Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaac Watt, Father of English Hymnody

Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home. -- Isaac Watts, hymn writer, (1674-1748).

Today we commemorate a man who certainly has had an impact on the music of Protestantism, and even those of us who are Anglican or Episcopal. Isaac Watts is not exactly a household name, but over the course of his life he wrote hundreds of hymns and Psalms, many of which we still sing today and which have become standards in church music.

The music of the church, insofar as the laity was concerned, consisted of Biblical poetry such as was found in the Psalms and prophetic places. Watts believed that the time had come for the inclusion of "experience" based music in the church, and over the course of his life, he wrote between 600-750 (the number varies depending on which resource you use) hymns, many of which we still use today. His prolific output and his use of poetry outside the scriptures opened the door for something new in worship. He became known as the Father of English Hymnody.

One of his most well-known hymns is one of my very favorites. I've talked about it before, but "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (also known by its tune name, St. Anne) has been a hymn I look to when  I feel I need an extra shot of comfort and strength. Based on Psalm 90, it talks about God being an eternal refuge, a source of hope, a shelter. And that's just in the first verse! I've found myself thinking of it more and more often in these past few months, when things have seemed to go from somewhat solid to very very wobbly, politically as well as in other ways. That hymn has helped me keep my head on straight, so to speak. I wonder if Watts ever knew it had that effect on someone?
"Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove," "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Jesus Shall Reign," "Joy to the World," "This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," are just a few of his hymns of religious experience, but they span the church year and are sung by various denominations. They speak of experiencing the members of the Trinity in various ways, and promoting an emotional reaction to not only the event but to the hymn itself.
Although I love to read, poetry has never really been my "thing."  Music, though, has always been part of my life, and hymns have always been there. For me, they are the voice of the church. Yes, the music of composers like Bach, Byrd, Tallis, and many others, usually sung by choirs, have been balms to my soul and wings for my heart, but the hymns of the congregational singing is a joining together of myriad peoples all together. The hymns reflect the times and conditions of human beings, and spiritual messages that we can carry with us throughout our daily lives. And the poetry often helps make the messages more easily remembered than prose often does.

It would be heard to think of Lent without "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross," or Christmas without "Joy to the World." The words might be a little archaic, but somehow we seem to understand them and their meaning.

That's what St. Anne does for me. It's a prayer that I don't have to compose myself, or fumble around to try to find the right words. It's easy to let the music and Watts' words take care of that for me. For others, different tunes or hymns might do the trick, and that is fine. It would be a very dull world if we all were alike enough to all like the same hymn. We all have different experiences, different needs, different tastes. I think Watts understood this, and wrote accordingly.

I've got St. Anne running through my head right now and I feel more peaceful. It always helps to have a good song as an ear worm when a body needs cheering up, calming down, thinking, or walking through perilous times.

Which ones do you know that you use at specific times? Perhaps it may be time to learn a few new oldies but goodies from our friend Isaac Watts.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 26, 2016.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Question of Condemnation

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ --
Luke 6:35-38  (Gospel from the commemoration of Elizabeth of Hungary)

There are times when  a reading assigned for a given day just doesn't seem to have a lot of commonality with what's going on in the world or in my life. It's a struggle to try and figure out what the lesson is supposed to mean, and then applying it to daily life that I try to live. And then there are days like this where I find the reading from Luke. Given the recent events that have been going on in the country  and in the world, this one seems to cut almost too close to the bone to be comfortable. Comfortable? Jesus probably didn't intend for there to be any comfort in that, because it is a tough lesson.

Starting at the very beginning, "Love your enemies," honestly is like being hit with a baseball bat. Unfortunately, a lot of people are being hit with baseball bats, and bullets, and punches, and gunfire, and graffiti, and racial slurs, and 100 other things that are becoming more and more common with every passing day. The people who commit those crimes? Love the people who delight in hurting other people? Surely Jesus didn't mean to love those people. Honestly, it's almost un-human to even suggest such a thing. But, un-human or not, Jesus said it, so I am supposed to try to live to it.

The next paragraph is almost harder to do than the first. One can love abstractly, I think, but the condemnation,? That is an entirely different kettle of fish. Are we supposed to love someone who abuses children, or commits atrocities against those who are poor, or defenseless? Are we supposed to love people who seem to reflect everything that we don't believe in, that we feel is wrong, or that is hurtful to others? What does Jesus mean when he tells us not to condemn, not to judge? How can we do that, because every day we judge and condemn things and we feel justified in doing so.

