Stories for my Father, Ivor Coats, 25 January 1923- 13 June 2016
When General Secretary Gorbachev emerged from his jet on his arrival in Moscow after the 1991 August Coup, he was trapped in his holiday Dacha in the Crimea for two days, he was unshaved and looked disheveled. I was shocked, I had never seen a world leader, let alone a super-power world leader, looking so undignified. Seeing the Communist Leader’s loss of dignity, I was not surprised that the USSR collapsed in the following days. There must have been a lot people whose dignity had been denied for that empire to collapse.
For some reason Gorbachev’s unshaved image inspired me when I fly long distance to emerge from a plane shaved and wearing a bright floral tie. Maybe this is because I am my father’s son.
Now in his 90s, I find my father recovering from pneumonia in a London hospital and he is most upset, he has not shaved in two days. He is determined to regain his dignity and leave the hospital. He has his artificial leg on. Holding his stick in one hand and my arm with the other we walk up and down the corridor in the ward. He quizzes me, “Are you going to buy me a razor?”
I tell him that Dr. Rohini, the extremely friendly caring doctor, had asked me not to buy him one but instead ask the nurse, Mary, to supply one and watch him shave. She is on her break so we wait. We return to his bed and he sits down on it. The nurse returns, provides a wash basin, no mirror, not that one would have helped much as his eye sight has largely failed, and a cheap disposable razor and small packets of shaving cream. He takes off his sweater and shirt and shaves himself. The woman visiting the patient John opposite says to John “Isn’t he doing well” and they both smile.
Finally my father finishes shaving, with three small bloody nicks on his face. He puts on a clean shirt and smiles proudly.
He was discharged the next day. I bring him home.
At my parents’ flat in Clapham I am in the galley kitchen and he comes and asks “Did you buy new razors, do they have covers on.” “Yes they in the bathroom and there is one out with no cover.” He walks back to sitting room. Later I am sitting with him and he starts to unbutton his shirt. “Do you want to shave?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. He gets up with some difficulty and stick in hand heads to the bathroom. I follow, run hot water into the sink and spray shaving cream on his hand. He shaves with a new multi-blade razor, no nicks today. He returns to the sitting room and I help him on with his shirt. I clean the smeared shaving cream off his glasses.
He sits down and says, “Let’s have a drink.” I get us both a whisky and water. Then I wish him good bye, kiss him on the cheek.
I am heading to Jerusalem on the night flight. I arrive at the airport, shave and wait for the flight to be called.
Thinking of the God Jesus has us know, who loves the dignity of every person and ask us to use our dignity, if we still have it to help others gain and retain theirs, to always build the new Jerusalem.
Thinking of a father, who told stories to us as children, of how in Assisi, Italy in June 1944 after being hit by anti-tank shell in his armoured car, killing his driver and taking his right leg, he was captured, lost his clothes and then fought as a prisoner to regain his dignity and use his rank as a British officer to persuade his captors to help other prisoners. He helped many.
Thinking of a father still fighting to regain his dignity, inspired as his son, clean shaved boarding a plane to Jerusalem.
Originally a post on Facebook April 20th 2016
Postscript: My father died on 13 June 2016 held by my sister and me. The last thing I did for him was to give him a shave.
Stories for my Father, Ivor Coats, 25 January 1923- 13 June 2016
I have been riding the 345 double decker bus today in London that goes from Peckham to the Natural History Museum. It runs past my parent’s home that is empty. It goes to Denmark Hill where my father is in hospital at King’s College Hospital, with pneumonia and too unstable to walk. I read to him his favourite Blake poem The Divine Image. Back on the bus to visit my mother in rehab in Battersea where they are meant to be helping her recover from bed sores but she has two more. Then on the bus to neighbours where I am staying and to see other neighbours up and down the street who are so caring. Blake’s final verse in the Divine Image reads:
“And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.”
I am so grateful to my brother and sister, for our all our neighbours and all the carers full of Mercy, Love and Pity. In wonder at them all and grateful that I got the top front upper deck seat a couple of times today and felt like a child of God dwelling in London.
Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:28-44 References: Luke 14:28-30, Mark 12:17
Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful cathedral to reflect on the Widow’s Mite. I bring you greetings from the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monks, who live, pray and work in two monasteries in Massachusetts.
