Sunday, October 29, 2017

Plus ça change...

I've been thinking about words. I have no idea why, but one word has been running through my head the last few days. It is a rather simple word, but with a lot of baggage attached to it. The word is "change," and for such a simple word it seems to be a difficult one to deal with. I don't mean thinking about changing my socks or the arrangement of furniture in my house, not even change in the weather, although it would be nice if it would get down below 90 and stayed there for a little while. That would be a welcome change.

Change is word that seems to have a lot of meaning for people. I work in a business where change happens. Like a lot of things and situations, it's an inevitability. One of the hard parts of my job is to tell people that have been accustomed to things being one way for a number of years to suddenly have to deal with things not being what they considered normal and comfortable. I can't say too much to them about why these changes take place, partly because I don't know myself, and that's hard. I want to be able to explain to people why these changes have happened so that they can understand and accept the situations, but it's far above my pay grade to do that. To me, it emphasizes how the word change can create fear, hard feelings, anger.  If you want to see people angry, change something that impacts them. If you want an example on a smaller scale, change the location of the cat's litter box.

When it comes to the word change in a religious sense, things can get even more precarious. There are a number of people like me who came into our church or denomination because it was so different from the one we had grown up in. In my case, it allowed questions, and encouraged them. It had a beauty and rhythm and language that was far from what I would hear on the street, and it felt uplifting to me simply because it was in the same style of speech, to a certain extent, as the Bible I grew up reading, the King James version. It has taken time for me and probably many others to get used to using "you," instead of "Thou," or use a -th on the end of words that we wouldn't normally add, like "standeth" or "lovest." Of course, when most of us pray these days, we still recite the version that we grew up with which was the King James version. Somehow, it's familiar, it's safe, and when it changes, we feel like something has shaken the world, and made it mean something different than what we were taught. It's been a change it's been hard for a lot of us to get used to, but with time, change becomes easier and so does acceptance.

This week, a friend was one member of a congregation who was moving from one church building to another, participated in deconsecrating the building that they had known and loved and worshiped in for years. It had been a planned move, one designed to better serve their church community and their internal and external ministries. Still, it was a wrenching moment time for all concerned because it represented change, and change was and is something uncertain, unknown, and occasionally, something to be feared. Even though the congregation will remain the same, the liturgy will remain the same, and the people who worshiped in one place to meet in community in the new place, still, it's going to be different and sometimes difficult, but, working together, all will be well, as Julian of Norwich would say.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a critic, journalist and novelist once said, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," which means something like "The more it changes, the more it is the same thing." We see that in a number of places. In government, the change of administration has changed a number of things, even though the balance of power in the government hasn't changed all that much. What has changed is the feeling that the government desires to change anything that has been deemed beneficial in previous administrations.  It seeks to benefit the 1% of the population who can manage extremely well on their own while cutting down the safety net for a great part of the 99% who are less able to weather changes economically, physically, environmentally, and politically. 

This kind of change produces the potential of life and death for groups of people who live on the margins, who are elderly and frail, who are children who are hungry and ill, and those who believe the message of the Statue of Liberty, "Bring me your tired, your poor, your hungry masses looking yearning to breathe free." They believed, and now changes are making them pay for it, and pay dearly.

When Jesus talked about change he talked about the kingdom of God and the changes that it would bring. He talked about traditional Jewish values of caring for widows and orphans, the sick, the needy, the imprisoned, the aliens, all sorts and conditions of people. The to knock quotes again and again words to the effect of caring for these people and treating them with kindness, helping them whenever they needed it, and not looking to either make a profit for ourselves or use them in ways that were cruel or that demeaned them. Jesus talked a lot about treating people well, loving people, even enemies. Lord knows, that is one of the most difficult things he could ask us to do, but he did ask. I wonder how many of us really try our hardest to love someone we fear, or dislike intensely, or have other negative feelings and emotions about. Should we love a serial killer? Yes, I'm afraid the answer is yes. We may not like the person's actions and we may hate his motives, but as a human being, the serial killer is a child of God, and so we are told to love him or her. That's an almost impossible thing that requires real change in how we think, act, and react.

One thing that is certain about this world is that change is going to occur, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, whether we're all for it or not. The change that we most need to make, though, is that change to thinking in terms of kingdom thoughts rather than just political, economic, climate, and any of a number of different categories of thoughts. We need to ask "Is this a valuable change? This is a change that will help people or hurt them? Is this something of which God would approve or is it something contrary to what we are informed as God's will?" In order to make those decisions, we need to be able to sit down and think and reason, discern from tradition, and also look at how our culture informs the changes that we consider and may ultimately make. Above all, it might be a very dated saying, but "what would Jesus do?" That in itself would give us a number of answers to what we need to change and what can remain more or less intact.

