Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Lectio Divina - Mark 5:21-43

It was my privilege to preach this sermon on Sunday, July, 2018, at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco.  Thanks to them for their gracious welcome, and to our Berkeley Associates, Tom and Nancy Bickley, for the hospitality that made my visit there possible.
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The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco
Sunday, July 1, 2018
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Pentecost 6B, Proper 8: Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

    What a joy it is to be with you in this beautiful historic church!  It shows such care and love in both its buildings and in your ministries. In an earlier time I spent five years of my life off and on in the Bay Area, at Incarnation Priory, the monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross in Berkeley, and at CDSP, in both the 1970s and 1990s. It is so good to be back.  Thank you for inviting me.

    One of the reasons I’m here this morning is to bring you the message of monastic life in our Church, and I thought, what better way to introduce monastic ways to you than to share our experience of today’s gospel with an ancient monastic practice called lectio divina. Lectio divina means divine or spiritual reading. Using this practice monks, and many other persons as well, approach scripture not simply as a text to engage the intellect, but as the living word of God. The expectation is that we will encounter the text as it is and incorporate it into ourselves as God’s word. And in that process we will meet God’s living message to us now, today, as we are in this moment. Lectio divina has four simple steps: studying the text, meditating on it, praying through it and in contemplation letting it act on us. It converts and transforms and transfigures us as we enter into it and it enters into us.

    In what follows I will be using a stream of consciousness approach. As I tell you what happened to me, let yourself imagine yourself into lectio.

    First we read and study the sacred text just as it is, without editing it to fit our own preconceptions, using whatever resources we possess to gain a better understanding. As we do so, what do we notice? What jumped out at me was this: In today’s gospel there are two intertwined stories. A little girl is dying and a woman is afflicted with unstoppable bleeding.  These are both life and death situations. But some differences also leap out at me. The girl’s father is a person of importance, standing in the community -  and unlike most of the people Jesus meets in his public ministry he is given a name - Jairus. The woman is not given a name. Also, unlike Jairus’s daughter, she seems to be of little or no consequence. Jairus approaches Jesus with social propriety, man to man, as that culture would expect. But the woman does not stand on ceremony. Jairus is decorous, while the woman is not. He politely invites Jesus into his social space, asks him to come to his house. The woman perhaps has no social space, and in her need seizes the opportunity of the moment. She violates Jesus’s personal space by grabbing his cloak.

    As I studied the passage, I learned that there are some cultural issues here which I knew about but was not aware of at first. In first century Palestine respectable women do not interact with men outside their kinship group in public. But this woman does, and this suggests that she lives outside normal social structures. Mark tells us that she has lost everything in her search for health.  Perhaps she has no home to invite Jesus into. In Jewish ritual codes, to have physical contact with a menstruating woman renders a person unclean. As does touching a corpse. But then I notice that Jesus neither makes an issue of the gender rules of his day, nor does he rebuke the woman for the purity code violation when she touches his cloak. Jesus simply asks who did it, and why, and then instead of condemning her, he praises her for her faith. And likewise he does not draw back from the dead girl’s body, which would also render him ritually unclean..

    And finally, study reveals how Jesus reacts to the two situations. When he raises the little girl he doesn’t do anything very special.  He deflects miracle talk, even downplays what has happened, by saying she isn’t dead but sleeping, and endures the laughing scorn of the people around him. But his reaction to the healing of the desperate woman is quite different.  Here we are in the presence of something strange, eery, mysterious. Jesus feels power going out of him, an almost physical experience. The raising of the girl is played down, but the healing of the desperate woman is the occasion of a most wonderful public demonstration of miracle craft!

    So, in lectio, we let the text encounter us in its own integrity. We read it to understand what it itself tells us. We let its uniqueness jump out at us. I have given you what I noticed this time. As you read it you perhaps noticed other things, and so very likely so will I the next time I encounter it. But from what we notice in this moment will come the surprising Word.

