Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A True Story



I went to see “McFarland” Saturday night since I already had my sermon done.  “McFarland” is the true story of something of a misfit coach who ends up teaching PE in a high school where most of the students are the children of migrant farm workers.  He sees something extraordinary in these young people, namely their ability to persevere and adapt.  And he forms them into a cross country team, leading them in their first year to win the California State High School championship.  I recommend it to you. 
 
It is a great story, made even more interesting because it is “true.”  I say true reservedly because I’m sure Hollywood took some dramatic license, but the fact that the details may not be precisely correct does not in any way lessen that the story being told is true in the deepest sense.  “McFarland” a story about human beings caring for one another, about the struggles of poverty, about believing in those around you, and most of all, about believing in yourself.  It has an element of self-sacrifice.  There is obvious love.  There is welcome for the stranger.  There is risk taking.  There is hope.  There is overcoming the odds.  And, of course, there is resurrection. 

It was one of those rare movies when people clapped at the end.  No one wanted it to be over.  Everyone cheered the triumph of the human spirit.

So, I left thinking, we’ve got a pretty good story, too.  It is a story of liberation and freedom.  It is a story of courage.  It is a story of weakness confronting power.  Like “McFarland,” it is a story with no small amount of self-sacrifice, love, welcome, hope, and perseverance.  It, too, is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.  It is, by all means, a story of resurrection.

So, I asked myself, why aren’t we telling this amazing story we have in a way that makes people stand up and cheer?  Why is it that we can’t get people into our “theater” to hear the story, let alone never want to leave?  Do we need to get slicker, I wondered; maybe take some artistic license with the details. 

And then I made a visitation yesterday to Good Shepherd in the Bronx.  A few years ago, Good Shepherd would have been doing good to have 20 people on a Sunday.  Yesterday there were nearly 250.  And here’s the amazing thing.  They wouldn’t leave.  The liturgy itself lasted nearly two hours.  The announcements at the end went on a good half hour.  And then there was lunch.  It was for the bishop’s visitation I assumed.  Nope.  They do it every Sunday.  It’s a McFarland story.

But here’s the main thing, I think.  McFarland, you’ll remember is a true story, taking liberties with details notwithstanding.  I wonder if the real difference in Hollywood and the Church has something to do with whether we believe the story we’re telling is true.  Do we really believe, as Exodus says, that God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery?  Do we really believe it is true that Jesus faced death out of love for us?  Do we really believe it is true that God delivered Jesus from the grave?  Do we really believe it is true that a ragtag and somewhat inept group of Galilean fishermen set out to change the world out of love and had the perseverance to succeed?  Is it our lack of confidence in the truth of our own story that causes people not to want to stand up and cheer and never want to leave and not something that is wrong with the story itself?

And that’s what brings me back to Good Shepherd.  I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I think what’s going on there has something to do with a congregation that believes the story they have to tell is true.  I know it’s not a perfect congregation, but I know they’re doing something quite right.  Whatever they’re doing right, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with a “McFarland” approach.  It has to do with telling a true story.  And knowing it.
Peace,

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trading Survival for Life

During the bishop search process in Lexington, Ginger and I visited several different churches and diocesan ministries.  One of the places we visited was St. Andrew’s Church in Lexington, an African American congregation with a proud history just down the street from the Cathedral.  A small group had gathered in the undercroft to meet the candidates.  There were maybe six or seven people.  Most were women.  All were (how best to put this?) of mature years. 
The conversation was not very upbeat.  They talked about how the congregation was aging and there wouldn’t be any more children to be had and how they, therefore, couldn’t possibly grow.  I expected someone to say, “Will the last person to die please turn out the lights.” 
I listened to what they said and thought about it.  And then I asked one of them, the one who seemed the most pessimistic and also the oldest, but also the ringleader, “Mrs. Smallwood, haven’t you ever heard the story of Sarah?” 
Mrs. Smallwood thought a minute.  Then she started to chuckle, and finally she said, “Yes, I know about Sarah.  But you’re not Abraham.”
A few years later I visited St. Andrew’s.  They gave me a present.  It was two framed photographs of all the children in the congregation.  And there were lots of them.  St. Andrew’s is, for me, a place about hope. 
I know that I am not Abraham.  I also know that whatever happened at St. Andrew’s had nothing to do with me.  But I am sure that the story of St. Andrew’s and all the children one will find there on a Sunday morning now has everything to do with some choices the people of St. Andrew’s made along the way about how they would live.   
Not too long after that first visit, one of the lay leaders of St. Andrew’s had an idea.  It must have seemed like an outrageous idea at first.  It was that that small congregation of mainly older people could take on the ministry of refugee resettlement.  I would not have been surprised if they just thought it was too ridiculous to try.  Instead they worked with Episcopal Migration Ministries and they began to become involved with Congolese refugees.
They helped prepare places for them to live.  They helped with finding jobs.  And they invited the Congolese to church.  They didn’t insist, of course, or link what they were doing to church attendance.  They just invited.
And for those Congolese who accepted the invitation, they provided transportation on Sunday and to other church events.  It wasn’t at all easy for this fairly small group of aging Episcopalians.  Faithfulness rarely is.
And the Congolese had a gift of their own for St. Andrew’s.  They brought a new culture and a new language.  And they brought their children.  St. Andrew’s began to have children again, the first time in many years.  The people of St. Andrew’s remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah.
But it was not the only thing from the Bible they remembered, I think.  I think they also remembered the words of Jesus from today’s gospel:   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk. 8:35).  Somehow, the ministry of refugee resettlement offered them to stop worrying about their own survival and instead to find life.  They put their anxiety about what would happen as they aged aside and decided to identify with some of the least in their community, those who had fled from persecution in their homeland and had nothing at all.  And the more the people of St. Andrew’s devoted themselves to the people of the Congo, the more they all thrived.  Life returned, and it returned abundantly, bringing the children with it. 
What they had done was take a risk with survival in order to find life.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  (v.36)
Peace,

