Sunday, January 15, 2017

The measure of a man...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Party at Cana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A most beautiful word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.  - John 1:1-18

I've always been a fan of languages. I enjoyed learning them, even though I've hardly ever used them and have forgotten most of what I knew. In school I took three years of French and two of Spanish. I can remember more French than Spanish, even though I live in a place where Spanish is almost as common as English. I used to visit a friend in Washington DC for a week or two in the summer. She too was a language nut.  One of our games was to listen to people talking foreign languages and try to figure out which language they were speaking. We tried that once in the cafeteria at one of the museums at the Smithsonian only to have the ladies turn around and address us and tell us that they were speaking Lithuanian or something like that. It was embarrassing in a way, but we had a very nice conversation with them while we waited to get our lunches.

A few years ago I got the itch to learn biblical Greek. Right. Learning the alphabet was hard enough, even though I had learned in college when I was pledging a music fraternity and the Greek alphabet was one of the assigned tasks for us to learn. But learning it and actually using it are two very different kettles of fish. I bought several books to help me learn. Several times, one of the first things they taught you after the first few vocabulary lessons was to read was part of the reading for today from the first chapter of John. That was fun.

I must've recited that first verse 100 times to get it in my head that this word meant this,  that word meant that,  and then putting it all together with the correct pronunciation so that it actually sounded like  it was supposed to. I especially remember the first verse, "In the beginning was the Word." It still gives me chills when I hear it because it encompasses so much — from the beginning of time until now. In the beginning was the Word, the word we know to be Jesus Christ. 

In Greek the word "word" is logos (λόγος), and has become one of my favorite words, right up there with wisdom (sophia). For John, it was an important word, one which he used three times just in the first verse alone of his gospel. It makes it very easy word to remember in Greek since we hear it referenced in sermons, meditations, and religious books.  But Jesus has a number of what you might call aliases. He's been called the son of God, light of the world, Lamb of God, the good Shepherd, and now we see him called the Word.

I guess the word logos means a lot to me simply because I love words. Even studying the Greek captivated me, until I got to the tenses, which is been my downfall and languages all along. But just reading that first verse of John and reading it in Koine, the kind of Greek spoken in the world Jesus lived in, has had an impact on me that few other things have. It was like finding an undiscovered country and seeing how beautiful it is.

Granted, that's maybe a little fanciful, but I remember learning to know Jesus as a kid. I fell in love with that too, so learning to love the Word representing Christ was just an extension of a love story that started a number of years ago.

Words are basic things. Our world is made up of things, and those things have names. There are words to describe them. If one says tree, people understand that they are referring to very possibly an outdoor or indoor form of foliage consisting of a trunk, branches, and leaves or needles. Of course, a tree can also be what you hang your coats and hats on in the winter, or the drawing of the relationships between members of a family. One word, three different definitions.

When John uses Word, he was using a metaphor for an eternal truth, the logos that existed from the beginning of time. Now God made the world and since God is one of the faces of the Trinity, then the other two, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, must've been around as well.

Jesus was the Word of God on earth, teaching and preaching and sharing the message that God wanted us to have. Jesus was still the Word, but he was also a very human being, and who took on that humanity so that we might better understand God. Jesus reiterated the messages God had been sending through the centuries and millennia, but this is the Word made flesh, made visible.

I may never learn much more Greek, but logos will stay with me, the word will be with me, in English, in Greek, or even just in the sound of the wind in the trees, the waves lapping on the shore, or maybe just the song of the word. I think I'll look for new ways to see the Word in the world this week. It's a good way to start off the new year I think.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 31, 2016.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve Candles

It's Christmas Eve, a day I wait for all year long, because it's my favorite day of the year. I enjoy it, I revel in it, and I reflect on it, more than any other.

Christmas Eve is a time of memories for me. The smell of the live Christmas trees we had when I was a child, decorated with the big colored bulbs and the glass ornaments, some of which were old favorites and treated very gently because they were part of our tradition. There were presents under the tree, and I dare say I am not the only child who risked sneaking underneath to shake a few boxes to see if I could figure out what was in them. As I got older I still shook the boxes occasionally, but it was more important for me to make the tree bright and colorful. It still part of how I celebrate Christmas, even though the tree is much smaller, and, unfortunately, is artificial.

