Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Prophet's Underwear


Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.  - Jeremiah 13:1-11

When the  tomb of Tutankhamen was opened and the contents revealed, surprisingly enough there were undergarments waiting for the Pharaoh's need of them. Looking at the tomb graphics and figures, many figures, including Pharaoh, are wearing short kilts or even just plain loincloths. Almost every culture has worn loincloths and some, like Sumo wrestlers among others, continue to wear them as part of their identification. Today we're more likely to hear about boxers, jockey shorts or even thongs, but they all started as an improvement (more or less) on the loincloth.

The story today begins with Jeremiah's underwear. Underwear isn't a subject often mentioned  in the Bible. In this story, God told Jeremiah to go get a new linen loincloth. Jeremiah was told not only to buy the undergarment but to put it on and wear it without washing it or letting it get wet. We aren't told how long he wore it but at some point God came and told him to take it to the river and hide it among the rocks. Some time later, Jeremiah was told to go dig it up and what Jeremiah found was a rotten, stinking mess that could never be used again. Symbolically, it represented the people who had once again proved unfaithful to God.

The job of the prophet was to warn people of the dangers of the course they were taking. It wasn't foretelling the future by saying something like "A week from next Tuesday a plague will hit and the people living on X, Y and Z streets will be decimated." It was seeing the cultural and religious bodies being infected from within and trying to tell them that they needed to change their ways of doing things or else.

God often made prophets do strange, not to say weird, things in order to get the people's attention. Isaiah had to walk around town naked for three years which must have scandalized the neighbors since even accidental exposure of certain areas of the body was not acceptable. Ezekiel had to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 more before baring his arm and prophesying against Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also told to cook barley bread over a fire of human dung but he bargained God down to cow dung instead as human excrement was considered unclean while a cow's was a normal fuel. Jeremiah had to wear and then bury his underwear. In each case, using an extreme visual to go with a warning from the prophet was God's way of trying to get Israel and Judah to listen.

Occasionally something would get their attention and the people would return to the way it was supposed to be, but then they would slide off into apostasy, greed, selfishness and downright sin of any and all varieties once again. Another prophet would give them a message, but again like so many times before, the intimacy with God would be rejected in favor of being like the alien neighbors who seemed to be having so much more fun.

Some fancy stores have departments such as "Ladies' intimate apparel," a very dignified name for women's underwear. Intimate apparel suggests garments that cling to the body, close, familiar and comfortable. Intimacy is more than underwear, though. Intimacy is a relationship that is close, familiar, comfortable and sometimes even passionate. It's a kind of relationship that everyone craves but sometimes are too afraid to pursue. They fear disclosing too much and giving others power, especially the power to hurt deeply, that comes with a person sharing that information with another.

One thing we are assured of is that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we don't know what that is for ourselves. God extends intimacy to each of us yet often we reject it or completely forget about it. We become the dirty underwear stashed in the crevice like Jeremiah's. We go chasing after foreign or false gods, becoming dirty in the process and straining the intimacy that we, and God, crave.

What does it take for us to return to that intimacy with God that we were intended to have? It isn't something that just suddenly comes on and sticks around; it has to be fostered, like adding kindling to a tiny fire to make it grow. Prayer and meditation can be a good start, as can being mindful of our actions and thoughts.

Where are we failing God when we mentally curse at the person who just cut us off on the freeway or whose dog left a "gift" on our front lawn? Where are we failing when we see pictures of hungry children and then blithely go on to our favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner that would cost enough to feed that child for days? When we fail at caring for others we fail at caring for God, for each of us carries some God-stuff within us. We fail when we forget to pray or when we only shoot up arrow prayers when we are in trouble but don't bother with thank yous for help received or for something good that happens.

Intimacy takes work, unlike underwear that just clings to the body. It is a relational thing that has to be carefully tendered. Yet intimacy is a gift from God that lies within us all and that we can return to God as our gift and our duty. Maybe we don't need a nude prophet or one with dirty underwear, but we do need to pay attention to those who tell us where we are failing in terms of God, our neighbors and even our planet.

Paying attention is another of those intimacy things--a closeness, familiarity and even passion--that will help grow a kingdom, God's kingdom, here and now.


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

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Perpetua and Her Companions

 Commemoration of Perpetua and Her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage, 202

Readings:
Psalm124-127
Daniel 6:10-16
Hebrews10:32-39
Matthew 24:9-14

Saints come in all kinds. Recognized saints, by churchly standards, are classified in several categories: Priest, soldier, apostle, archangel, doctor of the church, mystic, founder (especially of a religious order), virgin, confessor, and so on. One of the big categories of sainthood is that of martyr, one who dies for the faith in a less-than-peaceful way. Confessors are those who stand up for Jesus but who die quietly and naturally (or possibly by accident), but martyrs are done in by others in sometimes rather gruesome ways. Take St. Lawrence, for example. He was martyred by being roasted on a grill. Legend has it that his final words were, "Turn me over, this side's done."

