Saturday, July 7, 2018

Spem in Alium

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te Deus Israel qui irasceris, et propitius eris et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis. Domine Deus creator caeli et terrae respice humilitatem nostram.

I have never put my hope in any other but you, God of Israel, who will be angry and yet become again gracious, and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, look upon our lowliness. - Response to the 3rd reading of Matins during the V week of September according to the Sarum Rite, adapted from the book of Judith, chapter 9

I've loved music all my life. I sang hymns and TV commercials by age 3, started piano lessons at 5, sang in children's choir and started with the adult choir about the age of 12. At 10, when I was asked about what I wanted for Christmas, I told my parents I wanted a set of the recordings of Handel's Messiah. I'd read about it in a book and was intrigued, and even more so once I heard it for the first time. I've loved it ever since.

I've acquired a lot more favorites over the intervening years, everything from Rhapsody in Blue until I finally settled on favoring Renaissance and Baroque music. Like hymns and the like, I have favorites acquired over the years, especially English church music, and most especially sung by the clear, pure tones of a choir of men and boys singing in a great gothic church, the sound bouncing off the stonework and ornamented ceilings. It simply gives me chills and makes me wish so much to be present to hear it in person.

I listen to classical radio at night as I drift off to sleep. This past week, they have played one of my most favorite pieces several times, an unusual frequency for that particular piece. It was written by Thomas Tallis, one of the greatest English composers. The piece itself is composed for 8 choirs of 5 singers in each, totaling 40 separate voices. It is a fairly long piece, lasting about 9 minutes and 15 seconds, but it is so totally captivating, it seems like only a short time. Spem in Alium is adaptted from the apocryphal book of Judith, chapter 9, entitled "Judith's Prayer," and is part of the daily readings in the Sarum Rite.

What Spem in Alium does for me is to make me feel calm, reverent, transcendent, and happy. I feel my soul rising up as the music increases in volume and complexity, until it feels like it is coming out of the top of my head and rising to the very throne of God. It isn't a melody I can whistle or sing as I move around the house, but it never fails to captivate me, no matter what is going on or what I am doing. That's a wonderful thing about music. I think all of us has some piece of music that does that for us, and isn't it wonderful when it does?

Music has a history in the Bible. Jubal, a descendant of Cain through Cain's son Enoch, has been named in Genesis 4:21as the father of all those who play stringed instruments (harp, lyre) and pipes (flute). Children are taught the song about Little David he shepherd boy who grew to be a musician called to aid the King (Saul) in his melancholia. Later, David became king and danced in front of the ark of the covenant  (unclothed, which seems as scandalous to  us as it was to David's wife). David is crediting with writing psalms that are hymns to which we have no existing music, but we have created new settings for them. Psalm 150 lists instruments praising God, and is one of the favorites of composers.  Angels sang at various times, especially at the birth of Jesus. Music wends its way through the  whole Bible.

Judith is not a book that is read often, so it is unfamiliar to most. Toni Craven has written a very interesting and informative commentary on the apocryphal book which is available at the Jewish Women's Archive, Encyclopedia. Judith is a widow noted for her wisdom. This gives her some credibility with the local leaders, and she uses this credibility to set everything on the right path from which the leaders have forsaken. Chapter 9 is noted as the "Prayer of Judith, " where she begs God to give her, a woman, the power and ability to lie convincingly.  It's not a first for a woman in the Bible to use wiles and half-truths to accomplish something that would otherwise not happen, but Judith was recorded as a bit more forthcoming with what she wanted and why.  

I loved the motet long before I found a translation of it, but reading it in English makes it even more dear. The words are those of faith and trust in God no matter what the situation. Those are words and feelings that are always good to remember and acknowledge.

I heard this piece again last night as I was trying to go to sleep. Thinking of not only the intricate harmonies but also about the words, I found myself drifting off to sleep quite peacefully. I'm not necessarily recommending it as a sleeping aid, but it worked for me, at least once. Do give it a listen and see what feelings and thoughts arise in you as you hear it.

God bless.

Tallis, Thomas,  Spem in Allium, sung by King's College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, conductor. Licensed by UMG (on behalf of Universal Music); Public Domain Compositions. Found on YouTube. *Judith: Apocrypha by Toni Craven, found at Jewish Women's Archive, Encyclopedia. Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 7, 2018. This is a corrected copy.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Joy of Hospitality

It's always interesting to read back things that you've written in a diary or a blog or just on a piece of paper somewhere that you run across and it starts to make you think. It seems that subjects seem to have a span of time in which they are talked about on an almost daily basis, while others fade away only to be resurrected weeks, months or even years later. The funny thing about topics of interest, especially topics that seem to be the talk of the town now, is to see how a viewpoint or train of thought can change with time, and how subjects seem to come around in cycles.

Think about hospitality for a moment. Several years ago, it was a great topic of conversation in Episcopal circles, particularly regarding how our churches and parishes exemplify Christian hospitality.

The first thing that happens when a person walks into a church is usually something that sticks with them even after they leave after the service. When they walk through the door, did someone offer to shake their hand? Did someone smile at them and hand them a bulletin or service booklet? Did someone engage them in conversation, ask if they were new and perhaps how they found this particular church? Those are different levels of hospitality.

Thinking about that brings me to the thought of the first time that I walked through the doors of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale. I was a person who'd been hurt by the church in general and who decided to visit this church where I knew a couple of people. The church had just moved into a new building, and so I set up my GPS to take me there. The sight that struck my eye as I drove towards it was that this was a slightly different looking church, something I'd call industrial Gothic. It had pointed windows that covered nearly the whole expanse. Lots and lots of bright light came in through the clear but lightly tinted windows that let in the light but would help keep the inside from being an oven or a foretaste of a place that we don't mention too often except in the Creed. Anyway, I thought this was going to be an interesting experience.

