I heard the bells on Christmas Day

This poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is on my heart this Christmas season. He published it during the last year of the American Civil War:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound
The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn
The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

From here

The last stanza reminds me of the words of the Prophet Habakkuk. May the words of the prophet peal loud and deep and true again in our day.

Merry Christmas!

Look for God in the quiet still moments of Christmas

nativitySome years I find myself in the Christmas spirit early in December, some years it doesn’t seem to arrive for me until Christmas Eve is nearly upon us. This year it’s been the latter case. I know Christmas is nearly here and for the most part I’m ready, but I’m still in an Advent frame of mind.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been spending our last few months following the big stories dominating the news. Stories about national health care, tax code, diplomacy, politics and so much more. It can be overwhelming. And it all feels and sounds so important. I wake up in the morning wondering what important development has taken place overnight. I find myself looking outward and not inward, looking at the big picture and not paying attention to the little things.

But if you spend time with the scriptures, you might notice that they don’t seem to focus on such big stories at all – other than how they affect the people that we meet in the Bible. The focus instead is on the people and how they live with each other, how they treat one another. What the Bible seems to think is important is how two brothers get along, how willing people are to care for their neighbors, how we care for the stranger in our midst. The big stories, the accounts of the great kings and their empires mostly serve as a backdrop for the more intimate family stories that make up most of the Bible.

This all comes to the forefront when we get to the second chapter of Luke. We start with a passing mention of the greatest empire the west has ever known and quickly we find ourselves hearing not about palaces and fabulous wealth but about two people expecting a child and a small band of shepherds watching their flock in a rocky field outside a village in Palestine.

St. Francis of Assisi once noted that on Christmas night, that the Universe itself was found in the small stable where the Christ Child was born and swaddled. C.S. Lewis used that observation as inspiration for placing his wondrous world of Narnia in a wardrobe found in an empty room in an old house. God seems to see things differently than we might expect. Our God who upholds the cosmos and knows all of time and space in an instant, enters our small world in the intimate moments of our daily lives.

And just as God was known in the birth of the Christ Child and for a moment contained in a small space as the child was worshiped and loved by his parents, so too we probably have our most authentic experience of the Holy when we gather together as friends and family on Christmas Day. The giving of gifts, the sharing of a meal and warmth of just being together is, in a very homey and profound way, the truest and most intimate communion we have with the God who is Love itself.

My prayer for all of you this year is that in the coming twelve days of the Christmas Season you too will have the opportunity to experience God in the love you share with the people closest to you. May God grant you the quiet moments that will let you recognize the real presence of God – who is always with us but whom we miss because we’re often looking at the wrong things.

This year let us all look at what God thinks is important, the love we share with one another.

The Theological context of Church Communications – a video of a presentation

Here in Rhode Island, those of us working in communications ministry are trying to gather quarterly to talk about our work, share tips and see how we can do things better.

At the first of our gatherings I was given the task of presenting on “the theology of church communications”. This is the video of that presentation.

It’s not… horrible.

Actually, it’s rather entertaining to watch me fling the microphone cable around as I flail about with my arms talking about something about which I’m deeply passionate. So it’s worth watching for that alone. (And I need a haircut, but that’s besides the point. I’m more of a radio guy.)

Learning to survive

On Sunday afternoon the House of Bishops and our spouses were invited to a Potlatch in Nenana, a town about an hour outside of Fairbanks. The Potlatch was held to honor our visit by the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Nenana and the native people of the forty plus villages found in the interior of Alaska. Most of the folks in the lodge were Episcopalian, most were native people, but because everyone in the area was invited, it was a mixture of folk that welcomed us.

I sat across from a man in his mid-eighties who spent the afternoon gently teasing me and the bishops sitting with me while helping us navigate the customs and the unfamiliar food. He showed me how to get the marrow out of the moose bones. He showed me where the seasoning packets were for the Moose-head soup. He warned me not to eat the fish ice-cream. He had some tall tales to share too – and kept laughing at us when we fell for them.

In my conversations with folks afterwards, there lots of people like him in the room, welcoming us into their community, telling us stories and enjoying the warmth and the laughter of the gathered community. It was a moving experience of community – a community that was defining itself by acts of generosity and welcoming. It was a day filled with extravagant gestures. My guide that day told me that the hosts had been up since 3 AM that day cooking the soup and preparing the meat. He said the man who shot the moose we shared had taken a small fat one. Which was good because apparently that sort of moose tasted better than a big one.

