Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Change Happens

Assuming that tomorrow will be the same as today is poor preparation for living. It equips us only for disappointment or, more likely, for shock. To live well, to be mentally healthy, we must learn to realize that life is a work in process. -- Joan Chittister, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy *

There's been a lot of discussion lately centering around aging and the church, specifically the role of older people running the church. When I saw this quotation in Sr. Joan's book this morning, it was like a V-8 moment - a smack on the forehead that makes you catch your breath and think, "Yeah! That's it!"The quotation does, I believe, speak to those at both ends of the process of aging. To the elders it speaks of having gone through multiple changes throughout their life, including their place in the world, the neighborhood and the church. It's been a more-or-less steady process of morphing (or sometimes total upheaval) from one state to another, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes with the force of a 9.5 earthquake. But the thing is that change is normal. It's natural. It should be expected. We accepted it in our times of change, liking it or not, and sometimes wished the world would stop spinning because it was so much more comfortable being in a familiar place where we knew the rules and knew where we were.  To the younger generations, it speaks to the changes that they will undergo. Some will have undergone changes already, but the ones looming on the horizon and as yet unknown, may shake them and form them just as the ones my generation have undergone. The answers that are so patently clear right now aren't necessarily the ones that will still be so transparent in the next year, ten years, even in the next generation.
The world has changed so greatly in the lifetime of the Boomers. We grew up when television was still fairly new and color TV was cutting edge. We've lived through the technology revolution, room-sized computers becoming small enough to fit in the tiniest space imaginable, instant communication by internet, cell phone, and tablet, advanced medical tests that were (and sometimes still are) incomprehensible (and expensive) but which are capable of diagnosing things that even ten years ago were destined to remain unseen, unfelt, unnoticed and undiagnosed.  We've seen the sexual revolution (and some of us took part in that!), the bridging (or continued bridging) of the gender gap, stock booms (and busts), the leaders we admired two years ago now are shown to be guilty (or merely accused) of gross injustice (or merely feet of clay), and what happens in Vegas is now fodder for the world's media. No generation, I believe, has undergone as many changes as our has, although the Gen-Xers, Millennials and their successors may beat that record. I think that both parts of that statement bear remembering -- we changed, they will change. The meeting point is the "is changing" between the generations.
The church has changed too over the course of our lives. Liturgies have changed, the Bible has been re-translated and re-translated again and again to speak to different groups and in different vernaculars, there has been an increased awareness of stewardship not just of individual time, talent and treasure but also of communal and global stewardship of the earth and all that lives, exists and is on it. We have come to a new understanding of and need for evangelism, not just because our numbers are dropping but because like the beggar who found a cache of food, we want other hungry people to find what we have found.  It is a process. Nobody stays precisely in the same slot into which they were born, even in the church. The old quip of "But we don't need evangelism because everybody who is supposed to be Episcopalian already is one!" doesn't work any more -- if it ever did.
So that brings me back to the process of change and where we are in it. The Boomers still have life in them, gifts to give and experience to pass on to those who are so ready to take over and change things themselves. The excitement of the next generations to get going with their church and taking it in new directions is exciting to us, even if a little intimidating.  It is sort of  like watching them start off on their first day of school, so eager to take the next step to growing up but wondering where their journey will take them.
The common denominator is change -- changes that have taken place and those that will.  For Boomers, we need to practice patience with those younger than us. We were anxious to grow up, get out on our own and take on the world to make it better for ourselves and our kids. The Gen Xers and Millennials are no different; they just have their own agenda, not necessarily that of their parents and grandparents. Their world is different, so change has to be expected. Maybe it won't always be comfortable and maybe not even what we consider wise, but definitely expected.
Life (and the church) is a work in progress. As surely as winter moves through spring and summer before arriving at fall and then winter again, change is inevitable. It might be a place to start in cross-generational discussions, not with one side haranguing the other about how it was or how it ought to be but where it has come from and where it could be going. If we become compartmentalized within our own generation we lose touch with something precious, something important. Each generation has something to offer the church; we just have to find where the common ground is and begin there to listen to all the voices and all the ideas, weighing them carefully, examining them from many angles, and coming to a common agreement -- not necessarily an all-or-nothing command.
Be kind to each other, one generation to another. We're all changing in some way, and for some of us it is painful, and that goes for both sides of the age fulcrum. Work together, learn from each other, trust each other's motives are for the best that they can conceive, and tread lightly because we deal with people, not just ideas. Above all, expect change in all its forms. It will happen.
*ch. 13, ¶ 6, (Kindle ed.,) (2012) New York: Image.
Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, October 30, 2012.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Please, could you....?"

