Friday, November 18, 2011

The Great Hall

I'd been there before, but the sheer size of the place still overwhelms me.  You see its towers dwarfing the city around it as you approach through the narrow, medieval lanes.  It's easy to forget what century it is until you see the ads for cell phone service in the windows of 17th century buildings.  But even so there is an eerie feeling of having been on a long, long journey of several generations and finally coming home.  And that home is Canterbury, the religious institution in England with the longest uninterrupted history.  Augustine of Canterbury established it in 597.

In the high middle ages it was a place of pilgrimage, not just for the fact that it is the mother-church of the Anglican Communion, but because it is the site of a church-state conflict gone horribly wrong in the 12th century.  Thomas Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.  A strong-willed prince of a man, he ran headlong into the strong-willed Henry II over the rights of the church.  Back and forth they went for several years.  At one point Henry is supposed to have said in utter exhasperation, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"  Whereapon 4 rogue knights, seeing an opportunity to gain favor with their sovreign, murdered Thomas in the Cathedral.

T. S. Eliot in his artful play on the story called "Murder in the Cathedral" puts these poignant words in Thomas' mouth, "Herein lies the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason!"

Thomas' temptation, as Eliot creates it, is, knowing that his death at the hands of the political powers is highly probable, to respond with a humble submission to his fate just as Jesus had done--proving himself thereby more honorably humble than the recalcitrant king!  Poignant words because in a sense they resound throughout this ancient church even to this day.

In doing interviews, my son Landon and I found that most of the people there had not come as pilgrims.  Many of them were not even religious.  They came out of an interest in history, to see this thing everyone talks about, to see ancient architecture, to wonder at the hoary halls.  They came, doing the right thing, but for utterly the wrong reasons!  We resorted to asking people if they had come for religous reasons before asking for an interview!

In another more sublte way Canterbury does the right thing for the wrong reason.  The Nave walls are lined almost continuously from back to front on both sides with large marble slab monuments to military accomplishments around the world in the name of the English Crown.  Some of them had only oblique references to God, a few had none at all.  These seem to culminate a thread of thought that goes back all the way to the 14th century Black Prince.  Edward of Woodstock was the eldest son of Henry III and would have become King except that he died a year before his father.  He was an exceptional military leader of the English against the French, especially at Crecy and Poitiers (the French would obviously emphasize "black" rather than "prince.")  He became very popular because of this and is burried in the Cathedral.  Until the recent act of parliamant that allows a non-Anglican to assume the British throne, there has always been a blurry line between issues of state and issues of church, matters of earth and matters of heaven.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason...

But under all that confusion is the Undercroft.  Down there the hoary ages still hang in the air.  Ancient columns still seem to echo the chants of the Benedictine monks who have worshipped there through the centuries.  Modern monuments to social justice issues feel strangely at home with the peeling smoke of distant candles.  Here somehow, the undercurrent of the Spirit is still flowing, deep and cool and strong.  Perhaps this foundation is the key to this church's longevity after all.....

Altruism is officially DEAD!

An add on TV this morning showed a couple of ribbons marking out a Christmas gift (mind you, this is still pre-Thanksgiving.)  A gift card of the kind afixed to such packages appears in the intersection of the ribbons and the words, "To:" and "From:" magically appear on it.  Then between the two words in italicized letters these words write themselves:  "Get a wow from everyone!"  Texas Lotto tickets sprout from behind the card like magic.

Like magic we now give in order to get--to get a wow.  It's not in the giving, it's in the getting.  And the ones who get the most are the people who profit from the Texas Lotto, and the people who lose are the ones who can't afford to buy the tickets but do anyway.

It's official.  Altruism is dead!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving is Remembering

When Israel entered the Promised Land God warned them:  "Do not forget."

Do not forget!  When your wealth increases, and your power increases, and your satisfaction with life increase, do not forget where it all came from.  Do not forget the provision of God in the wilderness, for the abundance of the Promised Land comes from the same generous hands.  Gratitude is the fruit of a good memory.

It behooves us, therefore, to remember where our bounty comes from.  Take, for example, what is going to weigh our tables down this afternoon.  Let's start with the centerpiece of it all, the turkey.

Contrary to popular belief, turkey is not manufactured in the back rooms of the HEB store.  Turkey actually comes from a farm.  The farm got the turkey from a breeder.  The breeder got the turkey eggs from breeder hens and toms, who ultimately got their original turkeys from a Native American who had the turkeys as domesticated birds.  The Native Americans got the turkeys from the woods, which is ultimately where all our turkeys come from.  When you sit down to carve the great bird remember that it is a fruit of this North American continent on which we live.

Let's go to the dressing.  Now, there are two kinds of dressing, and they take us two different places.  There is bread dressing, which is wheat based.  The wheat comes from farms in the northwest, cultivated by huge machines they used to call tractors, but now look more like monstrous transformer toys.  They plant sections and sections of wheat that produce enough to feed the world.  But wheat was originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 11,000 years ago or so.  When you spoon out your dressing remember that it is the fruit of the cradle of civilization, come to us from half a world away.

Then there is cornmeal dressing.  Corn is also one of those early grains, it is the most widely produced cereal grain in the western hemisphere.  It was domesticated in central America, probably about the same time as wheat.  Remember that when you shovel in that wonderful cornmeal dressing you are receiving a gift from southern Mexico.

And then there are the spices.  Spices span the globe.  Literally thousands of herbs and spices go into our foods from every corner of the earth.  Most of the spices we use in dressing come from Italy and around the northern Mediterranean.  When you taste their subtle flavors remember to give thanks in Italian!

Mashed potatoes come from us not from either Idaho or Ireland.  They come to us from Peru.  When Landon and I were in Lima last summer we went to an open air market.  I asked one lady in a stall to tell me about all the potato varieties she had for sale.  She quickly ran through at least a dozen and apologized because there were so many more she did not have for sale!  When you drown your mashed potatoes in gravy remember the high mountain air of the Andes and give thanks to the Incas.

I could go on.  Green beans were first bred by Calvin Keeney in Le Roy, New York in 1894.  Pumpkin is a product of Native American horticulture of the eastern seaboard.  Pumpkin Pie originated when colonists cut off the top of pumpkins, scooped out the seeds, filled them with milk, spices and honey and roasted them over hot coals.  And the full feeling—it  comes when the sugar in your blood reaches thresholds that tell your glandular system to stimulate you to stop eating!

Our Thanksgiving bounty comes to us from literally everywhere.   It comes from places of origin around the globe, it comes from the dawn of civilization to just a hundred years ago.  In a sense, when your "remembering" goes back this far, it catches up all of creation, and places it beautifully on your table, thanks to the incredible bounty of the One who created it all in the first place.

There is another time when we do the same thing.  When we gather around the table of the Lord each Sunday we recognize the bounty of the Lord in our creation and redemption, and we make "Eucharist," we give thanks.  Every meal in your house is a shadow of the Great Meal we celebrate here.

Let us eat, then, and be thankful!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sheeply and Goatly

Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Killeen, TX

Sheep and Goats…sheep get to go to heaven, goats have to go to the other place.  I'm so glad I'm a sheep…..

Isn't that the meaning of this passage?  That's how we normally think about it, right?  The sheep are the people who are saved, who are on their way to heaven, and the goats, well, poor guys, they drove so fast to the ball game that they missed the ticket office.  Sorry, but, that's not me....

 Seems to me that telling the difference between the sheep and the goats is really pretty important, don't you think?  I mean, I know I'm a sheep, and I know you're a sheep, at least.....

