...continuing a video series from Bishop Greg Rickel of the Diocese of Olympia.
Bishop Greg Rickel recorded this video with some Muslim neighbors from the Seattle area. This is part 1.
I just signed an online "Appeal to Christians in the United States."
The following is a description of the appeal by those who wrote it:
This appeal was written for Christians by Christians. Those who wrote it came from different parts of the country and from different denominations. As of this date over 3000 Christian leaders have signed the Appeal. They include small-town pastors and pastors of large-city churches; lay leaders; bishops and theologians – some of them more evangelical, some more “mainline.”"
I signed it because I'm deeply concerned and troubled by the currents of hatred and division I see being fostered in our country. That's why I joined Christian leaders from Protestant and Catholic and Evangelical and Pentecostal affiliations in signing on to this statement.
In my last post I spoke of the Rood Screen and of how that symbol has been interpreted to me by some who view it for the first time.
I've had three written responses to my post. One person expressed appreciation for the beauty of the screen and a positive approach to it. Another person suggest the screen be removed and retired to a special place for it outside in the garden. Another person indicated that my post encouraged them in some writing they were doing on Christian spiritual life.
These varied responses reinforce my understanding that all language and symbols are multivalent1. The mistake of the fundamentalism around which I was raised is to assume that Scripture or theological language can be nailed down to one meaning, and one only, which is always, of course, the one being advanced to you by its advocate.
So it's not surprising to me that a symbol like the rood screen means different things to different people.
Now I want to set the rood screen in larger context, which is the whole interior architecture of our church building.
Norma Marrs, a member of St. Paul's with a background as a Christian educator in the Episcopal Church, shared her thoughts with me about this subject when I first arrived here. What I write here is essentially what she told me about her perceptions of our spaces.
One enters from Walnut Street through the narthex, which is that entrance on Walnut street under the tower and steeple. Doors open from the narthex to the nave, and to the left as one enters the nave is the baptistery, containing the marble eight-sided font. To the right one enters the nave with its rows of pews. From the nave one enters the chancel through the gate of the rood screen. From the chancel one goes beyond the communion rail to the altar.
So let's take this little walk through these spaces as a narrative of the progress of the spiritual development of the Christian people, shall we?
When one enters through the narthex door, one is entering the realm where the Christian story of who we are is told. This represents the time where we find ourselves drawn into the story of the Gospel as having some claim on our imagination, our desire.
The baptistery is near the entrance because baptism represents the initiatory sacrament of Christian life. In baptism we figuratively die and are born again into a knowledge that we are children of God and united with Christ, in whom we discover what our humanity is really about.
Baptism is administered once, but the nave to our right is a space to which we return again and again to be renewed in the understanding of the identity that was conferred on us in our baptism. The nave is the place where we repeatedly return to hear the story of Christ told to us throughout the stages of our life, so that our identity with Christ's work of forgiveness and reconciliation and mission can more and more be essential to our being.
Norma Marrs described the nave to me as being that place where we are the “church militant.” Now, that phrase may seem strange to you, inappropriately warlike. So let me explain. The phrase “church militant”, which belongs to earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, describes the present moment of our Christian life in which we are involved in a struggle with what our baptismal vows describe as the “powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” The roots of this understanding are to be found in the New Testament's Letter to the Ephesians, which describes spiritual life as a struggle not against “enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
The nave, then, represents that part of our spiritual journey when we are alive in this world, learning to resist all sorts of forces in this world which make for misery for human life and for the degradation of the earth. The nave represents our struggle in life to live into the promise of God's kingdom. The nave is the place where God's people come for strength for this struggle, and to claim the promise of God's love in Christ and the promise of a New Creation. We are the “church militant” in this spiritual wrestling while we are alive in this world.
Norma described for me the chancel, that place where the clergy and choir sits beyond the rood screen, as representing the “church triumphant.” This phrase represents that phase in our spiritual journey beyond our death, when freed from the struggles of this present world, we are in the nearer presence of the God of life. We all have the promise of going there.
Beyond the chancel lies the communion rail, and beyond that the sanctuary around the altar. As Norma describes this space, it represents for us the ultimate goal of all our spiritual journey, which is total union with God. This represents that phase in our journey where there will be no sense of distance, no memory of estrangement from God. There is just perfect Love. This is a phase of our journey that we can only now evoke in poetry, in metaphor, in music, in art, in forms of ecstatic prayer.
Every liturgy which involves the High Altar up against the East Wall has us for awhile in the nave for the liturgy of the Word, and then streaming up through the chancel to the altar to receive bread and wine as the very presence of Christ feeding us with himself, with the end being that we are totally united with Christ, and in Christ in total union with God. So, you see, we rehearse this spiritual journey. We practice it.
