Thursday, May 25, 2017

Some Thoughts on Memorial Day (And Easter 7, Year A)

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
Image result for folded flag

I stood looking down at the beautiful young woman in the casket, and I thought of Shakespeare’s words when Romeo looked at the dead Juliet:

“Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.”

This Juliet was a sergeant in the United States Marine Corp. She wanted to be a Marine because she’d heard it was the toughest branch of the military, and she wanted to be up for the challenge of being a badass. She served two enlistments, including a tour in Iraq. She died this past spring at the age of thirty from a drug overdose. She left behind a young daughter and a grieving family and a lot of unanswered questions about why so accomplished a girl couldn’t seem to pull it together following her time in the military. The mother of Juliet’s idiot boyfriend (and there always seems to be an idiot boyfriend who either colludes, encourages, or enables drug use. This one couldn’t attend the funeral because he was incarcerated on drug charges) told me she believed Juliet had suffered some trauma in the military, but was too proud to talk about it or ask for the help she needed.

I think about Juliet this Memorial Day. I think of my brother-in-law who died from the results of exposure to that ungodly shit called “Agent Orange” when he was in Vietnam. It took thirty years after his separation from the service, but that war finally killed him when he was only fifty years old. I think of a boy I heard about this past week, another US Marine, who died from an opioid addiction he developed while on pre-deployment. Yes, I revere those who gave their lives in the military service of our country, but I really mourn for the ones whose deaths weren’t in combat—the ones who suffered lingering pain and loneliness as a result of what they’d seen and done or had done to them. The dying doesn’t stop at the end of the deployment or combat mission.

I hear you, Jesus. I hear your prayer for us in the Gospel reading for Easter Seven (John 17:1-11). You’re praying that we might be unified, because there’s safety in unity, and this is one freaky, scary, brutal, and hostile world. And we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in it apart from you.

I need to know and keep knowing, Lord, that although you seem to be gone, you’re still here. You still hang out with us. I see you in my brothers and sisters and I pray that they can see you in me. I get scared that in this me-centered era of millions of facebook friends and no real eye-contact with a breathing human being culture that no one understand the need for your holy church. It’s ironic, but as I write this post I’m anticipating a pretty crappy church attendance this coming Sunday, just when I want to tell people how much we need our togetherness. Just when we hear Jesus praying for unity.

I prayed and preached the Gospel at Juliet’s funeral. We laid her body to rest in the veterans’ cemetery. The Marine honor guard played taps and folded the flag. As I was leaving, the mother of Juliet’s boyfriend pulled me aside. We prayed together for her son in jail. She gave me a green elastic wristband she’d been wearing that said, “Be part of the conversation.” I wore that wristband throughout Holy Week in Juliet’s honor.

“Be part of the conversation.” You have to be in relationship to do that. You have to be in relationship with God and with one another. How are we doing with that, Church? Are we communicating with our children about who Jesus is and what he means to us? Are we making an attempt to connect to the other people we see in the pews? Are we looking in on those or calling those who have been missing from worship? Are we making it a priority to witness by our presence? How are we doing with that?

As we remember those who sacrificed this Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking of Juliet and all of the other non-combat victims of military conflict and I’ll reflect on what a powerful tool the devil has in loneliness—and in how great a need we have to know we have each other’s back.

May we take Jesus’ prayer to heart. May we be one in him. God’s peace to you all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My (Inadequate) Thoughts on Race In America

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

On June fourth the Church celebrates one of her six principal festivals, the Day of Pentecost. This is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early Christians. It is a day when the boundaries of the ancient world were cast down, and God gave His holy Word to all people regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Annually we read the story of this glorious event from the book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21). As this is a day commemorating God’s radical act of inclusivity, I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to discuss a subject which was the focus of our 2017 Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Assembly—the touchy subject of race relations in America.

Yes, I admit this is a scary subject for many of us, myself included. It was difficult to hear at the recent Assembly that, in spite of the ELCA’s vaunted efforts at inclusivity and welcome, we still remain the most Caucasian denomination in the United States. My parish, Faith Lutheran of Northeast Philadelphia, reflects the neighborhood: working-class white folks. Our community remains mostly homogenous and there doesn’t seem to be much pressing need to integrate; nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that something still needs to be said, and that our assumptions still need to be challenged.

