Monday, April 5, 2021

Three Traditions of Good Friday

 

This year I thought I would reflect on Good Friday since I have reflected on Holy Saturday for at least eight years, if not more. Everyone knows that it was the day when Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death. Following that condemnation, Jesus was scourged, forced to wear a crown of thorns, then carry his wooden cross through the streets to the site of his execution. Since medieval times, people have followed the path from the former Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulcre. The church considers it a particularly religious practice when done on Good Friday in Jerusalem. Many churches have images called “Stations of the Cross,” which commemorate the events from the condemnation to his internment in place of the physical journey. The stations are frequently done weekly throughout the year but have special significance during Holy Week, especially Good Friday.

Flagellation is a frequent practice among two vastly different groups of practitioners. One group represents those who enjoy pain, often in a sexual context. The second group is composed of some monastics and members of rigorous religious organizations where repentance is heavily emphasized. Flagellants scourge themselves with whips, sticks, thorn branches, rope strings with bits of metal on the ends, and canes.  Public flagellation is, in some countries, used as a punishment for legal or moral infractions. The chastisement can range in severity and the number of lashes, depending on the crime. A penalty of 100 lashes is often fatal. 

The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic and has many places known for their intense dedication to their faith. In Pampanga province, north of Manila on the island of Luzon, they have been celebrating representations of the stations of the cross, including rows of flagellants walking for miles while scourging themselves until their backs are raw and their blood flowing. 

Another Good Friday practice performed in Pampanga is that of actual crucifixion. Men and women who have chosen to do this are frequently repenting of sins but also may do it to share in the passion of Christ or even to thank God for particular events such as loved ones recovering from near-fatal illnesses or accidents. For some, it may be a rather painful way to be like the Pharisee in the temple, raising his religious status by showing himself to be pious. Still, I am sure that the vast majority of those who do participate do it for the glory of God and to show their love and reverence. They want to imitate Jesus as much as possible, and this is one way to do that.

Some participants choose to don a white loincloth and then be tied to the crossbars of the crosses they have carried for some distance before being raised upright. Others lie on the cross in the traditional position, have their arms tied to the cross member in several places, then have four-inch nails driven through their hands and five-inch spikes through their feet. They remain upright on the cross for as little as five minutes or as much as an hour, depending on how much pain they can bear. Spectators worldwide come to see the spectacle enacted every Good Friday except for the past two years due to the pandemic. I expect there are other places in the world where reenactments like these take place, but Pampanga is one of the best known and most publicized.

Jesus, as we traditionally see his crucifixion portrayed, wasn’t always shown with bindings and footrests to help support his weight. The bent knees we see on crucifixes, and the downward slump of the corpus had the purpose of illustrating a posture of slow suffocation since the ribs could not inflate fully. The corpus also shows the incision of the spear point and even the trickles of blood from the crown of thorns. What crucifixes often can’t show is the sun beating down mercilessly, sweat trickling into the raw gashes of the scourge marks, the slow dehydration that can cause delusions, and eventual death. 

Jesus, as the gospels tell us, spent six hours in this torment, not to mention the previous torture of the scourging, carrying the cross until he could bear it no longer, and the strength-stealing suffering of a sleepless night and the prospect of more torment to come. 

I do not imagine Jesus went through all that he did because he wanted to. It seems more of an act of submission, much as the actions of the penitents today. Many Christians put crosses on their front lawns, hang rosaries from their rear-view mirrors, wear necklaces showing crosses, crucifixes, and other iconic symbols. It is showing their religious affiliation but also as an act demonstrating their faith. The liturgies and prayers we attend or participate in during Holy Week are symbols of what our faith is about and reminders of who and what Jesus was besides being a charismatic preacher, teacher, rabbi, and human being during his earthly lifetime. 

May we take the time on this Holy Saturday to reflect deeply on what Holy Week represents, especially Good Friday. In what other ways can we show our submission to Christ, emulate his life, illustrate his teachings, and devotion to God? There is more to Holy Saturday than dyeing eggs, stuffing baskets with candy and chocolates, and new clothes. There’s more than starting preparations for a large dinner (or a smaller one if the family can’t travel to visit). There is more to faith than twice-a-year attendance at the major celebrations of the church. 

How can you demonstrate your faith? 

Have a blessed Easter.

