The Lenten Experience

In most languages, the season of the Church year which we have just entered is known by a word that translates as “Fast”.  “Lent”, however, comes from the old English for the season when days lengthen.  But as I have been told, New Englanders used to say of this time of year: “The days grow longer and the cold grows stronger”, although global warming is changing that.  Further, before modern agricultural and food-preservation techniques, early spring was often a time of hunger.  I believe that this is why T. S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land.”  

Lent was a lean time, anyway, and there was little choice for many people but to fast.  This made a virtue of necessity and also preserved foodstuffs that would be available for an Easter feast.  Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days observed with particular strictness.  Of course, perishables that could not be used in Lent were consumed on the day before Lent, giving rise to Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.”  In the medieval English tradition this was called “Shrove Tuesday” because people went to make their confession and be “shriven” or absolved of their sins. We ate Shrove Tuesday pancakes in Britain too, but they were crepes filled with lemon juice and sugar, not flapjacks.

These days we have more than enough food and it takes a determined effort to fast but self-discipline and mindfulness are never wasted.  Lent is a time to exercise both virtues.    “Giving something up” for Lent may sometimes be just a token a token gesture, but it can be an opportunity, especially if we can challenge deleterious habits and break out of our ruts. 

We can also challenge ourselves by taking up a discipline.  We can pray, study, attend church regularly, offer ourselves in service or add spiritual or physical exercises to our routine.   I once, half jokingly, committed to practicing darts for half an hour everyday.  As I went on, and develop a backlog of practice time, the joke became serious and I really did have to develop a deliberate discipline as to time and attention.  My dart game improved greatly.  Maybe I should work on my prayer life to the same end!

So, whether we decide to try fasting, giving up deleterious habits or taking on a discipline of some sort, Lent can be a useful break from business as usual. It can serve as a kind of Sabbath for the year as Sunday serves the week.  Lent can help us pay better attention to parts of life that we might otherwise take for granted or leave unexamined. 

Father Christopher

In everything give thanks

Some years ago the phone rang in the parish office where I was Rector.  A woman, who was not an Episcopalian called out of the blue, asking where to find “in everything give thanks” in the Bible.  “St. Paul” I said, “but I’m not sure where.”  I was busy but offered to look it up on-line but my computer suddenly froze and I had to use a concordance.  I repressed such grumpy thoughts as “Why don’t you call your own church.”  Many references to “thanks” later, but not the one she wanted, I gave up. (Back to Bible school for me!)  Almost as soon as we hung up the computer unfroze and I found the reference she was looking for:  1 Thessalonians 5:18.

 She had called our parish at random and as I worked through the concordance we spoke of whether St. Paul meant that we should give thanks “in all circumstances” or “for and in all the things that surround us.”  The original means the first but we agreed that Christians should also give thanks in the second sense as well. We spoke of Francis, of Mother Teresa, and of other simple, joyful saints of God, whose lives were filled with actions as well as words.  When we finished our conversation she said “You don’t know how much you have touched my life. May I call again?”   I realized the talk had been good for me as well.   She never did call back, but at some level it was not a random event.

 So how do you go about giving thanks to God in the things of the world?

 First, be appreciative.  Take the time to ponder the marvels of God’s many works.  Don’t rush through life blind to everything except what’s next for your own agenda. 

 Second, be responsible.  Creation is beautiful and should be handled with respect and care.  Thoughtless exploitation and pollution caused by laziness or greed are sins against God and we should not practice, profit by or tolerate them. Global stewardship is needed.

 Third, be thankful.  Consciously thank God for the world which surrounds us and even more, give thanks for that which has been put into your own care.  The property, wealth and skills that you call your own are all gifts.  Sure you may work hard, but it is God who provides the material, the workplace and the skill. 

 Fourth, be grateful.  Gratitude is thanksgiving turned into a principle of life.  Gratitude is not so much a passive feeling as an active response.  You cannot be grateful about the gifts God has given you if you are selfish and unwilling to share.  Sharing, on the other hand, is a source of joy.  This is true from the child’s playground to the adult’s priorities.

 “Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18)

Christopher David

Memorial Day

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Originally celebrated in the Northern states, Memorial Day honored the dead of the civil war, although the former Confederate States refused to accept this day until after the First World War, when the observance was extended to all those who died in all of the nation’s conflicts.  Thus, what had been a symbol of division, became, as it should be, one of national reconciliation and unity. 

