Sunday, August 27, 2017


It's coming toward the end of summer. Farmer's markets are still full of produce of all kinds, but it's time to start thinking about stocking up on things for winter: freezing berries or making jam or jelly or preserves, canning beans, corn, tomatoes, peaches, pears, and more. Most of all, there is the making of pickles.

What brought pickles to mind was a photo on Facebook of my sister-in-law and a niece in the kitchen making pickles. I remember Mama making pickles when I was a kid, especially green tomato, watermelon rind, and the fabulous cucumber pickles we called "Baptist" pickles because Mama had gotten the recipe from our Baptist preacher's mother.  Oh, were they good!  Soaked for several days in lime, boiled in vinegar with some raisins and a few spices  added, then decanted into jars and sterilized, those pickles stayed crisp and flavorful all winter. In fact, we opened the last jar of Mama's pickles a few years after her death and they were as crisp and tasty as they were a week after she made them years before.  I'd almost kill for a jar of them now. 

Cucumbers are a lot more historic than I thought. They're mentioned twice in the Bible, once as referred to in Numbers 11:5, "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost -- also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic" (NIV).  It doesn't say they pickled any of them, but every single item in that list could have been marinated in vinegar or brine and turned into pickles.  The other reference is from Isaiah 1:8 which talks about "Like a hut in a cucumber field," meaning that they lived without walls, vulnerable to being in a pickle of a situation if things turned bad.

Situations turned up over and over again in the Bible that told of people in a pickle of a situation: the spies that Rahab had to rescue, Naomi and her daughters-in-law when their husbands all died, David being pursued by Saul, the disciples hiding in the upper room, Peter in a place where he was frightened into denying his master, Stephen being stoned at the feet of Saul, Paul being blinded on the road and in jail, and even Jesus in front of Pilate. There were lots more, but you get the idea.

Today we find ourselves in situations from time to time that could be described as "real pickles." Sometimes they are simple things that are easily fixed or managed, sometimes they are like drowning in a vat of apple cider vinegar. While vinegar is great on salads and in pickles, even for cleaning or on sunburn or jellyfish stings, it's not something one would want to bathe in or even drink straight, much less be immersed in it for any length of time (diluted is much kinder and tastier). Still, tricky situations do not always last a long time, and they can be both learning experiences and character builders.

Prayer works well when one is in a pickle. For one thing, it encourages our mind to focus on something other than the situation, or at least, to offer the opportunity to view the situation with a bit more clarity or distance. For another, it reminds us that when we are puzzled about which way to go or what to do next, checking a map or a guidebook or asking for help can make things clearer. Also, it reminds us that God is with us and is listening to us, so therefore we are not as alone as we probably thought we were.

I love pickles, except when they are situations in life that are painful, puzzling predicaments. Even so, the trials of life are spicy additions, just as a good pickle is to a good potato salad, a grilled burger, or even as an accent to whatever's going. Prayer, like a good pickle, adds texture and flavor to life, and offers us a chance to balance a life of busy-ness with a bit of tang or even sweetness. It connects us to God, and that in itself is a thing of blessing, whether in good times or pickleish ones.

This week, I'll think about Mama's pickles, but I will also think about the tang prayer offers me in my life, no matter what is going on. Most of all, I'll remember that when I have a good bread and butter pickle, even if I can't have one like Mama used to make, God bless 'er. 

God bless you too.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 26, 2017.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Divided Houses

It's been quite a week. It seems like every week I think things have gotten about as bad as they can get, but then something happens that makes me think I was being naïve.

This week it was Charlottesville, Virginia. I know Charlottesville; it's a beautiful place. In downtown Charlottesville, like a number of Southern towns and cities, is a statue of Robert E Lee, Virginian, Episcopalian, a slaveholder, and general of the Confederate armies during the Civil War. He had been a general in the Army of the United States until the South had declared it would secede from the union. Lee was given the choice to stay with the U.S. Army or to lead the state militia for the South. He loved his state, and so he chose to fight for Virginia, something for which he is now called a traitor. It was probably a hard decision for him to make, I'm sure, and at the end of the war, after he had surrendered his sword, he had to go and build a new life. He became the president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, and when he died, at his funeral no flags were flown, no uniforms were worn, and even the respected Mr. Lee wore a plain suit at his burial.