 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, on Saturday, April 3, 2021. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Diversity of Flotsam

 



It is spring, with blooming trees and flowers (and pollen and weeds), windy days and nights, and temperatures edging up. Spring is a kind of midpoint. The change between winter and summer is most enjoyable, usually only short-term, but still quite pleasant.

After more than a year of COVID with its closures, masking, and complete change in ways of life, it would seem that this spring would be a happy time for people. They can get out more (hopefully obeying the mask and social distancing protocols), plan for reunions long denied, see items that were in short supply becoming more available, etc. That doesn’t seem to be good enough, though. Mass shootings are up, increased examples of demands for privilege,  images of violence and hatred constantly on the media, and protests on behalf of members of various races and cultures increasing as instances of bias and hate grow against them. It is beginning to feel like the primary color of spring is now blood red.

Growing up, we never heard the word diversity. Granted, we all knew what segregation was, and we children were taught that it was just the way life was, at least in the part of the world I lived in. My parents taught me to be polite to the Irish and Scottish family up the street, respectful of elders, and kind to the Black citizens of our town. The latter lived in the next street or even next door. That didn’t mean we shared churches, schools, or facilities at the bus or gas station. It took a lot of education before I began seeing the wrongs of the society in which I had belonged.

The last time I went home to Virginia, I noticed many changes, including acceptance of diversity in a much more significant proportion than I had learned growing up. There was more education about the place of Black Americans, Native Americans, and others in the history of our area for about four hundred years.  It wasn’t superficial teaching but a real emphasis on a hidden part of our history.

 The last time I was back home, I walked down the beach that bordered my river and suddenly saw some familiar things differently. I didn’t just see debris; I saw a diversity that had a beauty of its own. There were whole shells and bits of others, often translucent jingle shells or heavier pieces of clam and oyster shells. A red bit was a piece of fired brick, edges worn down and smoothed off by the power of the waves. A tiny dead crab exposed its underbelly to the sun as it rested among the strands of eelgrass that seemed to frame most of the wrack that had washed up at some time or other.

I’ve thought about that memory quite often over the years. When I think of it, I can almost hear the wind, smell the salt water, and appreciate the many bits and pieces that formed such a vivid image. How dull the beach would be if there were only grains of ground-up quartz and other bits of stone that made the sand. It took diversity to give the whole an unforgettable beauty.

I think I have to remember that beach when I look around me. Like the jingle shells, some people seem to let the light shine through, brightening the world.  The clam and oyster shells are like those who feed both humans and sea creatures, with covers that can be used in many ways after the shellfish they had protected have been consumed. The brick piece is like a person who builds and protects, enabling us to live in safety from predators, wind, and weather. The eelgrass provides hiding places for sea creatures like the little crab, feeds sea birds, provides stuffing for mattresses, roofs a cottage or house, serves as food, and helps keep the bottom of the river stable.

I need to look at people and groups in much the same way. No matter how different they may appear, each person is a child of God, created to live in other places and ways, yet with value beyond what we may see. Like the wrack at the beach or colors of paint, the beauty and usefulness are in the diversity, just as God planned it. Some may be more beautiful or talented or even useful, but each has a purpose, even those who seem to have little or none. A tramp and a queen are equal in God’s eyes, as they should be in ours.   The famous verse from John, “For God so loved the world…” seems to mean not only the physical appearance and status of the planet but all things in and on it, including people.       

Sit with the picture of the beach for a few minutes. See what part of it speaks to you, and then contemplate why that is. Then go out and look for someone or something in your part of the world that reflects that part. Take the object into your soul and let it lie there. Keep looking for other reminders of what is in your soul that may need to refresh itself or perhaps become part of how you see the world. Incorporate the examples you find into your prayers and daily life. It’s another way of recognizing how much God’s love permeates everyone and everything, and you are a part of that love.

Happy beachcombing!


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Simple Words, Difficult Lessons

 


When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’  But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  – John 6:60-63.

Sometimes reading the gospel of John is almost like reading Paul. Paul is wordy, with not a lot of punctuation and answers to questions that have been asked but not stated so we can figure out the context of his response. John is a mystic and, like Jesus, sometimes talks in what seems like riddles even though they quote Jesus and some of his more mysterious teachings. This passage, part of the longer gospel reading for this morning’s Daily Office, was like a two-by-four hitting me between my eyes. It partly translated itself into what is going on today, “ ‘…This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’”  I know that the quotation reflected teachings on eternal life to the disciples. Still, it also applies to some of the lessons we either have or have not learned over the past few years.

