Good morning and welcome to the third Sunday of Advent. We are just about one week away from the big day. Next Sunday, Advent four and Christmas eve will collide, and liturgical heads will spin.
Every year during this final stretch of Advent, I always love to imagine how Mary must have felt as the birth of her baby boy drew near. I’m sure Mary was filled with all sorts of emotions. I mean imagine for nine months carrying the son of God in your belly and feeling baby Jesus kick inside of you. Imagine for nine months going to bed every night knowing the savior of mankind was growing inside you.
Above all else, I imagine Mary feeling a sort of humble joy. Joy. Not just happiness, not just gratitude, not just relief, but joy. Joy and all the good that comes with it.
Traditionally on this third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate joy. You may have already noticed that our Advent wreath magically grew some roses last night at first evensong. Those roses are our reminder, in the midst of Advent, in the midst of a busy holiday season, to stop and appreciate the simple beauty of creation, to pause and give thanks and feel the simple joys of the season.
Fr. Charles Neale Field, SSJE
Chaos: a state of things in which chance is supreme, especially: the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms. This scientific definition of chaos might hearken us back to the very beginning of the creation account from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “the deep” is tehor, which scholars think might be related to a Babylonian divinity associated with oceanic chaos. We gather from ancient writings, including our own Judeo-Christian background, that to the ancients, (especially those who lived in desert habitats), the sea was “chaos” and therefore something to be feared.
With the help of science, we have a better understanding of watery chaos in our modern times and have systems in place to navigate it. Still, we can be caught off guard when we are blindsided by natural and human-made catastrophes. In 1889, such a catastrophe occurred when a defective dam in the Conemaugh Valley of Pennsylvania burst without warning and destroyed the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in an instant. Records of the tragedy indicate that 2,209 people died in the flood that ensued – 99 entire families – 396 of which were children. Bodies from the flood were found as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, as late as 1911.
At that time, there were Brothers from our Society ministering at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia including Fr. Charles Neale Field. Fr. Field volunteered to go and help in the relief efforts being organized by the American Red Cross. Joined by three men of the Guild of the Iron Cross (created by Fr. Field for working men and boys at St. Clement’s), they set off towards Johnstown. In a small book published by the Guild of the Iron Cross entitled After the Flood, Fr. Field recounted the story of the devastation and the heroic efforts of many who came to Johnstown’s aid. In this memoir, we hear him marvel at the devastation. He writes:
It is true that reflections are generally unsatisfactory, dreamy and transient. But reflections in a railway car, not of oneself but of the events of the first week after the flood are exceptional. Had I been dreaming? I felt more than half dead, as Dante might have felt coming out from writing of purgatory. I had seen Johnstown shortly before a flourishing city; where was it now? A name, a shell of a city. Where were the waters that had ruined it? Gone thousands of miles. Where were the people that had made it? Heaps of them dead, and those living, half dead, wounded in body and soul. Why had it happened to Johnstown?
Here we see a man of God clearly affected by the magnitude of human suffering he encountered. The question Fr. Field prayerfully asked was “Why?” How many of us ask this same question of God in prayer amidst the chaos we experience in our lives? Yet, Fr. Field was a man who knew that sacramentally he had entered into the waters of chaos in his Baptism and had risen from its depths into the promise of resurrection as a child of God. He knew that in spite of all the chaos he might encounter in his life, his Baptism gave assurance that God has brought and will bring order out of chaos. And so too for us, as we navigate all the uncertainties of our earthly life. He closes his initial reflections by writing that there were many good people in Johnstown:
Why God allowed men to build, and the State not to condemn the weak dam is a mystery contained in the deeper question how God can allow evil. The end of our reflection is that in spite of the carelessness and sin of men, God can and will bring good out of all this evil, and most good to those who have suffered most.
An Interview with Br. Keith Nelson:
You went to Navajoland this summer; how and why did this come about?
This opportunity came about as a direct invitation from our diocesan bishops in Massachusetts, for me to participate in a new component of formation for ordinands that will take effect in 2024, a period of cross-cultural ministry. Though I was ordained a transitional deacon in June of this year, they asked that I also participate. It’s aimed at building deep relationships and facilitating essential hard conversations about race. It asks white ordinands in particular to immerse themselves in the experience of church communities who are majority Black, brown, or indigenous within the Episcopal Church.
I spent some real time in prayer about it, and the prompting that emerged from the Spirit was a strong desire to spend time learning from and collaborating with Native Christians. I returned to our bishops, and we began a conversation from that request.
