Spirit’s work in the slaughterhouse

By Donald Schell

Much that I’m seeing and hearing outside church makes me look back to celebrate (or worry at) what we’re doing in church on Sunday and in our faith communities. Could these unexpected prophetic voices hint at how the Spirit blows where she will to make all things new? And when we meet the Spirit outside church, is she challenging how we do church work? What I see outside makes me wonder where the Spirit moves (and doesn’t) in our church practice of mission, community-building, and adult formation.

Recently these glimpses of the Spirit at work outside church moved me:

– HBO’s award winning biopic ‘Temple Grandin,’ on the hard life and huge gifts of the autistic Ph.D. who overturned a whole generation of experts’ settled conclusions about autism while she radically altering our treatment of cattle in the U.S.

– the NPR story of the Vipassna Buddhist meditation program for lifers in Donaldson Prison in Alabama

– National Geographic’s documentary on atheist neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s research on stress in baboon communities in Kenya and his wholly unexpected discoveries when a disaster moved one baboon community toward a active teaching of compassionate, collaborative behavior

– “Fresh Air’s” interview with Matthew Alexander, author of Kill or Capture, How a Special Operations Task Force took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.

These stories have come back to me again and again as I participate in ongoing conversation on NAECED’s list-serve (NAECED is the National Association of Episcopal Christian Education Directors) and have been helping shape and lead a workshop/training series for ECCC’s (Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers) summer camp directors. These two conversations about Christian formation, like many other conversations elsewhere in the church, have us talking about human development and how God shows up in human experience. Naturally we’ve had kept an eye toward the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation that was adopted at General Convention in 2009 and naturally the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer comes up repeatedly.

Listening to witnesses of godly experience outside church, I feel glad the Charter asks us-

– To study Scripture, mindful of the context of our societies and cultures, calling us to seek truth anew while remaining fully present in the community of faith.

– To develop new learning experiences, equipping disciples for life in a world of secular challenges and carefully listening for the words of modern sages who embody the teachings of Christ.

– To prepare for a sustainable future by calling the community to become guardians of God’s creation.

For a generation now our Prayer Book has put a central emphasis on baptism with the 1979 Prayer Book’s innovation of a Baptismal Covenant. I have some questions and reservations about that innovation and may write about them on another occasion. For me I’m glad to say how grateful I am that the Baptismal Covenant points us toward serving ‘Christ in all persons,’ and striving for ‘justice and peace among all people,’ as we learn to ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’ Directing our attention to ‘all persons,’ ‘all people,’ and ‘every human being’ steers us back to God’s startling work outside any tidy bounds of church or religion, just what Jesus does in his teaching and his practice.

With the collapse of Christendom, I’m grateful whenever our liturgy invites us to be alert for the work of God in the lives of the unbaptized, in skeptics, in unbelievers, and in the faithful in other traditions, people whose experience we’re only now coming to acknowledge and value.

I think the Charter for Lifelong Formation and Baptismal covenant both ask us to see Christ in people like Margaret Sanger, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, four people who are, to the best of my knowledge, an atheist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and an agnostic humanist. How does remembering these help us see and hear the Spirit’s work outside our Christian and Episcopal box? And within our communities, do these lives help us see and hear the Spirit’s work among us differently?

First their stories remind us to look for the Spirit beyond our border because God is at work everywhere. And then their lives remind us that God who is at work in unexpected places may also show up in unexpected ways within our communities.

I also find that looking and listening for God’s work outside the boundaries of church enlarges possibilities for grateful conversations on the borders of faith. Who do we talk to on the border? Some, of course, are people seeking community who bring their own experience to join with ours. But the border is also where we encounter people who aren’t looking for church. Their stories bless us because we know their best committed work is holy, whether they’re people of other faith or none. Their stories ask us to listen to experience and only then wrestle with the questions of theology.


In an interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air, and in his book, Kill of Capture, Matthew Alexander who served as a senior military interrogator in Iraq, insists we get demonstrably unreliable information from ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ our euphemism, he says, for torture. Then he contrasts that kind of information with what he and those he trained found they got – even in battlefield interrogations under huge time pressure – by deliberately acknowledging the humanity of the prisoner under interrogation, making an honest promise not to hurt them, offering them steady human respect, and asking questions to find what hopes, dreams, and vision the prisoner and the interrogator actually shared. Matthew Alexander found, to his surprise he could find common ground in a prisoner’s hope for a better, more peaceful life for the next generation, or respect for Islam’s legitimate place as a voice for compassion and order). Even from an admitted, violent terrorist, extending respect and asking and listening to what had motivated the person usually made them much more willing to give accurate, life-saving information that ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques never reached. With a war raging the Spirit of truth and reconciliation shows up when someone makes a commitment to listen.

Stanford University professor of neurology and neurosciences, Robert Sapolsky was astonished to discover in a baboon community he’d observed for over ten summers in Kenya that when the Alpha males’ hoarding and consumption of tainted human garbage killed them all, the surviving members of their baboon group created and carried forward an unprecedented new baboon culture. The recently terrorized non-dominant males didn’t take claim the oppressor’s place in the new hierarchy like the old one they’d known. Instead the surviving males and that band’s females worked together to re-socialize the male adolescents who found their way to the band so the group perpetuated an adaptive, ongoing baboon culture of collaboration, mutual concern, and kindness. Even in our primate cousins, community can shape creatures for goodness and make peace.

Teaching Vipassna meditation in the Donaldson prison in Alabama, Vipassna teacher Carl Franz could document a twenty percent reduction in disciplinary action among the 430 inmates who have gone through the intensive meditation-training program. Evangelical chaplains, deeply suspicious of this foreign, non-Christian meditation practice, attempted to close the program and failed. And then Vipassna’s success won their grudging respect. Chaplain Bill Lindsay says it’s “kind of strange- something different,” but, “What’s a life worth in this business? If you can get just one, who knows?” And as inmate Grady Bankhead said, “Before I went to a Vipassana meditation…I was probably the angriest man in this prison.” Now, recruiting others to take the very challenging course, he says, “We have to have some kind of balance back in our lives from the horrible things that we’ve done.” The Spirit is present wherever hearts are changed and people are turned from hostility.

In 1950, when she was three years old Temple Grandin’s doctor told her parents that their autistic daughter would never speak and would need institutional confinement and care for life. Temple’s mother refused to believe that and found teachers who would work to free Temple’s spirit and help her find her voice. They found a remarkable voice, though along the way she was the shunned kid in school, an outsider who couldn’t read others’ cues and struggled to figure out what people might mean by their ‘feelings.’ Temple Grandin herself says the HBO film gives us the picture of her literalistic hearing of every metaphor. The director and cinematographer flash onscreen pictures and patterns and diagrams Temple Grandin would see directly as she grasped design and pattern and movement in machinery or even in patterns of animals’ movements. And they take us to feeling how her painfully attuned senses guided her to sensing the fear in the mooing of cattle in feed yards and slaughterhouses. We watch her put that organizing vision to work to design new ways of handling fellow creatures so we can ‘kind to them as nature is not.’ And we begin to see how her almost crippling empathy for cattle made her more able to speak her autistic experience to brain researchers like Oliver Sacks and to the teachers and parents of autistic children. The little girl without speech became the creative Word for others without speech.

Years of hearing and telling our Christian stories, years of praying with the community and sharing in Christ’s presence at his table opened my ear to hear Spirit in these stories. And that’s what makes me so glad to find many in our church pursuing our new focus on formation while encouraging us to share Jesus’ vision for God at work in Samaritan strangers, a Canaanite woman, and a lot of people whose religious credentials weren’t in good order.

As important as it is to find richer and more provocative ways to tell our Christian story inside our communities, we need to keep our ears and eye open and alert. Scripture and Tradition both point to reason/experience and invite us to see the Spirit at work all over the place. I pray that our new urgent commitment to Christian formation will help us discover in all human formation, God’s unrelenting work making us more compassionate, more awe-struck, kinder and more loving, and more open to graceful surprise.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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