I am employed by the Brothers, as the Director of the Friends of SSJE. I went to work for the Brothers in 2006 to help with their fundraising; their beautiful monastery in Harvard Square was in terrible shape and needed lots of money to restore it.
So if we met socially, and I hope that I will have the pleasure of meeting many of you, and you asked me “What do you do?” I can answer, “I am a fundraiser for an order of monks.”
Please take a moment and think about how you would answer me if I asked you in return, “What do you do?”
Please make a mental note of your answer about how you would you answer me.
I should add that I have not been asked to give a Stewardship sermon but to talk about how I have been changed by a group of monks and why I think monks matter and to meditate on today’s readings. Readings in which we hear people doing life in very different ways; we hear of scribes, of well-to-do people, and of poor widows.
Today I want to explore the question, “What do you do?” in a number of forms. “What do the scribes and the well-to-do do?” “What do the widows do?” “What do monks do?” “What do I do?” And finally, “What do you do?
In today’s Gospel story today we hear Jesus speak of two contrasting ways to live, two ways to do life.
Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
What do the scribes do? We hear Jesus describing a system of people accumulating status and wealth; they are spending time gaining respect in both the marketplace and the synagogue.
Then we hear that Jesus, “… sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people – well-to-do people – put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Sitting opposite the treasury, the church cash box, Jesus is describing two systems. In the first we see what do the well-to-do do. They have built up abundance and from that they give a portion out of their abundance. They accumulate wealth and give of their surplus. This is the economy of trade. In the economy of trade you rely on your bargaining power, your status, your acumen, your skill, your earning power, and your capital. Once you have piled up enough, you can give of your abundance relying on the rest of your pile to look after you.
In the second system, Jesus observes the widow. What does the widow do? “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” She gives what she has. She gives what little has. She trusts. This is economy of gift. She sees what she has as a gift from God and lets it pass on. We hope, but she knows, that she is reliant on her family, her neighbors, her community and God.
I do not know what is your situation is. But I do know that we live in a world with these two contrasting economies. We always have and we always will. There is the economy of trade and the economy of gift, Caesar’s economy and God’s economy, the economy of reason and the economy of the heart.
In the trade economy, Caesar’s economy, we humans name a price for everything and then trade. This allows us to bring our gifts to bear to earn a living. I am not the farming type, so I value being able to exchange what talents I have to buy stuff like food. I have to be honest I am quite enamored with the economy of trade. I like being respected in the marketplace and the church. I like accumulating wealth, for good reasons, I have a teenage daughter who I would like to go college, I don’t want to retire destitute, my wife and I like living modestly but comfortably. Presumably I have earned enough respect to be invited to be your preacher. So I find Jesus’ upholding of the widow daunting. Am I really called to up give everything? Do I just stand before you as a scribe, to receive the greater condemnation?
So if you ask, “What do you do?” and if I am answer you truthfully, then what I do a lot is what the scribes and well-to-do do. And at the beginning of this sermon I answered this question in way that is defined by money and accumulation. I told you that I trade my time to be paid by monks to gain money for them. I let money and trade explain my answer to you for “What do you do?”
Living in the gift economy, God– not us–names the price: we are all loved; we see beauty in the world and each other; we care and are cared for; we rely on each other; we give as we receive, living in a cycle of kindness; we deepen relationships and understand meaning. Sounds nice doesn’t it. Sounds really scary to me. Can I rely on you, my neighbor, and God? Will you really look after me?
So at this point I want to explore what it is like to live in the gift economy. Is it truly scary? Could I live in the gift economy? Could I get close to living with the trust in God that the two widows we hear about today do? To explore this I want to try to answer “So what do monks do?”
Now I have had the privilege to serve the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist for nearly ten years. The Brothers say that they seek to know and share an authentic experience of God’s love and mercy. They live a common life shaped by worship, prayer, and their Rule of Life. SSJE Brothers strive to be “men of the moment,” responding with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to contemporary issues and needs. They take the monastic vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. They give their lives to follow Jesus, they give away their wisdom and they rely on friends. Their calling is to live in the gift economy. When you come to the visit the Brothers they will take the time to greet you in a way that reminds you that you are loved by God.
