Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bible Road Trips: Promise to Abram

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures. 

Promise to Abram
Read Genesis 12-13

This post is about the kind of travel that involves a new beginning. When my family and I move to another community with new jobs, we try to start strong in that place and explore opportunities for service. It isn’t always easy: new employment, a new role, may have pitfalls that you didn’t initially see. Some opportunities have to be pursued with diligence and competition. In life’s journey, many of us deal with new beginnings and the accompanying challenges.

When I’ve tried to read the Bible from the beginning, Genesis 10-11 is an easy place to get bogged down: all those names and places, as the generations following Noah fan out and occupy the Ancient Near East. Only the Tower of Babel provides a bit of excitement.

But within these chapters is a process of focusing. The genealogies move us from the generations and geographies toward a seemingly insignificant family of Ur: that of Terah, the father of Abram. Abram’s brother Nahor dies, the family takes up the care of Nahor's son Lot, and they all settle in Haran in Asia Minor until Terah dies (Gen. 11:24-32).

Something monumental happens next: God calls Abram and his family to set out toward the land of Canaan, and God would make from their descendants a great nation. This is curious, for Abram and Sarai are old and have no children. But Abram responds affirmatively—-and this is the real beginning of the Bible’s story. You might subtitle the Bible, “how God worked through the faith of Abram to change the world.”

As you read Genesis 12 and 13, you follow Abram and his family from Haran into Canaan, with a side trip to Egypt and back. I’ve heard sermons about Abraham (as he is eventually renamed), to the effect that we should be ready to go if God calls us to go. But don’t forget that Abraham was a nomad; he had no fixed home to start with, and his life was closely tied to the availability of land for his sizable holdings in livestock. His sojourn in Egypt, where he is caught in a well-intentioned lie, seems to have been a time when his holdings were built up.

As the story continues, contention builds between Abram’s people and Lot’s. Some arrangement of land usage needs to be worked out, and Abram allows his nephew the first choice. Lot chooses the area of Sodom. If this were a movie, we might hear ominous, foreshadowing music at this point, but the region of Sodom seemed to Lot a positive choice.

If you had been in a similar situation, would you have relinquished the ability to make the first choice? Perhaps you remember a time you were in competition for a choice job, or a good home. Maybe you had to be aggressive and seize the opportunity when it presented itself.

Abram certainly displayed that kind of initiative in Genesis 14, when he was called upon to rescue Lot during a time of tribal warfare. But it’s also true that his peaceful and generous nature is frequently praised in Scripture. Abram reflects a quality of God’s own character, for God is a God of peace.

At this point, God speaks again to Abram. God had not previously told Abram what land he would be given; now, God tells him to look all around. This land of the Canaanites would be the land of Abram’s descendants. In a pattern we also find elsewhere in Scripture, God reiterates his promises as a pledge of God's trustworthiness.

I don’t want to minimize Abraham by making him simply an example of faithful living. He is THE example of faith, the first who answered God in fully faithful obedience, revered as such by three major religions (appropriately called the Abrahamic religions). But looking at the life of Abraham, we can take his example for our own, far smaller struggles. In our own journeys, how do we adjudicate the sometimes difficult choices that we have to make, in our business decisions, our need to relocate, our concern for faithfulness to God’s guidance?

For All the Saints: John Wycliffe, and Hallowmas

On the Episcopal calendar, John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) is honored today. He was an Oxford professor, scholastic philosopher, theologian, and noted Bible translator who is still well known in the church. Over a century before Luther, he addressed and criticized what he considered abuses in the Roman Catholic church. He translated the Bible into Middle English by the year 1382, undertaking much and perhaps all of the New Testament with his helpers working on the Old Testament. For him, the Bible should be the church's central authority and thus he criticized the papacy and doctrines that he considered unscriptural.

Although the Czech reformer Jan Hus was executed for his teachings (several years later, in 1415), and although Wycliffe's followers were persecuted, Wycliffe himself died of natural causes. Nevertheless, Wycliffe's remains were exhumed, burned, and scattered; he had been posthumously declared a heretic whose books as well as remains should be destroyed.

With Wycliffe, I conclude my year-long posts about different saints of the church, which I began here. I posted 140 altogether. This has been a personal way that I disciplined myself to think about matters of the Spirit as the days and weeks went by, and I learned a lot in the process! There were many, many interesting and faithful persons---honored on Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox calendars---whom I missed, so I'll probably return to this informal study in the future.

