Mar 8, 2017

In Good Faith: The Call of the Wild

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about being torn apart by lions (theoretically), mortality in the context of Lent, and going on safari in South Africa.

The Call of the Wild

“And one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was killed by a fierce wild beast.” 

This has always been one of my favorite lines from any hymn in any hymnal in any tradition.
It comes from “I sing a song of the the saints of God” and I always smile a bit whenever I hear that line. Maybe it’s personal for me. I mean I was a soldier, I am a priest, but I surely hope to avoid that third option. 

The whole point of the hymn, written in 1929, is to broaden the definition of what it means to be a saint. It mentions the classic saints, “patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” But it also goes on to talk about the “saints” in our own world that can serve as examples in our daily life and encourages us to live saintly lives as well.

Not to minimize the sacrifice of the early martyrs of the Church, but being done in by a “fierce wild beast” just doesn’t sound like much fun. Plus, the only “wild beast” in my life is Delilah, my 11-year-old yellow lab/husky mix rescue dog. She comes to work with me most mornings and, while she once barked at the UPS guy, her general demeanor is not exactly ferocious.

This snippet of hymn text did become a bit more tangible for me, however, recently. A group of 27 of us from St. John’s — half teens and half adults — spent ten days on a transformative trip to South Africa. We took in the sights, immersed ourselves in the culture, learned about life in this post-Apartheid world, followed in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and finished up the journey with two days on safari in the African bush of Kruger National Park.

It’s hard not to reflect upon your own mortality when you come face-to-face with a lion. Or a leopard. Or a pair of hyenas. Or practically any other animal we encountered — rhinos, elephants, buffalo. Okay, maybe not the gazelle. They seem rather skittish and tame. 

But returning home just in time for Ash Wednesday services and the start of the penitential season of Lent seemed somehow appropriate. As I hauled my jet-lagged self up to the altar rail to impose ashes on the foreheads of parishioners with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I was myself thinking about the fleeting nature of this mortal life. Out in the bush, most animals are just hoping to eat and not get eaten. That’s the bar and it’s pretty low; the drive to survive. 

Hopefully we have slightly more ambition, but there are days and even seasons of our lives when we just hope to survive. The victory is in simply enduring and making it through to the next  moment. This isn’t a sustainable model to experience the fullness of life in all its joy and wonder. Yet it can be our reality in our darkest moments.

Even though we live in a death-denying culture, one that resorts to euphemism to avoid talking about death, unless we confront the reality, we cannot fully live. That’s the paradox of life and the hope of faith. And we’re reminded that to fully live is to forego fear in exchange for embracing the inter-connectedness of our lives. Only when we allow the death of our self-centered natures and open our hearts and minds and souls to generosity and compassion, are we able to experience true peace and joy.

Getting mauled by a “fierce wild beast” still isn't on my bucket list. But I do think even the potential helps keep life in perspective. And it helps us remember that saintly souls are all around us. As the song says, you can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea (another line that cracks me up!); for the saints of God are just folks like me, and I mean to be one too.” Which is something we can all aspire to.

Feb 24, 2017

The Holy Innocents of 1976

On December 28, just three days after Christmas, the Church marks a dark day in the liturgical calendar: The Feast of the Holy Innocents. On this day, we remember the Biblical account of King Herod's order to kill all the male children under the age of two in order to avoid a threat to his throne from the newborn Jesus, called the King of the Jews. Never mind that Jesus' kingdom was of a completely different realm, this story is a classic example of the harm fear and a thirst for power, combined with human weakness and insecurity can affect.

This episode in Matthew's gospel came to mind as our group of 27 St. John's parishioners toured Soweto township, the epicenter of the anti-Apartheid movement. In particular, we visited the site where Hector Pieterson, a 14-year-old student, was gunned down by the white South African police force. Peterson was one of the first students killed on June 16, 1976, in what became known as the Soweto Uprising.

Students in Soweto had gathered to march in non-violent protest against the Apartheid government's
Two students walking past the site where a fellow Soweto
student, Hector Pieterson, was shot and killed by
white police on June 16, 1976. 
insistence that Afrikaans be used to teach classes. This was, of course, anathema, as it was considered the language of oppression. What began as a simple protest, turned violent after police entered the township and the crowd became restless.

At some point, the police started firing on the crowd and at least 176 black South Africans were gunned down that day -- though others estimate it was hundreds more.

The iconic photo of Pieterson being carried by a fellow student and trailed after by his sister led, finally, to international attention being focused on the situation in South Africa. In a sense the Soweto Uprising was the beginning of the end for Apartheid, even if it took nearly 20 years to become overturned as official policy.

Although the events of June 16, 1976, took place over 40 years ago, the sense of being at the center of the struggle against oppression is powerful. We walked around the monument to the forward-looking Freedom Charter, placed on the very site it was signed in 1954. We also visited the Nelson Mandela house and passed by Bishop Tutu's residence -- two future Nobel Peace Prize winners lived within one block of one another!

But it was the site of the Hector Pieterson memorial that so strongly evoked the image of the Holy Innocents. As St. Augustine once wrote of these young martyrs, they were "buds, killed by the frost of persecution." Indeed, as we walked this site with some of our group being children of Pieterson's exact age, the injustice and tragedy of that day in 1976 came bubbling up to the surface.

Where is God in this? In the townships; standing with the oppressed and marginalized; with those seeking to stand up for peace and justice in the face of hostility. While Apartheid has ended, the struggle continues.

Feb 21, 2017

Pilgrimage to Robben Island

On the afternoon of our first full day in Capetown, we took a ferry out to Robben Island. If you're not familiar with the iconic South African prison, it's where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 18 of the 27 years he was behind bars during the Apartheid era.

When you're traveling with a group of 27 adults and teenagers, silence is rare. And so the hush that came over our group as we docked and approached the front gate on foot, was noticeable. It did feel like we were walking on holy ground as we reverently entered the prison yard. The island itself, a place that should have been overrun with the natural beauty of a coastal South African shangri la, felt somehow desolate; every pebble and blade of grass crying out with the voice of struggle.

Our tour guide was himself a living martyr, a man who had been imprisoned on the island for five years, between 1977 and 1982. His crime? Working for justice amid a reign of terror as a member of the African National Congress (ANC). His life and his story served as a flesh and bones monument to grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope -- rare commodities in any age and certainly our own current political climate. And we were privileged to be in his presence and hear first-hand the tactics Mandela and his fellow prisoners used to maintain their dignity, humanity, and wholeness when they were being beaten down -- literally and emotionally -- on a daily basis.

In the accompanying photo (taken by John Hussey), our guide was explaining how the white warders (prison guards) tried numerous ways to divide the prison population against one another. One method was to give different meals to different "classes" of prisoners. The Indian and "colored" prisoners received better and more food than the Black Africans. This tactic also included prison clothes -- blacks were not given shoes; others were not.

Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island.
Rather than foster jealousy and division among the prisoners, these methods simply strengthened their resolve. Food and clothing was shared regardless of status, thus subverting the very division the Apartheid government sought to sow among the prison population.

The most moving experience for me was simply walking in Mandela's shoes as we crossed the ground upon which he himself trod. Yes, this was a pilgrimage as we saw relics of his stay including the quarry where the political prisoners were forced to break up rocks and the cell in which the famous freedom fighter was held. A saintly aura filled the place even in its desolation and desperation.

Stones of Remembrance.
As we continued our tour of the prison grounds, our guide told us a story out at the quarry of a visit Mandela and other survivors made back to Robben Island a number of years after the end of Apartheid. Following a ceremony commemorating their time in prison and the subsequent outcome of their victorious struggle, Mandela spontaneously took a stone from the quarry and laid it down on his way out of the quarry. The other prisoners followed suit and soon there was a pile of rocks that remains to this day. These Stones of Remembrance stand as a reminder that, while we can forgive, we can never forget.

The prison on Robben Island lives on not as a symbol of destruction but as a beacon of hope amid a dark world. It would be easy to whitewash history and demolish the buildings. But we cannot. For people like us, who understand that out of darkness there is light and out of death there is resurrection, we need tangible reminders, like the cross itself, that hope abides.

As Mandela himself once put it, "The names of those incarcerated on Robben Island is a roll call of resistance fighters and democrats spanning over three centuries. If indeed this is a Cape of Good Hope, that hope owes much to the spirit of that legion of fighters and others of their caliber."

Feb 19, 2017

The Legend of Devil's Peak

After 31 hours of travel that including three flights, which was really nothing in comparison to
Photo credit: John Hussey
the year-long preparation for the trip, the 27 teenagers and adults from St. John’s landed in Capetown, South Africa, late on Friday night. 

I’m here as a priest, yes, but also as a dad as Ben is one of the high schoolers who committed to making this journey. Along the way, we had seminars on the history of South Africa, read a number of books including Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, and everyone was involved in fundraising to make this once-in-a lifetime cultural experience become a reality.

Even with all the hard work, we couldn’t have done this without the assistance and inspiration of two fairly new parishioners at St. John’s, Holly and Bill Carter. After the Carters retired, they moved to the area and started attending our parish. Holly, a retired dean at Northeastern who helped Oprah set up a girls school in South Africa, and Bill, a retired engineer and MIT-trained mathematician, have quickly had a profound impact on the parish. It’s not just that they’re one of the few African-American families at St. John’s, it’s that they are passionate about both their faith and sharing their experiences with others. We are all enriched by their presence and a bunch of us are now in South Africa, a journey Holly has taken many times before and wanted to share with the congregation. 

