Sunday, November 22, 2015


Music has always played a big part in my life. From the time I was about 3 and crawled up on the piano bench to pick out by ear the songs my brother was laboriously trying to learn until now, there have been very few times in my life when music was absent. Those absent times were very long, painful periods where things weren't going well and my spirits were about as low as a snake's belly in Death Valley.

I discovered early that I was naturally attuned to renaissance and baroque music.  I was exposed to more and more of it as I grew up, singing in church and school choirs and finally in our college choir. I never wanted to be a soloist; singing in a very large group was meat and potatoes as far as I was concerned.  When I rejoined a church choir after a number of years away from the church, I lucked into finding one that frequently sang baroque compositions, Byrd and Tallis among them.  There are a number of their compositions on my iPod today, and I don't really ever tire of hearing them.

The three composers we celebrate today -- Byrd, Merbecke, and Tallis -- were all English composers who lived around the same period of time and who helped Anglican church music grow from plainchant and simple tunes more complex melodies and harmonies of psalms, anthems, and service music.  For several centuries these were gradually forgotten but a revival of interest in them during the 19th century brought them back into public notice. An interesting sidelight is that both Byrd and Tallis remained basically Roman Catholic but musically bridged the gap with the Anglican church.

Byrd and Tallis gave us masses and settings to various scriptural passages to accompany the readings through the church year. Merbecke gave us the first Anglican settings for the Psalms in English, following in a slightly more Calvinist form of composition. The three together, though, gave the English church a tradition of musical repertoire and presentation that we can still enjoy. Listening to various Evensong services on the BBC radio station or Lessons and Carols on CDs sung by cathedral choirs from all over England and even the US continues this tradition. On their tours of Britain, many tourists visit the great cathedrals for the Evensong services, even if they never enter a church door at any other time.  Hearing clear, pure voices raised in glorious counterpoint resounding off great stone pillars and vaults can be a most uplifting spiritual experience.

Many people have said that they were drawn to the Anglican/Episcopal church because of the liturgy and also the music. It is a chance to see and hear things that are different from the everyday, hear-it-in-the-street kind of stuff. Many wander into these churches for the music and stay because it speaks to them in a way that draws them closer to God. That's precisely what the music of the church is supposed to do, at least in my opinion. Come to think of it, that's the purpose of the church too, isn't it?

I give thanks not just for Byrd, Tallis and Merbecke, but for all artists and musicians who strive to bring beauty and glory to the worship of God in God's church. I hope their gifts and talents will always be welcomed and cherished as expressions of worship which we can appreciate and which will bring us closer to God ourselves.

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. - BCP p 819.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday November 21, 2015.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ - Luke 18:1-8

There's an old saying that goes, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Any parent of a toddler child can tell you that kids are born knowing this. I think it's encrypted in the genes because toddlers learn how to say "No" early on while repeatedly attempting to do something to which their parents have already said "No."

Learning anything is a matter of persistence. A child doesn't just pick up a crayon at the age of three and immediately begin to do a neat, if not ornate, script. They don't learn to walk without falling down numerous times. They don't learn discipline until they've tried things over and over again and learn that it either works or they need to try a new approach. The widow in today's reading definitely knew the power of persistence.

I wonder what it was that the woman needed so felt so strongly about that she risked the wrath of the judge numerous times. The fact that she was a woman was strange enough, because normally a man, her husband, brother, or father, perhaps even a cousin, would have pleaded her case before the judge. but not this time. She did it herself, and continued to do it each time the judge ignored or said no. Persistence eventually paid off. The judge got tired of hearing her complaint and finally rendered a judgment in her favor just to get rid of her. Score one for persistence!

Life today requires some of that persistence. So many times during our lives, we have to do things over and over again to achieve the results we want or need. Even then, sometimes it never happens.

People like Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of persistence. He was jailed, arrested, slandered, ignored, just about everything that you can think of except being heard by the people he most needed to have hear him. He was persistent, and that persistence earned him a bullet in Memphis but by then, his persistence had become the persistence of an entire race of people, and a number of allies of other races, who took over and used that same persistence to achieve some measure of the quality. Other groups and races have used King's tactics to further their own causes but the fight isn't over yet. There is still a lot of persistence needed.

All of us at one time or another has begged God time and time again for something, like the health of a friend or loved one, a solution to what seems an insoluble problem, and even a request for peace in the world. We've taken a page out of the widow's book: we pray, pray again, and keep praying, all with the expectation that sooner or later God will hear our prayer and do as we ask. It's the one time an 92-year-old and a two-year-old are on the same plane. Keep asking in the hope that the next time, the answer will be "Yes."

