Apr 10, 2017

Holy Week Invitation: Will you admire Jesus or follow Jesus?

At one level, we love the grand pageantry of the entrance into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is fun. Like Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it attracts large crowds. And like bobble-head night at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, there's a liturgical give-a-way in the form of palms; a tangible souvenir to prove your presence and loyalty.

There's something we love about the image of crowds and palms spread along Jesus' path. Riding on a donkey doesn't exactly project the same image of strength as a Presidential motorcade but still, the palms are symbols of admiration and adulation. And this excites us. In a world of dwindling church attendance, we're dazzled by the prospect of big numbers. We can't help but think, “Finally, they get it. Finally, Jesus is getting his due. Finally, they recognize Jesus for who he is.” We equate large enthusiastic crowds with validation for his message. And that pleases us, hoping that this will also, somehow, validate us.

But here’s the problem with this model: Jesus didn’t come into the world to attract admirers. He didn’t seek to build up his base by drawing large crowds. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of success. 

No, Jesus didn’t seek admirers but followers. He sought people who would follow him not just when things were going well, but when things didn’t go according to plan; not just when things were joyful and euphoric but when things turned dark and tragic. And they do. 

This coming week we must ask ourselves whether we will be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus. Holy Week brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we are content to call ourselves people of faith only when it’s on our terms or whether we are disciples of Jesus willing to follow him when it’s inconvenient or difficult or painful. Are we fair-weather Christians who love to wave palms around and proclaim “Hosanna” or are we disciples of Jesus who recognize our complicity in the Passion by crying, “Crucify?” 

It’s easy enough to follow Jesus when things are going well. When life is smooth. When the parade is heading down the street and we’re surrounded and buoyed by the support of others. It’s harder when life takes a turn. And there’s a health crisis or a relationship fades or we’re confronted with conflict at work or home. Jesus knew full well about life taking a turn. 

Yes, we can and should admire Jesus. But if we stop there, we’re missing the invitation to truly transform our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, writes about the difference between being an admirer and a follower of Jesus: “A follower strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

The Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion. 

So, the invitation has been extended. How will you respond this week? Will you keep your distance or fully engage with Jesus? Will you be willing to make sacrifices or will you play it safe? The possibility of radical transformation awaits as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. As we prepare to follow Jesus. 

Apr 6, 2017

In Good Faith: Blind Spots

Yes, the blog takes a back seat to all things Lent Madness this time of year. But here's my latest monthly In Good Faith column titled Blind Spots. We all have them -- even if they transcend the lessons learned during Driver's Ed.
Blind Spots

One of the things about having children is you end up reliving experiences you hadn’t
thought about in years. Sometimes this is a blessing — like when you get to re-watch those original Star Wars movies. And sometimes this is a curse — like when you have to essentially retake geometry. 

One such experience is learning how to drive. The fits and starts of those early days behind the wheel typically don’t come to mind when you hop in the car to run an errand. Unless you have a child taking Driver’s Ed and then you suddenly have a driving expert sitting next to you. One who criticizes your every rolling stop and comments on your apparently lackadaisical use of the blinker. 

Now I’ve blocked out most of my time in Driver’s Ed, but I particularly remember the conversation about the blind spot. Barry, our rather gruff, Brooklyn-bred instructor, seemed to spend an awful lot of time on it and so I knew that, in theory, there was a spot when changing lanes that you couldn’t really see using the mirrors alone. Though it seemed to me rather ridiculous that you couldn’t see a big van or truck that was right next to you, or at least sense it — by using The Force. 

But all it took was driving on the highway for the first time and not completely turning around and hearing that bus lean on the horn to realize that, oh, so that’s the blind spot Barry was talking about. It’s not merely theoretical — and with all the angles involved, maybe geometry actually is useful.

But in time you come to learn that even beyond driving, we all have blind spots. Areas of our lives that we literally can’t see. They may have to do with family relationships or politics or our work life. They may be based on our upbringing or gender or race or nationality or faith tradition or socioeconomic class. But these blindspots can wreak havoc on those around us, even if they don’t particularly register with us. They’re easy enough to ignore — until we wind up bumping into something and causing a metaphorical wreck or negatively impacting the lives of those around us.

So what do we do about our own personal and communal blindspots? Well, we can be in relationship with those with differing perspectives or experiences. That’s really the best way to address them, which is why it’s so important to have conversations with those with whom we disagree or with those whose experiences differ from our own. When we end up only staying within the confines of our own tribe, it may be more comfortable, it may be more enjoyable, but it only broadens our blind spots, which ultimately diminishes both us and our respective communities.

Yes, it’s awkward to discover and acknowledge our blind spots. You have to crane your neck a bit and leave your comfort zone. You have to intentionally seek out new perspectives and work a bit harder to see. But the payoff is a fuller life; a more faithful life; a richer life. Which is precisely what the life of faith, regardless of tradition, beckons us towards. 

There’s a reason that in the Christian faith Jesus is always giving sight to the blind. The miracle transcends the physical because the real point is that as our perspective is changed and broadened we begin to see those on the margins of society; fellow children of God to whom we might otherwise be blind. 

In the end, we need assistance in the form of others to help us see our blind spots — we can’t do it alone. I encourage you to be open to other viewpoints, to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and to allow the illumination of new perspective to shine in your heart and soul.

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."