Sunday, July 23, 2017

What's In a Name?

What's the name? A name is something by which a person, place, thing, animal, rock, planet, tree, or anything else is known to the world, or at least in whatever language is spoken in the area. The name is an important thing. In some cultures knowing the real name of a person or a demon gives power over that entity. Children are given a second name that is their public name while their original birth name is held close and not disclosed. A name can describe a person place or thing like the York River, the Shenandoah Valley, willow tree,  clock, kitten, or the Jefferson Memorial. A name is an important thing as it identifies and that identification allows the object to be known among the people.

Today we celebrate the commemoration of Mary Magdalene, called the "apostle to the apostles." Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala, the town from which she alleged came, was a follower of Jesus, one of the supporters of his ministry and his followers,. She was also known as a notorious sinner, but where that actually came from no one really knows. We know for certain that she was the first one at the tomb, the weeping woman, to whom Jesus appeared on the morning of the resurrection. She is mentioned in the book of Luke is having had seven demons cast out, but these demons were not identified specifically as sins. She was present at the resurrection, but she was also present at the crucifixion, at the base of the cross with Jesus's mother and others, while the male disciples huddled in fear. To me, that indicates great love, great dedication, and great courage.

It is Gregory the Great who is credited, if that is the proper word for it,  with having first referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Down through the centuries, the title stuck, and Mary Magdalene has been presented as a woman of very dubious virtue and sins of promiscuity. Somehow it's not even surprising that such a charge would be made. After all, sin came into the world through Eve, as some theologies will tell it, and has been passed down from woman to woman throughout the ages. But Mary, even with no real finger of accusation pointing at her in the Bible, lost her good name and spent centuries being known as a very sinful woman whom Jesus forgave and who loved Jesus in gratitude for his forgiveness.

It is a terrible thing to lose one's good name. For millennia, a person's name was their bond, their word, and on that name one's reputation and even one's family's reputation was based. To have someone in the family labeled a prostitute immediately cast aspersions on the whole family. If a man were known as a thief or a murderer, it reflected badly on the family, but if a young woman were found to be pregnant or caught even gazing at a male to whom she was not related, there would be the first stone to be cast at her for her lack of virtue. In a way, it's a wonder that another Mary escaped such talk and such judgment when she mysteriously became pregnant under rather mysterious circumstances. At any rate, Mary Magdalene, on even less proof, lost her good name about possibly in the 5th century, it wasn't until 1969 that the Western church ceased describing her as a prostitute and restored her name to one who had been forgiven and one who loved much.

These days, it doesn't seem to take much for someone to lose their good name, or at least to be charged as such. Often rumors are believed far more readily than facts, and gender of the accused is unequal in its exploitation. It very hard to read and watch those who have done many good things being plastered with unfavorable or even insulting terms while those who skulk in the shadows and dark corners of the industry and government and other business are presented as model citizens, their names held in esteem while behind their backs their hands are busy doing evil acts. They complain that people throw stones at them for things like adultery, theft, manipulation and other sins of "me first-ism," yet many will still follow those people because they simply do not believe that any such charges could be true. For them, the appearance of a good name is more important as actually earning one.

Jesus told us that we should be kind, we should work for the common good and not just our own devices and desires. We are to be part of the kingdom, not the king. We are to have a good name as it were because we follow God and try to do God's will and not our own. Another way of putting it is we are to be righteous in the halls of heaven based on our lives here on earth. Not just in the eyes of friends, supporters, and constituents, but in the eyes of God.

I think this week I'm going to be looking at times in my life when my good name has been besmirched by someone with an agenda and not because of something I have done. My big job is to forgive the people who did the injury, whether they were aware of it or not. I shouldn't do it just so I can feel virtuous, it's what I'm expected to do to be a part of God's kingdom. I also have to look times when I have perhaps led to others losing their good names and what I should do to make amends for that, if amends are at all possible. It's going to be a very intense week because these are not easy things to do. But in order to reclaim my own good name, I must allow others the restoration of theirs. God expects it, Jesus commands it, and Mary Magdalene encourages it.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 21, 2017.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lessons and Applying Them

Acts 11:1-18

I'm undoubtedly not the only person who ever sat in a high school or college class and thought, "What am I doing here? I'll never use this stuff when I get out of school." I know I had that thought in algebra, geography, civics, and more than a few college classes which were allegedly supposed to round out my education. Oddly enough, on occasion, I have had to use algebra, or had to use geography in some manner, not to mention having the knowledge I got in civics to understand at least some of what is going on in the world. It's funny, sometimes you learn something that you figure you'll never need only to find out that's exactly what you need at some point later on.

