Sunday, May 17, 2015

True Martyrs

Commemoration of the Martyrs of Sudan

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 116:10-17
Hebrews 10:32-39
Matthew 24:9-14

It's a bright, sunny day with comfortable temperatures. It's the kind of day where it is hard to think of anything but good things like cute babies, fluffy kittens (or frolicking puppies), vacations at the beach (or the mountains), hot dogs at the ball park, or beer at the 19th tee. It's a nice day for kids to be playing soccer or baseball, or biking with their friends around the nice, safe neighborhood. It's a good day, the kind people daydream of as they go about their normal work week.

It's hard to think about people in places that are very different, places where kids can't play outside because the area isn't safe for them--or for anyone really. They are homeless because someone whose politics or religion were far different decided that there needed to be changes, either governmental ones and/or religious conversions, either by choice or by force. Their homes and businesses are in ruins, they may be living in the midst of rubble or an overcrowded tent city with inadequate food, water and sanitation. The people there would probably like to think about baby animals, soccer games, and safe neighborhoods, but their reality is something very different.

There are many areas of the world where the different reality is clear, but today we mark the commemoration of people in one particular place, Sudan. Until it gained independence in 1956, the British had ruled the country with an arbitrary border intended to keep the peace but which, in fact, lead to much of what we see today, namely religious conflict. The British assigned the northern section to the Muslims and the south to more diverse ethnically and religiously-based groups. After the independence, the uneasy tension between the two halves of the country began to tighten and civil war became the name of the game for the next forty years. Beginning in the 1980s the Islamic government of the north increasingly enforced Sharia law and extended that influence into the south. We still see the results on the news almost nightly.

The Sudanese Martyrs represented all levels of society from military and religious leaders to ordinary people, all who refused to give up their Christian beliefs and convert to Islam as they were being pressured to do. Over the last few decades, Christians like them have tried to survive in what is now South Sudan, but in the course of that struggle two and a half million people have died as martyrs, four million have been displaced, and another million have been scattered around Africa and in other parts of the world, including the US. Religious buildings and schools were razed, and safety for Christians was  and is almost nonexistent.

The conflict continues with no end in sight. The Sudanese martyrs chose to follow Christ, as did the early Christians of Rome and the Mediterranean area. They followed to the death, just as many Christians around the world as well as in South Sudan are still doing today.

We hear people talk about others as martyrs, mostly because the ones under discussion are doing something difficult or unpleasant without a lot of complaining or boasting. Another popular use of "martyr" is from those who insist they have all the right answers and beliefs and feel put-upon because other people disagree with them and refuse to join with them. The verbal conflict can get very loud and heated, but usually the war of words does not cause fatalities that would truly make martyrs. Words, though,  often escalate into action.

There are Christians under very real attack around the world and we watch, horrified, as churches, temples, shrines, and schools are bombed and burned, children are murdered along with their parents and grandparents, and survivors are uprooted and forced to flee to places where survival is a genuine struggle. All refugees are not Christian nor are all martyrs Christian. Many die for their particular faith, unlike those who claim martyrdom because others won't accept their beliefs or faith. That pseudo-martyrdom seems like a copy from a printer that is almost out of ink.

We have had our martyrs, people who have died because of their beliefs and their following of their beliefs when others were intent on crushing their visible practice of those beliefs. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the little girls in Birmingham who died when someone bombed their church. They weren't intending to be martyrs but they became innocent ones. Martin Luther King, Jr? Definitely a martyr. Fr. Mychal Judge, who ran into the maelstrom of the 9/11 disaster? He chose to face possible death to practice his faith and bring help and comfort to those most in need at that moment. Nuns earned the crown of martyrs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Liberia because others felt they were dangerous as did Bishop Oscar Romero. The list goes on and on.

There are lots of examples of true martyrs, including many outside the Christian faith. We must never feel we have a lock on martyrdom. We have to be careful to make sure we use the word not as a cheap play for pity or agreement but rather as an accolade for those who have truly given their all rather than simply giving in to pressure. The martyrs of Sudan are our reminders today of the price Jesus has called us to pay, a price he paid himself because a he was thought to be danger to them the Temple and the Empire. He was just living his faith and teaching about it, and that, to his enemies, was dangerous.

Today's collect reads:
O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Those are words to carry with us today and every day. We never know when we may be forced to make the choice the martyrs made. May we be as strong, brave and faithful.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 16, 2015, under the title "The Martyrs of Sudan."

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction
.  - Wisdom 7:7-14

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate book. It's a rule of life,  an authoritative guide, a library,  a source of teaching, and, even though the word is used overly in the Bible, a source of wisdom. Solomon is considered to be the inspiration if not the author of several books considered in the category of "Wisdom books" although the Wisdom of Solomon is considered part of the secondary canon (deuterocanonical) by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, non-canonical but approved for study if not for doctrine by Anglicans and several other mainline denominations, but totally without approval or even mention in a great number of protestant churches.

