Sunday, July 28, 2013

Where Did I Put That Book?

Everybody has got a project they need to do and have been putting off. Cleaning out the garage/attic/basement/closets and making piles to keep or give away (or throw away), washing windows, going through closets with the same three categories in mind -- they're all jobs most of us put off simply because they seem so overwhelming. Even though I personally know I'll feel a lot less cluttered, more in control and with more room, the tasks are daunting. Sometimes it's a dread of tossing something that I'll discover I need badly two weeks from now or having to part with something I don't really strictly need but which has a history of association with someone or somewhere I don't want to lose. Sooner or later, though, the job has got to be done.

The point was brought home this morning when I went to look for a book on labyrinths I told Mouse about last night in our regular Saturday night phone chat. I remember where it had been stored for the past four years or so, but it isn't there now; I moved it and some other books to make room for my old red EfM binders that have been superceded. They're still valuable resources to my way of thinking, so I'm hanging on to them. So now the problem becomes where did I put the darn labyrinth book? I remember its color ( very dark brown) and its size (paperback, less than 3/4" in depth, a bit taller and narrower than most of my books), but despite about 10 minutes of looking, I can't spot it. Evidently my book on labyrinths and labyrinth-walking has taken its own walk, Lord only knows where.

That's the problem of having a lot of books. Usually I can put my hand on a volume I want fairly easily but something I haven't thought of or used for a while?  That's another story. When I packed my books before moving, I had them on the shelves in a certain order. I put them in boxes carefully labelled with which bookcase and which shelf, thinking I'd just get to the new place, open the box and put the books back in the same relative position they had occupied before. Good thought, but it didn't work out that way. A friend came to help me get settled. She offered to help unpack boxes so I took her up on it. After explaining my marking system, she went to work -- and nothing ended up in the same place like I'd intended. That was five years ago and I still haven't gotten around to putting them in neatly-defined categories and authors and places. The result is that I go on a treasure hunt every time I need a book I haven't used in a while.

One of the inherent problems of reorganizing my library is that when I take down a book and don't immediately recognize the title or what it was about, I have to stop and do some investigating. If it has the little metal Book Darts that mark pages I want to revisit, then I've read it. If I've read it, it should be in my annotated bibliography that I've been keeping for the last 11 years.  If no Book Darts and no entry in the bibliography, then I haven't read it -- and why not?  Good question. Why hang on to it?  I still have an interest in the subject and/or author's POV and it might come in handy some day when I've had a chance to read it. I bought it for a purpose, even if on a whim, and I might still want to investigate that purpose.

Another problem is the sheer volume of volumes. Where can I neatly stack them in categories without risk of having cat-egories of another sort think they were placed somewhere in neat piles simply for their enjoyment and recreation?  We five live in a very small area; there's not a lot of room and I have to respect that four cats need room to run, climb, flop, jump, wrestle and chase, especially if their mom is up and about and doing interesting stuff. They want to be involved too.  All of that combined with stacks of books on the floor and furniture doesn't leave a lot of space and, consequently, the potential for my neat stacks to remain neat becomes problematic.

The third problem is that I always find books I want to read NOW. Not next week or even as soon as I finish one of the two or three I have going at any particular moment. Maybe I bought it three or four years ago and haven't yet read it, but time is no barrier. That's one reason I have two or three books going at any given time; I start one, get sidetracked and next thing I know I'm into another and another and another. It's like peanuts: I can't eat just one or read just one. I eventually finish them all (well, most of the time) and then I start the process all over again. Giving up my satellite TV has given me more time to read but also more time to start new books. Truth be told, it's given me more time to spend tidying up the bookcases but somehow that project never gets off the ground, or, at least, not really.  Books do get moved from place to place and I finally have my EfM textbooks all in one place (except one I have loaned out), but it's hardly a scratch on the surface.

In the course of my search I've found more than a few books I don't remember having read, have no Book Darts and which look intriguing. They've been in a file basket next to the desk for a while and its time to try to find them space on the bookshelves, but the lure of The Essential Guide to Jewish Prayer and Practices, Chittister's The Rule of Benedict, or Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside are proving almost too much to ignore. 

I know.  The thirty minutes or so I've spent writing about my need to reorganize and categorize my books could have been spent actually doing the reorganizing and categorizing but I have a muse that calls now and again and, as the old saying goes, "If you don't use it, you lose it."  Maybe what I write isn't much worth reading, but it's something I felt I needed to say, at least on some level. The books, as my friend Mouse always says about procrastination and work that needs to get done, "will still be there tomorrow."  Quite the philosopher, that Mouse. Meanwhile I do need to get ready for church -- after finding a new place to stick the aforementioned books that I'm trying NOT to dig into this minute.  And still continue to look for the walkabout labyrinth book.

Part with a book and lighten the project of reorganizing?  I'd almost rather lose an arm -- or a cat!

Meetings and God

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter: ‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled* and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’
So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord. -- Acts 15:22-35

There are times I think that the church runs on meetings. Councils, conferences, synods, you name it, there’s usually some sort of church meeting going on somewhere around the globe at almost any given moment. Some of them are little better known than others, like the Council at Nicaea or Vatican II where momentous decisions are made that affect the trajectory of the church in major ways. The book of Acts recounts several meetings featuring Peter, Paul and James and a cast of unnamed dozens if not thousands. Like a number of our churches, some of their meetings seem to revolve around one specific issue (does this sound familiar?) and is the source of some contention, either mild or heated, at various times among the various players (again, sound familiar?).