I am personally uncomfortable with the issue of race, and I question whether a white boy like myself—raised in a mostly white community—has any right to express an opinion on the matter. That vile, hate-filled word beginning with “N”—a word I refuse to speak and will not suffer to be spoken in my presence—was routinely used around my family dinner table when I was a child. It was used by the parents whom I loved, and who took me to Sunday School and taught me to pray.

I was fortunate, I believe, to have grown up in the 1960’s and to have had this early indoctrination counteracted by the witness of Dr. King and the efforts of a progressive public school education. It was not, however, until I was in my late 20’s and teaching in the Los Angeles public schools that I really understood the privilege of being white in this country. When I was ten years old, my father lost his job to an industry-wide lay-off. For a time we lived on public assistance. We always believed that, somehow, our fortunes would return and the American dream would be realized. The non-white children I taught in LA, whose families had lived for generations in poverty and on public assistance, had no such hope. For them, public housing, drugs, and gangs were the only reality. My family remained “middle class” because of our address and skin color, not because of our resources. I recognized that what separates “broke” from true poverty is the absence of hope.

The biggest take-away I received from the 2017 SEPA Assembly was a discussion of how African Americans have been routinely treated by police and the criminal justice system, and how official government policy in housing created segregated ghettos in our nation. It seems only right and proper that people of good will and moral scruples should do our part to redress these injustices. It is incumbent upon us to hold government accountable for the wrongs of the past, and to insist on electing representatives who will work for police accountability, reform of criminal sentencing, affirmative action in hiring, and will do all possible to promote industry and opportunity in areas blighted by segregation and poverty.

It’s also imperative that we all examine our preconceptions about those who share a different heritage and experience from our own. I recall a party I attended when I was an undergraduate. It was thrown by an African American friend. One of my host’s cousins, a perfectly charming and beautiful young woman, approached me and asked me to dance. I remember how my brain seemed to go into slow motion as I gradually figured out that there was nothing at all wrong with dancing with a black girl—even though it was something which my parents would never have done or even countenanced. Today, I see young people in inter-racial relationships all the time. They seem to recognize that we all share a basic humanity, but I have to constantly keep scanning my Baby Boomer brain for the viruses and default settings of my childhood.

At Faith we have a great opportunity to push our thinking forward a bit. Our partnership with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventist Fellowship, a congregation sharing our worship space made up of Haitian Americans, might offer us a chance to get to know and appreciate people of a vastly different culture and experience. I hope that sometime in the near future we can share a fellowship meal with our African American and African Caribbean brothers and sisters and learn to see some things from their perspective.

My own reluctance to deal with racial issues always comes from knowing that I will never see our society through the eyes of non-white Americans. I will never know internally the fears or feel the frustrations and the multiple petty indignities suffered from those who live with the consequences of racial injustice. To be honest, I actually fear my own ignorance. It is never far from my mind, when meeting a person of color, that terrible things were done to people who look like that human being by people who look like me. It seems almost blasphemous for me to speculate or comment on the sacred pain of those who live with the burdens of our American past. I fear walking in my dirty feet through their sacred space. The best I can do is acknowledge my own ineptness, and hope that my African American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, etc. brothers and sisters will receive my inadequate efforts with patient forgiveness.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My Mother the Martyr (Reflections on Easter 5, Year A)

Image result for stoning of stephen

It’s kind of freaky for a preacher if you have to juxtapose Mother’s Day with a Sunday when the lectionary features the brutal murder of the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen is the featured protagonist of our first lectionary reading (Acts 7: 55-60), and we get to see him meet his end at the hands of an angry mob who kill him by pelting him with rocks. It’s not exactly a sweet Hallmark card Mother’s Day sentiment. Granted, there are probably a lot of mothers who have been—or who at least see themselves—as martyrs, and who willingly pass the sentiment along to their children in never-ending recitations of their parental drudgery and their offspring’s ingratitude.  (There might even be a few moms who get stoned from time to time, but we’re not going to go there.)