Today's reading is about wisdom and the treasure that wisdom is. Wisdom is something that most people equate with being smart or being intelligent, but a lot of intelligent people don't seem to have a lot of wisdom while some of our most innocent members, small children, seem to have unexpected wells of it.

To the writer of the book, wisdom is the ultimate goal. The pursuit of wisdom was more important than anything. Christians often say, "Oh no, salvation is the most important thing."  That might be, but we need wisdom  in order to be able to live out the rest of the biblical mandates that are certainly a road to the kingdom Jesus wanted us to build on earth.

I remember being a teen who thought I knew a whole lot more than my parents. I don't think I was the only teenager my generation to have that thought, nor do I think I invented the concept either. Wisdom frequently comes with age. We don't like to admit it but, "We grow too soon old and too late smart," as the Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes.

Many societies treasure the elders, their oldest people, because they have lived life and they have accumulated wisdom about how to live and be in the world they inhabit  even though they don't or didn't have what we would consider book learning at all. They were treasured because they knew a lot, and could  pass this on to the younger generations, who, hopefully would listen and pass it on in their turn. This ensured the survival of the group and their particular way of life.

 I compare this traditional kind of respect for elders and their wisdom to what we seem to be addressing today in our modern world. Elders today are often seen as useless idea-blockers who resist almost any kind of change,  seeing it as a threat to their power, prestige and position. Jesus represented change and new ideas, hence he was a threat to the existing power structure. Change isn't necessarily bad, not if it evens the playing field or advances what can be done to benefit all people, not just a select few. Still,  new ideas may need to be tempered with the experience and wisdom of those who have learned through living, making mistakes, and finding solutions to those mistakes.

No single socioeconomic group has the corner on the wisdom market. Some of the wisest people in the world may not be able to read textbooks or pass exams but they know their territory, know how to survive and thrive in places and situations that their more educationally-advantaged brothers and sisters probably don't.  On the other hand, being poor doesn't equate being wise because a lot of poor people make a lot of poor decisions, based on what's most expedient, or that it is simply the only thing they know to do. More education can lead to better choices. Better choices make for greater wisdom. It's that simple.

That our generation is  willing to risk our children's future on cutting important things like education budgets, food programs, health care for the poor, Medicare, veterans' services and others, shows that we are not really very wise stewards of what we have been given. It also goes against pretty much everything that Jesus taught which we, as Christians, are supposed be wise enough to pick up on and follow. "A workman is worthy of his hire," fair wages for all, care for the women, children and orphans, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners, burying the dead -- the Bible is full of such precepts. It is about living for and with others, not what each individual can grab for themselves.

Where is the wisdom to be gained in denying children and young people, even older ones as well,  the road to wisdom to which one component is education. Tribal elders taught their young people the important things: the precepts,  morals,  practices,  faith, prayers, crafts, and all the other things that they needed to know to enable the younger members to understand who they were, where they were, how they got there, what they were expected to do, and how to build on that to advance or even just to exist successfully in their world.

 Wisdom is something to be sought, like the pearl of great price. Wisdom means taking the long view of things instead of the short term. Wisdom is balancing the good of all people against the good of the few and the detriment of the rest. What is our track record of obedience to that challenge from God? Not very good.

To truly follow the Bible we have to use wisdom, and we have to be wise enough to understand what we do in fact the affects the world around us whether it's tossing a pebble into still water or making decisions that will affect the lives of billions globally with trade, disaster relief, or even just coexist peaceful coexistence.

I wonder – where is today's wisdom to be found? What elders do we listen to for their wisdom gained by education and experience? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps it's time to stop trying to be so smart and concentrate on being wise. It would be our best investment and, I believe, something God wants and expects of us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 9, 2015, under the title "A Road to Wisdom."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Value of a Life

and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. - Matthew 10:22-32

Recently some friends and I paid a visit to a small zoo near where we live. We walked for miles, saw lots of animals, fed a giraffe (their tongue feels like a cow's, one person said), and were surrounded by lots of trees and birds, thousands of birds, both as exhibits and just plain ordinary everyday birds doing what birds do. There were really BIG birds, like the ostriches, and very colorful birds like macaws, peacocks and parakeets. There were lots of little birds too, flying free and resting in the thick foliage. They weren't colorful or particularly interesting, but they were there and very much a part of the panorama of life.

The reading this morning reminded me of not only the countless little birds I saw at the zoo but also the ones that live in my neighborhood. Sparrows, pigeons, and doves are plentiful here, and their calls are like morning talk shows when I go out walking around dawn. I read the familiar "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" and began to wonder -- why would anyone go to such trouble to catch such ordinary little birds, much less sell them to someone else?

By using the word "sparrow," Jesus could have been referring to any small grain-eating bird including swallows. They would be have had their feet tied and hung up in the courtyard awaiting the poorest of people for whom a penny's sacrifice was all they could afford. The Romans taxed their homes, lands and crops, the Temple taxed their membership as the chosen people of God, and then the sacrifice for sin, cleansing, atonement, substitution, or thanksgiving had to be made from temple-approved birds and animals, thus sort of a God-tax, since the sacrifice was given to God even though the money to pay for the sacrifice went into the Temple treasury.

