Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Living into the Resurrection

This Sunday's epistle lesson (Colossians 3:1-11) urges us to set our minds on things above and not dwell on earthly matters. Why? Because we have already died and have been raised with Christ. Funny enough, I seem to have forgotten that.

As a Christian, I often confuse heaven with the kingdom of God. It's easy for me to think that the goal of this life is to leave it--to live each day with heaven in my sights. What's the point of all of this? Leaving it behind in favor of something even better. That might be true for gnostics and televangelists, but it's not true to the gospel.

We have already died. We have already been raised. We are already with Christ in the presence of God. But that's easy to forget because, as Paul writes, it's hidden from us. So how do we make it real? By living as if it already is.

We must not set our minds on earthly things and instead live into the resurrection. Otherwise, Easter is just a fairytale. What makes it real? Living as if Easter has already made a difference. As Christians, the power of the resurrection is as real for us now as it will ever be. Our lives here on earth our not an accident. Otherwise, God would have taken all of us up into heaven when Jesus disappeared into the clouds. But that's not the way it works. That's not Christianity.

We are forgiven. We are redeemed. We have died to sin and death and all that stands in between us and God. We have been raised to the life of the resurrection--not some day but now. When we lose ourselves in the matters of this world, we deny the power of Easter. So, are we Christians or not?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rich Toward God

I've been feeling rich lately. Spending a couple of weeks in Africa will do that to you. Or at least it should. I can't remember where it was or who it was, but I remember the feeling I got the first time someone pointed out to me that I am rich. At first surprised, then confused, but finally clear, I recall the humbling sense of understanding what it means to see one's self in comparison with real poverty.

You're rich. I'm rich. You don't have to be a billionaire to qualify. You don't have to be a millionaire to qualify. You don't even need a portfolio. Do you drive a car? Rich. Do you live in a house or apartment with indoor plumbing? Rich. Do you go to the grocery store and pick out what you want to eat? Rich. You don't have to come all the way to Africa to see poverty, but sometimes we miss it when it's living right outside our front door.

This Sunday's gospel is about being rich. There's tension between the man who asks Jesus for help dividing his inheritance and the message Jesus has been traveling the countryside preaching. What does it mean to be rich? Jesus says that one's life is not judged by the accumulation of worldly possessions. Instead, he urges his hearers to be "rich toward God." Unfortunately for me and most other Americans, the former comes a lot easier than the latter.

I want to be rich toward God, and this gospel lesson makes me think that my worldly wealth and my heavenly wealth are inversely proportional. In other words, as my stuff here on earth accumulates, my presence in God's kingdom diminishes. What should I do? Sell everything I have and give it to the poor? Maybe. That sounds tough, but, if, like the man worried about splitting up his inheritance, I can't figure out how to let go of my clutch at worldly possessions, that might be the only answer.

Africa Trip Days 8 & 9: Addis

On the way from Accra to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we joked about how strange it is to spend 36 hours where human civilization began. Over and over, we said to each other, "Who would have thought that she or he would ever spend a day and a half in Ethiopia?" Until this trip came together, I certainly didn't see this coming.

Our time with Episcopal Relief and Development, which is trying to shake the unshakable acronym "ER-D," ended with dinner on Friday night. Having already bid farewell to three of our colleagues, the rest of us had our last meal together. With one or two exceptions, the rest of us would be getting on planes the next day to make our way somewhere else. Five of us on that pilgrimage (Gay, Rebecca, Jacob, Jennifer, and I) were headed to Kenya. But that conference doesn't begin until Monday, which left us with 36 hours to kill. Why not Ethiopia?

Why not, indeed? We met six other North Americans, who got an extra day's start here, late last night. We leave first thing tomorrow. In between was a wonderful day seeing a part of the world that I am only just beginning to understand.

Until the Italians took over during WWII, Ethiopia had pretty much been an independent, self-governing state since antiquity. Having regained its independence, it is again a proud country with an heritage like none other.

In Ghana, Christianity came to its golden shores with the Portuguese and trade in spices, gold, and human lives. In Ethiopia, Christianity has been the religion for centuries. Legend has it that the faith was brought here before 60AD, which means that the good news of Jesus Christ has roots here that are older than much of Europe. Befittingly, this distinct people have a distinct take on the faith we share. Having rejected Chalcedonian orthodoxy in the 5th century, Coptic Christians are monophysite, which means they believe that Jesus Christ was of only one nature--the divine overtook the human at the incarnation. Most Christians (western and eastern) probably don't realize that they are inheritors of the other approach--two natures without confusion or mixture--but around here difference like that are sources of pride. 

We went to a monastery today and were allowed inside to see the church. It looked a lot like a Greek Orthodox Church with a big, colorfully painted screen separating the congregation from the "Holy of Holies." There was, however, an interesting section in the middle of what I would call the "nave" that was sectioned off for clergy. Apparently, there are many, many priests in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (I recently read Cutting for Stone, which suggested mass ordinations take place when a bag into which a bishop has spoken words is opened into a crowd of would-be priests.) Most notably, though, the Copts seem to have a much deeper appreciation for the Old Testament than any other Christians I know. Why? Because this is the land of the Hebrew Bible.

Cush. Abyssinia. The Lion of Judah. The Queen of Sheba. Moses' wife was an Ethiopian. They take those stories seriously because they are stories of their history and heritage. The stained glass windows depicting OT figures proudly dominate one side of the church. Want to know what ancient, semitic, indigenous Christianity looks like? Come to Ethiopia.

