Saturday, January 30, 2010
Today I have drunk excellent coffee, baked croissants, walked four naughty dogs, spent three hours in Riverhead at my favorite haunts (Borders, Target and Home Depot), written a sermon, planned a whole "bunch of stuff" over the phone with my Director of Music, talked with and texted with my family who are in Manhattan for a few days, cooked an Italian chicken and tomato casserole which I am about to eat, and just opened a bottle of (sip? Ah yes!) good Pinot Noir. It may sound like a busy day, but in all of it I have found time to think and dream. If only it were not so cold ...
Friday, January 29, 2010
Monday, January 18, 2010
We have had the most brilliant evening at St. Ann's Church. A friend and music teacher, Kristen Poulakis, brought nine of her young students to the church for a (very late) Christmas recital. It has been planned for the weekend before Christmas but twenty inches of snow decided otherwise. Young girls between the ages of four and (almost) fourteen singing their hearts out. Some forty parents and friends supporting them. And the enthusiasm and humor of their teacher. Can anyone think of a better way of spending an early Monday evening? I can't!
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Yesterday I had the delightful task of presiding at the marriage of two young people at the Church of the Epiphany, New York. Not my usual place of worship, I know, but I accepted the invitation of a wonderful family which has supported me in my ministry in Bridgehampton since the first day. Now Epiphany is not one of the two churches to which the title alludes. I am merely setting the scene.
Arriving the previous evening for the rehearsal, and then adjourning to my favorite Italian family restaurant on East 77th Street (non-Facebook readers please try and keep up!) I spent the night in the Union Club and awoke early the following morning. I had a day of what I call "urban hiking" before the 6.00 p.m. wedding, and I took full advantage of that opportunity. My walking and exploring first took me via the tram to Roosevelt Island. I have so much to write about that fascinating place, but for now I will simply mention that my primary destination, urban pilgrimage perhaps, has the much-announced Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, an ecumenical parish where the doors were always open to... everyone but me. Locked and bolted, and the person exiting one of the doors, having locked it behind her, would not even stop to talk. So I started my walk around that island, an hour's stroll before the tram...
Back on the mainland (and that's about the only time that Manhattan can justify that title) I just hiked south. Along 1st Avenue. So much to see and hear. Busy, busy, busy. I bought a sandwich, put it in my pocket and hoped I would find a good place to eat it where I could look and see and listen. I did - it was on the bank of the East River at the end of 35th Street. I shared many benches with other hungry people - seagulls, joggers, and staff from the close-by "People's Republic of China Mission to the United Nations."
Three blocks west was a church that I simply had to investigate. Not marked on my map, I walked into the granite courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral of Saint Vartan. I took photographs of the entrance, but have not yet downloaded them. But it does not matter. For minutes I stood and marveled at the bronze doors, and then an entire family arrived, walked up the steps from the sidewalk, and (the father) opened one of the doors. One woman (the mother?) was cradling a baby, and there was a train of other people following. A silver haired woman (a grandmother?) saw me standing there in the courtyard and said, "Come, you must come!" And I followed them into what was a spectacular, candle-lit church. Then the priest greeted me. After polite introduction he hugged me and said that I would be most welcome to stay, but I felt awkward and intrusive, and after shaking the hand of most there, I slipped away - but not before lighting a candle with a prayer...
Two churches and two doors. Two stories. Which do you prefer? I know what I think and feel, but I was there...
Our human brains are not designed to compute suffering on such a scale, especially when the numbers rise on a daily or even hourly basis. The extent of the earthquake also makes it impossible to think about individual losses, unless, of course we know someone who was killed or who lost a family member.
The ways in which we mentally and spiritually respond to such catastrophes raise many great issues, both human and theological.
To begin with, and this was apparent in the first few hours after the news broke – many felt that we needed someone or something to blame. We needed to find some human factor in the disaster. Perhaps we still think this way. The equation of cause and effect.
It’s a perfectly natural response – one that has been engrained in the human psyche since the dawn of time. Just look at the great myths of the Old Testament and other religious traditions. The flood of Genesis was sent by God because of the wickedness of man. The same story is found in the Sumerian culture where the earth is punished by the gods for its decadence. Also the Greek tradition, the Roman tradition, and the Norse, and the Hindi scriptures, and even the folk-tales of some of the native tribes of both North and South America.
