Sunday, June 25, 2017

Hotter'n Hell.....

The official announcement is out. There are 26 weeks or 185 days to go until Christmas. This is a public service announcement brought to you by — well never mind. Most people don't want to think about Christmas yet; after all, it's only the day after the first day of summer.
Here in the Phoenix area, where summer temperatures hover between and 105° and 115° generally,  sometimes lower,  sometimes higher. This week it has been considerably higher, and wasn't even the hottest place in the country. Still, three days of being over 117° and at least one or two of them being up over 120°, is it any wonder that I think fondly of Thanksgiving and Christmas when I can go outside without immediately bursting into sweat and finding it hard to breathe, or when the breeze feels like someone left the blast furnace door open?

The joke with my back-home family and friends is that  if any of my nephew-in-law's congregation (he's a preacher) didn't seem to want to follow the right path, if you get what I mean, that they should send them out to Arizona where they could get a taste of Hell before it actually happened to them. It might turn them around. Frankly, after living here, I want no part of Hell -- this one or that one.

 It's taken me a long time to learn to see the God that I was taught loved people but hated sinners, was really a God who loved people. Period. It didn't seem fair that even though, as a baptized person, making mistakes would cancel that out and send me to hell. A hard lesson for a child to hear, especially when one had relatives who probably weren't baptized and thus candidates for the inferno. They were loved, but without that baptism punch card, would they actually go to Hell? What about infants who died at birth or not long after? I never really got an answer I could count on.
The Jewish tradition refers to a place called Sheol. It was a place of the dead where they went and slept after death, but  there was no mention or intention of a fiery place that they would be spending eternity. In New Testament times, Sheol got mixed up with Gehenna which was a place where fires burned continually,  usually burning trash but occasionally bodies I imagine. In the traditional Apostles' Creed, it referenced that Jesus "descended into hell," but that has been changed to "descended to the dead." Somehow that's a little easier for me to accept. The word "Hell" has become like a wound that doesn't totally heal;  it doesn't take much to knock the scab off and the pain and burning sensation to begin all over again.

The first time I heard anyone say that they felt that the love of God was so inclusive and so broad and wide and deep that Hell would be empty because God wouldn't send anyone to Hell.  All were God's people, no matter what. All of them had the God-spark in them and God would not willingly send a part of God's self to Hell, right? It took me a while to think that one out, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it made sense or, at least, sense that I could accept and wrap my mind around. I remember that as  a child, we were taught that Jesus loves me like the old song said. We learned that from our earliest days in Sunday school. Then we got upstairs to "Big Church" we learned that God hated sinners  and that we were all sinners. Who and what to believe?
As a child it was easy to accept this because adults told us this was what it was, and we were taught to believe what adults told us without questioning. But as I got older it made less and less sense. Of course what God wants is for us to be good people and to do all the things that God wanted us to do, like  care of each other, love each other, help each other, and all the other things that would make for the kingdom of God on earth.
 But then someone would point out that surely Hitler would not be allowed into heaven, or the latest serial killer, or the tyrant who created genocides. Certainly God wouldn't want those people in heaven, no way! It was hard to believe that God is so in love with humanity that even Hitler or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or any person that committed atrocities would be welcome along with people like Mother Teresa or Harriet Tubman or J.S Bach. It doesn't seem that those evil people should receive the same treatment as the people who had honestly tried to be and do good, but then we get into that question of how much love does God have? Is there only a certain amount of love to go around and it stops at the Hitlers and what have you? Or does God mourn the wrongness of direction of some lives but still loves the God-spark in each even though it has been banked and put behind dark shades. It takes a little more thinking.

Back home we used to have a saying that when the temperature got up in the 90s and the humidity was right around the same mark, it was, "hotter'n Hell." In Arizona we can have the same feeling when the temperature gets up past a certain point and when the humidity rises, it feels, "hotter than Hell." I wonder --  Is Hell more like a blast furnace or the surface of the sun, some other kind of more than extreme heat? Would that be the kind of place God would put a child that God had created or breathed life into? How hot is hotter than Hell?