Later on, we went to the National Museum, where the remains of Lucy, the famous hominid, are on display. Actually, she isn't the oldest pre-human for us to look at. Humanity has its roots here for over 6 million years. (At last estimate, Lucy is only 3.18 million years old.) As our guide today told us, "When someone asks you why you went to Ethiopia, tell them that you wanted to see where you came from--that you wanted to go home." Over and over, he reminded us (sometimes in exaggerated ways) that we all come from here. That means that the stories of these people are, in a real way, the stories of my people and your people and all people.

People talk about going to the "Holy Land" and how the footsteps of Jesus and Paul and others come alive after seeing those places. I don't know; I haven't been there. But I can tell you that I can now see that there are direct and powerful connections between the most ancient stories of the bible and the modern world and that those connections come alive here. I still don't have a full appreciation for what they are, but I want to learn about them. I want to know what it feels like to claim the Hebrew Scriptures as part of my story--not merely in a spiritual sense but in a physical, biological, genetic, historic sense.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Africa Day 7: ER-D in Cape Coast

There's a certain sobriety that sticks with you after you've stood in the place where so many human beings in chains walked and stumbled and sweat and bled. Today we went to another castle--the one in Cape Coast--but none of us expected the story of that place to be any happier. It wasn't.

This time it was the British who built the castle. Like Elmina, it was the Portuguese who first settled here, but the British first built a stone castle to guard this side of the coast much later. The story was similar but came with a few nuances. 

This castle was built specifically for the slave trade--the dungeons were not converted storerooms; they came with channels already dug in them to funnel the urine of hundreds of people out. The Door of No Return was built with slaves in mind--it had two huge doors for letting spices and sugar and supplies in and out but would have had two small door cut within it for letting the men and women out one at a time.

In Elmina Castle we heard about the small crack-of-a-door being to prevent escape. At Cape Coast Castle, we learned that it was also to make it easier to count the slaves. "Only one at a time could pass through, so, if a ship only held 200 or 400 or 600, when you had the right number, that was it."

Numbers. A bill of sale. A bill of lading. These are human beings.

Later on, we traveled to St. Nicholas Seminary, where we were warmly received by the Dean and were given the chance to celebrate the Eucharist together. Using the lessons for William Wilberforce's day, we worshiped and prayed together. During the sermon, we had a chance to share our reflections on the trip. I heard some powerful stories.

One in particular really hit me. She spoke about keeping the line of connection between these two castles and the country we go home to alive and open. She said that we need to remember that many of the problems we experience in the United States have their roots right here in Ghana and elsewhere on "the Slave Coast." 

I hadn't thought of it that clearly. Poverty, race relations, drug abuse, the segregation of our culture--they all journeyed down these tunnels and were crammed in these boats and set sail across the sea as both captive and captain. The guide at Cape Coast Castle asked us all to find our roots here in Ghana or elsewhere in Africa. He wasn't only speaking to the people of noticeably African decent. He was speaking to those of us whose identity was born in this place as oppressor and captor. My European roots lead right here, too.

This was our last full day together. Our fellowship has been surprisingly strong. We spent little time getting to know each other, but, since we spent every waking minute together for a week or more, these pilgrims are my sisters and brothers. I was proud to have them as companions on this part of the journey. I will miss them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Africa Day 6: ER-D in Elmina

Until today, this trip has primarily been about projects--what is being done. Today was all about emotion.

Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482. Since then, it has served as a hub for trade and a fort for military protection for the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and, since independence was won in 1957, the Ghanaians. It is a place where ivory and gold and spices were sold to overseas traders. It is a place where ships in the bay fired volley after volley of munitions when one European power sought to unseat another. And it is a place where thousands and thousands of African slaves were brought, imprisoned, and sold. 

As we walked through the dungeons and saw the places of punishment and horror, I felt the strange, witness-bearing presence of the men, women, and children who huddled in those places. Many died there. Those who survived were squeezed through a tiny hole in the castle wall that was once big enough to pass crates of spices through. Slaves, of course, needed only enough room to pass through one at a time in order to lower the already infinitesimal chance of escape. It was standing in front of that place--"The Door of No Return"--that we paused for a silent moment of reflection and prayer.

As I think back to the power of that moment, I'm curious why it had such unusual sway over my heart and soul. I walk in places where slaves walked every day. I live in Decatur, Alabama. For practically my whole life, I've lived in the south, which is to say that I've lived in a place whose past was defined by the transatlantic slave trade. So why did I need to travel across the ocean to feel that connection?

Maybe it was the skill of our guide at the Castle. Ato Ashun not only led us through the corridors of that place, but he told the story of slavery in a powerful, touching, yet not overly dramatic way. Or maybe it was the new relationships that have been formed with Ghanaians. Or maybe it was the fact that we've been pilgrims on this journey for long enough now to feel emotions more acutely. I really don't know.

There was a woman who burst out of the passage that led to the Room of No Return. She and her group had gone where only a few minutes before our group had gone to stand silent and pray. Perhaps overcome with the spirit of the place, she emerged sobbing and wailing. It was a mournful sound that arrested all who stood in the open courtyard. She had been to the place where slaves were led to be put on ships, and she had emerged from that place where so many others did not.

As I recall her wailing, I get a renewed sense of the odd mixture of specific and anonymous that Elmina Castle represents. For me, those thousands and thousands of African slaves are nameless, and I hide behind the comfort of the abstraction that the composite of so many enslaved lives creates. But at Elmina I also feel them, smell them, hear them. They come alive, and the abstraction is ripped away, and I am devastated as I ought to be.

Before long, I'll head back to Alabama--back to my home. As Ato Ashun said, "There is only one reason to come here--to come to Elmina Castle. It is so that we never forget and never allow such a thing to happen again." He charged us to take that message back with us. I keep wondering what it mean to return to the place where many of those slaves ended up. As I fly over the waters upon which they sailed, how will that voyage be different? I think my heart broke a little bit in that place, and I think it's supposed to stay cracked. 


