never grow past that. I grew because I am useless. Any fire started with my wood turns immediately to ash. Any house built of my ugly bones falls at first gust. Dinner on a table of me would be puked immediately. Yet, I am beauty. Beauty is useless.”

The young Mr. Dunn awoke and continued his travels with his friend, notating in his little book. By the time he returned to Virginia, the Colonel had died. Mr. Dunn told no one of the tree. Which is just as well, since it still stands out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the southern wastes of Carter County.

Ying and Yang


William Blake’s “Ancient of Days” from Europe a Prophecy (1794).

“Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day : the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” Psalm 139:11

It begins with Philip K. Dick. My brother recommended The Man in the High Castle (1962) to me. Throughout the novel, the characters consult the ancient Chinese divination method, the I Ching, to discover they live in a false reality. Interested, I purchase a copy of the the respected Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching (1950). Carl Jung—yes, that Carl Jung—gives the introduction. Jung used it not for fortune-telling, but as a kind of literary Rorschach test. He felt the ahistorical and seemingly primordial language taps into the unconsciousness. My own I Ching experiences are for this end. I discover Jung’s hypothesis is true. After reading all the other commentaries and essays in the volume, Taoism intoxicates me. I quickly purchase copies of Alan Watts, the Tao te Ching and the Chuang-tzu. I read.

As I understand it, Taoism focuses on the Tao, the creative force of the universe. Famously, the Tao te Ching says, “The Tao that can be described is not the Tao.” Alan Watts points out that this is a mucky translation. “The Tao that is Tao-ed is not the Tao” is closer to the original Chinese. Extremely helpful, right? Any definition of the Tao will fall short of describing the Tao. However, early missionaries to China translated John’s λόγος as Tao. But, as far as I can tell, Tao is not God, at least not how Christians conceive of God. After all, the Tao undulates, but Christ is constant. Ultimately, though, both are unknowable.

When we confront something new—we frightened humans huddled around our sectarian fires, warmed against the freezing nothingness—our first inclination is making an other. We know those around us; we know what we believe. They are not with us; they do not believe. This accentuates the differences. Among those of us who do not have a fully developed humanity, this other is threatening. That I have used the I Ching makes several of you extremely nervous. They, after all, are not like us. Who knows what demons lie waiting in such mischief?

When something new confronts us— we frightened humans huddled around our sectarian fires, warmed against the freezing absurdity—our second inclination is to synthesize. This highlights the similarities. It is what the educated do. They take a thesis and an antithesis. They compare and contrast. Then, adapt a new paradigm. Many blend a little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Taoism with a bit of Christianity until they make a mishmashed claptrap. This does no honor to Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity and overlooks serious differences between them. Thus, they force two paper triangles to fit a sphere. Yet, this pleases some to no end. I blink.

medieval-virgin-mary-fabric-1.jpgIn the last six months, I left the parish in which I was confirmed and a very active member. I dropped out of singing in another choir. It has been very healing for me to go to an Episcopal Church up the street where nothing is expected of me after being burned (and burned out) for so long. I sit in the congregation. I sing in the choir usually. I sleep in sometimes. I travel around to other churches. I’ve picked up the practice of centering prayer that I let go of years ago. I have theological conversations without getting nauseous. In short, I’m saving my soul.

What amazes me in all my years—yes, years—of doubting God, the Church and myself is I never doubted these things two: the bread and wine are Christ’s actual body and blood; and Our Lady is God’s mother. It is fun to try to understand the last one! In days when despair devastated me, I’d still say Ave Maria to the woman whose son I had such trouble believing is God. I believe she prays for me, especially when I doubt her son.

Through this, I learned to let faith be faith, and doubt be doubt. Faith would surge and overwhelm me, before retreating into doubt. Then, doubt would rise from the back and wash over me before dissipating into faith. Doubt was a terror to me for the first three years. For the next three years, I tried holding doubt and faith together, making a synthesis of both. This just made me tired, angry. After all, I cannot comprehend what the mystics say should be self-evident. If all things are truly one, human hands cannot force them to become that.

