Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Big Brother I Never Knew

Robert Jerry Allagree was the oldest of my four brothers, actually half-brothers.  Today is the 30th anniversary of his death in 1979, at age 51.

I first knew of him when I was in middle school.  My sister, Pat, called him "Bobby" at the time, but later he was called "Bob".  Since then I've learned only a very few things about him:

- He was born November 11, 1927, in Indianapolis, IN, to my father Robert Joseph Allagree and his first wife, Verda Mae Beal, who died of tuberculosis eight years later, in 1935.
- He grew up with his and my sister, Pat, at St. Joseph's Orphanage, Dayton, OH, staffed by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, the same order of nuns which staffed the elementary school in Troy, OH, which I attended for five years.  Bob's was not a happy childhood in the orphanage, as I've learned from my sister, nor was hers.
- He applied for a Social Security number in December, 1942, when he was 15.
- He served in the U.S. Navy, though I have no records of dates, etc., only a copy of a picture of him in uniform, with the inscription to my sister, Pat: "To The Most Wonderful Sister in the World.  Your bro-, Bob."
- He was a handsome young man, judging from copies of the pictures which my sister gave me several years ago.  I can see certain features which we had in common, for example, a broad smile. 
- He was, according to my sister, definitely a "ladies' man", just as our father was. The picture above was taken when he was 27.  My guess is that he especially, among the boys in the family, inherited the charm and the con which our father excelled in: a James Dean-esque sort of thing.  A good looking bad boy.  My sister saw him only occasionally in adult life.  She intimated, when I first contacted her, that Bob moved around a lot.  One year she admitted that she hadn't heard from him in a long time, but that he was still alive, as far as she knew.  Then she added, "Of course, there may be a lot of angry husbands out there by now!"
- According to my sister, he had married a woman named Phyllis, a fact which I've not been able to verify so far, and had two children, Jerry and Diane. Pat had a high school picture of each of the children which she shared with me.  
- Bob  died on February 28, 1979, in Los Angeles County, CA.  His last residence is listed as Long Beach, CA.  His last benefit is listed as La Habra, CA, in Orange County.

We entrust our brother, Bob, into the loving hands of God,
who alone is holy and just and good, 
and we commend him to God's mercy, forgiveness, and love, 
in the sure and certain hope of resurrection to unending life
in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Amen.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Best Birthday Ever!

I can't even remember how many years it has been since my 34 year old son celebrated a birthday with me.  We've just been miles apart, it seems, for the annual event.  I can't remember a birthday I've enjoyed more than today when I took the party to Andrew's room at UCSF Medical Center! His partner, Jeff, joined us in consuming half of that very delicious chocolate cake you see above! Yes, even on my diet and on a fast-and-abstinence day during Lent! Ever full of humor, Andrew suggested that I switch the candles! Of course, that would never fly.  He did, however, tell his two neurologists who came to speak with us that his father was celebrating his "60th" birthday! (Always the parent, I hastened to correct him.)  

The doctors had good tidings on this special day: Andrew has suffered no permanent damage of any sort, and could be released from the hospital some time next week.  Physical rehabilitation elsewhere is being looked into, but his progress has been such that the doctors feel that there's no reason that he can't fully recover.  

For this and for all the tender mercies of this day and those of the past 72 years, "Thanks be to God!"

The Dancer and the Saint: A Young Man in Love

"It happens to everyone at least once.
You discover inside yourself a surprising ability to be happy and to make others happy.
You fall in love.
Someone once said that only then do you really begin to live.  Before that, you are not able to give yourself completely because you have not yet savored the real taste of things.
And then it is over; but it has made you a are able to go on because you have learned what it means to be alive.  You have understood that the meaning of life consists in loving and in being loved.
This is what happened to him, as was normal.
But there is a difference.
For him, the falling in love of his youth never ended.
There was no time for it to end, because his life was fully spent in this context, ending in his twenty fourth year...
Herein lies the explanation of the popularity of Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows..."  (Saint Gabriel Possenti, Passionist, by Gabriele Cingolani, C.P., translated by S. B. Zak)

There are technically two liturgical commemorations on February 27, the date of my birth:  George Herbert (in the Anglican/Episcopal calendar), about whom I've written below, and St. Gabriel Possenti, a member of the Congregation of the Passion (in the Roman Catholic calendar).  I say "technically" because in actual fact, Herbert's commemoration usually gets displaced because of Lent, and because Gabriel's commemoration didn't even make the cut in the Vatican's last major shuffle of saints' feasts.  But that doesn't dampen my devotion to both gentlemen, especially on my natal day!

Gabriel was born, March 1, 1838, in Assisi with the full name of Francesco Giuseppe Vicenzo Pacifico Rufino, son of Sante Possenti and Agnese Frisciotti.  In the spring of 1841 the family moved to Poggio Mirteto, where his father was named governor, and in the fall, to Spoleto, northeast of Rome and just southeast of Assisi, where Sante Possenti became the legal assessor of the Papal delegation.  Then began a series of incredible losses for Francesco, extending over the next 14 years: his seven month old sister, Rosa, in December, 1841; his seven year old sister, Adele, in January, 1842, of a cerebral hemorrhage, followed by his mother, Agnese, in February, of meningitis; his 21 year old brother, Paolo, in October, 1848; his 27 year old brother, Lorenzo, in February, 1853, by suicide; and his 26 year old sister, Maria Louisa, in June, 1855, of cholera.  

