Sunday, June 24, 2012

I Spy

Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the Israelites an unfavourable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.’

Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, ‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’ But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.’

But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, “It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.” And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

 “The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.”

Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.’

Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’ -- Numbers 13:31-14:25 (NRSV)

Moses sent out twelve spies to see what this "Promised Land" was really like. It was a natural thing, at least I think we'd see it that way. Any time I move, I want to find out as much as I can about where I'm going, what the weather's like, how  the neighborhoods are, etc. When there are a whole bunch of people moving in all at once, it is a pretty safe bet that the locals aren't going to be happy about it, so the more that is known beforehand about them and their land, the better.

Sometimes it's hard to get the straight story. Two people witness an accident and there will be two (probably somewhat different) accounts of what happened. Two political candidates will speak to a single issue and it, and the solution to it, will undoubtedly seem like two entirely different things, even if the two candidates represent the same party with, allegedly, the same goals. So it was with the Israelites.  Out of twelve spies who set out to scope out the new territory God promised them, ten came back with one story while two gave a very different one. Somehow when I read passages like this, it is hard not to think that things haven't really changed all that much between us and Moses' band of wandering exiles.

Everybody has an idea of a land of milk and honey, where everything is good and to their liking. I sometimes think the second item there is the most important, because I don't always see where "good" and "to their liking" are totally compatible, especially since human beings tend to be a cantankerous bunch, each with their own idea of what is good and to their liking and it seldom agrees totally with that of their next-door neighbor, the person on the other side of town or even in another part of the state much less the country or the world. When you have ten people telling you it's awful, the people are huge and mean, the land isn't very good and oh, why did we come all this way for this, while two others are telling you it's great, the grapes are THIIIIIIIIS big, the pasture is terrific and it all looks like paradise, who are you supposed to believe?  When you have ten people telling you that this group is out to "convert" you and your children to a degenerate way of life because they demand equal rights and opportunities while two tell you they are just like you, except that they happen to be a gay or lesbian couple, who are you to believe? When ten people tell you that bleeding-heart programs just foster more welfare-dependent and lazy people and two tell you that most folks aren't looking for a handout but rather a hand up, who are you supposed to believe?

Moses put the people's questions to God, strategically reminding God that if God allowed the Israelites to be wiped out, all the neighbors and their rulers would say that God didn't live up to the billing and couldn't deliver on promises made. How would that be for recruitment of a new people?  So, despite the temerity and doubt of the people, Moses got God to find an alternative plan, one that would, unfortunately, keep them wandering in the desert for forty years but which would, eventually, lead their sons and daughters to the Promised Land as promised.  It's easy to look back at this story and see that indeed, the two spies were right and the ten were so wrong, God had an alternative plan in the pipeline and things would work out as promised. What happens now with our media, our  elected officials, our nay-sayers and "But God's Word clearly states...." folks, it's a little harder to see. Clearly their vision is a lot like the ten spies, full of fear and temerity and, sometimes, reporting what they feel or want us to feel, not what actually is.

Sometimes it's better to listen to two than to ten, and sometimes it is necessary to go talk to God about it and see what the plan is. It's usually better to step out in faith than to grovel in fear, no matter how hard that step is. Sometimes returning to the past seems the safest move, even if the past has a lot of negative stuff attached to it. Even if it is negative, at least it's familiar and familiarity counts when I try to balance it with something new and untried, something that might turn out great but which also has the possibility of being as bad as, if not worse, than the I tried to escape.

Lack of trust, faith and courage kept the older generation of Israelites who had known bondage wandering around in the desert, seemingly going in circles when a straight line would have quickly taken them to the Promised Land. With the death of the last of their generation, a new generation, their sons and daughters, could move past the fear and into the inheritance that was promised so many decades ago.

What's keeping me from my own inheritance?  Do I hang on to a past that is at least familiar, or do I set off not knowing what's beyond the next rise or around the next corner?  One thing's for sure -- I won't be sending out any spies to investigate the territory and report back. I've got to do it on faith alone, and by myself. Well, by myself -- with God's help.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 23, 2012, under the title "What Will We Find in the Promised Land?"

