Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ember Days

Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, in your divine providence you have appointed various orders in your Church: Give your grace, we humbly pray, to all who are called to any office or ministry for your people, and so fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you, to the glory of your great Name and for the benefit of your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
The Book of Common Prayer states the Ember Days are traditionally observed on the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays after the First Sunday in Lent, the Day of Pentecost, Holy Cross Day, and December 13. (BCP pg 18) Today being the first Wednesday after Pentecost is therefore an Ember Day. But what does that mean? For an excellent article, see Episcopal Cafe.

The readings for this day are reminders that all ministry in it's "various orders" (bishops, priests, deacons and laity) is about planting seeds. This language is so familiar in the teaching ministry of Jesus, including today's gospel from the fourth chapter of John: "one sows, another reaps." The temptation in ministry (and maybe especially in ordained ministry) is that we all want to reap for that which we did not labor. It makes us look "successful."

It is not surprising for Jesus to use agricultural metaphors, but it is a bit more surprising from St. Paul, who tends to be more classically "theological" in his writings. But in the third chapter of First Corinthians he, too, is talking about how he planted, Apollos watered, God gave the growth. It is a reminder that ministry is not a "lone ranger" enterprise.

We plant seeds. We water seeds that others have planted. Sometimes we get to reap the benefits of the good work others have done before us and enjoy the fruits of their labor. And then we plant some more seeds. Holy work, indeed.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Come, Holy Spirit!

Pentecost is the third great feast day of the liturgical year, after Christmas and Easter. And yet its meaning may seem more elusive to us than those other two feast days. And its observance is definitely a distant third—especially when it happens to fall on Memorial Day weekend.Even so, we gather together to celebrate the sending of God’s Holy Spirit.

In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is suggesting that we encounter God’s Holy Spirit when we encounter the other. Today is the beginning of all of that, but it’s a thread that runs all the way through the rest of Acts, as Jews reach out to centurions, eunuchs and persecutors of the community, who are all baptized to become part of the fold of those who follow Jesus as the Way to God.

All of those people speaking different languages, but hearing in their own native tongues, are in Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of Booths. But this story isn’t just about Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; or even by extension Germans, Spaniards and Japanese. As a metaphor, I think this day reminds us how difficult communication is: and how even people who speak the same “mother tongue” can face challenges in communicating. Sometimes that’s because we come from different generations. Other times it’s because we’re shaped by urban, or suburban, or rural values. Other times it’s because some of us are from Mars and others are from Venus. But no matter how you slice it, communication is hard work! And without communication, community is impossible.

Try putting a group of randomly selected people together to discuss public education. Even when all speak English (more or less) we cannot assume they will hear or understand each other. Many factors will influence that conversation, including the following:
  • whether or not you have children or grandchildren in the system; 
  • whether you prefer the intimacy of smaller learning environments or the opportunities that larger ones afford; 
  •  whether you live in one of the larger towns or one of the more rural ones; 
  •  your own high school experience.
All of these factors (and many I have not named) will come into play before anyone even opens their mouth. Some people will be aware of how these factors influence them and others will be clueless. Some will feel they have a direct line to the truth while others will be more open to the views of others. All of these things, however, impact what each believes and therefore what each one says and how they say it. It also impacts on what they are willing to, or able to, hear.

Now I’ve deliberately picked something nice and easy and non- controversial like the education of our children! But of course this is as true when it comes to electing a president or a bishop as well.  We inhabit different worlds even when we do speak the same language—worlds as different as those from which those gathered in Jerusalem came from.

“Hearing” requires listening and most of us are not particularly good at deep listening, especially when the person we are talking with sees the world very differently than we do. It is not a natural instinct to see “the other” as a gift who can lead us into truth. And yet I think this is exactly what Luke is suggesting in Acts. We tend to see “the other” as a barrier to our getting what we want, or what we think we want. When we fear the other, very often our bodies tense up and that influences both what we say and what we hear. And far too often this is where conflict potentially escalates and authentic communication is hindered. The Pentecost story suggests that “the other” is a gift who helps us to discern a deeper wisdom than we are able to discover on our own.

I don’t think the Pentecost story is just about what happened one day a long time ago in Jerusalem. It’s a story about how the Holy Spirit continues to work even now, so that, by the grace of God sometimes people do listen to and even hear one another—and when that happens, community becomes possible. Nelle Morton, a twentieth-century Christian educator, coined the phrase “hearing another to speech.” That is to suggest that when we really listen to another person, it is not a passive exercise.