Francesco began his elementary education in 1844 with the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and his secondary studies at the Jesuit school in Spoleto in 1850.  It seems that he excelled academically all through his life. A serious and devout, though very normal boy, he came down with a serious throat illness the next year and made a promise to enter religious life.  The promise was quickly forgotten once he recovered and resumed his many activities, particularly hunting which he loved.  In 1854 the throat abscess recurred a second time, and Francesco repeated his promise to enter religious life if he recovered.  He did follow through this time by applying to the Jesuits who accepted his application. But Francesco couldn't bring himself to take the step. He was very much a part of the social scene in Spoleto, earning for himself the nickname of "the dancer".   

In August, 1856 Francesco seems to have had some sort of deep religious experience during a procession with the image of the Virgin Mary, and began to come to a decision about entering religious life.  Sante, his father, was dead-set against his decision, and right up to the time Francesco entered the Passionists, he enlisted help from a number of family and relatives to dissuade Francesco.  Francesco had had several romantic involvements, and up to the night he left for the monastery there were still hopes that he might become engaged to a local girl, Maria Pennacchietti. Nevertheless, Francesco's confessor confirmed  that he believed his vocation to be authentic, and so Francesco Possenti, in the company of his brother, Luigi, a Dominican priest, set out in September, 1856 for the Passionist House at Morrovalle.  While on the way he had another, more intense, inner experience which seemed to convince him that he was making the right decision.  After an eleven day retreat at Morrovalle, Francesco entered the novitiate on September 21, 1856.  He was vested in the Passionist habit and took the religious name "Brother Gabriel of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows", to whom he had a great devotion.  A year later he professed vows as a Passionist.  

At age 20 Gabriel was on his way to ordination as a priest, beginning his philosophical and Latin studies in 1858. That summer he was transferred to the house at Pievetorina, where his brother, Michele, now a medical student in Rome, visited him in September.  Toward the end of the year, the bothersome throat ailment began to plague him once again. The next year he began theological studies, leaving Pievetorina in July for Isola del Gran Sasso.  Two years later, in May, 1861, Gabriel took the first formal steps toward the priesthood, receiving the tonure and minor orders.  

During the sixth months following, his health began to seriously deteriorate, and when he began coughing up blood the evidence of tuberculosis became more and more evident.  Gabriel continued the observances of the Passionist rule until he was ordered to bed in mid-February, 1862.  Even at that, he continued to wear the full Passionist habit, despite terrible fevers, again until he was finally ordered not to do so.  His spiritual guide, Fr. Norbert Cassinelli, was completely honest with Gabriel about the seriousness of his illness and his eventual death.  Gabriel was completely realistic about the situation and was determined to make the best of every moment in preparation for life beyond this world.  He accepted the fact that he would never experience the laying on of hands in ordination.  Surrounded by his community he died early in the morning on February 27, 1862, peacefully, his face luminous and smiling.

In 1868 Father Paul Bonnacia, a canon in Spoleto and a former classmate, published the first biography of Gabriel Possenti's life.  In less than 30 years Gabriel's cause for beatification was introduced, culminating in the official declaration sixteen years later, by Pius X, that he was "Blessed" Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.  Benedict XV canonized him a saint of the Church on May 13, 1920.  Pius XI proclaimed him co-patron of Italian Catholic youth in 1926, and John Paul II dedicated the crypt of the new shrine in his honor at Gran Sasso in June, 1985. 

The Parson and Poet

George Herbert's mother prayed that he would enter the ordained ministry of the Church of England.  His friends and supporters pooh-poohed that as a bad idea: the clerical state was far beneath George's abilities.  In the end he listened to both of them.

Born in 1593 in Montgomery Castle on the Welsh border to an ancient and aristocratic family, well connected to the monarchy, Herbert went on to earn degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge, later becoming a Fellow of the College and Public Orator of the University.  In May, 2007, I had the privilege of being in St. Mary's Church, Cambridge, where Herbert often orated.  He followed a path towards high political office and, at first, seemed to covet such.  Unfortunately, his royal patron King James I (as in KJVersion of the Bible) died.  However, he did succeed in briefly serving as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, along with his friend and fellow, Nicholas Ferrar, whose Little Gidding shrine I also visited: a very "holy" place.  Both of them became disillusioned with political life, at length, and resigned their seats.

After much thinking and praying, George Herbert concluded:  "Though the iniquity of the late times have made clergymen meanly valued, and the sacred name of priest contemptible, yet I will labour to make it honourable by consecrating all my learning, and all my poor abilities, to advance the glory of that God that gave them."  And so he did.

Herbert was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln in Lincoln Cathedral in 1626, and was made a Canon of the Cathedral, a "big gun", so to speak! Through the graces of King Charles I, he was appointed Rector of St. Andrew's, Bemerton near Salisbury, in 1630 and remained there the rest of his life, which, unfortunately was quite short.  He only attained 40 years.  Nevertheless, he was much beloved for his compassionate pastoral care and ministry there.  He also left us all an incredible legacy in his writing, both of prose and poetry, some of the most beautiful lyrics of which are used as hymns in the Anglican/Episcopal Churches.  Before his death he entrusted his poetry to his close friend, Nicholas Ferrar, who had them published later.  

My absolute favorite among many of his poems has to be Love III:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack'd any thing.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? A my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doeth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
(A Selection of Poems by George Herbert,
chosen & introduced by Ruth Etchells
A Lion Book, 1988)

George Herbert's legacy is, perhaps, best encapsulated in one of his brief comments:  "Nothing is little in God's service."


Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Evening With Pirates

This is the eve of the celebration of my 72nd year, the festivities of which will be shared with my son, Andrew, tomorrow at UCSF Medical Center: chocolate cake (of course! even in Lent!) and plates and napkins bearing the comment: "What's one more candle!"

As a be-nice-to-myself gift, I bought a ticket for tonight's performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance (or The Slave of Duty), presented by students at nearby Sonoma State University.  It was fantastic!! From the set and lighting, to the costumes, to the nicely done British accents, to the performance itself.  The "Keystone Cops" were outstanding, particularly the leader whose name I don't know.  "Major General" Jon Hakala did a flawless rendition of "The Model of a Modern Major General", one of the most difficult musical solos in any musical.  I, for one, was beaming with joy at the finale, and judging from the applause, so were the cast's colleagues.

This particular musical has special meaning for me.  I just now realized that it was almost exactly 50 years ago, in the spring of 1959, that Pirates of Penzance was chosen as the spring production at St. Charles Seminary, where I was in my first year of philosophy studies.  I know, I know what you're thinking -- how could we possibly pull this musical off with an all-male cast?! I can't honestly tell you, but I do know that whoever adapted it did a "capital job", as the British might say, and it was a huge success (it was also presented for our families and the public).  Of course, I don't think I ever really figured out or understood the story line until this evening.  Suffice it to say that it's much more plausible with a mixed cast of women and men! An upperclass deacon, one of my best friends in years to come and up to this day, in fact, directed the production.  I was cast as one of the little kids (young women in the original!) "climbing over rocky mountains".  Just as it was this evening, the "Major General" role then was done superbly by Phil Gilbert, a rich basso. I remember being in complete awe of him.

This was the first program I've attended at SSU, noted for its music program, and it evoked many happy memories.  I'm sure that it won't be the last one I attend there.        

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lent and The Winter of Our Discontent

There's a Bengalese proverb which says, "The heron's a saint when there are no fish in sight."

As we begin the liturgical season of Lent (lengten = springtime) tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, that proverb could serve as a commentary on our human condition and on our propensity to temptation, to testing: a subject which the Church constantly holds before us during this time.  As I think about the proverb and about the human condition today, a phrase from Shakespeare keeps ringing in my ears: "...the winter of our discontent".  What more easily frustrates and discontents us than our constant bombardment with temptation, and even more, our willingness so often to give in?

The writer of the Book of Genesis (2:4b-9; 15-17; 25-3:7) reflects on all this.  Rather than giving us a chronicle of how evil began, the writer tells a story about relationships: good relationships which go sour because of temptation and selfish choices.  God creates man, and eventually woman, in the fullness of life: breathes into them the breath of life, and surrounds them with every created and uncreated good, as depicted by the garden symbol.  God makes them aware of only one thing with which God will not, cannot, endow them: God's own divinity, symbolized in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And that becomes the "fish in sight" which tempts the "heron".

Rather than really listening to God, which is what obedience means in its root, humankind figures it can improve on the Creator's creation to the point where humans can cross over the boundary which was set.  Eve's reply to the serpent's question is a classic human misquoting of what "God says".  By going beyond what God actually says, the human being attempts to blunt the force of God's original radical command.  That's a constant temptation for all of us: to dictate to others what God "really" says or "really" means, thereby allowing ourselves to skirt God's actual will for us. Or to absolve ourselves from the great effort it takes to discern God's will, ambiguous as that often is.

Further, the woman and man just can't resist the allure of complete satisfaction, nor can they resist the attraction of all that's desirable and compelling to the human spirit, nor the insatiable thirst to know...everything.  Impossible dreams for people to whom God had already given everything that a human being would ever need to live fully!  "...She took of its fruit and ate; and...her husband who was with her...ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked..."  Thus begins "the winter of our discontent", our life-journey through temptation and vulnerability.

Lent reminds us of all this, but, thank God, it also reminds us that this wasn't the end of the story.  It reminds us that "as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made right [with God]."  Christians believe that Jesus, a human being like us, "tempted but without sin", yet also a divine being, the Son of God, makes it possible for humans once again to recapture the original blessing.  The Church will celebrate that reality in Holy Week and Easter. 

