Less Clouded By Irrelevance

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 20, 2018
http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-fea-faith-and-values-lewellis-20180520-story.html

 

A spiritual journey is a relationship. It’s a metaphor. No two journeys are the same. No authentic journey begins before God somehow speaks. "In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1).

God speaks first. Theologians call this revelation. God may speak through the created world, the prophets of old and new, our experiences, and the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 

God may speak through our families and friends, the wisdom of the ages, our critical faculties and our desires, the Word made flesh, our religious communities, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Through so many ways and people -- most of all, for Christians, in Jesus -- we continually discover who God is, who we are, and how we are related to God and with one another. 

Yet, we see "in a mirror, dimly” or, from an earlier translation, “through a glass, darkly.” (1Cor. 13:12) 

“I squint at God’s glory,” someone said, "through a smokescreen called the real world.” 

I hear Jesus say: Don’t let others tell you what is real. Don’t let anyone de-fine and re-duce reality for you. Don’t allow anyone to imprison you in that most secure prison without walls, the prison we don’t know we’re in. Imagine what is really real. See things differently. 

Jesus challenges us to dream. As we pray, he draws the dream from deep within us. To pray is to dream, to hope, to expect, to imagine. Whether worshiping with a community, reading alone, reflecting on the bible, considering a personal experience, a story or a movie, we can be at prayer, that research and development aspect of the church.

“Only the contemplative,” Thomas Merton used to say, only the pray-er “knows what the scoop is.” Only the pray-er knows that the really real is God breaking into human history -- God breaking through our prejudices and preferred notions with discomforting questions about poor and powerless persons, about justice and peace, about personal and systemic transformation – God breaking into human history so we might break out with new God given hearts to pursue God’s heart’s desires.

Through questions we ask and evidence we interpret, we experience insights. We sometimes see the light. We make judgments. We discover meaning.

God gave us a mind to wonder, put a yearning in our hearts, and sent his Word to lead us on and light our way.

Does our lifestyle celebrate the incredible revelation of God? Do we give thanks by our lifestyle for who we are as a result of God's reaching out to us?

St. Paul tells us in effect to conduct ourselves in certain ways not because law hangs over us but because life dwells within us.

You are a new creation in Christ. Celebrate the gift. Celebrate life. You won't find precisely those words in any one verse of Paul's letters. In many chapters, however, you will find what some biblical scholars have called the Pauline "Indicative-Imperative.” 

The indicative is the statement of fact, i.e., "You are a new creation in Christ." The statement of fact is followed by a moral command, the imperative, i.e., "Therefore, be... (Live accordingly)." The imperative's authority is not law above but life within.

The day after this is published, I will be 81. Though we do see always through a glass darkly, I wish I had seen decades ago, even dimly, however unlikely, what I think I see today. My spiritual journey might have been more focused, less clouded by irrelevance.

Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@mac.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010 served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the RC Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that. His newSpin newsletter may be found at http://diobeth.typepad.com/diobeth_newspin/


Life within the swirl — pointlessly purposeful

[A column by Bill Lewellis, published in 1997]

Preachers over the years have moved from the classic “three-point” sermon to one memorable point. Television has, indeed, affected our attention span. Recently, however, I heard sermon-resource guru Leonard Sweet suggest that sermons be “pointless.” His “point” was that sermons ought to invite us into further contemplation. Open-ended images and stories do that better than points. My contribution to that discussion is a “pointless” column. My image: swirls.

Persons of faith, it has seemed to me, thrive within energizing swirls of apparent oxymorons — swirls of law and love, tradition and risk, sacrifice and celebration, already and not yet, death and resurrection. Persons of faith thrive where the world often sees only contradiction and foolishness.

“Be not anxious,” Jesus said. “Be not afraid,” he said again. Commands? No. These are promises. Invitations. When we move within the swirls of life’s storms — finding safe harbor in God’s eye — we need not be anxious about the force or flow of the current. On the other hand when we give ourselves over to current obsession — be the current one of despair, unfounded optimism, certainty, bible belting or anything less than God on which we bet our lives — we allow ourselves to be manipulated somewhere beyond God’s eye.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," a swirl of its own, recently caught my ear again. “I believe the most precious thing in the sight of God is the good deed freely chosen,” he said on the public television series, Searching for God in America. “When I choose to be generous, to be truthful, to be forgiving — when I choose to do good, the Talmud tells me that God looks down and says, 'For that moment alone, it was worth creating the world.'" The good deed freely chosen … within the swirl of God’s will and human freedom.

The TV series also featured former White House hatchet man Charles Colson who found religion in prison. The interviewer asked him if he is surprised by people still doubting the authenticity of his conversion, even 23 years later.

“Of course,” he said, because if Jesus Christ will come and live in my life, if he will take the toughest of the Nixon tough guys and turn Chuck Colson’s life around, he could turn anyone’s life around. The problem is a lot of people are running away and don't want their lives turned around.”

Kushner and Colson. Jew and evangelical Christian. Another swirl?

Caught up in a current of arrogance, I used to doubt the authenticity of Colson’s conversion. No more. What right do I have to doubt the authenticity of anyone’s conversion to God?

Be not anxious. Be not afraid. Life within the swirl is not a default compromise but an intentionally staked out position. When you live in God’s eye of the storm, you can also dance on the edge to the music of the center. Is there a “point” in that image? Sorry about that.


What are your defining moments?

[A slightly edited version of a column by Bill Lewellis, published in 1998]

A three-story perspective casts a little light for me on God’s continuing visitations in our lives.

The first story is the conversion of St. Paul. During the first century, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul's "business as usual" included search and destroy missions, seeking out those who were counter-cultural, those who followed The Way, Christianity's original name. While on one of those missions, Paul was blinded by a light, fell to the ground, and heard a voice: "Why are you persecuting me?"

"Who are you?" Paul asked. "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting."

That experience may have informed Paul’s theology and a morality. My soundbite version of Paul’s theology is: "Because Christ lives within, you are a new creation." Then, Paul’s morality: "Therefore, be who you are. Live as a new creature. Put away the old man."

The second story is more fanciful, about the Christ within us recognizing himself unformed, yet unborn, in the disguises of the world.

A little boy wandered into a sculptor's studio and watched the sculptor begin to work with a large piece of marble. He soon got bored and went on his way. Months later he returned and, to his surprise, where once stood only a large block of marble, there now stood a handsome, powerful, Aslan-like lion. "How did you know," he asked the sculptor there was a lion in the marble?" "Before I saw the lion in the marble,” the sculptor said, “I saw the lion in my heart. But the real secret is that it was the lion in my heart who saw the himself in the marble."

In line with that, a Maryknoll missionary once said: "Many years ago when I came to this faraway land, I came to bring God to the people. I soon discovered that God was here before me."

The third story of God’s continuing visitation changes often. For me, it is different today than it was 40 years ago or even 40 months ago. It is a wonderfully different story for each one of us, our own story of how we’ve been blinded by the light, our own defining moments.

Episcopalians don’t generally think of themselves as having been born again. We're more likely to describe ourselves as having been born again and again and again.