Whenever a new way of seeing looks us in the eye—we frightened humans huddled around our sectarian fires, warmed against the freezing loneliness—our third inclination is let things remain as they are. I’m not frightened of Taoism. I don’t want to amalgamate Christianity and Taoism. I’m not interested in becoming a Taoist (for that matter, can one become a Taoist?) I’m happy to learn about a new system that is completely different from anything I’ve ever known. I’ll re-embrace the contemplative and apophatic practices within my own Christian tradition. I’ll let them remain just as they are. I’ll listen to both.

They say it is nearly impossible to hold two opposite ideas at once. But, this is the job of a writer. Indeed, I have done this my whole life: gay and christian; faith and doubt; fiction and non-fiction. I accept both as true, not bending them to fit a newer understanding, but holding both equally within my person. My soul is expansive, enlarged by suffering. So, I can look out with different sets of eyes. Some days I nearly think I can fit the whole world within me. Ideas swirl, but I think them. Faith and doubt ebb and flow, yet I remain. I remain.

The Varieties of Religious Blogging


We here at A Red State Mystic* believe in taking the work out of blogging. Sure, you could still aggregate and like Facebook pages and follow on Twitter, but you don’t have time for that. You’re busy writing a screenplay. Being a mother. You know, stuff. We understand. That’s why we’ve decided to boil down ninety-five percent of contemporary religious blogging into five categories. Now you can go back to doing the important stuff, like not caring when internet people internet. Hashtag: urwelcome.

The Let’s Get Real, Guys:
Exemplar: Rachel Held Evans.

Let’s face it. A lot of Evangelicals think x. I’m tired of arguing about x. Forty years ago, everybody else decided was okay. I might feel better if I just let it go. But, I won’t. I won’t even. I won’t even stop writing simple sentences. I won’t even stop bolding the important ones so you can skim. I won’t even stop until I get another book deal. I’ll keep writing until every Evangelical realizes how radical is. Because I’m so radical. Look how radical we Jesus followers are with our radical opinions. Here’s the Sunday Superlatives. They all sound like me, too.

The Consider the Brocade:
Exemplar: The New Liturgical Movement.

Behold pictures of a Pontifical Solemn High Vespers from a Cistercian Monastery in the Austrian Alps. Contemplate this medieval cope with a jasper morse. Consider these swaths of Latin poetry. Corpus Christi porn! Calligraphy? You better believe they’ve got Calligraphy. That’s right. Fuck you, 1970s, they do what they want! Never—I repeat—never read it for the articles. If you do, you’ll end up a misogynistic anti-Semite, say things like “It’s the rupture of hermeneutic continuity!” and will grow to doubt the Holocaust. Since the departure of Benedict XVI, you might end up believing the Sedevacantists had some interesting ideas. NO MANIPLE, NO MASS might become your motto.

The Painfully Self-Aware Secular Tie-In:
Exemplar: Mockingbird.

I like “The Game of Thrones” and crappy Indie bands you’ve never heard of and cartoons from The New Yorker and Kanye West and Louis CK and David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers and we totally liked Blue Like Jazz before it became a thing and sports—yeah, bro, we’re totally into sports—and pastors with sleeve tats. Here’s what all this stuff can teach us about Jesus. Because, you know, we’re hip. Like, yeah. Culture. (I can never tell if they’re trying to get me saved or convince me how cool they are.)

Engage the Rage, Ye Shills!
Exemplar: Every Christian on Twitter.

The Rage Machine is well-oiled and primed. I’m still convinced that in 2012 when Chick-Fil-A’s Truett Cathy went on record (yet again) of being against gay marriage, he knew that it would engage the rage. Predictably, the gays called for a (continued) boycott. A week later, Mike Huckabee encouraged Conservatives to engage their supposed free speech rage with a “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” It was Chik-Fil-A’s single biggest day of business ever. The Police had to be called to the Johnson City store to direct traffic. So, whenever the Rage Machine is activated, always—always!—follow the money. Remember that social media is all free advertising and there is no such thing as bad advertising. If you’ve engaged the rage, most likely you’ve been an unwitting pawn in someone else’s war. Think before you share.

