Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Music of Advent

When it comes to liturgical seasons, my favorite by far is Advent. I love it for its contemplation and its quiet expectation, sort of like being pregnant. There are times of discomfort, but even some of the discomfort is a reassurance that a new life is coming into the world, and that's a good thing. Advent has that feeling because, of course, we are expecting the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But Advent makes us wait, makes us think about what we’re getting into once the baby Jesus is here.

One of the things I like most about Advent is the music that I hear. No, I'm not talking about the Christmas carols in the big box stores (and even the little stores) that start playing on December 1st and stop pretty much by midnight on Christmas Eve. By Christmas, I'm tired of carols, although I do love singing them at the proper time. I never hear Advent hymns and carols though, unless I am at church or listening to CDs on my various devices. There's one that I have just about worn out, and that's a service of Advent music and lessons from King’s College that I bought years ago and love dearly. The sound of the choir of men and boys, the words of the scriptures leading up to the birth of Jesus, all the sounds echoing off the vaulted arches of a historic place – it’s the most wonderful thing I can think of.

Another thing I love about Advent is Messiah. Many places will wait and present it at Easter, but somehow doing the Christmas section in Advent is like the trailer for a really good movie. It gives us a taste of what's coming and makes us think of what that birth means.

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist’s cry" (Winchester New), is one of those hymns that I can't wait to sing. It's a song encourages us to look forward to the days of Advent and that tells us so eloquently that the assurance that what the Baptist tells us is true. There is one coming who is greater than John and who will be our "… Our refuge, and our great reward." It is an exposition of what the coming Messiah will bring to us and what we will joyfully celebrate. After all, Advent is a celebratory season, as well as a penitential one, in its own quiet way. The four Advent candles, one lit each Sunday until finally the Christ candle is set alight on Christmas Eve, and the darkness, while surrounding us physically, is dispelled with the joy and the light and the scents of Christmas.

Another one of my favorites seems like an odd choice for an Advent hymn, and it makes me stop and wonder why it's included. "Lo, he comes with clouds descending" (Helmsley) is not about the Christmas birth but a return to earth from heaven of the Christ who bears the scars of his violent and painful death on the cross. This hymn is based on Revelation, something we don't normally associate with Christmas or Advent. It seems to be something more suited to Lent or perhaps the season after Pentecost. But it is kind of a balance to the quiet anticipation to Bethlehem as it makes us think about the road beyond the manger, a road we will walk during Lent, celebrate at Easter, and then look beyond to the Messiah's return and what it will mean to the earth when it happens. I still love it, and almost wish that we could sing it sometime other than Advent, just because it's a message that transcends seasons.

Also on my list of favorites is what we call the "O Antiphons,” a series of eight verses begun on December 17 and ending on December 23 or 24th, one verse being sung each day, and each verse giving out a title or an attribute of Jesus, like root of Jesse, wisdom from on high, key of David, etc. It's chanted in plainsong, a very old liturgical way of singing, that has no harmony but has everything sung in unison. With the unison singing, it's easy to contemplate the words without distraction because once you learn the melody that's all it needs. It encourages us to rejoice, and to welcome the coming Messiah. It's hopeful, and it is simple enough to be remembered throughout not just the Advent season but afterwards. “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the opening phrase of the first verse, is translated from the Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.

So once again it’s time for me to break out my iPod and fulfill my Advent tradition of listening to my wonderful CD from King’s, although I admit I sneak it in a few times during the year simply because it is so lovely. If you have a service lessons and carols for Advent at your church, do go and listen, invite a friend, join the singing (which is a form of prayer), feel the anticipation, and let the world’s cares and fears dissipate for a little while. We need the rest, we need to catch our breaths, and we need the peace. That’s what Advent offers us.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 9, 2017.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare -- Advent Style

The story about the tortoise and hare is a familiar tale of a famous Greek storyteller named Aesop.  It starts out with a hare bragging about how fast he could run and that nobody could beat him. The tortoise listened, but didn't seem overly impressed. In fact, he challenged the hare to a race! Of course, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the hare being so much faster than the tortoise, so of course he would win. The other animals laid out the course through the forest and the great race began. The rabbit took off like a shot and ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. He stopped about midway ad thought  “There's a nice place to play; I’ll just play here for a while since I've got lots of time.” He played in the green grass and then he decided he was still way ahead. “I'll take a nap,” he thought. So, the hare laid down under a nice shade tree and had a very nice nap. When he woke up and thought, “Okay, the tortoise should be about caught up by now, so I'll just run to the finish line.”  When he got there, surprise, surprise, surprise! There was the tortoise waiting for him on the winning side of the line.

I thought about the story as I was sitting in a restaurant on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas carols, seeing a Christmas tree and lots of decorations around the restaurant, which, by the way, was Chinese. I wasn't ready for it. Granted, I've seen trees lit up and yard ornaments moving and Christmas decorations in stores since Labor Day. But somehow sitting in a Chinese restaurant the second day after Thanksgiving and seeing a fully decorated restaurant playing Christmas carols was just too much.

So, what is that got to do with the tortoise and hare? There are people who can't wait to celebrate Christmas. They love Christmas. They love the lights, the trees, the scents, the parties, the food, the gifts and even the shopping. There are folks who have the house and yard are decorated by Thanksgiving weekend or shortly thereafter. They're usually all ready for Christmas before December 1st even arrives. They start off at full tilt and keep going – like the hare.

Then there are others who don't decorate the tree until a week before or even the night of Christmas Eve, even though the presents are bought and wrapped, the cooking has been is been done, and gifts have been shipped off to friends and relatives who will not be around the Christmas tree this year. Those are the tortoises, not because they lack Christmas spirit, but because they take it slowly they don't rush into it. Many of them wait  to begin celebrating Christmas at all until Christmas Eve around midnight, but then they'll celebrate for another 12 days.

