Sunday, March 19, 2017

God in Creation

The wider our contemplation of creation, the grander is our conception of God.  -  Cyril of Jerusalem

This week I've been thinking about climate, weather, and all that they entail. It could be that the temperature here in the Phoenix area has been around 90°, and this is only the middle of March! Our average is at least 10° below that, so please don't mention that global warming doesn't exist. At least don't mention it to me.

Climate is part of what makes our world work. Climate defines how much rainfall we get, or are supposed to get. It defines a basic temperature range, what kind of precipitation we can expect, or not expect. It defines where we spend our time, if we have the ability. Folks who freeze to death in Minnesota cheerfully drive down to the Phoenix area for the winter because it seldom freezes, and is usually warm enough for them to run around in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts when people like me who live here are bundled up against what we perceive as cold. My friend in Oregon groans when I tell her it's 90° here because she still cold and getting snow and lots of rain. Can't please everybody I guess.

Climate has changed over centuries and millennia. When the world was new and pristine it was like a huge garden, or so we are told. There were deserts I'm sure, just as I'm sure there were mountains where the snow never melted and glaciers that crept along and kept forming along with the ice caps. I'm sure there were things like earthquakes and massive windstorms, and typhoons and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, all affecting our world and our climate in one way or another.

Thing is, God created the world to run according to certain rules. If the balance of things gets out of kilter, something happens. Take fault lines. when the pressure builds up to a certain point, something's gotta give, and so the earth shakes, rumbles, and acts like an old man trying to get comfortable in a lumpy bed. When a warm air current runs into a cold air current, all kinds of interesting (more or less) happens. God set the rules, then set the world in motion, and it's been following those rules all along - until humans decided to play God and change things. Too bad we're not God-wise enough to see clearly what we're doing.

Since we are unable to control a lot of what goes on in creation, especially when it comes to things like creation itself, we're just out of luck. We have to admire the fact that God put everything together like a clockmaker forming an instrument that would run well, keep accurate time, and also be interesting to look at. The clockmaker might add a set of gears that would show which planets were circling overhead as well as tell the time of day, chimes on the hour and a quarter hour, and even a very comforting tick-tock as the pendulum swings back and forth. Creation is a bit like that. It started out as finely tuned as a watch of the finest craftsmanship. But then we started "improving." We completely left God out of creation and put ourselves in. 

I've never been to the Grand Canyon, but I've seen enough pictures from enough different viewpoints that I have no doubt that it is a most spectacular place to see.  I've seen great mountains and I've overlooked the Shenandoah Rivers,  so old that in places the sides of almost every curve in the river almost touch each other. I seen storms at sea and I've seen the fury of hurricanes and typhoons. I've felt the rumble and shake of a big earthquake, or even a small one for that matter. Every time I run across something like that it reminds me of how immense this world is and how tiny I am, and then I think about God.

God is so much more than the clockmaker who set this one little blue marble in motion. It's part of a small universe in a small galaxy off to one side of a super galaxy billions and trillions of miles from the next galaxy or the next star is. We look through telescopes to see if we can find God, but what we find is that the universe is infinitely more expansive, more complex, and more spectacular than we could possibly have ever dreamt, and we haven't even found the edge of it yet, for all our technology and our looking.

We still haven't found God, but we have found what God created. I have to agree with Cyril, I can't contemplate creation without being totally in awe of the Supreme Being with such immense power and such immense love, a God who is the creator of worlds and universes but who willingly cradles each of us in God's hands, especially when we need a little nurturing.

This week I will contemplate the mystery of God in the enormous diversity of creation itself and my place in it. I look up at Orion, my favorite constellation, and think of all that lies beyond it even as I look at the familiar shape that I have seen many times from my childhood. It's God's work, and all that is in that creation, from the lichens on the rocks in the woods and the moss beside streams, to the vast variety of animals. I think about the different kinds of trees and the adorable innocence of babies and kittens and puppies. We are all made of star stuff because God made the stars from stardust and, as we are told on Ash Wednesday, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Guess who made the dust?

In the creation that is God's playground, go thou and find something awesome in creation that points thee to God. God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 18, 2017.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Saints and Sinners -- with a nod to Lent Madness

The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.  Oscar Wilde

We're already one full week into Lent. By now we've started to miss the little things that we gave up and maybe chafing a bit at the extra that we've taken on, but that's what Lent is, a time to make changes, look inside and see what needs to be pitched out and what can be dusted off and put back on the shelf.

It's also a time for that monumental event, Lent Madness. It's a celebration of both saints and ordinary people, all of whom have and all of whom have done marvelous, remarkable things. They've started schools, traveled the world preaching the gospel, may have smuggled people from a place of danger to a place of safety at risk of their own lives. They have made music, they have started organizations to take care of the less fortunate, they have risked all to help fellow human beings. Many of them may not be canonized, or officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, but Episcopalians can still consider them saints. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Julian of Norwich, among many others. Lent Madness makes us aware of some of the lesser-known capital S Saints (canonized)  and lower case saints. It teaches us their lives were like and how they came to wear the crowns of saints and martyrs and the like.

