Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 26 - Delegation

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. -- Acts 6:1-7 (NRSV)

There's an old saying that "work expands to fill the time available to do it." Any organization that is growing finds that is probably an understatement; in their world, the amount of work to be done probably far exceeds the amount of time available to do it. Jesus's twelve disciples, now leaders themselves, were facing just this problem. The Hellenists in their group were complaining that the Jewish members were more interested in making sure that their own widows received their fair share of the daily allotment of food while the Greek widows were being put aside and were neglected, creating a great hardship for the widows and a problem for the twelve.

They weren't the first to have that same problem of too much to do and not enough time. Moses was one man trying his best to satisfy the requirements of both God and a whole lotta Hebrews he was trying to herd across the desert. Fortunately, Moses had a father-in-law with some good ideas. Solution: identify righteous men in whom the people already had some confidence, set them up in a hierarchy so that everyone had access to someone who could help resolve conflicts and solve problems. The big stuff would be referred to Moses but he would have a lot more time to do what he was supposed to be doing -- interacting with God, leading the worship and shepherding the entire group on its journey.

The twelve probably saw this as the way to go. What they did was to have the whole community choose seven men --righteous, honest, faithful and hard-working-- to take care of the food distribution and whatever else was needed, leaving the twelve time to preach, teach, heal and provide guidance to the group. It worked and Christianity continued to grow but now with a hierarchical model that spread like the roots of a great tree.

There are a lot of times when I see people at the top of even a small hierarchy act as if they alone were responsible for the success or failure of the whole thing. They exercise all the control and micromanagement they can grasp, even if it is not producing observably favorable results. Moses's delegates and the twelve's seven deacons (as we now call them) knew when to solve the problems and when to kick those problems upstairs. Jesus himself practiced the art of having the heart of a servant but the wisdom to allow those who served under him to go out and do what they had learned to do, all the while keeping his ear open to the One in the heavenly corner office.

I've delegated my taxes to my tax guy, my health diagnoses and treatment to my doctors, parts of my job to either my boss or a co-worker and my spiritual well-being to God. I can't do everything myself, even if I work on a much smaller scale than Moses or the twelve. Now I just have to remember not to try to take everything back, get overwhelmed and forget to do the really important things, like taking care of myself and the cats, doing the best job I can at whatever I try to do, and remembering consult with the CEO in the corner office, the One whose door is always open and who, I feel sure, will never hand me a pink slip.

Now, will someone please point me in the direction of tables that need wiping or widows who need some attention?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Monday, December 26, 2011.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

December 24 - Adoption

 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,  for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property;  but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father.  So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.  But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.  Galatians 3:23–4:7 (NRSV)

With Christmas Eve on the doorstep it's hard to stay in Advent until the sun goes down and we can finally say it is Christmas Eve and not just "Christmas Eve Day" or, more correctly, the last day of Advent. It's too easy to think ahead to the cute little cherub choirs singing or the bells, smells and full-out organ accompaniment to hymns and carols everybody has sung for years and which officially ring in not only the day of Christmas, Christ's nativity celebration, but the entire twelve-day season of Christmas. Stores don't recognize the season of Christmas; Christmas stuff is almost all down and Valentine's Day stuff is going up starting about 8:01PM on Christmas Eve.

I admit I think ahead as well; it's hard not to, most of the time. But when I read the section of Paul's epistle, something pops out at me and gives me pause: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children (4:4-5).  God sent Jesus to be born as a human being, subject to the rules and regulations human beings were supposed to observe and still redeem (buy back, recover ownership, pay off) the world for God. That's a big order to lay on someone who was born as naked and helpless as any other newborn baby.

The part that especially struck me was "that we might receive adoption as children." Adoption is like grafting, taking something or someone from one place and placing it somewhere else where else. Adoption in Paul's time and our own is a slightly different thing. In the Mediterranean world of Paul's time, not only children but adults could be adopted.  The usual reason now for adoption is to provide for the welfare and nurturing of the child while ancient adoption was generally to provide heirs for an estate and/or care for the parents in their old age. Still and all, the result was basically the same: the person which once belonged to one family suddenly had no allegiance to the family of origin but became one who was totally and legally a part of a new family with all the rights (and responsibilities) that membership in that family might entail.

Joseph knew about adoption. He knew that Mary's boy was not his own child, yet he accepted Jesus as his own son and acted as his father in all the ways that counted. We hear some of that in readings that have this particular Joseph in them, but here is Paul speaking to the community at Galatia, assuring them that through this same baby who was born to human parents and was also the Son of God, all of them were considered not just add-ons to the family but full members with the rights and, more importantly, the responsibilities of that heritage.

