14 February, 2006

behold the power of children and chocolate

Okay, I was having a crummy valentine's day this morning. My beloved is on a business trip, and I'm a single parent for the week. Low blood sugar, almost late to school, listening to several instances of bad news from family and parish...

and then the 4-year-old class showed up.

I'm the 'special friend' for Mrs. X's 4-year-old class. (every staff member is adopted as a special friend by one of the classes.) They came and sang happy birthday to me last October, they made me a Christmas card, that sort of thing.

Today, it was coffee, home made chocolate-chip cookies (my favorite), and a knock-me-over-in-a-gang-tackle hug from nine children all cheerfully singing "happy valentine's day, father cristopher, we love you!"

some days I LOVE this job.

08 February, 2006

A sermon after Katrina

Someone asked for a copy of this several months back, and I forgot to post it.

* * * *

This week, all the news, all our conversation, seems to be circling around one thing: A great, spinning fury of wind and water named Katrina.

You’ve seen the news: a city underwater, homes destroyed. Hundreds of thousands fleeing the city, cars marching like ants along the highways out of town. Thousands dying in the streets when the levees broke. Hundreds of thousands homeless. Hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Bishop Duncan Gray of Mississippi sent out a letter asking for help. Six church buildings have been completely destroyed, several more badly damaged. The damages in the diocese of Louisiana are not yet counted, but they will be far more grim.

It may be true that some in our midst this morning are here because you’ve come from New Orleans. If so, know that you are welcome here, and that we grieve with you over the loss of life and the destruction caused by the storm.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees. That’s a number almost too big for us to grab hold of, almost too big to imagine. How can we grasp the idea of the drowning of a city?

I want to tell you a story from one of the refugees; I heard it over the weekend down at Kelley Air Force base, and I have permission to tell it to you.

Richard and Andrew Jones are brothers. They live, or I should say lived, in the same house in one of the poorer sections of New Orleans. They’re grown now, and their children have moved away. Richard’s hair is graying, and he walks with a limp, leaning on a walking stick. When the news came that evacuation was a good idea, they laughed. They’ve seen plenty of storms. Then the word changed from voluntary evacuation to mandatory evacuation. But neither of the brothers own a car. Neither of the brothers had enough money for a plane ticket, even if they could get a seat. And there weren’t enough buses out of town. So they settled in to wait. They put old sheets of plywood up over their windows where they could. They put duct tape across the windows. Richard got out his best walking-stick, a beautifully carved thing about four feet long. They packed the most precious things they owned into two backpacks, and carried some more things into the attic. And waited for the end of the world as they knew it.

The storm hit early Friday morning. The wind rose, and the rain fell harder and harder. The electricity went out first. So they lit a candle and turned on the battery powered radio. And the wind blew harder. Then their cell phones lost signal. And then the radio signal went out. And they sat there, together in the darkness, watching the flickering flame of the candle, and listening. Listening for the distinctive whistle of a tornado approaching. Listening for the sounds of breaking glass. Listening for the sounds of snapping timber and falling plaster.

This morning we heard the story of the night before the Passover. It’s a story we read every year, on Maundy Thursday evening. The same story we read when we remember the night before Jesus walked into the arms of suffering and death. It helps us remember a time in the history of God’s people when we were faced with almost certain destruction.

On the night of the Passover, the children of Abraham took a lamb, and spread its blood on the doorposts of their houses. They ate hurriedly, bags packed, shoes on their feet, walking sticks in hand.

That night there was great death and destruction in Egypt, and the children of Abraham fled, refugees from Egypt. They ran for their lives across the heat of the desert. But Pharaoh sent his army after them, and eventually the Hebrews found themselves trapped between the armies of Egypt and the sea. Nowhere to run. That night, the story tells us, Moses stretched out his walking stick over the waters of the sea, and there was a great wind all night long, so strong that the sea was blown back. And all that night, the people huddled together at the edge of the sea, listening in the dark, listening to the violent howl of the wind, listening for the sounds of chariots and the thunder of hooves that would herald the end of the world.

When morning came, to their great astonishment, there was a path through the sea. And they leaned in to winds strong enough to hold back the waves, and they passed through the sea to safety.

