Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Wisdom of Humility

My child, perform your tasks with humility;
   then you will be loved by those whom God accepts.
greater you are, the more you must humble yourself;
   so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.

For great is the might of the Lord;
   but by the humble he is glorified.
Neither seek what is too difficult for you,
   nor investigate what is beyond your power.
Reflect upon what you have been commanded,
   for what is hidden is not your concern.
Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,
   for more than you can understand has been shown to you. 
For their conceit has led many astray,
   and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement.

Without eyes there is no light;
   without knowledge there is no wisdom.
 A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end,    and whoever loves danger will perish in it.
A stubborn mind will be burdened by troubles,
   and the sinner adds sin to sins.
When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing,
   for an evil plant has taken root in him. 
 he mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs,    and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.

As water extinguishes a blazing fire,
   so almsgiving atones for sin.
Those who repay favours give thought to the future;
   when they fall they will find support
.  - Sirach 3:17-31

The Bible is a library of books, letters, history, poetry and instruction. When the prophets spoke, it was expected (sometimes even devoutly hoped) that people pay attention and change their ways. When Jesus taught and Paul carried the message forward, it was an invitation to change. Then there are the Wisdom books of which Sirach is one. Sirach is, in a way, like the Ann Landers of the Bible; it is a book that offers solutions to problems and concerns. Where prophets command, Sirach suggests.

Sirach speaks to his students and his audience about the wisdom of being humble. It isn't a new teaching, but rather one that needs continual retelling because it is so easily forgotten. Throughout the book ( probably written down by his grandson) there seem to be references to customs more Greek than Hebrew which might be a reason why Sirach never made it into the Hebrew canon. Among the Greeks, debate and discussion was a mark of intelligence and, at times, status among the upper classes who undoubtedly had more leisure to study and perpetuate such discussions. Sirach warns, though, that even intellectual debate and discussion can lead to pride and that pride can lead to trouble.

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who are proud of what they do and those who are proud of what they know. Both groups are capable of doing great things and/or causing great things to happen. On the other hand, many are just proud of their own accomplishments, thinking little of how much they could contribute to the benefit of the man rather than simply amassing a wealth of goods or knowledge for themselves, becoming misers who do no good for anyone else. It is this intellectual pride that Sirach is warning his students about, detailing some of the negative repercussions of thinking too highly of oneself and one's accomplishments.

When we read the part about "Neither seek what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power," it seems a bit confusing. We're taught Robert Browning's poetic line, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?" and it seems to be exactly the opposite of what Sirach is trying to say. I think where the difference lies is in for what we are reaching and what we are grasping. Is it to benefit ourselves or is it others we seek to help?

We can't reach heaven by our own stretching, but accepting grace as a gift while trying to be better human beings puts heaven closer to attainment. If we're proud of our accomplishments, that's one thing; if we are proud and arrogant about them, that's another kettle of fish altogether. Sirach is warning of that kettle. True wisdom lies in hearing the words and weighing them in favor of humility. Maybe the humble don't get so much press, but they probably accomplish a lot more for the world than those who strut about, proclaiming their own intelligence and accomplishments.

Jesus proclaimed in Matthew, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"(5:5 NRSV). Not the captains of industry, not the generals of vast armies, not the prideful academics in their towers of books, but the humble who seek to do what is right and of benefit to many, not just to themselves who will be the beneficiaries. If we don't try to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, we're missing something big. So what if it is out of reach? We won't get anywhere until and unless we try. Sirach doesn't say don't make an attempt, just don't believe that only we as individuals can do it alone. I think too that is what Jesus had in mind.

Some of the greatest people on earth have been the most humble. We need to look to people like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, George Washington Carver, and any number of the saints and others as examples of humble people making a big difference without getting a big head about it. Who knows who of us can join that group? It isn't impossible, merely difficult. Once attained, difficult things are more valuable than any prize.

"The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise." That's certainly a true statement; more can be learned through listening than through speaking. Perhaps I need a day where I focus more on hearing, really hearing, what others are saying than in saying what I want (or feel I need) to say.

Maybe today I need to pay attention to a proverb from Benjamin Franklin, "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." That's a real humility raiser right there. I think Sirach would approve.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 18, 2014.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Church, State, and the Vanishing Wall

There are always topics that tend to garner a lot of public opinion, one of the latest being the issue of church and state and how much control each of these two entities should have with regard to the other. A recent article in the Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein1 referenced the result of studies conducted by two respected public opinion polling firms. The results indicated that 46% of respondents feared that their freedom to practice their religion was being interfered with or constrained by government. Another 46% believed that religious groups were attempting to force their beliefs on all citizens, whether or not the respondents agreed with those beliefs. The statistics were, to say the least, interesting and a bit disconcerting.

The demographics indicated that those who feared curtailment of religious freedoms were older Americans, white, Evangelicals, Republicans and those with very conservative political views. Those who felt their own beliefs were curtailed or ignored by other religious bodies were those described as young adults under 30(Generation Zs), Democrats, politically liberal, and generally unaffiliated with a church, denomination or religion. In short, the two groups are as different as chalk and cheese.