Jesus had been teaching to a large crowd about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. It immediately sounds cannibalistic to us and possibly did to the people hearing it in person.  We understand that he was referring to the Eucharist, the bread and wine which he had blessed. We believe the elements are blessed and made holy, if not necessarily as the actual body and blood as some denominations believe, or merely representations as other denominations proclaim it. For those of us who are Episcopalian, it is somehow neither – and both. Jesus’s presence is within it, and thus we accept it as food from heaven to bless and mark our joining in the celestial banquet.

But that wasn’t what grabbed me in the reading. Just as the teaching Jesus gave to the crowd was hard for them to understand, there are many things today which we have been given but which seem to be equally as puzzling. One of the hardest things is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Loving some people is relatively easy. They are wise, not seeking fame and earthly goods, and may have a charism about them that almost seems visible. People follow them and try to let their lives reflect the faith they have in these saints-on-earth-sans-haloes. Many of these will never be remembered except by a few who knew them, and within a few decades, their memories will fade away. We will recall them along with all the saints that surround God’s throne in the eternal home in heaven. People have been trying for millennia to learn and live up to that commandment and haven’t all mastered it yet. Still, we keep preaching it and, hopefully, practicing it as well.

Today, it occurred that even simple teachings, laws, ordinances, or wise sayings appear to be impossible to be understood. For instance, take “Wear Your Mask.”  Three short words that are demonstrations of “Love your neighbor.” I wear a mask during this pandemic to keep myself safe, sure. Most folks do. But some folks also have the idea of keeping others safe from the virus that can be lethal to susceptible people. Those are our neighbors that we are commanded to love. Yet some “Christians” seem to demonstrate that their personal rights to go maskless everywhere supersedes “Love your neighbor.” Granted, Jesus didn’t tell us to wear masks or even love our neighbor in this lesson.  Still, he knew that not all would hear, obey, or even believe. Many left him after the teaching he gave earlier in the chapter.  They still leave him, being unwilling to understand or accept his words and lessons.

How much does loving our neighbors today reflect in our daily lives? Would cutting someone off on the freeway to save us a minute and maybe cause an accident that takes other lives show our love and caring for others? How about passing legislation that benefits a group of people who already have a great abundance of wealth but crushes the poor under the foot of the rich? Does targeting members of other racial or ethnic groups, even religious groups, make our faith stronger?

Do “Hate Crimes” act as “Love Acts” by those who perpetrate them? Do they actually “love” their own group so much that they have to preach against others to prove they love their group more? I seldom (if ever) see signs, billboards, and posters that say anything loving about groups that proclaim hatred for others. Church signs, and occasionally posters and billboards, sometimes proclaim the basic tenets of their mission – loving others as God loves us.

Maybe Christians as a group need to do more things like wearing masks, regardless of dirty looks or snide comments from others who are maskless. Perhaps we should be first on the front line with tools to repair, replace, or clean damage caused by haters who have marked buildings, graves, and houses. There are thousands of things that could be done, like donuts to first responders, volunteering to help at soup kitchens and child care centers, offering rides (while wearing masks) to aged and infirm elders who have no one to rely on for assistance. Kids (and adults) could make posters and hang signs thanking the people who have been so vital in keeping our lives running as smoothly as possible in these past trying months.

I could go on and on with ideas, but hopefully, I’ve sparked something that the reading sparked in me. If a problem (or teaching) seems difficult, don’t reject it out of hand. Keep wrestling with it, meditate on it, pray about it, try looking at it through different eyes. Start with simple things like “Love your neighbor” and work from there. It might be more straightforward than it first appeared.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café, Saturday, May 20, 2021. 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Mirrors

 


He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ -- Luke 18:9-14

It’s an often-told parable, that of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the temple, each praying. The Pharisee reminded God of how righteous he was, tithing properly and not being a sinner like the people around him, both in the temple and in the streets. Of course, he mentioned the tax-collector, a sinful collaborator who worked for the Romans, considered the lowest of the low among Jews. In his own eyes, the Pharisee was worthy of all the blessings God could bestow on him, and he didn’t mind letting God know that he was aware of it. The tax-collector, on the other hand, simply confessed to being a sinner and asked for mercy. It was a simple, humble statement of remorse, one at which the Pharisee would undoubtedly laugh.

