Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Righteous Gentiles

Many people have heard of Oskar Schindler thanks to the movie about him.  He is one of The Righteous of the Nations, or Righteous Gentiles.  But he is only one of at least 23,000 people who took the risk of hiding Jews during World War II.  I have spent a good part of this morning reading the stories of these people on various web pages (Google "Righteous Gentiles" for those).

For the most part, people took in one or two Jews, many of them children.  In one instance, two sewer workers in Warsaw managed to hide twenty-one people in the sewers, ten of whom survived the war.  These two men not only took care of the living but also buried those who died.  They and their wives made sure that the people in the sewer had food.

Maria Althoff and her husband, Adolf, hid a family of Jews in their circus.  (Picture from Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel)

The Episcopal Church has provisionally included the Righteous Gentiles on the calendar of lesser feasts and fasts (now called Holy Women, Holy Men).  The first reading for this day is the story of Joshua sending spies into Jericho where Rahab hides them from the men of the town who wish to kill them.  The gospel is John's account of Jesus standing before Pilate and the chief priests crying out for his death.  Two stories of people whose lives are threatened by the existence of others, the responses are polar opposites.  Rahab saves lives, the chief priests were willing to give up Jesus' life to save - they hoped - their own.

What would we do?  Fortunately, we are not in the same situation as the people under Nazi rule were so we don't need to make sure we have secure hiding places in our homes.  But we live at a time when many of the laws passed by our state and federal governments are oppressive, particularly for those who are already in distress:  the poor, the elderly, children, illegal aliens (many of whom came to this country because businesses were glad to get cheap labor).  We often respond to these laws with a "there's nothing I can do about it" attitude.  I believe many citizens of Nazi-occupied countries said the same thing.

So what can we do?  First, we need to be more aware of what's happening at state and federal levels.  Second, we need to talk with friends about what's happening.  And, finally, we need to write letters and make phone calls.  If we are not in agreement with our legislators, they will never know unless we tell them.

The Righteous Gentiles were activists, rebels, unwilling to do nothing.  They have set us a good example.  Are we willing to follow it?

Monday, July 1, 2013

This little light of mine...

About every two years, my sister, brother-in-law and I travel to Europe, mostly Italy and France.  Part of our ritual is lighting candles in all the churches we visit.  There, we say prayers for those back home, give thanks for our journey and for those we have met on that journey.  There is something peaceful about this kind of prayer.

As you can see, lighting candles is very popular in Europe even though you are expected to purchase your candle (about $1.35 usually). This particular candle stand is in the cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille.  I watched a young man bring his daughter to this stand, help her light her candle and kneel down next to her to say prayers together.  This in a country where religion is supposed to be dead.

In most of our churches, we have no place to light candles other than those we use in our liturgies.  Often, people see it as a Roman Catholic practice only and don't want to be too "popish" to introduce the tradition to their own parish church.  But I think we would do better to promote lighting candles.  It is a tremendous outward and visible sign of our belief that God hears our prayers and even answers them.

On this last trip, I included a prayer for myself every day.  I have been struggling for the last nine months with a question of vocation.  Is God calling me to stay in my parish or should I move on?  Upon returning home, I walked into St. Christopher's and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was home, that this is where I belong.

We all pray.  Some have times of day set aside for spending time in prayer.  Others are less disciplined but no less serious about speaking with God.  Like many priests, my prayers go on most of the day as I encounter people and situations that require conversation with God right that minute.  Every day ends in prayer, too.

But I have discovered - or perhaps finally noticed - that there is something about lighting a candle and taking a few moments to stand in its light while offering up thanksgivings, petitions and intercessions.  I can't really describe it; I can only suggest that you try it.

I have found a place in my house and the perfect table upon which to set up my candle.  I'm thinking of adding an icon - most candle stands in European churches are in front of an altar or statue - and maybe a picture or two of my family.  Then, once a day, I plan to spend a few minutes lighting my candle, saying my prayers and watching the flame.