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bumper Stickers

Driving down the road these days, I spot occasional bumper stickers which, of course, I need to get close enough to read. There are the usual political bumper stickers supporting various candidates and or tickets, some making humorous statements ( a personal favorite is "I support the right to arm bears"), some sporting the names and logos of churches and a pithy little saying like "No Jesus, no peace, Know Jesus, know peace", and some straddle the line between political and religious statements of belief. It's always interesting although sometimes it is tempting to judge the intelligence of the driver by how much I agree with their posted statements on the back bumper of their vehicle. My truck, however, gives them only one expression of my belief and that is an Episcopal Church shield on the back window. I'm rather proud of it and this is the second vehicle upon which it has been placed. I haven't gotten egged yet because of it, nor do I think the sticker has caused upraised fingers or derisive comments. It's my way of saying "This is important to me and I hope it makes you curious enough to investigate it."

I've seen a lot of bumper stickers advocating the pro-life position, insofar as the unborn are concerned. That's fine with me; folks should have a right to express their beliefs, even if it is on the back end of their cars or trucks. I do wonder, though, if they also support the ones who have transitioned from womb to world, or does the support only cover those in weeks 1-20 of their prenatal lives?

One thing I wish I'd see, though, is the bumper sticker supporting the Roman Catholic sisters who put their faith where their mouths are and are actually out working with the poor, the homeless, the abandoned, the sick, the undocumented and umpteen other un-(fill in the blank) things. What's got my knickers in a twist is the pronouncement from the Vatican that some of the sisters are spending too much time preaching and doing the social gospel when they should be speaking out against abortion and homosexual marriage. I don't think it's just me, but doesn't that sound just the slightest bit strange?  A church claiming to be universal (Roman Catholic) and the true way to God, ignoring all the things Jesus taught and demanding public stances on things about which Jesus didn't say a word? And this "investigation" and declaration against some sisters who do follow Jesus's words and teachings who are now being threatened by a bunch of men in lace cottas and bright red dresses who have generally tried to sweep the pedophilia (and hebephilia) of some of their brother priests under the rug and pretend it really didn't happen? Is it me or does that seem just the slightest bit inconsistent and, truth be told, unChristian?

Ok, so what is it to me as an Episcopalian? Well, I did try to be a Roman Catholic for several years a long time ago. I tried hard, but in the end I couldn't do it. There were just too many things I thought I could live with but which I found I couldn't and still be honest about my faith. I think God had a hand in that because when I walked back into the Episcopal Church after my walkabout it felt like coming home. I could almost hear God saying, "Ok, SIT! STAY!" I did, even thought there were times I didn't darken a church door.  This was also long before I ever really knew the word "feminist" much less thought about being one myself. I knew I wasn't going to burn my bras and I didn't hate men so what did feminism have to do with me? Over the years I've learned that I am one, if for no other reason than I believe women have the God-given ability to be more than second-class citizens, accountable to any male who has any bit of authority over them, and who are not allowed to fulfill some roles because "The Bible clearly says that the man is the head of the woman."  Thanks, I have my own head, and even if it forgets things now and again, it still functions fairly well. So do most of the women I know. They're really a pretty amazing bunch.

I didn't realize how powerful it could be to have a woman at the altar, not just setting up the chalice, candlesticks, book stands and all but actually elevating the host and blessing the water and wine. I didn't realize how affirming it could be to hear women read or preach in church instead of sitting meekly in the pews listening to men do those things. I didn't realize how strong women were in their faith until I read of the murder of the nuns of El Salvador or the work of Mother Teresa and her sisters serving in the slums of India and other countries. I never thought of the power and clarity of women theologians like Sr. Joan Chittister OSB or Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson CSJ until I read their works and then the criticisms of those works by male clerics in the church hierarchy who disagreed with their conclusions and sought to muzzle them for their words and beliefs. They have all had a powerful effect on me as an Episcopalian, a woman  and as a moderate feminist. I still don't want to burn my bra or hate men, but I sure can have a very strong dislike for men who feel they are entitled to the power to keep other women from being and doing all that they are able and are called by God to do, not to mention use their brains for more than remembering how to make baby formula or reciting a rosary. Even contemplative nuns have my respect. It takes a lot of gumption to spend a life cloistered and in prayer, faithful to the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Being obedient, however, shouldn't mean there is no room for thinking, reasoning and even arguing if they believe something is wrong.

