Thursday, March 27, 2014

Upon the Altar

I was supposed to post this reflection when I first arrived in SA. I found it lying around my drafts folder. I would still like to share it. It's so wild to think that I've been here for 8 months. And it's so interesting to see what I was thinking about 8 months ago....

The moment I arrived in Grahamstown I hit the ground running! My first full month has been filled with delicious lunches and dinners, tours accompanied by history lessons about this small town that is bursting with rich stories woven into other rich stories, weekend trips to South Africa's breathtaking beaches, visiting congregants at their homes to play scrabble (and losing), planning Sunday services, and helping the Cathedral Student Ministry plan the big Cathedral Garden Revitalization Party (Project Eden) that will take place on Sunday September 22nd. Needless to say, things have been evolving quickly--relationships and projects alike.

However, for the past week the students from Rhodes University--the university that most of our Cathedral Student's attend--have been on vacation. They recently ended their third term, and are preparing for the fourth and final term of the year. It is indeed a well deserved vacation that they are on. And it has also given me the opportunity to center down and assess what has been revealed to me in my first full month. Their time away has given me a bit of space to be more thoughtful about how I am spending my time: to think about my health--exercise and diet, to think about my intellectual growth--books and articles that I've been reading, to think about my prayer life--how much time I spend in an intentional posture of thanksgiving while studying the Word and other theologically grounded material, to think about how the socio-political realities of Grahamstown have affected me, to think about what I'm doing for fun and entertainment; and, to just be.

On Monday I signed up for a gym membership and a personal trainer. On Tuesday I spent a great deal of time reading and catching up on the current news cycle--helplessly trying to deconstruct or understand the U.S.'s potential military engagement in Syria. And on Wednesday I went for a light jog and bought material's to set up an altar in my room.

Although I attend Morning Prayer at the Cathedral, since Wednesday I have prayed the rest of the daily office at the altar in my room--midday, evening, and compline. The altar faces east, toward the rising sun. Above it is a crucifix--an ambiguous crucifix. One can not readily determine whether the character hanging from the cross is male or female, or of any particular ethic or cultural background. And in that ambiguous crucifix, I see myself. I don't belong to any of the ethnic and cultural groups here in South Africa--I'm not coloured, I'm not black, and I'm not white. Yet, somehow, within myself, I am acquainted with a genuine belonging in this place. In a sense, I am strange but I am not a stranger. Xhosa blood does not course through my veins, but Sweet Honey in the Rock's antiphonal and ancestral request of "Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah," sounds of the American Negro, blaring from my iTunes was a familiar sound to the Xhosa woman who insisted that I play it again, and again. And this is a beautiful strangeness, a powerful strangeness. Many people, until they speak to me, cannot locate my particular socio-cultural background, but I have been treated as though I belong. One cannot locate the particular socio-cultural characteristics of that crucifix, but it belongs above my altar because of what it represents. I do not know what kind of Jesus hangs on that cross; however, I know what comes about as a result of that symbolic sacrifice. I know what is at the heart of that symbol and sacrifice, regardless of who is making it.

Directly below the crucifix is a bouquet of Lilies. They have yet to blossom. I can only imagine what those Lilies must be feeling. If they're anything like me, tightly packed with information and ideas and experiences, they want the beauty that is hidden within those three pronged ovular shaped buds to show forth, to bring life to some mundane space, or joy to some longing heart. If they're anything like me they are aware of all that is within.

Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral

Here are a couple of photos from the Ash Wednesday service we held at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George. It was a somber and contemplative service held tightly together by the plainchanting of our cathedral choir.

Back to School Sunday

These are a few photos from the Cathedrals "Back to School" service. We invited all of the primary and high schools in the area to the Cathedral for Sunday worship.

Rev. Claire preached on the importance of not judging people by outward appearance. But, rather, to love people for who they are on the inside. To demonstrate this she had a few kids try some "dog food" and then rate which was better. The kids hated some of the "dog food" and loved others. Well, in the end, Rev. Claire revealed that she'd swapped labels, and that most of the "dog food" was tasty because it wasnt really dog good, but liver patte, chocolate, and other interesting and edible concoctions. Here are a few photos of the service and of the young people that ran the service.

Uncomfortable, Yet Unafraid

I was asked to write a sermon for the Episcopal Digital Networks "Sermons that Work Series." I was asked to talk about Christian mission, and the Young Adult Service Corps in juxtaposition to "The Transfiguration of Jesus." No pressure... -_-

Here is the end product. I hope that you enjoy it. The sermon is based on Matthew 17: 1-9

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.
“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.
Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”
Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.
They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.
Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.
So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.
Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.
Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.
Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and  “make disciples of all nations.”
Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.
However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.
Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.
In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.
And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.
The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.
The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.
Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.
Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.
A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”
Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.
Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:
“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”

Hands and Hearts (H2)

One of the first events that the Cathedral Student Ministry hosted when they returned from Summer break--the 2nd week of February--was an ecumenical event. They gathered friends from other Christian churches around Grahamstown--students also--and did some contextual ministry. Rhodes University has a reputation for being quite the drinking school. So, the Cathedral Student Ministry thought that it might be a good idea to place themselves in the midst of the party--on the street where all of the popular bars are located--and to pass out water, and pancakes, and to walk or drive students, and especially vulnerable first years, who had had a few too many drinks back to their residents.

With the help of the Parish Council, Sally Terry, the Michel-John family, and the Eve's (all Cathedral parishioners) we able to purchase all of the ingredients for the pancakes and had ample gas for our burners. Thanks to the Chairwoman of the Cathedral Student Ministry we were given a gazebo under which students could chill and converse.

We had a blast! The students were so surprised that we were passing out pancakes for free. They often asked us, "what's the catch." They were surprised that we weren't evangelizing in order to convert them, or shame and judge them. They were surprised that we were Christian's who were simply loving, and who felt called to be helping hands. By students coming over to our pancake stand and talking to us they sobered up a little. Our love was apparently sobering. And, I must say, the students were pretty funny. Most of them were polite, and bright kids. We enjoyed hanging out with them and we enjoyed being a sober presence in case someone needed us. Over three days we walked or drove about 30 students back home, and passed out hundreds and hundreds of pancakes. It was a blast.

Take a look at some of the photos!