Sunday, February 18, 2018

Janani Luwum -- Archbishop and Martyr

O God, whose Son the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep: We give you thanks for your faithful shepherd, Janani Luwum, who after his Savior’s example gave up his life for the people of Uganda. Grant us to be so inspired by his witness that we make no peace with oppression, but live as those who are seated with the cross of Christ, who died and rose again, and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. *

It seems that every so often when I'm reading the office for the day, I find myself reading about people who existed within my life span. It kind of amazes me, but then, the call of God and the responses to that call are not that uncommon even in the in this age.

Janani Luwum born in 1922 and was a schoolteacher just prior to his conversion in 1948. He rose through the ranks of the church from lay reader to becoming a priest in 1956. In 1969, after study in Britain, he was named archbishop of Northern Uganda.

It was a precarious time in Uganda. Not only were ordinary Christians in danger from 1971 on, when a dictator and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Uganda, staged a coup against his predecessor, Milton Obote, the Prime minister. The usurper was Idi Amin, and his name and reputation are still known today as one of the most lethal and cruel of dictators. He distrusted anyone who did not support him, and frequently those people disappeared without a trace. Soldiers were shot in their barracks because Amin feared they too might try a coup against him as he had done to his predecessor. Foreigners were forced to leave, and Christians were killed for little or no reason. It was a perilous time, a time full of fear and a time to keep your head down and try not to attract attention. James Kiefer gives an inspiring biography of Janani Luwum that speaks of his life and struggles.

The name of Idi Amin was very familiar in the 1970s for his cruelty, treachery, and brutality. It was hard not to see him in somewhat the same frame as a Hitler. In his 8-year rule, over 300,000 Ugandans were massacred, among them was Archbishop Janani Luwum in 1977. After his kidnapping, he was said to have continued preaching and calling the Amin regime to repentance for the crimes and injustices they had perpetrated. His death came through beatings, torture, and finally, a gunshot.

When the casket containing his body was opened in his home village, the level of atrocity committed upon him was undeniable. His courage in speaking out against a corrupt and evil regime and his faith encouraged his people and his faithfulness in the face of death had a powerful impact on the people of Uganda, and many who had forsaken Christianity returned to the faith, encouraged by the memory of Archbishop Luwum and others who had been martyred for their own faith.  
I remember hearing about the atrocities Amin had called down on his own people. It was almost too sickening to read and hear about, but it was in the news with great regularity during those days of repression and oppression with a dictator who caused mass murder and genocide without compunction, without regard or even remorse. There were several in the world at that time, and now even now reading about the times when these atrocities were happening is still stomach churning and nauseating. But then there are those who like Luwum who stood up against all odds and in total danger of losing their lives for their cause. That is a reason for celebration. These were people who took the words of Jesus seriously, the words about caring for one another and loving their brothers and sisters even until death. He died a martyr's death, and is considered a martyr for the faith today, especially in his home country of Uganda but now also recognized around the world.

We often run up against things that overwhelm us. This past week yet another school shooting took place, in Florida this time, and young people, the fruits of our generation and our children's generation, the future leaders of our country, were mowed down for some almost inexplicable reason. This time, it was by of a young man of 18 years of age who believed a hate group that sought to create an all-white society. It's sick. There have been a number of school shootings just since the first of the year and many young people have died because of people who wanted, like Amin, to rule their way and without any opposition. It is sad, and more than sad, it's tragic. We haven't seen another Amin yet, but that is not to say there is not one rising somewhere, and we cannot say where that somewhere is.

It's not easy to be a martyr. By martyr, I mean people facing real danger, real life and death situations, not just people whose opinions and beliefs other people don't accept. Martyrs pay with the price of blood that has been shed by the hands of evil. Luwum knew this and yet he continued, just like others have done. He trusted that God would care for him and would give him the strength and the ability to face whatever had to be faced so that others could be free and safe.

Every time I read of a new martyr that I have heard very little about, I wonder if I would ever have to face a similar situation or if I would have the courage of Luwum if I found myself in a similar situation. It is hard to know how any of us would react to facing evil and maintaining our faith as we face any instrument of death. Jesus showed us, and Luwum followed that example. His death gave us a new example of faith in action. I wonder, with all that's going on in the world, all the turmoil, the deaths of innocents, and the wannabe rulers of the world growing in strength and cunning, if we will have to make that choice and face that evil.

I will try to keep Archbishop Janani Luwum in my mind as a person of faith, character, strength, and most of all faith. I think if I (and we) could look to examples of Christians like him, I (and we) might find the strength to try and overcome the problems that we face today in a world of violence, oppression, and fear.

May God bless Janani Luwum with peace that he did not have on earth and with a place with the angels surrounding the throne of God whom he trusted and never denied.