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Debts and Debtors

The Lord's Prayer sounds different when you're in a developing country. Last Sunday, having forgotten that this coming Sunday's gospel text is the Lord's Prayer, I participated in that part of the service and noticed that it felt different. Being forgiven as you forgive is a real thing over here. It's not abstract.

Debts have power, and that's especially true in a community as closely knit as a Ghanaian parish family or a 1st-century Palestinian village. If I owe you something, you have power over me--not just because of what I own you but because of what that relationship imbalance does to my relationship with the whole community. Those debts can be financial. They can be debts of honor. They can be debts on convenience. But, when I have something to hold over you, it gives me power over your life.

Praying the Lord's Prayer affirms our belief that we cannot know what it means to be let go of our debts until we let go of what we hold over others. We cannot know forgiveness unless we forgive. We cannot internalize (and maybe it goes further than that) what it means for God to release us from our sin until we are as free, liberal, and generous with forgiveness. 

Here in Ghana the poverty line is around $1 per day. Imagine, then, what it means to owe someone a debt of even modest magnitude. How would someone ever pull themselves out from under even a small obligation?!? Forgiveness. We live in the poverty of the human condition. What we have to offer God is a pittance. Forgiveness is our only hope. I think Jesus' words made sense to his audience in a way that rich, credit-card-carrying Americans like me have a hard time grasping. What I (and I suspect others like me) don't realize is just how absolute the connection between a willingness to forgive and an appreciation of one's own forgiveness really is.

Africa Day 5: ER-D in Bolgatanga

I wasn't sure what to make of today. It rained. A lot. It stormed last night--so much so that I thought I was back in Fairhope bracing for a hurricane. Actually, as Sam Candler put it, it only sounded that bad because of the windows that weren't quite tight in their seals. Still, though, I thought it sounded like someone was standing outside my window spraying it with a garden hose. 

So because of the rain our activities were curtailed. We drove to see a rice mill--a piece of equipment that made it possible for women to bring their unmilled rice to a facility 5km closer to home in order to make it ready to sell. If 5km doesn't sound like a lot, it's not. Unless you're carrying 50 lb of rice. I can barely carry my 20 lb child a mile without wishing for a wheelbarrow to toss him in.

After looking at the rice mill, we went to the Anglican Women's Development Center. This is a place where local women apply and are accepted to train for a career. Most of them women train to be seamstresses. That's a 3-year program. By the time they are finished, they are ready to open a dress shop, which means that they're learning about more that sewing. It's also about business education. Other women come to learn about bead making or batique (sp?) dying, which are shorter courses. Still, the focus is on training women to be independent. There are 25 students taking part in the program, and, to my astonishment, there is only one teacher. She does it all. Amazing.

At dinner tonight, someone asked my what my favorite part of the day was. I had to search for an answer. That's because yesterday we went non-stop to so many different places. Today, because of the rain, we spent a lot of time just waiting around. Initially, I answered the question that my favorite part of the day was the goodbye with ADDRO. Not because I was glad to say goodbye--quite the opposite. But because I realized in our exchange that, in order for places like the Diocese of Tamale to be more than just an anonymous need, we need personal connection. The gift of this part of the trip was building a relationship with people like Bishop Jacob and the program directors. That's what makes the work of ER-D real and reportable.

But after my dinner conversation, I think I'd change my answer. Today was about the power of women. We saw how women have the power to transform a community from poverty to sustainable living. It's not easy. It takes time--sometimes lots of time. Today we saw women who stand by themselves. They aren't waiting for a man to introduce them. They aren't looking for a husband to give their work validity. They were strong, independent women with work to do, and the Anglican Church and ER-D are making that work happen.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Africa Day 4: ER-D in Bolgatanga

Organic mango plantation. Carpentry school for the deaf and disabled. Micro-credit loans for women engaging in petty trade. Seed and fertilizer for farmers. Irrigation dam for a whole community. Mosquito nets for families. Where do I start?

About halfway through the day's tour of Episcopal Relief and Development's (ER-D) work in this part of Ghana, I decided that there couldn't be any more. We'd seen enough. Our group had been jumping from one site to another to another in the heat of the African sun. Surely we had exhausted the opportunities for observation. Did I mention that we skipped the dressmakers because we ran out of time? Did I mention that we skipped the demonstration farms because we didn't have time?

I'm fascinated with the work that ER-D is doing here. Mainly, that's because of its breadth. They're doing so much. Because they have partnered with ADDRO (see yesterday's post) and are married to local needs and local providers, ER-D is able to reach so many.

All of our observation today was enlightening. One area, however, was of particular interest to me. I've heard about micro-finance or micro-lending before, but I've never seen it in action. Here, micro-credit is offered to those who can demonstrate success in business or other small operations and the ability to expand that operation with the infusion of capital. Loans of varying amounts are made at interest rates of around 12% per year (compare with 30%+ at local banks). Loans are made for 6 months at a time. If repaid, additional loans are possible. ADDRO's goal for this year was to add 90 new participants to their already over 500 enrollees. They've loaned over $100k to local women, men, families, and businesses. These loans make the difference between a subsistence lifestyle and independence.

We also learned that the work isn't done. A component yet to be added is the savings part. Those receiving loans need to make enough profit to save some so that eventually they will not need loans from ADDRO and ER-D. In other words, the equity in their business needs to grow so that they can become self-sustaining. This, we are told, is the latest development in the global movement that is micro-finance. How can we be lenders who get out of the lending business? That's the work that ER-D is doing, and it's good gospel work.