There's nothing wrong with being a hare when decorating for Christmas if that's a family tradition. I know my family always put the Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving weekend, and usually so do I. I like the lights and the sparkle of the fake crystal ornaments, and it makes an otherwise sad time of year for me a little happier. I don’t think Jesus would condemn me for that. But in my religious practice I'm more of a tortoise. I don't sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, I try not to hear them, (especially the one that everyone hopes to avoid hearing until Christmas Eve at least) but I can't escape hearing the music on the radio when I go out to the stores or even visit friends. I'm an Advent person.

Advent people are more like the tortoise than the hare, at least liturgically. Their homes often have an advent wreath instead of boughs of greens with red bows, lots of colored lights, and baby Jesus in the manger already. Advent people look for the coming of Jesus in a way that is more reflective and a bit more introspective than some other Christians do. For Advent people it's about the waiting. It's about preparing, and by preparing they don't mean pouring the brandy on the fruitcake or making the Christmas putting and setting it aside to age. It is about preparing inwardly more than outwardly for a great festival season of the church.

The comparison of the tortoise and the hare may not be totally fair, because it really depends on things like family tradition, church tradition, or even personal preference. The important thing is that come December 25th, the tortoise and the hare are both at the finish line or, in the case of the tortoises, at the second start line because that's when Christmas begins.

It's almost aggravating to have heard Christmas music on the radio starting December 1st and increasing in number of Christmas versus non-Christmas songs as Christmas approaches. Then, come Christmas morning, you may hear carols but by evening not a carol to be heard; meanwhile, the Advent people are just getting ready to start singing Christmas carols and they will sing them until January 6th which is the epiphany. Also, when a person goes into stores on Christmas Eve, the Christmas stuff has already been moved to the seasonal clearance aisle and the store is now full of red hearts, chubby cherubs, chocolate candy boxes, and appurtenances of Valentine's Day which can range anywhere from a teddy bear with “I love you” embroidered on his chest to very frilly lingerie.

Whether a person is a tortoise or a hare when it comes to when they start celebrating and when they start preparing and when they start getting ready for Christmas is less important than the fact that it becomes less of a commercial event and more a spiritual one, which is the intent of Christmas. Our pagan brothers and sisters would say we should celebrate the returning of light on the winter Solstice, when night is longer than the daylight. Then each day afterwards there's a little more light and a little less dark. We can do that; in fact, some Christian churches have a celebration on Solstice which culminates with them but going outside and banging away on pots and pans and whatever is handy to make a joyful noise that will frighten away the darkness. That's kinda cool, and is fully within the Advent tradition of clearing away things that that block the light coming in to us, just as the light came to the world in the manger in Bethlehem.

So, let us be joyful, let us be happy, but let us also slow down a little, do a little more preparation inwardly, and walk rather than run towards Bethlehem. Christmas will still come, and we will still participate in it fully completely and joyfully, but will also have done some work to prepare our own gifts for Christ rather than strictly contemplating gifts for mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, or friends. We think more of Christ and less of self. We need to do the inward work and be a bit of a tortoise. Christmas will still come in due time.

Okay, I'm going to put up my tree now. I'm a little later than usual, but that's okay. I will still have weeks to enjoy it, and maybe a little extra time that I took before putting it up will make me inwardly more prepared for the glory that is to come. Advent is here. Christmas will come.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 2, 2017.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

To Rise Above

There are a lot of film buffs in this world, folks who can’t wait for the next Star Wars or cult classic, and who sometimes stand in line for hours just to get in to the first showing of a new “sensation.”  I’m not one of those; I dislike sitting in theaters where someone six feet seven inches sits in front of me, the backlight of the cellphone in the next seat is blinding, and a child persists in kicking the back of my seat.  I prefer to sit at home and wait for it on Netflix or Amazon, when I can sit in my rocking chair with a lap robe, snack, and a cat on my lap to enjoy a peaceful viewing.

I don’t watch many movies, but I do have favorites. Probably my greatest one is a 1951 black-and-white perpetual favorite, “The African Queen.” Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) was very upright and uptight missionary, who had to be rescued from a bad situation by a rather uncouth and definitely irreligious boat captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). It's quite an adjustment for Rose’s character, and she frequently resorts to rather pithy statements to attempt to alter Mr.Allnut’s  rather rough character traits. One of the pithiest and greatest comments she uttered was, “Human nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above." I can still hear that line spoken in a very proper British accent as she looks down her nose at the man who undoubtedly saved her life.

The beauty of the statement is that I can see a lot of truth in it. We all have a human nature inside of us, consisting of many factors including our upbringing, our environment, our heredity, our physical and mental health, educational level, financial status, and our class in society. “The African Queen” is a meeting of stiff and starchy middle-class English morality versus a lower-class but much more freewheeling and happy-go-lucky personality. Personality clashes abound, but gradually each finds the need to change, to rise above their differences to not just wreak havoc on the Germans in the area but to survive themselves and, ultimately, to fall in love.

We show our human nature every day. We are judged or at least categorized by those with whom I come in contact, by what we say, do, and how we act. We learned certain things from our families, some things are just ingrained my shyness or extroversion. Some are fond of books and reading while others would rather spend time kicking around soccer balls or playing baseball. Some seem to have a rather perverse human nature who relishes hurting people and animals, and who may or may not, depending on many factors, either grow up to be a serial killer or find a way to change their predilections. Human nature gives us some adaptability and a lot of choice in the matter, and those choices are what are important.