I believe we should remember because their sacrifice helped preserve all that we enjoy.  Furthermore, we should remember by following their examples, even in peacetime, and commit ourselves to building on their inheritance as the only authentic way of truly honoring them.  In this new century, men and women still serve, suffer and die on behalf of our republic and of the constitution which is that republic’s heart and soul.  By the conduct of our national life let us show that they do not do so in vain. 

Here follows a prayer of thanksgiving found on page 839 of the Book of Common Prayer:

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ascension

Jesus' ascension to heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley, 1775 [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Jesus' ascension to heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley, 1775 [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

According to the scriptures, Jesus said goodbye to his disciples and was carried up into heaven, disappearing into a cloud. Jesus made no more bodily appearances within time and space as we know them. Jesus, God Incarnate, had come to the end of his task.

The Ascension from this world completed the redemption of humanity. For since God had put himself in our place through the Incarnation, and then, in Easter, broken the power of death; now, with Christ, our status is raised higher than the angels for the Ascension takes humanity where we could not go since we were cast out of paradise. The Ascension should lift our attention from the local to the universal, from our computer screens and smart phones to the celestial height. In Easter we celebrate Christ's victory over death. In the Ascension we celebrate his entrance into heaven with the gate open for us to follow.

The early Christians clearly appreciated the Ascension, and called this day the crown of all Christian feasts. St. Augustine said this festival confirms the grace of all the festivals of the church together, for without the Ascension, the reality of every festival would perish. Unless the savior had ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing and his passion would have born no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been worthless. I don’t know if I completely agree with Augustine but let us celebrate the Ascension for what it is, an integral parts of God’s redeeming work, as we acknowledge, sometimes too much by rote, when we recite the creeds.   

Fr. Christopher+

Spring Again, The World Rejoices

You don’t have to be a Christian to rejoice in the world around us, or a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim or complete infidel, for that matter. Everyone can rejoice in the blooming of Spring. I certainly enjoyed the view of flowering trees when I visited our son in Peekskill last weekend. 

There are some reservations, of course, for those who pay really close attention to God’s creation and what we are doing to it. Signs such as global warming, species extinction or sprawling development tell us that all is not necessarily for the best, even as the world can be and was meant to be a beautiful place. Follow your joy as you find it and much of the natural world remains joyful. So does a great deal of the human drama. Fruit trees are probably blossoming in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria right now, if they haven’t been blown up or cut down in the conflicts there. Human agency is responsible for climate change and conflict but can be a part of the cure, which offers hope unless we fail to find a way to make the changes needed to honor creation. 

Underneath it all, the message is positive: Creation is good and humanity was made for the good.  We were thrown from Eden and sank into sin, but God never gave up on us. God reaches out again and again even though we often reject the gesture as we did on Calvary hill.  But God’s bag of tricks isn’t empty yet. I really do believe the Easter message tells us that moral regeneration is just as possible as the natural renewal of Spring. Some folks will wallow in pessimism and sin, some will trash the environment or the lives of their fellow humans to spin profit or keep hold of so-called “power”; but the good is so close, the true power is all around us.

EASTER: RENEWAL AND REBUILDING

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

Easter is the essential season of promise.  It tells us of the power of goodness, life and light in a world that often seems to falling apart into pain and broken-ness.  It comes, in the northern hemisphere, at the best time of year for such a promise: Springtime.  Soon snow and mud will give way to leaf and blossom!

This is also a time in which we should remember that all things can be made new, including the Church.  Our friends in the Roman Catholic Church have found themselves to be entering a new season of their life with Pope Francis and, by the grace of God, will find itself heading in some new directions as the pope did in his own life.  He took the name deliberately, it seems, in honour of Francis of Assisi, who is revered well beyond Catholicism for his humility, voluntary poverty and peacemaking. The new Francis, like his namesake, is challenging a wealthy and top-heavy Church, with crises in its own structures and culture.  The original Francis was challenged directly by Christ in the decaying little Church of San Damiano to“go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin"  The symbolism of all this will be immensely powerful, not least for those whose hope and prayer is for a wind of revivifying change to blow through the corridors of the modern Catholic Church, and perhaps, especially its hierarchyThe old Francis started at the local level and worked up.  The new Francis is starting at the top and trying to work down.  Both directions have their challenges and difficulties.

