The Magic Word
Stirrings and Stories of Faith and Ministry


Exploding planes and terrorized death, living wage, work and energy, individualism and life lived together, family and sexuality, a worldly Bible and hymn for healing, wiggling one's toes: these are among the topics of the essays and reflections, poems and op-ed pieces written over the last six or so years of life and ministry as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Several of the pieces appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. Some were written for magazines or journals or special occasions. Many of them were part of my regular musings and communications with the church people of this complex and so diverse region in an effort to think together about significant issues of life and faith. While there is an immediacy and topicality about a number of the writings, the questions and problems, the hopes and fears addressed will long be with us.

The Magic Word is in these ways a companion volume to Outrage and Hope (Trinity Press International, 1996) which reflected on earthquakes and riots, fires and floods, evangelism and the environment - things that happened in the earlier years of ministry here - along with a number of other issues that continue on in the present volume. How are people to have hope and faith in a world where bad things happen to every kind of people? What can we do about some of the more trenchant problems facing our world? How can we sometimes laugh and sometimes cry as people struggling and trying to live and love together? The questions and the hopes go on.

I am grateful to Bob Williams and Michelle de la Rosa who helped me edit these pieces, to Janet Wylie who typed and commented on many of them, to Sergio Maldonado who formatted early drafts of this collection, and to Laura Fisher Smith who rendered the design for the text and cover of this book. Most of all I am indebted to colleagues and companions in life and ministry: to Dick Gillett, the people of Project New Hope, and our Urban Interns, among those whose questions and hopes prompted these reflections. I think, too, of Matthew Shepard, the hotel workers, the mothers in prison, the children, and all others who made me pray and ponder and write The Magic Word and more.

The Magic Word

I can speak with some authority about being a child since I once was one. I imagine that you were too. Do you remember how, when we were kids, we loved magic words? With "shazam" we and Billy Batson could turn ourselves into Captain Marvel and maybe other such marvelous heroes. By saying "abracadabra" we could make things appear or disappear. We wanted a magic word that could make things change or at least appear differently.

And maybe that hope never does go completely away. Some of us carry it into adult life with beliefs like those of alchemy or astrology or maybe Technology with a capital "T." Some people say that a lot of religion is based on fantasy and magical thinking, and that could well seem the case when you listen to the logic of some of our prayers which seems to be that two and two should never be four. And speaking of numbers, in these so modem days, the magic words for a good portion of the population - the words which would seem able to change everything - might be something like seven, eleven, nineteen, twenty-six, thirty-two with mega ten.

Then I remember an older sister teasing, "You can't have it until you say the magic word. Say the magic word." And finally I would want that piece of candy or gum enough so that I would purse out that word "please." Later I would learn and teach my own children that there is a pleasantness and helpfulness about the word please. It can make life go more smoothly. But I don't think that this really qualifies it to be a magic word. For one thing, most of us detect and tend to discount the measure of self-interest that is part of the word please. It almost always asks for something, and there is rarely anything surprising or magical about that.

No, I think that the magic word comes on the other side of human events, as it were, and need not be asking for anything. That word is "thanks." Archbishop William Temple held that "It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centered in part, at least, in its interest; there is something we hope to gain by our prayer. But the backward-looking act of Thanksgiving is quite free from this. In itself it is quite selfless. This is akin to love."

Now you may be saying that the only magic going on here is my trickery in trying to convince you that there really is such a thing as a magical word when, now that we are all grown-up, we know that life doesn't really have any magic words. But let me in turn ask you to search your own memory, honestly and quite realistically. Remember our criterion is the capacity of a word to change the way things appear. Let's go even further. Let's ask that our magic word not only change the way things look, but also how they really are.

I know it is pretty standard advice, but I trust that more than once in your life, when feeling sorry for yourself - trapped in a slough of self-pity and maybe edging into despair - you remembered to count your blessings and say thanks. That may sound to some like only a sentimental trick, but if one really puts some gratitude into the thought, it is amazing how it can transform circumstances. Meister Eckhart maintained that "if the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'Thank you,' that would suffice," and I believe he is right - not only because our gratitude is pleasing to God, but because of the kind of persons thanks makes of us.

More amazing still is what the magic word can do to an angry person. Just as powerfully as any comic book word, I have seen the magic word stop enraged people dead in their tracks. I once was furious with a colleague - so angry with the way he had treated me that I wanted my words to be daggers. That emotion, of course, usually only makes others angry too, but in this case my colleague said, "Thanks. I appreciate your pointing that out to me." It took me at least ten seconds to get my next words out, and they were very different words - words turning to friendship and new relationship.

Anger, greed, anxiety, guilt - I find the magic word to be powerful against many of life's demons that want to rule over my life and strangle my capacities for loving and caring. I find I often need to battle envy. Ever since I can remember I have had to struggle with envy and jealousy. Maybe we all do, and this envy flows from a well of insecurity deep within us. In any case, it first was siblings and then classmates and then others who were getting better grades, or more touchdowns, or who were taller, had better looks, more money, better reviews of their books, a more prestigious position. I still surprise myself with the knots I can tie myself into when being jealous of others, and (talk about distorting reality) incredible the way I can then lose sight of the good things in my own life.

The other side of that insecure envy is, of course, the need to cut the object of my jealousy down to size. "Well, maybe his book got great reviews, but he's not a very good teacher," "Maybe she's a pretty important person, but she only got there because she is so ambitious." And, given the opportunity, that urge to diminish others can well break forth in gossip - you know, all that supposedly harmless chatting about others that may for a little while soothe jealousy and insecurity, but still leaves the taste of bitterness.

What I am in the process of learning is the magic power of thanks to extinguish envy's fiery darts. Sometimes to begin with, I have to think of someone whose accomplishments do not threaten me. Unlike Salieri I am not jealous of Mozart. Obviously that is because he lived in another century and because I am not a musician. The result is that I am purely grateful that he lived and composed so gloriously. I give thanks to God for Mozart. And then I try also to give thanks that Bob is such a fine teacher, that Ralph is such a good leader and makes the rich living he does, and that Betty writes so intelligently about the New Testament. Not only is my relationship with them then changed, but now - wonder of wonders - there are so many things and people in life to give thanks for. What used to make me angry can now make me praise. Grumbling becomes gratitude, and a new community of relationships begins to emerge.

One of the happiest aspects of the Bible is all the thanks and praise it contains: for food, for rain, for sun, for all life's beauty and pageantry, for friends, for compassion. David, with arms upraised before the Lord, rejoices that he is able to offer up so many things and that now, "I have seen thy people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you." The psalmist urges that we make a "joyful noise to the Lord" - that we "enter God's gates with thanksgiving." And then there is regular thanksgiving of Paul's letters even when in tribulation and prison. So may we also join with George Herbert when he prays for the magic of thanksgiving.

Thou that has given so much to me.
Give one thing more, a grateful heart...
Not thankful, when it pleaseth me, shorn
As if thy blessings hid spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may fuller
be thy praise.

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COPYRIGHT 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Cathedral Center Press for permission to reprint previously published material by the author.