Thursday, December 31, 2009
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
A CHRISTMAS POEM BY THOM SHUMAN
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.Luke 2:6-7
you could have
as warrior, ready
to take us on
one at a time
or en masse . . .
you could have
twisting around us,
flinging us up into
the air . . .
you could have
with a bag of
in one hand
a time-out chair
in the other;
lungs screaming for
fingers grasping for
something to hold onto,
your whole being
completely depending on
us (!) to
and we were
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
This morning, I want to take you to a place along on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in my native California. This is a place I have not visited in many, many years, but it is still very close to my heart.
The place is an old remote cattle ranch near the head waters of the Owens River. This ranch is located in one of the most stunning places on the planet, with high peaks above, and the desert unfolding below.
Many years ago, more years than I care to count, my buddies and I observed an annual tradition of converging on this ranch for a week of fishing.
The ranch owner would rent us an old cowhand cabin for the week. Our one-room cabin was richly appointed with cots and bunk beds, and an old wood stove. We were in our twenties and we were in heaven.
The Owens River meanders for about five miles through the ranch and we fished every bend and riffle. Each evening we had a feast.
One evening, after an amazing day of fishing and an amazing meal, I walked outside into the brisk desert night and went for a walk down the dirt road leading to the river.
And to this day, I can still picture what I saw that night as vividly as if it were last night. The stars in the sky were sharp and bright. The mountains around me shimmered in the starlight.
The road I walked seemed to lead beyond the horizon and into the sky around me. The sagebrush was as awesome and mysterious as the highest mountains beyond. Everything seemed so connected and so infinite.
The connection I felt to the stars and mountains and sagebrush was truly beyond my capacity to describe – I can only describe this connection as the Holy, as God’s life-power surrounding me.
It was night, but there was no darkness to it.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”In science, there is a principle that it is easier to have nothing than something. It would be easier to have nothing in the universe than something.
It would be easier to have a blank vacuum than to have stars and sagebrush.
But there is something, and we are very definitely something, and we are awash in light, and the darkness does not overcome it. We are all connected through the Holy, through the Word that was in the beginning and all things came into being through the Word.
John’s gospel, rendered into English, uses this peculiar term -- “The Word” – for the Greek term, “Logos.” The English translation flattens the meaning of Logos. It might be better to say “the mind of God,” but even that flattens the word.
Logos is the will of God, the deepest longing of God, to create something from nothing, to fill the darkness with light, to bring wholeness and healing to every place that is wounded and hurting. The Logos wills to give us grace upon grace.
And into that void comes Jesus, the One we call the Christ, the “word made flesh.” God longs to be with us, and so comes to us as a human being, as someone we can touch and be with.
God longs for us to understand that we are all truly connected to each other, and connected to every living thing and to every rock and every speck of stardust in the universe.
And so God comes to us as a living, breathing person this Christmas, to demonstrate that there is another way to live besides dwelling in blankness and death.
“From his fullness,” the gospel of John tell us, “we have all received, grace upon grace.”
And so it is this day and it will be this night and forever.
May this light of Christmas enkindle your heart, and may many blessings light your path in the days and year to come. AMEN
Saturday, December 26, 2009
A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez
IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.
I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.
It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.
We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.
I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.
Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.
Then the telephone rang.
It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.
Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.
He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.
But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.
We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.
"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.
He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.
I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.
Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"
"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."
There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."
"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."
"Not everywhere. Call Australia."
"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”
"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.
If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.
I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.
There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.
Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.
"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."
"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."
It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.
I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.
"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."
He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.
By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.
"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."
I won't forget this moment.
"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."
If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.
Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.
I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.
The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.
I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.
Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.
Friday, December 25, 2009
I would venture that all of us are here because somehow, some way, being here tonight represents the Hope of Christmas for each of us.
The Hope of Christmas that I speak of is about our deepest longings for a better world to come for ourselves and for all of those we love.
Our Hope of Christmas is that the sick will be healed, in body, mind and spirit.
Our Hope of Christmas is that the hungry will be fed and prosperity will fill the land.
Our Hope of Christmas is for peace on earth, for good will among women and men – and children – and true justice for all people everywhere.
Our Hope of Christmas is for things we have never seen.
Ours is an outlandish hope.
Maybe that kind of hope is a little hard to see right now. Maybe someone you know is ill or troubled. Maybe there is something weighing on you.