I walked through the door and was greeted by this very personable lady and the biggest smile in the world. She introduced herself as Joy and asked if I was new. Yes, I said, but I knew the Rector, and one other lady who was a member of one of my Education for Ministry (EfM) groups. Joy drew me over to the visitor's book, had me sign, gave me some information on the church, and welcomed me as warmly as I could have wished. This lady had an immense gift of not only joy to match her name but the gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome and a part of the congregation five minutes after they walked through the door for the first time. To me, Joy represented the perfect kind of hospitality ministry that every church should have. People who walked in with children were welcomed warmly and introduced to the people who cared for children in the nursery, Sunday school, and children's chapel so that they would feel comfortable leaving their children in safety with good, kind people. Older people were welcomed and assisted, if necessary, to seats in the church where they could meet and greet others around them, not just shuffled away in the back of the church where they could be overlooked. They were asked if they needed assistance in going to communion, or if they would like communion brought to them. Note was taken of where they were sitting and identifiers that would allow the altar party to find them and make them a part of the Eucharist at the Lord's table. 

There were other members of the hospitality ministry there, all doing many of the same things Joy was, it was just that I met Joy first. Imagine my surprise when I went back a couple of weeks later and she remembered my name! I loved Nativity the first time I went there, but the second time, in large part because of Joy, I felt like a member of the family.

I wish there were more Joys in the world, especially now that the shift in hospitality has gone from the world of the church to the national scene. It's become a topic that is controversial and rather painful for many on both sides. There are those who feel their safety is being imperiled, as well as those whose safety is truly in danger. We talk of building walls to keep people out, and we exemplify that by the number of walled housing developments that we have now with gates that require passwords or special decals and membership cards that must be swiped to allow admittance. The hospitality door seems to have slammed shut. The same is now beginning to slam shut on our national borders, or at least, to the one to our southern border.

So now maybe this is time for the church to start teaching the country. Yes, we have a number of churches that put on their signs in the front that they are a welcoming and affirming congregation, or that all people are welcome and the ones that they love are welcome as well. We welcome people of color, those who are American-born and those who have fled horrendous regimes around the world. We are establishing congregations within congregations, the services of the Eucharist and various ministries aimed at other ethnicities other than Caucasians. We host groups like Integrity, scouting, various twelve-step groups, and services and classes in other languages. Now, more and more groups are finding ways to help those who have come to us as new brothers and sisters, people who can contribute to the church and the world, without fear of their status, orientation, or any other perceived difference. All we need are 1 million Joys at the doors of our churches and the fences and gates of our borders rather than a few thousand AK-47s pointed across that short space between us and the rest of the world.

Joy still greets people, still smiles, and, with brightly-lit eyes, welcomes people to our little place in the Episcopal Church and our little corner of Christianity. This world needs a lot more like her. They need people who take joy in hospitality and extending hospitality. We need more who make us feel welcome rather than not.

Joy has found her gift and we at Nativity are the beneficiaries. I hope other congregations find their own Joy and share her enthusiasm that can lead to both church and kingdom growth. Just look for the little lady in the brimmed hat with streamers.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 30, 2018.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yes, No, or But

I have always liked the book of Matthew. It is one of the synoptic Gospels, sharing similarities with both Mark and Luke, yet with some differences. Matthew and Luke both seem to have copied bits of Mark but put in different emphases and different viewpoints. Matthew was written for the Jewish people, while Luke was written for the Greeks.

Much of the reading today is about swearing vows, especially vows to God. Today we hear a lot of swearing but it's not necessarily religious vows or even polite words or phrases. Matthew looks back to ancient history and the instructions to carry out any vows that they made to God, not to make the vow and then forget about it. Matthew also talks about swearing upon one's own head because there's nothing about our physical selves that we can really do a whole lot about. Of course, now we've got Clairol and other products that will change white hair to black and black hair to white and all the shades of red and brown in between. They had some of that stuff back in Jesus's time since Egyptians had used it when Israel was in exile in Egypt. But still is difficult to change the color of one hair and without aid of cosmetics. Matthew's point attests to the impossibility of changing without going to great length and great difficulty, and even then, it's usually not 100% successful.

But the part that really grabbed my attention was the very last verse, "Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no.’ " I find it very interesting that it is an instruction to be definite in one’s answer. Since this was a lesson from Jesus, it makes it even more interesting.

It’s apparent that Jesus neither left out a word or ever intended for to be there, and it's a word we often hear in context of a yes or no answer. It's a simple little word that can change the entire structure of the answer.

In this passage, Jesus never inserted the word "but". The man with the dead father wanted to join Jesus yet he fell even more deeply into the mire when he said, “Yes, but let me go bury my father first." That little word “but” changed the whole thing. The man was serious in wanting to follow Jesus, although he felt he had a prior commitment that had to be taken care of first, making following Jesus of secondary importance.

Politicians are great about throwing in silent “but” words along with their yesses or their nos. They are fond of saying, “Yes, we will do this for you, but we will do more for this group over here.” They will say, “No, we will not raise taxes or make these other changes," but just listen for a while. You'll find there is a real or implied “but” somewhere down the road.

Jesus never intended for there to be a “but” when a person makes a vow to do something or refrain from doing something. Statements were unequivocal. Love your neighbor as yourself, not love your neighbor but not if they are _____ and then fill in the blank with whatever the current target is. Jesus never said that if you see a person without a coat, to give them yours--that is, unless it’s expensive, super high quality, or necessary to indicate the status quo of the owner.

Jesus used the word, but in the context of “rather.” One of the phrases he often used was, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” He was redefining words, beliefs, and practices that had been in place for centuries. Jesus presented those ancient words and practices to the people who already understood them in one way, and suddenly turned it around to be something different. He was teaching them a new way, built on the old.