Now, like any theological language or symbol system, our church architecture at St. Paul's didn't drop out of heaven. It is not there to be idolized. The Church of Jesus Christ does not depend for its life on medieval or renaissance church architectural schemes. All one really needs to worship God in the tradition of Christian faith is to me a pretty simple list. One needs water for baptism along with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. One needs a place to gather, with a place for the proclamation of the Word. For that, one needs the texts of the Holy Scripture. One needs a table or altar. One needs bread and wine. And most of all, one needs the assembly. Personally, I find music essential. All the rest is ornamentation. It sure helps if the place is made beautiful.
We have the church building that we have. My point in these posts is simply to offer for your reflection a way to interpret the spaces we have bequeathed to us by our predecessors at St. Paul's. Perhaps we'll have a deeper appreciation as to how some people can see the space differently from us.
The main thing, I hope, is the main thing. That is that we have a story to inhabit, a story to tell, a story that tells us who we are. It is the Christian story. It is true, and it is beautiful, and it is there for us to receive and to let change us.
That font which initiates us into Christ has eight sides. It took seven days for God to create the world, says Genesis. Well, that eighth side is for the eighth day of Creation, which is the day we are born with Jesus Christ into a new life meant for service to the redeeming and loving of a broken Creation. Lent is here, and it's a good time, through prayer, study, self-denial, and works of mercy, to grow in our ability to manifest that eighth day.
1having many values, meanings, or appeals
Lent is coming, so let's talk about church architecture.
What's the connection, you ask?
Well, Lent is a time to prepare for the renewal of baptismal vows at Easter. And Holy Baptism is the sacrament of our union with Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.
Baptism tells us that we're all members of Christ. Baptism tells us we belong to God's loving purposes, that God has plans for us in the world. God tells us this. So this should mean we believe it, right? Well, as the old song goes, “It ain't necessarily so.”
It ain't necessarily so because there are all kinds of reasons that we tend to doubt this truth.
Sometimes, our reasons for doubting this truth are encouraged by a perception of church architecture.
In the last month, two newer members of St. Paul's have expressed to me their impression that the rood screen is a forbidding barrier to them.
What's a rood screen, you ask? It's that big ornate decorated iron screen that you see when you sit in the church looking forward to the altar. It's called a “rood screen” because of the cross on top of it. The word “rood” derives from the Saxon word rode or rood, which means “cross”.
These two people told me the rood screen seems to them a barrier which suggests to them that there is a special part of the church building that they are not really welcome to enter. These members have doubt in their minds that the church thinks they are “worthy” to enter. This isn't the first time I've heard this.
I sympathize with these people. I am always aware from where I preside of the dense wrought-iron screen that blocks my vision of the congregation. Sometimes I wonder how newcomers see that screen. Like any symbol, it can mean more than one thing, depending on who is viewing it. And if you've traveled much around the Episcopal Church, you know that to even have a rood screen is unusual, especially here on the West Coast of the United States.
Some years ago here at St. Paul's someone who is very fond of that screen was apparently afraid that I would have it removed, and so told me: “That rood screen will be removed over my dead body.” Yes, those words exactly.
Others have told me that they don't really care for it, but they've learned to accept it. One late member of the church told me made his peace with it, however, while up on a ladder dusting it off for the Easter celebrations.
The 9:00 am Sunday Eucharist was instituted in part to give people another option for celebration, with the use of a freestanding altar placed at the crossing.
Rood screens belong to the architecture of the medieval and renaissance period of church history. They are part of a more comprehensive vision of church architecture from that period, and I'll describe that in another post to come.
But here, let me just lay down something basic.
Baptism makes us members of Christ. Baptism names us as worthy of being co-workers with God's purposes.
No rood screen can come in the way of that.
And during every Eucharist that uses the high altar, people stream right through that gate in the rood screen right to the altar to receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.
Now, Lent is almost upon us. I invite us to Ash Wednesday to Eucharist to pray the Litany of Penitence together and receive the sign of ashes to remember that our mortal lives belong to God. I invite us to a Lent of prayer, fasting, and self-denial, of good works for the poor and powerless. We'll worship at 6:30 am, 12:00 noon, and 7:00 pm on Ash Wednesday, February 10.
Truth. That is all. Quite beautiful to see.
Photo of Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial by Tabitha Kaylee Hawk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This morning I'm feeling the pain of disunity in the Body of Christ. I'm sensing in myself where that disunity comes from. It comes when I get angry and just want to shut off the other party in conflict. It comes from pain that I feel.
There's pain out there. The pain of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered people in our church who find themselves once again at the center of our conflict. The pain of people far away in our Anglican Communion for whom being honest about their sexuality can get them imprisoned or even killed. And we must stand with these brothers and sisters.
And I'm feeling again that only a deep grounding in God can keep me growing toward my full humanity.
And today I'm helped by writings from two scholars: one who is a personal acquaintance and friend, and one whose books I've read. They both are Episcopalians.
