Tuesday, August 4, 2009


In the midst of draining and difficult days, consolations emerge. Today I had a conversation with a woman whose years of lay ministry have gone generally unacknowledged by the church. Another person discussed the possibility of going to another part of the country to undergo a rare and difficult surgery. All that in the midst of my own discernment, my mother's move to assisted living and well, it's burdening.

And then, the unexpected occurs. We have a congregation of four for evening prayer (first time in a month, I think). I receive an email from someone I deeply respect, but have never met, which offers encouragement and joy. Consolations as small a the breeze sneaking in my office window and as great as the rolling green hills of CT summer.

I reckon it's best not to look for consolations or to lean too heavily upon them. They might just evaporate or dissipate. They might never appear again. Or maybe, I could become an agent of consolation.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Welcoming The Stranger

It has been many generations since my forbearers came to this country. My father’s great grandfather Pierre Delcuze immigrated to New Orleans from France after the Civil War to help in the rebuilding of the New Orleans public school system. Yet in my adult years, I have found myself a stranger in many places. Moves to Boston, West Virginia, Virginia and Connecticut have branded me as a “stranger” in many parts.

I have found the faith community in greater Danbury to be a place of profound welcome. Rabbi Jon Haddon was the first person outside my own congregation to send me greetings when I arrived in Ridgefield. Since then, Temple Shearith Israel has been my home away from home. Fr. Angelo Arrando opens his arms and the considerable hospitality of St. Gregory’s to many. The Rev. P.J. Leopold works daily at ARC assuring that every person who calls or walks in is treated with dignity.

Why do people of faith put such high value on hospitality and welcome? The Hebrew Scriptures have more than 100 references to special honor due the “alien” in the land. Recalling the enslavement of Israel’s children in Egypt, Holy Scripture calls on believers to treat aliens with special dignity. They are not to be mistreated; indeed they are to keep Sabbath rest alongside the believers.

In 4th Century Italy, the young monk Benedict of Nursia wrote that the monastics were to welcome each stranger as they would welcome Christ. This standard is a high one. We have all been taught to stand when a dignitary enters the room. We know to take a lower seat and let the honored guest sit at the head table. But Benedictines take this teaching further, insisting that every stranger bears the image of Christ.

My Episcopal heritage reinforces the essential worth of strangers in our midst. Every baptism includes this questions and answer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” Each time, the response is, “I will with God’s help.” Human dignity is not attained or granted by license, it is granted by the Creator who made each human being in God’s own image and likeness.

The effects of treating the other with dignity are indeed remarkable. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum describes how a monastery on the edge of failure asks the rabbi of the town for advice. After meeting with each of the aging brothers he tells the abbot, “I have no advice to give you, but the Messiah is one of you.”

As weeks passed each monk began to wonder who among them was the chosen one. Astonishingly, the monks began to treat each other differently. Regarding the gifts of those around them, they began to interact in new ways. Soon visitors could see the light of kindness in the place. Not long after the monastery began to thrive. Thanks to the Rabbi’s gift, and the brothers willingness to live differently.

Perhaps the best way to learn about welcoming the stranger is to recall times when we ourselves have been met with hospitality. Traveling across Wales by train during my sabbatical some years ago I made it as far as Swansea before realizing that I would have to stop for the night. I wandered into a Tandoori restaurant and threw myself at the mercy of the waiter. I told him I was tired and a long way from home. Knowing nothing of South Asian cuisine I asked him to bring me whatever he would eat tonight.

He told me that he too was a stranger in Wales. A Bangladeshi and a Muslim, he worked to support his extended family back home. As we talked, plate after plate of food came out. With each course I felt a little more human. When the meal ended, I asked for the bill. No charge, he insisted; you are my guest tonight. I left as much tip as I could and offered my As-Salamu Alaykum. It will always be counted among the greatest meals of my life.

In Jesus’ final parable he describes the great judgment of souls at the end of time. Here is the divine criterion for judgment: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

No papers, no passports, just people welcoming the stranger.

