Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Leper's Tale





The sun is very bright today. The glare off the hard-packed road makes my eyes burn.  It’s hot in the sun, but others have taken up all the spaces under the few trees that grow here.  I learned early that a single person sitting alone has a better chance of getting something in the begging bowl than those in a group. It’s as if one person is safer than several together, even though we are all in rags and must repeat the same phrase whenever someone comes close to us.

It’s not easy being a leper, being considered unclean by one and all, and forced to live in very small tents away from the town, and to be dependent on the generosity of others who toss bits of bread and sometimes leftovers from their own tables to us, just as if we were dogs. That’s much like what they consider us, except that even the dogs get a friendly pat or encouraging word now and again.

One advantage to being alone rather than in a group:  I get to hear things others don’t. It’s as if by being nearly invisible, passersby don’t think we can overhear what they are talking about, whether it’s daily household talk, things going on in the town, or even news of the outside world that is important to them. Most of the time I hear their voices but don’t register their words unless it is something I haven’t heard before. Having learned to filter what I hear has been one of the very few good things about my condition.

I am considered a leper. My skin has not thickened, and I haven’t lost my facial features or my fingers and toes.  My disfigurement is that my skin has bleached white areas while the rest of me is the normal color. Still, those white spots have cost me nearly everything. I have lost my home, my family, my clan, my way of making my livelihood, my ability to worship in synagogue, everything.  Someone saw one of my patches and informed the priest who examined me and declared me a leper. In that one second, my world changed. Yes, I’d known about the whitish spots, but I hoped to avoid detection since I didn’t have any other signs, like sores and flesh that seemed to rot and thickening skin.

Today began much as usual, me taking my place by the side of the road, bent over as if to emphasize my “uncleanness.”  People came and went, chattering as they passed by. But this morning I heard something different.  There was a crowd of people coming by the town, which was something to be marked as unusual, important, and possibly threatening. Crowds sometimes taunt us and throw stones, so the sound made me instantly alert to any threat.

I kept hearing this name. I had heard it before, but then, it wasn’t exactly an uncommon name. The chatter I had heard before, though, was about someone who was a great teacher and a miraculous healer.  I knew, or used to know, several men named “Jesus” in our village, but these people surely couldn’t mean any of them, could they?  Still, I kept my ears open for more information about this “Jesus” who was coming down the road toward us.

The closer they came, I could feel the excitement building and the noise as well. It was hard to pick up individual conversations, but I did hear things like “He healed that blind man,” or “He taught with such authority like we’ve never heard from the priests we’ve had before.”  This intrigued me, and yet it isolated me even more. I could pray for healing, but out here, alone and friendless, would God really pay attention?  Would this Jesus even notice me? 

Finally, the procession came past where I had been squatting.  I had to try something, anything, that had even the most remote chance of healing me.  I stood up and approached the man who was undoubtedly the Jesus that the crowd had been speaking of.  Being unclean, and remembering the rules that governed lepers, I stayed a short distance away, but I looked him in the eyes and spoke to him. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”  God only knows where I got the courage to make such a statement, but it felt like it was wrenched out of me, my last hope of healing and curing, my one chance at life. Jesus’ eyes were full of compassion, something I wasn’t used to. Even when I had dared to look people in the eyes in my early days of this existence with my disfigurement, all I saw was fear, disgust, scorn, and dismissal.  These eyes of Jesus were so very different.

When I heard him say, “I do choose. Be made clean!” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. If he had not stretched out a hand and touched me, I would have doubted that I really heard what I thought I had.  I felt a power surge through me, and a tingling in the places where the white skin was.  I looked at one of the discolored spots and saw that it was gone! My skin was all a same color! I could barely wait to go and bathe in the river, to make sure what I felt was real. But this Jesus had an order for me. “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  The bath could wait. I ran as fast as I could. 

The result was that after I was examined thoroughly by the priest, I followed the prescribed rites and ritual sacrifices [i] and then finally got to bathe, wash my clothes, and shave all my hair. I stayed outside my tent, and seven days later, went again to the priest to complete the sacrifices and cleansing rituals. Then I could take my place back in the town, and begin again to build my life, this time full of gratitude to God for the man Jesus and the miraculous healing. I kept my silence about Jesus, just as he asked. I wanted people to know what had happened, but I thought that there would come a time when I could speak.

What change did this all make in my life?  I felt greater pity for the lepers who were not healed, and I made sure I had good hunks of bread and fresh fruit to give them instead of leftovers. They mistrusted me at first, but then began to see me as a friend rather than someone trying to impress others with their generosity while giving away castoffs. I continue this service this to this very day, in honor of Jesus’s kindness to me.

It was almost harder to see the life of the leper from outside the group than when I was part of it.  So many just ignored them or crossed the road to be as far away from them as possible. Yet Jesus had actually touched me in my leprous state.  If Jesus could risk becoming unclean as he ministered to me, then how could I not reciprocate?  I gathered food for the lepers from the houses in the town and shared it among the poor souls who had not received the blessing I had. It became my passion and my calling.

I say unto you, if you see someone less fortunate than yourself, do not be afraid to do what you can to help them. It is the work of God that you will be doing, and God will bless you as God has blessed me. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Learning


Tom Clancy, the great novelist, once said, “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.”  Our early lives focus around family, church, friends, and school. School equals a child's work hours; they're working to learn, and that learning will build, year by year, making successful adults who can function well in the world today.

Of course, school can be a bummer; ask just about any child. It would be so much more fun to be out playing with one's friends or curled up in a chair with a favorite book instead of having to fight through spelling and grammar and math. But now and then, there's a child who really gets into this idea of learning. Anyone who's ever been a teacher can remember cases where they have had children like these in their classes, and what a joy they are. The child's eyes glow when something new is presented and they realize it's something of value. They get excited and they want to dig deeper. It doesn't happen all the time, but it’s absolutely beautiful when it does.