When I talk with people who give money to the Brothers I am often astounded to learn that many people have spent little time with them, maybe one or two retreats and then they give to the Brothers for the rest of their lives. What is it that the Brothers do when they met people that results in this incredible life-long bond developing so quickly and deeply? What I realized is that the Brothers do not judge their own lives by power, money or sex and they don’t judge others by power, money or sex. We so need this lack of judgment to remind us that we are loved. This is at the heart of the gift economy. The Brothers show that you can live in the gift economy.
Now I also learned that the Brothers were not very good at the trade economy. When I arrived at the monastery I learned that the Brothers were involved in the trade economy, in that they had a publishing house. It had started as a way of publishing a few spiritual books and had grown to have a staff and was losing a tons of money, so much money that the publishing house threatened the future of the Society.
What had gone wrong? Now when a monk meets you his primary thought is that you a person loved by God. Now if you are in business you need to have your wits about you. You need to be constantly be judging the worth of others by the worth of money they make or can make. The monks are not called to do this, and so they are not good businessmen. The Brothers sold the publishing business to a well run small publishing firm and went back to just giving away their own writings on the Internet and asking for gifts, to relying on friends. Freed of the trade economy, the constant judging of others, the Brothers are kind men, with hearts full of love whose interactions transform people, at least on good days and Brothers are the first to admit they have up and down days like we all do.
What do monks do? There is lovely story from the Desert Fathers – the early Christian monastics in the Egyptian dessert. A person asked. “ What do monks do?” And the answer came “They fall down, and they get up.” They fall down and get up with the help of their fellow monks and God. They fall down and get up in community.
So I think that monks and nuns exist to show us that living in the gift economy, living as the widows we hear of today, is possible and not as scary as we fear.
Now it is important to emphasize that Jesus respected the trade economy. In Luke 14:28–30 he says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” But Jesus’ wisdom was that he knew the limit of the trade economy and that we have to distinguish between the two economies. We have to know how, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
My understanding of how we can move in the widow’s direction was crystalized at a party after a Jewish ceremony for welcoming a baby girl. At the meal afterwards I was at a table with a couple and a single young professional woman, who started asking around the table, “What do you do? The man of the couple explained that he was a lawyer and proudly said that his practice was growing fast. Then his wife was asked, “What do you do?” She paused awkwardly, “I am a stay at home mom.” Then the mother recounted how she was having a challenging time helping support her daughter who was having a big row with her Rabbi. The daughter had done a community service project on homelessness, started a year previously and had been told to pick another project for this year, to which she had told the Rabbi she would not, as homelessness was not solved. The husband then piped up that he was struggling because his firm took so much time that he had little time for his family and that was painful. And a wonderful rich, multifaceted discussion bloomed because the married women, dared to answer “What do you do?” in a way that is not defined by money or getting ahead.
What I learned was that if we answer, “What do you do?” with just how we trade our time for money and how we trying to get ahead, we end up with a half-human answer. But if we dare to answer the question “What do you do?” with an answer to addressed to both economies, of how we trying to get ahead and also how we fall down and get up with the help of community and God’s love, we get more of a whole answer.
What do I do? I exchange my time for money helping a bunch of monks raise money and communicating their wisdom. What do I do? I am a father. The father of a fifteen year old teenager, Alexandra, who I love but who has given me permission to tell you that I sometime call her “Horrenda” and she reminds me that I must tell you that she sometimes calls me “Ogre Dad.” “What do I do?” I am a lover of God, of poetry and of course, my wife. Through being a lover I try to stay loving and kind. What do I do? I aspire to be a forgiver, to let go of my anger when I fall down or am pushed down, but I know with your help, in community, not judged but loved, I can get up.
What do you do? How are you getting ahead AND how do you fall down and who helps you get up?
I think our problem is that we forget we live in two economies and that we let the economy of trade, we let money dominate our lives and define our worth. We let it dominate our answer to “What do you do?”
I look forward to meeting many of you and asking the question “What do you do?” and hearing what happens when we give both answers. When our answer is defined by money and when our answer is defined by God’s love. When we answer both as the scribe and the widow.
Jamie Coats serves as the director, Friends of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic community of the Episcopal Church. Visit ssje.org. He shares his personal writing at wingedboots.com.
I rode Pegasus all morn,
Could have ridden all day,
Instead at noon
We gently come in to graze.
Emma said the Lord of the Manor
Will say unto you, “Work for me
You’ll be fed from my dovecote
Eggs and young fledglings that coo.”
Emma taught me to reply,
“You’ll not want me to work for you.
