Sunday, November 30, 2008

The time of the deep blue indigo sky: Advent

Welcome to the season of Advent, the time of the deep blue indigo sky just before the dawn, the time of waiting for the One who comes, the Christ who is to dwell with us. This is the season to stop and look at the spectacle of creation all around you.

You may notice at St. Paul’s we are beginning to display blue for Advent, not purple.

Blue is a very old traditional color for Advent, the color marking the four weeks leading to Christmas. Blue has been used for Advent at Salisbury Cathedral in England since the 11th century. No one is quite sure why this blue came to be used at Salisbury – some think it is the color of Mary, and that is probably as plausible an explanation as any, and others say it is “royal” blue – the color of Norman kings.

The color is called “Salisbury Blue,” or “Sarum Blue” – Sarum is the Latin name for Salisbury. And the blue spread from Salisbury and beyond.

I like to think of this blue as the color of the sky just before the dawn, as the stars shimmer before the sun rises. To me, the blue symbolizes the hope of Advent – the time of waiting for the birth of Christ’s promise of hope and healing into our world.

The color marks a subtle but important distinction between Advent and Lent, the time before Easter, the season of purple. Lent is a time of confession and penitence and looking inward for the God within us. Advent, the time before Christmas, is a time of looking outward for the God around us. The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive – yes we should be looking inward for the God within us. Consider this more a degree of emphasis, just as purple and blue are related colors.

Looking outward for God’s presence is at the core of Advent. Be awake – it is almost dawn before a new day. You don’t have to travel far to find what you seek. Look around you – look for the dawn of Christ’s light in all you do, in all whom you meet, and everywhere you go. What you seek is right in front of you.

The name “Emmanuel” means God is already dwelling with us – and this God comes to us, living with us as a human being, Jesus, to show us that death has no power over us.

It may look like night now, but it is the time of the blue indigo sky, the time before the dawn, the time of Advent. We live in a troubled world, and it is sometimes difficult to see that the dawn is near.

I am reminded of the words of a great Jewish poet, Yehuda Amichai, who saw much tragedy and conflict in his lifetime. He wrote: “Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.” That is at the heart of Advent.

Under the night sky, a happiness is hiding, the outbreak of God’s grace into our dark and difficult world. A light will soon shine, a great happiness is hiding: Jesus comes into this world to show us that salvation is ours right now, right here, we don’t have to wait to find what we seek. He comes to show us a way to live without fear, in the here and now.

Yet we need to sharpen our eyes to see the dawn.

How to sharpen our eyes? I would like to invite us this Advent to enter a time of radical welcome to those in our midst who are new or in great need. Let’s go out of our way this Advent to be kind to each other, and to help those who are in the greatest of need. Let’s take a few risks.

That is why we are doing special in-gatherings in Advent, beginning next week with toys our children will bring to church to give away. The week after that, Dec. 7, we are asking you bring blankets, hats and underwear in unopened packages for the homeless who are served by PACEM. On Dec, 21, bring food for the food closet for the poorest in our community.

My prayer for each of us this Advent is that we will be awake for God’s amazing grace everywhere we go, and in everything we do, and in everyone we meet, and that we will see God’s blessing in how we live and act. It is Advent, the time before the dawn, the time of the deep blue sky. The One who walks among us as the Christ is with us, blesses each of us, and fills the world with love and grace and salvation. Be awake!

Friday, November 28, 2008

What is more generous than a window?

The Patience of Ordinary Things
by Pat Schneider

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they're supposed to be.
I've been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

I have much to be thankful for this year: I begin with giving thanks to God for the plenty we enjoy, for my good health and the many adventures and safe travels of this past year. 

I give thanks for the confidence placed in me by the Bishop, people, leaders and staff of St. Paul's Memorial Church in calling me to be their Rector, and most especially for Lori for her support and love in this huge transition. 

