Sunday, September 29, 2013

Struggling with Athalia

Reading:   2 Kings 11:1-20

At a recent Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor training we were talking about recruiting and how to reach to people who might find the course of study interesting and/or helpful to their lives and ministries. Usually during recruiting events we have a few current or former students present to testify to the value of the program to them and their ministries. One mentor at training told of such a meeting where there was one lady very eager to share. When her turn came, she said, in her Southern drawl, "I never knew there was so much in the Old Testament. Why, it's all full of SEX and MURD-AH." Needless to say, the mentor had a bumper crop of students sign up for the year.

It is surprising how much sex and murder and all manner of connivery are in the Old Testament. David and Bathsheba come to mind, and probably every young person who has perused the Bible while the sermon was going on has found the eroticism of Song of Songs. But there is a lot of dark stuff there too, including rape, suicide, murder and slaughter on a massive scale. Whole cities, kingdoms and even families have been wiped out, often because they opposed the Israelites or were considered enemies of God but sometimes it was just convenience or revenge. It's dark stuff indeed.

The reading from 2 Kings seems to illustrate the violence and the lengths to which people will go to seize what they see as theirs. Athalia was the daughter of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel. Her husband had been King Joram (also called Jehoram). Athalia's son, King Ahaziah, was dead and Athalia wanted to make sure she was going to rule even if it meant exterminating the rest of the whole royal family. This plot has more twists and turns than any Hollywood movie but we seldom read it unless we follow the Daily Office or some other whole-Bible reading program. We certainly never hear it read on Sunday!

In the six-year reign of Athalia, she definitely did not make points as what would be considered a good Queen. I wonder what she was thinking, especially when she ordered the death of what appeared to be her own family. She thought she had gotten them all, but she was wrong. As a worshiper of Baal, she never went near the temple dedicated to God; had she done so, she might have discovered that a small boy and his nurse had been secreted there, safe from Athalia’s murderous machinations.  Jehosheba, another daughter of Joram, and her husband, Jehoiada, the high priest, had spirited the child, Joash, out of the palace and into the temple for safety and where he remained for the next six or seven years.  Imagine Athalia’s horror when, one day, she heard a commotion and saw a larger and more vocal than usual crowd at the temple. Curious, she went in to see what was going on and saw a small boy wearing the crown of Israel and being hailed as the rightful king. She wasn't happy -- not at all. She was downright rend-your-clothes-and-scream-treason unhappy. Jehoiada, the chief priest, gave the order for the temple guards to take her out and execute her, just as she had ordered the slaying of so many people herself. She was escorted out through a gate normally used by horses to a place where her execution would not soil or compromise the holiness of the temple of God. The people were happy and Joash ruled as a good king and true son of David for the next 40 years so there was a sort of happy ending to the whole miserable story.

There are a lot of stories like this in the Bible, and when reading through the Old Testament book by book and chapter by chapter, it’s amazing to see how few really familiar stories there are compared to the total number. Among the unfamiliar are murders done for political gain, out of jealousy, even on God’s orders.  It’s those stories in the last category that are the hardest ones to read much less understand. It doesn’t square with the God we want to believe in, the God of love and justice and mercy. It’s not that God that we can feel comfortable trusting to be with us and protect us. What are we to make of a God who orders entire cities and nations of people to be annihilated along with their cattle, sheep, goats and even babes in arms? Even in familiar stories like the story of Moses and Pharaoh, it seems God plays with Pharaoh’s heart, alternately softening and hardening it with a series of ever-increasingly horrific plagues and even culminating in the elimination of the military might of Egypt as one final punishment.  

When it comes down to it, how are we to understand a God who will wipe out an entire world with the exception of one man and his family and a small number of every kind of bird, animal and bug? The familiar story of Noah's doesn't always bear thinking about too deeply; it's easier just to read it as a nice story for the kiddies with visions of animals marching neatly two by two into a large vessel and coming out under a beautiful rainbow than as an angry and vengeful God taking direct action on every living thing on earth save for a select few. I still have trouble believing that deer and rabbits and snakes and even kittens, not to mention newborn babes and young children were so evil that they required a holocaust from God to clean up the world.

