Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Song of Thanksgiving

Reading from the Commemoration of Cecelia

Then the three with one voice praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace:
‘Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors,
   and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
And blessed is your glorious, holy name,
   and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,
   and to be extolled and highly glorified for ever. 
Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne on the cherubim,
   and to be praised and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom,
   and to be extolled and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven,
   and to be sung and glorified for ever.

 ‘Let the earth bless the Lord;
   let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

All who worship the Lord, bless the God of gods,
   sing praise to him and give thanks to him,
   for his mercy endures for ever.’  - Azariah 1:28-34, 52-59, 68

When I first became an Episcopalian, we were using the 1928 prayer book. It was one of the things that drew me to the church in the first place. Another was the corporate chanting the canticles for Morning Prayer, including one called Benedictus es, Domine which was one our parish used after the reading of the first lesson. Standing in the little church, built in 1697, it was like being surrounded by all those who had stood where I did, chanting the same words. It was a feeling of being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

We only chanted verses 28-34 of this morning's reading. but then, we didn't hear a lot about the apocryphal writings. It has been a joy to discover the origins of one of my favorite chants and find that there is so much more there.

The Song of the Three Young Men was an addition to the book of Daniel, and was said to be praises to God as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood in the fiery furnace where they had been thrown by Nebuchadrezzar for refusal to worship an idol. Instead of seeing them die horribly, those who witnessed saw not three who had gone in but also a fourth, and none of them had so much as a hair singed. The song reported here was sung by Abednego (Azariah) and was a catalogue of creation, animate and inanimate, and which blessed or conferred on God a part of their own beings and not just mere words. In the concluding verse, Azariah calls for those who worship God to bless, praise and thank God. That part about thanking is particularly important this week when we celebrate the holiday we call Thanksgiving.

Think of Thanksgiving and most folks will visualize a big, golden-brown baked turkey on a platter surrounded by dishes of various sorts from mashed potatoes to green bean casserole to jewel-like cranberry sauce. A few will be industriously making lists and checking newspaper ads for Black Friday sales the next day. The intent of Thanksgiving, however, is focused in the word itself -- giving thanks for all the blessings we enjoy (and maybe some we don't really consider joyous but for which we feel we should give thanks anyway). We are encouraged to stop and give thanks not only to God but for those who surround us daily: our families and friends, a roof over our heads when so many go without, clean air and water (which again, so many do without), the ability to go to church (or not) at the church of one's own choosing, the ability to disagree and debate without fear of imprisonment or death, and so many other things. Once a year we are reminded to be thankful for what we have, and encouraged to not just sit down to a long table surrounded by family and great quantities of food but to also remember the homeless and hungry by volunteering at soup kitchens and food banks.

It is also a time to bless God and be thankful for the gifts we have received over the past year -- or even years. Among the things I am grateful for are health which, even if not perfect, is still far more than so many deal with. I am grateful for friends who love, support and accept me, even when I'm cranky. I am grateful for the four furry kids I call my boys (even though one's a girl) who give me a reason to get up in the morning (a demand, really), and for the roof we have over our heads, the food on our plates and bowls, a furnace that works in the winter and an air conditioner in the summer. I'm grateful for the Episcopal Church of the Nativity which feeds and supports me spiritually.

Included in my thanksgiving this year is gratitude for Episcopal Café, Daily Episcopalian, and especially Speaking to the Soul where I have been able to share my  reflections on scripture and other topics. I am grateful to Jim Naughton, who allowed me to share in this unique and respected site, and for Ann Fontaine who encouraged, questioned, edited and illustrated what I wrote. I am thankful for Jon White, our new chief, and for those exceptionally talented people with whom I work and who have offered so many "AHA!" moments. Most of all, I am thankful for the people who read and have read what I've written, whether or not they comment or "like" what I've said. It is a feeling of awe that comes knowing that my words are heard beyond the front door of my house and that perhaps someone might find something of value in them.

May all of you have a blessed Thanksgiving next week, and may we all remember to join all of creation in blessing, honoring and thanking God for our many blessings.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 22, 2014.
Happy birthday Ann!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Electing Mercy

My brothers and sisters,do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet', have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement. -- James 2:1-13

The recent mid-term elections are over. The campaign rhetoric is done, the back-slapping of the winners has died down as surely as the campaign posters of the losers have disappeared from the roadsides and front lawns of supporters. Dissection of the electoral process has pretty much ended and now comes the period where the work has to begin.

Reading the lesson from James this morning, I couldn't help but reflect on the election through James's lens. What I saw in the last electoral process was a combination of what James was talking about -- the choosing of the rich to the detriment of the poor, disenfranchisement of people who should have had the right to vote but who were denied it, and promises to further shut down or cripple programs designed to help the neediest in our society. To say it is somewhat disheartening is a bit of an understatement; it is more like a feeling that the collapse of the Roman Empire was nothing compared to what is coming for us.

Everybody has ideas and beliefs that firmly endorse and for which they stand. Be it a favorite color, drink, book, fashion designer or whatever, there are things we like and things we definitely don't. Usually, though, choices of colors or drinks or designers won't affect the rest of the world, unlike choices between political ideologies or religious beliefs. Those two things have caused a world of hurt for millennia and it hasn't stopped.

Even when it comes to the Bible we have parts we like and take very seriously and other parts we ignore or pay lip service only. There are lots of passages in both testaments about taking care of others -- the poor, widows, orphans, prisoners, the hungry, the sick, the dying -- but nothing about "Me first, then maybe somebody else if there's any left over." Is salvation about saying the right words once and then going on as usual, or does it involve a change in thought and behavior? Is grace only for the rich who contribute liberally to the church but not much if any to outside organizations  who tend to the poor and oppressed elsewhere?  Is our giving tinged with a bit of "There but for the grace of God go I" or is it a matter of image, our image in the eyes of others who are watching us?

