Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Golden Rule

 Reading from the Commemoration of John Bunyan

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
 ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  -- Matthew 7:12-14

The passage from Matthew for today begins with the well-known positive statement, "… [D]o to others as you would have them do to you." We may consider it a Christian commandment, but it's interesting to find that in most world religions and cultures, that is a standard of moral and ethical living. It is  a way of making things equal and peaceful. Jesus taught it, the gospel writers felt it important enough to include it in the gospels, and yet it seems so hard to do.

Back somewhere in my life, I don't remember precisely when, I heard an opposing version, "Do unto others before they do unto you." It was hilarious at the time, but the older I got the less funny and more revolting it seemed. Watching the political statements coming out of the various campaigns and world events right now, it appears to confirm that the one word change, from "as" to "before," has become the new standard.

In thinking about this Golden Rule and how it applies to our lives, it seems Jesus might as well have saved his breath. Oh, don't get me wrong. There are many who take that rule seriously and who exemplify the rule exactly as Jesus meant it.  Our former president, Jimmy Carter, is an example of somebody who takes the Golden Rule seriously.

After leaving the presidency he could have done what a lot of them do: play a lot of golf, do a lot of traveling, and well-paid speaking engagements in far-flung places. He does those things (maybe not the golf), but also set up a foundation that seeks to do good in places where good is in severe need. He visits those needy places works to make a difference. He champions women and children all over the world, and through his foundation seeks to wipe out sources of infection that kill millions every year. He is a member of a group called the Elders who consult and work to find global solutions to global problems and also he and his wife dedicate several weeks a year to help build houses for people through Habitat for Humanity. At 90 years of age, he is a model of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. And he still teaches Sunday School at every opportunity.

What if others did to us what we did to them? What if a group of strange people with strange weapons walked into our towns and cities, began burning our homes, desecrating our sacred spaces, and forcing us to march hundreds of miles to a place far more desolate and far less conducive to our survival? We've done that to others. What if they raped "our" women and murdered children in front of us before torturing us and laughing as they did it? We've done that too. What if those with power and privilege suddenly became the powerless, the unseen, the castaways, while others assumed the characteristics of power and privilege they had been denied themselves? I wonder how we would react.

What if those of us who have been the recipients of privilege, whether we sought it or even realized it existed, suddenly found ourselves with the shoe on the other foot? What if suddenly we were viewed with suspicion, or even more suspicion than we already are, just because of the color of our skin? What if police stopped us for failure to use a turn signal and then escalated it into a major confrontation simply because we were the wrong color and therefore suspicious in someone's estimation? What if we couldn't get jobs or decent housing for our families because we belong to a certain ethnic or cultural group? What if we were as invisible and expendable as many of our citizens with different skin color are perceived? Even some of the privileged face invisibility and expendability simply because of gender, age, disAbilities, or economic status.
It's hard to accept that a takeover scenario could happen, yet privilege is exemplified every day in right in front of our eyes, unchallenged by us because we don't see it as a problem. We see rioting in the streets protesting innocent African-American children being murdered by people who made snap judgments and did unto others before the others did unto them. How many Native American youths die of suicide because they have no hope and because the privileged have chosen to ignore treaties and then refused anything more than very marginal assistance. How many young (and sometimes not so young) GLBT folk face the same hopelessness and choose the same ending because they were told they were abominations and deserved whatever they got. I wonder what the world would be like if each of us could just put ourselves in one of those situations and really try to understand what is happening and what our part in it was. Would it make a change in us?

Jesus gave us this command for specific reason: it was a distillation of the substance in all of the law and all the teachings of the prophets and was equal to the greatest commandment of all, to love God with everything we have. If we did love God that way the second part would be easy. We could put ourselves in others' shoes and walk around for a while and then do what ever it took to change things so that privilege shared by all and marginalization ceased to exist.

Instead of "Do unto others before they do unto you," what if we exchanged "before" to "as" the way Jesus said and intended it. It's very easy to walk through the wide gate of privilege without even seeing the gate is there, much less knowing the gate code. The narrow gate, however, is much harder; there's not as much wiggle room and the traveler has to be careful not to bang into the walls.

My question to myself this week is how to notice the privileges I have and really see what the world is like without that wide gate to walk through. What I have to do is to see others in the light of their own importance as God's children and my brothers and sisters, no matter what race, culture, orientation, or religion. Should they not be accorded the same privileges I and a lot of others already have?

What is God calling me to do in light of the Golden Rule? What is God calling all of us to do? How will we respond?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 29, 2015.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Broken Stones and End Times


As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’  When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. - Mark 13:1-13

When someone travels, they often go to see the sights in the area they are visiting. I remember visits to Washington DC to visit a dear friend and her family. Invariably during the visits we would take in the sights of the area. She was an inveterate museum-goer, and so we went to art galleries and the venerable Smithsonian Institution. We also took in the more spiritual sights by visiting the National Cathedral (one of my all time favorite sacred spaces), the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and even a mosque.

I preferred the mosque to the shrine because it was richly ornamented yet there was a simplicity to it. It made guests immediately welcome by having a sign over a rack indicating that it was customary to enter barefoot, lightweight scarves for women to cover their heads, and a fountain to wash hands and face to prepare for prayers and worship. The inside encouraged silence as we sat or knelt on thick Persian carpets and took the opportunity to really look at the beautiful calligraphy ornamenting the walls and the glowing colors of the stained-glass windows. I definitely had a different view when I left than when I had entered.

I imagine the disciples had something similar as they came out of the temple. Going in, they were probably focused on what they had come to do, which was to worship; coming out, however, they probably could see with different eyes. They were looking inward as they entered, but outward as they left. They noticed the big stones that they had undoubtedly passed when going in the other direction, yet they seemed not to notice them at that time. Perhaps the experience in the temple gave them permission to take a different view with them as they left.

Jesus had said in response to their tourist-like pointing out of incredible things that all of that would be thrown down, no longer in existence, perhaps forgotten. He went on to teach them to be careful who they followed because there were false shepherds who would seek to turn them and make them like fallen and broken stones .

Jesus warned about troubling times, times that seem almost familiar to us. There have been wars, there are ongoing wars, and there are rumors of wars swirling about our heads like cyclonic winds. Certainly there have been earthquakes and famines, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, better, bone-chilling cold and unimaginable heat. Are these the signs of the end times? Jesus said no, they were just the beginning.

There are those who examine the nightly news, talk radio, or even the Scriptures, taking note of each time that they find something that seems to point in the direction the world is going at the moment. They are consumed with the apocalyptic, and certain that Jesus will come soon, because of all the warning signs. I received a piece of email at work the other day (not for the first time) that stated something about President Obama not finishing his second term and sent by someone or some group called "End Times." Funny, I have read and continue to read the Bible, including Revelation, and don't remember seeing any such reference. Yet there are those who think they know the answer to a question Jesus himself said he did not know. Many have tried to guess when the end times would be, but nobody's gotten it right yet. Perhaps it's something we have to act as if it were happening tomorrow, just in case.

There's certainly nothing unusual these days about finger-pointing and accusations. I don't think the news would be too popular if all they showed were dolphin or whale rescues or pictures of cute kittens playing. No, what people want to see is blood, mayhem, accidents, and disasters. Everyone wants safe world but, like passing an accident on the freeway, everybody has to slow and rubberneck to see what happened before once again speeding up and trying to make up time.

Persecutions are real. They been going on since the time of Jesus, and even before. Christians in the Middle East, parts of Africa and other places suffer real persecution: the very real potential of torture, mutilation, or death because of their faith. Christians in the United States, some of them anyway, seem to feel that not having everyone agree with them, and not doing things their way consists of persecution. Of course, they speak out freely about it and return to their safe homes and safe neighborhoods without worrying too much that some militia is going to come and mow them all down like the lawn care company does their front yard every week.

Unfortunately, persecution does exist in this country. In many places a person being of a difference race, culture, orientation or religious identification, makes them a target for others who see them as evil and seek to further marginalize or lock them away as undesirables, even if they are done no wrong at all. I wonder if Jesus had what is called a " rush to judgment" in mind when he talked about persecutions and people turning against even members of their own family?

When Jesus finally comes, as he promised he would, it's going to be too late to make any changes, to do any quick paint jobs to cover up the centuries of neglect, a grabbing the hands of people who have been marginalized or ignored in their need, and everybody singing "Kumbaya" as if it everything were totally fine, equal and peaceful. There will not be time to rush out and do the acts of kindness that should have been done long ago. There will be time to apologize, to make restitution, to make right the wrongs that have been ignored for so long. Stones will come down, not one will be left standing on top of another, and there will be no place to hide.

We look to Jesus to come and put all things right. We know it, we believe it, and we expect it. Meanwhile, here are wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, all kinds of natural catastrophes, and all kinds of human-caused catastrophes. We may try to pat ourselves on the back for what we have accomplished, but then we want to rest on our laurels for a while before making any other serious attempts. Besides, Jesus will straighten it all out when the Second Coming gets here.

We may be waiting for Jesus, but we are also wasting time. We cannot operate out of fear, but neither can we operate out of complacency. When Jesus comes back he is not going to compliment the pretty stones and monuments, the nice gated communities, the well-run businesses, and the lavish lifestyles of many of his followers. No, he's going to see children dying of preventable diseases, the mothers who walk for miles to get even semi-clean water, twigs and branches to help their households survive, and men who have watched their livestock and crops dry from lack of water. Guess which ones Jesus will gather to himself first?

Instead of wringing our hands and bemoaning what a terrible world this is, Jesus is telling us to endure but also to work to make the world a welcome mat for Jesus rather than a massive re--creation project for him to do. We are expected to do a lot of the work to prepare for that Second Coming, whenever it is. Since we don't know when that will be, it's our duty to act as if it were tomorrow and be all ready, just in case..

We have a lot of work to do, because Jesus is not going to be on a sightseeing trip when he returns.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Theotokos

Beneath your
compassion
we take refuge
Theotokos  Our
petitions do not de-
spise in time of trouble
but from danger
rescue us,
Only Holy, on-
ly Blessed. --  Earliest known prayer to the Theotokos, (ca. 250 CE)*


You probably wouldn't have paid much attention to her if you had walked in the marketplace or to the well were a family's water was drawn. Like millions and millions of other young women, people knew her by her family, but she was just another face in the crowd when it came to anything else. The most we know about her is that she was obedient, trusting, and able to make life altering choices based on that obedience and trust despite what it might do to not just her own reputation, but to that of her family, not to mention her impending marriage. Still, she made a choice that changed the world.

Mary got her first title from the Archangel Gabriel, who, called her "Full of grace." This was when she made her big choice, to accept that God would give her a son before she was even married or even living with her espoused in a normal marital  relationship. She acquired a number of titles, but this was the first, her sign of dedication to God. She was raised to be a devout person, and if God asked something of her as God did to prophets and kings, her response must be the same as theirs: "Here am I."

Over the centuries, Mary acquired a number of titles to try to explain what exactly her role in in salvation history had been or how she was perceived by faithful believers. She has been called Queen of Angels, Queen of Heaven, Immaculate, Blessed Virgin, Our Lady with any number of appendixes such as Perpetual Help and Peace. For uncounted millions of people, she is a mediatrix, an intercessor who receives prayers and supplications and adds her prayers to those she receives.

One of her most widely accepted titles is Theotokos, a Greek word meaning "God bearer"  and which gives honor to her as the one who carried God the Son in the flesh. It is by this name that she is widely known particularly Eastern Orthodox churches, although Roman Catholics and Anglicans also use the term. She is seen as a mediator between earth and heaven, and many feel that "If all else fails, ask Mother."

August 15 is celebrated as the Feast of Mary the Virgin, but in Eastern Orthodoxy, it is also known as the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, the day she "fell asleep" and was taken, body, soul and spirit, into heaven as redeemed, a sign that there is hope for all who, as Mary did, "magnify the Lord." In Anglican circles, though, the day celebrates her virginity (which is not always seen as perpetual) and her acceptance of God's plan for her.

Mary was the only person in the gospels who was a part of Jesus' life from his conception to his death and resurrection, yet we see only glimpses of her in his adulthood. Her place was in the background for the most part. At the wedding in Cana, however, when the wine was running short and the family faced mortification at a lack of replacement, she asked her son to do the impossible. He said it wasn't time for him to do things like that, but Mary simply turned to the servants and said, "Do what he tells you." Sure enough, the water became wine. I wonder – did the people at the wedding feast realize that the most  excellent wine they were drinking was the greatest vintage that ever existed on the face of the earth?

Mary as Theotokos, the God bearer, was the one who carried God in the flesh within her body. It gives her a special place. But if you think about it, we are all God bearers in the sense that we carry the spirit of God within us as well as the mark of adoption by virtue of our baptism. Who is to say that the first breath we took was not the breath of God directly? It seems children carry God much better than most adults. They believe, they trust, and, mostly anyway, try to be obedient. They have been known to whisper to newborn brothers and sisters, asking to tell them about God and the angels, because they had begun to forget and the newborn could remind them.

The God bearer within each of us needs cultivation. It  needs to be a visible sign of our commitment and our gratitude, not to mention our trust and obedience. We are told that the early Christians could be known by the love they showed each other, and that love is the result of being a God bearer. It is not an easy job, any more than being pregnant is an easy one. There are aches, pains, and discomfort, but also an inward joy and expectation.

So today we celebrate Mary, whether we only hear about her only at Christmas and Easter and maybe if the preacher decides to preach on the miracle at Cana, or whether she is a daily presence in our personal and corporate pieties and devotions. We are encouraged by the church to emulate her trust and obedience, but in our personal devotions we can also find courage and strength in making hard decisions.

If I say a rosary or just look at the tiny copy of the icon of the Annunciation that is on the corkboard over my desk, Mary has become a more important part of my life, not just for her meekness and obedience but for her courage, strength, and her devotion. Maybe one day I'll get to the point where if all else fails, I'll just ask Mother.


*Found at Trisagion Films, accessed 8/9/15. Line breaks correspond to the English translation from the Koine.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 15, 2015.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dominic

For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. -- Romans 10:13-17


It is said that everyone has a calling, whether or not they are religious people. The saint we commemorate today found not just a calling to the priesthood, but to organization, preaching, education, and motivation. That's a lot to expect from any one person, but Dominic de Guzman was not just a totally ordinary person. He accomplished a lot during his life, and his influence still remains.

Dominic was born in Castille, Spain, in 1170. He discovered his calling to the priesthood and served in several positions of increasing authority over the next few years. Chosen to accompany a bishop to France to a territory which was inhabited by the Albigensians, a heretical sect that believed in dualism, a Lord of Good and a Lord of Evil. Dominic's conversation with the Albigensian innkeeper on first night in town  created not just a convert to orthodoxy, but a recognition for Dominic of the value of discussion, persuasion and logic among those who he had come to evangelize.

He was a gentle man, and is said that he had such a kind and gentle way of administering rebuke that people left his presence feeling happy rather than downcast. That's quite a thing to say about anybody. It certainly seemed to work in his favor.

The mission of which Dominic was part was not totally successful and was interrupted by an assassination, a death, and a five-year war. The "war" against the Cathars (another name for Albigensians) was actually a part of the movement called the episcopal Inquisition, which had begun about 1174 and was aimed specifically at the Albigensians and it is unclear as to whether or not Dominic took an active part.

Dominic had applied to the Pope for permission to form a new religious order in 1215. That request was denied but another was granted a year later. By this time Dominic had about 17 followers and with those followers he took a very bold step. Rather than keeping them clustered in the same community in the same area, he did what Jesus did. He sent them out two by two to establish foundations in France and Italy, notably in Paris and Bologna.

Dominic firmly believed that the way to evangelize and convert was by persuasion and logic rather than force. His preachers were to establish schools of theology near universities and centers of learning. They were to live rather austere lives, including simple habits and going about barefoot, somewhat resembling the most strict subgroup of the Albigensians. They were sent to spread the message and evangelize among those considered heretics.

Dominic established new communities in Spain and was honored by the pope by being given the title of  The Pope's Theologian, a post which has been filled by Dominicans since the death of Dominic in 1221. With the passage of time, however, some of Dominic's spiritual sons forgot the lessons of gentleness and persuasion by words only and began to favor more forcible means. The tortures were less for the soul of the individual being tormented than for the example to those outside the torture chamber. This was the Pope's inquisition and targeted not only Albigensians but other groups such as Muslims and Jews. 

Violence for the sake of conversion is never a really good idea. People tend to resist being forced to do anything, especially something as personal as changing their religion. Even conversion in the face of danger is not considered a true conversion, and people who used that way to trying to save their lives and the lives of their families often found themselves in the same predicament as if they had never converted at all.

Persuasion gives the opportunity to witness what a change of life can mean. There's truth in the old proverb, "You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar." Perhaps Dominic never heard that truism, but he seemed to use it as his model of evangelism.

There are many times in our lives where we are told what to do and know we have no recourse. It is a very hard thing to accept, and, as the Monty Python skit put it, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Inquisition was not a new thing, just perhaps a new name for the process.

Christians facing death in the Coliseum, the beatings and tortures followed by crucifixions, and other torments from the earliest days of Christianity fit the pattern of attempted forced conversion. It has never been easy to retain one's faith when facing pain or death at the hands of another.  If those in the Coliseum had never heard of Jesus, their lives would have never been put in jeopardy. If they had not believed, their lives might not have been a bed of roses, but they would not have faced imminent death on a day-to-day basis. The Albigensians had their own beliefs which the church had declared heretical, and so the church decided to forcibly change them, no matter if it killed them in the process.

Persecution still goes on all around the world. Torture, injury, and death are sometimes the result of the attempt to stop what another group considers heresy. There does not seem to be much room for persuasion and logic, only emotion and action. What are we doing to encourage such behavior? Where we tried persuasion, even very persistent persuasion, rather than guns, swords, or other instruments of barbarity. There are people who need to hear the message, but can't get beyond the behavior of those who bring the message.

People will not listen to a message and respond to it well if the message is not persuasive and the examples of living the message are not clear. The old saying has it, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Vinegar may add tang to a dish -- or a conversation -- but too much ruins the whole thing. The inquisition was really a case of excessive vinegar while Dominic's approach was much more palatable.

In this time where people seem to be shouting past each other without anyone listening to anybody else, perhaps we need a dose of Dominic's wisdom and practice. His mission was to proclaim to those who had not heard and teach them to call on one who could be believed in.

I think Paul's message to the Romans was logical and persuasive to Dominic. Maybe we should try it for ourselves?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 8, 2015.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Man from Arimathea

 
Readings:
Psalm 16:5-11
Genesis 23:3-9,17-19
James 1:17-18
Luke 23:50-56

When I discovered reading, I quickly ran out of my own books so I rummaged through my brother's meager library (he wasn't much of a reader). I discovered the Hardy Boys, Robin Hood and King Arthur and his court. These were not comic books but real books where paragraphs were more than one sentence long, and the language was somewhat more grown up. I ate them up. Somehow the ones that stuck with me were book with the Arthurian legends which was written mainly for boys but which were about chivalry and the rescue of maidens, something every girl could dream about.

As I got older I learned there was more to this King Arthur story than what I had read as a child. I had read about Merlin and Guinevere and Lancelot and the Lady of the Lake, which were all very well and good, and I also read about the Grail, supposedly the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Then I found Joseph of Arimathea and his connection with whole wonderful tale.


Joseph is said to have been an uncle of Mary, Jesus' mother, and therefore a kinsman of Jesus himself. We don't hear about him in the Gospels until Jesus is crucified when Joseph appeared, asking the authorities for Jesus's body. He took the corpse to his own brand-new tomb where Jesus would lie. Most crucified criminals were left hanging on their places of execution until they had become nothing but bones as an example to the people of the price of criminal behavior. If Joseph were a kinsman, it would have made sense for him to ask to bury Jesus for the family's sake, if nothing else. Then, having buried Jesus, Joseph disappeared from the scene and is not heard from again. That's where legend takes over.


Legends are like midrash; A bare-bones story is fleshed out with details and episodes to make the tale more complete and to answer possible questions. According to the legend, Joseph had interests in some British tin mines in Cornwall. He made periodic trips back and forth from to check on those interests. It said that on at least one journey he took his great nephew Jesus along with him, a possible journey William Blake commemorated in his poem called  "Jerusalem."


Those who were crucified were often left on the instrument of their death, being food for scavenger birds and whims of the weather. Was Joseph a known Christian?  If so, he risked his reputation and possibly even his life to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus so quickly. Now if he were a relative, especially one of some standing, it might have been easier for him than it would have been for Jesus's family who were relative unknowns. However it happened, after his good deed, Joseph disappeared from the story but legends went on.


It said that Joseph left Jerusalem on a ship taking with him and some followers, possibly even Mary Magdalene.  Mary Magdalene's story is that she disembarked in France, and lived out her life there where she was revered, as was her daughter.


Joseph continued his journey and landed in Cornwall. He disembarked at a place close to what we now call Glastonbury, then known as Avalon. Joseph pushed his staff into the ground and from it rose a thorn tree, like the tree that had produced the materials used to make the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear. The tree itself grew and flourished and bloomed each Christmas for 2,000 years, enduring several attempts to destroy it until it was chopped down and the limbs strewn about by person or persons unknown in 1991. A rare variety, the only way to propagate it was by cuttings. Some of these have been successfully raised, flourishing not only around Glastonbury but in our own country where a Glastonbury Thorn tree grows on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington DC.


Another part of the legend of Joseph is that he had brought the Holy Grail, the chalice of Jesus, when he came to Cornwall. Joseph hid it, and people have been looking for that particular treasure ever since. One of the sights in Glastonbury is called Joseph's Well where the Grail was supposedly hidden.  Did Joseph really bring the chalice with him when he left Jerusalem? Was it even a chalice? Some claims are made that the Grail was actually the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, while others say it was just a plain wooden cup which has probably disintegrated by now. Yet others think of it as a finely wrought gold or silver vessel, suitable for such an important event as the Last Supper. King Arthur's knights were searching for the Grail as sacred quests, journeys of faith in search of the holiest thing in the world and which only the purest and bravest could find.