 Honestly, this passage is like a burr under my saddle blanket. I know I'm supposed to do one thing and not do another, and yet it's so hard not to reverse them. It's not that I hate the people who are causing so much pain and distress, it's the acts that they commit and the harsh and hateful words they toss about. Do not condemn their actions of hate and disrespect? Do not condemn the acts that harm others? Is that what Jesus wanted us to do?
Sometimes I wish I had never heard this passage. It's too hard; it's asking too much. It's asking us to be like Jesus himself, and Lord knows, that's not an easy act to follow. Jesus didn't condemn the people who hung him on the cross, but he certainly had a few things to say about them when he was walking on the earth

Sometimes he was downright scornful, and sometimes more than a little rude. We don't emphasize that a whole lot, because we look at this paragraph and we're supposed to love and not condemn. Jesus did. He condemned those who tried to get the best of others using power and privilege and position. We would rather think about gentle Jesus meek and mild, holding up little children and healing people who were not even Jewish. He did have some judgmental things to say to those who didn't understand the difference between obeying God and caring for others.
This week it's going to be hard to try and love some people. Honestly, I can't say that I will ever love them. I just can't. What they do is against every Christian belief that I have, and I just can't let that go. So am I going to do? That's very good question. It's probably going to take more than a week for me to sit down and figure this one out. Still, I have to pay attention to the lesson, and I have to try to understand what it's trying to teach me.
In the meantime, I wish all the people of the world, not just this country, would be kind to each other and let us all catch our breaths while we try to figure out how to do the best we can with what we are given, and how to bring about the kingdom of God on this earth and which is so sorely needed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 19, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Stamp of Persistence

The most interesting thing about a postage stamp is the persistence with which it sticks to the job -- Napoleon Hill, motivational writer.

It's been quite a week. Personally, the high of the Cubs winning the World Series was followed by the results of the election just the other day. It has been a roller coaster and as such, hasn't always been easy to get through. Still, putting one foot in front of the other is about the only thing to do, it seems.

I ran across this quote from Napoleon Hill and, if you'll excuse the pun, it has sort of stuck with me. Granted, a postage stamp is becoming more uncommon item almost every day. People send emails, tweets, make phone calls, and it seems like the only people who use postage now are those who have bulk rates to send me junk. I do have a few friends, however, who have not forgotten that there is a post office, and that sending a letter or card does require a postage stamp that comes in various sizes, colors, themes, and denominations. 

Stamps can be beautiful, tiny works of  mass-produced art and only occasionally appreciated and treasured. But the thing about the stamp is once you stick it on, it usually stays stuck.  Put the wrong stamp on the wrong envelope, and the stamp does what it's supposed to do;  it sticks to the job until it gets the letter or whatever to its appointed recipient.

I was thinking about the story from Luke (18:1–18) where Jesus uses the parable about a very stubborn, persistent, irritating woman whose perseverance was phenomenal. She had a complaint against an opponent, but the judge didn't want to hear it. So she kept coming before him, demanding justice for something that she felt strongly about. Like the stamp, she stuck to it until she actually reached the point where the judge had the choice of either having her return again and again, or hearing her complaint and judging in her favor. Like water dripping on a rock, eventually the rock will give way. The woman received her justice.

Persistence is something just about every parent knows intimately. From "Me want a cookie!" to a very emphatic "No!", to "Mommy, buy me this!", to "But everybody else is doing it!", there seems to be a prerecorded message that kids learn quickly to use repeatedly to obtain whatever it is they want. Long before they ever know what the word persistence means, they are masters at its use.

Persistence often flies in the face of convention. Many times it is described as a "Go get'em" attitude that often is considered to be meritorious in some people but not in others. It seems to depend on what it is the persistence is being used to do.  There is an old saying about burrs under the saddle blanket, meaning someone or something being persistent even to the point of pain, but the humble stamp just hangs on and keeps trying to move forward come hell or high water, as Mama used to say. Sometimes it's a very  difficult thing to do. Just ask the Cubs fans who waited 108years for a world championship.

Jesus encouraged us to be persistent in prayers and to not give up even if they aren't answered immediately or the way we wanted to go. Here's a time to be a postage stamp. Our prayer is like a letter to God, or a Hallmark card if you prefer, and our persistence is the stamp that gets it there. Granted it's a cute metaphor, but I think it also begs us to look at it in a little different way. Not as a tax or a price to be paid to get something from A to B, but also as a symbol of persistence and trust.

The stamp will hang on persistently, and we trust that whatever it's affixed to will get where it's supposed to go in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes that doesn't happen: mail trucks get wrecked, or any one of a number of things that would prevent that stamp on that letter from being delivered. Same thing with our prayer lives. Sometimes we hit a rough patch, and even though we think we have stuck that stamp on firmly and have launched it successfully towards God, we probably need to follow up with a second letter or second prayer, or third, or maybe 35th attempt. Is not to say God's always going to say yes, but by focusing on being persistent in prayer, were focusing our trust and also our hope and faith in God.

