Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Importance of Anna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Short Ending to Advent

Reading: Malachi 3:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Quiet Man

Advent often centers around the events of the annunciation and the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, one young woman and one old, both pregnant in what would be considered either miraculous or scandalous circumstances. Elizabeth would have been a miracle, given her age and given the number of years that she and Zachariah had been married but without conceiving or bearing a child. Mary, on the other hand, was engaged to a man named Joseph, a simple man, a carpenter, but they had not yet consummated the marriage, possibly due to Mary's young age, although we have no real idea what that age was.

Joseph was an important figure. His story and Mary's parallel to some extent and yet are somewhat different. Both received visitations from angels, both were told incredible things, and both were given the name of an impending child who would be Mary's conception but not by Joseph, her husband-to-be. Joseph also received a visitation where he was told to complete the marriage to Mary even though Mary was pregnant, because this was to be a very special child whose name was going to be Jesus. Mary was wide awake when her angel came; Joseph was sound asleep when his visitation came in a dream. Mary followed the annunciation with a visit to a cousin, while Joseph stayed at home. Mary gave forth a beautiful acknowledgment and praise to God for the message that the angel had brought her. Joseph simply went and did as he was told. It seems Joseph was a quiet man, a silent man, one who plays an integral part but who yet says not a single word in the Gospels.

I've been thinking about Joseph lately. He accepted a wife who was pregnant but not with his child. That is hard enough for a lot of men to accept, but when told, even by an angel, that the father of this child was God, I do not see how Joseph could be anything but incredulous and probably thunderstruck. I wonder, does he think about who could have been the baby’s father? Oh sure, he took the word of the angel, but it probably took a very big suspension of suspicion for him to accept it.

Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem to answer a census. We know there was no census in any of the years that Jesus could conceivably have been born (ca. 4BCE - 4CE), but it served as a way for the gospel to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where the house of David had been established centuries before and where prophecy had said the Messiah would come. Even while looking for a place to stay in a very full town, Joseph never said a word that was recorded. The child came and, yet, Joseph said nothing. Of course, at that point in time, Mary did not say anything either, so evidently it was not very important to the story of the miraculous birth.

There is the story of the wise men who arrive at Epiphany with gifts, but still the parents are silent. An angel comes to them and tells them that they need to leave because there was a warrant out to kill babies of a certain age who were perceived to be threats. They went to Egypt and stayed for a while. Unquestioning, they did as they were told, seemingly without argument or even comment.

Joseph seems like a background character, but he was the earthly father figure involved in Jesus’s upbringing and a role model, teacher, and mentor, to Mary’s son. I wonder, did Mary and Joseph ever speak to Jesus of his unusual birth? Did they ever tell Jesus that Joseph really was not his father, or did they just go along presenting Jesus as Joseph’s son like a regular family? Did Joseph officially adopt Jesus? How did Jesus find out that God was his father, and when did he discover this? To me, it seems rather unusual for a human child, which Jesus was at this time, to instinctively know the spark of divinity within him, although we can guess that it happened when he was a very young child. Perhaps it was closer to the time when he was lost at the temple for three days. We just don't know.

What we do know, though, was that Joseph was present through part of Jesus's life, and represented a father figure, maybe even a model for some of the men in the parables. It's impossible to know, but Joseph must have been a very good and strong man to accede to the request given by the angel and to continue throughout his lifetime to love, teach, and support a son who was not his and yet was as close as his own child would have been.

Maybe what I learned from Joseph was that sometimes words are necessary. Acceptance? Of course. Faithfulness? Definitely. Strength? Yes. Joseph had to be a strong man, a good man, and one who put the well-being of others before himself. I am sure Jesus did not learn everything he had to learn from some supernatural force like angels or visions or whatever. I am sure a lot of what he had to learn especially in his very young life came from his parents, both Mary and Joseph. Joseph could teach carpentry, and could also serve as a religious model of a of a pious Jewish man who knew the rites and traditions that had to be done, knew the Scriptures, and followed them to the letter. Joseph was perhaps a quiet man, yet without him and his example, perhaps Jesus would have been just a little bit different as a human being. Pure speculation, but it is something to consider.

