Stephen Philbrick: “Don’t Try So Hard”

A member of our local Buddhist meditation center shared this wonderful poem at the center’s winter solstice party. I wrote to Stephen Philbrick, who lives nearby in Cummington, and he’s kindly given me permission to reprint it below.

Don’t Try So Hard

It comes in a shiver sometimes,
Sometimes in a winter windowpane
Wild with the unseeable frozen there:
The shapes above clouds,
The score of wind and the words, too;
The plot of waves and the brain that
   lays and abandons them:
Don’t try so hard.

Sometimes it falls,
A flake at a time,
Into your life when you’re asleep.
Sometimes it comes as a winter blankness,
Waiting for storm, or ice, or thaw,
   or even wind.
And then the air by itself groans
And the trees speak out of themselves;
The swamp shudders and the woods come to.
Sometimes it comes when you least expect it;
And sometimes it doesn’t.
Quiet, still, no voice (not even small),
No whirlwind, no reply, no burning.
Just a bare winter bush.

The space between stars,
Where noise goes to die;
And the space between atoms,
Where the charges thin out:
These are places, too.
The moment in the movement of the soul
When it all seems to stop, seized up.
This is true, too. Ice is, also. And dormancy.
I don’t mean the stirring of seeds beneath
   the snow,
But the place between and the moment
And I don’t mean a lightning bolt,
But what it passes through.
I don’t mean a dream, but dumb sleep.
After the end and before the beginning
Is time, too.
Let it alone, don’t try so hard.
This is God, too,
All of you is.

Stephen Philbrick has been the minister of the
West Cummington Church for the past 15 years. Before this he raised
sheep in Cummington for many years. His books include: No Goodbye (The Smith); Up To The Elbow (Adastra Press); THREE (Adastra Press, 2003); and Backyard Lumberjack (Storey Publishing, 2006) a prose collection co-authored with his son, Frank.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2009

My imaginary friends and I have had an eventful year. Some friendships were strained, many others proved more of a blessing than I’d ever imagined. Novel chapters got written, some published, and poetry did even better. My husband and I visited Chicago (AWP), New York City (friends, family and shopping), West Palm Beach (gay rights conference), and three agricultural fairs (we like cheese). My politics moved further to the left, dragging my theology along. Or was it the other way around?

Thanks for visiting Reiter’s Block. I look forward to continuing our conversation in 2010.  And now, the clips episode.

Biggest Accomplishment

SWALLOW. SWALLOW SWALLOW SWALLOW. Buy it now and the scary birdies won’t getcha.

Biggest Disappointment

You know who you are.

Guilty Pleasure

Facebook. Okay, so that’s tangentially related to my writing career. But…

Even Guiltier Pleasure

Farmville on Facebook. This game has no productive value whatsoever. The most I can say is that it’s easier on my wrist than computer solitaire.

Best Books Read in 2009

*Alex Haley, Roots

I thought I understood the story of slavery in this country, but I didn’t feel it in my heart till I read this saga of seven generations of an African-American family, beginning with Haley’s Gambian ancestor who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 18th century. Haley’s fictionalized re-creation of their lives is rich with drama, humor, tragedy, political outrage, and love that defies the odds.

*Cheryl Diamond, Model

There’s more to this teen memoir than meets the eye. Beautiful, blonde Cheryl has a wise old head on her shoulders, which helps her survive encounters with all sorts of human predators as she tenaciously builds a career as a fashion model in New York City. She’s also a sharp, funny writer. Now, when I feel defeated by life’s setbacks, I often ask myself, “What would Cheryl do?”

*Adrian Desmond & James R. Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Two leading Darwin scholars wrote this thorough and engaging history of how Charles Darwin’s hatred of slavery impelled him to seek a common origin for the races. The book has a strong narrative line and a detailed analysis of how politics, religion, and science have been entwined at every step in the development of evolutionary theory.

*David G. Myers & Letha Dawson Scanzoni, What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage

A journalist and a sociologist make a concise and persuasive case that marriage is good for everyone; gays are born that way; and the Bible doesn’t have to be interpreted to condemn homosexuality. While their arguments won’t be news to followers of progressive and queer theology, this is the book I recommend first to anti-gay Christians because it’s written by two straight evangelicals.

*Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences

Original, hard-hitting new book from longtime AIDS activist and lesbian playwright casts a critical eye on the family dynamics of shunning and devaluing gay members, and how this becomes the template for the same behaviors in the wider society, as well as domestic abuse in gay relationships. Amazon reviewer C. Bard Cole writes, “…a tight and focused master work. Her approach to talking about the painful family dynamics in her own life is unlike anyone else’s, so unlike the calculated confessional approach of memoir and transgressive fiction that I hardly know how to describe it. It’s cool, intellectual, self-controlled — but perhaps like Perseus looking at the Gorgon only as a reflection in his shield.”

Favorite Blog Posts

“Blogging for Truth” Week: Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives

As Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” Who gets to tell it, and about whom? The debate between affirming and non-affirming Christians is fundamentally about the relationship of truth to power. For that reason, it should concern all Christians, whether or not they have a personal stake in GLBT rights.

Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty

Original sin distinguishes the Christian picture of human nature from the liberal one. Privileging personal experience over text and tradition, a liberal might say “The truth is inside you.” I wouldn’t go that far. As a good postmodernist, I would say “You are inside you.” The right to stay grounded in our own experience should not be conditioned on the impossible burden of always “getting it right”. That’s another form of legalism.

I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Fallen World

When I’m with my Barbies, I can simply enjoy being a girl. I can pretend that I’m working on narrative structure by inventing elaborate storylines for them — TV show producer Barbie, transgender fashion designer Barbie, 12-step rehab Barbie, closeted evangelical gay teen Barbie, Korean radical feminist ex-stripper Barbie, and the rest. But the truth is, I just love clothes.

Happy 2010 from me and my muse…

Book Notes: The God That Failed

The God That Failed, a 1949 anthology edited by Richard Crossman, features essays by six great European and American writers on why they first believed in, then rejected, Communism. The contributors include British poet and critic Stephen Spender; African-American novelist Richard Wright; French symbolist writer and anticolonialist activist Andre Gide, a Nobel laureate; Louis Fischer, a foreign correspondent for the New York Post; Ignazio Silone, a novelist who fought in the anti-Fascist resistance in the 1930s and returned to his Christian roots after leaving Communism; and the well-known Hungarian-born journalist and science writer Arthur Koestler.

I picked up this little paperback at a used book stall as research for one of my novel characters, who’s a young left-wing activist. (With some difficulty, he’s going to teach my protagonist to care about something more than clothes and the boys who wear them.) But I soon realized that this book’s relevance went far beyond its specific political context.

Militarism, political and racial inequality, and the spiritual deadness of complacent bourgeois culture led all six of these men to seek a nobler way of living. Communism looked like Christianity without the baggage of the church–its complicity in the feudal structures of old, its distracting focus on otherworldly goals. The worldwide triumph of the classless society promised to overcome the nationalistic passions that had torn the West apart in World War I. The Communists envisioned a society where the poor would be fed, ethnic distinctions leveled, and swords beat into ploughshares.

The reality, of course, was quite different. The concentration of power in the Soviet bureaucracy led not to equality but to a new form of elitism coupled with hypocrisy. The same old political abuses were repeated in the name of revolution.

Ultimately, these six writers each discovered that artistic freedom and ideological purity don’t mix. Moreover, artistic freedom is not merely a personal luxury: the artist’s focus on the individual has a moral dimension, keeping us from dehumanizing groups of people who stand in the way of our utopian schemes. This, I think, is the book’s greatest lesson, applicable to religious as well as political ideologies.

I’ve had some frustrating conversations with fundamentalists who have decided a priori that human suffering is not a data point to be considered in evaluating their beliefs. They remind me of the Communists whom these six writers challenged regarding the Soviets’ human rights abuses. Either they denied that the torture and silencing of dissidents actually happened, or they argued that repression (always of other people!) in the present was necessary to bring about a future society where everyone would live better. This isn’t too different from the medieval Grand Inquisitors who burned heretics to save their souls–or today’s Christians who believe that shaming and disenfranchising homosexuals will turn them from a “lifestyle” that endangers their salvation. The end justifies the means…but somehow the end is hard to see.

In the end, these six authors found, the qualities needed for great art and a moral society are the same: truth-telling, humility, concern for each person’s unique experience, and a willingness to admit that human behavior is complex and mysterious.