I doubt that anyone would consider Oscar Wilde a saint. He was a wordsmith of the highest caliber, had a wicked sense of humor, and was the author of plays, poems, and novels, as well as a wry commenter on just about everything. One thing about Oscar Wilde that many would consider a barrier to his being considered any kind of saint was the fact that he was homosexual in a time when homosexuality was not only frowned upon but isolating and dangerous. That made me think about what  the quote that I used this morning about every saint having a past that every sinner having a future. Oscar Wilde definitely gave credence to that statement, whether you considered him a saint for his writing or a sinner for who he was.

We often think of saints as people who were recognized from the very beginning as saintly, even as children. Some of them spent hours in church as small children. Joan of Arc prayed and heard voices and saw visions in as a preteen. St. Bernadette, many of the medieval female saints, began early in their lives to be called to God's service as cloistered nuns -rather than follow the  norm of getting married and having lots of children. The thing was that even though many of them were good little  girls (and boys too), they also had a little quirks and flaws that might somehow tarnish their image of being as close to perfection as a body could get on earth.

 Mary Magdalene , was considered to be a harlot for many centuries, despite her closeness to Jesus and her accolade as the Disciple to the Disciples. In the fifth century an Orthodox priest proclaimed that she was a harlot and poor Mary didn't get her reputation back until the 1960s. Is a long time to go with the tarnished reputation. There are tales in the gospel of Thomas of Jesus being somewhat naughty from time to time but yet we overlook those things if we even know about them because were accustomed to the four Gospels were Jesus never put a foot wrong. It's like we want people to be worse then we are. If they can become saints, what's stopping us?

Every saint had a past of some sort, but if I look at the second half of the quotation, it makes a balance that I haven't really thought about that much before. To go with every saint has a past, Wilde put that every sinner had a future. Just because a person has a "past" does not mean that is the only option for them. They can change. They may feel a call from God that they were not expecting, pr something which involved a complete turnaround in their manner of life and thought.

I myself have a past. A lot of it is stiff that I would not be even remotely proud of; in fact, I'm shamed by a good deal of it. Being brought up with shame as something that was a part of our religious tradition, and being imprinted at such a young age with that particular theology, it was and is  kind of hard to get past it. But I have learned that I'm not stuck in that sinful past unless I choose to be. I have the ability and hopefully the desire to make changes, whether in or outside of Lent, to move from abject sinner perhaps not to saint, but at least to someone who is seen the folly of sin and decided to get past that.

So this week, I think I will be trying to be a little more of a saint than a sinner. I will feel a little more saintly once I get the house clean, and the laundry is caught up, and the yard mowed, but that's only stuff that benefits me. I need to find something to do in my life this week that can make a difference in someone else's life, not to put a halo on my head, but to do what Jesus said about loving my neighbor as myself and help other people who need help. It's going to be interesting to see how I can resolve that.

So let's all try this week to look at the bracket of Lent Madness, read the biographies of the saints proposed, and find something that we can have in common with those formerly sinful people, many who don't have the word "saint" in front of their name. It might just be an enlightening adventure.

Go thou, play Lent Madness, and find a link to a future of sainthood. God bless.

PS. Wilde also said, "The Roman Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone -- for respectable people. the Anglican Church will do."  (Disclaimer -- he said it, but I don't think I totally buy it, I think.)

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 11, 2017.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Celebration in Lent

Family doesn't have to be your relatives. Family means that your life is part of someone else's, like sections of hair that need each other to form a braid. — Michelle Bender.

Something I've always known about families is that they don't always have to be related people, related by blood, that is. Family can be people you related to, people you have something in common with, people with whom you are in community, and people who come into your life almost by coincidence and set up a place all their own  in your heart. I've got lots of friends and I love them all, but you know, sometimes there are just special people that do have a place no one else could possibly fill, people that, that no matter how long it's been since you've seen each other or talked, when we connect it's like the years have become minutes and we pick up immediately where you left off.

I got an invitation in the mail this past week to a celebration, the 70th wedding anniversary of two people I've known for probably 35 years or so, and who have been like a family to me in every good sense of the word. It will be a celebration, because honoring a commitment of 70 years is something indeed worth celebrating. I saw a quote from Paul Sweeney that struck me when I found it just after receiving the invitation.  "A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance, and tenacity. The order varies for any given year." I have a feeling any marriage of any length would find it applicable, and especially those who have lasted for decades.

These friends, a priest and his wife, have been warm, full of hospitality, full of  laughs, full of good food, good company, and willing to share. There are both highly intelligent people, and very talented in very different ways. Perhaps that's what has helped make their marriage survive. That plus they have three great kids, they have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The whole family devoted to each other and I think that has helped make the marriage strong. It's only right to celebrate an event like this for special people like them. Even though its Lent, it's time to celebrate two lives which, while maybe not perfect (at least not 100% of the time, anyway), are nonetheless an example of commitment.

