Archive for July, 2013

That I Should Gain

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Mark 10:35-45

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It’s a boy!  George Alexander Louis.  On Monday afternoon, the world waited on pins and needles to hear about the birth of the new heir to the throne of England. It was, by all accounts, a momentous occasion. Filled with shouts of joy, the ringing of bells, and many many souvenirs.  Sure, there were and continue to be some critics—those who ask, rightly, why we would celebrate the birth of one uber-privileged child when we virtually ignore the hundreds of thousands of poor children being born into this world every day.

 

And to be fair, they have a point.  After all, as a people of faith we know that every child born into this world matters just as much as the royal baby.

 

But as a people of faith, we also know that new life is new life.  And whenever we witness it, wherever we witness it, we have reason to celebrate.

 

And frankly, couldn’t the world use a reason celebrate? Couldn’t we use a little good news about now? After all, we’ve definitely experienced our fair share of bad news lately, we’ve felt our fair share of pain and strife and death. We’ve felt it here on the sidewalks of Boston, we’ve felt in the courtrooms of Florida, we’ve felt it on the streets of Egypt and Syria.

 

And as we know from experience, sometimes it’s only those little reminders of new life that keep us going.  So when we find it, we have reason to celebrate.

 

But as we also know from experience, whether we celebrate it or not, new life isn’t easy.  No! As William and Kate are no doubt discovering with their new, very tangible form of new life…it isn’t always easy.  It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, having a baby is not easy.  It’s not.  It’s an entirely new way of life.  There’s crying…lots and lots of it.  There’s feeding…lots and lots of it.  There’s…the end result of feeding…lots and lots of it.

 

In other words, friends, even new life itself comes with challenges.  It’s worth it, but it’s hard.

 

And we, of all people, should understand.  After all, as Christians we, too believe in a way of life that is much more than we could have ever bargained for, full of responsibilities and frustrations, but like a new parent, once we have experienced it, fully experienced it, we couldn’t live any other way.

 

And so today, after a week in which people around the world paused to celebrate new life in our midst, we pause a moment longer to consider what new life means.

 

We get assistance in our quest today from the Gospel of Mark.

 

Now some will know that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written, as early as 30 years after the death of Jesus.  It was written to a community that would have had to face its own fair share of pain and strife and death, and who were no doubt starting to recognize that being a community of faith was not all sunshine and roses.  We can hear that tension in our story today.

 

Our passage begins just after Jesus has shared some hard news with his disciples; news of pain and strife and death.  Jesus has told the disciples for the third and final time in Mark’s gospel that the son of man will be given over to the chief priests and that he will be condemned and killed and that after three days he will rise again.

 

He has shared this same thing with the disciples two other times in Mark’s gospel. And in each of those other times, we are told that the disciples ask questions and express confusion.

 

And, frankly, we get it. After all, when we’re confronted with hard news in our own lives, our first impulse is often to question it; to want a second opinion; to pretend like it isn’t really about us. It’s a way of protecting ourselves from the pain of the news.

 

But one of the hard lessons of life, friends, is that simply ignoring something doesn’t make it go away…just ask the people of Syria.

 

And we get the sense in Mark’s telling of this story that it took until this third time hearing it for the reality of what Jesus had been saying to set in; because in our story today, instead of questions, or confusion, or denial, the disciples are not reported as saying anything.

 

They were silent.

 

And, if we’re honest, we get this too. We know that sometimes when we are confronted with hard news, when we are forced to finally hear it and acknowledge it and accept it, we just don’t know what to say.

 

We don’t know what to say and so we don’t say anything. Sometimes, friends, we just need that sweet grace of silence.

 

Certainly this is a lesson our world could afford to hear; a reminder that, believe it or not, sometimes it’s ok to be silent.  Sometimes we don’t need a 100 cannon blasts, or a million tweets, or a full running commentary.  Sometimes we just need silence.

 

Imagine how different our world would be if each time a child was born we had a moment of silence.  It might make some kids harder to ignore.

 

But just as in our world, in our story, the silence doesn’t last forever.  James and John, two of the first disciples called in Mark’s gospel, two of the witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus a chapter earlier, break the silence by saying to Jesus. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

 

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

 

It’s a pretty bold demand. So bold in fact that Matthew changes this passage to have their mother ask on their behalf, perhaps recognizing that it takes some chutzpah to stand in front of Jesus, their teacher, the messiah, and ask for their wishes to be granted.