This one in Jerusalem was another in a series of church meetings that centered around the mission to the Gentiles and, as one of the major issues, whether or not they were required to undergo a certain bit of body modification in order to be considered Christians. Just what did it take to be a Christian? Some members of the Jerusalem group had gone out unsanctioned and were teaching that, yes, that modification had to take place. Paul and the Jerusalem faction needed to get together to discuss the matter and come to a decision. It would have been interesting to be a little fly on the wall when this took place and to hear who said what about whom and why. At any rate, at least this one concluded with some progress, namely continued support for Paul and Barnabas in their mission to the Gentiles, appointment of two members of the council to return with them, and a letter outlining the basic rules, over and above faith and baptism, that were required of Gentile Christians. The rules were basically four simple ones: no meat previously offered to idols, no contact with blood (rare roast beef and steaks were out), no meat that had been strangled (blood would still be present, therefore making the meat unclean) and no fornication. It was certainly a lot simpler than the very detailed list of Jewish purity laws that touched nearly every facet of life.

Sometimes it feels like we have meetings just to have meetings. There are many times when a meeting is called to consider various courses of action only to have them tabled for more study, a process that can go on for months, years, even centuries. For the Episcopal Church, issues as important and divisive as slavery, ordination of women and GLBTs, even marriage and divorce took and still take a lot of studies and a lot of meetings on a number of levels before the church  as a whole acts or acted on them. Some of those issues are still being shifted around from committee to committee, meeting to meeting as they have been for decades. It took us a lot longer to deal with, for instance, slavery and the Church's position on it than it took for the church at Jerusalem to decide on circumcision and acceptance of the missions to the Gentiles. They moved with what I would guess was all deliberate haste because the issue was pressing. Sometimes I wish the church today had such a feeling of urgency about things that need fixing, and that doesn't mean just where to move offices or shift personnel.

One of the bright spots of the Jerusalem conference was that it did positive things and in a positive manner. The four “rules” it established for Gentiles were simple, easy to understand and, hopefully, as easily to obey. No “Whereas,” “Therefore be it resolved that” or any other legal jargon, just simple, basic rules. Some of our pronouncements should be as clear and as simple. It was certainly a lot simpler than the very detailed list of Jewish purity laws that touched nearly every facet of life.

Most church meetings invite God to be present but do we always listen to what God has to say about whatever it is we are trying to decide? Some will say yes, others no. Again, like most meetings, we call for more study, more debate, more input from others before we inch toward a decision, almost reluctant sometimes simply because we realize that some will be alienated by our decisions just as some will be welcomed in because of them. Jesus had between one and three years to accomplish his mission on earth; we have had, so far, two millennia to try to implement his teachings and goals and we haven't gotten it down pat yet. Maybe we need a few more meetings that work with the deliberate haste of the Jerusalem conference followed by some simple, clear rules that people can understand and obey without a lot of angst.

Often at the a meeting’s end, people are sent out with a charge to think, discuss, study and act, whether any firm decision on a plan of action or direction has resulted. Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Judas and Silas, went back to work out in the Gentile world, doing their best to bring the message and mission of Jesus. There are times to meet and then there are times to get out and do. Maybe it’s time for us to stop meeting and start working. We have the tools, we have the example, and we have the encouragement. Now all we need is the will.

It doesn't take a lot of people to have a meeting. Some of the most productive ones are meetings of two people, often between just God and self. Those are very cost-efficient, no board room needed, no agenda, and, quite often, not a lot of time. If someone schedules a meeting at work or at church that I am supposed to attend, I usually am prompt in being there. I think I need to learn to do the same with God. Set a schedule for a meeting and show up on time. God can take care of the rest.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 27, 2013.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Aunt Mabel and the Moon Landing

1969.  What a year that was.  I had finished my one and only year of teaching in the public school system, married and was planning a major move from one coast to another. And then came July 20th.

Everybody was a-buzz about astronauts and rocket ships and a trip to the moon. To quote some wag, "Who woulda thunk it?"  We remembered JFK's words from 1962, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." I was never a great fan of JFK, but how could one hear those words and not be captured by them?  Then came 1969 and we were actually witnessing history being made as we sat in our own living rooms, watching  our television sets transmit the black and white pictures returned from what seemed an immense distance and on an alien yet familiar world.

My new husband and I were in my hometown that weekend, picking up some things I wanted to take with me to my new life as a wife of a Navy serviceman in a place far from home. Of course, I had to introduce him to some of the favorite relatives and among them was Aunt Mabel. Aunt Mabel was really a cousin but in good Southern custom, she was "Aunt" as a mark of respect and she was definitely a woman to respect. She had been divorced by her husband, a Baptist preacher, no less, and she was left a woman alone in a time when divorce was almost unthinkable. She didn't cower under a rock or sit and bewail her misfortune. Somehow she had run across what became her passion, her ministry to the world, and gave Virginia back a landmark it had almost forgotten.

