Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts At the End of Another Year

To be blunt, I really wouldn't want to repeat last year. For me, it was, as they say, a "bummer", mostly because of the stress, uncertainty, and difficulty in dealing with my son's recurrent illness and its consequences. On top of that I've shared, really for the past eight or so years, the general angst and depression which has seemed to increasingly grip our country. Perhaps I'm reading the situation wrongly, but I believe the societal chickens of many years past are finally coming to roost in our generation. It appears to me that it will be rough riding for the foreseeable future, surely for the remaining time I still have left on this earth.

I was feeling all this weighing on me during still prayer this morning. But the words of the Letter of James in the second lesson of the Divine Office kept coming back to me, and helped me put things back into perspective. It seems appropriate to quote the whole passage (4:13-17; 5:7-11), highlighting the words that jump out at me:

"Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful

The bad news mongers seem always to have the world stage and audience. We all know how depressing it can be simply to read the newspaper, tune into the local radio station, or view TV news coverage claiming to be "fair and balanced". As I struggle with this, the passage above reminds me that, in the larger picture, we are but "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes". Not that our lives are unimportant or meaningless, quite the contrary. It's simply that, to survive, one must have the realistic perspective of some of our blessed forbears, such as Julian of Norwich. In her Revelations she comments: "And thus we remain in this muddle all the days of our lives...therefore [says our good Lord] I will that you wisely recognize your penance which you are in constantly...This earth is imprisonment, and this life is penance, and in this remedy He wills that we rejoice: that our Lord is with us, guarding us and leading us into the fullness of joy -- for it is an endless joy to us in our Lord's purpose: that He who shall be our bliss when we are there, is our protector while we are here, our way, and our heaven in true love and certain trust..."

Part of being able to do this, for me, is the resolve to spend less negative attention on the things which are wrong with and in the world, and to seek out and celebrate the almost inexhaustible instances of goodness, kindness and heroism, random or intentional, which continually happen all around us. This is far from being some sort of "Pollyanna". It is to recognize that "in true love and certain trust", in patience, as James puts it, we find the only heaven to which we can realistically aspire: not some thing or place up in the sky, but the very person of the Holy One of God. "He is my heaven" is a familiar and foundational assumption in the spiritual lives of saints such as Paul, Julian, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and countless others.

And so, tonight as you and I ring in the new year of 2010, a new decade, may it be with a renewed sense of hope, a hope which Julian of Norwich so beautifully expressed in a prayer:

God, of Your goodness, give me Yourself;
for You are enough to me,
and I can ask nothing that is less
that can be full honor to You.
And if I ask anything that is less,
ever shall I be in want,
for only in You have I all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

OJN Founding Day Anniversary

On December 30, 1985, a simple house in Norwich, CT became a "monastery" for an experimental beginning of a new community in the Episcopal Church, called The Order of Julian of Norwich. On this day The Rt. Rev. W. Bradford Hastings, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut and Episcopal Visitor of the Order, heard the solemn profession of Life Vows of the Order's founder, Fr. John D. Swanson, known in religion as Fr. John Julian.

Born in Green Bay, WI, Fr. John attended Carleton College and earned a Master of Divinity degree from Nashotah House Seminary in 1957. Ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Fond du Lac in August, 1957, he served in various parishes for the next three years. After 10 years as a rector in New Hampshire, Fr. John's widely varied career involved him as dean of the Seminary of the Streets in New York City; consultant in humanistic education in Rhode Island; drug abuse prevention project director; private practice in psychotherapy; director of the Connecticut Foster Parent Training Program; director of Connecticut's Social Service Institute, training social workers; and supply priest in local Episcopal parishes.

In June, 1982, while rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Norwich, CT, Fr. John traveled as a pilgrim to the Julian Shrine in Norwich, England. At the time he began the pilgrimage, he had no intention of founding a monastic order, nor of becoming a contemplative monk. In fact, at age 48, he would probably not have been accepted into a monastic order! During a prayerful time in Norwich, however, he came to the realization that, in his words, “This isn’t enough! There must be something more!” Midway over the Atlantic, as he was returning to the U.S., he conceived the idea of restoring the medieval practice of a mixed monastery of men and women devoted to Julian of Norwich.

Predating the founding of the Order, as early as 1973, groups of people in England had formed ecumenical gatherings, “Julian Meetings”, as they were called, of devotees of Julian, mainly to support one another in a life of still prayer. Ten years later, similar but separate groups, called “Julian Gatherings”, began to be formed here in the U.S. and continue to the present.

