5/25/2021

Touching the Dead, a way of Remembering.

In the Days of Covid I have been trying to call to mind the reality of the deaths we as a country have absorbed. How can we envision what half a million looks like, or 600 thousand? The numbers keep rising.  When the New York Times listed 1000 of the first 100,000 deaths it termed the losses “incalculable.” That number seemed so large back in May of 2020. Since then we have multiplied that number by six. And with the passing of time we have reimaged and recalculated again and again. When we reach 670,000, as we surely will,  one out of every 500 people in the US will have died from Covid. 


The exercise of numbering is important, but in the end these are just numbers. It is the senses, the empirical senses, that bring the reality of so many deaths home. The medical personnel dealing one on one with the dying know this.The numbers are grounded in experienced death. Families desperate for help and not finding it know this and they become companions in the death watch with hundreds of thousands around the world similarly ground down by the harsh realities of health systems ground down by the flood of cases. They have been touched by close encounters with Covid. For them extrapolation to the big numbers is experiential. For the rest of us it is an exercise mostly of the mind - using signs and symbols to represent people who have died.


For all my efforts to engaged the immensity of these numbers, I have been very conscious of the distance between the art objects made to hint to the numbers and the visceral reality of immense numbers of dead. 


My first effort - a bound book containing 230,000 “1’s” - made it possible to hold in my hands an object that contained this big number, the number of US dead by November 1, 2020.  I called this “Book of Numbers.”  I could hold the book and turn the pages and reflect on the same dreadful news… one on one on one.  



My second effort was a larger visual experience- a large set of panels with half a million dots, which themselves formed a picture of shapes, spirits, hovering over the background of many thousands and thousands of dots. I believe the viewer can take in the whole field and know in some sense what that number “looks like.”  And still it was too easy to take the numbers and weave them into a story…dots that meant something to the perceiving mind.





The New York Times also tried to envision half a million in a wonderful front page graphic in which a column of dots were arranged on a time line with a density determined by the daily death tolls.  This was published a few days after I had completed the panels. Like the panels it was a graphic representation of an even more incalculable number. 


These efforts mostly involved visual art, in which persons are represented by marks, and the marks located temporally and spatially to give us a sense of the whole. The book attempted to place the numbers in a capturing device, a net, made up of bound book pages, so that there could be a tactile experience. It worked, but the effect was still primarily visual, because or most immediate reaction to a book is to see it as a visual tool for information exchange. Book lovers may love holding a book, but book users read. Some who opened the Book of Numbers saw only pages filled with 1’s, they never got the sense that they were holding in their hands these lives.  The tactile sense was lost in the habits of book use.


This past week I created a very different way of marking the now almost 600,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19.  In a large wooden bowl, carved by my wood sculpture friend Roy Fitzgerald, I put roughly 600,000 brown and black mustard seeds.  In our exhibit, “Remembering and Naming,” the bowl is on a stand with a votive candle behind it. Visitors are invited to run their hands through the seeds, to let the seeds flow through their fingers, to smell the light pungency of the mustard, and to feel the presence of the souls represented by the seeds.  This is not an artful use of vision, but of touch and smell, and the evocation is not of a visual story, but a sensual one.  





Because we are so un-used to this sort of presentation, I wrote a poem / meditation to accompany the tactile engagement. It was posted on the wall beside the bowl. It reads:


EVERY SOUL HAS WORTH


So small, my soul,

so wide the gulf of death.

Standing on this shore

I gaze across to where 

the waters meet the sky

and wonder

why some are taken

others stay.


Why, if my faith is that

even of a mustard seed,

does my heart grow cold

and my mind shut down?


Why is it so hard for me 

to comprehend that death

is all around, and near,

and has no shame?


Six

Hundred

Thousand.


The mustard seeds

slip through my fingers

in this lavabo bowl.

I wash my hands in the souls

of all who have died,

And at last I see and feel:


Every soul has worth,

small fragrant markers

of the spirit that permeates

the whole and makes

the spirit of the one,

and the spirit of the many,

and the Spirit of the all together,

ONE.


