Christ on the Cushion

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school, was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my fathers and not my mothers. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” per the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful”. I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13-14, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. IT just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the scripture or bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the US. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva”, a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand as well before.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me and in its place, was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing these teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are also complexly intertwined and simultaneously always available to me. I still learning, debating, meditating, praying and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason…a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

Reflections from Christmas Eve in Iraq – 2016

by Owen Chandler

The chapel is quiet right now. The only noise comes from the Black Hawks and Chinooks preparing to take off to destinations around Iraq. It is Christmas Eve. The rain is pouring and the ground is rapidly covered in a type of mud that is anything but festive. It bogs the mood of the camp, but the war effort does not slow. I have been here for every holiday this year. It never slows, not even in Taji, a place far from the thunder of the front lines.

In just a few short hours, the Australian Padre, fellow US chaplains and I will lead a candlelight service celebrating once again the birth of the Prince of Peace. We will sing traditional carols as military personnel and contractors from around the world pause to pay homage. It is a wonderful reminder. Men and women have looked to this event with hope-filled wonder for many years.

I think a great deal about peace these days. Whether it is Iraq or Syria, it is difficult for those who care not to watch with broken hearts. I feel fortunate to be part of an ongoing operation trying to do something about the tragedy we all see on our screens, but it never seems to be enough and it never seems to move fast enough. The destruction is indiscriminate and especially brutal to those most vulnerable: the elderly, women, and children.

As I unpack the candles for the service, I meditate on the last year. I’m getting ready to leave. The battles still rage to my north and probably will for some time to come. There is a certain guilt I cannot help but feel as I prepare to leave. I get to go home. I get to hug my wife and children and sleep in relative safety under the beautiful Tucson night sky. If I want, I do not have to even consider the war-torn events I am poised to leave. It is a strange luxury lost on most of our country. I am ill at ease with that reality. And so I wonder and pray, what will PEACE look like for this part of the world?

One of the officers at lunch recounted the story of the Christmas Truce from WWI. I googled it when I returned back to my office. The story perfectly illustrates how, during the weeks leading to Christmas, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace. The story has the feel of myth. As it goes, roughly 100,000 British and German soldiers were involved in an unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees. Both sides joined in singing Christmas Carols, shouting greetings across the way. They even made excursions across No Man’s Land to exchange gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol.

How were they able to peer past their training and their reality to see the peace being celebrated in the birth of Christ? I think of the enemies we now face and I cannot imagine a similar scene. I cannot see the same opportunities of make-shift sacred space or a common understanding of humanity. During the Christmas Truce, there was a stalemate in the trenches. There was a space created in the impasse. The space was steeped in desperation and prayer. It became a sacred moment juxtaposed with the coming Christmas morning. There was time to actually consider the story of the one hunkered in the opposite the trench. The soldier was drilled to believe that the enemy soldier is the enemy of all life and all future. But in the space in between, they saw a common humanity. They saw the image of God within the other. In a season where we celebrate hope, joy and love, peace overcame them, even if for only a short while.

In some respects, it is probably not completely fair to compare this current conflict with that one so long ago. As I hear the approaching steps of a chaplain, one cannot help but wonder, however. Have the last 13 years of war has created a similar type of stalemate? This deployment has created more questions than answers. Will we be able to take the tragic spaces created by war and make them holy? How will peace be possible if we are unable or even unwilling to see our own stories, sons, and daughters in the faces of our enemy? I do not know. In our candlelit circle tonight, there will be no elements of the enemy. There will be no echoing songs coming from battle lines afar. No gifts. No sharing of photos of family. No laughter. After nine months however, I can attest that the same desperation and prayer will be here tonight.

The problem of peace is nothing new. I had hoped that this problem would be one I would not have to pass down to my children awaiting my return. I imagine that same hope was a driving reason for the anticipation surrounding Christ’s birth so long ago. And so tonight we will sing. And we will pray. And we will lift the light of Christ high into the air. And we will welcome the Prince of Peace, trusting like those soldiers did a hundred years ago that peace can be born in the most hopeless places.