Red Hill was Patrick Henry's last home and where he had practiced law in his later years. Up in the Blue Ridge mountains near Brookneal, his home had become an overgrown ruin with little left there to commend it to anyone's memory.  Aunt Mabel, however, had a dream.  Almost singlehandedly, she worked out a plan.  She needed laborers to clear and build, so she approached the local sheriff. Would he allow his prisoners to work voluntarily on the project if Aunt Mabel fed them for the day? Soon prisoners were working on weekends at clearing brush and overgrown trees, freeing the Osage orange tree that had been hemmed in by the encroaching forest, and clearing away the burned timbers and boards while leaving the fireplaces and chimneys standing alone like sentinels. They began to rebuild and, in return, Aunt Mabel kept the fried chicken coming. Eventually the project was finished and she became the first curator and docent of the property.

I saw her portrait hanging in the visitor center the one time I was able to return there and when I remarked to a member of the visitor center staff that that was my Aunt Mabel, I was treated almost like minor royalty simply because I was related to her.  She had left Red Hill some years before but some there still remembered her, her work of reconstruction and refurbishment. I don't think they saw it as a ministry, nor did I until I looked at it through the lenses of EfM (Education for Ministry), but it was a ministry indeed -- to the prisoners who worked to help the project but who were able to be free of being behind bars for a while and to enjoy some great cooking, to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the restoration of a historic property and a connection to a hero of our national history, and to those of us who knew and loved her and who rejoiced that she had found something she seemed to have been born to do. 

By 1969 Aunt Mabel had serious health problems and had been forced by them to leave her beloved Red Hill for an apartment in Williamsburg near her son and his family. It was there that my husband and I were sitting, in her living room, glued to the television on July 20, watching a man land on the moon. Oh, I remember the images, but most of all I remember Aunt Mabel's rapt face as she watched. She had been born  in 1897 in Gloucester, a rural area where horses and carts were the mode of transportation and cars wouldn't be seen for years. She had seen so many changes in her life, so much modernization, and I don't think she ever really took any of it for granted. The television was a wonderful thing, but on July 20, she sat enraptured, watching something that hadn't even been a thought or a dream in her childhood. For once, even a quote from her beloved Patrick Henry's writings that would seem appropriate to the occasion failed her. My husband and I were enraptured too, but it was Aunt Mabel's face that was the thing I remember most.

Ministry is a funny thing. We think of it as something church-y, like preaching or teaching, presiding at the altar or visiting the sick. We don't usually consider what we do in the normal workaday world as ministry -- but it is and it can be. Aunt Mabel had been a preacher's wife, doing the preacher's-wifely things to do around the church but I don't know that she considered it a ministry, only her wifely duty.  When that particular ministry was shattered, she found a passion of her very own and pursued it as she dreamed and worked to rebuild the shrine to Patrick Henry, one of her heroes. She always referred to it as a shrine, not that Mr. Henry (never "Patrick") was a demigod or anything, but rather that it was a specific place dedicated to the life and work of a remarkable human being. For me, Aunt Mabel was just as remarkable.

So on a day when I look back and remember the remarkable human beings that went to the moon and actually walked on its surface, I remember a remarkable human being of a very different sort. She will always be one of my personal heroes.

Mabel Oliver Bellwood, 1897 - 1993
May she rest in peace as assuredly she will rise in glory.

Voices of Prophetic Women

Commemoration of Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), Harriet Tubman (ca 1822-1913), Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1850-1902), Pioneers and prophets of rights for African-Americans and women.

Psalm 146
Wisdom 7:24-28
1 Peter 4:10-11
Luke 11:5-10

Religion without humanity is very poor stuff. — Sojourner Truth

I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. — Harriet Tubman

Man represents us, legislates for us and now holds himself accountable for us? How kind of him, and what a weight is lifted from us! We shall no longer be answerable to the laws of God or man, no longer be subject to punishment for breaking them. — Amelia Jenks Bloomer

The happiest people I know have been those who gave no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others. — Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The commemoration today highlights the lives for women, all of whom made a contribution to freedom and faith through their words and actions. Their lives span a period from the birth of Sojourner Truth 1797 to the death of Harriet Tubman in 1913. It was a time of great change and yet it is a change that is still going on to this day. To quote Harriet Tubman, “Every great dream begins with the dreamer. Always remember, you have the strength, the patient’s and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were speaking to the plight of African-American slaves, struggles that they knew from first-hand. Amelia Jenks Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke of the repression of women throughout the ages, including those of all races, religions and experiences, including their own. Yet if you took quotations from each woman without attribution it might be somewhat difficult to pin down precisely who said what. When four such strong voices over the course of close to a century speak to basically the same problem, namely the lack of freedom for one or more groups of people, then perhaps there’s something there that needs to be listened to.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, being not only strong but rather blunt sometimes, stated, “The Bible and the church have been the greatest stumbling block in the way of women’s emancipation.” Had she spoken half a century earlier or so, she probably could have said exactly the same thing about the emancipation of African-American slaves and, instead of campaigning for women’s suffrage, might have been one of those many helpers on the Underground Railroad of which Harriet Tubman was a part. Stanton spoke of truth that we still find hard to accept. Her quote would be considered almost blasphemy in some quarters. How easy it is to forget that in one version of the creation story of Adam and Eve were made at the same time, making them equals. The injustices against which Tubman and Truth struggled represented the same kind of thing, namely that people were created equal and should be treated as equals.