If you think about it, the lectionary actually fits pretty niftily into the theme of our secular holiday. Why is that, you ask? Because in Greek the word “martyr” actually means “witness.” It didn’t start out meaning someone who died for their faith (although getting killed for what you believe in is, you must admit, a pretty darn strong testimony!); rather, it simply referred to someone who was willing to speak of what they knew to be true. When I asked the students in the Diakonia class I’m teaching to name the person who most influenced them in their Christian faith, they almost unanimously answered, “My mom.”

Moms are powerful “martyrs” in this respect. My own mom was a brilliantly creative artist and designer. She was also, alas, prone to being hyper-critical, a borderline hoarder, and a world-class cigarette smoker which accounted for her demise from COPD. But her short-comings notwithstanding, my mother was determined to raise her children in the Christian faith –specifically as Lutherans. In fact, much of the information covered by my Reformation History professor when I was in seminary I had already learned from my mom. She and I may not have agreed on politics or popular culture, but she gave me the gift of my faith tradition and for that I will always be grateful.

When we take a look at the First Lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 5 Year A, I think it’s important that we read back a chapter and see that the most important witness we get from this guy Stephen is not how he died but how he lived. The Bible says Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5)” as well as being “full of grace and power (6:8).” I’m guessing this means Stephen was a strong believer in Christ, had a great relationship with God, was open-minded, thankful, and pretty competent in his work. He was also really well-versed in Jewish history and literature, astonishingly courageous in the face of death, and openly forgiving as we see in chapter 7. All of these traits are witnesses to his faith in Christ and to the Spirit which dwelt within him.

The Gospel Lesson this Sunday is one which I preach on more than any other. John 14:1-6 is a recommended text for funerals and memorial services, probably because of the promise that we will one day be with Christ (14:3). I’ve got to confess to being a bit uneasy with this text as I think the Biblical inerrancy folks have always interpreted verse 6 to mean “We Christians go to Heaven when we die and all the rest of you are screwed.” I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the place of God and judge his children based on whether or not they assent to the same doctrine I do. I’m much more comfortable interpreting this as saying that the “way” of Christ is a way of oneness and peace with God. What I like about the story is that Jesus is certain that his buddies “know the way (14:4).” Poor Thomas is a little confused, thinking that Jesus is referring to some geographic location, but Jesus sets him straight. To be in relationship with Jesus is to be in relationship with the way of God and the peace which flows from that path of living. The disciples “know the way” because they know Jesus.

So what is this “way?” Certainly it has a lot to do with love, sacrifice, gratitude, willingness to suffer, and faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. I’m willing to bet that if you learned this “way,” it might well have been because of the witness of your mother. She was the “martyr” who spoke the language of Christ to you.

We are all called to “martyrdom.” That is, we are all called to be witnesses. It’s good to reflect, as I often say, on how we see Christ in others, but we are also called to be Christ to others. Pope Benedict XVI had a cool way of expressing this:

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves; it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with Him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with Him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we “live.” (From “Saved in Hope”)

A Happy Mother’s Day to you all.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Saint of the Month: Father John Price (Reflections on Easter 4, Year A)

St Peter, Llanbedr Painscastle - - 911916.jpg
St. Peter's in Lambedr Painscastle photgraped by By Philip Pankhurst, CC BY-SA 2.0,
“…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)

Whenever I start to get bummed-out by the drudgery of parish ministry, whenever I start to lose it over low worship attendance, the impiety of the culture, the strewn trash and the drug dealers in the church parking lot, and the constant panic-inducing neurosis of church finances—in short, about 90% of always—I comfort myself with the example of one of my favorite saints, the Reverend John Price.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not referring to the Rev. John W. Price, the distinguished American Episcopal priest and author of Revealing Heaven: The Christian Case for Near Death Experiences. (Harper Collins: 2013), although I’m certain that he is a wise and caring Christian pastor and his book is an excellent spiritual volume. I’m talking about a Rev. John Price I darn-well bet you’ve never heard of. I probably wouldn’t have heard of him either if my late friend F. Wayne Martin hadn’t given me a little book about my ancestral homeland called Wales: Land of Mystery and Magic by Donald Gregory.

