Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My 2015 in Review

It's been accustomed at the end of each year to kind of summarize what the years been like. Since it is now one day from the end of the year I guess it's time to recollect and see what I can remember about this past year.

It was a quick year. In December I felt like it should only be April. It was as if time were speeding up and I wasn't going with it. The days were long period, but the months seem to roll by so fast it was almost incredible. I guess that's one of the benefits? Of getting older.

I guess I've become more bionic that in this past year. I did have some teeth replaced so now that I can chomp again with my upper teeth I haven't had the nerve to try one of my favorite dishes, corn on the cob, nor apples. But there are always ways around that. In October -November I had cataract surgeries on my eyes and as a result I can see things that I haven't really seen that clearly in years, and colors seem very strange. When I had the first I done it seems like light was bluish-white whereas with the other I things was still in a haze of yellow. I get new glasses in about a week and that will be a good thing, especially since I can see close up, fairly well at a distance, but the middle distance I am hopelessly out of luck. That will be helpful when I start working and, I'm led to believe, that it will help with the computer work, which I may or may not be doing more of in the future.

One very positive thing this year was reconnecting with my family. I'd been in sporadic touch for years, but since my brother died four years ago we have seldom talked or communicated. This summer I got the joy of seeing my sister-in-law and two nieces for the first time in years. It was a good if brief visit, and we've kept in touch since. It's made a world of difference.

I've got sort of an adopted family here now, and some friends that I've made over the past several years. They mean the world to me, and I'm grateful to have them in my life. Shannon and the family are real joys, and Julie and Alex are people I can trust and count on. Then there's Mouse, a friend who's been a rock in my life for the last 38 or so years. Our twice-or-more-weekly phone chats keep us both connected and civilized. We've solved a lot of the world's problems, we are sure, even if the rest of the world hasn't paid any attention.

With the making and growing of relationships with friends I've lost some friends this year. Ron was a friend of my late husband, and the trailer Ron bought from him had been my dad's before that. I bought it from Ron about eight years ago,  and he became a friend, maintenance consultant, and handyman. Losing him was losing another tie to Ray, as well as being a nice guy that I could be friends with without any strain or undercurrents.

And then there was the loss of JJ. That was a week before my birthday. JJ was a rock when I needed a one. She always listened to my problems, gave me sage advice, and enjoyed sharing pizza any time we could get together to have it. I'm glad we had one a week or so before she died. I still have mad urges to call her up and just pass on some news or just check in to see what has been going on, but she's not there. I miss that.

It's been a year of increased expenses, and I've been a little profligate with my funds, which makes living a little tougher,. But the boys and I are surviving, and nobody is starving to death or living under a bridge — yet.  I'm learning to ask for help when I need it, and finding it isn't as difficult as I thought it would be. Still, I want to do things myself if I possibly can.

Today kind of summed up the whole year and I'm still digesting it. Being called into the publisher's office of the newspaper where I worked for the last 11 years, and being told that I was being terminated for financial reasons was a bit of a shock. I've endured three cuts in that place, and feeling that even though my customers depended on me doing my job, it meant little or nothing to management. I'm still a little hurt and a little puzzled by the whole thing, but then the wound is still new. I did the best I could, I tried to work honestly and honorably, and I guess I will still struggle to understand for a while yet. Meanwhile, I now can look forward to being able to sleep in in the morning a bit more, if the boys allow it, but I will also have to learn to squeeze pennies until they hurt. This is never one of my favorite things to do. But I've made it through this long, and I will find a way to do it this time.

On the plus side I marked three years of being what I hope is cancer free. My oncologist's office doesn't want to see me until May so I guess I have permission to live that long. At least that's how I joke about it. I got a tattoo in September to remind myself of my three years. It's a pink ribbon on my left forearm and for me it was an impulse but it's a reminder that I am a survivor at least for now. That's not to say I won't have a problem later on, but right now, I'm surviving.

I've kept good friends this year, I've lost good friends this year. I'm looking at the next year and wondering how things are going to go. I guess if I had to be let go, the end of the year is better than the beginning of the year. At least I can say the end of the year closes a book and now I have to find a new one to open. I'm still writing my Soul pieces for Episcopal Café, something had been doing for the last four years and going on five. I enjoy doing it and I am always pleased and flattered when people like what I write. I'll do more writing this year, I hope, and also continue with my co-mentoring of two Education for Ministry groups that often become my community and my church, my friends and my learning experiences.

I'll try looking for another job since it will be hard to go on without it, but that's after I have taken a week or so for vacation, something I haven't really taken in about eight years. Time off from work for surgery doesn't count. Even though I won't be going anywhere, it will be nice to be able to just stay tucked up in my house with the boys for company, lots of books, and a computer to keep me connected with the world.

All in all this year's been a mixed bag but almost over and a new and will begin. We'll see how that one goes.

Happy 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reflections of a Troubled Rebel

These are difficult times. Every day the news is full of acts of violence and disasters. It feels almost overwhelming, and I am glad I can retreat to my small house in my cats and not have to confront new story after news story unless I choose to do so. Still, social media seems to keep me informed as to the latest goings-on, sometimes more than I actually want to know. It's not that I don't want to know it's just I want to know gradually and not be faced with everything all at once.