As Christians, we are brought up to believe in God, in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, although the spirit gets relatively less publicity than the former two. We go to Sunday school and we dutifully absorb the stories like Noah's Ark, where Noah obediently builds a large boat to save those whom God deemed worthy of salvation, namely his family and animals of various species and numbers. We don't hear that much about Noah not really wanting to do this and grumbling the whole way, that is, until the rain started coming and God told him to close the door. He built the ark, endured his neighbors’ jibes and sarcastic comments, but he did the job, and that's what we're supposed to learn.

We learn stories about Jesus, about how at age 12 he went to the temple with his parents for a very important holy day, and, as they were on the road for three days, all of a sudden, the parents missed the boy. What is always confusing to me is how can a parent forget a child, even 12-year-old child and travel such a distance without realizing that Jesus wasn't with them. It seems they should have noticed and stayed to look for him, or that would have been the natural thing for parents to do. Jesus was showing his human nature by willfully staying behind and talking to the rabbis and the elders and amazing them with what he knew and what he observed. Two different kinds of human nature the focused child, and the forgetful parents, give a portrait of a very unusual family.

One of the messages of Jesus was that we needed to overcome our basic human natures and rise above them as we listened to his parables and his stories and learn to subdue the parts of us that don't work to benefit others for glorify God. It's hard to change; just ask anybody who's been in a 12-step program. They will tell you it is very difficult. It is becoming more and more difficult all the time, because our culture has changed, and it seems now that is all right to be selfish, it's all right to put “Me first,” and it's all right to ignore others if they get in our way or if they aren't better than we are.

That’s not the way Jesus wanted us to do. It's the result of our own willfulness and it is not loving one's neighbor as oneself or taking care of each other. I wonder, if Jesus came and stood in front of us just out of the blue, and we responded, how would we look in his eyes and feel we had done our share, or done our best to live up to what he asked us to do?

I think this week I will have to work with Miss Rose’s line about rising above my human nature. I don’t think I can become a saint; I think I'm so far beyond that possibility that it's ridiculous, but if I try, even just a little bit harder, who knows? I may find my human nature can rise a bit higher than I originally aspired to. And who knows, I may become a better Christian because of it.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 25, 2017.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Mentor and Foster -- Hilda of Whitby

Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a noble family in Northumbria. The baby was named Hilda but was most often called Hild. She had a very close relationship with her sister Hereswith, and when was about 33 years old she resolved to go to France to join her sister in becoming a nun. Just about this time, Hilda was summoned by Aidan, a dedicated missionary and bishop of Lindisfarne.  He sent her to the Wear river, gave her a bit of land, and asked her to build a monastery for women who would practice the traditions of Celtic Christianity as taught at Lindisfarne and Iona.  Needless to say, the venture was a success.

She was next asked to succeed the late abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool. Again, her humility, wisdom, patience, learning, and ability to work with all manner of folks ensured the continued success of the monastery.  About 2 years later, she was given a piece of land at a place called Streanaeshalch (later called Whitby by the Danes) to become the abbess over a mixed monastery, males and females living in the same community but in small houses of 2 or 3 males or females each who came together only for prayers and worship in the Celtic fashion.

Hilda was known for her ability to appeal to, work with, and identify people of all stations in life, some more exceptional than others. She met a sheepherder who had a vision of writing poetry and singing hymns to God. Hilda fostered his talent and thus gave the world a poet named Caedmon, who wrote poetry dedicated to God, including the earliest known poem/prayer written to God in the English of the time.  Five other men of her community became bishops and two of them later were canonized as saints. 

Her best-known achievement, however, was the hosting at her monastery of a gathering of both Celtic and Roman Christians.  While the two groups had many things in common, including many doctrines and traditions, the Celtic focused more power in the monasteries and wandering bishops while the Romans were more strict in observance and followed the bishops.  While the meeting of the two didn't resolve every difference, it did resolve a major question which was the establishment of a way of accurately dating the observance of Easter in both groups.  It was a major achievement, and Hilda's guidance, patience, and ability to foster agreement, even to the point of agreeing to follow the Roman fashion instead of the Celtic which had been her training and choice in the matter.

Mentoring is a word we hear a lot these days. It is a valued and valuable service that one person does for another or for a group of others. Simply put, a mentor is one who fosters the talents, abilities, and professional trajectory of another, in essence, showing them the ropes and how to succeed, not by lecture but by grooming them with exercises, practice, and gentle advice. It happens in business frequently, even if the word mentor is never mentioned.

In Education for Ministry (EfM),   a mentor or mentors meet with a group of members of a class with the aim of developing not only their knowledge of church history, the Bible and theology, but fostering their spiritual lives by encouraging them to explore those spiritualties through reflection and use of tools like spiritual autobiographies. The great thing about being in EfM mentor is that they don't have to have all the answers. In fact, it's a blessing not to have to answer all the questions. Group members and even mentors practice a system of guidance that allows people to learn by investigation, with no answers at the back of the book, but rather with open eyes, minds, and hearts. It is a rewarding experience for a mentor to see the group began year one with lots and lots of questions and progress through all four years without the questions ever stopping. As one learns to answer or a reasonable answer, an opinion, or a belief, there is always something else a little further down the road that builds on that and encourages the person to take the next steps and to tackle the next questions that they need to explore. Watching this progress both in oneself as a mentor and in the members of the group shows the benefits of fostering faith and spiritual journeys and the blooming of ministers, both lay and clerical.

Hilda may not have been in EfM mentor, but she certainly was a mentor to those in her monasteries. She encouraged, and I believe she led others to find answers without relying on her to be the final arbiter. If she could successfully manage to groups as disparate and yet is similar as the Celtic and Roman churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland, then her talents must have been formidable. It is for those things that Hilda of Whitby is remembered and honored, because to mentor is to foster and Hilda was a master of both.

