Journeying Toward Reconciliation

Last October I wrote about the development of Reconciling Conversations at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, here in western North Carolina. At the time, we had put together a little book of stories from members of our congregation about their life, struggles, and faith as Gay and Lesbian members of our church, as parents, friends and families of Gay and Lesbian people, and asJourneying toward Reconciliation wrap cover “ordinary members” who had experienced a long journey toward greater acceptance and understanding of people of differing gender identities and sexual orientations. At the same time, we put together a series of nine presentations on psychology, Scripture, theology, and ethics to enable people to explore some crucial dimensions of these complex matters.

The experience exceeded our greatest expectations, with over fifty people attending for not just nine but eleven weeks of meetings throughout the fall. At the same time, people picked up the book for themselves, their families, and friends. Groups in Georgia and South Carolina began using it in churches and high schools to inspire them to write their own stories. We had a second in-house printing, which started going fast. Marshall Jones, one of our conversation group, with experience in editing and publishing, began to put together an edition through CreateSpace, the Amazon self-publishing arm. With a heightened attractiveness, covers, and minor editing—but the same stories—it is now available on-line for only $3.60.

Here is what the back cover says about the book:

Our congregation lived in silence to the pain and suffering of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered people in the midst of our families, friendships, and community. Inspired by simple gatherings of prayer and conversation, we began to talk to one another in circles of trusting and confidential conversation. Out of that experience we decided to put together this book of stories from members of our own congregation.

The response to these stories has been so overwhelming that we have now issued these stories as a book for the general public, available through and other book retailers.

We hope this little book can serve as a starting point for telling your own stories as your communities and congregations struggle toward a life of more acceptance, openness, forgiveness, and vitality.

Indeed, you’re invited to start your own conversations, story-telling, and explorations in your own context. The book contains a number of references to resources about circle conversations, roundtable worship, and LGBT ministries. The stories themselves are available online at our blogsite. We have set up a Facebook page where we hope to put links soon to our presentations from last fall, which are now on Give us a “Like” and let us know what you’re doing.

Here’s how to get the book:

Go to or to

Pass it on. Widen the circle. As our church motto says, “Welcome ALL. Grow in Faith. Engage the World.”

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged | Comments Off

Craft Between You and Me

There’s a connection between woodworking and writing. One of them is the attention to craft. I am presently making a long-overdue desk for my son Eric, who has been using a table meant for the outdoors for a couple of years now—not exactly loaded with drawers or finished off with a smooth top. When you’re making cabinetry you have to rout out a million mortises and fit in their matching tenons. The drawers are done within 1/32nd of an inch. The whole thing has to be matched up precisely, including some attention to grain, figure, and color. No one notices all of this except other woodworkers and, of course, God, who always checks out the insides of the mortises. It’s the overall look and the smoothness of the drawers that people look for. And, of course, they want it to be useful, with the drawers the right size and a top that can accommodate whatever electronic paraphernalia will occupy it over the years.

Well, it’s the same for writing. I’m doing prose right now. It’s hard for me to switch back and forth, just as I find it hard to switch between woodturning and cabinetry. But in either case there are demands of the appropriate craft—the unseen manipulations that lie behind the piece and make it work or appeal to the eye. The point is that in both kinds of work there is an underlying craft that constantly challenges us toward precision, elegance, and simplicity—a simplicity both in movement and in construction. So it’s not surprising that from time to time I am caught by a book about the craft of these endeavors—in this case, the charming volume by Mary Norris entitled Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for more than thirty years, preserving its legendary attention to the grammar, syntax, spelling and factual exactitude that has characterized its pages from the beginning.

The title grabs the attention of all of us who squirm when friends and famous speakers alike turn the required accusative after “between” into a nominative “I” just because… Well, why? Just because it’s a compound accusative? Because they want to maintain their nominative (and nominal) agency in the fact of a preposition? While the psychology is unclear, the rigor of craft is clear: “between you and me.”

And then, there is poor “who” and “whom.”Like “me,” “whom” has practically bitten the dust. And, of course, if you have been rigorous about the accusative in “between you and me,” why do you accept “It is me?” Well, it’s because of usage. With that arabesque you enter the warfare between the “descriptivists,” who argue that we accept usage that comes to predominate (who decides that?), and the “prescriptivists,” who argue for an elite of referees (The New Yorker, especially, but Mr. Webster’s shadows as well) who tell us what is right. With irrepressible humor and balance she at least illuminates the controversies, even if she can’t resolve them.

After dealing with these Sisyphean problems, she turns her eye and pen (or is it key?) to the many other pitfalls and pratfalls of the English language. Writers in English have to deal with the horrendous problem of spelling “correctly” the multitude of words from many languages that have come to populate our discourse. Good luck with that, in spite of the labors of Mr. Webster and his heirs.

