Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St. Andrew: The Background Apostle

Some have speculated that Andrew could've been a middle child. His high-powered older brother, St. Peter, certainly over-shadowed him. Interestingly, it was Andrew who introduced Peter to Jesus, resulting in Peter's following the Master and eventually becoming head honcho among the close followers. Both the young men were fishermen by trade. It seems that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptizer before being called into Jesus' inner circle. Andrew seems to have always been working the background: telling Jesus about the boy with the loaves and fishes which Jesus used in feeding five thousand people; announcing to Jesus the arrival of some Greek visitors who wanted an audience.
Legend has it that Andrew later ministered among the Scythians, ancient inhabitants of what we now know as Russia. Not surprisingly, Andrew has long been a patron of Russia, as well as of Scotland, probably because his relics were brought there in the 8th century. The Scottish flag features an X-shaped cross, called a saltire cross, associated with St. Andrew who is said to have been martyred on such a cross. The Brotherhood of St. Andrew, an informal fellowship of adult and young men, has been a long-standing organization in the Episcopal Church, as well as in parishes of our Diocese.
It’s fitting that St. Andrew’s feast should coincide with the beginning of Advent, for Andrew’s life and the Scriptures for his feast have a message for us about this season of waiting and watching. Advent speaks to us about the end of what we know as “the world”, how it will be brought about by God alone and in God’s time alone. In the meantime you and I wait, watch and are alert to any sign of the coming reign of God, primarily by letting ourselves be steeped in that Word which both the writer of Deuteronomy (30:11-14) and St. Paul (Romans 10:8b-18) mention. “...the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Paul tells us that this Word is “the word of faith that we proclaim”, but it’s not just a verbal communication. It’s more of a confession or profession of what one holds in the deepest place in one’s heart. St. Peter verbalized it in Matthew’s narrative (16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He and the other Apostles, including Andrew, lived and ministered from that conviction.
Waiting for the coming reign of God, as Andrew and the others came to realize, isn’t a business-as-usual festival of things which we now know and possess, or perhaps seek to possess under the 
Christmas tree! Jesus the Chosen One for whom we wait isn’t just a gentle baby who comes to fit into our preconceived world, but rather the mighty Son of Man who breaks into our hurting and hopeful humanity. Writer Larry Parton says: “The one we wait for is the one who will get in our way. He is the one who will disturb us and our peace. He is the one who will stop cooing and begin to talk about things that will trouble us. Our immersion in the Word during Advent reminds us that his in-breaking is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s a shattering of our this-worldly settledness and our comfortable assumptions that we can buy our way to whatever we want. But there’s also a liberation, a setting-free, by shattering the narrowness that restricts us, the selfishness that binds us and others, and the paralysis and apathy which shuts us down.
These may be hard words for us who so readily claim to rely on God, but whose actions so often imply that we’re really in charge. The temptation for all of us is to think of God as a “Sugar Daddy” who presides over a predictable world in order to keep it user-friendly and benign for us. We’d really like to believe that, if we only work at it in clever ways, perhaps we can have the world, and our family, and our job, and our Church on our terms. “Well,” writes theologian Walter Bruggemann, “that is conventional. But it is not biblical, not Christian, not news.” 
The Word which guided Andrew’s life came from the very lips of  Jesus, the One who mirrored what he said by how he lived: by the way he treated others. Andrew learned how difficult it was to do that, because, as Jesus, Andrew came to experience opposition and suffering, and even death, which goes along with it. Yet, he never forgot that the Word, Jesus, was always near him: on his lips and in his heart. He waited for God’s reign in hope.
The following words, from a sermon by Mark Frank, included in the English book Celebrating the Saints (p. 453), touched me deeply when I first read them some years ago, and I share them with you for reflection on this feast day and for the season of Advent:  "...alas, what have we, the best, the richest of us as highly as we think of ourselves and ours, more than Andrew and his brother: a few old broken nets? What are all our honours but old nets to catch the breath of the world! What are our estates but nets to entangle us? What are all our ways and devises of thriving but so many several nets to catch a little yellow sand and mud? What are all those fine catching ways of eloquence, knowledge, good parts of mind and body, but so many nets and snares to catch others with?...And our life itself, what is it but a few rotten threads knit together into veins and sinews, its construction so fragile that the least stick or stone can unloose it or break all to pieces.
O blessed saint of this day, that we could but leave these nets as thou didst thine: that nothing might any longer entangle us or keep us from our Master's service! Follow we St. Andrew as he did Christ, follow him to Christ, cheerfully and without delay, and while it is today, begin our course. Cast off the networks, the catching desires of the flesh and the world, and so you also may be said to have left your nets. And having so weaned your souls from inordinate affection to things below, let Christ be your business, his life your pattern, his commands your law..."  