What I learned from Joseph is the value of perhaps not loudly proclaiming that you are a Christian or a follower of Christ, but rather by actions doing the thing that would be most pleasing to God. I still keep coming back to the thought of  Joseph's risk in asking for the body of Jesus. To even claim the body, much less be able to bury it, was an act of kindness, and also, I believe to bring peace to the family as well as to honor someone he had come to love respect and follow in his own life.


Joseph of Arimathea is one of my favorite saints. He didn't look for a place of glory, at least in the story he didn't, and when he went back to Cornwall, if he did go back there, he very possibly became one of the founders of Christianity in Britain. Where the Roman Empire went during the time of Jesus' ministry and even after his death, Christianity went along with the army and the traders. The isolated Christians became small communities and the small communities became towns and cities as time went by. Joseph could have begun the process in Glastonbury which ended up with an abbey known in the time of the Arthurian legends, but which was destroyed later. Some ruins still remain, reminders of those ancient times which, as in the words to first stanza of "Jerusalem" reads:

And did those feet in ancient times,
Walk on England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?


 
It's something to think about. It is also something to remember, when it comes time to take a risk in a good cause. It doesn't have to be a grand showy thing, but it does require some courage and humility. No armor or magical swords are needed either.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 1, 2015.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Commemoration of St. James the Greater

The hero for today is James, often called the Greater, not because he was such a big shot but because he was the first James. There are two other Jameses (James the Less and James the brother of Jesus). James the Great was one of the disciples Jesus called when he began his ministry. James and his brother John had been working for their father, Zebedee, catching fish. It doesn't sound much like a profession that would suggest any great status or even any upward mobility, but we know that upward mobility can mean more than a bigger title and a bigger paycheck.

James was called away from his fishing boat. He left seemingly without looking back. Fortunately, it appears his father had a sufficient labor pool to take James and John's places on the fishing boat. They probably got up that morning not thinking that this was going to be a day that would change their lives, but it worked out that way. Jesus called, they went.

We see that story repeated often in the Gospels where Jesus called and someone answered, not always to be an apostle or a disciple but to be something other than what they were. The woman at the well was certainly not expecting to be called to do something that wasn't a normal thing for a woman and an outcast, yet she answered that call and actually was probably our first evangelist. She went into the town and told them, "I have met a man who told me all about my life. Could he be the Messiah?" It was a good question and it's one that not many dared ask but many dared hope.

James' story is repeated throughout the Bible. He didn't answer with the traditional, "Here I am," or maybe he did that and it just was not recorded. What mattered was that he answered the call and followed where he was led.

Legend has it that James spent time in Spain as a missionary. He was in Jerusalem, however, when Herod Agrippa put him to death in 44 A.D. His body was said to have been  taken to Compostela in Spain although some relics may be housed in church(es) elsewhere.

Today James is remembered not only as a Son of Thunder, which was the nickname given to him and his brother John, but as Santiago in Spain. Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago,  a journey of 450 miles on foot from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to the cathedral in Compostela..What these pilgrims are looking for is a personal thing -- healing, clarity or a deeper sense of spirituality. It is a prayerful journey but not always a silent one as pilgrims may go with a group or join one along the road. At the end of the days of walking, they fall to their knees and make their way from the doorway of the cathedral to the actual shrine of Santiago. Their physical journey is ended but, hopefully, their spiritual journey continues.

 The disciples had no idea where the simple words "Come follow me" could lead them but they followed anyway. The Jesus way was a life changing internal and spiritual journey that would take a lifetime. Nobody has ever really totally mastered the Christian life. Many of our saints have come close, but, like us, they are flawed people who do their best but still mess things up from time to time. Jesus doesn't mind, he would rather us try and make a mistake than not try and do everything else perfectly. .

So here we have St. James, Santiago, a man who thought he knew where he was going but who got a wake-up call he couldn't ignore. We may wait and think one day Jesus is going to walk by and say, "Come follow me. " The question is how will we respond to that or would we even hear and understand the call? Can we leave everything behind and just follow Jesus? Jesus has jobs for us to do, but we also have jobs that we need to take care of our families. Where is the balance? That's a question everyone is going to have to answer for themselves.


I will never be able to walk the Camino de Santiago physically, but I could do a spiritual retreat lasting a shorter time, or use spiritual disciplines and readings as part of my everyday life. I can walk a path that gives me healthy exercise and lets my mind turn to prayer or contemplation. It's a form of multitasking that I think Jesus would approve of.

Maybe I need to ask St. James to give me a nudge to get moving.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 25, 2015.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

History, Winners and Losers

Commemoration of Bartolomé de las Casas, Missionary, Priest, Defender of the Oppressed

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. -- Philemon 8-16.

History is usually written by the winners, but sometimes we learn more from the losers.

Bartolemé de las Casas (1474-1566) was a member of the Spanish military sent to the West Indies in 1502 and was probably the first priest ordained in the Americas. In 1513, probably a year or less after his ordination, he was still involved in military activities. He saw the effects of Spanish domination over the local native populations. He had been awarded a land grant for his military efforts which included a number of Indian serfs, but in 1514 he renounced his land grant and his control over the natives. It was the beginning of his non-military campaign for a beleaguered and oppressed people.

De las Casas made several trips to Spain to report to the crown about issues involving treatment of the natives that he had seen and heard spoken of by others. Eventually he would write a book, A Brief Description of the Destruction of the Indies, describing the activities and tortures the natives had experienced at the hands of the Spanish. He wanted to create towns where natives and Spaniards could live side-by-side and with equality for both as a form of reparation. It was a great idea, but unfortunately too many people were against such a plan. It threatened their way of life and their privilege. The great plan also had a great flaw. De las Casas also felt his ideas and plans were perfect and in their presentation he sometimes came across as somewhat ham-fisted which did not endear him to the people whose support he needed. Colonists that he selected to help him achieve this goal turned out to be less than cooperative and capable. To his credit, de las Casas never stopped trying. He eventually returned to Spain and became a Dominican monk, remembered for his writing and attempt to gain equality for the natives of the Caribbean.

To achieve a goal one has to believe firmly in the value of that goal. De las Casas firmly believed that what he intended to do was the right thing for the native oppressed. Unfortunately, and partly because of his position on rights for the natives, he tacitly approved and may even have encouraged the importation and use of African slaves to do the work on the encomiendas or land grants. It's hard to believe that such dedication to one group would also entail an almost oblivious concern for another similarly oppressed group.

In Paul's letter to Philemon, Paul calls on an old friend to forgive what might must have been something drastic, and to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a fellow Christian and brother. It was a request for equality for a servant who had run away and found Paul, becoming a help to him and a convert to Christianity. Whether Paul intended for this passage to become a standard for equality or not, it certainly gives a glimpse of what early Christianity should accept as a new norm, namely treating fellow believers, no matter their status, as equals in the kingdom.

There are a lot of histories where we hear of forced conversions and the treatment of native populations who were the subject of those conversions. We know that in the 1500s the Spaniards came to the New World not so much to convert but to provide gold, gems, and riches for themselves and the crown that supported them. How many were converted? I don't know, but from reading the histories, including some of the quotes from de las Casas' book, brutality was the rule and not the exception. Those who the Spaniards did not kill directly faced the very real possibility of death from diseases which the Spaniards brought with them and to which they had no immunity. Was the treatment of the imported African slaves any better than the natives they replaced? It seems impossible to believe that it would have been better, but anyway, nobody was focusing on them.

Onesimus should be a symbol for all who are considered lower on the social, economic, and cultural scale. Those of us who have experienced privilege and, whether we accept it totally or not, should see ourselves in the person of Philemon, the one asked to receive someone as an equal. I believe that Paul meant that all people, especially Christians and those who claim to be Christians, should receive others as equal regardless of their status. There are those who speak for the powerless, the voices of Americans of all ethnicities and origins, immigrants, the oppressed and tortured in many lands, and those fighting injustice and persecution, genuine persecution, around the world. Does this mean non-Christians as well as Christians? In my belief there's only one answer, yes.

De las Casas was like many of us. He had a driving passion to do something good for other people, yet he was, in his own way, flawed in his idealization of his own ideas, whether or not they were workable or even acceptable. Each of us should have dreams of what can be done to make the world the kingdom of God on earth that we say we really want, and we should work to make those dreams reality. We also need to understand how to make those changes and how to get others on board with us. It takes a lot of sheer determination; people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, Mother Teresa, and many others, had determination, vision, and hope, but they also had a knowledge that it wasn't going to be easy. Sometimes they would have to step backwards where they wanted to go forward. Their approaches were varied and, when one did not work, they tried again perhaps just a little differently. All had flaws but also had dreams, compassion, and desire.

History will remember people like these as well as people like Bartolomé de las Casas, and well they should be remembered. But we should also be conscious of all who suffer oppression, persecution, or loss of power because of what group they belong to or any other characteristic. Those guilty of heinous crimes should be incarcerated for the safety of others, but they are still children of God and should be treated humanely. Prayers for oppressed groups around the world, no matter what their religion or location, should be made but in combination with active means of assistance. The voiceless should be heard while the powerful should learn to listen and not just pontificate about what they think is needed. And when we look to one group is deserving of attention we should remember that where there is one there is usually a number of others equally deserving.

Did Philemon except Onesimus as Paul had requested? A man named Onesimus is recorded in history as a bishop, so perhaps Philemon did welcome him back and helped him in his new mission. Today we must be a combination of all three: Paul to speak, Onesimus to act, and Philemon to listen and assist.

With some practice, I think it would work.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 18, 2015, under the title "Learning from history."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ancient Rule, Modern Guide

Commemoration of Benedict of Nursia

If it happens
that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a sister,
let her nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority
with all meekness and obedience.
But if she sees that the weight of the burden
altogether exceeds the limit of her strength,
let her submit the reasons for her inability
to the one who is over her
in a quiet way and at an opportune time,
without pride, resistance, or contradiction.
And if after these representations
the Superior still persists in her decision and command,
let the subject know that this is for her good,
and let her obey out of love,
trusting in the help of God.  Rule of St Benedict chapter 68


I read a lot of religious books, but I won't say that I'm passionate about rulebooks, those books that set up specific things that must and must not be done. That sometimes includes the Bible. There's a book I've read several times, though, that is like a guidebook for spiritual living, one which I appreciate more each time I read it. Others have found the same thing in the Rule of Benedict, a book on living a life dedicated to God and in community with others striving to reach the same goal.

Sr. Joan Chittister's book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, takes Benedict's rule, chapter by chapter, and puts a contemporary perspective on the ancient book. Her perspective was a translation which alternated chapters between male and female followers of the rule, acknowledging that women, as well as men, live by the rule and are equal participants in the journey.

One chapter that particularly interested me was chapter 68 quoted above. Now Benedict did not write in what we would consider a politically correct manner. His rule was aimed at monks who followed him. It described how their lives were to be ordered and made holy. The chapter calls out what a monk or nun should do if he or she is given a task they feel is too hard for them to bear.

Honestly, the first thing I thought about was that Jesus gave us a pretty impossible task or actually several of them. Love your neighbor? Now if that is not difficult I don't know what is. Lately events have proven that it is probably one of the most difficult things we could be asked to do, and we don't do it very well.