The Bible is called "God's Word" -- God speaking to us through its stories and pages. The Bible is a record of humanity's interaction with God, humanity in all its glory and shame, heroics and despicable acts. Sometimes it's easy to hear the voice of God coming through the words and stories, but I find it often very hard or even impossible to hear it in stories like Athalia’s and others. Sure, I’m like most folks who like good stories of sex and murder; look at the current best-seller lists. What is harder to like is a book with enough blood to fill an ocean and enough evil (and the resulting punishment) to boggle the mind. Jesus didn't always use honeyed words either; he could be very direct and sometimes almost rude with those who wouldn't or couldn't understand and even with innocents asking for help like the Syrophoenician woman.

My mind returns to the story of Athalia. It's just one story out of a multitude of others, so what useful lesson am I to get from reading and thinking about it? The most obvious is to worship God, not Baal, and not to murder people, but that's a pretty flip answer to a real question I have been wrestling with for some time. What am I to learn from the stories of sex and murder that so populate the Bible? Probably the most valuable lesson is the very fact that I am not bound to just accept the stories at total face value as a test of faith or as proof of anything. It's okay to wrestle with scripture and why it is written the way it is; the Jews have been doing it for millennia and it hasn't hurt their faith any, so it seems. Some of their best writings are those of rabbis who wrestled with scripture and found a way to live with them, even if they didn't paint a very good picture. The rabbis wisely understood that the Bible was about human beings as well as God, and that often the two were very far apart. Scripture is full of people, warts and all, and their relationship to each other and to God. Perhaps that is the wisdom that underlies the first and greatest commandment as Jesus spoke it, to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Both of those require a lot of struggling and a lot of wrestling with self as much as with anyone else.

I will probably continue to wrestle with a lot of these stories that aren’t heard on Sunday and that I don’t get a warm fuzzy feeling about. I don’t think God minds the struggle and the wrestling; it’s a sort of demonstration of a desire to understand and reach a closer relationship with God who will never be fully knowable but always available. I think too that I need to be careful not to be a Baal worshiper, whether my particular baal is power, money, control, possessions or prestige.

I guess that in the long run it’s better to struggle than to conquer.  I wonder what Athalia would make of that? 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, September 29, 2014.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Didn't I Tell You?

If you knew someone you loved and respected was going to be taking a long journey, would you insist on going with them?  Elisha and, it seems, at least half the country knew Elijah was going away on his final journey and Elisha himself was determined to take as much of the journey with him as possible. They started at Gilgal and then went to Bethel and then to Jericho. Each time they were met by the prophets of the town and Elisha was asked the same question – did he know that today Elijah would be taken from him? Elisha knew it, but asked for silence from the prophets. Eventually Elijah, Elisha and, by now, a cast of at least 50 prophets reach the Jordan. Elijah rolled up his cloak and touched the water with it before he and Elisha alone walked across on dry land, just as Moses and the children of Israel did at the Red (Reed) Sea. We know the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven by a chariot of fire drawn by fiery horses (a whirlwind, if you like). We also know that Elisha inherited Elijah’s mantle and his position as prophet to all of Israel. It must have been a sad journey back across the Jordan to meet those who had remained behind, but Elisha had Elijah’s mantle for comfort.

The next part seems sort of strange. Everybody seemed very concerned that Elijah might still be out there somewhere, perhaps lost, perhaps injured, perhaps dying. Elijah tried to reassure them but nothing would do but they send 50 men across the Jordan to look for their great prophet, no matter what his pupil and apparent heir said. They did this for three days and when the men returned empty handed, Elisha had a very pithy comment that I just love – “Did I not say to you, ‘do not go’?”  I think what we have here is the charter membership of what will later be known as the Doubting Thomas Society, people who don’t believe until they actually have seen proof of something happening. They never seem to expect a response like "Didn't I tell you?"

It's hard to take somebody else's word for something without verification. We want proof, whether in a court of law, an office report, a doctor's diagnosis, or any one of 1000 possible scenarios. Yes, we talk to experts, but do they really know what they're talking about? Is what they say really the truth? Should we get a second opinion? Are we likely to believe that second opinion over the first?  Would we go with the one we liked best or the one that gave us the best outcome, whether it was totally realistic or not? Elisha had no reason to lie especially since everybody seemed to know exactly what was going to happen before it did, yet they still questioned him as if what they had heard and what he had reported really wasn't the truth. They still wanted to send out a search party just in case. Elisha had Elijah's cloak, wasn't that enough proof that Elijah was no longer there? Or no longer needed his cloak? We think it would be obvious, but some people just can't accept unless they see. Our friend Doubting Thomas had the same problem much later, but he didn't invent the "I've got to see it to believe it" way of thinking. And there is always someone around to say, "Didn't I tell you?"