One of the things that I find most difficult right now is knowing what to think, what to feel, and what to say. It seems like there aren't any right words that will satisfy everyone and so it's easier to try and stay quiet and out of sight. If I open my mouth and say what I think I'm going to offend people right and left, while at the same time I'm being encouraged to hold difficult conversations with people of different origins, ethnicities, and cultural dissimilarities. I have no objection to that at all; I like talking to one-on-one, but it seems that it's very hard to know where to begin and how to begin. One does not want to appear insensitive but what can you say that will not sound offensive..

I was raised in the South. I wasn't aware of white privilege although I knew there was a difference between people like my family and others in the neighborhood have brown skins. I was introduced to history almost with my first steps. I lived in a historic town, famous for having witnessed Cornwallis's surrender to Washington that ended the Revolutionary war in the south. It wasn't just monuments or plaques, it felt like the history was in the air we breathed, the soil we walked on, and the whisper of the trees that sang of what they had witnessed. But it was not just the ghosts of revolutionary times, as we were also affected by what has been called the Civil War. Gravestones, burial grounds, minnie balls that were dug up when my uncles would plow their fields, and sort of a racial memory or perhaps a cultural one. At any rate those wars were never far from our consciousness.

I remember desegregation, and working hard to overcome feelings of discomfort with the history of racism in my family, neighborhood and state. I didn't hate African-American people, and I didn't always understand why we could live next door to them but not allow the in our schools and churches, much less using the same restrooms or drinking fountains. It was accepted that that was the way it was until desegregation came and we had to adjust to a new norm. It's taken me a while; I admit it's been hard for me and even now I find it difficult to admit that my heart is divided. No, not because I don't believe that everyone should have equal rights and full equal rights, or that much of what is perceived as the sin of the South, namely slavery, is actually true. Where my heart is divided is in the memory of respect for those from both wars who were buried in mass graves, marked usually only with their nationality and unit number. I don't know if blacks and whites were buried separately in those graves; I'm sure the heat of battle and the numbing aftermath would blur burial of corpses of enemy dead or brothers in arms.

My heart is divided because I want to remember the good things about the South that I grew up in. I lived in a small town where everybody knew everybody else from the time I was a small child until I went to college, I knew people were watching to make sure I didn't get into trouble or danger. We never locked doors; if we accidentally did, all the neighbors had exactly the same key that we could borrow to get back in. If someone were sick, everybody knew about it and the parade of casseroles, soups, and desserts would begin to arrive. The same after a death in the family. Black or white, it felt like the community was somewhat united, although divided in other ways. I was taught to be polite and not to use certain words that were considered disrespectful or rude. My parents were products of their generation and upbringing and I inherited some of that. A lot of the divided heart is because of that. It's an ongoing struggle.

Lately I've been exposed to news, posts, emails, and just about everywhere else, that makes me feel I have no right to feel as I do. I feel I am being compelled by outside forces to wear sackcloth and ashes as reactions to the actions and beliefs of my ancestors over which I had no control. Not just African-Americans,  but Native Americans, Orientals, different religious groups Hispanics, and basically anyone of a different skin color, different culture, or different nationality were included. I feel guilty that those groups have suffered at the hands of people of similar ancestry to me, but what can I do about that now? Should I go up to every person that I see with a different skin color and express my apologies for what my ancestors have done and what members of my race continue to do to their people? It sounds like a simplistic question, probably rather a dumb one, but what am I to do?

Last year in our Education for Ministry program, we studied multiculturalism along with readings from the Bible, history and theology basis of our curriculum. We studied power and powerlessness, and identified times when we ourselves felt powerless or powerful. We learned the importance of discussion, respectful and mutual discussion with active listening on both sides of the conversation. Coupled with what I read in the news, I'm conflicted as to exactly how to put all this into action? Does one just walk up to a group of people and say, "Hey, want to talk about racism or culturalism or privilege ?" My mother would be horrified, not just because such conversations in her lifetime were never about these topics but because it would seem like such a rude and crass opening to what is supposed to be a productive conversation. We were taught manners, and felt statements like that were not polite. Something else I missed about growing up in the South. People had opinions, but most of the time we tried to say them politely, no matter to whom we were talking.

So now I have to face a problem of reconciling my heart and figuring out the right thing to do. I understand that we have a long way to go and healing rifts caused by my ancestors, not just with the African-Americans, but with the Native Americans, Hispanics, Oriental Americans, LGBTQI and everybody else. It feels like I am supposed to be apologetic, repentant, and wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life to atone for things done by my race to that of others. I acknowledge that great wrongs have been done and continue to be done. I tried to discourage wrongs when I encounter them, but what can one person do? I'm not Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Junior, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, or any of the unsung heroes who have struck blows to help level the playing field.