But it's a hard-won reality.  "The winter of our discontent" is a life-long memorial and warning of what cost the human race has paid for things to be set right again, of the cost which Jesus paid in giving his human life, and of the cost which each of his followers must pay as they struggle to be reborn from above.  At the end of the Lenten disciplines may we be able to pray the Easter collect with full awareness of what it means:

"...Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore 
live with him in the joy of his resurrection."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Wind Seems To Be Picking Up...!

Fairly or not, noted author Annie Dillard describes church folk as “cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute...The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship...The wind seems to be picking up...

In the Episcopal Church liturgy the season of Epiphany concludes today as Christians prepare for the forty days of Lent, beginning three days from now, on Ash Wednesday. You can hardly read the Scripture passages today with any kind of real understanding and not notice that, indeed, “the wind is picking up”! (cf. 2 Kings:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9) Try as we might to ignore, to pass off, or to resist that, -- and you and I do all of the above -- these readings are full of visions of transfiguration, of something new in the making, of the end of “business as usual”. God’s reign is coming among us in full force!

Along with Elisha and the company of prophets from Jericho, in in 2 Kings, we can hardly believe our ears and eyes in witnessing the whirlwind, the chariot and horses of fire which sweep Elijah up and snatch him “into heaven”, according to the writer. Our modern skeptical minds, are probably thinking, along with those motley prophets: “Let’s get the search party out there; it was a nice show, but surely God must have dropped Elijah out on some mountain or into a ravine. Let’s go and seek your master.” And Elisha forbids them. Elisha knows that they will not find him, that what God has done isn’t business as usual. The event has nothing to do with the politics of confirming Elisha’s credentials as a prophet after his mentor, Elijah.

Before the event, the prophets had been chittering to Elisha: “Hey, you know that God’s going to take your master away from you today, right? Now, YOU’LL be the master!” Partisan politics. Good PR to secure Elisha’s credentials. The motivation of political self-advancement. But Elisha knows better. God takes Elijah away in a unique and revelatory event: a sign of something which has nothing to do with cheap politics. When the prophets’ search party returns, after three days, there is no Elijah and Elisha reminds them: “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?

The Elijah story is sandwiched between the last sentence of Chapter 1 and the first sentence of Chapter 3 of 2 Kings, both of which deal with political commentaries. It’s hard to miss the difference in texture and tone between them and the story in Chapter 2. The author is using a literary device known as epanalepsis, meaning: repetition, resumption, taking up again, trying to show that what took place in the Elijah event is outside and beyond the “business as usual” of narrating Israel’s political history. God has taken Elijah, bodily, from this world, exempting him from death and receiving him into God’s glory. It’s a symbol for us that Death has met its match, because God is triumphant. We’re thereby assured that the same thing can happen in our time as when, historically, it did happen by God’s power with Jesus in the Passion & Resurrection, and continues to happen with all humankind. God’s saving power affects all of creation; new life and hope emerge from the darkness of Death. We and our world are reoriented. Just as Elisha, later in Chapter 2, immediately turns, by God’s power, to ministering to others, so God shows to us in the Elijah event that the only true meaning our human lives can have is in serving God by caring for one another.

When we turn to Mark’s Gospel passage, lo and behold, who should be there again but Elijah, along with Moses and with a now resplendent, transfigured Jesus on the mountain. By this event, too, Mark says that God’s ultimate, open restoration of all things in power is here. In the Person of Jesus the reign of God has arrived.

If Peter, James, and John, who knew Jesus firsthand, had travelled with him, heard him proclaim God’s good news, if they, as Mark says, “did not know what to say, for they were terrified” at this sight, then what about us church folk who live our lives so routinely and lackadaisically most of the time! What will it take to shake us up and open our eyes to become really serious about our commission to be God’s Church??

Just as Elisha had to shush the prophetic company as they mistakenly chittered on and on about politics, so Jesus and his Father, in essence, shut the disciples up. Peter is going on and on: “Rabbi, isn’t just great that we’re here! Look at us. We need to build some dwellings here: for you, for Moses, for Elijah, and [by implication] for ME too.

What Peter probably has in mind is the meeting tent mentioned in Numbers 11. Remember that scene in the wilderness?
The people were not only on Moses’ back, but on God’s back also: they
hated the place; they hated the food; it was all much better back in Egypt when they had cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic, and now they’re tired of walking, and all God gives them is this...manna stuff. Yech!

The writer of Numbers clues us in that, at this point, God has just about “had it”: “...the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp...” Then Moses starts in: “Why do you treat me so badly? Why do I get stuck with the burden of these idiots? Did I conceive them or give them birth, that you should say to me ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a child’? Where do you expect me to get food for all of them -- you know there aren’t many supermarkets along the way out here! I can’t do it alone! It’s too much! If you’re going to treat me this way, then why not just shoot me now?!

And what does God finally do: he tells Moses to gather together 70 elders and bring them to the tent of meeting “and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you...” So it’s there at the tent where God send his spirit on some new “bureaucrats”, men who now have some political standing among the people.

