Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dust and Vanity

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Care to join me?


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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hildegard of Bingen, Woman of Strength and Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Saints with feet of clay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Surprise of Silence


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Life as a Capillary


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pedestals

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seeking Knowledge

There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love. - Bernard of Clairvaux

One of the things that I remember growing up is spending Sunday afternoons visiting relatives. My adoptive father was part of a large family, and although they were not spring chickens, a number of those family members were still alive and functioning, mostly as farmers. We would visit Aunt Edie and Uncle Olin which I loved because they had a huge front yard to run around in and lots of big, thick, catalogs to thumb through and drool over.


After Uncle Olin died, Aunt Edie continued to work the farm. She hired a man to take care of the crops, but she made her own butter, jams and preserves, and canned vegetables she grew in her truck garden. She took care of herself, and never missed a Sunday at Beech Grove Baptist, the church she had attended as a child and in whose graveyard Uncle Olin and so many other family members were buried.

One day I noticed that she had expanded her book shelf with textbooks of various types. Now, as much as I disliked homework, there was something interesting about her textbooks. During our visits I would read some of her texts and we would talk about them. Aunt Edie had left school before graduating to marry Uncle Olin, and now, in her mid-60s or so, she decided she needed to finish by taking correspondence courses. It took a long time, but she made it. Then she began more correspondence courses to become someone who could help look after homebound and chronically ill people in her community.

Looking at quotes by Bernard of Clairvaux, whose commemoration is today, I ran across the one about seeking knowledge and Aunt Edie immediately came to mind. It took a lot of courage and perseverance for her to spend those years studying. She even took geometry, a course I was always too afraid to take, and passed with flying colors even though she hated the class. The farm wife of so many years learned what she needed to know to be certified to fill what she saw as a need and, I think, found fulfillment in the process.

Bernard's three kinds of knowledge-seeking rather sums up why people like Aunt Edie and millions of other people continue learning. Those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge are most likely those who want to know more and more about something that fascinates them and about which they are passionate. I may be presumptuous, but someone like Stephen Hawking appears to me to be of this first type. What is beyond what we can see now? How does it work? What effect does this have on us and the universes around us? It has brought him fame and worldwide acclaim for continuing to expand our own thinking and ability to travel toward these new concepts while himself being confined to a wheelchair, an artificial voice, and the exquisite workings of his own mind.

There are some people who seek knowledge in order to gain recognition for being the best in the world in their particular subject. Granted, curiosity played its part in their search for knowledge, but even someone who is a world-renowned specialist in even the tiniest realm of knowledge probably takes pride in that accolade. They revel in being called by an academic or professional title; it is a form of vanity. It may serve a purpose for the person wearing the title, but does not necessarily do the same for anyone else.

Then there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve. They don't have to be world-renowned renowned experts at any one particular thing or even the best at their job in whatever subject or occupation they choose to pursue. These people have dreams that drive them to serve others in any of them hundred thousand different ways. Nurses and doctors, priests and deacons, professors and kindergarten teachers even the guy with best auto fix-it shop in town serve people who are in need through their knowledge and skill and a lot of dedication.

I can see Aunt Edie in that third category, sitting at the dining room table with her book, pencil, and paper, working to learn how to be not just a helping hand but a person with skill and knowledge to help someone else have a better life. I'm sure she'd be surprised that I think of her that way, because I'm sure she never saw herself in that light.

That image is driving me to take up a profession that will, hopefully, make my life better through assisting medical professionals make their patients lives better. I will never be the best in the world, nor will I ever be able to know everything there is to know about the subject, but that's okay. I will study hard in order to do the best that I can for those I serve, even in the humblest of ways.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Me? A Minister?

Education for Ministry (EfM)  is a four-year program of theological education designed for the laity, a kind of seminary for people who want to know more than maybe a Bible study could provide, but who do not feel a call to be ordained. Not only is there in-depth study of the Old and New Testaments, but also Church History and theology, the study of God. It is also a spiritual program in which learning to think theologically and to recognize the opportunity to be a minister, a person of service to others is preeminent. We are all intended and commissioned to be ministers through our baptismal covenant, and reaffirmed by our confirmation or reaffirmations. In those covenants we commit to live lives outlined by the vows, and that includes ministry.

One of my yearly joys is attending the three-day training session to recertify me to mentor for the EfM. With that learning and the recertification, I will be back to my groups fall and give them tastes of what I've experienced and hopefully help them learn to see their own ministries more clearly.