Exemplar: The Episcopal Café.

If we don’t sell our buildings and radically change SHIT WILL HIT THE FAN. Look at every congregation’s falling average Sunday attendance. Look at it. Do not look away. Christendom is dying. We are doing nothing to stop it. Lucky for you, this priest from Montana wrote five hundred words how you will reverse the death rattle by revising the prayerbook, divesting from Israel and inviting more transsexual lesbians of minority races to sit in the House of Deputies. And don’t even get her started on bishops. A few days later, a priest in South Dakota responds. At first reading, it will appear to be mostly in agreement, but the tone makes you think they vehemently disagree. Turns out they do. Unintentional hilarity from misguided passions ensues in the comments. “You can pry Wonder, Love and Praise from my cold, dead hands!”

*: By “we”, we mean “me”, of course.

Everybody Minds Their Business

THE GODFATHER, from left: Al Pacino, Sterling Hayden, Al Lettieri, 1972

Like many things, it is best described by “The Godfather”. Recall the scene where the Corleones conspire to murder Sallazzo and McClusky in an Italian restaurant. The only one familiar with the place is Tessio. He describes it, “It’s perfect for us. A small family place with big booths where people can talk in private. Good food. Everybody minds their business. Perfect.” This Italian joint near my house could be described much the same way.

About a year ago, I decided to make this restaurant my usual Sunday night place. Sometimes, I’d share the booth with a friend, sometimes with a book. It was always late, and, for some reason, it was usually raining. I sit at my usual table in the corner. The lights are unusually low for a restaurant.

A few months ago, it was just me, the rain and Sinatra. Like most Sunday nights, I was tired. I’d just gotten out of a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal. I sigh and run my fingers through my hair. I examine the table of contents for tonight’s companion, my New Yorker open in front of me in the gloom. I scoot the candle closer until the words become visible. The waiter takes my drink order and I ask for the tomato bisque. Truly, this is the best tomato bisque I’ve ever had. A lot of the times—especially on dark, wet nights like these—it’s all I will eat.

Laughter from a distant room. I hear him. In fact, I hear him long before I see him. Like a pig in slop, his words slur and tumble at a volume neither indoor-appropriate nor library-sanctioned, the unmistakable timbre of a one-legged waltz of dragging a pollen-covered club foot through daises. Even though we were separated by twenty feet, a wall and his intoxication, I understood every word that jumbled from his lips.

He said he owned his own design company, something where they make and design cards and shirts and banners—“Really,” he slurred, “Anything you want.” (I imagine his breath reeks of wet peppermints and vodka). He started his business right after being the first one in his family to go to college, although his father worked very hard for the family, ole’ drunky was the first to graduate and make something of himself. “I could, if I wanted,” he said, “hitch up all my relative’s homes to my three-fifty out there and drop them in Boone Lake.” His laugh reached all the way to the kitchen. I could hear a few other uncomfortable chuckles.

(A brief aside, if you please: The nouveau riche of our day are much different than those who arose out of the middle class in the eighties. They do not flaunt their wealth in a Bret Easton Ellis orgy of designer names. They are earnest in pretending class doesn’t exist. They are the kind to still go to all their old haunts and say to their old equals, “Zo-My God! Isn’t this wonderful? Look at my pictures from my trip to the Caribbean.” Dolly “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap” Parton is their patroness.)

I am not content to hear this man. I must see him. His voice gave away much and revealed too much. This loud intoxicated usurper violated this quiet, big-boothed usual place of mine. I get up and turn the corner towards the bathrooms.

us_tnvols2He stands little over six-feet tall, wide shouldered in the ubiquitous Tennessee orange polo. His pleated khakis are cinched around his abdominus waist. A hint of gold catches the eye amid his gesticulations. It’s a large class ring from the University of Tennessee, naturally. Like a diadem, his sunglasses sat atop his head and the cords draped down his back.