I’ve written about this parable several times, but reading this time, part of the first sentence caught my eye: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He wasn’t just telling a story to teach the disciples. He had a crowd around him, a mixed bag of ordinary people, Pharisees, ultra-righteous and out-and-out sinners alike. It was a lesson for all. He was holding up a mirror to an entire crowd, telling them to look at themselves and see their authentic images, not just a reflection.

Mirrors can be convenient when we want to see how our hair looks, makeup applied correctly, don’t have a seed stuck between our front teeth, or our tie is straight. A mirror reflects what is placed in front of it. Of course, there are the trick mirrors at carnivals and fairs, creating significant distortions and making us laugh at the images they produce. There are fancy dome-like mirrors in elegant gold frames that see fish-eye reflections of glittering chandeliers, rich tapestries, marble floors, and tiny purse-sized mirrors to check lipstick or face makeup quickly. All these mirrors still only reflect what is before them. None of them see beyond the surface, down to the root of what is hidden by that very surface.

If a mirror were more like an x-ray, it could see beneath the skin to identify breaks or imperfections in bones and organs. If the mirror were like a CAT scan or ultrasound, it could show problems in organs, blood vessels, and softer tissues. It could show tumors, benign and cancerous, but can’t always differentiate which is which without a biopsy or surgery.

No mirror can show our soul and what is in our heart of hearts. A lot of what is there comes out in how we think, act, or talk. In this vein, the Pharisee would come out as someone who was vain and so sure of his status and appearance in the public arena that he didn’t mind reminding God of it. Some would call it out-and-out entitlement. Others might consider it narcissism and egotism.

God gave us inner mirrors to look at ourselves. If we looked sincerely and honestly, we could see flaws that needed to be corrected. We need to develop discretion to judge what is right and good and what needs changing in what we think, see, and believe. Seeing things as they actually are is necessary to keep our inner and outer images in line with what God would expect of us.

Am I a disciple? Pharisee or tax-collector? Am I pride-full or humble and trying to be better? Am I trying to show Jesus’s teachings and God’s love in my appearance, actions, and words? We’ve all seen what hubris and egotism can do.

I can polish the mirrors in my house to make them shine and reflect more light. I can’t add anything to the cleanser to show me what I look like inside. I have to remember to check my interior looking glass more frequently so that God will be pleased with me.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 13, 2021. 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

A Matter of Time

 


It's been a year since we first made the acquaintance of the need for isolation, masks, and the image of the COVID virus that shows up every day on news stories about the disease. Of course, some felt the whole COVID thing was a hoax, and there was no need for masks, isolation, etc.

Now, a year later, and with over 500,000 dead in this country alone, most are still wearing masks and doing the same things we were encouraged to do a year ago. This year, though, we have vaccines, and the lines to obtain a shot have been long. It is still a time of patience, and we are continually being encouraged to avoid large groups (like churches). Churches learned to hold services online, and ordinary people began to understand how to use Zoom to connect with people at work, church, even family. Still, many continue the practices of the past year, not only to protect themselves but others who might be at risk of sickness or even death.

This week I've been aware that life goes on, COVID or not, and that things need doing that require pulling myself out of my house and into the mainstream of life. It requires me to go into places like a doctor's office and the Division of Motor Vehicles, both of which are usually full of people. The DMV had implemented a new system that required an appointment (that I had) and got me in and out in twenty minutes instead of the usual forty-five. The doctor's office wouldn't give me the bloodwork my doctor had prescribed unless I had an appointment with her, so I spent twenty-five minutes in a hallway not twenty feet from the office, waiting for someone inside to answer the phone and make me an appointment for next week. I had accomplished something today but was more than ready to go home.  I still have to go out Friday to get my taxes done, next Tuesday for the doctor, and Thursday for my first COVID shot, but at least I feel I have some control over what I can and can't do – and when.

I've begun to realize that so much running around is much more like life as it was before the pandemic hit. I also realized that I want to stay home because it is more comfortable for me. I don't have to wear a mask, and the cats don't require a six-foot separation (I couldn't enforce that even if I wanted to!). I can sleep when I want, eat what and when, and I don't have to sterilize everything I touch or might touch. I have time and space enough to read, knit, think, or write. I shut the front door, and the world stays outside, except for the part of the world I can see through my windows or let into my hermitage through computer or TV.