The widow and the judge were a lot like political candidates in this election. Everybody wanted our vote  and they often hammered away at the same complaints, promises, claims, or even epithets towards the other candidate in order to get our attention and keep it focused on the message they wanted us  to get. Sometimes at church, it feels like we hear the same messages over and over again, messages about loving our neighbor, helping those in need, standing for justice and righteousness, being honest, and living a life that is directed towards others and not just for our own satisfaction. They're persistent messages, letters stamped and sent to us for our attention.

Bless that persistent woman. This week I have seen a lot of persistence, a lot of it negative, but also a lot of it positive, and that's the good part. There have been acts of outright hatred, violence, and pain, but they're also been acts of healing, calming, and persistence in continuing to try to make this world better, not just for one widow but for every single person.

This week I need to think about where I can be a postage stamp, persistently stuck to a task that needs to be done to bring maybe some joy or happiness or light into someone
else's life when they need it most. I won't ask to be a pretty stamp, just a very tenacious one.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 12, 2016.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Money and Faith

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.  -- Luke 16:9-15

Money.  No matter where you look, you run into something related to money. It pays for not only the necessities of life, but also a lot of unnecessaries or extravagances to prove that one is better than one’s neighbors, business rivals, or anybody else.

It is said that money is the root of all evil, but in truth this saying is really that the love of money is that root. In the biblical world, they operated on a system of limited resources. The more you had, the less there was for someone else. And if someone else had more than their neighbor down the street, that was just the way it was. In our modern world, we generally recognize that people don’t necessarily live in a place of limited resources. We believe that if you work hard, you can make life better for yourself and your family. That means working hard to earn more money and using it wisely. Unfortunately, this is not a one size fits all world.

This seems to be a world run by a small minority of people with money who don’t really seem to care a lot about people unlike themselves. For years we’ve been hearing about the 1% versus the 99%. Don’t get me wrong, there are some in the 1% class who are immensely concerned about the state of the world and the problems that exist in it, and who put their money where their mouths are to help address that imbalance. But then there are those who use their money to make themselves more money, and the heck with the rest of the world.

Cheating one’s neighbor was one thing that Jesus spoke about in this reading from Luke. He was talking about those who deliberately cheated workmen of their full pay for work performed, who increased taxes and rents on the poor in order to make themselves more money. We’ve heard this story in church many times, but somehow it seems the message hasn’t gotten out.

It’s true that you can’t serve two masters, although a lot of folks try. It’s difficult to understand why people who make tens of thousands of dollars an hour begrudge paying employees a living wage that would enable them to have a better life. It’s difficult to understand companies running roughshod over sacred ancestral lands and risking the fouling water that hundreds of thousands of people depend upon, just for the sake of increased profits and more product to sell. It’s even more difficult to understand those who allegedly represent other people are paid very well and with lots of benefits while cutting benefits for those who need them the most. What’s even more galling than that is that these representatives spend time and money that is not theirs to further their own ends and positions. They do practically nothing to deserve what they are getting, and they are loath to part with any of the power that might redress some of this.

We are taught in church to look for Jesus in every person but how many of us really do that? Is the homeless man on the street so much less worthy of attention then some millionaire standing up in front of a crowd and belittling those who are not like them? Is this something Jesus would do? Or even consider? I don’t think so, at least, the Jesus I have read about, studied, and look to.

The election will soon be over one way or the other. Things will get better or things will get worse. We will choose well or we will choose badly. We will cast our ballots for those whom we feel represent the best that America can offer to the world, and those who will work to make our country and this world better for all of us.

Jesus is telling the story for us, and for us at this particular point in time. Perhaps it is our opportunity to look below the surface to the heart of the messages we are hearing and look for Jesus in those words. Then go and look for him in the world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 5, 2016.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fall and Beyond

It's the end of October and that puts us squarely into fall. All around the country, and parts of the rest of the world, trees are having their green leaves turned to gold, orange, red, and shades in between. It's a moment of glory and beauty, and all too soon, those leaves fall off the trees and the branches will stay bare until spring arrives and the new buds begin to peek out. Fall is an interesting time of year, because it puts nature and humanity on seemingly totally different paths.

In nature, the trees are slowing down as evidenced by their leaves changing colors. Inside, this sap is pretty much where it's going to be because the tree isn't going to be growing very much. The tree is settling down for winter, and so are the flowers, the grass, and even the weeds. Of course, in the area around Phoenix as well as a few places around the country, it's still about 100° or so, which makes it hard to get in the mood for fall. We have to take for granted (or travel up to the mountains a couple of hours north of us) that the seasons have changed, but change it does and has, and we change with it.

There is a meme on Facebook that has been marking off the Fridays until certain specific dates. For instance, there are no more Fridays until Halloween since we just had Friday yesterday and Halloween is on Monday. If anybody cares, there's one more Friday until election day, after which, hopefully, the rhetoric will ramp down and we can go back to looking at pictures of kittens and other cute baby animals. There are three Fridays until Thanksgiving, so we still have time to get all the trimmings prepared, and even decide with whom we will spend Thanksgiving we went to Grandma Jones' last year so we need to be with  Grandma and Grandpa Smith this year. It can be quite a quandary. There are eight more Fridays until Christmas, so we need to start making a list of who is going to get what, and then figure a way to go out and actually get the items without some of the recipients knowing about it. Then there are nine Fridays until New Year's, when we start to plan next year with hopefully more optimism then perhaps we had this year.

There is one fall ritual that always seems to perk people up and that is the World Series. This year seems to be more a year of rejoicing than usual, since both teams playing have had very long dry spells. It's funny, there are so many Cubs fans in Phoenix Arizona. There are also Cleveland Indian fans, but the Cubs fans are the ones you hear from.

As nature slows down in the fall, human beings seem to speed up. School is in session, which means we have to make sure the kids are up and out the door on time, they have their books, lunches, and homework, and they get to their bus before it leaves. We have to get to work on time because, with the coming of the new year, there are a lot of tasks that have to be finished, and a lot of ducks to get in a row before the year turns and the books get closed for 2016. At church, if the choir hasn't started practicing for Christmas, be warned that it is imminently forthcoming.

We also plan for the season of Advent, that contemplative season of the church year where we stopped rushing around hopefully long enough to sit, take a deep breath, read an edifying book or Scripture, and think about the real meaning of Christmas which is the coming of the Christ child. It's a counterintuitive kind of season since it encourages us to slow down and be awake to what God has to say to us even as we rush from grocery store to toy store to the soccer field, the ballet class, choir practice, and all the other places we have to be.

It's a little early to be thinking about Advent much less Christmas, but they are seasons that require preparation even as they themselves represent preparation and its fulfillment. Try going into a craft store about this time of year, and the aisles will already be bulging with people getting materials for decorations and gifts to be given at Christmas. You walk into almost any store these days, at least this time of year, and face brightly-lit Christmas trees, boxes of ornaments, and all the appurtenances required to make what we have been accustomed to as a proper Christmas, and all of it cheek by jowl with Halloween candy and costumes by the score.

Meanwhile we still have time. We have time to start preparing for the things that we think are important and also for the things our soul needs to do. We so often forget to attend our souls. Were much more careful about our rosebushes, or Christmas presents, or Jilly's tutu for the dance recital or her appearance in Swan Lake. We get busy tending other things, and hope that the Sunday morning experience of church will produce the requisite soul feeding we need. For some, that may work, but for a lot of people they need more but they just don't realize it. When souls are not tended carefully, they are like a plant that doesn't get water or fertilizer. They shrivel and never reach the potential that was present when they were mere seedlings.

This fall, I think my challenge is to actually stop preparing for who gets what present and start preparing for what the season of Christmas is really about. Halloween represents the feast of All Saints and that of All Souls, those who have gone before us and who have left their witness and testimony for us to learn. We need to get through Thanksgiving, which is a reminder that we have roofs over our heads, food on our tables, family around us, and an opportunity to feed the souls of the homeless and hungry just as we feed their physical bodies. Then we can be ready for Advent because we have made use of all the glorious days before its actual arrival.

Enjoy the fall. Look at the leaves and appreciate the many colors that are there for us to notice and enjoy. Prepare the flower beds with mulch to protect the bulbs and seeds that will come up at a later time. Most of all, spend some time being grateful, and thoughtful, and quiet, allowing our souls to listen for God and receive the nourishment God provides. New

Perhaps the Cubs will feed our souls just a tiny bit this fall. Who said God doesn't like a good baseball game?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 29, 2016.

PS. Cubs lost, but Cubs fans always have hope.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Fig Tree and Boot Camp

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’  - Luke 13:6-9

The story is one about a fig tree that for three years had not produced any fruit. The owner of the land on which the tree stood was a bit perturbed that this tree was still on his land drinking up water, taking up nutrients, and giving nothing in return. He demanded the gardener get rid of the tree, but the gardener, having maybe more faith (and good works too,) persuaded the owner to give it just one more year. If the tree bore no fruit, then the owner could cut the tree down and replace it.

