Karen Armstrong Preaches Compassion in Morristown

Karen Armstrong (Photo by the Web Goddess)

I tried to bait the famous author into a partisan screed, but she was having none of it.

“America is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now our Nobel Peace Prize winning president is taking us into war in Libya.  I’d be interested to hear your take on how some of the things you’ve talked about relate to the wider geopolitical scene,” I said to Karen Armstrong, author of more than two dozen books, most recently Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

She spoke tonight before a crowd of 500 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown.  It was the initial offering in the John Shelby Spong Lectureship, named after the uber-liberal former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.  (The event was financially supported by the diocese, where the Web Goddess is Director of Communications and Technology, but she bears no responsibility for what I write here.)

“I’m sorry about these wars, is all I can say” Armstrong said. “After 9/11 there was such an outpouring of support for America, there were demonstrations in Tehran… Unfortunately, these wars have further radicalized people.”  All true enough.

Armstrong said all the world’s major religious traditions call for us to have compassion for others, although that does not mean that the religions are all the same.  The Golden Rule, which Christians know as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” was formulated independently many times, starting with Confucius, 500 years before Christ.

Armstrong struck a number of humorous notes, telling of repeated cab rides in London where the cabbie, upon hearing that she was a religion writer, declared that religion is responsible for all the wars in world history.  She described something as a “pie in the eye” notion, showing again that America and Britain are two nations separated by a common language.

I’ve not read any of her books, but I’m looking forward to her latest, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, with its deliberate overtones of Alcoholics Anonymous.  (The Web Goddess stood on line to get it autographed by the author.)  “We’re addicted to our prejudices,” Armstrong said.

In addition to her book, Armstrong is plugging the Charter for Compassion, ” which grew out of a $100,000 TED prize she won in 2008.  The charter is “a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national difference. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter activates the Golden Rule around the world.”

“I don’t have much hope of politicians,” she said.  I led a modest burst of applause when she described how the most fervent and effective backers of the Charter are businessmen.

If I can get the *#$*&$ voice recorder software to work, I’ll post more comments from Armstrong’s talk this weekend.  In the meantime, if you buy her books through my Amazon widget, I supposedly get a tiny piece of the action :)

There Are a Billion Muslims — We Better Make Friends With Some of Them

Father Butler (Montclair Times photo)

The Web Goddess is an Episcopal communicator, and posted last week on the Facebook page of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark about the grief a priest has been catching in Montclair, some 20 minutes north of our own beloved parish in Maplewood:

The Rev. Andrew Butler of Montclair’s progressive St. John’s Episcopal Church has been receiving hate mail, calling him a “damn fool” and saying that he has made a “mockery out of Christianity,” because he decided to hold an interfaith worship service for both Muslims and Christians. …

The service at the church, at 55 Montclair Ave., began with a call to prayer. Verses from the Quran and the Bible were read, led by the church’s rector, the Rev. Andrew Butler, and Abdul-Alim Mubarak-Rowe, assistant imam at Masjid Waritj ud Deen in Irvington, and journalist Anisa Mehdi.

“We have interfaith couples in our church, so the whole notion of being married to someone of a different faith is not new for a lot of folks here, so it really wasn’t that much of a stretch for our parish,” Butler said.

But some people don’t see it that way – including, apparently, some men of the cloth.

One of the emails came from a retired Orthodox priest who wrote: “To read selected bits from the Koran, in a so-called Christian Church service, is apostasy. What a fool you are to believe that Christianity and Islam worship the same God … You are the sort of priest that has made a mockery out of Christianity, one that is unable to stand up for the faith … Let me give you a bit of advice, son, the entire meaning and purpose of life is to attain heaven. If you believe that this sort of compromise is going to bring you or your congregation closer to heaven you’re a damn fool. Chip it in stone.”

Butler said many of the people who wrote to him called themselves “concerned Christians.”

Set aside the arrogance of presuming to know who is and is not going to heaven.  Set aside theological issues of all sorts.  The complainers have chosen a particularly short-sighted way of manifesting their religiousity and their revulsion of Islam.