The day after the storm hit, the sun rose, though it made little difference beneath the clouds over New Orleans. The levees had been breached, and the water was rising fast. Richard Jones waded through chest-high water and got his old canoe, the one he used to take his boys fishing in. And he began to row through the debris. One by one, he picked up his neighbors, and rowed them to the local elementary school, where the roof was still above water. He dropped one off, and went back for another. And another. And another, till his arms ached and his hands blistered and bled. When the water was neck-high inside the houses, he finally went back for his brother Andrew and their dog. When I asked him how many people he’d rescued, he said he didn’t remember. But his brother Andrew spoke up for him. At least 35, he said. At least 35 lives. This is all we got left, he said. Everything else is gone. Just these bags. And then he opened up his backpack, and he said to me, I want you to know I’m not doing this just because I know you’re a preacher. And he reached into his pack, and pulled out a Ziploc bag, and inside was an old, weather-beaten Bible. One of the few treasures he carried with him through the storm, through the death and destruction.

Presiding Bishop Griswold wrote this a few days ago, in a letter to the church:
At this time let us be exceedingly mindful that bearing one another's burdens and sharing one another's suffering is integral to being members of Christ's body. I call upon every member of our church to reach out in prayer and tangible support to our brothers and sisters as they live through these overwhelming days of loss and begin to face the difficult challenges of the future.

What can we do about this?
Well, there are two urgent needs right now. The first, and most urgent need, is money. Money to feed and house thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed. The bishops of West Texas have asked us to take up a special offering, and we’re going to pass the plates twice today for just that purpose. Whatever we collect will go directly to disaster relief through the church agency called Episcopal relief and development. It’s a good organization, trustworthy, I’ve given to them before.

The other need is blood donations. There’s a bloodmobile outside, and they’re taking donations as fast as they can. Nobody’s going to mind today if you get up right in the middle of the sermon and walk out of church. If you’re out there during communion, we’ll bring it to you.

San Antonio may host as many as 25,000 refugees. Several thousand are at Kelly, and more planes were landing all day yesterday. There will be more needs in the weeks and months to come. And we will respond, as soon as we know what we can do. Right now, it’s kinda chaotic in the refugee shelters. Right now there’s a need for volunteers, to help things get set up. There will be more about this at the announcements before eucharist.

We have seen the destruction wrought by wind and water. We have seen despair. But our hope goes deeper than our despair. In the words of Bishop Duncan Gray of Mississippi, “as Christians, we understand the power of death. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina brings us face to face with the reality of death and the despair when hope seems crushed. But we are a people of both the Cross and the Resurrection.

The last word from God is not death, but life. God uses the open hearts, minds and lives of faithful souls to renew, restore and redeem that which seems beyond hope.”

07 February, 2006

Ink Smudges?

People have asked why I'm titling this "ink smudges." Or, what's with the references to fountain pens? Fair question. Below is a description originally published as part of a class project in web site design, now defunct, but may be floating around in google's archives somewhere.

Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.
- English novelist and dramatist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873)

What does it mean to write, to create language, with a thing of beauty? To make art with art? Is it to yearn, in language, for the beauty held in the hand?

The fountain pen calls to mind an era before word processors, an era when to communicate was both work and art. Today, more than ever, a handwritten letter is work, remarkably inefficient when compared to email or a phone call. And usually all the more precious for the recipient.

All of us who have written in a journal, or struggled with the delicate composition of a love letter or a sonnet, have experienced the frustration of staring through the cage of our own futile ink-strokes, as our limited mortality yearns and struggles toward the absolute beauty that lurks beneath the surface of a blank piece of paper, if we could only release it.

Fountain pen nuts know well the sensory reality of this creative genius. The nib scratches across the page, with a wonderful flexibility that allows you to shout in broad strokes or whisper in faint ones. The ink has a scent, either acrid or sweet. The paper has texture, smooth or rough, cottony or linen.

The magic is also in the making of art, as well as in the end product. And as those of us who use fountain pens know, the ink has creative magic. As you write, the ink reflects for an instant the light of heaven – your own words sparkling, pausing perhaps for self-contemplation, or perhaps for divine blessing, before drawing down into the page, anchoring into reality.