Freedom of religion has been a topic of interest since the founding of this country. One group of the original colonies was established by  entrepreneurs and young men anxious to make their fortunes. With them came the established church as important (as was conversion of the local Native Americans) but secondary to profit. Another group was founded by dissenters who felt they were persecuted by the established church and sought a place where they could practice their faith unhindered. Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth wanted to purify the established church of its' more Roman Catholic elements. Puritans were much more restrictive, wanting to do away with the established church altogether and follow a strict Calvinist theology. Other denominations came to the colonies with each wave of new immigrants, each denomination having the opportunity to either make a space for itself in the cities or carve out a niche in the ever-shrinking wilderness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that there should be a wall of separation between church and state, a thought which was incorporated into the Constitution of the United States as part of the first amendment of what is now called the Bill of Rights. That amendment stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." While we may not be seeing individuals and groups attempting to establish a national church, we are certainly seeing those individuals and groups attempting to establish law based on one set of religious beliefs -- theirs.
In an article on the Episcopal Café website, Editor-in-chief Jim Naughton made the following observation:
I don't think our freedom of religion is in any danger, and I am disappointed that well-fed, well-educated, mostly white, mostly male religious leaders who know they will have access to whatever healthcare they need and a comfortable place to which to retire has succeeded in painting themselves as victims whose rights are in danger."2
Naughton has summed up the situation rather well, but I have a feeling, though, that had any woman made such a statement, she would be widely pilloried as a "Feminazi," man-hater or  an example of male-bashing.

Looking statistically,  it is generally  possible to see that the balance of power between male/female is clearly on the side of the males. In Congress, for example, the ratio of males to females is roughly 81% to 19%.3 The Supreme Court is 66.6% male to 33.3% female. The religious makeup is of identical percentages with 6 Roman Catholic and 3  Jewish members. One woman justice is Roman Catholic and one male is Jewish.   

In the ecclesiastical realm, at least among Roman Catholics, various Orthodox denominations and sects, many if not most Protestant denominations, and among many non-Christian faiths, the ratio of male to female leaders is more on the order of 100% and no females need apply. Statistics do not tell the whole story; what is easily seen, however, is that power and the control which comes from power is firmly in the hands of one group and that group shows no real signs of wanting to relinquish or even share it unless they are required to do so.

The increasing clamor that particular groups are being persecuted because others do not jump on their bandwagon or voluntarily agree to follow their beliefs is, I believe, the ultimate hubris. Dissenting opinions and people stating religious beliefs of their own in various media or even with  picket signs hardly qualifies as persecution. In a sense, it feels like a reversal of the Christians in the arena with the lions in ancient Rome, only this time the Christians are circling the lions.

The news is full of reports of members of various religious groups around the world being shot, beheaded, burned alive, kidnapped,  or forced to flee with only what they can carry on their backs by another group of religionists who are bent on conquest and/or conversion by force. Protests from groups in this country who claim persecution because people choose to decline to follow their particular belief system appears both  ludicrous and totally egocentric. The egocentrism and feeling of persecution being felt in some quarters is the fear that they will either (a) displease God or  (b) lose power and control resulting in someone else mandating different beliefs on them. For them, it is a case of force or be forced, or so it appears.

 The chain-link fence that used to be the wall of separation has come to pass since more and more legislative regulations and judicial decisions are reflecting a favoritism of specific religious points of view over those of others, including those who have no religious beliefs at all.  One glaring example is the recent Hobby Lobby decision where the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant's request for relief from providing insurance coverage of contraceptives for its female employees, regardless of those employees' own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Hobby Lobby declared that it would violate their (Hobby Lobby's) religious convictions to have to provide such coverage. Five male Roman Catholic justices, who shared a similar religious beliefs regarding contraception, ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. The three female justices and the Jewish male justice dissented.

There have been other legislations and decisions that upheld one religious group's beliefs over others' whose personal, physical, and medical well-being have been compromised without their consent or control or even any seeming respect for their  own freedom of religion and practice. It seems the separation of church and state is a one-way street. The direction of the one-way street is determined by groups and individuals with very deep pockets and endorsed by people with power and control to make it happen.

So where does that leave us? Where is the dividing line? Is there a way where the two can really work together for the benefit of all? There is a place for legitimate medical legislation, I believe, particularly when it concerns all segments of society and helps to ensure their health, safety and equal treatment. Many religions teach the need for care for the most vulnerable in their societies, yet some who profess the same religion choose a very different interpretation of the same religious texts and teachings that mandate that care. Both religion and the government require the cooperation of those over whom they exercise supervision and control to a certain extent, and both have areas in which they have strength to balance a weakness in the other.

Perhaps if the two worked together, not to gain preeminence for one particular lobby, special interest group, religious entity or adherents to a particular religious belief alone, but rather for the benefit of all, it might fulfill the mandates of both to provide for the equality of access to all civil rights, benefits  and religious autonomy without regard to the person's race, gender, cultural background, orientation, economic status or religious preference.

For Christians, that would mean the beginning of the realization of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony and justice here and now, not later and somewhere far different. It won't be popular with the rich, the powerful and those at the top of the hierarchy who would need to give up some power, prestige and control. It would, in the long run, produce a true prosperity, not an economy based on the perception of limited resources when it comes to the good things in life. It would provide for a healthier earth too, which would be a good thing because humanity still needs a home planet, a place where they have to share the good and the bad, even with people who disagree with them.
Ultimately, though, it is a choice for all of us to make as to which path and which leaders  to follow, which fear to feed and which to brush aside. Hopefully, we will make the wise choice.

1 Boorstein, Michelle, "Our new culture war issue: religion's public role," The Washington Post, September 24, 2014.
2 Naughton, Jim, commentary on "Our new culture war issue: Religion's public role" on Episcopal Café, September 25, 2014.
3 Statistics from Congressional Research Service, "Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile", August 26, 2014. 