 

And frankly, if we knew it worked that way, we’d no doubt have a few things to ask ourselves.

 

But Jesus, ever patient, simply responds, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”

 

And we think, aha! Now’s their chance!  Now’s their moment to get answers to all of life’s troubling questions, why do bad things happen to good people, what is the meaning of life, what’s up with the name Louis? And our excitement starts to build as they open their mouths and say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.”

 

What?!? What does that mean?  They have just been told that their teacher, their master, their friend is not going to be with them anymore and they are worried about seating arrangements?  What gives?

 

But then we remember the sweet grace of silence and take a moment to listen again. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.” –and it starts to make sense. Friends, this is not just about seating arrangements in some heavenly throne room.  No! It’s the disciples expressing fear about being left alone.  It’s the disciples starting to get what Jesus has been saying.  Jesus has just told them that he is not going to be with them forever.  This man whom they had given up everything in their lives to follow is now going to be leaving them and they are basically saying, “take us with you.”

 

A chapter earlier these same disciples witnessed Jesus standing in his glory as he was transfigured. They witnessed a taste of the beauty of God and didn’t know how they were going to find that again alone. Do you see? They had been witnesses to what life could be and didn’t want to live with what actually is.

 

Friends, we know what this is like. We know what it’s like to face a long hard road ahead and want to just be there.  Every four years The United Methodist Church meets to make decisions about the doctrine and practice of our beloved denomination.  And every four years for the past 40 we have failed to recognize the full humanity of gay and lesbian people.  And although some of us have glimpsed the possibility of what could be, we are forced to live with what actually is.  And if we’re honest, we dread it, we’re embarrassed by it, we just want to be there.

 

But that’s not the way it works.  No.  For better or worse, a big part of the way of life taught by Jesus Christ is life itself, in all its gory details.

 

Friends, our faith is about life. Not after death, but right now.  And Jesus understood this. He understood that our faith is not about earning a place at the table in the sweet by and by, it is about opening a place at our tables right now.

 

In other words, life is not a means to an end, it is the end itself. And make no mistake, what we have been given as a people of faith is life, new life, precious life; we’ve been given an example of what it means to fully live.

 

“I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

 

But here’s the kicker: new life takes work.  It takes work. It takes not just accepting the world as it is, but working to make it what it could be.

 

Jesus responds to them, “You do not know what you are asking for.”

 

He says, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

 

In other words, be careful what you wish for because when we skip the hard work and jump straight to the end, we miss out on the most important part…life.  Not a life free from pain, but life nonetheless.

 

It was announced this week that the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a United Methodist Minister from my home conference in Upper New York will be brought up on charges for performing homosexual marriages, one of which was for his own daughter.  Rev. Heiss is an example of someone who does not just see the world for how it is, but how it could be, and is doing the hard work of living.  It’s not easy, but it’s life.

 

Friends, there is and will always be pain and strife and death, that is part of life, but there is also always the possibility of new life. And whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we have a part in it. A vital part. And if we don’t live into it, no one else will.

 

Not wanting to hear what Jesus is saying, the disciples respond that they are able to drink the cup and be baptized with the water, but again Jesus says to them, that you may be able to drink the cup and be baptized in the water, but in the end, it is not his to grant.
This is admittedly strange language, implying that Jesus doesn’t have the power to snap his fingers and make things happen, but we also know this to be true.

 

Friends, we know that we have been given freedom to live in this world. We know that God doesn’t cause pain and strife and death.  No! Those things are part of the freedom God has given us to live in this world, but so is joy and hope and love.  In other words, the promise of our faith is not that bad things are not going to happen to us.  No. They will.  The promise is that we don’t have to face them alone.

 

Friends, do you hear?  We are not alone.

 

Surely, the language of the cup and the water in this passage is a reminder. After all, Mark’s audience would certainly have recognized these two symbols of the Christian faith. These two sacraments that remind us over and over again that we are now the body of Christ for the world; that we are part of the family of God.

 

As the epistle lesson for today reminds us, we are God’s children now, what we will be is yet to be revealed. It’s a reminder both that we are not God, but also that we’re not only children.