This morning, as I was coming into the building, I stopped at the black mailbox you may have noticed on the corner. It is actually a “prayer box” that one of our university students, Emily, put up last year. The box has a pen and index cards, and people write how they would have us pray for them.
I took out the cards this morning, and I was struck by how much people are grasping for hope.
Let me read you a few:
“Please pray for income to support my family.”
“I pray business picks up for me,” written on the back of cab driver’s card.
“For the one’s that are really the forgotten ones,” written on a card by a homeless man, Jeff.
“Peace for everyone.”
And this one…
“Can God please accept me as I am?”
These prayers, these dreams, these longings of the heart and mind are exactly why we are here this night – exactly why we must speak of the Hope of Christmas.
“Hope” is a curious word. My dictionary defines it as “A wish or desire accompanied by confident expectation of its fulfillment.”
Where do we find this kind of hope? Where can we place confident expectations for fulfillment on this Christmas Day?
I think by our being here tonight, we are declaring loud and clear something miraculous about where we find our Hope.
All of our hopes, all of our dreams, are embodied in this small baby whose birth we celebrate tonight. We are drawn together because of that one fact, the birth of Jesus, the anointed One, the Christ, into our world.
His birth changes everything in our world.
What an amazing faith this is – to see all of the hopes of the world in a tiny baby born in as humbly as a human being could be born – in a stable.
As familiar as the story is, please hear this one basic fact of Christmas:
Two-thousand years ago, God chose to be with us born as a helpless baby and not as a majestic Zeus-like figure. That was surprising then as it is surprising now.
He was born to an unwed, very young mother: Miriam – we would call her “Mary.”
She named her son “Yesous,” or Joshua – and we would later call him “Jesus.” He was born in scandal, and lived much of his life violating religious rules.
That people would see in this child the divine is nothing short of a miracle, for they were certainly experiencing an idea of God that was as far from a their expectations of a messiah as could be imagined.
No gloss or theologizing can cover up how radical a concept of the divine this is, then or now.
Some of the prophets of old expected a regal king who would bring righteousness to earth with a mighty sword and thunderbolts.
Some of our modern-day would-be prophets expect the same thing: a warrior who will vanquish every foe.
But we get Jesus, born in poverty and out of wedlock. We get the Prince of Peace.
What kind of God is this who would come to earth in such a place under such conditions? A God who is with us – Emmanuel – that is the meaning of the name Emmanuel – the One who lives with us, all of us, everywhere, no matter who we are, or where we come from.
God’s supreme demonstration of love for us is coming to earth as one of us. In this one ultimate divine act, this creator God shares with us our difficulties and our deepest hopes.
Jesus tells us to give him our burdens, hand over our worries – because he loves us that much.
This Savior born this night will carry us even when we don’t see it.
And this Savior of ours walks with all of us, and then does something more:
This Savior of ours asks us to be partners in bringing heaven to earth.
We can begin by having a relationship with this God, by truly knowing the Christ who walks among us not only tonight, but every night and every day.
This Savior of ours is telling us to spread his love in the world; not to retreat but to get out there, and live a life worthy of the extravagant love our Creator has for us this Christmas.
This Savior of ours places hope in us even when we don’t have much hope in ourselves.
Whether you have been coming here for 50 years, or whether this is the first time you have been here, don’t let Christmas end for you tonight.
Join in our Communion in a few minutes, for it is the first meal of Christmas, and a present to you and to me.
And then when you leave here tonight, keep the Hope of Christmas alive.
Look for something truly unexpected this year, something new in your life, something new in the world. Look for the Hope of Christmas every single day.
Have the courage to let the Hope of Christmas change your life – and then have the courage to change the world around you. When you do, you will be keeping the Hope of Christmas alive within you forever.
And the angel said to them: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” AMEN
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
With the snow keeping us homebound, I thought it time to go back to one of those Big-Hard-Questions that I promised I would tackle in Advent. The season is nearly done, and I haven’t tackled many of them. But we will continue this discussion, and our walk through the labyrinth, through other seasons.
My friend Ilana DeBare, who is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah as a middle-aged adult, posted something on her blog Tuesday that got me thinking again on the Big-Hard-Questions.