Sometimes writing can be therapeutic, but even this moment of self disclosure, I can't really my thoughts and feelings with any level of comfort. I have been chastised for saying that I am proud of relatives who fought in the Confederate Army for a cause they believed in and to protect their homes and families, but I do respect the views of those who criticize me. I wonder how many of those who are so interested in chastising the South are aware of their own history of slavery in the north and other places? History is written by the winners which means they can point out all the flaws of the losers and gloss over their own shortcomings and sins. We all have apologies to make and are sentenced to repent, but it's so much easier to minimize our own sins and magnify those of others. I know that I myself bear guilt for my own sins of omission and commission, and I am willing to work with others to try and right the wrongs. Where to begin, how to begin, though, is a question I can't answer. I'm looking, and praying, but the answers seem very elusive.

I am a Southerner, and will always identify as a Southerner because to me that's home. I make no apologies for loving that area, despite its checkered history. I sincerely regret the actions of my forebears who came to this land and truck and took over. I appreciate the contributions to this country by all those who have lived, died, and continue to live and die to build meaningful and productive lives and contribute to the general welfare. Despite the fact that our guiding documents were written by white men of privilege who sought to establish a country that would be a reflection of their own lives and philosophies, I would like to think that those documents are living documents, able to be read with the fresh eyes of each new generation and acted upon to benefit all people, not just those of wealth or privilege. I would like to live in a world like that.

Maybe in a world like that I wouldn't have to feel I need to walk about in eternal mortification but could smile at everyone regardless of race, creed or color, and know that their lives are full and productive, that they have access to all the necessities of life, and the freedom to reach their maximum potential. I know that it has to begin with conversation and that it needs to begin now. I will wear my sackcloth and ashes for a while, inwardly anyway, but I don't want to get too comfortable with it.

The whole point of such a punishment is to irritate the skin in a noticeable way as a reminder of something. But one can get used to discomfort, just as one can get used to privilege, wealth, and power. I don't want to glory in humility since that's kind of an oxymoron. I want to be a person who can be myself without trying to tiptoe around others who are different from me. I want to know the right words to say and the right conversations to participate in to make this world better.

God help me, I want to live in a guilt free world. I really wonder what that would be like, for me and for everyone else.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why Wenceslaus went out that day...

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralysed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.  Acts 7:59-8:8

The day after Christmas has several names or nicknames, like Boxing Day which was a holiday for house servants in England and when they were given boxes of food and clothing by the people they served. Most of us remember it as the feast of Stephen, although a lot of us have no idea who Stephen is. Just a hint: it isn't Spielberg or King.

After Jesus death and resurrection, the church (or the body of Christ on earth) continue to grow. The disciples and their apostles were stretched trying to meet the needs and guidance of those who looked to them and still find time to preach, teach, heal, and travel. The decision was made to do what Moses' father-in-law had suggested to him, namely to delegate. Seven men were chosen to be those delegates. Among their jobs was making sure that everyone had a fair share, keeping order, keeping records, and anything else that needed doing. Today we call them deacons, although that designation didn't come until later. Still, we consider December 26, a day commemorating Stephen, one of those helpers, as also a celebration of those who have and who do serve in the order of the diaconate.

The reading give us a testimony of the effect that Stephen had on the early church. He was preacher and a remarkable healer as well as his other duties. He touched the lives of many people, but, as always, there were people looking to not just discredit him but to chip away at the foundation of the entire Jesus movement and cause it to collapse. Stephen was hauled before the authorities on charges of blaspheming God and Moses. When asked for his defense, Stephen gave an eloquent speech tracing the salvation history that we also trace at the Great Vigil of Easter. Many heard it and were converted, but the people who needed to be impressed remain unconvinced. Authorities sentenced him to be stoned to death for his insolence and blasphemy. Standing guard over the pile of cloaks of those who were so eager to throw stones was a very righteous Pharisee named Saul. The stoning of Stephen may have left him unmoved, but God had other plans for him.

We sing a Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen." Wenceslaus was a 10th century Bohemian duke later named a king by a Holy Roman Emperor. He was noted for his piety and good works. The story is that on the day after Christmas, a very snowy one,  Wenceslaus called a young page boy to accompany him and carry gifts of food, wine and fuel to a poor man who lived  a league or more (2-1/2 - 4/1/2 miles) away. Wenceslaus  forged his way through the deep snow, making a path for his page to follow.

There is no historic record of such an event in Wenceslaus's time, but it is a tale that has been passed down for centuries.

The carol concludes with, "Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now would bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." The very moral lesson that the song proclaims is one that is as relevant today as it would have been in the 13th century and earlier. Wealth and rank do not always mean privilege; there is an element of responsibility that is included in this in which many wealthy and or high-ranking people seem to forget.

Stephen gave because (a) it was his job, and, (b) his faith in God led him to do what was right. He had been given gifts by God and it was his job to use those gifts to benefit others rather than himself. Stephen died defending the reason why he did what he did and preached what he preached. Even in death, he spoke of a greater kingdom that he could see even as the stones claimed him.