So, hopefully in the next few days, there will be a bumper sticker somewhere on my truck's chassis or window that proclaims that I support the nuns. I support them in their vocation and support them in their desire to follow the teachings of Jesus, the same Jesus who spent a lot of time with women, taught them, healed them, laughed with them and could even be persuaded by them. I'd make a lousy nun, but I certainly admire those who answer that call and live that life fully and faithfully. And by faithfully I mean faithful to God, even if it goes across guys in red dresses and yards of lace.

Oh, and if I get honks, snide comments or even an elevated digit, so what? Who knows? Maybe I'll get a smile, a wave or even a thumbs-up. Call it ministry by bumper sticker.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fathers, fathers and Father

Over the course of my life, I've had the benefit of a lot of fathers. I had the father who gave me life, the father who gave me shelter and family, the surrogate fathers who fostered and nurtured me in various ways, and the Father who was both boss, friend and mentor. Now if that isn't a bounty of fathers, I don't know what is.

The father who gave me life also had one of the hardest decisions in the world to make concerning me. Being a single father and in the military, should he keep me with him and raise me as best he was able, or should he send me to people he knew would care for me better than he could and yet still allow him to be part of my life. He chose what was best for me under the circumstances, and I'm grateful for that. He was part of my life and also the life of my son  until the day of his death in 1998. I thank him for being a gentle presence and for the sacrifice he made for me.

The father who gave me shelter and family also had to raise me as a single parent for years. It was hard for him; he was older than most fathers and to have a rebellious teenaged daughter surely was a trial for him. Still, he did his best, even though he had to sacrifice to feed, clothe and educate me, and I was hedonistic enough to feel it was probably my due. Still, he was "Daddy", and remained loving and patient with me until his death nearly 25 years ago. I thank him for watching over me, teaching me, and supporting me in decisions he might not have agreed with but which he still allowed me to make on my own.

I had surrogate fathers -- folks like Frank, Tom and the man I called "Papa." For a time and at various times, each of them welcomed me into their families, treated me as another child of theirs, fed me, entertained me and taught me about life in families that were what seemed more "normal" than mine was much of the time. I should include my brother as well, my "big" brother, who teased me, roughhoused with me and became a rock for me when various things in my life fell apart. I thank them all for loving me and caring for me in their various ways.

And then there was the Father -- although I never called him that. I only worked for him for a year, but it was the richest year I ever spent as an employee. He consistently drove me to a dictionary at least once a week, and I already had a fairly decent vocabulary. He preached in such a way and with such a turn of phrase that not only did I remember the sermon when I hit the front door on the way out, but I often had things to think about throughout the whole of the next week. He was the kind of priest and person who could make me think without making me think I was stupid because I had to look up a word he'd used or had to ask what something meant. That was a rare and wonderful gift, but so was his friendship, along with that of his wife and his much-adored cat, Emerson. I was honored when he trusted me to try new things and to stretch my wings on projects outside my job description. I thank him for so many things, most of all for encouraging me to try unfamiliar things, for giving me validation and approval, and for being a good friend -- all of which he still is and does.

All of my fathers had one thing in common and that was whether or not they were church-going folk or not, their walk and their talk were the same. There was no artifice, no "say one thing and do something else" with any of them. What you saw was what you got, and on the whole, I got the benefit of all of them. And even though there is only one candle still lit among all those which have gone out over the years, I remember and I am thankful for each life that the candles represent. The memory of their bright flames sustains me and comforts me.

Every girl should be as lucky as I have been with my fathers. Really and truly.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café June 16-18, 2012.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Blind Eyes and Deaf Ears

(Commemoration of [George Berkeley &]Joseph Butler)

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ -- Isaiah 6:6-10

Isaiah was an advisor to King Ahaz, a real rapscallion who was determined to undermine all the religious tradition, worship and laws his grandfather, Uzziah, had followed so devotedly. If there was a commandment, Ahaz seemed bound and determined to break it. That must have kept him quite busy for a while, so it was a good thing to have a wise advisor like Isaiah to help keep an eye on things, even if his advice wasn't particularly welcome or even worthy of having attention paid to it.