I give thanks for my family and my many friends for supporting us, though some have wondered at times at the wisdom of our moving so far. I do miss you greatly. 

I give thanks to the people, leaders and staff of All Souls Parish in Berkeley for their love and support throughout all this. I miss you more than you know. 

I give thanks for our friends at Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento. You are still our home congregation. Thanks for taking us in again this summer. We know we will return again.

I give thanks for the privilege of my work in the California state Senate, and please know, those of you who work there, you are still in my prayers, and you have my thanks for your selfless service. I hope you get a break soon from the onslaught of bad news. 

And let me give thanks to all of you, dear readers, for following my spiritual, theological, semi-political meanderings on this blog and for your comments and encouragement. 

If you can, please join us later today for a Thanksgiving dinner at St. Paul's beginning at 6:15 pm. Lori is cooking the turkeys, I will do some carving, and please bring a side dish. We will also celebrate Thanksgiving at a special Eucharist at 10 a.m. Thursday -- put your turkey in the oven and come join us. I will give a brief homily.

Here are two Thanksgiving blessings to share with you for your grace at the table. The first was sent to me by our dear friend Karen in Tennessee. The second blessing I wrote, based on the famous prayer of Julian of Norwich. I am going to take a few days break from the blog -- so please have a blessed and joyous Thanksgiving.

Here are the blessings:

by Rafael Jesus Gonzalez

Thanks & blessings be
to the Sun & the Earth
for this bread & this wine,
this fruit, this meat, this salt,
this food;
thanks be & blessing to them
who prepare it, who serve it;
thanks & blessings to them
who share it
(& also the absent & the dead).
Thanks & Blessing to them who bring it
(may they not want),
to them who plant & tend it,
harvest & gather it
(may they not want);
thanks & blessing to them who work
& blessing to them who cannot;
may they not want - for their hunger
sours the wine & robs
the taste from the salt.
Thanks be for the sustenance & strength
for our dance & work of justice, of peace.

Giving Thanks
Based on a prayer by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)

Holy and gracious God, we give thanks for the gift of this gathering; for the food before us; the loving hands that have prepared it; and the blessings we share together. Kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you always as our companion along the way. Forgive us where we have fallen short with each other and with ourselves; heal our wounds, restore our health, strengthen our souls, and help us to be ever mindful the needs of those near us who have so little. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Order of the Holy Cross - Prayers on their day

Today is the feast day of James Otis Sargent Huntington (1854-1935), the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. The Order began as a mission to the poorest of the poor on the Lower East Side of New York. At one point Huntington labored alone, mostly among immigrants.

The Order eventually attracted vocational monks, and established a monastery in West Park, New York, and two more houses on the West Coast. One of the brothers was my father's caregiver in my dad's last year of suffering with Alzheimer's Disease. Today is a bitter sweet feast day for the brothers. As you recall, their house in Santa Barbara burned down two weeks ago in the wildfires. Again, you can help by keeping the brothers in your prayers and giving generously:

Mount Calvary Retreat House
P.O Box 1296
Santa Barbara, California 93102

Welcoming Mary: Si se puede!

Advent is the season of Mary, the time of expecting the birth of the One who will be called the Beloved. Mary – the Blessed Virgin Mary – is much a part of Christian piety throughout the world, and this is her time.

I wrote here yesterday of making this Advent a time of radical welcome. This Advent, I’d like us to welcome Mary, and all the Marys and Josephs and their babies with no room at the inn. Here’s how:

First, tomorrow evening we will host a Thanksgiving dinner. Lori is cooking the turkeys. Come join us at 6 p.m. and bring a dish, and bring a guest. This is our gift to you and your friends.

And then I’d invite you to come to St. Paul’s on Dec. 12 to meet Mary in a way maybe you have not met her before.

On that day, millions of people will celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe – an apparition of Mary who appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoastzin on a hillside in 1531 near Mexico City. It is quite a story to tell.

