glory of god

glory of god

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Finding Hope in Norway

With people the world over, I have watched the news coming out of Norway with horror. Friday's bomb attack on the government's buildings was terrible and surprising enough in a country as peaceful and progressive as Norway. But the calculated, cowardly, and simply inhuman slaughter of more than 80 youth simply leaves one without words. These youth, members of the Labour Party (equivalent to the Social Democrats in other European countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Germany) were Norway's future leaders, gathering for inspiration, skill development, and camaraderie. Their loss is a senseless tragedy for their families and friends, and also for the whole nation for generations to come. To put this situation into some perspective, Friday's death toll is in fact a higher percentage of the Norwegian population than the September 11 terrorists attacks in the United States.

Since Friday a picture of the terrorist has emerged. Not Islamic, a foreigner or anything of the like, Anders Behring Breivik is a 32 year old blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian. And yet in a way, he seems to be the Norwegian mirror image of the terrorists who have become all too well known in recent years, embracing an anti-immigrant and fundamentalist world-view, willing to kill indiscriminately in support of their twisted outlook; although, in this case Breivik's fundamentalism is Christian not Muslim. It can be just as dangerous.

In particular, Breivik seems to have been concerned that in opening its borders to those seeking a better life, Norway was losing its cultural identity. Thus he sought to silence voices of tolerance and progress, not only for today but for tomorrow as well. His ultimate goal was to incite a Norwegian revolution, to make Norway truly Norwegian again. Like the murderous fanatics in previous generations, he looked to the day when Europe would be cleansed of its ethnic and cultural diversity.

In a 1500-page manifesto recently posted on-line Breivik wrote: "Multiculturalism is a tool of Islam; it is a disastrous ideology of false 'nice' that is used to stifle critical thought and open debate. Multiculturalism is a complete failure as it is used by our enemies to destroy us. Multiculturalism must be destroyed." Despite his apparent hatred of Islam, he ironically identifies with al Qaeda elsewhere in his "manifesto" when he writes, "Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of the Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity."

While Anders Behring Breivik has taken matters to a horrific, deadly extreme, his views regarding immigration and multiculturalism are becoming increasingly common throughout Europe. In 2010 the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing anti-immigrant party, were elected to the Swedish Riksdag for the first time ever. While still a very minor party, they hold more seats than the Christian Democrats and the Left Party. In Denmark, the Danish People's Party (likewise a right-wing, anti-immigrant party) has enjoyed a much closer association with the ruling coalition and has steadily increased its vote share to become the third largest party in the Folketing. The Finnish True Finns Party has likewise risen to prominence. In 2011 the party won over 19% of the vote (up from just 4% four years earlier) and earned 39 seats to become the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. The True Finns differ somewhat from their anti-multicultural Scandinavian counterparts in that they embrace a leftist economic policy, while still strongly conservative on social issues.

Thus it is that under the progressive, social democratic surface, the Scandinavian/Nordic countries are struggling with what it means to be increasingly diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic societies. Observers of Scandinavia know that this has been true for some time, since at least the 1960s; however, the tempo has heightened in recent years with the rise of the internet and concern that welfare states do not have the economic strength to adequately support new immigrants as well as "ethnic" Scandinavians. Of course the vast majority of Scandinavians engage this struggle in the public sphere through respectful conversation and debate, abiding by the democratic process. However, combined with religious fundamentalism, and no doubt mental instability, the same struggle over what it means to be Scandinavian in the twenty-first century has led to deadly consequences beyond human imagining or comprehension.

The goal of a terrorist like Breivik is to generate such great fear that an open society like Norway closes itself off. This was the tactic employed by Hitler as well in his attempt to create a pure Europe, and thus far less successfully by right-wing extremists in the United States. But just as it ultimately didn't work for Hitler, it won't work for modern-day thugs like Breivik, either. Because for all of Breivik's apparent respect for Norwegian culture and Christian belief, he doesn't seem to understand that at the heart of the Norwegian (and Scandinavian) society and Christian theology is a profound respect for others, care for those who are less fortunate, and dedication to building a peaceable society in which there is room enough for all.

Alfred Nobel, the nineteenth century Swedish chemist who invited dynamite, was distressed when he realized that he would be remembered for discovering a faster way to kill. Thus in his 1895 will he established the various Nobel Prizes to celebrate and honor positive human accomplishments, and to be awarded without regard to nationality in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and peace.

