Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pedestals

In His discourses, His miracles, His parables, His sufferings, His resurrection, He gradually raises the pedestal of His humanity before the world, but under a cover, until the shaft reaches from the grave to the heavens, when He lifts the curtain, and displays the figure of a man on a throne, for the worship of the universe; and clothing His church with His own power, He authorizes it to baptize and to preach remission of sins in His own name. - Edward Thomson, (1810-1870) Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1864-1870)


We seem to live in a world of idols. We appear to enjoy building people up, putting them on pedestals, in a sense. Then we take equal or even more joy out of tearing them down. A prominent politician has an affair, and all of a sudden his pedestal disappears and people begin to vilify him. A well-known minister is convicted (or possibly even just accused ) of being guilty of mismanagement and fraud, and all of a sudden the grand column on which he had been put becomes rubble under his feet. Movie stars? People can only handle other peoples' sins for so long before they to start to dissolve the pillar.

Even Jesus had his would-be pedestal-builders. Take Peter, for instance. During the time we call the Transfiguration, Jesus suddenly changed from a human being, pretty ordinary-looking, to one with a dazzling white robe and along with him two other figures, equally dazzling. Recognizing Elijah and Moses standing on either side of Jesus, Peter, James, and John were totally awed, Peter most of all. He asked Jesus to allow them to build three booths, one for each of the glowing figures. The booths represented a desire to stay so close to the site of the miraculous event, but it was also a desire to create a kind of pedestal for those whom they held in awe and reverence.

There are many who we could say we put on pedestals, some quite worthy of those honors, but not all of them. Often we find the people we raise up are just as, if not more flawed than, we are. In this time of political campaigning, each candidate is clambering up on the pedestal their supporters build for them, then the candidates (and their supporters) try their best to knock the opponent off. Sometimes it isn't hard; things come to light in a political fight. Sometimes, though, lies, innuendoes, even irrational comments can do the same thing without any help at all. Still, the pedestals keep getting rebuilt, and the slugfest continues until it all ends in one emerging the winner. Happening every four years, this should almost be an Olympic sport.

The lesson I think we are to learn from Peter's enthusiasm is that shrines may be nice, but they are also very impermanent. Jesus built his own pedestal by who and what he was; he didn't need someone else to do it for him. His pedestal lasted because it was built on truth and grace, not someone else's opinion or perception.

What lasts for us is the example of the ones who live for others rather than just themselves. Even though they may be flawed human beings, they can still be capable of righteous lives, deserving of honor but not total adoration. Even the most flawed can be remembered in this way. As Shakespeare said in Cassius' speech over the body of Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." While we remember the saints, we sometimes remember the sinners more easily.

Most of us hope we will never get put on display. For us, standing on a chair to change a light bulb is risky enough, but being put on a marble base out where people can see us and either throw flowers or stones, depending on how they perceive us, is a little too risky. Pedestals are unnecessary and often cause us to fall further than we might have otherwise.

Thank goodness no one will ever put me on a pedestal. The perceived honor is too hard to live up to. Jesus reminds us to look to him and how much the world needs to emulate him. It is also a reminder of how little we need our individual pedestals. Being on a pedestal won't get you to heaven, any more than you can collect Workmen's Comp because you fall off  a pedestal--unless you work at a museum.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 13, 2016.

Seeking Knowledge

There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love. - Bernard of Clairvaux

One of the things that I remember growing up is spending Sunday afternoons visiting relatives. My adoptive father was part of a large family, and although they were not spring chickens, a number of those family members were still alive and functioning, mostly as farmers. We would visit Aunt Edie and Uncle Olin which I loved because they had a huge front yard to run around in and lots of big, thick, catalogs to thumb through and drool over.


After Uncle Olin died, Aunt Edie continued to work the farm. She hired a man to take care of the crops, but she made her own butter, jams and preserves, and canned vegetables she grew in her truck garden. She took care of herself, and never missed a Sunday at Beech Grove Baptist, the church she had attended as a child and in whose graveyard Uncle Olin and so many other family members were buried.

One day I noticed that she had expanded her book shelf with textbooks of various types. Now, as much as I disliked homework, there was something interesting about her textbooks. During our visits I would read some of her texts and we would talk about them. Aunt Edie had left school before graduating to marry Uncle Olin, and now, in her mid-60s or so, she decided she needed to finish by taking correspondence courses. It took a long time, but she made it. Then she began more correspondence courses to become someone who could help look after homebound and chronically ill people in her community.

