25th Anniversary of Ecumenical Encyclical, Ut Unum Sint

St. Mary’s Seminary & University has long embraced Pope St. John Paul’s commitment to ecumenism and celebrates the 25th anniversary of his encyclical – Ut Unum Sint. For over a half century, St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute has been a center of theological education, dialogue, deeper understanding and reconciliation among all Christians, in dedication to Jesus’ hope and prayer, “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” (Jn 17:21)

USCCB Chairman for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs on 25th Anniversary of Encyclical on Catholic Church’s Commitment to Ecumenism

May 25, 2020

WASHINGTON – On the anniversary of the encyclical. . . on the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, has issued the following statement:
“May 25, 2020, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint. . . .This anniversary should serve as a reminder that the way of ecumenism is the way of the Church (7), and that all Catholics are called to espouse a strong commitment to building Christian unity.
“Pope St. John Paul II, who worked tirelessly to build ecumenical relationships, described the impulse of working for unity between Christians as ‘a duty of Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love’ (8). We rejoice that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have continued to advance this singular mission between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. We celebrate numerous theological convergences that have been discovered in ecumenical dialogues over the course of the past twenty-five years as we seek to grow closer together.
“Pope St. John Paul II concluded this encyclical with a profound insight from St. Cyprian’s Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. For God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord, and a people made one by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (102). In a time of pandemic, people seek refuge and unity in their faith community. May this anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s call for Christian unity serve as a unique pastoral opportunity to build bridges by continuing to reach out with love to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. May He heal our wounds of division and help us grow closer in unity, especially in this moment, by witnessing together to the peace of Christ that our world needs so very much.”

Keywords: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Pope John Paul II, Saint John Paul II, ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, encyclical, Christian unity, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis.

Media Contacts:
Chieko Noguchi or Miguel Guilarte


Remembering Fr. John Kemper

Very Rev. John C. Kemper, P.S.S.
Retired Provincial Superior
United States Province of the Society of St. Sulpice
7/29/57- 5/21/20
St. Mary’s Seminary & University community joins with the Sulpcian community in mourning the death of Fr. John Kemper.  Fr. Kemper struggled valiantly against esophageal cancer, diagnosed eighteen months ago and which unfortunately quickly metastasized. Through his strong spirit, determination and love for the work he was doing and the excellent medical care he received, Fr. Kemper lived much longer than originally expected, a testament to his strong will and positive attitude. Let us all pray for the peaceful repose of Fr. Kemper’s soul and for his family.

Requiescat in pace. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

“Having God’s Point of View: Theological Perspectives from Corinthians”

Jennifer McNeelEI Faculty member in Biblical Studies, Dr. Jennifer McNeel was featured during our Theology Town Hall Meeting on May 13. Dr. McNeel is known to current students and recent grads as one who orients to biblical studies, and teaching the New Testament survey. Last fall, she co-taught with Rabbi Nina Cardin our “Mothers in Jewish and Christian Scripture and Tradition” class. The full text of Dr. McNeel’s town hall follows, or you can view the recording

Even before the COVID-19 crisis took over our lives, many people felt like the world was changing, and changing too fast. In my experience, many people already had a lot of anxiety about what was going on in the world and where things were headed. There were already worries about social change, political change, climate change, and more. And now of course, it feels like almost everything about our lives has changed under stay at home orders, as we deal with meaningful events being canceled, worries about those who are sick, concerns about job loss, and the struggle to maintain our own physical and mental health during social distancing.

All this new change, piled on top of the anxiety many of us already felt about a changing world, can be overwhelming. When I think about people in the Bible who had a sense that the world they lived in was changing, Paul comes right to my mind. Paul lived and moved through the world with the sense that Christ’s death and resurrection had inaugurated a new age, and that the final culmination of that massive changing of the world was coming soon. In other words, a great change had already taken place, and more change was still coming.

What did all that change mean for the way Paul lived his life and wanted other believers to live? I’d like to take a look at a few different passages that show us something about that, starting with 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul is giving a lot of advice in answer to questions that the Corinthians asked him in a letter – questions about how to live “in Christ” while also “in this world.” We see here Paul’s advice that the Corinthian believers should not seek to change their status with regard to a variety of things, such as circumcision, slavery, and marriage. Here’s the example of circumcision from verses 17-20:

17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. 20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

In the matter of circumcision as well as marriage and slavery, Paul says they should be guided by this principle in verse 20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

If you were already married, don’t seek to separate from your spouse. If you are a slave, don’t be concerned about seeking freedom. Stay in the condition you were in when you became a Christian.