But what struck me was the feeling that going out gave me. It was normal – ordinary, everyday, and usual. It was as normal as life was a year or so ago, with only a few restrictions more than I had then. It was like taking a step back in time to a maskless society yet forward in time to a more common way of life.

Living in a pandemic time is, in a way, like living in God-time.  Staying at home means more time to observe mini-Sabbaths during the week or even during the day. There is time to stop and pray or meditate. There are probably small bits of time when a "Thank you" or "Please bless so-and-so" can bring us into God's presence. We could also phone or write someone we haven't seen in a while, just to check in and let them know we are thinking of them. We can spend a moment jotting down things in a journal that occur to us and might want to think about more deeply later on. There will be time to go outside and breathe fresh air and observe the signs of the coming of spring.

Most of all, even with the potential coming of normalcy at some point soon, we can look for periods, not necessarily long ones, where we can sit quietly and talk to (and listen to) God. Hopefully, we've discovered those moments in the year we've just gone through. Now to find them when life goes back to the way it was. Or maybe the way it should be. Perhaps we can take what we've learned during this time of separation from others, how much we depend on God, and how God is with us through everything, good and bad.

With God, there's no social distancing, masking, or sanitizing. We can just be as we are, without fear, through sickness and health, abnormal times, or regular times. Think how grateful we should be when we finally reach "normal" times again. God will be there waiting for us, just as God is now, by our sides, walking with us.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, March 6, 2021. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Question of Learning

 


“Why the heck do I have to learn … ?”  I think every child, teen, and adult has said that more than once in their lives.  Toddlers and preschoolers have a shorthand for that. They simply say, “Why?” Will anyone who has had or dealt with children and who has never heard any form of this please raise their hands? 

We spend our lives learning. Newborns have to learn to breathe and then to suck. The rest is progressive. Children want to know, so they ask, “Why?” with seemingly every other breath. It’s their way of finding out how the world works, something they’re going to need to know, and, I think, they revel in learning about it.

Then comes school. “Why do I have to learn math? Why do I have to learn geography? When am I ever going to have to use grammar?” My particular “Why do I…” was math, especially algebra. I was no good with numbers, even in elementary school, and the thought of having to prove that x=2y totally bewildered me. I loved words, and the better I could spell and read them plus learn what they meant and how to put them together to express my thoughts and understandings, the more I enjoyed them. The combination of dissection, statistics, and probability I learned in second-year Biology was much more appealing than the various noxious smells from the Chemistry lab. A slide rule (we didn’t have calculators then) was as incomprehensible as a text in Koine Greek.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn many things I really didn’t want to know, like balancing a checkbook, changing washers in a faucet, mixing vinegar and baking soda to clean out drains, and remove hard-water deposits in the sink and bathroom fixtures. I didn’t want to learn to iron, adjust a recipe to add or subtract servings, or read a map to get to a place I needed to be but didn’t know how to get there. How many skeins of yarn do I need, what size needles, and how many stitches do I have to have to make a patterned square for an afghan I am knitting for a friend or a sweater for myself? But you get the point.

In our lives as Christians, we have had to learn things like praying, both personal and communal. We learn why we pray, whether it is to thank God for something, ask for something, or in times of tension, fear, illness, and disaster. We are taught who we need to pray for, what prayer can do, and how to do it, whether we recite a blessing we’ve learned or are struggling to put words together so God can understand what we need or believe we need. We also learn stories that tell us what God expects of us. Sometimes that is easy since we have stories to illustrate the lesson. At other times, we have to stop and ponder what the story is trying to tell us, given that we are reading them through eyes that are 2,000 years younger than the stories themselves. Still, it’s part of being Christian.

Sometimes we learn a verse or group of verses that bring us comfort or ease our fears. We use them like a mantra, reciting them repeatedly, bringing them into our consciousness, and focussing our attention on something other than unpleasantness, danger, or anxiety.

Being brought up in a church or denomination, we learn the rituals and customs surrounding birth, baptism, marriage, and death. We realize that Christmas and Easter are joyous times while Lent and especially Holy Week are thoughtful and penitential. We are taught to understand what the Eucharist is, what it means, and what it does for us. We observe practices like having ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday and anointing with oil for healing and comfort at other times. We stand for worship, kneel for prayer, and sit to listen and learn. Christianity is a cradle-to-grave-and-beyond series of lessons and practices. I wonder – did any of us ever ask why we needed to know all this? 