Looking at quotes by Bernard of Clairvaux, whose commemoration is today, I ran across the one about seeking knowledge and Aunt Edie immediately came to mind. It took a lot of courage and perseverance for her to spend those years studying. She even took geometry, a course I was always too afraid to take, and passed with flying colors even though she hated the class. The farm wife of so many years learned what she needed to know to be certified to fill what she saw as a need and, I think, found fulfillment in the process.

Bernard's three kinds of knowledge-seeking rather sums up why people like Aunt Edie and millions of other people continue learning. Those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge are most likely those who want to know more and more about something that fascinates them and about which they are passionate. I may be presumptuous, but someone like Stephen Hawking appears to me to be of this first type. What is beyond what we can see now? How does it work? What effect does this have on us and the universes around us? It has brought him fame and worldwide acclaim for continuing to expand our own thinking and ability to travel toward these new concepts while himself being confined to a wheelchair, an artificial voice, and the exquisite workings of his own mind.

There are some people who seek knowledge in order to gain recognition for being the best in the world in their particular subject. Granted, curiosity played its part in their search for knowledge, but even someone who is a world-renowned specialist in even the tiniest realm of knowledge probably takes pride in that accolade. They revel in being called by an academic or professional title; it is a form of vanity. It may serve a purpose for the person wearing the title, but does not necessarily do the same for anyone else.

Then there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve. They don't have to be world-renowned renowned experts at any one particular thing or even the best at their job in whatever subject or occupation they choose to pursue. These people have dreams that drive them to serve others in any of them hundred thousand different ways. Nurses and doctors, priests and deacons, professors and kindergarten teachers even the guy with best auto fix-it shop in town serve people who are in need through their knowledge and skill and a lot of dedication.

I can see Aunt Edie in that third category, sitting at the dining room table with her book, pencil, and paper, working to learn how to be not just a helping hand but a person with skill and knowledge to help someone else have a better life. I'm sure she'd be surprised that I think of her that way, because I'm sure she never saw herself in that light.

That image is driving me to take up a profession that will, hopefully, make my life better through assisting medical professionals make their patients lives better. I will never be the best in the world, nor will I ever be able to know everything there is to know about the subject, but that's okay. I will study hard in order to do the best that I can for those I serve, even in the humblest of ways.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Me? A Minister?

Education for Ministry (EfM)  is a four-year program of theological education designed for the laity, a kind of seminary for people who want to know more than maybe a Bible study could provide, but who do not feel a call to be ordained. Not only is there in-depth study of the Old and New Testaments, but also Church History and theology, the study of God. It is also a spiritual program in which learning to think theologically and to recognize the opportunity to be a minister, a person of service to others is preeminent. We are all intended and commissioned to be ministers through our baptismal covenant, and reaffirmed by our confirmation or reaffirmations. In those covenants we commit to live lives outlined by the vows, and that includes ministry.

One of my yearly joys is attending the three-day training session to recertify me to mentor for the EfM. With that learning and the recertification, I will be back to my groups fall and give them tastes of what I've experienced and hopefully help them learn to see their own ministries more clearly.

The hardest things for a lot of people both in and out of EFM to understand is that ministry is not limited to those people who are ordained or have specific jobs within the church, like the Sunday school teacher, organist/choirmaster, altar guild, or the vestry. Ministry is what we do when we go out into the world just as much as we do more within the walls of the church. It is counterintuitive to think that at the job in which we are engaged every day could be seen as a ministry but it can present that challenge. The opportunity for ministry comes when there is a challenge we see, hear, or experience, and the ministry is when we respond. Often we do it almost without thinking, just simply responding to a need, but that doesn't diminish the ministry at all. It's a Christ-like moment.

EfM teaches us to look at the world through the eyes of a Christian, a word that means "Little Christ." We learn through practice and reflection to be more open to God and to our fellow human beings. We learn that there are three kinds of ministry, as identified by Charles Winters: Ministry to the church, ministry in the church, and ministry of the church.* 

Ministry to the church applies to both the ordained and some lay persons. It includes the clergy- and lay-involvement in things such as worship, teaching, governance, and maintenance. It serves to care for the fabric of the church as well as ensure the proper things are done at the proper time in the proper way as described in the church constitution and the parish mission statement.

Ministry in the church is what we call "pastoral care." It contributes to the support and guidance of the congregation, and is done by both clergy (counseling, sacraments, etc., by virtue of their ordination).) and lay leaders (like Eucharistic ministers who are directed by the clergy to do certain ministries in the name of the church).

Ministry of the church is the calling of all of us to participate in the mission of the church by going out into the world and being Chris's hands and voice. Our baptismal and confirmation/reaffirmation covenants and vows make it part of our duty as Christians to participate in bringing Christ's message to the world, whether by evangelism or a work of mercy.

