Monday, November 30, 2015

The Gift of Gratitude

For a while there was a vogue in Tweets labeled #firstworldproblems, recounting difficulties most people in the third world wish they had. Like “The air conditioning in my Audi does not work as well as my wife's BMW.” Or “My Apple Watch didn't register the correct distance on my 10k around Regents Park.” Or “Asked for strawberry chantilli in my Acai and received chocolate instead.” I got these from a website named Which apparently is defunct since the last post was June 19, 2015. So you can add another first world problem: “I registered a domain name for a hot trend that suddenly went cold.” The idea is that we are so fortunate in the affluent West that our biggest problems and annoyances seem trivial in a world where the majority of people make less than $2 a day and are dealing with problems like poverty, hunger, war, human trafficking and the like. We don't know how good we have it.

Although on some levels we don't have it as good as some places, like the Scandinavian countries or Canada or the Netherlands. The US doesn't even make it into the top 10 happiest countries as rated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Nor the list created by the UN. Nor the one created by the Gallup Poll. In fact Gallup's methodology is probably the best because rather than looking at educational levels and economics and various official statistics, which led to the other lists being exclusively made up of northern European countries, Gallup simply asked people how they felt the day before, whether they had laughed or smiled, if they were well-rested, if they felt as if they were treated with respect, if they had learned something interesting and whether they had felt enjoyment. Based on the answers people gave them they rated Paraguay as the happiest country, followed by Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Venezuella, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua! Of the typical members of the other top ten lists of happiest nations only 3, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands, cracked the top 20 spots in the Gallup poll. And the United States was rated above Denmark and Finland, which usually rank higher in the other lists. Plus in the World Health Organization's list of countries with the highest suicide rates, Finland and Iceland rate higher than most European countries and higher than the US. You might be surprised to find out that Monroe County has the highest suicide rate in Florida, despite our beautiful weather, water, flora and fauna. One possible explanation is that if you are feeling depressed anyway, being around a bunch of happy people makes you feel even worse.

My point, besides a caveat on believing surveys of nebulous things, is that one's emotional state is affected not just by what you have but your attitude towards it. A year after winning the lottery, those people are just as happy or unhappy as they were before. In fact studies have found that money can only buy happiness up to the point where you can comfortably take care of your basic needs. People who make more than that amount are no happier. A recent study showed that having more frequent sex made you happier—but only up to once a week! Having sex more frequently than that did not increase happiness. So if you lack these basic things, you are likely to be unhappy. But ultimately it's not how much you have but how much you value what you have. It is about gratitude.

People reading the Bible for the first time often get the impression that God is insecure because he asks for all this praise and thanksgiving. But really it is for our sake. Science shows us that in fact gratitude benefits the one expressing it. Of the many habits that cultivate happiness one of the most important is being grateful. Because to be thankful for what you have, you have to look at specific elements of your life and see them as enjoyable and helpful. You also have to realize that things could be worse, that you are better off than you could be. In other words, being grateful gives you a sense of proportion. However imperfect it is, your life is not the worst one ever. There are also good things in there and you really should be thankful for them.

Psychologists have found that a simple but profound way to raise people's spirits is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down 3 or more things for which you are grateful. They can be large or small, things that happened that day or ongoing states of being, events or abilities or people who have had a positive impact in your life. People who do this faithfully for 30 days straight tend to find themselves to be more optimistic, to spend more time exercising, get longer and more refreshing sleep, and to have fewer symptoms of physical illness. They are more likely to help other people and to make progress toward their personal goals. And all this comes from what we might call “counting your blessings.”

It is interesting that being more grateful leads to helping others, because Jesus very consciously, when being asked what is the greatest commandment, threw in the second greatest as well. Loving God should lead to loving others. And again guess who benefits? Scientists found that if people performed 5 acts of kindness in one day, they received the same benefits of increased well-being as those who kept a weekly gratitude journal. And altruistic activity is another scientifically verified element of happiness. Being kind is more important to being happy than a high IQ or having more education. Martin Seligman, one of the major figures of the science of positive psychology, says, “As a professor, I don't like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.” And again the Bible anticipates this by urging us to be generous and compassionate towards others. It is truly better to give than to receive.

We humans do have a tendency to fixate on negative things, to be ingrates and to focus on ourselves and not want to expend the energy to help others. So we really need to make an effort to be grateful and to go out of our way to be of aid to other people. That means doing so on purpose. And having a purpose in life is another scientifically validated element of happiness. Drifting through life might make good fodder for introspective novels and indie films but it's not good for real people. Having a greater purpose for what you do gives your life and your struggles and even your triumphs meaning. It gives your talents focus. It gives you perspective. It gives you a direction. It gives you a goal or goals.

For Christians following Jesus give us purpose. Using our gifts to show our love for God and for others as Jesus does, spreading the good news of God's love and forgiveness and peace, letting his Spirit work through us and shape us into his image, joining with others to reflect our multifaceted God in all we think, say and do makes our lives more than just eating, sleeping and working. It means we matter, others matter and what we do in this world matters.

It is only right that we thank God for all that he has made and all that he has done for us. It is only right that we help one another. It is only right that we have a purpose in life, especially one tied to the other two. But who would have thought that gratitude, kindness and purpose would also be key elements of what makes us happy?

And that gives us an insight on God and his rules. They are not arbitrary, nor are they like the rules your ancient Aunt Clara has for where you can sit and how you can behave when you visit her house. God rules are simply the operating instructions of life. They are reflections of his nature and the nature of the universe he has created. Some things are bad not simply because he decided they should be but because they go against the way we and the world are meant to work. Some things are good not because God fancies them but because they facilitate and work in harmony with how we and the universe are meant to function. What is morally good is also good for us in the long run. Saying no to that extra slice of pie may feel like deprivation at the time and exercise may seem like torture while you are doing it but ultimately they benefit you. In the same way refraining from indulging in certain dangerous pleasures and investing time in helping those who can't pay you back rather than chilling with Netflix may not feel like fun but you will ultimately be glad you made those choices. Praising God for all he is and thanking him for all he has done, coming to the aid of others, and making becoming more Christlike your purpose are good for us and and for all people. And when you let yourself really get into them they feel good, too. As the psalmist says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Clash of the Kingdoms

The scriptures referred to are John 18:33-37.