For myself, I’d also add “shared control”: when I write my novel as a collaboration with my characters, it contains more life and truth than when I move them around like Stalin directing his troops. (Even God, in the Bible or the real world, seems to allow His protagonists a lot more leeway than do many authors of “Christian fiction”!)

Spender’s essay, the last in the collection, to my mind expresses these insights most eloquently. This passage follows his lament that under the Soviets, second-rate artists were put in charge of censoring all others, because the criterion for approval was political conformity rather than the quality of the work. Substitute “Biblical” or “religious” for “political” in this essay and you will understand the struggle of the contemporary Christian novelist. Boldface emphasis mine; page numbers refer to the 1949 paperback from Bantam Books:

I listened with disgust to the dogmatic crowing of inferior talents. There was something degrading about the assumption that a political theory of society could place him who held it in a position where he could reject the insights of genius, unless these proved to be, after all, applications of a political theory to aesthetic material.

I felt scarcely less revulsion for that extensive Marxist literary criticism which interprets literature as myths consciously or unconsciously invented by writers to serve the interests of some historically ascendant class. To my mind, although poets such as Dante and Shakespeare are certainly in a sense both men of their time and political thinkers, there is a transcendent aspect of their experience which takes them beyond human social interests altogether. Society may follow them into luminous revelations about the universal nature of life which are quite outside and beyond the preoccupations of any particular historical epoch, and in that sense society may be elevated by them; but their illuminations are not just the projected wishful thinkings of their society.

To me the beliefs of poets are sacred revelations, illustrations of a reality about the nature of life, which I may not share, but which I cannot and do not wish to explain away as “social phenomena.” If art teaches us anything, it is that man is not entirely imprisoned within his society. From art, society may even learn to some extent to escape from its own prison. (pp.243-44)


…Now the artist is simply the most highly developed individual consciousness within a society. He does not have an official generalized view of human needs and activities, but he does have a profound insight into the feelings and experiences, the state of happiness and unhappiness of individuals. To say that the artist is an individualist is not to say that he creates only out of himself only for himself. It is to say that he creates out of a level of his own experiences, which has profound connections with the experiences of many people on a level where they are not just expressions of social needs.

Literature and art are therefore a temoignage, a witnessing of the human condition within the particular circumstances of time and place. To make individual experience submit to the generalization of official information and observation, is to cut humanity off from a main means of becoming conscious of itself as a community of individuals existing together within many separate personal lives. It is difficult to believe that a central authority of the State which denies writers and artists the freedom to express their intuitions if these are contrary to the politics of the State has the vitality and moral force to give people happy lives. All it has is a machinery and an organization to take the place of living. To destroy the freedom of art is really a kind of madness, like destroying the freedom of the individual to have ears to hear sounds to which his mind is sensitive, and to replace them with microphones which are only tuned in to hear what the State directives wish him to hear, which are the sounds relayed by the State amplifiers. Yet the destruction of this freedom is justified by a slogan: that freedom is the recognition of necessity. The political freedom of necessity is the necessity of the State version of the needs of generalized, collectivized man. The freedom of art speaks for the individuality of each human being. Although art is not the same as politics, art is political in that it is forever widening our conception of human freedom, and this widening process alters our conception of life from generation to generation, and ultimately has an effect on the political aims of society. (pp.246-47)

The Church of Misfit Toys

This Christmas Eve, I’d like to share a great post from Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog. Beck, a research psychologist at Abilene Christian University, writes engagingly about how insights from the social sciences can inform theology and vice versa. In this entry from last December, he describes the gospel message at the heart of the classic Christmas TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

As you may recall, Rudolph has always been teased and excluded for being born different from the others. He and his pal Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, go on a quest to find someplace they’ll fit in, and wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys:

…At this point in the show all the misfit themes are coming to a climax. We see misfits seeking community, we see empathy as one misfit identifies with another, and, finally, we see one misfit seeking to act as savior. A misfit to save the misfits. A misfit Messiah.

But the theology of Rudolph takes its most radical, surprising, and extreme turn when the personification of evil, The Abominable Snowman, comes back from death in a quirky resurrection event–Bumble’s Bounce!–as a peaceable creature who is also in need of loving community. Apparently, this “evil” creature is also a misfit. And the hint is that he’s “abominable” because he’s been marginalized and without community.

