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.