I'm exhausted. We saw so much today. We didn't even have lunch until 2:45 p.m. because we were too busy to stop. Why? Because of all that's happening here. Why? Because of the work that the Episcopal Church is doing in Ghana and beyond. 

Some of us have begun whispering about what might be next--something big, something exciting. I'm here with a bunch of people who love the Episcopal Church, who love ER-D, who are active at General Convention, and who want to see us grow our commitment to empowering those in need. What will it be? How can we make all that is happening here even bigger? The reality is that for every person we see who is the recipient  of an ADDRO grant or assistance project there are a dozen more who  aren't being reached. The need is limitless. What will we do about it? 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Day 3: Bolgatanga with ER-D

"The gospel of Jesus Christ is incomplete  without addressing poverty." - Bishop Jacob, Diocese of Tamale

When I heard him say it, I knew to write it down. It was one of those profound things that I knew would take me a little while to figure out. It seemed controversial at first. How can anyone claim that the gospel isn't sufficient to stand by itself? But, as I heard the bishop describe what his diocese and the Anglican Diocesan Development Relief Organization (ADDRO) are doing, I realized that it would be not only controversial but heretical to disagree.

The Diocese of Tamale is the largest by area in Ghana. It is also the poorest. In this diocese, which covers three regions (think states in the US), 88% of residents are at or below the poverty line of $1 per day. What good is it indeed to tell someone to have faith in Jesus if they are starving to death?

We're going to spend the next two days looking at the work of ADDRO. We heard an overview today. ADDRO has 6 target areas: food security, integrated health, rehab of the physically challenged, gender and reproductive health programs that address traditional beliefs and practices that dehumanize women, disaster relief (floods & droughts), and potable water and sanitation. As I heard the program directors talk about their work, I thought, "This is where the gospel is alive."

The core values of ADDRO are to "promote the rights and dignity of the poor, disadvantaged, and vulnerable." How different is that from redeeming the lost? How different is that from welcoming the outcast? How different is that from reconciling the estranged?

I've always liked liberation theology, but my affection has always been at a distance. It's easy to like a gospel that gives preference to the poor when you're teaching about it in an air-conditioned Sunday-school classroom in a fancy, rich church. Seeing the poor and hearing the gospel changes all of that. I'm not ready to say that the gospel is all social justice--I'm too evangelical for that--but there is nothing threatening to me about what bishop Jacob says. And that suggests that the way I hear the gospel may change during this trip.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Africa Day 2: ER-D in Ghana

Enough incense to occlude my view of the celebrant. Bow-tie-clad, burgundy-cape-wearing acolytes genuflecting in unison. Women in elaborate dresses. Men n full-throated song. Worship this morning was a little familiar and a lot new.

A fellow pilgrim and I went by taxi to the Anglican Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity. Our driver didn't speak much English, so we started out at a different cathedral but eventually made our way to the right church. We arrived as the procession made its way down the aisle--20 people in various states of clerical dress. And I got the impression that this was a typical Sunday.

We sang more hymns than I've ever sung in a service before. The bulletin listed 16 of them, plus canticles, plus songs not in the hymnal. The service lasted 3 hours, but it felt more like 90 minutes. Still, 90 minutes leaves room or lots of worship. And you wouldn't believe what you can pack in to 180 minutes.

At one point during the service--I think it was after the traditional Eucharistic prayer said eastward-facing and the Prayer of Humble Access and the Agnus Dei and the "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof..." saide in triplicate--that I turned to my neighbor and said, "This is like Rite I on steroids."

Yet at another point in the service, the bass guitar, drums, and synthesizer keyboard cranked up while everyone in the church danced down the aisle to put their offering in a bucket. (Video to come later). In front of the church were 8 buckets--Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. plus a bucked labelled "Tithe." It turns out that people put their offering in the bucket with the day of their birth on it. It took me a while to remember that I was born on a Monday, and, by the time I did, it was too late. 

Overall, it was a strange combination of tradition and innovation--Anglicanism and African culture. It was a decidedly Anglo service. (We all chanted the Te Deum and the Gloria and the Benedictus from memory.) And it was a decidedly African service. (My neighbor and I were the only white faces in a congregation of 250+.) Maybe there's something to learn from that.

The word I would use to describe the experience is "lively." It moved. It danced. It took the participant to another place and left us wanting more. Yet it was historic and overwhelmingly traditional. That a balance can be struck between modern and old, colonialist and indigenous, is remarkable. Perhaps there's a way to strike a balance between  familiar and other that gives life to all.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Africa Day 1: ER-D in Ghana

Well I'm here.

I've flown "across the pond" several times before, but I've never travelled across the Atlantic to then get on another 6+ hour flight. If you're keeping score, that's a lot of time on an airplane. But I'm here, and I'm glad to be here.

I'm in Africa for two separate trips that overlap closely enough to allow one long journey. The first trip has brought be to Ghana with ER-D. We're touring all over Ghana to see what ER-D is doing here. We're learning about asset-based development. Although I still have a lot to learn, the fact that someone on my flight to Accra, when I mentioned "asset-based development" asked, "Like micro-finance?" suggests that it's becoming more common. There's more to it than micro-loans, but that's an example. 

Hopefully, by the time this first part of the trip is over, I'll know a lot more about it, about ER-D, and about what the Episcopal Church can do to support people in places like Ghana without sustaining a cycle of poverty. I'll be taking notes and posting them here.