I think we might find this a little surprising. I would imagine that those early Christians were probably eager for some kind of outward change in their lives to mark their new faith, their membership in a new community, and Paul seems to be saying: in the face of this great change, you are not called to change anything. As modern readers, I think perhaps his words on slavery in this chapter can be the most challenging – when he tells slaves not to be concerned about seeking freedom. Fully getting into that is beyond the scope of this 15 minute talk, but if we go a little further we can understand better why his philosophy is “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

In verses 29-31, Paul writes:

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Two related ideas bracket this passage: that the appointed time has grown short, and that the present form of this world is passing away. We’ll look at these in turn.

First, “the appointed time has grown short.” This NRSV translation uses 2 English words to translate 1 word in the Greek. “Appointed time” is translating the Greek word kairos. This word means time, but has a richer meaning than just time as we think of time ticking by (the word for that is chronos). Kairos can be mean: “time, period, season, type of time, appropriate time.” If I say to you, “these are the times we are living in,” I don’t just mean it’s Wednesday afternoon at 12:10. I mean something richer—there is some particular quality or characteristic of this time period I am trying to express. Kairos  has that sense–a particular kind of season, or a time that is especially appropriate for something. So, if we wanted to be a capture the meaning of this phrase, “the appointed time has grown short,” we could also translate it, “the times we live in are ending soon.” Most people would agree that what Paul really meant by that was that the “end times” were coming soon—Jesus would return and the God’s new age would be fully inaugurated.

The sentence that ends the above passage is: “the present form of this world is passing away.” Once again the NRSV is using two words to translate one word in the Greek. In this case, “present form” is translating the word schema. We could translate this word, “outward appearance, form, shape,” or in a more figurative sense, the shape of life or the “way of life” in our world. So if we want to get a clearer sense of what Paul means by this phrase, we might translate it more loosely as, “the way this world operates is disappearing.”

There are two things I think are particularly interesting to think about related to this word schema. First, if you think about its meaning—form, shape, outward appearance—it’s that aspect of the world that’s changing—the shape. That would also seem to imply that there is something deeper and more essential about the world that is not changing (something that’s not its outward appearance). This may be a helpful notion for those living in times of crisis—even when it seems everything is changing, there are still some things that always remain the same.

The second interesting thing about schema is that we’ve taken this word into English—our word “schema.” What does “schema” mean? One meaning is a model or outline that represents a theory or other type of information. It is something that gives structure to an abstract concept, helping us grasp it or understand it. This concept of schema is used in psychological circles to refer to the organized mental representation we each have of what we know and understand about the world. Our schema is our way of thinking about the world. Now, I’m defining here the English word “schema” here not the Greek word schema, but of course the words are related to each other, and our understanding of schema can help us understand a little bit better what is going on in chapter seven as a whole.

Taking in all Paul is saying in chapter 7, it seems like we could sum it up by saying, “the way this world operates is disappearing, therefore your mental framework for understanding the world is no longer valid.” Paul, of course, would not use the term “mental framework”—this is my interpretation of the text, not my translation of it. But this idea does seem to fit well with what he is saying. Think about the words in this paragraph we are discussing:

“from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

Paul is trying to get them to question every assumption they have about how people live in the world because the way the world works is changing.

I said earlier that it seemed like Paul was saying to the Corinthians that they should not change anything. But that’s not actually true, is it? In reality he’s asking them to make a huge change: a change in the very nature of their thinking about the world. So what happens when we take this idea back to those earlier verses where it seemed like Paul was telling them not to change anything? We’ll use the verses about slavery as our test case. Picking up where we left off earlier:

20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. 21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. 22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

This passage, especially verse 22, shows us that this isn’t just a simple case of Paul supporting the status quo. Paul viewed the status quo, whether related to circumcision, slavery, or marriage, as related that outer form of the world, the schema that was passing away. So he wanted them to go deeper, past the things that are disappearing and on to those deeper realities that don’t change. Who you really are as a person in Christ is not dependent on your outward status in the fading world, but on the inward reality of your life in Christ. Christian slaves, to Paul, are in reality free persons in Christ. Christian free people are in reality slaves of Christ. Paul is asking them to change their mental framework–change the very nature of their thinking about the world.