That’s probably what Peter thinks is happening on the mountain, and he’d like to believe he’s now Jesus’ new bureaucrat. Politics as usual; business as usual. “Let’s get tents pitched and me in office as the new administrator.

And don’t we in the Church repeat that same scenario over and over and over again! The Good News in Christ is right before our eyes and we miss it; we don’t want to be bothered to hear it, much less to live it: because it’s demanding; it costs. It’s NOT business or politics as usual. And if you don’t believe it, read the other 11 verses of Chapter 4 in 2nd Corinthians, the verses before and after the snippet which is today’s second reading:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from 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 made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh...

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Annie Dillard, whom I mentioned before, writes:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should  all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews...

The Lenten season ahead of us is not a time for “business as usual” in our spiritual lives, for worrying about ourselves, our wants, our interests, but, as the Church recommends in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, a time for prayer, fasting, and reaching out to others, for becoming one with our Master who “
went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified...” Hopefully we, too, “walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ...our Savior...

Friday, February 20, 2009

From Stranger to Friend to Family

As I was sitting with my friend, Ray Maloney, last evening in the huge Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael, looking around at the audience which filled nearly every one of the 1,960 seats, I asked Ray if he could imagine standing to preach before a congregation this large! Neither of us, of course, has ever had that pleasure and, both of us being retired, aren't likely to do so except, perhaps, in our dreams.

The event we attended was a presentation by Greg Mortenson, co-author of the incredibly successful paperback Three Cups of Tea (106 weeks on the bestseller list). Greg asked the audience how many had read his book, and easily three quarters or more of the hands in the auditorium were raised.  The title refers to his early experiences in Pakistan, after he had literally stumbled down, dirty, emaciated, and hungry, from an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit of the mountain called K-2, into the remote little Muslim village of Korfe.  I encourage you to read this fascinating book for all the details, but suffice it to say that out of his experiences, then and later, Greg learned that you have one cup of tea as a stranger, enjoying the hospitality of people different from you.  As relationships grow, the second time you have tea with them, it's as a friend.  And as shared experiences of trust and respect multiply, the third time you have tea is as one of their family members.

Greg's simple message to the world is that the root of our problems is fear based in ignorance.  He hammered away at the concept that learning, respect and trust lead to the accomplishment of what often seems humanly impossible. That message was reinforced by his sharing the fruit of his discussions, both with the indigenous people of Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, of many tribes and backgrounds, and with people at the highest level of our national government and the military.  He mentioned General Potraeus several times, himself a reader of Mortensen's book, and of the general's convictions, along with most of the other commanders currently on the ground in those countries, that we cannot win the struggle there, particularly in Afghanistan, by a military approach.  The key is education, pure and simple, particularly of the women in those countries.  Educated women have the capacity to bring along whole communities.  Greg mentioned that there are even ex-Taliban now teaching in the schools which Central Asia Institute, his organization, has made possible.  Further, whereas in the year 2000 only 800,000 children were enrolled, currently, out of a population of 32.7 million, 6 million children are now enrolled, and more and more are begging to have that advantage.  As Greg pointed out, it has become more and more crucial as the operations of the Taliban are largely being funded by money from heroin and opium production and sales, which has dramatically increased since 2004.  More recently, the Taliban have been increasingly influenced by the criminal element, a sort of Afghan Mafia.

During the question period after the presentation, someone from the audience asked Greg what he would say if he had a short time with recently-elected President Obama.  His candid reply was that he would ask him to think long and hard about his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan.  He pointedly reminded the audience that, in her first important trip as Secretary of State, it was quite unfortunate that Secretary Clinton visited neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan.  In my mind, Greg Mortenson isn't trying to minimize the problems and challenges facing us, either here or globally in the modern world.  In fact, he's actually trying to model a solidly innovative approach to human relaltions for which we all must begin to learn, and quickly, to adapt and change.      

Pennies for Peace, a program originally conceived and initiated at Westside Elementary School, River Falls, Wisconsin, where Greg's mother was the principal, has caught fire among children of all ages in the U.S., and many of these young people are raising massive amounts of money, penny by penny, both to help the children of Central Asia have schools, but also to fund projects for the disadvantaged here at home.  One 13 year old boy, whom Greg mentioned, will this year raise about $200,000 through the project which he started to provide basketball courts for needy children in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The very first contribution, about $625, toward Greg's fulfillment of his promise to build a school came from children!

Greg used the word hope a lot during his presentation.  And I have to tell you that for me, because of his own lived example, it doesn't ring hollow as it so often does from the glib lips of pundits and politicians, including presidents. His clear and determined vision, as well as his humility and devotion towards the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan is truly inspiring in very gentle and real way. 

From stranger to friend to family.  Eliminating ignorance and fear.  Growing as a global human community through learning and wisdom.  Reminds you a little of words from a Jewish man from Nazareth a long time ago, no??


