Sunday, May 1, 2016

Christ Light

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. - Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

It's a gray day outside. Living in Arizona, we don't get many of them. Some people with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder, though, can almost immediately get depressed even with a few hours of gray-ness. Me, I love gray days. Growing up back east we had them often, usually accompanied by rain, soft, gentle rain that made everything lush and green and beautiful. Here, though, we have what seems like 360 sunny days a year although the latest figures I can find indicate the number is 296, including partly sunny days. Be that as it may, I still like gray days if for no other reason than it makes me look at the world a bit differently.

Maybe my love of gray days leads me to love Gothic cathedrals. Great stone walls and piers reaching toward the sky with vaulted arches spanning wide spaces are like a giant gray forest with a canopy overhead. It's a worshipful place, a place where I feel God in a very immediate way. But there's even more there; the tall cathedral walls are punctuated with pieces of glass, colored glass. The glass glows when the sun shines and at night, when the lights are on, the world outside can look to the cathedral and see a bit of beauty, maybe a bit of heaven and be comforted by it.

The thought struck me that Christ is like a cathedral--strong, great, solid, and beautiful. Those who live in Christ see the glory of God shining through the stained glass pieces of the windows, casting patches of colored light around like a warm quilt. Christ draws us in to the beauty and the glory within himself, and leading us to the altar of God to celebrate this communion. It's a mystical moment, a place where time is suspended and all that matters is the calm, quiet, and closeness.

For those outside, Christ is like the cathedral at night, lights blazing. Like the beacon on the hill, it shines out into the darkness and draws people to it, people who are hurting and need comfort. It's a thing of beauty in a world of ugliness and squalor.

There are people who are definitely in Christ. It shines out of them, this Christ-light, and it extends outward to a world that needs to see that light. They are people of goodness, people who care about their fellow human beings and want, in any way they are able, to bring the light they have to those in darkness and gray days. Watch Archbishop Desmond Tutu's eyes as he talks. No matter what he is saying, the light of Christ shines from his eyes. His joy shows in his smile, his dancing. He has been through experiences that most of us will never have to face, yet Christ is in him and works through him to show the rest of us what it can be.

Probably we each know at least one person who is a light in our shadows and grayness. The friend who is always there and who knows, instinctively whether we need to talk or just need someone to sit with us in silence. We see someone answering the needs of the world and finding joy in it, like the man who works to fill backpacks of food and supplies for school children who otherwise would go hungry and lack educational tools. We see congregations helping to build houses for the poor so that they can have a safe place to live for themselves and their children. It's the Christ-light that shines through these helpers that show us who Christ is and what his message is all about.

Christ is always there for you when you need him, shining his light around and through you. I saw it in a Russian Orthodox priest I met once. I couldn't speak Russian, he couldn't speak English, but there was something about him, an almost tangible aura that shone around him and through his eyes. I had no doubt he was a Christ light.

For whom can you be a Christ light? It isn't enough to accept the light coming into the heart and soul like sunshine through a window, but it also has to go somewhere, be something that motivates a person do something for others, even and especially if it comes without strings or expectations of thanks or glory. Christ never asked for glory for himself, only for God. Perhaps that is the clue we often miss. Perhaps that is why we stifle that Christ light in ourselves.

So let us go out and let the glory be to God. Then let the Christ light shine so that the whole world is illuminated. It will be a much better place--and Lord knows, we need that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Success in the Face of Failure

"The man who cannot accept the possibility of complete, radical, personal failure in the carrying out of this Christian mission is not sharing that absolute poverty of spirit which characterized the freedom of Jesus to accept the divinely appointed means for his mission." -- John Narrone, A Theology of Failure

I've been thinking about failure lately, mostly personal, repeated personal failure. It's not easy to admit that one often feels a total failure, especially when faced with the success of others but it has to be faced. The world needs failures as much as it needs successes. Somehow that's scant comfort to one of limited success to know that they are part of the balance.

I googled "theology of failure" just by chance because I wanted to see if there were such a thing and evidently there is. The quote above was taken from an entire book on the subject. It seems that there is, among the many references to "theology of failure" available online, a large number of articles, books, and references to pastoral failure (or threat of failure).