The nun or monk who has been given a job to do by the abbot or abbess might feel that the task is too hard, too far beyond their physical or even spiritual ability. While the rule stresses obedience and meekness, another word for humility, it does also present an opportunity for discussion. Benedict even gives guidelines for how to talk about such situations should be conducted. If, though, the superior's mind is unchanged or their heart feels this is what God would want this monk or nun to do, then obedience must kick in and every attempt made to complete the task.

It's not that the superior would want to test the faith or even see how much the monk or nun could handle, but rather to offer them an opportunity to grow and to learn where they could find strength that they didn't know they had and increase the faith they already possessed. It's an exercise in trust, but not necessarily the case of "God won't give us more than we can handle."  That particular phrase makes God seem like some kind of game-player, somewhat on the level of the God of Job who had a wager about whether or not Job would remain faithful under pressure. I never liked that kind of God very much.

There are times, though, when we seem to need to be reminded that we only grow when things happen that force us out of our comfort zone and into something we never expected to encounter. I think Benedict understood that very well and made it part of the rule. All growth involves some kind of struggle. It's how learning takes place.

Benedict was a very wise man. Although he had his eyes focused on God, he realized the importance of giving guidelines to help others find what he had. Regular hours of prayer, work, worship and rest, moderation in all things, hospitality to all, obedience, humility and charity -- these were the building blocks Benedict left for the future generations to use. It's been doing its job since the sixth century, and continues today both in Benedictine communities and in the lives of lay people who find a spiritual guide in the Rule of Benedict.

I think that next time I'm asked to do something I think might be impossible or beyond my skills, I'll remember Benedict's chapter 68 and the advice he gave in it. Perhaps it will help me to think a bit more positively about what I'm being asked to do, or, at least, give me a framework to request a dialog seeking enlightenment or perhaps a more detailed explanation of what I am supposed to do. Most of all, perhaps it will teach me to be patient and try my best to do the job as if I were doing it for God.

I wonder -- did Benedict ever work in customer service?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 11, 2015 under the title "Benedict of Nursia."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Independence Day

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. - James 5:7-10


July 4, Independence Day, seems an odd choice for a calendar devoted to churchy celebrations and commemorations. It is a day we normally associate with picnics, parades, fireworks, days at the beach, baseball games, mosquitoes, and warm if not hot sunny days. We know it commemorated something, namely the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. In school were taught to recite parts if not all of the Declaration of Independence to give us some idea of what the value of such a document was. Granted it was written in a time very different than what we live in today, but it still has relevance to our lives. It is, and should be, a living document that grows and allows new use of the words and is not just a yellowing piece of paper or parchment we can see in the museum, static in meaning and relevance.

The Declaration of Independence put in writing what our leaders felt were legitimate complaints about a government far away on the other side of the ocean that benefited mostly individuals in Britain at the expense of the colonists. It was a brave document, and it lit the match that began a war that lasted until 1781, 5+ years of death, hardship, struggle, and often despair. In the end we became an independent nation although we maintained ties with our mother country, ties both of governmental style, justice, religion and diplomacy. But the infant nation we now call the United States had to learn to work as a unit to the benefit of all and to resolve their own problems with no recourse to an authority other than God.

Undoubtedly the letter of James was read in churches at the time, and I wonder what they would have made of the passage we read today. Be patient? Do not grumble against one another? Oy vey. In some ways we have been patient — too patient. Things are going well for some of us while others of us deal with a very different reality. The ideal of human equality was a wonderful statement, but it applied only to white males of a certain status and standing. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, plus other minority groups that flocked to our shores for the promise that was offered, were left standing in the cold. Those in power thought it was a great system, while the powerless were just that — powerless to do much to change it. We have made some strides over the past several centuries, but not nearly enough. We are still fighting the system that has been in place for almost as long as humanity is existed. Be patient? How long must people be patient for there to be equality, justice, and an ability, no, a right to be all that they can be?

Of course, James was referring to an promise that he and others felt was imminent. It is easier to be patient when you know the in the goal is in sight or the expectations will be fulfilled in the near future. Yes, farmers know that you cannot rush a crop from seed to harvest. It takes the time that it takes, and once the seed is planted there is nothing much to do other than wait patiently. It makes sense when you're talking about farmers and crops, but when you're talking about human beings and the conditions in which they live and work, it's all too dependent on whether we were the ones who set the conditions or the ones who have to live under those conditions.

Jesus called and taught men, as was normal for that time and place, but women learned from him as well as did Jews, Gentiles, oppressors and oppressed. His message was primarily aimed at the Jews, but as we have seen it can be universally applied, or nearly so. Jesus didn't write a Declaration of Independence from Rome but rather he spoke of an allegiance to a greater kingdom, and invisible kingdom that could be made visible.

We have made strides, albeit small ones, in the general direction but we still have a long way to go. Too many have been too patient too long. Power and privilege have to be redefined to benefit all people and not just a few or a select group. All people must have some sense of power in their life. We see daily the result of unrelieved powerlessness, namely the exertion of false power expressed by violence, mayhem, and lawlessness.

We wait for the Lord, yet we seem to expect God to pop down and become like a mother with a bunch of squabbling children. God is expected to sort everything out, which is the reasoning a lot of us use for doing nothing to help along this kingdom of God on earth. We cluck our tongues at images of bodies lying in streets or children wounded simply because someone else wanted to appear powerful. It's one thing to wait for the Lord, but quite another to expect Jesus to congratulate us on the strides we've made, no matter how inadequate or how far we still have to go.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence did more than put their words on a piece of paper. They pledged themselves, their leadership, and often their own fortunes and reputations, to bring about freedom that had been denied them as well as others. They didn't wait patiently; they knew they were in for a struggle, but they believed they were doing the right thing for themselves and for those who lived in this country.