We admire the woman for her persistence. We celebrate Martin Luther King for his. We look at those who persistently went about doing things that were contrary to normal custom but which were damaging to the health of the people and the earth. Sometimes we have joined them, other times we have encouraged them through contributions of time or money, and sometimes we just stood on the sidelines and watched. It's a wonder we expect God to jump in and do what we ask when were not always willing to meet God even halfway. My question today for myself is how far am I willing to go to make things happen, not just expect God to take on the whole job?

Persistence allegedly pays off. We see a lot of examples of it, so the answer would seem to be yes it does. So what are we persistent about and how do we turn it into a positive result rather than just repeating words or actions? It's not all up to God; we are expected to do our part. So today's assignment is to be persistent about something:. prayers for a friend, words of encouragement to people fighting a battle whether it's a physical battle as in war or a battle such as cancer, homelessness, or some other.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" doesn't appear in the Bible, but the principle of it does. Go out, find something to be persistent about, and get on with it. Nothing will be accomplished without persistence.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 14, 2015.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


 Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
 I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.
 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen. -- Romans 16:3-9, 16, 22-27

Halloween is over and now we are in a season a priest friend used to call "Hallowthankmas." Since Halloween decorations are up from just after Labor Day until Halloween itself, then Thanksgiving decorations are there until Thanksgiving Day. Christmas trees and lights are in the stores during both seasons. Unfortunately for those of us who celebrate Christmas as a season twelve days long, Valentine hearts and cupids appear in the stores on Christmas Day.  All the commercial seasons seem to run together, so Hallowthankmas seems to fit just fine.

With the upcoming Christmas season, there are cards to be bought, pictures to be taken for the covers or to be included in the ones we send to family and friends. Usually we enclose some kind of short message or letter, telling everyone what we have done over the year, how much the kids have grown, who's gone off to college, who's gotten married or produced our first, second or dozenth grandchild. We also send greetings to everyone and wishes for a happy holiday season.

Paul's letter to the Romans was the one epistle to a church he hadn't founded and where he wasn't personally known. One way to make points was to thank those who were familiar to the Romans, people who lived and served the Jesus Movement as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry refers to it. Among those mentioned were several women -- Prisca (Priscilla), Mary, and Junia, a woman who has has finally been allowed to have her own feminine name, rather than the Junius assigned to her by men who could not accept women as apostles. Paul didn't neglect the men, naming those who had traveled with him, were imprisoned with him, and who led the congregations. Even Paul's secretary, Tertius, and their hosts, Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus, sent greetings. It was a family epistle sent to far-off family members.

We practice greeting each other when we pass the peace. There are some who will shake hands with the people within immediate range and those who will wander about the nave, hugging any- and everybody. We do it using phrases like "The peace of the Lord" or "Peace be with you," phrases that are reminders that whatever the world offers us, we follow a Lord who offers much more. It's our greeting to any who worship with us, whether we know them or not.

What about those who have worked with us. Do we remember to greet them and acknowledge their work and dedication? Paul remembered, even those who might have been ignored because of their gender. And he didn't just mention them, he gave thanks for them and their work.

But what about those outside the church doors, the people we see on the street or maybe in the grocery store or even begging on the sidewalk? Do we greet them with the same kind of greeting we use for our friends in church?  Do we even smile at them, even if we say nothing? Do we even acknowledge their presence and the image of God within them?  The running child, the homeless man, the very professional woman picking up something for dinner on her way home from work -- what about them. Do we even notice them much less greet them?

Maybe what we are supposed to learn is that whether it is for performance of tasks, acts of generosity, acknowledgement of commonalities, or just because they are fellow human beings, we should not just see them but notice them.

Greet the folks you know, but remember also to greet those you don't -- they might become new friends or co-workers.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Hallows

The costumes are laid out. The house is overstocked with candy and goodies. There are decorations of jack o'lanterns, scarecrows, and here and there a fake witch with her broomstick stuck in a tree. It's all part of the fun and spookiness of Halloween.

Ghouls and superheroes roam about, and a child can be anybody (or almost anything) they want to be on this one particular night. It's a night where we love to scare ourselves to death and then laugh at our fear. But there was a more serious side to this night we call Halloween, and that is the celebration of the Eve of All Hallows.