There are also many articles referring to "theology of failure" as it relates to what might be considered by some to be failed theologies--failures in feminist, black, liberation, GLBT, liberal, etc.--theologies which don't seem to match up to expectations that they will resolve conflict and ensure equality that many in the Christian religion feel is the gospel imperative. Despite years of attempts, discussions, marches, meetings, and the like, there are still ceilings that don't seem to be crackable, and gaps that seem unbridgeable. While the struggle continues, theology as a whole has attempted to move on and yet has pretty much stayed stuck in the same ruts they were when the various branches of theology shot off from the tree.

This is not a new phenomenon. It just makes me wonder if a "theology of failure" is just a rearrangement of words for "failed theology." The verse often used in discussion of theology of failure is that of Matthew 10:14, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town." In essence, if the venture appears to be a failure, move on and try somewhere else. Was it the messengers who failed to present the message in a way that compelled others to willingly accept it, or was the message flawed and that caused the people of the town to reject it?  Was it a theology of failure or a failed theology?

The Inquisition would probably be considered a failed theology; indeed, any theology that requires those who don't accept it, for whatever reason, to be tortured into acknowledging and accepting it seems like a theology doomed to failure even though it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the story of Adam and Eve seems to have a built-in theology of failure in that when given free will to obey a simple command from God (or not), humankind chose to fail at the test. Or was it a test? Did God build in a theology of failure along with the components of DNA, the number of limbs and ability to walk upright?

Not everything is a success; for every success there are probably a hundred, maybe thousands or more failures. It's all trial-and-error, if-at-first-you-don't-succeed, get-out-there-and-win-one-for-the-Gipper. There are fairly universal feelings when things go sour: fear, panic, distress, sadness, anxiety, worry, shame, and anger. It's easy to blame others for the problem but like in divorce, the fault is nearly always two sided with each contributing to the rupture and failure. It doesn't take a doctorate in theology to understand that, although accepting it might be a totally different story. 

Human beings are going to continue to fail at things, whether by accident or design. Sometimes the failure will be theirs, sometimes it will be someone else's that will affect them adversely. Where is God in all this?  Did God plan it, did humans take on God's role, or was it just something that happened? Is it something that even needs to be asked, much less answered? Probably, since humankind has been asking and trying to answer those questions since the second leaf fell off the fig tree.

We fail and try to move on. But when everything and everyone else fails, we still have an ace in the hole--God loves us. Pure and simple solution: God loves us unconditionally, totally, permanently. God doesn't walk away when we fail, doesn't turn God's back, or tell us to buck up and try harder.

God loves us. No matter what. That sounds perilously like a success to me. I think I could get used to that, no matter what else happens in life.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

God's Gazelle

 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. - Acts 9:36-42

When she was born, her father named her Tabitha. In Aramaic, her name meant gazelle, a small, slender, graceful member of the antelope family. I'm sure her father saw in her the qualities of the gazelle.

She grew up as Jewish but living in the Greek-speaking city of Joppa, she also answered to Dorcas which had the same meaning as the Aramaic. Joppa, even then, was an ancient and prominent city containing the port of Jerusalem, about 30-35 miles northeast of Jerusalem itself. It is still an important port city.

Like so many others in the Bible, Tabitha/Dorcas only comes to our notice only at one moment in her life, or so we are told. Evidently she was a great-hearted Christian woman, devoting her life to her community and those less fortunate. We don't know when she became Christian, but she embraced the teachings whole-heartedly. Her life was dedicated to good works such as sewing clothing for those in need. The poor, widows, orphans, and the sick were all part of her ministry and beneficiaries of her alms and gifts.

She was beloved by members of her community, so much so that when she died, the disciples in Joppa sent word to Peter who was teaching and healing in a nearby town. To make the story short, Peter arrived, was impressed with the love expressed by the people for Tabitha, then raised her from the dead. The crowd went wild.

Something that struck me was that the raising of Tabitha was very familiar. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report a somewhat similar incident but the one that I thought of was from Mark 5:41, "He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Both Jarius's daughter and Tabitha were beloved people who were devastated by their deaths. Granted one was a young girl while the other was an older woman, but both were loved enough to go out to appeal to a man of God, Jesus or Peter, to help those they loved.  In both of the stories, someone was told to get up; in Mark it was the little girl, (Talitha) and in Acts, Tabitha. They sound very similar but both did as they were told.

