Friday, December 6, 2013

Nicholas and Madiba

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, children, and the poor. It has always seemed to me an odd assortment, but the collect (prayer) for this day may discern a connection by adding that fourth group - all who are "tossed by tempests of doubt or grief." Perhaps the connection is found in the word "vulnerability." Children are the most vulnerable members even of our society, and certainly of the ancient world. Sailors, even in the largest of vessels, can be tossed and turned in the tempest of a storm and know well that they are not in control. And of course, the poor are always vulnerable, in every time and place. Not only in all the obvious ways but perhaps worst of all by the scorn and derision of the indolent rich that seeks to make them invisible. If they are invisible, then we who have healthcare and bread don't have to think about their needs, or risk taking the SNAP Challenge.

Perhaps a way into the Church's vocation in our time is to be intentional not about our material and consumer giving - it is so easy at this time of year to be consumed by our desire for more - but rather to become givers as God is the great Giver, and as Nicholas bore witness to. To give freely of ourselves to those who are vulnerable, to live for the sake of those who are most at risk.

Nelson Mandela lived like that. Of all the tributes I've seen so far (and they have been legion) I was personally most struck by the quote attributed to Mandela about "a good head and a good heart." Sometimes in the Church, I find people have the very best of intentions and a huge heart for God and neighbor. But they do not always have the discipline to think through the unintended consequences of their choices and decisions."Meaning well" is not always enough.

Conversely, there are those who are so bright, yet seemingly heartless. I think of the resurgence (especially among the right-wing intelligentsia) of the near-worship of Ayn Rand, who said, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." The philosophy that shapes Atlas Shrugged seemed to me even as an egocentric college student, to be filled with the worst kind of half-truths. Yes, we need to be true to ourselves - yes we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help the child we may be traveling with.

But we do put on the mask in order to do just that, don't we - to love and serve the child, the poor, the vulnerable? Nicholas of Myra and Madiba of Johannesburg connected head and heart, and what a formidable combination! To see the other, especially the vulnerable ones in our midst, is to recognize, as Mandela put it, that to be free "is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

It has been said of St. Francis of Assisi, that he is, of all the saints, "the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated." It is clear on this Feast of St. Nicholas that Mandela lived in a way that made him very popular and admired. But perhaps we pay our respects to him best by being intentional about following his example, by living lives and making choices that respect and enhance the freedom of others.

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