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Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

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Happy Mothers’ Day…and celebrating what’s in the Bible!

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

ZeusStatueWe too often think of God as if HE, like Zeus reigning havoc from Mount Olympus, were an outrageously virile, sometimes malicious misogynist.  Woe on us ladies, who are hapless helpmates if not also victims…

Well, there’s lots of history and literature behind such an misconception, but it’s not in the Bible!   Okay, okay, let’s be honest — some of it is…. BUT there’s much to commend a more gentle and feminine image of God.  I’m preparing for tomorrow’s message for Mother’s Day, and I’ve gleaned the following from several sources:

In the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai is one of the words for God, along with Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and others. Although usually translated “Almighty God,” it might better be translated as the “Many-breasted One” from the plural of the Hebrew word shad, meaning breast, rather than the ancient Semitic word shadu meaning mountain.

A. Examples of God referred to as a mother:

  • a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power
  • a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
  • a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
  • a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
  • a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
  • a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18)
  • a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) 2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Examples of God doing womanly activities:

  • God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21)
  • God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9)
  • God as a woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

C: The Holy Spirit is often understood to be feminine:

  • “Ruach” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; “pneuma” in Greek is neuter
  • The Holy Spirit is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, emotional warmth, and inspiration.
  • Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).
  • Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom. In Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) as well as in the Old Testament, e.g., Proverbs 9:1.

So tomorrow, with the children, we will pray:  “Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

And I do believe that the Father-Mother God will rejoice!

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Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish.  We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).

For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.

I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:

  1. He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
  2. He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!

On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example.  Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals  plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)

Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)

You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band!  Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”

What does this say for worship, if not also for life?

We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)

The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!

Similarly,  the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir.  For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.

S.D.G.

 

 

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Jesus Believed in … WHAT???

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

This was my Easter sermon at The Park Church in Elmira, NY — the church of the early abolitionists, Thomas K. Beecher, and Sam and Annis Ford Eastman, and of people who understand the radical message of Christ’s all-welcoming love.

 

Taking a lesson from Howard Baker, eminent politician and ranking Republican on the panel investigating Richard Nixon – the question is: “What did he know and when did he know it?”

Nixon protested that he didn’t know about the Watergate break-in until a year after it happened. But when evidence surfaced that he was involved from the onset, it wasn’t long before he chose to resign rather than be impeached.  Now, it seems to me that if the question of what Nixon knew and when he knew is was a critical one for U.S. politics in the 20th century, the question of what Jesus knew and when he knew it has been a critical one for … let’s see … almost 2,000 years!

What Jesus knew and when he knew it might also clarify the bigger issue of what he believed in. Why would he allow himself to go to the cross with nary a protest? If we can determine what Jesus believed in it might help us determine what we should believe in.

Did he, for example, believe that he was the one and only true son of God?  Did he believe he would reign from heaven after death? Did he believe that 2 millennia after his death, one out of every three people would profess faith in – and often be willing to die for – the values he espoused?  In short, did he – nailed to that shameful and vicious cross – have any notion that his death would change the world for all time?

If he had an exalted sense of himself as the son of God and just a few breaths away from heavenly paradise, then, in a certain way, that trivializes the viciousness of Good Friday.  And if the horror of Good Friday is diminished, so also is the elation of Easter morning. If nothing much happened on Easter, what are we doing here?  Why are we baptizing Tristan James – why do we call ourselves Christians, and why do we make certain life decisions and not others?

Something did happen on Easter morning – something very big indeed.  But I don’t believe that it has a whole lot to do with Jesus’ bodily disappearance from the tomb. As important as that is, I question whether it is the true source of our faith.  Let’s consider the bigger picture.

Many people assume that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the singular act that defines our faith. For them, his disappearance from the tomb on Easter morning is incontrovertible proof that he was the Son of God.  Anyone who questions the physics behind the Easter miracle is, by definition, not a Christian.

Others say that Jesus’ body was removed by stealth or that his followers concocted the story.  Some scholars note that Jesus was not the first or the last person to be resuscitated after death – in fact, we have Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, to say nothing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. Later, his disciples reportedly raised some people from the dead.  There were also resurrection stories in Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian cultures circulating at the time of Jesus. So the disappearance of Jesus’ body was not the single most important fact that gave birth to the most powerful religion in the world for all known time.

Equally problematic is the idea that Jesus was a willing sacrifice for our sins.  This idea – called substitutionary atonement – posits that Jesus was a ritual offering intended to appease God from wreaking greater havoc on the rest of us.  In dying a horrible death, some people argue, Jesus took on the sins of all so that we will have everlasting life in heaven with God, regardless of our sins on earth. But did Jesus believe that he was the scapegoat for our sins?  Did he believe God to be a sadist demanding such appeasement?  — I think not.

Then there’s the idea that Jesus thought himself the son of God, which would explain his willingness to go to the cross as proof of his divinity – sort of “I double dare you….”  But I don’t believe that, mostly because – with the exception of the gospel of John, which was written much later than the others and has a decidedly Platonist influence – Jesus never calls himself the “son of God,” but rather “son of Man.” He doesn’t call himself the Messiah either, except to urge his disciples not to refer to him by that name. This suggests that Jesus thought himself fully human, fully able to suffer, fully able to die as all mortals do. So did Jesus think himself the only son of God? – Well, that notion doesn’t work for me.

Another question is what Jesus thought about the “second coming” and the “kingdom of God.” Scholars argue mightily on the issue of whether Jesus expected to return to earth in his human body, so I don’t know what to say about that.  Fortunately, there’s more clarity about the “kingdom of God,” so often illustrated by Jesus in parables.  The kingdom of God might (or might not) mean a future paradise in some far-away heaven, but it certainly does mean a loving and just world in the here-and-now.  This understanding of a generous and God-loving society undergirds Jesus’ every act and statement.

