26 November 2015

The World is Big Enough

Recently I've been listening to the soundtrack for "Hamliton", the musical that opened on Broadway in September of this year. The musical covers the life and death of Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton and was heavily influenced by the book: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chrenow.

The show has been in development for years, but the first I ever heard of it was when my son plugged his phone into the stereo system and blasted the first lines of the opening song.

My first thought was that this wasn't my type of music-- it is heavily rap and hip-hop influenced and just about the only rap I've listened to was Queen Latifa. That said, by the second song I was hooked and wanted to hear more.

I've since purchased the album and listened to it several times-- usually in the background while I was doing something else. This week I was visiting my parents and just hanging out and took some time to listen to the entire recording while reading the annotated lyrics at genius.com. When I got to the penultimate song in the show where Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel, and Hamilton is fatally wounded, I was struck by the last line-- in Burr's words: "The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me." Curious, I went and looked up his wikipedia entry and found that he was quoted later in life as saying: "Towards the end of his life, Burr remarked: "Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me."

All of this struck me because I have been thinking about two related ideas this week.
One is compassion fatigue. The idea that there are only so many things that I can care about before I begin to care about nothing.

The other is the disaster shell game where I see people saying 'but what about our veterans' when we are talking about refugees, when they never seemed to care about veterans before this. (See this for a more detailed overview.)

I realized a long time ago that I cannot care about everything that is important and I can't donate to every organization that is doing good work. There is only one of me and the world and it's miseries are so much bigger than I am.

This has not stopped me from giving my time and money to some of the organizations that I see doing good in the world. Instead I find that I am one among many and that while my little drop cannot fill a bucket on it's own, my drop adds to everyone else's drop to make a respectable dent in the bucket.

So when I see people saying that one cause is more important than another, or that we should solve X's problem before we tackle Y's issues, I find myself raising an eyebrow in disbelief. The thing with human beings is that we can't put one group on hold while we deal with another group's issues. We are temporal beings, bound in time, aging and dying from the moment of our birth. I can't say to children under 5, 'you must wait for safe daycare until we have homes for all of our homeless', because they might be 55 by the time we solve that problem. And that is assuming we actually put the resources we promised into ending homelessness and don't use the money to build ourselves a new stadium instead.

We have to work to solve the worlds problems concurrently, we have to say yes to 'both / and' instead of believing that we are stuck with 'either / or'.

There are enough of us that care.

The world is wide enough for not only our sins but for our redemption.

'Either / or' is the world of Aaron Burr, a man who had many fears and who seemed to live his life for the main chance, changing sides as needed to get ahead. 'Either / or' is the life of people who think there is only one right way (theirs) to solve problems.

'Both / and' makes room for many ideas and says that there is no one right way to get things done-- the only wrong choice is to do nothing.

I wonder if that is a the heart of one of the parables I have always found most difficult to get my head around: the parable of talents. A naturally conservative person, my sympathies were always with the servant who buried his talent in the ground. But now I see that that servant, in his own words, confesses to letting fear drive his actions: "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." (Matthew 25:24-25, NRSV)

It had never occurred to me that the third servant's true failing was not the lack of ability to make money for his master, but letting his fear drive his decisions. Unfortunately the parable lacks a counter example of someone who tried to do the right thing but lost all the money, so we don't know how the man going on a journey would have reacted to the loss of all of the money. But for the first time I can see this parable in a different light.

This leads me back to media and one of my favorite movies, "Strictly Ballroom." "Strictly Ballroom" is a romantic comedy about the amateur ballroom dancing circuit in Australia. It's heart, however, is the idea that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. It also plays with the 'fear of the other' motif as the protagonist gets to know his dancing partner's family who are Spanish speaking immigrants. Suffice to say that it has a lot of layers for a frothy dancing comedy.

When I live my life in fear, I lose sight of how the small contributions of my life, when added to the contributions of others, can have a big impact. I forget that while my cause may not be your cause, they likely intersect in a way that makes each of our work more powerful. I forget that the world is wide enough for many roads to lead to the same goal.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God's help.


This essay was orgininally published at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 25 November 2015.

Bible Gateway is an excellent web resource for reading the bible in a myriad of translations. I used the New Revised Standard Version in this post.

19 November 2015

Prosperity and Peace

One of the things that sends me right up the wall are people who preach the prospertiy gospel or any variant of the idea that if I live by the 'right' rules, pray the 'right' way, or give money to the 'right' person God will bless me and I will prosper. The converse being, of course, that if I don't do these things correctly the evidence will come in the form of failure, illness, poverty, and death.

Not only do I think that the magical thinking behind such beliefs is wrong, I belive it is the anti-thesis of what the Jesus experince is all about.

I was thinking about this in the context of all of the war, death, and tragedy that we have seen in the news this past week. Between terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and major storms many good people have suffered and died. Prosperity gospel would have us think that these people were somehow unworthy rather than just unluckly.

Jesus says to us that no one is unworthy. His words and actions, his stories and parables speak to the idea that those society are most likely to shun will come first in his Father's house.

No only do I belive that. I also belive that we have gotten the wrong end of who is supposed to be providing the prosperty. We know (or we should know by now) that poverty and distress are some of the major drivers of war and destruction. We know that when we join together to create jobs, communities, and a sense of stablity peace has a chance to grow and thrive. When we right injustice, remove oppressive forces, and provide opportunity we quiet the siren song of violence and make space for peaceful differences.