We don't usually consider Lent as a time for celebrations. Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and repentance and change. One is supposed to give up things, or at least that's used to be the prevailing thought. It was a big deal to give up coffee, or chocolate, or maybe going to the movies for Lent, but that has sort of taken on a new emphasis. It is not so much about giving up of favorite things, although that is still encouraged, but now we are encouraged to take on things, usually charitable works or more religious practice and reading. At any rate, Lent is a time of solemnity and, sometimes, a bit overwhelming when we consider our very own sins for any length of time.

There's a saying by Robert Orben that makes me chuckle but also reflects a deeper truth. "Most people would like to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch." It's hard to try and change habits and give up our beloved little sins for 40 days. It's hard to be reminded of our sinful natures and our shortcomings, and sometimes that can get to be just a little much. It can become very depressing. Of course, it's good for us to examine our faults and flaws, although it's not as easy as examining other people's. Still, in Lent, we're supposed to think about our own sins and how they need to be fixed, changed, or done away with.

Then, in the midst of all this, there comes a celebration like my friends' wedding anniversary, and you know, why shouldn't we have celebrations during Lent? If I stop and think about it, Lent is 40 days spread over six weeks. That comes out to 6.6666666 days of repentence we round out to 6 days a week. But what about that other day, the day we call Sunday? It's still part of the week, but it's not considered a Lenten day. Oh yes, it the church colors are still the purple of repentance and our readings are generally dealing with sin and salvation from those sins, but Sunday is like a day off, a time to celebrate.

We gather on Sunday in church and lo and behold, even though we have put away a specific word like "Alleluia" which is word of joy, we still have a celebration. We still gather as a family to celebrate the Eucharist, and that's a celebration. It's joyfully gathering together in the presence of God to partake of a family meal instituted by Jesus to join us together in our faith. It's not simply a reenactment, it is a celebration in every sense of the word.

During Lent we celebrate things like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, and promotions, and we look forward to Easter where there will be celebrations of  baptisms where new Christians will be brought into the church as we rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord. Then will celebrate the Eucharist on Easter just like we do every Sunday and it will be another celebration for us.

So to all those who celebrate something during Lent, it's cause for joy even in the midst of repentance. So happy anniversary, Jack and Bettie.  May you continue to remind us that a braid is made up of individual strands, and each strand strengthens the whole exponentially. May you have more anniversaries, family births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and just joyful get-togethers.

For all of us, go thou and celebrate. God bless.

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Inheritance and Investment

Ruth 4:1-17

Everybody loves a bargain. There's something about a tag that says "buy one get one" that seems to be beckoning people to buy things just to get another one for 50% off or even, and maybe better, free. It encourages compulsive buying, and merchants know that. 

The story of Ruth is a familiar one -- Naomi and Elimelech moved to Moab with their sons who married two Moabite women. Elimelech and the two sons died, leaving the three women alone and unprotected with no family around them. Naomi decides to move back home but encourages the daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. One does just that, but Ruth, the other, vows to follow Naomi back to her home. She does, and follows Naomi's instructions about gleaning in a relative's field and other things that would make their lives better.

Elimelech had owned some land, and Naomi decided to sell it since there were no direct heirs in Elimelech's line because there  were no sons. We know at least two kinsmen at least, were interested in the property, so one of them, Boaz, met the other in the marketplace and asks the relative's plans regarding the inheritance, whether or not the cousin would accept it. Boaz made quite a formal event of it making sure that there were witnesses needed to make it a binding thing no matter which way it went. The kinsman said he would redeem the inheritance, probably thinking it would increase his portfolio quite nicely. Then Boaz adds a little reminder. "If you take the land, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite widow of a dead man, and you will raise sons to be Ruth's late husband's inheritors."

The kinsman thought about that for a minute and then decided that the deal just wasn't a good thing for him and so he left it all to Boaz. . It sounds funny to us to use land as a primary factor in inheritance and then,  oh, by the way, throw in a human being in the process. It sounds almost demeaning. It was if Ruth were no more than a chattel, a possession to be bargained for willy-nilly, or sent here or there depending on the circumstances. Frankly, as a 21st century woman, it galls me. I realize  the times were very different then, and I can't argue with the culture 3000 or so years ago.

Inheritance is always been an important thing. Most people had very little to leave as an inheritance. If they were lucky, they had the clothes on their back and the family that they left behind. With better luck, they might on a stall in the marketplace and maybe even their own house or room above their place in the market. They lived in a time where goods were thought of as limited resources. The more you had, the less there was for me, because there was only so much to go around. Today it does seem that the world does go by that belief, given that 1% of the world's people have as much as almost all of the 99% of others, ranging from wealthy to comfortable to poor to utterly destitute. Some even base their theology on that belief in limited resources and the Prosperity Gospel where God loves the rich so much more than the poor (or they wouldn't be so poor!).