In a very thoughtful post, Bill Countryman, who has been deeply involved in the intellectual work of supporting a church that could be more honest about sexuality and embracing of all its members, reflects on the Primates' Meeting and the message it sent. I commend the entire post to you, and I give you this excerpt for your thought and prayer. In it, Professor Countryman is placing great value on the efforts to seek and to preserve unity in the church:
...the fact that the task is difficult does not mean that it can or should be lightly abandoned. The unity of the church is more than an institutional convenience, more than a theological premise, and more than a concern of professional ecumenists. It is a matter of deep spiritual value. God’s creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness, implies, as I have said elsewhere on this weblog, God’s search for friends. And since God has created so many of us and of such different temperament, experience, and culture, it seems reasonable to infer that our very multiplicity is part of what we bring to God as God’s friends. The great danger of Christians in any one place or time is that we shall begin to identify the gospel with the practices and prejudices of our particular time and place. Only a community of discourse that is large and varied enough to disrupt that kind of fossilization is ultimately adequate to the needs of our growing friendship with God, this friendship for which God created us and to which we are learning to respond through God’s grace.
I was moved to read the other day what my seminary classmate and friend Professor James Farwell wrote on his Facebook page, and I'm going to share the entire post.
Today I attended the funeral of a man I did not know. I was there because I know his son, who was one of my students when I taught on the faculty of the once great General Theological Seminary – someone who is a colleague now, and whom I consider a friend.
In a sermon that was a master class in preaching the burial of the dead, the preacher evoked the memorial inscription for Sir Christopher Wren who is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. You know, perhaps, that memorial inscription: “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city…who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit, but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” The preacher went on to note that the 'living monument' of the deceased was the people who packed the church to its walls, who had felt the effect of his service, his leadership, his humanity, and his faith and – in the case of his family – his love and his pride in them.
As I said: I did not know the man. Yet there I was, sitting in church, because I was connected to his son – so, I suppose, one degree of separation. I was struck through this gathering by the extent of our illusory sense of isolation, our belief that we are connected as human beings only to those with whom we are the very closest; and to all others we are strangers. But this is wrong. We are all connected, just barely separated by generations or distance or happenstance, but deeply enmeshed in one another’s lives as our choices, our practices, our influence, touching those closest to us, radiate outward, ripples in a great sea, through our connection with those we touch, through those that THEY touch – for good or for ill.
Buddhists know that we are thus connected – all interdependently arising and passing away together. Advaita Vedantists of the school of Ramanuja know this too, acknowledging the distinctions among us and among all things of the earth, but knowing simultaneously that these are all just manifestations of the One who is, unconditioned and ineffable. And Christians know this, that we are all connected in the ground of Being by whom we are made and by whom we are blessed in our flesh by the Incarnation of Christ, whose presence we shared today at the Eucharistic table – we, both wonderful and terrifying in our capacities to touch one another through the lives we build over our span of years. For this reason we are wise, as John Donne saw, when the bell rings for the dead, not to ask “for whom the bell tolls,” for it tolls always for all of us, as each and all “go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” “Alleluia” indeed, for at every fresh loss we are consoled to know that nothing, in the end, is truly lost; that nothing that is good slips through the fingers of God; that we belong to one another; and that we are not alone.
I was grateful to understand this again, as I forget it from time to time; and so I am grateful that I could be present at the burial of a man I did not know, to support a friend.”
We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; the octave between the feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. In both stories we find that unity is the gift of God. That unity is vast and wide and deep, but we don't see it so much of the time.
So that's why I have to pray personally after the fashion of this excerpt from Prayer D of our Book of Common Prayer 1979:
Remember, Lord, your one, holy catholic and apostolic Church, redeemed by the blood of your Christ. Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace.
In the aftermath of the widely publicized decision of the Anglican Primates statement censuring the Episcopal Church for changing our doctrine of marriage at our General Convention 2015 to provide for the solemnizing of the vows of same-gender couples, I have some comments.
What was actually said in this communiqué was this:
“...given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”
This was interpreted in the press as the Episcopal Church being “suspended” from the Anglican Communion. This erroneous notion has been countered by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, in his video from Canterbury, and ably dispatched by Dean Andrew McGowan of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. McGowan's post is lucid,making a clear explanation of a complicated subject.
Now, a scholar of Anglican canon law, writing in the Church Times, has called into question the authority of the Primates to make this requirement. Norman Doe of the Center for Law and Religion at Cardiff University today writes: “No instrument exists conferring upon the Primates' Meeting the jurisdiction to 'require' these things...Whatever they require is unenforceable.”
And Jonathan Merritt, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, asks why the Primates of the Anglican Communion don't treat the issue of the criminalization of homosexual people in some countries with the same seriousness with which they have treated the issue of gay marriage.
“Christians of mutual goodwill can and should have full-throated debates over whether same-sex unions constitute a violation of Christian doctrine and practice. But there is no moral equivalency between marrying a gay couple and sentencing them to rot in jail.”
That's an excellent point.
