Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tourist and Pilgrim

South Africa is an amazing country with such diversity in people, language and culture.  It is hard to know where to begin.  Our trip really began on Thursday, when our group were tourists.  We were supposed to start on Table Mountain (see previous post) but the wind was so bad at the top of the mountain that the cable cars were not running.  So instead we went to see Seal Island and the Cape of Good Hope (obligatory photo on Facebook), and the African penguins at Boulders.  

On Friday, we were both tourist and pilgrim as we started our day learning more about the reality of apartheid and how it effected the citizens of all races, particularly the Blacks and Colours (usually those not native Africans or of mixed heritage).  We went to the District 6 Museum, and infamous area in Cape Town where the white government forcibly removed the Black residents and moved them to a different location far away from their homes without any remuneration for their property. This happened in 1946 (I believe), and it just got worse from there.  Men were required to carry pass books (like the Jews did in Germany), and were arrested if they did not have them when stopped by the police.  It was a sobering look at the history of this country and the deep wounds that were created by one race exercising extreme power and control over all others. 

We then toured a community called Lango that has many "informal" houses - what we would call shacks - many only 80 sq. ft.  Bathroom facilitates are communal.  Schools are available, but not all children are encouraged to go by their families.  We stopped at a cultural center that encourages   artists in the area to make and sell their works as well as teach business and entrepreneurial skills.  It was strange to see such poverty and feel like a tourist, flying in for a moment and then moving on while this is many people's lives.  

We then made our way over to Robben Island, a former leper colony, which houses the maximum security prison where many political prisoners were incarcerated.  Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 28 years in prison on that island, most of it in a single cell and forced to do hard labor in the rock quarry. Our guide for the prison, Sipho, was also a political prisoner, but he was in a general public section, living with up to 40 other men.  He was repeatedly tortured for information about the actions of the African National Congress (ANC), twice with acid dripped on his head.  Gut wrenching. 

We finally got to the top of Table Mountain after that.  The views were breath taking!  Mountains and ocean are an obvious attraction to Cape Town. 

Saturday had us up at 5 am to catch a 7 am flight back to Johannesburg, or Jo-burg as the locals call it. We were blessed to have the O.R. Thembo Memorial Center open up just for us (it is good to have connections with a local Bishop!), to learn his story.  Thembo was once a law partner with Nelson Mandela, but he was also a political activist with the ANC. In fact, he was exiled from South Africa for 30 years because of his political views.  That was both a blessing and a curse - to be so far away from his home and people suffering under the terrible oppression of apartheid, but he and his wife worked tirelessly to bring international attention to the plight of apartheid and encourage condemnation from countries and corporations alike.  The UN did liken apartheid to the Holocaust in 1973, but it still look several decades for apartheid to end in South Africa. 

We then when to the Hector Pieterson Museum.  That is a name you may not be familiar with - I wasn't, but I did remembering seeing the picture above at some point.  Hector is the child being carried.  His sister is running next to the young man carrying his dead body.  He was shot by the police on June 16, 1976, when students in Soweto organized a peaceful march from their schools to the Orlando Stadium in protest to being taught in Afrikaans rather than English.  It was the decision of the Secretary of Education that all upper level instruction would only be taught in a language not only that none of them knew, but all represented the oppressors power.  

Unfortunately the march got violent.  One theory is that the police had dogs that were brought in to keep the protesters in line, and one of the dogs was killed.  Eventually the police started firing into the crowd and Hector was hit in the head.  The picture was taken when they were  trying to find Hector help, but he died before they did.  Over 600 students were killed and 1000 wounded on that day.  It also sparked a riot that lasted days where many government offices and private property was burned.  

We ended our day with a tour of Nelson Mandela's home in Sewato - just up the street where Bishop Desmond Tutu and his family have a house (although he prefers to live in Cape Town). It is a humble abode with 3 rooms and much sorrow, as Nelson and his 2nd wife, Winnie, both spend time away from it in jail.  During Nelson's incarceration, Winnie, was constantly harassed by the police.  There are bullet holes visible on the house as well as scorching from being fire bombed at least twice.  

I have barely scratched the surface of sorting out my feelings of being a pilgrim tourist, but one thing is certain - we cannot forget.  Forgetting the difficult past will not change it, but it will almost guarantee that it will be repeated.  We must learn from the hard lessons taught us by Thembo, Mandela and Pieterson.  We owe it to their memories as well as our own survival as human beings to change how we choose to treat others, especially those very different from ourselves.  

I pray we will learn our lessons well.  The future is depending upon it. 