Ilana mentioned some other views, including that of Mordecai Kaplan, who had this to say about popular concepts of God:
“To most people God is not really God but a magnified demon. That is why they cannot disassociate religion from supernaturalism.”That really grabbed me. I believe that is absolutely true for many people, and is why the idea of being in a religion or having a religious experience is repelling to many people. And I can’t say I blame people for that feeling, given the religious landscape across our globe.
Let’s acknowledge that the Abrahamic tradition, of which we are a part, comes with an imagery of a bloodthirsty God. The Bible is filled with it: Pharaoh and his army are swallowed up in the Red Sea because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the rebels of Korah swallowed by the earth, the Revelation of John’s apocalyptic vision of the “End Time” when the elect will achieve rapture and the rest of us left in perpetual agony.
The religions that have flowed from the Abraham tradition – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have histories filled with purges, pogroms, crusades and jihads. Is it any wonder that to many non-religious, God seems like a demon? Or that many westerners are attracted to the peaceful meditation practices of Buddhism?It should also be no wonder that authors like Christopher Hitchens can sell a lot of books by arguing that there is no God, and that concepts of God are fundamentally dangerous. Indeed, he is right to this extent: Many concepts of God are dangerous, and if God is who the hateful mouthpieces of wrathful religion say it is, then I want no part of that religion or that God, either.
Is there another way of seeing this? Is there another way of entering into an experience of the Holy that is authentic and real? Many have tried expressing alterntives. In the last 30 years or so, many Christians made Jesus into an easy-going, free-loving hippie. The image is certainly more inviting than a demon. But that, too, has left some feeling that is more spin than real.
A number of modern religious thinkers and mystics talk of God being a “numinous thread” binding the universe together in a single living cord, and I believe that is close to my own belief. It has a universal appeal, transcends dogma and elite elections of the chosen few. Yet it is not very personal; it is really a passive image of God that seems more like electricity buzzing through a long extension cord than a God who I can talk with.
This is of course a Christian way of looking at things, and I am, after all, a Christian pastor so that should not be too surprising. But this way of seeing Christ is not shared by everyone who carries the label Christian, for it brings into question many of our own cultural norms and the re-packaging of Jesus by 2,000 years of Christianity.
I am much taken in recent years by the writing of James Alison, a former Dominican who teaches and writes from South America. He was left the Dominicans after it came to light that his partner died of HIV/AIDS.
In one of his books, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, Alison writes of how that experience led him to a new understanding of a God who has no outcasts, who needs no revenge, who lives inside and outside of time, and pushes us to upend our conventional culture-bound images of God and ourselves.
I’ve used one of Alison’s analogies in several sermons: he compares the Bible to a Lego set; you can put the pieces together to create a demon-god, or you can put the pieces together to see a creator who not only loves us, but who even likes us for who we are and who we are becoming; and challenges us to take that reality and see life without fear or the need for the rule of vengeance and death. Alison writes (p. 139):
“The coming of the Son into the world has as its end to create a belief in the absolute aliveness of God and the empower us in this way to act as if death were not, thus being set free from our compulsion to act out in a way governed by the kingdom of death.”The implications of that idea are vast, for it suggests a different way to live. Religion, to me, is ultimately not a set of beliefs or dogmas – a contest of mine are better than yours – but a way of discovering how to live without fear in the presence of the Holy. Alison writes of this (p. 139):
“People like this do not fear the exposing of their previous participation in the system or mechanism of the dominion of death, because that is being left behind as they begin to allow themselves to be transformed into a mansion of life without end in the midst of the world.”There is a great deal more to say, and it leads us onto the difficult ground of atonement theology, so it seems a good place to stop today. May you have many blessings this Christmas and in the year to come.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Last night I took a look through the treasures of poetry that our friend Karen has sent over the years, and I came across this poem she sent a year ago. Lori took these photos yesterday at our snow encrusted house. May your days grow longer, and may you stay warm these winter nights.
by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
Monday, December 21, 2009
We are still snowed-in. The plows have not made it up our mountain. But we have electricity and that means we have warmth and water.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
My father was, to use an old-fashioned term, a churchman. He served on the Vestry, he enjoyed being an usher, and he led more stewardship campaigns than I can count. My dad took his faith very seriously, and I truly learned most of what I know about the church at my daddy’s knee.
But there was one thing he always had a problem with – and it was this: the idea of the Blessed “Virgin” Mary. Besides the fact that he just didn’t believe the biology that is suggested in that, the whole concept did not seem, well, very Protestant to him.