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, October 14, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Philip and the Deacons

Commemoration of Philip the Deacon
Matthew 28:18-20

When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, men pretty much did everything. The preacher was male, the ushers were too. And then there were the gentlemen who passed out the communion elements (platters of bread cubes and containers with tiny individual cups of grape juice), and other things like going to meetings periodically. These were the deacons, chosen and elected by the congregation as leaders and examples of living Christian lives. My adoptive father held several terms as a deacon in that church. He took his job seriously, and, I believe, was exemplary in helping others, doing what was right even if others didn't quite agree, and loving his Lord completely.

Philip the Deacon was another such person. He was a follower of Jesus, and worked within the new community of the Way when he, along with six others, were chosen by the disciples to help serve and care for the less fortunate, oversee the distribution of foodstuffs fairly and equitably, and whatever else the disciples asked them to do. When the persecutions began it was a signal for many to leave, especially those who were in leadership positions. Philip travelled to Samaria where his preaching and teaching encouraged many converts. Peter and John came from Jerusalem to officially lay hands on the converts and imbue them with the Holy Spirit as Philip watched. Later, he met an Ethiopian eunuch who needed an interpreter to explain a passage of scripture. Philip provided the necessary information and the eunuch himself requested baptism. Later it was said Philip lived in Caesarea Maritima with four unmarried daughters who were prophetesses and hosted a visit from the former persecutor who became an apostle, Paul.

Some Southern Baptist churches, being somewhat autonomous, have begun allowing women to be elected as deacons, a great departure from most others in the denomination. In the Episcopal church, being raised to the office of deacon is a more complicated procedure, involving discernment on the part of the candidate and his/her congregation, courses of study (of which Education for Ministry, EfM, can be one source), meetings, retreats, background checks, examinations and, most visibly, work within the church as directed by the bishop and the rector to whom the candidate is assigned . It takes several years and in the end, the new deacon is entitled to wear the collar and add "The Rev." to their name. In return, they have ministries that they are personally called to pursue such as serving  chaplaincies, working with the homeless, immigrants, and members of various age groups, etc. Above all, they are called to maintain healthy spiritual habits like daily prayer and frequent corporate worship.

Some years ago I attended an ordination at our cathedral. The candidate was a slight African-American woman, soft spoken, quick to laugh and with a quiet confidence. Watching her and knowing her, it seemed pretty clear that God had a hand of blessing laid on the top of her head; that ordination just confirmed it. Even before the stole was laid across her shoulder, she glowed. Ok, maybe she didn't look like the Jesus nightlight my spouse used to have, but there was an almost visible aura around her. I see her occasionally and each time I am struck again by that sense of an invisible hand of blessing on the top of her head and a feeling of being in the presence of a holy and dedicated human being. She preaches, but her best sermons are the ones people see in her actions and care for God's creation, reflecting her love of God and God's love for her.

I wonder if Philip had the same effect on people that the deacon (who is now an archdeacon) has on me each time I see her. Did people feel drawn to him, sense the presence of God surrounding him, see the love of Jesus within him, and the power and grace of the Holy Spirit showing through him? Were those the things that made him successful in Samaria and other places where he lived and worked?

Did Philip continue his diaconal duties once he moved to Caesarea? Did he find a new mission field to cultivate? Did he still serve the widows at the table, or did he serve at another table in another way? Deacons aren't limited to only one focus of attention or one set of duties. They, like the rest of us, may find that at some point in time they are called to a new mission, a new job, in a new field of endeavor. They may discover that they have a passion that meets the world's needs in some heretofore unknown way, unknown at least to them. Sometimes, like most of us, deacons will juggle many jobs -- administration, teaching and counseling among them -- but always they are to be attuned to God's will and God's way.

The foundation of a strong church is the laity who fill its pews and various ministries, led by the Spirit and guided by trained specialists who are also lay persons but also by the ordained clergy. Each lay person is a minister by virtue of his/her baptism but some are called to another, more dedicated service. The deacons, like priests and bishops, originally come from the laity and, in turn, will both serve the church, both lay and clerical,  and those in the world who are in need. Some deacons will continue on the ordination track to become priests and, perhaps, bishops, yet many will choose to be and remain deacons. They will preach, teach and serve in various ways, sometimes visible, sometimes almost invisibly, yet their service will be making a difference in the lives of those they serve. They will have the example of the faith of Stephen, the first martyr and the only other deacon named in Acts. They will also have the example of the life, travels and service of Philip.

If I could wish for a calling, I think I'd wish to be a deacon. God hasn't called me to it and I'd undoubtedly make a lousy one, but I admire those who are both called and dedicated to the job. A verse from 2 Timothy gives all of us the guidance to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth" (2:15, NRSV). It is a good verse for all of us to contemplate, but most especially those called to ordained ministry.

Deacons are often the ones who remind us at the end of each Sunday service to "Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit." It's a charge for all of us equally. It's a reminder that we are all followers of Jesus who encouraged all of us to be servants of each other and to the world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 11, 2014, under the title "Philip and the Diaconate.".

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Difficult Conversations

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. - Luke 9:43-45

Today's reading is a very short passage that comes between the healing of a child and the argument about who is the greatest. Indeed, the previous chapter is filled with lots of things like the Transfiguration, Jesus giving power to his disciples to heal, and the feeding of the 5,000. Through it all, Jesus is repeatedly warning that he was going to have to suffer and die but that he would rise from the dead but it seems that even repetition dulled the ears of those who heard, even and especially his disciples. Jesus said something (multiple times) that they didn't understand but they were afraid to ask him outright what he meant. It would have been a difficult question that would probably provoke a difficult discussion, difficult in the sense that something needed to be said, something that might be hard to understand or unpleasant to contemplate but which would have been necessary both to the speaker and to the listener.

