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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

St. Francis Day

This past week at a special Chapter meeting, the brothers decided to sell Little Portion Friary on Long Island, NY. It was a hard decision, one it has taken years to embrace. Still, it is painful for us and for many others affected by this decision

A friend wrote today in response to our decision: 

‘I was reading a bit on Navajo spirituality and came across this bit: "recognizing that life's tests pushed them to the depths of their greatest suffering, they also discovered that the same tests revealed their greatest strengths.  The key to their survival was to immerse themselves in life's challenges without become lost in the experience.  They had to find an "anchor" within themselves--a belief that gave them the inner strength to endure their tests--and the knowledge that a better day would follow. From this place of power they had the confidence to take risks, change their lives, and make sense of their world."

I wrote back: “thanks for this bit of Navajo wisdom. When I put our struggles up against the threats to Navajo culture in the 19th Century (and maybe even today), our troubles seem to deflate a bit...But we are definitely at a crossroads and we need to find that inner spiritual anchor. It seems fortuitous, or actually just grace-full, that today is the Feast of St.
Francis and we read about him, think about his life and struggles, and remember his spiritual anchor was radical poverty/letting go, and a desire always to follow the Spirit's lead, wherever it would take him. I had a dream last night I was being carved up alive by a sushi chef and served to a crowd of folks. I definitely have some work to do!

I think my spiritual anchor is the Franciscan ideal along with a feeling that my vows are for "better or worse."  In AA they say God hasn't brought me this far just to drop me on my ass. But I definitely feel winded.  I went running today and could hardly do it: it turned into walk/run, walk/run, bend over pant, pant, pant. Repeat. But I take encouragement from the fact I didn't give up and call a cab. I know my mental state affects my physical one, and also, objectively, the lack of exercise this past week is part of the reason for today's struggle. But what I see about myself in this experience is that I don't give up, and I can find lots of beautiful things to look at and think about. Also a memory from my novitiate: I want to grow into one of those old oaks that are all gnarled and seared yet have wide spreading branches--what we all think of as beautiful old oaks...

Nothing makes the Bible seem more topical and on target than real life set-backs!  For St. Francis Day, the Morning Prayer Gospel reading was from Matthew: don't be anxious about earthly things...consider the lilies of the field etc. Wow! One way or another we will right ourselves and the wind will fill the sails. Whatever decisions we make no matter if they are "right" or "wrong" I pray God will use them to make it possible for us to live our vocations with joy and gratitude.  The fact that the future seems very opaque is okay. I've been here before--I am a recovering alcoholic, for heaven's sake! The worst thing ever has become one of the greatest blessings of my life. I can't pin it down to any one moment when I began to feel that way, except I gradually realized God was in fact doing for me what I could not do for myself. I believe that God will do for us...”

Perhaps our greatest strengths are being revealed. Certainly there is no question in my mind Who the anchor is. As we say every morning: “We adore you O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”


Happy St. Francis Day to us all!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In San Francisco

It as been a long time since I posted. In UK the blog was blocked for some reason I am not technically savvy enough to sort out, then I was in Papua New Guinea from July 14 til Aug 14, then on holiday with my family. So now I am in San Francisco, with access to a computer (thanks Br. Leo!), and some time...