Standing at the bar, he held court. Next to him was his pretty and attentive wife who—up to this point—said nothing, but drank her martini. She looked a few years younger than he. Leaning against the other side of the bar was a waiter. You might do well to describe his slouching posture as “hipster”. Although, let’s be honest, that word has no meaning anymore. It’s the kind of word used by the nouveau riche to describe any sort of creative type, anyone who doesn’t want to play by the rules. But, for maybe the second time in his life, the hipster looked vaguely interested in something.

It’s gone from a constant drizzle to a downpour outside, now. Like a bitter wind, I pass by unnoticed to the bathroom. Sadly, there is no gun taped behind the toilet, like Tessio guaranteed. I returned to my seat. The candle at my table flickers light across the page.

“I’ll tell you—I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do,” the blitzed man says, “once you finish your degree—how, how much time do you have left?—once you finish your degree, you should come work for us—”

His wife interrupts, “Yes, oh yes! That would be wonderful!”

But he continues without stopping, “I’m serious! A whole lotta guys got their start with me and go on to do bigger and better things. What are you getting your degree in again?”

“Art and graphic design,” the Hipster replies in a voice that, comparatively, sounded chapel worthy.

She says, “That’s so great!”

But, he continues, “I’d drop the art major and change to business. That way, you can open your own shop, be your own boss, you know, answer to no one but yourself. It’s really the way to go, man. If you want to make it, dude, it’s the way to be. It really is.”

“Thanks for your advice,” the Hipster says without note, “I’ll keep that in mind.” I turn a page in my New Yorker.

“Plus,” the one (not on his wagon) continues, “If you were to go to a company like ours with a business degree, too, you’d practically be a shoe-in—”

She interrupts with nodding, “Yes, you would be!”

But, he continues without stopping, “With those design chops of yours, you’d be unstoppable once you learned the business end of it. Just imagine how much money you could make. Imagine the cheddar!”

The hipster makes excuses. Says he needs to go to the kitchen. There is silence. A long wonderful silence. In the gloomy quiet, I realize something I’ve known my entire life, but could not put into words. Watch a straight man (preferably married and a former jock) and you’ll see a man without guile, without irony. He is a prince for we have made him so. From age twelve, he’s never been forced to doubt his existence. He never doubts why he is alive. You can see it in how he walks, how he carries himself.

Why wouldn’t he give advice, this man with his glittering class ring and sunglasses? The world—this world, this part of Tennessee—belongs to him, it bends towards him as he passes. Why wouldn’t he survey his land, this wife of his, this waiter of his and discern what is needed? Is he not the bliss-giver, the king-maker, the wisdom-giver? The world is as he sees it, for he has made it and so it is. Would that we all hitch our trailers up to his glory and be fed from the charitable crumbs wiped from his most gracious table. It never enters into his mind that this is not so, for he is prince of what he sees, his table is spread and his wife agrees. What more could a man need? It is a terrible hell to get what you want, to become what everyone expects you to be.

So, the rest of us make excuses and flee to the kitchen with the Hipster. We flee to our art. We put down our spoons and leave the big booths where people talk in private and we go back to minding our own business. After all, only assholes think everybody wants to be just like them. We walk out the door. The rain hits our faces.

Why Are These Doors Everlasting?


(Viktor Hartmann’s design for the Great Gate of Kiev. The inspiration to the final movement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.)

My love—

Have you ever been loved like this? My love for you is like the freezing burn of ice, like the hot wet streak left when it slides out of your hands onto the linoleum. It is a gallon of ice cream shoved to the back of the cold casket when the hills and hollars made by last month’s spoon shimmer with crystals. It is like eating straight from the carton. But first, you must wrap it in a dirty kitchen towel to keep the winter from burning your hands.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock, knocking on the door of the soul (The pulpit man asks if I will let you in). I say, “Sure, be ye then lifted up, ye everlasting doors. Of course. But why are these doors everlasting?” I haven’t had doors in years, just rusted hinges scraping the wind. These walls of mine crumble like wet cardboard. My soul’s causeway is open wide as a grass-covered void. The band is waiting your arrival. Will you enter me? Take possession of what is yours.