So, this week I think I will concentrate on Joseph. Maybe if I listen hard enough I can hear him speak. What I do know, though, is that he is a role model, who seemed to use actions rather than words to live his part in the nativity story.

I think I am learning to see Joseph in a whole new light.

God bless.

Note: Joseph is the patron of the church, carpenters, fathers, and social justice.  He is also the patron of the dying.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 16, 2017.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Music of Advent

When it comes to liturgical seasons, my favorite by far is Advent. I love it for its contemplation and its quiet expectation, sort of like being pregnant. There are times of discomfort, but even some of the discomfort is a reassurance that a new life is coming into the world, and that's a good thing. Advent has that feeling because, of course, we are expecting the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But Advent makes us wait, makes us think about what we’re getting into once the baby Jesus is here.

One of the things I like most about Advent is the music that I hear. No, I'm not talking about the Christmas carols in the big box stores (and even the little stores) that start playing on December 1st and stop pretty much by midnight on Christmas Eve. By Christmas, I'm tired of carols, although I do love singing them at the proper time. I never hear Advent hymns and carols though, unless I am at church or listening to CDs on my various devices. There's one that I have just about worn out, and that's a service of Advent music and lessons from King’s College that I bought years ago and love dearly. The sound of the choir of men and boys, the words of the scriptures leading up to the birth of Jesus, all the sounds echoing off the vaulted arches of a historic place – it’s the most wonderful thing I can think of.

Another thing I love about Advent is Messiah. Many places will wait and present it at Easter, but somehow doing the Christmas section in Advent is like the trailer for a really good movie. It gives us a taste of what's coming and makes us think of what that birth means.

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist’s cry" (Winchester New), is one of those hymns that I can't wait to sing. It's a song encourages us to look forward to the days of Advent and that tells us so eloquently that the assurance that what the Baptist tells us is true. There is one coming who is greater than John and who will be our "… Our refuge, and our great reward." It is an exposition of what the coming Messiah will bring to us and what we will joyfully celebrate. After all, Advent is a celebratory season, as well as a penitential one, in its own quiet way. The four Advent candles, one lit each Sunday until finally the Christ candle is set alight on Christmas Eve, and the darkness, while surrounding us physically, is dispelled with the joy and the light and the scents of Christmas.

Another one of my favorites seems like an odd choice for an Advent hymn, and it makes me stop and wonder why it's included. "Lo, he comes with clouds descending" (Helmsley) is not about the Christmas birth but a return to earth from heaven of the Christ who bears the scars of his violent and painful death on the cross. This hymn is based on Revelation, something we don't normally associate with Christmas or Advent. It seems to be something more suited to Lent or perhaps the season after Pentecost. But it is kind of a balance to the quiet anticipation to Bethlehem as it makes us think about the road beyond the manger, a road we will walk during Lent, celebrate at Easter, and then look beyond to the Messiah's return and what it will mean to the earth when it happens. I still love it, and almost wish that we could sing it sometime other than Advent, just because it's a message that transcends seasons.

Also on my list of favorites is what we call the "O Antiphons,” a series of eight verses begun on December 17 and ending on December 23 or 24th, one verse being sung each day, and each verse giving out a title or an attribute of Jesus, like root of Jesse, wisdom from on high, key of David, etc. It's chanted in plainsong, a very old liturgical way of singing, that has no harmony but has everything sung in unison. With the unison singing, it's easy to contemplate the words without distraction because once you learn the melody that's all it needs. It encourages us to rejoice, and to welcome the coming Messiah. It's hopeful, and it is simple enough to be remembered throughout not just the Advent season but afterwards. “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the opening phrase of the first verse, is translated from the Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.

