Thursday, November 9, 2017

Flanders Fields and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

In Flanders Fields

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Plus ça change...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Special Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

One hand, one finger, one change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hands and Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless.

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

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Levavi oculos

    I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
   My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
   He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
   Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
   The Lord himself watches over you; *
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
   So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
   The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
   The Lord shall watch over your going out and
your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.  --- Psalm 121

Probably if you asked someone to name their favorite Psalm, at least someone who is familiar with the Psalms, they probably come up with Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” For some reason, that one really strikes chords in people's lives, so much so that it's almost a given that someone who has planned out their own burial service or celebration of life has already picked Psalm 23 to be read or recited at the event. There are 149 other Psalms, but that seems to be the top choice.

But among the other favorites is Psalm 121,”I will lift up mine eyes into the hills". Look Prayer Book or some Bibles and you will see that next to the Psalm number is a phrase in italics.  That is the Latin phrase for the first line of the Psalm, Levavi oculos. Think about it. You may visit an oculist (an ophthalmologist or optometrist) to have your eyes checked or glasses prescribed. It’s all about the eyes.

There's something comforting about the phrase of looking up to the hills, especially since we tend to see high places as areas of safety, or areas of particular sanctity because they are closer to heaven than the land around the mountains. Moses went up onto the mountains several times, for safety, to investigate, and to answer a call. Perhaps that's where we get the idea of mountains being sacred ground, places where we can commune more easily with God since hilltops are, at least atmospherically, closer to God, or so we think. It's also another reason why people build churches with steeples or great Gothic spires -- to reach higher towards God.

Levavi oculos is a Psalm of confidence. The second part of the first verse asks, "…from where is my help to come?" We are taught from childhood that God is there to help us and if God is in heaven, then we are to look up to try to communicate with God. If there happens to be a very big hill, a great mountain, or even a smaller mountain, that stands out from the surrounding area, then it might be a place to see as a possible dwelling place for God.

I think Psalm 121 is a good one for us these days, since it's a comforting song but it also offers hope. It tells us that God won't let our feet be moved and that God will never slumber nor sleep. That's a pretty wide range of expressions of confidence that no matter what happens, all I have to do is remember to look up to God.

Granted, I don't always get what I ask for. Really, none of us do. We pray for things, but they don't always work out the way we want them to or the way we think that they should work out. Still, were encouraged to keep believing and this Psalm gives us some pretty decent reasons why we should do that.

Looking up to the hills sometimes gives us the urge to climb those hills. Sir Edmund Hillary once said that the reason he climbed mountains was because they were there. I think Moses would probably take exception to that, because he went up because he was told to go up. He was told to go into a remote place where he would not encounter crowds but rather places of solitude, places of client, places of connection, as well as places where the panorama showed the lands that surrounded the mountain and thus dangerous places could be noted or friendly places could be visualized so that the journey could take the right direction once the leader reached the bottom of the mountain again.

For those who periodically visit the mountains or wish we could visit them, the Psalm often brings to mind those mountain views that we find so inspiring, the rivulets that slowed down over rocks and boulders, the trees that grow either very lushly for quite often rather sparsely, the closer you get to the top. Use these images when we hear the Psalm with think about the opening verse. It's our way of connecting to a high holy place where one can almost touch God.

A lot of us don't have the luxury of going to climb a mountain or such when we want to feel connected. Unlike ancient hermits, monastics, and sages, we don't tend to congregate on top of a mountain, even if we could. We may be able to manage a few days or weeks, and we seem to find some peace and refreshment from the experience. Even a few hours can allow us to catch our breath and find a bit of God’s peace to bring back with us. It’s a welcome relief, and very much a help that came from God.

 This week I think I'm going to use that image to try and connect myself a little more than usual. There are things going on in my life that are getting in the way of my spirituality, and I have neither the resources nor the ability to take off for the high country, as dutiful as it would be this time of year. I will take the words of the Psalmist and the image of the eye looking up to God and also the eye of God looking down at me and all of creation. Somehow in there, I think I may find the connection I'm looking for. I certainly hope so anyway.

God bless.

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


Thursday, September 21, 2017


My house is a mess.  I’ve been busy with studying and errands, so the floor has enough cat hair on it to make wall-to-wall carpeting, the sink is full of dishes, the dust is thick enough to sink the house into the ground an inch or two, and all the rest of the stuff.  I wish I had a self-cleaning house.  I also wish we all had a self-cleaning world that would simply reverse all the damage and become the pristine Garden-of-Eden type place God made in the beginning. Or are floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, and plate tectonics all part of God’s cleanup plan?

Looking at all the tragedies of the past week, it seems that we go from bad to worse and then even worse again. The fires that raged so aggressively across the Northwest and other places fill the air with particles that make it hard to breathe, destroys beautiful things, houses, animals. and even when it's out, the rain will come and wash the earth down to block roads and streets, possibly cover houses, and send giant boulders crashing down on whatever is in their path. It seems like the damage never ends.

The Caribbean has been targeted by yet another hurricane, and what wasn't flattened in the last hurricane or two probably is flat by now. They won't have power for perhaps weeks, if not months, because the infrastructure has been destroyed. And there's another storm on the way.

In Mexico, there has been another earthquake and aftershocks, coming just two weeks after another one on Mexico's northern border. There was a severe quake off the coast of Japan, and Lord knows what's going to shake apart next. Maybe these are our signs of the earth trying to clean itself, but it is making an awful mess in the process.

Is this God’s way of cleaning up?  The world was made immaculately clean and in perfect harmony, as the Bible tells us. God planned it that way. Now, we sort of take the world for granted. We can do anything we want to it, and we expect it to continue to nurture and nourish us, just as it always has, no matter what we inflict on it. If there is something, some sort of disaster that wreaks havoc on us, invariably someone will say, “Well, it’s God’s will.”  Really?  Did God really make this world just to watch it tear itself apart and have us assist in that destruction? 

We need to look around and see what there is to see. I know that in the Phoenix area, we live in a valley with mountains around, and on some days, you can't see the mountains for the dust particles and the smog in the air. Some of that is natural, but some of it we caused. We caused it with our cars, fireplaces, barbecue grills, and industry. And God supposed to clean it up? It seems so, since attempts to clean the air have been rolled back to the ineffectuality stage. We've denuded the land to build more houses and upset the balance of nature to the point it’s becoming unrepairable.

There are places in this country were clean water is nonexistent. There hasn't been clean, uncontaminated water for the kids to drink and for the mothers to cook with in years. Not just one or two major cities, but in places where the watershed has been despoiled by industrial waste, toxic materials, and clogged with dirt and animal matter because nobody seems to live downstream, it appears. If all the crud flows downstream, somebody's gotta live there and somebody's got to pay for it because the folks upstream are busy making money with heavy metals and other contaminants that make a toxic soup. And God supposed to clean that up with a flood or fire?  Don’t we have any responsibility there?

 God created people with brains. I sometimes wonder about that. It didn't take much of a brain to throw a smoke bomb into a dry canyon and start a fire engulfing parts of two states and which will have consequences for years to come. And God supposed to clean that up, since fire is one way the earth gives itself a clean start? There are so many other things that we seem to expect God to take care of, because after all, it must be "God's will" if something happens because of something else that has been done, usually by us. Granted, we are not responsible necessarily for each individual thing, although if you stop and think about it, natural disasters have going on since time immemorial. It's just now that they appear to be happening with a lot more regularity and a lot more intensity than perhaps in the past. We’ve done things that seem to have helped them along, and yet we don’t acknowledge it or try to make repairs that would be permanent.

I was looking at a map of the Caribbean and actually seeing four hurricanes in one picture, one image. it was almost unbelievable. I don't remember them coming together this close, so is it possible it's partly our fault and not "God's will?”  We build unsuitable buildings in unsuitable places, and then when earthquakes happen, it makes us think it's God's will that the earth shakes, all sorts of things fall down, people and animals are killed, and the destruction will take years to rebuild? Do we blame God for that?

God gave us this world, the volcanoes around the world, the earthquake fault zones that rumble and shake and shift, the tsunamis that are some of the results and that destroy lives and livelihoods along the coastlines, the hurricane and typhoon winds and rains that dismantle homes, businesses, schools, churches and the like. Do we have any responsibility for that? Perhaps, although some will never be convinced. It's God's will, and we must accept it. Really?

This week I'm be doing a lot of praying for the survivors of all the disasters that are happening around the globe, especially in our own hemisphere. I'm going to be wondering is this actually what God had in mind? Is this really what God planned and set in motion that is going to happen next week, or next year, or even 1000 years from now or more? Is God to be expected to clean up all that? Or does God kind of expect us to help clean things up, rebuild responsibly, help our neighbors in need, and act like we all occupy one world instead of individual nations?

I read once that it was said that God made disasters to teach people to work together. I'm not sure God makes the disasters, but I have no doubt that it's an opportunity for us as God's children and God's people to help clean it up and restore the world if not to Garden-of-Eden standards, but to a standard that is sustainable, livable, and united in purpose. Going to be a busy prayer week, I can just tell.

God bless.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is also owned by three cats. She has been Episcopalian for over 50 years, and is grateful God led her to the Episcopal Church in various places.