One thing I remember about Christmas growing up was that in our neighborhood it was the custom to put a candle in each window of the house, at least the front windows of the house, and light them every evening. I'm not sure whether it was a colonial custom or not, but if you went to Williamsburg during the Christmas season, every window on Duke of Gloucester Street in the Historic District would have a candle in it. Okay, they were electric candles, but there were still  real enough to make them a very special part of Christmas for me. Since we are celebrating the birth of the light of the world, it only seems fitting that we would have candles as an important part of our commemoration of his birth. After all, the place of that birth wasn't exactly lit up like Broadway.

Christmas Eve was a time to go to church. No matter what denomination you were, and even if you never went more than once a year, it was always on Christmas Eve. Our little church across the street from where I lived had what they called a candlelight service at  7 o'clock every Christmas Eve. It was dark out then and usually pretty brisk, temperature wise.  But as I walked toward the church, I could see a candle in each window, a light welcoming the traveler and the congregant alike. Most of the service was done with very low lighting as we sang the traditional carols and read the traditional story of what this night is all about. It was a really special time, and, walking home afterwards, the stars never seemed brighter or clearer than they were on Christmas Eve.

Churches still feature candles on Christmas, and many of them use candles throughout the year as reminders of the light of the world. The Baptismal candle stands tall and proud, flame dancing in the tiny eddies of air that pass by it. The torches carried by the acolytes mark the procession that begins and ends the service as well as light the Gospel as it is read to the people. There are the Eucharistic candles that promise the Eucharistic meal shared by family of God. There are the tiny twinkling candles in the chapel, marking the prayers of those with special intentions or needs, and perhaps candles on the ends of the pews glowing in their clear hurricane globes. Then there is the little red lamp with a candle inside near  the sanctuary that tells us that the body and blood of Christ present among us and blessed for our use.

Whether or not Jesus was born in an actual manger like we picture it, and whether it was December or April when he was born, the anticipation of his birth is a season of celebration, light, music, families being together, and good food and drink. Unfortunately, this is not the picture many of our fellow citizens of the world, a number of them Christian, have of Christmas. For them there may be no tree, no lights, no feast, no presence, no family. There are those who are wrapped in darkness in their own minds because of ill health, family tragedies, scars of wars and abuse, and a number of other things that make Christmas less than a joyous event. For them it's difficult to celebrate the birth of someone who seems so far away sometimes. It's always a good thing when families and churches together try to aid those for whom Christmas is a blue season, and that too is part of our tradition. Still, in our own homes, in and of our own plenty, we need to remember those who are suffering, often in silence, because there is no one there to hear them or care.

If there was one thing we could do to brighten the world this Christmas Eve maybe it would be to light a candle and put it in the window. That's always been a signal that someone is inside waiting, and the candle is a beacon for those in need to knock on the door and find shelter, warmth, and acceptance. If every window had a candle in it, think with the statement that would make. To me it would be far more impressive than the multi-gazillion lights fixed in and on homes and yards of those who go wild with Christmas spirit, and whose electric bills probably could feed a family of four for a year. Yes, those houses are fun for us to look at, they take us out of ourselves, and make us all kind of like children again, seeing the brightness and movement. But little things, like putting one small candle in the window, could be a signal to a lost person that someone is there and caring. That might make make someone's blue Christmas a few shades lighter.

Today and especially this evening, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, with all the blessings of the season and all the joy of the celebrations. May your homes be warm and your relationships even warmer. Made those who feel left out or sad for whatever reason find comfort in this evening. May there be peace, just for one night, in this world. May all children go to sleep tonight feeling full of food, safe and loved. May we each have a light glimmering in our window as a sign that the celebration is not about material things, but about the spirit of giving and loving, just as Jesus came to be born in this world to bring those things to all of us.