Learning is an activity that is not necessarily confined to the walls of an educational institution. I learned things from my parents and my sibling, I learned from my neighbors, most of whom were much older than I, and definitely wiser. I learned from teachers and professors, and I learned from books. Most of all, I learned from just being in the world, watching how things changed, how people work together or have broken ties with each other over differences of opinion. I still learn every day.

There are moments of “AHA!” or new insight, moments when something suddenly becomes clear that perhaps I have never considered or a shift in thinking about a certain topic or a certain characteristic or even a plan of life or vocation. These need to be fostered because it's all about learning, and about what those new thoughts and insights mean to the individual.

An insight that I've gotten just in the last day or so is that all of us need training in various things. Granted, if one gets a new job, there's going to be a training session or class where the person must learn new procedures and new skills. It's a learning curve. For new parents, it's learning by doing, usually with a lot of helpful advice from grandmothers and others, on how to raise this new being who didn't come with an owner's manual or directions on how to grow a perfect, healthy, successful child. It's about experiencing through living, making mistakes, enjoying successes, and most of all knowing what to take from both successes and failures to make us better at what we’re trying to do.

One of the places we definitely need training in is being Christian. It's not enough to be able to quote scripture passages off the top of the head as if one were playing Jeopardy. It's not about just a learning that this means that in the Bible or this verse amplifies that verse in this book over here, it's learning what life was like in the Bible times, and how did the environment in which the early people lived affected what they thought, believed, and did. The church has an enormous history stretching back 2000 years and its roots much earlier. We need to learn about that history so that we understand how we got to be where we are and how are beliefs changed throughout the centuries.

We need to learn to think about where God is in all of creation and where are we? What is God doing or not doing, and what we are doing or not doing? What purpose do we serve in God's kingdom? What is our place in the world as Christians? What was the message God has given us in the Bible, but framed with the culture of the Bible at the time, then applied to the modern day? Many times, we don't learn these things in Sunday school, but rather in living in a world that's multicultural, as well as multi-faith.  We need to know these things and not just accept that Church A has a very welcoming reputation whereas Church B is more closed and exclusive. The answers all come down to training, and training is just another word for learning. It's something I've come to believe is very important for all, whether infants, children, adults or even elders. None of us knows it all, but we can sure learn a lot more than very possibly what we've been taught before.

I applaud churches that don't just have Bible studies but have studies of the Bible and its world, a world very different from ours and one which, once we understand the culture that produced the Bible, we understand better what it means. Does the Shepherd lead the sheep, or does he follow the sheep and whack them with a crook? That's only one question, but it's a place to start thinking.

I hope I keep learning as long as I live, because I am insatiably curious about so many things. I'm curious about my life as a Christian, and how I reflect that Christian belief in my everyday activities and contacts. I know a lot more than I did, and I continue to learn, not just facts and dates and people but about the intangibles, the things that form opinions, or things that make me go "Aha!"

Each of us needs to continue to learn not just so that we can repeat verbatim a passage or verse but that we understand what that first meant to the first people who heard it and to those who came after them. We can't isolate from the origins of that sacred book. We can't isolate from the culture in which Jesus grew and taught and was executed. We can’t understand the miracle of the resurrection unless we understand what went before. It all comes down to training and learning. We need to be trained to see beyond the modern-day interpretations that impose 21st century culture and understandings on first-century or earlier writings and stories. We need to be more educated Christians, as well as more dedicated.

 Never stop learning. It's worth the investment.

 God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 5, 2018.,

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Words: Useful and Dangerous


Words are fascinating things. I remember Mama reading to me when I was little and couldn't read for myself. The stories were great, with the sound of her voice changing the black marks on the page to adventures and heroes. I learned to read in the first grade, or at least started to, but I really wasn't a fan of reading for myself. That changed in third grade when I had a series of illnesses that kept me at home and Mama didn't have time to stop and read every time I wanted to hear something. So, I learned the value of books and words. I became a voracious reader, something that's stuck to me throughout all the intervening decades.

I like to play with words, making them flow together to convey what I want to say in the way I’d like to say it. Sometimes the tone is a little flat, but that's because I have the wrong word. I used to be left to my own devices to come up with the precise word I wanted, but, thanks be to God, the Internet has saved me a lot of trouble on that one.

I have a word game on my cell phone. I’m given six letters, and a design of empty boxes like a crossword puzzle with no numbers. The idea is to connect three or more letters from those given so that they make an actual word and fill in some of the squares. Sometimes there's a bonus word that's a little harder but uses the same letters. I frequently bang my head against the wall, but I love that stupid game. It's a challenge, especially when I can't see the word pop out at me like most of them do. Sometimes that one word just won't come, so I resort to using the guessing game until suddenly, a word shows up that's correct. What's funny is that sometimes my fingers start trying to start tracing a word that I recognized before I get to the end of it. My brain won't find the words but somewhere in my mind it's there waiting for me to give it a clue.

Words often have connections. This afternoon as I was doing a puzzle one of the words that I found was “death.” It reminded me of the transience of life and how none of us can really escape it. It happens when it happens, whether natural, taken at the hands of others, or lost to disease. Birth comes, life continues, and death happens.

Then I ran into a fourth puzzle and this one, took me aback a little because it had two words related to each other — heaven and haven. It stopped me for a minute because I didn't come up with an immediate association like I had with the other words but then, heaven is a difficult concept for many of us, as much as we are assured in Scripture and in church that after we leave this earth in death we will rise again to be with God.

People have all kinds of ideas about what heaven is and what it's like, everything from angels standing around the throne singing praises to God eternally, nonstop, without end. If I were there, I'd hope they would change the tune every now and then, doing something from Bach, and then maybe from Lauritsen, then maybe a Gregorian chant segueing into Monteverdi. I'll even take a chorus or two of “Just as I Am,” so long as it doesn't last too long or happen too often.

