Sunday, January 31, 2016

You are the man...

2 Samuel 12:1-25 

Of all the people in the Bible, there are a lot of people who are mentioned over and over. Names that come to mind are Abraham/Abram (294), Moses (803), and Paul (228). Of course, Jesus got 1,281 mentions, but the second-place winner (first in the Hebrew Bible) is David--shepherd, king, hero, God's choice, and tragically flawed human being.

David first came to our notice as a slayer of Goliath and a humble shepherd boy chosen by God to replace Saul as King of Israel. He was a hero, a giant of a man in a less-than-gigantic body. He was a leader, a more or less successful army general, and a man with great capacity for patience and forgiveness. He was so many things, but when he messed up, he did it pretty thoroughly. 

It's an old story: David sees a woman and gets a serious case of lust. He gets her pregnant. To cover his tracks, David summons the husband, Uriah, back from the battlefield where he had been stationed with the hope that he would sleep with his wife and then the child could be passed off as his. It didn't work; Uriah refused, so David had him return to the front with a letter to his commander, asking that Uriah be put in the most dangerous position on the battlefield. It worked. Uriah died, David married Bathsheba, and the child was considered legitimate.

Here's where the plot thickens. Enter Nathan the prophet who poses a hypothetical question to David about a rich man stealing a poor man's only lamb out of pure selfishness. David was incensed and ready to go out and tear the rich man limb from limb until Nathan revealed that it was David himself who was at fault. Suddenly the whole picture turned around completely.

We all have times when we are thoroughly convinced we are right and that everybody else is wrong. We will go to extraordinary lengths to prove or defend our beliefs and convince the world that this is the true path, idea, or objective. Then what happens when a Nathan appears and suddenly we are faced the fact that we were the ones in the wrong. It can be humiliating, but it can also produce one of those bright flashes of insight we call an epiphany, a flash of understanding or clarity that can be a total life-changer. It feels literally like a slap of the hand to the forehead and a wondering how we could have been so blind--or a blinding light that figuratively knocks us off our horse and into the roadway such as our friend Saul the persecutor experienced on the road to Damascus.

We don't like to recognize our faults. It makes us uncomfortable and smears the mirror of the persona we want the world to see in us. It is contrary to a world that expects everyone to put on a controlled demeanor, an "I can conquer the world" sort of face. We like to be seen as compassionate, strong, never putting a foot wrong, and someone everybody would like to be. Inside, though, we hide the flaws, the mistakes, the hurts, and the griefs that are part of our personality and indeed, our very humanity. Sometimes an innocent comment by a friend can suddenly bring us up short and make us feel naked and exposed to the world. And that friend doesn't even have to be a prophet like Nathan.

It is often at the height of someone's greatness or public perception of it that something comes to light that completely changes the image of that person in the eyes of those who admired and/or supported them. It is hardly enough to say that the former star or hero was revealed as a human with flaws because we seem to glory in their fall. We can't wait for the next revelation of depravity or misdoing. We seem to build people up just so we can tear them down some time later. It took Paul a while to gain the trust of the disciples at Jerusalem even after spending some years rebuilding his image to one who was as pro-Jesus as he had been anti-Christian. We know people snicker and talk behind our own backs when something negative has been revealed about us.

David went on to have another son by Bathsheba, a son almost as great as David himself. Solomon too had his flaws, proving that human frailty runs through royalty as surely as through the ordinary Joe/Jane on the streets. We are all human with flaws but it is how we deal with them that imprints our characters and moves us in certain directions. Weakness in admitting fault and not seeking to put things right, or as right as possible, leads to shame and guilt that increase our weakness even further. Strength comes from admission and repentance, followed by a change of attitude and behavior, not just to those we have wronged but to God as well.

When David was faced with Nathan's story of the man and the lamb, David's anger was apparent, yet four words stopped him in his tracks: "You are the man." That was the mirror that made David see himself in a different way. What if someone held a mirror up in front of us and said "You are the man" or "You are the woman." What would that mean? Where would we find weakness? Where would we find strength? Where would we see God?

What if God handed us a microfiber cloth and told us to wipe the mirror clean, without streaks or bits of fluff left behind? Would that encourage us to take a different path and follow God more closely?
Would that help us change from "You are the person" to "You are the person!"?

Funny how a single keystroke can change an accusation to a verbal high five, and God loves to give high fives.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 30, 2016.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jonah Moments and Ninevite Responses

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.  - Jonah 3:1-10 (Reading from the commemoration of Phillips Brooks, Bishop and preacher)

The story of Jonah is one that everybody remembers a little bit about. Jonah was a prophet and prophets frequently get messages from God that they usually don't want to hear much less follow. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. If the repentance didn't come,  God was going to destroy the place. Jonah listened and then ran the other way. He got on a ship headed in the opposite direction and all sorts of things start to happen.

