Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Last Words

Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said,
The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue.

 The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.

 And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain. -- 2 Samuel 23:1-4 (KJV)

We're often intrigued by the last words of celebrities and people we know. What were the last words they uttered as they died? Not everybody gets the chance to utter last words, but to those around them at the time, they often have an impact, even if it poses a question.

Take, for instance, the last words of Giles Corey, a man who was tried in the Salem Witch Trials and condemned to death by crushing. His last words? "More weight."  St Lawrence, tortured to death by being roasted on a grill is alleged to have said words to the effect of "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." I'm sure a lot of people have called on Jesus or God at their last breath, and some, like Steve Jobs, could simply say something like "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Even Jesus' last words were remembered although differently by the gospelers. Matthew and Mark give his last words as "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?", a quotation from Psalm 22. Luke's gospel records the last words as "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." John states that he simply cried, "It is finished!"

The other day I heard a piece of music I hadn't heard in some time but which I have sung with various choirs since I was in high school.  The tune, written by Randall Thompson, is haunting but the words, well, the words are some that maybe should be pronounced rather frequently, especially now with things in such a mess in this country and the world. 

Looking at David's history with Uriah and others, his opening statement, "He that ruleth over men must be just" seems, in one light, a bit self-congratulatory. Or maybe he's being introspective and repentant for the times he messed things up by being unjust. The point is, though, that rulers must have a sense of justice that doesn't mean just pleasing themselves or their best buddies but also for the folks they don't particularly like or agree with on a lot of things but who, in that particular case, have the right end of the stick. I think some of our contemporary politicians have forgotten that.

"Ruling in the fear of God" is probably somewhat problematic for some, especially those who stoutly affirm that there is no God and that they don't believe in God anyway. I think the ones who need to hear that message are the ones who are so certain that they KNOW precisely what it is God wants and they're going to get it regardless of what happens to other people. It seems God in God's wisdom put a lot of "care for the widows and orphans" talk into the Bible so why do we get so much talk about God blessing the rich and claiming the blessing to acquire yet more stuff, including money, power and privilege?  It isn't only atheists and believers in gods other than the Christian one who may have a problem with the statement. In fact, they could be following the tenets of God far closer than a lot who proudly announce themselves God's followers.

"And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds" is such a beautiful image. It's an even better description of someone who deliberately follows the ways of God and who treats his brothers and sisters, even the adopted and unknown ones, with kindness, justice and compassion. In this age of instant communications, it's often more common to hear about the injustices done in the name of the people, the corporate sins of our commercial sector and even the abuses in our churches than to see bright examples of leadership done for the benefit of the people who don't have a voice of their own. There are some, though, and they are like campfires on the distant hills, a reminder that some really do have the best interests of the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the disadvantaged at heart. The lights may not light up the sky, but they testify that those lamps are lit and not just sitting there waiting for a match to light them.

"[A]s the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain" evokes the renewal of the earth that comes when rain falls and suddenly all sorts of things spring to life and bloom almost joyously. Living in the desert we see it nearly every time we have our infrequent rains. It doesn't even have to be a gully-washer for it to happen; even a half-hour shower will do. So can be with just one person, one ruler who is just and who looks to do good for the all the people and not just the cronies who finance his campaigns or promise him luxuries in return for favoritisms. Can I imagine what it could be like if there were a whole lot of those?  I can stretch my imagination but I know God already has done that, stretched the imagination to include a whole world full of tender shoots of grass springing up after a shower of justice if the desire is there within them.

David may never have spoken those words but the poetry of them certainly reflects the imagery and cadence of the psalms attributed to him. I still wonder, though, were they said as advice or as contrition? As an ideal or as an unrealized potential?  Or maybe they were a vision of the kingdom that could be if, in the words of Amos, we "...let justice roll on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5:24, NRSV).