God is waiting, but God is waiting for us to do what needs to be done. Waiting patiently is becoming no longer an option. The signs are everywhere. Those with power and privilege must give up their egos, inflated statuses, and secure lifestyles in order to better serve the powerless without privilege who live in among us. We don't have time to be patient. Whether it's violence, hunger, financial burden, or any other kind of oppression, we can't just sit and cluck our tongues about how bad everything seems to be. God is waiting. We can't afford to.

The fireworks, baseball games, picnics and all can wait. Those still awaiting freedom and equality can't.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 4, 2015.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

June 27 - Cornelius Hill, Chief, Priest and Bridge-builder

Commemoration of Cornelius Hill, Priest and Chief among the Oneida, 1907

Psalm 87 & 90
Amos 5:14-15
Romans 14:12-19
John 10:7-18


I seems like most days we commemorate someone or something in the Daily Office. Some people think there are too many commemorations, and they should be restricted to more classical "Saints" rather than people who have never been canonized or beatified but who have nonetheless made significant contributions both to society and to the church. I rather enjoy the variety of biographies that I read in the Office. I have learned about a number of people of whom I would never have heard otherwise, much less what contributions they have made.

Take today for example. I had never heard of Cornelius Hill. Granted, I didn't grow up in either New York or Wisconsin, although I did hear quite a bit about Native American tribes in the area in which I lived. Reading his biography today, I learned that he was an Oneida chief, a translator, a deacon, a priest, a negotiator, and, undeniably, a voice of conscience for both his people and those who believed the Native Americans were some sort of lesser humans who should be westernized as quickly as possible. This included forced relocation, forced assimilation, seizure of tribal lands under eminent domain, and denial of their lifestyle, language, religion, and customs. It was a brutal time, and the Oneida were not the only ones who suffered from it. Cornelius Hill sought to be a peacemaker, attempting to bring the two worlds together, yet allowing each to be the people they really were rather than one a carbon copy of the other.

Cornelius Hill reflected  both his Oneida  heritage  and his Christian  education. He understood the sacredness of the land and the bond between the land and the people, but he also saw some benefit in at least accommodation between the two groups. Unfortunately, the Europeans didn't see things the same way; their feelings of superiority decimated millions, and set precedents that are just now being discussed more widely but without much headway. It is just now that their descendants have begun to realize the great injustice and damage that was done. Part of that recognition comes from the church and from people like Cornelius Hill. Probably most Episcopalians have never heard of him although he was a fellow churchman.

The thought of the depredations poured on the Native American people makes me think of the situation we see  in our right now in the faces of those we have persecuted, enslaved, murdered, and displaced. I read reports and see local Native American tribes  trying their best to live in ways often  quite foreign to their own  culture and traditions. Many of these tribes have been forced to adapt their diet to incorporate  kinds of foods their bodies were never equipped to handle after thousands of years of eating quite differently (fresh vegetables and game vs. fried foods and carb-heavy snacks). Coupled with increased dependence on subsidies and lack of available jobs, the result is that diabetes, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide are common but never really  acknowledged  or healed.

In other places, Native Americans live in housing so substandard that any civilized city or town would destroy it immediately and rebuild safe and comfortable homes  with electricity, clean water, sanitation, and access to education, communal entertainment, and  cultural traditions and practices. But then, those cities and towns often have slums, shantytowns and substandard apartments that don't seem to be a priority-- except to those who live in them, and often they are so beaten down by poverty and powerlessness that they are unable to do much to help themselves.

We have not done much better with other ethnic groups and cultures. Painful as it is to admit, White Privilege still exists and works against  those whose skins are different colors, whose religions are different and not well-understood, and whose  origins are not Western. The events of the past several weeks, including the shooting at  Emanuel AME Church  in Charleston, are just continued proof that racism and cultural hatred not only exists but in some cases flourishes in complete denial of the opening sentence of one of our  most revered documents, the Declaration of Independence, which begins with, "We hold these truths to be self evident:, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 

While Jefferson lived in a time  where slavery was more or less accepted  in the North as much as the South, and while  the quotation calls out "man"  rather than "human beings" or "people" indicating  equality across the board at least gender-wise, it nonetheless should be  understood to be a living document that allows for wider interpretation  than simply literal words on the page.

Cornelius Hill did his best to uphold these words of freedom and equality. He was a bridge that both sides needed in order to connect the two and to try to make things better for both. There are a lot of those bridge builders today, both in the Daily Office commemorations and in ordinary life. The value of hearing stories of people we may never have come across is that we learn that there are ways of  attempting a goal and making progress towards it, whether or not we ever see the full culmination or the final success.

Like the Bible study group at Mother Emanuel  Church, and every other life ruined by fear, prejudice, or greed, these need to be reminders just as so many others that are featured on our newscasts and front pages as well as those who are simply invisible in their misery. Life is precious and there should be no room for racism, homophobia, or privilege that doesn't see what that privilege costs others. Cornelius Hill fought that kind of privilege; his people revered him for it.

We need to keep the stories in front of us so that none of us forgets that the way we live, the advantages we have, and even the freedom to practice religion should be available to everyone, no matter who or where. There are so many groups that need our attention as much as the Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans: the homeless, veterans, children of poverty and neglect, the list goes on and on and on.

We have a big job to do but it is no more than Jesus asked of us in the first place. When are we going to get busy and do it?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 27, 2015.

Dedicated to Kaze Gadway, the Spirit Journey Youth, and Margaret Watson, all bridge-builders.