    The next step is to meditate on the text. What comes to us when we let these two intertwined stories, and what we have noticed in them, play in our mind? What does it bring us to think? For me: These are two contrasting women, one safely hidden in the home of her respectable family, the other out on her own. But Jesus is not bothered by the gender stereotypes of his time. Nor is he bothered by the violations of convention they present to him. Nor is he bothered by the difference in their social status.  Jesus moves with confidence through both situations. He is equal to the needs of both of them. Maybe these are good news Mark wants us to hear. If the point of these stories is not simply reporting an event, or inviting us to think that in similar situations we can assuredly expect the same result, what is the point?  The first is simply information, and the second will likely not happen.  Jesus did not come to change the natural laws of the created universe.  Maybe this story is presenting some marks of the kingdom of God: It doesn’t matter who we are. God is not confined or restricted by our conventions and boundaries.  God recognizes our faith when we act from our deepest needs. God does not seem to mind when we get too close. God is not deterred when people make fun of what is going on or even refuse to see what is happening.  God is compassionate. God invites us to bring our needs to him. 

    And so these meditations lead to the third step: prayer. Jesus, let me see my needs and bring them to you. Jesus, what is dying in my life? Can it come to life again? Can that little daughter of my soul grow again? Can a future come from what seems lost, over, finished, done, dead? Jesus, help, me make room for that desperate person inside me. Let her lose her inhibitions so she can reach out and touch your healing power. Jesus, help me not be ashamed to admit that I too am desperate, that I also may have invested too much in what doesn’t work.  Jesus, help me get over being embarrassed that I am in some ways, perhaps in many ways, hopeless, homeless, destitute, bleeding out my life, looking for your power to heal me. Jesus, help me know that I too am that little girl, that father, those jeering bystanders, that crowd following you through town, that desperate woman. I am one with them. Let me touch you. Touch me.  Look at me.  Talk to me.  Raise me up.  Give me my life again.

    And finally, contemplation. Resting from the text, from its images and questions and patterns, resting from the mind’s work, resting from the words sent from the heart.  Resting quietly in the Word as we have experienced it. Sitting quietly as it does what it will. Who am I now that I have lived into this text, this meditation, this prayer? Am I the same as I was before? I hope not.  Quiet down now.   Let that ineffable something be in me. Let me be in it. The daughter, the father, the crowds, the woman, Jesus in the middle of it all.... Hush for a moment.  What do I feel? Is something new in my heart? Can I just sit still for a moment and let it be?

    But often these four processes, studying the text, meditating on it, prayer, contemplation, do not always happen in sequence. Suddenly something elbows its way in, out of the art of the sequence that I am now in:  The daughter, the daughter, the daughter:  That dying little girl has a family, a home, a father. She is by definition a daughter. But the woman has lost everything, has risked everything. And so what does Jesus call her? He calls the dying girl simply talitha, little girl. But he calls the desperate woman Daughter, something he calls no one else in the whole Gospel of Mark: Daughter, your faith has made you well. Daughter. Your faith has not only made you well, but gives you a new father, a new family, a new home.

    What is it like to have Jesus look at you and say, Daughter?  Jesus, may I be your daughter?  May I be your son?  May I join your family?  May I come home with you?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Good Shepherd[s]

Preached at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, San Marino, CA
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018

John 10:11-18, Psalm 23

Available to listen to at the St. Edmund's website:
St. Edmund's Sermons

    As perhaps you have gathered by now, today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It is, among other things, a day on which Christians are called to reflect on ourselves both as followers and as leaders, both as sheep and as shepherds in Christ’s flock, because as adults we understand that sometimes we are called to lead and sometimes we are called to follow.  And each of us in the course of our lives will be called to both.

    The problem with the image of sheep and shepherd, however, is that we are not sheep.  Sheep are kept for their economic benefits: wool, milk which can be made into cheese, and meat.  Fleecing people, milking them, devouring them, is exploitation.  Right thinking people don’t admire human exploitation or the people who practice it.  But of course it happens all the time.  The news is full of examples every day.  So maybe the image is more apt than we think it is.  People can be gullible.  They can be tricked.  They can be drained of their resources and left by the side of the hard pathways of a not very tender world.  It can be dangerous to be a sheep without a shepherd.

