Thursday, May 26, 2011


Sustainability is the new buzzword. This morning was Harvard University’s Commencement and you could find recycling bins everywhere on campus. Harvard is the size of a small city with 26 million square feet. It has self-imposed a whopping 30 percent cut of its greenhouse gas emission from 2006 levels by 2016. The University is aiming for a goal of zero waste by 2020.

The word “sustainability” became prominent as a result of the 1987 report of World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations, entitled Our Common Future. The report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Following the report, the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 brought together world leaders, delegations from governments, and NGOs together. I was the coordinator of the theological advisory team of the conference organized by the World Council of Churches at Rio. The Rio Declaration said “we can no longer think of environment and economic and social development as isolated fields.”

Today, people usually talk about sustainability in terms of the three “Es”: Environment, Economics, and Equity. The Center for Sustainability at the University of Kansas puts out this diagram to explain the intersections among the three: Sustainability requires us to rethink the relation between God, human beings, and the world. Instead of human beings having dominion over creation, many scholars and pastors have used the model of stewardship. Biblical scholars have reexamined important insights on creation and the environment. A group of scholars have looked at the Bible from the Earth’s perspective, and issued the Earth Bible Series.

The ecological crisis prompted the development of ecological theology, with representative figures such as John Cobb, Gordon Kaufman, Mary Grey, Heather Eaton, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, just to name a few. Clergy, scientists, and theologians in the Anglican tradition such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Sallie McFague, and Martha Kirkpatrick have also made significant contributions.

I was invited to give a plenary lecture on “The Theology and Philosophy of Sustainability” at a conference of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, held this week at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. I talked about the need for recycling of Christianity: changing our perspective from anthropocentrism to biocentrism.

Anne Primavesi, an Irish theologian, wrote about the “tight coupling” between humans and nature in her book Sacred Gaia. For her the separation of nature and culture does not reflect reality. We need to remember that the Christian mystics have long spoken about their union with God and with nature. Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century described the world as a “cosmic egg” and wrote:

I awaken everything to life. The air lives by turning green and being in bloom. The waters flow as if they were alive. The sun lives in its light, and the moon is enkindled, after its disappearance, once again by the light of the sun so that the moon is again revived. The stars, too, give a clear light with their beaming.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Commencement Sermon

With the Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt
 Commencement is a ritual. It is a ritual about transition. We gather to celebrate and to give thanks to God for the accomplishments of our graduates. We send them forth to transform the world, heal the broken-hearted, and become ministers of reconciliation.

The Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-9) talks about Jesus sending out seventy people to prepare his way. I have long been very suspicious of this passage because it has been taken by Fundamentalists and TV evangelists to mean that Jesus is sending these people to convert non-Christians and save their souls. Some of these people also proclaim that Jesus will come back this Saturday, May 21, to judge the living and the dead.

But this spring semester, I taught a course on Spirituality for the Contemporary World and we read Marjorie J. Thompson’s book Soul Feast: An Invitation to Christian Spiritual Life. She talks about the spiritual yearning of our time and introduces her readers to various Christian spiritual practices. The first one is spiritual reading of Scripture, which she calls “chewing the bread of the Word.” Spiritual reading, she writes, “is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume, but with depth and receptivity.”

Invited by Thompson, I tried to ease my suspicion and quiet down in order to hear what God may be saying to us through this particular Gospel text.

I began to see that this passage is about a spiritual journey. It is about the persons who are commissioned to embark on a journey and the adventure will be full of roadblocks and difficulties. Through twists and turns, the persons learn to trust in God and not their own abilities or self-worth. Such kinds of stories or myths can be found in the world’s many cultures and religions. The Franciscan priest and spiritual leader Richard Rohr says, “The journey into the mystery of God is necessarily a journey into the ‘unfamiliar.’”

Read through this lens, the Gospel story has many surprises and things unexpected. The sending of the seventy comes after the sending of the twelve in Luke chapter 9. Jesus is sending not only those who would be apostles to do his mission. He is sending many out. The movement that Jesus is about to start is not built by the apostles or future ministers of the church alone, but by people of various gifts and talents. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul says in order to build up the body of Christ, we would need apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and people with other gifts (Eph. 4: 11-12).

In ancient times, travelling was full of risks. Jesus sends them out in pairs. I imagine in our modern church, we would need a committee to sort out who is going with whom. The thought of traveling with a co-worker makes us nervous and might even give us a headache. Will we get along? What happens when our styles of doing things are different?

We are so often taught that a leader needs to be autonomous and self-reliant. But Jesus tells these people not to go alone and take a companion with them. When we are weary and sick, don’t we long for someone who can watch over us? Who wouldn’t want to have what the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has called a soul friend, “a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life?”

Jesus sends them out saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” My immediate response was where? Where is the field where the harvest is plentiful? There are so many Americans unemployed looking for work. Some of our graduates might not easily find full time employment.

“Where is God calling me to harvest? Where is the farm, the garden, or the vineyard to which I need to devote my time and energy?” These are recurrent spiritual questions we have to answer throughout our lives. Other people cannot answer for us. The church cannot answer for us.