There are times when we can unequivocally say yes or no; we do it by the way we vote, the way we acquire goods and services, saying yes to this one but no to that one based on economics or political position or the like. We've gotten so used to “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” We wait to hear that little word because we are so used to hearing it and we know it's going to happen in there somewhere.

Jesus attributed the things like the “but” to something that came from the evil one. It's easy to understand because what it is becomes an entry for the shaitan to win others to the dark side, as it were. He is all too interested in attempting to thwart God by corrupting God's children, and, unfortunately, a number of them seem to be all too willing, even as they insist they are trying to do God's will and have no truck with evil. You can tell the ones that say yes to God because they do God's will as they were taught by Jesus.

The next time you watch a crime show or courthouse drama, listen to the oath that each witness must give, ending with "…So help me God." That's the end of the vow. If you notice, there is no “Unless I might incriminate myself,” or “But I can’t tell them about A or B.” Listen to that and see how much different it sounds when you mentally add those things on, because there are a lot of those implications in a courtroom. The oath may end with “... So help me God,” but there's often more that could be said.

This week, I'm going to try to work so that my yes is yes, my no is no. I need to learn to see where a gray area is truly justified, and where the answer must be solid and substantive. It’s going to be a long week…

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 16, 2018.

A Personal Prayer

Great God, Father/Mother, Creator,

Loving Jesus, brother, teacher, savior,

Gentle Spirit, powerful guide,

I honestly don’t know where to start. There are so many things to say that they all seem to be whirling ab out like numbered balls in a bingo cage. Everybody prays the right number will fall out when it stops, but usually the cage quickly spins again before the mind can focus on more than the fact that the last number didn’t match the empty space on the bingo card that would have made for a winner.

I sit here in my chair, looking at the western sun shine through the green leaves of the tree and the light making the white brachts of the bougainvillea glow like miniature light bulbs. It is such a beautiful sight, and it brings me peace. There are so many places on earth like that, and I’d be willing to bet that just about everybody has a place of beauty that brings them peace. Well, perhaps not everybody, because as beautiful as this wonderful planet is, there are so many places where war, famine, natural disasters, human-made disasters, human cruelty, rape of the earth and of humans who inhabit war-torn areas exist and seem to flourish. There are places where the ground is soaked in blood, and the air screams in pain from the sights and sounds of barbarity.  This is not the earth that I believe You planned. This earth is far from the Eden where life began, and all was in harmony, and it has been this way for thousands of generations.

It seems as though we reel from disaster to disaster. Children who should be safe in their schools are traumatized, shot, injured and killed on almost a weekly basis. A concert or a nightclub becomes a focus for hate and the body count rises rapidly. Before we can completely digest these atrocities, there is a flood, a fire, an eruption, a plane or train crash, a wrong-way driver who takes out innocent people and leaving other innocents mangled and suffering. The daily news is full of lies and half-truths, new proclamations that benefit a few at the expense of the many. Now we have young children, far from home, torn from their parents’ arms, thrown into cages, and given mats on the floor with a scratchy, noisy blanket that doesn’t wrap securely around their small bodies. Their captors probably don’t speak any language or dialect the children could understand, even if they weren’t so frightened they cannot take in the words being spoken to them by people wearing uniforms, sometimes like the people in uniforms their parents struggled to get away from in their native country. These children undoubtedly will suffer with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives. Think of that: a 3-year-old with PTSD, a hell-like mental prison that even grown soldiers can’t conquer.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we are at the mercy of people who are determined to be like dogs on a walk, making sure to mark every possible tree, fence, rock, or sign that another dog has previously marked as his own territory. Maybe that isn’t fair to the dogs of the world; they are doing what nature programmed them to do. As for the humans, anything that disagrees with their philosophy, religion, or cultural identification seems to need to be stripped from the world, no matter how many people those programs aid or how many lives they save. We seem to have slipped into the “I’ve got mine, too bad about you” mode of thinking and doing, and again, this isn’t the way the world was planned to be, was it?

The prisms in the window have now caught the flashes of light of the setting sun and there are rainbows all over my ceiling. It’s beautiful, but transient, just like the peace that the twilight sun brings. In the time it has taken me to write these words, the rainbows have disappeared, taking the joy with them. Another news story, another disaster, another atrocity, another planned cruelty comes across the TV or computer screen. How long, O Lord, how long?

Jesus gave us such a beautiful lesson about blessings for those who are kind, merciful, good to the poor and needy, accepting of the strangers, welcoming of the aliens in the land, loving to all, including those who have wronged them. These are the people we should be seeing rather than focusing so much on those who are busy dismantling what is left of Eden on this earth. More than that, we should be doing our best to fight back, to be the crusaders for those who have no voices no matter what their age is. Honestly, I wonder if it is even possible. It seems so disheartening.

Ok, so there aren’t rainbows on the ceiling every minute of the daylight, and nature can be planned for if not controlled. Those are things we can’t do anything about. What we can do is to see where we can make a difference, no matter how small. One grain of sand doesn’t make a beach but get enough grains together and they can put a buffer between the land and the restless sea. Get enough individuals involved and seeming miracles can happen.

I wonder if I could replace the darkness in my life with not just the sight or memory of things that bring me joy or peace but with some sort of action in some direction and some way. I know writing these reflections and prayers help me to refocus and re-purpose my life, but is there more I can do? Of course, there is. I just must be aware of it and also be willing to do something about it. I have to find another passion and work at it. 

I keep saying I need to do this, so maybe now the sight of those little children torn from their parents and caged, those mothers who cry and feel the desolation of empty arms, those who are innocent yet sit in prison waiting for who knows what?  What about those who are shut in or perhaps dying who need a friendly face or a few kind words to make life a bit more bearable?  What about cuddling crack-addicted infants in hospitals, or playing and loving puppies and kittens at the shelter awaiting adoption?  Maybe replanting burned-out areas or volunteering at a soup kitchen?  The possibilities are limitless – I just need to find my niche and get to work.

