Monday, December 22, 2014

Living beyond the rules

We know that Joseph was more than a bit concerned about his future with Mary. We know that when she was conceived they were not yet married -- and that the baby wasn't his. We know from the gospel narratives that he considered divorcing her, as was his right under Jewish law. It is immediately clear from these circumstances, that Jesus began his life - even in Mary's womb, in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Perhaps, this is one of the most important lessons we can learn from our retelling of the stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah. Not only in his teaching, but even in the pattern of his birth, Jesus showed us that life is often difficult and fraught with danger. It may even collide with the conventions of polite society. One thing that characterized the life and teachings of Jesus from the very beginning is that simply following the rules never leads to true righteousness.  Throughout the gospels we often find Jesus on the "other side" of the rules.

We might want to object to this idea. We may say that the Holy Family was special because of their special mission and vocation-- and that the rules don't apply to them -- that their case was miraculous and so does not compare with our own. And so it was. BUT the purpose of God's miracles in our midst is always to show us something about the way God works in the world. None of us is the blessed Mary nor the righteous Joseph. But by showing us these people in the proper context of their world, a difficult one as ours is in its own way, holy scripture challenges us to live up to the miracles that we see in their pages. This is how the "spirit" of Christmas becomes real.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Greetings and Change

The Christmas cards have started to arrive en masse. Many of them are beautiful religious scenes, often copies of great works of art, medieval illuminations, and, of course, stained glass. Some are depictions of those ideal Christmases of Victorian times -- sleighs in the woods, gas lamps, carolers. Almost all of them hearken back to an earlier time when things were "simpler," "more pure," "less complicated."

Yet, all we need to remember is that "A Christmas Carol" (the classic short story by Charles Dickens, describes Christmas in less naive ways: workhouses, families stricken by poverty and disease) reminds us that it was never really simpler, more pure, or less complicated.

Our longing for "back in the day" is, in some ways, an escape from the present difficulty. No matter how much we dress them up in bows and glitter, the institutions (ways of life) for which we long will not magically transport us from those difficulties. We deceive ourselves for a few moments but ultimately have to return to the fact that we still face disease, poverty, inequality, racism, unconscious bias, reliance on force and fear. This story is as old as the original Christmas story itself.

Jesus came into a world plagued with poverty, inequality, and disease. The story of his birth makes no mistake about that . . . and his ministry focused precisely in these elements of the human condition. He came to proclaim that the world into which he was born need not be a place filled with unnecessary human suffering. What we need to do is to trust in God and God's loving plan for humanity.

This trust cannot be based on naive yearnings, however. That is clearly the message of John the Baptizer. That trust is born of true repentance, metanoia, a change in direction that can occur only with a deep change of heart.

And so we come full circle to the pile of seasons greetings on our sideboard. Each one of these actually represents the potential for an incremental move toward that kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. If we send those greetings in sincerity and truth and not out of mere habit, tradition, or worse, obligation, then each one represents on opportunity to realize the change of heart required for the kingdom of God to take root.

That was the transformation wrought in Dickens' tale. The greetings that were given in earnest by passersby and by family and friends to old Scrooge were finally heeded . . . and a heart was changed . . a metanoia occurred . . . a heart hardened against the grace of God melted in love and became human again -- just as human as the Christ Child.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thank God for Differentness

"O Loving God, whose will it is that everyone should come to you and be saved: We bless your holy Name for your servants Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle whose labors with and for those who are deaf we commemorate today, and we pray that you will continually move your Church to respond in love to the needs of all people; through Jesus Christ, who opened the ears of the deaf, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

O happy day! it is a day for rejoicing and thanksgiving in my family as the Church celebrates Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Sile. You see, my husband's niece, Danielle, has been deaf since infancy. She is now a young professional woman living and teaching in Austin, Texas. She entered higher education and completed her B.A. at Gallaudet University, the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. We are all so proud.

And we are thankful. Thankful for the insight of Gallaudet and Syle, both priests of the Episcopal Church, who understood that what was seen in their day as an obstacle to full participation in church and society was not designed by God as an obstacle but as a blessing. Syle, a protege of Gallaudet, was nearly denied admission to holy orders because of this prejudice. The late 19th century was not a friendly place to people with "disabilities" or "handicaps." Individuals that exhibited these kinds of "differentness" were thought to be less than others. It was only because of a deep spiritual conviction of people like Gallaudet and Syle that Christ lives fully in all persons that our society finally began to see differentness as "other giftedness."

