Sermon – Commandments and Community

Hi all.

I preached my first Episcopal sermon this last Sunday at St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church. I was robed (not robbed….fortunately!) from head to foot, and it was a lovely experience. It is a small congregation, which is definitely to my liking. I felt very comfortable and really appreciated the opportunity to share.

The liturgical scriptures focused on the commandments of God. One such passage was found in Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is a rather odd passage, at first glance. You have a poet waxing eloquent about….God’s commands, no less. So, pointed out in my sermon how odd it would be if you gave someone a command and they said something like, “Oh how I love your law!” or “My soul delights in that command!”

My suggestion is that the commands of God were a part of the link that held the community of ancient Hebrews together. The commands were mostly concerned with how people treated one another, things like: respecting elders, reconciliation for damaged property, restoration for offenders and criminals, dietary laws for health, a Sabbath rest, religious rituals of dedication, protection for the vulnerable in society (women, orphans, widows), respect for foreigners.

And this is really interesting to me, and where I spent most of my time: there were also direct restrictions on the building wealth. No interest was to be charged on loans. Debts were to be forgiven periodically, the year of Jubilee. Also, the land owners were not to harvest the edges of their fields but to leave these gleanings for the poor.

So, the commands of God were about creating a structure for a harmonious society. The ancient Hebrew was to find his or her identity not as an individual but as a member of a community, the community of God, where people take care of each other and the laws provided boundaries for mutual respect.

Then there is the United States….oh my, where to begin….while I was discussing the ancient Hebrew laws, I also discussed some of the ways in which we in the U.S. have little or no sense of community responsibility. I tried to do this as delicately as possible, because of two reasons: (1) there isn’t anything inherently evil with being a rugged individualist and (2) we can’t really held being conditioned as individualists.

The truth is, though, that we have taken individualism to a very dangerous extreme, and it is not only damaging our own spirits and souls but also impoverishing and hurting millions (perhaps even billions) around the globe and here at home.

One primary example of this is that we do not know where our products come from. Most of us would not knowingly buy a product manufactured by a company that employs sweatshop labor, and I would venture to guess that most of us would not buy a product if we know that the company didn’t pay at least a living wage. Most of us would pony up a bit more cheese to support the workers.

The unfortunate thing is globalization prevents us from really knowing whether the workers were fairly compensated or not. This is a problem of having a lack of a sense of global community. Our thinking is intensely individualistic: we only care to find the lowest prices. In such an environment of hyper-individualism, corporations can squeeze workers to the breaking point with virtually no accountability. Don’t like it. Tough. We’ll ship jobs somewhere else where hungry and desperate people living under oppressive governments will work for pennies.

Very sad. Very tragic.

The other example I mentioned was incarceration. The ancient Hebrew law structure had a good deal of restorative justice. The idea was that criminals and offenders should right the wrongs done to others and then be restored to society and welcomed back as productive community members.

The U.S., by stark contrasts, focuses almost exclusively on punitive justice. Punitive justice is justice by punishment. We have no structure for restoration, because restoration requires thinking as a community and as neighbors, and we have become to hyper-individualistic. So we just lock people up. I shared the statistics: in the last 40 years, the prison populations have increased 700 percent. Yikes. We know spend $60 billion on incarceration each year in the U.S. Depending on the facility, this amounts to $20,000 or upward to $50,000 per inmate per year. If we viewed offenders as community members, I think we could be a bit more creative with that $20,000 and find a way to help offenders. Most criminals come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds to begin with, and they do not have access to the best legal counsel. Our system thus skews justice toward the rich and against the poor.

I might also add that it also doesn’t work to lock people up and throw away the key. When people get out, in most cases they are worse than when they were locked up. (Imagine if you had to sit in a cell everyday for years on end and deal with the horrors of prison.) On top of that, we are now running out of room to incarcerate people, so we’ve had to start letting people out early.

The main point of my sermon was to ask if there was another way. It was to ask ourselves, at St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Kodiak, Alaska, to have conversations about thinking differently. What can we do to change the structure of our society so that we can begin thinking more collectively, as a community. The best place to start, I suggested, was in the local community. How can we be more active in our local community to change the structure, to support local businesses. There are significant movements underway in the U.S. against the injustices of globalization, and we should seek to be part of this.