And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’  -- Luke 11:5-13 (NRSV)

"Mama, can I have this toy?"  "Susie, can I wear your blue skirt today?" "Dad, can I borrow the car keys?" "Mrs. Jones,  can I have an extra day to do my book report?"  We have been asking for things ever since we took our first breaths. Even that was asking for something -- pick me up, wrap me warmly, hold me close, make me feel safe.  We go through life asking for things, usually expecting that the requests will be honored and whatever it is we wanted will be forthcoming. If the answer is "no" we often feel let down, sometimes betrayed, sometimes angry, but then, there are times when we say "no" to someone else's request and our reactions range from irritation at their asking in the first place to guilt for not being able (or willing) to do what is requested. At the bottom of it, though, everyone asks for things and everyone reacts to others' asking things of them.

"Hey, can I borrow....?"  Bread was a staple then as it is now. Bread was more than just something to eat, it was also something to eat with.  Back home, the first time we visited a friend (or a relative) who had moved into a new (or new-to-them) house, we always took a gift of bread and salt.  It was traditional. If someone died, one of the things that usually found its way to the home of the bereaved was bread in one of a number of forms.  If we'd have been out of bread when breakfast time came and there were guests in the house, Mama would have had me run to one of the neighbors to borrow some, and they would undoubtedly have done the best they could knowing the shoe could very well be on the other foot one day (or already had been). That was life when I was growing up, and, in a sense, that was the same kind of world that Jesus knew. Neighbors helped neighbors, no matter if it were a bit inconvenient or whether they had been a bit short-sighted to eat up all their daily bread before the next batch was baked for the next day. 

Asking was what it took. People often say, "Call if you need anything," and, to their credit, most of the time they really mean it. The problem I found with myself, though, was although I meant it when I said it to someone else, it was extremely hard to actually ask for help when I needed it -- whether it was from my son, friends, my employer or anyone else.  It just plain went against the grain, my illusion of being able to handle things myself. It's an exercise in humility -- just as granting a request is one in an exercise in compassion and generosity.

It's not hard for me to ask God for things; I seem to do it all the time. The thing is, what is it I am asking for, why do I feel I need to ask for it, and what do I hope to gain from it?  Sure, I've sent up arrows of desperation when the rent was due and the paycheck was not going to cover it, or sitting in a hospital admittance cubicle while I heard my then-10-year-old screaming in the emergency room just beyond (he'd slid down a steep hill and gotten a bad concussion), or when I'm late for work and all the stop lights between home and the office seem to be interminably red.  I've even sent more than one up when I got a diagnosis I was anticipating (but not really expecting, if you know what I mean).  But I found that more and more I asked for courage to face whatever I had to, the strength to deal with it no matter what, and the grace to ask for help when I needed it and receive it with gratitude. I learned something very valuable from that: I can ask and then leave it in God's hands. Oh, I took it back several times and worried and fretted and had anxiety all over the place for a short time, but lo and behold, the peace came back after I simply told God I couldn't handle it and I was giving it back to God.

I am no saint; I realize it and anyone who knows me will say the same. Still, I can and do pray for people and situations they find themselves in, and I know God hears me. Not all my prayers get positive results, but I also understand that God isn't Santa Claus. I can't give God a list and expect everything wrapped up and waiting for me according to a calendar. Oh, I can give God a list, but that doesn't mean I will get it all, any more than I got everything I asked for when I was a kid and Christmas was coming. The important thing is to ask wisely -- for daily bread, for good friends, for health and well-being of all, for peace, for wisdom.

I think that if I can manage that, the asking wisely thing, I'll be a little closer to what Jesus had in mind. And if my neighbor asks for some bread in the middle of the night, I'd better keep a little extra in the larder -- just in case.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, October 27, 2012.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Learning from a Diagnosis

Ever have something in your life that doesn't seem too important for a very long time and then all of a sudden it becomes a very big deal?  And every time you look somewhere you seem to see something that relates to that very big deal?  It feels like you can't get away from it, no matter what you do, where you go, who you talk to or how you try to focus on other things. It can be a real pain.

I've been that way with breast cancer. My adoptive mother, Mama, had breast cancer twice -- once when I was six and again when I was nine. It made a lot of changes in my life, changes that I, the stubborn little brat that I was, really ticked me off.  Mama had always taken care of my hair, washing and curling it, but with the radical mastectomies she couldn't do that so I had to have my hair cut short. In fourth grade I had three outfits, all gray and red, that I could mix and match. Mama had always made clothes for me at the drop of a sewing needle, frilly dresses and the like. The gray and red were definitely un-stylish, dull, boring and plain. Took me years to wear the color gray again. Most of all I remember the scars from her surgeries, the ugly, ropey red slashes that faded a bit but still remained visible to the end of her life when I was fourteen. I read her death certificate; it didn't say anything about cancer other than as part of her history, but I think the cancer killed her. Don't ask me why I think that, I just have thought it for all these fifty-plus years.

I didn't think about breast cancer for a very long time, decades even.  I knew people who had had it, and some had done fine while others succumbed. Still, it was one of those diseases I never really wanted to think about. The memory of those scars and the lack of having her around for my high school and college graduations, my recitals and choral performances, my wedding, the birth of my son, and all the hundreds of other things girls do with their mothers still feels like a big hole. She died too soon, and I could never be the same after that happened.

Then came the day I found the lump. Like so many, I felt it but just didn't want to think about it. About three months later my doctor did an exam and he found it. He,packed me off to have first a mammogram and, when that came back looking kind of hinky, sent me for more tests including a biopsy, this time on both sides.  From there I got the diagnosis --  a roughly two-centimeter tumor on one side with funny stuff going on in the other side. This required a visit to the surgeon. He read the films and the pathology report of the biopsy and gave me options: a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. His recommendation was the mastectomy, but also wanted me to think about doing a bilateral so that I could be more certain that what I was going through now wouldn't be something I would have to revisit in a few years.  I decided on the bilateral and we set the date.  I had about six weeks to get used to the idea that (a) I had cancer, (b) I was going to have to have surgery, and (c) I was never going to look or be the same again. 

And wouldn't you know it, as soon as I got diagnosed it seemed like I was running into pink ribbons, public service announcements for mammograms, ads for cancer treatment centers, the whole schmear.  It was like I couldn't get away from it for very long.  I held it together; I did research, I learned to ask for and (hopefully graciously) receive help, I thought, I prayed, I worried, I fumed, I talked, I remembered. It was almost a relief to have the day of the surgery come and to actually be getting on with it.  Now, four weeks later, I'm doing pretty well.  I can work full days without getting completely exhausted halfway through it, I can do pretty much anything I want to do (and a few things I probably shouldn't), avoid things I really don't want to do on the basis of "recovering from surgery" and, in general, live fairly normally. I'm still waiting for the outcome of a few more tests like a DNA test on my tumor (surprisingly they keep stuff like that in case further tests are needed, and I never thought my tumor would have what amounts to a paternity test!) and then I start treatment.

Meanwhile I still keep running into things that brings the breast cancer back to my mind every time I turn around. It's bad enough looking in the mirror and seeing the ugly scars -- everything from thin red lines to scabby and swollen places -- as well as having lumps and bumps that are really not very aesthetic (of course, the original "bumps" that got removed weren't exactly things of beauty and a joy forever either).  I still have aches and discomfort, not really pain, but enough that I'm not totally comfortable most of the time. I understand this will all change -- but dang, I wish it would hurry up about it. I just want to get my life back.

I went back to work one week and two days after my surgery. Since I work two 3-hour days and two full days a week, I had to try to pace myself to get through the days, sometimes coming home for a long nap in mid-day before returning to the office.  And danged if the paper didn't start running ads with pink ribbons or logos or even ads printed in pink. For every ad someone placed that used the ribbon or logo, the paper would make a donation to breast cancer research.  You know, I began to enjoy seeing those pink ads; it was like a personal message that people do care about stuff like I had, and they were willing to pay to help research potential cures above and beyond what we can do now.

Tonight on TLC I tuned into a show I really enjoy, God alone knows why, called "Say Yes to the Dress." It's about a bridal salon in Atlanta, the people who work there and the brides and their bridal attendants who go there looking for the perfect dress or dresses.  Maybe I like it because it is upbeat and the staff seem like people I'd really like to get to know.  For the last couple of weeks, though, there's been a teaser about a special program scheduled for tonight about the owner of the store who was breaking the news to her staff that she had breast cancer.  Oh, d***.  Can't get away from it even on favorite TV programs.  Anyway, I watched it and from time to time I had eyes filling with tears although I haven't cried a drop over my own diagnosis and surgery  or, indeed, anything else for a good many years.  Lori ended up having a bilateral mastectomy just like I did, but she had immediate reconstructive surgery, something I haven't decided to do yet and may not. After all, as a 92-year-old friend of mine remarked, "What would you want to do that for? After all, you don't have a husband!" Now I know why we have boobs. I still get a laugh out of that anyway.

Once I got the diagnosis, it was like everywhere I turned I was reminded of breast cancer. It was like the universe (or God or both or maybe even neither) wanted me to pay attention and made sure I had to do that very thing. I still pay attention; I can't help it, because this stuff is part of my history now, hopefully my history, anyway. I can't say I'll never have cancer again. After all, I had basal cell carcinoma on my nose last year and the surgery left a big scar. Oddly enough, it's healed up so well I can notice it but others aren't all that aware of it.  Maybe my chest area will be the same way (although I'm sure not going to have it out there in public like my nose is!).  Maybe I won't look like Mama did, and maybe my outcome won't be like hers, I don't know.  Right now it's just getting through every day, every doctor's appointment, every test and every look in the mirror. Still, it could be worse.