America is at war with a global enemy motivated by Islam — but if Islam itself is the enemy, we’re all in trouble.  Father Butler should be commended, not attacked, for working to build bridges between Muslims and Christians.

Avid readers of All That Is Necessary — if such people exist outside my family — may at this point be saying “Wait a minute, Petersen: how do you square this post with your repeated objections to the Ground Zero mosque?”

The Ground Zero mosque — which is two blocks from Ground Zero and is much more than just a mosque — thankfully seems to be stalled for financial reasons.  If you look at some of the links in the previous paragraph, you’ll see I’ve argued that the site proposed for a $100 million, 13-story Islamic trophy building is a deliberate provocation.  My go-to guy for Muslim moderation, M. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has my back.

Father Butler’s interfaith service is exactly the opposite — a deliberate effort to find common ground between the world’s two largest religions, or at least to increase their comfort level with each other.  I wish I had been there.

Preparations for Easter at St. George’s

Much thanks to Maplewood Patch editor Mary Mann for taking the visual images from St. George’s Palm Sunday observance and turning it into a spritely and thorough announcement of the upcoming Easter services.

Cranky political commentary will resume here soon.  In the meantime, may Holy Week and Easter be a time of reflection and renewal for you and yours.

(Video by Kirk Petersen, photos by the Web Goddess.)

They Looked at a Hillside and Envisioned a Church

Tom Savoth and Cheryl Notari, Wardens of St. George's

Outgoing Senior Warden Tom Savoth shares a quiet moment today before the service with his fellow Warden at St. George's Episcopal Church, Cheryl Notari. Note the aura of gravitas descending on Cheryl as she prepares to become the Senior Warden.

Nearly nine decades ago some citizens of Maplewood, New Jersey came together in a spirit of faith and community to begin planning a major new Episcopal church on a wooded hillside off of Ridgewood Road.  The parish traces its roots back to just after the Civil War, but the cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1925.

Generations of Maplewoodians have enjoyed fellowship and sanctuary in the years that followed.  The Web Goddess and I were married there in 2000, shortly after we became members, and we held our reception in the then-decrepit Parish Hall.  Ten years later we stood up in the middle of a Sunday service to renew our vows in front of God and a community that has sustained us through some very difficult times.

During that decade, the Web Goddess earned her moniker by teaching herself HTML, then building and launching the St. George’s website.  She has lovingly maintained the site ever since, through two major redesigns, while honing her skills as a photographer.  Virtually single-handedly she has built stgeorges-maplewood.org into what almost certainly is the largest website in the 108-parish Episcopal Diocese of Newark.  The website marks its 10th anniversary this month, and if there is a larger, more robust, more professional church website built strictly on a volunteer basis anywhere in the country, I want to see it.

Her online evangelism quickly led to an elected position as a member of the parish Vestry.  When she stepped down because of term limits six years later, I stepped up.  I’m now entering my fourth year as head of the Property Committee, a role that keeps me busy caring for an aging physical plant.  Along the way we’ve both become full-time, professional Episcopalians — she as Director of Communications and Technology for the Diocese of Newark, and me as Parish Administrator of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison.

Valyrie Laedlein, elected today as Junior Warden

My role as Property Poobah at St. George’s is what led to these musings, as today was our Annual Parish Meeting, a time of transition for several very dear friends.  Tom Savoth stepped down as Senior Warden after seven years of Vestry service, including four years as Warden.  Joining Cheryl Notari as Warden is the newly elected Valyrie Laedlein, and they’ll work closely with the Rev. Bernie Poppe, who is only the seventh Rector in the church’s 106 years as a full-fledged parish of the Diocese of Newark.  The Rector and Wardens oversee a small, mostly part-time staff and a legion of volunteers, some of whom have been attending services there for five decades or more. St. George’s is fortunate to have leaders of the quality of Bernie, Cheryl, Valyrie and Tom, and the Web Goddess and I are blessed to be able to call them friends.

The Rev. Bernie Poppe, Rector of St. George's

Our beautiful building is feeling its age, and I had the dubious honor today of telling the parish that I’ve spent $13,000 of their pledge money in the past five weeks making emergency repairs to the heating system.  We’re not done — fortunately the temperature outside is in the 50s today, because while the church itself was overheated, there was no heat in the Parish Hall.

The meeting marked the start of a parish-wide conversation about the heating system that will continue for many months, and much work will be done by many people.  There’s time enough for that, and time for this blog to resume its normal fare of cranky political commentary.  But once in a while I use this forum for a more personal message.  Just for today I want to pause long enough to give thanks for a group of good Christian people in the 1920s, who looked at a wooded hillside and envisioned a church.

Photos by Kirk Petersen (with a cellphone!) and the Web Goddess.

“Lit the Torch of Freedom for Nations Then Unborn”

Now that I’m a professional Episcopalian, I can think of no better way to mark our nation’s 234th birthday than with the Collect for Independence Day, page 242 of The Book of Common Prayer:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Because of a happy accident of birth, I have the extraordinary privilege of being a United States citizen. I’m grateful for that every day, but especially on July 4. Happy Independence Day!

Ex-Cons and Ex-Governor Describe a Ministry for Felons

Alvin Valentine describes his criminal past, as Evan Misshula and Jim McGreevey look on. Photo by Nina Nicholson.

Now that the Web Goddess is the head of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, I’ve been writing occasional articles for diocesan publications.  Recently I had the opportunity at a diocesan event to cover former NJ Gov. Jim McGreevey and two ex-cons as they discussed Exodus Transitional Community, which helps formerly incarcerated people make  a transition back into society.  An excerpt:

McGreevey is a member of the Newark Diocese’s Prison Ministry, and became involved with Exodus as part of his field education at General Theological Seminary, where he is seeking a Master of Divinity degree.

More statistics: 730,000 people walk out of prison every year.  One third of them will be back in jail in a year; two-thirds of them will be back in three years.  The prison system “engenders complete dependency as a means of satiating or controlling prisoners,” McGreevey said, and then spills them out into the job market with atrophied social skills and “the scarlet letter of a previous felony conviction.”  The current re-entry program, “such as it is, is a complete and utter failure.”

Read the whole thing.

I wasn’t blogging when McGreevey resigned in 2004, but if I had been, I would have had harsh words for his conduct.  Now I applaud him for this work.  Surely it’s in society’s best interest to improve the job prospects of people emerging from prison.

Honest Labor: From Mach 2 to Muenster to Madison

(Welcome, Maplewood Patch readers, and thanks to Mary Mann for the kind words.)

A summer evening in 1995: My boss’s boss, a Merrill Lynch executive who has never called me at home, calls me at home.  His opening line still ranks in my mind as one of the most interesting possible ways to start a business conversation:  “Kirk, do you have a passport?”

It turns out I do.  “OK, pack a bag, you’re getting on the Concorde to London in the morning.  We’re buying a British firm, and you’re going to write the script for the press conference.”

A September morning in 2009: The manager of the local supermarket flips through my application, which discloses work experience and a salary history he’s not used to seeing.  Plus there’s the whole Princeton thing.

He says, “all I have to offer is a job in the deli. Are you sure about this?”

It’s an excellent question, and the answer isn’t obvious, even to me.  But I manage to convince both of us.

The Concorde was surprisingly cramped inside. The main thing that distinguished the experience from a puddle-jumping commuter plane was the digital display at the front of the cabin, which indicated we topped out at Mach 2 (over 1,300 mph) and 60,000 feet.

I had been told to pack for three days, but I ended up staying for 10.  Those were flush times on Wall Street, and Merrill’s executives and support Gumbys alike were all housed at The Dorchester, widely considered one of the world’s finest hotels.  (I suppose it is — they certainly kept up with my laundry needs.)

The target company was called Smith New Court.  Late one night, at a crucial juncture of the negotiations, it became necessary to briefly evict the Smith New Court personnel from the giant Dorchester suite where the talks were being held, so the Merrill team could confer by speaker phone with other executives in New York.  The Smithies needed a place to cool their heels, and the hotel’s business center was closed.

I was in my single room down the hall, casually dressed and thinking about bed, when there came a knock at my door.  Suddenly a wave of bespoke-suited Brits came flooding into the room, including the top two executives of Smith New Court, herded by a junior member of the Merrill team.

Padding around in my bare feet, I served sodas and spring water from the minibar and tried to make everyone at home.  Nervous laughter and small talk ensued for half an hour or so.  Then the negotiations resumed, and a billion-dollar deal was struck.

There were more trips to London that summer, and over the next dozen years, various employers and clients sent me to Tokyo, Cologne, Shanghai and Cleveland.  (I was able to squeeze in an Indians game — Jacobs Field is as nice as they say it is.)

I was the speechwriter for a CEO, I edited internal websites for two huge companies, I prepped executives for Congressional testimony, I helped clients spin bankruptcies, regulatory issues and involuntary CEO transitions.  I developed a taste for custom shirts, car service and single-malt whiskey.

For a job that pays $10 an hour, the deli counter gig wasn’t bad.  Probably the worst part was having to stand on my aging feet throughout a six-hour shift, except for a 15-minute break.  That, and cleaning the goo off the cheese slicer at closing time.

I generally enjoyed waiting on customers, most of whom responded well to a cheerful smile.  I learned that even though customers usually want their roast beef “sliced thin,” you have to set the slicer thicker than for turkey.  I discovered that low-sodium ham isn’t bad, but low-fat cheese tastes like glue.  Management wanted us to up-sell, so I said “would you like some salad with that?” and flattered myself that I was honing my marketing skills.  At one time or another, at least three fellow employees asked some variation of “how old are you, anyway?”

I had started my own consulting business in 2007, and I did pretty well for a while.  Then I did OK for a while.  Then the economy imploded, and after having virtually no income for a year, it had become clear that my entrepreneurial experiment was, at the very least, ill-timed.

I applied for dozens of full-time communications jobs while I was trying to drum up clients, and it was hard to decide which was more depressing — forcing myself to network with people who weren’t going to do business with me, or crafting thoughtful cover letters to hiring managers who weren’t going to interview me.  The guilty knowledge that I “should be doing more” repeatedly collided with the paralyzing reality that nothing in particular had to be done today.

At 51 (which is not old, dammit!), I’ve learned some hard things about the job market.  It turns out that if the job description calls for “8-10 years of experience” in a role, that’s not really a minimum — it’s more like a maximum.

It turns out that “overqualified” is code for “too old.”  (I’ve promised myself that the next time a potential employer tells me I’m overqualified, I’m going to offer to work below my full capacity.)

I kind of dared myself into applying for the supermarket job.  While commiserating with another idle consultant about the work we did back in the day, I heard myself saying, “at this point, I can’t imagine turning down any job at any salary.”

The instant I said it, I started wondering whether I really meant it.  When I saw the words “Now hiring!” on my supermarket receipt, it was time to put up or shut up.

The supermarket manager, naturally, said I was overqualified.  If the line had come to me in time, I would have said “I’ve never worked retail before — maybe I’m underqualified.”  The manager looked to be about my age, maybe he felt some kinship.  For whatever reason, he gave me a shot.

As it turned out, I was only there three months.  My new gig is a step up in both status and pay.  On January 4 I became the parish administrator of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ.  I’m now responsible for producing four weekly service bulletins and running the busy office at one of the largest Episcopal churches in North Jersey.

I got the position the old-fashioned way — through family connections.  Up until a few months ago, it had been the Web Goddess’s job for five years.

My beloved left Grace Church after she parlayed her years of self-taught website work and her knowledge of all things Episcopal into a newly created job, as Director of Communications and Technology for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which includes 108 parishes in northern New Jersey.  She has quickly started raising the profile of the diocese by redesigning a weekly newsletter and leveraging social media, while supporting the bishop’s communications activities.  It’s her first professional venture into the arena where I’ve played for 30 years, and she’s a natural talent.

So, let’s review: My wife landed a job in my field when I couldn’t.  Now I have the admin job she held before her promotion.  How’s the ol’ ego holding up, Kirk?

Well, negotiations with my ego are continuing.  Ironically, each recent improvement in my income has brought fresh challenges for my self esteem.

For most of 2009 I was entirely supported by my wife’s income and savings.  By any objective measure, a part-time supermarket job was a step up from unemployment, and I made a conscious choice to take pride in my work.  But it took a while to get used to being spotted by friends in my white coat and funny hat.  The Web Goddess aptly called it a “survival job,” and I used that term as protective cover.

The full-time church job feels more like a career transition.  It also feels like an abandonment of the conceit that I’m a primary bread-winner who belongs in a globe-trotting world.  I’m not sure I would have been open to taking the job if I had not just spent three months slicing cheese and cleaning up.

It helps — a lot — that I like the people I’m working with, and I care about the organization.  For more than a decade the Web Goddess and I have found fulfillment and a powerful sense of community at our home parish of St. George’s Episcopal, and Grace is a similar environment in many ways.  I see and feel the spiritual nourishment that Grace provides to its parishioners, and I feel privileged to have an opportunity to help.

I don’t expect I’ll be there until retirement, but the priest who is now my boss asked, quite reasonably, for a one-year commitment, so I’m not looking for jobs in 2010.  (Part-time projects in my off hours are another matter… let me know if I can help your business or organization meet your communications needs.)

Long ago I learned that job satisfaction does not primarily depend on how much money you make, or the type of work you do, or the prestige of the organization you serve.  In 12 years at Merrill Lynch I played several different roles while my income steadily grew, and I went through cycles of being both energized and miserable.

No, the most important factor in job satisfaction is whether you get along with your immediate boss.  It’s still early days at Grace, but I’m liking my chances, working for a woman of the cloth.  (In the words of the prominent Episcopal theologian Robin Williams, “Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.”)

In addition to a paycheck, my new job provides support for my spiritual infrastructure.  It helps me focus on living one day at a time, and on being grateful for all the blessings in my life.

And I am richly blessed.  I’m safe, and healthy, and in love with my wife.  I’m a United States citizen, having won that lottery the day I was born. I have a fixed-rate mortgage, and positive equity in a comfortable house in a nice town.  Around the world, billions of people would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

The job gives me a reason to get out the door in the morning, and I look forward to arriving at the office.  I’m doing real work that needs to be done, and I stretch myself to meet deadlines. People are counting on me, and I get recognized when I do good work.

If things get hectic, across the hall from the office is a … sanctuary … where I can seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God.  Staff meetings end with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

I may never again make the kind of money I made a few short years ago, but I won’t have that kind of pressure, either.  Not that it’s a slow-paced job — there are more than 1,000 parishioners, four Sunday bulletins in two different liturgies, a Eucharist or prayer service every day of the year, multiple tenants in a large physical plant, an office that buzzes with activity.  The Web Goddess set a high standard of efficiency and excellence, and all the details seem overwhelming sometimes.

But it’s not the corporate world.  After letting a detail slip one day, I told the Rector I was used to an environment where I’d be crucified for a minor transgression like that.  She replied, “we think one crucifixion was enough — we focus more on redemption.”

Amen.

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NJ Episcopalians Respond to Haitian Tragedy

Many worthy organizations are scrambling to help the victims of the horrific earthquake in Haiti.  There also have been reports of scams.

If you want to help and have not yet chosen a charity, I strongly recommend Episcopal Relief & Development, which has a long history of relief work in Haiti (as well as 40 other countries).  Anglicans in Haiti are affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and on its Haiti Crisis page, ERD is mobilizing support from Episcopalians around the country.

In her role as Director of Communications and Technology for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, the Web Goddess today shot and edited the moving 2-minute video above.  In the video the Bishop of Newark issues a call to action and announces a $10,000 donation from the Diocese itself, along with support for the Bishop of Haiti, who is safe, and his injured wife.  A news release has more information.

Witnessing a Step Toward Marriage Equality in NJ

kirk-nina trenton lobbying copyThe Web Goddess and I journeyed to Trenton yesterday in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples.  (The picture makes me look fatter than I am.)

Pictured in the background is our priest, Father Bernie Poppe.  A Senate committee approved the bill, which is to be voted on by the full Senate on Thursday.

My account of yesterday’s events is at Maplewood Patch.  My previous blog post on this matter has touched off a lively debate in the comments.

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