Some might say that it's all about being P.C. Well, it's not. Gallaudet and Syle understood that both from their personal experience and from their zealous pursuit of the respect and dignity owed to every human being (see the Baptismal Covenant, BCP 305). Creating safe spaces for education and personal and spiritual development was their passion and their life's work. And I, for one, rejoice deeply in it and give thanks for their giftedness.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fan or Follower?

Fans can be loyal. I know. I am a native of Western New York where loyalty to the Buffalo Bills is a badge of honor to many. T-shirts and sweatshirts can be found in every department store from August through January. Team logos adorn doors, lawns, autos and even heads, especially in the Southtowns, the southern suburbs that are home to the Bills' stadium. 

Even though fans can be loyal, they can also be fickle. When the Bills were riding high in the mid-90s and won four consecutive American Conference Championships and a spot in the Super Bowl, everyone was a fan. But when things took a downturn, shirt and fan paraphernalia sales dropped considerably. Fans are ready to pounce on any general manager or coach who, in their estimation, trades players unwisely or picks the wrong game strategy. 

Back home you will notice that since they've had several losing or mediocre seasons in a row, only the most loyal still wear their logos with pride and with hope that this year will be better. These latter are not fans. They are followers.

Jesus had fans, too. In the gospel stories, crowds gather to hear him speak and watch in amazement as he works his miracles.  Jerusalem gave him a hero's welcome when he arrived only a few days before Passover. But like fair weather fans in many major league cities, their loyalty went only so far.

Jesus' fans found him to be an attractive personality and an engaging speaker. He had a way of confounding his opponents that delighted audiences. He spoke in a way that touched minds and hearts as no one else had. There was a growing conviction that this son of a day worker might be just what they needed to throw off the oppression of the Romans. 

But his fans were loyal only to a point. In Luke 4:22, for example, they marveled "at the words that came from his mouth." But when he proclaimed himself to be the Messiah and told the people the truth about themselves, they turned on him. Many found him "too much for them." They left Jesus and returned to their former way of life. In the end, after the hero's welcome in Jerusalem, the same crowds called for his death on the cross. 

Some of his fans got it, though. They, too, we're attracted by Jesus -- by what he said and did. And they didn't really understand his mission. But as they listened more closely and struggled to understand more intensely, when Jesus' gaze of love touched them at a deeper level, they left everything and followed him. Yes, most deserted him for a while in those dark days . . . But they returned and were rewarded not only with sight of him risen from the death but were blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We need to ask ourselves: "Are we fans or followers?" 

If we regard Jesus as an attractive leader who offered sound teaching and not much more, then we are still only fans. And we are fickle fans when we desert the faith and the Church (Christ's Body) when it is in crisis or when it's leadership makes an unpopular decision. Still more so if we simply pick and choose from among the Lord's teachings those that happen to suit us. 

Yet we become followers, disciple, when we listen to and embrace the Gospel: Christ is the testimony that God loves the world and will give anything to save it. That same Christ lives and is at our side every day to enlighten, to strengthen, and to set us free.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The spiritual life - hard and boring

Growing in the spiritual life is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in place of the things that this undertaking requires. In a time when instant gratification or quick results are highly valued, the long, slow process of growth fails to impress those of us who have grown increasingly impatient.

Who among us finds that our year old computer or smart phone is suddenly inadequate to the task because it doesn't respond to our command instantaneously (as it once did). When we think about it, the things with which we have grown impatient used to take a very long time, even in our own experience -- we have just gotten used to more and more immediate results.

Regrettably, the growth process cannot be rushed. Just try tugging on a sapling to make it grow faster -- it just does't work. The reality is that growth is dull . . . and the work involved can sometimes be boring. There is always some overwhelming fatigue to be dealt with, always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights.

On the other hand, spiritual growth simply does not happen. The ground needs to be tilled, the seed planted, the seedling fertilized. But it all takes time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

QUIET! - The Swan Library

Every now and again, I treat myself to a bit of nostalgia, that sentimental yearning for a happier state of affairs in the past. Today's treat focuses on The Swan Library -- the public library located in my hometown of Albion. It used to be housed in an old house - a mansion by my humble standards -- with creaky wood floors, filled cheek-by-jowl with cases loaded with books categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System. The "reading room" was adjacent to the librarians desk and comprised what used to be the house's parlor and dining rooms, the separating wall having been removed.