At 5:30 p.m. on Friday Dec. 12, on her feast day, we will have a simple Eucharist in our chapel. We will tell the story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some of our prayers will be in Spanish. Bring a Guadalupe candle if you have one.

And then come to dinner in the parish hall. We will have simple Mexican fare. And we will ask for a donation of at least $15 to PACEM, which is our shelter ministry for the homeless in Charlottesville. Come enjoy the feast and help give shelter to the Marys and Josephs and their babies.

Si se puede!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Advent Conspiracy

Associate Rector Janet Legro preached a great sermon on Sunday about how we will be held accountable by our maker not for the quality of our beliefs but for the quality of our welcome. Our welcome begins with those who walk through our door, and our welcome is made tangible by how we give to those who have so little in the world beyond our door.

This Advent I'd like us to enter into a time of radical welcome. Please watch this video below. It is so worth your time. And after you do, think about how we can do this. We can do this as individuals and as a church. After you watch the video, please click Advent Conspiracy to learn what we can do. Yes we can.

Here is the video.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Journey of Faith: A special invitiation

It gives me great pleasure to offer a course for adults to explore our faith, ask questions about Christianity and grow deeper as a community. This course, beginning Dec. 3 at 7 p.m., is designed for any adult who wants to enrich his or her faith journey. And for those who are away and cannot attend, you can join this course and the conversation on a special blog (more on that below).

This course is open to all adults but is especially designed for any adult who would like to be confirmed, received as an Episcopalian, or reaffirm her or his faith commitment with Bishop David Jones on Feb. 8. This course is open to all who wish to join us on this journey of exploration into the deepest mysteries of life. We won’t find all of the answers, but the road will be full of wonder and amazing grace.

Let me explain a little of how we will do this: Sometimes in class all we do is communicate facts, content, history, dates, events. We will do some of that – but more importantly we will try to give you a place to explore the meaning of faith in community and “equip the saints” with tools for exploring our faith and putting it into practice in daily life and work.

Each evening will open with prayer. I will then give a presentation on the topic of the evening, and we will then divide up into small groups for discussion. We will close each evening with prayer.

I have set up a blog for this course, called Journey of Faith. I will post on the blog the outlines for each evening’s talk and any handouts, and I hope we can continue the conversation outside the classroom on the blog. You can access the course blog through this blog, Fiat Lux, which will have it as a link on the left, or by bookmarking:

Also, anyone who lives far from Charlottesville is invited to join us on this journey through the Journey of Faith blog, and by entering into the conversation through the “comment” section on each topic. All I ask is that you identify yourself.

Topics each week include how we interpret the Bible, the creeds and how we live out our lives as faithful people living in tension with the modern world. The course is structured in the classic Anglican way of “Scripture, Reason and Tradition.”

The course will have eight Wednesday evening sessions (with Christmas and New Years Eve off)

On Saturday, Feb. 7, the day before the bishop’s visit, we will spend time together in retreat, but not just any kind of retreat. It is my hope we will use our time on that Saturday – maybe only a few hours – working together in simple service to our community.

To join us, please call the office 434.295.2156, or leave a comment on this blog entry with your name and email, or just show up on the first night, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.


Friday, November 21, 2008

There will be music despite everything

This is a really tough poem, dark and strange, full of neck-bending contrasts.  I've been mulling when, or whether, to bring it to you at all. It starts with a shock -- fair warning -- something like death on a thousand-million crosses. But stay with this; Good Friday leads to Easter. 

I have Margaret Mohrmann to thank for bringing this poem to me. Margaret showed me a few stanzas, which are stunning, and I became captivated by these words. But I can see why the entire poem is not necessarily quoted in its entirety in mainstream publications. Here is all of it...

A Brief for the Defense
By Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Catching up

A few odds and ends today...

