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Walking the Camino for Lasting Change

The board of Episcopal Relief & Development has generously granted me a sabbatical this fall.  As I was thinking about what I wanted to use the time for, I decided that I had a couple of goals for my sabbatical.  

First, I wanted a project with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So much of the work of relief & development never ends. There’s always another disaster.  Moreover, by some estimates, the pandemic has wiped nearly 20 years of progress in global development away.  That more than covers my professional life in this sphere.  I’ll keep plugging at it, as will many millions of others, but I need a sense of accomplishing something.

Second, I wanted a project that would challenge me physically.  I’m not exactly an elite athlete, or any kind of athlete at all, for that matter.  I live and work in my head and when I’m lucky my heart is engaged.  However, the challenges I face on a day-to-day basis call on my intellect and not my body.  For a little while, I’d like to switch it up.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Finally, I wanted to do something that would support Episcopal Relief & Development’s work with children, Moments That Matter®.  The work my organization does nurturing children around the world is some of our most important.  The first three years of a child’s life are critical and Moments That Matter focuses intensively on the physical and intellectual development of some of the most vulnerable amongst us.  I do this out of gratitude for all that Episcopal Relief & Development has done for me over the 17 years I have been its president.

Therefore, I have decided to use the time to walk the Camino de Santiago from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  I plan to start on October 10th and end on November 18th. The walk will be approximately 500 miles over 38 days.

I will be posting updates on this website and on my social media channels (@RobRadtke on both Instagram and Twitter).  If you would like to be notified when I’ve posted, please subscribe to my blog.

Please join me as I am Walking the Camino for Lasting Change!

Wow, just wow!

Words cannot express how grateful I am to everyone for their extraordinary support of my fundraising efforts on behalf of Episcopal Relief & Development as I prepare to start my Camino.

Not only have we blown through the $25,000 goal, a very generous Episcopal Relief & Development board member has made an additional gift of $25,000, doubling the match to $50,000!

Thanks to over 65 supporters so far, we’re well on our way to meeting the $50,000 goal, which will yield $100,000 for Episcopal Relief & Development’s work with children.

If you’ve already given, THANK YOU, and if you’re not yet among those who have given, I hope you will join us.

This is what it means to be Working Together for Lasting Change!

Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”

Fundraising progress bar showing that we are 78% of the way to $50,000

Training to Walk the Camino

Over the last year, I have been training to walk the Camino.  

At my age, balance and muscle resilience are key to a successful walk. That, and endurance.

I’m now in week eleven of twelve for training.  By the end of this week, I need to be able to hike five hours in hilly terrain along with being able to do Bulgarian squats, flutters, and single hip hinges.  I’ve focused intensely on balance and stability.  A sprained ankle can end a Camino.

The first three week of my sabbatical have been spent in western Crete, which abounds in a number of beautiful and challenging hikes.  Last week, I hiked in the White Mountains of Crete for six hours and this week, I completed a two-day hike through the Samariá Gorge and along the southern coast of Crete, walking more than six to seven hours each day in very challenging terrain.  Check out my Instagram account (@RobRadtke) for photos.  Although my aching muscles and blistered feet may dissent from this view, I feel cautiously optimistic that I am prepared to walk the Camino.

The other advantage to these practice hikes is that I get to test my equipment.  I’m breaking in my hiking boots, my daypack, and walking poles.  I will confess to being a bit of a skeptic about the walking poles. However, having used them on the practice hike last week, I’m sold.  It’s the difference between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive in a car.  A dear friend has lent me her poles, and it feels as if she’s walking with me. 

All of the hikes have been challenging and none more so than the Samariá Gorge.  In fact, while hiking the Samariá Gorge I encountered no less than two injured people (one broken wrist and one badly hurt ankle).  And then, on the ferry ride from the end of the Samariá Gorge hike to where one gets the bus back to Chania, the main city in the region, the body of a man who had collapsed and died upon completing the hike was being removed in the back of a pick-up truck. It was a sad and sobering sight.  My silent prayer for the repose of the man’s soul and for strength and comfort for his family felt totally inadequate to the moment.  The Greek guides and emergency personnel were acting with uncommon compassion towards the surviving family members.  

After our time in Crete, we return to the States for three weeks. I need to find a way to keep my conditioning strong.  Somehow, five-hour workouts on the elliptical at my gym don’t seem quite as appealing as hiking in the mountains of Crete.

Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”

Progress bars depicting fundraising progress (17,317/$25,000) and Camino progress (0/500 mi)

The Scallop Shell

Many pilgrims on the Camino tie a scallop shell to their backpacks or on the laces of their boots. The scallop shell is also used to mark the route one is meant to walk on the way to Santiago de Compostela. So, what’s the deal with that?

The association of St. James with scallops takes us back to the belief that after his death in Jerusalem, his remains (without his head) were transported by sea to Spain by his followers. A number of miracles ensued during the journey, one of which holds that his body was lost at sea during a storm only to be transported to shore intact and covered with scallops. That certainly gives Coquilles St. Jacques a new meaning.