An open bottle of ink is a disaster waiting deliciously to happen. Keep an eye on it, and for heaven’s sake don’t knock it over—you never know what might happen. But there’s only so much ink in the reservoir, only so much divine creative spark available at a time. And then we have to flirt with danger. Like we puny mortals, our pens must deliberately recharge at our source of life. And in filling the pen, like in filling ourselves, we run the danger of coming in contact with the divine source of creativity. That can get messy – and stain us, so that the world can see our painted fingers days later.

Every so often, pens leak. Ever thought about what that means? I actually like getting ink all over my hands—the ink outlines in high relief God’s handiwork in my fingerprints. It reminds me that the gospel is not dry, contained, but living and active.

And then there’s the objects, the pens themselves. Different materials, different uses, from disposable plastic to mysterious resin to precious silver and gold. All with different and seductively sensual textures; smooth, cool, sharp, feather-light, heavy, regal.

The names of the models have meaning, too.

There’s a reason that nobody names a pen writer’s block. Or inarticulate.

What are you carrying in your pocket today? Did you even notice? Merely a pen, a writing stick, or are you carrying Elysium in your pocket? A little touch of heaven, exquisitely crafted, holding in its unseen womb a finite quantity (all the more precious) of divine inspiration waiting to be unleashed?

04 February, 2006

Writing sermons is hard, (part 3 of many)

Well, I knew that sooner or later this would happen to me. My rector (senior pastor) is famous for saying "life is what happens when you had other plans."

Last Saturday: I got sick. Went to bed six hours early.
Sunday: my beloved had a migraine.
Monday: first doctor visit of the week, to assess my son’s abscessed tooth
Tuesday: dental surgery, under significant sedative, to remove aforementioned tooth. Spent the remainder of the day dealing with recovering child.
Wednesday: frantic catch-up on Bible study prep and leading two studies, plus other administrative duties.
Thursday: my son threw up at school about two hours after we got there. He then threw up (or tried) every half hour all the way through Friday at 6 a.m.
Friday: visit to urgent-care clinic for IV fluids and ineffective anti-nausea medication.
Saturday morning: got up early and went to join vestry retreat in progress, out of town. Got home this afternoon.

Here it is, Saturday night, 8:00. I'm exhausted, haven't been to the gym in a week, and feeling vaguely sick myself. I did the heavy lifting exegetical work last week, which is the only good news. I don’t have a word down on paper, and my son is downstairs on the couch with a fever, watching cartoons, still unable to keep anything in his stomach. I’ll sleep in the same room with him (read: not in my own bed) again tonight, because he’s going to wake up sick and I’m going to have to clean him up and change the sheets for the 14th time. If I was at this point on a ‘normal’ week I might be absolutely paralyzed with anxiety and guilt. But somehow, I’m not.

Maybe it’s that I know that tonight, I’ll write something down, and tomorrow, I’ll stand up and try to say honest gospel truth, and it won’t be polished, and might even be awkward for the ear, and I’ll have to use a manuscript whether I like it or not, and I can’t do a whole lot about any of these things right now. Which is too bad, because somewhere in the convergence of Hamas elected and Justice Alito and the State of the Union and the President's "hopeful people" and burning embassies AND the second half of Isaiah 40 is a hell of a good sermon. But not from me, not this week.

I had a similar experience to this the Saturday after hurricane Katrina hit. I got to spend the vast majority of the week in the emergency shelters (sometimes it’s great to be the assistant pastor). So, Saturday night, another priest of the diocese and I were sitting in the makeshift chaplains’ office at the shelter, both of us completely out of gas, and we talked about what stories we’d heard and what we might say the following morning. I went home and wrote it down, in a rush, and that was that. But that week, everyone wanted to hear about the hurricane, and nobody cared that what I had to say wasn’t polished because they knew where I’d been. And I wasn’t all that nervous about it either.

Note to self: further reflection on anxiety levels and their cause needed.

02 February, 2006

Are you the chosen one?

Today is the feast day of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. To celebrate the day, we're playing a game at school. I told everyone that The Chosen One was on campus today, and if you asked someone "are you the chosen one?" and got it right, then the chosen one would bring you to my office and you would get a prize.

I've always wondered: how did Simeon know? Does greatness like that show on the face? Was it a gut reaction? Did he hear angel song? Did he get tired of looking, or did he spend long years in a constant state of anticipation?

And, when the messiah turned out to be a baby, was he surprised?

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.