And, of course, there is the ubiquitous apostrophe, whose misuse goes beyond the hand-made signs on the roadside. Whether used correctly or not, its very existence is now threatened by the US Postal service and the internet. There is also the vexed question of when to use a hyphen in a compound adjective. Or when to use a dash, a hyphen, a semi-colon, or, you guessed it, a comma. For that we need a comma queen to decide for us. She doesn’t have to be someone out of Alice in Wonderland. She can be someone as charming and funny as Mary Norris.

So, it’s not only woodworkers who face the question of whether to plane or sand, drill or carve, rout or gouge. And speaking of tools, she rounds out her scintillating discourse with a discussion of pencils—real pencils made of wood and graphite. What hardness is preferable, not to mention available? How should you sharpen them? How many do you need? She even has a delightful report on an actual pencil sharpener museum in Ohio. Someone who loves her craft can’t help but treasure her tools as well.

In all of this craftwork, you have the competition between the rationality and logic of our minds and the demands of the wood (or language) itself—its myriad qualities, its structural properties, and the use for which it is intended. Language, like woodworking, has to produce an object that is both useful and beautiful. But this beauty and usefulness must also be embedded in a mathematics, geometry, and logic if it is to be enduring. Our language has to bear the burden of rational thought as well as aesthetic exuberance. Like any good cabinetry, it has to connect its elements in a way that communicates to other people well beyond our voice, touch, laughter, and tears.

And this is what craft is about: the activity of transforming objects, whether words or wood, in a way that can form a world, a common ground through which people can be related to one another over time. In a time that is devoted to consuming and “revolutionizing” that common world as fast as possible, leaving us alienated and lonely, we need to devote ourselves to the craft that builds them.

That concern leads me to the next book I’m reading: The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew Crawford, the same motorcycle repairman who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft. I talked about his work in Sawdust and Soul. I’ll write about his latest reflections, with as much craft as I can muster, next time around. Meanwhile, I think I’ll send this to Queen Norris. I’m sure I didn’t get the commas and hyphens quite right in this piece. But after all, it’s just a blog, right?

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Woodworking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Persons with Dignity

As the Supreme Court wound through oral arguments about same-sex marriage this past Tuesday (Obergefell v. Hodges), I was struck by the way debates over what it is to be a “person before the law” have pervaded recent judicial cases. In my graduate school studies some fifty(!) years ago, I focused my dissertation research on the question of our use of “body” to speak, with great emotional impact, of the Church, of organizations, of political orders and even of the Body of Knowledge. In the course of that research I stumbled on the long and winding history of the word “person,” derived from the Latin word persona. After the Citizens United case (2010) I wrote about how this ancient word had evolved in that decision to give business corporations the rights to free speech (meaning expenditure of funds) originally attributed to individuals in public debate. I found this development profoundly troubling for the life of a republic rooted in the rights of individuals to participate in public life.

But “personhood” debates have also taken us in other directions as well. One, of course, is the intractable debate over the personhood of the human fetus, which requires attributing the rights of living individuals to this emerging human being. In this regard our continually developing notion of “personhood” has led most of us to a more nuanced understanding of the solicitous care and protection to be given to this developing self, posing legal and moral quandaries that defy even the Wisdom of Solomon.

The same-sex marriage case, with its appeal to the “dignity” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity brings into clearer focus yet another attribute of the person. Dignity (Latin: dignitas) itself is another term originally attributed to the gods and to leading men in a patriarchal society who conducted affairs of government and war. This attribute is now extended increasingly to all individuals as persons. Just today an article by Jeffery Rosen on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s use of this term in gay rights cases has appeared in the Atlantic. Not only is personhood being applied ever more expansively, but it has intensified its attributes of autonomy, legal status, liberty, and economic freedom. It is not only a matter of protecting an individual “person” from government intrusions, it is a matter of enhancing and supporting that person’s access to a public life, in this case, the public life and status of marriage.

As a matter of extending personhood to individuals, this is a development to be applauded and nurtured. I hope this view prevails in the Supreme Court. However, like Rosen, I have some concerns about its wider impact. In particular, the application of personhood (itself a legal construct derived from ancient philosophy and theology) to the corporate “bodies” (also legal fictions) that dominate our economic and political life. Will we also see an expansion of the Citizens United doctrine to expand the public rights of corporations even further? The first development, now before the Court, enhances our republic’s life. The second, I fear, can sink it.

One of the torpedoes that can sink it might come from the infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 that eviscerated the Founders’ concept of “people,” replacing it with a disconnected group of individuals who now had the right, as individuals, to act like a militia that “the people” had originally formed as states. The proliferation of guns on the waves of fear in a time of social turmoil and change could indeed render us incapable of engaging in the unhindered free speech and reasonable debate that persons of dignity conduct as citizens of a flourishing republic.