I don't recall if there was a sign with the word QUIET! emblazoned above the librarian's desk, although there could be since that was the overwhelming memory of that place -- it's quietness even though the silence was often interrupted by the squeaking floors and people moved through. There was a distinction between silence (the absence of sound) and quiet (the state of being calm).

Silence and calm are clearly related. Without a modicum of silence it becomes difficult if not impossible to experience quiet or calm. That's where the nostalgia comes in.

In today's libraries, there is programming, not just reading, leading to activity and chatter. Readers, especially younger students, glean their texts while attached to headphones in turn attached to iPods (you can always hear what they are listening to). And computer stations for public use -- necessary and valuable -- but a constant source of distraction.

The experience of silence that leads to the experience of calm and then to quiet is missing in so much of our lives. It seems an insatiable need to be connected, with the latest news, information, and sports, to be entertained, or simply to chat/text leaves us with little real space for silence. And without that space, the quiet we need to hear and to heed the voice of the divine deep within us slowly disappears.

We live with what a kind of "noise pollution" that makes finding real silence a great burden. Many say that we do not have the time we need to think or to pray but actually what we lack is the quiet we need to go about our thinking. Until we can carve out a little bit of silence for ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly, we will find it increasingly difficult either to know God or ourselves very well.

Short of returning to the days of The Swan Library, each of us needs to disconnect, tune out, and turn off just a bit each day, so that the voice of the divine within us can manifest itself in the "still small voice," which is the voice of God.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What seed will you sow, today?

It looks simply like a bunch of fresh garden lettuce . . . but it is so much more.

This bunch of lettuce was delivered to Mother Hubbard's Cupboard (the food outreach ministry of the Jubilee Center at St. Mark's) by a kind woman who wanted to share some of the bounty of her garden with those who benefit from The Cupboard's work.

The back story is what is important though. This lettuce grew from seed planted by this generous woman in her backyard garden. The seed grew and grew and yielded a bountiful harvest, which now she wants to share with others. All because when she was down and out and didn't know where else to turn, St. Mark's was able to help her with food.

She was fed then, she said, not so much by the actual food packets she received but by the humaneness and generosity of spirit of the volunteers who care for her. Additionally, the volunteers who listened to her story were able to put her in touch with other service providers to help her with her many other needs at the time. Her visit with Mother Hubbard's Cupboard empowered her not only to get by but to move forward.

"He set another parable before them, saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lidge in its branches.'" (Matthew 13: 31-32)

A seed was planted and now we have the harvest. Not simply the seed of a lettuce plant but the seed of God's generous love has born its fruit in the generous self-giving of someone who once was without.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Supreme Law . . .

When I studied canon law both in seminary and in graduate school, I was always intrigued by the section of the Code of Canon Law entitled “Sanctions” or more commonly, “Penalties.” What place did a list of penalties for “offenses” have within a community that professed the forgiving love of Christ?

Didn’t Christ die to forgive our sins? If God forgive so readily, shouldn’t we do as much? Why do we have to have a list of penalties?

Perhaps the answer lies in the underlying value of that section of the law. The principle is best summarized at the end of the 1917 Code of Canon Law in a phrase that ends the entire code: “salus animarum, suprema lex” – the supreme law is the salvation of souls. St. Paul understood this in his letter to the Romans: “So what are we going to say? That the Law is sin? Absolutely not! But I wouldn’t have known sin except through the Law.  (Rom 7:7, CEB)

Perhaps we have become a bit too permissive with the gracious forgiveness of God. Plenty for all – no sin too great etc. etc. etc. Perhaps it has led not so much to actual permissiveness but a willingness to accept an abdication of responsibility for our actions. After all, no rational being commits a truly evil act – or so we seem now to believe. There is a true distinction between right and wrong, between good and evil. This is the plain teaching of Scripture and, indeed , is the focus of Paul’s discourse in Romans. It is the law that teaches us this distinction. It draws the line over which we transgress, and when we transgress, it dictates the consequences for all to know. The trick is to learn about “the line” and to begin to understand when we have, in fact, crossed over.

The law, however, in any forum, is not to be applied indiscriminately. If the salvation of souls is indeed the supreme law, it is incumbent upon those who exercise authority to do everything in their power to bring individuals and communities into that spiritual maturity wherein the law no longer has great purpose. Penalties can never be seen as ends in and of themselves. They are serious tools that are meant to move us toward health (salus). They are never meant in the divine plan as a means to destroy. We need the law – not as a raison d’etre but as a means to learn the ways of God.  