A high point of my time in Papua New Guinea was a trip from Ukaka to Yapua in Milne Bay Province. We went to celebrate with the people of Yapua on the feast of title of their chapel, The Transfiguration.  It was the kind of trip I love: three hours in the back of a truck with a crowd of people to begin with. One woman got on mid journey and gave me a sharp glance: "Are you Brother Clark?" she asked. I was astounded. Then she pulled out a2009 SSF Intercession booklet and showed me my picture. "I pray for you every day," she said. "I am a member of the Third Order." Her husband gave me a thumbs up sign, indicating he is a member of the Third order too. We made small talk over the roar of the engine and the flapping of the tarpaulin over our heads. Soon my friends got down and we continued on to the end of the road. The whole region is Anglican, so the significant landmarks are the Anglican parishes. At Holy Trinity we got down. "Almost there?" I asked. Smiling enigmatically a young man grabbed my back pack and we set off. we were nowhere near "there." He finally let on it might be five hours or more, depending on how fast I walked. Three hours into it we came to a swollen river choked with mud, trees and other swirling detritus. My companion shrugged of my pack and advising me to stay put, dove in. I watched with my heart in my throat, resolving I would never do that; I do have a shred of common sense. We took shelter in the home of a local person who was stranded on the other side of the river (there were 18 of us, men, women and children). Nobody was fazed. The holiday spirit of a church outing prevailed: we sang hymns, cooked and ate potatoes, napped in the smokey drafts of the cooking fire--which masked somewhat the smell of the pigs who shared our shelter: we'd clambered into a pig sty!  Finally the river subsided enough for us to ford the river, Brother Sebastian and I went first because I wanted to prove a point that I could do it on my own steam--they were proposing to carry me! But the flood spoiled one of my sandals, and after 300 yards it began to flap uselessly around my ankle. I pushed on barefoot for a bit, but my feet cannot cope with the stones and thorns like the local peoples' feet. So I had to stop, rummage around for socks and boots in my backpack; no more rivers on the route anyhow so I wouldn't have to take them on and off over and over. Finally we arrived at Yapua at 1:00 a.m. I was raining we were wet and muddy. So after tea Br. Sebastian and I found a clean stream and managed to wash. I hit the floorboards of our hut and slept stretched out on the planks. In the morning we scrambled around and got to morning prayer. After, while we watched the acolytes light the candles for the Mass, the priest came over and asked if I'd please preach. I should be used to this sort of thing, but I'm always taken aback by these impromptu requests. Nevertheless I managed a few words on the Transfiguration of our Lord.


The day after the feast we headed to the coast and chartered a dinghy to take us to Dogura to see the cathedral. It was built in 1937 and looks like a miniature European cathedral. Termites are destroying the beams, and birds swoop around inside, streaking the walls with droppings; Sebastian and I were both a bit disappointed. The place is legendary: the first Anglican missionaries came there, and from there the Anglican mission spread throughout the country.


I have been thinking about missionaries since that visit. In a way the clash of cultures is still going on. And now I find that even in USA the church needs to rethink how it does mission, we friars sometimes find ourselves out there on slippery slopes and in dangerous spots. The adventure isn't jut Indiana Jones kind of derring-do, but a real opportunity to go beyond our comfort zones, to reimagine what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st Century. Certainly we need to listen closely to the natives as they know better than missionaries the best ways to get around. So here I am in San Francisco, trying to listen, to reimagine our mission, for ways to ground the Gospel and our Franciscan ministry.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Friday, June 13, 2014

Its all cricket

This Wednesday evening I had my first experience of a live cricket match. I've seen them on DVD's (Lagaan) and caught glimpses on TV, but never watched one. This one featured the Hilfiled/Pilsden team versus The Plumbers. The Plumbers won by about 80 points. But nobody was surprised. Our team featured a German boy who'd never seen a cricket match before either. (A very fast bowler, it was noted.) They tried to get me out there, but I talked them out of it, and instead became chief cheerleader.

The great joy of the event was being together, enjoying the beautiful summer evening sunlight, laughing and putting the magnifying glass on what community is: it is about people enjoying life, playing the game, letting go of any worry about the results--over which we have no control, at least at our skill level in cricket. In community, it is in God's hands.

There was an ad hoc quality to our team, which is parallel to my experience of community life too. There are certain givens, and skills to learn, but so much of what we do gets improvised. It depends on good will, clear lines of communication, unqualified support for all the players. Last week here in England we had our Chapter meetings, which pretty much confirmed what I am saying. People always ask if I dislike Chapter meetings. Actually I LIKE them. They are a chance for us to really talk, to examine our dreams and hopes, and sharpen our organizational skills.I also get a chance to catch up with all the brothers, their stories are heartening.

Go team!

The rural life in Dorset is quite exciting. Today we moved the cows to a new pasture--had to herd them along the road. We've been working in the garden, I've been weeding the brussel sprouts and cabbages. Every day or so I go for a run along the narrow country lanes. Yesterday Daniel O. (the German volunteer) and I were in the kitchen. He'd organized the menus and took the lead on putting the meals together, and I was his sous chef. The roasted veggies were a bit too crunchy for my taste, but all-in-all the meals were terrific, especially the Red Dragon Pie at lunch.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Peace: let it begin with me

Kookaburra song, scent of eucalyptus, profusion of orchids: back in Australia. New South Wales, or at least the area around the friary in Stroud, is beautiful.