Then there's that tricky thing called mercy. We thoroughly expect mercy to be extended to us, but are we as careful to extend it to others? What about to those of a different race, religion or orientation?  What about to those who may not dress as well or whose vehicle is older, shabbier and of a cheaper brand? Do we value people based on their income or their humanity, something we all share?

What would Jesus do? He never put himself first and I don't think he expects us to do it either. When Jesus spoke the parable of the lost sheep, I don't think he had in mind that the one sheep represented the rich while the ninety-nine were the poor and even middle-class. But then, maybe that one lost sheep  needs the shepherding because it is determined to go its own way while the ninety-nine stay together for mutual help and support.

We can hold on to the hope that eventually mercy will overcome judgment, but it's for sure that it probably isn't going to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, it might be a good thing to extend mercy to those with whom we come in contact who may have experienced a dearth of it. One person doing one small act of charity or mercy may not change the world but it may change another person. What if that were multiplied by 10 or 100 or even 1000 small acts?  Like ripples in a pool, mercy could spread outwards and help change what one person surely could not.

It's worth a shot. Maybe in the next election mercy could be on the ballot?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 15, 2014.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Needing a Little Help

Reading from the Commemoration of James Theodore Holly (alt. date)

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  Acts 8:26-39

Sometimes we all need a little help. I've had times in my life where I've felt like I was banging my head against a wall trying to figure out something, being too stubborn to ask for help with what I thought I should be able to figure out on my own but couldn't. In the end, it took someone else who could not just solve the problem but tell me how and why that solution worked.

The Ethiopian eunuch needed some of that help. As the overseer of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia, he was undoubtedly an educated man and evidently multilingual in both speech and text. He was puzzled by the passage in the book of Isaiah (53:7-8) and, as is often the case, someone came along to shed light on the problem. Philip, a deacon and evangelist, followed instructions from an angel and the Spirit to go south along a certain road and there he heard the Ethiopian reading. When asked about his understanding, the Ethiopian admitted he needed help so Philip joined him in the chariot and began to explain the prophecy as it applied to Jesus. As a result, the eunuch asked for and received baptism from Philip before Philip was whisked off and the Ethiopian resumed his journey home.

We, like the eunuch, can read scripture and not always understand what it means. We can have our own ideas or understandings we gained listening to sermons and Bible studies. Sometimes we read or hear something that challenges the way we understand a particular passage and it can confuse us. There are times we reject the challenge out of hand, but sometimes it makes us dig deeper and in new directions, showing us a new way of seeing that we hadn't considered before. The eunuch was open to receive what Philip showed him and it changed his way of thinking and understanding.

It isn't always necessary to accept a new way of thinking or new interpretation, but I think it is important to give it fair consideration. Should we reject it simply because it's not the way we've always heard it or believed it? Is it out of the question because we've never heard or done it that way before? Is it a message that takes us forward or backward? Does it build the kingdom of God or tear it down? Who is our teacher and to whom should we listen?

Everyone needs help at some point in time. In a time and culture where individualism is stressed and everyone is supposed to be self-sufficient, able to solve their own problems without outside assistance. Of course, it isn't that way at all, but we try to maintain the façade because that is what is expected of us. Sometimes it takes a healthy dose of humility to ask for help when we need it, and humility is a rather unpopular virtue in this day and age. When we do bring ourselves to ask for help or guidance, we run the risk of rejection which is something none of us ever really wants. On the other hand, though, we may open the door to a new understanding or new skill, and we have given someone the opportunity to be the teacher, to share their own wisdom and show us a different way of solving a problem we couldn't solve on our own.

When we ask God for help in understanding, sometimes we find someone has been placed in our path who will give us just what it was that we need. For the eunuch, it was Philip. For us, it could be a priest or pastor, a co-worker, a good friend, a family member or a total stranger. The thing is,  as we journey along our everyday lives, we may encounter a Philip who will give us an answer to a question that perhaps we didn't know we had.

Today I need to be open to the Philips I meet, people who may in some way make me see and understand things differently than before. I may not ask for or even know I need that answer, but it will be there if I am paying attention.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 8, 2014.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Whose life is it anyway?

Not long ago, the House of Lords in London undertook a consideration of physician-assisted death and whether or not it should be made legal in Britain. It has also been a topic here in the US, most recently about a young woman, newly married, who has an inoperable and incurable form of cancer and who has indicated she will pursue physician-assisted suicide (PAS), Death, however, is not a topic not discussed easily or often. It's not usually a topic for dinner-table conversations, lessons at school or even mentioned at church. It is, though, a very important topic because it is something we all have in common: all of us will ultimately die, and avoiding the topic does not make it any less final.

The objective of physician-assisted death is to enable people to have some control over their lives when there is really not much anyone, including physicians, can do to either postpone the inevitable or mitigate its effects on both patient and family. We hear stories of people passing quietly in bed with little fuss and seemingly no pain and that's the way I think most of us would like to go when our time comes. It doesn't always work that way, though. Death can be very painful, prolonged and, unfortunately, messy. That in itself, as much as for the sake of everyone being aware of the wishes of their loved ones, is all the more reason we need to talk about it while it is still distant enough for us to be objective about it, or as objective as we can be about confronting our own mortality.