Now, the things Paul is talking about in Corinthians 7 relate to some pretty big picture concepts: how society is built, how people fit into that, institutions like marriage and slavery. But Paul’s idea of Christians needing to change their mental framework was also relevant at the more intimate level of interpersonal relationships. To see that, we’re going to go to 2 Corinthians 5. This part of the Corinthian correspondence comes after Paul and the Corinthians have come through one of their periods of disagreement and conflict. They have renewed their affection for each other and are in a period of reconciliation. In verses 14-15 Paul writes: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  Paul is here reflecting on his relationship with the Corinthians in light of the fact that Christ has died for all, and therefore all have died because they participate in that death. And if they have died, they no longer live for themselves, but for Christ. Therefore, their behavior towards each other should be reflective of the fact that they no longer live for themselves.

So what Paul is saying here is that that massive change in the world that occurred with Jesus’ death and resurrection has implications for how we relate to one another on a personal level. We now look at our fellow human beings with a new point of view. He goes on to say that more explicitly in the next few verses (16-17): “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” According to Paul, everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross and the resurrection. We have to reevaluate what we thought we knew about money, family, vocation, relationships, culture, and everything else. Our call is to look at everything with the new divine point of view that we recognize through the Spirit and because of the death and resurrection of Christ. We see new creation around us and indeed we become a new creation ourselves when we are “in Christ” and looking at the world and each other with this new point of view.

So the question that I wanted us to reflect on today is, how do we view our current situation when looking at it with a divine point view – when seeing it with the new mental framework given to us by the gospel? It should change how we see both the big picture of society and our smaller scale interpersonal relationships, just like it did for Paul. If participating in the death and resurrection of Christ causes us to no longer live for ourselves, how do we live in the time of COVID-19? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to propose three possible answers, and then I’d like to hear from you about how you would answer the question.

My first answer is that the gospel’s mental framework will cause us to build connection rather than sowing division. I have sometimes been disheartened over the last few weeks to see that the national conversation about the virus has become very partisan in nature. While in some cases this experience is definitely bringing people together, in other cases it seems to be making our divisions even worse than they were before. The divine point of view would call us to use the crisis as an opportunity to bring people together, not drive them apart, so we ought to be mindful of how our words and actions can contribute to either healing or division, and we ought to choose healing.

My second possible answer to the question is, if we no longer live for ourselves, then every situation, even a COVID-19 lockdown, becomes an opportunity for us to look for ways to serve others. How we do that depends on our situation. It could be donating to a food bank if we have the means to do so. It could be running errands for someone who can’t safely go out. It could be extending grace to our kids when stress causes them to act out. It can be a lot of different things, but one thing we always see when we look at the world from God’s point of view is people who are in need of our help.

Finally, my third answer is to remember what I said earlier about the fact that the outer form of the world changing implies that something more essential about the world is staying the same. So with God’s point of view, I believe we can see and hold on to the things that always stay the same, even when it seems like everything is changing. We might think of the beauty of creation, our need for connection, and most importantly, the love of God. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from that. No microorganism, no downturn in the economy, no amount of social change or social distance can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What difference do you think it makes to view the world from God’s perspective during this time of COVID-19? What are you seeing differently with the mental framework that the gospel gives you?

Fragility and Hope: Practicing Medicine in a Pandemic

The May 6 Theology Town Hall featured Dr. Brian Volck and Dr. Matthew Loftus, who have practiced medicine in a variety of settings (including Baltimore city, the Navajo Reservation, South Sudan, and Kenya, among others). They reflected on practicing medicine in the time of a pandemic. Dr. Volck’s remarks are included below, or you can view the full town hall. Prior writings by Drs. Loftus and Volck on the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Practicing Mercy 
Dr Brian Volck
One evening not long before the statewide order to shelter in place took effect, I and my wife, Jill, were climbing into bed when she asked, “Is someone knocking at our front door?” I thought I’d heard a soft voice from the sidewalk below a few minutes earlier, but now I, too, could hear a faint tapping. Upon opening the door, we found a boy about two years old dressed in pajamas and shivering in the cold night air. A slump-shouldered woman sat on the front steps. She looked up at us with heavy-lidded eyes and said, in the muffled undertone of someone who’s had far too much to drink, “We need help.” There was no one else nearby – no car, no clue why she had chosen our house. I was wary, uncertain what to do. To be honest, I was a little scared this was a setup, a ploy to get into our house for who knows what mischief. Jill, however, took one look at the child and said, “Come on in and get warm.”