The result of both miracles was that not only were two women restored to life but that the faith of those around them grew stronger and even non-believers came to the faith. Tabitha herself has inspired countless women to take up her mission of providing clothing for the poor. Dorcas Societies still exist and the need is still there.

In Acts, Tabitha was named a disciple, a follower of Jesus and a practitioner of what Jesus taught. I wish there had been more about her, how she came to life the life and do the work she did. Like many women of the Bible, she is like a footnote, a miracle with a name attached. Yet she is more than that; she is a woman, a disciple, and an inspiration. The world could use a few more like God's gazelle, Tabitha, also known as Dorcas.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, April 16, 2017

Sunday, April 10, 2016


‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. - John 16:16-22

Babies are among the most intriguing and delightful things in the world. Whether they gambol on four feet or walk (eventually) on two, just watching them is enough to make Scrooge smile.

One of the first  games a baby learns is peek-a-boo. The mother (or someone else) will sit where the baby can see them and then hides their face in their hands. Suddenly they pop their hands away and say "Peek-a-boo" which somehow makes the baby smile first, then giggle. Repeating the exercise makes the baby laugh which makes everyone else laugh too. The game can be played with pieces of cloth being inserted between the parent and the child and then flipped away, or a parent popping out from behind a piece of furniture or a door frame.

It's a fun game to play, but it also seems to have a secondary purpose other than just making the baby laugh. It begins teaching the child about separation from others. For a very brief time the child can't see the other person, but the person always returns. As the child grows older, more separations occur. A parent goes to work, or the parents go out for an evening, leaving the child with a babysitter. Most times, the parents return, just as their familiar faces pop up from behind a cloth, a pair of hands, or a sofa. But sometimes they don't, and the child learns a very different kind of separation.

Jesus was preparing for his separation from his disciples. Like small babies, they had to learn about separation in steps, from a very short one to a much longer one. He used the image of peek-a-boo, the "now you see me, now you don't," to introduce the subject to them, but grown men don't think of peek-a-boo. Instead they go to the adult-type questions: "Where are you going?" "Who are you going with?" "What time will you be home?" Sound familiar?

There was a warning in Jesus's message. The disciples would be in mourning while the world would be rejoicing, but those tears and that sorrow would turn to joy. It's interesting that Jesus used the image of a woman in labor. Having undergone that particular kind of experience, I can tell you it hurt more than anything in the world that I could have imagined. But once it stops hurting, it's possible to remember that it was agonizing pain, but the body (or the mind) doesn't replay the exact feeling of the pain itself, only its presence and that it was unpleasant. The disciples would remember they lost something, but they would also experience the joy of meeting Jesus again, if only for a short time.

Jesus vanished from sight in about 33 CE and we are still waiting for him to return. We sometimes get a glimpse of Jesus-like behavior.  

We still look for Jesus to come back and resolve all the problems of earth. We are often resigned to the evils of the world; after all, one person or even a thousand people can't fix them all. Every now and then, though, we see someone doing something Jesus-like, something like handing a hungry person a sandwich, filling a child's backpack with needed school supplies, bringing an elderly shut-in food, flowers, or just the gift of a human visitor. Jesus didn't just do big miracles like feeding 5,000 at a time, or walking on water, or even raising the dead; he also talked to foreigners, gathered children around him, and taught so persuasively that people were drawn to him and tried to live what he taught them.

The church tells us that Jesus is all around us all the time, whether we're aware of him or not. He isn't playing peek-a-boo with us--or maybe he is. Christians look for Jesus to be within them, in their hearts and minds. It's that Jesus in us that makes us want to help alleviate suffering and poverty, cure diseases, give everyone access to clean water and quality education, among other things. So why do those things still exist? Could it be we are waiting for Jesus to pop out and fix the problems for us? An adult form of peek-a-boo?

If Jesus is in us, we've got work to do. No games, no sitting and waiting, no trying to look around a piece of cloth to see if Jesus is there. When we were children, peek-a-boo was a great game (still is for grandmothers and infants), but it's time to get busy and show the world the Jesus in us all, even the most unlikely of people.