Br. Raphael Suh SSF and I traveled across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand on Monday, Cinco de Mayo.

Chapter in New Zealand April 25-28 was a good time for re-connecting and enjoying time together as well as the usual work of such meetings. We shook off the cobwebs of Chapter with a visit to Yarndley's Bush (one of the largest remaining kahikata [trees] stands on the North Island of New Zealand). It reminded me of walking among the redwoods in northern California. Then, we took a brisk hike through part of Pirongia Forest. I loved the giant ferntrees and different kinds of bird calls.

A highlight of my time in Hamilton, NZ, was an art exhibit presented by Anglican Action. Anglican Action is the Anglican Diocese of Waikato's social service "umbrella" agency--nothing to do with the conservative Anglican Church of North America which also uses "Anglican Action." Under this agency's aegis are groups serving women, youth, the elderly; they provide counseling, jobs and food among much else.The missioner, Karen Morrison-Hume, after a visit to a cathedral and noting all the plaques to the war dead decided that Anglican Action needed to honor the peace dead. Artist Maree Aldridge created an extraordinary exhibit in honor of New Zealander Archibald Baxter (1881-1970). As a committed pacifist from age 19, Baxter was nevertheless conscripted during WWI and shipped to Europe. There he refused to cooperate and was subjected by the New Zealand military leaders to "Field Punishment Number 1." Essentially a nail-less crucifixion, Baxter was tied  to a pole with his feet just off the ground and left to hang by his arms for many days. The diabolical imagination of these officers in subjecting Baxter to this punishment for "fighting for a war-less world" and attempting to "treat other people as one would wish to be treated" is sickening. But it is not far fetched when one considers the vitriol directed at pacifists throughout history. The story of
Baxter's pacifism is a huge encouragement to be true to Gospel values and a condemnation of militarism.

For now, we are settling into the rhythms of life at our hermitage at Stroud. With my imagination fired by Baxter, I am fanning the flames for living Gospel values on a domestic front for now: praying together, eating together, working together. Yesterday the three of us brothers cut saplings and grubbed out the stumps with mattocks and pulaskis. Then I roasted some chicken, sauteed pumpkin and cabbage for an autmnal dinner.

How sweet it is when we live together in unity. How great the obligation to grub out noxious growth of invasive species and armies.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Easter!


Easter Day Homily 2014: Br. Clark Berge, SSF

Church of the Epiphany

Los Angeles, CA

 

Christ is risen!

“He has been raised just as he said!” The angels cried from the tomb.

We heard last night how the message was carried by the women to the disciples: “Christ is risen!”

“God raised Jesus from death,” Peter says in Caesarea (as we hear this morning)—and presumably everywhere else that he went.

Paul proclaimed: “If Christ were not raised from the dead, then our faith would be in vain.”

 

The Resurrection is what makes us Christian—not just the social teachings of the New Testament. Actually what makes us Christian is not just what we do, but believing what God has done, and is doing, in Jesus Christ in the whole world.

 

I think it is almost impossible to convince anybody about Christ’s Resurrection. You can talk until you are out of breath—for some folks it sticks like a bone in the throat. But what does convince, has always convinced, it is when lives are transformed: when people see the power of the Resurrection in acts of generosity and courage.

 

Of course, people who say they don’t believe in anything are also generous and brave, and I am tempted to explain their reluctance to ascribe God credit to a failure of religion, rather than a lack of faith. God’s power is at work in us whether we know it or not; God has never been limited by what human Beings think is creditable or possible. This is what we celebrate this morning—the impossible is made possible, believe it or not: God raised Jesus from the dead!

 

The proof of the Resurrection—do you need proof? The proof I’d point to is the miracle of people getting sober in parish halls and church basements around the world. Every day the impossible becomes possible: and for many, only because they turn their life and their wills over to God. It is this same God who raised Jesus from the dead who then raises them from the grave of ruined lives and shattered relationships, to a life most of us cannot even imagine when we are in the grip of addiction.