Back to Ruth and Boaz. We know at the end that indeed Boaz does take Ruth as his wife and, per the custom of the people, he has a child by her who is considered to be the son of her late first husband, Mahlon. That was a common thing, to prevent names and bloodlines from being lost. Even if adopted, it was as if the child were born to the adoptive family rather than its own birth family which, if you think about it, is as it should be.

Meanwhile after the birth of Obed, the son of Ruth,  he was taken to Naomi to be a new son to her. She placed him on her knees as was the custom and adopted him. In essence, he got a mother and grandmother all the same time, and still had Ruth and Boaz as parents. Boaz got the land and got a family as well. It was a pretty good deal, plus it brought Boaz into the lineage of a child to be born at some future point in time who would make all children inheritors of a great kingdom.

Think of it -- an inheritance of a part of a great kingdom, FREE! Ok, so the price of entrance is a belief in this kingdom and a willingness to work to make that kingdom a reality. God isn't asking us to take out a mortgage with God to be part of this kingdom, so there's nothing to buy or which could be bought to get a person into the place of inheritor. Instead, God is inviting us to be investors of time and talent (and sometimes money to help others) in this dream of God. Sounds a lot better than "Buy one, get one free," at least to my way of thinking. What about you?

Go thou and invest wisely in thy inheritance. God bless.

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017


One of the things I like most about Education for Ministry is the theological reflections that we do. We look at an object, picture, Scripture, quote, or piece of music and try to see it from different personal and group perspectives. The goal is to consider where we are in the world of this metaphor (the picture or other artifact), where God is, what we are called to do, and what we can do in our lives and ministries (which are often the same). It is a fascinating process, and the core of the EfM program

The picture that we looked at this past week in our group is the one shown above, a picture of a
person standing in front of a stone ruin and looking upwards. We knew beforehand that this was the ruin of a monastery or an abbey on a small island off the coast of Ireland, and that it had been abandoned for a long period of time. There was no glass in the windows, no roof over the empty space inside, but it appeared so solid and, in some ways, solid, permanent, and stable.

Despite the fact that it had been abandoned for whatever reason, there was also a sign that people took care of the site, and that it was a place where people still came to visit. It was noted that on the other side of the structure was a graveyard with tilted stones,  and people often came with their blankets and their picnic baskets and their children to sit among the stones to have  a picnic lunch. It was, in a way, like a family place, unlike an amusement park where you're always supposed to be busy. In this place you could sit quietly or walk around and look and feel a part of a different but welcoming world. 

The thing that struck me with the stones. Being from a place back East where history is a very important thing, I'm rather used to old buildings, even reconstructed old buildings. The church I attended at home was built in the late 1600s. The walls are the original walls, and they have a permanence about them. I remember sitting in the pews on Sundays back in the days when we did morning prayer three weeks out of the four, chanting the canticles, and feeling the presence of people who had worshiped in that church since its founding. It was a very thin space, and touching the stone of the church wall reminded me of all that had transpired in the life of this church. Touching the stone brought me in contact with the past. It was a feeling of stability. 

I look at the picture and I have the same kind of feeling. I want to touch the stone. I want to feel the presence of those who lived and worshiped there, and the essence of all the prayers that had gone up from that place and, possibly, that still go up from that place. 

The stone walls of the monastery or abbey represent  a part of our tradition, part of our history. Our culture today is quite different, and I can see where some people would think keeping this old ruin is a waste of time, money, and even space. It's more logical to take the stones down and build a conference center, or a hotel, or something that will bring in money, at least for the owners. I think that comes partially from the rootlessness many of us feel these days. For some of us, we have to be constantly pushing ahead, looking to the future, shedding things that no longer work for us or represent who we perceive ourselves to be. On the other hand, though, some of us cling to some of the old ways (not necessarily all of them, i.e., slavery, droit du signeur, and the like). We are comfortable hearing the Bible in the English of the 16th century, find the music of the 16th-19th century both soothing and invigorating in a way the incessant sub-sub-woofers of today can't be, and we look with pride at buildings that have survived for centuries that give us a feeling of comfort, stability, and permanence.

Jesus was, in a sense, a very mobile person for someone of his time. His roots were deep in Judaism and its history. Yet in many of his sayings, sermons, and talks, he often spoke of a new world, a rebuilding of God's kingdom on earth, that would change everything. He had plenty of critics, and he had plenty of people who didn't want to hear the message because, like the old unofficial Episcopal  motto used to be, "But we've never done it that way!" They wanted to do things exactly the way their ancestors had done That was their stability in a troubling time. Some people today go into monasteries and convents because they want simplicity of the life, the structure of the prayer times and the work times and the meditation times, and the close connection to God. Others, though,  just want to keep moving keep moving especially up when it comes to the corporate ladders.

