St. Alban Pilgrimage
Greetings from The Episcopal Church, and its 82 churches named for Alban – one in Haiti and the others in 40 of the United States. They are celebrating their patronal feasts this weekend as well.
Our communications director told me recently about a conversation she had at a trade conference with various Hollywood types. They wanted to know what would attract Christians to watch their movies and television shows, particularly comedies and horror flicks. She started by explaining that Episcopalians and other mainline Christians would be interested in material that helps people live lives of spiritual growth and justice, and that like all people, we need to laugh, and we need heroes when we’re scared.
Alban is the über-hero of Christian England, the first we know of who put his life where his heart was. Even before he’d been baptized, he recognized the truth of what he saw and heard from the priest seeking shelter in his home. Alban learned by word and witness what it means to lose your life in order to save it, and then he went and did it. We all need heroes, particularly if we’re going to live to the full.
We think of heroes as examples of strength and courage. “Hero” originally meant a defender or protector. It comes from a root that means to watch over or observe. Jesus asked his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane to keep watch, but they closed their eyes. They weren’t heroic at all. In the pilgrimage we’ve just experienced, Alban the faithful hero is still keeping watch as part of the communion of saints, but his executioner lost his eyes, being no defender or protector.
Who are your heroes? Who has shown you what it means to spend your life as a defender or protector of others, for the love of God and neighbor? That’s ultimately what makes life worth living. A chaplain in a cancer ward tells a heroic story, “Tonight at dinner I reminisced with an old friend in his forties now dying of bone cancer. We have different beliefs but a great deal of love for each other. He told me, “I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of not living now.”
Living fully, right now, is central to our pilgrimage through life. It’s an essential part of what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Life isn’t a video game with a goal of scoring points for future lives – it’s about giving ourselves in love, for love, with love itself. Sometimes it’s called passion – both the passion of full and loving involvement in relationship with another or all creation, and the costly passion of Alban or Jesus. Full investment in life means a willingness to spend ourselves completely – it costs all we are and all we have. The rewards aren’t just out of this world, they’re found in the abundant life we know and experience in that investment. That’s what caught Alban up – the ability to live fully by responding to the persecution of another. All kinds of justice work are like that – and the passion driving it ultimately yields joy.
The passionate desire to love and right the world comes in many different forms. An Episcopal church in Davenport, Iowa, named St. Alban’s has adopted a big cross-country truck stop. They show up there to minister to truck drivers and look for women and teens who are being trafficked across the country, or in danger of being lured by traffickers. These parishioners quite literally befriend the lonely and hungry and those in peril. They keep watch over the vulnerable.
There are quiet heroes all around us, like the unnamed millions of refugees who shepherd others in distress. Mothers are bringing and sending their young children across the southern border of the United States in unprecedented numbers right now, fleeing hunger, gang threats and violence in their Central American homelands – more than 50,000 of them in the last 8 months. One mother from El Salvador left her job as a social worker and brought her 11 year old daughter to the U.S. to keep her safe from gangs threatening to rape or kidnap her. Where are the heroes who will guard and protect lost Nigerian schoolgirls?
Full and passionate investment in life doesn’t always look physically dangerous. I think of Mindy, a young woman born without arms or legs, whose awesome artwork is painted with a brush held in her teeth. When I met her several years ago, she wanted to go and work with disabled children in Haiti. She never would have put it this way, but her very presence bears heroic witness to the possibility of abundant life.
In this season we’re remembering the passionate gift of life 75 years ago, given by thousands who spent themselves on beaches and battlefields to liberate Europe. Others invested themselves in the word and words of life, figuring out how to send strategic messages. The last of the original Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez, died earlier this month. Using their own native language, he and 28 of his fellow Navajo soldiers developed a code the Japanese were never able to break. They invested the intimate identity of their culture, largely unknown to outsiders, in the cause of freedom and justice. The Navajo and other native peoples in North America continue to send disproportionate numbers to serve in the Armed Forces. A young Native American woman from Arizona was among the first casualties of the Iraq War in 2003. Arizona has named Piestewa Peak in her honor. Like Alban’s shrine, it stands as a marker of heroism and sacrifice.
The Vicar of Baghdad, Andrew White, is a powerful witness to the same kind of heroic living. He writes, “I don’t know what to do, do I stay [in Baghdad] or go back [to safety]? I have a huge amount of commitments here. If I go back, I cannot change the situation but I want to be with my people. Here we are with this huge crisis and need and we do not even have the resources to help those most in need.” He stays, out of solidarity, with his eyes and his heart open.
Heroes are vulnerable, for passion removes our usual self-protective defense mechanisms.
Will you be a hero? How will you live as a protector and defender of others? Will you keep watch? For the love of God, where will you spend yourself?