It was the end of the Convention Eucharist. The other Deans in the Diocese and I were sitting down after having served at the altar. Rather belatedly the Very Rev. Willie Faiella joined us, whispering startling news. There had been a terrorist attack in Paris. Moments later, Bishop Frade, rather than giving the blessing, announced that terrorist attacks had killed at least 60 people there. He led us in prayers for those killed and wounded and even for our enemies. I, like everyone there, bowed my head. But my heart was not in the prayer for our enemies. I was angry. I wanted to see the perpetrators punished. I wanted them destroyed. At that moment one of the imprecatory psalms, where the psalmist asked God to pour out his wrath on evildoers, was more to my taste.

Of course, violence rarely ends conflicts. Violence begets retaliatory violence. As Hosea 4:2 says, “...bloodshed follows bloodshed.” Only in the movies do the bad guys either get totally wiped out or totally surrender. In real life, people fight back. You punch me; I punch you back. When a group is attacked violently, they respond with violence, especially if they are defending or avenging their country, their people, their families or their most cherished beliefs. Don't we do the same? Why do we expect people from other races, cultures, or nations to act differently, to just roll over and take it?

That's why, especially in the last 100 years, the aggressor in most wars rarely wins. Germany was the aggressor in 2 World Wars, abetted by other nations. They lost. The Korean War was begun when the North invaded the South. It ended (though technically it hasn't) in a literal draw: the border between the two has not changed. The conflict in Vietnam goes back to its conquest and colonization by the French in the 1800s and when the Vietnamese eventually revolted neither France nor the United States were able to hold it. The Soviet Union could not pacify Afghanistan and after more than a decade our success there is not something you would want to bet the farm on. Iraq is hardly a victory. And in this day of particularly horrific weapons and tactics, of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, not even having superior forces assures that a nation will win. War, especially today, is a fool's game.

In our gospel for today Pilate is trying to determine whether he should bother with Jesus at all. Why didn't he just crucify him right off the bat? Possibly because he did not want to do the High Priest any favors. He has not had a good relationship with Caiaphas. They had locked horns before and Pilate had to back down from bringing the Roman standards, seen by the Jews as idols, into Jerusalem. So he is not going to get rid of anyone who would be a thorn in the priest's side. Pilate will not be Caiaphas' lackey.

It is, however, Passover. Jerusalem is swollen with pilgrims, not just from Judea and Galilee but from all over the empire. The whole reason Pilate has moved from his headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem for this week is to keep a lid on any rebellions that might break out during a holiday that is, after all, about the liberation of the Jews from an empire.

So he wants to see if Jesus is a revolutionary against Rome or merely a Jewish criminal that the priests can deal with on their own. Pilate might also be more sensitive to this issue because his sponsor, Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor's bodyguard, was in political trouble. When the Emperor Tiberius went into semi-retirement in Capri, Sejanus was the most powerful man left in Rome and shared consulship with Tiberius. He was betrothed to Livilla, twice married to successors of Emperors. He had been her lover and her husband, Germanicus, died shortly after hitting Sejanus in an argument. He was suspected of poisoning the future Emperor. In October, 31 AD, Tiberius sent a letter about Sejanus to the Roman Senate. Sejanus went, expecting to have more powers bestowed on him. Instead the letter denounced him. He was arrested and, without trial, taken to prison where he was strangled. There followed a violent purge of his family and supporters.

So while Pilate was described by Philo and Josephus as cruel and corrupt, and in Luke 13:1, we are told of a group of Galileans whom Pilate had killed while offering their sacrifices at the Temple, his atypical behavior in regards to Jesus might be partly because his political support in Rome was on shaky ground. And indeed the crowd saying that sparing Jesus would be seen as disloyalty to the Emperor turns out to be the tipping point in Pilate's decision to crucify Jesus. Later, in 36 AD, Pilate would recalled to Rome because of a petition from the Samaritans about his brutality and his career would come to an end.

At this point, Pilate is just trying to establish if Jesus is a threat to public order. If he is a revolutionary, he will be executed. If he is merely a religious rival of Caiaphas and his death might cause his followers to riot, Pilate will refuse to play into the hands of the High Priest. What Pilate doesn't need at this time is more turmoil in his province. So he asks Jesus straight out if he considers himself to be the King of the Jews. And Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” In John, “the Jews” usually means the religious leadership, not the people as a whole.

What is interesting is that, of all the ways that Jesus could distinguish his kingdom from those of this world, he chooses to emphasize its lack of violence. And that does make it unique. Most kingdoms begin with and are maintained by violence. The Pax Romana was sustained by Rome's military might. Which is why Pilate is so stymied by Jesus' response. To a military man, a kingdom that won't fight makes no sense.

It makes no sense to most people today, including a lot of Christians. You don't hear a lot of sermons preached on verses like Matthew 5:38-39 where Jesus tells us not to resist the one who is evil but turn the other cheek. Or Matthew 26:52-54 where Jesus tells Peter, who has both drawn a sword and drawn blood to defend his Lord, to sheath it because all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Or Psalm 11:5 which says the Lord hates those who love violence. Or Matthew 5:44 where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us.

Not to retaliate, to break the cycle of violence, is not our natural inclination. We all want to lash out when attacked. In fact, those who injure others have almost always been injured by others. Abused children become abusers. Children learn from those who raise them to use violence as a tactic, as an acceptable way to deal with others and get what they want. But it is not inborn. One way we know that is the case of James Fallon.

Fallon is a neuroscientist who studies the brain scans of serial killers. As a control, scans of the brains of supposedly normal people, like his own family, were included. He had gotten good at recognizing brains with low activity in the frontal and temporal lobes, indicating lack of empathy, defective morality and poor self-control. At the bottom of the stack he found one that was definitely that of a psychopath. When he looked up the code, he discovered the brain he had diagnosed was his own! He was astonished. How could he, a happily married man who had never killed or raped anyone, have the same brain as a serial killer? After double-checking the PET scanner and undergoing genetic tests that showed he had high risk genes for aggression, violence and low empathy, he concluded that he was indeed a psychopath, albeit a good one. Yes, he was motivated by power, was very competitive, not even letting his grandchildren win at games. He could be a jerk and was good at manipulating others. His family admitted they knew of these tendencies. In addition, his mother told him that their family included 7 murderers, one of whom was Lizzie Borden! The difference, he concluded, was that he was loved. His parents had suffered a number of miscarriages before he was born and so he was cherished. And since he has discovered his diagnosis, Fallon, once a believer in genetic determinism, has discovered the reality of free will. He has been trying to be more conscientious in doing what is right and thinking more about others' feelings.