We are all children of God and deserving of the love that God offers us. Think about it. There's a tiny bit of God in each of us and God loves us. 
So there we are. I'm looking forward to days when it doesn't feel like the moisture is being pulled out as if by a suction more powerful than a vacuum, but rather as a pleasant weather. Thoughts of the fires of Hell will have an adjustable scale it seems -- what's chilly to one is pleasant to another, and what's unbearably hot to that other  is merely an inconvenience to someone else. I'll still say it's hotter'n Hell if the temperature gets above 115°, but this week I think I will try to maintain the right kind of thoughts about Hell and think of how it can be interpreted. I think I will still believe that Hell's going to be a very empty place. YMMV.
God bless -- and keep cool.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 24, 2017.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

An Image of Community

I think everybody has images that live in their minds and that surface now and again at various times. I know I have been at weddings which brought to my mind images of other weddings, and also mental pictures of events that occurred even before I was born but which have become iconic in their impact on the world.

Images are pictures, whether they are seen with the eyes like photographs or news reports or even personal experiences, or mental pictures that have been set in the mind through reading or hearing a storyteller. The vivid ones are often the visual kind, like pictures of war, natural disaster, or some other media reporting of events. I never witnessed personally the horror of Auschwitz or the sight of the mushroom-shaped cloud of a nuclear test on the island of Bimini, but I know what they look like because I have seen the images of them so often. I've seen photographs of volcanic ash falling in the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo erupted. I seen videos of tsunamis and also the subsequent damage that have been caused by the monstrous waves. I also have mental images of things that I have seen, whether in a live broadcast or even being present when something horrible happened.

This past week has been horrible, what with shootings and violence and even unnatural disasters. The image that sticks in my mind most clearly is that of an apartment complex in London, a 24 story building blazing like a torch in the English night sky. I don't know if they have completely determined how many were injured or died because of this disaster, but I know that a community was fractured.

In addition to the brave firefighters and emergency workers, the people of Grenfell Tower witnessed heroism from members of its own community. Among many heroes of this disaster were some Muslims who were eating their last meal of the day in observance of Ramadan. It was very early in the morning, long before sunup, but they were awake and noticed something was wrong. It became apparent that there was a fire, and instead of running for the exits to remove themselves from danger, they ran from door to door, knocking and banging to awaken people to the danger. They guided them to safe exits. They put themselves in danger to save members of their own community, the other tenants of the building who were from many cultures, spoke many languages, but who felt themselves to be a community.

The disaster wasn't over simply when as many had gotten out as was possible. The survivors huddled outside, dazed, confused, some injured, and all afraid as they watch their homes go up in flames with all their possessions inside. But another community came to their aid, the larger community surrounding Grenfell Tower. Churches, schools, and many buildings opened and set up places where emergency workers  and survivors could find a bracing cup of tea, a blanket for the shivering of shock, or even a safe place to lay sleeping children.  It's not uncommon for things like this to happen, this community response to need in a disaster. Even those who have little bring what they can to help those who suddenly are so much worse off than they themselves. It's an example of "love your neighbor" which is a tenet most religions and cultures have at their base even if the words are not exactly the same. In order to be a community there has to be love and care for all the people of the community, not just a few.

Marianne Williamson once said, "In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it." Grenfell Tower with merely the most recent example of work being done, wounds being healed and people finding the power to help. In our Christian faith, we would call this loving our neighbor, and it's a concept where Jesus was quite positive in his insistence that this meant more than just words. Jesus meant actions as well as words, and didn't specify that the neighbor would be only someone of the same culture, ethnicity, religion, or any other group that might be different from that of the disciples or the people of Galilee and Israel.

People come together in times of trouble, and that's a very good thing; it just seems to be that when there are no disasters or mass casualty events, many seem to think first of themselves and perhaps later they can think about other people. People of the area surrounding Grenfell Tower were not rich although some had more than others, were not necessarily more religious than others, or even of a higher status than others. They were people who, whether or not they had ever heard the expression "love your neighbor as yourself", exemplified that very thing. I think Jesus smiled that day, even as he wept for the dead and dying and for all those impacted in whatever way.

The image of that burning tower will be with me for a long time. Yes, it's a great tragedy, and the worst part is that very possibly it could have been prevented or even mitigated had the proper precautions and equipment been in place. Still, to me anyway, it shows  a picture of hope and an example of community at its weakest moment yet with the strength of the community growing each time a survivor was helped or a neighbor offered assistance. They say pictures are worth 1,000 words, and the images of the fire and of the community efforts at the time of that disaster are to me images of the lessons of the gospel and the will of God.