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heroine Of the 99%

Blessed Dorothy Day died in her room at Maryhouse on November 29, 1980. She was surely one of the Church's greatest advocates for the 99%: ordinary middle-class people and families; the poor; the hungry; the anawim of society, as Scripture calls them -- those easily written-off human beings on the fringes of society.

About 8 months before she died, Dorothy wrote this in her Diary: 
"'The less you have of Caesar the less you have to render to Caesar.' Jesus and the coin. 
'Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar's and to God the things of God.' 'Whose face on this coin?' Jesus.
Foundation of our work.
Voluntary poverty and manual labor. Jesus and the coin. 'Do unto others.'
'Sowing and reaping.' New Testament words of Jesus. 'Sow sparingly and you will reap sparingly.'"

She and Peter Maurin began The Catholic Worker newspaper, which soon became a powerful movement and continues to this day, though not as publicly and forcefully as it did in Dorothy's heyday. The "Caesars" of the world, including the Catholic Church of which she was a loyal and devoted member, were made terribly uncomfortable by this simple, and by her own admission, somewhat mouthy woman who never backed down on her commitment to serving the needy and promoting non-violence and peace. She herself lived an amazing life of poverty among those she served, grappling not only with all the day-to-day problems of those she took in, but with the struggles within her own family and friends, with the on-going ups and downs of the Catholic Worker movement, and with her own admitted shortcomings and failings.

One can get an intimate feel for what she went through in a 2008 book, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Reading her entries, you almost feel as if you're sitting beside her, hearing her recount her daily joys and sorrows. Ellsberg records a prayer, St. Ephraim's Prayer of Penance, found inserted in her final journal: "O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give to thy servant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to ages. Amen." Ellsberg closes his book, saying that he found the prayer a few years ago in a book by Russian poet Sergey Mitrofanovich Gorodetzky (1884-1967), The Humiliated Christ in Russian Thought. "It was the prayer of a political prisoner in the Czar's time. Also in the book was the story of a pious peasant or serf, a girl who loved dancing. An accident crippled her for life so she lay, a helpless invalid, but 'rejoicing that she was counted worthy to suffer for our Lord.'"

It recalls to my mind the exquisite mural in St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, of dancing "celebrities" of faith. I can't think of a more appropriate image for Blessed Dorothy Day, an ordinary woman who suffered much for the Lord, but who now dances among the Communion of the Saints.    

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Advent Community of Hurt & Hope

An anonymous poet has written:
I saw the sign on the highway
‘Prepare to meet thy God.’
But when I got a little closer
There were no further instructions.