The ship ran into major turbulence that got worse by the moment. The sailors drew lots to see whose fault it was, and guess who drew the short straw? They resisted throwing overboard because, after all, he was a prophet, but eventually, after Jonah pressed the issue, he was tossed in the drink and the sea calmed down immediately. The boat sailed on   and Jonah found himself inside a giant fish. Three days later the fish tossed him up onto dry land and the next part of Jonah's story begins.

God again said go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, or else. Jonah went, and there he found a city which Scripture tells us took a three-day walk  just to get to the other side of town. The place was huge! On the first day he walked all day and then stopped preached to the people to repent with sackcloth and ashes and they would be saved, every man, boy, woman, and animal, from the highest to the lowest. Prophets seldom hit a home run the first time they speak and prophesy, but somehow or the other Jonah did. From the king down to the barnyard animals, everyone fasted. The people prayed, sacrificed, and repented.

It's not in this reading, but following this prophecy, Jonah climbed the hill overlooking the city and was looking forward to watching Nineveh burn to the ground or be destroyed in some other spectacular fashion. When the people actually did what Jonah had told them God expected them to do, God cancelled the pyrotechnics and Jonah was disgusted.

That image reminds us of times in our lives when we were hurt or damaged in some way, especially if we felt we were in the right. We waited for the wrath of God to smite those who injured us, and wanted see them get what we felt was coming to them but it didn't happen. Of course, we don't want that punishment for ourselves, even if we have committed the same sort of offense. We just want it to happen those who have wronged us. Short of taking matters into our own hands, though, things don't always go as we want them to. Luckily for us, God doesn't do a lot of smiting these days, especially on request.

What made the king and people to listen to Jonah and repent? Perhaps it was that the king saw the risk and made the decision that some sackcloth and ashes were a small price to pay for avoiding oblivion. The king made his decision and the people followed. Perhaps, though, the conversion was sincere and lasting. At any rate, this time God didn't have to carry through with the promised destruction.

Each of us probably has Jonah moments from time to time. When we are hurt or feel under attack, it's not always so easy to stop everything and change directions. It's not easy to put away the feelings of wanting vindication for ourselves and punishment for someone else. Jonah wanted to see that punishment and that caused him to go outside of town, build a booth and sit there and sulk when it didn't happen. It's hard to think of someone sulking because a huge city was safe from destruction and all its citizenry were saved, but it does happen.

It's almost shameful to acknowledge that, but like so many other negative things and feelings, logic and empathy often go out the window and the urge for revenge becomes paramount, The human side of us beats the Godly side, even when we know we are not doing what God wants us to do.

It is good for us to have the Nineveh moments that counteract the Jonah ones, moments when we acknowledge God and turn to doing God's will. Perhaps the act of forgiving those who have wronged us instead of waiting gleefully for them to get what we feel is coming to them is a repentance we can do, a turning away from evil and toward Godliness. It's attainable, but not easy. But, like almost everything else, we won't know we can do it until we try.

We need to listen to the message of Jonah, just not follow his example. This time, words can speak louder than actions -- unless you're a Ninevite.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 23, 2016.

God's expectations

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.  - Genesis 6:9-22

Reading God's instructions to Noah and looking at the news on the various forms of media lately, I wonder whether God's been giving any more instructions about ark-building and furnishing lately. The Prince of Wales has had his gardens washed away, people in Missouri are shown moving around like Venetian gondoliers, people in various places around the globe wade chest-high or take pictures of houses with floodwaters up to the windowsills or higher.

God promised Noah that the world would never again be destroyed by floods, but it seems selected bits of it fall outside that promise. It's hard to get images of anxious mothers carrying infants through waters contaminated by sewage and garbage. Men tow boats and canoes full of people and animals that have been rescued from the water and isolation. Even poisonous snakes are looking for places to get out of the water. Thousands of people drown in the raging waters and many more are lost in massive mudslides caused by waterlogged hillsides that simply cannot absorb any more water.

We refer to these as "acts of God" but often God has less to do with it than our own human acts. We clear-cut mountain and hill sides for the timber and leave the ground barren and unable to hold the soil together when it rains. We build houses in low-lying or coastal areas where we trust that dikes and levees will keep the sea out. Then we neglect to maintain those dikes, levees, and dams but still trust they will hold, especially when facing ferocious winds and waves.

We try to learn to circumvent the "acts of God" and sometimes we are able to give warnings or lessen the impact, but in more cases than not, nature wins. I don't think God has a big switchboard in the sky and that buttons get pushed to cause a drought here or a monsoon rain there and an earthquake somewhere else. I don't think God uses these things to test us, but I do think God wants to see us do what we can for those who are victims. I think we're also supposed to look after the earth, replanting what we have harvested, planning communities that take natural features and potential hazards into consideration, even if that potential hazard is a one-in-100 year event. It may happen next year or not for 500, but it needs to be planned for.