The things I learned about faith and how to use it, though, are things I use every day, often without thinking about it. I have to be very mindful of prayer and reading at times. In contrast, other times are purely spontaneous when situations and people come to my attention. I discovered how to think through things using various theological reflection techniques and calm myself with centering prayer. I may never need to learn about Soteriology or Eschatology, and that’s fine. I don’t need to know everything there is to know about theology, doctrine, and the like. When it comes to having faith, I’m still learning, but I know in whom I believe and why.

The question of “Why do I have to learn …” doesn’t come up very often with faith. When it does, it usually becomes a welcome new insight and understanding. I have a feeling even my last breath will be a new revelation. Now that’s something that never appeared in a school curriculum!

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 27, 2021.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Sin and Slavery

 

Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren. – Motto of the newspaper The North Star, Rochester, NY, (1847-1851)

 

Today is the commemoration of Frederick Douglass, a man born as a slave who escaped from slavery and became an abolitionist, a writer, an orator, a newspaper owner and editor, a U.S. marshal, and a U.S. minister to Haiti. He is also known as the father of the Civil Rights Movement.  Among his significant contributions was the publication of The North Star, an abolitionist paper published weekly.  He was also a supporter of the rights of women and other groups, as well as African-Americans. See Frederick Douglass--Social Reformer for a fuller biography.

Thinking about Douglass and his escape from slavery, I began to think of the beginning of Lent and the 39 days following Ash Wednesday. It came to me that Douglass escaped to save his life and try to grow into a man who could be respected, not just someone else's property, to be used and abused. That meant breaking from one way of life to another. It took courage and faith to break away, knowing he could be dragged back into his former life if he were caught.  It was a risk he felt he had to take.  

The Bible references slavery as sin, both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Some denominations place much emphasis on sinfulness as a form of slavery, from which Jesus came to release humankind. During Lent, we have to reflect on our sins and work to overcome them with God's help and grace. We wear ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday to outwardly show that we are inwardly contemplating our mortality – and probably morality as well.

In the Hebrew Bible, slavery is a punishment for sins, corporate ones more than individual ones. However, atonement for personal sins also had to be through sacrifices. In Leviticus, a scapegoat was sent into the desert on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur),  bearing all the people's sins so that they could be cleansed and freed from their transgressions.* Entire tribes were captured and sent into slavery because they did not obey God. Even the Exodus was a 40-year penance for beginning to forget God and take on foreign ways and beliefs.

Lent gives us time to think not just of our individual sins but also our corporate ones. Many institutions, including churches and seminaries, are apologizing for racist words and actions as a way of acknowledging the sin and asking for forgiveness and a new beginning. Lent offers us a time to consider our actions against African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others with histories of being wronged by our ancestors and even ourselves.

I think we may possibly be beginning to realize that what is available for one person, such as a right to vote, to be educated, to live without fear of oppression from some group, should be a right for all, regardless of sex, age, culture, religion, or any other box into which we like to confine people. That's what Douglass was getting at with the motto on top of his newspapers. It should be a good motto for all people, not just brethren. We need to shed the sin of thinking that we are better than others because of our skin color, educational level, financial bracket, or any other privilege or status we may have.

Privilege is a sin that has enslaved some of us for generations, even millennia. Some live in a dream world where every wish is available and provided. In contrast, millions of others dream only of a dry house, enough food to feed the family, and a reason to hold their heads up as children of God.

What enslaves us? From what do we need to be freed? What do we need to do to become free? What can we do to help others free themselves from their own sins and slavery? What would be the result? How would the world look if all humanity saw itself as children of God rather than as nationalities or any other labels?

God bless.

 

*The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, February 20, 2021. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Example of Absalom Jones

 


Today we remember Absalom Jones, one of the most widely-known African-Americans celebrated by the Episcopal Church. Jones was born a slave in 1746, bought his freedom in 1784, and married in 1770. He served as a lay preacher at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church from 1784 - 1786 and helped increase the African-American membership tenfold.  

The result of this increase in membership made the white membership uneasy. During a service, ushers tried to remove all African-American members from the main floor to seats in the balcony. This was an act of segregation that Jones, his friend and co-worker Richard Allen, and the black congregants felt so strongly about that they left the church in a body and formed their own congregations. Allen's group became the Bethel Church (later Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church). Jones became the Lay Reader and Deacon of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest by Bishop William White in 1802.