We helped the mother to her feet, picked up the boy, and brought them both inside. She was clearly intoxicated. Her clothes were neither torn nor dirty, just disheveled. She was missing a shoe. There were no signs of physical trauma. The boy looked scared, staring silently at his mother, his eyes wide, his nose runny – whether from tears or a cold it was hard to tell – and the diaper under his pajamas was twisted to the side as if he’d been dressed in a hurry. In time, he stopped shaking as we talked to his mother. She said she was trying to get to the baby daddy’s house but had lost her way. She lived with her mother in another neighborhood where she said she felt safe. For some reason, though, she didn’t want to return there tonight. She had no cell phone or ID and couldn’t remember anyone’s number.

It was clear they needed what’s traditionally been called a corporal work of mercy. What wasn’t clear was how to help them. Jill and I are both physicians, but we hadn’t trained for this. We brought them something to drink, some cookies for the boy to eat, then Jill quietly stepped away to call our pastor in search of advice. He encouraged her to call the police, which she did. By the time the officer arrived, the boy was in my lap, talking to me while rubbing his snotty nose in my shirt. We were not a good example of social distancing. The police officer was annoyed at us for letting strangers in the house. Didn’t we know how dangerous Baltimore gets at night? In the end, however, he managed to trace down the mother’s mother, who quickly drove to our house to take her daughter and grandson home, thanking us profusely. The officer called Jill fifteen minutes later to say that the boy’s grandmother was grateful to have the two of them back rather than with the baby daddy, whom she described as an abusive alcoholic. “Mercy,” I said. Mercy, indeed.  

I share this story because it can help us think theologically about health care during the COVID-19 pandemic without getting lost in a thicket of biomedical details. When Jill welcomed two strangers in our living room that evening, we were making it up as we went along. Few of us like to think of our personal physician doing that with us, but many cases don’t fit the textbook descriptions. This was one such outlier. Yet we’d been practicing for these moments since our medical school days, when we formed habits essential to our profession, habits like as prudence, courage, and truthfulness. No one in our rigorously secular medical school or residencies called them virtues. No one quoted Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Stanley Hauerwas.  Some of our mentors admonished us to leave questions of God to the hospital chaplain and refer any moral dilemmas to the ethics committee. But, in retrospect, I see all that training now through theological eyes, further refracted by my more recent formation as a lay oblate in the Benedictine monastic tradition.

I have time to name just two such habits. The first is hospitality, something that seems conspicuously absent in hospitals today. Yet, “hospitality” and “hospital” derive from the single Latin word, hospes, which can mean both “guest” and “host.” What’s more, these words share a root with the English word “hostile.” Linguists trace these surprising connections back to a Proto-Indoeuropean root *ghos-ti- , which can mean “guest,” “host,” “stranger,” and “foreigner.” This jumble of contradictory meanings also appears in the ancient Greek word xenos, from which the fourth century Byzantine xenodochia – the first true hospitals – took their name. Etymologically, then, xenophobia may be less about fearing the stranger than fearing what we, as the host, might be asked to do for her.

In most traditional cultures, hospitality is understood as a duty and a danger at the same time. Host and guest enter a relationship of mutual obligation: the host offers protection and inquires after the guest’s needs, doing her best to meet them. The guest does not abuse the host’s generosity, and sincerely pledges to reciprocate. But a guest’s inability to repay the favor should make no difference to the host. Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” That sets a pretty high bar – especially now, when it might literally make you sick –  but the practice of hospitality requires the virtue of courage, which doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, but that you are afraid and you do it anyway.

A hospitable hospital will welcome all patients, not at unnecessary risk to its healthcare workers, but through a series of calculated risks inherent to the profession, addressing present need before taking into account ability to pay, documentation status, cognitive ability, or productive potential. That’s well worth remembering in a time of contagion and social distancing, whether we’re staffing hospitals, debating public policy, thinking about shut-in neighbors, or opening the door to strangers. Hospitality is risky business, but from Abraham’s day to ours, when has it been otherwise?

