Monday, November 24, 2014

Something Worth Doing

"Even if a man should be detected in some sin, my brothers, the spiritual ones among you should quietly set him back on the right path, not with any feeling of superiority but being yourselves on guard against temptation. Carry each other’s burdens and so live out the law of Christ. If a man thinks he is “somebody”, he is deceiving himself, for that very thought proves that he is nobody. Let every man learn to assess properly the value of his own work and he can then be glad when he has done something worth doing without dependence on the approval of others. For every man must “shoulder his own pack”... Don’t be under any illusion: you cannot make a fool of God! A man’s harvest in life will depend entirely on what he sows. If he sows for his own lower nature his harvest will be the decay and death of his own nature. But if he sows for the Spirit he will reap the harvest of everlasting life by that Spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for, unless we throw in our hand, the ultimate harvest is assured. Let us then do good to all men as opportunity offers, especially to those who belong to the Christian household." (Galatians 6:1-5; 7-10 - The New Testament in Modern English, J. B. Phillips)

 Every one of us has shown, time and again, how vulnerable and weak we're when trying to choose good over evil. It behooves every one of us, then, to go easy on a sister or brother in Christ who fails, falls, "misses the mark". We have no right to feel superior to him or her. But if we step in to help that person to shoulder the burden of her/his weakness we're, in fact, living out "the law of Christ" which is love. "Owe no one anything, except to love one another…" Jesus spelled it out as two-fold: "you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart…The second [commandment] is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Living out the law of Christ is "something worth doing". 

 Too often we're motivated to help and minister to others with an unspoken hope of being noticed, of moving up a notch or two in others' admiration and esteem of us. Paul says that it's only when one learns "to assess properly the value of [one's] own work" that one can feel glad for having "done something worth doing without depending on the approval of others.

 Paul goes on to remind the Galatian community and us that we delude ourselves and mock God if we assume that our lives can have any real meaning outside of reaching forth and giving beyond ourselves for the good of others. You reap what you sow. It's easy to pay lip service to that, but we all know how difficult it is as a consistent practice. Like a cheerleader, Paul encourages us to resist the tiredness of doing good, for, unless we simply give up, "the ultimate harvest is assured."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Soldier Saint

It’s interesting that the soldier/saint honored today in the traditional denominations, St. Martin of Tours, was what we moderns would call a “conscientious objector”. Martin was born sometime between 315 and 330, in what later became Hungary, but moved with his family to Italy. His father being a veteran of the Roman Legions, Martin wasn’t given a choice in entering the Roman army age 15, serving in Gaul! He became a candidate for baptism [catechumen] when he was 18 and during that time had a profound religious experience. While on duty he came upon a beggar, naked and freezing, at the gates of Amiens. Having nothing but his armor and a cloak, Martin took his sword, and divided the cloak in half so that both the beggar and he were at least semi-clad. Later, in a dream, he visualized Jesus, with Martin’s cloak draped on his back, commenting to a “troop” of angels that it was Martin who’d clothed him. 

 About two years later, when he was 20, Martin’s unit was called up to battle a barbarian army who’d invaded Gaul. As an incentive, each soldier was offered a cash supplement before going into battle. Martin declined the offer, stating that he no longer found himself able to kill people, and requesting that he be allowed to serve only as a soldier of Christ. Predictably, he was called a coward, upon which he offered to go, unarmed and unprotected, to the front lines the next day and face the enemy with only the sign of Christ’s Cross. Despite his forthrightness, Martin was immediately imprisoned. Interestingly, during the night an armistice between the armies was somehow unexpectedly worked out, and Martin was “off the hook” and finally discharged from the army.

He subsequently had a long and interesting life: as a monk, founder of the first monastic community in Western Europe, a deacon, a priest, and eventually, literally forced by the people, the bishop of Tours. 

 And in the “Did you know?” category: 
- our word “chapel” derives from the fact that a small oratory in Tours preserved the alleged “little cloak” [capella] of St. Martin. 
- a German child, born on 11/10/1483 and baptized on the next day, 11/11, was named after St. Martin -- his name was Martin Luther. 

(Information source: Stars In A Dark World, by Fr. John-Julian, OJN)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

How's Your Befindlichkeit?