For others heaven is a place where everyone they love will be there waiting for them, and they’ll spend a considerable amount of time greeting people that they have not seen for years and enjoying being with them once again. Some believe that if their dog

or cat, bird, or rabbit who preceded them in death are there waiting, they don't want to go. Heaven to them would be heaven unless that beloved for a person wasn't there with them

So, what's heaven like? I haven't a clue. I can think hopeful thoughts, I can read lots of books with various interpretations, I can discuss it with friends, but all in all, I have no clue. I don't know, and I won't know until the moment comes when I die. Maybe I will find the Jewish afterlife. It’s a place of eternal sleep were God watches over them. No harps, no halos or wings, just a place of eternal sleep, but a sleep that is peaceful for the righteous.

I will probably keep playing my word games, simply because I enjoy them, but mostly to help me keep my mind active and challenged. It bothers me when I can't remember a word (aphasia), and I have to grope around in the recesses of my cortex to try and dig out that word that's on the tip of my tongue, but that very same tongue can't access. Still, words are my way of conveying what I think, what I feel, what I learn, what I observe, what I hear, and the difference it makes to me.

Words are important, too important to be used like bludgeons or sharp knives. Words are too important to waste on gossip and ridicule and bullying. What if we had a world where words were used to build up rather than tear down? I wonder — what would that world be like? What words could we use to build the bridge amongst ourselves as individuals, groups, nations, and universally? If birth comes, life continues, and death happens, what word would bring heaven?

I wish I had all the answers. In a way, I envy those who have gone before me because now, very probably, they have all the answers; they can stop wondering, but they can't tell me no matter how much I ask. I guess one word I need to get used to more than anything else is “ambiguity.” I need to learn to completely trust in ambiguity, trust that I don't need to know all the answers, they will come soon enough. I don't need to understand how the Trinity works, what heaven is like, or whether or not the Cubs will win again this year. Wait, maybe I'll find that out sooner rather than later. But still, I will have words to ask questions, to ponder, to wonder, and to try and pass on what I have learned to others, just as those who have gone before me have taught me.

Thank God for words. And thank God for words that let me express love, especially for those who have gone before and whom I devoutly pray will be waiting for me when my turn comes. They have the answers like the back of the textbook used to!



God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 28, 2018.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ann's Gifts


Along with Education for Ministry (EfM), Episcopal Café, and most of the Episcopal Church as a whole, I am mourning the loss of a mentor, co-mentor, editor, friend, and incredible resource and example, namely Ann Fontaine. So many words have been written about her since her passing this past week that anything I say might seem to be just more of the same. Still, in talking to a friend recently, I realized something about Ann and her passing that gave me one of those insights that I want to hold onto and think about for a while. It was sort of the essence of Ann, especially in her last months, that has been a real learning experience for me, as well as a prime example of grace under pressure. It was also an exercise in grace-full living in her own inimitable style that has touched so many over the years.

I co-mentored with Ann for nearly 10 years and was a member of one of her online groups for two years before that. I never met Ann in person, yet I felt I knew her well enough to trust her implicitly, to learn from her, and to see her through the eyes of so many people.

During a phone conversation with a former group member a day or so ago, we were reminiscing about being in class together and things that we had learned from Ann. I remarked that my current groups have been missing Ann since she stepped down from active mentoring not very long ago. I think we all have been mourning as we read her Facebook posts and then the gentle but honest updates from her daughter Kristen, truly her mother’s daughter in word and action. We followed Ann’s journey, a journey she allowed us to share with her. It was a gift that I, for one, have only just begun to really understand and really appreciate. It was like a final gift that she gave to me and, I’m sure, many others.

The journey of her disease was one that she shared with us both in groups, on Facebook, and in real life. She told us of her doctor visits, of decreasing abilities to walk and to do things that she enjoyed doing, and even just to breathe. In our online groups we heard the sound of the oxygen concentrator that was helping her. We had heard that sound for some time and just let it go unmentioned.  it was something we knew Ann depended on, and that was enough for us. One night something was said about it, and several people said, to the effect of, “Oh yeah, we heard that and just ignored it.” I think that surprised her because she hadn’t realized that we could hear it and we felt it was a sort of sharing. Needless to say, we ignored it again and concentrated on what she had to say about whatever topic we were discussing.

Her lungs might have been weakening, but her mind and heart were as strong as ever. A real clue to her decline was when she stopped commenting “Cubs Win!” I hope she’s got eternal seats for all their games now, and I’m glad she got to see them win the World Series. It was a huge moment for her.

I think, for me, the last gift was her ability to learn to live with something that doesn't have a good ending. Granted, her death came in her sleep, something most of us wish for, and some of us will maybe never get to experience ourselves. But with her usual grace and outright forthcoming, we followed her and saw her ability to occasionally look past the disease to things that gave her joy, things like watching the birds, enjoying a short visit from a friend, notes and emails from people all over the church and probably the world that she had met at various points in her life. Having her beloved husband and daughter at her side, and her family in almost continual contact gave her strength and support. What more could any of us ask for the joy, even when facing the ultimate adversary, death.

All of us need to learn to live with something. It may not be life-threatening, but it might be life-changing in some way, or it might just be a speed bump in the road of life. Learning to live with it with grace, which truly was the gift of God that Ann possessed in abundance, is for all of us. We can all count on this grace if we allow it to work through us. Ann certainly showed us that grace. No doubt she had days where she wanted to rage or express anger at the increasing limitations and especially the lost time she would have with her family, especially the grands. But when push came to shove, she straightened her shoulders, held her head up, and moved on.

I thank God for Ann and her journey. It hasn't been easy, not for anyone who knew and loved her. I want to remember her grace in a dark time for her and for us. I want to remember to enjoy the little things, even the mockingbird mother who keeps chasing my outdoor cats off the patio. That’s trivial, and certainly the cats don't enjoy it, but in a way, it reminds me of Ann. She was never one to let someone get in the way of what she felt was right or just, even if the pecks of the beak were a little too close for comfort many times. That was her gift, and I will miss it greatly. One of our favorite lines in our groups now is to mention Ann every time we forget to use the “I” word. She was not shy about calling us on using “we” or “us” when we needed to use “I” to take responsibility for our own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

Oh, yes, she wasn’t shy about correcting people who misspelled her name as “Anne.”  She was ANN, and that was that. Those who learned the hard way never made the mistake again.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Ann. You will be missed, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see you mentioned in commemoration by the whole church in times to come. It will be a mark of something special for anyone who could say "I knew and Fontaine," and it will be a moment of joy for all of us when we see you in glory for ourselves.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 21, 2018, under the title "Continuing to Remember Ann+."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

D.I.Y. T.R.


I speak often of a group that I belong to and have the honor of mentoring in, and that is Education for Ministry (EfM). For those unfamiliar with the title, it's an educational formation program for laypeople, but is open to clergy who, it may be used as part of a diaconal process or who are already ordained. Most often studied by those who want to know more about the church, the Bible, and most importantly, themselves. It's not a self-help group to resolve problems. It is a four-year program, one year each for Old Testament, New Testament, church history, and theology. By the end of the four years people have a greater understanding of how all those things work together and how they can use what they've learned not only in their church affiliations and lives, but in their personal and professional lives.

One of the basic things that EFMstresses is a concept called theological reflection. It's a way of using tools to examine a potential problem, something that a person would want to think more deeply about, possibly a different way of looking at a familiar Scripture, or as a way of recognizing a position or an action that a person can have or take on a given topic. TR's, theological reflections, come in a lot of forms, but basically, they start at a point, identifying something the person wants to consider and to examine in an organized manner. The goal is to find either an answer or a direction pointing in a direction, often one or the other being something that hadn’t been considered before. This is my personal description of Do-It-Yourself Theological Reflection (DIY TR).

One way of beginning to think about something, once someone has decided they need to think about this a bit more, is to just write down what it is they want to think about. Sometimes it's clear, and sometimes it requires perhaps a little refining. A way EfM does this is to encourage people to create or use a metaphor to visualize the situation they want to work on, whether with others or just with themselves. It doesn't have to be a fancy metaphor. I have used a picture of a man riding a quad runner over a jump when the back wheels come off. To me, that represents a part of my life that is out of control and that I need to deal with. It can be something funny, like the cute YouTube about cat herding, one of my personal favorites, for times when things are going every which way instead of in a general direction. It often helps to find metaphors to use, for instance, when contemplating a piece of Scripture.

We then go into the four areas that we want to examine in relation to our discussion or conversation. Culture, contemporary culture that is, is a way of examining what the world around me thinks about the subject that I am contemplating. For instance, how does culture perceive the problem of safety in schools for children and young people? How does culture reflect the ethics of life that we see in our contemporary world? How do books and magazines represent our culture and how does that affect us? It can also be expanded to include different types of cultures, such as those bound together by country of origin, religion, or perhaps even socioeconomic, racial, or almost any group where community is a group of people who are joined together, whether loosely or tightly, by common goals, interests, and sense of comradery. It's also possible to examine this one area in terms of what socio-cultural life was like in Biblical times if one were considering a TR  based on a passage or piece of Scripture. It may require some research, but research is learning, and learning is a good thing. That's one reason we use theological reflections.

A second area of interest in and examination is the tradition. Generally, we think of it as the Christian tradition, incorporating the Bible, the church traditions of feasts, seasons, and liturgies, the lives of saints, hymns, and religious reading that we have done. One question I can ask is where in Scripture have I found a similar situation to the one that I'm contemplating. Sometimes I have to Google it, other times it springs to mind. There is also the question of where is God in the situation? That is one of the core questions to be brought out during a theological reflection.

There is a third area of reflection, the position statement, which is an "I" statement of what I believe, I think, I feel, and the like. It's the trench I'm willing to die and, more or less, the line in the sand that I don't want to cross. It's how I perceive the situation in relationship to myself and my world around me. It's usually one of the most important parts of the TR because it requires us to articulate very clearly where we stand on the issue under reflection and why. Did we learn it from our parents? Is it the result of study and experience? Does it come from the culture that surrounded us? it could be any one of several ways.

The fourth area is action: What are we going to do about this? This reveals impact on our ministries both in the church and in the world. People don't always realize that the work outside the church is every bit as important as the work inside and is most often a ministry itself. Stay-at-home mother? Someone who helps with the food banks and the homeless shelters? A cheerful receptionist at a busy office? An orderly in hospital? Dishwasher in a restaurant? All have ministries, even if they don’t think of them that way. Even the people who pick up the garbage can be ministers because they are serving a community in a job most of us wouldn't want but which is necessary and can be done cheerfully and thoroughly. So, when we think about our action, we think less about the salary we make and perhaps more about the pleasure and satisfaction we take in doing our job well. What we do is see is God in the world around us, and we become the hands of God to others, even if we never mention religion. It's vital to find God working there with us.

So, what's a TR and how do you know you’ve got one? You have a TR when you think about things in a somewhat structured manner. It takes areas of your life and places the question in the center and then seeing the impact or the change of direction as one progresses through the four areas of interest. How do you know you've got one? That's easy. You find a way for God to work through you, and you understand what you are meant to do to make the kingdom of God appear here on earth. When you figure out the answer to the question, or even a direction towards the answer, then you have probably done so in some sort of reflective way. Remembering to put God into the picture and adding tradition plus culture, position, and action can bring you to a greater understanding of the Bible, the church, the community, the world, and yourself and how all of it works together for the good of all.  Try it; it’s a very spiritual experience.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Community

It seems that our language changes rather rapidly and frequently. There are words we use commonly today that in my childhood 50-60 years ago were never really heard. I'm talking about words like ecology, internet, media, and community. Today, the word community comes more to the forefront of my mind than the others, although there is a relationship between community and media, community and location, community and association, and so on.