Integrity USA, a group within the Episcopal Church long advocating for equal treatment in the church for gay and lesbian people, is on record in their response to the communique as calling for the Archbishop's soon-to-be-formed Task Group in the Anglican Communion to “address the injustices, torture, imprisonment and killing of LGBTQ people taking place in several provinces of the Anglican Communion. Their statement also calls attention to human trafficking, hunger, poverty, and illness as deserving the attention of the Church.
The Episcopal Church is on record as standing for what many of us have come to believe, which is that same-gender couples in the Christian community are just as capable to shine the light of God's love through their relationships as opposite-gender couples. I see this. I recognize this. This isn't going to change because of the Primates' Communique.
What constitutes unity is another whole discussion which I won't develop here, but the short version is that our unity comes as a gift from God. When Peter confessed in the presence of Jesus that “You are the Christ,” Jesus responded to Peter saying “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
But in closing I call your attention to the pain of this decision for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians. Bishop Curry acknowledged this pain. I acknowledge it.
I call our attention to those in some countries where our Anglican Communion is present in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are subject to imprisonment, various persecutions, and even death. This is intolerable. We as a church must in some way share this burden until the stigma is removed.
As I write it's the third day of three days of traditional Christian festival. We began with Halloween, a name derived from “All Hallows' Eve,” which names the eve of All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day is the day when we celebate the intercommunion between the living and the dead, a communion forged in the action of God in Christ for humanity.
On this third day we celebrate All Faithful Departed, or All Souls' Day. Since the 10th Century today, the day after All Saints' Day, is set apart to remember what Lesser Feasts and Fasts calls “that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church.” It's also a day on which we remember family members and friends who have died.
This morning St. Paul's had a Eucharist in the Mary Chapel in which we read the necrology for the last year and had a chance to name loved ones of our own and light candles for them. I lit candles for my father, my mother, my brother, and a friend who died young. Sharon lit candles for her dad and mom, her sister, and a dear friend. Others followed suit. We then celebrated the sacrament of Christ's presence in bread and wine to strengthen us for service to Christ in "unity, constancy, and peace."
The morning's celebration reminded me of the Guardian editorial that appeared Friday, and reflected approvingly on the fact that Halloween, which began as the celebration of the Eve of the Festival of All Saints, is in Britain now disconnected from religious observance and thus belongs to everyone in that society as a way to have fun with fear. Halloween, says the editorial, is now “disorganized and irreligious and all the better for it.”
And yet the editorial recognizes the loss of something in this secularization of Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. The writers refer to “what is gone now, and won't come back,” by which they mean the Christian backdrop for Halloween, which they acknowledge as having been “for centuries...a framework that everyone knew and only the eccentric needed to consciously believe.” The editorial continues:
“With the end of that certainty, and with the loss of All Hallows’ Eve as a religiously celebrated festival, we have lost something profound, too. The slow accretion of meaning and tradition brings something to the observation of Christian solemnities that nothing quite consciously arranged can match, and which commercial Halloween does not even try to....Behind the plastic skulls of today’s Halloween lurks something much more frightening. The lines of comic shambling zombies cannot entirely conceal Auden’s view that we are 'lost in a haunted wood, children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good'.”
I read the editorial with some sympathy to their overall view, although I wonder where the writers ever got the idea that Christian faith was ever for many of us a matter of “certainty.” Well, I suppose they got it from those Christians who trumpet their supposed certainties. I've known and lived among such people, and believe I've seen past the bravado of their supposed certainty to the underlying fear that energizes them. I've never been comfortable as one of that company, just as I wonder how anyone can trumpet the certainties that some brands of atheists trumpet. To me following Jesus is about asking deeper questions, about a growing trust that God is a mystery that is Good.
My sympathy with the editor's view is based on my observation that some people need to declare independence of some forms of Christian cultural attitudes to Halloween. These are people like the Guardian writer Sarah Galo, who grew up in a fundamentalism that banned the celebration of Halloween, and now opines that the banning of Halloween “caused ignorance, and not salvation.”
I'm one of those people. As a youngster, I was denied the pleasures of Christmas and of Halloween, based on the premise that these were somehow linked with pagan practices that made God mad and put us in danger of God's retribution in the form of eternal punishment in hell. To this day, I carry within me an awkwardness when it comes to participating in these celebrations. My father – may he rest in peace – held these views, and so our household went along with them. At my age, I don't hold it against him. He was trying to be faithful, and I wish he were still around to talk with about such things.
At the root of this negativity to Halloween was fear; fear that God – like us – was obsessed with retribution. This portrayal of God is particularly strong in American fundamentalism and far from dead, as another recent Guardian story about a “Hell House” in Texas demonstrates. I read this story with feelings of disgust and horror and then sadness in the realization that there are people who in the name of Christ put time and effort into producing these execrable horrors. I find the whole thing nauseating. It's spiritual abuse, and is destined to create many ex-Christians; the walking wounded. If this is taken to be Christianity, then Christianity is of no benefit to anyone. Ugh!