Who has mentored you? Who have you mentored? Who fostered you? Who have you fostered? What was the gain? What was the loss? Every person has the ability to foster someone else in some way, shape, or form. The mentor needs to be a good example, a guide rather than a book of rules, and the person with the great interest in watching another person become a skilled and well-rounded individual. I imagine Hilda got immense satisfaction out of watching all the different people that came out of her monasteries because of her recognition of their abilities, her guidance and wisdom.

Hilda makes an excellent example of Christianity in action as someone who was perhaps ahead of her time. She would probably have quite an adjustment if she came back in this time period,  but I feel she would recognize the role of the mentor and I think would fall right back into patterns of mentoring and fostering folks just as she did in her own lifetime. I think she deserves a bit more study than we might possibly give her. Just because someone came from far back in the distant past, it does not mean that there is nothing that can be learned from this person. After all, Jesus was born 2000 years ago, and we are still trying to learn from him about what it meant to be a Christian, a mentor, a guide, and a fosterer of others.

Time to take a deeper look at Hilda of Whitby. She's a good example to follow.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 19, 2017.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Flanders Fields and Beyond

Ninety-nine years ago today there was a an event that signaled the end of something horrible and unthinkable  and the beginning of a new hope for worldwide peace. At 11:11 AM on November 11, 1918,  a state of truce  began to exist between Germany and the Allied nations, France,  England, Australia, Canada and other commonwealth nations. It marked essentially the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, a war that killed 150,000 and traumatized a large part of the European continent. The day was marked as Armistice Day, after the process that occurred that morning of that day in 1918.

Today, Armistice Day is still celebrated in the United Kingdom and her commonwealth. It is a day of solemn remembrance not only of those brave young people who served in the military and fought so bravely yet who were killed in the conflict. Eventually it became a traditional day to remember not only the dead but those who fought and also those injured in service to their country. At 11:11 a.m. on Armistice Day, a traditional wreath of red poppies is laid at the base of the Cenotaph, a memorial to the war dead, by the Queen, herself a veteran, or her representative All across the country, at the sound of a bell, everything and everyone stops for two minutes of silence in tribute to all veterans.  There is also a Remembrance Sunday on the second Sunday of November which is a day of quiet celebration, church services and other commemorations. In France,  Remembrance Day is solemn, with church services and many businesses closing to honor the fallen. In Belgium, visitors come to see thousands upon thousands of crosses and other symbols which  marked the graves of the fallen. Close by, blood red poppies bloom as if a reminder of the blood that was shed to make freedom for those at home.

In the United States we celebrate Veterans Day, honoring all who have served, the living and the dead alike. There are frequently parades, and businesses offer free things from food to haircuts to discounts on some items. It's also a time for big Veterans Day sales which feature big-ticket items like cars and appliances go on sale along with clothes, electronics, and almost everything. It is kind of a run-up to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Sometimes it makes the body wonder what the relationship is between a refrigerator and a veteran painfully walking on crutches, or wheelchair-bound, or walking with a service dog -- or lying in a coffin. It's almost incomprehensible.

Stories have always glorified warriors, especially those of one's own nationality or culture or religion, who came back to honor and glory from their admirers. These became stories that would encourage others to be heroic themselves. Stories like Joshua, who led the troops and also the priests who marched around the city of Jericho with shofars blaring so that the walls, as the song says, "… Came tumbling down." Whether it actually happened that way or not, who knows, but it is a story we remember, and we can all use it to motivate ourselves to do a little marching and a little tooting. Yet not often are those immortalized were among the dead left behind or buried hastily in the place where they fell.

Jesus never actually came out and endorsed  warriors, although David was certainly a warrior as well as a king. Instead Jesus talked about peace, bringing the world to the peace that originally existed when God finished the creation. Jesus talked a lot about that kingdom, and also cast it in, what was to him, modern visions of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, wisdom, good feeling, and mutual caring that were all parts of Eden, parts that were shattered by a serpent's words and a couple's willingness to disobey. There's always been an image of re-foraging and recasting weapons like swords and shields into instruments of peace like plowshares and reaping scythes. It's still a dream, but it seems farther away now than ever before.

Now we not only think about those who sacrificed themselves so that others might be free, but we also think about victims of domestic violence and terrorism, terrorism from home-grown people as well as foreigners. We think of all the recent incidents of violence against crowds of innocent people just because someone wanted to make a point. How many hundreds died this year at the hands of others who, with some sort of skewed ideology or even theology, walk into churches, perch on top of buildings, break glass windows in hotel towers, and simply walk the streets with guns blazing and automobiles racing through crowds. It is becoming all too familiar, and the more familiar it gets, the less impact it has because we get so used to it.

Jesus would not like that, not at all. I pray that Jesus will keep reminding us that in order to bring peace we need to reestablish an environment where peace can flourish, peace as a place where people respect other people including the aliens and their land, as was the custom in Israel among the Israelites and the Hebrews. We must cultivate a sense of caring for those who fight their own battles against disease, criminal acts too easily done, hunger, homelessness, in prison but who are innocent (and even the ones who are guilty). It needs to be  a world where we comfort the dying, not to ship them off to some clinic or hospital and let them die alone and possibly uncared for. There's a whole lot that can be done, and as surely as we can wear red poppies on our shirts for Veterans Day to mark the bloodshed for us and in our name, above it there should be a visible or even invisible cross to remind us to that Jesus was a victim of violence himself and died as a result of the ideology and theology of others.

Let's let Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day be a day for all of us to think seriously about what freedom means and what the kingdom of God is really about.

To veterans, alive and those on the other side of the veil, thank you for your service and bless you for your sacrifices.