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Church According to Martin Luther: Worthaus, Not Buchhaus

(Portrait of Martin Luther from the ELCA Archives

Martin Luther used to say that the Church is not a Buchhaus = bookhouse, but a Worthaus = Wordhouse.  By that I think he meant that our continual challenge is to translate, i.e., to "carry across", the text of the Word.  Though Christians are a people of the Book, the Book speaks to us who, hopefully, live in and by the Spirit by carrying across that Word.  Our challenge is to translate the text of the Word into life, into action.  It's interesting for us to read the Bible, but another thing to let it have an impact on what we do.  We admiringly study the prophets' words and deeds, or Paul's letters, but we grow uncomfortable and hesitant when those texts face us with action which we must take here and now.  The challenge is to translate the text of the Word.

Take for example the passage in Luke 4:14-21 which recounts a sermon Jesus gave in his hometown Nazareth synagogue.  Jesus reads a text from Isaiah against his own background and the needs of his hearers.  The text of the Word will come to life in Jesus' person and activity in his ministry.  He speaks not a dry, dead Word from the past, nor a Word which puts one at ease and anesthetizes one in the present, but a Word, a futuristic Word, yet a realistic and attainable Word, prompted by the Spirit's presence, which announces a hands-on agenda of bringing good news to poor people and freedom to people locked up in any form of oppression.  Luke clearly implies that Jesus' challenge to his readers is to translate, to "carry across" the text.  People didn't then and don't now like to hear that.  You can see that by reading on in Luke's narrative a few verses to see how Jesus' own townsfolk reacted:

"All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."

I think that sometimes a preacher's greatest criticism and indictment is to have someone say after the service: "That was such a 'nice' sermon!"  It isn't really very nice if you and I haven't been challenged to translate, to carry across, the text of God's Word into hands-on action.  Our challenge is to be the Church as Wordhouse, not as a Bookhouse, to learn together from Jesus' words and actions how to translate the text of the Word into concrete servanthood.

Walter Rast, professor of theology at Valparaiso University, Indiana, writes:

"...And here is a most poignant message for the modern church.  Have not the divisions in the church often come about through lack of attention to the caring mission of the church? Some years ago the Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann made the startling suggestion that the divided churches could well begin to find their way back toward a unity of belief and purpose if they would undertake common tasks of social concern.  For two decades now such shared work has gone on among the churches, with great reserve in many quarters.  But wherever it has occurred, at least the people in the pews have found themselves in their understanding of the servant calling of the church."

We don't know the full content of what Jesus said in his preaching that day in Nazareth.  One thing is certain: he got their attention with his opening statement -- what, in sales presentations, we used to call a "ho-hum crasher":
"...he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'"  He's not just identifying this passage with his person; he's speaking about what he's already doing, his acts of bringing good news to the poor, release to the imprisoned, and sight to those who can't see.  

Hopefully, Jesus grabs our attention as we read and meditate on the Word, for God's love seeks out the needy and the oppressed at all times and under all conditions, but only through us, God's servants.  As the servant body of Christ we're invited to translate, to "carry across", to fulfill the Word into action, today, right now, in behalf of the disadvantaged members of our society.  As congregations and as individuals we need to grasp that it's our responsibility, in the light of God's Word, to address the peoples' pressing needs, indeed to go further and attempt to change those social and economic conditions that make people poor and needy.  Who else will address the sad reality of jails and prisons in our land, or minister to victims of violence and abuse, particularly against women and children, or labor against the social inequalities which breed disregard and crime?  As uncomfortable, repugnant and frightening as it may be, we're invited to dirty our hands in what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the "naked public square".  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

His Excellency, the President for Life and the Archbishop

Idi Amin proclaimed himself, for two whole years, 1977-1979, as "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor, Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."  If anyone still remembers him, it's most likely as the Butcher of Africa, responsible for, conservatively, 100,000-500,00o deaths over an eight year period, 1971-1979.  He was forced out of office and banished from Uganda in April, 1979, fleeing first to Libya and then to Saudi Arabia.  Amin attempted a comeback to Uganda in 1989, but was turned back to Jeddah, where he died August 16, 2003 and was buried in a simple grave.  

The relationship of Idi Amin with Archbishop Janani Jakaliya Luwum, who is commemorated by the worldwide Anglican Communion today, ended in tragedy.  The two men stood for intrinsically opposing moral values.  Amin obviously had and used his worldly power to arrest, imprison, torture and eventually kill Luwum.  The former tender of sheep, goats, and cattle never aspired to titles, such as Amin arrogated to himself.  He was content to be a devout Christian, a married man, the father of nine children, an Anglican priest and teacher, a bishop, then Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boag-Zaire.  He distinguished himself as a man of God, a negotiator, reconciler of people and groups, both political and religious, and a fearless spokesman for truth, even towards a man like Idi Amin who could not come to terms with truth.  Luwum said, well before his death, when friction first started between Amin and him, "...I live as though there will be no tomorrow...While the opportunity is there, I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God."   

