Friday, November 26, 2010

Patience, People!

Thanksgiving is now past and we turn our focus toward Christmas.  In between now and then, in the Church we move through a sacred time called Advent.  In the business of our holiday preparation, though, Advent can be relegated to a few moments around the Advent wreath, which in turn can become just another adornment of the holiday season. 
If we take just a moment, though, we can see Advent for a reminder to sanctify time.  The season’s message focuses on our experiences of preparation and waiting: like the time between discovering one is with child and the advent (coming) of that child at birth; the expectancy and hope that fills a high school student who waits eagerly for advent of a letter of acceptance at college or university; or even the repeated looking out the window when we hear a car park when expecting the advent of a loved one on a journey home.
In our culture of cell phones, microwaves and e-mails, patience is a virtue very much on the decline.  How good are you at waiting?  While many might give lip service to patience as being a virtue, too often people act as if those who wait patiently are misguided or lazy or uncommitted. Who wants to wait? Wouldn’t we rather have fast food, quick service, rapid turn-around and instant results? Don’t we admire the people who just get out there and get the job done - now?
We appreciate the season of Advent for raising that question for us each year and forcing us to acknowledge that we are powerless before the slow, relentless passage of time. We can neither rush the days of Advent nor delay them. They will come and go at their own reliable pace. Christmas is immovable, no matter how we would like to hurry it into existence. Just ask any child who wants to hasten the coming of the day.   At the start of the season of Advent we realize that we MUST take time to prepare and WAIT for the advent of the Savior.  Whether we succeed in undertaking the wait patiently or impatiently says something about our development of the virtue of patience.
But why work to develop the virtue of patience?
If we can learn this lesson in Advent, it is a lesson that can carry over into our faith lives well beyond the season. There may be real virtue in humbly acknowledging that some other aspects of our lives are not subject to our pushing and prodding them to fulfillment too early, either. There inevitably will be occasions when we must wait for a diagnosis, for an apology, for a resolution to a problem, for forgiveness. We can wait impatiently and anxiously. Or we can learn the lessons of Advent and wait patiently and trustingly.
How good are you at waiting? Now is a good time to practice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Clive Staples Lewis

C.S. Lewis
On this day in 1963, (the day more often remembered for the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy) C. S. Lewis died.  An Irish-born British novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist, Lewis was one of the intellectual giants and one of the most thought-provoking and influential Christian writers of the twentieth century. I first read his work as a college student but continue to find insight and inspiration from his articulate view of God's interaction in the world and in our lives.
More recently a new generation has become acquainted with his work through the movie serialization of The Chronicles of Narnia. Among his other enduring works are The Screwtape Letters, and The Space Trilogy.  Close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame), Lewis was a leading figure in the English faculty at Oxford University and in the informal Oxford literary group known as the "Inklings."  
According to his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis had been baptized in the Church of Ireland at birth, but fell away from his faith during his adolescence. Owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, at the age of 32 Lewis returned to Christianity, becoming "a very ordinary layman of the Church of England."  His conversion had a profound effect on his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him great notoriety.
In 1956, he married the American writer Joy Gresham, 17 years his junior, who died only four years later at the age of 45. That relationship is chronicled in a tender movie entitled Shadowlands. The story follows Lewis as he meets an American fan, Joy, whom he befriends and eventually marries. The story deals with his struggle with deep personal pain and grief: Lewis, who once intellectualized that one should endure suffering with patience, soon found that such simple answers no longer applied when his dear Joy became afflicted with and succumbed to cancer.
Lewis' works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularized on stage, TV, radio and cinema.
If you are looking for a great gift for a young, inquiring mind, consider the works of CS Lewis!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Saints and Souls

Saints and Souls
“. . . and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place in the heavens.”
(Book of Common Prayer, “Commemoration of the Dead,” p. 382)
I recently returned from a visit to Buffalo, NY where I visited what little family I have left on my mother’s side – my uncle and aunt, a cousin and my cousins’ children.  During an afternoon conversation with my aunt, I realized that she remains crushed that her younger son, Michael, “passed on” just last May. He was only 55.  I guess I should not have expected anything else since I had gone through that experience with my own mom and dad when my younger brother died thirteen years ago. 
Aunt Sophie could barely speak about Mike without getting teary eyed.  The normally jovial eyes turned deeply sad in a way I had never seen.  Mike suffered debilitating and chronic pain that resulted from an auto accident over 15 years ago.  At the time he died, we consoled ourselves that he was finally free from such suffering and at peace.  But that is really little consolation for those who look for, but cannot find, his face.
Those of us who have lost someone we loved know the emptiness and hopelessness that can sweep over us in the first months of mourning.  The loss carries such pain with it that we wonder if we can go on in this life ourselves, and sometimes we even wish for death to come and take us, too.  We find ourselves fascinated in a painful way with the moment our loved one experienced death, reliving it again and again in our mind, wanting to go back to it.  Maybe hoping we can reverse it. 
For those who mourn, the lost one is frozen in the moment of death and for a while that is all we see.  But that’s not the really true.  Our loved one is not frozen like a statue that covers a crypt – perfect but lifeless.  The one who is loved and lost has passed through death to the other side.  We who remain may be stuck like statues in that terrible moment, but the one who was loved is not.  We may come to glimpse this now and then, and the glimpse itself brings comfort.  Life goes on, for them, as well as for us.  It remains painful to miss them so.  But they live, still.
“ . . . and I believe in the resurrection of the dead.
And the life of the world to come.  AMEN.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

