Love is All You Need
In his latest book, Pasadena Pastor Ed Bacon describes a path toward uniting our fractious, divided nation.
By Bettijane Levine 02/01/2013
The cover of Ed Bacon’s latest book, 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind, simply gives the author’s name, with no mention of his day job as a nationally respected religious leader. This omission was deliberate, says Bacon, a priest and rector at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church, which has more than 4,000 congregants and is considered one of the nation’s most socially progressive religious institutions.
Love, the book’s subject, is non-denominational. And for that matter, Bacon seems to be saying, so is the Deity. If this sounds way too radical, then you’re the reader he’s trying to reach. “God does not belong to any religion; every religion belongs to God,” he writes in the introduction, quoting a Muslim friend. And although he is a man of the cloth, this is not a book on spirituality and religion, he says. “I have tried to write a book about life.”
Bacon is not traditional by any means. In his tweets, blogs, sermons and this book, he is what many commentators have called “radically inclusive.” The words rankle a bit, because they imply an exclusivity exists and he has breached it. But Bacon doesn’t believe such boundaries exist. Indeed, he made national headlines a few years ago, when he announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that “being gay is a gift from God.” And consider this, from one of his blogs on the Huffington Post:
“I don’t believe a spiritual life has to include going to church on Sundays. Or any other day, for that matter. No one must believe in one ‘God,’ let alone my particular concept of God. We don’t have to be straight to get married, be pure to find salvation — or even be religious to find a divine community. And yet...
“I am a man of the cloth. I do believe in God. I go to church even when on vacation. Each Sunday I preach to a congregation of more than a thousand… and each morning I pray for an hour. I know the Bible inside out, and I draw on it for inspiration and transformation.
“But I don’t ask of you to share my beliefs, or worship in any particular way, place or time to become part of my tribe. My tribe is that of the world, and everyone, everywhere is already included.”
In the introduction to his book, Bacon laments that religious history is “tragically blemished” by those who “hijacked the idea of God” to identify other groups they condemn as evil — a way to “justify violence so the group seeking power could be ‘saved’ and ultimately dominate.” Bacon says he rejects the idea that those who believe differently are “unsaved” and destined for hell. “No wonder millions embrace a noble position of atheism out of a sense of intellectual, spiritual and moral integrity. I myself am an atheist about that particular concept of God,” Bacon writes.
Bacon’s main thesis is that if we lived our lives based on love and free from fear, we could transform not just our individual paths, but also the trajectory of life on this planet. But how to define love, and what kinds of fear does he allude to? The answers are illuminated in his eight habits, which have little to do with romantic love or the fear of failure to reach a particular material goal. They are generosity, stillness, truth, candor, play, forgiveness, compassion and community.
Bacon’s is an awe-inspiring leap into a world where we see the beauty and glory of what we’ve been given, rather than what we lack. And where we discard our fears of “the other,” meaning fear of the person, religion, society or political party that differs from our beliefs, and which we therefore dismiss or deride or try to destroy.
If Bacon’s habits of love were to prevail, he believes, the venomous squabbles among our country’s elected leaders might evaporate, although their respective points of view could be maintained. Troubles, such as those in the Middle East, could be resolved with dignity and respect for human life. And each of our own personal paths would be altered for the better. “I guarantee that these eight habits will help a practitioner emancipate himself or herself from fear,” Bacon said in an interview with Arroyo Monthly. “I think fear underlies the divisiveness, the hate speech and the polarization that we are experiencing in both our nation and also in the world.”
His eight habits also try to answer the tough questions that even the most successful of us must face individually: “How do I live the most meaningful life I possibly can? What does that life look like for me?… How do I move forward? How does a family or business or board of directors — or nation, for that matter — leave behind the force field of fear and enter into one of love?”
The author devotes a chapter to each of the eight habits. Each flows logically into the next, eventually providing us full access to our best and most realized selves. A full explanation of each habit is impossible here, but Bacon offers an example. The habit of generosity, he says, “literally provides freedom from fear as soon as one realizes there are myriads of kindnesses coming into our lives from every area of the universe, and that our job is to match the outflow with the inflow, to give as much as we are receiving, so that we are instruments of blessing one another and the world,” Bacon says. “This really calls for a first step of gratitude. Are we aware of all the blessings and kindnesses that surround us on every side, at every moment? In most instances we are not. We don’t take count.
“And that leads us to the second habit, of stillness,” he continues. “Marrying generosity with stillness leads to awareness of blessings on every side. The butterfly outside is a blessing, the beautiful day before us… all the wonderful people in our lives. It means literally stilling the chaos that is inside us all, so we can actually see the blessings, and also be aware of the fear inside us and trace that fear back to its genesis.
“When you become aware of the blessings, generosity calls you to give away as many as you are receiving. You become an instrument of blessing in other people’s lives…”
Bacon was born in 1948, in the small, rural town of Jesup, Georgia, where his family had lived as practicing Baptists for generations. His mother was a teacher, his father a preacher who was also superintendent of the county’s schools. His was a strict, conservative religious upbringing, which included expectations that both Ed and his brother would follow in their father’s footsteps. Both sons were ordained as Baptist preachers in their youth. But as Bacon matured, he found that his father’s faith was incompatible with his own emerging beliefs. He attended Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, then spent a few semesters at Vanderbilt University Law School before deciding a law career was not for him. He’d had a chance encounter with Martin Luther King as an undergraduate, which inspired him to reread the Bible with a more open mind. It soon became clear to him that religion was not all about tribes and separatism, which was how it had seemed while he was growing up. It was really about inclusiveness, community and compassion.
After leaving law school Bacon returned to Mercer, where he spent seven years as the school’s campus minister and dean of students. During that time he became familiar with the Episcopal faith and discovered that its ethos was more in tune with his own emerging beliefs. In 1977, he took a sabbatical from his Mercer job to attend Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and then applied to become an Episcopal priest. After serving as a youth minister in Atlanta, he was admitted as a postulant for the priesthood and ordained in the Episcopal church in 1983. Bacon’s father knew about his son’s Episcopal bent, but he writes that they had never formally discussed the younger man’s future plans at that point.
Bacon was then recruited to become the dean of a large, progressive Episcopalian cathedral in Mississippi. Taking that job would be the final step to a permanent commitment as an Episcopalian priest. But Bacon, a devoted and loving son, writes that he was so conflicted that he actually developed chest pains and was unable to decide what to do. “I was firstborn in a family of Southern Baptist clergy. My father, brother and I had all been ordained Baptist preachers…” Would his father, who was terminally ill, feel hurt or betrayed? Would he disapprove? Would taking the job break his father’s heart?
Bacon presented his dilemma to a Jewish rabbi, who was known for his conflict-resolution talents. The rabbi counseled Bacon that taking the job might mean that the young man would never return to the religious life of his forefathers, or to the Georgia countryside and culture in which generations of Bacons had lived. “You have to go directly to your father and ask him if that is all right with him,” the rabbi said.
Bacon made the call, “trembling, pacing and sweating.” He told his father that taking the job felt right, but it meant he would not be returning to Georgia… or the Baptist faith. Then, in a shaking voice, he asked, “Dad, all of this is very different from what you always had in mind for me. I need to know if all of this is okay with you.”
With what little breath he could muster, Bacon’s father wheezed out the four words that Bacon says allowed him to move forward and embrace his chosen life.
“Son, go for it,” his father said. Those four words uttered by his dying father were the most potent blessing and most generous gift Bacon writes he ever received.
Bacon’s book is peppered with such tales of his own and his congregants’ lives, each illustrating one of the habits of love. It is likely that his book will change some lives for the better, especially if, as Publishers Weekly observed, “Readers who find a life-giving energy pulsing in these pages will pass this book on to those they love.” Bacon hopes, of course, that it might just, in some small way, change the world.
8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind (Hachette Book Group; 2012) by Ed Bacon is available at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.