As Jesus tells us, love is the key to human behavior. And his kingdom is founded on love. Which is why violence is not welcome there. Religions often tout peace but they allow for violence. Christianity shares a lot with Judaism, except this: a good deal of the Old Testament is about conquering the land of Canaan and the wars of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Jesus' kingdom does not spread by violent conquest. The Quran retells a lot of the stories from the Old and New Testaments and even accepts Jesus as the Messiah, though not the Son of God. But Mohammed was a military commander as well as a religious leader. In fact, you can tell how his fortunes were going by whether a passage in the Quran sounds conciliatory or belligerent towards Christians and Jews.

All earthly kingdoms and nations, including our own, are founded by violence and often by the extermination and subjugation of the native inhabitants. Thus any religion that is part and parcel of the national culture contains calls for violence. But Jesus never calls for his disciples to commit violence. Rather he warns us that we may be victims of violence by others because of our faith. We are not to repay this evil with evil but with goodness and love. We are not to prey upon those who oppose us but to pray for them.

The kingdoms of this world have strict rules on who is welcome to visit and who is acceptable as a candidate for citizenship. There are generations of Turkish workers who have been born in and lived their whole lives in Germany but are not citizens. However, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is not merely an extension of the kingdom of Israel. Not all Jews are automatically citizens and he commissions us to make disciples of all nations. God's kingdom is not ethnic; it has no borders to defend and it crosses all other borders not by force of arms but by the contagious nature of its ideas and ideals.

Nations designate certain persons as enemies and call for their elimination by death or imprisonment or exile. The kingdom of God deals with its enemies by seeking to turn them into friends and allies. And because we are forbidden to pass judgment on the eternal fate of anyone and are commanded to forgive others if we wish to be forgiven, we cannot write anyone off as irredeemable.

Earthly kingdoms treat this world as if it's the only one, regardless of the pieties their leaders mouth. They care about worldly wealth and power more than the riches of heaven or the power of the Spirit. And so they will do terrible things and cooperate with the corrupt and overlook what they deem to be necessary evils to achieve their ends. They will do deeds that will derail their eternal destiny to obtain things which ultimately will not last. The citizens of the kingdom of God are acutely aware that what we do in this life can have eternal consequences and that no temporal thing is worth alienating ourselves from God.

Earthly kingdoms make policies based on fear. They fear the immigrant, the refugee, the person who is not like those in power. Which means they also fear the poor, the person of color, the person who speaks a different language or who celebrates a different culture, even when they are citizens of that kingdom. And so they crack down on those people. They monitor them more closely, punish them more harshly, keep them separate physically and socially and economically from others. Their actions send the message: “You are not one of us.” And then they are surprised when those same folks say they feel excluded from society and do not trust those in power.

The kingdom of God is based on faith, not fear. It is based on love, not hate. Jesus knew what it was to be an outsider. He spent his early years in Egypt, a refugee from the violent persecution of King Herod. He was a Galilean, considered by the more sophisticated folks of Jerusalem to be a hick, and by the Romans to be a resident of a often rebellious province. He was not formally educated as the priests were and they let him know that. He taught women the Word of God, which was considered scandalous. He reached out to the downtrodden and despised, prostitutes and tax collectors, Samaritans and women caught in adultery. He identified with those who were naked, thirsty, hungry, sick, imprisoned or immigrants. He put people before religious rules. He did not defer to the rich and respectable. He made those in power nervous.

The kingdom of God and those who truly act as its citizens do make those who hold power in the kingdoms of earth uneasy. If you are willing to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus, who knows what you will do? Those who live for this world are predictable. Even violent fanatics are predictable. They are driven by their desires and especially their fears. The fanatics do not actually trust God to accomplish his ends; the secular powers do not actually trust the markets or their economic or political systems or self-evident ideologies to work. And so, secular or religious, they violate the very principles they proclaim to obtain or keep the upper hand. What they really put their faith in is power and its necessary corollary, violence. Because you need violence or the threat of violence to maintain power. You need to let the world know that you are willing to shoot people or drop bombs on people or strap them on people to get your way.

The kingdom of God doesn't work that way. Jesus did not kill others or send his followers to kill others. If Jesus' kingdom was from this world, his followers would have fought to save him. Instead, he died to save them. Had he been from this world, he would have said anything to save himself, even deny his kingship. But he stood for the truth. And the truth is that God is the God of life and love and forgiveness and healing and wholeness and peace. And the truth is that those things and the kingdom built on them will outlast the kingdoms of this world. And the truth is that the ruler of that kingdom, the one we must obey, is Jesus, who is the very image of that God. And if we put all our trust in him, he will remake us into his image.

It takes faith to believe that the kingdoms of this world do not ultimately rule this world. It takes faith to believe that people will outlast kingdoms and civilizations and not the other way around. It takes faith to believe that following Jesus, no matter the risk in this life, is ultimately safer than trusting in the fleeting power this world grants and relying on violence to triumph. It takes faith to love others and welcome them and talk to them and deny your fears and desires and to put the needs of others first. Pilate put his faith in one of the greatest kingdoms this world has ever known. And yet we only know him as a footnote to the story of a man who didn't--Jesus, whose kingdom is without end.   

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hard Labor

The scriptures referred to are Mark 13:1-8.

As my wife will tell you, one of the worst things about childbirth is having a husband who is a new nurse. It was bad enough during the pregnancy, with me monitoring every new study (“Coffee is bad for pregnant, it's, it's bad again!”) But the labor was the worst. With my son, we had false alarms. My wife had contractions one day and because she was past her due date we went to the hospital. After monitoring her for hours, they said it was Braxton-Hicks and sent us home. So when I came home at midnight from the hospital I worked just a few days later and she was having contractions again, we decided to wait. After all, we already had an appointment to have labor induced the next morning. Turns out it was unnecessary because this time the contractions were the real thing. It still took 20 hours.

My nursing texts said that the second time around, labor was faster and more regular. Yet when we were having our daughter, my wife's contractions were all over the place. I timed them. They were supposed to be getting consistently stronger and and closer together. They weren't. Then my Casio calculator watch went wonky and I ran out to the nearby Kmart and got another. The contractions still weren't acting as the nursing texts said they should but my wife was in tears and so we went to the hospital. 20 hours. Again. And I learned an important lesson as a nurse: the progress of events aren't always as clear cut as the books say.

When folks study today's passage from Mark I really think they ignore the last line about all of these things being “but the beginning of birth pangs.” Maybe because the majority of Bible scholars and pastors are men. Jesus is saying very clearly here that all of these signs are preliminary and the whole process is going to take a long time. And yet those who obsess over these things can't resist working out time tables and sometimes illustrating them with all kinds of colors and pictures of the beast and the statue from Daniel and the rapture, with little regard for the fact that they are taking all of these out of different contexts and combining them in ways that the original authors never intended. They remind me of the fans who combine clues from all the Pixar films to come up with a clever scenario that runs through all their films. It begins with the introduction of magic into the world, bringing sentience to animals and inanimate objects as seen in Brave, then the creation of intelligent machines that are used against people as seen in The Incredibles, then toys that are alive as seen in the Toy Story films, pollution of the world as seen in Finding Nemo, a posited war between humans and animals that leads to people leaving the earth in spaceships, while Wall-E cleans things up. Meanwhile intelligent Cars take over, while the animals eventually evolve into the characters in Monster Inc. It is a beautiful theory but, except for the in-jokes like Planet Pizza truck they put in every Pixar movie along with images of the characters of their other films, I doubt the studio intended all of these things to come together in that way.

In the same vein, fans have theorized that James Bond is merely a code name assigned to different Secret Service agents over time and that's why the superspy appears to be a different guy every few films. Alternately, fans theorized that Bond is a Time Lord and regenerates periodically like the main character in Doctor Who. If you are willing to be super-creative and ignore context and certain details, you can make a grand theory out of almost any disparate elements. In fact, John Cleese defined creativity as connecting two or more things that were not previously connected. Sometimes this leads to real breakthroughs as when a clever census worker thought of using the principle of punch cards that controlled industrial looms to keep track of data and invented a very primitive data compiler. But sometime it leads to conspiracy theories that turn the very real events of the Kennedy assassination into something dreamt up by the writers of TV's How to Get Away with Murder.

Now I am not saying that the Bible is incoherent in its eschatology, or theology of last things. Certain features are consistent: that things will get worse and this world will come to an end, that Christ will return, that the injustices of this life will be judged and evil will be dealt with, that the redeemed will be rewarded, and that God will renew creation and establish his kingdom on earth. But the details vary. For instance, the word “anti-Christ” only appears in 1st and 2nd John, (never in Revelation) and refers to any opponents of the faith, not one person, whereas Paul speaks of the lawless one and Revelation of a beast and false prophet. Are they all talking about the same thing? The so-called rapture is only mentioned once in 1st Thessalonians. Only Revelation speaks of 7 trumpets, seals and bowls, which often hark back to the Exodus plagues. For that matter the book of Revelation features a lot of freaky imagery and symbols from the Old Testament prophets, plus codes, all to hide the meaning from the Roman authorities who were persecuting the church. It even tells readers to be careful in interpreting its contents. (Rev 13:18; 17:9) All of this lets us know not to take everything literally. Or else the anti-Christ will be easy to spot. He'll be the chap with ten horns and seven heads.

If you read my blog during the year of the Bible Challenge, you know that there are 4 schools of interpretation when it comes to the book of Revelation. The familiar Futurist school thinks most of these events are yet take place. The opposite is the Preterist school which thinks most of the events in Revelation took place in the 1st century AD. The Historist school thinks the book foretells events that happen during the history of the church until at least the Reformation. The Spiritual school doesn't attach the contents of the book to any particular events but sees them as revealing spiritual truths that can be applicable at any time. Notice that 3 of those schools accept that the events in Revelation are not literal, because, for one thing, a third of the population of the earth have not died, nor a third of the creatures in the sea, nor has a third of the oceans turned to blood nor a third of the trees burned up. The Futurist school would add the word “yet.” But even they have to come up with creative interpretations of the army of locusts with human faces, teeth like lions and crowns on their heads, and the fire-breathing battle horses with faces like lions and tails like venomous snakes. The point is: nobody, not even fundamentalists, takes all of these things literally.

This doesn't mean that the ideas behind the symbols are not true in some sense. Certainly we are quite capable of destroying that much human and animal life and wreaking that much havoc on our environment. Some would say it is already underway. And we are monkeying with the DNA of various species and even considering creating chimeras, animals with human genes. And the closer we come to getting our hands on the very fabric of life and reality the more cautious and humble and morally aware we need to be. This is not a matter of being anti-science but of being wise in how we use science because of the unforeseen consequences that come when we tinker with things. For examples, rabbits, animals most people consider relatively harmless, were introduced into Australia in 1859 for hunting and meat. They had no predators there. Within 10 years the initial 24 hybrid rabbits had so multiplied that 2 million could be shot or trapped with no apparent effect on the overall population. Their impact on the ecosystem there has been devastating, resulting in erosion from eating the plants that protect the topsoil. In addition they are probably the most significant factor for the loss of species down under. And that's rabbits! Imagine if someone decided to make them even hardier. Or if they tried to introduce something else. They are presently trying to eradicate them by spreading a virus among them for which there is no cure, a virus which can spread to other mammals. What could possibly go wrong?

I think the best way to approach apocalyptic material in the Bible is the one Jesus outlines here in Mark 13. Right off the bat, he cautions us not to react in the way people typically do when they think about such things.

First, he says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” Fearful and panicked people are easily manipulated. That's why preachers and politicians often ramp up the bad news to make everything a matter of life and death. If they say, “I think this policy or trend is not a very good one but certainly it's not the end of the world,” not many people will listen to or follow them. So instead they make it sound as if their opponent's stance on the hot button topic du jour will spell the end of civilization as we know it. “You must elect me or follow my Bible interpretation lest we all be plunged into a hell of our own making or the literal hell of fire and brimstone.”

And that leads to Jesus' second warning: beware of false messiahs. I always thought it was weird that so-called believers could think that Jim Jones or David Koresh was the messiah when if they just read their Bibles they would know that Jesus redflagged such people. But it can be just as bad when people look to certain political leaders as if they are the only ones who can save us or our country. Putting blind faith in leaders is how you get a Hitler. Psalm 146:3 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings who cannot save.” I'm not saying don't vote. Just realize that whoever we elect will not be the answer to all our problems. He or she may even create new problems. What we need to elect are wise and just leaders. (And in case we don't, our founders set up a system where any branch of government can be held in check by the two other branches. Having lived under kings they were against giving any human being absolute power.)

