Monday, November 23, 2015

Living Thankfully

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  Yet, I also find it troubling to my spirit.

On the one hand, I rejoice in a day when my attention is focused on my family and those I love without distraction.  I rejoice in cooking turkey and dressing using my grandmother’s recipe.  I rejoice in the relaxed pace.  I rejoice in the sense that, somehow, all is right with the world. 
But I am troubled because I know all is not right with the world.  More troubling still, I know that the standard of living I enjoy is denied to most because of inequitable systems of distribution.  I know the peace I enjoy is denied to many across the world.  I know that the attention I give to family on this day is diverted to the challenge to survive for many families in the world I share with them.
There have been years when I felt guilty about Thanksgiving.  I know that does no one any good, but I can’t help feeling that way sometimes.
The spiritual challenge of Thanksgiving for those of us with so much is first to come to terms with how much we do in fact have.  The second challenge is to get over feeling guilty about it.  And the third challenge is to channel freedom from guilt away from complacency and toward acting constructively to make what we enjoy available to all God’s children. 
The central spiritual challenge of Thanksgiving is to live thankfully, which is to accept that what we have received is what we have been given and not what we have earned.  Beyond that, it is to take what we have been given and give in turn to others.  The spiritual challenge of Thanksgiving is not about guilt about what we have.  It is about what we do with what we have. 
Among the many undeserved blessings for which I am grateful this Thanksgiving are all of you.  Thank you.  I can only hope that I will act thankfully on the great gift you are to me. 
I hope the same for you, a Thanksgiving of acting and living thankfully, of using all you have, of giving all you have. 
Ginger, Annie, and Georgia (the new puppy) join me in wishing you all the happiness that comes, not from what you have, but with how you use what you have.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Intended Casualty

I find myself wondering many things in the days following the terrible attacks in Paris this weekend.  I wonder who would bring a fake Syrian passport to their suicide bombing attack.  Perhaps it was poor planning, but this doesn’t seem like a poorly planned operation to me.  I wonder how a paper document survived a bomb blast that dismembered the body on which it was carried.  Perhaps it was by chance.  This does not seem like group that left things to chance.  I wonder why a terrorist who exploited the refugee crisis to find his way from Syria to France would leave clues to such a useful strategy for smuggling bombers into Western Europe and the United States.  Perhaps it was a mistake.  Perhaps that is the perspective of arrogance of which these very terrorists would accuse us.  I wonder how a terrorist who exploited the refugee crisis and left the evidence that he did so to be found has diverted our attention from the reality that all the other attackers seem to have been present in France and Belgium to begin with.  Perhaps.  I wonder. 
Why is that?  It leads me to wonder about the intended casualties of the Paris attacks.  Could it be that the intended casualties go far beyond the victims in France?
For one, could it be that the intended casualties of the terrorists are the hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men fleeing them in their own homelands?  Could it be that the intended casualties were not the people of Paris but the very people most oppressed already by the same terrorists in Syria and Iraq?  Could it be that the terrorists’ strategy has to do with enlisting the rest of the world as accomplices to their own work of oppression of the innocent?  What I wonder is if the refugees themselves are the intended casualty.
Indeed, we’re already seeing the strategy work.  Presidential candidates have been quick to react in the basest of ways.  Accepting the refugees, one says, is insane.  Another has called for abandoning plans to accept even the minimal number of refugees promised so far.  The media are fanning the flames.  Yesterday the governors of Michigan and Alabama declared that their states will not accept Syrian refugees through the United States refugee resettlement program, a program of which  Episcopal Migration Ministries is an integral part. 
But I wonder if even refugees are the intended casualty.  I wonder if the intended casualty is not the only viable alternative to the terrorists themselves.  With every reactive outcry I hear to abandon our own sense of compassion, I wonder if the intended consequence is decency itself. 
Three of the presidential candidates now calling for an end to Syrian refugee resettlement have made what good Christians they are a campaign issue.  Both the governors of Michigan and Alabama proclaim that they are Christians.  I wonder if the intended casualty is our souls. 
As I have made visits across The Episcopal Church this summer and fall, I have frequently been struck by the enthusiasm of Episcopalians, acting on their faith, to accept Syrian refugees.  I have no doubt this is equally true in other churches.  What I really wonder is if that flood of good will and welcoming the stranger was the actual intended casualty of terror this weekend. 
We have a stark contrast between the terrorist vision and the vision of faith I have seen so often in the last few months.  The contrast has nothing to do with Islam, Christianity, or any other faith.  It does have to do with the difference between faith and ideology, with faith that has a healthy humility and fanaticism that has no sense of the ethical, no sense of decency, no sense of respect for the dignity and humanity of others who differ in whatever way.  It does have to do with the difference between faith that overcomes fear and fear masquerading as faith. 
The corrective, the only corrective, is to be true to our values.  For me they are Christian values, but they are not unique to Christianity.  They are, of course, the values of all people of good will of whatever faith or of no faith.  For me they have to do with the tenets of faith that call for the love of enemies.  For me they have everything to do with the teaching of Jesus, who said,“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  Or what will they give in return for their life?”  (Mt. 16:24-26) 
The main thing I wonder is if the intended casualty of terror is in fact its only possible corrective, its only possible antidote.  What I wonder is if the intended casualty is faith itself.  What I wonder is if the intended casualty is goodness itself.

