Sunday, September 28, 2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014
For a Southern Baptist growing up and only seeing small bits of the Episcopal church mostly through walking into the little local church (built in 1697). It seemed a bit different and a bit exotic. There was an altar with different colored cloths through the year and the addition of prayer books in the pews along with a hymnal much smaller in size (although about the same thickness as the one we used. The pulpit was on one side rather than being prominently placed in the center of the raised platforms, there was a rail separating the platform from the lower level where the pews were, and there were chairs next to the organ and facing the opposite wall rather than behind the pulpit. It was a very simple church without stained glass windows, gothic arches or pews that were in boxes like some of the other historic Episcopal churches in our area, but it was still a glimpse of the Episcopal Church in a historic Virginia settings.
My first real exposure to the Episcopal church came from attending church with a friend in Washington DC. I'd been to a Roman Catholic mass, and it was very different than what I was used to, but this -- WOW. It wasn't a huge church but it had stained glass windows, the colored panels on the altar and the vestments, and the prayer books and hymnals both in the racks on the backs of the pews, but no gothic arches. Still, from the minute the organ began playing (a small pipe organ), I knew that this would be my home.
What was it that drew me like a magnet? We heard so much scripture in the three lessons and the psalm, far more than we heard in our little SB church on a Sunday morning. The priest actually preached on the lessons and wove them together to show some relationship rather than simply picking a totally unrelated verse or passage and preaching on it. The music was heavenly to my ears which, in my mid-teens, was already turning to the classical rather than the Victorian and sometimes more emotional hymns of the church of my childhood and the growing rock-n-roll other kids my age were listening to. And then there was the liturgy, one that could be followed in the prayer book and full of "thees" and "thous" so familiar to someone accustomed to reading the King James Version of the Bible and hearing God addresses in those terms on Sunday mornings. The whole package was irresistible and, several years later when I was in college, I took the step to make the Episcopal Church my church.
If I were asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" I'd have to answer that it's because it isn't a stage show, a group of street-corner preachers more interested in saving souls than feeding sheep, or a place where the music is very similar to what is heard on contemporary radio stations. There's a separation of what goes on in the church and what goes on outside it, although some of our churches are taking some of the indoor church out to the street corners and parks and bus stops which become places where others can be shown a bit of what the Episcopal Church is through inclusion rather than the exclusion of church walls and doors.
But the Episcopal Church is more than a liturgy and church practice. For me, one of the most important bits is the focus on the teachings of Jesus that go beyond the church walls. In church we don't hear constantly about our sinful selves and need of salvation although we do hear the word "sinners" fairly often and in a serious context. What we hear is what Jesus preached and taught: to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, the dying, the prisoners and both the resident aliens and the strangers in our midst. These are lessons we are to take out into the world with us and to not just proclaim our Christianity but show it as advocates and workers who do what they can to relieve the poverty, injustice and oppression that exists everywhere in this world.
Episcopalianism is a broad umbrella, encompassing many variations of worship style, beliefs and ministry focus. Wha binds us all together are the historic creeds, the practice of prayer and the dedication to bringing the kingdom of God to this world rather than waiting for someone to provide it for us in the next. Whether the church is bells-and-smells high with incense and formality or more conservative and sometimes charismatic, the focus is still on Jesus and what we as Christians are supposed to do in response to his teachings. Through his death and resurrection we have obtained eternal life, but through his teaching and our practice of obedience to those teachings, we help others to obtain a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony, security, health and equality go hand-in-hand and where everyone benefits.
I love my church. I'm saddened by its conflicts and problems but I see it becoming more and more aware of the needs of the world above the needs of the church. I celebrate that. I see it responding to the cries of those who most need help and advocacy and that gives me hope that we as Episcopalians can be known as Jesus followers in every sense of the word, "not only with our lips, but in our lives," as one of our prayers states.
Why the Episcopal Church? Why not? The world is diverse and we are a part of that diversity. It's a place of beauty, solemnity, joyous festivity, and a frequent opportunity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. It's a way of following Jesus in concrete ways, and We just have to bring those lessons Jesus taught to the world, not to convert but to heal. It's that simple and that hard.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Sunday, September 14, 2014
2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings* shouted for joy?
8 ‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
9 when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
12 ‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed* like a garment.
15 Light is withheld from the wicked,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
16 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? - Job 38:1-17
Job, a once prosperous and healthy man, had been reduced to sitting on an ash heap, scratching his sores with shards of pottery and being regaled by his wife and friends who urge him to either curse God or confess to wrongdoing which had brought this punishment against him.
Today, though, the reading takes a different turn. We hear from God who proceeded to bombard Job with number of questions to which Job had no answers. How could he? Job was a man of his time whose travels were probably limited to maybe a few dozen miles from his home, and who had probably no knowledge or expertise in geography or astronomy or even theology. It seems as if God had joined Job's friends in trying to wrench some sort of confession from Job, whether it was a confession of guilt or one of ignorance.
The questions put to Job would probably confound many of us who live in an interconnected and technologically advanced world. Children are taught about basic science and geography in elementary school while physics, chemistry, astronomy and higher math are taught in secondary education. Colleges and universities delve deeper into more specialized bits of astrophysics and microbiology while television brings explanatory and exploratory programming to viewers right in their homes about subjects that even a few decades ago were not even commonly heard words.
But for all our technology and information dissemination, we are still in sort of the same boat with Job. We can quote theories and hypotheses about how this and that happened as well as formulas and facts about when, where and perhaps why things are the way they are. What hasn't changed, though, is that despite the Big Bang and whatever theory has come after it, whatever satellites and exploratory vehicles penetrating far beyond what we could ever imagine in the heavens, whatever sophisticated equipment capable of computing millions of figures and billions of pieces of data in the time it takes to blink an eye, and no matter how advanced and specialized things are or how much knowledge we have attained, we still don't have the answers. We know something happened but what, how and when?