So, if Jesus didn’t believe himself the son of God, and if he didn’t believe he was the scapegoat for the sins of all mankind, and if he didn’t believe that he would come back to earth and vanquish all of his foes, and if he didn’t believe in a kingdom of God as happening only in some fairytale time and place, then what did he believe?

Writing 600 years earlier during the Babylonian captivity – a time of cruelty and dislocation for the Hebrew people – the prophet Jeremiah gives us a clue.  He assures the Israelites that God has not forgotten them and will come again in the future to restore their hopes and dreams.

“At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people…. I have loved with an everlasting love; I have stayed faithful.”

Like Jeremiah, Jesus believed in the goodness and faithfulness of God.  That’s the big one.  Jesus believed that God’s love trumps human fear and cruelty.

But was that enough?  Was that enough to give him courage to patiently endure a vicious and unjust death?  What did he believe that somehow got transferred to his followers to help them follow in his footsteps, often going to their own vicious and unjust deaths? What did he believe that changed the world for all time?

As I was struggling with these issues, I discovered a sermon by Annis Ford Eastman, one of few women ministers in the 19th century, and a revered preacher and pastor here at The Park Church.  She begins her message by considering Satan’s understanding of mankind, as expressed in the conversation between him and God in the Book of Job.  The devil’s doctrine is this: “All that a man hath will he give for his life.”  According to Satan, life – and the more comfortable the better – is man’s prize possession.

But Jesus proved the devil wrong.  People are not driven only by love of life.  It’s not all about living for me and mine. Jesus felt that if he could illustrate the kingdom of God to decent, ordinary people, they would strive to change themselves and society so to create equity and opportunity for all. He believed miracles happen whenever individuals become agents of divine love, transforming the world through generosity of heart, mind, and spirit.

Jesus believed that we want to connect with God and each other.  We are happiest when we are doing good – not for ourselves only – but for each other and for God.  He knew that, despite the fear and cowardice that gripped his followers on the day of his crucifixion, their experience of transformation in his presence had forever changed them.  It was only a question of time before they emerged from their dark caves of mortal fear to follow his lead in bringing the kingdom of God to this earth.

In short, Jesus believed that selfless love can never be crucified or buried, but will rise again and again throughout our lives, throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia, whenever people give of their own pride and their own needs – and yes, their own lives – to become witnesses for and agents of divine love.

Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead precisely because he – and any and all of us who give our lives to God – never ever really die.  Connection with God cannot die.  Goodness cannot die.  Love cannot die.  Even when our physical bodies disappear into the ground, the love we have shared and the goodness we have birthed live on through the ages.  This is the power of Christianity.  This is the miracle of Easter.

So, in closing, what did Jesus believe?  What did he believe in so fervently that he could endure condemnation and crucifixion? What did he believe in so passionately that it would change the world for all time?

In a word, Jesus believed in God , most especially the transformative power of God’s all-embracing love.

and he believed in … us!

… and that has made all the difference. Hallelujah!

 

 

 

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The Beloved Community of Avatar, Invictus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last week was a great one for going to movies – I managed to get to Avatar and Invictus. Watching them, I considered the differences: one is fiction, the other fact; one set in the future, the other in history; one swimming with color and art, the other mired in darkness and racism. Yet they share the same message – that of connectedness with the world and each other. And since we are also honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I like to think that Dr. King’s courageous life and non-violent message was a common thread in the minds of Mandela, James Cameron, and Clint Eastwood.

Pondering the connection, I remembered one of Dr. King’s most powerful (but too infrequently quoted) speeches. Delivered in December 1956, the message of “The Challenge of a New Age” is as important today as it was back then. In it, he sets before us three challenges:

“First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The new world is a world of geographical togetherness. This means that no individual or nation can live alone. We must all learn to live together, or we will be forced to die together….

A second challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open….

A third challenge that stands before us is that of entering the new age with understanding good will. This simply means that the Christian virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization…[for] the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends….It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Is that not also the message of Invictus and Avatar? Is not the “beloved community” what we all yearn for?

It was the philosopher Josiah Royce*, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term “beloved community” in the early twentieth century, but it was Dr. King who made it a byword for hope, self-restraint, justice, and love. And while Dr. King certainly knew the writings of Dr. Royce, most of us believe that he got his vision, his courage, and his words from the Bible. The “beloved community” is an idea often associated with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John.

But what is the “beloved community”? Is it something that might happen in heaven after we die? Is it the same as the “kingdom of God”? Can we learn the message of tolerance and care from Avatar before we try to bomb our way to conquest, or is the “beloved community” just a placebo for hope without action, for feeling good without doing anything? In short, is it for real?

I truly hope so and certainly believe so! And I have been blessed to witness it on at least three different occasions in the last decade.

The most recent were the weeks in the two different orphanages in Nepal, where I was privileged to witness courage and kindness woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of new possibility. Since I have already written about that trip in this blog, I will leave that image to go back to 9/11. I was one of a team of trainers who spent the previous summer working for New York Port Authority in the World Trade Center, but I was fortuitously called away to help another client during the first two weeks of September. Thus, I was just west of Newark Airport on the morning of 9/11, when six of my colleagues and thirty of my Port Authority friends lived through the horror that has changed our world forever.

But what does 9/11 have to do with the “beloved community”?

– Statistics tell the story: of almost 25,000 people working in the World Trade Center that day, only 3,000 were killed. Seven out of every eight managed to get out safely. Seven out of every eight people walked down forty, sixty, almost eighty flights of stairs, and made it out. Seven out of every eight people groped their way down crowded stairwells that, for the last twenty or so minutes before the tower fell, were pitch black and filling with smoke.