So once again it’s time for me to break out my iPod and fulfill my Advent tradition of listening to my wonderful CD from King’s, although I admit I sneak it in a few times during the year simply because it is so lovely. If you have a service lessons and carols for Advent at your church, do go and listen, invite a friend, join the singing (which is a form of prayer), feel the anticipation, and let the world’s cares and fears dissipate for a little while. We need the rest, we need to catch our breaths, and we need the peace. That’s what Advent offers us.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 9, 2017.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare -- Advent Style

The story about the tortoise and hare is a familiar tale of a famous Greek storyteller named Aesop.  It starts out with a hare bragging about how fast he could run and that nobody could beat him. The tortoise listened, but didn't seem overly impressed. In fact, he challenged the hare to a race! Of course, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the hare being so much faster than the tortoise, so of course he would win. The other animals laid out the course through the forest and the great race began. The rabbit took off like a shot and ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. He stopped about midway ad thought  “There's a nice place to play; I’ll just play here for a while since I've got lots of time.” He played in the green grass and then he decided he was still way ahead. “I'll take a nap,” he thought. So, the hare laid down under a nice shade tree and had a very nice nap. When he woke up and thought, “Okay, the tortoise should be about caught up by now, so I'll just run to the finish line.”  When he got there, surprise, surprise, surprise! There was the tortoise waiting for him on the winning side of the line.

I thought about the story as I was sitting in a restaurant on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas carols, seeing a Christmas tree and lots of decorations around the restaurant, which, by the way, was Chinese. I wasn't ready for it. Granted, I've seen trees lit up and yard ornaments moving and Christmas decorations in stores since Labor Day. But somehow sitting in a Chinese restaurant the second day after Thanksgiving and seeing a fully decorated restaurant playing Christmas carols was just too much.

So, what is that got to do with the tortoise and hare? There are people who can't wait to celebrate Christmas. They love Christmas. They love the lights, the trees, the scents, the parties, the food, the gifts and even the shopping. There are folks who have the house and yard are decorated by Thanksgiving weekend or shortly thereafter. They're usually all ready for Christmas before December 1st even arrives. They start off at full tilt and keep going – like the hare.

Then there are others who don't decorate the tree until a week before or even the night of Christmas Eve, even though the presents are bought and wrapped, the cooking has been is been done, and gifts have been shipped off to friends and relatives who will not be around the Christmas tree this year. Those are the tortoises, not because they lack Christmas spirit, but because they take it slowly they don't rush into it. Many of them wait  to begin celebrating Christmas at all until Christmas Eve around midnight, but then they'll celebrate for another 12 days.

There's nothing wrong with being a hare when decorating for Christmas if that's a family tradition. I know my family always put the Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving weekend, and usually so do I. I like the lights and the sparkle of the fake crystal ornaments, and it makes an otherwise sad time of year for me a little happier. I don’t think Jesus would condemn me for that. But in my religious practice I'm more of a tortoise. I don't sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, I try not to hear them, (especially the one that everyone hopes to avoid hearing until Christmas Eve at least) but I can't escape hearing the music on the radio when I go out to the stores or even visit friends. I'm an Advent person.

Advent people are more like the tortoise than the hare, at least liturgically. Their homes often have an advent wreath instead of boughs of greens with red bows, lots of colored lights, and baby Jesus in the manger already. Advent people look for the coming of Jesus in a way that is more reflective and a bit more introspective than some other Christians do. For Advent people it's about the waiting. It's about preparing, and by preparing they don't mean pouring the brandy on the fruitcake or making the Christmas putting and setting it aside to age. It is about preparing inwardly more than outwardly for a great festival season of the church.

The comparison of the tortoise and the hare may not be totally fair, because it really depends on things like family tradition, church tradition, or even personal preference. The important thing is that come December 25th, the tortoise and the hare are both at the finish line or, in the case of the tortoises, at the second start line because that's when Christmas begins.

It's almost aggravating to have heard Christmas music on the radio starting December 1st and increasing in number of Christmas versus non-Christmas songs as Christmas approaches. Then, come Christmas morning, you may hear carols but by evening not a carol to be heard; meanwhile, the Advent people are just getting ready to start singing Christmas carols and they will sing them until January 6th which is the epiphany. Also, when a person goes into stores on Christmas Eve, the Christmas stuff has already been moved to the seasonal clearance aisle and the store is now full of red hearts, chubby cherubs, chocolate candy boxes, and appurtenances of Valentine's Day which can range anywhere from a teddy bear with “I love you” embroidered on his chest to very frilly lingerie.