So I guess that now breast cancer has my attention I better think of some way to not only deal with it but do something about it, not just for me but for other people who may not have had the great support system I had to help me get through it, or who might be in that place of denial that I was.  It's a pity that sometimes the only way to get my attention about something is to hit me over the head with a sixteen-pound cast-iron frying pan or the mental equivalent.  Anyway, every time something happens that reminds me of Voldemort (my name for my cancerous tissue) or an ache or pain from a regenerating nerve or bumped swelling, I am aware of how far I've come in just three months.  I'm grateful to be alive and I'm also aware of how much stronger I am as a person because of it.

It's quite a lesson -- and a helluva way to have to learn it.  I'm looking forward to five years from now, seeing what's happened and what I've gained from all this.  God willing, five years from now I'll be clear of cancer and moving on to bigger and better things.

God willing.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Lesson from Sirach

My child, perform your tasks with humility;
then you will be loved by those whom God accepts.
The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself;
so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.
For great is the might of the Lord;
but by the humble he is glorified.
Neither seek what is too difficult for you,
nor investigate what is beyond your power.
Reflect upon what you have been commanded,
for what is hidden is not your concern.
Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,
for more than you can understand has been shown to you.
For their conceit has led many astray,
and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement.
Without eyes there is no light;
without knowledge there is no wisdom.
A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end,
and whoever loves danger will perish in it.
A stubborn mind will be burdened by troubles,
and the sinner adds sin to sins.
When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing,
for an evil plant has taken root in him.
The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.
As water extinguishes a blazing fire,
so almsgiving atones for sin.
Those who repay favours give thought to the future;
when they fall they will find support.  --  Sirach 3:17-31

There's something about a proverb. It's a lovely, pithy, memorable saying that says a lot in a few words. Many times it is a bit of wisdom that can be pulled out when needed in order to illuminate a decision or point to the proper direction of action. If your mother was like Mama, you'd have learned them at her knee and still remember those lessons today.

The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is one of those apocryphal books not accepted by the total spectrum of Christianity but which we as Episcopalians take as words of guidance and instruction but do not accept as doctrinal. Emily Post can be considered a book of guidance and instruction in the very useful way of living life with good manners (as books like Sirach were considered to be) and some semblance of social grace. Emily Post is hardly a matter of doctrine although that doesn't make it any less valuable in its own right, just like the apocryphal books like Sirach.

This part of Sirach is a lesson in humility, the kind of humility that doesn't make one a doormat but rather which seems to let things get done but without a lot of flash or ovations. Sirach's point is that no matter how great I am (or think I am), pride will eventually get me in trouble and cause me a lot of grief. The old saying "Pride goes before a fall" (which is really an adaptation of Proverbs 16:18 which uses "a fall" instead of the original "destruction") sums up what Sirach is getting at, namely, advice which the wise will accept and the foolish ignore -- to their peril.

I wonder -- who would be on the "most humble" list of famous people I could think of right off the top of my head? Among others,  I think of Mother Teresa who, while undoubtedly proud of the work her nuns were doing among the poorest of the poor, was not happy in being in the limelight herself, preferring to do her work quietly but accepting that sometimes God pushed her to the forefront in order to make people more aware of those less fortunate than themselves. On the other hand, I look at many of our politicians today and think they could use a bigger dose of humility. "I have done this for you and I have done that for the good of the country" may be a good political speech but it seems to me that it is also a bit self-serving, reminding people that they owe the politician something (when in actuality the politician may have done great damage to millions in the process).  "For their conceit has led many astray, and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement" seems to be a verse they might do well to consider."  Good ol' Sirach.

Now when it comes to stubborn, Mama always felt I had more than my share of it. I never heard of Sirach when I was in church as a young person (I wonder if I would have listened if I had?) It certainly has landed me in a bunch of messes, but sometimes stubbornness can be a lifesaver. People who beat diseases like cancer have, I believe, a streak of stubbornness that won't let them give up until the last possible second. Martin Luther King was stubborn, never giving up his message of equality for God's children both black and white. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi were stubborn and didn't give up, even despite years of imprisonment and cruelty. I think everybody needs a dose of stubbornness, just directed toward a positive goal, not a selfish, negative one.

Sayings like those in Sirach might not be as well known as those from the book of Proverbs, from Ecclesiastes or even from more contemporary sages like Ben Franklin, but they are still valuable guides if I just stop and pay attention to them.  I'm probably never going to be a Mother Teresa or a Nelson Mandela, but maybe I could use a bit of stubbornness, and more than a dash of humility, to accomplish something worthwhile, something more than my own survival.

I wonder -- where can God use that bit of stubbornness and dash of humility in this world today? Where to even start?  Maybe that's where the stubbornness comes in, stubbornness to keep asking and the humility to accept what assignment God has for me. Hmmm.  I'm sure there's a plan somewhere. Now to find it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 20, 2012, under the title "Stubbornness and Humility."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What We Won't Do for Our Kids

Gospel reading for the Commemoration of William Carey, Missionary to India

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ - Matthew 17:14-20

Many of those who came to Jesus came as desperate people. Lepers, paralytics, apparently possessed, hemorrhaging -- these were people who had only the tiniest bit of hope left and that was Jesus. As much as we empathize with the adults seeking help, how much more can we identify with parents of young children who are sick and/or dying?  It's lovely to think of Jesus with a lap full of laughing, healthy children, but even in our own time not all children are so fortunate.  Even among those of us who have had children but without the fear and helplessness of severe illness or potential death, we can still feel the pain of the father who begins this story. I have a feeling that anyone, parent or not, who loves children can feel some of his pain if not all of it. It's one of those "You can't unless you've been there."  They're right; but that doesn't mean we don't feel deeply and with anguish.

Parents generally will do anything for their kids. What we heard from our parents was that they worked hard so that we could have more and better things than they had when they were children. When my generation started raising children, we had pretty much the same ethic -- make it better for the children than we have it. There are times when I think we as a generation did it wrong - or maybe for the wrong reasons. We loved our kids like our parents loved us, we just loved a bit too unwisely and too well, beginning a cycle of gotta-have-more-gotta-have-better-gotta-beat-the-Joneses. We invented vaccinations, car seats, seat belts, pool fences, pool alarms, kid-proof locks, all sorts of things to try to keep them safe and they still get sick and they still get hurt. Still, almost any parent will do almost anything for their kids, including begging for help when there seems to be no other alternative.

The man and the child became lessons for Jesus' disciples. "Why couldn't we take care of that?  We tried!"  The disciples seemed a bit daunted by their inability to do something they were sure they should be able to do. It was like knowing the principles but not knowing the application of those principles. The disciples undoubtedly knew the mechanics of how to do what they felt they should be able to do, they just lacked the main ingredient. They probably could have learned something from the boy's father in the faith department. He had no hesitation, no ego involvement, no nothing except an overwhelming need to help his son and trust that Jesus was the one to accomplish that. In short, the disciples should have trusted more, believed harder and looked more to the source of the healing rather than thinking of themselves as healers.

Since Jesus introduced the mustard seed as a size comparison for true faith, then I would guess the disciples were somewhere around the size of a celery seed. The father was probably closer to the mustard seed and Jesus himself could have used a pumpkin seed as a comparison. I have to ask myself, though, what size seed is my faith?  How would I stack up if I were in this story?  Now that's a question for pondering.

I love my son dearly. I'm glad I've never had to go through what the man in the story did, although he has had bumps, bruises and a couple of serious accidents from which he still has some slight scars. I have to wonder if I were in that parent's shoes (or rather sandals), would I have had the faith he did?  I don't know, but I have a feeling I wouldn't have just taken "No" for an answer and brought him home to quietly live his life under the cloud of his disease. After all, there are times when a parent has to say "There's nothing I won't do for my kid to give him the chance to grow up and be the best he can be."

I don't plan on trying to heal anybody or measure my faith against a shelf of seeds of various kinds. I don't plan on moving any mountains although there are a few molehills I wouldn't mind shifting somewhere other than where they are. I think, though, that I need to concentrate on a message I seem to be getting from God, "Hey, pick up the hurt and diseased parts of yourself and bring it all to me. If you believe, I can make you whole because I am your parent and I want the best for you. You just have to believe that you are worth it, not that you are worthy of it. Remember, I am God -- and I don't have grandchildren.*"

That's something to think about -- what God won't do for God's kids. 

*adapted from Eli Stanley Jones.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Friday, October 19, 2012.
Written in honor of my son's birthday.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jesus In My Boat

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ -- Luke 8:22-25

There are those who say the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human being. I'd say there's something to be said for sitting in a boat on a clear, beautiful morning, fishing line in the water and waiting patiently for a nibble on the bait. Not the active and constant motion of fly fishing, this is simple salt-water fishing the way we did it back home when I was a kid -- bait hook, throw line in water, sit back and wait. I could watch the gulls fly overhead, be lulled by the usually gentle waves, hear them lapping against the side of the boat. It was, in my mind, heavenly.

But heaven can turn hellish, storms can blow up and the calm waters can become chaotic and threatening. Being out in a storm in a small boat can certainly put the fear of God into a person. It brings to mind all the ship disaster movies anyone has ever seen or even the documentaries of ships crippled or sunk by high seas or rogue waves many times higher even than the ones that threaten the boat. Of course, a small river or even a bay probably will never experience a rogue wave, but when you're out in a small boat and a storm comes up, it is never wise to get too complacent that you can control things. Maybe that's God's way of reminding us that we aren't in control -- we may just think we are.

Reading this part of the morning text, my mind started playing a  familiar hymn from the church of my childhood:

(1) Master, the tempest is raging!
The billows are tossing high!
The sky is o'ershadowed with blackness,
No shelter or help is nigh;
Carest Thou not that we perish?
How canst Thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threat'ning
A grave in the angry deep?


