being still in God's big world

Tag: Mission

There is No Room for Fear in Love

A sermon preached on 24 February 2019 at St. Oswald’s, Maybole, Scotland. The readings for the day were the readings assigned for 7 Epiphany, Year C.

Love your enemies.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

This has been a difficult week in the news and Jesus is not making it any easier with the Gospel lesson assigned for this week.

Shamima Begum, a British teenager who has just given birth to a beautiful baby boy in a refugee camp in Syria, has been stripped of her UK citizenship. Four years ago, at the age of 15, Shamima stole her sister’s passport and ran away to join the Islamic State – marrying a 27-year-old Dutch convert to Islam who is now a soldier for the IS. She has spent the past few years living, in her own words – as a housewife, giving birth to three children – only one of whom survives, her husband has now been captured and she was forced to flee to a refugee camp when the violence became to great.

Shamima was born, raised, and educated in the UK. She was radicalised by propaganda made by the IS and circulated online. She, and her two 16-year-old friends, made a pact and left the UK together – without knowledge, support, or permission from their parents.

Listening to the interview Shamima gave to the media, you can hear and see as she mumbles and murmurs like a teenager. Her answers are not fully formed thoughts and the interviewer pushes her to think through what she is saying. Her lack of sophistication and obvious immaturity are striking. But the heinous nature of the crimes of the IS against people in the Western world, including those of us living here in the UK, is undeniable. Terrorism, murder, and violent attacks cause us to live in a state of fear. Regardless of Shamima thinking of herself merely as a housewife, many in the UK think of her as a symbol of our enemies and we would rather keep our enemies as far away as possible, thank you very much.

Love your enemies.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

Bless those who curse you.

In our passage from the Gospel of Luke this morning, we hear a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Last week we heard some of the beatitudes from this same Sermon – last week’s Gospel talked of the top dogs and the underdogs – reminding us that those who struggle now will be blessed by our God in Heaven and those who are distracted by the material wealth and trappings of this world may enjoy those things now, but woe on them as those distractions also distract one from relationship with God. This week, Jesus gets right down to the nitty-gritty, calling on Christians to love and bless and pray for those whom we’d rather shun, shut out, and turn away. Jesus raises the bar on us, once again, asking more than humanly possible – which reminds us that we are totally dependent on God; because God’s Grace is more abundant and understanding than ours ever can be on its own.

Episcopalians talk a lot about the Love and Grace of God; our liturgy even proclaims that “God is love and we are God’s children. There is no room for fear in Love…”

We listen as the priest proclaims those words each week, but until this week – this news – this Gospel – I didn’t internalize the weight of those words.

There is no room for fear in love.

And yet…

I am afraid.

I am afraid every day because of the violence and hatred around the world. I am afraid of the racism and subsequent abuse and violence I hear about and witness online, and sometimes in real life. I am afraid because of the “active shooter drills” my friends’ children have to practice in their American schools to prepare for the inevitability of another school shooting. I am afraid, because a 15-year-old British schoolgirl can watch videos online that convince her to run away from the love of her family to find a supposedly better life in the arms of a terrorist organization. I am afraid.

There is no room for fear in love. But I am still afraid.

I am afraid and I also wonder, what the news would have been this week if the British schoolgirl in question had white skin?  Would we be so quick to make her stateless if she looked more like “one of us?” I know this is a complex question, especially considering the recent history of domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland, but I still wonder…

There is no room for fear in love. But I am still afraid.

We are all afraid, a lot of the time. Our fear prevents us from doing big things and small things. Our fear causes us to give up on dreams, close ourselves off from opportunities, and to settle for something less than the goodness God wants for us.

I am here with you today in my role as Canon Missioner. I am here to get to know you and to celebrate the successes of your Mission Action Planning and to look boldly towards your future mission. I doubt very much most of you expected me to come here today and to preach a sermon that could be considered so controversial; I assure you, no one is more surprised than I am. But, you see, living our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ is controversial. This is a necessary fact because Jesus was a radial figure in his own time and still is today. Jesus was God made human, who came to earth preaching a Gospel of impossibly possible Love, impossibly possible Grace, and impossibly possible Forgiveness. He didn’t shy away from taking a stand against tyranny, oppression, legalism, and hatred; and he pushed his followers to do the same. Jesus was so controversial he was eventually nailed to a tree.  

Our call as Christians in this place and time is to bring Jesus’ radically inclusive message of impossibly-possible Love to the world we live in today. And that message is desperately needed. Anyone who has spent any time reading the comments section on an article on the Internet knows that-Love is needed. Anyone who has spent time walking the halls of a secondary knows that-Love is needed. Anyone who struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, or fear knows that-Love is needed. So how do we find where is God calling St. Oswald’s in your future mission? I’d start by asking the question: “who most needs that-Love (God’s Love) right now?”

Learning to Read: Books for Myanmar

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In January of 2011 I spent five weeks traveling around Myanmar with a group of my classmates from Virginia Theological Seminary. We were there to learn about the Anglican Church in Myanmar and the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, half a world away. During our time there we visited Holy Cross Theological College in Yangon and St. Peter’s Bible School in Toungoo. We were asked to bring a few theology books in our suitcases to donate to the schools. While touring one of the school libraries I was shocked to see an entire set of Hardy Boys Mysteries. On one hand, it is nice that the students have access to a fun set of easy books to help improve their English. On the other hand, I was so sad to see that in this small, one-room library at a theological college there was room on the shelf for a set of kids mystery books. I wished the shelves were so over-flowing with theology books that other texts would be in a classroom or dorm somewhere else on site. But, as we were learning, when you live in a country like Myanmar you don’t have access to the resources we have – and you make due with the donations that come your way.

 

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“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Fredrick Douglas

Growing up, my house was filled with books. A floor to ceiling bookcase, built by my father, was installed in our upstairs hallway and was covered with books. Books about gardening, early childhood education, theology, cooking, special education, and Irish heritage (along with several mysteries, novels, and a few romance novels) graced the shelves. There were bookcases in every room of the house – all of which were piled high.

The irony of growing up surrounded by books was, I was a kid whose dyslexia made even the idea of reading abhorrent to me. Reading made me feel stupid and angry. I hated reading so much it became a source of amusement for my friends. In seventh grade my friends wrapped my birthday present in layers of bubble wrap and duct tape. The anticipation grew as I struggled to open what must have been a magnificently cool present since they put such effort into concealing it. After a struggle that took the entire lunch period, I got into the package to discover three classic novels including the Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, and one other I seem to have blocked out. I choked back tears as they all laughed. They intended the gift to be a joke, but to me it served to highlight my insecurities about the secret I carried and which felt like a scarlet letter on my chest. (Point of clarification: I never read The Scarlet Letter. When it was assigned, like all assigned reading, I read the back of the book and a few paragraphs inside and then wrote a paper, which earned an A. I was very, very good at fooling teachers into thinking I’d completed my assigned reading.)

I did not read my first chapter book until the age of 15. And even then, the novel I chose (Forrest Gump) was one in which I could anticipate key plot points after seeing the movie with my mother. I graduated high school without having read a single assigned book. I did read chapters in history texts or excerpts from sociology – but reading an entire novel or biography? Impossible. Yet, I graduated with honors. I was convinced I was incapable of reading. I lived in a house surrounded by books I had no intention of ever reading.

Fast forward to college. I went to Wheelock College in the fall of 1999 with grand intentions to become a Child Life Specialist and to make a difference in the world. I struggled with the adjustment to college life – the workload was much more strenuous and teachers actually did notice if I didn’t do my reading. But I wanted to succeed. At the same time my mother was felled by a mystery illness so I attacked the only part of the scenario I had any control over: my work. I made an appointment with the learning center and buckled down. I read my texts and I figured out was that when I was interested, and when I employed the necessary strategies, I could read them. It took me three or four times as long as my peers, but I could read. In the spring of my freshmen year I signed up for an intermediate philosophy course about world religions and I was hooked. Philosophy became my minor. Not only had I learned how to read, I was intentionally signing up for courses that required me to read primary source documents that were more complex than anything I’d ever seen before.