The passage today is a two-parter, the first one dealing with Isaiah's call to be a voice of prophecy with God's stamp of approval on him. Isaiah was a righteous man, capable of seeing all the wrongs that were being done and being able to draw a straight line between those wrongs and the eventual result of them. Still, God could call and Isaiah would have had the opportunity to practice free will to say "No, thank you." Had that been the case, we possibly would have had the words of some other prophet in the Bible instead of Isaiah, which would have been a loss for all of us. Luckily for us, though, Isaiah was willing to undergo a trial, a burning coals on his lips, in order to be purified and perhaps even to make him take time to think about his words before he spoke them to make sure they were 100% truthful and 100% God-inspired. He passed that test, even to the point of answering God's question of "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" with the same response heard over and over in the Old Testament, "Here am I."

The second part was God's message for Isaiah to note and to pass along. It's funny, but it feels like that message was written for this time as well as for Isaiah's. Newscasts, magazines and newspapers, conversations among people, all seem to reflect the same things spoken of in the message from God. It's impossible not to read the passage and not remember the Holocaust, surely a case where eyes were blinded, ears were stopped, and minds were carefully and skillfully diverted from the atrocities that were happening right under their noses. Germany was not the only one guilty: genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Argentina, Bosnia, and Darfur, and the list keeps growing because they still keep happening. Evidently we haven't learned enough yet to see much less eliminate genocide. Newscasts, newspapers and magazines may fit them into soundbytes, but it feels like we're more interested in which celebrity or which legislator got caught doing what with whom. We seem to want diversion, not challenge.

One other thing I've noticed and that is that people are willing to be led. I look at the current economic problems and what I see are elected officials and others saying, in effect, "Vote for me and I'll take care of you" or "Trust me, I am looking out for your best interest", especially if it means the status quo remains the same or grows while the widows and orphans of whom Jesus spoke and the prophets prophesied are increasingly marginalized and the hope of the poor is taken away. Like the scribes and Pharisees, the whited sepulchers conceal corruption and decay while the exterior looks pristine. By focusing our attention on issues like gay rights and abortion which are important issues, yes, but not the only issues on the table, we have been distracted from the real problem of the economy, the increasing marginalization of the working-class poor and the uncertain employment picture. We're busy reading about Khardassian kapers while the family down the block reaches the point where they quietly close the front door and walk away from a house they bought in good faith just a few years ago but which they can no longer afford to pay for or even live in. We are busy hearing about the latest scandal on Capitol Hill while starvation runs rampant, gang rape is widespread and children are forced to become terrorists elsewhere in the world. What is wrong with this picture? What would Isaiah say to us and about it?

The main question in my mind is how would I answer the question put to Isaiah, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" I wonder if I would have his courage and his determination in the face of knowing that what he says would fall primarily on deaf ears? Could I, would I answer "Here I am, send me"? Even if I were not a recognized prophet or felt an overwhelming call from God to do this, could I still make some effort to be mindful of the things happening around me and speak out about them, hoping that even one person would see the message and answer in turn, "Here I am"?

Prophets tend to meet nasty ends, or at least periods of real trial. Today we have prophets, but our concern is more with profits. What can I do to help change that? How can I unstop my ears and eyes, open my mind and allow truth and rightness to be the guideposts?

I hope I don't open the door one morning and find a seraph on the front step with a hot coal in a pair of tongs...

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 16, 2012.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Lesson from Quoheleth

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed important to me. There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one bungler destroys much good. -- Ecclesiastes 9:11-18 (NRSV)

Of all the books of the Bible in their various categories by type, Ecclesiastes is probably the one I learned the least about in Bible studies - except possibly Song of Solomon which was a bit too, well, indelicate for young dears despite its canonical acceptance, Ecclesiastes' fellow poetry/wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs (which I learned as "Song of Solomon") are a varied group, and it seems difficult to put them together in one group unless it was labeled "miscellaneous that won't really fit anywhere else." Psalms is familiar because the various songs are read so often, even the whiny, angry, God-punish-those-nasty-people-over-there-who-are-after-me-and-I'm-not-being-paranoid ones. Proverbs are sayings, often in the form of contrasting phrases that illustrate wise doings vs foolish ones. Job is familiar because of its story of bad things happening to a good person for no other reason than God giving the Adversary permission to test the strength of Job's faith in God. Song of Songs is definitely erotic, celebrating the love of two people but usually interpreted as an allegory of the love between Jesus and the church. Ecclesiastes, though, a series of wisdom sayings that have an edge to them - a bit of cynicism, perhaps - that, like Proverbs, contrast a life of wise choices vs a life of foolish ones, but with an underlying feeling that people are usually going to choose the foolish ones, no matter how sagacious the advice.

