Sunday, June 25, 2017

Hotter'n Hell.....


The official announcement is out. There are 26 weeks or 185 days to go until Christmas. This is a public service announcement brought to you by — well never mind. Most people don't want to think about Christmas yet; after all, it's only the day after the first day of summer.
 
Here in the Phoenix area, where summer temperatures hover between and 105° and 115° generally,  sometimes lower,  sometimes higher. This week it has been considerably higher, and wasn't even the hottest place in the country. Still, three days of being over 117° and at least one or two of them being up over 120°, is it any wonder that I think fondly of Thanksgiving and Christmas when I can go outside without immediately bursting into sweat and finding it hard to breathe, or when the breeze feels like someone left the blast furnace door open?

The joke with my back-home family and friends is that  if any of my nephew-in-law's congregation (he's a preacher) didn't seem to want to follow the right path, if you get what I mean, that they should send them out to Arizona where they could get a taste of Hell before it actually happened to them. It might turn them around. Frankly, after living here, I want no part of Hell -- this one or that one.

 It's taken me a long time to learn to see the God that I was taught loved people but hated sinners, was really a God who loved people. Period. It didn't seem fair that even though, as a baptized person, making mistakes would cancel that out and send me to hell. A hard lesson for a child to hear, especially when one had relatives who probably weren't baptized and thus candidates for the inferno. They were loved, but without that baptism punch card, would they actually go to Hell? What about infants who died at birth or not long after? I never really got an answer I could count on.
 
The Jewish tradition refers to a place called Sheol. It was a place of the dead where they went and slept after death, but  there was no mention or intention of a fiery place that they would be spending eternity. In New Testament times, Sheol got mixed up with Gehenna which was a place where fires burned continually,  usually burning trash but occasionally bodies I imagine. In the traditional Apostles' Creed, it referenced that Jesus "descended into hell," but that has been changed to "descended to the dead." Somehow that's a little easier for me to accept. The word "Hell" has become like a wound that doesn't totally heal;  it doesn't take much to knock the scab off and the pain and burning sensation to begin all over again.

The first time I heard anyone say that they felt that the love of God was so inclusive and so broad and wide and deep that Hell would be empty because God wouldn't send anyone to Hell.  All were God's people, no matter what. All of them had the God-spark in them and God would not willingly send a part of God's self to Hell, right? It took me a while to think that one out, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it made sense or, at least, sense that I could accept and wrap my mind around. I remember that as  a child, we were taught that Jesus loves me like the old song said. We learned that from our earliest days in Sunday school. Then we got upstairs to "Big Church" we learned that God hated sinners  and that we were all sinners. Who and what to believe?
 
As a child it was easy to accept this because adults told us this was what it was, and we were taught to believe what adults told us without questioning. But as I got older it made less and less sense. Of course what God wants is for us to be good people and to do all the things that God wanted us to do, like  care of each other, love each other, help each other, and all the other things that would make for the kingdom of God on earth.
 
 But then someone would point out that surely Hitler would not be allowed into heaven, or the latest serial killer, or the tyrant who created genocides. Certainly God wouldn't want those people in heaven, no way! It was hard to believe that God is so in love with humanity that even Hitler or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or any person that committed atrocities would be welcome along with people like Mother Teresa or Harriet Tubman or J.S Bach. It doesn't seem that those evil people should receive the same treatment as the people who had honestly tried to be and do good, but then we get into that question of how much love does God have? Is there only a certain amount of love to go around and it stops at the Hitlers and what have you? Or does God mourn the wrongness of direction of some lives but still loves the God-spark in each even though it has been banked and put behind dark shades. It takes a little more thinking.

Back home we used to have a saying that when the temperature got up in the 90s and the humidity was right around the same mark, it was, "hotter'n Hell." In Arizona we can have the same feeling when the temperature gets up past a certain point and when the humidity rises, it feels, "hotter than Hell." I wonder --  Is Hell more like a blast furnace or the surface of the sun, some other kind of more than extreme heat? Would that be the kind of place God would put a child that God had created or breathed life into? How hot is hotter than Hell?

We are all children of God and deserving of the love that God offers us. Think about it. There's a tiny bit of God in each of us and God loves us. 
 
So there we are. I'm looking forward to days when it doesn't feel like the moisture is being pulled out as if by a suction more powerful than a vacuum, but rather as a pleasant weather. Thoughts of the fires of Hell will have an adjustable scale it seems -- what's chilly to one is pleasant to another, and what's unbearably hot to that other  is merely an inconvenience to someone else. I'll still say it's hotter'n Hell if the temperature gets above 115°, but this week I think I will try to maintain the right kind of thoughts about Hell and think of how it can be interpreted. I think I will still believe that Hell's going to be a very empty place. YMMV.
 
God bless -- and keep cool.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 24, 2017.
 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

An Image of Community

I think everybody has images that live in their minds and that surface now and again at various times. I know I have been at weddings which brought to my mind images of other weddings, and also mental pictures of events that occurred even before I was born but which have become iconic in their impact on the world.

Images are pictures, whether they are seen with the eyes like photographs or news reports or even personal experiences, or mental pictures that have been set in the mind through reading or hearing a storyteller. The vivid ones are often the visual kind, like pictures of war, natural disaster, or some other media reporting of events. I never witnessed personally the horror of Auschwitz or the sight of the mushroom-shaped cloud of a nuclear test on the island of Bimini, but I know what they look like because I have seen the images of them so often. I've seen photographs of volcanic ash falling in the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo erupted. I seen videos of tsunamis and also the subsequent damage that have been caused by the monstrous waves. I also have mental images of things that I have seen, whether in a live broadcast or even being present when something horrible happened.