The tricky thing is, sheep and goats are sometimes hard to tell apart.  A sheep says, Baaaa...." a goat goes, "Baaaa....."  A sheep eats grass and shrubs, a goat eats grass and shrubs.  Rams have horns and billy goats have horns.  A sheep poops little round black balls, a goat poops little round black balls.  I know what you're thinking:  Sheep have wool and goats don't.  But some sheep don't have wool, and some goats do!  I have a suspicion that if you shaved a sheep and a goat down to the bare skin nobody in here could tell which was which.

But Jesus makes it very clear that there is a huge difference—the difference between heaven and not-so-heaven.  It must be that the differences that matter are not on the outside, but on the inside.  Sheep have 54 chromosomes, goats have 60.  And....oh, yeah, this is a parable, not a biology lesson.  The differences don't really hinge on physical  differences.  They hinge on something else.  It seems they hinge on what sheep do compared to what goats do.

I saw a herd of goats once when I was a kid in Ecuador.  They were feeding along the inside of a narrow draw, nibbling whatever they could find.  It was a sandy draw with steep sides, and some goats found a little ledge with some grass on it.  They promptly formed a line and moved down this ledge eating everything to the ground.  But the ledge got narrower and narrower until finally, to maintain footing, they were leaning against the wall beside them.  Finally, it gave out completely.  The first goat jumped up on his back legs and spun around to face the next goat square on, and pushed by and forced him off the ledge!

 I've never seen a heard of sheep do that.

Sheep and goats really are different.  Goats are smarter than sheep.  They think about things and work the angles on them,  they try and push and get ahead by their own incessant will, like in the Old Testament reading when God says He'll judge against the ones that push with shoulder and flank and butt the weak ones and keep them from the grass and water.  Goats are smart enough to think they can figure it out by themselves.  Goats, for the purposes of this parable, are willful.  The goats in Jesus' parable did all the things that the sheep did, but they did them willfully, not willingly.  They fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the prisoner and tended the sick because they could manage a personal advantage out of it.  They did not do it "for the least of these, my brothers."  They did not meet the Lord in the face of the weak.  They met their own ambition.

Sheep, on the other hand, are lost without a shepherd.  European explorers in the 14th - 18th centuries had a habit of releasing goats on deserted islands and returning later for a stock of meat.  All it took was a billy and a couple of nannies,  And a year later there would be 46  of them!  Cabrito for supper!  It was so successful that in many places their descendents have become a plague that costs millions of dollars to control.

They didn't release sheep.  If they came back a year later for sheep all they would have found were fat coyotes, all dressed in Armani wool.  The only exception was New Zealand, that, at European contact, hosted no land-based predators.  It is the only place in the world where the natural environment is so benign that there is actually a population of feral sheep! 

So sheep, for the purposes of this parable, are willing rather than willful.  They do what they are led to do, the go where they are led to go, and they thrive only when under good care.

There are two very important differences between willfulness and willingness that are important for us this morning.  First, whereas the willful are often well provisioned, only the willing are grateful.  There are people who still say, “Give my hard-earned money to the church!  Are you kidding?”  “Charity begins at home, I take care of my own.”  “I'm a self-made person, I deserve what I've got.”  It is an attitude of pushing ahead, of forging one's own way, of working the angles.  It's willful and it is goatly.

On the other hand, the sheep looks at the pasture it didn't make, and the stream it didn't channelize or dam, and the shepherd standing watch, and is full of gratitude.  This is willing and it is sheeply.

This morning we are bringing in our pledge cards.  This is a sheeply action, full of gratitude, willing to do what is right in the face of the needs of the Kingdom.  And I'll give you the bottom line.  10% registers in God's books as "full gratitude."  My wife and I tithe to the church, and then give elsewhere as well.  It can be done,  How grateful are you?  How willing?

Secondly, whereas both the willful and the willing are surprised, only the willing are pleasantly so.  The goat who is always working the angles is surprised when his efforts to control the other goats fail.  I know, because I've been there myself!  You find yourself trying not to say things like. “"Don't be such a horn-head, that patch of daisies is for Grass-breath over here!"  And, "Oops, ledge ran out, careful, I’m comin' back through!"  Sooner or later our willfulness proves inadequate to the challenges of life, leaving our goat-hood in a considerable crisis.

On the other hand, the willing depend on the greater vision and wisdom of the Shepherd.  When things don't go as expected, it's OK.  Thomas Merton, on the drive to the Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, writes that he was incredibly aware of two things within.  On the one hand an overpowering desire to enter the monastery, and on the other a complete peace if for some reason he were not accepted.  Iif he had been rejected his plan was to join the Army.  The willing steps onto the green pasture and says, “Wow, this is incredible!  The shepherd must love me so!  I wonder what is coming next?”

“I wonder what is coming next?” expresses a sense of expectancy, whose personal work is not to bring about the surprise, but to be as quiet and attentive as possible so as not to miss it when it comes!  Today is not only Thanksgiving Sunday, Christ King Sunday, Parish Meeting and Parish Thanksgiving Meal, it is also the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost, and the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  (Yes, the year has shot by us like a patriot missile!)

Our theme during Advent this year will be "Expectancy, Preparing for the Great Surprise."  Next week we will introduce a little meditation aid that will help you build that sense of expectancy during Advent, and assist that willing sheep-hood within.

Yes, I can be a sheep, and you can be one, too.  By loving one another and the needy of the world for Him as He has asked us to, with humble and open hearts, our wonderful surprise will be to see him in the very faces of the ones we love on His behalf.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


In north Wales, along the coast, there is a little town called Holywell.  It gets its name from a legend that dates from the 7th century about a beautiful young woman named Fride.  The name is the Welsh version of "Brigid," as in St. Brigid of Ireland, and harks even to pre-Christian days when the goddess Brigid watched over the hearth, the family and the flocks.

Fride of Wales was born to a pagan chief and a Christian mother.  She was baptized into her mother's faith and as she grew the call to become a nun grew apace within her.  But her beauty was desired by a neighboring prince, Caradog.  One day as she was in the field he found her and sought to have his way with her.  She resisted, and fled toward the church where her uncle, Beuno, was saying Mass.  When he saw that his intentions were frustrated Caradog flew into a rage, drew his sword and cut Fride's head off.

Beuno heard the commotion and came outside the church. He at once took in what happened and cursed Cardog, who melted into a mist and sank into the ground.  He then scooped Fride's severed head and placed it again on her body.  She was revived to life, became a nun and lived out her days in convents in the area.  Where her hed hit the ground a spring erputed, and it soon became a place of pilgrimage and a site of healing.  Beuno took to washing daily in the spring, standing on a certain stone.  The prefix "wini" was added to Fride's name, which means "Glorious," and the site became known as Winifred's Well.  Depictions of Winifred always show a hairline scar around her neck, something she is purported to have had to her dying day.

In the 14th century a shrine was built, and the spring was encased in a stone frame in the shape of a star.  From there the water runs out into a large pool about four feet deep.  The water is fresh out of the ground and is very cold.  Beuno's stone is fixed to the bottom of the pool.  People come from all around to seek healing.  They walk around the perimeter of the pool three times saying the rosary, and then they dip themselves in the frigid water three times standing on Beuno's stone.  It may sound superstitious to our ears, but the pile of crutches left behind by those who have been healed is testimony to a greater reality.

Landon and I watched people come and endure the cold-water ordeal--and it is an ordeal!  I sat for a time with my legs dangling in the water. Within minutes my toes were aching and numb.  It was obvious that it took more desire for divine help than for creature comforts to complete the discipline.  Their faces were supplicant and patient, hopeful and supremely humble.

