Monday, January 29, 2007

The Radiance of Torah: A Sermon for St. Alban's, Oxford, 21 January, 2007

Neh. 8:1-3,5-6,8-10
Psalm 19
I Cor. 1:21-31a
Lk. 4: 14-24

Today's readings are perhaps more significant for what they do not say than for what they do say. In the Nehemiah reading, we are told that the priest, Ezra, helped the people, newly-returned from exile to Jerusalem, to understand the Law, the Torah, by which they would now live, the relationship with God that forms all of life. But exactly what he said is hidden from us except for these words: "The joy of the Lord is your strength."

In the second reading from First Corinthians, Paul falls all over himself trying to describe the whole-that-is-more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts that is the unity-in-diversity of the body. Some of his difficulties arise from the fact that he is trying to communicate unity using language that can express itself only in dualisms. While the analogy of the body for unity-in-diversity is a good one, this passage is but a preface to the more famous verses that immediately follow, which were not read this morning: "If I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am nothing."

In the Gospel, Jesus does not try to explain how Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in himself; he says only that it is. [Isa. 61] But later in the same chapter he goes on to use the analogy of Naaman's healing from leprosy, which came about not through words, penance, or blood sacrifice, but rather through a great act of faith in which Naaman, a stranger, let go of everything he thought he knew.

Joy; Love; Faith; certainly it would be possible to nail down the continuity of today's readings through these words and notions which work together seamlessly, and provide us with a familiar framework of aspiration. But that is precisely the problem: we tend to get stuck in our familiar frameworks; we lose any sense of immediacy. So let us look instead at the psalm.

It begins with an account of the creation's praise of God, which is immediately followed by a paradox of silence and speech through which it gives this glory. Creation has no "voice" as we human beings understand that word; nonetheless, one day pours out its song to another, and in the contemplative dark, wisdom is transmitted.

Perhaps it is the presence of this paradox of silent voice and communicative silence that has made the exact translation of verses two through four controversial. But in an interpretive context, textual paradoxes often signal interior processes at work beneath the plain sense of the text.

One of my most memorable encounters with this psalm was in the late '80s, in Juneau, Alaska, in the office of a Tlingit Elder. He was a hereditary chief who at that time was in charge of his Native corporation's efforts to preserve what was left of Tlingit cultural heritage in the wake of its often deliberate destruction at the hands of white people.

This destruction took many forms, from the introduction of disease and alcohol, to the forced evacuation of children to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their own language. The children were forced to learn English and to live by to European standards; their cultural heritage was vilified.

Back at home, living conditions became so difficult that villagers had to sell their tribal heirlooms to collectors and museums simply to stay alive. Sometimes the collectors just stole them.

But the dislocating effects of these cultural clashes are not limited to artifacts or enforced language. Many Native people continue to remark that one of the most difficult, often impossible adjustments to the Euro-American way, has been the Anglo-European insistence on separating time from space and motion, and the increasingly frenetic and insensitive speed with which this fundamental dislocation requires people to move and speak, if they are to maintain an illusion of balance.

Even today, missionaries still do their best to destroy what they find among indigenous peoples. They do not bother to listen, to understand, or to enculturate. In spite of the best efforts to reconstitute Native culture in Alaska, the average life expectancy of a Native male is 47 years, and he has a 97 percent chance of passing through the degradation of alcoholism before he dies.

It was in this more sombre context that I went to see this Elder, and I was very aware that my presence in his office was to a certain extent impertinent, no matter how good my intentions. He, like his peers, had followed the statistical trajectory through alcoholism, but was atypical in that not only was he recovering, but along the way he also had acquired an MBA.

Our conversation had been circling around the question of preservation of Raven stories. This was a complex topic because stories in Tlingit culture are considered patrimony. They are earned by maturing young people, and passed from one generation to the next in elaborate ceremonies. This is a notion that cuts much deeper than that of intellectual property. At that time, there had been far too many incidents of white people publishing these stories without having any right to them, and making money off them, of which the Tlingit saw not one penny.

In addition to these general tribal concerns, the Elder made me aware of the continuing negative pressure and personal hurt that he was undergoing from the Assemblies of God church which he attended. His anguish was all the greater because of his position as conservator and keeper of his people's culture. The non-Native members of his church regarded Tlingit stories and the artifacts that accompany them as idolatry, and as ancestor worship. I had the impression that he had been subject, both personally and professionally, to a lot of religious bullying.

There was a pause in our measured discussion while he shifted in his chair and quietly interjected what seemed to be a complete change of subject.

"You know," he said, "I've been thinking a lot about my grandfather lately. When I was young, I used to go out and pick the nets with him. It was cold, and I wanted to get it done in a hurry, but if you hurry, you just get tangles, and it takes even longer. My grandfather used to remind me that you can pick the nets only one square at a time."

He paused.

"You know," he said, "when I was doing my MBA it was a terrible time. I remember one night, very late, when I was trying to understand some financial papers; I was ready to quit. And then for some reason I remembered fishing, and in my mind I heard my grandfather say, 'You can pick the nets only one square at a time.' Is this ancestor worship?"

Another pause, and a long silence. Then he opened the top left-hand drawer of his desk and pulling out a well-worn copy of the King James translation of the Bible, said, "I don't know why, but for some reason I've been thinking about this psalm..."

He leafed slowly through the pages. He found what he wanted, and began to read:

"The heavens declare the glory of God *
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
One day telleth another *
and one night certifieth another...."

He stopped reading, raised his head, and looked at me, questioning.

From somewhere deep inside, next two verses arose and spoke themselves through my mouth:

"There is neither speech nor language *
but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands *
and their words into the ends of the world."