 

It is this “beyond imagining” quality of Resurrection that is one of its Scriptural hallmarks and stands as a corrective to our pet projects and fondest hopes.

 

You can only coast on liturgical excitement for so long, my friends (and this is rather exciting, isn’t it?). Sooner or later you will be forced to look into the empty tomb for yourself and decide in your hearts to claim this great power of resurrection.

 

And then who knows what will happen in your life? This morning graves are opened, angels speak; Mary Magdalene is empowered as a witness to the resurrection. Today miracles abound. Are you ready to surrender to this redeeming grace? Are you ready to turn your life and your will over to God? Are you ready to allow the resurrection of Jesus to agitate your mind and inspire your heart? With God, all things are possible.

 
“Go,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene. “Go to my brothers.” We are to go out into the streets and neighborhoods. Go live lives transformed by grace and joy so that all people can see and know that the whole world has been transformed and renewed by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Let us be upstanding

Last week I visited All Souls St. Gabriel's School in Charter's Towers in North Queensland. Br. Nathan is the chaplain there. The students come from all over northern Queensland, most from very remote farms, or "properties" as they are called. It is not an elite prep school, but founded by the Anglican Church to serve students in underserved areas. These are places so remote there are no schools within easy commuting distance. Many of the students see very few people apart from family and farm workers when they are at home. The school is one of those that several generations of a family may have attended. It is rich in traditions and yet forward looking too, working hard, to my eyes, to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

During the course of my first evening, which was The Feast of the Annunciation (St. Gabriel's Day) there was a formal dinner. A student went to the podium and called for our attention. Once we were quiet and straining to see, she told us to "charge your glasses" (with mineral water) and then "be up standing" (i.e. stand up) and toast the Queen: "To the Queen of Australia and the Head of the Commonwealth!"  And all the students around me: "To the Queen!"

I've been in stranger circumstances, and this had more charm than a pledge of allegiance.

Private boarding schools address the whole student, and this particular evening was one of two formal dinners the school hosts for students, so that they will know how to comport themselves at such events. It was very exciting, especially for the new students. One asked Br. Nathan, as the food was served: "Is this what it is like to eat in a restaurant?"

Early each morning a group of about 14 boys race from the dining hall to the chapel for a quick Eucharist. (The first one there gets to read the Gospel.) I was surprised by the number, the most I ever got at a voluntary school Eucharist when I was chaplain was on average 0-1. The boys led much of the service, Br. Nathan celebrated and gave some apt remarks, and we stood around the small altar to share communion. Our celebration was one of the millions of points of light that give light to the world.

Standing in the crossroads of rural and urban, sacred and secular, churched and unchurched, public and private, young and old, friars serve a huge variety of people. We point to what is upstanding in the world and worthy of praise, seeking to collaborate with goodness and creativity wherever we find it. We challenge the places where people are being led astray. We make friends with lonely boarders, we visit the sick, pray with prisoners.

In all these places (and more!), and among all these people, we see Jesus.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Prison Visit

This morning (Sunday, March 16) Br. Hilton Togara and I went to the Central Prison in Honiara at Rove with the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison, to conduct a Bible Study. It is a tiny prison, but with all the razor wire and concrete to confirm it as the real thing. Waiting until 9:00 we sat in a leaf roofed shelter with a Roman Catholic seminarian and two Catholic laywomen.

We signed in and were patted down. This being the Solomon Islands, the guards were all friendly and there was laughter and exchange of pleasantries. It was a pleasant though stark contrast to security guards in the US prisons I have visited. We were led to B block and went in to a smallish concrete room, with three concrete tables and "benches." A television was bolted to the wall. The men live through another door, which appeared to lead into an open room.

About 24 men gathered, some sitting on the benches some on the floor. We introduced ourselves, and then one of the men took up a guitar and started leading praise songs. I learned later he is one of the men sentenced for life. Lifers live among the general population, but have special roles, especially as cooks for the jail.