And that brings us to Noah, his ark and his mission. What were his chances of encountering a flood such as God told him was coming? I'm sure the city planners, engineers, and meteorologists of the time had no clue. And what if we encountered a modern-day Noah who, answering a call from God, started to build an ark in his back yard with no HOA, planning and zoning, and engineering approvals? What would the neighbors think?

We aren't called to wail and weep if misfortune strikes us, whether flood or other catastrophe, but to look for ways to help not only ourselves but our fellow human beings. We are also called to care for the earth that nourishes and sustains us. I think God expects us to do our very best, to help others and all creation to the benefit of all. I don't think God is taking notes of who has been naughty, nice, or has not come up to God's expectation. That's maybe Santa Claus's criteria but not God's, or, at least, that's what I believe.

The God that spoke to Noah also speaks to us, if we take the time to listen. We are shown things that need fixing every day, but we don't really see them as something we could do. Singly, maybe we can't, but if we find others who are called as we are to do something, then success is much greater. God doesn't need for each of us to try to be a superhero, just a helper who cares enough to try.

We don't have to wait for a flood warning in our area either. Just look around.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 16, 2016.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem..."

I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord."

 Now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

 Jerusalem is built as a city
that is at unity with itself;

To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord.

For there are the thrones of judgment,
  the thrones of the house of David.

 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls
and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions' sake,
I pray for your prosperity.

Because of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good."
    - Psalm 122

Music has always been an important part of my life. I've been singing since I was very young child and I began playing the piano at age 3. Until I went to school all my singing were basically things I learned at church or commercials. I've forgotten most of the commercials, but I do remember the church songs which, quite often, were psalms or scriptures. They made the words very easy to memorize. Many times I've had one or another of them running through my head at very opportune times, times when I've needed that particular bit of reassurance, praise, or whatever. I loved learning to chant the canticles of Morning Prayer, knowing I could call them up in my memory at will and not have to resort to a prayer book or Bible.

While reading Psalm 122, a musical arrangement that I had learned a number of years ago started playing in my head. This psalm itself had been used as an entrance anthem in every coronation since that of Charles I of England. There have been a number of versions written for coronations by some of the greatest musicians in English history. The version that runs through my head was written in 1902 by Sir Hubert Parry. It's a grand anthem for double choir, and has also been used at other events such as the weddings of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and the Duke of Cambridge and Kate Middleton. It's a celebratory anthem beginning with the words, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.' "

It wasn't written for a coronation but rather as a pilgrim praising a visit to the holy city of Jerusalem. It celebrated safe arrival of the pilgrim as well as the greatness of the city with its strong walls and members of every tribe of Israel mingling together within those walls. It had been the capital city of David, and the throne of David was seen as a throne of judgment and justice. The Temple was the place of sacrifice and the home of God on earth, a humbling but uplifting place in the hearts of the people, and the place where strife and bitterness between tribes could be set aside so that peace would reign and not hinder the worship of God.

The line that strikes me is that which says , "Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers." Jerusalem has been a city far from peaceful for generations. Once lost to the Jews after the fall of the Temple in A D 70, it passed into the hands of others until 1945 when Jews displaced in Europe returned to claim their ancestral homeland. Since then it has been a nation and a city in turmoil with short periods of quiet where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live and worship in safety. That fragile peace has often been shattered and fear has taken its place.

The psalmist declared, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May they prosper who love you.' " We pray for the Jerusalem we see as a center of our faith tradition. We are praying not as much for the nation of Israel as we are for the spiritual home and health of the many people who look to Jerusalem as a foundation of faith. We sing hymns praising Jerusalem and seeing her as an important place in the life of our Lord and the early church, yet we watch the news and see the destruction and bloodshed almost passively. We have seemingly no time to even pray for peace much less work for it.

I wonder what the psalmist would say if he were to visit Jerusalem today. The great Temple is gone and is replaced by a mosque with a golden dome. The remaining wall around Temple Mount is a place of prayer and yet a place of division since women and men are not permitted to pray side-by-side. Churches in the Christian quarter suffer damage and destruction because they are seen as threats to both Jews and Muslims. Yet from the hills surrounding Jerusalem, the view is of beautiful city and one blessed by God.

In his anthem, Parry did not use all the verses of Psalm 122 but he gives us the flavor of the psalmist's intention. Even though reality is different than the poetic anthem of the psalmist, as it runs through my head it reminds me to continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that there may be quietness within their towers, and that they may prosper under God's watchful care. God still is present in Jerusalem even though the Temple is gone, just as God is present in other places of strife and warfare. God is present in our cities and towns, in peace and in turmoil.

May we continue to pray for peace, safety, and prosperity for ourselves and for all the world's people, God's people. All are God's people, regardless of the name they use when they call on God or even if they use no name at all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 9, 2016.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Who are you?

 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”
as the prophet Isaiah said.