I suspect many of you would agree with him.
And yet, in a little while, we are going to recite the Nicene Creed, and we will say the following line: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
Now I know full well that some of you will be crossing your fingers when you say that, or your voices will drop to a mumble.
So I want to spend some time today talking about Mary, the mother of Jesus; the one who was there at his birth and at his death; the one who really should be thought of as the first apostle, the first disciple; the one who said “yes” every step of the way; the very blessed one who showed more courage than an entire legion of Roman warriors.
To get there we need to cut through layers and layers of hazy church history and dense theologizing. To see Mary, we need to use a little mental archaeology.
What do we know of Mary? Her name in Hebrew was Miriam. She was very young, maybe 13 or 14 when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
The Greek of the New Testament uses the word παρθενος (parthenos), which we translate as “virgin” in English; it also means “young girl” or “maiden.” The word has everything to do with her age and martial status.
This we also know: Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a Jewish man probably quite a bit older than she, and almost certainly it was an arranged marriage. She no doubt outlived him, for we hear little else about Joseph soon after.
In the gospel of Luke today, we hear that an angel – a spirit – came to Mary in a dream, and told her she was with child, and that God was already dwelling within her.
That an angel told her she was pregnant I find easy to believe, for I have heard from mothers who tell me they had a similar dream before a medical test confirmed it for them.
Mary, though, must have been quite terrified, for Jewish law held that Joseph, if he wished, could have her stoned to death for what was an obvious indiscrection. He could have dispatched her just like this, and no one would have thought it wrong.
An angel, though, told Joseph not to do that. And so he took young Mary as his wife, and they left town, probably in shame, and she had her child naming him “Yesous,” or Joshua. In our badly translated Germanic language Bibles, our Reformation ancestors rendered his name “Jesus.”
The rest of the story of Yesous, or Jesus, will unfold in the weeks and months ahead as we walk toward the Cross and Easter beyond.
But for now, I want to fast-forward into the fourth century, to that creed that we say, and to how it came to be as the early Christians struggled to understand the life and death and their experience of the risen Christ.
The church fathers, and they were men, struggled over the question of how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. They knew there was something miraculous about his birth, as indeed there was.
To be God, they reasoned, he must be pure, he must be without sin, and by the fourth century sinfulness was becoming equated with sexuality. Some influential Greek philosophers saw the human body as revolting, and so all sex, even in the covenant of marriage, became suspect.
And so it was that the focus came upon Mary; for Jesus to be without sin, they figured, he must have been born outside of sexual relations. A legend even grew that Mary’s own birth must have been to a virgin mother.
Maybe all of that is true. But what is so unfortunate is how the human body came to be seen as a sinful vessel, and so the Church rendered Mary into a perpetual virgin. The gospels note, by the way, that Mary had many more children after Jesus including his brother Jacob, whom we know as James.
Was Jesus born to a virgin? I don’t think it matters. But what is important is his birth, and what that birth represents to all of humanity, and the “yes” that his mother gave over and over.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is that God chose to walk among us as a human being, and by so doing, God showed us that the human body is good, that our creation is divine, and our deepest most intimate relationships with each other are truly ordained by God and should be cherished as sacred.
Something else happened as the centuries unfolded that clouds how we view Mary. The idea grew that Jesus was a mighty warrior, and you will see that in medieval art in depictions of Jesus wearing armor and holding a sword.
With that grew the idea that Jesus was inaccessible, and so a counterbalancing cult of Mary grew. If we could not pray to Jesus, surely he would listen to his mother. So direct your prayers to Mary and she’ll talk to him for you. Call it heavenly triangulating.
Mary acquired a new title in Greek – Τηεοτοκοσ (theotokos), the Mother of God.
Centuries later, Protestant reformers railed against the idea that they needed Mary to reach Jesus, and so they sought to rid Christianity of the cult of Mary; and people like my father grew up highly suspicious of Mary statues and rosary beads.
That, too, is unfortunate, for we may have lost sight of the real Mary in the process.
And so I bring you back to Mary, the Blessed Maiden Miriam, who rejoiced at hearing she would have her child, and was with him at every step of his life, even to his death and beyond. She certainly had a mother’s worries, but she moved forward in faith anyway.
She was truly the first Christian, and she still has much to teach us about how to say “yes” when it is hardest, and how to be a servant to the lowly, and what it means to face tremendous challenges with courage and even joy. Amen.
Friday, December 18, 2009
What is Advent About?
By Joan Chittister
A friend recently gave me a textile wall-hanging from Peru that makes clear that the process of finding God in the small things of life is as profound as it is simple. A pastoral scene of palm trees and rural lean-tos has been hand-stitched by peasant women, quilt-style, across the top of a felt banner. Under it is a calendar of thirty small pockets, each of them filled with something we can’t see. Every day until Christmas, we are invited to find the part of the scene that has been pocketed for that day and attach it to the scene above, one piece of hand woven cloth adhering to the other as we go.
Some of the pieces are of benign and beautiful things; some are not. There are bumblebees and angels, wild animals and dry straw, a branch-laden peasant man and a weary-looking woman. But there at the end of the days, as common as all the rest of the items in the scene, is the manger, the sign of the One who knows what life is like for us, who has mixed His own with ours. Now, we can see, all our expectations have been worth it.
Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow, only that whatever it is, it is of the essence of sanctification for us. Every piece of it, some hard, some uplifting, is sign of the work of God alive in us. We are becoming as we go. We learn in Advent to stay in the present, knowing that only the present well-lived can possibly lead us to the fullness of life.
Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world. It slows us down. It makes us think. It makes us look beyond today to the “great tomorrow” of life. Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.
It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us. What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim our own commitment to do our part to bring it.
Waiting — that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us — is the grace that Advent comes to bring. It stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.
We all want something more. Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul?
–from The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Reason and Faith in Copenhagen
This morning, I sobbed through Sunday services. Then I got back to work.
By Bill McKibben | Sun Dec. 13, 2009 4:11 PM PST
I've spent the last few years working more than fulltime to organize the first big global grassroots climate change campaign. That's meant shutting off my emotions most of the time—this crisis is so terrifying that when you let yourself feel too deeply it can be paralyzing. Hence, much gallows humor, irony, and sheer work.
This afternoon I sobbed for an hour, and I'm still choking a little. I got to Copenhagen's main Lutheran Cathedral just before the start of a special service designed to mark the conference underway for the next week. It was jammed, but I squeezed into a chair near the corner. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave the sermon; Desmond Tutu read the Psalm. Both were wonderful.
But my tears started before anyone said a word. As the service started, dozens choristers from around the world carried three things down the aisle and to the altar: pieces of dead coral bleached by hot ocean temperatures; stones uncovered by retreating glaciers; and small, shriveled ears of corn from drought-stricken parts of Africa. As I watched them go by, all I could think of was the people I've met in the last couple of years traveling the world: the people living in the valleys where those glaciers are disappearing, and the people downstream who have no backup plan for where their water is going to come from. The people who live on the islands  surrounded by that coral, who depend on the reefs for the fish they eat, and to protect their homes from the waves. And the people, on every corner of the world, dealing with drought and flood, already unable to earn their daily bread in the places where their ancestors farmed for generations.
Those damned shriveled ears of corn. I've done everything I can think of, and millions of people around the world have joined us at 350.org in the most international campaign there ever was. But I just sat there thinking: It's not enough. We didn't do enough. I should have started earlier. People are dying already; people are sitting tonight in their small homes trying to figure out how they're going to make the maize meal they have stretch far enough to fill the tummies of the kids sitting there waiting for dinner. And that's with 390 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The latest numbers from the computer jockeys at Climate Interactive —a collaboration of Sustainability Institute, Sloan School of Management at MIT, and Ventana Systems, is that if all the national plans now on the table were adopted the planet in 2100 would have an atmosphere with 770 parts per million CO2. What then for coral, for glaciers, for corn. I didn't do enough.
I cried all the harder a few minutes later when the great cathedral bell began slowly tolling 350 times. At the same moment, thousands of churches across Europe began ringing their bells the same 350 times. And in other parts of the world—from the bottom of New Zealand to the top of Greenland, Christendom sounded the alarm. And not just Christendom. In New York rabbis were blowing the shofar 350 times. We had pictures rolling in from the weekend's vigil, from places like Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, where girls in burkas were forming human 350s, and from Bahrain, and from Amman.
And these tears were now sweet as well as bitter—at the thought that all over the world (not metaphorically all over the world, but literally all over the world) people had proven themselves this year. Proven their ability to understand the science and the stakes. Proven their ability to come together on their own—in October, when we organized what CNN called "the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history," there wasn't a movie star or rock idol in sight—just people rallying around a scientific data point. Now the world's religious leaders were adding their voice.
On one side: scientists. And archbishops, Nobelists, and most of all ordinary people in ordinary places. Reason and faith. On the other side, power—the kind of power that will be assembling in the Bella Center all week to hammer out some kind of agreement. The kind of power, exemplified by the American delegation, that so far has decided it's not worth making the kind of leap that the science demands. The kind of power that's willing to do what's politically pretty easy, but not what's necessary. The kind that would condemn the planet to 770 ppm rather than take the hard steps we need.
So no more tears. Not now, not while there's work to be done. Pass the Diet Coke, fire up the laptop, grab the cellphone. To work. We may not have done enough, but we're going to do all we can.
Bill McKibben is co-founder of 350.org and the author of the forthcoming Eaarth: Making A Life in a Tough New World.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Dear God, the troubles of our world have left many of us speechless. We don’t know how, in the numbness around jobs lost, illnesses we don’t have the resources to cure, a planet imperiled by the accumulated effects of our greed, and the seemingly endless presence of war and violence, to say our prayers. We are lighting candles, though – in our Advent wreaths, quietly, in side chapels of our churches, in our rooms where no one else but You can see. The candle flame is our prayer, wordless but filled with meaning, with petition, hope, and faith. And the candle flame is your answer to our prayer. You lighten our darkness, O Lord. Amen.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The selection of American Episcopal bishops is recently in the international news with the election of The Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool of Maryland (photo below) as an assisting, or “suffragan,” bishop in Los Angeles. Canon Glasspool, if confirmed, will be the second openly gay bishop living in a partnered relationship; her election has roiled the waters of the already fractured Anglican Communion.
But we in the Episcopal Church have bishops, and like it as not, we are joined at the hip with the other bishops of the Anglican Communion, that odd creaky federation of churches that is an outgrowth (or backwash) of the British Empire. We in America were the first to break with the Brits, and our Episcopal Church was the first to find its own path, and our path not surprisingly has always had a major independent streak from that of England.
What I’d like to do today is look a bit at the topic of bishops and make a few observations that I hope might clarify some of the issues before us. I have no huge solutions to offer, but perhaps some smaller ideas that I hope will add to the dialogue. This is not a posting about gay inclusion issues, so please hold your fire on that for another day. Today, let's talk about bishops.
In my estimation, there are two countervailing forces at work that make this debate over bishops seem intractable. The first is a difference among Anglican provinces in how bishops are selected. The second is a conflict in how the various Anglican churches view the authority of bishops. The two are interrelated, but let's pull them apart for the sake of argument.
Today I will look at the election of bishops, and another time, at their authority.
The American Church began electing bishops in local church conventions soon after independence was won from Britain. The first American so elected, Samuel Seabury (picture at right), sailed to Britain in 1784 seeking ordination from the English bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow bishops refused to “lay hands” upon him, so Seabury went to Scotland where a group of “non-juring” bishops ordained him.
The Scottish “non-juring” bishops were dissenters from the English bishops on the matter of choosing monarchs. Their political arguments are not so important to us now, but they highlight that the American Episcopal Church got off to a rocky start with the English bishops, and since then Americans have never really consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury on who should be a bishop in America. The snub from England was patched over in the decades that followed but never really forgotten.
It needs to be underlined that our election of bishops by a church convention is a novel, thoroughly modern idea, and it is a practice not widely shared in the rest of the world. In one sense, we are not very Anglican at all because we have long practiced a form of democracy in the election of bishops.
To understand how different we really are, I’ve gone back into the depths of Anglicanism by reading Jeremy Taylor’s essay, Episcopacy asserted, written in 1642, his first major work. At the time it was published in Oxford, Taylor (1613-1667) was a rising star in the Church of England (years later he would be made a bishop) and he was considered the most eloquent "divine" of his generation; at the time, Taylor and the Church of England were battling the Presbyterians over whether there should be bishops at all.
How a man became a bishop (they were all men, after all) was not by an election of a local church, but by the other bishops or apostles. “But here lies the issue and strain of the question,” Taylor wrote.