I listened to the musical version of this reading again and this time I saw David in the prime of his life, dancing before the Lord, uniting the kingdom, treating the people with fairness and concern. Still, David, like all of us, probably went to the bosom of Abraham with regrets and repentance but trying to leave a map for those who succeeded him to follow to avoid some of the pitfalls into which he fell. David's sun rose on a young and promising life and new hope was born in Israel. On his deathbed the sun set on that life but his memory lived in his people, even down through a thousand generations. What a legacy. I wonder how many of our rulers will fare as well or for as long?  Maybe we should play "The Last Words of David" for them and ask that they think about it?

Sometimes music will touch hearts that words alone simply can't reach.

The Last Words of David
composed by Randall Thompson, performed by the Rutgers University Chorus.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 23, 2013. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Number of Forgiveness

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;* and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister* from your heart.’ – Matthew 18:21-35

Jesus was a good teacher but his lessons weren’t always easy ones to follow. This lesson begins with Peter asking the question about how often he should forgive someone who does something to him. It’s easy to remember that Jesus told him to do it seventy-seven times, eleven times more than Peter had suggested in his question.  Jesus then tells the story of the creditor and debtor. That could be a straight-forward story but Jesus adds the twist of the former debtor also being a creditor to someone else, someone who does not receive the mercy his creditor had received from his master.

The word debt these days is such a common one, and the situation in which the slave finds himself, owing money he can’t repay immediately and asking to make installment payments,  is a very common thing to do for us. People get into debt for all kinds of reasons, some or most of which is their own fault, but sometimes the result of misfortune such as reductions in force at work, catastrophic illness, or death of the primary breadwinner. Sometimes people are able to work with their creditors to pay back at least some of what is owed with the creditor forgiving the rest but at other times that doesn’t work at all, and so the next step is bankruptcy, a punishment for those who have to go through it.

The story doesn’t always have to be about money, though. The loaning and paying back of money makes a good metaphor for other situations that come up in life and that result in breaches between people, whether they’re friends, acquaintances, business/investment partners, or even strangers. How often does a person get hurt financially, physically, or emotionally by someone else who never acknowledges the damage? Here’s where Jesus’ lesson gets really hard. How do you forgive someone who has sinned against you, hurt or damaged you in some way, but who goes on their way as if nothing happened? We understand that when someone confesses or apologizes to us, we’re supposed to be gracious and forgive them, just as we expect to be forgiven if we need to apologize or confess or even repay a debt to another person. It’s like a cycle: damage or hurt, apology or restitution, forgiveness. If that second step in the cycle is not present, how we move from number one to number three, hurt to forgiveness? Jesus doesn’t say how, he just says we have to do it if we are his followers.

When Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, he wasn't just pulling the figure out of the air. Seven is a number indicating completeness, like seven days in the week for creation. Peter asked if forgiving seven times would be enough but Jesus asked for more than ten times that plus yet another seven, a number that adds rather than multiplies which is the usual translation in most Bibles (seventy times seven). In short, forgiveness should be offered so many times that the person loses count of them. It is a complete and total forgiveness, not dependent on how many times it must be requested or granted to be effective.

I have been both debtor and creditor, had debts forgiven and forgiven them as well. I’ve been hurt and also hurt others. I’ve been forgiven sometimes and sometimes not, just as I have forgiven sometimes and not others. Why didn’t I go all the way with it and forgive everybody seventy plus seven times? I think I have usually tried to, but I still don’t always forget the hurt or the damage. I think that’s part of the lesson; if I am in a relationship with someone, I run the risk of hurt or damage and I also have to risk forgiving completely. It’s the cost of relationship. It’s God's way that even though I know that when I mess up, sin, miss the mark or any other possible euphemism for it, I am forgiven and the relationship continues. God forgives, and, I hope, forgets a lot better than I am able to do. 