God bless.

*Church Publishing Incorporated, 2016, A Great Cloud of Witnesses.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, February 17, 2018.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

One PBJ at a Time...

Mark 8:1-10

There's an interesting story in our gospel lesson for the Eucharistic lessons for today. We are used to hearing about the feeding of the 5000 which occurs elsewhere in the Gospels. This reading deals with a slightly smaller crowd, and using provisions provided by the disciples who had been carrying them on their own journey. Jesus and his followers were followed by a great crowd for the previous three days. This being the desert, there were not any drive-thrus, coffee shops, of amenities of any type, and I am sure most of them had run out of food and were really hungry. Jesus noticed this and asked his disciples how much food they had. They came up with seven loaves which Jesus blessed before the disciples distributed to all. There were a few small fish, probably something like sardines, and those too were blessed and passed out among the crowd. Everybody ate and were filled up.

When the leftovers were gathered up, there were seven baskets full, much more than the amount of bread and fish they had begun with.  Everyone got to eat and each of them was full at the end of the meal. The total number of people was said to be 4000. It was only after they finished their meal that Jesus sent them back to their homes so that he and his disciples could continue on their journey in the opposite direction.

We are used to the stories of the feeding of crowds of people and we think nothing like that could ever happen today. Very probably not, but it could, maybe not by the miraculous means that Jesus had at his command, but it could be done. All it would take would be for each person to bring a sandwich for themselves and another for someone else. There would be many people who would not have the ability to bring a sandwich for themselves, much less bring an extra one, but if half the people were able to bring two sandwiches, there would be enough for everyone to have one sandwich all of their own. That sounds like a pretty good miracle to me. It certainly would be a blessing to those who have shown up because they were hungry and needed to be fed.

There is an old story about stone soup where hungry people would boil water and put stones in. They would tell the children that it was stone soup and encourage them to drink it to fill their stomachs. Not extremely nutritious, and certainly not very tasty.

Many of our homeless people would probably be grateful for stone soup on a cold night. Most of them live without fires or a pot to heat water in, even if there were any clean water around. The stones would probably be covered with who knows what, and it would probably be more disastrous for them to use that than it would for them to go hungry.

For me it's hard to pass street corner beggars who hold up “Please help me” signs. I never carry cash, so I don't have any currency to give them, and even then I couldn't be sure it would go for food and not for something destructive instead. I was just thinking, I could always take a sandwich, and if I saw someone on the street corner, I could give them a sandwich. It wouldn't be a fancy sandwich, because I do not have a lot of fancy stuff in the house, but I do have peanut butter and I do have jelly. I could make up a butter sandwich next time I go out and have it ready in case I run across someone who's looking for food in the middle of the desert. Even if they are sitting in front of McDonald's, I can still give them my peanut butter sandwich. I cannot go into McDonald's right now myself, but I can share what I do have, and I think that might please Jesus more than buying someone a happy meal or a number one on the lunch and dinner menu. It may not be much, but it would be something.

Like the little boy in the feeding of the 5000 and the disciples in the feeding of the 4000, they took what they had and gave it to Jesus made it work. Okay, I am not saying that my one peanut butter sandwich is going to change the world, but it might change something for someone else. I think this coming week, instead of worrying about sending Valentine cards and candy or even trying to be extremely penitential with remembrance of all my sins, I will go with a fulcrum-type action. Maybe a peanut butter sandwich would be the idea for that day. It would not involve something someone gave up for Lent most likely (like chocolate), and it wouldn't be like eating a steak on Ash Wednesday. It would still be an active giving and a very small sacrifice that I could make in Jesus’ name.

I think I will do it. What to try it yourself? I really hope you will.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café,  Saturday, February 10, 2018.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Just The Facts, Ma'am....

Next week we seem to have a double blessing, as it were, of having two holidays or holy days on the same day. There has not been an Ash Wednesday/Valentine's Day concurrence in the last 73 years, the last one being 1945. Being a curious type, I researched and found that the next time it is going to happen this way with both being on the same day. Easter and April Fools' Day occurring this year on the same day will occur again in 2024. After that, will have to wait until sometime after 2100 before it happens again. 

And that's a fact.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Dorchester Chaplains, Models of Faith in Action

If I heard someone start off a sentence with "A priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers met at a ...", I would probably expect a funny story to ensue. After all, many such jokes have them walking into a bar where something funny happens. Today's commemoration, however, is of a very different sort. Even though it involves a priest, a rabbi, a Methodist minister, and a Dutch reformed clergyman, there's no funny story, just one of courage, and a sense of duty, honor, and obedience to the lessons of Jesus.