And so it is the “strain of the question” for us. Centuries ago, the English church began selecting bishops with the approval of monarchs and their ministers, and sometimes with their active promotion.
In the modern Church of England, the Prime Minister, in the name of the Queen, approves the bishops. The selection process is done largely in secret, and is a mystery to all but the insiders. That church and state in Britain are a muddled mess is a major understatement. Indeed, most Americans would be highly offended if the Congress and President picked our bishops, but that is precisely how bishops are chosen in Britain.
Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has repeatedly suggested that the American Episcopal Church should consult more widely with the Anglican Communion in the making of bishops. He holds that our “catholicity” requires us to consider how our bishops are connected one to the other across national lines. He is perhaps correct. But his assertion invites scrutiny of how he was selected as a bishop and how other Anglican bishops are selected in other provinces.
The question for Williams should be this: Should the rest of the Anglican Communion, including the American Episcopal Church, be consulted on the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury? After all, we define Anglicanism, in part, as recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. We have a stake in who holds that office.
And that should raise a very uncomfortable question for the Church of England and all of the Anglican Communion: Should the Anglican Communion continue to be entwined the British government? The Anglican Covenant, promoted by Williams, should address this issue as well.
This is no small question, and I would submit the issue is a major reason why our churches seem to be talking past each other. The bishops in the rest of the Anglican Communion, including in Britain, have consistently brushed off our arguments that our way of church governance is crucial to our understanding of our identity.
This is an old issue. Taylor himself touched on it in another book, A Discourse on the Liberty of Prophesying, published in 1646. The book itself has a curious history. Taylor, once he became a bishop, tried to disown it and asked his publisher to gather up any copies that could be found and burn them. He did not succeed; I have a first edition copy in my personal library, and Liberty can be found in the compendiums of Taylor’s work. And thank goodness, for it is a little known masterpiece of the English Reformation.
In the book, Taylor argued that governments are ill equipped to enforce matters of faith. He rested his argument on the fact that there are honest differences by faithful people in interpreting Scripture. In Taylor’s view, to allow a government to be, in effect, the final authority on scriptural interpretation was irreconcilable with the freedom of conscience of individuals. “For it is best every man should be left in that liberty from which no man can justly take from him.”
The larger Reformation issue he addressed was that the Roman Catholic Church asserted that it was the sole interpreter of the Bible; reformers like Martin Luther disagreed, but some Protestant reformers sought to replace the Vatican with themselves as the sole authority on Scripture. Taylor thought it just as wrong to insert the state in place of the Vatican.
But Taylor also hedged here. He wrote that God spoke through the conscience of human beings (Ductor Dubitantium, 1660), but he also believed that bishops should rule the church. Taylor did not resolve the inherit tension in his stance, and it may be that in his English muddle much of the current Anglican tensions lay.
The notion that bishops are all-powerful is certainly a legacy of the early church and was inherited by the English Church. The issue Taylor confronted was a Puritan government trying to control the church and the bishops. Taylor took it for granted that bishops should govern the church alone with no interference from the people in the pews. “I say they [bishops] had power alone to govern alone, for they had the government of the church alone before they ordained the first presbyters.”
The American Episcopal church, though, took a much different course, shaped by the events of and between the War of Independence in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention of 1789. The Episcopal Church inherited a system of federal checks-and-balances from the founders of the United States; the Episcopal Church saw the authority of bishops differently than their English counterparts. Authority was spread among the people and clergy, and limits were put on the power of bishops. That, too, is underappreciated and misunderstood in the rest of the Anglican world.
Next time I will look at episcopal hierarchy and suggest a different way of viewing the authority of bishops.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Cats' Favorite Carols
1. The First Mewl
2. Fleas Navidad
3. Angels We Have Purred on High
4. A Stray in the Manger
5. Jingling Bells
6. I Saw Mommy Licking Santa Claws
7. Catnip Toys to the World
8. 'Twas the Nap Before Christmas
9. We Wish You A Furry Christmouse
10. Wreck the Halls
11. Up on the Mousetop
12. Have Yourself a Furry Little Christmas
13. Joy to the Curled
14. I Saw Mommy Hiss at Santa Claus
15. The First Meow
16. Oh, Come All Ye Dishful
17. Silent Mice, Yummy Mice
18. Fluffy the Snowman
19. Do You Smell What I Smell?
20. Oh Little Town Without Any Dogs
Sunday, December 13, 2009
There, I have always wanted to say that. It feels pretty good.