I think about our culture. Where I live, we have a plethora of gated communities, where more affluent people live in an atmosphere that seems to be a bit more exclusive and a bit safer, as it were. We have community churches, community hospitals, community banks, or even community parks, kindergartens, community HOAs and clubs.

Culture uses the word community as a great thing, that is, if the insiders get to define what “community” is. I realize that not everyone would agree with me, but I see community as a group of people who are interested in being connected to neighbors, coworkers, fellow church members, people in the neighborhood, and even people we encounter in the neighborhood like shopkeepers, barbers, and service workers. Granted, I am not sure I would consider a garbage collector to be part of my community, but he, or possibly she, really is, as they provide a service that benefits the community I live in. Once I think about it, community is more than just people I know and/or associate with.

There is a negative side of community that we see on almost every newscast, and that is the community of violence, gangs, bullying, drug abuse, and slavery (usually sexual). These communities are exclusive but want to make sure everybody else understands their superiority. It’s a difficult situation, and it isn’t limited to the lower income areas of a city or suburb. It exists on street corners and school grounds, and among both rich and poor, just not in the same groups. Still, it’s a kind of community we need to be conscious of, and remember that these too are children of God, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves (and often we don’t acknowledge it either!)

Thinking of tradition, I wonder how the Israelites would have seen community. I wonder, would there have been a community each of potters, brick makers, weavers, farmers, or the like? Living in a community of people with similar backgrounds or jobs would be beneficial, and there would be a sense of commonality and camaraderie based on a similar occupation. On the journey from Egypt, would each of these individual communities have stayed with their group as the entire Israelite nation left Egypt for an epic journey to which, for them, was God knows where? The priestly class was more prominent, and so I'm pretty sure they would have stuck together, usually around Moses and Aaron, but as for the common people? Who knows.

In the New Testament, Jesus set up a community of disciples, a community which included people who were not simply students, but were supporters, and people needing help that Jesus could provide. After healing, most went back to their original communities and were restored to full membership in those communities because their disability, their disease, or their afflictions, had been relieved and they could now assume a viable and active presence in community life. There were Gentiles who formed their own communities in the land of Israel, and the Romans certainly held themselves aloof from the conquered people, excepting the highest level of Jewish hierarchy.

When Paul and Peter went out into the lands of the Gentiles to preach and convert, Paul dove in, having an understanding the Greek culture and being able to teach in such a way that Greeks could learn from them about Judaism, Jesus, and the Jesus movement. Peter was still somewhat of an impetuous figure. So long as none of his contemporaries from Jerusalem were around, Peter accepted the Gentiles and interacted with them, particularly at meals; but as soon as someone from Jerusalem showed up, suddenly eating with the Gentiles was forbidden, and disapproval of even the more social of contact came into play. How quickly impressions of community can change.

In the present, we who call ourselves Christians attempt to practice our form of community in various ways. Some churches and denominations are very open, welcoming, and inclusive to those who are in some way different, while others want to maintain their separatism as a way of proving that they are following Christ. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, dislike, and even verbal bombs such as heretic, spawn of Satan, unchristian, or unbeliever.

Some communities have begun and continue to take action, looking to and studying continuing icons such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, César Chavez, and many others, all the way back to Jesus himself. For instance, look at the people who, whether Native American or not, joined those who protested the pipeline across Native American land and desecration of Native American holy places. Look at the children who marched just a couple of weeks ago for gun control so that they might have an opportunity to go to school without worrying about whether someone was going to enter their school and take their lives. What about the African-Americans who joined Martin Luther King and others on their marches for equal rights, just like the women who, early in the last century, did their own protest marches to call attention to the fact that they could not vote. Each one of those communities took it upon themselves to bring attention to things that were wrong, things that went against the very idea of community. There are many other illustrations, too many to name here, but if I think about it, I'm sure anyone could come up with a lot more.

Community demands action. Like a marriage, it can't be static. There are always ups and downs, and those ups and downs that must be worked out and compromise arrived at to strengthen the bond and to work communally for better life. In Education for Ministry (EfM), we are reading a book by Verna Dozier in which she puts a perspective on community that would do for most of us to take to heart and really contemplate.

The very essence of God's gift is community — a people called out to witness to the dream of God. The rejection of community is individualism, deified in the American ethos as "rugged individualism.” *

Community, the dream of God, was the reason God created Adam and Eve, the original community that God made to provide help and support. I think the quote is one that I really need to think about even as I continue through Dozier's book and beyond. I wonder, does that quote say anything to one who is seeking to understand community?
  
Something to think about this week.

I also wonder—if Heaven has gates, does that make it a gated community?

God bless.


* Dozier, Verna, A Dream of God. New York: Seabury Press, 2006. Digital.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 7, 2018.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

An Eyewitness Speaks



My name is Miriam. It's a common name in my world, and there were at least three of us who stood at the bottom of the cross yesterday as our leader and Rabbi hung there, a victim of Jewish jealousy and Roman fear of insurrection.

While no women had ever been named disciples or apostles, we women were there to support those who were so named, as well as to enable us to be near Jesus and to learn from and of him. Most of us had means so we were able to help buy food, and we cooked and did such work as was normal for women in our time. It was hard to live, going from place to place as we followed Jesus, but somehow it didn't matter. What was important was being near him and feeling his gentleness, power, and love. He taught us a new way of living, and for that we loved him even more.