From the Facebook page of St Paul Lutheran
Church, Dog Leg Road, Dayton OH
Tomorrow is Reformation Day, the anniversary of Luther's posting of 95 theses (propositions for debate) upon the door of Wittenberg Church. He did not intend to break with the Roman Catholic Church, only to debate and clarify aspects of church teaching. The statement led eventually to the Protestant Reformation--and certainly, the efforts of Wycliffe and his followers was Luther's forerunner.

Tomorrow is also All Hallows' Evening, or the evening before All Hallows' Day or All Saints' Day (or Hallowmas). Of course, All Hallows' Evening is usually contracted to All Hallows' Eve or just Halloween. It begins the time of Allhallowtide when the dead, including the saints (hallows) and martyrs are remembered and honored. The day may have roots in the Gaelic festival Samhain, but the setting of Hallowmas may date from the 8th century papacy of Gregory III.

And Tuesday is All Saints' Day. It is the middle day of Hallowmas, the three-day festival commemorating those saints, known and unknown, who have died (in Catholic theology: those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven). Many churches have a recitation of the names of members of that congregation who have died during the previous year. According to the informal research that I did last year, the feast was mentioned in a sermon as early as 373 AD, and the date of November 1 was instituted by the 8th century Pope Gregory III, while the 9th century Pope Gregory IV made it a feast for the whole church.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For All the Saints: Crispin and Crispinian
I've been away from my laptop for a few days while on a trip, so I'm a day late for the October 25th feast day of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian, believed to be Roman brothers who pursued missionary work in Gaul. To support themselves, they made shoes and gave some of their earnings to the poor. They were arrested during the Diocletian persecution, tortured, and thrown into a river, and when they survived that, they were beheaded.

Doing these posts for several months, I realize how many legends and stories of the earlier saints have a similarity: some of these men and women were hard to kill! They endured torture and even fatal encounters yet hung on, and only beheading finally "worked." But at least one saint on the Orthodox calendar miraculously carried his own severed head for a while. I don't mean this as a flippant observation, but the stories do emphasize these kinds of heroism and witness.

St. Crispin is remembered in two notable ways in the arts. In the third act of Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger, the shoemakers' guild sing a song of praise to the saint who made shoes. More famously, perhaps, Shakespeare has Henry V make an inspiring "band of brothers" speech at the beginning of the Battle of Agincourt:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Here's Kenneth Branagh:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Darwin the Botanist

I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

My two previous posts on this theme concerned Charles Darwin. Did you know that he was a notable botanist? I didn't, but several of his books have to do with plants. Here are eight of his twenty-five books, of which six are specifically focused upon plants and the other two are related topics. Like Darwin's books on natural selection, fossils, and geology, these are treasurable antiquarian books in their early editions by John Murray of London. (His American publisher was D. Appleton, New York).
Darwin's six botany books,
including a first edition of "Fertilisation
of Orchids" that had a plum-colored
cover. Other than this edition,
Darwin's British publisher, John Murray,
had green covers for Darwin's books.  

Fertilisation of Orchids (1862)

The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (published as an essay in 1865, and as a book in 1875)

The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868)

Insectivorous Plants (1875)

The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876)

The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877)

The Power of Movement in Plants (1880)

The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

I found this site which discusses Darwin's interest in plants: The author writes:

An 1891 printing
"Darwin’s botanical interests were broad and eclectic. ... In addition to [his six books devoted solely to botanical subjects] Darwin also published botanical work in journals, was in regular correspondence with many of the outstanding botanists of the time (for example, Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray), and, in later life, worked with his son Francis on botanical research.

"Darwin’s love of plants appears to have been deeply rooted in his childhood. His parents were both interested in gardening and maintained a varied collection of plants in their conservatory and gardens in Shrewsbury, where Darwin grew up. Indeed, one of the few images of Darwin as a child (age 6) show him kneeling with a potted plant on his thigh. In his autobiographical chapter, Darwin (1887) mentions that '…apparently I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants!' A schoolfellow remembers Darwin’s bringing a flower to school and saying that his mother had taught him how to identify the plant by studying the flower."