I closed by suggesting that the church is a perfect place to have these conversations. It is already a community, one that is formed around a moral and spiritual consciousness. Our souls feel the ache of individualism, and our spirits reject exploitation and injustice. We also have the scriptures to inspire us to think communally. The law of the ancient Hebrews can be a guide to creating that structure.

Running and Preaching — same difference?

Alaska is lighting up again. When I walk to school in the morning at 8am (which is actually noon on the east coast), I can see the oh-so faint traces of daylight. Ah.

Speaking of “ah” moments. I went for a run on a familiar path this evening. At times this “path” includes beating through the bushes and even a bit of climbing, making the expedition more like a military cross-training exercise. The normal road that I run on (Pillar Mountain for those of you in Kodiak and in the know) goes up a hill, but the hill has much ice on it, making it precarious and difficult to actually make any progress (as if running up hill were not hard enough!). So, I decided to try some side trails/roads, and about 1/2 mile of mud and water I found the most lovely trails. So isolated, so beautiful. In the midst of spruce, running along the soft, mossy earth.

I came to the end of the trails, randomly; they ended in the middle of the woods. Then I just saw below me the most mythical yet simple scene: mist blowing across the tops of trees.

Coming attractions….This Sunday will find me robed and preaching my first Episcopal sermon at St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church. The theme of the liturgical scriptures have to do with the commands of God and with community. In the last few decades, we have heard a good deal from Christians about how the commands of God are being neglected, to our peril. My study of the biblical texts, however, show that the commands of God rooted in community (not the other way around).  The commands of God were valuable to the ancient Hebrew people because they were the framework for a harmonious community.

I want to use this exegesis to explore how fragmented our 21st century existence is, and how we need to begin to go about the hard work of building a structure for true community. It is truly shocking how many of the principles of justice, equality, and compassion found in the Jewish scriptures (aka the Christian “Old Testament”) are neglected in this world of global capitalism. There is almost no limit to the manner in which the rich and powerful can exploit the poor.

In other news….it seems as though credit card companies are ready to snag more suckers. Has anyone else noticed that those wonderful little solicitations from the Big Banks are now rotating through your mail? A sign that business and our economy is painstakingly trying to get back to the American norm: time to rack up credit card debt to buy shit we don’t really need! =)

Tamie Harkins 2010, Kodiak, AK

The end of another week

It is the end of another week.

I subbed at the Kodiak high school and middle school this week, mostly at the middle school. The middle school kids seem to have been taken to me. Today as I left, one of the kids said, “Hey Mr. E. You’re an awesome sub,” and then we did the whole fist bump thing. That’s a nice way for a teacher to end a week, though I imagine such a picture perfect ending is fairly rare!

On the beautiful and short walk home today I was thinking about the range of my employment and volunteer work. I’ve familiarized myself with the education system, the incarceration system, and care giving for disabled adults. I mention this because of my recent (as in the last year or so) sense of calling to ordination and ministry. Ministry in any kind of pastoral situation seems to require a range of experiences that allow you to be familiar with the challenges that face society and individuals.

Working in education, even as a substitute, also allows me to kind of observe and recall the goings on of those in middle school and high school. It is a stage of life that is so….well….I suppose it is difficult to find the right word: strange, energy-infused, and also weirdly both dependent and independent in ways that kind of work against each other.

In any case, cheers to all those of you who made it through another week. And cheers to our teachers.

When money really does buy happiness

“Money buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and after that point the correlation disappears.” – Bill McKibben Deep Economy

There is a reason why we think money buys happiness. Turns out that it actually does. Recently I spent a week camping in south Texas, living mostly off of trail mix and power bars. After a week of that stuff, my brother and I stopped at a Mexican restaurant. It was the best Mexican food I had ever had. And it made me very happy.

If you are living in poverty, having a new something-or-other really does bring you joy, real joy. For those who are poor, material possessions do make a difference, they do bring happiness. We cannot just say, categorically, that possessions do not matter. That’s a naive view of those of us in the affluent West.

There is a threshold, however. In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben points out that after your income exceeds about $10,000 a year, more money isn’t going to make much of a difference in terms of making you happy. Most of us know that, but we still get caught in the cycle of thinking that a bigger/nicer house will make us a bit more satisfied. Or that a better entertainment center or new car or new wardrobe, etc. will add significantly to our happiness. Yet if we stop to think about it, to answer direct questions about the kinds of things that make us happy, statistics show that most people talk about non-material things.

