Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve 2012

New Year's Eve, the end of 2012 and the threshold of 2013. It hardly seems possible that the year has gone by so quickly in some ways and so slowly in others, but then, the older I get, the more that seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Normally on New Year's Eve I try to look back at the year with its successes and failures and sum up what I've learned -- or should have learned. Right now though, I am not quite ready to give up on the year, much as I am not yet ready to dismantle my little Christmas tree and consign it to its box in the storage behind the bed for most of next year. Strange -- or maybe not really so strange; who knows?

It's been quite a year. I marked the fourth year since my Spousal Unit passed on, and the first year without my brother. I've gotten two life-changing diagnoses and will deal with the fallout of those two diagnoses (diabetes and cancer) for the rest of my life. I've had some rough financial spots but even though things financial are still a rough patch in the road, I have managed to end the year with more than $2 in the bank and only seven more months to go to have my mortgage paid off. Of course, the rent on the space my trailer occupies has gone up again while my paycheck shows not a penny's worth of a raise, but oh, well, that's life in the slow lane. I can still watch reality TV and be glad I don't have to deal with some of their problems. I do have a sneaky suspicion, though, that if my life were a role in a drama series, I'd be an underhousemaid in Downton Abbey.

The plus side of this year is that I've survived it. I've lost about 40 pounds as a result of my diabetes and the enforced change in diet it caused, so I'm healthier than I was in 2011. I made a treatment decision or two regarding the lump I found in my breast, the subsequent surgery and then the decision to skip chemo and just take pills for the next five years. The one decision probably saved me from having to go through all this again in a very few years while the other meant I might have cut my life expectancy by 3-5%. Still, I'm comfortable with my decisions there, and so far they seem to have worked out well. Next week, though, I have to have an ultrasound on a lump that has appeared in one of the surgical sites, so here we go back to uncertainty again. This year has shown me that worrying about what would be found next week isn't going to do anything but make me edgy and miserable, so I am resigned to waiting. If anything, this year's lessons have taught me that I have the ability to be patient when there is nothing else I can do. In previous years I would worry and fret about a sunny day; now I can accept rainy days with equanimity -- or at least acceptance that fretting isn't going to change the outcome one whit and that most of what I would fret about never happened anyway, so why waste a good worry? 

Actually, even though on a day-to-day basis this year has been a strain and not all that fun, it hasn't been as bad as it could have been.  The boys and I are still together, we still have a roof over our heads and food in the larder. The bills are paid for this month and there's still more than $2 in the bank. I've got good friends I can count on, and I can, in turn, be a friend to them. I have a part-time job that helps pay the bills and another one that exercises my brain and gives me the chance to learn in the company of others who share a similar interest.  I've had the great opportunity to write, to express myself in a forum I respect and where I hope I have been able to contribute something worthwhile. I've been able to enjoy my electronic toys -- my computer, my Kindle, my iPod and my iPad -- and use them to entertain and inform me. I've been able to attend  two great training sessions for my EfM mentor certification for the next year, one online and one face-to-face with some  people I met at my first training four years ago and some I have just gotten to know this year. I've learned a lot over this year, sometimes things I wish I hadn't had to learn but mostly stuff I've needed to learn.

On the whole, I think my mere survival has been a high point. I know I am stronger now than I have ever been, and I know I can roll with punches that I used to think I couldn't survive. Getting to know my own strength has been something I needed to learn as well as being able to live with both ambiguity and some uncertainty. Not that I like uncertainty; I've got enough of a cat persona in me to not be all that fond of change. Still, I know change happens and even if I don't like it, I can probably not only live through it but come out the other side better in some ways even if worse in others. It's a tradeoff.

One other thing I have learned this year is how much I rely on God to get me through things. I know I'm expected to hold up my end of life but God's got a firm grip on the other end. I've found it is a lot easier to turn things over than it has been in past years, and that's been a good thing. There are a lot of things I can't handle so I am learning more and more to just let God handle it, including the worries, concerns and fretting. God's got my back and quite often uses my friends to remind me of that. Still, it's good to know God's there, all the time.

So now I guess I can let go of 2012 and get on with what tomorrow and 2013 will bring. I'm glad I don't have a crystal ball, although sometimes I wish I did have one. Still, tomorrow will come and there will be new problems, challenges, joys and accomplishments with it. I may not take the tree down yet, but I think I'm ready for the rest.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Revelation from Revelation


The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. -- Revelation 1:1-8

I have to confess that when I see Revelation pop up on the reading list for the day I usually have a sinking feeling in my stomach. There's a lot in that book that I have trouble reading, but there are parts that are so comforting that it is no wonder they are included in some of our liturgies, notably the burial service. When it comes to part of this passage, it starts one of my most favorite hymns playing in my head. Even in the midst of Christmas, I am taken back to Advent and the lyrics of Charles Wesley, well, lyrics by John Chennick that Wesley modified only to have that modification modified further by Martin Madan.The two verses read:
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see. *

I'd say Chennick/Wesley/Madan had a pretty good handle on the message of verses 7-8 of the passage from Revelation. The image is of the second coming of Christ, something that fits well in the expectation of the Advent season but which seems a bit jarring when introduced in the liturgical season that traditionally celebrates the first coming. It's like a jump from cradle to re-appearance, skipping over the whole human life, death, resurrection and ascension. It jars, but it also compresses a lot of theology (and a whole lotta years) in a few brief stanzas.

Maybe it isn't so far fetched, though.  From the moment we are born we begin to die, whether we face a death by violence as Jesus did or whether we pass in our own beds in the middle of the night. As Christians we are often reminded that heaven is our ultimate goal, and that Jesus was crucified as an atonement for our sins so that we might attain heaven when our journey on earth is done. His return was foretold, but, as he said himself, God alone knew (literally!) when that would be. Still, we keep looking.

I'm not an apocalypticist. I'm more interested in the here and now than the hereafter, although as I age I find myself thinking a bit more about the hereafter than I have at any other point in my life.  It's normal, I think, to do that as people get older and the end gets closer. Still, I wonder what I would see if Jesus came back during my lifetime.  Would it be as John saw it?  As Chenneck and Wesley and Madan did?  The first time he came there was quiet fanfare -- angels singing, a star shining, kings kneeling -- or so we conflate all the stories to come up with the annual Christmas/Epiphany pageant our kids take part in. It seems the second time it will be a lot more pyrotechnic, in a manner of speaking.  The thing is, though, that those who were responsible for his death on earth will see what it was they did and to whom. All of us will see it, and, I think, we will all react with shock and awe -- not the way we normally think of it, but rather it will be a sudden overpowering without a shot being fired, bomb being dropped or atrocity being committed. We shall see the Messiah coming in all his glory, and the sight will be more than any painting or words could describe.

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.


 * Lyrics from the Oremus Hymnal .

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 29, 2012, under the title "Lo, he comes with clouds descending."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012

It's Christmas Day. People are in various stages of wrapping/unwrapping gifts, having company (or relatives) pile in the front door or the family pile out the front door heading for church, up to their elbows in food preparation, answering and making phone calls to those too far distant to be physically present, and trying to remember that "eat, drink and be merry" means a strict diet or extra exercise at the gym tomorrow. It's the culmination of the frantic shopping season that is as noted for the clink of the cash register as the tinkle of the bell-ringer's bells. It's the end of wondering if maybe, just maybe, we should have gotten Aunt Mary a new teapot instead of a lovely cardigan in bright pink, or maybe little Billy would have liked this model of toy truck rather than the one we got. It's the end of the year, and all too soon we'll be getting the bills for the presents we charged and preparing for another season altogether, the tax-preparation season. But it's also the end of the Advent season, the celebration of the birth of a miraculous baby in a stable in a small town (or small city) somewhere in Israel 2000+ years ago. Sometimes that gets forgotten -- or dismissed.

