Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 25 - A Fruitful Mission

Commemoration of John Roberts, Priest and Missionary (1843-1949)

Psalm: 90:13-17
Deuteronomy 31:30-32:4,32:6-12a
Acts 3:18-25
John 7:37-41

Growing up in Virginia, where history seems to ooze out of every molecule of air, water, earth and rock, it was hard not to know something about the Native American peoples who had populated the area and their relationships with the first English settlers who arrived in 1607. There was interplay in every phase of their mutual existence in that small area of green forest and sparkling water, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. When the settlers arrived, the Powhatan people did not realize that they were seeing the beginning of what became the general policy for most settler-native relationship: their own exile like the children of Israel, mutual warfare and massacres, and the end of their way of life on land they had occupied for centuries.

I had never heard the name John Roberts, whom we commemorate today. He was born and educated in Wales where he was ordained to the diaconate. He sailed for the Bahamas where he worked at the cathedral and also among the people of a leper colony, particularly the colored sufferers. Moving again, this
time to New York, he asked to be sent to work with Native American people, in the most difficult and needy place possible. He was sent to what is now known as the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, to work among the Shoshone and Arapaho peoples. He learned their languages, studied their customs, established schools for them and translated the gospels into their languages. The people learned to trust this white man who came to them to give, not to punish or take something away. He served as their priest as well and established mission churches  all over Wyoming. He retired from his missionary work in 1921 but lived among the Native people until his death in 1949.

John Roberts felt a call from God to work with Native Americans. Missionaries usually feel a call from God to go out and spread the good news; that's a given. What made John Roberts different, I believe, was his way of ministering to them, not just by preaching and converting but also supporting and encouraging those who comprised his flocks. Rather than forcing them into "foreign" clothes like trousers, shirts and dresses of wool and calico cotton while insisting they speak English, he encouraged them to maintain their languages, traditions and customs while working with them to maintain good relations and peace with those both inside and outside the different tribes. By learning their languages he was able to translate the gospels for them but more importantly, was able to communicate with them as equals. He earned their trust and was instrumental in negotiating on their behalf with agents and agencies of the federal government who weren't always necessarily sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans.

When Jesus went among the people, he spoke their language, perhaps with a bit of an odd accent in places, but dialects of an area are generally slightly different but usually understandable to others from the next village or tribe. He demonstrated how to live as well as spoke of it, knowing that often actions speak much louder than the words themselves.  Jesus lay great emphasis on the treatment of the poor, the outcast, the widows and orphans and the strangers living among them. I think John Roberts had this insight and, in his ministry to the Arapaho and Shoshone, practiced what Jesus taught -- to love them, seek the best for them, support them, and lead them gently.

I'm glad I got to know about this man of God. My one sadness is that it took someone from a foreign land to come and demonstrate how to treat others who we as Americans considered outsiders and inferiors. His life and ministry reminds me that no matter how others perceive them, God's children come in a rainbow of races, colors, orientations, and the like. The best ministry might be the one of example, not always preaching. I pray our missionaries show the same love, concern and Spirit that he did, and that those to whom they have gone will see and feel God's love through them. And I pray that all of us can learn to see beyond the outward appearance and instead see the mark of God that exists in all of us, even those who we consider outcasts and aliens.

Thank you, John Roberts. I am grateful for your example, both for missionaries and for the rest of us.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday February 25, 2012.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


In our denomination, Lent is understood as a forty-day season that lasts about six weeks (Sundays are excluded) which is considered a time of penitence and meditation. The scriptural basis for this church season is Jesus' forty days in the desert wrestling with Satan before emerging to begin his earthly ministry. Many denominations do not celebrate Lent and their only knowledge of it is that people usually give up something that is important to them for the period from Ash Wednesday (which many also do not observe) to Easter (which they very assuredly do). It may seem odd to use "celebrate" to describe a time when sin and repentance are the keynote concepts, but for me, it becomes a celebration because I know that after it is over there is Easter, and Lent is just preliminary work in preparation for that most glorious of celebrations.