Posted in Ethics, Public Life | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Searching for Identity on Cyprus

We returned almost a month ago from two weeks on Cyprus after a rich tour of Egypt’s ancient sites. As we flew over the Mediterranean from Cairo to Larnaca, Cyprus, we left a land where people have known for thousands of years that they are the people of the Nile. Since the union of Lower and Upper Egypt some 5000 years ago, they have known who they were—Egyptians. Even when they were ruled by outsiders in the Christian and Muslim eras, they remained a people with an unbroken identity. We flew to an island whose inhabitants had hardly known independence until 1960, and, since 1974 have lived with a division across their land based on a struggle between Turkish- and Greek-speaking Cypriots. The question they face continually is whether the identity of being a “Cypriot” can find full flower in some kind of political unity.

My own life is now intertwined more deeply with the people of Cyprus, ever since my mother began telling me about the two years of her childhood at the Skouriotissa mine, where her father was the engineer who helped re-establish the ancient copper works there. Now I was back, for the second time, to try to preserve the written and photographic Bill in Famagusta 100record of that experience so that Cypriots as well as my own family could claim yet another piece of their history. While we were there we visited places in northern Cyprus where my mother and her parents had been—the coast at Xeros, Kyrenia, Salamis, and Famagusta. Here’s a picture of me (the weather was chilly and damp!) against the backdrop of the Gothic cathedral built by French rulers of Cyprus in the 14th century. You can see a minaret that was attached to the cathedral when it became a mosque under the Ottomans in the 16th century. Now, under Turkish control as part of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, it is cared for as an active mosque, with a beautiful copy of a Qu’ran on display at the entrance. And then there is me, an American grandson of a mining engineer. Somehow, this picture brings together both the richness of Cypriot history and the conflicts that divide it today.

As I contributed copies of my documentation to the Hellenic Copper Mines Company, which continues the work my grandfather was engaged in, I was even more deeply aware that I was part of the extended family of people whose lives have been shaped by this part of Earth. As I also gave copies of these archives to the Center for Visual Artistic Research in Nicosia, I was aware that this was a tiny part of the effort to claim and reclaim a Cypriot identity that might overcome the divisions of the island. The pictures, as records of a time “before division,” even if under colonial rule, might contribute to that goal.

Just as Germany was reunited by a deep identity that broke down the walls established by outside powers, so must the people of Cyprus claim an identity more powerful than the lines that divide them. And indeed, because of the divisions of language, culture, religion, and historical memory on the island the task is much more difficult here. I began to think that it is finally the island itself that must be the source of its inhabitants’ identity. And at the core of this island has always been the mine, rooted in the peculiar geological features of the Troodos Mountains, and which has bound its copper to the island’s very name. (Check out the fascinating documentary about the island’s geological history, Troodos: The Birth of Cyprus on YouTube.)

As an American I have grown up with an identity that is shaped by being a citizen of a conglomeration of earlier nationalities. Immigration, though hotly contested, is the story of America. Its Constitution, binding people in a common law, appeals only to this voluntary assent to be citizens of a commonwealth, calling out common endeavor from the particularities of the religions, languages, customs, and memories of a pluralistic people. We continue to experience sometimes traumatic conflict over identity—the children of enslaved Africans and of European settlers, of Asians and Hispanics, of original Natives and conquering Colonials—but it is taken for granted that we shall always be a plurality in a constitutional unity.

But this specific history itself always raises the deeper question of what does constitute our collective identities. Is it simply the genealogy of our birth (our “natus,” the source of “nationality” as a concept)? Is it our beliefs and rituals? Is it our culture of language, art, and common memory? Is it allegiance to a Constitution? Certainly at the core of identity is some sort of common memory, which is why history is so important and why the efforts to re-cast history, erase history, and control its telling are so fraught with conflict. And, indeed, as I drove through the northern part of Cyprus, presently under Turkish control, I saw ample evidence of the effort to rename the land to claim a history separate from its Greek memories. Would it be possible, in a time and place of such colliding histories, that the ecology of the island itself could become the core of Cypriot identity?

Cyprus can be seen in some sense as a laboratory of the Earthling Hypothesis: that we might be joined at the deepest level in our love of the land that holds us in common. While the European Union, Russia, a resurgent Ottomanism in Turkey, as well as the residue of the British Empire all contest for control of Cyprus’s unity, is it also possible that the island itself, born of the collision of the Eurasian and African plates, might cultivate an identity as a bridge, as a unique condensation of contesting cultures? Might it then claim a kind of vocation to be a bridge place, where division, indeed seemingly intractable division, becomes a unique meeting place of peoples? Might it become, in the name of one organization struggling to forge this identity, a true “Home for Cooperation”? These are the more visionary questions that have been raised as I reflect on the meaning of Cyprus in my own family’s life and in the wider public of the “nations” of Earth. It’s a question I carry into my work on this book about life in Cyprus in the 1920s.

Posted in Ecology, Personal Events, Public Life, Travel Journal | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment