SERMON FOR THE FEAST OF ST PHILIP THE DEACON

A sermon by Bishop Robert C. Wright
No preacher, at the beginning of a new ministry, could ask for a better lesson to preach from than the eighth chapter of the book of Acts. What a delicious story. Everything you could need is here. Everything we need to be God’s church today is right here. This morning we find Philip in the midst of a full-time, whirlwind preaching tour. That’s funny because he didn’t begin his life intending to be a preacher.
But, as his life unfolded, he discovered something. Or, he discovered someone.

He discovered that there is something about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that touched his heart. And, he discovered that he wasn’t the only one.He discovered that when your heart is moved, your feet find new directions, your lips learn a new song, and your heart makes room for all kinds of people.

That’s discipleship!  All Philip has is what he has seen and what he knows: Jesus is Lord. And, that there is power in His name and adventure as His follower. That’s all Philip’s got, and that’s enough.

That’s enough because God is enough. Enough to bet on, enough to build on. I wonder: Do you believe that this morning? I wonder: Do you live that on Monday? Like God is Almighty? Like God is all sufficient? Like his was and is the way?

At first glance, it looks like this story is only about Philip’s encounter with a well-to-do African and the resulting baptism. But this story is about God. God is all over this story, speaking, guiding and relocating the faithful.

Three times God intervenes in Philip’s day. First by an angel, then twice by the Spirit. Three times the still, small voice that is within us all but beyond us all urges Philip to respond.

Take an action. Do a new thing. Reach out. What kind of God is this? Here’s some good news; our God is an always-speaking God.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no famine of God’s word in the land. And, there is no famine of God’s word in the church today. Believe it. God is just as loquacious, multiloquent and chatty as ever. The same God that spoke to Moses then is speaking to us now.

The same God that spoke to Ruth then is speaking to us here. So committed to always speaking to us, God named God’s only son Word, according to John. What was God’s last whisper to you?Philip heard a clear word that day. “The Angel of the Lord said, Get up and go south ….” You want more good news? We serve a sending God.

We serve a God that is clear in a shades of grey world. What kind of God talks like that? A whole life promised to us in a single syllable, “Go.” We can claim all things necessary for body and soul as a consequence of taking directions from God. How excellent is God’s name above all names!

Why has God spoken this kind of treasure into us? The only answer has to be that God has no purpose other than good, and that God would have us partner with God in this good‒that we would “know life and life abundant.”

When the faithful hear God speak, the faithful worship God by responding. God is a sending God; we are a sent people. To hear and not go is to frustrate grace. To hear and not go is to forgo peace and purpose. To hear and not go is to “…take on a form of godliness while denying the power thereof.”

I agree with the preacher who said, “Living an unsent life is about the saddest thing I can think of.”

Philip was sent on a road going south. That’s it. That’s all the detail he got. But to know that was from God was enough to take the step. That’s why they call it faith.

Living a sent life is as countercultural as it gets. The world is awash with people who know where and what how and how many but can’t answer the better question, why!

We know why, because we were sent by God. That’s the center of our authority. Jesus said that. A sent life produces a joy in us that the world cannot give. A sent life produces results that confound the cynics.

At the beginning of my ordained ministry, I was a chaplain to an Episcopal school in New York City. And I remember reading some wondrous Bible story or the other to kindergarten children‒the upshot being, how God used ordinary people to do some extraordinary thing.

After chapel was over a little girl, with the cutest ribbons in her hair, approached me and asked, “Chaplain Wright, how come God did all the really cool stuff way back then?” I told her, God did do really cool things then. And, I assured her that God is still in the really-cool-stuff business.

But Philip helps us answer her wonderful question better than that. To do that though, I have to use a “four-letter word” in this sermon. Brace yourselves, here it comes: obedience.

Read the record of our faith and you will see that God does really cool stuff downstream of obedience. Every time.

Moses obeys God and becomes a deliverer. Jesus’ mother, Mary, upon hearing God’s desire for her life said, “Let it be unto me according to thy will.” Is it any wonder then that her son, in the Garden of Gethsemane said, “… not my will but thy will be done.”