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Low Sunday

It's been a relatively quiet week, church-wise. After the build-up of Lent, the constant quiet activity of Holy Week, and the energy and exuberance of Easter, the church may still be celebrating Easter but the people are more than ready for a bit of rest. There are still Bible studies to do, sermons to write, the church to be tidied up, flowers arranged, brass polished, and the like, but for the most part, those who have invested so much of themselves and their time in the lead-up to Easter are relaxing just a bit. It's sort of like a mini-vacation, a bit of Sabbath after the biggest Sunday of the whole church year.

The First Sunday after Easter has often been called by a number of different names. The most common is the unofficial designation of Low Sunday. You'll never see it listed that way in the newsletter or bulletin, but behind the scenes, that is how it is called.

On Easter Sunday, every pew and chair is full, the choir is in full voice, there are "bells and smells" (ringing of the Sanctus bell and thuribles full of incense marking processional, recessional, blessing the Gospel book and the whole altar in churches where such "high" touches are not usually done), the church is abloom and garlanded with decorative flowers and greens, crucifixes and crosses wear translucent white coverings, and the altar and clergy are garbed in white or gold to celebrate the occasion.

By the following Sunday, though, things have changed. Most of the decoration is gone, the choir may have taken the day off, the bulletins are a bit shorter and less ornate, and there are a lot of empty pews (the chairs having been taken off to wherever extra chairs are kept until the next big occasion). Families who spent Easter together have returned to their homes, and hostesses who have had a full house take the chance to sit down, find the last bit of fake grass from Easter baskets, and plan another meal of leftover ham or roast.

In the early church, new prospective members (catechumen) had to undergo a lengthy period of instruction before being admitted for baptism and inclusion in the Eucharist. They would attend the Liturgy of the Word but be excused before the Liturgy of the Table began. When their time of study ended, they put on white garments and were baptized at the Easter Vigil. They could then join the community for the Eucharist. At the end of the octave (Easter and the seven days that succeeded it), they exchanged their white robes for regular clothing at church, marking the end of their being set apart and the beginning of their life as full Christians.

One of the other names for Low Sunday is Quasimodo Sunday. Those familiar with the Hunchback of Notre Dame will recognize the name of the maimed character who found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame on the first Sunday after Easter. In fact, the Introit (opening antiphon sung or spoken at the beginning of the service) for the day in the Roman Missal was Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). The reference to the catechumen is unmistakable.

However it is called, the First Sunday After Easter is a continuation of the Easter season, 50 days   that lead to the feast of Pentecost. During the Easter season, we celebrate Jesus's appearance to the disciples, Doubting Thomas being shown the wounds in Jesus's hands and side, the road to Emmaus, and the Ascension. Alleluia comes back into our vocabulary after a 40-day absence for Lent. Many churches omit the confession of sin during the season. In short, the Easter season has a lot going on.

But we have to stop a minute. We are taught that every Sunday is a little Easter, no matter at what time in the church year it occurs. People forget that quite often during Lent but a quick count the number of days in Lent comes out to 46--if the Sundays are counted in. Subtract those six Sundays and there are 40 days left. When it comes to Easter season, every Sunday after Easter itself is a little Easter, and should be celebrated as such, if not with the full panoply we reserve for the actual Easter Day.

Whether or not we call it Low Sunday, the First Sunday after Easter, or Quasimodo Sunday, it all amounts to the same thing--a celebration of Jesus's resurrection and the gathering of the community to share in the Eucharist. The newly baptized participate as well as those who were baptized decades ago or during some other church season.

So fill the pews, shout the Alleluias, and thank God for the blessings of Easter all year. Amen.

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

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jesus in the Tomb

Holy Saturday is a rather quiet day during Holy Week leading up to the celebration of Easter. Jesus done a lot between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  His death on that day was that of an ordinary criminal which was not a nice, quiet death at all; sometimes it took many hours or even a day or two. In Jesus's case, it took about six hours. The body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb which was then sealed. On Holy Saturday we wait, outside the door to the tomb.

Holy Saturday is the holding period for us. We decorate the church for the Easter celebration and, for many congregations, a celebration of the Easter vigil on holy Saturday evening. It is a retelling of salvation history and leading up to the events of the resurrection. It is a happy joyous service, but first comes the quiet preparation and before that simply the quiet.