The older we get, the more we think about death, willingly or unwillingly. Young people may think they are invincible but they die too, mostly due to accident, murder or even suicide. Older folks, though, see family and friends pass, and their own declining health makes the specter of death more real, whether or not they want to consider it any more than a teenager would. We don't like to think of being incapacitated, dealing with excruciating pain, being frozen in immobility, having to have people change diapers for us like we were infants, or losing the mental acuity that made us who we were. We are told that palliative care, care that allows us the greatest quality of life possible at the time through medications and sometimes machines, should be sufficient to get us through death's door with as little loss of dignity as possible, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes we just want to feel we still can make decisions for ourselves about how we want to live -- and how we want to die.

In the US, several states have already given electoral approval to physician-assisted death, where it should be available, under what circumstances, and with what restrictions. Their laws are fairly clear: the person must have their full faculties but have been diagnosed as terminally ill with  six months or less left to live, and having made a clear declaration of their desire to have control over when they feel their life is no longer bearable. A form stating the desire and intent has to be witnessed by two separate medical professionals who have no relationship, professional or otherwise, to each other or to the patient so there is no chance of ulterior motive in the death. The medications must be self-administered or administered on the direct orders of the patient. It sounds pretty straightforward, but nothing this side of heaven is totally straightforward it seems.

There was and still is a lot of controversy surrounding such a law or bill, mostly from those who claim religious beliefs and strong pro-life convictions. It is claimed that it is a slippery slope which, once passed, will allow others to euthanize relatives and others who they deem as unnecessary, too much of a burden or too expensive to care for. Statistics have shown that not all who are facing fairly immediate end-of-life issues have an interest in physician-assisted death and of those who are, even fewer request the service. Of those requesting, not all go through with it. Some die naturally without any intervention and others decide to opt out of it. So the actual number of such deaths is a few percentage points of total deaths, but it gives the terminally ill the choice they may  want and feel they  need.

It is compared, in a simplistic way, to taking a suffering cat to the veterinarian to be put to sleep when there seems to be little else to do other than watch the cat die in pain that could be alleviated by euthanasia. It is often said that we treat our sick and dying pets with more compassion than we do our fellow humans.

Religion-wise, those who object most to the bill are those with religious convictions they claim are firmly pro-life. They are very much against abortion, usually not approving of any form of birth control, and unwilling to allow women and their doctors to make decisions about the continuation of a pregnancy caused by (a) rape or incest, (b) a fetus with severe birth defects that will lead to a very short and painful life after birth, and (c) when the life of the mother (who may have other small children to consider) is at risk due to the pregnancy. Now they are also focused on how aged, infirm and/or terminally ill adults should live out their final days, whether or not they know the patient, the circumstances, the patient's wishes or religious beliefs. It comes down to who gets to make the decisions about how that patient's life should be lived -- and how it ends.

In the case of the House of Lords' consideration of the matter, what is somewhat surprising is the stance of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lord George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quite conservative on most issues; however, he is firmly in favor of passage of the bill. At odds is the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, who is very much against it. A third archbishop, Desmond Tutu, formerly of South Africa, is equally firmly in the pro camp. I wonder if his battle with cancer gives him a clearer view of the ramifications as much as the prolonged treatment and death of his friend Nelson Mandela.

No doctor can say for certain when a person is going to die. They can guesstimate, based on symptoms, test results, and experience, but doctors are not omniscient. They tell a person that they have six months and that patient may die by week’s end or go on for years. It’s a crapshoot. PAS is intended to give the patient some control over when they feel their quality of life is compromised beyond any hope of redemption. It allows them to make a decision while they are still of sound of mental state, to say, “Here is my line in the sand; beyond this I do not want to go.”

There is a lot of concern that if a general physician-assisted dying law is passed, it would  mean a wholesale slaughter of the mentally incompetent, the disabled, and others deemed unworthy of life, and that is a slippery slope nobody wants to go down. There are some families who, burdened by the care of an elderly, handicapped or terminally ill member, take the decision in their own hands. They usually end up in court for murder, no matter whether their intentions were in accordance with the patient’s wishes or not. There are also many doctors who believe their Hippocratic Oath holds them to preserving life at all costs, not ending it, even if their patient actively asks for it.

In the House of Lords, the outcome of the recent debate was a 65 to 63 vote in favor, not enough to make it law but enough to continue the discussion in another session. In the United States, PAS is legal in three states, Oregon being the first to pass the legitimization of Death with Dignity in 1994. So far people have not been beating down the doors in Oregon, Washington or Vermont (the other two states in which it is legal)  to have either themselves, a loved one, friend, or even someone they barely know ushered gently out of this world and into the next. Quite a few people don’t seem to mind using physician-assisted death when it comes to executing criminals, but when it comes to the elderly, terminally ill, disabled, living in extreme pain, or even just lying there hooked up to machines without thought processes, it is a different story.

Where I think faith comes into this is in the realm of compassion. It is compassion that allows us to take our pet to the veterinarian for euthanasia. When it comes to human life, though, it is a different ball game. People take “Thou shalt not kill” seriously, and that becomes a place where the discussion dies. What place does compassion have when faced with this commandment although most are perfectly comfortable breaking or ignoring the other nine? When should a person be allowed to make their own choice? Should the religious beliefs of some take precedence over all, including those who have no religious beliefs on the subject at all? Who makes the decisions as to when life is worth living or is merely an existence? Would God really eternally punish someone who has been tried beyond their limits? Is that the kind of God we have?

What I think it comes down to is who has the right to make a decision about their own life? Who knows what the person is experiencing and how much they feel able to bear and for how long? Ultimately, the questions that have to be asked is, "What would God expect us to do? Whose life is it, anyway?"

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, November 4, 2014,

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saints and saints

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, ‘Who are these, my lord?’ He answered and said to me, ‘These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.’ Then I said to the angel, ‘Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?’ He answered and said to me, ‘He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.’ So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord.  - 2 Esdras 2:42-47

Last year I was delighted to teach a session of the adult formation dealing with hagiology, the study of the saints and their writings. I had a passing acquaintance with the major saints like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Nicholas and some others, but I had never really dug down deeper. This year I found a quotation from Oscar Wilde that set me thinking, "The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." Now there's a thought.