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Yellow Raincoat

Like most children, I suppose, I had a high priority to be like everyone else when I was little.  My parents were not sympathetic. The symbol for me became my raincoat.  My mother bought me an all-weather coat, which made me look, well, like a smaller version of my dad and made me stand out like a sore thumb around all the other kids.  All the other kids had a standard kid raincoat—the slick yellow rubbery kind. 
One year I put my foot down.  I was going to have a yellow raincoat like everyone else or die.  My mother finally relented. 
I wore it to school with great pride the first day it threatened to rain.  It was like I had had a nerd inoculation over the summer.  I arrived at school and hung it up with great relief that I no longer stood out.  I was sure my social problems were over!
At some point during the day it started to rain; not just light rain, a deluge.  It was a Noah-like flood.  Now I was not worried about the rain.  My mother never failed to pick me up when it rained.  I knew she would come get me. 
The final bell rang.  I put on my yellow raincoat, and I went out to the car pool lane.  My mom, however, was not there.  I was surprised, but I started to walk home.  New raincoat or not, I was getting soaked.
I hadn’t gone far when, sure enough, my mom drove by.  She was going very slowly and peering out the window.  I waved.  She did not stop.  She headed on toward school.  I kept heading home, now mildly annoyed.
I looked back over my shoulder.  She was making another pass, driving slowly, clearly looking for me.  I waved my arms in the air like someone lost at sea trying to catch the rescue plane’s attention.  Once again, she did not stop.  She just drove on by.  I was way beyond annoyed at that point, and when I finally walked in the door, soaking wet, I let her know about it.
“I came looking for you,” she explained. 
“I know.  I waved and waved and you didn’t stop.”
“I looked and looked,” she responded.  “But I couldn’t tell which one you were.  Everyone looked alike in their yellow raincoats.”
Now, to this day I’m not absolutely sure whether or not she couldn’t tell which one I was and didn’t stop or she did see me waving and decided to teach me a lesson.  Same difference, I suppose. 
In the waters of Baptism, Jesus is proclaimed to be who he is, which is hardly being like everyone else.  A voice from heaven announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11).  Baptism is about becoming who we are, who we really are, who we uniquely are. 
That’s why Baptism involves water, I think.  It’s so we can decide whether we’re going to put on a yellow raincoat like everyone else or face the consequences of being the individual we were made to be.  If we choose the latter, one of the things we’re going to have to face is standing out in a crowd, as immaturely uncomfortable as that might be.
Peace,