    One of our culture’s ideals is the independently successful person.  Who does not admire the woman or man whose intelligence, dedication to education and to learning their craft, whose hard work and honesty create prosperity and respect, who makes wise choices, builds a stable family and home, and is a dependable, trustworthy and generous member of the wider community?  Isn’t that what we all want to be, what we want our children to become?  Is that not the hope of a serene and secure old age?  Not all of us succeed completely.  In fact, very few if any of us do.  The truth is, none of us is as self-sufficient as we think we would like to be.

    Sheep, at least the domesticated kind, cannot survive all by themselves.  They need help finding water, pasture, sheltered places for the night.  They need to be defended when hungry predators come looking for them.  They need guidance and protection.  And in this respect people and sheep are very similar.  Most of us do not always see the path in front of us clearly.  Most of us need help finding our way in the world, learning what is truly worthwhile.  We all need protection from the dangers of life.  And when we are young all of us, and when we are old, most of us, need to trust the goodness, wisdom and kindness of others.  The general job description of shepherd has many faces and takes many forms.  There is a constant demand for good shepherds.

    If we have been fortunate we have been blessed by many good shepherds in our lives.  In our early years we have needed caring parents and relatives, teachers, youth and activity leaders, mentors who made the time to introduce us into a wider world.  Then as adults we look for spouses, friends, colleagues and guides to help us through the intricacies of our complicated world.  We need people who will spend their energies to establish and strengthen the institutions we value and depend on.  We need generous souls who spend countless hours at unseen tasks to build up what is good for the benefit of others, as well as people whose positive public lives are plain for all to see.  I am sure each of us can make a list of such people, and if we let our imaginations drift a bit, as they sometimes do during sermons, perhaps we can recapture their unique presences in our lives: not only what they did but who they were, what they looked like, sounded like, even smelled like.  They helped create the world for us and we are who we are because of them.

   One of mine was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.  She was from a family that arrived on these shores in 1705 but among themselves still spoke a form of Swiss German well into the twentieth century.  They were Calvinists of the firm backbone sort, who favored  plain churches and plainer worship, who had serious ideas about what was right and what was not, who had a Bible by the bed that was read as the day ended and as the next day began.  My grandmother was formal, always wore a dress, even in the kitchen, and never seemed to break a sweat, no matter how hot a Western Pennsylvania summer day might be.   On special occasions she seemed a bit like a battleship in full sail.  But never an unkind word from her about anyone. She was all smiles and sugar cookies and a safe and understanding something I could always return to.  She was a rock for an awkward little boy who needed one.  From her I learned to trust that the somewhat scary righteous goodness, the solidity of God, was also the kindness, the gentleness, the generosity of God.

    Good sheep need good shepherds, and we have all found ourselves in their care at different times of our lives.  But good shepherds also depend on their sheep.  Think of that other good shepherd story, the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost sheep.  We tend to pay attention to that one wandering sheep and forget that the shepherd trusted the rest of them to carry on while he went searching.  There is a wonderful interchange going on in that story, one in which the integrity, the good character of the flock allows an unusual event to occur without dispersing it.  What is it like to be in a flock like that, to be known, cared for and protected, to realize the essential goodness of that special relationship, to enter into the mutual love between shepherd and flock?  It gives us a sense of belonging, of solidarity, of security and confidence in what is happening now and in what the future will bring.  I imagine that when he told his good shepherd stories, Jesus was inviting the people who were listening to him into a new kind of relationship with God through himself: goodness of every sort overflowing from God’s righteousness, flowing into still waters of a refreshing stream in the midst of green pastures where we can lie down, not in want any more, but in abundance, security and peace.

   Because I believe that is what God wants for us: the Good Shepherd, his beloved Son, leading us to the right pathways, pathways that lead to the beautiful place.  Those pathways will indeed also take us into the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil.