 

Or said another way, we might not be able to sit on the throne of God, but as Howard Thurman might say, we have certainly all been given a crown to grow into.  In the example of Christ, we have had a crown placed over our head which for the rest of our lives we will keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.

 

Friends, we might not be heirs to the throne of England, but each of us by virtue of our birth has a crown.  Surely that’s worth a celebration.

 

Do you see? James and John saw what they thought they wanted, to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, and like so many of us wanted the end without the means and in the process missed the point of our faith entirely.

 

As Christians we are not called to a destination, we are called to a journey; a way of life.  And by not granting them their wish, Jesus offered them a chance to truly live.

 

When the other ten disciples heard the conversation going on we are told that they became angry. We don’t quite know which part angered the others, but we know that it was enough that Jesus again reminded them that they were called to a different way of life.

 

He reminds them that there are those in the world who lord power over one another, but that they are called to serve one another; to care for one another; to love one another.  In other words, he reminds them again that whatever they do, they do it together.  And as many have learned in recent months, we can face a lot if we know we don’t have to face it alone.  Friends, the good news of the gospel is that we are not alone.

 

Our passage today closes with these words from Jesus. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

A ransom is that which frees us from captivity.

 

Friends, what is it that holds us captive? What is it that keeps us from fully living? Money, family, fear?  Christ is our ransom. Not as some sacrifice sent from God, but as one who frees us from our captivity. He breaks us out of our bonds and shows us how to fully live. He takes away the identities that society tries to place on us and reminds us over and over again that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all children of God.  All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, royal or common.  Which ultimately means that we all have a chance at life.

 

Will it be easy? No. Like having a baby, living as a person of faith in the world means having some late nights, it means taking some unwanted responsibilities, it means shelling out some hard-earned cash, and it even means having to put our hands in some things that we never want to touch, but the truth is, we couldn’t live any other way.

 

Amen.

 

~The Rev. Stephen M. Cady, II

Pastor, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY

The Abominable Neighbor, Part 2

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

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~The Rev. Stephen Bauman

Senior Minister, Christ Church (UMC), New York

The Abominable Neighbor

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

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~The Rev. Stephen Bauman

Senior Minister, Christ Church (UMC), New York

 

It Depends

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t you just love it when the Fourth of July, Independence Day, falls on a Thursday?  When it falls on a Wednesday we are expected to go back to work on Thursday and Friday, but on a Thursday most employers just give up and give everyone Friday off as well.  A four-day weekend for the Fourth!  What could be more appropriate!

Independence Day, of course, is the National Day of the United States of America, and on it we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  -That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Independence Day, then, is a celebration of the rejection of undependable government for a government that will hopefully be more dependable in guarding the nature and rights of men.  (And, yes, most if not all of the signers of the Declaration really did mean to restrict independence to people of the male sex).  Since the beginning this celebration has been enacted in forms such as waving flags, singing patriotic songs, marching in parades, shooting off fireworks, having picnics, attending concerts, giving speeches, and conducting ceremonies.  Perhaps there is no more quintessential celebration of Independence Day than the Fourth of July barbeque, a somewhat tardy version of which we are hosting here at Marsh Chapel following the service today.  (No, no!  I said following the service.  Now, get back in the pews so I can finish the sermon!).

There are a number of ironies associated with Independence Day.  For example, those flags we wave with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field are the same red, white, and blue as the Union Jack, the flag representing Great Britain, that is, the country from which we were declaring independence in the first place.  Also, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith while a student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and first performed at Boston’s Park Street Church on July 4th of that year.

My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From ev’ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Of course, we sing it to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom.  Apparently we’re no better at coming up with original tunes for our patriotic songs than we are at coming up with original color schemes for our flag.  And for some reason we celebrate the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed, when in fact it seems it was probably actually signed on August 2nd, and it was on July 2nd that the Second Continental Congress voted a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June.  On July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”  Amazingly, we do precisely all of those things, on the Fourth of July, two days after the event Adams meant to commemorate.  Oh well.