For the rest of us, let us never ever forget what others have done for us and in our name. Then let us go out and tend to them in the name of Jesus.

God bless.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.   -- 
John McCrae (1872-1918) (Poem in public domain)

Sunday, November 5, 2017


There's something unnerving about having the phone ring early in the morning, far earlier than one would normally expect. It happened to me the other morning, and I immediately went into "Oh my God, who and what is it?" It was my daughter-in-law, a girl that I have seldom had a chance to talk to for very long, but who has been an excellent wife for my son for nearly a decade and a half. She went on to tell me that my son had become very ill on the evening of Halloween, so ill he was even willing to go to the hospital. That told me this was nothing to fool around about.

My son is known to be a stubborn person although he has almost perfect manners, a pleasant speaking voice, a nice smile, good looks, a work ethic the far surpasses most people in his generation, a generous spirit, and is a damn fine guy, if I do say so myself. But he is stubborn. He gets it from me, I guess, because I'm stubborn too. His wife and I have been trying for years to get him to go to the doctor about symptoms that he had had that he just decided to ignore, namely severe and almost constant headaches. Well, as of Halloween, it turned out to be something he couldn't afford to be stubborn over and something he will have to pay attention to probably for the rest of his life. Otherwise he's fine, more or less.
I always thought of Simon Peter as a stubborn person.  Was he was born under the  zodiacal sign of Taurus the bull? Bulls represent stubbornness. It's one of their chief characteristics, if astrology books are anything to go by. Peter would bull his way into something, whether he understood it or not, and often cause himself a bit of grief and a sharp thwack across the knuckles from Jesus to get him back on the right path. I think about him jumping over the side of the boat to walk to Jesus because Jesus walking on water. Naturally, Peter started to short to sink like a rock, which is in very apt term since Peter meant stone, and the disciple is often nicknamed "Rocky." Jesus stretched out a hand and Peter gathered enough faith to get himself out of deep water, so to speak, but it took help from Jesus to do it, help that Peter had to accept. Even then he didn't totally get it. Several other times he had to be reined in for he would rush into something before considering it and often, the thing that he rushed into created an opportunity for Jesus to teach the rest of us a lesson.
James and John were considered Sons of Thunder, and they also had their streaks of stubbornness. They even had their mother go to Jesus to ask that they be given positions of preference at Jesus's right and left hands. I would think twice before asking my son's boss to give him a promotion even though I believe my son is more than worth it, has the knowledge and the ability to do the job I am pursuing for him. I'm stubborn, but that one goes beyond my level of bull-headedness.

It's easy for any of us to be stubborn, especially about things we care about the most and things we believe in to the very core of our being. For some people there's an inherent belief in a symbol such as the American flag being something sacred and to be defended in any and every way from defilement or even perceived disrespect. For some stubbornness is a religious faith and belief in a supreme being who watches over them and protects them and cares for them, but sometimes lets them get into hot water and then get themselves out.

There are some who have a stubbornness about politics, or the role of economics in our society, or societal norms that they believe we should be upholding, whether or not we agree with them. There's so many ways to be stubborn. The old metaphor of stubborn people being like mules who have to make up their mind that they want to do something before it'll actually do it. I have a friend who could probably deliver at least a two-hour sermon on the habits and traits of mules, with plenty of anecdotes to prove the point.
It is stubbornness to insist my way is the only way, which is only partially correct because it might be the only right way for me, nobody else. It stubborn to ignore good medical advice. It stubborn not realize that one day old age will arrive and following that will be the final chapter of life whether we're ready or not. Sometimes it's our own stubbornness that keeps us trapped, like cigarette or drug addictions, or alcoholism, or feelings of supreme egoism, or any of the many terms thrown around today like despotic, narcissistic, or hedonistic.

Sin boils down to stubbornness. We don't like the words sin. It may feel dirty, and heaven knows, we don't like feeling dirty. The thought of sin makes us uncomfortable while frequently the action has exactly the opposite effect of making us feel exalted, happy, enthusiastic, relieved, and so many others I can hardly think of enough words to cover the subject adequately. Sin is a form of stubbornness, the idea that I can do what I want, when I want, to whom I want to do it, and in the manner I choose to do it. It is setting myself up as judge, jury, executioner, and like Mme. Defarge, who sat underneath the guillotine, knitting  away as imperial heads rolled, instigators, nonchalant observers, and potential victims of their own hubris.
I'm trying to let go of the stubbornness, and to some extent, I'm getting somewhere with it. I've learned I have to listen to the doctor, I have to obey traffic laws, I have to treat other people with the same respect I'd like to have be treated with myself, I have to trust that God has given us good rules to learn to play by, and a beautiful playground to play in. Still, I and others like me still managed to bring in mud and rocks and things that clutter up the landscape and make it dangerous.

I pray my son will moderate his own stubbornness just a little bit, enough to convince him that giving up control is just giving up having to be 100% right all the time. Needless to say, I love him dearly anyway, stubborn or not, because of flaws I see in him I know are in me too. I have a feeling I'm not alone in that.  Probably James' and John's mother felt the same way --- and undoubtedly Mother Mary, who had a sometimes very stubborn son of her own.
God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, November 4, 2017.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Plus ça change...

I've been thinking about words. I have no idea why, but one word has been running through my head the last few days. It is a rather simple word, but with a lot of baggage attached to it. The word is "change," and for such a simple word it seems to be a difficult one to deal with. I don't mean thinking about changing my socks or the arrangement of furniture in my house, not even change in the weather, although it would be nice if it would get down below 90 and stayed there for a little while. That would be a welcome change.

