Thursday, January 22, 2015

My prayer at the Virginia General Assembly

I should have posted this a few days ago. It was my honor and privilege to give the opening prayer at the Virginia General Assembly last Friday, also marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As some of you know, I was the Chaplain to the California Senate for four years and did this every legislative day. I much enjoyed seeing another legislature in action (or in the opening stages of action), and I am grateful to Delegate David Toscano for inviting me. Below is my prayer, inspired by a blessing written by William Sloane Coffin many years ago.

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Gracious and loving God, as we honor in the next few days the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we come before you with gratitude for his prophetic life and service, and we give thanks for the opportunity to serve in our own time.

Give us the eyes to see the possibilities others do not see, and the ears to hear the people whose voices are seldom heard.

May our lawmakers risk something big for something good; may they remember that the world is too large for anything but compassion, and too small for anything but cooperation.

May God kindle in our hearts the courage to break down the boundaries that divide us, the wisdom to lift up those who are poor, sick, oppressed and afraid, and the strength to work tirelessly to make real our nation’s promise of equal justice for all.

May our lawmakers build this great commonwealth not just for ourselves but as a beacon to the world for generations to come. In this we pray, AMEN.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marcus Borg and his passing

We learned tonight that Marcus Borg died this morning. I did not know until now he was ill. His book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time in the early '90s had a huge impact on me. 

It was my pleasure to be his driver and guide when he led our clergy retreat in the Diocese of Northern California a few years ago. 

Driving around Sacramento, we talked about all sorts of concepts in the New Testament from eschatology to resurrection. He was a relentless scholar and a gentle teacher.

I will reflect more in this space about him in a few days.

His contribution to our understanding of who Jesus really was is enormous. He was controversial, and he evoked strong reactions. He was also willing to entertain other opinions and change his mind. He will be missed. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Alcohol, driving, texting and the tragedy in Maryland


As you are probably aware, the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, Heather Cook, has been charged with manslaughter in the death of a bicyclist. This came across my email today from Jim Mathes, the bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, who is also a friend of mine. He says this far better than I can, and so I would ask that you read this:

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Beloved in Christ,

There has been much written about the tragic event in the Diocese of Maryland on December 27. On that day, the bishop suffragan, Heather Cook, while driving and allegedly intoxicated and texting on a mobile device, struck a cyclist, Thomas Palermo. I have been, thus far, able to resist adding to the avalanche of words. However, I have found myself profoundly affected by this horrible event. A husband and father is dead. A bishop is charged, arrested and now in rehab in prison as she awaits trial. A diocese is reeling.

It is abundantly clear that our church will reevaluate its calling processes in light of this event. Bishops and all clergy in our church, and I imagine other denominations, will receive much greater scrutiny. However, I wonder what should be our contemplation. What should be our confession and amendment of life? In particular, I ponder our relationship with the three contributing factors in this matter: motorized vehicles, alcohol, and mobile communication.

As most of you know, I run and walk a fair amount. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been more observant of motorists' driving habits. Most of the time when people come to stop signs, they do not fully stop. Indeed, some people are rather reckless in their haste. Add this to speeding, changing lanes too closely, and other behaviors, and it is remarkable that there are not more injuries and deaths on the highway. Comparisons of gun deaths to automobile deaths are often used to underscore the need for gun control. But the reality is that, in the majority of the U.S., more people die in automobile accidents than because of a gun.* Automobiles can be deadly. We forget when we drive a car that we are propelling thousands of pounds of metal, glass, plastic, and rubber at high speed. The laws of physics will not suspend when we are in a hurry or inattentive. My confession to you is that I have too often put my own schedule and priorities above safety. My amendment of life is to exercise a renewed caution while driving. My highest priority must be to others and to care for myself. 

Thirty-one percent of the automobile fatalities in the U.S. are related to alcohol. In spite of this, and a whole host of other damage done to individuals and families by alcohol abuse, our culture continues to be alcohol-focused in social interactions: beer at ball games, champagne at New Year's, etc. As Episcopalians, we have fully bought into that. Historically, we have tended to differentiate ourselves by our drinking: whenever two or three are gathered together, there is a "fifth." It is time to deeply consider our relationship to alcohol, not in some sort of prudish way, but in a way that strongly asserts moderation and confronts, out of love, behavior that is harmful. My confession to you is that I have been complicit in a culture that promotes alcohol consumption. We are going to reevaluate how, and if, we serve alcohol at diocesan events. In addition, I am going to look into ways that the clergy members of the diocese can practice health and well-being in their alcohol use, including intervening where there are problems.

Living in the age of data phones, email, and texting, and the use of mobile devices while driving, has become a significant safety issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes texting as one of many actions while driving that is considered "distracted driving." One fifth of all U.S. auto fatalities include distracted driving as a contributing factor. Again, why are we so busy that we must multi-task? What makes us think that what we are doing is more important than our own lives and the lives of those around us? I suggest that our promise to respect the dignity of every human being requires that, when undertaking the great responsibility of moving a car at high speed, we give it our fullest attention. My confession is that I have done things while driving that are distracting to me and thus, dangerous. My amendment of life is to change this behavior. In particular, I need to reevaluate the way I talk on the phone while driving. There is no question that, while lawful, the whole exercise of making and executing phone calls is distracting. As your bishop, I should let voicemail do the work while driving and let driving be my singular work.

This reflection is open-ended for me. I hope it serves as an invitation for conversation within our clergy community, and our wider church community. The Maryland event should change us. Our relationship to Jesus as the one who comes to show us the way, the truth, and the life, is an invitation to change and transformation. That is why I come to you at this time with a posture of personal and inward reflection, confession, and "with God's help" and yours, a life more on the way of Jesus. In this time, we are called to a greater sense of self-awareness and to evaluate our own behavior and congregational practices. Will you join me in this movement?