 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.  - John 1:19-28

Among the first things a baby learns to say beyond "Mama," "Dada," and "No" is often the word "Me." It becomes a very important word even if not used in the grammatically correct way. "Me" is key to identity, like "I" as a personal identifier. It's all wrapped up in our makeup and how we see ourselves. Freud had lots to say about identities, but we don't need to do a rehash of the Freudian psychological profiles right now

As we grow older we began to identify ourselves in a number of different ways. Beyond learning to respond to our name, we learn that we are the child of our parents, what our address is, what grade and school we attend, and so on. As we grow up we learn to identify ourselves in terms of new relationships: we are someone's husband or wife, mother or father, someone's friend, or acquaintance. We also identify ourselves by what we do: CEOs, secretaries, nurses, professional people, auto mechanics, and all shades of the spectrum of employment that earns our livelihood. We identify ourselves by our social standing, whether we are members of this country club or some organization. We also tend to identify ourselves by our economic standing in the community: we live in this gated community, or drive that particular make of car. Our children go to expensive colleges and universities, and we brag about how much we paid (or got a great deal on) our house or our boat or some other possession. All in all we're conglomerations of identifications. Sometimes it's a wonder we know ourselves at all.

John the Baptist was asked "Who are you?" by groups of religionists and hierarchs of the Temple.  They wanted to know because they were curious as to whether he was the one that was promised. He answered them that no,  he wasn't. They kept asking, was he Elijah? Was he this person or that person? His answer was still no. John's job was to be the forerunner of the coming Messiah. He had possibly known of this since childhood, or maybe not, but at this stage in his life he was very clear in his understanding of just who he was. He was a prophet, and that was that.

Each one of us has to learn to be precise in our identification of ourselves. It is easy to describe ourselves by what do, or what we earn, or to whom we are related. But to really answer the question "Who are you?", that takes a little more doing.

To learn who we are requires a lot of soul-searching and a lot of thought. Are we a member of this or that profession, organization, family, or church? Is that all we are, or is that all we see ourselves as being? What about our abilities? How do we use them to describe who we are?  Are we successes or failures or something in between? What is it that makes us individual, different from everyone else even if we are similar in many ways. We are who we are, and one of the steps to maturity and wisdom is knowing that and accepting it or, if it can't be accepted, then changing it.

We all say that we are children of God. That is part of our identification, part of what makes us Christian. Some will identify as Christian first and members of some denominations second, or others will introduce themselves as a member of the denomination and expect people to know that they were Christian. It's a puzzle that needs to be well thought out.

Christmas is a time when we think about the birth of Jesus, a baby who, like all babies, had to learn to say mama, dada, etc. He wouldn't have truly been a human being had he suddenly appeared from Mary's womb speaking  perfectly correct 16th-century Shakespearean English. He had to go through learning process in order to be human; he already  knew what it was like to be God. Now he had to learn to be human even though he was still God,  just clothed in human flesh.
Jesus had to learn who he was so that if someone asked him, he could answer an answer correctly. Possibly learning he was the son of God came to him early on in life, but perhaps it is also a slow learning process where he found that as a child he enjoyed hearing Scripture and learning them and then talking with the rabbis about the meanings of those scriptures. He must have caught on pretty quickly, but he had to go through a learning process. He knew who he was.

So how do we answer "Who are you?"

We, like John and  Jesus, need to know who we are. We need to take time to stop and think about it, look at the various ways that we use to identify ourselves, and then see where we may be cutting ourselves short or maybe giving ourselves too much credit.

Most of all, we need to learn who we are in terms of our relationship to God. It's probably one of the most important identifications we can claim - or aspire to. Once we figure that out, we have an answer to "Who are you?" 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturrday, January 2, 2015.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My 2014 in Review

It's been accustomed at the end of each year to kind of summarize what the years been like. Since it is now one day from the end of the year I guess it's time to recollect and see what I can remember about this past year.

It was a quick year. In December I felt like it should only be April. It was as if time were speeding up and I wasn't going with it. The days were long period, but the months seem to roll by so fast it was almost incredible. I guess that's one of the benefits? Of getting older.

I guess I've become more bionic that in this past year. I did have some teeth replaced so now that I can chop again with my upper teeth I haven't had the nerve to try one of my favorite dishes, corn on the cob, nor apples on the court. But there are always ways around that. in October late November I had cataract surgeries on my eyes and as a result I can see things that I haven't really seen that clearly in years, and colors seem very strange. When I had the first I done it seems like light was bluish-white whereas with the other I things were still in a haze of yellow. I get new glasses in about a week and that will be a good thing, especially since I can see close up, I can see fairly well at a distance, but the middle distance I am hopelessly out of luck. That will be helpful when I start working when I'm late to believe that that will help with the computer work, which I may or may not be doing more of in the future.

One very positive thing this year was reconnecting with my family. I'd been in sporadic touch for years, but since my brother died four years ago we have seldom talked or communicated. This summer I got the joy of seeing my sister-in-law and two nieces for the first time in years. It was a good if brief visit, and we've kept in touch since. It's made a world of difference.

