Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter: Don't Be Afraid!

Homily for Easter 2015
Hermitage of St. Bernardine
Stroud, NSW, Australia
Br. Clark Berge

“Don’t be afraid!” This is the counsel we get in Matthew’s Gospel in the light of the Resurrection. Fear clouds our thinking, diminishes our generosity and inhibits joy. I was set to preach on this after our meeting last week, then doubly so after reading Tim Winton’s speech Bruce forwarded me from the Palm Sunday walk in Perth about the Australian response to immigrants. ( Fear is all around though we don’t always name it thus. Easter morning is a good time to weigh our fears, and to look at them in the brilliant light of what we believe God is doing in the world.

During this liturgy we are given numerous images of God and we hear stories of how God acts in the world: lovingly and creatively in creation, in the nick of time in the story of Abraham and Isaac, salvifically at the Red Sea, compassionately in the prophecy of Isaiah, and refreshingly with sprinkled clean water in Ezekiel. We believe God acts in loving, timely, saving, compassionate new ways; yes? All of this is released again in a startling way in the story of the Resurrection. Our beliefs about and our images of God control our actions, so we have our charter.

But what can dissuade us? Reluctance to confront others, busy-ness or preoccupation with other matters, sometimes we say we had no idea what was wrong. Offering ignorance as our defence is pretty shaky! But we offer it out of fear of being accused of callousness. I think fear lurks in the depths of all these defences.

Tim Winton spoke powerfully about the corrosive fear that has diminished Australia’s response to immigrants, and he called on his fellow citizens to shake off their fear.

America, to be even-handed, struggles with a fear of difference too: racism is alive and well in my country. Why else are 90% of inmates black? Why else do young black Americans walk in fear through the city streets? Fear twitches the fingers of the trigger happy. Where is the generosity, creativity, loving, saving compassion in deporting children to countries virtually foreign to them?

Bringing it closer to home, do fears make us friars not speak honestly to each other? Does fear make us flip into angry attacks rather than loving, honest exchanges? Why do I get so defensive when I feel criticized—even if nobody has said anything? As Winton describes Christians: we’re “lily livered” followers! When I got sober in 1999 I had to do an inventory of my life, step four of the 12 Steps of Recovery. Not only do you list what you did, but you need to say why you did it. Over and over again, I found myself saying, “I was afraid of what people would think.” “I was afraid he was trying to take something away from me.” “I was afraid I’d be left out.” I was afraid, afraid, and afraid. Just telling people “Stop it!” doesn’t actually change lives. It is a good consciousness raiser. It makes marvellous rhetoric at a public event. But what has helped me most is being loved. When I hear people laugh at my horror stories, and then share their own, I know I am loved and accepted. When I feel ashamed, I am often reminded I may have done something wrong but I am still a beloved friend or brother. As fear has diminished I have grown. Or, another way of saying it, as my self-preoccupation has died, Christ has grown in me. But if I live to be a 110, I may always get a knot in my stomach, may always feel a flash of fear, my old weakness. But by then I will perhaps banish it with the intake of a breath, and “know intuitively how to handle the situation.”

Fear can ruin our personal lives, thwart our highest aspirations as we sometimes seek to dull the effects with alcohol, or sex, or work…you name it. Fear can pervert our community and our countries. A world in the grip of fear can only pay lip service to new life. Fear is perhaps the only thing that could undo Jesus’ ministry and render his death meaningless. Demagogues always build on fear, it is second only to love as a great motivator.

God did what only God could do; he broke down the barrier of death, classically the greatest human fear. The only thing we have left to fear is fear itself, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously reminded Americans at his first inauguration. You see we aren’t the first or the only ones to struggle with this.