Thank you for listening, God, Jesus, and Spirit. I know you are always there for me, it’s just that I need an overabundance of tragedy like today to really understand that.  Thank you for being there.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 23, 2018.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sacred Spaces

Today we celebrate the commemoration of St. Columba, best known for his missionary work in Ireland and Scotland and his establishment of three religious communities, perhaps the most famous of them at Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. Columba set up Iona to use as a base for the mission work of converting the Picts and the Scots. At Iona, Columba ultimately baptized both the King of the Picts and the King of the Scots. Iona became known as the “Holy Isle,” a title which is still used today.

Iona, as Columba had established it in 563, was destroyed by Viking marauders around 806, around the time of the creation of one of Iona’s most famous works of art, the Book of Kells. Through the centuries since, it has been a place of pilgrimage, a place where even when thinking about it, one wants to take off one's shoes because it's holy ground. Was it because of the martyrdom of the victims of the marauders while upholding their Christian faith? Very possibly, or perhaps it was because of the sanctity of Columba and his influence, which, by the time of the destruction of Iona, had spread across Scotland and northern Britain, converting many and continuing to spread.

I've never been to Iona. I've read a lot about it, and I've known some people who've been there. The consensus is that it is a very holy place of peace, quiet, tranquility, and inspiration, among ancient ruins and large stone Celtic cross carvings. That's what is sacred space is: somewhere were all those ingredients come together to make individuals aware holiness all around them in the ground they walk on, the air they breathe, and the sky that covers them. Iona is a prime example. Pilgrims are still drawn to it.

Sacred spaces are all around us, if we just have the sensitivity and desire to find them. For me, I have several. One is on the hill in my hometown overlooking my river. God and I met there a number of times as I was growing up. God may not have physically been sitting there, but I felt the presence. I also felt it as I walked along the beach of that river and heard the waves as they lapped against the shore. That was a holy place.

Another sacred space of mine is the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I haven't visited it since it was finally completed, but I remember it as a building that was growing even as I watched. It was a slow process, building something like a Gothic cathedral, even with modern equipment. It isn't something that's put up in a week or a month or even a year. Yet, even with black tarps and scaffolding, the whole place felt like a sacred space with God present there in the chapels, the nave of the church, the choir, the wonderful stained-glass windows, and the solidity of the massive stone columns. There's so much sacred about that place that I still mentally take off my shoes when I take myself through it and remember.

I remember visiting a mosque in Washington DC many years ago. It was a place where women had to cover their hair, and all had to wash their hands and take off their shoes. I didn’t think about it so much then, but I understand now that the rows of shoes outside the doors indicate that the people are entering a sacred space, just as Moses did when he met the burning bush. I didn’t recognize the mosque as a sacred space, full of beautiful calligraphies on walls and tiles, and thick, rich carpets. There was a feeling of something special there, but I just didn’t know what precisely it was at that time.

For some, mountains are sacred spaces, where the immensity of rugged crags pointing toward the blue sky, large boulders, and trees meet like a scenic, invisible cathedral. Some find sacred spaces by watery places like mountain streams or the great wide ocean. I think people find a sense of peace and a sense of wonder in nature. For them, it's a sacred space because one feels different when one is there. There is a consciousness of the grandeur of nature, but also of creation and the Creator. Again, it's something that makes God present, far more intimately than is usual in life.

Sacred spaces don't even have to be big. They can be as simple as a single seat in a church or a small corner of the room set aside for meditation and prayer. Sacred space is somewhere where a person can feel blessed and where awe and mystery come together in a moment in time.

Where are your sacred spaces? What draws you to those places? What feelings, emotions, and insights come to you there?

Look for new sacred spaces. They can be found in lots of unexpected places, like a hospital or hospice room, a desert, or a park. Look around. You just might meet God in a sacred space you didn’t know existed.

God Bless.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Three Little Words

We see it on the news quite frequently. Someone is walking or driving somewhere and is stopped and asked personal questions, like “Who are you?” "What are you doing here?" It is an uncomfortable situation and one that quite often escalates very quickly, sometimes with the horrible finale being the death of an innocent person because that person did not answer quickly enough, or perhaps did not answer to the question in a way the authority thought that they should. It is a tragic consequence, and there have been so many over the past few years.

The Eucharistic gospel reading for today is a little bit of the same story. Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples, and as he walked in the temple, authority figures, namely the chief priests, scribes, and elders came up to him, and questioned him: "By whose authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus had simply been doing what he was supposed to do, but here was a group of people questioning his right to exercise the gifts God had given him.

Jesus was a fast thinker, and he had played this kind of mental chess game before. His advantage was having nothing to hide. Usually, we think of fast thinkers as people who are getting trapped in situations using words and questions, and they don’t always have the right answer. So, instead of answering truthfully or directly, they sometimes to try to prevaricate, which is like trying to do it two things at once: remembering what was just said and remembering what the truth was.

Jesus used the tactic of answering a question with another question, asking if the baptism of John came from heaven, or was it of human origin? And then he demanded an answer. I can just see the powerful group moving back just a little, huddling together to try to come up with the right answer. If they said that the baptism of John came from heaven, they would be asked why they did not believe him. But if they said the baptism was of human origin, they would be forced to acknowledge that John was a prophet, which is what many people believed him to be. Either way they were stuck, and being stuck in a situation like that is never a good thing. So, they answered in the only way they knew, and probably felt shame and anger as they were forced to say, "We don’t know." That one statement sealed their defeat; they lost face with the crowd, just by saying those four little words.

Sometimes those facing authorities don't really understand how to answer questions flung at them. Everybody wants an answer, they want it now, and they want one that they expect. People who are being questioned are afraid to say that they don't know because that could indicate that they could be guilty of doing or saying something for which they are being questioned.

We are ashamed to say we don't have an answer to a question, whether it is at work, facing authorities in a delicate situation, or even trying to answer the question of a four-year-old who wants to know why there are all those stars in the sky. We have answers that we could use. We could use a scientific reply, such as stars are in the sky because they are individual planets, satellites, and galaxies that have moved from the center of a gigantic explosion billions and billions of years ago, or we could say that God liked pretty lights so God sprinkled some in the sky, so we wouldn't be so afraid at night. The one thing you don't want to say to your kid is "I don't know." It is as if by saying those words we will lose credibility, especially with the people we most want to be truthful with, to be trusted by, and to be accepted as someone with knowledge to share.

It is difficult to say, “I don't know.” Somehow it would make it a little easier if we could say “I don't know, but I'll be glad to go and look it up and report back.” In a stressful situation, though, we don’t often think of doing that, especially if we are stopped by authority figures when we are walking down the street or driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and we are stopped by somebody wanting to know who we are and what we are doing there. It is very easy to say “I'm sorry. I got lost and could you please give me directions.” Or we could say “I am taking a walk. I live several blocks over and I'm on my way home.” Of course, we could be there for a nefarious reason, sizing up who is at home and who is not, who leaves expensive items lying around outside like a bicycle or a car. We could be an assassin or a burglar, or we could just be a person taking a walk. The authority doesn't know what we are doing, hence the question. In the light of that, they don't take kindly to perceived prevarications and the situation can escalate from there.

Jesus himself, at one point at least, used pretty much that same phrase when questioned about when God would come to restore Israel. This takes place in Matthew, and in that query, Jesus replies by saying no one knows, even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but only God has the answer. If Jesus could admit something that he didn't know, why should we be so embarrassed about saying it? Granted, the circumstances are a lot different, but still, there are times when it would be so much better to just admit to not knowing then to try to come up with some sort of plausible or implausible answer to a question.

None of us likes to look like we are lacking in total possession of information that others might want. Parents and teachers especially get this, because someone is always asking them questions. Sometimes they are not prepared the question, but they feel it creates problems for the for the person asking if they don't get an answer. It is a tough situation, whether it is life-threatening or not. No one wants to feel like they are uneducated or lacking in knowledge, but if an answer is given that isn't correct and the person who originally asked finds out, wouldn't that be the same as losing credibility by saying, “I don't know?” So, what is a person to do?
Some people never reach the point where they're comfortable saying that they don't know something. Others, quite often older folks, reach a point where they feel comfortable saying that they don't know. I find it is really a rather freeing thing to be able to admit to another person that I don't know everything. I can offer perhaps an example of what I have found in a similar situation, but many times I just don't have an answer. What I’ve also learned is that I don’t necessarily always have to have an answer. Sometimes just listening attentively to the questions is enough. That’s when wisdom kicks in.

I’m practicing the “I don’t know” response more often these days. Perhaps there are times when that is the most Jesus-like thing I can do.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, June 2, 2018.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Fire at a Royal Wedding

It's been a whole week since the royal wedding, and interest in the event still seems to be fairly high. All the secrets are now revealed: the bride's dress was exquisite; her veil was perfect with the dress and a nod to her new role as part of the royal family and the British Empire; the children were adorable. The groom was nervous, but the love he had for her glowed in his face and especially his eyes. She, of course, had eyes for almost only him. The rest of the Royals were like regular Royals. They sat, and they watched. Until the moment.

Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, stood up to give a sermon at the royal wedding. It was a nod to the bride’s American heritage, and the Presiding Bishop  Curry as the closest American equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bride and groom picked the reading from the Song of Solomon. It’s not something heard  very often, but it was a beautiful and thoughtful passage, and Curry took full advantage.

As he put his iPad on the lectern, you could see eyes begin shifting around. An electronic device? In St. George's Chapel? What kind of heresy is this? Well, this sermon was on it, and what a sermon it was. After all, this was a 21st century wedding, with nods to simplicity and a few modern touches without losing the royal flavor.

The sermon was all about love, but also about diversity, politics, human rights, the power of change, the power of devotion, and the power of love. Love encompassed everything, including the bride and groom but also a world celebrating their love by watching and listening and joining in, whether inside the chapel or thousands of miles away by video.

Most American Episcopalians have heard the Bishop speak in a variety of venues. His book, Crazy Christians, is a bestseller. He has been videotaped numerous times, his sermons have been broadcast, and he has been featured in numerous events. We Americans have heard him preach and we know how powerful those sermons can be. So, we settled back and got ready to be blown away.

Curry hit some rather sore points, things like civil rights, slavery, and oppression that are seldom featured in wedding sermons. In fact, they are seldom mentioned even in Sunday sermons. But Curry found that the song of Solomon gave him the freedom to speak of these things that are part of our common and separate histories. A lot of people were uncomfortable, many very much so. The cameras were moving around the congregation, catching the faces of the people listening. Some were horrified. This was not the kind of sermon they were expecting. Usually it was a nice brief, traditional sermon, with all the focus being on the love between the bride and groom. What they got was like an electric shock going through the congregation, or maybe it was a jolt from the Holy Spirit, showing up early for Pentecost and deciding to make this wedding day something completely different and unforgettable.

The Bishop wasn't talking just about the love between two humans. He wasn't talking strictly about monogamy, faithfulness, and constancy within a single-family unit. He was talking about universal love, love that encompassed all people no matter what. Curry said "Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive." * It's a broad statement but right in line with the commandment of Jesus to love one another as he has loved us, and to love one another as we love ourselves. Maybe that's part of the problem; we don't know ourselves well enough to love ourselves. But Jesus does, and Curry made that abundantly clear again. To quote Bishop Curry, "When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family." Can't get much clearer than that. I hope a lot of people were really listening.