I've grown accustomed to thinking in terms of defining moments rather than born again experiences. Cut me some slack with the word "moment." I use it as "day" is used in the story of creation. A defining moment might be a sudden insight or a two-year journey that in hindsight occasions a renewed or rediscovered understanding of who we are and who God wants us to be.

May we all continue to have insights, dreams by day and night, "aha" experiences and "uh-oh" experiences that somehow shape our lives, defining moments from which then our transformed lives themselves tell what we have seen and heard.


FAITH, FEAR AND CERTAINTY

[A slightly edited version of a 2003 column by Bill Lewellis, published in The Morning Call]

When the religious "certains" have been many, they have harassed, persecuted, even killed the few. When the "certains" are few, they simply bore others to death with an ironic accomplishment: replacing the joy and richness of relationship with God with a drab and tedious version of "being right."

There is a presumption in the land of religion: that the opposite of faith is doubt,and that faith is about "being right." Jesus did not pray that his followers be ever right; he prayed that we be one. Lead us not into presumption.

The opposite of faith, some say, is fear. I agree. Fear that God does not love me. Fear that I might not "be right" about religion. So, somehow or other, I need to be certain.

Faith is a risky business, sometimes described as a leap. It has to do with questions. Certainty has to do with answers.

You may remember the old Peanuts comic strip that has Lucy shouting, "God is the answer, God is the answer." As she runs by Snoopy, he is left thinking, "What is the question?"

That's a profound statement. Greater religious faithfulness arises from asking insightful questions than from repeating one's own certainties.

The double-sided, classic religious question is first of all about exodus: emancipation, freedom, liberty, deliverance, passing through the river of death and life. It's about getting out of the box, a prison of our own making. It's the most secure prison one can imagine, a box we don't know we're in. In that context, "What's the question?" isn't so funny.

The other side of the question is about relationship, covenant, transformation, enlightenment, resurrection, new life. "You are a new creation in Christ," St. Paul often reminds us. Therefore - here I paraphrase St. Paul, -- be who you are, know whose you are, and live a life worthy of that calling.

The "certains" deal more in answers than in questions – quick to condemn the contemporary cultural target, e.g., persons who are gay as well as anyone who questions the answers about which they are certain.

Jesus “was not brought down by atheism and anarchy,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes. “He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared… to make others conform.”

“Our last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God,” writes Richard Rohr. “We make an absolute out of it… All great spirituality is about letting go.”

Give me that old time biblical irony: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned."

As I've grown older, I've believed less more. My faith is focused on God's good news..

As I understand it, the good news is: (1) We're all sinners. (2) We're all forgiven/loved by God. (3) We're all forgiven/loved by God not because we've been repentant. Rather, we're repentant/transformed because we've been forgiven and loved.


'ISN'T THIS A GOOD THING WE ARE DOING?'

[A 1987 column by Bill Lewellis published in a local daily newspaper]

Some ten to fifteen years ago I heard a wonderful story about that awful distinction described by someone who said "ministers minister and congregations congregate." I'd like to supply appropriate attribution, but I can't remember where I heard the following parable about ministry.

Once, near a dangerous seacoast, stood a small life-saving station. Shipwrecks prompted six people to build it. It was a two-story, A-frame shelter with a bell that could be heard for miles.

On the ground floor were cots, blankets, dry clothing, first-aid equipment, a fireplace and a soup kettle. The second floor consisted of one small room with a window and telescope facing the sea. One member of the life-saving station was always on watch. They took turns. On especially stormy nights, all six stayed in the shelter.

Upon sighting a shipwreck, the watchman would sound the bell. All six would put out on their three small fishing boats. They always managed to save a few persons who would have drowned. They brought them back to the life-saving station, treated their injuries, gave them food and clothing and shelter until the rescued were ready to return to their own homes and families.

"Indeed, this is a good thing," many others began to say. Soon 12, then 20, then 50, then 100 people joined original six at the life-saving station. They built a larger shelter...with many rooms and a fine carpet. Many began to gather at the station even in good weather.

One night a sudden storm caused several shipwrecks. More than 80 people were rescued. They filled every room of the life-saving station. Some were nauseous; some were bleeding. All were cared for during the next few weeks. Some died. Most were nursed back to health.

At the next meeting of the membership of the life-saving station, everyone was delighted about what had been accomplished. But some members said, "This is a messy and risky business, and we are inexperienced. Perhaps we ought to hire a few professional life-savers." And so they did.

And the carpet committee said, "Out carpets have been stained, almost ruined. Perhaps we ought to construct an uncarpetted annex for the shipwrecked people." And so they did.

They built an annex. They hired a few full-time, experienced life-savers. And the membership no longer had to watch for shipwrecks, nor go to the rescue themselves, nor care for the rescued, nor even see the mess.

By this time, the life-saving station had 200 members. People went there often. Once in a while, someone might even catch sight of a rescue taking place and mention it to the others. And many would say, "Isn't this a good thing we are doing?"

At one of the meetings, a few members said, "We have slipped far from our purpose."

They were talked down, ridiculed and called life-saving fanatics. Finally, six of them felt they could no longer belong to the club that once was a life-saving station.

Five-hundred yards down the seacoast, these six put up a two-story, A-frame shelter to serve as a real life-saving station. They saved many lives. Their fame spread. Many others joined them.

A larger station had to be built. It became a convenient meeting place, except on those days when rescues took place. So, to avoid the inconvenience and the mess, a few full-time lifesavers were hired...and a lifesaving annex was built.

Thanks to better communications and navigational equipment, there are fewer shipwrecks along that seacoast today. And where once there was one small, lifesaving station where people went to help others, today there are five exclusive clubs along that seacoast where people go to help themselves.


Keep Thinking – It's So Religious

KEEP THINKING – IT'S SO RELIGIOUS … [A slightly edited version of a 2005 column by Bill Lewellis, published in The Morning Call]

A conclusion, according to Mark Twain, is the place where someone got tired of thinking.

God wants us to keep thinking. That’s why we have so many parables, images and themes in the bible without one-size-fits-all conclusions. I think.

On the other hand, the bible does contain a lot of plain teaching.

Look not beyond the strong verbs of God’s word. Repent, be, do, give, forgive, feed, clothe, go, sow, pray, judge not, fear not.

Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Welcome the stranger. Visit the imprisoned. Proclaim good news. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor.

Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Be reconciled. Take up your cross. Find your life by losing it.

That’s just some of the bible's plain teaching … plain, hard teaching. Not even the plain teaching, however, comes with one-size-fits-all marching orders.

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer pulls much of the plain teaching of the bible into the promises made during baptism and in the occasional renewal of baptismal promises: “Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… Persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord… Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ… Seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself… Strive for justice and peace among all people… Respect the dignity of every human being.”

Mark those pages well, 304-5, if you have a Book of Common Prayer. Make those plain promises part of your daily prayer.

What about the not so plain? I’ve wondered. Why is the bible filled with stories, images and themes that mess with our heads? The Good Samaritan, the Forgiving Father, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an innocent man on a cross, resurrection.