The point Jesus was making was that everyone and everything was important, not just the wealthiest or the most eye-catching or the most powerful. Even the most casual perusal of the TV or media news is a series of disaster stories, whether man-made or nature-made. The news is full of death, damage, threat, reactions to threats and death tolls. At the end of each newscast, however, there's almost always a "feel good" story about a person or group doing something to help others in some way or who were rewarded for their service to others at a risk to themselves. It doesn't seem like enough -- maybe 1/20th of what we see and hear being something that encourages us to go out and help, to fight fear with action, to speak up for those who are voiceless.

If the lives of two sparrows are worth a penny, how much more would our lives be worth?  What is the value of a human being?  Depending on when in time you asked that question the answer would vary. Slaves had value, even though it wasn't their lives so much as their ability to work and produce income. Still, their lives had value to them. What about the innocent children killed in drive-by shootings in a turf war?  What are their lives worth?  What about the veterans who fought in wars and saw too much death and carnage to protect our freedoms?  The Native Americans, African-Americans, the differently-abled, the elderly, the orphans, the immigrants, the homeless, the GLBT?  What are their lives worth? How much do we value the invisible, the ones with nothing or little?

A human life is worth far more than a whole flock of sparrows to God, and it should be to us as well. Whenever a human is devalued,  it is like telling God that God's own measure of worth isn't accurate. The students are telling the master what is important and what is valuable.

What is the value of life?  What is the value of a forest, clean water, abundant wildlife, human dignity? What about honesty, trustworthiness, compassion?  Do we value those, especially in our fellow human beings? Or do we only care about our own interests, whether or not they are in accordance with God's teachings?

If God values the life of a sparrow, or anything else, how much more can we as humans be valued in God's sight? Do we have the right to say that this person or that one has little value to us because they aren't like us in some way -- physically, culturally, educationally, financially, religiously-- and therefore have no value to God? Would God prefer us to others who are not like us? Or would God take exactly the opposite position?

Jesus told us we have value. When are we, you and I, going to learn to see that value in all of creation and try to make it the kingdom of God on earth as Jesus taught us to do and God wanted us to do from the beginning? We may laugh at tree-huggers, but what would happen if we actually did it ourselves, hugged the trunk, felt the bark, touched the leaves other than to rake them up so the yard would look tidy?  What if we offered a homeless person a sandwich and coffee and not just a buck or two with the hope they weren't going to spend it on dope or booze?

There are millions of ways to celebrate life all around us, to validate the value of life in this world. We all have value -- so spread it around. Find someone and validate their value as a friend, co-worker,  mentor, family member, even a stranger as a person and a beloved child of God.

We don't have to be martyrs, just committed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 2, 2015.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cloaks and Wineskins

After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
 Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good." - Luke 5:27-39

You meet people in the strangest places, people who may at first seem just like everybody else but who become important people over the course of time. I'm not sure what Levi thought when a stranger walked up to him and spoke to him, but evidently there was a compulsion there that made Levi get up and walk away from a fairly lucrative if despised profession. It was a compulsion great enough that Levi even threw a big party and invited lots of his former co-workers to meet Jesus. We don't know if Jesus changed the minds of any other tax-collector, but he did collect Levi and gained a follower who also probably became a friend.

I wonder if Levi knew what he was getting into when he stood up from his tax-table. Did he call another collector to take over his stand? Did he take what money he had collected to another and ask that they get it to the proper authorities? Did he do the same with his tax rolls? Or did he just stand up and walk away from it all, leaving it to whomever noticed and might feel encouraged to lighten the amount the Romans would get as a result of Levi's work?

Levi became not just a follower of Jesus but, most likely, a good friend as well. He threw a banquet for Jesus where a number of Levi's former associates were present. This threw the scribes and Pharisees into a frenzy of accusations that Jesus was associating with Roman collaborators and sinners, people any righteous Jew would refuse to be seen with much less sitting down and eating with. Of course, Jesus got a reputation as a drunk and partygoer by associating with the outcasts, but in reality the scribes and Pharisees were just looking for evidence to use against Jesus who was a challenge to their authority.

Jesus had an answer for the scribes and Pharisees and, as was quite frequent, he used images to make his point. They asked why he ignored the righteous people he should associate with and instead dined and partied with people known to be outcasts and less-than-respectable citizens. In this reading, he used the images of cloaks and wineskins, both of which were common, ordinary objects. Everyone had a cloak and probably even a young child would know what a wineskin was.

The lesson was about practicalities -- and also about people. It isn't practical to ruin a new piece of cloth to patch an old cloak, or put unfermented grape juice in an old skin which has already been stretched and which might not withstand the pressure of fermentation of a new batch. The old saying about "waste not, want not" certainly would apply here. But when Jesus used the illustrations, he was talking about people, not commodities.