Nobody wants to hear that a loved one, friend, teacher, mentor or respected figure is going to die. Jesus wasn't sick, so why did he keep talking about his own death? Certainly he and the disciples and followers faced some dangers on the roads from brigands and bandits and perhaps even from the Romans who controlled things pretty much everywhere, but those were common, everyday risks any traveler leaving home would have to take. Jesus was trying to open the door to what could be a very difficult discussion on a very difficult topic, one his disciples and followers were not ready or willing to participate in or even to hear.

Sometimes someone will open the door for a difficult discussion by saying something that brings a friend or loved one up short. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, can you please explain it to me?" The blessing of a response like that is that it gives the person permission to talk about something they want and need to discuss but perhaps had never had the courage or the opportunity to do so. It also gives the listener the opportunity to really hear what someone else needs to say and, possibly, offer a way to help or support them in some way.

Some of the most difficult conversations come around the subject of death. Someone may want or need to talk about it but almost invariably the person to whom they are talking will come out with something like, "Oh, don't talk like that! You are going to be fine! You have a lot of years ahead of you!" The thing is, we don't know that for sure. We project our own hope and discomfort onto another who might need something quite different. It is more a time for listening than speaking, but it takes courage to take that step that gives that person permission to be open and honest about something they need or want. Jesus opened the door but nobody walked through. They were afraid to ask and so missed the opportunity to learn.

Difficult discussions happen every day and the thing that is almost a given is that somewhere in the conversation someone is going to hear something unpleasant or that will hurt or even point out their helplessness over the situation. How to confront a teen who has drugs in their room or backpack? How to speak to a long-time employee and tell them their job has been eliminated? How to tell a loved one that their drinking is causing a rift in the family? How to express feelings of hurt, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, at the hands of another to that person? How to begin a discussion of finances before the problem gets out of hand? The discussion has to take place, but how to begin -- and how to speak and listen so that each side is heard and understood. It's not easy having difficult discussions or opening the door to one.

The followers of Jesus had the opportunity and let it pass by because they were afraid. Fear often prevents difficult discussions simply because it makes both parties to the conversation vulnerable. Vulnerability is something we fear; it lets people get too close and strips away some of our protective armor against discovery. To be vulnerable is to be open, and being open invites hurt. It also means loss of some control and the feeling that everything is just fine, no problems, no worries at all. But at least one party in the conversation has something to convey and the other needs to hear it and respond to it in a way that doesn't shut the door on the continuing talk. The followers' fear kept them from a greater understanding, and that was their loss.

One thing the followers seemed to lack was trust. They possibly didn't trust that Jesus would understand their hesitancy and confusion and clarify what he meant, hence their fear. I wonder what the answer would have been had they trusted enough to ask their questions and let Jesus answer.

I trust Jesus enough to have a difficult discussion with him but do I trust anyone else?  What discussions do I need to have and how do I broach them? How do I respond if someone trusts me enough to want to have such a conversation?

I think I need to be more attentive and aware. Who knows when I may need to have or hear from someone else something that is weighing on them. God, save me from glib answers and the dismissing of concerns. Save me too from being afraid to speak when something needs to be said. Don't let me be afraid of being vulnerable or to let others. And if I don't understand something, give me the grace and wisdom to ask the question.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 27, 2014.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why the Episcopal Church? Why Not? - An Acts 8 Blogforce Response

When someone proposes something that involves a change, particularly to an institution or a belief or even a beloved theory, there are two responses to the idea of change: why and why not? When asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" my immediate response is "Why not?" 

For a Southern Baptist growing up and only seeing small bits of the Episcopal church  mostly through walking into the little local church (built in 1697). It seemed a bit different and a bit exotic. There was an altar with different colored cloths through the year and the addition of prayer books in the pews along with a hymnal much smaller in size (although about the same thickness as the one we used. The pulpit was on one side rather than being prominently placed in the center of the raised platforms, there was a rail separating the platform from the lower level where the pews were, and there were chairs next to the organ and facing the opposite wall rather than behind the pulpit. It was a very simple church without stained glass windows, gothic arches or pews that were in boxes like some of the other historic Episcopal churches in our area, but it was still a glimpse of the Episcopal Church in a historic Virginia settings.

My first real exposure to the Episcopal church came from attending church with a friend in Washington DC. I'd been to a Roman Catholic mass, and it was very different than what I was used to, but this -- WOW. It wasn't a huge church but it had stained glass windows, the colored panels on the altar and the vestments, and the prayer books and hymnals both in the racks on the backs of the pews, but no gothic arches. Still, from the minute the organ began playing (a small pipe organ), I knew that this would be my home.

What was it that drew me like a magnet?  We heard so much scripture in the three lessons and the psalm, far more than we heard in our little SB church on a Sunday morning. The priest actually preached on the lessons and wove them together to show some relationship rather than simply picking a totally unrelated verse or passage and preaching on it. The music was heavenly to my ears which, in my mid-teens, was already turning to the classical rather than the Victorian and sometimes more emotional hymns of the church of my childhood and the growing rock-n-roll other kids my age were listening to. And then there was the liturgy, one that could be followed in the prayer book and full of "thees" and "thous" so familiar to someone accustomed to reading the King James Version of the Bible and hearing God addresses in those terms on Sunday mornings. The whole package was irresistible and, several years later when I was in college, I took the step to make the Episcopal Church my church.

