Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dear Bishop Nicholas

RCL Advent 2C
6 December 2009

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Dear Bishop Nicholas,

Once again the passage of days has brought us to the celebration of your feast day. All around us the hustle and bustle of people preparing for the annual celebration of North American disillusionment and short-sighted greed has begun. Our media make false promises by trying to make us believe that the purchase of this item or that item will somehow fulfill our deepest longings. Songwriters and singers outdo one another in writing songs that they hope will somehow imbue us with the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ even as they studiously avoid any mention of the rabbi from Nazareth whose birth gave rise to this ‘holiday season’.

My Jewish friends tell me that they used to be quite happy that Chanukah did not have the same profile as Christmas. Its low profile meant that Jewish children could be seen to have a time to exchange presents while the religious meaning of the festival, a celebration of God’s miraculous preservation of the Jewish people in the face of an imperial power, remained secure. But even my rabbinical colleagues tell me that the power of the North American consumer machine has begun to crack the religious defences of this Jewish festival. One of the rabbis made a passing remark that he wished someone would write a song about the ‘true meaning of Chanukah’.

Even your feast day has become a victim to the disillusionments of our times. Twenty years ago a young man, Marc Lepine, walked into the École Polytechnique in Montréal as students were in the last day of class before examinations. He separated the women from the men and then proceeded to kill fourteen and wound many more before he killed himself. He left a letter in which he blamed ‘feminists’ for all his disappointments. Even one of the good outcomes of this tragedy, stronger laws regarding firearms and their registration, is being dismantled by the federal government.

Once upon a time I used to portray you regularly at student and congregational parties. One of my former students made a cardboard mitre and my own jewellery as well as an English shepherd’s staff when added to a red chasuble gave a reasonable facsimile --- no beard though. I used to write stories that illustrated the values you upheld during your long and tumultuous life. I developed a three-year cycle which I never wrote down, but children who had heard the cycle would correct me if I strayed from the ‘canonical’ text. Now the pressures of being part-time students and congregations struggling in the face of ‘volunteer fatigue’ and declining membership just try to hang on during the ‘holiday season’. The events of the 6th of December 1989, the so-called ‘Montréal Massacre’ have also contributed to your day being underplayed as we try to remember that there are millions of women who still suffer abuse and murder throughout the world.

This year your feast coincides with our celebration of the Second Sunday of Advent, the first of two ‘John the Baptist’ Sundays. I was struck by the quotation from Isaiah 40 in the appointed gospel from Luke: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Here I am, surrounded by the riches of Canadian society, serving in an Anglican diocese where few if any of our members are truly hungry or naked or homeless, teaching what I always wanted to teach, married to a hard-working parish rector with whom I have three young adult children who are in school, and I can only relate to one part of the quotation: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness . . . .”

For whatever reason, and there are many I could name, this year your festival comes like a voice in the wilderness. Let me say more.

The wilderness is, in a biblical sense, always a place of promise and danger. The wilderness is a place of promise because a wanderer in the desert becomes acutely aware of how everything depends upon the graciousness of God. In the wilderness stories of Israel, water is found just when it is needed, food is discovered just when it is needed, shelter is found just when it is needed. The people were in God’s hands and God did not fail to provide for their needs. But the wilderness is also a place of danger. Death is always lurking just outside the limits of the camp for sure, but the real danger lies in forgetting our dependence upon God’s graciousness and to become greedy, to covet what others possess and to complain at God’s perceived lack of generosity. When that happens, we lose our way and begin to wander aimlessly. Eventually we no longer find water or discover food or find shelter. Death comes to us, whether physically or spiritually, and our bones litter the ground.

I wonder what John the Baptist thought when he heard people identifying him with that voice in the wilderness spoken of by Isaiah. Did he know that becoming God’s voice is rarely a positive career move? Did he realize that becoming a prophet, someone who speaks God’s word into the present, is usually the path to persecution and death? Recently I heard one of our bishops comment that, although we need our prophets, we rarely want them to be our leaders.

Poor John! He struggled in the wilderness and suffered the cruelties of the elements. He lived long enough to see his younger cousin supersede him. A tyrant imprisoned him and a jealous wife managed to have him executed by using her daughter to seduce her husband. When they came for him in the prison, did John see the straight path of the Lord in the wilderness? Did he see the salvation of all flesh? Maybe you could chat him up on this if the opportunity presents itself to you.

Forgive me for asking you this, but did you ever feel like a voice in the wilderness? What was it like for you to grow up during the last days of Christian persecution? How did you feel when you were imprisoned? Did you have any glimpses of the straight path of the Lord? Did you glimpse the salvation of all flesh? Even when Constantine de-criminalized the practice of the Christian faith, you hardly chose a popular course, did you? You used the resources of the diocese to provide dowries for poor women, hardly an act that would have endeared you to the diocesan council. You used the resources of the diocese to ransom sailors from pirates, hardly an act that would have endeared you to those who wanted to keep a cheap labour force. You even used diocesan revenues to provide parents with enough support to prevent them from selling their ‘surplus’ children into slavery. I doubt that the Better Slave Dealers Bureau of Myra voted you ‘Man of the Year’ for that little ploy.

You may be thinking, “What is he on about?” I’ll tell you. How do we proclaim the good news in what seems to be a wilderness? John proclaimed the good news of the coming of the Messiah and lost his head. You proclaimed the good news of a God of justice who cares for the poor and dispossessed and your feast day becomes the memorial of a massacre perpetrated by an angry man who felt dispossessed by the process of equality and fair treatment of women that you modelled for your own time. We here, we Anglicans of the Diocese of New Westminster, live in one of the richest places on earth, the ‘best place on earth’ if we are to believe our provincial government. For centuries we have played a significant part in the lives of our communities.

But the times have changed. When we open our churches to the homeless and become advocates for the poor, the neighbours complain about property values. When we contemplate redeveloping our properties to provide services to the elderly or to the dying, the sheer weight of bureaucratic procedure overwhelms us. When we dare to speak out about the near-sightedness that continues to rape the planet God gave us, the government withdraws the grants that we have used for decades to serve the poorest of the poor throughout the globe. When we ring our church bells to summon the faithful to worship, the neighbours complain about noise. Where, Nicholas, is the straight road? When will we see the salvation of all flesh?

Today we read part of a letter Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi. He wrote that he was confident that the one who had begun a good work among them would bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ [Philippians 1.6]. I was wondering if you could find Paul, perhaps John as well, and go and ask God when that day will be. The people among whom I live and work have been doing a lot of good work and they are getting tired, some may even be beginning to lose hope that this wilderness is only a passing phase we’re going through.

I hope that you do not think that I am arrogant in asking you to do this. Perhaps I am. Maybe it would be enough for the Spirit to break into this wilderness of Vancouver and into this season where so many of our neighbours are deluding themselves with visions of ‘the perfect gift’ and with the hope of Boxing Week sales will somehow fulfill their humanity. Maybe the Spirit could give Paula back her voice so that she could speak words of hope and comfort into this wilderness. Maybe the Spirit could strengthen our voices so that we could convince our neighbours and our governments that this is a wilderness and that there are those who are being lost because of our greed and exploitation and our lack of concern. Maybe the Spirit could give my sisters and brothers in this Diocese a glimpse of what we’ve been working for; you know, the straight path and salvation of all flesh. Just a glimpse; that’s all we need right now, I think.

Well, that’s probably enough for this letter. You can share it with anyone you think might be interested in it. I wouldn’t mind it if you shared it with John and Paul. Please tell the Writer of the Song of creation that we could use a bit more of the Breath that moved upon the waters at the beginning. We are hanging in down here, but any extra jolt to our stamina would be welcome.

Blessings to you and to all who might know me,


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