The night he went to Gethsemane, we were not permitted to come along. The first we heard of the trouble was when others came back to where we were and told us that Jesus had been arrested. They told us about Judas betraying him, and we all gasped in shock because Judas had been as a brother to us, just like all the others. Yet he had betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It was so hard to comprehend. It was Judas who pointed Jesus out to the Roman soldiers who invaded Gethsemane and bound Jesus’s hands behind his back before pushing him back towards the city itself and Herod’s praetorium. Now we knew where Peter had gone.

We heard the next morning the Jesus was going to be crucified. It was a shameful form of execution, with no dignity given to the accused, no pity, and no empathy. We ran to Golgotha, the place of the skull, and we waited as he was brought up the hill, with a stranger carrying his cross for him. Jesus had been beaten severely and savagely, and he had a crown of thorns on his head which made his scalp bleed profusely. The stripes on his back were bloody and deep, and his hands and knees were scraped and raw because he had fallen several times under the weight of that wooden cross they had forced them to carry.

Finally, they forced Jesus to lie down on the crossed pieces of wood and hammered nails into his wrists and into the sides of his heels. Many who had experienced this screamed in agony, but Jesus uttered not a single sound. They hoisted the cross up so that his whole weight hung by those nails in his wrists. We could hear him as he gasped for breath, and occasionally he would try to push himself upright to take the strain off his arms so that he could breathe more easily. It was a painful struggle, and painful to watch.

We moved close to the foot of the cross, close enough for him to see us women and to know that we were with him. The only disciple that came with us was his beloved John. The others stayed hidden for fear of being arrested themselves.

We could see the blood flowing from wounds. It must have been agony every time his back moved against the rough wood of the cross, but still he said nothing. Jesus spoke out several times, not in screams of agony or even moans of deep pain. At one time he began to recite a psalm,” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It was as if for the very first time in his entire life Jesus felt deserted, and at a time when he most needed the comforting presence of God. It must have broken Jesus's heart, for we saw tears running down his face and there was nothing we could do to comfort him. At the end he cried out one last time, "It is finished. Into thy hands I commend my spirit," and with a shudder he died.

His side was pierced with a lance, just to make sure he was dead. They took him down after a while, and a rich man who had followed Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, claimed the body. After wrapping it in linen, his men carried the body away. Most executed criminals were not given such treatment, but Joseph was influential, and when he asked, Jesus body was given to him. It was getting close to sunset, so they hurried to a new tomb that had been carved out of rock, Joseph’s own future tomb. They placed the body on the stone slab and quickly rolled the stone across the face of it before rushing home for the beginning of Sabbath.

Our own Sabbath came, and we gathered in an upper room, men and women alike, mourning the loss of our teacher, our spiritual guide, and our friend. There were wails and sobs, but we weren't allowed to truly mourn because it was the Sabbath and mourning was forbidden on the Sabbath. Still we sat, tears running down our cheeks, as we spoke of Jesus. We spoke of the lessons that he had tried to teach us, the prayers he taught us, the happy moments, as well as the sad moments we spent with him. It was all we could do to try to understand this loss; it was so great yet could not really be expressed. Had it been any other day of the week, we women would have gone to the tomb and anointed his body with herbs and spices and then wrapped him in clean linen and then left him in that tomb. Being the Sabbath, however, we were not permitted to do that, or even really to leave the house except to go to synagogue or the temple. That day which you call Holy Saturday seemed like it was a million years long. Only when the sun set could we thank God the Father that we had made it through that horrible, empty, lonely day.

You of course know the rest of the story. You know what happened on that first day of the week when sunrise came, and we could leave to go and do what we needed to do. It's no surprise to you, but to us it was incredulous, unbelievable, and confusing. Then we went back and told the others and they came and saw what we had seen, an empty tomb.

On the first day of the week, the day you call Easter, you express the joy that we felt when we found why the tomb was empty, when we saw our beloved Rabbi among us again, and could hear his voice once again preaching, teaching, and being among us despite scars that remained on his body.

May you have a blessed Easter — tomorrow. Today, remember us who were so lost and so disconsolate but who ultimately witnessed a miracle called the resurrection.

God bless.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 31, 2018, under the title "Eyewitness."





Saturday, March 24, 2018

Commemoration of Óscar Romero


It was a peaceful day in an area known for strife and murder. Inside the convent chapel, the priest elevated the host in the great moment of the mass. Suddenly a shot rang out and the priest slumped to the floor. The assassins quietly left the chapel and drove off, leaving the scene of horror for the nuns who witnessed it. The priest was the Archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, and he was dead.

Archbishop Romero was and is known in El Salvador for his fight for human and civil rights. The corrupt government of El Salvador in Romero’s time made life easy for the rich, but extremely hard for those who scrape their livings off the meager grounds that they could use. Gangs moved freely and usually with governmental permission to kidnap, rape, torture or kill almost at will. Dissension was ruthlessly stamped out. Romero fought the government and in return, he paid for it with his life.

In 1980, when Romero’s assassination occurred, the idea of a shooting in a church, especially in a Roman Catholic Church in a Roman Catholic country with the Archbishop of the country being gunned down was a horrifying story for the news to carry. Things like that just didn't happen.

I remember soon after arriving in the Philippines in 1970 for a three-year tour with my husband, and hearing that not all that long before, the mayor of a neighboring town and part of his family were killed by insurgents who came into the church during mass, selected their targets and shot them. That was hard to believe, and that was in the 1970s and in a country where seeing people walk around with submachine guns was common. I see somewhat the same thing now, only people carrying assault weapons.

Romero was a hero to his people and, after his death, his countrymen and others within civil rights communities around the world considered him a saint for his stand against oppression and cruelty. That he should die, especially in the way that he did, just increased the visibility of the problems.