How did they do it? Some of my friends made it down by holding hands and singing (until the smoke got too bad) and then by sharing handkerchiefs and words of encouragement. Three men worked together to carry down a young woman and her special motorized wheelchair from the 69th floor. Another nine took turns carrying down a quadriplegic from the 75th floor. There was very little screaming, except when a tremendous explosion – and the sudden loss of the emergency lights – sent many people tumbling. (This was the crash of the other building, although no one knew it at the time.) Throughout the ninety minute ordeal from the time the plane hit until the building fell, yells of “fireman coming up” and “make way, victim coming down,” meant that everyone squeezed to the sides to let others through. Of all of the dozens of people I spoke with and the hundreds of pages of newspaper stories that I read, there was not one report of anyone bullying his or her way through. People walked deliberately, but orderly, quick to make way for those in greater need.

The person I most remember was a woman named Victoria. She never made the news media, but she told me that she fell to her knees and began praying when the plane first hit. After seeing God directing the angels to protect her, she heard the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” She got up and proceeded to lead a group of about 25 people down from the 62nd floor by singing praise music and gospel songs.

I went back to Port Authority shortly after the bombing to help them regroup. The difference between working conditions in August and October was marked. We were in makeshift offices in a hastily remodeled warehouse, with ongoing threats of anthrax, concerns about more attacks, and the reminders of ongoing memorial services – as many as five a day. But the affection between the Port Authority employees was palpable. For one month, I worked with people who were not ashamed to show their unabashed love for each other. For one month, I lived in a beloved community.

The other time was January 2001, during a trip to South Africa with the Wesley Seminary choir. We were sponsored by two churches in adjoining suburbs of Cape Town. One was a black township called Langa, and the other a white village called Pinelands. On our last night, a half dozen of the white families from Pinelands came with us to worship at Langa. It was the first time that any of them had set foot in a black church, and they were unprepared for what they found. No pipe organ. No Books of Worship. Just spontaneity, fellowship, and joy! After the service and the goodbye reception, some of us were milling around in the parking lot. One of the older black women came up to me, gave me a powerful hug, and said, “When we and you and them (meaning the folks from Pinelands) are here in church, singing and dancing, and praising God together, I think that maybe, just maybe, that heaven has come down to earth.”

As tears welled up in my eyes, I could only agree and hug her more deeply. We were in community and we were all beloved. If it can happen even in the “decade of fear,” then surely we can take the message of Jesus, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Invictus and Avatar and spend the next decade working on creating a beloved community, learning to live together before we die together.

* Dr. Josiah Royce is one of the most important American philosophers, an idealist in the tradition of Hegel. He was professor of English at University of California Berkeley and of philosophy at Harvard. He emphasized will over intellect and believed that religion was the basis of human loyalty, which is the cohesive principle of ethical behavior and social norms. He argued that the highest good is achieved by “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” A diverse thinker, he also made contributions to psychology, social ethics, literary criticism, history, and metaphysics.

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Following the Freedom Star: Prayer for a New Decade

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Dear readers: I’m taking a little break from writing about the spirituality of animals to reflect on Epiphany, the day when the wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The following is excerpted from a sermon I gave many years ago. The last year — to say nothing of the last decade — has been challenging for many of us and I (for one) would like to start the new year with more faith than fear. So I share this message in hopes that it will feed you with courage on the remarkable journey we call life.

Follow the drinking gourd

For the old man is a-waitin’

For to carry you to freedom

Follow the drinking gourd.


Do you see it?  There, up in the sky?  Okay, you see the constellation that some folks call the Big Dipper, and is also called the Drinking Gourd?  Yes, the one that looks like a great big water ladle.  Well, look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle.  Figure out the distance between the two stars and multiply it by seven.  Move your eyes that far distant, and you will see the North Star.  It’s also called Polaris.  But I call it the Freedom Star, because if you follow that star long enough – months or years, not weeks – then you’ll find your way north, and you’ll be free.

During the darkest days in the history of our country, when whites bought and sold blacks whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places and coded messages to help runaway slaves find their way north to freedom. The system including such things as markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, and quilts of particular colors hung out to dry. People walked hundreds, even thousands of miles, hiding in swamps, caves, and barns by day, and following the North Star – the freedom star of the Drinking Gourd – by night. Called the Underground Railroad, this secret network helped somewhere between 60,000 – 100,000 slaves find their way to freedom. The verses of the drinking gourd song were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter – this is the “old man” referred to in the song – who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. But, as the prophet Isaiah wrote 2500 years earlier, “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.” Think stars, think freedom. Follow the drinking gourd.

The black slaves and their white supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. January 6 is the celebration of Epiphany, when the wise men from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. It comes to us as a nice, romantic little story, but it was much, much more than that. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman empire and the Jewish authorities who supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.

Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Persia or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” meant someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge, someone who could envision a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. In presenting Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the powerful king and priest is also human and vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman empire. Think stars, think freedom.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term that Isaiah uses when he writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Epiphany means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The slaves’ vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could change the world was an epiphany.

I had a dramatic epiphany about fifteen years ago. My life had fallen apart – or so it seemed at the time – and I felt emotionally, financially, and spiritually destitute. One autumn weekend, I was camping with friends and we went walking late at night to watch shooting starts. Suddenly, some of the stars gently feathered their way to earth, making everything twinkle. The shrubs and trees and my friends and I had all been gently dabbed with fairy dust. I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. The stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. The sparkles said, “You’re okay. You can do it. We’re here with you.” I felt hugged by God.

I told few people about it in fear that I would be labeled a religious nut case. Yet that autumn evening was the beginning of a transformation that eventually led me to seminary and ministry. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me were the most powerful gift I have ever received. I thought my vision was fairly rare me until I read a wonderful new book – Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Haggerty, the NPR religion correspondent – and discovered that fully 50% of Americans have had a life-changing religious experience similar to mine. Think stars, think freedom. The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. Follow the drinking gourd.