Today was the first day here and it started by throwing open the windows of our hotel room and coming face-to-face with…Devil’s Peak. Rather ironic for a church group, perhaps, but I was fascinated to learn the story of the name. Later that morning we headed up to the aptly-named Tabletop Mountain where we got a closer look at this mountain with the curious name.

It turns out that there’s a wonderful legend involving the naming of this mountain. A prodigious Dutch pipe smoker named Jan van Hunks lived at the foot of the mountain in the early 1700s. His wife didn't allow him to smoke in their home so he would wander the trails leading up the slope, puffing away. One day he encountered a mystery man who also smoked. After both bragged about their heroic smoking capacities, the man challenged van Hunks to a contest. If van Hunks could smoke more, the man, who turned out to be the Devil, would leave the mountain to him. If the devil won, he would take the other man’s soul. 

Well, van Hunks bested the devil but not before the smoke they created covered the mountain, forming the famous “table cloth cloud.” And indeed, it is usually covered with a gentle wisp of clouds near the peak.

The great saintly legends have nothing on this smoky story! The truth, however, may be
more along the lines of what’s found on the website for Capetown’s Devil’s Peak Brewery.
Forty years before Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape in 1497, the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro created a map of the world for King Alfonso V of Portugal, based on knowledge drawn from the Arabians. On this map, which became the definitive view of the world for the early Portuguese explorers, he named the southernmost tip of Africa, Cabo di Diab — the Devil’s Cape. It’s very likely the association with the Devil simply migrated from the Cape to the mountain that flanks ii. After all, sailors are a superstitious lot and Devil’s Peak remains the path through with the Cape Southeaster howls, churning up the waves in the Cape of Storms.
This reminds me, I need to track down an ale from Devil’s Peak Brewery while I’m here.

The spiritual highlight of the day was a trip to Robben Island, the place Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years during the dark days of Apartheid. More about that later -- much to process on many fronts.

Feb 2, 2017

In Good Faith: Seeking a Moral Compass

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the clergy's role during politically divisive times. It's complicated.

Seeking a Moral Compass

Like the vast majority of people with political opinions, I am not a public policy analyst. I keep up with current events, think I do a fairly good job of separating “fake news” from actual news, and try to see both sides of the issues. I am aware that rhetoric and sloganeering add nothing helpful to the public discourse and that the great issues of the day are complex, nuanced, and require thoughtful deliberation. 

Unfortunately this is rarely the approach, which is why we end up with precious little civil
dialogue between people with opposing views. It’s easier to demonize than debate. And with handy social media options like “unfollow” and “block,” we can tailor the public conversation to our own personal tastes and preferences. 

One question that’s been on my mind of late is, “what is the role of clergy during politically divisive times?” And make no mistake about it — we’re living in politically divisive times. Not surprisingly, people have differing views on the subject. Some want their clergy out marching in the streets at every opportunity; others don’t want their clergy uttering anything political at all. 

As a faith leader, I have found that few things get people more fired up than delivering what they would term a “political sermon.” Some feel politics should never be mentioned from the pulpit. There’s a desire that houses of worship be the last remaining sanctuary free from political rancor and viewpoints. That to preach politics from the pulpit is to automatically alienate a group of people in a congregation when the goal should be to unite those with disparate views rather than divide them. That worship should foremost be about “peace and harmony.”

Others feel that faith is inherently political. That to avoid what’s happening in the world is to stick our heads in the sand and cease to be relevant. That Jesus himself was political, fighting for the overthrow of an oppressive Roman regime. That he was executed for his political activism. That worship should foremost be a call to action.

While both sides have merit, my own approach tends to be somewhere in the middle. And while the middle can be a lonely place these days, I don't believe you can ignore what’s happening in the world — a majority of the populace who feels unheard, large scale protests, fear of Muslims and fear for Muslims. Not every sermon I preach incorporates current events, but when major national or global events are on people’s minds, they must be addressed in the context of Scripture or I’ve failed to do my job. So while we can’t ignore global events, I also believe that we must maintain the bonds of community even when we disagree.

As someone who served in the military and used to run political campaigns for a living, I do indeed have a lot of opinions. But what I stand up for from the pulpit is guided by my understanding of Scripture and by the words and actions of Jesus. I see the world through the lens of inclusion and dignity and compassion and love. The non-negotiable of the Christian faith is to show those things to all people, especially in caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. That’s what Jesus did time and again and it is what I strive to do, as best I can, in my own life even as I seek to inspire others to do likewise. 

I believe there is a role for clergy in the political conversation. We don’t have all the answers and we’re not all policy wonks. But we do have a moral compass that can keep the excesses and shortcomings of human nature in check. This is less about choosing sides and more about pointing out sinful behavior when we see it and encouraging compassionate and loving action in response. 

This is not an easy balance to achieve and I do ask you to pray for your faith leaders. Just as we pray fervently for our elected officials, our nation, the world, and all of you.