Daily we are surrounded by people: friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, total strangers and all sorts in between.  We don't have disciples like Jesus did (at least, most of us don't), but we do have people around us. Some are like cloaks; they warm us, they comfort us, they help protect us. They're the ones who patch the holes caused by rough treatment, loneliness, even down and out desperation, not with patches cut from new cloth but with love, caring and compassion. Others are like old wineskins with new wine put in; they have already been stretched and pressure from within makes them give way so that the skin ruptures and the wine is lost. These are the people who drain us of energy, who cause us pain and misery, or who represent things harmful to us. They may call themselves "friends" but these are not friends at all.

Jesus was surrounded by people too, some like warm cloaks, some like bursting wineskins. At times his disciples seemed like one or the other, sometimes seeming to change from one to the other in the space of the blink of an eye. What kind of friend swears they would die for you yet go and hide when you yourself are in danger? The disciples were like that, and we are not really a lot different. We celebrate when the bridegroom is present but hide when he is taken away. What kind of friends does that make us?

We as Christians claim friendship and discipleship with Christ. We quote him, we pray to him, we gather together periodically to celebrate his life and resurrection as we partake of the Eucharist. But when we walk out the church door, do we become cloaks or wineskins?  When we see people in need, are we cloaks or wineskins? When there are people in danger who need our help, which are we then?

Could we be Levis who walk away from a lucrative profession to follow a homeless rabbi and teacher? Would we throw a party for our associates and friends to introduce this rabbi to them as someone to listen to and to follow? That's putting away the wineskin and taking up the cloak.

Do we have the courage Levi did? 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Goodbye, my friend...

I don't remember the precise time when we passed from acquaintances to friends, but I should. I didn't know at the time it was going to be one of those friendships that lasted for decades and would be so important to me. Had I known, I'd have marked it on my perpetual calendar and tried to find a Hallmark card or a bunch of flowers or even a pizza special enough to celebrate the day.

I met her at church. We were both on the Altar Guild but on different teams. At some point in time, we started talking and became good friends. For me, I considered her one of my very best friends and, as the wise know, those are the treasures we find in life when we open up to the possibilities of entering a relationship. It was a risk I have always been grateful I took and that she did too.

She had such an interesting life, one so different from mine. She had lived in places I'd dreamed of, and I always envied that. She definitely traveled in social circles well above mine, but somehow that didn't matter because we were friends. I took her into my world, she shared hers with me, and we were both comfortable with that.

It is said that a mark of a true friend is one with whom you can share anything and still keep the friendship intact. We disagreed about some things (she loved talk radio and I listened to nothing but classical, among other things). We could (and did) talk about almost anything (okay, we left out some things that would have simply been TMI -- too much information). We laughed a lot which is always a good thing. She could be serious, but she also could be very funny, sometimes at the same time.

Of all the reasons I have to be grateful to her, probably the most important was her being there for me when I really needed her. She was one of the first people I called after my husband died, and she figuratively held my hand for weeks afterwards, helping me come out of the fog and make decisions I had to make.

When I needed a ride to a medical test, she was there to take me and sit in the waiting room until the procedure was done. Now there's nothing more boring than sitting in a waiting room, but she did it not once but several times. It was to her that I turned to when I was given the diagnosis of breast cancer, and she accompanied me on the initial visit to the surgeon to explore my options. She was my second set of ears and also my advisor. "Here's what I think but it is completely your decision," was that advice and it gave me the courage to do what needed to be done. She got up long before her normal rising time to take me to the hospital and wait until I was safely out of surgery, which involved a lot of sitting in a waiting room -- again. She picked me up the next day and brought me home. We checked in frequently and I knew she was there when I needed her. To me, that was the greatest sign of love a friend could give and she gave it wholeheartedly.

I've learned that one of the hardest things about growing older is the loss of people we considered  rocks and even portions of our own support system. News of her passing came a shock but not a surprise. Knowing her medical problems, it was inevitable that one day something was going to happen, I just wasn't ready for it to happen quite so soon.

I'm grateful we had pizza together a week or so ago, and that I got her my usual Easter gift to her -- cheap chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs, the cheaper the better. She loved the things and would ration herself so they would last for as long as possible. This year I gave her several dozen, telling her with a laugh that that should last her until next Easter. I hope she got to eat a lot of them.

Little things like that meant a lot to her, like the shoestring potatoes another friend gave her every year for her birthday. She looked forward to those and enjoyed them for as long as possible. I think to her, they were as important a gift as any extravagant one would be.

One thing she loved above all was her family. They were the center of her world. She could get exasperated, upset, hurt and puzzled by them but there was never a time when her love didn't encompass each and every one of them. Her family has been so exceedingly lucky to have had her with them for so many years.