Like Joseph, I know about adoption, only from the other side. Being adopted sometimes marks one as "different," like when the child has blond hair and all the others in the family have dark.  Very probably Jesus didn't look much different than any other child of that time and place, which might have been a plus. Yet in the great family of God, the family Jesus brings together regardless of their families or tribes of origin, it isn't the outward appearance or cultural status that marks a person as one who belongs or the one who is grafted, it is the desire and the sincere attempt to live as one of God's true children.

It's funny -- Christmas cherubs are being replaced by Valentine cherubs, yet they are still cherubs.  Both have chubby-baby bodies and fluffy wings and they both celebrate love. I wonder which are the adopted ones?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 24, 2011, Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 17 - Sheepish or Goatish?

Today's Readings:

AM: Ps. 55; PM: Ps. 138, 139:1-17 (18-23)
Zechariah 8:9-17
Revelation 6:1-17
Matthew 25:31-46

'When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ -- Matthew 25:31-46

All the readings today deal in some way with God's judgment and punishment. It doesn't seem to be a particularly Advent-y kind of reading although I suppose it could be looked at as a group of readings that deal indirectly with anticipation. It just isn't the joyous anticipation we expect in Advent but rather a warning that Mama would have given as "You'd better straighten up and fly right or else."

God spoke through Zechariah about the punishments of past generations for their sins but also spoke of compassion to the two kingdoms -- Judah and Israel-- and promised them blessings for speaking truth, true judgments that promote peace and not discord, restraint from carrying grudges and not searing false oaths. Revelation opens the seven seals and looses the four horsemen and the return of chaos to the world as a result of God's wrath. Matthew shows Jesus at the end of a series of teachings on judgment, most of which, it appears, the disciples just don't get.

Jesus’ list of charitable acts, which are also the acts of kingdom builders, show him standing with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the stranger, the naked (shamed), and the imprisoned. In each instance, he gave the action which would have helped to build the kingdom but the disciples could only see the surface, the accusation that they had somehow shirked in their duties to Jesus himself.

I've often heard the interpretation that the separation of the sheep and goats as that of separating the Christ-believers from those who are not, but I have also read an interpretation* that states that the teaching (and the illustration) was aimed at those already within the "family", as it were. Followers of Christ would be judged on their reaction to need within the family, sheep being those who followed the command to care for the less fortunate, the goats being those who did not. It makes sense to me, given the time and place where the teaching occurred. While Jesus reached out past the Jewish community from which he and many of his followers came, it was primarily to those who were local and Jewish that his teachings were aimed.

I think that now, though, it isn't enough to reach out only to fellow Christians, even though we don't always do that as well as we might. I believe our mandate is to care for members of our "family" as well as those that are outside our Christian tradition. My question to myself is, "What kind of kingdom of God on earth would there be that puts an impenetrable wall around one group, giving it a paradise for them to watch over and enjoy, when beyond the walls there are those still desperately in need? I remember the old saying that, "Your actions may be the only Bible some people ever read," as well as how people in Paul's time were drawn to Christianity because of how they loved one another and worked to help one another.

The beautiful part of the gospel story is that it is simple, it is profound, it is exemplary, and it is something that would benefit everyone, not just one group. Scripture tells us we are all created in the image of God, not some of us or even a few of us, but all of us. If we truly receive this is true (and as scripture has told us it is true), how can we turn our backs on the image of God present in even the poorest, sickest, most needy people on the streets of our cities and the farthest corners of our world? “… [J]ust as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Sheep or goat? That is what I will be judged on, not whether I say the right words or support popular causes or even profess the right beliefs. Am I a sheep or a goat? I have a choice that not even the four horsemen can take away. Now what am I going to do about that choice?

* Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L., Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, (1992) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, (151).

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Backwards Advent -- or an Early Holy Week

Advent is a time of expectation, preparation and contemplation. It's a beautiful season, my favorite, really.  I enjoy the Christmas lights on my neighbor's house and, for the first time in years, I couldn't wait to put up the little Christmas tree.  I've refrained from listening to Christmas carols on my iPod, although my favorite radio station plays them more and more often as we get closer to Christmas Eve, as do the stores I go in. Christmas Day will change all that, but until then, even though the world may be in Christmas, I'll still be in Advent, waiting, preparing and contemplating.

This Advent, though, will be a slightly different kind of waiting, preparing and contemplating. On one hand I will be in a traditional Advent but in another I will be waiting, preparing and contemplating something quite different. Sometime, very probably in the relatively near future, I will be losing a member of my family.