The psalm appointed for this Wednesday is number 122:

I was glad when they said to me, *
"Let us go to the house of the LORD."

Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;

To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the LORD.

For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
"May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions' sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.

Because of the house of the LORD our God, *
I will seek to do you good."

To me this pslam, at its heart, speaks to the idea that prosperity is the good earth that lasting peace grows in and that without prosperity we are at risk of losing peace.

By prosperity I don't mean outrageous wealth. I mean a sense of shared resources, a feeling of hope for the future, and the idea that we are all riding on this fragile earth, our island home, together.

Every person is created in the image of god and none are unworthy of his love.

Rather than looking to God to provide individual prosperity based on arbitrary rules, we should look to ourselves to provide prosperity to others. We should be wary of people who link wealth with worthiness and poverity with worthlessness.

None of us get to choose where or when we were born, what we can do is try to share what we have, to lift others up, and to follow the example of Jesus in whose eyes no one was unworthy.


This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 18 November 2015.

12 November 2015

Martin of Tours

The 11th of November is the saint day for St Martin Bishop of Tours (died 397 C.E.). He is most famous for splitting his cloak in two with his sword in order to share it with a beggar. He was a solider in the roman legions, a Christian at a time when the religion had just been made legal, and a reluctant bishop of Tours (in what became France).

Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I didn't have much experience with the idea of saint days. I don't know if it was because we didn't make a big deal of them in the diocese of Wyoming, or because I just never noticed. 

My first experience with St. Martin's day was through my housemate. Her father's family were Latvians who were displaced by World War II and who, after quite some time in the deportation camps in Europe, emigrated to America. She lost touch with her Latvian roots as many American-born children do and it wasn't until she was in her 30's that she began reclaiming that connection. She started learning Latvian from her father and joined a local Latvian dance troupe to begin participating in the Latvian community.

Mārtiņi (Martin's) is celebrated in Latvia (and many of the surrounding countries) every year on November 10th and traditionally marks the end of the autumn in-gathering and preparations for the winter to come. Part of the tradition includes mummers dressing up and going house to house (somewhat like Halloween in the USA) but it is also a harvest festival and celebration of the wealth that a good harvest can bring. During the years our housemate was dancing, we would attend the local Mārtiņi celebration to watch her troupe dance.

I had not realized until now how much St Martin's historical feast day had been a part of the development of our tradition of Advent. From the late 4th century through the middle ages, St Martin's day on November 11th, marked the beginning of 40 days of fasting through to Epiphany on the 6th of January. That period of preparation and fasting eventually grew (with other cultural influences) into our modern concept of Advent as a time of reflection and preparation for the coming birth of the Christ child.

The 11th of November is also Armistice Day, marking the end of the fighting World War I which later evolved (in the US) into Veteran's Day which is intended to be a day of thanksgiving, prayer, and "exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations" (from the original concurrent resolution passed by congress on 4 June 1926).

So let us give thanks on this day which has been host to a generous saint, the end of the first 'great war,' the remembrance of those who served and sacrificed in war (St Martin included) the joy of the harvest, and the beginning of fasting and anticipation of the birth of Christ.

Blessing be.


If you are interested here is a video that captures some of the spirit of Mārtiņi from a group of Australian Latvians. The title of the song roughly translates to 'Dance, Bears' and the dance shows off a bit of the mummer tradition.

This essay was originally published at Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 11 November 2015.

05 November 2015

A memory of fire

There are only three more Sundays until the beginning of Advent, and the start of a new church year.

I love Advent and have ever since I can remember. Halloween might be my personal high holy day, but Advent is the church ritual that speaks to me. 

It began when I was an acolyte in my home church in Wyoming. I loved being responsible for lighting the altar candles throughout the year and having a steady progression of additional candles to light just added to my delight in my role. There is something very powerful about being a child entrusted with fire.

The other part of the ritual of advent that drew me in was the element of story-telling, like Lent, each year I experience the same story different ways depending on the readings selected and on the way my own personal experience intersects with that narrative.

I remember the first year I heard the gospel of Luke on the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20) after the birth of my own son. He was three weeks old at the time and the words "But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." hit me like a freight train. I heard (and read) those same words countless times before but this time they spoke to me with a sublime intensity that I have never forgotten.

There is a power in the building narrative of the season of Advent and there is, for me a corresponding intimacy. Perhaps it comes from living in a part of the world where the sun sets in the afternoon and doesn't rise again for 16 hours by the time Christmas rolls around. Advent, for me,  is a time of being indoors with lamplight, of being in small intimate spaces from small-town church sanctuaries to living rooms all with candles lit to show the progression through the weeks from the start of Advent, that Christian New Year, to the celebration of the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve.

In all the secular hub-bub that is the lead up to Christmas, Advent stands a time of quiet reflection, a time to light a candle and meditate on the long ago and far away story that still speaks to us today.

I'm looking forward to getting my Advent candles and my Nativity sets out the week after Thanksgiving and using them to help me relive the core of my faith, that Jesus was born of a woman to live in this world with us and to show us a way through this life and at this season he speaks to me in the lighting of the flame.


This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 4 November 2015.