So, summarizing all this, I learned from Rudolph this important lesson about Christmas: Something about Christmas means misfits have a place, a community, a home. Or, rephrased, Christmas means that there are no more misfits.

In a more adult way, this theme was strikingly presented in this season’s opening episode of the FOX medical drama “House”. Watch it here.

Dr. Greg House (Hugh Laurie), a brilliant and antisocial man who specializes in diagnosing medical mysteries, is confined to a mental institution to cure his painkiller addiction and other emotional problems. Unable to tolerate not being in charge, he engages in a contest of wills with the hospital staff, trying to cause so much trouble that they’ll release him without making him do the work of getting well. At first he uses his diagnostic genius to play on each patient’s unique symptoms and set them off against each other. But eventually, this man who’s so afraid of his own emotions begins to care for his fellow inmates, and uses his psychological insight to forge them into a community of people who help one another.

Nearly every dilemma in my life comes down to epistemology: How do we know what we know? Which really means, whom can we trust? Not ourselves, not anyone else, if perfection is the criterion. I’ve recently lost faith in some people whom I used to regard as a pipeline to the divine. And what does that say about my own ability to discern God? When relationships founder, we often say “She’s not the person I thought she was”, or “I just didn’t understand my own feelings”. Too many of these breakpoints, in the past two years, left me feeling lost in a hall of mirrors.

So this episode of “House” was healing and inspiring for me, since it showed that God can be contained in the most broken vessels. Perhaps especially there. You don’t have to be right, or right in the head, to receive His miraculous love and reveal that love to others.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Videos from the PEN Prison Writing Program

The PEN American Center mentors incarcerated writers and publishes the best of their work in the annual Voices From Inside series. On this page, you can view video clips of notable writers such as Marie Ponsot and Patricia Smith reading prisoners’ work at a November 2009 presentation in New York City.

In this five-minute video, Patricia Smith reads Christina MacNaughton’s “Just Another Death,” first-place winner for memoir in PEN’s 2007 Prison Writing Contest.

On a related note, the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Books & Culture contains Jason Byassee’s article “Prisons and the Body of Christ”. Byassee surveys several new books concerning conditions on the inside, and calls on Christians to spend more time ministering to prisoners. I’m not sure if the article is available to non-subscribers, but here’s an excerpt (boldface emphasis mine):

…In Crossing the Yard, Richard Shelton writes about prison from the perspective of a volunteer teacher of creative writing over a period of thirty years. (Ken Lamberton was one of his students.) Shelton, a prizewinning poet and professor at the University of Arizona, says that much of what he knows about teaching was learned behind bars. When asked why he goes into the prisons, he replies that he’s selfish. The men teach him too much to stop. When asked if he’s not ever in danger there he replies affirmatively—from the guards, one of whom passed him a basket full of drugs by mistake once, while others have harassed, menaced, and generally thumped their chests around him, while trying to exterminate his massively successful writing program. The prisoners have protected him.

Shelton’s initial motive for volunteering, he recalls, was hardly noble. An infamous kidnapper and serial murderer, Charles Schmid, wanted to send him poetry. Shelton the writer sniffed promising material. He wanted to be a “voyeur,” looking in on a “monster.” But as Schmid learned about metaphor and went to war on sentimentality, harnessing the rage inside him, he began to change. He wrote to Shelton, “Something’s happened to me. Something wonderful and frightening. I can’t explain it. But I feel like somebody else.” Shelton concurred. “My God,” he thought. “He even looks different.”

Shelton has witnessed many such transformations. One writer won a National Endowment for the Arts grant—for which his entry was judged blind. Another, Lamberton, won that Burroughs Prize. Another took a PhD in history and became a college professor. Another designed a system to store solar energy while still in prison. Another became a preacher. Another, Calvin, grew so adept at speaking on the prisons’ “scared straight” circuit that he won his pardon and opened a rehab program.