This, in turn, should lead us to ask some fairly weighty questions about things like mandatory sentencing guidelines, treatment of minors as adults, capital punishment and the like. Mind you, I am simply saying we need to ask some questions -- and hash out some answers in light of the Gospel. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

With singleness of heart as thy servants and for the common good . . .

That it may please thee the inspire is, in our several callings, to do thy work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good  . . . (The Great Litany, BCP p. 151)

On November 5, 2009, a mass murder took place at For Hood, near Killeen, Texas. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist, fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others.
Since that dark November day, so many other acts of violence have plagued our land, Sandy Hook, the Navy Yard, school killings too numerous to mention here.

But the 2009 Fort Hood shootings have a particularly cruel irony: a man sworn to do no harm as a physician became a mass murderer.  I wonder if this doctor, whose calling went so terribly astray might himself have been saved – along with the many that were killed and maimed – if he had found the blessing of supportive and honest friends, who could have helped him see the truth, rather than the ideological fanatics by whom he was so deeply influenced, people who located all evil in their common enemy. How things might have been different if he had somehow gained a sense of himself as an individual, apart from this group and its expectations.  I wish that it had been so. I with a heart that passionate and devoted could have spent itself into old age, serving Allah in peace, with the education and skill that were God’s gracious gifts to him, instead of bringing premature death on innocent people through a murderous blaze of hatred and death.

So many of the other perpetrators are, after the fact, described as loners, as people who cut themselves off from others. These are at the extremes, but I wish that all of us had the support we need, the blunt honesty of a caring friend when we need it, the private space for the family and marital and personal intimacies we need. I pray for this, for you and for me. I work for it in my life, and hope that you will, too.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Rector's Easter Message

Many years ago, I was engaged in a program that taught catechists (Sunday school teachers) how best to understand how and what they taught their students. In the course of one class discussion, Tom, a middle-aged gentleman, lamented that catechism classes used to be simple. Students memorized the answers to various questions so that when queried by the bishop at their confirmation, they would know the accepted answer.  Familiar with this complaint, I asked the class of adults a simple question: “What is a sacrament?” They looked sheepish and puzzled wondering what answer would be acceptable to me, their mentor. Finally, I said to them, “C’mon! You know the answer . . . a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ . . . .” They all smiled, breathed a sigh of relief, and felt vindicated in their complaint. But then, I asked another question, “All right, now what does that mean?”
Therein is the tough thing about Easter. When asked about Easter, we are eager to repeat what we may have learned: it is the day when we celebrate Christ’s rising from the dead.  Yet the challenge for us is always the next question, “But what does that mean?”
How would you describe the meaning of Easter to a group of young and eager faces? To questioning teens? To adults for which memorized answers no longer suffice?
I think we all approach Easter like the first disciples, in a spirit of confusion and near disbelief.  At first, those who were closest to Jesus failed to understand the meaning behind this glorious miracle. Only later, with the coming of the Spirit of Wisdom and Knowledge, the Spirit of Understanding and Fear of the Lord, did they begin truly to piece it all together.  So, too, we need to piece things together anew – to discover the power and impact of the Resurrection in our individual and communal lives all over again.
So . . . what does it mean for you to share in the risen life of our Savior? What did Christ’s triumph over sin and death do for us here and now? No complex theological answers allowed! Take some time this Eastertide to look at our lives and discover what is different about us because we have been redeemed “by the blood of the Lamb” and invited to share the life of the Risen One.
A tall order, this. For now, though, let us simply bask in the light and rest in the joy that comes to us because of Easter. Let us rejoice in the message that “He is risen. He is risen, indeed!” 
“Be not afraid, the one for whom you look is not here. He is risen and has gone ahead of you . . . “
Let us rise and go to find him with open and joyful hearts.
With every wish for a truly joyous Easter, I remain
The Rev’d Dr. David Alan Zwifka

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The best way out is always through

"The best way out is always through."
                                       -- Robert Frost

While the quote is Robert Frost, the focus is on Christ. Recall the garden of Gethsemane. "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." We can relate. A long, difficult road may lay before us -- a relationship that is breaking down -- a diagnosis of dementia in a loved one -- a terminal disease -- loss of a career because of "down-sizing". All of it is somehow connected with dread expressed by Jesus as he clearly saw his fate that Thursday evening so long ago.

We can pray earnestly with him, "Let this cup pass from me." Yet, our entreaties seem unanswered . . . or are they. 

Perhaps the answer isn't one we really want to here. We would prefer to hear, "OK. Forget about it," but it seldom if ever happens that way. Rather the dread deepens, the difficulties, struggles, and suffering become more poignant to the point when we think we, like Jesus, are sweating blood. Yet, even as the situation progresses, are prayers are being answered. 

"The best way out is always through."

If the cup of suffering had passed from Jesus, there would have been no resurrection, no definitive event to mark God's ultimate triumph over sin and death. 

"The best way out is always through."

Each time we face extraordinary difficulties, we are challenged in a way similar to Jesus in the garden. We are tempted to beg God to take away the difficulty, make it easier, lighter, or non-existent. But if our prayers were answered, we would not find out how strong we are in God's grace. We would not discover the spirit at work in the healing of our hearts. We would not discover the immense support of family and friends when time are hard. 

Jesus' dread was deep and complete. It was about giving up his life. He understands fully the suffering and dread of human beings. Confident of that understanding, we face our suffering knowing full well that we have an Advocate that is always near us to give us strength and lead us to peace. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hosanna! Son of David

Palm Sunday is quick upon us. In many churches worship begins with a retelling of the entrance of Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. In this “triumphal” procession he is acclaimed as the Son of David, a term that clearly means, King of the Jews.

The liturgy of the day, however, quickly turns its attention away from such effusive affirmations and toward the rather somber remembrance of the Lord’s passion and death. Was Jesus still a king? That’s a question only we can answer.

What kind of king are you looking for?

Traditionally, kings were seen as an embodiment of the people over which they ruled. Thus, an attack on the king was an attack on the people. In the Scriptural portrayal, this embodiment is a two way street: when the king turns from God, the people often pay the price, and, when the people turn from God, their king suffers.

In Jesus day, the title, Son of David, clearly aligned Jesus with the first dynastic king of Israel. David, the mythic king, was far from perfect but was always seen as favored of God. Thus, someone truly of David’s line, would bring prosperity and victory over oppressors. Perhaps this is the kind of king the folk of Jerusalem saw riding in on an ass. However, circumstances proved otherwise. Jesus was the king who suffered not because of his own wrongdoing but because of the waywardness of God’s people – a people who valued power and wealth and political freedom over matters of the heart and matters of true justice.

The year of Jubilee proclaimed by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry fell woefully short of its promise at the end. For all of his work and teaching, society remained much unchanged and, perhaps, even more recalcitrant than when he started. He proved not to be the king of “power and might” as was his father David, but the king of inward change . . . a king of hearts and minds.

What kind of king are you looking for?

Is the king we look for the one who will vindicate us or is the king we look for the servant king that accomplishes change by the sheer force of example? Is the king we search for one that will bring us prosperity or is this king a king of service and justice?

What kind of king are you looking for?
How shall we answer as our Holy Week begins?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Worship - A Life or Death Matter

As part of our Lenten program, I have the good fortune to host a Bible study series using the Morehouse “Embracing series”. This program features renowned Scripture scholar and preacher, Walter Bruggemann and focuses on the prophets and contemporary culture.

In the first segment, Bruggemann states that for the prophets, worship is a life or death matter. He observes that through the centuries, we have “narcoticized” our liturgies removing any sense of provocation.

“Life or death matter.” What would happen in our congregations if we actually treated our worship in that way. Not in the sense that every rubric must be followed precisely (although that’s not a bad idea) but that we begin to worship like there is something genuinely at stake. The way most Chrsitan churches worship today, observers may experience our worship and quickly conclude, “There’s nothing important going on here. We’ll just go through the motions one more time.”

To worship in this manner requires us to realize that we are as much enslaved to the culture in which we live as the Israelites were enslave to Pharaoh. What is at stake in our worship is the liberation of a people. God calls us to a continuing critique of our lives, the culture in which we live them, and our response to the transformative love of Christ.

“What difference does it make?” Is our worship like being on narcotics or, as Annie Dillard says, a true understanding of Christian worship would urge us to wear crash helmets!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sometimes Life Just Sucks

. . . and we have to deal with it.  That may have been something the prophet Jeremiah said. Jeremiah truly had a hard time of it. 

Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah the priest, most likely had a fairly happy childhood. As part of a respected family, he probably experienced deference and a comfortable living. However, as he grew and came to experience a prophetic call, this life would become a fond memory, worth of nostalgic longing.  Perhaps, it was because he had this positive experience and lost it in the course of his faithful ministry, his lamentations over the decline and defeat of Israel became even more profound. His diatribes against the infidelity of Judah as they turned once again to the worship of idols are strong and clearly stinging indictments. In fact, they may seem at times to be downright vitriolic. This brought many of the naysayers among his listeners to plot against him and even to bring physical harm and maybe even death. Even his priestly kin were drawn in. And when God assures Jeremiah that he will be protected, God tells him in essence, "If you think it's bad now, just wait!"

When you’re feeling like Jeremiah, you might have the urge to lash out at someone, even if they had nothing to do with your feelings. Here are some ideas that might stop you from blowing up and help you get to a happier place.
  • Get informed. Once you figure out what might be causing you to feel badly, you can do something about it. Many resources exist to help you find information on tons of different issues, including depression, family and relationships. Look for suggestions on how to manage your feelings and where you can get help.
  • Talk to someone. Talking to someone you feel comfortable with, like a friend, teacher, parent or counselor, can be a great way of expressing your feelings. These people might also be able to help you identify why you are feeling bad and work out strategies for dealing with it.
  • Chill out. Sometimes getting some space away from what is making you feel this way or a change of scenery can be helpful. This might include going for a walk or listening to your favorite music, reading a book, going to the movies, or whatever works for you.
  • Express your feelings. Writing down your feelings or keeping a journal can be a great way of understanding your current emotions in a particular situation. It can also help you come up with alternative solutions to problems. Express your feelings in a way that won’t cause bodily damage to yourself or another person.  Try yelling or crying into a pillow, dancing around the room to loud music or punching a pillow. I often turn on some dramatic classical music and conduct the orchestra with all the might I can muster.
  • Get creative. Find things to do to distract yourself from feeling bad and that get you thinking creatively. This can include drawing a picture, writing a poem, or playing a game. Even though you might not feel like it at first, even a little creativity might be enough to shift your mood.
  • Take care of yourself. Feeling bad may be your body telling you it needs to take time out, and pushing yourself physically might just make things worse. Take time out to spoil yourself by doing something that you usually enjoy. Even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help. Getting plenty of sleep is important, too.
  • Reconnect with God. More often than not, we find that these bad feelings can get overwhelming when we drift away from our relationship with God. As bad as things got for Jeremiah, his connection to God was the means by which he saw his way clear. 
I can't say with any confidence that any of these things would have made Jeremiah feel better about his plight. I can say that they have worked for me and have helped me overcome some very dark days.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The By-stander Effect

Faith Rowold recently reflected on a phenomenon that social psychologists describe as the "by-stander effect": the more people around a situation that requires action, the less likely anyone is to actually respond. Researchers seek reasons why this happens but it might be reduced to simply thinking that "someone else will do it."

Someone else will give the guy on the corner something to eat. Someone else will organize the yard sale for the parish. Someone else will visit the lonely looking lady that sits in the back pew.

But Scripture call us out by asking, "Why are you waiting to show mercy? Why are you waiting to lend a helping hand?

How often do we think that help will come from some other external source? When we do that, we forget the simple truth that we are literally the "body" of Christ: we are God's hands on earth. Only through us can God show others that they are loved by the God who loves us.

Christ has no body but yours,No hands, no feet on earth but yours,Yours are the eyes with which he looksCompassion on this world,Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,Yours are the eyes, you are his body.Christ has no body now but yours,No hands, no feet on earth but yours,Yours are the eyes with which he lookscompassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
                               --Theresa of Avila

Monday, March 10, 2014

New Clothes

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12)

It is significant to note that every one of the graces here mentioned by St. Paul have to do with relationships between people. There is no mention of gifts like cleverness or diligence. Not that these are not also important in the Christian disciple's life, but the great values that govern a Christian's life are those that govern human relationships -- Christianity is first and foremost community. 

Compassion. If the ancient world needed anything, it was compassion. It is no wonder that this value was at the very heart of Jesus' teaching. In that world, the sufferings of animals meant nothing. The sick and maimed were pushed to the margin and sometimes even exiled. The feeble were treated poorly. 

Kindness. The word Paul uses here describes the kind if virtue practiced by an individual whose neighbors good was as important one's own. Call to mind the parable of "The Good Samaritan." It is the same word that Jesus used when he described his yoke as easy (Matthew 11:30). Too often goodness taken by itself can be a stern thing. But kindness is the kind of goodness that has been mellowed by compassion.

