Sunday, February 22, 2015


Upon my bed at night
   I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
   I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city,
   in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
   I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
   as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
   when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
   until I brought him into my mother’s house,
   and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
- Song of Songs (Solomon) 3:1-4

One thing about every good story, and a lot of not-so-good stories, is that they feature different kinds of characters. There has to be a central character who can just an ordinary person, a villain or evil thing that is creating havoc, and a plot where the protagonist finds themselves on a quest for something: to kill a dragon or demon, to find something that was lost, restore that something to its rightful place and thereby make the world a better and happier place.. He or She isn’t a hero or heroine yet; that doesn’t come until the end, usually. In between times they find themselves on an adventure and they become what we call a seeker.
Seekers are interesting characters. Usually they’re ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and who develop things like courage, knowledge and purpose.In stories they often fall into these adventures as a result of circumstances, like Sir Galahad, the knight of the Round Table who sought the Holy Grail, or Luke Skywalker. They usually are led into quests that tested them in ways they would never have expected and, in the end, they often were considered heroes and were rewarded for their success. Usually the journey was full of twists, turns, traps, dead ends and danger before it was all finished, but in the process the seeker did more than achieve the goal; they learned about themselves and, sometimes, about a relationship they didn’t know they lacked.

In the Bible there are lots of seekers. Most of them seem to say "Why me?" at the beginning. Paul the apostle was busy being a persecutor of Christ’s disciples and followers until he was unceremoniously dumped in the road on the way to Damascus and his life abruptly took a 180-degree turn. The rich young man approached Jesus was seeking eternal life, but when Jesus told him what was necessary for him to attain it, it was too difficult a quest for him. In the Old Testament, Moses was a prince in Egypt, became an exile after a murder, and then met a mysterious force that burned a bush but did not consume it. The bush had a voice coming from it with instructions for Moses to get on the road and do some rather difficult things. Moses was one of the “Why me?” people, but he did as he was told and the result was that the Israelites that had been in Egypt were returned to the Promised Land.
Each of us is a seeker, whether we are engaged on a life-altering quest or not. There is the quest on which the advertisers send us to find the perfect anything – house, car, mate, chocolate, whatever—by using their products and services to help in your search. Of course, in this case, the seeking probably will never stop and the seeker will reach the end of the quest. Set on the earthly path which requires more and more, some people can never stop searching for things that will make their lives perfect and complete. They may never find either.
Then there are the seekers who are have an emptiness that they need to fill. What each one seeks is a little different from person to person. Unlike the seekers in stories, everyday human beings are faced with multiple choices in a story that has yet to be written or told, much less finished. Many people seek God or some sort of Higher Power simply because they realize there's something missing in their lives. Many men and women would and do go to monasteries, convents, or even out the wilderness to find way to fill up that emptiness. They used prayer, contemplation, work and study to find what they considered the ultimate treasure which was unity with God.
Most of us cannot give up our day jobs and our families to go out in the desert or join a religious community in order to make the search happen. Most of us have to do it wherever we are. Still, we feel the need to seek God, to look for a fulfilling intimacy that only God can fill. With Lent under way, many people are seeking Lenten practices that will aid in the struggle of living a Christian life in a desert of broken dreams, broken promises and probably broken health whether it be the mind or body.
The seeker in the Song of Songs passage was looking for her lover, God, in various places, even in dreams. The important thing was that she continued to search. That is part of what Lent is supposed to teach us: to continue to seek greater things than the world can offer us. It's an invitation for us to practice the things that open us up to God and to let God come in and fill the empty spaces that we may not even know where there. We need the God we encounter in dreams and readings, but the important thing is to keep searching until we find God who is really only a breath away but sometimes seems billion miles.
During this Lent, let us become the kind of seeker the Song of Songs tells us about. Let us seek and be open to all possibilities, no matter how remote, exotic, mundane or seemingly impossible. If we pay attention we can find what we are looking for.
Have a blessed Lent.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on  Episcopal Café on Saturday, February 2015.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cyril and Methodius

Reading from the Commemoration of Cyril and Methodius, Missionaries

Jeremiah 26:12-15
Psalm 69:8-18
Ephesians 3:1-7
Mark 16:15-20

Imagine growing up in a place where you knew how to speak the language but couldn't read or write because there was no alphabet, spelling books or signs to read. Everything you learned you learned by memorizing whatever it was you needed to remember like your family history, stories and poems of heroes and events, even Bible stories.

It's amazing that while there are about 6,800 languages in the world, there are nearly 700 that have no written form at all. Some languages have very complex pronunciation systems where a word, mispronounced, can mean the difference between a proper word for a situation or a dreadful insult.  Navajo (Diné), a language so distinct and complex that it was successfully used in WWII to send and receive coded messages that were never broken. Missionaries began the work of creating a written form of Diné in the early 1900s but it was not standardized until the 1930s with a dictionary following soon after. Today children are taught to read and write in a language their parents and grandparents were punished for speaking.