Another site,, is a discussion of Darwin's botanical work. Both of these articles are worth reading as a whole. This author notes:

"Darwin wrote six botanical books, over 75 articles, and well-articulated and rigorously executed studies. He titled his last plant book The power of movement in plants (1880). Fascination with the ways that plants move entered the early botanical literature in conjunction with a difficult question: Are plants alive? Although they don’t have evident nervous systems, they can respond to irritation in some cases. This was taken as a sign of life. At the bottom is the even more difficult question, ‘What is life?’ For Darwin, the traditional ‘What is life?’ question was transformed into an effort to demonstrate the unity of all life and hence, by implication, the common descent of all branches of the evolutionary tree. This is the unspoken thesis of Power of Movement. Darwin was once again universalising. By showing that plants have a power of movement and given that mobility and the capacity for movement are animal-like characteristics, he is supporting the unity of common descent, which in turn is an underlying assumption or implication (depending on how the argument is phrased) of evolution...

"As we have seen, Darwin not only contributed to botany, he actually changed the discipline by his very contributions. Since all of his botanical researches were conducted as applications of the theory of evolution, replete with well-worked examples often treated as evidence for natural selection, he was using botany to defend his theory. But simultaneously he was also providing botanists with a model for how to think about their own observations in evolutionary terms....Darwin was so invested in his plant research that he himself built the bridge directly from the Origin to fundamental problems in botanical science. Thus did Darwin assist at the birth of evolutionary botany. This dual role as both founder of evolution by natural selection and exponent of how the theory could be applied in botany is quite remarkable. Later generations of Darwinian botanists would complete the transformation of botany into evolutionary science. But Darwin went a long way in providing a model for that transformation."

(Among his other, varied investigations, Darwin was also interested in marine invertebrates, and wrote articles and books on the subject, particularly barnacles, during the years prior to On the Origin of Species. Here is an article that discusses his research: )

A friend recommends Janet Browne's biography of Darwin.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

For All the Saints: Elizabeth of the Trinity

Mother Teresa was canonized recently, and today Pope Francis canonizes another saint: Élisabeth Catez (1880-1906), Elizabeth of the Trinity, O.C.D. I learned about her thanks to a former student who is a Byzantine Catholic nun, who wrote on her Facebook page about Elizabeth, who entered the Discalced Carmelite order in 1901, took her solemn vows in 1903, and died of Addison's disease three years later. But the depths of her devotion and her writings have left a significant legacy. Here, for instance, is her prayer to the Trinity (from this site):

"The prayer to the Trinity
"O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to become utterly forgetful of myself so that I may establish myself in you, as changeless and calm as though my soul were already in eternity. Let nothing disturb my peace nor draw me forth f from you, O my unchanging God, but at every moment may I penetrate more deeply into the depths of your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it your heaven, your cherished dwelling-place and the place of your repose. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there, wholly attentive, wholly alert in my faith, wholly adoring and fully given up to your creative action.
"O my beloved Christ, crucified for love, I long to be the bride of your heart. I long to cover you with glory, to love you even unto death! Yet I sense my powerlessness and beg you to clothe me with yourself. Identify my soul with all the movements of your soul, submerge me, overwhelm me, substitute yourself for me, so that my life may become a reflection of your life. Come into me as Adorer, as Redeemer and as Saviour.
"O Eternal Word, utterance of my God, I want to spend my life listening to you, to become totally teachable so that I might learn all from you. Through all darkness, all emptiness, all powerlessness, I want to keep my eyes fixed on you and to remain under your great light. O my Beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may never be able to leave your radiance.
"O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, overshadow me so that the Word may be, as it were incarnate again in my soul. May I be for him a new humanity in which he can renew all his mystery.
And you, O Father, bend down towards your poor little creature. Cover her with your shadow, see in her only your beloved son in who you are well pleased
"O my `Three', my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to you as your prey. Immerse yourself in me so that I may be immersed in you until I go to contemplate in your light the abyss of your splendour!"

The Carmelite site gives more information about her:

Here are news stories about her canonization:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bible Road Trips: The Road to Exile

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures. 

The Road to Exile
2 Kings 23:21-25:30, Psalm 137

I’m thinking about the biblical exile—-thinking about the people of God as refugees forced out of the land and into Babylon, following the destruction of Jerusalem. Here is a map(1) of the way the people traveled. Among the biblical accounts of roads and travel, this is a particularly tragic one.