Humility. It has been said that humility was a virtue created by Christianity. In the ancient world, humility always had a touch of servility to it. To be humble was to recognize that one was "less than." In the gospel way, humility is not a cringing cowering thing. Rather, it is based on the awareness that human beings are creations of God, made in God's image and likeness. Secondly, it is based on the belief that all human beings are the children of God. There is no room for arrogance when we are living among men and women who share a bloodline that is shared with the Son of the Most High God.

Meekness. Aristotle taught that the person who possessed this virtue was the person who lived the happy mean between too much and too little anger. For Paul, this is the person who exercises an appropriate level of self-control: always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time, an individual who simultaneously exercises strength and the sweetness of true gentleness.

Finally, Patience. This is the spirit that sees foolishness and seeming unteachability and never reaches to cynicism or despair. Insults and ill treatment never drive it to bitterness or wrath. It is a human reflection of that divine quality that gives us the confidence that God is always ready to withstand our shortcomings and failings and offer forgiveness at every turn.

These are the garments of Christian grace at work in our lives. These are the clothes we put on at baptism and which, during this holy season of Lent, we seek to rediscover and renew.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"He raises up the lowly"

At Ash Wednesday Vespers, we traditionally recited the Song of Mary (Magnificat). Each time this canticle comes my way I am increasingly convinced of God's purposes in "raising up the lowly."

It's way too easy simply to apply this concept to the maiden of Nazareth and leave it at that. However, Scripture repeated tells the story of how God calls the outsiders, those whom the world has marginalized, to play a significant role in the salvation of the world. As far back as Sarah (a barren elder woman) who bears a child of promise (Isaac), Ruth (the foreigner) who mothers the Davidic dynasty, Moses (the adopted Egyptian) who led Israel to freedom from oppression. Among these, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth, conceived out of wedlock, who consorted with prostitutes, tax collects, and heals the lame and the blind (who were thought to be cursed by God because of sin).

Abagail Nelson said it well: "For those who have been consistently ignored, marginalized and even forgotten by the world, the idea that God might choose the lowly to be heard, to be noticed, to be preferred is something that bursts into reality like a gift, a possibility for transformation." (ERD Lenten Meditations 2014)

With that said, consider the directions of American political society over the last three decades where the poor are again pushed to the margins, where the foreigner is castigated and denied opportunity for civic redemption, where those who seek to speak truth to power are named as traitors to "the American way."

Nelson concludes, "God does not choose the poor in order for them to remain quiescent in there secret preferred state. Scripture instead shows us that the Samaritan, the prostitutes, the exiled are called to act out God's love in faith in the world, and in so doing, become the leaders we all want."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

We All Have Choices

People are capable of doing an awful lot when they have no choice and I had no choice. Courage is when you have choices.
-- Terry Anderson
Lent is a time to remind us that we have choices. 

It seems that more and more today, we hear how our lives are somehow determined . . . . by nature and/or nurture. New defense strategies in trials of individuals alleged to have committed horrific crimes range from the now infamous "Twinkie Defense" to more believable determinisms that arise from physical and mental abuse as children. 
Some of these may indeed be valid. However, our wholesale acceptance that we are not individually or communal responsible for the evil that we commit is based in an increasing abdication of responsibility. 

Flip Wilson's comic line from the 1960s, "The devil made me do it" is a more simplistic way of looking at it. Indeed, the devil (however we may conceive of him/her) may in fact be at the root of the problem, BUT we can never forget that the me in the equation is free to turn away from evil and toward God or the good. 

This takes courage. 

In a self-deprecating way, Terry Anderson reminds us of this important truth. Anderson is actually a hero. He could have chosen to turn his mind and heart toward his captors but he did not. He held firm to his identity and to his purpose in life. In this way, he maintained himself as a discrete individual capable of the freedom to choose. 

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent that follows, is a continual reminder to us and to the world in which we live as disciples of Christ that we are free -- free to choose the path, the way of life -- or to let our lives be determined by forces that seek not to upbuild but to destroy. 