But unlike the Guardian editorial writers who have dismissed Christianity as certainties taken seriously only by the eccentric, I remain a Christian, and I find in the celebration of All Saints' and All Souls' reminders of deep mysteries that cannot be plumbed by merely putting on the masks and strange outfits of Halloween. I wish I were a little more comfortable with that kind of merry-making than I am, but nobody's perfect. That kind of merry-making has to begin early in life to really become part of you.
Those editorial writers are on to something when they lament the loss of something deep with the loss of the connection of the celebration of Halloween with Christianity.
In my view, this is because Christianity is not about “certainties” at all, as some count certainties. Christianity is about diving into mystery. It's about diving into the mystery presented by the Gospels, who tell us of a man who was rooted in Israel's God and showed us deep things of the nature of this God. Jesus showed us a God who is fathomless love, who is suffering-with-humanity love. Jesus showed us the God referenced in the collect for the feast of All Faithful Departed, in which we are led to ask that we might receive “the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son” to the end that we be “manifested as [God's] children.” First among those benefits is the forgiveness of sins, the key that unlocks the future for a world in which the future depends on the ability of human beings to practice forgiveness and seek reconciliation, all of which is necessary if we are to have the future that God intended.
I'm happy now to be part of a Christian community that can offer what we offered last Saturday: a “Fall Festival” open to all neighbors and community members at which children and their adults-in-tow could enjoy costumes and games and general merriment, sans religious proselytizing activities. We saw scads of children and their parents and guardians. It was all offered for free, and staffed by church people. To me, it's an expression of generosity made possible by the fact that we do not worship a god of retribution, but the God who in Jesus loves everybody and never coerces people into a relationship.
I hope that some of these people draw nearer and hear of God's love in Jesus, and begin to consciously enjoy some of those “unsearchable benefits” of the passion of Jesus and know themselves as God's children. That starts with us, the members of St. Paul's. I hope we all go after that in a serious way ourselves.
"The belief that violence ” saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience- unto-death."
For the rest of this essay, see http://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf. If you want to read more, pick up a copy of his book The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium.
“They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination....” -Jeremiah 32:35
I couldn't sleep once I woke up early on this day after the shootings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. I kept thinking about this passage from the Bible's Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, in which the prophet laments the practice of child sacrifice.
The passage was fresh in my mind because it is alluded to in last Sunday's Gospel reading from Mark chapter 9, in which Jesus refers to Gehenna, which is another name for the Valley of the son of Hinnom, which is the site on which these residents of Judah, to Jeremiah's horror, had adopted the practice of putting children to death to try to curry favor with Molech.
“The motive for these sacrifices is not far to seek. It is given in Micah vi. 7: "Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" In the midst of the disasters which were befalling the nation men felt that if the favor of Yhwh could be regained it was worth any price they could pay. Their Semitic kindred worshiped their gods with offerings of their children, and in their desperation the Israelites did the same. For some reason, perhaps because not all the priestly and prophetic circles approved of the movement, they made the offerings, not in the Temple, but at an altar or pyre called "Tapheth" (LXX.), erected in the valley of Hinnom (comp. W. R. Smith, "Rel. of Sem." 2d ed., p. 372). "Tapheth," also, was later pointed "Topheth," after the analogy of "bosheth." In connection with these extraordinary offerings the worshipers continued the regular Temple sacrifices toYhwh (Ezek. xxiii. 39).+
Yesterday, in response to Umpqua tragedy, the satirical magazine The Onion published an article titled 'No Way to Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. In it we read:
“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Ohio resident Lindsay Bennett, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past six years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County, Oregon is now handling the investigation into the murders and casualties inflicted by the 26-year-old man on Umpqua CC's campus. Two years ago, when the massacre of elementary school children in Newtown was still a fresh wound, Sheriff Hanlin wrote a letter to Vice-President Joe Biden firmly opposing any gun control measures. In his letter, he wrote:
“We are Americans. We must not allow, nor shall we we tolerate, the actions of criminals, no matter how heinous the crimes, to prompt politicians to enact laws that will infringe upon the liberties of responsible citizens who have broken no laws.”
Something deep is at work here in the American way of life. What is it? I think it has something to do with our belief in the myth of the redemptive power of violence, a myth the late Walter Wink exposed. We believe that only violence can stop violence. That appears to be our article of faith, to which we cling closely as a kind of security blanket. Like closely held articles of faith, we find it very difficult to question this article of faith.
In Jeremiah's time, there were those who clung to the idea that a way out of the insecurities and dangers of the time was to try to appease the god Molech. If you could just get Molech on your side, perhaps the nation would be freed from insecurity and danger. If it meant the sacrifice of children, then well, so be it. Jeremiah was horrified. Jeremiah spoke up. Jeremiah called people back to faith in the God of justice and righteousness.
In our time, we as a nation seem quite prepared to go on sacrificing our children. It isn't the god Molech, but it might as well be.