Whether a person is a tortoise or a hare when it comes to when they start celebrating and when they start preparing and when they start getting ready for Christmas is less important than the fact that it becomes less of a commercial event and more a spiritual one, which is the intent of Christmas. Our pagan brothers and sisters would say we should celebrate the returning of light on the winter Solstice, when night is longer than the daylight. Then each day afterwards there's a little more light and a little less dark. We can do that; in fact, some Christian churches have a celebration on Solstice which culminates with them but going outside and banging away on pots and pans and whatever is handy to make a joyful noise that will frighten away the darkness. That's kinda cool, and is fully within the Advent tradition of clearing away things that that block the light coming in to us, just as the light came to the world in the manger in Bethlehem.

So, let us be joyful, let us be happy, but let us also slow down a little, do a little more preparation inwardly, and walk rather than run towards Bethlehem. Christmas will still come, and we will still participate in it fully completely and joyfully, but will also have done some work to prepare our own gifts for Christ rather than strictly contemplating gifts for mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, or friends. We think more of Christ and less of self. We need to do the inward work and be a bit of a tortoise. Christmas will still come in due time.

Okay, I'm going to put up my tree now. I'm a little later than usual, but that's okay. I will still have weeks to enjoy it, and maybe a little extra time that I took before putting it up will make me inwardly more prepared for the glory that is to come. Advent is here. Christmas will come.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 2, 2017.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

To Rise Above

There are a lot of film buffs in this world, folks who can’t wait for the next Star Wars or cult classic, and who sometimes stand in line for hours just to get in to the first showing of a new “sensation.”  I’m not one of those; I dislike sitting in theaters where someone six feet seven inches sits in front of me, the backlight of the cellphone in the next seat is blinding, and a child persists in kicking the back of my seat.  I prefer to sit at home and wait for it on Netflix or Amazon, when I can sit in my rocking chair with a lap robe, snack, and a cat on my lap to enjoy a peaceful viewing.

I don’t watch many movies, but I do have favorites. Probably my greatest one is a 1951 black-and-white perpetual favorite, “The African Queen.” Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) was very upright and uptight missionary, who had to be rescued from a bad situation by a rather uncouth and definitely irreligious boat captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). It's quite an adjustment for Rose’s character, and she frequently resorts to rather pithy statements to attempt to alter Mr.Allnut’s  rather rough character traits. One of the pithiest and greatest comments she uttered was, “Human nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above." I can still hear that line spoken in a very proper British accent as she looks down her nose at the man who undoubtedly saved her life.

The beauty of the statement is that I can see a lot of truth in it. We all have a human nature inside of us, consisting of many factors including our upbringing, our environment, our heredity, our physical and mental health, educational level, financial status, and our class in society. “The African Queen” is a meeting of stiff and starchy middle-class English morality versus a lower-class but much more freewheeling and happy-go-lucky personality. Personality clashes abound, but gradually each finds the need to change, to rise above their differences to not just wreak havoc on the Germans in the area but to survive themselves and, ultimately, to fall in love.

We show our human nature every day. We are judged or at least categorized by those with whom I come in contact, by what we say, do, and how we act. We learned certain things from our families, some things are just ingrained my shyness or extroversion. Some are fond of books and reading while others would rather spend time kicking around soccer balls or playing baseball. Some seem to have a rather perverse human nature who relishes hurting people and animals, and who may or may not, depending on many factors, either grow up to be a serial killer or find a way to change their predilections. Human nature gives us some adaptability and a lot of choice in the matter, and those choices are what are important.

As Christians, we are brought up to believe in God, in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, although the spirit gets relatively less publicity than the former two. We go to Sunday school and we dutifully absorb the stories like Noah's Ark, where Noah obediently builds a large boat to save those whom God deemed worthy of salvation, namely his family and animals of various species and numbers. We don't hear that much about Noah not really wanting to do this and grumbling the whole way, that is, until the rain started coming and God told him to close the door. He built the ark, endured his neighbors’ jibes and sarcastic comments, but he did the job, and that's what we're supposed to learn.

