Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Earthquake in China: God Taking Over the Ruin

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

At various times across the year, I’ll hear a Gospel and will also hear laughter in the background. This is one. The kind of humor it strikes is dark, or perhaps sympathetic—the chuckle under the breath that says, “Yes, isn’t that the truth?”

And if humor is struck, it’s rather like striking a match: it happens as one hard subject strikes against another. With wonder we see the sparks fly and what we laugh at may be ourselves, the weighty part of our own soul’s baggage that we have to drop in order to catch truth and light and love as they erupt. Here it’s anxiety bumping up against faith and its imperative: “But strive first for the rule of God and God’s right values on earth…” When beleaguered anxiety collides with faith like that, when the soul is summoned out of despond and into mission, we can laugh at the proverb about today’s trouble being enough for today because we are reminded that today’s grace will also be enough for today’s responsibilities.

But there’s nothing to laugh about in this week’s news from so many places: China, Myanmar, and the Tornado Alleys across the midsection of our own country. For these children of God, a day’s trouble is too much for one day, even for one lifetime.

There is something called disaster fatigue, a form of denial that distances its victim from taking in the enormity of someone else’s disaster, because it comes right on the heels of someone else’s tragedy, and it has been enough of a downer to hear about that one. Depending on what kind of day we’re having, it probably happens to all of us, this refusal to read anything more on the subject… today. Perhaps we even excuse ourselves with that verse of our psalm, “I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me.”

I do believe that disaster fatigue does enough collateral damage that we should consider ourselves its victims, because it’s our own humanity that may get lost in the shuffle as we skip those pages in The Eagle, The Times, or The Globe. If I’m not reading about China, eight or nine days into their national disaster, or about Myanmar as the fist of that nation’s junta finally opens, then I may miss the inspirations that come as the truest victims of cyclone and earthquake, and their helpers, reveal the beauty and power of their humanity.

The only people I know in China are Ling Ling Qi and her husband, Yiqiang Qi. She teaches opera; he is an art historian who spent a year here as a visiting fellow at The Clark. You can tell that they don’t live in a rural village. During their time here, Ling Ling worshiped with us. We’ve kept in touch ever since. Replying to my email after the earthquake, she assured me she is all right, her husband is traveling, and their daughter Shu Shu is still studying in Europe. Ling Ling wrote, in her own words, "But thank God, it is the first time for me to see that the determination of the whole country being holding together to conquer the difficulties, and Love that God created for the people show its power. I am sure He will take over the ruin for us and people will knowing God one day."

"God taking over the ruin…"-- what a phrase! The God Ling Ling knows and loves is Isaiah’s God who has inscribed her and all other children of God on the palms of his hands. When they suffer, the compassion of God will meet them because their suffering is felt by God, instantly and intensely, as a woman shows compassion for the child of her womb.

Think of all the hands of rescuers picking at rubble, sometimes finding and freeing people trapped beneath debris, think of those as the hands of God bearing the imprint of her children, and the voices of those rescuers giving voice to God as they say “to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’” Ling Ling’s God takes over the ruin much as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the mound of Jesus’s crucifixion, was taken over by redeeming love after the powers of this world had done their worst to the peasant prophet from Nazareth. It is what redeeming love did there that causes Ling Ling to say, “I am sure He will take over the ruin for us and people will knowing God one day.”

More than 50,000 people dead, over 60,000 hospitalized, countless more wounded, millions traumatized by three minutes of absolute terror and more than three hundred aftershocks. Hundreds of dams cracked, rivers diverted by the collapse of cliffs and hillsides. Four million homes destroyed, two hundred thousand public buildings in rubble, seven thousand of them schools, too many in session, some with as many as nine hundred or a thousand students inside.

Does God cause such ruin? That seems an uncivilized question to ask, doesn’t it? This question rattled Europe in 1755, when the greatest earthquake ever to hit Western Europe destroyed much of the city of Lisbon, killing 100,000. This was a watershed moment for western civilization, not unlike the Holocaust in the twentieth century, the acid test for all kinds of thinking. Enlightened thinking had been steering philosophy and theology in that century, but when this happened the tombs opened and countless voices explained the earthquake as God’s will.

Those same graves creak open today, as certain evangelical preachers have their way explaining disasters, both the natural kind and the manmade varieties, as being caused by the will of God. You know that “evangel” means “good news”, and we all know it’s hard to find much of that in tragic times, but I find no good news in blaming God for the fact that beneath the crust of the earth India and China are in constant collision, or that cyclones and hurricanes, barreling into deltas laid bare by decades of deforestation, should engulf and drown the poor who live where they live because they are poor and because their governments do not care.