Allen and Jones became the organizers of the Free African Society in 1787. It was an organization dedicated to the social, political, and humanitarian efforts among the blacks, helping widows and orphans, relief for the sick, and aiding with burial expenses.  The organization was instrumental in caring for the black community during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Both men are considered to be founding fathers of the free black community.

Jones's favorite Bible verse is said to have been Galatians 5:1, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (NRSV).  Both Jones and Allen continued their work against slavery. They petitioned the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1799, campaigning for the abolition of slavery. In 1800, they sent a similar petition to the U.S. Congress. Both continued to champion change in both moral and racial arenas. Jones started schools for blacks in Pennsylvania since the state did not support education for them.

He died on February 13, 1818. Both blacks and whites attended his funeral service, and he was laid to rest in the St. Thomas churchyard.

I wonder what Jones would have thought of the long struggle African-Americans have undergone to achieve equality in even the most basic rights. As I grew up in the South, I saw segregation daily, but didn't give it much thought since it seemed to be, as the old saying goes, "Just the way it is." Even though in my hometown, blacks and whites lived side-by-side in many places, churches, and schools, even gas-station restrooms were segregated and quite often inferior in construction and maintenance. It's taken me many years to learn to see this pattern as utterly wrong, demeaning, and totally hurtful. It has taken a long time even to start to learn to see through others' eyes, and even now, it isn't the easiest thing in the world.

I do have to keep in mind the verse that Jones embodied. It certainly is one that Christians don't hear often enough. Slavery of various kinds are still widespread throughout our world: homelessness, addiction, sexual trafficking, suppression of human rights – all are forms of slavery, and there are lots more. We just have to think about them more often and with more follow-up action. Sometimes even religion can be slavery. I have to really think about that one, especially since I see more of it (or as I perceive it).

Christ has set us free so that we can stand firm against slavery. Sin is undoubtedly slavery, as much as we hate hearing it said. How often do we think about the things we do being hurtful to others before we act or say the words? Perhaps that is the problem of sin – it is often relatively easy to ignore the consequences.

With Ash Wednesday coming in a few days, perhaps it's time to think about what giving up things is all about. It goes beyond giving up something that we usually see or experience as pleasurable or fun. It is an opportunity to take on things that could benefit others. It is also a chance to look at our catalogs of personal (or corporate) sins and detach ourselves from them, like cutting the chains of slavery.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafè  Saturday, February 13, 2021.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Words in the Wind

 


I know it has been several weeks since the Inauguration, but I still keep thinking about it. I know it was a day that so many in our country had looked forward to with hope. I know I did. It was a different kind of inauguration, cut back in so many ways because of the pandemic that still ravages the population. Still, it had its pomp and circumstance, its celebrities and pageantry, as well as its speeches and oaths.

It was evident that the crowds that usually packed the Mall to watch and cheer weren't there. Instead, rows and rows of colorful flags represented each state and territory that stretched the Mall's length. The guests and representatives of the government, including several former Presidents and First Ladies, Justices of the Supreme Court, and military and governmental heads, were spread out and wearing masks for their own protection and that of others.

What I heard in the speech the President gave was a call for unity, a coming together for the common good rather than the divisiveness which has become so apparent in recent years. The need for unity echoed the words of Jesus from Matthew: "…Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (12:25b). Lincoln used the same words in an 1858 campaign speech to illustrate the division between North and South in terms of slavery. It was an important concept then, just as our own political and geographical divisions are now.

But I heard something more in the President's speech. I listened to a man speaking to a nation in pain. I heard a man speaking in humility, not bragging about former successes but rather what he hoped to accomplish for the country's good.  I felt that each word was carefully crafted to uplift sagging spirits and light much-needed candles of faith. The speaking of the words released them to set the stage for future action on behalf of all.

It occurred to me as I listened that despite the absence of living bodies crammed onto a long stretch of grass and marble steps of the Capitol, the words had room to expand, to move about, as it were. It was as if they were set free to be blown throughout the world on the breath of the wind, carried through the open spaces, and sent forth with the aid of the fluttering flags. The masses of humanity traditionally gathered around the speaker did not absorb the words. The spaces between them gave each person room to absorb the meaning rather than just deflect the sound.