Inspired by the Bible studies we led on the Simply Living Mission to England last year, we used some questions about the Beatitudes. Our text was "Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Hilton divided the group into two, and I sat with about a dozen men. They weren't quite sure what "mercy" meant, but one launched into a long sermon about "the blood of the Lamb." Finally I got one or two to share about times they did NOT hurt somebody else no matter how richly they may have deserved it. A third spoke of realizing he needed to be merciful to all the people he hated and how he had to accept all God's mercies: food, water, air, clothing, even when he had no freedom, God is merciful in so many ways.

Out of the depths O Lord, we call to you...

As we left the Chaplain, Fr. Ellison said he is so grateful to the SSF Brothers because they are his partners in the hospital and prison ministries every Sunday, starting at 4:30 a.m. Holy Communions in the Hospital and the 9:00 a.m. worship in the prison.

For his part, Hilton was simply grateful to be able to be with "his brothers" in prison.

Lord make me a channel of your peace...where there is despair, hope, where there is sadness joy...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vanga Point

This weekend Br. Clifton Henry, the Minister Provincial and I went to Gizo in the west of the country, to visit a brother living and studying at Vanga Point a Rural Training Center run my the Marists Brothers.

Our flight from Honiara was uneventful--thank goodness. We arrived at Gizo Airport--it is an island all to itself, the airstrip and buildings cover the whole island. A boat takes passengers to a larger island where the small town of Gizo is located. You get off the boat right in front of the Gizo Hotel. The open air market is there too. So Clifton and I loaded up on a huge supply of potatoes, papaya, cabbage, eggplants and other vegetables , then bought a dozen fish. By this time the brothers and students from the Training Center sent over to get us had arrived and we loaded up and headed across the open sea. It is about an hour to cross. Although the sun was shining, the sea was rough. Twice the engine stalled. I kept repeating, mantra-like: "Not to worry, not to worry!  These guys are mechanics!"  They proved to be at least resourceful boaters; the second time the engine stalled they ripped the straps off one of the two life jackets to bind the engine together more tightly (I think that is what they did...). I used the rest of the life jacket as a cushion to soften the thumps on my behind.

Vanga Training Center is a rough looking place. The tsunami a year ago took out the wharf, and it hasn't been replaced. The classrooms and outbuildings are rusted and partially collapsed. Everywhere there is rusted out machinery, overgrown fields and paddocks. But there are about 130 eager young men there, and the SSF house is right in the middle of campus, next to the chapel. It is home to Br. Selwyn Tione and former brother Ezekiel Kelly. There are about 25 Anglican students in this Roman Catholic place, and they were very excited to have us visit. They came by all evening to meet us and sit and "story." First on their list of events for us was an Anglican Eucharist Saturday morning. But since it was to be held at the usual Saturday prayer time, 6:00 a.m., attendance was compulsory for all students. Clifton celebrated in a whisper, which I thought was a bit perverse in an huge open air chapel with 130 people there, but nobody seemed to mind. The Anglican students sang out the responses with intensity. They all like my homily, and were quite gleeful that I was the first white visitor to speak pijin fluently.

After Mass and breakfast a small group of us headed out to explore, and ended up hiking several hours through the jungle. We reached the house of a local family who gave us pommelos (gargantuan grapefruits) to eat on the beach. Back at the training center we had lunch with the assistant principal and his wife, and then went for a swim in the bay. Later we watched the students play soccer.  A cataclysmic thunder and lightening storm ended the play, and I was glad for a rest. At six we were back in Chapel for the Roman Catholic Mass. Since we all use the same lectionary, it was practically duplicate of the morning--except the preacher didn't have an American accent. Its hard not to think about the sadness of the divisions that separate two traditions that are so very, very close. And then to think about the validity of the differences and to be glad I am an Episcopalian...

Following the Eucharist Clifton and I were to give "encouragements" to the students.  I wasn't sure what this was expected to be so let Clifton go first. He gave a part testimonial, part pep talk. So I followed suit, telling about my call as a student to seek ordination to the priesthood, and how that matured into a call to religious life. I then told them about how I nearly derailed on alcohol, and the joy of my life today. My pep talk consisted mostly of telling them the most important thing isn't what they become but the sense of dignity and self respect that they have about who they are, and their commitment to living honestly. The homely lessons of my life.