An anonymous writer on a website which I ran across the other day, raises some interesting questions about today’s Epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13): “How does one prepare for the unexpected? Just exactly how are we to live without some final answers?” The writer suggests that the readings, particularly Matthew’s Gospel passage, “are about what to do when we do not have all the answers we want. They are about the mood, tactics, stance and attitude we ought to maintain until we do have more answers than we have now. They are about what to do in this meantime; between this day and the day of God’s fulfillment, which no one has even the slightest clue when it might arrive -- and might not look like anything we were expecting anyway.

In reflecting on that, the writer alludes to the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a noted German Catholic philosopher in the field of existential phenomenology. In his book Being and Time, written in 1927, Heidegger coined a German term: Befindlichkeit, generally translated to mean state of mind, but in more recent times also as being in a mood, feeling, attitude, predisposition. In German, if someone asks “How are you?” or “How do you feel?” or says “I find myself in happy or sad circumstances”, the word befinden is used. The phrase Sich befinden can mean finding oneself; how I feel; how things are going for me; what sort of situation I find myself in. “To answer the question [How are you?]” writes Dr. Eugene Gendlin, “you must find yourself, find how you already are. And when you do, you find yourself amidst the circumstances of your living.” 

So, Heidegger came up with this clumsy German noun, Befindlichkeit, which is your how-are-you-ness, your self-finding, where you are at a given moment in your living. Applied to what today’s Epistle and Gospel are trying to convey, our awaiting and meeting Christ when he finally comes “is not a when to be calculated, but a how to be lived; not a matter of reckoning a definite time in the future, but of being ready”,  transformed  here and now, “and radically open to an indefinite possibility” that is by its nature indefinite.       
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Gospel invites us to “keep awake”. We’ve all had the experience of trying to keep awake without falling asleep. We‘ve fought drowsiness, perhaps by stretching or walking or drinking coffee in order to stay awake. Staying alert without sleep requires effort. In an army, in time of war, a soldier who falls asleep during his watch risks his own life and the lives of his buddies. This being true on a human level, how much more on a spiritual level.

At the end of the first century, many Christians believed that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. They felt the need for a spiritual, hardworking and active watchfulness, because Jesus expected his own to be filled with a desire to meet him and be with him forever. Preparation for the coming of Jesus could have consequences for eternity. What was true for them is still true for us. Jesus will come to us one day, as really as he did two thousand years ago. Of course, Jesus can come at any time. For many years, some preachers have periodically forecast the end of the world and the impending arrival of Jesus. Those who are mature and grounded in their spiritual life know that, for most of us, our final encounter with Jesus will take place on the day of our death, but each day, today, brings us ever closer. As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian community and us in the Epistle: “...since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” 

Every Christian, from the day of his or her baptism, is reminded of our final encounter with Jesus. In the rite of baptism the candidate is given a candle, symbol of our faith in Christ. It’s a sort of allusion to the forsightful virgin maidens of the Gospel, who provided oil for their lamps while awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. The Saints remind us that the light-providing oil which prepares us for Jesus’ coming are our works of love, especially for the disadvantaged and those in need.

The invitation to be alert and watchful in order to prepare for the coming of Christ is good for all time. We’re to continually live with our eyes wide open. In our world there are persons and things who would distract and discourage us from faith in Jesus which we hold as members of the Body of Christ. We’re all familiar with the many charlatans and peddlers of new and false teachings and theories. The universal catholic faith has been handed down to us by our faithful teachers and mentors through the centuries since the Apostles. We who are the Church witness to the coming of Jesus every time that we celebrate the Eucharist together, as Jesus comes to us, here and now in his Body and Blood, making us ready to share one day in the Lord's Supper in his risen presence.

The vigilance and alertness for the future which we all need to cultivate isn’t out of fear of God or because of the shame of our sins, but because of our confidence and hope in God’s mercy and love. With effort, anchored in God's gracious promises, we, too, will share with him in glory. 

What Matthew depicts Jesus discussing in both Chapters 24 and 25, parables of the reign of God which are in the Gospel today and in that of the next two Sundays, is motivated by a question raised earlier by the Apostles and Jesus’ answer to it: “Tell us when all this will happen and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.” “‘Watch,’ replied Jesus, ‘and see that no one deceives you...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.’” The word “Then...” is repeated no less than 10 times throughout Chapters 24 and 25, just as in today’s parable: “Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared with ten maidens, who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom [and the bride, acc. to other ancient manuscripts].” This time-reference (along with others) isn’t linear time, but a reference to help us understand our own present, our own condition, our state of mind and being, our Befindlichkeit, to borrow Heidegger’s term, in relation to God’s coming. “Enduring, keeping awake, is trusting that the Savior will come after the suffering, trusting that there will be something better, trusting that that One is truly Lord and not a false prophet. Then God alone, who is more powerful than all horrors, will be king.” (Shauna K. Hannan)  