Christmas Day is nice but it's never been my favorite holiday. I'm a Christmas Eve person, one for whom Christmas Eve is the most wonderful night of the year. I revel in pipe organs played loud, choirs singing stuff I love, bright colored lights and decorated lawns and houses. There's something about Christmas Eve that just feels different than other nights. It used to be the walk home after midnight mass with the stars seeming so much closer than usual, or the air so much crisper or maybe the world so much quieter. Even now, Christmas Eve was a quiet one, even in an area frequently bombarded by guys with ultra-sonic boom boxes with huge subwoofers who insist on turning up the volume of their cars and opening the windows (possibly to avoid their being broken out by the volume) as they drive down the major street a hundred or so feet away. A slight wind was enough to set my several sets of wind chimes ringing, the tinkly little one, the medium sized alto set and the large deep one that seems to reverberate forever.  Those this year have been my church bells. Midnight mass was too late for someone who normally goes to bed at 8:30 so I made do, oh so nicely, with streaming services from a church in California my stepsons attend. It was almost like sitting in the pew with them but with the benefit of being able to stand up and stretch, and there were some real AHHHH and AHA moments that transcended the miles. The 5:30 pm service was so good, I tuned in again at 8.

Today that is all over and Christmas Day is its usual letdown for me. It's all over for another year. I wouldn't be surprised if folks were up on their roofs tonight starting to dismantle the strings of Christmas lights, and I know darned well the stores are already halfway through putting the sale stuff (Christmas ornaments, cards, paper, lights, trees, wreaths --- anything that smacks of red, green, Santa Claus or the like) in the corner and putting up the pink and passion red Valentine's Day cards, lingerie, perfume, candy and flowers in the most prominent place Christmas things have had since just after Labor Day or certainly Halloween.  Since I didn't put any lights up, I'm not taking any down, but my Christmas wreath will stay on the door until New Year's (when I have a special wreath that has colored bells), and my tree will, God and the boys permitting, stay up until at least New Year's Day if not Epiphany. I still crave the color of the lights, the twinkle of the clear prism-shaped ornaments and icicles, and just the feeling that I'm not ready to let go of Christmas yet. Luckily, the church of which I am a part celebrates Christmas for twelve more days, so I have time yet.

Meanwhile today I wrestle with the idea of raking up the last three weeks' worth of fallen leaves (yes, they're still falling here -- although I wish for snow to cover them up so I don't have to rake them ) or putting on Messiah on my iPod and curling up with a good book and a cat or two. Lunch will be simple -- tacos I've been craving with yogurt for dessert, and a post-prandial nap is definitely on the agenda. It's a quiet day, the kind of day I like but which makes me somewhat nervous as I still feel like I should be doing something -- maybe cooking a big meal or something. For one person on a fairly strict diet (and four cats) the big meal is a no-go, so no huge preparation is necessary. The day is slightly overcast, a nice change from all the sunshine we get all year (I can hear my friend in Oregon sigh as she dumps her rain gauge yet again), and the air is crisp (read COLD) and breezy. I'd hate to rake up all those leaves and have them blow all over while I"m trying to wrestle them into the trash bags.  I guess the book and the nap win.

Christmas Eve was the exclamation point, Christmas Day is more a comma. Still, I remember that even if Jesus wasn't born on December 25th, it's still a good day to stop and remember and celebrate. Christmas Eve was had a joyous exuberance but Christmas Day has a quiet reflection that harks back to Advent and looks ahead to Epiphany.

The book and the cats win. My present to them is an unexpected lap to sit on in mid-week and theirs to me is occupying that lap and purring. Who says Christmas gifts have to be expensive?

Happy Christmas.

Jesse Tree Day 25 -- Jesus

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. - Luke 2:1-7

We have reached the top branch of the Jesse Tree that began 25 days and thousands of years ago. The celebration of the birth of a baby to an unmarried couple in a humble place becomes "Jesus is the reason for the season."  Even though Jesus was probably born in April, the Church as established December 25th as the celebration of his nativity and so here we are, Christmas pageants given, presents wrapped and ready to be unwrapped, family gathered, tables groaning with food, and people saying "Thank God that's over for another year."

It isn't supposed to be a season for exhaustion -- mental, physical, financial or even spiritual. It's supposed to be a joyous occasion, as the birth of a baby is supposed to be.  I find it really sort of beautifully ironic that the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy was announced at the beginning of Advent, and the world paid attention with, mostly, bated breath and resounding congratulations to a couple so different from Mary and Joseph. Power and privilege vs. humble and powerless, the thing they have in common is that they were/will be responsible for the health, safety and raising of the child that will have a distinctive position in the world, whether secular or sacred. The announcement takes our minds off what to get difficult Uncle George or should we send a card to Jim and Susan from whom we haven't heard in years.  It puts the focus back on the true reason for the season, the birth of a miraculously-conceived child, a child who was born to be king but not with a silver spoon in his (her?) mouth or a palace full of people (not to mention an entire world) waiting expectantly for the announcement of their arrival.

What can I learn from the birth of Jesus and, indeed, the entire Advent experience?  A child is the product not just of two people (or a person and God) but really from a host of predecessors, each contributing to making the child unique and special.  A lot of people saying yes to a lot of calls from God, covert or overt, brought us to this moment and this event. And then there's the realization that all waiting ends -- whether for a death, an event, or a birth.

Celebrate - and enjoy every celebration.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Wings in the Garage

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ -  Luke 1:26-37

Advent, being a time of preparation, uses the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary as a sort of kickoff to to the season. Even in churches where Advent isn't celebrated, Gabriel's visit is part of every single children's pageant that conflates the annunciation and birth stories with angels, shepherds and wise men all together. It was no different in the church in which I grew up. The annual Christmas pageant, given on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas (so all the kids could participate, including the ones who would be off to visit relatives during Christmas itself), was sort of a highlight.

Kids didn't often get to be more than general people-in-the-pews and so the Christmas pageant was one chance to really strut their stuff, in a manner of speaking. Of course, there was competition; every girl wanted to be Mary and every boy Joseph. Nobody in their fairly right mind would entrust kids with a real infant, so somebody had to provide a very baby-like doll to be Jesus. The roles of the innkeeper, the head shepherd and one king were usually reserved for the kids who wouldn't freeze up when they had to say something and the rest of the kids were divided by gender into the remaining roles of shepherds and kings (boys) and angels (girls). One of the really BIG roles was that of Gabriel who probably had as much to say as any of the other characters, only Gabriel had only one long (for a kid) speech. It was a plum of a role,and for more years than I can count, I was it.

It didn't hurt that I had blond hair that could be curled under in a page boy hairdo for the occasion (the only time of year I wore it that way) like the medieval European paintings showed, and it didn't hurt that I didn't mind talking in church -- audibly this time instead of  just providing a whispered buzz in the back pew like usual. The hardest part of the whole role was keeping my arm raised in the air the whole time I was on stage. Still, you have to make some sacrifices for your art, so they say.

Mama had made me a costume, a white robe with gold tinsel around the neckband, crossed over my chest and wrapped around my waist.  I even had a halo of tinsel wrapped on a sort of rigged headgear made from what I remember as something that used to be a coat hanger. The big deal was, though, that I had wings, official looking wings. Substantial, silver tinsel-edged wings that were tied on the same way as the tinsel on my costume (and which the tinsel covered very nicely) and looked rather impressive, I thought. And I had those wings all year. They lived in what we called the feed room of our garage behind the house where we stored dog food and Mama's jellies, jams and pickles. They lay there with the pickles and preserves, waiting for the next year and the next performance. No other kid in York County, I'm sure, had a pair of wings in their garage. Sometimes it seemed like a curse, but hey, once a year I got to shine. 