When Jesus says the laborers are few, he has a sense of urgency. Where are the places that most need you, that you want to commit your life to? It has taken me a long time to figure this out in my own journey.

I did not dream in my early seminary days that I would be working in field of postcolonial theology. Although I was born and grew up in the British colony of Hong Kong, I have not seen the immediate application of postcolonial theory to the study of the Bible and theology. It was not until several years before 1997 when Hong Kong was about to return to China that I began to seriously think of my identity as a postcolonial person. In the summer of 1998, my former colleague Dr. Ian Douglas, now the Bishop of Connecticut, organized a conference of Anglican contextual theologians on our campus. I met with Anglican theologians from other parts of the world—Jenny Te Paa from New Zealand, Jaci Maraschin from Brazil, and Denise Ackermann from South Africa. As we compared notes, I became even clearer than before of the long colonial legacy of the empire on the theology, liturgy, and structure of the Anglican Church and Communion.

There were so few of us at the time looking at the history and legacy of the Anglican tradition from a postcolonial lens and so much needed to be done. I felt then and I feel now that “the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few.”

Jesus forewarns the people he sends out that the journey is going to be treacherous. “I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves,” he says. Christian ministry is not for the faint-hearted. The children of this world have learned to trick you and sabotage your noble projects. People will not always like you, if you insist on doing the right thing. What you count as friends might turn out to be your worst enemies.

If the journey is going to be that tough, at least you want to be as best prepared as you can, such as filling your backpack with bread and water, buying the best pair of L.L.Bean hiking boots, and bringing a mobile phone with GPS in case you get lost.

What a surprise to hear that Jesus tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” I can’t help asking, “Is this for real and is it rhetorical license?” Is Jesus demanding too much?

As I reflect more deeply on what “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” would mean for a spiritual journey, I recall the tradition of holy women and men who have gone to the desert to live in prayer and austerity. They have learned to be a friend of God and not rely on the security of the world.

Suppose after much soul-searching and sleepless nights, you finally decide to embark on this spiritual journey into the “unfamiliar,” what are you supposed to do? You might imagine you are going to slay the dragon, start a revolution, and somehow end up being “the person of the year” on the cover of some magazines.

Here comes the biggest surprise for me in the story. Jesus tells them his mission consists of three simple things: (1) form community through establishing table fellowship with others, (2) take care of the sick and those with physical needs, and (3) proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near.

Our graduates might think that with several years of theological training, they ought to be able to do more challenging tasks. Having given up security and come back to school as a student, forfeiting vacations with family and friends, and writing all those final papers, they might think that they are called to do greater things than these.

Well, during the temptation, Jesus resisted turning stones into bread or jumping down from the pinnacle of the temple. His small movement consisted of building alternative communities, caring for the sick and the marginalized, and subverting the power and authority of ruling elites. It was through doing very simple and seemingly ordinary things that the extraordinary was revealed. The Logos became flesh.

So we send forth our graduates to continue to do these small and mundane things to usher in God’s Kingdom. This ritual is called commencement because your education has not finished. You are going to be continually formed by the people who will open their houses for you and invite you into their midst. As a leader, you will be formed and shaped by the people whom you have been called to serve.

You have to be faithful to the Gospel and always be open to the promptings of the Spirit. Hold on to your visions but remember that unless your dreams are shared by those whom you serve, you cannot change the world alone. Be sure to replenish your energy or qi, and take care of your physical, psychic, emotional, and spiritual well-being. As the late Rev. Peter Gomes, professor and minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, told the senior class of Harvard undergrads before their commencement in 2004: “Doing what you can is all that worthwhile living is about, so for God’s sake, and your own, get on with it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

When you are tired and the temptation to give up sinks into your soul, remember the time when God first called you to this place and your excitement when you arrived. Remember that we pray for you and for our graduates regularly at this chapel. We ask you to continue to pray for us. Wherever you go and however hard the journey is going to be, know that you are never alone for you will always be a part of the EDS family and community. We give thanks to God for who you are and we are proud of you and claim you as our very own. Amen.

* Sermon preached at St. John's Chapel, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 18, 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Osama Bin Laden Is dead. Are We Safer?

While many Americans feel a sense of relief that Osama bin laden is dead, I cannot but feel a heavy sense of the burden of history. When we look back at the killing of bin Laden ten years from now, will we say that his death has ushered in a period of peace? Or will there be more bloodshed and revenge? Only history will tell.

When I saw the leaders of the most powerful country huddled in a room watching the killing of a man, I had very mixed emotions. Should we call this righteous killing? Or assassination? Osama’s estranged son Omar bin Laden has come out condemning the killing of his father as criminal. Is he justified in saying that?

These are not easy questions because we have entered an era in which war is not conducted in a conventional way. It is no more one nation fighting with another. Instead, it is the U.S. and its allies fighting “the terrorists” who can be found abroad and at home. President Barack Obama decided not to release the photos of bin Laden’s body, because the images might incite more violence.

Bin Laden may be dead, but unless we deal with the root causes that have driven many young people to join the ranks of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups, the world will not be safer.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to the Congress and asked, “Why do they hate us?”

