Sunday, January 25, 2015

Light of Humility

Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion


Psalm 116:1-2
Jeremiah 17:14-18a
Galatians 3:23-28
Luke 10:1-9

With a world full of problems that seemingly have no solutions, it's often said that one person can't make a difference, but sometimes one person can, directly or indirectly, effect a change of perception or action that does create a new way of thinking and/or doing. When it happens, it starts as a small spark that gradually grows as people recognize the truth and validity of the message being transmitted. There are times, though, when no words are spoken but actions speak volumes, and times when quiet words and quiet actions go almost unnoticed until people realize the growing miracle that has been going on without their being aware.

The person we know as Florence Li Tim-Oi would not have seen herself as a kind of beacon of faith but her life demonstrated that that was precisely what she was. At her birth her father gave her the name of "Much Beloved," and that name became prophetic, particularly during her adult and elder years. She took the baptismal name of Florence from Florence Nightingale, an English nurse who worked during the Crimean War and who changed the direction of nursing. Nightingale earned the nickname  "Lady with the Lamp." In her own way, Tim-Oi would herself be a bearer of the light in dark and perilous times.

Tim-Oi received a call to ministry in 1931 and was ordained a deacon ten years later. Her mission was to the colony of Macao, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) was raging and refugees from China were flocking into Macao to escape.  In 1941 Tim-Oi was charged with serving the Anglican community in both as a deacon and as a medical helper aiding victims. When it became too dangerous for priests to travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist, Tim-Oi was licensed to preside in her capacity as deacon. In 1944, the Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, called her to meet with him in a part of Free China and ordained her as a priest. It was a ground-breaking moment for Tim-Oi, the souls in Macao whom she served, and, indeed, the Anglican world as a whole. The bishop recognized her call and made her the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

Tim-Oi was aware of and sensitive to the controversy surrounding her ordination and priesthood in other parts of the Anglican Communion. As a result, when it was safe for male priests to once again travel and be visible, she relinquished her license to act as a priest until her orders would be recognized by the Communion.  Bishop Hall called her to service in the clerical order when, in 1947, he made her rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu, China, with the title of priest. With the Maoist takeover in 1949,  things changed radically. She went to Beijing to study and teach at a theological college but with the closing of all churches by the Maoists in 1958, she was considered a political revolutionary and was forced to undergo political re-education which was often accompanied by torture. Following re-education she was assigned to farm and factory work until she was allowed to retire in 1974. She returned to Hong Kong and began service as a lay teacher and preacher. Two more women had been ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong eight years previously so Tim-Oi's license was restored although still not actively recognized by much of the Anglican Communion.

She moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1981 and served there as an associate priest and preacher until her death in 1992. She died a much-beloved figure in both China an North America, living up to her name.

Tim-Oi is one of those people who went about quietly, following her call and serving her God and her people. The mental image that I have of her, however, isn't one where she's dressed in priestly clothes behind an altar but rather as a small, ordinary-looking woman, walking past the backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rubble, going either to church or a home where her priestly words and touch were needed. It must have been a terrifying time, a single woman in a city surrounded by forces at war, yet she had the confidence that God was present and the strength of her call to duty was unshakable.

Tim-Oi shook the ground of the Anglican Communion simply by following where God led her. Her bishop was condemned by the Communion for the precipitous action of ordaining a woman without full approval of that body. Her quiet perseverance and  witness helped to change minds and hearts to the acceptance of women as not only deacons but priests, bishops and archbishops. It isn't universal yet, but the movement is in that direction. I am sure Tim-Oi is smiling with each ordination.

I see Tim-Oi as a prime example of strength in humility. She gave up functioning as a priest because she did not want her vocation to be a stumbling block for others until they could come to the realization that God called both men and women to service in that capacity. To think of one's own actions in light of what it might mean to others and then acting on those actions, even if it causes one's heart to break, is an act of both  courage and humility, two great characteristics of Tim-Oi's life and ministry.

Those who say one person can't make a difference can look to Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was, in her quiet way, a symbol of doing what God called her to do, not with rousing speeches or great public appearances, but rather a quiet light shining through darkness and tradition. Her humility should serve as a lesson to all of us that greatness doesn't come with pride, self-confidence, and fame. Jesus taught that the humble would be exalted and the those who exalted themselves would be humbled(Matt. 23:12). If that is true, and if Jesus taught it, it must be true. Tim-Oi is  undoubtedly very close to the throne of God and welcomed as a Much Beloved daughter not only of her father but also her Father.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 24, 2015,

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Love Song

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
   Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
   nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
   and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
   and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.’

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
   who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
   and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
   and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
   and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
   and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
   and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
   nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
   and besides me there is no saviour.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
   when there was no strange god among you;
   and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
   there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
   I work and who can hinder it? -- Isaiah 43:1-13

The baby was hardly laid in his manger when the stores were already putting up "50% OFF ALL CHRISTMAS ITEMS" and shoveling red boxes of candy, hearts, plump cherubs and the like onto the recently vacated shelves. It wasn't even Christmas Day yet, but joy and reverence had to make way for the sensuous (not to mention erotic) and romantic gifts for Valentine's Day. By the time December 26th rolled around, the stores were announcing romance in the air, fragrances to make her swoon and diamonds for a truly spectacular gift.