I knew about Gabriel's role in the annunciation, of course. I could (and did) recite the whole script to prove it. What I've learned since has made me more aware of what big wings I had tried to fill. Not just the angel of the annunciation, Gabriel was either an angel or an archangel, depending on the source of information.  The name meant "Man of God" or "God's Might" or "God's Power," again depending on which source you use.  Gabriel was God's messenger and has appeared in all three of the Abrahamic religions.  In the Jewish scriptures, Gabriel is the angel who appeared to Daniel to interpret visions Daniel had been given but had been unable to understand. In  midrash literature, Gabriel is one of the four angels standing at the four corners of God's throne and who attend God directly while other angels constantly sing praises. Gabriel is also said to have been a sponsor at the wedding of Adam and Eve and a rescuer of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Gabriel fights Israel's enemies while Michael is the guardian of Israel as a nation. For Muslims, Gabriel was the angel who spoke the Qur'an to Muhammad, and was one of the party who visited Abraham in his tent before going to Sodom and Gomorrah to rescue Lot. And then there is the Christian view of Gabriel as the messenger to Mary.

 Maybe if I'd been more aware of all Gabriel was supposed to do and have done, I'd have approached the role a bit differently, but as a kid, it was a plum role in an annual Christmas pageant. It was a time to shine, literally and figuratively. And I was the kid with the wings in the garage.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Sunday, December 23, 2012, under the title "Christmas Pageant: Gabriel."

Jesse Tree Day 24 - Mary

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’  Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  -- Luke 1:26-35

Imagine hearing a knock on your door and an unfamiliar person in a rather official-looking outfit standing there with a very serious look on their face. Is it the police? Has someone been in an accident?  Is it the IRS or INS?  A travelling salesman?  A scam artist?  Then imagine sitting on your own patio when suddenly someone shows up in the same kind of get-up, and what would you think?  A murderer, rapist, stalker, thief or other person bent on mayhem? Paparazzi? Unless the person has lots of balloons and a big piece of cardboard looking like a very official check, it sure isn't someone from Publisher's Clearing House.  Then imagine you are a simple country girl, sitting just outside (or maybe inside) her humble house, minding her own business when suddenly a very official-looking being shows up and gives you a message that is shocking, astounding, impossible to believe and totally incomprehensible all at the same time.  What would you think?  How would you feel?  What would you do?

One thing we hear often is about Mary's sweet submission to the will of God, her total, complete acceptance as if God had asked her to bake a loaf of bread or knit a pair of socks. What God asked of her was unheard-of and, in that culture, it was almost like familial suicide not just for Mary but for her entire family. Even though betrothed, there WERE standards to be upheld. If Joseph weren't responsible, he could cancel the deal for the marriage and then where would Mary be?  Unless she were raped and the rapist forced to marry her, she would have been truly a sunk duck and so would her family because nothing ever affected just one person; everything that happened affected the whole family. So for her to meekly submit without a second thought or even more of an argument than "How is this gonna work? I'm not married and ....", it's almost incomprehensible. But the story portrays Mary as meekly and sweetly submitting and that, it seems, is her biggest grace, the example held up to women as the perfect example of righteous womanhood doing precisely what she is told, no arguments, no bickering, no negotiating, no refusing.

Mary is a central character in this Advent run-up to Christmas. Without her, the whole thing would not have happened -- or perhaps another woman would have been the selected young woman, maybe someone who argued a bit more, wanted a few more details, or exercised an option to say no. But Mary said yes, and the rest is history. After Christmas she will fade into the background, appearing only a couple of times years later in the story, but for now, Mary enjoys a sort of center stage, and, until recent years, was the only woman character whose story was widely read in church and whose name almost everybody knew.

What can I learn from Mary?  It's always a good thing to submit to God, but how can I be sure the messenger really is from God? I doubt Gabriel carried legitimate credentials for Mary to examine, but maybe it was the wings that gave him away. Sometimes very negative-appearing situations can bring a lot of good, even if it takes a while for it to all come to fruition. Most of all, don't be afraid to say yes if it truly is God's messenger comes calling.

Say yes. That's all that's necessary.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The War on Christmas?

I've been hearing about something called the "War on Christmas" but hadn't really paid a lot of attention to it. Finally that caught up with me when I read an article by Diana Butler Bass, one of my favorite authors, entitled "Fox News' War on Advent" which takes the network to task for statements that the US has declared war on Christmas through political correctness.

It seems that Fox News espouses the position that saying "Merry Christmas" is the only, one, true and eternal greeting appropriate for this season between Thanksgiving and December 25th. "Christmas" is a season marked by conspicuous consumerism and advertising campaigns featuring carols, trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, decorations and lots and lots of presents. It's more about commercialism then religion, but to hear some go on about it, it is a war on Christianity as a whole to have anyone say "Happy Holidays" or any other seasonal greeting.  Now granted, Fox News is perfectly free to say whatever it likes -- as long as it doesn't scare the horses or cause riots in the streets. But for a commercial enterprise to dictate what greeting is appropriate for a period of time, whether or not that time is actually part of what the greeting represents, is a bit of what might be considered hubris.

Bass contends, and rightfully so in my opinion, that whole segments of Christianity are marginalized by insisting on "Merry Christmas" when those segments of Christianity are still in a period of waiting. For Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, the four weeks prior to Christmas Day are the ecclesiastical season known as Advent, a time of reflection and anticipation. Christmas for them doesn't begin Thanksgiving Day before the turkey carcass is off the table and does not end with the family post-prandial naps after a Christmas feast and orgy of present-opening. Christmas starts no earlier than the early service on Christmas Eve (3pm on December 24th is about the earliest I've heard of ) and, for traditionalists and die-hard members of  the "It ain't Christmas until Midnight Mass" club, 11pm. 

I talk to customers as part of my job. Many of them call me this time of year to tell me to hold delivery of their newspapers until sometime after January 1. Ok, they're going home for Christmas -- or maybe going home because the kids and/or grandkids are out of school and the whole family can be together.  Does that mean they're actually celebrating Christmas?  I can't tell from their names what religious group they belong to, so, being a good customer service rep (or trying to be), I hate to give a religious-specific wish to them as I conclude the call. Besides, many of these folks will be gone over New Year's which, last time I looked, was a holiday falling in the same time period. Come to think of it, so is Kwanzaa. So I choose to wish my customers a "Happy Holidays" and tell them we'll be glad to see them when they get back. They get the message. They may wish me a Merry Christmas and I will return that greeting as well, but honestly, I'd rather have a Happy Christmas rather than a merry one, but then, Jesus was considered a drunk by some of his contemporary detractors so maybe "merry" is the right term after all.

Come to think of it, Orthodox Christians don't celebrate Christmas until January 6, the day Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate as Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of six or so weeks of the season between Christmas and Lent. Most Christians, though, have packed up the tree a week or so before and moved on to Valentine's day before the Christmas paper is even picked up off the floor and the stores haven't even bothered to wait until the doors close on December 24th before featuring big red hearts, lacy lingerie and boxes of chocolates. So much for celebrating Christmas. The Advent-celebrators must surreptitiously listen to Christmas carols on their iPods or MP3 players because they won't hear them on commercial radio or in stores or anywhere but church once December 25th rolls around. Everybody else has been listening to and singing them since December1  so they're ready for a change. So are we, but not the same change.