Cyril (whose name was originally Constantine until just prior to his death)and his brother Methodius were born in Thessalonika, Macedonia, and grew up speaking both Slavic (also called Slavonic) and Greek. They learned to read and write Greek and also spoke Slavic. They had been missionaries to the Khazars when the church at Constantinople sent Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs in response to a request for missionaries. They were chosen because of their experience in the mission field, and also because they were already fluent speakers of Slavic.

One of the keys to control of a people or nation is the control over the language. The Slavic princes were in a contest with the German missionaries and hierarchy claiming control of the area, one of the main reasons Cyril and Methodius had been summoned. It was hoped that having Slavonic-speakers and missionaries would help displace the Germans and would allow the Slavic princes to consolidate their power. Using Slavic in the liturgy was a way of differentiating themselves from the Germans and serving as a unifier with their own people.

At the time of their appointment (860) to this new mission, the brothers began working on a written form of Slavic using Greek characters as well as ancient symbols for sounds that had no Greek equivalent as the basis for a new alphabet which became known as Glagolithic. The brothers used this to translate the Slavonic liturgy into a written form, When they arrived in 863, they used the script to translate the Bible other ecclesiastical works. With some changes, it became Old Church Slavonic and eventually the foundation of the Cyrillic alphabet, named for Cyril, and is used in Russia and some Slavic languages.

Liturgies in Great Moravia (now the Ukraine and parts of the Balkans) were usually done in Latin or Greek, especially since much of the area had been controlled by German missionaries and hierarchy who insisted that nothing but Greek or Latin was proper for worship. The Eastern Church had allowed for liturgies to be in the native speech of the people (the vernacular). In the power struggle for the area, the Germans feared losing control as much as the Slavic princes wanted to gain it. Their mission to Great Moravia had been one part of that struggle,

Some would say, "What's so special about creating an alphabet? Haven't children been creating secret alphabets and codes forever?" Yes, kids do that; maybe it's something to do with watching spy movies or maybe just trying to set themselves apart from anyone who doesn't have the key to the code. The brothers were not creating a secret code but rather a way to give new life to a language, one that would keep it alive and make it available to the people as a way of coalescing and advancing the civilization. It was done for a purpose, and it has served its purpose since 863. That is a pretty remarkable thing.

Cyril and Methodius are considered saints in the Orthodox tradition as "equal to the apostles." The Roman Catholic church under Leo XIII added their names and feast day in 1880. Pope John Paul II further declared them to be co-patron saints of Europe, joining Benedict of Nursia. We remember them as missionaries to the Slavs. Their feast day of 14 February is observed by Roman Catholics and Anglicans while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 11. In Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 24 as "Slavonic Literature and Culture Day" in honor of their contributions to the Slavic alphabet and culture.

Whatever day we choose to honor these two brothers, we can also celebrate all those who, like them, took spoken languages and created a way to preserve and develop those languages and the cultures that use them. It is a gift not just to one group of people but to the whole world, helping to preserve some of the great diversity that exists among humankind all over the globe.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 14, 2015.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Reading from the Commemoration of Cornelius the Centurion

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
   to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
   and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
   and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
   and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
   will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
   for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
   who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
   besides those already gathered
. - Isaiah 56:6-8

I never traveled much when I was growing up. My family and I only took one trip together although I went to camp several times, to New York once, and to DC multiple times. It always felt strange to go somewhere new and different. Many things were the same but so many others were not the way we did or said or saw them back home.

When I married and moved from the East Coast to the West, it was like moving to a foreign country. It felt and smelled different, and it took some getting used to like walking around in shorts and a t-shirt at Christmas when I'd bundled up as much as possible when I lived at home. I had started to adjust when we got orders, this time to a foreign country. The Philippines became a real eye opener.

For the first time in my life I felt like a foreigner. I had light brown hair, blue eyes and somewhat fair skin. I stuck out like a watermelon at a basketball game. I was a "Joe," a "rich" American who could be bested at bargaining, followed and begged for money, and who didn't understand the comments spoken at the local market because I didn't speak their languages (I learned just enough, it seems). Granted, we lived on a military base with a lot of other "foreigners," but we had to go out into the regular community from time to time and it always accentuated the difference between us. It was a nice place to visit, the people there were interesting and some were very cordial, but I was more than ready to come home after three years there.

Isaiah was a prophet speaking to people who had gotten orders to go to a very foreign land and to live there for a lot longer than three years. The place undoubtedly felt, smelled and appeared very different from their homeland, and their realization that they were foreigners in a foreign land must have been devastating. Even though they were called captives, their lives went on much as it had back home. They were not slaves, they were allowed to practice their trades and professions, and they were allowed to practice their own religion. Even though they were given these privileges that slaves would not have had, they were still far from home, strangers in a strange land.

