Monday, March 30, 2009

"Never Forget..."

Yesterday I was honored to be among those gathered for the dedication of the new Erna & Arthur Salm Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Grove on the campus of Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.  It features the moving Memorial pictured above.  Fabricated and installed by Professor Jann Nunn, with the help of SSU sculpture students and alumni, the column reflects light, both sunlight and artificial, through some 5000 specially handcrafted glass plates.  

The tracks, reminiscent of those by which millions of Jewish people were transported to their deaths in gas chambers, lie across a footpath and slope down to the base of the Memorial column.  There are inscribed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."  The white strips under the tracks include 460 bricks inscribed with the names and communities of those who have endured genocide.  A series of symbols enable visitors to match victims' names with the corresponding genocides.  These include the Native American, Armenian, Holocaust, Cambodian, Rwandan, and Darfur genocides.  As Dean Elaine Leeder, of the SSU School of Social Sciences, who conceived of and spearheaded this project, observed: it is exceedingly sad to realize that there is now a new academic area known as "comparative genocide".

Representatives from all the groups represented by the Memorial were on hand to speak, sing, pray, and dance throughout the program, thus sharing a visible record of the life and culture which has endured even holocaust and genocide, blossoming and developing with grace and strength and determination.  It was particularly moving to hear the keynote speaker, Professor Joseph Nsengimana, Ambassador to the United Nations, representing the Rwandan Tutsi Community, himself a survivor of the Rwandan genocide after losing his family.  Equally compelling was the urgent appeal of Mr. Abdulhafiz Abaker, a survivor of the developing genocide in Darfur, for everyone to join in solidarity, denouncing the oppression in Darfur and doing whatever can be done to stop it.  At this time 300,000 lives have been extinguished. 2, 700,000 people have been displaced and are struggling to survive in refugee camps under horrific conditions.  More than 85% of all the villages in Darfur have been obliterated.  So great is the fear of surviving Darfuris that there will be retribution to their families, that they have chosen to remember their loved ones in Darfur by inscribing on the Memorial stones only the names of the villages where they once lived, rather than actual names of their relatives.

The Memorial program notes:  "The crime of genocide stems from prejudice, ignorance, extremism, hate, intolerance, and complacency.  Genocide thrives when good people ignore an injustice committed against another."   May we all have the resolve and grace to stand up and speak out when we witness oppression wherever we see it in the world, beginning with our own communities.

About the Greeks...

Did you notice the curious passage at the beginning of John 12:20-33, yesterday's Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday of Lent?

"Some Greeks" among the worshippers at Passover came to Philip and asked to see Jesus.  The good news is: they weren't bearing gifts!  The bad news is: we'll never really know what they wanted with Jesus because, after Philip relays the request to Andrew and the both of them tell Jesus, there's no further mention of them.

Albert Newton, not the English zoologist, offers an interpretation:

Meditation on the Greek Event

All they said is
"We want to see Jesus"
and that's the last we hear of them
no "Well, show them in"
no "What are they up to"
no "What Greeks?"
no "Not right now -- I'm too busy"
no nothing
about the Greeks
'cause the story is not about the Greeks
but Jesus.

All the Greeks are is an event
in a way beyond our comprehend
they are a sign
that now is the time
not yesterday in the wandering 
not tomorrow when it's done
not when we looked for it
not when the shadow broke its shade
not even when the wine is free
but now
when the world says
I've heard of something
I want to see.

So it's time
when it may still be Greek to you
but not to me
though I may not yet understand
I want to see
and be.

As this Lenten season moves towards the great Holy Week, we, too, "want to see and be."  To do so we  must look at the Cross which, already next week, will be graphically set before us in the Passion.  We must look at the Man stretched out upon it.  We come to see God face to face only through this human Jesus, this One who deals gently with our ignorance and waywardness because of his own experience of human weakness, the One acquainted with "loud cries and tears," with obedience and suffering and death.  We come to be through the One who "being made perfect...became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Remembering Charles Henry Brent 80 Years Later

"Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name."  [Prayer for Mission, BCP]

Simply knowing that Bishop Charles Henry Brent had composed the magnificent  prayer shown above would give you some indication of the spiritual depth of the man and of his incredible ministry.  I couldn't find anything about his early years, other than that he was born in Newcastle, Ontario, Canada on April 9, 1862.  He graduated with an A.B. in classics from Trinity College, University of Toronto in 1884.  From 1885-1887 he served as Undermaster at Trinity College School, Port Hope, Canada.  He was ordained deacon in 1886, priested in 1887, and earned an A.M. from Trinity College, University of Toronto in 1889.