The thing about Curry’s sermon was that he put in it a passion that goes beyond human love. Curry is a Jesus lover, and he takes that love seriously, seriously enough to be so passionate about it he can't contain all the passion that he has for this love of Jesus. Regardless of where you are from or what kind of worship you were used to, that had to be abundantly clear. Curry is madly, passionately in love with Jesus, and he wants the world to feel that and to experience it for themselves. It is a bond with the Savior that is his strong as love and stronger than death. That mission is what I think a lot of people caught unexpectedly caught and didn't know how to respond but they knew something had changed something new had happened and something had come through like a rushing wind and lit the fires that hopefully will never be extinguished.

People go to church on Sundays, listen to the sermon, and probably have forgotten it by the time they walk out the front door. I don't think a lot of people walked out that way last Saturday in Windsor. I watched an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop after the wedding, and I was totally astounded and delighted to see the passion that seems to have affected the Archbishop. He seemed more alive and more engaged than I think I've ever seen him before. He had caught fire and showed it. I'm not saying he's going to go preach in Curry's style the next time he stands in the pulpit, but for that moment in time, he understood the passion and understood the way of expressing that passion so that others could catch on. It is not often that people remember the Sunday sermon or the Saturday sermon, but this is a sermon that people are still talking about a week later, and not just among themselves but on major television talk shows.

Curry is a very hot commodity right now. They all want to know what it felt like to preach in front of royalty. And I think the presiding Bishop, modestly, commented that he was preaching for the royal couple including everybody else in the sermon but that the sermon in a way road itself because of the song of Solomon, the text that he was given to work with.

It's time we look a little deeper into the wisdom literature of the Bible, parts of it that we almost never hear, and don't really understand. We look at it in a contemporary way, but we don't always acknowledge the parts that seem a little too intimate, a little too passionate, a little too lacking in mention of God and salvation and what have you. it refers it is love poetry between the lover and the beloved. Harry and Megan were the lover and the beloved, just as God, through and with Jesus, is the lover and all of us are the beloved.

There are so many words I could say about Bishop Curry's sermon. I watched the whole thing and I was totally amazed. I felt myself catching fire. Now that's something. It reminded me of a lot of Baptist sermons that I've heard, but blessed be, I heard not a single word about sin, repentance, and judgment. I heard a lot about love, and it touched me to the depths.

I think I'm going to remember the sermon for quite a while. I've printed out so that I can reread it and really meditate on it. If you haven't had a chance to read it, please do. If you haven't had a chance to see and hear it on video, oh, sisters and brothers, you are missing a treat. Prepare for your heart to be set afire.

God bless.

*Quotes from the sermon of the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Henry of Wales and Ms. Megan Markle, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, on Saturday, May 19, 2018.

Corrected copy of the reflection originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 25, 2018. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Girl, the Woman and the Sandwich

Everybody seems to have one Bible story that they remember more easily than others or like better for some reason. The gospel for the Daily Office today is one of my particular favorites. There is so much going on, and there are so many aspects to be taken apart and examined as if they were under a microscope. To me it is fascinating as well as touching, because a lot of it seems to be incredible and heart-wrenching 

The story is about a synagogue leader whose young daughter, aged probably around 13, had died and the thing he thought of to do, instead of standing by her bed and mourning, was to run to Jesus and ask for help. He expressed a great faith that Jesus could do what would seem to be almost impossible: raising the dead. The first important thing about this lesson is that it shows the power of faith, and the depth of one petitioner’s trust in Jesus.

Suddenly, however, a second story appears, kind of like the middle of a sandwich. We've gotten the bottom crust and now we get to a different story which is about a woman who had a severe hemorrhage for about 13 years, and who had faith but also a great deal of fear. All she wanted was to touch the hem of his garment and she knew she would be healed. She had tried everything else, but nothing had worked, and so for the last almost 13 years she had remained unclean, undefended, isolated, and probably severely depressed. This was her one chance, and so she took it. Jesus felt the power go out of him when she only had touched a single fringe on his cloak. She didn't touch his hand or his feet, or any clothes that were closely attached to him. It was just a fringe that floated in the breeze. But Jesus knew what she had done because he turned around and told her to take heart. She was made well, partly due to her great faith.

Then we get to the top layer of the sandwich, where Jesus goes to the leader's house which was his original destination. He first had to empty the house of all the mourners and musicians who were making a loud noise and creating a lot of confusion. He told them to go away, and that the girl was not dead but asleep. The mourners found that very amusing; this synagogue leader had brought a comedian to a deathbed. After they were all herded out, Jesus went into the little girl's room, picked up her hand and the girl rose up. The sandwich is nearly complete.

This kind of story within a story is familiarly called the sandwich technique of writing. It can be called a framing narrative.  There are other names for the technique, but sandwich seems to be such a good metaphor for how the stories are put together.

Reading it this time made something light up in my head. I think it shows Jesus multitasking. Undoubtedly, he did it all the time.  He would be walking and teaching at the same time or cooking and conversing with the disciples as they mended nets.  Multitasking wasn’t a word then, but today it is a very common word and action. It is something that everyone experiences now and again, even if not with such great consequences. This is like a slice of our lives today. I had never really considered it as Jesus doing something that we think of as relatively new, or perhaps we just noticed we needed a name for it. I guess it really does help me to understand that Jesus was human and capable of doing a lot of things that we think of as modern.