In our world, people are still being stoned. Usually victims are charged with sins/crimes against the faith. Women are stoned for adultery even in the case of rape. Men are stoned or beheaded for blasphemy against God, or a group's conception of God. The same religion which allows stoning also teaches kindness and generosity to the less fortunate. Christians are not exempt, although there stones are words of hate and disapproval as well as judgments made in favor of the rich and against the poor. Perhaps we need a Wenceslaus to show us the right way, or a Stephen to show us in view of Christianity based on love, service, and favor to those in need.

So why did Wenceslaus go outside? He had no choice. He saw someone in need and his Christian duty made him go out, no matter how daunting the weather. Stephen may not have any Bohemian blood, but Wenceslaus certainly carried something in his that made the two act in accord. The Spirit of God does not respect rank or privilege. That same Spirit guided Stephen and Wenceslaus to do what was right. Now it is up to us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 26, 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent Day 26, 2015 - I will not take my steadfast love...

2 Samuel 7:1-16

It's Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year. Even though for part of it I will be stuck in an office, doing routine stuff, my mind will be thinking about last-minute things I have to do (like pick up cat food -- or there won't be a Merry Christmas for my boys), dishes to do (my stocking should be as full as my sink!), and general tidying up to get ready for the Eve itself, when all is calm and all is bright.

Looking back on Advent, it's been a time to stop (or at least slow down) and listen, be awake, aware, and mindful, to be a light in the darkness even if it is only the light the size of a tea light or birthday candle, and to take time to think and meditate on what Advent means. It's been a time to listen to prophets from ancient times who still speak of problems we encounter today-- more than ever, it seems.

It's been a season of heart-wrenching events both natural and man-made. We have seen pictures of tiny children suffering and dying for any number of reasons, some of which we actually have the power to change. We've seen violence and mayhem, and heard the platitudes and mealy-mouthed sayings of those who seek to be our leaders. Unfortunately, much of what they say is divisive and actually abusive to those who are not precisely like them --male, white, and privileged. We have seen Christians persecuted in the Holy Land and the Middle East while Muslims are feeling persecuted here at home. Womens health issues have been curtailed in favor of protecting the unborn, never minding at all that the already born have needs too that have never been addressed. GLBTI folk are seeing more freedom in many states but in their individual homes, cities, and churches they are still reviled and shunned. Refugees are finding the welcome written on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal rings hollow with all the talk of higher walls, more legal barriers, and mass deportations. It seems the whole world is losing touch with what is good, kind and helpful.

This Christmas Eve, even if it is slightly inconvenient, we need to take a few minutes to remember the message the Prince of Peace came to bring -- love God, love your neighbor and even your enemy because he too is your neighbor. He told us to visit the sick and imprisoned and care for them as best we can. He told us to comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the widows and orphans and work to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth. It's a big order, but every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

My wish for all of you is to be blessed this Christmas and always, blessed with comfort, joy, peace, lack of want, and love for God and each other.  I also wish that you find challenges in your life that will bring God closer, help those in need, and stretch your faith a bit.

Continue to be awake, alert, and listening. The prophets are still speaking and we should still be paying attention. Take time to love even those who are unlovable (we think) as we kneel in adoration of the Christ Child who, in the form of a tiny baby, represented the hope for all mankind.  As God told Nathan in our reading, God will not withhold the steadfast love he had for David and the children of Israel. We just have to trust that and work to pass it on.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Advent Day 25, 2015 - ...sending my messenger...

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
 Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.  - Malachi 3:1-5

We hear a lot about messengers in scripture, especially during Advent when we hear the words of the prophets and sages.  They are the messengers of God, those persons charged with the duty to carry a message, a parcel, or a blessing and sometimes pass along military orders or requests for supplies. The image we often think of these days is the logo for a flower delivery service, an outline of a man with wings on his feet and helmet. Often, though, we look to newscasters, commentators, the like to deliver the news of things we should hear, know, or do.  It's hard to escape messengers, especially the gossips who can't wait to be the first to bring news, good or bad, true or not,  to others.

The prophets were messengers. God spoke and directed them and then it was their job to tell the people and urge them to return to things they had turned their backs on or pay closer attention to what they were supposed to be doing. God gave hem words and visions, instructions and demands, and some of them were pretty rough. Imagine being told to walk through the city stark naked for a period of time?  Even now that would be shocking and the person would probably be under arrest within half a block. In Isaiah's day, though, it was just as shocking but also unheard of, since God had ordained that everybody go about clothed. There was a point to be made, though, and the naked prophet was told to to use that particular point.

In the reading, we are told that God was sending a messenger. The interesting thing is that the word "malachi" meant "the messenger." Since nowhere in the book of Malachi is the prophet's name given straight out, it is thought that a translator used the word as the proper name. Who knows for sure, though?

Messengers come from God in various forms. Angels or beings having the appearance of angels have been recorded throughout the Bible. Sometimes we have their names, sometimes we don't. There are times that God seems to speak directly to his human messengers like the prophets. Samuel got a direct call at night, one that puzzled him until Eli, his mentor, told him what to do and say. Zechariah certainly had some contact with a messenger who confirmed Elizabeth's pregnancy and who told the old priest to name his son John, a name that had not appeared in any of the family genealogy. Two Josephs got messages in dreams: Joseph the son of Jacob and Joseph, Jesus' foster father. Mary's messenger was an angel who confronted her directly with God's request for her consent to something that would definitely change her life totally.

Of course, messengers often bring unwanted news, sometimes angering the recipient so much that the messenger is in danger. We're familiar with the saying "Don't kill the messenger," although that is precisely what happened to Jesus. Like many messengers, he brought news that was not just unwelcome but also that had a tinge of sedition in it.

Even with the proximity of Christmas, we still have time to listen for messengers from God. Sometimes they may appear as anything but angelic, but their words ring with truth. Listen and watch carefully.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent Day 24, 2015 - ...given to the Lord...

 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, ‘As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.’ Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.’ So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’
She left him there for the Lord. - I Samuel 1:19-28

The story of Hannah is one of the miraculous birth stories of the Bible. Hannah's story is a kind of precursor to that of Elizabeth, Mary's cousin. It's not an exact match, but both were older women, barren all their lives, and both desirous of a child. Being barren was seen as a curse, but I think their desire for a child was not just to eliminate the appearance of that curse but rather a natural desire most women have to nurture and raise a child.

Hannah was the beloved wife of a pious man named Elkanah. Every year they went to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice. There Hannah prayed so fervently that a priest, Eli, who was watching her, accused her of being drunk in a holy place. He did believe her, however, when she explained her predicament and that if God gave her a son, she would give him back to God to live as a Nazirite all his life. Her prayers were answered and her son Samuel was born within the year. She kept him at home until he was weaned which, as was customary then, was about the age of three. Then she took Samuel, some grain and a three-year-old bull calf to Shiloh and presented him to Eli as she had promised.

It must have been a hard thing to do, to let go of a child she had desired for so long. Granted, she could probably visit him every year when they went up to worship, but it's not like having him underfoot and growing before her eyes. Still, she kept her promise and God made Samuel a great prophet. It was Samuel who anointed first Saul and then David to be king of Israel.

Sometimes it is necessary to give up something or someone one loves. Some reasons may be better than others, like giving up unhealthy habits like smoking, but giving up a child? Hannah had a good reason: to keep a promise to God. Some of us can't manage to keep even simple promises we make to God, so what would we do if we had to give up a child in order to keep that promise?

Giving up things is something we usually think about during Lent, but this is still Advent. Most churches have finished their annual pledge drive with reminders that we have a responsibility to return to God some of the treasure we have been given. We have gifts of time, talent and treasure, and we are encouraged to give some of each to God. That can present a sacrifice, but not on par with Hannah's - or Mary's.

The thing is to make sure that whatever we give to the Lord, it is the best that we have or can do. That's what Hannah's gift was, a cherished son. As this Advent comes to its last days, it is not too late to not just be awake and alert, but to find something in our lives that we can give to the Lord. It is not just something we should do, it should be something we want to do.

We have been given blessings, now perhaps it's time to give back to the Lord.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent Day 23, 2015 - ...there is still a vision...

I will stand at my watch-post,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
   make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith. -  Habakkuk 2:1-4

All thorough Advent we have heard the message of "Be awake! Be alert!" We have been preparing for the coming of the Christ Child but we have also been inwardly preparing.  We have been reading, meditating, listening. Hopefully we have been learning to listen to the voice of God through the static and noise of everyday life. It's something we will continue to work on all the days of our lives, but as of  now, we are looking forward to the coming of Christmas and the twelve days of its season.

We have been reading and hearing from prophets speaking to people in exile and also to people who remained at home but who needed to make big changes because they were moving away from God's ways. Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Hezekiah, Amos and others have spoken words of warning but also words of hope. Today, Habakkuk's words speak of both warning and hope in a message that we need to hear today.

Being on guard duty or somewhere else where a person is alone with few distractions make for a time and place for meditation and listening. I used to find my listening space under a big pine tree on the bluff over my river. I still remember the peace and calm I found there, and the feeling that God was sitting there beside me in companionable silence. Even now, when I think of my river and that pine tree, I reconnect to some of that peace and calm, and that connection with God.

Habakkuk was looking for a connection as he watched from the rampart.  What God told him to do was to write what he saw and heard so that even simple people could read it. The important part was that God had a vision that wasn't going to go away. It might not come to fruition right away, but it was still valid and still to come. What was that vision?  Has it come yet?

It's entirely possible that God gave us an idea of the vision with the creation of the world. Everything was lush, beautiful, fruitful and varied.  It was a peaceful world with all needs provided and no inequality anywhere. It was an idyllic life, and best of all, God walked with them in the garden, talking with them like good friends. And then came the fall. Evidently there was the tiniest flaw in the free will, or perhaps the Adversary created a snake to create discord and havoc.

I don't think the vision of God is dead or even impossible. Eden isn't a tropical island in the middle of the ocean or a mountaintop hermitage with vistas that go on forever. Eden is a world with people caring for the earth and for each other. Everyone is a neighbor and no one is cold, hungry, homeless, afraid, exploited, or poor. It's a vision of all the best of and for everyone and every thing. It sounds like a wonderful vision, but it is not here yet. And, at the rate we're going, it may be a very long time coming.