Lots of relatives and friends have died. I've experienced death rites and rituals from a very young age so it was and has always been a part of life. I mourn, yet I accept it as the natural progression of things. Somehow, it doesn't seem right to be thinking about death in a season so focused on anticipation of a miraculous birth (an aren't all births miraculous in some way?). It feels as if the candles on the Advent wreath were all lit but are now being extinguished, one by one, just as his life is being extinguished one day, one hour, one minute at a time. It even feels like an out-of-place Holy Week, with Good Friday somewhere down the road, not terribly far away but just around a corner that I can't see yet.

Part of my discomfort is that he is half a country away, too far for me to travel at this time and the only contact I have is via phone lines. That's okay, I'm not one to sit at bedsides, waiting for the inevitable. I just don't do well with that, and I think he would know that. We still talk on the phone, just like I did this morning, but every time I notice that a little less of him is there.  Still, I sit and wait, anticipating the call that will come, sooner rather than later, and contemplating the lives we have shared for the past 66 years. We might not talk for months, but we've always been able to pick up where we left off as if the intervening moments between the last time we talked didn't really exist. This morning we recalled our goofing around and breaking a leg off the piano bench. We both got in trouble over that -- him at the ripe old age of about 16, me about 4. We also remembered the thousands of choruses of "Goodnight, Irene," we used to sing together. He was, and is, my big brother, and those memories are part of us -- and him.

It's still Advent. It's still time to wait, to think, to prepare. Hopefully Christmas will arrive on time and in time, because my big brother said he'd call me on Christmas Day. I don't want to hear that call at the cost of his pain and suffering, but oh, I can't think of a Christmas present I'd rather have. What happens after that---- only God knows, just as God knows if it will happen as my brother promised. Still, I will live in Advent until whichever comes -- Christmas Day or a personal Good Friday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December 12 - Awake, Aware and Prepared

Zechariah 1:7-17
Revelation 3:7-13
Matthew 24:15-31

It's only a bit over a year until December 21, 2012. There has been so much talk about the Mayan calendar and the end of the long-count. There's also a lot of speculation that it foretells the end of the world through disasters, meteor showers, polar shifts and whatnot. I don't take it seriously; after all, I read somewhere the statement that just because our calendar ends on December 31 doesn't mean the end of the world. We just end up with another January 1. If I'd had to chisel all those intricate symbols into hard rock with stone and copper tools, I'd probably look for a good place to quit and end of the long count would seem like an appropriate place.

I remember as a kid there was, at one time, a lot of talk about the end of the world coming. It was frightening, terrifying even. The day it was supposed to happen I stuck close to home and Mama, jumping at every unusual sound and growing more and more afraid as darkness came and the end still hadn't come. Suddenly there was a clap of thunder and I nearly knocked Mama over by rushing over and grabbing her around the waist, asking if we were going to die now. She comforted me and we made it through the night, waking up the next morning with the world still intact. There have been a few more pronouncements that the world was going to end on this day or that, but so far we're still here.

Zechariah spoke to Zion and the postexilic city of Jerusalem, a city entering a new epoch in its life where the temple would be rebuilt and God's blessings would once more be upon it, bringing compassion, comfort and prosperity. The people had endured a sort of world-ending event when they had been conquered, Jerusalem and the great temple were razed and most of their leadership marched off to captivity a very long way away. Matthew tells of Jesus teaching the disciples about what will happen when he, the Son of Man, returns to claim his own. John's Revelation speaks to the Philadelphian church, praising them for their faithfulness and promising reward for continuing to be so. The second coming would be coming and it behooved them to be ready to give a good account of their constancy and dedication.

Some people today are constantly searching for signs that the end times are here, citing wars and famine, earthquakes and fires, abandoning the worship of the true God for a false one and failing to live in accordance with Biblical teaching. I've been around some Christians - good, decent, hard-working, caring people - whose denomination (and they themselves) spent a lot more time talking about and teaching Revelation and Daniel than they did the words of Jesus. While I think we should be awake, aware, and prepared, I don't see all the fuss about wars and rumors of wars because I don't think there has ever been a time on this planet where somebody wasn't at war with somebody else. The talk of increasing natural disasters being a sign that the end is near? Mother Earth has to stretch her muscles sometimes, and while you're stretching your abs, you might as well stretch the calves, shoulders, arms and all. Still, it behooves us to be awake, aware and prepared --- for whatever comes.’

Jesus didn't know when he would be coming back any more than we do, according to scripture. Still, he told enough stories about being ready for the eventuality. For people who live in areas where hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis or the like happen with some regularity, or where there is a strong possibility of such, people are reminded to make up survival kits with food, water, first-aid supplies and anything else they would need to get through what could be a day or two or much longer. Some do it, some don't. Still, being prepared is a good idea.