We've got problems. We have problems with many out-of-balance young men. We've got a surfeit of guns for them to use. We have the obvious problem of copy-cat behavior on the part of violent men. And we have a culture in which gratuitous violence in entertainment is taken for granted.
And we think we're better than those who offered their children to Molech? I'm not so sure.
Lord, have mercy, and wake us up from our torpor!
I preached a sermon last Sunday which is now posted on our St. Paul's website. It's important that we Christians get this matter of heaven and hell right, and I hope that I'm at least partly right in this sermon. As my professor of Systematic Theology Jim Carpenter once wrote in a blurb on the jacket of one of Robert Capon's books: "being half-right is a very good score for a theologian."
I don't think you can go wrong banking on God's infinite mercy. "Jesus, thou art all compassion; pure, unbounded love thou art," we sing. God is not a God of retribution, if the ministry and mission of Jesus is to be counted upon. But we humans are full of capacity for retribution. We create hell for one another. God in Christ crashed the gates of hell with a mission of mercy headed straight for the gates of hell, as Chris Hoke memorably reminded us in a sermon last year.
East to Dyarbakir
Our flight arrived on a hazy and hot day in Dyarbakir, set in the dry plains of the southeast of Turkey. There we met a driver who took us by van to the Caravanserai Hotel, a historic landmark in the old city of this ancient easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire. We took a break to find our rooms, and then some of the group followed Fr. Dale to the nearby shopping district to purchase a supply of seeds. Back at the hotel, we packaged several varieties of seed into a few hundred sample packets to be given out in our efforts to find situations where refugees with access to land could plant them and grow a garden.
The next morning we breakfasted early and then walked briskly through a warren of back alleys and narrow streets in the old city to the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Mary, whose building dates back to the third century. The priest, Fr. Joseph, is one of only two remaining Christian priests in Dyarbakir. The priest is at the St Giragos Armenian Church. Most of Fr. Joseph's flock have fled Turkey; his family and two other families remain as the church's only parishioners.
On our tour of the building, we viewed the gravestones of teachers and saints of the Syriac Church, and while viewing the baptismal font were told that this was the church in which Ephrem the Syrian, the most prolific poet-hymnwriter-theologian of the Syriac Church was baptized. Fr. Dale told us that Ephrem was himself a refugee in his day, having had to flee his home city of Nisibis to Edessa in 363 when the Roman army lost to Persian forces and had to retreat toward Constantinople.
We left Dyarbakir that morning in a van headed for Mardin with one more person in our company; Adem. Adem, a former student of Fr. Dale's at Mor Gabriel Monastery and a native of the village of Beth Kustan in the Turabdin region we would be entering, is now a journalist, and he would act as our facilitator and “fixer” for the rest of our travels in Turkey. His presence with us and his fluency in Turoyan, Turkish, and Arabic made all the difference for us.
We took off headed southeast in our van, and in about an hour reached Mardin, another major city in this region of Turkey. There, in the courtyard of the 4th century Church of the Forty Martyrs, we we met in person our first refugee, a dignified, silver-haired 88 year-old Syrian with a ready smile and what seemed to me a spirit of serenity. Over cups of chai tea, as Fr. Dale and Adam conversed with him and as Fr. Dale translated, we discovered that this man comes from a family that includes Christian bishops and priests, and that he is the last of his family to leave Syria. I've learned since our visit from Fr. Dale that this man's family has suffered persecution over a century, coming to live in the Mardin region at the beginning of the 20th century, where they were swept up, as so many Christians were, in the Armenian genocide. They fled to Syria, and now with the rise of ISIS, they are having to flee again, this time for Europe and North America.
Fr. Dale explained that 120 refugee families from Syria were living in the church facilities and in other lodgings in the area.
After the visit, we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant, where during lunch we were approached by a woman speaking German-accented English. Perhaps because we seemed cautious about being approached by strangers, she left after exchanging pleasantries. However, later she returned, and as it turns out we found she represented a German NGO seeking to provide relief to refugees, focused on food and nutrition issues. When she found out from Fr. Dale the aims of our project, she showed great interest. Fr. Dale left with her business card and the possibility that we'd just made a potentially helpful contact.
The next stop before leaving on this hot afternoon was a Turk Cell mobile phone outlet, where Fr. Dale got outfitted with a device that allows him to access the internet through a satellite link. I was glad for a cool place to sit while I waited, because I felt the cold that I thought I left behind in Bellingham coming on strongly. I was feeling disheartened by this, and hoping that this evening would provide an opportunity to get to bed early.
"Until the suffering God concept is understood and assimilated, not many people are going to enjoy passionate love affairs with God or live worldly lives of prayer."
-William McNamara, OCSO, from "Mystical Passion: spirituality for a bored society." (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).