This past week has been horrible, what with shootings and violence and even unnatural disasters. The image that sticks in my mind most clearly is that of an apartment complex in London, a 24 story building blazing like a torch in the English night sky. I don't know if they have completely determined how many were injured or died because of this disaster, but I know that a community was fractured.

In addition to the brave firefighters and emergency workers, the people of Grenfell Tower witnessed heroism from members of its own community. Among many heroes of this disaster were some Muslims who were eating their last meal of the day in observance of Ramadan. It was very early in the morning, long before sunup, but they were awake and noticed something was wrong. It became apparent that there was a fire, and instead of running for the exits to remove themselves from danger, they ran from door to door, knocking and banging to awaken people to the danger. They guided them to safe exits. They put themselves in danger to save members of their own community, the other tenants of the building who were from many cultures, spoke many languages, but who felt themselves to be a community.

The disaster wasn't over simply when as many had gotten out as was possible. The survivors huddled outside, dazed, confused, some injured, and all afraid as they watch their homes go up in flames with all their possessions inside. But another community came to their aid, the larger community surrounding Grenfell Tower. Churches, schools, and many buildings opened and set up places where emergency workers  and survivors could find a bracing cup of tea, a blanket for the shivering of shock, or even a safe place to lay sleeping children.  It's not uncommon for things like this to happen, this community response to need in a disaster. Even those who have little bring what they can to help those who suddenly are so much worse off than they themselves. It's an example of "love your neighbor" which is a tenet most religions and cultures have at their base even if the words are not exactly the same. In order to be a community there has to be love and care for all the people of the community, not just a few.

Marianne Williamson once said, "In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it." Grenfell Tower with merely the most recent example of work being done, wounds being healed and people finding the power to help. In our Christian faith, we would call this loving our neighbor, and it's a concept where Jesus was quite positive in his insistence that this meant more than just words. Jesus meant actions as well as words, and didn't specify that the neighbor would be only someone of the same culture, ethnicity, religion, or any other group that might be different from that of the disciples or the people of Galilee and Israel.

People come together in times of trouble, and that's a very good thing; it just seems to be that when there are no disasters or mass casualty events, many seem to think first of themselves and perhaps later they can think about other people. People of the area surrounding Grenfell Tower were not rich although some had more than others, were not necessarily more religious than others, or even of a higher status than others. They were people who, whether or not they had ever heard the expression "love your neighbor as yourself", exemplified that very thing. I think Jesus smiled that day, even as he wept for the dead and dying and for all those impacted in whatever way.

The image of that burning tower will be with me for a long time. Yes, it's a great tragedy, and the worst part is that very possibly it could have been prevented or even mitigated had the proper precautions and equipment been in place. Still, to me anyway, it shows  a picture of hope and an example of community at its weakest moment yet with the strength of the community growing each time a survivor was helped or a neighbor offered assistance. They say pictures are worth 1,000 words, and the images of the fire and of the community efforts at the time of that disaster are to me images of the lessons of the gospel and the will of God.

My prayers are with all those affected in any way by this event, the dispossessed and those who came to their aid. I pray I can be such a community member not just if and when disaster strikes but every day, even in the smallest of ways. And this image will join the others in my mind, to be brought out and remembered for the lessons it teaches.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 17, 2017.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Just 2 cents' worth


Mark 12:38-44

Another week is over and we prepare for the beginning of the next week. The news that been considerably better this week, with more terrorist acts, and more doublespeak from various official mouthpieces, and more unrest due to fear and anger. There are times when it almost a relief to sit down and read the readings for the day. The Eucharistic readings were kind of a starter for what I needed to think about today.

The story comes from Mark, who wrote fairly simply and clearly the things that he remembered from Jesus's teachings. Mark, the oldest of the Gospels,  seems to bring up themes developed in the later Gospels. Good old Mark, he just tells the story and lets the imagination draw the picture.

Mark was evidently present when Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem on this occasion.  There were numerous people there, moving about, going from place to place for whatever reason.  Jesus noted the scribes who, because they really didn't do manual work, wore long dresses. Their jobs were to keep track of the intake in the treasury, do long prayers (mostly for appearance's sake), also to,  as Jesus said, "...devour widow's houses." Jesus did not have a very high opinion of such ostentation and such hypocrisy. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last, where those who had high positions and who definitely did not let the rest of the world forget it, were the object of Jesus' teaching of how not to live.

There was one small woman though that caught Jesus's eye. he may not have been an old lady, but she was a widow and seemingly had very little means of support. Lots of people came in and dropped off large sums of money, making sure that others saw the size of their contribution, but the widow kind of crept in, trying not to be seen as she dropped in two very small, meager coins before slipping away hopefully unseen.

The thing was, Jesus saw her and called his disciples' attention to what had just happened. The widow had put in a far greater proportion of her income than any of the wealthy benefactors who were ostentatiously in their giving that really represented only a part (often a small one) of their wealth. It looked good, and enhanced their standing among those who saw them. We learn from Jesus that the  woman's contribution was greater in the sight of God's in anyone else's could be. She gave all that she had, not just a part of it.

