Christianity for the Rest of Us

February 1 is St Brigid Day, Ireland’s female patron saint.  Brigid (d. 525) was an abbess and founder of the great monastic communities at Kildare, a leader in early Celtic Christianity, and is venerated in both the western and eastern churches.  

Birgid is also the patron saint of beer makers.  The reason?  The following meditation attributed to her, written c. 500.  A good day to pray for barrels of peace and cellars of mercy.  Raise a pint and celebrate her memory!
I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like
 excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like the men of Heaven at my house.
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal.
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of Heaven, the poor, to be gathered around from all parts.

In April 1967, a year before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the “fierce urgency of now” in a sermon entitled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”  Of all his speeches, it remains the least remembered because it summoned Christians to protest Vietnam. Despite the specific historical references, however, King’s argument that civil
rights and world peace are interwoven offers profound insights into today’s problems and the human future. 

King called for revolutionary love, the urgency of change, and for
ecumenical world community. On this Martin Luther King
Day, I hope you will take the time to read this selection from the sermon and
commit yourself to “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”  With the continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan and incipient revolutions in Tunisia and other parts of the world, America needs to understand and fully embrace the “urgency of now.”  There is, as King warned, such a thing as being too late.  

From Beyond Vietnam by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a
frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless
and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people
who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support
these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a
morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western
nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world
have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries . . . Our only hope today lies in
our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes
hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.
With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and
unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be
exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall
be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now
develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the
best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern
beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an
all-embracing and unconditional love for all men . . . When I speak of love I
am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that
force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying
principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to
ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about
ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and
everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth
not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his
love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no
longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of
retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides
of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that
pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted
with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history
there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of
time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost
opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the
flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage,
but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and
jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words:
“Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully
records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and
having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent
coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak
for peace  . . . and justice
throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do
not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of
time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without
morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter
— but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons
of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds
are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be
that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men,
and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing,
of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause,
whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise
we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.


“Gabby opened her eyes.”

When President Obama uttered these simple words, the crowd
at the Tucson memorial service cheered wildly.  “Gabby opened her eyes.”

Four simple words.  Four very spiritual words.

Congresswoman Giffords was shot at the beginning of the Christian
season called Epiphany.  This year,
Epiphany lasts until March 8, the day before Ash Wednesday.  The word, epiphany, means
“manifestation,” “revelation,” or “unveiling.”  As it follows Christmas, it is the time of the year in which
Christians consider how God has appeared to us, where God is seen,
and how God is made manifest in the world.  Epiphany, its primary symbol the star, is about seeing the

Ms. Giffords is, of course, Jewish.  Although Epiphany is a Christian season,
its roots are found in the Hebrew Bible. 
Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and many of the prophets experienced
“epiphanies,” where God appeared to them.  Indeed, the Jewish festival of  Hanukah is an epiphany celebration–the light of God is seen
here on earth.  Early Christians
borrowed the word epiphaneia from the
Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures where it referred to the visible
presence of God in the world.  Along
with the star, the other symbol of Epiphany is the magi, the ancient wise men
who were not Jews, who went on a journey to see the infant named Immanuel, or
God-with-us.  Indeed, the Christian
season of Epiphany celebrates God made manifest to the whole world, that God
was no longer a distant God or only the God of the ancient Israelites–but that
God is, indeed, visible to all who open their eyes. 

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus,
and Sikhs:  we are all searchers following
stars, looking for the presence of God in the world.  Opening our eyes is a sign of life, one of the first things
tiny babies do when after they make their way into the world.  But opening our eyes also symbolizes of
our common humanity–the search for love, meeting the healing looks of family and
friends, God’s presence in others, the light that shines throughout the world,
and finding goodness in all the places we find ourselves along the way.

The opposite is the case as well.  Closing our eyes is a sign of the end,
of death.  And it is also a symbol
of giving up, of not looking, of resignation. Shutting our eyes is akin to
turning our souls away from God, our loved ones, our neighbors. 

When we open our eyes, we will see light and beauty.  We will see the caring faces of loved ones.  But opening our eyes, we will also see suffering and pain and violence.  We see the steady gaze of a loving spouse; we also see the sinister glare of a deranged shooter.  Open eyes see both.  And in all that we see, God’s presence is somehow there.  Comforting, healing: yes.  But often seeing God is a call as well.  A call to transform our world into God’s vision for humankind.  God made manifest in the world; we must manifest God in the world.    

Gabby opened her eyes.  May we also open ours and see the glory that shines round
about us.   And, when we open
our eyes, may we not only cheer, but also be inspired, in the words of a traditional Epiphany
prayer, “
to contribute wisdom and good works for the benefit of the whole family.”

The Sunday
after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband’s family attended
their Presbyterian church.  They
went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the
tragedy.  The minister rose to
preach.  The congregation held its
breath.  But he said nothing of the events in Memphis.  He
preached as if nothing had happened.

My husband’s
family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church

This Sunday,
many Americans will go to church. 
A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that
helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and
the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson.  Some pastors may note the event in prayer
and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their
sermons.  But others might say
nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies.  Many will eschew speaking of politics.  

That would be
a mistake.

Much of
American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and
through social networks.  We
already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be.  Everyone will say what a tragedy it
is.  Then commentators will take
sides.  Those on the left will
blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and “Second Amendment solutions.”  Those on the right will blame
irresponsible individuals and Socialism. 
Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more
people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits
their party, their platform, and their policies. 

But who will
speak of the soul? 

President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have
feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest “someone get hurt.”  Well, someone is hurt–and people have
died–most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most
certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best,
American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming.  Those pulpits should be places to
reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words.  I hope that sermons tomorrow will go
beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness.  Right now, we need some sustained
spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans–how
much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our
discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized
public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January
9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “
Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the
heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and
alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.'” 
Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of
cleansing.  But there is a darker
symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood.  
1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come
into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win
their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.”  Baptism as water?  Baptism as blood?  Baptism accompanied by a dove or
baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of
baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness.  To which baptism are we called?  Which baptism does the world most need
today?  Which baptism truly
heals?  Do we need the water of God,
or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson?  The answer is profoundly and simply
obvious.  We need redemption
gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. 

If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.