Giving up stuff is one of the oldest practices. I remember my few childhood Roman Catholic friends talking about giving up chocolate or colas and it seemed rather exotic. Fish appeared on dinner tables on Friday evening and tuna salad or casserole was a staple of school lunches for six weeks or so.  While the fish is no longer a requirement, look around at how many restaurants and fast-food joints offer fish fries or special fish dinners after Ash Wednesday (sometimes earlier). I love fish (and shrimp, and scallops) but somehow trying to be observant on Fridays in Lent makes that Big Mac seem all the more desirable. I'm not required to give up meat on those days, but I do try. Still,  it's amazing how tempting it is sometimes to say  "the heck with it" and head for the drive-thru. Who would know, or even care, whether I were trying to observe meatless Fridays during Lent?  Why would it matter?

Temptation for Big Macs (or pepperoni pizzas) on Fridays are part of their value. It's a reminder that I'm supposed to be following Jesus who fasted for forty days in the wilderness with no Big Macs or pepperoni pizzas during the week and fish on Fridays. It's supposed to be a bit irritating, like wearing a hair shirt, or even downright uncomfortable; it's the least I can do to identify with Jesus and his suffering. It is supposed to be irritating. Medicine is supposed to taste bad or it won't work very well, or so Mama assured me as she poured out some vile liquid or nasty lozenge. Same principle, different application.

I lived for three years in the Philippines, and trust me, three years with not a single Big Mac was a very big deal. For the first year after we came back to the States, if we drove past a McDonald's without stopping in for a Big Mac, I nearly broke down in tears of frustration. I can drive past them now, or I can eat at them fairly regularly. Still, on Fridays in Lent a Big Mac looks more desirable than any other time.  I love the quote from Robert Orben, "Most people would like to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch." Driving by McDonald's on a Friday in Lent is definitely keeping that temptation in touch. But, when I think about it, it gives me an opportunity to feel just the tiniest bit virtuous to have not yielded to temptation and a bit of self-encouragement to keep up the good fight.

Lent ends, eventually. I'm free then to indulge in the things I tried my best ot assiduously avoid during Lent, but after that first initial Friday after Easter, it seems like just another week. There's nothing special about it, or nothing that makes me really stop and think about what I am doing or why. There's an intention required in Lent, even if it's just to not eat chocolate or give up using bad language (four-letter expletives as well as incorrect grammar). I have to make a conscious choice to do that one small thing as a nod to a Lenten observance and a sign of respect for Jesus' suffering.

But I sure like temptation to keep in touch --

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Ministry of Small Things

The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that an angel might come by and sit on it. –Thomas Merton

Say “Shaker” to someone and, if they’re over the age of about 50, they’ll probably come back with “chair.” Shaker chairs were popular because their simple lines and beautifully finished wood. The Shakers produced chairs with planed and turned parts that were interchangeable to make a number of different styles: tall, short, wide, narrow, with or without arms, with or without rockers, with or without wheels, etc. No matter the style, though, each piece of each chair had the hallmark of a human being who cared about the piece he produced or the seat she wove or braided. It might have been a small part of the total chair, but it was their part and done as completely, beautifully and precisely as they could make it. Those chairs have withstood the test of time, becoming more and more valuable as the years have passed, becoming important pieces in museums and private collections. I have a doubt that a hundred years from now the overstuffed recliners and pouffy chairs of today will be sought-after antiques. I wonder, too, would angels come and sit on them? We know that saints in the Body of Christ, the members of the Shaker church, sat on theirs.

Handmade items often have something special about them, most likely the attention to detail that may escape the notice of most but which an aficionado would spot immediately. For the true craftsman, there is nothing too small to be excused from perfection, not a wrinkle, tiny rough spot in a place that no hand would ever feel, spot of discoloration or rust on a tiny gear hidden deep inside a watch case or anything else. It is the mark of someone with passion for what they are doing, even to the level of the very small things.

Small things. Without small things, great things never happen. Small ideas and concepts can lead to great inventions and discoveries that change the world. One person’s passion can ignite a fire that circles the globe. Jesus himself used a mustard seed, not the smallest of seeds, to be sure, but still a small thing, to illustrate the power of a tiny bit of faith growing into a sizeable thing. I wonder what Jesus would have made of a sequoia seed?