Sometimes it takes getting a bit of distance from the everyday and the mundane to make us understand what this world is about. Jesus often retreated to quiet, secluded, places to play and to meditate and communicate. Maybe for others it would be a church, or garden, a forest, an ocean view, or any one of a number of things. As long as there is a time to retreat, even if just for a few hours, to reconnect with ourselves and God, in peace and perhaps solitude. It was true for many of our saints who lived as monks, nuns, hermits, anchoresses and anchorites in the past. There are those who still follow that, who find their roots in God, and stability in scheduled hours of work, study, and prayer.

The challenge this week is to find a place that resonates with me, to find something old, that has an aura about it, that speaks of stability, peace, and sanctity. I may not find it here, but as long as I have images like the monastery or the abbey, I can put myself into the picture and become part of what it represents. I can feel the presence of those who have sent prayers heavenward from that spot, and join with them in spirit as well.

I challenge all of us to follow Jesus to sacred places where there's room for permanence, stability, silence and meditation. I hope we can all find a place like that because in this current world, a little silence and a whole lotta feelings of stability would be a true gift from God.

Go thou and find thy space. God bless.

Picture: Copyright: Laurie Gudim, used by permission.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 18, 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Practice Persistence

...I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.   - 2 Timothy 4:1d-5

I can't speak for anyone else but I dread opening a paper or looking at the news on the internet or Facebook because there rarely seems to be anything good. Okay, some nice people have posted some lovely baby pictures,  and there's one adorable little girl singing with her grandmother as they read a book together. Then the people who post pictures of kittens. May God bless them forever, because that's one thing that helps keep me sane. Give me kittens any day over politics. In fact, give me a kitten any day over almost anything. They do tend to brighten the day.

As if we didn't have enough anxiety running around before the election, it seems like the anxiety is growing because suddenly, some were so enthusiastic are suddenly beginning to wonder what they were voting for. I'm not saying everybody; I can't speak for everybody. I can speak for myself, and I have to say I do wonder what people who profess to be Christians and followers of Jesus can find to cancel out the seemingly contradictions of what Jesus teaches us. But it's nothing new. It happens periodically that, somewhere in the world, a leader goes a bit bonkers and believes too much of their own press, or thinks their truth is the only truth.

Paul wrote a letter to Timothy just before his own martyrdom. It seems to apply today every bit as much as it did in the world that Paul knew. I love the part about the itching ears. It seems such an accurate phrase for people who believe what they're told without actually discerning whether or not what they're told is actually true and factual, not alternative facts or patent lies.  

Everyone wants to believe that they have the right idea. Everybody who proclaims to be a Christian, more often than not, has a specific view of what the Bible actually says and who said it. Those who believe that it's the inerrant word of God and that every word is literally true and factual present an entirely different case than someone who, to quote Karl Barth, "...Take  the Bible too seriously to take it literally." In short, the Bible is too important to be just words that can be recited at will and ignored when it comes to actually living it.  

We can't waste time in wringing our hands and expressing our anxiety. That's not going to help anyone, least of all ourselves. It's not going to help the world, and it's not going to help those most in need of good news. So now what?. Go back to early in the verse proclaim the message. Be persistent.

During World War II, almost every country that had the German shadow over it had its own groups of persistent people who worked to defeat those they saw as the enemy. They hid refugees, helped rescue those who were threatened with deportation to death camps, and countless lost and injured soldiers and pilots who they helped back to safety, all at a risk of their own lives. They didn't save everyone, but they did what they could and did it with persistence. If something didn't work one day, try again the next. Maybe that's something we can take from the past and use it to spread the gospel message. Resist by being persistent. 

Be persistent. It's like a new watchword for the year. It's become a slogan that brings a number of groups together for common good which is giving people a voice and a measure of control over their own lives, without interference from the government, or maybe even the church, or maybe a single person. We need to be persistent. Following Christ takes persistence. It's not easy;  never has been, never will be. But it's the job we have been given. It's an evangelical method message that we are to bring to the world and is how we are to live our lives, with persistence, with joy, and with less concern about sound doctrine than the lessons that Jesus taught us.

Time to get going on this folks. God loves the persistent, because so many of the people of the Bible exhibited persistence. Even though they didn't get their way immediately, or have their wishes and hopes fulfilled immediately, eventually things worked out. So now it's our turn.

Go thou and be persistent. God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 12, 2017.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bearing Burdens and Carrying Loads

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.  - Galatians 6:2-5

There are a number of ways of reflecting on a passage of Scripture. One way that is familiar and comfortable for me is to use a form of theological reflection in the Ignatian style. The passage is read and then the reader sits in silence for a bit, then reads it again and sees what stands out, a word or a phrase. This standout is a place to begin the reflection, and subsequent readings of the passage  are drawn into it. The practice is called Lectio Divina, and it's been practiced for hundreds of years.

