Almost Makes One Hopeful

Today is one of my favorite Feast Days for one of my favorite saints: Saint Nicholas, Bishop, Patron Saint of Sailors, and Gift-giver.

It is ironic that little is known about the life of Saint Nicholas, this Bishop of a seaport town in what is now Turkey, because he’s one of the most beloved and recognizable saints in popular culture. We know that he was born in the 4th Century, and that he attended the Council of Nicaea where he is purported to have socked Arius (considered a heretic at the time) right in the face. Anyone who has served on a church council understands that it can get a bit testy sometimes…

But other than the above (and the whole “punched Arius” thing may not even be accurate), all else that is said about St. Nicholas is lore and legend.

It is said of him that, as an infant, he refused to nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays, typically fasting days for the pious.

It is said that he aided a poor family once by paying the dowry of three daughters, saving them from a life of prostitution. On three successive nights he threw bags of coins through an open window. This act is how he became known as the patron saint of gift-giving.

It is said that he saved three boys who had been kidnapped by a butcher and returned them to their parents.

It is said that he aided sailors in trouble off the coast of Myra by calming a storm, and showed great courage himself while out on the sea. This is why he is the patron saint of seafarers.

Today around the world Saint Nicholas will be impersonated by many utilizing a long, white beard, parading around in Bishop vestments. In some places small children dress up like the saint to beg for alms for the poor.

In America the rituals of St. Nicholas Day have almost all been moved to December 25th and melded with other Christian-Solstice practices. Still, in some homes (like mine), children leave their shoes out by the fireplace or in the foyer of the home, hoping that St. Nicholas will come by on his horse and leave chocolate coins, oranges, and small trinkets as gifts. The coins are an homage to the legend of the dowries.

The festivities and legends surrounding Saint Nicholas have melded with Norse and Celtic winter legends and lore in these days. Looking more like Odin now than a short, brown-skinned Bishop (which he most certainly was), common depictions of Santa Claus bear little resemblance to this ancient priest from Asia Minor. Still, the practice of gift-giving and charity is certainly worth continuing in whatever form it takes, and in that way St. Nicholas is kept alive age after age in one form or another.

Saint Nicholas is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that charity and love are languages that are universal and, in the form of Saint Nick, take on hands, feet, and a face every year. There is much to be learned about human nature and human connection from the fact that his appeal is so wide and varied!

It almost makes one hopeful, yes?

-historical notes gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations and too many Rick Steves documentaries on Christmas

Nothing is Face Value

In the breaking days of December the church honors a Saint who found himself in a church at a breaking point: St. John of Damascus, Hymnwriter and Priest.

Born in 675, St. John was born into a wealthy family and was elevated to a political position of prominence at quite a young age when he succeeded his father as an official in the Court of the Caliph of Damascus.

He felt a call to the faith, and became a monk at the monastery of Mar Saba (still in existence!), a hermit colony founded in the year 484. It was there that he gave up his position in the Caliphate Court and devoted himself to simplicity, the study of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and the priesthood. He was ordained in 725.

It was about this time that the church began to crumble under the weight of melding practices. The Eastern and Western churches were evolving drastically different approaches to faith and life. It would take another 300 years for the split to become official, but it is here in history that we can see the fault lines.

In these days the Byzantine emperor Leo III forbade the veneration of sacred images and icons, and ordered their destruction. St. John of Damascus wrote vehemently that icons and sacred images were portals and glimpses of the Divine, not Divine themselves, and should be saved and maintained. As part of his logic, he successfully defended the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as well, against those who would dismiss it.

St. John of Damascus wrote great mystical treatises on theology, too, that are still foundational for the Orthodox community.

For all of the above, St. John of Damascus is considered by the Eastern Church as the last of its Fathers.

We still sing the writings of St. John, by the way. That wonderful Easter hymn sung every year that goes, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!” came from his golden pen. He authored a number of Easter hymns that still sing out the faith to this day every Spring.

St. John of Damascus died near Jerusalem around 760. He is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that icons and objects can be glimpses of Divine presence in this world, and we need not take everything at face value.