I guess I was ready for the invitation that came my way to take a trip with an able guide to the front lines of the scene of some of the world's most acute agony. Like many of us, I read the news with a sense of helplessness; news of violence and suffering half a world away, on top of the suffering that is to be found right around us here at home. To paraphrase a poem by Walter Brueggeman, I'd been feeling “moved by the mumbles of the gospel” amid the noise of the world's politics “even while tenured in [my] privilege.”i
At Diocesan Council meeting in late June, Bishop Rickel spoke to us about a man he'd just met - a Syriac Orthodox priest with roots in the Skagit Valley – who had come to his attention through the good people of Christ Episcopal Church in Anacortes. Bishop Rickel said: “A lot of times people will say to me, 'You just have to meet this person,' and in this case, it was really true.” He showed us a video that his staff had quickly made on the day Fr. Dale Johnson came to the Diocesan House. The video introduced Fr. Dale and his mission, called "Seeds of Hope", and the story behind it. I was intrigued by the invitation in it to join Fr. Dale on a mission to Southeast Turkey to meet refugees and help him develop his plan – made in response to a request from a refugee woman – to bring garden seeds to those refugees.
A little later Fr. Dale was the featured speaker at the Mt. Baker Regional Meeting in the Diocese. He told his story, which held us transfixed. At the end of the meeting I felt a stronger tug to accept the general invitation to join him on the trip.
After consultation with my wife and with my senior warden and some others, I found myself with a green light to follow this call. Then followed a meeting with Fr. Dale and three others from our diocese, and the planning was on.
Our “Seeds of Hope” delegation departed Seattle early the morning of September 8. With Fr. Dale were myself, Deacon Eric Johnson of Christ Church, Anacortes, Dale Ramerman of Christ Church, and Greg Rhodes of Church of the Good Shepherd, Vancouver, Washington. Alice Kapka of Christ Church, now living in Hungary as teacher, would join us in Istanbul.
Upon arrival in Istanbul by way of Toronto, we checked into our hotel, met Alice, just arrived from Budapest, and had dinner together down the street in the courtyard restaurant just outside St. Helena Chapel, the first English chapel to be built in Istanbul after the Reformation, and dedicated to the mother of Emperor Constantine, who was herself a Christian. Our table sat immediately beneath the stained glass window depicting her likeness. During dinner a band of young protestors processed loudly past. Fr. Dale explained that these protesters were Kurds protesting their oppression by the Turkish government.
We retired for the night. For some of us at least, it was not a restful night, as a disco beat from a nearby club steadily pulsed until 4 am from the alley below and voices of revelers pierced the night. The Hotel Londres is in the midst of an area known for shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.
In the morning I went to the fifth-floor rooftop cafe of the Hotel for some quiet time in the morning light which illumined the Bosphorus and the spread of Istanbul to the west. After a breakfast we made our way again to the airport to catch a 9:20 am 2-hour flight to Dyarbakir (the ancient city of Amida), a regional capital city in Southeast Turkey.
I wrote in a previous post of my belief that white folk – especially those of us living in areas where whites predominate in the population – need to listen carefully to the voices coming to us from those African-Americans who are bringing to our attention the work that still has to be done to heal the wounds of our legacy of racism. This is my strong conviction. I believe this is especially true when those voices upset us, or inspire in us a defensive reaction.
So it's wonderful to see a white Christian doing just that: listening. Richard Beck, a psychology professor from Abilene Christian University, is a devoted Christian believer from the Churches of Christ tradition who uses the Book of Common Prayer in his private prayers. He studies the Bible with prisoners. He has a wide-ranging curiosity about everything, and he likes to write on his blog, Experimental Theology, as well as to write books.
Lately, Beck has been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me and blogging about it. In six posts, he gives evidence of reading closely, critically, and with compassion and empathy.
I recommend reading all six posts. Beck's writing is non-defensive, reflective, and both appreciative and critical. He's titled his posts “The Gospel According to Ta-Nehisi Coates”, while acknowledging that Coates is a self-confessed atheist. What Beck is saying by this title is that he finds in Coates' writing much that informs him as a believer in God.
In his final post, Beck appeals to the example of our Lord Jesus to explain his point of view on this:
Jesus...created communities centered around giving care to the most vulnerable in his society. Jesus carved out of Empire space that protected and cared for the most fragile bodies. That's what Jesus did as he moved from town to town, he created a community where the most oppressed and marginalized were welcomed and cared for. Communities of care that were open to agents of Empire, tax collectors and Roman soldiers, who were willing to work to buffer fragile bodies.
And this is what the early church did as well. The church carved out of Empire communities of care. Imperial Rome knew Christianity to be religion popular with women and slaves because of how these communities buffered their fragile bodies from the ravages of Empire.
To my eye, these communities of care carved out of Empire are what Jesus meant when he said "the kingdom of God is in your midst."
The kingdom of God is found in communities of care who struggle to carve out space in the midst of Empire to embrace, care for and protect the most fragile bodies.
And if there is such a thing as "the gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates" to be found in Between the World and Me here is where I think we might find it.