We learn stories about Jesus, about how at age 12 he went to the temple with his parents for a very important holy day, and, as they were on the road for three days, all of a sudden, the parents missed the boy. What is always confusing to me is how can a parent forget a child, even 12-year-old child and travel such a distance without realizing that Jesus wasn't with them. It seems they should have noticed and stayed to look for him, or that would have been the natural thing for parents to do. Jesus was showing his human nature by willfully staying behind and talking to the rabbis and the elders and amazing them with what he knew and what he observed. Two different kinds of human nature the focused child, and the forgetful parents, give a portrait of a very unusual family.

One of the messages of Jesus was that we needed to overcome our basic human natures and rise above them as we listened to his parables and his stories and learn to subdue the parts of us that don't work to benefit others for glorify God. It's hard to change; just ask anybody who's been in a 12-step program. They will tell you it is very difficult. It is becoming more and more difficult all the time, because our culture has changed, and it seems now that is all right to be selfish, it's all right to put “Me first,” and it's all right to ignore others if they get in our way or if they aren't better than we are.

That’s not the way Jesus wanted us to do. It's the result of our own willfulness and it is not loving one's neighbor as oneself or taking care of each other. I wonder, if Jesus came and stood in front of us just out of the blue, and we responded, how would we look in his eyes and feel we had done our share, or done our best to live up to what he asked us to do?

I think this week I will have to work with Miss Rose’s line about rising above my human nature. I don’t think I can become a saint; I think I'm so far beyond that possibility that it's ridiculous, but if I try, even just a little bit harder, who knows? I may find my human nature can rise a bit higher than I originally aspired to. And who knows, I may become a better Christian because of it.

God bless.

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Mentor and Foster -- Hilda of Whitby

Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a noble family in Northumbria. The baby was named Hilda but was most often called Hild. She had a very close relationship with her sister Hereswith, and when was about 33 years old she resolved to go to France to join her sister in becoming a nun. Just about this time, Hilda was summoned by Aidan, a dedicated missionary and bishop of Lindisfarne.  He sent her to the Wear river, gave her a bit of land, and asked her to build a monastery for women who would practice the traditions of Celtic Christianity as taught at Lindisfarne and Iona.  Needless to say, the venture was a success.

She was next asked to succeed the late abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool. Again, her humility, wisdom, patience, learning, and ability to work with all manner of folks ensured the continued success of the monastery.  About 2 years later, she was given a piece of land at a place called Streanaeshalch (later called Whitby by the Danes) to become the abbess over a mixed monastery, males and females living in the same community but in small houses of 2 or 3 males or females each who came together only for prayers and worship in the Celtic fashion.

Hilda was known for her ability to appeal to, work with, and identify people of all stations in life, some more exceptional than others. She met a sheepherder who had a vision of writing poetry and singing hymns to God. Hilda fostered his talent and thus gave the world a poet named Caedmon, who wrote poetry dedicated to God, including the earliest known poem/prayer written to God in the English of the time.  Five other men of her community became bishops and two of them later were canonized as saints. 

Her best-known achievement, however, was the hosting at her monastery of a gathering of both Celtic and Roman Christians.  While the two groups had many things in common, including many doctrines and traditions, the Celtic focused more power in the monasteries and wandering bishops while the Romans were more strict in observance and followed the bishops.  While the meeting of the two didn't resolve every difference, it did resolve a major question which was the establishment of a way of accurately dating the observance of Easter in both groups.  It was a major achievement, and Hilda's guidance, patience, and ability to foster agreement, even to the point of agreeing to follow the Roman fashion instead of the Celtic which had been her training and choice in the matter.

Mentoring is a word we hear a lot these days. It is a valued and valuable service that one person does for another or for a group of others. Simply put, a mentor is one who fosters the talents, abilities, and professional trajectory of another, in essence, showing them the ropes and how to succeed, not by lecture but by grooming them with exercises, practice, and gentle advice. It happens in business frequently, even if the word mentor is never mentioned.