I have read a truckload of leadership books only to discover that the best definition of Christian leadership is, simply, obedience to Christ! Philip obeys the Spirit’s command and is at the right place and at the right time to instruct and baptize the African.

What saving grace is God working through you now because you are obeying the Spirit? What more grace would work through us if we would really give ourselves to God?

Oh what a useful life. God could do some really cool stuff through more of us if we would just go where God is sending us.

Philip walks his dusty southern road. He meets this impressive African, a man of culture and wealth. And then Philip does something that’s a lesson for the church today. Philip engages the world person to person.

philip and ethiopian

And while Philip clearly has a lot to say, Philip only answers the questions that the African actually asks, three questions:

“¢ How can I understand scriptures?
“¢ Who do the scriptures speak of?
“¢ What prevents me from being baptized right now?

Three questions about believing, belonging and becoming. Three questions from the world to the church.

That’s what the world wanted to know then, and that’s what the world needs from the church today. Three opportunities to teach, to share and to include.

There is a challenge here for the church this morning. And, by church, I mean you and me. Stop apologizing for being Christians, and be apologists for Jesus Christ.

This is not about talking points, not about denominations or even church. But, in your own way, in your own idiom, with the same ease you recommend a restaurant or a movie “… comfort others with the comfort we ourselves are being comforted with.”

Listen to the world’s infirmities and lack, and then share. The world is in desperate need of good news, and you and I, because of water and Spirit, have been entrusted with the best news there is: that God is real, able, good and generous. That there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus; that God’s mercy endures forever. That guilt and shame don’t have to be our constant companions. “That earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.” That a life with God is about being free and buoyant. That worship together is how we practice peace and joy. “That nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.”

Share this good news. I double-dog dare you! Be this good news for your soul’s sake and for the sake of the world. Like Tennyson said, “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” to re-describe the world.

You don’t have to do it by yourself. Ask God to give you the occasion and the words. Make that prayer this morning.

And don’t worry, “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense immediately … .” But if we would offer ourselves to God today in this way, be an instrument in God’s hands now, like Philip, people will ask you, where is this living water and how can I get some.

“O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise;
the glory of my God and King
the triumphs of His grace.”

What a great season it is to be God’s Church!

https://www.cathedralatl.org/Sermons/sermon-for-the-feast-of-st-philip-the-deacon/bein

Photo from same source

DEMENTIA-FRIENDLY GARDEN by Deacon Corinne Smith

Deacon Corinne Smith, deanery deacon based at the benefice of The Good Shepherd, Lake & St Saviour on the Cliff, Shanklin (Isle of Wight and diocese of Portsmouth) has been very involved in the creation of a dementia-friendly tranquillity garden at the church of the Good Shepherd.   She writes
The thinking behind it was that we wanted to create a dementia-friendly garden, for prayer, relaxation and eg reminiscence sessions and quiet days, as part of one of our mission-priorities to become dementia-friendly churches.
We also wanted to provide a tranquil space for the whole community to enjoy and to create an environmentally-friendly habitat which would encourage biodiversity.
With the particular needs of people with dementia in mind, we took advice about the design & how to make a garden which would be a tranquil space, and which also offered a sensory experience.
Elements included:
– Path following a loop, so people can go on a “journey” round the garden, in either direction. The path is wide enough for two people walking side-by-side, or for a wheelchair
– Calm colours for plants – eg mauves, White, yellow
– Plants which had scented leaves, or perfume eg herbs, lavender, rosemary, Jasmine, roses
– Plants which would provide texture and movement – eg bamboos and grasses
– Somewhere to sit
– A statue as a focal point
– butterfly/ bee-friendly plants
– bird feeder/ bird-box/ bug-Hotel
We will be adding a water-feature & other elements in due course, as funds permit.
We enlisted the help of Community Payback to dig-out and lay the paths, but everything else has been done by parishioners.
We received grants from the Parish Council £200; Southern Vectis £50.00; Funeral Director William Hall £150 and the rest of the money has been raised through donations from fundraising events and individual donations.
As we are a United Benefice with two churches, I set up a project group consisting of two people from each of the churches to plan and oversee the Project; and it had the spin-off benefit of drawing the two church communities together.
We started meeting at the beginning of the year, to shape our vision and to draw up the plans for the garden design and, on 27th April, had our first “all hands of deck” day, to clear the site and to mark out where the paths would go. We have since had ongoing group and individual gardening sessions throughout the summer to get phase one of the planting completed.
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We are fortunate that someone has joined the church as a consequence of the Project, who would seem to be heaven-sent!
He started coming to sit quietly in the church, as he lives very nearby in unsatisfactory accommodation, and is unable to work due to on-going mental-health issues.
He gradually started coming to services and, in the course of conversation, I discovered he used to do gardening work! He then started helping in the garden and was delighted when I invited him to become our  “groundsman”! He has done sterling work coming over most days to do weeding and watering throughout the summer.
We have installed a water-butt so we are self-sufficient, water-wise.
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We are looking forward to using the garden in all sorts of ways, as a part of our missional activity in relation to serving the spiritual needs of those who live in the area; & I’m very excited to see what the future holds!
We may well affiliate to the Quiet Garden Trust, so any Quiet Days we hold can be included in their programme.
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Unveiling the statue of the Good Shepherd

DO WE NEED DEACONS?

Do We Need Deacons?

GUEST BLOG: Are deacons mere liturgical functionaries, on their way to the priesthood or presbyterate? Or are they social activists with only a loose connection to the churches? Or something in between? Are deacons valuable for Christian ministry? Or can we do quite nicely without them? D. Michael Jackson, editor of The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective, provides the answers.

(I have put some of the key ideas in bold – Ed.)

These widely differing viewpoints are explored in The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective by writers from the Anglican and Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist traditions. Contributors hail from Canada, the United States, England and Scotland, giving the book an international as well as an ecumenical dimension.

The essays tackle head-on just what diakonia and deacon mean today. The long-accepted notion that diakonia is humble service and that deacons are essentially ecclesiastical social workers is shown to be inaccurate and incomplete. The diaconate is much more than that: ministry of word and sacrament, mission and proclamation, as well as charity and outreach.

In this light, some of the authors challenge the continued existence of the “transitional” diaconate—that is to say, requiring future priests/presbyters to first be ordained deacons. They argue that the practice of “consecutive” ordination makes no sense for priests and compromises the integrity of the permanent or vocational diaconate. Diakonia is the vocation of all Christians through baptism, not ordination.

Another topical issue is the ordination of women to the diaconate. Although there is general agreement that there were female deacons in the early church, there is no consensus on whether they were ordained like men and had a similar ministry. The Orthodox and other Eastern churches have ordained some female deacons, but not without controversy. There is now consideration of the female diaconate among Roman Catholics and Pope Francis appointed a commission to look into it. But after receiving their report, Francis has said that the historical evidence is inconclusive and appears to have put the matter on hold.

Evidently the diaconate is of interest to a number of Christian churches, and not only those with the historical episcopate. A contributor from the British Methodist diaconal order sees deacons—male and female—as enablers of the “kingdom community”. Lutherans have a complex history of the diaconate and a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it. The prevalent view of deacons as “ecclesiastical social workers” began with the deaconess movement in 19th-century Germany and to this day many Lutheran churches “commission” or “consecrate” rather than ordain their deacons.

The prophetic or social ministry of the deacon is found with varying emphases in all traditions. For Lutherans and Methodists, this is the diaconal role. For the Eastern churches, it is more of a supplement to the prime function of the deacon: worship. Practices in the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions vary greatly, but generally deacons as are seen as ordained ministers bringing the gospel to those both within and beyond church structures, especially the marginalized.

The significance of the deacon’s liturgical—and preaching—role in the various traditions, not surprisingly, mirrors their approach to social outreach. In the Orthodox and other Eastern churches, the liturgical function is dominant. In the Methodist and some Lutheran churches it is minimal, in some cases non-existent. Roman Catholics specify that the deacon’s ministry is three-fold: Word, sacrament and charity. Anglicans (as usual!) are somewhere in the middle: in a number of dioceses, the deacon’s liturgical and preaching role is important; in others, it is minimized or even discouraged.

Of course, just having deacons is still a matter of discussion. Some but not all Lutheran churches have diaconal ministers. Many but by no means all Roman Catholic dioceses have embraced the permanent diaconate after the impetus given to it by the Second Vatican Council. In the Anglican Communion, the Church of England, particularly its evangelical wing, has been cool towards the diaconate, preferring to focus instead on lay readers. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church in the United States has taken up the vocational diaconate with enthusiasm, followed to a large extent by the Anglican Church of Canada and now the Scottish Episcopal Church.

But there is a consensus among the contributors to this book that the diaconate can and should be a vital component of ministry, representing and focusing on the diakonia of all the baptized. In the post-Christian era, deacons may provide an effective connection to a society largely indifferent to the gospel.


Ordained to the diaconate in 1977, D. Michael Jackson is the longest-serving deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. He is author of two studies on the diaconate, The Diaconate Renewed: Service, Word and Worship and The Deacon in the Worshipping Community, coordinates an international network of Anglican and Roman Catholic deacons, and is a frequent reviewer of diaconal publications. He serves as a deacon at St Paul’s Cathedral in Regina and is a canon of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle.

https://www.sacristy.co.uk/blog/2019/michael-jackson-deacons

ROSALIND BROWN: THE DEACON IN WORSHIP. A ministry of hospitality

Rosalind Brown is always a welcome guest at any deacons’ gathering, not least this blog.  This paper of hers is part of the collection now published in the book ‘The Diaconate in Ecumenical Perspective’  (please note that the discount is no longer available)

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Rosalind Brown:  The Deacon in Worship.  International Ecumenical Conference on the Diaconate, May 2018, Regina, Saskatchewan.

The story of the resurrection appearance on the Emmaus Road is a story of reciprocal hospitality: just when the disciples thought they were the hosts of a stranger, Jesus was revealed as their host. We sing of this extraordinary truth in the hymn, ‘Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest; nay let us be thy guests, this feast is thine’. If Jesus is our host at every celebration of the Eucharist, offering God’s hospitality to us, then I want to work with the idea that – to borrow John Collins contribution – the deacon is the butler, the head servant who acts on behalf of the owner of a large household. And so in this paper I explore the idea of the deacon as the person who arranges the hospitality at the Eucharist, the Mass.

The Last Supper was Jesus’s final act of hospitality to his disciples, hospitality first offered when he invited two of them to ‘come and see’ where he was staying and they stayed all day. I wonder what they talked about and what they ate. Jesus was a cook. I’m struck by the words that go unremarked in Mark’s gospel when the disciples asked Jesus where they should go to make the Passover preparations. Jesus’s reply suggests that he, unbeknown to his companions, had made meticulous preparations in advance. Usually women, not men, carried water jars in public so, in the heightened tension around his presence in Jerusalem, this could have been a careful plan to identify the person they were to follow. And the room was furnished and ready: Jesus had made the arrangements to host his friends, the advance party just had to make the final preparations. That is hospitality, as was his action on the beach that unforgettable resurrection morning when he had breakfast on the go when they needed it. His choice of charcoal meant the smell would take Peter back to the charcoal fire by which he had denied Jesus a few days earlier and thus facilitate the subsequent conversation when Jesus, by giving Peter the chance to rework that failure, enabled Peter to know that he was truly and forever welcome. Jesus as host was very attentive to detail. Incidentally, it can be interesting to ask people if they can imagine Jesus in charge of a barbecue; for some it’s a startling thought.

Reflecting on Jesus’s hospitality, I once wrote,

O God of feast and festival, of water turned to wine,

you fed the crowds who followed you, with outcasts chose to dine;

gregarious God, your acts reveal

a place for us at every meal

 

O God of family and home, of simple times with friends,

you breakfast-cook at Galilee, companion when day ends;

endearing God, your acts reveal

how gently love and care can heal.

 

O God who walked Emmaus Road and joined in Cana’s feast,

at times you slip into our lives when we expect you least;

surprising God, your acts reveal

what your appearance may conceal.

 

O God of hospitality, still welcoming us all,

you also come through those in need, the inconvenient call;

O God, let all our acts reveal

the welcome that from you we feel.

Copyright © 1995 Rosalind Brown

So I’d like to explore the deacons’ role in worship as one of offering hospitality. And that, perhaps inevitably, takes me to St Benedict. For the last 13 years I have served in what was, for 450 years, a Benedictine monastic Cathedral and we still try to live by Benedict’s principles. When Benedict wrote, travel left people vulnerable to the perils on unmade roads and was physically exhausting, so visitors arrived tired and hungry from a substantial journey. Benedict’s principle? ‘All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”’[1] That doesn’t just mean treating them well but expecting to meet Christ when we greet someone at the door. How might that possibility affect how we approach them?

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Joan Chittister writes pithily,

Of all the questions to be asked … one of the most pointed must surely be why one of the great spiritual documents of the Western world would have in it a chapter on how to answer the door. And one of the answers might be that answering the door is one of the arch-activities of Benedictine life. The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world. … The chapter on the porter of the monastery is the chapter on how to receive the Christ in the other, always.[2]

In my book, ‘Being a Deacon Today’ I suggested that deacons should be freed from other duties in church before a service so that they can be on the church doorstep, welcoming people and helping them over the threshold which for some people could feel like an enormous hurdle to be jumped, even threatening. Think of your own church door: how easy is it to find and to open, especially if you are nervous? Is the entrance area welcoming?

A colleague once asked a group of church members in his previous parish – some longstanding, some very new – to review the church’s ministry of hospitality. When they reported back the problem was identified as the church door. So what to do about it? Their answer was not a new door but to put a welcomer outside the door who would open the door for everyone – not just visitors – and help them over the threshold. Flannery O’Connor has written, ‘Most of us come to the church by a means that the church does not allow.’[3] Deacons, through their ministry beyond church doors during the week, are on the doorstep to make sure that the many surprising ways to the church are kept open and people are encouraged to take them. So if a church has a deacon that is where he or she should be because welcoming people is the first role of the deacon in worship, echoed by the President in the opening greeting. Deacons can also train other welcomers to understand this as part of the liturgy.

Hospitality finds a welcome for everyone at their own level and some people need space to sit on the fringes and not be drawn in too far. There are always people sitting at the back of the Cathedral during services and we are happy for them to be there, and to come and go. I realise it is not always as easy in churches where there is not the same space that we have. But this may be a person’s first time and they want to see what goes on before deciding whether to be drawn in. My equivalent of their vulnerability of suddenly being immersed in a strange new world with very different norms would be visiting a casino. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do so initially would need to observe from the side-lines, feeling out of my depth unless someone came alongside me to help. So hospitality bids us put a deacon on the church door to welcome and reassure people, not just to hand out a pile of books or notice sheets. Incidentally, at the Cathedral we identify books by their colour because saying ‘the hymn book’ or ‘the prayer book’ is meaningless to some visitors. At the same time, the deacon can welcome the regulars, some of whom live alone and may not have spoken to anyone for days, and can pick up needs to be woven into the church’s prayers or provide the catalyst for a home visit.

So the deacon offers hospitality on the church doorstep, inviting people to worship. This continues in the formal liturgy as the deacon invites people to clear their consciences with God and, like Peter on the seashore, to put their failures behind them and know that they are forgiven and can hold their heads up in God’s presence. The deacon offers the people the hospitality of the gospel, God’s good news of his incarnational and transforming presence among us; at times in centuries past guarding those precious gospel scrolls and books literally with their life. And the gospel must be heard clearly: Benedict was firm that readers must be able to edify their hearers,[4] and learning to read well in public is a diaconal duty. Then, in leading the intercessions, deacons are agents of hospitality for the woes and worries, joys and hopes of the world which people bring to worship, enabling them to find their rightful place in the worship, neither dominating it nor being ignored. Very often at the Cathedral we are thanked for our intercessions because the words have been hospitable and well-led intercessions give people a vocabulary with which to pray, expressing needs they feel deeply but can’t always put into their own words.

Bidding people share the peace, when we recognise one another as the reconciled Body of Christ, leads into the deacon setting the table around which we all gather. Benedict’s description of the monastery cellarer is pertinent here.[5] The cellarer is responsible to take care not only of things, like food and kitchen utensils, but in doing so to care for people who have crossed the threshold of the monastery. He or she is to be humble and to ensure their words and actions do not lead little ones astray, and we can include vulnerable adults in that.

As an aside, Benedict’s approach, of seeing diaconal ministry as caring for people, applies to setting the altar but also to how we serve food or do the washing up at refreshments after the service. Ladling soup or pouring tea at a soup kitchen or parish lunch can be done in many ways, not all of them hospitably.

Benedict says that the vessels on the altar are to be treated in the same way as the kitchen utensils of the monastery to which he gives special attention.[6] At Durham Cathedral we have put some extracts from the Rule on the kitchen cupboards, along with a twenty first century interpretation, because, in a community that offers hospitality and where many people use the kitchen, it is important that the equipment people need is on hand. We struggle with this as plates and cutlery seem to have legs of their own, which just shows how timeless is Benedict’s wisdom. It is not hospitable to the volunteers serving refreshments if things have been borrowed and not returned or the cups needed for coffee are still dirty in the sink or there are no clean tea towels. With so many churches offering hospitality after worship, oversight of the kitchen and the rotas to provide hospitality can be seen as an element of the deacon’s ministry of hospitality in worship and engagement with the community. So here is Benedict on the subject of care of the utensils that keep the monastery running whether in the kitchen, the garden or the sacristy:

For the care of the monastery’s property
in tools, clothing and other articles
let the Abbess appoint sisters
on whose manner of life and character she can rely;
and let her, as she shall judge to be expedient,
consign the various articles to them,
to be looked after and to be collected again.[7]

Notice that anyone in charge of utensils must have a reliable manner of life and character, just as the doorkeeper’s qualifications include wisdom and maturity.[8] These are important duties and not to be assigned lightly, hence – extrapolating to ordained ministry – the bishop’s questioning of the character of those to be ordained.

Both setting the table and clearing up are vital parts of hospitality whether offered at home or in the Eucharist which is the expression of our Lord’s hospitality to us. So the deacon prepares the altar for the Eucharistic celebration. One child visiting Durham Cathedral in a school group saw the high altar and asked the guide, ‘Is that tablecloth like my Mam puts out when we have a special meal?’ She’d got the message: special altar linens matter. Kathleen Norris’s book, ‘The Cloister Walk’, tells of her experiences as a ‘married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt that faith’[9] when she spent two extended residencies in a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. In another article about this experience, she describes an epiphany moment in the Mass of seeing a vested minister, quite possibly a deacon, doing the ablutions at the altar. I couldn’t find the quotation where she records her astonishment that (in my recollection of her words) ‘he was doing the washing up in the service!’ which led her to realise how the work she did at her kitchen sink day in, day out, for her family has immense value in God’s sight and is not out of place on the altar at the end of the Mass. Deacons model holding together church and world.

And then the deacon is back to directing traffic over the church doorstep as, with the dismissal, the deacon orders rather than invites people to leave church to live in the world the new way of Eucharistic living of which they have had a foretaste in church. And if the deacon can do that by demonstrating the value of washing up, of care of utensils, of proclaiming the gospel, of bringing the needs of the world into the heart of worship, then maybe, just maybe, the gathered and worshipping people of God will catch a vision of how they can offer Christ’s hospitality to the people they meet in the coming week. In other words, how they, led by the deacon, can bring Eucharistic life and worship into the heart of the world.

[1] The Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 53

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict. Insights for the Ages New York: Crossroad 1992 p170

[3]Kathleen Norris, Dakota: a spiritual geography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1993 p63

[4] The Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 38

[5] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 31

[6] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 31

[7] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 32

[8] The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 66

[9] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, New York, Riverhead Books 1996, inside front cover