"The winds and the waves shall obey My will,
Peace, be still!
Whether the wrath of the storm tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean and earth and skies;
They all shall sweetly obey My will,
Peace, be still! Peace, be still!
They all shall sweetly obey My will,
Peace, be still!"*

I can see the terror on the disciples' faces although, being fishermen, they had probably been in a lot of storms on the Sea of Galilee. What made this storm so much worse than any other?  Could it be because Jesus was lying in the bottom of the boat sound asleep while they were fighting to keep the boat from capsizing?  It takes skill and hard work to keep a boat meeting waves head-on rather than broadside, yet here was another pair of hands that could have helped man the oars and tiller cutting Zs while everybody else worked. I imagine the disciples reacted partly out of fear and partly out of anger that often comes from fear. Of course, Jesus does wake up and stills the wind and the waves and everybody makes it to land safely.

It doesn't take much of a stretch to see the boat and the storm as a metaphor for life, especially when things are chaotic, out of control and frightening. Even though I may be standing on terra firma, I can still feel that there's a really thin piece of wood or two between me and fathoms of watery death. When everything is going well it's easy to see myself in control of my life but when it starts turning dark and blustery, that illusion is pounded like waves on a seawall. It's so easy to call on Jesus to still the waves when I'm being swamped, but perilously hard to remember who is REALLY in control when the sun's out and everything is just rosy.

There is a prayer attributed to the fishermen of Breton, "Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small."  It's certainly an acknowledgement the disciples would have understood, and even I understand it when I think of life and how small I am compared to the world I live in and the things that can go wrong in it that affects me. I think probably everybody can understand it because I don't think any life is totally free of storms, fear and chaos. It's easy to have faith when things are good, but like the saying about "No atheists in foxholes,"  it's when things get messed up and there's real trouble that some suddenly discover that they need a prayer or some demonstration of faith to hang on to in order to keep putting one foot in front of another.

In times of trouble I remember Jesus in the boat. Oh, I don't expect him to be sleeping while I sink, but sometimes it's hard for me to picture him holding out his hand to calm the waters and still the winds. Sometimes I have to ride out the storm -- but then I remember I'm never really alone in that boat. Maybe the storm doesn't immediately dissipate, but having that insight makes things easier and I don't feel I have to fight so hard.

(3) Master, the terror is over,
The elements sweetly rest;
Earth’s sun in the calm lake is mirrored,
And heaven’s within my breast;
Linger, O blessèd Redeemer!
Leave me alone no more;
And with joy I shall make the blest harbor,
And rest on the blissful shore.

* Lyrics, vss 1,3 by Mary A. Baker, 1874, from

Originally published at
 Speaking to the Soul
 on  Episcopal Café  Saturday, October 13, 2012.

Monday, October 8, 2012

New Landscapes

It seems odd to me these days to celebrate holidays on a specific day of the week rather than the specific date that had been the traditional one. Take Columbus Day. Growing up, we looked at the calendar on October 12th and knew that it was Columbus Day. Now you have to look at the little red notations under the dates on the calendar to find out precisely when Columbus Day is -- or is scheduled. Oh, it's nice to get a 3-day weekend, if your company or school offers it, but it wasn't so bad having a day off in the middle of the week either.  Still, I guess it's what the holiday is supposed to represent that matters.

Columbus Day celebrates a man, an idea and a journey. Christopher Columbus had an idea that there was a faster way to reach the riches of Asia than the traditional routes and, after a lot of talking, finally convinced the Spanish royalty that it would work -- and benefit them. Setting off in three small ships, he wasn't sure what he'd find, but he believed it was going to work - and, in a sense it did.  He didn't discover a new route to Asia but rather a new set of lands and peoples. It was a whole new landscape to be explored and whole new ways of doing things that needed to be learned.

It's not easy learning a new landscape, along with new ways of doing things and a new reality. For adventurers like Columbus, it's a challenge to be overcome but also a way of introducing and commanding their own sense of what was right and proper to be imposed on people and places that had their own way of doing life. The fact that the landscape was different than what they were accustomed to didn't mean a thing to them. It was their duty to make the new world work the same way the old one did, whether or not that was the best thing for the new or a reflection of the best of the old.

Columbus and most of his fellow explorers went looking for new things and, once they found them, promptly tried to change them to reflect what they had experienced in their own homelands. The Pilgrims did it, the Virginia Company did it, the Conquistadors did it, so have almost every group of people who set off to find new lives somewhere else. Oddly enough, I find that in a lot of church people who leave their old denominations and find a new one, only to want to bring parts of their old tradition with them. Vets returning from combat zones have learned a new reality and sometimes they can't just leave it at the airport and, stepping out the airport door on the way home, just take up life where they had left off before their deployment. Newly unemployed and/or homeless people have to learn a new way of living and coping, even if the landscape hasn't changed very much. The landscape may look familiar but seen through different lenses it is now a new, more hostile place that they have to figure out new ways of surviving.