Indeed, nothing is “face value” when it comes to the Divine. God is always more than they appear…and godly things can be, too.

-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

The Poor are the First Martyrs

Today the church remembers the Martyrs of El Salvador.

Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel were Catholic Missionaries, Ursuline, and Maryknoll Sisters murdered in 1980 for their outspoken defense of the plight of the powerless and poor. Accompanying the people there, they were irritating the powers of the day with their theology of liberation and hope.

These four sisters were murdered on this day in the same year that Archbishop Romero was murdered, though he was killed in March.

Instead of recounting the details of their lives, I’ll just share a bit from a letter Sister Clarke wrote to her companion, Katie, just before she was murdered:

“There are so many deaths everywhere that it is incredible.

The ‘death squadron’ strikes in so many poor homes. A family of seven, including three small children, was machine-gunned to death in a nearby town just last week. It is a daily thing–bodies everywhere, many decomposing or attacked by animals because no one can touch them until they are seen by a coroner. It is an atmosphere of death.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring…Write to me soon. Know that I love you and pray for you daily. Keep us in your heart and prayers, especially the poor forsaken people.”

The days surrounding Christmas are filled with Feast Days, some beautiful (like St. Nicholas), and some tragic like today. This is because the Divine entered into the world not as we would like it to be, but as it is: beautiful and tragic.

These martyrs today are a reminder to me, and should be for the church, that the first victims of any sort of violence are the poor and vulnerable.

If you need confirmation of that, just ask any medical professional who they are treating for COVID-19.

Those with means, good insurance, fewer health conditions (that are easily and often exacerbated by poverty!), and who can take off work to get treatment without fear of losing their job largely recover.

Those without, do not.

Looking at you Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers.

It is a different kind of violence, a more negligent kind on the part of the powers of the world, but it is violence none-the-less.

Guns Don’t Kill People and Other Lies I’ve Been Told…

So, we have another shooting at a High School in Michigan.

And it’s clear we think there is “nothing we can do about it!”


When I was pastoring a church I spoke out the Sunday following the the Pulse nightclub atrocity.

I spoke out by having us sing a hymn against murder.

I spoke out having us sing about imagining a world where guns used for killing people…and some guns are meant for hunting (which I’m cool with) and some meant for murder (which I’m not cool with) …was not a thing.

And I got emails.

All the emails.

About how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” totally dismissing that people with guns kill people.

It was a total appeal to what philosophers refer to as “plausible deniability.” As if guns designed to kill people are benign.

They are not.

I am all for people having rights. I am all for people who have rights exercising them.

Powder muskets for all who want them!

But guns designed to kill people should not be available to everyone who wants to buy them, Beloved.

I want my babies to go to school without fear of being shot up. They’re already afraid of this viral contagion that too many people refuse to get inoculated against, do we need another factor?!

Apparently so.

What the hell kind of people are we?

The B-Side

Today, November 30th, the church honors an often overshadowed apostle, Saint Andrew. He’s usually called “brother of Peter,” and rarely seen without that qualifier, making him, in essence, known to the world only in relation to his brother…which many people can probably identify with.

St. Andrew is the patron saint of sea-people, but also the informal saint of all who stand in the shadow of someone else.

He is the saint for the B-side of the record, the underdog sibling, the cobbler and the cooper who are no longer appreciated in their crafts.

Lore notes him dying in Greece, crucified because he refused to make sacrifice to the local gods and kept talking about Jesus.

And though he stood in the shadow of his brother his whole life, Andrew gets a place of prominence in the end: his feast day is the official marker for the start of Advent because the First Sunday of Advent every year is the Sunday that falls closest to St. Andrew’s day.

Antagonizer of the Privileged

Today, as we begin our Advent journey in 2020, the church honors Dorothy Day, Friend of the Poor and Antagonizer of the Privileged.

Born in Brooklyn just before the turn of the 20th Century, Dorothy worked for radical newspapers in her early years, mixing with the bohemian crowds of Greenwich Village.