The Girl Effect

The crushing effects of global poverty are not simply the concern of international leaders or economic policy makers. Global poverty is a matter of personal ethical and moral significance for people of faith. In a tangible way, the question asked by Cain at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” resounds in the voices of billions around the planet, “Yes, you are”. At every baptism and confirmation in the Episcopal Church we vow to “respect the dignity of every human being”. Global poverty has a human face and its eradication has one too.

Often overlooked in attempts to eradicate poverty is a most vulnerable population: girls under the age of 24. The United Nations reports that more than one-quarter of those living in Asia, Latin America the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa are girls and women between the ages of 10 and 24. Datafinder (a service of the Population Review Board) reports more than 600 million girls live in the developing world. This population – already the largest in history—is expected to peak in the next decade. Stunningly, they add, for every development dollar spent, less than one cent goes to help girls.

Society’s neglect of girls and women is not a modern phenomenon. It is remarkable how many females are mentioned but not named in Holy Scripture. Noah’s three sons are named, but neither his wife nor his daughters-in-law have names. Elijah receives food and performs a miracle for the widow of Zarapheth but she remains nameless. One searches in vain for the names of the Woman at the Well, the Widow of Nain, Peter’s mother-in-law or the Canaanite Women.

Recently, groups including the Buffett family’s NoVo Foundation and the NIKE Foundation have united to produce The Girl Effect, an internet site dedicated to raising awareness of the suffering of young girls. They point to the 70% of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth who are girls. Lack of schooling contributes directly to the high ratios of girls who marry before the age of fifteen. Early sexual activity is linked to the horrifying statistic that 75% of all girls age 15 to 24 in Africa are living with HIV. By naming, training and equipping girls the world can be changed rapidly.

The Bible offers powerful images of girls and woman who have changed history. The laughter of Sarah, who overhears that she is to bear a child at age 99, becomes the boy Isaac: one of Israel’s patriarchs. Miriam, sister of Moses, leads the triumphal dance of the Hebrew people when God destroys Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. For Christians, the consent of Mary of Nazareth brings God’s plan of salvation to flesh and blood reality. On Easter Day, Mary Magdalene is the first to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

Helping girls brings immediate and tangible effects. An extra year of schooling for a girl increases her future wages by more than 15%. Girls invest two and a half times more of their earnings for the welfare of the families than do boys. Raising the standard of living for a girl can impact a family, a village, a nation which has ignored her and generations of women before her.

An old story is told of a mountain man who walks into town one day. He is exhausted from years of chopping down trees and splitting wood. The local hardware salesman announces he’s got just the solution; it’s a chainsaw. It can cut more wood faster than any three lumberjacks. Impressed, the mountain man buys the chainsaw and disappears into the woods. One week later he’s back in town and he’s angry. The thing doesn’t work at all. The salesman asks to see the saw. He flips the switch, pulls the cord and the motor roars to life. “What’s that noise?” the mountain man screams.

“The revolution will be led by a twelve year old girl” reads one of the banners at www.girleffect.org. Truth is that hundreds of societies across the globe struggle daily in poverty. Part of the solution is to engage the half of their population that has been ignored and misused. If everyone (including girls) is given the dignity of an identity, an education and the opportunity to contribute, then the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals are achievable. Poverty can be halved by 2015. And we can live in a world that respects human dignity; a world where every girl has a name.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My friend, Rabbi Jon

My best friend in Ridgefield is the town’s rabbi. My first day as Rector of St. Stephen’s, waiting on my desk, I found a hand written letter from Jon Haddon. It wasn’t the kind of pro forma letter that dignitaries greet each other with. It was an honest welcome to the community from someone who had lived here for two decades. Later the next week, Rabbi Jon and I had lunch together and the meal sealed the relationship. Countless community dinners, Shabbat services, Seder meals and coffee hours have followed along.

We have done plenty of work together. Jon sang the Isaiah 6 passage at my service of new ministry in Hebrew before reading it in English. I was present for both the ground breaking and first service in the new Temple Shearith Israel. We have publicly witnessed together for affordable housing and for protections for immigrants who are in the country without papers. I was privileged to give the dedicatory speech when Jon received the town’s Martin Luther King, Jr. award last January and to keynote at his retirement gala.