I think I'm counting on that forgiving and forgetting seventy-seven times' worth. The trick now is to learn to do it myself and more importantly, to be willing to do it. It won't be an overnight cure, that's for sure. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 23, 2013.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Margaret of Scotland


Psalm 112:1-9
Deuteronomy 15:7-11
2 John 1-9
Luke 4:16-22

Margaret of Scotland was a queen but also an exemplar of what it means to live a Christian life. Not only did she have power and prestige but had humanity and humility as well. Her charity and religious reforms led to her canonization 1250 and the designation as a patron of Scotland in 1673, taking her place beside Andrew the Apostle. Margaret is also known as the patron saint of arts, education, widows and large families.

Margaret’s parents were Saxon of minor royalty rank living in Hungary. Margaret herself returned to England in 1066 but was forced to flee when William the Conqueror overtook England and made any royal blood a target. Like many others she fled to Scotland where she attracted the attention of King Malcolm. They were married somewhere around 1070 and had eight children, one of whom became a queen of England (Matilda or Maud, known to readers of the Brother Cadfael mysteries as the usurper against King Stephen) and the other (David) who later ruled in Scotland. Both children, like their mother, were canonized by the church as saints as was her uncle, Edward the Confessor. Malcolm's own fame came in the Shakespeare play Macbeth.

Margaret and Malcolm were very different people, he being rather rough and she polished from life in the courts of Europe. During their marriage she rubbed off his rough edges while he supported and often joined her in her many charitable works. This made the couple very popular among their subjects. Margaret's courtly manners and wardrobe encouraged the women of Scotland to follow suit which resulted in an expansion of trade with European countries that helped to bring a period of great prosperity to Scotland. Everybody benefited, king and commoners alike.
In addition to fashion and economic changes, Margaret also brought changes to the faith in Scotland, inviting members of the Benedictine order to establish a presence while she encouraged dialog between them and the already-existing Céile Dé or Culdees, Scottish hermits who followed a Celtic faith tradition. Bringing the two together gradually shifted the church from the more Celtic practice and brought it into line with the Roman Catholicism practiced in other parts of Europe. It was a peaceful compromise, something rather unusual in church history.

As part of her personal piety, Margaret would observe Lent and Advent by rising at midnight for mass and fast frequently. Malcolm often joined her in these observances.  She would also open the castle for feasts for 300 guests, all commoners, often very poor people, who would normally would not be invited into the castle.

Jesus met lot of folks with both problems and rough edges. He encountered people from all stations in life with needs that perhaps they didn’t realize they had until Jesus came to town. He was not a fashion plate or the possessor of courtly manners but he had a generosity of spirit and a devotion to God that fostered his love and concern for everyone, especially the poor and outcast, and their welfare. Maybe Margaret didn’t see herself as being like Jesus as she cared for others, but she certainly seems to have absorbed the teachings of Jesus and acted on the spirit of the message.
A queen is often able to do great things by virtue of her position. It doesn’t take a queen though to do small things that lead to great ones. One small good deed can multiply exponentially, and one cup of water given in the name of Jesus can expand to fill an ocean. I wonder how many St. Margarets there are in the world, just going by different names and doing one good thing at a time that can make changes in the lives of others. I know some of them and at least two are named Margaret.

It isn't a crown that makes for greatness, it's the size and content of the heart. That's  lesson I think everyone can take to heart. Certainly the world needs a bit of polishing of rough edges and care for those less fortunate. So how can I be a Margaret today?  Am I willing to let God rub off my rough edges and bring out something better? What difference can I make in this world? 

Some things for me to think about today, hopefully producing not just answers but some action as well.

 Originally published at href
="http://www.episcopalcafe.com/thesoul/saints/margaret_of_scotland.html"> Speaking to the Soul </> on href="http://www.episcopalcafe.com"> Episcopal Café Saturday, November 16, 2013.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Exile and Return