Slavery and domination go hand-in-hand even though many recognize the use of one term and not the other. Slavery was condoned in the Bible as was male domination, both of which were common to the time and place and so were made part of the Scriptures by those who wrote, compiled, and canonized them. When they went to war oftentimes they died in the struggle but noncombatants like the women, children and slaves were frequently brutalized or slaughtered. Today we call that collateral damage but then it was accepted practice and still is in some parts of the world. It was this kind of injustice that all four women spoke, challenging male Christians to consider a different reading and a different interpretation of the very Scriptures they preached and felt enforced their own position of power. Some churches teach that a woman should submit to a husband’s beating or a stranger’s rape because she probably deserves it for some reason or the other but often just because (in their teaching) the woman is always supposed to submit to the man no matter what. Some churches teach that the elect are chosen for power and privilege, not needing to be aware of or even care that they are enslaving others in poverty just to maintain their own standard of living. There are also some churches who preach what is called the social gospel namely care for the poor, the enslaved, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless ones. Which ones teach “Biblical truth”? Or is the problem in how the “Biblical truth” is interpreted?

Another of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s sayings was, “It is impossible for one class to appreciate the wrongs of another.” How often do we even think about the wrongs of another much less empathize with them or try to do something to resolve them? Like the old saying attributed to the Native Americans that you shouldn’t criticize someone until you walked in their moccasins for a period of time, we each need to learn to not just look to problems around us but try to walk in the shoes or even the bare feet of those who actually experience those problems. Granted, not everyone needs to be homeless for a week or go hungry for a week to learn what it feels like and so to more clearly understand the problems that cause and are caused by those difficulties. In Sojourner Truth’s time, whites had no concept of what it was like to live as a slave on their own property and under their own control. For Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the realization was that it was incomprehensible to men and even some women that the clothing women wore was hazardous to their health simply for the sake of fashion or to cater to the whims of the opposite sex. I wonder, are things really all that different now?

The epistle for today’s commemoration seems particularly apt:

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11)

Each of the four women commemorated had to bear scoffing and ridicule for their words and their positions. It took courage for them to continue to speak and to act as they felt they had to, for themselves and for others. Sometimes their words might have been very harsh, almost rude at times, but the words they spoke still speak to us and remind us of our own responsibilities not just to “our kind of people” but to all people equally. They spoke as good stewards of God’s grace and with at least some reliance on strength God supplied. The work they started has not yet been finished, and in some cases, the finish is a very long way away.

A key phrase in Peter’s epistle is “…so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” How can God be glorified when one group assumes mastery of another and maintains it without consideration what it is they are really doing? Quite often they will justify it by saying that it is for the other’s benefit, because others are not capable of making their own decisions on certain issues or that religion mandates that it be this way. As Harriet Tubman said, she could’ve freed more people if they had understood they were slaves. Many today are slaves of convention, a manner of thinking that simply accepts that this is how it is because that’s the way it’s always been and there’s no need or even desire to change it. Unfortunately our churches have to take some responsibility in that regard. We are finally beginning to understand, I think, that slavery is it was practiced was wrong on many levels. We haven’t realized yet that we still condone slavery by our silence to domestic violence, crime, marginalization of certain groups because of race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, language, or any of a hundred classifications that we used to separate them and us.

Truth, Tubman, Bloomer and Stanton spoke prophetic words and received about the same reception as many of the biblical prophets. Even Jesus had to say things a number of times in order to get the point across, but like Jesus, the women kept repeating the truth they were given and that they had experienced before finally being heard and achieving some desired results. From them I believe I can learn several lessons including persistence, courage to speak even when told to sit down and shut up by those who want to maintain the status quo, and realization that the job is too big for me alone but with God’s help I can make a start. These women weren’t saints, canonized for their piety or their mystical visions, but were saints because whether they quoted Scripture or not, they spoke God’s truth to people who were slaves and knew it and also to those who were slaves and didn’t realize it. The work isn’t finished  and needs to be continued until all — men, women, black, white, brown, red, gay, straight, old, young, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, able-bodied or differently abled, rich, poor, privileged or deprived — know the quality that was God’s original gift and which, when achieved, will have brought the kingdom of God much closer to the here and now.

It’s a big job, but it can be done simply by thinking less of one’s own soul and more of others. It seems so simple, so why is it so hard to do?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 20, 2013, under the title "Prophetic Women."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reading Labels

There. It happened again.  I'd bought a lovely set of light green sheets (on sale) several years ago and they'd been sitting in the armoire ever since. This morning I decided that their time to shine was now. I opened the package and started to put on the bottom sheet. Hold it. It was too long and too deep. No, it was labeled as the size I needed for my mattress but the size was followed by the word "long." Apparently I overlooked the word "long" when grabbing them from the shelf in the store. You did it again, I told myself. When are you going to learn to read the labels more carefully? I had read the label or I'd have gotten a king size or something instead of the size I needed, but somehow I missed that one little word that made the difference.