I'm really going to miss JJ, as I called her. I am grateful for the memories but I wish we'd had time to make a few more. It appears her passing was quick and, hopefully, painless. That's a passing I think everyone wants but not everyone gets to have. I'm glad it was that way for her. She would have hated losing her independence. I'm glad she was spared that, for her sake and her family's.

Most of all, I'm going to miss that bright light she brought into my life. The world for me is a bit darker today. We didn't often say it, but there were times when the greatest thing either of us could say was "I love you."

Goodbye, my friend. You'll always be as close as my next heartbeat and my reminders of the many gifts you've given me. We'll meet again, and I hope there's pizza in heaven because we'll have a lot to catch up on.   Rest in peace and rise in glory, JoJane.


’Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”
 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.”

 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
  Luke 4:1-13

Jesus had just been baptized, complete with the Spirit appearing as a dove and a direct attestation from God. That same Spirit told him to go out into the desert where he would be for a fairly significant period of time. Jesus  was in the desert for 40 days  (40 consecutive days, unlike our Lent which is 40 days but excludes Sundays). While he was there he was subjected to some temptations which, had he given in, would have eased his situation and given him power over the earth or so he was promised.

nbsp;Jesus had feelings, emotions,  thoughts, and fears; he would have had to or his human experience would have been totally and fatally flawed. He was the Son of God, yes, but on earth as a Jewish male, not a god.

For us, temptations crop up with great regularity: buy this, get that, avoid this, lose weight because you're always too fat no matter what, keep up with the Joneses or you'll be considered a loser. We get temptations and some of them we can do without but some we succumb to. We're human and humans are subject to temptations. Jesus' temptations were about his being human and more. Having been in a human body for 30 years, he had to have gone through a lot of things that we go through, little temptations like  eating a little too much a meal or drinking a little too much wine,  doing something that maybe shouldn't be done but is done anyway. With his own temptations, Jesus showed how we should react to our own.

Every time we pray the Lord's prayer, we always pray "… Lead us not into temptation…" That always seems to be a puzzle to me. In the theology of my childhood church, God gives us trials to check our faith, to see if we succumbed to weakness or whether we were strong in our faith. If someone got cancer, it was God's will, it was God's test of their faith, regardless of the outcome. If a child died, it was God's will and a test of the parent' strength of belief. No matter what came along, if it wasn't great and wonderful and terrific it was a test from God. Wait a minute. Wasn't something like this covered in the book of Job?

Job lived a righteous life; he was a good guy. Suddenly, based on a sort of celestial contest, Job lost everything that made his life enjoyable and productive. His health was taken from him, most of his family were killed, and all his possessions were taken away because of a bet. Job was a pawn in an apparent  struggle between the Adversary and God, to see if Job the righteous would become Job the unrighteous. He passed the  test and of course was able to regain everything he'd lost including more children, more wealth, more livestock, more everything. I realize that Job is an allegory but so much of the theology that I was taught as a child and even some that I hear today is dependent on this as a test from God. Job passed that test because he never denied God, he never got angry with God, he never did anything wrong. God rewarded his faithfulness.

This is hard for me to comprehend now. If someone gets cancer, is that a test from God to see how strong their faith is? A job gets lost and with it a family's stability is lost also;  is that a test from God? It is far  above my pay grade to really say yes or no, but as I grow older the more I wonder what is it that I actually believe about this. How can I say ..."lead us not into temptation ..." or the new version, ..." save us from the time of trial..."  when I don't believe God actually leads us into temptation or a time of trial just to check and see if were going to pass the faithfulness test. I would venture to say most if not all of us would fail miserably.

I can look at Jesus. He was as  Paul said, was " all points tempted like as we are, ..." (Heb. 4:15b). That's what makes the crucifixion and resurrection so incredible.  Yet am I supposed to believe that Jesus death on the cross was God's will and pretty much the sole reason Jesus had to go through Good Friday's agony? That's pretty hard pill to swallow.

As I grow older my questions grow. Not that I don't believe; I believe very strongly in the crucifixion and resurrection and humanity of Jesus as well as his divine nature. But what I can't believe is that this is a test from God or that a lot of things that we hear other people say about "Oh well,  it was God's will" or "God is testing our faith". I just can't wrap my mind around it. Perhaps I'm not supposed to. Perhaps the test is to see if I can still rely on God and yet solve my own problems without assigning blame to someone else. I don't think my cancer was sent by God, but it strengthened my bond with God and it also taught me that I have more strength maybe than I thought I did.

We aren't as strong as Jesus; we succumb all the time. Where I think the lesson is in what we do if we give in and what's the outcome. Does it bring us closer to God or separate us further from God? That's the real question we have to answer, and answer directly to God. God doesn't require it, but is always ready and waiting to listen.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 18, 2015.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Witnessing with our lives

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
 After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
“Why did the Gentiles rage,
   and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
   and the rulers have gathered together
     against the Lord and against his Messiah.”