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

If you’re familiar with biblical history, you know that the exile is a milestone of a very long story of God’s promise of land to his people, extending about 1500 years from Genesis 12 till the end of 2 Kings. It was the end of the Davidic monarchy (conventionally conceived) that had lasted about four hundred years, and it was a second experience of wilderness for God’s people, perhaps more profound than the forty years of Moses’ leadership. God’s punishment for the people’s covenant-breaking, which is how the exile was theologically understood, is the subject of many of the prophets—and so a great deal of the biblical text is in one way or another related to the exile.

James Tissot, "The Flight of the Prisoners",
Jewish Museum, New York
You can read the account of the disaster itself in 2 Kings 23:21-25:30 and Jeremiah chapter 52. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians had already besieged Jerusalem in 605 BCE, resulting in tribute paid to the king by the king of Judah, Jehoiakim. But Jehoiakim eventually refused to pay tribute, leading to another siege, the death of Jehoiakim, and the exile of subsequent King Jeconiah and his court. Further deportations happened during the reign of Zedekiah. The dates of the deportation are often cited as about 598 and another in 586 (when Jerusalem was destroyed, along with Solomon’s Temple), and the last in about 582/581. Scholars debate the number of Jews who were deported, and how many stayed in the land, as well as the total number of deportations. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were the major prophets of this period; in fact, Ezekiel continued to minister to the people and communicated prophecies of hope.

The exile ended in about 538, when the Persian leader Cyrus allowed Jews to return to the land, and the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt in the 510s and after. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover this history, which concludes the period of biblical history.

As I said above, this is a profound event in the biblical history, but also far beyond. The exile shaped the subsequent history of Jews and Judaism. The Hebrew language was developed during this time. The Torah was likely compiled and edited during this time, becoming the sacred text for a people.(2) Many Jews did not return to the land, and so the Torah, along with synagogues and teacher-sages and mitzvot-oriented observance, became crucial aspects of Jewish religious and ethnic identity. Expectation of the return of the Davidic monarchy became important for many Jews. Such expectation was also crucial for the first century CE group of Jews who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the experiences of exile, return, and expectation were also formative for the beginning of Christianity.

I write about this in more (informal) detail at this site. Here, I want to say: when you hold your Bible in your hand and read it, the whole book is can be understood as a story of exile, the trauma of refugees, and the hope that keeps them going.

If we need any “inspiration” to contribute toward the well-being of refugee people in our own time, we could certainly start with the experience of Bible people as refugees and exiles who long for their home as reflected in the 137th Psalm. With news of Syria and Appello as on-going news stories, I refreshed my memory about the plights of refugees and exiles in the world. Turning to the UNHCR website (The UN Refugee Agency,, I learned that there are currently 21.3 millions refugees in the world, over 50% of whom are children. Over 40.8 million are “internally displaced people” (IDPs), who have no home but have not crossed a border to safety. In 2014, 11 million were newly displaced. Colombia, Iraq, and South Sudan are countries with a high populations of IDPs. Ten million people are “stateless’; they’re minority people who have no citizenship status anywhere. About 3.2 million people are asylum seekers, seeking the right to receive legal protection and material assistance by being recognized as refugees.

Day by day I worry about my own small problems, in my own nice home, while these millions of people are in crisis.

You can find articles about specific refugee situations: for instance, I found this recent piece about IDPs in Serbia and Kosovo.

Here is another article concerning Syrian refugees, about whom American politicians have misinformed the public in key ways.

Don’t be distracted from politically motivated misinformation about refugees: find out more for yourself, from nonpartisan and reputable sources.

Here is the site of the Catholic Relief Service, for instance, that contains several ideas for helping:

Here is another site that I found, “welcoming refugees,”

Do a Bible study:

Writing this post has inspired me, too, to contribute to some of these ministries and to be more informed.



2.  The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemnan writes, “It may be that the final form of the Torah was not reached in the brief period of the Babylonian displacement, but rather in the subsequent Persian period during which there continued to be communities of passionate Jews far from Jerusalem. Either way, after the disruption of 587, under Babylonian or Persian aegis, Jews understood themselves to be exposed, vulnerable, not at risk without the visible supports of a stable homeland. For our purposes it does not matter greatly if the exile is ‘historical’ as given us in the Bible (as we are inclined to think), or if it is an ideological self-characterization. Either way, displaced people needed a place from which to validate a theologically informed, peculiar sense of identity and practice of life. The traditioning (sic) process that produced the Torah thus strikes us as a remarkable match for displacement, so that we may understand ‘the Torah of Moses’ as a script for displaced community [my emphasis]. This connection greatly illuminates the fact, as noted above, that the ‘Torah of Moses’ concludes in Deuteronomy 34 with the death of Moses (thus the end of the normative period) and Israel posed to enter the land of promise but still landless. We may believe that this now normative tradition was powerfully and peculiarly germane to a community that understood itself as exiles, poised to reenter the land but still landless. Thus the Torah came to have durable validity for subsequent generations in the community as canon….” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, p. 42).