The season of Advent encourages us to be awake, aware and prepared for the incarnation. Next Advent, the Mayan calendar will run out. Which one seems to be the one to look for?

I'm going to prepare by getting more candles for the Advent wreath at the after-Christmas sales. At least I will know where the candles are -- if the lights go out.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Monday, December 12, 2011.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 10 - Mulishness

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.


Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.


Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.

You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.


I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,

and shout for joy, all you upright in heart. -- Psalm 32

Some passages for contemplation have so much in them that it is hard to pick a thread to follow. Sin, repentance, forgiveness -- all not only appear here but follow the progression that I understand all too well. I mess something up or hurt someone, I'm sorry for it (later, if not sooner and if I'm wiser than when it happened), I repent and, hopefully, am forgiven for it by the whoever I hurt in whatever way or have been able to make some sort of amends to mend what was messed up. The process is messy itself, it's uncomfortable most of the time, and it's something that I'd rather just bury under the carpet and forget about. That, though, is not the recommended way to go and most of the time, guilt will eventually get me to the place where I need to acknowledge it and try to fix it, if it is fixable.

The part of the psalm that caught my attention, though, was the part about the horse and the mule. I don't have much acquaintance with mules, although a friend has been kind enough to give me some instruction in mule physiology and psychology. A mule and a horse are very different creatures but both, in order to be useful to humans, must be outfitted with bits and bridles to guide them in the direction the human wants or needs them to go. The difference is the kind of bit that each needs because the stimulus to response in each is different. A wise person would choose the right bit for the right animal in order to not just control where the animal goes, but to do it in the kindest but most affirmative way.

I remember Mama often telling me I was as "stubborn as a mule," hardly a flattering statement but quite accurate. I was pretty determined to do things my way, and nothing short of threat of dire punishment or the like would make me change my mind. I think if she could have used a bit and bridle on me, she probably would have. My friend tells me that if you push on a mule’s flank, it will usually push back initially, just to see if you really mean it. Looks like Mama used the right descriptor for me because I definitely pushed back and then just stood my ground until forced to do otherwise.

Now that I’ve grown up a bit and am a bit more aware of the importance of self-control and the greater world around me, I see a lot of mulish behavior (as well as recognizing it in myself a bit better). It's not as the psalm stated, "...whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,/ else it will not stay near you…”, it’s more on the order of “This is not right, I must go in another direction” or “Why are we doing this when it is not what we should be doing?” Looking around, I see a country and a world where the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I see countries desperately needing aid and getting it, only to have the ruling government seize most of it and distribute it to their own friends and supporters while those for whom the aid was intended die of starvation and thirst. I see populations suffering indignities, persecution, deprivation and even death because of who they are, their tribal or cultural relationship, their gender or sexual orientation, their nationality, even their religion. I also read in scripture where God has again and again given us a direction to go with regard to these very same people, a direction that would lead to a veritable heaven on earth, yet we seem to be mulishly pushing back, looking to our own interests rather than the kingdom we could be building for God, for our neighbors and for ourselves.

God gives the opportunity to repent, to turn things around, to make amends, to work for the kingdom here and now. God, being a wise God, gives me a bridle intended just for me, a personal one built just for me, to direct me in the way I need to go and to urge me to take that way. God has other bridles built for others, all designed to guide firmly but kindly in the same way mine is supposed to do. I have to choose for myself how to respond to the bridle of God and God's leading to greener pastures for me and for the world.

The bridle God offers is not a constraint but a freedom – but can the world see it that way?

Can I see it that way?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episopal Cafe Saturday, December 10, 2011.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 7 -- Fringes and Phylacteries

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. -- Matthew 23:1-12

Somehow, when I read this story I'm reminded of the emperor's new clothes. The emperor struts around wearing what was purported to be the finest in garb although the emperor had to take the tailor's word for it since he couldn't see a stitch of it. That tailor was a real salesman. Nobody else could see a stitch of it either, but the emperor was convinced of his excellent attire and proud to be seen in it. Nobody said a word -- except a small child who brought the entire parade (and the emperor) to a screeching halt. Out of the mouths of babes, they say, come the real truths. The emperor found out the reason he couldn't see a stitch wasn't because he needed a new ophthalmologist, he just needed a dose of the reality.