For the latest on the Mt. Calvary monastery fire and how to help, the brothers have a website with up-to-date information. Also, one of the brothers posted photos from the fire on Flickr. Our friends Tim and Candace report they are back in their home at Westmont College, but report that there is ash and smoke damage everywhere on campus, and the college has had to delay re-starting the semester. 

Don't forget to check out (and sign if you agree) the Pledge & Prayer for Real Change which is a letter to President-elect Obama, sponsored by Jim Wallis at Sojourners. You can also click on the icon to the left on this page to find the letter and pledge.

There is a lot of good things going on at CIVIC, including a success story with an Iraqi civilian whose legs were saved after being injured in the cross-fire. 

Have a look at my friend Peter Carey's blog, he has some interesting items and a lot of links worth clicking.

And, finally, check out Lori's food blog -- Lori K's Cafe -- she has tips for turkeys and a do-ahead Thanksgiving meal. And some other fun foodie items. Lori and Betsy Poist will be cooking the Thanksgiving-Eve turkeys at St. Paul's next Wednesday, so come join us at 6:15 pm and bring a dish. And we will be doing a Baptism at the regular 5:30pm service in the chapel for a member of our teen youth group, come join us then if you can!

Bon appetite!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More on dancing bishops: Celtic spirituality

The video from New Hampshire I posted earlier this week showing dancing bishops is a reminder, in a way, of our Celtic roots. Betsy's comment on that post mentioned visiting the amazing abbey at Iona, Scotland, and seeing the bishop dance. Truth be told, bishops dancing is very Celtic. In the earliest centuries of Christianity in Britain, the dominant spirituality was Celtic, and it was fluid, dynamic, with leadership more defused among men and women, and a spirituality that found God in the "thin places" of mountains and rivers. And full of  dance and story telling.

Yesterday was the feast day of Hilda of Whitby (614-680), an abbess who was the dominant figure of Celtic Christianity of her time. Her monastery included nuns and monks. And bishops who danced. 

If you look closely, you can still see evidence of the bishops who danced. The Cathedral at Peterborough, was founded in the Celtic age, and though badly ransacked and damaged in the 17th century English civil war, there is still much worth seeing. If you look closely, you will find small a stone relief embedded in a wall in the great cathedral. The relief is from the time of Hilda -- the 7th century. It shows two bishops, with miters atop heads, holding hands (or close to it). And they are dancing. I took this photo of the relief on a trip to Peterborough with Lori in 2003. Enjoy, and you will be dancing with the stars.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Seasons in Charlottesville in words and pictures

We are enjoying the change of seasons in Charlottesville, and the seasons are distinct. It is definitely turning colder. It feels to me like we are on the cusp in between autumn and winter. 

Last Friday Lori and I enjoyed the walk up the footpath to Monticello, a five-mile round trip. The trail was slick from a rain the night before and the clouds drizzled a bit as we walked. The trees are golden now, with more leaves mulching on the ground than hanging on the branches. We saw a squirrel scrapping out the innards of what looked to us like a coconut shell, but how such a shell came to Virginia we have no idea. Perhaps it was from some exotic Southern tree about which we have not yet become acquainted? Maybe the squirrel knows of a secret grove of coconuts planted by Jefferson himself?

At the top of the hill is Jefferson's home and a stunning new visitor's center that caters to tourists and hikers alike. Here are photos (and, no, we did not get locked in), and a seasonal poem that seems to fit the day, sent to us from our dear friend Karen in Tennessee. 

After the Rain

by Anthony Hecht


The barbed-wire fences rust

As their cedar uprights blacken

After a night of rain.

Some early, innocent lust

Gets me outdoors to smell

The teasle, the pelted bracken,

The cold, mossed-over well,

Rank with its iron chain,


And takes me off for a stroll.

Wetness has taken over.

From drain and creeper twine

It’s runnelled and trenched and edged

A pebbled serpentine

Secretly, as though pledged

To attain a difficult goal

And join some important river.