For All the Saints: Teresa of Ávila

Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was baptized Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada. She is well known Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun, and theologian. She was canonized in 1622 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Her works include the The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection. This site has a good summary of her eventful life and spiritual pilgrimage:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Poverty as a Campaign Issue

Not long ago, a colleague commented on Facebook that the candidates seldom if ever talk about hunger. Then this morning I saw this good essay, "the main issue that faith based voters should be asking tougher questions about": The author writes:

"While conservative and progressive Christians may hold differing views on the most important issues of this election cycle, there is one issue that should take top-billing for ALL people of faith, no matter which side of the aisle or what their language for God. It’s the one issue that could bridge the divides over social issues, and it’s the one issue that none of us have been talking about enough:

"This is a non-partisan critique. Neither candidate has given proper attention to the issue of poverty in this election. And that’s because we, the voting population, have not been asking enough hard questions about their plans to address it. Candidates are always going to spend the majority of their mic time covering the issues that they think will get them elected. So if we aren’t good and loud about what we care about, we aren’t going to hear about it." The author goes on to say that concerns about abortion, jobs, etc., could be addressed via the issue of poverty.

That essay linked to this recent piece in the New York Times, which similarly raises the issue of poverty and whether the candidates' ideas address poverty, if peripherally:

Good pieces to read and consider!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Landscape: Hans Heysen

Hans Heysen (1877-1968), "Red Gold" (1913). From:

Copied under fair use principles.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bible Road Trips: The Raising of Lazarus

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures. 

The Raising of Lazarus
Read: John 11:1-44

A journey that many of us have made is the journey of sickness or grief: a loved one is gravely ill, a loved one has died. We must suspend everything we’re doing and go to the place. These are terrible trips.

In the famous story of Jesus and Lazarus, Jesus is called to his friends’ home in Bethany because he is sick. Someone had to travel and to locate Jesus, increasing the likelihood that Lazarus would die before Jesus arrived. But Jesus waited an extra two days before he set out with his disciples to Judea. On the way, he knew that Lazarus had died (vss. 11-15), but he tells them that the delay would help their belief later. The reason is that Lazarus would not only be dead but four days dead. His disciples, including Mary and Martha, try as best as they can to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his delay seems to them distressing.

The Bible contains seven miracles of persons raised from the dead, three by Jesus (Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 7:11-17, John 11:1-44), and four by others (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:32-37, Acts 9:36-40, Acts 20:7-12). Don’t forget Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones Ezekiel (37:1-14); those people were beyond decomposition, yet in the prophetic vision, God restored their life. There are also stories of God’s power over natural forces, including destruction and death: for instance, Jesus’ calmed of the storm (Luke 8:22-24), Jesus walked across the churning sea (Matt. 14:22-36), and much earlier in the Bible, God splits the sea (Exodus 14:15-31).

I think of all these stories as part of the larger story: the forces of life and death, creation and destruction, are all somehow, in ways we do not understand, within the power and life of God, and therefore of Christ.

“In him we live and move and have our being,” were the words of Greek philosopher Epimenides that Paul approvingly quoted as he preached before the Areopagus (Acts 17:28). Our physical lives, though not the same as God’s life, are within God’s being and cared for by God. Of course, we also believe that our spiritual identities are preserved by God: that is, God saves our souls for Heaven, to use traditional language that affirms God’s power to preserve our lives.

One of my favorite verses in all of scripture is Colossians 3:3, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We have “died” in the sense that God gives us God’s life that continues although our own lives will end. We’ve also “died” in the sense that we are no longer condemned by God through Christ. No matter what kind of people we are, we are surrounded by and included in God’s life. This is slightly different from religions that teach that we are part of God because all reality is ultimately God. The Christian idea personalizes the life of God, so to speak. To say, “my life is included in God’s life” means that we are included in the life of a living person and living reality.