I've got sort of an adopted family here now, and some friends that I've made over the past several years. They mean the world to me, and I'm grateful to have them in my life. Shannon and the family are real joys and Julie and Alex are people I can trust and count on. Then there's Mouse, a friend who's been a rock in my life for the last 38 or so years. Our twice-or-more-weekly phone chats keep us both connected and civilized. We've solved a lot of the world's problems, we are sure, even if the rest of the world hasn't paid any attention.

With the making and growing of relationships with friends I've lost some friends this year. Ron was a friend of my late husband and the trailer Ron bought from him had been my dad's before that. I bought it from Ron about eight years ago,  and he became a friend, maintenance consultant, and handyman. Losing him was losing another tie to Ray, as well as being a nice guy that I could be friends with without any strain or undercurrents.

And then there was the loss of JJ. That was a week before my birthday. JJ was a rock when I needed a one. She always listened to my problems, gave me sage advice, and enjoyed sharing pizza any time we could get together to have it. I'm glad we had one a week or so before she died. I still have mad urges to call her up and just pass on some news or just check in to see what has been going on, but she's not there. I miss that.

It's been a year of increased expenses, and I've been a little profligate with my funds, which makes living a little tougher,. But the boys and I are surviving, and nobody is starving to death or living under a bridge — yet.  I'm learning to ask for help when I need it, and finding it isn't as difficult as I thought it would be. Still, I want to do things myself if I possibly can.

Today kind of summed up the whole year and I'm still digesting it. Being called into the publisher's office of the newspaper where I worked for the last 11 years, and being told that I was being terminated for financial reasons was a bit of a shock. I've endured three cuts in that place, and feeling that even though my customers depended on me doing my job it meant little or nothing to management. I'm still a little hurt and a little puzzled by the whole thing, but then the wound is still new. I did the best I could, I tried to work honestly and honorably, and I guess I will still struggle to understand for a while yet. Meanwhile, I now can look forward to being able to sleep in in the morning a bit more, if the boys allow it, but I will also have to learn to squeeze pennies until they hurt. This is never one of my favorite things to do. But I've made it through this long, and I will find a way to do it this time.

On the plus side I marked three years of being what I hope is cancer free. My oncologist's office doesn't want to see me until May so I guess I have permission to live that long. At least that's how I joke about it. I got a tattoo in September to remind myself of my three years. It's a pink ribbon on my left forearm and for me it was an impulse but it's a reminder that I am a survivor at least for now. That's not to say I won't have a problem later on, but right now, I'm surviving.

I've kept good friends this year, I've lost good friends this year. I'm looking at the next year and wondering how things are going to go. I guess if I had to be let go, the end of the year is better than the beginning of the year. At least I can say the end of the year closes a book and now I have to find a new one to open. I'm still writing my Soul pieces for Episcopal Café, something had been doing for the last three years and going on four. I enjoy doing it and I am always pleased and flattered when people like what I write. I'll do more writing this year, I hope, and also continue with my co-mentoring of two Education for Ministry groups that often become my community and my church, my friends and my learning experiences.

I'll try looking for another job since it will be hard to go on without it, but that's after I have taken a week or so for vacation, something I haven't really taken in about eight years. Time off from work for surgery doesn't count. Even though I won't be going anywhere, it will be nice to be able to just stay tucked up in my house with the boys for company, lots of books, and a computer to keep me connected with the world.

All in all this year's been a mixed bag but almost over and a new and will begin. We'll see how that one goes.

Happy 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reflections of a Troubled Rebel

These are difficult times. Every day the news is full of acts of violence and disasters. It feels almost overwhelming, and I am glad I can retreat to my small house in my cats and not have to confront new story after news story unless I choose to do so. Still, social media seems to keep me informed as to the latest goings-on, sometimes more than I actually want to know. It's not that I don't want to know it's just I want to know gradually and not be faced with everything all at once.

One of the things that I find most difficult right now is knowing what to think, what to feel, and what to say. It seems like there aren't any right words that will satisfy everyone and so it's easier to try and stay quiet and out of sight. If I open my mouth and say what I think I'm going to offend people right and left, while at the same time I'm being encouraged to hold difficult conversations with people of different origins, ethnicities, and cultural dissimilarities. I have no objection to that at all; I like talking to one-on-one, but it seems that it's very hard to know where to begin and how to begin. One does not want to appear insensitive but what can you say that will not sound offensive..

I was raised in the South. I wasn't aware of white privilege although I knew there was a difference between people like my family and others in the neighborhood have brown skins. I was introduced to history almost with my first steps. I lived in a historic town, famous for having witnessed Cornwallis's surrender to Washington that ended the Revolutionary war in the south. It wasn't just monuments or plaques, it felt like the history was in the air we breathed, the soil we walked on, and the whisper of the trees that sang of what they had witnessed. But it was not just the ghosts of revolutionary times, as we were also affected by what has been called the Civil War. Gravestones, burial grounds, minnie balls that were dug up when my uncles would plow their fields, and sort of a racial memory or perhaps a cultural one. At any rate those wars were never far from our consciousness.