Luckily God has faith in us. That must be so because we keep getting chance after chance to make things better and we keep muffing the job. Yet there is still a vision and it will not go away. The proud will lose and the righteous will continue to live by their faith. It's a good vision. Too bad we don't all share it -- and do something about it.

So, since it is still Advent, let's take this vision for our own. Let's keep awake and aware for ways to make the vision a reality. We haven't been excused from our tour of duty on the rampart yet. And there is still a vision...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent Day 22, 2015 - of the little...

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time

   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the 
   in the majesty of the name of the
Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

   If the Assyrians come into our land
   and tread upon our soil,
we will raise against them seven shepherds
   and eight installed as rulers.
  - Micah 5:2-5

Every now and then I'm amazed and amused by reading, hearing, or singing something I read, heard, or saying at some point in time in my life that I had forgotten. Today the first four lines of the reading began to sing themselves in my mind as I read them. It was a fragment of something I had sung at some at some point, but I could neither remember what, where, or even if there were more to the song than those four lines. Still, they have become my morning earworm.

Bethlehem is a big deal in the Christmas story. It is important for us to bring it up in Advent to prepare the scene, as it were. Actually there were two Bethlehems, so which one was the important one? One was far to the north, on the main trade route, with biblical significance. The one we consider as part of the Christmas story is Bethlehem or Bethlehem Ephrathah, a short way south of Jerusalem. Its importance began  when Jacob buried his beloved Rachael there. Boaz met and married Ruth there, and their great-grandson, David was born there. David became a great king, and his reign was a golden one. While Micah was referring to David and the prophecy, that prophecy has been expanded to include the birth of Jesus.

The very small town of Bethlehem became of huge importance. It was a place where the Star of David and the Star of Bethlehem touched hands separated by centuries. It is still important, although now It is more often heard from as a battleground than a birthplace.

Size does not always dictate importance or power. Compared to the giant Goliath, David must have looked like a child, yet David did what armies had been unable to do. There is an old saying , it isn't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. While this doesn't endorse dogfighting, it does bring up a point that size isn't always a determinant. David certainly had a lot of fight inside.

Our focus during this season and the coming Christmas season is on smallest of human beings, a child. Even in our contemporary society we say that Christmas is for children, and we do what we can to make sure our children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, have a season of wonder and joy and peace. Our charity extends to children of needy families, and so we pick names off Christmas tree and buy presents for a child we don't know but who would not know the joy of Christmas without gifts or even food. It makes us feel good and it does do good for the less fortunate.

It is often children who show adults just what is what. Malala Yousefzi wanted so much to learn and to enable other children, particularly girls, to learn as well. The shots to her head slowed her for a bit but didn't stop her. She continued her campaign for education and won a Nobel Prize the age of 16. Mattie Stepanek was a poet who published five books and was friends with presidents and celebrities befor3e his death at 14 from a form of muscular dystrophy. His poetry, which he called "Heartsongs," still touches those who read his words. There are many, many more children who are gifts to this world but who have  never reached the prominence of Malala or Mattie. There are children who see life is good, and yet there are those whose eyes speak of the unspeakable we adults are so invested in or so accustomed to that we hardly pause when we hear of collateral damage and destruction.

The little child of Bethlehem was born in a time of uneasy peace and impending trouble. He and his parents are become refugees simply because he was a small child who threatened an empire simply by being born. Odd how one of the little can be of such importance. We still have tiny refugees, and sometimes it takes the picture of a small child's body lying in the surf of a beach to remind us that the children suffer for the sins of the adults.

Advent  tells us to be awake, alert, aware, listening, and a spark of light to a world where darkness is not only a time of day. It's an encouragement to look at the small things and the small human beings in our world and to make that world a place worthy to honor the Prince of Peace by making its a new Eden for all human beings.

Size is much less important than intent. Make the intent count.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Day 21 -... You shall be a blessing

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Let your hands be strong—you that have recently been hearing these words from the mouths of the prophets who were present when the foundation was laid for the rebuilding of the temple, the house of the Lord of hosts. For before those days there were no wages for people or for animals, nor was there any safety from the foe for those who went out or came in, and I set them all against one another. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.
 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; do not be afraid. These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord. - Zechariah 8:9-17

I wonder what it would be like to feel as if I were in captivity like the Hebrews. Not necessarily someone in jail, but rather the part of a group relocated forcibly to another location far from home and far from familiar things. I've lived in a small compound in a country far from here that was very different, and it felt rather strange in some ways but yet looking back on it, there was still a sense of "we" and " them." We happened to be light-skinned and light-eyed in a world full of people with darker skin, brown eyes, and black hair. We lived in our little compound, we went shopping at other military bases in the area, and much did everything we could do like movies, bowling and the like surrounded by mostly people like us. It was a bit confining, but we learn to live with it and to take trips away just to see even more different things.