I guess the man agreed to it, and that's sort of where my mind went today. The appeal for patience and the suggestion of a little nurturing would be hopefully produce good results.

I have a young friend who, after years of wanting to be in the military and working very hard to get into it, is on his third day of boot camp.  It seems that boot camp was not exactly the way he had planned it would be. Most people who have had anyone who's gone into the service or have done it themselves, know that boot camp is not a place for fun and games. Boot Camp is serious business. The military is serious business. They want to turn out people who know the rules, who can follow orders immediately without question, and who can perform to standard, which is very high.

When a young person goes to boot camp, that first week is probably the worst week of their life. I think my young friend is finding that out. He's discouraged, a little depressed, unsure of himself, and, I am pretty sure, there's more than a trace of homesickness in there as well. He had a dream about the military, but he opened the book in the middle instead of at the beginning. He saw the career that he would have, but he didn't see what he had to go through to get to that place. It's going to be an exercise in patience, something he will need to learn very quickly, like the owner in the story. 

Like the tree, my young friend wasn't quite ready to bear fruit right off the bat. Some trees mature a bit more slowly than others, just like some young people at 18, 19, or 20, aren't quite ready to be complete adults yet. Part of the job of boot camp, like part of the job of the gardener, is to provide nutrients, skills, nourishment, training, and education, to make them into proud young members of an elite group of protectors of our country who can march in perfect order, who know the purpose of the profession they've chosen, and even the risk they run of serious injury or even death. And this is supposed to be done in 6 to 8 weeks. At least the tree had a year.

 What my young friend is being asked to do is to do what the owner was asked--to be patient and not expect immediate results. Change doesn't happen overnight and radical changes, most especially radical changes, take a little endurance, but with patience, hard work, and nurturing, change does happen, from barren tree to fruit-bearing, from an adolescent to a part of a very difficult profession.  The gardener had faith in the tree. My friend's family has faith in him, and so do I. He will bear fruit, if he persists and just goes along, doing what he needs to do to make his dream come true.

Here's to the trees in our lives, the ones that grow wild in the forest, and the ones we have nurtured until they are ready to step out on their own. Here's to patience  and loving care, and belief in the dreams that can and will come true.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 22, 2016.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Climate of Fear

The other day a former coworker of mine wrote an essay that blew my socks off. I know this lady; she's a cast-iron lady and she's not afraid of anything. She says what she thinks, and the devil take the hindmost. But underneath that is a person I don't believe I ever glimpsed before, a person openly and honestly admitting to the very human emotion of fear. Her particular fear was of having her mammogram done after many years, and the chance that something might be found on it. Her mother died of breast cancer, but also fear because she too had put off getting things checked out. So it is with my former coworker, and now she waits for the results hoping for the best, yet, despite it all, expecting what might be the worst.

It's an amazing thing to see someone so strong admit to such a fear. Fear surrounds all of us, but to many of us, mostly women, the specter of breast cancer is one that we try to forget about, but we can't quite seem to do it. The month of October is Breast Cancer awareness month, and everywhere we go there are pink ribbons, pink T-shirts, including one that is probably my favorite which says, "Of course these are fakes. My real ones tried to kill me!" Somehow the gallows-type humor just tickles me as I am a little over four years after my diagnosis.
My heart hurts for my former coworker, because I know what she's going through. I watched my mother go through breast cancer, and even though she was my adoptive mother and I knew if there was a genetic component, I wouldn't have it from her. But from the moment I heard that word cancer as I sat across the desk from my doctor, all I could think about were the scars that she bore and that now I would share.

It's hard to acknowledge fear. Sometimes people tell us that we shouldn't be afraid of anything because Jesus is right there with us. I'm glad. I realize Jesus is with me, but sometimes I need a shoulder, or a hand, or even just a "Hey, how are you?"  
I'm still afraid of cancer, and I know too many people who have seemingly beaten one kind only to come down with the same thing again, or having it spread somewhere else unexpectedly. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it, I guess, but it's always at the back of my mind, like a bad case of heebie-jeebies. .

Jesus told us not to be afraid, but I have to wonder. Did he change his mind maybe as he stood in front of Pilate knowing that God was far, far away, further than God had ever been from Jesus,. For once, Jesus stood alone as a completely human being facing the unthinkable. Did he have fear on the cross? I can't imagine that he would not because he was, at that point in time, so entirely human that he was just like us. He had to face his fear, and try to work through it although he didn't have much opportunity to do that.