On the night of February 2, 1943, the four ministers were on board a naval ship, the USS Dorchester, as part of a small convoy heading through the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Greenland. It was a dangerous route, one known for its deadly qualities, caused by Nazi submarines which had already accounted for many ships being sunk in that area. Even though they were close to their destination, only about 150 miles away, the danger was still very high. During the night, a Nazi sub surfaced and fired a fan volley of three torpedoes. The other ships were missed, but the Dorchester took one below the waterline and amidships, a fatal wound for the ship, which soon began to fill with water.

The crew scrambled to get to the main deck and escape the fast-filling water inside the hull. Some jumped overboard and swam to lifeboats, sometimes overcrowding them almost to the point of capsizing. It was a night of confusion and quite often panic, although fortunately two ships managed to pick up many survivors from the waters. Still on board the Dorchester were many sailors, including four clergymen, who encouraged their shipmates to be calm, and who went about comforting and assuring the frightened and freezing sailors still on board. They found a locker that still contained some life preservers, so they handed them out until there were no more. At that time, the brave four took off their own lifejackets and gave them to the sailors.

People in lifeboats looked back at the ship and saw the four standing on the deck, speaking the word of God and praying together as the waters rose quickly to submerge them. It was an unbelievable moment, and one that stuck in the minds of many of the survivors who witnessed what was happening.

Jesus taught that "greater love hath no man than that he give up his life for his friends (John 15:13)." There been many examples through history, both Christian and non-Christian, and those people have been honored for their sacrifice of themselves for a greater purpose, to save the lives of others. Martyrs are those who give up their lives for their faith, but there are also those who give up their lives for their fellow man regardless of religion. The chaplains gave up their life vests, recognizing that this meant certain death for themselves, without asking what religion or faith the recipients followed. They simply handed over the lifejackets with the devout hope that it would save the lives of at least four people. It must have been hard to face their own mortality in a moment like that and yet they did it, seemingly without reservation or consideration. They simply remembered what they believed that God expected, and they followed those beliefs unto death.

They were not given a Medal of Honor for their gallantry to the death because technically they were not under enemy fire, although the sinking was the result of enemy fire. Instead, they were posthumously given an award created especially for the four of them, an award that would never be duplicated but which would be equal in respect to the Medal of Honor. It was called the Special Medal for Heroism and was awarded in 1961 nearly 20 years after their deaths. Yet they are not remembered for their medals, however. Instead it is for their faith, compassion, and example that they are honored today.

I should remember, the next time I hear a story that starts out with “Four men walked …,” that there is not always a joke that comes afterwards, especially when the four men are members of different religious groups or clergy of different denominations or even faiths. These four men walked out onto a deck that was sinking. They stood their ground, they did what they could do to help others, and they exhibited a desire to show the love of God to all under dire circumstances. Their bravery was incredible, and their courage and faith deserved and continues to deserve remembrance.

This week I think I will be remembering the Dorchester chaplains in my reflections. I may not be the one who goes down with the ship after having helped others to escape certain death, but I can learn to man the metaphoric life preserver locker and pass out words of life, words that would help others who are struggling and afraid. The faith of all four was in the same God, and so it is a reminder how important faith is and how obedience to God can make such a big difference.

God bless the memories of Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D Goode (Rabbi), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic priest), and Lt. Clark V. Polling (Dutch Reformed). May they rest in peace and rise in glory and be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 3, 2018. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Three Women Ministers

Today we commemorate three people who were coworkers with the apostles. There are lots of threes in the Bible: Abraham Isaac and Jacob; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Saul, Jonathan, and David: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; Peter, James, and John; Paul, John Mark, and Barnabas, among others. We seldom see women in threes, although many women are mentioned in the New Testament, both by name and unnamed. Today we have three, who were mentioned in the Gospels and in Acts, who played important parts in the establishment of a growing church and who made their contributions in different ways. Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe were from different places and performed different ministries. We celebrate those ministries today.

Lydia was mentioned as a seller of purple, or a person who dealt with purple dye which was rare and expensive. Lydia ran her business apparently quite successfully. Her business acumen combined with her earned wealth, made her a financial contributor to the growing church and with her whole household, she was baptized into the new faith, Paul and his companions were invited to stay in her house when they were in Philippi, and made her house their headquarters.

Dorcas was an early Christian in the town of Joppa. Dorcas (her Greek name) was also called Tabitha (in Aramaic). She was known for her charitable works, especially in making garments and donating them to needy widows, a group of people that Jesus (and his Jewish tradition) encouraged his followers to care for, among others. When she died, Peter came to her bedside and raised her back to life. Lutheran women are part of DORCAS (Diaconal Outreach, Care and Services), whose acronym reminds us of the ministry of the Dorcas we commemorate today.