In 1891 Brent became an American citizen and served for 10 years as assistant rector at St. Stephen's, Boston.  At the early age of 39, he was elected by the House of Bishops as first Missionary Bishop of the Philippines.  He arrived at the Port of Manila in 1902 in the company of William Howard Taft.  The Library of Congress has quite a bit of Brent's material, including correspondence which he had with many well-known figures, including Taft:  Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Philander Chase Knox, J. Pierpont Morgan, John J. Pershing, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root.

Aside from a vigorous ministry of evangelism among the Chinese population of Manila, the uncivilized Igorots of Luzon, and the hostile Moros of the Sulu Archipelago, he established several schools and an excellent charity hospital in Manila.  Confronted by the moral and physical devastation of opium addiction, Brent became an unflinching advocate of drug control.  He took the cause internationally, calling for cooperation in eradicating drug abuse.  He served on a committee, appointed by the Philippine government to investigate the use of opium, from 1902-1914.  He served as chief commissioner for the United States and president of the first international Opium Commission at Shanghai, 1908-1919, and chair of the U.S. delegation to the Opium Conference at the Hague from 1911-1912, and as president of the Conference in 1912.  During these years Bishop Brent was also busy writing and publishing three books.  Oh yes, and he was also the Senior Chaplain of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I! Little wonder, then, that by his mid-fifties, in 1917, his health began to give out.

In 1919 Charles Brent accepted election as the Bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, having declined three previous elections during the time he was in the Philippines.  Though he continued his crusade against drug abuse, attending various conferences, and being appointed by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 to the Advisory Committee on Narcotics of the League of Nations, Brent turned his attention to the ecumenical movement.  After attending the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, Brent was at the forefront of ecumenical endeavors in the Episcopal Church.  The movement culminated in the first World Conference on Faith and Order, held in Lausanne, Switzerland, over which Bishop Brent presided.  This significant ecumenical gathering helped lay the foundation for the World Council of Churches.

In 1926 Bishop Brent was appointed as Bishop in charge of the American Episcopal churches in Europe [two in Paris, others at Nice, Florence, Rome, Dresden, Munich, Geneva and Lucerne], a post which he retained until he was hospitalized in November, 1927.  Bishop Brent, in his last public appearance, represented the Episcopal Church in the U.S. at the installation of Cosmo Gordon Lang as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Archbishop Lang had previously baptized the future Queen Elizabeth II.  Charles Henry Brent was only 67 years old when he died on March 27, 1929.

Historian James Thayer Addison rendered Brent the highest praise in describing him as "...a saint of disciplined mental vigor, one whom soldiers were proud to salute and whom children were happy to play with, who could dominate a parliament and minister to an invalid, a priest and bishop who gloried in the heritage of his Church, yet who stood among all Christian brothers as one who served...He was everywhere an ambassador of Christ."   

When the Well Runs Dry

Father John Sanford, Episcopal priest and son of the late Agnes Sanford, widely known for her healing ministry, tells of an old well at the New Hampshire farmhouse where his family used to spend time each summer.  The house was 150 years old and had never been modernized.  The old well supplied water which was unusually cold, pure, and delicious for the family, and was remarkable for the fact that it never ran dry.  Even during the most severe summer droughts, the old well faithfully yielded up its high-quality water.

When the family decided to remodel the house, modern plumbing and running water were installed.  A new artesian well was drilled near the house.  Since it was no longer needed, the old well was sealed over to be kept in reserve should the new well ever cease functioning.

Several years later, Father Sanford says that, out of curiosity, he removed the well's cover to inspect its condition.  Fully expecting to find the cool, moist depths which he had known so well as a boy, he was disappointed to find the well bone dry.

Researching why the well had run dry, he learned that a well like this is fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets, along which seep a constant supply of water.  As water is drawn from the well, more water moves into it along the rivulets, keeping these tiny openings clean and flowing.  But when a well isn't used and water isn't regularly drawn, the tiny rivulets clog up and close.  The old Sanford well, so faithful all those years, had run dry, not because there was no water, but because it hadn't been used.

A person's spirit can be like that.  If the living water of God's presence and peace aren't asked for and used, then we, too, dry up and become barren.  Without God's life-giving joy, there's only sadness and darkness in the human spirit.  Many people today, perhaps more especially in these difficult economic times in our country, find themselves immersed in sadness and darkness.  Some may even eventually adopt the attitude of the young schoolboy mentioned by C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity: when asked what he thought God was like, the schoolboy replied, "The sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself, and then trying to stop it."  

On the contrary, faith and God's Word suggest the only solution our sadness and darkness.  The 49th chapter of Isaiah tells of God's faithful servant "saying to the prisoners, 'Come forth,' and to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.'" Isaiah speaks of God in terms of a woman suckling her infant: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you."  Jesus, the greatest of God's servants, say in John 5:19-29: "...the Son gives life to whom he will...I say to you, the one who hears my word and believes God who sent me has eternal life...has passed from death to life...for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear God's voice and come forth..."