Might it be because these invite us into the mystery of God’s mercy and compassion, challenging us to imagine what is beyond ordinary imagination?

I’ve been thinking during this last quarter of my life that the hardest thing to accept about God’s relationship with us is not the strong verbs. The hardest thing to accept about God’s relationship with us is that God loves us unconditionally. It is so hard to imagine. We hesitate to trust anyone, even God, in that regard. We hesitate to say that’s what we believe when we say we believe in God.

Do we want unconditional love, even God’s?

The lingering grip of evil – from which we need salvation – has not to do with doubts about dogma nor with sins we have committed through refusal to make God’s strong verbs part of our lives. Evil’s last hope is our shred of pride that suggests we have done or can do something to earn God’s love – and so should others.

We’d rather that God not love us unconditionally. If God does, that is how we will need to relate to others, loving one another as God has loved us.

Our lives are based on a true story that cannot be captured in orthodoxies, human certainties, laws, sermons or newspaper columns. When we discover the story of God who loves us beyond worth and measure, beyond understanding, beyond whatever we can imagine, however, we will have the ability to recreate our world.


Are we there yet? Imagine that!

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call
Jan. 21, 2018

http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-fea-faith-and-value-lewellis-20180121-story.html

Are we there yet? You may remember saying that. You may remember how slowly time moved. Your fullness of life was ahead of you. You perceived your days as plodding on. Toward fullness. That perception was your reality.

Fullness came. Too busy to notice? You became used to time’s movement, perceived usually as neither slow nor fast.

Now in my 81st year, time flies. In two-week increments. 

I create as a volunteer a newsletter for the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. I named it newSpin. Alternate Thursdays are my deadlines. They come by quickly. I work slowly. It may take me four times as long to do something I could have done quickly and efficiently years ago. How about you?

For the past 12 years, I have been invited to serve as priest-in-charge at a bayside Episcopal church and a residence a few steps from the beach in Longport, New Jersey, the Church of the Redeemer. Those two weeks pass like two days.

And, of course, I am “nearer my God to thee.” Every day is a gift.

“The contemplation of one's own death is an ancient part of spiritual practice,” writes Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. “It helps us become braver, because the things of which we refuse to think don't go away meekly -- they just go underground, where they grow more potent and more frightening than they really are. 

“Death will be part of your life, just as birth was. Get used to it. Don't be afraid to think about it. You won't have much say in where and how death will come to you, but you do have a lot to say about who it is who will do the dying.”

I know that today is the only today I will ever have. I struggle to make it matter. I write a lot, hoping what I say – perhaps this column – may be useful to someone.

I’ve been helped by encouragement received from readers.

On a Saturday morning in 1994, I posted a story online in response to a request from a writer in New Hampshire, prompted by a quote posted a few days earlier by a writer from New Mexico.

Later that day, a writer from New York thanked me for posting the story. He said a friend from Bellingham Washington sent it to him. "It's exactly what I needed to wrap up my sermon tomorrow," he wrote.

The miracle of the Internet is that something good may have happened for someone in a church in Aurora NY because someone in Bellingham WA felt that a story someone in Bethlehem PA told in response to a request from someone in Keene NH prompted by a quote posted by someone in Albuquerque NM was worth copying for a wider cyberspace public. That hooked me into writing online.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in an automobile accident soon after his first Senate win in 1972. Nearly three years ago, he lost his 46-year-old son Beau to brain cancer.

He now tells people dealing with grief, “The day will come when the memory of the person you lost brings a smile to your lip before a tear to your eye.”

I often hear someone say at the death of a loved one, something like, “Dad is now happy with Mom, and I will soon be with them and my beloved husband.”

Though I cannot imagine life with God to be a recreation of the love I have experienced here, I am not critiquing that way of looking at death. My theology moderates such imagination. At times, I wish it did not. It might be more comforting than simply letting go and letting God

This I know, however, that if I can’t say what the afterlife is I can’t say what it isn’t.

Soon after I die and reach another “time fulfilled” when time is absorbed into eternity, I want what people remember of me  – soon enough – to bring a smile to the lips of my loved ones before it brings tears to their eyes. When that happens, it may mean as well that the lives we lived even made God smile. Are we there yet? Imagine that.

Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@mac.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010 served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the RC Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that. His newSpin newsletter may be found at http://diobeth.typepad.com/diobeth_newspin/


Acting-as-if in trust and hope – Bill Lewellis

The Morning Call, April 29, 2017
http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-faith-lewellis-0430-20170429-story.html

In The Marriage Plot, a prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, two Brown University graduates decide to backpack through Europe. They part when one wants to go to India to serve at Mother Teresa’s guesthouse for the dying.

After a week in Calcutta, working within his comfort zone, he is challenged by an older man to do some of the dirty work. Begin with bathing a dying man. The older man removes the dying man’s bandages that hid ugly and awful smelling infections. He pours water on the man while saying “This is the body of Christ.”

The young man soon leaves. On his way out of Calcutta, he begins mouthing a different prayer he knows because he has been a student of religion: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Centuries earlier, John Wesley brought the gift of spiritual Methodism to many Anglicans. Some say he reformed England, though in the early 1700s, he was close to despair and did not have the faith to preach. He was about to give up the ministry when a Moravian friend counseled him to “preach faith till you have it. Then because you have it, you will preach faith.”

For years, Wesley felt dry within, not motivated even to pray. He found himself crying out, “Lord, help my unbelief.” One evening in 1738 he reluctantly attended a meeting where someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. While the leader was describing the change God works in the heart, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” and he trusted in Christ.

I served with the late bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, Mark Dyer, who used to advise people in the depths of their spiritual dryness to “act as if you believed.”

Everyone experiences doubts about the faith at times, said Pope Francis. He did, many times – but such doubts can be “a sign that we want to know God better and more deeply. One who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”

A quote attributed to one of my favorite "saints," Dorothy Day, says: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily."

Mother Teresa, however, who received the Nobel Prize and has been declared a saint by the RC Church for her compassion with the poor and the sick and the dying, is the 20th century winner of the spiritual dryness derby

Letters made public years after her death in 1997 revealed that this “living saint” spent nearly 50 years without feeling God’s presence, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

Because I have experienced doubts, dryness and spiritual crises, and continue to do so, even at 80, I find comfort in such admissions from people I admire.

Have you ever been beset by doubt about your religion or spirituality, about the presence of God in your life, about the existence of God? Know above all that faith is not belief so much as it is acting-as-if in trust and hope.

Sharing your doubts, dryness and spiritual crises with those among us who need comfort and courage in our own lives would be, I think, acts of integrity and works of mercy.

Finally, listen to Jesus. How many times did he say something like: Fear not. Be not afraid. Be not anxious? Listen to Jesus. Stay connected to the vine.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 15 years before that.]


Political reconciliation still allows for dissent – Bishop Sean

Political reconciliation still allows for dissent
Bishop Sean Rowe – The Morning Call, Nov. 14
http://www.mcall.com/opinion/letters/mc-trump-president-reaction-rowe-yv-1114-20161113-story.html

In the days after a presidential election, the news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. Leaders of all kinds are pledging to put a divisive campaign behind them and work together for the common good. Church leaders like myself are particularly given to these sort of sentiments. They appeal to our pastoral instincts and allow us to imagine that we are what the prophet Isaiah called “repairers of the breach.”