When David was king, all of Israel and Judah were united under his leadership. Even under Solomon it had survived together. By 921 BCE, though, the country had been split in two, Israel to the north, Judah to the south. In 720 Assyria and its allies conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and forced its people into exile from which many never returned to their homeland either through death or by choice. Babylon began to chew up the southern kingdom of Judah in 605, taking away many of the young men of the army and their leaders and deporting them to Babylon as exiles. It was only the first such deportation. More than 10,000, including the remainder of the army, craftsmen, nobles, priests, King Zedekiah and prophets like Ezekiel found themselves on the road to Babylon about eight years later. The Babylonians took the top levels of society, the rich and influential, leaving the ordinary folks behind and forcing them to learn to make do with no governance and no leadership.
While the remainder in Judah struggled, the exiles in Babylon found that they weren't in the same situation as their ancestors had been in Egypt. They were permitted to retain their religious practices and their crafts, live in their own neighborhoods and, in general, were treated almost as guests rather than conquered enemies. It's no wonder that when Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew Babylon in 538 and declared that the Jews could return to their homeland not everyone chose to go back.
Returnees and anyone who has been away from home for an extended period might have great expectations of what it will be like when they get back home. Many had never known the old home place except through stories and songs of their parents and grandparents but some might have remembered the place very well. It must have been a huge shock to realize that the Jerusalem and Judah that they had left or had been told about no longer really existed. It was almost like having to start all over. The temple had been destroyed, outsiders had moved in and intermarried with those who had been left behind, strange religious practices had crept in with the outsiders, and they had found their own way of doing things. Now this crowd of returning exiles, even if they were long-lost relatives, had to find a way to successfully regain what they had lost as well as turn the people back to God. Ezra and Nehemiah had a plan for that.
When the people had some time to get settled, all the priests, Levites (assistants to the temple priests), temple workers (like the gatekeepers, singers and servants) and the people were gathered before what was known as the Water Gate. Ezra the prophet, flanked by lay officials, opened a scroll and began to read the Torah, the books of Moses containing the law. He read all morning and then all afternoon. The Levites in the crowd interpreted the law in terms the people could understand. Many were in tears of repentance but they were dismissed with instructions to go, eat richly, drink wine and not to forget to send some of their own food to those who were not so affluent. It was a holy day, so everybody should celebrate!

The group reassembled the next day and heard more of the Torah. In the reading was God’s command to the Hebrews that each family was to build a temporary shelter and live in it for a week in remembrance of the escape from Egypt and the simple huts they had used during the long journey to the Promised Land. It seems appropriate that the first celebration after the return from Babylon was the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), centered around a symbol that represented a return from another kind of exile. Perhaps it helped them put their own journey in a religious context.

I wonder if the Babylonian exiles ever really remembered their ancestors in the exodus and tried to see similarities in their situations. Did they remember the stories they had learned as children in Judah and so could teach them to their own children in Babylon? They were allowed to practice their religion, but had they forgotten great parts of it? Did they not have prophets and priests and rabbis to keep the stories of the faith alive? They saw the hole left in their own lives when they were forced to leave home, but did they think about the holes in the community and the families that were left behind? I guess it's hard to think about much beyond self and survival when uprooted by something. It's even harder to think that the people that remain go on and their lives change in unknown ways. Those changes only become apparent when there is a return.

Whether from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, or from point A to point B, exile and return is a recurring story of sin, repentance and redemption. People get complacent and forget what is right and wrong (or change their minds about it).They get into messes that alienate them from friends, family and a center of their lives they call "home," and then have accept the rupture they have caused. They don't have to go any further than the front door of their house or perhaps a couple of miles down the road. Exile doesn't have to mean long distances; it can be as close as the distance between two people standing next to each other.

Exiles can end and restoration can take place. Both can be learning experiences, just as the re-reading the experiences of the past can. The saying that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it may be truer than we know, but remembering the past can form reconnections with what has been lost. For the Babylonian returnees and for us as real or potential exiles, God was and is waiting for us to reconnect.
If that isn’t worth the trip, I’m not sure what would be.

Originally published at  Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, November 13, 2013.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sama the Prodigal

One of my boys went walkabout for a bit this morning. I had held the door open for just a few seconds too long and out he went, tail straight up with enthusiasm and racing away as if celebrating a release from jail. He hadn't done this for a couple of years and I thought I had made his life pleasant enough that he wouldn't do it again but I was wrong. He exemplified carpe diem to the max.