I’ve been sent to release the dove,
It is what I am called to do.”
I’ve broken into the dovecote,
Picked up the fluffy fledgling,
The one nearly ready for flight,
’tis now in my jacket, peeking out.
Now I throw the young dove
Up into the air.
Up towards the sun.
Squinting, I see it fly.
I call out at the top of my lungs,
If you don’t shoot for the stars
You’ll not land on the moon.
If you don’t land on the moon,
You will not see the whole earth,
So blue and beautiful,
So full of God’s people.
Hold it all in your heart.
Then ride a moon beam back
To perch on Pegasus’ head.
He’ll snort with delight,
Now you coo and I’ll begin to pray,
This noon I stop I put down All I do.
The offering of my work Is to you, God, And to my love, And to all your children too.
Thanks be to God Who gave me life. I love the people of this earth, I’m sorry I judge them so.
Now I call out their names to you. God, help us, hug us With our demons Whom we deny.
Then in your arms We will know We’re already loved, Forgiven, renewed.
Did you graze well?
Your new friend the dove
Will guide us seeking.
It is time to fly,
Fluffy fledglings to find,
’till the sun starts to hide.
Jamie Coats February 2015
Theme for 2015
The prayer in the middle of the poem contains the seven ways to pray in the Book of Common Prayer: 1) OBLATION; 2) THANKSGIVING; 3) PRAISE; 4) PENITENCE; 5) INTERCESSION; 6) PETITION; & 7) ADORATION.
Speech given at Christ Church Cathedral on Thursday 29th January 2015 at the FORMA Conference http://episcoforma.org/forma-annual-conference
The Evensong of Humpty Dumpty
By Jamie Coats
Humpty Dumpty sat on the harbor wall.
In Pigeon Cove Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty back together again!
The one called Emma, the love within said:
It is time for peace on the earth
From heaven’s all gracious King
Goodwill to all Humpty Dumpty Men.
You are an egg-man,
Pregnant with a white pigeon
Ready to be a fledgling
Hoping its world will crack.
Inside you, all scrunched up
There’s a dove irritated,
It’s time to hatch.
But stopped by your pride,
Your work for today’s earthly king
You’re in perfect egg-shape
Unwilling to crack,
“So much to achieve,
So much to do,
So many ways to work.”
Dusk has come,
It is time to stop work.
Will you make sacred and give thanks
Or will your busy-ness outrank?
Know this, when the sun fades,
When you, egg-on-the-wall, silhouette
If you have not fallen,
I will give you a shove.
All your king’s horses
And all your king’s men
Can’t stop the cycle, can’t stop nature,
They will never put you back together again.
Hello baby dove, so fluffy,
I’ll place you in a soft nest.
I will feed you, watch over you
And when your wings are spread,
Peace will fly,
No power on earth can resist
A dove from the cove,
With a message for all mankind,
Learn to break for Evensong
It is when “shoulds” must die
And it is time for gratitude
In your heart to reside.
And on Humpty Dumpty Day
Invite friends to celebrate
Their brokenness, not success.
Give each an egg,
They’ll write what they need to give up.
They’ll take the eggs to the edge.
They’ll throw them onto the rocks.
They’ll let the dove in their hearts, hatch
Let me sum up this poem in four words:
You shall Kick Humpty!
But honestly, can you KickHumpty?
Can we stop work?
I have a real problem stopping work. I have a real problem of unplugging from my electronics. When I am at home and I stop working and try to cook with my family I find that my mind goes on working. I need to do something to end my work.
I wrote the poem The Evensong of Humpty Dumpty to help me stop work. When I stop work I now read this poem out loud and I achieve a sense of peace.How was I able to take the time to do this?
My understanding of time began to change dramatically when I went to work in 2006 for a bunch of monks, the Brother of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the SSJE Brothers.
The SSJE Brothers describe their life this way, “The Brothers gather throughout the day to pray the Daily Office – Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Six days a week we join in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Our common prayer and worship sanctify the work of the day, interrupting it so that we can direct and offer it all to God in thanksgiving.”
This is a society of men who understand that the first priority of church is to interrupt work. What I have learned is that:
Morning prayer helps you center yourself as you begin your day.
Noonday Prayer, in the thick of the day, gives you opportunity to offer all you are trying to achieve, to God, so you can be in awe.
