Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Review of Lamott's Grace(Eventually)

Thoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books 2007, 253 Pages, 24.95

Faith and funny don’t usually go together. Sincere Christians are among the funniest people I know, but sadly many Christians hide not only their humor but also their inner lives and sins. San Francisco, Bay Area, Californian, Presbyterian, Anne Lamott laughs at herself, her religion and the peccadilloes of others, friends, families and politicians. In that process she models authenticity. Here is a real person laughing, crying and praying – in her own razor sharp style.

She tackles a hard one. Learn how to assist in killing a friend, read her chapter “At Death’s Window.” Want to know how not to ski? Read “Ski Patrol.” For us interested in church and children, read Wailing Wall.” Read every word of every chapter for joy and sorrow, a human experience.

Churches call for people to confess their sins. We do that mostly quietly, to our selves or whisper the choicer ones to a priest. Not Anne Lamott. She confesses to her readers. Alcohol, dope, child out of wedlock, desire to kill, inability to forgive and on and on are mentioned with wit, self-awareness and not caring about what others think of her. I see her as a model Christian, radically imperfect, sharing herself with her community, open to grace and willing to live an imperfect life fully and with a modest about of adorable whining.

The only thing wrong with the book is that it is too short. It leaves me screaming for encore and more.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Religious Experience - Spirituality

This is a review of the new biography of William James, author of
"Varieties of Reigious Experience"

William James:
In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
By Robert D. Richardson
Houghton Mifflin 2006 521 pages $30.00

Religion, philosophy, psychology, physiology, and medicine were William James life long interests. This biography deals with them in reverse order. James began a peripatetic life studying here and there in New England and Europe in grammar school through college. He got a degree in medicine at Harvard and then taught there most of his adult life. Born in 1842 in New York City, he died in 1910 in New Hampshire.

Best known for his best selling Varieties of Religious Experience, he did not think of himself as a religious man in any conventional sense. Apparently he was not baptized nor a member of any denominational church, unusual for a man in the 19th Century. He was married to Alice all of his life and had five children and a famous brother, novelist Henry James. He enjoyed poor health and tried all sorts of unconventional cures in the United States and abroad. He had serious heart problems, although he was robust and energetic as a scholar, hiker and traveler. He loved the out of doors and escaped often to Vermont and the Adirondacks when he could get away from teaching at Harvard.

He moved from his interest in pure science to the healing possibilities of psychology and ended teaching philosophy and psychology in his career at Harvard.

Invited to give the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, he prepared for two agonizing years for the work that made him rich and even more famous, namely Varieties…. The lectures were given in 1902. He lectured about and then wrote his conviction that humans have had powerful religious experiences. He had one of his own in the mountains of New York. “The moon rose and hung above the scene before midnight, leaving only a few stars visible, and I got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description.” As a scientist he had always sensed a religious awareness in others, never put it down and always took interest and examined the experiences as they came up. He frequented séances and showed many as charlatans, but was still interested in the ideas and possibilities.

Richardson writes, …[James had a] “moment of certain but inarticulate knowledge that real religion is religious feeling, and that it can be experienced by anyone, even a sleepless wanderer in the gorgeous Adirondack night.”

James’s style was to make a point and then provide the listener and reader with accounts by famous and not so famous people witnessing to a religious experience, Like Tolstoy, Bunyan, St. Augustine, Emerson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Luther, Sophocles, Goethe, Spinoza, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, Mary Baker Eddy, Walt Whitman, St. Teresa, Plato, Havelock Ellis, Kant, Thoreau and George Fox, a partial list from the text. I didn’t find any Episcopalians in the list. He amassed testimony, “fifty-five different sources are cited or quoted in his lecture on mysticism alone.”

The biography does not skip over James’s view of the dark side of life. One lecture is “The Sick Soul” but another is discussion of healthy-mindedness. James is not interested in the institutional side of religion, but the experience of religion.

His two fundamental teachings about religion are something is wrong and something is to be made right. James was a virulent critic of American war fever in the 1890’s when Americans attacked Cuba and the Philippines and set up protectorates over the will of the people.