The greeting “Namaste” captures what this kind of deep-Spirit listening is about.  Literally it means “I bow to you.” But it also means that I honor the divine spark in you. Do we really believe that about each other? Can we honor the Spirit of God that is in the person whom we initially feels stands in the way of what we want?  The Baptismal Covenant also points to this truth when we promise, with God’s help, that we will respect the dignity of every human being. When we treat others as holy and beloved children of God, there is nothing passive about it. We really do, quite literally, hear the other to speech as we empower one another to speak the truth in love. And where that happens, the Holy Spirit is at work and all are enriched and amazed in the process.

Truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—is never something that any one of us can possess on our own. It requires community and discernment. It requires of us that we be present to the Spirit—and the “us” must always include those who are different. “In Christ,” St. Paul insisted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” On the great questions, one side never possesses the whole truth; and I believe that it is the Spirit that pushes us into acknowledging that hard reality—until we are able to hear one another to speech, each in his or her own native tongue.

When this happens, the Church becomes an icon of what is possible in this world: an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. When we love our neighbor we build up the neighborhood. And that is, I think, at the very heart of what Pentecost is all about—the Church as the Church, showing the world what is possible when the Spirit of God is trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort.

This does not mean there will be no conflict. The rest of Acts is filled with brutal honesty about just how difficult it is to be the Church. Luke wants to make sure that we don’t fall into a false kind of idealism that any of this is easy. Acts is not at all naïve about the work we are called to. But it does insist that with the Holy Spirit, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine becomes possible. The Church is called to be a place where the simple question is asked: “what does God desire here?”  We believe the Spirit is sent to guide us into all truth, and that it is legitimate to ask such a question. That God does care about our decisions and the Spirit lures us toward healthier and wiser decisions.

That doesn’t ensure that we will always get it right. But it does mean that we can work at developing  the practice of looking beyond ourselves for guidance. We listen. We listen to each other and we listen for the Spirit. We embrace a way of life that recognizes that we do not all speak the same language, but through the Spirit we can become more multilingual. We can, with God’s help, become an intentional listening community that practices hearing one another to speech.

Come, holy Spirit, come.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day at 11 o’clock on 11/11/1918—when the peace was signed for the war to end all wars. Unfortunately that soon proved to be premature—and so Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a day when we honor all living veterans. 

Memorial Day’s origins go back further—back to the Civil War when women decorated the graves of their fallen sons and husbands. The roots of a national Memorial Day—a day for remembering those who gave their lives in service to country, goes back to 1866 in Waterloo, New York. 

There are some prayers in The Book of Common Prayer that can help guide us this weekend. I find it helpful whenever I reflect on war to begin by praying for peace. There are prayers on page 815-816 of the Prayerbook "For the Human Family,” “For Peace,” and “For Our Enemies.” It seems to me that as people of faith we begin there, because the best way to honor those who have given their lives in war is to work for peace, for the day when they study war no more. We know that the costs of war are astronomical—not only the incalculable human loss but also because of the financial and emotional resources that are spent on swords rather than on plowshares.

There are prayers on page 820-823 of the Prayerbook for our own nation, for our leaders, for sound government, and for members of the armed forces—as well as for those who suffer for the sake of conscience. I find praying for our leaders is important (whether or not we agree with the administration that currently holds office) because it reminds us that we are one nation, indivisible...

And we can, of course, pray the prayer on page 839 “For Heroic Service,” found below:
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom, and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

John Eliot, Missionary among the Algonquin, 1690

Today we remember the life and ministry of John Eliot. A brief biography can be found by clicking here.

I love the preposition chosen by the editors of Holy Women, Holy Men: we remember John Eliot today not as a missionary to, but among, the Algonquin people. One could develop a whole theology of ministry based on the difference between those two prepositions. 

Eliot was born in 1604 in Hertfordshire, England and educated at Cambridge. His nonconformist views brought him into conflict with the established church and he departed for New England in 1631. Arriving in Boston later that year, he became a pastor in Roxbury, where he became concerned with the welfare of the native populations and learned the Algonquin language. 

Whether it happens instantaneously or after many years of study, it is for me always a Pentecost miracle when someone learns to communicate in another language. I so admire people like John Eliot, who didn’t sit back and wait for the Algonquin to learn the King’s English, but instead got busy learning how to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that would allow them to hear it in her own native tongue. And then, starting with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, he began translating the Bible into Algonquin; from there he moved on to Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew. By 1661, thirty years after he arrived here (and fifty years after that scandalous publication of the King James Bible) his Algonquin New Testament was published, a copy of which he sent to King Charles II. And two years later his translation of the entire Bible was published. A copy of that Bible is located just a few miles from where I live and work, at The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

I think the collect for this feast day is a good one for the Church in our day to be praying. We began by thanking God for the imagination and conviction of John Eliot, who brought both literacy and the Bible to the Algonquin people, and who reshaped their communities into fellowships of Christ to serve God and to give God praise. We could all use a double-share of imagination and conviction in the Church today, couldn’t we?  Great Creator, source of mercy…give us some of that imagination and conviction that you gave John Eliot!