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant
Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. -- Acts 4:13-31

Peter and John had been preaching in Jerusalem, a rather brave thing to do considering that not all that long ago they had hidden with their brother disciples as their teacher and master had been crucified publicly not very far away. This time, though, they had healed a 40-year-old lame man and suddenly the crowd saw them as more than uneducated Galileans who preached about the impossibility of a dead man who came back to life. Those sermons and speeches got the temple leadership all in a tizzy. What to do about these men whose actions were causing such a stir throughout Jerusalem?

The answer was to haul Peter and John off to prison until they could decide what to do. Their final solution was to tell them to just shut up, to quit talking about this Jesus, and let things go back to normal. Peter and John must have grown some spine since the resurrection; they not only refused to keep quiet, they continued to speak out, to pray openly, and to attract more and more attention.

Each of us probably hears thousands of words a day. Conversations with friends, family, coworkers and sometimes almost total strangers like the server at Starbuck's or the clerk at the grocery store, news and entertainment on the radio and TV, readings and sermons in church, exchanges of ideas and proposals at work; the list is almost endless. Sometimes we might even hear a sermon from a street preacher or pass by a religious channel on the media. Now and again, a word or a phrase or even a tone of voice might cause us to pause a bit to hear more of what is being said.

Perhaps that's how Peter and John's message got through to so many. It's certain that the miracle of the lame man gave them an extra credence. Still, the bumbling disciples who seemed to have been so slow to catch on when Jesus was with them had become persuasive, even eloquent speakers. Looks like the Spirit had taken over and turned their lack of understanding into tongues of gold.

We get used to seeing miracles or what we call "miracles." On almost every newscast there's a final story about something that would make people feel good: a lost child found, a veteran with an amputation takes his first steps, a dog saves a family from a fire, people risk their lives to save other people or animals from risky if not potentially fatal situations. It's easy to call them "miracles" and, perhaps they are. A lot of what makes us pay attention is the words the newscaster, reporter or eyewitnesses use to describe what happened. The people in Jerusalem had seen a lame man healed, but they were told about a man rising from the dead. Now that was a true miracle!

We hear the words about that miraculous event every Easter and, in fact, we hear it throughout the year in church. What we don't hear is talk about it outside the church walls unless you run into a street preacher or tune in to a religious program on radio or TV. Oh, we get sound bytes of Christians around the world walking the pilgrim way or doing the stations of the cross during Holy Week, carrying crosses on Good Friday,  marching through the streets and around the churches on Palm Sunday, and joyous celebrations of Easter a week later. After that, nothing unless there's a funeral or wedding of a prominent person or someone around whom a community rallies.

For people enjoined to spread the good news, we aren't always that good at it. We let the clergy and the church do that for us with ads in the paper about times of service and maybe a bit of the mission statement which isn't always understood by the target audience. We put banners outside the church or church or denominational logos on bumper stickers or cling-ons for our car's back window and think that's being a witness. It's better than nothing, but it really isn't up to the par of Peter and John. We aren't called to be them, but we are called to witness, as the prayer book puts it, "...not only with our lips, but in our lives..." (125).

While we are still in the Easter season, it might be nice to be a witness whether by words or by actions. Acts of kindness, forgiveness, empathy, and presence are things we can do on a daily basis. Maybe we won't mention the name of Jesus, but maybe, just maybe, Jesus will work his way into the conversation. It's worth a try.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 11, 2015.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


I listen to the radio a lot, always the local classical station. Usually I don't seem to hear much choral music except in December and on the Sunday program featuring Baroque music, but lately I've heard a few more, and oddly, most of them seem to be selections from various requiems. I started thinking about it the other day and suddenly saw what might be connections between the requiems and the upcoming Holy Week. Perhaps tenuous and erroneous connections but nonetheless, it seemed worth thinking about.

Requiems are Roman Catholic masses for the repose of the dead, musical compositions of those services, and memorial compositions and works written in honor of a particular person. They can also be used at memorial surrounding death or mourning. Most of the major (and a bunch of the minor) composers have written versions of the requiem, whether for a special occasion or memorial for a famous person, or sometimes as a concert piece. Like writers are drawn to write about subjects that speak to them, composers often find something in the liturgy that suggests a musical exploration. They are no less beautiful or meaningful, and quite often they are incorporated into memorial services or funerals.

The word requiem is a form of the Latin requies meaning repose or rest. The opening of the traditional service is Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord) and is a prayer for the dead and a comfort for the mourners. When we pray for the dead, we are asking that God look with mercy on them and give them eternal rest. The various prayers of the requiem mirror the confidence we have in that mercy but also sort of hedging our bets on behalf of those being memorialized; we tend to be forgetful, and while we're sure God isn't, we aren't taking chances.

The Kyrie eleison and the Agnus Dei are familiar, at least in translation, from liturgies we celebrate during Advent and Lent. They represent both requests for mercy for the dead but also for ourselves. While we pray for the dead, we also pray for ourselves. Especially during Lent we are reminded again and again of our mortality and our inability to evade sin. We are encouraged to penitence for what we've done wrong and determination to avoid sin in the future. Of course, we may be penitent but most of us have some jolly little sins we're relatively fond of and others we really would like to do without except they are too convenient at times. Still, we go to church, confess our sins, promise we'll change, and pray for those who are now beyond any earthly redemption, for that redemption only God can provide.