One young couple came with their two children, a boy of about 10 and another of about 2.  The little one was in a stroller, and he had his arm in a sling.  Obvously the parents had come to seek healing for the little boy.  Instinctively I asked his name.  "Paddy," they said.  I knelt down, made the sign of the crosss on his forehead, blessed him and prayed for his healing.  When I looked up mother and father and friends were looking at me with wide and expectant eyes.  Would I bless them, too?  "I'm Anglican, not Catholic," I protested, but that meant nothing to them at that moment.  I went down the line pronouncing a blessing on each one, and receiving 100-fold in return myself.

These peoples' faith looked a bit different than mine and may be less educated than mine, but in many ways they put me to shame!

Our Rightful Home

Pentecost 19, Proper 25, October 23, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
There once was a king who lived in a kingdom far, far away and a long time ago.  He lived with his queen in his castle, but he was very sad.  He had no children, and that made life lonely.  But soon enough the queen shared the happy news that they were going to have a child.  A beautiful baby girl was born to them, and they were not sad any longer.

They noticed that the baby had just the same shape of nose as her father, and everyone thought it was cute!  They decided to throw a big party and invite all the important people in the kingdom.  The day was set, invitations went out, and people began to arrive for the big day.  The party started, and all was going very, very well.  The whole kingdom was happy with the new little princess.  The food was yummy, the decorations were fun, and everybody was having a good time.

But, just at the height of the party a man in a dark hood stole into the castle.  He made his way to the crib with the baby princes, and before anyone could stop him he scooped up the baby and disappeared into the crowd.  Police were called, they searched and searched, but could not find the hooded man or the baby princess.  Heartbroken, the king and queen called off the rest of the party and sent everyone home.  And they cried and cried that night for their baby girl.

The years passed, and the king and queen grew older.  A son was born to them, and everyone remembered the daughter who had disappeared so many years before. They remembered her with love and longing.  The son grew up to be brave and strong and handsome, everything a kingdom would want in their next king.  And he had his father's nose, and people said he would have his father's wisdom and kind ways.

One day the young man was out traveling through a neighboring kingdom.  He came across a young woman working in a field.  Her clothes were dirty and torn, her hair was uncombed.  But what caught her attention was her nose.  It looked just like his.  Quietly he approached her.  She was a little afraid to speak with a prince, but he quieted her fears, and pointed out that they had noses that looked alike.  That made her laugh.  The prince asked where she was from.  She said she had been sold as a slave when she was a small girl, and had worked for her master all her life.

The young man went home and told his aging father.  The father immediately gathered soldiers, they went to the house where the young woman lived, there they found an old man, the one who had bought the girl.  The king said, "You see your slave girl's nose?  You see mine?  You see my son's?  You have a princess for a slave!"

But the man said, "In this kingdom slavery is allowed.  I paid a high price for her.  You cannot just take her away from me."

So the prince, the king's son, pulled out his money bag and said, "What do you want for her?"

“She is very expensive. She is a good worker, she will cost you all that you have in your money bag.”  Gladly the son emptied the money bag on the table, and bought his sister back into freedom.

Oh, the rejoicing when the princess came back to the castle.  They combed her hair, and gave her beautiful clothes to wear once again, and the whole kingdom came to welcome her home.

Well you might wonder why I told you this story.  This morning a beautiful young lady is going to be baptized.  Baptism is like bringing the princess home.  We are all born children of God, the great and wise King of the Universe.  But sin stole the human race away, and we lost contact with who we really are.  We became slaves to sin, who was not our real master at all.  So Jesus, God's son, came to earth, and found us, He paid a very high price to buy us back again, He died on the cross and rose again, just for us.

And now, we bring a princess back to the castle.  We say, "Though we were all once slaves to sin, now, by the grace of God, we can return to our rightful home and live with our father, our brothers and sisters, and all the people of God!"

And just as the princess in my story had to get new clothes and have her hair combed, so we, in this family, share with those newly returned, what it means to live in God's family.  We teach them how to say thank you for rescuing us and bringing us home by the things we think, say and do, by gathering with one another on Sundays, and by sharing what we have to help rescue and bring back other children of God who have not yet been brought back to the castle.

This morning we baptize a young lady of 10 years of age.  She will become your sister in Christ, she is another princess in this castle of our King and Father.  Remember her in your prayers.  As you see her encourage her, walk with her, show her how to express her gratitude, and let her know how special she is.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Context, Context, Context

Pentecost 18, Proper 24, October 16, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

Last weekend a significant event happened in the world of college football.  A momentous game was played between the University of Texas and Oklahoma University.
Unfortunately, the game was decidedly uneven.  The final score of 55 to 17 is an embarrassment to UT fans all over the world, I spoke on Monday to a former member of St. Christopher's who happens to be an OU fan, even she was embarrassed!  But it is not fair to consider that this is the nature of the game between these two teams.  There is a larger context into which to put this.  This "Red River Rivalry" goes back more than 100 years, some other decidedly unbalanced games were:
1908: OU 50, UT 0
1952: OU49, UT20
1956: OU 45, UT 0
1973: OU 52, UT 13
1986: OU 47, UT 12
1987: OU 44, UT 9
2000: OU 63, UT 14
2003: OU 65, UT 13

The only "blow-out" in UT's favor was 1909, OU 0, UT 30.  This makes it look like OU is the stronger team, but not necessarily.  UT holds 59 wins over OU since 1900, and OU only 42.  (5 games were ties.)  To understand the Red River Rivalry one must place the games played in the context of more than 100 years of games.

Context is what we see reflected in the lessons today.  In the first one, through the mouth of the prophet God calls Cyrus of Persia His anointed one.  The word is the same as "Messiah."  Now Cyrus is a pagan king at this point, yet what Cyrus is going to do fits into God's overall plan for him, and so from the beginning God claims Cyrus as his servant.  The will of God is the context in which to understand Cyrus.

In the Epistle Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  He praises them for their faithfulness, yet in the end he gives thanks to God for them, for even their faithfulness is a gift.  The grace of God is the context for their spiritual lives.

In the Gospel lesson those pesky Pharisees try to trap Jesus again.  They move the conversation into the realm of politics.  Is it right to pay tribute to Caesar?  The word is best translated "tribute," not "tax,"  Tax, for us, is kind of a franchise.  You pay your money, you get to live here and enjoy the amenities of the place.  But tribute is different.

Many scholars (though there is no solid consensus on this) identify the Tiberius denarius as the coin involved.  The inscription on it says, “The worshiped son of a worshiped god.”  Tribute is a statement of loyalty, loyalty to Tiberius Caesar, the emperor who declared himself to be God.  And so, is it right to pay allegiance to Caesar as God?

Jesus asks for a coin.  But Jesus says, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s.  God alone is God, and God mints no coins nor is represented by an image.  It is OK to pay tribute to Caesar, because Caesar is not God, in spite of his claims otherwise.  But give to God what is God's.  Pay your tribute as an act of recognizing that God is not reducible to a coin or an earthly kingdom, Much less this Tiberius upstart.  The nature of God is the final context of this question.

One cannot minimize the importance of context.  In real estate one says that there are three things that are important in buying or selling a house: Location, Location, and location.  There are three things that are important to you as a Christian:  context, context and context.

There is a delightful Zen story of a man who wanted to become the student of a certain master.  He pleaded with the master until finally the master conceded.  For three years the man lived with the master, watched his every move, and studied his every action.  But the master said nothing to him.  Finally he blurted out, “I have spent 3 years living with you as your student and you have yet to teach me anything!”  The master replied angrily, “What have you been doing all this time?  I have taught you every day by what I did, were you not listening?”  God is our “Zen Master.”  A very wise person said that God shows up disguised as your life.  If you say that you do not have God in your life, in once sense you are completely correct.  You do not have God in your life, God has you in His.  If you do not know it it's because you have not yet woken up.  The spiritual life is life that is awake.  Spiritual disciplines are the process by which we wake up.