Winters also had a really profound thought in this paragraph from the same source::
It is equally difficult for many of us to realize that this ministry is not an elective. That is, it is not something that we do now and then. it is not even necessarily the good and redemptive things we do. It is the entire post-baptismal life, good and bad. At our baptisms we were made members of Christ. We are his hands, arms, legs, feet, mouth. Inescapably! At all times! In all places!

It is part of the job of EfM to help people learn what ministry is, how to do it, and to understand that it is part of what we are called to do, whether or not we hear a voice from heaven or just feel some sort of burning passion to help resolve something that is cracked or broken and needs to change. People can find their missions and ministries without EfM. Thousands do it every day, but thousands also have EfM to help with the process. In community we learn to look at life through different lenses than we had before, and also to be more aware of even small things that we can do to make Christ's message known, even, as St. Francis put it, if we sometimes have to use words.

I hope what I've learned from this training seminar will help those in my groups to be able to identify and understand their places in the world, their ministries, and their passions. I think it has helped me to see the things I do in life that I never thought about as ministries in a new way. I'm looking forward to finding out what other things I can learn -- with the help of those in my groups for whom I act as both mentor and fellow learner. That's the great thing about EfM. We all learn from each other, and we never have to have all the answers; sometimes ambiguity can be a very good thing. We just learn to trust God to set us straight on the crooked path we call life.

I'm learning to answer the question, "Me? A minister?" in the affirmative. On reflection, it really isn't that hard. Give it a try.
 

 
*"Three Kinds of Ministry" by Charles Winters; handout from Education for Ministry.

 
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 6, 2016.
 

 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grieving

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away. But when he confides in us that he is 'acquainted with grief,' we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own. -- Emily Dickinson*

It seems like the world is getting smaller and more deadly all the time. It's like a bad dream that we keep hoping that we will wake up from. It is all so confusing, and also so intense. We don't seem to have time between events process and to begin to understand one event when in hours or days we have to process something else just as awful.

The list of cities goes on and on:. Paris, Baghdad, Orlando, Dallas, Nice; all of these are just the most recent mass killings, and that is not counting the individual murders of young men, predominantly African Americans, who come to our attention almost every day. It's almost too much to bear, and yet it raises the fear, anger, and attempted justification as to why this happens.

Emily Dickinson gave us something to think about in times like these. She reminded us that Jesus often talked about his Father, and his words were of love and trust and security. His encouragement was for us to love this God, and to do those things that God had told us we should do but avoiding harmful, destructive ones. Somehow it seems like we did not believe him.

Jesus spoke about his home; not the one in Nazareth, which he shared with his mother and father and probably siblings, but the one where his Father was. He spoke of that house, one with many mansions, and one where peace, love, and safety reigned. We did not seem to believe that either.

One thing we can be assured of though, is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as, "...A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:3b).  He lived in a tricky time, one when the political atmosphere appeared fairly calm on the surface, but boiling just underneath was a resentment of the Romans who had occupied and now governed the land. There were factions within and without Judaism, each believing that they had the truth (sound familiar?). There were those who had money, position, and power, and there were many more who had none of those. Theft, robbery, bribery, just about every known sin, as we care call it, was found there. This was Jesus' world, not some antiseptic happy place. Jesus saw things for what they were. He saw all the bad things that happen to good people, and sometimes he intervened in those situations and thus we have the miracles. But he must have seen far far more than he ever spoke about or helped.

We understand this Jesus. His frustration at not being able to help everyone might have been a part of his mission on earth. In order to be fully human,  he had to understand all of humanity, not just the pleasant parts, and not just fixing everything that he could see was wrong. People could not do that themselves, and he had to learn to see how humanity existed without benefit of power and privilege power. It is that grief, the one that sees and is helpless to do anything, that makes Jesus someone we can understand, at least in part. He, like us, lives through turbulent times and probably listens to the crowds as they go about their daily business and muttering about how bad things are.

Granted, Jesus didn't have to worry about crowds being mowed down by big trucks, or people being shot by snipers, or even people being blown up with bombs or attacked with assault rifles. I imagine he stands in the crowds were these things happen. Our grief is his grief, and even though he is divine, I'm sure he has not forgotten what it feels like to be human.

He stands with the mothers who cry and wail for dead children. He stands with young people who stare down at the body of a friend they were just talking or riding with, who now lies on the ground, dead. He stands with the men of valor who wear badges and swear to protect the innocent and themselves are salted shot and killed by someone with a grudge. He stands with all this as we witness horror after horror, and he weeps with us because he too is acquainted with grief.

Jesus is there for and with us but that does not relieve us of the necessity of trying to do something about it ourselves. We so desperately want something to believe in, something that offers a solid ground in a very shaky world. If we did not listen to Jesus talk about his Father, did not trust when he talked about his home, maybe we should hold on to Jesus as grieving just as we are.