Furthermore, being included (“hidden”) in Christ’s life is unfathomably wonderful, because the New Testament also teaches the tenderness of Christ toward struggling people, his identification with those who are struggling materially and spiritually, the attention he gives to the emotionally downcast, his willingness to intercede and intervene for people when they are weak and faltering. Eventually, Jesus’ death—which he was fast approaching the day he raised Lazarus—opened infinite Spirit-power that rescues us from the nothingness and misery of death.

During times of sad travel, as you struggle with the decline and death of a loved one, look to the story of story of Lazarus to remember the ways God safeguards us in this life and beyond.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

For All the Saints: Holy Startsi of Optina

Something that I've learned from these informal posts, is the idea of staret, a revered teacher or elder in the Russian Orthodox tradition. These elders are recognized by people as gifted by the Holy Spirit because of their charismatic gifts, rather than being appointed by a church authority. Here are startsi honored today on the Orthodox calendar:

"Synaxis of the Holy Startsi of Optina Monastery

"Commemorated today are our holy fathers Moses, Antony, Leonid(Lev), Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatolius I, Isaac I, Joseph, Barsanuphius, Anatolius the Younger, Nectarius, Nikon the Confessor, and Hieromartyr Isaac the Younger. Hieromartyr Isaac was shot by the Bolsheviks on December 26 1937.

"This feast commemorates a few of the holy Fathers who made the Optina Hermitage (Pustyn) a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and continuing up to (and even into) the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a 'headquarters' from which they spread throughout the Russian land. The monastery itself had been in existence since at least the sixteenth century, but had fallen into decay through the anti-monastic policies of Catherine II and other modernizing rulers. Around 1790, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow undertook a mission to restore and revive the monastery in the tradition set forth by St Paisius. By the early 1800s the monastery (located about 80 miles from Moscow) had become a beacon of Orthodox spirituality, partly through their publication of Orthodox spiritual texts, but more importantly through the lineage of divinely-enlightened spiritual fathers (startsi, plural of starets) who served as guides to those, noble and peasant, who flocked to the monastery for their holy counsel. The fathers aroused some controversy in their own day; a few critics (some of them from other monasteries) disapproved of their allowing the Jesus Prayer to become widely-known among the people, fearing that it would give rise to spiritual delusion (prelest). For a wonderful depiction of the deep influence of the Jesus Prayer on Russian life during this period, read the anonymously-written Way of a Pilgrim.

"With the coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the monastery was of course officially shut down, but some of the Fathers were able to keep it running for a time as an 'agricultural legion'. Over the years, most of the Fathers were dispersed, to die in exile, in prison camps, or by the firing squad. Many of them are known to have continued to function as startsi to their spiritual children, despite great danger and hardship, for the remainder of their time on earth.

"Commemoration of the Optina startsi was approved by the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad in 1990, and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1996. The Optina Monastery itself was officially re-established in 1987."

Monday, October 10, 2016

For All the Saints: Vida Dutton Scudder

Only three weeks to go before All Saints Day, when I'll conclude these informal posts about notable Christian figures in history. One of the pleasures of writing these, has been learning about interesting people who served the church. Today, for instance, Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) is honored on the Episcopal calendar, and I was unfamiliar with her work. She was an American church leader, born in India where her father served as a missionary. She was a notable writer of several books, educator, and activist in the social gospel movement. A graduate of Smith College and Oxford, she taught English literature at Wellesley College; later, she was also the first dean of Wellesley's Summer School of Christian Ethics. She became active in groups devoted to social reform and became a founder of Denison House in Boston, and also helped organize the Women's Trade Union League. She was also active in a variety of socialist causes and pro-union groups, and in the 1920s she became a pacifist leader. Her life partner, Florence Converse, was a writer for Atlantic Monthly. Here is a website, "Queering the Church," that provides more information about Scudder:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Landscape: Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), "Forêt de Fontainebleau: printemps dans les bois" (1860-1865). Bonheur opened doors for women artists because of her success in overcoming sexism to gain prestigious commissions. Image from:êt-de

Copied under fair use principles.

Friday, October 7, 2016

For All the Saints: Henry Muhlenberg

On both the Episcopal and Lutheran calendars, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-1787) is honored today (the anniversary of his death) as the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in the United States.

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has this: "... When he was twelve years old his father, a member of the city council, died. The son entered the university of Göttingen in 1735, and his work among the poor of Göttingen led to the establishment of the present orphan house there. In 1738 he went to Halle to finish his theological studies; he was a devoted worker in the Franckesche Stiftung, which later served as a partial model for his great-grandson's community at St Johnland, Long Island. ... In 1742, in reply to a call from the Lutheran churches of Pennsylvania, he went to Philadelphia, and was joined from time to time, especially in 1745, by students from Halle. Muhlenberg occupied himself more particularly with the congregation at New Providence (now Trappe), though he was practically overseer of all the Lutheran churches from New York to Maryland. In 1748 he organized the first Lutheran synod in America.

"Muhlenberg married in 1745 Anna Maria Weiser, daughter of J. Conrad Weiser, a well-known Indian interpreter, and herself said to have had Indian blood in her veins; by her he had eleven children. Throughout the War of Independence he and his sons ...were prominent patriots. He died at Trappe on the 7th of October 1787. The importance of his work in organizing and building up the American Lutheran Church, of which he has been called the Patriarch, can hardly be exaggerated; but his example in preaching in English as well as in German was, unfortunately for the growth of the Lutheran Church, not followed by his immediate successors. He had no sympathy with the Old Lutherans and their strict orthodoxy on the contrary he was friendly with the Reformed congregations, and with George Whitefield and the Tennents."

Muhlenberg descendants became prominent in ministry, academia, politics, and the military, and several locations are named for this pioneering minister.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Our Political Disorder

I meant to post much earlier this fascinating Atlantic article, which provides a different kind of perspective! The author argues that the political realities that candidates rail about---career politicians, party bosses, party insiders---actually have had the power to motivate politicians to work together, maintain political order, and get things done. As those realities have been eroded, we have phenomenon like single-issue politicians, leaders (e.g. congressmen) less responsive to mainstream interests, and the kind of political disorder that has given us Trump (whose lack of experience is a positive for supporters), government shut-downs, and a difficulty in achieving bipartisan efforts.

Landscape: Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), "View in Suffolk" (c. 1755). St. Louis Art Museum.

Landscape: Harpignies

Henri-Joseph Harpignies, "The Village Church" (1891). St Louis Art Museum.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

For All the Saints: Francis of Assisi

This past week I kept noticing church marquees in my community, announcing upcoming blessing ceremonies for people's pets. I surmised that St. Francis' feast day must be coming up, and sure enough.

Among the most famous saints, Francis (born in 1181 or 1182, died in 1226) was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, in Assisi in central Italy. His nickname was Franceso because his father loved France. He is famous as a friar and preacher, founder of orders, and lover of animals and the natural world. Many churches and places are named for him---we used to live in Flagstaff, AZ in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, for instance--and our current pope is the first to take "Francis" as his the papal name. Among the many places to read about him, this is a good short piece about the beloved friar:
Also this site.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

For All the Saints: Thérèse of Lisieux

Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) is one of the most popular and influential Catholic saints of modern times and was declared a Doctor of the Church by John Paul II. Her feast day was yesterday, October 1, and used to be October 3, which is still her feast day in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Also known as Theresa of the Little Flower, she became a nun when she was only 15 and died when she was 24.

The website devoted to her has this: "The world came to know Therese through her autobiography, 'Story of a Soul'. She described her life as a 'little way of spiritual childhood.' She lived each day with an unshakable confidence in God's love. 'What matters in life,' she wrote, 'is not great deeds, but great love.' Therese lived and taught a spirituality of attending to everyone and everything well and with love. She believed that just as a child becomes enamored with what is before her, we should also have a childlike focus and totally attentive love. Therese's spirituality is of doing the ordinary, with extraordinary love. She loved flowers and saw herself as the 'little flower of Jesus,' who gave glory to God by just being her beautiful little self among all the other flowers in God's garden. Because of this beautiful analogy, the title 'little flower' remained with St. Therese."

Here is a good site that provides more about her:

The Living Insights Center here in St. Louis has a statue of St. Therese, to which several miracles have been attributed:


Route 185 in Fayette County, IL;
my mother's side of the family
lived in or near this area
The first weekend of October! All Saints Day is a month away, which will bring to a close my informal study of saints this past year.