Whatever else these effort mean, they tell me this:  Our hands are closer to the truth of things than we sometimes realize. Our senses are immensely more powerful than we give them credit for. In an information age we sometimes limit information to the signs and symbols that our visual field can encompass. But the world of experience is filled with empirical realities, things touched, tasted, smelled, and heard, as well as seen. And perhaps a sense of what the incalculable deaths from Covid will come to us by touch as well as sight.  Perhaps we can feel the deaths slipping through our fingers, smooth small seed stones held for a moment in our hands before gravity pulls them down. Perhaps we can smell the pungent earth from which they came and to which they go.  And as we do these things we will remember, with all our senses.



2/15/2021

The Silence about the Church of Haiti


Haiti, among the largest of Episcopal Church Dioceses, ought to be a source of news and interest in the whole church.  Instead there seems to be very little interest in either the Church of Haiti  or the social context in which it finds itself. It comes into focus only when it is a proof-text for the inclusiveness and international character of The Episcopal Church (see, we are an international church, and our largest diocese is Haiti) or when we inadvertently (or perhaps on purpose) support the trope that Haiti, “the poorest country in the western hemisphere,” is incapable of self governance.That is, Haiti (the church in and the state of) arises by name in Church news only when bragging rights or prejudicial judgement is wanted.

This may sound harsh, but I can come to no other conclusion.

Some matters seem small:

    The committees and commissions of The Episcopal Church have very few members from Haiti.  

    Translation at church-wide gatherings are much less often translated into French than into Spanish.

    Almost nothing in the Canons of the Church make allowances for the differences in  political and legal structures in which a number of our dioceses are situated.

Some matters are great:

    There is little call for prayer for the people of Haiti when there is civil, economic or heath crises in Haiti, or when the church itself is in need of spiritual support.

    There is almost no church-wide call to remember the needs of the Haitian Church and peoples in their days of extreme need.

    Following the earthquake eleven years ago the initial rush to assist the Diocese and people of Haiti was followed by reserve, resistance and reluctance because of perceived internal problems of governance in the Diocese. As those problems have dragged on, there has been little effort to reengage. Haiti has become a pariah.

    There is almost nothing we seem to learn FROM Haiti or the Church in Haiti.

We have, on matters great and small, averted our gaze.

There have been great efforts by the Presiding Bishop and his staff to support the Diocese in its working through issues of governance and leadership. And the Church has continued to support the basic functioning of the Diocese. A number of diocese and parishes have continued to support mission in Haiti and specific programs and institutions.  But the overwhelming reaction to Haiti and its work, concerns, issues and troubles, is … silence.


The form that averting our gaze takes is troublesome. It parallels and in some ways mimics our attention to issues of systemic racism.  We will take the glory for the great heroes of faith in Haiti… Bishop James Theodore Holly.  We will tout our international character by celebrating that Haiti is among our largest dioceses.  But we do not learn from them, because they are black. 


    No one seriously suggests that we might reimagined our sense of the episcopate along the self-giving ministry of Holly. Celebrate him, yes. Emulate him, no. 

    No one asks why the church in Haiti grows, even in adverse circumstances, even as the Church in the US is shrinking. Apparently the Episcopal Church in the United States of America feels it has little to learn from the Episcopal Church of Haiti.

    No one seems to wonder if our attitude towards the Church in Haiti is prejudiced against that church such that every problem that happens there is seen as a problem of basic inadequacy of Haitians.  We never seem to want to explore the possibility that we are echoing the trope long held against Haiti, which is that black people are incapable of self-government. That trope was a means of discounting the Haitian Revolution, a revolt against slavery and slave owners. 


At this time there are remarkable parallels in the unfolding of events in Haiti and the US.  And that is true for the church as well. And yet there seems to be no interest in learning from one another. There is little dialogue about shared concerns for faithful response to national calamities and internal divisions in the church. Worse, there is almost complete silence about church division happening in Haiti, except to hint that perhaps nothing better could be expected. 


If we do not work harder and better concerning our engagement with the Church in Haiti we will loose that church not because it established its own life as a national church, but because we stood by and watched it burn.  We need not only to continue supporting the work of the Episcopal Church of Haiti, we need to do so with great resolve… the resolve to engage with the people and church of Haiti so that we might learn with them how to survive and thrive in adverse circumstances with hope in God’s grace working among us.  Otherwise, in our hard days to come we will have learned nothing and we will continue to shrink, and the Church in Haiti will know the abandonment that the whole of Haiti has known at the hands of those who always begin articles on Haiti by saying, “Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.” 


We can do better than this.  Prayer and accompaniment is the place to begin.  