We seldom think about the time between Jesus being taken down from the cross and put in the tomb and the vision of the empty tomb on the announcement of Jesus resurrection. In Scripture that's a blank space. Nothing. How did the disciples spend the time other than hunkered down, hoping that they would not be caught and recognized as followers of Jesus, or simply tried to go about daily life which didn't stop just because Jesus has died?

This image, by Jean-Jacques Henner, shows Jesus in a posture of repose but not swaddled in burial shrouds. It shows him all alone, without any company-- no angels, no grieving family, and pictured against a dark background. We seldom think about Jesus that way, but maybe we should.

Jesus was the son of God; that is one belief we Christians have in common. But besides being the son of God, Jesus was also a human being. His conception was a bit extraordinary, but he was born, lived, and died as a human being. Had he simply been in the middle of his ministry and then suddenly be lifted up to heaven,  that might have given rise to some speculation. Jesus came to earth as a human being, a child with skinned knees, a young man leaving the family to pursue a powerful calling, preaching and teaching and healing in all sorts of places and involving all sorts of people. The one thing we don't like to think about is that in order to live a fully human life, Jesus also had to die as a human being.

All humans are born, live their lives, then die. Jesus's stay in the tomb only lasted from the Friday afternoon until when? Was he in the tomb when he visited hell, an event which we call the Harrowing of Hades? Or was he able to be in two places at once? We aren't sure precisely when that resurrection took place other than that Mary, Jesus's mother and her companions --or, per another gospel, Mary Magdalene was there alone--went as early as possible after the Sabbath to anoint him. They had not had time to do so immediately after his crucifixion. But the tomb was empty.

We very easily picture the empty tomb, but not so often the occupied one containing the body of the man called Jesus. We forget that Jesus was human, and we forget that at this time he lay on a bed of stone wrapped in linen and totally alone. It's entirely possible that God sent angels to keep him company, or that the resurrection happened within hours after the tomb was sealed. We simply don't know and will never really know, but one thing we need to consider is that in order to live a full human life, Jesus had to experience death.

He had to experience lying in the tomb had to undergo the same sort of mortal process of death and dying that all human beings have to undergo. None of us like to picture death, much less what's going on in the coffin once it sealed and laid in the ground. Perhaps we needn't think about it at this particular time in the church year either, but the point that I took coming back to is that Jesus, like us, was alone in death, and alone for a time, at least, in the tomb.

Somehow it's comforting to know that the Savior of the world knew what humanity truly felt like because he had experienced it from beginning to end.  At his death, Jesus knew total separation from God. Many feel that way in life and also when life is ending. For us it is an illusion because God never leaves us alone and in the darkness, but Jesus, having experienced it, did not want us to be left in that place of emptiness and despair.

So, on this Holy Saturday, I contemplate mortality and death, but I also hope for the resurrection and joining God in heaven just as Jesus did. Instead of focusing on dyeing Easter Eggs or doing the church flowers, I will be thinking about Jesus knowing true separation from God so that he could bring us all closer to God.

It's a pretty powerful thing to think about on this holy Saturday.

Image: Jesus at the Tomb by Jean-Jacques Henner, 1879 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joseph, Jesus's Stepfather

Once upon a time there was a man and wife and who were expecting a baby. They had to make a trip to another town to take part in a census, but when they got there, there wasn't any place for them to stay. They ended up in a stable and their baby boy was born there. That baby boy went on to change the world, one life at a time.

Of course, that's the story we hear every Advent and Christmas, the story of Jesus and his family, Mary and Joseph. During Advent we have the run-up to this part of the story, the part where Mary has a visitation from Gabriel, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and then returns home. Then there's the part where Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and knows it is not his. He has a dream where an angel tells him that the child is God's and that he should marry Mary.

So whatever happened in the intervening months between the Advent stories and the trip to Bethlehem we don't know. Evidently Joseph and Mary (and their families) worked out some details and the couple worked out their own. After that, we only hear that they had to flee to Egypt to escape possible death, the child grew to the age of 12 and stayed behind in Jerusalem, panicking his parents. After their reunion we hear no more of the family except in one or two episodes and then the mention is only of Mary, not Joseph.

Stories have come down to us that suggest Joseph had had a family prior to his marriage to Mary but that his wife had died, and then that he had died sometime during the intervening years. What the real story is has been lost to the intervening years.