This really is a story for today, featuring the two poles of the financial world where there are the very rich and there are the very poor. I can't remember who said it, but a well-known saying is "God must love the poor (or the common man), because He made so many of them." We talk about  the highest income people in the land representing 1% of the population. The other 99% fall somewhere below that, and more and more are sinking past the middle class and into the working poor or even the homeless and unemployed.

We look and we see them with their bottles of beer or Bourbon, with their cigarettes and marijuana, sometimes with drug drugs set out before them  and we think that these are the dregs of the world, people who, if they get two cents will spend it on some sort of self-medication, and it's true. I know if I were living on the street, had no access to clean water to wash my clothes, or without a roof over my head, or even knowing where my next meal was going to come from, I might also resort to such a self-medication program. We don't know that the widow was homeless. Very probably not, because even if very poor, people generally had someone in the family who would take them in and care for them. Too bad we don't have that much Christian grace today.

I often think about the old expression, "Putting my two cents' worth in," the saying that conveys the idea that the opinion being expressed probably is not worth very much, but the person wants to be heard anyway. Sometimes the greatest thoughts have come out of a two cent expression or sentence or thought.

A lot of people do not vote or contact their elected representatives to express their concerns and their desires because they think their two cents isn't going to make any difference. You can't get much with two cents. It used to buy a couple of pieces of penny candy or bubblegum, but good luck finding that now. Two cents will not buy anything, but if we have spare pennies, sometimes we will throw them into a jar on the store counter, in the collection plates,  or  an alms box. It makes our pockets lighter but without any significant impact on our personal income or financial position.

Thing is, though, if 50 people put in their two cents, there would be a dollar for whatever the cause. Sometimes someone putting their two cents worth in at a community meeting, town hall, or even a rally will somehow start an avalanche of support, including more pennies and people being motivated to actually do something instead of just thinking about how we could solve the worlds problems. Sometimes all it takes is two cents, and who knows, it would make a great testimonial to the faith of that widow who probably felt shamed that she could not give more but who gave her all, just as God wanted. God willingly  takes what each of us may think we can offer and multiplies it sometimes infinitely. God could do it without us, but really wants us to give of our selves, not just a bit of our resources.

I think it's time for me to think about my two cents' worth. I can understand the widow giving her all, but I'm too afraid. Maybe I need to conquer my fear and think about the ten cents I can put out, either in my words, my actions, or even out of my wallet. I have that image of the widow before me, probably being pushed and shoved by people who felt themselves much more important and much more worthy of respect. Maybe the widow didn't realize that Jesus had seen what she did. God saw, and God was pleased.

This week where can I make my two cents make a difference? It may take every coin out of my wallet, but somehow there has to be something that those coins can do to help change the world and even change me. It's going to be an interesting week.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Monday, June 12, 2017.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Martyrs

These feel like somewhat turbulent times. Daily reports of shootings, bombings, and massacres fill the news, making us wonder if this world is going to hell in a hand basket, as Mama would have said. It seems we live in a violent world now, a world more violent than perhaps even a world war, simply because although there are no huge battles like there were in the wars, daily skirmishes spread out from small communities in rural areas to large cities. And then on top of it, we have people who are killed simply because of who or what they are. We call these martyrs; they died because they were Muslim, or LGBT, or African-American, Hispanic, or any of a number of designations.

Today we commemorate the martyrs of Uganda in 1886, 45 young men, 23 Anglicans and 22 Roman Catholics. The young men were pages at the court of King Mwanga. King Mwganga's father, Mutesa, had allowed Christian priests to preach to members of the members of the court, and so the pages were exposed to this new religion. When Mwanga gained the throne, it was obvious that these converts owed greater loyalty to God than to the king. When the young pages refused to have sexual relations with the king, he ordered them to be punished.  Many believe that the pages refused to participate in homosexuality, but  I think it was as much a show of the king's power, much like rape of women and children in local battles that are still common in some parts of the world today. On the journey from the king's court to their execution site they sang hymns and praised God. They demonstrated their Christianity, and, one many converts despite the danger of being Christian in a country ruled by a person who felt himself to be the law and above the law. The pages were rolled in lengths of cloth and thrown, still alive, on burning pyres. Not a pleasant death by any means.

Sometimes we use the word martyr so easily these days. I'm not referring to religious groups and others  on buses that are blown up by rival religious groups, or innocent people whose lives are shattered when a specific group targets them for just being in a public place. No, the way I was referring to martyr has a much narrower meaning -- the way many people today refer to themselves as martyrs because their religious beliefs are not the law of the land, or  where their beliefs meet opposition rather than immediate acceptance. Maybe it feels like martyrdom to them; however, it would be hard to place a disagreement of beliefs that never reaches a level of physical violence with being tossed onto burning pyres while alive because a person professes a certain religion.

One of the martyrs of Uganda was a 14- or 15-year-old boy named Kizito. He was the youngest of the martyrs and Kizito is the only name we have for him or even if that is his real name. Americans probably never heard of them, but for many years Kizito was a very popular name in that part of Africa. I wonder about the children who die on our streets, even ones who are in their own homes and sometimes their own beds and who are slain by stray bullets because somebody felt that somebody else disrespected them. Aren't these little ones martyrs to a society where violence is increasingly becoming a way of life? Often violence is the result of frustration, anxiety, and anger that the world is so unbalanced in so many ways. Then there are those who are perceived to be threats and who are victims of hate crimes, from mock lynchings to vile painted messages to desecrated places of worship and cemeteries. These aren't new things; they're as old as the hills but are nonetheless still shocking that they have happened here, in a place touted as the "...Land of the free, and the home of the brave."