Monday, November 9, 2015


I enter the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where I live, on my way home from work every day from the entrance at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  As I walk through the gate, immediately in front of me is Synod House.  Synod House was built to house the General Convention of 1913.  In all of its gothic glory, it could quite easily fit within the exhibit hall at a meeting of the General Convention these days.
As I come through the gate I walk directly toward the front door of Synod House with its pointed arches framing two huge wooden doors worn by weather and time.  The arches around the door contain statues of historical figures.  I don’t really know who they all are except the most prominent one in the very center, standing in a stately manner under a gothic canopy in stone with the other figures of kings and princes off to the side. 
The figure in the center is George Washington, who was, of course, an Episcopalian and who played his role in the early history of our Church in the United States.  His statue was placed in the place of greatest honor for that meeting of the General Convention 100 years ago.  It was a statement of history.  It was a statement of legacy. 
Now there’s one other thing about that statue I want to tell you about.  Sitting atop George Washington’s head is a bird’s nest.  It has been there for at least two years now, maybe three.  In its first season, it sheltered a family of birds, mother caring for her eggs and then her babies.  But now it is vacant, abandoned, and useless.  It just sits there decaying.  It is slowly losing its shape.  Some of it has fallen away, but most remains adorning the head of the father of our country. 
One of the things that is curious to me is with all the effort to put George Washington in the central position of honor as a monument to his important legacy, no one has taken the time to remove the bird’s nest from his head.  Something seemed right about that to me when the nest housed the bird family.
And with all due respect to General Washington, something also seems right to me now about the decaying nest sitting on his head, too.  Now, more than was true in 1913 when it was new, Washington’s statue, complete with bird’s nest, says something true about legacy.  The truth is that legacy comes down to an abandoned bird’s nest sitting on your statue’s head.  At least that is what legacy comes down to from the perspective of Jesus in this week’s gospel reading. 
“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.’”  (Mk. 13:1-2)  All of it will pass away.  Washington’s body has passed away.  Washington’s statue is host to a bird’s nest no longer used.  Legacy is in nothing we build.  There is no moment that lasts forever, and even those that last a long time will one day, usually sooner than later, lose their meaning and purpose. 
The only legacy that means anything is love because it is passed on from one generation to the next, from one person to another, from parent to child, from friend to friend.  Stone will not be left upon stone.  Only love lasts.  All else will be thrown down.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Urgency of Fun

Sunday was a glorious day in the life of The Episcopal Church and a particular joy for those of the Missionary Society in attendance.  If you have not already watched Bishop Curry’s sermon, I urge you to do so.  It is a word of hope.  It is a word of love.  And it was a lot of fun.  It was a word that will frame our work together for the next nine years.  It was a word about the Jesus Movement and how we as an institution might serve that movement. 
There is an urgency to the Jesus Movement.  Mark, the first story of the Jesus Movement to be written, uses the word immediately 27 times, almost a third of all the times that word is used in the entire Bible.  It is because there is an urgency to the Jesus Movement.  God has dreams for God’s people, all God’s people, and God is ready for those dreams to become a reality.  There is an urgency to the Jesus Movement.

Jesus himself preached with a sense of urgency.  The time was at hand.  There was no time to waste.   “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’”  (Mk. 9:1)   Maybe the Jesus Movement got off track when it settled in for the long haul, which is an institutional response and not a movement response.  From the perspective of Jesus, there was no time to waste.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  (Mt. 9:37)  Proclaim, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  (Lk. 10:9)  The message of the Jesus Movement is that the kingdom is near.  Now. 

There is a great Jesus Movement hymn (541 in our hymnal).  
Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
by feeblest agents may our God  fulfill
his righteous will.
Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share;
to young and old the gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.
(Words by Jane Laurie Borthwick, 1813-1897)

OK, I might change some of the words of this 19th century Jesus Movement hymn in the 21st century, but I know that Jane Laurie Borthwick knew something about a rapidly changing and uncertain world in which, if one was looking carefully, the kingdom of God was breaking in.  She was a part of the Jesus Movement of her day.  And her sense of urgency speaks to me, and I think to us, two centuries down the road. 
We have been given a great gift, the invitation to help lead the Episcopal version of the Jesus Movement in the 21st century, and we have been entrusted with great resources to do so.  No arm so weak that may do service here.  Claim the high calling angels cannot share.  Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly. The night draws nigh.

Yesterday we had 3,288 days with this Presiding Bishop to continue the work we have been doing.  Today we have 3, 287.  There’s too much fun ahead to waste a single one.  So let’s look at this another way. 
Yesterday was Day 1.  Today is Day 2.  And there will be a Day 3, all the way up to Day 3,288.  And then there will be a Day 1 again.  Bishop Michael set our tone yesterday:  “Don’t worry.  Be happy.”  The urgency of the Jesus Movement is an urgency to have fun.

Monday, October 19, 2015

To Bet the Farm

“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”  (Ps. 126:7)

I’ve been told, although I don’t know it to be true, that the every Palestinian spring is accompanied by an ancient ritual of planting the seed for that year’s crop. The seed saved from the previous year’s harvest is ceremoniously taken from where it has been stored for the winter to the weeping and wailing of the women of the family as the only thing standing between the family and starvation the next winter is gambled on the next harvest.  Then, months later, the ritual is reversed with the joyful ingathering of what the seeds have yielded placed in storage along with the seeds for the next year.  And then the cycle repeats.  It must have been so when the Psalm was first sung. 

Every harvest is preceded by risking of the seed left from the last one.  Only by going out weeping, carrying the seed, can there be a coming with joy, a shouldering of sheaves.  Every harvest, at least in the biblical economy, begins with risking everything.  It is where the expression “to bet the farm” comes from.  It is true with much of the world’s economy today.

It is not so true in what we call the developed world.  And I’m glad for that.  But I do think diversification that minimizes risk also makes something spiritual more difficult to experience.  For Americans, it is largely experienced elsewhere.  And isn’t that why world mission is such a priority?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Shield the Joyous

There is a concluding prayer in Compline I have always loved.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.  (BCP, p. 134)

I love the thought that the church is praying for those who work or watch or weep through the need as well as for those who sleep.  The sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, and the afflicted are never far from the church’s care or God’s.

The last petition, to shield the joyous, has always seemed a bit strange to me.  At first glance it does not seem like the others, which are all some situation of need, sometimes great need.  Shielding the joyous seems different to me.  It has been something I’m not sure I have understood.  Until now.  Now I get it.

My tutor for the need to shield the joyous is our new puppy, a black Labrador Retriever named Georgia (Annie is fine, by the way, although at 14, slowing down).  Georgia is almost nine months old.  We’ve had her since March.  And for many of the days during these seven months, we have thought Georgia was a huge mistake.

As puppies will do, Georgia has unbridled energy and is being cared for by two people without it.  If we don’t make sure she gets the exercise she needs, we pay a high price. We take her to the dog run in the park for self-preservation and a break.

Georgia’s enthusiasm is boundless.  She runs around our living room as if it were her playground, jumping from floor to sofa to chair to floor and then running around behind them all.  Nothing makes her happier than to destroy a newspaper or magazine.  Our apartment looks like a hamster cage.  She has a fondness for Ginger’s clothes (fortunately, not mine so much, except undershirts).  She landed in the doghouse so to speak for eating Ginger’s glasses.  She finds playing keep away to be hilarious fun, taking something she shouldn’t have, often a shoe, and racing around the room while we try to take it back.  We’ve learned to erect barricades so we can trap her.  I may not have her energy, but I’m smarter than she is.  I think.