 


12/07/2020

A BURNING PATIENCE...SERMON, 2 ADVENT 2020

A BURNING PATIENCE

 

Sermon 2 Advent, 2002, St. Peter’s Church, Lewes, Delaware. Mark Harris

 

Dear Ones: Consider this a letter to you, fellow travelers in this strange world. I’m reading this aloud, of course because we are together on internet streaming, but it’s a letter none the less.  I haven’t preached to and in an in person congregation for some months. 

 

I write knowing that many of you are doing so much to help in these times.  I sense sometimes that you must be exhausted.  I know that some close to me are really tired, tired from having to work in new ways, with new challenges, tired of having to wait for things to get better, tired of having to put up a good front in the face of prolonged anxiety. We are absolutely ready for something else, something that will quickly release us from pandemic and other social distress. But it seems it is not to be, not yet.  For now we cannot avert our gaze, our attention to the realities of the moment.

 

It seems to me this is a time to practice a kind of holy patience, but by holy I don’t mean detached, far from it!

 

Arthur Rimbaud, a quite challenging french poet, wrote, “Still, now with the coming of night, let us muster all the strength and true tenderness we can. And at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we will enter into the splendid cities.” That phrase, “a burning patience” was picked up by Pablo Neruda as a call to persevere at times of great calamity and anxiety.

 

It is a “burning patience” that I believe is needed just now. It is that patience that lives in the readings today. 

 

The prophet Isaiah cries out that the burning patience of the people will be met by the harold who cries, “Here is your God,” and he prophesied that God leads, comforts and restores the people at the last. 

 

Peter admonishes us to a patience like God’s, and  and to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Burning patience for the Lord’s presence IS salvation. 

 

And then there is the thundering witness of John, who baptizes: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John call us to have patience, with hearts burning for the one who is to come, who will wash us in the Holy Spirit. Be patient, he says,I am not the One, but the One is coming. He calls out “Hold On” the One is coming who will make us New.

 

None of these were called to be passively, listlessly, quietly patient- not Isaiah, not Peter, not John. Their burning patience is full of anticipation, full of expectation, and quite often full of noise, and sound and fury. All of theses are signs, of how burning the hope is.  And yet, patience is part of that hope. Patience is the willingness to wait upon God, upon the revealing of what is to come. Armed with a burning patience we prepare for the day that makes us whole.

 

I can only echo in these times the same: we ought to seek the splendid city, the reign of God, the new Jerusalem, with all our hearts, and seeking that we ought to look for the light to come. 

 

We ought have no peace with oppression, no patience for those who would bend away from justice and mercy. But because freedom from oppression and freedom from fear has not happened yet, it is tempting to lose heart, to become impatient to the point of giving up. In doing that we become instruments of our own oppression.  

 

The fact that the pandemic continues, that our country is not clearly on its way to being  a more perfect union… these are realities. But it is not the end of the matter. 

 

A different sort patience is needed, the patience of the faithful. For us, separated as we are by the pandemic, divided as we are by so many differences, it is hard to be patient. Still, that is what I believe we need to be: patient with that special burning patience that rests in our anticipation God’s new creation in us.

 

 

One read of John’s message is just that: Be patient, but be prepared. Now is the time for repentance. Now is a time for vigilance in matters of heath and governance.   All so that when the One who is coming is here you will be ready to be washed in the Holy Spirit and made fit for the splendid city of God. So we say, with that other John, the writer of the Revelation, “Come Lord Jesus!”and yet in confidence and hope we also wait for that Coming with patience.

 

The lighting of Advent candles is a little sign of that preparation.  As the winter gets darker we light more candles, and then when it is darkest, we light the light of Christ. It may be the winter of our souls, and yet, with burning patience we light the way to new life in Christ.  

 

So I write this to encourage you to a burning patience. And I send you this song, a gospel song was written by Rev. Cleophus Robinson Jr.in 1980. It’s titled “Hold On, Just a little while longer.”

 

 

Hold on just a little while longer (3x)
Everything will be all right

 

Fight on just a little while longer (3x)
Everything will be all right

 

Walk on just a little while longer (3x)
Everything will be all right (2 x)

 


Dear Ones: 

May the peace of God which is no peace, but a burning patience, guide you in these days. 

Hold on just a little while longer.  

Do not become instruments of your own oppression. 

Keep the Faith.

 

With love and admiration, Mark.

 

11/24/2020

Can there Be Union after this Wreck of a Year? article first published in Delaware State News.

how we go forward and work through the wreckage and become mo

CAN THERE BE UNION AFTER THIS WRECK OF A YEAR? 


By all accounts 2020 has been a wreck of a year. It has been a year of extended battles in the body politic with very little to show for it, save cuts and bruises. The Pandemic, the economic crisis, social injustices responded to by the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, the constant barrage of voices shouting about greatness, the gaining or loss thereof, and a campaign season that heightened vitriol, all have flooded through this year like a tsunami. There has been the sense that a kind of national madness has possessed us in which we are so divided by death and destruction that a sense of wreckage pervades and a national gloom has settled in.


Now we hear a lot about our need to become more united. I too long for the end of division, if only to end the sense of despair.  Still, I wonder, does being united require that we end our divisions first, or is there another path forward? I think there is.  


America is hard work, because the idea of forming a unity from the rag-tag mix of peoples, and from the communities and states that formed the United States, is an ongoing and not yet completed task.  We hammer out ways to deal with our differences, not necessarily to erase them. There is no agreement that our divisions should cease, but we keep trying to either dissolve or live with those differences. America is a work in progress.  We work to keep the wide range of differences in enough union to be The United States of America.


It is said these days that our divisions are now too deep for there to be a sense of being an United States.   The lines of division are many and while we may think of the Republican and Democratic parties as representing these division, that is only the surface of the problem. Disunion and division grows from many sources, and are expressed in a variety of organizations.  


Most political parties and organizations have proclaimed that their opponents are going to destroy their freedoms, their rights, or their livelihood. Opposition is viewed as an existential threat, and at the same time is a rallying cry for group cohesion. As a result we have a politics of opposition in which our identity is justified and grounded in fear.

Opposition politics uses fear as a motivation. The key to change to a more perfect union is to move beyond the motivation of fear. Fear has to be deflected, turned aside, by some greater force, some larger motivation. 

Sages and prophets through the ages have said that what deflects, casts out, or overcomes fear is love.  They are right. But love is not easy. The problem is that we find it almost impossible to love those who we see as a threat. Our opponents, those who hold to social, economic or justice principals different from our own, are viewed as the enemy. While loving our enemies may be the goal, in the moment that seems impossible. So how do we begin?

Where we might better begin is to deflect fear, and therefore begin the process of  overcoming division, by falling in love with the world. If at first we cannot love our enemies, perhaps we can begin by loving the world in which we all live. By falling in love with the world, I mean experiencing a love for the overarching, expansive canopy of experiences that are available to all of us and are a source of thanksgiving.  They are mostly simple, or certainly simpler than the complexities of our fears. 

The love that is found the experience of a crisp fall day, a quiet moment by the bay or a lake, food shared with friends, a moment of intimacy with one we love, all these and many thousand more, are all experiences of that love that deflects fear.  And, unlike the fears that divide, these experiences are common across the widest of divides. 

If we want to heal the nation, the place we need to begin is to replace being afraid to being in love with the world. And having fallen in love with the world I think we will find avenues to unity that will surprise us. Across the red and blue divide, across the divide of those who demand justice and those who want freedom from control, across the divides of faith and political position, it turns out there is common ground in the ground itself, common cause in being in love with the world. 

Perhaps if we turn from what we fear the most about our current condition to what we love the most about living there can be avenues to greater unity.  Conversation and engagement about our being in love with the world is the beginning of acting not out fear, but out of thanksgiving, not being reactive but being active in our love of life.  If our politicians want to stress coming together and unity, the place to begin is with a new sense of thanksgiving for the simple blessings of daily life. 

This coming Thanksgiving is an opportune moment to begin. 


    







After the Pandemic: article from Delaware Communion.

 After the Pandemic 

The Church is open, even when the church is closed.” We in the Episcopal Church in Delaware have found that nothing, not even a pandemic, can keep the love of God in Jesus Christ from being present and real.  That’s a powerful learning!

 

Plans for how we re-emerge from stay-at-home rules are already in place. We will come back with new skills, new appreciation of how we are “body”, and new challenges.  What will our return as church look like?  What challenges will it bring? What even newer skills will be needed?

 

Our experiences during this time of pandemic, with all its anxieties, pain, sadness, and death, are the source material for new witness, new stories of faithfulness. Perhaps out of this wehere in the Episcopal Church of Delaware will find new ways to practice resurrection.

