Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dust and Vanity

...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.  Ecclesiastes 12:7-8.

Monsoon season in Arizona is almost over.  Normally monsoon season really starts when the dew point reaches 55° for three consecutive days and it ends when the dew point drops. Of course, with the current need for neatness, there's an official opening and closing day totally unrelated to the actual weather.

With the monsoon as they call it (and it's far from a real monsoon such as most of the world knows it), monsoon season brings high winds, occasional, sometimes extremely heavy rain, and dust storms which we call haboobs. With the end of the monsoon season we have probably pretty much seen the last of haboobs, which is a good thing. They're scary, they're extremely dangerous, and people often just aren't patient enough to wait them out, but would rather go plowing through them, which does not promote for general public safety.Ecclesiastes talks about something like the end of the monsoon season when it  talks about dust going back where it came from. Here it doesn't go back, it just stays in its new place.

Those living in the Middle East know dust storms; they live in the desert, and when the wind blows there is very little vegetation to hold down what soil that exists. Consequently it blows, and blows hard enough that it engulfs everything. The sand and dust and dirt get into the tiniest of cracks, it's hard to breathe without something over your face to keep out the particles, and you can't see more than a foot or two in front of you so it's very easy to get lost. Yeah, sounds a lot like Arizona at times during monsoon season; even though haboobs don't come regularly, they still come and cause mayhem, confusion, and a lot of allergies kicking in.

The part of Ecclesiastes that really struck me, besides the part about the dust, was that famous quotation that we hear less frequently than we used to, but still with some regularity, "Vanity of vanities,...all is vanity." In this day and time what the heck does that mean? Vanity? It is so much a part of our culture that we don't really even think about it. Vanity is wanting to one-up the neighbors. If they get a new Lexus, we need to get a BMW, or maybe a Rolls-Royce, or maybe something even fancier. If they had a 54 inch television, we've got to have a 62 or 60. If they where fashion shoes we've got have better ones were in a competitive culture and it's all based on vanity. Like dust from a haboob, it creeps into the tiniest cracks.

Listening to all the gobbledygook and what passes for media coverage of things these days, it's often impossible not to want to the actually act like a turtle and draw one's head in until everything blows over. It has become a consumer culture, which generally means that a lot of the money flows upward but very little of it flows downward words most needed. CEOs of corporations make millions while their employees often work for minimum wage, and even that is begrudged. It's a form of vanity, the vanity of the 1%, while the 99% wait for something to happen and usually go away without much hope.

Vanity is more than looking in a mirror and primping endlessly or constantly checking to make sure our teeth are sparkling white, our ties are straight, and our hair and makeup are perfect. That's a vanity, but so are wearing multi-carat diamonds in rings, necklaces, and earrings, one piece of which would feed a family of five for at least month if not more. Vanity makes us trade in our cars for new ones long before they wear out, rust out, or get wrecked. We are a disposable culture as well as a vain one, and the result is that we have our eyes on the wrong goal. We need to learn to see vanity for what it is, which is something that separates us from God and from each other by putting us on a competitive level instead of one which is accepting and assisting.

I think I'd better keep vanity in mind this week, I'm not so vain that I have to keep checking the mirror. I know that what vanity I have is not in my looks, my dress, my expensive jewelry or my high-class automobile. I have a couple of good pieces of jewelry, but nothing outrageously expensive. My truck is 16 years old, held together by faith, rust, and dirt, but it runs and it's paid for. My vanity is, well, what is my vanity? What am I really vain about? My vocabulary? My ability to listen to people? My pride in what I do, what I write, when or when I do something for someone else without expecting to be noticed or thanked?

For the next week, I'm going to try and find my vanity and then try to find a way to get away from it. It won't be by making myself a doormat or someone who doesn't feel good about themselves because they don't feel they are good enough or even able to do anything well. I'm not going to feed my ego because that would be like standing in a haboob rather take that I am and can do and put it in God's service. Take the vanity that I have and turn it outward so that someone else might be able to benefit.

Care to join me?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 24, 2016.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hildegard of Bingen, Woman of Strength and Wisdom

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.
Don't let yourself forget that God's grace rewards not only those who never slip, but also those who bend and fall. So sing! The song of rejoicing softens hard hearts. It makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Singing summons the Holy Spirit. Happy praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to complete harmony, without discord. Don't stop singing.  -- Hildegard of Bingen

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a knight and his wife. In those days the birth of a daughter meant several things, namely that she would have to be provided with a good dowry if she were to marry well, she could  stay in the house as an unmarried girl and help care for her parents as they aged, or she could become a nun. This little girl grew up in a family where each was expected to do their particular jobs and even the children were taken in hand and taught to help the adults.

At the age of eight she was sent to a monastery to be educated. In those days, some monasteries were called double monasteries, meaning that they housed both nuns and monks although the two groups  were separated most of the time. Monasteries usually took in children to be taught to do work that they would be expected to do when they became adults. For little girls like this one, they learned reading and writing so that they could keep the family accounts when they grew up and were married. They were taught to sew their clothes and to fancy them up a bit with embroidery and gold work. They were taught other things too, such as their catechism, prayers, hymns, and religious duties, under the auspices of the teaching nuns and priests. When the time came, usually in their early to mid teens, they had to make a choice between returning home or remaining at the monastery to take their vows.

At the age of eighteen, this little girl, now a woman, chose the monastery. For twenty years she served her community in the various tasks put before her, and then was elected the is of the monastery. This was not just an ordinary little girl grown up, this was a woman named Hildegard of Bingen, one of the strongest, wisest, most influential people of her century. A very good biography of Hildegard was written by James Kiefer which details many of the skills for which she became so recognized both then and now.

Women have always been a part of the church, a necessary part of the church. Women were the first to have word of the risen Christ. Women were teachers, preachers, and deacons, and probably priests in the early Christian era. Then they were pushed back into a twilight world where they went unrecognized except for a very exceptional few, like Hildegarde.

Kiefer points out that Hildegarde wouldn't have called herself a feminist, even if the word had existed in her lifetime. She was concerned with all people and all creation. What she is, however, is a reminder that strong women have a place and a mission that the world needs to see and recognize. Even today's strong women are still penalized by church, state, and industry simply because they are women. Many of them work quietly, helping one life at a time, but without recognition or often remuneration commensurate with their work.  Hildegard could and did influence political leaders and even the Pope. We also have such women, some of whom are vilified even as they strive to do what it is God is calling them to do.

Perhaps now it's time for another Hildegard to come forward, if we will just listen and look and try to  find her. Perhaps it is one of us, one who has not been given visions for the gift of music or eloquence in preaching but one who has a mission and a calling, one who combines talents and gifts and abilities that could help make the world a better place for all.

Hildegard was a visionary, an artist, a musician, an eloquent writer and preacher, a wise counselor, and a servant of God above all. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we women of today had someone like her that we could look up to and strive to emulate?  What if we do have one--or a thousand? Are we looking for them, acknowledging them, and seeing the good they are doing in the world?

More than just seeing, are we helping others? Are we looking to the gifts of the earth for things that could heal or comfort? Are we listening for the music of visionaries and those who seek to lift our hearts to God in offering and supplication? Are we using art to show a better world? Are we writing to encourage others, to inform them of important issues, or even to encourage them to make good choices in areas that effect hundreds of thousands?

Is there a little Hildegard in any of us? Time to look inside and see if a tiny bit of her spirit and her dedication are present in me. I don't want to be a saint, but I wouldn't mind being strong, open, and wise.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 17, 2016.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Saints with feet of clay

Last weekend marked an occasion that we don't see all that often these days: Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a bona fide saint. During her lifetime many people had called her "the Living Saint", but her actual assumption of the title only occurred 19 years after her death. It's been interesting to see the reactions both positive and negative, and for some it's been a joyful and holy event, while for others it is an immensely hurtful and deeply disturbing. Isn't it funny how one could perceive Saints as hurtful?

Mother Teresa was famous for her work in Kolkata (Calcutta) neighborhoods where poverty was everywhere and abundance was nowhere. She set up houses where people could come to die, or to try to be healed, with limited food, water, and medications. Mother Teresa and her nuns were not doctors or nurses, but they cared for the "poorest of the poor," as Mother Teresa called them. So what's wrong with that? How would that be troublesome for people who opposed her sainthood?

Like Fr. Junipero Serra, Mother Teresa raise some controversy. Fr. Serra was credited with establishing an entire chain of Roman Catholic churches and communities along the California coast. The pain and trouble that he caused was that he treated the Native Americans very badly and as slaves, and it still rankles despite the passage of the years. With Mother Teresa, it was a matter of practicing her religion and enforcing her religious beliefs on those who came to her for help. She followed the Catholic teaching in a land where overpopulation, poor maternal health care, and demands poverty existed. Is it wrong to follow one's beliefs? No, it isn't, unless, in my very humble opinion, it stops on the religious beliefs of others especially the needy others. It demands an asceticism where poverty and its results are already flourishing.

It's easy to forget that these people, Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa, were both human beings. They weren't plaster saints that were placed on pedestals and who never set foot on the ground again. According to a book of her diary writings, compiled and published by a close associate of Mother Teresa, for many years of her life she felt estranged from God but plugged on acting in faith as if she believed that God was there and taking interest. As St. John of the Cross called it, it was hard "dark night of the soul", the time when she was at her lowest point in her faith life, but chose to proceed in strength and, as our twelve-step brothers and sisters call it, "act as if".

I know that we are taught in church that by baptism we all become saints. With All Saints Day coming up in another two months, we celebrate that sainthood of believers. We don't undergo canonization, although we did undergo baptism. Baptism may have washed away our sins, but that didn't that us from going out and plowing the field for a whole new crop of sins that the we might or might not harvest. The same is true of Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa. They had their flaws, they had their faults, they had their foibles, foibles that to us would seem unimportant or maybe even unrealistic.
I don't know of Mother Teresa ever really planned on becoming a saint. I kind of doubt it. Does anybody really set out with the intention of becoming a recognized Saint throughout the church? For one thing, it's a pretty hard job; it requires really working at being a saint. The candidate must  live a saintly life. That doesn't necessarily mean they walk around with a Bible or prayer beads in their hand, their mouths moving constantly as if they were praying, preaching endlessly on street corners, or walking barefoot through the desert full of cactus spines while denying oneself the major comforts of life which we, as ordinary human beings, seem to recognize as our light. Being a saint involves doing things, quiet things. Mother Teresa had to do a lot of work under the scrutiny of cameras and adoring admirers. It's hard to be quietly saint-like with all that media exposure.

I saw a picture the other day of her feet which were gnarled and misshapen because, as one of her nuns reported, when they got a donation of shoes, she would pick the most uncomfortable pair and wear them herself. Now that's pretty saintly thing to do, in my very humble opinion. But she never said anything about it; saints usually don't. They offer their little struggles and their good deeds to God, not caring if anybody noticed them or not. That's the secret of being a saint:. doing good without bragging about it. It's something we have a hard time doing.

So where can I begin my journey to sainthood? Oh, I know canonization would be out of the question; there's absolutely no shred of doubt in my mind about that. But what I'm thinking about is seeing the little deeds that I could do quietly. Again, in the twelve-step tradition, there is one saying that " Just for today I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. If anyone knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least one thing I don't want to do, and I will perform some small act of love for my neighbor."*

 It takes tiny seeds to grow big trees. It takes small good deeds to start changing the world, just as Jesus said we needed to do.

So, where to start becoming the saint. or saintly person? Start small and work upward.

* from EA Meeting Opening Readings, accessed 9/6/16.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 10, 2016.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Surprise of Silence

It's a very quiet morning. There's some roadwork going on near the house and part of the roadwork involves removing two transformers and placing them elsewhere. So, for today, the power is off, and so are any instruments of sound like a radio or television. It's not unexpected, but the feelings that are brought up by the unexpected silence I'm finding a rather interesting.

I can still hear cars going up and down the street right in front of my house, a little distant from where the actual work is going on, and now and then I hear someone yelling at someone else, probably instructions from the construction crew. I also hear someone hammering nails into wood, although I don't know where it's coming from. It doesn't bother me at all. The cats are either sleeping or dozing, which is a good thing, since part of the silence is the lack of the air conditioner kicking in periodically. It might be a very long day. 

I've come to realize how my life is invaded by sound. I have the radio on all night to help block out some of the local noises, like someone's distant radio with the subwoofers turned up to maximum, or the occasional cat discussion outside the window. Even my own boys are sometimes, either getting into trouble by knocking things off my desk for having a sibling rivalry that occasionally becomes very vocal. During the day I have either the radio or the television on, mostly for background noise, and it serves its purpose. It also reminds me of working in the office, when I couldn't always block out sounds that I really didn't want to hear but had no other option.
I think about the hermits that used to go out in the desert as solitaries or in silent groups in order to increase their closeness to God. It was a well-respected profession at that time, but we seldom hear of people doing it today. There are retreat centers where people can go and do silent retreats, and, after a bit of what almost amounts to culture shock, it can be a very intense and very comforting situation.

A college roommate and I tried an experiment where we decided to go for a whole week without speaking to anyone unless absolutely necessary. I remember one day after we had been at it for a day or two. We both noticed that sounds had a variety and clarity that we hadn't really paid attention to before. It was rather strange but yet surprising insight that we became aware of how much we normally talked about absolutely nothing important, but just for the sake of having something to say and someone to respond to it.

I remember as a middle elementary school kid, taking my little white King James Bible over to the monument grounds on a high bluff over the river. I would go just over the brow of the hill underneath a big pine tree, and sit there, read Psalms, and just listen to the sound of the wind through the needles, and, occasionally, the sounds of waves on the beach. That was my time with God. I wonder why I lost the peace and serenity of doing that? 

We don't seem to recognize the value of silence. We are afraid of it. Silence means that nothing is going on as far as we're concerned. We have to have something to distract us from that dis-ease that comes to us when we notice that there is no sound around us. It's odd, but it's like we're afraid of silence, afraid of what we might find in that silence, and afraid of an emptiness that suddenly surrounds us and makes us feel inadequate.

Silence allows a time for God to be heard, or felt, or experienced in some way. If we are aware of the silence and we cultivate it, we are allowing God free access, something we often ignore or are too busy to take the time to actually allow.

Even in church there is seldom silence except during Holy Week and even then there's little silence. In church the longest silence is usually one or two minutes between the sermon and the recitation of the Creed. People get uncomfortable during that minute or two. A short period of time of silence  makes some of them edgy. They shuffle or squirm in their seats, look at the next page in the bulletin, or are involved in some motion including whispering something to the person sitting next to them. Silence doesn't always do what silence can do if allowed and if people could just sit back, breathe deeply and let the silence in.

I wonder what would happen if periodically I turned everything off — the radio, the television, the computer, the cell phone, all the mechanical devices that make noise of any kind, and just sat and looked at the leaves of the tree outside my living room window, or enjoyed the sight of one of the boys peering out the window and studying it very closely. I wonder what it would be like to do that regularly, no matter what I have to postpone doing for a little while as I just sit and savor the silence 

Maybe I've been too busy lately to let God in with silence. There's that time after I go to bed, said my prayers and snuggled down, but I'm not asleep yet. I'm not saying anything but I'm still hearing sounds especially radio playing classical music which soothes me. I wonder is that enough silence?

Sounds like I need to investigate a new meditation practice in my everyday life. Maybe I need to cultivate silence, and let God talk to me instead of me holding the floor on conversation. It's an intriguing thought. I wonder what insights I would get and maybe find out what God has planned for me to do. I've been wondering, but maybe I just haven't let God have a chance to let me know about it.

Now's my chance. How about you? When can you take some silent time and just let God get a word in edge wise?