Advent is a season like that: one where we prepare, we wait, we discern what the “further instructions” are! 
Contrary to the dominant and prevailing view in our American culture, however, Advent doesn’t begin with unbridled celebration or a shopping spree! Rather, Advent deals with a community of hurt, with you and me, real people who know pain, depression, inadequacy and failure, particularly at this time in our country. We’re people who articulate our hurt and aren’t afraid to let it show. Such a community of hurt knows the One to Whom it speaks in prayer of its suffering. We call upon God, the Lord of hurt, whom we trust to bring our suffering to an end.
Since our hope and prayer is directed to the One whose reign is never really in doubt, our community of hurt is also ultimately a community of hope. We passionately hope for the end of our troubles. Our living faith assures us that God reign will eventually come. The hope which we express isn’t wishful thinking, but a concrete hope: as real as the pain we feel. Hurt and hope go together in our lives, even though you and I don’t like to accept that reality. We’d like to think that, somehow, we can have the one (guess which?) without the other. Yet it’s precisely the reality of our present hurt which motivates us to have hope.
The first reading (Isaiah 64:1-9) pictures a waiting community of Israel as a child abandoned, but not orphaned: in desolate loneliness and disarray, yet still able to hope in One who will set things right. The author of the passage is undoubtedly that anonymous inspired prophet, referred to by scholars as Second Isaiah. He addresses a hurt people who’ve been in exile in Babylon for nearly 50 years. They’re unaware that in another 10 years Cyrus the Persian will vanquish Nabonídus and his son, Belshazzar. And that will make it possible for the Jewish exiles to return to their beloved, devastated land and, subsequently, to rebuild their sacred Temple. But the only immediate thing they have to hold onto is the memory, the hope, of God their Father: “...For You are our Father. Were Abraham not to know us, nor Israel to acknowledge us, You, Lord, are our Father…” (Isaiah 63:16) “ ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen any God but You, doing such works for those who wait for God…” (64:4) These are Advent’s parameters: whatever it is that bothers or plagues us, you and I begin and end knowing whose we are. That is our Christian hope.
Second Isaiah explores what it means to look to an ever-present, though hidden, God in the midst of suffering. He accuses God of misleading and of abandoning sometimes. He begs God to come back. He calls to mind God’s previous interventions and, in doing so, reminds us of our lives and the times when God takes each of us, individually and as a community, by surprise, and shatters our expectations. Advent teaches us to wait for another future coming like that. It gives us focus at those times when, because of the weighing-down burden of our selfishness and weakness, we feel unclean, like a dirty garment, or blown about and abandoned, as a faded autumn leaf.
Yet, says the prophet, “Yet, O Lord, you are our are our potter...we are the clay...we are all the work of your hand!” The basis of Advent is a “yet” which contradicts what we see around us and feel within ourselves, a “yet” grounded in the Person of the Holy and Mighty God in whom we dare hope and to whom we belong, even in our hurt: a God “who works for those who wait for God”.
In the Epistle passage (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) St. Paul addresses such a community of hope in Corinth. Generally, the Corinthians weren’t any greater on waiting than we are. Corinth, like ours, was a self-indulgent society. They had the idea that all that was to be given had already been them! They were self-sufficient, rugged individuals. That mentality, understandably, spilled over into the life of the Christian community at Corinth. So much so, that Paul later takes to task this church which had been blessed, as he puts it, “in every speech and knowledge of every every spiritual gift…”  
Paul addresses himself to people who have a different set of expectations, people aware of their hurt and weakness, people who wait in hope for Jesus to reveal himself in all his fullness. In our day, “end time” talk can be somewhat embarrassing, if not outright off-putting. Advent deals with the reality of the eschaton = the end time: the end of creation as we know it; the end of a world of abandonment, sorrow, alienation, and injustice.
Mark’s Gospel narrative (13:24-37) affirms this. Often called a “little Apocalypse”, i.e., a miniature revelation, it speaks of waiting for a decisively disruptive coming. Mark uses extravagant end-time images: a darkened sun/moon; falling stars; the assembling of the chosen from everywhere. If we can get beyond this tumultuous and somewhat overpowering imagery, we can recognize that, in themselves, these verses are simple, sober and disciplined. They convey a transparent message: the advent, the coming, of Jesus the Chosen One, in whose coming the world as we know it, “heaven and earth”, will be transformed. The crucial point which Mark stresses is to “beware, keep alert
This common thread runs through all of today’s readings: the end of what we know as “the world” will be brought about by God alone and in God’s time alone. Our task is to wait, watch and be alert for the coming reign of God. Advent isn’t a business-as-usual festival of things which we now know and possess, or perhaps seek to possess under the Christmas tree! Jesus the Chosen One for whom we wait isn’t just a gentle baby who comes to fit into our preconceived world, but rather the mighty Son of Man who breaks into our hurting and hopeful humanity. Advent reminds us that his in-breaking is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s a shattering of our this-worldly settledness and our comfortable assumptions that we can buy our way to whatever we want. But there’s also a liberation, a setting-free, by shattering the narrowness that restricts us, the selfishness that binds us and others, and the paralysis and apathy which shuts us down.
These may be hard words for us who claim to rely on God, but whose actions so often imply that we’re really in charge. The temptation for all of us is to think of God as a “Sugar Daddy” who presides over a predictable world in order to keep it user-friendly and benign for us. We’d really like to believe that if we only work at it in clever ways, perhaps we can have the world, and our family, and our job, and our Church on our terms. “Well,” writes theologian Walter Bruggemann, “that is conventional. But it is not biblical, not Christian, not news.” 
Ironically, the greatest barriers between us and God may oftentimes not be our sins and guilt, but our gifts and talents. God asks us to repent not only of our sins, but of our reliance on our own resources, virtues and power. To live as though my priorities could ever supercede God’s is full-blown spiritual pride. To live as though I have God’s own private cell phone number is to live an arrogant pretension which separates me from others and from God. To allow myself to feel religiously superior because of my real or supposed religious “experiences” or insights is to substitute those things for God, and that is idolatry. The clay, in its self-importance, tries to tell the Potter how and when and whom to mold!
Advent is meant to shatter our fantasy worlds, and to teach us to accept and to speak about our pain and the world’s; to look in hope, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. Advent asks if you and I are open enough for a newness to be given, if we’re trusting enough of the faithful God to let go of this world. Advent should lead us to reflect on Jesus‘ observation (Mark 13:2) that “Not one stone will be left here upon another…
Larry Parton, in a now-defunct little magazine called alive now!, wrote: “The one we wait for is the one who will get in our way. He is the one who will disturb us and our peace. He is the one who will stop cooing and begin to talk about things that will trouble us.” Realizing that, do we, as 1st century Christians did, still dare to pray without ceasing throughout our Advent wait: “Maranatha -- Come, Lord Jesus”?    