Jesus' third warning is key: don't be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines. That is, don't ignore them; just don't think they spell the end of the world. Again we do tend to jump to those conclusions, don't we? When things are bad for us, we think they are bad for everyone. The opposite error is just as pernicious: to think that because things are fine for us they are basically OK for everyone else. Jesus knew that neither is true. Specific regions or classes of people have it good while other regions or classes of people have it bad. That's the paradox of this world. Believe it or not, the tourism board in Syria is trying to get people all over the world to come to a new resort area, one apparently where people are not being bombarded by barrel bombs or find themselves under the threat of being beheaded or enslaved by ISIS. So even while a civil war rages and thousands of refugees flee, there is at least one place in this hell on earth where people can go to the spa.

On the other hand, for those refugees and for those who under fire from their own government and for those who are facing violent fundamentalists who can justify any atrocity, it is the end of their world, of their civilization. Even if they survive or find refuge somewhere else, things will never be the same. They will mourn not only those people they lost, but also the places and ways of life which were destroyed.

Which leads to something Jesus says that I think is the key to this whole passage, but is several paragraphs beyond the end of today's lectionary reading. Jesus says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” Matthew's version adds, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. (Mt. 24:46)

And what is that work? Helping those whose world has come to an end: those whose health has gone, whose wits are at an end, whose home is gone, whose livelihood is no more, whose family has been shattered. We are to help the helpless and give hope to the hopeless. We are to feed the hungry and give water to the parched and go to the sick and visit those in prison and welcome the immigrant as Jesus commanded us in Matthew 25. We are to spread the good news of God's love and forgiveness and healing and wholeness through Jesus Christ, his son, not only with our words but with our works.

In Jesus' day, it was thought that first the Messiah would appear and then he would end the current evil age and begin the Messianic age, establishing the kingdom of God as a political entity. But Jesus kept comparing the kingdom to things that start small and grow: a seed, a field of wheat, leaven, talents that are invested for later return. He also spoke as if the kingdom were a present as well as a future reality. Because his kingdom does not come as earthly kingdoms do, by forcible conquest but by being offered and accepted and by growing one person at a time. The Messianic age has already begun, and has invaded the current evil age before it has ended, reclaiming God's creation and creatures from it. And we are to plant the seeds of the kingdom of God that is within us and among us wherever we go and with whomever we encounter. That too is our work.

Jesus never promised that following him would be easy and uneventful. He never said that enlisting other people to become citizens of his kingdom would work like magic and give instant results. Everything he said about the coming of his kingdom indicated it would be slow, hard work, like farming or fishing or childbirth. And he never said he would whisk us away from the hard times of the final days. In fact, in Mark 13: 24-27 he says, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in heaven will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Emphases mine)

Sorry, people who think the rather recent idea of the rapture as an escape plan is somehow Biblical. Jesus ain't handing out any “Get out of Tribulation Free” cards. He didn't skip the excruciating work of redeeming us. We can't skimp on the task of taking up our crosses and following in his footsteps.

You know what, though? My wife was so in love with our first child that she was willing to go through that discomfort and pain all over again to have our second child.

Everything Jesus tells us about the kingdom, which he often compares to a big wedding feast, says it will be worth it. Like my wife and most mothers, we will find that the result far outweighs the pain and that the love we receive will far surpass the cost.  

Monday, November 9, 2015

Can't See the Forest

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 4 children enter the magical world of Narnia. A wicked witch has cast a spell over the world so that it is always winter but never Christmas. However, the appearance of the children fulfills a prophesy about the end of the witch's reign and the coming of Aslan, the true King of Narnia. As the children flee the witch, they encounter Father Christmas, who gives them gifts. Christmas has come to Narnia at last.

When the book came out, what a lot of Christians objected to wasn't the witch or the magic or the monsters but the appearance of the British version of Santa Claus. They felt that Father Christmas brought into this retelling of the Christ story an element of the modern secularized Christmas. They seem to have forgotten 4 things.

First, this is a children's story. Narnia is populated by a motley crew of creatures from various mythologies. How is Father Christmas any less at home in Narnia than dryads, minotaurs, giants, dwarves, fauns, centaurs and talking animals?

Second, of all of these creatures, only Father Christmas is explicitly part of a Christian tradition. The others are pagan. Why object to him rather than them?

Third, this is an allegory. C.S. Lewis' clever use of the phrase “always winter but never Christmas” plays on the literary archetype of winter as a time of death and contrasts it with a holiday that means jollity to most children and the birth of hope for Christians. The appearance of Father Christmas is an easily understood symbol that the witch's reign is ending and that the Christ figure of Aslan is coming.

Fourth, Father Christmas' presence is not gratuitous but a necessary part of the plot. The gifts that he gives to the children will enable them to fight the witch, call Aslan in time of peril and heal the wounded in the terrible battle to come.

Nevertheless I do understand the uneasiness that some Christians have about the adulteration of Christianity with popular culture icons. Though I grasp the pious motive behind it, I myself am bothered by those little statues of Santa Claus in his modern form, inspired by Coca Cola ads, bowing before the Christ child in the manger. You are putting into one image a figure from history and one from popular lore. I would be less troubled by it if the figure genuflecting were the original St. Nicholas, the 3rd century Bishop of Myra who defended the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicea (though the anachronism would still bug me.)

So I get the anxiety behind our sermon suggestion question: “Why do we decorate trees if it is not in the Bible?” Possibly this person had an encounter with Christians like those at the school of the son of one of my friends. That person said that he could not celebrate Halloween because it is Satan's birthday. (Not sure where in the Bible he found that information.) There was a resident at one of the nursing homes I worked who would not participate in their Halloween party because of its pagan origins. And I wouldn't either if we were actually praying to or invoking the names of pagan gods, or making a human sacrifice to them, as depicted in the original version of The Wicker Man. But today's celebration of Halloween has even less to do with the religion that spawned it than today's secularized Christmas does with the birth of Jesus.

The problem really goes back to the question of how should Christians relate to culture. Reinhold Niebuhr found 5 different positions on this issue adopted by the church or parts of it at different times in its history. One of these is “Christ vs. Culture,” in which you withdraw from sinful society and its corrupt culture as much as possible. And that might make sense if you were living in a culture that is totally anti-Christian, such as Nazi Germany. The problem is that, outside of a totalitarian regime, by adopting that stance you are severely limiting your impact on the world, for which Christ died and which he commanded us to evangelize. I guess you could act like the Westboro Baptist Church and make your protest of the culture very visible and in-your-face. But if this is meant to be a form of evangelism, it fails miserably. The late Fred Phelps' church is still made up mostly of his family members, although a number of his children have left.