I know that we hear requiems around November 1st and 2nd, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and that makes sense. We remember those we loved who have died and we pray that they will rest in peace and rise in glory. But why would we hear requiems during Lent and Holy Week?  Whose death are we mourning? 

Holy Week, which begins tomorrow with Palm Sunday, traces the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, moves through the events at the temple, the celebration of the first Eucharist, the night in the garden, the arrest. trial and finally crucifixion of Jesus. There we have a dead man for whom we might well pray for God's mercy upon him. But hold it. Jesus rose from the dead - and you can't sit shiva or raise prayers for the dead if the person isn't dead! So therefore it has to be a reminder for someone -- maybe us.

We pray for the dead and, perhaps, we hope deep down inside that someone will do a requiem or pray for us after we have died. We can't pray for ourselves or ask for mercy so we hope we have paid it forward in the prayer department by praying for others. Hopefully someone will do the same for us.

During the season of Lent and Holy Week, we draw closer to the cross, the instrument of death, and find that it isn't about death but about life. It's about Jesus but it is also about us. It's about our mortality and the promise of rest and resurrection. Perhaps the sound of the requiem is to be a comfort to us. The march to the cross leads not to a requiem but rather a celebration of life.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 4, 2015.          

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Saturday Night in Hell

It's the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In church terms, it's usually called Holy Saturday, a day when there doesn't seem to be much going on other than usual Saturday chores. Oh, there are probably people making sure Junior and Sister's new clothes are well-pressed and ready for church tomorrow. Some families will dye Easter eggs that will be hidden around the house and yard so the kids can have the fun of finding them. Easter baskets have been purchased (featuring thematic toys, balls, dolls, and cars) or Easter grass and different kinds of candies for the do-it-yourself baskets. Tonight parents will fill those baskets with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow eggs, pink and yellow chicks and bunnies (the ever-delightful Peeps, of course), jelly beans and the like. It will be a sugar rush second only to Halloween, and even adults will sneak a jelly bean or Peep to remind them of when they were kids and found their own Easter baskets.

Church-wise, the Saturday before Easter is a morning full of polishing, dusting, vacuuming, draping the altar with linens so white they glisten and arranging flowers and lilies by the dozens. Before noon, everything is usually ready for the Great Vigil of Easter, sometimes held on Saturday night, sometimes early on Easter morning. But, for the afternoon, the church is quiet and waiting.

We know the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and Easter Sunday is pretty familiar too. But what about the time between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and the stone rolled across the entrance and the first witnesses finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty? We know that is probably the greatest mystery but it doesn't stop us from wondering, just as it did our ancestors.

When we recite the Apostles' Creed, we say "...He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again..." (BCP p. 304). Older versions of the Creed use "...he descended into hell...," something suggested or mentioned in various parts of the gospels and epistles. Tradition has it that between being laid in the tomb and rising from it, Jesus went to the realm of the dead, Sheol, where all souls/spirits went. There was no punishment or glory, simply a place of eternal rest. There Jesus led out the souls of those who had lived before his coming to earth, people like the patriarchs, prophets and even Adam and Eve.

This signified his place as the second Adam, releasing souls by his power over sin and death just as the first Adam had introduced sin into the world. It became quite a popular story in the Middle Ages, and many people watched the miracle plays that dramatized the events. By this time, Sheol had become the Greek Hades which had gained an additional layer of meaning as a place of punishment. By the harrowing of Hell, Jesus became the victor over Hell's power and even Hell's own gates. Watching this dramatized gave the people a way of understanding a complicated issue and a moral lesson.

The story is traditional doctrine but seldom taught as such. We say the sentence of the creed and just sort of skip over it without thinking about it very much, if at all. But think of the early Christians and those in the Middle Ages. For them it was a very important thing, a promise that Jesus would keep the gates of Hell open not just for the one-way traffic of souls being forced in. For a majority of people who were trapped in a kind of hell of slavery, bondage, poverty and lack of control over most parts of their lives, it must have been comforting to see that the Jesus they heard about in church (if they could understand the Latin), could actually save people from Hell itself, a place even worse than what their normal situations were. Like the stained glass windows of the churches, the miracle plays such as the Harrowing of Hell were as much for education as simply for beauty or entertainment.

Of course, we don't know that visiting Sheol is how Jesus spent Good Friday night and perhaps Holy Saturday night as well, but it is one possibility. We celebrate Easter as Jesus' victory over death and a foreshadowing of our own rising again at the Last Judgment. We don't always stop and think about Hell and, in fact, some of us really only think about sin seriously during Lent when it is sort of made clear to us that we need to take sin seriously. For some of us, the belief that Hell will be empty and that all will have a second chance with God, no matter how evil the acts they have done, is a comforting thought while others are busy contemplating Hell well-populated with dictators, despots, miscreants, felons and people who simply don't believe the right things (in short, who don't agree with their particular beliefs).

I don't find it hard to think of Jesus bursting open the gates of Hell and bringing out the righteous. I don't even have a problem thinking of him bringing out people others would consider far from righteous. The mercy of God extended through Jesus is a power stronger than anything, including sin and death, so is it impossible that Hell is a place we choose here and now rather than face at some point in our lives when our earthly existence comes to a close?

That's something I think I will be contemplating this Saturday night. I'm betting on a very full Heaven and a very empty Hell. One night in Hell might just have emptied the place for good.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 4, 2015.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Prophet's Underwear

Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.  - Jeremiah 13:1-11

When the  tomb of Tutankhamen was opened and the contents revealed, surprisingly enough there were undergarments waiting for the Pharaoh's need of them. Looking at the tomb graphics and figures, many figures, including Pharaoh, are wearing short kilts or even just plain loincloths. Almost every culture has worn loincloths and some, like Sumo wrestlers among others, continue to wear them as part of their identification. Today we're more likely to hear about boxers, jockey shorts or even thongs, but they all started as an improvement (more or less) on the loincloth.

The story today begins with Jeremiah's underwear. Underwear isn't a subject often mentioned  in the Bible. In this story, God told Jeremiah to go get a new linen loincloth. Jeremiah was told not only to buy the undergarment but to put it on and wear it without washing it or letting it get wet. We aren't told how long he wore it but at some point God came and told him to take it to the river and hide it among the rocks. Some time later, Jeremiah was told to go dig it up and what Jeremiah found was a rotten, stinking mess that could never be used again. Symbolically, it represented the people who had once again proved unfaithful to God.

The job of the prophet was to warn people of the dangers of the course they were taking. It wasn't foretelling the future by saying something like "A week from next Tuesday a plague will hit and the people living on X, Y and Z streets will be decimated." It was seeing the cultural and religious bodies being infected from within and trying to tell them that they needed to change their ways of doing things or else.

God often made prophets do strange, not to say weird, things in order to get the people's attention. Isaiah had to walk around town naked for three years which must have scandalized the neighbors since even accidental exposure of certain areas of the body was not acceptable. Ezekiel had to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 more before baring his arm and prophesying against Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also told to cook barley bread over a fire of human dung but he bargained God down to cow dung instead as human excrement was considered unclean while a cow's was a normal fuel. Jeremiah had to wear and then bury his underwear. In each case, using an extreme visual to go with a warning from the prophet was God's way of trying to get Israel and Judah to listen.

Occasionally something would get their attention and the people would return to the way it was supposed to be, but then they would slide off into apostasy, greed, selfishness and downright sin of any and all varieties once again. Another prophet would give them a message, but again like so many times before, the intimacy with God would be rejected in favor of being like the alien neighbors who seemed to be having so much more fun.

Some fancy stores have departments such as "Ladies' intimate apparel," a very dignified name for women's underwear. Intimate apparel suggests garments that cling to the body, close, familiar and comfortable. Intimacy is more than underwear, though. Intimacy is a relationship that is close, familiar, comfortable and sometimes even passionate. It's a kind of relationship that everyone craves but sometimes are too afraid to pursue. They fear disclosing too much and giving others power, especially the power to hurt deeply, that comes with a person sharing that information with another.

One thing we are assured of is that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we don't know what that is for ourselves. God extends intimacy to each of us yet often we reject it or completely forget about it. We become the dirty underwear stashed in the crevice like Jeremiah's. We go chasing after foreign or false gods, becoming dirty in the process and straining the intimacy that we, and God, crave.

What does it take for us to return to that intimacy with God that we were intended to have? It isn't something that just suddenly comes on and sticks around; it has to be fostered, like adding kindling to a tiny fire to make it grow. Prayer and meditation can be a good start, as can being mindful of our actions and thoughts.

Where are we failing God when we mentally curse at the person who just cut us off on the freeway or whose dog left a "gift" on our front lawn? Where are we failing when we see pictures of hungry children and then blithely go on to our favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner that would cost enough to feed that child for days? When we fail at caring for others we fail at caring for God, for each of us carries some God-stuff within us. We fail when we forget to pray or when we only shoot up arrow prayers when we are in trouble but don't bother with thank yous for help received or for something good that happens.

Intimacy takes work, unlike underwear that just clings to the body. It is a relational thing that has to be carefully tendered. Yet intimacy is a gift from God that lies within us all and that we can return to God as our gift and our duty. Maybe we don't need a nude prophet or one with dirty underwear, but we do need to pay attention to those who tell us where we are failing in terms of God, our neighbors and even our planet.

Paying attention is another of those intimacy things--a closeness, familiarity and even passion--that will help grow a kingdom, God's kingdom, here and now.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 14, 2015.