Perpetua was a catechumen, one who had not yet been baptized. She was apparently a young widow with a small child still being nursed. Her family was wealthy but apparently not Christian. When she was due to have a hearing in court, her father visited her and tried to persuade her to have mercy on him by renouncing this Christianity and returning to the kind of daughter he had known and loved. Perpetua, having had a dream or vision of a golden ladder and a fair land beyond it where the shepherd welcomed her, knew that she would not get out of this alive and so told her father that whatever happened would be God's will. He left dejected, probably to never see her again.

In another vision, Perpetua found herself struggling with a gladiator. She won the contest and understood this to mean that she would withstand the attacks of the devil and prevail even though she would lose her life in the process.

Her day of trial came. She, another female prisoner named Felicitas, and three men, Revocatus, Saturus, and Secundus, were taken to the amphitheater. Things did not go precisely as they were planned. Perpetua was led out, a wild cow threw her to the ground and tore her tunic but failed to kill. Felicitas had been wounded as well and Perpetua helped her to regain her feet. Saturus was mortally wounded by a leopard but the other animals, a bear who would not leave his cage and a wild boar who gored his keeper, did not attack the men.

After a short rest, all remaining prisoners were lined up to be executed by human executioners, much as the pictures of ISIS executioners with their prisoners in front of them. When Perpetua's turn came, the young executioner's blow only wounded her. Reaching up, she took the blade in her hand and guided it to her neck. Presumably, the executioner then completed his task. I wonder -- did Perpetua's courage make any impact on the young man who took her life? Did it make a difference at all?

Today we have so many news stories and articles about martyrs in various parts of the world. Over the past months we have become increasingly familiar with martyrdom on almost a daily basis. The recent beheading of 21 Christians, mostly Coptics, was just the latest atrocity in a long string of beheadings, kidnappings, and tortures in different parts of the world. We are horrified, but don't seem to be able to do anything to stop the carnage.

There are those, however, who consider themselves martyrs. No, not that they are being persecuted like the Romans did to Christians, Christians did to Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, or Muslims doing to Jews and Christians now. These are the ones who have staunch beliefs and believe everyone else should believe as they do. Because they frequently meet with disapproval or outright rejection of their beliefs, they consider that they are persecuted and are martyrs for their faith. Somehow I think Perpetua, Felicitas, Lawrence and all the others who endured excruciatingly painful deaths to earn the title "Martyr" would probably shake their heads in disbelief.

What would we do if we were placed in a position similar to Perpetua or her companions?  It would probably seem so easy to just deny their beliefs and save their lives. What made their faith so strong and unshakeable?  They knew the risks of even secretly practicing their beliefs, yet they continued. Why? What was so compelling about the message of Jesus that they would risk certain death if they were discovered?

Probably they would understand Luther's statement of "Here I stand, I can do no other." What they had to lose was their place in a kingdom where the slave and noble would be equal,  there would be no pain, suffering, or death, and they would be comforted and loved by the man who had been himself a martyr to prove that God's love was for all people and for all time. Their faith in that promise enabled them to stay strong and faithful, even in the arena where they faced certain death.

Even if martyrdom isn't a possibility or probability in our current lives, can we be sure how firm our faith is? Would our faith stay strong in the midst of persecution or would it crumble like a dried leaf?  Do we trust Jesus and his promises enough to stand on those promises, whatever comes? Are we as willing to build our faith as we are to tone up our bodies and strengthen our muscles? It all requires the same thing -- practice and attention. We can look to Perpetua and the other martyrs like her for examples.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Observance


This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. - Deuteronomy 26:16-19


During the season of Lent, there's a word that keeps cropping up: observe. We are urged to "Observe a Holy Lent" or we discuss various Lenten observances that different people find enriching or valuable to their spiritual lives. Again and again the word "observe" crops up, and there's no getting around it.

The word itself has several meanings, one of which is to watch, notice or study something as being significant. Another is to act or comply with a law or standard, be it legal, moral, religious, or ethical. We have professional war correspondents and peace organizations observing the action in war zones either to report the news or try to find a way to resolve the problems causing the aggression. Referees in sporting events are supposedly impartial observers whose job is to maintain adherence to the rules, keep order and adjudicate disputes. At Vatican II, non-Roman representatives of other denominations and faiths were invited to observe the historic meeting. And then we're told to observe the speed limit, observe holidays and city/town council meetings as well as trends in finance.