The main problem of the virgins in this Gospel is not that they fell asleep, since all alike slept, but rather that though a few prepared themselves for their task, for any eventuality that might happen, the others hadn’t taken into account that the bridegroom might be delayed. This parable, although it generally reflects the Jewish wedding customs of that time, contains some impossible details: For one, why is no bride mentioned? Probably the original text included her because marriage attendants, assisting the bride, not the bridegroom, belong to very ancient Near Eastern custom. Their function was to assist and act as custodians of the bride until the arrival of the bridegroom, in order that he could then take the bride to his home. So, in Matthew’s context, the virgin maidens’ task is to keep watch against the time of God’s visitation, when God comes to claim his bride. Some will unfortunately fail to keep trust; others will remain on guard and maintain vigilance. Jesus’ parable is both an exhortation and warning to all of us as custodians of the Church to “keep awake”.  

There’s another seemingly impossible detail: Isn’t it a bit odd that all the maidens who were savvy about bringing enough oil would deliberately refuse to help their companions who were probably close friends and family, thus excluding them from the celebration? How would it have been possible to go shopping at midnight when no stores were open? Besides, who could deny that, at least according Matthew, the unprepared maidens were somehow scrappy and resourceful enough to find some oil, even though, eventually, they were shut out from the feast? Well, there are obviously a lot of unresolved questions about the parable and a number of ways in which you and I might come at the story. Nevertheless, the point of the Gospel passage seems to clearly underline the fact that watchfulness and preparedness for our ultimate meeting with Christ is a quite personal and necessary responsibility for each of us.

The Lord continues coming in the middle of the night to call his own, through the normal process of human death, but even through extraordinary occurrences such as incurable diseases, accidents, and sudden passings. We can’t afford to waste time, however, in useless conjectures about the time of the final coming of Jesus for each of us. We’re to be a watchful, faithful, listening community, vitally tuned into the signs of our time. As we, in our uniquely personal situations, experience the birth pangs of the coming reign of God, we need to constantly measure our present situation with that reign. In continual prayer we ask that God’s reign may come, that Jesus, Lord of all, may awaken hope in us that all creation will finally be renewed and that God’s righteousness, compassion, and love may prevail. As St. Paul advises us: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Morning After

"My beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work. Do everything without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world, as you hold on to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you. In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me."  (Letter to the Philippians 2:12-18)

From the time that I was qualified to vote up to the present, some 50+ years, I have faithfully and reasonably, to the extent I've been able, exercised my right to vote on the leadership and issues of our country, nationally and locally. Increasingly since the debacle of the 2000 national elections, I've grown more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by what I see happening. Let me make it clear: what I write here is my own viewpoint and perception. I don't share it with any expectation of anyone necessarily agreeing with me.

This reflection came to me this morning as I was praying over the above text in light of the election results. I'm at the point, on this morning after the elections, where I recognize that the United States is continuing a longstanding process of serious decline. In my humble opinion, the political system in this country is pervasively dysfunctional and broken, and our three branches of government are drifting further and further from the ideals, such as they were, of the founding fathers. Additionally, it's more obvious than ever that a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" has been quietly and rapidly taken captive by Corporate America: Big Oil, Big Pharm, Big Ag, Big Business.

So what is one who is devoted to God's "good purpose" to do? Notice, I don't use the word "Christian" because that has become an almost meaningless term, a sort of hypocritical tag which a lot of principle-less people, particularly politicians, adopt, unfortunately bearing little resemblance to those who genuinely espouse the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Paul uses the word "obedient", a rich word from the Latin ob + audire = to really listen and hear. He says that with that gift you and I are to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling", recognizing that it's God in Christ who "for his good purpose" is at work in us "both to desire and to work". If I genuinely "hold on to the word of life", I know that I can't "do life" or anything else by my own ingenuity or skill. It's all about God in Christ who's responsible for the initiative and the carrying out of any human enterprise.

Paul suggests that, "in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation", "without grumbling or questioning", we continue to hold onto the Word, and his word, of life, who expressed himself, and calls us to express ourselves, in love for one another: letting our whole selves be "poured out as a libation" to support and encourage the faithful service and sacrifice of others, to rejoice and to share joy and hope and mercy and forgiveness whenever and wherever it's needed. That is so foreign to the current culture of this country, especially the political culture, as to be simply laughable to many.

Well, we shall see. We cannot know God's "good purpose"…yet. We undoubtedly couldn't handle knowing it! Right now our task is to "run" and "labor" and "shine like lights in the world", beacons of hope. Paul suggests that it won't be in vain!  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Remembering the Holy Souls

In one of his treatises Anglican martyr, Hugh Latimer, speaks of the departed as possessing God's love, "charity", "in such surety that they cannot lose it…" He says that, as members of Christ's mystical Body, the Holy Souls love us, wish us well and pray for us. They are one with Christ, endlessly praising and thanking God, and sharing God's complete joy.

"And they do us alway good, unless the lack and impediment be in us: for prayer said in charity is more  faithful to them that it is said for, and more acceptable to God, than that which is said out of [lack of] charity. For God looketh not to the work of praying, but to the heart of the prayer…" That's something of which we should be especially mindful as we pray for our departed loved ones.

In any case, the feast of All Souls is one of hope for us, not one meant to engender fear or dread. To quote another great Anglican divine, John Donne, from his Holy Sonnets:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe, 
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow, 
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee. 
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee, 
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee doe got, 
Rest of their bones, and soules delivery. 
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell, 
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well, 
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Holiness & Servant Leadership

There’s a wonderful quote in the autobiography of the great Carmelite foundress, mystic, and saint, Teresa of Avila, which says: “Life is spent in an uncomfort-able inn.” That Teresa and most, if not all the saints, experienced this should be a comforting reassurance for you and me as we struggle to meet the challenges of a 21st century world.

It so happens that yesterday’s feast and today’s celebration of All Saints provides a perfect background for reflection on what would normally be Sunday’s liturgical readings: Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7; 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; 17-20; Matthew 23:1-12)

One of the Church’s seven principal feasts, All Saints Day honors all the saints, or holy ones, known and unknown. Its originated as early as the 4th century, when Christians began to honor notably holy people, particularly martyrs, witnesses to the Christian faith.  In the 7th century, the Western Emperor, Phocas, gave the ancient Pantheon to the Church. It was a temple to all the pagan gods, and was and still is located on the Piazza della Rotunda in Rome. Pope Boniface IV consecrated it, dedicating it to “Santa Maria della Rotunda” and all the martyrs. Eventually, the feast was fixed on November 1 for the entire Church. Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, retained only those feasts of saints mentioned in the New Testament, as well as this feast of All Saints in the church calendar.

The Church is holy not only because a few of her members are held up as saints, but because each and all of us who are the Church are called to mirror and be channels of God’s holiness, life, and presence to one another. Recall the Genesis story, where the Creator is described as pausing over each created thing and being, and observing: “It is good.” God, source of all being, goodness, beauty, wholeness, and therefore, holiness, puts a stamp of approval, a stamp of holiness, on all of creation. Holiness or sanctity doesn’t come from a person’s own heroism or efforts, but from the fact that s/he is “gifted”, graced, with God’s own life and motivated by God to share God’s life and presence with others. Holiness, therefore, is an ideal, but a realizable ideal, meant to help build up the Church and, indeed, all of human society. It’s not just for a few select souls, but for all of us. Despite the reality of human sinfulness, Jesus nevertheless says: “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Through Baptism into Christ, holiness becomes part of our spiritual DNA. Plunged into the very life of God, which is love and service, we’re one-ed to God and to one another. Jesus is the unique pattern and model for humankind, living as the Holy One who loved God to the point of identification, and loved others as a servant, attending to their pain, hunger and need. None of us has the luxury of saying: “But being a saint, being holy, isn’t for me -- it may be for the canonized saints, but surely not for me.” That’s an evasion of one’s baptismal commitment. It’s never a question of worthiness, but of willingness: willingness to deliberately commit oneself in love to God, and willingness to commit oneself to the service of one’s sisters and brothers.

Saints aren’t just select heroes chosen by the Church, but all of us who’ve been reborn in Jesus and His Spirit through Baptism, and who take seriously the pledge we’ve made to follow Jesus. In that covenant we declare that we’ll resist evil, and return to the Lord when our weakness and selfishness overcome our resolve. More importantly, we pledge to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ by what we say and by what we do each day. We agree to seek and serve God in all people, to love them as we love ourselves. In the cause of justice and peace, we agree to respect every person’s dignity. Dom Hélder Camara, late Brazilian Archbishop, summed it up this way:

...Let no one be scandalized if I frequent
Those who are considered unworthy
Or sinful. Who is not a sinner?
Let no one be alarmed if I am seen
With compromised and dangerous people,
On the left or the right,
Let no one bind me to a group.
My door, my heart, must be open
To everyone, absolutely everyone.