Change has come. Change is coming. Change will come, and will we change with it or will we remain the same?  God knows.  We still have to ask.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 28, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Special Days

Have a good day!" That’s a kind of greeting you hear just about every day from someone. Occasionally I'll get "Have a great day," or "Have a blessed day," or some other variation of the wish that you have a day that has good stuff in it. There are those who resent that kind of thing. "Don't tell me what kind of day to have!" Yes, that's a bit snarky, but then people can be very snarky and really have nothing against the people who wish them a good day or a great day or a blessed day or any other kind of day.

There are some days that are better than others, like days when you don't hit every red light when you're late leaving the house for work, or you forgot you were out of milk until after you’d poured the cereal in the bowl, the days with flat tires, burst water pipes, leaky faucets, sick cats, and all manner of small to enormous disasters that can really mess up a day. It's funny though, it's all in how you look at it.

This week has been a series of “Lord help me!” days but with some truly brilliant flashes of hallelujah! Thursday was one of those days. Back home it was a day of celebration because it was the 236th anniversary of Cornwallis's surrender George Washington in my little home town. It was and still is a big celebration with lots of activities both fun and educational.

There was a special day (I won't say how many years ago), when our family was increased by a new baby, my brother's first child. It was on Yorktown Day, and the whole family was just overjoyed. She really was a cute baby. It was memorable, a new baby on the day we celebrated a conclusion to almost all the fighting to gain our independence.

Then, 17 years and a few hours later and half a world away, another baby was born on Yorktown Day. He almost missed it, being born only nine minutes before midnight. I had been so hoping he'd wait at least one more day, but he was in a hurry. This was my son, and he was born in the Philippines, miles and miles away from Yorktown. But my little town was still very much in my mind when they finally showed me my child and I compared him to the memory of the little girl born 17 years previously. It was interesting to see the differences, but of course, my son was probably the best-looking baby you ever saw.

We celebrate days the secular days and sacred days, and customs vary on how we do it. We celebrate secular days like July 4 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.  We make it a day of picnics and pool parties, hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelons, potato salad, fireworks, and the whole bit. It's quite a day. I could go on and on, but I believe you get the point. It commemorates a day when we lit a fire that took until October 19, 1781, to quench. The result was a new nation, conceived in liberty – a goal which we are still spending our days trying to comprehend the meaning of and the way to make it work for everyone.

There are some days that are better than others, like days when you don't hit every red light when you're late leaving the house for work, or you ran out of milk after and remit only remembered after you had poured the cereal. The days with flat tires, first water pipes, leaky faucets, sick cats, and all manner of small to enormous disasters that can really mess up a day. It's funny though, it's all in how you look at it.

In the course of our daily lives, day by day, we tried to get as much accomplished as we possibly can, do the best job that we can, and find time for things like meditation or prayer or yoga or walking in the park telling a kite. We can't be rolled robots, but neither can we be total free spirits in the sense of we have no responsibility and no commitment to anything other than ourselves and what we want to do at any given time. God didn't create us to do that. God gave us some things to do that we have to work into our daily lives like helping the sick or feeding the hungry, or maybe just visiting or calling someone who's been sick, or celebrating a birthday, or other commemorative events.

This week will be quieter, no major birthdays, no major celebrations, not even minor celebrations, unless God grants that the Cubs win the pennant. Still, this coming week I need to concentrate on how I'm spending my day. I have to have time to work, time to study, to be social with friends and time to be alone. It's a challenge to find a band of balance in all of this. But God made the world in balance and now we have unbalanced it. Maybe I can't stop the wobble of the earth on its axis, but I can learn how to work with the wobble to my own life and make sure that there is time for me to be reminded that God deserves a chunk of my time, and that I'll it to myself to carve out that chunk of time. Ultimately, that makes for a good or great day.

God bless.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.

Friday, October 13, 2017

One hand, one finger, one change

Once upon a time  in Austria there was a young concert pianist, a man who had a father who did not believe that art in any form was suitable as a way to make a living. Unfortunately, that father lost three of his five sons to suicide because they did not want to follow in his footsteps. Of the two remaining, one chose to follow philosophy as a career. The last son became a concert pianist, well known but with no clue that he would become not only famous but an innovator one day. Fast forward to the end of World War I. The young concert pianist had served in that war had been severely wounded in his right elbow. His arm had to be amputated, leaving him a pianist with one arm, the left one. What could this possibly mean to a young man with great promise but a flawed body?