Sunday, November 20, 2011

At The Party of the Resurrection

One winter day in 1984 up in Lake Almanor, I’d just kindled a fire in the wood stove, when I heard a frantic flapping noise. Quickly opening the stove door, I was panicked to found a bird which had apparently gotten into the stove pipe. Luckily, the fire was small enough that only a few feathers had gotten singed, and so we were able to extricate the bird from a fiery fate! Reflecting on my agitated reaction to finding this creature, I wondered then, and have wondered since, how would I, how do I respond to human beings in similar dire, distressing situations? The Gospel reading on this last Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 25:31-46), just before we enter into the Advent season of a new liturgical year, confronts us about such reactions and responses.
Preparing us for the coming reign of God, the most important phase of which was Jesus‘ in-breaking into human history through human birth, Matthew’s parable is the third and final one in Chapter 25. Jesus has spoken to us over the past few weeks from Matthew’s pages describing, in brief glimpses, the dynamics of what’s needed to be part of the coming reign of God. “The reign of God will be like this: ten young bridesmaids...five of them...wise, and the other five...foolish…” “The reign of God is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them...each according to their ability…” And today: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all the nations will be gathered in front of him, and he will separate people one from another…” This last parable, sometimes referred to as an “apocalyptic vision”, i.e., a vision which uncovers or  reveals something, immediately precedes Jesus’ announcement to his followers that, within a very short time, “...the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Jesus’ death and subsequent being raised from the dead are the signs which will inaugurate the reign of God among us. 
To convey this message to his hearers, Matthew employs the language of animal husbandry, so well-known to them: specifically,  the image of sheep and goats. The first reading today from the prophet Ezekiel (34:11-16; 20-24) is further evidence of a tradition, long before Matthew’s time, of the use of similar imagery. But that isn’t the primary focus. Since “goats” didn’t carry a negative connotation in Palestine, the distinction between them and “sheep” isn’t the key element here. The emphasis in both Ezekiel and Matthew is on God, the Shepherd figure, as one who identifies with the flock, seeks them out, feeds them, protects them, strengthens and heals the weak and injured, and calls to task the unruly ones within the flock. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible Through Third World Eyes, says: “The judge who directs attention to the poor and outcast is numbered among the poor and outcast. The judge is not an abstract or aloof—or terrifying—deity. Rather the judge is Christ himself, one whose own life was actively identified with the poor and outcast, which is the surest possible sign [that] we could have that love for God (represented by such a One) and love for the poor (represented by such a One) are inseparable.
The sorting-out process which Matthew depicts as necessary for coming into the reign of God is rather simple. He envisions that at some time in the future every human being will appear before Jesus the Christ, God’s Anointed One. A evaluation will be made on how each of us has lived: either as one who took care of people, including the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner, or as one who chose not to do so. Matthew’s Jesus says that just and righteous people tend to respond to others’ needs by providing basic things: things like a meal, a drink, clothing, company, a sympathetic ear. Simple things. Easy things, if one really cares. No questions asked. No preconditions. No strings attached. Just a loving response to need, whatever and wherever.
Jesus further hints that those who care and respond do so without calculating, without looking for some “payoff” or advantage, without expecting recognition or thanks. In fact, he says, most of the time it never even occurs to folks like this that what they’re doing for others is any big deal: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, etc…” Their response is rather like a reflex: there’s a need, and I try to take care of it. Simple.
People, on the other hand as Jesus notes, who don’t respond in this way also don’t even notice that there is a need: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, etc…and didn’t take care of you?” Sometimes people become so self-absorbed that they simply overlook or ignore cues to the obvious need in front of them. Sometimes they justify inaction by conditions and qualifications which they’ve previously set up in their own minds.
The truth is that any human being in need can be helped by someone, in some way, and should be helped, however one can do it. In the Gospel Jesus reminds us that people in need, even the least, are his family: the Greek word used is adelphoi = brothers [and, by implication, sisters]. John the Evangelist would later write in his first Letter: “If you don’t love your neighbor whom you see, how can you love God whom you don’t see?” And in this day and age especially, what holds for us as individuals also holds for larger entities: nations, states, governments, etc. Quoting Robert McAfee Brown again: “One important aspect of justice, José Miranda [a rather colorful Pentecostal minister in Florida] reminds us, involves the restoration of what has been stolen. Giving food to the hungry or clothing to the naked is not a charitable handout but an exercise in simple justice—restoring to the poor what is rightfully theirs, what has been taken from them unjustly. So Jesus' vision is not a plea for tax-deductible donations but a fervent cry for justice, for setting right what has gone wrong.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Catholic bishop and a remarkable human being, who died in 1999 at age 90, was often tagged by some merely as a “liberal theologian”. In fact, Dom Helder was a simple man who lived simply and had great love for simple things, especially for people and the earth. Like St. Francis, he proclaimed the Gospel by the way he lived and by how he treated other human beings, especially the weakest and poorest. Not that it was any easier for him as a bishop to deal with them than it is for you and me. Dom Helder once said: “Do people weigh on you? Don’t carry them around on your shoulders: take them into your heart.” 

A question which you and I might need to think about in light of Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel is this: if today were the last day of my life, would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, invite me to stand on his right hand or on his left? Can you or I become part the reign of God by giving food or blankets to homeless street people?? Or can you and I be excluded from God’s reign for neglecting drug addicts and winos huddled against downtown walls; or for not being much interested in angry people behind prison bars?? Only you and I can answer for ourselves. But one thing is sure: God in Jesus takes dead seriously each of our needs and continues to make Godself one with each of our hungers, thirsts, sicknesses, anxieties, and the things which may hold you or me captive. 

Through Baptism Jesus dwells in my heart, lives in my life, speaks through my words, reaches out with my hands. He daily invites you and me to eat at his table: a table where Jesus, the poor and humble One, serves the servants, where Jesus the Good Shepherd spreads a feast to which you and I can bring nothing except ourselves. A table where saying “Good morning!” to a stranger, or pouring a cup of water for someone thirsty, or passing a food dish to a hungry child, or merely listening to someone talk about his or her life and struggles, his or her “story”, true or fabricated, is regarded by Jesus as worthy of his finest blessing: “Come, you who are beloved of my Father, be part of the reign of God prepared for you…
In March, 1986, Dom Helder Camara wrote a poem, called At the Party of the Resurrection:
In the ordinariness of the day-to-day
I looked most intently
at the faces of the Poor,
consumed by hunger
squashed by humiliation,
and in them I discovered Your face,
O Risen Christ!   


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Committed American Champion For Non-Violence

"Once, a journalist asked Leo Tolstoy who he thought the greatest American writer was. 'Adin Ballou,' Tolstoy answered. The journalist was puzzled. Who? He had never heard of Adin Ballou. Few people had. 

Unfortunately, even today, few people know about Adin Ballou. But I agree with Tolstoy. Not only was Adin Ballou an original thinker and a significant writer, but I consider him one of the most influential Christian peacemakers in our history." (Fr. John Dear, S.J., "Adin Ballou's vision of non-violence", National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 15, 2011)

My long-time friend, former seminary-mate and priest colleague, and brilliant theologian, Jim Fitzgerald, regularly sends me articles of theological, social, and political interest. Today I learned from him about someone totally unknown to me, whose name I'd never heard: Adin Ballou (1803-1890). At this time of the Occupy Movement across the country, I wanted especially to share this with you.

Adin Ballou was Christian minister, very much in the forefront of pacifism, socialism and abolitionism in the U.S., and the founder of the Hopedale Community. Through his long career as a Universalist, and then Unitarian minister, he tirelessly sought social reform through his radical Christian and socialist views.

Born in 1803 on a farm in Cumberland, R.I., to Ariel and Edilda Ballou,  Adin was raised a Six-Principle Baptist until 1813 when his family was converted in a Christian Connexion revival.

Ballou married Abigail Sayles in early 1822, the same year in which he converted to Universalism. Abigail died seven years later, shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Then Ballou himself suffered a life-threatening illness later that year. He was nursed back to health by Lucy Hunt, whom he married a few months later. Hosea Ballou II (1796–1861), an American Universalist minister and first president of Tufts University, officiated at the ceremony.
The Ballous had four children, only one of whom, Abbie, survived. Adin Ballou
died in Hopedale in 1890, and Lucy Ballou died the following year.

Ballou traveled throughout New England, lecturing and debating on practical Christianity, Christian nonresistance, abolition, temperance, and other social issues. He believed that practical Christians were called to make their convictions a reality, thereby initiating a new civilization.

In 1830, Ballou aligned himself with the Restorationists, who were upset with the views among some Universalists: that complete salvation and no punishment would follow death. Although Ballou served the Unitarian church, 1831–1842, he continued to identify himself as a Restorationist. The Restorationists believed that the spiritual growth of sinners could only be acclaimed through God’s justice in the afterlife before they could be restored to God's grace. Ballou agreed to edit and publish the Independent Messenger, a Restorationist publication. His views caused him to lose his pulpit in Milford, MA. In 1831, along with seven other ministers, Ballou established the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists.

Ballou became a Christian pacifist in 1838. He and a few ministerial colleagues and lay people composed the Standard of Practical Christianity in 1839. In it they announced their withdrawal from "the governments of the world." They believed that the dependence on force to maintain order was unjust, and they vowed to not participate in such government. While not acknowledging man's earthly rule, they also didn't rebel or "resist any of their ordinances by physical force." "We cannot employ carnal weapons nor any physical violence whatsoever," they proclaimed, "not even for the preservation of our lives. We cannot render evil for evil ... nor do otherwise than 'love our enemies.'"

Beginning in 1843 Adin Ballou served as president of the New England Non-Resistance Society, working with his friend, William Lloyd Garrison, until they broke over Garrison's support for violence in fighting slavery. In 1846 Ballou published his principal work on pacifism, Christian Non-Resistance. He was also involved with the Universal Peace Union, founded in 1866. During the Civil War, Ballou stood by his pacifist views when other Christian pacifist leaders did not.

In 1837, Ballou publicly announced he was an abolitionist, and lectured on anti-slavery in Pennsylvania in 1846 and in New York in 1848. His antislavery sentiments are exemplified in his 4th of July, 1843 address entitled The Voice of Duty, in which he called on Americans to honor the foundations of the country by not being selective or hypocritical in their judgment of whom should be free: “We honor liberty only when we make her impartial — the same for and to all men.” Ballou also responded to those who claimed that those supporting the abolishment of slavery dishonor the U.S. Constitution. He claimed that he stood “on a higher moral platform than any human compact.” Of the Founding Fathers Ballou said: “I honor them with all my heart for their devotion to right principles, for all the truly noble traits in their character, for their fidelity to their own highest light. But because I honor their love of liberty, must I honor their compromises with slavery?

Through the temperance movement, Ballou outlined "three great practical data in ethics": 1) that righteousness must be taught definitely, specifically, and practically to produce any marked results; 2) that adherents of a cause must be unequivocally pledged to the practice of definitely declared duties; and 3) that such pledged adherents must voluntarily associate under explicit affirmations of a settled purpose to cooperate in exemplifying and diffusing abroad the virtues and excellences to which they are committed, and not act at random in disorganized and aimless individualism.

By 1840, Adin Ballou was convinced that his Christian convictions wouldn't allow him to live in the governments of the world. In 1841, he and the Practical Christians purchased a farm west of Milford, MA. The community settled into Hopedale, as they called it, in 1842. The community came to a practical end in 1856 when two of Ballou’s closest supporters, Ebenezer and George Draper, withdrew their 75% share of the community’s stock to form the successful Hopedale Manufacturing Company. George felt that the community wasn't using sound business practices. Nevertheless, the community continued as a religious group until 1867, when it became the Hopedale Parish and rejoined mainstream Unitarianism. On December 15, 1873, the trustees of the community conveyed all right, title, interest and control over to Community Square. Adin Ballou remained as Hopedale’s pastor throughout its transformation, finally retiring in 1880. Adin Street in the town of Hopedale, MA is named after him.

In a tribute to Adin Ballou, Fr. John Dear, S.J. (National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 15, 2011) says: "...Tolstoy begins his mammoth anti-war masterpiece, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, by describing his discovery of Ballou's writings on Christian nonviolence, and how it affected him. Tolstoy spent the remaining years of his life expounding on Ballou's teachings. Tolstoy even wrote to Ballou and corresponded with him during Ballou's last year. Tolstoy would never have developed his thoughts on peace and nonviolence without Ballou, and Gandhi would certainly never have espoused his visionary nonviolence without Tolstoy. Like other Abolitionists, Adin Ballou based his life on the ethical teachings of Jesus. But Ballou went further. Not only was he faithful to them throughout the terrible 19th century, he articulated a fundamental insistence on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, particularly the fifth antithesis: 'Offer no [violent] resistance to one who does evil.' (Matthew 5:39)".

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Turning Our Talent Loose

When inertia gets the better of you, it is time to telephone the undertaker.” -- Elbert Green Hubbard (1856-1915).  As an historical side-note, Hubbard was a writer/editor, who died with his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, feminist and writer, on the British ocean liner, the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat, May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland. His nephew by adoption was L. Ron Hubbard , of Scientology fame. Luther Burbank, noted botanist/horticulturist/scientist of Santa Rosa fame, contributed to a memorial book in memory of Elbert Hubbard and his wife.
How many people do you and I know who are frozen by apathy and lack of commitment, trapped by being neither for nor against anything? Perhaps many, perhaps even ourselves at times: the person who’s unsuccessfully looking for a job; a parent trying to maintain a relationship with a teenager, or vice versa, but seeing it slip away; spouses trying to remain committed to one another amid seemingly insurmountable problems; champions for peace, trying to raise others’ awareness, but who are shouted down, even shot down; seekers of justice for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, who see their efforts ignored and come to naught.
Faced with such a situation, one can react in two ways: 1) continue making every effort to change it; or 2) quitting, because of understandable disillusionment and hurt.  Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel narrative (Matthew 25:14-30) is essentially a story about a person who shut down.  The main focus is the servant who was given one talent. The talent was originally a measure of weight, but later became a monetary unit of the highest denomination. One talent = 6000 denarii. Two denarii could provide a man and his family one day’s adequate living. 730 denarii would provide for a whole year, so the one talent here is a tremendous sum. The word “talent” passed into English usage during the Middle Ages as a synonym for abilities or natural endowments, hence “talents”. Notice that all three servants were assigned their respective sums “each according to their ability”, according to Matthew.  So there’s no question that what they were given could have been increased.  When the owner returns, the one-talent servant hands back what he was given, reasoning that he knew that the owner was “harsh” and that he feared him.  Nevertheless, since the man could have increased what he was given, the master is unmoved by his excuses, and so dispossesses him of even the one talent, and gives it to the guy who has ten talents.
That’s heavy! We might even be tempted to side with the slave: “The poor guy, he hasn’t done anything! Give him a break.” But that’s the point -- he’s done nothing!  Jesus here exposes a flawed attitude toward life.  Good, held back, is often as great a sin as evil which is perpetrated, maybe more so.  It’s one thing to risk using one’s talents and failing.  It’s another not to use them at all, by choice. The root of the servant’s fatal attitude was probably fear: fear of failure, fear that, failing, his master would think less of him, or worse.  His fear of commitment leads the man to live defensively.  Rather than “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” this servant’s motto becomes “Nothing risked, nothing lost.” So often, fear is at the root of our faithlessness and of bad stewardship of God’s gifts. We lack trust in God’s faithfulness. The lack of initiative in faith distances us from the God who loves us, far more generously than we deserve.  “I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.
At the very least, this story is good psychology.  Too many of us under-live our human and spiritual potential.  The majority of our failings may lie in “leaving undone those things which we ought to have done”, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.  What might happen if we were to get our talent out of the ground and turn it loose?
Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale and later the 7th baseball Commissioner, the one who handled Pete Rose’s unseemly withdrawal from the sport, once told a group of students: “I am concerned that, confronted by problems, many of us have no faith in time or believe we have no time to let faith grow.”  If nothing else, each of us has the “talent” of the present, today, the now, with which to serve God and others.  Do we discipline ourselves to block out time for others: our spouse, our children, our neighbors, the sick, the elderly, strangers? Do we take time regularly, daily, to devote to God, in quietness, worship, or just for marvelling at the wonders God continually works in our lives?
To under-live life by choice, humanly or spiritual, you need only take what you have, your potential, and hold it tightly all to yourself and  bury it.  Stick only with what you know.  Stay close only to the friends you already have.  Close off your mind to any new insights or creative vision.  Never dare to break loose or launch out into the deep.  “I was afraid, so I went off, and hid your money in the ground.
You and I are quite aware, in our nation today, of the countless, sometimes overwhelming fears gripping us and causing us to hide.  Robert Bellah and his co-authors of the book Habits of the Heart speak of the fearfulness of community, of intimacy, and of commitment which our historically radical American individualism has honed almost to perfection and brought upon us today. Perhaps the ugliest and most damaging current form it has taken is the myth of any semblance of genuine bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress.  Back in the 1830’s Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political philosopher, in his book Democracy in America, warned that this individualistic spirit might eventually isolate Americans from one another and from others, and thereby undermine the conditions of freedom.
Studies show that many of us today, in this country and worldwide, especially children, frequently live in fear: of hunger, of inadequate or no lodging, of any hope of getting a job, of financial collapse, or of a severely worsening global ecological situation.  We fear other nations: allies who compete with us economically and enemies who threaten our borders through violence and terrorism.  As a nation, because of fear, we’ve so often given up on the effort to do the right thing to resolve our problems in the interest of the common good of all, and simply buried our talents.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel lecture, gave us much to ponder.  As a Russian author and exile in the notorious Gulag, he had an appreciation for freedom which many of us don’t really comprehend because, so far, we’ve never technically been without it.  He was very aware, from personal experience, of what can happen in a society where people, personally or as a nation fearful of others, turn to their own “successing”, and forego concern for life about them. That, he said, “is an illness of will of prosperous people. It is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to the thirst for well-being at no matter what cost, to material prosperity as the principal goal of life on earth. Such people...choose passivity and retreat, anything so that their accustomed life should continue undisturbed, anything so as not to have to cross over into hardship today, while tomorrow, they hope, will take care of itself.”  “I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.
Jesus taught from this parable shortly before he left his disciples.  Just as the owner went on a long journey, so Jesus is about to depart.  The message seems clear: the servants aren’t simply to mark time in the interim, but to take the talents given them, invest them, and utilize the increased fruits generously to the benefit of those around them.  Today we call that “stewardship”, in the broadest sense of the word. The Church is called to release what it has.  Faith must never become a dead-end for us.  We’re not called to be “catch-basins” for God’s grace, but conduits of God’s loving presence and compassion and hope to others. The Good News by which we’ve been saved, through God’s grace alone, needs to be carried to new hearers.  God’s Spirit is ever on the lookout for new dwelling places.
Whether on the national, diocesan, or parish level, you and I often fret and lament over the Church’s, or the parish’s, problems and crises.  It’s easy for us not to recognize that, in fact, most of the trouble and strife comes from the inside: from withheld initiatives inside us, from talents stashed away, hidden, in the ground, from paralyzing fear of making mistakes or of not pleasing others, from having to sacrifice oneself for someone else.  “If I don’t like it, why should I be involved?”  “My ministry.”  “What can Jesus do for me?”
Robert Bellah says: “The capacity of the Church to think about the needs of the world depends on the ability of the individuals to move away from their preoccupations with self.”  Whatever your talent or mine is, let’s turn it loose! By our life and attitude let’s say something about God’s incredible love in all of our relationships, to the people we meet, in the way we treat our family and fellow-parishioners. 
I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.”  This is not what God wants of you and me as God’s unique individual creation.  This is not what our country needs or can endure from us as citizens.  And it certainly isn’t what Jesus expects of us who claim to be his followers.  Elbert Green Hubbard, mentioned earlier, made another wise observation, when he wrote:  “The only real neutral in this game of life is a dead one.”