Saint Brigid

Brigid – known also as Brigit, Bridget, Brid, Bride – is a patroness of Ireland, along with Patrick and Columba. Her life mirrors a huge cultural shift during the 5th and 6th Centuries, when Christianity was introduced to the pagan clans of Medieval Ireland.

There is a tale in which Brigid is asked by friends to visit a dying pagan chieftain. He was delirious in his illness and they hoped she could calm him. As she sat by his bedside, she picked up some rushes from the floor (common in those days to keep the room warm and clean) and started weaving them together into the shape of a cross. As she wove, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick man, who grew quiet and listened. Soon his fever broke. The story of love she told him, the Christian story, so captivated the chieftain, that he was baptized just before his death.

Brigid’s cross of rushes gently bent her natural surroundings into the shape of her faith – just as Brigid wove the people and culture of Ireland into a Christian people. Born to a pagan chieftain father and a Christian slave mother, Brigid’s family included the two communities that she bridged through her life and work, teaching pagan Ireland how to embrace a new faith, while keeping it’s unique cultural character.

Christianity came to Ireland, not through political power, but through individual acts of faith and storytelling by people on the underside of history. Born a slave, Brigid spent her life helping the poor. Many of the miracles attributed to her are tales of feeding the hungry, giving away worldly goods, and being mysteriously rewarded for her generosity. When, as a child, she gave away all her mother’s butter, it was replenished three-fold. She kept a secret store of clothes and food for the poor and in one story even gave her father’s treasured sword to a leper.

Brigid showed how her Christian faith incorporated elements that were valued among her pagan neighbors – respect for the natural world and strong bonds of kinship. She is most notable for forming religious communities that became centers of prayer, charity and learning for both women and men. It was from these tightknit communities that early Irish Christians reached out to the rest of Ireland.

This prayer is attributed to St. Brigid – and sums up the earthy, joyful, communal faith she shared:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.

I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.

I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.

If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.

I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.

I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever

And every drop would be a prayer.

(From Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent through Epiphany)

Beth in Gambia

Two years ago, a miracle happened to someone I love. My cousin Beth, who had faced the loss of a son, her parents, and her marriage all in a very short period of time, began a new life.

She could have started a new career, traveled, embarked on some self discovery…these are all things that people in traumatic transition do. In fact, she did all three and more. My cousin joined the Peace Corps and became a whole new Beth. Actually, the same Beth, only more. That happens when you open your heart and leap into life with both feet, which is what she did. I am so proud of everything about her experience.

They love her in Sabi.

Beth doing her favorite thing…holding a baby.

She’s ending her two years of service in The Gambia, where she learned a new language, lived with a local family in Sabi, promoted family health, and designed a new health education program that partners with the favorite local soccer club. Below is a reflection that gives the slightest glimpse of her experience. And if you are inspired, there is a link to help provide education for women and girls in The Gambia.

Haja Saray Gerew is a 28-year-old wife, mother, and Sabi daughter who was taken out of school after completing 9th grade to get married. Educating girls is considered a waste when their role is to marry, have children, and maintain the family. Many girls accept and perform their duties with a quiet acquiescence. Some are bitter and resentful. Most have no chance to change their circumstance.

Haja, I think, felt some of all these reactions. However, she did manage to stay involved in her community by being available every time she was asked to assist with development work where literacy and language translation were needed. She worked with several NGOs and government programs aimed at improving conditions in Sabi, helping with everything from registering births to health education to assisting with administrative tasks. She did this willingly and without compensation, always in addition to her duties as a wife and mother. And in so doing she did in fact continue her education.

When I met Haja, it was in response to my search for a language tutor. We had a few lessons and it was apparent that although a horribly inept language student, I would in fact begin a meaningful working and personal relationship with this young woman. Her enthusiasm at the possibilities of using her education and experience to assist in Peace Corps project work was palpable. Her passion for girls’ education was an energy I wanted very much to harness.

