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.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Righteous Gentiles

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. -- Edmund Burke


The Great War, known as WWI, was over and the world breathed easier. Things went back to normal in a Downton Abbey-ish kind of way. The rich were mostly still well off, while the working class people continued to work. Those wounded in the war were helped it as much as possible but maimed veterans mostly preferred to stay out of sight. For some, the internal scars of war ravaged the minds of those who had seen too much and experienced too much. It left their dreams in tatters and their rest disturbed. On the continent, it was not much different from Britain and the other Allies, including the United States. It was the "War to end all wars."

Beginning in 1933, the specter of war began to raise its ugly head once again. Movements against Jews and groups such as homosexuals, those with disabilities and mental defects, and gypsies, among others, began to feel a tightening noose. Yellow stars appeared on clothing, branding the wearer as one of the despised Jews who had, it was said, grown too powerful and were corrupting the towns, villages, and even countries in which they lived. Eventually the final solution of mass extermination was put into place. 

The world only gradually learned the word Shoah, a term meaning "destruction," and what that destruction meant. By the end of the war, over 6 million Jews alone had been exterminated or died, whether from starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or as the result of torture and inhumane medical experiments. Despite their penchant for accurate records and counts being kept by the Nazis, it is still impossible to give the actual total number of victims of what we have also called the Holocaust.

In the midst of the horror and fear, there were those individuals and small groups who refused to go along with the Nazis and did what they could to save the lives of Jews before they could be rounded up and exterminated. In 1953, years after the war's end, Israel's Knesset established a memorial called Yad Vashem, commemorating those who, whether successful or not, tried to save Jews at the risk of mortal danger to themselves and for humanitarian reasons only, not for profit. As of now, there are approximately 19,150 individuals honored as "Righteous Gentiles" although there are many more who tried and failed.

Today we commemorate several of the Righteous Gentiles: Raoul Wallenberg [Swedish, d. 1947] Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; C. Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; and Andre Trocme [d. 1971, French]. Because of these men, many thousands of souls were saved. Of course, there were others, like Oskar Schindler, who hid Jews in his factory as workers before they could be smuggled out.  Miep Gies, and three other employees of Otto Frank saved their employer's family and others at great risk to themselves. There were many more, some known but to God.

The Righteous Gentiles were an example of what one person, or one small group could do to help others. Whether they were practicing Christians or not, they exemplified not just Christian values but also the commandments of God given to the Jews themselves. As the number of survivors of the Holocaust grows smaller each year, it is important for their stories to be recorded and remembered. Along with those stories, their tales of those who helped them should be remembered as well.

Today the swastikas have begun to appear in larger numbers than at any time since the end of WWII. Jewish cemeteries and synagogues are vandalized, Muslims live in terror, homosexuals are targets of hate crimes, and African American youth are in mortal danger just for being Black. The same rhetoric of hate used by the Nazis is wildly applauded in rallies around the country, and the culture of fear is palpable. It seems we are moving backwards rather than forward when it comes to peace, justice, equality, and respect.

What are we doing to change things, to turn things around?  Isn't the thought of border fences, forced deportations of innocent and legal immigrants because there might be a drug dealer or terrorist among them, assault weapons being carried openly and sometimes used indiscriminately against perceived enemies, and wholesale distrust of police by African Americans and others while the police actively distrust those same groups. Where are the equals of the Righteous Gentiles today?

In Jewish cemeteries, it is customary for those visiting graves to leave a small rock or pebble on the grave. It symbolizes a bond, a remembrance of someone who has left us. Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians on January 17, 1945. Whether he was executed in Lubyanka Prison, died in captivity, or net some other end, his grave site is unknown. In Budapest, however, there is a memorial to Wallenberg and other Righteous Gentiles, including Carl Lutz. The many stones that surround the memorial express the connection, gratitude, and bond with all those whose names are carved on the stone.

May we live as not just Righteous Gentiles but as people who work to save others, even at risk of our own lives. May we be worthy of many pebbles and stones on our graves, signs that we have done God's will for God's children. It's asking a lot, but then, God never said that it was going to be easy to live that kind of life.


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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Where is the Love?

 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   -- Matthew 22:34-40


Another bombing, more shootings, more violence. It seems like every time I think things can't get worse, they can--and do. Between those and the campaign rhetoric, it's almost enough to make me want to get in a hole and pull it in after me. Lacking a hole, I close the door to my house and stay inside, foregoing news reports and radio broadcasts as much as possible. Maybe I'm trying to retain my sanity rather than giving in to fear, hate, and distrust  that seem so rampant..