    For us there always have been and always will be such valleys.  Life is defined by them: we enter life in one dangerous place and leave it in another, and in between there are many more.  We need rods and staffs and good shepherds who know how to use them along the way.  But God’s promise is that we will never lack them if the Lord is our shepherd.

    And more than that.  So much more: banquets of delight, tables of abundance, even in the face of our anxieties, troubles, dangers and distress.   Along the way our shepherds sometimes face danger for us, sometimes danger costly to themselves.  But we are promised: God is with us, it is God’s work the shepherds of our lives are doing.  And we need to love them for it.

    And to what end?  The magnificent banquet, the oil on the head, the overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following us, every day, every day.  The promise given to each of us is that if we enter the great journey together, following and then leading and then following again as we are called, both sheep and shepherds and sheep again together, we will come to that great home of warmth and love and generous smiles and overflowing tins of sugar cookies, and the love of God, which has been leading us and feeding us and protecting us and waiting for us the whole time, in a thousand ways and with a thousand faces, each of them single and irreplaceable facets of the vast illuminated mosaic of the overflowing, inexhaustibly abounding love of God.  


Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Monastery Summer

This summer has been a challenge for us here at Mount Calvary Monastery.   A challenge which I believe we have met rather well.

Summer for us began with our annual trip to the Chapter of the Order of the Holy Cross at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park NY.   At that Chapter we said thank you to Robert Sevensky, our Superior for the last nine years, and elected his successor for a six year term, Robert James Magliula.  Rob came to us after a distinguished career as a parish priest in upstate New York.  He was stationed for some time at Grahamstown, South Africa, but has not spent much time in California.  We are encouraging him to fill that gap as soon as he can.

At that Chapter Br. Bob Pierson, part of our community here for some three years, was asked to move to West Park to be the Novice Master for that community.  We gave our community's blessing and sent him on his way on Sunday, July 16.  He drove a rented car east, stopping on the way to visit family and friends.  We wish him every joy and success in that important ministry.  Tom, Will and I form the community here now.

Which obviously presents some problems:  How can three guys, one in each decade advancing from the 70s through the 80s and into the 90s, keep things humming along here at Mount Calvary?     Because they have been humming!  Our retreat ministry is steadily growing, both in numbers and in the spiritual intentions of our retreatants.  We made a list of the things the three of us can't do and decided to fill those gaps with a rearrangement of present staff duties, and the addition of a Tuesday cook and an evening and weekend dishwasher.  And what do you know?  It is working!  Welcome Sascha, a retired television producer who loves to cook, and Socorro, who was our dishwasher before but who had to leave to help her parents, and whose situation has now improved.

Our appeal last fall did well, but not so well that we didn't have to rearrange projects.  We now have a new hot water system for the Guest House, a new (and much larger) grease trap for the food services area, and new roofing on the patio pavilions behind the Guest House.  We decided to put off the woodpecker holes for the time being and to rearrange the work on the Cottage.  When that work is done in early October the Cottage will be insulated, have a new and more private bathroom, bigger and better doors, and air conditioning.  In addition we repainted and recarpeted the Priest's Suite in the Guest House.  And the icing on the cake: We decided to repaint the Chapel, made necessary by a heating system filter malfunction.  The big change there is a lovely new white color on the ceiling to replace the flat bone white there before.

The repainting and recarpeting was done during our 10-day silent retreat, not ideal but necessary because of our active retreat ministry schedule.  Nevertheless, the three of us enjoyed our time of  quiet, praying the Daily Office and Eucharist in temporary but quite pleasant space in the Guest House library room.

The weather this summer has been mostly cool, usually in the 70's.  Only this week has it begun daily to reach into the 80's.  We are conscious of how blessed we are to be suffering only an occasional peak into the low 90's when so many others are in the 100's.  In fact, some retreatants , like a pastor from Bakersfield, decided that a week of retreat here during the heat was a very good idea!

The Lord has looked with favor on us this summer, turning challenges into blessings!   