For most of us, our bodies wake up in the morning by hearing an alarm clock.  That buzzer is like the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  They call you to certain behaviors that tend to open  your spirit to deeper questions and deeper movements.  They get you in touch with how God has shown up disguised as your life.

This is easily illustrated with money.  You can say that the context of your financial health is a combination of:  Your earning power, your spending history, your capacity to save, and your values as a person.  But if you look more deeply you see that God gave you the gifts you have to earn, God granted you the ability to spend, and God expects to inform your values. God is the context for your finances.  So it is to God that you express your gratitude for all the above, offering back to him a percentage of what you have received, and exercising the spiritual discipline of the stewardship of treasure.  Your pledge for next year is not a tax, it is tribute, tribute to God, a statement of loyalty in gratitude for showing up as the context of your life.

Remember, you do not have God in your life, God has you in His.  Wake up and smell—heaven!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fire in the Belly

Pentecost 15, Proper 21, September 25, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Rev. Paul Moore

Beloved member of our parish, Russ Hantke, when he was growing up he always wanted to be a pony soldier.  When he grew up he quit college early and joined the Army, and he became a pony soldier.  We all have dreams like that, dreams of doing things and going places, and as long as we dream about them they are out there, far away, whose call forms us more than the reality.  It may be the Holy Land, or Paris, or Australia, it may be to climb a mountain, or write a book or learn a piano piece.  One of my dreams, ever since I knew about the place, was to go to Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  I've wanted to go there more than Jerusalem or Rome.  But when I actually saw the ancient Abbey across the sound it moved me almost to tears.  To stand beside St. Martin's Cross that has been standing as a Christian beacon for 1200 years, to feel the ancient stones of the Abbey and to pray where so many Christians have prayed before me, was an experience that made all the waiting, all the yearning and dreaming worthwhile, and the imaginings, the dreams and the hopes cannot compare to the real, flesh-and-blood experience of the place and what it means and is.

Our faith is rooted in events that happened 2000 years ago, and we read about it in the Bible and in history books, we hear the stories preached and acted out, we study the documents that describe our faith, and we learn about the places that were formative in it.  But there is just no substitute for a flesh-and-blood hands-on experience of the faith.  Like being a pony soldier or going to Iona, except infinitely more important, it makes it all come alive, and grants it the power to transform our lives immeasurably for the good.

You may ask, "How can that be, since Jesus lived so many years ago?"  And I can tell you that the Holy Spirit comes to live in each of our lives at Baptism, so Christ's spirit is within you, and that the moment that comes real to you is an amazing thing you'll never forget.  But that still won't do it.  All I can do is lead you to the water.  Just like for Russ to become a pony soldier he had to join the Army, and for me to come to know what Iona is I had to get on the airplane, for you to have a fire-in-the-belly experience of your faith you have to do the things that your faith requires.

And what are those things?

There are three broad categories of things, and all you Cursillistas will understand them instantly.  The first is the life of prayer.  Prayer is any conversation in which God is a partner, either directly or indirectly.  So prayer is an arrow prayer of gratitude and relief shot to heaven when some jerk just missed your fender in heavy traffic.  Prayer is a quiet moment of silence in which you allow the voice of the Spirit to break through the business of daily living and anchor you in peace.  Prayer is gathering with the faithful on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and at other times to sing the songs of our faith, to hear Scripture read and preached, and to respond to God in sacramental actions.  Prayer is huddling with others of like concern and voicing a common joy or pain to God.  You may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these things, but the important thing is to do what you can.

The next is the life of study.  Can you tell me if these quotes are in the Bible or not?

Create in me a clean heart.
      Come, my love.
      All we like sheep have gone astray.
      God so loved the world.
      The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
      Come, Lord Jesus.

All of those are in the Bible.  The first three are in the Old Testament, the second in the New.  You say I’m supposed to know that, but you, could, too!  It is important to know what is contained in the Bible, and in the Book of Common Prayer.  It is important to maintain a diet of good godly books written about the spiritual life.  But it is equally important to let the written word become God's spoken word in the secret places of your heart, to allow the words to sink in, to challenge and change behavior, and to open your heart and your mind to new dimensions of God's truth.  Find it hard to get traction on this?  Come to Sunday School!

Finally, there is the life of action.  Putting feet on the love of God in some fashion or other in the world is an essential expression of our faith.  There are those in the parish who set the example, who volunteer at social service organizations in town and abroad.  Some teach anger management classes, parenting classes, or counsel with those who struggle with life.  Others teach our Sunday School classes and other Christian Education events in the parish.  Some sing or play an instrument or serve at the altar.  Others help clean up, organize and lead, or do a host of other things.  Again, you may feel uncomfortable with one or more of these options, but the important thing is to get out there and do something.

People speak of the blind leap of faith.  The blind leap of faith is not so much the mental effort of believing something you find difficult to accept, as doing something you might not ordinarily do, something that is consistent with the faith you espouse, something done as an act of faith.  There is just no substitute for showing up, being there and getting involved.  Armchair religion is easy, it is relaxed, undemanding, and safe.  First-hand experience is always more dangerous.  There is no telling when the fire will start in your belly, when it will begin to transform your life, and through you, transform your world.

Two Kingdoms

Pentecost14, Proper 20, September 18, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal, Rev. Paul Moore

What if there were here in Killeen a place that, whenever you went there, without fail you got the one thing that is noticeably absent in the rest of your life, the one thing you crave in the midst of the craziness and selfishness, the one thing that settles your soul and gives you perspective: Peace?  How often would you go?  How often would you take your friends?  How popular would it be among the people of this town, of this county, of this state?

Such a place exists.  In fact, there are many of them.  One such place is in the largest city in the world.  The place is so large you can see it on Google Earth from a mile above the city.  The largest church on the property can seat 10,000 people.  It holds what brings the people there, the tilma or poncho of Juan Diego.  People come there from miles away, some of them on their hands and knees.  It is the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Without exception and without equal, what people get when they go to a place of pilgrimage, is by a sense of peace and tranquility.  They can get that peace in these places, but not in the rest of their world.  These places stand as witnesses to an alternate reality, a different dimension in stark and sudden contrast to the world in which we normally live.  And they stand as witnesses to the Church that the Gospel we preach is a Gospel of peace, not as the world knows or gives, but as God alone gives.  We call it "The Kingdom of God."

The Kingdom of God is that alternate reality in which what is true and right and good and living holds sway.  In the final analysis, it is not just an alternate reality, one among many, but the only real reality.  The other world we live in, the world of power-driven self-centeredness, is the alternate reality, the less-than-reality that we project on one another.  Whenever these two realities, these two great kingdoms collide there is an upheaval, as the real reality begins to reorder and remake the less-than-reality we still believe in.

Today's readings all deal with that upheaval.  In the Old Testament lesson Jonah is sent to Nineveh to preach the judgment of God.  Much to his chagrin the people repent and turn to the Lord.  In a sense what Jonah preached did come to fall, because in the face of truth the people chose truth over their own previously held world, and the old passed away, a new city was born.  But Jonah is not impressed.  He is thinking in the ways of the kingdoms of this world, and not the Kingdom of God.  He desperately wanted to see God wipe out this ancient enemy of Israel for moral decay.  God sets up a parable of a vine and a worm to help Jonah understand his own message.  God is truly the God of unexpected and undeserved mercy.