The Saint John Price of this curious volume (and Wayne was always great at finding curious volumes. I don’t know how he did it!) was a Welsh Anglican priest born the son of a poor farmer in 1810. Somehow young John must’ve shown some intellectual promise because he was educated at Queen’s College, Cambridge and ordained to the Anglican priesthood at the age of twenty-four. For a quarter of a century he served as curate (we Lutherans would call him an “Associate Pastor”) in various Welsh parishes before he got a church of his own. In 1859 he was named the vicar of St. Peter’s Llanbedr Painscastle in the county of Powys.

Powys was recently named the “Happiest Place in the United Kingdom.” I suspect this is because its beautiful green hills make it ideal for developers to build luxury homes for the upwardly mobile. Unfortunately for Father John Price, it pretty much sucked as a place to live in the mid nineteenth century. This is because the farmland wasn’t particularly good, so the laborers tended to move away to better paying jobs in the coal mines or the cities. Today the village of Llanbedr Painscastle is little more than a crossroads. It was sort of an agricultural “rust belt” when Father Price took up his ministry there during the reign of Queen Victoria.

In spite of the sparse population and the low stipend, Father John served Saint Peter’s for thirty-six years until his death at the age of eighty-five. He may very well have passed through this earthly sphere and left no ripple of his existence had he not been “discovered” by a famous colleague, the Reverend R. Francis Kilvert, in 1865. Kilvert was an avid diarist (and early nudist) who served several rural parishes in Wales and wrote prodigiously about his travels and encounters. He discovered John Price, whom he called “the Solitary,” living alone in virtual poverty in a shack near St. Peter’s. The Englishman found Father Price to be a bit eccentric, but was impressed by the Welsh vicar’s ingenious system of shorthand which Price devised and managed to get published.

The legend which surrounds Father Price is of his almost self-destructive generosity. As meager as his stipend at St. Peter’s was, the vicar increased church attendance by paying the local tramps and vagabonds to attend worship. I’m not sure I’d recommend this as an effective evangelism tool, but John Price, heeding Christ’s command to serve the poor, had no trouble in sharing his pitiful salary with those who were even worse off than he. In bad weather he opened the nave of St. Peter’s so the hobos could cook their meals, meals which they, in turn, shared with Father Price.

Because he lived in Victorian times and had a great respect for morality, Father Price elected to strike a blow for family values by keeping his vagrant flock from living in sexual sin. Since his homeless congregants couldn’t afford parochial marriage fees, Father Price performed their weddings for free and even gave each couple a small monetary gift. Gregory records that some couples managed to fool the vicar by changing their names and re-marrying up to six times in order to keep collecting the tiny pecuniary wedding present. If this is true, it makes me wonder if their successful frauds were accomplished due to the aging priest’s failing eyesight or if Father Price was on to their scam and simply let them get away with it out of pure generosity. The Welsh romantic in me likes to believe it was the latter.

In the gospel lesson for Easter Four, Year A (John 10:1-10), Jesus tells us that he came that we may have abundant life. I think the life of John Price qualifies as “abundant.” It was lonely and impoverished, but it had a purpose. Father Price may not have had an “abundance” as the world and Joel Osteen understand the term, but he was rich in the things of God. In the 1960’s a couple in their nineties, the last living parishioners to remember Father Price, called him, “A perfect gentleman and kindly disposed.” I believe his faithfulness touched lives.

In the accompanying First Lesson for Easter Four (Acts 2:42-47) we read how our early Christian ancestors practiced the joy of sharing. In their communal life they demonstrate two of the great gifts of the Holy Spirit: generosity and trust. Like John Price they could share what little they had with others out of compassion in the trust that God would always provide them with their daily bread. When we follow our Good Shepherd, we are assured that he prepares a table for us. It doesn’t need to be a table laden with worldly riches, but it will be one that will satisfy the longings of our hearts.

We are not called to success when we follow Christ. We are called to faithfulness. When I stop and consider my ecclesiastical career, I am comforted by the knowledge that I don’t actually have a career. I have a calling, and that is abundant enough for me.

Thanks for spending this time with me.