We all grieve, Jesus grieves with us. We must acknowledge this, and then begin to hand out Kleenexes and start to do things that will help the world overcome the evils we find in it. Jesus is counting on us.




*Quoted in Norris, Kathleen, The Cloister Walk, (1997) New York: Riverhead Books; p. 27

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Weeds

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. -- Matthew 13:24-30


I'm amazed that living so close to Phoenix, one of the country's major cities, we have such a range of agricultural areas around us. We have cotton, millet, corn, alfalfa and various other crops . It's interesting to watch them grow and see the greenness of the fields which make such a change from the brown of the desert. Most of the time the fields look perfect but occasionally there will be something that looks out of place, something green but a different shape or perhaps towering over the growing crops. Those are weeds, and weeds are no respecter of persons. Ask anyone with a lawn.

I've heard weeds described as simply plants and flowers growing in the wrong place. Granted, dandelions are such pretty yellow flowers and, for children, the seed heads are so inviting They pluck them from the plant and blow on the globe, sending the fairy-like seeds to propagate somewhere else. There are lots of beautiful weeds, but they are still weeds, especially if they're not in a place where they wanted.

Jesus knew about weeds. I think it's a surprise to me that he would understand them. I doubt seriously that he had done very much in terms of gardening or growing food, but then there a lot of years that Jesus lived that we don't know anything about. At any rate, he tells the story, the parable, about the kingdom of heaven being like a crop field. That is the whole word right there — like. This tells us he's creating a simile, a familiar object or scenario that has a deeper meaning to it.

He spoke of sowing good seeds but then having enemies sneak in and spread seeds like dandelion fluff, while everyone else was asleep. The plants grew and so did the weeds. The servants were puzzled when they asked the master, "Should we pull these up?" The master told them to just leave them for now. So why not pull them up? The unwanted plants were right there taking nourishment and water from the main crop. But the master had some insight that the servants hadn't thought of: if they pulled up the weeds, the chances were they would pull up some of the good plants as well, or damage their roots and cause them to die. The master decided that it would be best to just let the weeds grow and then, at harvest time, the separations would be done.

In these past few weeks we have seen people make judgments as to who is what. We have felt grief and sadness over the number of shooting deaths of good people and we wonder what has to be done to make the world safe for our children and our grandchildren. We read about #BlackLivesMatter, and #BlueLivesMatter, even #AllLivesMatter. Are we excused the from listening to others because we are of another race or another occupation or another persuasion?. We need to listen to each other with open minds--and hearts, not adamant adherence to what we already know, or think we know.

There are times we have to make that decision, but it should be made judiciously and mercifully. Sometimes the decision is made in five seconds or less--an awfully short time that can make the difference between life and death.

It's time for us to stop worrying about the harvest and get on with the process of living and growing, even if we share a row or a field with weeds. To be honest, we might be the weeds ourselves. Let's not be complacent. Let's not think more highly of ourselves than we do our neighbors. Let God take care of gathering in the crop.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 23, 2o16.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Righteous Gentiles

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. -- Edmund Burke


The Great War, known as WWI, was over and the world breathed easier. Things went back to normal in a Downton Abbey-ish kind of way. The rich were mostly still well off, while the working class people continued to work. Those wounded in the war were helped it as much as possible but maimed veterans mostly preferred to stay out of sight. For some, the internal scars of war ravaged the minds of those who had seen too much and experienced too much. It left their dreams in tatters and their rest disturbed. On the continent, it was not much different from Britain and the other Allies, including the United States. It was the "War to end all wars."

Beginning in 1933, the specter of war began to raise its ugly head once again. Movements against Jews and groups such as homosexuals, those with disabilities and mental defects, and gypsies, among others, began to feel a tightening noose. Yellow stars appeared on clothing, branding the wearer as one of the despised Jews who had, it was said, grown too powerful and were corrupting the towns, villages, and even countries in which they lived. Eventually the final solution of mass extermination was put into place. 

The world only gradually learned the word Shoah, a term meaning "destruction," and what that destruction meant. By the end of the war, over 6 million Jews alone had been exterminated or died, whether from starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or as the result of torture and inhumane medical experiments. Despite their penchant for accurate records and counts being kept by the Nazis, it is still impossible to give the actual total number of victims of what we have also called the Holocaust.