Finally it was dinner at nearly eight o'clock, then bed. All during the night excited groups of students were coming and going from the small friary. Selwyn had organized the long suffering Anglicans to prepare a feast for us, and all through the night they made traditional pudding, peeled tons of sweet potatoes, and a group of 5 went diving and caught quite a number of fish. They absolutely did not want us to help--it was to be a sort of surprise, I think. Or at least a way of honouring us.

After yet another Eucharist we ate our feast. One of the Marist brothers came, the Principal and assistant, and all of the Anglicans. It was quite a happy time. A number of them finally summoned the courage to speak with me directly and I was very touched by their reciprocal testimonials and expressions of gratitude for our visit.

All too soon it was time to go. We boarded the boat and pounded our way back across the bay, getting soaked with spray, so I had to get them to take me to a local friend's house to change my clothes. Then over to the airport island, and back to Honiara.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Sow and her Farrow

Last week we had some excitement at Hautambu. I noticed Br. Guilford rushing around looking extremely excited. He is the pig keeper, and one of our sows had just given birth to eleven piglets. We had bad luck with the previous birth, the sow crushed some, others died of cold. But this time we were ready, and we built a small fire near the pen and loaded the pen with burlap sacks and banana leaves warmed over the fire . Brothers sat up all night with the new family to be sure Mother didn't flop over on the babies. Now in their second week, all are thriving and have doubled the population of the piggery.

While at Hautambu for Chapter, I had a chance to re-connect with a former brother, Ashley Vaisu. He grew up near Hautambu in Maravovo Village. In March 1996 the brothers had an accident and Ashley's forehead was crushed causing a little brain damage. After recovering, he couldn't settle down and finally withdrew from the noviciate. But he has stayed connected over the years. Currently he is staying with us, reading voraciously in the library, and helping out. It was a real pleasure to sit and remember life together nearly 18 years ago.

Provincial Chapter finished last Saturday, and we all felt it was a really good one. Sometimes Chapters are exhausting and people leave feeling frustrated. But this time, there was a sense of celebration. For one thing, the finances are strong!  In the black as we say in USA. Their self-support projects now supply fully one third of their income. In other ways there was a sense of growth and stability.

The Vows Book has been distributed to the brothers in SSF as well as large numbers of books given to the other three religious orders. The Mission Secretary of the Anglican Church of Melanesia is hoping that a special Solomon Islands  edition can be printed at the Provincial Press in Honiara. He says the book could be crucial for the renewal and revitalization of the religious orders in Melanesia.  This is very gratifying--I feel as if I have done what I set out to do. The SSF brothers love the book, some reported staying up all night, reading it with their torches. One said it made him cry.

I was carrying a box of books up the hill to give to the Melanesian Brotherhood yesterday and two SSF brothers came along. They wanted to carry the box for me, but I said no, this was my baby. When a father carries his baby, it never feels too heavy!

New life: baby pigs, a box of books.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Trip to Ysabel

I just returned to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands from Ysabel, the longest island in the Solomon Islands, as Br. Patrick reminded so many of us during the Melanesian Mission to UK last March--June.  I went to visit the new SSF work on the Island, and it happens to be just 5 k from Br. Patrick Paoni's village of Koragu. We disembarked at Haivo, and walked 6 K into the bush to the brothers place.  It was marvellous to be back on land after nearly 18 hours ploughing through the Solomon Sea.  We had spent the night perched on the narrow ledge outside the ship's bridge. Fortunately the view of the night sky and the close up looks at so many villages were fantastic. At one stop I saw a former SSF Brother Fr. Reginald Kokili, known to me as Br. Zeph. He lived with us at Little Portion in 1990 for a time and whetted my appetite for life in Solomons. We were both completely surprised and a bit emotional as we hallooed back and forth ship to wharf.

Two brothers have undertaken the work on Ysabel, Br. Jones (pronounced Jonas...) and John Kogudi. Armed with machetes and sheer determination they have cleared several acres of land and planted crops which have given bumper yields.  They live almost entirely on sweet potatoes and tinned fish, near as I can tell.  We stayed in the Senior Priest's house, because the SSF house doesn't have a floor or walls yet!  We may as well have been sleeping on the ground, given the abundance of stinging, biting, burrowing critters that seethed up through my woven mat.  Exhaustion can overcome the worst sleeping conditions and I even felt refreshed in the morning.