When most people consider the word “ministry” they think of ordained preachers, ministers, rabbis and priests. Sure, those are probably the most visible of ministers, in a kind of spotlight when they lead worship, teach classes or model the virtues like visiting the sick and imprisoned, but ministry is more than that. There are ministry opportunities everywhere – the workplace, home, school, church, almost anywhere where two people can meet and interact. Come to think of it, though, there can be ministries that involve non-humans and even the environment that don’t attract a lot of attention but which are really needed. Not every ministry is high profile, but even the smallest of ministries is important, kingdom building-wise. They don’t have to be big things to be effective; the ministry of small things is just as important and, luckily, there are plenty of them to go around. It can be as simple as turning a piece of wood that will become part of a chair.

I’m a firm believer in the ministry of small things, the kind of ministry I know I can do. It would be great to be known as a great preacher, but maybe simply driving someone to the doctor’s office or grocery store, or hearing the words of a friend who needs someone to listen is, to me, a ministry of small things that, hopefully, will make the world even a miniscule amount better. I’d love to write a best-selling book, but perhaps writing essays and meditations is my niche, especially if even one person finds something in the words that gives them some insight or even just a smile.

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you think small things don’t make a difference, try spending a night in a room with a mosquito!” A lot of times mosquitoes get swatted, but they don’t give up being mosquitoes. A ministry of small things may not make a person rich, famous or even earn them brownie points in heaven, and they may get the person swatted sometimes, but sometimes the small things lead to big things that make heaven just a little bit closer.

Oh, and one more thing. Ministries of small things are not limited time offers. A single person can do more than one, and there is no expiration date.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café on February 20-21, 2012.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Lesson of Lazarus

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” - John 11:1-16

Jesus got a message from his dear friend Mary of Bethany that a loved one, Lazarus, was critically ill. Instead of rushing to see them, Jesus stays to finish some work and then suggests traveling even further to a place where he had already been in danger. Finally he announces that Lazarus had died and that now they needed to go there so that they could understand why he had delayed and what it meant. There must have been some mumbling among the disciples about why he didn't hurry to Lazarus as soon as the message came. After all, isn't that just human nature to want to be there to say goodbye?

Recently I got a phone call from one of my nieces telling me that my only brother was dying. It was not unexpected but the actual words brought home that unless I got there quickly, I might never be able to see my brother again. We had talked just a few days before and athough the conversation was of hope and love, I still had the feeling that it was my goodbye to him. I was right; it was. When my niece called again, it was only a few days later. What to do?  Go at once and deal with the consequences of that decision or stay here and deal with the consequences here. Unlike Jesus, I didn't have a lesson to teach about the power of God, or to prove his own power over the grave, but I have a feeling that in his very human heart, Jesus would have had similar feelings as I did when he delayed going to Lazarus.

There are so many times when I wish I didn't have to make decisions, especially difficult ones that are part of an intensely internal flood of emotions. Those emotions pull me this way and then that as I consider the consequences of my decision. Even after I decide, there are second, third and fourth thoughts, causing me to ask if I really made the correct decision. As painful as it must have been for Jesus, his decision was to continue his mission and let Lazarus help him teach a lesson to his disciples and friends about his own coming death and resurrection. I have a feeling that just because Jesus was tuned in to the will of God it didn't always make the human part of him ache from time to time.

Lazarus probably believed that he would see a resurrection on the Judgment Day but the call to come out of the tomb must still have been a shock. I have no doubt my brother had a similar faith that he too would be raised at that time but for him there was no call to come out -- at least not yet.  I have faith that one day we will see each other again, without recriminations of "Why didn't you come?" or need to ask for forgiveness for not being there.