In the midst of the horror and fear, there were those individuals and small groups who refused to go along with the Nazis and did what they could to save the lives of Jews before they could be rounded up and exterminated. In 1953, years after the war's end, Israel's Knesset established a memorial called Yad Vashem, commemorating those who, whether successful or not, tried to save Jews at the risk of mortal danger to themselves and for humanitarian reasons only, not for profit. As of now, there are approximately 19,150 individuals honored as "Righteous Gentiles" although there are many more who tried and failed.

Today we commemorate several of the Righteous Gentiles: Raoul Wallenberg [Swedish, d. 1947] Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; C. Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; and Andre Trocme [d. 1971, French]. Because of these men, many thousands of souls were saved. Of course, there were others, like Oskar Schindler, who hid Jews in his factory as workers before they could be smuggled out.  Miep Gies, and three other employees of Otto Frank saved their employer's family and others at great risk to themselves. There were many more, some known but to God.

The Righteous Gentiles were an example of what one person, or one small group could do to help others. Whether they were practicing Christians or not, they exemplified not just Christian values but also the commandments of God given to the Jews themselves. As the number of survivors of the Holocaust grows smaller each year, it is important for their stories to be recorded and remembered. Along with those stories, their tales of those who helped them should be remembered as well.

Today the swastikas have begun to appear in larger numbers than at any time since the end of WWII. Jewish cemeteries and synagogues are vandalized, Muslims live in terror, homosexuals are targets of hate crimes, and African American youth are in mortal danger just for being Black. The same rhetoric of hate used by the Nazis is wildly applauded in rallies around the country, and the culture of fear is palpable. It seems we are moving backwards rather than forward when it comes to peace, justice, equality, and respect.

What are we doing to change things, to turn things around?  Isn't the thought of border fences, forced deportations of innocent and legal immigrants because there might be a drug dealer or terrorist among them, assault weapons being carried openly and sometimes used indiscriminately against perceived enemies, and wholesale distrust of police by African Americans and others while the police actively distrust those same groups. Where are the equals of the Righteous Gentiles today?

In Jewish cemeteries, it is customary for those visiting graves to leave a small rock or pebble on the grave. It symbolizes a bond, a remembrance of someone who has left us. Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians on January 17, 1945. Whether he was executed in Lubyanka Prison, died in captivity, or net some other end, his grave site is unknown. In Budapest, however, there is a memorial to Wallenberg and other Righteous Gentiles, including Carl Lutz. The many stones that surround the memorial express the connection, gratitude, and bond with all those whose names are carved on the stone.

May we live as not just Righteous Gentiles but as people who work to save others, even at risk of our own lives. May we be worthy of many pebbles and stones on our graves, signs that we have done God's will for God's children. It's asking a lot, but then, God never said that it was going to be easy to live that kind of life.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 16, 2016.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Where is the Love?

 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   -- Matthew 22:34-40


Another bombing, more shootings, more violence. It seems like every time I think things can't get worse, they can--and do. Between those and the campaign rhetoric, it's almost enough to make me want to get in a hole and pull it in after me. Lacking a hole, I close the door to my house and stay inside, foregoing news reports and radio broadcasts as much as possible. Maybe I'm trying to retain my sanity rather than giving in to fear, hate, and distrust  that seem so rampant..

One of the passages we hear frequently is part of today's gospel, especially the part about "Love your neighbor as yourself." There are lots of people don't like Muslims,  Hispanics, or much of anybody who is not like them. It's becoming a world where "love your neighbor" is becoming unheard-of, unless it is a neighbor who looks, acts, thinks, believes, and votes the same way we do. A neighbor, in short, is somebody we're comfortable with. Heaven help us if the neighbors are GLBTQ, wearing a turban (a Sikh, often mistaken for Muslim, or of a different skin color, speaking a different language, or, God forbid, never being seen to enter a church.

It amazes me that these things are now so prevalent that there is no escaping it. There are groups, individuals, churches, and communities, who were trying to make a difference. Organizations, established primarily for the reason of loving their neighbor and showing that love, do exist, but we don't always hear about them; we sort of have to stumble over them. That's in line with Jesus' teaching about not doing good works in the public spotlight lest they be seen as braggarts. 

Jesus put more emphasis into trying to explain and demonstrate loving our neighbor than he did to judging our sexual preferences, upholding the upper echelons of the rich and powerful, or overthrowing the Roman government. He was about love, maybe not always using the word, but definitely exemplifying it: helping the centurion's manservant or perhaps his shield mate; Jarius'  daughter; the woman with hemorrhage; the woman taken in adultery; and more.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus were walking around on our streets today. What would he say about the homeless, the veterans who were brave enough serve and who were promised benefits when they got home, only to find their government didn't know who they were, what they did, and, as far as benefits went, they didn't give a rip about that either. Yet those same politicians are never shy about raising their own benefits, salaries, or anything else that benefited them or their friends. That's not love, it's greed, and greed is the opposite of compassion.
 
