Teresa of Avila, 1582

Today is the commemoration of St. Teresa of Avila, who died on October 4, 1582. I share one of her poems:

In the Hands of God

I am Yours and born for you,
What do You want of me?

Majestic Sovereign,
Unending wisdom,
Kindness pleasing to my soul;
God sublime, one Being Good,
Behold this one so vile.
Singing of her love to you:
What do You want of me?

Yours, you made me,
Yours, you saved me,
Yours, you endured me,
Yours, you called me,
Yours, you awaited me,
Yours, I did not stray.
What do You want of me?

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse—Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do You want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do You want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness,
An abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace.
What do You want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abndance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will;
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me;
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for you I was born:
What do You want of me?

(translated by Adrian J. Cooney, OCD, from The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila, Volume Three, 1985)

Debating God: Gary Gutting questions Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting at The New York Times Opinionator has been exploring philosophers’ approaches to the question of the existence of God. In his final post in the series, he questions himself about the views of those philosophers and his own answer to the question, “Does God exist?” (following the link will get you to all of the articles in the series).

Among the most interesting bits:

His criticism of “naive” atheism:

The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it’s just silly to say that there’s solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth. Here I think Antony in her interview was right on target: “Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.”


That one’s rational reasons for belief do not permit the labeling of one’ opponents beliefs as irrational:

Here what I’m saying about religion is what many rightly say about other strongly disputed areas such as ethics and politics: people on both sides can be reasonable in holding their positions, but neither side has a basis for saying that their opponents are irrational. This, I think, was what Keith DeRose was getting at when he said that no one knows whether or not God exists.

How he can be an agnostic and a Catholic:

Because, despite my agnosticism, I still think it’s worth pursuing the question of whether God exists, and for me the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition has great value in that pursuit.

And, the crucial role played by critical reason in preventing fanaticism:

That’s because religious faith without a strong role for critical reason readily falls into fanaticism. I thought this was one lesson of my interview with Sajjad Rizvi. He showed the historical connection of Islam with traditions of philosophical reflection that have tempered excesses of blind faith. Although such traditions are still effective in many parts of the Muslim world, it’s undeniable that there are places where they have failed and a fanatical mutation has gone out of control.

Taxes, clergy, and the state

Our neighbors down the street at the Freedom From Religion Foundation went next door to the Federal District Court and achieved a ruling that’s been a long time coming: revoking the clergy housing allowance tax exemption. In case you don’t know about this benefit, clergy are able to exclude from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their housing (that’s in addition to being able to take the mortgage exemption).

There are some pretty good reasons for this exemption. Clergy tend to be mobile (serving roughly  five years in a particular congregation), and traditionally many clergy have lived in housing owned by churches. The tax exemption was intended to equalize the situation for clergy who provided their own housing. Because salaries for clergy tend to be lower than in the secular world, the housing allowance is especially important for clergy serving smaller, rural, or inner city churches. But it is rife for abuse and the regular media reports of the lavish lifestyles led by megachurch pastors (the pastor of a Charlotte megachurch is building a multi-million dollar mansion) make the exemption in its current form hard to defend.

Simply revoking the exemption seems fairly simple, but the implications are significant. For example, will clergy who live in church-owned housing be subject to tax on the value of the housing they receive? What about members of religious orders who live in community and receive little or no salary? Will their room and board be taxable income?

My twitter and facebook feeds have been full of comments about this action and no doubt if allowed to stand, the decision will have an enormous impact on the income of clergy. There are already significant challenges facing smaller churches. In the Episcopal Church, more and more congregations are finding it difficult to fund full-time clergy. The ruling would hurt clergy at the lower end of the income spectrum and it would hurt churches that serve low-income and minority communities. Wealthy churches and their pastors have little to worry about. If a pastor is able to build a million dollar mansion, he can easily pay income tax on it as well.

But there’s a larger issue here, too. I’m sure the FFRF has its eyes on a much bigger prize: churches’ property tax exemption. The situation is rather different because non-profits of all sorts (universities, hospitals, etc) are exempt from paying property taxes as well as churches. If that exemption goes, I’m not sure how a congregation like Grace Church would survive. I shudder to think what our property tax bill might be, certainly in six figures. Our budget can’t sustain that kind of a hit and it’s not like we could sell a building that’s a national landmark.

This is one of those situations that could hit our pocketbooks and the budgets of our congregations quite hard. Our first response might be anger or concern for our economic well-being. I’m sure some will cite this as another example of the persecution of Christians by our secular culture. I think it’s important that clergy, congregations, denominations, and other religious traditions work together to develop a response to this issue that focuses on creating a just and equitable solution for clergy. As written, the law is the relic of another age and needs to be revised. There are other issues, too. For example, clergy are considered self-employed for tax purposes. But I’m doubtful that in our current political and cultural climate, a more rational law is possible.

MLK on the Good Samaritan and fixing the Jericho Road

Dr. King told Andrew Young then, “….Andy, I think the Good Samaritan is a great individual. I of course, like and respect the Good Samaritan….but I don’t want to be a Good Samaritan.”

Dr. King continued, “…you see Andy, I am tired of picking up people along the Jericho Road. I am tired of seeing people battered and bruised and bloody, injured and jumped on, along the Jericho Roads of life. This road is dangerous. I don’t want to pick up anyone else, along this Jericho Road; I want to fix… the Jericho Road. I want to pave the Jericho Road, add street lights to the Jericho Road; make the Jericho Road safe (for passage) by everybody….”

Loving one’s enemies

Here’s how to do it.

“Jesus says [to] love our enemies,” said Mullen, who holds a degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “So I was sitting in Starbucks and thought, maybe I’m the one person who needs to do something.”

So she did. Martha Mullen arranged for Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial in Virginia. The story is here.

One single, almost anonymous Christian witnesses to the love of Christ and offers an alternative, not only to the protestors at the funeral home in Worcester but everyone else who turned this into a political and cultural spectacle and disgrace.

Thanks be to God!


NPR ran a story on a former drone pilot today. Among the things he said:

“I felt numb. This is the reality of war.”

“I saw five photos on the wall when I walked into work. I asked myself, ‘Which one of these !!@#$$’s is gonna die today? That’s not me’.”

He’s been diagnosed by PTSD, and is essentially homeless (“couch-surfing”). The full story is here.

After listening to it, one should read Robert J. Lifton’s reflections on drone warfare. It’s a must-read and offer insight into the experience of the pilot profiled in the NPR story (here and here). Lifton examines our desire for technologically precise killing machines and the effects such machines have on our ethics, our personalities, and one might add, our souls:

We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing. This extreme psychic numbing enables us to kill while distancing ourselves from the significance, the meaning, of that killing.

From a review of Medea Benjamin’s new book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control:

That such extra-judicial killing is illegal is not in doubt – as has recently been reconfirmed by the UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson. Obama’s justification is similar to Bush’s – that those killed are actively threatening the security of the US. But the crucial issue is an ethical one: the pilot of a drone tracking the movements of a Waziri villager and making a life-or-death decision to fire a missile may be sitting in a control room in a US air base in the Nevada desert. That’s when many will agree with Benjamin, a founder of the women’s anti-war movement CODEPINK, that a moral line has been crossed.

Is firing a missile from a drone morally worse than dropping a 500lb bomb from 10,000ft? Or pressing the button that launches a cruise missile? Perhaps what is repugnant is the unique combination of deliberately firing at a specific individual, combined with distance and the knowledge that you yourself are invulnerable to retaliation. Time to reprise the ancient Greeks with their contempt for archers. Despite some loose editing and repetition, Drone Warfare is both a justifiably angry sourcebook and a call to action for the growing worldwide citizen opposition to the drones.

Did you know there was a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill this week concerning drone warfare? The most compelling testimony is here.

Steve Coll recently wrote a lengthy piece on drones for The New Yorker.

Lingering residue from “Ashes to Go”

So I got on the bus today, for the first time since Good Friday, I think. The bus driver saw me, saw my collar, and said, “I remember you (pointing to my collar), we’ve talked about it.” It’s finally Spring, so I couldn’t hide the collar under my winter coat as I’m wont to do if I’m on the bus. But then he said something else.

“That was you out on the sidewalk on Ash Wednesday, wasn’t it?” I said yes. “That’s really cool,” he said, “reaching out to people on the street.”

It’s been almost three months since Ash Wednesday but a bus driver who only saw it as he drove by, and perhaps on the evening news, remembers what we did, and makes a connection for himself, while he also recognizes the potential power of the gesture for other passers-by.

We can never know who we touch, how deeply we touch, and how our actions might be a means for the grace of God to move in the world.

Why priests? Ask Garry Wills, but don’t ask a priest

Randall Balmer’s review (BTW, he’s an Episcopal priest):

Central to the priestly claims to authority, Wills says, was the importance of the sacraments, especially celebration of the eucharist, which could be performed, the church declared, only by priests. “The most striking thing about priests, in the later history of Christianity,” the author writes, “is their supposed ability to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

This exclusivity, according to Wills, derives from Thomas Aquinas rather than Jesus. The Thomistic view of the eucharist understands the Mass as re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ, from which all other graces devolve to the believer. The church, following Aquinas, vested the power of transubstantiation — the bread and wine of holy communion actually becomes the body and blood of Christ — in the priesthood. With that magical power, the priesthood increasingly set itself apart from the laity.

Kevin Madigan’s review in The New Republic (he’s not a priest, he’s a historian of Christianity):

Although the Catholic Church has for centuries maintained the opposite position, it is simply false—from an historical perspective—to assert that Jesus instituted the priesthood. Not only was Jesus not a member of the priestly class; it is simply anachronistic to say that any of Jesus’ apostles were imagined in priestly terms, either by Jesus or the apostles themselves.

I remember many years ago when I was lecturing on organization in early Christianity at the School of Theology at Sewanee, and said something like “presbyteroi–whatever that means” and 23 first-year students shouted back at me “priest”–to which I replied, “tell that to Calvin.”

I doubt I’ll read Wills’ book, but my guess is, he’s probably right on. The understanding of priesthood in the western church is directly related to the elevation of the understanding of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. As Ballmer points out, Luther offered a powerful critique of that view from early in his career, one that continues to challenge our understanding of priesthood and the sacraments. It’s part of the reason why he was so opposed to an understanding of the mass that involved sacrifice. For Anglicans, that we’ve retained the language of the sacrifice helps to explain why we continue to lift up the office of the priest, but we might well ask whether there are downsides to it.