Fr. John had begun living the Rule which he wrote in 1982. Fr. Bill Melnyk became the first Oblate on January 19, 1984. Several Associates were also admitted, and Sister Scholastica Marie Burton, later the beloved second Guardian of the Order, became the first postulant seeking to become a Member Regular. Within six years Sister Scholastica Marie and Fr. Luke Radtke, both now deceased, had taken Life Vows. Two years later Sister Cornelia and Brother Gregory Fruehwirth (later Father Gregory, and current Guardian of the Order) took Life Vows.

Fr. John Julian, founder and first Guardian, retired in August, 1995, and several years ago was granted permission to live as a solitary. He has continued a vigorous ministry as a writer, producing A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich, 1988; Stars In A Dark World, 2009; and The Complete Julian of Norwich, 2009. Sister Scholastica Marie was elected, then installed as the second Guardian in September, 1995. She resigned in April, 2003, suffering from cancer. Her successor, Fr. Gregory Fruehwirth, became the third Guardian on April 22, 2003. Sister Scholastica Marie died six months later, on October 18, 2003.

The Order of Julian of Norwich is a contemplative monastic order of monks and nuns in the Episcopal Church. "Following the most venerable practices of contemplative Christian monasticism," says the Oblate manual, "we aim to renew the spiritual life of the Church." Besides the Members Regular (OJN) there are professed Oblates (ObJN), as well as Associates (AOJN), married or single, clergy or lay, who affiliate themselves with the Order by prayer and financial support as they live the contemplative life in the world. The Order’s four-fold vows are poverty, chastity, obedience, and prayer. The Members Regular live in semi-enclosed community and fully observe the traditional vows. The Oblates, seriously committed to a spiritual and contemplative life in the world, make profession to live under an adaptation of the Regular vows after a significant period of probation. The Associates, desiring a spiritual bond with the Community in its prayer and work, follow a less stringent Rule of Life. The Affiliates seek to live into the same contemplative depth and unceasing prayer as do the Members Regular, and their rule of life is moderated only in degree in order to meet the needs of living in the world.

The Order looks
first to the worship of God, secondly, to the support and strength of the wider community of the Order -- its Oblates and Associates -- and thirdly, to service within the whole Church and the world. A significant part of the Order's ministry is the spiritual renewal of clergy, parishes, and individuals in the classical Christian traditions of contemplative spirituality and mysticism, and the revival of those traditions in the life of the contemporary Church and of the contemporary Christian.

Currently there are 8 Members Regular (5 women/3 men), 2 Novices (1 woman, about to make Junior Vows; 1 man), and 1 Postulant (1 woman, about to be clothed as a Novice on January 2); 77 Oblates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu; 11 Oblate Probationers; and 131 Associates, representing some 35 states in the United States, as well as the countries of Canada, England, Scotland, and South Africa.

Almighty God, all times are in your hand,
and all occasions serve your will:
Accept our prayers of thanksgiving and hope
which we offer here today and in all
days to come, that our community may ever
continue in your mercy and grace
and never falter in our gratitude to you;
through Jesus Christ, our only
Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Happened To Us At Christmas?

Here's a question which only sounds simple, but really isn't: What happened four days ago?

For most of us, certain things happened, at least on the surface of life. There was perhaps a meal, a late night or midnight service, an exchanging of gifts, a singing of carols, a sense of joyful interlude, a pause in ordinariness of life. We may have heard words such as: "Unto us a child is born, a son is given" or "Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light".

In what sense did more than that happen? Inside us? Was there at all a sense of some new reality coming to birth inside us? Something different happening? New possibilities? New directions we might take? Was there any sense of a light coming on inside us, allowing us to take some more steps, to carry on searching, to live with a little more joy and a little more meaning in a world which many times seems so joyless and meaningless?

The season we're in is given to us as a regular cycle of time so that we might ask questions like these. We're given the memory of this birth in the winter time of the year so that it can trigger a birth in us and perhaps be a light to us.

The liturgical Scripture passages for this Sunday after Christmas (Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18) are exciting and can be immensely creative for us.

The poet and prophet named Isaiah bids people to "rejoice and exult" because God has done three things: God has "clothed [us] with the garments of salvation"; God has "covered [us] with the robe of righteousness"; and God will cause "righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations". What meaning can such language have for us?

When we say that God has clothed us in salvation, we're saying that God, in this Christmas time, has given something which saves us from failure in the daily stuggle to be human. We're saved from a sense of meaninglessness. God, in this child of Christmas, has been born again in you and me. God has made us full of possibility.

When we hear that God has covered us with the robe of righteousness, we're being told that God has given us the birth of Jesus as a way in which we can get our lives right, to use plain words. At its deepest level, life is about being a child of God. We are many other things. We may be a parent, a professional, an employer, an employee, a spouse. But the thing which wraps up all those roles, which helps us to get all the others right, is the reality that, above all, you and I are children of God.