Sometimes news is just too hard to take unless there is something concrete, something solid to enforce the idea that yes, it is real, it did happen, we can believe what we're told. When I stop and think about it, we do it all the time with God. We read God's promises in the Bible and yet we don't always trust them until we have something concrete, solid, and verifiable that indicates to us that the promise was real. It really happened just the way it's supposed to! Paul tells us that "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1) and most of the time we can accept that, but there's always that little tickle in the back of the mind that said, “Oh really?” I know it's happened to me more than once, and even though I have faith that God will take care of me and will be with me no matter what, sometimes I need a human hand or human arm around me or human voice in my ear saying it will be all right or something like that. I wonder if God doesn’t sometimes just wants to say, “Didn’t I tell you?”

Most probably  we are all members of the Doubting Thomas Society at one time or another. Perhaps that's one reason we need the story of Elijah and Elisha as not just as a story of a miraculous assumption into heaven. We have a miracle but we are somewhat like the people who were there when Elisha came back alone, wanting to make sure that what they heard was going to happen really did happen – and more proof than a cloak and someone’s word. Then, when we’ve exhausted all the possibilities, we hear someone say, “Didn’t I tell you?” and we have to agree that yes, they did and they were right.

There’s nothing totally wrong about doubt. There has to be something like a belief or an idea or an event there first in order for doubt about it to exist, else why would doubt itself exist?  I think that people who have an element of doubt in their faith realize that there is may be something more that they aren’t understanding, realizing or believing. The Bible gives us plenty of places for doubt to creep into our consciousnesses but it also gives us the opportunity to wrestle with scripture and in that struggle to learn a bit and to build a stronger faith. If one is totally certain to begin with is there really room for growth?  Perhaps the prophets and searchers had it right all along – trust but verify, check the story out, look for the facts but accept the situation even if there is no physical proof. I think that’s what they did, and I think it is probably a good plan for me as well. Some things, like the assumption of Elijah or even the resurrection just have to be taken on faith and without verifiable evidence that would stand up in a court of law or even in public opinion.  

I have a feeling that one day we’re going to meet someone face-to-face who will give us authoritative answers to all our Biblical questions, the ones we could never resolve through tests or tangibles. We expect we know what he will say, but I bet he will also tell us that our preconceptions and interpretations were just short of the mark. I have a feeling we’re going to hear Jesus say, “Didn’t I tell you?” It won't be the first time he said it, but maybe this is the time we'll finally believe it.

 Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 21, 2013.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Price of Whine

 Feast of the Holy Cross (evening)

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  -- Numbers 21:4-9

During the Exodus from Egypt it seems that a number of times the Israelites weren’t totally happy in the situation which they found themselves. They seem to like to complain, gripe, bellyache, kvetch,  whatever word you want to use for it, because things weren’t the same as they were in Egypt. Granted, in Egypt they were slaves and here they were more or less free, but by the same token in Egypt they had beer, onions, vegetables, melons, fish and occasionally, meat. It wasn’t easy to get those things in any quantity while trekking around a relative desert for 40 years, even on the major trade routes of the Middle East, so they griped, and kvetched, and whined again and again.

The lesson this morning shows that they were still at it. The manna from God, the miraculous food that fed everyone every day, had this little quirk about it in that it was totally utilized by the 248 parts of the body (according to the teachings of the Rabbis*) with nothing left over. It wasn't like regular food; it went in the body the same way as normal everyday food but it didn’t come out,  so it must stay in the body and rot which wasn’t good for the body or the person. This manna, though, didn’t work like that; God provided this miraculous food and they were worried about elimination.  In addition, the manna was boring. When you want a steak, fluffy scale-like stuff with the consistency of instant mashed potato straight from the box just doesn’t do it. So the Israelites griped and God got tired of it - again.

The punishment that God sent to the Israelites for their griping and complaining and bellyaching was for them to find themselves in a bed of poisonous vipers whose injection and venom felt like a fiery spark that kept burning. Snakes are usually individuals once they leave the egg, but some areas can be infested with a lot of individuals. It seemed that the Israelites picked the wrong place to kvetch this time. God was not only the punisher but was also the source of healing. God instructed Moses to make a “seraph”** and put it high on a pole in the middle of the camp where everybody could see it. Moses, whose people were Kenites (the word Kenite means a smith or metalworker) created a figure out of copper or perhaps bronze. It seems both Aaron and Moses were adept metalworkers.