Please pray for the Palermo family, the Diocese of Maryland, and Bishop Cook. Let us pray for healing, peace and reconciliation.

Peace and gentle days be with you,
The Rt. Rev. James R. Mathes

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The passing of Al Martinez, author of "Get the kid his peaches"

Sad to hear today of the death of Al Martinez, the great storyteller of the Los Angeles Times. We've featured his "Get the kid his peaches" story every Christmas Eve on this blog (you can read it once again HERE). May he rest in peace, rise and glory, and his words continue to inspire, amuse and push us from our comfort zones.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Epiphany, the moon, and the stars within

Moonset, Arlington House, Virginia
Photo by The Washington Post
Not all stars are in the sky. Some are within us.

The last few mornings, if you were up early enough, like I was, you would have seen the moon setting on the western horizon. The moon was nearly full, and rose in the east soon after sunset, and the moon gradually rose in the night sky, glowing white above us.

As we slept, the moon arched toward the western sky horizon. Then the moon dimmed to orange as it sank in the western sky, glowing like the sunset of a few hours earlier, but not in a way that blinds us when we look into it.

The moon is a reminder that the brightness of the sun is with us even in the darkness of the night. I’d like to think that is what Epiphany is about – a reminder that the Holy still glows even on these dark, dreary cold winter nights.

You can’t look into the sun without blinding yourself. Sometimes the holy is like that, too. But you can look at the moon all night long if you like. Sometimes these fainter reminders of the holy are easier for us to see, too.

In the Epiphany story from the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12   we meet once again the magi as they follow the glow of a star to the crib of Jesus. Like watching the moon arching across the sky, they follow this star all night long.

Let me point out a few details you might not have noticed in the story of the magi: The story does not tell us what the star looked like. It must have been a faint star indeed. I doubt it looked like the star streaking across the sky on Hallmark cards. Nowhere in the biblical story does it say anyone other than the magi saw the star. No one else sees it. Not Herod, not anyone in Jerusalem. Only these men, who like the moon, rise from the east.

Maybe the star wasn’t in the sky at all. Maybe the star was glowing inside them. When magi first saw this star, they did not know where they were going, or how the journey would come out. But they followed it anyway.

That is the definition of faith – following a star, going somewhere, and doing something, without being certain of the final destination. The magi were not the first to follow a star, and not the last. We too are called to follow the star glowing inside us.

The wise men – the Magi – follow their star to the infant Jesus. They come to behold and honor the newborn king, and they discover that this king is like no other.

He will grow to become a servant king with no throne, no scepter, no political power. He will wash the feet of his followers, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and share meals with saints and sinners alike.

He will teach, he will pray, he will get frustrated and angry at the greed and narrowness of people. He will ultimately go to the Cross to show us that there is more to life than death – more to life than what we see now.

As he walks among us, Jesus teaches really only one thing – that we should love God, and love each other, as God loves us. We are challenged to do just that, by giving life to God’s shalom and using our hands and feet to bring healing, peace and justice to the world around us. That is the star we are called to follow.

Sometimes we only see the star in the moonlight, but we still can see the star.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The angels encamped around us this year

Orion Nebula, NASA
“The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”
– Psalm 34:7

My childhood admission: I used to be afraid of a lot of things. I saw the movie “The Blob” with Steve McQueen about space goo from a meteor that landed on earth and ate everyone, especially kids sitting in movie theaters. The Blob oozed under seats and out of heat ventilators.

For years I thought The Blob might be under my bed. Ok, I really didn’t think that, but just to be safe, I did not let my hand hover below the bed at night.

More seriously, I was also afraid of the concept of infinity. The idea that space goes on and on forever scared the daylights out of me. I can’t explain exactly why, but it did. Still does.

The idea of infinite time also scared me. What came before time? Does time end? If time does end, did existence ever exist? If time doesn’t end, how does that work?

Adding to my fear, in church the preacher used to talk about God living outside of time and God coming at the end of time. How does that work?

Call me a neurotic kid with such strange fears. My parents thought I should be more worried about spelling tests and my “times table.”

Yet, I think some of my childhood fear about infinity and time might be what the biblical admonitions about “fear of the LORD” are getting at. It is tempting to translate the word “fear” into “awe” (of the LORD), and that works one level. But creation is so vast, and the concepts of time, space, infinity, are truly so beyond human comprehension that there must be more to this than awe. Who are we to think we can understand this? Who are we to think we can tame the universe? There is a lot to be afraid of out there.

We cannot know God easily or directly. The Book of Job ends with God bellowing at Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4). We don’t.

I bring this up as a way of suggesting that we might enter the new year with a measure of humility about our most cherished beliefs and opinions about everything from religion to politics. We are but mortal, made from dust and to dust we shall return. God’s ways are not our ways, and we are living on a finite rock in a tiny corner of the universe. Our conflicts over religion and politics are comparatively trivial. There is so much we don’t know even about ourselves and our planet, let alone the rest of the universe.

We might want to hold lightly to our opinions, listen to each other a little more closely, care for each other a little more deeply, and not be so certain we have this God thing figured out so perfectly. “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” so the wise rabbi says in Proverbs 1:7.

There is hope in this. The Morning Prayer reading for today begins with Psalm 34 and its prayer for wisdom and peace. Lately I’ve been reading the psalms from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible rather than the psalms tucked into the back of the prayer book. I like RSV version better including Psalm 34, especially this line: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”

May each of us find the angels encamped around us this year, protecting us from evil and from the arrogance of our own certainty. May many blessings light our path. And let’s be careful out there.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux