Saturday, March 27, 2010

Spark Interview with the Rev. Heather McCance

My good friend and colleague, the Rev. Heather McCance, incumbent of St. Andrew's Church in Scarborough, was interviewed the the CBC radio program Spark, this week. Her interview touches on how the internet has revolutionized the distribution of sermons (a topic dear to my heart) in both positive and negative ways, and how the internet has facilitated "sermon-theft." The podcast of the interview can be found here. Heather did a fantastic job. I hope you all take the time to listen to it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light - A Reflection for Holy Week

“When the great crowd of the Judeans learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Judeans were deserting and believing in him.”-- John 12:9-11

Darkness cannot withstand the light that is cast upon it. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” writes St. John in the opening verses of his gospel narrative. It may seem as though darkness rules the present age, for we live in an age of pessimism. We live in a time when words of good news are dismissed as sentimental and idealistic, and a world in which those who pronounce good news are thought of as peddlers of starry-eyed dreams. If there is a good news story to be heard, it is relegated to the end of the broadcast, to the final page, below the fold, and if some better bad news comes along, we will kill the good news altogether.

At the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, a good news story was being told: Lazarus who had died was alive, and through his resurrection many people were coming to believe in Jesus. This good news story was too much. It unsettled the Judean leaders and drove them to scorn. Indeed, this good news angered them so much that they sought to snuff out the life of the one who proclaimed this news, and also the life of the one whose life had been restored. Jesus and Lazarus had become marked men. The leaders of the Judean people simply could not comprehend what this good news meant.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word, “to overcome”(katalambanein), has a variety of connotations. It has been translated variously throughout the years. Many of the early Church Fathers tended toward the definition, “to comprehend” or “to grasp,” and this is certainly the rendering in the King James Version, which reads, “The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.”

At the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany, the light was shining in darkness, but darkness failed to understand it, failed to grasp it: the darkness comprehended not the light, and in failing to understand it, it sought to snuff it out. The leaders planned to destroy Jesus and his witness Lazarus. Not only did they seek to destroy the light itself, but to destroy any witnesses to the light.

But paradox upon paradox, to destroy the light was only to cause it to shine more brightly! Those closest to the Lord understood this, Martha proclaimed him as messiah and confessed her faith in the resurrection of the dead, Mary anointed him as for burial in anticipation of his reign, and Lazarus’ very life witnessed to the reality that death would not destroy the light of the world. Jesus announced, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people unto me.” He proclaimed boldly that against the onslaught of darkness and night, against the torture of crucifixion, the darkness would not overcome the light. Good news rises like a phoenix from the ashes of death. The darkness failed to comprehend the light and the darkness failed to overcome the light.

Thus, the darkness can make its claims on the day, but it shall not prevail. The darkness shall attempt to snuff out the light, but it will not succeed. The darkness will seek to silence and envelop all those who testify to the light, but it has no power over those who witness to the light, because even the darkness of the grave itself cannot contain the bright Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, who cast his rays into the darkest corners of the depths of our hearts and souls and replaces the shadows of doubt with the light of life.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Friday, March 19, 2010

On Empathy and Keeping an Open Mind

Last night I was listening to a portion of the 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture being aired on the CBC Radio programme, Ideas. The lecturer was Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. During the portion that I heard, Gardner spoke about how the internet has let us into worlds that would be impenetrable to us in another time.  In particular, the rise of blogs, chatrooms, and group websites allows us to peer into the world of individuals and groups radically unlike ourselves.  For example, Gardner spoke about surveying the blogs of conspiracy theorists. With "in person" social interaction, we tend to naturally gravitate to those with whom we agree and build relationships and networks with them.  Without relationships, it is difficult to understand the minds of hearts of those radically "other" from us and to feel empathy for them.  Typically, the chief way we overcome prejudice and build bridges of reconciliation is through deepening relationships with those with whom we find ourselves in conflict.  Garder suggests that the new online world gives us an opportunity to experience the world of those who are radically "other," those with whom we would never associate (or have the privilege even to peer into their world). Circles that were once very private are now very public and open to online viewing.  She believes that this is an opportunity for understanding and empathy.

I peruse certain very conservative Anglican blogs on a daily basis.  Sometimes I find it very depressing.  To be frank, I find much of what I read on these sites to be written with such anger and hatred toward mainstream Anglicanism (and especially toward gay and lesbian anglicans and those who support them), that I wonder why I visit them.  Is it a perverse voyeurism on my part? 

Gardner's lecture helped me to understand why I feel so compelled to make my daily visits into these strange lands; I make those visits precisely because they are lands that are strange, and shocking, and frustrating to me. It is for this reason that I must go there.  It is an ethical obligation. It is an obligation of being a citizen of both the civic polis and the commonwealth of God.  There is a sizeable community out there that is deeply angered and frustrated with the path the Anglican Church is taking.  I am not amongst them, but I need to understand them, because if I believe anything, I believe it is that the gospel of our Lord is a gospel of reconciliation.

In my own sinfulness, I would not choose to walk amongst these people. Without looking into their world, and they into mine, how are we to have any empathy and understanding of each other. It is true that we are far from experiencing a shared relationship, but perhaps our shared online presence creates a safe space in which we can watch each other from a distance and be open to the healing and reconciling power of God in Christ.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hope in Bereavement - What we can learn from Gregory of Nyssa

This past Tuesday was the feast day of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father (died c. A.D. 395). There is much that could be said of this luminary of the early Church. We might speak of his excellent early education and training in rhetoric; we might speak of his difficult episcopacy, which he reluctantly took, later to be exiled under trumped up charges of embezzlement by his Arian foes; we could speak of his vindication and return; we could speak of his biblical exegesis and preaching, his mystical and ascetical writing, his ardent defense of the Nicene faith against his Arian foes; we could speak of contributions to our understanding of the triune God, and especially, the person and working of the Holy Spirit; we could speak of all these things, but in doing so, I fear we may fail to see something very important about the man behind the doctor of the faith, something very ordinary, prosaic and indeed common to our human condition.

In perusing Father Stephen Reynold’s wonderful book, For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for the Saints’ Days (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2004) I learned a couple of very important things about Gregory. First, his older brother, St. Basil of Caesarea, coerced him into accepting the bishopric of the small town of Nyssa. It was, as mentioned, an episcopacy fraught with conflict, false criminal accusations against Gregory, and eventual exile. It is no small wonder that he had strained relations with his older brother, which is the second fact that I discovered. Thus, behind this great father of the faith, we see a man plagued with “brother issues.” We can only begin to imagine what their relationship must have been like. I suppose it was the usual sibling relationship filled, at once, with both deep love and moments of resentment. Father Reynolds writes, “Basil died leaving Gregory regretful over the history of their strained relations.”

In 2009 at Holy Trinity, Thornhill, the Canon and I officiated at a total of over forty funerals. About half of those were members (or close relatives) of the parish. On our vestry Sunday at the Eucharistic prayer, I slowly read the names of those twenty people who were close to us who have died since the previous year’s vestry meeting. It was the longest list in many years. Since January, we have officiated at sixteen funerals to date. In the midst of life we are in death. In the reality of so much death there is much reflection on things done and left undone; on broken promises, on unfulfilled dreams, on hurtful words. Of course there is also the reflection on joyful lives well lived, but one can never underestimated the unspoken regret that is present as we say farewell to those we love. St. Gregory of Nyssa, that great Cappadocian father and doctor of the faith, who defended the Nicene faith, was just like rest of us, with regrets over relationships whose frayed threads remain unresolved at the grave.

In his deep bereavement over the loss of his brother, Gregory faced another tragedy. His beloved sister, the Holy Macrina, was also deathly ill. After the death of Basil, and in Macrina’s final days, he nursed her caringly and lovingly. In those final moments together, they formed a deep and lasting bond that transcended the grave. They shared their thoughts on the Christian faith and life. He later referred to Macrina as “his teacher.”

His deep and profound regret over things said and left unsaid, and things done and left undone in his relationship with Basil, stirred him to a deep and holy communion with Macrina as she prepared to depart this life.

