Sunday, February 27, 2011

Got Trust?

If you’ve never done so, it might be fascinating to take one of your favorite Sunday Collects and trace the history behind it. The one we prayed together this morning, an ancient collect entitled “For Cheerfulness”, was included in the appendix of a collection called Ancient Collects, which was put together in 1862 by The Rev. William Bright. Bright, who died in 1901 at age 77, on the cusp of the 20th century, was Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, and Canon of Christ Church. The Rev. Dr. Marion Hatchett, author of the wonderful Commentary On the American Prayer Book, notes that the Collect had been printed in the 1928 Prayer Bookamong additional family prayers”, and that it alluded to passages from three Epistles: 1 Timothy, Philippians, and 1 Peter. “In the Gospels,” Hatchett says, “the antithesis of faith is not doubt but fear, for faith is essentially trust in God’s love and care.” Having heard the three Scripture readings proclaimed this morning, it’s fairly easy to discern that that is the general theme.

The Collect outlines in the first sentence God’s will for us: to give thanks for all things; to fear nothing but the loss of God; and to cast all our anxiety and concern upon God who cares for us. In the prayer, we further ask God to preserve us from: faithless fears; worldly anxieties; and clouds of this mortal life which hide from us the Love which is both immortal, undying, and which is embodied in the person of Jesus the Christ, and which is the basis for our ultimate trust and faith in God.

The writer of today’s Isaiah passage (Isaiah 49:8-16a), whom we call “2nd Isaiah”, was likely one of those deported in the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews (586-c. 538) and is writing probably around the mid-500’s BCE, during the reign of the last Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus. 2nd Isaiah holds out consolation and hope to his people, referring to an unnamed servant of God, probably the Persian Cyrus II, the Great, who later released the Jewish people to return to their homeland. Quite to the amazement of the exiled Jews, God has chosen this Gentile king as God’s instrument, God’s servant, to embody both God’s own righteousness and compassion. “I have answered you...I have helped you.” Through Cyrus, God will “lead them”. Nevertheless, humans being humans, many of the people are reluctant to buy Isaiah’s message; some outright resist it. Doubts, “faithless fears”, and “worldly anxieties” refuse to give way in many hearts. “The Lord has forsaken me...forgotten me.

How often don’t you and I experience similar feelings the minute something goes wrong in our lives: the minute our brilliant plans are side-tracked or hit a wall, the minute that the lives we’d envisioned for ourselves, of happiness, success, good health, suddenly take a sharp turn and we find ourselves moving in directions we’d never have chosen for ourselves? Yet, just as with the lonely, forsaken Jewish exiles, God, like a mother who lovingly nurses a hungry child or showers it with compassion when it hurts itself, often sends us someone(s) in our distress, someone(s) whom we’d never have imagined or to whom we’d never think to reach out. “See," God says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands...that’s how much I care.” In those moments when we realize that God has, indeed, not left us forsaken we find that it becomes easier, as the narrator of Psalm 131 says, to “still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast…” In the quiet of our soul we learn to “wait upon the Lord.

Christopher Seitz has written: “Moses cut a covenant; the servant is a covenant.” Speaking to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul, in the second reading (1 Corinthians 4:1-5), reminds them that Jesus called them to exercise their faith as servants and stewards of Christ and of God’s mysteries. In another place, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, says that, as servants/stewards, we are called to “the ministry of reconciliation”: we’re sent as “ambassadors for Christ”. The job description for a servant/steward of God’s reconciling compassion and love, Paul says, is simple: be trustworthy, and don’t be judgmental. He notes that he doesn’t even judge himself: something which a good number of us, I suspect, haven’t yet gotten the hang of! It’s God, Paul says, who’ll “disclose the purposes of the heart” for every person, because only God sees the complete picture. Our commission is simply to live as an ambassador, an authorized representative or messenger, of God: the word coming from the Middle English, the Anglo-French, and ultimately the Old High German ambaht = service. Ours is the service, in God’s name, of bringing hope and consolation, of restoring faith for our sisters and brothers, in the face of fear and “worldly anxieties”.

Matthew’s Jesus, in the Gospel reading (Matthew 6:24-34), reinforces this theme of the other readings. Jesus‘ statement, “You cannot serve God and wealth”, however, can lose some of its rich depth for us if we take the word wealth too literally. What Jesus really seems to be addressing is what someone has called “the acquisitive spirit”. When you and I aren’t able to set our hearts firmly on God in Christ, which is what faith ultimately means, our resulting fearfulness manifests itself in inner anxiety, distraction and worry. And so we attach ourselves to and lose ourselves in all sorts of things. It’s very much what the exiled Jewish community did back in the 6th century BCE: “God has forsaken me.”, “How’re we going to get out of here?”, “Can we trust this Persian guy?” The concerns of folks in Jesus‘ time, often the same as ours today, may take more immediate, earthy forms: “How’re we going to survive?”, “Where will the money come from to buy groceries?”, “How can I afford to buy new clothes?”, “Who’ll take care of me if I become ill or when I grow old?” Jesus‘ solution, then and now, is to focus on today, on detaching from all our anxieties, distractions and worries, and attaching to Jesus and the coming reign of God. “...Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things...but strive first for the reign of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well…” Pay attention to your ministry of reconciling all things in Christ, of embodying for those in your life God’s compassion, justice and love, and the rest will be taken care of.

Scripture scholar Robert Hoch expresses it this way: “My sense is that most of us have not seen the world in a very long time—at best, we are passing through the world at the speed of a blur, our wake of wind creating untold turbulence and roadkill, passing enormous swathes of land and ways of being with barely more than a nod. We think our cars, rigged with GPS, power windows, and heated seats are symbols of our worldly import, justifying the urgency of our tasks; maybe they are important, but what about the hour itself, what about the land we live in, what about the community to which we belong? Matthew's Jesus says twice, ‘look’ and ‘consider’...Our ‘worry’ and ‘anxious’ labor are symptoms of a people detached from what is true and what is lasting and what is deep…

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for
all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all
our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless
fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life
may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal,
and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ
our Lord... Amen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Emily Malbone Morgan (1862 - 1937)

Emily Malbone Morgan's family were prominent citizens of Hartford, CT, and her Anglican heritage came from both sides of the family. The home in which she was born formerly belonged to the parents of J. Pierpont Morgan, Sr. Her early education was done by her mother through reading, home tutoring, and travel: to Italy, Bermuda, Russia, Egypt, Spain, North Africa, Jerusalem, and, in this country, California. She studied for a time at a Miss Haines's school in Hartford, where she took up writing.

In 1883 a friendship with Adelyn Howard began.
Adelyn, a Hartford playmate with whom Emily had climbed apple trees and shared attic treasures, had fallen
victim to a fatal hip disease. She was lonely and desolate in a new town away from relatives and friends. Learning through a common friend that Adelyn needed friends, Emily drove from Hartford to Winsted to see her. Because of this bond Emily co-founded in 1884, with the support of Harriet Hastings of Wellesley, the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, in order that Adelyn, the shut-in, might be able to offer prayers and thanksgiving for the many people for whom Emily and Harriet were working in a more active way.

"My greatest desire," Emily Morgan, who never married, once wrote, "has always been to make tired people rested and happy." She was extremely generous, and wherever she traveled, she bought gifts for her friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Her principal form of giving, however, was providing hospitality. She welcomed people to home, established summer homes across the northeast, and found special satisfaction in carrying forward the summer programs of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. In 1901, the Society established a permanent home in Byfield, MA. New facilities were built in 1915 and given the name Adelynrood, which continues today as the Society's headquarters and retreat center.

Vida Scudder tells us: "Through long years of sharing with others [Emily] found fulfillment of her best self, a satisfactory expression of her Christian religion, an opportunity for leadership, and growth in power. Her early diaries show a rebellion against formal religion per se and confusion at the willingness of so-called Christians to overlook the suffering of men, women, and children living in their cities. For several years she struggled against unbelief and lived in an agony of soul. When she had found an opportunity to plan for the happiness of others, she began to know the Christ whom she sought. It was through her obedience to His law 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' that she reached the higher law 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.'"