What struck me was what he said next. The man who took the moose could have fed his entire family all through the winter with that food. But instead of giving it to his family, he gave it to the visiting strangers and anyone else in the community who came inside.

Which sort of puts most of our normal acts of hospitality in the lower 48 into perspective. We are generous, but we’re not generous that way. And I’ve grumbled occasionally when I think folks who are just coming for the meal are taking advantage of a community’s hospitality without giving anything in return. (I’m not proud of that, but I recognize that in myself and after this experience in Alaska, I see it in bold distinction with the lavish welcome we received from the native people. Perhaps I can learn to be more like them more often in my own life.)

At the end of the meal and its many courses, after the chiefs who were present who wished to speak had done so, and after the Presiding Bishop had spoken on our behalf, we were presented with necklaces from the village. The young people had made them for us as sign of their desire to honor us and to thank us for visiting.

(I had dinner with a local High School teacher the next evening in Fairbanks. I asked him if the giving of the necklaces by that community was significant. He nodded his head in a silent yes.)

I leave Alaska with memories and that necklace. I pray that it will be a reminder to me of a different way of being community – one that truly and extravagantly welcomes the visitor and the pilgrim. One that literally competes with its neighbors to honor the strangers in their midst. I can understand why a people who live a hard subsistence life in a forbidding place developed that sort of custom. Their ability to survive the winters depended on their being able to rely on each other.

But I’m reminded too of how important it is for us who have more resources and live in less challenging places to learn this lesson. Because there often come moments when we need to depend on each other – and more often than not these days, we don’t even know our neighbor’s names much less shared meals with them in the town halls…

Maybe this is a different way of being a “prep-per” – the sort of person who prepares for natural disasters or emergencies by laying in stocks and weapons. The Alaskan way does that – but also lays in acts of friendship and community so as to build a community that can withstand the sorts of disaster events we all fear.

Pay attention – your life depends upon it.

Yesterday bishops and spouses from around North and Central America went to visit with the native congregations of the Diocese of Alaska. As part of our day, we joined with the people who live in this beautiful and majestic place to bless the land and thank God for the gift of it.

(Arriving at St. Matthew’s in Fairbanks)

I was part of a group that stayed in Fairbanks. We walked along the Chena River, saw the beaver dams beside water treatment plants and worshiped and ate at St. Matthews – one of the oldest congregations in this region. We heard the stories of the elders about how the community worked together to survive the winters and celebrate the everyday events of their lives: baptisms, weddings, confirmations and more. The recently retired, long serving rector addressed us all. “Fifty odd bishops” he named us. (He has no idea how accurate that is.)

(Beaver Dam)

He spoke to us on a pedestrian bridge as we pronounced the blessing along with others spread out across the state. He told us of how people in Alaska have learned to pay attention to what was happening around them. They learned to that or they died. They learned to speak of the wind and its direction, because if the direction changed, and you were out on the ice, you’d be carried out to sea – or in danger of being crushed as the ice piled up on the land. He told of how important it was to pay attention to the temperature – and whether it was rising or falling. He talked of noticing the ice as you walked – if it was suddenly thinner than thought, you would fall through and die.

Paying attention in the wilderness is life or death business.

It strikes me that paying attention to Creation in a era of climate change is life or death business whether you are in the wilderness or not. And paying attention to the spirit of the age is life or death business as we increasingly encounter voices that gain more power be creating division – rather than dying to self to draw all people toward the One on Whom We All Depend.

Jesus told us about this need. He told his disciples to be awake in the night and to watch for the coming of God – and the breaking of the dawn light. He too told us that paying attention to the signs of the time was so important that our lives depend upon it. (Mark 13:32ff or Luke 12:40ff or Luke 21:36 or…)

Maybe we should listen the wisdom of the elders of Church as they point us to the Wisdom of Only Begotten One. Our lives depend on it – in this wilderness time.

The stories of the elders

Yesterday, in our meeting of the House of Bishops here in Alaska, we were treated to two conversations with elders of the Athabaskan people. One, a 96 year old woman who told us of her life in the seasonal Fish Camps and sang to us songs she had composed to mark important moments in her life. The other was an Episcopal priest and tribal chief who had served a community for years and now in his mid-eighties was an institution in the diocesan and the region.

As we listened the elders tell their stories, we were also taught by younger leaders from the villages how to listen to what they were saying. We were reminded that sometimes the elder will pause before answering a question – often because the elder’s first language is not English and they need to work out an answer and then translate it for us. And we were told to recognize that the elders often answered a question with a story – a story that might not seem to be related to the question that was asked. When that happened, it was important to listen carefully because the story answered the question in a way, and sometime carried with it a gentle critique of the question itself.

I was struck by the deep respect and reverence that native people we met had for the elders in their community. They had learned to depend on the elders to keep the community’s history and traditions, to pass along it common wisdom, and most importantly to allow it to survive in the harsh climate. The elder’s stories and songs teach the people about how to care for the environment that they depend on for their subsistence lifestyle. (A lifestyle that, as the older elder said to us was “hard” but not a “hardship”.) The stories taught the people how to manage the harvest, how to care for the herd, and how to respect the rivers. It is the accumulated wisdom of the nearly ten thousand years of experience. The stories are truly the life and death wisdom and knowledge of the Athabaskan people.

I’m reminded of the Church’s stories too. We have thousands and thousands of years of history and wisdom. We have stories that are told in response to questions asked that don’t seem, at first blush, to answer the question either but upon reflection contain incredible richness of thought. We have stories that contain the experience of God’s people with the God they worship and follow – and these stories are just as critical for our survival as are the stories of the elders to the native people of the Arctic.

And I’m quite taken by the reverence the community has for the elders – and the way the elders live selflessly for the community. We prioritize things differently in most Episcopal congregations these days. I’m not sure we’re doing that right.

The Lamb replaces the Scapegoat

For those who are preaching this weekend on John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World”, this ancient song is worth reading:

The Lamb Replaces the Scapegoat. Romanus Melodus:

Now the the garment of mourning is rent; we have put on the white robe
Which the spirit has woven for us from the lamb’s fleece of our Lamb and our God;
Sin is taken away, and immortality is given us, our restoration is clear.
The Forerunner has proclaimed it.…

O, the message of the Baptist, and the mystery in it!
He calls the shepherd lamb, and not only a lamb, but one to free from mistakes.
He showed the lawless that the goat which they sent into the desert was ineffective.
“Lo,” he said, “the lamb; there is no longer need of the goat;

Put your hands on him,
All of you who confess your sins,
For He has come to take them away, those of the people, and of the whole world.
For lo, the One whom the Father has sent to us is the One who carries away evil,
Who appeared and illumined all things.”

Kontakion on the Epiphany 6.12–13.

Elowsky, J. C. (2006). John 1-10 (pp. 70–71). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Why the Bible is worth reading if you’re a progressive

Adam Eriksen on how a careful reading of the books of the Bible changes the way we view the world and redefines our neighborhood:

The Bible is progressive because it forces us to listen to the voice of the victim. Listening to the voice of the victim goes against most of human history, including the modern world. History is written by the winners, after all. The winners get to tell history from their perspective – a perspective which justifies their wars by demonizing their enemies.

But the Bible is told from the perspective of those who frequently lost in the ancient world. Cain killed his brother Abel and Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. The enslaved Israelites cried out under their oppression and God heard their cry. The psalmist, the prophets, Jesus and the early Christians, they were all victims of violence. And yet, for the first time in human history, the Bible gives voice to those who were killed, conquered, and tortured.

God hears the cry of the oppressed. The Bible is progressive because it forces us to listen to that cry. Sometimes that cry makes us feel uncomfortable, like when the psalmist prays that the babies’ of Israel’s enemies will have their heads smashed against the rocks. I squirm when I hear that prayer, but it’s a prayer with a historical context. Jerusalem was just conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the temple, homes, and villages. They enslaved and scattered the people throughout their empire. Before we get judgmental about such a prayer, we might ask ourselves how we would respond if anyone came to our nation, destroyed our homes, our way of life, and enslaved us. We might pray for a little revenge. We might even pray that the children of our enemies would be killed so that the generational cycle of violence might stop.

More here: The Bible is Progressive: The Bible Explained Part 3