It calls to mind for me one of the prayers we use regularly in our funeral liturgy, a prayer in which we pray that, “those of who were close to the deceased may now because of his or her death, be even closer to each other.” In death there is a hope that transcends the grave, but there is also another hope that touches us in the course of our earthly pilgrimage. As we face the death of a loved one and stare into the face all the regrets that might linger in the loose ends of that relationship, the God of all hope stirs within us a deeper longing for communion, reconciliation, and love amongst those who remain. This is a hope worth laying hold of, that even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, our God is with us and his Holy Spirit comes to us, knitting the frayed ends of our broken relationships together, that we might not sorrow as a people without hope this side of the grave or the next. This is the quieter, but no less profound teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Slowing Down - A Lenten Reflection

In Luke 13:1-9, the passage appointed for Lent 3, Jesus counters the insecurity of a group of people that approach him about God's wrath upon sinners with a parable about God giving the tree that fails to bear fruit another season to grow. The individuals come to Jesus' hoping that he will confirm that they are not as bad as others who have died under horrible circumstances, apparently the wrath of God poured out upon their faithlessness. Jesus, of course, rebukes them for their own sinfulness and warns them of a similar fate if they do not repent.

At this point, we might shudder at that time honoured tactic of "evangelism by fear." But, Jesus does not leave things with this admonition, rather, he engages in his favourite passtime of storytelling. He tells them a parable about a man who is quick to cut down a tree in his vineyard that bears no fruit. But this man has a gardener who knows the virtue of patience and of careful tending of the plants in his charge. The gardener begs his employer for another year to give the tree another chance before he cuts it down. We are not told if the gardener gets his wish. The sympathic listener will hope he does, for he or she will realize that the story is not about the tree, but rather about giving us another chance. I wrote about this aspect of the parable in my homily this week. However, I wish to consider another aspect here.

Quick decision-making is seen as a virtue to most people. Decisiveness is a mark of strength. When there is a problem we must deal with it swiftly, purosefully, and with finality. How often have we hear such words trotted out by politicians. I suppose that at the root of this rhetoric is the realization that we want our problems to go away quickly, to disappear. Conflict makes us uncomfortable. We long for homeostasis in our communities. When a there is tension in a workplace, in a family, or in a society, we demand action. Those who are in leadership positions are expected to solve the problem swiftlly, without delay.

Yet, sometimes swift and decisive action is destructive and unforgiving. Sometimes, we need to stop, take a deep breath, and consider our options, as unpopular as they may be. I have been in workplace situations in which the homeostasis of the system has been upset and I have wished that some decisive leader would make things right. Conversely, I have been in several management situations when I was expected to take decisive action. There are times when swift decisions need to be made, but I believe that there are many more times when strength and integrity are best exercised by by careful, measured thought, and a resistance of decisive action. Sometimes swift decision-making is simply an act of cowardice.

I recall reading Rowan Williams' book, Writing in the Dust, a reflection on the events of Sept 11, 2001, written very shortly after the tragedy of that day. Williams was deeply worried that the response would be decisive (but thoughtless) action, simply to demontrate that in the midst of anarchy, the American government was strong and in control. Of course, his fears were realized and we are still living with the results of a thoughtless, swift reponse to those events. It has been a mark of Rowan Williams' episcopate and leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury that he proceeds slowly and thoughtfully in any matter of contention, taking plenty of time to discern the Spirit of God. He is now roundly criticized as indecisive. Slowing down seems to have become the sin of his episcopacy.

However, I still think he offers a prophetic voice in the wilderness of thoughtlessness and decisive shows of brute force. In this, I believe him to be a faithful disciple of the Lord who comes not swinging the axes but tending carefully tending the root of the tree. The temptation ever remains for us to take the axe to the tree that seems withered and bearing little fruit. After all, the land is being wasted where a new tree could be planted. Take the axe and swing it, we demand of our politicians and employers and bishops and leaders. However, I say give me the leader that is slow to anger and great with loving kindness, patience and compassion. Give me the leader that stops, and thinks, and carefully consider her task. Give me the leader that will give the tree another season. Give me the leader that will tend the soil around the failing plant. Give me the leader that will offer nourishment and care over swings of the axe. This is the leader I pray for, lest the axe fall on me.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves