Sunday, September 30, 2012

Feast of Michael and All Angels

Feast of Michael and All Angels


AM: Psalm 8, 148
Job 38:1-7;
Hebrews 1:1-14
PM: Psalm 14, 150 or 104;
Daniel 12:1-3 or 2 Kings 6:8-17;
Mark 13:21-27 or Revelation 5:1-14

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:


Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.


Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song.


O friends, in gladness let us sing,
Supernal anthems echoing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One.


--- Lyrics by John A.L. Riley

Angels-- heavenly beings with wings, haloes, maybe harps, certainly pious faces except maybe the cherubs which we tend to think of more as chubby baby-type angels with some mischief in mind although nothing more sinister than a simple prank. Many people believe that they have guardian angels around them, watching over them and protecting them from snares and pitfalls if not outright danger and impending doom. The Jewish people do not believe in guardian angels, so to speak, but their sages have taught that that for every mitzvah (good deed) they do, they create another guardian angel who serves to protect them and will speak on their behalf before the throne of God. Most Christians who recognize personal guardian angels limit themselves to a single one, but sometimes call on one of the stars of the angelic world -- the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and/or Uriel--for assistance in particular times of trouble. Somehow it's comforting to think of having something flying about my head, acting as a headlight in the darkness, a searchlight if I'm lost, a candle burning when I need hope, and a shaft of light when I need the protection of it around me.

James Kieffer's excellent piece on Michael and all angels* gives a wealth of information on angels, both specific and generic angels. In reading it, my mind started playing the hymn whose lyrics are printed above. It's one of those ear worms I get from time to time, this time, though, much less irritating than the mindless advertising jingle or bit of an annoying song that gets stuck like a wheel in a rut. At least this one gives me some scope, some information and some theology, like the names of the seven ranks of heavenly beings - seraphim, cherubim, etc. I doubt that if I got to the Pearly Gates I’d be required to be able to answer that, still somehow it's one of those bits of information that is comforting to know even if not immensely useful. Each of the ranks has a job, a duty in the heavenly cohort, but all of them are part of the group surrounding the throne of God, leading the praise and carrying out God's orders and desires and bringing messages from God to human beings.

There are people about whom we could say, "Oh, they're such an angel!" and mean it most sincerely. They come at unexpected moments, offer advice, instructions or a way out of something, perhaps just bring a moment of beauty and grace into life then seemingly fade back in to the background (or the normal role they play in our lives) until the next time.

When I was a teen, I was given the book Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers. It was the story of Robin, the daughter of Dale and Roy Rogers, childhood heroes of mine. Robin was born with severe handicaps and Downs Syndrome. Her life was brief, only a couple of years, but rather than being a burden to them, she was truly a blessing, hence the title which came from the scripture “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). It impressed me and I’ve never forgotten that book. It made me more conscious of angels coming in unexpected places and ways. For me, I feel I have quite a few angels, most of them watching from heaven but some on earth as well. Some of them here never darken a church door, some attend church regularly, but whether they espouse a traditional Christian belief or not, they show me what good news is about: caring, compassion, support, occasional chiding, advising, and the like. I have a feeling just about everybody can name at least one person in their lives or whom their lives have touched, no matter how briefly, that fills that bill. I can think of dozens of times when those angels have brought me some sort of message I needed to hear or feel, even when they didn't realize they were doing it; they simply acted in a way that helped me in some way, and definitely convinced me that God was indeed present.

I wonder what would happen if I actually started actively looking for angels in strange places -- on street corners, at work, in a store, at a park, or almost any place where two or more people occupy the same space, even if it is cyberspace. Does it have to be an announcement on the order of Gabriel speaking to Mary? There were angels who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Did Jacob wrestle with God or with an angelic representation of God? There are lots of examples in scripture and tradition of angels being and doing things that in some way touch the lives of human beings. As the Psalmist puts it:

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. (Ps.91:11-12)

Heaven knows, I've had experience with angels in my life who have borne me up when I was falling, gave me a word when hope was flagging, and even now and again pulled me out of messes I'd gotten myself into. Those angels, very human angels, didn't preach good news, they lived it and showed it. They weren't awe-inspiring, haloed, winged beings shining brighter than the sun, they were regular recognizable human beings who, I am convinced, God sent at that moment when I needed them most. Knowing God is there is powerful and wonderful, but sometimes a human pair of arms is what I need.

In thinking of implications of angels in my life, I wonder if I’m really tuned in to spotting the work of angels, even and especially incognito ones. Small random acts of kindness can be angelic, as can giving a word of encouragement or warning. Simple things, but nonetheless things that point not to the person but to the God beyond the person. I wonder, where can I look for angels, not just for me but for others and the world itself? What if I could pass on one bit of good news today what would it be and how could I do it? Would I even recognize the opportunity when it came?

I can say I will try today to look for angels and to try to be one myself. It's a goal for me to live in the intention of sharing good news either by word or by action. Perhaps that is the key -- intention, mindful intention. to think seriously enough about something to actually try to do it in an awake, aware state of mind. Sounds like a tall order, but then, angels do simple things as well as mighty ones. So now it’s up to me.

Perhaps there's only one way to find out the answer, isn't there?

* found here

Originally published at 
Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, September 29, 2012.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A New Disease -- C(at) B(utt) S(yndrome)

As the owner servant and staff of four cats, I've become somewhat accustomed to life that tends to involve revolve around them. They're quite nice cats, generally, and handsome ones to boot. They have learned that treats are passed out in turn and everybody will get one. Anybody trying to jump the line or grab more than their share will get a slight tap on the nose and an admonishment. Anybody who meows for more than 10 straight minutes may get chased through the house with a squirt bottle, but will be welcomed back up on the desk as soon as they cease meowing. Meals will be served within a specific time frame twice a day, and if, God forbid, I should be unavailable, there are several neighbors who can be counted on to fill in the gap. The litter boxes will be cleaned periodically, they have their own electric water fountain that ensures fresh, not stale, water is available at any time, and the dry food dish is replenished as needed (sometimes before needed).  The bed is available for sharing, so long as I have at least enough space to lie on it. Above all, the desktop is available for napping by up to 3 cats at a time with one caveat:  NO CAT BUTTS BETWEEN MY EYES AND THE SCREEN!

I have discovered that there is a condition known as Cat Butt Syndrome (CBS) that is common to almost anyone who simultaneously uses a computer on a desk and who has cats in the house. Symptoms are easily identifiable:
  • cat hair on papers and books
  • pens, pencils, papers and note cards rearranged to suit the catly whim rather than convenience of the actual worker, usually done when the worker is actually engaged in working
  • cat tails hanging over onto keyboards hindering use of said keyboard without a struggle of shifting the cat and a tail-lashing of fingers when the cat settles back in its original chosen position
  • relocation of books and papers to less convenient places on the desk or even to the floor due to lack of desk space for desired sleeping area
  • inability to use more than 1/16th of the top of the desk in front of the screen due to cat prone postures
  • inability to clearly see the screen due to (a) cat sitting on desktop between viewer and screen, often with said cat staring intently as if to convey thoughts and desires which the cat wishes to convey, or  (b)  the imposition of a cat butt between the viewer and the screen, whether with butt facing the screen or being presented directly in the area of the viewer's face (other positions may be observed from time to time)
CBS is frequently responsible for typographical errors, omitted words, phrases and even paragraphs in both reading and writing, invisible illustrations, blocked access to closer examination of screen images, incomplete spell checks and delayed response to instant messages and chat conversations. A further symptom is an increased use of four-letter words (NOT work, food, or even diet), and a shortening of temper inversely proportionate to the criticality of the work being performed. It is not fatal although there may be an implied threat to the source of the CBS. 

There are several cures, among which are banishment of the cat to another room or even another house. One might postpone one's work and go do something else, interesting the cat in another activity before sneaking back to the desk before the cat is fully cognizant of the duplicity or is safely asleep somewhere else. One possibility is to throw cat-treats around the floor of the room or in a trail out the door of the room in which the human might wish to work, but beware: shutting the door on a cat or cats might ultimately be damaging to interior decor (the surface of the door) or the nerves (howling, meowling, growling, etc.). Another possibility is to stop work briefly, pet the cat into lethargy and somnolence, then continue daintily so as not to make any loud noises or movements that might awaken the now dozing cat. Yet another cure is to place an unfriendly object (say, a vacuum cleaner) next to the chair and when the cat begins to exhibit CBS behavior, briefly hit the "on" switch which will startle the cat into flight. True felinophiles will, however, refuse to entertain this notion unless as a matter of ultimate last resort.

Where there is not cure there may be healing possible. One might learn to accommodate oneself to brief periods of observing the intricacies of a cat bath, including the nether regions. One might take the opportunity to rearrange the pencils in the drawer (perhaps distracting the cat from CRS behavior), or do filing that has been piling up for the last several months. Beware of this activity, however, as extraction of the cat might be required if the human is not paying full attention and accidentally allows the cat to become interested in what is already in the file drawer before the drawer can be safely shut and work resumed. Perhaps the most positive form of healing from CRS syndrome is to realize that there are literally millions of fellow-sufferers, seek out or form a support group, and compare strategies.  If all else fails, sit back, enjoy the purrs and allow them to promote a feeling of tranquility and drowsiness. Consider it an invitation to cat nap, sharing in the activity in which one wishes the cat to share.

There is life with and beyond CBS. At least you don't have to go out in the rain so that they can visit the loo or get their exercise.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tailoring the Message

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,

“For we too are his offspring.”

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. -- Acts 17:16-34

Some years ago I came out of a grocery store to find a small family standing in front of the store, looking very serious. The father had a Bible in his hand and was waving it around as he spoke. Now and again he would open it, read something and then point to the words on the page as if to say, "See, it's here in black and white that this is what you are supposed to do, say and believe."  I've seldom run across street preachers in my life (although a dear and valued friend was once one), so this one had a kind of fascination although I didn't agree with his points. I know that there are places in the world that are famous for their street preachers or orators, places where anyone can come and speak, hopefully attracting some interest, sometimes inviting heckling for their views. Still, they have a place to speak aloud what they think and believe, and it may be the only place they have that freedom or opportunity.

Paul in the marketplace preaching was probably a bit like my store-front evangelist, but Paul picked a place where discussion, debate and rhetoric was a staple. The Greeks were especially fond of debates and good logical oratory and luckily Paul had enough of a silver tongue to engage some of those gathered there. Still, some of what he said was a bit strange, so they invited him up to the Aregopagus, the chief court of Athens where the elite intelligentsia who specialized in religion, morals and teachings sat and adjudicated. Paul was wily, flattering them for not wanting to miss the worship of even gods they didn't know about and so including a place dedicated to "the Unknown God." He was there to tell them about that unknown god. He did a good job with it, being both cajoling and informative, starting with the role of God in creation (which they would have no problem understanding and accepting) but then developing the message of resurrection which, to them, was incomprehensible. Still, a few believed, not a bad start given the tough audience Paul faced.

To be effective, a speaker has to tailor the message to the audience. I know that I can't teach four-year-olds using words and phrases that a PhD would use, but there are times when talking to PhDs that I need to use the same kind of words and phrases I'd use for four-year-olds. In times of stress, words that I normally understand become as incomprehensible as if they were spoken in Urdu or Swedish. I can respond to reasoned discourse but I don't respond at all to forceful argument where the speaker is thoroughly convinced that I am wrong and will batter me with words until I agree and come around to their way of thinking. Years ago I heard it said that in order to give criticism, one should first start with something positive, then deliver the criticism so that it becomes about the behaviors or words of the person but not about the person themselves, then finish up with encouragement for change. This is precisely how Paul spoke that day, and while it didn't work unanimously, it did work with a small group. And, as everybody knows, it only takes a small seed to grow a mighty tree.

Sometimes I hear preachers passing on what is supposed to be the good news of Jesus as if it were Limburger cheese or a shot of cod liver oil. You have to get through the smell or the taste in order for the message to do you some good. I don't really respond to that kind of rhetoric. I don't need to be hammered upon about my shortcomings and flaws; I am very well aware of them as I have to live with them on a daily basis, try as I will to change them. I know I'm a sinner; I don't need someone to inform me of that.  I also know, though, that I have a God who loves me despite the flaws, a Savior who has lived and died so I could understand how much that love was worth, and a Spirit that waits to guide me in loving others. Now, to my way of thinking, that is truly Good News.

Good St. Francis's dictum of "Preach always, and sometimes use words" is probably one of the best bits of information that can be passed on to anyone, whether they are street preachers, pastors in a pulpit or just people in the pews who go about their daily lives and help make the world a better place. I need to keep the message short; I'm giving good news, not a dissertation. I need to make it appealing; how many people are really receptive to a harangue about their flaws? I need to make it relevant; what makes us (and the world we live in) better, more peaceful, more conscious of others, more equal? The early Christians attracted many new followers not by preaching on the street corner expounding the sinfulness of humanity but by simply loving one another and showing that love, the same kind of love Jesus showed over and over toward people that others scorned, feared or hated. That was good news passed on in a language and a way that promoted the faith.

If I want to pass on the message of the good news, I need to also listen to Paul as well as to Francis: tailor the message to the audience, keep it short and sweet (well, maybe not PRECISELY like Paul who could get a bit wordy at times, as can I, come to think of it), cajole rather than cudgel and, most of all, never miss an opportunity to witness without words. I know there is a time for criticism and fault-telling, but if it can be done with honey rather than vinegar, it's easier to swallow. Jesus spoke tough words, but he also knew when honey worked better and sharp words would only break a wounded reed.

I need to think today on where I am using honey and where I am using vinegar. Am I sharing good news or am I projecting guilt, doom and gloom? Most of all, how, when and where am I sharing the good news, with or without words? 

I think I need to be more conscious of my "audience", the people with whom I interact during the course of my day.  That's a tall order, but then, Jesus said it wasn't always going to be easy, even though he may not have used precisely that phrase. I think he was right, but I have to try.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul  at Episcopal Café on Saturday September 24, 2012.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A "Whole" Person

I was up early yesterday morning after a fairly restless night. The prospect of surgery, pain and the unknown is definitely a combination that kills sleep, even if the boys were, for once, rather calm and quiet. I got most of the chores done that I needed to do before I left for the hospital and finally it was time for my shower.

I got the water running and just as I was about to step in I stopped --- something in my head said to me, "This is the last time you will do this as a whole person."  That got my attention. "Whole person"?  

I've had teeth removed. That didn't make me less of a person.  I've had my gall bladder out and that didn't make me feel less than a whole person either, so why are two pieces of flesh, fat and ductwork making me think I will feel like less of a whole person?  That's goofy. I will just be missing a couple of parts I really can live without -- not like I was losing a lung or my liver or something. A 92-year-old friend asked if I were going to have reconstruction and when I said I hadn't made up my mind yet, her response as "Well, why do you need it then? You don't have a husband!"  She's right, but I'm not sure I'd have put it in exactly those terms!

Why would I need them? My clothes would fit a little better (given the right foundation) and the darts would do what darts are supposed to do.  People look at you sort of funny if you're flatter than a third grader when you're obviously in your sixties or more. My liver now sticks out and makes me look a bit pregnant (and the Immaculate Conception I'm NOT) and I think it is going to take me a long time to get up the courage to wear t-shirts out in public again. The boys don't care. They're just glad Mom's home from wherever she went that she came back smelling so funny.

As for being a "whole person", I now have to think of that in terms of a new reality. I still have my brain, my lungs, my liver and other necessary parts. My eyes still work pretty well and even if I have some false teeth, they manage to do what teeth are supposed to do.  So what is this "whole person" bit?  Breasts may be gender identifiers and a lot of women are bound up in that identity, but I don't think I have ever really been one of those. I've never been a clothes horse, so having a perfect fit isn't all that important although I do like comfortable clothes that don't make me look like I'm a little kid dressing up in her Mama's dressing gown and fancy slippers (reserved for her hospital stays).  Still, I am a whole person, even without a couple of mammary glands that have served their purpose and that  I can have prosthetically replaced --- if I really feel like I need them.

But then, I was too shy to burn my bra in the 60s, so maybe now it's time for me to do that. Who knows, being without might be a really nice thing --- no droopy straps, no cutting, binding or riding up, no wondering if they're going to shrink any more and make me go buy a smaller cup size.

You know, this might not be so bad, once I stop feeling like I've been run over by a semi.  I may not be a "whole person" with all the parts I was born with, but I've got what I need. That's the important part.

Published at">
Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Monday, October 1, 2012.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sept 15 - An Unexpected History Lesson

Commemoration of James Chisholm, priest (1815-1855)

Psalm 116:5-9
Sirach 38:9-17
2 Corinthians 1:3-11
Matthew 24:1-8

I wasn't born in Virginia, but I always consider myself a Virginian. I remember the saying, "To be a Virginian, whether by birth, marriage or adoption, is an introduction to any state, passport to any foreign country and a benediction from the Almighty God" and, smiling a bit smugly to myself, often say, "Yes, it is." It's got its faults, lots of them, and it's got its cases of inhumanity, bigotry, racism, class-ism, sexism and quite a few other -isms, but it's still home. When I see something about a Virginian, I prick up my ears -- was it someone from an area I knew? A name that was familiar? Possibly even a relative, no matter how distant? I saw that the Rev. James Chisholm was part of a Virginia history I knew nothing about but it was in an area was close to home so I started reading. What I read was about a quiet, scholarly man who, even though grafted onto the Virginia tree, was a man, a priest of the Episcopal Church (although he would have come up short at the name "priest") who showed the meaning of Jesus' message of "love your neighbor" even unto death.

The Rev. Mr. Chisholm was a scholar, a studious man of gentle demeanor, shy in social situations but a stirring preacher and gifted teacher. Born, raised and primarily educated in Massachusetts, he came to Virginia as a teacher, was exposed to the Episcopal church and found in it a home and a vocation. He served in several parishes, the last being St. John's in Portsmouth. His congregation rapidly grew fond of him and respected his dedication to the gospel that he preached and lived. The city too grew to love and respect him as one who practiced what he preached and who cared less for the state of their wallets than the state of their health and well-being, both physical and spiritual.

James Chisholm, a recent widower whose wife had died in February of 1855, had two small sons left in his care. An epidemic of yellow fever began in Portsmouth in July of that same year. He sent his sons away for safety's sake (one was already in poor health as the result of the effect of measles), but he stayed at his post because that was where he believed his Christian duty lay, caring for and consoling the healthy as well as  committing the souls and bodies of  those who had contracted and suffered from the pestilence. He received word that his sickly son had taken a turn for the worse and was likely to die imminently, but he would not leave Portsmouth and the suffering people there. He was tireless in his service to God and his fellow human beings. He wasn't alone; in all seven ministers representing different denominations remained in Portsmouth and four of them died of the fever, most contracting it during their care of and ministry to the sick.

In September, 1855, Just a few days after the death of his younger son, James Chisholm himself succumbed to yellow fever, one of the approximately 3,200 deaths in a place where the pre-epidemic population had been about 12,000, of whom about two-thirds fled when the epidemic began. His death was mourned by those who had survived, and, it is said, approximately 20 people attended his internment which was conducted by a Baptist minister, one of the few remaining clergymen. Most burials were accompanied only by the grave digger and the hearse driver and maybe a clergyman to read the service over the body, so 20 people was a great testimony to the respect and love Chisholm had garnered although his earthly wealth amounted to the a few hundred dollars which were left to his surviving son.*

Sometimes it isn't the great acts that are remembered when someone dies. I once knew a Baptist preacher who, like James Chisholm, would go where he was needed, whether or not the person were a member of his congregation or someone he even knew. All he had to do was hear that someone's Aunt Mabel, a third-cousin's mother-in-law or a neighbor's child was ill and in hospital and, day or night, he would jump in his car and go there to visit, pray and do what he could to bring comfort. He did a good job at that. He would have liked James Chisholm, even if their theologies weren't identical. What was identical was their belief that following the gospel required this of them, a God-sent mission not just to preach sin, but to show love and compassion. That's a very big deal, then as well as now.

What I learn from James Chisholm is that it doesn't matter where I was born or where I will be buried but how I live while I am here. It doesn't matter how much money I have or don't have in the bank, it's how I spend myself serving others with humility, respect and love, no matter their status or anything else that society or hierarchy says separates me from them (or them from me, for that matter). I can read Jesus' words and understand them intellectually, but until I see someone like James Chisholm (or my Baptist preacher friend, may he rest in peace) and really take in what it means to put those words into action, they are just words. I needed that reminder.

A history lesson from a state rich in history and a new understanding of what gospel living is about from another transplant by the grace of God. That's a very worthwhile thing to think about today.

Originally published at  href =""> Speaking to the Soul
on  Episcopal Café   Saturday, September 15, 2012.

*Conrad, David Holmes, Memoir of Rev. James Chisholm, A.M., Late Rector of St. John's Church, Portsmouth, Va., with Memoranda of the Pestilence Which Raged in That City During the Summer and Autumn of 1855. Originally published by the , January 1856.

Lon Wagner, The Virginian Pilot, The Fever. Originally published July 10-23, 2005.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Job and Eliphaz

Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

‘Can a mortal be of use to God?
Can even the wisest be of service to him?

Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?

Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
and enters into judgement with you?

‘Agree with God, and be at peace;
in this way good will come to you.

Receive instruction from his mouth,
 and lay up his words in your heart.
If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored,
if you remove unrighteousness from your tents,

if you treat gold like dust,
and gold of Ophir like the stones of the torrent-bed,
and if the Almighty is your gold
and your precious silver,

then you will delight in the Almighty,
and lift up your face to God.

You will pray to him, and he will hear you,
and you will pay your vows.

You will decide on a matter, and it will be established for you,
and light will shine on your ways.

When others are humiliated, you say it is pride;
for he saves the humble.

He will deliver even those who are guilty;
they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.’

Then Job answered:

‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.

O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.  -- Job 22:1-4, 21-23:7

What would you do if one of your good friends, maybe even your best friend, a person you looked up to, loved, respected and considered one of the really good people on this earth, suddenly lost everything including their family, their home, their livelihood, all their possessions and their health all at once?  Wouldn't you run to them to try to comfort and help them in any way you could, even when you yourself felt overwhelmed by what had happened to them?  That's what most folks would do, in a heartbeat. The guy named Job's friends were no different -- well, pretty much so.

Job was accounted as a righteous man. He was well-off financially, had a lovely family, lots of flocks and herds, a nice house, the whole schmear. Suddenly he found himself totally bereft -- house gone, flocks and herds gone, his family gone (except for his wife), and even his health left him. It was as if he were a lab rat, with as much say in the matter as a lab rat has as to whether or not he chose to participate. What he did have left, though, was friends to sit with him, talk to him, sympathize with him, cajole and encourage him, and offer advice, like good friends will do when another friend is in difficulties. Their names were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar but they are better known as "Job's comforters," a phrase that has come to represent friends who appear to sympathize but whose "help" seems to be finding a place to lay blame for the whole thing. Now a good friend will never let you off the hook when you're at fault, but they will also give you the benefit of the doubt. Job's comforters really didn't; they were busy trying to get to the root of the problem as they saw it, namely, that Job done all kinds of wicked things and that God's only alternative was severe punishment. Job wasn't buying it because Job had faith in God and he knew he was innocent of all the charges his so-called friends laid on him.

It's hard to be accused of something I haven't done. It's bad enough when I did do it, but how much harder when I am innocent and no one will believe me. There have been times when it felt like even God had turned away and believed the accusations. I may not have had to suffer the way Job did, but just because I didn't lose everything, have boils and single-minded friends to contend with didn't mean I didn't suffer. Some wise person once said something to the effect that the worst problems in the world are mine because I have to deal with them and not someone else's problems. I didn't need friends to tell me it was God's punishment; I didn't believe God would punish me for something I hadn't done, just as Job didn't, but he wanted to plead his case anyway, and, I guess, so did I. I can't claim to be a perfect Job, but I hope I'm not a perfect Eliphaz (or Bildad or Zophar) either.

Job's story is probably an attempt to answer the old question of why bad things happen to good people. Job's comforters, like Eliphaz, probably represents the thinking of most people who need to have someone to blame when things seem to go so horribly wrong. Did a baby die? A poor family lose its house and all its possessions in a tornado or flood?  Did a beloved wife and mother become terminally ill with a disease with no cure?  Why would God exact such punishment on people who had done no harm and who simply wanted to live their lives as best they could?  "It's God's will." I've heard that at countless funerals; I didn't really believe it then and I don't now. Maybe that sounds heretical or unChristian, but I have a high opinion of a God who not only created ethics but upheld covenants, even when those with whom the covenant was made didn't do their part. Sometimes bad stuff happens, but it is, as it was for Job, an opportunity to try the strength of my faith that God will always be there, in good and bad, and I simply have to recognize that and trust it. Job did, and in the end, he came out more wealthy, more healthy, more blessed with family and possessions than he had had before.

In my life I can choose to be a Job, with his faith and trust that God would hear his defense and find in his favor, or to be an Eliphaz (or Bildad or Zophar) who looks for why God would so punish someone and try to tease that reason out of the one who is in trouble. I can be a friend who encourages a friend to be honest, and I hope I can appreciate the friends that do the same for me. I can rejoice in the downfall of societal icons who are praised one day and whose indiscretions become front page news the next or I can remember that sin has its own punishment, no matter how great or unimportant the person and that there but for the grace of God go I. My choice now is how to respond to sin, disaster, trouble and pain -- mine and the world's. Job? Eliphaz? (Bildad? Zophar?)  Which one is really me at any given moment.

In trouble or prosperity, God's still there. That's the one thing I can count on, even if friends (or so-called friends) insinuate otherwise. Good thing I have good friends. They may not always share my beliefs but they keep me honest, respect me enough to be honest with me, and remind me of God's presence simply by their own presence in my life.

Job should have been so lucky.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 8, 2012.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reflection on September 5th

I seem to be doing a lot of introspection these days. Of course, having temperatures over 100° and sometimes hovering about 110° makes staying in more of a necessity even if I really had somewhere I wanted to go or something I wanted to do. I feel I need to do some serious housecleaning, over and above the lick-and-a-promise I tend to do. I needed to get rid of some books that had been in boxes in my living room for the past 6 months or so. I need to look at where things are in the house and perhaps prioritize them a bit better so that things I will need in the next few weeks are on counters instead of in cupboards, in smaller containers, or with loosened or removed caps whenever possible. I am rearranging my life because I can control that, even if there are other things I can't control.

Today I find myself being introspective about anniversaries. There are specific dates on the calendar every year that make me stop and take more than a few deep breaths: the January day when I discovered my world changed forever with the death of my husband, the October day that I celebrate my son's birth, the November reminder of Mama's death (oddly enough, I can't remember the specific dates of the deaths of my two fathers), and the September date that marked my late spouse's birthday and also the anniversary of our marriage. That day is today, and it is always a bit of a hard day to get through in some ways. This year seems especially hard, possibly because of the upcoming life change I am going to undergo in about two weeks, but partly because I remember so many things I wish I had done differently, could have/should have changed, and the like. I can't change the past, but I can think about it and maybe use what I've learned to do better in the future.

Today as I was making a checklist of things that have to be done in the next couple of weeks, I realized that it isn't going to be easy not having another person around to help. Don't get me wrong; I have some wonderful friends who have offered to do whatever I need whenever I need it, but if, at 2am I need something done or want something, there's nobody there to nudge and say, "Sorry to wake you, but would you....?"  Normally I don't mind living alone (well, as alone as I can be with four cats!) but this is getting a bit scary. Can't wash my own hair?  Guess I will have to either wear it dirty (ick! ick!) or figure out a way to cope. I wonder -- would a backscratcher work with shampoo?  Can't run the vacuum for a few weeks? I'll be neck high in cat fur! On my list is moving things around to where they are more a more convenient height -- the hummingbird feeder, the hanging plants that will need water, papers I've been accumulating in my file basket next to the desk, the pile of books I have on the desk that need to be put somewhere handy. There's only so much space, so how do I maximize it?  Moreover, how do I do it so that I can get to it but the boys can't knock it off wherever I put it?  Now there's a trick question!

The spousal unit would have been 92 today. Granted, at that advanced age he might not have been able to do a lot, but that's beside the point. He would have tried, and the try would have been appreciated. He probably would have rearranged things in a way that he felt was reasonable and logical, like he did that time he did my spices when he couldn't find the celery salt, but it might not have been to my liking but I'd have to accept that it was the gift he could give at the time (I didn't see it that way then). And he could probably still open my jar of peanuts or cook an Irish stew for dinner if I didn't feel like cooking. Today, I'd even welcome the mess he'd make on the stove doing that.

Tomorrow will be another day like so many since the day he passed on. Today, though, I stop, reflect, remember and even talk to him as if he were still here, at a time when I really need him to be around. And somehow, I think he is, even if it is just out of reach.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

About Death

I heard today of the death of someone I didn't know personally but did know through through her partner, a person whose blog I read and whose writings and sermons I see and admire.  I don't know a lot of details; I don't need to know them. All I need to know is that her loved ones are grieving yet have the sure and certain knowledge that her pain and suffering are over and that she is now at peace. They also know that she will sleep in Jesus and rise in glory in God's good time and that they will all be together once more in the heavenly kingdom. It's a truly Christian belief and hope, and, I pray, one in which those who remain behind will find comforting and strengthening.

Death is one of those topics that has two faces like the Roman god Janus. There is the side that represents a topic that people really don't want to talk about, especially when it comes to their own death. The other side is the side everybody wants to talk about-- what were the circumstances, why now, who was with them, what did they see and hear, what did the person go through at the end of life, etc. Death represents a final frontier, more final a frontier than the conquest of space, the Marianas Trench or life on Mars. We all pray that we will have a peaceful end, slipping quietly away in our sleep without pain or suffering, but we also know that that doesn't always happen. I found that some who are approaching death have made a sort of peace with it and are willing to talk about the subject. They know that death comes to all of us, it is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning or sin. They just feel its breath on their cheek and know that they will soon have answers to questions that they cannot share. Then there are those who fight death tooth and nail to the last breath in their bodies, trying to deny death a victory just as they deny that it will come, whether they are ready or not.

Death, to be honest, scares us a bit because (a) we can't really control it and (b) we don't really understand what happens at death and beyond. We fear what we don't understand, and we fear what we can't control. We fear losing control of our lives, our dignity, our identity. We fear losing relationships that have sustained us and to which we have given our all. We fear hurting those we leave behind and wonder how they will get on without us. So much fear. Even though we may have great faith in God, firm belief that we are going to go to a better place, even longing to have pain ended and a new beginning in a glorious place, we still have some fear, maybe not crippling fear but fear nonetheless.

The older I get the more I think about my own death, especially now that I have a diagnosis of something which could be fatal -- eventually perhaps, or perhaps not. I know I will die one day; that's a surety It's just the mechanism and circumstance that I can't foresee.  The older I get, the more I realize that I have come to a sort of peace with it, at least at this moment. I can't speak for ten minutes or ten months or years from now; it may be an entirely different thing then, but I'll worry about that a bit closer to the time, if I know the time. Doing it now won't solve anything other than grow a bigger crop of fear than I can handle at the moment. It's all in God's hands anyway, no matter how much I think I can control it or whatever.

I will pray for the soul of L., her family and friends. I know the pain of losing a spouse, and the emptiness they will all feel even despite their faith and trust in God. It will take time for life to return to a semi-normal state, or what will become a new normal but with a big hole in the hearts and lives of those who mourn her.

I will pray for myself as well, not for healing or cure -- those I have put in the hands of my doctors and, of course, God -- but that I will have the strength to face what I need to face with calmness, patience, resignation (but not TOO much resignation; I need to have a little fight with this thing), and confidence that one way or another, I will win, either by beating the disease or by moving on to the life beyond death.

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die
   -- John Donne

What Happens in Caesarea Doesn't Always Stay in Caesarea

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ -- Acts 11:1-18

"Now what'd ya go and do that for?" I can't count the number of times I've heard that, starting with Mama and then going through friends, teachers, supervisors, neighbors. They may have used slightly different words but the inference was the same. I did something of which they disapproved or which they didn't understand how or why I could do such a thing. Never mind that to me it seemed like the thing to do or think or say at the time, evidently others didn't see it that way. Sometimes they were right, but not always.

Peter kind of had that same sort of experience. He'd gotten away from home, gone to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion who was, as was called in those days, a "God-Fearer" but who hadn't been circumcised and so was considered an outsider. It didn't say he served Peter a ham sandwich, but he might as well have, or so Peter's friends back home thought. When Peter got back, the details of his visit had preceded him and he was met with a group of followers who began with the "Now what'd ya go and do that for?" recriminations. Of course, Peter had a good reason as to why he'd gone and done what he did, probably the best reason in the world. "God said I could." I'm sure that caused more than one upraised eyebrow.

There are times when it seems like the unthinkable is a pretty good idea. Daedalus tried to fly with wax and feather wings but his experiment didn't work out too well when he flew too close to the sun, but then there were Orville and Wilbur Wright who attempted the same sort of thing, perhaps with more caution. better materials and mechanical knowledge, and the whole world changed because of it. For Peter, eating with a gentile who, despite his God-fearing ways might just offer him a bacon cheeseburger or nice rack of baby back ribs, probably would have not been a blip on the radar. It just wouldn't happen. But God gave him a pretty persuasive argument and so Peter went, presented the message he was sent to give them and, as a result, Cornelius and his household were converted.

I'm sure there have been a lot of times in history when someone has done something that turned into a huge "Now what'd ya go and do that for?" moments. A lot of them are still having repercussions years, decades, even centuries later. A lot of them had and still have people staunchly defending one side or the other of the issue, those claiming that such an act "ruined" things forever and those claiming the change didn't go far enough or fast enough. Undoubtedly Peter's out-of-town, "What happens in Caesarea stays in Caesarea," experience was one of those which had repercussions. That old saw about "But we've NEVER (or we've ALWAYS) done it that way" seemed to apply then as well as now. Here the neighbors had been following what they believed was God's will, diet- and company-wise, and then there's Peter telling them God wanted just the opposite. It must have been a mind-bending moment for them.

The repercussions of that revelation are still going on today. It goes beyond pork ribs and bacon cheeseburgers and goes straight to the heart of what or who is good and acceptable in God's sight, what or who is made clean by God, whether or not we recognize it -- or them. Come to think of it, it makes me wonder if we shouldn't be remembering that in Genesis when God made something, God said it was good -- until it came to humans. Those were considered "very good", definitely a step up. If God created humans and thought them very good despite the fact that God had to have known that humans created with free will were going to goof up, make major errors in judgement, turn against God and the whole bit, then perhaps I need to look at the sheet God lowers in front of me and shows me those I might not remember to think of as God's children--clean, good and acceptable no matter what I've been taught or what I've thought.

Peter got his instructions on the roof of a house in Joppa where he was staying. I don't have to get up on the roof or go away among strangers to have my own revelation of sorts - or have to worry much about what the neighbors might say about how I act on that epiphany. I wonder -- if everybody had such an insight, not necessarily about ham sandwiches but about who God would invite to dinner, welcome into the house or even look at with love and say Very good," maybe there wouldn't be so much "What'd ya go and do that for?" but rather, "Why didn't we think of that?" It would probably be a really good change.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 1, 2012.