In the Deuteronomy reading, God commands the people to "observe these statutes and ordinances" and to "observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul." It isn't enough to just stand back and look at them, God wants the people to deliberately and fully keep the commandments, ordinances, and statues to which they had agreed and to obey God in all things. Those statues, etc., weren't just words laid out in a contract that could be ignored if it got inconvenient. They covered legal, ethical, moral and religious aspects of life, and if one in any one category was broken, it broke the chain that bound all four aspects together. The purpose of the observances was not only to do what God wanted, it was also to bind and strengthen the bonds between people and which included God as the center.

When we observe God's laws, we are responding to an agreement thousands and thousands of years old. Some of the laws might be outdated but we can look at what that particular law represented at the time it was first heard and find parallels in our own lives now. The price of ignoring the agreement and the things the people were called on to observe physically, emotionally, spiritually, ethically, morally, and just about any other -ly a person could think of, is living in disharmony with fellow human beings, nature and the many elements that compose it and with God as well. It is a sort of package deal. When one part of the  body is ill, the rest of reacts to it and tries to bring things back to normalcy. Something in disharmony does not function well, and we can't always just ignore it and think God will fix it for us.

During Lent we try not to do things we normally do and sometimes do things we ordinarily wouldn't do. We call them observances and we approach Ash Wednesday with a definite idea of what we are going to do to observe this Holy Lent. Some will give up some treasured little habits or vices like chocolate, sodas, smoking, or eating meat on Friday. Some will endeavor to pray more, take more exercise, save up the money they would spend on entertainment or coffee and giving it to charity after Lent is over, or do more spiritual reading. Some will take on things like helping in soup kitchens, food banks, and other places where they can be of service. At the beginning we fully intend to keep those observances we established for ourselves. Unfortunately, like a lot of New Year’s resolutions, they don’t make it past the first week.. Still, just giving it a try is a point in their favor even if it seems like a failure to them.

None of us will ever completely live up to the agreement made with God but then, even Babe Ruth never hit a home run every time he came up to the plate. The things is to keep trying, keep the eyes focused on God. Jesus distilled the agreement down to two simple things for us to do - love God and love our neighbor. If we can do those two things, observe them wholeheartedly and faithfully, especially during Lent, we might find our faith deepened, our lives more fulfilling, and the world a better place for us and for everyone else.




Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 28, 2015.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seeking



Upon my bed at night
   I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
   I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city,
   in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
   I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
   as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
   when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
   until I brought him into my mother’s house,
   and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
- Song of Songs (Solomon) 3:1-4

One thing about every good story, and a lot of not-so-good stories, is that they feature different kinds of characters. There has to be a central character who can just an ordinary person, a villain or evil thing that is creating havoc, and a plot where the protagonist finds themselves on a quest for something: to kill a dragon or demon, to find something that was lost, restore that something to its rightful place and thereby make the world a better and happier place.. He or She isn’t a hero or heroine yet; that doesn’t come until the end, usually. In between times they find themselves on an adventure and they become what we call a seeker.
Seekers are interesting characters. Usually they’re ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and who develop things like courage, knowledge and purpose.In stories they often fall into these adventures as a result of circumstances, like Sir Galahad, the knight of the Round Table who sought the Holy Grail, or Luke Skywalker. They usually are led into quests that tested them in ways they would never have expected and, in the end, they often were considered heroes and were rewarded for their success. Usually the journey was full of twists, turns, traps, dead ends and danger before it was all finished, but in the process the seeker did more than achieve the goal; they learned about themselves and, sometimes, about a relationship they didn’t know they lacked.

In the Bible there are lots of seekers. Most of them seem to say "Why me?" at the beginning. Paul the apostle was busy being a persecutor of Christ’s disciples and followers until he was unceremoniously dumped in the road on the way to Damascus and his life abruptly took a 180-degree turn. The rich young man approached Jesus was seeking eternal life, but when Jesus told him what was necessary for him to attain it, it was too difficult a quest for him. In the Old Testament, Moses was a prince in Egypt, became an exile after a murder, and then met a mysterious force that burned a bush but did not consume it. The bush had a voice coming from it with instructions for Moses to get on the road and do some rather difficult things. Moses was one of the “Why me?” people, but he did as he was told and the result was that the Israelites that had been in Egypt were returned to the Promised Land.
Each of us is a seeker, whether we are engaged on a life-altering quest or not. There is the quest on which the advertisers send us to find the perfect anything – house, car, mate, chocolate, whatever—by using their products and services to help in your search. Of course, in this case, the seeking probably will never stop and the seeker will reach the end of the quest. Set on the earthly path which requires more and more, some people can never stop searching for things that will make their lives perfect and complete. They may never find either.
Then there are the seekers who are have an emptiness that they need to fill. What each one seeks is a little different from person to person. Unlike the seekers in stories, everyday human beings are faced with multiple choices in a story that has yet to be written or told, much less finished. Many people seek God or some sort of Higher Power simply because they realize there's something missing in their lives. Many men and women would and do go to monasteries, convents, or even out the wilderness to find way to fill up that emptiness. They used prayer, contemplation, work and study to find what they considered the ultimate treasure which was unity with God.
Most of us cannot give up our day jobs and our families to go out in the desert or join a religious community in order to make the search happen. Most of us have to do it wherever we are. Still, we feel the need to seek God, to look for a fulfilling intimacy that only God can fill. With Lent under way, many people are seeking Lenten practices that will aid in the struggle of living a Christian life in a desert of broken dreams, broken promises and probably broken health whether it be the mind or body.
The seeker in the Song of Songs passage was looking for her lover, God, in various places, even in dreams. The important thing was that she continued to search. That is part of what Lent is supposed to teach us: to continue to seek greater things than the world can offer us. It's an invitation for us to practice the things that open us up to God and to let God come in and fill the empty spaces that we may not even know where there. We need the God we encounter in dreams and readings, but the important thing is to keep searching until we find God who is really only a breath away but sometimes seems billion miles.
During this Lent, let us become the kind of seeker the Song of Songs tells us about. Let us seek and be open to all possibilities, no matter how remote, exotic, mundane or seemingly impossible. If we pay attention we can find what we are looking for.
Have a blessed Lent.

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



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cyril and Methodius

Reading from the Commemoration of Cyril and Methodius, Missionaries


Jeremiah 26:12-15
Psalm 69:8-18
Ephesians 3:1-7
Mark 16:15-20


Imagine growing up in a place where you knew how to speak the language but couldn't read or write because there was no alphabet, spelling books or signs to read. Everything you learned you learned by memorizing whatever it was you needed to remember like your family history, stories and poems of heroes and events, even Bible stories.

It's amazing that while there are about 6,800 languages in the world, there are nearly 700 that have no written form at all. Some languages have very complex pronunciation systems where a word, mispronounced, can mean the difference between a proper word for a situation or a dreadful insult.  Navajo (Diné), a language so distinct and complex that it was successfully used in WWII to send and receive coded messages that were never broken. Missionaries began the work of creating a written form of Diné in the early 1900s but it was not standardized until the 1930s with a dictionary following soon after. Today children are taught to read and write in a language their parents and grandparents were punished for speaking.

Cyril (whose name was originally Constantine until just prior to his death)and his brother Methodius were born in Thessalonika, Macedonia, and grew up speaking both Slavic (also called Slavonic) and Greek. They learned to read and write Greek and also spoke Slavic. They had been missionaries to the Khazars when the church at Constantinople sent Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs in response to a request for missionaries. They were chosen because of their experience in the mission field, and also because they were already fluent speakers of Slavic.

One of the keys to control of a people or nation is the control over the language. The Slavic princes were in a contest with the German missionaries and hierarchy claiming control of the area, one of the main reasons Cyril and Methodius had been summoned. It was hoped that having Slavonic-speakers and missionaries would help displace the Germans and would allow the Slavic princes to consolidate their power. Using Slavic in the liturgy was a way of differentiating themselves from the Germans and serving as a unifier with their own people.

At the time of their appointment (860) to this new mission, the brothers began working on a written form of Slavic using Greek characters as well as ancient symbols for sounds that had no Greek equivalent as the basis for a new alphabet which became known as Glagolithic. The brothers used this to translate the Slavonic liturgy into a written form, When they arrived in 863, they used the script to translate the Bible other ecclesiastical works. With some changes, it became Old Church Slavonic and eventually the foundation of the Cyrillic alphabet, named for Cyril, and is used in Russia and some Slavic languages.

Liturgies in Great Moravia (now the Ukraine and parts of the Balkans) were usually done in Latin or Greek, especially since much of the area had been controlled by German missionaries and hierarchy who insisted that nothing but Greek or Latin was proper for worship. The Eastern Church had allowed for liturgies to be in the native speech of the people (the vernacular). In the power struggle for the area, the Germans feared losing control as much as the Slavic princes wanted to gain it. Their mission to Great Moravia had been one part of that struggle,

Some would say, "What's so special about creating an alphabet? Haven't children been creating secret alphabets and codes forever?" Yes, kids do that; maybe it's something to do with watching spy movies or maybe just trying to set themselves apart from anyone who doesn't have the key to the code. The brothers were not creating a secret code but rather a way to give new life to a language, one that would keep it alive and make it available to the people as a way of coalescing and advancing the civilization. It was done for a purpose, and it has served its purpose since 863. That is a pretty remarkable thing.

Cyril and Methodius are considered saints in the Orthodox tradition as "equal to the apostles." The Roman Catholic church under Leo XIII added their names and feast day in 1880. Pope John Paul II further declared them to be co-patron saints of Europe, joining Benedict of Nursia. We remember them as missionaries to the Slavs. Their feast day of 14 February is observed by Roman Catholics and Anglicans while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 11. In Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 24 as "Slavonic Literature and Culture Day" in honor of their contributions to the Slavic alphabet and culture.