Friday, September 15, 2017


From the time we were children, we all sought approval, from our family, friends, teachers, priests, and almost anyone else we came in contact with. The approval of some people outside our immediate circle of friends, family, and acquaintances were less important to us because the people are further away from us, but that didn't mean we didn't want their approval.  

It's normal, I think, to seek approval, but it's so much nicer when I don't have to. Oh, it's nice to be approved, that's really great. But over the years it's become more and more apparent to me that the two that I really need the approval from are myself and God. Hopefully God approves, but I'm not egotistical enough to think everything I do pleases God and that I'm his favorite rosebush in the garden.. In fact, I'm darned sure I'm not. But still, I know I also have to approve of myself, and that's when I run into problems.

Sometimes, like now, I read books, especially those written by women, that picks me up, shakes me up, and sets me down again with a feeling of "Wow! I feel/understand/know/have said that." The endorphins flood my system, and I feel vindicated, because someone else has been/done/experienced the same or something similar to my own experience. It's a woman speaking to a woman, in a way that I can respond to in a way that I can't always when a man, no matter how erudite or empathetic he seems, can do for me. It's giving voice to me and perhaps thousands or even millions of other women, in a place and time when I (or we) feel we aren't heard, valued, or even accepted. That's not feminism talking, that's just someone saying "Wow!" because someone has put words to things I have felt but couldn't enunciate for myself. It's a validation, and it feels good!
Jesus was a great validator. Look at the women who surrounded him and whose stories are recorded in the Bible for us to read today. The woman with the hemorrhage, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and all the others who came to Jesus or on whose behalf someone appealed to Jesus for assistance beyond what they themselves could provide. These were women who were looked down on, often ignored, and relegated to the corners of the house when visitors showed up. These women were more or less outcasts of society because of health, economic status, lifestyle choices, and cultural custom and opinion. But Jesus talked to them, healed them, treated them as if they were worth his time and attention. Even the woman who corrected Jesus about being the crumbs under the table. He listened to her and accepted the criticism.  In all the women, he validated their existence, and in so doing, gave a model for his disciples and those who came after him. 

Unfortunately, the lesson was set aside, whether it was because it was threatening, or because it was truly felt that women were too weak, stupid, or unsuited for things outside of housekeeping, breeding, and being used as a showcase of a man's wealth. It was a long time before we heard a lot of Bible stories about women and with women as central characters, not just as an additional prop for Jesus to use to get a point across. The daily readings used to skip over many of the female stories, and very seldom did we hear about any woman other than the Virgin Mary on Sundays. When Ruth, Rahab, Jephtha's daughter, Tamar, and others began to appear, it was liberating, just as it was when, in the Eucharistic prayers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah began being included along with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Suddenly, some of us got chills and realized how much we had missed hearing those names for all those years.

There are still lots of times when we as women aren't heard, aren't acknowledged or even seen because we are felt to be less than capable of doing jobs traditionally reserved to men. It's not saying that all men are bad, misogynistic, or simply uncaring. What I'm saying is that many times, what we as women do is devalued and discounted because of the traditional mindset of even the disciples at times. "Men know best." "It's a man's world." "Women belong in the kitchen, church, and having children." I wonder -- is this something of which Jesus would approve?  What if he had totally ignored women like Mary and Martha, Jarius' daughter, even his mother Mary?  The Gospel stories would look and sound very different.  There would be great chunks of stories missing and a whole gender not represented at all.

This reflection is an opportunity for me to let my voice be heard, whether or not anyone listens. It is how I work out how faith, God, the world and I work together to try to make things better. I know, I'm a small voice, much as Rahab standing on the walls of Jericho, speaking to the wind and hoping that the words would be carried to God. I'm grateful that the Gospels record women's stories, and that Jesus gave such a good example of what it meant to be not just a great teacher and healer but a man who modeled what he and God wanted the world to be like.

So this week I'm going to look inside for validation of my worth, not waiting for someone else to do it for me (even if they could). As I said before, I just need God and Jesus. The rest is up to me.

God bless.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 16, 2017.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Back, Around, UP


Fear  looks back, worry looks around, faith looks up. – Unknown

Looking at a map of the US right now, it looks like it should be the United States of Disaster rather than the USA.  Floods, fires, threats of either, both or even something else makes it seem like there's hardly a square mile anywhere that is exempt from some kind of disaster or other. Sometimes it isn't a local issue, but a personal one and it can feel pretty overwhelming. Then there are the memories -- whether the memory of a flood, fire, or, as we will be remembering on Monday, the anniversary of planes hitting two very tall buildings in New York City. A lot of times, memories bring fear of a repeat of the event, and worry that something else will happen that will rip the scabs off the still-healing wounds caused by losses.