Friday, August 26, 2016

What is a monastery for?

Note:  I originally wrote this in two posts for the Prior's Blog on the Mount Calvary Monastery website, and then edited it for our monastery newsletter's Summer 2016 edition.  I thought it might reach a slightly different audience by offering it here.

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What is a monastery for?

People have been writing about this question for at least 1,650 years, if you date the beginning of setting and answering the question with the Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius shortly after the saint’s death in 356. It is a very considerable body of literature! And it seems presumptuous to write more about it!

A monastery is “for” creating a place and a style of life to allow both the monks and our guests to pursue closeness to God seriously. Any- one can do this anywhere, of course, and many people do it in their daily lives without monasteries and do it better than we do.

Monks need to be with other people who want to do the same thing and so we try to create a place and a way of living to facilitate it.  Maybe we need it because we are fallible, not especially strong, or because we are not very heroic and need mutual encouragement. At any rate, what we do is build places and styles of living that facilitate rather than hinder the pursuit of God.

So what do monks do?

We work. We pray. We study. We try to practice the Benedictine bal- ance of all three.  Everything about our life is supposed to lead us into God’s presence, to encounter God. Our work makes this economically possible for us. Our studies prepare our minds for this encounter.

But most of all, our prayer directs our hearts to God.  Like Christians everywhere, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, remember the needs of the world and others, turn to the Lord in joy and sorrow and contrition.  We share the Body and Blood of Christ. We sit in silence to meditate and contemplate in the presence of the triune God. Just like every practicing Christian.

But monastic prayer has another component, and it is what makes monasteries what they are.

Several times a day we pray the opus Dei, the work of God. This is not especially personal. We recite the Psalms, listen to the Word of God, spend some silent time together in the presence of what we have recited and heard, and collect its themes in a prayer. For centuries this was done eight times a day. Many monasteries, in response to our clock-centered and work-centered culture, now gather four times a day.

These services are laid out in advance: which psalms, which lessons, which prayer, how much silence. This might seem to leave little room for the movement of the spirit, but anyone who does this kind of prayer knows that the spirit is moving in the mind and heart, but in a special way.

One of the oldest Christian theologies of Scripture is that all of the Bible is the Word of God: what God is actually saying to the world, as complex as that is. If we want to come close to what God is saying to us, Scripture is the place to go. And the way to do it is to listen.

What monks do is set our own concerns aside and listen to Scripture unfiltered. No preacher or teacher or commentary. Just the words of God. The Word of God. We allow ourselves a great privilege: speaking the Word through our own mouths when we recite the psalms.  Hearing the Word read by one of us. As though we are worthy to say the psalms and as though we are worthy to read the Word, to be the mouth by which it enters the world and the ears which are ready to
listen to it.

In monastic tradition the psalms are the very thoughts and prayers and reflections of Jesus himself, Son of Man and Son of God.  When we recite them, we are inviting the resurrected Jesus to enter us, to utter his thoughts and prayers and reflections through us. It is a kind of incarnation, if we let it happen. And if we do, we are putting ourselves close to God.

Benedict begins his Rule with a pregnant word: Obsculta.  Actually, Benedict begins with three words: Obsculta, o fili. Listen, O son. These words have a sequence, a causality. Listening to the Word creates a re- lationship. If we listen to the Word, if we make that Word our words, we will enter a new relationship. We will be sons. And daughters.

So. That’s really what monks do.        

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1 - The Temptation in the Wilderness

Lent 1C - 14 February 2016
Luke 4:1-13
Preached at Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara CA
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin Jesus’ public ministry with the temptation in the wilderness.  Together with the baptism it is the “formation event” of the story they tell.  It sets the scene.  So it is interesting to ask what the underlying theme of this story is, since it is a foundation for everything that will follow. 

In the temptation story the devil plays on the importance of Jesus’ identity: Son of God.  It has just been given to him, in the two passages which immediately precede the Temptation story: the baptism of Jesus and his genealogy.  They form a sort of triptych at the beginning of Luke's narrative of Jesus’ ministy: all three focus on Jesus’ identity as Son of God.  At his baptism the voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son.”  The genealogy which immediately follows traces Jesus’ human lineage back though all his patriarchal ancestors to “Adam, the son of God”.  In these temptations the devil tests Jesus in what it means to be Son of God.  

The devil picks three particular temptations: food; power over “kingdoms”; risk taking.  Are they perhaps connected to who Jesus is and what he is going to do?

As the devil presents them, the temptations are outrageous, because they depend on who we and the devil know Jesus is: Son of God: bread from stones; total power; safety from foolish and dangerous actions.  Each of these temptations tries to lure Jesus into cashing in on his identity as God’s Son, to get things for himself: resources for himself; power for himself; his own personal exemption from the consequences of his actions.  

In our monastic Bible study yesterday Timothy pointed out how the story of the temptations in Luke ends: the devil will be back: always there will be another time.  But perhaps this is not the first time they have contended.  The devil seems to know Jesus already. 

Maybe this is a drama which has been going on for a long time.  Maybe the theme these temptations portray from Jesus’ human life apply to the relationship of the Word of God to the world the Word has created.  Maybe they represent the ancient struggle between God and what is against God that has been going on since time began.  And what is the theme of that drama? Humility - the love and action of God for the benefit of his creation, for us and for all he has made, which is the power and glory of God.  The devil wants to corrupt that, to turn the power of God away from the love God has for the Other into self-glorification.  

In his ministry Jesus will act in all three categories: resources; power; protection.   Jesus feeds the people in the wilderness; he claims jurisdiction over the kingdom of the demons and proclaims a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, to replace the kingdoms of this world; and he takes life-threatening risks when he encounters authorities and when, in his proclamation of the new kingdom, promises to displace them.

The difference between what the devil holds up to Jesus and what Jesus actually does is: the place of the self.  The devil urges Jesus to feed his own needs, claim his own power, act outrageously to test his own self preservation.  But Jesus refuses this temptation. 

Instead of acting for himself, Jesus does these things for others: providing what others need; acting with power to overthrow the demonic powers of the world by healing others; putting himself at risk to proclaim a new Way for the world.  As he does so, Jesus shows how the Word of God has acted since the beginning of creation: acting to create and sustain the world.  In this Jesus shows who God is: self-emptying to create a reality that has its own life, loving that life so much that God loves and pours out God’s self in never-ending and always-replenishing love, with abundance without measure.  Jesus shows us the secret of God: self-emptying humility. 

Jesus’ call into the desert to be tempted is a bedrock basis of the life of monks of whatever type.  Is it for ourselves alone that we go apart to come close to God?  Is it for ourselves alone that we arrange our lives as best we can to conform to the love of God?  Is it for ourselves alone that we arrange our hearts to constantly claim that love?  It is not just for ourselves, or rather, we as selves are built up as we follow the example of Jesus: we find ourselves when we act for others first.  That is the humility of Jesus.  He is glorified because he became one of us, because he used what he had to build up a new kingdom centered on God’s immeasurably self-emptying love, because he risked his own life, not recklessly throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple but allowing himself to be lifted up from the earth by others on the instrument of shameful punishment and death, which is now the sign of life.

So monks, and the rest of us too, should be humble, just as Jesus was humble.  In the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers we find this:

Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.  There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, "What makes you go away?  Is it fasting?"  They replied, "We do not eat or drink."  "Is it vigils?"  They replied, "We do not sleep."  "Is it separation from the world?"  "We live in the deserts."  "Then what power sends you away?"  They said, "Nothing can overcome us, but only humility."  Amma Theodora concluded by saying, "Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?"

Humility is what is different in what the devil tempts Jesus with and in what Jesus actually does. How might we follow him into the desert, to find that the devil already knows us?  How might we meet our own temptations to magical, imaginary self-glorification with humility, and in that humility find the victory that lets us look for, find and serve?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara

I offered this last night at our 8:00 pm “Midnight” Mass.  Perhaps more a reflection of lectio than a full-blown sermon.