In all of her exuberance she also a tendency to get into more serious trouble.  It is not uncommon for me to have to pry something potentially harmful out of her mouth.  Somehow in all her bouncing off the walls she injured her ACL.  (The vet prescribed strict rest.  I know you’re kidding, I said.)

There was the day she pulled herself out of her collar while we were on vacation in North Carolina.  It took her a minute to realize what had happened, but when she did, she took advantage of her new-found freedom and ran straight for the road.

Fortunately it is a small town.  I flagged down oncoming traffic so that I could catch her.  People waited patiently in their cars while I chased her from one side of the road to the other.  Finally, I asked one of the drivers to open his back door.  Only then was I able to grab her as she made a break to the getaway car.  Puppies are fast.

No harm done, thanks be to God, but it makes shielding the joyous make sense to me.  Exuberant puppies know nothing of danger.  Excitement knows nothing of being guarded.  Joy does not shield itself.  It’s up to those who love the joyous to do that. 

So now the prayer to shield the joyous makes sense to me.  And the one about giving rest to the weary has fresh meaning, too.  All for the sake of love.  Amen.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Loopholes and Compassion

I once preached what I thought was a really good sermon about marriage.  My basic point was that that commitment had ceased to be a value in our culture. 
So the very next Sunday I was again standing at the church door greeting my congregation.  I woman I thought a lot of came up to me, shook my hand as she always did, and said, “Father, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking a lot about your sermon last week.  And I’ve decided to divorce my husband.”  Now her husband may very well have needed divorcing.  I don’t really know.  Still, it was not exactly the result I was going for.

Divorce, to be sure, is sometimes a necessary evil.  It is sometimes something simply unavoidable.  It is sometimes something that is actually in the best interests of the people involved, particularly when there is abuse of some kind.  Over my years as a priest, I have found myself on occasion encouraging someone to take the necessary steps to protect herself and her children.  I have, on occasion, asked people to stop and both think and pray carefully about what they were doing, although I’ve never tried to tell someone what they should do when it comes to marriage and divorce. 

This week’s gospel reading is Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce.  It is often misunderstood, particularly in two ways.  For one thing, even Jesus does not say divorce is never permissible.  He characterizes it as regrettable and a concession to human hardness of heart.  What Jesus said is that remarriage after divorce is impermissible.  Nor did Jesus say that remarriage after divorce was permissible if one acknowledged fault in the failure of the first marriage.  He just said it was impermissible.  Period. 

Southerners have an expression for this.  This is the point at which Jesus has done gone from preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.   

Given how clearly Jesus spoke, it is amazing, is it not, that I have never heard a sermon preached evil of remarriage.  I’ve heard sermons preached about the evils of a lot of things and about a lot of sexual practices but not once about remarriage.  Remarriage is something we not only allow; we celebrate it. 

Generally speaking, we look at second marriages as a second chance at life and a second chance at love.  Second chances are generally something we think people ought to have.  People do stupid things sometimes.  They ought to have another chance.  People make mistakes.  They ought to have another chance.  People even sometimes end up divorced through no fault of their own.  They ought to have a second chance.  People get hurt by our human tendency to hardness of heart.  They ought to have a second chance.

And doesn’t this have something to do with why I’ve never heard a sermon against remarriage?  The explicit words of Jesus notwithstanding, followers of Jesus, precisely because they are trying to be followers of Jesus, have an immense capacity to seek compassion.  They have an immense capacity to seek mercy.  They have an immense capacity to seek forgiveness.   They have an immense capacity to seek love.  They take seriously that Jesus said, not to give just a second chance, but to give seventy times seven chances.  That is one of the things that makes me want to be a Christian.

The only thing that worries me is when our capacity to seek compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love tends to be greater with respect to our own situations in life than with respect to someone else’s.  We have made an enormous exception to the words of Scripture that have a tendency to benefit ourselves.  I have a hard time seeing Jesus as having a problem with that.  The problem comes when we make an enormous exception to the words of Scripture to benefit ourselves, to give ourselves a loophole in the law, but refuse to do that for others.  And that, my friends, is something I do think Jesus has a problem with—a big problem.