Monthly Musings

OCTOBER MUSING  — On the Importance of Character    

Peter Gomes died suddenly in 2011 from a heart attack during his impressive tenure at Harvard as Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.    He was 68.  Two of his books are The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart –a nuanced exploration of the Bible—and The  Good Life: Truths that Last in Times of Need—a sequel which explores virtue and ethics from especially classical theology and philosophy.  He received 39 honorary degrees throughout his academic and ministerial career.

Gomes graduated from Bates College in 1965 and then Harvard Divinity School in ’68 before teaching history and directing the Freshman Experimental Program at Tuskegee Institute.   He came back to Harvard in 1970 to serve initially as Assistant Minister.  At Harvard, among other appointments, he served as acting director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research from 1989 to 1991.

Gomes comes to mind today as I muse just a bit on character.  Gomes came out as gay in 1991.   Later he told a reporter from the Boston Globe:

I’m always seen as a black man and now I’m seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting — the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type — all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality.

Character asks us –among other things—to assess the lenses through which we see others.   It asks us to see distinctives instead of  lumping people together.  In an age of label making—the slapping of hastily-arrived conclusions onto others—some of his words on character and the virtues which support it strike home.

I close with two quotes from Gomes’ writing:

This is … why St. Thomas urges practice of the virtues upon us: not simply to perfect the virtues themselves, but to make effective use of them in the discernment of evil and the prosecution of good. The practice of virtue is the daily work of the believer: it does not wait for a crisis, since to wait for a crisis is to create a crisis. The cardinal virtues [prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude]are not made up by human philosophy as a consensus document for human practice. They are gifts of God, and they reflect what God is and what God values.”
— The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need

 Mystery is not an argument for the existence of God; mystery is an experience of the existence of God. Very much like suffering and joy, mystery can often be that place in which we come to know better who God is, and who we are. The Bible is valuable to us because it is the record of those for whom mystery and meaning are not antithetical but a life’s work in the growing knowledge of self and of God. It is my impression that this biblical ambition for humankind is perhaps more urgent and vital now than at any previous point in history.
— The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart

SEPTEMBER MUSING  —    AN INVITATION TO REFLECT UPON THE EPISCOPAL WAY

                We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every  wind of doctrine….  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we must grow  in every way into him who is the head, into  Christ….                         Ephesians 4: 14-15a

                 As we begin the fall season,  I am issuing an invitation to individuals from both Trinity Platteville and Trinity Mineral Point to join me in a small group,  informal discussion and exploration of what it means to be an Episcopalian.   This is an important conversation for both persons new to the Episcopal church and for those who have known it over many years.    I am hoping that a small group discussion would help us to ask questions,  clarify understandings,  and identify tensions that exist within our Episcopal tradition.   Would you join me?

To guide our conversation, we will be using two small books.   A People Called Episcopalians: A Brief Introduction to Our Way of Life briefly addresses such things as Episcopal identity, spirituality, authority, temperament.    This will help us learn or remember some of the distinctives that mark our church world-wide.   Our second small book, The Episcopal Way, is the first volume in a series dealing with the Church’s teachings for a changing world.   Here our tradition is laid alongside some of the ways in which our world is changing.   There are chapters dealing with such things as   Digital Media and the Incarnation,  A Multi-Tasking World and a Liturgical Church,  Flattened Authority and a Democratic Church,  Returning to the Via Media,  etc.  

I would like to briefly present a few of these ideas in an introductory session during our mini-retreat time at Wisconsin Badger Camp on  Saturday, October 6th. (If you cannot make this date, you can still be in our group and I will be glad to personally recap this initial session for you.  If you are at the initial session, did not sign up initially,  you will still be able to  participate in the group.)

 If you would like to join in, please email me or speak with me before September 12th so that I can arrange for a book order.    The cost, to partially defray expenses, is $9.00 per person.   Meeting times will be arranged with a total of 4 meetings  being anticipated this fall.

As the authors of Episcopal Way write:   We need to be confident, to love our roots, to share that love with the communities around us.  If we do not remain grounded and love the story we carry, who will?  

I hope you can join us.      —   Fr. Brian

AUGUST MUSING — Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit

1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.                            Ephesians 4: 1-3   

The month of August finds us encountering a variety of passages from the Letter to the Ephesians Sunday by Sunday through the entire month.   These readings began in mid-July and now, as we begin this month, we come to a passage from chapter four.  

In musing on this passage with its focus on humility, gentleness, patience,  love and unity,  I find myself asking the simple question:  Why?    Are we just supposed to strive for these qualities in our living with others?    Are these qualities just a good idea to help us smooth out any bumps in the road of human relations?  Or is there something deeper that should motivate us?

Paul says something at the beginning of this short passage that we might easily find ourselves skimming over:    He tells us that we have been called.   In a commentary on this passage from Ephesians,  New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass writes:

We need to recover a sense of the calling with which we were called.   Most  Christians have no sense they are called, but every Christian has been called by God as an act of grace….