Phoebe was from the eastern seaport of Corinth and was given the title diakonos of the church in Chenchreae. She served as an assistant, servant, or a deacon, depending on the translation. She could have possibly been a deaconess, which was a different position than that described by the word deacon. Whatever her title actually meant, she was a close coworker in the city of Corinth with Paul and his companions. Corinth was a sea port, one where sailors had shore leave after having dragged their ships across the isthmus that connected northern Greece, southern Greece, and the world beyond. The isthmus was not completed for many centuries, so in Phoebe’s time, ships were taken out of the water, put on rollers, and then hauled by the sailors across the dry isthmus and into the water again at Corinth. It is thought that Paul wrote more frequently about sexual sins in his letters to the Corinthians because of the shore leave given to the sailors after such an endeavor. Phoebe was probably very much needed to minister to the women of Corinth.

Three women, three different ministries, all dealing with churches and groups of men who also worked with the churches. Part of their importance is that they are women, not women who were in direct contact with Jesus but who nonetheless heard and believed the message and worked to pass it on. These three women have names, but there many others in the New Testament whose work and witness impacted the lives of those around them and brought them into the fold of the new the new faith. We seldom hear their stories, like Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, in the sermons or the readings on Sunday; there quite often relegated to a weekday. However, the need to be remembered as representatives of all the women in the Bible, named and unnamed, who do not always get the same amount of recognition as their male counterparts.

This isn't a bid for feminism and equality per se, although I would like to see more emphasis placed on the women of the Bible and their contributions. Seldom during the church year (except at Christmas and Easter) do we hear of or mention the women that were such important parts of the scenario. We know of Mary and Elizabeth at Advent and Christmas, and then Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, Mary the mother of James and John, and Salome at the base of the cross and the women who went to the tomb after the Sabbath. We know those stories, and we know those names, but we often forget there are others who are worthy of remembrance and emulation.

This week I need to think about Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. I admit, Phoebe is easier, since my little girl cat is also named Phoebe, and she is assiduous in her ministry of being a loving bundle of fur whose purr ministers to me so well as a calming ministry. As for the humans, I'm not much of a businesswoman, I could make hats and scarves for the homeless women that I see around, and I could be a little more active in service to both the churched and the unchurched. It's just gonna take a little more effort.

May we remember these women and all the others as heroes of the faith and example examples of what Christianity is about.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 27, 2018.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

An Insight from Someone Special

Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ 52The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” 53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ 54Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, 55though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* 58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. – John 8:51-59

 I always think of John as the most difficult gospel to understand. It seems like he uses a more mystical way of saying something instead of just coming out and saying it in plain language. Of course, that's my thinking.

There are people who have no difficulty with John. I will admit that there are parts of John that I love hearing, especially the first few verses of the first chapter of the gospel. But when John tells a story he does not tell the story so much as he gives a dialogue of what was said. The gospel reading for the Eucharist kind of goes in that pattern, and I have to say, the first sentence rather brings me up short, especially today.

"Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death." It sounds very simple, whoever keeps God’s word will never see death. But then the reality sinks in -- everyone dies. Some never draw a breath of air while others live to 100 and beyond. Yet they all die. No matter how good they were, there is always an end.

This week I got news that a very, very dear friend of mine had died last weekend. Margaret was 97 years old, and had had a long, full life, despite advancing age and health challenges. I have known her ever since I can remember. I knew her from church, and I got closer to her when we both sang in the choir. I drove her crazy because as she tried to sing the alto, I would be singing whatever part I did not hear well enough to balance the sound. She helped me make a formal for my senior prom, and she taught me to cook some lovely food that our home economics class never did. I do not think Jesus would never have passed over someone who really needed a chair repaired or hugging a child who really needed it.

I spent many happy hours at her house, especially after the death of my adoptive mother, and, in a way, took over as a combination big sister, foster parent, and best friend. She and her husband had a daughter of their own, but there is always room for me to sleep on their couch all weekend and be part of their family, which I loved. She was also a big help to my adoptive father, struggling to make a living and trying to understand the mysteries of a teenage girl that puzzled and quite often frustrated him. Margaret took care of that for both of us.

Over the years, we grew a little apart, mostly caused by distance, but whenever we talked on the phone, within a minute or two it was like we had never been separated. We had some along conversations, and those conversations were about exchanging information, but more than that, it was about building a bridge. That bridge was something I counted on, no matter what was going on in my often-chaotic life.

Margaret was a firm believer in Jesus, and very conscious of the things Jesus taught. During her lifetime, she helped people and she tried to live her life, so the glory was reflected to God. She was a child of God, in every sense of the word, and just looking at her smile, which was radiant, it was like seeing God smile. She died last Sunday, and the world is a poor place because of her absence.