Emily Morgan was a loyal member of the Episcopal Church, but was never partisan in her devotion either to her branch of Christianity or to any group within the Church. She was a member of Trinity Church, Hartford, in her childhood days. Later she and her family became members of Christ Church, now the Cathedral in Hartford, and attended regularly there. In her latter years she was a member of Trinity Church, Boston, where she had a Bible class for young women.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Rev. John Roberts (1853 - 1949)

 Fr. John Roberts and some of the students of the 
Shoshone Mission School, c. 1906

  No...not that "John Roberts", i.e., the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court! This John Roberts has just recently been included in the commemorations of Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints.

John Roberts was born in Dyserth, on the coast of North Wales, south of Prestatyn and north of St. Asaph, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 1993. Roberts received his education at Rhuthun Grammar School, then at St David’s College, Lampeter, then affiliated with Oxford University. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 1876, and was ordained a deacon in 1878 at Lichfield Cathedral by the Rt. Rev. George Augustus Selwyn.

Roberts served as curate for a short time at Dawley Magna in Shropshire, but soon left there for the Bahama Islands in 1878. He was ordained a priest by the Rt. Rev. Francis Cramer Roberts at Nassau, became chaplain of St Matthew's Cathedral, and also ministered to the leper colonies. He continued to grapple with his vocation and the dissatisfaction he felt ministering only to Christian people. It was also during this time that he met Laura Alice Brown, the Cathedral organist, who eventually became his wife.

In 1880 John Roberts set out for New York and applied for his first preference of priestly work: ministering to the Native Americans of the U.S. While in New York, he met Bishop John Franklin Spalding (1828-1902), missionary Bishop of Wyoming and Colorado, and requested being sent for “missionary work in your most difficult field”. At that time the Shoshone and Bannock Indian Agency on the Shoshone Indian Reservation, later known as the Wind River Indian Reservation, was within Bishop Spalding's missionary district.

Bishop Spalding first sent Roberts to Greeley, CO, then to Pueblo, to minister to the coal miners. He was also Rector of Trinity Church, Pueblo, and established Trinity Mission in South Pueblo in 1882, where he assisted working in the hospital during a small pox epidemic.

He left Pueblo in 1883 and travelled via Cheyenne to Green River, WY. Upon his arrival, he found Green River in the throws of a ferocious blizzard, thus preventing the stage coach from making the 150 mile journey from Green River to the Shoshone/Bannock Indian Agency. Nevertheless, the hearty pioneers of those days believed that the mail still had to be delivered. So they improvised by harnessing four horses to a large dry goods box, with hay spread on the floor, to which they added runners. As the driver was preparing to leave, John Roberts, standing there with his dog, let the man know that he also wanted to go as soon as possible, and thus hitched a ride. The journey took eight days, rather than 2 1/2! They arrived, exhausted, at Fort Washakie in 60 degree-below weather.

The two tribes of Native Americans on the reservation to whom Fr. Roberts ministered were very poor and lived primitively. The Shoshones were mountain Indians, and the Arapahoe, who lived about 20 miles from Ft. Washakie, were Plains Indians. Neither were friendly towards each other. Fr. Roberts gradually gained their confidence, learning both the Shoshone and Arapahoe languages and recording their vocabulary. Unlike many other missionaries, Roberts respected the people and encouraged them to retain their native culture, identity and languages, and, at the same time, helped them to adjust to the world developing around them. Apparently, Chief Washakie of the Shoshone tribe was something of a mercurial character and changed his religion several times.

In 1887 Chief Washakie gave Fr. Roberts 160 acres of land in order to build a mission school and house, some two miles from the fort. The U.S. government had already subsidized an industrial school nearby, but provided no furniture. Eventually the Native American boys were to be taught how to make furniture for the school. As was, and still is, common among many missionaries, John Roberts sent letters, inviting donations and sponsorship of his projects, to all the people he knew.

During his first year he wrote to his fiancée, Laura Brown, who was still in the Bahamas, asking her not to follow him out to Wyoming under any circumstances. The winters were severe and he felt that she couldn't survive the primitive living conditions, seeing that she was from a wealthy family and had been mostly used to servants and private tutors. Love, however,  proved to be stronger, for Laura responded that she was, indeed, coming and to expect her by the end of the year (1884). Only 19 years old at the time, Laura travelled 5000 miles via Liverpool and New York to Rawlins, WY, the nearest railway stop to the reservation. Fr. Roberts had to guesstimate the date of her arrival there. Leaving Ft. Washakie on December 24 by stage coach, he arrived the next afternoon, only a matter of hours after Laura's morning arrival. It'd been three years since they'd last seen each other, and at first Laura didn't recognize him under his large buffalo-hide coat.

John and Laura were married on the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1884, the first wedding at the new St Thomas Episcopal Church. Though many attending were strangers, the church was full and the congregation lavished them with good wishes before they set out the next day for the reservation. Eventually they had six children, five of whom survived: Eleanor, Gwen, Marion, Gladys, and Edward, all of whom became fluent in the native languages and were taught alongside the Native Americans.

Fr. Roberts was responsible for establishing a number of Wyoming churches: in Lander, Milford, Dubois, Thermopolis, Hudson, Riverton, Ethete, etc. Chief Washakie was very helpful in the first few years of Fr. Roberts' ministry. He died in 1900 at about the age of 100, and is buried in the Military Cemetery. It is said that he is the only Native American chief to have had a military funeral, having been highly regarded by the soldiers at the Fort. Fr. Roberts was the celebrant of his funeral.

In his second year of ministry at the Fort, Fr. Roberts was asked to call on a very old Native American woman, who turned out to be none other than Sacajawea, then about 100 years old also. She had been a translator and guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806, discovering the route from the eastern U.S. to the Pacific Ocean. Sacajawea died on April 9, 1884, and Fr. John Roberts had the honor of officiating at her burial. She was buried about 2 miles from the Fort, although some states dispute the claim. A large headstone was erected many years later and is often visited by tourists.

John Roberts was honored for his pioneering ministry and his untiring efforts in teaching among the Native Americans. In 1932 he was awarded a Doctorate of Law in Wyoming and a Doctorate of Divinity at Evanston, IL. In 1933 the flag of Wyoming was presented to the great choir of the National Cathedral in Washington in honor of both Fr. and Mrs. Roberts.

I, for one, am really happy to see folks like John Roberts, certainly unknown to me before now and, I suspect, to many others, included in our Church's commemorations. What a rich and exciting life he led, and what a marvelous and dedicated pioneer ministry he carried on, both for our country and for the Episcopal Church.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Living In the Shadow of Your Predecessor

During my 25 years of ministry in the Episcopal Church, I served in two long-term positions: one for 10 years as Rector of a large parish; another for 11 years as Regional Missioner of three small parishes. Though I've never spent a lot of time thinking about it, I've wondered from time to time what it was like for my successors in those places. What did they hear from parishioners about my tenure there? Was there overall satisfaction, or disappointment? What did folks criticize most about my time there? What were the deficiencies and lacks in ministering to the parishes which I either missed, overlooked, or simply denied? It's never easy, I think, to follow the tenure of a predecessor, to avoid being compared, to gain acceptance for one's own merits.

Woodeene Koenig-Brickers writes this, reflecting on St. Matthias, Apostle, in her book 365 Saints: "It's difficult enough to try to live up to your predecessor's glorious reputation, but it's even more difficult to have to live down a bad one. St. Matthias had that problem. The only thing we know about him is that he was chosen to take Judas Iscariot's place among the twelve apostles. Imagine going through history known as the one who replaced Judas. No matter what Matthias did, the first thing people were bound to remember was that he took over from the person who betrayed Jesus..."

For centuries, according to Fr. Pius Parsch, Matthias wasn't accorded full honor as an apostle because their number of 12 was rounded out by St. Paul, who consistently introduced himself to communities in Asia Minor as "...Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God..." Matthias was named among other "apostolic men", such as Stephen and Barnabas, and only made it to the second grouping of saints in the Roman Canon, rather than the first. It was Pius V, who was Pope from 1566-1572, who finally gave Matthias' feast a vigil and placed him in the same category as the other Apostles. Pius V was a Dominican, a patron of the great composer, Palestrina, and, no big surprise, canonized St. Thomas Aquinas, another noted Dominican.