Anyone familiar with Harry Potter will remember that he, Ron, and Hermione, went out in search of things called hallows, which they had to find in order to rid the world of the evil Voldemort. By definition "hallow" means to hold or revere as sacred or holy, and, as Harry knew it, an item that contained something considered holy or sacred like the relic of a saint. We don't use the term hallow much anymore. All Hallows Eve has become Halloween, the night before we celebrate the great feast of All Saints, giving thanks for all the recognized Saints of the church who were martyrs, teachers, preachers, missionaries, prophetic witnesses, theologians, and probably half a dozen more categories.

The day after All Saints is connected to it as All Souls Day. On that day we recognize and celebrate all those we would consider saints but who have not been officially canonized by the church. We remember family members, friends, and others who have gone before us and who have in some way touched our lives in a very positive way. The two days form a whole, each day a part of the other, completing a circle in which we remember the dead and celebrate their lives with thanksgiving

All Hallows Eve also is an occasion for celebrating El Dia de los Muertos. On this night members of the Hispanic community and others go to the graveyards where their family members rest. They carefully clean and tend the tombs and markers. In the Philippines, they hold a night long party where the dead are the honored guests, food is put out for them as well as consumed by the participating family members, music is played and sung, and children laugh and play tag among the graves. Other cultures have varied customs centering around remembering their dead. All around, it's a mixture of reverence, sadness, and joy, and it brings the whole family together once again. Tradition says that a very thin veil between the realms of the living and the dead occurs on that night, and it can be almost transparent.

El Dia de los Muertos resonates with me because at this time of year there seems to be a very thin veil between the realms of the living and the dead. There are some both capital-s Saints and lowercase-s saints that I feel with me throughout the year. On these two days, however, beginning with All Hallows Eve, I feel them just out of reach like the small gap between God and Adam that Michaelangelo painted on the Sistine Ceiling. It becomes a day of mourning for all those that I have lost. I remember them with joy but also sadness, and I commend them to God with all the love in my for each and every one of them.

I'm grateful that we have these days especially marked for remembrances. We have several great feasts of the church, and All Saints is definitely one of those. But I'm glad we also have a time to celebrate those who will probably never have a church named after them or a marker of some sort recording some episode in their life.

Holy cow. It just struck me that one day I might be one of those remembered on All Souls. It gives me a whole different perspective to think that I ought to be living so that at least one person will remember me with thanksgiving on All Souls. That's definitely a wake-up call, and not the ding-dong of the doorbell and the children holding out bags for treats. It's a scary though: me, even a lowercase-s saint? I better get to work.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 31, 2015.

Dedicated to the memory of all my saints: Alberta, Roland, Curtis, Ray, Sonny, both Helens, Mabel, and countless others.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Fig Tree

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”   - Luke 13:1-9

This is really disheartening.  It isn't even Halloween yet, but stores and catalogues are starting to advertise Christmas trees, wreaths, etc.  I realize a lot of people make their Christmas presents and that can take months, but really now. I'm betting it won't be long before I walk into a store and hear "Now bring us a figgy pudding."  I have a feeling not everybody knows what a figgy pudding is; Fig Newtons are pretty much as close as some can get.

I can say I've ever had a figgy pudding, but I've certainly had Mama's fig preserves. One of my aunts had a big fig tree in her side yard and always shared the fruit with us when it got ripe. It wasn't a big tree, but I remember the leaves were huge. They also had a hairy back that sort of made me itch, which is why I wondered why Adam and Eve would choose fig leaves for clothing.

Figs in biblical times were important. There are several references that refer to fig trees and having people sitting under them in the cool of the day. Aunt Edie's fig tree would certainly have shaded several people from the sun for sure. Figs were also a staple food, like grapes and olives. They have their own growing seasons, two a year, and it takes a while for a new tree to start bearing fruit (most sources I checked said 2-possibly 6 years). Like most growing things, you can't hurry them along too much.

The owner in the story and watched his fig tree for three years and had still not found a single fig. Aggravated to have a stubborn tree occupying space and using up water but not producing anything useful (except maybe shade on a hot day), he was all ready to have the thing chopped down and replaced with something more profitable. His gardener, though, knew the value of patience; he begged the owner for one more year, one in which he, the gardener, would tend the tree and fertilize it. Hopefully that would get the tree to produce figs. Maybe a little extra care would make the difference.

Patience is a wonderful thing, but sometimes what is needed is patience plus something else. There are a lot of things that could be added, like love or maybe extra elbow grease or both. Sometimes we have to be reminded that "To every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven," as Ecclesiastes reminds us. And sometimes it takes something else -- like fertilizer.