The wind blows your voice over the mountains, down from the cell phone towers blinking in the dark distance. It is all I can see, taunting us just beyond the fire. When I turn my head to the left, I hear your voice in the television and in the seven day forecast and the echoes of distant laptops. You haunt me from that beyond. Possess me.

For you, in strange arms do I wait. All of them are strange smiling fools, lesser men with little sad plastic souls. Imposters, really. This fire you started in me warms them. We used the doors for firewood. They play their games around it. I laugh, but they will never know the blessing of my tears. My blessing tears almost crushed you once, even as you held me, but the benediction was on your cheek and I cannot take it back. All they get is a crooked smile, but you—you!—come in, come in!

Come in and let us leave our bodies. Let’s unzip our flesh and wiggle out like newborns of the night. Ascending like children, we will run our fingers through the milk of the sky and watch ripples scatter and splatter to distant galaxies. Let us leave these silly fires, these sad souls, these sane minds for I am a mad man. Yes, I am quite insane, but scorching hoarfrost maketh such. This madness destroys me. Thus, the two are devoured, but the one remaining smiles to greet the dawn. Under his head, he adjusts the pillow at the first blush of morning, before sleeping in until noon. The snore is a sweeter sonnet.

The People’s Sky

r1-07010-0002.jpgWhat did the sky look like before it became man’s domain? This sky, I mean, the one that is stretched a taught blue over this open field. How did it appear before the contrails and the satellites and the pajama-clad passengers in a drug-induced doze cut through the firmament? Generations ago, what did they see on a cold May morning when mountains towered small on the horizon? Did anyone think to photograph it, something as dumb as a man-less sky? (Or record the sound of a quiet café on a street when a long evening’s conversation was entertainment? Or the creak of the front-porch swing and the mindless chatter of a boy as his grandmother listens?) The sky belonged to the gods in those days and the imagination. Now, it is the people’s sky.

Have you ever seen a bird fly? This bird, I mean, the red-chested proud bird sitting high on this chain-link fence. He stopped and whistled for me. We gaze at each other for some time. His whole little body shudders when he sings and his head darts in nervous, paranoid jitters. The Cherokee tell of a time when men understood the animals. I hear a lot, but I don’t understand the bird. Now, he flies away. His flight is a dappled thing, worthy of praise. He will tell me his secret wisdom some other time, maybe.

Have you ever seen the muscles on a jogger? This jogger, I mean, the one who just passed me with his toned arms jutting out from his tank-top, glistening. He gave me a sideways look and furrowed brow. Was I talking to myself, I mean, was I talking out loud to myself? I do that occasionally, just for the pleasure of hearing the words roll in my mouth. Did you notice how attractive he was? (I’m sure you did, you perverts.) I can hear the bad dubstep in his ears. In these days, in this domain of man, nature is the people’s workplace. They never take their shoes off.

He runs past me, probably annoyed that I’m standing still in the middle of the trail, looking up at—well, hell, I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at anymore. Did he?

A Tennessee Passion


Come you daughters and see; Behold, you fathers of sons.
Fly you unto the mountains, and get unto the hills.
I see! Oh, I see close there two men—no more than boys—
Withering and pretending. What God would smile at this?

The doors opened. They run inside to loud country music and a nod from the girl behind the conveyor belt. It was the same everyday girl. Beneath the frequently stained ceiling tiles, long rows of florescent lights illuminated dusty shelves. They deftly overstepped the dried gray sticky spills. They paid no heed to the woman with unwashed hair yelling into her phone, lollygagging the aisles.

Under the clearance sign, they stood amid hummingbird feeders and small plastic bird fountains painted like grey stone. Cameron picked up one of these and bounced it in his hands before saying, “Well? We got to get a move on.” He looked past James’ shoulder towards the windows beyond.

James lingered.

Too proud to beg, too poor to move: the American price.
Two dollars their souls would soothe, your change could suffice.

A few months ago, James’ aunt told him a story about when her uncles took her brothers from their home late one night. The brothers must have been eight or ten as she was older. Her uncles knocked on the back door. In town, some men were—as she told it to James—“doing funny stuff, you know” down at the bus terminal near the Presbyterian Church. Her uncles wanted to let their nephews see what justice happens on the edge of town when you do this funny stuff. Nobody much cared what happened to those bathroom boys.