One of the passages we hear frequently is part of today's gospel, especially the part about "Love your neighbor as yourself." There are lots of people don't like Muslims,  Hispanics, or much of anybody who is not like them. It's becoming a world where "love your neighbor" is becoming unheard-of, unless it is a neighbor who looks, acts, thinks, believes, and votes the same way we do. A neighbor, in short, is somebody we're comfortable with. Heaven help us if the neighbors are GLBTQ, wearing a turban (a Sikh, often mistaken for Muslim, or of a different skin color, speaking a different language, or, God forbid, never being seen to enter a church.

It amazes me that these things are now so prevalent that there is no escaping it. There are groups, individuals, churches, and communities, who were trying to make a difference. Organizations, established primarily for the reason of loving their neighbor and showing that love, do exist, but we don't always hear about them; we sort of have to stumble over them. That's in line with Jesus' teaching about not doing good works in the public spotlight lest they be seen as braggarts. 

Jesus put more emphasis into trying to explain and demonstrate loving our neighbor than he did to judging our sexual preferences, upholding the upper echelons of the rich and powerful, or overthrowing the Roman government. He was about love, maybe not always using the word, but definitely exemplifying it: helping the centurion's manservant or perhaps his shield mate; Jarius'  daughter; the woman with hemorrhage; the woman taken in adultery; and more.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus were walking around on our streets today. What would he say about the homeless, the veterans who were brave enough serve and who were promised benefits when they got home, only to find their government didn't know who they were, what they did, and, as far as benefits went, they didn't give a rip about that either. Yet those same politicians are never shy about raising their own benefits, salaries, or anything else that benefited them or their friends. That's not love, it's greed, and greed is the opposite of compassion.
 
Jesus fed the 5000 with two loaves and five fish. He fed everybody-- young, old, male, female, seniors, children, the whole works. He didn't turn anyone away because everyone there was hungry. He didn't make them sit through a sermon before he fed them like some places do; rather, he fed them until they were full and ready to listen. As any parent or teacher knows, people are able to concentrate more on what they're hearing and experiencing when they don't have that specter of an empty stomach rumbling loudly enough for a neighbor to hear. 

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Two very simple commandments that incorporate not just the 10 Commandments within them, but also all 613 mitzvoth, rules that were to be followed. Some were only for priests, and others for everyone. They are pretty important, I think. And those two commandments are simple enough a child could understand them. So why do adults have such a problem with them?

It's our job to love our neighbors. There are things I don't like about neighbors, like their loud music, or mowing the lawn it 6 a.m. on Saturday when I would like to be sleeping late, or revving their motorcycle engines and shaking the whole house. Except for those things can I can love them, and that said without patting myself on the back unduly. You can't collect Workmen's Compensation for patting yourself on the back, although I think Congress has tried that.

God loves us. Jesus loves us. The spirit loves us. All that is asked of us is that we love God and we love all God's children. Love not hate. Care for, not ignore or take away from. Help, not hinder. It's a very simple, so why are we not doing that. We permit fear, harsh rhetoric, name-calling, and finger-pointing to be such an integral part of our lives that we don't even really realize what were doing. We call ourselves Christian, but doesn't that mean doing what Jesus told us to do? Are those things Jesus asked us to do? Really?

Love your neighbor and love God. Maybe it's not going to change the entire world for one person to step up and say, "Okay I'll take that challenge," but it sure is a start. Yes, we have people who do hate us, some because we don't believe as they do, some because of our corporate arrogance and greed, and some because they watch our actions and those actions don't match the claims we make about them.

So, for the next week, my challenge to myself is just stop and think. What message am I giving when I run somebody down verbally or mentally, or look with disfavor on certain people who support things that I find unimportant or detrimental to the common good. They are all neighbors of mine, whether I like them or not.

The question is clear: where is the love? And what am I doing to find and show it?


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 2, 2016.

A Place in the Story


In the gospel stories the story doesn't end--writers leave it to us to figure out what happens afterwards. What happens? Where are we in the story? -- unknown


Summers when I was a child were usually marked with Vacation Bible School. I remember the one- to two-week sessions, complete with learning songs, doing crafts, memorizing Bible verses, Kool-Aid, cookies, and lots of Bible stories. The Bible stories were the main event of the day, quite often the familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as well. All of them had a moral or ethical (or theological) point we were to think about and then use what we learned in our own lives. We didn't get any of the stories like Jephtha's daughter, the sacrificed concubine, the murder of Uriah, or any one of a number of others, but somehow the horror of Noah's Ark or the Akeda disappeared in rainbows, replacement rams, and evidence of God's love. It worked. We believed it.

The older I get, the more I realize that what I learned then wasn't the whole story. It began to feel like a Reader's Digest version--I had gotten the meat of the story, but there were still the skin and bones that were missing. It's a bit hard to explain, but it felt like I needed to know what was before the beginning of the story. Oh, sure, most of the time there's some buildup to the story, something about the time or place or people, but often that's not quite enough. What's more important to me, though, is what happened after the story.

Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The run up to the story is the introduction of the Jew who was on his way from here to there but who ran into robbers on the way. We know the part of the story where people passed him by, and then came the Good Samaritan who picked him up, brought him to an inn to be cared for. The Samaritan then went on his way, promising to return to pay for whatever other needs the injured man had required. It's a very familiar story, and one with a great moral, but I can't help but wonder why the Jew was traveling. Why was he alone? Most people traveled at least in pairs if not larger groups because there was safety in numbers. Was his traveling alone that made him a tempting target, or did he have something obviously worth stealing?  Or was it simply because he was a Samaritan? So it was a parable, probably not a real event; however, that doesn't make it less valid for questioning.

A second question that comes to mind with this story is what happened afterwards? Did the Samaritan return as he promised? And what about the injured man? Did he recover? Did he go on with his life? Did he repay the man by helping someone else? If he did, was it someone who was not of his faith? Again, the parable doesn't say; the important part of the story had already been told.

A third question is where am I in this story? What character most draws my attention or what part of the scene represents where I am now in relation to the story? What would I do? What would I learn from the situation? How would it affect my life?

The gospel writers wrote down the bare bones, telling enough of the story or parable to get the point across, but there was no need for elaboration or "What happens next." The people knew the area, the risks, the daily life that the stories contained but without description that would be what we expect today. The writers' main job was to present stories of miracles and the teachings of Jesus to people who had probably not heard him preach or who came to the faith after his death. They were written for a purpose, and that purpose was not pure entertainment.

We are used to endings like "And they all lived happily ever after," even though most of our books no longer leave us with that kind of conclusion. Certainly in the Bible the endings were often far from happily ever after. Although many stories like those featuring healing certainly point to a kind of happily ever after, they healing is always a way to point out Jesus's mission and the glorification of God. That was the whole reason for their writing, not to be like CNN reporting or some sort of social study of the result of Jesus's actions.

Just because the writers had a specific task in hand does not preclude our thinking about and using our imagination to get deeper into the stories. Take the woman with the hemorrhage. She had spent all she had on doctors who couldn't cure her, but Jesus did. What happened to her afterwards? She apparently had no male relatives, she no longer had wealth to keep her, so what happened to her? How did the rest of her life go? The same with Jarius's daughter who shared the same story. After her miraculous recovery, did she go on to live a happy life, marry well, and have many children to hear the story and believe in Jesus's power? It's to be hoped that she did. We'll never know for sure.

Life is a series of stories for each of us, but, unlike the gospel writers, the stories fall on a timeline. They have a beginning, an action, an end, and then life continues, sometimes on the basis of the events of the story. Perhaps we saw or were part of a traumatic and tragic event that radically changed the pathway of our lives, or perhaps we saw or heard something that someone said that changed us in some small but significant way. The event might be over, but because something intervened, life goes on a different tack than it would have otherwise.

Try putting yourself in the story. If nothing more, it will be a good exercise in imagination, a gift God gives us to inspire our creativity and stretch our thinking. But there is always a chance of that exercise bringing us new insights, new thoughts, new beliefs, that will take us on a whole new track. It might change our lives--and then, it might just help to change the world.



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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Songs of a People

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As 'Steal away to Jesus'? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great 'Jordan roll'? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot 'swing low'? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
'Nobody knows de trouble I see'?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than 'Go down, Moses.' Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You - you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sting far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, - but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.*  --
James Weldon Johnson


There are people who seem to have so many gifts and talents and abilities that it is almost impossible not to look at them as exceptional. The very brief biography of James Weldon Johnson on the Lectionary page is a long list of positions, talents, and passions that have made him one of those exceptional human beings. During his lifetime (1871-1938), he lived through a period where African Americans were generally not thought of as intelligent or important. Johnson, like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, among many others, proved scoffers wrong.

Among Johnson's greatest gifts was that of a poet and storyteller. His book, God's Trombones, is a short book of sermons in verse, sermons that carry the tones of Black preachers along with the grace and power of a bard.

I ran across a poem of his the other day, one I'd never read before.  It gave me such a lot to think about, especially in these days and times. Johnson connects the music of the spheres and of creation with the songs of the people which express their feelings, strengthen them in hard times, and bolster their faith in a God who was and is always with them.

We have listened to the sounds of great composers, compositions and songs that lift our hearts and inspire us in various ways. The spirituals, created and sung by slaves in the fields, around the fires in the evening, and in church, spoke of their lives and struggles as well as the stories from the Bible that taught not just the stories themselves but principles of Christian living.

Some spirituals like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Wade in the Water," and "Steal Away" gave them directions and signs to look for if they escaped slavery and headed north. What would Christmas be without "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy"? Or Holy Week without "Were You There?" What would campfires at church camp be without "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or "Go Down, Moses"? We have learned these songs and love them, but have we ever thought more deeply about them? Have we ever used them in our own struggles and trials and found hope and deepened faith in them?

We all have songs that come to mind in different situations, be they stressful or happy. Maybe it's a musical version of a prayer or a psalm, a hymn or a song we heard on the radio when we were young. It could be a song of our ethnic history or our geographical area. Perhaps even a lullaby or a song we learned from our grandparents. Music is part of our lives, and part of our faith tradition. Johnson understood this as he spoke of the songs of his people, the music of unheralded bards whose names are known to God alone but whose music still echoes in our hearts and minds.

Johnson reminded his readers that the songs their ancestors had sung are still part of the musical literature. From Girl Scouts to high-school choruses to church choirs, even from the floor of the House of Representatives, people still sing them and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of the tunes and the words. But the closing line is perhaps the crux of the entire poem, the explanation of why these songs are so important.

You [the singers] sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. The songs are our guides to freedom in Christ. They are guides for us to live Christian lives, to think, to pray, and to give thanks to God every day. The music will sing us, members of all races, from the slavery of sin to redemption by grace, from idols of wood and stone to faith in the living God.




*"O Black and Unknown Bards," found at Poemhunter.com; accessed 6/16/16

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 25, 2016.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bernard Mizeki - catechist and martyr

In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations—and Geshem also says it—that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king. You have also set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, “There is a king in Judah!” And now it will be reported to the king according to these words. So come, therefore, and let us confer together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind’; One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his house, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!’ -- Nehemiah 6:6-11

I'd never really considered it, but the church calendar is more than just a way of marking off days of the year like a regular calendar. For each day there are specific readings: those for following the Daily Office, others for the day's liturgy, and, for many days, there is an event, saint, or group of saints, to be commemorated or feasted. The educational part is finding a saint (or group) I'd never really heard of (outside the Daily Office) and reading about them. It's also possible to see something in their lives and struggles that help me with my own. It's like an exercise in identifying what makes a Christian life and how I can learn from the person or persons to live it more fully.

Take the saint for today, a man born in Mozambique named Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe who became a lay catechist and martyr in what was Northern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. He began working for a Portuguese storekeeper in his native village and learned the language the storekeeper spoke. He seemed to be gifted at languages because wherever he went, he learned not only the local tongues but also European and Biblical ones. He sought education from the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, also called the Cowley Fathers) and wanted to become a priest but that was denied him because of his race. Instead, he became a lay catechist and God-propelled teacher, translator, and missioner. He was baptized in 1886 with the name Bernard.

Bernard established a mission to the Mashona in Northern Rhodesia, establishing this at the village of the local chief and at the request of the Bishop of Mashonaland. He lived a simple, normal life, becoming part of the village life and eventually the school teacher for the children. With the chief's permission, he moved the complex close to a grove of trees sacred to the Mashona, but angered some of  the local religious leaders when he removed some of the trees and carved crosses in others.

Bernard used the faith of the Mashona who already believed in one god, Mwari.  He also utilized the deep spiritual lives the villagers already had to teach Christian belief and practice. The mission lasted from 1891-6 and was tremendously effective.

All missionaries were considered to be European colonial government agents, according to many of the black African nationalists. They began an uprising in 1896 and Bernard was warned to flee for his own safety. He refused, believing that Christ had sent him there for a purpose and that he would not leave the people Christ had led him to. On June 18th, he was speared outside his house and mortally wounded. His wife and a helper ran to get blankets and food for him but later reported that there was a blinding light coming from the place where Bernard lay. When they reached the spot, Bernard's body was gone. It has since become a place of reverence and devotion and a great Christian festival takes place there each year.

Bernard was a bridge-builder, not a wall-maker. He lived a simple life, loved the people he shared a village with, and taught children and adults about the greatness of God. He refused to leave when things got tough and it became the place of his martyrdom. This was a true martyrdom, not a false one where people feel they are being persecuted and injured because others disagree with their beliefs and positions. Bernard didn't seek his own greatness, but was rather invested in proclaiming the greatness of God.

How different things are now for us here in the United States. We hear about building walls. Preachers and would-be prophets proclaim the gospel of fear and segregation, individual rights and approval of the elimination of "undesirables," overtly and covertly. Even those supposedly presenting the will of God have seized on a small group of verses and have made an entire doctrinal platform of them. "Love your neighbor," a central tenet of the gospel of Jesus and the work of Bernard Mizeki, seems to have had a clause added, "...Unless they are not 'like us' and oppose 'our' rights and our 'control' over 'our' country."

We have martyrs in our own land, not always religious ones, but ones who represent those whom some of us fear, hate, or find inconvenient or somehow unworthy of sharing our rights and privileges. Unfortunately, children get caught in the crossfire, as do innocent people simply out to have a Bible study, enjoy an evening out, or even attend school or social events. We aren't just talking about building walls around on our southern border but walls that separate communities and groups of people from those who are different.

Bernard didn't build walls between people. Now we want to put our own stamp on everything. Recently we heard that now gigantic corporations want to "sponsor" parts of our national parks, of course, branding them with their own particular logos. It's like setting up a kingship where the individual or corporation is the ruler over something God created and of which we are only stewards.

So what is the answer? What can I learn from Bernard, given the differences between us, including time and place? Of course, courage and perseverance in the face of danger is a big thing, even if it has death staring me in the face. Then there is bridge building by finding commonalities and working with them. A big thing is love; Bernard loved the children of the village and their parents saw that. It brought many of them to Bernard, to learn from him and to enjoy his company. So many lessons, most especially remaining faithful to God and not building our own kingdoms or following those who seek to do that very thing.

"Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."  I think Bernard Mizeki would have agreed with Nehemiah. In fact, he became the example of Nehemiah's words.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Saint of Second Chances

When he [Paul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. -- Acts 9:26-27


His name originally was Joseph.  He was born on Cyprus and was a Levite, one of the priestly class. He was considered to be almost an apostle by the people who knew him and his work, and was given the name Barnabas which meant "son of encouragement" because of his gift of oratory.

A rich man, he was among those who sold all that he had and gave it to the apostles as a token of his dedication and obedience. Beyond that we don't know a lot about his life, although we know of his experiences.

I believe Barnabas should be called the patron saint of second chances. He introduced Paul to Peter and the apostles. Because of Paul's previous persecution of the Christians, the apostles were leery of meeting him; Barnabas, however, stood as his reference and as a bridge to acceptance. Later, he and Paul undertook a mission to preach to the Gentiles in Antioch. The mission was so successful that the two were sent back to Jerusalem to present a much-needed contribution to the struggling church.

They worked together well but there were differences between them. After leaving Jerusalem a second time, following agreement about circumcision of the gentiles, Paul wanted to go visit the already-established churches while Barnabas was of another mind. He wanted to take John Mark with them as they had previously. Paul, remembering that John Mark had bailed out on them on a previous journey, refused. Paul finally left with Silas for Syria, while Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus. Barnabas gave John Mark a second chance and it paid off.

After that we don't know much about Barnabas. He appeared to be still living when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul's words (vss. 9:5-6), written somewhere around 56-7 CE, indicated that the breach between Paul and Barnabas had been repaired and also that Paul had made peace with John Mark who, after Barnabas' death, became Paul's disciple during his imprisonment in Rome.

Barnabas was a man who apparently believed in second chances. Not just once, but twice he spoke up for those in need of a second chance. It seems like he would have been a great person to have around, not just with his gift of oratory or for his value as a disciple, but as a kind of peacemaker, a bridge builder. Heaven knows, we need a few more of those in this world. But where are we going to find them?

There are some people we could think of as bridge builders, people willing to give even enemies a second chance to patch the differences. Desmond Tutu, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, gave victims a second chance. Never before had they had the chance to speak to those who had harmed the and give their personal impact statements. It also gave the oppressors an opportunity to hear the stories of their victims and to repent. It was certainly a landmark event. Many were repentant and even more were forgiving.

Former president Jimmy, at over 90 years of age, still continues to bridge the gap between rich and poor, first-world and third-world communities. Helping to build houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, he also serves as a peacemaker and activist, a supporter of the rights of women and children, and whose foundations help search for cures for diseases. These causes help those around the world in places where they are otherwise voiceless. Who says one person can't make a difference.

There are so many others we hear about and many, many more that we don't. But the thing is that giving others a second chance is a Jesus thing. Whether the fault was with them in the first place, or whether it was because of things beyond their control, they deserve a second chance. Give people second chances, and, with great expectation and hope, those people who are helped are able to turn their lives around and often pay it forward.

Everyone needs second chances from time to time. We need them when we hurt other people, which is why we not only must apologize for the hurt, but so we can to repair the breach. We may make a mistake, and we need a second chance to start over, using what we've learned to avoid making another mistake of the same nature.

We are often skeptical about giving second chances to people who have been imprisoned, addicts, prostitutes, or any one of hundreds of things we fear, disapprove of, or feel scandalized by. Barnabas would probably come to their defense and help them turn themselves around. We want second chances for ourselves but not always for others. It's almost too bad we don't follow in the footprints of Jesus that Barnabas did. After all, Jesus set the standard.

Jesus believed in second chances like the woman by the well; he knew what she had done yet gave her a second chance and she became his first evangelist. Jarius's daughter, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion's slave, Lazarus--all of these represented people being given a second chance. To those surrounding the receivers Jesus gave the opportunity to turn from unbelief to belief, from the feeling of being lost to one of being found, recognized, and set on a new course. Mistakes happen, errors happen, but there should always be an opportunity for a Barnabas to be around.

We all make mistakes. We all want forgiveness. At times we all need a Barnabas to stand with us and to help us to reestablish ourselves. We also have friends who, God willing, are the kind of friends who will do just that. Hopefully, we have family who will see that we have done but also see the person they knew and loved, even though now they look at someone who has done something horrible.

So who can I give a second chance to today, this week, this year? Jesus and Barnabas would probably be the first to step up and say "Here's one; we stand by them. Go find others."


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 11, 2016.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Overwhelmed

He said not: Thou shalt not be troubled, thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be distressed, but He said: thou shalt not be overcome.  -- Julian of Norwich


We had our next-to-last class meeting of our Education for Ministry (EfM) groups last weekend. It's always sad to come to the end of the year, but we still continue our practice of doing a theological reflection (TR) each week. We take a story, Bible passage, picture, poem, commercial, advertisement, or almost anything, and look at it from a number of different angles. We ask what the artifact means to each of us, what the world of the artifact is like, what is broken about it, and what would make it whole. We explore what culture says about it, where we would find something similar in our Christian tradition (Bible, lives of saints, hymns, readings), what our personal position on the artifact is, and what implication or epiphany we have had as a result of listening to others, voicing our own thoughts, and listening for God to put in a word to us. We take this epiphany out into the world and try to incorporate it into our lives and ministries.

This past weekend we had a picture of a group of kayakers negotiating a whitewater run. There were big black rocks on one side, and lots of swirls, eddies, and turbulence in the water. Each paddler seemed intent on making his/her way down the rapids safely, keeping one eye on the water ahead, the other checking periodically the path of the one paddling ahead of them so they could either follow safely or look for a better way of negotiating the rough water.

One thing all of us agreed on was that all of us find ourselves in whitewater now and then, figuratively if not literally. There are times we all have felt we were not in control of what was going on around us. It was probably like what the disciples felt during the storm on Galilee, powerless and full of fear, even with Jesus in the boat with them. But Jesus was sleeping through the whole thing! So the disciples did what most of us do when we're in over our heads: they called on Jesus to get them out of the danger. Now doesn't that sound like something we would do?

Dame Julian certainly seemed to have gasped the concept of whitewater, whether or not she had ever seen the actuality of a stretch of it. She did understand, though, that we would all face trouble, temptation, and distress. Surely her severe illness at the age of 30 would probably count as one of those whitewater experiences, yet upon her recovery she began to have visions that have come to be known as the beginnings of her Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love, a spiritual classic. The visions lead her to become an anchoress at a local church. Julian may have abandoned living in the world, but the world came to her for counsel and direction.

Illness, like many experiences, make us feel we are not in control, and that we are totally helpless.  It's true; we quite often are. Yet Dame Julian has a word for us: "But He said, thou shalt not be overcome." What on earth does that mean? What if we or someone we love die as a result of illness or accident, despite many fervent prayers and assertions that we believe God will heal? What if we are in deep trouble and it seems like God is far away and totally uninterested?

It's not an easy position to be in.

What is it to be overcome? Is it permanent, or can it be temporary? Are there things we can do to get ourselves out of the maelstrom or are we permanently stuck?

What if we could see whitewater as an opportunity? We can learn from turbulence, even if the experience itself is far from pleasant. We can  learn that overwhelmed doesn't necessarily mean overcome. Like kayakers who learn early in their training to right a kayak that flips over, we can learn to see the rapids as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. It is also an opportunity to learn to trust that God will not abandon us.

That may not mean that God is going to resolve all our problems or pull us safely out of every turbulence even if we shout "Help!" at the top of our lungs. What God will do, however, is be the second person in our kayak, the guide leading us onward, the quiet inlet where we can stop and rest.

It's something we can believe in, and that's what Jesus told us to do. It's something to hold on to, even when we feel overwhelmed.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 4, 2016.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Words of Wisdom

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
   and a soft tongue can break bones.
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
   or else, having too much, you will vomit it.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,
   otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.
Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow
   is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.
Like a bad tooth or a lame foot
   is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.
Like vinegar on a wound
   is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
   sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
   and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
   and the
Lord will reward you.
The north wind produces rain,
   and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
   than in a house shared with a contentious wife.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
   so is good news from a far country.
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
   are the righteous who give way before the wicked.
It is not good to eat much honey,
   or to seek honour on top of honour.
Like a city breached, without walls,
   is one who lacks self-control.
  -- Proverbs 25: 15-28

I used to work with a guy named Bob. We didn't work in the same department, but it was a small,
bull-pen type place where everybody was more or less in the same room. Bob had a very dry sense of humor. He had his favorite buzzwords and replies. The one I remembered best was when someone would ask how the day was going, he would always come back with "Same stuff, different day, ground finer."  Of course, he didn't say "stuff", but it became a catch phrase for the whole office.

The lady I called Granny had similar sayings that would pop up from time to time. The first time I went to visit her,  she told me something she said she told every guest. "The first day you're here, we wait on you. The second day, you wait on yourself. The third day you start waiting on us!"  It was all in good fun, but somehow I enjoyed doing a little bit of waiting on them; it was like being part of the family.

Ben Franklin had a similar proverb or saying that was a bit more pointed than Granny's: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." While Mr. Franklin was much more well-known than Granny, she had a gentility and politeness he didn't always exhibit. He did, however, have Poor Richard's Almanac, and hundreds of pithy sayings that stated general truths or pieces of advice. There's one for almost every situation, occasion, or even just for everyday thought.

The book of Proverbs is considered a book of wisdom, sayings and moral lessons that are rather pithy and which convey truths in a commonly-understood language. Granny may have had the saying about the third day, as did Ben Franklin, but Proverbs also has somewhat the same wisdom: "Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor's house, otherwise the neighbor will become weary of you and hate you." The use of similes, comparing two unlike things that usually are preceded by "like," create contrasts that point in the same direction. They become part of the culture by being short and meaningful.

Wisdom often comes in small packages. Jesus tucked a lot of wisdom in words like love, faith, believe. Love your neighbor, faith has made you whole, do not fear--only believe. How often do we forget those bits of wisdom, particularly if they make us uncomfortable or just slip through the cracks of our mental filing system. It's uncomfortable to be asked to love our neighbor, particularly if they are "different" from  us in some way. It's hard to have faith that things will work out, especially when facing things like cancer, poverty, homelessness or the like. It's hard not to be afraid when facing those same things and the uncertainty they bring. It's hard to live in a world out of control-- our control.

"Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control." The world admires people with self-control, people who can stand on the ramparts and appear to be masters of all they survey. We reserve scorn for those we perceive to be without self-control--the addict, the obese, the homeless family living in their car, the mentally ill among others. How is this reflecting what Jesus taught in short, simple terms? How are we different than the crowd picking up stones to cast? Ben Franklin had a few words of wisdom here: "How many observe Christ's birthday; how few his precepts."

Perhaps we need to look for little bits of wisdom that are like shiny shells in the sand. They are easily overlooked and they require a modicum of effort to bend over and pick up, but there is a small slice of the world that can be held in the hand and observed. It can be a tiny piece that can be the linch pin for solving the whole puzzle before us.


Maybe it will remind us to look for the key words - love, faith, believe. And it may provoke other key words that we may have forgotten. Perhaps Ben has a final word of wisdom for this moment: "Work as if you were to last a hundred years. Pray as if you were to die tomorrow."

Proverbs -- words to live by.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 28, 2016.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Gaius, Diotrephes, and the Elder

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
 Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely, how you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
 Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
 Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.
 I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.
 Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name.  - 3 John 1-15


We don't get many letters anymore, except maybe overdue notices from bill collectors and charities, or perhaps some invitations to test drive new cars or establish a new bank account. The art of letter writing has really gone by the wayside, for the most part, replaced by electronic transfer of information via email, Facebook, or Twitter, or the like. We don't write many letters anymore, and the ones that we do are usually thank-you notes, letters of introduction, cover letters for resumes or letters of resignation from a job or position. The Bible, however, has a number of letters in the New Testament; Paul wrote a bunch of them, but we are really not totally sure who wrote the rest.

Case in point, the letter in 3 John, to a man named Gaius and ascribed to someone who may or may not have been named John., In fact, however, the only identification the writer gives is the title of  the Elder.

The Elder's letter is basically to commend Gaius is for good work among his people, their good work in the community, and especially their hospitality to missionaries and evangelists sent to them from outside. The Elder calls them coworkers in the truth. Not everyone, though, came in for acclaim and appreciation. Some of the people were doing just the opposite, to the detriment of the word and the message.

One of these people was named Diotrephes. Evidently he was a leader of a group but was the opposite of Gaius. Diotrephes was rather arrogant, and against the authority of those who sent out the missionaries and evangelists. Evidently the Elder believed that Gaius was Orthodox in his teaching and in the beliefs of the community, partly based on hospitality to the itinerant emissaries. Diotrephes refused to offer hospitality and demanded that others not assist in any way.

There is an unattributed statement that I found somewhere that goes something like "When the other fellow is set in his ways, he is obstinate. When I am, it's just firmness." These days it seems like that little saying is more true than ever, although Gaius and Diotrephes seem to have a touch of it as well.

We welcome those who think like we do or believe like we do, and tend to reject those who don't. We find it in politics and in religion, both subjects which usually don't get discussed at the dinner table. They are threats to our security, our peace of mind, and even our very being, or so we think.

Gaius  was trying to teach his people to accept those who came preaching and who brought them new ideas and new teachings from the group in Jerusalem and other apostolic churches. The Elder warned against those who rejected the message on the belief that theirs was the only right way.

What we want to do is welcome people into our churches, and often we put something outside the door that says "Welcome" or "We welcome everyone!" There are people outside who want so much to believe this is true, but they have been wounded by churches who initially welcomed them but then turned against them for one reason or another.  It's unfortunate, and more than unfortunate, it is tragic.

It is like hundreds of people being hungry and the food kitchen can only feed ten of them. We've got to find a way to stretch the table, and reach more people who are hungry, not necessarily for ham sandwiches or stew, but for a place where they can be who they are, without shame and without further trauma. That is what Jesus wants us to do, to welcome God's children into God's house.

In the letter, the Elder reminds people that another man, Demetrius, has been sent to them as a teacher and a witness to the truth. The people are asked to welcome him. They are also to imitate the good that they see and to reject the evil. That something we should all be looking for. The Elder and the latter by saying he has a lot more to say that he can't do it for would rather not do it in a letter.

Since the letter of  3 John is the shortest of the Johannine letters (something like 242 words), it would be interesting to see what else Elder had to say to Gaius and his community. Unfortunately, like a lot of the letters that we read in the New Testament, will never know the other half of the conversation, nor will we know that the outcome is. That's one thing about Bible stories: they don't always have neat and tidy endings,  leaving no questions and no real sense of what happened next. I have a feeling that in a way that is a good thing, because it creates for us an opportunity to read the story, put ourselves into it, and then make our own ending by the way we think, believe, and act. That's the value of such an inclusion in our sacred texts.

What I take away from 3 John is to listen for authenticity,  and scrutinize those who wish me to pay attention to them. I must listen for truth and not just for the stories or neat packages of plots. There's a world out there that needs many things, authenticity and truth among them. Will I follow Gaius' truth?  How I act will make that determination, both for me and for those with whom I come in contact. It may be a tough row to hoe, but no one ever said life was going to be easy.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 21, 2015