$10,000 probably seems low for most of us. It certainly seems low to me. But maybe that’s just because we are so conditioned by advertising to think otherwise.

Money buys happiness, but not for those of us in the West. In fact, for most of us, we have so many things, so much stuff, that it takes a good deal of energy just to keep up with it all. So, one might say that not only does more stuff not make us happy, but at a certain point, I would suggest it actually makes us less happy.

Back in Kodiak, in a flurry of snow and activity

And what a beautiful island it is. I love being surrounded by ocean, mountains, and trees.

Tamie and I have tried the ‘ole hit-the-ground-running strategy. So, yesterday (our first full day) found me running errands of all kinds. It was a day of proud achievements and accomplishments. I went to the DMV with about the necessary 3,000 or so documents required to get an Alaska Driver’s License (social security card, prior license, passport, pieces of mail, and a DNA-verifiable specimen from Big Foot). Seriously, some of this must qualify as “excessive documentation.” But I am a proud new owner of an Alaska Driver’s License, and for some reason this brings me great joy, along with the next phase of realizing, “Oh, yeah. I really do live in Alaska and not in Indiana anymore.”

Following the DL experience (did I mention it also included a written test?), I went to the local credit union to open an account. Walking back to the apartment, I though, “let’s complete the trifecta and acquire the library card.”

I might take this time to mention that my family had a fairly heated but good-natured debate about health care. I am in favor of universal health care, as well as eliminating the profit-incentive of the private sector. Basically, I think that everyone should be taken care of and health care should not be a way for corporations, insurance companies, CEO’s, or anyone else to get filthy rich. My brother is adamantly against governmental involvement in health care. His point, which I think is a good one, is that the government will merely do medicine the same way that medicine has always been done: by pills and machines. My brother’s point is that we need more alternatives to conventional medicine. I agree. However, I think that at the current time, we need to make a commitment to eliminating the greed factor and do the right thing for our nation: take care of the health needs of all of our people.

While I am on the political soap box, I will mention that I registered to vote while at the DMV. Picking my political party affiliation was a tricky one. My beliefs align very closely with the ideology of The Green Party. The Greens are a far left party, but they differ significantly from Democrats. The primary difference is that Democrats tend to focus on bringing universal equality and stability to all in a top-down approach, using legislation to ensure that minority groups (including the environment) are taken care of. The Green Party is more extreme, believing in locally-based economies and wishing to eliminate the power of corporations. Most Democrats, like Republicans, are paid for with corporate money. So, in reality, both Democrats and Republicans believe that it is important to maintain a hierarchy of power, with power centralized within government and the corporate world.

Well, that’s enough political theory for now. My dilemma was this: if I choose the Green Party as my party affiliation, then I could not vote in the Democratic primary. I mean, realistically, there probably will never actually be a Green Party candidate in Kodiak. =) Registering as a Democrat is the more politically realistic move.

So, what do you think I did? Did I register as Democrat, the pragmatic move? Or did I go with my ideals? I had to make the decision in a matter of a few minutes.

Sparse and thirsty

Where I go I just don’t know. I might end up somewhere in Mexico. When I find my peace of mind, I’m gonna’ give you some of my good time. – The Red Hot Chili Peppers

This is my first day back within the tangle of the world wide webs. Sorting through emails is always quite a task after ten days of being outside of the reach of wi-fi.

Camping in south Texas was good. Time in the silence of the desert is its own kind of thing. I am most familiar with camping in the mountains, in the forest, or near bodies of water. These are the spaces of nature that are full and rich. The desert is poor and sparse, dry and dusty. A solitary person in the desert faces his or her own inner poverty. It is a lonely landscape that leaves you with nothing in the surroundings to hold the space for you. This, along with the beautiful silence of the land, creates a unique environment for introspection and spiritual reflection.

I read from The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton. “To fly into the desert in order to be extraordinary is only to carry the world with you as an implicit standard of comparison.” When Christianity became the dominant religion of Rome, the primary Christian sacrifice of martyrdom no longer existed. Some felt that Christianity had been cheapened by mass Roman endorsement. The so-called “Desert Fathers and Mothers” went into the desert to create a new way of life and cultivate a way of purity and holiness.