It is difficult to oppose reconciliation. Jesus said peacemakers were blessed, and as a Christian, I certainly want to be on his good side, but before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. Reconciliation is not a synonym for the silencing of dissent.

Picture

Bishop
Sean Rowe

Many voters saw this election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. While I don’t find that characterization useful — there are no perfect people, and hence no perfect candidates — it is true that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton was especially well thought of by much of the electorate. But the country has made a choice. The time for comparing his flaws to hers is over. The time for looking squarely at the person whom we have elected to the highest office in the land is at hand.

Nothing about Mr. Trump’s campaign suggests that he has any interest in uniting our country. He has repeatedly made racist and misogynistic comments for which he has not apologized. He stoked rage against dark-skinned immigrants and refugees — rage that is already resulting in increased reports of hate crimes across the country. And he refused to condemn the worst excesses of his supporters.

It is possible to argue that, despite these flaws, it was morally necessary to vote for Mr. Trump. But it is not possible to argue that voting for him absolved him of these sins. So what does it mean to “reconcile” with such a person? How much repentance or self-scrutiny is it possible to expect? These questions are especially pertinent to white Christians like myself because we provided the votes that elected Mr. Trump.

As a Christian, I believe that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, that God loves each of us passionately and that God wills that we love one another. We are called to love people whose views are profoundly different than our own, even those who espouse bigotry and hatred. To the extent that “reconciliation” means caring for all people, taking their concerns seriously, working together when we can find common ground, put me down as pro-reconciliation.

But if we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image and likeness, then we have a duty to resist any attempt to exclude people from our common life or from the protection of our laws based on race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. And those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition have to be faithful to the unbroken scriptural teaching on caring for the poor and the displaced.

Real reconciliation will require us to follow the examples of Old Testament prophets. They took as their task not so much offering visions of the future but warning their leaders what would happen if they were not faithful to God’s laws. They aspired to be the consciences of their nation. Sometimes that meant working closely with secular rulers, but sometimes it meant standing against them and paying the price. Jeremiah, as you may recall, was lowered into a muddy cistern and left to die by the king’s son.

I am not asking anyone to get themselves tossed down a well, and I hope to stay dry myself. But we must be prepared both to swallow any resentments we might have when the opportunity arises to work together for the common good, and to stand up for the most vulnerable members of our society if they become targets of the new administration or its most extreme supporters.

The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe is bishop provisional of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem and bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.


On Fire – Bill Lewellis

I don’t want to set the world on fire
Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, August 21, 2016

On a recent Sunday morning, a strange gospel passage proclaimed that Jesus “came to bring fire to the earth … division [within families].”

This scripture may once have given some sufficient religious direction to shun gay family members … or anyone who has moved beyond denominational doctrine on other matters.

It confuses me, but this I know: Following Jesus does not mean you have to pick a fight with your family.

A childhood memory changed this scripture for me.

I grew up in the lower Anthracite region of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania where my parents operated a neighborhood bar.

Three rooms on the first floor: the bar, the side room with six tables, a TV and a jukebox … and a kitchen from which halupkies, club sandwiches, fresh pork and ham sandwiches, hot sandwiches and very fresh hard shell crabs were sold to customers.

Our living quarters were on the second floor. Only in theory. The second floor was our sleeping quarters. We lived in all three rooms of the first floor, especially the kitchen. Some 90% of our customers were also our friends. My first-communion party with parochial school classmates was held in the side room.

As I was falling asleep on the second floor, I could hear the familiar songs of the forties: Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots.

The Golden Age of Song, the music of World War II. Nickels in the jukebox played a significant role in driving these songs up the charts.

The beginning of today’s gospel passage took me back to all of that. Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth.” The Ink Spots’ record played on the Wurlitzer, “I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

I can imagine Jesus saying that – or singing it in a group called “Jesus and the 12 disciples.”

I … just want to start … a flame in your … heart.

Have you ever received a call from a stranger at 2:00 in the morning? Have you stayed on the line?

I listen to a variety of podcasts. The following is my abbreviated version of a story told recently on one. It lacks the impact of the woman's 15-20 minute powerful telling of her story, but it retains the powerful ending.

She spoke in detail about her addiction to drugs. At a low point in her life, she found a piece of paper on which her mother had written the telephone number of a Christian counselor. She hadn't spoken with her mother for some five years.

She dialed the number, at 2:00 a.m. She heard the rustling of bedclothes and the turning down of a radio as a man said hello.

She told him about the note with his number and said she hoped he could help her.

He replied gently … and listened, listened and listened. Until the sun came up.

"You've been so kind and have helped me a lot," she said after some four hours.

"I've been expecting that you would say some prayers or give me a few bible verses," she said, "and I want you to know that I am quite willing to hear them. After all, that is part of your profession, and you have already helped me so much."

The man said he wanted to tell her something and asked that she not hang up after he did. She agreed.

"You dialed the wrong number," he said.

Catch your breath. Four hours? The wrong number? Was this someone in whose heart Jesus had started a flame to enable him to take and stay with the call? Or did his good act ignite the flame?

“I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for nearly 15 years before that.]


Fear, Intolerance, Justice & Hope

Cliff Buckwalter
Christ Episcopal Church, Reading
July 2016

With all that’s happening in the United States presently, I’m reminded of very similar circumstances during the time I spent in South Africa preceding that country’s first free and truly democratic election in 1994.

When I went to South Africa with my ex-wife and two children in December of 1989, I was unprepared for how successfully the apartheid government had manipulated the fears of their citizenry. With few exceptions, the National Party (NP) controlled the media as well as the courts, government, military, police, commerce, etc. For those in the NP, the white supremacist Conservative Party (CP) and the even more radical Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), black lives mattered little or not at all making South Africa an international pariah. And yet, in the context of South Africa’s total population, these unapologetic racists were relatively few in number. So how did they do it? How did so few control so many? By nurturing racial bigotry, controlling information and keeping people separated. In this manner, they created a country run on fear and constantly on the edge of violence.

It must be understood that following the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of political parties and culminating with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, expectations and hopes of a bright future for South Africa were exuberantly alive in the heart of nearly every native born South African I met. Though I spent the majority of my time in Soweto, this was apparent regardless of race. Most black, so-called colored, asian, indian, and – yes, indeed – even most white South Africans were excited with anticipation of a new inclusive dispensation. I was witness to this outpouring of hope, joy and forgiveness joining the very racially diverse crowd of people celebrating Madiba’s release at his humble home in Orlando West, Soweto on Feb. 13, 1990.

But the years between 1990 and 1994 were not filled with those happy feelings of hope within South Africa. In fact, apartheid’s bloodiest years occurred in ’91 and ’92 during the political negotiations eventually leading to the formation of the Government of National Unity. The NP – fearing that it would not only lose political control of the country but also face a deadly racial uprising - formulated one final, despicable but effective lie. Black-on-black violence. How could the people of South Africa and global leaders support a new government with these people in charge?!