During the years after the Civil War there were people who came to Robert E Lee and asked to put up statues to memorialize the defeated generals and soldiers, but Lee turned them down, believing that it would only increase the pain and retard healing of the wounds that the Civil War had caused in the South. What would he think of all the statues of himself? He would probably just sadly shake his head turn his, turn his back, and walk away, thinking that his words had not been heeded.

Lee was a symbol of what we have come to realize was a house divided against itself, a comparison that was made by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, but originally appeared in the three synoptic Gospels which quoted Jesus is saying that  a house divided against itself cannot stand. It was nothing new under the sun, because for millennia houses and countries have been ripped apart by politics, by conquest, by ideology, by hatred, and a number of other causes. In some cases, the divided have been able to build  strong foundations for themselves, but in many cases, like our Civil War, there remained a rift never totally repaired, even to this very day.

Jesus used the figure of Beelzebub, or as we call it, the devil, to illustrate the principle he was trying to get across. He said that Beelzebub could not stand if he were divided. In other words, his strength would be diminished by having to control two opposing sides rather than one unified whole. It is like walking a tightrope without a balance pole.

I grew up in the segregated South. I knew about segregated water fountains, bathrooms, waiting rooms, churches, schools, and the whole bit. But I also lived in a small town where there were African-Americans living next door to Caucasians without friction and in a very friendly manner. There are a lot of people today who would find that laughable and who would argue that it was not possible, given that we were a racially divided area in so many ways. Yes, the house was divided, and very probably we didn't handle it well at all, although I don't remember a lot of difficulty when our schools were integrated. The two groups were segregated themselves by choice for a while in that same building, but gradually the invisible barriers went down and we began to be a school rather than two opposing camps.

I look at the church, now that the Cromwellian era is long gone, where one would think that the church might come together as a unified whole with its focus on the worship of God and the following of the teachings of Jesus. Instead, it seems to have set up its own divided house, again based on a number of criteria. In the Anglican/Episcopal church, we are trying to work through our problems of racism, gender and racial equality, orientation, and interfaith and intercultural relations. It seems like in some places they have put up statues (or inviolable rules) of heroes to those on one side who, to those on the opposing side, are seen as traitors or heretics. I look, for instance, at the division of the Anglican/Episcopal church over the question of homosexuality and orientation. I can't literally visualize statues representing each side, but I see both sides fighting to make their side victorious, each with arguments bolstering their side which they feel is substantive and authoritative. There are so many other issues that divide us, but race, gender, and orientation right now seem to be the biggest cracks in the foundation of the unified church.

Lee believed that such things as statues could be reasons for keeping wounds open that should be healing. Even as a slaveholder, he felt that whether Yankee or Confederate, they had all undergone trauma and both needed healing, a unified healing, not a separated one. Anything that became almost an idol would be another instrument of keeping that division alive. Very possibly he would be grateful to have all of the statues removed and either placed in  museums or in a Confederate cemeteries or whatever. I think he was a very wise man in that respect, and I think he had it right about taking down the idols and looking only to God.

What idols have I got that I need to take down? What preconceptions do I need to eliminate? Where do I need healing? And most of all, what is keeping me divided in my search for wholeness, unity, and peace within my relationship to God and the world? I've really got work ahead of me this week, And please don't mind if I'm grateful to Robert E Lee who, despite his flaws, left words that have begun healing in me have a part that I didn't even know was still wounded.

God bless.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Lady with the Lamp

The year I was in third grade was a rough year. I seemed to catch just about every disease that came down the pike, and I missed a lot of school. I also found out what boredom was. Mama didn't have time to read to me all the time, especially since I already knew how to read at least fairly well for my grade level, so I began rummaging through the house for every book I could lay my hands on. I read all my brother's Hardy boys and started in on my own sets of Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and some books about famous people. One of the books that I remember reading was a biography of Florence Nightingale, the founder of what we might consider modern nursing. The book dealt mostly with her own history and her achievements as she brought a new level of care to injured and ill soldiers in the Crimean war. It was fascinating to me.

If there were one person who could be said to have changed things dramatically not just by herself but by example and persuasion, Florence Nightingale would have fit that category.  She felt she was called by God to do something in the world, and so dedicated herself to a life of chastity in order to better discern and do what she felt God was calling her to do. Her parents and her family were aghast, since she gave up a young man whom she loved very much in order to follow what was considered an unseemly profession for a woman of her time and class. Nurses were usually women of ill repute, or broken down old man who found their comfort in a bottle of gin. This was a world into which Florence came, and what she saw perturbed or greatly.