Every gardener knows that fertilizer in some form is necessary to a plant, a garden, a lawn, or a crop. It may not be the most fragrant of substances, but fertilizer can help bring out the most fragrant of flowers or the most luxurious of lawns. Figs require a little bit of care and fertilizer, like almost everything else in this world, including people.

I wonder -- what in our lives serves as fertilizer for our growth?  We are like fig trees and rose bushes and grain crops; we require a place to grow and also nourishment for our roots to provide us with the elements for life. We often say we are nourished by our spiritual lives and our reception of the Eucharist. We are nourished by our families and loved ones, by the beauty of nature, even reading, study, volunteering and just sharing time with others. There's even nourishment in times of solitude, away from the noise and bustle of daily life.

 But there are times when we feel like life has put us in a less than optimal situation. Suddenly we're figuratively squelching through a manure pile.  It stinks, it draws flies, and it's icky. But wait -- what if that exposure to fertilizer provides impetus for growth and/or change? What if we, like the fig tree, needed some cultivation and feeding?  Perhaps the thought of being given a dose of fertilizer isn't the most pleasant of thoughts, but it could have its value.

Like most of Jesus' stories, we don't know how it ended -- whether the fig tree bore fruit the next year or was cut down. It is left to us to figure out what happened and then apply it to our own lives. I know that when I'm handed a load of fertilizer in my life, it's up to me to spread it and water it in well so that I can grow and flourish, like I hope the fig tree did.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 24, 2015.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


True friendship is when this silence between two people is comfortable. -- David Tyson Gentry

Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, we had hymns that seem to get repeated over and over and over again until I had them memorized. Every now and again one of them will start running through my head like a particularly irritating earworm, and that I usually can't shake for some period of time. I have to look at those and see what about it made it come to mind 50 or 60 years later. There's always a connection, I just have to find.

Today's earworm was a hymn with the title, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." It was about taking everything to Jesus in prayer including our sins, troubles, and tribulations. It had a good message, I guess that's why I remember to this day although it was a it was far from a favorite. The word that stuck itself in my mind was the "friend." Friends are always good things to contemplate.

I've been lucky to have friends throughout my life. Some were there for a reason, some for a season, and some, thankfully, for a lifetime. The ones for a reason were usually people who could help me with the problem or at a certain phase of my life where I needed outside help but only for perhaps a short time. Those for a season were like school friends with whom I associated until I went to college. We all lost touch and I've never really been all that anxious to renew most of the acquaintances I had. Those for a lifetime were the true treasures I appreciated most and still do. Some have gone on to greater glory, and those have left holes in my heart that have scabbed over but will never truly heal. Some have been there for years, and some for a much shorter period, but all are like precious stones in a beautiful bracelet.

One thing I learned about true friends is what I always called comfortable silence. the friends know them to know each other so well that conversation can have an flow like tides on a river. These are also people with whom I can totally be myself, perhaps with only the thinnest of masks to my total transparency. They accept me and love me anyway

I think where the hymn fits in is that with God, I'm usually doing the talking. Sometimes they are organized prayers, sometimes arrow prayers shot up in desperation, and sometimes just scattered thoughts that come out addressed to God. My brain is usually racing at any given moment so that sitting and just being there is difficult unless I'm with another person. I think God wouldn't mind if I practiced a little of that with God.

I haven't yet learned that it is less important to God that I address my sins and wickedness is whenever I talk to God or pray that it is if I put it in more of a dear friend relationship, the kind where every day details are important in silence is a breathing space for both of us to just sit quietly until something needs to be said. I used to be able to do this, back at home sitting under a particular pine tree on the side of the bluff overlooking my river. It was one of my thin places, and it was as if God were sitting there with me as we watch the wind blow the needles and ripple waves on the beach. It was a comfortable time and I wonder now how I lost it just as surely as I have lost the ability to sit and look at that river.

I have friends with whom I can enjoy comfortable silences. It's nice to just be able to set and not have to worry that I have to entertain them or they me. It feels like life is just too busy for me to just sit quietly and enter into a companionable silence with God. I think of gotten out of the habit. Perhaps that's what the hymn is trying to remind me of – that I need to regain something lost: a friend with whom I can share not just conversations but companionable silence.

That sounds good.