“Don’t be afraid,” the resurrected Christ implores us. “Don’t be afraid.” Thus even at the grave our victory shout rings out: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

I preached this at the friary chapel in Stroud: 4:30 a.m. Easter morning! I arrived in Australia on Tuesday night last week from the Solomon Islands; I attended their chapter, then gave a series of three lectures/workshops to 30+ brothers and wanna-be brothers, and finished my visit preaching at St. Francis church in Honiara, preaching to over 500 people. It wasn't all work though. I got in some great work-outs, nice long runs through the jungle on dirt tracks, and march 25 we had a beautiful Eucharist in the morning and then off to the beach for one of the nicest picnics: tinned plums were the highlight until the brothers caught some octopusses (octopi?) which we grilled: very tasty. A wonderful time.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ecumenical Colloquium of men and women religious “Consecrated Life in Christian Traditions”


This message was endorsed by all the participants of the Ecumenical Colloquium

1 - A new experience
For the first time ever the Vatican organized an Ecumenical Symposium on Consecrated Life for more than one hundred men and women religious from various church affiliations – Catholic, Coptic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant ... – to get to know each other better and to pray, to share their experiences and to promote Christian unity. This unprecedented meeting, held from 22 to 25 January 2015 during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was an initiative of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in collaboration with two other Vatican Dicasteries: the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

During four intense days, these men and women, all of whom have consecrated their lives to God in the following of Jesus Christ, but with very different forms according to their respective ecclesial traditions, had a powerful experience that filled them with joy. They discovered their deep communion in the same life choices and, at the same time, the enriching variety of its lived reality.

These consecrated men and women are most grateful to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are also grateful to Pope Francis who, by instituting a “Year for Consecrated Life” within the Catholic Church, immediately associated with those who have committed their lives in a similar way in other churches by stating: “I warmly encourage such meetings as a means of increasing mutual understanding, respect and reciprocal cooperation, so that the ecumenism of the consecrated life can prove helpful for the greater journey towards the unity of all the Churches.” (Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated People, 21 November, 2014) .

2 - Multiple discoveries

During this time together the participants received a great deal: an address by the Cardinals who head the three organizing Dicasteries, a presentation of consecrated life in each of the three great traditions and the testimonies of religious brothers and sisters. More than speaking of unity, they experienced authentic unity, by sharing moments of fraternal dialogue and communion with God, in the sharing of experiences and prayer and in communion of prayer, supported by the prayer of numerous contemplative communities.

During these days of meeting and fraternal dialogue, together they discovered:
- what they share in common: a commitment to follow Christ (“sequela Christi”) in ways – whether in community or not – dating back to the early centuries of Christianity, when the Church was still undivided. They recognized the Holy Spirit working in them to increase the gifts of their common baptism. They became more aware of their calling to be “experts in communion”, servants of the reconciliation among all the disciples of Jesus. Consecrated life, at the very heart of the Church, is also at the heart of the Churches’ journey toward unity.

- what distinguishes them: the participants came to better understand, within their own ecclesial tradition, what distinguishes, but does not separate them in any way; for example, in the Eastern tradition the understanding of consecrated life can be understood in various ways.

This experience enhanced two basic truths:

-- That it is when Consecrated persons truly responding to their call as men and women of communion, reconciliation, unity, and mercy as “untiring builders of fraternity” (Pope Francis Message for the opening of the Year for Consecrated Life, 30 November 2014) inspired by the action of the Holy Spirit, that they are servants of communion in their Church and among the Churches. Religious life, yearning for unity with God and with others, particularly when it reconciles diversity and overcomes conflicts, puts into practice the Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” (Jn 17:21), and thus become a “school of ecumenism.” Holiness – seeking to grow in communion with God and in mutual charity, even unto martyrdom, mixing one’s own blood with that of consecrated persons of the various traditions - is the only way to unity.

-- At the same time, advances in the ecumenical movement have allowed an exchange of gifts between brothers and sisters of the various Churches. This mutual enrichment reflects the experience of many ecumenical communities and interfaith associations of men and women religious.

3 –Renewed perspectives

At the conclusion of this meeting, the participants:

-- hope to see more of this kind of meetings, responding to the call of Pope Francis: “So I trust that, rather than living in some utopia, you will find ways to create “alternate spaces”, where the Gospel approach of self-giving, fraternity, embracing differences, and love of one another can thrive” (Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated People). Such exchange of gifts also requires an adequate formation that needs to be encouraged.

-- returning to their communities and Churches, the participants, greatly enriched thanks to the experience of these days, hope to live their common call to holiness and conversion with their brothers and sisters, which is the only way to unity.

Together they invoke the abundant gift of the Spirit on everyone personally and all together, ever more faithful to God, so that the great desire of Christ for all his disciples and for all humanity be fulfilled as soon as possible “Father, that they may all be one, so that the world may believe!”(Jn 17:21)

Rome, 25 January 2015, on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ecumenical Ministry

I met the Pope a few weeks ago after giving a speech on the Consecrated Life in the Anglican Tradition. The full text of my speech is posted: The whole event was at the invitation of the Institute for the Consecrated Life of the Vatican. We listened to a number of speeches, shared meals and some beautiful prayer: Vespers from the Roman Catholics one night, Orthodox prayers the next night and a beautiful Evensong at the Anglican Church in Rome the last night.

Following my quick handshake with His Holiness I traveled to Assisi, where I have been the Anglican Chaplain at St. Leonard's Church. The Bishop of Assisi allows the Anglicans to use the church. It is full of colorfully painted murals. Unfortunately no heat; that is added incentive to keep my remarks brief!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ciao Italia

Snow flurries, quiet medieval streets, bells ringing, muffled pedestrians murmuring “Pace e bene” as they pass: its like falling down a rabbit hole.

I'm not in New York anymore!

I arrived in Assisi Saturday night and was met by the Warden of St. Leonard's Anglican Church where I am to be chaplain for a month. I am living in a warm and charming apartment right in the center of the old city. How great is that?

I'd been in Rome for several days, where I was part of an Ecumenical Symposium on the Consecrated Life, sponsored by the Institute for the Consecrated Life of the Vatican. I gave a paper on Religious Life in the Anglican Tradition and the Ecumenical Journey (their topic). Apart from the Roman Catholic archbishop moderator, who is also a Franciscan, giving me a good natured razz about “How can you be a real Franciscan if you don't obey the Pope?” my talk was well received.

The symposium was interesting, on and off. The Catholics read a lot of papal documents. The Orthodox talked about the Trinity and keeping the Orthodox tradition alive in the face of great adversity. I talked about the Anglican tradition of prayer and worship; the blessing of freedom and minority for Anglican religious in the face of a lack of church laws, and our small size; and the characteristic of Anglican religious to cross boundaries: social, as in opposing apartheid and warring militia, and ecclesiastically by welcoming members from different denominations in some of our Anglican communities.

Most participants wanted to impart as much information as quickly as possible so many of the papers were read rapidly in a monotone.

Jetlag eroded my attention span from time to time (let the reader understand).

But there were sparkles: presentations from the ecumenical communities of Bose and Taize especially. Vespers each night was from a different tradition: Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican in churches of those traditions. They were really beautiful, though standing in the Russian Orthodox church packed in with other people close by I had to edge to the wall to ameliorate claustrophobia.

The Director of The Anglican Centre in Rome, Sir David Moxon, took me, and Sr. Joyce and Br. Desmond Alban, also representing our community at the symposium, to dinner at a little restaurant run by the San 'Egidio community. It is staffed by neighborhood youth who learn how to wait tables and cook so that they can then go out and get jobs. The food was great, the service very friendly and attentive: it was terrific. David told us fascinating stories about his work to end slavery, coordinating the efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope and several leading Muslims.

Saturday we walked across St. Peter's Square to meet the Pope, and I got to shake his hand.

Standing in the Square were a group of people with a blue banner emblazoned with “12” and wearing Seattle Seahawks football jerseys. Superbowl hoopla all the way over here. I gave them a wave and we all sang out “Go 'Hawks!”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Reading List

Everybody is talking about Mark Zuckerberg's reading list. As a life-long bookworm I am at last on the breaking edge of a pop culture trend. Its amazing. If one waits long enough eventually the culture catches up!

So, I thought I'd share a reading list of my own taken from my Kindle. There are ten "serious" books and ten novels. I try to read theology in the day time and novels in the evening. Happy reading!