Merton’s book is a collection of sayings. While the desert does not make one extraordinary (in the ordinary sense of the word!), it did bring one’s soul into contact with our precious ordinariness. “Whatever you see your soul desire according to God,” says one Desert Father, “do that thing, and you shall be safe.” In other words, much of the spiritual life is trying to understand the desires of our soul, our true wishes apart from the myriad ways in which daily life with its demands pulls us apart from ourselves, from the sacred stirrings within us that we wish to be faithful to.

Travel

So, there is much travel and time for mourning and reflection in the coming days. At the moment, I am at my brother Matt’s place in Temple, Texas. My niece, Camille, keeps pushing the button to reply “Jingle Bells” on one of her toys. Infinite repeats!

Today I catch a bus for Tucson, with a three hour layover in El Paso. I’ve never been. El Paso is a boarder town. On the other side is Juarez. It will be a nice spot to do some walking and stretch before riding across New Mexico and Arizona. The west is so spacious. So big.

The memorial service for Aeyn is Sunday. So, I will have Saturday and Sunday with Aeyn’s friends and family. I really look forward to that.

Monday morning, at 1:55, I catch a train back to south Texas, Alpine. From Alpine I will hitch the 80 miles or so down to Big Bend National Park. I’ve heard it is very beautiful, and I can’t wait to hike and camp. It will be a bit bittersweet, because my friend Aeyn was originally going to join me for a few days. My brother, however, will be meeting me the next weekend, and I am really looking forward to spending time with him in Big Bend.

From Big Bend, I’m hitching up to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tamie’s Christmas present to me this year was to register me for a Richard Rohr conference, Loving the Two Halves of Life. It will be a spiritual retreat-type weekend.

After the conference, it is a train ride to Chicago, then flying out with Tamie back to Kodiak, Alaska.

Much travel. Good time in solitude.

Your prayers and thoughts are appreciated for myself, Tamie, and all of those who loved Aeyn Edwards.

Aeyn’s Obituary

From the Arizona Daily Star:

EDWARDS-WHEAT, Aeyn, Aeyn’s lungs gave out on January 3, 2011 just four days shy of his 31st birthday. His last four and a half years contained more pain that anyone should suffer in a lifetime—the death of his father, William Wheat, the tragic and sudden death of his life partner, Timothy Morris and his own three and half year battle with leukemia and graft versus host disease. He lived a brief but full and happy life, right up until the end. Even at his sickest, he continued to bring laughter and joy to his many friends. He enjoyed travel, music, intellectual pursuits, but especially the company of his many friends. He was so grateful to have his life extended by the donation of stem cells from his beloved sister, Rebekah Smith and the wonderful care from the doctors and nurses at the Cancer Center. Aeyn was born in Colorado Springs January 7, 1980 and lived and travelled many places. He studied and worked at The University of Texas and later at The University of Arizona where he majored in Philosophy and Spanish reflecting two of his loves. His friends will miss his intense philosophical discussions and his vast knowledge of Latin America. Aeyn was a brilliant conversationalist who could talk to anyone about any topic and always provided the best informed and most interesting analyses. Anyone who met him knew immediately what a very special mind and very special person he was. He took pride in living a simple life, and especially loved the outdoors, his garden, and his bicycle. He met his challenges with grace and humor as reflected in an essay he posted on his Facebook page: “Today, I biked up to the “Cancer-Be-Gone”® Arizona Cancer Center for my now again twice-a-week visits, wherein I give 6 tubes of “Super-Aeyn-Blood” and chat it up with the nurses (I keep asking this one nurse out, but she says she can’t date patients – bummer indeed!).…about a year ago, a nurse started biking sometimes too. So, every now and then, her bike and my bike would hang together at the bike racks. Lord only knows what kind of mischief they’ve gotten into while she and I have been inside doing our stuff.… for the first time that I’ve biked there, I arrived to find three (yes, THREE) other bikes at the bike racks! Boy, was Danny (my bike) excited, as now she could get to hang with some other cool bikes.…While chatting with my gang of nurses, I mentioned the new bikes. I was told that a woman, in her mid-30s, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma (another blood cancer like mine) a couple of months ago, had heard about me and how I always bike to the “Cancer-Be-Gone”® Center, even for chemos and bone-marrow biopsies, and she was inspired by that and decided to do it too..…So, Blessed Be, to the Robins of the world, struggling with the sadness of the new disease and finding a little something that she can do to keep on kicking ass! And, I must say, I am proud of myself. Some days I bike up there and am tired and discouraged. But, her encouragement today was really nice to hear, and gave me another little extra “umph” to keep going.” Aeyn leaves behind his mother, Mary Welch and his stepfather, Gerald Welch; his two sisters, Rebekah Smith and Deborah Wheat and his grandmother, Billie Wheat whom he visited frequently in Nashville, always eager to help her, even as his own struggles grew insurmountable. He was a kind and gentle soul who deeply touched everyone he met. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to any organization that Aeyn would have supported. We will celebrate his short but very special life Sunday, January 9, 2011 from 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. at the home of Terry and Dianne Horgan, 940 N. Bentley, Tucson. We hope to see his many friends there. Breathe easy at last, Aeyn, we love you. Arrangements by ANGEL VALLEY FUNERAL HOME.