What a friend we have in Jesus, lyrics

Dedicated to friends here and in heaven.  You know who you are. J

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 17, 2015.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  Matthew 9:35-10:4

It's been quite a week - hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and a blood moon, accompanied by bombings, plane crashes, and murders. It's almost overwhelming, although why it should be I haven't a clue. Things have been going this way for quite some time now, and it appears to be getting worse rather than better. Mother Nature on her own can be bad enough but humans add their own brand of catastrophe to it. It makes me want to go find a nice quiet island somewhere.

Jesus probably knew the feeling; his job as a teacher, itinerant preacher, and healer kept him pretty busy. I'm sure the human Jesus walked through his world and probably felt overwhelmed at times at what was going on. The divine Jesus probably wanted to fix everything and everyone he encountered, but then there would be no work left for others to do, and others would have to carry on his work after he left them. He gathered a group of followers to do precisely that: to take up the challenges, preach, teach and heal and to pass the ability on to yet other followers who would come after them. The whole idea was to bring the kingdom of God to life on earth.

Jesus' followers were named and also some were given identifiers that made them memorable - James and John, sons of Zebedee, Peter and his brother Andrew, Matthew the tax-collector, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas the betrayer. There might have been others, those who came, those who went, those who supported them in some way but who were not necessarily named.

I wonder -- if Jesus were on Facebook, how many followers would he have?  How many names of those followers would people know or even care about? If he posted the ideas he proclaimed in his sermons and stories, how many likes would he get?  How many dislikes?  And how many comments about how the messages should read or how stupid and simplistic they were?  I bet some would even quote the Bible to prove him wrong, but then, that's something followers might do.

Facebook seems to be a game of numbers: how many "friends" (read followers of what that person writes) they have and how many likes they can accrue on any given post. How many comments and what kind?  How many people can't wait to share any given post and so it spreads to people with no  connection to the originator at all.

This week I think about the shooter at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. He became the 10th victim, although it seems to trivialize the other nine that he killed by including him with the "victims."  Whose ideology and teaching was he following?  How many followers did he have? I have read his name but choose not to remember it because that gives him more power and recognition than he deserves. His victims deserve that recognition yet so  those who commit horrible acts such as this are familiar to most of us if not to the world. Roseburg has asked that this murderer not be named, that he be exiled from memory. He won't be, of course, but there are followers, probably unknown and hopefully never named, who will see him as something he wasn't -- a hero, a role model, one who stood up for something, even if we never really know what that something was.

We Christians claim to be followers of Christ. We'd put him on our FB friends list in a heartbeat, but what would our words and likes tell him about us? What would it tell our other Facebook friends? What would we say that others would share and what message would they get from a soundbyte probably taken out of context and served up as a tidbit? 

Think about it. Who is following us and what are we saying to those people? Does it give them something to think about or is it just where we're eating or shopping? Are our comments things that would make people want to hear more or would it be just hitting a like button? 

I don't think Jesus intended for us to mention his name in every conversation, but I do rather believe that he wanted us to show by our actions and even our words that we stand for something more than how many likes we get or how many friends we have. Most of all, what are we doing that might influence others?  Maybe people won't remember our name even if we are like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi, but what we can do that helps make the kingdom of God more real and more present for those most in need of it.

After a week like this one, I know I could use a bit more kingdom and a lot less bad news.  I would like to have a world where not only schools and churches but front yards, communities, and roadways are free of not just the sound of gunfire and the cries of the injured and grieving, but that there be no homeless, veterans, minorities, children or anyone else in need be ignored and left nameless.

I wish the world could follow the Prince of Peace. I wonder how many "likes" he'd get on Facebook? I wonder how many of them would really follow him? 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, October 10, 2015.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

An All-or-Nothing World

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’  - Matthew 8:18-22

I've been involved with a program called Education for Ministry since 2005. EfM is a four-year program of Christian education for lay people although it can be part of a discernment and/or educational process for clergy-to-be or even ordained clergy. Over the four years, a person studies the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Church History, and Theology. At the end of my four years, I wasn't ready to stop learning so, at the suggestion of my mentors, I took my first training and then began co-mentoring with them. Six years later, I'm still learning and still proud to be associated with this program.

One of the great things I gain is new ways of looking at familiar things. Take, for instance, this past week. Laurie Gudim, a friend and one of my co-mentors,  posted on our discussion board about learning new things about the culture and times of the New Testament, such as that there was no middle class in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but would have to give up everything was told to do a very traumatic thing. Laurie commented, "...I've always kind of thought poorly of him. But what if he was looking at was a poverty so severe it might have killed him?"* That got me thinking.