We seem to be in a climate of fear these days. Everything we hear and see and read about seems to deal with some reaction to a fear, rational or irrational. People are shot because somebody else was afraid. People are ostracized because some people are afraid of them. Some people are left to struggle alone because others are afraid poverty and homelessness is catching. Little kids go hungry because some of us are afraid to give even a little bit of money to help provide meals for them. People will say that is the parents responsibility, and yes, that's true. But what if the parent is unable to do so because of the job climate ,or that they have a prison record, or even that they are of a different race. What are they to do?

Jesus tells us not to be afraid. Had he said that a few more times, maybe more people would have heard it. We haven't lost any fear, in fact, if anything, I think we've gained a lot of fear. We fear immigrants, we fear those of other religions, we fear people whose beliefs are not like ours, whose political ideals are not ours, who live in places unlike ours, and so on down the line. It's hard to be afraid, but yet we live in a climate right now where fear is like a forest fire. It keeps growing and growing, and the flames are being fed even as we speak.

I wish that Jesus would get on a giant microphone so that everyone in the whole world could hear "Don't be afraid!" People would hear the sound, but I wonder but would they listen to the words? Or would that be just one more thing for them to be afraid of?

I wish my coworker the best. I wish I could relieve her fears, but that's not something I can do right now. I think about her, I worry about her, and I have asked Jesus to take care of her, and that's about the extent of what I can do at this particular moment in time. I think about all my other friends who are in the process of identifying, treating, or surviving a disease that everyone fears. I keep looking to Jesus and hoping to hear that "Don't be afraid."

It's all I really have to cling to. Somehow, I hope my faith in that one simple statement will be enough.

You can read her essay here.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 15, 2016.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Paul's Innocence Project

 Acts 25:13-27

The epistle reading from Acts on October 8 is one of those stories that rings kind of true even though it supposedly happened 2000 years ago. It rings true because it is pointing out something that we still deal with today, and that's the beauty of the Bible. We can draw parallels from what we read to what we experience and where they meet we form our position, look at our culture, and plan our actions. The actions in the reading were taken by a man named Festus,  and the indirect actor was the Apostle Paul. The cultures of both Jerusalem and Rome had a bearing, as did the traditions of each and dictated the action.
Paul been accused by the Jews in Jerusalem of high crimes deserving death, but Festus, a Roman official, told them that they were not going to put Paul to death because he had done nothing that deserved that kind of punishment. Of course, the elders and priests of the Jews were not happy about this, so Festus did what any good Western Marshall would do under the circumstances, and got the heck outta Dodge, taking Paul with him. Paul had appealed to the Roman Emperor for judgment, and it was Festus' job to get him there.

Enter King Agrippa and Bernice. They heard what Festus had told them, but they wanted to hear for themselves what this Paul was saying that caused so much hatred and such a strong desire for his execution. Festus had a good line of reasoning when he said "... [B]ut I found out that he had done nothing deserving death and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty I decided to send him."  Having King Agrippa and Bernice as his hosts gave Festus an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. In his appeal to the King, Festus stated, "...[B]ut I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I am I have brought him before he all of you, especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write for it seems to be unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him."

That last line that got my attention. I read a story online a day or so ago about a man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, yet the one man who could set him free refused to do so. This isn't the only case where innocent people languished in jail because justice was not done. Prisoners are convicted, but sometimes the evidence is mishandled, or testimony is perjured, or the person is inconvenient, somehow, to the community.

That was Paul's crime, talking about the risen Jesus, the Messiah who rose from the dead, which just about everyone with any common sense in those days knew was totally impossible. It seemed that way to the Romans, but Jesus was no longer giving them problems, if indeed he ever had. It was the high priest and the elders in Jerusalem that were most bothered by Paul's assertions. It went against all Jewish teachings about death, and also managed to hit a lot of the laws about blasphemy as well. 

Was Paul innocent? Maybe not. But was his crime one that should cause his execution? While we are asking, how about Jesus? He was not guilty of the crimes he was accused of and he got executed in the most public and demeaning way. Think, though, about sitting in jail, not knowing what fate will hand you, knowing you are innocent but seemingly unable to convince others that you truly are. After all, just about every prisoner in jail swears they are innocent -- and in our cynical age, we don't believe any of them, even the ones who really are.

I think about groups who work on cold cases, looking into the evidence that convicted people and examining it using new technology and new science to determine the truth that had been hidden, or covered up. It seems to me that whether or not those groups are Christian, they do exemplify what Micah spoke of, "... [D]o justice, love mercy..." They may not think of the people they serve as children of God, but they think of them as people needing help, people in trouble, and deserving of the best defense they can get, to be believed until they are proven 100% guilty.  

A lot of people will say that the prisoners deserved what they got, but looking at the rate of innocent people who have been found, it's a little hard to paint everyone with a very broad brush. We are taught that through our faith we are to forgive, and we are to love justice, not just expediency for some. Paul was depending on justice, just as most of the people in our prisons are depending on justice, yet many are not getting it. Their color, their race, their orientation, even the nature of their crime, puts them in a hierarchy that is more like Dante's seven circles of hell than it is a Pilgrim's progress toward redemption.

Festus was unwilling to abandon Paul to the executioners when he had: (a) appealed to Rome for justice, and (b) Festus wasn't convinced that the charges were correct and even proven. "Tell me what to write," he asked King Agrippa. "Tell me if the charges seem reasonable enough to send to the Emperor along with the prisoner." At least Paul had someone to speak or him, unlike Jesus who had to undergo it all by himself.

There are victims of our justice system who inhabit our jails and prisons, accused and convicted by false evidence, incomplete investigations, or even because they are inconvenient, like Paul and Jesus. That does not mean we should turn our backs when someone acts as a Festus and attempts to find the truth, even if he has to do some digging to do it.

Imagine if you were in jail for something you didn't do. Wouldn't you want someone to help you? I'm sure Jesus would have, and I have a feeling that Paul was grateful for the help he received. We want mercy for ourselves -- but we are often very slow or very busy trying to avoid giving mercy to others.

Think about it. To whom should we extend the mercy we ourselves hope to get? To Paul? To Jesus? To a total stranger who claims innocence? Where does judgment come in? Where is our responsibility? And who will be our Festus?

For information on the Innocence Project, see their website here.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 8, 2016.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Where is home?

It's fall, and with it we began another year of Education for Ministry (EfM), a program of theological education geared basically for lay people although we have deacons in discernment and priests as part of our groups from time to time. Each year starts off with a disparate group of people who are scattered, at least in my group, from one end of the country to the other and never see each other much less form any bond with them. Over the course of the first few weeks, we work on what we call spiritual autobiographies (SAs), a way of looking at one's life, each year focusing on a different aspect of how we have lived those lives and what events have come our way that have changed, taught, or serve as a fork in the road our life. Another thing about SAs is that it is a very good way to get to really know people. We can't share something like an SA without investing ourselves, at least a little, in what we're saying.

Spiritual autobiographies always starts at a base point, usually where a person was born, or a place where the family has lived, or with a group that represents a place of comfort, safety, trust, and love. For some people, home is where the family is regardless of the physical location. For some people it's the actual physical location.  For other people, it is someplace they have been and would like to go back to, or maybe a place where they have deep friendships and a lot of fond memories that make them feel happy and content. Each person has their own base point, that place where it all begins.

One thing that I hear in SAs just about every year is the story of how we became part of the Episcopal Church. It's surprising how many people have said that they once walked into an Episcopal Church and immediately felt it was home. Whether it was the music, the liturgy, the friendliness of the people, or whatever, they felt right at home right away. A lot of them came from other churches where they didn't feel they fit, or they felt they had grown past the point where they could accept where that church was leading them is in terms of formation. The church didn't fit, so they went looking, and lo and behold, they found the Episcopal Church.

Jesus was a wanderer. He said in one of the gospels that he had no place to lay his head. What a predicament. He could have claimed Nazareth as his home, or wherever his mother Mary and the grown children lived, but he didn't. The earth was his home only for a time. His real home was with God, and since God was always present, Jesus was always at home in a manner of speaking. 

We learn the value of home when we have to leave it. We have to go out into a strange world, full of strange people, and were made uncomfortable by that. Our security and comfort is gone, and we have to rebuild it, if we can. I'm sure it's that way for missionaries, who leave such civilized places as New York or Kansas City or who knows, maybe even in a very small town in the middle of nowhere. They go into a different world, and, for many of them, that world becomes their home. I think of a priest that I greatly admire, who works among the Native Americans in what is left of their tribal lands. They are her people, and she is part of their extended family. Each one accepts the other in love, respect, and mutual concern. It would be great if the world had a few more of those people, a few more people who might leave their home and pitch their tents in new places with new people, growing roots that will produce great trees or fields of flowers.

Walking in the church door is like a mini homecoming. We all consider the dwelling places in which we live to be our home, or at least our house. Even if the place we consider home is thousands of miles away, stepping through a church door, our church door, we find ourselves at home with people we can trust, people we are comfortable with, and people who share beliefs with us. That is, if we are in the right place. Those of us who felt at home in the Episcopal Church when we first entered most likely still feel that way. We are home, our family is around us, God is present among us, we have gazillions is of saints and angels about us, both live and celestial,
 we are there for a similar purpose of sharing of his body and blood in the most intimate kind of family meal that one could imagine.
I wonder, where is home? Each of us has an answer, and the answers are as varied as the people being asked the question. But thinking theologically for a moment, is being part of a church like being at home? Is the door open for more relatives or potential relatives to join the family?  Can we find trust there? Is there a sense of spiritual power there? And most importantly, is there a sense of "Come see what I've found!" there?