I go back to John and consider the part about the people who keep God's word will never see death. Margaret was fervent in prayer, constant in reading the Bible, faithful in attendance at Sunday school and church, and a practitioner of what she heard and understood from the Bible. And yet she died. It's hard to reconcile Jesus's words with the reality of life, especially a life as exemplary as hers.

During this epiphany season I've been looking for insights, ways of looking at things through different lenses than I usually do, and seeking to view things from a different point of view. Sometimes it's very simple, but sometimes it is almost impossible. In thinking about Margaret's life and death, I think the insight that I got from her was that she did not look for praise or wealth, or even pats on the back. She lived her life and did her ministries with enthusiasm and great love, not only in the church, but in the greater world. The insight comes when I think of all the time and love that she gave me when I was growing up and beyond. She did her best to live up to all the things that Jesus required, but she never spoke of it; her actions showed it. She gave to charity, she supported the church, she performed her ministries to the best of her abilities, and she was a dear friend to so many people. I have a feeling that the Baptist church at home today will be full of people who loved her and whom she loved, gathered as a community to remember her and to give thanks for her life and witness.

So, in all, I guess the insight is that there is joy and value in living the Christian life, one that accepts people as they are, one who helps those in need, one who puts the love of God above all. Margaret has given me a prime example of what that means. And although she has now seen death, I know she did not fear it, but rather saw God’s open arms waiting to embrace her. That would be her greatest reward.

Rest in peace, Margaret, and most assuredly you will rise in glory.  I will miss you, and will love you for all that you meant to me.

Until we meet again,

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday January 20, 2018.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Epiphany Fireflies

The tree is down, the lights have been put away, the kings have gone to the stable and left their gifts, and here we are. But just because we celebrated Epiphany on January 6, it doesn't mean that we can now forget about it. We're in a whole season called Epiphany, and sometimes we forget just what that means.

An epiphany, per the dictionary, is more than just a day or a season on the liturgical calendar. It also represents a manifestation, like the manifestation of Jesus being born in human form. It can mean a kind of insight or realization that sometimes seems to come out of nowhere but that clarifies a thought or series of thoughts or beliefs that have been running through the brain consciously or unconsciously. It's like a little lightbulb going off in the head, one that says, "Aha!" And here we have a whole season before us where we are encouraged to look for these little epiphanies, these little manifestations, these insights.

Years ago, the writing bug bit me badly. I wrote a letter to God nearly every day, and I talk I just talked about what I was thinking or feeling. I often found myself describing a thought or a phrase or a situation, then exploring it in terms of what the world would think if what I thought were plastered on the front of the newspaper, or what the Bible, the lives of the saints, and tradition Christian tradition would say about such thoughts. I also thought about where I stood in relation to that thought or belief, and finally what I was motivated to do because of the insight that I gained from this exercise. Come to find out, there was a name for this process, and that was theological reflection, or TR.

I heard the term first in a group called Education for Ministry (EfM). It took me a long time to figure out what a TR with all about, but after years of reading everything I could find, and struggling to understand what this process was all about, I had an insight. I already knew how to do a TR, because I had been doing it when I was writing. I got insights, and I explored different aspects of this nebulous thing that was running through my mind. I didn't need books, I just needed to know that these insights that I worked to get were the result of a very definite process, and a very useful one too.

Insights are an important thing in life. Most often we don't really think about them. Suddenly though, something happens, or someone says something, or something in a book strikes us as something we'd never considered before, and suddenly that little lightbulb goes off. Instead of a dark spot, there's a pool of light surrounding whatever it was that we, until a few minutes ago, hadn't had a clue about.

The story of Jesus, the stories of the Old Testament, stories of the saints, hymns, theological writers, all are part of expanding our world and allowing us to see with different eyes. It was rather insightful for me to find out that Old Testament shepherds lead their sheep rather than going behind them and driving them. I found biblical social science and it made so many things so much easier and so much more sense. I could read the Bible with more clarity as to what the people hearing these stories for the first time would have found familiar instead of trying to place them over 2000 years later in a culture very far different. Those insights have been both interesting and educational.

Insights can come because of just being aware. I remember one evening, standing outside my office while across the street a homeless man was pushing his worldly goods in a grocery cart. He came out of the darkness walked across a pool of light and then disappeared in the darkness on the other side. I only saw him for a second or two, but in that second or two I learned to see him in a different way. He was no longer a nuisance, a panhandler, perhaps a criminal. He became a child of God to me and in that flash of an instant, I loved that man with my whole heart, without knowing a single thing about him except that he was walking in a pool of light, pushing his cart, and was beloved of God despite what problems he had had or caused or been the victim of. It became easier for me to realize that God loved me too. After years of my childhood church teaching me that I was a miserable sinner and that God hated sinners, I suddenly believed God still loved me, a concept I found extremely hard to understand, but in that one instant I knew and believed it. That insight was a great new understanding for me.