If I were asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" I'd have to answer that it's because it isn't a stage show, a group of street-corner preachers more interested in saving souls than feeding sheep, or a place where the music is very similar to what is heard on contemporary radio stations. There's a separation of what goes on in the church and what goes on outside it, although some of our churches are taking some of the indoor church out to the street corners and parks and bus stops which become places where others can be shown a bit of what the Episcopal Church is through inclusion rather than the exclusion of church walls and doors.

But the Episcopal Church is more than a liturgy and church practice. For me, one of the most important bits is the focus on the teachings of Jesus that go beyond the church walls. In church we don't hear constantly about our sinful selves and need of salvation although we do hear the word "sinners" fairly often and in a serious context. What we hear is what Jesus preached and taught: to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, the dying, the prisoners and both the resident aliens and the strangers in our midst. These are lessons we are to take out into the world with us and to not just proclaim our Christianity but show it as advocates and workers who do what they can to relieve the poverty, injustice and oppression that exists everywhere in this world.

Episcopalianism is a broad umbrella, encompassing many variations of worship style, beliefs and ministry focus. Wha binds us all together are the historic creeds, the practice of prayer and the dedication to bringing the kingdom of God to this world rather than waiting for someone to provide it for us in the next. Whether the church is bells-and-smells high with incense and formality or more conservative and sometimes charismatic, the focus is still on Jesus and what we as Christians are supposed to do in response to his teachings. Through his death and resurrection we have obtained eternal life, but through his teaching and our practice of obedience to those teachings, we help others to obtain a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony, security, health and equality go hand-in-hand and where everyone benefits.

I love my church. I'm saddened by its conflicts and problems but I see it becoming more and more aware of the needs of the world above the needs of the church. I celebrate that. I see it responding to the cries of those who most need help and advocacy and that gives me hope that we as Episcopalians can be known as Jesus followers in every sense of the word, "not only with our lips, but in our lives," as one of our prayers states.

Why the Episcopal Church?  Why not?  The world is diverse and we are a part of that diversity. It's a place of beauty, solemnity, joyous festivity, and a frequent opportunity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. It's a way of following Jesus in concrete ways, and We just have to bring those lessons Jesus taught to the world, not to convert but to heal. It's that simple and that hard.

Making Headlines

 Now there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away. Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in the custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in the custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.
 When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favour and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers—‘Esther’s banquet.’ He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality.
When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king. - Esther 2:5-8, 15-23

One of the best things about the Daily Office is that it often gives us readings we wouldn't ordinarily hear or read for ourselves. I can't remember hearing about Esther in church maybe more than once or twice in my life and it was more a passing mention than an in-depth exposition. Still, we have the opportunity to read the whole book over the course of several days.

Esther was named Hadassah at birth, a name meaning "myrtle" or "myrtle tree,." a symbol for righteousness.  When she was taken to the harem, however, she took the name "Esther" to cover her religious identity. Esther in Hebrew means "hiddenness" but in Persian it can mean "star." Both names give us a clue about Esther and her story.

Oftentimes a young person will leave home and become a star -- a media star, sports hero, musical genius, esteemed performer or learned expert in a given field. When that prominence happens, quite often the local paper will run a feature article with a title somewhat akin to "Local Boy/Girl Makes Good." With the story of Esther, the local girl definitely did that.

What's a king to do when his queen refuses to honor his request for her presence at a major banquet?  That was the predicament Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) found himself in  and he was not pleased. His queen Vashti had disrespected him in public and so a replacement found. The king had his minions search the kingdom for the most beautiful women and had them brought to the court so that he could choose. It was probably a terrifying experience for girls who had thought their lives would be lived out in their towns and villages with family close by. Instead, they found themselves in a harem, waiting to see if they pleased the king or not.

It's kind of a coincidence but in today's world, young and impressionable girls deliberately put themselves in the path of their heroes, hoping that they will catch their eye and the love story of the century will take place. That "love story of the century" encounter  most often results in a one-night stand and the girl is then dismissed. That this could happen seldom if ever occurs to them, or, if it does, they don't really care. They want the fame, the glamour and the rich lifestyle that goes along with being Mrs. Hero-of-the-Hour. It's pretty certain, however, that Esther wasn't like that. She had grown up sheltered and obedient to what her uncle and adopted father, Mordecai, and her teacher in the harem, Hegai, told her to do. The upshot was that Esther's beauty and demeanor won the king's heart and a crown as well.

Esther's is the kind of story of which Hollywood movies were made. That plot has been used dozens of times in stories and movies and it still fascinates us. The Cinderella story is as old as the hills but it seems people still believe in it. Almost every little girl wants to be Cinderella when she grows up, and some of them never really outgrow that desire.
The plot continues with various machinations against the king, one of which is part of today's reading. Luckily Mordecai overheard some plotting, then told Esther who told the king and the plot was foiled. Esther gave the credit to Mordecai which earned him a place in the court and a measure of trust with the king. It didn't hurt her standing either.

Esther is a very different kind of book of the Bible. God is not mentioned directly at all and only once referred obliquely by Mordecai. It is a story of Jewish people in Persia during or just after the rest of the Jewish captives had left for home following the captivity. It gives the story behind the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by Esther's courage. The chief adversary, Haman, is considered to be a persecutor of the Jews and, when the book of Esther is read in synagogue during Purim, whenever Haman's name is about to be read, the assembly stomps, shouts, boos and rattles noisemakers to keep his name from being heard. Instead of just writing him out of the story, they simply cover his name with noise.

Esther had hidden her Jewish origin from Ahasuerus but, when it was necessary, she revealed it in order to try to save the lives of her people through the love the king had for her. Today, paparazzi would almost certainly ensure that any breath of scandal, possible unsuitability, or even a youthful indiscretion would be quickly found out and would be exposed to the light of day again and again as if it were the most important and, indeed, only fact that people needed to judge the character of the person being exposed whether or not it was really true or only partially so. The once-lauded headliner "Local Boy/Girl Makes Good" becomes "Local Boy/Girl Found Guilty" or some other such less-welcome front page mention in 48-point type.

Even in greatness or a seemingly transparent life, there can be a hiddenness. We've seen that with the death of comedian Robin Williams whose brilliant wit concealed a darkness inside that, like a black hole in space, absorbed him and cost him his life. Most people have something hidden inside that they don't want the world to know about but, quite often, that hiddenness becomes too great to be contained and it spills out like crude oil from a ruptured pipeline, staining and ruining all it touches.

With Esther, the hiddenness was turned to good. Who knows what hiddenness in each of us could also be turned to good if need and opportunity arose? Today might be a good time to look around and see if the possibility is there and waiting. It may not save an entire nation, but it could save one life or maybe make that life more bearable for another whose hiddenness is pain and suffering.

We may never make the headlines as "Making Good," but perhaps a hiddenness within us might be turned to something good that will benefit someone who really needs a hand. That revelation of our hiddenness may never make us a star in the conventional sense, but I'd be willing to bet there'd be an extra star or two in our crowns one day.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 20, 2014.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Anniversary of Survival -- of sorts.

Yesterday I had a delightful lunch with three of my very favorite friends and co-workers. This was the second year we'd all gone to lunch together at this particular restaurant, the first being last year on the first anniversary of my surgery for breast cancer. I wanted to thank them for helping me get through a trying time and for being my cheering section and support group. I was going to buy them lunch to say "thank you" and they ended up buying mine.

Today marks the second year since my surgery. It hasn't been far from my mind for most of the day, not in a depressing or self-pitying way, but nonetheless there. I wondered, will cancer every be far from my mind?  I've had basal cell carcinoma on my nose and breast cancer so that's two forms of it right there. Is there any truth to the saying that bad things come in threes? 

I went to see a new primary care practitioner this week and her assistant asked a bunch of questions including one that just about floored me. "You're two years in remission?" I didn't know what to answer. Nobody had ever used that word "remission" and, frankly, my mind doesn't work with "remission" very well. "Remission" usually brings to mind the cancellation of a debt or forgiveness for sin. It's also used to mean that during the course of an illness an improvement is noted, whether or not it is permanent remains to be seen. It's that "during the course of an illness" that gives me pause. There are an awful lot of people with cancer who have lengthy remissions but, quite often, those remissions go out the window, sometimes after the course of treatment is complete and sometimes days before that five-year mark that is used to change "remission" to "cured."

A friend and I were talking about it today. I told her that, frankly, I was very hesitant to claim the word "survivor" yet. Yes, I've made it through two years, but I still have that little nagging thing in the back of my mind that says, "Where are you hiding and when are you going to be exposed?" Survivor is a powerful word; to survive means to have made it through a dangerous time, a severe trial or even a lengthy process that takes courage, strength, and, yes, probably more than a little faith. I live with cancer, whether or not I actually have any malignant cells in my body at all. That's what I call "cancer brain."

This afternoon I read Facebook and ran headlong into an article called "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" that I couldn't pass by. Ashley Makar is an editor on the blog Killing the Buddha and also is fighting metastatic cancer. She made a statement at the beginning of the article that grabbed me. "I didn’t want to wear the label that tends to be on the winning side of the battle we make of cancer in this country. For me, battle is not a good metaphor for a fatal disease that lives and multiplies and recurs in the bodies of so many." *

Oh, sweet Jesus, I know that feeling. I know it so well and it was precisely what I was trying to describe to my friend today when we were talking about it. Granted, I don't have a diagnosis of Stage IV or anything even close to it (right now, anyway), but I'm still afraid of jinxing myself by claiming survivorship too soon. So I celebrate the anniversary of my surgery and think that I have survived two years which, tomorrow, will be two years and one day. That's the best I can do. I think it's enough, at least for me.

I thank Ashley Makar for expressing so well something that was just a nebulous thought in my head. And I thank her for giving me something I can think about with some positivity -- each day I live I'm one day further along in my survivorship.

I also thank my friends, those with whom I had lunch yesterday and the others without whom I wouldn't have gotten through the past two years. They've given me space when I needed it and they've been right there when I've needed that too. They don't give me pity; they are just friends with whom I can have sometimes difficult conversations about where I am mentally and physically, and who allow me to feel I can ask for help when I need it, as much as I want to be able to do it all alone. There are lots of people who can name two or three really good, close friends like that and I have so many more than that. Thank you, JJ, Mouse, Shannon, Julie, Alex, Rene', Rachael, Margaret, and Billie, for being there for me. I couldn't have made it this far without you.

I think about those friends and loved ones I've lost to this damnable disease, people who I needed and loved and who left this world too soon to my way of thinking, especially Mama, who had two bouts of breast cancer. Her death certificate didn't list cancer as a cause of death, but I have a feeling it was a contributing factor somewhere. I remembered her scar tissue as I contemplated my upcoming surgery and now, two years later as I look in the mirror, I see somewhat the same thing but not as thick, ropy and angry-looking. I think of her then, and I'm grateful she showed me how to live with what amounted to a disfigurement that could be hidden but never forgotten.

So tomorrow I begin year 3. I think it's good to have a reflective day about something like this. It makes me more aware of where I've been and where I am as well as giving me the opportunity to maybe gently look forward a bit, not too far and not too optimistically, but to still think more about life than death. I'll die of something one day, but perhaps not tomorrow or next week or even next year.

I may live with cancer brain but not necessarily cancer. Even if I do have it, it will be something to fight, something to work through and something that hopefully will not prevent me from continuing to put one foot in front of the other as long as possible.

Onward, ever upward -- or maybe just walking on somewhat rocky but fairly level ground. I'm surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, living and not, who are keeping me company on the journey. For that I am most grateful. Yeah. I am a survivor.

*Makar, Ashley, "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" found on, accessed 9/20/14.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Do You Know?

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings
shouted for joy?

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
   and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
   and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
   and it is dyed
like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked,
   and their uplifted arm is broken.

‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?  - Job 38:1-17

Job, a once prosperous and healthy man, had been reduced to sitting on an ash heap, scratching his sores with shards of pottery and being regaled by his wife and friends who urge him to either curse God or confess to wrongdoing which had brought this punishment against him.

Today, though, the reading takes a different turn. We hear from God who proceeded to bombard Job with number of questions to which Job had no answers. How could he? Job was a man of his time whose travels were probably limited to maybe a few dozen miles from his home, and who had probably no knowledge or expertise in geography or astronomy or even theology. It seems as if God had joined Job's friends in trying to wrench some sort of confession from Job, whether it was a confession of guilt or one of ignorance.

The questions put to Job would probably confound many of us who live in an interconnected and technologically advanced world. Children are taught about basic science and geography in elementary school while  physics, chemistry, astronomy and higher math are taught in secondary education. Colleges and universities delve deeper into more specialized bits of astrophysics and microbiology while television brings explanatory and exploratory programming  to viewers right in their homes about subjects that even a few decades ago were not even commonly heard words.

But for all our technology and information dissemination, we are still in sort of the same boat with Job. We can quote theories and hypotheses about how this and that happened as well as formulas and facts about when, where and perhaps why things are the way they are. What hasn't changed, though, is that despite the Big Bang and whatever theory has come after it, whatever  satellites and exploratory vehicles penetrating far beyond what we could ever imagine in the heavens, whatever sophisticated equipment capable of computing millions of figures and billions of pieces of data in the time it takes to blink an eye, and no matter how advanced and specialized things are or how much knowledge we have attained, we still don't have the answers. We know something happened but what, how and when?

Even if the Big Bang is an actuality, what caused that initial spark that began it all? Nobody's been able to give a definitive answer to that one yet. What really causes cells to go wild and form cancers?  We think it is partly environmental, partly hereditary, perhaps even partly the result of diet or some other physical factor like smoking, but why do some who have never smoked or been around smoke get lung cancer?  Why are young children stricken with brain, blood or other cancers when they obviously haven't committed any of the "sins" we would expect a cancer victim to have done. What causes the earth to move when it does? We can often speculate or sometimes even pinpoint  where the weaknesses in the earth's crust are and where an earthquake (or a volcanic eruption or a landslide or any of a number of natural disasters) is likely to happen but we can't tell for sure precisely when or where those things will occur and, as a result, many people lose their lives while we smugly call it "God's will." I wonder if we'd be so blasé about it if it happened to us? Wouldn't we want God to fix it for us?

God goes on for quite some time in his speech to Job, the whole thing taking up three entire chapters and one verse of a fourth, but Job still has no answers and God doesn't seem to be willing to let him off the hook. It wasn't that Job lacked faith; he had plenty of that or he would have fallen prey to his wife's and his friends' suggestions that he confess to something, anything that would allow God to accept his repentance and fix things.

I don't deal well with this kind of God. I am somewhat glad to read that Job is not a real character but rather a work of fiction to get certain things out in the open and some great poetry written. I don't like to think of God as playing games with people's lives either to prove a point or to possibly pull the puppet strings and make a person do precisely what God wants them to do. If that was how God wanted it, why would there have been this thing we call free will built into our DNA?

One choice I have is to read Job as a story, much like the stories our mothers told us as children, stories that had good plots and characters but which were designed to teach something without coming right out and saying it. It is possible to teach in ways other than stories, but stories are usually more fun and people are more inclined to remember fun than they are strictly factual (or presented as factual) ones.

I still can't answer God's questions, but then, part of what I learned from the reading is that I don't have to answer. I think it is enough to think about them and the wonders of the world they represent. It's always good to have a little mystery in our lives, it keeps things from being too predictable and boring.

And one more thing not having all the answers does: it makes me think more about God. I think that's a pretty good thing all by itself.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 13, 2014.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lord of the Sabbath

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.  But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”   Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?   He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”   Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” Luke 6: 1-5 (NRSV) (Eucharistic Reading)

What do you do if you’re on the road to somewhere, you absolutely have to be there at a particular time (say, before sundown), and you’re hungry?  That seems simple enough; you head for a restaurant (if you have the spare time) or you hit a fast food drive-thru and grab something to go. It seems almost counter-intuitive to think of doing anything else like going hungry, doesn’t it? 