This is the notion that somehow humankind is the author of its own misfortunes, and that there is divine justice to hand. We have moved away from such primitive ideas, although there will, no doubt, be some people who will disagree. Claiming to represent a form of "true" Christianity and enjoying a high media profile - I hope that they are treated with the utter contempt that they deserve.
More common these days is the environmentalist blame game. We can attribute natural disaster to something that we have done to the planet. But not this time. What happened to those tectonic plates beneath the Caribbean was nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or any other popular “green” issue that otherwise we deem important.
What happened last week was rather an example of nature simply being nature in an amoral, indifferent way.
Once more we have been reminded of our smallness before nature.
That’s not an easy thing to accept because in this so-called enlightened age we are taught that we can aim at controlling our destinies. Nothing could be further from the natural truth.
It makes us uncomfortable because in the 21st century we find it impossible to accept that bad things just happen, that there was no way of stopping them, that no one is to blame and that no one can be sued.
Simply put, the earthquake, like any natural disaster, strikes at our modern, often foolish sense of being masters of our condition and fate.
Faced with such a prospect of powerlessness we can ask where God is in all of this. That’s a fair question, because if we reject the primitive notions of divine judgment and retribution, God, if we believe in a God, still has to be somewhere in all the mess.
The commonly asked question as to why God allowed such a thing to happen must never apply. It may belong in the Sunday School but not in spiritually grown-up minds. It is the wrong question. God, our image of God, must not be that of a puppeteer or controller - rescuing some but leaving others to die.
It is rather the reverse. God, our image and understanding of God, is a God who has let go of all control and who reigns, not by wielding power over the lives of his creation, but by becoming one of them – powerless and vulnerable, yet glorious.
Glory revealed in a new-born baby, and in the nailing of a man to a wooden cross. There, and only there, does God show the true and complete divine nature.
God is therefore incarnate - in the fear and trauma of the victims, in the grief of countless thousands, in the efforts of governments, military and other agencies who struggle to bring even the simplest of necessities to suffering communities. Medical aid. Clean water. Basic food. Shelter. God is there, incarnate, in the physical touch that says, "I care. I'm here to help."
God is also in our response and that of millions the world over.
Because we are all called to give.
It doesn’t matter which agency, which fund you support, so long as it is making a difference to the Haitian people. Just do it! Choose your charity - then send the donation.
We may not be able to comprehend this disaster, but, in Christ’s name we can love and support those who live and rebuild in its aftermath.
With people all over America, all over the world, let’s act in Christ's name!
Friday, January 15, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
It leaves me exceptionally numb, and puts all of life with its questions, its joys and sorrows, ambitions and failures, into a very clear, stark perspective before the power of nature. Whatever the final number (and some sources within the Haitian government are already talking about 100,000 and more fatalities)the cold morning fact is this: They, men,women and children, loved and unloved, are dead. And an entire nation grieves them.
Yet the sadness and grief is greater than family or community - it is economic and political. Haiti is a nation that simply cannot deal with, cannot cope with the aftermath of such a disaster. Ranked as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, it is easy to see why. No money, fragile infrastructure, no internal resources whatsoever.
All I can think and say is this: Lord have mercy. And we must give. Just give, and continue to pray....
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
On visiting my family in the UK I was lucky enough to be given a late Christmas gift - a box of shower gels and soaps manufactured by Marks & Spencers. Delightful. I love these gifts, and in my daily routine of cleanliness have already put some of them to work. The tubes that I have opened lather quite well and have a generally pleasant scent, but bear no resemblance to the name on their labels. Black Pepper and Rosemary. Rich Herb. Lemon Spice. Correct me if I'm wrong, but do I detect a cross-over between the bathroom and the pantry? I think that I do, for these are the sort of blends that I would ordinarily use to create a simple pasta sauce. Or salad dressing. The uneducated palate wouldn't care about the bubbles, and the more polite simply would say nothing!