Br. Patrick, Br. Steven and I, as visiting brothers, were given light duty our first morning, cutting half a cord of firewood and lugging it on our backs to the thatched kitchen. It was brilliant weather and I love that kind of labor, so it was a really good time. That afternoon, a huge rainstorm shattered the day, thunder, lightening and torrential rain (the palm thatch withstood it all, hallelujah!). I seized the opportunity to shuck off my sweaty clothes and bathe in the rain cascading off the roof. The others regretted not doing this as the stream flooded and they didn't wash in the thick muddy water. Carpe diem I say.

The next day, Wednesday, we trooped up to Patrick's home village, a fantastic walk through thick jungle and rolling sweet potato gardens. The road was quite good, though narrow and often edged by precipitous drops. Our arrival in the village was quiet (no leis and singing) but that was okay.  We went to the river to swim, and by the time we got back Patrick's sister had laid on a nice array of fruits and other food.  We basically ate the whole 24 hours we were there. Dinner was a highlight with all the freshwater crayfish you could eat!!

For me a huge surprise was to meet a baby boy, Patrick's nephew, named Douglas Clark Paoni. When his parents were casting about for names Patrick mentioned mine, so though he is known as Doug usually, that day we called him Clark.  He joins Clark Kae Kae--also of Ysabel heritage who is now 4 years old. These boys are particularly smart and handsome I think!!!

We got a lift back down to the friary, and after a final meal, and Night Prayer we went to bed.  Friday we walked back to the beach and caught our leisurely paced scow back to Honiara.

Do you know how many cockroaches can dance on the back of a ship passenger's seat?  Don't ask.

I've given my book to a few people, holding back from wholesale giving out til the 250 copies I mailed from New York arrive. But early reaction is very positive, and we are now looking into printing an edition at the Provincial Press in Honiara. This weekend is the Religious Life Weekend, and they'd planned a workshop on the Vows, so I am now a featured participant. They rather thought to depose the Roman Catholic Dominican, but we finally decided to keep him on and I'd make an Anglican response.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Provocative New Title in Religious Life--THE VOWS BOOK

Release Date:  February 2, 2014

Text Box:
Provocative New Title in Religious Life--THE VOWS BOOK
Release Date:  February 2, 2014

The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas (CAROA) is proud to announce the publication of The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity by Clark Berge, Society of St. Francis.  This book presents the traditional vows of religious life as resources and inspiration for all who seek to live a life following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
 
“What is needful in the vowed religious life is not really different from what the rest of us need,” said Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, priest, author and spiritual director.  “This is why the enduring classics of the contemplative tradition, most of them from the pens of nuns or monks, can strike so many responsive chords with those of us whose daily surroundings are so different from theirs.  Brother Clark writes to his brothers, but he stands in a long line of religious whose words speak comfort and challenge to us all.”
The book is written in simple, direct language, in the “Easy Essay” style of Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  “I wanted to communicate in such a way that people for whom English is a second or third language would understand it easily. This includes almost all of the Anglican religious in Melanesia and many other parts of the Anglican Communion,” Br. Clark said. “The Vows Book is written in simple English, but addresses many of the complexities of religious life. It is simple, not dumbed-down.” Dr. Petà Dunstan, fellow and tutor at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and editor of the Anglican Religious Life Year Book agrees:  “In direct and accessible language, Brother Clark examines the vowed life to reveal the wisdom it offers to all Christians.”
Susan R. Pitchford, author of Following Francis, God in the Dark, and The Sacred Gaze said, “The Vows Book is what happens when an author has both uncommon gifts and unusual perspective.  And Br. Clark’s long experience of religious life, coupled with his visits to Franciscan communities around the world as Minister General, prevents his treatment of the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity from being culture-bound.  This is a wise, loving, and deeply honest look at what it means to choose life in a religious community.  It will be an invaluable resource for his own order, but will be inspiring reading for other religious and for lay people as well.”
The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity is available at Amazon.com after February 6.
Copyright © 2014 The Society of St. Francis, All rights reserved
 
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