Tomorrow is a quiet day. I arrived a day ahead of most people because apparently it takes a little longer to get to Ghana from Decatur than most other places. I'm hoping to go to some Anglican church nearby--maybe All Souls' Cathedral. I'll try to get accustomed to this place so that, when everyone else is here, I'll be ready.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Loving Jesus Means Feeding Sheep

In John 21, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter replies in the affirmative. And Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” A second time the exchange is repeated. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” Then, a third time, the entire exchange is repeated, only this time Peter is exasperated and wounded by Jesus’ question. Still, he repeats his answer—only even more emphatically: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And what is Jesus’ reply? “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus doesn’t acknowledge the pain he’s caused Peter. He doesn’t change the message. He doesn’t stop and explain why he asked the third time. Jesus’ response is the same each time: feed my sheep. What’s the point?

Some like to point out that Jesus is undoing Peter’s three-times denial of his master—giving him a chance to redeem himself by acknowledging his love for Jesus as many times as he denied it. Maybe. Peter’s proclamation in the end, of course, is correct. Jesus did know all things. He did know whether Peter loved him. So Jesus wasn’t asking for his own sake. He wanted Peter to learn something. Maybe it was just to help him feel better, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think the answer is tied to Jesus’ repeated response.

Sometimes I am asked a question by someone who really wants to know the answer. And sometimes I am asked a question by someone who wants me to pay attention to something. And usually, when that happens, they have to ask me three or more times to make their point. I think Jesus wants Peter to connect the dots in a way he might not be able to connect them on his own.

Do you love me? Then feed my lambs. Do you love me? Then tend my sheep. Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Love. Feed. Tend. Feed. If you love me, then take care of my people. Or, put another way, because you love me, you must take care of others.

I help people out here at the church fairly often. Most of the time, they are basically anonymous people who walk in and ask for financial assistance. Occasionally, they are people who need conversation and prayer more than they need a check. I take care of these people because it’s my job. But it’s more than that. It’s not just my job as a priest. It’s my duty as a Christian—as someone who loves Jesus. And the same is true for you.

Everything we do is a response to our love for Jesus and his love for us. In order for us to know what it means to love Jesus (and be loved by him), we have to be in Jesus-centered relationship with others. We can’t know what it really means to love Jesus unless we’re tending the sheep. Everyone. Everywhere. Our care for others is because we love Jesus. They aren’t separable.

Tyranny of the Urgent

As I was finishing my senior year at Birmingham-Southern, I was offered a job at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. I had already begun the discernment process, and, although I hadn't figured out for sure whether seminary was in my future, I was glad to have the chance to work at a church for a year while I sorted things out.

It was a great job. It was only 15 hours a week, but I loved every minute. Mainly, that's because I had the chance to work for and with a wise woman. The Rev. Canon Marcia Wilkinson was the "canon missioner" at the Cathedral, and, since I was an outreach assistant (whatever that was), she was my boss and mentor and eventually became my friend. One day, while describing her work to me and the care with which she told some people who came to the church seeking financial assistance "no," she used a phrase that I go back to over and over. I've preached on it before, and I might be tempted to preach on it again this Sunday. It's a phrase that guides not only my work in outreach but also in pastoral care, business questions, family relationships, and just about everything else I can think of. 

"Don't fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent."

In other words, when someone knocks on your door with a problem that to them feels like the end of the world, don't forget that it isn't always the end of the world. I see many, many people who come into with an overdue power bill and a disconnect notice for later that day. If I let the urgency of their problem dictate my response, I would never be able to focus on the bigger picture. Just because the deadline for your problems is now doesn't mean I should drop everything to fix it. I should be just as able to say "no" to someone with an urgent need as I do to someone whose deadline is still off in the distance.

In Sunday's gospel, Martha gets distracted by the work at hand. She is pulled about in many directions with the duties of preparing for and serving a guest. When a visitor comes over, it feels right to drop everything and get the job of welcoming them into your house done. But Mary isn't bothered by that urgency. She isn't persuaded by the demands of the moment. She sits and waits and listens. And she chooses the better portion.

How many things in your life feel like they have to be taken care of right now? Jesus' criticism of Martha--his gentle, "Martha, Martha" admonition--isn't about her desire to serve or the work she is doing. He's critical of the urgency with which she buzzes about the house. If I fall victim to the tyranny of the moment--of whatever problem walks through my door--I'll never have time for Jesus. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mary or Martha? No Thanks.

I’m 99.9% sure that I have never used the phrase “in the Greek text” during a sermon. Unless you’re speaking to a seminary community or the rector of a church full of classicists, it’s pompous. No one needs to know that I know the Greek and that I am thus the well-educated dispensary of proper knowledge without whom the masses would be ignorant. In other words, boasting in a sermon about what the Greek text says is a lot like the priest who does everything in Latin back when only the wealthy and educated knew Latin.

That being said…the Greek text behind this Sunday’s gospellesson has two points that I am desperate to get into a sermon this Sunday (even though I’m not preaching), and I’m going to have to figure out how to do it.

One way I’ve tried in the past is to say something more casual and slightly less boasting when comparing the English translation (usually the NRSV) with the Greek text: “The word ‘xxxx’ can also mean ‘yyyy.’” Another way is to read from a different English translation that gets closer to the sentiment I have in mind. This week, if I were preaching, I might have to do both. That’s because, when I read the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, two words jump out at me with bold, flashing, emergency-red lights: “distracted” and “better.”

Luke, the narrator, writes, “But Martha was distracted by many tasks.” I like that word. I like what it says about Martha. I like that she isn’t being criticized for her hospitality, nor is she being singled out for her busyness. The point of contention is the distraction that the work of preparing to host Jesus and his friends has become. The Greek word in verse 40 that is translated as “distracted” is “περιεσπατο.” Apparently (I had to look it up), that word literally means “pulled about.” In other words, Martha is being pulled in too many directions. She needs to “let go and let God”—advice this unrecovered obsessive has never found all that helpful.