Labels. They've become a standard part of my life these days. As a diabetic, I have to read food labels carefully to make sure I don't get something with too much sugar or too many carbs or no nutritive value whatsoever. I'm learning to look at clothes labels a bit closer, remembering the pairs of jeans I bought that said "petite" on the hanger but which turned out to be "long" when I got them home. And then I think of people who seem to have labels attached to them and I wonder...

Everybody's got labels whether they hang them on themselves or someone does it for them. Even though we probably shouldn't, we do it anyway because it gives us a tag to say something about that person or even a whole group. They're people "like us" or people "not at all like us." They are of the wrong political persuasion, some other race, some other denomination, the list could go on probably forever. I'll admit I have my prejudices; tell me someone is one of those__________ (fill in the blank) and I'll probably give them less credence than I would someone I felt was more in my line of thinking. Should I and do I read their books? Probably not, although I have done it on more than one occasion just to try to see where they are coming from, to use the popular phrase. Sometimes I have found out that I was horribly wrong about a person or group but have felt pretty rotten about it. As a result, I learned to change my thinking on the subject. Sometimes, though, they reinforced my conception (and preconception) of whatever it was that I felt made them "one of those." Underneath it all it was all based on labels, internally or externally applied, rightly or wrongly read or understood.

One of the best/worst labels in the world is that of "Christian." Who is good and who is not depends on a person's personal theology, religious and political affiliations and sometimes even social status. It feels like Jesus and his teachings are in the center of a tug-of-war with people and institutions from both ends of the spectrum trying to pull him over to their side, even if they pull him in half to do it. Each group claims the label "Christian," but it seems that only the people nearest the middle see the actual damage being done by the tug-of-war and aspersion-casting. Some of those would take the rope, put Jesus in the center and then hold the rope in a circle with Jesus on the inside, everybody else on the outside. Some would put Jesus in the center and surround him with people facing outward, holding the rope between them and everybody else. Then there are those who put Jesus in the center and then sit around him, throwing the rope aside as unneeded and unwanted. I think those could wear the label of "Christian" very well. The others?  Well, maybe they're Christians too, just not the same. Their label is a bit more tattered or maybe I just see it that way.

Jesus quite often looked past labels and spoke/healed those who were outside the circle that an observant Jewish man would normally avoid. He also put labels on people like the Pharisees. Why would that be okay for him but  not for anyone else -- like us?  The thought disturbs me. I'm sure someone would argue that Jesus was the Son of God and could see the hearts of those around him whereas anyone else has to go on intuition or observation, but does that really work?  It gets me back to the old argument about whether Jesus was really fully human, fully divine or a mixture of both. Sure, he could do a lot of things ordinary people couldn't, even miraculous things, but he could be what we would call rude too -- like when he intimated  that the Syrophoenician woman was like a dog to lick up the crumbs under the table where others were allowed to eat. Was that his human side coming out?  Granted, he went ahead and did what she asked of him in a characteristically human way of changing his mind. Then I remember that even God changed God's mind on a couple of occasions, even showing remorse. So can God use labels and we can't? 

When it comes down to it, perhaps I need to have my glasses prescription changed, or perhaps I need to change my way of scanning labels. Perhaps a second or third or tenth reading might be in order to ensure I have all the information and that I did read it correctly without skipping words -- or adding words. And maybe I need to ask myself why is this label on this thing, person or group, who put it there and for what reason?  Then it should be easier to determine whether or not there's any veracity to the label or whether it should be consigned to the dumpster or maybe just aired out or laundered.

As for the sheets, a simple tucking of more than the usual amount of sheet under the mattress solved the problem of the length and width. They will probably pull loose from time to time as I turn over in bed, but hey, it might remind me of the value of labels read correctly for things where size or the like really matters. As for labels for people, that is a whole different story.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian
  on Episcopal Cafè Monday, July 15, 2013.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sheet that Changed Peter

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

Some years ago my then-spouse and I were walking along the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, soaking in the colors and sounds and scents of a foreign place. Suddenly ahead of us was this man jumping around with what appeared to be a snake following his every move. We went closer (but not too close!) and realized that the "snake" was a toy that was attached to his belt by a thin piece of fishing line or wire that made it seem as if it were trying to strike him. Then we noticed that the man was standing in front of a store with a window full of snakes of various kinds. People went in the store and came out with packages wrapped in paper and tied with twine. We found out it was a butcher shop that specialized in snakes which were a culinary delicacy there and folks were taking their main dish home all ready to cook and eat. I don't care if it does taste like chicken, the thought of eating snake is just a bit more than I was (or am) willing to seriously consider doing.

I wonder if Peter would have been braver in the culinary sense than I was? His story was that he had been on top of a roof, minding his own business, when suddenly there was this bright light and a big sheet coming down from heaven with all sorts of creatures on it like horses, giraffes, pigs, hippos, snakes, birds, lions, buzzards -- all kinds of things that were ritually unclean. Peter had been taught to see a "Not for human consumption" stamp on them but here was God telling him it was okay, they had been made clean and were edible. The point was, of course, not so much that Peter was now free to eat snakes or shrimp or even pork chops but that what had been believed to be forbidden was now not only permissible but mandated. The audience listening to his story had heard he'd been seen in public dining with non-Jews and they were a bit upset by having one of their chief religious figures caught in such a compromising position, so to speak. Peter's story of his vision was to reassure the people that he hadn't done anything wrong; in fact, he'd done precisely what God had told him to do.

There's a song from South Pacific that repeats the line "You have to be carefully taught" and lists things like fear of strange, different or unusual things or people, things or people your family wouldn't approve of and things you've been taught to believe pretty much all your life. Peter had been doing what he had been taught to do, namely avoiding certain foods which didn't conform to a specific set of physiological landmarks and food preferences. He'd been taught to avoid eating with non-Jews who might offer him food that had been previously offered to idols or which their culture and religion, unlike his, had no restrictions. His vision turned his thinking around. I don't think Peter was always the brightest bulb in the pack, but when God sent down a sheet with a pig on it and said that it was okay to eat bacon and barbecue, Peter could get the point. He could even follow the directions to draw a parallel between the animals on the sheet and people he had been taught to avoid.

I’ve been reading a book called A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren that got me thinking about Peter’s sheet in a different way. One of the points that he makes is that there are a lot of different kinds of Christians and none of them seem to have the whole picture of what Jesus was about and taught and expected. Something that stuck with me was his iteration of the idea that liberal churches point out the perceived faults of conservative churches and the conservative churches do exactly the same thing about the liberal ones. Each looks at the part that doesn’t agree with their own theology and spirituality and ignores the good that comes from another’s way of doing faith and church. Each has strong and weak points and wouldn’t it be great (and beneficial) if instead of focusing on the negative each could see what they could learn to see or do differently (and maybe more successfully) from the other?

I think this is what God was getting at with the sheet, more than calling attention to the fact that every one of the creatures in the sheet was made by God and that God had made them clean. When it came to people, others were still making distinctions between “them” and “us,” the people who think like they do or believe like them and the people who don’t. How many thousands of years of slavery, misogyny, authoritarianism and inequality have been based on that kind of distinction? Peter’s lesson from God had more to do with reconciliation than simply expanding a menu or proper dinner companions. It takes all kinds to build the world or a kingdom and God made them all. Granted, there are people we feel we have to exclude because of the very real harm that they choose to do, yet they are still God’s children. Perhaps they are among those God would send down on a sheet to us, along with people with whom we disagree ideologically, economically, politically or any other distinction that makes them “them” and us “us.” With McLaren, it’s time to look in the sheet and see where the reconciliation needs to take place, where the change needs to happen, where the good needs to be recognized and then get on with the process.

This is a hard lesson. I know that I would see faces peering at me from the sheet, faces that belonged to people who are also God’s children with whom I need to find my way to reconciliation, whether it’s because the hurts imposed on one side or the other, disagreements on things both major and minor, or just people about whom I don’t like something. I’m sure, if I really gave it a chance, there are things that I could learn from them that would be good or worthwhile. In my own mind I have consigned them to the undesirable list. That’s not to say that some shouldn’t be kept at a distance, but I must never forget that the imprint of God’s creation is on and within them, just as it is with me.

Perhaps I need to spend time thinking about Peter and the sheet and what lesson I’m supposed to learn from it. I think I have a pretty good idea of what that lesson is, my reading seem to be pointing me in that direction. I can’t promise that I’ll ever eat snake but maybe I can learn to see what is good in someone else and not just look for their weak points to build myself up.

I think it’s time to start looking.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 13, 2013, under the title "Oh! Sheet!"

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Every now and then I have an itch to write something but haven’t got a clue what to write about or even where to start. Years ago I started little notebook in which I put thoughts and quotations that I found in various places like books on the Internet or in televised interviews and the like and when I get stuck for something to write about, I dig out my little book and start looking through it. Quite often something pops up that says to me this is something to think about today and something to write about. Maybe the writing will be good, maybe the thinking will be faulty, but at least it’ll keep the brain cells working and maybe provide an epiphany of sorts.

The quote that stood out for me this morning was one from Mark Twain that I think I found on the Internet in which he says, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” It started a whole train of thought.

Growing up back East I was quite familiar with both lightning and lightning bugs. One of the joys of summer evenings when I was a child was looking at the gathering darkness and seeing tiny flashes of golden light signaling something that I couldn’t understand but providing beauty that I could enjoy. Sometimes we would catch lightning bugs and put them in jars just for the joy of seeing them close up. They were beautiful although they did have a certain pungency when you caught them or released them from their jar. When it came to lightning, though, that flash of light could be fearsome. I remember being terrified of it as a child, hiding my head in Mama’s lap while the storm raged outside in our family dog cowering under that the seam chair in which we sat. It took a while but I learned to see the beauty of lightning even though I would never attempt to try and catch it in a jar like I did the lightning bugs. Bright flash or gentle glow, you couldn’t mistake one for the other but each was part of creation and played the part it was intended to play. And each had its own beauty.