President Bush said that the terrorists did what they did because they “hate our freedoms.” But from Jakarta to Cairo, many Muslims and Arabs did not share the President’s view. Hostility against the U.S. had grown in the Middle East, because many felt that they have been unfairly treated by the world’s superpower.

Now bin Laden is dead, it might be worthwhile to revisit what he had said after September 11. Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor reported on September 27, 2001:

“And the buttons that Mr. bin Laden pushes in his statements and interviews - the injustice done to the Palestinians, the cruelty of continued sanctions against Iraq, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, the repressive and corrupt nature of US-backed Gulf governments - win a good deal of popular sympathy.”

I condemn the killing of thousands of innocent people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. My heart goes out to the victims’ families and friends, who find little comfort or closure in knowing that bin Laden is dead. I mourn especially with the children who have forever lost their parents and loved ones.

I do not want to justify what bin Laden has done. Yet, I must honestly ask: What has the U.S done in the past decade to alleviate the suffering of the people in the Middle East and to win over the hearts and minds of the people?

I am sad to say that injustice continues to be inflicted upon the Palestinians. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, making it difficult for the people of these nations to rebuild their homes and countries. U.S. troops are still in Saudi Arabia. The recent popular uprisings in the Arab world showed that the U.S. had supported many corrupted regimes and strong men. The U.S. had not always been on the people’s side fighting for their “freedoms.”

The most important lesson I have learned from postcolonialism is to read history contrapuntally. The late Edward W. Said taught that we have to learn to read history from more than one side, because histories and geographies overlap and are intertwined.

Americans might be able to forget the long history of British and American involvements in the Middle East. But those who live in those lands cannot afford to forget.

In The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, the eminent British geographer Derek Gregory details the colonialist and Orientalist engagements of the U.S. in these countries. Political pundits and the mass media have created an imagined geography that reinforces the “us” and “them” polemic. He connects the military campaigns launched by America against Afghanistan and Iraq with the campaign of Israel against Palestine.

Most importantly, he sees the extension of the global order as a continuation of the colonial past into the colonial present. Such a colonial present, as we have seen last week, is bolstered by the latest technologically innovation in military weapons.

Senator Barbara Boxer and others have sponsored a bill calling for the withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by July 1, 2011. Since the war began on October 7, 2001, about 1,500 American military personnel have died, and more than 10,000 wounded. As of January of this year, the U.S. taxpayers have spent an estimated of $336,000,000,000 for the operation in Afghanistan. We have heard little from the media about the death tolls and casualties of Afghan military and civilians.

It is time to bring the American troops home. It is high time that we invest not in war, but in peace building. Only so, the world will be safer for us and for our children.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Artist's Gift

“You must come to see your painting,” my friend Benneville Strohecker told me.

He paints watercolors that captures the scenes and rhythms of nature: flowers blooming in the spring, children playing at the seaside, the meditative garden at a convent, and clouds blowing in the wind. He also paints children’s portraits with stories about their lives.

I like watercolors better than oil paintings. The shades of colors in a watercolor remind me of the subtle shades of black and white in a traditional Chinese scroll painted with brush and ink.

There is a story behind Ben’s gift to me.

Last spring I attended a meeting of Anglican women in Hong Kong. Dr. Jenny Plane Te Paa, principal of Te Rau Kahikatea at St. John’s Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand, concluded the closing worship with a poem. She read John O’Donohue’s “Beannacht.”

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

My mind’s eyes feasted on the colors as I listened to Jenny’s evocative reading.
I thought I needed to pass the poem to Ben since I was sure he’d like it. I also introduced Ben to John O'Donohue’s book Anam Cara (Gaelic for Soul Friend). The poem above serves as the preface to the book.

“What is a currach?” Ben asked me.

“I don’t know.” So he looked it up and told me. Currach is a an Irish boat with a wooden frame.

I didn’t pay much attention to this unfamiliar word and thought it was only a metaphor in the poem. But the image and the expression of "currach of thought" obviously has stirred Ben’s imagination. Sometimes you will never know how the seed of creativity is planted in the crevices of the mind.

So yesterday I went to the opening reception for an exhibit of new works by Ben and sculptor and painter Beverly Seamans at the Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Ben graciously showed me his painting (15.5 x 8) with two small currachs and a section of John O’Donohue’s poem above them. The poet’s words are written in black ink with dashes of yellow, orange, and red in the background.

The catalogue reads: “Bless the Space between Us” (On loan from Kwok Pui Lan). Ben will offer the watercolor to me as a gift after the exhibit.

The Chinese have a saying, “From a thousand miles away I brought and send you a goose feather. The object is light, but my feelings are deep.”

Ben’s gift, completely gratuitous, comes from a friendship I will treasure for many years to come. It comes from an echo of the soul, from a place valuing art as a way of expressing spirituality.

* Watercolors by Ben Strokhecker will be on exhibit till June 14 at Bethany House of Prayer--a ministry with the Sisters of St. Anne-Bethany, 181 Appleton Street, Arlington, MA. Ben's website is