Peace,
Owen

Hope in a Child

by Abigail Conley

“I think you have a kid in there,” I said, nodding toward his truck, and taking his empty cart back to the return for him.

“Thank you so much,” he answered, looking relieved.

Both of us were crazy enough to go to Costco in the week before Christmas and just happened to park near each other. I confess, I second guessed taking his cart for him. Mostly, I second guessed because women doing things like that for men in public space isn’t expected. I almost did it as soon as I headed toward the return with my own cart, but walked past him just a little bit. I looked back to talk to him, to offer to take his cart for him. In that split second, I might have seen his hesitation to walk away from the truck where his child was safely strapped in a car seat. I don’t know. I do remember what was expressed more deeply than usual, “Thank you so much.”

I’m quite certain he didn’t know that I’d seen him earlier, along with his son, inside the store. I was sitting at the restaurant, quickly scarfing down a slice of pizza before heading on to my next task. He walked by, between my cart and the wall, pushing his cart with both purchases and son. I noticed him because his son was crying. When I say crying, I mean that horrible version of crying that children do when they’re just done.

I’d taken notice because of the crying, and then I saw a father being a very good father. They had a smoothie, and the child wanted some. As he cried, the father gently coaxed, “Use your words.” Over and over, again, “Use your words.” The phrase is familiar, one often heard spoken by teachers and parents of young children. Those words struck me differently today, though, as the man spoke them to his son.

I thought about them after he left Costco, as I was finishing up my pizza and walking to my car. It’s the week before Christmas; the walk to the car in a Costco parking lot is extra long. I let the please, “Use your words,” roll over in my mind, thinking how different the world would be if we used our words, instead.

My mourning for Syria has been long and deep. A “complete meltdown of humanity” the news says. That might be the best summary imaginable if even half of the news making it to this part of the world is true. I fear we actually don’t know the half of it. My fear as leaders talk of the need for more nuclear weapons is deep, as well. Words, it seems, are always used to cry out for something more, too often, that thing is violence. It seems that’s the go-to answer right now, with no one quite sure how to put a stop to it all.

I don’t know any more about that father than what I just told you. Who knows what he’s like day in, day out. I have hope, though, that this father coaxing his very, very young son to use his words rather than have a tantrum might do even more good with that child in the long run. Use your words, not your fists. Use your words, not a weapon. Use your words, face to face. Use your words first, and finally.

It is the absurdity of the season, after all, that our deepest hope is in a child—a child called the Word, made flesh, and dwelling among us. The child, called Word, brought all sorts of hope along into that manger, including that swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would not learn war any more. The beauty of that impossibility lingers deep these days, the promise that we will one day put away our many, many tools of destruction.

For today, while I still await the Christ child’s coming, I am comforted a bit by this man and his child. The hopes of this season run deep: the hope for peace; the hope for fear to subside; the hope that our words become enough. To this man who I’ll likely never see, again, thank you so much.

The Silence in the Shattered Glass

guest post by Andria Davis, Acting Senior Minister at Church of the Beatitudes in Phoenix, Arizona

In order to enter the main buildings of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, a visitor must walk down the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations.

Situated in the middle of a large garden, this tree-lined walkway and the surrounding landscape commemorates those many non-Jews who risked their lives and their livelihoods in order to save Jews from the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

As you walk down the Avenue and stroll reflectively through the winding paths that weave through the surrounding garden, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you realize that each of the more then 2,000 trees that line the paths were planted to commemorate a unique person, and that each tree represents the life of one who worked diligently and under great threat to save the lives of countless others.

And as you walk through the garden, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you learn the stories of some of the thousands of names engraved on the stone walls that form the many coves and inlets, and when you hear the many stories of the ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

If you are like me, you may become overwhelmed with awe as you look around you, and you cannot see through the trees and benches and the signs and engravings, through those more than 25,000 markers commemorating those who worked diligently, ceaselessly to save the Jews from certain extermination.

I imagine that of many who walk down the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations or who take time to sit with names that fill the garden walls, that they are as much overwhelmed by the stories of those remembered there, as they are by their own answers to the question: in the same situation, would I have done the same?