Later on, when Jesus speaks to Martha, the NRSV uses the words “worried” and “distracted” to convey Jesus’ gentle criticism, but the Greek words are “μεριμνας” and “θορυβαξη,” which literally mean, “anxious/mentally troubled with cares” and “turbid,” respectively. In other words, Martha is letting her anxiety and turbidity “cloud” her spiritual sight. She has stirred up too much of a fuss.

For someone like me—who resents Mary both for her torpidity and the fact that she gets praised for it—hearing Jesus call her choice the “better” gets under my skin. Sure, I need to become more like a Mary and less like a Martha, but I doubt we could say that all of us should become “Maries.” (What’s the plural of “Mary?”) How would anything get done? The Greek word for “better” is “αγαθην,” which means “good, useful, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy.” There is probably implied a comparative use of that adjective, but many translations render it simply as “the good part” without throwing Martha totally under the bus.

As strange as this might sound for someone who’s getting all uppity about the Greek text, I think I like the rendering that The Message gives for this passage best:

38-40 As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”

41-42 The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Martha is getting “pulled away”—the literal for “distracted”—by her many tasks. Jesus notes that the is “fussing far too much” and “getting…worked up”—which convey the turbidity implied by the Greek. And then Jesus commends Mary not for being a better disciple but for choosing the only “essential” portion, which gives me enough wiggle room to sit at the table with that lazy good-for-nothing.

Maybe it’s not right for me to tweak the text until it says what I want it to say. Or maybe we live in a word that forces this gospel into a dichotomy that it isn’t really supposed to present. This isn’t about choosing to be either a Mary or a Martha but about not getting pulled away from what’s important. The Message isn’t approved for use in public worship in the Episcopal Church (nor should it be), but I might suggest starting a sermon by reading from it anyway.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Is It God's Will?

I think elections are fascinating things. Somehow, despite being actively opposed by nearly half of the population, a president manages to govern an entire county. Somehow, despite having to share a lunchroom table with her opponents, a classroom president manages to stay friends with everyone. Sometimes we welcome a particular election result, and sometimes we gripe about it for four or eight years (maybe even longer). Decades later, we look back on certain leaders with admiration even though we likely would not have supported them at the time. Occasionally, my affection for a particular politician will evaporate overnight. Politics and the elections behind them are curious beasts.

Although no vote was ever cast, I would guess that transitions of power in ancient Israel were just as intriguing. In today’s OT lesson (1 Samuel 16:14-17:11), we read part of the transition from Saul to David. David, of course, had already been chosen and anointed king—even though hardly anyone knew it (see 1 Sam. 15). Saul was still the ruler of Israel, but he had managed to lose God’s support, and, not surprisingly, the king of God’s people had a hard time ruling without the support of that all-important constituency of one. In today’s reading, Saul is tormented by an evil spirit, and David is asked to play the lyre for him in order to bring peace to the troubled king. Saul’s love for the young musician grows, and he chooses him to be his royal armor-bearer. Ironic, of course, that the outgoing king, who doesn’t even know he’s on his way out, chooses his already-appointed successor as an attendant.

The opening verse from today’s reading is what got me thinking about elections: “Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” I read that, and I wondered what made the author so sure that the evil spirit was from the Lord. Actually, that’s a pretty bold statement—that God himself was responsible for the evil that tormented a person. That’s a mixture of oil and water, of gasoline and matches. Yet the author is clear—it’s Yahweh himself who sends the evil upon the king. I wonder what sort of attribution would be made if Saul were more popular?

I think the reason the bible is able to attribute evil to God himself is because both the author and readers of scripture know how the story ends. With generational hindsight, it becomes possible to say that God himself withdrew his favor from Saul—even tormented him. At the moment it happened, I’m not sure it would have been so clear. But we know what happens. We know about David and Goliath. We know about Saul’s plot against David. We know about his struggles with the Philistines. We know about his military defeat and eventual suicide. And, perhaps more importantly, we know about David and his victories and his popularity and, despite his foils, his heart-in-heart relationship with God. And so we can look back and say that God had his hand in the whole thing—even in the convoluted, underhanded, rather earthy way that it all happened.

It takes years and years and years for us to figure out how God is working through a particular situation. It takes generations for us to look back and see how a dark spot in our history turned out for good. None of us is in a position to connect all of the present dots with certainty. The affair of human beings continue, and God’s relationship with the world continues, but figuring out how the two overlap and intersect and even coalesce into one takes generations. I am encouraged, therefore, that I don’t have to figure it out. Faith isn’t understanding how. It’s trusting that even the outcomes I don’t like are somehow a part of God’s loving relationship with the world.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Justified By Whom?

As a senior in college, I interviewed for a graduate fellowship. It was an intimidating process. All of the candidates met together with the interviewers for a social gathering on the evening before the interviews were conducted. Then, the next morning, one by one, we were shown into a conference room, where a dozen bloodthirsty experts grilled us on every level.

At one point, one of the interviewers asked me a question about quantum mechanics. As I gave my answer, I heard a phrase come out of my mouth that didn’t quite sound right. I saw the eyes of my interrogator light up. He had heard it, too. So he repeated his question to see if I would say it again. But I wasn’t smart enough to figure out exactly what was going on, and I wasn’t self-aware enough to stop and admit that I wasn’t sure what I was talking about. So I hanged myself on my words. And all because that one little thing popped out of my mouth. Within seconds, I could tell that I would not be receiving the fellowship.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But then, Luke tells us, the lawyer went too far. Apparently he wasn’t paying attention in law school when the professor taught him not to ask a question he didn’t know the answer to: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Uh oh. When a gospel writer tells his readers that you are trying to justify yourself, it can’t be good. You don’t stand up to Jesus and try to make yourself look good. That just won’t work. So Jesus tells him a little story that cuts his ego in two and leaves him wishing he hadn’t asked that follow-up question.