Saints were ordinary people who lived extraordinary or, at least, memorable, lives. Many had what we would consider to be at least one major character flaw or major sin in their lives yet they weren't defined by that flaw or sin. Some were preachers and teachers, some theologians, some  missionaries and mystics. A few, like Gabriel and Michael were archangels, part of what is called the heavenly host and who played a part in our salvation history by proclamation and sometimes intervention. A number were members or founders of religious orders, others were from the greatest order, the laity. There were those who lived holy and exemplary lives and then there were the martyrs who died either for their faith or for the stances they took to live their faith. They came from all socio-economic strata from peasants and shepherds to kings and queens. They were soldiers, philosophers, anchorites and public servants. Some were canonized, some were not, yet they are remembered especially on November 1st for the witness that they made in the world.

One thing I learned was that saints walk among us but we often don't recognize them until later. Often they are opposed by the rich and powerful because the saints see the world with different eyes, not necessarily accepting the way things are as the way things are supposed to be. They often have a very prophetic way of looking at the world and seeing things that the prophets saw: poverty, pain, victimization, avarice, exploitation, sickness, abuse of all kinds including that of the use of power, and hopelessness. At some point, someone or a group of someones recognized that these individuals saw a better world and, guided by whatever faith they practiced, they worked to make that better world a reality. Some, like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edith Stein, were martyred for their attempts to make that possibility a reality and, even though none of them was a perfect human being, they each made an unwitting sacrifice to that cause.

In the Daily Office reading today, the writer, probably using the name "Ezra" as a pseudonym, is seeing a vision of what Paul's letter to the Hebrews called "so great a cloud of witnesses" (12:1a) receiving honors from Jesus for their witness on earth. A favorite hymn, "For All the Saints," gives a similar vision: "O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old/ and win, with them, the victor's crown of gold./ Alleluia, alleluia."* While not all saints were soldiers or martyrs, I think most of us have a vision of each saint, no matter what their calling in life, being welcomed into the presence of Jesus who invests them with the mark of their witness, the crown of gold. I wonder... if I were looking at such a vision, who would I see being crowned that I would least imagine as a saint, canonized or not? Who had a vision and made a significant contribution to making that vision a reality?

We've all heard someone refer to another as a saint, whether because they have endured various illnesses in themselves or as caregivers for others, because they are always cheerful and helpful, or because they seem to have their feet firmly planted on a holy path, even if they seldom set foot in a church. There are those who have a concern for those outside the church walls and work seemingly tirelessly to provide shoeboxes of comfort for our military in combat zones, backpacks for underprivileged children in the neighborhood, work in food banks and soup kitchens, or who just seem to know who needs a bit of attention and TLC. Sometimes we notice these saints, sometimes we don't, and that is our loss.

There are times a big name from the entertainment industry like Bono or even a multi-billionaire like Bill Gates come into the news because of a gift to a charity that will help countless others. We sit and think, "Well, they can afford it! Look how much money they have and they probably just did it for the publicity." We have made a judgment from our own perspective, but to those whom they help, they most likely are saints as are the countless much lesser-known contributors who make malaria nets, clean water stations, and microloans possible to help others they don't know to have a better life.

I think this All Saints' Day I need to look around and see if I can spot an unrecognized saint or two. I quite often forget to do that, even if I am rubbing elbows with them or I come across them in odd places. And then I need to remember the line from another favorite hymn for All Saints, "[F]or the saints of God are just folks like me, and I mean to be one too."**

That sounds like a goal to work towards not just today but for the rest of my life. I'll never be a Saint, or even probably a very good saint, but the attempt might help make the world a better place. I think that's what following the gospel is about.

I may end up being just a bystander at the red carpet to heaven's gates and not a recipient of a gold crown at a major awards event, but if I have done my best to live out that gospel then that is all I can do. That's what is expected of me and, indeed, all of us. I have a past but I also have a future. That's a comfort and a challenge.

* Church Hymnal Corporation, Hymnal 1982, (1985) 287.
**ibid., 292.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 1, 2014.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Faith and a Flashlight

I have a small book of quotations I've come across at various times and on various topics. It was inspired by Jan Karon's Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes which gave me the idea to begin my own favorite quotes book. I used one of those little black-and-white composition books, small enough to put in a pocket and have added to it periodically over the years. There are barely five unused pages left, and I have a second little book just like the first waiting to be put into use.

This morning I wanted to find a quote to write about so I began looking for my little book which is always somewhere either on or close to my desk. I couldn't find it. I searched various piles of papers, books and magazines to no effect. I moved the calculator and the small pile of cards to be sent out but again, to no avail. So I resorted to my go-to implement, a small but bright flashlight. It took a few more minutes but I located the little book. Then it came to me: the flashlight was helpful not just for shining light on what I was looking for but gave me an epiphany as well. I could see many things with the available light of my desk lamp, but by using a small flashlight it concentrated my focus on only a few things at a time. An overwhelming task had been reduced to a small focused one, and it worked. I found what I was looking for and in very short order.

Then I began to think about what a flashlight does. It creates a beam of light that helps illuminate things. If I walk around in the dark where there are no lights, On every episode of CSI, the team begins their investigation by clicking on flashlights and, even in fairly bright areas, they find tiny clues that lead to the solution of a crime. There's never an area so bright that it can't use a little more light.

 I can stumble over things that I would have seen had there been more light. A flashlight helps prevent that stumbling.   It puts light in dark corners of the closet where things I had forgotten about were stashed or perhaps hiding. It shows me where the vacuum has missed small masses of cat-lace (hair shed by my boys which hides under chairs and tables and sometimes sits defiantly in the middle of the floor) and also the toy for which they've been groping under a chest or media rack. It makes what was difficult or impossible to see visible, and it forces me to focus on a small area. Perhaps that's the word I'm looking for -- focus.

I remember when I had panic attacks. It was an effort even to breathe and making a decision as to what I was supposed to be doing was almost impossible. I had written an essay on mental health issues that referenced panic attacks and gave some clues on how to get through them. It had to be a God-thing in that I remembered some of those tips several years later and in the throes of something that had just been a subject to write about. The major tip was to focus -- focus on the next thing that had to be done. The first step to focus on was taking a breath, then another one. From there the next thing was to stand up, then walk to the kitchen. By focusing on one small thing at a time, I got through the 20 minutes or so that, if I remembered correctly, was about the length of the average panic attack. When I was thinking about the flashlight today I remembered the whole episode and thought how similar that remembering to focus was so much like using my flashlight to illumine one small area.

Then I started thinking about faith. What exactly is it, where did I learn it and how does it affect me and my life?  That's a big question because faith encompasses a whole range of beliefs -- who is God, what is God, who is Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, what roles do they play in my faith, etc. In Education for Ministry (EfM) before our last curriculum change, we had an exercise that attempted to nail down precisely what it was that each of us believed, why we believed it and where we had learned it. We referred to it as the Grid because it began as a table with a number of columns, each with a specific word like "God." Under each column heading was a series of questions, each in its own block under that topic and those questions asked for specific answers.  When I worked on it as a student, I put six solid weeks of thought into it and still never finished the exercise. I did it again when I became a mentor, and still never finished it. It isn't really part of our new curriculum and that is a relief, in a way. I'm also sorry to see its demise because I think it was a great exercise, just maybe too daunting in its depth. But then, wasn't the whole purpose to gain depth?  To use a kind of flashlight to lighten up the dark corners?

It's easy to recite the historic creeds on a Sunday morning but if someone asks me what a precise phrase means and why I believe it, I have to stumble around and try to come up with the answer. I think maybe I need more flashlight work when it comes to that subject. Like CSI, I need to focus on small areas and not be overwhelmed by the larger issues.

Maybe being able to explain my faith isn't something that will change the world or even solve one of its myriad problems, but then, I have to remember that as huge as the world's problems are, individuals and groups shining the equivalent of flashlights on small areas have helped to change things, whether things solely of faith or where faith intersects good works.

The world could use a little more light in a great many places.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Monday, October 27, 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Making Choices

Praise is unseemly on the lips of a sinner,
   for it has not been sent from the Lord.
For in wisdom must praise be uttered,
   and the Lord will make it prosper.

Do not say, ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away’;
   for he does not do
what he hates.
Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray’;
   for he has no need of the sinful.
The Lord hates all abominations;
   such things are not loved by those who fear him.
It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
   and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
   and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
   stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
   and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
   he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
   and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
   and he has not given anyone permission to sin
.-- Sirach 15:9-20

I really like the book of Sirach. I haven't read it enough times to have it memorized and there's no plot with the need to keep characters and their stories straight. Instead, it is a collection of teachings on various topics more or less categorized and presented for consideration, meditation and emulation.

This passage begins with a brief statement on praise. Praise, to Sirach, is a bad thing if God didn't send it and if the person offers some kind of praise in order to gain something for themselves. We've seen people butter up the rich and powerful in the hopes that there would be some sort of reward for stroking their egos. Kids try to butter up Mom or Dad when they want money over and above their earned allowance or they try to flatter a teacher into giving them a better grade than they deserved. But what if the person did something really good? Would offering a few words of praise be out of line? Not necessarily, if the praise is honestly given and doesn't try to curry favor because of it. It's all about intent.

And then the reading turns to choices. People were given free will and the ability to make choices, whether good or bad. It's more than a child's choosing chocolate ice cream over strawberry, or a teen choosing this college over that one. It's about the little choices we make every day, how we make those choices and why. Each choice has a consequence, whether a positive one or a negative, depending on the choice that is made and the situation that demands the choice. Choosing to drive drunk is probably a very poor choice with the high possibility of very negative consequences both for the driver and for anyone else on the road or in the vehicle. Choosing to enter a profession that helps others rather than is based solely on what salary one can earn is a potentially good choice. Not all wealth is measured in the size of a bank account.

"Before each person are life and death." Even that is a choice -- sometimes. Suicide is a very real choice for some people. Teenagers can't necessarily see that what is seems so earth-shattering to them now is, most likely, temporary and will get better with time, or someone whose palliative medications just cannot control the pain of an injury or illness that could be fatal.  Sometimes it is hard for others to understand someone making a choice to end their own life, and often it is condemned as selfish or a usurping of God's purpose. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is all about the person, not the family, friends, co-workers and the world in general. When a teen commits suicide, we condemn it as a waste of a good life, but to the teen, it is an escape from something like bullying or messages of condemnation for something they know they are but can't reveal for fear of rejection or bullying. A terminally ill patient is considered a bit more leniently; after all, they have pain to endure, but to some, it is selfish and circumventing God's will as to when they are appointed to die. I don't think it is ever an easy choice, no matter which stage of life a person is in, yet the consequences of the choice are clear.

Most religions have sets of rules that are designed to create order and some uniformity in the group that comprise that religion. Most teach that their adherents are to honor their deity or deities, care for others whether in the group or outside it, to respect the land they live on and to live their lives in an honest and upright way. When one group decides that another is wrong and seeks to change, take over or even eliminate another group for its beliefs, then there is conflict, war, death and destruction. If the choice is made to live as peaceably as possible (and it has been done in a number of diverse places with diverse groups for hundreds if not thousands of years), then everybody benefits. It only takes a few fanatics, however, to impose chaos and begin a conflict that can shatter a culture, a religion or a way of life forever. It all comes down to choice.

We choose our candidates in an election with the hope that they will do their best to represent all the people of their district, not merely pander to their own wants and ideas. There was a political flyer in the mail this past week from a candidate who accused the opponent of abandoning their Roman Catholic teachings because they, the opponent, favored letting women choose to use birth control or even abortion. Which would be better, an elected official who enforces their own beliefs on others or one who seeks to represent all the people, not just those of his or her own religious affiliation? The voters will have to make a choice between the two and the fate of many lives may rest on which one is chosen.

In the book of Joshua, he calls out to the wayward to make a choice: "...[C]hoose this day whom you will serve" (24:15b). It is a call to us in our generation as well. Will we have the wisdom Sirach tries to impart to us or will we ignore it and go on our merry way? Will we choose to serve God or will the idol of the world, it's pleasures and riches, get our loyalty and fealty?

What will our choice be?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 25, 2014.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Wisdom of Humility

My child, perform your tasks with humility;
   then you will be loved by those whom God accepts.
greater you are, the more you must humble yourself;
   so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.

For great is the might of the Lord;
   but by the humble he is glorified.
Neither seek what is too difficult for you,
   nor investigate what is beyond your power.
Reflect upon what you have been commanded,
   for what is hidden is not your concern.
Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,
   for more than you can understand has been shown to you. 
For their conceit has led many astray,
   and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement.

Without eyes there is no light;
   without knowledge there is no wisdom.
 A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end,    and whoever loves danger will perish in it.
A stubborn mind will be burdened by troubles,
   and the sinner adds sin to sins.
When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing,
   for an evil plant has taken root in him. 
 he mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs,    and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.

As water extinguishes a blazing fire,
   so almsgiving atones for sin.
Those who repay favours give thought to the future;
   when they fall they will find support
.  - Sirach 3:17-31

The Bible is a library of books, letters, history, poetry and instruction. When the prophets spoke, it was expected (sometimes even devoutly hoped) that people pay attention and change their ways. When Jesus taught and Paul carried the message forward, it was an invitation to change. Then there are the Wisdom books of which Sirach is one. Sirach is, in a way, like the Ann Landers of the Bible; it is a book that offers solutions to problems and concerns. Where prophets command, Sirach suggests.

Sirach speaks to his students and his audience about the wisdom of being humble. It isn't a new teaching, but rather one that needs continual retelling because it is so easily forgotten. Throughout the book ( probably written down by his grandson) there seem to be references to customs more Greek than Hebrew which might be a reason why Sirach never made it into the Hebrew canon. Among the Greeks, debate and discussion was a mark of intelligence and, at times, status among the upper classes who undoubtedly had more leisure to study and perpetuate such discussions. Sirach warns, though, that even intellectual debate and discussion can lead to pride and that pride can lead to trouble.

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who are proud of what they do and those who are proud of what they know. Both groups are capable of doing great things and/or causing great things to happen. On the other hand, many are just proud of their own accomplishments, thinking little of how much they could contribute to the benefit of the man rather than simply amassing a wealth of goods or knowledge for themselves, becoming misers who do no good for anyone else. It is this intellectual pride that Sirach is warning his students about, detailing some of the negative repercussions of thinking too highly of oneself and one's accomplishments.

When we read the part about "Neither seek what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power," it seems a bit confusing. We're taught Robert Browning's poetic line, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?" and it seems to be exactly the opposite of what Sirach is trying to say. I think where the difference lies is in for what we are reaching and what we are grasping. Is it to benefit ourselves or is it others we seek to help?

We can't reach heaven by our own stretching, but accepting grace as a gift while trying to be better human beings puts heaven closer to attainment. If we're proud of our accomplishments, that's one thing; if we are proud and arrogant about them, that's another kettle of fish altogether. Sirach is warning of that kettle. True wisdom lies in hearing the words and weighing them in favor of humility. Maybe the humble don't get so much press, but they probably accomplish a lot more for the world than those who strut about, proclaiming their own intelligence and accomplishments.

Jesus proclaimed in Matthew, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"(5:5 NRSV). Not the captains of industry, not the generals of vast armies, not the prideful academics in their towers of books, but the humble who seek to do what is right and of benefit to many, not just to themselves who will be the beneficiaries. If we don't try to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, we're missing something big. So what if it is out of reach? We won't get anywhere until and unless we try. Sirach doesn't say don't make an attempt, just don't believe that only we as individuals can do it alone. I think too that is what Jesus had in mind.

Some of the greatest people on earth have been the most humble. We need to look to people like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, George Washington Carver, and any number of the saints and others as examples of humble people making a big difference without getting a big head about it. Who knows who of us can join that group? It isn't impossible, merely difficult. Once attained, difficult things are more valuable than any prize.

"The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise." That's certainly a true statement; more can be learned through listening than through speaking. Perhaps I need a day where I focus more on hearing, really hearing, what others are saying than in saying what I want (or feel I need) to say.

Maybe today I need to pay attention to a proverb from Benjamin Franklin, "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." That's a real humility raiser right there. I think Sirach would approve.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 18, 2014.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Church, State, and the Vanishing Wall

There are always topics that tend to garner a lot of public opinion, one of the latest being the issue of church and state and how much control each of these two entities should have with regard to the other. A recent article in the Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein1 referenced the result of studies conducted by two respected public opinion polling firms. The results indicated that 46% of respondents feared that their freedom to practice their religion was being interfered with or constrained by government. Another 46% believed that religious groups were attempting to force their beliefs on all citizens, whether or not the respondents agreed with those beliefs. The statistics were, to say the least, interesting and a bit disconcerting.