On nearly a daily basis, South African news media was filled with stories of one group of blacks killing and maiming another group of blacks. Often reports described Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters attacking African National Congress (ANC) supporters or vice versa. At that time, the IFP was a political party predominately black and Zulu speaking while the ANC was a political party predominately black and Xhosa speaking. Though the violence, sadly, was all too real, the reasons behind the violence as described by the media were completely false. The truth is that the military and police were supplying weapons and training to groups of black men for the purpose of mercilessly attacking (usually) unarmed groups of black men, women, children and elderly folk. And it wasn’t politically motivated – at least not by any of the black political parties.

How could the military and police really achieve such a thing?! Why would any black man take up a weapon and kill someone of his own race? It was very common for black South African men to travel great distances from their homes in order to earn a living in the mines around Johannesburg. They would generally find accommodation in one of the hostels owned by the mining company. The majority of this labor force came from Zululand. A bonus for the NP was the fact that in the early history of South Africa, Zulus and Xhosas had difficulty getting along.

Equipped with easy-to-come-by information – names, addresses, ages, etc. - the military and police would intimidate these displaced men in the hostels with threats to the lives of their wives, children and other family members back in Zululand. They would also try to stir up the old animosities by playing on tribal intolerance. The reliable recipe of capitalizing on fear and keeping people apart continued to work well for the NP.

It was a heart breaking time to be in South Africa. So many dead. And the truth, known by most everyone living in the black townships, deliberately being hidden by those controlling the media. Strangely though - perhaps due to the sheer shamelessness of the SA military and police - no attempt was made to disguise the delivery of weapons to the men in the hostels. I saw this for myself in broad daylight. I suppose there’s no need to be covert when you dictate the news.

Without a doubt the tragic loss of so many innocent lives, the unceasing, relentless fear of attack and the hopelessness of ever realizing a just outcome brought the country to the very brink of a violent civil war. And, I’m convinced - without the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Thambo, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu and many others - South Africa would have become ensnared in such a war.

But they escaped.

They didn’t escape by loading up the guns and firing back and it’s not because there weren’t any guns around. It’s a safe bet that there’s at least as many or more guns per capita in South Africa as there are here in the USA.

They didn’t escape because they were too afraid or ill-equipped to fight back. I attended rallies where people cried out to ANC leaders for permission to get their weapons out of hiding and strike back.

They didn’t escape because the NP, military, police and media suddenly had a huge change of heart and repented. No apologies were offered. No reasonable act of atonement was made.

They escaped because when their leaders told them to hold on, to not strike back, to throw their guns away – the people listened and, in the midst of their own heartache and loss, they obeyed. Eventually, a bright, new future came to South Africa. The election in 1994 and the difficult but vital work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begun 20 years ago helped to restore the basic human need for justice and respect. In so doing, the ‘rainbow nation’ as coined by Bishop Desmond Tutu once again begins to hope.

I wonder if we’ll find a way out of all this fear and intolerance together. Certainly there’s a real need for each of us to examine ourselves and weigh our own motives as there is the need for honest answers regarding the proper use of force by those in authority. No police agency should be motivated by any type of bigotry – but then neither should any one of us! And if each of us arrives at the conclusion that the only way we can protect ourselves and our families is by buying a weapon and being constantly suspicious of one another than I doubt we will succeed.

As Americans we don’t much care for the connotation of words like heed, submission, and obedience. Who knows better than ourselves what’s best for us? And if my opinion happens to conflict with yours why should either of us seek common ground? Why not just arm ourselves, let our fears and prejudice overwhelm us and then one day, explode! Why not stoke our fears and prejudice by believing in the banal rantings of those who say, “Look there! Those people are the real problem! Let’s build a wall!” Let’s justify our intolerance and separate ourselves from one another and let the fear take over. But if that’s the way you want to go, please realize - it’s all been done before. And it ends badly.

If we really want a way out of all this fear and intolerance, maybe we ought to – at least for a moment - look within ourselves before doing anything else.

[A member of Christ Church, Reading, Cliff Buckwalter, cabuck57@gmail.com, is a carpenter and serves as property manager at the church. During the early 1990s he successfully developed a skills-based curriculum for young black people (teens and early 20's) with learning disabilities in Soweto, South Africa.]


You're good – sermon help in a diner

By Bill Lewellis

My next to last step when preparing a sermon once played out on Saturday morning at a local diner where I browsed through my notes while having breakfast and a few cups of coffee. I'd glance randomly at the faces of strangers. Might anything I’ve written be useful to anyone in this place?

Something good almost always happened. I discarded cute phrases to which I was wedded a few days earlier. A writer's advice calls this “killing your darlings?”

Something else once happened. Seeing that my coffee cup was full, the waitress on refill duty said, “You’re good.”

Lose the notes, I chuckled. Anne gave you the sermon. This is your waitress. Listen to her.

At all times, according to another Anne, author Anne Lamott, 37 voices let us know how we are doing. Thirty-five have the job of telling us how awful we are. To hell with them, she says. Listen to the other two.

In all of life, she said, we need to hold onto great friends and eccentric relatives, the people who love us even when they see who we are.

And listen to God calling you beloved. Forget the 35 voices – listen to the other two. Listen to your waitress. Be in love transformed.


The spiritual struggle of Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Bill Lewellis
December 22, 2015

When the news broke in 1979 that Teresa of Calcutta would be that year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I was working on the staff of the late Allentown Diocese Bishop Joseph McShea. I remembered that she had written three letters to him in her own hand. The first was dated April 28, 1976, the day after her first visit to Allentown. I recall that the bishop said, "File it carefully. Someday it will be a relic." And so it is. Pope Francis announced a few days ago that he will proclaim her a saint, perhaps in a few months.

Each letter contained sentiments that reflected her own loveliness. "I am sure," one ends, "your people will be very happy to know they share their love for God in a living action of love for Jesus in the distressing disguise of the Poor.

I read her letters several times, until something jumped off the pages. In two of the letters, she used the phrases "the Poor," "our Poor and "God's Poor" – five times. Each time, she capitalized Poor. She didn't simply pity the Poor. She had a sacred reverence and respect for the individual person. In her eyes, the Poor never lost their God-given dignity.

But who knows? It may have just been pious punctuation, the way some always capitalize priest, church or archdeacon.

In any event, the Nobel Peace Prize citation included: "The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have at her hands received compassion without condescension."

Who would have expected, however, that for the most part of her last 50 years Saint Teresa of Calcutta, despite her work for Jesus and her capitalized Poor, despite her public writings, she would have felt an almost complete absence of God?

Privately, she experienced doubts and struggles over her religious beliefs. During those years "she felt no presence of God whatsoever … neither in her heart or in the eucharist" as put by her postulator Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk.

She expressed serious doubts about God's existence and pain over her lack of faith: "Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."

I have found it strange that some have written paragraphs to water this down, just as some have written and preached to say that when Jesus said from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," he didn't really mean the words he cried out.