Evening Prayer or Evensong, stops you working, allows you to be grateful, and begin to recover a sense of peace.
Compline gives you hope for the following day and helps you rest in God’s peace.
As I began to understand this I realized that I needed my own practice and where I most desperately needed help was in stopping work. I needed my own Evensong.
Br. David Vryhof recently drew my attention to the Ten Commandments.
In Exodus (20:8-11) it says about stopping work, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Like God we need to rest. Notice that that this commandment clearly lays out that if we are in any authority we should use that authority to help others rest.
Br. David then pointed out that in Deuteronomy (5:12-15) it says about stopping work, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” If you work seven days, or are made to, you are a slave. Are we becoming slaves? If so, how do we break free?
With great difficulty it seems. In the Ten Commandments in Exodus it take four words to explain that we should not steal, it takes 94 words to remind us not to keep idols … and 93 words to remind us to rest. In Deuteronomy 92 words are used to remind us not to keep idols and a whopping 132 words are used to remind us to rest. In turns out that stopping work is the Commandment that requires the most explanation and extra no exception clauses presumably because we have been dodging the issue, forever!
May I suggest that to bring the clarity of the Commandment “You shall not steal” and its four words to the issue of stopping work that the Sabbath Commandment that we will now keep is, “You shall KickHumpty.”
Let’s get started. How do I KickHumpty? I have to give up “Have-to” and limit “Better.”
A few years ago I realized that I had to give up “Have-To.” I have to achieve, to get so much done, I have list of projects to accomplish. I realized how bad my problem was when my teenage daughter came home and I typically greeted her with “Have you done your home work or what homework have you got to do” and we would get off on the wrong foot or even have a fight. She is very tactile and loves soft things. I discovered that if I gave up “Have-to” and said something like “You have got to feel this soft yarn I found or have you seen this YouTube video of a fluffy bear cub,” we began the afternoon feeling connected. I have had to learn to give up “have-to” and take up “fluffy” in order to transition from being at work to being with my family. My striving, my “have-to” made me seem hard not loving.
Br. David told me that he gave up the word “should’ve” and said, ““Should” is a dangerous word in the spiritual life, in my opinion, yet I often find myself at the end of the day telling myself that “I should’ve done this or that.” The accompanying sense of ‘falling short’ detracts from what has been done and leaves a residue of regret rather than gratitude. Better to recall the words we sometimes pray at Compline: “What has been done has been done. What has not been done has not been done. Help us to let it be.””
Do you feel that urge to respond immediately, efficiently and professionally to all who email or call you? Do you believe that if you work harder you will be better?
How many of you have a voicemail messages that says, “Hi, this is Jamie. Please leave a message I will call you back as soon as I can.” Do we dare say we will call back when we are rested?
Part of my addiction to work is that I like to please people and I like to do better. But where is the limit? Where do we stop? Br. Geoffrey Tristram helped me one day when I remarked to him that I thought I was becoming a better person working for the Brothers. He looked at me appalled, and said, “What lousy theology, you have been loved all along.” And he added, “You’re merely becoming more Jamie.”
So I am working on giving up “Have-to” and limiting being “Better.”
How do I KickHumpty? I have to be intentional about Stopping.
Stopping work is really hard. We live in a culture that does not stop. Our devices keep us plugged in at all times.
In our household we now say things like, “When are you going to KickHumpty?” “I am Kicking Humpty at 530pm.” My daughter is great at helping to keep us accountable. On Advent Sunday when I took time, and in her opinion, too much time away from Christmas tree decorating to attend to the Brothers’ online Advent Calendar she asked me to apologize to the family.
What language do you use to stop work? How addicted are you to your email, your smart phone, to achieving?
You can make this fun. The SSJE Brothers at their rural Monastery, Emery House, have a practice at the end of the Evensong on Sunday, which is the moment their Sabbath begins, they shout “Yippee.”
Be intentional about stopping. Celebrate the moment.
Let us now get to the tough part of how we KickHumpty – authority.
A few years ago the Brothers at SSJE sent me on a compulsory retreat. I had got exhausted from work and was told that I was banned from the monastery for a week. I now go on retreat every year and it was on retreat last year that this poem came to me.
I realized that if I do not KickHumpty I become a rotten egg.