So, to celebrate the Epiphany season, I think I'll go back to that practice of looking at something and trying to see what kind of insight I can gain from it. Whether it's an advertisement in a magazine, a video on the computer, an encounter on the street, a sentence or paragraph out of a book, or a conversation with a neighbor, insights can come from anywhere, but I must be aware that it is often a fleeting thing. Like a firefly, a brief flash of light goes out all too quickly and doesn't reappear in the same spot again. I must go looking for another elsewhere.

I haven't seen fireflies in years, but I think it's a good symbol for me to consider this Epiphany. I need to learn to find the little flash that can produce an insight that can change a great many things or even just a small change. Insights don't have to be huge to be helpful. I will also think of that firefly in terms of how my culture with see that little insect and its bioluminescence, how tradition could be illustrated by that flash of light all of a sudden. I can also think of what that little flash of light tells me and means to me, as well as what action it can spark in my way of doing things that would make them more in line with what God wants me to do.

I think this Epiphany is going to be a firefly season. It's going to be beautiful, and is going to be interesting. I think it may also be very productive.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, January 13, 2018.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany Gifts

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:7-12

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, a day that celebrates the visitation of the wise men, or Magi, bearing gifts to the Christ child. It is also the beginning of a new liturgical season, one marked by a search for new epiphanies or insights that help us on our spiritual journey. It is also the day when those who continue to celebrate Christmas finally take down the tree and the Christmas ornaments and sadly put them away for another year.

In the Epiphany story, there are wise men coming from their homelands far to the east. The word Magi not only means “wise man" but also "astrologer,” which gives them a reason to be following an unusual star that has led them for miles to where the baby was, Normally, we make it part of our Christmas play, although some churches and Sunday schools will save this part of the story for its own separate presentation.

The wise men represent wisdom and a desire to increase their understanding. They also represent a kind of royalty because court astrologers were very highly sought in royal courts, and many decisions relied primarily on the insights brought to the king by his court astrologers. These were highly selected men, and possibly women, although none are mentioned, who had studied the stars since childhood and who were able to interpret various things using the position of the stars and constellations. A lot of people today still consult astrologers for everything from when their true prince will come for them to whether they should study mathematics or poetry, or even whether they should take a trip at a certain time or not. One of the interesting parts of many newspapers is the astrology column, which people read faithfully and sometimes follow the given advice. It is believed that the stars can tell us what we need to know, if we read them correctly.

We believe there were three magi, not named in the gospel, but who have been given the names Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar. Maybe there were three, maybe there were ten, or possibly only one or two. We just do not know. We use the number three because of the gifts that were brought, gifts that were symbols as well as somewhat practical items. Their symbolic meaning, however, is probably of more importance to us in the story then perhaps their actual usage.

One gift was gold. Now that was a very practical gift, one which would be needed when Joseph answered the dream from the Angel about rushing away from where they were because Herod was planning to kill all the boy babies of a certain age. Mary and Joseph needed had to move quickly to save his life, so the gold would come in extremely handy until Joseph could find work and earn a living for his small family. The frankincense was a key component of the incense used in rituals as both a purification symbol and as a symbol of prayer rising to the heavens with the smoke. It was a symbol of sanctity and, probably, a recognition of the sanctity of this child to whom this this gift was presented.

Myrrh was a stranger gift because it was traditionally used in the preparation of a dead body for burial. It offered a form of preservation, but also a cleansing and help to disguise some of the less favorable scents that accompany death. It is usually accepted that this gift was a foretelling of Jesus's death, a rather strange gift for a new a young child, but perhaps not. Young children in those days have a high mortality rate. Luckily, Jesus did not need the myrrh at that time in his life, nor did he have a use for it at the end of his life.

I often wonder if one or more magi showed up at my door on a given day, why would they be there and what would they be bringing? Gold is always useful, especially among those of us who have a very real lack of it. It would be practical, but would it be the most important thing we could be given? Sanctity might be a good gift. it would be a nice scent, and useful for symbolic cleansing, which, I am sure, I need daily and I suspect others do as well. Myrrh might be a good gift, given my age and my health, but I think there are other gifts that might be a little more appropriate. I would really like to receive wisdom, not just the wisdom of the world and how to make money, create my own gold as it were, but wisdom of truly important things like peace, serenity, knowledge, compassion, understanding, and other such things. Now those would be handy. I think if I had that gift of wisdom I could work well in this world and create perhaps a better world for people around me, which could spread outwards much like the ripples in a pond.