Even if the Big Bang is an actuality, what caused that initial spark that began it all? Nobody's been able to give a definitive answer to that one yet. What really causes cells to go wild and form cancers? We think it is partly environmental, partly hereditary, perhaps even partly the result of diet or some other physical factor like smoking, but why do some who have never smoked or been around smoke get lung cancer? Why are young children stricken with brain, blood or other cancers when they obviously haven't committed any of the "sins" we would expect a cancer victim to have done. What causes the earth to move when it does? We can often speculate or sometimes even pinpoint where the weaknesses in the earth's crust are and where an earthquake (or a volcanic eruption or a landslide or any of a number of natural disasters) is likely to happen but we can't tell for sure precisely when or where those things will occur and, as a result, many people lose their lives while we smugly call it "God's will." I wonder if we'd be so blasé about it if it happened to us? Wouldn't we want God to fix it for us?
God goes on for quite some time in his speech to Job, the whole thing taking up three entire chapters and one verse of a fourth, but Job still has no answers and God doesn't seem to be willing to let him off the hook. It wasn't that Job lacked faith; he had plenty of that or he would have fallen prey to his wife's and his friends' suggestions that he confess to something, anything that would allow God to accept his repentance and fix things.
I don't deal well with this kind of God. I am somewhat glad to read that Job is not a real character but rather a work of fiction to get certain things out in the open and some great poetry written. I don't like to think of God as playing games with people's lives either to prove a point or to possibly pull the puppet strings and make a person do precisely what God wants them to do. If that was how God wanted it, why would there have been this thing we call free will built into our DNA?
One choice I have is to read Job as a story, much like the stories our mothers told us as children, stories that had good plots and characters but which were designed to teach something without coming right out and saying it. It is possible to teach in ways other than stories, but stories are usually more fun and people are more inclined to remember fun than they are strictly factual (or presented as factual) ones.
I still can't answer God's questions, but then, part of what I learned from the reading is that I don't have to answer. I think it is enough to think about them and the wonders of the world they represent. It's always good to have a little mystery in our lives, it keeps things from being too predictable and boring.
And one more thing not having all the answers does: it makes me think more about God. I think that's a pretty good thing all by itself.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 13, 2014.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
The Question about the Sabbath
Ahimelech wasn’t too sure about this, but there was some day-old bread which had been on the altar since yesterday and was just that morning replaced with fresh loaves. It wasn’t as if God was going to miss some slightly stale bread. Besides, when a man with a reputation like David’s looks you in the face and wants something, you are probably going to give it to him, aren’t you? But that was a side issue; Ahimelech had bread and even though it was consecrated, it was probably more prudent to give it to David and not risk his taking it by force, which he might do if he were hungry enough. It wasn’t so much that the bread was wanted on the sabbath but that it was holy bread that was supposed to be reserved for the priests and not for ordinary people.
To be sure that the Israelites realized that they were now under a new ruler, the sabbath was instituted for them and they were expected to relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, then came the finer and finer definitions of what was allowed and what was not. People could eat but only food that was prepared the day before. I guess the dishes stayed dirty until the next day as well. Jesus made what seemed to be an outrageous claim when he said that he was “lord of the sabbath.”
The Pharisees following him probably came close to cardiac arrest with that one. Mark tells a similar story of Jesus, the grain and the Pharisees (2:23-27) where Jesus didn’t claim to be Lord of the sabbath but rather that “...[T]he sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.” God had taken that seventh day of creation for a rest day to sit and admire the handiwork of the other six days, and offered that same day of rest to God’s people so that they could relax and enjoy the day, the peace and quiet, the relief from stress and in God's company.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 6, 2014.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
It's nearly nightfall and I sit looking out my front windows at clouds on the horizon and trees being buffeted by gusty winds. Somehow it seems to mirror what's going on inside me tonight, the eve of one of those anniversaries.
Tomorrow would have been our 33rd wedding anniversary and, had he lived, Ray's 94th birthday. Even though he died over six and a half years ago, those two anniversaries plus the anniversary of his death still have power to send me into a funk. Not a huge depressive funk where I don't think I can get out of bed tomorrow, but one that says I'm still grieving and, even though our marriage may not have been the best in the world, it mattered and still does.
We never made a lot out of birthdays or anniversaries. There wasn't a whole lot of spare cash for most of our marriage so presents were few and cards almost as scarce. Still, I don't think either of us ever forgot a birthday or our anniversary. If we did find a card at some time during the year, that we thought the other might think funny or enjoy, we'd buy it then and put it away, usually forgetting where we'd put it. So we started a sort of tradition where if we found a card we gave it to the other as soon as we got it home. That way we wouldn't lose it before it was needed.
Maybe we would only have Hamburger Helper for dinner that night or perhaps something special that he especially liked such as biscuits and gravy or liver and onions, but it was what we did to celebrate. He always had a birthday cake, most often a pineapple upside down cake which was his favorite and which, fortunately, was one of my specialties. I still make those cakes, for several friends who love having one for their birthdays, but I always think of Ray when I make one.
So I'm feeling a bit maudlin as the evening grows darker. I had hoped to take tomorrow off from work just to stay home and maybe grieve a bit on my own or perhaps just relax, but since that isn't possible, I'll go to work as usual and save the other stuff for afterwards. Dinner will be simple, there won't be any cake, but there will be memories.
He annoyed the heck out of me a lot of times, and things weren't always peachy, but, you know, I really do miss him. Happy birthday tomorrow, Ray, and happy anniversary.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 30, 2014.