Hospitals and first aid stations for those injured in battle or ill from environmental causes had an extremely rough time in those days. Sheets were never changed, and so, as soon as one person in the Bed died, he was replaced by another sick person without any change of linens or pillows. Blankets were filthy and vermin-infested, while meanwhile in storehouses not far away stacks new blankets were rotting because there was no system by which to get them into the hands of people who needed them. Conditions were filthy, food was sketchy and not very nutritious, and more soldiers died from illness and neglect in hospitals that actually died on the battlefields. This was the place that Florence came and the appalling state of things in which she found herself. But not for long.

She was strong-willed. She had been given a job to do by God, she felt,  and so it fell to her to make a difference. She brought organization to the chaos that was the hospital, the treatment centers, and the supply system by which first-aid supplies were passed from the warehouse to the hospital. She introduced the idea of cleanliness, with lots of fresh, clean water, soap and elbow grease. She didn't do this alone, because with her on her journey to the Crimea from England had also come 10 Roman Catholic nuns, 14 Anglican nuns, and 14 women who professed beliefs in anything from paganism to universalism. Florence and her band of nurses turned things around in those Crimean hospital wards, and set examples that could be followed in other battlefields, and even at home.

One thing Florence was most famous for was her gliding through the words in the night with the dim lantern in her hand, watching to see if any person had a need that she could fill. Whether it was a drink of water, a bedpan, a comforting word, or just a smile, the men looked to her and  their eyes followed that light pacing through the almost endless rows of cots and were comforted. They began calling her "The Lady with the Lamp," and that became a name by which she was known, not only in the Crimea but increasingly in her home country of England.

One thing that the book I read as a child never really touched on was Florence's spiritual life, which to her was the basis of her calling and her duty. In her later life, when she wrote a manual for nursing, one requirement she felt was necessary was that each nurse spend five minutes out of every hour in prayer. I think that when seeing the horror of the injuries and the filth that surrounded her, her prayer life became even more important to her than it had been previously. It seems possible that five minutes an hour every hour was like an oasis where she could offer up what she was doing, pray for those for whom she toiled, and simply rested in God, coming forth from that prayer session renewed and rededicated. She was a mystic, although she would hesitate to be called that. She had her moments of trouble and doubt, just as most Christians do, but always came back to the service of God who had called her,  and who sustained her as she continued to follow that call.

She didn't seek praise and acclaim for what she did, even though, when she sailed home to England, a large parade and pageant were scheduled to welcome her and to show appreciation for all that she had done. She managed to sneak away for an entire day to a convent before she came into the public eye and the celebration. She did not look for the glory, and instead chose to quietly begin to reorient herself before rejoining society and beginning a new stage of work to help the sick and injured that crowded England cities and towns.

She worked to get legislation introduced  that would benefit the veterans and the poor: safe, clean, water, and health-giving care when it was most needed. Again, she did not work alone, and sometimes drove those with whom she worked to exasperation and even exhaustion. Even in her later years when her own health had broken down, she still worked to accomplish what she felt God wanted her to accomplish. She died on this date in 1910. She was ninety years old, and her gravestone was simply marked with her initials and the dates of her birth and death. Even with her fame and acclaim, she remained humble and attuned to the will of God.

Florence Nightingale was heroine to me as a child, and even more now that I have a greater understanding of what she faced and how she overcame what were seemingly almost insurmountable barriers. It is something to think about, to look at her life and see how she worked to change things that were wrong and make them things that were beneficial. She saved a lot of lives simply by doing what she felt God called her to do. Wouldn't it be nice or great or even super if each of us could be that much in tune to the will of God and the benefit of all human beings? It's something to think about this week.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 12, 2017.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Heads on a Platter

Matthew 14:1-12 (Eucharistic reading)

It's been a while since I read the story of Herod and his adventure with John the Baptist. I looked at it today and I though that it was kind of a contemporary tale as much is a biblical one. John the Baptist had ticked Herod off by condemning his marriage to his brother's wife, and finally Herod had enough guts (or perhaps gall) to throw John into prison. Herod was afraid to kill John because of John's popularity among the people who considered him a prophet.

Herod had a birthday feast at which his wife's daughter, the one we think of as Salome, danced in Herod's honor. He was so delighted with the performance that he offered the girl anything she wanted. After consulting her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Before long, the gospel tells us that John's head was brought in, maybe on a silver platter, maybe on one of pottery. At any rate, John was dead. The rest of his body was given a burial by his disciples.  