Ok, I'm talking about one of my three boy cats (my little girl doesn't mind being lumped with them as long as she gets her share of attention and treats), the four of whom constitute my main reason for getting up in the morning. To them I am staff -- not mistress, not always mom, but always staff to wait on them, clean up after them, provide their meals and facilities, and give out frequent pats, scritches and occasional treats.

Back to Sama, the walkabout cat.  He was out of sight before I could say "Boo" or even, "Here, Sama!" I got him within sight but he bounded off behind the neighbor's trailer. I went to the far side of her lot but no Sama. Calling gently so as not to upset the neighbors I walked around but still no Sama. I went back in the house for a few minutes and went out again. He was over by the rosebush by one of the sheds, eating grass.  I called him again and was roundly ignored. I went back in the house. I came back out a few more minutes later to find no Sama so I walked back to the back and then over to the other side of my neighbor's house. No Sama -- until I looked at the rosemary bush next to the step up to the patio. There I saw big yellow eyes, a black face and a red collar. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to be reasonable and come back in the house but instead he disappeared again. I went back in the house. A few more minutes and when I looked outside, there he was near the front stoop. Here's my chance, I thought. This time I wasn't going barehanded.  I had a plan.

Treats for the boys are truly that -- very occasional special stuff that they have to take turns getting. I think of it as a feline form of communion. If a cat sits there and waits his/her turn, s/he gets a treat from the package. And they know the sound of that package being removed from the drawer next to my desk. Oh, yes. One little rustle of the package and I usually have four furry friends in the immediate vicinity. This morning I only had three when I opened the package but I still had a plan.  Sama was out on the patio, near the door and so I opened it and rustled the package while saying softly, "Sama, treat!" There was a flicker of interest but not much. I put a couple in my hand so he could see they would be there and opened the door a bit wider. FAIL.  Off he went back to the rosebush again.

Back in the house for a few more minutes. Look outside, no Sama. Wait a few more -- and there he was by the stoop again. This time I went out with the package and rustled it. Hmmm. A flicker of interest, it appeared.  He seemed to be in the mood for petting so I stroked the end of his tail, the only part of him I could reach. Ok, we were back on more familiar ground. He presented his ears and then his back and then his ears again. This time I managed to get off the stoop, scoop him up and, with him purring mightily, back into the house. Needless to say, everybody got another round of treats, but this time in small piles here and there so that everybody got some, including Sama. Within a couple of minutes he was stretched out on my desk, no doubt contemplating the greater world outside vs. the comfort (and treats) inside. Now he's on the top cradle of the cat-tree, looking out the front window and no doubt planning his next foray which, I"m afraid, will be the next time I open the door to go in or out.

During this whole thing I thought about the story of the prodigal son and thought that perhaps it would do to pay a little attention to the story of the anxious father. We get most of the story from the POV of the prodigal, what he did while he was gone, his thought processes and his reflective journey back to what would probably be a sort of jail without bars. If he were lucky, he would be able to count on at least a job tending animals but he knew too that his father wouldn't let any of his workers go hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, though, what of the father?  The story tells of the older brother who has been working hard, doing what he was supposed to do and not being very happy about having his inheritance diminished and one less hand around the place to help with the work. But the father?  What of him? 

I thought about my Sama outside in a world he really doesn't know anything about except that it is big and it has a lot of alluring things in it: grass to chew, other cats to chase, lots of different smells to sniff, places to rub, and things to investigate that never show up inside the house. The prodigal had a great time on his walkabout but I was a wreck. What if he got hit by a car?  Even with a posted speed of 5 mph, cars zip by this house like it was a speedway or something sometimes. What if another cat attacked him for being an interloper?  What if he got lost and couldn't find his way home?  What if, what if, what if?  I imagine the prodigal's father had those same kinds of thoughts and, I imagine, he probably went to the door a dozen times a day, hoping to see a familiar figure coming down the road. I know the frustration and fear he would have felt, hoping against hope but not seeing the one thing he most wanted to see.