Our fallen veterans are returned home in flag draped coffins, are not they martyrs in a sense? Granted, they volunteered to go, but they believed in our country and they believed in the right of all to live in safety. So they went and, like a former next-door neighbor of mine, came home from Afghanistan in one of those flag draped boxes. I think of him as a martyr because he did what he felt was his duty in a hostile environment and knowing that there were always risks of maiming or death. So how do we treat those who return alive but damaged from tours of duty that place them in harm's way?  Do we respect them?  Or do we just insist they "get on with life" as if they hadn't been witnesses (and sometimes participants) in things most of us wouldn't even watch on television. I wonder -- is there a category for living martyrs?
 
This week I will be thinking about true martyrs -- people that honestly suffered and quite often died for  something they believed in that was greater than themselves. I believe that I should consider true martyrs and the witness that they bear, especially like those in Uganda whose martyrdoms bore great fruit in terms of converts. I think that's something I need to consider much more deeply -- and pray to have their strength in times of greatest trial.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 3, 2017.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

O Clap Your Hands


Omnes gentes plaudite. Psalm xlvii.
O CLAP your handes together (all ye people) : O syng unto God with the voyce of melody.
For the Lorde is hye, and to bee feared : he is the greate kyng upon all the yearth.
He shall subdue the people under us : And the nacions under our fete.
He shall chose out an heritage for us : Even the worship of Jacob whom he loved.
God is gone up with a mery noyse : And the Lorde with the sounde of the trompe [trumpet].
O syng prayses, syng prayses unto oure God : O syng prayses, syng prayses unto our kyng.
For God is the kyng of al the yearth : syng ye praises with understandyng.
God reigneth over the heathen : god sitteth upon his holy seate.
[The princes of the people are joined to the people, of the God of Abraham : ] for God (whiche is very hye exalted) doth defende the earth, as it were with a shylde.  - BCP Psalter
1549 *


I think it's a pretty well known fact that "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast," as William Congreve once said. I know that a lot of people use music to calm down, to get energized, to use as a mantra, to meditate to, and to keep occupied while driving down the highway or sitting  and waiting for a bus. Music is a gift that humankind has been using and enjoying probably forever. Campfire sing-alongs were probably a part of prehistoric life, and it's for certain that minstrels and musicians and storytellers have always been welcome, especially in areas where entertainment is lacking. One of the earliest and most important of traditional singing were the prayers and songs from the Bible.

One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church was the music that I heard there. It had a depth and a richness that I didn't hear in other churches, although I'm sure many of them had comparable music. But this was music that stirred my soul, it captivated me, and it wasn't like reading a book of Victorian love poetry.  When I read the Psalm for this evening, I immediately started to smile because in my mind's ear, I heard the Psalm being sung in an eight-part rendition written by an Englishman named Orlando Gibbons in the year 1622. It was an old favorite of mine, an anthem called O Clap Your Hands.

References said that the music was composed as a graduation piece when he received his music degree, but was also a part of the Ascension Day liturgy. Now, 1622 sounds quite old, but we know that the words that he used actually came from a much older source, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer's Psalter. It encompasses the whole of Psalm 47 with the exception of the first part of verse nine, and it  closes with the Gloria Patri which used to be common practice.

I was feeling kind of droopy as I read through the readings for today in preparation for writing this reflection.  I came across this one. I decided I needed to hear it again, so I got on my trusty iPod and before they even got to the bottom of the first page, my mood had shifted and suddenly life was a lot brighter. There something about this piece that creates energy and enthusiasm and in addition,  helps me remember the words of Psalm 47. That is  one of the benefits of music — it helps us remember things that might otherwise be forgotten.

How did we learn to recite our ABCs? We sang it. In Bible school, how did  we learn our Bible verses? We sang them. Even when we got to things like English grammar and how of a legislative bill becomes a law, or even multiplication tables  were the subject of songs simple enough in melody and in words to actually appeal to young children who sang them to learn some fairly complicated words and ideas without thinking of it as learning something complicated. It was just fun.
 
Probably almost every religious community at some point in time sings together, whether it is hymns, Psalms, canticles, prayers, anthems, oratorios, or cantatas.  We can sing out in the world anywhere, but  people might look at us as if we were slightly deranged, but in church we can sing boldly as well as prayerfully,  and we can appreciate the musical efforts of our choirs and instrumentalists all the way from the tiny cherub choirs to the most senior choir that usually sings at the main services. Music is an important part of our Christian life, just as it is just as it was in Jesus's day. David sang the Psalms, even danced to them.  I'm sure Jesus and the people in the synagogue sang the Psalms as well. They're easier to remember that way. 

The Episcopal Church, among some others, delight in the  richness of  music. We sing Bach chorales, and hymns that he harmonized, we sang things from Mozart and a number of other great classical composers. it's stuff we don't usually hear out on the street and usually it does not have a bass line that almost obliterates the melody altogether. This is music that can be sung and not shouted. This is music that encourages thought and prayer and not migraine headaches and deafness from the volume. This is music that is a gift from God. It enables us to draw closer to God because it focuses our thoughts on God and our responses and reactions to God. It encourages us to sing with the "voice of melody" even if we can't carry a tune in a bucket.  Not everybody can be a Pavarotti, but everyone can make a joyful noise. And that's what Christianity should be about -- making a joyful noise unto the Lord our God,  the King of all the earth.