I have been moved and troubled by the histories of indigenous peoples, Christian missionaries, and the Doctrine of Discovery since first learning about it as a teenager. Those feelings and thoughts have been reignited in the past several years. A passionate spiritual need to enter true intimacy and synergy with the entire creation has been forming my sense of priestly calling. That has found intersection with deepening care and concern about those who have, historically, centered their whole way of life upon that intimacy and synergy: the indigenous peoples of this continent. Finally, within the last year I read the book Unsettling Truths, co-authored by Mark Charles, who is Diné (Navajo) and a Christian Reformed pastor. I wept and sometimes screamed in outrage and, by the end of the book, was convinced I needed to seriously ask: What is the invitation in the midst of this anger and sadness? Then this opportunity came along.
Ubuntu: I am because you are.
– Southern African Proverb
Imagine a world where one sees another and identifies that there is a sacred interconnection albeit mysterious with that person based solely on being equally created in the image of God. I long for such a world. Conversely and sadly, we live in a racialized world, one that does not emulate the dream of God. The need for racial reconciliation and healing is a journey and what I call our “lifetime work.” Julian of Norwich’s popular optimism (“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”) will start to come true as members of the human family lean into ubuntu, which is translated as “I am because you are.”
Navigating the strife of a racialized world comes naturally for me, a Black Episcopal priest who is a native Mississippian serving as the rector of a large, predominately White parish in Memphis, Tennessee. Indeed, I bear myriad stories, experiences, and observations about the sin of racism. Fortunately, I am not polarized by them as I choose daily to see the image of God in all people. This navigation path was imparted to me by my parents, grandparents, and an array of wise mentors who could talk about race, hope, and the dream of God for hours.
I first encountered the work of Richard Mammana back when I was researching the Society of Saint John the Evangelist — a community of monks that had captured my attention and of which I eventually became a member. His website, “Project Canterbury” (anglicanhistory.org), contained an incredible amount of archival material not only about SSJE, but also about other out-of-print Anglican books, pamphlets, documents, and historical records. Richard is an author, archivist, and book reviewer, as well as a member of Saint Clement’s Church in Philadelphia — a church of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that was once under the care of SSJE in the late 1800s. His essay, “The Black Christ of Stamford, CT,” recently captured my attention as it highlighted the work of SSJE in Boston’s Beacon Hill, as well as our relationship with artist Allan Crite. The following is an excerpt from that piece. You can read the full essay here. – Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
In late November 2022, Br. Curtis Almquist and I undertook a nine-day pilgrimage to the South to visit sites related to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and ‘60s and beyond. Among the places we visited were the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which trace the legacy of slavery in this country from the early 1600s to the present day by examining four eras: (1) the Era of Slavery in America, (2) the Era of Racial Terror, (3) the Era of “Segregation Forever,” and (4) the Era of Mass Incarceration. In what follows, I would like to record some of what I learned, share some powerful imagery of what we saw, and name some of my reactions to the experience.
It was November 2011 when I began to plan my suicide.
No particular event prompted it. My grandmother had recently died, which was sad, but not unexpected, and she had lived a long life. I had, just a few weeks prior, lost a local election, but I never really expected to win; I was thrilled that I simply hadn’t come in last place, that I’d convinced thousands of real-life people with jobs and lives to vote for me. To be honest, the personal and professional busyness was probably a distraction from the deeper problem.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety (like many of us), and I took pills, and they worked well, and I basically agree with the diagnosis. But leaving it there doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel true to what I lived. I certainly experienced depression and anxiety to a degree that would register on a clinical level, but I do not think that’s the full story. I’m convinced that these were the psychological damages wrought by a deeper, fundamental problem.
It was about 5:15 in the morning, and I was in the shower. There was shampoo in my hair, and my eyes were closed. I was busy imagining an argument with a Brother, which probably wouldn’t even happen.
The argument was over dried fruit. You see, I had been getting the impression that a particular Brother of mine didn’t think I was replacing the dried fruit often enough. (This all happened back when I was a postulant, and my job was to be the pantry monitor. One task of being the pantry monitor was making sure our supply of dried fruit in the pantry never ran out.)
Now, this particular Brother, in my experience, was the biggest consumer of dried fruit in the whole Monastery. One day, that Brother walked over to a piece of paper we kept clipped to a cupboard in the pantry. That piece of paper had a list of tasks the pantry monitor was supposed to do. I noticed my Brother giving the list a long look, then looking at me, then looking back at the list. Finally, he walked over to me and said that refilling the dried fruit was on the list of tasks for the pantry monitor. Then he walked away. It was a simple enough exchange.