Luckily, both stories have happy endings with the prodigals returning home and a celebration following. What I am left with is a contemplation of what it means to love and lose, even if briefly and even if the prodigal is only out of sight for a few minutes. While I realize the story of the prodigal son was a parable Jesus told to illustrate how much God loves me (and all the other prodigals in the world), it took Sama to make me look at it through a different set of lenses, that of the father who gave his son the freedom he desired and who never stopped looking for him to return home safely.

It makes me also realize that all the characters in the story are me at some time or other in my life. Today, though, I'm the rejoicing parent. My prodigal is once again home, a celebration has been held and things are (more or less) back to normal. 

Thanks be to God.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Friday, November 8, 2013, under the title "Prodigal cat."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Walking on Water

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.  -- Matthew 24:22-36
 It's a familiar story, a lesson in faith and trust, a lesson that is pointed out to us as a model of what faith and trust can do. It’s a story about doing the impossible and, in a way, being like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, believing “six impossible things before breakfast.” It’s a story featuring our friend Peter who seems to stumble between flashes of brilliance and moments of utter lamebrained-ness who is now seen in one of his mixed moments, beginning with brilliance but then suddenly faltering. It seems to be a pattern with Peter. For a moment there, though, his soles were the only things that got wet, like walking barefoot on a wet sidewalk.
Sometimes we refer to a person who never seems to put a foot wrong as one who can walk on water. I've known a few people like that and it is always a source of amazement to me. Of course I know they goof up from time to time but somehow those folks continue to have both my amazement and my admiration. I’ve never been able to do it much less walk on water, even across a tiny mud puddle in the driveway and even if only the sole of my foot gets wet. Perhaps it’s because my rational thinking gets in the way of my belief and/or my trust.

John Ortberg wrote a book with a very thoughtful title To Walk on Water You First Have to Get Out of the Boat. There's more truth than poetry in that one. It was true for Peter and, in other ways, just as true for us. We may not face being in a wooden boat out in what could be a potential watery grave but there are times when we have to face leaving a place or a state of security and put a foot over the side toward insecurity and the unknown. Now there are some who would jump out of the boat, grab the anchor rope by their teeth and try to pull the boat to shore even if they had to walk on water to do it. Those are risk-takers and there are a lot of them in the world. They like a challenge and perhaps a bit of danger. I don't think Peter was much of a risk-taker although he did take a big one when he signed on to follow Jesus, didn't he? What about us? Was it a risk for us too?

Walking on water also implies a high level of trust, something Peter had until his rational mind clicked in and he realized he was doing something he shouldn't be able to do. That rationality kicking in caused Peter to lose the focus (and the trust) and start to sink so that Jesus had to haul him back in the boat before he drowned. It was a test of faith and, for a brief time, Peter was passing with flying colors but then he lost it or, as they would say in the modern idiom, FAIL.

Every day we are called on to have trust -- in ourselves, in our co-workers and family, in our authority figures, in our church, in total strangers across the globe and even in an invisible entity we call God. Sometimes it is hard to trust those we can see and hear and feel even though we may know or be told we should, so how much harder is it to trust someone or something we can't see or touch? That's what the essence of faith is, though, trusting as if our lives depended on it, as if we needed to walk on water only without sinking like Peter.
What if I stretched my possibilities, took a risk and got out of the boat of complacency, heading for the figure of Jesus standing just out of reach like a parent encouraging a child to take its first independent steps? If I were standing in Peter's shoes, could I walk on water if I truly believed I could and trusted that Jesus wouldn't let me sink? How much am I willing to trust? And what am I going to do if I do actually manage to walk on water, even figuratively? How much of me am I willing to get wet?