Reading the opening verses, it feels a bit obvious that life is definitely not fair. I think of a child who is denied something s/he wants and can't understand why. "That's not fair!" Things don't always happen the way we think they should, like wise people never being in want and the best athletes always being victorious. The British colonies in America in the 1700s took on the mother country, and despite being up against a better-trained, armed and organized force, used trees, hunting guns, and sheer determination to win the independence they so earnestly sought. I think it was a surprise to George III, and perhaps even to George Washington, but it just illustrated the point that Ecclesiastes' writer, known as Quoheleth, was making.

Looking at today, I see wise people speaking words that seem to be swept aside because what they are saying doesn't match what people want to hear. The prophetic voices that call for Biblical ethics Jesus himself taught are shouted down and booed when they call for care for the poor, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, medical care for the injured and the like. No, the interest seems to be in maintaining benefits for the rich and denying them to those who need them but can't afford it without help. People do make bad choices, but there are a lot of Job-like people in this world who have tried to do the right thing, live within their means, provide for their families and help others but who find themselves one paycheck or less away from homelessness. Quoheleth seems to have been able to see that and not had a lot of faith that things would come out right for them.

What would Quoheleth say if he saw educational programs that produce well-rounded and well-educated people are cut while multimillion-dollar corporations find loophole after loophole in the tax laws that enables them to pay far less than a fair share to support those educational programs? I've been watching America's place in world rankings in educational performance by students drop year after year. What happened to wanting to be the best? We say we want our kids to have the best education, but then why do we vote to cut classes, programs and opportunities to teach our children not to just regurgitate facts but to actually think and reason out answers? I know there are corporations that have refused to consider some places in our country as opportunities for expansion because the potential work-force isn't well-educated enough. Wisdom seems to be a luxury we can't afford.

What I gain from Quoheleth in this passage is that even though people may follow a wise person for a time, when it is expedient, they usually wander away to a flashier, more glib-tongued one who promises that they and only they only can make things better. I think that's why I (and others) have such a hard time reading the Prophets; they don't promise sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. They weren't foretelling the future like a crystal ball gazer or reader of cards or sticks, they were looking about them, seeing what was happening and commenting on the potential consequences of such a course. Quoheleth simply took a pithier way of pointing out that same kind of thing. Despite the brevity, I fear that the wisdom in this passage is doomed to be often overlooked or pooh-poohed away in favor of a silver tongue or a hundred of them promising quick fixes without either understanding the depth of the problem or the actual "Christian" values they claim to represent. It's a lot easier for them to try to legislate morality than it is to balance a budget in a way that is fair and equitable. It's easier to court the rich than serve the poor.

I have a feeling I need to delve more deeply into the wisdom of Quoheleth. Perhaps in his words I can see my own cynicism and perhaps find a better way to see and react to the world around me. I wouldn't mind being a wise person for a change.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, June 13, 2012.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

June 9 - Holy Man, Holy Place

Commemoration of Columba, Abbot and Missionary


Psalm 97:1-2,7-12
Isaiah 61:1-3
1 Corinthians 3:11-23
Luke 10:17-20

These, O my children, are the last words I address to you - that you be at peace, and have unfeigned charity amongst yourselves, and if you follow the example of the Holy Fathers, God the Comforter of the good will be your helper, and I abiding with him will intercede for you, and he will not only give sufficient to supply the wants of the present life, but will also bestow on you the good and external rewards which are laid up for those who keep his commandments. -- last words attributed to St. Columba.

Ask just about anybody to name an Irish saint, you'd probably get close to 100% naming St. Patrick. There would be many who would also name St. Brigid, but only some would think of St. Columba. Oddly enough, Patrick was born in Britain, not Ireland, but he spent his missionary life in Ireland had has become their patron saint. Brigid was Irish and stayed there and is nearly as beloved as Patrick, but Columba was born in Ireland and, after working there and establishing two monasteries, ended up in Scotland where he converted the Picts and Scots, and founded one of the most famous monasteries of the period, Iona. Iona is still a great pilgrimage site, revered as one of the world's "thin places" where heaven and earth are felt to be separated only by a thin veil rather than a concealing one, and where the nickname "Holy Isle" seems to be a common description as much as an identifying title.

His last words seem to be a summation of good advice not just for his monks but for those who read them centuries later. Instructions to live in peace and charity, follow the example of holy people, trust in God to guide and believe that their beloved Columba himself would intercede with God on their behalf was not only a statement of utter faith but a concern for their future well being, a condensation of the gospel message and an instruction in living a holy life. It's the kind of thing that strikes me as very sagacious advice even in these modern and much less monastic-minded times.

There must have been something about Columba that strangers and friends alike would recognize as a touch of the holy about him. I once met a man, a Russian Orthodox priest, who struck me as such. He spoke no English and I no Russian, yet I, blind to auras and that sort of thing, was almost dazzled by the sense of God in this man. It was as if I could see the hand of God resting on his head at every moment. Perhaps for the Irish, the Scots and the Picts, Columba had that same sort of impact.

There must be something, too, about the Holy Isle of Iona that people can sense a more immediate and tangible presence of God. Perhaps it was the prayers of Columba and his monks, followed by those of all the pilgrims who have visited since that time. Perhaps it is the remembrance of the creativity and dedication that produced such as sacred treasure as the Book of Kells. And maybe, just maybe, it's because God has a more-than-usual fondness for the place.

Columba's challenges to his monks probably weren't easy to follow, but then, the monks were more accustomed to attuning themselves to many of them than we are today in the material world. Still, there is a roadmap there for us to follow: live in peace and charity, follow the examples of the holy who lived among us, trust God to be a comforter and helper, and follow the commandments.

It probably wouldn't hurt either to remember that Columba promised to be an intercessor, a sort of ecclesiastical and celestial amicus curiae before God on our behalf. One can never have too many of those.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul on  Episcopal Café Saturday, June 9, 2012.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Duty Personified

I was almost late for work yesterday. I'm not usually in a great hurry to get to the office, but I am fairly regular in the time I leave the house and arrive at my destination about 4 miles away. Yesterday, though, I admit I dawdled -- deliberately. What captivated me was the last episode in the four-day span of the Queen's Jubilee celebration, celebrating Elizabeth II's sixty years on the British throne. For an avowed anglophile, The BBC America was a very close companion for large chunks of the four days of celebration.

My first memory of the monarch was the National Geographic edition of September 1953, an edition which featured photos of the coronation that had taken place that June and showed the crown jewels. I was all of seven years old and I was hooked. Over the years I have devoured biographies and documentaries featuring the royals, especially the Queen, and watched her children grow up in magazines, newsreels and picture books. Over the years, my interest in the royals has grown to include much that is Britain -- history, scenery, even church. I didn't become Episcopalian until I was 19, but I think the seeds were sown somewhere around May 1953 in Westminster Abbey.

Through the years I have been a quasi royals-watcher. There was no access to the internet through most of those years, and the only bits I could pick up were what appeared in the media available, namely television reports, popular books, newspaper and magazine articles. At first it was a chance to peer into the lives of the rich and privileged, then it grew into seeing their work and changes in their lives. Through it all, there was an often-serious figure of a lady, dressed and hatted in a manner Mama would have recognized as the way a proper lady would dress for occasions such as going to church or making a visit that was a more than running next door to borrow a cup of sugar. And then there was the smile that seemed to burst forth like sunshine after a shower and light up the whole place.

This past weekend I watched again as the lady I had watched for years celebrated sixty years on the throne. I marvelled that she and her husband of so many years, Prince Philip, could stand for over three hours in cold, damp weather on a barge in the Thames, watching hundreds and hundreds of boats of various sizes and uses went past, blowing their horns and being cheered by the crowds. And both of them seemed as if they were enjoying it tremendously. The grin on Prince Philip's face was priceless, and, I am sure, as engaging and enjoyable to HM as it was to anyone seeing him in an element so close to the life work he had given up so many years ago to be consort and chief supporter of the Queen. I missed the Service of Thanksgiving from St. Paul's, unfortunately, as I would have loved to have seen it, but I did get to see some of the later events. After four rather grueling days, and despite the illness and absence of her life partner by her side, HM looked fresh and game for all the activities of the day. Her smiles from the balcony as she waved to the crowds gathered outside the gates of the palace and extending down the Mall, the cheers of the guards, the flyover of the planes, were wide, genuine and absolutely stunning. She was enjoying herself, and we got to enjoy it with her.

One thing I have always admired about the Queen was her sense of duty, as hard as it has undoubtedly been much of the time. I think she would have been happy as a Navy wife, albeit probably one with a few more prerogatives than most Navy wives have, or perhaps as a breeder of fine thoroughbreds and championship dogs. Maybe she would have been happier as Mrs. Mountbatten, getting hubby off to work and the children off to school, but then, maybe not. She was brought up in a household where love was present but so was duty. You don't feel like going to this or that event, this or that reception, this or that orphanage, train-station opening, plaque unveiling?  Tough. It's your job, do it whether you want to or not; it is your duty. Feet hurt, back sore, didn't sleep well last night? Suck it up, and smile for the people whose feet also hurt, backs were sore and who didn't sleep well 9if at all) last night because they have been standing and waiting for hours for a glimpse of you, much less a smile, a wave, or an acknowledgement that they were there. HM has done that, many more times than perhaps even she would want to count, but she did them, probably because it was expected of her, but perhaps because she found pleasure in giving happiness to others just by being close enough to her for each of them to be able to say forever after, "I was there the afternoon the Queen came to...." 

Duty has become a dirty word. Dogs "do their duty" on the lawn and it's our "duty" to clean it up. Duty is another word for being on the job, ready and able to do whatever is asked. Looking at the working world in which I live, duty is what propels me out the door to a place I don't always want to be, doing things I don't really enjoy but doing it anyway because it is expected of me (and it provides a paycheck). I look at the working world so different from the one in which I served my early working life, places where you were expected to be at your desk or station at specified times, doing specified tasks and not reading a novel, writing letters or notes to your mother, best friend or partner, taking or making personal calls, or just staring into space. If there was no immediate task to do, you were to find one, and find it fast. Look busy, even if you had to fudge just a tiny bit to make it appear that you actually were busy. We felt fortunate to have jobs, not that we were entitled to them. I imagine HM has the same ethic -- she has a job, a very circumscribed job, and even when she is off public duty, she is still busy and not just sitting around eating bonbons, watching television or polishing her nails. She may be Queen, but her schedules and daily routines are usually set by others who manage her events, appointments and life in general. Still, she represents an ethic that seems to be missing in a lot of areas and among a lot of workers today. She shows up, does her job conscientiously and thoroughly, enjoys it as much as she can while ensuring that others enjoy it even more than perhaps she does, and then goes on to the next thing. Even at 86, that sense of duty reflects the statement made when she was a young woman of 21, "I declare before you all that my whole life be it long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong." She hasn't always had the total support of her people, grumbling about her allowances, the palaces and lifestyle, the state of her family's marital woes and indiscretions,  over the years she has carried on, done her duty to the best of her ability and earned the support for which she asked in that same statement, not only in her own country but around the world. This weekend, in England and around the world, the people have shown their appreciation of that sense of duty.

I'm more an anglophile than I ever was. I don't cry easily but my eyes do get misty when I hear "Land of Hope and Glory" or "Jerusalem,"  and most of all when I hear a tune familiar to me as a patriotic song about the country but which, in the rest of the world, is pretty recognizable as a national anthem that prays God's blessing on a singular, dedicated, dutiful lady upon whose shoulders, constitutional monarchy or no, rests a lot of weight. Her head is unbowed, her back unbent, her bearing regal yet somehow and at the same time resembling a much-loved grandmother. We see her public persona, only guess at her private one, but we recognize her particular and very special gifts, her deep and evident faith, and the humanity she shares with every one of us, high-born or low. I also wonder what she thinks and feels every time she hears that national anthem. God's reaction to her is, I have absolutely no doubt, summed up in Jesus' words from Matthew, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

It is her sense of duty, however, that inspires me to get on with things I might not want to do but must do anyway. I just wish I could do it one tenth as gracefully, in every sense of that word, as she does.  Looking to her example gives me the impetus to try, anyway. For that, I thank her most sincerely.

God save the Queen! Amen!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

June 2 - A Lesson from Proverbs

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
and a soft tongue can break bones.

If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
or else, having too much, you will vomit it.

Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,
otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.

Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow
is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.

Like a bad tooth or a lame foot
is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.

Like vinegar on a wound
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,

sorrow gnaws at the human heart

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;

for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the Lord will reward you.

The north wind produces rain,
and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.

It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
than in a house shared with a contentious wife.

Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
so is good news from a far country.

Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
are the righteous who give way before the wicked.

It is not good to eat much honey,
or to seek honour on top of honour.

Like a city breached, without walls,
is one who lacks self-control.  --  Proverbs 25:15-28

When I was a kid, I'd occasionally cross my eyes for fun only to hear Mama tell me I'd better stop that or they'd stay crossed. Same thing if I would pout about not getting my way on something. "You'd better stop pouting or your face will freeze like that!" I know Mama didn't believe those things would really happen to me, but she sort of convinced me of it -- which was probably the point of the whole exercise.

It's funny how much of our life is shaped by proverbs. Ben Franklin was famous for proverbs such as "A penny saved is a penny earned,"  "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and, "God helps those who help themselves." Actually, a lot of people think that last one comes directly from Holy Writ and are somewhat surprised to find out it really wasn't.  Still, it's wisdom that is short and memorable -- and with a purpose. 

The book of Proverbs offers us some choice pieces of wisdom, including this selection from the Daily Office reading for today. The one that seems most familiar, probably because it was often quoted in the church of my childhood, was the paraphrase "Do good to those who treat you badly and it will pour coals of fire on their heads." I never really considered why coals of fire on the head but it sounded rather painful, a fitting punishment.  I know it made me feel lousy when I was mean to someone and they turned around and did something nice for me. It was a lesson I needed and still need to learn.

I found "It is not good to eat much honey, or to seek honour on top of honour" to be one that carried a lot of sense in it. Too much of anything -- honey, money, fame, food, possessions, power -- is seldom a good thing because it encourages accumulation of yet more and more while often producing negative or dangerous results. I was taught that bragging about accomplishments was a negative thing because it led me to think better of myself than I should. It was okay to receive compliments but I shouldn't put too much store by them because it would give me a swelled head. Hmmm. I wonder if any of the Hollywood stars or televangelists or politicians had parents who told them that?

One that strikes me this particular day, though, is "Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked."  It reminds me of the saying attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" or a variation of that.  We can look back at history and see countless times when "good men" (and women, who don't get a pass to skip this) did nothing while tremendous evil took place all around them. Famine, wars, slavery of all sorts, atrocities, pogroms, and even just plain old selfishness and greed have created untold havoc in the lives of those unfortunate enough to be in the path of destruction of body, mind and spirit. It's pretty universal, and I can't think of too many groups who haven't succumbed to the wiles of promised power and wealth even if it meant some of their own people -- or the people in the next village, city, or country -- paid a very high price. It is still painful to think of the Holocaust and think, "Why didn't someone, anyone, do anything to stop it? Why didn't we?"  Perhaps the words of Proverbs should have been spoken more prophetically from the pulpits, street corners, courthouse steps and legislative podiums, I don't know. All I can know is that it happened then and, in different places and circumstances, it is still happening.

I now have to ask myself, "Where should my voice be?  What prophetic word can I, should I say to make a difference in the lives of people I may or may not know?  Where do I see wrong and do nothing to try to correct it?  It's more than having my face freeze in a pout or being a bit too proud of myself. It could mean life or death for others who are suffering. Maybe as one person I can't do a lot, but I can be one of many who could change the world if we really put our minds and voices to it.

Now the question is, where to start --- and why am I wasting time when there is so much to be done?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday June 2, 2012.