If you are going to obey Christ's command to love your neighbor (who, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, could be someone who differs from you theologically) and his command to go out into the world and make disciples for him, you are going to have to engage the culture in which they and/or you live. You could try to do this by fighting every single thing that is questionable in the culture, or you could develop some criteria for prioritizing which things need to be changed and which don't. Christian missionaries have to make such decisions, usually on a case-by-case basis. In general, they have accepted the social structures of the society they entered. They rejected certain practices, like human sacrifice, infanticide and sexual promiscuity. And of course they rejected other gods. I'm not saying the missionaries made the right decisions in every case but they were not random or haphazard about it.

While they deemed certain beliefs and certain stances on major moral issues to be crucial, they often kept practices they saw as morally neutral, such as styles of art, clothing (provided it covered what it needed to), traditional food and technology. The biggest problems came with the cultural remnants of paganism. Last week we spoke of how the functions of the old gods were transferred to the saints. That eventually came back to haunt the church. But what about traditions that are an unconscious part of everyday life? For instance, most of our wedding rituals—the rings, the cake, the veil, etc—have pagan origins. But they are part of practically all Christian weddings.

So did the missionaries make the newly converted Christians give up absolutely everything that had any connection, however old and tenuous, with their pagan past? For the most part, no. And often the missionaries found ways to incorporate old symbols and rituals into the new faith by reinterpreting them and giving them new meanings.

Let's take trees in general. It is true that pagans often worshiped in groves of trees, not only in pre-Christian Europe but also in the land of Canaan, before and even during the time of the Israelites. They made sacrifices to the gods there. The trees, especially oaks, were considered sacred. They were the oldest living things the people knew. They were so high they were thought to bridge heaven and earth. So what were the Christians to do? Cut them all down?

Maybe not all. St. Winfred, an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Germans, came upon a sacred tree called Thor's Oak. It was an object of veneration for generations. He chopped it down and when Thor did not strike him dead, Winfred got a big response to his call to be baptized. He then took the wood from the oak and built a chapel. Essentially, Winfred dismantled the object of pagan devotion and repurposed it as a place for Christian worship. In doing so, he was following church precedent.

It's pretty much what the church did with December 25th, a pagan holiday for worshiping the sun. It is said that, coming just a few days after the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the 25th was the first day you could really see that the daylight hours were getting longer and the sun was coming back, so to speak. In the fervent days of the early church, Christians simply opted out of celebrating this day. But by the 3rd century, Christians were a large proportion of the population of the Roman Empire, and they were increasingly joining their non-Christian neighbors in celebrating this major winter holiday. Now the exact date of Jesus' birth was unknown, though many Biblical scholars felt it was probably in the spring. Shrewdly, someone, possibly the Bishop of Rome, started celebrating the Mass of Christ's birth on the same day that the pagans were celebrating the birth of the “Sun of Righteousness.” This forced Christians to choose between attending the event honoring Jesus or the pagan one. Christmas won.

To some Christians, the facts of how the church dealt with these cultural issues in the past is like watching sausage being made: they would rather not know. Once they know about the origin of such things, they feel they must reject them as something whose development was not pure in their eyes. The problem with this approach is threefold.

For one thing, they are unnecessarily refighting old battles. Very conservative Amish, for instance, do not wear buttons. This wardrobe innovation was at one time considered flashy and vain. But buttons aren't a sign of being worldly anymore. They are merely a practical way to keep your clothes on. No one outside the strictest of the Amish thinks buttons are incompatible with being a Christian.

If you have to give a long historical explanation for opposing a practice that is no longer a real moral issue, you are probably wasting your time and would be better off spending your energy on something that is religiously and morally important. And people will sense that and thus your whole effort will be marginalized. Not only that, people will see the faith you think you are defending as being mostly about trivial things and thus not worthy of consideration. They already think that because believers are preoccupied with little things, we have little minds. It is hard to take Christian pronouncements on the evils of our culture seriously when we talk more about store clerks not saying “Merry Christmas” than we do on issues like homelessness, poverty, immigration, hunger, and other things that are directly impacted by Jesus' command to love one another.

The second problem with getting too upset about the forgotten pagan elements of modern things is that they are inescapable. Do you invite people to church on Sunday? The name of that day goes back to Roman times when it literally honored the sun. Monday comes from the moon, also an object of pagan worship, and Saturday comes from the Roman god Saturn. The other days—Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—come from the Norse gods Tyr, Woden, Thor, and Frigga. So unless Christians change the names for the days of the week they are literally using the names of pagan gods every time they make an appointment or use a calendar or compose a flyer publicizing Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday.

And if Christians came up with different names for the days of the week (something Jehovah's Witnesses have debated), how could they make even basic messages clear to non-Christians or for that matter, to Christians who are not hung up on such things? And so we come to the third problem: trying to divorce yourself totally from such parts of the culture renders you unable to communicate with the people in it. Did you know that William Shatner, better known as the original Captain Kirk, starred in the only film ever done in Esperanto? Have you ever seen it? No, because few people speak this totally made-up candidate for a universal language. In fact, English, a real mutt of a language, is closer to becoming the universal language, partly because of its versatility. English, like the early Christian missionaries, is not shy about adopting useful words and concepts from other languages and cultures.

The apostles, by the way, did not quote the Hebrew Old Testament but instead a Greek translation called the Septuagint. Why? Probably because most of their audience, including Jews living outside Judea, did not speak Hebrew but were familiar with the Greek version. Now scholars quibble with the way the Septuagint translates certain Hebrew words (most famously in the verse in Isaiah about a young woman having a child, which Matthew used as a prophesy of Christ's birth) but evidently, the apostles felt it got the essence of what God was saying right. Like Jesus, they knew the difference between what is essential and what is not. They didn't waste time and energy fighting over non-essentials.

So who cares if the druids revered mistletoe for having no root but staying green during the cold of winter? Does the religion of the druids ever cross the minds of those kissing under the mistletoe? If not, there is no idolatry taking place. And if you held that it did real harm to unknowingly use something that was once part of a pagan tradition, that means that you are attributing to it inherently evil powers, which is bad theology and a very unChristian idea. It's rather like the magical thinking of those atheists who object to schools singing Christmas carols or to religious items in public places as if they could automatically override the will of nonbelievers and convert them. If they had that kind of power, our evangelism problems would disappear! I could just hang around the cross outside our church and sign up all the dazed drivers inadvertently made Christian by simply driving by it.

So what are we to make of the Christmas tree? Well, despite what you've heard or read on the internet, it's not pagan. It doesn't go back any farther than the 16th century. Fir trees, both inside the home and out, were decorated with apples, roses, gilded candies and colored paper. The idea came from medieval plays where such a tree, the paradise tree, was used to represent both lost Eden and the promise of a Savior. That's a pretty sophisticated symbol. It recalls the tree that is in the center of the first story of paradise in the Bible and the tree in the garden in the New Jerusalem, that gives healing to all, in the last paradise story. And the turning point in the larger story of how we get from one to the other involves God on another tree.

How did the lighted Christmas tree get to us? One night Martin Luther is supposed to have been struck by the sight of stars shining through the branches of a fir tree. He tried to recreate the effect for his family by putting candles on a small tree brought into the house. Luther the reformer wasn't worshiping nature. He was trying to imitate his heavenly Father's work with his own handiwork, as any child would. There is no heresy or paganism here, simply an appreciation of the beauty God made. The German Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, brought the custom to England and the Pennsylvania Germans brought it to America. If it still bothers you, may I suggest adding a little invention of St. Francis of Assisi: the nativity scene, a living version of which he used to tell the story of Jesus' birth to illiterate peasants.

Remember, the reason for the trees, as well as for the season, is Jesus. It's when we take our focus off of him that we can't see the forest for the trees, and then our real problems begin. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Story of the Saints

It's as if Christmas Eve eclipsed Christmas Day: Halloween has become better known that the holy day it's named after. Halloween is just a contraction of “All Hallows Evening.” It preceded “All Hallows Day, ” which is the old name for All Saints Day. Celebrated since the late 4th century, All Saints Day reminds us of how important the saints were in the story of the church. Statues and icons of them were found in most churches. Prayers were made to them. The saints became specialized, with each having efficacy over certain areas of life. Thus if you wanted protection against fire and lumbago, you prayed to Saint Lawrence of Rome. If you were a sailor, you might pray to Saint Elmo. If you had disappointing children, you prayed to Saint Clotilde. Pilgrims visited shrines of saints. Bits of their bodies were venerated. How did this state of affairs come about and why do we have a holy day devoted to all the saints? Hold on to your hats because we are taking a quick tour of the history of the church.

The word “saint” in the Bible meant someone set apart by God for his purposes. In the the New Testament, all Christians were called saints. All are saved by Christ and set apart by God to live by his Spirit and spread the gospel. But as time went on, the founders of the church were considered saints with a capital “S,” especially since most of them became martyrs. “Martyr” is just the Greek word for “witness,” someone who testifies to the truth. In the early days of the church, testifying to the truth of Jesus as the risen Messiah and Savior could, in times of persecution, get you killed by the authorities. So the term martyr took on the added meaning of one who dies for the truth. You can see how the first Christians, those who died for their faith, came to be honored as superstars of the church.

Not only were most of the twelve apostles (13 including Paul) martyred but so were many of their successors, whom they had appointed to oversee the individual churches. The word for “overseer” in Greek is episcopos, from which we get the word “bishop.” Originally a bishop was one of many elders of a house church. He was chosen to preside over the Eucharist and baptisms. As the faith spread and the number of churches in each city grew, so did the jurisdiction of the bishop. Eventually he couldn't get to all of the local churches on the same Sunday and so he ordained (which means “listed”) elders to act in his stead. The Greek word for “elder” is presbuteros, which eventually became the word “priest.” They handled the day to day duties of running the local church, but went to the bishop over bigger issues and essential matters that needed authoritative decisions, which they brought back to their parish. The priests represented their congregation to the bishop and represented the bishop to the congregation. So when the churches of an area were persecuted, the local bishop who oversaw them was targeted by the Roman authorities.

One of the most famous martyr bishops was Ignatius of Antioch. As you remember from the Book of Acts, Antioch was the site of the first major church founded outside Judea. It was the church which sent Paul out as a missionary. Under Trajan, the first Roman Emperor to make Christianity illegal, Ignatius was arrested. As he was transported to Rome, a trip that took months, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to various churches. Seven of those letters, in which he offered encouragement, corrected theological errors and contemplated his coming martyrdom, still survive. What is remarkable to us is his anticipation of getting to God through dying for his faith. He even writes to the church in Rome and asks them not to try to prevent his execution. This is alien to us but Ignatius was not alone in viewing martyrdom as a glorious thing. It was seen as following in the footsteps of Jesus, as the ultimate form of discipleship. The alternative was to give up one's faith or hide one's faith in the face of persecution. So Ignatius embraced his martyrdom. One can see how his heroic stance impressed other Christians.

So the first capital “S” saints were martyrs. And not all were bishops. Ordinary people who stood up for their faith and were executed were also designated saints. When Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, 200 years after Trajan, martyrdom was largely a thing of the past, unless you became a missionary. So the term “saint” was now bestowed on any extremely holy or charitable Christian. They were held up as shining examples. As Christianity spread through the known world, each region could boast at least one superstar who was designated a saint by the local churches and bishops.

As the faith spread outside the cities and beyond the Empire, it at last came to the pagans. The word “pagan” originally just meant rural peasant, just as “heathen” used to mean someone who lived on the heath. Since Christianity first spread from city to city, along the excellent roads of the Roman Empire, early Christians were usually urban. Rural people were considered, then as now, less sophisticated, and, then at least, more barbaric. (This is why the word “villain” comes from the word for a farm servant, one who worked on a villa.) Rural people were also more conservative than urban folk, which meant still holding onto faith in the old Roman pantheon of gods. Agricultural life is hard and so they had a difficult time giving up reliance on the gods of the harvest and the rain and fertility and such. How could one god do it all?

Rural folk also saw the spiritual realm as set up pretty much in the same kind of hierarchy as the Empire, where local landlords and officials were the only contact one had with the reign of the current emperor. In the same way, there may be one supreme god, such as Zeus or Jupiter, but you usually dealt with the lesser gods. They were the masters over the particular departments of life that were people's everyday concerns, like safe childbirth or good weather. The idea of having direct access to God Almighty was a strange concept and probably a frightening one, like taking a local matter all the way to the emperor himself. Going through intermediaries was more comfortable. So the form of Christianity that developed from this was one in which the pagan gods were exchanged for saints, and the saints took up the specialized oversight for the common concerns of the peasants.