More important to me than all those acts of ministry are the deep laughter and occasional tears we have shared together. The final hymn at my service of new ministry was Alleluia, Sing to Jesus. Jon was well ahead of me in the retiring procession. When I got to the back of the church I found Jon singing at the top of his lungs. “Are you supposed to do that?” I shyly whispered. Rabbi Jon, clearly enjoying the music smiled: “Why, is there something wrong with my tenor?” Jon has helped me not to take myself too seriously, but he has also prodded me to be more assertive in a community where affluence can blind the consciences of faithful people. I’m glad Jon’s retired now. There are still a few restaurants in town and more than a few laughs we haven’t yet shared.

Saintly Stories

Meetings at St. Stephen’s: whether Staff, Bible Study and Executive Committee often begin with the rector offering an introduction/devotion. The two hundred plus commemorations in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer recall for me friends that I delight in introducing to parishioners and peers in their struggles and their victories. Remigius and Hilda, Macrina and Jonathan Daniels … they each had a moment to glorify God in their day. I try to disguise the better known ones to build suspense. For instance, I’ll describe the life of a 12th Century Italian soldier before revealing it is St. Francis’ Day or remind people that possession of the English Bible they are holding would have gotten them burned at the stake along with William Tyndale in the 16th century.

What is the draw of the saints for me? First, they are flesh and blood, human, just like us. Theresa of Avila asks God the reason for her suffering to which God replies, “This is how I treat all my friends” and then she retorts “no wonder you have so few of them”. Their boldness inspires me as well. The aged Polycarp is ordered to curse Christ or die to which he replies, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Lastly the saints are so profoundly connected to the places where they served. I have been to Columba’s Iona, Benedict’s Nursia and William White’s Christ Church, Philadelphia. I try to provide some of the landscape of their lives along with their words. Saints are not pious dreams or writers inventions but imitators of the Word made flesh, Jesus, our Savior and our friend. On days when the fabric of our church seems to be unraveling Athanasius stands boldly for truth. During seasons of epidemic, the courage of the Martyrs of Memphis shines brightly.

In 2006 I stood with a group of Anglican Friends of St. Benedict in Santa Croce (the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross in Rome). One of the Cistercians brought out a Roman crucifixion nail and pieces of the True Cross all brought by St. Helena from Jerusalem in the 4th century. After the monk left us, one of the pilgrims asked me “were those real?” I told him, “St. Helena traveled from Rome, found them in Jerusalem, and ordered them brought them here more than 1500 miles by ship and mule 1600 years ago. How real do you need them to be?” I say, meet the saints today. It will make the population of heaven that much more familiar when you get there.

Re-start and Re-direct

Now that my "discernment process" has a public face, people seem to want to know what I think. Of course, as a Myers-Briggs "E" for extrovert, I don't often know what I think until I've spoken it out loud or at least written it down. Community plays a crucial role for me in forming (and I suppose informing) what I think.

I'll start blogging these pages; even as I juggle parish ministry, dad hood and husband hood. The first posts will be "greatest hits" or at least "stuff that has appeared elsewhere". I'll try to add a little context when I can.

Your tolerance of a neophyte blogger who types with about six fingers will be gratefully received. I reckon that God will reckon this (as is God's way) the divine mercy. Maybe that's something we could all apply more liberally.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wandering out into the stream

It's time to start speaking about the world as I understand it. I believes that it is God who does the reckoning around here and my job as one creature of the Creator is to listen for what God is saying. God reckons. We all know the passage "Abraham believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Galatians 3:6). It wasn't Abraham or Sarah's doing that made God see right, it was God's doing.

It seems to me that there are scads of people out in the ethers ready to tell me what God sees as righteousness. They have their Scripture texts, their BCP texts and their Thirty-nine articles to prove it. The best I can say is "I reckon" I know what God is up to.

As a natural born southerner, I am entitled to a word like reckon. I think it means, "I'm calculating, but I haven't reached for the 'sum total button' yet". "I reckon it's gonna rain" is less an out and out prediction in the south and more of an inclination toward precipitation. Sometimes, it can turn out entirely different from what was said. "I reckon I like possum" can actually turn out to include, "particularly when it's fed to the dog after supper".

I reckon (am inclined to believe) the God reckons (has hit the sum total button). Hopefully, some day I will reckon exactly what God is up to.