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


After many hours in transit, I am happy to report that 17 of us from the Diocese of New Jersey have safely arrived in Cape Town, South Africa.  And, even after all of those hours, that is about as much as I have to report!  Fortunately our travel was fairly smooth, even with a rather close connecting flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

I did learn that the word "sawubona" is Zulu for "I see you."  It is also the title of the in-flight magazine for South African Airways, as well as a traditional greeting.  It reminds me of the greeting used in the movie "Avatar." I wouldn't be surprised if James Cameron used this melodious language as as inspiration for the Na'vi. It is quite a powerful connection to be seen by someone - just like God sees us in our perfectly imperfect forms and loves us anyway!

The picture above is of Table Mountain, which we will visit tomorrow.  I am sure our hotel (which is very nice!) is somewhere in this picture, but I am not exactly sure where. I cannot see the water from my window, but it is right down the street from the hotel - the South Atlantic Ocean!

I'll be reflecting on our pilgrimage in the coming days as often as possible. So check back soon!

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Peace and Quiet

People seek God’s presence in their lives for a number of reasons, but most often I hear a deep need to find connection and peace in the midst of chaos. These are valid, sensible needs and, even if they are not your primary reason for coming to church, they are a great way to develop our relationship with God.  I believe that it is important to set an intention when we worship, focusing our energy on what is important to us and for us in that moment.  During this Advent season, I invite us to set our intention to seek peace and quiet in our hearts, minds and spirits.

Our primary interaction with each other and God each week is our Sunday morning Worship.  I have seen an unsettling pattern of people arriving later and later each week.  Services start at 8:30 am and 10:30 am.  We want to be respectful of your time, so we so we begin the service at the designated time.  The entire service is important and we want you to experience all of it.  Perhaps this season we can be intentional of not only showing up in a timely fashion for the service, but even a few minutes early to get settled and centered for our worship. 

Additionally, I have also noticed a lot of noise in the Sanctuary prior to the start of the 10:30 AM service, even during the Prelude.  I find this distracting and unhelpful to prepare for worship.  There are other places in the building to have conversations if you want to talk, but prior to the service, it is a time for reflection and focus, not socializing or dealing with the many important aspects of our lives together.  We have Coffee Hour and the rest of the week for those conversations.
When we enter the Sanctuary, it should be just that, being in a holy place set aside for our being with each other and God.  We need to be intentional in being peaceful and quiet.  Our worship can be loud and joy-filled, but let us be mindful of our preparation apart from the noise and busyness of life.  Take a few moments to slow your breathing, clear your mind and focus your attention on the Spirit’s presence in you and around you.  You may experience worship more completely when you do it with intention.

I will also be more intentional about offering several minutes of silence during the service.  We need to make space for the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, and silence is one of those ways, since we have so little of it in our lives.  It will feel awkward, but that is OK.  A new practice is never easy to begin, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. 

Prior to offering the Collect of the Day, I will say, “Let us pray.” I will pause for a minute or two at that time to offer the opportunity for all of us to set our intention for our worship. Then the spoken prayer, literally, collects all those intentions into one communal intention.  Similarly, after the sermon, there is a time for reflection.  I don’t do a great job of holding the quiet, so that is my opportunity to live into this exercise.  And the service is framed with a second “Let us pray” prior to the Prayer of Thanks and Mission.  Here is another opportunity to be intentionally silence and offer our thanks for the worship and consider what we will take out into the world with us.  We will start with these three places for intentional silence to seek God’s still, small voice.

Today’s reflection would not be complete without acknowledging the Thanksgiving holiday.  I am mindful that each week we offer the “Great Thanksgiving” in the Eucharist, so offering thanks and praise to God should be habitual and intentional for us. And yet there is something powerful when our entire country stops for a day to be intentional in our giving thanks.  We do have much to be thankful for, including the wonderful community at St. Barnabas.  Thank you for all you do and God’s blessing be with you all today and always.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Turkey and Tears

With Thanksgiving only a week away, it might be surprising for some to hear Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the twenty-third chapter of Luke. While turkey, pumpkin pie and football predominate our thoughts and TVs, there is Jesus being crucified.  Huh?  That seems a bit out of sync – because it is.  This Sunday is known as “Christ the King Sunday,” when the Church remembers (as I did a week ago) that Jesus is still Lord of all.  And yet sometimes we forget that to claim that title, Jesus died from a brutal, state-sponsored execution – by crucifixion.

Good Friday is not the only day of the year when we need – and should – contemplate the sacrifice that Jesus made for us by his death on the cross.  As the hymn says, with “signs of ending all around us” (WLP 721) the latter days of autumn offer a special opportunity for us to consider Jesus’ death; just his death.  Even more, we need to be honest about our feelings about his death.

Too often in our culture, we sidestep the reality of death by talking about it euphemistically or not at all.  He “passed on.” She “went home.” She’s “at peace.” He’s “receiving his reward.” These supposed words of comfort deny the stark reality that the person is gone from our lives.  We cannot see, hear or feel that person in a physical form any more.  And that is painful and sad.  Too often we want to cover those hard feelings up or move past it, but if we do, we deny the truth.  The truth not only sets us free, but it also convicts us if we ignore it.  Moving too quickly through grief is not good.  We need to be sad and angry and lonely and upset.  These are all honest feelings and they need to be expressed.

What most people don’t do well is offering opportunities for people in mourning to express their feelings.  Many feel shame for crying or laughing or wanting to punch something.  There should be no shame or guilt.  Nor should there be a desire to move through those feelings too quickly.  A “brave space” is where emotions can be felt and shared without judgement or recrimination.  It also offers the gift of time, because grief is not on a time line and we need to take the time to grieve.

Jesus’ disciples had many warnings that his death was coming, but they did not want to hear or accept that reality.  They scattered on the day and Jesus was left on the cross mostly alone.  No one wants to die alone, and in some strange, non-linear way of thinking, Jesus does not die alone whenever we bear witness to his death.  

No, we don’t want to focus on it, but it is a crucial part of the story and one we need to pay attention to, especially in light of our own grief and how we deal, or don’t, deal with it.We need to be brave in allowing ourselves and others the space needed to grieve, whether that is over coffee or even the Thanksgiving table where someone’s chair is empty.  Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive.  We can laugh and cry at the same time, knowing both expressions are honest in themselves.  We can kneel at the foot of the cross, knowing that Jesus freely gave himself to be there, feeling the pain of his suffer and the strength of his love. It is a raw, honest place where truth resides. 

I pray that we can be a faithful community of disciples that are not intimidated by death or despair but are willing to offer a brave space for each other to be honest.  That is where health and salvation begin – at the foot of the cross.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Jesus Christ is Lord of All

Much has changed in an historic presidential election last night, but one thing has not changed – Jesus Christ is STILL Lord of all!  Jesus’ words from last Sunday’s Gospel need to be proclaimed again:
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-31
This is not an easy path to follow.  Americans proclaim justice as an enduring virtue, but what Jesus is describing here is mercy. It is merciful to love when it would be easy to hate.  It is merciful to support your neighbor when it would be easier to ignore or abuse them.  It is merciful to give without expecting anything in return. 
When we choose to follow Jesus, we are making a difficult choice because it is not about our own well-being but for our “enemies” as well.  It is easy to hate or fear our enemies, and yet we are called to love them.  Love in the midst of fear is powerful – and hard.
And so we pray.  We ask for God’s presence and direction in our lives, seeking wisdom and knowledge of how to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  We pray to know how best to be loving and to show mercy, especially when it is hard.  We pray to strengthen our faith to respect the dignity of all people – not just those we agree with already.
From the Book of Common Prayer, page 838-839
Almighty God, giver of all good things: We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
Heal us.
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them. Forgive us.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
Inspire us.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
Enlighten us.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.
Renew us.
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

We are ALL Saints

In early September, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Agnes Bojaxhiu – more commonly known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta – was a Saint, with a capital “S”.  The process that the Roman Catholic Church uses to declare someone a “Saint” is called “canonization,” in which the person is vetted by a group of people to ensure that the person led a Godly life and (at least the lore goes) has two miracles attributed to his or her ministry.  While this is a noble task, it is one that I have severe theological issues with and would like to clarify our Anglican tradition on the subject.

With all do respect to St. Teresa of Calcutta (not to be confused with St. Teresa of Avila!), we all are saints!  The tradition of declaring that certain people are somehow better than others is indeed just that, a tradition that was started centuries after Jesus walked on Earth.  The problem of selecting a few “special” people and raising them up is that it gives the rest of us leave to believe that they are in, some way, better than we are or can ever be.  That is NOT true.

The problem with canonization is the pedestal that comes with it. [To a certain extent, that pedestal comes with ordination as well, but I digress.] We put “Saints” on those pedestals not only to lift them up, but to also put them out of reach, to demonstrate how lofty their actions and lives were.  They were so good that they were “closer to God” and “above it all,” untouched by the hardships of the day and able, through their profound faith, to succeed. 