Those who explain the unexplainable as God’s responsibility would do well to meditate on our reading from St. Paul today: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”

This does not excuse us from determining the purposes of our hearts. Here we are, kvetching about the price of gasoline and a 6% rise in the cost of hot dogs. That deserves to collide with the imperative of our mission, clearly put today by our Lord and Savior, the peasant teacher from Nazareth: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

That is a much harder question to answer today in China and Myanmar. Whatever our own state of sticker shock, we are clothed and fed. They are not.

For two weeks, Raile’s Bowl has received gifts for emergency relief in Burma. Nearly $500 was gathered and routed to a Burmese healthcare organization which has its own people on the ground there.

Now we turn Raile’s Bowl towards China. Episcopal Relief and Development is using the Amity Foundation as its hands and feet in China. The Amity Foundation, an independent Chinese organization, was created in 1985 on the initiative of Chinese Christians to promote education, social services, health care, and rural development from China’s coastal provinces in the east to the minority areas of the west.

In an email written last Sunday, as China began a three-day period of national mourning, Amity’s staff announced their decision to focus relief work in certain rural areas of Sichuan Province. From their assessment, emergency relief was flowing to mainly urban areas. Outlying rural areas have not received much attention. With funding from Episcopal Relief and Development, and from ecumenical Church World Service, Amity is distributing rice, plastic sheeting, and quilts.

And volunteers. One, Ms. Liu Xiaofang, has traveled by train to Chengdu as Amity’s first counseling volunteer. Ms.Liu lost her son to blood cancer ten years ago when he was five. She reports that, having been helped abundantly and blessed by warm-hearted people, she has been waiting for an opportunity to pay back that debt. Now is her time.

Let’s make sure she does not go empty-handed.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Seven Reasons Why I'm an Episcopalian

Readings for the Day of Pentecost are Acts 2:1-21, I Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23.

I want to thank our Gospel readers today. Christopher, father of Ben, our baptismal candidate, read in Latin, a language he will teach here at Williams next year, a language his wife Amanda teaches at Williams, as well. Elizabeth read in Shona, one of three official languages in her homeland, Zimbabwe. And Elvy read in svenska, Swedish, her native tongue.

We think of language as being a function of the mind. But the human heart also moves to language beyond words, and Mothers’ Day invites us to celebrate dimensions of love communicated to us through the mothers we know. In relationship with them, in struggle with them, our ability to speak love has been shaped and influenced. By taking part in a baptism today, we may catch the ways, the images, the language by which the mothering love of God is expressed.

“In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power,” marveled the international pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem, hearing the Galilean apostles. Unlike our readers today, those apostles were not learned people. Like those pilgrims, however, we affirm these languages as ours because they are among the many that belong to members of this congregation. When our neighbors in these pews join the psalmist in praying, “May these words of mine please you,” those words may not be in English, but in Korean, Spanish, Norwegian, German, Japanese. This is a good day to acknowledge that when we meet here for worship, we meet at a crossroads as did those pilgrims in international Jerusalem.

I met with a band of pilgrims here, Wednesday morning, about two dozen adult students in the Osher Life-long Learning Institute, headquartered at Berkshire Community College. County residents come together to pursue whatever interests them, and for this bunch it was applied religion. Six North County pastors, including our local rabbi, were invited to lecture, each describing the origins, development, and practice of his or her religious tradition. On Wednesday they came here, and I was their lecturer.

And they were my questioners. I’ll guess that between a quarter and a third of them were Jewish. Only a couple of them had ever been in this building before. I believe that most came from central and south Berkshire County. That this course was centered on the North County may have been due to the fact that the Wednesday afternoon course this term is at the Clark.

In preparing for this, I couldn’t imagine at first speaking for a whole hour as requested—I’m trained to speak for thirteen minutes-- but once into it, my cup ran over and I had to drain it off. My audience members also shortened it with their eagerness to ask questions, but as we neared the final ten minutes I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I ended with a portion I hadn’t gotten to and really wanted to, a section I’d called Seven Reasons Why I’m an Episcopalian. If you get the sense that you’re about to hear them, you’re right.

Reason #1: Bobby Ouelette. I was eleven or twelve, and my good friend Bobby was enrolled by his parents in the vacation Bible school at our local Episcopal Church. He told me that if he had to go, then I had to go. I loved it. I wasn’t born into this tradition. I’m an Episcopalian because I was brought into the community of a church with a very active youth ministry. I wasn’t yet a teenager, but I was treated as a living member of the Body of Christ with valuable work to do for him, and I was expected and helped to find it. And I’m an Episcopalian because in college, another crossroads time in my life, I sought and found a fellowship of Word and sacrament and friendship and service both on campus through its chapel ministry, and off-campus through the nearest Episcopal church where I met the woman whom I married. She’s the cradle Episcopalian, not me. What I found in her, in her family, and in her congregation made me all the more certain I was in the church where I belonged.

Reason # 2: Consistently, in every community I’ve belonged to in the Episcopal Church, I’ve been encouraged to take the Bible honestly—to let it pry me open and then pour out on me the good news that I am not the captain of my salvation but Jesus Christ is, and holds me, as he holds you, in eternal love. The Episcopal Church has encouraged me to take the Bible honestly, seriously, joyously, without requiring that I take it literally when to take it literally misses the point of God’s love. The Anglican way is one of vigorous thinking and curiosity, encouraging an informed and imaginative reading of the Bible. I’m a student of literature, and am grateful for a church that urges me to be fearless about the contradictions and moral tempests I find in the Bible, which aren’t to be explained away but to be heard, worked with, and understood. One of the best things my church did for me in my early teens was to urge me to read the Gospels and meet the Jesus of Matthew, of Mark, and Luke and John. As you come to know the Word made flesh, all other words can be judged in his light, the keepers kept and the baggage of the past left in the baggage room.

Reason 3: Year by year, I’ve grown more grateful for a tradition that values individual conscience, puts into my hands and yours responsibility to respond to the One by whose love we are rescued and redeemed. That responsibility is a keen Reformation commitment, an intently Protestant attitude. Yet what the Episcopal Church has put into our hands is the catholic heritage handed on by the apostles, the endlessly rich resources of sacrament and community, all under the authority of the risen Christ who has poured out his Spirit so liberally. His ministry is entrusted to each believer, each having some essential role to play in the whole priesthood of believers, because the Spirit has been given in a rainbow of manifestations, gifts, passions for the common good of the world.

Reason #4: In order to get the full wonder of God’s love for the full human race, and in order to praise God for this wonder, I need and enjoy color, beauty, variety, experimentation in music, message, art, and movement. I belong to a church that values all of these in the service of worship and faith formation. I admire in the Episcopal tradition its openness to the eclectic, the international, the inspirational, and the edgy.

Reason 5: Anglican theology has me hooked. Not because it’s a neat ordering of all the answers to all my questions—it isn’t—but because of its attitude, its insistence on being rooted in God’s action in the world, not just God’s action in the church. 19th-Century theologian Charles Gore summed this up: “The real development of theology is… the process in which the Church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age: and because ‘the truth makes her free,’ is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power of witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic capacity of her faith and life.”

Reason #6 comes clearer to me, the older I get. I am able to be an Episcopalian because in Anglicanism there’s a long history of respect for science. The scientific enlightenment that swept through Europe in the 19th century had a special haven in the many English rural parsonages where vicars proved themselves to be darned good amateur botanists and students of nature. Nothing in our approach to scripture and tradition throws evolution into question. What makes reasonable sense within human experience need not be contradictory to scripture and tradition.

My seventh reason is that the Episcopal Church remembers, often enough, that it is the earthen vessel, the clay jar, and that the treasure within belongs to God, indeed the truest treasure is God. Like every denomination, we can get enormously wrapped up in our own preoccupations and take ourselves too seriously. But I admire about our church its sense of being not a finished product, but a work in progress. Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey said about Anglicanism: “Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokennesss to point to the universal Church…” In other words, to point beyond itself to something far greater than itself. And I recall the Dean of my seminary addressing us seniors before our graduation, to this effect: “The Episcopal Church is often called a ‘bridge church’ because it is both catholic and protestant. If we do our job and help God build that bridge, we should put ourselves out of business.”

I had barely said those words when Norm, in the front pew, said, “But that presupposes that each side of the divide cooperates—will that be true?”

I told him that I am not qualified to answer for any other tradition. But I can pray. And in that praying I will be reminded that the work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. Which means that it is ours to do, by the grace we are given.

Very much in-business yesterday in my neighborhood were members of Bible Baptist Church. I was at the back door of my garage when at the open front door appeared a fellow in his forties, two little boys about seven and nine, and behind them an older man. The first fellow explained that they had for me a packet of information, but first he wanted to ask if I’m already settled in a church.

I assured him I am, and with that they turned and left, without leaving the packet of information. “Keep up the good work!” I called out to them, sincerely.

I’m impressed by how they were honoring what Pentecost is about. I suspect that their reasons for being Baptists would have some differences from the list I’ve shared with you today. They would have been quite willing to share their reasons with people they’ve never met. Their church will grow from that willingness.

This church of ours will grow, if we are willing to share our reasons with people we do know, people who aren’t settled in a church of their own. May the Spirit of God free that willingness in us.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Colliding Galaxies

Today’s collect and first lesson show us that the Ascension of our Lord is in the air today. The 40th day after Easter is one of those creedal feast days when what we celebrate is a doctrine, in this case “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

In a better-ordered parish than this one, there would be a celebration of the eucharist on Ascension Day; but on Thursday, May 1, we did not gather at the table here. We came as close as Monday’s Sweetwood eucharist honoring the Ascension, and Tuesday’s midweek eucharist here observing the Ascension. And today, after the fact, we at least look in the rear view mirror to catch what we can of this airborne and clearly movable feast.