Looking at the passage from Galatians for today, the phrase that stood out for me was from verse 5, "[F]or all must carry their own loads." The more I thought about it the more certain I became that yes, we must, because no one else can do it for us. It fits with a number of times in my own life where I've had to face consequences of my own difficulties, work through diseases that have compromised my health, and have had to work through times of grief, pain, and utter confusion. Yes, I had a lot of support, which was a blessing. I had friends and family that cared and that helped me to get through the things that I had to get through. Ultimately, though, it was up to me to carry my own load. I was responsible for myself and my reactions to whatever came. I had to carry my own load.  

I looked at the passage for the second time and this time something else struck me. In verse 2 Paul tells us "...[B]ear one another's burdens." This set up a question in my mind. If I'm supposed to carry my own load, how am I also supposed to carry burdens for others? It seemed like a dichotomy to me that I could not reconcile, so I sat with it for a while and thought some more.

I remembered times when I had a burden that I had to carry, I still had others who helped me and encouraged me without taking any of the burden on themselves. They were spiritual, sometimes physical, and sometimes financial supports that helped me bear the burden. Then it occurred to me that they were doing verse 2 while I was doing verse5. Suddenly it started to make sense. I went back to verse 2 again, this time reading the whole "...[B]ear one another's burdens, and in this way you can you will fulfill the law of Christ." Okay, maybe there's not such a dichotomy after all. There are times we have burdens and there are  times we are called to help others with burdens. Traditionally, we are called to be one in the spirit, and if one is burdened, all the others would similarly be burdened or the givers of support so that the burden is shared. That's the way Jesus seemed to feel it needed to be done. That's what's behind "Love thy neighbor", and "do good."

Paul goes on to say "For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves." Certainly everybody thinks that their burdens are the worst in the world, and to some extent that's true. They are the worst in the world, because each of us has our own burdens and our own reactions to those burdens.  The thing is, we can't ignore the others are having problems just because Paul in one place tells us we should concentrate our own. We can't be egotistical about bearing burdens. Paul continues "All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbors work, will become a cause for pride."

I never thought it was a source of pride to look back on the tough times and feel a sense of satisfaction (okay, pride) that I had gone through it, I had survived it, I had learned from it, and I had come out stronger because of what I'd been through. I don't describe problem or difficulty as coming straight from God, but from myself, or perhaps heredity, or perhaps just stuff that happens. God was present as support but God didn't cause my difficulties. God didn't take away beloved people in death. God didn't give me cancer. God didn't make my birth mother walk away from me as an infant. I don't think a loving God would deliberately cause things that would be hurtful or injurious to God's own children. God had been through that with Jesus, and I'm sure that one time was enough. Be that as it may, I lived through my problems, I still live through some of them because they're not all solved yet, but I can I have survived. I can't take  pride in it because it didn't make me better than anyone else, it just made me a stronger and a survivor.

Then I get to the to the verse that I originally thought about carrying our own own loads. The passage makes more sense to me now that I've had time to actually sit and think about it. The question of bearing burdens for another and carrying my own load doesn't seem so separate that I can't think of them together.

Each of us has burdens to bear. Each of us has support people to help us. Each of us has God in our corner, and each of us forms a support for others who may be going through similar things or who are dear friends and loved ones we want to be helpful to and supportive of. Paul seems to link them together for a reason.

Maybe Paul is not always so hard to understand after all. It just may take a little Lectio Divina now and then.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trust, a short supply necessity

The word I've been contemplating this week is the word "trust." It started with a theological reflection at my Education for Ministry (EfM) group this past weekend. Our theological reflection was based on a photograph of a bright blue sky, and in the foreground was a large rock, a small child, and a father. The child was jumping off the rock, arms outstretched, knowing that his daddy would catch him. It was a perfect example of the trust a child has for his or her parents. It was a good image, and one that people can relate to and certainly understand on a number of levels.

One thing we discovered in our discussion was that trust is not always easily come by. People, institutions, even churches, are places where trust is expected. Often, however, maybe because our expectations are too high, or maybe because of a flaw in ourselves, or maybe it's just the way things are, but often the very things that we are supposed to trust turn out to be otherwise. Often , depending on who you are, trust is strained or lost altogether because trust has been broken, sometimes  violently.   

Many of us have had family issues that have caused us to lose trust, even if the evidence seems to point the other way. I understand my LGBT brothers and sisters say they feel left out or somehow not completely accepted, or who are afraid to be themselves because of fear of rejection. Not just from families, but from the very places they should feel safe and secure, like schools and churches and jobs. I understand my Native American brothers and sisters feeling far from trusting in a government of European immigrants who forced treaties on them and then summarily broke those treaties without compunction. I understand my disabled brothers and sisters who look for help only to find physical and metaphorical steps instead of ramps.