September is a happy month for me. Since I'm an educator, September is, for practical purposes, the beginning of a new year, with summer as the leisurely winding-down of a year's end. I'm guessing that Jews, for whom the new year begins in September or October, have similar feelings. On the other hand, September is the month when both my parents passed away (thirteen years apart), and my dad happened to die on what would've been my father-in-law's birthday. So there is an inevitable, personal melancholy to the month.

So thank goodness when October arrives---really my favorite month of all. Autumn leaves have something to do with that. "Fall color" is an anticipated sight in many areas, of course, but because I was attended Yale for my masters degree, I still think of New England and its beauty with this season. I've been rereading Julia Rosenbaum's book Visions of belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity (Cornell, 2006), which discusses the long-time linkage of New England landscape with regional and national history. Autumn adds another element to that love of place.


Today was World Communion Sunday, always the first Sunday in October, when Christian unity and ecumenical goodwill are symbolized and celebrated via the Eucharist. The observance began in 1933 in a Presbyterian congregation, was adopted by the national Presbyterian Church and then by the Federal Council of Churches, which is now the National Council of Churches.

View of Yale Divinity School,
To get a head start on tomorrow's "saints" observance, I noticed that tomorrow, October 3, is the day the Church of England honors two pioneering ecumenists. One is George Kennedy Allen Bell (1883-1958), bishop of Chichester and member of the House of Lords, and a spokesman for peace and postwar reconciliation. The other is John R. Mott (1865-1955), also a promoter of peace and international reconciliation, who was a key person in the founding of the World Council of Churches. When I was at Yale--specifically the divinity school--I worked part-time in the library, which houses Mott's papers.


A few years ago I shared that it would be interesting to know the psychological theory of why we have favorite colors. Ever since I was little-bitty, my favorite color has been red. Of course red, along with yellow, orange, and brown, is a traditional autumn color, so I was thus fated to be a fan of this season. In my first home, I kept a display of red-and-yellow Indian corn in my kitchen.

Autumn colors result from the plant’s process of growth and regeneration, as explained at this site. The cessation of chlorophyll production causes the leaves to change color and fall, but the tree is all the while preparing for winter.

Reading that information, I made a roundabout mental connection to a horticultural image in the Bible, that of pruning, for instance, John 15:1-2. Unfortunately, there is an overtone of violence, a cruelty to the metaphor that is inescapable. So I wonder, when we think about God's guidance, whether we should add to the idea of “pruning” the additional image of autumn leaves. Like plants in autumn, the circumstances in our lives at the time may be times of change and abandonment--not even a time of current growth but of preparation for future growth. But such times will be positive for us and can become a source of blessing for others, too. We can think of discipleship as a succession of times and seasons that introduce beauty into other people's lives.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

For All the Saints: Remigius

Saint Remigius, Bishop of Rheims (438-533) is known for bringing France to Christianity. He is honored on several Christian calendars today. The Orthodox Saints site has this:

"He was born in 438 in northern Gaul. After devoting himself for awhile to secular and sacred learning, he withdrew to a small house near Laon, to live in reclusion and prayer. But when a bishop was needed in Rheims, the clergy and people carried him off from his hermitage and made him their bishop. He was only twenty-two years old at the time. 

"The holy bishop soon became renowned throughout norther Gaul. He converted heretics, brought Arian heretics back to the Orthodox Faith, cared for the many who suffered at the hands of barbarian marauders. Wherever he went, miracles attended him. He healed the sick and demonized and once, when a town was on fire, threw himself into the flames and quenched them. Birds would come to his table whenever he ate, and he would share his meal with them.

"In 482 the young warrior Clovis became leader of the Frankish tribes in that region. Though he was a pagan, he knew and admired St Remigius, and was married to a Christian, St Clotilde (June 3). Once, when his army faced defeat by the Alemanii, Clovis prayed to 'the God of Clotilde and Remigius' and won a great victory. This answer to his prayers convinced him of the truth of the Christian Faith, and he asked St Remigius to instruct him. Two years later he gathered all his chieftains in Rheims to attend his baptism. The baptism was accompanied by many miracles, seen by all in attendance. Two of the king's sisters and three thousand of his lords and soldiers were baptized at the ceremony. This event is considered the birth of France as a Christian nation.

"In great old age, St Remigius went blind, but miraculously recovered his sight. He reposed in peace at the age of 105 [sic], immediately after serving the Divine Liturgy."

See also this site: