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.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hildegard of Bingen, Woman of Strength and Wisdom

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.
Don't let yourself forget that God's grace rewards not only those who never slip, but also those who bend and fall. So sing! The song of rejoicing softens hard hearts. It makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Singing summons the Holy Spirit. Happy praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to complete harmony, without discord. Don't stop singing.  -- Hildegard of Bingen

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a knight and his wife. In those days the birth of a daughter meant several things, namely that she would have to be provided with a good dowry if she were to marry well, she could  stay in the house as an unmarried girl and help care for her parents as they aged, or she could become a nun. This little girl grew up in a family where each was expected to do their particular jobs and even the children were taken in hand and taught to help the adults.

At the age of eight she was sent to a monastery to be educated. In those days, some monasteries were called double monasteries, meaning that they housed both nuns and monks although the two groups  were separated most of the time. Monasteries usually took in children to be taught to do work that they would be expected to do when they became adults. For little girls like this one, they learned reading and writing so that they could keep the family accounts when they grew up and were married. They were taught to sew their clothes and to fancy them up a bit with embroidery and gold work. They were taught other things too, such as their catechism, prayers, hymns, and religious duties, under the auspices of the teaching nuns and priests. When the time came, usually in their early to mid teens, they had to make a choice between returning home or remaining at the monastery to take their vows.

At the age of eighteen, this little girl, now a woman, chose the monastery. For twenty years she served her community in the various tasks put before her, and then was elected the is of the monastery. This was not just an ordinary little girl grown up, this was a woman named Hildegard of Bingen, one of the strongest, wisest, most influential people of her century. A very good biography of Hildegard was written by James Kiefer which details many of the skills for which she became so recognized both then and now.

Women have always been a part of the church, a necessary part of the church. Women were the first to have word of the risen Christ. Women were teachers, preachers, and deacons, and probably priests in the early Christian era. Then they were pushed back into a twilight world where they went unrecognized except for a very exceptional few, like Hildegarde.

Kiefer points out that Hildegarde wouldn't have called herself a feminist, even if the word had existed in her lifetime. She was concerned with all people and all creation. What she is, however, is a reminder that strong women have a place and a mission that the world needs to see and recognize. Even today's strong women are still penalized by church, state, and industry simply because they are women. Many of them work quietly, helping one life at a time, but without recognition or often remuneration commensurate with their work.  Hildegard could and did influence political leaders and even the Pope. We also have such women, some of whom are vilified even as they strive to do what it is God is calling them to do.

Perhaps now it's time for another Hildegard to come forward, if we will just listen and look and try to  find her. Perhaps it is one of us, one who has not been given visions for the gift of music or eloquence in preaching but one who has a mission and a calling, one who combines talents and gifts and abilities that could help make the world a better place for all.

Hildegard was a visionary, an artist, a musician, an eloquent writer and preacher, a wise counselor, and a servant of God above all. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we women of today had someone like her that we could look up to and strive to emulate?  What if we do have one--or a thousand? Are we looking for them, acknowledging them, and seeing the good they are doing in the world?

More than just seeing, are we helping others? Are we looking to the gifts of the earth for things that could heal or comfort? Are we listening for the music of visionaries and those who seek to lift our hearts to God in offering and supplication? Are we using art to show a better world? Are we writing to encourage others, to inform them of important issues, or even to encourage them to make good choices in areas that effect hundreds of thousands?

Is there a little Hildegard in any of us? Time to look inside and see if a tiny bit of her spirit and her dedication are present in me. I don't want to be a saint, but I wouldn't mind being strong, open, and wise.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 17, 2016.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Saints with feet of clay

Last weekend marked an occasion that we don't see all that often these days: Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a bona fide saint. During her lifetime many people had called her "the Living Saint", but her actual assumption of the title only occurred 19 years after her death. It's been interesting to see the reactions both positive and negative, and for some it's been a joyful and holy event, while for others it is an immensely hurtful and deeply disturbing. Isn't it funny how one could perceive Saints as hurtful?

Mother Teresa was famous for her work in Kolkata (Calcutta) neighborhoods where poverty was everywhere and abundance was nowhere. She set up houses where people could come to die, or to try to be healed, with limited food, water, and medications. Mother Teresa and her nuns were not doctors or nurses, but they cared for the "poorest of the poor," as Mother Teresa called them. So what's wrong with that? How would that be troublesome for people who opposed her sainthood?

Like Fr. Junipero Serra, Mother Teresa raise some controversy. Fr. Serra was credited with establishing an entire chain of Roman Catholic churches and communities along the California coast. The pain and trouble that he caused was that he treated the Native Americans very badly and as slaves, and it still rankles despite the passage of the years. With Mother Teresa, it was a matter of practicing her religion and enforcing her religious beliefs on those who came to her for help. She followed the Catholic teaching in a land where overpopulation, poor maternal health care, and demands poverty existed. Is it wrong to follow one's beliefs? No, it isn't, unless, in my very humble opinion, it stops on the religious beliefs of others especially the needy others. It demands an asceticism where poverty and its results are already flourishing.

It's easy to forget that these people, Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa, were both human beings. They weren't plaster saints that were placed on pedestals and who never set foot on the ground again. According to a book of her diary writings, compiled and published by a close associate of Mother Teresa, for many years of her life she felt estranged from God but plugged on acting in faith as if she believed that God was there and taking interest. As St. John of the Cross called it, it was hard "dark night of the soul", the time when she was at her lowest point in her faith life, but chose to proceed in strength and, as our twelve-step brothers and sisters call it, "act as if".

I know that we are taught in church that by baptism we all become saints. With All Saints Day coming up in another two months, we celebrate that sainthood of believers. We don't undergo canonization, although we did undergo baptism. Baptism may have washed away our sins, but that didn't that us from going out and plowing the field for a whole new crop of sins that the we might or might not harvest. The same is true of Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa. They had their flaws, they had their faults, they had their foibles, foibles that to us would seem unimportant or maybe even unrealistic.
I don't know of Mother Teresa ever really planned on becoming a saint. I kind of doubt it. Does anybody really set out with the intention of becoming a recognized Saint throughout the church? For one thing, it's a pretty hard job; it requires really working at being a saint. The candidate must  live a saintly life. That doesn't necessarily mean they walk around with a Bible or prayer beads in their hand, their mouths moving constantly as if they were praying, preaching endlessly on street corners, or walking barefoot through the desert full of cactus spines while denying oneself the major comforts of life which we, as ordinary human beings, seem to recognize as our light. Being a saint involves doing things, quiet things. Mother Teresa had to do a lot of work under the scrutiny of cameras and adoring admirers. It's hard to be quietly saint-like with all that media exposure.

I saw a picture the other day of her feet which were gnarled and misshapen because, as one of her nuns reported, when they got a donation of shoes, she would pick the most uncomfortable pair and wear them herself. Now that's pretty saintly thing to do, in my very humble opinion. But she never said anything about it; saints usually don't. They offer their little struggles and their good deeds to God, not caring if anybody noticed them or not. That's the secret of being a saint:. doing good without bragging about it. It's something we have a hard time doing.

So where can I begin my journey to sainthood? Oh, I know canonization would be out of the question; there's absolutely no shred of doubt in my mind about that. But what I'm thinking about is seeing the little deeds that I could do quietly. Again, in the twelve-step tradition, there is one saying that " Just for today I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. If anyone knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least one thing I don't want to do, and I will perform some small act of love for my neighbor."*

 It takes tiny seeds to grow big trees. It takes small good deeds to start changing the world, just as Jesus said we needed to do.

So, where to start becoming the saint. or saintly person? Start small and work upward.

* from EA Meeting Opening Readings, accessed 9/6/16.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 10, 2016.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Surprise of Silence

It's a very quiet morning. There's some roadwork going on near the house and part of the roadwork involves removing two transformers and placing them elsewhere. So, for today, the power is off, and so are any instruments of sound like a radio or television. It's not unexpected, but the feelings that are brought up by the unexpected silence I'm finding a rather interesting.

I can still hear cars going up and down the street right in front of my house, a little distant from where the actual work is going on, and now and then I hear someone yelling at someone else, probably instructions from the construction crew. I also hear someone hammering nails into wood, although I don't know where it's coming from. It doesn't bother me at all. The cats are either sleeping or dozing, which is a good thing, since part of the silence is the lack of the air conditioner kicking in periodically. It might be a very long day. 

I've come to realize how my life is invaded by sound. I have the radio on all night to help block out some of the local noises, like someone's distant radio with the subwoofers turned up to maximum, or the occasional cat discussion outside the window. Even my own boys are sometimes, either getting into trouble by knocking things off my desk for having a sibling rivalry that occasionally becomes very vocal. During the day I have either the radio or the television on, mostly for background noise, and it serves its purpose. It also reminds me of working in the office, when I couldn't always block out sounds that I really didn't want to hear but had no other option.
I think about the hermits that used to go out in the desert as solitaries or in silent groups in order to increase their closeness to God. It was a well-respected profession at that time, but we seldom hear of people doing it today. There are retreat centers where people can go and do silent retreats, and, after a bit of what almost amounts to culture shock, it can be a very intense and very comforting situation.

A college roommate and I tried an experiment where we decided to go for a whole week without speaking to anyone unless absolutely necessary. I remember one day after we had been at it for a day or two. We both noticed that sounds had a variety and clarity that we hadn't really paid attention to before. It was rather strange but yet surprising insight that we became aware of how much we normally talked about absolutely nothing important, but just for the sake of having something to say and someone to respond to it.

I remember as a middle elementary school kid, taking my little white King James Bible over to the monument grounds on a high bluff over the river. I would go just over the brow of the hill underneath a big pine tree, and sit there, read Psalms, and just listen to the sound of the wind through the needles, and, occasionally, the sounds of waves on the beach. That was my time with God. I wonder why I lost the peace and serenity of doing that? 

We don't seem to recognize the value of silence. We are afraid of it. Silence means that nothing is going on as far as we're concerned. We have to have something to distract us from that dis-ease that comes to us when we notice that there is no sound around us. It's odd, but it's like we're afraid of silence, afraid of what we might find in that silence, and afraid of an emptiness that suddenly surrounds us and makes us feel inadequate.

Silence allows a time for God to be heard, or felt, or experienced in some way. If we are aware of the silence and we cultivate it, we are allowing God free access, something we often ignore or are too busy to take the time to actually allow.

Even in church there is seldom silence except during Holy Week and even then there's little silence. In church the longest silence is usually one or two minutes between the sermon and the recitation of the Creed. People get uncomfortable during that minute or two. A short period of time of silence  makes some of them edgy. They shuffle or squirm in their seats, look at the next page in the bulletin, or are involved in some motion including whispering something to the person sitting next to them. Silence doesn't always do what silence can do if allowed and if people could just sit back, breathe deeply and let the silence in.

I wonder what would happen if periodically I turned everything off — the radio, the television, the computer, the cell phone, all the mechanical devices that make noise of any kind, and just sat and looked at the leaves of the tree outside my living room window, or enjoyed the sight of one of the boys peering out the window and studying it very closely. I wonder what it would be like to do that regularly, no matter what I have to postpone doing for a little while as I just sit and savor the silence 

Maybe I've been too busy lately to let God in with silence. There's that time after I go to bed, said my prayers and snuggled down, but I'm not asleep yet. I'm not saying anything but I'm still hearing sounds especially radio playing classical music which soothes me. I wonder is that enough silence?

Sounds like I need to investigate a new meditation practice in my everyday life. Maybe I need to cultivate silence, and let God talk to me instead of me holding the floor on conversation. It's an intriguing thought. I wonder what insights I would get and maybe find out what God has planned for me to do. I've been wondering, but maybe I just haven't let God have a chance to let me know about it.

Now's my chance. How about you? When can you take some silent time and just let God get a word in edge wise?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Life as a Capillary

Do you ever get something running through your head that just won't give up? It's like having an earworm, one of those annoying tunes that seems to play over and over and over again until you are so thoroughly sick of it you never want to hear it again and yet it continues to play. 

Today I had something like that, only it was a bit different. I was sitting at my desk, trying to read on my computer monitor with two cats who insisted on being between me and the screen, and to take notes for an online class that I am taking. The subject was the circulatory system, which, God knows, has umpteen million arteries, veins, capillaries, and the like. Of course, then you have to learn the structures that make up these things and their position in the circulatory system. Unlike some friends of mine, I'm learning a foreign language, or rather relearning a foreign language, and a lot of detail I haven't thought about in probably half a century.

So, as I went systematically (no pun intended) from the coronary arteries to the digital (finger-type, not numerical-type) veins, I had to remember that there are a lot of other parts that make the veins and arteries work. Without the heart, the circulatory vessels are useless because there is nothing for them to do. Without the vessels, the heart can't send the blood where it needs to go to keep the muscles and organs and various pieces and parts working together to keep us alive. 

Capillaries are the smallest vessels in the circulatory system and it is they who feed the oxygen-enriched blood to and remove the waste from individual cells and areas to be sent back to the heart and then out for cleaning. They're tiny enough to fit in very small spaces where individual cells need the support and yet large enough to join together with arteries and veins and keep everything flowing smoothly and as it should. 

The thought that kept running through my head was the scripture where Paul talks about the body having many members, meaning many parts that make it work. Paul was acquainted with the obvious parts of the body, but probably had very little anatomical knowledge of how things worked or even the presence of some organs, muscles, and the like. Still he got the point across, "For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body…" (1 Corinthians 12:12).

It reminded me of a time when we were talking about that particular verse, and I remember asking group members what parts of the body did they see themselves as being. Got some interesting answers on that one, everything from eyes to hands to feet and a few things in between. When my turn came, I announced I wanted to be a capillary because even though capillaries are very small and pretty much invisible, they serve the cells around them as other, larger vessels cannot do. A person can live without an eye, or hand, or foot, even a kidney or reproductive organ, but the body still needs the tiny structures to work efficiently. It's a humble, but necessary, job.

Paul equated parts of the body with abilities, talents, and spiritual gifts. He made the point that if the body were nothing but eyes, it couldn't function because it was be lacking other necessary parts to keep it fed, mobile, and healthy. If the body were all arms or legs but didn't have a brain, the arms and legs would just hang, doing nothing. While there are some parts we can do without, optimally the body is formed and populated by the precise number of cells, organs, muscles, and systems so that it functions efficiently and well.

Paul, of course, was speaking of the church as a body, and its people as the arms, legs, eyes, ears, and the whole bit. Each person, like each part of the body, has its own strengths and weaknesses, abilities and lack of abilities, duties to perform, and all dependent on the gifts they have been given and their willingness and ability to do those duties. It's easy to say, "I can't do that, so I'm no use to the church." Even if the job given is an ability to sweep the floor so thoroughly that not a bit of dust remains, the church still needs that kind of person, that kind of body part to make it work. We can't all the priests, preachers, financial advisers, Sunday school teachers, or even musicians, but there is always a place where our particular part of the body can work for the good of the whole.

So think about it. What's your job in the body of Christ? What body part when you say you were and why? Knowing there is room for all different kinds of body parts in the church and in the body of Christ, what is preventing you from claiming your job, your calling, and your duty?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 27, 2016, under the title "Are You a Capillary?"

Sunday, August 21, 2016


In His discourses, His miracles, His parables, His sufferings, His resurrection, He gradually raises the pedestal of His humanity before the world, but under a cover, until the shaft reaches from the grave to the heavens, when He lifts the curtain, and displays the figure of a man on a throne, for the worship of the universe; and clothing His church with His own power, He authorizes it to baptize and to preach remission of sins in His own name. - Edward Thomson, (1810-1870) Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1864-1870)

We seem to live in a world of idols. We appear to enjoy building people up, putting them on pedestals, in a sense. Then we take equal or even more joy out of tearing them down. A prominent politician has an affair, and all of a sudden his pedestal disappears and people begin to vilify him. A well-known minister is convicted (or possibly even just accused ) of being guilty of mismanagement and fraud, and all of a sudden the grand column on which he had been put becomes rubble under his feet. Movie stars? People can only handle other peoples' sins for so long before they to start to dissolve the pillar.

Even Jesus had his would-be pedestal-builders. Take Peter, for instance. During the time we call the Transfiguration, Jesus suddenly changed from a human being, pretty ordinary-looking, to one with a dazzling white robe and along with him two other figures, equally dazzling. Recognizing Elijah and Moses standing on either side of Jesus, Peter, James, and John were totally awed, Peter most of all. He asked Jesus to allow them to build three booths, one for each of the glowing figures. The booths represented a desire to stay so close to the site of the miraculous event, but it was also a desire to create a kind of pedestal for those whom they held in awe and reverence.

There are many who we could say we put on pedestals, some quite worthy of those honors, but not all of them. Often we find the people we raise up are just as, if not more flawed than, we are. In this time of political campaigning, each candidate is clambering up on the pedestal their supporters build for them, then the candidates (and their supporters) try their best to knock the opponent off. Sometimes it isn't hard; things come to light in a political fight. Sometimes, though, lies, innuendoes, even irrational comments can do the same thing without any help at all. Still, the pedestals keep getting rebuilt, and the slugfest continues until it all ends in one emerging the winner. Happening every four years, this should almost be an Olympic sport.

The lesson I think we are to learn from Peter's enthusiasm is that shrines may be nice, but they are also very impermanent. Jesus built his own pedestal by who and what he was; he didn't need someone else to do it for him. His pedestal lasted because it was built on truth and grace, not someone else's opinion or perception.

What lasts for us is the example of the ones who live for others rather than just themselves. Even though they may be flawed human beings, they can still be capable of righteous lives, deserving of honor but not total adoration. Even the most flawed can be remembered in this way. As Shakespeare said in Cassius' speech over the body of Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." While we remember the saints, we sometimes remember the sinners more easily.

Most of us hope we will never get put on display. For us, standing on a chair to change a light bulb is risky enough, but being put on a marble base out where people can see us and either throw flowers or stones, depending on how they perceive us, is a little too risky. Pedestals are unnecessary and often cause us to fall further than we might have otherwise.

Thank goodness no one will ever put me on a pedestal. The perceived honor is too hard to live up to. Jesus reminds us to look to him and how much the world needs to emulate him. It is also a reminder of how little we need our individual pedestals. Being on a pedestal won't get you to heaven, any more than you can collect Workmen's Comp because you fall off  a pedestal--unless you work at a museum.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 13, 2016.