Hours passed and car doors slammed her awake. Her brothers entered their shared bedroom. The red taillights through the window illuminated their white, frightened faces. They never told her what happened that night, but she heard them both quietly crying in their beds across the room until they went to school in the morning without a word to each other.

It is I who should atone, bound hand and foot to this hell,
Out on the straight edge of the known. What these men endured I cannot tell.

Decades later, one of those young nephews turned pot-bellied and tired. One night, he came upon moaning from James’ room. He wasn’t with Cameron or another boyfriend, but just a guy from school, a B-squad jock who’d let a faggot suck his dick for cash. He was not homosexual. But James had no excuse when his father caught him in the gayest of positions—the one that cannot be explained away with drink or laughed in the locker room. A position that offered no explanation but shame. He pulled his son from under the B-squad jock, his bedroom and his life. He threw him out.

That November night, James walked miles in flip-flops and gym shorts to the one-level house on Third Avenue. He banged on the door till the no trespassing sign bounced and the dogs yapped inside. He banged and he banged. His aunt opened the door.

Open the gates to me, my protector, lift high the doors and take me in.
See I stand and knock, tired and full of tears,
My face hot with shame. Lift high the doors and take me in.

“Come on, we’ve got to pick something. We’re already running late,” Cameron said. He leaned and looked at the plastic painted stone bird bath in James’ hands. “No,” he said, “no, we can’t do that one—you’re over budget, J.” “I know,” James replied, “I know.” But, he turned and started walking towards the same everyday girl at the register.

Cameron walked in front of him and stopped. He did not look him in the eyes. “J—come on—put that back—we can’t.” James looked away. They were close enough to hear each other breathe, close as they slept at night. James replied, “I know. I know.” Cameron said, “Just put it back. We can’t afford it.” James shook his head. “No, we’re doing it. I’ll eat Goddamn rice and beans all week—she deserves something nice.” And his father would be at his aunt’s birthday party.

“Something nice?” Cameron replied, “Something nice? There’s nothing nice here.” He laughed.

The sacrifices of God are troubled spirits,
And unsure divided minds, and hearts not all at ease;
For those who e’en cannot give from clearance,
And those not willing to live or love or please.
These sacrifices are poured out from unexpiring cups,
Always, resting not night or day, to the God who never hears.

They stood in line behind an elderly black woman talking to the everyday same girl. The girl was telling the woman about her babies. My babies did this. My babies did that. Can you believe what my babies did? Shew, ‘dem babies give you nothing but heartache and trouble. For some time, they went on like this to the arrhythmic beeping of the register.

James opened a magazine from the rack next to the packs of gum. One had a glossy picture of a handsome man with a blindingly white smile and a five o’clock shadow on a cover. The headline of the article read, “Star comes out as gay: why _______ is the sexiest dad!” It was in large print next to a picture of his abs and a picture of a palatial sandy estate where he makes his home with his partner and his three children. They all smiled in a family portrait on the next page. They offered advice to young gay men on staying quote-unquote fabulous.

It was their turn. “How y’all today?” the same everyday girl at the register asked them. “Just fine, thanks,” James said. “We’re in a bit of a rush,” Cameron replied. “No worries,” the young girl said, “it’ll just be seven dollars and sixty-five cents.” James brought out his checkbook and wrote in blue ink with a steady hand, offering a quiet prayer to God that it not clear the bank for three days until his paycheck was deposited. They said thank you to the girl.

The wind clobbered the dangling chimes, the whole line of them outside the store. Most were marked-down four metal tubes under faded garish suns. Cameron and James opened their mouths to fistfuls of gusts carrying the taste of hot, wet pavement. James was nearly intoxicated by it. Fencing Clark’s Highway, the trees turned paler underbellies towards a pregnant sky. “Jesus Christ! It’s bad enough—now we got to drive through all this bullshit,” Cameron huffed. They stood in front of the closed doors and, for a moment, watched the rain blow.