Independence is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that over the past couple of weeks my meditations and considerations have turned much more to the alternate side of the coin: dependence.  You see, on June 20th, at 5:53pm at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston, my daughter, Lilly Alma Whitney, was born, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces, and 20.5 inches long.  In the past couple of weeks she has more than regained her birth-weight, and she takes seeming delight in keeping my wife Holly and I from getting any sleep.  She is a bundle of joy, and I am learning an entirely new dimension of love.  It is a great joy, today, to welcome Lilly’s grandparents to the service, and particularly her grandmothers reading the lesson and the gospel.  Lilly and her mother are here too, Lilly making her church debut, likely as not sleeping through the sermon, as I am sure are many of her pew-mates.

Lilly, being a newborn infant, is entirely dependent.  She cannot eat without help attaching to her mother’s breast.  She cannot sleep without being rocked while rubbing her back.  When she poops, daddy has to clean her up and change her diaper.  Like all newborns, Lilly’s head is approximately 30-40% of her bodyweight, meaning that her neck is not strong enough to support it properly.  When we pick her up and hold her, we have to be very careful not to let her head flop forward or backward or left or right, any of which could at least prove detrimental to her ongoing development.  Lilly has a completely undeveloped immune system, so those of you who would like to greet her following the service will first have to participate in the ritual of hand-washing, employing the vat of hand sanitizer I brought with me this morning.  (Her mother is an infectious disease physician, after all).  Lilly cannot walk, or even crawl or turn herself over, so we have acquired all manner of devices to help carry her, from car seat to stroller to sling to Mobi.  Dean Hill was disappointed that we did not name her Roberta, but he perked up a bit when I pointed out that we bought a stroller named Bob.

We do of course anticipate that Lilly, over time, will achieve her own independence, but doing so is a process of us as her parents accompanying her on the journey of life and faith, not only to be independent physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  This movement from dependence to independence is the process of maturation.  It happens over time.  Undergraduates who will start in September at Boston University are emerging out of the process of being accompanied by parents, but still aspire on toward greater levels of independence and maturity.  College students learn to set their own alarm clocks, manage their own bank accounts, and find their own food.  A year or so later, when they move from the dorm to an apartment, they may even learn to cook that food for themselves.

It is not the case, however, that this movement from greater dependence to greater independence is ever entirely linear or ever reaches an absolute at either extreme of the spectrum.  Many young people, as their personal independence grows, discover that it can be helpful to have a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of life.   Some find such a collaborator with relative ease, while for others it can take quite some time to find someone who is appropriately dependable.  And so, every year we host myriad weddings here at Marsh Chapel, particularly in these summer months, in which people commit to one another in a life of mutual dependence, of interdependence.  Just last week the United States Supreme Court struck down key components of the Defense of Marriage Act and let stand a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in California, marking further steps toward marriage equality in these United States.  What a heartwarming juxtaposition to have such celebration of the right of so many at last to enter into relationships of mutual dependence only one week before our national celebration of independence.

The same balance between independence and dependence holds at the socio-political level as well.  It was not the case that the founding fathers sought to overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain in order to establish an absolute anarchy.  They explicitly said in the Declaration of Independence that once the old, oppressive government was overthrown, then it was incumbent upon the people to institute a new government.  So it was that the leaders of the day turned their intellectual focus to designing a new democratic government that they believed would be more dependable in enabling its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  This is precisely what our brothers and sisters in Egypt are struggling toward as we speak.  Nevertheless, even upon the achievement of the founding fathers’ best efforts, there were some cruel restrictions on who could be considered independent in this new country.  If you did not own land, you were not independent.  If you were a woman, you were not independent.  If you were a slave, you were certainly not independent.  Yet, socially and economically, the white landowners who had supposedly achieved independence were in fact quite dependent on all of these classes of people.  So it was that A.G. Duncan wrote alternative abolitionist verses to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” only a dozen years after the original verses were penned:

My country, ’tis of thee,

Stronghold of slavery,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Where men man’s rights deride,

From every mountainside

Thy deeds shall ring!

Interesting, is it not, that at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted not this verse but the original to inspire the nation to end segregation?  In the end, however, it makes sense.  The original verse is a hymn to independence while the alternate is a reminder that every new achievement of independence is yet also an arising of new levels and manners of dependence.