Peter the pious, disciple of the resurrected Jesus, found that out as he was doing his prayers on the roof of the house. In a vision, he saw a sheet full of animals, reptiles, and birds of all kinds being lowered from heaven. Not just sheep and cows and goats, but all kinds of things, most of which had never passed the lips of Peter or any observant Jew. The voice from heaven spoke to Peter and said, "Get up, kill and eat." Peter was astounded. His response was that he had never eaten anything that was unclean and the response that God sent back rocked him more than just a bit. The words of God, in essence, were  "Do not call anything unclean that I have called clean," It probably shocked Peter to the very core of his being. He was used to following the rules, and Judaism definitely had rules about what was clean and what was not clean, what could be eaten and what could not. This vision repeated itself three times, using a holy number to emphasize the point.  This was important, and God was letting Peter know that importance.

Sometimes when you learn something, a reason to apply that knowledge comes quickly to serve as a reinforcement of the value of that particular lesson. Peter got six visitors from Caesarea who wanted him to come with them. The people were Gentiles, seen by Jews as unclean and therefore not people with whom Peter and others would normally mingle.  A voice told Peter not to make distinctions between himself and the Gentiles, much as the voice from heaven with the sheet had said about the contents of the sheet.  Peter remembered the lesson and went.

In 12-step programs there's a saying, "Insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results." That has come up in my life over and over again. Lessons appears in front of me, and I'm supposed to learn it. Then I'm supposed to apply it to my daily life. It sounds very simple, but sometimes it can be a real pain. I seem to be one of those people who has trouble learning lessons, especially those dealing in the practical realm. In a way I'm a Peter, a person who hears the same lesson they get it, and then suddenly finds out they haven't learned a darned thing. They still make the same mistake over and over again.  Peter heard Jesus give the same lesson over and over in the course of his ministry but, like most of the disciples, Peter didn't get it until he came face-to-face with something that made the lessons click.

The same thing goes with some of the church lessons that I've been exposed to over my life. I've been exposed to "Love your neighbor," but I still find it difficult to love the people behind me who let their water run onto my yard and in a place where I have to mow the result of their watering. When it's over hundred degrees, it's a big deal. It's hard to love people who hurt animals, or people, or maybe not even see the people at all which is probably the worst. It's hard to love the people that are in a "I've got mine, too bad about you" way of thinking, or people who only see their point of view as valid. It's not really all that different than it was 100, 500, or a millennium or more ago.

Too often it ends up with us judging who we believe to be clean and who is definitely not. We go back in American history less than 100 years ago where white men were 100%  human while women and those slaves brought from Africa were considered to be 3/5 of a human being. They didn't measure up. White privilege carried the day. Look around now and see examples of Confederate history being removed from church windows, city centers, and eliminated as memorials or even names of places. We do this in order to avoid offending others, yet in many parts of the United States has not really changed very much. The value of one's life for an African Americans life or Native American life or Hispanic life or Oriental life is less valued than that of Caucasian males. White on black or male on female crime usually ends up being judged in favor of the privileged rather than who was truly in the right and who wasn't.

We try to rub out history that points out the cause and result of a particular lesson we should have learned, but we reenact parts of that history every day without need for symbols like flags or statues or markers. We even have names for it -- racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and a hundred other names for lessons we haven't learned yet. We want to wipe out the history so we can feel better about it, like it wasn't our fault. Maybe it wasn't; an awful lot of things happened long before any of us were born, but we should have learned the lesson by now that simply saying something didn't happen isn't enough. It revises history but leaves a gaping wound behind, and the judgement of "clean" and "unclean" continues, just with different words.

Peter learned the lesson of the value of even those people and animals that many would deem unclean or worthless or even disgusting are part of God's world, put here by God for a reason, and for us to learn to love and care for. No history revision, simply taking lessons to heart and acting sincerely on them.