I am eternally grateful that Mother Teresa’s personal journals were found that have page after page of confessions describing just how hard life was for her.  In the face of such crushing poverty, she had doubts and fears and failures – just like everyone else.  She was no better and no worse than you or me.  But she did dedicate her life to helping people in the worst conditions.  We should celebrate that and try to emulate that rather than stick her on a pedestal and believe we could never be the same.  We are more alike than we are different in our hopes and fears.  The biggest difference is that she choose to live with the marginalized, just like Jesus. 

In our Anglican tradition, while we use title of “Saint” to refer to some individuals, like the apostles and other notables (St. Barnabas, for one!), it is mostly a title of respect handed down with the tradition we inherited from our Roman Catholic roots.  We don’t canonize any one today, although we do make saints all the time – we simply call it baptism.  That is the full initiation rite into the family of God and with that comes the designation of being a saint. Perhaps the title is a bit of a burden, but it is one we have a lifetime to live into being.  And it is not intended to make us “holier than thou,” but remind us of who we are and whose we are, and to act accordingly.

There is a bit of irony in all of this as I write on November 2nd, what our Anglican calendar refers to as “The Commemoration of All Faithfully Departed.”  In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is called “All Soul’s Day”, since All Saints’ Day was for Saints with the capital “S”, they needed a day for everyone else.  Since we are ALL saints, there isn’t a need for another day, but no one likes messing with tradition, so a new, less theologically-founded holy day was born. 

It is not a bad thing to remember the Church Triumphant – those gathered around the heavenly banquet table – or connecting them with the Church Militant – those still fighting the good fight.  It is helpful to see beyond the veil of death to life eternal, and how the examples of those who have gone before can help us here and now.  We gather strength in their testimony, even their confessions of doubt, to do the work we still have to do.  We don’t accept that anyone was better – or worse – than we are because God is not into sibling rivalry, but it communal support and love. 

We are all saints.  If we all accepted that title with some grace, the world would be a better place.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Prayer and Politics

I’m taking a risk today and writing about the election.  My hesitancy isn’t because I may upset some people (I will not endorse any candidate), but that the atmosphere around the election has become so emotionally charged that well-intentioned people find it difficult to even think about politics without feeling anxious, suspicious or even fearful.  We cannot, as Christians, accept that type of human-created fear.  Regardless of who is elected this year, we need to claim our joy as Christians and do what we should do best - PRAY!

Forward Movement, the publishing house that prints Day by Day and many other evangelism resources, saw an opportunity to call upon all Christians, especially Episcopalians (it is an Episcopal institution), to offer prayer for our country, our elected officials and ourselves for 30 days prior to the election.  That started last Sunday on October 9th, so I apologize for being 4 days late, but I know God will forgive.  You can find much more information here.  There are resources for the weekly theme, daily prayers and a great reminder that the Church is to stand as a prophetic voice to any government, helping advocate for the voiceless and ensuring dignified treatment of all people.

I also believe we are called to ask for healing in our country.  There is a rift in our society that has been exposed.  The discontent is impossible to articulate simply, but the desire is to blame someone for whatever caused the problem.  People start verbally and physically attacking each other rather than FIRST seeing the other as a CHILD OF GOD who deserves respect of their dignity.  We cannot lose this basic understanding of our faith.  We must claim this truth – especially for those we disagree with – or we might lose too much.

I give thanks for the fact that at St. Barnabas we have people with very different points of view who are able to come and break bread together, to have time to fellowship with each other, and learn from each other.  Healing must begin with such honesty, even about our own fears and doubts, in order to find Christ in the midst of our brokenness.

We should remember March 4, 1797 (guess who went to Independence Hall this summer!).  That date is significant because it was when John Adams, our second president was inaugurated.  Many countries around the world were waiting for our nascent democratic country to fall into civil unrest or even war, but what happened was a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.  It was an incredible accomplishment, yet we have repeated it 43 more times. 

I have faith we will achieve it the 45th time as well.  The person inaugurated may not be the person we personally want in that roll, but we are still called upon, as Christians, to offer prayer for that individual and for all those who offer themselves in political service.  And when those elected officials don’t do what we want, then we have the opportunity and obligation to offer our voice – with respect – into the political arena. 

In light of all this, I offer the Litany of Sound Government to begin our prayer as we seek to do God’s will on earth:
O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth. Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties. Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations. Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served. Give grace to your servants, O Lord.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name. For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+