One of the reasons we baptize infants is specifically because they cannot respond for themselves.  It makes it abundantly clear that God is the one who grants mercy, for God's own sake,  and ultimately it has nothing to do with our worthiness.  It has everything to do with who God is.  God does not ask, "What if this person goes out to become a axe murderer or a drug pusher?"  God has already extended His mercy to that person, and laid it on the table, right there for the taking.  We are offered forgiveness even before we have a chance to sin.  If God is that reckless in dispensing mercy, should not we be the same?  Who is it that has offended you?  The sooner you forgive the sooner you see the Kingdom come.

In the Epistle lesson Paul struggles with his desire to be with the Lord and the need of the church.  What a quandary, to be caught between the delights of heaven and the joys of earth!  He settles on this life, for it is necessary for the good of the church, and offers that struggle to the Philippians to inspire them to sacrificial living in a world that doesn't believe in it.  He chooses to stay in order to share the blessings God brings in community, for God is truly the God of unexpected graces.

God is truly the God of unexpected graces in the community of believers.  Since the beginning of the fire season more than 1500 people have lost their homes in Texas, 800 of them in the Bastrop area alone.  Some lost literally everything but the shirts on their backs.  To respond as the world’s kingdom suggests would be to blame the victims for their suffering:  “They deserved it.  God is punishing them.”  “If they hadn’t built where they did this wouldn’t be happening to them,” and “it’s not my problem.”  But as a nation we have touched another dimension and responded differently.  People from all over are rising to the challenge of their need.  They are the hands and heart of God, walking with them through the suffering, into newness of life to come.  We know that nothing happens without God knowing and being there with us.  We are not alone, there is always hope.  If we hang together there is nothing we cannot weather, for God is with us.  When two or three are gathered in His name there He is among us.  It’s a Kingdom thing to do.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus tells the parable about a landowner and his day-laborers.  The scandal of this story is in his remuneration of the people who worked for him.  It had nothing to do with the amount of work they had put in, and everything to do with their need.  There are two clues in the text that show us this.  First, those hired first complain that he has made those hired later “equal to us…”  Their mind is on their honor, not the welfare of the others.  But the landowner clearly works from a different kind of place, for he promises those he hires at nine o’clock to pay them what is “right.”  “Right” to him is a day’s wage, enough for them to satisfy their obligations.  The landowner obviously is not worried about his bottom line, he is concerned with his employee’s bottom line—the welfare of others.  He operates from a mentality of abundance, not scarcity; an assumption of plenty, not want, for God is the God of unexpected abundance.

The church has already set up pathways by which you can respond to the needs of those in Bastrop.  Just like the landowner who valued the people more than their contribution, our brothers and sisters in Bastrop are important to us.  There is an abundance in our hands out of which to share, not a scarcity to protect.  If we reach into our pockets in love and faith we will find that they are deeper than we thought.  We can give out of the abundance the Lord has given us to make sure they are alright.  After all, it is a Kingdom thing to do.

In our lives and in our worlds two kingdoms constantly collide.  In which one will you live?  The real one or the less-than-real one?

Monday, September 12, 2011


In Remembrance

9/11 is a time to remember.  Cecilio Gonzalez was a Sergeant with the NYC Health Department Police Unit.  On that morning he dropped his son off at school and headed to the area he normally patrols.  He noted an extraordinary amount of traffic, but when he turned to look at the WTC he saw tower 1 billowing smoke.  Unable to use his normal route, he finally got off the freeway to see police and firefighters on their way to the scene.  He thought, "There are my brothers and sisters in red and blue, doing what they do best!"  When he arrived he and set up a perimeter and an incident command center for the health department.  He managed traffic to let first responder vehicles through.  He drove his own truck to local pharmacies to pick up medical supplies.  He went for water, he went for orange juice (that was donated on the spur of the moment,) he did whatever he could do for 16 hours straight.  That night with 20 other officials he secured the perimeters of lower Manhattan.  Then Cecilio went home and cried for 3 days.  He says, "Till this day I still see the yellow haze and feel the choking dust in my lungs, oh yeah I was given a souvenir "WTC Cough", 1 year later I still have it."

In the book of Genesis 11 of Jacob’s sons sold the 12th , Joseph, into slavery because of jealousy, but God was with Joseph and he soon became second in command under Pharaoh.  When Jacob died the other brothers feared reprisal.  Joseph remembered what they had done, but he also remembered what God had done.  It is important to remember well and to place one’s memories in the context of faith.  What were you doing that day?  What was your response?  To whom did you say that you loved them?  How did you avail yourself of your faith on that day?  We must never forget.

9/11 is a time to forgive.  Sharon woke up normally on that morning and went to work in New Jersey.  At work a co-worker told her of the events.  She began to wonder and to fear.  What else would happen?  Who could have done this?  Nobody knew, nobody seemed to have any information.  She began to try to pray the Lord's Prayer.  She got stuck on "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."  She couldn't stop thinking of all the people who got up that morning and slapped their alarm clocks, showered, grabbed coffee and rushed off to work like she did, but never came home.  In subsequent days, aware of the ease with which our lives can end she committed herself to approach every other fragile life with love, not hate.

The heinous nature of what we suffered that day cannot be denied or minimized.  There is no justifying and there is no forgetting.  But there is forgiving.  Humanity was forgiven the most heinous act of all—of killing God on the cross.  We have been forgiven all the little and big things we've done since.  We've even been forgiven what we don't realize yet that we have done, although someday we will.  It is only right that we forgive as we have been forgiven.  He who does not forgive cuts himself off from the Father, and condemns himself to bear an unbearable load of bitterness and grief, making himself one more casualty of the offense.  Jesus teaches us over and over to forgive.  For the Christian there must be forgiving.

9/11 is a time to live differently.  Pat was an Airforce E-6, Master Staff Sergeant assigned to the Pentagon on September 11th.  He is also a master mechanic and maintains all of his own vehicles.  On that morning could not get any of his household vehicles to start.  When he finally got his wife's car running he left for work.  As he approached the Pentagon he watched in horror as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed through is office window.  He spent the next two days pulling the wounded and the dead out of the wreckage; when he got home his uniform went into the trash.  Pat is now retired.  He lives in Florida with his wife.  His children are all grown, the house is paid off.  He says, "We have enough," and he spends his time doing volunteer work in his community.  It is something he never would have done before 9/11 but the experience of it changed his life.

How has it changed yours?  You weren’t in the towers.  You weren’t in those rooms at the Pentagon.  You weren’t on flight 93.  You live among a people who are good under pressure.  You have a lot to be grateful for.  How best will you express it in view of today, the 10th anniversary of that day?

9/11: A time to remember, a time to forgive, a time to live differently.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tidal Treacheries

The Romans invaded the Island of Britain in the first century, and Christian soldiers were among the first English to found churches in Kent, as early as the 2nd century.  But as Rome weakened under Vandal invasions its ability maintain control of its far-flung provinces waned.  In the 5th century the Romans pulled out leaving behind a few scattered Christians and a bunch of building projects made of stone.  In the 5th and 6th centuries on the northeast coast of England, in an area known as Northumbria, Angles and Saxons invaded, driving the Britons back down into southern England on the heals of the retreating Romans.  They were of Germanic stock, and, melding with the Celtic Briton's and Picts, came to be what we now know as the English.
In the 7th century the crown prince of Northumbria, Oswald, was spirited away to Iona for safekeeping during internal strife in the kingdom, where he was baptized a Christian.  When all was said and done Oswald became king.  He sent to Iona for missionaries to convert his pagan people.  Earlier attempts by the more Roman church to the south failed, but Aidan's Celtic practice and mild and humble ways commended themselves to the English. In typical Celtic style, instead of setting up a cathedral church in a town, he selected something more monastic and more rustic, the island of Lindisfarne.

Well, it's sometimes and island and sometimes a peninsula.  There is a great tidal flat between it and the mainland, cutting it off for several hours out of each 12 at high tide.  Best to watch the tides, too.  They are high and they are a force to be reckoned with.  What is clearly a dry road during low tide is covered by enough water to flood your car and wash it off the pavement.  If there is anything worth retrieving afterwards you are just darn lucky.  And afoot it is no better.  There is a "pilgrim's path" marked with high poles visible even at high tide.  Best stick to the markers because changing quicksand lurks beyond.  We heard a haunting tale of a mother with children who went out to dig clams.  Caught in quicksand, the incoming tide drowned them all before they could be pulled to safety.  Drivers are warned over and over again not to attempt to cross except during low tide.

And these were not the only dangers.  Kings of Northumbria built castles along the coast, from point to point, creating a visual link all along the coastline to guard against Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries.  One such castle inhabits another corner of Lindisfarne Island.  They were not entirely successful at their task however.  Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings more than once.  Most of the monks fled to Durham, inland, taking with them the Lindisfarne Gospels, a richly decorated book done in wonderfully ornate Celtic style, reminiscent of the Book of Kells.  The Priory Church, however, was reduced to ruin.  Rebuilt, it suffered like most monasteries under King Henry the VIII and was suppressed.  The only surviving building that is in current use is St. Mary's Church of England Parish, which is built on foundations dating back to the 8th century and has parts of its upper structure from the 12th and 13th.  The Priory Church and its compound itself, standing just yards from the parish church, is one magnificent sandstone ruin.

What drew these ancient Celts to such dangerous places?  One of Aidan's disciples, Cuthbert, chose another island 10 miles to the south, separated by a mile from the shore, with steep rock sides and nothing but seals and sea-birds to build a hermitage and pray.  Perhaps here is the answer.  Legends tell of the sea-birds and seals bringing Cuthbert fish to eat.  One story tells how he dug a hole in the rock, prayed, and in the morning it was full of fresh water.  From then on it was never dry, but always provided the saint with water.  Perhaps they sought to live out what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "I will glory in my weakness."  When we are weak the opportunity for grace to excel is made more obvious.  When these Celts meekly and humbly put themselves in such harsh and inhospitable places they found it easier to see the hand of God providing and protecting them.  Cuthbert was supposed to have passed many a night's vigil submerged up to his neck in the cold north Atlantic waters to mortify the flesh and vanquish his fleshly desires.  Again, making himself weak, God could be strong in him.  Tradition has it that when his body was taken from Lindisfarne to its final resting place in the Cathedral in Durham 150 years after his death monks opened the coffin to find that his body lay just as it was when first buried, "uncorrupt"--a testimony to his great holiness.

Perhaps it was fitting that the day Landon and I spent there it rained all day!

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Thin Place

The sight of the Abbey's stone walls from a mile away across the sound nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Admittedly, Iona was one of the biggies for me on my sabbatical.  I was keen on many of the other places on the docket, but Iona was a show-stopper, a deal breaker.  I just HAD to go to Iona.

I had heard so much about the place.  I know the history, how in 563 St. Columba had come here from Ireland to found a monastery and to begin evangelizing the Pictish Scots that lived in Scotland at the time.  I knew that it had been a place of pilgrimage and Christian prayer ever since...1400 years of hallowed ground.  I had been told the place was magical, ethereal, a thin place, to use ancient Celtic categories, where the otherworld and this one are not quite so opaque to one another.

I was disappointed, in a natural sort of way, to find out that the stone abbey was not built by Columba himself, but dates to the 12th Century.  Viking raids had all but shut down the Christian witness of the place in the 9th, and it took many years to rebuild.  By then the preferred building material was stone rather than wood, more durable and capable of greater heights.  I was delighted to find St. Martin's Cross standing in the courtyard just as it has since the 9th Century.  Apparently the Vikings never got around to tumbling it to the ground like they did so many others.

I was also disappointed to find out that Henry VIII, so key to the emergence of the Anglican tradition, was also responsible for desecrating the place in his suppression of the monasteries.  Fearful that they would foment loyalty to Rome, he set about destroying them one by one across the realm.  Iona fell into ruins, only to be rebuilt shortly afterwards, and then fall again into disuse, not by political decree, but by the spiritual vacuity of the Enlightenment.  The actual building as we see it today is still being renovated, part of a project that put it back in use beginning as late as 1938.

But it is in use.  It's not a ghostly relic like St. Aidan's Priory on Lindisfarne.  Each night Christians gather in the hoary nave and choir for a variety of worship experiences.  The choir is lit by candles hanging on the ancient stone walls and the corners of the pews.  The nave is populated by folding chairs, electric lights, and a sound system.  Ferns grow from the wall up by the Altar and the carved stone frames for the glass in the rose window twist and turn on one another like a Celtic knot.  The place is timeless because it encompasses all times since its inception.

A thin place indeed.  My tears anticipated the truth.

However, everyone attests that it is not just the Abbey that is a thin place, but the whole of the island.  Landon and I went to find what is known as "St. Columba's Bay" where he is supposed to have made landfall the first time.  Some soul of great mystical generosity has formed a simple labyrinth of stone on the grass, an invitation to reflection on the time and place.  Suddenly the whispers of ancient chants seem to emanate from the stone cliffs to each side.

Most moving personally, however, was a circle of stones, perhaps 15 feet in diameter, that we discovered on the west side of the island.  It sits inside the remains of a stone wall that incorporates in a square corner, another square room.  The map labels it as "The Hermit's Cell."  Only a quarter of my blood is continental, the rest of me comes solidly from the Celtic parts of the Islands, half of my blood is Scot.  From here my people were introduced to the Christian faith.  From here the special richness of the Celtic heart blessed the Church.  From here comes much of the character of my own being, the shape of my own soul.

I laid down spread-eagle in the circle.  Suddenly I felt as if I was not alone, and would never ever be again!  A thin place indeed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Way to See

In 1746 an Indian man was walking between villages outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Night caught him before he got to his home village, so he camped beside the trail with his son.  In the middle of the night something poked him in the side.  Groggily he pushed it away.  It poked him again, and he pushed it away again.  The third time he grabbed it, stuffed it in his bag, and went back to sleep.  In the morning he awoke, stirred his son, and went home.
Curious, he looked in his bag.  There he found a small figurine of a Madonna, about 4 inches tall.  Word got around and soon curious people filled his house.  Miracles began to occur, healings and fortuitous events that were credited to the figurine.  Soon a house was built as a shrine, then a church, and she was named after the town in which the man lived, "Suyapa."  Devotion to the image increased to where eventually she was named patroness of Honduras.  Pilgrimages from all over Central America end at the altar of the small church.

About a dozen years ago the Catholic authorities decided to build a larger church to house the pilgrims.  It is a stately thing, done in shades of blue and green rather than pink and red like the small one, but patterned after the original.  Green marble accents the appointments within, and beautiful stained-glass windows picture important scenes in the life of Mary from a Catholic Marian perspective.  It is all beautiful - and empty.

The people are all down the hill at the original church where the figurine is.  The story goes that on two occasions the authorities tried to house the statue in the new church but mysteriously by morning it was back in the old church.  After two tries they decided she wanted to be there so they left her there.

I find it interesting because the figurine itself is seen as imbued with power.  It "fell from heaven" so to speak, not crafted by human hands.  Miraculous powers are attributed to it, and then by inference, the Mother of God.

It's a different way of seeing.