Joseph's role in Jesus's life has been seen as that of father, stepfather, adoptive father, teacher, and guardian. He was all of them, in one way or another. He fulfilled the role of male parent in the little family, teaching Jesus to use the tools of a tekton and bringing him in to the family business as a money-earner. He made sure Jesus learned how to be a good Jew, how to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities, prayed the proper prayers, and learned the scriptures. Joseph also modeled a good head of the family, ensuring his family was well provided for, safe, and loved.

Being a step parent or adoptive parent is hard; a person comes into your life that isn't really related to you. You then have to learn to love this alien being and think of him/her as your very own. They may not want you to love them, or want to think of you as their parent. For almost any parent, even the kindest treatment may produce rebellion and disobedience.

Young things have to learn to spread their wings, and that can be a most painful time for those who watch over them. I'm sure Joseph had a few of those moments with Jesus, no matter that he was really God's son. We have to remember that Jesus was human and had to learn just as any child would.

We can think of Joseph as a model for God. That may sound blasphemous, but in a way, Joseph took a child that wasn't his own and raised it with love, kindness, and probably a bit of correction. God does that for us. We humans make mistakes that need correction; God provides the means for us to learn from our mistakes, and to have the opportunity to correct them.

We don't think of Joseph as often as we might. We can celebrate his feast today, dedicated to his role as the husband of Mary. There's another feast day on May 1 which focuses on St. Joseph the Worker. As Mary's husband, it's also a fitting day to celebrate his parenting of a most extraordinary child.

Here's to Joseph, a quiet saint with a tough job. Every child should have a father like Joseph. It would make for a very different world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 19, 2016.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Laws, Manners, and Morals

Laws help us to know right and wrong in our public and private conduct, manners help us to know what to do in our social relations with others, and moral principles help us to do the good in our public and private lives. - Stephen Holmgren¹

Another day, another round of news, Facebook postings, emails, phone calls. and the like. The days seem to blur into a repeat of the day before and a herald of the day after. If it isn't the latest political hammerings from one side and then the other, it's something Kardashian, the rise (and downfall) of some sports or entertainment hero, or some other notable figure. It's hard to remain upbeat when just about around seems to be falling into a state of fear, agitation, anger, rudeness, and behavior so mean and ruthless that it's almost unbearable. If someone were depressed, the best thing might be to turn off the TV, cable, Wi-Fi, and radio, cancel the newspaper and magazines, and head for a monastery in the mountains or desert until November-- or later.

We are a nation of laws, manners, and principles. Each one has a role to play in our lives, beliefs, and behaviors. We inherit some of them from our parents, absorb some of them from our environment, and learn about some in our schools, churches, and groups to which we belong. All of them together help to make us who we are, individuals with differences and similarities, but above all, human beings with rights, obligations, freedoms, and choices. That's where the problems come in.

Those of us who claim Christianity see laws as coming from two sources: the governing bodies of the country, state, county, or community, and our religious texts and clergy. We claim the Bible as our source of wisdom, ethics and conduct, and proclaim that we are followers of Jesus. We steep ourselves in the laws (some of them, anyway) of ancient nomadic people who were learning to live with one God instead of a number of gods who governed various parts of life and who had a bunch of children who had to begin learning the basics of life through numerous laws. We proclaim that "Jesus loves me" but beyond the personal, we have prejudices and dislikes and sometimes use the Bible to bolster our beliefs that God loves what we love and dislikes (or worse), and we use the words of Jesus as proof.

Listening to the political slugfests and verbal barrages, I hear derogatory statements about various ethnic and cultural groups, homophobia, sexism, ageism, and disrespect for our president and for the very soldiers the political pundits in Congress sent into war and who have come back maimed in body and soul. How do any of those fit in with "Love your neighbor"?  Or is it just a catch phrase for loving the people just like me and no others?

Laws designating right and wrong seem to be applicable in the eye of the beholder. There are a number of issues where one person feels his or her rights permit something that makes the next-door neighbor feel his/her rights are being violated. Good manners might dictate that each person tries to respect the rights of others whether or not that respect is reciprocated. Moral principles are based on beliefs which dictate how we react to those around us, hopefully with love and respect, but too often it becomes a reason for argument, finger-pointing, name-calling, shouting, and can escalate to violence.

What has happened to us? Where is the Christianity we proclaim we practice? What would Jesus say? Scripture spends a lot of time talking about offering hospitality to strangers, treating the aliens the same as native-born, caring for the less fortunate, feeding those who are hungry, etc. Unfortunately, Scripture is also full of acts of violence, some of them horrific enough that we seldom hear of them in Sunday School, Bible study or sermons.

When was the last time you read the story of the unnamed concubine in Judges 19?  Or Jephtha's daughter in Judges 11? How about the slaughter of every Amalekite man, woman, child, infant, sheep, and ox in 1 Samuel? Instead we hear gospel stories and see pictures of Jesus talking to little children, healing people, and lots of parables reflecting positive outcomes and new ways of doing things. There's nothing wrong with that, but we have to remember there is another side, even in scripture.

So what is our reaction to law, manners and morals? Is it something we pay attention to when it is convenient, or when it suits us, or is it something we live even when we don't really want to? What about what Jesus told us to do?  What about loving one's neighbors and taking care of them? Or would we rather pick and choose which ones we will obey like we do speed limit signs and those telling us not to walk on the grass?

Jesus encouraged us to use manners and moral principles and gave us laws that promoted equality, justice and fair treatment. Can we just do what Jesus asked and encouraged us to do? Can we turn off the hate, anger, and fear, and live in peace?

I wish we could.

¹ Holmgren, Stephen, Ethics After Easter, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), 93.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 12, 2016.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The song of the stream

If it weren't for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song. - Carl Perkins

After years of getting up before dawn in order to get to work, right now I have the leisure to stay in bed until a much more reasonable (to my thoughts, anyway) hour. One of the lovely parts is hearing the birds wake up in the morning. There is always one who starts early, half an hour or more before sunrise, and then others join in. It's like hearing their morning prayers or thanks for being alive for another day.

I've often wondered which I would choose if I had to choose going blind or going deaf. I remember practicing the piano with my eyes closed so that I could play without having the visual cues of either written music or where my fingers were on the keyboard. Even then, hearing seemed so important although I still depended on my eyesight for reading, getting my bearings, and finding my way around, whether it is my kitchen or the world.

Some of my favorite sounds are those made by water. In a quiet room, I can close my eyes and hear the gentle lap of wavelets on the beach, or the crash of larger waves on the rock breakwaters. There is the sound of a fish jumping or a sea bird calling. Then there is the small stream that gurgles and splashes across rocks and sand on its way from here to there. It's a soothing sound, a meditative sound that encourages the passerby to stop and listen to its song.

Sounds are complex. Unless the wind is extremely strong, it doesn't really have a lot of sound until it moves something like a wind chime or the leaves on a tree. Water moves smoothly unless there is something to disturb it, like rocks in its bed. The rocks provide resistance, and even if the water slowly polishes the rough edges, the rounded stones and pebbles add to the water's singing.

One of the metaphors for life is a that of a river moving down its course from its source to its mouth, from the place where it is born until it joins a greater life in a larger river, bay, gulf, or ocean. In its journey, it runs through flat places and rocky ones which seem to be what life is for human beings. There are easy times and rough ones, each marking part of the journey.

Water, being a fluid, moves over each obstacle without harm to itself but leaving a trace of its passing. It leaves ripples in the sand and wears away a minute segment of the rock. Humans, though, are marked by the experiences in life, including having scrapes and scars from those experiences. We can't get through life without at least a few of them, and sometimes a great many. Those experiences help to make us what we are, like a sculptor chisels away at rock to reveal an image s/he sees captured there and freeing it. 

As Christians, we sometimes see God's hand planting a rough patch of stones, a turbulent section, or a quiet stream bed. We visualize the stones and rough patches as part of life, but also we look to see God's guidance and support in the process.  We use the phrase, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," but tell that to someone fighting cancer or some other chronic disease. It may be a worthy statement, but it tells us we are on our own in fighting whatever crisis there is for us to work through. We may feel that way sometimes but God is still there, even when we don't realize it. The struggles we go through can strengthen our faith, and tune our song just as water wears away the rock and gives the stream its own voice.

What song would we sing if we were a stream or even a human travelling down through a life? Would it be a song of compliant and "Oh, woe is me"? Would we sing a song of hope or remembrance? How about a song of faith and trust in God? Maybe even a song of praise and thanksgiving that God is always with us? Even when going through rapids or rough waters, God is present.

Our song may change as we go through life. The song of the aged is very different from that of the child or young adult. If the song we sing points to God and trust in God's faithfulness, it will be a lovely one that will touch the hearts of those around us. It's our choice to sing or not, what to sing, and when, but God is always listening attentively.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 5, 2015.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Writing and Prayer

Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along. - George Herbert

We live in a world of words. We hear them from the time we're born, and learn to connect sounds with words as we grow. In elementary school we learn to identify first letters, then put those letters together to make words we can read and write for ourselves. Whether we turn into avid readers or not, we depend on words every day of our lives. For some, the release of words onto a page (or screen) is not just satisfying but something of a compulsion, regardless of what it is we release.

George Herbert was a poet and orator, a man whose command of words made his life what it was.
Born in 1593, he was a member of the aristocracy. One of his mother's close friends was John Donne who took an interest in the young man. Herbert was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Proficient in Latin, he became the Public Orator for the university, the person whose job was to write acknowledgements for gifts to the library or welcoming speeches for visiting dignitaries. His work caught the eye of James I, who seemed impressed enough to be on the verge of offering him a job as an ambassador. James' death in 1625 put an end to that idea and also to any position in the royal court. Herbert had originally entered Trinity in order to become a priest but had become sidetracked. He returned to that calling and became a devout and very much loved vicar and rector.

Herbert is credited with writing a book called A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson, a guide for rural parish clergy. He also wrote poetry which he kept private until just before his death when he sent them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar (of Little Giddings) who published them shortly after Herbert's death in 1633. Herbert was 39 at the time of his death which was probably caused by a long history of consumption or tuberculosis. His book of poems, The Temple, is still available in print and online.

Herbert's poetry was more than just writing. It was a reflection of his prayers to God, touched by the same mysticism that had been Donne's signature. Holding them back from publication was an act of humility. Like many writers, he was not sure his work would be judged as "good" writing by readers. Besides, the poems were both an offering to God and one side of a dialog, a very personal thing. Luckily, the poems were published and have become part of our literary heritage both as exquisite poetry and as inspirational readings which have become prayers for us and also as hymns for our worship.

Writing is not just for writers like Herbert, Donne, or the authors of our favorite books. Whether it is a thank-you letter to Aunt Mabel for a gift or a thousand-page exposition on a facet of history, we all write from time to time. In school, one of the most feared assignments is often writing an essay on some topic. As adults we have to write reports for work or notes to have Junior excused from class because he has the flu. Some people write letters to the editor of the local paper, and some blog about their special interests or even daily lives. Others journal for themselves alone, seeking release of feelings, thoughts, or insights. Then there are those, like Herbert, who write as a form of prayer.

The quotation from Herbert is an encouragement to writers and would-be writers, even those who don't consider themselves writers at all. The same quotation works for prayer itself.  As Christians, most of us can recite the Lord's Prayer or a Hail Mary or even the prayer to St Anthony for lost things, but, other than that, we are often reduced to "Help!" or "Thank you." We open the prayer book on Sundays but not so much during the week. We lead such busy lives, when would we have time to sit down and pray, much less write?

Herbert's advice is spot on.  We need to begin where we are, not where we think we should be. If five minutes of prayer (or writing or both) is too much, we could start with two or three. Instead of just rattling off a bunch of requests, we could write them down. It often takes longer to write than to think, so it would slow us down, allowing God to get a word in edgewise.

The pray-er or the writer may not have the eloquence of Herbert, but then, Herbert probably didn't have it from the beginning either. He wrote, though, and picked up tools and skills as he went along, becoming both eloquent and proficient, traits that we can read in his words, poems, and prayers.

I wonder--what would happen if we wrote down our prayers instead of just reading or mentally saying them? What if we wrote to God as a friend, not as a great being in the sky who is unknowable?  Even if we erased the electrons on the computer screen, or burned or shredded the paper it was written on, it might spark a new way of thinking about, or doing, something that may be familiar already. Who knows? We might be another Herbert in the making, or we might just find a deeper, more insightful way to pray.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Saturday, February 27, 2016.