This week, I find that I am being confronted by my need for self-justification. Instead of asking, “Am I good enough?” I too often ask, “Aren’t I good enough?” Instead of depending only on God’s grace and mercy, I find myself making a case for my own salvation. Like many preachers, I have a high need for affirmation, but this gospel lesson is forcing me to reconsider the source of the affirmation I need. God promises to love me despite my deepest failings, so why am I still trying to prove myself worthy of God’s love? Jesus tells the parable not to shame the lawyer into action or to guilt him into repentance but to remind him of the nature of God’s love. Will he love the way the Good Samaritan does? No. Will I? Will you? No. But God does, and that’s all that matters.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Loving All Your Neighbors

Who is your neighbor? We just finished a VBS curriculum called “Everywhere Fun Fair,” which had an international carnival theme. Children were encouraged to think about their neighbors around the world. Each day, we learned about a different culture and a different way of being a good neighbor: “neighbors are welcoming” and “neighbors are forgiving.” This Sunday, with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that theme seems to have come to our gospel lesson, but I think overemphasizing the cultural difference between Jews and Samaritans might miss the point of Jesus’ story.

Many sermons this Sunday will expound upon the bitter resentment between Jews and Samaritans. The Ethic, religious, and historical rivalry between them was unparalleled. I’ve heard sermons likening their hatred to that of Alabama and Auburn fans, which of course is silly. I might tell disparaging jokes about students of a particular “cow college,” but I’m not going to jump out of the bushes and beat and rob them (a common practice of the day) just because they wear orange and blue. I’ve heard preachers encourage their congregations to think of people with different socio-economic backgrounds as the neighbors that Jesus had in mind, but that misses the point, too. Even though we may be embroiled in an immigration controversy, we don’t live next-door to an entire country of people whom we identify as blood enemies. I can’t think of an analogy that really does the weird and complex intertwined racial, sexual, religious, and political hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans. But that’s ok—that’s not the point of the parable anyway.

After telling the story, Jesus asked the man, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” We know the answer—as the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” But that suggests that being a neighbor isn’t simply about blowing up ethnic divisions. It’s about showing mercy. The point of this parable isn’t simply to teach us that everyone is our neighbor—though that’s half of it. The point is to connect that broader concept of being a neighbor to the original commandment—love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, if everyone is your neighbor, what are you going to do about it? Honestly, being nice or showing mercy to one Auburn fan isn’t so hard. Taking care of one stranger in distress doesn’t make me a saint. I’m supposed to love everyone as I love myself—with the same instinct of care and self-preservation that is built into my biological heritage. The role of the Samaritan in the parable isn’t to make us a hand-holding, race-less utopia (though that’s what the kingdom of God is like). The Samaritan’s role is to force us to consider the cost of showing mercy to absolutely everyone.

If you’re preaching this week (and I am), consider saying less about the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans and more about what it means to love everyone as much as you love yourself. Don’t stop with the love of a rival. Don’t limit Jesus’ instruction to the one person you like the least. The real gospel message here is that we are to love the world the way God does, which is more than a merely racially-blind approach to the world.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To Be an American Christian

What does it mean to be an American Christian?

On my first real trip overseas, I was accosted in a restaurant in Bangkok by a British ex-pat who accused our group of Americans of abandoning our allies during the Falklands War. “Where were you during the Falklands War?” he demanded of us. His yelling continued. I interrupted to tell him that I wasn’t even two-years-old at the time and that I was probably at home with my parents, oblivious to American foreign policy and instead learning how to say words like, “Falklands War.” He was not amused.

Later on that same trip, I visited a war monument in Ho Chi Minh City. A pile of twisted army-green metal and other wreckage was on display with a proud Vietnamese flag hoisted at the top of the pile and next to it a photograph of a war hero who had shot down that B-52 bomber. I immediately thought about my next-door neighbor who had fought in Vietnam and whose sacrifice still seemed to characterize his life. We honor our war heroes, and, of course, our enemies honor theirs. It was a strange trip.

What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American Christian?

Today is the eve of Independence Day, and, since we don’t have church tomorrow, it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So, with apologies to the lectionary and the rubrics of the prayer book, I want to focus on a peculiar religious celebration that is Independence Day.

Our national experiment was founded 237 years ago. It was initiated with hope and promise. It was built upon the dreams of those who had set sail in preceding generations. These United States were organized around principles like liberty and justice and equality. We left behind the old ways of being a people and started something new. For many of our patriot ancestors, America was a bright and shining “city on a hill”—a beacon of hope and freedom to all nations. As the collect for Independence Day states, the work of our founding fathers was to “[light] the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.” If it wasn’t to be paradise, it was to be close.

There’s a reason these lessons were chosen for IndependenceDay. The author of the letter to the Hebrews recalls for his readers the pilgrimage of Abraham, who set off in faith in search of a new homeland. Throughout the centuries, God’s people continued their search for that promised land, though, as the author reminds us, their hearts were set not simply on a land flowing with milk and honey but on a heavenly country where God would be pleased to be called their God. In case you haven’t figured it out, that heavenly country isn’t the United States of America. As much as we love our country, our hearts are still set on someplace else.

Of all the gospel lessons to read on Independence Day, why do you think the architects of our lectionary picked Matthew 6: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” What a powerful thing to remember on the anniversary of our nation’s birth. We might be following God’s plan, but we do not have an exclusive claim to his providence. The “land of the free and the home of the brave” might be the new chosen land, but only if our sights are set on welcoming the stranger. As American Christians, we should celebrate the birth of our country and all things patriotic. We should process our flag and set off our fireworks. But, while we hold our sparkler in one hand, we must hold God’s word in the other.