The air is a smear of ashes

With a cool taste of coins.

Stiff among misty washes,

The trees are as black as wicks,

Silent, detached and old.

A pallor undermines

Some damp and swollen sticks.

The woods are rich with mould.


How even and pure this light!

All things stand on their own,

Equal and shadowless,

In a world gone pale and neuter,

Yet riddled with fresh delight.

The heart of every stone

Conceals a toad, and the grass

Shines with a douse of pewter.


Somewhere a branch rustles

With the life of squirrels or birds,

Some life that is quick and right.

This queer, delicious bareness,

This plain, uniform light,

In which both elms and thistles,

Grass, boulders, even words,

Speak for a Spartan fairness,


Might, as I think it over,

Speak in a form of signs,

If only one could know

All of its hidden tricks,

Saying that I must go

With a cool taste of coins

To join some important river,

Some damp and swollen Styx .


Yet what puzzles me the most

Is my unwavering taste

For these dim, weathery ghosts,

And how, from the very first,

An early, innocent lust

Delighted in such wastes,

Sought with a reckless thirst

A light so pure and just.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dancing bishops

My friend Carol Anne Brown brought this three-minute video to my attention. It is from the Diocese of New Hampshire promoting a communications conference in the Spring. Although this is New Hampshire-specific, the cool thing about this video is it shows what we all could be doing as churches to join the 21st century and find ways to bring new people to the church. And it is fun to watch. Look for the dancing bishops, they'll brighten your Monday.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Aftermath of the fire: Remembering the monastery, the people

The winds are quieting in Southern California, but the devastation is huge. A friend told me the fire was so hot that it left a sheen of melted glass on some streets. Wildfires are a fact of life in Southern California, and other fires have claimed larger swaths of territory. Yet somehow this fire burned hotter and took places that none of us thought would burn, like our Order of the Holy Cross monastery in Santa Barbara. My friends at nearby Westmont College emailed late last night that they are safe, but that 16 faculty homes were destroyed and that will impact the school as a whole. Candace described the week as simply "horrendous."

Still, it was buildings destroyed, not lives taken. 
The brothers of the Holy Cross will try to rebuild their monastery. One said they had "enjoyed good years" and "good memories" and other good memories will come. Monks do have a way of reminding the rest of us to have perspective. The brothers have given so much to many of us, and now it is our turn to step up for them. Friends have already set up funds to help them. You can give through Facebook by going to the "Causes" page and searching for "Benedictine House." Or, if you have Facebook, just click: OHC Causes. You can also send a check directly to:  

Mount Calvary Retreat House
P.O Box 1296
Santa Barbara, California 93102

And please keep in your prayers the brothers, and all those whose lives are upended by the fires, and all those who are fighting the fires and responding to this emergency.

The photo is from the Santa Barbara News-Press and shows all that is left of the monastery.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Santa Barbara monastery fire update

I received the following email a little while ago from Nancy Bullock at the Order of the Holy Cross in Santa Barbara:

We do hope to rebuild, but we don't know what will happen next.  The brothers are safe at St. Mary's and we will start to reconstruct our records.  Thank you for your prayers.

The photo is of Br. Joseph Brown, and was taken by Genero Molina, of the Los Angeles Times (and a good friend from Sac Bee days).

Sad news from Santa Barbara

We received some very sad news last night: the wildfires sweeping through the arroyos of Santa Barbara claimed the Mt. Calvary Retreat Center; the monastery burned to the ground. Mt. Calvary is the West Coast home of the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross, which until recently also had a priory next-door to All Souls Parish. The retreat center has long been a popular refuge and place of prayer for Episcopalians in California (for you Virginians, think of this as Shrine Mont). The photos are from the OHC website in earlier days; the other photo is from the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

One of the OHC brothers, Raphael, was my father's caregiver in his last years with Alzheimer's. The reports I got last night were that all of the brothers are safe, some of the artwork at the monastery was saved, but the buildings (recently renovated) are a total loss. Also hit by the fire is nearby Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college where several buildings burned. We have friends who teach at Westmont and who evacuated their home.