The Roman Church is not the only branch of the wider Church that needs “a wind of revivifying change”, we can all use some of that on a regular basis, uncomfortable as it sometimes may be.  But that’s all part of the package of us being the “Resurrection People” we are invited to be.  The new life we are offered challenges us to reach out and grasp it.  Our issues may not be identical to Rome’s but they are analogous even as they are uniquely our own.  We are called to face them and to repair and build up what we have received in all its glory and dilapidation and the Episcopal Church and St James’ parish have some of both, physical and spiritual. I pray that we are not ‘falling completely to ruin’ but there is much to be done.  At the same time, the Resurrection promises us that, with the grace of God, all things are possible.  Christ first died in brokenness on the cross.  Then he rose again.  Alleluia!

Christopher David

Practical Christianity in the time of the passion

We sometimes refer to ourselves as “An Easter People” and some occasionally add: “Living in a Good Friday World”.  But, to be honest, the problems we face hereabouts, cruel as they may be for some people, are relatively mild.  Some of you have read the challenging book “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He not only wrote the book in 1937 in a Germany and a Church that were being Nazified, he lived it out, helping to found the underground “Confessing Church”.  He was, with other theologians, offered a safe haven in the Unites States in 1939.  But he returned to Germany after six weeks here on what would turn out to be the last scheduled passenger ship before the outbreak of war.  He continued to resist the Nazis and to minister to others doing the same.  He was arrested in 1943 and hanged on April 9, 1945, a week after Easter, and a month before the Resurrection experience of VE Day ended the long Good Friday of Nazism.  His death came at the personal, spiteful order of Hitler, who, knowing his cause was lost, determined to settle scores where he could.

He not only wrote the book in 1937 in a Germany and a Church that were being Nazified, he lived it out, helping to found the underground “Confessing Church”.  He was, with other theologians, offered a safe haven in the Unites States in 1939.  But, unable to live in safety while his comrades were at risk, he returned to Germany after six weeks here on what would turn out to be the last scheduled passenger ship before the outbreak of war.  He continued to resist the Nazis and to minister to others doing the same.  He was arrested in 1943 and hanged on April 9, 1945, a week after Easter, and a month before the Resurrection experience of VE Day ended the long Good Friday of Nazism.  His death came at the personal, spiteful order of Hitler, who, knowing his cause was lost, determined to settle scores where he could.

Another stirring example of practical Christianity was documented by Pierre Sauvage, a French film director, who was born to fleeing Jewish parents during WWII in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.  This farming community of about 5,000 souls in the mountains of the Auvergne, was mostly Protestant, descendants of those Huguenots who had not been killed or exiled after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres of 1572 and the repression that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  When France fell to the Nazis their pastor, André Trocmé, told the community: “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit.”                                                               

André Trocmé

André Trocmé

Trocmé was an outspoken opponent of the Nazi-Vichy segregation and then round-up of the Jews.  He was later arrested but not before he had arrange a network of safe-houses for Jews and other fugitives from persecution.  He was later released by mistake and escaped into the underground resistance.  By the war’s end almost 5,000 people found refuge in Le Chambon and were never betrayed by a community that had embarked on a “conspiracy of goodness.”  Sauvage’s parents and the infant Pierre were among the saved.  In homage he made the documentary, “Weapons of the Spirit”, in 1989.  It is a powerful description of Christian practice in the face of adversity.

                                                                                                       Christopher David

The Lenten Experience

In many languages, the season of the Church year which we have just entered is known by a word that translates as “Fast”.  “Lent”, however, comes from the old English for the season when days lengthen: ‘lencten”.  But, as New Englanders know, lengthening days may not mean that things became more comfortable; as they used to say of this time of year: “The days grow longer and the cold grows stronger.”  Further, before modern agricultural and food-preservation techniques, late winter and early spring was often a time of hunger.  I believe that this is why T. S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land.”  

Lent was a lean time, anyway, and there was little choice for many people but to fast.  This made a virtue of necessity and also preserved foodstuffs that would be available for an Easter feast.  Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days observed with particular strictness.  Of course, many perishables that could not be used in Lent were consumed on the day before Lent, giving rise to Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.”  In the medieval English tradition this was called “Shrove Tuesday” because people went to make their confession and be “shriven” or absolved of their sins. We ate Shrove Tuesday pancakes in Britain too, but they were crepes filled with lemon juice and sugar, not American style flapjacks.  We also grew up without maple syrup!