 

Here are some notes on possibilities, hopes and predictions for the future of the Episcopal Church in Delaware, “The new Episcopal Church”They may apply also to the whole church.

 

1. The new Episcopal Church will see cyberspace as a place of mission engagementThere will be much wider use of various conferencing and meet-up portals on the internet, and wider use of mail services, and that in turn will help us see cyberspace as a place were we can be as present as we are in “normal” spaceThere will be growing conversation about whether or not cyberspace can be incarnate space, space where God’s presence can be experienced and known.

 

“Following,” and that interesting new verb, “friending” aresecular ideas  close to the ideas. guiding the “Invite, welcome, connect” evangelism program that was under way all those months ago before the pandemic. What might “invite, welcome, connect” look like as we engage“friending” and “following”?  And what will happen when we see cyberspace as yet a another place to which we are called to proclaim new life?

 

2. The new Episcopal Church will be more nimble. The laboratories for new ways of being church in the post pandemic world will primarily be our parishes. There has been amazingly creative work done by Delaware parishes during the shut-down of public gatherings, both in providing alternative worship and continued social and pastoral care. There are many online servicesonline meetings and new food cupboards. More will come.

 

Because we are an episcopal church, with bishops who connect us to the apostolic traditions, those laboratories (the parishes) will need to work with supervision so that we keep the core of our faith on a steady footing. At the same time those laboratory experiments will be vital to our becoming newThe trick is to be nimble without breaking the china. We will need to nurture nimbleness in our clergy and lay leaders, and in our bishops in particular.

 

3. The new Episcopal Church will be a church of small groups. The whole parish may less often gather as a wholefor worship, ministry, study, or even for annual meetings. Sporadic need for social distancing and aversion to large groups will make large gatherings less attractive or even possible.The Episcopal Church must promote small groups as a more intimate and more focused way to connect

 

They are also most like the communities that first gathered who devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”.  (Acts2:42) Eucharist in small group settings will present many theological and pastoral challenges, but such eucharistic gatherings will be essential, for these small contained communities are the core of our own “virus” whose spread continues the Christian witness in the world.

 

4. The new Episcopal Church will have less baggage, it will be leaner. Financially the post pandemic world will be very difficult for smaller and even some larger churches. Some buildings and a programs will close and endBut just as we now know that closing a building does not mean the church is closed, maybe we can also know that selling a building does not necessarily mean the end of community life. How then do we keep community alive even as church structures close?

 

Smaller churches already know a lot about how to be a faith community without large services, multi-person staff, full music programs, and the like.  Clergy and lay leaders in these churches in Delaware have found ways to bring the gifts of The Episcopal Church to their communities.  Their experience can help us be present in ways that don’t require edifices, large staffs, and extensive programming.

 

We will have to raise up a new clergy, who will help small communities be the place of incarnation of Word and Sacrament, and who will understand ministry to be the work of all the people, and themselves as servants of that work. To a much greater extent than now the ordainedministers of the Gospel will be itinerant and have other means of livelihood. 

 

If the church becomes leaner it will be possible for the closing of church buildings to be separate from and unrelated to the health of a local eucharistic community.  Instead of our “roster”of churches becoming smaller as church buildings are closed and sold, we will count our presence as Eucharistic communities, many of which will consist of small “cell” communities joined as possible by occasional larger gatherings. That roster might grow! The bishop and clergy will be essential “glue” that keeps these communities together as part of the greater body of Christ.

 

5. The new Episcopal Church will foster the beloved community, now more than ever. The notion of the beloved community, the church seen the gathering of people and groups set on showing the love of God in Jesus Christis a vision whose time has come 

 

Small a groups of all sorts already exist in our churches -bible study group, ECWsinging groups (a choir), contemplative prayer groupspastoral care committees, etc. If they are also nurtured as beloved communities, in which there is “the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers they each are a manifestation of church. Together with small gatherings of people in the cities and towns concerned with basic human rights and needs the church small groups will make alliances for the social good and thus the beloved community will always be larger than the church itself, broader in reach than The Episcopal Church, and more resilient than any of the groups by themselves might be.

 

We will know Church is not a product of the powers of this world alone, where size, wealth, territory and possessions matter mostThe Church is the manifestation of the beloved community, for which there are no limits, save Love. And that is our future.