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

Girard and Galatians: Seeing what is hidden

I’ve been reading and working through the implications of Rene Girard’s insights into human relationships for years – particularly the way that Girard unlocks a new way of reading the biblical texts. If you’ve heard me preach or teach over the years you probably know how major an influence Girard has been on my thinking.

There’s a wonderful resource “Teaching Non-violent Atonement” that’s been posting a regular Wednesday sermon that demonstrates how a preacher can use Girard’s ideas to communicate the meaning behind the texts. For the last few weeks there have been sermons on Galatians (which we’ve been reading in the RCL on Sundays). This is a quote from this week’s sermon post:

We have always assumed “works of the Law” referred to Jewish religious practice alone but Rome was the real law-giver in the world and those who worked for Rome were doing the works of the Law. But you wouldn’t want to say that out loud. Who killed Jesus?  The Romans did, in cooperation with local Jewish authorities.  Both Roman and Jewish law attempted to bring what they saw as righteousness through violence, exclusion and death.  Their goal was to purge the world of evil as they saw it when evil was in themselves and in their method of bringing “peace”.

Jews along with all other defeated peoples know this, Paul argues.
And the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that Paul says is the alternative to law, what is that?  Notice I didn’t say faith in Jesus but rather the faith of Jesus.  The faith of Jesus is his allowing Roman and Jewish Law to judge, condemn and execute him as a criminal, though he is the Son of God, in obedience to his father and as an expression of their love for us.  Jesus did this to show us how the law works to condemn, knowing this was the only way to expose what we humans could not see.  Talk about faithfulness; Jesus goes to his death, forgiving us on the way, out of faithfulness to God and love for us all.  In this way his faithfulness seen on the cross makes us right with God.

Paul saw this on the Road to Damascus when he had an apocalyptic in-breaking of truth that turned his violent and law-working world upside down.

via Wednesday Sermon: Division Undone (go read the whole thing)

Given the events of our own day, where we’re seeing strange pairings of groups that ought to be in complete opposition to each other coming together to make common cause against the “other”, I’m finding that re-reading Galatians in this particular light is incredibly enlightening.

Grace for Creation: free!

We have a great tradition of holding classes for parishioners in Lent, but once Easter comes, and Spring springs, we tend to focus on other things. But, what would happen if we tried an Easter class – like a Lent class, but later?

Have I got a deal for you:

In 2011, the Episcopal Church House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the environment. In response, a five-week study course titled A Life of Grace for the Whole World has been created. The curriculum follows the five sections of this letter.

via Curriculum – Grace for Creation

This is the result of work done by the Episcopal Church in New England, spearheaded by Bishop Tom Ely and two incredibly talented priests, Stephanie Johnson and Jerry Cappel. It’s a perfect fit for a springtime course, and it’s basically turn-key. Download it and go. The only thing we ask is that if downloadbutton.jpgyou use it, you let us know how it went. What could be easier?

Tears are in the nature of things

Dan Edwards, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada writes in his Good Friday sermon this year:

We live in a world that worships success.
We have little use for the old religion of self-denial.
We practice disciplines of self-coddling.
The chaplain of a national Episcopal group this year actually wrote a Lenten letter urging us to go to a spa and relax in sensual delight for our Lenten discipline.
Our society averts its eyes from the poor, addicted,handicapped, and even those wounded in our wars.
A lot of so-called Christians are preaching a prosperity gospel: “Get your religion right,” they say, “and God will make you rich.”
It’s the religion for kings, the faith of winners.

But that isn’t Jesus’ religion.
The cross isn’t about that.
The cross is about “the tears in the nature of things.”

On this Holy Saturday, as Jesus lays dead in the tomb and the world is dark and quiet with grief and waiting, it’s worth reflecting on what our faith teaches us about the suffering that it is all around us. We can only see the hope of Easter through the lens of the Cross. 

Anything else is just another form of escapism.

Statement on the Primate’s Communique from Lambeth January 2016

EpiscopalDiocese_Logo_RGB_lowres.jpgBy now many of you are aware that the Primates of the Anglican Communion, gathered in Canterbury this past week, have released a report that places temporary sanctions on the Episcopal Church. The primates voted these sanctions because of our decision this past summer to amend our canons to allow for same-sex marriage. There is a real sense of pain and sadness that the Episcopal Church is being censured for decisions it made in response to the pastoral needs of our members in our local contexts.

I believe it is important to note that the decisions made by our General Convention were done after decades of passionate conversation, biblical and theological engagement, by those in favor and those opposed, and with the understanding that no one is expected to uphold a position that their conscience cannot support. We believed that these decisions were made in response to the Gospel call to proclaim the news of God’s love for the created as far and as broadly as possible, and to listen to the voices of those whom the world has rejected. As a result of these decisions, the Episcopal Church was warned that there would be consequences. Today we have learned what they are.

In the news conference following the end of the meeting, the Archbishop of Canterbury stressed that the Episcopal Church was not “punished” or “sanctioned”. Episcopalians are invited to work beside Anglicans in other parts of the world on relieving the suffering of the poor and disaster relief. But it is the decision of the majority of the Primates that the Episcopal Church may not participate with the rest of the Anglican Communion in conversations about common belief and theology or in other wider ecumenical work, at least for the next three years.

Our Presiding Bishop has written of the pain that these decisions bring to many in the Episcopal Church, and in particular to those who feel they have been marginalized once again by the Church in which they long to fully participate. Bishop Michael has also reiterated his intention to remain at the table in what ever capacity is allowed and to work on maintaining relationships as much as possible. And he has said that he does not imagine that the Episcopal Church will reverse its course. I agree with him on this point. I stand by my vote and that of our General Convention deputation this summer. I want to assure the LGBT people of Rhode Island that you are fully welcome in our diocese.

Though I know it will be difficult for many of us right now, I would ask that you join me in standing with Bishop Michael and continuing to participate in the common work of the Anglican Communion to the degree that we will be allowed. When someone rejects you for doing what you prayerfully discern to be the right thing to do, the Bible teaches us that we are to respond in love, by staying in relationship, doing what we can to show God’s love to those who are rejecting us. Walking beside the rest of the members of the Anglican Communion is the best way for us to witness to the World what the Gospel asks us each to do.

Finally, I ask you to pray for our witness to the World. I ask you to pray for the Episcopal Church, for the Anglican Communion and for the whole Church of God.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy Holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen. (BCP p. 816)

If you would like to know more about the decisions that were made, the Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale has done a good job of explaining them. And I’d close by inviting you to listen to these words from the final day of the meeting in Lambeth by our Presiding Bishop.

+Nicholas