Maybe we won't hear this anthem in church come Sunday but it's one that the has been sung for nearly 400 years and it still being sung. I wonder -- in 400 years will people sing music from Beyoncé? Or Michael Jackson? Or even the Beatles? Perhaps, but I imagine that among musicians in the church, O Clap Your Hands (among others) will still be sung with joy, reverence, and enthusiasm.

So this week let's make a joyful noise,  clap our hands and sing praise to God. Maybe it will be in the shower, maybe in the car, maybe under your breath as you rush for the train, or maybe out in the in nature on a long walk, or even just sitting quietly at home. I think you'll find the joy in the energy and the prayerfulness in it. I know I do.

God bless.


*Psalm 47 from 1549 Psalter, found at St Matthew's Choir, Ottawa Facebook Post, accessed 5/25/17.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 25, 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Gifts from Alcuin

I'm pretty much a child of the modern age. Although I dearly love the 17th and 18th centuries, I'm much too fond of electrical lights, indoor bathrooms, shopping malls, and books - lots of books. I'm even more grateful for electronic gizmos such as my Kindle. I have over 200 books on my Kindle, and it's lovely to know that I can put it in my purse, and no matter where I go, I've got a whole library to choose from so that I can read anywhere and on just about any subject represented in my Kindle library. Whoever invented the Kindle certainly did me a great favor, as well as the world.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, books were more common among the upper-class who could afford them. Until Gutenberg invented movable type, books had to be pretty much hand copied, which was time-consuming and meticulous task. If I think back even further I find the example of a scholar from York who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries. His name was Alcuin and he was educated, it is said, by a student of the venerable Bede, famed author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People and many other writings.

Alcuin was made a deacon of the church and was named Minister of Education by the Emperor Charlemagne. This job involved establishing and maintaining schools centered in cathedrals and monasteries, basically the only places, other than the homes of very wealthy people who could afford private tutors for their children, where education could be had. Alcuin also established a number of scriptoria where books, ancient works both Christian and pagan, were copied and thus preserved. That we have writings from this period are due in great part to Alcuin of York. He had other talents and notable achievements, but to me, his dedication to education, scholarship, and also promoting cursive writing which speeded up the copy process, make him a star in my firmament.

Today, scholarship doesn't seem to have the cachet that it had at one time. Scholars are seldom treasured now the way they were way back when. Scholars studied, and frequently they studied until they understood the minutiae of a topic or subject that to other people would find totally unimportant. But the scholars kept going, kept investigating, theorizing, revising their theories and writing their theses, dissertations, essays, and letters in order to promote conversations with other scholars interested in the same topic. These discussions would be part of the curriculum a master would teach his students, and they in turn would pass them on to their own students. A lot of it was oral, but thanks to Alcuin and his scriptorium, there were more copies of ancient writings then there had been before.

It seems to me that the world thinks very little of scholarship these days. It isn't practical. It's all well to have a theory, but if it doesn't make you any money then what good is it? It doesn't make you famous, then what good is it? You can be the smartest person in the world, but if it doesn't bring you fame and wealth and respect, what good is it? Looking at our school systems now, football players are more highly rated than the kids in the Honor Society. The captain of the basketball team is a star but the local spelling or math  champion is just a master of the game. Even the kids that are whizzes with video games are given more respect than kids who study, come out with straight A's.

As Christians were told that we need to read and study the Bible. Of course, that's something we should do, but we should also read it with more than just an eye that reads a word and a mind that says "That means precisely this." It's like Alcuin reading the texts from a much earlier time. He could report it exactly as it was passed down, but it was also understood that it represented another time and another culture, and so it needed to be read with care so that it wasn't taken to mean what it really didn't say.

We run across this now with reading the Bible. We want to be able to use it in our daily lives as a guide and a direction, maybe even a rulebook, but that's not what it's all about. One doesn't have to be a scholar to read the stories and then try to place them into a modern context. We find a number of things in the Bible that seem to tell us this is so and this is the way it is. The problem is, that many of these writings were geared for a specific time, place, and culture. As time went by some things changed. Even God changed God's mind on several occasions, which should be an indicator that maybe what we think it says is not really what it meant to the people who first heard the words and passed them on.

To be a scholar would be a wonderful thing. To be an expert who could expound at length on a topic to which they've given their lives to understand, that would be a great thing. At least I think so. But I look today and wonder where war scholars come from if they are taught that the rules are what we say they are, and they may or may not apply to us. We don't teach our children to think critically. We teach them instead to recite facts and pass tests that measure their state of being able to regurgitate facts and figures to specific questions and specific subjects and achieve a passing grade and enable to school to keep its certification. Like when reading the Bible, we need to teach our children to think, to reason, understand, most of all to be to ask questions and to consider alternative points of view, even ones that are centuries old.

I appreciate Alcuin. I think I appreciate him  more every time I think about him, because to him learning was a passion and others benefited from his passion. I think this week I may try to see where my passion for books can lead me into maybe a slightly more scholarly way of thinking. Most of all, I need to take what I learn and use it wisely and well.  I think Alcuin would approve.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 20, 2017.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Kid on the Block

My family got larger this week. I have a new great-grand nephew, the third great-grand nephew to go with a great-grand niece. This new kid is the first grandchild for my oldest niece and I don't think her feet have touched the ground since his first cry.