I don't see a war on Christmas, I see a skirmish to make one version of Christmas the only, true and official one. Frankly, I will take good wishes of any kind any time of year, and I hope my customers understand that. As for those who take down the lights and start buying Valentines on December 27th (the after-Christmas sales get top billing, I'm afraid), don't look at us like we're crazy if we wish you a Merry Christmas sometime between December 25th and January 6th. Next year, maybe those who are so insistent on saying Merry Christmas right after Thanksgiving could take a look at Advent. After all, you have to go through pregnancy and expectation before the baby finally appears, whether in a manger, a crib or a nativity scene. 

As Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tucson so wisely put it, "Observe Advent, Celebrate Christmas, Have an Epiphany!  Try it. Oh, and allow others the grace to celebrate whatever holidays are important to them and their faith this time of year. Even Jesus was tolerant toward the Samaritans and others who didn't exactly share his brand of Judaism.  Think about it.


On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

He has gone up from Rimmon,     --  Isaiah 10:20-27

When Israel tried to make a deal with Assyria, seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately it turned out to be pretty much a disaster.  It didn't take Assyria long to overcome the city of Jerusalem and haul off the upper classes, leaving the poor, the not-really-literate, and the lower-class workers to wonder how to rebuild when their leadership had been removed. They would have time to figure something out because the captivity lasted for some years.

What the passage seems to make clear is that God is in charge of the whole thing. Israel disobeyed and refused to repent so therefore they had to bear punishment for that.  God's anger was not, however, going to last forever. From the destruction of Israel and exile of its children, God promised that God's anger would turn to those who were the instruments of that very destruction and captivity. The captives would be freed, but, as the prophetic name of Isaiah's older son (Shear-Jashub)  foretold, only "a remnant will return."

Sometimes when I think of captivity I think of my own life, being in places that sometimes I really don't want to be,  doing things I really don't want to do and being at the beck and call of people who have their own agendas and determination to use me to their benefit, not to mention the semi-captivity of chronic disease and a medication regime. But then I think of those who truly are in captivity -- prisoners, soldiers sent off to fight in foreign lands and sometimes without knowing precisely why they are there, victims of slavery in various forms, children who are homeless and wondering why they are always hungry and cold.  Makes my little "captivity" seem pretty paltry, but then, I have to deal with mine while trying to help them with theirs.  Still, one day I have a feeling that my captivity will end, hopefully before but certainly after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

In the meantime, I have a job to do making the best of my situation and being aware that others are suffering.  I have a feeling I don't have to look very far.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 22, 2012.

Jesse Tree Day 23 - John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins
.  -- Matthew 3:1-6

"Oh, boy, here comes another one. Another prophet telling us the same old thing, 'Repent!' Why don't they ever say 'You're doing okay, but maybe try a little harder'?"

Being a prophet is not an easy job. Biblical prophets especially seemed to have a lot of things to do and overcome in order to do the job they were given to do. They ran around the marketplace stark naked, they lay on one side for weeks and weeks before turning over to the other side and all in full view of the public, they made scenes, did things that would attract a lot of attention, even gave their kids names that suggested trouble or dire events to come. Most of all they were given the job of telling the people that they were on the wrong track and needed to get the wheels back in the right grooves God-wise.  John was no different. He dressed in an approved prophetic garb, ate what the land would provide including bugs and the honey found in trees and rock crevices, and lived a very basic, simple kind of life. His job was to call the people to repentance, just like his earlier prophetic ancestors, and he was doing it.

Today we look for prophets also dressed in camel hair with leather belts, only we expect them in Brooks Brothers suits of a very fine weave and leather belts that probably cost more than it would take for John to live on for a decade.  We don't look so much for messages of repentance as we do messages of the health of our 401k or what the market will be doing in the next few months or even years. We look to prophets to tell us the future, like fortunetellers, instead of what they actually were intended to do -- look about, see what is wrong and pass on God's message of straightening up and getting on about making the world better for everyone, not just the privileged few with everybody else getting whatever is left over, if there is anything left over. Most of all, we want them to tell us that the slick-looking dude standing in front of a video camera telling us how to get closer to God by claiming the blessing, contributing to this or that ministry or even simply believing in the message of a prosperity gospel is enough.

John's job was also to do what other prophets did, namely proclaiming the coming of a messiah who would bring about the kingdom of God. The interpretation of that messiah and coming of the kingdom soon became a dividing line between Christian and Jew, but for John, he was giving the message he was charged to deliver. He wasn't even really sure he had the right guy when he dunked him in the living water of the Jordan River. In prison, he had to send a message to Jesus asking, "Are you the one?"  Still, John did his job to the best of his ability and pointed the people toward God and the necessity of changing to a different way of thinking, even to continuing to look for the messiah that was to come.

What can I learn from John?  Most of the time God calls people to do difficult things; easy ones seem to take care of themselves most of the time. Doing what God wants quite often means doing unpopular or sometimes downright spectacular things, in the sense of one appearing to make a fool of oneself  rather than some great, overwhelming event.  Most of all, hearing a prophet is one thing, checking his/her bona fides might be a necessary thing as well. They don't all come in Brooks Brothers suits.

The real path is usually the harder one.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 22 - Elizabeth

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. -- Luke 1:39-45

What do you do when you're in a real pickle and aren't sure what to do?  You go look for someone to give you some advice, some counsel, even just some love and/or a shoulder.  That is what Mary did, and the person she looked to was Elizabeth, her kinswoman.  That Elizabeth was also pregnant when she shouldn't have been (miracles like that happen now and then in the Bible) was probably a comfort, not to mention Elizabeth's living somewhere besides Mary's home town. Mary was probably a comfort to Elizabeth as well, being younger and probably stronger, she could take care of some of the things that were becoming difficult for Elizabeth to do, and sharing aches, pains, morning sickness and the usual stuff that goes on during pregnancy was undoubtedly a topic of frequent conversation. Still, having two pregnant women in the house was probably a bit of a strain for Zechariah. At least he had his rotational duties at the temple to keep him out of the house periodically.

There are some times when a woman needs another woman around, times when, whether one has a mother or not and whatever the relationship between mother and daughter is, there is a need for another woman to talk to, to receive advice from and just to share things with that can't be shared with just anyone. Guys have man talks, guy time in "man caves," times when friends get together and talk football or auto racing, the upcoming fishing trip or bowling tournament (or even the incomprehensibility of women). Women do the same thing with their friends, only the subject matter is more in the lines of household duties, pregnancy and child care. Each group has its own language and own conversational rituals; it's as normal as can be, and sometimes as incomprehensible to the other gender as if they were in foreign languages. Elizabeth and Mary might have been kin, but their common situation -- pregnancy-- gave them an extra dimension of relationship, that of sisters.  Mary's mother could have understood what being pregnant could feel like, but she couldn't have understood the very nature of Mary's pregnancy, being as miraculous as it was. Elizabeth could as hers was miraculous as well.

I've had lots of times in my life when I could have used an Elizabeth and many more times when I have had friends who acted much as Elizabeth did. They listened to my adolescent (and sometimes adult) problems, fears and general babble, weighed what I said and often advanced some very wise advice.  As I get older, I appreciate more and more the role of Elizabeth, the listener, the advisor, the sage, and find myself more and more willing and able to follow in her footsteps. No, I'm not expecting to get pregnant (been there, done that, no desire to repeat the performance, especially at this stage of my life!), but I find joy in listening to younger friends, offering what support I can, and just providing an ear or a shoulder when needed. I still have older friends I talk to and ask for advice, but I'm growing into the role they have filled and seeing how good it can be.

So what can I learn from Elizabeth?  Perhaps it is to be available to others in need of advice, perhaps just to listen more and better. Perhaps another lesson is to look for the miraculous and be attuned to it when I meet it in my life. Undoubtedly it is to never think a miracle couldn't happen to me, no matter how old I am or how impossible it seems.

Be open to the miraculous.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 21 - Isaiah

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. - Isaiah 6:1

Isaiah lived in what could euphemistically be called "interesting times." His initiation as a prophet came in a vision where his lips (which he bemoaned as unclean) were touched by a burning coal and followed by God's asking "Who shall I send?" Isaiah, like so many before and after him, proclaimed, "Here I am, send me!" God did, and Isaiah served as a prophet for Judah for the next fifty years, through the reigns of four kings and the Assyrian incursions. They were indeed interesting times.

The word prophet comes from the Hebrew word navi, derived from the term that means "fruit of the lips." Prophets were not necessarily predictors of the future like fortunetellers but rather commentators on contemporary trends and the results of those trends, both political and religious. Their job was speaking truth and guiding the people (and the rulers) into the righteous paths they should be following. Isaiah preached divine salvation through right living rather than military might and political treaties and alliances. He was also a prophet who spoke of inequity among the people, the oppression of the poor, the acquisitiveness of the rich and the consequences of both. Through the reigns of kings, both good and bad, Isaiah spoke the messages he was given, sometimes watching them fall on deaf ears but sometimes seeing them bear fruit in the lives of the rulers and the people to the benefit of all. The message for which we most remember Isaiah is that which spoke of the mashiach, the messiah who would come to restore and renew the earth and redeem the people. Both Jews and Christians hear those messages and interpret them according to their differing theologies, but both look for the restoration, renewal and redemption.

What can I learn from Isaiah? Being cleaned up and presented for service sometimes involves pain, sometimes physical and sometimes perceived. The proper answer to a call is, as it has been, "Here I am." Sometimes speaking what I see is harder than simply ignoring the wrongs I observe or simply saying what people want to hear. The right message is often unpalatable but it is necessary to correct the wrongs and begin the restoration.

Be a prophet.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 20 - Josiah

Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.  - 2 Kings 23:1-3

So many times in the Bible as well as in real life people who are stinkers have great kids and people who are great have kids who are stinkers. Josiah was the great-grandson of Hezekiah and a very worthy descendant he was. Hezekiah son and grandson however were real stinkers. All the good Hezekiah did as far as restoring the Temple and the worship of God was negated in those two intervening generations. Josiah gained his crown at the young age of eight and it took until he was twenty for him to rid himself of the advisors his father set up for him as well as the corrupt priests and other crooks who led the people back into syncretism. Like Hezekiah, Josiah cleaned up the Temple and in repairing and reconstructing a scroll was found. It wasn't just any scroll; it was the scroll of Moses, the Torah.

The scroll was brought to Josiah who asked to have a reading from it. The reading turned out to be prophetic, a warning of punishment to those who failed to do what God required. Josiah realized what he was hearing and sent  a message to the closest prophet, a prophetess named Hulda, for confirmation and clarification. It was confirmed that Judah would be overthrown because of the sins of false worship, unrighteousness and the like, but because Josiah was a godly man who was repentant and sincerely tried to lead the people to righteousness, he would die before such tragedy occurred. It happened just as the prophecy foretold. Josiah was wounded in battle and brought back to Jerusalem where he died. Before too many generations passed  the rest of the prophecy would come to pass.

What can I learn from Josiah?  Being the child of a good or a bad parent doesn't necessarily make me good or bad, it's how I live my life.  Choosing to do good has rewards just as doing wrong has punishments, maybe not instantaneously but at some point in time. It is a good thing to get confirmation from a wise person when trying to discern what something means or what action to take. It's also a very good idea to live so that when I die people remember what good things I did and mourn me with love instead of holding me to my wrongdoing .

Live righteously.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 19 - Hezekiah

In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned for twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. - 2 Kings 18:1-6
Ahaz of Judah was a rotten king. Fortunately for Judah, Ahaz had a son, Hezekiah, who was smarter. In fact, in some ways Hezekiah was much like his ancestor Solomon. Ahaz had permitted a lot of cultic worship, something Hezekiah not only stopped but destroyed. Even the staff of Moses with the golden snake had become an object of worship. Hezekiah destroyed the staff, any idols or other symbol of syncretic worship, repaired and reorganized the Temple and opened it again with a large ceremonious sacrifice. He also invited those Israelites who survived the Assyrian assault and subsequent deportation of their leadership and most of their people to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It was a good move, designed to help undertake a small step toward re-unification of the kingdoms that had existed under his illustrious ancestors David and Solomon. One of his most interesting achievements came when he realized how vulnerable Jerusalem was to an impending Assyrian attack. He shut down all the wells outside the gates and had a tunnel dug through the rock on which Jerusalem stood from the outlet of the Gihon spring to the pool Siloam inside the walls. It was an engineering marvel given that the tunnel was begun at the ends and moved to meet in the middle -- which they did, and remarkably accurately given the lack of lasers, GPS and modern drilling technology. Even though Judah still became a vassal state to Assyria for a period of time, the tunnel still exists, and, unlike many sites in the Holy Land, actually has a provenance that is generally accepted as both factual and real. 
Hezekiah had a long and successful reign but at one time was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah (whether Isaiah one, two, or three we don’t know) came to bring the news to Hezekiah that he was going to die. Hezekiah prayed to God to spare his life but didn’t seem to be too sure that prayers were going to work. He asked Isaiah for a sign, something simple like making the sundial go back ten degrees. This time Isaiah prayed and the sign appeared. Hezekiah was cured and lived for another 15 years. During those remaining years though, Hezekiah made a mistake. The King of Babylonia sent good wishes and gifts to celebrate Hezekiah’s recovery and Hezekiah, being a good host as well as wanting to make a real impression on the foreigners, showed them around his palace in order to impress them with great wealth and power he controlled. That was his mistake. Instead of using it as an opportunity to give credit and glory to God, Hezekiah seemed to take the credit. Isaiah, having the ear of God, heard about this and was given the prophecy that one day Babylonians would destroy Judah and all it possessed. That prophecy came to pass not to much later in Judah's history. Hezekiah finally died after 29 years on the throne and his people sincerely mourned the king they had loved and trusted.
What can I learn from Hezekiah? It’s never wise to brag about what I have, especially if I’m trying to impress someone, because that someone might come back later and deprive me of all of it. It’s also nice to have a prophet to reassure me that my prayer is going to be answered (and actively take part in the healing). A third thing is to look for weak spots in my own defenses and prepare for future problems, including plumbing problems. Most of all, remember to credit God and not myself.
 Humility is wisdom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 18 - Solomon

Solomon sent word to Hiram, saying, ‘You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David, “Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.” -- 1 Kings 5:2-5

David the king had lots of wives. He had lots of concubines too, and, as a result, he had lots and lots of children. Some of them were better than others and some were just plain stinkers. Solomon, though, was the one chosen to be David's successor as king despite the fact that he wasn't the oldest. He grew to be known for his wisdom and his piety but, unfortunately, he too had feet of clay like so many of his ancestors and more than a few of his descendants.

Solomon's biggest achievement was building the temple in Jerusalem, a huge, ornate, spare-no-expense temple for the worship of God and the housing of Judaism's most sacred objects, the tablets (or scrolls) of the commandments in the Ark of the Covenant. His biggest failing was probably being a bit too accommodating to his foreign-born wives and concubines. His strength was his wisdom like that exemplified in the story of the two women each claiming an infant as her own, and his weakness was what I consider his inability to understand how his fiscal and foreign policy decisions wreaked havoc on the people over whom he reigned (and controlled).

What can I learn from Solomon?  Even the wisest person can be stupid about certain things: the opposite sex, money and prestige ( not specific to any particular gender). Devotion to God and giving God the best are great; building a great temple to glorify God gets you a big name in history but the human cost might be a bit too high.  One more thing --- be careful who you step on in the climb up the ladder because you might find yourself getting stepped on by those same people one day.

Use wisdom in all things.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 17 - David

So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’  -- 1 Samuel 16:17-18

David might have been the youngest son, but in the Bible youngest sons often far outshine their elder brothers.  David was out tending sheep when Samuel came to visit while his brothers were participating in a feast in Samuel's honor. Samuel had a mission and who was the winner of the search Samuel was conducting? The shepherd-son who had to be summoned from the field when his partying brothers were each rejected.  David seemed to be destined for greatness; he had it all -- good looks, strength, an ability to think on his feet, a good reputation, a dedication to God and a surprising hobby or ability.

Saul had lots of problems, one of which seemed to be a severe form of depression. What seemed to help was music, so Saul sought a musician who could soothe the beast within and bring the king relief. One of his servants knew of someone, brought him to court and  the saga of Saul and David began with a song.

Music is useful. It can be as soothing as a lullaby or as frenetic as the loudest heavy metal band.  It expresses love or reflection or
"She stole my heart, then she stole my truck with my dog in it."  The guy whistling in the warehouse probably feels like he's performing in Carnegie Hall, and those performing in Carnegie Hall have practiced for hours in small studios or the living room of their house. It spans cultures and times, and it can be sacred or secular. The muse beckons and the result is someone writing something or performing something, whether for a large audience or simply for one's own sake, creates something new that could have wide-reaching results.

David is credited with a number of psalms, hymns to God covering just about every possible human emotion, undoubtedly some to be sung to the sound of the harp and other instruments. They were hymns but they were prayers as well, for blessings and curses, joys and sorrows, command and surrender, resistance and yielding. They are a part of our tradition and part of our worship, with or without music. Even when just read as text, they suggest the music that lingers just out of hearing.

I have used music is much as Saul used it -- to combat depression, boost my flagging spirits, give me energy, calm me down, keep me on an even keel, even to be like a Buddhist prayer wheel set in motion and serving as ongoing prayer without me truly articulating that constant prayer. My muse, my iPod, is with me constantly, a friend like David who could soothe my depression or raise my soul to the highest heaven. It keeps me in touch with God, just as David's psalms and hymns did for him. I promise, though, that I won't be quite as enthusiastic as David was once -- when he scandalized his wife by singing and dancing naked before the ark of the covenant and, as they would say back home, "In front of God and everybody!" 

What can I learn from David?  There's a quotation often wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,"* that reminds me of the power of music and how David and others could use it to help and to heal.  Another thing is that sometimes the easiest way to remember something is to put it to a catchy tune or, in the case of the psalms, a chant.  And whether it's writing, singing, dancing, studying astronomy, or recounting history, creativity comes when it is fostered with care and when the inspiration is sought.  When I need inspiration, there's just one thing to do and that's ask for it.

Choose the muse.

*William Congreave

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What's in a Name?

Then the Lord said to me, Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, ‘Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz’, and have it attested for me by reliable witnesses, the priest Uriah and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah. And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria. -- Isaiah 8:1-4

Sometimes when I read scripture, especially the Old Testament, I run across long strings of names, genealogies that trace a person's antecedents and sort of set up their place in the world or the story.  The names are usually tongue-twisters and I usually end up saying a brief "Thank you!" that I don't have to read them out loud in church (not without practicing for a couple of weeks, anyway). I realize that some of the names we give our children would be strange to someone in, say, Myanmar or Mongolia, just as theirs would be strange to us.

Names frequently have meaning, whether in the word or the intent of the naming.  Perhaps the parents liked the sound of the name, or it was the name of a loved family member or friend. In the Bible, names usually meant something. Isaac (Yitzchak) meant "laughter" or "he laughs." His mother certainly had a couple of good laughs before and after his birth. Prophets sometimes gave their kids really prophetic names like Isaiah's two sons, one named Shear-Jashub ("a remnant will return") and the other Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz ("quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.").  Now can you picture Mrs. Isaiah going to the kitchen door and calling for those two to hurry on in for dinner?

Names have always been important. To know someone's name was to hold power over them. In exorcisms, the exorcist seeks to get the demon to give up its name so that it can be banished. Jesus spoke the name of the demons holding the Gerasene demonic captive, the name "Legion", and sent them  into a herd of swine who then drowned themselves in the sea. Moses asked God for a name so that when the Israelites asked who was giving the instructions Moses relayed, he would have an answer.  God rather cryptically gave the name "I Am Who I Am" and told Moses to tell them that I AM had sent Moses to them. To know the true name of God would have been tantamount to feeling that God was in their power and could be manipulated like the demons from the Gerasene demonic.

There are many names by which God is called, like El Shaddai, Adonai and the like, but there are two of them that seem to me to encompass how I conceive of God.  One is the Jewish one, HaShem -- the Name, while the other is the name Jesus used to call God, "Abba."  The two names are very different, the one, HaShem, being almost an enigma while Abba is a very intimate, very experience-able mode of address. They fit my personal theology of knowing God yet not knowing all there is about God or knowing God completely. My finite humanness can't hope to ever know God completely, but yet the name by which I know God creates a bridge between us that links us no matter how great the distance or how unsubstantial the span.

How we name things and especially people gives an indication of our values, our aspirations, our relationships, or our beliefs. How we name God reflects much of the same criteria. I have a feeling, though, that what name I give to God, HaShem or Abba, is of less importance to than the fact that I actually call on God. At any given time God is God, HaShem AND Abba all at the same time. How?  I haven't a clue -- and, to me, it really doesn't matter.

What matters to me is that I can call God God, and, I am entirely hopeful, that my name to God is "beloved daughter."  I can't think of a better name.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 15, 2012.

Jesse Tree Day 16 - Jesse

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
-- Isaiah 11:1

Nobody starts out wanting to found a dynasty -- or do they?  I doubt the first Rockefeller thought about it, or the Rothschilds either.  The first people in a family are usually too busy trying to make ends meet, feed the kids and keep a roof over their heads.  Still, some families, due to hard work, foresight, imagination, guts and maybe a little luck thrown in, end up with names everybody knows (even if the closest they ever come is buying a product or visiting s store or the like) and one that paparazzi love to photograph (especially when the famous are being naughty).

Jesse was the grandson of Boaz and Ruth and was a man of standing in the community, an elder and a landowner with herds of sheep. He also had a number of sons, seven if you go by 1 Samuel, eight if you read 1 Chronicles. Whichever it is, only one son really was important in history -- the youngest, David. When Samuel came looking among Jesse's sons for the next king of Israel (to replace the one they already had), all the other sons were johnny-on-the-spot and Samuel was ready to anoint any of them God chose. But God wasn't satisfied with the lineup Jesse presented so Jesse sent someone to the fields to call David in from his job with the sheep. Midrash says that David was out being a shepherd because his father Jesse had had scruples before his birth.

After six (or seven) sons, Jesse was bothered by the fact that Ruth, his grandmother, was a Moabite who had married Boaz, her husband's kinsman and a Canaanite. There was a law in the Oral Torah that fobade Israelites marrying Moabite converts, and the argument that flowed even in Ruth's time was whether that law applied to just Moabite men or whether women were included.