Thoughts on Luke's story of the birth of Christ:

1.  Political background: 
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is located in a specifically political environment: The census of Caesar Augustus.  Why should a government take a census: to control, to impose its will effectively from the top down, to make effective, practical policies possible. 

But for the people of Israel, and for the people of the new community of believers who will come to be called Christians, looming behind the Roman census is that other great census – the census of David (2 Sam 24). 

David’s census displeased God.  So David was told to choose one of three punishments: "Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' plague in your land?”  David chose the plague and 70,000 men died.  It is almost the last thing he does as king: 70,000 people die for his rational governmental act.  Not how you want the curtain to go down on your reign.

Power, the power of government, even the power of the very best of kings, which by definition acts in and for the “world”, is deeply ambivalent in this story.  70,000 people: If that’s what happens with the best of kings, what’s in store for us?  Something awful is looming, this seems to say.  And what’s the way out of that?  Luke places this joyful story in a context of foreboding.

2.  Social background:  
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus takes place in the world of “us” and “them”: Coming home to Bethlehem, looking forward perhaps to contacting relatives long unseen – no one takes them in.  Aren’t they family?  To come home and no one takes you in. 

Compare John 1:9 ff: Read this with Luke’s story in mind: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Doesn't that sound like the story outline for Luke's nativity?

    Who isn’t receiving him?  His “own” – family, kin. 
    Who is receiving him?  Shepherds – anonymous, poor, strangers, outsiders, “other”.
    And what about the light? 

3. The way Luke’s story is told:
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus has a meaningful structure, a framework:  It begins with an act of power – the power of the state – and ends with another act of power – the opposite of the world’s power, as far away from Caesar Augustus as you can imagine – God’s power, which is so very, very different.  Both acts of power encompass all the people.  But to very different ends!

4.  Monastic silence before the Word:
Br. Timothy has told us that the Carthusians keep a special silence on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – silent so that the Word might reach them.  Silence is a kind of powerlessness – to keep silent is a refusal to define, to comment, to exchange, to assert one’s self.  It allows the other to speak.  In fact, it removes our privilege as those who might speak.  

Silence is a joining the powerlessness of Jesus. By it we are entering in to the reversal of all things that is Luke’s great theology of God’s action: by turning things upside down God is bringing his Kingdom. 

5.  What sort of messages might these thoughts on Luke’s story of  the birth of Christ bring?
Well - maybe these:

Action is important.  But good political and economic and military organization – the tools of the powerful of this world – are not guarantees that God’s kingdom will come.   No matter how fine your intention, it might just blow up in your face.   It is a good thing – and in fact inevitable – that we should try to understand the proclamation of the Word of God in practical ways and construct programs to put it into action, but it is well to remember David and his census.   

The people we thought are “our” people may not be the ones who know who people really are, who know what is really going on.  They – we – may not be the ones who recognize who is a Word Bearer.  Humility might be a consequence of this realization.
   
Where we find the Word of God WILL be a surprise.  As God’s people we should be on the watch for its arrival.  But we may not be very well prepared to recognize it.  It might be embedded in people we don’t think much of.  In Jesus’ time the Judeans didn’t think much of the Galileans - not learned and sophisticated like us, but rude, ignorant, not up to date, superstitious country people, perhaps a little simplistic about things.  Galilee is where Mary and Joseph were from.  Who might such people be now?