The one thing I can say about Facebook is that it gets people in touch quickly, and within a couple hours of his birth, I could see the little tyke and his beaming parents. It reminded me of when his mom's own mother was born. She was a gorgeous baby who up to be a very lovely, fine woman. I hope this little guy also grows up to a handsome and fine young man.

With the addition of this new twig on the branch of the family, my great-niece now becomes a mother, and conveniently, celebrates her first Mother's Day tomorrow. I don't think her firstborn has gotten her presents yet, or even maybe a Mother's Day card, but I'm sure someone will step up and contribute flowers or a cake or something else to honor his mother in his name. It seems to be the tradition when one has a baby. Wish I could be there to see them, but I'm happy knowing that all went well, everyone is happy and healthy, and mostly over the moon over this new little bundle of joy that's joined our family.

My new great-grand nephew has a lot of life lessons to learn. He will have to learn to communicate, first by cries, then by babbles, and finally by words and sentences. He will have to learn to move himself from the squirms and waving of infant arms and legs to rolling over, crawling, and finally walking. Then Lord help the parents when he learns to run! He will need to learn to read and write, play nicely with others, trust his family to always be there for him, love them as much is they love him, and, I'm perfectly sure, he will be taught about the love of God and what it means in his life. With one grandfather a minister and his mother a preacher's kid, I would expect nothing less. But knowing the family, they will teach him  this, whether in specific words or by example. That's the way most of us learn - by example. What we see in our families is what models us for our future lives. This little man has a lot to learn, but he has a lot of loving teachers to help him every step of the way.

Even when we are full-grown people, we are still on a path of learning, and we still depend on people to help us along the way. Whether it's a member of the family, a close friend, a mentor figure or a religious leader, or even sometimes a total stranger, we are still in the process of learning even though were further along on the path then the little man is today. We have walked the paths of learning so we can help others, from babies to seniors. We have learned to count on others to help us, most of all, to count on God.

God has been with us from our first breaths to our last ones (which we haven't quite gotten to yet, thank God).  Even when we think we are too big to need God or anybody else, we usually find that that isn't the case at all. Our view of God may change as we get older, but God is thoroughly able to grow with us, to stand and watch us as we stumble along on our own and yet be there when we call out. We never outgrow God, and God will be there throughout the baby's life as well. He will know about God, and perhaps he will teach us a few things about God too. That's one of the things newborns and small children can do, even if they can only squirm, cry and sleep. And what a way to learn! 

So this week I'll probably be thinking quite a lot about this new twig on the family tree and his extended family. It's a lovely change from the gloom and doom, the fear and the anxiety of everyday life. I will be praying that God will always be with him and those with whom he comes in contact. I'll be watching for pictures of him growing up, learning to do all the things humans do, and becoming a man after God's own heart.

So welcome to the world, little Abel. Have a long, happy, and blessed life. God bless.

And God bless us all.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Need for Duty


 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’ - Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (Reading for the commemoration of Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness)

This week I've been considering the word duty. Duty, for me anyway, usually denotes an action or a commitment that I may not willingly undertake, but feel that it is necessary for me to do so. I have a duty to pray for people that I don't like, and that's a hard one for me overcome. I have a duty to pay my bills on time, to make sure I follow traffic laws, and to try to see God in each person with whom I interact directly or indirectly, whether or not I really want to even try.

This week duty came into even more focus with the retirement of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who, at almost 96 years of age, has performed his duties with humor, a few gaffes, but a visible support to the Queen and representative of the generation were duty was a far more common word then we use today. For almost 70 years he has stood beside the Queen, supporting her in her own duties as well as carrying out his own. I look at the Duke and I see a very elderly gentleman, with bushy eyebrows, thin hair, a man who looks very different than he did in his prime, but with a very straight ramrod back of someone who had  trained  in the military to stand tall and do his duty. He's done his duty, and the British Commonwealth, as well as Anglophiles such as myself, salute a man who represents the true meaning of the word duty. I'm sure there were times he was bored to death, having unveiled so many plaques, opened so many different events and charities. I'm sure he couldn't have been totally utterly fascinated with all of them, but he did them anyway, and to the best of his ability. That's duty.

The commemoration for today is for a lady named Frances Perkins. Up until a few years ago, I would venture to say that most Episcopalians had never heard of Frances Perkins or, as it may be, never took any note of her presence. In 2013, she did rise to prominence with her victory in the annual Lent Madness competition to wear the Golden Halo for the year. We learned about Frances Perkins then, and it seems quite proper for us to remember her now, especially in light of current situations.

Frances Perkins was notable for being the first woman appointed to a US cabinet post by Franklin D Roosevelt. She was Secretary of  Labor from 1933 to 1945 and did not just what had traditionally been a man's job, but a duty that I believe reflected her passions and more than a sprinkle of Christian values. 

Among her accomplishments were her promoting and establishing adoption of programs that helped change the lives of many people:. Social Security; child labor laws; federal minimum wage laws; and unemployment insurance. That's a pretty good list and a lot of causes in which she believed passionately.  Having witnessed throughout her life the struggles of the poor, unemployed, underemployed, and especially the plight of women in the workplace, she took her experiences combined with her Christian faith and her perceived duty, and worked tirelessly to change as much as she could for the benefit of those most in need. 