Somehow I don't think Lazarus' first thoughts upon seeing Jesus were "Why didn't you come?" either.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 18, 2012.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

February 11 - Commemoration of Fanny Crosby

Ps. 108:16
Isaiah 42:10–12,16
1 Peter 1:3–9
John 9:35–39

I made acquaintance with Fanny Crosby long before I knew her name or her story. In the church of my childhood, there was plenty of singing, lots of songs of praise, comfort and hope featuring a loving God, a gentle shepherd, and the joys of redemption. There were plenty of songs about sin and the need for repentance too, sometimes even in the same hymn along with any of the other elements. Most were very sentimental and flowery of language, the usual poetry and prose of the Victorian era in which Fanny lived. Still, congregations loved singing them and even children could learn them by heart and consider the message they brought. They still do; my neighbor next door, a member of the same denomination in which I grew up, assures me they are sung often and much loved.

One of the ones that I remember most clearly was one called "Blessed Assurance":

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood,


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long;

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior, all the day long.
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture notw burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
 The music was credited to Phoebe P. Knapp and the lyrics to Fanny Crosby. Reading Fanny's biography, I found that the name I knew from the hymnbook was really quite a person. She wrote thousands of hymns, some of which are present in many Protestant hymnals (but not Hymnal 1982). Many of the most prominent composers of hymns of the day came to her with music already composed, asking her to fill in the lyrics. She would hear the music several times and, usually in very short order, would have a set of lyrics to go with it.

The hymns became important to camp meeting revivals and the Holiness movement as they were to the Sunday morning services. Fanny was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1975, 60 years after her death. I'd never really considered her music to be "gospel", but the evangelical expressions and tone were unmistakable.

The readings for today, Fanny's commemoration in the Episcopal Church, speak of many of the same things of which Fanny wrote so frequently: hope, faith, belief, praise, thanks, salvation and mercy. The readings also mention blindness and the release from blindness. Fanny may not have had a physical curing of her blindness but she truly seemed to walk in a higher light than the sun could provide. She walked unafraid in prisons and less-than-desirable neighborhoods, speaking and preaching the love and mercy of God. The glory wasn't for her but rather for God. Many were attracted to and acknowledged God as a result of her words.

Thou the Spring of all my comfort,
More than life to me,
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in Heav'n but Thee? **
 *  Lyrics by Fanny Crosby, accessed from the Cyberhymnal
** "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior", verse 4, lyrics by Fanny Crosby, accessed from The Cyberhymnal

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, February 10, 2012.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

February 8 -

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. - Romans 12:9-21

If there is one thing I can count on about the Bible, it is that it is so often counterintuitive. Old Testament, New Testament, it doesn't matter; what seems to be the natural bent of humanity is uprooted, turned on its head and told to grow. This is one of those passages and it sort of takes the starch out of me to contemplate it.

One of the most natural reactions in the world is to want to hurt someone who has hurt me. "Turn the other cheek" is a very difficult concept for me because often it makes me feel like I'm doing a Linda Blair imitation from The Exorcist.  If I turn the other cheek, as Jesus told it and Paul restated it, aren't I encouraging the other person to try it again at some point?  Is it presenting meekness as weakness? If I offer to feed someone who's being a royal pain, won't that give them the idea that I'm good for meals (figuratively, hopefully) and feel they may have found the free lunch counter?

It's hard to forgive, damnably hard. I don't really hate anybody, I don't think, but I do harbor resentments toward one or two people whom I wish I could confront and demand not just answers but apologies. It will never happen, but something inside me just doesn't want to let go of it. Perhaps the evil is in my own mind and letting go of it would mean a couple of foundational episodes in my life had no impact on my life at all -- but they did. Would I want to physically or emotionally hurt those who hurt me? I don't think so, but I certainly would like answers - answers I know I will never get, at least, not on this side of the veil.

Letting go is, I know, freeing to the spirit, the mind and the body. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it and, looking at the state of the world today, it's pretty obvious it ain't being done and perhaps will never be. That's what makes the message Jesus and Paul left for us so difficult. We don't have a lot of good examples except those like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa that Desmond Tutu wrote about and others have reported. It wasn't totally about being forgiven but rather being heard, looking into the eyes of someone who has done horrible things and telling them how those things affected you that is freeing. Maybe that is what I'm seeking with my own episodes, just wanting to be heard and being able to then let go.

Living in the desert as I do, I wouldn't refuse to give someone water because they hurt me in some way years ago. I might make them wait for dinner until I was good and ready to fix it, but I would probably eventually feed them. Maybe that's the wrong thing to say -- I should probably feed them right off the bat and then get on with the other business, but I'm not a saint, much as I'd like to be. Still, if I could go that far, why not just go the rest of the way and be done with it? 

Perhaps what J & P want me to do is fix a meal, sit down and have a talk with those who I still hold resentments towards, not to lash out in anger but to calmly, rationally and quietly tell my story and how I felt about their participation in it. After all, it's me that is being hurt again by not letting it go. But maybe if I verbalize to them, even in absentia, it will leave me free to lay that burden down and get on with things -- like all that stuff Paul put in the opening paragraph. I truly believe I can't really fulfill those obligations with a clear mind and heart. I can work at them, maybe even do some of them, but I think it needs to be a whole package.

It's something to work toward, anyway. You can't conquer Mt. Everest unless you go to Nepal.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I usually have my television on whenever I'm home. Sometimes there are things I really want to watch, other times it's just background noise (since the boys are not always in a conversant frame of mind once dinner is in their dishes).  I've learned a lot from TV, sometimes more than I really wanted to know. At any rate, I do depend on my television for information and entertainment -- and sometimes more than a little aggravation.

Aggravation, or a mild form of it, hit yesterday afternoon when the screen went dark and a message told me that the dish was looking for a satellite signal, which obviously it wasn't finding. This kept up for a couple of hours before I finally turned the thing off (after trying all the self-fixes their website said to try), turned on my iTunes and then called customer support for my dish company. They couldn't fix it remotely either, so I made an appointment for a service call on Monday. Monday?  Yes, by my choice. Since the Super Bowl wasn't on my list of "must see" I figured I could hold off my TV addiction until Monday afternoon to avoid a weekend emergency call fee tacked on to the possible repair. Luckily, it was my regular night to have a long conversation with Mouse so I really didn't miss the TV much at all.

This morning I awoke to a quiet house -- not much road noise from the major street about 50 yards from my front door, no thumping and bumping from people around me with supercharged turbo bass speakers and severely impaired hearing, no barking dogs or much of anything else. The quiet was lovely. I enjoy Friday mornings at work for about the first two and a half hours when I have the whole back end of the office to myself and I can just sit and work in silence, but I seldom have the luxury at home. This morning I did, and I did enjoy it. I did try once to see if the TV had returned to normal but since it hadn't, I went off to finish emptying out the closet I started to do yesterday and, by fits, starts and other little jobs done in conjunction with (or just by accident), I got it done. I sat down to the computer, still in silence since even the boys weren't feeling too conversational this morning, and, by habit, reached for the remote and hit "On." Would you believe the signal had returned and the TV was working as if it had never had a glitch or minor meltdown? 

Being a good EfM'er, I sat and thought about it for a bit, looking for what culture would say about my not having to have auditory distractions constantly (are you nuts?  Being alone with your brain? ICK!), what tradition would say (Jesus had to withdraw now and then to recharge his batteries, and he didn't have an iPod to play int he background while he did it), what my position was (it's really usually just a form of noise to block other noises, informative but not 100% a requirement for my life's enrichment), and what action would come from these musings (try it again sometime, it is really rather pleasant). It did have one other advantage today. An ambulance pulled up to a trailer in the next street, quietly since it was before dawn. Normally I'd dash off an arrow prayer to "Bless those who go and those to whom they go," but in the silence I could actually be a bit more intentional, a little slower in my prayer for those who were involved in whatever emergency there was.  I think it reminded me of the value of communities of contemplatives who spend their lives in (predominant) silence so that they can concentrate more on their prayers and their listening for God.

Even though I never have total silence around me (tinnitus is always ringing in my ears), I can plan to take more time away from my satellite dish and television and spend more time in silence. Who knows?  I might get some great revelation from the exercise -- or maybe just a little peace.  It's worth a shot.

February 4 - Musicals and Messages

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. -- Mark 6:7-13

Back when I was a lot younger, the rage was for Broadway musicals. They were usually pretty similar in general plot with just the details differing --- boy meets girl, couple start to become closer, something separates them, something else brings them back together, they all lived happily ever after. Stories like that were common then. A hit musical usually had a few songs that people would walk down the road or sidewalk humming, whistling or singing, and there were a few songs that everybody knew. To have a smash hit musical on Broadway, well, that made the composer/lyricist's names household words.

For every hit musical, though, there were probably 30, 40 or more that never made it through the first week, the opening performance or even consideration for production. Even big names in the musical field didn't hit home runs every time, so it was important to them to get back to the drawing board and piano and start working on something new. They had to shake off the rejection of their initial project and move on to something else.

Sounds a bit like what the disciples were instructed to do: if someone doesn't receive your message, shake the dust off your Birkenstocks and head on down the road to the next city, village, or hamlet. They were to do what might be considered "portable living" - taking absolutely the most basic kit, no extra or unnecessary items, even some perceived necessities (like money) were to be left behind. They had a job to do, but if people didn't want that message, then off they were to go, two by two, and try again somewhere different.

Even for the disciples of Jesus, success wasn't a guaranteed thing. There were people who didn't believe their message, didn't feel it was for them, or just plain weren't interested. But there were people who did listen, did welcome them and did come to believe. They honed their craft, they spoke from their hearts and their inspiration, and more and more people came to believe. Still, there was always the risk that they would need to walk away, so they stepped out in faith but tempered it with practicality and a dose of reality.

I think there's a point in every person's life where they have to walk away from something because it isn't productive, isn't safe or isn't fulfilling. Sometimes they have to leave everything behind and travel light. I don't think it's an easy decision most of the time. It's hard to walk away from a melody that haunts you but isn't really complete, a message that captures you but doesn't seem to have the same excitement and relevance for others, or a situation that may be familiar but which has a negative impact. It's scary to move to something new and unfamiliar, wondering whether this will be the right choice or the wrong one.

I think the disciples had to step out in faith, using the guidelines Jesus gave them, using their minds, senses and heart to judge whether or not this was a place that would be receptive of their message, and not being afraid to cut their losses and move on if it didn't work out. I don't think it would hurt for me to remember that as well. Sometimes one has to risk in order to gain.

Now where did I put my Birkenstocks? And do I have to leave my Kindle and iPod behind? Yes? oh, well. Some things are more important than musicals and best-sellers.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 4, 2012.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

January 31 - Daughters of Hagar

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.  -- Genesis 21:1-21 (NRSV)

A tale of two mothers, each fiercely devoted to their children, one the owner  and the other the slave, one old and barren and the other young and fertile. The younger slept with the owner's husband, as her owner wanted her to do, and a son was born of that union. The elder also slept with her husband also bore a son of their union. Suddenly, instead of no heir for the husband, now there were two, which was one too many, at least for the elder. She had the younger woman and her child sent out to the desert to live or die, it didn't really matter which, so long as the woman and her son were not in her camp and claiming the normal inheritance rights of the first-born. So out they went and, at the point of death, were saved by God. The two women never met again, although the two boys met as adults.

It sounds almost like a soap opera with twists and turns and improbabilities by the score. Of course, improbabilities in the Bible were pretty much the norm, so it's hard to be surprised at anything that happens. What could be more improbable than a 90-year-old woman getting pregnant and not only surviving the pregnancy and birth but having a live child. Sarah certainly beat the odds on that score. Still, now there was a problem of making sure her son, Isaac, would be Abraham's heir, not just a second son, probably dependent on the generosity of his older half brother, Ishmael. Even though it was the second time Hagar found herself in the desert (the first being when she ran away from the camp before Ishmael was born), it didn't make it any easier. This time she had another person, not just a promise, to give her concern.

I wonder how many Hagars there are in the world today, women cast off and left to sink or swim on their own and with their children to be cared for, fed, clothed, housed and educated? There are literally millions of women, single, divorced, or widowed, who are responsible for caring for themselves and their children only on the salaries they make at whatever job they can find and hold. In these times, jobs are scarce and even women with higher education often have trouble finding something that pays more than minimum wage. Programs that supported many of these women -- school lunch programs for their kids and access to reasonable cost day care or medical care -- are being stripped away in the name of "balancing the budget" of the country. Should the woman not be able to earn a living, she is forced onto welfare and labeled as lazy, unwilling to work, a government sponge, and taking benefits to which she is not entitled (in the minds of many). Meanwhile, those who have jobs,  have good incomes and a lot of power to toss around, slash government programs that would benefit these daughters of Hagar and their children while enjoying all the benefits themselves.

I don't know what Hagar really did after God showed her the well that day in the desert. Did she have to become a servant to someone in a tribe nearby?  Did she go to Egypt in a caravan or find a husband somewhere who would accept a woman not only not a virgin but with a child in tow?  I can only hope that her life was at least halfway comfortable and pleasant, although I can imagine that it might not have been.
The question remains, though, who are the daughters of Hagar in our world? Perhaps they are not daughters by blood but certainly daughters by circumstance. Hagar is a single mother finding herself struggling to survive and provide for her kids, however the situation came about. What are our responsibilities to them as human beings and as Christians? Are we keeping them within the camp, supporting them and their children, or are we casting them out to fend for themselves? Some of the fault may lie with the women themselves and some of it may have been circumstance, but what about the children? What is our responsibility for them?  What do we risk by ignoring or isolating them? What is a generation worth?

I have to remember my days as a Hagar in the desert with a child to support. I had help, and without it things would not have worked out well at all. What then do I owe to today's Hagars and Ishmaels? Will it be to be just a memory or will it be a suggestion (or even spur) to action?  What can I do?

It's easy for me to see the story of the good Samaritan in this, only this time we see it from a woman's perspective and seeing the back story rather than the result. Looking at it that way, I can put myself in that story because I've been there. 

I got help from strangers, as I hope and believe Hagar did. Now what do I need to do to pass it on to a younger generation?  What do any of us need to do?  And what can we do, individually and collectively?

I think the world might be a better place if we did something instead of dismantling the already threadbare safety net. I think God would heartily endorse the effort to strengthen and support it. That in itself should be encouragement enough.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Tuesday, January 31, 2012.

Mothers and Daughters

A few months ago I finished an editing job on a book written by an extraordinary lady who wanted to leave her life story for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jean had so many successes in her life, not least of which was as a teacher and as a parent. She hasn't finished those successes yet, even at well into her 80s and living with multiple sclerosis for the past three decades or so. I think she still has things to do and by gosh, she's going to do them as fast, and as well, as she possibly can.

She is a lot like the lady for whom I did a similar book a couple of years ago. She too was remarkable for her accomplishments and her indominable spirit. She had been writing her book in her head for almost five years when she and I got together to get it written, edited and into the hands of her children and grandchildren. She too had things to do and was doing them as fast and as well as she possibly could. Ginger died a few months shy of her latest big event, her own 90th birthday extravaganza, but until the last few days of her life, her mind was on that goal, planning it down to the last detail. That party went on and every minute was a tribute to her and her extraordinary life.

It occurred to me that both Jean and Ginger have/had daughters who were extraordinary themselves -- successful in their professional lives, raising (or having raised) remarkable children, and who were members of large and close extended families. Both daughters are intelligent, confident, capable and dedicated, gifts both of good genes and good parenting. They are really interesting to watch and even more interesting with to be involved with them during the production of their mothers' books.

Yesterday I had an insight:  every mother should have a daughter (or child) who thinks she is almost a superhero (if not totally convinced she is), and every daughter (or child) should have a mother who continually inspires her.

It isn't just about Jean and Ann, Ginger and Ellen, it's about a lot of mothers and daughters that I know. Oh, I am sure that each had or has gripes about the other from time to time; I don't think it's possible to have a real relationship without a little friction.  Still, I think that when push comes to shove, each will be there for the other, for as long as they live. Even when the mother is gone, there's always the memory and example to enable the daughter to go on with head held high, proud to be able to say that they had a great mother and friend.