We heard, too, that God will make righteousness and praise spring forth before all the nations. Is that for real, a present reality? Of course not. What we see on TV, in the newspapers, or hear on the radio is anything but a world full of righteousness and praise. Is the phrase, then, just unreal religious rhetoric? Or has God, in this season and through this birth, reached into the elusive future and given us at least one day of it? The importance of seeing it like this is that such a single day can give us the courage and the hope to go on searching for and working for the reality described in the phrase "righteousness and praise...before all the nations".

The introduction or prologue of John's Gospel has been proclaimed to us several times within the past two weeks. We have become so familiar with these words that we almost miss the Good News in them. John reminds us of three magnificent realities which can be true for each of us: that you and I are alive with God's life; that you and I are called to be bearers of God's light; and that you and I can, if we choose, embody God to the extent a human being can, similar to the way Christ embodies God in an ultimate way.

You and I are alive with God's life! Try and savor that fact a bit. Let yourself feel the way in which that realization can change one's self-image. We're not just limited, messed up human beings with our ups and downs. We are that, but not only that. Each one of us is a place in which the infinite Holy God has deliberately chosen to dwell!

Carl Jung says that each of us possesses a dark, shadowy side to our lives. We know this only too well from experience. But Scripture affirms that we're also bearers of God's light, carriers of a flame, sometimes tiny, sometimes almost extinguished, but always there. "The light," says John, "shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it".

The word gospel, as you probably know, means good news. Isn't it good news to be told in Scripture that there is in you and me a flame of God which will not be extinguished? We're all aware that life asks each of us to face fierce and terrible things: things which often threaten to disintegrate us, to empty us, to destroy us. Yet we're also assured that at the center of our being there's a flame of the living, creating God (we call it Holy Spirit) which will not be put out! Pain or loss can numb our souls. It may threaten to cover us with agony and sorrow, but the flame endures, and therefore, we live. "...The Spirit of God dwells in you..." The capacity to act remains; the will to love stands firm. The future lives and tomorrow is possible.

Paul tries to communicate to the Galatian Christians something very important about human life. We grow. We must, or else we're in trouble! To be a human being entails development in many areas: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, etc. The same is true of our lives in God. There must be development, growth, maturing. Remaining static isn't an option. To neglect developing a relationship with God is to let it diminish. Paul emphasizes one aspect of that relationship. He notes that religion begins with guidelines: "shoulds" and "have tos", in others words, law. But the normal progression is that our relationship with God develops, first by listening, obeying because we must, but growing gradually to do that because we want, choose to do so. To use Paul's image, we move from being slaves to becoming daughters and sons of God. All this happens through Jesus in and through whom we are in relationship to God because Jesus took on our humanity and presents us back to the Father.

There are countless stories of personal self-discovery. Cinderella discovers that she can be a princess. The slave in the castle discovers that he is, in reality, the king's own son. Notice that it usually happens because someone else comes to love them. Who is the person who has come to love us, freeing us from being slaves and enabling us to become daughters and sons? Who is the One whose love releases us from being merely who we thought we were, to becoming the persons whom we really are? To borrow Paul's words: "Thanks be to God,... Jesus Christ our Lord."

So, we come full circle. We began with the question: what happened, really happened, on the day we call Christmas? According to Isaiah, we were given some new clothes. Their brand name, if you will, is "Salvation". We need only put them on and begin living in them! According to John, God's light is already shining in each of us so that we're being empowered by that inner light. Nothing can ultimately extinguish that light. This, indeed, is good news, magnificent news! According to Paul our religious rules and obligations are best interpreted in terms of our relationship with a loving God who has come to us in Jesus, hands outstretched to draw us closer to Godself.

What happened to us a few days ago at Christmas is that among the gifts given to us, we received a unique one. A Savior was given to us. Today's Scriptures affirm that all the gifts which come to us are ours because of that Child. We need only accept our gifts, open them, enjoy them, live them. To live them is to taste here and now the mysterious reality which we call "eternal life".

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stephen: Deacon and Protomartyr

"Good King Wenceslaus look'd out, on the day of Stephen..." That may be the extent of most folks' knowledge of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, whose feast we celebrate this day after Christmas. On the other hand, many in the Christian community look only to the account, in Luke's Acts of the Apostles, of Stephen's martyrdom by an angry crowd, among whom Saul, later known as St. Paul, stood holding their clothes while they stoned Stephen to death.

The aspect of his life I'd like to single out is his role in the Christian community as the first among six other diakonoi = deacons: servant-leaders. Luke, in Chapter 6 of Acts, relates that, as the church was increasing in numbers, it became necessary to officially call = "ordain", others who could free the Apostles up to carry on the ministry of preaching and teaching the Word for which Jesus had commissioned them. The whole community, along with the Apostles, had their say and a part in raising up "seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom". Those chosen to be deacons were: Stephen, whom Luke singles out as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit"; Philip; Prochorus; Nicanor; Timon; Parmenas; and Nicolaus, an Antiochian proselyte. Luke notes:
"They had these men stand before the Apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them."