Whatever day we choose to honor these two brothers, we can also celebrate all those who, like them, took spoken languages and created a way to preserve and develop those languages and the cultures that use them. It is a gift not just to one group of people but to the whole world, helping to preserve some of the great diversity that exists among humankind all over the globe.


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
























Sunday, February 8, 2015

Foreigners

Reading from the Commemoration of Cornelius the Centurion


And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
   to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
   and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
   and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
   and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
   will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
   for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
   who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
   besides those already gathered
. - Isaiah 56:6-8

I never traveled much when I was growing up. My family and I only took one trip together although I went to camp several times, to New York once, and to DC multiple times. It always felt strange to go somewhere new and different. Many things were the same but so many others were not the way we did or said or saw them back home.

When I married and moved from the East Coast to the West, it was like moving to a foreign country. It felt and smelled different, and it took some getting used to like walking around in shorts and a t-shirt at Christmas when I'd bundled up as much as possible when I lived at home. I had started to adjust when we got orders, this time to a foreign country. The Philippines became a real eye opener.

For the first time in my life I felt like a foreigner. I had light brown hair, blue eyes and somewhat fair skin. I stuck out like a watermelon at a basketball game. I was a "Joe," a "rich" American who could be bested at bargaining, followed and begged for money, and who didn't understand the comments spoken at the local market because I didn't speak their languages (I learned just enough, it seems). Granted, we lived on a military base with a lot of other "foreigners," but we had to go out into the regular community from time to time and it always accentuated the difference between us. It was a nice place to visit, the people there were interesting and some were very cordial, but I was more than ready to come home after three years there.

Isaiah was a prophet speaking to people who had gotten orders to go to a very foreign land and to live there for a lot longer than three years. The place undoubtedly felt, smelled and appeared very different from their homeland, and their realization that they were foreigners in a foreign land must have been devastating. Even though they were called captives, their lives went on much as it had back home. They were not slaves, they were allowed to practice their trades and professions, and they were allowed to practice their own religion. Even though they were given these privileges that slaves would not have had, they were still far from home, strangers in a strange land.

The children of Israel were there in that foreign land because they had been less than obedient to God and the covenant their ancestors had accepted from God. They had been exiled in Egypt but had been freed. You might have thought that they would have learned their lesson, but no. They moved to the Promised Land and there things started to fall apart.

God sent the Assyrians to get their attention through a relocation program, but it didn't seem to help a lot either. Later the Babylonians took the upper crust--priests, nobles, and rich, high-ranking officials--for an extended stay.

When the time came years later to go back home, many chose to remain where they were; they had assimilated into the foreign culture and liked it. The others went home to find life very different than what they had left behind as they went into exile. They found they were strangers to people, some of them long-separated relatives, who perhaps should have welcomed them with open arms.

The prophet Isaiah had a very specific message for the exiles. They weren't going to be God's only chosen ones. Strangers, including what the Israelites would consider foreigners, who loved God, followed the rules, observed the Sabbath and lived by the covenant God had originally given to Israel would be drawn into the community and fellowship.

Whether one is at home or in a foreign land, there are always rules to be followed. God's rules weren't all that onerous, even though it required and still requires attention and some work, but the reward was and is a home in God's presence and citizenship in the community of God's people.

That's a promise that I think is worth pursuing. The reward is out of this world.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 7, 2015.




Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sam and a Man Named Bill

Readings for the Commemoration of Samuel Shoemaker, priest and evangelist


Psalm 130
Isaiah 51:17-52:1
1 Corinthians 5:6-8
Luke 4:40-44



For millions of people around the world, two letters of the alphabet represent a conversion, a total change, and a life-saving choice. Those two letters are AA for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the man considered the chief founder was a man named Bill Wilson, known as Bill W in the rooms of AA. Bill was an alcoholic who earned his sobriety by following precepts taught him by experience and an organization known as the Oxford Group.

Much of what is at the heart of AA came from that group headed by Samuel Moor Shoemaker III. then rector of Calvary Church in New York and leader of the Calvary Rescue Mission, a place for the down-and-out to try to put their lives back together.

Sam, as Shoemaker was known in AA circles, had met a Lutheran named Frank Buchman years previously. Buchman taught Sam the four absolutes--honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love--which became guiding principles of Sam's life. Sam learned to "Let go and let God" although perhaps he didn't articulate it quite that way.

Sam later became rector at Christ Church which was the headquarters of the Oxford Group in the US. The church operated a rescue mission where mentors worked to help those who came through its doors. Among those who came was a man called Bill W., a man with a history of alcoholism and who had hit rock bottom. Bill and his sponsor, Ebby Thacher, both became part of the Oxford Group and, as the literature describes it, "made their decision for Christ."