For this Elder, the paradox of silence and speech in the psalm had proved a lifeline.

[To be continued.]

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Holy Trinity Fire Update

Huber sentencing hearing January 18, 2007

Remarks by the Rev'd George Silides, Rector

If it please the court, owing to the emotional charge of this moment, I would like to read my remarks. First, let me say we appreciate and sympathize with Mr. Edward’s position, and are sorry for his loss. Nothing of our losing property can compare with the situation of Mr. Edward’s awakening to the smell of smoke and the sound of flames in the midst of his sleeping household. That none of his family was injured physically we are truly grateful. Providence alone kept this from being a most extraordinarily devastating fire. Mr. Huber, your rash act endangered many. Destroyed a rare building, one of a kind, and a unique piece of history and link to Juneau’s founding years, now gone forever. The spiritual and social home to generations of people, many who had poured their life’s energies and finances into building, enlarging and maintaining this house of prayer. It housed the memories of many people’s most important life transitions. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, first communions, first recitals—it had accumulated the accumulated affections of hundreds and hundreds of people over a hundred years, it was a repository of people’s joys, sorrows and hopes. You took something you can not give back. Only time and God and the people you took it from can build that sacred space again, bit by bit over the same number of years. And even so, it will be a new space, needing new generations of people to build the same memories—to again hallow it with their own hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows and first times and last times.

Recovery from this tragedy has consumed the energies, time and attention of most of the congregation, and has kept us from other ministry. It has caused conflict, hurt feelings, and in some cases, loss of membership. Not just numbers, but beloved friends.

It has also unified others in a joint effort to rebuild. It has brought us into relationship with other churches, and members of the community of Juneau we had not known before, or had not looked to for common ministry. It has taught us humility and appreciation for all the gifts we have within our congregation, and for every kindness shown us upon which we have had to depend to continue our life as a congregation. It has made us more consciously dependent upon the Grace of God. It has brought out the best of Christian virtues in many people, and has touched the hearts of many who have been moved to help us from their own sense of values. We are unlearning a few bad habits and dependencies, and are learning new habits of generosity and trust.

And here today, we have the opportunity to test what we wish was our best habit: Forgiveness. Not the cheap kind of “it’s OK, it doesn’t matter—at least nobody was hurt” Because it DOES matter, and the injury is very real. This gift from our congregation to you is not automatic or cheap, it costs many people a very great deal to make this effort. But even those who do not FEEL this forgiveness want you to have it, for their sake and for yours. They WANT to move on, to let go, to be reconciled, to heal, even if that is not yet where they are today: Our church members want to keep the promises they have made to God. They want to make flesh and blood the prayer they offer every week; “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And they do this so that day will be nearer. You can’t make it O.K. But we don’t want to make it worse. The primary restitution we ask from you is honesty. Honesty about what you’ve done, why it happened, and a change in the way you walk through life that builds up instead of tears down—even when it costs you great personal sacrifice. None of us wants to be known by the worse thing we’ve ever done, and we do not want that for you. We want your life to mean something more than this trial, this sentencing, this pain you caused us, your parents and yourself. We forgive you.

If this court sees fit, we would ask one thing primarily: That Mr. Huber’s incarceration remain here in Juneau, for the sake of his parents. We have visited often with Mr. and Mrs. Barrens, and know and respect the love they have for their son. The court will note the age of Mr. and Mrs. Barrens and will, I hope understand the impossibility of their visiting Mr. Huber anywhere outside of Juneau, even in another Alaskan institution.

Secondly, if financial restitution is thought necessary, we would ask only that if Mr. Huber is given parole, that for the duration of that parole, he tithe 10 percent of any income earned during that time to Holy Trinity. We certainly under no circumstances wish to hinder or harm Mr. Huber’s financial opportunities for independence, but we believe that there is a spiritual benefit from tithing our income to the Lord’s work, a benefit we wish Mr. Huber to enjoy. We pledge in turn to remain in relationship with Mr. Huber, by conversation, by visitation, and by support of his efforts to make a positive difference in the world now, and upon his release.

We thank the court for its allowing us this opportunity to speak.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


In an ancient Greek icon, the archangel Raphael is holding a transparent sphere. Perhaps it is the circle whose center is everywhere; perhaps it is one of God's tears. Perhaps we can think of all the words, metaphors, and images we use to talk about God and to God, and that arise from plunging into the wellspring of God, as the sphere's surface tension. Below the surface, within the sphere, their many meanings mingle and fuse to form a single lens through which we see may see God.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Indwelling Trinity

The fire of God, the life of the blessed Trinity, dwells at the heart of all being, of every person, of you and of me. It is the source of the inframutability of energy, matter, Spirit, the convergence of all the goodness of the universe in one eternal moment. It burns away the veil between life and death and enables us to share God's own life with one another and with those who have gone before.

Often our lives seem disconnected fragments. It is this loving fire that fuses the pattern, that is our constancy; it is love that undergirds. If only we will, we can watch, like a child with a kaleidoscope, transfixed by chips of glowing color falling into new geometries.

This fiery life, this burning life, enfolds us within itself, and all lives within itself and all that is within each of us. It is the clear, simple, hidden vision, the engagement that pours forth our life, an engagement that remains on the subliminal border of perception, impossible to conceptualize or discuss, but demanding expression by the co-creative power of its gaze, concealed from ordinary discursive consciousness. Even as we attempt to communicate this love, we know that only the vision itself and following where it leads will satisfy the hunger it engenders and ever renews by this same satisfaction.

[From the Introduction to 'The Fire of Your Life: A Solitude Shared,' published this month, January 2007, by Seabury Press]