Sadness and darkness are like a tomb for us.  Like the well, we become dry and dark.  But through living water, the presence of God's Spirit, and through Jesus, the light of the world, the well can once again become filled; the tomb can open and we can walk out.

But there is a price.  Whatever lasts and whatever is of value always has a price.  The servant of which Isaiah speaks and Jesus, God's perfect servant, remember, are both suffering servants.  Perhaps the following story can be helpful:

"One winter day when Saint Francis and Brother Leo were walking along the road to Assisi from Perugia, Francis called out to Leo in the bitter cold five times, each time telling him what perfect joy was not: 'Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what is more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days -- write that perfect joy is not in that.'  He continued with different descriptions of success -- and even spiritual enjoyment.  When he had been talking this way for two miles, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: 'Father, I beg you in God's name to tell me where perfect joy is to be found?'

And Francis replied: 'When we come to the Portiuncula, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of our friary and the brother porter comes and says angrily: 'Who are you?' And we say: 'We are two of your brothers.'  And he contradicts us, saying: 'You are not telling the truth.  Go away!'  And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry until night falls -- then if we endure the cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and lovingly that the porter really knows us.  O, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is to be found there!

And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out and drives us away with curses and hard blows -- and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts.  O, Brother Leo, that is perfect joy! And now hear the conclusion: Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.'"
(from The Fioretti [Little Flowers] of St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter VIII)

Look at the crucifix: there you will see the cost of joy and light.  It will take that to fill the well and open the tomb.  But that kind of hard-won joy will endure.  Just prior to his death, Jesus assured us:  " have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you..."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

29th Anniversary - Lest We Forget

The Prayer of Archbishop Oscar Romero
(1917 - 1980)

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
Of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about,
we plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
In realizing that. This enables us to do something,
And to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
But it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

(Thanks to Marcia Ghali at The Second Time Around…)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Unconditional Positive Regard"

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ 
came down from heaven to be the true bread 
which gives life to the world: 
Evermore give us this bread, 
that he may live in us,  and we in him; 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

You could call St. Andrew's appearance in John 6:4-15, the Episcopal lectionary Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Lent, a cameo appearance.  He's almost incidental in the story about Jesus' feeding of the crowd.  As in other parts of the Gospel, Andrew is just Peter's younger brother, an ordinary chap who stays in the background, doesn't make any waves, and seems to always be in the right place at the right time.  He has an uncanny ability to offer whatever is available: ordinary things, ordinary gifts, which help get the job done.

In the story Andrew accepts and brings to Jesus' attention a young boy's five loaves of bread and two fish.  The whole miraculous feeding turns on these simple, ordinary supplies.  When Jesus blesses, breaks, and gives them, they prove to be more than adequate to satisfy the immediate need.  In other words, ordinary people and ordinary gifts can sometimes be life-changing.

So often you and I, our society, and even the Church seem to hold up and onto only important people, heroic ones, "big names", as examples for imitation.  While it's true that we need great figures to inspire us, frankly, such heroes can often be depressing to us ordinary folks because they make us feel so inadequate, so klutzy, so ungifted.  Most of us figured out long ago that we're not and never will be "heroes", or great leaders, or statesmen, or notable saints.  History focusses on the great and generally ignores the countless host of "little people" who oftentimes make the great ones possible.

Recall for a moment the ordinary people who've been crucial in your own life and development.  When you were an awkward teenager, struggling to grow up, was there, perhaps, an adult who really believed in you?  who encouraged you to be confident enough to take a risk?  Think of the ordinary people who've stood with you at each crossroad of your life and have given you wise counsel.  Where would you and I be today without these ordinary folks who shared with us their ordinary gifts?

That you and I may never be remembered in dramatic ways by posterity isn't at all to say that you and I aren't important. Ordinary as we are, each one of us has countless opportunties to encourage others, to be sensitive, to heal, to forgive, to be open to another's hurt, to offer some small, ordinary gift: as ordinary as bread or fish.

Part of the problem is that we too often think of ourselves as unimportant, even useless, because we focus on our deficiencies, rather than on our gifts and skills.  Every one of us has some disability or handicap.  Some of mine are: flat feet; one leg shorter than the other; and the inability to understand advanced math! For others it may be a birth-mark; an ugly nose; not being able to whistle or ski.  Still others are limited in learning, physically challenged, or unable to communicate because of a visual, hearing, or language impairment.  2% of our population are developmentally delayed, mentally retarded, autistic, or severely emotionally disturbed.  All of us have some limitation, deficiency, or disability, to a lesser or greater degree.  That fact, however, should never become the occasion of convincing ourselves that we have nothing to offer to others to enrich their lives.

For two and a half years back in the 1980's I was privileged to work as a classroom aide for the Sacramento County Office of Education in a special education program for young people, age 14-22.  They were, and still are, truly special to me.  Before becoming involved in the program, I'd stared at such people, avoided their company or dealing with them, mostly out of uncertainty and fear.  Once they accepted me into their lives, however, I came to discover both their ordinariness and their incredible giftedness, in some areas far beyond my own "normal" abilities.  My life would have been immensely impoverished had I not been the beneficiary of their very ordinary, but special, gifts.

One day, in the course of my duties in the program, I'd taken two of our students to a training center where, along with others who had various disabilities, they were involved in a work program where they could earn a bit of money for packaging a product.  As I and the other teachers and aides were looking on, a heated argument broke out between two of the young men there.  Such outbursts often tend to "set off" inappropriate behaviors among some of the severely handicapped, so the atmosphere at that time was immediately quite tense.  There was a long silence.  No one knew what might happen next.  And then one of the young men involved, without looking up from his work, said, very audibly, to the other young man: "I'm sorry."  An ordinary person, with an ordinary gift of reconciliation in two simple words!

Writer Mary Lou Redding captures the warmth of the gift of ordinariness thus:

Grandma isn't beautiful like Esther or brave like Deborah.  She's almost blind and not always pleasant.  When I was a little girl, Grandma would hug me and I'd feel the flesh of her upper arms kind of wrap me up.  She always smelled faintly of vanilla extract (Grandma made wonderful muffins, and I got to help), and she was soft everywhere.  But most important, Grandma thought I was wonderful.  Psychologists call it 'unconditional positive regard,' I think, but to me it was just being with Grandma.
Grandma's very old now.  Thick glasses obscure her dancing eyes.  She doesn't hear really well, either, but we just pull our chairs real close together so she can see and hear.  I go and sit with her and we talk and rock and she tells me about when she was a little girl and when I was a little girl.

Last time I went to see her, Grandma and I stood hugging when it was time for me to go.  She put her hands on my arms and said, 'You were always my favorite, you know.  I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, and I loved all you kids.  But you were my favorite.'  And I can't see her eyes, but I can feel them dancing.  Grandma just plain loves just plain me, and she loves me all the time." 

It's hard, if not impossible, for you and me to see God's eyes, but we can feel them dancing.  And that unseen, mighty and holy God "just plain loves just plain [you and] me", and God loves us all the time! Julian of Norwich, in a rather startling statement, assures us:  "Because of the great endless love that God has towards all mankind, He makes no distinction in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least soul that shall be saved."   

Unconditional positive regard, indeed!        

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fault Finding: A Useless Enterprise

One of our common human afflictions is continually finding fault with one another.  John 4:26-42 recounts the second half of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman's meeting at the well of Jacob.  After she and Jesus have their little back-and-forth about living water and genuine worship, the Apostles return to the scene after making a lunch-run in Sychar.  When they see Jesus with, horror of horrors, a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that, their discreetness only thinly veils their fault-finding with Jesus over his "breach" of cultural purity.  John's point, however, is that our task isn't to find fault with one another, but to find God and be found by God, and enable others to do the same.  

Each of us could ponder for a few minutes and call to mind someone or several someones within the past six months or a year somewhat like the Samaritan woman: a person whom we've judged by appearances; someone with whom, silently or aloud, we've found fault.  John's story is a reminder to us of how idle an activity that is.  Even more important, how dangerous, how wrong, it is for us to ever presume to write anyone off on the basis of perceived or even real faults.  In receiving, totally undeserved, the cleansing, "living water" of Baptism, we've pledged ourselves to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being..."  As we live more deeply into the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection in this time of Lent, we recommit ourselves more firmly to that pledge.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Words and Relationships

A college student who discovered that he needed a Bible for a religion course wrote home asking that his Bible be sent to him. His father wrapped it carefully and took it to the post office. The clerk took the package and shook it. “Anything in here that can be broken?”, he asked. With a wry smile on his face, the father replied: “Only the 10 Commandments!

The so-called 10 “commandments” mean, literally, “words” in Hebrew. Whenever I think of them, I remember how, as seminarians at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, we were allowed to go off-campus to see Cecil B. DeMille’s new classic movie The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, whose commanding presence had us riveted to the screen. Who could forget the magnificent special effects when God parted the Red Sea, and when God engraved the 10 words of the Law on stone tablets?! My enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, however, upon reading a negative review of the movie a short while later. Referring particularly to the “orgy scene”, while Moses was busy up on the mountaintop, the review critic tersely dismissed the film with the comment: “Dancing girls and dogma don’t mix.

As you and I think about our lives during this Lenten season, we realize first-hand how easily God’s commandments can be broken. They have to do, more than anything else, with relationships: relationships with God and with one another. Experience confirms how fragile our relationships are: how easily damaged and broken through careless actions and words. The ancient laws of Israel’s early history make it clear that God wants people to be faithful, not only in worship, but especially in their relationships.