Matthias, as noted above, was chosen to replace Judas the Traitor, after Christ's ascension and during the time the Apostles were preparing for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. As with so many of the early saints, we know practically nothing about them, except for the pious legends which have been handed down to us. Supposedly, Matthias traveled to "distant lands", sowing the seed of God's Word, possibly in Ethiopia. St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) has left us one sentence in his writings: "[Matthias] exhausted his body by mortification to make his spirit subject to the Crucified."

Matthias is said to have died a martyr's death, and is often depicted in art with a large axe, as in the photo above, from St. Matthias Benedictine Abbey in Trier, Germany, where the relic of his head is ensconced. Legend has it that St. Helena, the Empress, brought a portion of his other relics to Rome where they're venerated in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where, coincidentally, Pope Pius V rests.

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker's final advice to "successors": "The best -- and only -- thing we can do when we're faced with that situation is to focus our attention on the task at hand. We can't change what the person who had the job before us did or didn't do. All we can control are our own actions." 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Bishop/Martyr - d. c. 156

The testimony of St. Irenaeus: 
"...Polycarp, besides being instructed by the Apostles and acquainted with many who had seen the Lord, was also appointed by the Apostles for Asia as bishop of the church in Smyrna. Even I saw him in my early youth; for he remained with us a long time, and at a great age suffered martyrdom full of glory and renown and departed this life, having taught always the things which he had learned from the Apostles, which the Church hands down, which alone are true. There testify to these things all the churches throughout Asia, and the successors of Polycarp down to this day, testimonies to the truth far more trustworthy and reliable than Valentinus and Marcion and the other misguided persons..."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Running Missionary

Remember the opening scene from the 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire? the winded track stars going for the finish line? the haunting musical theme by Vangelis? That movie was based on the story of Eric Liddell [rhymes with fiddle] (1902-1945), a Scotsman and second son of missionary parents, born in China. Liddell was schooled in England, then entered Edinburgh University where he excelled in athletics throughout his stay there.

Liddell won a spot on the British track and field team for the Paris Olympic games, Olympiad VIII, in 1924. He took a gold medal in the 400 meter, setting a world record, and won a bronze medal in the 200 meter. He was favored to win the gold in the 100 meter, his best event as a university athlete. The race, however, was scheduled for Sunday, and rather than break his commitment to keeping a weekly sabbath, even if it meant not participating, he opted out of the race.

Most people don't know that after he graduated from Edinburgh, Eric returned to North China to serve as a missionary himself, associated with the London Missionary Society, from 1925-1943. In 1932 he was ordained a minister, and two years later he married Florence Mackenzie, daughter of Canadian missionaries to China, with whom he had three daughters.

Because of the ongoing conflict between China and Japan, missionaries had to endure many hardships. When the British government advised expatriates to leave China in 1941, after Japan's invasion, Liddell's wife and children fled to Canada, but Eric and his brother, Rob, remained to continue the missionary work. Two years later Eric was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned in the Weihsien concentration camp. Many of those who survived the camp had fond memories of Liddell and spoke very highly of him.

One of these people was The Rev. Dr. Norman Cliff, who reflected on Liddell's last days in the camp, in a talk he gave in 1999: "As the months in Weihsien Camp went by, life became increasingly difficult. Inadequate nutrition month after month, kept within the confines of electrified wires: all these things began to take a toll on our lives. There were mental breakdowns; cases where workers collapsed at work, typhoid, malaria, and dysentery were prevalent among the prisoners. And with the war dragging on like this we wondered when it would end and if it does end who is going to win.

Morale began to go downhill and sports activities began to fizzle out and this general deterioration in health and morale also came to Eric Liddell. He was as human as the rest of us. He started getting severe headaches, he found glare and noise tiresome and he began to feel the separation from his family.

He tried to continue to be of service to fellow internees. Though the will was there, the energy was not. He began to confide in fellow missionaries of the London Missionary Society of his own struggles and fears, his loneliness, and his family. In January 1945 he was taken to the camp hospital...

...The singing and playing of...hymns gave us a tremendous boost. They reminded us that God had not forgotten us...One Sunday in mid-February 1945 we were playing at one of our usual spots just outside the camp hospital and while we were playing, a nurse sent out a note through the window, ‘Eric Liddell has asked if you would play Finlandia’. Of course our leader led us and we played for him...

...A few days after that Eric Liddell sat up in bed and wrote on a piece of paper to his wife, Florence, in Canada '… was carrying too much responsibility… had slight nervous breakdown… much better after a month in hospital. Special love to you and the children, Eric. After writing this over-optimistic note he said to his friend and colleague, Annie Buchan, 'It’s full surrender,' and he went into a coma from which he did not recover. Within an hour he had gone.

The funeral, a few days later, was crowded and the church could not hold all the people and many were standing outside. All kinds of people came who did not normally come to our Sunday services. There was, for example, a prostitute for whom Eric had done some chores without asking anything in return. Many internees were crowded inside and outside the church. And I was part of that cortège of those who carried the coffin down the road to a small cemetery in Japanese quarters..."

Monday, February 21, 2011

John Henry Newman (1801-1890): "Anglo/Catholic", Cardinal, Theologian

John Henry Cardinal Newman, C.O., was an important figure in the religious history of England in the 19th century, becoming nationally known by the mid-1830s.

Originally an evangelical Oxford academic, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1826. He served as Vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, for two years. As an avid student of the writings of the early Church, he was eventually led, along with others, to question the position of Scripture as the unchecked rule and standard of faith. Newman became one of the founders and leaders in the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church, and a prolific tractarian. The Movement included noted Anglicans who wished to return the Church of England to many Catholic beliefs and forms of worship. Newman's most notable, and controversial, work was Tract 90, an attempt to reconcile the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church with the Anglican Church's 39 Articles. In 1845 Newman left the Church of England and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He was ordained as a Roman priest in 1847, became a member of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri [C.O.], and, despite a sometimes problematic relationship with the English Catholic Church, eventually was elevated to the rank of Cardinal in 1877 by Pope Leo XIII.

Pope Benedict XVI officially proclaimed Cardinal Newman "Blessed"on 19 September 2010, at Birmingham, during the Pope's visit to the United Kingdom.

Also a noted literary figure, Cardinal Newman's major writings include his autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865–66), the Grammar of Assent (1870), and the poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865), set to music in 1900 by Edward Elgar as an oratorio. He also wrote the popular hymns Lead, Kindly Light and Praise to the Holiest in the Height (taken from Gerontius).

+  +  +

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

At Sea.
June 16, 1833.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

God's Completeness & Ours

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; 
send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift...
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Amen.

Spoon River Anthology, written in 1915 by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of short free-form poems, describing the life of a fictional small town. 212 separate characters in the poems provide accounts of their lives and losses. Each subsequent poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves. Many characters in the Anthology were based on real people whom Masters knew or had heard of in the two towns in which he grew up in Illinois. In 1963, Charles Aidman adapted Spoon River Anthology into a theater production that’s still widely performed today. In July, 1981, I was privileged to be part of the cast in Albatross Theater’s production of the play in Sacramento. One very touching monologue usually brought me to tears as I stood back in the wings. It depicted a young Chinese girl, named Yee Bow, speaking from the grave:

“They got me into Sunday school
In Spoon River
And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus
I could have been no worse off
If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius.
For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,
And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley,
The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs,
With a blow of his fist.
Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Pekin,
And no children shall worship at my grave.”

What a painful, sad example of what a “Christian” should not be. Surely Harry Wiley, as many of us, would’ve repeatedly listened to these passages of Scripture which we’ve just heard in the three readings:
“You shall be holy…”
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin…”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…”
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…”
“I say to you, Love your enemies…”
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Obviously, this minister’s son didn’t have a clue as to the connection those words had with his relationship to others in his Sunday school class. He missed the power of the ways of the Holy and of the love which fills us with thanksgiving if we’re receptive.

Today’s first reading from Leviticus (19:1-2; 9-18) is part of Chapters 17-26, commonly called The Holiness Code, because of the unifying theme of God’s holiness. The Hebrew word which speaks of God as holy means separate, set aside as clean, dedicated. The “Holy One of Israel”, Isaiah tells us, is wholly Other. “...for holy...I am the Lord.” God alone is Holy and all other holiness comes from God. It’s God’s gift to us. “You shall be holy…” What God says of Godself, what God is, is what God graciously lets us be. God’s holiness is the basis and sufficient reason for our being just, honest, generous, and loving to one another. God never proclaims God’s holiness in total isolation, but always in a context where God separates, sets aside, consecrates, someone out of the everyday world to serve the Almighty’s purpose. Not one of us has the right to claim that holiness is beyond our ability. God has let us exist, be, and by the very fact that you are and I am, we can know for certain that we’ve been set apart and have received from the Holy One all that it takes to be holy.

Think about that! That’s so awesome a fact that it should make us, like Moses, want to “take off our shoes”, for we’re indeed standing on holy ground. In the presence of the holiness of the God of Hosts, we can only realize how separate we are, in the opposite direction from God, because of our selfishness. When we stand before the Holy God what’s uppermost in our minds is our utter need for forgiveness and mercy. Holiness isn’t something we work up: it’s rather the gracious, undeserved gift of the One who is Holy. When God touches us, it evokes our awe and worship. Perhaps only the language of worship can adequately express what it is we try to stammer: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

In the first reading God says to Moses: “Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel...You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” The gift of the Holy One lets us be holy individually, and also lets us be a holy people. Last week’s second reading from 1 Corinthians ended with the words: “ are...God’s building…”, the immovable and only foundation of which is Jesus the Christ. But St. Paul isn’t just talking about an anonymous building. “Do you not know,” he asks in today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 2:10-11; 16-23), “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The you here is plural in Greek. The temple, this holy people, is where the Holy God lives and is present through the Holy Spirit of Love. “...God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple…

In light of the first two readings, perhaps, what many of us have likely seen as one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings in Matthew’s Gospel (5:38-48) will begin to make some sense: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What bothers us, I think, is the word perfect, and the implication that somehow you and I, mere humans, should or can measure up to God’s perfection. We know that that’s impossible. To expect otherwise is, at best, arrogantly presumptuous, at worst, blasphemous. Unfortunately, many folks have driven themselves crazy trying to be as perfect as God.

 The Greek adjective for perfect means complete, full-grown, thorough, whole-hearted. The root verb, to perfect, means to set out for a definite point/goal, and the noun, perfection, refers to completeness, the point aimed at, the terminus, the result or end-product, the purpose achieved. The 1st Epistle of John translates today’s message into amazingly simple terms: “God is Love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” The Holy God lets us be holy and we are holy, as individuals and corporately as the congregation and as the wider Church, when we offer to any and every person who comes into our lives the love of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus. That’s completeness. That’s the point aimed at. That’s God’s purpose, the end-product. That’s what it means for you and me to be complete as our heavenly Father is complete.

Matthew’s passage starts with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” referring to Lv 19:18, which actually reads: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Nowhere in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures does God or Jesus direct us to hate any person: quite the contrary. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus repeatedly stress that the Holy One of Israel is a God whose Love for every human being is both just and compassionate. Jesus further challenges us, in the Gospel, to let our actions display this kind of holy love. When you’re insulted, he says, challenge the insulter with an act of graciousness, turning the other cheek, and not retaliating. In American society, that’s almost unthinkable for us who are so imperfect in contrast to our heavenly Father. It isn’t, to our mind, the “normal” human reaction. He goes on to urge that when someone sues you for your essential garment, i.e., the “coat”, a long, ankle-length basic garment at that time, offer him/her your “cloak” as well, i.e., the outer, heavier, more expensive protective covering. Or suppose that governmental or military authorities force you to assist them. (It was common in the Persian Empire for an official to require someone to walk a mile carrying the mail, in order to keep up a good system. And in Roman-occupied Palestine any soldier had the right to draft a civilian to carry his pack.) Jesus says, “Don’t just assist: do even double what’s demanded.” Can you imagine how dangerous it was at that time for a Jew to even suggest what sounded like collaboration with the Romans?! But Jesus’ point was not about political collaboration. It was about his followers operating on God’s terms, stepping out of the “normal” human pattern, and shocking the enemy with a surprising act of grace.

The rabbis had a saying: “The one sent out by a man is like the man himself.” Jesus directs you and me to love all people, friend or foe, and to pray for them “that you may be son/daughters of your Father in heaven.” To be a son/daughter of God is to be like God. But it means much more than simply declaring ourselves to be supernaturally reborn. It means accepting God’s holiness as the norm of our life, being centered in love, living by the Holy Spirit’s power into a maturity, a whole-heartedness, a completeness patterned after God’s own Holy Being itself.

That simply means that you and I consciously commit ourselves to genuinely accept every person who comes into our lives, as they are: regardless of their inner or outer appearances, and regardless of how they perceive or receive us. This doesn’t mean that we will, or must, like or go along with others’ evil or hurtful actions. Jesus doesn’t recommend non-resistance. He was anything but a wimp. What he means to say is that, like his Father, one will respond to those actions with unexpected acts of grace. You and I will look beyond to the person who, because s/he is worthy of our Father’s love and compassion, is worthy of ours also. Even Gentiles and tax-collectors, Jesus says, two groups despised and outcast in his time, observe the civility of treating their friends graciously. Our Father goes far beyond that kind of “antiseptic” love, and Jesus challenges you and me not to do anything less.

The Father, Jesus says, lavishes essential gifts, such as sunshine and rain, upon all: the good, the bad, the ugly -- unstintingly, without measure. That’s really the whole point of today’s message: you and I are to be perfect, complete, even as our Father, precisely by freely giving the gift of holy, uncalculating love, the kind which we ourselves receive from God’s hands over and over, to all: friend, enemy, family member, the poor, the sojourner, the stranger.

When I was in seminary many years ago, I bought a book by José Luis Martin Descalzo, called God’s Frontier. It was never a best-seller, but it profoundly affected me then and later. In the book, an old priest, Don Macario, who is dying of cancer, shares with a young priest his reflections on life and the human condition:

‘This is not what your spiritual adviser told you in the seminary. But if we were all sincere, we would confess that we could not stand Christ as a neighbor’...Don Macario stirred in his bed. ‘I have come to the conclusion’, he went on, ‘that God is constantly changing frontiers. He comes down, sets up his tents beside one city, and then another, and another, and another. There may even be a moment when God is on the frontier of each soul, that decisive moment in life when a person knows that everything is at stake. It is that moment of absolute aloneness when a man stands naked before God, without one human handhold. When that moment comes to the soul, there are few paths to choose from. Before, when I was young, I thought there were only two: either to give oneself up to God or to kill Him; I mean kill the idea of Him, the one we men hold. Later I saw that there was another: to become indifferent and go on living. If this moment has not yet come to you, I may tell you that this third path is the worst, but it is also the most comfortable...and the most frequented.'”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Blessed Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546)

"...The number of books attributed to Martin Luther is quite impressive. However, some Luther scholars contend that many of the works were at least drafted by some of his good friends like Philipp Melanchthon. Luther’s books explain the settings of the epistles and show the conformity of the books of the Bible to each other. Of special note would be his writings about the Epistle to the Galatians in which Luther compares himself to the Apostle Paul in his defense of the Gospel. Luther also wrote about church administration and wrote much about the Christian home.

Luther's work contains a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude. For example, Luther was know to advise people that they should literally 'Tell the Devil he may kiss my ass.' It should be remembered that Luther received many communications from throughout Europe from people who could write anonymously, that is, without the specter of mass media making their communications known. No public figure today could write in the manner of the correspondences Luther received or in the way Luther responded to them. Luther was certainly a theologian of the middle-ages. He was an earthy man who enjoyed his beer, and was bold and often totally without tact in the blunt truth he vehemently preached. While this offended many, it endeared him all the more to others.

He was open with his frustrations and emotions, as well. Once, when asked if he truly loved God, Luther replied 'Love God? Sometimes I hate Him!' Luther was also frustrated by the works-emphasis of the book of James, calling it 'the Epistle of Straw', and questioning its canonicity. Also irritated with the complex symbolism of the Book of Revelation, he once said that it too, was not canon, and that it should be thrown into the river! He later retracted these statements, of course. Luther was a man who was easily misquoted or taken out of context. While a brilliant theologian, and a bold reformer, he would not have made a good politician. But then, he never aspired to any career in politics...

...Martin Luther escaped martyrdom, and died of natural causes. His last written words were, 'Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles... We are beggars: this is true.'" (From

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Modern Martyr - Archbishop Janani Luwum (1922-1977)

In this day of people revolting against long-standing dictators and the injustice and oppression which they've perpetrated, we have an inspiring example in Janani Luwum. In the name of Jesus and in defense of his people, he was willing to confront on of the 20th century's most notorious despots, Idi Amin of Uganda, fully aware of the consequences. "They are going to kill me. I am not afraid...While the opportunity is there, I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God."

O God, whose Son the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep: 
We give you thanks for your faithful shepherd Janani Luwum, 
who after his Savior's example, gave up his life for the people
of Uganda. Grant us to be so inspired by his witness
that we make no peace with oppression, but live as those who
are sealed with the cross of Christ, who died and rose again, 
and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Blessed Absalom Jones (1746-1818)

Born - November 6, 1746, in Sussex, DE
Married Mary King - 1770
Died - February 13, 1818, Philadelphia, PA

Sussex, DE, and Philadelphia, PA, slave
Manumitted - October 1, 1784
Methodist lay preacher, licensed - 1786
Free African Society, co-founder - 1787
African Church of St. Thomas, co-founder - 1794
Episcopal Church, ordained deacon - 1795; ordained priest - 1804.

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice
and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your
servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the
reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God,
which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cyril & Methodius: Scholars, Ecumenists, Missionaries

St. Cyril (c. 827-869), baptized "Constantine", and his brother St. Methodius (c. 815-885) were Byzantine Christian missionaries to the Slavs in the 9th century.

The Greek brothers were born into the Slavic speaking community of Thessaloniki in Macedonia. Constantine, a child prodigy, attended the Imperial University [University of Magnaura], studying grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, and philosophy under the leading teachers of the region, including Photius, who was became the Patriarch of Constantinople. Constantine was also adept at Arabic and Hebrew. Having been ordained a deacon, then 24, he assumed Photius' chair of philosophy at the Imperial University, as well taking charge of the huge library at Hagia Sophia. Living in a monastery on the Bosporus, he was widely known as a teacher, and, in some circles, as "The Philosopher". Methodius became governor of a Slavic-speaking district in Greek territory for a time, then, experiencing a call to monastic life, he left his post to join Constantine at his monastery.

Constantine's mastery of theology and command of both Arabic and Hebrew well qualified him for his first state mission by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III. He was sent to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil to discuss the principle of the Holy Trinity with Arab theologians, and to generally improve relations between the Caliphate and the Empire. In c. 860, Emperor Michael in Constantinople, along with Patriarch Photius, again called on Constantine, this time with Methodius also [although this is somewhat uncertain], to go to the land of the Khazars, north and west of the Black Sea (present day Russia and the Ukraine). This was a missionary expedition to the Khazar Khaganate in order to discourage the expansion of Judaism there, though unsuccessful, since the Khagan later imposed Judaism on his people as the national religion. There's a legend that Constantine and Methodius made a stop beforehand at Chersonesus in the Crimea to prepare for the upcoming mission, and that, according to tradition, Constantine discovered the relics of St. Clement of Rome during their stay there. That 200 Khazars were purportedly converted and baptized because of the brothers' work points to a successful mission. After the brothers returned to Constantinople, Methodius was elected abbot of a monastery.

The brothers spent their energy translating scriptural and liturgical texts into the Slavic language. Constantine also composed a totally new Slavonic alphabet, called the glagolithic. In it's final form it's known as the cyrillic alphabet, still used today by Orthodox Christians in Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Constantine used glagolithic to translate the Psalms, the Gospels, and the epistles of St. Paul into Slavic.

In 862 Prince Rastislav of Moravia sent a request for missionaries to Emperor Michael noting: "Our nation is baptized and yet we have no teacher to guide and instruct us in interpreting the Sacred Scriptures. We understand neither Greek nor Latin. Furthermore, we do not understand written characters nor their meaning. Therefore, send us teachers who can make known to us the words of the Scriptures and their sense." (From The Russian Primary Chronicle) The Emperor once again chose to send Constantine and Methodius to Moravia in 863. Constantine told him: "I am weak and sick, but I am happy to go naked and barefoot and I am ready to die for the Christian faith."

The brothers worked under the support of the prince of Moravia: training the clergy, instructing the people in the Slavonic language, converting non-believers, confirming those who already were believers in the Christian faith, and translating liturgical books into the people's language. Their efforts weren't at all universally appreciated, particularly by nearby German clergy who objected on several counts: 1) they saw the brothers as intruders, considering Moravia under their jurisdiction; 2) they considered use of the "vulgar" Slavonic language in liturgy as blasphemous; and 3) they were generally suspicious of anyone from Constantinople! In 864 Louis the German conquered Moravia, and the Frankish clergy curtailed the brothers' activities. These people were what Constantine referred to as trilingualists, i.e., they believed that only Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were acceptable for use in worship, basing their belief on the inscription which hung over Jesus' head at the Crucifixion and identified him as "King of the Jews" in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Constantine and Methodius traveled to Rome in 867, hoping to enlist the Pope's support for their work. By the time they reached Rome a new Pope, Adrian II, was in place. The Pope received the brothers cordially, especially since, according to legend, they'd brought him the relics of St. Clement of Rome. Adrian gave his approval to the Slavonic translations of both the Bible and the liturgy, and blessed the Slavonic books in a service at the altar of the Church of the Virgin. He likewise authorized the use of Slavonic in the Mass in several churches in Rome in which he installed Methodius and three of his disciples. Pope Adrian agreed to consecrate both Constantine and Methodius as bishops, and apparently this was done for Methodius, while it isn't clear, at least from the sources I've read, whether that was true for Constantine.

Constantine's worsening health prevented the brothers from returning to Moravia. He entered a monastery, was tonsured as a monk and took on the name "Cyril", just a month and a half before his death on February 14, 869. He died in Rome, and was buried with great pomp in the Church of St. Clement, whose relics he'd brought back from Crimea.

In the same year, 869, Methodius was consecrated as Archbishop of Sirmium in Moravia, and returned there with the Pope's recommendation. He arrived only to find that Prince Rastislav, who'd originally invited Methodius and his brother, had been overthrown by a nephew, Svátoplúk, who was in cahoots with the German clergy and bishops. In 870 Methodius was arrested, hailed before the synod of German bishops, and imprisoned. Three years later Pope John VIII was able to free him, but only on the condition that Slavonic, "a barbarous language", be used only for preaching. Methodius continued his work, but, having confronted the new prince for his moral failings, Methodius was recalled to Rome on charges of continuing to use Slavonic in the liturgy and for heresy because, following ancient tradition, he omitted the Filioque clause, "and the Son", from the Creed. Pope John summoned him to Rome and, finally satisfied with his orthodoxy, sent him back to Moravia, even authorizing the use of Slavonic in the liturgy, with certain reservations. Nevertheless, at Prince Svátoplúk's request, Pope John unwittingly consecrated a German priest, Wiching, as Methodius' suffragan bishop. Bishop Wiching did everything he could to make Methodius' life miserable, even to the extent of forging pontifical documents! Even after Methodius' death, Wiching made it his mission to try to undo all of Methodius' work.

Methodius eventually completed a Slavonic translation of the Scriptures, as well as of Byzantine ecclesiastical and civil law, while continuing his missionary activities. He died on April 6, 885. The chronicle records that at his funeral, celebrated in Greek, Latin, and Slavonic, "The people, carrying tapers, came together in huge numbers;...all were there. For Methodius had been all things to all people that he might lead them all to heaven."

You could say that SS. Cyril and Methodius, Eastern churchmen working in collaboration with the Western Pope, were among the first ecumenists. In recognition of this, Pope John Paul II, in 1981, proclaimed them joint patrons of Europe, together with St. Benedict of Nursia.

The heritage of liturgy in the vernacular left to Eastern Christendom by SS. Cyril and Methodius is of monumental importance. Orthodox churches commemorate St. Cyril on February 14th, St. Methodius on April 6th, and both brothers together on May 11th. The Episcopal Church also honors the saints on February 14. Catholic churches commemorate them together on July 7th.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Let Your Word Be 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no""

You've probably all seen the Peanuts cartoon where Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown. Each year she holds it, and each year she jerks the ball away just at the last minute before Charlie tries to kick it. In one episode Lucy assures Charlie Brown: "I know you fell down last year. But this year I cross my heart that I won't do it..." Of course, we all know what happens: she pulls the ball again. When Charlie Brown complains, she replies: "Yes, I said 'cross my heart', but I didn't say 'and hope to die'"!

The problem here is that Lucy seems not to feel that oaths are binding. You and I know people who haven't been true to their word to us, who've outright lied to us or have been less than candid. When I was in sales work years ago and would call on a prospective client, I'd often be told, after the sales pitch: "Give me a call next week and then we can do business." Next week, of course, you could never reach the person, or you were told the person was no longer interested. Same thing with family, friends or acquaintances: parents sometimes manipulate the truth by replying to children's requests, "We'll see." All of this can leave a person feeling cheated and betrayed.

It's not a new problem. By Jesus' time the use of oaths and empty promises had become somewhat commonplace. An oath can be described as that by which a person invokes God to attest to or witness to the truth of what one says. Often a sacred object is substituted for God's name: "I swear on my mother's grave" or "I swear by my soul." Some oaths assert or attest to the truth of what we declare. Other oaths signify that we'll abide by a certain promise which we make.

The Israelites were commanded to swear by God alone. In effect, their oath was a profession of faith in God. In the Hebrew Scriptures an oath was relatively rare, and certainly not something to be taken lightly. But by Jesus' time oaths were invoked routinely. People swore by various objects, but many times the oaths weren't even legally binding. It was difficult to tell which ones were binding or non-binding.

Matthew's passage today (5:21-37) presents Jesus as the Teacher: he speaks with new authority and not as the Scribes. He's depicted as the One who proclaims God's will as it was originally intended. Jesus is, so to speak, God's mouthpiece, the authentic interpreter of God's law. His word is more radical than Moses' word, even stands above it.

Jesus' attitude toward oaths, as reflected in Matthew, is to forbid them. Possibly his reply was to a question, such as: "Which oaths are binding or not binding?" Jesus points out the hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the questioner. Why would anyone ask this unless s/he condoned telling half-truths? In the reign of God, Jesus contends, there's no room for oaths. The truthful word of God's follower is all that's needed. God is as serious about the truth, all the time, as we're serious about it when we use a binding oath. In following Jesus, however, oaths become unnecessary: a simple "Yes" or "No" is binding enough. The truth stands on its own.

Unfortunately today, we run into folks who can't distinguish truth from untruth, reality from unreality. Many lie most of the time. We call them sociopathic or pathological liars. Hopefully, none of us acts in this way. But we've all been guilty, if we're honest, of being less than truthful at times. A friend gets a new hair-do or dress and asks if it looks good. We might say, "It's interesting," when we really mean that it looks horrible. Someone at the office asks your evaluation of a fellow worker, whom you know to be really incompetent, yet you answer, "Jim is a hard worker." And there are the endless "white lies" which we all tell: when we "don't have time" to help someone, or give them a lift, etc. If we're to follow Jesus faithfully, there's always need for greater truth in our lives. God's reign demands it. An honest relationship with God and with one another demands it.

Most of us can understand how untruth or lying harms, not only ourselves, but our family members and friends. But how does it also dishonor God? Perhaps the example of Lucy and Charlie Brown gives a clue. A lie tells another person that the world is different from the way that person perceives it. Like Charlie Brown, we recognize that the world includes untrustworthy people like Lucy. The lying or untruthful Lucys of the world, often our very selves, in essence verbally remake or try to remake the world. When I lie to you I try to make you live in the world which I "create", not the world as God created it. The untruthful person tries to assume God's authority and rule. The liar attempts to portray God's world, conceived in goodness, as other than it is.

In calling us to be servants of the coming reign of God, Jesus challenges us to be straightforward,  singleminded, honest: to "tell it like it is". Further, Jesus asks us to take him at his word: to have faith, to set our hearts and lives on his word, to live by it. Those who live by faith find it unnecessary to ask Jesus to swear that He loves us, "cross his heart and hope to die". Jesus doesn't need to say "hope to die": he did die for us. He said "Yes" to us and to new life, and "No" to death-dealing falsehood and duplicity.

In the inimitable words of Edith Ann, one of Lily Tomlin's characters which you may recall from years ago: "And that's the truth!"

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Very Own Feast Day

Sometime over 15 years ago, a parishioner friend at my former parish, St. John's, Chico, Anita Psyllos, had visited Greece and returned with a wonderful gift for me: an icon of a saint whom she said was "St. Haraldobus". She'd asked around for one fitting my first name, "Harry". [Parenthetically, I've deferentially have tolerated my name, not particularly liking it, though I was close to my maternal grandfather for whom I was named.] Since at least high school, I simply accepted that "Harry" was a derivative of "Henry", which it is; also of "Harold", which is not my name. When I was ordained, the official papers recorded my name, in Latin, as "Henricus". Though Anita's icon has hung on my wall since then, and though I continued to call him "Haraldobus", some months ago I decided to search online for the feast day corresponding to "Harry".

My online search took me to an entry on Wikipedia for St. Charalampos/Harálampos = χαραλαμπος = joyful light. Another variation is Harálambos, which may be what Anita had originally been told in Greece. Interesting, too, that my last name is "Allagree" = allègre (Fr.), lively, cheerful; alegre (Sp.), joyful, glad. But then, I do recall one of my seminary English instructors, Fr. Francis Kinney, calling me "Happy Harry"! He also nicknamed me "Butterball", but we won't pursue that one! At any rate, the feast of St. Haralampos (c, 89-202) is observed today, February 10.

St. Haralampos seems to have been an early Christian priest or bishop in Magnesia, a region of Thessaly, in the diocese of the same name. He lived during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), when Lucian was Proconsul of Magnesia. It is believed that at the time of his martyrdom, Haralampos was 113 years old. Let's hope that I have some of his spiritual genes at least!

Haralampos was at least a priest, possibly the Bishop, at Magnesia, and spread the Gospel in that region for many years. When the acclaim of his preaching reached Lucian, the proconsul in the area, and the military commander, Lucius, Harlampos was arrested and brought to trial, where he confessed his faith in Christ and refused to offer sacrifice to idols. Despite his advanced age, he was tortured mercilessly, his body lacerated with iron hooks, and skin scraped from his body. His only comment to his tormentors was: "Thank you, my brothers, for scraping off the old body and renewing my soul for new and eternal life." Legend has it that, upon witnessing Haralampos' endurance of such tortures, two soldiers, Porphyrius and Baptus, openly confessed faith in Christ, for which they were immediately beheaded. Three women who were also watching the sufferings of Haralampos began to glorify Christ, and were summarily executed as well.

Hagiographers of the saint claim that Lucius, enraged by all this, seized the instruments of torture himself and began to torture Haralampos, only to have his forearms suddenly cut off as if by a sword. The governor Lucian then spat in the face of the saint, and immediately Lucian's head swivelled around, so that he faced backwards! Yes, you can read it all in the acta of Haralampos' martyrdom! A further note says that, surpisingly, Lucian and Lucius both experienced a dramatic conversion. They prayed for mercy, were healed through Haralampos' intercession, and became Christians themselves. Well...who knows?!

But apparently that wasn't the end of it. Even more tortures, according to the legend, were inflicted on St. Haralampos after he was brought before Septimius Severus himself. After being condemned to death and led to the place of execution, Haralampos lifted his arms to heaven and prayed: "Lord, You know that humans are flesh and blood; forgive them their sins and pour out Your blessing on all." Haralampos then gave up his soul to God even before the executioner had laid the sword to his neck. Pretty tough ole codger, at 113! According to tradition Severus' own daughter, Gallina, was also so moved by the death of Haralampos, that she was converted, and saw to it herself that Haralampos was buried.