Please keep in your prayers Br. Roberts, Superior, and Br. Tom, former chaplain to clergy of the Diocese of California; Br. Raphael; the Sisters of the Holy Nativity, particulary Sr. Abigail, SHN; for the students, faculty, and staff of Westmont College, especially Candace and Tim Taylor; and for the people of Santa Barbara.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Charter for Compassion - Part II

The Charter for Compassion, written about below in a post earlier today, has its own website just launched, and this video to go with it. It is worth three minutes of your time:

Worth hearing: TED & Charter for Compassion

I've had an eye on an amazing organization since last summer: TED. The letters stand for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" and it is founded on the idea that ideas make an enormous difference. TED speakers have included naturalist Jane Goodhall, theologian Peter Gomes, Vice President Al Gore, and a host of lesser known but fascinating thinkers. All of the talks are on-line in video format at the TED website. Leslie Middleton brought this talk to my attention: author Karen Armstrong proposing the creation of a "Charter for Compassion" to turn the world's religions into agents of compassion rather than forces of intolerance. Says Armstrong:

"I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." 

You can hear her full talk in the video below, or by clicking here: Armstrong TED.  And maybe we can talk about how we become part of a Charter of Compassion?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

California's Proposition 8: What happened? What's next?

I have not said much about Propositon 8, banning gay marriage, and why it passed in California, given it was trailing in the polls. A number of my friends in California (some upset at the passage, others just puzzled) have been asking me what happened. I think this story in today's Sacramento Bee explains briefly what happened, and what might come next. Several people mentioned in here, including Dennis Mangers and Gale Kaufman, are friends and know what they are talking about.

  • Posted on Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why did gay-marriage ban pass? 'No' campaign was in turmoil

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A week after California voters approved Proposition 8 and decreed they wanted to end same-sex marriage in the state, details are emerging of an opposition campaign that was in disarray.

Key staff members – including the campaign manager – were replaced in the final weeks as polls turned dramatically against the No side. Their replacements say they found an effort that was too timid, slow to react, without a radio campaign or a strategy to reach out to African Americans, a group that ultimately supported the measure by more than 2 to 1.

Gay marriage supporters are looking to the courts to overturn the decision. But if another political campaign is waged, said Dennis Mangers, co-chairman of the No on 8 Northern California Committee, "we'll have to do better."

No on 8 campaign manager Steve Smith was shoved aside three weeks before Election Day, after he was slow to counter TV ads in which the measure's supporters claimed that same-sex marriage would be promoted in schools if the measure failed.

Two Sacramento political consultants – Joe Rodota, a Republican, and Gale Kaufman, a Democrat – were brought in by the No campaign. Republican consultant Rick Claussen was asked for advice.

The campaign's public relations firm, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, was replaced by Sacramento-based Perry Communications Group.

Read the full story at

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Las Ofrendas: Breath, Wind, Spirit

The response at St. Paul's to building our ofrendas is huge. We now have two ofrendas in the nave, and one more upstairs in the hallway outside in the children's Godly Play classrooms. I am very moved every time I walk by the ofrendas, and I go upstairs a few times a day to look and meditate. What amazing gifts!

Bishop Shannon Johnston came by last week. He said he had never seen an ofrenda to the dead, and the bishop expressed how touched he was by seeing ours. To all who have contributed to the ofrendas, thank you, and please know how blessed we are by your offering of love to those who we see no longer but who are just beyond our horizon.

I leave you today with a few photos of our ofrendas, and with a fitting poem by Birago Ishmael Diop (1906-1989), a native of Dakar, Senegal, who is a much noted African poet and folklorist of the last century. The original of this poem is in French, and I have come across quite a few translations. I like this one best. By the way, the title can be translated either as "Breaths" or "Spirits," which is the same word-play used in the Gospel of John 3:5 and throughout Paul's letters (for example, Romans 8:9) whereby the Greek word pneuma means breath, wind, and spirit. The Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) have similar word-plays. Here's the poem:

By Birago Diop

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire's voice,
Hear the voice of water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees,
It is our forefathers breathing.
The dead are not gone forever.
They are in the paling shadows,
And in the darkening shadows.
The dead are not beneath the ground,
They are in the rustling tree,
In the murmuring wood,
In the flowing water,
In the still water,
In the lonely place, in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire's voice,
Hear the voice of water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.
It is the breathing of our forefathers,
Who are not gone, not beneath the ground,
Not dead.

The dead are not gone for ever.
They are in a woman's breast,
A child's crying, a glowing ember.
The dead are not beneath the earth,
They are in the flickering fire,
In the weeping plant, the groaning rock,
The wooded place, the home.
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often to things rather than beings.
Hear the fire's voice,
Hear the voice of water.
In the wind hear the sobbing of the trees.
It is the breathing of our forefathers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day: The Cenotaph and Holy Saturday

Today we remember Veterans Day, honoring those who have worn the uniform of our country. We owe them a great debt of thanks. This is rightly their day.

Veterans Day began as a commemoration of the end of World War I, a war both of my grandfathers fought in. In Britain the day is still called Armistice Day, the day of the truce that ended the brutal “Great War to end all wars.” People wear red or white poppies to honor veterans and those who died in the catastrophes of war.

And that bring me to the monuments with origins in the deepest mysteries of Christianity. Stay with me awhile on this:

The most famous of all monuments of the World War I era is outside of Whitehall, in London: A concrete monolith, which is still the focal point every November 11 of ceremonies remembering Armistice Day. The concrete memorial is called the “Cenotaph,” and its simple design was copied extensively throughout Britain and the United States (see photo at right).
In the years following World War I, cenotaph monuments to the dead sprang up throughout Europe and the United States. Now, nearly a century later, the enormity of the catastrophe is still hard to imagine: Nine million dead, 28 million wounded, 3 million widows and untold millions of children left without one or both parents.  

Nearly every World War I-era monument in the U.S. is a copy of the cenotaph; many Civil War monuments that were erected in the 1920s, including in Charlottesville (the Stonewall Jackson monument near City Hall sits atop a cenotaph). The best known cenotaph in the United States is in Arlington National Cemetery, commonly known as the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
The word cenotaph comes from the Greek: ceno for empty, and taph for tomb: The Empty Tomb of the Great War.

The symbolism of the cenotaph has its origins in Holy Saturday, the day following Good Friday when Jesus dies on the Cross. On Holy Saturday, Jesus descends into Hell, breaks open the gates and defeats the devil. On Easter, Jesus takes everyone with him to Heaven. Without Holy Saturday, Easter has very little to do with us. With Holy Saturday, we are part of the Resurrection. The cenotaph is the monument to the emptying of Hell itself.

How much easier it is for people to believe in death. We use death as the final solution to so many of our problems. We execute murderers and we send young men and women off to die in wars to settle differences among nations. We argue endlessly over abortion and assisted suicide, as if laws about those issues would somehow settle our deep-seated anxiety about death.

So why are we so shocked by the death of Jesus so long ago? Why care about one Jew who the world saw as a troublesome mystic who healed and preached and claimed to be “the son of God”? How is it that two millennia later the death of the One still holds us and transforms us? If all we get is one more death on Good Friday, it is not a very good Friday.

But we get two more days – the day of the Cenotaph and the Day of Resurrection: Easter.
Can we look through the door of Holy Saturday – into the Cenotaph – and see there is more than death but life? Can the death of the One help us to touch the death of millions? Can we truly find a way to end wars and bring heaven to earth? Where does the cenotaph bring us?

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the border: Baptism at the center of our life

You may have noticed that we’ve moved the baptismal font to the center of the aisle in front of the first row of pews, a few feet away from the Eucharistic Holy Table. The location is at the geographic center of the church building and at the place that can be called “the crossing” of the church.

Credit Alice Fitch with making an observation that got me thinking about moving the location of the font. The baptismal font has been off to the side, near the base of the platform holding the Holy Table. We last used the font on All Saints Sunday when we baptized five small children. Alice brought to my attention that when we invited all of the children to come forward to see the baptisms they couldn’t see much. With the font off on one side, and the children off on the other side, all the children could see were the legs of the people standing between them and the font.

That is when it struck me that we should put the font in the geographic center of the sanctuary – not just so everyone can see a little better – especially children – but also to symbolize the centrality of baptism in our walk of faith.

In the architecture of ancient churches, the baptismal font was placed at the entrance of the sanctuary, or “nave,” symbolic of how baptism is the entry point into the Christian community and points toward the Eucharistic table at the front of the nave. Many contemporary churches are now designed that way, including All Souls Parish in Berkeley where I previously served. The font at All Souls is a few feet inside the doorway, and when we conducted baptisms at All Souls, we moved the baptismal parties and the clergy en masse to the back of the church. Everyone in the pews had to stand up and turn around to see. The nave was small enough that it generally worked, and we invited all of the children to the back of the church to watch the baptisms.

St. Paul’s, however, is not designed for placing the font at the entrance, at least not without removing much needed seating. Even if we did that, to make everyone stand and face backwards in such a large nave would be awkward at best, and few would see much of anything.

Placing the St. Paul’s baptismal font at the “crossing” gives us the symbolism of baptism leading to Eucharist. Even when we are not conducting baptisms, the font remains visible to us during our worship. The font remains an enduring reminder of the centrality of our baptism, and a powerful symbol of our communion with Christ and with all who have gone before us who have been baptized in that font.

Why, though, do we baptize children and babies? Isn’t all this symbolism lost on them? Those are good questions, ones that have sparked much conflict among Christians over many centuries. That conflict, though, need not be so.

In the view of the Episcopal Church, baptism is an “outward and visible sign” (i.e., a sacrament) of the inward reality of the Holy Spirit working in each of us. It is also the initiation into the church. Why would we wait to initiate people into the Church? Does it matter if we understand all of this fully? Do any of us understand this fully?

If we are all truly the arms and feet of Christ in the world, and if Christ needs all of us, then children must be included, too. Daniel B. Stevick, in his book published by the Episcopal Church, Baptismal Moments; Baptismal Meanings (1987), puts it quite eloquently:

“Baptism is a sacrament of beginnings, of newness, of grace, of a fresh start with history, and in the depths of individual life. It is the beginning of life in Christ and his people. It is the sign of the new life which is always coming into being within the old but ever young Church. It is the Christian Gospel in action, declaring and effecting the new age in Christ. Baptism is the ritual side of the mysterious way by which world passes over into church and church reaches into the world.”

Stevick also notes (p. 31) that our baptism puts us in tension with the society in which we live. At its root, baptism is counter-cultural. In our baptismal covenant we pledge to “respect the dignity of every human being” and “to love our neighbors” and to “work for justice and peace.” Those pledges, if we take them seriously, will put us at odds with the culture of greed and violence that surrounds us. Stevick writes:

“Being a good member of the society does not necessarily support being a good Christian. Being a good Christian may set one against society at crucial points.”

Our baptismal font in the center of the church is an enduring reminder, I believe, of our baptismal covenant, and of the tension in which we live because of our baptism. We are different because of our baptism. Stevick writes:

“Christian Baptism is a border rite. It marks the boundary between Church and not-Church… To be marked with the sign of the cross may make one a marked person.”

Welcome to the border – the border of the Holy. Welcome to baptism into the life of Christ.