The story in Matthew is a bit more abbreviated and had a young man wanting to go bury his father. Both stories involved giving up something important. For a son not to bury a father was a sign of ultimate disrespect and rejection; to give up one's wealth threatened his life, his well-being, his position, even potentially his family. Remember-- there was no middle class. It was all or nothing.

Imagine an all or nothing world. People either had more than they needed but never as much is they wanted, or they struggled every day just to provide the absolute necessities for themselves and their family. The rich young man was told to give up everything he had ever known, including the security he had always had, in order to follow Jesus. The same with the man in today's reading; not burying his father and coming to follow Jesus would have meant giving up absolutely everything he had ever known in the hope of finding something better. I have a feeling that most of us would probably fail that same test if it were given to us directly by Jesus standing in front of us. It's easier to do it at a distance.

It makes us able to ignore poverty around us and to think that somebody else will take care of the problem. In the world of Jesus, that just doesn't fly. We have a middle class, a place where people are comfortable but not rich, and where their basic needs and a bit more are met. There are many who have never really experienced what it means to truly be in want, or, in a better word, need. It's one thing to want a BMW two-seater convertible and only receive a sedan than it is to want to provide needed extensive medical care for a loved one and not be able to do it. It isn't unheard of in our world to have some catastrophe rob us of just about everything we had and knew; thirty seconds or so in the path of a tornado does that. If we're lucky and have good insurance, we can come back from the disaster, but our lives are forever changed.

It occurs to me that Jesus made that a condition of following him, not just giving things up but using them to help others as a test of faith and of desire. It is like a person standing on the high diving platform and looking down at the water below, realizing there was an awful lot of space between the two and where there was no changing their mind about what was going to happen next. The person has the choice of either turning back and going down the ladder or taking the plunge and launching themselves into the air, hoping that they enter the water painlessly and not flat on either belly or back. Life puts us on that platform every day, and we have to choose which way to go.

Jesus' message is not that it is necessary to live in abject poverty or live the itinerant life that he and his disciples did. It is to choose what and why it is truly important. That is not to say that some who are wealthy are not good Christians because they have more than perhaps they actually need. Many of these share generously and willingly to those who are less fortunate. There are some who have just what they need but still choose to share to help others. There are some impoverished who perhaps cannot give from the treasure they don't really possess but who give generously of their time and talent to help others. It is a form of trickle down economics and service, and if more people contributed, more would benefit. But there is always the dead father to bury or the security to be maintained that gets in the way.

We are not all called to be a Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi. We see the good that they have done and we admire those who follow them closely enough to try live the lives they did. Still, we are called to follow Jesus, and that means to take risks and to lose the fear of life without total comfort and total security. We are called to help others to find lives with more comfort and more security. Giving away some of our own does not mean we are in want, it means that we want others to have what we have. In a way, it's the same as what the early Christians demonstrated to outsiders. The outsiders saw the love the Christians had for each other and wanted some of that love. It's really that simple.

But the only problem was simplicity is that sometimes it is too simple. It asks us to take a small risk that can point to a large one, but we're not even comfortable taking the small one. I know I am.

What would it take to get me past the fear? That's something I'm going to have to think about for a while. Perhaps I can start with the love part -- even if that may be among the hardest things to do.

*Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer, teacher, mentor and preacher. She shares her meditations and reflections on the Thursday Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café. Her name and words are used with permission.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My Fear Factor

It's the end of September. it's a time to be grateful for things like temperatures under 100° in the daytime, cool evenings, shorter days and lots of pumpkin goodies like mousse, pancakes, muffins, bagels, doughnuts, and multitudinous other delights. It's lovely to walk out in the morning and had that little tang in the air, and to open the mailbox to lower electric bills. I love chrysanthemums and falling leaves, except when I have to rake them up. It's wonderful not to feel sweaty at 7 AM and to feel the softness of a sweater when it gets too cool at church, in the office, or outside.

With fall however, there comes the beginning of a trying part of the year for me personally. My adoptive mother died on November 2, 1960, a time when I was about 14 and didn't really miss her all that much since she had spent so much time the previous three years in the hospital. My real mourning began about 30 years ago and continues to this day.

This year in October I will have the first of two cataract surgeries, which I am assured will make my vision much clearer although it will change my prescription very much. That's reassuring, because having worn glasses since I was eight years old, just over 60 years of my life, I was dreading having to take off glasses and face the world without that clear wall that feels like a protection. Silly, isn't it?

There are other deaths, and other celebrations like my son's birthday which falls on the same day as that of my elder niece. They were born 17 years, three hours, and half a world apart. On that same day, there is a celebration in my hometown of Cornwallis's surrender to Gen. Washington in 1781. I always miss being home for that, even though I miss being home for a lot of other reasons. I'd love to be there to see the fall leaves and to walk by the river.

Three years ago on September 20th, I had surgery to remove one cancer and a potential one from my body. When I got the diagnosis and my treatment alternatives, all I could think about were Mama's scars from her two surgeries, surgeries which were now part of my own reality. Looking at the odds, I decided that prevention now might be better than a repeat surgery several years later like she had. I made it through the surgery and got back to normal as quickly as I could. I think I only took one pain pill once I left the hospital the day after my surgery. I've been lucky, the things that have gone wrong since that time have been normal processes of aging and accident.

Today however I'm seeing increased postings on Facebook about survivor stories and breast cancer awareness programs, leading up to Breast Cancer Awareness month in October. I ran across one story of a lady who courageously faced her own death from a recurrence of cancer which had metastasized. I applauded her courage but I wish I hadn't read that article.

It brought all my fears to the forefront. I don't dwell on the fact that I have already had two kinds of cancer — basal cell carcinoma on my nose and stage IIb breast cancer., It runs through my brain every time something doesn't work right or feel right in my body that it could be a metastasis of some sort. I've known too many women who have gone through breast cancer and the accompanying treatments of radiation, chemo, medications, or all three but who have found sometimes years later that cancer has popped up somewhere else. I think that's one of my greatest fears. I'm not being morbid, just realistic. I'm not running to the doctor every time I feel a twinge just to make sure it isn't a cancer growing somewhere. I honestly don't fear death, except dying in intense pain and with no dignity whatsoever. Hopefully, it won't come to that, but I can't guarantee that it won't anymore than I guarantee it will.

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there will be almost constant reminders of not only my struggle but what others have gone through, people that I have loved who have fought the disease and some of who have beaten it. Among my friends, I see people of courage, people who haven't taken breast cancer lying down and have fought it and, God willing, have beaten it for good. I feel weak for feeling this fear that I have or will have a recurrence because I know it's a negative thing and I can't afford to dwell on negative thoughts. I take my Tamoxifen religiously and check with my oncologist every six months. Even when I go to the doctor, however, I don't feel anybody is checking anything else other than how am I feeling and perhaps giving me antibiotics for an infection or topical creams for arthritis. I have other organs that are diseased and I feel like they should be watched a little closer, but then, I'm not a doctor. I am just my own advocate.

This next month I will wear my pink T-shirt, the pink and white bracelet my best friend gave me after my diagnosis, and try to find a T-shirt that says "Save the Tatas." My friend saw another one that intrigues me, "Yes, they're fakes; my real ones tried to kill me." I like that. Sometimes the best way to face fear is to find something to laugh about in that fear.

I think this month I will need lots of laughter. I've got a lot to do and I don't really have time for a lot of negativity. I can't promise I won't think about cancer, or people I have known and loved that I have lost to cancer, breast cancer among them, but I will try to remember them with gratitude and look to them as role models. For those who I love who are in the same boat with me, I will try to be strong for them, knowing they will reciprocate. It's a very big boat.

I think I'm feeling better already.

Lancelot's Prayers

Commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop and Scholar (1555-1626)

O my Lord, my Lord, I thank Thee for that I am, that I am alive, that I am rational: for nurture, preservation, governance: for education, citizenship, religion: for Thy gifts of grace, nature, estate: for redemption, regeneration, instruction: for calling, recalling, further calling manifold: for forbearance, longsuffering, long longsuffering towards me, many times, many years, until now: for all good offices I have received, good speed I have gotten: for any good thing done: for the use of things present, thy promise and my hope touching the fruition of the good things to come: for my parents honest and good, teachers gentle, benefactors always to be had in remembrance, colleagues likeminded, hearers attentive, friends sincere, retainers faithful: for all who have stood me in good stead by their writings, their sermons, conversations, prayers, examples, rebukes, wrongs: for these things and all other, which I wot of, which I wot not of, open and secret, things I remember, things I have forgotten withal, things done to me after my will or yet against my will, I confess to Thee and bless Thee and give thanks unto Thee, and I will confess and bless and give thanks to Thee all the days of my life. What thanks can I render to God again for all the benefits that He hath done unto me?  - From Lancelot Andrewes' private manuscript of prayers, published posthumously.

