Separate and Distinct: a Reframe of the Diaconate.

I recently read a comment in an internet chat between deacons, where one of my colleagues in another diocese was complaining about her relationship with her rector. She said in passing, “…after all, aren’t we supposed to be a full and equal order?” The comment made me cringe. I’ve never liked the phrase “full and equal”. It got me thinking about how we need to retire the phrase, and replace it with something like “separate and distinct”.

The phrase “full and equal order” to describe the diaconate has always struck me as problematic. It smacks of an adversarial relationship between the priesthood and the diaconate – a relationship that is neither true nor necessary – and it stems from a sense of inferiority about the diaconate as ordained clergy.

“Full and equal” is a linguistic justification of the diaconate, not an explanation of the diaconate, and creates an understanding of the diaconate that starts from a very poor place, both for the diaconate and the priesthood.

Historically, the creation of “full and equal” is understandable. When the permanent diaconate was revived in the 1970’s, there were many who questioned the necessity of the order. Was it not simply a clerical glorification of active lay people? What would a deacon do that an active lay person doesn’t do already? The debate motivated the book, “A Full and Equal Order,” in 1981, by James M. Barnett, who wished to address the raison d’etre of the diaconate. The book, a thorough exploration and justification of the order, answered the questions surrounding the revival of the order, and it is still one of the foundational books read and studied in deacon schools of ministry.

That was 37 years ago. Today, most of the generation that questioned the need for the order is gone, and among the various denominations that ordain/set-apart people for the diaconate, the number of deacons runs into the tens of thousands. Seldom do bishops or canons hear the question, “Why do we need a deacon?” from a priest or senior warden anymore; rather, they hear “When do we get a deacon?” Though I honor Barnett’s work in helping establish the diaconate in the minds of the church, it is now time to lay aside the phrase “full and equal” and all the baggage it brings with it.

“Separate and distinct” is a phrase that far better suits the times and I suggest we adopt it. It eliminates the adversarial language inherent in “full and equal”, as well as the sense of inferiority it creates. “Separate and distinct” still juxtaposes the diaconate to the priesthood, but it naturally leads to explanations of the diaconate, not justification, and compliments the two orders instead of opposing them.

“Separate” addresses the point that deacons are not priests at all, but an order that is different in vows and nature. As people are most familiar with the priesthood and have some ideas of what a priest does, it is a natural place to start an explanation of the diaconate. We can say, “We’re different, and this is how.” We need not start from a point of justification, but rather explanation.

“Distinct” addresses those very vows and directives that distinguish the diaconate from the priesthood. We are similar in some aspects of vocation – we both preach, teach, pray, lead – but a priest’s focus is on parish community and sacrament – they are pastors of the parish community – while a deacon’s focus is on outreach, service, and supporting the pastor’s directives.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has a succinct way to describe the difference between their priesthood and their diaconate: “Word and Sacrament” for the priesthood, “Word and Service” for the diaconate. There are overlapping duties regarding preaching and teaching Scripture, but the priest focuses on the practice of sacraments while the deacon focuses on the practice of service. It is not a definitive explanation, but when you are asked in the middle of a noisy coffee hour after Sunday services to answer the question “What’s the difference between a priest and a deacon?”, it is something anyone can hear and easily understand.

The benefits of the phrase “separate and distinct” are obvious to me. It is a better explanation of our identity and role, it eliminates the issues of justification, it eliminates the sense of inferiority, and all the adversity inherent in the expression “full and equal”. I think it is time to move on from the phrase “full and equal” and recognize the phrase “separate and distinct” instead. It will serve us better.


The Deacon as Wise Fool

St.Stephen Icon

The Deacon as Wise Fool
A Pastoral Persona for the Diaconate
By Kevin J. McGrane
Published in The Anglican Theological Review,
Vol. 100, #4, Nov. 2018

Deacons often sit with the hurt and marginalized. It is in keeping with our ordination vows as deacons in the Episcopal Church, which says, “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood… You are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”1

Ever task-focused, deacons look for the tangible and concrete things we can do to respond to the needs of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:40). But once the food is served, the money given, the medicine dispensed, then what? The material needs are supplied, but the hurt and the trauma are still very much present. What kind of pastoral care can deacons bring that will respond to the needs of the hurting and traumatized?

I suggest that, if we as deacons are going to be sources of continued pastoral care beyond a simple provider of material needs, we need to look to the pastoral model of the wise fool for guidance. With some exceptions here and there, deacons are uniquely fit to practice the pastoral persona of the wise fool.

The wise fool is a clinical pastoral persona most identified and developed by the pastoral theologians Alastair V. Campbell and Donald Capps. The fool is an archetype in human culture which both Campbell and Capps view as a persona capable of rendering pastoral care. In his essay “The Wise Fool”2, Campbell describes the fool as a “necessary figure” to counterpoint essential human arrogance, pomposity, and despotism: “His unruly behavior questions the limits of order; his ‘crazy’ outspoken talk probes the meaning of ‘common sense’; his unconventional appearance exposes the pride and vanity of those around him; his foolhardy loyalty to a ‘lost’ cause undercuts prudence and self-interest.”3

Building on the concept of the “circus clown” by Heiji Faber a decade earlier, Campbell elevates the unskilled circus clown, running and bumbling among the skilled circus performers, to the shrewd critic and prophet of Shakespeare’s court jester in King Lear, who perceives the folly of others through unfiltered eyes, calling them out with the satire of the double entendre. Campbell codifies the wise fool with three dominant traits, that of simplicity, loyalty, and prophecy.

Simplicity. The wise fool is neither stupid nor a simpleton, but a person without artifice or over-weaned complexity. Some of the best examples of a person with simplicity are found in literature, such as Lear’s court jester mentioned above or Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. Whereas the court jester mocks the foibles of ego and vanity, Myshkin’s simplicity of manner exposes the insincerities and cynicism of his community. The jester hopes to shame his community back to rightness of living, the prince offers his community a way back to their true selves by modeling his way of life.4

Both fools are able to see through the errors and sins of common existence with their unique reframe of life, a reframe that does not come from education, training, or certification, but a purity of heart. Capps puts it well in his essay, “The Wise Fool Reframed”, when he says: “Wise fools tend to see problems as much less intricate and complicated. Truth is remarkably simple. Errors and falsity are unnecessarily complex.”5

Loyalty. The wise fool’s willingness to disregard self for the benefit of others, even when there is no benefit to the fool, is an enigma to most people. Lear’s fool followed him into total exile and poverty when everyone else had abandoned him. Blind loyalty and love is at the center of Jesus’ death on the cross, and such sacrifice is often found at the heart of his teachings – to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow him, with zero worldly guarantee that what Jesus promised in exchange was anything but delusion. Campbell says of loyalty: “All the fools for Christ’s sake can know is that to be true to themselves they must try to be loyal to Christ, and that must mean putting love and service to others first in line.”6

Prophecy. The more engaging, robust aspect of the fool is that of prophet. Not a prophet that foretells, but as a forth-teller – pointing to the signs of the times and proclaiming divine revelation about them. As vital as simplicity and loyalty are to the persona of the fool, they are passive in nature. Speaking prophetically, in contrast, is an action that demands the attention of friend and foe alike. The fool as prophet has the audacity to call out her cultural superiors for their mendacity, cruelty, or heartlessness. This requires both courage and faith. The fool as prophet often speaks truth to power, but also truth to apathy, or truth to inertia. Speaking from the margins of society, the fool sometimes employees drama, or satire, or odd behavior. Campbell says: “The whole point of prophecy is that it does not fit in with the ‘common sense’ assumptions of the day. It cuts cross-grained to earthly powers and authority, announcing God’s judgment upon it.”7

Capps warns us of the dangers of prophecy, that buffoonery and satire can often be heartless itself, a weapon to protect the perpetrator of satire against any genuine human involvement.8 As essential as satire and humor are to the persona of the fool, they cannot be allowed to degenerate to ridicule – ridicule is rooted in humiliation, which is soul-killing. Wise fools are in the business of appealing to the soul, not killing it. Capps shows that to inoculate oneself from this pitfall, the truly wise fool understands that human life is not hopelessly complex or profound, but paradoxical to the core. A wise fool is one who sees the paradox of her own life as clearly as she sees it in others. She speaks not only about her community, but herself as well, sharing in the sting of prophecy.

With this brief description of the wise fool in mind, how does it segue with the vocation of the deacon? I suggest that deacons, by virtue of their formation and clerical parameters of authority, fit the pastoral persona of the wise fool quite well.

Simplicity. Generally, deacons are not educated in seminaries or schools of theology, but rather diocesan schools created specifically for deacons and lay minister, called Episcopal Schools of Ministry (ESM). Graduates from these institutes receive no M.Div., Master’s degree, or CPE certification. Many deacons are well-educated, but not in the same way or depth as a priest. If a deacon receives formal pastoral education at all, it is usually Unit One of a CPE program and that is all. Like Faber’s circus clown persona, we appear to be the unskilled performer among the high-wire acts of the rest of the clergy.

What’s more, a deacon does not bring any ecclesial authority to a pastoral relationship that a priest can bring – deacons do not have any authority, only duty. Whereas a priest possesses the faculties to absolve, bless and consecrate, the deacon has none of these faculties. One time I was asked by a nephew to perform his wedding, and when I informed him that I did not have the authority to perform the ceremony, he blinked in confusion and said, “Well…then what good are you?”

Not only does a deacon lack the faculties of a priest, but we will never be rector or priest in charge, never be a bishop, or never sit on a vestry, by virtue of our ordination vows. Ecclesiastically, we are powerless.

Deacons do bring to the table a lifetime of lived experience, as deacons often commence their vocational careers later in life than most priests, and many of us have degrees and training useful to our ministries. For the most part, though, there is a simplicity in the making of a deacon which personifies the wise fool as the unskilled, amateur volunteer.

Loyalty. A deacon is non-stipendiary in the Episcopal Church – she works for free. As such, there is no financial interest that compels her dedication and loyalty to her duty – only love of God and God’s people. As non-professionals, we have no employment contract, only a Letter of Agreement with the rector that spells out some duties and a weekly schedule. There is no salary, no benefits, no insurance, and no paid time off. The priestly vocation is both a vocation and a profession, as it should be; the deacon’s vocation is vocation only. It is fidelity to the vocation and our vows that motivate us in our work.

As we only have duties – neither authority nor benefits – we see the duties as rewards themselves. In the examination of a candidate for the order of Deacon, it lists our special ministry of servanthood toward the poor, as well as the study of Scripture, modeling a life of redemptive love, assisting in the worship of the community.9 This is pure loyalty, bereft of any self-interest. As the bishop asks the candidate in the liturgy or ordination: “Will you in all things seek not your glory but the glory of the Lord Christ?” 10

Such selflessness is contrary to the value-for-value exchange so honored and sought after in modern society, and it is an enigma to most people.

Prophecy. Of the various duties the deacon carries, one that stands out among the others, one which seems contrary to the humility of the first two, is the duty of prophet. In the Examination of the ordination liturgy, the bishop commands the candidate, “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”11

As forth-tellers, deacons speak forth on behalf of the marginalized and voiceless, calling upon the greater church to render love, compassion, and justice on those living in the margins. Deacons speak from a unique position of prophecy, based on their own personal experience living among those who they serve. Our moral imagination, as described by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes 12, allows us to flip the frame described in our vows, requiring that the deacon also bring to the world the needs, concerns, and the hopes of the Church.

A growing segment of society and their representatives regards the poor not as people of pity, or people exploited and abused, but objects of scorn; that their poverty and oppression are their own fault and they are to be punished for it. Two recent statements by U.S. Senators are examples. Sen. Chuck Grassley – Iowa, in speaking about eliminating the estate tax, said, “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” His associate, Sen. Orin Hatch – Utah, said regarding defunding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, “…I believe in helping those who cannot help themselves but would if they could. I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”13 Such are the attitudes of U.S. senators regarding the less fortunate and sick children; it is indicative of an entire movement in society towards the poor. As the church is one of the few institutions left to see this for the perversion it is, the deacon is to speak forth to the world as much as to the church, calling it out and calling it to its better nature. The deacon, therefore, must always speak prophetically.

By virtue of a deacon’s natural simplicity, loyalty, and prophetic voice, they fit the persona of the wise fool quite well. They are the amateur volunteer with no authority; they are the non-compensated servant who serves out of selfless love; they are those who speak forth from the margins, to disturb, educate, and motivate.

If we were to search for a concrete example of the deacon as the wise fool, we need not look any further than St. Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was the founder of the Friars Minor in 1209, whose brotherhood was approved that same year by Pope Innocent III. Innocent granted the brotherhood authority to preach and wear the tonsure. Francis himself was ordained a deacon sometime thereafter.

The history of Francis fits perfectly with the three hallmarks of the wise fool. He had no formal training as a cleric. His spirituality was self-discovered through prayer and reading of the New Testament; he was without artifice and had a reputation for a pure heart. He was not a paid cleric. Francis embraced what he called Lady Poverty, living by the work of his own hands or by begging alms; his dedication to his vocation was based on love, not careerism. He was granted authority to preach. He became a street preacher and often a critic of his own society; he was one of the first church figures to openly criticize the Crusades; he called upon his community to pacifism; he did all this not from the palace of a cardinal, but from the streets and alleys of the towns and villages, i.e., from the margins.

During his lifetime, he was identified as “God’s Troubadour”, or “God’s Clown”, or “God’s Fool”. His “Admonitions” are filled with the simplicity, humility, and insight of the wise fool, summarized in his famous slogan: “…what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more.”14

Yet, from this persona of God’s fool came rivers of good will and wisdom that have flowed into the world for over eight centuries now. It has called people to repentance, reformation, and reconciliation, as well as simplicity, mercy, peace, and justice.

All this has a direct bearing on how a deacon can bring pastoral care as the wise fool to those he/she serves.

Like Francis, the deacon offers pastoral care not face-to-face like a professional counselor, but side-by-side as the deacon lives and works among the people he/she serves, sharing their lives and modeling the call to our better selves as disciples of Jesus. By our presence and our simple openness, we can be what Capps calls “agents of hope”15 and introduce people to their tomorrows. Like Francis, the deacon does not bring great professional training or expertise to the table, but rather great personal life experience and deep formation from the “school of prayer”. Like Francis, the deacon is without worldly compensation, but is rich in the grace that abounds when hearts with pure intention seek out the hurting and forgotten. Like Francis, the deacon preaches the Gospel and prophesizes to the world, calling them to a better way of life. The deacon not only speaks truth to power from the margins, but also truth to apathy, truth to inertia, and hope to a hurting world. As Capps says: “The simple fool carries no baggage when another seeks help, no technique, no ‘pastoral medicine bag’. When pretense is stripped aside, all we fools have to offer one another is a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything. Few of us manage to be so foolish.”16

Francis could only speak like he did from the powerlessness of the margins, like the wise fool he was – he saw the emptiness of wealth for he had experienced the emptiness of wealth; the folly of war and violence for he had experienced the folly of war and violence; the corruption of power because he had experienced the corruption of power. Francis was no concrete garden statue standing among the rose bushes in the backyard. He was a world-weary wise fool who saw the paradox of life and all the humor therein. Francis laughed at the paradox of life, and cried as often as he laughed.

Deacons would do well to consider and study the pastoral model of the wise fool in the life of their vocation. There is much to learn and use there.

1. The Book of Common Prayer (n.p.: Seabury Press, 1979), 543
2. Alastair V. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” in Robert C. Dykstra, ed., Images of Pastoral Care (St. Louis, MO.: Chalice Press, 2005), 94.
3. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 95
4. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 97
5. Donald Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” in Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, 115.
6. Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” 100.
7. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 102.
8. Capps, “The Wise Fool Reframed,” 119.
9. Book of Common Prayer, 543.
10. Book of Common Prayer, 544.
11. Book of Common Prayer, 543.
12.  Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996), 86.
13., “Two Quotes from GOP Senators Explain the GOP Tax Bill,” Gregory Kreig, Dec. 4, 2017.
14. Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, Francis and Clare – The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 33.
15 Donald Capps, “The Agent of Hope,” in Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, 188.
16. Campbell, “The Wise Fool,” 105.

Introducing the Lightening Point

IMG_1891My friend Mary Anne, a retired journalist and editor, took me to task one morning at the church office for my use of exclamation points in my writing. “Did you ever think about using words to express yourself rather than exclamation points?” she asked. It’s just the kind of blunt question I’d expect from a reporter and I loved it.

I replied with a grin, “The only reason why I use so many exclamation points is because English punctuation hasn’t provided me anything stronger.”

Later it occurred to me that I was correct, not merely sarcastic. The English language is reported to have the largest vocabulary of any modern, living language, but it’s punctuation marks have not changed in centuries.

There are 14 punctuation marks commonly used: the period, the question mark, the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, quotation marks, ellipsis, and the exclamation mark. Nothing more.

Yet, we English-speakers are quick to adopt or invent a word to suit our purposes, from Milton’s “pandemonium” in Paradise Lost to the hipster lingo such as “hangry”. So, why can’t I create a new punctuation mark that exceeds the strength of the traditional exclamation mark? No reason that I can think of! So, dear readers, I present to you for the first time in history the newest addition to English punctuation: “lightening point”.


It will revolutionize the language and literature of the world. No more need for multiple exclamation points to end a sentence, or all those pesky adjectives and adverbs to clutter up the copy. The lightening point will take our thoughts and prayers to new heights of passion. With the stroke of one key, all kinds of new meaning can be expressed. For example:

“But Lydia, darling, I love you⚡️”
“You dirty rat⚡️ I’m gonna drill you full of lead⚡️”

See? The meaning and intensity of such mundane and trite are elevated to new levels of emotion and truth. I use emoji lightening bolts in my copy here, as my lightening point does not exist in my word processing program. I am currently in negotiations with several companies to remedy the situation.

One issue they raise is the keyboard. Currently, keyboards use the universal qwerty arrangement of letters, punctuation, and symbols on the billions of keyboards out there. “How do you propose solve that problem?” they ask.

I have the solution: we get rid of the letter “q”.

Q is an unnecessary letter and not very attractive looking anyway. Capitalized, it looks like an O with a cigarette in its mouth, and a lower case q looks like a lower case g that threw its back out. It can be replaced easily with the letter K. We can replace the q key with a lightening point key, saving those billions of keyboards, and start spelling words with a “kw” instead of “qu”, like kwick, kwiet, and kwilt “. Most words look much more attractive with the letter K in it anyway, like, say, Kevin.

So, I’ve solved all the outstanding issues and we now can proceed to use the lightening point as the newest edition to punctuation. It will be historic ⚡️ Revolutionary, even⚡️ A hundred years from now, Alex Trebeck will ask the question on Final Jeopardy, “The year the lightening point was invented”, and the answer will be “2018⚡️”

Reclaiming the Vulture

We must change the name of the turkey vulture, aka buzzard, and rename them “sky gliders”.  They are extraordinary creatures who have been linguistically maligned and need to be rehabilitated with a more appropriate name.

The turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, also known in the American west as the buzzard, has been labeled with a phonetically irritating word that grates the ear like a dull chainsaw.  The words themselves have degenerated to insults, describing decrepit old men or rapacious opportunists. These same names are used to identify some of the world’s greatest gliders, capable of sailing along air thermals for hours with nary a flap of their wings.

Few sights are more tranquil than watching the dark shallow V of their wings, spanning 6 feet wide, circling overhead in search of their next meal.  Their pinion feathers look like fingers stretched out, feeling for the gusts of wind upon which they sail. They bank, loop, and circle in their silent dance, and when it seems they have reached the end of their ride like a surfer whose wave is about to crest out upon the beach, they miraculously find another thermal and soar back into the sky, a black kite against the clouds.

Occasionally, they fly so close overhead I can see the red skin of their featherless heads. Ornithologists say their baldness allows them to jam their heads into the carcasses of carrion and slide back out without the mess and potential infections of head feathers.  They also have some of the most corrosive stomach acids of any bird on earth and they need it, as they eat the rotting flesh of dead animals as a primary food source. They have developed their digestive system into a defense mechanism, being able to projectile-vomit the contents of their stomachs several feet.  The stench and acid burn are highly effective against predators.

We are ungrateful to these garbage collectors of Nature, who clean up the carcasses of the dead, and we do not appreciate the beauty and skill of their flight prowess.  They provide hours upon hour of entertainment and meditation to those of us who bother to stop, look up, and appreciate their beauty gliding silently overhead. I know of no other bird who can match them for grace, elegance, and even spiritual renewal.  If beauty will save us, they are part of the saving. So let us crown the sky gliders with their new name, and bury the names of vulture and buzzard forever.

My Dad and the Television Age

We were the first family on the block to own a tv set.  Pop was uninterested in spending money to buy one until he heard that baseball games were broadcast on tv, so he bought one that weekend.

It was the size of a family van and had a screen no bigger than the window of a microwave, but it was high-tech for its day.  When Pop turned it on, I swore I could see the lights dim in the house.

It took a good five minutes to warm up, it hummed like it had a motor idling inside somewhere, and when the picture finally appeared, it was a grainy black and white.  But there it was: a live baseball game from St. Louis, or Chicago, or New York.  Amazing – the Television Age had arrived at the McGrane household.

Games became a neighborhood event.  Several of the men on the block came over to watch the game, and they often brought a six-pack of beer to contribute to the gathering.  They knew the soft spot in Pop’s heart – a cold beer.  I remember men crowding into the front room of the small house on Garesche’ Avenue – all of them smelling of beer, cigarettes, and sweat – chatting about the game or complaining about the pitching, the calls, or whatever.  When the game was over and the beer ran out, it was time to go and everyone walked home.

Pop also discovered tv western shows.  He was a fan of the American genre of wild -west tales, and he watched shows like “Zane Gray Theater” and “Gun Smoke” nearly every night.  Mom would watch as well, but always became upset by the inevitable saloon brawl scene. She would wince and grunt as the bad guy would swing a hay-maker at the good guy, who would fall backwards into a bar table and smash it to pieces.  Her “Oh!” and “Ack!” with each punch would drive Pop to distraction.  As a kid, I wondered why saloon furniture was so flimsy.  Every time my brother Harry threw me or Denny into the furniture at home, it would just scoot across the floor, leaving large scratch marks on the floor and really ticking off Mom.

Anyway, the tv brought great sport and high drama to our home, as well as most of the neighborhood.  Soon, other families in the little blue-collar community began to buy tv sets, and one by one the game day visitors began to disappear.  Uncles Larry and Uncle Jack still came over with Aunt Pat and Aunt Helen, and often stayed for dinner afterwards, but the McGrane tv community event, which stood in for the village bonfire around which the village community gathered so long ago, passed on.

I wonder whatever happened to that boat of a tv…that thing was huge…I think Pop is sitting somewhere still watching a Cards vs. Cubs game on it, with folks in the neighborhood gathered around…  Happy Father’s Day, Pop!  Have another-‘un!

In Praise of Soap

I stumbled across soap on YouTube.

I was wrapping up our Bible Study class at Good Shepherd for the summer and I was thinking how the program might have been better.  The parishioners were terrific, but my choice of study program not so much. Frankly, it was a bit boring. That’s when soap caught my attention.

While looking for some Bach to listen to on YouTube Music, a short video popped up in my feed with the title “How to Study the Bible Using the SOAP Method”.

“Soap?” I thought.  “What do they mean, ‘soap’?”  

I popped it open and watched a 10 minute video made by a delightful young woman named Asheritah Ciuciu.  SOAP is an acronym that represents the words Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray, a four step process to engage the Bible in what looks to this Anglican’s eye as a 21st century version of lectio divina.

It is deceptively simple.  All you need is a Bible, a notebook, and a pen.  I’m not going to describe in detail here how you go about studying the Bible using this method, for Ms. Ciuciu’s video does an excellent job explaining it.  Please find and watch it. What came to my mind, though, while learning this method, was: “This is lectio divina with a pen and a notebook.” Lectio divina, the ancient method of studying the Bible contemplatively.

The more I examined SOAP, the more intrigued I became.  There are dozens of YouTubes and websites on this Bible study program – some good, others not so good – but they all revolve around the same, basic concepts of Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray.  I thought it would be a good skill for class participants to take along with them for the summer break, and when I presented the idea to the class, the students’ responses were positive.

I cancelled my last three planned class readings and we explored the SOAP method together instead.  We discovered that it not only works for individualized study, but can work very well for a group who wants to get together once a week and share one of their daily SOAP studies to the group, going round-robin fashion in a get-together.

What surprised me by end of week #3 was SOAP’s effect on my own spiritual life.

A daily practice of directed, intentional Bible study is a most powerful spiritual practice.  More than just reading Scripture, SOAP is a deeper engagement with the Bible and a new twist on the ancient practice of lectio divina.  Lectio divina is a slow, purposeful, contemplative reading of Sacred Scripture, with specific steps in the process. SOAP essentially does the same thing, but asks you to write your meditations in a personal journal, forcing you to write down what lectio divina asks you to simply keep locked in your head.  

In working with it, the SOAP method melds nicely with my own personal quirk of thinking with a pen in my hand.  Searching for the just the right word to write in my notebook slows me down; it requires that I dig deeper into myself and listen more closely to the voice of the Holy Spirit.   The result is reading Scripture in a deeper, consistent, and more challenging way for me. It reminds me not only of lectio divina, but also has elements of the Jesuit daily examen, in which the meditator answers questions in the examen such as, “What’s been happening in me?….What is being asked of me?…”

The search for and identification of “just the right word” is to articulate the thought revealed in one’s study of Scripture – many linguists and poets pose that thoughts becomes actual thoughts when we can finally express them with words: you cannot have a finished thought without the right words with which to express it.  In finding the right words, you have discovered the very thought itself, upon which you can then marvel and feed.

The SOAP method requires that I find just the right words to jot down what I am hearing and feeling from the Holy Spirit as I read Sacred Scripture.  I then discover anew what I am reading, day by day, and it changes me. I have adopted SOAP as part of my daily spiritual practice.

There are lots of happy, youthful YouTubes about SOAP that we can watch, but do not be dismissive of them.  SOAP is a serious way to encounter Sacred Scripture and hear the voice of God in our studies. It has become a part of my own spiritual practice and has greatly enhanced my spiritual life.  Give it a try. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.


Our home sits at the top of the ridge, and we get to see quite a bit of open sky here at Windy Hill.

That is a bit unusual for the Ozarks, made up primarily of “hills and hollers” covered with old growth hickory forest. If you are lucky enough, sometimes your land has a treeless glade that sits atop the ridge and you can see miles and miles of sky…like Windy Hill.

I’ve often thought that the best vistas are out west, in the Rockies or along the coast. There are many spots there where the vistas are so vast it seems the entire continent lies before you.  Not so, here in the Ozarks. The landscape is more intimate here, with hills and hollows and aquifer-fed streams beneath the canopy shade of maples, oaks, hickorys, and elms. If the western landscape was meant for the extrovert aeries of a Machu Piccu or a Shangri-La, the Ozarks were meant for the introverted friaries of a Portiuncula or an Abbey of Gethsemane.  Outward bound in the west; inward bound in the Ozarks.

Though the streams and the hollows offer great beauty in their mystery, the clouds that drift overhead are often breathtaking. They are armadas, islands, veritable continents of white, gray, blue, pearl, purple, yellow, orange, red, rose, and colors for which I have no name. I can sit in the sunshine and see dark sheets of rain falling miles away. The ragged edges of a storm front looks like the edges of a torn sheet of pastel tissue paper.

They sail by, stacked and staggered in living 3D, and they are never, ever the same. They float in the sky, but are strong enough to block out the sun. Some days they gather together on the landscape, resting in the hollows, and the locals called that ground fog, but I know they are actually lost clouds.

Meteorologists have given them names according to their formations. Lovely names such as Cumulus and Cirrus and Nimbostratus. They say their formations can help foretell the weather, like astrologers reading the stars to determine our fates. No doubt the meteorologists can, in their own way, read the sky and clouds. I hope they also love the clouds, like a painter or a poet loves clouds. Clouds are such a gift in so many ways, not the least of which is their beauty and their mystery. To know their function is good; to contemplate their mystical meanings is even better.