The clash between their two idealogies came to a head in February, 1977.  There are conflicting details of exactly when and how Janani Luwum died at the order of Idi Amin, but his bullet-riddled body, eventually released to his widow, Mary Lawinyo, said all that needed to be said.  Janani Luwum was also buried in a simple grave, in his home village of Mucwini (also Mussini) in East Acholi, northern Uganda.  For many years before this I'd heard the oft-repeated phrase: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians."  In a section of the book on Church History in the former Church's Teaching Series which spoke of Luwum's martyrdom just two years before, I think that quote was repeated and it particularly stuck in my mind.  I'd just come into the Episcopal Church, and the concept of martyrs in my own lifetime was relatively new to me.  How that has changed since then!

More recently, I've been wondering what happened to Archbishop Luwum's wife and family in the ensuing 32 years.  I found only one article, written by Ben Moses Ilakut in The Monitor (Uganda), February 15, 2003.  At the time of the article, Mrs. Luwum was still alive and strong, living in Kampala, and still tilling the soil in Mucwini.  The second born and heir, Ben Okello Luwum, now 58, took over many responsibilities for keeping the family together.  Of the nine Luwum children, two have died. The surviving siblings include:  Emima Lakar, the eldest, married; Ben Okello, a CPA and married; Irine Abalo, a nurse in the U.S.; Julie Ojwiya, a civil servant; Andrew Okot, a motor engineer in the U.K.; Phoebe Aber, pursuing a Master's degree in the Netherlands; and Amos, a businessman.

Ben Okello Luwum expresses the spirit of this family, of his father, Janani Luwum: 

"These injustices have hurt many families.  I wish one day we could have a sober regime, probably the best thing would be a referendum on what should be done to people who have committed crimes against humanity.  Should they be pardoned or should they be prosecuted.  But of course I would go for forgiveness."



Monday, February 16, 2009

Bray and His Books

I think I would have liked Thomas Bray (1658-1730). Obviously, he liked books as much as I do. In addition, he was a scholar, writer, philanthropist, and libraries were his “thing”, in fact, so much so that he envisioned and turned his efforts to setting up lending libraries in both England and in the new American colonies.

Born in Marton, Shropshire, he later attended Oswestry School and Oxford University, earning a B.A. degree from All Souls College, and an M.A. from Hart Hall. After serving as vicar of Over Whitacre, and during his tenure as the rector of Sheldon, Warwickshire, he wrote
A Course of Lectures Upon the Church Catechism, in nine volumes, no less. In 1699, before he was sent to America, he founded the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), still in existence today.

Bishop Henry Compton, of London, invited the young country parson to be his commissary in organizing and overseeing the Anglican Church in the American colony of Maryland. Though his only visit to Maryland lasted but about 10 weeks, Bray picked up at once on the neglected state of the American Church, particularly in the area of education. Before returning to England, Bray met with the clergy at Annapolis, and stressed the need for them to instruct their children. He said that no clergyperson should be in charge unless he had good recommendations from the ship in which he came over “
whether...he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechize and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses,” he said, “I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.

Thomas Bray also displayed a remarkable understanding of and concern for the needs of Native Americans and black slaves, long before those causes ever became popular. Eventually, he succeeded in setting up 39 lending libraries and a number of schools in America. In addition he raised money for missionary work and encouraged young English priests to take their ministry to America.

Back in England, Bray continued his mission of setting up libraries in both England and Wales and his ministry in education. The Bishop of London, Bishop Compton, had asked Bray, upon his return from America, to report on the state of the Church in the colonies. Bray related that the Anglican Church in America had "
little spiritual vitality" and was "in a poor organisational condition". On June 16, 1701 King William III issued a charter, at Bray’s urging, establishing the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) as an organisation to send priests and schoolteachers to America, and to help minister to Anglican colonists. The society’s first missionaries started working in North America the following year, and in the West Indies in 1703. The provisions of its charter were later expanded to include evangelizing black slaves and Native Americans. By the time of the American Revolution, SPG had employed about 300 missionaries in North America, soon expanding to Australia, New Zealand and West Africa. The SPG was also important in the establishment of the American Episcopal Church. In 1965 the SPG merged with Universities’ Mission to Central Africa to form the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), as it is known today.

At this time there was only haphazard feeding of many inmates in English institutions, especially in prisons. Thomas Bray took on this cause also, trying to influence public opinion and to raise money to better the plight of prison inmates. Thanks to his and others‘ efforts, a recognized scale of rations, known as “dietaries”, was adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries, both to inform inmates of their feeding rights and to eliminate corruption by the staff. “Beef and Beer” dinners in the prisons became a widely known reference in England. It was also Thomas Bray who suggested to British general, James Oglethorpe, founder of the American colony of Georgia, the idea of founding a humanitarian colony for the relief of honest debtors, although Bray died before Georgia became a reality.

Bray was also a “long-term rector”, serving St. Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, from 1706-1730, when he died at age 72 (Yikes! Same age as I’ll be on February 27!) He was loved for the energy and devotion with which he cared for his people, and also for his continuing efforts for black slaves in America and the founding of parish libraries.