And yet, there I was the next morning in the shower, unable to stop thinking about what I should have said to him or what I would say if he mentioned something about the dried fruit again. I can’t remember how long this went on or how it resolved, but here I am, about five years later, and I still remember that moment.
There is no denying the fact that life in a community can be tough. Back when I was an inquirer, it seemed like every single Brother warned me about the difficulties of life in community. Of course, I believed them, but there’s a massive difference between hearing about something and actually experiencing it firsthand. Try to imagine thirteen men of all different ages and backgrounds living together in one large house. They all share their meals together, run a church collectively, operate a non-profit business as a team, and sleep in bedrooms the size of walk-in closets. Most of these men have committed to doing this for the rest of their lives. This may sound like heaven, hell, or purgatory to you. I would say it’s a little bit of all three!
Life in a community can be challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Living at SSJE with my Brothers has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. In particular, life in community has taught me the value of conflict and how it is an unavoidable yet potentially meaningful and transformative aspect of life.
In all our various roles and time together, inevitably we will grate against one another. We are spending so much time together and making so many decisions, that conflict is bound to happen. This is not an occasional occurrence, it is a day-to-day reality.
The chapter in our Rule of Life entitled “The Challenges of Life in Community” states that, in community life, “tensions and friction are inevitably woven into the fabric of everyday life.” This is one of my favorite lines from the Rule, and I find myself repeating it like a mantra on some days. I’m always struck by the choice of the word “everyday.” Personally, I might have preferred “weekly” or “monthly,” but such terms might not accurately reflect the reality.
Consider your own day-to-day life. Have you ever experienced a day without any tension or friction? Think about all the roles you may be playing in your life: as a family member, as a coworker, as a citizen, as a partner, or as a Christian. When have you ever gone a whole day without experiencing some conflict in at least one of those roles? (Now, if you want to know what it’s like to be a monk, imagine experiencing all of those roles simultaneously with the same small group of people).
What if God really is using the tension in your life as a means for your own conversion?
Whether you’re a monk or not, tension is inevitable in relationships. That same chapter from our Rule of Life goes on to say, “tensions and friction are not to be regarded as signs of failure. Christ uses them for our conversion.” For me, this is a very powerful and important statement. It argues that conflict can be transformative.
When you experience conflict in a relationship, do you consider it to be a sign of failure? Do you think that the presence of tension means that a mistake has been made? Do you treat it as something to be remedied or overcome? Try to imagine what it would feel like in your own life if your answer to all of those questions was “No.” Imagine what it would look like if you experienced conflict as an opportunity. What if God really is using the tension in your life as a means for your own conversion?
Consider how Jesus responded to conflict within his own community during his earthly ministry. One of my favorite anecdotes from the Gospels comes from the ninth chapter of Mark, where the disciples are engaged in an argument about who among them is the greatest. I find it both comforting and humorous that the disciples, despite being in the presence of God incarnate, are preoccupied with themselves and constantly comparing their status with one another. You would think that being so close to the only-begotten Son of God would result in permanent bliss and solve all human problems, but the disciples prove that wrong! We, like they, remain human.
One of the many reasons I love this passage is that Jesus immediately addresses the conflict. I imagine that he can feel the tension in the air and knows it needs rectifying. Jesus asks his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Notice how Jesus doesn’t ignore the conflict, nor does he start addressing it by pointing fingers. He simply asks a question to initiate a dialogue between himself and his disciples. His question is an invitation to transformation, an invitation to address the conflict and make something out of it.
So, the next time you find yourself reeling from an argument, try to imagine what it would be like if Jesus asked you a similar question as he asked his disciples. What would you say if Jesus walked in and asked you what you were arguing about? Try to envision what he would respond to you as well.
I firmly believe that Jesus is right there in the midst of our most serious conflicts. In fact, I also believe that Jesus is present in the midst of our most petty arguments as well. During times of conflict and arguments, it is easy to push Jesus aside or think that we will simply have to wait to reconnect with him after the problem is over. However, when we do this, we miss the chance to discover Jesus right in the midst of our struggles and to allow him to help us grow through them.
Think back and consider how God has used previous conflicts in your life for your own conversion. In my time living in community, I have seen this happen many times. I have seen my community get closer together after going through conflicts. I have seen many Brothers disagree over something but have their relationship improve from navigating through that disagreement.
I firmly believe that Jesus is right there in the midst of our most serious conflicts.
After all, conflict can force us to communicate. This may not always be pleasant, but it is usually helpful. I have been a participant in many difficult conversations during my time as a monk in this community. These discussions can be excruciating and draining, but from my experience, they are worth it. Some of the best changes I have witnessed in our community have arisen from such dialogues. The challenging conversations that may emerge from conflicts aid us in gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the state of our relationships.
I find that one of the best feelings in the world is being able to look back upon difficult times of conflict in the community and have a laugh, knowing that the storm has passed, and things are better now. The Brother whom I thought was admonishing me about the dried fruit has been resting in heaven for about three years. When I look at the dried fruit now and remember the brief time we shared together, I both laugh and cry, reflecting on the full range of experiences we went through as Brothers in community. I can’t help but think that in heaven, when we are reunited with our loved ones, we will be able to do the same together again.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, did not lead a life free of conflict. He freely and fully entered the maelstrom that is humanity at large. He did so with grace and tact beyond measure. We are called to follow his example every day of our lives. We cannot evade conflict; instead, we must embrace it. When we do so, we also welcome the transformation it brings.
Questions for Reflection
– Think back: How has God used the conflicts in your life for your own conversion?
– Think about your own communities. How have they formed you? What have they revealed about you?
– How does your personal, day-to-day life feed into that broader whole of the Church’s mission and witness?
In this utterly relatable reflection, Br. Jack Crowley takes us from an imagined argument – had entirely in his own mind while in the shower – through the complex realities of the tension that marks all forms of community. What if Jesus really was there, in the midst of those conflicts, big and small, that make community so hard? And if that very tension was a force for our transformation?
The keepers are uniformed, professional, and follow an exacting protocol. Every visit I am greeted with pages of instructions: what I may not do, may not wear, may not bring. I submit paperwork and my ID. I am physically inspected head to toe and under my tongue, then scanned. A massive steel door slides open. I am stamped with ultraviolet ink, to be verified on my exit. I await another steel door to slide open. I walk 100 yards to a family meeting room where I await yet another steel door to be opened. Guards oversee. I am instructed where I may sit, in a chair whose location is framed by a painted square on the floor. The prisoner whom I meet is escorted in through another door. I stand. We greet briefly. We smile. We sit, he, too, in a designated square. After some welcoming conversation, I suggest we share silence and stillness for some moments, and then either the prisoner or I will pray aloud. And then I listen. I mostly listen. The time is precious, and we talk earnestly about important things. We often share some gentle laughter and slow tears. We stand to say goodbye very briefly, and then he sits to await his escort. And then I depart, a repeat process.
When I first wrote this piece, in March of 2023, I had no idea of how much the historic scenes of division and violence it remembers would become once again, by the time of its publication, breaking and heartbreaking current events, only in a different content: no longer in Northern Ireland, but now in the Holy Land. With the outbreak of such wrenching violence in the Middle East, the questions that echo through this piece have never been more resonant: How we can hold together our belief in a merciful and loving God when we continue to see such suffering, cropping up in fresh horrors in every news cycle? And what on earth can we, as people of faith, do about it? I hope that the experiences I share here might inspire other to believe in the power of even a few bold, inspired individuals to make significant change in a tragedy that seems, right now, irredeemable. Join with me, please, in praying for the peacemakers. Please consider checking out the additional information and resources available through The Episcopal Church.
It was over fifty years ago. I was a child, but I still remember the week when it all started. Sitting in front of the television I watched the scenes of mangled buildings, ambulance sirens, dead bodies. The armed conflict, the “Troubles,” had begun in Northern Ireland. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I knew there were two sides, Republicans and Loyalists, sometimes called Catholics and Protestants, and they seemed to hate each other. And for the whole of the rest of my life in England, virtually every news program, every day, featured the Troubles. Every Sunday in church, for decades, we would “pray for peace in Northern Ireland. We pray for peace.”
The Troubles were for me a daily reminder of a world in chaos. Why did God allow such suffering, such bloodshed? What was the point of praying for peace? As I write these words in April 2023, Joe Biden is in Ireland, as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary commemorations of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed on April 10, 1998, and which heralded the end of the Troubles. After so many long years of violence, and despite the sporadic signs of continued conflict, there is now much hope for a lasting peace and reconciliation. It perhaps makes one nod in agreement with those famous words, memorably quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Yet there are countless men, women, and children whose lives have been forever shattered by those years of conflict, and who live with the dreadful consequences of loss and bereavement. How can we as Christians hold together a belief in a just and loving God, when throughout the world today we continue to see such suffering, cropping up in fresh conflicts every year?