How good are the organizations that you work for at keeping the Sabbath Commandment and modeling that behavior? Remember in Deuteronomy it says “your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
If you are in charge are you careful with other people’s time? Are you good with vacation time, sick leave, with not interrupting their day of rest? Are you good at keeping agenda’s doable? Are you good at no over working people or most importantly yourself? Are you becoming a rotten egg?
I also believe that we must not overlook money in thinking about how authority affects people’s ability to KickHumpty. Without a living wage how can you KickHumpty? Are you paid enough? Do you pay enough? Do your wages and expenses balance or stress you out. Are we trapped in rotten egg economics where rest is not possible?
It is tough. Can we be free? Can we KickHumpty?
Think about what you need to give up to KickHumpty?
Think about how you can intentionally KickHumpty?
Think about how authority denies or supports KickHumpty?
Think about how we can support one another to KickHumpty?
So I give you today a Hashtag.
Please take to the digital streets and use Hashtag KickHumpty on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to announce how you KickHumpty so that we can support each other.
Share your KickHumpty songs:
that end your work,
that begin your evening prayer,
that begin your Sabbath, your day of rest,
that begin your retreat time,
that announce you are sick,
that announce your maternity or paternity leave,
that announce that you are on vacation,
that announce your yippee,
that announce you are stopping to let peace in.
Let us profit in our lives by stopping work.
You shall Kick Humpty!
Let us pray in unison together now the Evensong of Humpty Dumpty
“Dear Alexandra, how old are you?” “Nine.” “You want to train dogs?” “Yes” “That is good because humans don’t understand their dogs, wolves they have made their own,” said Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the Dead. “It is strange that humans are so blind to the responsibility they have taken.”
“You see Alexandra humans stole fire. They have created machines and built large organizations of great power, all ultimately dependent on the capture of fire. But when humans captured fire they caught the carbonized-black jackal dogs of death that race through the flames eager for human blood. It goes like this, when a human takes control over fire I assign one of my jackal dogs to that man or women and see how well they do. When then they get in a car or take a position of power they have at least one of my jackals with them too. It is there on a leash. Some humans deliberately set their dogs of death on others but mostly humans are careless and forget what they have right next to them, waiting to attack, to kill, to send the souls to me, a dog of death. I show the dead compassion as I understand what killed them.”
“Careless. It was a lovely summer’s day when your Dad set off on his bike from home to ride to the Monastery where he works. He was wearing a bright orange shirt with reflecting stripes, just to be extra careful.”
“A bus passed him then pulled across his path. The driver had forgotten my dog; he failed to check his mirror. The rear of the bus hit the bike. My dog pounced on your father, sent him flying through the air and into the ground. Biting his helmet, cracking it through both sides, tearing through his clothes, ripping off his watch and backpack, smashing his glasses and phone and mangling his bike. My dog was after his life, biting his shoulder, mauling his left side skin, shunting his collarbone into his sternum to make it crack and even bruising his lung. But basically my dog failed, merely licking him, not tearing the life out of him, leaving him naked but alive.”
“A dog is always a kind of wolf, Alexandra, needing training. My dogs require humans to pay close attention to training, something the driver and my guess his bosses too were lax about.”
“Lying on the roadside your Dad had an image of you appear right before his eyes, his heart opened and he cried in joy knowing that it is the love for others that is the center of what our lives are about.”
“The dogs of death do abound. Luckily for your father he was quickly attended with people who know about my dogs and have the training. People stopped to help him. One man called Alejandro had met one of my dogs when he fell off his motorbike. Knowing that my dogs are always willing to strike and other humans can be careless, he got trained in emergency first response. He helped your Dad. The ambulance and hospital staffs know about my dogs too and with much training patched up your Dad.”
“I am pleased you know your Dad’s friends George and Carolee and how they trained Baxter to be a service dog. You remember George’s 80th birthday party at a synagogue? It was a Viennese themed birthday party because George was born in Vienna before the Second World War. When George was about your age or a bit younger Hitler took over Austria and Vienna. George is Jewish. Suddenly George was not allowed to go to school anymore. His parents were worried that Hitler would kill them and their children, they were right to be worried because Hitler did later organize the killing of many millions of Jews. That is like killing you and every single person in your town and 150 towns of similar size. George was put on a train with his older brother by his parents and sent to England. Luckily his parents escaped later and they were welcomed to the come to the USA. Hitler knew about my dogs and deliberately unleashed them on innocent people and children. George and Carolee know about my dogs and trained Baxter out of his biting into a caring animal for the young woman in the wheel chair who you met.”