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Valentine’s Day

I may have grown up as a Methodist, but it was only many years later as an adult that I became acquainted with Wesleyans.  Not Methodists, Wesleyans.  One of Ginger’s grandmothers and some of her relatives were Wesleyans.  There was a strong little Wesleyan church in Whitmire, the little town in South Carolina where Ginger grew up.  Wesleyans are a small denomination, but you can find Wesleyans around in other places.  Upstate New York is a stronghold for them. 
As one of those “sophisticated” and somewhat self-impressed Episcopalians, the Wesleyans always seemed to me, shall we say, quaint.  They are a rather conservative group.  They tend toward the modest and simple.  They are a bit conflicted about instrumental music in church.   They dress plainly.  Women do not wear makeup and generally opt for long skirts or dresses, certainly covering the knee, even when that isn’t the fashion trend.  Wesleyans do not paint a picture of worldly attractiveness.  There isn’t very much romantic about being a Wesleyan. 
My perception of Wesleyans, and of romance, changed when I got to know Jimmy King, a leader of the Whitmire Wesleyan church and a distant relative of Ginger’s.  I got to know Jimmy many years ago when Ginger and I were visiting her grandmother in the nursing home.  I noticed that Jimmy was there every single time we were ever there.  I later learned, not from Jimmy of course, that Jimmy was at the nursing home every day.  He came to visit his wife, Eula Mae. 
Eula Mae had Alzheimer’s.  She had long since ceased to know who Jimmy was.  Still, Jimmy went to feed Eula Mae her lunch every day.  Every single day.  It did not matter that Eula Mae did not know who Jimmy was anymore.  It is just that that is what love means.   
Now, the nursing home is not what we typically think of as a romantic place.  Lunch at the nursing home, after all, is not breakfast at Tiffany’s.  The former, though, is an icon of what love is about, love in the sense Jesus meant it, agape.  Romance comes and romance goes.  Love does not.  In biblical language, it abides.  Love is what is left when romance is something that can no longer be remembered.
This is not much how the world understands love these days.  We associate it more with beauty than constancy, more with glamour than faithfulness, more with pleasure than service, more with self-gratification than with devotion to other, more with passion in the hormonal sense than passion in the Christ-like sense.  I associate it with Jimmy and Eula Mae King. 
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Peace,

Monday, February 2, 2015

Waiting and Confidence


One of the things that amazes me about New Yorkers is how good they are at waiting.  They wait at the bus stop and subway platform.  They wait for hours on the Thanksgiving Day Parade to come (I’ve done that one).  They wait in a sea of people to see the decorated department store windows at Christmas (I’ve done that one, too).  They wait for the dropping of the New Year’s Ball (not that one).  They wait in line (I cannot bring myself to say, as they do, “on line”) to buy theatre tickets.  They wait in line for special exhibits at the museum.  They wait in line to get coffee and a bagel.  They wait in line to go ice skating (although there is a way out of this particular line with cash).  They wait in line to wait in line.  They never seem to get flustered.

Isaiah tells us that “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” (40:31).  I must admit it doesn’t sound right to me.  I’m not good at waiting.  At all.  I had occasion last week to be waiting with Ginger to see a doctor.  I waited and I waited and I waited.  Hours.  And then I lost my cool.  I finally put my foot down and insisted (maybe demanded) on somebody paying attention.  And they did. 
Waiting seems to work for New Yorkers.  For me, not so much.  So what’s the difference? 

I take it as a spiritual failing of mine to think it’s up to me to make things happen.  When I wait, I wait with no expectation that the waiting will ever come to an end unless I do something about it.  New Yorkers wait with more confidence.  Confidence that the waiting will yield the desired outcome results in patience I suppose.  Maybe what my waiting lacks is confidence.  Perhaps my patience would be enhanced by cultivating confidence in others.

On the other hand, come to think of it, my waiting on the doctor last week resulted in a certain strength of its own, maybe precisely because of a lack of confidence.  Sometimes, after all, a lack of confidence is entirely justified.  It’s just that New York would cease to function if New Yorkers didn’t generally have it. 
I suppose Isaiah is right.  Those who wait renew their strength.  My strength, at least, seems to get a boost from a lack of patience.  Maybe one day I’ll mature to having more confidence instead.
Peace,

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

France suffered a horrible atrocity two weeks ago.  Eleven staffers of a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, were systematically executed in a terrorist attack.  There is no excuse.  There is no understandable rationale.  The motive was revenge for the satirical portrayal of the prophet Mohammed.  As to the facts of the crime, the motive is quite irrelevant.  It was simply a mass murder by cowards.  End of story.
In response people all over France and indeed all over the world proclaimed their solidarity with these words—Je suis Charlie.  I am Charlie.  And as to the act of terrorism we have a moral obligation to stand with them.  Je suis Charlie.  The Church must stand against murder regardless of motive.  Nothing that Charlie Hebdo ever published justified this crime carried out in the name of religion.  Murder is a desecration of the image of God.  Murder in the name of God is a profound blasphemy.  Murder is murder.  No one bears responsibility for it except the murderers and their accomplices.
And while the satirical portrayal of Islam in no way shifts responsibility for what happened from the murderers to the victims, neither do the murders give justification for mocking what some people hold most dear because it is religious.  We protect the right to freedom of expression, even in the form of the mocking of religions.  That there is a right, however, is not the same thing as being right.
It is fashionable in our day to make fun of religion.  Indeed, we quite often deserve it.  I can think of many things in the Church that would justify satire.  Making fun of my own religions is one thing.  Making fun of someone else’s is quite another thing. 
For Episcopalians, indeed for Christians generally, to do so breaches a fundamental tenet of faith, to respect the dignity of every human being.  And religion goes very much to the core of human dignity, at least as the religious understand it.  That is something we must take not only seriously but faithfully. 
I have a moral responsibility to stand in solidarity with the victims of a terrorist crime in Paris.  Je suis Charlie.  But I also cannot condemn the murders at Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago without also acknowledging that I must stand against all affronts to human dignity, including those affronts that are aimed at demeaning what other human beings hold most dear.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is religious does not make it right.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is something I do not understand does not make it right.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is something with which I disagree does not make it right. 
That is all the more true in a secular world in which faith is seen as reason for ridicule.  That is all the more true in a culture in which one religion, Islam, takes the brunt of the ridicule for all of us who are religious.  I must proclaim my solidarity with the objects of ridicule, too.  And as to that, Je ne suis pas Charlie.  Je suis musulman.  I am not Charlie.  I am Muslim.
Peace,