Sometimes this was a stretch. The lives of the saints were ransacked for any link, however tenuous, with some activity, illness, trouble or profession that he or she could sponsor. So if you were a craftsman who worked with wheels, your patron was St. Catherine of Alexandria, presumably because she was sentenced to be broken on the wheel! I don't think she would have appreciated the irony. If there wasn't an appropriate saint for an occasion, a pious legend might arise. My favorite is St. Wigglefoot the Unencumbered. Hers was one of the many tales of Christian virgins who prayed to God to protect them from the lustful attentions of pagan princes. In the case of St. Wilgefortis, God caused her to grow a mustache and beard overnight! The next day was to be her wedding day but the groom rejected the hirsute girl and her father crucified her. Thus St. Wilgefortis, whose difficult name devolved into St. Wigglesfoot, became the patron saint of women who wanted to be rid of their troublesome husbands. I think she could make a comeback. But she was removed from the list of official saints when the Roman Catholic Church cleaned out the more dubious ones in the late 1960s.

It is said that sometimes a popular local deity was merely “baptized,” so to speak, and reborn as a saint. St. Brigid of Ireland may have been a pagan princess converted by St. Patrick. Or she may have be the powerful pagan goddess repurposed. Or the attributes of the goddess and those of a real woman got mixed together in popular lore. In this and other alleged instances of pagan gods turned into saints, it's tough to know for sure. The original stories predate writing in most cases. And often our knowledge of certain pagan gods is only available because they were written down by Christian monks, as the story of Beowulf was. We do know that pagan shrines were frequently cleansed and then made into churches. Was the same thing done to their former objects of worship?

Another reason for mixing up the functions and attributes of the old gods with the saints was the incomplete conversion of barbarian tribes. Usually missionaries aimed to convert the king or chieftain of a tribe. If they succeeded, that leader then decreed that all his subjects be baptized and become Christians as well. But the average member of the tribe was not doing this out of personal conviction and thus was often in total ignorance of the basic tenets of his newly mandated faith. Again, letting go of familiar gods was hard and so the saints were substituted for them in the hearts and minds of these new “converts.” Along the way the spirit of Christianity was in danger of being lost when only the outer forms of the faith were adopted by tribes whose chief virtues were those of warriors rather than peacemakers. A lot of problems that we attribute to the so-called “Dark Ages” did not originate with the church but with the breaking up of the Roman Empire into a mass of warring tribes who did not care much for learning nor for the gentler teachings of Jesus and who tried to remake Christianity in their image.

Eventually the cult of saints degenerated into the regional veneration of certain spectacular Christians whose bodies were considered to be imbued with holiness and miraculous powers. Though some saints were merely great teachers or preachers or charitable souls who helped the poor and suffering, sainthood's primary sign became the working of miracles. And if the saint didn't display any wonder-working powers in this life, then he or she might suddenly manifest the ability after death. They could do this by granting cures to those who prayed to them. Or they could do this by simply refusing to rot. (If you wish to see why this phenomenon was so powerful, go to and look at their list of Top 10 incorrupt corpses, complete with remarkable photos. They are not creepy because they all look as if they are simply sleeping. I was startled to see Pope John the 23rd in their company!) At a time when the art of embalming was lost, you can see how a body that didn't decompose inspired awe.

The problem was that the saints were superstars and like Elvis' Graceland, their graves and shrines attracted pilgrims. And pilgrims, like tourists, brought wealth. People would pay good money to see and have their prayers offered up to a saint. There weren't enough whole saints to go around so monasteries and churches competed for relics, bones and bits of the saints' bodies. For a humorous take on this trade, try to see or read the play Incorruptible by Michael Hollinger. The playwright did his research. Marathon Community Theatre did a production several years ago and it was both funny and touching.

The cult of the saints became a primary target of the Protestant reformers. Besides the obvious fraud (Luther asked dryly how was it that there were only 12 apostles and yet there were 30 of them buried in Germany alone) the trafficking in saints literally commercialized the sacred, cheapened the idea of grace and put a price tag on answers to prayer. In addition, saints were seen, at best, as the objects of superstition and, at worst, as centers of idolatrous worship. The whole idea that through Christ we have access to God was lost when people's primary religious devotions were directed at secondary figures. Since the saints were alive in heaven, the Roman Catholic Church compared asking a saint to pray for you to asking any Christian on earth to pray for you. The difference was that the extraordinary virtues of the saints were treated like cash in the heavenly bank and, of course, being continually in the direct presence of God gave the saints a better chance of getting what they asked for. To the reformers, the cult of the saints was simply paganism redux. In reaction, Protestants tried to suppress the cult of saints. Rulers like Henry VIII found it very profitable to seize the property and money of monasteries who made a mint out of saints. In the zeal to purify churches, many beautiful works of art were destroyed by mobs. So, apart from liturgical traditions like ours, most Protestant churches today are not named for saints, nor are they talked about much. And unfortunately, that means they don't pass along the inspiring stories of some remarkable Christians.

If we look upon the saints as they were originally seen by the early church, as exemplars of Christian living, we can find a lot to appreciate. A former slave, St. Vincent de Paul, started organizations for the poor, nursed the sick, and found jobs for the unemployed. St. Rose Venerini founded and oversaw 40 schools for girls despite violent opposition. St. Richard Pampuri was a doctor who treated the poor for free, even setting up a dental clinic for them. St. Bridget of Sweden was the mother of 8, one of whom became a saint as well, and yet found time to become the counselor of theologians, popes and royalty. St. Raymond of Penyafort gave up law and refused to be made archbishop to do parish work and start a school that taught the culture and languages of Spain and northern Africa to missionaries. The first book written in English by a woman came from St. Julian of Norwich, who was widely recognized in her day as a spiritual authority and who wrote of God's love at a time when the world was rocked by the Black Death and peasant revolts. St. Francis of Assisi was a spoiled rich kid and fame-seeking soldier who renounced his inheritance and tried to end the 5th Crusade by going to Egypt and speaking to the Sultan. There is a wealth of stories of heroic faith here.

So let us reclaim the saints, their extraordinary lives and the lessons in faith and service they can teach us. But let us also remember that we too are saints, people saved and sanctified by God. We too have been set apart for his purposes. We too serve him, even if we don't always get noticed. Let us remember that, more than attributed miracles, the hallmark of the saints is their humility. The greatest of the capital “S” saints would admit that they could accomplish nothing without the grace of God. They all realized that they were ordinary sinners, rescued by God and called to imitate Jesus Christ and to continue his work. If they are different from us, it is perhaps the extent to which they put God before self and the needs of others before their own. To paraphrase Dag Hammarskjold, saints are those who say “Thanks” to God for all he has done and “Yes” to all that he will do. To be a saint, then, is to decide which voice to listen to, your own or Christ's, and which will you obey.

What is Jesus saying to you right now, right here? What are you going to do about it?