The second habit is stewardship, a word whose long, strange history I wish we had time to discuss. Faithful stewardship requires an awareness of place, need, and limits. Chapter thirty-one of St. Benedict’s Rule lists duties of the monastery cellarer, the monk who manages the material goods of the community:

He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the day of judgment. He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful and extravagant with the goods of the monastery but should do everything with moderation and according to the abbot’s orders. Above all, let him be humble. If goods are not available to meet a request, he will offer a kind word in reply, for it is written: “A kind word is better than the best gift.”

What would it be like to conduct our debates about COVID-19 testing, medical resource allocation, and regional or local mitigation practices with this understanding of good stewardship? How would our lives be forced to change if we looked seriously at our city or neighborhood, “aware that nothing is to be neglected?” What might happen if we accepted the limits of our technological fixes for individual problems and used what’s at hand for the community’s good – especially our presence, our embodied witness in this time of grief and isolation?

I seriously doubt thick accounts of practices like hospitality and stewardship will dominate the fractious COVID-19 response chatter anytime soon. The U.S. medical-industrial complex is too technology-driven, too commodified, and too individualistic to consider them in any but the most superficial fashion. But people of faith must, I believe, ground themselves in such habits before engaging the disembodied abstractions of secular bioethics or the acrimonious partisan harangues that now pass for public debate. In a world of suffering, habits of mercy make strong medicine. The eighteenth century Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, once said, “All God does is mercy. Only that the world cannot bear the naked fill of his mercy, and so he has sheathed it in garments.” I’m pretty sure that we are some of those garments – not just healthcare workers, but all of us. And even in this strange time when we’re overtaxed, anxious, and more than a little afraid of who might infect us or what nonsense our supposed leaders are fomenting, God still calls us to be garments of mercy.  

What Shall I Do With My Time?: Thinking About Hospitality In The Time of the Coronavirus

The following is taken from Dr. Arthur Sutherland’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

 Arthur SutherlandAs we all know, these are indeed extraordinary times. I want, however, to use caution in how far I go in affirming this idea. I want to be careful with my words. These are extraordinary times for some people, but not for everyone.

Let me explain. Like yours, my life is interrupted. Over the past several months, my routines, my abilities, and my desires have become out of sync with my expectations. My new language includes words and metaphors that I did not plan to use, and some I didn’t know, before March. The COVID-19 virus has brought words like “sheltering in place,” “social distancing,” and “Instacart.”

More disturbing to me is how often I hear people talk about “feeling imprisoned” or “going stir-crazy.”   These words, phrases, metaphors, and others like them, trouble me. It is the language of incarceration. When we say, “stir crazy,” we are using a slang term coined by prisoners in the 1850s to describe their feeling of mental imbalance. When we use these words, we are speaking like the condemned. We are protesting our lack of freedom. When we use these words, we are robbing the jailed to pay for our self-pity. In contrast, listen to how an actual prisoner, the Apostle Paul, described his life:

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12)

In this passage, Paul has not wrapped his face with a crying towel. There is no sense that his imprisonment was going to overturn other ways of viewing his life.

I recently read an article by Jerry Metcalf, a man incarcerated in Michigan who writes for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. In his essay, “No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison,” he sets us straight:

For those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you—as someone used to suffering in long-term confinement—is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for.

And for some reason if you still find yourself going stir-crazy after all the deep breaths and the journey inwards, then try more straightforwardly considering my situation. I’d give anything to trade places with you right now.

I’m scared to death. I may die all alone in prison without any of my loved ones around to comfort me and send me off. I don’t want the last faces I see to be those of the two cruel prison guards assigned to watch over me while I slip away.

It’s almost as if the coronavirus were specifically designed to kill off those locked away from society. I know this isn’t literally the case. But this is a virus that is airborne and most affects people in confined, overcrowded spaces.

There is no place for us to hide. We have no home to sequester ourselves in. It is physically impossible for us to separate.

In considering Metcalf’s rejoinder to our self-pity, I looked back at my own research and interest in theological hospitality in search of how to rethink my language use during this pandemic.

How do prisoners think about time?  As I wrote earlier (before COVID 19 started jumping from cage to cage in Wuhan), the interplay between faith, hope, and time is more heightened for prisoners than for ordinary folk. In fact, next to the concept of space, time is the critical element in understanding the metaphysics of prison life.

Contemporary prisoners have developed their own language for this: they speak of “doing time;” “serving time;” “passing time;” and “hard time.”  And then there is “Buck Rodgers Time”– a parole date so far into the next century, a prisoner cannot imagine release.

In the New Testament, Christian prisoners fend off this despair by making use of three perspectives of time: the chronological; the ritualistic; and the imperatival:

  • Paul’s request that Timothy “come before winter” indicates an awareness of chronological time (2 Tim. 4:21).
  • Paul adopts a ritualistic metaphor for time when he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure” (2 Tim 4:6).
  • For those who will remain alive after him, he employs the imperatival, encouraging them to live with a sense of urgency; he wants them to live in the kairos–in the propitious moment–so that they “make the most of the time” (Col. 4:1).[1]

You might pause to think about how you live out these three types of time:

  • What does the chronology of your day look like?
  • What are your private rituals? What are your public rituals?
  • What is kairotic for you? What is it that must be done? What is it that will change yourself or the world?

Let me add here that no amount of binge watching on Netflix is going to stop the terror that domestic abuse victims have of another day at home and no place to get away.[2]  My “imprisonment” is not like theirs.

There is a second way to rethink our language. This way is an action that breaks out of self-pity and into the Gospel. “I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.”  The boredom and tedium of prison life is well-documented. What is less known is how rarely prisoners are visited. A 2014 study published in the journal Crime and Delinquency found that Florida inmates, on average, received only two visits from friends or family during the entire length of their stay behind bars.[3] 

As for the ancient world, visiting a prisoner was a difficult and life-threatening risk. Visitors often had to navigate horrid conditions, hold their breath against stench, hear the sounds of executions, recognize that they might not be able to leave once inside, and all people–but especially women, as the 3rd Century document The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas shows–had to protect themselves from abuse and rape.

Craig Wansink, in his book Chained in Christ, points out the one’ s ability to visit a loved one or friend could require bribing a judge or jailer.[4]  He quotes a section of Pliny’s Natural History where a woman who, shortly after giving  birth,  went to visit her imprisoned mother and kept her from starving by breastfeeding her. The most stunning quote is from Chrysostom’s On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, in which he says, “If one wanted to study horrible or unique diseases, one should visit prison.”

It will be difficult, if not impossible during this time of COVID-19, to visit prisoners. However, it is not difficult to visit them through the mail. You might want to investigate how letter-writing can be life-giving.[5]  

What all of us can do is to visit those right next to us. Yesterday, I got two phone calls. Both came from friends I had not spoken with for a while. We had great conversations and reconnected, discovering new interests we had in common. In one of the calls, my friend Timothy Cannon issued a challenge: “Make a list of the people that you have not spoken with in two years,” he said, “and then decide to call them.”  I think he is right. The fastest exit out of self-pity is through the door marked “self-giving.” 

In this time when our language is changing–when we talk about sheltering in place, quarantine, and being imprisoned–let me introduce another word: “propinquity.” The word means “nearness,” and in social psychology it describes how close we are to each other either physically or emotionally. I’d like to hear a little less talk about the troubles of social distancing and a little more about joy of social propinquity. After all, propinquity is just another word for incarnation, and incarnation is God imprisoned in flesh.

[1] A. Sutherland, I Was A Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Abingdon, 2006).


[3] J Cochran, et. al, “Who Gets Visited in Prison? Individual-and Community-Level Disparities in Inmate Visitation Experiences,” Crime and Delinquency (July 2014).

[4] C. Wansink, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).


EI Prof Authors Book Responding to COVID-19


Associate Dean Pat Fosarelli has just published a timely booklet, How to Talk to Children and Teens about COVID-19.” Drawing on her expertise both as a pediatrician and as a practical theologian specializing in faith development and spirituality, Dr. Fosarelli has provided a needed resource for anyone engaging with children and teens during this time.

“This pandemic can be a time of emotional and spiritual growth for us all,” says Dr. Fosarelli, “but that will only happen if we choose growth rather than denial.”

The downloadable booklet is inexpensive, and can easily be purchased for an entire church or school. Even in the midst of our own fear, suffering, and anxiety, we can have honest and compassionate conversations with children and teens about this worldwide tragedy and provide hope for a better future. The book contains activities for helping children of all ages explore their own reactions and consider what they can do for others right now. Brief, authoritative, and filled with wisdom and guidance, it is available immediately for download.

“A virus that human beings have not seen before is now infecting millions of people all over the globe….If this is difficult for adults to fathom, it is nearly impossible for children and teens to understand.”

How to talk to children and teens about COVID 19 book cover

Pat Fosarelli


Reading Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114 in an Easter Season Marked by COVID-19

Think about the phrase ‘marking time.’ In common usage, it denotes waiting idly, nothing much happening, or even soldiers marching in place. But both Jews and Christians mark time according to the story of our faith. Last week Jews kept Passover, and Christians in the west passed through Holy Week into the great 50 days of Easter. We mark time by what we remember and what we anticipate in the stories, prophecy, and poetry of our faith. The fourth virtual #TheologyTownHall, held Wednesday, April 15, 2020, marked time with a performance (by Dr. Radosevich) of the story of three strangers walking to Emmaus , and interpretation (by Dr. Hancock) of Isaiah’s imaginative hope that death—the swallower—will be swallowed instead, and the psalmist’s confident assurance—despite apparent scarcity—of divine presence and provision. The following is taken from Dr. Rebecca Hancock’s presentation. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

Grocery store aisle with empty shelvesI imagine that the feasting imagery of Isaiah 25 may sound a bit incongruous in a time when the Coronavirus pandemic has led to problems with supply chains, empty shelves, and long wait times for grocery delivery service.

For some, this is more than simply a question of whether food and other products are available, but whether or not they have the financial resources for necessities. We are faced daily with our communal lack of resources: lack of protective equipment; ventilator shortages; not enough tests; and the absence of a vaccine to name just a few. As we hear daily reports of death tolls—in the world, in the country, in our state, and in even in our own zip codes—the image of death’s destruction may also seem far removed from our everyday experience and worries.

But the prophet’s words in Isaiah 25 are not meant to be heard as descriptive of the contemporary reality, but rather as a hopeful proclamation of a future dramatic reversal. This text is situated in the midst of several chapters in Isaiah that take a cosmic focus and emphasize YHWH’s universal kingship. Often called a “little apocalypse,” these chapters point beyond the immediate experience of the community toward a realm of divine activity that has both spatial and temporal dimensions.

In the verses here, the text describes a celebration following divine deliverance from oppressive forces. In the first verse, wine is mentioned twice. Throughout Isaiah, wine and vineyards often served a metonym, a stand-in for a wide variety of food sources. Here, wine and the rich foods listed recognize God’s provision of sustenance while also emphasizing that the food here is no paltry offering, but a lavish banquet. In an interesting contrast, the image of feasting also has a figurative counterpart—the swallowing up of death.

A few textual details stand out:

  • First is that God is the central actor throughout. In a series of diverse images, it is God who hosts an elaborate feast; God who destroys mourning and even death itself; and God who gently wipes away all tears.
  • The second thing to note is the use of repetition, the most notable repetition of which is the word “all,” used five different times: “a feast for all peoples;” “the shroud cast over all peoples;” “the sheet that is spread over all nations;” “tears from all faces;” and “the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” God’s actions are comprehensive and on behalf of the whole world.

The prophet also uses highly symbolic language to underscore the ultimate power of God over death. In the background, we hear echoes of ancient myths, now transformed. The Canaanite god of death and the underworld, Mot, is often described as having an insatiable appetite—a mouth that stretches open to devour, lips stretching open to consume. It is Mot’s mouth that swallows the Canaanite god Baal “like a dried olive.”

In the Old Testament, death is also often personified. Very frequently, the Bible depicts death and Sheol, the place of death, as “swallowing up” its victims. For example, in Isaiah 5:14 (NRSV) we hear:

“Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure.”

In a surprising reversal, it is not death who swallows in Isaiah 25, but God who consumes. Death—so often personified as hungry, insatiable, and active—is here the passive recipient of God’s final action. Immediately preceding Isaiah 25:6-9, the prophet recounts God’s action on behalf of the poor and needy, providing a shelter and refuge to those in distress. The destruction of death in this text, then, is closely connected to the establishment of God’s justice and the celebration of God’s kingship.