We're taught that trust is something that we should always have, especially in God. God is always with us. God always loves us. God is always in charge. I have a problem with some of that. I don't trust God to get me out of scrapes that I get myself into. I think God gave me brains to ask for help from God or from other people, or to just figure it out on how to get myself out of the situation I got myself into. Granted, it's easier when you have support; I know it has been for me, but on the whole, I don't see God as the kind of puppet master who set me up with a test to prove my faith or my confidence or even my trust in God. I can't feel that way, because I have to have something to trust, someone to trust, and if I can't trust God, who can I trust?

It's a shame we can't all go back to being like the little child jumping into his father's arms. We can't go back to being 4 or 5 again, trusting that everything in life is beautiful, good, and a source of curiosity to see how it works. Unfortunately those days are gone for us, and we will never totally get them back. We can live them vicariously through children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but we still see what the child doesn't. We see ahead and we worry as we put the children to sleep, with prayers that they will wake in the morning and be safe and secure wherever they go.

Trust is important. It takes discernment to know whom and when we can trust. Jesus always trusted God as his Father, even on the cross. The feeling of having God withdraw from him was probably the most horrible and hurtful feeling Jesus had ever had, yet it made him to be more like us, more human that us humans, so that he might truly understand and we could see this in and through him.

This is a time when trust is really in the balance. We can't trust institutions that should be looking after the common welfare but who are more interested in making money for themselves and others like them. The poor can just work harder and longer hours, in their minds. I have heard members of government say that we shouldn't help the poor because they are lazy, just looking for handouts, or who have preexisting illnesses or disabilities that will cost too much. Even our veterans, people who went into harm's way to keep us safe and who often came home damaged in body, mind, and spirit, can't trust that their country will take care of them despite their sacrifice. I hear the same things from ordinary people in the street, people who are more concerned with themselves and their own comfort and safety than that of the homeless, the damaged, or the poor.

It's time to learn to trust someone or something. There are so many things around we can't trust and shouldn't trust, but we also need to find strong rocks to hold onto, sacred places that give us peace and tranquility so that we can sort out the mess is in our lives and the issues of trust that we have.

Jesus told us that we should have faith like a little child. We have to hold onto that, but we also have to hold on to the fact that God expects us to help ourselves and help each other to trust and to work for the kingdom of God which is the common good for all humanity and for all the earth. We have to learn to trust ourselves, our fellow human beings, and most of all God. It's what really matters in this time when trust seems to be about the last item on the menu and in very, very small print.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 28, 2017.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The measure of a man...

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. -- Martin Luther King Jr.

We are approaching Martin Luther King Junior Day, a day that has been commemorated for years but which always seems to bring forth something to ponder. As a person who lived through the time of Martin Luther King Jr., desegregation, and the years after, I look back and see how much my own personal beliefs and stances have changed, partly due to  Martin Luther King, a man I never really respected until I grew up and began to see the world not through his eyes, but through his witness. 

The quote above was one I ran into that made me stop and think how perfect it was for this particular anniversary of Martin Luther King day and also for the place where our country finds itself now And it is not just our country, but our church, our world, and all the people in it. With Martin Luther King Day on Monday and a presidential inauguration on Friday, it is something like watching the past 50+ years go by in retrospect. We look at how far we've come, how far we have yet to go delete , and how we are re going keep moving forward as we find ourselves facing a future that may be steps backward. The quote sums all of that up in a few succinct words.

For many of us, we have sat in comfort and convenience for decades and longer. We have seen the struggle others have undergone to try to attain a level of equality, and some of us have assisted in that struggle while others have made the struggle more difficult and more deadly. For every step forward there seemed to be one or two steps backward. MLK experienced this, and yet kept moving ever forward, being the voice crying in the wilderness until he was finally heard, however faintly. The movement grew, and with it the danger. He died a martyr, still proclaiming the vision of equality and justice for all. For that, if nothing else, we remember him.

Over the years since his death, his message and vision have inspired more and more groups to claim their own desire for freedom, equality and justice. The world of what is called "White privilege" is shrinking, and many do not like that one bit. They see their power and prestige threatened, and they strike back. White privilege is something I never considered having enjoyed most of my life until I went to a third-world country and became the "different" one who experienced a very small but very educational bit of what discrimination was like. Later I learned to see where I had experienced discrimination without knowing it, and it changed my way of thinking totally. I did not like the feeling of discrimination, so why should I insist on others being discriminated against, simply because they wanted a life like I had?

This week we will also see the inauguration of a new president, one that people either seem to idolize or hate. Privilege seems to be raising its head once again, and so many of our brothers and sisters, and possibly ourselves as well, are fearful that gains that have been made will be turned back. We will have to raise up new MLKs and others to encourage us and remind us of the vision we have had and need to hold on to. Jesus spoke of a kingdom of God on earth, and charged us to make it happen. It has not done so yet, and the imminent threat that what progress we have made so far will be drowned in a tidal wave of privilege. It is not comfortable to contemplate, but MLK has left us words of encouragement. He knew the price of struggle, challenge and controversy. He not only saw it, but lived with it, encouraging where he could, supporting when it was needed, leading when a light in the darkness was required.