I don’t know the artist, but a medieval painter tried his hand at the Ascension. For better or for worse, he has the disciples clustered around a spot where our Lord had stood, just a moment before, whereas at this moment that the artist attempts to catch, Jesus has lifted off and all we see of him is a pair of dangling feet at the top of the canvas. It is not among the great paintings of the Middle Ages, I suspect.

But it does push the question: Does it require belief in a multi-layered vertical universe to make sense of the Ascension?

The Hubble telescope has revealed a far more complex cosmos than first-century astronomers could describe. Think of all the reframing you have had to do in your lifetime, in order to take in magnitudes of enormity to catch up with modern astronomy’s description of the heavens. Every other thing, some stunning new image pulls us into the orbit of a startling concept we might never have imagined. The latest I saw was an image of the collision of two galaxies, a complex event that would see some stars make it through any number of near misses, and some explode on impact. I’m sure there’s a much more accurate description of that image than what I’ve just said, but I haven’t enough command of the language and science to give it to you.

But I’m imagining that our Williams seniors, whom we celebrate today, have a more coherent understanding of the heavens than I do, in part because they are the heirs of finer science in their formal education than I was in mine. Perhaps one of them can explain to me the collision of galaxies, later… Or, educational evolution being what it is, perhaps that will require a seventh grader?

Recall those angels in our first reading, and their questioning the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

For them, it was a simpler thing than it may be for us to locate heaven. The psalmist could sing, “God rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens… God’s strength is in the skies,” and in that several-storied universe, this all made sense.

But where do we locate heaven? If astronomy helps us do that, I’ll bet it will be by giving us new metaphors. Those black holes I read about while I’m in Dr. Lapidus’s waiting room enjoying The Smithsonian, will some astrophysical image like that give future artists and poets and preachers and musicians new descriptive language for imagining heaven?

Or will it always be the work of angels to address disciples with a gentle scolding, “Why spend your time speculating about heaven? Get on with your mission, for this Christ who has ascended will return to this earth—and if this realm is that important to God, hadn’t you better steward it just as generously as you can, build in it the right ordering of peace on earth, good will towards all?”

What does the Ascension of Christ have to do with this physical life of ours? The Prayer Book Catechism asks this question. I don’t know about you, but I find that those curt, tense little answers in the Catechism dangle like verbal counterparts to those feet on that medieval canvas. But this answer may be helpful:

“Q: What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father?

A: We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.”

At the end of today’s Gospel portion, we hear him pray, “Holy Father, protect them (us, his people in the world) protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There, for me, is the meaning of the Ascension: this doctrine shows that, despite the worst that the world could do to Jesus, his unity with God his Source and Origin and his All could not be broken. Because of the grace given to us in baptism, it is true for us as well: the unity we have with God in Jesus Christ cannot be broken.

In our relationship with him, given to us in baptism, claimed in faith, we are in that unity that he has with the Father. He has taken our nature with him into the center of God, making possible for us daily that centering in God that we are built to enjoy. Protecting us, freeing us, for unity with God is that name Jesus says God has given him.

That sent me to the commentary. “Name,” I muttered. What name?

“Name”, I learn there, means the identity and character and nature of God. Jesus has revealed God’s name—that is, God’s identity and character and nature—and that revelation has shaped the identity and character and nature of the faith community of the disciples during Jesus’s ministry. (Somewhere in the First Letter of John we read, “As he is in this world, so are we.”) He now asks that God keep secure the community’s grounding, centering, in that name. That God ensure the unity of the faith community which mirrors the unity of God and Jesus.

Put that with the simplicity you’ll find in the First Letter of John, and it sounds like this: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Anne, Ben, Caitlin, Paul, Sara, Scot: God abides in you. You have shown your love among us in service, worship, and community. You will have left an abiding name here, and we hope that something of us will abide with you.

Now back to the colliding of galaxies. Something like that is happening throughout our little cosmos. Empires of culture collide in war. Economic forces and failures clash in the world’s markets. Presidential elections pit star against star. Our own Anglican Communion is hot with friction as values and beliefs smash into one another.

In the face of all this, power deeper and truer than force is at work among us. The Book of Acts tells us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” The First Letter of Peter says, “The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” And as John told us, God has given Jesus authority for the benefit of all people. So in him, deep authority of love is given to us as well.

Scot, Sara, Paul, Caitlin, Ben, Anne: May you wield it well, this spiritual power, along with fine science, and all the good you carry with you.