A blessed Christmas Eve to you all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, December 24, 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. -- Luke 1:46-56

Christmas is just around the corner. The lines in the stores get longer same thing with the post office. Everybody's trying to get everything done so that come next Saturday night everybody is ready for the coming of Christ child, or the coming of the grandchildren, or maybe a few unattached friends or whoever. We can finally sit and take a breath and realize the whole of Advent has gone by and what do we have to show for it?

One thing we hear in a lot of the Christmas stories that we read and listen to is about Mary's trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who also happen to be pregnant at the time under slightly less strange but still quite remarkable conditions. Elizabeth immediately knows what Mary is about to say because as she said, her baby jumped in her womb. Mary responded with a prayer or song that we call the Magnificat, after the first few words that Mary spoke, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Mary goes on for a bit and describes a situation where things seem to be turned upside down.

God hasn't chosen a princess or even a wealthy person for the singular honor of bearing God's son. God is so great that enemies stand no chance against God and mighty empires fall at God's command. The hungry eat, and the rich find that material things and money count for nothing in this upside-down world. God has been there for Israel, has made promises to the ancestors which God is kept. But most interesting and remarkable all is that God chose a young woman from certainly no high a status family, and who has virtually no power in this world. Yet God has chosen her to be the mother of God's son.

What would it be like to live in a world that's upside down, a world where even the poorest have a roof over their heads, ample nourishing food on their tables, constructive work to do. What would the world be like if those who were ill, whether mentally, physically, or any other perceived difficulty, could find that they are  parts of a society that valued them for what they could do, and not for what they could not. What would the world be like if children were safe no matter where they were, safe from violence and bombs and bullying. What would the world be like if all people treated all other people with kindness and respect as it is children of God, even those who used another name for God or perhaps didn't recognize God at all?

There's a lot of handwringing going on as we approach Christmas, not because of Christmas itself but at what comes afterwards. We can live on hope during Advent and we can live on joy during Christmas. When we the tree away, when all the packages have found their places, and all the wrappings have gone into the dumpster or the recycle bin, what we do in the cold world of January and February when it's so easy to feel that there's no hope and little joy? Perhaps we need to take another look at Mary's words. Perhaps we need to remember that one person can start an avalanche. One person can start a movement, and one person's contribution to make all the difference in the world. It's about seeing possibilities instead of negativities, just like it's about seeing good instead of only seeing evil, even if it is just to expose it.

Mary was on the right track with her song.  God can do anything and God has done a number of wonderful things and is very worthy of praise and rejoicing. God chose a very ordinary woman to do a very extraordinary thing that could change the entire world. She, in humility, did as she was asked, and we have seen the result. That's a glorious thing.

We have been chosen as God's people. Not just those of us who pray Mary's Magnificat or the Lord's prayer and feel like that's enough. We all have a job to do in this world and it's not just a job that will benefit us but the lot of others as well. God has chosen each of us to do a bit of Christ bearing, not just this week or next week or before Epiphany is over. The job is a lifelong one, and its purpose is to make the world turn upside down.

So this week what can be done to encourage the Christ light to go from a tiny spark to a flame? We can do Santa Christmas giving trees to help the needy and those less fortunate, we can contribute to food banks, buy gloves and socks and hats for homeless people. There are a lot of things we can do and a lot of things we are more likely to do this time of year than any other. When it comes down to it, what are we gonna do the rest of the year?

How are we going to incubate that spark of Christ that's in all of us and help the world turn upside down? Maybe we can start by magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our savior. Then by getting to work.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Waiting for God

You keep us waiting. You, the God of all time, Want us to wait. For the right time in which to discover Who we are, where we are to go, Who will be with us, and what we must do. So thank you … for the waiting time.” - John Bell, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, compiled by Dorothy M. Stewart

I'm always on the lookout for things that make me stop and think. I often run across them while looking for something else entirely, but suddenly, the words seem to pop off the page as if they were in bold lettering and larger font than the words around them. The one above is one of those happy accidents.