People who work with words, journalists like writers, preachers, motivational and other public speakers, etc., know the importance of having the right word rather than the almost right one. What if Patrick Henry had said, "Give me liberty or give me another option" or Rhett Butler had said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a dime." It wouldn't be quite the same or have the same impact as the original lines. Imagine what the difference would have been if Jefferson had penned, "... the inalienable right to longevity, options and the pursuit of good humor"? We might then be searching for the Fountain of Youth or an ice cream truck as an ultimate goal. If Jesus had just chosen a few less vivid words, Matthew 23:33 might have come out as "You nasty people! You boogers! How can you elude being sent to the compost pile?" instead of "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" Or what if he had tried to calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee with, "Cool it!" rather than "Peace, be still!" I wonder how people would have responded if he’d told them that they were going to be cat herders instead of fishers of people?

There are always old jokes about people learning other languages and then trying to practice them in meetings or sermons on native speakers only an inflection is wrong or the person uses the wrong term and ends up insulting the listeners rather than impressing or flattering them. It's about knowing the right word, the right way to say it, and then actually being able to do both at the right time. In high-powered negotiations or in attempts to tell people the good news, it's not enough to use an almost-right word.

Choosing the right word can be an exercise in frustration at times. No matter how delicately I want to put something, sometimes I just can't come up with something that will convey what I want to say in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-hurtful way. I’ve begun trying to think before I speak but it doesn’t always work. I think I need more practice at it. Or perhaps I need to sleep with a thesaurus under my pillow. I cringe when I think back to times when I’ve been at funerals and heard someone tell the family of the deceased that “Now they’re in a better place” or “Now you can get back to normal.” They undoubtedly mean it to be comforting or reassuring, but somehow it just seems like the wrong words. How do they know the better place for that person wasn’t being alive and in the arms of the family or that “normal” covers a lot of territory, including taking an indefinite, indefinable period of time to adjust to not having someone around? I don’t want to be guilty of being that kind of Job’s comforter, meaning well but perhaps sticking a spike in the heart instead. At times like those when there are so many wrong words sometimes a silent hug or a “How are you?” is better. Or in the heat of a discussion a “This is what I hear you saying…” is better than a quick-witted rebuttal that doesn’t reflect what the first person was really saying.

For me, the “right words” are “Jesus loves you.”  Period. Full stop. No “Jesus loves you if…” or Jesus loves you but…”  Changes might be necessary for other people to love me but I don’t think God puts that kind of restriction on me. In this case, less is more and the right words don’t need any embellishment. “God likes you” is nice, but how much more emotion or depth of feeling is conveyed with “God loves you.” Love covers a lot of territory and a bunch of sins. If you love someone you can forgive a lot more than if you just like them. Love is commitment, like is attitude. Do I want a God, or a Jesus or a Spirit with attitude? Not really. In this case, I want love, not like.

Both lightning and lightning bugs have their own place in nature’s order, the brilliant flash or the gentle glow. The right words can be either one or anything in between the two – at the right time. Determining when is that right time and what that right word is becomes a daily challenge.

I think I’ll have to remember to use “God loves you” more often, both to others and to myself. If I have confidence in that maybe the right words will come and the almost-right ones will fade away.  It’s worth a shot, anyway, or maybe the right word “try”?

Originally published on Daily Episcopalian
 at Episcopal Café Sunday, July 8, 2013.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Facing Changes

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, -- Acts 9:10-19

Of all the books in the Bible, I think Acts is probably one of my favorites. Oh, Genesis is good, and I like the gospels pretty well, but somehow Acts has stuff that I really can get into. This one is no exception.

It's a story of a man who is told to go somewhere that he didn't really want to go and do something he didn't really want to do. Ananias experienced Jesus in a vision, a vision that told him to go to a certain place and lay hands on a certain person in order to heal that person suffering from blindness. The very name of the person to whom Ananias was to go was enough to turn a strong man's knees to jelly because Saul of Tarsus was known as a ruthless persecutor of Jesus-followers and not someone anyone would willingly go to see. It would be like asking them to walk into a hot furnace. Jesus wasn't and isn't the kind to take "no" for an answer, so Ananias picked up his cloak and all his courage and went to do what he was told.  The rest of the story is Paul's.

The part that intrigues me is Ananias and his predicament. Jesus had said, " 'Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’" (John 21:18, NRSV) and here was Ananias being faced with just that. Trying to put myself in that or a similar situation, I can feel the trepidation he must have felt, sort of like the awful anticipation of a visit to the dentist for a root canal, to the hospital for major surgery or a visit to the IRS office for an audit. Those are bad enough, but with Ananias it was his very life that could have been on the line. For all his faith, though, there was still probably a bit of anxiety accompanying him.

Something occurred to me: does the idea of going where you do not want to go apply only to places or can it apply to changes of belief or ideas as well?  What Jesus demanded was a change of habit, a new way of thinking and believing and a different way of relating to both God and other human beings. Ananias had been given instructions that went against everything he knew and believed and so he faced a predicament: he had to be obedient or truly he  had no faith in the Lord to whom he had sworn allegiance. He did as he was told, probably not doing cartwheels of joy at the prospect but God didn't ask for cartwheels -- just a change of direction in thought and some obedience despite some consternation.