Since my surgery I've been a bit like Columbus, learning a new landscape, trying to make things work the same way they always did and finding that it isn't always successful.  Looking in the mirror feels sometimes like seeing the first closeups of the moon from the moon lander in 1969; it looked a little familiar, especially if one has seen barren parts of the desert, but yet it looked very different as well. There are different levels of sensation in areas where there used to be a somewhat uniform feeling of nerves firing and touch registering. Where there used to be curves of one sort, now there are curves of another -- scar tissue forming, swelling, irritation. It's a new landscape and it is going to take some time to get used to it.

I hope, though, that I'm a little more flexible than Columbus. Just because it worked before (or "back home") doesn't mean it's going to work the same way now. I think I've accepted that, and I think I'm savvy enough to realize that changes and accommodations have to be made, most likely permanently. Perhaps the changed landscape might seem to be purely cosmetic or superficial, it represents a large upheaval in my life and a severe trauma to my body. It takes time to heal, and some of that healing might take some time. So?  What's the big deal?  The deal is about learning to live with drastic change, no more drastic than a lot of things in my life but drastic in its own way as each of the others were. It's about adjusting to living in a body different than it was several weeks ago, just as Columbus and his men had to learn to live (or try to) in a land very different from what they knew in Spain.  In a way, I'm just touching on a new landscape, a new way of living, and hoping that I'm smart enough to not just survive it but adapt to it and the changes it requires. I don't know that Columbus ever really got that.

Everyone has times when the landscape changes drastically and it feels like they're in a totally alien world. There are two choices -- adapt or stay stuck in something that doesn't work any more, doesn't feel familiar, and doesn't allow for foot-dragging. It can be a matter of life and death, not just physical death but death of preconceptions, familiarity, even habit. But that's how life works, whether one sets sail on an epic voyage or one simply walks into a hospital door.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. How open am I to that step and that journey?  How am I expecting to change the journey -- or have the journey change me?   I'm mid-ocean now, having gone too far to turn back, hoping I have the courage to move forward. At any rate, there will be change including new landscapes.

I wonder what the next chapter of the journey will bring?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pay It Forward, Jesus-style

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ...

‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ -- Luke 6:27-31, 37-38

Jesus taught some really hard things. Some of what he taught and clearly expected his disciples (and us) to follow were some pretty difficult things that went totally against human nature. I mean, the man really meant business. Love your enemies." Oy! What's more counterintuitive than to actually love someone you believe (or you definitely know) wants to hurt, enslave, control or even kill you?  Love someone who wants to quash your hopes and dreams, your safety and security, even your thoughts, beliefs or autonomy? 

Jesus, sometimes you ask too much.

I get that it is actually the person I'm supposed to love, not necessarily their actions, but that doesn't really make it a whole lot easier. Most of the time it is hard to make that shift from seeing a person and their actions as a whole to separating them and seeing their actions as their response to something in their own lives, perhaps a need for power, perhaps a need to cover up horrendous events that happened to them or that they witnessed. Abusers are often grown up victims of abuse in childhood or adolescence. Despots are often people who were powerless but who have discovered and seized power. Those who enslave were often enslaved themselves in some way. Of course, there are always those who, for no apparent reason, suddenly turn into monsters and act out in some self-promoting, societally inappropriate manner. Still, there's that command of Jesus, "Love your enemies."  Love the person, even if you hate what they do, even if what they do hurts you or someone you love. Love the person, but not necessarily what they do. Love the person. Nope, Jesus doesn't make it easy.

Then he follows that up with "Do not judge... do not condemn."  From bad to worse. How can I live a single day without judging or condemning?  That statement made by a campaigning politico, an on-the-scene-of-a-tragedy reporter, a pastor interpreting scripture in a way that I perceive as totally off-base, a murderer grinning at the camera as if to celebrate his fifteen minutes of fame, how can I keep from judging them or, in some cases, condemning them?  I make judgements every day: which route to take to work, which bread to buy at the store, which traffic law to obey to the letter (and which to stretch by five miles an hour or so), whether to tell someone who asks precisely how I am feeling or whether to just say I'm fine because they might not really care all that much anyway. None of us can go a day without judging our own choices or those of others. But wait, now that I think about it, this fits in with what Jesus said before about loving, this time it includes self as well as others, it seems.

If I love myself I'm not going to go around condemning myself over every mistake or ill-considered action (or thought). I know my own motives, but, sometimes, most of the time, short of murder, who am I to try to figure out the motives of someone else? I don't want them trying to judge me on the basis of their perception of my motives, so I'm not supposed to do that to them either. I am made in God's image just as every other human being on the planet. The trick is to remember that when I make mistakes or I see others doing self- and other-destructive things. It's hard to judge other people's actions and leave their person-hood out of it, but Jesus said we should, and that "we" includes "I", most definitely.

The movie "Pay It Forward" was based on the principle of doing something good, something nice, for someone else without expecting any thanks or rewards for doing it and then having the recipient do something for someone else like a chain reaction. It's doing unto others in a positive sense without expecting it to be done unto me in the same positive sense. To do that requires loving, even if the person is an enemy or somebody I don't care much for just as surely as it does for someone I love or even a total stranger. In order to love that way I have to suspend judgement and just do something good, regardless.

Yup, Jesus didn't make it easy, but he did give instructions on something that wasn't impossible (although it seems so at times). It's kingdom work, and everybody is capable of contributing to that work, if they so choose. They simply have to pay it forward, Jesus-style, and then watch the kingdom grow.

I have a feeling that this is one kind of growing that makes allowances for brown thumbs. It just takes a little nurturing, a little feeding, a little paying-it-forward and there you are. Now to have the courage to actually put it in motion.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul
  on Episcopal Café Saturday October 6, 2012.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Leaving the Choice to God

Reading: Luke 5: 12-26

Two stories of healing, one with leprosy, one with paralysis. One was on his own and alone because of the fear of the contagion of his disease in anyone who saw him, the other with friends who were willing to literally raise the roof to get him the help he needed. In both cases, Jesus chose to intervene in their lives and change what was a cruel fate with  which each of them had to deal.

In the first story, the leprous man asked Jesus to make a choice, risking rejection but hoping that Jesus would actually say yes.  He asked, but he left the outcome in Jesus' hands.  The second story is more convoluted, involving not just a paralyzed man and his friends, but critics of Jesus as well as those who believed and came to hear what Jesus had to teach them. This time there is no report of the young man asking Jesus to choose, only Jesus stating that his sins were forgiven. Of course, the Pharisees pounced on that like a hound dog on a juicy bone. It was GOD who forgave sins, so how dare Jesus tell this young man that his sins were forgiven?  And was it a sin that had caused his paralysis? It didn't matter to Jesus. He simply told the young man to get up and walk and the boy did. Did that convince the Pharisees?  It's dubious, but the passage does tell us that "Amazement seized all of them." Who knows? Maybe one or two of them changed their mind - or at least were more willing to be convinced of Jesus' veracity.

Both men exhibited something, though, that was apparent but unstated. Both believed that Jesus had the power to heal and cure them. They weren't afraid to ask, or have someone ask on their behalf. They took a risk and the risk paid off. Never mind the Pharisees, never mind the crowds, never mind the friends or lack of them, at that moment it was just the sick and crippled and Jesus. Just the two of them with a world of faith between them. And it paid off.

Having been undergoing my own dis-ease and trouble, I have depended on the prayers and support of friends as well as my own asking Jesus to, in effect, make a choice in my life. I have stated what I would wish for, but even if I never said it, I think Jesus knew that I would accept whichever way the outcome came and deal with it. I didn't feel I could ask Jesus to heal me -- that shouldn't be my choice or demand to make. All I really felt I could do was to put it in God's hands, Jesus' hands, again and again. There were times I took it back and worried about the outcome, but again and again I put it in their hands to choose whether I would have a good outcome or a not-so-good one. I felt buoyed by the friends who, in essence, let me down through the roof tiles, and also in the sight of a healer passing by the road where I sat in the dust of my hope and fear.

With the pronouncement of one of my team of doctors, I can feel that the prayers worked, that the choice had been made, and the faith that I had was enough. I didn't deserve good news, I didn't earn it, and I am sure there are ever so many who are much better people than I who deserve the report I got more than I.  Still, what it has done for me is to make me realize that even a sometimes timid faith, a fear of asking for what I need or want, and a feeling of not being good enough is perhaps enough for God, enough for Jesus, and for the Spirit too gives God the chance to act and even if the choice was "Not this time," it would have been for God's purpose and reasons. I can go on my way, praising God and rejoicing, feeling ineffably thankful for not just the good report but also for the whole experience. I didn't have to have perfect faith, just faith enough to leave the choice and accept the waiting -- and the choice itself.  I can redouble my prayers for others who are in similar straits, not always asking for them to be cured but for them to be healed of the anxiety and fear and to obtain trust and faith that all will be well, in whatever way God chooses.

There will always be Pharisees trying to poke holes in faith and in what Jesus can do through God's grace. There will be those who are angry that someone's sins can actually be forgiven and a healing, whether physical or spiritual, can be made despite their assessment of the unworthiness of the recipient. For those, though, who have even a grain of faith, their choice to ask to be chosen can be enough. I have a feeling that the timid asking to be chosen are more welcome, in a sense, than those who demand to be chosen with breast-beating and loud wailing.

Quiet miracles are still miracles. And accepting the choice of God can change lives. I can testify. Amen.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul
on Episcopal Café Tuesday, October 2, 2012.