Today we make the acquaintance again of John the Baptist, that pleasant fellow who is definitely not jolly old Saint Nick. John wears clothing made of camel’s hair and he has a leather belt and he eats insects.
Although his name is “John the Baptist,” he is not a Southern Baptist or an American Baptist or any other kind of modern Baptist. He might better be called “John the Baptizer” because that is what he does; he stands in the river baptizing people.
But before we completely dismiss John the Baptizer as someone who comes off as, well, a bit unhinged and has trouble translating into the 21st century, I’d like to point out something remarkable about John Baptizer.
There is something about this John the Baptizer that draws people to him. The gospel of Luke today tells us that crowds of people came looking for him. The crowds come looking for something better; I would venture the crowds long for an encounter with the holy. And they are willing to walk a very long distance to find this holy man standing in a river in the desert.
Something very, very powerful is happening with John the Baptizer, and the crowds have come from far and wide to be part of it.
Those people may dress and speak differently than we do. But I would also guess they have much in common with us. They have experienced the ups and downs of life, and they are searching for the same things we are, and they probably walked for days to reach the river Jordan and John the baptizer.
When they get there, they want to know something: Are you the messiah?
But John surprises them; he tells the crowds: You are asking the wrong question.
The messiah is coming, he says. But you haven’t asked the right question.
The right question is: What will you do in the certain knowledge the messiah is coming?
He tells the people to get right with God. And to get right with God, you must get right with each other. Feed the poor, make sure no one goes hungry. Give away your extra coat, make sure no one goes cold. Those of you with much, don’t complain you don’t have enough. Give some of it away.
Get right with each other, and when you do you will be ready to see the Messiah coming among you.
John uses a word very unfashionable in our world: he tells people to repent.
The word “repent” means to “turn around,” and that is the great and wonderful irony of this story.
John the baptizer tells the people, who have come so far, that they really did not have to travel so far to find what they sought. All they need do is turn around and go home to see God.
But before they go, John the Baptizer washes them – baptizes them – in the river as a symbol that their life has begun new again, that it is never too late for anyone to see and experience God, that it is never too late to answer God’s call to serve each other.
John steps into the river of people and tells them – and us to repent – how to turn back to God:
By being awake, looking for God around you and listening to the Holy Spirit at work in your life, and then doing something with that experience by acting right with each other.
I would like to think all of this has something to do with this color blue of Advent, the color of the sky before the dawn.
Have you ever noticed something else about the pre-dawn sky? It is the time when it is hardest to see anything. Think of the world where we live as the pre-dawn sky – it is sometimes so very hard to see God in our surroundings.
In the days ahead, look and listen for God all around you. What you seek is already with you.
John the baptizer gives each of us the message of Advent: Be awake. You really don’t have to travel far to find what you seek. Look for the dawn of Christ’s light here, today, and in the days ahead. Amen.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Today is her feast day: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, la Virgen de Guadalupe – the Virgin of Guadalupe. This day in 1531 marks when an Aztec brought roses to the bishop, and the bishop had to believe him.
Whether you believe in the story, or believe it happened exactly that way, is less important
Friday, December 11, 2009
Starlings in Winter
by Mary Oliver
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can't imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
You are invited to a special evening
Celebrating the Centennial of St. Paul’s Memorial Church
with our special guest
The Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Join our Presiding Bishop as we begin our year-long celebration of 100 years of ministry of St. Paul’s Memorial Church at the University of Virginia with a festive parish dinner on Saturday, January 30 at 5:30 p.m.
The cost of the dinner is $35 per person. A cash wine bar will be available. All are welcome – if you need assistance with the ticket price, call Rector Jim Richardson at 434.295.2156.
Space is limited and reservations are required. Members of St. Paul's will be given preference in making reservations until Dec. 31. Reservations should be made no later than January 4 and full payment must be made by January 17.
The dinner will be held at Alumni Hall, 211 Emmet St. South. Parking is available in the adjacent lot and in the Central Grounds Garage across the street.
If you will need assistance with transportation, please indicate that when you make your reservation and we will assist you closer to the time of the event to make arrangements.
Reservations may be made by calling the church office at 434.295.2156
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.
The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.
The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.