The thing that reminds me of the contemporary is there always seems to be someone looking for somebody's head on a platter, figuratively if not literally. We are always looking for someone to blame, and wanting a very public and very stark acknowledgment that somebody has messed things up royally and has paid the price. We do it for criminals, we do it for politicians, sometimes we use it for church people, like those involved in sex abuse of young people and children. There are times we expect CEOs of giant corporations who have been caught fiddling with the books or taking too much of a pay raise while laying off employees at the bottom of the ladder or failing to acknowledge their contribution by periodic raises. We especially look for people in the public eye. We love putting people on pedestals, but then we take even more joy it seems in knocking them off. Ask just about anybody in Hollywood and they'll tell you that it happens. Today's hero may quite likely be tomorrow's villain.

It used to be a custom at great feast, especially times like Christmas, to have the head of the roasted pig brought in on a platter and placed in the center of the table, the place of honor. . People then were a little more nonchalant about eating parts of the head, but it was the centerpiece of the of the dinner and a reminder of where the roast pork on the plate came from. I don't know that anybody remembered John the Baptist while looking at that pig head, but I also doubt that John the Baptist head had an apple in its mouth and was surrounded by greenery and food of festive color. Different times, different cultures, different presentations.

John the Baptist was imprisoned because he had called out Herod for marrying a person that was not appropriate for him to marry. Marriage laws were pretty strict, and there were certain relationships that were considered out of bounds. Herod committed one of those. In order to keep happiness in the family, he had to do something about John who had been openly speaking about the impropriety. Herod's wife, with the help of her daughter, finally gave him a way of doing it while saving face. He couldn't be held responsible because he had promised a girl anything she wanted as a reward for her dance, usually referred to as the dance of the seven veils. The girl asked her mother, the mother told her what to say, the girl went to Herod and repeated it. Lo and behold, it was done. A prophet was dead, the problem was solved, and the one who gave the order could not be blamed.

I am sure lots of people have had a time when he felt like somebody was looking for their head on a platter for some reason. Maybe most people have never experienced that kind of anxiety or feeling of fear, but I, among others,  do get caught having made a mistake. We don't like feeling like our head is going to roll because of something we may or may not had any have any control over. Certainly John the Baptist didn't think it would end that way, although being imprisoned might have been a broad hint.

We all look for ways to get out of what consequences there may be of actions that we take. We try our best to do things right and properly, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, the boat gets loose from the mooring before the crew is all on board. Somebody has to pay for that boat getting loose, and usually it's the captain and the crew members who were supposed to be minding the mooring lines. An official of a corporation with access to company financial dealings gets away with multimillion dollar fraud and embezzlement. In France, basically all it for one to lose their head was to be a member of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. A wrong medical decision, a lost lawsuit, a scandal of some sort -- all are reasons for heads to roll.

We all need to look to see how our actions match up to what we say we are doing and believing. It's difficult to claim to be a Christian if one is not looking out for others, or acting in ways that hurt others simply for one's own benefit. We don't have to have a dance of the seven veils in order to get tangled up in the situation that could have catastrophic results not just for us but for others. John had been spreading the message of the one to come and of living the right life. Pointing the finger at a notorious union got him into trouble. I wonder if he had moments in prison when he regretted those words?

Reading the story makes me want to be a turtle even more than I already am. In order to keep my head firmly on my torso, I feel like I need to pull myself back into my shell and just observe the world without getting into conflicts or causing any ripples in the pond. It's not a good way to be. It is certainly not the way to stay out of trouble, because trouble find me no matter where I hide. If I make a mistake, I have to bear the consequences. Thank God for those who help me face my consequences and help me learn not to repeat that kind of thing. They keep my head off the platter.

I wonder -- whose head do I think deserves a platter, or does anyone deserve it? I can certainly think of people I would consider as being prime candidates, but I'm just one person, one small person without much of a voice or say in what goes on in the greater world. Still, I can only wish that more people might pay attention to the beheading of John the Baptist and why. It's all to easy to pick out representatives of the Herods, the Herod's daughters, and the Herod's wives, but much harder to spot the  people like John the Baptist in our world today. Maybe I  should look harder, or perhaps I should try to see myself speaking the truth as John did.

Am I too eager to get out the silver salver, or am I witnessing to the power of God rather than humankind? Guess I'm going to have to really think about that one for a while.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 5, 2017.