The Midrash continues with Jesse deciding (a bit late, perhaps) that his six (or was it seven?) sons were possibly not truly Canaanite and he needed to create some (possibly) legitimate sons. He had separated several years before from his wife, and had remained chaste -- which chafed considerably. He wanted more sons, legitimately Caananite sons, so he tried to seduce a Canaanite servant. The servant also had scruples; she knew how sad Jesse's wife was about the separation and also her desire for more children herself, so the servant tipped Nitzevet off, Nitzevet took the servant's place on the sly and as a result David was conceived. It is said that Jesse did not know of the switch and when his former wife began swelling like a watermelon he was certain it was by some other man. That, the Midrash says is why David was out tending sheep instead of being involved in the family celebration welcoming Samuel.  Sometimes the wisest man can jump to conclusions.  So can the wisest women. The trick is to know when to jump and when to hang on to the edge of the cliff.

So what can I learn from Jesse?  Scruples are one thing, but sometimes scruples can get a person in trouble if they get in the way of relationships. Another thing is that I need to treat people with fairness because the one I consign to standing outside when I'm throwing a party might be the one who ends up more important than any guest at my table. Also, like most of the people in the genealogy of Jesus, Jesse had flaws, no matter how wise or respected he was.

Sometimes scruples hurt.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

God's Will?

It’s happened again. Another school shooting, more children and adults lost, more expressions of shock, disbelief and horror. This time it’s small children, little ones who were undoubtedly looking forward to Santa Claus and Christmas presents and perhaps the church Christmas pageant. Loss of life in what seemed to be senseless acts of violence is always shocking and horrifying but somehow having it happen to children at a time of year that is supposed to represent joy and hope is obscene. How can this happen? And how can it keep happening over and over and over? Why is it happening? And why them, and why now?

Those are questions that we ask every time the news tells us of another tragedy. Newtown, New Jersey, is just the latest episode. I just googled “school shootings in the US” and the results were rather overwhelming. Certainly no one could forget Columbine, the Amish school shooting, Virginia Tech, or, if they were old enough, the University of Texas massacre, but there have been many more and we shouldn’t forget any of them. The families can’t forget, but we as a nation shouldn’t forget either. Those horrific events of Friday morning represented multiple lives lost, innocent lives. My mind slips back to images of young Jewish children escaping from their day camp activity at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, where a gunman began a rampage in a time and place that seemed to be designed for the safety and enjoyment of children’s activities. I remember images of parents outside the Amish school and while I didn’t see their faces, just their postures, it showed the depth of grief and incomprehensibility they surely must have felt. I remember my horror watching media coverage of the shooting at Virginia Tech, a place so close to the college I attended years before, and wondered why it was happening there. Media coverage of students running for their lives from Columbine High School sticks in my mind as do other images over the past several decades. And what do all those images have in common? They show people reacting to stress, fear, horror, disbelief, and even desperation. We witness those scenes from the safety and security of our living rooms and through the distance offered by a glass screen and satellite feed. We can only share in the feelings of those whose images we see wounded and grieving in a very, very limited way. Still, the question remains: why is it happening again? Why these children and why now? In a war, it would be considered collateral damage, but that’s hardly seems a term we want to use about children in a school in the country like the US.

There is a belief that everyone is born for a purpose. Events like Sandy Hook, Columbine, Austin, Los Angeles, and Blacksburg make me stop and wonder if that’s really true. It’s hard to accept that the death of a child at the hands of an assassin hell-bent on revenge or acting out of just plain anger was the result of some grand design to teach us something. For those who use the phrase “It was God’s will” as a way of describing why something happened might use it as a phrase designed to comfort the bereaved but it doesn’t work for me. Did God bring an innocent child into the world for the purpose of its being shot or stabbed or fatally injured by a bomb to teach a lesson or to bring pain to the family, bringing them closer to God, or was that child’s purpose to give joy and completeness to the family?  I have a really hard time seeing something like their murder as “God’s will.” I also have trouble seeing it as a work of the devil; I think the devil gets too much credit. The devil is an easy entity to blame when I think it’s really the choice of a human being with no influence from some supernatural power, even though they may think they are doing what they are commanded to do by a higher source.

I believe in God. The God I believe in created a beautiful world and created human beings to live in that world, to care for it and to be companions of God. God could have created robots, creatures programmed for whatever it was that God wanted them to do – worship God, serve God, whatever. God put the element of choice into the very fabric of humanity, and I often wonder if what we do with choice is really what God had in mind in the first place. I can’t believe that an armed adult walks into a school and opened fire was in any way a result of choice as God intended it to be. Nor can I say all this is Eve’s fault or Adam’s fault. God must’ve known people were going to make bad choices, but I guess to God, the risk was worth it. I still have difficulty though, wondering pretty much the same thing everyone else wonders. Where was God in this tragedy? Where was God in all the other similar tragedies? Where was God?

I don’t think my question will ever be answered, not fully or maybe not to my satisfaction. What I’m left with is my feeble human need to try and understand, and to find some redeeming purpose for all this. I don’t see God in the executioner, nor God’s will in the act, even though the shooter was as much a child of God is I am. There’s the problem. As sick as I believe he was, and as evil as I believe his act to be, he was still a child of God. Misguided, angry, whatever his motive might have been, he was still a child of God. I struggled to wrap my mind around it and I know a lot of people won’t understand, but the thought keeps pounding in my brain. He was still a child of God, just as the innocents whose lives he destroyed or damaged were children of God. Whether his act was the result of faulty brain chemistry, raging hormones or all too human feelings of anger and rejection, they were his human choice and not, I’m sure, some part of a divine plan.

Again, I wonder where was God in all of this? Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing God too much, but my heart tells me that God was beside us with eyes full of tears, heart heavy with grief and a throat too tight to let words escape. Perhaps God’s grief was deeper than any we could possibly experience or imagine, because through the God-given gift of choice this became a possibility. Still, I think God weeps with us and with all those who have lost lives so very precious to them at any time of year but especially at Christmastime.

God became human once and experienced all that humans experience. I don’t think the lesson will have been forgotten. Our challenge is not only to not forget our own lessons, but to find a way to use those lessons for good.

We must, or we will only have more lessons to learn at a much greater cost.

Jesse Tree Day 15 - Ruth

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’
Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ -- Ruth 2:1-9

Until we recently changed to the Revised Common Lectionary, we never heard the book of Ruth read as a lesson in church on Sunday. Probably the part we are most familiar with is Ruth's statement," Wherever you go I will go," which is often heard at weddings either as a reading or in some musical form. What most people don't realize is that Ruth is actually speaking to her mother-in-law Naomi and not to some bridegroom or suitor.

In the genealogy of Jesus, Ruth was the first outsider, the first foreigner, to be introduced as one of his ancestors. Sometimes it seems odd to have such a story with all its connotations as a part of the Old Testament canon. What it does is to introduce the idea that upright living and obedience was sometimes more important than bloodline and place of birth. Ruth chose to be guided by her mother-in-law and chose to act on her mother-in-law's advice with an eye to Naomi's well-being as well. By doing so, she gained not only security and a new family for herself but a sense of redemption for Naomi. Ruth married Boaz and gave birth to a son, Obed, who  was Naomi's only grandchild and undoubtedly a joy to her and a comfort. Obed was later known for his Torah study and his righteousness amd also as the father of Jesse and grandfather of David.

What can I learn from Ruth? Sometimes you have to relocate to make a change to the better in your life. Sometimes you have to be guided by the wisdom of others to make the right choices. And sometimes you just have to pick the right field.