Jesus fed the 5000 with two loaves and five fish. He fed everybody-- young, old, male, female, seniors, children, the whole works. He didn't turn anyone away because everyone there was hungry. He didn't make them sit through a sermon before he fed them like some places do; rather, he fed them until they were full and ready to listen. As any parent or teacher knows, people are able to concentrate more on what they're hearing and experiencing when they don't have that specter of an empty stomach rumbling loudly enough for a neighbor to hear. 

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Two very simple commandments that incorporate not just the 10 Commandments within them, but also all 613 mitzvoth, rules that were to be followed. Some were only for priests, and others for everyone. They are pretty important, I think. And those two commandments are simple enough a child could understand them. So why do adults have such a problem with them?

It's our job to love our neighbors. There are things I don't like about neighbors, like their loud music, or mowing the lawn it 6 a.m. on Saturday when I would like to be sleeping late, or revving their motorcycle engines and shaking the whole house. Except for those things can I can love them, and that said without patting myself on the back unduly. You can't collect Workmen's Compensation for patting yourself on the back, although I think Congress has tried that.

God loves us. Jesus loves us. The spirit loves us. All that is asked of us is that we love God and we love all God's children. Love not hate. Care for, not ignore or take away from. Help, not hinder. It's a very simple, so why are we not doing that. We permit fear, harsh rhetoric, name-calling, and finger-pointing to be such an integral part of our lives that we don't even really realize what were doing. We call ourselves Christian, but doesn't that mean doing what Jesus told us to do? Are those things Jesus asked us to do? Really?

Love your neighbor and love God. Maybe it's not going to change the entire world for one person to step up and say, "Okay I'll take that challenge," but it sure is a start. Yes, we have people who do hate us, some because we don't believe as they do, some because of our corporate arrogance and greed, and some because they watch our actions and those actions don't match the claims we make about them.

So, for the next week, my challenge to myself is just stop and think. What message am I giving when I run somebody down verbally or mentally, or look with disfavor on certain people who support things that I find unimportant or detrimental to the common good. They are all neighbors of mine, whether I like them or not.

The question is clear: where is the love? And what am I doing to find and show it?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 2, 2016.

A Place in the Story


In the gospel stories the story doesn't end--writers leave it to us to figure out what happens afterwards. What happens? Where are we in the story? -- unknown


Summers when I was a child were usually marked with Vacation Bible School. I remember the one- to two-week sessions, complete with learning songs, doing crafts, memorizing Bible verses, Kool-Aid, cookies, and lots of Bible stories. The Bible stories were the main event of the day, quite often the familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as well. All of them had a moral or ethical (or theological) point we were to think about and then use what we learned in our own lives. We didn't get any of the stories like Jephtha's daughter, the sacrificed concubine, the murder of Uriah, or any one of a number of others, but somehow the horror of Noah's Ark or the Akeda disappeared in rainbows, replacement rams, and evidence of God's love. It worked. We believed it.

The older I get, the more I realize that what I learned then wasn't the whole story. It began to feel like a Reader's Digest version--I had gotten the meat of the story, but there were still the skin and bones that were missing. It's a bit hard to explain, but it felt like I needed to know what was before the beginning of the story. Oh, sure, most of the time there's some buildup to the story, something about the time or place or people, but often that's not quite enough. What's more important to me, though, is what happened after the story.

Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The run up to the story is the introduction of the Jew who was on his way from here to there but who ran into robbers on the way. We know the part of the story where people passed him by, and then came the Good Samaritan who picked him up, brought him to an inn to be cared for. The Samaritan then went on his way, promising to return to pay for whatever other needs the injured man had required. It's a very familiar story, and one with a great moral, but I can't help but wonder why the Jew was traveling. Why was he alone? Most people traveled at least in pairs if not larger groups because there was safety in numbers. Was his traveling alone that made him a tempting target, or did he have something obviously worth stealing?  Or was it simply because he was a Samaritan? So it was a parable, probably not a real event; however, that doesn't make it less valid for questioning.

A second question that comes to mind with this story is what happened afterwards? Did the Samaritan return as he promised? And what about the injured man? Did he recover? Did he go on with his life? Did he repay the man by helping someone else? If he did, was it someone who was not of his faith? Again, the parable doesn't say; the important part of the story had already been told.

A third question is where am I in this story? What character most draws my attention or what part of the scene represents where I am now in relation to the story? What would I do? What would I learn from the situation? How would it affect my life?