I remember desegregation, and working hard to overcome feelings of discomfort with the history of racism in my family, neighborhood and state. I didn't hate African-American people, and I didn't always understand why we could live next door to them but not allow the in our schools and churches, much less using the same restrooms or drinking fountains. It was accepted that that was the way it was until desegregation came and we had to adjust to a new norm. It's taken me a while; I admit it's been hard for me and even now I find it difficult to admit that my heart is divided. No, not because I don't believe that everyone should have equal rights and full equal rights, or that much of what is perceived as the sin of the South, namely slavery, is actually true. Where my heart is divided is in the memory of respect for those from both wars who were buried in mass graves, marked usually only with their nationality and unit number. I don't know if blacks and whites were buried separately in those graves; I'm sure the heat of battle and the numbing aftermath would blur burial of corpses of enemy dead or brothers in arms.

My heart is divided because I want to remember the good things about the South that I grew up in. I lived in a small town where everybody knew everybody else from the time I was a small child until I went to college, I knew people were watching to make sure I didn't get into trouble or danger. We never locked doors; if we accidentally did, all the neighbors had exactly the same key that we could borrow to get back in. If someone were sick, everybody knew about it and the parade of casseroles, soups, and desserts would begin to arrive. The same after a death in the family. Black or white, it felt like the community was somewhat united, although divided in other ways. I was taught to be polite and not to use certain words that were considered disrespectful or rude. My parents were products of their generation and upbringing and I inherited some of that. A lot of the divided heart is because of that. It's an ongoing struggle.

Lately I've been exposed to news, posts, emails, and just about everywhere else, that makes me feel I have no right to feel as I do. I feel I am being compelled by outside forces to wear sackcloth and ashes as reactions to the actions and beliefs of my ancestors over which I had no control. Not just African-Americans,  but Native Americans, Orientals, different religious groups Hispanics, and basically anyone of a different skin color, different culture, or different nationality were included. I feel guilty that those groups have suffered at the hands of people of similar ancestry to me, but what can I do about that now? Should I go up to every person that I see with a different skin color and express my apologies for what my ancestors have done and what members of my race continue to do to their people? It sounds like a simplistic question, probably rather a dumb one, but what am I to do?

Last year in our Education for Ministry program, we studied multiculturalism along with readings from the Bible, history and theology basis of our curriculum. We studied power and powerlessness, and identified times when we ourselves felt powerless or powerful. We learned the importance of discussion, respectful and mutual discussion with active listening on both sides of the conversation. Coupled with what I read in the news, I'm conflicted as to exactly how to put all this into action? Does one just walk up to a group of people and say, "Hey, want to talk about racism or culturalism or privilege ?" My mother would be horrified, not just because such conversations in her lifetime were never about these topics but because it would seem like such a rude and crass opening to what is supposed to be a productive conversation. We were taught manners, and felt statements like that were not polite. Something else I missed about growing up in the South. People had opinions, but most of the time we tried to say them politely, no matter to whom we were talking.

So now I have to face a problem of reconciling my heart and figuring out the right thing to do. I understand that we have a long way to go and healing rifts caused by my ancestors, not just with the African-Americans, but with the Native Americans, Hispanics, Oriental Americans, LGBTQI and everybody else. It feels like I am supposed to be apologetic, repentant, and wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life to atone for things done by my race to that of others. I acknowledge that great wrongs have been done and continue to be done. I tried to discourage wrongs when I encounter them, but what can one person do? I'm not Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Junior, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, or any of the unsung heroes who have struck blows to help level the playing field.

Sometimes writing can be therapeutic, but even this moment of self disclosure, I can't really my thoughts and feelings with any level of comfort. I have been chastised for saying that I am proud of relatives who fought in the Confederate Army for a cause they believed in and to protect their homes and families, but I do respect the views of those who criticize me. I wonder how many of those who are so interested in chastising the South are aware of their own history of slavery in the north and other places? History is written by the winners which means they can point out all the flaws of the losers and gloss over their own shortcomings and sins. We all have apologies to make and are sentenced to repent, but it's so much easier to minimize our own sins and magnify those of others. I know that I myself bear guilt for my own sins of omission and commission, and I am willing to work with others to try and right the wrongs. Where to begin, how to begin, though, is a question I can't answer. I'm looking, and praying, but the answers seem very elusive.

I am a Southerner, and will always identify as a Southerner because to me that's home. I make no apologies for loving that area, despite its checkered history. I sincerely regret the actions of my forebears who came to this land and truck and took over. I appreciate the contributions to this country by all those who have lived, died, and continue to live and die to build meaningful and productive lives and contribute to the general welfare. Despite the fact that our guiding documents were written by white men of privilege who sought to establish a country that would be a reflection of their own lives and philosophies, I would like to think that those documents are living documents, able to be read with the fresh eyes of each new generation and acted upon to benefit all people, not just those of wealth or privilege. I would like to live in a world like that.

Maybe in a world like that I wouldn't have to feel I need to walk about in eternal mortification but could smile at everyone regardless of race, creed or color, and know that their lives are full and productive, that they have access to all the necessities of life, and the freedom to reach their maximum potential. I know that it has to begin with conversation and that it needs to begin now. I will wear my sackcloth and ashes for a while, inwardly anyway, but I don't want to get too comfortable with it.

The whole point of such a punishment is to irritate the skin in a noticeable way as a reminder of something. But one can get used to discomfort, just as one can get used to privilege, wealth, and power. I don't want to glory in humility since that's kind of an oxymoron. I want to be a person who can be myself without trying to tiptoe around others who are different from me. I want to know the right words to say and the right conversations to participate in to make this world better.

God help me, I want to live in a guilt free world. I really wonder what that would be like, for me and for everyone else.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why Wenceslaus went out that day...

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.  Acts 7:59-8:8

The day after Christmas has several names or nicknames, like Boxing Day which was a holiday for house servants in England and when they were given boxes of food and clothing by the people they served. Most of us remember it as the feast of Stephen, although a lot of us have no idea who Stephen is. Just a hint: it isn't Spielberg or King.

After Jesus death and resurrection, the church (or the body of Christ on earth) continue to grow. The disciples and their apostles were stretched trying to meet the needs and guidance of those who looked to them and still find time to preach, teach, heal, and travel. The decision was made to do what Moses' father-in-law had suggested to him, namely to delegate. Seven men were chosen to be those delegates. Among their jobs was making sure that everyone had a fair share, keeping order, keeping records, and anything else that needed doing. Today we call them deacons, although that designation didn't come until later. Still, we consider December 26, a day commemorating Stephen, one of those helpers, as also a celebration of those who have and who do serve in the order of the diaconate.

The reading give us a testimony of the effect that Stephen had on the early church. He was preacher and a remarkable healer as well as his other duties. He touched the lives of many people, but, as always, there were people looking to not just discredit him but to chip away at the foundation of the entire Jesus movement and cause it to collapse. Stephen was hauled before the authorities on charges of blaspheming God and Moses. When asked for his defense, Stephen gave an eloquent speech tracing the salvation history that we also trace at the Great Vigil of Easter. Many heard it and were converted, but the people who needed to be impressed remain unconvinced. Authorities sentenced him to be stoned to death for his insolence and blasphemy. Standing guard over the pile of cloaks of those who were so eager to throw stones was a very righteous Pharisee named Saul. The stoning of Stephen may have left him unmoved, but God had other plans for him.

We sing a Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen." Wenceslaus was a 10th century Bohemian duke later named a king by a Holy Roman Emperor. He was noted for his piety and good works. The story is that on the day after Christmas, a very snowy one,  Wenceslaus called a young page boy to accompany him and carry gifts of food, wine and fuel to a poor man who lived  a league or more (2-1/2 - 4/1/2 miles) away. Wenceslaus  forged his way through the deep snow, making a path for his page to follow.

There is no historic record of such an event in Wenceslaus's time, but it is a tale that has been passed down for centuries.

The carol concludes with, "Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now would bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." The very moral lesson that the song proclaims is one that is as relevant today as it would have been in the 13th century and earlier. Wealth and rank do not always mean privilege; there is an element of responsibility that is included in this in which many wealthy and or high-ranking people seem to forget.

Stephen gave because (a) it was his job, and, (b) his faith in God led him to do what was right. He had been given gifts by God and it was his job to use those gifts to benefit others rather than himself. Stephen died defending the reason why he did what he did and preached what he preached. Even in death, he spoke of a greater kingdom that he could see even as the stones claimed him.

In our world, people are still being stoned. Usually victims are charged with sins/crimes against the faith. Women are stoned for adultery even in the case of rape. Men are stoned or beheaded for blasphemy against God, or a group's conception of God. The same religion which allows stoning also teaches kindness and generosity to the less fortunate. Christians are not exempt, although there stones are words of hate and disapproval as well as judgments made in favor of the rich and against the poor. Perhaps we need a Wenceslaus to show us the right way, or a Stephen to show us in view of Christianity based on love, service, and favor to those in need.

So why did Wenceslaus go outside? He had no choice. He saw someone in need and his Christian duty made him go out, no matter how daunting the weather. Stephen may not have any Bohemian blood, but Wenceslaus certainly carried something in his that made the two act in accord. The Spirit of God does not respect rank or privilege. That same Spirit guided Stephen and Wenceslaus to do what was right. Now it is up to us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 26, 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent Day 26, 2015 - I will not take my steadfast love...

2 Samuel 7:1-16

It's Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year. Even though for part of it I will be stuck in an office, doing routine stuff, my mind will be thinking about last-minute things I have to do (like pick up cat food -- or there won't be a Merry Christmas for my boys), dishes to do (my stocking should be as full as my sink!), and general tidying up to get ready for the Eve itself, when all is calm and all is bright.

Looking back on Advent, it's been a time to stop (or at least slow down) and listen, be awake, aware, and mindful, to be a light in the darkness even if it is only the light the size of a tea light or birthday candle, and to take time to think and meditate on what Advent means. It's been a time to listen to prophets from ancient times who still speak of problems we encounter today-- more than ever, it seems.

It's been a season of heart-wrenching events both natural and man-made. We have seen pictures of tiny children suffering and dying for any number of reasons, some of which we actually have the power to change. We've seen violence and mayhem, and heard the platitudes and mealy-mouthed sayings of those who seek to be our leaders. Unfortunately, much of what they say is divisive and actually abusive to those who are not precisely like them --male, white, and privileged. We have seen Christians persecuted in the Holy Land and the Middle East while Muslims are feeling persecuted here at home. Womens health issues have been curtailed in favor of protecting the unborn, never minding at all that the already born have needs too that have never been addressed. GLBTI folk are seeing more freedom in many states but in their individual homes, cities, and churches they are still reviled and shunned. Refugees are finding the welcome written on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal rings hollow with all the talk of higher walls, more legal barriers, and mass deportations. It seems the whole world is losing touch with what is good, kind and helpful.

This Christmas Eve, even if it is slightly inconvenient, we need to take a few minutes to remember the message the Prince of Peace came to bring -- love God, love your neighbor and even your enemy because he too is your neighbor. He told us to visit the sick and imprisoned and care for them as best we can. He told us to comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the widows and orphans and work to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth. It's a big order, but every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

My wish for all of you is to be blessed this Christmas and always, blessed with comfort, joy, peace, lack of want, and love for God and each other.  I also wish that you find challenges in your life that will bring God closer, help those in need, and stretch your faith a bit.

Continue to be awake, alert, and listening. The prophets are still speaking and we should still be paying attention. Take time to love even those who are unlovable (we think) as we kneel in adoration of the Christ Child who, in the form of a tiny baby, represented the hope for all mankind.  As God told Nathan in our reading, God will not withhold the steadfast love he had for David and the children of Israel. We just have to trust that and work to pass it on.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Advent Day 25, 2015 - ...sending my messenger...

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
 Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.  - Malachi 3:1-5

We hear a lot about messengers in scripture, especially during Advent when we hear the words of the prophets and sages.  They are the messengers of God, those persons charged with the duty to carry a message, a parcel, or a blessing and sometimes pass along military orders or requests for supplies. The image we often think of these days is the logo for a flower delivery service, an outline of a man with wings on his feet and helmet. Often, though, we look to newscasters, commentators, the like to deliver the news of things we should hear, know, or do.  It's hard to escape messengers, especially the gossips who can't wait to be the first to bring news, good or bad, true or not,  to others.

The prophets were messengers. God spoke and directed them and then it was their job to tell the people and urge them to return to things they had turned their backs on or pay closer attention to what they were supposed to be doing. God gave hem words and visions, instructions and demands, and some of them were pretty rough. Imagine being told to walk through the city stark naked for a period of time?  Even now that would be shocking and the person would probably be under arrest within half a block. In Isaiah's day, though, it was just as shocking but also unheard of, since God had ordained that everybody go about clothed. There was a point to be made, though, and the naked prophet was told to to use that particular point.

In the reading, we are told that God was sending a messenger. The interesting thing is that the word "malachi" meant "the messenger." Since nowhere in the book of Malachi is the prophet's name given straight out, it is thought that a translator used the word as the proper name. Who knows for sure, though?

Messengers come from God in various forms. Angels or beings having the appearance of angels have been recorded throughout the Bible. Sometimes we have their names, sometimes we don't. There are times that God seems to speak directly to his human messengers like the prophets. Samuel got a direct call at night, one that puzzled him until Eli, his mentor, told him what to do and say. Zechariah certainly had some contact with a messenger who confirmed Elizabeth's pregnancy and who told the old priest to name his son John, a name that had not appeared in any of the family genealogy. Two Josephs got messages in dreams: Joseph the son of Jacob and Joseph, Jesus' foster father. Mary's messenger was an angel who confronted her directly with God's request for her consent to something that would definitely change her life totally.

Of course, messengers often bring unwanted news, sometimes angering the recipient so much that the messenger is in danger. We're familiar with the saying "Don't kill the messenger," although that is precisely what happened to Jesus. Like many messengers, he brought news that was not just unwelcome but also that had a tinge of sedition in it.

Even with the proximity of Christmas, we still have time to listen for messengers from God. Sometimes they may appear as anything but angelic, but their words ring with truth. Listen and watch carefully.