Change is word that seems to have a lot of meaning for people. I work in a business where change happens. Like a lot of things and situations, it's an inevitability. One of the hard parts of my job is to tell people that have been accustomed to things being one way for a number of years to suddenly have to deal with things not being what they considered normal and comfortable. I can't say too much to them about why these changes take place, partly because I don't know myself, and that's hard. I want to be able to explain to people why these changes have happened so that they can understand and accept the situations, but it's far above my pay grade to do that. To me, it emphasizes how the word change can create fear, hard feelings, anger.  If you want to see people angry, change something that impacts them. If you want an example on a smaller scale, change the location of the cat's litter box.

When it comes to the word change in a religious sense, things can get even more precarious. There are a number of people like me who came into our church or denomination because it was so different from the one we had grown up in. In my case, it allowed questions, and encouraged them. It had a beauty and rhythm and language that was far from what I would hear on the street, and it felt uplifting to me simply because it was in the same style of speech, to a certain extent, as the Bible I grew up reading, the King James version. It has taken time for me and probably many others to get used to using "you," instead of "Thou," or use a -th on the end of words that we wouldn't normally add, like "standeth" or "lovest." Of course, when most of us pray these days, we still recite the version that we grew up with which was the King James version. Somehow, it's familiar, it's safe, and when it changes, we feel like something has shaken the world, and made it mean something different than what we were taught. It's been a change it's been hard for a lot of us to get used to, but with time, change becomes easier and so does acceptance.

This week, a friend was one member of a congregation who was moving from one church building to another, participated in deconsecrating the building that they had known and loved and worshiped in for years. It had been a planned move, one designed to better serve their church community and their internal and external ministries. Still, it was a wrenching moment time for all concerned because it represented change, and change was and is something uncertain, unknown, and occasionally, something to be feared. Even though the congregation will remain the same, the liturgy will remain the same, and the people who worshiped in one place to meet in community in the new place, still, it's going to be different and sometimes difficult, but, working together, all will be well, as Julian of Norwich would say.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a critic, journalist and novelist once said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," which means something like "The more it changes, the more it is the same thing." We see that in a number of places. In government, the change of administration has changed a number of things, even though the balance of power in the government hasn't changed all that much. What has changed is the feeling that the government desires to change anything that has been deemed beneficial in previous administrations.  It seeks to benefit the 1% of the population who can manage extremely well on their own while cutting down the safety net for a great part of the 99% who are less able to weather changes economically, physically, environmentally, and politically. 

This kind of change produces the potential of life and death for groups of people who live on the margins, who are elderly and frail, who are children who are hungry and ill, and those who believe the message of the Statue of Liberty, "Bring me your tired, your poor, your hungry masses looking yearning to breathe free." They believed, and now changes are making them pay for it, and pay dearly.

When Jesus talked about change he talked about the kingdom of God and the changes that it would bring. He talked about traditional Jewish values of caring for widows and orphans, the sick, the needy, the imprisoned, the aliens, all sorts and conditions of people. The to knock quotes again and again words to the effect of caring for these people and treating them with kindness, helping them whenever they needed it, and not looking to either make a profit for ourselves or use them in ways that were cruel or that demeaned them. Jesus talked a lot about treating people well, loving people, even enemies. Lord knows, that is one of the most difficult things he could ask us to do, but he did ask. I wonder how many of us really try our hardest to love someone we fear, or dislike intensely, or have other negative feelings and emotions about. Should we love a serial killer? Yes, I'm afraid the answer is yes. We may not like the person's actions and we may hate his motives, but as a human being, the serial killer is a child of God, and so we are told to love him or her. That's an almost impossible thing that requires real change in how we think, act, and react.

One thing that is certain about this world is that change is going to occur, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, whether we're all for it or not. The change that we most need to make, though, is that change to thinking in terms of kingdom thoughts rather than just political, economic, climate, and any of a number of different categories of thoughts. We need to ask "Is this a valuable change? This is a change that will help people or hurt them? Is this something of which God would approve or is it something contrary to what we are informed as God's will?" In order to make those decisions, we need to be able to sit down and think and reason, discern from tradition, and also look at how our culture informs the changes that we consider and may ultimately make. Above all, it might be a very dated saying, but "what would Jesus do?" That in itself would give us a number of answers to what we need to change and what can remain more or less intact.

Change has come. Change is coming. Change will come, and will we change with it or will we remain the same?  God knows.  We still have to ask.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 28, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Special Days

Have a good day!" That’s a kind of greeting you hear just about every day from someone. Occasionally I'll get "Have a great day," or "Have a blessed day," or some other variation of the wish that you have a day that has good stuff in it. There are those who resent that kind of thing. "Don't tell me what kind of day to have!" Yes, that's a bit snarky, but then people can be very snarky and really have nothing against the people who wish them a good day or a great day or a blessed day or any other kind of day.

There are some days that are better than others, like days when you don't hit every red light when you're late leaving the house for work, or you forgot you were out of milk until after you’d poured the cereal in the bowl, the days with flat tires, burst water pipes, leaky faucets, sick cats, and all manner of small to enormous disasters that can really mess up a day. It's funny though, it's all in how you look at it.

This week has been a series of “Lord help me!” days but with some truly brilliant flashes of hallelujah! Thursday was one of those days. Back home it was a day of celebration because it was the 236th anniversary of Cornwallis's surrender George Washington in my little home town. It was and still is a big celebration with lots of activities both fun and educational.

There was a special day (I won't say how many years ago), when our family was increased by a new baby, my brother's first child. It was on Yorktown Day, and the whole family was just overjoyed. She really was a cute baby. It was memorable, a new baby on the day we celebrated a conclusion to almost all the fighting to gain our independence.

Then, 17 years and a few hours later and half a world away, another baby was born on Yorktown Day. He almost missed it, being born only nine minutes before midnight. I had been so hoping he'd wait at least one more day, but he was in a hurry. This was my son, and he was born in the Philippines, miles and miles away from Yorktown. But my little town was still very much in my mind when they finally showed me my child and I compared him to the memory of the little girl born 17 years previously. It was interesting to see the differences, but of course, my son was probably the best-looking baby you ever saw.

We celebrate days the secular days and sacred days, and customs vary on how we do it. We celebrate secular days like July 4 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.  We make it a day of picnics and pool parties, hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelons, potato salad, fireworks, and the whole bit. It's quite a day. I could go on and on, but I believe you get the point. It commemorates a day when we lit a fire that took until October 19, 1781, to quench. The result was a new nation, conceived in liberty – a goal which we are still spending our days trying to comprehend the meaning of and the way to make it work for everyone.

There are some days that are better than others, like days when you don't hit every red light when you're late leaving the house for work, or you ran out of milk after and remit only remembered after you had poured the cereal. The days with flat tires, first water pipes, leaky faucets, sick cats, and all manner of small to enormous disasters that can really mess up a day. It's funny though, it's all in how you look at it.

In the course of our daily lives, day by day, we tried to get as much accomplished as we possibly can, do the best job that we can, and find time for things like meditation or prayer or yoga or walking in the park telling a kite. We can't be rolled robots, but neither can we be total free spirits in the sense of we have no responsibility and no commitment to anything other than ourselves and what we want to do at any given time. God didn't create us to do that. God gave us some things to do that we have to work into our daily lives like helping the sick or feeding the hungry, or maybe just visiting or calling someone who's been sick, or celebrating a birthday, or other commemorative events.

This week will be quieter, no major birthdays, no major celebrations, not even minor celebrations, unless God grants that the Cubs win the pennant. Still, this coming week I need to concentrate on how I'm spending my day. I have to have time to work, time to study, to be social with friends and time to be alone. It's a challenge to find a band of balance in all of this. But God made the world in balance and now we have unbalanced it. Maybe I can't stop the wobble of the earth on its axis, but I can learn how to work with the wobble to my own life and make sure that there is time for me to be reminded that God deserves a chunk of my time, and that I'll it to myself to carve out that chunk of time. Ultimately, that makes for a good or great day.

God bless.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.

Friday, October 13, 2017

One hand, one finger, one change

Once upon a time  in Austria there was a young concert pianist, a man who had a father who did not believe that art in any form was suitable as a way to make a living. Unfortunately, that father lost three of his five sons to suicide because they did not want to follow in his footsteps. Of the two remaining, one chose to follow philosophy as a career. The last son became a concert pianist, well known but with no clue that he would become not only famous but an innovator one day. Fast forward to the end of World War I. The young concert pianist had served in that war had been severely wounded in his right elbow. His arm had to be amputated, leaving him a pianist with one arm, the left one. What could this possibly mean to a young man with great promise but a flawed body?

He asked composers to write piece of music for him a few did. Eventually composers like Ravel wrote pieces to be played exclusively  with the left hand. Those pieces are still played today, usually by two-handed pianists who voluntarily keep one hand in their laps while the left hand plays beautiful melodies and intricate passages written by composers who believe that a one-handed pianist could still be an artist. Were it not for his injury and his subsequent recovery and determination to remain an artist, we probably would never know the name Paul Wittgenstein.

In 1831, another man, born in Lithuania, went to Germany to study to be a rabbi. He became a Christian instead, and emigrated to the United States where he trained for the priesthood. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church and was sent to serve as a priest in China. There he worked hard to master and also to translate the Bible into Mandarin Chinese. He was made a Bishop in 1877, and he founded the University in Shanghai. He began to translate the Bible again this time in a different style and form of Chinese. And then disaster struck.

Parkinson's disease is a gradually debilitating disease where the body develops tremors and gradually becomes incapacitated. The Bishop of Shanghai, as the priest was called now,  resigned his position as bishop but continued to work on his translations of the Bible. By this time, he had only the use of one finger on one hand. Nevertheless, he continued on with his work, picking away character by character, letter by letter, with his one finger. His translations today are considered authoritative and masterful and are still being used as standard text. If not for his one fingered task so well performed, and his dedication to doing what he believed God wanted him to do, we may never have heard of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky.

What the two had in common was to fight what could have been an overwhelming disability that would have prevented them from doing what they felt they were called to do. Fortunately for them, they were able to follow their passions in a way that set a new standard for dedication. Those pieces written for Wittgenstein are still being played today by artists of both one and two-handed variety. Schereschewsky's works of translation are still used as standards. Even after death, both men continue to inspire others in their various fields.

We all have heard it said that what was one person cannot really do much to change the course of things. Easier to believe that than it is to get out and do something about it. We expect leaders like Steve Jobs or other captains of industry for statesmen or even people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to get the crowd fired up and ready to do things. Sometimes all it takes is one person, like Malala Yousefzai, to call attention to something of a great need and encourage others to join the struggle to change what is wrong and make it right.

Jesus was one man, and yes, he was a human man, when he walked on the earth. Were he not a human male, the whole focus of his teachings would have taken on an entirely different point of view. If he openly declared himself the Son of God, would people have believed in him? Caesar claimed to be a god, yet he never walked on water or fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, although he claimed a virgin birth. No, Jesus was human and as a human he did things we don't expect humans to do, yet Jesus used those things to show what a depth of faith can do to make changes, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to look at the marginalized and give them value. Jesus changed the world, not totally by himself, but through his messages and how they were presented, how they influenced those who heard him, and who went about telling others about the wonderful things that had been said and done.