I'm going to read these posts again. They inspire me to listen to voices coming from across the distance; across the barriers of culture. Overhearing Beck's conversation with Coates's was to hear one human being say to another, "I care about you." Coates cares enough to write his book. Beck cares enough to read with attention, and to respond. The lessons of his reading of Coates, says Beck in his last post, are "struggle and love."
Last Sunday we heard Josh Hosler urge us to come to the Eucharist ready to "chow down." He was faithfully rendering the strong meaning of a word Jesus uses in the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel According to John.
This morning in my reading I came across this passage about the Eucharist:
"When we look around, we see many people in whom the Holy Spirit does not appear to dwell. They look dead, as though they were dragging around a corpse, their own body. The practice of the Eucharist is to help resurrect these people so they can touch the Kingdom of Life. In the church, the Eucharist is received at every mass. Representatives of the church read from the biblical passage about the Last Supper of Jesus with His twelve disciples, and a special kind of bread called the Host is shared. Everyone partakes as a way to receive the life of Christ into his or her own body. When a priest performs the Eucharistic rite, his role is to bring life to the community. The miracle happens not because he says the words correctly, but because we eat and drink in mindfulness. Holy Communion is a strong bell of mindfulness. We eat and drink all the time, but we usually ingest only our ideas, projects, worries, and anxieties. We do not really eat our bread or drink our beverage. If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God. When I asked Cardinal Jean Danielou if the Eucharist can be described in this way, he said yes."
The author of this quote is Thich Nhat Hanh, the famed Vietnamese Buddhist monk. It is from his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. The emphasis is mine.
On Sundays right now we're hearing several installments of Jesus' “Bread of Life” discourse from the Gospel according to John.
So it was timely to read Lauren Winner's essay “Bread” in the Spring 2015 Issue of Image. In it she tells us of her reading of Psyche A. Williams-Forson's Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. I found compelling her recounting what Williams-Forson writes about black women packing shoe box lunches for family members who were setting off on a trip. We read of the Darden sisters, who recall staying up late the night before a trip to help their mother pack box lunches:
“which contained a bounty of goodies: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, nuts, raisins, and cheese. Except for the thermos of lemonade, 'everything was neatly wrapped in wax paper' and tucked into shoe boxes, 'with the name of the passenger Scotch-taped on so that special requests were not confused.' Even as young girls, the Dardens knew these lunches were about traversing dangerous terrain.”
Here Winner gives us an extended quote from the Darden sisters to explain why these box lunches were necessary:
“These trips took place during the fifties, and one never knew what dangers or insults would be encountered along the way. Racist policies loomed like unidentified monsters in our childish imagination and in reality. After the New Jersey Turnpike ended, we would have to be on the alert for the unexpected. So, as we approached that last Howard Johnson's before Delaware, our father would make his inevitable announcement that we had to get out, stretch our legs, and go to the bathroom, whether we wanted to or not. This was a ritualized part of the trip, for, although there would be many restaurants along the route, this was the last one that didn't offer segregated facilities. From this point on, we pulled out our trusty shoe box lunches.”
We also are told about the experience of Gail Milissa Grant, who grew up in St. Louis in the 1940's, who has similar recollections. We read that her parents:
“...often went to the Union Station not to pick up anyone but to feed their friends. My mother would prepare a meal and carefully select the menu for its shelf life since it would have to last for hours without spoiling. Negroes could not “receive service” on trains until later in the 1950s, so they had to travel with their own food. The Negro Pullman porters couldn't even serve other Negroes....On long journeys, my mother's would be one in a string of meals, with other friends doing the same thing along the route.”
Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Grant's food preparation is the best picture I have found for understanding God as a provider of food. Here is God preparing food for the Israelites journeying in the wilderness: God is not just abstractly raining coriander flakes down from the heavens. God is staying up late to prepare shoe box lunches for people on a perilous journey.
And this is the bread with which Jesus most explicitly identified—manna, journeying bread. Jesus as manna: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, all carefully packed into a small box. Jesus, a traveler's lemonade in a thermos. Jesus as manna, the bread that sustains oppressed people on a journey through an unwelcoming land.”
Ill think of this the next time I come to the Eucharist, in which the Church remembers Christ under the form of food and drink. My experience is not like that of the Darden sisters or Gail Milissa Grant. I don't have their experience of oppression in memory.
Nonetheless, taking the body and blood of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine puts us in company with all people who have journeyed through dangerous lands, as he journeyed through a dangerous land. Communion with Jesus means becoming one with everyone; with the concerns of all God's people, and knowing ourselves to be on a journey toward the kingdom of heaven, where reconciliation is in store for all creation. I can't help but think of the hymn text by William Williams:
“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand;
bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore,
feed me now and evermore.”
Over at Emmanuel Church, Mercer Island, I found this excerpt from a novel I read some years ago by Wendell Berry. I share it with you because it's good.
From Jayber Crow: A Novel, by Wendell Berry.
My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.– Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: A Novel (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000, p. 205).
Novelist, poet, essayist and farmer