The quote is about waiting. Lord knows, most of us are not all that wonderful with waiting. We don't like to wait in the doctor's office, having to wait in traffic,  and waiting for a new baby seems to take forever. Then there's waiting for Christmas, even though we have and that calendars to mark off the days (and occasionally a chocolate behind each door which makes things a little more tasty"). We still are more focused on Christmas than we are with Advent. That is supposed to be a time of waiting, but unfortunately, like a lot of other things, who has time to wait?. We've got shopping to do, presents to wrap, cards to send out, trees and houses to decorate, lights to put up, and kids to get to rehearsals for Christmas pageants and Christmas concerts,  and Heaven knows what-all else.  We fall into bed at night exhausted. Who has time to wait?

God doesn't intend for us to rush through this season being so busy that we don't have time to stop and contemplate what it is we're doing. That's getting in the way of our learning the patience that waiting takes. It's hard. We were taught that we have to keep busy lest someone think were slacking off or being lazy or not doing what were supposed to be doing. Heaven forbid that a supervisor at work sees one of the employees sitting there staring at a monitor without moving. Goofing off? Reading Facebook?. Perhaps daydreaming? Or is that employee actually engaged in creative thinking, going outside the box, letting his or her imagination roam while figuring out a way to make things run better, more smoothly, and more efficiently. Generally, however, the employee will be seen as sitting there and doing nothing, and that can be hazardous in the current job market.

Tradition teaches us that waiting can be a very good thing. Mary had nine months to contemplate the birth of her child, time to sit and think, to prepare baby clothes, and to actually sit and contemplate scriptures, prayers, and thought of the change that was about to occur in her life. Many people in the Bible had to wait, some of them more or less gracefully. Prophets encouraged patience which, in essence, meant waiting. If God was punishing the people, then they had to accept the punishment and wait patiently until they were given instructions to move on.

Jesus was impatient a few times. Take the story of  the barren fig tree when he wanted figs immediately. So he blasted the tree. That sounds very un-Jesus-like. The tipping over  of the tables was another in a very un-Jesus-like manner, because he wanted the Temple to be a place of prayer and not a big box store for sacrificial animals with the profits benefiting the priests and no one else. Jesus demonstrated a working lifestyle to  his people , but he also demonstrated going apart and sitting and waiting and praying, just like his mother had done before he was born.

We find it hard to wait. God wants us to wait, and we have a lot to wait for. Who are we? That's something we gradually learn as we grow up and grow older. We don't know that right away, and that's as it should be. What are we supposed to be doing? That requires waiting too, because discernment is not always an instantaneous prospect. Okay, so Paul was knocked off his donkey and got that message right away, but he had also waited without knowing what he was waiting for. And surprise -- it happened.
God is waiting for us to wait. We don't often think about God waiting with us. Often we expect God to be busy doing something because we have we have asked God to do whatever it is that needs to be done. That's the one time a we get really good at waiting. We are asking God to heal someone, to take care of a problem, to bless someone or something, or wait to be to shown the how and why to do something that needs to be done. Then we wait for Jesus or God to do it. We don't always think about doing it ourselves. And perhaps that's what God is waiting for -- for us to make the move to trust enough to start work even if we don't know what were doing is exactly what we are supposed to be doing.

Advent should be a time for us to learn to wait, not to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, until we collapse on Christmas Day and thank God that that's over for another year. We're supposed to use Advent to think about what the coming of the Christ child means, and how we can participate in that coming just as he asked us to participate in bringing about the kingdom. That kind of waiting is hard to do when there are so many needs and so few seemingly are willing to help, and when we have so many things going on -- cultural things, traditional things, active things. But God is patient. God waits for us to slow down and wait for and upon God.

So, since it's about halfway through Advent, I think it's time for me to be less busy and a little bit more patient; to ponder a bit more and struggle a lot less, to look for God in unexpected times and places instead of either shooting up arrow prayers expecting God to take care of them and then rushing off to do something else. When I think of it, God could have made the universe simply by speaking a word or two -- yet we read that God took six days to actually put it together and one more day to rest and contemplate it.

Perhaps I need to build a little Sabbath time into each day of Advent, a time to sit, listen, pray, read, or just be present to God. It might be the only time God has time to get a word in edgewise -- at least, until after Christmas, if then. I know I need to do some of that building, sooner rather than later. I think I'd better start now, because if I don't do it now, I may not have time later. God waits -- and I need to learn to do the same.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Pregnant Season

It's finally Advent, my favorite liturgical season of the whole year. It's kind of like fall being  my favorite regular season. There's a feeling of expectation, not quite like the expectation of spring, but after a long hot summer, a bit of crispness in the air, leaves falling from at least some of the trees, and the fact that colored lights are popping up everywhere, signaling that Christmas is just around the corner. It makes for a time of anticipation, at least for me.

Advent is season where we celebrate the anticipation of the coming of the Christ child. It's just a little bit like being pregnant. You've got this little being or this little feeling deep inside and, as it grows, your heart expands to accommodate it. Take a look next time you go out. Look at the pregnant woman. Often you will see them gently rubbing the bump that is growing inside them. You also see her standing there with her hand on their belly, as if to convey a feeling of touch to the little one inside. I know that feeling. I experienced it when I was pregnant with my son, and I still remember it, even decades later. It's that feeling of expectation, of wonder, and of maybe a little anxiety, when the new mother stops to think getting the baby here is one thing, raising it for the next 18 to 21 years is going to be something else entirely.

But yet, there's that period of expectation, the time of dreaming and hoping. Pregnancy is a time for reflection, and Advent incorporates a lot of those emotions and reflections. It's when hopes and dreams are born, just as surely as the day will come when that little bulge in the belly becomes a citizen of the world and a voice to be heard quite literally.

Advent is quiet season, a season to contemplate instant internal growth, and to think about topics we may not get all that much consideration to and the rest of the year. You know, things like hope, and kindness, manners, and doing things for other people, even if there's nothing they can do for us in return. The time when people in stores or on the street are a little more likely to say "Excuse me," "Thank you," or even "Happy holidays". That last one gets a lot of people's goats. It's only supposed to be "Merry Christmas" according to some. But not everyone is Christian;  they have their own celebrations, and we do not honor them when we insist that it has to be Merry Christmas. That's not what season is about. We can't just flip a switch at midnight on Christmas Eve and have peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind appear like a pea popping out of a pod. We only achieve those things where we have placed the most hope.

You know, looking at pictures of pregnant women around the world, even in places where war and famine control exists, you can still see women rubbing the belly or gently holding their hand as if cradling that new life already. That's the closest thing to hope that many of them have, and for many of them it may cost their lives, but for that moment in time they have hope.

Advent is our season of pregnant waiting, the season that we share with the Blessed Virgin in her time of expectation. It can't have been easy for her not only to tell her parents what was happening, but also to endure the stares and probably whispers behind her back. Still, she held to God's promise,
and  lived in hope. It sounds funny when it's put that way, but she went from puzzlement to trust and found her child was born in hope. She walked through each day of her pregnancy, rubbing her belly and cradling it as she would cradle the new child. She had faith, and she lived in hope.

This Advent we have need of hope probably more than we have for a very, very long time. It's difficult for us to see beyond tomorrow even beyond this afternoon sometimes. We hold our breath sometimes in expectation of what's going to happen and wonder, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is this hope that we carry going to bring fulfillment, or will our hopes be crushed? Mary and Joseph felt that especially on their trip to Bethlehem. They didn't know what they were getting into, or at least, they had little idea of what they were getting into. But they went as they were instructed,  did the best they could, and found hope in the fact that there was a private place where a young mother-to-be could strain and cry out and deliver a child who would become the hope of the world.

This Advent, think about the little seed of hope we all carry within us and how we can nurture that hope so that in due time we will bring forth a vision of hope that will encompass the world. We can succeed if our strength, comfort, and even our expectations are God-centered instead of how many presents we can put under the tree.

Let Advent mature like a baby in the womb, nurtured and protected because one day that hope will be born and we will finally know the joy of seeing hope fulfilled.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 3, 2016.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaac Watt, Father of English Hymnody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Question of Condemnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Stamp of Persistence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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