This seems rather strange. Aaron had made the golden calf and got in trouble for it. Now here was God telling Moses to make a copper or bronze “seraph” and put it on a stick so that people could gaze at it and be cured of their poisonous snake bites. Didn’t God just say something back in Exodus about graven images? So why was God telling Moses to make what amounted to a graven image that was more like a magical charm than anything else? I know God has God’s own reasons, so far be it for me to question them, but it just seems strange, especially considering that the Israelites kept that artifact and put it in or with the Ark of the Covenant for centuries. It remained with the Ark in the Temple until about 700 BC when King Hezekiah destroyed it because the people were offering incense to it like an idol. Other civilizations with whom the Israelites had contact had cults where snakes were venerated and even were symbols of healing, so is that why Moses made the “seraph” in the form of a serpent? The sun glancing off the copper shape could very well resemble a burning and undulating snake that is slithering upwards or perhaps a dancing flame from a fire. It could also resemble a pointer going directly upward to the true source of healing, God. Perhaps the thought of that was why they had to gaze at it rather than just merely glancing before the cure was effected. The rabbis in the Midrash seems to take that view. Those rabbis were very wise men.

The whole point of the story is that there are always consequences, often rather unpleasant ones, and that God is both judgmental and compassionate. I think if I had to point one passage that I most closely identified God with human parents, I think this might be the one. Children need discipline and parents are the disciplinarians. By the same token, once punishment has been meted out, that very same parent will most likely wipe the child’s tears, take it by the hand and go get some ice cream or a favorite book to share. That’s sort of what God did with the Israelites; they acted like unruly children, God the parent punished them and then gave them a sign of healing. If that isn’t a parental act, I don’t know what else to call it.

What I need to take from this lesson is the reminder that kvetching doesn’t usually help and can make things immeasurably worse at times. That’s not to say the occasional complaint should never be voiced. Sometimes that complaint gets things done that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Still, nobody likes a whiner, and apparently that goes for God as well.  I also need the reminder to look to God for what I need (but actually do something about it and not just sit and look pious and expect God to do all the work). I have to remember to really look at things, not just give a superficial flick of the eyes to it because I might miss something important.  I need to watch for things that point me to God, whether a snake on a stake, a flame on a flagstaff or even something as simple as a falling leaf, a twinkling star or a smiling infant.

The question isn’t when to start looking but how soon I can do it. There might be a snake sitting there somewhere close by with my name on its dance card.

* See Rashi's commentary on the passage. See also The Talmud - Yoma 75b  pages 225-7.

** Seraph can mean  “flame” or “fire” but is often translated as “serpent” although the term seraphim generally applies to anthropomorphized six-winged figures who stand closest to the throne of God, like the seraph who applied the coal of fire to the lips of Isaiah.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 14, 2013.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Generational Voices

Solomon was dead and now Israel had come together to ratify the reign of the new King Rehoboam. Becoming King was not automatic; it involved approval from the entire nation. In this passage Israel had a request to make of Rehoboam and his answer would determine his success or failure in attaining the throne of his father.

The request that Israel had made of Rehoboam was both simple and complex. The simple part was the request to have their workload lightened. Solomon had been less than kind to his workers who were building things in his kingdom, notably the temple in Jerusalem. The people were asking Rehoboam to lighten up a bit, and there was the complex part. That was something about which Rehoboam figured he’d better get some advice before making a decision.

That was a wise move – at least initially. Most wise people don’t just jump into something, especially something as important as a new career, moving to a new place, or even instigating a new venture of some sort. Rehoboam first consulted the elders, wise people who had counseled his father and their response was to advise Rehoboam to comply with the wish of Israel and ease the burden. In the short-term this could slow progress but in the long run he would win the hearts of the people and they would be more willing to do more in return. Rehoboam took this under advisement and then went and sought the counsel of his contemporaries who advised just the opposite. Show strength right off the bat, tighten the reins and let loose an even worse whip to keep them in submission. Rehoboam chose to listen to his contemporaries and the results were disastrous to say the least. By the time the smoke cleared, the only tribe over which Rehoboam would rule would be Judah; the rest of Israel packed its tents and went home, severing the tie with the house of David forever.