On pp. 847-848 the Book of Common Prayer clearly notes that the first four commandments have to do with recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship. God is to be the focus of our belief and trust. The remaining six commandments describe human relationships and how we’re responsible for the way in which we treat one another. Someone has defined sin as “treating people like things and things like people”, and in the words given to Moses on the mountain there’s a firm warning against such a confusion of priorities. When things become idols, relationships inevitably suffer.

It’s not uncommon to read the commandments and to conclude, just as Paul did: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Most of us identify with Paul’s sense of weakness and frustration. In his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul describes a kind of civil war taking place inside us. The sense that “I can will, but I cannot do” articulates that inner conflict between desire and power, raging within human beings ever since the Fall. Agnes Rogers Allen humorously quips:
“I should be better, brighter, thinner
And more intelligent at dinner.
I should reform and take pains,
Improve my person, use my brains.
There’s lots that I could do about it,
But will I?...Honestly, I doubt it.” 

Are the commandments even still possible for followers of Jesus who, in modern times radically different from Moses’, are trying to serve God faithfully? The BCP asks, on p. 848: “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
And it answers: “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.

When reading the commandments, it’s easy to forget that they’re part of a much larger narrative: the whole story of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt and their children’s wandering in the desert wilderness for many years. These words preface the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Law is given to people who have been saved from slavery. The salvation of God’s people isn’t earned through their obedience to a code of law. God’s action came first. Observance of the Law, however, is their appropriate human response to what God has already done.

It’s difficult for any of us to observe God’s words on any given day, keeping both the letter and the spirit of what
God asks of us. The commandments’ specific details help to graphically remind us that we are selfish, sinful, and that we need redemption. The different commandments emphasize God’s absolute claim on all of our life. But in our conscientiousness about observing the commandments, we need to bear in mind that God gave them to people whom God had already saved. It’s also important to remember that, because God’s words describe God’s claim on our lives in terms of specific things to do, we can too quickly be distracted away from God and focussed on “requirements”.

As he grew spiritually, Paul began to understand the problem resulting from attempts to earn God’s approval merely through keeping the commandments. He came to recognize that the Law is different from legalism. Paul wrote to the Philippian community that he’d been keeping the Law, but entirely for the wrong reasons: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ -- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead...

Before his life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been living as if he could, according to C. K. Barrett, “gain control of God by paying his fee”. Paul acknowledged that the law, indeed, sets out God’s holy expectations of the way we should act towards God and each other. Yet the very way in which it redirects our attention and focus towards our activity and away from God’s is the law’s weakness. In and of itself the law can’t lead to life. It doesn’t resolve the inner conflict, the civil war, in the soul.

This insufficiency of the law is a real issue in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Jesus is a controversial man in John’s Gospel. John’s narrative of how Jesus enters the Temple and chases out the money-changers and the animal-sellers is a good example [John 2:13-22]. The confrontation between Jesus and the merchants is really a conflict over priorities. In it, who Jesus is (the Son of his Father) and what he represents (the living God), clashes with the values espoused by the religious institutional leaders which Jesus challenges. After chasing out those who had set up their businesses in the immediate Temple area, Jesus speaks rather mysteriously about the destruction of the Temple and its being “raised” up again. Generations later, you and I understand Jesus’ words to be an image of his own death and resurrection, whereas the Jewish authorities think he literally means the Jerusalem Temple. And that offends them! 

It’s important to bear in mind just how sacred the Temple building was in Jewish religious life. It was the external witness to God, and the place where people drew most near to God. It was holy and unique. It stood at the center of Jewish faith. But Jesus saw that the Temple, a human construction, had become the object of devotion: an idol, rather than God; an end in itself. Despite all the good things which the Temple was supposed to represent for the Jews, Jesus knew that, in their misplaced devotion to the building, people had let their focus be redirected away from the living God. The Temple was, without question, important. The problem was that people gave to their rites, customs, holy places, even to their laws, the special devotion due only to the one and living God. They missed entirely the spirit of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Jesus understood that even our religious practices and preferences can become lesser gods, idols, for us if they become the chief objects of our devotion. The universal temptation we face today is to become so preoccupied with the desire to excel and to succeed as “Christians” that we begin to focus on what we are doing instead of on what God continues to do for us in Jesus.

The commandments are important words about what God intends for us. We and the society in which we live need to take them much more seriously than we do. That being said, we have to continually remind ourselves that our Christian faith and practice entails far more than rules and regulations. It has to do primarily with relationships. William Barclay writes that, while morality is knowledge of what to do (a code), Christianity is the knowledge of Jesus Christ (a person). Paul understood that clearly. Important as the commandments are, we don’t secure God’s favor simply by observing them. A narrow focus on mere things, rituals, rules, and appearances can’t resolve the civil war within ourselves.

Wretched man that I am!” exclaims Paul, “Who will free me from this body of death?” His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s only when we’re centered and focussed on Jesus that we’re able to do what we know we ought to do. It’s only through faith in Jesus that we can grasp, as he did and as Paul must have, the depth of the words of Psalm 19:

The law (word) of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul...
The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart...
By them also is your servant enlightened,
and in keeping them there is great reward...” 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Baptism: Possessing Heavenly Strength of Bone

72 years ago today, two weeks after I was born, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Dayton, OH, at the hands of Reverend Cletus A. King, at the baptismal font which you see above, I received the greatest blessing possible for a human being: rebirth in the Love which is Creator/Redeemer/Life-giving Breath. Though I, a newborn infant, couldn't even walk, I was set on a journey in that Love which has carried me through 72 years by the power of that Love, and which will culminate in returning to that Love on the unknown day in the future when I take my last human breath.

An article appearing in Julian Jottings, a small publication of "Thoughts on Things Spiritual" which the Order of Julian of Norwich issues to its Affiliates every couple of months, arrived in the mail a few days ago.  The article, entitled "Passages", was written by our dear and venerable Sister Cornelia, OJN: a reflection on the passage in Ezechiel 37, the prophet's experience in the Valley of the Dry Bones. [It'll be posted soon on: www.order of  Go to "iPublications", then click on "Julian Jottings"]  How can one ever fully understand, much less express, what happens at Baptism? As I come to gradually appreciate the reality in my own personal life, it becomes clear that I experience quite vividly what Sister Cornelia calls "exegetical poverty" in speaking about it.  Nevertheless, Sister Cornelia does a pretty good job, and I want to share just a few of her thoughts with you as I invite you to rejoice with me today on this anniversary of my "rebirth".

She says:  "When in the [Ezechiel] story God breathes his Spirit into the bones, a miracle occurs and the bones rise up, fully clothed again in humanity and life.  It is easy to see how extraordinary that is.  But when God's Spirit enters you in baptism silenter than a breath and because you have a body and seem to be already alive, the enormity of the miracle is lost in the prettiness of the symbols.  It is hard to realize that the birth of the Spirit happens so quickly and so silently, to be aware that the bones of the soul have jumped up to meet their God...We are brought completely to life at baptism: by water, chrism, candles, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most Holy Trinity...But the amazingness of baptism may take years to impinge.  To realize that it is an hour struck on the world clock: one more stone knocked from Satan's empire of wickedness and sinful desire; the raising up of one more person possessing heavenly strength of bone that could lead to holiness and the service of righteousness -- one more living breathing person for Love in the mystical Body of Christ..."

According to my baptismal certificate, my godparents were my aunt, Florence Fries, and John Froehle, likely my mother's cousin.  Aside from them and my parents, Robert and Grace Allagree, I don't know who else was present. Baptisms, in those days, were generally silent, private little events done off in some corner of the church on a Sunday afternoon.  That I was "done" within two weeks of being born may or may not have been motivated by the then common Catholic anxiety that a child should be baptized as soon as possible lest something dire happen in the meantime and the child be shuffled off to, as they called it then but never clarified what "it" was, "Limbo".  Whether there was any sort of celebration of the event afterwards is also unknown, although given my family's propensity for "the drink", I would imagine that this occasion was eagerly welcomed as a time to share the happiness!  But, then, none of that matters, really.

By God's grace I've been privileged to walk since then in the power of that Love originally given, to dedicate most of my years to the Church and to share the mutual ministry of the Good News with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The words of the Book of Common Prayer may differ somewhat from the Rituale Romanum, likely used at my Baptism, but surely sum up what this anniversary is all about:

"Do you believe in God the Father?"
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?"
"Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?"
"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?"
"Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?"
"Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?"
"Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?"
"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

Yes, yes, yes: I will, with God's help!


Friday, March 13, 2009

Strength in Weakness: A Portrait of The Humble Bishop of Haiti

I never cease to be amazed at my lack of awareness and understanding of the rich and humble sanctity, dedication and often groundbreaking ministries of African American Episcopalian pioneers.  James Theodore Holly was, until this week, a name I didn't recognize.  What a refreshing discovery it has been!

In Facts About the Church's Mission in Haiti,  published in New York in 1897, when he was 68, Bishop Holly gives a glimpse of what he'd accomplished there to that point, as well as specific needs for the future.  He writes about this so humbly that you might get the impression that he's referring to another person.  What was even more helpful for me, since I knew nothing about him, was his autobiographical information.

James was born on October 3, 1829, in Washington, D.C., near Georgetown, and received his schooling there until the family moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1844.  His older sister taught him in an "infant school" when he was five.  He notes that when his father, James Overton Holly, was thirteen, in 1799, his grandfather, Reuben Holly, migrated from St. Mary's County, MD to Washington and was one of the laborers on the construction of the U.S. Capitol building.  