I can look back and see that living in another country, even when an American compound, was a good thing, perhaps even a blessing. I learned what it felt like to be in a minority and very easily picked out of the crowd. I learned what it felt like to be considered rich when in actuality in the United States we would be perhaps at best lower middle-class. We learned to get by without a lot of the things that we do and have here in the States, but, all in all, we learned about the country and the people in which we found ourselves. That was a good thing, yes, a blessing.

The captives to whom Zachariah repeated the words of God were upper-class people professional people, who had a lot more freedom then the perhaps we had. Most of them could go about their daily business ,they could worship in their synagogues, they could shop in their markets, and they can live  much like they did at home. It was a punishment to be sent into exile, but even exile does not have to be uncomfortable.

Zachariah reminded them that God has said that they had been accursed because they didn't follow God's law and not good examples of what God intended for people to be. They really didn't love each other, they didn't speak truth, they didn't make wise judgments, and they kind of pointed fingers at each other and blamed each other for what ever happened.

We run into the same thing today. We are afraid and sometimes distort the truth to suit our particular beliefs and convictions.  Judgments can be bought rather than adjudicated fairly, and we figure out ways to out-do our neighbors in any way we can to make our lives better even at the cost of making matters worse. Most of all, we are a bit slowly on being honest; we may swear to tell the truth or say we believe a certain thing, but behind our backs we have our fingers crossed. All of those things go against what God wants for us but  we keep on doing them just as the captives did.

God promised, though, that Judah and the house of Israel would become a blessing to the world, that they no longer had to be afraid, and that they would be returned to a land that was good and fertile. Now whether the rest of us would be able to achieve such a thing is questionable. We are where we are, at home, and in places familiar and settled. When something good happens we consider it a blessing; when something bad happens it's a curse. We seem to have a lot of curses these days — wars, famine, natural disasters, mass shootings, you name it. What about blessings? 

Maybe it's not where we find them but where we create them. We accept blessings in church at baptism, confirmation, Sunday liturgy, get our animals blessed on Saint Francis' Day,  we get houses, cars, boats, and be bless just about anything that could possibly be blessed be blessed (with the exception of committed relationships between people of the same sex). We're working on that one, though, and we're seeing success in increasing numbers. We can't pat ourselves on the back, though. There's still a long way to go.

God promises that we would be a blessing, but that doesn't mean just standing there making the sign of the cross over a bunch of people, putting a couple of dollars in a tin can or a handing a check to a specific charity. We create blessings by loving our neighbors, being honest, judging wisely and fairly, and speaking the truth. That's not that hard, but as we look about us today, it's beginning to seem less and less apparent. Maybe it's time we had a turnaround.

Advent is a good time to make such a turnaround. Like the captives, we need to serve our time in captivity, so that we actually understand the blessings of living in freedom, in a pleasant land, and in peace and harmony with our neighbors far and near. Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream, but it's what we can do rather than what we can't is important.

Be awake, be alert, be kind, light a candle, bless your neighbor, and become a blessing. It's that simple.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 19, 2015. l

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent Day 20 - ...The Lord will give you a sign...

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. - Isaiah 7:10-14

It's been a long day. I'm tired, and I still have a lot of things I need to get done, but the body is giving me a signal that it has had about enough for the day and it's just about time to go to bed. It's a pretty easily understood signal.

I asked a friend what the first thing was that came to her mind if I said the word "sign". Her response was "Give me a sign" or "Sign here." The same four letters form a single word but with multiple meanings, depending on the context. There are a number of other ways that the word can be used, but one that is important in this Advent season is the sign we are looking for and toward as the season draws closer to its glorious ending.

Prophets spoke of signs and wonders, something very familiar to those who know the gospel of John, but the interpretation of signs and the giving of signs was a prophetic job that needed to be done on a regular basis. They were somewhat like the little red light that comes on in your car when the oil pressure is not right or the gas cap is not tight. We look for signs to tell us what's going on, how to get where were going, or what someone is thinking or feeling.

Prayers ask for signs, like "Lord, give me a sign to let me know what I'm supposed to be doing." One thing we need to do is, if we do pray such a prayer, is to stop and listen for response. We may have to listen for quite a while, but that just tells us that maybe were too busy to have heard what was being said to us

The appearance of the Angel to Mary was a sign that something momentous was going to happen. The young woman in Isaiah's prophecy wasn't foretelling the birth of Jesus, but we've learned to look at it that way. Prophets looked at much closer events and were guided to speak of the immediate present and near future, not something centuries away. Still, the woman and child of whom Isaiah spoke were a sign of something, so the people needed to look for them and find out what was meant by the sign. Just because something was written a long time ago doesn't always mean that it isn't of value to us.

All during advent we been told to be awake, be alert, aware, listening,, and now watch for the sign. Sure, we can look for a sign, like a growing star in the sky, but the star that we see may not be sign we are supposed to see. So how do we know where to look for a sign? That's a difficult question; we need to keep our eyes open as well as our ears, our brains, and our hearts. We don't want to miss the sign, just like we don't want to miss a road sign pointing us in the direction of the destination we wish to reach.

The days of advent are growing fewer, a sign that Christmas is coming. We must look around to, see if there are other signs that we need to pay attention to. The Lord will give us a sign, but we do have to be aware and awake and alert to see that sign, to hear the sign, to recognize the sign.

"The Lord will give you a sign." We just have to look for it.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent Day 19, 2015 - ...A man of God came to me...

There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.’ Then the woman came and told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, “You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.”
 The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. The spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. - Judges 13:2-7, 24-25

Advent is a story of waiting. Every year we think of the  annunciation to Mary, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and ultimately the birth of the Christ Child. It's a miraculous birth, but not the first or even the second in the Bible.
A number of women had what amounted to miraculous births. One of the most famous was Sarah, an elderly woman who had been barren all her life and who was tremendously amused when she overheard her husband Abraham being told that she would bear a son. The man of God who gave that news had the last laugh, although Sarah named her son Isaac, which means laughter. Hannah was barren and was caught praying so intently than a priest thought she was drunk. Her prayers were granted, and she bore a son named Samuel who was one of the great prophets. We remember Elizabeth, who also was elderly and barren, but whose son was born  and named John. And then of course there was Mary, unlike the others, a young and potentially fertile woman who met a man from God and accepted what must have been a puzzling and perhaps frightening assignment.

In today's reading, we hear of Manoah, mother of Sampson, who was given a son and named him Sampson. Manoah raised her son to be a Nazirite, one who was dedicated to God from birth. Nazirites followed a rather strict lifestyle with no wine or alcohol, no unclean foods, and no haircuts. We know where the haircut proscription caused Sampson great trouble, but still, Manoah brought up her son as the man of God told her to do.

We have our own miraculous births these days, few of which seem to involve seeing a man of God. Our miracles are things like in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, or even at-birth adoptions. Still, to parents unable to conceive in the usual way, these truly are miracles. Many would probably say they were gifts straight from God.

One name that priests and preachers used to have used frequently about them was "a man of the cloth" "or" a man of God." It denoted a setting apart of the man for service to God and his fellow human beings. We now have women who are priests and preachers but we have the same feeling of their being sett apart. For most in the Bible, "a man of God" usually referred to one who looked like an angel.

We normally think of angels as humans figures with wings. Every Christmas pageant features a number of children wearing tinsel halos and various forms of wings. Is that really what angels like? Or can they look just like ordinary people dressed in anything from blue jeans to a Brooks Brothers suit, or perhaps from sweatpants to a designer ball gown? I think the answer is that an angel can look like anybody, but they can only truly be identified as angels by their words and actions.

Biblical angels brought good news to desperate women. Modern angels bring good news to the world. They often work quietly in the background but leave things better than before they got there. These angels may be very religious people or even people of almost no religion at all. God uses all kinds of people as angels in the world reaps the benefit.

Sometimes we can recognize these angels who appear in our lives and who offer us peace, comfort, and wisdom. I know myself I have met a goodly number of them. I knew who they were by what they said and did. They were and are truly blessings.

Maybe one thing I need to do this Advent is to look around and see where a holy one comes into my life. Heaven knows, I don't need an announcement of an impending birth at my age, but I could use comfort, peace, and wisdom. Leaving a white feather behind is not necessary to let me know an angel has been there

Look around. You may be surprised at what, or who, you find.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent Day 18, 2015 - The days are surely coming.

 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land. - Jeremiah 23:5-8

Every day when I go to work I open my inbox and see anywhere from 30-180 emails, 98% of which are people wanting me to subscribe to something or buy something. It can be somewhat amusing when it's offers for birth control pills or Viagra (given my age and gender), and sometimes they offer to bring food to my door or the latest gizmo I shouldn't live without.

The ones that bug me, though, are the ones that tell me we are in the last days, that our president won't live out his second term, and that someone or some group is/are trying to take over our country, our government,  our freedoms. Today the group that was targeted was church leaders who ostensibly are attempting to take over the country, so the sender of the emails, "The End Times," reports.  Evidently they read Revelation a bit more literally than I do; I tend to hang on to what Jesus said that not even he knew when the end would be.

That provides a question I hadn't considered -- if God, Jesus and the Spirit are all three persona combined into one, how can one know something the others can't?  I'm glad I'm not a theologian who has to solve that problem; most of us have enough trouble trying understand the Trinity itself. But that's fodder for another day's thinking -- if God doesn't pull the plug on this world before that day comes.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Well, we count off days on the Advent calendar. We are reminded daily of how many days until Christmas in newspaper ads, television and radio commercials, and signs in malls or even internet sites. We count off the days until we celebrate the birth of the son of God, but there's another clock ticking, a clock we can't see and can't anticipate. But are we just supposed to sit around and wait for it without doing anything?  That would be sort of like opening a door on an Advent calendar and not finding a small piece of chocolate or a Bible verse behind  it.

Let's not waste Advent. The days are surely coming when we will regret the time we wasted.  Be awake! Be aware! Listen!  The celebration of the Lord's coming to earth is coming soon but the celebration of the Lord's return is still to come.

We'd better be ready.