As Bill became more active in the Group, he spent more time in conversation and study with Sam, learning about conversion, acceptance, confession, amends, spreading the word and all the things that eventually became the 12-steps of sobriety. As the process became more and more concrete, Bill asked Sam to write them down as guides for others to follow as they struggled with alcoholism. Sam refused, saying that the 12 steps should be written by an alcoholic. Bill did write them, but Sam's fingerprints (and words) are included in them almost everywhere.

Since then, those 12 steps have helped not only countless alcoholics but others with addiction problems, from co-dependency to narcotics to overeating to emotions to sex. They are not a cure for addiction--there really is no cure per se--but it is a way of life that gives structure and promotes the four absolutes that make for a healthy, transparent, fulfilling life. Sam's experience helped Bill to find his way to that kind of life and, in 1955, Sam was named by Bill as one of the co-founders of AA even though Sam had not been or was alcoholic himself.

The Oxford Group was an evangelical sort of association, taking the principles of the four absolutes and encouraging members to follow them and then pass them on to others.. Faith was an important part, as it is in any recovery process, and over time the original emphasis on faith in God has become faith in a Higher Power, someone or something greater than oneself upon whom one can rely as an anchor. The important thing is to trust and place oneself in a relationship with that Higher Power, allowing the HP to work through the person not just to heal but to witness to that healing.

The evangelical component came in when each person was encouraged to seek a sponsor, a mentor who had experience to share. After working the steps themselves, the sponsored was then encouraged to share their own experience with others. It was much the way the faith was passed on in early Christianity, a model for the Oxford Group. As each one teaches another one, their own experience is enriched and deepened. That's kingdom work.

Many people have never heard of Sam Shoemaker, even in the rooms of the Anonymous groups, but he is present nonetheless. Imagine following a path of life where there is total faith in God and allowing oneself to be guided by the principles of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Sam did it, and look at the result.

As they say in Anonymous groups, "Let go and let God." There's a real challenge but a great payoff for anyone who will follow the steps, even those without addictions.


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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Light of Humility

Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion


Readings:

Psalm 116:1-2
Jeremiah 17:14-18a
Galatians 3:23-28
Luke 10:1-9



With a world full of problems that seemingly have no solutions, it's often said that one person can't make a difference, but sometimes one person can, directly or indirectly, effect a change of perception or action that does create a new way of thinking and/or doing. When it happens, it starts as a small spark that gradually grows as people recognize the truth and validity of the message being transmitted. There are times, though, when no words are spoken but actions speak volumes, and times when quiet words and quiet actions go almost unnoticed until people realize the growing miracle that has been going on without their being aware.

The person we know as Florence Li Tim-Oi would not have seen herself as a kind of beacon of faith but her life demonstrated that that was precisely what she was. At her birth her father gave her the name of "Much Beloved," and that name became prophetic, particularly during her adult and elder years. She took the baptismal name of Florence from Florence Nightingale, an English nurse who worked during the Crimean War and who changed the direction of nursing. Nightingale earned the nickname  "Lady with the Lamp." In her own way, Tim-Oi would herself be a bearer of the light in dark and perilous times.

Tim-Oi received a call to ministry in 1931 and was ordained a deacon ten years later. Her mission was to the colony of Macao, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) was raging and refugees from China were flocking into Macao to escape.  In 1941 Tim-Oi was charged with serving the Anglican community in both as a deacon and as a medical helper aiding victims. When it became too dangerous for priests to travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist, Tim-Oi was licensed to preside in her capacity as deacon. In 1944, the Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, called her to meet with him in a part of Free China and ordained her as a priest. It was a ground-breaking moment for Tim-Oi, the souls in Macao whom she served, and, indeed, the Anglican world as a whole. The bishop recognized her call and made her the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

Tim-Oi was aware of and sensitive to the controversy surrounding her ordination and priesthood in other parts of the Anglican Communion. As a result, when it was safe for male priests to once again travel and be visible, she relinquished her license to act as a priest until her orders would be recognized by the Communion.  Bishop Hall called her to service in the clerical order when, in 1947, he made her rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu, China, with the title of priest. With the Maoist takeover in 1949,  things changed radically. She went to Beijing to study and teach at a theological college but with the closing of all churches by the Maoists in 1958, she was considered a political revolutionary and was forced to undergo political re-education which was often accompanied by torture. Following re-education she was assigned to farm and factory work until she was allowed to retire in 1974. She returned to Hong Kong and began service as a lay teacher and preacher. Two more women had been ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong eight years previously so Tim-Oi's license was restored although still not actively recognized by much of the Anglican Communion.

She moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1981 and served there as an associate priest and preacher until her death in 1992. She died a much-beloved figure in both China an North America, living up to her name.

Tim-Oi is one of those people who went about quietly, following her call and serving her God and her people. The mental image that I have of her, however, isn't one where she's dressed in priestly clothes behind an altar but rather as a small, ordinary-looking woman, walking past the backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rubble, going either to church or a home where her priestly words and touch were needed. It must have been a terrifying time, a single woman in a city surrounded by forces at war, yet she had the confidence that God was present and the strength of her call to duty was unshakable.

Tim-Oi shook the ground of the Anglican Communion simply by following where God led her. Her bishop was condemned by the Communion for the precipitous action of ordaining a woman without full approval of that body. Her quiet perseverance and  witness helped to change minds and hearts to the acceptance of women as not only deacons but priests, bishops and archbishops. It isn't universal yet, but the movement is in that direction. I am sure Tim-Oi is smiling with each ordination.

I see Tim-Oi as a prime example of strength in humility. She gave up functioning as a priest because she did not want her vocation to be a stumbling block for others until they could come to the realization that God called both men and women to service in that capacity. To think of one's own actions in light of what it might mean to others and then acting on those actions, even if it causes one's heart to break, is an act of both  courage and humility, two great characteristics of Tim-Oi's life and ministry.

Those who say one person can't make a difference can look to Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was, in her quiet way, a symbol of doing what God called her to do, not with rousing speeches or great public appearances, but rather a quiet light shining through darkness and tradition. Her humility should serve as a lesson to all of us that greatness doesn't come with pride, self-confidence, and fame. Jesus taught that the humble would be exalted and the those who exalted themselves would be humbled(Matt. 23:12). If that is true, and if Jesus taught it, it must be true. Tim-Oi is  undoubtedly very close to the throne of God and welcomed as a Much Beloved daughter not only of her father but also her Father.


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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Love Song

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
   Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
   nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
   and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
   and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.’

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
   who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
   and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
   and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
   and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
   and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
   and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
   nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
   and besides me there is no saviour.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
   when there was no strange god among you;
   and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
   there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
   I work and who can hinder it? -- Isaiah 43:1-13


The baby was hardly laid in his manger when the stores were already putting up "50% OFF ALL CHRISTMAS ITEMS" and shoveling red boxes of candy, hearts, plump cherubs and the like onto the recently vacated shelves. It wasn't even Christmas Day yet, but joy and reverence had to make way for the sensuous (not to mention erotic) and romantic gifts for Valentine's Day. By the time December 26th rolled around, the stores were announcing romance in the air, fragrances to make her swoon and diamonds for a truly spectacular gift.

We love love. Well, a lot of us do. There's something about love and being in love that makes everything better, even when the world is turning to lumps that dung beetles push around. The assurance that we are loved by someone helps make life richer and fuller, even if it is only for a few minutes. The snow may still be on the ground, but love and spring are in the air and all seems like budding branches and chirping birds.

We love love songs. Dancing with a beloved to a tune that emphasizes romance makes time almost stand still. It seems to have been that way for millennia. It's been said that the world changed to a more modern point of view when troubadours stopped writing love songs to the Blessed Virgin and started writing them for the fair ladies at court. They still write love songs to the Virgin, but the concept of courtly love has rather disappeared in favor of gratification and, sometimes, exploitation, neither of which is what we'd call "love."

Isaiah seems to have captured a love song straight from God. It is as song about what God has done for God's own people, not just the ones in Israel but from the far corners of the earth. God has ransomed them and redeemed them, God loves them and no one can change that. God doesn't need red hearts and boxes of chocolates, not when God has given us glorious sunsets, ocean waves, verdant forests, colorful canyons, fluffy kittens breaching whales, and all the wonderful and marvelous things of this world created for us to enjoy.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the God we read about in the Hebrew Bible, the God who wasn't afraid to wipe out almost an entire world, leaving only a boatload of survivors, or who slaughtered the first-born of Egypt, whether animal or human, is the same God who loves us enough to forgive us before we ask and to want a relationship with us even if we aren't aware of it. "...[Y]ou are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you." I wonder why we so seldom hear that verse. Maybe if we heard or read it more, it would sink in and, if it sunk in, perhaps it would give us the confidence and inspiration to practice loving God's other children, no matter who or where they are.

A baby in a manger is a far greater sign of love than a bunch of chubby cherubs with bows and arrows, yet we rush past the one to get to the others. Even in churches who celebrate Christmas for the full twelve days of the season are often short-changed by culture that demands that Christmas carols stop by Christmas Day's end if not sooner. We speak and hear of love throughout the year, but sometimes it's a shallow kind of love, a self-gratifying kind that serves our purpose but can leave our partner somewhat out in the cold. That baby in the manger was an incarnation of pure love, a love that didn't come with silver spoons and expensive cribs and carriages, and didn't come to palatial homes in gated communities. The baby came to ordinary people in a less than optimal situation, but who drew angels, shepherds and even magi to his side.

The power of love is a strong magnet, and nothing draws people like someone who loves. Look at Mother Teresa. She often had doubts about her faith but she continued to love and that love drew both the sick and the healthy to her. Pope Francis is another of those, as is +Desmond Tutu. Children know who loves them and who doesn't; remember the children around Jesus when the disciples tried to shoo them away?  They felt the love and it drew them in. It's no different for adults either.

There's a month to go before Valentine's Day is replaced by Easter bunnies, more kinds of chocolate and baskets of goodies. What if, in that month, we practice a different kind of love than one that is dependent on fancy cards, roses, and frilly lingerie. What if we find someone that really needs to feel loved and offer them some of the love we have stored up and have been afraid to give away. A cup of coffee, a sandwich, a bottle of water, an inexpensive blanket -- all those can be signs of love. Call a friend we haven't talked to in a while, send a note thanking an old schoolteacher, priest or mentor who has helped us along the way but who we never really thanked. It doesn't require a life-long commitment, just a few words or a gesture or two, but it can make someone's day.

The best way to get love is to give it away. Jesus is a great example of that. Skip the cherubs -- go straight to God who loves us all 24/7/365 and even 366.


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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prophets and the Proximity of God

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
   following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
   to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
   and offering incense on bricks;
who sit inside tombs,
   and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
   with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
who say, ‘Keep to yourself,
   do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
   a fire that burns all day long.
See, it is written before me:
   I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their laps
   their
iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they offered incense on the mountains
   and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
   full payment for their actions.
Thus says the Lord:
As the wine is found in the cluster,
   and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
   for there is a blessing in it’,
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
   and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants
from Jacob,
   and from Judah inheritors
of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
   and my servants shall settle there.
-- Isaiah 65:1-9


For lots of folks, opening the morning paper includes checking their daily horoscope, a prediction of what the day or the week holds for them, based on the astrological positioning of stars and planets. It's usually short and often seems a little vague, which is understandable because it has to cover 1/12th of the population. Some will find parts of their horoscope that seem new or unexpected, others won't find anything interesting, exciting or even possible as they read the same thing. Whether they actually believe the horoscope or not, though, many will read them just for the amusement of seeing how close to reality they can be.

Hebrew Bible prophets weren't in the astrology business with a day-to-day short blurb about people's (possible) future. Prophets looked around, saw what was wrong and warned the people of consequences if those wrongs should go unrighted. A lot of prophecy was in the form of poetry, not because the language was pretty or beguiling, but because it could be recited or sung more easily than just prose. Memorization was an important thing to them since they lacked reading skills or books from which they could pull the passages or answers they needed. Memorization is a talent we've pretty much lost in our technological internet-has-all-the-answers age. We no longer need to memorize when all we have to do is Google a question and have it return an answer for us.

God, speaking through Isaiah, told the people that even though they did not seek or call for God, God was there waiting. The people had forgotten God in their search for pleasure, rich living and very possibly what we would consider being spiritual without being religious. Incense was burned on bricks rather than stone altars, meetings held  in secret places for possibly illicit acts, and violations of dietary law were just some of the things God pointed out through Isaiah. But God would not be patient forever; there would be consequences laid square in the laps of those who were guilty. They would not be destroyed although they would be punished, and out of it God would bring good things and plentiful descendants.

We sometimes seem to be of two minds about God in our lives. On the one hand, we see disasters of greater or lesser proportions falling on people and we say, rather glibly, that it must have been God's will. Yet when it comes our turn, we have difficulty making the same claim because, after all, we haven't done anything that was really that bad, really. We forget that God has been there with hands outstretched all along but we've ignored them, preferring to go our own way until we really find ourselves in a mess and then go running to God to make it all better. The sins are not just on an individual basis, however; our corporate sins are worse because we allow things that are wrong and hurtful to others to continue just so we can continue on with our own lives unhindered. There are consequences for that too.

We hear modern prophets telling of global sins that desperately need correction but, like the people in Isaiah's passage, we are too busy with our own gardens, meetings and fine dining. We hear that God is just waiting for us to turn around and reach out, but somehow we never really take it to heart until we need something or we feel we're being punished.

Our modern prophets don't speak in iambic pentameter or even blank verse, yet they speak to us of the world's needs--and our own. They may not mention God's name, but it seems clear that what they say is in line with what God wants for and from us. These prophets speak of peace, care for others, equality of all, and the kinship of all people. Jesus and the prophets spoke of the same things, but somehow we keep missing the message just as Isaiah's audience (and yes, Jesus' too). That's why in each generation, God puts voices to remind us of our responsibilities and our duties, not just to God but to our world and those who live in it.

The kingdom of God will come when we listen and obey. That's the focus of prophecy -- to pay attention to the warnings, to seek the best for all parts of creation, and to remember that God is only as far away as a breath.
And no one, no matter how grievous the sin, is beyond redemption. Now that is very good news indeed.


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