Books on theology:

Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, by Miguel A. De La Torre

Immortal Diamond, by Richard Rohr

Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, by Eugene H. Peterson

The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, by Douglas E. Christie

Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle

Revelation, by M. Eugene Boring

I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, by Rene Girard

Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis, by Daniel P. Horan

The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord's Prayer, by John Dominic Crossan

Novels (some older, some new):

Offshore: A Novel, by Penelope Fitzgerald

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

Euphoria, by Lily King

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

This Is How You Lose her, by Junot Diaz

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014
Little Portion Friary
Mt. Sinai, New York

Br. Clark Berge, SSF

Christmas is one of the touchstone holidays. It asks basically: how do you want to live? Think about all the family rituals and the stresses and blessings of the holiday season: Christmas is about how we face the real situations of life, vulnerably and joyfully. How we face life’s challenges is the proof of the pudding, so to speak, of our religion, Christianity. It goes from intellectual proposition to hands-on, flesh and blood relationships.

Christianity teaches the main point of our faith is that God became a human being, Jesus. He died on a Cross, and then God raised him from the dead, essentially redefining our consciousness about life. Death has no ultimate power over us, so we are free to challenge all those people and powers and situations that threaten us with death, which means all those who make us feel small, diminish our life, or rob us of joy.

We champion life because God does. That is what we are celebrating in this special day.

Think about the headlines in our world today: ISIS and terrorism, war, climate change, social upheavals as we struggle as a society with racism, torture.

Think about your private dramas—more personal and more painful; for instance: sickness, death, and divorces. Or maybe you are planning to move and looking at everything around you: “This is the last time we’ll ever…”

So what does Christmas have to say to all of this?

I want to talk about two things that answer our troubles from a Christian point of view: vulnerability and joy. Of course living them out requires true grit: conversion we call it.

As the popular writer and speaker Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the key to wholehearted living; to be fully alive as the Christian saint Irenaeus calls it. Vulnerability does not mean being a doormat or exhibiting weakness or shame. It means emotional honesty, integrity, knowing the truth about ourselves—the real deep-down truth, not the superficial answers we give (on the one hand cataloguing our achievements or on the other hand, glumly noting all the ways we fail). When we are really vulnerable we put our true selves on the line.

Jesus in the manger is the perfect image of vulnerability.

Look at him: undefended, dependent on his mother, yet he radiates beauty; that is the human truth as God sees us! By celebrating Jesus’ vulnerability we acknowledge our own. It’s all there in the rough straw, shaky manger; God knows what the manger smelled like: the stink and prickle of real life. God chose the humble life, that’s where we need to look for him.

If vulnerability is linked to humility, honesty and truth, it is easy to determine the Christian take on the big issues of our day: love not war, care for Mother Earth, acknowledge all people are equally loved by God, respect the dignity of every human being and the integrity of all creation.

To live this way means we give up all fantasies of world domination (even if its just social media), or any notion of splendid isolation. We need to grow into our full participation in the community, the larger human family. Believe it or not, God is inviting us to collaborate with him. With God we are to carry out the plan for creation on this planet, our fragile home in the universe created in love by God.

As St. Paul wrote to Titus and we heard tonight: we are to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly: in other words, conscious, authentic, integrated and God-centered.

The message of Christianity is aimed at our hearts so we will live life-giving lives.

Keep looking at the baby, the Holy Child.

I’ve sat with families for whom birth became tragedy. Yet almost every successful birth is an occasion for thanksgiving, for joy. This is the second thing I want to talk about tonight in our celebration of Christmas. Let’s think about a baby’s birth: gratitude, awe, humility: these quickly become joy. This is the gut-level joy that causes mothers and fathers to weep, grandparents to break down doors, uncles to wax poetic.
Isaiah alludes to this kind of gut-joy: you have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy, he exclaims. Before you need to think about doctrines and dogmas, before you learn to navigate liturgies and prayer books, Christianity is about the joy of life.

A Baby is born, a child’s tears wiped away, a child tells a knock-knock joke, a first kiss is shared, an anniversary meal is eaten, a new job started, a vocation discerned: these sacred moments are the outward signs of God’s action in your life.

