14 October, 2006

Happy Schereschewsky Day!

I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.
--Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

Today is the feast day of this blog's inspiration (and patron saint, if you're into that kind of observance).

While I was in college, I roomed with a couple of fellow episcopalians (and a gaggle of assorted hangers-on) who once decided that we needed a patron saint. So we turned to the calendar of feast days in the Book of Common Prayer and went skimming through the odd and/or old names. Somebody saw October 14th, and made a comment like "sher-uh-shoe-ski?" (mispronouncing it) "who the hell is THIS guy?" As the longest and oddest name in the calendar of feast days, we adopted him as our unofficial patron.

Later on, we heard his story. And most of us were struck with a sense of awe at what God had done with this little man, and a small measure of shame for having made fun.

At the consecration of the new suffragan bishop for West Texas, the sermon (one of the finest I've heard in a while) featured St. Sam as its central character. Unfortunately, Bishop Hibbs either didn't use a text, didn't offer it for publication, and/or it wasn't recorded, or else I'd post it here.

a biography, taken from "st. sam's cyberparish" at www.stsams.org

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky was born in Lithuania in 1831, went to Germany to study for the rabbinate, there became a Christian, emigrated to America, trained for the priesthood, and in 1859 was sent by the Episcopal Church to China, where he devoted himself from 1862 to 1875 to translating the Bible into Mandarin Chinese.

In 1877 he was elected Bishop of Shanghai, where he founded St John's University, and began his translation of the Bible into Wenli (another Chinese dialect). He developed Parkinson's disease, was largely paralyzed, resigned his position as Bishop of Shanghai, and spent the rest of his life completing his Wenli Bible, the last 2000 pages of which he typed with the one finger that he could still move.

Four years before his death in 1906, he said: "I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted."

From William Steven Perry's Bishops of the American Church (1897):

The third missionary bishop of the Church in the United States appointed to China was a native of Russian Lithuania, and was born in Tanroggen, May 6, 1831.

He was educated in the schools of his native town and in the adjacent town of Krazi, and at the Rabbinical College at Zhitomeer, in Russia. He was a student for two years at the University of Breslau, Germany, On coming to this country he was for a time in the Western Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, but afterward entered the General Theological Seminary. He received deacon's orders in St. George's Church, New York, July 7, 1859, from the first Bishop Boone, who ordained him to the priesthood in the mission chapel at Shanghai, October 28, 1860. In 1875 he was elected by the House of Bishops to the missionary episcopate of Shanghai, but declined. Two years later he was again chosen to this office, and was with difficulty induced to accept. He received the doctorate in divinity from Kenyon in 1876, and from Columbia the following year.

He was consecrated in Grace Church, New York, October 31, 1877, by Bishops Bosworth Smith. Henry Potter, Bedell, Stevens, Kerfoot, and Lyman. After most faithful labors in his field, failing health compelled his resignation of his episcopate, which was accepted by the House of Bishops in 1883.

The celebrated Professor Max Müller, of Oxford, stated to the writer in 1888 that Bishop Schereschewsky was 'one of the six most learned Orientalists in the world.' He has translated from the Hebrew the whole of the Old Testament into the Mandarin dialect. He was one of the committee having charge of the translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into the same tongue. Together with the bishop of Hong-Kong, Dr. Burden, he has translated the Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin. He has also translated the Gospels into Mongolian, and has prepared a dictionary of that language. He has (1895) just gone abroad to perfect and publish these translations, which have occupied his time since the resignation of the episcopate.

01 October, 2006

The heavens are telling

When I was a boy, I didn't see the stars very much. I grew up in Austin, which even back then was a city of several hundred thousand people, and there was lots of light pollution, and you couldn't see much of the stars. Later we moved to the Houston area, which was even worse. Houston is a huge, sprawling place, with lots of people and lots of lights and lots of smog and lots of clouds. On a good night in Houston you can see about ten stars.

I knew there were more of them up there, of course. We'd take car trips sometimes at nights, and stop for gas in the little towns in between big cities. I liked to wander just a little, out away from the buzzing fluorescent lights and out away from where the June bugs and the moths distracted you, and look up at the sky. It was a little better then. You could see lots of stars, hundreds maybe, even on the Texas Gulf Coast. I always knew that somewhere up above the dense, sticky humid air, somewhere waaaay far away, there were these lights in the sky, and it was a little secret thrill just to see them when I could.

But the real beginning of my love affair with astronomy began when my parents took me camping out at Big Bend state park, out there in the direction of El Paso, miles and miles away from any city, and up in the mountains of West Texas.

You ever seen the stars on a really dark night, up high out of some of the atmosphere, out away from the city lights? Out there, the stars are amazing. As a little boy, my eyes were drawn to the sky like iron filings to a magnet. The stars weren't little dim dots in the sky, fighting their way through the haze. They shone like diamonds dropped on black velvet. They had colors! Red and yellow and blue-white and orange and gold. They twinkled and flickered, fluttering like the beating hearts of living things.

Those were the stars that Abraham saw, the founder of the nation of God's chosen people, who heard the call to go and bless the world, and obeyed.

Those were the stars that Moses saw, up on the mountain receiving the law.

Those were the stars that Jesus and the disciples saw, as they rowed across the Sea of Galilee by night.