Monday, January 5, 2015

It Matters a Great Deal


Like many of us, today is my first day back after the Christmas break.  I love coming to work, but for some reason, I have been having a hard time getting back into the swing of it this year.  I had a hard time getting up this morning.  The walk to the station seemed especially cold today.  I dreaded getting on a subway, facing the crowds, and seeing the kiosks at Bryant Park empty and in some state of disassembly.  I lacked any inspiration of what I might share with you on this first day back of a new year. 

I hung up my coat, turned on my office lights, and got some coffee.  As I came back in my office door, my eyes spotted the Christmas cards that had arrived during December.  I had stood them up along my bookshelf to remember those who had sent them and the glad tidings of the season.  Christmas was over.  They certainly didn’t matter anymore.  Time for them to go, I thought, more in recognition of my mood than that Christmastide still has two days to go.  So I walked beside the bookshelf, scooping each one up, and with a tinge of regret, I unceremoniously discarded them in the trash. 

Then I sat down at my desk and stared at a blank screen not having any idea what to say.
It had only been a minute, if that long, when I received an email from Francis, a priest in Kenya.  He is someone I have never met in person, but to whom I feel a strong bond.  He was introduced to me two years ago by a mutual friend, another priest in Kenya, whom I do know well, because Francis’ daughter Marion was very sick with a brain tumor.  Since then Francis and I have been in close contact.

He has let me know how Marion was doing in her school (receiving honors, designated head girl), and he has let me know when he had to go and bring her home because she was in too much pain to concentrate.  There have been trips to the local hospital in Eldoret, Kenya and a distant hospital in Kampala, Uganda for more advanced treatment.  There have been times things looked like they were getting better and times they looked like they were getting worse.  The doctors seemed baffled, or at least Francis was.  On occasion I have been able to help with some of the bills, which have stretched the family financially.

We have talked about other aspects of Francis’ life, too.  Francis has reminded me that my fundamental vocation is as a pastor, and now, a pastor to priests.  He has shared family challenges as well as great pride and joy at his other child’s academic progress.  I have never been to Kenya and I have never met Francis, Marion, or their family.  Still, Francis has reminded me of the strength of the bonds of baptism across many miles and across barriers of entirely human, even Christian, construction.  I am so grateful to him.

Last week Marion had to go back to the hospital in Eldoret.  More debilitating pain.  I began to wonder if it might be possible to bring her to the United States for evaluation and treatment.  I have no doubt that the local medical team is doing all it can, but I also knew I wanted for Marion what I would want for my own child.  Over the weekend I asked Francis to send me some more detailed information, which arrived this morning at 1:31 Eastern time.  Once finishing this reflection, my plan was to forward the information to my doctor and ask her advice about who in New York might be willing to look into this case.

While I was staring into the abyss of a blank screen, another email from Francis arrived.  It was 7:57.  Francis wrote, “Thanks Bishop for all that you did for us but God has rested Marion today.”  I do not know how to express my grief at the death of brave Marion and my sorrow for her parents. 

This is a paradox, but somehow I have remembered why it is I come to work in the morning, and why it is I brave the cold to walk to the subway and get on the train each day.  There is an occasional day when I wonder if it has any point at all.  Today started out to be one of those, which are thankfully rare.  Marion has reminded me in the strangest sort of way that there is indeed a point, no matter how hard it may be to see some days.  Marion has reminded me to keep trying.  Marion has reminded me, in the most inexplicable way, of the nearness of God.  And Marion has reminded me of God’s promise in Christ that as he has been raised from the dead, so will she.  And so will we.

The first thing I did was to get the Christmas cards out of the trash and set them back up on my bookshelf.  It does matter after all.  It matters a great deal.
Peace,