Jesus often spoke to large crowds, unaided by electronic devices to amplify sound. But then, crowds in Jesus's day were accustomed to listening with care and attention. There was no media recording and replaying sound and video later. We are much more prone to space out a bit during speeches (and sermons) until a specific word or phrase catches our attention. Jesus probably spoke slowly and carefully so that every word and syllable could be heard and understood.

He also spoke of hope and togetherness, faithfulness and love, without arousing feelings of hatred, animosity, and anger. It wasn't that Jesus never showed anger; he did on several occasions, but when speaking to crowds about living, following God's will, and practicing that kind of life, he encouraged them to care for each other and the earth that sustained them.

Jesus encouraged humility. Many characters of the parables were the more humble folk, like the tax collector in the synagogue, the woman with the hemorrhage, the diseased and infirm, children, and the poor. He spoke humbly so that all could hear and understand, and for those who had no voices and no resources. His words were set free to spread throughout the world, and we are still listening to, and hopefully paying attention to, those words today.

This week, I need to practice listening rather than speaking and speaking simply and humbly without trying to impress others. If I talk, I want my words to go out into the world to be spread by the wind and the Spirit.

Now to go out and do what I need to do. 

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, February 6, 2021. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Stormy Waters

 


Mark 4:35-41

 

One of the great things I remember about growing up was the town in which I lived. I knew almost everybody who lived there, its history and its hills and forests. One of the best parts of the area was the river about a quarter of a mile away from my house, a deep, wide, saltwater river that welcomed me any time I went to visit it. I loved it when it was calm and also when it was stormy.

One of the things I remember best was a fishing trip on my family's boat in the summer of 1958. Daddy piloted the small cabin cruiser. Mama brought fried chicken and potato salad in case we didn't catch any fish to eat. My brother and pregnant sister-in-law came along on the lovely, calm summer day.

An hour or two into the outing, a rather violent storm blew up suddenly. Even though we had pulled down the canvas curtains on the deck cover to protect us from the wind and rain, it didn't take much imagination to mentally "see" the waves with their white caps and troughs as we felt the rocking motion. I loved the movement, the sounds of thunder, and the waves lapping against the sides of the boat. My sister-in-law was probably praying hard for Jesus to come and calm the waves in between her bouts of nausea. I trusted Jesus, but I also trusted Daddy would pilot us safely through the storm.

Memory took me back to that fishing trip so many years ago as I read the Eucharistic gospel for today. Being in a small boat on raging water some distance from shore can make for some anxiety. I'm always a bit surprised that the disciples, at least the fishermen among them, had such fear of being swamped and facing drowning. I was probably too naïve to even think of such a thing when I was on our boat, but I'm sure the adults had it at the back of their minds. We didn't see Jesus walking across the stormy water toward us. However, the disciples appeared to be very relieved to see the master, who was able to still the winds and waves.

There are times in life that feel very much like being in a tempest, whether I am on a boat or sitting in my living room.  I have a feeling everybody thinks like that at one time or another. We may not see Jesus walking on water or even coming in through the front door. Still, there are times when I call on Jesus to calm the storm and get me safely to solid ground. I know I still have to trim the sails and man the tiller, but I trust Jesus to provide the compass setting and the clear skies that will enable me to get back to shore. No matter what I ask Jesus to do for me, I'm sure he also expects me to do some of the work myself rather than depending on him to do everything.

Years after that fishing trip, I was on another, larger boat on a much larger body of water halfway around the world. I was on a 50-man fishing boat full of sailors and their wives and girlfriends. It was a beautiful day, with waves that made the boat rock like a cradle. So many of those aboard, sailors included, were regularly feeding the fish. At the same time, I scampered up to sit on the bow to enjoy the motion. I wasn't seasick at all, despite being pregnant myself. I loved the ride and thanked God for providing something so enjoyable. I knew I was being looked after.  

I hope heaven has rivers, oceans, boats, and occasional storms, just like I hope it has forests, hills, and mountains.  Fishing would be nice, but I think I would settle to sit on the bow of a boat, leaning back against the cabin window, enjoying the sun on my face, the rocking of a vessel beneath me, and the feeling of peace that comes from God's grace and simple happiness. Jesus would be there, I'm sure, storm or no storm.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafè Saturday, January 31, 2021.