James Holly and I share something in common: the fact that both of us were born into and raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  Bishop Holly recalls that his first Bible was a Douay-Rheims version, as was mine, given to him when he was about fifteen by Rev. Felix Varela, pastor of Transfiguration Catholic Church, New York.  He notes that Fr. Varela, a Spaniard, was apparently a relative of Queen Isabella of Spain.  Since James Holly had indicated a interest in ministry, it was only natural that Fr. Varela would want to send James to Rome to study for the priesthood.  I'd be interested to know the motivation for sending him to Rome, since there were any number of U.S. seminaries operative at that time.  My guess would be that, with the existence of slavery in this country for another twenty or so years beyond this time, this was, perhaps, the only option. As it turned out, the very gift of the Douay-Rheims Bible, "full of explanatory notes in the Roman Catholic sense", which Holly assiduously read, "...gradually weaned me away from the unscriptural ways of that church, and when I was in my twenty-second year I withdrew from membership therein..."  He doesn't elaborate on which "unscriptural ways" led to his transition into the Episcopal Church, but I can identify with his choice, having made the same one myself in 1977 for different reasons.

When James Holly was 26 he was ordained deacon by Bishop McCoskry at St. Paul's, Detroit, MI, on June 17, 1855. 
James returned to New York the next month with a letter of recommendation from Bishop McCoskry, which he had requested earlier, to be sent as a missionary to Haiti.  The Foreign Committee of the Episcopal Church commissioned James to visit Haiti and to collect information on the feasibility of establishing a mission there.  He arrived in Port-au-Prince on July 31, 1856, and spent a month gathering data which he presented to the Foreign Committee upon his return to New York in September, 1856.  In the meantime, he was made Rector of St. Luke's, New Haven, CT, where he'd been ordained a priest, January 2, 1856, by Bishop John Williams, then Assistant Bishop of Connecticut.  The Foreign Committee, in the meantime, though it was favorable to Holly's report, didn't find itself immediately able to establish a mission in Haiti.  Five years later the President of Haiti invited the "colored people" of the United States to send a pastor and a group of emigrants to Haiti.  The Bishop of Connecticut concurred with the request, approved James Holly as a missionary to Haiti, and provided commendatory letters to the President of Haiti, since there was no Episcopal/Anglican bishop there.  Holly set sail on May 1, 1861.  He began his ministry immediately by baptizing a child of one of the emigrant families, who had been born during the trip.  The baptism took place at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, "...the President of Haiti and Mrs. Geffrard standing as godfather and godmother of the child..." The President further made a spacious hall available in his private mansion for the celebration of Sunday Eucharist.

Then came a time of testing.  A deadly fever broke out among the colonists, and within six months there were 43 deaths. Holly notes that it was so bad that " many as four persons in one day had been committed to their last resting-place..."  Most sadly, Holly's family itself was touched directly.  Having sailed from New Haven with his family of eight, within nine months after their arrival "...only three remained alive, myself and my two little sons, aged respectively three and five years..."  Where people of lesser mettle would have given up, James Holly reflects on his life then with unshakeable faith in the face of adversity:  "...God remembered me in eduing my soul with patience under my affliction, and with resignation to His blessed will.  He comforted me with a sense of His goodness;...gave me peace by bringing to my spiritual apprehension that, as the last surviving apostle of Jesus was 'in tribulation and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ,' on the forlorn isle of Patmos, so, by His Divine Providence, He had brought this tribulation upon me for a similar end in this isle of the Caribbean Sea.  St. John had a mission to writing to churches that had fallen away from their pristine Gospel integrity.  I had come to Haiti to bear a pure Gospel testimony to a nominally Christian people whose knowledge of Christianity had been received from a church which had also fallen away from its original purity..."

James Holly, leaving his two boys in the care of one of the member families, attended the General Convention of 1862, seeking a missionary stipend and funding for a house within the city.  Previously, he and the group had been living on a farm outside the city, where the environment was very unhealthy.  As a result of the devastating plague, most of the remaining emigrants, except for about 20 people, chose to return to the U.S.  In 1863 an American resident there offered a large hall in the city, free of charge, if they would conduct their services there.  Holly and the group, of course, readily accepted.  Having received a stipend through the American Church Missionary Society, he was able to rent a house in the city from which to carry on his ministry.  "From that moment the work went on encouragingly, so that Holy Trinity Church, Port-au-Prince, was organized" on May 25, 1863, and taken into union by the Episcopal Church's General Convention.  