I like to think that each of us is born with a special gift from God at the time of our birth. Salvation would be a gift many would choose, and that is assured to us in our creeds and in our baptismal vows and encouraged by our sermons and bit and scriptural readings about the requirement for us to believe. I could choose grace, which I think would be a perfectly wonderful gift, and one which, I also believe, God has given all of us at the time of our birth, it is just that many of us do not realize it until much later in life, if ever. Grace is there for us to accept and all we must do is believe it. That would be a very good gift for us to learn to accept.

The other thing I wonder is if we were one of the Magi and were bringing a gift to the Christ child, what gift could we offer? We could offer ourselves, which is a great gift; however, the problem with giving ourselves, is that many of us want to take it back almost immediately. Not everybody, mind you, but many of us would want to take it back periodically. So, what else could we bring?

There are some who have the gift of hospitality, and a wonderful gift that is, whether it is extending hospitality from their home, or their church, or in the civic groups to which they belong. The gift of hospitality often gives them the opportunity to show the teachings of Jesus rather than simply preaching them. Some might offer the gift of education, not only teaching spiritual values, but also human values that teach that all people are deserving of respect and, if not love, at least respect for their being children of God every bit as much as we ourselves are. There are some who make it extremely difficult for us to think of them in this way, but Jesus never said this was going to be easy. There is the gift of service, of sanctity, of constancy, and other things that would make this world more of the kingdom place than we can currently claim.

This week I think I'm going to concentrate on gifts — gifts that I was given at birth that maybe I have not developed as much as I could, and gifts that I can give, whether directly to Jesus or to God's people who surround me. In either event, it is going to require a few epiphanies, a few new insights, and a little bit of wisdom added like salt in an almost perfect dish. I really think I'm going to work on this this week.

Epiphany is a great season for this kind of thought. Maybe you'd like to join me in this quest? It is free, and it is rewarding.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 6, 2018.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Importance of Anna

There are lots and lots of stories in the Bible. Most of them deal with kings and priests and judges and prophets and patriarchs, all doing more or less great (and some of them very nefarious) deeds. They are intended to be stories about how things came to be the way they were, and stories meant to inspire those hearing them to do great deeds like David or Samson or Moses or any one of many heroes. Women on the other hand usually get a lot less publicity. We get Eve occasionally, we get Mary, especially around Christmas, but a lot of times, at least in the past, stories about women seldom showed up in the Sunday readings or even daily readings. That has been changing, and it is a very good thing.

We have a story today in the Eucharistic readings from Luke. Mary and Joseph have brought the 40-day-old Jesus to the temple as required by Jewish law, to make a sacrifice to God for the life of the boy. The first person that greets them is an old priest named Simeon who launches into what we call Nunc dimittis, “Lord now let thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." It's a prayer done at every vespers, compline and evensong.

But there was a second person there, a woman named Anna, who was considered a prophetess. She lived in or near the temple, and was in the temple almost continuously fasting, praying and prophesying. She was a very old woman, probably somewhere between 84 and 105 in years. She had been married, but her husband lived only seven years before dying, leaving a young wife and seemingly no children. Some references claim that she remained alone for 84 years while others other translations put her at 84 years old when the story occurred. However it was, her age was one reason for her being so revered by the people while her wisdom and piety also set her apart as special.

She saw the little family come in and she began speaking to the people around her about this marvelous child, and she was praising God for having sent the child and for letting her see him. We do not have her exact words like we have Simeon’s. Anna's job was done, and she disappeared into the mists, never to be heard of again.

It seems that in the world of the Bible some people were born simply to fulfill one thing, one gesture or one speech, one action, or one presentation of themselves. Anna seems to be this kind of person. She is there one minute gone the next, but she seems to have accomplished what she was supposed to do, namely speaking to the people about the redemption of Israel and the coming of this child who had a lot to do with that.

We seldom think of people in terms of one moment in time. We have so much information available that often we drown in information about someone who either said or did something remarkable. We know the names of doctors and scientists who made significant contributions to bettering the health of people, and will remember them for hundreds of years. We remember famous musicians and composers, and writers and poets, philosophers and theologians, but not usually for just one moment in time. We have information about the span of their entire lives in most cases, so there's it is hard to pick out that epiphany moment when something that they said or something that they did immediately makes a change in our thinking and our actions.

Have you ever had a moment where your mind was a bit muddled or you were trying hard to actually come up with something nebulous that has been teasing your brain for a while? Then suddenly you hear or read something and suddenly something clicks, the fog rolls away, and you now have a clarification of what you have been trying to come up with in the first place? It happens, and it happens quite often, but we seldom really take note of it. We are in a hurry to get that thought down on paper before we forget it, or work out that calculation and get it to someone higher up the food chain who is been waiting for this breakthrough. It might have been in the middle of a speech and, if we are lucky, the media will pick up on that one thought, but how much more of the speech goes by the wayside because someone else decided something in that speech was more important than the one little bit that might have been what someone needed to hear or read. It happens a lot.

We do seem to condense things into sound bytes, which is convenient, but which loses many of the nuances and some of these thinking points that we might be using for something that we have been searching for. A lot of people have been awakened during a sermon by hearing a Scripture verse that they might have forgotten that suddenly lights a lamp in their mind and something that was cloudy becomes clear. It happens quite frequently. Anna is one of those people who presents something that people need to hear and that is why we remember her, although we don't know precisely what she said.

I think my challenge this week is to keep my ears open and eyes open for one of those tiny epiphanies that clarify something I might not even be aware of its cloudiness. Maybe it's something that someone does that opens a window that I had no idea was even there. Maybe this week I should look for the Anna who calls attention to something and brings a message that someone else needs to hear, namely me. 

It's going to be an interesting week, that's for sure.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, December 30, 2017.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Short Ending to Advent

Reading: Malachi 3:1-5

Today is an anomaly. Although tomorrow is the fourth Sunday in Advent, it is also on Christmas Eve, which makes today the last full day of Advent for the year 2017. It is an oddity in the Christian calendar that only happens every so many years. It is a time the drives most people in the church crazy, because Sunday morning is still Advent with its reflection, patient waiting, and inward looking, but then, as soon as church is over, the Altar Guild, the choirs, the priest, and many of the congregation, change gears so swiftly it's almost like going from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds. Still, we have this one more full day to contemplate Advent, and today's reading from Malachi seems to be an apt one, especially given the physical, economic, and political climate in the world these days.

Many people will not read very far in this passage from Malachi without having something start in their heads from Messiah, the masterful oratorio of Georg Friedrich Handel who wrote that majestic work incorporating passages from Old Testament prophets and the gospellers of the New Testament plus a few others. It is one thing that I enjoy most about Advent, because I often hear bits and pieces of Messiah on the radio or I turn it in on my iPod to listen to the whole thing. I may hear it again at Easter, but the Christmas part is what I enjoy the most.

Part of the reading from Malachi appears in two places, one a recitative and aria for a bass who sings of a messenger coming to prepare the way for the Messiah and questioning “Who may abide the day of his coming?” The bass continues with singing of a refiner's fire and Fuller soap, methods of cleansing and purification. It does not say literally that people will be subjected to fire and very rough scrubbings, but that purification is needed to achieve righteousness which is what God asks of God's people. Halfway through verse two a choir continues with the chorale, “And he shall purify,” a vocally difficult piece with a lot of vocal gymnastics and counterpoint but also with a hopeful note when it comes to "…an offering in righteousness," the newly cleansed people of God.

Reading this piece of Malachi and observing how apt it seems to the for our time, I wonder, what would Jesus say if he were here now? It seems every day things look a little worse. With the sexual scandals, harassment, policies and budgets being made that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, it seems to be counter-Christian, although it supported by so many who purport to be Christians. I wonder, where is the disconnect?

Jesus preached often on the necessity for taking care of those who are marginalized by society, were powerless, and who had no resources with which to take care of themselves. Malachi, like Jesus, spoke of the widows and orphans, but Malachi also mentioned those who took advantage of those who worked for them, the aliens, and those who look to make themselves rich at the expense of others. It does not seem to have changed very much in the last year or so, and it seems that we will probably see worse to come. The land will be raped even further, those who depend on the land will be further impoverished, and the captains of capitalism will make even more money than they have previously, meanwhile treating their employees almost with scorn. Somehow, I do not think Jesus would be pleased.

During Advent, we've been considering how we best serve God by helping God's children to better lives and purification of our own lives by discovering what we need to change in ourselves and in our environment. We really could have used another whole week of Advent rather than just a few hours, but there's still time. It would be good if we could end this Advent with a renewed enthusiasm for and dedication to causes that help lift those who have been trampled down and encourage those who have built their own mountains of gold to share with those who need it the most.

With the joy of Christmas so close, it might be tempting to jump ahead and start celebrating without finishing the Advent work that we have been doing. We remember that Joseph and Mary were immigrants to the town of Bethlehem, with no house to come home to, probably few resources monetarily, and little or no possibility of finding shelter any place. Still, on Christmas Eve we celebrate that Jesus was born and laid in a food trough used by animals. No golden cradle, silk wall hangings, no gold columns, rich fabrics, thick carpets, and impressive furnishings. Jesus came as a man of the people, not the elite. That was part of his power, because people could relate to him, an itinerant preacher in his later life, who was not ostentatious yet compelling in his speech and way of living.

So, on this last full day of Advent, I look ahead, and I will wish every one of you a very Merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, the blessing of grace from God our Father and Mother, and a renewed sense of purpose to bring the kingdom of God to earth now.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 23, 2017.