You don’t have to be a cynic to recall the counter-examples over the years, of prison writers championed by celebrated outsiders (as Norman Mailer, for example, took up the cause of Jack Henry Abbott), with a bleak end to the story. But the point isn’t to add up literary honors or highlight the most dramatic instances of change, set against the most publicized failures. Rather, Shelton’s account of his writing classes should remind us of the humanity of the prisoners, whether talented or not. When a student would publish a poem or chapbook, the entire class would share in that success. Charles Schmid wrote his teacher on his first publication, “I have a kind of dignity.” Even more impressive, in a place that is strictly racially policed by gangs such that races do not mix in the chow hall, writing class turns inmates into friends. Perhaps it is the quasi-liturgical effect of being left breathless together by the beauty of words. Or of sharing unspeakable pain in words that point beyond words: in poetry. Or perhaps it is the bootcamp-like atmosphere of Shelton’s workshop—he pushes them hard. “I suppose it is caused by the fact that you can’t discuss and criticize someone’s most cherished ideas and creations without coming to feel some empathy with that person …. Actually I don’t know what causes it, but I know it happens and it violates the established norm of any prison.” It’s a bit like church is supposed to be, isn’t it?

Yes, all too often, inspiring success can be followed hard by devastating failure. Would-be successes re-offend upon release. The rate of recidivism for sexual predators is particularly discouraging (and this is equally true of those who are routed into the mental health system rather than to prison). Statistically speaking, Ken Lamberton is a very bad risk.

Some reformed prisoners aren’t even given a chance to fail on the outside. Charles Schmid was jumped and stabbed repeatedly by fellow inmates. After struggling in intensive care for a week, he died. Shelton blamed himself—perhaps his literary conversion left Charles (who’d changed his name to Paul) soft, inattentive, vulnerable. Another student, a Latino, refused an order from the Mexican mafia to leave the integrated class. He was also murdered. Another died due to neglect. The prison’s medical officer neglected to treat his hepatitis C, and instead tied him to his bunk. The talented young poet died in agony, with plentiful men behind bars as helpless witnesses. “Each death is less shocking,” Shelton writes. And after death? Prisoners were buried in a trash-filled, unmown yard with only their prison number over their heads.

Of course, victims of crime, or their surviving relatives, will reply that criminals have taken away their or their loved ones’ identity. And they would most certainly be right. One cannot talk about the barbarity of our prisons without talking also of the barbarities many prisoners committed to get in. Shelton reflects on the fact that Charles Schmid had become like a son to him. Then he has a start as he remembers that other parents lost their children at Schmid’s hands.

And Shelton assigns blame for violence in the prison more evenly than does Lamberton, seeing inmates’ culpability as well as the guards’. One comes away from his book with a greater sense of the depravity of those in prison than Lamberton’s account provides. Not that the two books don’t agree on much. Both argue that cynical prison administrators stir racial animosity, even hoping for occasional riots, so they can appeal to state legislatures for more weaponry and funding. Both compare our prison system to slavery—a massive, profitable system that depends on the conveyor belt of bodies into its maw. Both see subversion as the way to survive and writing as the way to thrive. Shelton pontificates more loudly. Lamberton prefers to show the quotidian.

Shelton spares no quarter for those who defend what T.S. Eliot called “Death’s other kingdom.” Prison holds up a mirror to our society, and what it shows is ugly. We are a violent and fearful people, on our way “toward the point where half of our society will be spending most of its money to keep the other half in prison.” Shelton marvels at the claim of one prisoner that life inside isn’t so bad: “For the first time in my life I have a bed to sleep in and three meals a day and we all sit down to eat together.” Prison has become a surrogate family for millions of people—a place with greater community than back home. (Would it be more punishment to release them, then?) Reflecting on Karen Lamberton’s heroic effort to stay with Ken, Shelton writes, “Incarceration is probably the quickest and most effective way to destroy a family permanently. And mass incarceration, as it is practiced in this country, is the quickest and most effective way to destroy the social fabric of entire communities, especially poor and minority communities.”

What is Shelton’s proposed solution? Dogged, committed volunteerism. Millions of volunteers could make prison more transparent, ease the transition from jail to free life, and leave, he thinks, “only a fraction of the present number of inmates incarcerated.” The more people who know the inanity of our current system, the more will see the wisdom of counter-proposals—like electronic monitoring. Shelton’s own work has born enormous fruit. We can only hope others will follow….

Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison. When I first did, I was struck how ordinary prisoners are. I don’t know if I’d been habituated into expecting them all to be snarling monsters bent on my destruction. But they seemed like guys I might play basketball with, or go to church or school with, or share a bus or sidewalk with (not likely a neighborhood—people in my social class rarely wind up in prison). On a later prison visit I met with my friend Jens Soering, a convict who writes that, if every Christian congregation would adopt two former inmates a year, we could greatly reduce recidivism. And if we flooded prisons with visits of the sort the Bible commands, the abuse to which many prisoners are subject would largely dry up.

Liz Davies: “Tropical Christmas”

Many of our current Christmas traditions originated in Anglo-Saxon countries, so the standard imagery for the holiday season reflects a Northern climate: snow, pine trees, holly berries, and the like. Winning Writers subscriber Liz Davies, currently living in Manila, sent us this different but no less festive depiction of Christmas down south. “Happy Holidays–Maligayang Pasko–as they say here in The Philippines,” Liz writes. Enjoy more of her work at Winning Writers here and here.

Tropical Christmas

Night falls early now, on a cool breeze
After a clear salmon and silver evening.
Little bats caper, stitching the skies
With carefree parabolas, and twittering
With the joy of mosquitoes for supper.
The roads light up one by one in the dusk
Colours deepen as night falls, and old Manila
Awakes; the ancient socialite adorns herself,
Drapes herself in glittering, flashing gems.
The parols*, like freewheeling rose windows
Seem to float and spin along the roads
As concrete falls away in the velvet dark,
And waterfalls of cool fire fall,
Fall on trees in icicles and stars.
Fleets of electric reindeer fly, legs flailing
And getting nowhere, and the malls deck their halls
With giant spiral crystals of styrofoam, so strange
For people who have never seen the snow.

*Parols are round stained glass effect lamps

Saturday Advent Song: “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns”

Another gorgeous tune for the season. The end of days seems like a scary concept, but this hymn reminds us that what we’re really praying for is the beginning of the new age when God’s love and justice will be extended to all people.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
and light triumphant breaks;
when beauty gilds the eastern hills
and life to joy awakes.

Not, as of old, a little child,
to bear, and fight, and die,
but crowned with glory like the sun
that lights the morning sky.

The King shall come when morning dawns
and earth’s dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn,
the day that e’er shall last;

and let the endless bliss begin,
by weary saints foretold,
when right shall triumph over wrong,
and truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns
and light and beauty brings:
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people come,
come quickly, King of kings.

Music: St. Stephen Wiliam Jones (18th C)
Words: Greek hymn, trans. John Brownlie (20thC)

Sing along at The Daily Office.

Too Little from Lambeth

Last week I encouraged readers of this blog to send a message to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, urging him to speak out publicly and forcefully against the genocidal “Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009” pending in Uganda. This week I received an elegantly worded email reply from Lambeth Palace press secretary Marie Papworth, which impressed me till I discovered it was a form letter.

Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest in Pasadena who blogs at An Inch at a Time, posted this statement to members of the Facebook group “Anglicans who want THIS statement from Canterbury”. It includes Ms. Papworth’s message, below.

“Do you hear what I hear?” isn’t just one of the Christmas carols echoing in the airwaves this week-before-Christmas. It is also the question I’m asking about the responses we’ve gotten from Lambeth Palace regarding the “disconnect” between the Archbishop of Canterbury’s readiness to issue a formal statement on the election of a bishop suffragan in Los Angeles and his reticence to “go and do likewise” on the draconian anti-gay legislation pending in Uganda.

Like many of you, I received a “boilerplate” response in an email from Marie Papworth in the Lambeth Palace office. (text posted below) If you “heard what I heard” in that response, you heard words like “unacceptable” and “deep concern.”

My question is: how deep does concern have to be before the Archbishop of Canterbury uses his moral authority to speak out on behalf of gay and lesbian Ugandans who cannot speak for themselves? How unacceptable does it have to get before he says so?

And to be clear: a comment in response to a question from a journalist does NOT an “official statement” make.

Do you hear what I hear? In the email from Lambeth Palace and in the deafening silence on this pressing human rights issue I hear that speaking out to protect gay and lesbian lives in Uganda is less important than speaking out to protect the Anglican Communion from a lesbian bishop.

If you hear what I hear, you hear that the leader of the Anglican Communion is more concerned about preserving institutional unity than he is protecting innocent Ugandans.

If you hear what I hear, then I invite you to do what I’m going to do:

Send another email.
Write another letter.
Post another blog.