These days we have more than enough food and it takes a determined effort to fast; but self-discipline and mindfulness are never wasted.  Lent is a time to exercise both virtues.  “Giving something up” for Lent may sometimes be just a token a token gesture, but it can be an opportunity, especially if we can challenge deleterious habits and break out of our ruts. 

We can also challenge ourselves by taking up a discipline.  We can pray, study, attend church regularly, offer ourselves in service or add spiritual or physical exercises to our routine.   I once, half-jokingly, committed to practicing darts for half an hour every day.  As I went on, and develop a backlog of practice time, the joke became serious and I really did have to develop a deliberate discipline as to time and attention.  My dart game improved greatly.  Maybe I should work on my prayer life to the same end!

So, whether we decide to try fasting, giving up deleterious habits or taking on a discipline of some sort, Lent can be a useful break from business as usual.  As I noted in last Sunday’s sermon, Lent serves as a kind of Sabbath for the year as Sunday serves the week.  Lent can help us pay better attention to parts of life that we might otherwise take for granted or leave unexamined.  

Lenten Discipline

What to give up for Lent was quite the thing when I was a child, as was probably the case for most of you.  My own children “gave things up” as well, but I don’t know if it is quite the universal thing, among Christians, that is, as it once was.  Maybe too many preachers like me, saying “Take something up for Lent” have weakened the old and simple discipline.

Discipline is, of course, what it is all about.  While we may lament that sports programs have moved into the once sacred space of the Sabbath, along with Sunday shopping and all the rest of it, those young people out there training and competing didn’t get there by sitting on their sofas.  They practice and practice and then go out and try their skills against other youngsters.  Only one team can win in any competition, but all grow and learn, even if only through having to deal with disappointment.  Our media like to celebrate victory, and at the Olympic level gold medals are bankable.  But that’s a different thing from developing character and discipline: celebrity winners can be quite entitled and obnoxious.  Friendly competition on a level playing field and the handling of victory and loss with grace, however, build real and graceful character.

We come into Lent to discipline ourselves and grow in character.  We are not setting out to prove how holy we are or to win sainthood.  Those things are long in the making and don’t come from a sudden sprint or burst of energy.  We get off our spiritual sofas and set out to practice what we say we believe; to challenge ourselves in the face of our own repeated failures to do so; and to build a community in which we learn to strive together rather than against one another.  We run a race in which the more winners there are, the more we all win.  Invidious comparison, setting oneself up or putting others down have no place in this.  We are all sinners and all uniquely dysfunctional.  We train to become a team that, in the mind of God, includes all humanity.

So what will you do to train this Lent?  Come to Church more regularly; help out with events or with the community dinners; give to the poor; pray and study harder; join in the Lenten program; give some-thing up to challenge unexamined appetites, habits or addictions; treat others with more respect and forbearance?  What will you do to grow into a better, healthier person? 

Take the time, reflect, consider, pray, work.  Do something and get off that spiritual sofa.

[And now that I have finished preaching about it, how will I better practice what I preach?]

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Epiphany 2016: A Tall Tale

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light. In fact the Greek Church, in the language of the people, has called this season, Ta Phota: “the lights.” In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas, reminding us that Epiphany was once the greater feast. 

The literal meaning of Epiphany is “appearing” which could mean becoming visible or ‘coming into sight’.  For the Wise men, whose story is only found in Matthew’s gospel, a royal star appeared where one had not shined before.  Then they travelled, in their rich robes on their stately camels, as tradition has morphed them into kings, following that star to the palace in Jerusalem, where one might expect a royal birth to occur. 

In the ancient world further East, in Persia and Babylonia, the magos was a wise man who specialized in the reading of the stars. In Israel, the king was also expected to have some of the qualities of the magos, or at least to be able to hire professionals to take on the part.  A king who couldn’t predict events and signs, or have aides to do it for him, was an unworthy specimen of kingship.  Herod, the so called Great, whose corrupt reign and decadent life were ending in the days of this tale, is not given high marks for moral prowess and enlightened rule and his priests and astrologers were scared stiff to give their boss the truth about the Messiah’s birthplace.

Then, sent on their way by a nervous and devious King Herod, the next night we may presume, the star hooked a sharp left turn to Bethlehem and then stopped as their destination came into sight: a simple house and, within it, the child born to be king.  When they arrived were they disappointed to enter a humble household? Not at all, for Matthew says “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: they rejoiced with an extreme joy. There they bowed and offered gifts laden with symbolic portent: gold for kingly power, incense for the presence of the divine, and Myrrh, both a powerful medicine for healing and an embalming agent for the dead.