Within three years, a deacon and a priest were ordained, and the Haitian Church Convocation organized.  Three new missions were established.  Within another six years two students, who'd been sent to the Mission House in Philadelphia, returned to Haiti as priests.  A church, rectory, and schoolhouse was erected at Port-au-Prince.  Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, upon his visitation in 1872, ordained six deacons and five priests, and consecrated the new Port-au-Prince church.  All this within 10 years, and with much hard work and suffering!  Bishop Coxe was the catalyst in promoting the importance of the Haitian missions to the Episcopal Church and the idea that the time was ripe for a Bishop for the missionary jurisdiction.  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1874 entered into a covenant with the Haitian Convocation paving the way for this.  James Holly's consummate humility and servanthood is reflected in what he writes next about this:  "...Under this covenant the first Bishop of the church in Haiti was consecrated on the 8th day of the same month [November], in Grace Church, New York City, by Bishop [Benjamin Bosworth] Smith, then presiding Bishop of the church in the United States, assisted by six other Bishops, among whom was the Bishop of Kingston, Jamaica.  Since the conscration of the Bishop for Haiti he has confirmed upwards of 500 candidates, ordained ten deacons, and advanced nine deacons to the priesthood..."

Bishop Holly concludes his small treatise with a simple statement of what is currently needed for the Church in Haiti, and commends them to "American Christian patriots" for generous contributions:  a new parish rectory in Port-au-Prince; the means to reopen and carry on the program of the Primary Normal School; a dispensary and hospital at Port-au-Prince; and a training school for candidates for Holy Orders. 

Today, 112 years after Bishop Holly wrote his small treatise, Haiti has 96 parishes/missions; 83,869 baptized members; 8597 church school pupils.  Each year approximately 1182 children and 917 adults are baptized; 180 marriages are celebrated; and 200 burials performed.  And all because of God's grace of a missionary vocation given to a young man, who, acting on that grace, found strength even in the weakness of his circumstances.  And a "Roman retread" at that! How happy I am that both James Holly and I found our way into the Episcopal Church! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Evil - A Recompense for Good?

A passage from the prophet Jeremiah (18:1-11; 18-20) strikes a responsive note because it ends with a bothersome question for us all:  "Is evil a recompense for good?"

You and I couch the question in different words:  
"Why did God cause this (fill in the blank) to happen?"  
"I don't understand it: I pray and pray, and God never answers."
"There's no justice in this world! The rich just get richer and the poor, poorer."

You could say that Jeremiah was a sort of "visual learner".  God had a message for him, but told him to go to potter's studio.  "...there I will let you hear my words."  Jeremiah watches intently as the potter works at his wheel, fashioning a clay vessel.  But he goofs (the potter, that is).  Perhaps he pressed too hard, used too much water on the clay, didn't spin the wheel fast enough; whatever, the pattern he'd set out to make was spoiled.

Jeremiah noticed that the potter didn't become upset and throw the piece of clay angrily against the wall.  Ever so patiently, "he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do..."  It was then, after watching how the potter handled the situation that God conveyed the message which Jeremiah was to proclaim to Israel.

God compares Godself to the potter, with Israel (humankind) being the clay, in God's hand.  If the people are "bad" clay, i.e., they are not as clay should be, God can still choose to fashion them into something useful, to accomplish God's purposes, if the clay will yield to God's expert touch.

If, on the other hand, people who are "good" clay, capable of being fashioned into a vessel of God's choosing, willfully allow themselves to be deficient clay, then even God will not exercise God's artistry.  God will not contradict the laws of nature which are the expression of God's creative goodness and truth.  The logical consequence, despite God's creative hand, will be the creation of a misshapen vessel.  The potter's creative purpose will have been purposely frustrated by the clay.  

"Is evil a recompense for good", therefore?? Does God cause evil in our lives: bad things to happen to good people?? Absolutely not! For God is like a potter, after all, and what is a potter like? Is the message of Jeremiah, using the image of the potter, meant to convey simply that the potter has dominion, that he "calls the shots", that the clay isn't important, that the potter exercises arbitrary control over the vessel's existence?? that he can shape ugliness and deficiency regardless of the quality of his clay?? 

Or does the prophet's message have a much different thrust? Perhaps this:
- that a potter is one whose delight is in creating, in giving things the possibility to be.
- that a potter is careful, precise, patient.
- that a potter puts something of him/herself into what is created.
- that a potter fashions things that are useful, things which benefit and serve others.

"Is evil a recompense for good?"  No.  But to say that doesn't mean that this is a complete answer, or that you and I understand or can ever fully understand the mystery of evil in the world and in our lives.  It isn't a complete answer, but it is a firm and sure answer, nonetheless, based on God's Word, revealed to us in Jesus.

The reality of being human and limited and the inheritors of our first parents' sin is that sooner or later we'll each find ourselves as spoiled vessels in the Potter's hands.  But our faith tells us that God can and does rework us into another vessel, "as it (seems) good to the potter to do."  St. Paul puts it this way:  "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."