In Education for Ministry (EfM),   a mentor or mentors meet with a group of members of a class with the aim of developing not only their knowledge of church history, the Bible and theology, but fostering their spiritual lives by encouraging them to explore those spiritualties through reflection and use of tools like spiritual autobiographies. The great thing about being in EfM mentor is that they don't have to have all the answers. In fact, it's a blessing not to have to answer all the questions. Group members and even mentors practice a system of guidance that allows people to learn by investigation, with no answers at the back of the book, but rather with open eyes, minds, and hearts. It is a rewarding experience for a mentor to see the group began year one with lots and lots of questions and progress through all four years without the questions ever stopping. As one learns to answer or a reasonable answer, an opinion, or a belief, there is always something else a little further down the road that builds on that and encourages the person to take the next steps and to tackle the next questions that they need to explore. Watching this progress both in oneself as a mentor and in the members of the group shows the benefits of fostering faith and spiritual journeys and the blooming of ministers, both lay and clerical.

Hilda may not have been in EfM mentor, but she certainly was a mentor to those in her monasteries. She encouraged, and I believe she led others to find answers without relying on her to be the final arbiter. If she could successfully manage to groups as disparate and yet is similar as the Celtic and Roman churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland, then her talents must have been formidable. It is for those things that Hilda of Whitby is remembered and honored, because to mentor is to foster and Hilda was a master of both.

Who has mentored you? Who have you mentored? Who fostered you? Who have you fostered? What was the gain? What was the loss? Every person has the ability to foster someone else in some way, shape, or form. The mentor needs to be a good example, a guide rather than a book of rules, and the person with the great interest in watching another person become a skilled and well-rounded individual. I imagine Hilda got immense satisfaction out of watching all the different people that came out of her monasteries because of her recognition of their abilities, her guidance and wisdom.

Hilda makes an excellent example of Christianity in action as someone who was perhaps ahead of her time. She would probably have quite an adjustment if she came back in this time period,  but I feel she would recognize the role of the mentor and I think would fall right back into patterns of mentoring and fostering folks just as she did in her own lifetime. I think she deserves a bit more study than we might possibly give her. Just because someone came from far back in the distant past, it does not mean that there is nothing that can be learned from this person. After all, Jesus was born 2000 years ago, and we are still trying to learn from him about what it meant to be a Christian, a mentor, a guide, and a fosterer of others.

Time to take a deeper look at Hilda of Whitby. She's a good example to follow.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 19, 2017.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Flanders Fields and Beyond

Ninety-nine years ago today there was a an event that signaled the end of something horrible and unthinkable  and the beginning of a new hope for worldwide peace. At 11:11 AM on November 11, 1918,  a state of truce  began to exist between Germany and the Allied nations, France,  England, Australia, Canada and other commonwealth nations. It marked essentially the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, a war that killed 150,000 and traumatized a large part of the European continent. The day was marked as Armistice Day, after the process that occurred that morning of that day in 1918.

Today, Armistice Day is still celebrated in the United Kingdom and her commonwealth. It is a day of solemn remembrance not only of those brave young people who served in the military and fought so bravely yet who were killed in the conflict. Eventually it became a traditional day to remember not only the dead but those who fought and also those injured in service to their country. At 11:11 a.m. on Armistice Day, a traditional wreath of red poppies is laid at the base of the Cenotaph, a memorial to the war dead, by the Queen, herself a veteran, or her representative All across the country, at the sound of a bell, everything and everyone stops for two minutes of silence in tribute to all veterans.  There is also a Remembrance Sunday on the second Sunday of November which is a day of quiet celebration, church services and other commemorations. In France,  Remembrance Day is solemn, with church services and many businesses closing to honor the fallen. In Belgium, visitors come to see thousands upon thousands of crosses and other symbols which  marked the graves of the fallen. Close by, blood red poppies bloom as if a reminder of the blood that was shed to make freedom for those at home.