This Facebook group has grown to ALMOST 5000 members — a truly awesome accomplishment. Let’s use the power of our collective voice to keep urging the Archbishop to use the power HE has as the moral leader of this worldwide Anglican family of ours to speak the truth of God’s inclusive and abundant love for ALL people.

Let us urge him to send a word of hope to LGBT Ugandans who “mourn in lonely exile” that the Emmanuel whose coming we prepare to celebrate in a few short days came not just for the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Lambeth Palace warm … but for those who shiver in the cold of dehumanizing homophobia.

O come, O come, Emmanuel!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009 4:50 AM

Dear Canon Russell,

Thank you for your message and for taking the trouble to write about this deeply painful issue.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is very clear that the Private Member’s Bill being discussed in Uganda as drafted is entirely unacceptable from a pastoral, moral and legal point of view. It is a cause of deep concern, fear and, to many, outrage. The Archbishop has publicly stated that “the proposed legislation is of shocking severity and I can’t see how it can be supported by any Anglican who is committed to what the Communion has said in recent decades”.

For its part the Church of Uganda has clearly restated its opposition to the death penalty. As the Ugandan Church continues to formulate its position on the bill as a whole, the Archbishop has been working intensively behind the scenes (over the past weeks) to ensure that there is clarity on how the proposed bill is contrary to Anglican teaching.

Marie Papworth
Press Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, London, SE1 7JU


So, what more would we like the ABC to say? Not to be nit-picky here, but to me, the word “severity” implies a legitimate spectrum of punishments for homosexuality. Rather than challenging the whole concept of persecuting people for their sexual orientation, the ABC appears to limit himself to guiding Ugandans toward the moderate end of that spectrum. And we’re supposed to be grateful that the Church of Uganda is opposed to the death penalty? Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table (Matthew 15:27) but apparently now it’s enough that he doesn’t shoot the dog.

One could argue that ++Rowan is trying to be discreet in order to work diplomatically behind the scenes. If he openly allies himself with the inclusive wing of the church, the Ugandans will write him off as a homo-lovin’ liberal and he’ll lose the power to influence this legislation. (That day Herod and Pilate became friends…)

Problem is, I haven’t seen this approach accomplishing very much. Meanwhile, the ABC is failing in his primary responsibility to his own flock. GLBT Christians in the UK, when faced with gay-bashing, familial homophobia, and economic discrimination, hear the silence from Lambeth as a sign that their dignity and safety aren’t important to the church–and maybe not to God, either. Dr. Williams, your millstone is ready.

New Poem by Conway: “Oak Leaf”

Oak Leaf

Beyond the certainty
   of a grave
or burdened song
   of a wandering star;
A firefly in flight–
  retains a tight grip,
on the approaching slip of dawn.

Dancing among ancient memories
   hidden in burgundy wine
coolly scissoring through air
   gliding to the tune of time
but seemingly going nowhere.

As an old note is struck
   from some familiar song of woe,
one that has clung to memory
  like an affectionate parasite
that wraps around its host,
   to strangle it in scorn,
stifling the unfulfilled dreams
   of an acorn…


My prison pen pal “Conway”, who’s serving 25-to-life under California’s “three strikes” law for receiving stolen goods, is facing unfair new restrictions on his status. Although his disciplinary record was clean, he was transferred from the prison where he was mentoring at-risk youth, as part of a prisoner trade arranged by officials. In his new location, officials are considering reassigning him to the segregated housing unit until he’s paroled, which could be years from now. In the SHU, he writes in his Nov. 27 letter, he will be limited to “window visits only, caged exercise, cuffs, kickers, no music and one 30 lb. package per year.”

Conway loves books; he’s reading Bleak House right now. He has adult children and grandchildren whose visits keep his spirits up. These lifelines are at risk if he’s permanently reclassified to the SHU. If you’ve been inspired by his poetry and letters on this blog, please email your testimonials to me at and I’ll pass them along.

Knowing that our family had suffered a loss this year, Conway sent me this quote from Dag Hammarskjold in his Christmas card:

A happiness within you–
   but not yours.
Only that can be really yours
   which is another’s,
for only what you have given,
   be it only in the gratitude
   of acceptance, is salvaged
   from the nothing, which
      some day
  will have been your life…