This exposes a deeper reason for pursing love and unity,  gentleness and patience.   These are the qualities that God values and desires in us.  God has called us, claimed us in love.  God has reached out to us to show us a deeper way of living.   And because we are claimed,  God asks us to pay attention:   These qualities come to us from the Spirit and from the example of Christ who has shown us how to live.

I close with one more quotation from Dr. Snodgrass:

How can unity be established?  It does not need to be established,  for it already exists, given by God.  It needs to be valued and maintained.  Christ is not divided (I Cor 1:13).  The community is not the source of its own existence;  Christ is.  He is the unity of the church, for the church only exists in him.        — Fr. Brian

JUNE MUSING — “Nuts!   It’s gnats…”

My dog likes to roll in the grass.  He takes his time….  He also has a nose for mushrooms,  the little guys in June that crop up suddenly in the middle of the lawn???   I try to intervene, but even an old dog can have some surprising moves.

I did not mind the rolling in the lawn,  the slow yawn,  the favoring of this side and that in the early days of spring.  Or earlier in the snow.  But now,  with the first humid days ruining paradise,  telling us about the imperfections and inconveniences of the natural world, I have become far less patient when it comes to walking Snickers.

The reason is gnats.   They are abundant this year and flavor conversations if not with their presence, with their reputation.   They like the head,  the hair, the ears, the nostrils.  And in one small moment, they transform the experience of being out of doors from peaceable to provoking.

May, with that carpet of green transforming the landscape, makes everything look grand, abundant,  inviting.   But June…?  In June, the initial vision may be wearing a bit thin. Temperatures soar. Humidity arrives.  Pollen becomes even more abundant. June may be busting out all over, but also in June, mosquitoes play at the window screen.    And gnats explode (if not earlier) into the scene.  You may not agree with this dour perspective, but you get the picture.

I am always amazed how a little cloud of gnats can absolutely cloud and wipe away any sense of wonder and of enjoyment when I encounter them outdoors.   They ruin my humanity,  confound any sense of control.   And why has the Creator provided them in our midst, anyway?    Is it perhaps to warn us of our own behavior?

Before I have to put on some DEET or vanilla bug juice or something,  I close with this small prayer:   O Lord,  keep me from being like the annoying gnat.   Save me from being the fly in the ointment,  the wasp hiding in the raspberries,  the slug after a summer rain busy at the leaf lettuce or the hapless bee, drowning in the iced tea..  And as I try to understand their place in the created order, may the gnat and other intruders of its ilk keep me humble and help me to grasp each day when gnat or wasp or mud dauber or mosquito threatens to rob me of presence and gratitude.    Amen.        — Fr Brian

MAY MUSING —WATER IS LIFE

Fr John  Floberg,  the Canon Missioner for the Diocese of North Dakota, arrived in Madison at 8:30 a.m. on Friday April 27th after a 5 a.m. flight from Bismarck.   He visited some of the sacred sites of the Ho Chunk Nation right on the UW Madison campus with The Rev Jonathan Melton of St Francis House,  spoke to a group of clergy over lunch,  another student-faculty group at dinner and then participated as one of two speakers before about 45 students in a two-hour session at St. Francis House beginning at 7 p.m.  After that meeting which I attended,  I introduced myself, picked up Fr Floberg and drove him to Mineral Point and our home at the Rectory.   Needless to say, rising at 2:30 a.m. on Friday and retiring at 12:15 a.m. on Saturday made for a particularly long first day in Wisconsin.

Fr Floberg spoke before 11 at a Saturday breakfast gathering and then in the evening at the Opera House before approximately 53 ,  then at Trinity’s Holy Eucharist on Sunday before 28 and finally at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Platteville at the Pioneer Student Center before approximately 25.   Every time that Fr. John spoke he reminded us.   Every time he began his presentation with the acknowledgement that we were meeting on the ancestral grounds of Native American people — in our case,  territory, homeland of the Ho Chunk people.

Territorial land.   Homeland.    The Psalms in particular are a record of the valuing of homeland:  Zion.   Psalm 137’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and in the midst of captivity in Babylon proclaims the importance of territory:  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?/  If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 

We would like to forget the sordid history of displacement that moved Native Americans off of ancestral lands.   Native American people do not forget.    And the Pan-Indian presence at Standing Rock was a powerful witness to the presence of Indigenous Peoples from around the world finding one another and finding their voice.

Many of us were moved by the Four Directions Prayer that we used on Sunday at  Eucharist as part of the Prayers of the People.   This prayer,  part of the Native American resource material from the Niobrara Convocation (the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota),  reminds us that there is much to learn,  much to share in terms of spirituality between white and Native American approaches to the holy.

And Fr. Floberg’s presence in our midst was enlightening.   I came away humbled and wanting to learn more.   Perhaps you did too.

Fr. Brian