As I write, I have no ending for this "sermon." Perhaps later. Perhaps never. Perhaps, let people have their pain; don't discount it. Perhaps what Saint Teresa of Calcutta experienced is simply part of the mysterious relationship God has invited us into. Tread lightly.


How did you know there was a lion in the marble?

Bill Lewellis
Jan. 5, 2016

HOW DID YOU KNOW THERE WAS A LION IN THE MARBLE? … Some 25 years ago in Bethlehem, I was involved in the installation of a large, movable satellite dish on the four-story bell tower of our cathedral. I invited the local newspaper to send a photographer. He took one exceptional photo when the dish, lifted by a crane, seemed suspended from the sky and a cross on the roof of the adjoining cathedral church was visible through the mesh of the dish.

For many years, as I crossed a bridge into South Bethlehem, just before getting to Diocesan House, a version of that image continued to intrigue me. I used it to get focused, to get centered. It was a juxtaposition in search of a theology of communication. From the bridge, both the cross on the roof of the cathedral and the satellite dish on the bell tower came into view. Glancing at one, then at the other… I remembered the moment when one was seen through the other.

I no longer make that daily drive. I think the dish, surpassed now by better technology, has been removed. Still, the memory remains.

The cross of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, is a window into the heart of God. The satellite dish was symbolic of the many and various other media of God’s self-disclosure. “Long ago,” the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways...” God still uses many media of self disclosure.

Where will God show up today? For whom might you be a clue?

One story/image I discovered long ago in a book by Henri Nouwen frequently replays in my head. The open-ended image is ever fresh.

A little boy wandered into a sculptor’s studio and watched a master sculptor work with hammer and chisel on a large piece of marble. It did not long hold the child's interest. Months later he returned. Where once stood a large block of marble, there stood a majestic and powerful Aslan-like lion. “How did you know,” he asked the sculptor, “there was a lion in the marble?” “I knew,” the sculptor replied, “because I saw the lion first in my heart. The real secret, though, is that it was the lion in my heart who recognized himself in the marble.”

The Christ within recognizes himself unformed in the disguises of the world. Spirituality becomes ministry. Contemplation becomes action. Prayer becomes mission.

The image suggests also the relationship between the ministries of communication and evangelism, God’s word becoming flesh. Incarnation continues.


Where is God?

By Bill Lewellis
Jan. 11, 2016

In "Night," Elie Wiesel’s book about the horrors of living in a concentration camp, he tells about the night a young boy was hung. He didn’t weigh enough to die instantly. He struggled for life at the end of the rope. The other prisoners were forced to watch without being able to help.

Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask: “Where is God now?” Wiesel heard a voice within him answer, “Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on the gallows."

During most of my days as a priest, whenever anyone in a especially tragic situation asked me, “Where is God?” I thought of this passage from "Night."

Where is God during any person’s suffering? God is suffering, weeping with them. God was jumping from the flames, out of the 80th floor of the Twin Towers. God was crying with the parents of young children when a gunman fatally shot 20 of them at the the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

As God was with the Irish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Polish and Italian immigrants who were once spat upon and marginalized, so now God is with the Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics and others who are rashly judged and marginalized today.

No answer we can give to this mystery is satisfactory. We still wonder. We still hurt. In my wonder, I like Elie Wiesel’s answer best.

Where was God when Jesus died on the cross? Suffering and dying with him. Where was God when the Jews experienced the tragic horrors of the Holocaust? Suffering and dying with them.

I favor this reflection so much more than the one offered in an Internet video I saw recently. It said that God is not with us because we, our culture or the laws of our land push God away.


Incarnation: God getting down

By Bill Lewellis

Anglican reflection on our relationship with God begins with Christmas … with God getting down. From there, we move toward the cross and resurrection. In many faith groups, reflection about our relationship with God begins with Good Friday and Easter… with fallen humanity that needs to be saved. I’m not suggesting that one way of getting at the mystery of our relationship with God is better than the other. How would I know? But they are different. And one surely works better for me: to begin not with “Am I saved?” but with “Have I gotten down?” Do I know people in low places?

   The basic Christmas truth is that Jesus is God getting down  and that God continues to touch us through flesh and blood. God uses many media of self disclosure. God touches us through family, relatives, friends, people we don’t even know, even unlikely persons? It’s all part of Incarnation. What story might you tell to celebrate God’s Incarnation … about one way, perhaps, that the word became flesh in your life? How have you touched others?

   Christmas is about a special moment of God’s intervention in history. Christian theology calls it the coming – the already but not yet coming – of the kingdom of God. Through his life and ministry, Jesus pointed to the coming of the kingdom of God. He used subversive speech -- parables and stories that subverted the ordinary, familiar, taken-for-granted world in which we live, while pointing to a strange, surprising world, a world turned upside down. And we know what happened to him.

   I recall years ago when I first heard the phrase altruistic donation. A new way to think about the coming of the kingdom. Altruistic donation. I knew what each word meant, but the phrase in its specialized context was new to me. It has to do with organ donors. Of the more than 100,000 living kidney donors in the U.S., less than one half of one percent were altruistic donors in the sense of people who gave their organs to strangers.

   One would think there might be more. Actually, there are. Many more people make the altruistic offer. Few altruistic donors, however, are accepted. Only about 5%, one of every 20 who make the offer. Most are rejected because altruistic donors must pass rigorous physical and mental health testing. That makes sense. But I do long for a world where altruistic donation of any sort would be the norm, where the presumption would not have to be that altruistic donors have mental health issues.

   That’s my take on the coming of the kingdom, a time when our world will be filled with altruistic donors, joining God to do what we can do to bring about right relationships. God has already gotten down to make the relationship between God and us right. Now, we need continually to get down to make relationships among ourselves right.

   In Episode #32 of The West Wing, a person on the president's staff, having undergone a traumatic event, is required to see a doctor of the American Trauma Victims Association. The session goes on all day and well into the night. The diagnosis is PTSD. Josh is worried that this will cause him to be let go from the president's staff. When Josh heads back to his office, he passes Leo, chief-of-staff and recovering alcoholic, who is sitting in the lobby. "How'd it go?" Leo asks. After some banter, Josh tells Leo what he has been trying to hide – fear about losing his job. Then Leo tells him a story.

   "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out."A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on."Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

   After that, Leo tells Josh not to worry about his job. "As long as I got a job, you got a job."

  
Now that’s a Christmas story. The mystery and the scandal of incarnation. The Word was made flesh. God getting down. “Are you stupid, God? Now we’re both down here.” That’s the Christmas story, not so much a story about Jesus as it is a story of God. God is in the hole with us.

   That’s what we discover at the manger.
That’s where Christianity begins, with God becoming one of us. Theologians call it the Incarnation. Not the birthday of Jesus – we don’t know when Jesus was born – but the Incarnation. That’s the mystery we contemplate with joy and wonder at the manger. 


Column by Bill Lewellis

Be not among those who hardly notice
Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, August 29, 2015
601 words 

[The link to The Morning Call is here. A version of this column, expanded for a sermon, is here.]

Friday, January 12, 2007, the morning rush hour in Washington DC.