106 Years Later

Photo by Rev. Lisa Schoonmaker
Today marks the 106th anniversary of the consecration of St. Mark’s Church at 21 South Main Street, Lewistown.  The consecration of a church marks an important moment in the life of a faith community since, according to canonical tradition in the Episcopal Church, once a Church is “secured for ownership and use by a Parish,” the community acquires certain rights, privileges and protections.  In recent years, because of some of the divisions that have arisen, church property has become the vehicle by which individuals and institutions “stake their claim” since, in our common culture, property ownership was always seen as a symbol of power.  In America’s earliest history, only property owners were able to vote.  This was gradually extended but the concept of universal suffrage (where all people could exercise this important power of citizenship) came into existence years AFTER St. Mark’s was consecrated!  It is no wonder, then, just who owns and who controls church property has become such a huge issue.

Breaking Bread Together Dinner at St.Mark's Church
It is too easy, then, to forget that the Church proper is more than its holdings, its buildings, its accounts.  The Church is most fundamentally, the Body of Christ, the presence of God within our created world as expressed in the “more perfect union” we form not necessarily as a political nation but as a family in faith.  Secular politics focuses on power – who has it and who does not.  Sacred politics must help us to focus on love – who loves and who is loved.  That all begins with the fundamental principle that every human being is made in the divine image and therefore, deserves the love and respect that we “reserve” for God.
For Episcopalians, to be housed in a consecrated building is a reminder that we are the living stones of Christ’s Church, and that as the building provides us with warmth, shelter and security from the elements of a seemingly cold and heartless world, we must strive to provide that shelter for all would seek refuge. 
We are grateful for the love and support that our walls proclaim from the generations before us.  To meet their expectations, we must continue to make these walls bastions of hope and joy!

Happy day to all our parishioners and friends at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Celebrating a building or a Church?

In the calendar of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, today recalls the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. As Episcopalians, we are rather unaccustomed to celebrating feast days in honor of buildings.  Days like this, however, are usually more than mere anniversaries of historical events. 

St. John Lateran is important to Roman Catholics because it is the Cathedral Church of Rome.  Many people mistake St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church because it is associated with so many papal ceremonies.  But if we look more carefully at ecclesiology (study of the church), St. John Lateran outstrips St. Peter's in importance.  As the Cathedral Church of Rome, it is where the Bishop of Rome presides AS Bishop of Rome, that is, as pope.  The Lateran (as it is often known) is to Roman Catholics as Canterbury Cathedral is to Anglicans.  It is the seat of the prime leader of the communion (with all deference to my Roman catholic friends).  To celebrate the anniversary of its dedication, then, is not merely to recall an historical event (which is interesting in its own right) but to call to mind the unity of the Church that we profess in our creeds ("one, holy catholic and apostolic"). It is an occasion to recall all the things we have in common rather than all the things that divide us.

Perhaps that is the challenge of this celebration to us in the Episcopal Church, and indeed, all Christian people.  When our society seems so divided by so much rancor and insults are hurled at one another like so many stones because we may differ on a point of doctrine or practice, we need to recall that we share one tremendous gift: "the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1.1).  All Christians possess that knowledge and have the capacity to use its power to change (not dominate) the world.   

Scientists that study human genetic make-up tell us that there is so little genetic material that separate us from one another that it can hardly be put into understandable numbers (way less than one-tenth of one percent).  Why then are we so hell bent on fighting about what makes us different rather than celebrating what makes us the same?

Maybe we can look at one another differently if we recognize that the person we are looking at us is almost an exact copy of me.  Maybe we can look at each other differently as Christians when we realize that it is Christ that we have in common and that the Church is our way of celebrating that presence in and among us. By remembering the buildings in which we gather, we put down our differences as we walk the aisle: "Let us go up to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth!" (Ps 43.4).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Richard Hooker and the "Middle Way"

Four hundred ten years ago, one of the most influential voices in what we call the Anglican movement died.  During his prodigious life, Richard Hooker became one of the strongest advocates of the position of the Church of England and defended its "Middle Way" between "Puritanism" and "Papalism."  His most well known work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity resulted from a series of controversial debates and has served as a touchstone for Anglican theology ever since.  Hooker demonstrated that the Anglican way was as deeply rooted in the Scriptures as it was in Tradition and affirmed continuity with the Ecclesia Anglicana (The English Church) but that it was now both catholic and reformed.  

Among other things, Hooker's thought made very clear that while things theological deal with ultimate questions and issues for humanity, it has special relevance for one's manner of life and therefore for the social mission of the Church.  

He argued there were good monarchies and bad ones, good democracies and bad ones, and good church hierarchies and bad ones, what mattered was the holiness of the people. At the same time, Hooker argued that authority was commanded by the Bible and by the traditions of the early church, but authority was something that had to be based on piety and reason rather than automatic investiture. This was because authority had to be obeyed even if it were wrong and needed to be remedied by right reason and the Holy Spirit.

This insight remains a focal point of ministry at St. Mark's.  Since I have had the privilege to be involved in this parish community, I am continually struck not only by the deep spiritual holiness that exists among its members but also the deep dedication to the social well-being of its members and the members of the community-at-large.  In many ways, it is a most healthy balance and accurate reflects a "middle way" -- clearly demonstrating how Christians can remain faithful to the life of the Spirit and not be "so heavenly minded as to be no early good!"

Thank God for Richard Hooker.  Thank God for the people of St. Mark's Church!