Take a look around. Where is your home? Are you willing and able to share that home with others? Try inviting them to dinner. Our particular church family meals are the Eucharists that we celebrate together. That's how most of us found our new homes.

Invite someone to one of our special family meals. You might just be helping them find a home.

Image: The Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, AZ. Used with permission from the Rev. Susan Brown Snook

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 1, 2016.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dust and Vanity

...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.  Ecclesiastes 12:7-8.

Monsoon season in Arizona is almost over.  Normally monsoon season really starts when the dew point reaches 55° for three consecutive days and it ends when the dew point drops. Of course, with the current need for neatness, there's an official opening and closing day totally unrelated to the actual weather.

With the monsoon as they call it (and it's far from a real monsoon such as most of the world knows it), monsoon season brings high winds, occasional, sometimes extremely heavy rain, and dust storms which we call haboobs. With the end of the monsoon season we have probably pretty much seen the last of haboobs, which is a good thing. They're scary, they're extremely dangerous, and people often just aren't patient enough to wait them out, but would rather go plowing through them, which does not promote for general public safety.Ecclesiastes talks about something like the end of the monsoon season when it  talks about dust going back where it came from. Here it doesn't go back, it just stays in its new place.

Those living in the Middle East know dust storms; they live in the desert, and when the wind blows there is very little vegetation to hold down what soil that exists. Consequently it blows, and blows hard enough that it engulfs everything. The sand and dust and dirt get into the tiniest of cracks, it's hard to breathe without something over your face to keep out the particles, and you can't see more than a foot or two in front of you so it's very easy to get lost. Yeah, sounds a lot like Arizona at times during monsoon season; even though haboobs don't come regularly, they still come and cause mayhem, confusion, and a lot of allergies kicking in.

The part of Ecclesiastes that really struck me, besides the part about the dust, was that famous quotation that we hear less frequently than we used to, but still with some regularity, "Vanity of vanities,...all is vanity." In this day and time what the heck does that mean? Vanity? It is so much a part of our culture that we don't really even think about it. Vanity is wanting to one-up the neighbors. If they get a new Lexus, we need to get a BMW, or maybe a Rolls-Royce, or maybe something even fancier. If they had a 54 inch television, we've got to have a 62 or 60. If they where fashion shoes we've got have better ones were in a competitive culture and it's all based on vanity. Like dust from a haboob, it creeps into the tiniest cracks.

Listening to all the gobbledygook and what passes for media coverage of things these days, it's often impossible not to want to the actually act like a turtle and draw one's head in until everything blows over. It has become a consumer culture, which generally means that a lot of the money flows upward but very little of it flows downward words most needed. CEOs of corporations make millions while their employees often work for minimum wage, and even that is begrudged. It's a form of vanity, the vanity of the 1%, while the 99% wait for something to happen and usually go away without much hope.

Vanity is more than looking in a mirror and primping endlessly or constantly checking to make sure our teeth are sparkling white, our ties are straight, and our hair and makeup are perfect. That's a vanity, but so are wearing multi-carat diamonds in rings, necklaces, and earrings, one piece of which would feed a family of five for at least month if not more. Vanity makes us trade in our cars for new ones long before they wear out, rust out, or get wrecked. We are a disposable culture as well as a vain one, and the result is that we have our eyes on the wrong goal. We need to learn to see vanity for what it is, which is something that separates us from God and from each other by putting us on a competitive level instead of one which is accepting and assisting.

I think I'd better keep vanity in mind this week, I'm not so vain that I have to keep checking the mirror. I know that what vanity I have is not in my looks, my dress, my expensive jewelry or my high-class automobile. I have a couple of good pieces of jewelry, but nothing outrageously expensive. My truck is 16 years old, held together by faith, rust, and dirt, but it runs and it's paid for. My vanity is, well, what is my vanity? What am I really vain about? My vocabulary? My ability to listen to people? My pride in what I do, what I write, when or when I do something for someone else without expecting to be noticed or thanked?

For the next week, I'm going to try and find my vanity and then try to find a way to get away from it. It won't be by making myself a doormat or someone who doesn't feel good about themselves because they don't feel they are good enough or even able to do anything well. I'm not going to feed my ego because that would be like standing in a haboob rather take that I am and can do and put it in God's service. Take the vanity that I have and turn it outward so that someone else might be able to benefit.

Care to join me?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 24, 2016.