“It is good to learn how to train dogs, Alexandra. Humans seem blind that they live with wild jackals all around them for which they are responsible and need to train. Your parents learned how to train dogs when they got feisty Karma, your adored now seventeen-year-old male Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever. Humans have a choice, they can unleash their dogs of death consciously or carelessly or they can take responsibility for their dogs. It is great you want to learn to train dogs. Alexandra.”
On July 31th 2009 as I bicycled to work I was hit by the rear of a Boston MBTA bus that passed me and cut me off. My helmet saved my life. It took me 10 months to fully recover. The driver was cited by the police for negligent driving. The MBTA never apologized but settled my law suit.
For 85 years the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist lived in their monastery on the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The monastery is so beautiful that it has become a place of pilgrimage for many, where even before you meet a monk, you are reminded by the place that God sees beauty in you. For 85 years the Brothers did not set aside money for building upkeep and finally the monastery fell apart, windows, roofs, electric wiring, heating — even the sewers packed in. And then the financial crisis hit. The Superior, the person who serves as the leader of the monastery, at that moment was Brother Curtis Almquist.
At a meeting at the home of a friend of the Society, Br. Curtis said, “As Superior I have a responsibility to ask for money. I also have no idea how much money any of you have. I ask one thing: please pray to God, and between you and God figure out what is right for you. Thank you.”
In saying this, Curtis made a distinction between his role as a leader who has to ask for money and his role as a monk who helps people deepen their relationship with God. Curtis helped me understand what Jesus meant by “Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that God’s.”
We live in a world with two economies: the economy of transactions and the economy of gift, Caesar’s economy and God’s economy.
There is a simple exercise that I like to use to help people understand how they live in these two economies. You can do it verbally or ask people to write down their answers.
What do you do?
How do you exchange your time for money?
What do you care about?
I always used to answer the first question as how I earned money, forgetting to mention that I am a parent of a teenager, I write poetry, I try to stay fit, and so on. I used to let money solely name what I do, forgetting to mention the relationships that matter to me.
In the transaction economy we humans name a price for everything and then trade. This allows us to bring our gifts to bear to earn a living. I am not the farming type, so I value being able to exchange what talents I have to buy stuff like food. Trade is important, but it is not everything and it is not the business that the Church is in.
Living in the gift economy, God– not us–names the price: we are all loved; we see beauty in the world and each other; we care and are cared for; we rely on each other; we give as we receive, living in a cycle of kindness; we deepen relationships and understand meaning.
So here is the core challenge that I believe Br. Curtis defined so well: you have to name the price of your church. You have to ask for money. But to receive money you have to help your friends and parishioners deepen their relationship with God — you have to help them pray, be of service, and see themselves as stewards of their lives.
When churches ask me for fundraising advice, I urge them to be more upfront than many churches often are about their finances. Don’t claim to celebrate a balanced budget when no money has been set aside for building upkeep. As one donor helping us renovate the monastery put it, “Why should I give you money when you have been stupid and irresponsible for 85 years?” Buildings rot. The Brothers started a building fund the year before they began asking for capital donations – and they continue to fund the building fund annually.
The heart of stewardship is helping people deepen their relationship with God. When Br. Curtis asked people to pray to God over what to give, he was able to provide support in helping them steward their own lives first. A core part of the Brothers’ ministry is to help people develop a personal rule of life, to discern a rhythm for their life that allows them to live well in both economies. Simply put, the Brothers ask people to explore and examine their relationships in four dimensions:
With one another
With their stuff (including money)
We all need help learning how to be stewards in our own lives. When our churches help us do this for ourselves we are deeply appreciative. The challenge is that this formation works best when it does not happen in stewardship season. When you are asking for money we tend to tighten up in our souls, tend to think in transactions. If earlier you have helped us understand our personal stewardship, and think about how we live in two economies, then the conversations in stewardship season will be easier, more fun, and maybe joyous.
I am pleased to report that Monastery was successfully renovated in 2010. Information about the Brothers’ work on a developing a rule of life, learning to steward your own life can be found at www.SSJE.org/rule.
Jamie Coats serves as the director, Friends of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic community of the Episcopal Church. He shares his personal writing at wingedboots.com.