Clothes have always been a status marker -- the more wealth and prestige someone has, the better the quality (and quantity) of their clothes. In Jesus' day, the Pharisees and scribes were the top dogs and their dress reflected that. They were in positions of religious power and they enjoyed it to the hilt. Who wouldn't?  Who wouldn't enjoy being in a position where they were the most important person at a formal dinner, be able to get the best seats at the symphony or\the ball park simply because of their rank, or even enjoy having lots of people look to them for guidance or help?  Who wouldn't want to play the leading role and be recognized as such, to be able to set policies and practices, even if it imposed harsh burdens on the people who supported the infrastructure? It's all part of being top dog, whether in Biblical times or now.

The lesson isn't just about clothes or even status. It's about saying one thing and doing another, especially those in positions of power or authority. I think of the government officials who have spoken out so forcibly about honesty and transparency but who have been found to have committed grave lapses in ethics. Ministers and televangelists who have been so vocal in their condemnation of immorality suddenly find themselves in TV news reports that shine a light on their own behaviors and compromising situations. Everybody makes mistakes, but when someone is in a position of power or authority, it behooves them to live up to what they tell others to do, especially when those people who are being told what to do are also being asked to continue to "support God's work" or "support our efforts to ..." It's enough to make a body lose their appetites if not their faith in authority, possibly even in God.

Jesus talked about being a servant, even and especially if they were in a role of leadership. It isn't about going around washing people's feet or letting them get in the elevator first or even pitching in to actually work (rather than just pushing the workers) on a project that's closer to deadline than completion; it's actually about the spirit of the thing. Doing it for the wrong reason, doing it so that people will see and admire the person rather than the act and how it is performed, creates pride in the doer that can easily lead to them believing their own press.

I'm no leader, not by any stretch, still, I have my own part to play in being a servant who practices what I preach, whether or not, according to St. Francis, I use words or not. I've found that sometimes doing something quietly and not having anyone see it can be a very joyful thing. Oh, I don't think it's terrible to be praised for something I've done or feel pride in it, so long as that pride doesn't become an addiction, something I absolutely have to have. I also have to be careful not to make being humble a form of arrogance as well. That's as dangerous and as prideful as walking around with long fringes or wearing a ball gown to help feed homeless people at a shelter. I have to match my words to my actions, the lesson I think Jesus was trying to get across.

It's all about motivation, and motivation is everything -- whether I wear long fringes or merely stand in the crowd and watch the emperor go by. Oh, and I need the courage to tell the emperor to change ophthalmologists because he can't trust what his eyes are trying to tell him.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Wednesday, December 7, 2011.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions and Answers

We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers. -- Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Nobody likes a know-it-all. It's intensely annoying to be around someone who is so confident that s/he has all the right answers and conveys the idea, orally or by implication, that anyone with a different answer or idea is somehow deficient in their thinking or education. I'll grant you that not all know-it-alls are like that, and some that are really have no clue that this is how they come across.

Probably one of the best known know-it-alls for this generation is Hermione Granger. Her hand was always the first one up when a teacher started to ask a question, and it frequently got her in trouble. But there's something else about Hermione. I don't think she did it to be a know-it-all but as a scholar who gathered knowledge and wanted badly to share it with others. I've stood in those shoes, long before I knew about Hermione, as a much older and nowhere near as smart (or cute) as she. I've wanted to share what I learned with my classmates only to be told that I was not good for the class as nobody else bothered to do the homework, knowing I would have done it and had something to offer that they could then pick up on and discuss. I heard that several times - in private and in the class itself. I still kept trying to learn, but I did it on my own and at home rather than in a group.

Growing up, it seemed that the first part of my education consisted of a search for answers. There was always a test or pop quiz or exam that demanded I regurgitate the answers to specific questions based on what I was supposed to have been studying up to that point.  Even in college it was a search for answers, but it was also a time of learning that it wasn't always as important to know the answers as to know where to find them. The older I get, the more I see that an important part of learning is being comfortable with not knowing all the answers or where to find them. I find that sometimes asking the question is of greater importance than just reciting an answer that trips glibly off the tongue but hasn't yet reached the head or heart level that comes with true knowledge.

I think God likes questions; that may be why there are so many of them around that we haven't found answers to as yet. Why does a raccoon have rings on its tail?  Why do great whales almost leap from the water only to crash back into it and then repeat the performance? Why are some places in the earth's crust so much thinner than others so that magma can come to the surface and we can see a glimpse of the earth's core? Why is there suffering in the world, especially when it seems so unfair? How true are the gospel stories and did the stories in the Bible like the exodus, David's Jerusalem, the Akedah and the flood really happen?

When I (or we) ask questions, I/we ask that someone somewhere give an answer that helps to make sense of whatever it is. There are plenty of "experts" who are ready, willing and more or less able, to fulfill that objective, but are their answers really the full, accurate and correct ones?  I can come up with answers myself, but most often I can't tell if they really are the right ones or not until I either compare them with answers more wise and scholarly people have already come up with, or I find proof myself that I haven't misjudged. All in all, though, the ultimate authority is God, and once I've exhausted my options, read until my eyes burn and blur, thought and pondered until my very hair hurts with the strain, I have to come back to one thing. God knows. It's more than just a comment to be made when asked a question to which I do not know the answer and have no hope of finding it any time soon. It's a statement of faith -- and wonder.

I can be the biggest know-it-all in history, but, in all humility, I have to concede that I get more learn more by  thinking up questions than just reciting answers. When I was a child, I must have done what every other child on earth has done at one time or another, namely asking my parents the very simple question, "Why?"  And asking it again and again and again.

I'm betting that God's the only parent who hasn't gotten exasperated after about the tenth "Why?" in an hour's time. In fact, I'm willing to double the bet that it's what God really wants us to do. Oh, we might not get answers at all, much less answers we want to hear, but in the interim, we have to stay in contact with God just in case.

I have a feeling that's what Rabbi Heschel had in mind...

December 5 - Redemption

Commemoration of Clement of Alexandria

All men are Christ's, some by knowing Him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is He Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? — Clement of Alexandria

One thing I never heard of until I started doing Bible studies in the Episcopal church was the idea of "universalism" -- a belief that somehow, salvation will be attained by all everywhere through God's grace and persistence. It was a totally different thing from "You have to pray the sinner's prayer and accept Jesus as your personal saviour before you can be saved and be baptized," which is what I was taught as a child. Even if I said the right things and followed the right procedure, it still seemed like my salvation could be snatched away if I didn't live up to the expectations of God and the church. It made for an uncomfortable relationship with the Almighty.

The church in which I spent my childhood and adolescence sort of went from Genesis to Revelation and then, with the exception of the persecutions and the Reformation in sermons and Sunday School lessons. It wasn't until I began EfM that I began to see the curtain rising on the years my former church had kept under wraps, in a manner of speaking. One of the people I never heard of before EfM was Clement of Alexandria. Once I started delving into church history, Clement was introduced, along with a lot of other philosophers, theologians, catechists, apologists and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. None of them made the most lasting of impressions on me at the time. Still, the more I continue to study the more I realize Clement of Alexandria is one of my spiritual ancestors, one of those who gave me the ability and the courage to set aside the certainties I'd had in my former church beliefs and embrace new possibilities, including the idea that the entire world will be redeemed, not just the ones who prayed the sinner's prayer and were baptized in the name of the Trinity. Clement's comment gives me the vision of that possibility.

God gave the model for parenthood. Does a parent stop loving, nurturing, protecting or caring for a child simply because it is disobedient, stubborn, aggravating or even turns their back on the parent? Some may, but I don't think God is that kind of parent. There may be some people or groups who enjoy special favor, but the remaining children are not forgotten, ignored or unwanted. All are God's children, even if some do not acknowledge it.

Jesus told the Canaanite woman that he had come only for the Jews, but he had already begun reaching beyond the borders of culture and tradition and gender. Paul moved beyond ministry just to the Jews and into the cities and towns of the Greek and Roman world.  Christianity spread and with it new and different ways to experience God, Jesus, the Spirit, baptism, the Eucharist and all the refinements. Like the veins on a leaf, the central belief grew offshoots that grew smaller with each refinement. Could not that refinement also include what to some is heresy while to others is orthodoxy? Could we not say that the Lord of all really is the Lord of all, even those who do not recognize the relationship?

Clement also said, " We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life." It fits with a statement I heard for the first time maybe a decade or so ago, "Either Jesus died for all the sins of the world or none of them."  I don't know who said that, but I think if it could be traced back, the trail would lead somewhere in the vicinity of Clement. To me, it challenges me to get the Trinity out of the little box I had shoveled them into, based on what I had been taught, and allow that they can operate in ways I don't understand and don't really need to.  It also makes me see other people, those I sit with in church as well as people on the other side of the globe who have very different images of God, as children of God and worthy of redemption, whether or not they have accepted that redemption or even knew of its existence. Their qualification for redemption is based on the foundation that they belong to God, born as God's creation and the child of God's grace. Whether they in fact are "saved"  is a question well above my pay grade. It seems to me that a God powerful enough to create a universe (or a billion billion of them) doesn't need me to sort sheep and goats. It's laughable that I should even dare to think of doing that-- and it's also audacious to the n-th degree.

So, for me, I will not discount universalism nor the thoughts of Clement about salvation and redemption. I will simply be thankful that Clement of Alexandria and the great cloud of other theologically/philosophically-minded folk have left me a legacy of thought to be perused, studied, poked, prodded, stretched and my borders of understanding increased. I will simply trust, and let God, Jesus and the Spirit take care of the rest.

That is a great weight off my shoulders.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Cafe on Monday, December 5, 2011.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 3 - A Strange Beginning to Advent

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. -- Matthew 22:15-22

It is Advent, the first season of the official church  year and the time when some Christians prepare for the coming of Christ at the feast we call Christmas. It is a time of expectation, of planning and getting ready. So why is there a seemingly very mundane passage about money and taxes?  Surely that passage would be better suited to another time of year, say April? There are times we have to just take the readings as they come and this seems to be one of them.

The Pharisees are up to their tricks again, trying to trap Jesus into saying or doing something they can use to get rid of this troublesome itinerant.  This time they bring him a silver coin, about the size of a dime although a bit thicker, and recognized as legal tender throughout the Roman empire. The question to Jesus was, was it legal to pay taxes required by Roman law to Caesar or not?  It wasn't that the denarius that they brought was so valuable; money never is unless you don't have any. It was worth about a day's wages for a worker on a large estate, the value of about 20 loaves of bread.

Jesus' question was an interesting one, "Whose image is on this coin? And whose title?" Even the Jewish coins minted in Tyre (where the "official" Jewish coins of that time were struck) had the image of a Caesar (coins last a very long time) and his title, often with the inclusion of something like "son of the divine Augustus" added, making it even more odious to the Jews who used the coins. The coins used for the temple tax had this same image, despite the commandment against graven images. In the days of Jesus, and living in even a small far-away corner of the Roman Empire, you couldn't get far from the image, likeness or rule of Caesar; Caesar's taxes not only paid for the emperor's upkeep in Rome along with the hierarchy that administered the work of the empire, but also soldiers in the provinces to provide security, upkeep of the roads that moved goods from place to place, public works and even the very bureaucracy from which at least one of Jesus' followers came (Matthew, the tax collector). Even so, the denarius was not accepted in the temple; it had to be exchanged for "Jewish" money, the shekel or the half shekel, with the cost of the exchange (added on as a sort of banking fee), going into the pockets of the money changer. Things haven't changed much, have they?

With the challenge of the Pharisees and Herodians (allegedly supporters of the local monarchy), Jesus faced one of the most common contests between two human beings of the time. A challenge would be offered and must be answered or there was a risk of loss of face and ultimately shame. The challenge always had to be public, and had to be answered publicly. The winner was the person who could provide a response to which the other had no reasonable answer. The Pharisees threw down the gauntlet, so to speak, and Jesus picked it up and threw it back at them. "Pay Caesar what is his." What else could the Pharisees say?  Jesus clearly won that challenge and the Pharisees publicly lost face. You had to be careful of your words and positions, in those days. One ill-conceived challenge could cost you more than you could gain by a sharp retort.

Since the Pharisees were a religious sect, Jesus' "pay to God what is God's" would be a direct challenge. The temple ran on money and it too had a taxation structure. A tithe was charged to support the priests, a head tax of 1/2 shekel that each male had to pay yearly, sacrificial items of animals or agricultural goods to present to God and finally dedicated goods (or children as in Samuel's case) to fulfill vows. God wasn't interested in coins although the temple where God was worshipped certainly needed it to keep operating. What is God's, however, goes beyond sacrifices, head and temple taxes and dedicated goods; what is God's is the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and all that that human being is. What is God's is that person's devotion and attention to God's rules which includes caring for others as well as themselves in addition to sacrificial offerings and support of God's temple. It was very clever -- Jesus is saying that the coin belongs to Caesar, but the people belong to God. How could the Pharisees make a come back after that kind of riposte?

Looking at it that way, it seems that using something material like money or possessions to establish the worth of a person isn't what Jesus (or God) had in mind. Human beings were given the ultimate gift of being made in the image of God and as such that is how they should be seen, regardless of social status or possessions.

As one bearing the image and likeness of God, I need to learn to value myself by what I am, not what I have, and look at others with the same kind of lens. I also have to give back to God the value of what has been given to me, namely the good that I as a human being can do for my fellow humans and to the world God created.  It's a lot harder than simply putting in a dollar bill in an alms basin -- or sending a check to the government once a year. It's asking for everything, not just a part.

But then, I come back to the advent thought that Jesus came and gave all of himself. Maybe the reading is more apt than I first thought.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, December 3, 2011.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Welcome, Advent

Getting older is not for sissies. I don't know who said that, but they certainly knew whereof they spoke. I may not be "old" yet (not quite 66) but it is running up on me rather than creeping.  I've got some aches and pains where ten or twenty years ago I didn't know I had places. My neck gets a crick in it when I have to look at the wall map in my office -- with my bifocal part of my glasses. And I have learned to believe in the hereafter, as in "What'd I come in hereafter?"

Case in point of the latter, I searched for an hour through four drawers and two cabinets last Thursday for a jar of turkey gravy that I knew I'd bought. I found the beef stew and chili, found the cat food, pineapple chunks, cranberry sauce and pickled beets. Found everything in the world but what I was looking for. This morning I repeated the process, this time looking for the pineapple chunks. Looked through the same four drawers and two cabinets, found the turkey gravy but no pineapple. I know I didn't eat it because I was saving it for today.  Eight hours later and too late to use it as I had intended, it showed up in the fridge, right behind the milk I got out this morning for my cereal and then put back in the same place. Things like that happen around here all the time, but I can't blame this one on the boys (or Phoebe).

The arrival of Advent is sort of like finding the turkey gravy or the pineapple, only in this case it isn't too late to use it. If I miss celebrating it today, I still have tomorrow. The iPod has Advent music on it 365 days a year, and can be pulled out with the swipe of a finger.  The only time it is too late is on Christmas Eve itself. I may have the Christmas tree up, more on the schedule I followed for years which was to put it up on Thanksgiving weekend, but I also have a virtual Advent wreath or two bookmarked on my computer. I have an actual Advent wreath, but the boys like to chew on Joseph and the shepherds for some reason. I have an extra set of colored candles in the fridge in case I need them, or in case I want to see real candle light to remind me of the celebration of the coming of the Light to the world. I have readings to do, an Advent book on my Kindle, and at last, time to sit and think about it a bit.

It's funny, but every Thanksgiving I remember that Advent is just around the corner and I do a little internal rejoicing. I can forego the turkey and crowded tables and all, but I wait impatiently for Advent. Christmas lost a lot of its fun and anticipation years ago so instead I wait for Advent. It suits me more these days, being less frenetic and more contemplative, more in line with my increasing aches and pains and disinclination to rush about decorating everything in sight, shopping endlessly and searching for the perfect this or that. Those days are over for me, thank God. Instead I have more time to be quiet, to listen, to think, to write, and those things help me focus on what the season is really about. Not to mention that some of my most favorite hymns appear only at this time of year.

So welcome, Advent. I have been waiting for you. Come in and make your presence felt as we journey to Christmas --- but not too soon, please. Let me enjoy you fully before you vanish in the choirs and bells and smells and wrapping paper and, God forbid, the appearance of Valentines in the stores on Christmas Day.

November 30 - The St. Anne Earworm

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles. First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. -- 2 Peter 3:1-10

One thing you have to give the Apostle Peter: he is persistent. "This is the second letter I am writing to you."  Evidently he wanted to make sure the message got across but not sure they have "gotten" it. Funny -- it makes me think of the times Jesus kept trying to explain stuff to Pete and the other eleven disciples and they just didn't seem to get it any more than the people Peter was writing to seemed to get it. Of course, Jesus had promised that he would be returning, and that the people of the age would not taste death until he got back. Now those people are dying and still no sign of Jesus. Did Jesus lie? Did the gospelers misunderstand? Did the disciples pass on a half-understood message? At any rate, It was up to Pete and the others to make sure the movement Jesus started kept going, and if it took multiple repetitions of that message, then so be it. Pete was willing to try again and again until they caught on.

The part that stood out for me was the assertion,"... with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." It started an ear-worm of a hymn in my head.  I've always loved the hymn I grew up knowing as "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" and subsequently learned to call "St. Anne." It always gave me such a sense of peace, hope and standing on firm ground.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of thy throne,
thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guide while troubles last,
and our eternal home! 

-- Isaac Watts, paraph. of Ps. 90:1-5

Is the Lord coming? That is the question the writer is trying to answer. When? Reaching back to the Psalm, the writer used the “thousand years” not necessarily to mean a specific period of a millennium but rather an indeterminate amount of time, and nobody, not even Jesus, knew how long that would be. The timing was up to God and God wasn’t letting anybody in on the secret. It seems like a sort of pop quiz --- the teacher warns and warns that there will be a pop quiz, but nobody ever believes it will show up until they walk into class one day and are told to put the books away, take out paper and pen and start writing.

God doesn’t necessarily work on chronos time but rather kairos time. I wonder – could God be waiting for us to get the world in better shape spiritually and physically before the pop quiz comes? I wonder what the writer of 2 Peter would think about that?

I think I’ll just keep “St. Anne” running through my head. It’s probably as good a way as any to get ready for the pop quiz.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.