The sandwich isn't just bread and meat and/or cheese; it is a collection of things like mayonnaise, pickles, Dijon mustard, onions, horseradish, or lettuce and tomato. Without the assorted flavors of the additions, the sandwich seems kind of dull. It is the same thing with the stories in this particular sandwich narrative. The details come with the accent on Jesus's robe with fringe, the woman's length of illness compared to the child's age at the time of her death, the fact that both were female. Also there is the fact that both were the recipients of gifts from God through Jesus even though they were two separate individuals who probably never met, and the only thing they had in common was that they both were in dire straits. We know the child was, because the synagogue leader had said that his daughter had died. That’s drastic.

If you look at the woman with the hemorrhage, she was in dire straits too because of all the years of having wasted her money on doctors trying to cure her of her malady, as well as her lack of male accompaniment as she went out on the street. She was considered every bit as unclean as a leper, if anyone happened to know of her situation. It is probably pretty sure that they did, since gossip seems to float around regardless of the size of the area. If I go to bed at night, draw the curtains, pull down the shades, close the window, get under the covers and sneeze, the first thing tomorrow morning someone will ask me how my cold is. Same with the woman with the hemorrhage, they might not say anything, but their eyes would be staring, and speculation would be running rampant. It would be tremendously uncomfortable for the poor woman. There are so many bits of spice and color, spoken or unspoken, that give texture and flavor to her story.

I like the story because of all the details that are put in that make it seem real. Not exactly like a TV thriller or even a lot of the biblical movies that have come out, but rather as a slice of life, one that we can look at and put into perspective in our own lives. We to have interruptions in our lives, or something must be dealt with immediately just as these two incidents were.

One thing I learned from this is that if someone of Jesus's stature could interrupt one urgent mission to take care of another before going back to the first, then I should be able to handle getting a new piece of paper that needs immediate attention when I'm already working on another that demands equal attention. It is choosing, prioritizing, and multitasking. It is putting things into perspective and giving where gifts are sorely needed. I love this in these two stories.

I guess this next week I am going to have to think about where my priorities are and what I am doing at the cost of putting something else aside either for a few minutes for a few hours. Which is more important? How do I decide? Jesus responded to both requests even though one was unspoken while the other was a direct request. Sometimes it only takes a touch on the fringe to draw attention to the fact that someone needs help. Am I going to be sensitive enough to God's will to feel that and work with it?

God bless.

Image: Club Sandwich from Wikimedia Commons, credited to Matt@PEK, Taipei, Taiwan

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Leper's Tale

The sun is very bright today. The glare off the hard-packed road makes my eyes burn.  It’s hot in the sun, but others have taken up all the spaces under the few trees that grow here.  I learned early that a single person sitting alone has a better chance of getting something in the begging bowl than those in a group. It’s as if one person is safer than several together, even though we are all in rags and must repeat the same phrase whenever someone comes close to us.

It’s not easy being a leper, being considered unclean by one and all, and forced to live in very small tents away from the town, and to be dependent on the generosity of others who toss bits of bread and sometimes leftovers from their own tables to us, just as if we were dogs. That’s much like what they consider us, except that even the dogs get a friendly pat or encouraging word now and again.

One advantage to being alone rather than in a group:  I get to hear things others don’t. It’s as if by being nearly invisible, passersby don’t think we can overhear what they are talking about, whether it’s daily household talk, things going on in the town, or even news of the outside world that is important to them. Most of the time I hear their voices but don’t register their words unless it is something I haven’t heard before. Having learned to filter what I hear has been one of the very few good things about my condition.

I am considered a leper. My skin has not thickened, and I haven’t lost my facial features or my fingers and toes.  My disfigurement is that my skin has bleached white areas while the rest of me is the normal color. Still, those white spots have cost me nearly everything. I have lost my home, my family, my clan, my way of making my livelihood, my ability to worship in synagogue, everything.  Someone saw one of my patches and informed the priest who examined me and declared me a leper. In that one second, my world changed. Yes, I’d known about the whitish spots, but I hoped to avoid detection since I didn’t have any other signs, like sores and flesh that seemed to rot and thickening skin.

Today began much as usual, me taking my place by the side of the road, bent over as if to emphasize my “uncleanness.”  People came and went, chattering as they passed by. But this morning I heard something different.  There was a crowd of people coming by the town, which was something to be marked as unusual, important, and possibly threatening. Crowds sometimes taunt us and throw stones, so the sound made me instantly alert to any threat.

I kept hearing this name. I had heard it before, but then, it wasn’t exactly an uncommon name. The chatter I had heard before, though, was about someone who was a great teacher and a miraculous healer.  I knew, or used to know, several men named “Jesus” in our village, but these people surely couldn’t mean any of them, could they?  Still, I kept my ears open for more information about this “Jesus” who was coming down the road toward us.

The closer they came, I could feel the excitement building and the noise as well. It was hard to pick up individual conversations, but I did hear things like “He healed that blind man,” or “He taught with such authority like we’ve never heard from the priests we’ve had before.”  This intrigued me, and yet it isolated me even more. I could pray for healing, but out here, alone and friendless, would God really pay attention?  Would this Jesus even notice me? 

Finally, the procession came past where I had been squatting.  I had to try something, anything, that had even the most remote chance of healing me.  I stood up and approached the man who was undoubtedly the Jesus that the crowd had been speaking of.  Being unclean, and remembering the rules that governed lepers, I stayed a short distance away, but I looked him in the eyes and spoke to him. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”  God only knows where I got the courage to make such a statement, but it felt like it was wrenched out of me, my last hope of healing and curing, my one chance at life. Jesus’ eyes were full of compassion, something I wasn’t used to. Even when I had dared to look people in the eyes in my early days of this existence with my disfigurement, all I saw was fear, disgust, scorn, and dismissal.  These eyes of Jesus were so very different.

When I heard him say, “I do choose. Be made clean!” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. If he had not stretched out a hand and touched me, I would have doubted that I really heard what I thought I had.  I felt a power surge through me, and a tingling in the places where the white skin was.  I looked at one of the discolored spots and saw that it was gone! My skin was all a same color! I could barely wait to go and bathe in the river, to make sure what I felt was real. But this Jesus had an order for me. “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  The bath could wait. I ran as fast as I could. 

The result was that after I was examined thoroughly by the priest, I followed the prescribed rites and ritual sacrifices [i] and then finally got to bathe, wash my clothes, and shave all my hair. I stayed outside my tent, and seven days later, went again to the priest to complete the sacrifices and cleansing rituals. Then I could take my place back in the town, and begin again to build my life, this time full of gratitude to God for the man Jesus and the miraculous healing. I kept my silence about Jesus, just as he asked. I wanted people to know what had happened, but I thought that there would come a time when I could speak.

What change did this all make in my life?  I felt greater pity for the lepers who were not healed, and I made sure I had good hunks of bread and fresh fruit to give them instead of leftovers. They mistrusted me at first, but then began to see me as a friend rather than someone trying to impress others with their generosity while giving away castoffs. I continue this service this to this very day, in honor of Jesus’s kindness to me.

It was almost harder to see the life of the leper from outside the group than when I was part of it.  So many just ignored them or crossed the road to be as far away from them as possible. Yet Jesus had actually touched me in my leprous state.  If Jesus could risk becoming unclean as he ministered to me, then how could I not reciprocate?  I gathered food for the lepers from the houses in the town and shared it among the poor souls who had not received the blessing I had. It became my passion and my calling.

I say unto you, if you see someone less fortunate than yourself, do not be afraid to do what you can to help them. It is the work of God that you will be doing, and God will bless you as God has blessed me. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018


Tom Clancy, the great novelist, once said, “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.”  Our early lives focus around family, church, friends, and school. School equals a child's work hours; they're working to learn, and that learning will build, year by year, making successful adults who can function well in the world today.

Of course, school can be a bummer; ask just about any child. It would be so much more fun to be out playing with one's friends or curled up in a chair with a favorite book instead of having to fight through spelling and grammar and math. But now and then, there's a child who really gets into this idea of learning. Anyone who's ever been a teacher can remember cases where they have had children like these in their classes, and what a joy they are. The child's eyes glow when something new is presented and they realize it's something of value. They get excited and they want to dig deeper. It doesn't happen all the time, but it’s absolutely beautiful when it does.

Learning is an activity that is not necessarily confined to the walls of an educational institution. I learned things from my parents and my sibling, I learned from my neighbors, most of whom were much older than I, and definitely wiser. I learned from teachers and professors, and I learned from books. Most of all, I learned from just being in the world, watching how things changed, how people work together or have broken ties with each other over differences of opinion. I still learn every day.

There are moments of “AHA!” or new insight, moments when something suddenly becomes clear that perhaps I have never considered or a shift in thinking about a certain topic or a certain characteristic or even a plan of life or vocation. These need to be fostered because it's all about learning, and about what those new thoughts and insights mean to the individual.

An insight that I've gotten just in the last day or so is that all of us need training in various things. Granted, if one gets a new job, there's going to be a training session or class where the person must learn new procedures and new skills. It's a learning curve. For new parents, it's learning by doing, usually with a lot of helpful advice from grandmothers and others, on how to raise this new being who didn't come with an owner's manual or directions on how to grow a perfect, healthy, successful child. It's about experiencing through living, making mistakes, enjoying successes, and most of all knowing what to take from both successes and failures to make us better at what we’re trying to do.

One of the places we definitely need training in is being Christian. It's not enough to be able to quote scripture passages off the top of the head as if one were playing Jeopardy. It's not about just a learning that this means that in the Bible or this verse amplifies that verse in this book over here, it's learning what life was like in the Bible times, and how did the environment in which the early people lived affected what they thought, believed, and did. The church has an enormous history stretching back 2000 years and its roots much earlier. We need to learn about that history so that we understand how we got to be where we are and how are beliefs changed throughout the centuries.

We need to learn to think about where God is in all of creation and where are we? What is God doing or not doing, and what we are doing or not doing? What purpose do we serve in God's kingdom? What is our place in the world as Christians? What was the message God has given us in the Bible, but framed with the culture of the Bible at the time, then applied to the modern day? Many times, we don't learn these things in Sunday school, but rather in living in a world that's multicultural, as well as multi-faith.  We need to know these things and not just accept that Church A has a very welcoming reputation whereas Church B is more closed and exclusive. The answers all come down to training, and training is just another word for learning. It's something I've come to believe is very important for all, whether infants, children, adults or even elders. None of us knows it all, but we can sure learn a lot more than very possibly what we've been taught before.

I applaud churches that don't just have Bible studies but have studies of the Bible and its world, a world very different from ours and one which, once we understand the culture that produced the Bible, we understand better what it means. Does the Shepherd lead the sheep, or does he follow the sheep and whack them with a crook? That's only one question, but it's a place to start thinking.

I hope I keep learning as long as I live, because I am insatiably curious about so many things. I'm curious about my life as a Christian, and how I reflect that Christian belief in my everyday activities and contacts. I know a lot more than I did, and I continue to learn, not just facts and dates and people but about the intangibles, the things that form opinions, or things that make me go "Aha!"

Each of us needs to continue to learn not just so that we can repeat verbatim a passage or verse but that we understand what that first meant to the first people who heard it and to those who came after them. We can't isolate from the origins of that sacred book. We can't isolate from the culture in which Jesus grew and taught and was executed. We can’t understand the miracle of the resurrection unless we understand what went before. It all comes down to training and learning. We need to be trained to see beyond the modern-day interpretations that impose 21st century culture and understandings on first-century or earlier writings and stories. We need to be more educated Christians, as well as more dedicated.

 Never stop learning. It's worth the investment.

 God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 5, 2018.,