I guess I need to get out of the boat, don't I? That's the first step – and the hardest.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul
on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 9, 2013.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Souls'

Psalm 130 or Psalm 116:10-17
Wisdom 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 or 1 Corinthians 15:50-58
John 5:24-27


We die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight and the third when our name is spoken for the last time. -- Mexican saying

All Souls' Day is the celebration of the common saints of the world. It is a day of remembrance of people that may not be recalled for their holy or heroic deeds and lives but who were part of the family of God by virtue of having been born into God's creation. They lived among us, struggled like we do and may have performed a minor miracle or two at some point in their lives just nothing spectacular. Those we most remember on All Souls are those who may have had hearts of gold but feet of clay, or perhaps hearts a bit more like lead and feet of iron. Still, if someone remembers them and their name, especially remembering them with kindness, they have not died that third time.

We can credit Odilo, a French Benedictine abbot of the great monastery of Cluny, with initiating a special day for remembering and praying for those who had died and who were in the process of purification (purgatory) before entering heaven. It was a place like the ritual mikvah bath or baptismal font/pool where the soul went in stained and came out purified only possibly with fire rather than water. Purgatory is still on the books in the Roman Catholic Church but not for Episcopalians and some other non-Roman churches. It is simply a day of commemoration for those who have died but who still live in our memories and whose names we still speak. In parts of Mexico El Dia de los Muertos brings family members to cemeteries to tidy up the graves and either stay all night celebrating the lives of their relatives or else leaving gifts of food and drink for the dead. It's a night when it feels as if the veil between this world and the next is as thin as gossamer.

It may seem strange to think of the dead as revisiting the earth partying through the night with those who come to visit their graves or who leave gifts so that the souls can celebrate as well. Cemeteries are supposed to be quiet places, cities of the dead left to the dead except for occasional visits on special days like birthdays or the like. Many of us are afraid of death, our own and that of others. We're uncomfortable thinking about death much less being in the presence of death and the dying. But death is also a kind of companion, one that countless elderly folk have welcomed when, as dear as life is to them, it becomes more difficult and more painful to continue day after day in a condition where there is little dignity and probably a lot of pain of one kind or another. Death is both enemy and friend.

We go to wakes and viewings and generally hurry away. We're glad for closed caskets at funerals because that gives us some distance from death even if we are hearing about it throughout the service. We want to remember the person as the living, breathing, joyful presence we knew even if we have to stretch our mental and emotional confines a bit to do it. We want to consider them as, in the words of the Prayer Book, "...a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming" (BCP, p. 499). We commend them to God and then relegate them to our private memories that we may share with others although often we reserve something of their essence within ourselves that we treat like a precious jewel and for us alone.

With All Souls, we may stop for a bit and remember those common saints, the generally unknown ones, who were a lot like us, warts and all but still loved by us and beloved by God. We're told we're all saints, as hard as that is to believe, and one day possibly someone will add our names to the list of those read at the services held in the church on the evening of November 2nd. For them, the third death will be held in abeyance for yet another year because someone remembered to name them at that special time and place.

I think of my own everyday saints, the ones on my personal list for November 2nd. Most of them are family who adopted me legally but others are folks who sort of grafted me into their own families. There are a lot of them, and with each name I repeat, they escape the third death for yet another year. It isn’t hard to think of them with love and kindness, for that is what they showed me, headstrong little brat that I was. They were the first saints I ever really learned about, other than the gospel writers and maybe St. Patrick chasing snakes out of Ireland. I didn’t know they were saints until much later when I learned about the canonized ones. I just thought they were great souls, wonderful people, excellent examples and loving folks. They all have faced the first death and then we have faced their second ones. I pray that as long as I live, they will be saved from the third death, that of being forgotten.
Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your  peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of htose who have served you here and who are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (BCP p.253)

Originally published at "http://www.episcopalcafe.com/thesoul/saints/all_souls_2.html"> Speaking to the Soul
on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 2, 2013.
In loving memory of ABO, RHO, ARO, CCE, HML, and my cast of thousands of saints.