In 1997, the martyred archbishop was beatified and made a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II. Recently, Pope Francis stated that Romero would be made an official saint sometime in the next year. The road to sainthood is almost complete, but I don't think Romero would be overjoyed. Long before the Pope declared it, he was a servant of God and a servant of his people. His life was dedicated to his flocks and they knew it. They felt the intensity of his care and his love for them, and they responded to it. They felt God working through him.

Romero was a martyr. He was doing his job. He was preaching the gospel. He was paying attention to the things that were wrong and trying to enable the kingdom of God on earth in his country. The oppression continued in El Salvador until 1992, when the government was overthrown, and the slaughter ceased. Among the dead were 75,000 according to the UN, and included Romero, four Maryknoll sisters and nine Jesuits who died two years after Romero. They are also included in the commemoration of his day as the martyrs of El Salvador.

During the upcoming holy week, we focus on the martyrdom of Jesus on Good Friday. An innocent man, falsely convicted, decried by the temple, the Romans, and ordinary people. Jesus died for his faith and for his teachings, just as Romero did. Romero's execution took his life in a matter of heartbeats while Jesus is martyrdom took hours. While we observe Good Friday and all that it entails, perhaps looking back on the teachings of Jesus and how martyrs all around the world have met their ends violently for those same beliefs and their attempts to follow Jesus as best they understand.

This week I think I'll remember Romero and all the martyrs for the faith who died trying to do their best to follow the will of God and to help their neighbor by loving them and caring for them. Good Friday will have an adequate memorial for the death of the One who inspired Romero and all the martyrs, and so it's worth taking the time to see those martyrs around the foot of the cross praying, crying, and resolving to not let that death be in vain. For Romero, Easter would come, not in 1980, the year of his death, but it would come and with it the resurrection.

Have a blessed holy week.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 24, 2018.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

St. Patrick's Breastplate


St. Patrick's Day, a day when things turn green. People wear green T-shirts, eat green bagels, drink green beer, stuff themselves with corned beef and cabbage and potatoes, and in short, party. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are actually Irish, of Irish descent, or even adopted Irish. Everybody’s Irish (except for those who are of Orange descent and sometimes even Orangemen). All of this is in honor of the saint known as St. Patrick, a patron saint of Ireland.

Patrick wasn't actually Irish. He was born in Britain around 390, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates in his early teens and sold as a slave in Ireland. He really was not too interested in religion, even though his family were Christians, but his stint in slavery gave him lots of time to discover an interest and a deepening faith. Upon his return to Britain, after escaping slavery, he returned to his family, and eventually became a priest himself.

Several years after his ordination, he was sent back to Ireland as a missionary and evangelist. Through him, many of the Picts and Anglo Saxons were converted to Christianity, as well as many Celts. One reason for his success was his ability to meld Celtic and Christian symbols, belief and practices together, with each faction finding things they could accept and practice, such as the possibly apocryphal story of his explaining the Trinity by using a 3-leafed shamrock. Given his early slavery in Ireland, Patrick was a staunch opponent of slavery and made his beliefs about this quite clear.

Patrick wrote a spiritual diary, of sorts, detailing his spiritual progress and his shortcomings. This book, known as Confessio was a glimpse into his deep spirituality and is a classic of early Christian writings.

One of his best-loved lot attributions was what is called Saint Patrick’s Breastplate or the Lorica of Saint Patrick. It's a very Celtic kind of prayer such as would be prayed by one facing a dangerous journey (which was the alleged reason for its writing) or even from everyday perils. Layer by layer Patrick sought to surround himself with the blessings of the Trinity, the company of heaven, natural forces of earth and the heavens, God’s care for every aspect of his life, and, in a pair of verses not usually read with the Lorica, asked protection from Satan, heresy, sin, idolatry, wizard’s craft, death-wounds, burning, choking, and poison. This prayer was his armor, his mental buckling on of impenetrable mental and spiritual protection.

It's a beautiful prayer. We have it in our hymnal (Hymnal 1982, #370 1), as do other churches within the communion. It's generally sung around St. Patrick's Day but also at times of ordinations and consecrations, or just about any time a long processional is needed.

Our most familiar translation of the Breastplate is a poetic one done by Cecil Villiers Stanford.The first group of verses is very lyrical, then comes a center section that changes in meter and in a different mode of description. This is the part that always makes me feel as if I were wrapped in a soft warm blanket when I read it or sing it. In the hymn book it lies as verse six:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ and mouth of friend and stranger.


I can't think of a prayer that so completely puts me in the hand of Jesus.  Christ is present in all planes and dimensions of my being.

In another, more literal, translation, it comes even closer, I think:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.2


It seems to me that everything that I am and do should reflect the Christ that surrounds me, fills me, and directs me. I think it's a wonderful prayer for all of us in times of trouble, because it reminds us that Jesus is all that we are, have, and will be. Patrick's confidence was amply displayed when he prayed this prayer.

If, on Sunday, I find myself in church, singing, "I bind unto myself today," I won’t groan because it takes up about 2 1/2 pages of the hymnal, because it seems boring (which I don’t find it at all), or "What's that weird part in the middle?” I try to read the words as I sing them and try to understand what Patrick or whoever wrote it was trying to accomplish with this prayer. It was a very personal prayer and a very Celtic one, possibly derived from a type of pagan prayer called a “binding spell.” Patrick’s adoption of Celtic tradition to incorporate into worship was one of his great abilities. It's a pretty good prayer to consider even if I only read it once or twice a year. Saint Patrick has left me a nice warm blanket to help me feel safe and loved, because the world of the Trinity is a world of love – and, on one day of the year, a world of green things and camaraderie among all manner of folk.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

God bless.


NOTES:

  1. Hymnal 1982, Church Hymnal Corporation, New York (1985), #370. Words attributed to Patrick (372-466), translated by Cecil Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Verse 6 is sung to the tune of Deirdre, one of the oldest known pieces of Irish music. The remaining verses are given the tune name St Patrick’s Breastplate.
  2. St. Patrick's Breastplate, publisher unknown, Translation by Kuno Meyer ca. 1920.
  3. St Patrick’s Breastplate is also known as “The Deer’s Cry”.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, March 17, 2018.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Entanglements




I have recently taken up knitting again. I used to do it, probably 30 years ago or more, but I got away from it for some reason. In Arizona, all the sweaters, heavy shawls, afghans, and ponchos are seldom needed, but it's a temptation to do handcrafts just for the pure pleasure of it. Still, with yarn come tangles.

The other day I bought a skein that had obviously been at least partially used and just put back on the shelf, half in the skein in half out. Since it was the only skein of that yarn in the three cities around which I circulate, I bought it, and promptly spent a number of hours that day and the day after, trying to untangle the mess that someone had left. I finally got aggravated in one spot and just cut first one end and then the other end of the tangle, and that was that. Normally I am very good at untangling tangles. I actually like doing it: fishing line, clothes line, yarn, macramé string, kite string, I like untangling them all. I can spend hours doing it and not really get frustrated. My fingers in a way seem to know where the yarn needs to be teased apart just to find where the main knot or tangle is, and the best way to get it straightened out.

As much as I don’t really mind tangled yarn, I hate tangled thinking and tangled words. I have occasional aphasia, which makes me use the wrong word. It absolutely aggravates me beyond all measure. I have no patience with aphasia whatsoever. I have trouble thinking of it as just another form of tangle that needs to be undone. So, the neurons in the communications center of my brain get tangled up every now and then, so what? It's just that for somebody who likes words as much as I do, I find it frustrating when I know perfectly well what I want to say, but it comes out wrong because my brain told my tongue to say something different.

Tangles or entanglements or entangling shows up occasionally in the Bible. Probably the one that's easiest for me to understand is when the Pharisees surrounded Jesus and tried to trap him by getting him tangled up in his words. Jesus’s facility with words confounded the ones trying to entangle him and they walked away frustrated. There are several other references, one of which is when Moses and the Israelites were in the desert and, having walked a fair way in one direction, turned around and headed back the way they came to try to confuse Pharaoh’s soldiers who were trying to get them back to Egypt. Another tangle -- Moses was one who had a tangled tongue. His brother Aaron was chosen as spokesman for Moses when Moses needed to give God’s words to the people.

I seem to run into entanglements in my personal life quite often. It's so easy to get tangled up, especially when I leap before you look. I confess, although I tend to hang back on many occasions, there others were I indulgently leap forward only to find out the nice comfortable dry shore that I'm trying to reach is either out of range and I'm going to get wet or I fall face first into a rock. Each time I do that I think that I really should have done it differently, but somehow, in the course of life, I usually forget that until it's too late again. Confessions of a slow learner.

It's sometimes difficult to listen to news stories and soundbites that feature people who seem to talk in such a way as to tangle up what they actually mean with what they actually say. It's hard these days to know what's real and what isn't, because what's announced joyfully on one network is squashed and totally different on another. Even the people who are giving us the information tangle it up. How many times have we heard someone say that something is going to happen only to be told the next day, well, we really didn't mean it that way. It's like being in a giant tangle of fishing line, very fine fishing line, and trying to untangle it seems like almost impossible task.

I don’t think God really intends for us to be tangled up. The 10 Commandments are relatively straightforward, even though we have to remember that in some ways some of them are now interpreted slightly differently than what has been done when God first gave them to Moses. I often wonder why God didn't put in some other things that may be would be helpful, like “Thou shalt not speed on the highway,” or “Thou shalt not be spit on the sidewalk,” or “Be polite; a smile won’t kill you."  

Okay, most of those are covered with some commandment or other, but not all of them can be read literally. Today we consider “Thou shalt not kill” to mean we shouldn't commit murder and looking at the statistics on the television and the radio, a lot of people ignore that one completely. Then you have the folks who argue that killing anyone is murder, although in wartime it’s perfectly fine. One side is urged to kill the other and vice versa. Whether or not it's killing seems to depend solely on one's position.  And then again there are those who believe in the "I've got mine, too bad about you," the folks who have what they want and need but do not feel it's necessary to share with those who are less fortunate, even small children who starve to death in our own country. Some will tell us all “Well, it's their own fault. They shouldn't have had the children if they couldn't afford to feed them,” or “It's not my job to take care of somebody else's kids.” But just wait until their child gets sick. They are the ones demanding that their insurance cover everything and that their child get the very best treatment possible. Meanwhile, maybe just across town, homeless child dies from a very preventative illness, but without any medical care or insurance, there's nothing their parents can do for them.

We've got a lot of problems these days, individual and collective, that we need to get straightened out. I know I do, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this ark. Jesus’s solution, I think, to being in tangled is to be to be simple, to read and follow the Beatitudes, and mostly to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. That's a pretty simple group of words, and almost impossible to get tangled up in. Simple solutions to complex problems? Why not? Those complex problems started out pretty simple ones, but nobody paid attention.

Perhaps it's time for us to go back to the simple ways. To be community, to look out after one another, and try to avoid tangling the fishing line or the knitting yarn or the kite strings. Remember K. I. S. S.,” Keep it simple, ******”. I don't think we necessarily need to call ourselves or anybody else by pejoratives, but keep it simple. The message that God gives us over and over and over again in the Bible to love your God, love your neighbor as yourself. How much simpler can it be?

I'll probably continue to untangle knitting yarns, crochet thread, and boardroom flaws, although I think kite strings and fishing line are out of my lifestyle currently in my life. Maybe I should do with my own life what I try to do with the yarn -- keep it simple, avoid entanglements, work patiently, and take my time. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 10, 2018.