We must remember what it means to be citizens not only of this great nation but of God’s kingdom. How can we make this country look more like heaven? The answer isn’t by draping everything with red, white, and blue bunting but by loving our enemies, opening our arms in a loving embrace, welcoming those who are different from us, and remembering that in God’s peaceable kingdom love is showered upon all people alike.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What Makes Good News Good?

Anytime I read a lectionary text like this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20) and see that verses are missing, I want to go and read what has been cut out to see why. Sometimes the missing verses pertain either to a following or preceding story and need to be cut out for the isolated text to make sense. Sometimes the lines that have been left out change the focus of the passage and have been omitted to shape the reading to fit with a theme for a particular Sunday. Sometimes parts of stories deemed less important are skipped over simply because the reading is too long. But, on Sundays like this one, verses are cut out for reasons I can’t (or don’t want to) understand.

            10:12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. (Luke 10:12-15, ESV)

It seems like the lectionary scholars who pieced together the RCL wanted to avoid wagging fingers at a modern Chorazin or Bethsaida. Recently, a friend and parishioner pointed out to me that the RCL often omits the “hard verses” that the 1979 BCP Lectionary included, so I went and looked in the back of my old prayer book. This time, that’s half-right: the BCP readings call for verse 12 (“It will be more bearable…”) but leave out the rest (“Woe to you…”). Still, though, it’s worth asking why the proclamation of woe is skipped this Sunday. Is summer a bad time for congregations to hear about repentance?

Since I was reading around the gospel text for Sunday, I decided to check out the neighboring verses in Isaiah 66. Funny enough, there’s a pattern. On both sides of this rejoicing passage, we read the prophet’s condemnatory words directed toward those who refuse to hear God’s word.

            66:15 “For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many. (Isaiah 66:15-16, ESV)

Both passages are set in the context of reward to those who hear God’s word and punishment for those who don’t. The hope expressed to those who turn to God and keep his commandments is delivered in explicit contrast to the destruction prophesied to those who don’t. Jesus makes it clear that those who refuse to hear the words of the seventy whom he sends ahead of him are in trouble—worse even than what happened to Sodom. Isaiah makes it clear that those who make unclean sacrifices will be judged and slain by the Lord himself. Part of what makes the good news good is the promise that bad things are coming to those who are bad.

Until I read the neighboring texts, I wanted to preach a happy sermon. I wanted to focus on the baby who is bounced on its mother’s knees. I wanted to talk about the joy of carrying the kingdom’s message to new towns where it is received gladly. But these accompanying verses make me wonder whether we can preach good news without at least acknowledging the bad.

Is the promise of salvation sweetened by the threat of damnation? That doesn’t sound like grace to me. That’s not something I normally would preach, but maybe I should.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Non-Relative, Non-Postmodern Kingdom

Early this morning, I read the lessons for Sunday and thought, “Hmm…this could be tricky.” I’m preaching this week, and I can usually tell by 8am on Monday whether sermon writing will be easy or difficult. At first glance, I knew I was in trouble.

Although I really like the OT lesson (Isaiah 66:10-14—we’re a “Track Two” parish), I’m not exactly sure how to write a sermon about the joy of breastfeeding: “rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her--that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.” It’s beautiful poetry, but it will be a fun (hopefully not laughable) challenge to work that into a sermon.

I love Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and we’ve been hearing a lot from it lately. Part of me read these concluding remarks about circumcision—“For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything”—and thought that this is a good time to wrap things up on this book of the bible and talk about circumcision, but I’m not sure whether that’s any easier than “drink[ing] deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.”

The gospel lesson (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20) is familiar to me—sending out the seventy. There’s a sharp, black-and-white message here of “if they won’t receive you, shake the dust off your feet in protest.” That’s a scary thing—to have an apostle protest against you. But I read and reread this passage and thought, “What in here will preach?”

Fortunately, my friend Steve Pankey is back at St. Paul’s, Foley, after a few weeks in the D.Min. program at Sewanee. Before I had a chance to finish my reflection on this week’s lessons, he wrote a blog post about them that gave hope—not just to the preacher but to the gospel as it’s supposed to be read and preached. I hope you’ll read his post here.

As Steve points out, there is good news even in the midst of the threatening language of protest. Regardless, the kingdom of God has come near. Stand in the streets and proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” If the people refuse to hear it--even if your message doesn't have the desired effect--leave but still you should say, “the kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom is coming. Even if you don’t want to be a part of it, it’s coming. It’s drawing near to everyone—to the believers and unbelievers alike. Whether the kingdom comes to your doorstep has very little to do with whether you’re willing to receive it. That’s good news for the apostles, who are charged with proclaiming that message despite the frequent rejections they will encounter. Perhaps that's not so bright for the audience who rejects it, but I'm still looking for good news in there, too.

I also think there’s a beautifully anti-psychological message here. So often, I find myself thinking that the only thing that really matters is the psychology of religion. “If God loves all of us, is salvation anything more than understanding and appreciating that love?” There’s a fallacy in that logic that suggests that the kingdom is our own doing. If you want it, you can have it, but, if you don’t want it, you can ignore it. Not true, says Jesus. The kingdom is beyond our control. It isn't the apostles' job to make the kingdom come. All they can do is preach it and trust God to do that work. And it isn't the hearers' job to decide whether the kingdom is coming or not. God is in control of God's kingdom. Good news? Yes--for both the preacher and the congregation. Why? Because even if either of us gets it wrong, the arrival of the kingdom is assured.