Lesbia Scott composed the popular hymn, #293, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, along with other children’s hymns which she sang to her own children in the 1920’s. The hymn caught on in the U.S. during the 1940’s, particularly after it was set to a new tune by a retired Episcopal priest, The Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. Scott’s hymn celebrates the kind of holy people, “saints”, whom you and I run into all the time. It gives just a sampling of a veritable catalog of folks who continually inspire us to become more “holy” as well as more “whole” in our lives: doctors and nurses, farmers and field workers, soldiers, martyrs, school students, seafarers and fisher folk, church workers, train operators, taxi drivers and passengers, shopkeepers, even priests; people who not only serve tea, but Starbucks barristas, restaurant wait, cooking and cleaning staff, bosses and co-workers, teachers and fellow students, neighbors and friends. The thing which we all have in common, as the hymn notes, is that they’re “just folks like me” and you.

To become holy means to become whole, integrated, communal, as human persons and as followers of Jesus. Though that is a lifetime project, and a costly one at that, none of us can weasel out of it. Jesus has pledged to all of us who “labor”: “I will give you rest.” Jesus renews that promise to you and me each time we come forward, hands outstretched, to share his Body and Blood in the Eucharist: the “communion of saints”.

Perhaps the key sentence in Matthew’s Gospel is the one where Jesus says: “The greatest among you will be your servant…” What Jesus is talking about in the sentence quoted is what we today call servant leadership. Speaking from my own 30+ years of experience in this Diocese, especially in mutual parish ministry in several churches, servant leadership isn’t something new in the Church. Nevertheless, it’s taken many folks a while to absorb exactly what the Book of Common Prayer is saying in the Outline of Faith (p. 855): “Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. What is the ministry of the laity? The ministry of lay persons is to represent [re-present] Christ and his Church; to bear witness [from the Greek for martyr] to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church…” Please note that phrase: “...according to the gifts given them…” “Servant leader” doesn’t mean that every single member is called to be a Senior Warden, or the director of the Altar Guild, or a Convention delegate, or a Church School teacher. But every member is called to be a servant leader, “according to the gifts given them”. 

I was totally amazed when I Googled “Servant Leadership” and found how widespread this concept has been and is, not only in the Church, but in the secular, particularly business and management, sectors of the world for some time now. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), who formally coined and defined the words “servant leadership” in the secular setting, lists 10 characteristics of a servant leader:
- Listening: not just hearing, but actively listening; paying attention to others’ unspoken needs; supporting others in decisions.
- Empathy: putting oneself in the others’ shoes, so to speak; trying to understand their point of view; respecting and appreciating others.
- Healing: attending to both one’s self and others; helping to resolve conflict in ways that educate and help others grow and mature; utilizing humor and fun, and creating an atmosphere free of the fear of failure.
- Awareness: again, both of oneself and others; really “being there” when communicating with others.
- Persuasion: not by exerting power, status, or rank, but influencing others by being clear, speaking from conviction, and by reasoning together.
- Conceptualization: thinking “outside the box”; looking with vision beyond day-to-day realities and limits to what can be; setting specific goals and strategies to achieve them.
- Foresight: learning about the past so as to better understand the current reality, and being able to foresee the likely outcome of situations as well as their consequences.
- Stewardship: holding the institution in trust for the greater good of its members and of others in the surrounding society, by advocating for honesty, openness and accountability.
- Commitment to peoples’ growth: recognizing the other’s intrinsic value, beyond simply what they do or can do; encouraging others to nurture their gifts and their spiritual lives; welcoming ideas or input by anyone, and involving others in decision-making through consensus.
- Building community: dedicating oneself to find ways to build an ever stronger community within the institution, as well as trying to develop genuine community within the surrounding society.

The greatest among you will be your servant…” Undoubtedly, the finest summary, in a Christian context, of these words of Jesus in the Gospel, are found in St. Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesian Christian community: “I...beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

...Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ…

...speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped...promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-3; 7; 12; 15-16)

Would that our parish profiles might come to look something like that as we labor to understand our mission to the world!