Maybe it's time for us to start thinking about what we could do, even as single individuals. I think about the woman in Las Vegas who held a dying man and continued to hold him even after his death because she did not want him to be alone. That was so poignant and such a Christlike moment. I don't think she even knew the man, but she saw a need and filled it. How wonderful is that?  One person made a difference -- as did the individuals who rushed in where others were scrambling to escape.

One person, one vote. We may not see it as able to change anything, but then no vote equals nothing no progress and no change. One person, one action, one small deed of kindness, one check, one thank you, one smile, like all little things, they can join together to become a big thing, and the big thing can change the world.  yet every single thing starts with an idea in someone's head or a calling in someone's heart to do something to make the world better. That's what we are taught to do as Christians, so why are we not doing it?

This week I think I will look for little things that I can do in the course of my work and in my ordinary life. I may not be able to solve everybody's problems, but I can at least let them know that I have heard what they said and have made note of it so that I will know how to best make that need known to someone else who can actually do something about it. I'm already conscious of smiling at total strangers at odd moments, and quite often I get a smile back. That feels pretty nice. I think it can become addicting.

So this one woman is going to try in her own way, small as it may be, to make the world better. Is anybody with me?

God bless.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hands and Hearts

The afflicted shall see and be glad;
you who seek God, your heart shall live.
  For the Lord listens to the needy,
and his prisoners he does not despise.
  Let the heavens and the earth praise him,
the seas and all that moves in them;
  For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah;
they shall live there and have it in possession.
  The children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his Name will dwell therein.  -- Psalm 65:34-38

I almost hate getting up in the morning, simply because I'm afraid to look and see what the morning's headlines are. It seems like almost every day there is a disaster, a shooting, a mass murder, injuries natural disasters; everything seems to be piling on at once. Even the Eucharistic reading for today seems to bring shades of disaster right to my eyeballs where I cannot help but read them. And just reading them is enough to make me feel uneasy, and at times, rather sick.

"The afflicted shall see and be glad you seek God your heart so live for the Lord listens to the needy and his prisoners he does not despise." These days it seems to be hard to find things to be glad about. There don't seem to be enough pictures of new babies, or people getting married, or cute kids doing wacky things, puppies, and, lots and lots of kittens. Where are they when we need them? They make us feel happy, they lighten our mood.

Instead, though, we are barraged with eyewitness stories, commentator speculations, worst-case scenario presentations, and lots more that can increase our feeling of disconnect from God because we're too busy being afraid of what our fellow human being could do was.  

The last two verses seemed to strike even deeper. "For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah, he shall live there and have it in possession. The children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell therein." If any place right now needs to hear that God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah, it's probably the people of Puerto Rico, who have undergone not one but two devastating hits of category 4 hurricanes within the space of only a couple of weeks. Their fields, towns, villages, and almost all of its infrastructure have been destroyed.

Puerto Ricans pray for release from situations which are life-threatening and more than just merely inconvenient. But praying carries things only so far. Throwing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans is not exactly the way to show deep caring and empathy. So many want to help, but are hindered by red tape and the fact that Puerto Rico is surrounded by waters no bridge can cross.  So many need the help that can be brought in, yet it took over a week for much of a response to even begin to trickle in.

It's all well and good to say, "Pray and God will take care of it." The problem with that is that God gave us brains and hands and feet and hearts and also our senses of compassion and empathy. Prayers are great; they help us focus on something that is troubling us and, in a sense, lay those things at the feet of God so that their weight is not so much on our shoulders. Still, even though the weight may be off those shoulders, we need to keep the weight in our hearts. Usually that's the only time we actually get out and do what we should do to help those in need, to volunteer to raise funds, or gather supplies, or even travel to places where devastation is so widespread, to be able to help those who are very much in need. It's only when our hearts really get involved that we are truly motivated to do what God originally intended, which is for us to work together to heal the broken, rebuild the shattered, and make the world a place of peace and safety for all people, not just one race, nationality, or any other qualification.

"Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and all that moved in them; for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah." This is the promise and this is a declaration that God will rebuild, but contrary to some belief, God needs us to accomplish what the psalmist attributed to God. It's doable, but it's going to take work. Too many of us are too busy worrying about our own lives, and accumulating our own words of wealth and possessions, and perhaps feeling mild pity for those who are in deep distress, but that's as deep as it goes. It doesn't touch our hearts, or at least it doesn't touch most hearts very deeply at all.

Yet the Psalmist tells us that not only are the heavens praising God but the earth, and by the earth it means all of us who live here, all the living things: animals and birds, trees, and even the rocks, waters,  the mountains, and the hard desert soil. All of it must rejoice and praise God because all of it is connected to God, not just a few select individuals who believe they are to be the recipients of God's bounty on this big blue marble on which we live.

It's about those who quietly and sometimes totally unnoticed do what is necessary to help their fellow human. Like those who responded to the shooting in Las Vegas this week, thousands of people were caught and thousands of people were the targets. Some ran for safety, some covered the bodies of others with their own to protect them, some held the dying so that they would not feel alone at that time, and some worked feverishly to save as many lives as possible. They did God's work, and I'm pretty sure God was very proud of them, but God expects us to step up to the plate and to what we can to relieve suffering, comfort the dying, and ensure the safety of everyone at any time, not just at times of great trial. 

This week I think I will probably be praying that it would be a calm week, without a lot of heart- wrenching details of tragedies and disasters to fill up the pages of newspapers and the posts on Facebook. But I also need to remember that I have to praise God, and also to remember I have a responsibility to do what I can to help bring this chaos into a state that God would truly call a kingdom.

Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Quakers, said it so well and so succinctly, "Hands to work, hearts to God."  Amen to that.

God bless.

Image: "My heart in your hands" by Louise Docker, Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.