That’s precisely what Jesus’ disciples did. They were on the road and got hungry so they dropped by the nearest equivalent of a drive-thru and gathered some food. It wasn’t as if they had messed up the entire field; grain on the edges of the fields were traditionally reserved for the poor, widows and orphans when the time for the harvest came. What was a few handfuls of grain when it came to a whole field?  No, the owner wouldn’t have a problem, but the Pharisees did. (How did they get there anyway? Did they have members of that sect following Jesus around like paparazzi after Hollywood royalty?)

Snapping the head off a stalk of grain was work and rubbing them in their hands to remove the husks so that the inner kernels could be eaten was work. It probably wasn’t the plucking as much as the husk removal that got the notice of the Pharisees. They weren’t shy about questioning why a law-abiding Jew would allow such behavior and on the sabbath as well, when all work was forbidden unless it meant saving a life, whether animal or human.

Jesus had an answer that recalled an incident (1 Samuel 21:1-6) when David was on the run and he and his band were hungry. It happened that the closest place was at Nob, at the place where Ahimelech was the priest. David let on that he was on a secret mission and he and his men needed food, so could Ahimelech please give them some bread?

Ahimelech wasn’t too sure about this, but there was some day-old bread which had been on the altar since yesterday and was just that morning replaced with fresh loaves. It wasn’t as if God was going to miss some slightly stale bread. Besides, when a man with a reputation like David’s looks you in the face and wants something, you are probably going to give it to him, aren’t you? But that was a side issue; Ahimelech had bread and even though it was consecrated, it was probably more prudent to give it to David and not risk his taking it by force, which he might do if he were hungry enough. It wasn’t so much that the bread was wanted on the sabbath but that it was holy bread that was supposed to be reserved for the priests and not for ordinary people.

Jesus’ point was that sometimes rules are meant to be broken, especially if they involve hospitality or saving a life. It seems people need rules so they know what is permissible and what isn’t. As a culture develops, there is the need for more and more rules with tighter and tighter regulation of something or other. There needed to be clear-cut delineations as to proper vs. improper. In the story of Jesus and the grain, the law dealt with the sabbath, a day instituted by God in the Big Ten given to Moses on Sinai and which became a defining event for the Israelites. Egyptians certainly didn’t give their people a day off every seventh day just to rest up and relax; no, they worked seven days a week.

To be sure that the Israelites realized that they were now under a new ruler, the sabbath was instituted for them and they were expected to relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, then came the finer and finer definitions of what was allowed and what was not. People could eat but only food that was prepared the day before. I guess the dishes stayed dirty until the next day as well. Jesus made what seemed to be an outrageous claim when he said that he was “lord of the sabbath.” 

The Pharisees following him probably came close to cardiac arrest with that one. Mark tells a similar story of Jesus, the grain and the Pharisees (2:23-27) where Jesus didn’t claim to be Lord of the sabbath but rather that “...[T]he sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.”  God had taken that seventh day of creation for a rest day to sit and admire the handiwork of the other six days, and offered that same day of rest to God’s people so that they could relax and enjoy the day, the peace and quiet, the relief from stress and in God's company.

Christians acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all that is – including the sabbath. We go to church on Sunday (which has become the Christian sabbath except for a few denominational groups) and that’s one thing the sabbath was designed to do, to give us time to really think about and worship God. Of course, these days we go grocery shopping, play golf (which involves walking further than the Jewish law would allow not to mention using a vehicle), go to movies or football games, even cook, clean, do yard work and just about anything that is done on any other day of the week.

Perhaps we need to remember Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath and not just Lord of one hour every Sunday morning. It might be a good thing to try, anyway, that taking time to breathe and think of God for one day without multitasking.  The dishes will still be there tomorrow.  

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 6, 2014.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


It's nearly nightfall and I sit looking out my front windows at clouds on the horizon and trees being buffeted by gusty winds. Somehow it seems to mirror what's going on inside me tonight, the eve of one of those anniversaries.

Tomorrow would have been our 33rd wedding anniversary and, had he lived, Ray's 94th birthday. Even though he died over six and a half years ago, those two anniversaries plus the anniversary of his death still have power to send me into a funk. Not a huge depressive funk where I don't think I can get out of bed tomorrow, but one that says I'm still grieving and, even though our marriage may not have been the best in the world, it mattered and still does.

We never made a lot out of birthdays or anniversaries. There wasn't a whole lot of spare cash for most of our marriage so presents were few and cards almost as scarce. Still, I don't think either of us ever forgot a birthday or our anniversary. If we did find a card at some time during the year, that we thought the other might think funny or enjoy, we'd buy it then and put it away, usually forgetting where we'd put it. So we started a sort of tradition where if we found a card we gave it to the other as soon as we got it home. That way we wouldn't lose it before it was needed.

Maybe we would only have Hamburger Helper for dinner that night or perhaps something special that he especially liked such as biscuits and gravy or liver and onions, but it was what we did to celebrate. He always had a birthday cake, most often a pineapple upside down cake which was his favorite and which, fortunately, was one of my specialties. I still make those cakes, for several friends who love having one for their birthdays, but I always think of Ray when I make one.

So I'm feeling a bit maudlin as the evening grows darker. I had hoped to take tomorrow off from work just to stay home and maybe grieve a bit on my own or perhaps just relax, but since that isn't possible, I'll go to work as usual and save the other stuff for afterwards. Dinner will be simple, there won't be any cake, but there will be memories.

He annoyed the heck out of me a lot of times, and things weren't always peachy, but, you know, I really do miss him. Happy birthday tomorrow, Ray, and happy anniversary.