A white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T and a Washington Nationals cap stood against a wall at the L’Enfant Plaza station. He removed a violin from a case, swiveled the open case toward the foot traffic … and began to play six classical pieces for 43 minutes.

The social experiment was sponsored by the Washington Post: If a world-famous musician played some of history’s most beautiful music in a DC metro station, would people stop to listen?

Hardly anyone noticed. Twenty-seven people stopped to listen. One thousand and seventy walked on by.

Hardly anyone noticed when Joshua Bell played some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

Journalist Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer for his feature story about this non-event. (I have drawn some of my description from his story.) 

The 2007 stunt raised questions about beauty and society's perception of it.

Some $32 were dropped in the case that ordinarily held a $3 million fiddle.

Hardly anyone noticed.

Readers who have received emails from me may have noticed my signature line – running for some 25 years: Be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible; be in love; if necessary, change.

The first phrase, Be attentive, is about noticing. It’s about being attentive to all of our senses, to what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Being attentive to our experience, to our imagination, to the voices and hearts of those around us.

Be not among those who hardly notice.

Last year, Joshua Bell gave it another try. This one was advertised by the Post: 12:30 p.m., Sept. 30. He dressed in his black shirt and trousers concert attire for his scheduled 30 minutes of Mendelssohn and Bach in the main hall of Union Station. The area was crowded. People not only stopped to listen; they came to listen.

A friend of mine, onetime journalist for the New York Times and the Washington Post who now helps Episcopal dioceses and agencies improve their communication, said that reflecting on these two events had him thinking about grace.

We don’t deserve grace, to be sure, Jim Naughton acknowledged, but what we need to reckon with is the fact that we don’t recognize it.

“It wears the wrong clothes … shows up in the wrong places … at the wrong times. It comes in the guise of people we generally avoid. We hardly notice. We fail to see it for what it is.

“We take the word of others – experts, advance teams – for what grace is and what it isn’t, when we must pay attention and when we can walk on by.

“Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to recognize and respond to grace when we see it or hear it. Or perhaps life is constructed in such a way that grace needs references and a spot on our calendar before we can give it its due.

“Henry James once urged readers: ‘Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’

“This,” my friend said, “is among the few spiritual disciplines that still make sense to me.”

Let us pray: Guide us, gracious God. May we be attentive to our experience, to the voices and hearts of those around us;insightful in our interpretation of what we have been attentive to;reasonable in our judgments; responsible in our decisions;and always open to inner conversion, to transformation in your truth and your love.

 

Be one on whom nothing is lost. Especially grace. Be not among those who hardly notice. Be attentive.

 

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


I've been haunted by screens

By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 2, 2015

I've been haunted –fascinated – by screens: movie screens, television screens, computer screens. For a long time, as the following example suggests.

"Long ago, rain fell on mud and became rock … half a billion years ago … but even before that … beneath the rocks … are the words of God. Listen."

Those who have seen the beautiful 1992 film directed by Robert Redford, A River Runs Through It, based on Norman Maclean's book, may remember this opening scene where Maclean's father, a Presbyterian minister and seasoned fly fisherman, bends down to the height of his two young sons with a river stone between his fingers.

In the closing scene, a narrator speaks over striking images of nature: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."

Then the last line, one I've used in a sermon on baptism: "I am haunted by waters."

The first time I saw A River Runs Through It, it seemed to me to be the creative “screening” of the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him…  life…   light that shines in the darkness,  without being overcome … And the word became flesh, and lived among us.”

Another line from the film “screens” all those scriptures that suggest on the one hand that we cannot earn or merit salvation (God’s love), that it is free – that’s why we call it grace – but, on the other hand, not easy. It’s Norman Maclean's reflection on his father's love of fly fishing, and the expertise he had gained.

"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

I am haunted by screens.

The incredible thing about screens is they can take us to emotional heights and depths we never imagined. Their power, for example, is that any one of us might walk into a darkened theater and move out into the light a different person. In a way, good movies have that power in common with a moving liturgy.

During the Civil War, Walt Whitman often visited the sick and wounded as a volunteer nurse. He would read passages from the scriptures to dying soldiers, one of whom inquired whether he was a religious man. He replied: "Probably not, my dear, in the way you mean." Then he kissed the dying man.

Similarly, the best religious films, TV shows and novels I've seen and read are not religious in the way that phrase is commonly understood.

Have you ever identified a spiritually astute scene you came across in a movie or TV show … or a novel? One that invited reflection both from those of us who may think of ourselves as religious or spiritual, and those of us who may not. I suspect it was probably not from a film with a specifically religious theme, one that would not appeal to mass audiences because it seemed like an illustrated sermon, or, in the case of a book, simply a lengthy sermon.

If you have one in mind, I'd appreciate a note about it. Send an email note to blewellis@me.com. You may find it in a future column.
I am haunted by screens.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


Triduum –– In the dying is the rising

By Patrick Malloy

[Doctor Malloy wrote what appears below in 2009 when he was rector of Grace Allentown and professor at General Theological Seminary NYC. He is the author of Celebrating the Eucharist and currently interim dean at St. John's Cathedral, Denver CO.]

[March 2009: A year ago, Bill Lewellis asked me to write something about the Triduum: the three days that celebrate the passing of Jesus from life to death to glory, and our share in the pattern of his life, often called “the Paschal Mystery.”  It was only one year ago, but the world was different then, so the three-day feast was different, too, than the one we celebrate this year. This year Bill asked to re-publish the piece I wrote.  What follows is essentially that.  But last year’s words without commentary would not be enough.] 

The Triduum we will celebrate in 2009 –– the three-day feast often called “the Paschal Mystery” that celebrates the passing of Jesus from life to death to glory and our share in the pattern of his life –– will not be like the Triduum we celebrated in 2008.

It was only one year ago, but the world was different then, so the three-day feast was different, too, than the one we celebrate this year.

It will not be the same, because we are not the same. The story most people tell about their lives and their world this year is not what we told just one year ago. Yet, the wonder of how God-in-Christ passed from eternity into time, and from life into death, and from death into glory, has not changed. We have changed, our world has changed, but God remains.

The Triduum celebrates a dynamic that God revealed in Jesus. It is, at once, the dynamic of divine life and the dynamic of human life. Jesus, in his divinity, reveals that God forsakes everything for us mortals; and, when all is finished, God remains glorious. The human Jesus reveals that when mortals like us forsake everything for the sake of God, we share in God’s glory. The mystery is the same, whether we consider Jesus as the divine mortal or as the human God.

All of this goes entirely against the grain and defies logic. Death and life are opposites; they cannot be intertwined. Yet, the story of Jesus is that they are. Anyone who would be Jesus’ disciple must claim it as true, even if it seems impossible.

This year more than last, our world is facing the death of so much. What can we, as disciples of the crucified yet risen Lord, say in the face of such loss? How can we declare to the world that, as the Lord has shown us, death can be a passage into glorious life?

We Christians must speak courage in the face of fear, hope in the face of despair. The story we tell across the Three Day is as true today as it was when first it unfolded in Jesus’ life. What looks like death can be life. Jesus is the proof.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Here are bits and pieces of what I wrote last year (2008) about the Triduum for Diocesan Life.