The hardest things for a lot of people both in and out of EFM to understand is that ministry is not limited to those people who are ordained or have specific jobs within the church, like the Sunday school teacher, organist/choirmaster, altar guild, or the vestry. Ministry is what we do when we go out into the world just as much as we do more within the walls of the church. It is counterintuitive to think that at the job in which we are engaged every day could be seen as a ministry but it can present that challenge. The opportunity for ministry comes when there is a challenge we see, hear, or experience, and the ministry is when we respond. Often we do it almost without thinking, just simply responding to a need, but that doesn't diminish the ministry at all. It's a Christ-like moment.

EfM teaches us to look at the world through the eyes of a Christian, a word that means "Little Christ." We learn through practice and reflection to be more open to God and to our fellow human beings. We learn that there are three kinds of ministry, as identified by Charles Winters: Ministry to the church, ministry in the church, and ministry of the church.* 

Ministry to the church applies to both the ordained and some lay persons. It includes the clergy- and lay-involvement in things such as worship, teaching, governance, and maintenance. It serves to care for the fabric of the church as well as ensure the proper things are done at the proper time in the proper way as described in the church constitution and the parish mission statement.

Ministry in the church is what we call "pastoral care." It contributes to the support and guidance of the congregation, and is done by both clergy (counseling, sacraments, etc., by virtue of their ordination).) and lay leaders (like Eucharistic ministers who are directed by the clergy to do certain ministries in the name of the church).

Ministry of the church is the calling of all of us to participate in the mission of the church by going out into the world and being Chris's hands and voice. Our baptismal and confirmation/reaffirmation covenants and vows make it part of our duty as Christians to participate in bringing Christ's message to the world, whether by evangelism or a work of mercy.

Winters also had a really profound thought in this paragraph from the same source::
It is equally difficult for many of us to realize that this ministry is not an elective. That is, it is not something that we do now and then. it is not even necessarily the good and redemptive things we do. It is the entire post-baptismal life, good and bad. At our baptisms we were made members of Christ. We are his hands, arms, legs, feet, mouth. Inescapably! At all times! In all places!

It is part of the job of EfM to help people learn what ministry is, how to do it, and to understand that it is part of what we are called to do, whether or not we hear a voice from heaven or just feel some sort of burning passion to help resolve something that is cracked or broken and needs to change. People can find their missions and ministries without EfM. Thousands do it every day, but thousands also have EfM to help with the process. In community we learn to look at life through different lenses than we had before, and also to be more aware of even small things that we can do to make Christ's message known, even, as St. Francis put it, if we sometimes have to use words.

I hope what I've learned from this training seminar will help those in my groups to be able to identify and understand their places in the world, their ministries, and their passions. I think it has helped me to see the things I do in life that I never thought about as ministries in a new way. I'm looking forward to finding out what other things I can learn -- with the help of those in my groups for whom I act as both mentor and fellow learner. That's the great thing about EfM. We all learn from each other, and we never have to have all the answers; sometimes ambiguity can be a very good thing. We just learn to trust God to set us straight on the crooked path we call life.

I'm learning to answer the question, "Me? A minister?" in the affirmative. On reflection, it really isn't that hard. Give it a try.
 

 
*"Three Kinds of Ministry" by Charles Winters; handout from Education for Ministry.

 
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 6, 2016.
 

 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grieving

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away. But when he confides in us that he is 'acquainted with grief,' we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own. -- Emily Dickinson*

It seems like the world is getting smaller and more deadly all the time. It's like a bad dream that we keep hoping that we will wake up from. It is all so confusing, and also so intense. We don't seem to have time between events process and to begin to understand one event when in hours or days we have to process something else just as awful.

The list of cities goes on and on:. Paris, Baghdad, Orlando, Dallas, Nice; all of these are just the most recent mass killings, and that is not counting the individual murders of young men, predominantly African Americans, who come to our attention almost every day. It's almost too much to bear, and yet it raises the fear, anger, and attempted justification as to why this happens.

Emily Dickinson gave us something to think about in times like these. She reminded us that Jesus often talked about his Father, and his words were of love and trust and security. His encouragement was for us to love this God, and to do those things that God had told us we should do but avoiding harmful, destructive ones. Somehow it seems like we did not believe him.

Jesus spoke about his home; not the one in Nazareth, which he shared with his mother and father and probably siblings, but the one where his Father was. He spoke of that house, one with many mansions, and one where peace, love, and safety reigned. We did not seem to believe that either.

One thing we can be assured of though, is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as, "...A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:3b).  He lived in a tricky time, one when the political atmosphere appeared fairly calm on the surface, but boiling just underneath was a resentment of the Romans who had occupied and now governed the land. There were factions within and without Judaism, each believing that they had the truth (sound familiar?). There were those who had money, position, and power, and there were many more who had none of those. Theft, robbery, bribery, just about every known sin, as we care call it, was found there. This was Jesus' world, not some antiseptic happy place. Jesus saw things for what they were. He saw all the bad things that happen to good people, and sometimes he intervened in those situations and thus we have the miracles. But he must have seen far far more than he ever spoke about or helped.

We understand this Jesus. His frustration at not being able to help everyone might have been a part of his mission on earth. In order to be fully human,  he had to understand all of humanity, not just the pleasant parts, and not just fixing everything that he could see was wrong. People could not do that themselves, and he had to learn to see how humanity existed without benefit of power and privilege power. It is that grief, the one that sees and is helpless to do anything, that makes Jesus someone we can understand, at least in part. He, like us, lives through turbulent times and probably listens to the crowds as they go about their daily business and muttering about how bad things are.

Granted, Jesus didn't have to worry about crowds being mowed down by big trucks, or people being shot by snipers, or even people being blown up with bombs or attacked with assault rifles. I imagine he stands in the crowds were these things happen. Our grief is his grief, and even though he is divine, I'm sure he has not forgotten what it feels like to be human.

He stands with the mothers who cry and wail for dead children. He stands with young people who stare down at the body of a friend they were just talking or riding with, who now lies on the ground, dead. He stands with the men of valor who wear badges and swear to protect the innocent and themselves are salted shot and killed by someone with a grudge. He stands with all this as we witness horror after horror, and he weeps with us because he too is acquainted with grief.

Jesus is there for and with us but that does not relieve us of the necessity of trying to do something about it ourselves. We so desperately want something to believe in, something that offers a solid ground in a very shaky world. If we did not listen to Jesus talk about his Father, did not trust when he talked about his home, maybe we should hold on to Jesus as grieving just as we are.

We all grieve, Jesus grieves with us. We must acknowledge this, and then begin to hand out Kleenexes and start to do things that will help the world overcome the evils we find in it. Jesus is counting on us.




*Quoted in Norris, Kathleen, The Cloister Walk, (1997) New York: Riverhead Books; p. 27

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Weeds

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. -- Matthew 13:24-30


I'm amazed that living so close to Phoenix, one of the country's major cities, we have such a range of agricultural areas around us. We have cotton, millet, corn, alfalfa and various other crops . It's interesting to watch them grow and see the greenness of the fields which make such a change from the brown of the desert. Most of the time the fields look perfect but occasionally there will be something that looks out of place, something green but a different shape or perhaps towering over the growing crops. Those are weeds, and weeds are no respecter of persons. Ask anyone with a lawn.

I've heard weeds described as simply plants and flowers growing in the wrong place. Granted, dandelions are such pretty yellow flowers and, for children, the seed heads are so inviting They pluck them from the plant and blow on the globe, sending the fairy-like seeds to propagate somewhere else. There are lots of beautiful weeds, but they are still weeds, especially if they're not in a place where they wanted.

Jesus knew about weeds. I think it's a surprise to me that he would understand them. I doubt seriously that he had done very much in terms of gardening or growing food, but then there a lot of years that Jesus lived that we don't know anything about. At any rate, he tells the story, the parable, about the kingdom of heaven being like a crop field. That is the whole word right there — like. This tells us he's creating a simile, a familiar object or scenario that has a deeper meaning to it.

He spoke of sowing good seeds but then having enemies sneak in and spread seeds like dandelion fluff, while everyone else was asleep. The plants grew and so did the weeds. The servants were puzzled when they asked the master, "Should we pull these up?" The master told them to just leave them for now. So why not pull them up? The unwanted plants were right there taking nourishment and water from the main crop. But the master had some insight that the servants hadn't thought of: if they pulled up the weeds, the chances were they would pull up some of the good plants as well, or damage their roots and cause them to die. The master decided that it would be best to just let the weeds grow and then, at harvest time, the separations would be done.

In these past few weeks we have seen people make judgments as to who is what. We have felt grief and sadness over the number of shooting deaths of good people and we wonder what has to be done to make the world safe for our children and our grandchildren. We read about #BlackLivesMatter, and #BlueLivesMatter, even #AllLivesMatter. Are we excused the from listening to others because we are of another race or another occupation or another persuasion?. We need to listen to each other with open minds--and hearts, not adamant adherence to what we already know, or think we know.

There are times we have to make that decision, but it should be made judiciously and mercifully. Sometimes the decision is made in five seconds or less--an awfully short time that can make the difference between life and death.

It's time for us to stop worrying about the harvest and get on with the process of living and growing, even if we share a row or a field with weeds. To be honest, we might be the weeds ourselves. Let's not be complacent. Let's not think more highly of ourselves than we do our neighbors. Let God take care of gathering in the crop.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 23, 2o16.