And may God give to us (as God gave to John Eliot) a desire to share the Good News with others in their own native tongues. Sometimes that may mean simply learning to speak to a new generation that hasn’t a clue what words like "narthex" or "tippet" mean. And to labor for mutual understanding and trust, as we continue to shape and reshape the communities where we live and work into fellowships that serve God and give God praise. 

May these words be prayed not only on our lips, but through our lives and the work that we have been given to do.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

One in Christ

In the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus, our great high priest, is praying on our behalf to the Father. In the fifth century, Clement of Alexandria began referring as this chapter as “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.”

One of the key aspects of this prayer is about how we as Christians are called to relate to the world. It’s tempting sometimes to think that a holy spirituality would be completely disengaged from the world. But the Christian goal is not Gnosticism. As Christians we are called to enter more deeply into this world, with all of its necessary complexities and ambiguities at best; and its temptations and idols at worst. 

And so Jesus prays that we might be protected—that we might be kept safe as we engage the world. We are called, with God’s help, to live the Baptismal Covenant by becoming salt and light and yeast for the sake of God's good, but broken, creation. Wherever we go: school, work, play—we are called to remember who we are and whose we are: and to live as God’s beloved people, marked and claimed and sealed as Christ’s own forever.

The challenge comes for us in discerning what faithfulness looks like in a complicated world. What behaviors make us uniquely Christian—in but not of this world? Roman Catholic bishops won’t necessarily agree with Episcopalians on what this looks like. (And for that matter they may not even agree with Roman Catholic nuns on what this looks like.)  In trying to live into Jesus’ prayer, then, conflicts and competing Christian visions are sure to arise within the community. 

For this reason, Jesus goes on to pray that we might be one, as he and the Father are one. This prayer is a kind of mantra for ecumenists. In fact at most ecumenical gatherings it seems like this is the text that gets chosen, this one line from this high priestly prayer that seems to speak directly to Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists and Lutherans and evangelicals: Jesus, our great high priest, asking the Father that we might be one, as he and the Father are one.

Before Vatican II—that is before 1963 and the events that eventually led to the birth of the ecumenical movement—people were shaped by some pretty strong prejudices. Roman Catholics and Protestants did not walk into each others' church buildings, even for weddings or baptisms or funerals. God forbid your Baptist daughter came home and said she was engaged to marry a good Irish Catholic boy! Obviously this took hold and shaped the prejudices of some of us here, and even many of us who were born after 1963 carry some of these prejudices passed on through our parents and grandparents. 

So what does “being one” mean for us today?  Whether overtly stated or not, what this sometimes means is that we think that unity will come from conformity: when everyone else sees the light we have seen. This takes on various forms but I think it’s always underneath the surface in ecumenical conversations. And when this happens, we tend to enter into ecumenical dialogues with a built-in bias shaped by those old prejudices. We’ll all become one when the others see the foolishness of their ways and admit that we are right.
Of course this kind of thinking isn’t limited to the church. Actually it mimics the very world that Jesus tells us we are not to be shaped by. It mimics the same political and social divisions of our culture: we assume unity will come when everyone else finally agrees with us. If only our Fox News relatives would start getting the truth from MSNBC…or if only our MSNBC relatives would start to get the truth from Fox! What a perfect world it will be when everyone around us just admits that we are right! We can just talk and they can nod, and all will be one…as the Father and Son are one.

Ah, but there is the rub. As the Father, and Son (and the soon-to-arrive Holy Spirit) are one. Jesus compares us, the Church, to the Holy Trinity. But the Trinity is not only about being one; the Trinity is also about three-ness. The Trinity is not only about being the same, but about diversity. Father and Son and Spirit are have different roles, different faces even. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, related to each other by love. So what would it look like for us, as the Church, to be one as they are one? 

A contemporary Irish theologian (Bono) has it just about right, I think, when he sings: 

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other 

I think our unity comes not from conformity of doctrine, or elimination of difference, but in service to each other. In love for one another. The seventeenth chapter of John is set within the same context in which Jesus gets up after supper and takes a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. He tells them that they are his friends and that God loves them all, and he loves them all. And that they need to love one another. 

How are we one? We are one because we get to serve one another. We are one because we get to carry each other. 

I don’t think that Jesus is praying for us to be the same, but rather for us to show the world how we love one another. To be one as the Holy Trinity is one suggests that our diversity is a gift. Like the Trinity (or like a married couple where two are becoming one flesh) distinctive “personhood” is imperative. But each person relates to the other in love. 

 “Being one” means that we celebrate the fact that the Body of Christ is diverse: and having Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Episcopal expressions of the Christian faith is a good thing—a gift. We are many, but we are one as we relate to one another in love. 

We are not the same. But we get to carry each other.