The demographics indicated that those who feared curtailment of religious freedoms were older Americans, white, Evangelicals, Republicans and those with very conservative political views. Those who felt their own beliefs were curtailed or ignored by other religious bodies were those described as young adults under 30(Generation Zs), Democrats, politically liberal, and generally unaffiliated with a church, denomination or religion. In short, the two groups are as different as chalk and cheese.

Freedom of religion has been a topic of interest since the founding of this country. One group of the original colonies was established by  entrepreneurs and young men anxious to make their fortunes. With them came the established church as important (as was conversion of the local Native Americans) but secondary to profit. Another group was founded by dissenters who felt they were persecuted by the established church and sought a place where they could practice their faith unhindered. Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth wanted to purify the established church of its' more Roman Catholic elements. Puritans were much more restrictive, wanting to do away with the established church altogether and follow a strict Calvinist theology. Other denominations came to the colonies with each wave of new immigrants, each denomination having the opportunity to either make a space for itself in the cities or carve out a niche in the ever-shrinking wilderness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that there should be a wall of separation between church and state, a thought which was incorporated into the Constitution of the United States as part of the first amendment of what is now called the Bill of Rights. That amendment stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." While we may not be seeing individuals and groups attempting to establish a national church, we are certainly seeing those individuals and groups attempting to establish law based on one set of religious beliefs -- theirs.
In an article on the Episcopal Café website, Editor-in-chief Jim Naughton made the following observation:
I don't think our freedom of religion is in any danger, and I am disappointed that well-fed, well-educated, mostly white, mostly male religious leaders who know they will have access to whatever healthcare they need and a comfortable place to which to retire has succeeded in painting themselves as victims whose rights are in danger."2
Naughton has summed up the situation rather well, but I have a feeling, though, that had any woman made such a statement, she would be widely pilloried as a "Feminazi," man-hater or  an example of male-bashing.

Looking statistically,  it is generally  possible to see that the balance of power between male/female is clearly on the side of the males. In Congress, for example, the ratio of males to females is roughly 81% to 19%.3 The Supreme Court is 66.6% male to 33.3% female. The religious makeup is of identical percentages with 6 Roman Catholic and 3  Jewish members. One woman justice is Roman Catholic and one male is Jewish.   

In the ecclesiastical realm, at least among Roman Catholics, various Orthodox denominations and sects, many if not most Protestant denominations, and among many non-Christian faiths, the ratio of male to female leaders is more on the order of 100% and no females need apply. Statistics do not tell the whole story; what is easily seen, however, is that power and the control which comes from power is firmly in the hands of one group and that group shows no real signs of wanting to relinquish or even share it unless they are required to do so.

The increasing clamor that particular groups are being persecuted because others do not jump on their bandwagon or voluntarily agree to follow their beliefs is, I believe, the ultimate hubris. Dissenting opinions and people stating religious beliefs of their own in various media or even with  picket signs hardly qualifies as persecution. In a sense, it feels like a reversal of the Christians in the arena with the lions in ancient Rome, only this time the Christians are circling the lions.

The news is full of reports of members of various religious groups around the world being shot, beheaded, burned alive, kidnapped,  or forced to flee with only what they can carry on their backs by another group of religionists who are bent on conquest and/or conversion by force. Protests from groups in this country who claim persecution because people choose to decline to follow their particular belief system appears both  ludicrous and totally egocentric. The egocentrism and feeling of persecution being felt in some quarters is the fear that they will either (a) displease God or  (b) lose power and control resulting in someone else mandating different beliefs on them. For them, it is a case of force or be forced, or so it appears.

 The chain-link fence that used to be the wall of separation has come to pass since more and more legislative regulations and judicial decisions are reflecting a favoritism of specific religious points of view over those of others, including those who have no religious beliefs at all.  One glaring example is the recent Hobby Lobby decision where the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant's request for relief from providing insurance coverage of contraceptives for its female employees, regardless of those employees' own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Hobby Lobby declared that it would violate their (Hobby Lobby's) religious convictions to have to provide such coverage. Five male Roman Catholic justices, who shared a similar religious beliefs regarding contraception, ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. The three female justices and the Jewish male justice dissented.

There have been other legislations and decisions that upheld one religious group's beliefs over others' whose personal, physical, and medical well-being have been compromised without their consent or control or even any seeming respect for their  own freedom of religion and practice. It seems the separation of church and state is a one-way street. The direction of the one-way street is determined by groups and individuals with very deep pockets and endorsed by people with power and control to make it happen.

So where does that leave us? Where is the dividing line? Is there a way where the two can really work together for the benefit of all? There is a place for legitimate medical legislation, I believe, particularly when it concerns all segments of society and helps to ensure their health, safety and equal treatment. Many religions teach the need for care for the most vulnerable in their societies, yet some who profess the same religion choose a very different interpretation of the same religious texts and teachings that mandate that care. Both religion and the government require the cooperation of those over whom they exercise supervision and control to a certain extent, and both have areas in which they have strength to balance a weakness in the other.

Perhaps if the two worked together, not to gain preeminence for one particular lobby, special interest group, religious entity or adherents to a particular religious belief alone, but rather for the benefit of all, it might fulfill the mandates of both to provide for the equality of access to all civil rights, benefits  and religious autonomy without regard to the person's race, gender, cultural background, orientation, economic status or religious preference.

For Christians, that would mean the beginning of the realization of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony and justice here and now, not later and somewhere far different. It won't be popular with the rich, the powerful and those at the top of the hierarchy who would need to give up some power, prestige and control. It would, in the long run, produce a true prosperity, not an economy based on the perception of limited resources when it comes to the good things in life. It would provide for a healthier earth too, which would be a good thing because humanity still needs a home planet, a place where they have to share the good and the bad, even with people who disagree with them.
Ultimately, though, it is a choice for all of us to make as to which path and which leaders  to follow, which fear to feed and which to brush aside. Hopefully, we will make the wise choice.

1 Boorstein, Michelle, "Our new culture war issue: religion's public role," The Washington Post, September 24, 2014.
2 Naughton, Jim, commentary on "Our new culture war issue: Religion's public role" on Episcopal Café, September 25, 2014.
3 Statistics from Congressional Research Service, "Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile", August 26, 2014. 

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, October 14, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Philip and the Deacons

Commemoration of Philip the Deacon
Matthew 28:18-20

When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, men pretty much did everything. The preacher was male, the ushers were too. And then there were the gentlemen who passed out the communion elements (platters of bread cubes and containers with tiny individual cups of grape juice), and other things like going to meetings periodically. These were the deacons, chosen and elected by the congregation as leaders and examples of living Christian lives. My adoptive father held several terms as a deacon in that church. He took his job seriously, and, I believe, was exemplary in helping others, doing what was right even if others didn't quite agree, and loving his Lord completely.

Philip the Deacon was another such person. He was a follower of Jesus, and worked within the new community of the Way when he, along with six others, were chosen by the disciples to help serve and care for the less fortunate, oversee the distribution of foodstuffs fairly and equitably, and whatever else the disciples asked them to do. When the persecutions began it was a signal for many to leave, especially those who were in leadership positions. Philip travelled to Samaria where his preaching and teaching encouraged many converts. Peter and John came from Jerusalem to officially lay hands on the converts and imbue them with the Holy Spirit as Philip watched. Later, he met an Ethiopian eunuch who needed an interpreter to explain a passage of scripture. Philip provided the necessary information and the eunuch himself requested baptism. Later it was said Philip lived in Caesarea Maritima with four unmarried daughters who were prophetesses and hosted a visit from the former persecutor who became an apostle, Paul.

Some Southern Baptist churches, being somewhat autonomous, have begun allowing women to be elected as deacons, a great departure from most others in the denomination. In the Episcopal church, being raised to the office of deacon is a more complicated procedure, involving discernment on the part of the candidate and his/her congregation, courses of study (of which Education for Ministry, EfM, can be one source), meetings, retreats, background checks, examinations and, most visibly, work within the church as directed by the bishop and the rector to whom the candidate is assigned . It takes several years and in the end, the new deacon is entitled to wear the collar and add "The Rev." to their name. In return, they have ministries that they are personally called to pursue such as serving  chaplaincies, working with the homeless, immigrants, and members of various age groups, etc. Above all, they are called to maintain healthy spiritual habits like daily prayer and frequent corporate worship.

Some years ago I attended an ordination at our cathedral. The candidate was a slight African-American woman, soft spoken, quick to laugh and with a quiet confidence. Watching her and knowing her, it seemed pretty clear that God had a hand of blessing laid on the top of her head; that ordination just confirmed it. Even before the stole was laid across her shoulder, she glowed. Ok, maybe she didn't look like the Jesus nightlight my spouse used to have, but there was an almost visible aura around her. I see her occasionally and each time I am struck again by that sense of an invisible hand of blessing on the top of her head and a feeling of being in the presence of a holy and dedicated human being. She preaches, but her best sermons are the ones people see in her actions and care for God's creation, reflecting her love of God and God's love for her.

I wonder if Philip had the same effect on people that the deacon (who is now an archdeacon) has on me each time I see her. Did people feel drawn to him, sense the presence of God surrounding him, see the love of Jesus within him, and the power and grace of the Holy Spirit showing through him? Were those the things that made him successful in Samaria and other places where he lived and worked?

Did Philip continue his diaconal duties once he moved to Caesarea? Did he find a new mission field to cultivate? Did he still serve the widows at the table, or did he serve at another table in another way? Deacons aren't limited to only one focus of attention or one set of duties. They, like the rest of us, may find that at some point in time they are called to a new mission, a new job, in a new field of endeavor. They may discover that they have a passion that meets the world's needs in some heretofore unknown way, unknown at least to them. Sometimes, like most of us, deacons will juggle many jobs -- administration, teaching and counseling among them -- but always they are to be attuned to God's will and God's way.

The foundation of a strong church is the laity who fill its pews and various ministries, led by the Spirit and guided by trained specialists who are also lay persons but also by the ordained clergy. Each lay person is a minister by virtue of his/her baptism but some are called to another, more dedicated service. The deacons, like priests and bishops, originally come from the laity and, in turn, will both serve the church, both lay and clerical,  and those in the world who are in need. Some deacons will continue on the ordination track to become priests and, perhaps, bishops, yet many will choose to be and remain deacons. They will preach, teach and serve in various ways, sometimes visible, sometimes almost invisibly, yet their service will be making a difference in the lives of those they serve. They will have the example of the faith of Stephen, the first martyr and the only other deacon named in Acts. They will also have the example of the life, travels and service of Philip.

If I could wish for a calling, I think I'd wish to be a deacon. God hasn't called me to it and I'd undoubtedly make a lousy one, but I admire those who are both called and dedicated to the job. A verse from 2 Timothy gives all of us the guidance to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth" (2:15, NRSV). It is a good verse for all of us to contemplate, but most especially those called to ordained ministry.

Deacons are often the ones who remind us at the end of each Sunday service to "Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit." It's a charge for all of us equally. It's a reminder that we are all followers of Jesus who encouraged all of us to be servants of each other and to the world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 11, 2014, under the title "Philip and the Diaconate.".