It's time to learn the lesson and get on with applying it. It isn't easy; we are all born with prejudices, but we are also given the strength, wisdom, and grace to overcome them. We have the lessons of Jesus to guide us, and the Spirit to urge us on. We also have the vision of God's kingdom on earth to hold high. We've heard the lessons, now let's apply them.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 15, 2017.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Going the wrong way

Except for the heat, it would be hard to realize that we are already in July. The year is half over already, and I'm wondering where did the time go? Unfortunately, the news usually reminds me what's been happening over the last six months or so, and, quite often, the news isn't as rosy  as it could be.

One thing that strikes me, so it seems,  is the increasing number of automobile accidents locally caused by people going the wrong way on the freeway and on some regular roads as well. The most recent official number I could find was that in 2015 there were 15 accidents caused by wrong way drivers, both with and without fatalities. Looking at a local map for this year, just in the Phoenix area, there appeared to have been 17 accidents in 2017 already, and I'm wondering if that counts the latest one on the Fourth of July where one car caused six accidents, a number of injuries, and one fatality. \

It's almost a weekly event, it seems. It's not exactly something that brings the feeling of safety for anyone driving on the highway or freeway.

Most of the wrong way accidents are caused by alcohol, drowsiness, or other mental anomaly. I realize that sometimes getting on and off the freeway can be a confusing event. I go on one area freeway about once a year, and it takes me a few minutes to remember that I have to turn before the stoplight and not on the far side of it to change from a side street to the on ramp. I have an absolute horror of finding myself driving in the wrong direction and causing an accident, or turning right onto an off ramp because I missed the entrance to the on ramp. I'm sure I'm not alone in this fear, no matter impossible it seems.

A lot of people in the Bible seem to have made the wrong way turns and ended up going in a direction counter to what they should have been taking. Look at Jonah. He didn't want to go where God told him to go, so he took off and found passage on a boat headed in another direction. We know the story: storm comes up, the crew gets scared, throws Jonah overboard where he is swallowed by a very large fish and taken for a three-day journey. Evidently Jonah was a pain in the belly as well as a pain in the neck. The fish regurgitated Jonah onto a beach and apparently Jonah learned his lesson.

Look also at Abraham. He was told to go and sacrifice his son, and he did exactly as he was told. Many think he should have refused to even consider such an act, but God told Abraham to do it and Abraham did — at least up to a point. God provided a ram instead, and Isaac was saved. Did Abraham take a wrong turn? It probably seemed so at first.

Looking back on my life, I see a number wrong turns that I have made, and wrong choices that I  made that I had considered to be what I was supposed to do, just like Abraham. There have been so many I can hardly count them but there were far more than wrong way accidents in the Phoenix area in the first half of this year. Most of them I learned from, something I'm hoping those drivers who chose to go the wrong way learned from their mistake. Sometimes I had to repeat the lesson more than once, and it was never easy. Still, when you come to an intersection, you either have to go straight ahead or make a turn, and if you do make a turn, it had better be in the correct lane or an accident may be inevitable.

The Bible also gave us a number of rules, signposts, and street signs that give us clues as to how to avoid making a wrong turn. I'm sure all Christians are aware of these, things like the Beatitudes, the 10 Commandments, the wisdom of the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus and those who continued his message down through the ages. It never was about giving clues that might send people down the wrong way, even though many, many times people have misconstrued what they have heard and read and have taken the wrong path due to their misunderstanding of what they had been told or what they have read for themselves. Because of these misunderstood rules, millions have been injured, slandered, tortured, ostracized, and killed because otherwise "good" people took a wrong turn. It seems to be happening more and more frequently and with worse and worse consequences.

So what can we do to prevent going the wrong way and hurting or, God forbid, killing an innocent person who is just living their life the best they could? Sticking with one of the overarching themes of the Bible, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Few people ever really enjoy hurting themselves; most of them are trying to replace one kind of pain for another. If all of us love one another as we love ourselves, think what an idyllic world this could become: no bullying, no fear, no preferential treatment for specific groups, classes, cultures, races, or any other kind of self-defined people. That  would be a pretty good start I would think.

We've had a number of examples of people who have followed that instruction, and we can see the benefits of that versus the "Me first!" way of living. I have a feeling that if God didn't really want us to do that, God wouldn't have said it in the first place, and Jesus wouldn't have made it such a focal point of his ministry. It seems to me that's a pretty good signpost.

This week I have to look to see where I maybe traveling in the wrong direction and endangering others in some way. I have to carefully weigh my choices, consider the consequences, examine the possibilities, and most of all, investigate who would be helped or hurt by the choices I make. Going to be a busy week.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 8, 2017.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Start the Fire, Keep It Burning

Today's commemorations feature two women who are listed individually but who seem to have a connection that brings them together. Today we celebrate a writer and a prophetic witness, and also a lawyer, civil rights activist, and priest. One was Caucasian, the other African-American. One write a book and supported efforts of fleeing slaves to reach freedom. The other was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of a bus in Virginia and who in turn worked in various organizations and as a civil rights attorney for some years before being ordained among the first women priests in the Episcopal Church.  The commonalities I think probably greater than their differences because both sought to draw attention to great wrongs that were taking place and to help address those wrongs. They're both fascinating women.  

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived from 1811 to 1896. She was raised in a very religious household and her brothers were clergymen Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher. Her sister Catherine  was also an educator and author. Harriet is most famously known as the author of a fictional novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin, the initial installment appearing in print in 1851. The book, now a classic, was a story of how slavery impacted, affected, and formed both the character of Tom but also the culture of the slave owners and other slaves. It was a book with a definite Christian moral where the slave humbly accepted his fate in life and did his best to live a Christian life within a e system that was definitely anything but Christian despite all claims to the contrary. The book was an immediate hit in the North because in 1850 Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Law that prohibited people from trying to assist fugitive slaves in a climate where many were willing to risk everything to provide for those escaping. It was the match that lit the fire that smoldered for a while before bursting into flames with firing of the first cannon at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War broke out,  and, in a way is still being fought, despite Lee's surrender to Grant in 1865.

Anna Pauline Murray, also known as Pauli, was born in 1910 and died in 1985. She was born in Baltimore but raised in North Carolina which gave her perspective on life in the southern post-Civil War and civil rights eras. In 1940, she and a friend were on a Virginia bus, sitting in a whites-only section of the bus. They were arrested for violating the strict segregation laws, and that struck a spark in her soul that led her into involvement with both the socialist and the civil rights movement. Her achievement as the first African-American woman to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale, and practiced both civil rights and women's rights law. Her writings contributed significantly to the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). After leaving the practice of law and teaching in 1973,  she was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood in 1977.

Both women believed that human rights included those whom most of society seemed to want to subjugate and enslave. The first African-American slaves had come to the United States in 1619 to the Jamestown colony in order to help raising crops and tobacco which was the main cash crop. From that time until the mid 19th century, the country endured a somewhat uneasy relationship between the industrial North and the agricultural South. There were slaves in the north, although not nearly as many as the South. The publication of Stowe's book was a kind of tinder for the fire and a spark to ignite it. It called attention to the concept of what was "Christian" and what was not. Those slaveholders used the Bible to bolster their claim of Christianity, yet their treatment of slaves under their charge was anything but Christian. In the end, a long and bloody civil war resulted.

I had heard the name Harriet Beecher Stowe and had read her book in school (a hard thing for some of us to read),  but never Pauli Murray until a few years ago. I had grown up in a segregated South, I remember the unease and, although we had no real violence or protest marches when we did finally integrate, it was an uneasy peace and, for that matter, it appears to still be an uneasy peace in many places. What Pauli Murray did was to fight on the side of those who civil rights were not as well protected as the majority wouldn't have it. In a way, that fight still continues for people of color, immigrants, and women, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. It may be a stretch to say that the slavery of women. while not as dramatic and often not as visible as that of slaves in chains or picking cotton or being profiled as troublemakers simply because of the their skin color. but it does affect the lives of billions. Harriet Beecher Stowe called attention to those African-Americans who were enslaved in the South while Murray called attention to those enslaved all over the country because of their gender as well as their race.

Both women were utterly Christian. They were born and raised in the church or in various churches, and took the Christianity very seriously. The point of Stowe's book was to point out that the concept and application of slavery was immoral and also very unchristian. Murray kept that tradition of pointing out the Christian way of living, not in a fictional work but in real life.

It may be a day dedicated to two separate women, but they're always going to be linked in my mind, and I will be grateful for the stands that they have made and the work that they have done. May they both rest in peace as they will assuredly rise in glory. May their dreams of freedom, justice and equality for all come true and quickly.

God bless.

Originally published in Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Hotter'n Hell.....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

An Image of Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Just 2 cents' worth

Mark 12:38-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

O Clap Your Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Gifts from Alcuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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