But I saw something else again.  The new church, beautiful as it is, is hollow.  It is the idol of the church authorities, devoid of life for the people, cold and strangely un-welcoming.  The smaller church is crowded and dirty, but homey and warm, full of the hearts and souls of devout believers.

Strange as it may seem, the Spirit of God was almost palpable in the old church, and eerily absent from the new.

An almost invisible faultline

The drive from County Mayo where Patrick's mountain stands up to the ferry that took us to Scotland took is across the boundary between Ireland and North Ireland, from the Republic to the Kingdom.  I had allowed for some time to cross the border.  I had heard stories of the Protestant north vs. the Catholic south, and we all know of the atrocities committed on either side.  Such a place of tension would certainly be marked by armed guards, razor wire and menacing looking gates.
The only indication I had that we had crossed the border was a simple and small sign that said, "Speed limits marked in miles per hour."

What is the significance?  Ireland is part of the European Union.  The currency is the Euro and the speeds are marked in kilometers.  Signs are all printed in Irish Gaelic as well as English.  The UK circulates the pound sterling and marks distances and speeds in miles.  Only in Scotland and Wales are there bilingual signs.  It came clear to me an hour up the road when we were stopped by a "police" (not a "garda" of Ireland,) because a short parade was moving through the center of the town, flying the Union Jack and featuring kilted pipers.  We were definitely no longer in Ireland, we were in the UK. It seemed simple enough, but there is no mistaking the boundary. It marks an almost invisible faultline.

How quickly we bury our deep divisions with commonalities, only to have them emerge once more as hidden and dangerous faultlines.  How much better to name them, own them, and learn to value the other precisely for their differences.

Croagh Patrick

Patrick was all Irish.  Well, historically he wasn't, he was Welsh, but he was Celtic to the core and the Patrick of story and legend is all Irish.  He is dramatic and powerful, imaginative and full of flair.
The place in Ireland connected with Patrick is a mountain.  It stands in stark contrast with green, hospitable, hearth-oriented Brigid.  It is high (as high as any of the surrounding mountains,) windy and blowy, and the day we were there we saw the sun actually shine on the summit only for moments at a time.  When we first began our ascent it looked as if we may not see the ground below us from the top--it proved true much of the time.

The ascent, or "the Reek" as it is called, starts out challenging enough, but the climb of 2500 feet from sea-level gets real serious for the last third.  The path takes you straight up a scree slope along one edge of the mountain.  It feels like it's nigh-on vertical when you're going up, and your knees will tell you it IS vertical coming down.  People climb it for many reasons:  the exercise, the view, to worship in the small chapel on the summit, or barefoot as an act of penance.  Some climb to see the traces of pre-Christian circle-huts that populated the summit before Patrick.  Those who know say that the mountain was a druidic place of worship.  Few know, unless they have visited the museum at the foot of the mountain, that underfoot, protected by a layer of rocks and dirt, lies the square foundation of a Christian oratory or prayer-chapel that dates from the 5th century.  In other words, Patrick himself could actually have prayed there.  The peak has its draw.  On the last Sunday of July, known as "Reek Sunday" 20,000 people climb the mountain and a Catholic priest says Mass in the chapel.

From here Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland.  From here Patrick threw the mother of the Devil, a pernicious demoness named Corra down from the heights, where she plummetted to her death in the valley below.  The crater her body created filled with water and is known as Lough Nacorra.  If Brigid is the welcoming, mothering, nurturing side of the Irish heart, Patrick is the challenging, buffetting and proving side.  The Irish in this broad sweep of legend capture the two great movements of the human soul toward God, not in tight theological definitions, but in the infinitely more articulate language of symbol, poetry and song.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Irrrrlnd, the land of Guiness and leprechauns and the gift of gab!  Ireland, the emerald isle, was enchanting to us.  We saw its rolling central hills, the high peaks of the west, and the almost skitzophrenic change as we drove out of Ireland proper into Northern Ireland, part of the UK.  One difference you cannot miss is that in Ireland proper all the signs are bilingual, in English and in Irish Gaelic, as soon as you cross into Northern Ireland the Gaelic goes away.

First stop was St. Brigid's Cathedral in the village of Kildare.  "Kildare" comes from the Irish "Cill Dara" (pronounce the "c" as a hard "c" like in "cat.")  Cill Dara means "Church of the Oak" which is a fitting icon of its meaning.  Here a young woman, daughter of a druidic warrior and a Christian mother, accepted the Christian faith under the tutelage of Patrick himself, or so the legend goes.  Not wanting to marry as her father wished, she instead began to serve as one of the first Irish nuns.  Around her a group of men and women gathered, and in 480 A.D. she formed one of the first double-abbeys in Ireland, of both men and women.  An abbey was built under a large oack tree that quickly grew and spawned sister houses all over central Ireland.  She became known for her leadership qualities, her works of mercy for the poor and her open arms to all.

Almost nothing is known historically about her outside of the brief sketch above, but just like with Patrick, stories and legends abound.  She needed a place for her abbey and approached the local chieftain for a piece of land.  \He laughed her off, not wanting to encourage the new Christian religion at all.  Finally she convinced him to give her the land her cloak would cover.  She then directed four of her sister nuns to take her cloak, each by a corner, and begin walking north, south, east and west.  By the time the cloak stopped stretching it covered an area that became known as the Curragh, on which no one is allowed to build even today--it encompasses 800 acres!

\Like the stories with \Patrick, the mix of pre-Christian Celtic thought and images and Christian tenets is a seamlessly woven tapestry of color and surprises.  Both are credited, Brigid in her feminine way and Patrick in his masculine way, with Christianizing the island with no bloodshed by using the very fabric of Celtic thought to bring a new way of being to the people.

Oaks were sacred to the druids.  Hence Brigid's birthplace and the town that grew up around her abbey are aptly called "The Church of the Oak."


Roatan was wonderful as always, beautiful beaches, beautiful coral reefs, and a wonderful surprise.  Actually I had stumbled upon hints of it before I was supposed to, but my beautiful wife joined me there for three days in paradise!  It was grand!

But that wasn't the only surprise.  We hired a boat that took us out to a reef we had not seen before, and a cut in the reef called the "Spooky Cut."  As you approach the bottom is about 30 ft. down, covered in sand, and the coral rises before you like a giant underground beachhead.  In the center is this crack that at its narrowest is only about 10 ft. wide, but probably drops 120 feet to a narrow floor covered in chunks of broken-off coral the size of a large pick-up truck.  You can only see the ones that got caught above 60 ft or so because the darkness of the cut and the intervening water make the depths a dark, foreboding no-man's-land.

I found myself asking myself why it was so spooky to me personally.  I recalled a dream many years ago in which I dove under the floorboards of my house into the ocean below.  The floor of the ocean in the front half of the house sloped gently away from the shore to about 50 ft.  Pretty shells washed to and fro on the sand.  Half-way back from the front of the house the land dropped away vertically...yes, you guessed it, into a spooky black depths in which there were scary things that might embarrass me horribly if they ever came to light.  There was more to the dream, but it felt eirily as if I was staring back into my dream as I gazed down into the blackness of the "Spooky Cut."

So what do I do with it?  I do not have the technical skill to go down into the cut safely to face my fears, so to speak, and I had the distinct insight that such would not have worked anyway.  In the intervening years since that dream in many ways I have plumbed the depths of the darkness.  I know what there is there that can embarrass me, but more importantly, I have discovered riches hidden away until their appointed time of discovery, capacities I did not know I had, gifts to give far more significant than the pretty shells of my then-conscious soul.

The "Spooky Cut" was still spooky, but now in a fun sort of way, as it recalled what I have found in my own depths.