The children of Israel were there in that foreign land because they had been less than obedient to God and the covenant their ancestors had accepted from God. They had been exiled in Egypt but had been freed. You might have thought that they would have learned their lesson, but no. They moved to the Promised Land and there things started to fall apart.

God sent the Assyrians to get their attention through a relocation program, but it didn't seem to help a lot either. Later the Babylonians took the upper crust--priests, nobles, and rich, high-ranking officials--for an extended stay.

When the time came years later to go back home, many chose to remain where they were; they had assimilated into the foreign culture and liked it. The others went home to find life very different than what they had left behind as they went into exile. They found they were strangers to people, some of them long-separated relatives, who perhaps should have welcomed them with open arms.

The prophet Isaiah had a very specific message for the exiles. They weren't going to be God's only chosen ones. Strangers, including what the Israelites would consider foreigners, who loved God, followed the rules, observed the Sabbath and lived by the covenant God had originally given to Israel would be drawn into the community and fellowship.

Whether one is at home or in a foreign land, there are always rules to be followed. God's rules weren't all that onerous, even though it required and still requires attention and some work, but the reward was and is a home in God's presence and citizenship in the community of God's people.

That's a promise that I think is worth pursuing. The reward is out of this world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 7, 2015.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sam and a Man Named Bill

Readings for the Commemoration of Samuel Shoemaker, priest and evangelist

Psalm 130
Isaiah 51:17-52:1
1 Corinthians 5:6-8
Luke 4:40-44

For millions of people around the world, two letters of the alphabet represent a conversion, a total change, and a life-saving choice. Those two letters are AA for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the man considered the chief founder was a man named Bill Wilson, known as Bill W in the rooms of AA. Bill was an alcoholic who earned his sobriety by following precepts taught him by experience and an organization known as the Oxford Group.

Much of what is at the heart of AA came from that group headed by Samuel Moor Shoemaker III. then rector of Calvary Church in New York and leader of the Calvary Rescue Mission, a place for the down-and-out to try to put their lives back together.

Sam, as Shoemaker was known in AA circles, had met a Lutheran named Frank Buchman years previously. Buchman taught Sam the four absolutes--honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love--which became guiding principles of Sam's life. Sam learned to "Let go and let God" although perhaps he didn't articulate it quite that way.

Sam later became rector at Christ Church which was the headquarters of the Oxford Group in the US. The church operated a rescue mission where mentors worked to help those who came through its doors. Among those who came was a man called Bill W., a man with a history of alcoholism and who had hit rock bottom. Bill and his sponsor, Ebby Thacher, both became part of the Oxford Group and, as the literature describes it, "made their decision for Christ."

As Bill became more active in the Group, he spent more time in conversation and study with Sam, learning about conversion, acceptance, confession, amends, spreading the word and all the things that eventually became the 12-steps of sobriety. As the process became more and more concrete, Bill asked Sam to write them down as guides for others to follow as they struggled with alcoholism. Sam refused, saying that the 12 steps should be written by an alcoholic. Bill did write them, but Sam's fingerprints (and words) are included in them almost everywhere.

Since then, those 12 steps have helped not only countless alcoholics but others with addiction problems, from co-dependency to narcotics to overeating to emotions to sex. They are not a cure for addiction--there really is no cure per se--but it is a way of life that gives structure and promotes the four absolutes that make for a healthy, transparent, fulfilling life. Sam's experience helped Bill to find his way to that kind of life and, in 1955, Sam was named by Bill as one of the co-founders of AA even though Sam had not been or was alcoholic himself.

The Oxford Group was an evangelical sort of association, taking the principles of the four absolutes and encouraging members to follow them and then pass them on to others.. Faith was an important part, as it is in any recovery process, and over time the original emphasis on faith in God has become faith in a Higher Power, someone or something greater than oneself upon whom one can rely as an anchor. The important thing is to trust and place oneself in a relationship with that Higher Power, allowing the HP to work through the person not just to heal but to witness to that healing.

The evangelical component came in when each person was encouraged to seek a sponsor, a mentor who had experience to share. After working the steps themselves, the sponsored was then encouraged to share their own experience with others. It was much the way the faith was passed on in early Christianity, a model for the Oxford Group. As each one teaches another one, their own experience is enriched and deepened. That's kingdom work.

Many people have never heard of Sam Shoemaker, even in the rooms of the Anonymous groups, but he is present nonetheless. Imagine following a path of life where there is total faith in God and allowing oneself to be guided by the principles of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Sam did it, and look at the result.

As they say in Anonymous groups, "Let go and let God." There's a real challenge but a great payoff for anyone who will follow the steps, even those without addictions.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 31, 2015.