In my sophomore year, my mother, the woman who loved books more than anyone else I knew, died from cancer. My world shattered – but I didn’t miss a single day of school. Mom died during Christmas break, and I was back in my dorm room in mid-January with the rest of my classmates. I graduated college, had a successful career in child life, went to seminary, and now I am a priest. All the while, books have been a source of comfort and nostalgia. In college I learned how to read for knowledge. In the summer after college, when I devoured books 1-5 of the Harry Potter series, I learned to read for pleasure. When I think about my life I realize that I truly learned to read at the age of twenty-two. And since then, I feel blessed each and every time I open a book and understand the thoughts contained in those pages. Bookshelves full of musty pages smell and feel like home. I am a priest who gleefully surrounds myself with books, floor to ceiling – in every room of the house. My books remind me of my mother and the countless hours she spent in used bookstores acquiring her treasures. They remind me of my father, who despite his own severe dyslexia, loved to read books by Patrick O’Brien, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy. I am reminded of the loving work my parents put into not shaming me for my learning challenges but covertly offering strategies to help me overcome them.

 

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” – Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis

 

During my vocational discernment I met one of my mother’s friends whom I’d never met. She told me about my mother’s own discernment about a call to the diaconate. Suddenly, all of my mother’s theology books came alive for me in a new way. She had countless books about God – many focusing on feminist theology and the roles of women in the church. Suddenly, this knowledge that my mother was discerning her own call before her untimely death at forty-three, made abundantly more sense and introduced me to a side of my mother I’d never had the privilege of knowing. My nineteen year-old self was not ready to know that part of my mom, but my twenty-seven year-old self desperately hungered for her presence.

Five years later, with a crisp new Master of Divinity in the back of my overloaded Lancer, I arrived in my new apartment following a grueling 15-hour drive from Virginia Theological Seminary. I walked into a home filled with boxes. My bed was made for me. The living room was set up. Fresh towels, soap, and shampoo waited in the bathroom. And my mother’s prized collection of religious books waited for me in her antique bookcase: A gift from my father. I have loved those books. They’ve been a blanket around my heart reminding me who I am and from where I’ve come.

 

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” – Vera Nazarian

 

As Chris and I have begun to seriously think about our impending move I’ve had to seriously look at my collection *hoarding tendencies. I read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and decided to use those strategies to begin to pare down my belongings. The book’s author, Marie Kondo, suggests one-tackle books first. Oh dear. As I really considered the question of whether or not my books were bringing me joy I came to the difficult answer that they were not. Aside from Harry Potter, I did not plan to reread any of the books on my shelves. Moreover, many of the books had never even been opened. They were solid theological titles, but at this time in my life and journey I did not want to read them. I realized that my books were holding up the walls and reminding me of a happier time when I could moodily slam the door of my teen-bedroom and hear the thumping of mom’s books falling from the shelf outside. I was reminded of hours spent in the used bookstore as mom browsed the shelves. I was reminded of my dad sitting in his ugly recliner reading a novel before bed. But they were not necessary for my joy.

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After coming to that realization I initially decided I could donate them to the Virginia Theological Seminary library. I had benefitted many times in my seminary career from library book sales and I could just see the joy on the current seminarian’s faces as they purchased my mother’s books for a dollar or two. Then, I remembered those sparse library collections in Myanmar. What if, instead of enabling the hoarding tendencies of American seminarians, I found a way to actually enhance the education of Burmese college students? Could it be possible? The answer, as you’ve probably figured out, is yes. For a price, I could mail my mother’s and my b168404_10150171443704606_573547_nooks to Myanmar to the Diocese of Toungoo for them to share with the students there.

I wrote to other Myanmar “alumns” who’d visited the country with the seminary and asked for donations to help offset the cost of
shipping. Several came through and generously made the shipment possible! Once you’ve been to Myanmar and met the amazing people there and learned their stories it is impossible to walk away unchanged and this project is evidence of that.

20151020_133450 copyFinally, after months of sorting and packing, this week, I collected a lot of steps on my fitbit as I ran up and down the stairs packing over 300 pounds of books into my car. The amused post office employee asked me what I was mailing, assuming I was a Peace Corps volunteer mailing supplies to myself. When I explained he paused for a moment, looking at me seriously, before saying, “That is kind of awesome.”

It is kind of awesome. In a few (?) weeks my mother’s collection of books – all of which have hand written book plates in the front covers and the year of acquisition written inside, will be shared with students and priests in Myanmar. My parents who loved God, each other, their children, and reading will be memorialized in the form of love and knowledge being shared with our friends half a world away. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute than that.

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