Have you found or noticed people who seem to be fearful, whether or not there is the reason for fear? Granted, if I were in Florida right now, I'd be rather fearful as to what was going to happen to me and my cats, much less my house. If I were in Oregon (where I have lived), I would be concerned about my world exploding in flames (or ending up a modern-day Pompeii from volcanic ash). Mid-America has tornadoes at the drop of a hat, The Northeast is not exempt from hurricanes, although Nor'easters are more common. In parts of the country, like Arizona, for instance, 2 inches of rain can feel like a flood, and 80 degrees is balmy. We bake -- and we dread the heat of summer and the possibility of being stranded in the desert with no extra water and a broken-down car. Maybe not much of a fear, not like those faced by Texas, Louisiana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Alaska, Florida, and the East Coast. Still, fear and worry seem to be a national pastime.

There's a state of being that says, Maybe I can't do anything about this all by myself, but I have confidence that God will help me get through whatever it is I have to face." A cancer diagnosis, a flood or fire appearing over the tops of the nearby mountains, rising water, a possible merger in the company for which I work, there are a lot of things to worry about that are really quite serious. Can I do anything about the fire by myself? No, but I can help support the first responders and I can also get out of the way so that they have the room to do what they need to do. Can I stop the floods? No, unless I want to build a wall of sand bags all around my house while other people have few or none and whose houses become mold-ridden, soggy masses that will either be horrendously costly to repair or be torn down and rebuilt at an even greater cost. Other things I may have some control over, but that doesn't mean I don't worry or fret about them.

I don't believe God brings floods, fires, cancer, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or any other kind of disaster. I think God plays those kinds of games with us. It's not the kind of God that I would have faith in, because I would feel like a puppet, like God was pulling my strings and that's not a picture of a person with free will. I can't see God using me as a chess piece much like Job was used. I just don't think God works that way. I realize there are people who do believe God causes those things, and they are welcome to their beliefs. It's just that I can't accept that for myself, and I have faith in a God who weeps with me but isn't necessarily handing me the Kleenex box in the process.

In order for me to have faith I have to have a God I can trust, a God who isn't going to solve all my problems for me because then I won't grow. Much as I'd like to have God plant a money tree in my yard or cause one to grow suddenly, it's not gonna happen, so I might as well figure out what I can do for myself while having faith that God will be with me in the struggle even if God isn't shouldering the burden.

The saying is that fear looks back. Was Lot's wife looking back because of fear?  Perhaps, or perhaps it was to take a last look at a place she'd never see again, a family left behind? 
Worry looks around, as if to try to spot incoming trouble or storm clouds ahead. Faith  looks up, for the source of providential help. Another threesome that could represent these three aspects are the pessimist, realist, and optimist.

Pessimists look back, seeing the past as the right and true way. They usually fear change, and even the thought of change makes them itch.  Realists pride themselves on seeing things as they "really" are, but sometimes it is hard to tell whether the perceived "real" is really the true real.  Optimists often looks around and chooses to see the better parts of life while still being aware that there are other parts far less attractive, far less happy, and far less enjoyable. The optimist chooses to see things in a good light; they tend to look up. 

Some people are congenital pessimists, while others are congenital optimists. Realists sometimes start out as one or another and gradually move to the middle. Personally, I think that, in a way,  the optimist has a natural faith that things are going to work out. Meanwhile the pessimist, the fearful one, has to work to find faith that will help them get through whatever trials they are having to face. Which is better?  That question would fox a Platonist -- or maybe an Aristotelian, if not both.

People of faith should be looking around, not looking up all the time as if God were going to appear in the cloud at any moment, although it isn't that God won't do that at some point in time. The person of faith isn't going to be a pessimist, looking at all the bad parts and feeling hopeless about doing anything that would make any slight difference at all. People of faith look around, not with worry, but with a sense of there is something there that can be done and it's their job to do it, and it's a challenge they accept.

God expects us to be people of faith. God expects us to help the poor, widows, orphans, the imprisoned, and the whole list of people who will require help, including the aliens in our land (who are mentioned in the Bible as people that we should be taking care of), but we also have to accept that faith is going to compel us to do something, not just think about it. It's going to require us to look back, around and up.

This week I've got to stop my worrying, although with friends and family both in the possible path of hurricane or major fire, it's a little hard not to worry. But this week I'm not going to spend a lot of time looking or looking up. I need to spend my time looking around and seeing where faith is telling me I need to go and telling me what I need to do.  I need to be part optimist, part realist with maybe a sprinkle of pessimist just to make things lively. Most of all, I have to have faith.

God bless.

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