Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2009

Last Thursday found me at the George Mercer School of Theology in Garden City in long conversation with Dr. Tony Kireopoulos, a senior program director of the National Council of Churches USA, and a Greek Orthodox theologian of some international note.

I say "conversation" because for the first hour it was me asking him questions, and him giving me both broad-reaching and detailed answers. The initial subject matter was the continuing ecumenical discussions and dialogue between numerous American churches and denominations, but we also moved into the vast area of inter-faith relationships and forums the world over. In particular the large forums (perhaps that should be forae, but I'm not a purist) between Muslims and Christians, and the discussion papers that these have produced. And all great signs of hope - and thank God, especially after statements such as those made by Islamic theologians at the beginning of this decade which basically, truthfully, if chillingly, said:

There can be no world peace until there is peace between Islam and Christianity.

It was eventually after lunch (and all ecumenical conversation must include excellent lunch!) that the question arose in my mind:

Why are we separate from one another in the name of God?

And my thinking process took the form of something that reads like a mathematical formula: Certainty embraces ignorance, and creates intolerance.

And that equation, although unanswered and imperfect, is as old as religion itself.

John, one of Jesus' disciples came to him, clearly worried and annoyed, and announced:

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.

John's outburst sounds very familiar in the 21st century. That last phrase might be translated, “Because he was not one of us.”

It remains part of the human tradition. We like to be able to put people in their place, or tell people where their place is! And, of course, we all know where we stand!

It’s easy to make judgments about other people whether in arguments or in very rational debates.

John is making a judgment about an anonymous healer who he clearly perceived as some sort of threat – perhaps diminishing the uniqueness of Jesus and the Twelve. He didn’t belong. He wasn’t “one of them!”

A classic expression of intolerant religion.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of the same. There are passages where God is described as ordering the Israelites to destroy their enemies, especially Tribe A, Tribe B and that awful tribe C - because of the way they live and the way in which they do things.

In the book of Exodus God says that persons of other religions are to be totally destroyed. In the book of Deuteronomy prophets of other faiths are to be killed. It was clearly a pre-ecumenical age.

Of course once formalized and institutionalized, the Christian Church found this approach very practical. After the Emperor Constantine, who united Roman state authority and matters of faith, many battles were fought under the banner of intolerance.

The Crusades were fought as a holy war against the infidel, although to be historically accurate, and politically incorrect, many of these battles were simply campaigns to take back what the so-called infidels had seized in the first place, all in the name of their version of God.

Within the Church heretics were identified, and we all know what to do with heretics, don’t we? We don't sit down and drink cappuccino with them, engaging in polite debate. No Sir! They have to be faced down, removed - even killed. Because they are not like us, and are a threat to greater integrity.

Even a cursory study reveals that intolerance has a long history in Christianity, and that history has not ended yet.

Some Christians cannot exist without intolerance. It is such a central part of their faith that if it were removed all else would crumble. It is seen as the means to keep a sense of identity, orthodoxy, or even superiority.

Today’s Old Testament story is one that most people are unfamiliar with, but let’s be honest: When did the Book of Numbers ever make the best-seller list?

Two men, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying without proper authority. Joshua was upset and insisted that Moses put a stop to it all, but Moses would have none of it. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!”

Moses demonstrated there not merely wisdom, but tolerance in an age where such was unheard of.

Jesus also, saying: Whoever is not against us is for us. Both he and Moses could have been threatened by words and deeds that seemed to have no real license and authority, but both decided to let them go.

Some would say that this is a sign of weakness, or a lack of confidence. Especially with regard to the Church. These accusations have often been leveled against the Episcopal Church. Many assume that we don’t stand for anything because we are so tolerant.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Historically, from our English and Scottish roots and through generations of great Anglican thinkers we continue to choose the path of tolerance – the via media, or middle way; the way of reason which, when combined with the study of scripture and the vibrant importance of Church tradition, leads to open minds and open dialogue.

This is not a wide and easy way as some shallowly assume. It is actually a narrow and difficult path that is often not clearly signed.

But any church, any denomination, any family of faith must tread that path, if there is to be peace, and mutual respect and understanding.

It is the path of Moses and Jesus. God give us courage to walk that road of grace. And to learn from one another along the way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


And in the case of Fresh Pond that is especially true! This neat and picturesque body of water, no more than half a mile long and five hundred yards wide, lies to the north of Fresh Pond Road (hello!) which connects Amagansett to Gardiner’s bay. There are two “put-ins” or launch sites, but the one on the northern bank is tricky to say the least, and involves portage through a densely wooded area where branches leap out at the unsuspecting kayaker without any provocation. No, don’t use that one, but the one on the south bank instead. This one is delightfully easy, a dry-feet launch, and therefore I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is! If anyone wants to come and paddle Fresh Pond with me I will insist on a blindfold!

One of the beautiful aspects of Fresh Pond is that, unlike so many ponds and waters in this area, it has no waterfront development whatsoever. Not even a boathouse or shed. The entire bank is thick with forest growth, wetlands and tall rushes - a pondscape that has probably remained unchanged for hundreds of years. And it is teeming with birds, fish and colorful insect life, most notably the bright blue dragonflies that seem to like flying alongside the kayak and even landing on its bow.

I had looked at a satellite image of Fresh Pond, courtesy of Google Earth (incidentally the rough kayaker’s most important tool after boat and paddle) and spotted a very narrow creek running into the woods on the western edge of the lake, and after a few minutes of gentle paddling I found the opening.

The next few photographs were taken a various stages along the creek which is navigable for about a hundred and fifty yards. You can see that it becomes extremely narrow towards the end of the passage, and as I stroked and punted the boat forwards I was glad to be in the small Manatee kayak and nothing larger.

Time to turn around and head back to the pond. The emerging view ...

Various eastward views of Fresh Pond, which ends in wetlands and an osprey tower.

After returning to the car after only an hour’s paddling and exploring I need more, so threw the boat inside the car (it just fits) and drove the three hundred yards to the beach, launching into Gardiner’s Bay. A good half hour’s brisk paddle south had me returning via the Devon Yacht Club and the small, private harbor. It was then great to drift back on a gentle breeze and outgoing tide…

A Pictorial Blog: "The Engine Run", Foster Farm, Sagaponack, New York, Sunday, September 20th 2009.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thoughts on Sunday, September 13th, 2009, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost

It is a characteristic of the way St Mark presents his narrative that Jesus and the twelve disciples were always on the move. Today’s passage is no exception with its beginning:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

The one-time Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay commented:

If you read Mark’s Gospel the way in which it was intended, you soon find yourself out of breath!

Always on the move. As always there was much conversation and discussion along the road. Jesus has asked some rather broad questions about public opinion, and then he asked a very direct question of his disciples:

But who do you say that I am?

It was Peter who answered.

You are the Messiah.

Peter answered, but did he really understand what he was saying? And was it Peter alone speaking, or was he acting as spokesperson for the group? For “messiah” was a word loaded with cultural and religious expectations – which clearly didn’t fit in with what Jesus had to say next, thereby earning Peter the strongest of rebukes.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

Why was Peter rebuked? Because Jesus had started to teach his closest followers that the path they were going to follow would be a very dangerous one with devastating consequences.

All this would have proved too much for Peter and those other disciples.

Let’s look at them objectively. Here were a group of young, strong men. They were people of character, and a developing faith. They were very much in the public view, and enjoying a high degree of acclaim and popularity as the disciples of this Jesus of Nazareth.

All seemed to be going well, so why destroy it all – throw it all away? Surely that’s what Jesus was saying to them. We have to go to Jerusalem and give it all up. And Peter started to tell Jesus that this course of action would brand them as outcasts and failures.

In the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Christianity was indeed a religion for failures and misfits. Nietzsche was an extraordinarily embittered man who had rebelled against his religious upbringing, and throughout his life battled with illness and drug addiction.

He began his case:

The word "Christianity" is already a misunderstanding - in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.

He argued that any religion that exalted the humble and meek saps the strength of a civilization, because it runs counter to the process of natural selection. Nietzsche and nature insist that the strongest only will succeed, but Christianity preserves the weak and even rewards the humble. Hence his similar resentment of democracy.

Jesus reproach to Simon Peter was not simply an act of correction, but a clear warning that his vision of faith was human-centred, not God-focused.

“You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

That reprimand echoes strongly down the ages, both inside and outside the Church.

It is a worry that many of the values implicit in our culture owe more to human things than they do to Christ. The way so much emphasis is placed upon success, or power. Even the way the Church occasionally behaves. A critique of the social politics of the Church drew this recent comment from the Scottish writer and theologian, Moyna McGlynn:

If the identity of the Messiah could only be revealed though so much suffering, why is it we imagine that the identity of the Church will be shown without a mark?

Those first, rebuked, disciples hadn’t really got a clue, so we shouldn’t judge them harshly. It was hard to see God’s will in such a deliberate act, a journey to Jerusalem, which appeared pure folly and would certainly end up in disaster?

But then God’s way is different. The world and its values and certainties are turned upside down. This was a different Messiah, and the previous expectations of such had been changed

When Jesus rebuked Peter he wasn’t just calling him wrong – he was using the same language he used when he first called him to follow him. What he was saying to him, and to us, is simple, yet so hard:

“Where I go, you must follow.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009



- A great three hour paddle on Labor Day, on Sebonac Creek. I have put a full set of photos on Facebook, but for those of you who are far too busy to consider wasting even more time online, here's a sample:

- Chicken curry on Monday evening!

- At last a new back-pack for Kate! Worth another trip to Riverhead. (No coffee this time though.)

- Why are school text books so big and heavy? I'm sure that my books were half the size of the ones Kate is getting ready to take to school.

- The first trip to school this morning. That look. A blend of excitement, apprehension and resignation. It was as if summer had never happened...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Labor Day Weekend

I think it fair to say, even though my family is away, and the eastbound arteries of the Island (the Long Island Expressway and Highway 27) are clogged with visitors intent on having a good weekend whatever the pain, and commuters still retuning from their urban stress-shops, that (and I get around to saying it now!) the Labor Day weekend has begun. At least for me. I know that's a selfish statement, but that's how I feel. I have completed the day's tasks and duties and, deo volente, nothing remains. I have returned home and metaphorically pulled up the drawbridge in order to sip a fine Italian wine, think about dinner, and relax in my own protectorate. I can pretend that it isn't hell out there on the pavements and sidewalks (which it is) and watch the sun go down with dogs at my feet and with an air of sniffy indifference. You get the picture? Pure escapism!

There used to be a reason and a motive for this holiday, both of which are inspired by a similar fete in Canada. The celebration of legalized trade unions and their strike activities, which were recognized in Canada in 1872, became a cause celebre on September 5th, 1882, in New York City. Never mind that the unions being recognized and even celebrated were, in the main, all Mafiosi or Irish gang controlled, it was the principle of it all that appealed to President Grover Cleveland. And there we have it. Congress rushed through the necessary pieces of paper, and soon all fifty states adopted the organized labor-fest.

Even with the return of my family this will be a quiet holiday. Eight Sunday guests for a barbeque does not a loud party make! Besides, Eric and I will probably pour large drinks and adjourn to a distant a spot in the garden to discuss affairs of state and catch up on editorial gossip at the Wall Street Journal. Now that's a reason to have a holiday!