He asked composers to write piece of music for him a few did. Eventually composers like Ravel wrote pieces to be played exclusively  with the left hand. Those pieces are still played today, usually by two-handed pianists who voluntarily keep one hand in their laps while the left hand plays beautiful melodies and intricate passages written by composers who believe that a one-handed pianist could still be an artist. Were it not for his injury and his subsequent recovery and determination to remain an artist, we probably would never know the name Paul Wittgenstein.

In 1831, another man, born in Lithuania, went to Germany to study to be a rabbi. He became a Christian instead, and emigrated to the United States where he trained for the priesthood. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church and was sent to serve as a priest in China. There he worked hard to master and also to translate the Bible into Mandarin Chinese. He was made a Bishop in 1877, and he founded the University in Shanghai. He began to translate the Bible again this time in a different style and form of Chinese. And then disaster struck.

Parkinson's disease is a gradually debilitating disease where the body develops tremors and gradually becomes incapacitated. The Bishop of Shanghai, as the priest was called now,  resigned his position as bishop but continued to work on his translations of the Bible. By this time, he had only the use of one finger on one hand. Nevertheless, he continued on with his work, picking away character by character, letter by letter, with his one finger. His translations today are considered authoritative and masterful and are still being used as standard text. If not for his one fingered task so well performed, and his dedication to doing what he believed God wanted him to do, we may never have heard of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky.

What the two had in common was to fight what could have been an overwhelming disability that would have prevented them from doing what they felt they were called to do. Fortunately for them, they were able to follow their passions in a way that set a new standard for dedication. Those pieces written for Wittgenstein are still being played today by artists of both one and two-handed variety. Schereschewsky's works of translation are still used as standards. Even after death, both men continue to inspire others in their various fields.

We all have heard it said that what was one person cannot really do much to change the course of things. Easier to believe that than it is to get out and do something about it. We expect leaders like Steve Jobs or other captains of industry for statesmen or even people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to get the crowd fired up and ready to do things. Sometimes all it takes is one person, like Malala Yousefzai, to call attention to something of a great need and encourage others to join the struggle to change what is wrong and make it right.

Jesus was one man, and yes, he was a human man, when he walked on the earth. Were he not a human male, the whole focus of his teachings would have taken on an entirely different point of view. If he openly declared himself the Son of God, would people have believed in him? Caesar claimed to be a god, yet he never walked on water or fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, although he claimed a virgin birth. No, Jesus was human and as a human he did things we don't expect humans to do, yet Jesus used those things to show what a depth of faith can do to make changes, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to look at the marginalized and give them value. Jesus changed the world, not totally by himself, but through his messages and how they were presented, how they influenced those who heard him, and who went about telling others about the wonderful things that had been said and done.

Maybe it's time for us to start thinking about what we could do, even as single individuals. I think about the woman in Las Vegas who held a dying man and continued to hold him even after his death because she did not want him to be alone. That was so poignant and such a Christlike moment. I don't think she even knew the man, but she saw a need and filled it. How wonderful is that?  One person made a difference -- as did the individuals who rushed in where others were scrambling to escape.

One person, one vote. We may not see it as able to change anything, but then no vote equals nothing no progress and no change. One person, one action, one small deed of kindness, one check, one thank you, one smile, like all little things, they can join together to become a big thing, and the big thing can change the world.  yet every single thing starts with an idea in someone's head or a calling in someone's heart to do something to make the world better. That's what we are taught to do as Christians, so why are we not doing it?

This week I think I will look for little things that I can do in the course of my work and in my ordinary life. I may not be able to solve everybody's problems, but I can at least let them know that I have heard what they said and have made note of it so that I will know how to best make that need known to someone else who can actually do something about it. I'm already conscious of smiling at total strangers at odd moments, and quite often I get a smile back. That feels pretty nice. I think it can become addicting.

So this one woman is going to try in her own way, small as it may be, to make the world better. Is anybody with me?

God bless.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hands and Hearts

The afflicted shall see and be glad;
you who seek God, your heart shall live.
  For the Lord listens to the needy,
and his prisoners he does not despise.
  Let the heavens and the earth praise him,
the seas and all that moves in them;
  For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah;
they shall live there and have it in possession.
  The children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his Name will dwell therein.  -- Psalm 65:34-38

I almost hate getting up in the morning, simply because I'm afraid to look and see what the morning's headlines are. It seems like almost every day there is a disaster, a shooting, a mass murder, injuries natural disasters; everything seems to be piling on at once. Even the Eucharistic reading for today seems to bring shades of disaster right to my eyeballs where I cannot help but read them. And just reading them is enough to make me feel uneasy, and at times, rather sick.

"The afflicted shall see and be glad you seek God your heart so live for the Lord listens to the needy and his prisoners he does not despise." These days it seems to be hard to find things to be glad about. There don't seem to be enough pictures of new babies, or people getting married, or cute kids doing wacky things, puppies, and, lots and lots of kittens. Where are they when we need them? They make us feel happy, they lighten our mood.

Instead, though, we are barraged with eyewitness stories, commentator speculations, worst-case scenario presentations, and lots more that can increase our feeling of disconnect from God because we're too busy being afraid of what our fellow human being could do was.  

The last two verses seemed to strike even deeper. "For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah, he shall live there and have it in possession. The children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell therein." If any place right now needs to hear that God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah, it's probably the people of Puerto Rico, who have undergone not one but two devastating hits of category 4 hurricanes within the space of only a couple of weeks. Their fields, towns, villages, and almost all of its infrastructure have been destroyed.

Puerto Ricans pray for release from situations which are life-threatening and more than just merely inconvenient. But praying carries things only so far. Throwing paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans is not exactly the way to show deep caring and empathy. So many want to help, but are hindered by red tape and the fact that Puerto Rico is surrounded by waters no bridge can cross.  So many need the help that can be brought in, yet it took over a week for much of a response to even begin to trickle in.

It's all well and good to say, "Pray and God will take care of it." The problem with that is that God gave us brains and hands and feet and hearts and also our senses of compassion and empathy. Prayers are great; they help us focus on something that is troubling us and, in a sense, lay those things at the feet of God so that their weight is not so much on our shoulders. Still, even though the weight may be off those shoulders, we need to keep the weight in our hearts. Usually that's the only time we actually get out and do what we should do to help those in need, to volunteer to raise funds, or gather supplies, or even travel to places where devastation is so widespread, to be able to help those who are very much in need. It's only when our hearts really get involved that we are truly motivated to do what God originally intended, which is for us to work together to heal the broken, rebuild the shattered, and make the world a place of peace and safety for all people, not just one race, nationality, or any other qualification.

"Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and all that moved in them; for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah." This is the promise and this is a declaration that God will rebuild, but contrary to some belief, God needs us to accomplish what the psalmist attributed to God. It's doable, but it's going to take work. Too many of us are too busy worrying about our own lives, and accumulating our own words of wealth and possessions, and perhaps feeling mild pity for those who are in deep distress, but that's as deep as it goes. It doesn't touch our hearts, or at least it doesn't touch most hearts very deeply at all.

Yet the Psalmist tells us that not only are the heavens praising God but the earth, and by the earth it means all of us who live here, all the living things: animals and birds, trees, and even the rocks, waters,  the mountains, and the hard desert soil. All of it must rejoice and praise God because all of it is connected to God, not just a few select individuals who believe they are to be the recipients of God's bounty on this big blue marble on which we live.

It's about those who quietly and sometimes totally unnoticed do what is necessary to help their fellow human. Like those who responded to the shooting in Las Vegas this week, thousands of people were caught and thousands of people were the targets. Some ran for safety, some covered the bodies of others with their own to protect them, some held the dying so that they would not feel alone at that time, and some worked feverishly to save as many lives as possible. They did God's work, and I'm pretty sure God was very proud of them, but God expects us to step up to the plate and to what we can to relieve suffering, comfort the dying, and ensure the safety of everyone at any time, not just at times of great trial. 

This week I think I will probably be praying that it would be a calm week, without a lot of heart- wrenching details of tragedies and disasters to fill up the pages of newspapers and the posts on Facebook. But I also need to remember that I have to praise God, and also to remember I have a responsibility to do what I can to help bring this chaos into a state that God would truly call a kingdom.

Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Quakers, said it so well and so succinctly, "Hands to work, hearts to God."  Amen to that.

God bless.

Image: "My heart in your hands" by Louise Docker, Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, a wannabe writer,  and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter. She is owned by three cats. She is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ.