Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tradition and a Trinity

Commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.

Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

-- Psalm 150 (KJV)

There are some times I read the lessons for the day and wonder, "What's that all about?" Today, though, with the commemoration readings, I don't have that problem -- mostly.  Today I just couldn't read the psalm from even such a clear and well-loved source as the NRSV. Today I had to go back to the psalm I learned as a child in the KJV version, a version with which at least two of the three musicians honored today would have been familiar.

The first "adult" recording I ever asked for as a child (I was about 10) was Handel's Messiah. I had read about it in a book and wanted to hear it so I asked for it as a Christmas present. In it I found not just a familiar story but a kind of music that touched me in a way the familiar hymns and songs of the church of my childhood just couldn't reach. It sort of puzzled my family, who thought Lawrence Welk was sublime (and which sort of made me gag), but they went along with me. It began a love affair with music of that period that sticks with me today and is my music of choice.

For me, Bach, Handel and Purcell form a sort of almost-holy trinity, perhaps "a little lower than the angels" but certainly not far from them and definitely a step above a lot of folks. Of course, I'd add others -- Byrd, Tallis and a few more -- to that level, but the church has chosen these three for this day and that works for me. Each of them has a niche in the realm of church music that is theirs alone, yet together they represent a part of our church tradition that is still, in some places anyway, still practiced today. The tunes might not be as catchy as some (like some of the Taizé chants or contemporary praise music) or things you might hear being whistled on the street or hummed while doing housework, but they are like a banquet of sound rather than a drive-thru Happy Meal, in my humble opinion.

As has happened so often before, we are again in a period where we are looking at how we "do" church, how tradition meets the modern world, how we appeal to the youth and young adults and draw people to the community and faith that we have found within our parishes and missions. We look at tradition, the "why we do what we do and believe what we believe," and decide that since our numbers are declining and this other church over in the next street is growing like wildfire, we therefore must clean house and adopt what they have found successful, whether or not it really fits or is comfortable for us. We must build new buildings if they do or appear to the rest of the community to be unsuccessful, offer services at the times they do so we don't infringe on other activities planned for that day, add more variety to the way services are done to make them more "relevant" and appealing, and, in short, copy what seems to be working for them, whether or not it works for us. While progress is inevitable and change is often necessary, sometimes it is as cathartic as creation -- or as painful as death.

There are parts of the tradition that do need to be challenged - like the role of women, equality in marriage and ability to answer God's calling to ministry or the episcopacy, challenging faith and encouraging thinking about what it really is that we believe and why. What does our faith say about us and how we perceive the message of Jesus and, more importantly, how it affects what we do and how we pass along that message? What parts of tradition, though, are the cornerstones or the keystones of the arch? What does tradition offer us that we can't find anywhere else?  What needs demolishing, what needs to be spruced up a bit and what needs to be build afresh?

It's hard these days to know what parts of tradition to keep and which to ditch. There are parts that are definitely needing change. Those parts are the ones that limit or demean parts of the Body of Christ while elevating others at the expense of those being limited or demeaned. There are also parts of tradition that, I believe, need to be retained, not just seen as nice little artifacts to be trotted out periodically like Mama's good china on holidays, Sundays and special occasions. For me, the music of Bach, Handel, Purcell and others fit that category. They need to be out there and heard, not necessarily only at royal weddings or coronations, Christmas or Easter. We are so much in the world -- the exposure to a little heavenly stuff can only be a good thing now and again.

My playlist for today:  B Minor Mass (Bach), Coronation Anthems (Handel) and Te Deum and Jubilate Deo (Purcell). That should keep my ears (and heart) busy and raised heavenward for this morning. Maybe the afternoon as well....  Now where did I put my timbrel?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday July 28, 2012 under the title "Praise Ye!"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

For the Love of Chops

Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. -- Romans 14:13-23

Paul's letter was to a group of people whom he had never met. He knew they were Christians, but as far as knowing individuals in that community or individual quirks and sins of both omission and commission, he was winging it. One thing he undoubtedly knew was what life was like, though, and so he offered them advice he knew they could use. 

Rome, as well as other cities of the Empire, featured temples, lots of temples; it had to, as there were a lot of gods and goddesses to be honored. For each temple there were offerings to be made. Food, money, incense -- nice gifts, but what really seemed to please the gods was blood, animal blood, and lots of it. There were more animal carcasses than priests could dispose of (the meat was one of the benefits of job), so temples became, in essence, neighborhood butcher shops where the previously-sacrificed animal could be whacked up and sold. It brought in extra money for the temple and the people could get fresh meat. It seemed to be a mutually acceptable solution, but to some Christians, perhaps most of them, it was a problem. How could they buy meat that had previously been offered to and sacrificed to Zeus or Artemis or Mars or any of the many gods of Rome and her colonies?  It would mean buying meat offered to idols and it seemed to be a direct violation of having no truck with idols, idol worship or anything even remotely related to it. How could a good Christian buy such meat, or even go to a dinner party at the neighbor's house and be sure that the main course wasn't a previously-offered haunch that they shouldn't eat because of the history of the carcass?  What about offending the host of the party?  What about how other Christians would see it and judge it? Oh, what to do?

My mind makes the leap from thinking about Paul's letter to the Romans to what the passage means and how it is applied to and in the world today. One example that comes to mind is not inviting Jewish or Muslim friends to dinner and serving pork chops or bacon dressing on the spinach salad. It also brings to mind the potential harm of going out with a friend in recovery from alcoholism and going to a bar or having wine with a meal. It's more than putting temptation in their way, it's making them invisible or of no consequence. It's an ultimate show of how little I pay attention to the teachings that I should love my neighbor (not my kinsman, close associate or fellow organizational member but sometimes a person I don't know at all) as myself. It's more than about steaks, pork chops or burgers -- it's about love.

There are things (and people) that make me stumble. I've learned to avoid some people because their actions and words bring me down, make me feel worthless or incompetent. There are others who are wonderful to be around because even if they point out my mistakes and misdoings, there is love behind it and often a bit of humor as well, not just finger-pointing. Right now many of my favorite foods are forbidden or off-limits to me, except in very very small doses. Those small doses are sometimes worst of all; I feel deprived more when I have just a bite than I would if I avoided them altogether. Can I sit across a table from someone eating those very foods and not succumb to their allure?  Yes, but assuring them that it was okay that they had them was, for me, a sort of victory, not to mention the answering of a prayer that I could indeed refrain from sticking my fork into their plate of fries or cheesecake. It isn't just my own strength, nor is it trivializing my faith in God; it is acknowledging that I have been given a gift by that same God, and that I can, with God's help, utilize that gift and make it an offering of love, in a very small and insignificant way although even with at a slight cost to myself.  Like "free" kittens aren't always free, loving another as much as self isn't always as easily done as said. Keeping another from stumbling means I have to be a bit more sure-footed myself.

It's more than about pork chops and cheesecakes. It's about love, the kind that offers, not insists, and cushions the path rather than making it harder for someone who might not be as strong, as sure-footed or as trusting in God's grace and acceptance. Perhaps Paul's message to the Romans (and to us) could be succinctly put in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "When in doubt, don't." Step out in faith and act with faith. Most of all, love the neighbor, whoever it might be, enough to be sensitive and caring of his/her needs, regardless of a small sacrifice of personal enjoyment or entitlement.

Sounds like a lesson I needed to think about today -- and probably tomorrow and next week to boot.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, July 25, 2012.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lessons from Thomas à Kempis

Commemoration of Thomas à Kempis, monk, priest, and writer


Psalm 33:1-5, 20-21
Ecclesiastes 9:11-18
Ephesians 4:32-5:2
Luke 6:17-23

Man proposes, but God disposes.

Of two evils, the less is always to be chosen.

Out of sight, out of mind. The absent are always in the wrong.

All men commend patience, although few are willing to practice it.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Do not be angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.

-- Thomas à Kempis

Thomas a Kempis was one of the quiet men of the world whose name is more familiar now than perhaps it was during his lifetime (ca 1380-1471). He was born in Kempen, Germany, a town with which Thomas Hammercken was to later be identified (Kempis). He attended a school run by an order called Brothers of the Common Life, and was so drawn to the life of simplicity, prayer and community that at age 19 he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, under the auspices of the Brothers and whose prior was his own brother, John. He remained there for the remainder of his life, immersed in prayer, priestly duties and books -- reading them, copying them, and finally writing them. It is through one of his books that he is best known today; the Imitation of Christ is a compendium of wisdom in how to become more Christ-like in one's daily life. It is still one of the most-read and loved classics of religious literature.

What I didn't realize about Thomas à Kempis was that he reminded me of Benjamin Franklin. Although the two were as different as chalk and cheese, both men had a way of putting a lot of wisdom in a few words, culled from the larger works in which they appeared, and which bring to mind the same kind of sayings found in the wisdom books of the Bible, notably Proverbs. All deal with life, living, relating, doing, thinking and becoming, whether a quip from Poor Richard, a saying from Solomon (or another writer in Proverbs) or a bit of wisdom from Thomas. The difference is focus -- the life in the world, the life of the world, and the life of God.

Thomas's Imitation of Christ was and is a rule of life, a spiritual discipline, through which a follower becomes more attuned to God and in so doing becomes more Christ-like. Francis, Benedict and others wrote rules of life for those following their spiritual paths, but like Thomas's, they were more guidelines than straightjackets, quite often the kind of approach that Mama referred to as "the iron hand in the velvet glove." They are rules of community and there are penalties for disturbing that sense of community, but punishment is to encourage growth, much as pruning a rosebush produces new growth, with more and bigger blooms. Rules of life give a structure in which the soul functions and stretches toward God. All the rules of life and community, though, have a strong foundation upon which the rest of the rule is built and that foundation is prayer. Prayer provides the direct connection with God and the opportunity to not just have petitions heard or thanksgivings expressed but to hear what God is saying.

Thomas provides us with a beautiful prayer:

Grant me, O Lord, to know what I ought to know,

To love what I ought to love,
To praise what delights thee most,
To value what is precious in thy sight,
To hate what is offensive to thee.
Do not suffer me to judge according to the sight of my eyes,
Nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of the ears of ignorant men;
But to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual,
And above all, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of thy will.

To me, that sounds like a rule of life all by itself. The thing to do now is to pray it and then consider it in light of what God wants. I would add one thought to it, though. To Thomas's "To hate what is offensive to thee" I would add, "What is really and truly offensive to thee, not what I think (or even someone else thinks) is offensive to thee."  In short, I need to ask that I never substitute my opinion for God's. Hmmm....sounds a little like something paraphrased from Dr. Phil.

I've never read Imitation of Christ  from cover to cover but I think I should put it on my reading list -- right near the top. I have a feeling I may find more pearls of wisdom in it than I can find by Google or even by Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I think I'd find Thomas à Kempis a whole lot less intimidating than many of his spiritual brothers like Aquinas or Augustine. Besides, Thomas was devoted to books. I have a feeling he understood that a good book is not just something that improves you or entertains you but keeps you company, even when you're alone or living in isolation.

A good book will never look at me and tell me that I look fat in that dress or I really goofed up that report at work. A good book can, though, tell me that God loves me and wants to hear from me more often.

Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying, or meditating, or endeavoring something for the public good. Sounds like good advice.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Tuesday, July 24, 2012, under the title "Thomas à Kempis."

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. -- Romans 13:1-7

There are some words that just seem to be loaded for bear, so to speak. “Authority” is one of those. Just saying the word conjures up images of power, strength, the ability to compel, the quality of decision, the demand of compliance. Authority also implies structure, boundaries, security, certainty, ability to act, arbiter of what is right and proper. It fact, it’s really hard to define “authority” without using the word itself. It sums up so many things in five simple syllables. From birth to death, a person is always under the authority of someone, directly or indirectly. Parents, teachers, police, judges, superior officers, royalty, elected officials, legislative bodies, bishops, priests, religious leaders – there is never a time when someone is not subject to external authority, unless, maybe, they decamp to a deserted island and live as a hermit.

In Paul’s world, authority was to be obeyed and dissent was quickly squashed. A smoothly running society was the expected norm, and the honor of a family, like that of the society as a whole, depended on each individual doing his or her duty, paying taxes, religious tithes, and expected gifts and charities. Any deviation was subject to swift punishment, from loss of status to prison or even death. Our culture today would be totally foreign to Paul, based as it is on individual merit, whether through hard work, skirting the edge of legality or both. Paul reflected the belief that all authority was from God and to revolt against the legitimate authority was, in essence, revolting against God and God’s will. Today, it only seems to be God’s will if the right person is elected or the right government with the right agenda is in power.

It’s funny, I hear a lot of God-talk going on these days. As a matter of fact, I hear God invoked more today by all sorts of people, quite often politicians, than at any other time in my life that I can remember. Oddly enough, God is being invoked on both sides of issues such as rights for women, GLBT folk, immigrants, the poor, children, and the unborn. It is like a tennis match where people are the ball and God is the racquet in the hands of opponents on either side of a net. It can be pretty disheartening sometimes. I wonder -- do those who feel that God's will is expressed when a candidate they endorse is chosen believe that God abdicates periodically when someone they oppose is elected? I wonder how they reconcile that with "...for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." Looking at many comments from ordinary people to stories on the internet and in other media regarding leaders like the current (or even the past) President, there are a lot who believe that God couldn't possibly have chosen him, despite majority vote of the electorate who chose him. It makes me wonder, what do I believe about authority and when it should be endorsed or rejected? And what am I going to do about it when I feel rejection is the only answer?

Sometimes contemplating Paul's writings makes my hair hurt, but when I dig far enough, I usually find a lot that I need to think about. In this case, it is the role of authority and where God is in the process. One thing I have come to believe is that authority is a power that should be wielded benevolently and a crown (or mitre) that should be worn lightly. Most of all, God should be the ultimate authority to whom allegiance is owed and honor is due, not a racquet or a club with which to beat people or drive them in a desired direction.

I think that might be what Paul had in mind.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 21, 2012.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 18 - Sheep, Goats and the Social Gospel

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

Sometimes the most familiar passages are the hardest to read. Oh, it isn't that the words themselves are polysyllabic obscurities or filled with foreign words and jargon, but rather that they are so simple, familiar, and clear.  Reading it today, I wonder what is so terribly unclear about it that it can be ignored so easily or even overwritten by a different kind of gospel? 

The premise is, like the passage, simple and clear. If you want to be one of those receiving God's blessing and place in the kingdom, then do this, otherwise, don't.  The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left, and there's no doubt that the right is the favored side.

Sheep and goats were familiar things in villages and towns. Sheep were considered "manly" animals - tended by men and whose milk and cheese were consumed by men. The rams protected their herds, were more stoic in the face of danger, and were a bit more particular about what they ate. Goats, on the other hand, were seen as more shame-ful animals, eating almost anything and definitely promiscuous with no single male having his own group of females to guard and protect (and reserve for himself alone). Women tended and milked the goats, drank the milk and ate the goat cheese themselves. A further view of the two animals revealed that sheep represented the "in" group, the Jewish males, while the goats represented everybody else -- including women and "outsiders" (non-Jews). Jesus drew the parallel that marked the
ingroup from all others, members of the ingroup (men, anyway) practiced a radical form of hospitality to members of an outgroup and thus gained honor and recognition for their righteousness. Taking care of the poor, widowed, orphaned, sick and the like of one's own group was a duty that accrued no extra honor; it was simply expected that they take care of those to whom they were related.

Today we still think of sheep and goats in terms of left and right, separating "good" and "bad", right and wrong, conservative and liberal. Jesus's words specifically called out duties of the "sheep", those who were part of his ingroup as well as those who followed him. Most of those things Jesus called for the sheep to do would be considered what is sometimes called the social gospel today, caring for not just the members of one's own group but everyone in need regardless of kinship or ideology. Somehow it is sad that those who claim the right side, that side designated for those inheriting the kingdom and recognition by God of righteousness, are those who often reject what they call "entitlements" such as anti-poverty programs, humane treatment for aliens and prisoners and the like. It seems as though they are reading an entirely different gospel, one that reverses almost everything that Jesus taught while emphasizing issues that benefit the few rather than the many. So-called Leftists have always been considered to be radical and anti-establishment, to be fought against and overcome lest the whole world become one vast anarchy. Yet leftists usually seemed to be following the gospel more closely with their concern for the poor and downtrodden, those imprisoned unfairly or for political reasons, and those in greatest need. I wonder -- would God really condemn them for that?  Who really are the sheep and who are the goats?

Sheep and goats meant different things in Jesus' time. People understood the meaning and nuances. Today, though, the lines seem to have reversed themselves. Jesus continually spoke of doing things an honorable person would do, like caring for widows and orphans, prisoners, sick people and the like. There is no honor in just doing it for people who are part of the ingroup, whether by birth, marriage, adoption or ideology. The honor comes from doing it with equality for all, so how does a practice of exclusivity fit into that framework?  Is what Jesus said only a cultural or a back-then thing or is it really something that is laid on us as an imperative?  Jesus didn't make this stuff up; he had a solid background of Old Testament teaching and example to go by.

What Jesus was saying is that when folks like me look at someone, no matter who, we should see Jesus himself in that person and treat them as if they were indeed Jesus. If they have needs, those needs must be met, plain and simple.

So as I look around, I wonder -- who really are the sheep and who the goats?  Am I earning my sheep-hood or am I just being goat-ish?  I have to earn the honor of being a sheep, despite the modern conviction that sheep are easily led, are not too bright and that goats are smarter and more open to opportunity.  Am I going to be pointed to the left or the right when Jesus comes again?  I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be graded on how well I took care of myself but rather on how well I helped to take care of others. That, to me, is the plain, unvarnished meaning of a story so familiar and yet so difficult. Sometimes the seemingly simple things are the hardest, but if it were easy, wouldn't everybody be doing it?

I wonder -- what would the world be like if there weren't sheep and goats but only sheep? I wonder, would Jesus say, "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" It will be interesting to find out.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Wednesday July 18, 2012.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

July 14 -- Lights and Calls

‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.’
Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’-- Luke 8:16-21 (NRSV)

One thing about Jesus, he never seemed to give a simple "yea, nay" answer to anything of any substance. Oh, I'm sure he must have at some point, but those who wrote his stories, lessons and sayings down didn't go for the easy stuff. The two segments in the gospel for today are perfect examples.

I was drawn to the story of the lamp under a jar (or, as I learned it as a child, a "light under a bushel basket" of the KJV). The NRSV version seems a bit awkward to me. Who would light a lamp (or a candle) and then put it under a bed?  That's a certain way to make sure the light is seen a distance away because it would catch bed, bedroom and probably whole house on fire. I see what Jesus is getting at, but it still seems a bit of a stretch.

Everybody has a "light" of some sort. We are all born with gifts and talents that we are encouraged to develop -- the better ones, anyway. I am sure there are those with a talent for pickpocketing or the like which is socially and legally frowned upon, but I think I should stick to the ones more in line with today's teaching.

In the religious world, a "light" is sometimes considered a call, a message or a tugging from God pulling someone in a direction of service in some area. It used to be one got a "call" to do something in a church like being a priest, deacon, minister, preacher or pastor. Now the idea of call has expanded to be much more, and in many more ways and places. One of the most-used explanations of what a call (or, using another word, vocation) is was first expressed by Frederick Buechner, "...the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet." It might be hard to imagine that Michelangelo had a vocation, or Thomas Tallis, even Salvador Dali, but something in their work brought the passion for creating works of beauty in contact with the needs of a world that was hungry for it. Mother Teresa certainly had a calling, but so have many others whose names we don't know. Each had a light, sometimes more than one of them, and each let that light shine because they could no more hide it and become lawyers or clerks or shopkeepers than they could fly.

Joan Chittister wrote that a some see a call as meant as an"...invitation to become what we were meant to be" or " answer to the beckoning of God who gave us a gift so that we ourselves could give it away to those who need it" (Chittister, Ch. 10, ¶ 21). She also speaks of having different calls for different times of life as witnessed by many who leave lucrative positions, jobs and practices to work with immigrants, victims of war and disaster, or children at risk. One person of my acquaintance was, as she called herself, a "bean-counter" when she felt a call to a different life. She is now a priest in charge of a growing church plant that clearly values her talent in the financial area of management as well as her energy, drive and passion for the gospel and ability to convey that through her preaching and working with the groups in her church. Sometimes a light or a call comes immediately, sometimes it grows over time, and sometimes it seems to morph into a totally different one, but in any case, it is the result of joy, passion, desire, urgency and talent meeting a need, whether in the church, in the world, or with a foot in both camps.

Jesus didn't hesitate to put his family on notice that their concern about his vocation was misplaced. He knew his calling and he had to do it, regardless of how they felt or what they thought. Sometimes a person with a true calling has to do that, like St. Francis of Assisi, but when a call is clear and strong, when the passion for doing something that makes the world a better place is allowed to grow, the world benefits and so does the doer.

I wonder -- where does my light shine, and where does my deep gladness meet the world's need?  It feels sometimes like discerning a call is harder than actually living one, but it is all part of a process. I have a lot of examples to look to for inspiration.

Somehow the old gospel song is ringing in my ears: "This little light of mine/ I'm gonna let it shine." I'm definitely not going to put it under the bed to burn the house down.

* Chittister, Joan, Following the Faith: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy. (2012, Kindle ed.) New York: Image. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 14, 2012.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Lessons from Benedict of Nursia

Commemoration of Benedict of Nursia, (480? - 547?)
Founder of Western Monasticism

Psalm 119:129-136
Proverbs 2:1-9
Philippians 2:12-16
Luke 14:27-33
Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.
He who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.
 -- St .Benedict of Nursia

Years and years ago, I found a book by Rumer Godden called In This House of Brede, a novel whose main character is an important, respected and, admittedly, worldly person but who gives it all up to become a Benedictine nun in a cloistered monastery. The chronicle of her struggles to live up to the rules of the order and to fight her personal demons intrigued me, but so did the extended periods of silence and the ordered life of prayer and work. I was ready to sign up except for a few details --- I wasn't Roman Catholic, didn't really want to be Roman Catholic (despite loving much about the faith and practice of that church, not to mention the music), and the thought of having to get up at 3:15 every morning! Still, I loved and still love the book, getting from even the work of fiction a small sense of the peace that the holy lives of those who follow Benedict's rule in community and in practice. Still, 3:15am ---

Benedict of Nursia didn't invent monasticism, rather he molded it through his own sense of dedication to living a religious life and in his writing of the Rule, a book of short chapters that is read through in every Benedictine house and by those practicing a Benedictine way of life several times a year, year in and year out. The term Rule seems a bit harsh, like an unbending set of regulations or dogmas that must be followed and, in a sense the Rule is a set of regulations. Every year, at the very outset of an EfM group's first meeting of the term, members establish norms, rules that they agree to follow for the coming scholastic year. If there is something a person can't live with or feels they cannot subscribe to, that proposal is either reworked or removed. Ultimately, what we end up with is an agreed-upon set of guidelines which we revisit when necessary and hold ourselves to live within. The Rule is sort of like that; a person seeking to enter the Benedictine order must know what they are in for, and the rule gives them those guidelines. The Rule applies to each member, from the abbot/abbess to the oldest member to the newest novice alike. Still, there is wiggle room in parts, giving the abbot/abbess and the community a bit of leeway in enforcement when circumstances require a bit of elasticity. The rule St. Benedict wrote in the early 6th century is still the guiding force for many who embrace a life of prayer, work, service and study in the Benedictine manner.

Benedict believed in balance. He made sure that there was time during the day for the work of prayer, meditation and study, but also times for the body to be active in work that benefited the community and could provide a necessary service for the surrounding village or villages as well as bringing in income for the monastery's needs. One thing that speaks most strongly to me is that at the beginning of Lent each year, each member is given a book to read, selected by the abbot or abbess, and they are expected to read it as part of their Lenten observance. Frankly, I would have a horror of being given something weighty and ponderous, maybe like something from Augustine, but then, it might be not just a good practice for Lent but also something I would find I needed to read, whether or not I really wanted to. It seems it would be an exercise in trust, trust that what I was given was not a whim but a considered decision given in love rather than given as punishment. It would also be an exercise in obedience, something Benedict stresses many times in his Rule.

Balance. Now there's something the world could stand to learn from Benedict and his followers. Out in the world we are so busy, busy, busy -- trucking the kids to ballet and soccer, rushing to work, rushing home to cook, clean and mow -- it's no wonder we are always exhausted. Even on vacation we're rushing from activity to activity, place to place, museum to amusement park to whatever we think we can't afford to miss or have the children miss. Benedict knew that it was necessary for the body to do something manual, something physical, to keep it running efficiently and also to do a share to provide for the needs of the community as a whole. He also understood, though, that there needed to be time to sit, to pray and meditate, to listen and learn, to study and exercise the mind as much as the body had been exercised. Even in work, however, there should be a spirit of prayer included, a listening of the heart as the hands were busy cultivating, mopping, cooking, caring for an ill member, or tending to the laundry. I need a bit more balance in my life, and I'm not always self-disciplined enough to do it alone.

I will, though, try to take Benedict's words about laboring while praying to heart. I notice that he doesn't say "Pray while laboring," which makes work the main focus with prayer as just a sort of add-on. I think of my iPod, my lifeline and "white noise" that I use at work. Usually I have Baroque church music on (with an occasional nod to the joke, "I can't believe it's not Rutter!") and I find myself mentally reciting or singing the words along with the recording. I think of it as a sort of Buddhist prayer-wheel that keeps sending prayers heavenward even after the last person to pass by them has gone. Maybe, in a very small, very odd way, I have at least part of Benedict's lesson right. Now I just need to reverse the order and let my work be as much a prayer as the music is now.

Maybe I could make better use of the 3:15-3:30 A.M. awakening I usually have. The boys usually start getting antsy for breakfast about then, and once they have me awake I seldom get fully back to sleep. Perhaps that's a nudge to use the time more profitably than merely pounding the pillow and turning over with a deep sigh. I'll have to give that some thought.

And maybe I just need to follow one rule of Benedict's, "Listen and attend to the ears of the heart."  That's an internal cultivation that I think would be most profitable -- at any time of the day.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday July 11, 2012, under the title "Balance and Benedict."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Losing a Piece of the Heart

I got out of my truck after work,  intent on getting in the house as soon as possible since it was what Arizona considers "warm" outside -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 105°. Then I saw my neighbor. We chit-chatted for a moment and then she said she needed a shoulder. Sure, I told her, let's get in the house where it's cool.

My neighbor was having a very rough day. She was facing the loss of her dog, a dog that had been her husband's companion in the last years of his life. The neighbor was full of stories about making him dinner or taking him out for a meal only to have him divide whatever it was in half and give it or bring it home to the dog. Stuff like that always makes me smile, and even she smiled a bit through the tears. Now the husband had been gone for some years and it was time to say goodbye to his dog, and, other than their children and grandchildren, her last link with him. The pain was almost palpable and even the boys were a little less insistent on checking her out than usual for them.  Animals know when something is amiss. Often they have more tact and sensitivity than humans, I think.

I've had to say goodbye to a lot of pets over the course of my life. It's hard. It's more than hard. They're very much members of the family, like four-footed children (unless they have fins, shells, scales or forked tongues). Somehow I have trouble with feeling much empathy with the pets with fins, scales, shells or forked tongues, but I know that to the humans with whom they share their lives, they are just as much a member of the family as the cat, dog or even the kids.

I know that the one thing I have hated were the well-meaning comments of, "Well, s/he was only a dog/cat, and s/he had a long, happy life. You'll be ready for a new cat/dog soon, you'll see." Obviously the person who makes such comments is seriously akin to the person who approaches a grieving family on the church steps and tells them, "I'm sorry s/he is gone, but now you and your family can get back to normal."  I remember a preacher at an uncle's funeral making the statement during his eulogy, "All these years Olin has walked by her side, and now Edie has to walk by herself." Mama nearly jumped up and strangled him, she was so incensed at what seemed to be such an offhand and unthinking remark. Like the people on the church steps or the well-meaning friend, I'm sure he meant to comfort, but  just didn't know what to say or, even worse, how to say it. I'm pretty sure my words to the neighbor hit more than one land mine in that respect, but I hope my shoulder and sympathy (and empathy) helped a little.

A little bit ago I saw her walk the dog out of her house and into her daughter's car. The dog wasn't hesitant, and got into the car with no struggle, tail wagging the whole time. I felt I was seeing a dog who was confident that the ride would be enjoyable, and that something good would be at the end of it. I know the neighbor and her daughter were in distress, but the dog seemed just bent on enjoying the ride.

It's hard to lose a pet. They worm their way into your heart and then, after living with them, loving them and being loved by them, you have to let go of them. It's losing part of your heart, and, like any major loss, there will always be an empty place where they once were. There are memories, to be sure, but the purrs and pants and soulful eyes are gone and can't be replaced, even if another pet comes into the family. You can't replace the original, any more than you can replace the loss of a beloved spouse or child or family member or friend. There will be healing -- eventually -- but nothing will be exactly the same as before.

But then, the love is still there, stronger than death and lasting longer than life itself. It is a love that is worth giving and receiving, even though loss is inevitable. Don't tell my neighbor it was only a dog; she'd tell you it was a part of her life, a bridge to a lost love, a giver of a different kind of love and the receiver of love as well. Love isn't measured by the number of legs upon which it walks, and the loss isn't either.

I think God knew what pets would mean to us. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if God were looking through their eyes when they look at us -- with love.

For B and in memory of Sierra.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hard Lessons

Readings for today:

AM:  Psalm 137:1-6 (7-9); Psalm 144
PM:   Psalm 104
Numbers 24:12-25
Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’  - Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV)

I always enjoy meeting a special friend of mine for lunch. We usually do this a couple of times a year, once when she comes down for the winter, once before she leaves from the summer. We always meet at the same time and the same place, a restaurant about halfway between our respective houses, and all we have to set is a date. We have a really enjoyable lunch and look forward to the next visit.

I am chronically early for these appointments, partly because I am too anxious of being late to leave at the last minute only to arrive and find her waiting. The other part is that there are several large versions of favorite stores I have near me, stores with a much wider range of things that tempt me like sin. I have to confess, I increase their profits with each visit. This time, at the bookstore I visit on my rounds, I found a couple of treasures, one of which came in handy for considering the reading for today.

The passage above is pretty familiar to Episcopalians, at least to those who hear the Penitential Order (pages 319 and 351). It is a wonderful summation of not only the law and the teachings of the prophets but also those of Jesus himself, they are the keys to good relationships between humans and God and also humans and other humans. Love God, love neighbor as self -- it sounds so simple but, like many simple things, it is incredibly difficult to actually do.

There's a wonderful story which I had heard before but found again in the book I mentioned about a man who went to Rabbi Hillel and asked to become his student, that is, provided Hillel could teach him to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn." (115)*  That's it, short and sweet. Not surprisingly, as I also found in the book, other religions have similar injunctions:

Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.  -- Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13 (Islam).

One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire. -- Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8 (Hinduism)

One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.  Yoruba Proverb, Nigeria (African Traditional Religions) *
I get the idea; the doing unto others is pretty much a world-wide tradition, so if that's the case, why is it so hard for us to do it? Why is it so hard for me to do it?

Loving God isn't hard, even though there are times when I wonder how God can allow atrocities and disasters. Still, like any love affair, the course never runs totally smoothly or easily. Anything gained too easily is never really appreciated, I have found. So if loving God isn't hard, why is it so hard to do what God wants?  I'm not talking about things like avoiding shellfish, not working on Sunday, not stealing or committing murder. I'm talking about the "love your neighbor" stuff. There are some people I just can't seem to love, even though I know I should: people who hurt kittens or who commit atrocities, people who take advantage of the poor or people who grab the best for themselves without caring that someone else might have to go without. Unfortunately, I also have to admit that I have trouble loving myself, simply because I know my flaws and know that I hurt other people, sometimes without thought and sometimes without meaning to do so.

Probably I need more applications of the Penitential Order, and perhaps I need to start poking myself with a sharp stick, just to remind myself what pain and failure to love can do. Perhaps standing on one foot several times a day might recall the lesson to mind, but somehow I wonder if I could remember to fit that into my schedule when I can't remember to take the medications upon which my health depends. So what am I to do? How can I accomplish the seemingly gigantic task of loving someone I find unlovable as much as I love myself?  Come to think of it, how much do I love myself? 

Perhaps I need to look at this a different way; maybe I need to think about not how much I love God but how much God loves me, flawed as I am. I also need to think about the unlovable ones in my life and remember that God loves them every bit as much as God loves me. Now there's a scary thought. What's even scarier is that God expects me to try to love them too.

Then I remember -- if it had been easy, there wouldn't have been a need for a cross, now would there?

*International Religious Foundation, World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, (1995 paperback ed.), Minneapolis: Paragon House Publishers, 114-115.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul </a> on Episcopal Café Saturday July 7, 2012, under the title "How Can I Love My Neighbor"

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befallen us: how our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time; and the Egyptians oppressed us and our ancestors; and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’

But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.’ The Israelites said to him, ‘We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them.

They set out from Kadesh, and the Israelites, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, ‘Let Aaron be gathered to his people. For he shall not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and his son Eleazar, and bring them up Mount Hor; strip Aaron of his vestments, and put them on his son Eleazar. But Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there.’ Moses did as the Lord had commanded; they went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole congregation. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments, and put them on his son Eleazar; and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron for thirty days. --- Numbers 20:14-29 (NRSV)

In the saga of the Israelites after their leaving Egypt, these two episodes seem to be a little unrelated, other than that they both take place on the journey. The first tells of the Israelites coming to the borders of Edom, the land of the descendants of Esau, Jacob's (Israel's) twin brother. Moses had sent messengers to ask permission to cross their territory, even offering to pay for any provisions or damage, calling on the king of Edom to remember the bonds of kinship. The king refused, and the Israelites headed another way.

The second story is also about kinship, in a way. Aaron, Moses's brother and chief priest of the Israelite band, was about to die. He had done a lot of good things, but he had also done some snarky ones, including fomenting discord with his sister and fellow prophet Miriam over Moses' leadership (for which Miriam got punished and Aaron didn't), yielding to pressure and fashioning a golden calf for the people to worship, and being with Moses when Moses struck the rock to which God had ordered him to speak. His ultimate punishment was death on the journey, not in the promised land -- as was the punishment for the entire generation of Israelites who had begun the exodus from Egypt, including Moses.

With Aaron on his deathbed, his successor as chief priest needed to be appointed. The successor would not only inherit the responsibilities for leading the rites and practices of the Israelites, but also the very raiment that marked the high priest. The tunic,  the turban, the breastpiece, robe, ephod, even the breeches all had a practical meaning (as a reminder of various laws and practices) but also symbolic ones. The handing over of these garments, or, as the text puts it, the "stripping" of Aaron and the placing on Eleazar conveys the transfer of power and prestige, but also responsibility as well. Elisha inherited Elijah's mantle, and with it the position of chief prophet for Israel.

Often when there is a change of leadership it is referred to as the successor inheriting the mantle of the predecessor, even if the successor takes the corporation, church or group in an entirely different direction. Inheriting a mantle conveys responsibility for the welfare of those being led, but it doesn't always work out that way. Televangelists' children often inherit the church that their father had built up through charisma and God's guidance, but the second generation doesn't always sustain the growth and may even lead to the downfall of the entire edifice. Children of corporate moguls may (or may not) be successful in continuing the growth of the company that had made their parent so successful. Even disciples might not live up to the responsibility laid on them by the visible or invisible "mantle" of their teacher. Sometimes the parent themselves see that the offspring are not really interested in the family business or adept at management at the level to which they might be raised. A successful parent does not always mean a successful child as successor.

Aaron made mistakes, of that there was no doubt. He also tried to do what God wanted, but his humanity made him as fallible as any other human being. Priestly garb or not, he could only do his best, even if that weren't always good enough. I wonder -- does God choose people for special jobs or positions knowing that they might fail simply because of their human nature?  Does God lay a mantle on them with the expectation that they will grow into it or that it will always remain a size or two too large?  How much do we expect of our children?  Do we lay on them the mantle of wanting them to do better than we did as parents, workers and examples? 

I think I need to look at the mantle God has laid on me, but first I have to discern what that mantle is. It's not an obvious one, like Aaron's ephod, tunic and turban or Elijah's cloak, but it's there somewhere. Identifying the mantle is one thing, growing into it is another. It sounds like a project that may take me years, and there might be a few golden calves or struck rocks on the way. Still, all I can do is my best. God expects that, but still allows for my humanity.

Somehow, that is a comforting thought.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday June 30, 2012.