Addicts speak of “hitting bottom” as if it were the greatest gift they had ever received.  Recognizing their own powerlessness, they simultaneously admit their need for a savior. They call it their “Higher Power.”

What allows addicts to rejoice in the day they hit bottom is that only there did they finally find God. In the midst of the suffering is the salvation. In the midst of the loss is the gain.

In the sixth century, Venantius Fortunatus wrote a poem in honor of a supposed relic of the true cross. It has come into the Hymnal 1982 as The Royal Banners Forward Go. What Fortunatus captures so beautifully and so clearly is that, in the passing of Jesus from life through death into glory, grace was never absent. Never had God deserted the Son; rather, even in what seemed like tragedy, God’s saving hand was already at work. So the cross, rather than being ugly and shameful, an unfortunate part of the story better left behind, is instead a thing of beauty and honor. Already on the cross, Jesus’ glory had begun.

O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the king of glory now.

Some people think it odd, if not a bit macabre, that we Christians dangle crosses around our necks and hang them on our walls and mount them above our altars. They liken it to using miniature electric chairs as jewelry or art. What Christians see in the cross, however, is not the destruction of a life but its fulfillment; not defeat but triumph.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old:
How God the nations’ king should be,
For God is reigning from the tree.

The cross is not an electric chair. It is a throne.

As he gave himself to his disciples as fragile Bread and Wine; as he made himself their servant, stooping even to the task of washing their feet; as he knowingly and willingly allowed his betrayer to be free even if it meant his own death; as he stood clear and proud and strong before Pilate, Jesus was living the glorified life. Jesus is the glory of God made flesh; at no time in his earthly life was it so clear as during those last days.

Every year, the church celebrates those days in a feast called “The Paschal Triduum.” It stretches from sundown on Maundy Thursday (which, according to the way the liturgical day is calculated, is actually the beginning of Good Friday) to sundown on Easter Sunday. The three 24-hour days are, in fact, one liturgical day. They celebrate, not three distinct events, but one complex dynamic. They celebrate that the self-offering of God in Christ reveals God’s glory. The resurrection is but one facet of how the Divine Majesty is revealed.

What these liturgies (or, rather, this protracted liturgy) celebrate is a current reality, not something long past. That is because what we celebrate in those days is not just what happened to Jesus long ago or even who Jesus once was. It is what happens still, and who he is still. Always and forever, it is of God’s very nature to give the Divine Self for the sake of what God has made.

To do these liturgies so that they are experienced as one continuous event requires skill and effort. To celebrate them with a vigor and ritual fullness that can reveal the Mystery they contain demands deep understanding, focus, time, and a great deal of work. It is worth it. It is worth it because, to understand what this three-day-long day celebrates is to understand and to actually experience the God revealed in Christ.

The 2009 Triduum will not be like the 2008 Triduum.  The world has changed. We have changed. In the face of so much fear and the death of so much certainty, how can we celebrate that God’s life cannot be conquered no matter what else dies? How can we enact the wonderful and ancient rites of the Prayer Book so that we emerge from them knowing in our very bones that in the midst of the dying is the rising? How can we be strengthened to gracefully let go of what will be snatched from our hands, whether we are willing to let it go or not? Think of the economy. So much is slipping through our fingers. This is a hard, concrete fact. It is not a theological concept, and people cannot escape just how real it is. Can we proclaim the Divine pattern to them: from life to death to glory?

“Even at the grave,” the burial rite says, “we make our song: Alleluia.”  The Triduum 2009 brings us face-to-face with an essential question. Do we really sing Alleluia in the face of death, and mean it? Do we dare sing it at the edge of the grave and the foot of the cross? Are we certain –– with the fragile certainty of faith –– that in the dying is the rising and in the cross is the crown, and are we willing to stake our lives on it? 

Only if we are that daring is the Triduum worth celebrating. With such daring, we can live in the midst of death, confident that it conceals, thinly at best, new and glorious life, and that, by Baptism, the life is already ours.

###

The Paschal Triduum: one three-day-long event celebrating one saving dynamic ... even in the midst of death there is life. [An excerpt from Celebrating the Eucharist by Patrick Malloy, pp. 72-73, Church Publishing, 2007] Find it here.

 


Bishop Sean Rowe: Use Lent to become 'fully alive'

[Published in the Wilkes Barre Times Leader on Ash Wednesday]

The Christian season of Lent, which begins today, is a hard sell. In the darkest, coldest season of the year, the church calls people together to put a smudge of ashes on their foreheads, remind them that they are going to die and turn to dust, and suggest that now might be a good time to repent of their sins and amend their lives.

Unlike a Presidents Day weekend car sale, Lent doesn’t promise big financial savings. Unlike the opening of baseball’s spring training camps, Lent doesn’t reassure us that the pleasures of spring will soon be upon us, and that all we have to do is wait. Yet there is more to Lent than a command to eat your spiritual spinach.

Only seven short weeks ago, many of us made New Year’s resolutions. We were going to eat less, drink less and exercise more. We were going to seize control of our runaway schedules, screw up our courage and confront that challenge that we’ve been putting off, maybe for years. New Year’s resolutions are a kind of repentance – the word in the original Greek means “turning” – a deliberate decision to live some part of our lives in a different way.

In their way, New Year’s resolutions aren’t that different from the practice of “giving something up” for Lent. Irenaeus, a second century theologian, wrote that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Weighed down by work or financial anxieties, health issues or pressing family concerns, few of us are as fully alive as God intends us to be. On some deep level we sense this, and so we make resolutions and fast on things such as sweets and alcohol.

But I am sure that I am not the only person to wonder whether getting out of bed on a cold morning to exercise, or letting a tempting tray of food pass me by untouched, is worth it. Are the things I do to become more fully alive, to become the person God is calling me to be, actually working?

The Bible offers some surprising and conflicting guidance. Jesus certainly fasted and practiced self-denial. The 40 days of Lent are modeled on the 40 days that he spent in the wilderness after he was baptized by John. Yet the prophet Hosea says that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice,” and Hosea’s words made such an impression on Jesus that he repeats them to those who criticized him for counting outcasts and sinners among his disciples.

I take this to mean that God is not interested in sacrifice for its own sake. The fact that you’ve gone 40 days without a Bud Light doesn’t make God smile if the way you treat your family, your neighbors or people who live on the margins of our society makes God weep. Our disciples and resolutions are effective if they help to deepen our awareness of God’s love, clarify our sense of the things that God is calling us to do, and make us more willing to serve God and one another

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t go easy on the sea salt-and-vinegar potato chips for the next six or seven weeks. But we shouldn’t confuse means with ends.

The prophet Micah had a ready answer for those who asked him what kind of sacrifice God wanted from them. Was it rivers of oil? Thousands of rams? First-born children? No, Micah says. God wants you “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

If you are better able to do these things on Easter Sunday than you are today, you will have made good resolutions and had a holy Lent.

[Sean Rowe is the provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, which includes more than 10,000 Episcopalians in 60 congregations across Northeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Hazleton. He is also bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, headquartered in Erie.]