She found herself living with a man she loved, and became pregnant in 1926. It was during this time that she experienced a life-changing conversion to the faith, and she made her home in Roman Catholicism.

She struggled to marry her internal passion for the Christ with her outer conviction to work for social justice. In 1933 she collaborated with fellow gadfly, Peter Maurin, to found the Catholic Worker Movement. Living simply and intentionally, this pseudo-monastic community took a vow to live collectively for the betterment of the poor and the outcast.

They set up hospitality houses in the city, collective living units in agricultural plots of land, and convened clarity councils to make decisions. They aimed to “create a new society within the shell of the old.”

St. Dorothy died in 1980. There is a story about her funeral that, as her casket was being carried through the street to the sanctuary for the funeral Mass, a person with severe mental illness pressed in on the crowd gathered around the procession. They made their way to the casket, and opened it, peering down upon Dorothy. The whole crowd stood and let it happen, knowing that it was precisely this human Dorothy had come to give her life to, and was ministering to them one more time.

St. Dorothy Day is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that simple living is a calling for some, but not all. Poverty should be a choice, by God, and not the result of unfair economic, social, or political circumstances. The church is called to lift those trapped in poverty and to invite those with much to embrace a simpler life for the sake of their neighbor.

-historical bits from Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

-icon written by Dan Smith

All Life Begins in the Shadows

It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens when the secular and the sacred collide in these early Advent days. So many of us (at least, in America) are rushing to get that tree put up, the most ancient pre-Christian solstice symbol, and haul out the red and green decorations.

Meanwhile, the church is singing a bluer song and calling everything to hush for a bit, like you would when a baby is sleeping nearby.

Both responses to this time of year in this hemisphere is appropriate, of course. The ancient Celts would spend this time cozying up their indoor spaces, knowing they’ll be in the shadow of the fireplace for many hours in the coming months. They’d tie greenery to their door as an air freshener, and they’d make warm clothes, tell stories, and play indoor games. In this way, they’re not unlike all of us in our rush to decorate for the Christmas season.

But they’d do this other thing, too: they’d slow down. Their work would stop for a while, except for those necessary things needed to survive the winter. They’d rest longer, going to bed no long after night fell and waking late with the lazy solstice sun. They’d light candles in the morning and the evening, their new sun stolen from their fireplace outfitted with a huge log that, God willing, would last a good while.

They’d cozy and they’d slow.

The secular world is begging you to cozy at this moment. The sacred world is calling you to slow.

And, honestly, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “secular” or “sacred.” Holiness pulsates through everything if our heartbeat is in rhythm with the Divine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so much the “secular is calling you to cozy,” and the “sacred is calling you to slow,” but rather that the tensions pulling and pushing us in this world are felt forcefully in this moment, which is not a surprise.

We’re in a moment of change, evidenced by those last leaves falling to the ground.

Here’s a deep truth that all of these pushes and pulls point to: life begins in the shadows.

I don’t use “darkness” on purpose, by the way. As prophet and poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote in her collection _Nejma_,

“there is dark
there is anti light
these are not the same things”

Language has evolved to the point where we can be careful and choosy with our words (as imperfect as it might be).

Shadows, like that in the Valley of Death that the Psalmist sings of, is a more appropriate description, I think. We’re not talking about a color, we’re talking about an absence of illumination.

All life starts with an absence of illumination.

The Big Bang began with a deep vacuum bereft of light.

The womb which was our first home pulsated with life, but no light.

The seed trying to do what it is meant to do in this moment is buried under the weight of too much earth, and yet it lives.

Life begins in the shadows.

This is why the readings in the church here at the beginning of Advent aren’t of Mary or Joseph or a baby in a manger, but ones of foreboding and nighttime (Luke 21:25-36 kicks off this Advent cycle, and it’s a doozy!).

The church knows, as does the Earth, as has humanity from ancient days, that life begins in the shadows, so if we’re going to talk about redemption and salvation and resurrection and new life, we have to start here.

There is an 8th Century hymn that often kicks off Advent in many spaces, “Creator of the stars of night.” The Latin version of this text is most beautiful, “Conditor alme siderum…” the chorister sings in simple chant tone.

Sidus, where we get siderum can mean just “stars,” and certainly it does mean that. But in this usage it also means all the cosmic bodies: planets, meteors, stars, galaxies.

The church sings to the creator who filled up the vacuum of space and, like the Luke text, invites us to gaze up at the shadows of space in awe and wonder. In the night times of life we ponder such mysteries. Who hasn’t stayed awake in bed with their mind racing?

The shadows are meant for such pondering, for from such ponderings comes imagination and new life and all sorts of things never before seen, as frightening as those moments can be sometimes.

And, as it is, we’re again plunged into such a night time of life in this Advent season.

Change happens in the shadows. Newness starts in the shadows.

Life starts in the shadows.

So Advent must start in the shadows.

So, Beloved, cozy up and slow a bit. Ponder the mysteries with the ancients.

New life is starting.

Launch and an Invitation: Anam Cara Community is Rethinking Thanksgiving

Many have been asking about Anam Cara Community, a new digital-first church plant that’s being organized.

We’re doing it in stages, like all good things should be done. Scaffolding is important.
Today though, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, we’re launching our first invitation.

You can sign up to get regular information regarding Anam Cara and what we’ll be about, and we invite you to join us in rethinking Thanksgiving this holiday, and donating to a First Nations mission here in the mountains of North Carolina.

Get rid of the Americana kitsch around this holiday, and practice thanks giving by supporting this ministry that feeds over 700 families a month on their home land in Cherokee.

Click below. You’re welcome to be a part of it all.

Real Religious Persecution

Today the church remembers a 20th Century Mexican priest, St. Miguel Agustin Pro, Martyr of the Faith.

St. Miguel was born in 1891 in Zacatecas, Mexico, and was known as a happy, cheerful, and privileged child. Despite his relatively high-born status, he developed a deep love and kinship for the working class families around him, and began to spend all of his time and energy working alongside the poor.

He eventually became a Jesuit novice at the age of twenty, and was exiled during the Mexican Revolution. He went to Belgium, where he was ordained, and eventually returned to Mexico in the wake of the war. He found churches closed, priests hiding, and being a Catholic now illegal. Fr. Miguel would regularly dress up in disguises to conduct secret and underground ministry, especially offering pastoral care, comfort, and the sacraments to the afflicted.

In 1927 St. Miguel was accused of being a part of a failed bombing attempt, though it is widely believed that the charges were false. He was handed over to the police and sentenced to death without so much as a trial.

As he was put in front of the firing squad he cried out, “Long live Christ the King!”

Though the government forbade a public funeral, people poured out of their homes to line the streets as his body passed by.

St. Miguel is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church in the United States, that it was not so long ago that real religious persecution so close to home was a thing, so we should be very hesitant to claim it over baking cakes, serving pizza, and performing weddings and whatnot today.

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon by Iknu Arts (

Almost Made It…

Today the church honors an apostolic pillar whose writings almost (and should have!) made it into the Biblical canon: St. Clement, Theologian and Bishop of Rome.

Little is known about the life of St. Clement, who was probably the fourth Bishop of Rome. He lived and died right around the year 100, and may be the same Clement written about in the book of Philippians (4:3). He was certainly the writer, though, of the Epistle of Clement I (though probably not the Epistle of Clement II).

Ordained by St. Peter, Clement was said to be banished to Crimea during the reign of Trajan, forced to work in the mines. It was there, it is said, that he was tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea (the anchor is his saintly symbol).

But though so little is known about Clement, we certainly know much about his thoughts and his voice. In the year 96 Clement authored a letter from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth. This letter is the earliest Christian document we have in existence, with the exception of some New Testament writings, and was written to encourage the Church at Corinth to avoid a schism and remain steadfast to one another. It’s a letter of pastoral advice.

This letter was so widely known, and so widely revered, at early manuscripts of the New Testament include it in the canon.

St. Clement is a reminder for you, and should be for the whole church, that not all that is holy is contained in the canon, Beloved.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_