You don’t even have to believe in God to experience the blessings of God. Tonight we have to acknowledge that God believes in us more than we believe in him or ourselves. God’s initiative is the source of our joy.

The challenge is to keep joy alive.

They wrapped the child in bands of cloth—to keep Him warm, safe, healthy, alive. How do you protect your joy? What are your techniques? I find I am my own worst enemy. When I make a mistake I feel sick to my stomach. I want to grovel: I’m sorry, I’m sorry! A strident voice from my sub cortex says, “You are no good!”

Who needs enemies with a brain like that?

So I have some strategies learned from books, therapists, more highly evolved friends; I make a mistake, and I say: I made a mistake but I am still a good person. Simple, but it calms me down and wakes me up from self-hating shame. I can harbor my joy even in times of self-doubt, hardship and adversity. It is founded on the astounding revelation of love and acceptance of all the human condition that we celebrate tonight. On Christmas night, God took flesh and became human.

Does it change for you when I switch from psychological language (words like authentic, integrated) to spiritual language (Grace, love, blessing)?

Use whatever language you like, grab the joy, hold it tight.

The joy will mess with all your destructive tendencies. It will interfere with all your relationships—casual, personal, professional: a joyful cop, as much as a joyful priest, a joyful sales representative, a joyful farmer, student, parent; it is the wedge that Christianity wants to drive into society. We are called by God in this joyful night to be awake to life here and now, to make a difference for good.

And with Christianity it is always right now: our focus isn’t in a nostalgic past or imagined future. We are called to be awake, unafraid, sober, and respectful and devoted to the truth about God and ourselves—so we need to be asking for God’s help right now.

Christmas takes us right to the core of human life: what kind of person do you want to be?

Anything is possible.

With God in your life the message you give will be “good news of great joy for all the people.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

And then. . .

I don't feel like giving a run down on all the things that have happened to me since my last blog entry. I wonder is there a category for "occasional blogger?" I hope I have earned a credential as non-compulsive (in this regard at least)!

Suffice it to say that in October I visited some Anglican religious communities in Cameroon and Tanzania (offering friendship and advice, not money). Then I travelled to England for an SSF Ministers pastoral Meeting, and followed this up with a wonderful stay at Glasshampton Monastery, our friary in Worcester, UK. I returned to New York the day before Thanksgiving.

If there was one major preoccupation in all of these visits and engagements it had to be about what makes the religious vocation flourish. In Africa the people we met were new at religious life for the most part. More than anything else they wanted connections with other Anglican religious. Conversations with them made me think about what I like and don't like about my life and where I perceive God's call.

Though we spoke a lot about structures and customs, this is not where I sense God's call.

Though we prayed in Latin, Swahili and English, God wasn't calling me in any particular language.

But in the shy looks of men and women who don't know what to say, I experienced God.

In the stories about a longing for a more serious, more beautiful life I heard the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, and experienced God.

In his poem "Church Going"Philip Larkin writes about how we "surprise a hunger in ourselves to be more serious," a hunger that "can never be obsolete."

In our SSF meeting we reaffirmed our love for the things that bind us together as an international Order: praying together, living together in fraternity and poverty, keeping a love for the poor in our hearts.

Buildings come and go, communities flourish and wither. New ways and new initiatives to respond to the persistent call of God are emerging all over the globe.

The danger is to think our way (whatever that is) is the only way. The Congregational Church had a terrific campaign a few years ago. A banner was displayed in front of our Mt. Sinai Congregational Church (along my usual jogging route): "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."

Religious life is, in the end, not just about organizing a comfortable or a theologically or ideologically agreeable community. During this Advent season we are reminded over and over again in the prescribed Bible readings that we exist to bear witness to God's presence in human community and the world. We are to bear witness to the ancient prophetic call of Isaiah and Jesus to stand for justice and peace. In America, and other places where my brothers live, basic human rights are challenged. We cannot relent in our efforts "to show others in his beauty and power the Christ who is the inspiration and joy" of our lives.