But wait! It doesn't stop there. To be true to the cross-over culture... After I have posted this ridiculous column I must soak in the tub. It's been a long day. I am already eyeing up the tubes of anchovy paste and the remaining jar of Patak's Medium Curry Paste. Relax ...
Sunday, January 10, 2010
But I got side-tracked by an exciting Stufato di Vitello e Vendure (La Cucina Italiano - the "Wainscott Test Kitchen," no less!)
A single one-large-pot meal with bite-size chunks of good veal, slow-cooked with small potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, zucchini, celery and rosemary. Method? Throw it all into the biggest pot you can find (I used our huge Le Cruesset, so big you could bathe a puppy in it!) and simmer in veggie stock for an hour. Serve with good bread and spinach salad. Who says good cooking is difficult and time-consuming? No way. A large jug of Pinot Noir also assists the whole process...
On the subject of veal... I am aware of so many who shout loudly against the raising and slaughter of calves. While I am uncomfortable about the issues of many mass-production methods that may be construed as "cruel", I have no truck with most objectors. I choose my veal from an organic, free-roaming source. Just as I prefer to choose all my meats, my eggs, and my friends.
I'm sure that I don't have to remind you of the humor and genius of the travel writer and commentator Bill Bryson, but after having made a recent return journey to the UK his writings of the 1990s come to mind.
Bryson settled in England in 1977, but moved back to the United States in the mid-90s where he published a series of observations and newspaper columns under the title "I'm a stranger here myself." (Or, to give it its British title: "Notes from a Big Country." )
Dealing with everything from the garbage disposal unit, through the awfulness of television programming, to junk food that lives forever in the fridge, and the fact that the 1996 Dodge Caravan came with as many as seventeen cupholders, despite only holding seven passengers.
It's no secret that I'm a great fan of Bill Bryson's work) and not all of it is comedic. (His book on William Shakespeare is a prime example of serious historical study.) But in all his writings I admire his ability to approach a subject afresh - come at it from a new and often unexpected angle.
The book "I'm a stranger here myself" does this in two ways. It takes every-day, familiar subjects, and treats them in a most unusual way, and it also reflects the thinking of a man who had returned to his country and culture of birth after many years away, and the differences that he had noted.
To a lesser degree I had that same experience this last vacation. Yes, I had returned to England a few times over the past nine years, but somehow this time was different. For reasons I cannot fully fathom, I was, this time, able to look at places and people and events in a new way - objectively, noting the way the country had changed during my absence. And although I do not wish to be drawn into detail, most of the changes were not for the good.
Nevertheless, the ability to see things from a new and different perspective is always a good thing. It educates and informs, and even changes opinion and attitude.
On this Sunday of the Christian calendar, a day which bears the lack-luster title of the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear once again the story of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
It's a good theme for this time of year as baptism implies re-birth and a new beginning. And within the Gospel story we have definitely begun again, leaving the Christmas tales behind us, and embarking on the journeys and ministry of Jesus which began that day in the Jordan.
And at 11.00 this morning another young person will be baptized here in church, and no doubt there will be countless others all over the world receiving the same sacrament.
And just as we have heard the story of the Baptism of Jesus before, so too there is a chance that we can, at best, take baptism for granted, or at worst, overlook its significance and importance.
Just another "christening." Rite of passage. Celebration of new life, etc, etc, etc.
Time perhaps to take another look at baptism, come at it afresh as it were, and re-evaluate just what it means to us. Us. We who are baptized.
What is going on at Baptism? Both in the River Jordan and in St. Ann's Church? There's no need to dress it up in fancy language and theology, for the explanation is there in both scripture and church tradition.
... and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Three things are happening. First, the Holy Spirit is at work in the person being baptized; second, that person enters into a relationship with God. And third, that person is blessed.
The spirit of God at work? A relationship with that very same God? A blessing?
All of a sudden this sounds less like a social and religious custom, and more like a serious sequence of events!
And so it should be.
Naturally I was not here to wish you a Happy New Year last weekend, so I do so now! And I wish to plant a question in the minds of everyone here, my mind included. And it is simply this: Let us ask ourselves....
What does my baptism mean to me?
A new question to begin a new year. And one which perhaps needs a new and different perspective of faith.