So what about you? What is your sudden new revelation on this Epiphany? Take a moment to consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Is it jealousy? Is it loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it a feeling of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the Christ in our midst.

In your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to recognize your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to acknowledge your power. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of courage, clarity, and vision are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd. On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.

Consider also the drinking gourds in your life. Certainly the communion cup is a reenactment of God’s greatest gift: to see ourselves, others, and the world in a new way – the way of liberation and of love. So also is a glass of water if we acknowledge it as the primary life force and also a means of baptism into a world ruled by hope instead of fear. Like the stars that point the way, these drinking gourds represent freedom from bondage, freedom from false attachments, freedom from fear. This is what the followers and supporters of the Underground Railroad saw. This is the Epiphany that the Magi saw – in the baby Jesus, we can find our freedom. Follow the freedom star. Follow the drinking gourd.

Follow the drinking gourd

Follow the drinking gourd

For the BABY is a-waitin’

For to carry you to freedom

Follow the drinking gourd.

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Cranes and Other Heavenly Prophets

Monday, December 7th, 2009

In his marvelous book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, Peter Matthiesen chronicles these magnificent creatures, the largest of all flying birds on earth. While reading it several years ago, I took periodic breaks to enjoy an exquisite print of a pair of red-crowned cranes that my daughter Ariel brought back from Korea, where cranes symbolize happiness, good luck, long life, and marital bliss. I also reminisced a trip to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas, to watch the famous whooping cranes in their winter habitat about ten years ago.

Cranes, I mused: magical, magnificent, mysterious, and – to my mind, at least – a tad melancholy. It’s as if they know and see too much, suffering in silence for the misdeeds of others.

Known for their stunning beauty, elaborate dances, unusual calls, and fidelity to their mates, cranes also have amazing flying prowess. Aesop lauds how cranes can “rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach.” But living on the wrong side of the world, Aesop didn’t know the half of it! Last year, one group of migrating cranes flew for 97 days and covered 1262 miles. “Whoopers” (whooping cranes)have been known to fly as far as 500 miles in a day, although about 186 miles is the average.

But the highest-flying award goes to the Eurasian cranes, flying over the Himalaya Mountains at altitudes up to 32,800 feet – the same as jetliners. Some pass over the Himalayas, while others fly across the vast Sahara. The lesser sandhill crane wins the distance award, flying from eastern Siberia across the Bering Sea into Alaska and then south to southern California or even northern Mexico.

Cranes have fascinated humankind for millennia, and mythology about cranes can be found in most every culture from the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptian tombs are filled with images of demoiselle cranes, and various other species appear in prehistoric cave drawings in Africa, Australia, and Europe. According to legend, cranes inspired the Greek god Mercury to invent the written alphabet, basing the angular characters on the chevrons of cranes in flight. Since language is the basis of shared knowledge, it wasn’t long before cranes became icons for wisdom.

In Oriental mythology, cranes have occupied a prominent place for millennia. In China, they protect the Emperor’s throne in Beijing’s Forbidden City and are often depicted carrying the souls of the departed to heaven. Crowned cranes are the national birds of Nigeria and Uganda, and blue cranes of South Africa. Coins and stamps of many countries depict cranes.

Crane dances have been recorded in many parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, China, Siberia, and Australia. A “dance of the white cranes” is known from 500 B.C. in China. The Brogla crane was so named by aboriginal Australians after a young woman whose exquisite dancing drew attention from numerous suitors. Among her admirers was an evil magician who, rejected in his offer of marriage, then transformed her into a crane.

But perhaps the best-known and most poignant example of the enduring symbolic significance of cranes emerged from the ashes of World War II. A young Japanese girl who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima – but only barely – resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes in her effort to recover. Although she was unable to complete the task, other children took up the task. Since then, children around the world have annually created paper cranes to symbolize the hope for peace. Worshipping at Sycamore Congregational Church this morning, I was delighted to find their Christmas tree adorned not with the usual lights and ornaments, but with several hundred paper cranes. We add emblems of peace to their many other iconic attributes.

Jumping from prehistory to my lifetime, the near demise of the whooping crane has made them a symbol for environmental preservation. These birds – the largest of all birds in North America – were once familiar sights throughout midwestern parts of the US and Canada. But by 1941, the loss of habitat from human development reduced their numbers to only 21. Through active conservation measures, in 2007 they numbered 240 in the wild and 145 in captivity.

It turns out that cranes are an “umbrella species” in conservation and land use lingo. This is because their survival is dependent on the health of their habitat. As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being especially sensitive to habitat changes. Managing land to provide for the needs of the umbrella species results in a high quality habitat for all animals in the area. (For more details, see http://www.eoearth.org/article/Umbrella_species.)

So, in a nutshell: if you see a crane, you can be sure

that all is well with the nearby natural world.

Now this makes me wonder: what about other umbrella species? We know about the northern spotted owls in old-growth forests, the black bear in Florida, and tigers in India. But what about homo sapiens? It seems that, as a whole, we qualify as an anti-umbrella species, for we are the ones primarily responsible for ruining the habitat for umbrella and non-umbrella species, cranes and caterpillars, and most everything else.

But could it be that some small groups of people are indicative of the overall health of the larger human family? Are politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers an umbrella species, in that the presence of one type indicates overall human well-being? (Maybe yes, maybe no. I dare not diss my friends by singling them out for approval or condemnation…)

And then the words from last Sunday’s gospel message come to mind: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” [Matthew 3: 1-3]

Does not John the Baptist sound like those high-flying cranes with their strident shrieks? Listening to the Biblical messages of John the Baptist and the impending birth of Jesus during these first weeks of Advent, it seems to me that the presence of prophets and protestors is a sure sign of a healthy community. Totalitarian states don’t have either.