Would I have opened my door to that frantic knock in the middle of the night? Would I have opened that hidden passage in my house? Would I have secretly employed those fleeing for their lives and would I have arranged for their escape? Would I have said yes when the call came, or would I have said no?

A few years ago, as I sat in that Garden, I wanted to so badly to say that I too would have been counted among these who risked their lives to choose good instead of evil.

I wanted so badly to know that when faced with an impossible decision between my life and the lives of many others, the pursuit of safety for the many would have been the only pursuit I could follow.

I so badly wanted to be assured that when faced with the decision between what is right and what is wrong, I would always choose the hard path of righteousness and integrity over the easy path of complacency and status quo.

Above all, I wanted to know with conviction that when the world goes to pieces and all goodness, and all peace, and all love seems gone, that I would follow unwaveringly in the way of Christ, who said as he did in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, that it is better to sacrifice yourself in the name of justice, than to sacrifice another in the pursuit unreflective, unjust harmony.

In today’s passage, Jesus offers us a black and white way of living. He offers us a stark reminder of the obligations of one who calls him or herself a Christian.

Hear his words:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” – Mark 9:38-50

For the faithful who strive to follow in the way of Christ, this is a black and white edict that comes to us who live in a much greyer world.

It comes to us in a world where right and wrong do not always appear so cut and dry and where our convictions sometimes have unintended consequences.

It comes to us in world where the small and individual injustice can build like a cancer, growing within us without our notice, that then spreads into the very blood and bones of our societal, religious and civic systems, unable to be amputated from us as we would a sick limb.

As you sit in the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, among the trees and plaque commemorating the 25,000 brave souls who risked it all, life and limb, to save others, it’s hard to grapple with the thought that we ourselves might not have been so brave.

On the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, there is a quote from a named Martin Niemoller, who was a Lutheran minister in Germany during the Holocaust.

As a young man, he distinguished himself in the Navy as an officer and commander of a German U-Boat during World War 1. He was proud of his country and his service, but after Germany’s defeat in the first world war, he found himself at political odds with Weimar government.

Forced to give up his U-Boat and his office, he, like many Germans, felt like the changing government had abandoned him and all he stood for.

Disenfranchised, he sympathized with and supported the rising Nazi government.

Niemoller went on to pursue seminary and found himself in a prominent church in Berlin, where he was widely supported and his anti-Semitic sermons were well attended.

Quickly, however, Niemoller’s support for the Nazi government began to wane.

But It wasn’t the dangerous and xenophobic policies that were being solidified under the Nazi regime that ignited in him the spark of resistance, it was, instead, the Nazi interference in the life of the church and the removal rights of Christian of Jewish decent that caused him to take action.

It short, it was only when his own rights began to be infringed upon, that he spoke up.

Regardless of his motivations, his actions against the Nazi government were impactful and led to his arrest, apparently under orders from Hitler himself. Niemoller the spent the rest of the war imprisoned in concentration camps.

Unlike millions of others, Martin Niemoller survived the war imprisoned by the Nazis. His survival allowed him to live on into late life as an ardent anti-war activist, who spoke with ferocity about the importance of not remaining silent in the face of injustice.

His most famous quote, which is known in a few different forms, is inscribed on the Holocaust memorial in Boston. It reads as follows:

“They came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”

I saw this quote shared widely this past Wednesday.

Among other things, it was the 78th anniversary of one of the defining moments of the Second World War, an event that is widely understood to be the beginning of the Holocaust as we know it.

On November 9th, 1938 Germans, fueled by anti-Jewish sentiment and supported by Nazi-issued propaganda, went on a rampage of terror that specifically targeted Jewish business, synagogue, and Jews themselves.

According to Nazi totals, 8,000 buildings across Germany were vandalized and defaced with anti-Jewish slogans and slurs. Nearly 100 Jews were murdered. Glass from widows strewn the streets, giving the event the name Kristallnacht – Crystal Night – the Night of Shattered Glass.

Two days later, on November 11, 30,000 thousand Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen.

This act brought to the surface the reign of terror that had already existed in Germany, and would soon be on the forefront of the minds of people across the world.

They say that hindsight is 20/20 – that when we know we now know, we can look back and feel confident about what we would have and could have and should have done.

That when we look back on that day, 78 years ago, we can proclaim boldly that had we known

Had we known that this is what the future held,

We would have stood up.

We would have spoken up.

We would have put our bodies in between rocks and widows,

and used our selves as human shields.

We would have opened our homes and our safe spaces to our brothers and sisters and we would have gathered, arm in arm, linked in front of the rail cars, the tanks and the trucks to do everything in our power and anything at all, to reorient the world toward justice.

It is that 20/20 vision in hindsight tells that it would have been us, doing just what Jesus called on us to do:

That if we had been there, on that pivotal day 78 years ago, it would have been us giving up our hands and our feet and our eyes that our brothers and sisters might have a future in which they could continue feel and walk and see.

It would have been us.

We would have fought and screamed and risen up and joined together.

It would have been us.

We would not have stayed silent.

But two days later 30,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Over the next six years, millions more would take that same journey. Millions would die.

Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran Minister who devoted his life to follow in the way of Christ. And yet even as a follower of Christ, an ordained minister, he felt sympathy for the ideologies of the Nazi government – ideologies that tended toward pointing a finger rather than lending a hand; ideologies that would exclude people who thought and acted and believed differently than the prevailing power; ideologies that said that ‘whoever is not with us is against us,’ rather than the ideology of Jesus who declares “whoever is not against us, is with us.”

It wasn’t until the communities of which he was a part and Niemoller himself came under attack by those ideologies, that he began to take action against them.

For his life following the war, Niemoller is said to have lived with the guilt of not taking a stand against those forces of evil until they came knocking on his door, when all the networks and systems that were designed protect him and those around him, had been stripped away.

“They came for the Communists,” he wrote, “and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up.”

On Wednesday morning, I read Niemoller’s quote attached to an article depicting the events of Kristallnacht, 78 years ago. By Wednesday evening, I had read the poem more times than I could count, shared not in response to the historical past, but to the real and pressing present, shared in response to events that had happened that very day.

She was shopping in Walmart. A woman came up to her and ripped her Hijab off her head. “this is not allowed anymore, so go hang yourself with it around your neck not on your head.”

            They came for my Muslim brothers and sisters,

but I did not speak out because I am not a Muslim

They woke up to a note on their car. “I can’t wait for your ‘marriage’ to be over turned.  Gay families burn in hell.” Signed ‘#Godbless.

            They came for my LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

but I did not speak up because I am not LGBTQ

He came out to his car to find all four tires slashed.

She found hers covered in graffiti. “Go back to Africa you N word, you B word.”

A black baby doll was left in the gutter with a noose around its neck.

            They came for our Black brothers and sisters

but I did not speak up because I am not black.

She was walking to math class at her high school

She was pumping gas

She was getting coffee

She was heading home

“Why aren’t you gone yet?”

“Build a wall”

“Grab her by the…”

“I should kill you right now, you’re just a waste of air.”

            They came for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives.

But I didn’t speak up because I am not a woman.

I didn’t speak up, not for my Muslim brothers and sisters, not for my Black brothers and sister, not for LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

I did not speak up for my immigrant brothers and sisters or my disable brothers and sisters. I did not speak up when it mattered the most.

As Christians, we must remember: they also came for Christ.

It wasn’t because he expressed a theological doctrine or dogma that ruffled the feathers of the powers that be, but because he spoke out for his brothers and sisters:

For the tax collectors and widows,

The prostitutes and the impoverished.

They came for Christ because he dared to say, “you matter” to those that society had pushed aside.

They came for Christ, but by then, Christ knew it was too late.

Jesus gave himself to the cross that no others should have to live and die as he did – that in his sacrifice, he could offer up a different view of the world – one in which all of God’s beloved creation lives in peaceful harmony befitting the kingdom of God.

But in his sacrifice, he did not absolve us, his followers, of our God given purpose in life and faith, that which is our salt and our saltiness.

He did not absolve us of our call to build around us world in which silence in the face of injustice cannot and does not prevail, where the evils xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and sexism are finally and eternally amputated from who and what we are; and a world in which all people are showered with the grace and dignity that is required to be shown all children of God.

You are the salt of the earth, he says.

But if salt has lost its saltiness, what good is then, but to thrown on the ground and trampled under foot. What good is it, if we, as Christians, do not share with the world our Christ-given call to stand behind and fight for our convictions of justice and peace?

You are the light of the world, he says. But what good is it if we should hide our light under a basket so that the world cannot see it and be shrouded in darkness. What good is it, if we do not illuminate a path forward with visions of love and hope?

How will you share your light? How will you season the world with the saltiness of God’s love?

My friends, we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

We are the voices that ring out in the silence.

We are people who stand up to show the world that the Kingdom of God is real, and that peace and justice and hope and love are at its foundation.

It’s time to stand up. It’s time to speak out. It’s time to let our light shine. Amen.

 

It’s the Fear of New Life

by Talitha Arnold

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear (of the Jews), Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.'” – John 20:19

According to John, it was fear “of the Jews” that made the disciples huddle behind locked doors.  Not only have such statements spawned Christian anti-Semitism for centuries, but I think John got it wrong as to the root cause of their fear.  They weren’t just afraid of the “other” (aka “the Jews”) nor even of death. I think they feared new life.  I know I do sometimes. Perhaps you do, too.

The truth is, such fear resonates through the Resurrection stories. The women ran from the tomb in fear. The guards trembled with fear, “like dead men.” When the disciples saw the Risen Christ by the Sea of Tiberias, they were afraid to ask who he was because, John states, “they knew it was the Lord.”  If that were true, their lives would never be the same. Now there’s a scary thought.

So perhaps they locked the doors out of fear of the religious leaders or the Romans or anyone else they were afraid would do them harm. But perhaps they also shut the doors because they were afraid of him, the Resurrected One, the one who promised them new life. Because if he lived, they would have to live, too.  Really live.

No wonder they bolted the doors. Of course, if he were strong enough to break the bonds of death, he could make it through their doors—and their fears. He probably could make it through ours as well.

Prayer

Risen Christ, break through our defenses and our doors. Give us the courage to be open to your new life.

Patrick: A Model for All People of Faith

by Kenneth McIntosh

It’s no wonder that celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is huge in America, where people of Irish ancestry outnumber the population of Ireland 5 to 1. Saint Paddy’s festivities take the nature of a celebration of ethnicity, in large part due to the fact that the Irish had to struggle against prejudice in order to be regarded as equal in this country. But there’s often something lost in the celebrations of ethnic pride and the bacchanalia of Saint Patrick’s day: we forget the spiritual legacy of an exceptional historical figure. Patrick is a model not just for Catholics or Irish but for all people who value justice and faith.

There is a curious contradiction in studies of Patrick: one the one hand, we know him better than any other person who lived in Western Europe in the 5th century. He alone bequeaths us an autobiography that reveals the inner psychology of a person who lived in that time and place. Yet it is also true that we know very little about him; Patrick tells us only what he deemed valuable to reveal under a particular set of circumstances. Patrick’s Confessio is, like the epistles of Saint Paul, written to address a specific occasion (in Patrick’s case, a summons to return to Britain for a church trial). There are many things –which modern audiences are interested in– that Patrick saw no reason to reveal.

Patrick was born sometime between 360 and 400 CE. Historians have long opted for the latter date, but recent revision of dating Patrick’s writing advocates an earlier timeframe. For this article, I’m favoring a birth date around the turn of the century.

One thing we do know, he was NOT born in Ireland. The person most associated with Ireland was born as a Briton, in a town called Bannaven. Patrick’s own statement about his birthplace is unfortunately impossible to correlate with a modern place, since his is the only reference to Bannaven. There is strong reason to believe it may have been in modern day Wales, likely in Pembrokeshire; yet other historians argue for a birthplace in southwest Scotland, and I have an English friend who is sure Patrick hailed from Cumbria which is now part of England. It seems everyone wants to claim Patrick as their hometown hero.

He came into life as a Romanized Celt, part of the far-flung Empire. After three centuries of occupation he would have dressed, followed customs, and spoken like a Roman. Officially, the entire Empire was Christian following the edict of Theodosius and Gratian in 380, making Christianity the Imperial religion. Although all citizens of the Empire were now ostensibly Christian, for many their forced conversion was only skin deep and Patrick by his own confession was only nominally Christian.

In the year 410 the Roman Legions completely withdrew from Britain. For three centuries Rome had striven to demilitarize the occupied populace, to discourage rebellion; thus when the Imperial armies withdrew the Britons were left as sheep for the wolves (Irish, Pictish and Saxon) who rushed in to divide up the island. Large numbers of people living on the West coast of Britain were taken as slaves by Irish raiders. Patrick, 16 years old, was one of those captured.

Patrick spent six years in Ireland as a slave. Lacking human solace, his nominal faith became real. He says that he prayed more than 100 times each day. He not only spoke to God, but he learned to hear God’s voice speaking inside of him, and that led to the first great miracle of his life.

When he was 22, Patrick heard an inner voice, telling him “Get up! Your ship is waiting!” The boat that God indicated as his escape from bondage happened to be on the other side of Ireland, more than a hundred miles to traverse alone, an escaped slave who faced torture and death if caught fleeing. Nonetheless, Patrick acted upon this revelation and fled, eventually reaching the boat and—after a circuitous 2 year voyage—returning home to his family and friends in Bannaven.

His return was unprecedented: for someone to escape bondage in Hibernia and return to the Roman Empire was akin to Lazarus returning to life. Yet this is where the story takes an unexpected turn. Back among his kin and the culture of his childhood, Patrick had dreams at night. He heard “the voice of the Irish” in the local dialect of his captors saying “Come walk among us again” to share the Good news of Jesus.

It was beyond daunting to think of returning to the island of his bondage, especially as there was still a death threat on his head for escaping, yet incredibly Patrick obeyed the summons to go back to Ireland. Prior to his return there was a time of training and ordination; Patrick offers no details but there is speculation that his training might have taken place in France where Egyptian spiritual traditions had earlier taken root.

Patrick was enormously successful at sharing his faith among the Irish. Though he was—as far as we know—unarmed, he survived and flourished even as an escaped slave. His Confessio tells us that he observed the Irish custom of giving honor-gifts to regional chieftains, seeking their blessing for his ministry in each clan territory. His very presence attested to the authenticity of his message—risking death among the Irish, he modeled the reconciliation of Christ that he proclaimed.

Perhaps most important, Patrick held Irish culture and customs in high regard. The Imperial means of evangelism was to occupy a territory (usually urban) and enforce Roman culture—and Christian faith—upon the populace. Patrick, by contrast, came without force and sought cultural bridges, ways that Christianity could be understood from an Irish cultural perspective. In the fifth century Hibernians had a complex society, extraordinary fine arts, and a nature-based religion. Scholars in the Roman Empire saw all those outside the Imperial fold as “Barbarians” but this largely reflects their xenophobia. Patrick, by contrast, was able to see the beauty in Irish society.

In Ecclesiastical art, Patrick is most often portrayed holding a three-leaf clover, due to the legend of his using the shamrock to communicate the concept of Trinity. There are no extant accounts of his doing so that date to the Early Middle Ages. However, this legend may be seen as typical of the general attitude Patrick had toward faith-sharing; that is, when explaining the new faith, he would have used experiences common to his audience.

By the end of his life, Patrick persuaded great portions of the Irish in the central and northern parts of the Island to receive Christ as their heavenly sovereign. However, this tremendous achievement seems to have been poorly received by his Christian colleagues back in Britain. He was summoned to an Ecclesiastical trial of some sort. We don’t know the details. Were his fellow church workers jealous of his success? Was he creating the wrong kind of Christian churches—not Imperial in nature? Did the gifts that he gave to chieftains cost too much, so that his mission ran over budget? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that the summons upset Patrick terribly. “I almost fell into the wreckage of sin” he tells us.

Patrick’s faith was bolstered by another voice from God. “We are very angry with them” (IE, the church authorities in Britain) God said—and that gave Patrick strength to carry on. Notice how in each crisis of Patrick’s life, it was a direct experience of God’s voice—not through another priest nor through the Scriptures, but directly heard by the saint—that enabled him to fulfill his extraordinary mission.

After his death, Patrick left behind an amazing legacy. He ushered in the so-called “age of saints and scholars” lasting from 500 to 1100 AD in Ireland. This included a great tradition of scholarship. Patrick regarded himself as “rude and uneducated” yet he established faith communities in Ireland that became the centers of literacy and scholarship for all of Europe during the Early Middle Ages.

He championed social justice. Because of his time spent in slavery, he despised oppression. When King Coriticus—theoretically a Christian monarch—took captives to be slaves, Patrick wrote a letter damning the king. “If you don’t love your neighbor, you are not a follower of Christ” he told him.

An often overlooked aspect of Patrick’s legacy is his mysticism. He certainly valued the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—in his relatively short writings there are hundreds of allusions to the Bible—yet in the great existential decisions of his life it was an unmediated Divine voice that guided him. If not for these direct communications from God, he would never have escaped from Ireland, never have returned to Ireland, and would not have stayed to complete his mission there. The Celtic Christian tradition that followed in his wake has been characterized as a form of “nature mysticism.”

So what can Patrick mean for us today? According to the latest Pew survey, the largest religious grouping in the US is now comprised of those who identify as “no religion.” What can a fifth-century saint say to that reality?

I believe Patrick’s concern for social justice is more important than ever before. Violence, prejudice, climate change, and poverty threaten humanity. Religious leaders in diverse traditions—from Pope Francis to the National setting of the United Church of Christ—call us to action on behalf of the poor, and of refugees, and those who are still slaves in our world today.

At the same time, Patrick’s mysticism may be the most relevant aspect of his legacy. Jesuit Karl Rahner, one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, predicted that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Patrick’s experiences hearing the Divine voice throughout his life testify that “God is still speaking” in the 5th century and the 21st. Many activists became embittered and desperate in their struggles against the tides of injustice—work for God’s peace can devolve into the shrill rhetoric and anger of unenlightened political action. The mystical experience of the Divine word, encouraging and guiding action, is an essential component for the spiritual pursuit of social justice.

So I wish all of you a glorious celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day. And, in the midst of the green beer and parades, I hope you will pause for a few minutes, take stock of your spiritual practice, and ask yourself “What would Patrick do?”

photo credit: Kenneth McIntosh; Medieval Sculpture of Saint Patrick at Rock of Cashel, the seat of Irish Christianity in the Middle Ages.

Advent

by Amos Smith

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:5

This is the first week of Advent!

Church of the Painted Hills UCC put out an “Advent Meditations” booklet this year. It is wonderful to read people’s varied Advent reflections and stories. It makes Advent personal.

The essence of Advent and Christmas for me is the affirmation that against all odds, in the midst of darkness of global terrorism, in the midst of the darkness of massive environmental degradation, and all of our adult struggles, there is a Light in this world. This Light shined in the most obscure of places–in a backwater of the Roman Empire that no one knew about called Judea. In that backwater on a speck of planet in an average sized galaxy called the Milky Way came a brilliant Light. This Light was so brilliant that it transformed and healed everything around it and spawned a faith that eventually spread to over one-third of the world’s population.

We need to know that there is a Light in this world that participates in the Light that shown at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:3)… A Light that spoke a word into the shadowy chaotic deep… A Word that created order and beauty and meaning out of chaos (poetically rendered in Genesis 1).

When our lives are plunged into chaos after the death of a loved one, a car accident, a random act of violence, a divorce… It is in those times of darkness that we most need to know that there is a Light.

That Light of Christ is the reason for the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is the reason we lift up our hearts and voices every Sunday. In that spacious Light, in that primordial freedom, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Advent blessings!