The gospel writers wrote down the bare bones, telling enough of the story or parable to get the point across, but there was no need for elaboration or "What happens next." The people knew the area, the risks, the daily life that the stories contained but without description that would be what we expect today. The writers' main job was to present stories of miracles and the teachings of Jesus to people who had probably not heard him preach or who came to the faith after his death. They were written for a purpose, and that purpose was not pure entertainment.

We are used to endings like "And they all lived happily ever after," even though most of our books no longer leave us with that kind of conclusion. Certainly in the Bible the endings were often far from happily ever after. Although many stories like those featuring healing certainly point to a kind of happily ever after, they healing is always a way to point out Jesus's mission and the glorification of God. That was the whole reason for their writing, not to be like CNN reporting or some sort of social study of the result of Jesus's actions.

Just because the writers had a specific task in hand does not preclude our thinking about and using our imagination to get deeper into the stories. Take the woman with the hemorrhage. She had spent all she had on doctors who couldn't cure her, but Jesus did. What happened to her afterwards? She apparently had no male relatives, she no longer had wealth to keep her, so what happened to her? How did the rest of her life go? The same with Jarius's daughter who shared the same story. After her miraculous recovery, did she go on to live a happy life, marry well, and have many children to hear the story and believe in Jesus's power? It's to be hoped that she did. We'll never know for sure.

Life is a series of stories for each of us, but, unlike the gospel writers, the stories fall on a timeline. They have a beginning, an action, an end, and then life continues, sometimes on the basis of the events of the story. Perhaps we saw or were part of a traumatic and tragic event that radically changed the pathway of our lives, or perhaps we saw or heard something that someone said that changed us in some small but significant way. The event might be over, but because something intervened, life goes on a different tack than it would have otherwise.

Try putting yourself in the story. If nothing more, it will be a good exercise in imagination, a gift God gives us to inspire our creativity and stretch our thinking. But there is always a chance of that exercise bringing us new insights, new thoughts, new beliefs, that will take us on a whole new track. It might change our lives--and then, it might just help to change the world.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 9, 2016.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Songs of a People

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As 'Steal away to Jesus'? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great 'Jordan roll'? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot 'swing low'? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
'Nobody knows de trouble I see'?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than 'Go down, Moses.' Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You - you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sting far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, - but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.*  --
James Weldon Johnson


There are people who seem to have so many gifts and talents and abilities that it is almost impossible not to look at them as exceptional. The very brief biography of James Weldon Johnson on the Lectionary page is a long list of positions, talents, and passions that have made him one of those exceptional human beings. During his lifetime (1871-1938), he lived through a period where African Americans were generally not thought of as intelligent or important. Johnson, like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, among many others, proved scoffers wrong.

Among Johnson's greatest gifts was that of a poet and storyteller. His book, God's Trombones, is a short book of sermons in verse, sermons that carry the tones of Black preachers along with the grace and power of a bard.

I ran across a poem of his the other day, one I'd never read before.  It gave me such a lot to think about, especially in these days and times. Johnson connects the music of the spheres and of creation with the songs of the people which express their feelings, strengthen them in hard times, and bolster their faith in a God who was and is always with them.

We have listened to the sounds of great composers, compositions and songs that lift our hearts and inspire us in various ways. The spirituals, created and sung by slaves in the fields, around the fires in the evening, and in church, spoke of their lives and struggles as well as the stories from the Bible that taught not just the stories themselves but principles of Christian living.

Some spirituals like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Wade in the Water," and "Steal Away" gave them directions and signs to look for if they escaped slavery and headed north. What would Christmas be without "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy"? Or Holy Week without "Were You There?" What would campfires at church camp be without "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or "Go Down, Moses"? We have learned these songs and love them, but have we ever thought more deeply about them? Have we ever used them in our own struggles and trials and found hope and deepened faith in them?

We all have songs that come to mind in different situations, be they stressful or happy. Maybe it's a musical version of a prayer or a psalm, a hymn or a song we heard on the radio when we were young. It could be a song of our ethnic history or our geographical area. Perhaps even a lullaby or a song we learned from our grandparents. Music is part of our lives, and part of our faith tradition. Johnson understood this as he spoke of the songs of his people, the music of unheralded bards whose names are known to God alone but whose music still echoes in our hearts and minds.

Johnson reminded his readers that the songs their ancestors had sung are still part of the musical literature. From Girl Scouts to high-school choruses to church choirs, even from the floor of the House of Representatives, people still sing them and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of the tunes and the words. But the closing line is perhaps the crux of the entire poem, the explanation of why these songs are so important.

You [the singers] sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. The songs are our guides to freedom in Christ. They are guides for us to live Christian lives, to think, to pray, and to give thanks to God every day. The music will sing us, members of all races, from the slavery of sin to redemption by grace, from idols of wood and stone to faith in the living God.