In the Hebrew Bible, we find Nathan calling King David to account for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his shenanigans in arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. And there was Elijah who scourged Ahab and Jezebel by crying foul as they cavorted with the gods of Ba’al. Jeremiah was so virulent in his verbal attacks against the power elite that he gave birth to the term jeremiad, meaning a bitter lament or righteous prophecy of doom.

And then there was John, prophet extraordinaire. The historical record is clear on the large numbers of people who flocked to hear him as well as his cruel death at the hands of King Herod. He must have had very special powers, for Luke gives him an infancy birth narrative filled with miracles – the visitation of the angel Gabriel, the pregnancy of a childless woman late in life, and the fact that his father was struck dumb upon hearing the angel’s words.  John the Baptist sits at the fulcrum between the great prophets of Israel and the new prophet Jesus. Like Advent itself, John represents the in-between time of what is and what is to come. He represents the in-between space between heaven and earth. He challenges the world to clean up its act, to become healthy, while he also offers hope that we may fly as high as our hearts may lift us. Truly, prophets like John – and Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day and so many others – are the scourge of our consciences and the hope of the world.

Just like cranes.

During this Advent season, I encourage you to consider how we can protect all umbrella species – these prophets of doom and gloom – these harbingers of hope. Thank you.

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On Butterflies in Nepal

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Note to readers: I’m beginning work on a collection of whimsical and serious essays about nature and spirituality and will be offering little snippets in the coming blogs. I hope that you will consider subscribing and commenting. (I appreciate your “take” on my opinions, plus my literary agent tells me that the popularity of one’s blog is very important to would-be publishers.)

So thanks for reading — and for commenting!

This butterfly was one of the enchantments of our trek, putting the leeches into perspective. And here are the thoughts that emerged from the molting of my consciousness after returning home:

A good friend told me that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal could cause a typhoon in California. His reference (though misquoted) was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who, in explaining the challenges of forecasting weather forecasts, wound up changing how we think about cause and effect. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz was one of the fathers of “chaos theory,” showing how small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger unexpected and possibly outrageous results.

Now, it turns out that Lorenz’ actual quote had to do with a butterfly in Brazil causing a typhoon in Texas, but I am sure that Lorenz would have used Nepal if he had known that it sports nearly 650 varieties of butterflies (compared to about half that many in Brazil). He would have chosen Nepal if he had reflected on the fact that, in geographical size, Brazil is ranked 5th with 3,287,612 square miles (just behind the United States) while Nepal is 93rd with 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa).

Tiny though it is, Nepal has more diversity – in geography, plants, animals, and people – than just about anywhere else on earth. Eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world (including Mt. Everest at 8,848 meters or 29029 feet) are completely or partially in Nepal. At the other extreme is the Terai region, a tropical mosquito-infested rainforest that is less than 100 meters above sea level. The topography ranges from sub-tropical to alpine, with everything in between. As a result, it is a haven for flora and fauna of all varieties.

Including butterflies.

Including people.

With a population of over 26 million, Nepal is home to more than 40 different races and tribes. The main groups are the Mongoloids from the north and Indo-Aryans from the south, but within that broad division are Thakali, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Kirantis, Brahmin, Sherpas, Dolpa, Larke, Manag Bas, Satars, and on and on – and each of these subgroups includes numerous sub-subgroups (Here’s a link to a good article: http://www.himalayanmart.com/ethnic_group_nepal/ethnic_group_nepal.php.) So, for those of us who value diversity and multiculturalism – and believe that God created variety to bring eternal enchantment – Nepal is heaven on earth!

But how is that that a butterfly in Nepal might cause a typhoon in California, either literally or figuratively?

— Well, other than emphasizing the importance of systems thinking in families, churches, countries, culture, and climate, I will let the scientists and mathematicians explain the chaos theory part. Solipsism is untenable, both for individuals and science. Even if I don’t know you, my actions will affect your life and vice versa. If you dispute that notion, just think about the consequences of addiction on the family level, economic decisions on the national level, and global warming on the universal level. We are dependent upon each other, for better and for worse, whether we like it or not.

This wisdom is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, where a Jewish traveler is walking along a path when he assaulted by bandits and left for dead. “Good” Jewish people (including a priest) ignore the injured man and walk away. But a traveler from Samaria (who are despised by the Israelites) stops, binds the wounds, loads him on his donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. It is as shocking as if Lou Dobbs were brutally mugged and now lies bleeding on the sidewalk. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robinson notice him but avert their eyes and walk to the other side of the street. But when an undocumented migrant worker sees the half-dead Dobbs, the “illegal alien” tends Dobbs’ wounds and saves his life.

The point of the parable is not only that non-Jews (and non-Christians and even non-believers) can be more charitable than “so-called” religious people, but also that we are dependent upon those to whom we would rather not be dependent. We are vulnerable and we need help, even from those whom we would otherwise consider unworthy.

Yes, our interconnectedness is probably the most important life lesson we will ever learn. Yes, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal can cause a typhoon in California.

But wait – there’s more! Call 1-800-THANK-GOD in the next ten minutes, and we will send you two life lessons for the price of one!

What is so special about butterflies anyway? — Well, they can flit in and out of our lives like sparkles of fairy dust that delight us with a grander world of possibility and enchantment. But they weren’t always that way. They started life as ugly worms, dragged down in dust and dirt, nearsighted and vulnerable, unable to flap wings that might cause a drizzle within six inches, let alone a typhoon halfway around the world. With the exception of hungry birds and small rodents, nobody much cares about caterpillars.

— Which reminds me of the early lives of some of the children in the two orphanages we met. One spent her early years with her mother foraging for food in the open-sewer-cum-river that runs through the center of Katmandu. After her mother died, she was found by a social service group and eventually came to New Life Children’s Home. Another remembers nothing of his early years other than begging and stealing, running from the police who would beat him if he stumbled.

Caterpillars foraging for food in the filth….

And now they are in the process of spreading their wings and becoming butterflies. Soon they will dance among the flowers, fertilizing the world with beauty and nourishment. Ama Ghar and New Life are not just orphanages or children’s homes; they are chrysalides* that provide a place for human caterpillars to find nourishment and safety until their spirits strengthen enough for them to emerge from their cocoons.

But wait – there’s more…

People ask what the trip to Nepal meant to me. I ponder: certainly it was enchanting (especially the beauty and diversity of land and people), sometimes hard (especially urban poverty, leeches, and landslides), and always humbling (especially in the orphanages).

But perhaps the most important word is transformation. For Easter children’s sermons, I have sometimes used the image of the earth-trapped caterpillar’s molting into an airy butterfly as one way of thinking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At Ama Ghar and New Life, I was privileged to witness some of this in person – I saw children who began life hungry (for food and often for love) but emerged happy, playful, tender, and enthusiastic. I saw adults who had chosen to give up a comfortable life and live as saints instead.

Thankfully, there were times when my colleagues and I were able to be agents of grace if only by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with a hug or a listening heart (or, in one case, a bottle of Jack Daniels). There were times when we were able to honor the immediacy, spirituality, and let-go-let-God thinking of the Eastern mind while also encouraging the children to consider the advantages of planning and pushing for a quality life for themselves and others. The benefits of “Eastern” thinking (spirituality, connection, respect for elders, and a sense of acceptance and integration) can sometimes erode into fatalism, ennui, and tolerance for injustice and abuse. On the other hand, the benefits of “Western” thinking (diligence, individualism, and analytic thinking) can often erode into egocentrism, superiority, and aggression. It seems to me that the children of Ama Ghar and New Life Children’s Home are among the few who are truly multicultural in their ability to recognize the gifts and hazards of both the Eastern and Western mindsets. I pray that, as adults, they will neither “buy into” the materialism and triviality of the worst of Western culture nor tolerate the social stratification and fatalism of the Eastern mindset. I trust that, growing up where they can see the best of both cultures, they will become the hope of both worlds, holding mirrors to those who think that their way of thinking is necessarily superior to another’s.

For me, the delights of Nepal are that caterpillar children born there can enchant, redirect, and yes – transform – the adult caterpillars born in the United States. And vice versa.

Butterflies teach us that diversity and transformation are both gifts from God. We begin with an outward push into individuality and separation; we age into transformation, which is the inward pull to community and connection with God and each other. As we move from solipcism to connection, we create emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wind gusts that travel around the world, changing who we are, what we know, and how we affect each other. A typhoon is birthed.

And when that happens, we molt into butterflies, bringing beauty and joy throughout the world.

* Chrysalides is the plural of chrysalis.

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Spooks and Saints

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Yesterday was Halloween, a favorite holiday for those of us who resonate more with spooks than saints. In fact, the only saints that many of us can recognize are the New Orleans’ Saints, who with a record of 6-0 seem to be flaunting their holy powers.

I recall too many Halloweens as a day of hyperactivity followed by a week of horror. In particular, today – the day after Halloween (All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day) was often the beginning of a week where my children became uncommonly secretive about what was sneaked away under their beds or hidden in the dark crevices of their closets. After climbing the walls for a day, they closed the week with fierce stomach indigestion, or worse…. While Halloween was a delightful way of gladdening the darkening days of autumn, All Saints’ Day was a downer.

Originally, Halloween was a Celtic ceremony from pre-Christian times. The festival, called Souwen, somehow got combined with the festival of All Hallows’ Day; it then became the eve of All Hallows’, thence Hallowe’en. Unfortunately, according to tradition, Halloween was the night when the souls of the dead were released to wander abroad to scare the wits out of the rest of us before finally returning to heaven or hell the next day. I say this is unfortunate because, much as I enjoy Halloween, the combination of spooks on All Hallows’ Eve and saints on All Hallows’ Day has encouraged many of us to think of both saints and spooks as other-worldly beings. In the process, we have degraded the essence of the Christian faith.

Think of the word hallow as in “hallowed be thy name.” It means, literally, to “make holy.” More generally it means to honor and respect. There was much clamoring for saints, especially in medieval times, because having bones and relics from a disciple or well-known miracle worker translated into money with which to serve the poor and build cathedrals. Sainthood was a valuable commodity – so much so, that there weren’t enough days in the year to designate one day for each person deemed worthy of sainthood. So, All Saints’ Day was designed to honor those saints who couldn’t have their own day.

So what do you think of when you hear the word “saints”? I see three possibilities: the simplistic, the standard, and the enlightened.

In the simplistic view, saints are special people who lived in history, did miracles, and only Roman Catholics and Orthodox take them seriously. In fact, some Catholics pray to saints to intercede on their behalf before God – a notion rather distasteful to Protestants who believe that God is gracious enough to listen to us directly. In this view, saints are: 1) superhuman; 2) dead; 3) probably poppycock. This is a satisfying explanation, for we Protestants get to feel superior to those still-in-the-dark-ages Catholics. In our smugness, we dismiss Catholics and saints simultaneously. And, because saints, spooks, goblins, ghosts, and their ilk all represent the outer-worldly, we discount their importance.

The second possibility – the standard view – is an improvement. In the Bible, “saints” simply means “the faithful.” I found 63 references to saints in the New Testament, most of which referred to people very normal and very much alive. Paul routinely addresses the loyal members of the church as saints, as does Luke in Acts and John in Revelation. So also do Protestant churches proclaim their understanding of the term. For example, the Book of Common Prayer defines the “communion of saints” in the Nicene Creed as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”

Sounds good, except for one problem: despite the epistles and despite the church’s teachings, most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. I’ll bet that each of us has said, at least once, “I’m no saint, but…” So the standard view is that the saints are: 1) a whole lot better than us, but not necessarily superhuman; 2) mostly but not always dead; 3) not poppycock … but not quite normal either.

There’s a third possibility – what I’ll call the enlightened view – in which we see the saints as living realities in our lives – as personal role models, if you will. In this model, the saints are: 1) very much alive, even if their bodies are no longer part of this earth; 2) fully human; 3) the vision that transforms the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.

To explain how I began with the simplistic “poppycock” view and ended with the living truth version is the story of my faith journey. I realized that a new understanding of how saints operate in our lives is also a new understanding of how God operates in our lives. For me, enlightenment came in an offbeat way. About fifteen years ago, I went with a friend to a metaphysical chapel where I learned many things from the medium who was there. He told me, first, that the reason I don’t like tight things around my neck is because, in an earlier life, I was a Crusader who was beheaded by the Saracens. (It is true that I generally wear open collars, but I thought it was for more feminine reasons…)

Then he told me that I would rather be too hot than too cold because, in another of my past lives, I was one of the Russian submariners who disappeared under the Arctic circle. Now, this could be, but I vaguely recall that the incident happened when I was a teenager, so I found it a problematic to reconcile the fact that I was alive then and alive now, but that I was two different people… The science of cloning has not progressed quite that far, I thought…

Then he told me that Joan of Arc was my patron saint. It seems that everyone has a patron saint, but most people get the gentle ones like St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. My patron saint was a marauding military heroine, martyr, and (probably) a madwoman. Aarghhh – this is not good… But it didn’t matter because I didn’t take him seriously.

And yet, and yet … my fascination with Joan was such that I couldn’t get her out of my mind. And clearly, I wasn’t alone. The first efforts to have Joan canonized began after her mother’s death in 1458, but the church waited until 1903 to begin the formal process, and she was not officially sainted until 1920. Despite almost 600 years of contentiousness surrounding her canonization, she is one of a handful of truly important women – way up there with the mother of Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, and … not many others. Her influence was such – even among non-believers – that the greatest artists (and a good many of lesser quality, including some recently Hollywood directors) saw fit to study her.

Mark Twain, the notorious skeptic who panned God in his Letters from the Earth, noted that she was the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of a nation’s military forces at the age of seventeen. Joan enthralled Twain, who penned a historical novel about her from the viewpoint of her squire. In closing the novel, the imaginary page wrote that he could finally “recognize her at last for what she was – the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One [Christ].” She may have been a madwoman, but she was the most noble madwoman ever to grace this earth.

Then I learned that there were not one, but two, Saint Felicity’s in the early church. Horrifically mauled by wild animals, both of them were among the few mothers who were martyred. The faith and influence of the first St. Felicity, a widow, was so compelling that she not only marched herself to death, but was joined by all seven of her grown sons. The martyrdom of the second Felicity, a slave, was overshadowed by the accompanying death of her owner Perpetua.

So what does it mean to have the same name as these two early martyrs and be under the shadow of the ever-formidable Joan? On the one hand, not much. The fact that two women suffered brutal deaths nearly two thousand years ago had no bearing on the fact that my parents chose a wonderful name for me. (Being non-believers, they did not know about the saints.) Neither am I made of the same “stuff” as St. Joan: I have no desire to die a martyr’s death, and I lack both the faith and the courage to live a martyr’s life. So while there many be no divine influence at work here, I freely admit that I stand in awe at the faith and fearlessness shown by these three women.

But even with all that historical baggage, the saints – even those who share my name – seem so distant. Was it easier to be a saint in Roman times, or during the Middle Ages? It seems so hard to be a saint now… Do I really need to search back in time to find appropriate role models?

Not at all! I once learned about a committee of lay and ordained ministers who were asked to recommend twentieth-century saints to be honored in ten heretofore-empty niches of Westminster Abbey. The obvious names came to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero. But, here’s the kicker: the committee reported that they identified more saints and martyrs in the 20th century than in all of the previous 19 centuries combined. They considered the religious persecutions in Africa, Asia, in Germany under Hitler, in the Soviet Union under the Communists, and they could not find another century – no, not the 2nd and 3rd centuries under Rome, and not even the bloody 16th century of the Reformation – in which so many Christians died for their faith.

This made me sit up and take notice. Those millions upon millions of martyrs may not been canonized through the formal process of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were recognized as saints nonetheless.

It also made me want to learn more. I found a charming book of saints, prophets, and martyrs called All Saints. It is intended to be read as daily reflections with one saint for each day. What is intriguing about this book is that author Robert Ellsberg struggled with the same questions that plague us – what is it that makes a “saint” a saint? Can only Roman Catholics be saints? Can only Christians be saints?

I loved what the author gave as his criteria for sainthood, namely “to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” As a result, not all of Ellsberg’s saints were Christian – he includes Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet Amos, Galileo, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish nation, and Anne Frank, among others. Of the more modern surprises, he also includes Cesar Chavez, Flannery O’Connor, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame), Albert Schweizer, and probably a hundred people I had never heard of before in my life. They may or may not have died for their faith, but they lived for God.

Reading further, I noticed two very interesting facts. First, fully 122 of them – or one-third – lived during the last 100 years. Second, there’s no saint for February 29. Mr. Ellsberg leapt over Leap Day. This got me to wondering, “Whom would I include?”

Certainly, I would add Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and probably even Jimmy Carter, but – thankfully – they are still alive, so perhaps that’s why they are not yet included. So I’m inclined to add Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and justice.

And there are several people that I know absolutely that I would include. Last month, I met Shrawan Nepali and Bonnie Ellison, the founder and manager of Ama Ghar Children’s Home, and Kent and Shovha Rogers and Rajendra Budhathoki and Nadine Rogers, the two sets of parents who manage New Life Children’s Home. All of them have given up much personal comfort in order to provide a loving home and a quality life for the orphans in their care. My colleagues and I came away humbled and inspired by their wisdom, courage, and love.

Another two would be my grandparents. Although he died before I was born, my mother’s father was reportedly one of the people who pushed the Episcopal church away from the country clubs and into the slums. As a result, he was hated. His job as a seminary dean was always in peril and he was officially investigated as a Communist by the Federal government. But nothing stopped him from doing what he thought was God’s will.

Thankfully, I remember my father’s mother very well. Although she has been dead for forty years, I can still hear her explaining why she took a stance on an issue that was likely to lose her some good friends. Her explanation was simple: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Years ago, Jesse Jackson made a statement that went something like this: “Never underestimate the importance of grandparents. Spend a lot of time with them. Get to know their stories, their dreams, their hurts, their passions. For it is through our grandparents that we learn our history. And it is by learning our history that we are able to shape our future.” The same is true of saints, who are there to tell us about our religious history, just as grandparents can teach us about our family history.

Saints are not spooks, devils, ghosts, or angels. When we lump them in with imaginary Halloween-type creatures, we are doing them, and ourselves, a huge disserve. Most saints aren’t even heroes, in the common understanding of that term. They are typically tormented by insecurities, doubts, fears, heartaches – all of the anxieties that we also face. But their love of God and of God’s children is like a beacon that carries them through. The lives are a testament, fully as powerful as the Bible itself.

So let us enjoy the spooks for a day and celebrate the saints for the rest of the year!

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On Being “Aunt Happy”

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Justinian the Great, emperor of Byzantium in the sixth century, reportedly identified himself as “Emperor Caesar Flavius, Justinianus, Alamanicus, Francicus, Germanicus, Anticus, Vandalicus, Africanus, Pious, Happy, Renowned, Conqueror and Triumpher, ever Augustus.”

Whew – now there’s a mouthful! Clearly he did not suffer from a negative self-image!

But I wonder: were his titles an indication of arrogance and hunger for power? Or did they instead remind him of his purpose in life as ruler (and thus caretaker) of the French, Germans, Africans, and others – as well as to be pious, happy, renowned?

Certainly Justinian took his role (if not also his names) seriously, for it was he who brought peace to most of the Mediterranean region and created the code that became the foundation of Roman law. So perhaps his names were not merely egregious and egotistical claims of hoped-for importance but rather statements of commitment to act as leader of all the nations and an awareness of the different personality characteristics required to do so.

Who knows? What’s in a name?

A lot! If you live in the wrong part of the world, you may be killed simply by virtue of having the wrong name. Consider Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and McCoys, and tribal conflicts throughout the world. Names are identities, far more powerful than mere words.

I am one of the privileged ones who entered this world with many advantages, of which the first and best is my name. Many people have horrific names that stick with them like a curse; but mine is a talisman, a peace offering, a blessing, both within me and to those around me. I can take no credit for it except to try to live up to the challenge it offers. But it is hard to be churlish when one has a name like Felicity. And so I’ve always been curious about how we choose names and whether the name creates the identity, or vice versa.

Names play an important part in the Bible, and people change names when they change identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; Saul becomes Paul. Whenever someone has a radical transformation in identity or mission, he or she has a name change. Biblical name changes indicate a new covenant between that individual and God. Something fundamental is altered in the promise between God and that man or woman (as in the three Hebrew Bible characters), or the promise between him and Jesus (as in the case of Peter and Paul). The new name symbolizes commitment. Baptism, as the first sacrament in the life of a Christian, is in fact a naming ceremony.

In Nepal last month, I was intrigued that one of the children changed his name from “Vishnu” to “Nick” shortly after coming to live at New Life Children’s Home. Was it because being “Vishnu” (the “all-pervasive” Hindu god who is expected to recognize and counteract evil influences in all its guises) was too burdensome? Or did he change his name along with his cultural identity when he acknowledged his new American father? Was “Nick” just cute (I affectionately called him “slick Nick” because of his theatrical flair) or was it connected with St. Nicholas?

I never asked his reasons for changing his name. (It seemed too personal.) But as I heard the story of his life before and after coming to New Life, it was clear that there were two children: Vishnu (who could remember nothing of his early childhood other than filth, stench, hunger, and homelessness) and Nick (who was happy, sensitive, playful, enthusiastic, and tender.)

And he isn’t the only one with a name change. Within an hour of coming to New Life, the children had given me a new name. Like the others, I would be called “Auntie” or “Uncle,” for this is the Nepali way for showing respect for elders while also acknowledging us as close enough to be extended family. In our case, there was “Auntie Carla,” “Auntie Kymri,” “Auntie Kalar,” and “Uncle Brett.”  But “Felicity” had too many syllables and was too unfamiliar. So, without thinking, I simply explained that “felicity” means “happiness.”

Aarghhh. Without a pause, I was named “Auntie Happy.” Then, concerned that “Auntie” would be misunderstood as “anti,” it was modified to “Aunt Happy.” Vishnu became Nick; Felicity became Aunt Happy.

Honored, I did my best to life up to my name.

But it was a challenge.

What would Justinian say? What would Jesus say?

Is being “Aunt Happy” within my power? Or is it a gift from God?

In Nepal, there were occasions when I was happy as well as times when I was an agent of grace. But my happiness was a gift from others – it was their happiness that enveloped me rather than the result of anything I had done. Further, it was clear that my ability to be an accidental agent of grace was a gift from God – and the children also.


It was they who believed in me. And, as a result, I was changed, transformed. Though inadequate, I was baptized by their love.

I am humbled. I am happy.

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