In the United States we celebrate Veterans Day, honoring all who have served, the living and the dead alike. There are frequently parades, and businesses offer free things from food to haircuts to discounts on some items. It's also a time for big Veterans Day sales which feature big-ticket items like cars and appliances go on sale along with clothes, electronics, and almost everything. It is kind of a run-up to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Sometimes it makes the body wonder what the relationship is between a refrigerator and a veteran painfully walking on crutches, or wheelchair-bound, or walking with a service dog -- or lying in a coffin. It's almost incomprehensible.

Stories have always glorified warriors, especially those of one's own nationality or culture or religion, who came back to honor and glory from their admirers. These became stories that would encourage others to be heroic themselves. Stories like Joshua, who led the troops and also the priests who marched around the city of Jericho with shofars blaring so that the walls, as the song says, "… Came tumbling down." Whether it actually happened that way or not, who knows, but it is a story we remember, and we can all use it to motivate ourselves to do a little marching and a little tooting. Yet not often are those immortalized were among the dead left behind or buried hastily in the place where they fell.

Jesus never actually came out and endorsed  warriors, although David was certainly a warrior as well as a king. Instead Jesus talked about peace, bringing the world to the peace that originally existed when God finished the creation. Jesus talked a lot about that kingdom, and also cast it in, what was to him, modern visions of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, wisdom, good feeling, and mutual caring that were all parts of Eden, parts that were shattered by a serpent's words and a couple's willingness to disobey. There's always been an image of re-foraging and recasting weapons like swords and shields into instruments of peace like plowshares and reaping scythes. It's still a dream, but it seems farther away now than ever before.

Now we not only think about those who sacrificed themselves so that others might be free, but we also think about victims of domestic violence and terrorism, terrorism from home-grown people as well as foreigners. We think of all the recent incidents of violence against crowds of innocent people just because someone wanted to make a point. How many hundreds died this year at the hands of others who, with some sort of skewed ideology or even theology, walk into churches, perch on top of buildings, break glass windows in hotel towers, and simply walk the streets with guns blazing and automobiles racing through crowds. It is becoming all too familiar, and the more familiar it gets, the less impact it has because we get so used to it.

Jesus would not like that, not at all. I pray that Jesus will keep reminding us that in order to bring peace we need to reestablish an environment where peace can flourish, peace as a place where people respect other people including the aliens and their land, as was the custom in Israel among the Israelites and the Hebrews. We must cultivate a sense of caring for those who fight their own battles against disease, criminal acts too easily done, hunger, homelessness, in prison but who are innocent (and even the ones who are guilty). It needs to be  a world where we comfort the dying, not to ship them off to some clinic or hospital and let them die alone and possibly uncared for. There's a whole lot that can be done, and as surely as we can wear red poppies on our shirts for Veterans Day to mark the bloodshed for us and in our name, above it there should be a visible or even invisible cross to remind us to that Jesus was a victim of violence himself and died as a result of the ideology and theology of others.

Let's let Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day be a day for all of us to think seriously about what freedom means and what the kingdom of God is really about.

To veterans, alive and those on the other side of the veil, thank you for your service and bless you for your sacrifices.

For the rest of us, let us never ever forget what others have done for us and in our name. Then let us go out and tend to them in the name of Jesus.

God bless.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.   -- 
John McCrae (1872-1918) (Poem in public domain)

Sunday, November 5, 2017


There's something unnerving about having the phone ring early in the morning, far earlier than one would normally expect. It happened to me the other morning, and I immediately went into "Oh my God, who and what is it?" It was my daughter-in-law, a girl that I have seldom had a chance to talk to for very long, but who has been an excellent wife for my son for nearly a decade and a half. She went on to tell me that my son had become very ill on the evening of Halloween, so ill he was even willing to go to the hospital. That told me this was nothing to fool around about.