In today's liturgical practice, one of the visible highlights in the ordination of a deacon is the clothing with a stole, worn diagonally across one's chest. Ever wondered about the meaning of that vestment? Liturgical researchers have come up with a whole host of ideas, theorizing that perhaps it was originally a primitive scarf used to keep the neck and upper body warm, or, in death, to serve as a cover for the face before the body was wrapped in a burial shroud. Another speculation is that the stole appeared prior to the 4th century as a liturgical towel used by the deacon, or as the distinctive ceremonial badge of the clerical order, much like the uniform which a policeman, a soldier, or a nurse wears.

Whatever its origin, I suggest that the deacon's stole implies that the recipient has something to do, some unique activity. Being a deacon seems to be very much about action. The Examination in the ordination rite of a deacon in the BCP seems to spell out what one is called to do as a deacon:

1) First, a deacon is to exercise the special ministry of servanthood under her/his Bishop; to be within the human family "another Christ" who came not to be served but to serve; learning, as the book of Ecclesiasticus says, "what is good and evil in the human lot", and responding to both in the name of Jesus.
2) A deacon's vocation as servant leader is to reach out to include all people, but especially the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely: those who go through the "desolate valley of life". We're all beggars in one way or another. Theologian Johannes Baptist Metz says, "The unending nature of our poverty as human beings is our only innate treasure. We are unlimited indigence..." The men, women, and children without the physical necessities of life, the needy ones who sit on our street corners or come knocking at our parish doors, hands outstretched, will be constant reminders of that to every deacon. Deacons are also called to minister to those most apt to be abused: children, women, and the elderly. The physically and emotionally sick, like the poor, will always be with us. And the cast-aside, ignored, and discounted lonely ones will look to the deacon for a kind word, or a smile, or perhaps just for the acknowledgment that they exist.

The ordination Examination further spells out how a deacon is to be a person of action:

1) The writer of the 1st Epistle to Timothy admonishes that deacons "...must be...[people] with a firm hold on the deep truths of our faith." A deacon can do that only by faithfully and frequently plumbing the depths of Holy Scripture, to "look" as the Psalmist says, "upon the face of your Anointed".
2) A deacon is called to make Christ and his redemptive love known. This assumes that one is a person of compassion, that one learns how to "suffer with" those committed to one's care. Seeing is believing, and it's the deacon's being sympatico with them which will most convince people who have lost their way that God loves them without measure and continually seeks them out.
3) According to the Prayer Book, the deacon has the awesome responsibility to interpret to the Church, on all levels, the world's needs, concerns, and hopes. The writer of 1 Timothy advises that "...deacons with a good record of service may claim...the right to speak openly on matters of the Christian faith." But a deacon can do that only if she/he has shown herself/himself to be a wise servant leader, grounded in the truth of the Gospel, "not indulging in double talk", but single-minded, disciplined, generous, just, and faithful.
4) The deacon is to assist the Bishop and priests in worship, Word, and Sacrament: with sincere reverence and devotion - never "performing" -- but showing oneself to be well prepared and attentive, helping to draw all the members of the community of faith into an ever deeper "desire and longing for the courts of...the living God."
5) The last thing which the Examination mentions is that the deacon is "to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time..." A deacon needs to be an "all-purpose" cleric: obedient, i.e., really listening, attuned to what's going on around her/him, and available as crises arise in the Diocese, in the Church, and in the world. I guess you could say that a deacon's signature response, at least in the Diocese of Northern California, will be: "Yes, Bishop."

If being a deacon is very much about action, as the Examination notes, it's also, and even more importantly, very much about prayer and contemplation. One of the first questions which the Bishop asks in the ordination rite is: "Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures?" The 39th Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiasticus mentions some of the characteristics of such a person: "opens one's mouth in prayer"; "asks pardon for one's sins"; "give[s] thanks to the Lord in prayer"; "meditates on [the Lord's] mysteries". Those Scriptural words really describe what we've all learned of prayer from our youth: that a relationship with God includes petition, penitence, thanksgiving, and praise. Fr. William McNamara describes contemplative prayer as "...a long, loving look at the real." Only by such daily "long, loving look" at the One who is the Reality of the deacon's life can a deacon hope to kindle and rekindle her/his soul's "desire and longing": through the daily Office, in the humble asking over and over again for forgiveness, through continual thanksgiving for the graces which the deacon's ministry will generate for her/him, and by watchful waiting and listening at the door of one's heart for the Master to come and knock.

