Sunday, August 28, 2016

Life as a Capillary

Do you ever get something running through your head that just won't give up? It's like having an earworm, one of those annoying tunes that seems to play over and over and over again until you are so thoroughly sick of it you never want to hear it again and yet it continues to play. 

Today I had something like that, only it was a bit different. I was sitting at my desk, trying to read on my computer monitor with two cats who insisted on being between me and the screen, and to take notes for an online class that I am taking. The subject was the circulatory system, which, God knows, has umpteen million arteries, veins, capillaries, and the like. Of course, then you have to learn the structures that make up these things and their position in the circulatory system. Unlike some friends of mine, I'm learning a foreign language, or rather relearning a foreign language, and a lot of detail I haven't thought about in probably half a century.

So, as I went systematically (no pun intended) from the coronary arteries to the digital (finger-type, not numerical-type) veins, I had to remember that there are a lot of other parts that make the veins and arteries work. Without the heart, the circulatory vessels are useless because there is nothing for them to do. Without the vessels, the heart can't send the blood where it needs to go to keep the muscles and organs and various pieces and parts working together to keep us alive. 

Capillaries are the smallest vessels in the circulatory system and it is they who feed the oxygen-enriched blood to and remove the waste from individual cells and areas to be sent back to the heart and then out for cleaning. They're tiny enough to fit in very small spaces where individual cells need the support and yet large enough to join together with arteries and veins and keep everything flowing smoothly and as it should. 

The thought that kept running through my head was the scripture where Paul talks about the body having many members, meaning many parts that make it work. Paul was acquainted with the obvious parts of the body, but probably had very little anatomical knowledge of how things worked or even the presence of some organs, muscles, and the like. Still he got the point across, "For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body…" (1 Corinthians 12:12).

It reminded me of a time when we were talking about that particular verse, and I remember asking group members what parts of the body did they see themselves as being. Got some interesting answers on that one, everything from eyes to hands to feet and a few things in between. When my turn came, I announced I wanted to be a capillary because even though capillaries are very small and pretty much invisible, they serve the cells around them as other, larger vessels cannot do. A person can live without an eye, or hand, or foot, even a kidney or reproductive organ, but the body still needs the tiny structures to work efficiently. It's a humble, but necessary, job.

Paul equated parts of the body with abilities, talents, and spiritual gifts. He made the point that if the body were nothing but eyes, it couldn't function because it was be lacking other necessary parts to keep it fed, mobile, and healthy. If the body were all arms or legs but didn't have a brain, the arms and legs would just hang, doing nothing. While there are some parts we can do without, optimally the body is formed and populated by the precise number of cells, organs, muscles, and systems so that it functions efficiently and well.

Paul, of course, was speaking of the church as a body, and its people as the arms, legs, eyes, ears, and the whole bit. Each person, like each part of the body, has its own strengths and weaknesses, abilities and lack of abilities, duties to perform, and all dependent on the gifts they have been given and their willingness and ability to do those duties. It's easy to say, "I can't do that, so I'm no use to the church." Even if the job given is an ability to sweep the floor so thoroughly that not a bit of dust remains, the church still needs that kind of person, that kind of body part to make it work. We can't all the priests, preachers, financial advisers, Sunday school teachers, or even musicians, but there is always a place where our particular part of the body can work for the good of the whole.

So think about it. What's your job in the body of Christ? What body part when you say you were and why? Knowing there is room for all different kinds of body parts in the church and in the body of Christ, what is preventing you from claiming your job, your calling, and your duty?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 27, 2016, under the title "Are You a Capillary?"

Sunday, August 21, 2016


In His discourses, His miracles, His parables, His sufferings, His resurrection, He gradually raises the pedestal of His humanity before the world, but under a cover, until the shaft reaches from the grave to the heavens, when He lifts the curtain, and displays the figure of a man on a throne, for the worship of the universe; and clothing His church with His own power, He authorizes it to baptize and to preach remission of sins in His own name. - Edward Thomson, (1810-1870) Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1864-1870)

We seem to live in a world of idols. We appear to enjoy building people up, putting them on pedestals, in a sense. Then we take equal or even more joy out of tearing them down. A prominent politician has an affair, and all of a sudden his pedestal disappears and people begin to vilify him. A well-known minister is convicted (or possibly even just accused ) of being guilty of mismanagement and fraud, and all of a sudden the grand column on which he had been put becomes rubble under his feet. Movie stars? People can only handle other peoples' sins for so long before they to start to dissolve the pillar.

Even Jesus had his would-be pedestal-builders. Take Peter, for instance. During the time we call the Transfiguration, Jesus suddenly changed from a human being, pretty ordinary-looking, to one with a dazzling white robe and along with him two other figures, equally dazzling. Recognizing Elijah and Moses standing on either side of Jesus, Peter, James, and John were totally awed, Peter most of all. He asked Jesus to allow them to build three booths, one for each of the glowing figures. The booths represented a desire to stay so close to the site of the miraculous event, but it was also a desire to create a kind of pedestal for those whom they held in awe and reverence.

There are many who we could say we put on pedestals, some quite worthy of those honors, but not all of them. Often we find the people we raise up are just as, if not more flawed than, we are. In this time of political campaigning, each candidate is clambering up on the pedestal their supporters build for them, then the candidates (and their supporters) try their best to knock the opponent off. Sometimes it isn't hard; things come to light in a political fight. Sometimes, though, lies, innuendoes, even irrational comments can do the same thing without any help at all. Still, the pedestals keep getting rebuilt, and the slugfest continues until it all ends in one emerging the winner. Happening every four years, this should almost be an Olympic sport.

The lesson I think we are to learn from Peter's enthusiasm is that shrines may be nice, but they are also very impermanent. Jesus built his own pedestal by who and what he was; he didn't need someone else to do it for him. His pedestal lasted because it was built on truth and grace, not someone else's opinion or perception.

What lasts for us is the example of the ones who live for others rather than just themselves. Even though they may be flawed human beings, they can still be capable of righteous lives, deserving of honor but not total adoration. Even the most flawed can be remembered in this way. As Shakespeare said in Cassius' speech over the body of Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." While we remember the saints, we sometimes remember the sinners more easily.

Most of us hope we will never get put on display. For us, standing on a chair to change a light bulb is risky enough, but being put on a marble base out where people can see us and either throw flowers or stones, depending on how they perceive us, is a little too risky. Pedestals are unnecessary and often cause us to fall further than we might have otherwise.

Thank goodness no one will ever put me on a pedestal. The perceived honor is too hard to live up to. Jesus reminds us to look to him and how much the world needs to emulate him. It is also a reminder of how little we need our individual pedestals. Being on a pedestal won't get you to heaven, any more than you can collect Workmen's Comp because you fall off  a pedestal--unless you work at a museum.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 13, 2016.

Seeking Knowledge

There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love. - Bernard of Clairvaux

One of the things that I remember growing up is spending Sunday afternoons visiting relatives. My adoptive father was part of a large family, and although they were not spring chickens, a number of those family members were still alive and functioning, mostly as farmers. We would visit Aunt Edie and Uncle Olin which I loved because they had a huge front yard to run around in and lots of big, thick, catalogs to thumb through and drool over.

After Uncle Olin died, Aunt Edie continued to work the farm. She hired a man to take care of the crops, but she made her own butter, jams and preserves, and canned vegetables she grew in her truck garden. She took care of herself, and never missed a Sunday at Beech Grove Baptist, the church she had attended as a child and in whose graveyard Uncle Olin and so many other family members were buried.

One day I noticed that she had expanded her book shelf with textbooks of various types. Now, as much as I disliked homework, there was something interesting about her textbooks. During our visits I would read some of her texts and we would talk about them. Aunt Edie had left school before graduating to marry Uncle Olin, and now, in her mid-60s or so, she decided she needed to finish by taking correspondence courses. It took a long time, but she made it. Then she began more correspondence courses to become someone who could help look after homebound and chronically ill people in her community.

Looking at quotes by Bernard of Clairvaux, whose commemoration is today, I ran across the one about seeking knowledge and Aunt Edie immediately came to mind. It took a lot of courage and perseverance for her to spend those years studying. She even took geometry, a course I was always too afraid to take, and passed with flying colors even though she hated the class. The farm wife of so many years learned what she needed to know to be certified to fill what she saw as a need and, I think, found fulfillment in the process.

Bernard's three kinds of knowledge-seeking rather sums up why people like Aunt Edie and millions of other people continue learning. Those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge are most likely those who want to know more and more about something that fascinates them and about which they are passionate. I may be presumptuous, but someone like Stephen Hawking appears to me to be of this first type. What is beyond what we can see now? How does it work? What effect does this have on us and the universes around us? It has brought him fame and worldwide acclaim for continuing to expand our own thinking and ability to travel toward these new concepts while himself being confined to a wheelchair, an artificial voice, and the exquisite workings of his own mind.

There are some people who seek knowledge in order to gain recognition for being the best in the world in their particular subject. Granted, curiosity played its part in their search for knowledge, but even someone who is a world-renowned specialist in even the tiniest realm of knowledge probably takes pride in that accolade. They revel in being called by an academic or professional title; it is a form of vanity. It may serve a purpose for the person wearing the title, but does not necessarily do the same for anyone else.

Then there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve. They don't have to be world-renowned renowned experts at any one particular thing or even the best at their job in whatever subject or occupation they choose to pursue. These people have dreams that drive them to serve others in any of them hundred thousand different ways. Nurses and doctors, priests and deacons, professors and kindergarten teachers even the guy with best auto fix-it shop in town serve people who are in need through their knowledge and skill and a lot of dedication.

I can see Aunt Edie in that third category, sitting at the dining room table with her book, pencil, and paper, working to learn how to be not just a helping hand but a person with skill and knowledge to help someone else have a better life. I'm sure she'd be surprised that I think of her that way, because I'm sure she never saw herself in that light.

That image is driving me to take up a profession that will, hopefully, make my life better through assisting medical professionals make their patients lives better. I will never be the best in the world, nor will I ever be able to know everything there is to know about the subject, but that's okay. I will study hard in order to do the best that I can for those I serve, even in the humblest of ways.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Me? A Minister?

Education for Ministry (EfM)  is a four-year program of theological education designed for the laity, a kind of seminary for people who want to know more than maybe a Bible study could provide, but who do not feel a call to be ordained. Not only is there in-depth study of the Old and New Testaments, but also Church History and theology, the study of God. It is also a spiritual program in which learning to think theologically and to recognize the opportunity to be a minister, a person of service to others is preeminent. We are all intended and commissioned to be ministers through our baptismal covenant, and reaffirmed by our confirmation or reaffirmations. In those covenants we commit to live lives outlined by the vows, and that includes ministry.

One of my yearly joys is attending the three-day training session to recertify me to mentor for the EfM. With that learning and the recertification, I will be back to my groups fall and give them tastes of what I've experienced and hopefully help them learn to see their own ministries more clearly.

The hardest things for a lot of people both in and out of EFM to understand is that ministry is not limited to those people who are ordained or have specific jobs within the church, like the Sunday school teacher, organist/choirmaster, altar guild, or the vestry. Ministry is what we do when we go out into the world just as much as we do more within the walls of the church. It is counterintuitive to think that at the job in which we are engaged every day could be seen as a ministry but it can present that challenge. The opportunity for ministry comes when there is a challenge we see, hear, or experience, and the ministry is when we respond. Often we do it almost without thinking, just simply responding to a need, but that doesn't diminish the ministry at all. It's a Christ-like moment.

EfM teaches us to look at the world through the eyes of a Christian, a word that means "Little Christ." We learn through practice and reflection to be more open to God and to our fellow human beings. We learn that there are three kinds of ministry, as identified by Charles Winters: Ministry to the church, ministry in the church, and ministry of the church.* 

Ministry to the church applies to both the ordained and some lay persons. It includes the clergy- and lay-involvement in things such as worship, teaching, governance, and maintenance. It serves to care for the fabric of the church as well as ensure the proper things are done at the proper time in the proper way as described in the church constitution and the parish mission statement.

Ministry in the church is what we call "pastoral care." It contributes to the support and guidance of the congregation, and is done by both clergy (counseling, sacraments, etc., by virtue of their ordination).) and lay leaders (like Eucharistic ministers who are directed by the clergy to do certain ministries in the name of the church).

Ministry of the church is the calling of all of us to participate in the mission of the church by going out into the world and being Chris's hands and voice. Our baptismal and confirmation/reaffirmation covenants and vows make it part of our duty as Christians to participate in bringing Christ's message to the world, whether by evangelism or a work of mercy.

Winters also had a really profound thought in this paragraph from the same source::
It is equally difficult for many of us to realize that this ministry is not an elective. That is, it is not something that we do now and then. it is not even necessarily the good and redemptive things we do. It is the entire post-baptismal life, good and bad. At our baptisms we were made members of Christ. We are his hands, arms, legs, feet, mouth. Inescapably! At all times! In all places!

It is part of the job of EfM to help people learn what ministry is, how to do it, and to understand that it is part of what we are called to do, whether or not we hear a voice from heaven or just feel some sort of burning passion to help resolve something that is cracked or broken and needs to change. People can find their missions and ministries without EfM. Thousands do it every day, but thousands also have EfM to help with the process. In community we learn to look at life through different lenses than we had before, and also to be more aware of even small things that we can do to make Christ's message known, even, as St. Francis put it, if we sometimes have to use words.

I hope what I've learned from this training seminar will help those in my groups to be able to identify and understand their places in the world, their ministries, and their passions. I think it has helped me to see the things I do in life that I never thought about as ministries in a new way. I'm looking forward to finding out what other things I can learn -- with the help of those in my groups for whom I act as both mentor and fellow learner. That's the great thing about EfM. We all learn from each other, and we never have to have all the answers; sometimes ambiguity can be a very good thing. We just learn to trust God to set us straight on the crooked path we call life.

I'm learning to answer the question, "Me? A minister?" in the affirmative. On reflection, it really isn't that hard. Give it a try.

*"Three Kinds of Ministry" by Charles Winters; handout from Education for Ministry.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 6, 2016.