We love love. Well, a lot of us do. There's something about love and being in love that makes everything better, even when the world is turning to lumps that dung beetles push around. The assurance that we are loved by someone helps make life richer and fuller, even if it is only for a few minutes. The snow may still be on the ground, but love and spring are in the air and all seems like budding branches and chirping birds.

We love love songs. Dancing with a beloved to a tune that emphasizes romance makes time almost stand still. It seems to have been that way for millennia. It's been said that the world changed to a more modern point of view when troubadours stopped writing love songs to the Blessed Virgin and started writing them for the fair ladies at court. They still write love songs to the Virgin, but the concept of courtly love has rather disappeared in favor of gratification and, sometimes, exploitation, neither of which is what we'd call "love."

Isaiah seems to have captured a love song straight from God. It is as song about what God has done for God's own people, not just the ones in Israel but from the far corners of the earth. God has ransomed them and redeemed them, God loves them and no one can change that. God doesn't need red hearts and boxes of chocolates, not when God has given us glorious sunsets, ocean waves, verdant forests, colorful canyons, fluffy kittens breaching whales, and all the wonderful and marvelous things of this world created for us to enjoy.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the God we read about in the Hebrew Bible, the God who wasn't afraid to wipe out almost an entire world, leaving only a boatload of survivors, or who slaughtered the first-born of Egypt, whether animal or human, is the same God who loves us enough to forgive us before we ask and to want a relationship with us even if we aren't aware of it. "...[Y]ou are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you." I wonder why we so seldom hear that verse. Maybe if we heard or read it more, it would sink in and, if it sunk in, perhaps it would give us the confidence and inspiration to practice loving God's other children, no matter who or where they are.

A baby in a manger is a far greater sign of love than a bunch of chubby cherubs with bows and arrows, yet we rush past the one to get to the others. Even in churches who celebrate Christmas for the full twelve days of the season are often short-changed by culture that demands that Christmas carols stop by Christmas Day's end if not sooner. We speak and hear of love throughout the year, but sometimes it's a shallow kind of love, a self-gratifying kind that serves our purpose but can leave our partner somewhat out in the cold. That baby in the manger was an incarnation of pure love, a love that didn't come with silver spoons and expensive cribs and carriages, and didn't come to palatial homes in gated communities. The baby came to ordinary people in a less than optimal situation, but who drew angels, shepherds and even magi to his side.

The power of love is a strong magnet, and nothing draws people like someone who loves. Look at Mother Teresa. She often had doubts about her faith but she continued to love and that love drew both the sick and the healthy to her. Pope Francis is another of those, as is +Desmond Tutu. Children know who loves them and who doesn't; remember the children around Jesus when the disciples tried to shoo them away?  They felt the love and it drew them in. It's no different for adults either.

There's a month to go before Valentine's Day is replaced by Easter bunnies, more kinds of chocolate and baskets of goodies. What if, in that month, we practice a different kind of love than one that is dependent on fancy cards, roses, and frilly lingerie. What if we find someone that really needs to feel loved and offer them some of the love we have stored up and have been afraid to give away. A cup of coffee, a sandwich, a bottle of water, an inexpensive blanket -- all those can be signs of love. Call a friend we haven't talked to in a while, send a note thanking an old schoolteacher, priest or mentor who has helped us along the way but who we never really thanked. It doesn't require a life-long commitment, just a few words or a gesture or two, but it can make someone's day.

The best way to get love is to give it away. Jesus is a great example of that. Skip the cherubs -- go straight to God who loves us all 24/7/365 and even 366.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 17, 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prophets and the Proximity of God

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
   following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
   to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
   and offering incense on bricks;
who sit inside tombs,
   and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
   with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
who say, ‘Keep to yourself,
   do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
   a fire that burns all day long.
See, it is written before me:
   I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their laps
iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they offered incense on the mountains
   and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
   full payment for their actions.
Thus says the Lord:
As the wine is found in the cluster,
   and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
   for there is a blessing in it’,
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
   and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants
from Jacob,
   and from Judah inheritors
of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
   and my servants shall settle there.
-- Isaiah 65:1-9

For lots of folks, opening the morning paper includes checking their daily horoscope, a prediction of what the day or the week holds for them, based on the astrological positioning of stars and planets. It's usually short and often seems a little vague, which is understandable because it has to cover 1/12th of the population. Some will find parts of their horoscope that seem new or unexpected, others won't find anything interesting, exciting or even possible as they read the same thing. Whether they actually believe the horoscope or not, though, many will read them just for the amusement of seeing how close to reality they can be.

Hebrew Bible prophets weren't in the astrology business with a day-to-day short blurb about people's (possible) future. Prophets looked around, saw what was wrong and warned the people of consequences if those wrongs should go unrighted. A lot of prophecy was in the form of poetry, not because the language was pretty or beguiling, but because it could be recited or sung more easily than just prose. Memorization was an important thing to them since they lacked reading skills or books from which they could pull the passages or answers they needed. Memorization is a talent we've pretty much lost in our technological internet-has-all-the-answers age. We no longer need to memorize when all we have to do is Google a question and have it return an answer for us.

God, speaking through Isaiah, told the people that even though they did not seek or call for God, God was there waiting. The people had forgotten God in their search for pleasure, rich living and very possibly what we would consider being spiritual without being religious. Incense was burned on bricks rather than stone altars, meetings held  in secret places for possibly illicit acts, and violations of dietary law were just some of the things God pointed out through Isaiah. But God would not be patient forever; there would be consequences laid square in the laps of those who were guilty. They would not be destroyed although they would be punished, and out of it God would bring good things and plentiful descendants.

We sometimes seem to be of two minds about God in our lives. On the one hand, we see disasters of greater or lesser proportions falling on people and we say, rather glibly, that it must have been God's will. Yet when it comes our turn, we have difficulty making the same claim because, after all, we haven't done anything that was really that bad, really. We forget that God has been there with hands outstretched all along but we've ignored them, preferring to go our own way until we really find ourselves in a mess and then go running to God to make it all better. The sins are not just on an individual basis, however; our corporate sins are worse because we allow things that are wrong and hurtful to others to continue just so we can continue on with our own lives unhindered. There are consequences for that too.

We hear modern prophets telling of global sins that desperately need correction but, like the people in Isaiah's passage, we are too busy with our own gardens, meetings and fine dining. We hear that God is just waiting for us to turn around and reach out, but somehow we never really take it to heart until we need something or we feel we're being punished.

Our modern prophets don't speak in iambic pentameter or even blank verse, yet they speak to us of the world's needs--and our own. They may not mention God's name, but it seems clear that what they say is in line with what God wants for and from us. These prophets speak of peace, care for others, equality of all, and the kinship of all people. Jesus and the prophets spoke of the same things, but somehow we keep missing the message just as Isaiah's audience (and yes, Jesus' too). That's why in each generation, God puts voices to remind us of our responsibilities and our duties, not just to God but to our world and those who live in it.

The kingdom of God will come when we listen and obey. That's the focus of prophecy -- to pay attention to the warnings, to seek the best for all parts of creation, and to remember that God is only as far away as a breath.
And no one, no matter how grievous the sin, is beyond redemption. Now that is very good news indeed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 10, 2015.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ - John 1:29-34

Read any thriller, watch any crime drama, see any crime report on television, and you'll notice that one of the most important components, other than the body, the location and the time, is the eyewitness. An eyewitness can make or break an identification, an alibi, or an entire case. In the case of John the Baptizer, his testimony as to the true identity of a man he said he did not know but who had been revealed to him as the Messiah was called into question. He faced some pretty stiff questioning, but his testimony never wavered. It was a gutsy thing to do but then, it was the job John was born to do..

Eyewitness testimony is usually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in a case, far stronger than "Well, he told me he saw..." or "I heard one of the neighbors say.,," Eyewitness testimony is supposed to be an accurate reporting of a split-second in time. After all, a person sees what they see, right? That they are human beings with brains that interpret what they see and apply the person’s own impression based on a number of factors often clouds the issue. Still, we believe they saw what they report.

Fortunately John the Baptizer wasn't a witness to a crime but rather to an emergence, a kind of second birth, of an adult man who was more than he appeared to be. John had been told to look for a sign and, lo and behold, he saw what he was supposed to see.

The Gospel of John never refers to "miracles," per se, but does go in for "signs and wonders."  The sign was given so that John could be the eyewitness to the world that the one who was the Word present at the beginning of time had now become flesh and who would baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than water. Israel had had messianic hopes dashed before, so skepticism was probably present, but enough interest was sparked for people to listen and decide for themselves.

Whether we call them miracles or signs and wonders, it was eyewitness testimony that spread interest in Jesus' message. John was just the first eyewitness. From there, word passed from person to person, town to town, just like news has always spread.  The testimonies of their lives became a legacy and a model for their descendants' aspirations.

It's probably true that each of us has been an eyewitness to some event over the course of our lives, whether it was in person or via the media. Protest marches, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, September 11th, inspiring speeches, historic handshakes between two representatives whose people have been at war with each other for years, all have given us a glimpse into what will become history-making events and we will each react to the events through the lenses of our own upbringing, experience, education, culture, orientation, and other values.

Often one person stands out from the crowd, like the police and firemen of New York City rushing into places while others  were fleeing. We see acts like those and we wonder what gave them the strength and courage to do what they did. And then we think, as we rerun the scene in our minds, would we have done the same thing? Or would we have been running the other way?
The message of Jesus is that each of us is an eyewitness of what God has done for us. It's our job to live in such a way that those who see us will want to share in what we have.  It's the "love your neighbor" thing, wanting the best for others because we have been given the best for ourselves.

Look around. Where are we eyewitnesses and where are we witnesses? Our actions reflect our beliefs. so maybe just for one day we can look at ourselves objectively and see what kind of testimony we are showing the world. Eyewitnesses will be watching.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 3, 2014.