Those of you who are “friends of the library” in your community may be interested in something Thomas Bray said in a sermon, preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, December 19, 1697. Referring to those who were generous and proactive in “
expend[ing] most in fixing libraries of necessary and useful books”, he commented:

...those who shall make such a lasting provision for
the instruction and conversion of any considerable part
of mankind may, in so doing, be very well looked upon as
a sort of apostle to those parts of the world...
hence we may clearly gather that, proportionately as persons
shall approach nearest to the apostles in evangelising mankind,
they shall be placed nearer and nearer to them upon the
several ascents to the highest stations in the kingdom of heaven...

Volunteer or write a check today for your nearest library!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

From Your Valentine

St. Valentine
(Icon by Aidan Hart)

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Valentine. The surrounding culture, of course, is busying itself in its annual frantic and expected expressions of “luv”, through the flowers, the chocolates, the cards, etc. It’s a good bet that most folks don’t acknowledge or even know exactly why they give special attention to “love” on February 14, which should find expression every day of our lives.

Key to this day is the figure of St. Valentinus of Rome. Manifold legends have circulated about him through the centuries. The first representation of Saint Valentine seems to have appeared in a book entitled The Nuremberg Chronicle, a picture book printed in 1493. The text that accompanies the woodcut picture of him states that he was a third century Roman priest, martyred during the reign of Claudius II. That seems to be confirmed by other sources, which also claim that he took the risk of boldly assisting Christian martyrs at a time when that was considered a crime. Eventually he was arrested, questioned, and imprisoned for some time. Some say that the prefect tried to buy him off and that Valentinus refused. Others say that, at one point, he attempted to convert Claudius, which didn’t go down well. It’s almost universally agreed that on or about February 14 in either 269 or 270, Valentinus was beaten and then beheaded, apparently outside the Flaminian Gate, later called the Porta Valentini, and currently, the Porta del Popolo. Pope Julius I is said to have built a small church near the Ponte Mole, about 4.5 miles north of Rome on the Via Flaminia, in Valentinus’ honor shortly thereafter. The relics of Valentinus’ bones are said to be preserved in the Church of Santa Prassede in Rome.

There is also a legend that while awaiting his execution, Valentinus befriended his jailer's blind daughter whose sight he restored. We can only surmise that through this shared experience their friendship blossomed into a loving regard for each other. According to Alfonso Villiegas, who wrote a book on the saints, the jailer, one of the Emperor's lieutenants, was named Asterios. He and his family were converted to Christianity by Valentinus, and were also condemned to death by Claudius II. According to legend, on the eve of Valentinus' death, he wrote a farewell message to the jailer's daughter and signed it, A tuo Valentino = from your Valentinus (or Valentine, as we call him). Well, as the Native Americans are sometimes wont to say when recalling their legends: “I don’t know if this really happened, but I do know the story is true.

So, Valentine’s Day has come to be a yearly celebration of renewing love and friendship. It could have developed as a Christian alternative or reaction against the pagan celebrations of the Lupercalia, which the 1st cent. historian Plutarch described as “a time [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

Valentine’s feast, therefore, celebrates a fairly obscure human being whose importance lay in the fact that he loved and valued even one person, and probably many others. It is cause for our celebration, too, because though we, too, may be undistinguished and rather obscure, yet we’re very important people because we have loved or been loved in our life.
The Eucharist is itself an expression, an indication, of celebrating and renewing love and friendship for believers because they recognize that they are loved by Another who is also their God. Paul reminds us, in his first letter to the Corinthians, how the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, is a sacramental expression of Christ’s love in the real lives of His Body, the Church. In Chapter 13, Paul spells out the meaning behind those four letters: LOVE. He says that without love you can do a lot of impressive things, which still ring hollow; that love isn’t a game for children, but an adventure, a search, a way of life for growing women and men who are concerned about each other. Today, more than ever, we might well agree with Paul: that in this life there are three great lasting qualities: faith and hope, though these seem fairly dim in our present circumstances. But the greatest and most enduring is love. St. Julian of Norwich beautifully expresses why this is: “...before God made us, [God] loved us...In this love God has done all God’s works, and in this love God has made all things beneficial to us, and in this love our life is everlasting...And all this we shall see in God without end...

As if to reaffirm Julian’s view, Mark, in his Gospel, recounts a story from Jesus’ ministry. A leper, one of society’s outcasts, comes begging Jesus, kneeling before him: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” With attention to detail, Mark says that Jesus displays great emotional compassion towards the man, that he reaches towards the leper and touches him, then says: “I do choose. Be made clean!” As in all Scripture there’s a deeper level of meaning than just the words, and the meaning which comes through here is that Jesus, whose very nature as the Word of the Father is Love, because of that, always chooses healing for us over affliction, always chooses comfort for us rather than pain, always chooses good for us rather than evil. We get the impression that the now cleansed leper is so overwhelmed by the love with which Jesus treats him that he simply can’t contain himself, can’t go along with even Jesus‘ stated wish that the man “say nothing to anyone”. Mark says, “He went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word...” that he has felt the love of Another who is God, and that he, the restored leper, now feels compelled to share that love with others.

That is the call of one who follows Christ: in the name of the Love that created us, and of Jesus the Love that sustains us, and of the Holy Spirit, the Love which unites us in loving one another.