The Diocese of Northern California is blessed with a growing cadre of very fine and devoted deacon/servant leaders, men and women who are very much about the kind of doing and action mentioned above. We salute them on this day of Deacon & Martyr Stephen, with deep gratitude for their outstanding ministry and witness in the Church.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Being Light: The Way You Do the Doing

Light is so plain yet so elusive in its source. We have to be content to love it in its captured forms. This is the season of that capturing: in candles, in the warm glow of fireplaces, in electrical glows, and in Jesus’ coming...” on this day which we call Christmas.

The most obvious source of light for us in the sun. Most of us have experienced the sun’s miracles. Shivering, we seek its warmth. Because of its rays our houseplants turn green and healthy; our pale linens grow whiter. We dry and preserve fruits in the sun; we heat homes, buildings, and whole communities with solar energy. No wonder that for centuries the sun has intrigued humans, and often even become the object of their worship. The sun’s light and warmth is a natural symbol of God’s enlightening and comforting presence.

Scripture mentions light in many places. The people of the Bible generally used oil lamps as their primary source of light. These lamps were shallow bowls with one edge pinched together to form a trough which held a wick. The poorest home kept a lamp burning, day and night. It signified that there was life within the house; and absence of light indicated possible trouble.

In later centuries the candle became a traditional source of light. Most frequently today candles remind us of birthdays. Perhaps some of our most vivid and treasured memories center around times when a birthday cake, covered with
candles, was carried to us. We remember how a hush fell over those surrounding us and little children, mesmerized by the light, wanted to blow out the candles as if each one thought it was his or her own birthday.

In Christian tradition, whenever the community comes together to celebrate the Lord’s presence in word and sacrament, lighted candles are used to symbolize that presence and the new possibilities which Jesus holds out to us. The dancing flames remind us, too, of God’s Holy Spirit who continually ignites fresh hope within us. Through the four weeks of Advent prior to Christmas, both in our churches and in many of our homes, we’ve burned the four candles of the Advent wreath to symbolize the longing and expectation of people from the first man and woman created right down to the newest-born infant among us. On this holy feast of Christmas the candles are another visible reminder that, indeed, Jesus the Christ has come among us and will come again.

Each year’s celebration of Christ’s becoming man, and each reading of the introduction to John’s Gospel (Chapter 1:1-14) holds out to us a new awareness of what Jesus can mean for us, and to a new decision about how you and I will live in the light of his example of love for others in the New Year.

On this Christmas day you and I might look at our own life, with today’s Gospel reading as a backdrop, as a candle. A candle’s flame, in the drafts and air currents, will often reach out to the shadows, even overreach itself sometimes, and go out completely. That’s so very much like you and me: when we overreach our abilities, when we try to be the all-encompassing light ourselves, through pride, a know-it-all attitude, through accomplishments and wealth, through our workaholism, through our inability to be bothered with others’ needs. St. John reminds us today: “
He [John the Forerunner] was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

A candle can’t re-light itself: it depends on someone outside itself to rekindle the light and the warmth. Only Jesus can rekindle the light of God’s presence and realness in our lives. “I
n him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” You and I are sent to help rekindle Christ’s light in others’ lives gone dark with sickness, need, oppression or depression, and lack of love. Sometimes we need not look very far away: to someone, perhaps, in our immediate family or among our close acquaintances. In the first reading (Isaiah 52:7-10) the prophet says that we’re to bring “good tidings”, that we’re to proclaim peace and salvation. That is “Good News” -- Gospel -- not something, but a living, caring person: Jesus the Light.

My former wife’s grandfather, Kenneth Bolt, who lived into his 90’s, was a remarkable and astute man. While not aligned with any church community, he had his own deep religious convictions. In a Christmas note he once wrote: “
So many times in life there are opportunities to do for others -- in the same way you would have them do for you. But there is more than just the doing of the doing that you do; it’s the way you do the doing...

His comment reminded me of a story made popular by the famous broadcaster, Paul Harvey, many years ago, one which describes well the way God “did the doing” for us. It was a story about an unbelieving man on Christmas Eve. There’d been a ferocious winter storm in the village where he lived on a small farm. Temperatures had dipped dramatically, to the point where he noticed that the birds ran the risk of freezing to death. The man trudged out to the barn through the snow and turned on the light. After trudging back and watching for awhile, he noticed that none of the birds flew into the lighted barn. He trudged back out, putting down bread crumbs leading into the barn. Still no results. He reflected for a long time on how he could get them to go into the barn. The thought finally came to him that about the only way they’d come in out of the cold was if somehow he could become as one of them and show them the way in...

Just at that moment, he heard in the crisp air the village church bells, ringing in the feast of Christ’s birth on this earth. And he, now feeling, as it were, the light of a monumental personal insight, fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face...

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our forbears by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son...” And you and I, sons and daughters of a loving God, who celebrate the birth of Jesus today: how will you and I speak to and do for those who need us the most in the days and weeks of the New Year ahead??

...there is more than just the doing of the doing that you do; it’s the way you do the doing...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Eve Message From the Apocrypha

The first reading in the Daily Office this morning [Baruch 4:36-5:9], one of the writings which we call Apocrypha, is a wondrously hopeful message which bears some reflection. I believe Baruch was the prophet Jeremiah's secretary.

"Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God! Behold, your sons are coming, whom you sent away; they are coming, gathered from east and west, at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing in the glory of God. Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. For God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For your name will for ever be called by God, 'Peace of righteousness and glory of godliness.'

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height and look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east, at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went forth from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him."

The Rabbi's Gift

There is a story, perhaps a myth. Typical of mythic stories,
it has many versions. Also typical, the source of the version
I am about to tell is obscure. I cannot remember whether I heard
it or read it, or where or when. Furthermore, I do not even know
the distortions I myself have made in it. All I know for
certain is that this version came to me with a title.
It is called “The Rabbi’s Gift.”

-- M. Scott Peck, M.D., in the Prologue to his book The Different Drum:
Community Making and Peace, 1987

+ + +

“The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "
The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again" they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, "the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?" "No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.”

+ + +

I’m not a rabbi, but I offer you this wonderful story as a gift.

No one of us has the golden answer as to how to save a dying world, or the environment, or people divided because of their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their race. None of us has the secret solution on how to cope with the challenges of our own personal issues, family problems, parish challenges.

Perhaps the most you and I can do is what we are doing on this special night of Christmas Eve, whether in real time in a church, a family gathering, etc., or online reading this blog: we can come together over Torah or Scripture or Koran or Gita, and we can weep together -- over what pains us as well as over what gives delight and joy to our hearts. For those of us who are Christians, we remind ourselves that “
the Messiah is one of you”, that Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Anointed One of God, calls you and me to share his unique teaching about love with all who will listen. For all of us, Christian or not, we remind ourselves of the need to treat each other and ourselves with extraordinary respect. Imagine how people around us might respond!

My Christian prayer this night is one written by George White:

Watch your step. You are approaching a dangerous
manger. It also serves as a makeshift baby bed.
Beware, for the one you seek did not stay a baby.
Jesus, nursed and cuddled by Mary, later claimed
everyone who does God’s will as his mother.
Jesus, worshipped by shepherds, later challenged
us to seek out not lost sheep, but lost people.
Jesus, given gifts by wise ones who had traveled
from afar, called us to go out of our way to care for
the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless.
Watch your step as you take this Bethlehem baby
into your arms and whisper to him.
You may find him taking you into his arms,
whispering new life into you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Somewhat Dated...But Still a Good Message

Child Jesus by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit / and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagon sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Archbishop Rowan Williams on The Holy Child

"If God is with us as a child—a real child—he is not after all so tidily gift-wrapped, so functional. If God is with us as a child, he is certainly with us as one who calls out our tenderness and compassion, but he does so by an insistent presence without shame or restraint, crying and clutching. So, far from the divine child being a cipher, the tool of our schemes and systems, he confronts us with the alarming, mysterious, shattering strangeness of God. Ask a baby about the ordination of women, about divorce legislation, violence on television, who will win the election: it is not a fruitful experience. We face something that is disconcertingly like the master's answer in the Zen Buddhist tradition: when the disciple raises a speculative question—a question not connected with enlightenment, not coming from the person's heart and guts—the master simply replies 'Mu!', 'No.' And so with us, if we bring to the divine child our questions of theory and policy, we have the same answer—'Mu!'—in the baby's crying and the equally incomprehensible laughter and the silent clutching of a finger or sucking a breast. Our questions and, with them, our desperate and fearful need to be right, are relativized. They are not foolish questions, but before we ask in our eagerness to get it tidily wrapped up, our longing to have God's endorsement, we need to put aside the whole world of our perceptions and our transactions, recognizing in silent attention the God who will not let himself be captured and turned into a staring wax doll, a totem for our ritual passions." (Rowan Williams, Ray of Darkness)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Apostle to India

St. Thomas thrusting his fingers into the wounds of the Risen Christ,
depicted in a Gospel Lectionary copied in Salah in 1227
for the church of Mor Sobo in Hah.

Tomb of St. Thomas, Apostle,
in Mylapore, India, near Madras

Today I was trying to remember, and praying for, people I knew who were named "Thomas": my late stepfather, Tom DeHaven; my seminary classmate, Tom Stang; a dear friend from college teaching days in Kansas, Sister Thomasine, ASC; Tom McCoy, 16 year old son of Kevin and Lee-Ann McCoy, whose marriage I celebrated in August, 1983 at Lake Almanor, and brother of Savannah, whom I baptized at Susanville in 1985: 24 years ago tomorrow; Fr. Thomas Aquinas, OCSO, my novice master at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Utah in 1960; and another Trappist friend, Fr. Thomas Davis, OCSO, former abbot at New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, CA, near Chico, who recently emailed me from Jerusalem. A blessed namesday to all through the intercession of St. Thomas!

Legend has it that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala c. 52 A.D. He preached in Mylapore, India, near Chennai, not far from Madras, where he suffered martyrdom c. 72 A.D. and where his tomb is kept today. The Syriac Christians in southwest India are called "Thomas Christians" or "Mar Thoma" Christians, because of the missionary efforts of St. Thomas. The independent Mar Thoma Churches of Malabar are in Communion with the Episcopal Church.

According to Fr. John Julian, OJN, the great Church historian and 4th century bishop, Eusebius, wrote that Thomas: "...was referred to by a label – "Tohmah" – which means “Twin” in Arabic. This was not a proper name, but when the Greek Gospel writers encountered the word, they didn’t understand that, and merely produced a Greek phonetic spelling of it as “Toh-mahs” and treated it as though it were the proper name of the Apostle. He came, therefore, to be known as “Thomas”. (Stars in a Dark World, p. 774)

The Gnostic Acts of Thomas in Syriac, where he is called Judas Thomas, attest that he brought the Gospels to India. It is believed that Thomas' body was transferred to Edessa in the 4th century. St. Ephrem's works note that the bones of St. Thomas were venerated there in his time. The great hymnodist alludes to the transferral of the bones in his Carmina Nisibena (42:1.1-2.2, Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian, Paulist Press, 1989, p. 25):

"The evil one wails, 'Where then
can I flee from the righteous?
I incited Death to kill the apostles
as if to escape from their scourges
by their death. More than ever now
I am scourged harshly. The apostle I killed in India
[has come] to Edessa before me. Here is he and also there.
I went there, there he is.
Here and there I found him, and I am gloomy.
Did that merchant carry the bones?
Or perhaps, indeed, they carried him!'"

His relics were said to have been moved from Edessa later and rediscovered in this century at the Syriac Orthodox Church of Mosul by His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I, while he was the Archbishop of Mosul.

There are a number of apocryphal writings under his name: most notably the
Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1946 (2nd century); the Acts of St. Thomas which is of Syriac origin and dates back to the middle of the 3rd century, with translations in Greek, and portions in Latin, Ethiopic and Armenian; the Apocalypse of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (all from the 3rd-4th centuries).

The Syriac Church commemorates the memory of St. Thomas on July 3rd, which marks the transfer of the remains of the Apostle to Edessa. The Church in India also commemorates the Apostle on the New Sunday after Easter, on December 18 when the Apostle is believed to have been speared, and on December 21 when he was martyred.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Two Wonderers: Micah and Mary

Many times throughout my 25 years of active ministry, I mentioned that my closest experience to having a baby was writing a weekly sermon! Aside from producing a couple of healthy sermons and probably some that were “stillborn”, the process involved a lot of “wondering”: like that of a pregnant woman:
- will it be a boy or a girl?
- will it be healthy?
- what will it look like?
- what will the child experience while growing up?
- where will life’s path lead the child?

Surely Mary, as well as Elizabeth, her cousin, must’ve wondered like this. Luke intimates in Chapter 2 of the Gospel that Mary was a thoughtful, sensitive person, saying: “
Mary kept all these things in her heart.

Advent is a season for wondering, for being sensitive to what is really important in life. For the past three weeks we’ve waited and thought hopefully about the coming, the advent, of Jesus into our lives: in the beginning of creation, in his physical birth and life, in our inner lives constantly, and when he will ultimately come again to humanity. And we’ve discerned how we can prepare ourselves, individually and as the Body of Christ, for those comings.

Our guides through Advent have been Isaiah, the great 8th century B.C. prophet, who apparently was born into a privileged priestly family; and John the Baptizer, also from a priestly family, the mysterious young ascetic and relative of Jesus who roamed the Judean desert, daring to challenge self-righteous civil leaders and “religious” people to change, to turn their thinking around, to repent. These two guides, too, must’ve wondered:
why they were compelled to preach God’s word as they did in order to make complacent people uncomfortable; and who was this Holy One who was to come at some time in the future.

Today, the last Sunday of Advent, the Church sets before us Micah and Mary: two relatively unknown people: both sensitive, both “wonderers” about the Holy One to come. Unlike the princely Isaiah, Micah wasn’t a native of Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, but only a simple man from an unknown village southwest of Jerusalem, called Moresheth. Isaiah wrote his prophecies in 39 chapters, with a whole chapter devoted to a dramatic account of his own calling by God. The
BCP also uses Isaiah for a good 2/3 of its Old Testament lessons. The Book of Micah, on the other hand, opens with a simple statement: “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth...” His prophecies are used only twice in the BCP’s three-year cycle. Yet both prophets were commissioned to announce the coming of the Holy One of God.

The story of Mary’s visit in Luke (1:39-55) reads almost like an account from a diary. Luke says that Mary “
arose and went with haste”, with dispatch, diligently, all-business, to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who, though “advanced in years”, was pregnant with a baby who would be John the Forerunner. You can imagine the flurry of happy greetings as long-separated relatives are reunited: something like our experiences during the holidays. Perhaps Elizabeth’s hands drop to her swollen belly as she says to Mary: “Oh, the baby just now jumped!”, and perhaps they enjoyed a motherly laugh among themselves. Womantalk, of which men know little.

Then perhaps Elizabeth’s eyes fix on Mary, as she warmly embraces her, and Elizabeth is suddenly overcome by a strange emotion (Luke and we call it “Holy Spirit”), and she shouts: “
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is it granted to me,” she wonders aloud, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me...? Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.
We could imagine her pausing then and wondering aloud: “
Whatever made me say that?!

But Mary knew. She, too, had wondered, quite a lot in fact, what was happening to her since the day she’d had that “experience” of God’s messenger. As she embraced her older kinswoman, Mary’s mind flashed back to that time when the angel messenger had come to her, speaking words that confused her: “
highly favored one...the Lord is with will conceive a son...Jesus...son of the Most High...the throne of his father, David...reign over the house of Jacob...of his kingdom, no end.

As Elizabeth, she, too, had felt herself overcome with a filling, a completeness, a “rightness” inside: the messenger had referred to “
the power of the Most High”. And then she knew. “For,” as the angel had said, “with God nothing will be impossible.” Spontaneously, Mary blurted out: “Yes, I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be to me according to your word.” And then the messenger was gone.

As Elizabeth releases Mary and they stand face-to-face, hand-in-hand, beaming as only women who share the experience of pregnancy can, Mary, perhaps with tears of joy, breaks into a paraphrase of the prayer of praise spoken centuries before by Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother: “
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior...” Mary first praises the God whose presence she had personally felt, to whose call she had immediately responded, yet whose workings had caused her to wonder. She, a nobody, will be part of a community to be known throughout all generations as blessed. Not, indeed, because of herself, but because she was to bear the Holy One of whom Isaiah and Micah had wondered about and awaited long before her: the Holy One whose coming her yet-to-be-born cousin, John, would proclaim with such urgency.

Mary also praises the God whose presence her people, Israel, the nation, had experienced. But here’s really something to wonder about: was God’s involvement with the V.I.P’s, the rich and the famous?? No, God’s focus of attention and concern was on the nobodies, “
the lowly”, the depressed, the humiliated ones, the outcasts. God scatters the proud in their fantasies, “bursts their bubble”, so to speak. God dethrones the mighty, removes from them the control of people’s lives.

You have filled the hungry with good things”: the ones who hunger for justice, the ones who hunger for a chance to use their skills and abilities, the ones who hunger for emotional balance in their lives, for some warmth, some attention, some caring. and the ones who are just plain hungry. “You have...sent the rich away empty.

The greatest good thing which God gives, though, is what Israel, the nation, and each person in it wondered about for centuries: would God, despite their repeated selfishness, pride, injustice to one another, and greed, still keep God’s word, God’s promises of old? Don’t you and I frequently wonder about this? Will God really deliver? in my life? in my circumstances? Mary’s prayer should reassure us: “
You have come to the help of your servant Israel”, remembering God’s mercy, being there with and for them: “The promise made to our forebears, to Abraham, Sarah, and their children for ever.

Israel dreamed of peace (
shalom) as something only God could achieve. Peace in the land would be the sign of the advent, the coming, of the last days and of the Holy One who would save them. And all in simplicity and quiet: nothing on the grand scale. No thunder and lightning. No trumpets playing Hail to the Chief!

Time and again these characteristics of littleness and of quiet appearance on the human scene are signs that God is here and active in our lives. Yet, as for the Israelites, this marvel of human redemption, the marvel of God becoming present, God with us =
Emmanuel, comes about in our lives only over the long haul. It takes time -- and so we wait, and wonder.

The message of Micah and Mary today suggests that you and I use what little is left of our Advent time of waiting and wondering to try to understand, as they did, all that is meant by the words: “
the Lord will come”, even as in our hearts we sense that He is already here.