Those were the stars that the ancient Hebrew poets saw, exiled from their homeland and held captive in Babylon, when they wrote and compiled the scriptures that make up what we call the Old Testament.

I can imagine an old Hebrew man, sitting beside a stream in the darkness, a thousand miles from his home, staring up at those same stars I see, and softly singing

The heavens are telling the glory of God
With wonders of God's work resounds the firmament.

That's certainly not what the children of Babylon were told. Do you know the Babylonian creation story?

The story is told in an epic poem, known by its first two words: Enuma Elish.
The story tells how Tiamat, the great dragon, the mother of all the gods, takes part in a great war in heaven. The gods fight, and Marduk, the chief god of the city of Babylon, crushes her head with a club. Then he takes a sword and slits her right down the middle, and from her corpse he creates the world. Her guts become the world, and her skin becomes the sky, and that sort of thing. And Marduk, because he is the strongest, sets up the laws of the universe. Then he kills Tiamat's consort, and from his corpse he takes the materials to make human beings, so that the humans can do menial tasks for the gods.

You, and everything that is, was born out of violence. You are made of the corpse of a dead god. The gods only made you for menial labor. The gods are still watching, and though there is some order in the universe, the gods might come and get you if they feel like it. The whirling things in the sky are watching you. The gods are capricious and wicked, at war with each other. The earth has meaning, but its meaning is nasty, and life is brutal.

That's what a Babylonian child grew up hearing.

But that's not the story I was told in school.

Here's what my teachers and textbooks taught me: A long time ago, a very, very long time ago, the universe began with a huge cataclysmic explosion. For a short fraction of a second, everything was heat and light, all the energy in the known universe in one place. Then everything went rushing outward, faster than we can realistically contemplate. Some of the stuff of the universe formed into great burning balls, and then those balls eventually burned up and coalesced into stuff like carbon, and then those stars exploded, and from the leftover stuff form the explosions, planets were formed.

So much later that it's difficult for our minds to contemplate, on one of those planets around a small star, conditions were just kinda accidentally right for life to happen, and so life started. We don't really know how, and we can't duplicate it, of course, but somehow the little microscopic thingies lined up in the right order and something unusual happened and the little microscopic bits did something else and then they were alive. And so life on Earth began with some kind of pond scum, probably. And some of that pond scum survived, and it grew up and became bacteria and tadpoles and dinosaurs and trees and roses and penguins and other critters.

And then, so the story goes, something called natural selection takes over. Natural selection says that the strong critters survive and the weak critters get eaten, which is okay because the weak critters are, well, weak, and I guess they deserve to be eaten. So whatever it was that made the strong critters stronger than the weak critters gets passed to their children, and after a really long time you get a species of critter that doesn't look anything like what you started with.

And the universe doesn't care.

The universe, says this creation story, is vast beyond our imagining. It is almost completely empty, and bitterly cold, with only a few accidental pockets of heat and light. The world is that way it is, and it is utterly merciless and without pity, indeed without consciousness at all. And you, you blobs of overgrown pond scum, are great cosmic accidents, who probably shouldn't be here at all. You are so small and so insignificant you can't possibly begin to imagine it. Life has no meaning whatsoever.

The creation story in the first two or three chapters of Genesis is often set against the big bang theory, and you often hear them described as diametrically opposed, as if they were mutually contradictory. I've been asked, "are you a scientist or are you a Christian?" or "do you believe in evolution or are you a Christian?"

The key point, I think, is that the old Hebrew poets who gazed at the stars didn't know the theories of Galileo or Copernicus or Joss Hawthorn or Steven Hawking. What they knew was that their children were being taught that they were born in violence, and that the universe was subject to the capricious whims of god who were constantly at war. That only the strong survive, and the weak are killed, and they deserve it.

And so the Hebrew poets told a story of creation that begins in the same way the Babylonian creation story begins: with nothing. In fact, the order of creation is the same in the two stories--first there is light, then the sky, then the earth, and so on. But the Bible's creation song has a refrain that separates it from the other story. Do you remember what Genesis says, over and over, at the end of the days?

And God saw that it was good.

And at the end of the song, God saw everything that God had made, and God said, it is very good.

In this version of the story, human beings are made by God's own fingers, scooped up out of the dust of the ground, and they carry in their nostrils God's own breath. Rather than being slaves to the whims of violent Gods, Abraham and his descendents, both genetic and spiritual, are covenant partners with God. Covenant partners to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

This leads us to the question of how God interacts with the world, and what it means when bad things happen, or at least start the beginning of the introduction to the answer to that question... stay tuned.

Today, we baptize [John Doe]. What story shall we tell him as he grows up?
Shall we tell him that he is an accident? Or shall we tell him that he is created in God's image?

I think we tell him that the universe is vast and magnificent, that it is orderly rather than capricious. I think we show him the stars, and teach him Newton's laws of motion, and show him pictures from the hubble space telescope of the birth of new stars, and let him experience the awe and wonder of the majesty of the universe. I think we teach him the ancient song of the Hebrew poets, who said "the heavens are telling the glory of God."

I think we tell him that he matters, that he is created in the image of God who made and blessed and continues to bless the world, and that his life is intended to bless the world as well.

And so is yours.