James saw the connection between sex and religious experience. He says,
“The key to the universe lies in the body of the lover. When lovers bare their bodies they have sex. When lovers bare their souls they have Godhead.” “If you are touched by love or desire, you are touched by the divine.”

James the philosopher points out, “You take your life between the God of reason and the God of unreason.”

Richardson quotes Isaac Beshiva Singer in explaining James’s view of free will. “Do you believe in free will? Of course I do. Do I have a choice?”

James believed in action, he did not care much about motivation.
“By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” He quotes General William Booth of the Salvation Army on helping outcasts. “The first step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human cares enough for them to take an interest in whether they are to rise or sink.”

On life: “Lives based on having are less free than those based on either doing or being.”

There are thousands of conjunctions in which a wealth bound person must be a slave, while a man for whom poverty has no terror is a free man.”

“Humanity…refuses to enjoy what others don’t have.”

“The world survives by those who have generosity of spirit but is ruled by those who have none.”

James also loved a good story:

A Montana settler who met a grizzly bear so formidable that he fell to his knees saying, “Oh, Lord, I ain’t ever asked you for anything before and I ain’t gonna ask you for nothing now. But for pity sake, Oh Lord, don’t help the grizzly bear.”

Billy Sunday said, “What the church needed was fighting men of God, not “hog-jowled, weasel-eyed, sponge-columned, mushy-fisted, jelly-spined, pussy-footing, four-flushing Charlotte-russe Christians.”

This is a valuable book for those of us interested in religion. James’s work brings us back to the roots of religion, the experience of the divine, a sense of transformation, a physical and emotional response to the powers we sense beyond our own life, as delicious and important as that is.

The book helps the preacher wrestle with the intellectual problems of mysticism and the religious experience. James gives substance to the ideas of religion, going beyond, yet living in the scientific world. He provides a wonderful overview of the religious, philosophical and scientific discussions of the 19th Century. I enjoyed the book, but it is not an easy read. James the man shines brightly and I’d love to have had a chat with him. I am sure I’d be overwhelmed with his intellect and wisdom.
James does not give much room for the intellectual wrestling with doubt, theology and liturgy as areas of life where one may have a religious experience. New England Protestant churches of the 19th century were not breeding grounds for art, music and finery where religious experience might occur. My own religious experience happened in church and liturgy as well as in listening through the logical positivism debates of the 1940’s and ‘50s. It deepened in the rights movements for African Americans and homosexuals in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.

This biography is valuable in putting in perspective the spirituality movement in our time. Others and I see the emphasis on interior experience becoming more important than action in the world. James was a man of the world, an intellectual, scholar and a professor at Harvard convinced of the values of varieties of religious experience.

Let me close with some words by James from the Gifford Lectures. “The mother-sea and fountainhead of all religion lies in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in the very widest sense. All theologies and all ecclesiasticisms are secondary growth superimposed.” The mystical experiences “have no proper intellectual deliverance of their own, but belong to a region deeper, and more vital and more practical than that which the intellect in habits….We are thus made convincingly aware of the presence of a sphere of life larger than our usual consciousness….”


Friday, March 23, 2007

Answering Prayer

A Montana settler who met a grizzly bear so formidable that he fell to his knees saying, "Oh Lord I ain’t ever asked you for anything before and I ain’t gonna ask you for nothing now. But for pity sake, Oh Lord, don’t help the grizzly bear.” -William James

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The March issue of the Nob Hill Gazette carries a picture of Dean Alan Jones and Bishop William Swing at swank fundraisers for worthy causes. It also carries my letter to the editor of that monthly. I am not sure I like being seen in that company.

To: Nob Hill Gazette;

Thank you for the fine story "Miracle on Jones Street" by Ed Schwartz. (February 2007) The feeding of the thousands by the people at St. Anthony’s Dining Room is a wondrous daily event.

I was reminded of the article when I happened on a sign on a stairway in Convent of the Sacred Heart High School where the tuition is $27,000 plus per child. It was a quote by Dom Helder Camara. "If I give food to the poor, they call me saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me of communist ".

The Gazette story mentions that a fundraiser will be held in October to aid St. Anthony’s expand their facilities so that even more hungry people can be fed. Many of the social events reported by the Gazette raise money for worthy causes including feeding the hungry.

The deeper question is why are people hungry – homeless and needing medical care? It is not a communist question, it is a human question. Capitalism, fabulous as it is, always leaves poverty in its wake.

I do believe that smart capitalist business leaders and government can change the laws and aspects of the society to make sure that poverty and its consequences are eradicated.

Bankers, real estate brokers, business executives, designers, stock brokers, doctors, lawyers, movie makers, vintners, architects, hedge funders to name few have the power to adjust the capitalist system to take care of the poor. These are the people whose pictures and events adorn the pages of the Gazette. These are the capitalists who could, if the would, nudge the society to make sure no one is hungry.

Robert Warren Cromey

Presenting Jesus

This is a response to an article in The Living Church on Evangelism without specifics

To: The Living Church

How to Present Jesus Christ

Evangelism is presenting Jesus Christ ….as Savior…. as Lord….in the fellowship of the Church.” R.J. Levenson, (TLC 3/11/07) challenges the readers to a renewal of the basics of evangelism. I want to put some specifics on how to do that.

Jesus the incarnate one means that God loves his creation so much that he comes to us in the man Jesus. This means we follower of Jesus are to love and serve God’s world bringing justice for women, homosexuals, minorities and all oppressed people.

Here is how to present Jesus as Savior. We preach that following Jesus is the way we are saved from the sin and sadness that is with us constantly in out daily life. Meditating and praying to Jesus is a way to connect to him and to God.

Jesus as Lord is like Christ the King. Royalty is to rule with justice, bring unity and healing to the people. We preach and teach Jesus as the worker for justice, people protected from predators, prisons that are humane. Royalty and governments have the power to end capital punishment and commute death sentences.

Jesus healed so may people. Here is call for health care, health insurance and medicine for all people in church and state.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace means we present Jesus as a peacemaker, against war and our call is stop the present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by all peaceful means.

Jesus feeds the multitudes. We in the church are called to do all we can to abolish hunger wherever it is found. It involves not only providing food but also to insure the climate we pollute does not cause crops to fail.

Jesus the sacrificed one means that followers of Jesus make sacrifices of time, money, talent and reputation to proclaim the values Jesus taught. Sometimes we may have to give our life to those values.

Proclaiming Jesus to the world is our goal. When we connect the values and ministry of Jesus to the issues and concerns of our times and lives, those outside the church will take note that we are Christians and known for our love. They will be moved to join the fellowship of the church.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Are You A Christian?

Are You a Christian?

My friend Adam asked me this question the other day. It took me aback for a while and I began to think about it.

I think he meant am I a good Christian, virtuous and ethical. I answered quickly that of course I am a Christian, I was baptized and that is the only way one can become a Christian. He replied, “Isn’t that kind of legalistic?”

Baptism in most churches is the initiation rite by which one becomes a member of the Christian Church. A child or adult has water splashed on them and someone says “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It is usually an ordained person but it can also be a layperson if necessity dictates, like an emergency or imminent death.

Baptists and some other denominations say that one must have had a personal experience of Jesus before one can be a member of those churches. The experience precedes the baptismal ceremony, which usually includes dunking the person under the water.

The legalistic answer is correct. You can be a very good Jew or Muslim but you are not a Christian. If you got baptized as a child and became an atheist, a Jew or a Muslim, you probably are on the roles of some church even now unless you have specifically asked to be dropped from membership.

The legalistic answer includes the awareness of many Christians who are or have been bad people – Hitler, Stalin, the present incumbent of the White House and his henchpeople. These are all baptized Christians, children of God, and members of the worldwide, multi-faceted, multi-denominational Church.

The legalistic answer includes all baptized Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, National Orthodox groups, Mormons and the myriad other Christian denominations that require baptism to become members. We are all Christians. By the way, not all these denominations recognize the others as Christian.

The question underlying Adam’s query is “Are you a good Christian?” That makes it even more complicated. Some good Christians find abortion, homosexuality, birth control, pre-marital sex, gambling, dancing and masturbation sinful, bad and wrong. Other Christians do not. So who are the good Christians?

Most Christians at least give lip service for caring for the poor, hungry, homeless and sick. But also many Atheists, Jews, Muslims and others also want to help the needy.

Jesus called on people to love one another. But all good people think we should love and care for one another.

My own belief is that Christians and all people are a combination of good and evil. We all want to be good people but we fail at being good perfectly. We do good sometimes, maybe even most of the time, but we often end up hurting ourselves or people we love and care about. On a social level we think it is good to have a car. Yet we know that too many cars are polluting the air we breathe. Yet we will drive anyway. There are some that think that giving cash to poor nations ends up ruining their economy based on agriculture and communal living. Yet we believe we should give money to help the needy anyway.

Moral choice is almost ambiguous. Evil often happens when we try to do good. It was good to oppose Hitler and Communism our government and people thought. Yet millions of people were killed, cities ruined, countries decimated. Maybe the ends justify the means.

Sadly, I think that is just the way it is. We take what comes.

I can only really only speak for myself in answering the question, “Are you a good Christian?”

Risking sounding smug and self-righteous, I can say, yes, I am a good Christian. I am a loving person, care for and want to help others. I spend time, money and energy fighting for justice for blacks, homosexuals, Palestinians, sexual freedom and peace. I do not do this perfectly. Some are offended by stands I have taken. People have been hurt by my behavior.

Being a good Christian means repenting and asking for forgiveness when I have hurt others. Sometimes that works, other time is doesn’t, I don’t always get forgiven and sometimes I fail to forgive. I am a good and imperfect human being and a Christian.

I am also a worshipping Christian. I know that God loves me. My community forgives me and following Jesus, the revolutionary, inspires me.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Good Porno

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

To the Editor of the SF Examiner:

Pornography has a positive side. Psychologist Bill Perry (SF Examiner 3-6-07) says porno is bad for people. I am a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Priest of the Episcopal Church and have found sexually explicit films and video helpful for people who are sexually dysfunctional. I and other therapists have suggested viewing porn films helpful in re-stimulating sexual awareness in gay and straight couples.

Studies of the effects of pornography on adults and even children are not absolutely clear that such viewing is harmful. Porn is a billion dollar industry indicating millions of Americans buy and watch porn. Few of them can be called ill or criminal.

Furthermore, images of nude men and women can be very aesthetically pleasing, porn is one way for people to enjoy the human body.

Robert Warren Cromey

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Preaching Made Simple

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Preaching Made Simple

Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcasts, Sunday mornings at 7:30 AM, KOIT 96.5 FM in San Francisco especially to listen to the regular 2 and ½ minute sermon. The content is pretty schmaltzy but the form is superb. It is a simple one point and one-illustration talk. It is a fine model for preachers. The speaker chooses one point – love, justice, compassion etc. and tells a short story illustrating the point.

This morning he told the story of a Tony, Down’s Syndrome teen who got new clothes to go to the Philippines with his mother. When they got there they witnessed the aftermath of a hurricane, which left hundreds of people soaked, muddy, torn and injured. When they go to their hotel, Tony went to his room, put on his old clothes and went to the front desk with a plastic bag and talked haltingly to the clerk and asked that his new clothes be given to the displaced and soaked people who needed them. All were moved by this simple act of love.

Week after week the Mormon speaker finds simple stories to illustrate the point he wishes to make. We Anglican preachers have the luxury of twelve to fifteen minute sermons to elucidate a passage of scripture, find a sentence that summarizes what we want to say, illustrate the point, make a call to action and get over with it. The temptation is to get too complex, make too many points and dribble over all four Biblical passage read in the liturgy.

My wife Ann is an ethnic Mormon, now Episcopalian, and we both love choral music. Listening to the program over the years I began to appreciate the skill of the simple preaching.

I am sending this to clergy to help our preaching. I am sending it to lay people as a guide to what makes a good sermon.