The other text before, us, Psalm 114, is a hymn celebrating God’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s provision in the wilderness. The opening verses focus on God’s past action on behalf of Israel, juxtaposing two images of Israel’s crossing a body of water: first crossing the sea as they fled Egypt; and second crossing the Jordan River as they entered the promised land. In this psalm, we encounter highly symbolic language as the physical world is personified: the sea looks back and flees; the Jordan turns back; the mountains skip like rams; and the hills skip like lambs.

Like Isaiah 25, there are allusions to ancient mythological traditions, once again transformed. In both Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths, the sea is a deity with which the chief god does battle. In the psalms, the sea, and water in general, are often personified, serving as a frequent metaphor for any chaotic or destructive force, both human and cosmic.

In Psalm 114, those forces that represent opposition to God are portrayed as cowed by God’s mere presence. No battle is waged between YHWH and sea; the sight of the divine warrior is enough to cause the water to retreat. The rest of the physical landscape also reacts viscerally, leading the psalmist to call for a communal response to this theophany: “Tremble, o earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” The psalm’s final verse reprises the theme of God’s mastery of water, here not as a conqueror, but as a provider: God provides water where there was none. God’s presence transforms the physical world in ways that are both awe-inspiring and a life-giving.

In both Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114, two central themes are important for us to hear in this particular Easter season:

  • In the first place, God’s generous provision is emphasized. God provides a lavish and extravagant feast for all, and God provides water from a rock in the wilderness. Scarcity is overcome with gracious divine provision.
  • Paired with this imagery of abundance is an unequivocal assertion of God’s victory against death and destructive forces. Death, the swallower, is swallowed up and destructive forces, symbolized by water, tremble in God’s presence. In a season where fear of death and scarcity dominate news stories and conversation, these texts stand in stark contrast, reminding us what it means to live into the hope of Easter resurrection.

Both of these central foci are manifestations of a root metaphor—that of divine kingship. Employing ancient myths in texts about divine rule makes a polemical claim: God’s rule is universal and neither imperial powers nor destructive natural forces pose any threat. The establishment of God’s reign results in death’s destruction and the provision of generous, life-giving abundance for all.

Preaching the Empty Tomb to an Empty Room

Dean Laytham’s Introduction:  

Every week a preacher asks her- or himself, “How do I proclaim the Good News for this people, gathered in this place, at this time? What is the Good News here and now for us?”

That perennial question is peculiarly focused this Holy Week, as the now has been exponentially magnified by corona-crisis, as the us has been radically diminished—even dismembered—by social distancing, and the here has been displaced and destabilized by migration to virtual platforms.

This Holy Week, preachers bent on proclaiming Good News face a particular version of the perennial question: “How do you proclaim the empty tomb … to an empty room?” 

Three EI faculty shared their answer, each focusing on one phase of the Easter Triduum:

Dr. Janyce Jorgensen, pastor at Zion Lutheran in York, PA, addressed Maundy Thursday, asking how can we “get real” with a service that is so tactile and sensory.  In a year when we will not gather together to take, bless, break and give bread, Jorgensen reminded us (quoting Henri Nouwen), that this year Jesus is taking us, blessing us, breaking us, giving us. Here is the full text of her talk, with the Nouwen references:  Jorgensen on Maundy Thursday

Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel, spoke of the “existential texture” of Good Friday in the Black Church, which finds hope in surprising places–even a condemned man’s cross. He then referenced the ‘glad surprise’ of Easter, as illuminated in this quote from Thurman:

“… if stumbling in the darkness, having lost his or her way, one finds the spot at which they fell is the foot of a stairway that leads from darkness into light.  Such is the glad surprise.  This is what Easter means in the experience of the race.  This is the resurrection!  It is the announcement that life cannot ultimately be conquered by death, that there is no road that is at last swallowed up in an ultimate darkness, that there is strength added when the labors increase, that multiplied, peace matches multiplied trials, that life is bottomed by the glad surprise.” (Howard Thurman – “Resurrection: The Glad Surprise” in Meditations of the Heart)


Dr. Dave Greiser, pastor of North Baltimore Mennonite Church, reflected on preaching bodily resurrection this Easter, focusing on 1 Corinthians 15. He ended with three tips for how virtual preachers might handle the ’empty room.’ Full text: Greiser – preaching Easter – EI Town Hall 

View full Town Hall
(forward to about the 3:25 mark for the formal beginning)