Joy often follows tragedy. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 14 - Samuel

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. -- 1 Samuel 3:1-3

One of the oldest ways to learn a trade or a profession was to serve as an apprentice. Samuel was an apprentice to Eli the priest, learning what he would need to know in order to follow in Eli's footsteps. Samuel was growing into it, having been following this path from his infancy when his mother dedicated him to God's service after her prayers to be released from barrenness and to bear a child.  Samuel was the answer to those prayers and so his mother took him to Eli to raise and train. It worked out; Eli had someone to teach and to serve him, Samuel had a mentor and teacher.

Where the story stops is just the beginning of Samuel's journey. We remember the story of Samuel's hearing a voice and, thinking it was Eli, went to him to see what Eli needed. Of course, Eli hadn't called and it took several repetitions for it to finally catch that it was God calling Samuel. Eli told him to answer "Here I am, Lord," and, of course, the rest is history.

Answering calls with "Here I am" is something we do often without thinking. A mother calls a child who is just out of sight and the child returns to her side with "Here I am, Mommy."  We may not always give those precise words, but the intent is there.  Many in the Bible have, however, used exactly those same words in response to God.  So have many who have answered God's call through the thousands of years since Samuel.

What can I learn from Samuel?  I can always ask "Who me?" or I can answer "Here I am."  God doesn't always call the people I would expect, but then, God often raises the called to do what is needed. I need to hear and respond when called to whatever it is I am supposed to do.

Answer the call.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 13 - Deborah

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement.  - Judges 4:4-5

Prophetesses in the Bible were somewhat rare birds; there were only five listed and not all of them were named. Miriam, sister of Moses, was the first and then came Deborah. While prophets were generally charismatic men who were both military and civil leaders, prophetesses tended to be more in the line of the wise woman who, like the men, were sometimes called upon to adjudicate disputes, give judgements on various things and, in general, keep a light hand on the rudder of the group in order to keep things moving in a positive direction.

Wisdom comes with age, so they say. Most cultures have their wise women, senior females to whom people turn when there's a problem to be solved, a question to be answered or a resolution to be sought. They are valued members of the society, often acting as a sort of visual conscience that helps to remind people of what it is they are supposed to be and do.  They also have the time to devote to observing what goes on around them and spot where trouble is likely to occur or where an extra hand might be needed. Deborah probably did those things, as well as prophesying and planning a military campaign. 

Every age and every culture has its wise women; in some, though, the wise women have been persecuted (like the elder women who lived alone and often served as herbalists and midwives but who were condemned as witches and murdered because of that accusation) or they have been pushed aside by others who simply want them to sit on their front porches (or better yet, in the parlor out of sight) and knit, trotting them out on Mother's Day or at family events and then retiring them again to invisibility. Some women successfully fight against that, becoming the leaders and workers in ways that fulfill them and serve others in a very meaningful way. They may see things somewhat differently than the men do and may choose a very different path to resolution of what is before them, but the contribution remains. It is valuable and should be valued. Jesus reiterated the need to care for the widows and orphans; he didn't say anything about ignoring them, putting them out to pasture or inhibiting their abilities to do what they felt called to do. Look at Mary Magdalene...

What can I learn from Deborah?  Sometimes you have to sit under a tree in a very prominent place in order to be noticed, but you'd also better have a good head on your shoulders, a head that guides you in the direction of wisdom and proper judgement. You have to earn the trust of those you seek to serve. It doesn't hurt at all to give good advice, but listening for good advice from God is an important component as well.

Use your head.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 12 - Miriam

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ —
Exodus 15: 20 – 21

Every family has its own dynamics and the family of Moses was no exception.  Everyone knows the story of Miriam taking baby Moses to the Nile, putting him in a basket and waiting for someone to find him. It really was the only way to save his life. Pharaoh's daughter found basket and baby, decided on the spot to adopt him and must have been quite surprised when Miriam popped out of the reeds to ask if she wanted a nurse for the baby. After that Miriam seems to disappear until the exodus. She reappears to sing a victory song as the waters drowned Pharaoh's army and left the Israelites safe on the shore. Moses and the men saying a long song in celebration, then Miriam and the women sang their antiphon. You know, it's rather amazing to hear a woman's voice acknowledged in this way, especially in a situation removed from home and maternity, and with a very definite female name attached to it.

Songs are an important part of our lives, whether we sing them or just hear them or even think them. There are songs for babies, for children, for almost every stage of life and almost any situation. Songs are not just communication of thought, their expression of emotion and even prayer. St. Augustine is credited with saying "He who sings prays twice." He may not have put it in exactly those words but that's the sentiment and, I think, is a more than valid argument. Certainly David's psalms were songs to be sung but were also in every sense prayers. In the Episcopal Church it used to be the custom to chant psalms and canticles as part of the daily prayer and even in the worship of the church on Sundays. Often the most annoying little ditty from a commercial becomes an earworm that can't be ignored, no matter how fervently we pray to have it stopped or at least changed. I still wonder why Miriam's song was included in the text, but I'm certainly glad it was.

What can I learn from Miriam? It doesn't have to be a long and involved aria or even a ballad created by a master singer. What matters is that my heart sings and that heart song becomes a prayer. I can also learn that sometimes special gifts, like Miriam's title of prophet, isn't revealed right at the beginning. Then too, I can learn that sometimes it's better not to challenge authority, or, if I do, it should be for the right reasons.

Sing in thanksgiving.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jesse Tree Day 11 -- Moses

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. - Exodus 3:1-6

Moses had come a long way from his earthly beginnings. Born at a time when Israelite boy babies were supposed to be killed by the midwives who had just delivered them, Moses' mother happened to have one of them who claimed to have gotten there too late to do the deed. Then he was put in a pitch-covered basket and placed in the Nile, only to be discovered and rescued by pharoah's daughter who took him to raise as her own. He grew up in privilege as a son of the royal house only to lose it when he retaliated against an Egyptian who was in the act of beating an Israelite worker to death. His murder of the Egyptian meant he had to beat feet outta Dodge and so he went as far and as fast as he could. He ended up in Midian where he became a shepherd and a husband.  The burning bush marked the beginning of another chapter in his life, one that would take the rest of his life to finish.

It must have been quite a sight, that burning bush which sustained a flame yet didn't become consumed by it.  A science program I saw showed how it would be possible, but it still seemed a bit miraculous to me. To Moses (without the benefit of Discovery Channel), it must have been awe-full, to say the last.  Then there was the command coming from seeming nowhere for Moses to take off his sandals and go barefoot because he was on holy ground. Why?  I don't know for sure, but it seems like bare foot against the ground would allow a person to not only feel a bit more vulnerable but also more connected to creation and the solidity of the earth beneath the feet.  At any rate, Moses found one of those thin places and was asked to remove his sandals.

I know that there are places I've been where I'd have been sorely tempted to take off my Birks and experience holy ground.  One place was on the shore of my river back home. It was easy to go barefoot, and almost as easy to feel the presence of God in the waves, the firmness of the wet sand and the yielding of the dry.  Another place was in the National Cathedral, a sacred place dedicated to the worship of God and the service of humankind. That is one of my very favorite thin spaces, where heaven and earth are millimeters apart. 

Somehow I don't think Moses had a lot of trouble recognizing that this was a momentous event taking place in probably a very familiar area that hadn't seemed all that strange before.  That's the thing about holy places -- they don't all have to be the scene of great bloodshed or great piety, they can be anywhere that a person can encounter God in a very real way, perhaps not as directly as Moses did at the burning bush, but in somewhat similar circumstances.

What can I learn from Moses?  Perhaps one thing is something not mentioned in today's reading and that is to stand up for what is right, even if it gets you in trouble.  Another is to listen for the voice of God with instructions  A third thing is to be aware of where I am because I can't ever tell when I might be standing or walking on holy ground.

“Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” 
    - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Watch for thin spaces.