Testimony on civic chaplaincy (HRC-11) offered January 26, 2016

My name is Jason Wells and I am the priest serving Grace Episcopal Church in Concord. Sometimes the Senate invites me to be their chaplain. Because of that experience, I urge you to recommend that the House vote HRC-11 as Inexpedient To Legislate.

My years-long service as a legislative chaplain gives me a unique perspective to offer the Committee. The role of any civic chaplain is a difficult and a anxious one. To use a metaphor, the chaplain navigates a barge through shallow and rocky waters. In fear of damaging the barge or losing the cargo, there are two apparent options. The first option is to throw the cargo overboard, lighten the load and avoid the rocks. Of course, while safe passage is found, the point of the journey is lost. This option represents casting off chaplaincy from our civic life, which has strong arguments in its favor, given the Constitution’s no-establishment clauses.

The second option is to veer the barge hard toward the river banks. Again the rocks are avoided and this time the cargo is safe. But now, the barge is grounded on the banks and cannot journey onward. Resolution HCR-11 represents this option. This resolution veers hard into sectarianism and advocacy, particularly in its second and third resolve clauses. As sectarianism, it privileges Christianity ahead of other faiths and will give leverage to those who want to see civic chaplaincies ended. As advocacy, it invites each faith and each viewpoint within that faith to use the chaplain’s role as a bully pulpit and a battleground, ending any pastoral or counseling role chaplains exercise.

So what is the third way? The third way is for the barge and its cargo to hold its course in rocky waters. The third way is to recognize that a non-sectarian and non-advocating civic chaplaincy is always difficult and anxious work and yet to affirm that this chaplaincy is a necessary part of both legislative and executive work. The third way is to recommend HCR-11 as Inexpedient To Legislate. The third way is to heed the wisdom found in our present policies: wisdom which was hard-won over the course of centuries of trial and error at understanding church and state relations.

Every time that I come into the Senate chamber to offer a reflection and a prayer, I agree to specific terms. Those terms are simple:

“New Hampshire’s State Senators cherish their private religious beliefs, and respect those of our colleagues, recognizing the many cultural, religious and secular backgrounds from which we come to serve our state.

In the interest of unanimity and comity between Senators before session, it is requested that our Senate Chaplain:

  1. Refrain from invoking by prayer any one specific religious faith or figure, whether Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or any other; and
  2. Refrain from interjecting into the prayer a religious or personal position on political or specific legislation.”

In short, in accepting the invitation, which I can freely refuse, I agree voluntarily to limit my own religious expression for the sake of the common good—the heart of the Lockean social contract. A non-sectarian and non-advocating chaplaincy allows me to serve the Senate by offering a spiritual dimension to the work of governance, a pastoral counseling when personal issues weigh on their minds and an appeal to the virtues of humility, hope, higher calling (among many others) and by offering no agenda, no quid pro quo, a spirit much needed in politics.

This policy, this third way through rocky waters, will also serve the Executive Council well. Please recommend HCR-11 as Inexpedient to Legislate.

We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose on earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often belie our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many pagans refuse to believe what we say. “if their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,” they ask, “why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give away riches and live in simple huts.” So these pagans conclude that we do not sincerely believe in the religion we profess; and as a result they refuse to take this religion seriously. You may say that the words of Christ on these matters are too hard for you to follow; and that while your spirit is willing, your flesh is weak. My answer is that the judgement of the pagans about you is more accurate than your judgement of yourself. When the pagans accuse us of hypocrisy, many of us should plead guilty.

Saint John Chrysostom (349-407 AD)

Senate Reflection for January 21, 2016

Disaster literally means being “without a star” or being “with a bad star.” It meant a lot to the ancient navigators who sailed according to the stars. If the sky was cloudy, you couldn’t see the North Star. If you were on a ship with an unskilled astronomer, you could sail a long time with the wrong heading. Either way, your journey was a disaster from which you would not return.

We all must find our star, the fixed, shining light that leads us safely home. That star may be your faith that demands your best efforts. That star may be a story that continues to inspire you, a principle that you can never ignore, a person that your life and your actions must always represent. No one should find themselves into service like yours without such a guiding star.

Find it again and fix your eye on it. Even as the North Star gets obscured in the clouds, so our guides are hard to find amid the papers and the agreements. It’s a sad fact of our psychology that our eye always gets attracted to the glittering, wandering, moving lights that promise much but lead us off-course to disaster. Stay true by your star, whatever it is, and you will marvel at how every time she brings you safely home.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” Leaves of Grass,  1900.

Havenwood Homily for January 20, 2016

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:12)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)

Changing water into wine is the first of Jesus’ deeds of power. John call these manifestations “signs” of Jesus. From this beginning, Jesus uses his power for good. His power is a mercy, a kindness to his neighbor.

We have lots of warnings about about power. Power corrupts (Lord Acton). With great power comes great responsibility (Spiderman). In all, that powerful people should use their power not for their own gain, but for the good of others.

When when I think of the powerful people these statements are meant for, I never think of myself. Powerful people are presidents and billionaires, not folk like me, right?

But St. Paul tells us that we do have power–power from the Spirit. It’s the same power that was in Jesus’ signs. It’s the power to heal, to speak love, to listen to God, to interpret difficult truths. The Spirit’s power is incredible but also easily twisted. Shell we use this power to hurt, to exclude, to puff ourselves up?

Or, like Jesus, will we recognize ourselves as filled with the Spirit’s power and find ways to use that power for our neighbor’s good and thus reveal God’s glory?

Senate Prayer for January 14, 2016

“Did the Republicans win?” she asked me from her bed at Hospice House. Kit asked me that right after the 2010 midterm election. As she lay, literally dying, she needed her priest to tell her how well the Republicans did in the election.

When people are dying, sometimes they ask seemingly inappropriate questions, “How is the car running? When did you last call Aunt Jane?” Those questions don’t seem to bear the weight of life and death. But with a little reflection we discover their meaning: people are asking, “If I die now, will everything be OK?”

For Kit, knowing that the Republicans won was a sign, a symbol, a metaphor that the world was in good hands, that she was now free to leave this world behind. (I know that not everyone here felt that way in 2010, but this is a story about Kit, not about you.)

But if the story were about you: what would the sign be? What sign do you need from God, from somewhere beyond that all will be well? And if you know that all would in fact be OK, how would that change you? What could you let go of? How would you now be more free?

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, give each one of us a sign, a sign made for each one to see and know that all will be well, that things will get better and that things will be OK. Take our hearts filled with anxiety, pessimism and the self-centeredness of overwork, as though it all depended on us. Free our hearts to be trusting hearts, sure in the truth not it’s not us and our effort that will save the world but rather the truth that it is by your sign, your gift, your word alone that the world finds its wellness and its peace. Amen.

North Carolina pastor confronted by man with rifle – CNN.com

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun…” is apparently with prayer and ministry. Thank you, Pastor Wright, for your fearless and faithful service:

Pastor Larry Wright was talking to his small North Carolina congregation about senseless deaths in his community when a man with a rifle walked into his church.

Source: North Carolina pastor confronted by man with rifle – CNN.com