Rehoboam suffered a real missed opportunity to keep the family together, as it were. Once he made that choice, choosing the immediate over the long-term, the immediate reaction was not the one he had wanted. It's a reminder of some of the discussions going on today in the church between generations as to in what direction the church should go. One question before the church is how to attract and keep members of the younger generations, namely the Millennials and hopefully the Generation Zs that come after them. Everybody’s got an opinion and everybody wants a place at the table where they can express that opinion. Each has an idea of what they would like to see and what they would like to change. Do we hold on to tradition in both liturgy and in music? Do we modernize with praise bands and a more emotion driven form of worship or do we go with more creative, more "relevant" liturgies that aren't radical enough to scare the older folks but which might seem a bit more contemporary to the younger ones? How do we blend the needs, desires, and hopes of multiple generations so that none feel that they are not being heard or that their needs, desires and hopes are unimportant enough for consideration. It’s a fine balance, one that can be very hard to maintain.

I think it’s natural for a generation of young people to question, to struggle against authority, to want to do things their way which, to their way of thinking, is the only and right way.  They have wisdom about a world they’ve grown up in while the older folks have had to transition (more or less easily or gracefully) from a quite different one. Most parents seem to have the same wail, “My kids don’t listen to me! They want to do it their way!” I have a feeling every parental generation since Adam and Eve has said something similar – just as the Millennials and Generation Zs will say it when their turn comes. I also hear Millennials saying, "It's our turn; listen to us for a change and don't try to guess what we want or need. Let us tell you." How can the generations come together and work out a plan where everybody wins and nobody feels like they are losers or haven't been heard? Is that even possible?

What can the various generations like bring to the table of discussion?  With the Silent Generation/Boomers, many have grown up in some sort of tradition, have been taught what was considered "right belief" and found that questioning was often actively discouraged.  Many have come to the realization that life and faith come in shades of gray and not just solid yeas or nays. They’ve generally accommodated themselves to changes in liturgy and focus just as they have cultural and sociological changes in their congregations and their neighborhoods, sometimes more or less gracefully. But if they’re still in church it’s because they feel that this is the place they want and need to be, a place that accepts them and listens to them and where they can express their faith and their understanding in safety. Funny, that sounds a lot like what Millennials seem to want, at least to my ears. They have accumulated the wisdom that comes from struggling with a lot of things that the Millennials struggle with now – the Been There, Done That syndrome.

What the Millennials and Gen Zs can contribute are fresh eyes and a changed world. They've got ideas based on the world of computers, instant communications and a view to global problems that their parents and grandparents never had to consider. They seem to want tradition, maybe slightly adjusted to a more modern concept of sound bytes rather than florid Shakespearean (and King James) English, but with a firm footing in the past. I bet they'd like the church to reach out more to try to help solve the problems of the world like poverty, homelessness, hunger, abuse and mismanagement. They want to question and struggle with the answers in a supportive environment that allows them to bring disparate disciplines like theology and science together. Unlike the Christianity of their predecessors where missionaries were sent out to convert the unbelievers, they want to be part of the mission that helps bring clean drinking water to thirsty villages, build schools to educate the next generations of leaders in countries where poverty is so rampant and to help feed the millions who are starving -- all in the name of Jesus but without insisting on conversion before assistance. And, I am pretty sure they want people and churches who really mean what they preach -- showing God's love, respecting the humanity of all people and demonstrating the gospel by the way they live, not just by flinging around Bible verses or forgetting the gospel message by the time they hit the front door of the church on the way out on Sunday mornings.

I wonder … what would happen if we could harness the experience and the tradition to the vision and the transparency? How can we make a safe, worshipful, loving, honest, giving place for everyone? What if we could listen, really listen, to all sides and do what Episcopalians pride themselves on being, namely a bridge church and a wide umbrella.

Perhaps Rehoboam is a good cautionary tale for us in these times and when it comes to our church. He did have a good idea, namely to solicit advice from two very different sources. In terms of our modern church discussions, perhaps that wisdom can be applied by having both sides at a round table, listening to each other and asking and answering frank questions. I think all generations have something to offer, something that would make the church poorer if they weren’t present. Instead of choosing one over the other (and potentially making a wrong choice like Rehoboam did), we could take the best of both, lighten the burden and still make progress.

I wonder too… isn’t it worth a try? Maybe this is one of those times to have what are called “difficult conversations,” conversations that touch on sensitive issues and tries to do so with mutual gentleness and mutual respect. Now the question appears, what is holding us back from such conversations?  Pride? Stubbornness? Unwillingness?  Feelings of entitlement? 

I hope those conversations start soon and spread widely. I'd love to be part of them.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 7, 2013.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Acts of Blessing

Solomon has done his most famous act: he has built the temple in Jerusalem to serve as the house of God in the city of his father, David. David had wanted to built it, but God had told him no, that was for his son to do and now the man had done it. The passage details the completing jobs, bringing in the dedicated treasure David had accumulated, and then the final piece was put in place, the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets Moses had brought down from Sinai during the Exodus. All of Israel (so the story tells us) was there for the consecration of the Temple and Solomon's  blessing of the people. It must have been quite a celebration.

The word "blessing" has a number of different definitions. In some places, instead of using the words "saying grace" before a meal they say they are going to "ask the blessing." Some refer to good things that happen as "blessings."  If you're an architect and the city gives its approbation to a plan you've created, it could be said that they gave it their blessing. And then there is the kind of blessing Solomon gave to the people. Blessings can be both given and received. That's the neat thing about them.

We don't build temples the way Solomon did, but we build homes and businesses, churches, synagogues, mosques and, yes, different kinds of temples, depending on the religious persuasion of those who cause the building to be built. Most of them (although not many houses or businesses) are actually blessed by some sort of religious person, and along with the blessing of the building, the people who will occupy and worship in it will also be blessed. In the Episcopal Church we bless new churches and the stuff that will go in them -- altars, furnishings, icons, statues, crosses, linens, vestments, and the like, just like Solomon did. Other churches bless different things but all, I'm pretty sure, don't consider it a proper place of worship until some sort of blessing and dedication takes place in and around it.

Episcopalians also bless ordinary things -- pretty much anything that doesn't scare the horses (or upset the bishop). Pets, motorcycles, rosaries, houses, boats -- you ask, we'll bless. Congregations get blessings routinely and private blessings and anointings can be arranged or be done spontaneously, depending on the need, the desire and the persons involved. We do a lot of blessing -- from birth to burial and a lot of stages in between.

Marriages are ceremonies of both witness to a contract and blessing and here is where we run into a bit of a bind. We as a church and as a whole have not yet reached the point where we are as unanimous about blessing committed relationships as we are to bless a house, a cat or a new tree. Two people show up at a rectory or parish office and want to talk about a wedding and in almost every place they will be told that fine, it can happen after they have gone through some period of premarital counseling first. All that changes in most places if the two people happen to be of the same gender, no matter how long their relationship or how deep their commitment to each other. Most states don't recognize same-sex marriage and so, since the church is acting not only in its own behalf but on behalf of the state, the church doesn't either. Why is it so easy to bless some things that truly are mundane but so difficult to bless something representing those very values we claim to hold in highest regard:  fidelity, commitment and devotion to the pursuit of building a home and a life together? We don't require a commitment from our car, even our cat (although dog owners may differ there), yet we bless them. We bless pieces of cloth and nailed-together boards, why not committed relationships? And why are we acting as agents of the state in this matter and no other?  Or at all?

We say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes and Southerners routinely say "Bless your heart" when they are touched by something you've done or said. "I'll be blessed" indicates confusion or astonishment and "Bless my soul" speaks of surprise. It sounds a lot nicer than some of the ejaculatory phrases people use these days for surprise, confusion, or anything else. Perhaps it would be a better world if we did use it more -- and more expansively than we do currently.

Blessings shouldn't be caged in churches and only doled out to those we feel who might be appropriate for such a thing. I have a feeling that if anyone came to Jesus and asked for a blessing, he'd give it. He certainly blessed a lot of people with healing, curing and teaching and not a single one of those was done to build himself up or to mark him as someone extraordinary.  He wasn't even a priest -- well, a recognized member of the priestly caste and profession. I think he sort of expects us to bless and be blessed by other ordinary people, folks who might not recognize a blessing as such if it bit them on the nose but who could use some encouragement, compassion, or even just a recognition of their presence and their humanity.

God bless you today. Go and share the blessings.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 31, 2013.