Inside Out Blesssings

It's been a while since I blogged, finally got access to a computer!  Here goes nothin...

Honduras Medical Mission is always an exciting week.  I approached it, however, with a bit of trepidation in my heart.  I was on Sabbatical, and this felt like going back to work too early, like the workaholic who can't stay away from the office because he's convinced the place will fall apart without him.  I had planned to do my Sabbatical research in Tegucigalpa before the mission began, but due to the events in my last blog such was not possible.  We arrived just an hour before the rest of the team and wiped out.  Mercy was granted for us to take  our truck to the college where we stay and get there early!  Ah....sleep!

The next day, however, it did feel like work, so I did something about it.  I found the other clergy person on board, the Rev. Pat Richie, deacon from "down east" in the Diocese and began delegating.  Between her and a couple of others I had opened up for myself a chance to sit back, watch and relax a bit while carrying my load with the mission.  It worked fine until the very last day.

That day I was scheduled to go to Oropoli.  Oropoli has a reputation among those of the Mission who have been there.  Crowd control is always a problem, you have to watch your haircut lest someone try to lift it, people always want more medicines than we have, and people will do most anything to get them.  Such is the reputation that the dean of the convocation who decides where we go and where we don't go, the Rev. Dagoberto Chacon, had not wanted to send us there.  The local lay pastor, like in Jesus' parable of the unfruitful fig tree, had begged one more year on a trial basis.  He hoped that somehow against hope it might prove able to turn over a new leaf.

It wasn't.  The day was exactly as we had expected, in some respects worse.  Among misgivings that somehow we were complicit in holding self-fulfilling profecies in our heads, we battled against the aggressive, deceitful crowd as we tried at the same time somehow to share with them the love of Christ in the form of medical attention and medicines.  We finally closed up shop early and headed out, as much due to having run out of medicines as patience.#

So how does this contribute to the happy glow we normally associate with those who return from the Honduras\Mission?  Well, for some I am sure it tarnished the shine a little, but it need not have.  All we have to do is remember that our greatest advances are usually granted (certainly not achieved) in the midst of what often feels like the greatest failures and disappointments.  We gave out medicines, but we learned patience.  We gave out care and we received an awareness of just how desparate a people can be.  We gave out time and received instead time to reflect, time to consider how God loves us sometimes in spite of what we think of ourselves.

Once again we received more than we gave.  Hmmm.....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beats a poke in the eye...

For the second morning in a row Landon and I got up at 0-dark, 30 and made our way to an international airport.  The first time we left our good friends' house in Lima at 3:30, and after checking in the nice lady at the counter gave us passes to LAN Airline's VIP lounge.  There we feasted on an extensive continental breakfast buffet and then crashed until the last minute to board.  On board LAN again treated us to a very nice breakfast!  We arrived in Quito shortly after breakfast, in time for a long nap.  Neither of us were hungry.

This morning my brother-in-law German braved the pre-dawn traffic to get us to the airport.  By 4:10 the line was already 40 people outside the ribboned walkways to the counters.  We filled out immigration forms, we talked to people, we gave a late-comer American girl the sad news that the 20 people behind us formed the end of the line.  Landon bought us both humitas, a delicious, steamed Ecuadorian corn bread, and yoghurt for breakfast.  We watched a couple of men at the counter argue with the attendant for almost the whole time we stood in line.  After an hour we finally got to the desk.  No checked luggage, this should be a snap, and we'd just have time to clear security and immigration and get to our gate.  But...

The lady said something inane to us about vaccination forms for yellow fever.  What vaccination forms?  Oh, the little yellow International Vaccination Certificates?  Mine is in a file in Harker Heights, last entry was  in 1972, for--you guessed it--yellow fever!  Landon piped up, "I had mine two and a half years ago to come here to study, but I don't have the form with me either.  Does that count?"

"No," the lady replied firmly as she tore up our precious boarding passes. It was all on the website, and she was surprised that the travel agent hadn't told us, but there was absolutely no boarding from Ecuador for Honduras without a yellow fever vaccination dated at least 10 days before travel!  She said we could get the vaccinations today and ask that the date be listed 10 days before, and she would put us on tomorrow's flight.

Crestfallen, we walked away from the impatient line.  The girl who had been behind us was approaching the hope of a boarding pass after all and her seriously depressed face was beginning to show signs of hope that ours had lost.

I was suddenly ravenously hungry, and it seemed a bit unkind to reappear at my sister's house at 5:15 in the morning ringing the doorbell.  As we walked toward the one open restaurant in the airport a very thin young man with a scraggly beard said something to Landon I didn't hear.  His response was clear though, "Sure, how about if we buy you breakfast?"  So the three of us sat down and had omelets, his first.  Turned out he had finished his studies in classical guitar at a local conservatory, but struggles at home had driven him out last night into the street.  He had come to the airport looking for a place to be, and Landon's kind heart treated him to breakfast after what was most certainly a sleepless night.

On the phone German gave us instructions to a clinic where we could get our vaccinations, but first we should drop off our bags at the house.  With that intro back into the household we caught a few winks and headed out.  We found the clinic easily enough, and they were willing and able to give us the shots, but not the international vaccination certificate the airline needed.  We would have to go one of the Ministry of Health's clinics.

We arrived at the closest one without too much trouble, and found the room titled "Vaccinations."  A number of people were in a waiting room outside, enough that if all of them were waiting for vaccinations we were in for a very long wait.  However, they didn't seem to be, and after a young mother left with her children we walked in.  In about 90 seconds we had each got a poke in the arm and a certificate to take down to the end of the hall to get transferred to an International Vaccination Certificate.  Would she pre-date the paper?  Absolutely not, it would mess up her records at the end of the day.

At the end of the hall a dour young lady sat at a desk, about 6-months' pregnant.  I explained the situation to her, that we had flown in from Peru the day before and had run into this problem at the airport.  Could she please help us out?  Absolutely not, the certificates are dated when the shots are given.  D.....!

I went back to the vaccinations office, maybe they could do something.  But again the lady explained--very patiently, really--how it would mess up her records and she just could not do it.  OK, so I figured we've got the shots now, no turning back.  If nothing else maybe the airline can help, fly us into Panama on one day and into Honduras the next or something.  Back we went with heavy hearts to get our little yellow cards.  A line came out the door by now.

We waited patiently.  A lady took the place behind us, asked Landon to keep her place, and disappeared for a few minute before coming back.  Slowly, one by one, people were seen.  Finally it was our turn.  I walked in and the lady said, "Well, what have you decided?"  I told her we would take the cards and talk with the airline.  "Please sit down."  We gave her our identifying documents along with the certificates of vaccination from the nurse.  She began filling them out, then turned and picked up a desk calendar.  "Were you in Ecuador on the 8th?" she asked.

"No, but we were on the 4th."

"That's OK, they won't check.  I dated them for the 8th!"

I could have kissed her, except that I figured pushing my luck at this point might not be advisable.   We smiled broadly instead, paid our money, thanked her profusely, and headed back to the nurse's office.  Her assistant took the cards upstairs to be signed, and then we had to sign one more book for her.  As she filled out the preliminary stuff on the page she noticed the date on the cards, looked up and smiled.  "Ah, she did it for you, eh?"  I smiled and nodded back. We were at my sister's house by 10:30.

The internal records of the Ministry of Health reflect our date of vaccination as July 20th, but our cards, which are the only document the airline cares about, inexplicably one might say, bear the hand-written date of the 8th, complete with validating stamps and signatures. We will be on the plane tomorrow barring any other unforeseen adventures.

Ah, bureaucracy can be managed after all!