Monday, November 29, 2010

Grace and Peace

Thanksgiving dinner has hardly been digested, and Advent announces itself. Advent is the season for waiting, for preparation and for getting ready. I don't feel ready to get ready; the preparation list seems daunting -- and the punishing pace of the season twists "wait" into a forbidden four-letter word.

Enter Paul's letter to the Ephesians. I have added this Epistle to my preparation list. And I have invited people across the diocese and beyond to add it to theirs. Part of the good news is that the letter is mercifully short. It is beautiful prose. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it "one of the divinest compositions of man (sic)." So we can take it slowly -- and allow the combination of prose, Spirit, beauty and brevity to speak to the soul. Let it not be a task, but a way to enter into the season.

"To the saints," Paul begins, and by saints he means us. Not just some of us. All of us. I don't think Paul is trying to flatter his audience. He says saints because he means saints. So ponder your sainthood. The goodness which has been given us -- and the giftedness that marks us. We are blessed. Through no fault of our own we are saints. Most of the time it seems that Christian theology asks us to sort through our sinfulness. Paul opens by identifying our saintliness. I invite you to deal with that.

"Grace to you and peace." I think he means that as well. I want to greet people with that same graciousness. And it doesn't always work. It certainly didn't this afternoon when I spent an hour trying to get across the George Washington Bridge. Let's just say that I didn't greet every other driver with a warm and open heart.

A couple of years ago I was remarking in a parish forum about the challenges of driving in New Jersey. Not just the driving part, but the etiquette part. One woman said that whenever she got cut off on the road, she responded with "go in peace to love and serve the Lord." I had a hard time believing her, and so I asked how long it took for her to say that. She indicated that she said it right away. Still not believing her, I asked her with what tone did she use when she said it. "As if I mean it", she replied. She was able to pass on the grace that had been given to her. Grace begets grace.

Now there is an Advent challenge.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Advent Invitation: Lectio Divina Of Ephesians

This Advent, I invite you to join me in the practice of Lectio Divina -- or divine reading. The text we will be using is Paul's letter to the Ephesians. It's short -- six chapters. It will take about a half hour to read. (You can read Paul's Letter To The Ephesians online (New Revised Standard Version) using the oremus Bible Browser.)

But Lectio Divina
is a different kind of reading. It is a practice of reading as much with the heart as with the brain. It invites the reader to sit with images and metaphors of what is written -- and to ponder what they are saying to our soul.

Paul's letter to the Ephesians is probably misnamed. Many scholars think one of Paul's disciples wrote the letter, to an audience that was much wider than the community of Ephesus. No matter. It is filled with the powerful expressions of the Christian faith -- "now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine" (3:21); which raise some important questions: what is the power? How does it work? What are the limits of what we can imagine?

And there are some serious theological speed bumps: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord" (5:22). What is that all about?

Paul's' purpose in writing the letter was to pull the community together -- to create unity in diversity.

As we get ready to enter the season of Advent, which is preparation time for the coming of the Prince of Peace, the irony is that Advent is lined up with (or against) the time of the year that is perhaps the most chaotic, confusing -- and unpeaceful.

I trust that Lectio Divina and Paul's wisdom will provide a spiritual anchor for us. I will be sharing regular ponderings on my blog. I invite us to take this journey together.

How The Online Discussion Will Work

As a guide, during the four weeks of Advent I will focus on the reading as follows:
  1. Nov. 28 - Dec. 4: Chapter 1
  2. Dec. 5 - 11: Chapter 2
  3. Dec. 12 - 18: Chapter 3
  4. Dec. 19 - 24: Chapters 4-6
You are invited to post your own insights and reflections in the comments section at the end of each post. While I look forward to reading everyone's reflections, I regret that I won't be able to respond to individual comments.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Support And Protect Our Children

Imagine a large empty room. Place a group of children in the center. The children may be the children of your church, the children of the local community, the children of the world -- or a combination of all three.

Then imagine the four corners of the room, each promoting its unique cultural influence. One corner is the mall. Another corner is the entertainment industry. The third is the sports industry, and the fourth is the violence industry (in both its legal and illegal forms). Each corner bombards the room with messages -- well-funded and market-tested messages that beg the children’s attention, and that boast of some immediate glory if the children head in their direction.

Surrounding the children is the body of Christ. That’s us. On one level, the body of Christ is no match for the relentless, if not ruthless, messages coming from the four corners. We can’t buy the air time. We can’t produce the technical wizardry which provides such astounding promises.

Photo by M. Christyanne WardBut we can provide relationship and guidance and hope that is real and abiding. And necessary.

Children are vulnerable -- to no end of unhealthy cultural influences, to each other (with the escalating incidence of bullying) -- and increasingly, to poverty. One in four children in the United States lives in poverty. In the last twenty years, 300 million people from around the world have died of poverty-related causes. Most of them were children.

Last spring, the interfaith group I work with in Newark -- the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace, came up with a message: support and protect our children. We are hoping to have the message on T-shirts, and next spring when the Dalai Lama comes to Newark to bring his unique message of peace, to have the message on billboards.

Support and protect our children. That is what the body of Christ does as it surrounds the children. It is not an easy job. On one level our kids often indicate that they don’t want us to surround them for protection and support. They often insist that they can do it on their own. Or we can’t gather the kids in order to surround them.

Support and protect our children. It is holy work. The newly created Justice Board of the Diocese (made up of deputies to General Convention along with some other folks in the diocese with a demonstrated commitment to justice) has identified children as the primary focus for our justice work in the diocese. The purpose of the Justice Board is to sort through the many issues that come our way -- by way of General Convention, international concerns or local community needs. When we think of hunger, I invite you to think of kids. When we engage in homeless ministry or environmental work -- or respond to any of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) endorsed by the United Nations in 2000, I invite you to imagine faces of children who are most affected if we don’t make more progress on those goals.

The Justice Board and I will be formulating opportunities and challenges to galvanize the ministries of congregations and individuals in the area of justice -- with a focus on children. I invite you to do the same. We know that our children are our future. How we surround them -- and protect and support them, is a benchmark for how well we live out the invitation -- and challenges -- of the Christian faith.

For more about the Justice Board, please see “A Witness To Justice” on page 10 of the September 2010 Voice.

Photo by M. Christyanne Ward.