Theologian's Almanac for Week of August 25, 2019

theologian's almanac August 25 2019

Welcome to SALT’s “Theologian’s Almanac,” a weekly selection of important birthdays, holidays, and other upcoming milestones worth marking - specially created for a) writing sermons and prayers, b) creating content for social media channels, and c) enriching your devotional life.

For the week of Sunday, August 25:

August 25 is the day President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the 1916 act that established the National Park Service.  A few national parks had been established (Yellowstone was the first, in 1872), but Congress hadn’t yet assigned a part of the government to run them.  The idea was spreading that the parks were not only spectacular sites but also sanctuaries for flora and fauna worth protecting - but there was no-one on the ground at the parks with the authority to implement this emerging vision.  Developers and poachers went largely unchecked. The National Park Service did a great deal to change all that, and still does today - they are as vivid an expression as any of humanity’s sacred vocation to protect and care for creation’s many creatures (Gen 1-2; Gen 6-9).

August 26 is the birthday of Mother Teresa, born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, present-day Macedonia, in 1910.  In Albanian, “Gonxhe” means "rosebud" or "little flower." After taking religious vows at the age of 21, she taught at a schoolhouse outside Calcutta, and soon began to be deeply disturbed by the poverty around her.  On the train one day, she experienced what she later understood as a divine summons: "I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith."  She traded in her traditional habit for a simple, inexpensive white cotton sari with a blue border, and after two years of ministering to the poor, sick, and hungry on the streets of Calcutta, she received permission from the Vatican to start a congregation that would eventually become the Missionaries of Charity.  By the time of her death in 1997, Missionaries of Charity had grown to more than 4,000 workers in 133 countries, opening orphanages, homes for people with tuberculosis and leprosy, soup kitchens, hospitals, mobile health clinics, and schools.

After her death, some of Mother Teresa’s private writings were published, revealing that for long periods of her life, she was haunted by feelings of loneliness, desolation, and God’s absence, even as she persevered in her work.  

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.  Asked by the Nobel committee what advice she had for people who want to promote world peace, she said, “Go home and love your family.”  Another interviewer once asked her about her practice of prayer, and she said, “When I pray, mostly I just listen.” “And what does God say?” said the interviewer.  “Mostly, God just listens,” she replied.

Aug 27 is 160th anniversary of the first successful oil well, inaugurating the modern petroleum age.  Oil had long been known to seep up out of the ground in certain places, and was sometimes collected and used for medicinal purposes, or for lamps, or to lubricate farm machinery - but it was George Bissell, a New York lawyer, who had the idea to intentionally drill for the stuff, refine it, and sell it commercially.  That first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 - and consequently, that state dominated the oil market for decades (which is where “Pennzoil” and “Quaker State” come from). Modern petroleum revolutionized human society, from home heating to asphalt to automobiles to all manner of plastics - and at the same time helped create the current climate crisis.

Aug 28 is the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin worked tirelessly for nearly two years, eventually convincing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to set aside their differences and join the effort.

When the day came, thousands poured into the city from all over the country, coming in by bus, train, car, and plane.  Chicago and New York officially declared August 28 “Freedom Day,” and gave workers the day off.  On the other hand, many feared the march would become violent; the Pentagon put 19,000 troops in the suburbs, just in case.

But in the end there was no violence (indeed, there wasn’t a single arrest!).  The marchers peacefully sang and chanted all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th speaker that day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered what would become one of the most celebrated pieces of oratory in American history, part sermon, part rallying cry.  Most of the speech revolved around the idea that America has not yet made good on the many promises it has given African Americans; the country has thus far defaulted, King declared, on that “promissory note.”  

The renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had sung “How I Got Over” just before King spoke, and earlier that summer, she had heard him deliver a speech in Detroit that featured the stirring “I have a dream!” refrain.  And so that day in August on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as the young preacher neared the end of his remarks, Jackson called out to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” - and King responded, extemporaneously delivering the words many Americans now know by heart, ending with these:

“When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Aug 31 begins Muḥarram (Arabic: محرّم), the first month of the Islamic calendar, a month of peace that begins the new year.  Muslims widely considered Muḥarram to be one of the holiest months, second only to Ramaḍān.  Happy New Year!