I have known what it is like to face a drastic change in thinking that went against everything I knew (or thought I knew) and believed (or was taught as belief). I didn't hear any voice from the sky calling my name and telling me things had to change. Most of the time it was a slow process of revision that took a long time for it to turn around. Once in a while, though, there was one of those "AHA!" moments that changed my thinking radically in a very short period of time. I can't say it was on the magnitude of Paul's vision on the Damascus Road or Ananias' instruction from God, but it was thought- and life-changing. It made me wonder why I hadn't seen it before, but then I realized that I hadn't seen it because I had lived with it and accepted it as normal, as the way things just were. Ananias probably thought that with Paul it was business as usual, namely persecution of Jesus-followers, but God's message clearly indicated that there had been a very radical change in thinking in the former enemy. Sometimes it takes a few words from outside the usual to change the thinking of a lifetime.

I think that at some point in time everybody has had the luxury of going where they wanted but also have had times when they've had to go where they didn't want to go. I know I have. There are times when the only reaction is "That's not fair!" but I've found that for me a lot of them have produced some changes in thinking as much as changes in geography. It's harder to demonize what you have experienced yourself, and it is also hard to slip back into the original mindset when you've seen how it feels to have the shoe on the other foot in a manner of speaking. I've watched my brother go through some of the same kind of experiences I did but seemingly without any real change in viewpoint or belief at all. I wish he could have seen what I did that changed my thoughts and beliefs although he and I were two different people, years apart in age and experiences. But then I think, possibly his thinking did change just a little bit and I just didn't notice it.

I'm sure as I get older I'll have more places to go that I don't want to, but I have to be open to the possibility that an unwilling change could produce something greater than I could ever imagine. Perhaps I need to remember Ananias a bit more often.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Remembering Dick

He looked like a man Rembrandt or Van Dyck would have painted, a distinguished Dutch face with a neatly trimmed beard and commanding presence. He was a good-looking man, one that seemed to exude success and who inspired confidence. I didn't know him well, at first just by sight and to speak to at church, and I didn't know when I met him that he would be a catalyst for a change for me, one I'd been looking for and didn't totally realize.  I did know, though, that here was somebody special, a true cut above the ordinary.

It began when I was recommended to him to help him put together an autobiography for his children and grandchildren. I didn't have a huge amount of work to do, just formatting and then scanning and inserting photos, putting in chapters and getting it ready for printing.  He did the hard part of writing, and his story captivated me. I won't tell it here; it's his story, not mine, but it was a remarkable life and, like so many, with its ups and downs. It's those ups and downs that make lives interesting to others, me included. And those ups and downs are also what build or tear down a character. With Dick, like all of us, the ups and downs made him who he was and taught him lessons he learned and passed on to others headed down the same path. He overcame and that was part of his greatness.

One of his achievements was that he had once been a mentor for something called Education for Ministry (EfM). For those who don't know, EfM is a program sponsored and run by the University of the South (Sewanee), aka "Holy Hill" by its intimates.  It is a four-year program of study designed for lay people but also used by a number of dioceses as part of their diaconal training program. There is one year each of Old Testament, New Testament, Church History and Theology. It's not a Bible study but rather a look at what the Bible is, where it came from, how it presents the story of the relationship between God and humankind and how that story still resonates and impacts readers today. Church history encompasses how the church grew from a handful of disciples of a Galilean teacher who happened to be the Son of God to the diversity of denominations we have today. Theology teaches us how our beliefs came to be with regard to philosophy, culture and schools of thought. When he first told me about it it sounded precisely like something I would love to do. I love studying anyway, and this sounded just fine. The catch was that there was no local group closer than downtown Phoenix, at least 20 miles away. So I thanked him and filed it away in what I could now call a Bucket list, a term which hadn't been invented at that time.

It took a little while but I found an EfM venue I could join. I loved it. It made me think, it made me study, it made me learn and it gave me a place to talk about a subject about which I was passionate with people who had similar interests and passions yet with a diversity that kept us all from being cookie-cutter models.  I loved the experience, and I remembered where I had first heard of it.  Every time I saw Dick, I don't think I ever forgot to thank him for planting the seed. I wish I could thank him one more time, but I won't have that chance. I have a feeling he knows, though.

He leaves a hole in a lot of hearts. His adored wife, his kids, his grandkids, his friends and associates, the folks who went to church with him, his golf buddies -- I imagine the church will be pretty full at his memorial service. I know it will be planned with a lot of reference to faith because that was something Dick seemed to care about very much. His faith grew out of his Reformed background and came with him when he became an Episcopalian. He was calm and steady, the kind of person you felt you could go to and be heard even if he couldn't solve the problem or suggest a solution. That's how he showed his faith to the world, not so much by words as by listening and by doing. He knew well what failure was like, but he also knew how to use those failures to build something better, stronger than it was before and succeed at what had once not even been an option. He was a remarkable man.

There's an empty place in the pews now, but there's one new addition to the communion of saints around the throne. I think God's going to enjoy having him close by. Meanwhile, we will miss him and think of him often until one day we can all meet again.  And I hope I remember to say "Thank you" one last time. He gave me a great gift with just a few words.

Dick, may you rest in peace as assuredly as you will rise in glory.  May God comfort Kayleen and the family and friends who loved you and love you still. May each of us follow your example of seed planting and fostering new growth in others even if it is just a few kind words. That's how the Kingdom is built here and now, and I think you'd love knowing you were part of it.