It is kind of an extravagant tale, as if Matthew were determined to pull out all the stops, It might, with some justice, be called a tall tale

A Tall Tale or not, we only know that something remarkable happened on that day when the wider world first encountered the redeeming work of the God of Israel.  And the gift to us is that the visit of the magi reveals something that has as much meaning for our lives today as it did in that first year of the first century.  In the Epiphany, we can, if we follow the star, also have something that comes into sight for us, whoever we are and whatever we seek.

Here, the rich and the poor mingle in harmony. Here, for a moment, is the presence of the kingdom of God, which the grown Jesus would proclaim.  Here, once again, is peace on earth and good will toward all people. Here, the rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.  So different from Herod’s Jerusalem.  So different from the centers of power and wealth of our own day.

If this is a Tall Tale, then it is one into which you and I can incorporate ourselves as truth is revealed, as it appears and shines forth.   It is a tale that continued and, we believe, continues to our day. And will shine beyond our day into the future, no matter how many Herods come along.  It is a tall tale that is just a part of another cosmically Tall Tale.

I love Christmas

I love Christmas and even during this over-commercialized season of secular preparation, even as I try to maintain a proper sense of Advent in my life, I do confess that the odd Christmas carol will percolate into my mind and onto my lips as we get closer.  However, I have to add that, spiritually, I find Easter to be far more powerful a liturgical and religious experience.  Easter is the central event of the Church year and always has been.  We could knock Christmas right off the calendar and it wouldn’t change our faith one jot; whereas, the loss of Easter would make Christianity practically meaningless.  In fact, in the earliest years of the Church there was no Christmas!  Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany were the great feasts of the year.  So where did Christmas come from?

Cultures around the world have held some sort of observation around the time of the Winter solstice. The pagan world knew many ceremonies which had to do with rekindling the dwindling light of the sun and renewing life in general. In the Roman world there were considerable celebration in the name of the god Saturn: The usual order of the year was suspended: grudges and quarrels forgotten; wars interrupted or postponed. Business, courts, schools closed. Rich and poor were equal, slaves were served by masters, children headed the family.

As Christianity became part of the Roman world, the faithful would make themselves obvious by not participating in the revels of Saturnalia.  We can imagine Christian children pestering their parents:  “but everybody else on our block is decorating their house, why can’t we?”

However it happened, the Feast of the Nativity was added to the calendar and Christians had something they could celebrate.  Indeed, the images of light in the darkness and of the renewalof life are woven into the Nativity making the solstice a reasonable time to celebrate Jesus’ birth even though he was probably born in the springtime.  But that’s a topic for another article.  A parallel to this is the development of Hanukkah as a mid-winter celebration amon

g those Jews living in the Christian world.  Hanukkah is not a very significant feast and was not much observed in olden times but has been boosted (and marketed as Christmas has been) so that Jewish families can celebrate along with their neighbors.

Christmas has also adopted pagan elements such as the wreathe, the Christmas tree, holly, ivy and mistletoe.  And even old St. Nicholas, so central to Christmas as we know it, has absolutely nothing to do with the Nativity.  With our latter-day saturnalian revels and the relentless hype of commercialism, the religious element of Christmas is just about buried.  Yet I love Christmas even though I won’t argue for the factuality of the nativity stories either.  (Yet another article!)

          Christopher L. David

"Hi, my name is Christopher and I am a racist."

"Hi, my name is Christopher and I am a racist."

 That line from the twelve step model is a funny way for a new priest, a student in the 60s, a young, liberal priest in the 70s and a worker for migrant farm labor justice, dignity and empowerment to introduce himself. But it is "Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" so I'd best come clean and announce that I am in recovery.

I wish I were not racist and I have struggled to grow and change ever since my intellect told me that racism is a profound and deeply rooted evil. But I am struggling against threads that were woven into my being by the society that raised me. It was not vicious or cruel, but it was the purveyor of stereotypes and prejudices about the world its people. This has an effect.

I am thankful for so many people and experiences who have helped me see, change and grow. I am thankful that my children are freer from this curse than I was at their age. I pray that my grandchildren will see an even brighter day and that our country, and humanity as a whole, will strive to overcome this global and ancient stain on human life.

Meanwhile, I will just try to keep practicing what I preach, to reach out to others and to let them reach out to me. We shall overcome someday.

          Christopher L. David