Here, then, the theological turn.  It was the great Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who claimed, in his monumental tome Glaubenslehre, The Christian Faith, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.  Strange to think, is it not, that the great liberal American pulpits that have for so long emphasized the freedom offered for a life lived in the light of the Gospel, can all trace a lineage back to the liberal lion Schliermacher and his principle that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence?  Or perhaps not so strange that in a country that puts such high value on independence we would cast our final dependence onto one who is ultimate, infinite, and so utterly dependable.  For Schleiermacher, Christian freedom arises out of the matrix of absolute dependence on God.  This is the final outworking of Martin Luther’s insistence that experience of God for Christians is unmediated by human institutions.  We can depend directly on God, in prayer and in song and in breath, and so are free and independent from any worldly power and institution.  Or at least we would be, if we were living in the kingdom of God.

Alas, when we come back down from the mountaintop of absolute dependence, we find that we are still living in this fallen, broken world.  Our lessons today have something to teach us about living in a fallen, broken world.  In the conclusion to his letter to the Galatians, Paul is coming at the problem from the side of independence:  “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”  In eternity we are absolutely dependent on God, but in the present life we are responsible for ourselves, for sowing what we will in our own work.  Nevertheless, Paul indicates that we can begin to feel what it will be like to depend on God absolutely in eternity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”  We participate in the feeling of absolute dependence, as though seeing it through a glass dimly, as we experience interdependence, or mutual dependence, in our lives.

If Paul was approaching absolute dependence from the side of independence, Jesus, in our Gospel reading, approaches it decidedly from the side of dependence.  Over the course of the Lucan narrative, the disciples have become increasingly, persistently, and stubbornly dependent on Jesus.  Just prior to the reading we heard, many are offering to join Jesus if they can just run and take care of one more thing before they do.  But Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the passion and the cross, so he sends them out, cutting them off from their many dependencies: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”  Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is announced not so much in words but by entering into relationships of interdependence, of mutual dependence, in each place the disciples go: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”  From the side of dependence, as well, it is through interdependence in this life that we receive a foretaste of the absolute dependence on God that is a hallmark of the kingdom.

It is little wonder that so many in our world have adopted a preference for independence over dependence, making relationships that are truly interdependent that much harder to achieve.  After all, submitting to some level of dependence requires that there be a certain level of dependability in the one to whom we submit.  Alas, our human experience is that people are never quite as dependable as we would hope, and institutions seem utterly incapable of a reliable degree of reliability, made up of less than dependable people as they are.  Deplorably, there seems to be no less dependable institution in our time than the church.  How do we know this?  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that at this point 20% of adults in the United States are religiously unaffiliated, and that number jumps to one third if considering only those under 30 years of age.  These are the so-called “nones:” not members of religious orders, but rather those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, check the box marked “none.”  It is notable that the “nones” are not so much questioning the dependability of God, as those who identify as atheist have only ticked up slightly.  Rather, they have declared independence from institutions that purport to provide the opportunity for cultivating relationships of interdependence but fail to do so.  A significantly higher percentage of the unaffiliated than the public in general believe that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power, focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics.  At the same time, a significantly lower percentage of the unaffiliated than the general public believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, play an important role in helping the poor and needy, and protect and strengthen morality.  Many churches are trying desperately to deny that they are as undependable as the “nones” claim, but the response of denial misses the point entirely.  Dependability can never be demonstrated in words, but only in actions, and the actions of too many churches belie their words.  The “nones” own experience is of the lack of dependability in the church, and insisting that the church is otherwise than their experience smacks of hubris and hypocrisy.  Whether it is financial mismanagement, exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, or tolerance of sexual abuse by clergy, who can blame the “nones” for disaffiliating, or demurring from ever affiliating in the first place?  In all honesty, there but for the grace of God go I, and I am convinced that at least some who do go, go with God.

In these summer weeks we are hearing from the voices that inhabit several of the most significant pulpits of northern Methodism.  I am not one of them.  I am not a Methodist, although I grew up one, and I only ever occasionally inhabit this pulpit, in the chapel of an historically Methodist university.  My role in this preaching series, then, is not to speak to Methodists or for Methodists, but rather as a finger pointing at the moon, providing some orientation as to what you might listen for in the weeks ahead.  The question that must be posed to Methodists, at least as much as to those who remain affiliated with any other religious institution, is this: How will you go about demonstrating your dependability such that you may faithfully provide a foretaste of absolute dependence on God, that is, of God’s kingdom?  How will you declare interdependence?  Amen.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go change a diaper.

~Br. Lawrence A Whitney, University Chaplain for Community Life