Scallops are also abundant in Galicia, the region of Spain where Compostela is located. That’s a good thing, as those who know me well will attest that scallops are one of my favorite types of seafood.

Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”

Who was St. James?

As I prepare for my Camino, it occurs to me that I should learn a little about St. James the Great whose relics are believed to buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  500 miles is a long way to walk without knowing anything about the person who has inspired millions to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place.

Who was St. James?

James, along with his brother John, was one of Jesus’ twelve original disciples.  He is remembered as ambitious, asking Jesus to grant him a seat at his side when he is glorified.  Jesus is not amused.  This also annoys the other apostles.  The ensuing kerfuffle leads Jesus to remind the apostles that the path to greatness is by being a servant and slave to all.  It is from this passage that the concept of “servant leadership” begins to emerge.

He is also remembered for having a hot temper.  He and his brother offer to bring down fire on a village of Samaritans as retribution when they fail to receive Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem.  Again, Jesus is not amused and rebukes them.   

After Jesus’ death, James got on the wrong side of Herod and was one of the earliest of Jesus’ followers to be martyred.  He was beheaded and tradition holds that his head is under the altar at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem.  I don’t remember seeing it there, but I’ll take Wikipedia’s word for it.

How did the rest of James’ remains end up in Spain?

Tradition has it that James traveled to Spain to evangelize following Jesus’ death.  It’s a bit murky as to what happened next, but he must have returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred.  With his head buried in Jerusalem, the rest of his remains were returned to Spain by his followers where they were buried at Compostela.  There is a rival tradition that has his remains buried at a church in Toulouse, France.  The historical record supporting this narrative is spotty, to put it politely.  

Why have millions of people walked the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James?

Since at least the 9th century, pilgrims have been making their way from throughout Europe and beyond to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Not surprisingly, many of the pilgrimage routes follow earlier Roman traveling routes.  Some people no doubt sincerely believe they are making their way to St. James’ final resting place (sans head).

Many others, myself included, take the view that the spiritual and physical discipline of walking the Way of St. James is the point and not so much the destination.  One is following in the footsteps of millions of people, called by their faith to journey hundreds of miles.  That has power in and of itself.  The Camino is one of the world’s thin places, where the barrier between humanity and the divine is almost penetrable. 

In reflecting upon St. James and his life, I’m reminded that the temptations of ambition and retribution do not a happy life make.  Jesus sets James and the other disciples straight.  There’s a lesson in that.

Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development.  If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”

Seven Last Words

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Original film poster for the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar

My first memories of the Passion of Christ come not from church, but from listening to the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice.

When I was a child my family traveled to Israel and Palestine where my father, a priest, was enrolled in St. George’s College in Jerusalem to study the life of Jesus in the Holy Land. My brother and sister and I would ride the public bus from our home to school and then summer camp during the three months we lived there.

Throughout those months, the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar played constantly on Israeli radio and now is the background music to many of my memories of that time. As it happens, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was likely being filmed in Israel at the time we were there, which might explain why the soundtrack was getting so much radio play. To this day, I watch or listen to Jesus Christ Superstar almost every year during Holy Week.

There are many problematic aspects to the 1973 film version, not least among which is the racial stereotyping of the cast, so I don’t necessarily recommend the film. However, in preparing for this sermon I watched the 2018 version starring John Legend as Jesus, which is much better on many levels.

In a piece of inspired casting, Alice Cooper plays King Herod.  The scene when Jesus, played by Legend, and Herod, played by Cooper, encounter each other manages to be comic, ironic and tragic. We see a Superstar from the past meeting the Superstar of the present and future and Cooper/Herod and Legend/Jesus both know it. I won’t say anymore for those of you who have not watched it.

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Jesus Christ Superstar ends at the cross with Jesus’s last words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

The scene is searing, just as it is rendered in the text today from Luke, who is every bit as gifted a librettist and scene painter as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Jesus, ever the teacher, takes his final words from Psalm 31:

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; * deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; * make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; * for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, * for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, * for you have redeemed me O Lord, O God of truth.

Given the scene that Luke describes and all that we have heard leading up to this final moment, one can imagine the emotions that Jesus is feeling: fear, anger, hopelessness. However, by quoting Psalm 31, attributed to King David, Jesus flips the script. The crowd standing at the foot of the cross would have understood Jesus’s reference to Psalm 31 and its full meaning.

Taken out of context, Jesus’s last words can come across as conveying that he has given up, or as words of surrender, which is often how I have tended to hear these words and how Legend acts them in Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, if we turn to the words that come earlier in the Psalm, we can see that Jesus is calling on the LORD in confidence and hopefulness, knowing that as he traverses from his life here on earth to the next, he can have faith in his father’s love and protection and his ultimate victory over death on the cross.

By taking refuge in the LORD, Jesus will not be put to shame.  

The LORD will be his strong rock and castle and keep him safe.  

The LORD will lead and guide him.  

The LORD will free him from the secret traps set for him.  

The LORD will be his tower and strength.

So, while he addresses his last words to his father, he is instructing all of us as well.

We, too, by taking refuge in the LORD, will not be put to shame.  The LORD will keep us safe, lead us and guide us.  The LORD will free us and be our tower of strength.

Jesus is not surrendering.  

No. 

He is calling us to hope.

He is calling us to victory.

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We are now well over a year into the COVID-19 Pandemic and while the vaccines have given many of us hope, the last year has been filled with unspeakable tragedy and despair. For those of us who may see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must remember that for many, the pandemic rages on. Early on in the pandemic I took comfort in the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.”

Yes, we are “prisoners of hope,” but we are called to be more than that.

The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that as Christians “We are called to be midwives of hope” and to bring hope to others.

Despair is not an option.

Indeed, Jesus’ last words on the cross are not words of despair or surrender.  They are words of hopefulness and victory.

If Jesus can be hopeful and victorious under those circumstances, we have no excuse, even in the face of what we all have endured this last year.

Jesus was telling his followers, just as he is telling us today, that as darkness comes over the whole land, while the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and as he breathes his last, that not only must we have confidence in the LORD and remain hopeful ourselves, we must bring hope to others so they can see that there is victory after the cross.

As Jesus sings in Jesus Christ Superstar: To conquer death you only have to die.”

AMEN

This meditation was presented as part of the Good Friday service at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York. The full service, including this meditation, can be found on the parish’s YouTube channel.

Survival of the Friendliest

A few weeks of vacation have given me the time to read more deeply and widely than is my custom.  One of the books I’m part of the way through this month is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Bregman makes the counter-intuitive argument that notwithstanding our “nice guys finish last” assumptions about how the world works, the opposite is actually true. 

His thesis is that the essential human instinct is towards kindness and generosity and that moreover the ability to collaborate and cooperate are essential factors in our species’ ability to survive. 

It turns out that we’ve either often misunderstood or willfully mischaracterized Darwin. A recent Washington Post article I saw, entitled “Survival of the Friendliest,” describes the work of two scientists at Duke University, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.  They posit that it is friendliness and cooperation that has allowed some species to thrive and others to become extinct.   They point out that dogs are the “friendly” descendants of wolves.   Wolves are on the brink of extinction whereas dogs are decidedly not.

There is a story from the Cherokee Nation that offers some important wisdom on this point:

One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.  One is evil.  It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “which wolf wins?”

The elderly Cherokee brave simply replied, “the one that you feed.”

The message in this parable is that each one of us gets to choose what kind of person we want to be.  It is not a foregone conclusion that one or the other wolf will prevail.  We get to decide which set of instincts we will nurture and develop.

Are we going to indulge our darker instincts and become wolves of anger, envy and all of the other destructive sins enumerated by the grandfather?

Or, will we feed the wolf of joy, peace, love and the other instincts leading us toward goodness?

Speaking for myself, I know that I’ve been trying very hard not to feed the wolf of anger, sorrow, regret, and self-pity, just to name a few of my vices.  That’s not easy as there is certainly enough going on these days to justify all those feelings and more.

However, the science suggests that our very survival depends on feeding the virtues of hope, serenity, kindness, empathy, and generosity.

Which wolf will you feed?

Lift Every Voice

One hundred and forty-five years ago today, on June 19th in 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and with the defeat of Confederate forces by the Union Army, the last remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas were freed, ending chattel slavery in the United States. Today, June 19th or Juneteenth, is observed in most parts of the country with parades, family gatherings and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition, the great poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson is often either read or sung. Johnson’s poem was set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson and is included in The Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal 1982. It is sometimes referred to as “The Black National Anthem.”

The poetry speaks for itself and so I offer it below.

If you want to listen to it sung, there are a number of versions on YouTube. My favorite is this one featuring the great bass opera singer Soloman Howard.

 

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Opening the Gates of Heaven for Ramadan

We are now almost through the month-long observance of Ramadan. 

PrayerA few weeks ago I came across the following quote: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”  This hadith from the Sahih al-Bukhari doesn’t mince words.   It seems particularly apt at the moment.

Ramadan will last until May 23rd.  It is the holiest month of the year in the Islamic calendar, during which the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammad.  It is observed through prayer and by fasting from sunup to sundown, amongst other traditions throughout the month.

In past years, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited by Muslim friends to share in the breaking of the fast at sundown with an Iftar during Ramadan.  In this era of physical distancing, large celebratory Iftars will be difficult if not impossible for most people.

Our home is not far from a mosque, and it is always a delight to see children and their families dressed up in their finest outfits making their way to worship on Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.  The excitement and joy is infectious.

I’ll add these pleasures to the long list of things I am grieving, just as I grieve the Easter and Passover celebrations prevented by the pandemic.  Indeed, Muslims, Christians and Jews have all paid a heavy price as the most holy days for each faith are coinciding with the tragedy of COVID-19.

In my post from last month, I quoted T.S. Elliot’s observation in his poem, The Waste Land, that April was the cruelest month.   Let us pray that during the month of May the “gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”

(Photo credit: Mihrab (Prayer Niche) from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)