*"O Black and Unknown Bards," found at Poemhunter.com; accessed 6/16/16

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 25, 2016.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bernard Mizeki - catechist and martyr

In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations—and Geshem also says it—that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king. You have also set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, “There is a king in Judah!” And now it will be reported to the king according to these words. So come, therefore, and let us confer together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind’; One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his house, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!’ -- Nehemiah 6:6-11

I'd never really considered it, but the church calendar is more than just a way of marking off days of the year like a regular calendar. For each day there are specific readings: those for following the Daily Office, others for the day's liturgy, and, for many days, there is an event, saint, or group of saints, to be commemorated or feasted. The educational part is finding a saint (or group) I'd never really heard of (outside the Daily Office) and reading about them. It's also possible to see something in their lives and struggles that help me with my own. It's like an exercise in identifying what makes a Christian life and how I can learn from the person or persons to live it more fully.

Take the saint for today, a man born in Mozambique named Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe who became a lay catechist and martyr in what was Northern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. He began working for a Portuguese storekeeper in his native village and learned the language the storekeeper spoke. He seemed to be gifted at languages because wherever he went, he learned not only the local tongues but also European and Biblical ones. He sought education from the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, also called the Cowley Fathers) and wanted to become a priest but that was denied him because of his race. Instead, he became a lay catechist and God-propelled teacher, translator, and missioner. He was baptized in 1886 with the name Bernard.

Bernard established a mission to the Mashona in Northern Rhodesia, establishing this at the village of the local chief and at the request of the Bishop of Mashonaland. He lived a simple, normal life, becoming part of the village life and eventually the school teacher for the children. With the chief's permission, he moved the complex close to a grove of trees sacred to the Mashona, but angered some of  the local religious leaders when he removed some of the trees and carved crosses in others.

Bernard used the faith of the Mashona who already believed in one god, Mwari.  He also utilized the deep spiritual lives the villagers already had to teach Christian belief and practice. The mission lasted from 1891-6 and was tremendously effective.

All missionaries were considered to be European colonial government agents, according to many of the black African nationalists. They began an uprising in 1896 and Bernard was warned to flee for his own safety. He refused, believing that Christ had sent him there for a purpose and that he would not leave the people Christ had led him to. On June 18th, he was speared outside his house and mortally wounded. His wife and a helper ran to get blankets and food for him but later reported that there was a blinding light coming from the place where Bernard lay. When they reached the spot, Bernard's body was gone. It has since become a place of reverence and devotion and a great Christian festival takes place there each year.

Bernard was a bridge-builder, not a wall-maker. He lived a simple life, loved the people he shared a village with, and taught children and adults about the greatness of God. He refused to leave when things got tough and it became the place of his martyrdom. This was a true martyrdom, not a false one where people feel they are being persecuted and injured because others disagree with their beliefs and positions. Bernard didn't seek his own greatness, but was rather invested in proclaiming the greatness of God.

How different things are now for us here in the United States. We hear about building walls. Preachers and would-be prophets proclaim the gospel of fear and segregation, individual rights and approval of the elimination of "undesirables," overtly and covertly. Even those supposedly presenting the will of God have seized on a small group of verses and have made an entire doctrinal platform of them. "Love your neighbor," a central tenet of the gospel of Jesus and the work of Bernard Mizeki, seems to have had a clause added, "...Unless they are not 'like us' and oppose 'our' rights and our 'control' over 'our' country."

We have martyrs in our own land, not always religious ones, but ones who represent those whom some of us fear, hate, or find inconvenient or somehow unworthy of sharing our rights and privileges. Unfortunately, children get caught in the crossfire, as do innocent people simply out to have a Bible study, enjoy an evening out, or even attend school or social events. We aren't just talking about building walls around on our southern border but walls that separate communities and groups of people from those who are different.

Bernard didn't build walls between people. Now we want to put our own stamp on everything. Recently we heard that now gigantic corporations want to "sponsor" parts of our national parks, of course, branding them with their own particular logos. It's like setting up a kingship where the individual or corporation is the ruler over something God created and of which we are only stewards.

So what is the answer? What can I learn from Bernard, given the differences between us, including time and place? Of course, courage and perseverance in the face of danger is a big thing, even if it has death staring me in the face. Then there is bridge building by finding commonalities and working with them. A big thing is love; Bernard loved the children of the village and their parents saw that. It brought many of them to Bernard, to learn from him and to enjoy his company. So many lessons, most especially remaining faithful to God and not building our own kingdoms or following those who seek to do that very thing.

"Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."  I think Bernard Mizeki would have agreed with Nehemiah. In fact, he became the example of Nehemiah's words.