This season, heed the voice of the Lord as he calls us to reconnect with the source of life. Truly, in our world, this will take courage. Just remember, courage is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit and is ours simply for the asking. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Money Makes the World Go 'Round

"Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go 'round"

Lyrics from the award winning musical "Cabaret" speak a truth that most of us would prefer not to recognize. Many of us would prefer to think that love makes the world go 'round, or at least some similarly "noble" value.  But the plain truth is that it is money: not the dollar or the yen or the Deutschmark, or the pound, but the notion that somewhere, we have a store of power that can change our lives and the lives of those we encounter for good or ill. In the words of the Clinton campaign committee, "It's the economy, stupid!"

This is a fact.

Even Jesus recognizes the same.

I think that is why Jesus spoke so frequently about money and our attitudes toward it.

Let's look at ourselves for a moment. For most people, truth-telling about their monetary worth is a taboo subject. In my own family, it has been considered rude to ask about "how much someone is worth." Even more so, we were trained not to give a direct answer to such questions like, "How much did you pay for that house/car/suit . . .?" much less answer a question like how much is in the bank or in one's paycheck.  This all despite the fact that most of this information is easily accessible if someone really wants to know. For example, my salary is a matter of public record for the parish (annual meeting must approved the budget); the value of our home is available on websites like; and anyone who purchases a car, or a suit, for that matter, knows the ballpark figure of how much it is worth.

What strikes me about all this is the relationship between generosity and truth-telling.  It seems that we guard our financial secrets so that others will not know whether or not we are authentically generous. The gospel calls us to a preferential option for the poor (or another way, solidarity with the poor), so to admit that I may not actually be poor may call into question just how generous I have been with what I have. By extension, we may see how the Church falls short of its gospel call when we add up all that it owns, has and provides for. If we are totally transparent about money in the Church, we may end up seeing that we nearly miss answering the call to a preference for poverty. We have so often seen the call to poverty as an ideal - as something ascribed to those capable of sainthood - rather than as something that each and every believer is called to live. It would do us well to tell some truths about what we have and what we think we control so that we can honestly respond to the needs of the poor, whom we will "have with us always."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Is it wrong to criticize?

Is it wrong for Christians to criticize? How often we have heard or have said ourselves, "Don't judge." It's as if using our critical faculties (the ability to observe and assess) is not friendly to the Christian Way. I don't think this is the case. A friend recently shared with me the following quote:
"Many Western Buddhists believe that judging runs counter to insight and unconditional compassion, that passing judgment automatically implies a troubling duality, a delusional moral hierarchy. The Buddha, however, warned not against judging, but against being judgmental. The former implies clear comprehension of appropriate action and the latter implies bias and misconception."
--Mary Talbot, “No Justice, No Peace"
This is a really helpful distinction. In studying Paul's first letter to the Church in Corinth in which he is most critical of the believers there, I found that he had a unique and similar approach. Before he upbraids the believers for their shortcomings, he makes sure they understand who(se) they are. As believers baptized into Christ, he intimates that it is not their spirit that is false. Rather, it is their failures that are untrue. He tells them essentially not that they have failed to measure up to an ideal that they have yet to attain, but that they are not fulfilling the character with which they have already been gifted. In other words, they are not failing to attain something outside of themselves, but that they are not exploiting what already exists inside them-life in Christ Jesus. 
In this way, Paul sets for us an example: that godly, Christian critique (criticism) must always take the form of an exhortation to fully receive what we have already been given! (Alan Gregory)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blessing begets blessing

Increasingly, we live in an age that finds it hard to trust. Cynical and unsure, suspicious and pessimistic, unable to enjoy the gifts we have when they are right in front of our eyes, we vote reluctantly or not at all, despair of our political choices (“They’re all crooks anyway”), assume the moral bankruptcy of every institution on our society (“Government does not have a problem, government is the problem”). Facts don’t seem to matter; weird conspiracy theories emerge at every turn. We live in an age that finds it easy to suspect and increasingly difficult to trust.

That is not just too bad. It creates an environment where faith becomes more and more difficult. The spiritual life is all about trust. We grown spiritually when we trust in God and not by covering our flank and greeting every new opportunity with suspicion and mistrust. We simply don’t grow when we think that way. Rather, we shrink from a full and active life.

The abundant healing of Christ readily washes over us but only the heart that is open can avail itself of it. Those who have open hearts know how possible life seems when one dares to believe and acts on that faith. It is the at the root of a confident life.

It becomes, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy – this trust. The more I trust in the goodness of God and its action in my world, the more evidence I have for it and I am able to see more opportunities for its impact. It is this way that I become one who builds up rather than one who tears down.

This is how blessing begets blessing in the economy of God.