Lancelot Andrewes is undoubtedly someone I would consider a master wordsmith. Growing up reading the King James version of the Bible, I grew accustomed to the language of that time and the beauty it contained. For me, the Psalms in contemporary English are not really poetic, while the Nativity story from Luke is best presented by Linus (of Peanuts fame in the language) that has become less and less comprehensible to modern generations. To me, though, the new stuff just does not sound right. I can do Rite II in the 1979 BCP, but my heart still lies with the 1928 and earlier, just for the beauty of the language.

Where Lancelot Andrewes comes in is that he was a member of the committee who prepared the King James version. The man was incredible: fluent in 18 languages including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, he also used the vocabulary of the English language to great advantage. Yes he was a bishop, and a scholar, but also a guide, a person interested in his fellow man, one who was also seemingly connected to the world around him that God had created, and the soul who express his intimacy with God through his prayers.

Andrews was a  prolific writer, although his very erudite sermons are not read much less heard outside seminaries. After his death in 1626, a large manuscript of prayers he had written came to light and was privately published. As I read through some the prayers, even a casual reading, I saw that this was a soul unafraid before God and yet humble enough to be honest.  His prayers in the manuscript were intended for himself and God alone. Some pages of the manuscript seemed to have a greater number of scuff marks from the hand that opened the page and prayed the prayers.

The prayer at the opening of this reflection is one that struck me as one any of us could pray but probably would never actually do so. How many of us would actually be so forthcoming about acknowledging the wrongs we had done or the gifts we have received? We often pray for those we love and those we know who are ill, in grief or trouble, but how many of us remember to thank God for the gifts we have received from our teachers, mentors, and parents? We remember our friends, but do we stop and mention the gift that those friends have given us over the years, gifts that have enriched our lives and encouraged us when we most needed it? Andrewes admitted that there were things he had forgotten, things he had done or not done, for which he needed to repent, but his trust that God had forgiven him showed an understanding of grace that we don't always remember or even fully comprehend.

Prayer is something we are encouraged to do. It is a line of communication between us and God that we establish and nurture as a necessary part of our lives. I often wish Christians had something like the Buddhist prayer wheels, a device that could be set in motion by turning the wheel and the spin of carried the prayers to heaven. Someone would probably come along not too long afterwards and give another push that kept the wheel turning sending up yet more prayers. These people were on their way to work, the well, the market, or any one of a number of errands, but they were confident as they went about their life their prayers were still going up. The Celts had a prayer for just about any every occasion. The Jews often pray beginning with "Blessed are you, Lord God of the universe, who has …" The prayer continues with a thanksgiving for something given by God that affected something else in life.

Christians basically have two forms of prayer, with subsets of each. First there is the spontaneous prayer which in some denominations is basically the only acceptable form other than the Lord's Prayer. A subset of this is the arrow prayer, short bursts of "Lord help me with…" or a quick petition for mercy for someone else. Episcopalians and Anglicans use the Book of Common Prayer which owes some of its great beauty to men like Lancelot Andrews,

Written prayers have a lot to commend them. Many feel less awkward about praying something that someone else has written that touches their heart and puts them in closer communion with God. Many relish the language, some of it from a bygone era, that is somehow comforting and familiar. Some of it is designed for family use or even in a large community, while some can be done individually with their own petitions included. The point is, though, to pray, whether for ourselves, for those in need or those who have passed on. Andrews used his manuscript of prayers as a focus.  His prayers were intensified by his writing them down as he prayed and returning to those prayers at various times. For me, that writing of prayers rather than just shooting an arrow or possibly reading one from a prayer book, might be a more genuine form that would make me more mindful of what it is I am saying to God, not for God's sake but for my own

The lesson I learned from Lancelot Andrewes is the power of words and their beauty. Had he not written them down, and merely spoken them aloud or even silently, they would have been lost to history and we could not read them now and find ourselves praying with him. Many saints and mystics have written prayers, or have had others write their prayers down, and those are very powerful in of themselves. I doubt Lancelot Andrewes ever planned on anyone else reading his prayers, yet he wrote the for himself and God and we are the beneficiaries of those prayers.

I have not been very familiar with Lancelot Andrewes but I think now I need to dig into his life and words a bit deeper. Will I start writing my prayers down, focusing on each word with intention and attention, and return to some of those prayers as needed? I think it might be worth a shot. I doubt that after my death anyone would care to publish them, for I am nowhere near the wordsmith or deeply spiritual person that Lancelot Andrewes was, but I can look to him as an inspiration and do my humble best to follow him in his life of prayer.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 26, 2015.