    And for monks? 
    Maybe our gift is a different gift from the busy folk of the world. 
    Maybe silence in the face of the Inbreaking Word is our gift. 
    Maybe our silence allows us to try to trust God more than we trust ourselves.  
    Maybe our silence lets us be daring in who we let in. 
    Maybe, just maybe, we will hear the Word. 
    If we join in solidarity with those who have no voice in this world of power, maybe we too can   see the great light and hear the angels praising God: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to people on earth.
    Maybe that’s the gift monks can give at Christmas time.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ralph Martin, SSM

In the early 1920's the Order of the Holy Cross began its now almost century long ministry in Africa by opening a mission station in Bolahun, Liberia.  In the 1970's it was thought best to indigenize that work, comprising a large church, schools, medical clinic, a village for people with Hansen's disease, and other good works.  Time for Liberians to run their own institutions!  As the Order pursued this policy -- which was a process that took many years rather than a single event -- the idea arose of an African novitiate.  In the early 1980's this led to the Order's second African establishment, Philip Quaque Monastery in Cape Coast, Ghana.  A few years later an Anglican seminary was started in Cape Coast, named for St. Nicholas.  The OHC community was involved with the seminary from the outset, though the monastery and the seminary pursued their separate goals.  The first head of St. Nicholas was Ralph Martin, SSM, who has just published a remarkable autobiographical memoir.

Ralph Martin, SSM, Towards a New Day: A Monk's Story.  (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2015).   Available from Amazon.co.uk at a much more reasonable price than US Amazon.

Born, educated and ordained in Canada, Ralph Martin joined the Society of the Sacred Mission in 1957.  SSM had been founded in 1893 by Fr. Herbert Kelly, who desired to educate young men of the working classes for the ministry of the Church of England.  This was a significant development, as many (perhaps too many) of the clergy were not from that social milieu and so the Church's life among working people was not as vibrant as it should have been.  Fr. Kelly is a fascinating character in himself, and the Kelham story is told well by Alistair Mason, SSM: History of the Society of the Sacred Mission (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1993). 

The great work of Fr. Kelly and SSM was the foundation and operation of one of the great seminaries of the Anglican world, Kelham, in Nottinghamshire.  The Church of England, battered in the 1960's from many sides,  decided it had too many seminaries, and in 1971 Kelham was closed.

Martin's description of his early years at SSM is a classic of the I-enter-the-monastery genre of writing.  If the reader knows what is coming, the writing is poignant, and left me almost in tears. 

What a wonderful gift SSM and Kelham were, not just to the Church of England, but to Christianity in general.  It is interesting to compare Martin's account to Richard Holloway's Kelham days, in his autobiographical Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013). 

Ralph Martin's early years in SSM took him in many interesting directions, but led ultimately to almost a decade as Provincial of SSM in the UK (1973-1981).  This occurred in the wake of the closure of Kelham and its internal troubles, and must have cost Martin a great deal.  He steered the community in new directions, which envisioned a broader concept of community life.  When his term was done, he began a remarkable career of ministries which took him to Japan, Ghana, back to the UK, Kuwait, Rome, Lesotho and Australia.  In all of those places his ministries were exemplary, and to read his accounts is to gain a glimpse of what a wonderful thing missionary monasticism can be in our age.

When OHC established Philip Quaque Monastery in Cape Coast, Ghana, the Prior was Christian Swayne.  Christian learned that the Ghanaian church wanted to start an Anglican seminary in Cape Coast.  He and Martin were old friends, going back to early Canada days.  So Christian wrote Martin asking him if he might be interested in heading up the seminary project, and the project began.

The seminary was a real string and baling wire operation in the beginning, and the anecdotes Martin tells are absolutely wonderful, giving a vivid picture of the early days of an important church institution.  OHC and the seminary were not the same by any means, but OHC people are prominent in the account of the seminary: Christian himself, Bonnell Spencer, who in his late 70's taught history and created the library from scratch, Boniface Adams, Leonard Abbah, and many others.  It is a priceless, brilliant word picture of a bit of OHC's history.  And all told with a generous and cheerful eye to human achievement with divine help in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

This is a wonderful book.  Wonderful because of the light a central participant in its history sheds on a great Anglican monastic community.  Great because of the picture it paints of vital Anglican Christian life in so many parts of the world.  But most of all, inspired in the character who tells his own story.  Ralph Martin is a shining exemplar of Christian discipleship, of monastic life well led, of profound and effective faith pointed toward the Kingdom.