My prayers are with all those affected in any way by this event, the dispossessed and those who came to their aid. I pray I can be such a community member not just if and when disaster strikes but every day, even in the smallest of ways. And this image will join the others in my mind, to be brought out and remembered for the lessons it teaches.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 17, 2017.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Just 2 cents' worth

Mark 12:38-44

Another week is over and we prepare for the beginning of the next week. The news that been considerably better this week, with more terrorist acts, and more doublespeak from various official mouthpieces, and more unrest due to fear and anger. There are times when it almost a relief to sit down and read the readings for the day. The Eucharistic readings were kind of a starter for what I needed to think about today.

The story comes from Mark, who wrote fairly simply and clearly the things that he remembered from Jesus's teachings. Mark, the oldest of the Gospels,  seems to bring up themes developed in the later Gospels. Good old Mark, he just tells the story and lets the imagination draw the picture.

Mark was evidently present when Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem on this occasion.  There were numerous people there, moving about, going from place to place for whatever reason.  Jesus noted the scribes who, because they really didn't do manual work, wore long dresses. Their jobs were to keep track of the intake in the treasury, do long prayers (mostly for appearance's sake), also to,  as Jesus said, "...devour widow's houses." Jesus did not have a very high opinion of such ostentation and such hypocrisy. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last, where those who had high positions and who definitely did not let the rest of the world forget it, were the object of Jesus' teaching of how not to live.

There was one small woman though that caught Jesus's eye. he may not have been an old lady, but she was a widow and seemingly had very little means of support. Lots of people came in and dropped off large sums of money, making sure that others saw the size of their contribution, but the widow kind of crept in, trying not to be seen as she dropped in two very small, meager coins before slipping away hopefully unseen.

The thing was, Jesus saw her and called his disciples' attention to what had just happened. The widow had put in a far greater proportion of her income than any of the wealthy benefactors who were ostentatiously in their giving that really represented only a part (often a small one) of their wealth. It looked good, and enhanced their standing among those who saw them. We learn from Jesus that the  woman's contribution was greater in the sight of God's in anyone else's could be. She gave all that she had, not just a part of it.

This really is a story for today, featuring the two poles of the financial world where there are the very rich and there are the very poor. I can't remember who said it, but a well-known saying is "God must love the poor (or the common man), because He made so many of them." We talk about  the highest income people in the land representing 1% of the population. The other 99% fall somewhere below that, and more and more are sinking past the middle class and into the working poor or even the homeless and unemployed.

We look and we see them with their bottles of beer or Bourbon, with their cigarettes and marijuana, sometimes with drug drugs set out before them  and we think that these are the dregs of the world, people who, if they get two cents will spend it on some sort of self-medication, and it's true. I know if I were living on the street, had no access to clean water to wash my clothes, or without a roof over my head, or even knowing where my next meal was going to come from, I might also resort to such a self-medication program. We don't know that the widow was homeless. Very probably not, because even if very poor, people generally had someone in the family who would take them in and care for them. Too bad we don't have that much Christian grace today.

I often think about the old expression, "Putting my two cents' worth in," the saying that conveys the idea that the opinion being expressed probably is not worth very much, but the person wants to be heard anyway. Sometimes the greatest thoughts have come out of a two cent expression or sentence or thought.

A lot of people do not vote or contact their elected representatives to express their concerns and their desires because they think their two cents isn't going to make any difference. You can't get much with two cents. It used to buy a couple of pieces of penny candy or bubblegum, but good luck finding that now. Two cents will not buy anything, but if we have spare pennies, sometimes we will throw them into a jar on the store counter, in the collection plates,  or  an alms box. It makes our pockets lighter but without any significant impact on our personal income or financial position.

Thing is, though, if 50 people put in their two cents, there would be a dollar for whatever the cause. Sometimes someone putting their two cents worth in at a community meeting, town hall, or even a rally will somehow start an avalanche of support, including more pennies and people being motivated to actually do something instead of just thinking about how we could solve the worlds problems. Sometimes all it takes is two cents, and who knows, it would make a great testimonial to the faith of that widow who probably felt shamed that she could not give more but who gave her all, just as God wanted. God willingly  takes what each of us may think we can offer and multiplies it sometimes infinitely. God could do it without us, but really wants us to give of our selves, not just a bit of our resources.

I think it's time for me to think about my two cents' worth. I can understand the widow giving her all, but I'm too afraid. Maybe I need to conquer my fear and think about the ten cents I can put out, either in my words, my actions, or even out of my wallet. I have that image of the widow before me, probably being pushed and shoved by people who felt themselves much more important and much more worthy of respect. Maybe the widow didn't realize that Jesus had seen what she did. God saw, and God was pleased.

This week where can I make my two cents make a difference? It may take every coin out of my wallet, but somehow there has to be something that those coins can do to help change the world and even change me. It's going to be an interesting week.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Monday, June 12, 2017.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


These feel like somewhat turbulent times. Daily reports of shootings, bombings, and massacres fill the news, making us wonder if this world is going to hell in a hand basket, as Mama would have said. It seems we live in a violent world now, a world more violent than perhaps even a world war, simply because although there are no huge battles like there were in the wars, daily skirmishes spread out from small communities in rural areas to large cities. And then on top of it, we have people who are killed simply because of who or what they are. We call these martyrs; they died because they were Muslim, or LGBT, or African-American, Hispanic, or any of a number of designations.

Today we commemorate the martyrs of Uganda in 1886, 45 young men, 23 Anglicans and 22 Roman Catholics. The young men were pages at the court of King Mwanga. King Mwganga's father, Mutesa, had allowed Christian priests to preach to members of the members of the court, and so the pages were exposed to this new religion. When Mwanga gained the throne, it was obvious that these converts owed greater loyalty to God than to the king. When the young pages refused to have sexual relations with the king, he ordered them to be punished.  Many believe that the pages refused to participate in homosexuality, but  I think it was as much a show of the king's power, much like rape of women and children in local battles that are still common in some parts of the world today. On the journey from the king's court to their execution site they sang hymns and praised God. They demonstrated their Christianity, and, one many converts despite the danger of being Christian in a country ruled by a person who felt himself to be the law and above the law. The pages were rolled in lengths of cloth and thrown, still alive, on burning pyres. Not a pleasant death by any means.

Sometimes we use the word martyr so easily these days. I'm not referring to religious groups and others  on buses that are blown up by rival religious groups, or innocent people whose lives are shattered when a specific group targets them for just being in a public place. No, the way I was referring to martyr has a much narrower meaning -- the way many people today refer to themselves as martyrs because their religious beliefs are not the law of the land, or  where their beliefs meet opposition rather than immediate acceptance. Maybe it feels like martyrdom to them; however, it would be hard to place a disagreement of beliefs that never reaches a level of physical violence with being tossed onto burning pyres while alive because a person professes a certain religion.

One of the martyrs of Uganda was a 14- or 15-year-old boy named Kizito. He was the youngest of the martyrs and Kizito is the only name we have for him or even if that is his real name. Americans probably never heard of them, but for many years Kizito was a very popular name in that part of Africa. I wonder about the children who die on our streets, even ones who are in their own homes and sometimes their own beds and who are slain by stray bullets because somebody felt that somebody else disrespected them. Aren't these little ones martyrs to a society where violence is increasingly becoming a way of life? Often violence is the result of frustration, anxiety, and anger that the world is so unbalanced in so many ways. Then there are those who are perceived to be threats and who are victims of hate crimes, from mock lynchings to vile painted messages to desecrated places of worship and cemeteries. These aren't new things; they're as old as the hills but are nonetheless still shocking that they have happened here, in a place touted as the "...Land of the free, and the home of the brave."

Our fallen veterans are returned home in flag draped coffins, are not they martyrs in a sense? Granted, they volunteered to go, but they believed in our country and they believed in the right of all to live in safety. So they went and, like a former next-door neighbor of mine, came home from Afghanistan in one of those flag draped boxes. I think of him as a martyr because he did what he felt was his duty in a hostile environment and knowing that there were always risks of maiming or death. So how do we treat those who return alive but damaged from tours of duty that place them in harm's way?  Do we respect them?  Or do we just insist they "get on with life" as if they hadn't been witnesses (and sometimes participants) in things most of us wouldn't even watch on television. I wonder -- is there a category for living martyrs?
This week I will be thinking about true martyrs -- people that honestly suffered and quite often died for  something they believed in that was greater than themselves. I believe that I should consider true martyrs and the witness that they bear, especially like those in Uganda whose martyrdoms bore great fruit in terms of converts. I think that's something I need to consider much more deeply -- and pray to have their strength in times of greatest trial.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 3, 2017.