We can use his words as a measuring stick for where we go from here. We still have to hang on to the vision of the kingdom where the playing field is even and the results are not stacked against one group or another. This is no time to sit weeping and wailing, it is rather a time to get busy, to show our mettle by fighting against those who would try to force all of us back to a time where THEY were comfortable and never mind anyone else.

We have the example of Jesus. We have the example of MLK. We have examples of people speaking prophetically, and we have examples of people who hear the prophecy and promise and who work to achieve them. Let us not sit in complacency and comfort, let us follow the examples of those who have gone before us as well as the new voices of modern-day prophets and followers of Jesus.

Where is my complacency and comfort? Where do I see challenge and controversy?  What am I going to do about them?  There is prayer, of course, but I need to become a walking, living, breathing prayer, a prayer with hands to help and heart to open. Anybody with me?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 14, 2017.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Party at Cana

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. - John 2:1-11

People love parties. It's a  chance to get people together, have a good time, dance, play games, and enjoy good food and good drinks. It's usually somewhat hectic for the host and hostess, who have to make sure that everything is just right. The house has to be perfectly clean, there has to be enough food, there has to be just the right ambience with music and table settings and what have you, and there's a need to make sure there's enough to drink. Now whether the host is serving eggnog or punch or mixed drinks or even wine, they have got to figure how many people they will have, how much each one is going to drink, and then figure how many servings that can be gotten out of a bottle so that the host knows how many bottles of wine to buy. It's hair-raising, but it's part of being a party giver.

Today's story is a familiar one about the wedding at Cana. Jesus and his mother were present at this party, which, in those days, often lasted more than just one day. The party was rolling along merrily when Mary comes to Jesus and tells him they're almost out of wine. This must've been a family event, because why else would Mary be telling this to Jesus? If they were just guests and not family, would have been so common for her to go and say, "By the way, we are out of wine.". They had already gone through a number of 20 or 30 gallon water jars of wine, and now they were looking for more. Why was it Mary's and Jesus' problem? I'm not sure I have an answer to that, but I have a feeling it was a family affair.

Mary approached Jesus about the wine problem. Did she already know he was a miracle worker? Did she think he was going to run down to the nearest shop and have them toddle up with more vats of wine? And who was going to pay for it? Jesus told her that it was his time to be doing stuff like this, but Mary took no notice. Like a typical mother who thinks her kid can walk on water, she turned to the servants and said, "Do whatever he tells you." And of course we know the result. Suddenly a much better grade of wine filled those existing water jars and everybody was amazed. It isn't normal to the best stuff until everybody's already probably past the point of being able to make distinctions as to the quality of the wine there drinking.

The important thing was that Jesus changed the water to wine, not the quantity or quality of the wine that Jesus miraculously made. Jesus would be any hostess'  star guest. Run out of wine? Ask Jesus. Out of food? Jesus could probably do something about that. After all, he did take two loaves and five fish and fed 5000 people, and that was just the men, not counting women and children. Anybody that can produce all of that certainly would be welcome at just about anyone's party.

So what lesson are we supposed to get from this story, and what is supposed to mean in our own lives? I can tell you it's probably not to expect someone at a party that you are giving to make up any deficits that may occur. Maybe it's that no matter how well you plan, there's always the unexpected, something like running out of an important ingredient. Maybe the lesson is found in the words of Mary when she told the servants to do what Jesus told them to do. Jesus had already tried the "Oh, Ma!" but Mary, like a good mother, paid no attention. She had confidence her boy could solve the problem. "Do whatever he tells you."

We've come a long way from "do what he tells you." It's hard now to see such a confidence and also such obedience. After all, Jesus may have been God's son, but he was also Mary's, and when mama says to do something, it's probably best to just do it, whether you like it or not.

"Do whatever he tells you." Jesus told us a lot of things that we should be doing, like a loving our neighbors, doing good to those that may seem like the rottenest people on earth, caring for the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the prisoners, and most of all, loving God enough to do what God wanted you to do. It seems like lately we've forgotten a lot about that. It's become more of a case of "Do unto others before they do unto you." I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.
If  I were approached at a party and told that they were almost out of wine, or maybe tiny beef cocktail sausages, or some other comestibles, I would probably go down to the store and pick up a reasonable amount of whatever it was and then bring it back to the party. Don't ask me to produce it out of thin air, or clear water. I'm not Jesus. Maybe my job is to be Mary, who reminds people to do what he tells you. Maybe that's the job I need to consider. It doesn't preclude me doing something myself, but it does mean that I have a mandate to remind people that Jesus gave us a lot of lessons and a lot of ways to be God's people. One of them is to do what Jesus told us to do. 

Nobody said is going to be easy, and it usually isn't. It's not just being a guest at a party, but sometimes being a servant, or someone who makes sure everybody is served and cared for -- like any good host/hostess. Like Mary -- and Jesus.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 7, 2017.