To the memory of Aeyn Edwards

It is difficult to welcome in the New Year with the death of a friend, but on January 3rd, Aeyn Edwards passed away. I had hoped that Aeyn would be able to read posts from this my new blog, that we would continue to be able to share the moments of life and discuss the ramifications of current events. So, even posting this my second post gives me that ache inside that everyone who loses someone feels: the emptiness and void.

The emptiness that Aeyn leaves is all the more painful because he lived such a full and rich life. He was so engaged with life, and this was contageous. Everyone who knew Aeyn can say that he both deepened and widened their life. He was full of energy and always ready for an adventure, but at the same time he could passionately and intellectually explore philosophy, current news events, or the global ramifications of our actions. He was a deeply good person.

For many years, Aeyn had battled physical pain as well as heartbreak and loss, so I am happy that there will be no more suffering; yet I wish with all of my heart that he could have continued to live. He seemed to hide much of his struggles and pain from so many, not wanting to trouble us with his struggles. He was gentle but also tough as nails. He rode his bike to chemo treatements.

I’ve only known Aeyn for two years, but I felt so connected with him from the first time I met him. Tamie and he had been friends for years, going back to the days when they both lived in Flagstaff. I was introduced to Aeyn through Tamie. Aeyn was the first gay atheist that I knew. With me being a straight Christian, it seemed an odd match, at least on paper. I always thought, though, from the first days that I knew him, that he embodied the life and teachings of Jesus as much as anyone else I knew. He was passionate about justice and goodness, putting his ethical ideas into action. He was always willing to speak up for what was right, but he treated people with grace and kindness. The central tenant of Jesus’s teachings, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seemed to be motivating his life in every way.

Aeyn, your life was transformative to me because I was personally able to experience a common ground of goodness and love that transcended ideology or sexual orientation. I will always carry this with me.

As I sort through the tragedy of losing someone so young, so good, and so close, I keep coming back to one thing. Aeyn is one of those people whose death inpsires others to live a life that matters. I can say without question that if he had one last chance to speak he would talk about living a life that is full and a life that is good. He would want everyone to taste the richness of life and appreciate everything. He would also want us to live a nobel life, to think carefully about how our actions affect others, the environment, and future generations. The thing about Aeyn is that he doesn’t need to come back and say any of these things because his life spoke for him.

Aeyn, I love you. Your memory will live on. May you now be at peace, surrounded by love.

P.S. I will still clip out articles from the paper that I think you will want to read.

A New Year, A New Blog

I am no stranger to blogging, but I ring in the new year with a enw blogging resolution. I want to just blog, to share my life, stories, and thoughts with friends and family. Life is a season of change for me, in these recent years: I graduated seminary with an intent to do a Ph.D., I’ve traveled and seen a good bit of the U.S. that I hadn’t seen, met many fantastic new folks, fell in love, became engaged to be married, felt a sense of calling to ministry, and now anticipate the possibility of training at a Divinity School….and…not small “and”…I live in Alaska. How did I wind up here? Well, this blog is my attempt to keep everyone (friends, family, and anyone who wishes to eavesdrop) up to speed on the life and times of Jon Erdman. In the process, hopefully I will also get myself up to speed on what’s been happening in my life.

My original blog, The Theos Project, is still a project-in-process; but it is my theoretical blog, the space where I can get theological and technical. This blog is the space for friends and family, for me to write of my comings and goings, of hikes in AK, of work, of fishing, and of all the odd kinds of trivial life things that happen when you least expect them. I want to take 2011 as my year of blogging. I’ll commit to it, to at least two or three posts a week, and we’ll see how it all goes. So, here’s to the new year, of sweating the small stuff.