Haja spent many a time crying in frustration at her lack of opportunity to continue her education. We talked a lot, much of the time I just listened, feeling rather helpless as to how to help and hoping that maybe just being a friend was something. I remember one conversation, though, where I reminded her that the one thing no one could take from her was her ability to learn. “Haja, you can read, you can write, you are literate…you can learn, maybe not in a traditional classroom but if you are willing I will help you…start with books and start with your own children…teaching them will help you.” It was a conversation we would continue over the next months.

I began to research adult education. If this were America I would know what to do: contact the community college, enroll her in a GED program etc… But this is not America so what to do? I discovered that she could take the WASSCE exams as a “private student” and, if she did well enough, could get “credit” for academic knowledge just like graduates of senior secondary school. That was our first step. Haja contacted a former teacher, got all the necessary information for the process, obtained study material, and took 5 exams in September of 2014. The results were expected in December, but we had to wait until February …3 credits and 2 passes…better than many graduates. I think she was literally walking on air for the next weeks.

The response from her community of family, friends, and Sabi leadership has been overwhelmingly positive.  I was a little surprised at her reluctance to share the information with her husband’s family. In her community, pursuing education makes her “different” and therefore a target to very real, though subtle persecution.  Sameness and fairness are highly valued in this culture, therefore to be educated and literate can be seen as “different” and “other” and a threat. In spite of all that, Haja has embraced the challenge to continue and move forward. She wants to be a nurse.

Haja is committed to helping Sabi, her village, but it seemed the best short-term option was for her and her children to move to the Kombo area where she and her children could continue their education. With financial support, she and another Sabi friend found a residence to rent and we enrolled all the children in school at Grace International a well-developed private school with an excellent reputation. Their progress has been amazing.

YOU CAN BE A PART OF THIS MIRACLE! Beth started an education fund to help Haja, her children, and other women and girls in The Gambia pursue education – it is called Gambia Rising. You can get information and make a donation here. All of the money goes directly to educating girls and women in the Gambia. On the website you can read stories about some of the girls you can help – and direct your funds directly to them.

Thank you Beth! And thanks to all of you who make miracles happen.

The Beards of Southwest

When I arrived at Seminary of the Southwest, there was a lot that impressed me – the park-like campus, the sense of community, the cookies. But nothing – and I mean nothing – impressed me more than the amazing displays of facial hair. There is some serious shagginess going on here. These guys have everything from 5 o’clock shadows to full-on Santa Claus. 

Some people love their beards so much. You can tell that whiskers make them happy.

Deliriously cheerful. Look at those smiles!

Others take a more philosophical approach to their goatees. Being unshaven can make you look and feel more…scholarly. Right?

I know all of those guys and they are probably thinking about theology or politics…or the cookies they had at lunch. Those are some erudite beards.

Beards can take over your life.

They require a lot of maintenance.

‘Stash wax, even.

But it’s worth it.

<– Seriously, check it out.

 

 

 

 

Beards. If you don’t have one, they look so tempting.

Happy and a scholar? Yes, please!

 

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. It has a different ring to it than All Souls’ Day.

Growing up, I had never heard of Day of the Dead, but I remember praying for people who had died and not really knowing what that meant. Dying was something that happened away from real life, to other people. Remembering the departed was a matter of prayer in church, a list of names. They weren’t even dead, they were “departed.”

But there is something heartwarming and emotional about a colorful altar covered with mementos of an earthy, earthly life that was intimately connected to others. A friend of mine always leaves a beer bottle on the altar for his father, because that is something they enjoyed together. So, on my first Dia observance a few years ago I left a bottle of Tabasco for my dad. And chocolate for my grandmother. It was better than seeing their names on a list; I relived moments we had together and told those stories to the people who are around me today. And I heard other people’s stories.

Dia de los Muertos, with all its skeletons and sculls, reminds us that death really happens. It isn’t the sanitized, distant event we tend to shy away from in modern American life. In places where Dia de los Muertos (or similar observance) is observed around the world, death is much more present. And because it is more present, perhaps the victory over death we celebrate in Christianity takes on a different meaning as well. All that color says that we are not in mourning, we are celebrating those we love. Dia de los Muertos is like a family reunion that crosses ALL the generations.

Bench-Pressed

Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.

And it is.

By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.

As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.

For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.

The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”

And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.

Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.

Love’s Banquet

Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share

__________________________________________
This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.