Frances Perkins saw duty when she saw people struggling to make an honest living in a world that was very much like the one we live in today, a world of 1% versus 99%. The causes she worked for and believed in have become our causes because they are now under scrutiny and, in some cases, threatened by people who may not even know the name Frances Perkins, but they certainly see those programs so dear to her heart as nuisances and as blocks to their own success and increased wealth. We see social programs being shipped away, actions that will affect the poor and the needy, the sick, and those who have the  most negligible safety nets. I wonder if the word "duty" ever comes into the conversation or even the thought of those making decisions today that affect so many millions of people, but benefits so few?  I wonder what Frances would think.

Frances was a Christian (Episcopalian since young adulthood), who saw her duty and responsibility in changing the world to make it more of what God's kingdom should be than any earthly kingdom. Jesus laid the duty on all of  us to care for the less fortunate, and even the Hebrew Scriptures make a priority of being generous and caring for the widows and orphans, the sick, and even the aliens, the foreigners. It was their duty given them by God, and they took it seriously. Whether with straight backs or bent ones, duty was laid on all and, they did their best.

So, where do we stand at this point in time insofar as our Christian duty as outlined by the very Bible that we proclaim to believe in and follow? Where the duties that God and Jesus appointed for us to do? How are we to conduct ourselves so that we can not only perform our duty, but to let with gladness and with pride, and also with compassion?  It's our duty to create this kingdom of God on earth. God said so. So it's about time we got busy and started doing our duty.

This week I think I will try to stand a little straighter, be a little more thorough in doing my duty at whatever task I'm given, and to do it because it helps not just me but other people. I need to accept the word "duty" not as something unpleasant, but something I need to do joyfully and thoroughly, and with gratitude to God for guidance and help in this kingdom-making endeavor. One voice may not be heard by all, but it certainly can call for like-minded folk to join theirs.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Relics

It seems like, listening to the stories of some of the lives of the saints, some of them seem to have been born to be a saint. Take Catherine of Siena. She was one of a large family home it's reported that there were 25 children in all and she was probably number 25). By the time she had barely reached what we would consider school-age, she was having visions of Christ and his saints. It seemed she'd rather meditate than play with dolls or play childish games. By the age of 16, she joined what was known as the third order of St. Dominic, even though her parents still did not like the idea.

By the time of her death in 1380, she had expanded her world considerably. She was considered to be extremely wise and full of insight, and people came to her with questions and searching for answers, answers what she could guide them to finding. She was also quite a diplomat, working to resolve a schism between the two popes that were claiming papal power at the time, one in Avignon, France, and the other in Rome. She did not fully succeed in healing the breach between the two popes, but she was much admired for her tenacity and diplomacy. She was also a prolific writer, leaving us with over 400 letters.
 
Wise and saintly people have always been admired and revered, and their possessions, sometimes even parts of their bodies, were often kept in places of honor. They became objects of veneration and places where the sick and hopeless went to beg the specific saint for intervention on their behalf. When Catherine died, the Siennese were afraid that Rome was going to keep her and so they quietly snuck in, removed her head and thumb, and took them back to Siena to St. Dominic's Church, while her remaining remains remained in Rome. If you go to the church in Siena you will find in a beautiful case the mummified head of Catherine of Siena, and not too far away from that, you will find a reliquary containing her thumb, also mummified. In addition, we have over 400 letters and her book, the Dialog of St Catherine, also known as the Book of Divine Doctrine. It is a classic mystical work, favorably compared to Dante's Divine Comedy as representative of the attempt to express the Divine in symbols of that era.

"Relic" is a word with several definitions, but for the most part, it is defined as something from an earlier time that has some historical or sentimental value, like Catherine's head or the Shroud of Turin, George Washington's false teeth (although rather less revered as a religious icon) or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It seems kind of barbaric to have pieces of people placed up in a place of prominence where they can be adored and used as foci for prayers and requests. Some of them are pretty gruesome. Even in our own time we still respect and revere relics, not only of saints but also other things, like memorials to famous people, their clothing or jewels, or homes or articles associated with them.  But then, we flock to museums to see the mummies of ancient Egyptians, bog people, or dinosaur bones.

It seems like were learning to make our own relics. The Declaration of Independence is a relic, as are the bowls and baskets unearthed from Native American homesites like the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Arizona. We learn from ancient artifacts, most of them outmoded, but some surprisingly useful even in modern times. We have the flag flown at Fort McHenry which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to our national anthem. We have rebuilt slave quarters to remind us of our enslavement of people of color for generations. In our churches we use a sort of outmoded technology to create images and representations in stained glass of everything from images of the early saints and martyrs to the window containing a moon rock at the National Cathedral.

Relics are things which beg to be pondered. They ask us to consider what these objects, images, and artifacts meant to those who created and used them, and then what relevance they have for us today. What do they teach us? Of what do they remind us? What do they call us to do?  We're used to thinking of the Bible (itself a relic) in those terms, but there are other things as well. And we can find glimpses of God in many of them, if we but look.

I may never get to Siena, but I have seen pictures of Catherine of Siena's head, and I can see why people would revere it. It brings her close to us today even though she lived hundreds of years ago. She is a reminder of how a simple person, simple in the sense of plain living but great service to others, can make a big difference in the world. Maybe we need a few more relics to remind us of that. Who knows? We might learn some lessons that we should have learned long ago.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 29, 2017.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What happened to "Happy Easter"?

I remember being told when I was younger that as you get older time goes by faster. It used to be the three months of summer vacation from school flew by. It hardly seemed like I had gotten out of school in  the middle of June when it was time to go back again after Labor Day. Now the same period of time drags a little, mainly because of the heat here in Arizona, but it still seems to go fairly quickly when I look back on it. It's because I'm getting older I guess, but I wonder what has programmed to me to feel this way? Another mystery I have to investigate.

For instance, here it is, the middle of April, and I'm wondering why it feels like Christmas was just last week. I like Christmas, and it seems like lots of other people like Christmas too because all through December, while my denomination celebrates Advent and tries to avoid saying "Christmas" in terms of greetings, the world, even non-Christians, will often greet one another with "Merry Christmas."

There has been talk for years that there is what they call, "War on Christmas," where allegedly people are discouraged from using the word "Christmas" and especially "Merry Christmas," and encouraged to be a little more diversified, like "Happy Holidays," which, at least, has the intimation of covering all celebrations occurring in the time roughly between Christmas Day and New Year's and a bit beyond. It really isn't a war on Christmas. People say it all the time, in fact they say it usually for the whole month of December up until December 25. After December 25 world cuts out Christmas and goes on to Happy New Year. By Christmas Eve at midnight, the stores are already filling up with Valentine cards and what have you. Christmas Day? It's over, let's move on.

In a church which believes in the 12 days of Christmas ending on Epiphany on January 6, this can be somewhat discouraging. We are just getting started with the celebration of  Christmas when everybody else is finished. We don't hear Christmas carols for us; we heard them during Advent, but that's only on the radio, in the stores, and in a lot of churches. We never hear them in our church, not until December 24th. There are other denominations that are the same. Yet still come December 25th, we seldom hear "Merry Christmas" for the full 12 days of the season.

But how about the season that we're in now, the Easter season? During Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, people will accept a greeting of "Happy Easter," and Easter cards, endless candy and chocolate rabbits and even chocolate crosses are presented to be consumed beginning on Easter Sunday, some of it allegedly given by the Easter Bunny. But Easter Sunday, like Christmas Day, cuts off for the rest of the world and we keep going.

Easter for us is a season of 50 days, lasting up until Pentecost which is about the end of May. Like Christmas, though, we don't really use the phrase "Happy Easter" after Easter Sunday. I wonder why that is? We don't say it the week before because we have to go through the progression of Holy Week with the adulation on Palm Sunday, focus on Judas on Tenebrae, foot washing and the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion and entombment of Christ on Good Friday, the waiting of Holy Saturday, and then finally on Saturday night and Sunday morning we celebrate Easter like the biggest birthday party ever. The Sunday after Easter is often called  "Low Sunday" for a  reason. People often feel that they've gotten their church ticket punched during Holy Week and Easter Sunday and that makes them good until Christmas.  But nobody really says "Happy Easter, even this close to the day. We still have, what, six more weeks of Easter season? Why aren't we saying "Happy Easter" more often, and not just saving it for one special occasion?

During Lent and the rest of the church year, Easter is commemorated every Sunday. We celebrate a little Easter, we remember that the resurrection came on a Sunday, and we sort of go through a bit of Holy Week every Sunday morning in our liturgy. There is a  procession, not necessarily waving palms, when the ministers enter the church and remind us of the procession into Jerusalem. We move on to the Eucharist which is the celebration of Jesus giving us his body and blood from the Maundy Thursday celebration. And then, like Christ arising from the tomb, we're sent out into the world to take the light and the message to the world itself. You know, though, we still don't say, "Happy Easter."
Maybe it's a picky one thing. I mean, in the greater scheme of things, how important is it that we say "Happy Easter" ? For that matter, how important is it that we say "Merry Christmas"? Or "Happy Hanukkah" (although we do it during the 8 days of Hanukkah, oddly enough). Or even using a specific greeting for Kwanzaa or any of the other religious celebrations that focus around that same time, and believe me, there's a lot more than one or two. So why is important for us to remember to say "Happy Easter"?

I think for me it's the recognition that we are still in a celebratory period. We are Easter people, and this is our season. Granted, Christmas is important, because if Jesus hadn't been born, we would not have Easter in the first place, or at least Easter as we know it. The idea is putting something out into the world with words that people can hear.  Granted probably 90 people out of 100 will be thinking a person saying "Happy Easter" at toward the end of May is probably really weird. Never mind that the Orthodox are quite often week behind us on Easter, so we have a legitimate reason for saying it to all our Orthodox brothers and sisters even after we, like the stores, have packed up Easter and started to move on towards whatever comes next.

What if we actually said Happy Easter" to someone? Maybe it would prompt them to ask us why, and, there's our chance for some evangelism because we could tell them precisely why. 

This week I think I'm going to try saying it to somebody. I may start off small, like my next-door neighbor, a devout Christian lady, who might be curious as to why I'm saying that. Of course, if she reads this, she'll know why, but still, after I do something once it's a lot easier to do something a second time. I may use it with my Education for Ministry groups this week, just see how they react.

He is risen, the focus message of Easter and all the little Easters that come after it. We celebrate it all year, so why not use the phrase at least during the official liturgical season?  It might give us an opportunity to do a little evangelism?  Maybe it would be a turnoff for some, who knows? It might just open some conversational doors. This week I'm going to try it. May I invite you to do the same? We can always give it up at Pentecost, and Christmas will be here before you know it.

God bless -- and Happy Easter.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 22, 2017.