The skull of St. Haralampos is kept at the Monastery of St. Stephen at Meteora in Greece. Many miracles are traditionally attributed to the fragments of his relics, found in many places throughout Greece and elsewhere. These miracles have made Haralampos, the most aged of all the martyrs, especially dear to the people of Greece.

The Sibling With The Greater Love

St. Benedict of Nursia was no slouch when it came to loving God. His biography is filled with stories about God's special favors granted at his intercession. Nevertheless, St. Scholastica, his sibling and possibly twin sister, seems to have had a bit of an edge, at least according to Gregory the Great in his Dialogues. As a young man, Benedict had run off to become a hermit at Subiaco, later moving to Monte Cassino, when Scholastica was very young. Surely she admired and was influenced by the commitment and holiness which she saw in her big brother. Still at home, she consecrated herself to God, the implication of that being that she must even then have exhibited an advanced degree of love of God.

Gregory relates the oft-told story of Benedict's last meeting with Scholastica before she died. Since her nunnery at Plombariola was located only about five miles from Monte Cassino, Scholastica and Benedict annually visited with one another at a gatehouse outside Benedict's monastery where they would pray together and converse about holy things. Scholastica's health had been failing at the time of the visit about which Gregory the Great wrote, and perhaps she had an intuition that this could be the last time she and Benedict would be together here on earth. She obviously wanted to make the best of it.

Along with Benedict's companions, Scholastica and Benedict had spent the day singing praises to God and talking about the spiritual life. As darkness was settling in, they continued their dialogue over a meal together until it grew quite late. Scholastica, realizing this, begged Benedict and the others to stay the night. Benedict, not one to transgress a Rule he himself had written, reminded his sister that that wasn't possible because they weren't to be away from their monastery overnight. Whereupon Scholastica quietly folded her hands on the table, resting her head on them, and fell into deep prayer. When she finally looked up, a clap of thunder startled the group, and torrential rains began to fall.

Benedict was immediately savvy as to what had taken place. "God forgive you, sister, what have you done?"Her innocent reply was, "When I appealed to you, you would not listen to me. So I turned to my God and he heard my prayer. Leave now if you can...go back to your monastery." A typical sibling squabble! And one might imagine Scholastica's coy smile. Benedict, of course, knew that he'd been "had", not only by his little sister, but also by the God whom they both loved so selflessly. One can only wonder about the deep things of the spirit which they must've discussed for the rest of the night. Whatever it was, Gregory the Great notes that "both of them derived great profit from the holy converse they had..."

Gregory, however, seems unable to let Scholastica's action and words simply go by without further comment: "We need not be surprised that in this instance the woman proved mightier than her brother. Do we not read in St. John that God is love? Surely it is no more than right that her influence was greater than his, since hers was the greater love." Turns out that both she and Gregory made the right call, for only three days later Scholastica died. Benedict is said to have seen her soul entering heaven in the form of a dove. He had his brothers go down and fetch her body and, after the funeral rites, had them bury his beloved sister in the tomb which he had prepared for himself. Gregory concludes with a final observation: "The bodies of these two were now to share a common resting place just as in life their souls had always been one in God."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Devotion of Friends

The second reading for the Morning Office today (2 Timothy 1:15-2:13) is touching excerpt from St. Paul to his "beloved child", Timothy.

"You are aware that all who are in Asia have turned away from me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me—may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus."
How hard it is for all of us when people whom you counted as friends "turn away" from you. It seems that, most of the time, the differences which separate us are extremely petty things, or at least thing which could be mutually worked through with a little patience and rationality. Sometimes the separations are because of deeply-felt, cherished or ingrained convictions and beliefs. Even here, I believe one could find ways to "agree to disagree" and maintain at least a basic friendship. Whatever it was between Paul and Phygelus and Hermogenes, it was serious and those departing felt that they had good reason. Shakespeare holds that "Parting is such sweet sorrow...". If it does nothing else, it helps us appreciate the ones in our lives who do care, people committed to sticking with us through thick and thin. Paul intimates that his friend, Onesiphorus, possibly recently deceased from what Paul intimates, was such a person. Not only was he not ashamed of Paul when Paul fell on hard times: he sought Paul out, "eagerly", and came to his aid. 

"You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things."
Paul then addresses his friend and disciple, Timothy, and encourages him to continue to be the kind of friend to Paul that Onesiphorus was. Paul, though absent, urges and encourages Timothy in his ministry to depend, not on his own strength, but on the power of Christ Jesus. He wants Timothy to continue Paul's own work of passing on, entrusting, the living Word of good news to receptive people, "faithful" people, people on whom Timothy can count to, in their turn, pass on and entrust and teach the message of God's reign to others. Paul is very direct about the cost: Timothy will suffer. He'll need to struggle to keep focused on essentials and avoid getting bogged down in mundane, peripheral things. Like an athelete, in order to be successful, Timothy needs to operate according to "the rules". It will entail hard work, such as a farmer experiences when the push is on to sow, to tend, and then to gather in the crops. Devotion is what Timothy needs to develop and nurture, and that will come, Paul says, from God who is the source of it "in all things".

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself."
 For Paul the "gospel" is not just a message, a word, but a Person: Jesus Christ, someone who was truly a human being: in fact, one whose forbear was the great King David himself; and someone who is the Risen Christ, who died and lives, who endured suffering and now reigns, whose very essence is faithfulness, dependability, friendship and love. In essence, Paul is reminding Timothy: "What a friend we have in Jesus...", unlike Phygelus and Hermogenes, but so like Onesiphorus, one who'll never turn away.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Even To Death Itself..."

O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you
brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of
the cross to the joys of eternal life: Grant that we,
encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we
profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

The Jesuits, led by St. Francis Xavier, then the Franciscans introduced Christianity to Japan in the 16th century. It's estimated that, by the end of the century, there were some 300,000 baptized Christians there.

Humans, however, being as they are, so frequently have minds of their own. Though Jesus said, "Wherever two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them," more often than not human beings find ways to drive him out of their midst through jealousy, competition, turf-protecting, politics, and just plain meanness of spirit. So it was in Japan following the heroic efforts and self-giving of the early Christian missionaries. The Spanish vied with the Portuguese, and both vied with the Japanese. For a half century the powerful Tokugawa shoguns at least tolerated Christianity, but finally outlawed it, inflicting violent persecution and suppression.

20 converts and 6 Franciscan friars were the first to die at their hands, crucified at Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. Within 35 years Christians in Japan had been driven underground. Remarkably, in the 1880's it was discovered that many laity and clergy had admirably preserved a semblance of the Christian faith through many generations.

The recent witness of the citizens of Cairo, using their God-given rights of assembly and free speech to denounce oppression and injustice inflicted by civil rulers, have inspired many of us. They've demonstrated, sometimes painfully, very much like the Martyrs of Nagasaki, that there are some principles worth fighting and suffering for, "even to death itself".  Would we who profess to be Christians in our own country have the same determination and faith? Who knows but that there could come a time?...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"In Much Fear and Trembling"

Three phrases jump out from the Epistle (1 Corinthians 2:1-16) and Gospel (Matthew 5-13-20) for this Sunday, Epiphany 5: 1) "fear and trembling; 2) "the salt of the earth"; 3) "the light of the world". The first one conjures up in my mind a well-worn joke which tells of a Jewish rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, and an Episcopalian traveling together on a jetliner. In midair the plane suddenly drops some 1000 ft. within a few seconds, then stabilizes, and eventually lands safely. The news of the incident has preceded them to their destination, and a local news reporter is waiting at the gate to interview them and get their reactions to what happened. The Jewish rabbi explains that he prayed fervently to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Roman priest tells the reporter that he prayed with almost equal gusto to the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede with the Lord. "And to which denomination do you belong?" the reporter asks the third man. "I'm an E...copalian: I was an Episcopalian when I boarded the flight, but when the plane fell 1000 ft. in five seconds, that which is between the 'E' and the 'copalian' was sacred out of me, and now I'm an E...copalian!"

The passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthian community is particularly rich theologically and quite touching. "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling..." One would have to look hard to find a more eloquent expression of humility, as well as an accurate summary and personal confession of Christian faith. For Paul, the vehicle for expressing such a deep reality was something far beyond any human "speech" or "message" or "plausible words of wisdom". For him only a "demonstration of the Spirit and of power" would do, in order that "your faith the power of God."

None of the "rulers of this age" comprehend this. The powers that be in every age simply don't operate in that "universe" or according to those categories. The very fact that Jesus, "the Lord of glory", was crucified, murdered, in the way that he was is evidence of this. Paul then makes an astounding statement: that"'what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him', God has revealed to us through the Spirit...Now we have received...the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit..."

In other words, sent to this community of believers in Jesus, Paul comes embodying in his person lowliness, weakness, inadequacy, yet also firm in the conviction that, by the power of the Spirit of Jesus, given as sheer gift from the Father, he, Paul, also embodies in his person an understanding of God's gift of "a secret and hidden wisdom", which he's passing on to them whose hearts have been open enough to receive and possess that same Spirit of power. They now, and this is where today's Epistle and Gospel connect, become "salt of the earth", "light to the world", embodying the same gift in themselves, called and commissioned to share it with those around them. To the powers that be and to those who fail to grasp this, these realities are the utmost "folly".

In this passage, Paul uses the word "wisdom" some six times. Scholars and theologians through the centuries, among them some of the great Russian writers and, of course, Thomas Merton in our own time, have sought to comprehend the meaning of "Holy Wisdom". Christopher Pramuk, in his recent book Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, has provided, to my mind, one of the clearest synopses of that term.  He says: "Who then is Hagia Sophia [Holy Wisdom]? She is the Spirit of Christ but more than Christ. She is the Love joining the Father, Son, and Spirit that longs for incarnation from before the very beginning. She is Jesus our mother, and Mary, the Theotokos. She is the 'pivot' (le point vierge) of nature, Natura naturans, and all creation in God from the beginning. Perhaps most of all, Merton's Sophia is our 'true self', when we (like Mary, seat of Wisdom) allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ..."

Paul understood, by the Spirit's enlightening, that Jesus' passion and death embodies a mystery which can be approached only in the realm of paradox, as a reality which Merton terms "negatively positive". In his Contemplation In a World of Action, Merton says that we must approach the cross "humbly and resolutely, following the call of God and obedient to the divine Spirit, like Moses approaching the burning bush, removing the 'shoes' of opinion and rationalization." In the ongoing act of creation God's Self-giving is both Self-emptying and Life-giving. Jesus, too, is non-violent "even to death on a cross", reconciling humans with God and with one another, ever inviting them to repent and change, asking forgiveness even for the very ones who killed him. In Merton's words, "Love cannot come of emptiness. It is full of reality."(Emblems of a Season of Fury)

Matthew's Jesus speaks of his disciples as "salt of the earth" and "light of the world". He makes clear that if the salt is flat, it's useless. There needs to be new salt. And if you're hiding your light from others, for whatever reason, you're violating the nature of light. Under normal circumstances, for example, it's impossible for an inhabited city on a hill to be hidden: you can see it in daylight and the lights at night give it away. Likewise, you don't light a lamp, then try to keep it hidden, but you elevate it so that the light can pervade the surrounding area. So with the disciples: if people can't see the "light" of good works embodied in you, the Father's free and lavish gifts, which those good works are, won't be celebrated and held up for imitation. In fact, their lack will put shame back on the Father.

Living according to the "spiritual wisdom" which Paul talks about is the real "Law of Christ", not human regulations or expectations. We who have been given the gifts of God's Wisdom must do and teach, else we can never claim to be participants in the reign of God in Christ.

The issues with which the Scriptures today challenge you and me are truly profound, if you think about them. Who wouldn't experience some semblance of "fear and trembling", mostly because we may begin to plumb the depths of the vast chasm between the Divine and us? We become vividly aware of how unequal to the task we might be. Sometimes, too, we're fearful simply that God may ask something of us, and we're fearful at what or how much God might ask.

Daniel Evans writes this about fear:
"It's so easy to be afraid, to be made afraid. Once it has happened, we find it difficult to ease back into the confidence that cancels fear and its power...

My little boy staggers to my bedside in the middle of the night, crying. A dream, a noise, a shadow has awakened him and awakened fear in him. I say 'Don't be afraid: it won't hurt you.' But I wonder if he believes me. I lead him back into the dark room, and the lonely bed seems so far away from mine. Can I love away the noise, the shadow, the dream in those silent, sleepy moments? Can I love the fear away?

When shall we awaken to the knowledge that that is what God has done for us? God has met us in the awful night. God wraps us in sympathizing love and assures us that we can trust the love of the Eternal more than all the darkness."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Courage In the "Day of Small Things"

St. Anskar [Ansgarius/Ansgar] (c. 801-865) was one of the first missionaries to the notorious Vikings, though he was himself a native of Picardy. Nevertheless, he's highly honored today by Danish, Swedish and Norwegian descendants of the Vikings, particularly in Sweden where he's said to have established the first Christian church in the 830's.

Anskar was orphaned at age 4, upon the death of his mother, and sent to the Monastery of Corbie, near Amiens. At the tender age of 13 he made his monastic profession and was educated there. Apparently he showed outstanding teaching skills because he was chosen as master of the New Corbie monastery school in Saxon Germany when he was 21. For years even before this, however, Anskar had experienced the desire and call to be a missionary. As it turned out, it wasn't he who actively searched out missionary opportunities. Rather, according to his biographer and friend, Rimbert/Rembert, the call came from various civil leaders, first King Harold of Denmark, and later Emperor Louis and others.

In 826 Anskar was invited to come to Denmark by King Harold, who had met Anskar when he stopped at the monastery while returning from exile. Anskar was able to establish a school and a mission in Denmark, and became noted as a popular preacher and holy man. Around 829, at the invitation of King Björn, Anskar journeyed to a merchant settlement, Birka, located in what is now the country of Sweden. Here, along with his faithful companion, Rimbert, he established the first Swedish church on the property of Herigar, a man whom he had converted.

Soon after, in 831, the Emperor Louis, by his own authority, appointed Anskar as abbot of New Corbie Monastery, then named him and had him consecrated as the first archbishop of Hamburg in 832. He also traveled to Rome that same year, where Pope Gregory IV appointed him as the papal legate of all the Scandinavian countries. He worked tirelessly for the next 14 years at Hamburg, establishing missions, building churches and libraries, in North Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

The Vikings overran the Scandinavian countries in 845, essentially decimating Hamburg and all that Anskar had: his church, monastery, library, etc. He transferred his operation to Bremen, over which the Pope also appointed him bishop, and continued his missionary efforts from there for the next 20 years.

The thing that particularly intrigues me about the feast of St. Anskar is the Collect for the day: "Almighty and everlasting God, you sent your servant Anskar as an apostle to the people of Scandinavia, and enabled him to lay a firm foundation for their conversion, though he did not see the results of his labors: Keep your Church from discouragement in the day of small things, knowing that when you have begun a good work you will bring it to a fruitful conclusion; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
Most of us don't ever really see the results of our efforts. How easy it is to become discouraged when trying to live according to the Gospel each day. We lose sight of the fact that, after all, it's God's whose work is given to us and God who oversees the outcome and any "fruitful conclusion". Anskar had every human reason to gripe and complain and bemoan all his unappreciated years of missionizing people who didn't seem very open to it. Yet he courageously persisted "in the day of small things".

Rimbert writes this in his biography of Anskar: " is clear that there are two kinds of martyrdom: one occurs when the Church is at peace and is hidden from sight; the other occurs during times of persecution and is visible to all. Anskar desired both kinds of martyrdom, but in the end only attained one. For day after day, with tears, vigils, fasts, disciplining the flesh and mortifying his bodily desires, he offered up to God a sacrifice on the altar of his heart, and in so doing attained a martyrdom as far as is possible in a time of peace...He was indeed a martyr because the word 'martyr' means 'witness'. and he was a witness of God's word and of the name of Christ..."