Nobel was especially impressed by those who worked against militarism and war, and looked to make a contribution for the peaceful solution to international conflicts. Thus, he stipulated that the prize for peace should be awarded in Norway (at the time in political union with Sweden) because its history was decidedly less militaristic and more peaceful than Sweden's. In particular, at the end of the nineteenth century Norway's Storting (Parliament) was involved in efforts to resolve conflicts through careful mediation and arbitration. Nobel was impressed by this commitment and left a lasting legacy for the Norwegian people to honor and support it.

Speaking at the Oslo Cathedral on Sunday morning, Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's Prime Minister said:

"In the middle of all these tragic events, I am proud to live in a country that has stood firm at a critical time. I am deeply impressed by how much dignity and compassion I have seen. We are a small nation, but a proud people. We will never abandon our values. Our reply is: more democracy, more openness, and more humanity. But never naivity. No one has said it better than the AUF [Labour youth league] girl who was interviewed by CNN: 'If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together'."

It is this legacy and commitment to peace, and not fear-mongering murderous attempts to terrorize, that will give hope to the grieving people of Norway and the world in the days, months, and years to come.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meanwhile in Massachusetts

One of the pleasures of living in Massachusetts is the opportunity to welcome friends from other parts of the United States, Canada, and even Europe to this place so rich with history and meaning. Among my favorite destinations is always the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. The way it uses artifacts and video footage to describe Kennedy's legendary presidency is nothing short of awe-inspiring. But that, of course, is because for many the Kennedy presidency itself was awe-inspiring, in its ability to speak to people across the world, in its ability to inspire young Americans, in its hope for a more free and just society. Kennedy's vision is as relevant today, 50 years after his inauguration, as it was then. Today, my friend Heather and I visited the museum and we were especially inspired by a moving poem written by Jacqueline Kennedy on the occasion of their first anniversary.

"Meanwhile in Massachusetts"
By Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

Meanwhile in Massachusetts Jack Kennedy dreamed

Walking the shore by the Cape Cod Sea

Of all the things he was going to be.

He breathed in the tang of the New England fall

And back in his mind he pictured it all,
The burnished New England countryside
Names that a patriot says with pride

Concord and Lexington, Bunker Hill

Plymouth and Falmouth and Marstons Mill

Winthrop and Salem, Lowell, Revere

Quincy and Cambridge, Louisburg Square.

This was his heritage -- this was his share

Of dreams that a young man harks in the air.
The past reached out and tracked him now

He would heed that touch; he didn't know how.

Part he must serve, a part he must lead

Both were his calling, both were his need.

Part he was of New England stock

As stubborn, close guarded as Plymouth Rock

He thought with his feet most firm on the ground

But his heart and his dreams were not earthbound
He would call New England his place and his creed

But part he was of an alien breed

Of a breed that had laughed on Irish hills

And heard the voices in Irish rills.

The lilt of that green land danced in his blood
Tara, Killarney, a magical flood

That surged in the depth of his too proud heart

And spiked the punch of New England so tart

Men would call him thoughtful, sincere

They would not see through to the Last Cavalier.

He turned on the beach and looked toward his house.

On a green lawn his white house stands

And the wind blows the sea grass low on the sands

There his brothers and sisters have laughed and played

And thrown themselves to rest in the shade.
The lights glowed inside, soon supper would ring

And he would go home where his father was King.

But now he was here with the wind and the sea

And all the things he was going to be.

He would build empires

And he would have sons

Others would fall

Where the current runs

He would find love

He would never find peace

For he must go seeking

The Golden Fleece

All of the things he was going to be

All of the things in the wind and the sea.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hairy Esau, Tricky Jacob, & the Purple Puzzle Tree: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I grew up in a fairly (one might even say very) religious household. There were two big disadvantages of that upbringing: one was a fear of the angel of death in the movie the Ten Commandments and the other was that I could never watch as many cartoons on Sundays as I would have liked. There were never very good cartoons on a Sunday morning anyway, usually just old “Hercules” cartoons from the ‘60s, but then I wasn’t too particular. When I was really lucky, “Speed Racer” was on. But it was never really possible to enjoy it, since our house—probably a lot like yours—was a flurry of activity on Sunday mornings, with everyone trying to get cleaned up, dressed, maybe a bowl of cereal or peanut butter toast, and then piled into the car.

But our crazy religious upbringing was more than just church. My brother Andy and I had religious toys and books, too. We had a great Noah’s ark with lots of animals and Noah & Mrs. Noah (my favorite toys before there were Star Wars figures), who engaged in all sorts of adventures, often involving the bathtub, unexpected whirlpools, and calamitous encounters with Mr. Bubble. We also had a great set of children’s books called The Purple Puzzle Tree. The books were kind of tall and skinny, and came with a record narration. The reason for the name, Purple Puzzle Tree, is because the books say that after humanity’s fall into sin, the world was like a jumbled up purple puzzle that has to be sorted out and put back together. They covered many of the major stories from both the Old Testament and the Gospels; although, I only had the earlier Old Testament ones—up through Moses, I think.

Of them, the one story that stands out very clearly for me is Jacob and Esau, about whom we heard in our first reading. I haven’t seen the actual book in a long time (probably 30 years), but I can still picture some of its fantastic artwork. This week, as I was remembering it, I went on line to see what I could find and, what do you know, the stories are reprinted (and modernized a bit). You can even buy them on DVD. The one about Jacob and Esau was called “How Tricky Jacob was Tricked.” Here’s how it begins:

Now an old man called Isaac and his clever wife Rebekkah were very special people in God’s purple puzzle tree. And one day they had twins. The first twin was hairy, just as hairy as can be. He almost looked like a monkey or a chattering chimpanzee. So they called him Hairy Esau. The second twin was a clever kid and people said, 'He's a trick.' But the tricks he started playing were a dirty cheating game. That's why they called him Jacob, a name that means 'He cheats,' or maybe 'He's a stinker,' because he lies and steals.

And of course it goes on from there. This morning’s reading from Genesis tells the first half of Jacob and Esau’s infamous sibling rivalry, how Jacob forced Esau to give away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. But it doesn’t tell the second half—the more dramatic story, of how tricky Jacob covered himself in fur and tricked their blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that was meant for Esau. Do you remember that story? Here’s how the Purple Puzzle Tree tells it, in a more creative way than I can:

Now Isaac was a very old man and his eyes were very blind. So Jacob and his mother planned to trick the poor old man and try to get the blessing, a very special gift from God meant for Hairy Esau. Listen to Rebecca as she whispers in Jacob’s ear: ‘Jacob, make your hands all hairy, and put on Esau’s clothes. If you can trick the old man’s eyes, I sure can trick his nose.’

Then Rebecca cooked a juicy goat just the way that Isaac loved it, wild and hot and spicy. Next she took the best clothes that Esau kept at home and dressed up Tricky Jacob as if he were his brother. When everything was ready Jacob went to see his father who was very, very blind.

Then Jacob knelt at his father’s feet and let him feel the hairy skin wrapped around his hands and neck. ‘You know,’ said Isaac, ‘Your voice today sounds like the voice of Jacob. But your hands feel just like Esau’s hands, so I’ll bless you anyway.’ ‘My blessing,’ said Isaac, ‘is a promise from God to me that you will be the next important piece in God’s purple puzzle tree. You are now the chosen man in the puzzle of God above. For you will one day rule a nation and show them God is love.’

There’s more, describing how Jacob himself is tricked, but that concerns readings that we’ll hear over the next few weeks. I loved these books for their ability to share important biblical stories and make the characters come alive in ways that a four or five year old me could understand. I suppose it’s a funny thing to imagine kids reading Bible storybooks for fun, but my brother and I did, when we weren’t too busy watching “Hercules” and “Speed Racer.”

What I didn’t realize then, of course, are the various themes or threads that run through the Bible. How the stories are really very similar, even if the characters and details differ. And one of the ways they are similar, especially in these dramatic Old Testament stories, is how the one who is chosen, the star, if you will, like Tricky Jacob, is not who you would expect. In particular, you would expect, because it’s the normal way of things—thousands of years ago and probably still today to a degree—that the oldest son would be the hero or star. Certainly it was the case in ancient society that the eldest son would inherit the best and be shown his father’s favor.

But have you ever noticed that time and again in the Bible it doesn’t work that way--even going all the way back to the first brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain was the older of two, but God favored Abel. So much so that Cain grew jealous and killed Abel. Later, Abraham had two sons—Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, the older son, is sent off to die in the wilderness, while Isaac is cherished. Isaac, too, has two sons—Esau and Jacob. Isaac favors his oldest, Esau, but Jacob tricks his brother and his father so that the birthright and blessing are his. Jacob has several sons, but his favorite is the younger—Joseph—whom he honors with the famous coat of many colors. His brothers are so jealous that they sell him into slavery. Later, Moses, a descendant of their family, is the younger son—behind Aaron and their sister Miriam. King David is the youngest son of Jesse, and Solomon is a younger son of David.

If it didn’t sound so irrational, I would say that many of the Bible’s stories were written by malcontent younger children, getting back at their older siblings for having to endure years of hand me downs, and being jealous of having to stay at home when big brothers and sisters got to go out with friends. I, of course, am biased, as an oldest child. But the evidence seems clear: while younger children in the Bible trick their fathers and get birthrights that belong to their older siblings, first children are often portrayed as jealous murders or hapless idiots who sell their birthrights for lentil soup. They sell their younger, more popular brother into slavery and are subject to the angel of death.

So, what’s up with that? Coincidence, or something more? If there really is a theme running through these stories, what is it? What does it mean?

Well, I think it means that the people God chooses to help put the jumbled up puzzle of our world back together again are not who you would expect. God doesn’t make the obvious choices. God doesn’t pick the ones with the best resumes or all the obvious advantages. He doesn’t pick the ones with special training who are being groomed for greatness. Rather, he picks messed up, ordinary, average people. People a lot like us.

Throughout the Bible we read of some really bizarre, messed up characters, who help to bring God’s kingdom to life. Some, like Jacob, are tricky tricksters. Others are less than faithful to their wives (sometimes they are even unfaithful to their many wives). They are often jealous. They betray their loved ones and make disastrously bad choices. But that’s all okay. Because God sees in them something positive that those in the world around them don’t see. God believes that through these very flawed, very human people, new life will come and grow. As it happens, Jesus thought the same thing about his rag tag group of disciples—both those disciples 2,000 years ago, and his disciples here and now today.

These crazy, unexpected stories running through the Bible remind us that even though God chooses us, and has hopes for us, he doesn’t expect us to be perfect. God knows that we are going to make bad choices and find ourselves feeling jealous sometimes. We won’t always be as fair as we should. It’s probably not the way it should be, it’s not how it would be in a perfect world, but then the world is not perfect. It’s jumbled up, like the purple puzzle tree. However, so long as we know that we can trust God and put our faith in him, he will put his faith and trust in us, to help him put that jumbled up puzzle back together.

Here’s how the story of tricky Jacob ends in my old children’s book:

But God loved lousy Jacob, despite his rotten tricks and gave him twelve strong sons. And God gave Jacob that blessing to be his chosen man in the very special plan called the purple puzzle tree.

May we, likewise, be leaves, or branches on that tree that gives life to the world.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating independence, 235 years later

It probably comes as no surprise that Anglicans in the American colonies were conflicted when it came to the prospect of independence. Clergy, in particular, were forced to choose between the vows they had solemnly made at their ordination as priests of the Church of England and the hope of independence of their friends and neighbors. Many ended up fleeing to Canada or England. Some who stayed supported the struggle for independence, but others ministered to loyalists and even the king's armies. One such loyalist priest was Samuel Seabury, who ministered as a chaplain to the king's army. After the war, this former loyalist would be consecrated as the first bishop in the new United States.

The first American Book of Common Prayer was proposed in 1786. Strongly influenced by Latitudinarianism, it was unique in that (among other things) it omitted the Nicene Creed in the Communion liturgy, altered the Articles of Religion (reducing their number to 20), distilling the psalms to just 20, and including prayers of thanksgiving for American Independence. This Prayer Book was adopted by various dioceses, but never by the Protestant Episcopal Church as a whole. Indeed, it came under strong criticism for its deviation from the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England.

When the first Book of Common Prayer was adopted by the full Episcopal Church in 1789, many of the innovations of the proposed book were reversed. Notably omitted were the prayers in thanksgiving for American Independence. Many Episcopalians, and especially clergy, felt that they could not in good conscience offer these prayers, as they had been opposed to the Revolution. In fact, prayers for the Fourth of July were not added to the American Prayer Book until the 1928 revision.

235 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it probably is safe for Episcopalians to give thanks for the blessings of this still young nation. In honor of this day, the following prayer from the proposed Prayer Book of 1786 is offered. Many of its sentiments and hopes are as appropriate today as they were in the days following the War of Independence.

O God, whose Name is excellent in all the earth, and thy glory above the heavens, who on this day didst inspire and direct the hearts of our delegates in Congress, to lay the perpetual foundations of peace, liberty, and safety; we bless and adore thy glorious Majesty, for this thy loving kindness and providence. And we humbly pray that the devout sense of this signal mercy may renew and increase in us a spirit of love and thankfulness to thee its only author, a spirit of peaceable submission to the laws and government of our country, and a spirit of fervent zeal for our holy religion, which thou has preserved and secured to us and our posterity. May we improve these inestimable blessings for the advancement of religion, liberty, and science, throughout this land, till the wilderness and solitary place be glad through us, and the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose. This we beg through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.