My son is known to be a stubborn person although he has almost perfect manners, a pleasant speaking voice, a nice smile, good looks, a work ethic the far surpasses most people in his generation, a generous spirit, and is a damn fine guy, if I do say so myself. But he is stubborn. He gets it from me, I guess, because I'm stubborn too. His wife and I have been trying for years to get him to go to the doctor about symptoms that he had had that he just decided to ignore, namely severe and almost constant headaches. Well, as of Halloween, it turned out to be something he couldn't afford to be stubborn over and something he will have to pay attention to probably for the rest of his life. Otherwise he's fine, more or less.
I always thought of Simon Peter as a stubborn person.  Was he was born under the  zodiacal sign of Taurus the bull? Bulls represent stubbornness. It's one of their chief characteristics, if astrology books are anything to go by. Peter would bull his way into something, whether he understood it or not, and often cause himself a bit of grief and a sharp thwack across the knuckles from Jesus to get him back on the right path. I think about him jumping over the side of the boat to walk to Jesus because Jesus walking on water. Naturally, Peter started to short to sink like a rock, which is in very apt term since Peter meant stone, and the disciple is often nicknamed "Rocky." Jesus stretched out a hand and Peter gathered enough faith to get himself out of deep water, so to speak, but it took help from Jesus to do it, help that Peter had to accept. Even then he didn't totally get it. Several other times he had to be reined in for he would rush into something before considering it and often, the thing that he rushed into created an opportunity for Jesus to teach the rest of us a lesson.
James and John were considered Sons of Thunder, and they also had their streaks of stubbornness. They even had their mother go to Jesus to ask that they be given positions of preference at Jesus's right and left hands. I would think twice before asking my son's boss to give him a promotion even though I believe my son is more than worth it, has the knowledge and the ability to do the job I am pursuing for him. I'm stubborn, but that one goes beyond my level of bull-headedness.

It's easy for any of us to be stubborn, especially about things we care about the most and things we believe in to the very core of our being. For some people there's an inherent belief in a symbol such as the American flag being something sacred and to be defended in any and every way from defilement or even perceived disrespect. For some stubbornness is a religious faith and belief in a supreme being who watches over them and protects them and cares for them, but sometimes lets them get into hot water and then get themselves out.

There are some who have a stubbornness about politics, or the role of economics in our society, or societal norms that they believe we should be upholding, whether or not we agree with them. There's so many ways to be stubborn. The old metaphor of stubborn people being like mules who have to make up their mind that they want to do something before it'll actually do it. I have a friend who could probably deliver at least a two-hour sermon on the habits and traits of mules, with plenty of anecdotes to prove the point.
It is stubbornness to insist my way is the only way, which is only partially correct because it might be the only right way for me, nobody else. It stubborn to ignore good medical advice. It stubborn not realize that one day old age will arrive and following that will be the final chapter of life whether we're ready or not. Sometimes it's our own stubbornness that keeps us trapped, like cigarette or drug addictions, or alcoholism, or feelings of supreme egoism, or any of the many terms thrown around today like despotic, narcissistic, or hedonistic.

Sin boils down to stubbornness. We don't like the words sin. It may feel dirty, and heaven knows, we don't like feeling dirty. The thought of sin makes us uncomfortable while frequently the action has exactly the opposite effect of making us feel exalted, happy, enthusiastic, relieved, and so many others I can hardly think of enough words to cover the subject adequately. Sin is a form of stubbornness, the idea that I can do what I want, when I want, to whom I want to do it, and in the manner I choose to do it. It is setting myself up as judge, jury, executioner, and like Mme. Defarge, who sat underneath the guillotine, knitting  away as imperial heads rolled, instigators, nonchalant observers, and potential victims of their own hubris.
I'm trying to let go of the stubbornness, and to some extent, I'm getting somewhere with it. I've learned I have to listen to the doctor, I have to obey traffic laws, I have to treat other people with the same respect I'd like to have be treated with myself, I have to trust that God has given us good rules to learn to play by, and a beautiful playground to play in. Still, I and others like me still managed to bring in mud and rocks and things that clutter up the landscape and make it dangerous.

I pray my son will moderate his own stubbornness just a little bit, enough to convince him that giving up control is just giving up having to be 100% right all the time. Needless to say, I love him dearly anyway, stubborn or not, because of flaws I see in him I know are in me too. I have a feeling I'm not alone in that.  Probably James' and John's mother felt the same way --- and undoubtedly Mother Mary, who had a sometimes very stubborn son of her own.
God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, November 4, 2017.