Saturday, December 8, 2018

Using Darkness

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. – Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)

Last week in our Education for Ministry (EfM) group’s theological reflection, we started with the word darkness. The word seemed relevant since the days are shorter and the nights longer. Many people suffer from such a reversal of light to dark. They become depressed, and sometimes they can be rather unpleasant to be around because there’s so much darkness. Short of propping themselves up underneath a particular lamp that simulates daylight, there are either two choices: either putting up with it or moving to a sunnier climb that climate. Of course, even in the hot sunny places like Arizona, we still have more darkness than light, and this week we’ve had overcast skies and even some rain, thank God, but other places have had lots of snow, freezing temperatures, and inconveniences like delayed flights, slippery roads, traffic pileups, and snow days closing schools.

Another thing about darkness is how it’s used to speak of depression, whether chemical or sometimes emotional or sometimes circumstantial. It seems like, for me anyway, a lot of losses that I have been in the mid-winter before and after Christmas and have been family and friends, and it makes it hard not to be a little bit down when contemplating those losses. It’s hard to lose loved ones no matter when, but it seems hardest to bear when accompanied by darkness physical darkness and cold.

Darkness also is seen as a contrast to light. It’s a symbol that is often used, like in the Star Wars movies, to represent the dark side, the evil that can lie inside people, organizations, and countries.  It often represents a set of opposing beliefs or practices to a system that attempts to produce good things and right actions to benefit as many as possible.

What comes to mind for me is a verse from Isaiah, familiar to those of us who to the Handel oratorio, Messiah. Sung by a bass,  it sounds deep, seeming to bring the illusion of darkness to the piece and color to emphasize the feeling of the verse.

Isaiah, of course, was referring to the Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. That captivity was a punishment for the who had disobeyed and even forgotten about God and turned more towards the material things of the world. They walked in darkness, but God and God’s grace did not wipe them out but instead put them in captivity much as we would a apply a prison sentence for someone who has committed a crime or, as we think of it, a great sin. They realized what they had missed by being materialistic. They eventually recognized the importance of God and obedience to God’s commands, so even though the Babylonian captivity may not have been all peaches and cream, yet, as the captivity in Egypt centuries before, it came to an and.

During Advent, the darkness outside is probably a perfect time to think about where I am walking in darkness, what caused that darkness, and also what that darkness means. Sometimes you have to I have to walk in a dark place to understand where I am and what I am lacking. It may seem to last a very long time, but then, it may be that I need that time to figure out where I have messed up and how I can make amends.

This week, I am hoping the darkness that comes from having things happen, like the washer breaking down, or losing a program on my computer that I depend on quite a bit, or, Lord knows, what else could go wrong.  I have to learn not to let these things get in the way of my walk towards the light of faith and obedience. It is a good exercise during Advent to look for the light but to also be aware that there is a  darkness that can be overwhelming. Maybe this week I’m being tested by different kinds of darkness all mixed into one, then there are dark things that are utterly wonderful, like dark chocolate. So darkness doesn’t always have to be a bad thing; in fact, it can be excellent because it reminds us that we are people who tend to wander away from the truth sometimes and from the way that we should be living. I’ll have to keep my mind on that.

This week I have also to realize that the darkness and coldness are giving the opportunity to do other things, like look at the lights on the Christmas tree and enjoy the little tiny bulbs that show many colors. It gives me a chance to sit in my rocker and look at my fake fireplace. It would kind of strange to do that in summer, although I can. At this time of year, it’s another kind of light that shines in the darkness. And then again there’s the chocolate.

This week may we all walk towards the light. May we all seek to be a light to others who may be walking in their own form of darkness. As we light another candle on the Advent wreath tomorrow, may we seek to find ways to make things better for the whole world and not just ourselves. We pray for those in trouble, sorrow, ill health, or any adversity, and not forget to give thanks for the good things that we ourselves enjoy. It’s going to be a busy week of thinking, but luckily sitting in the rocking chair, with the tree, the fireplace, and, of course, the cats on the lap, there’s time and space to do that.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café on Saturday, December 8, 2018.

A Lesson in Contentment

The other evening I had one of those small epiphanies that come into my life now and then. It’s not always in the form of a lightning bolt or an angel knocking me off my donkey in the middle-of-the-road, but it does come, and it does make me think. It’s rather a nice thing to have.

The insight that I had as I sat in my rocker with the lap robe over my legs and feet, a cat curled up on my lap, a good book in my hands, a lit Christmas tree, and my fake fireplace giving off not quite realistic flames but close enough for me. As I observed all of this, I suddenly had this feeling of utter contentment. It was something I noted because it so rarely has happened over the last decade or two — just plain total absolute pleasure. I didn’t want to be anywhere else, I didn’t want or need to be with anybody else, and I didn’t need anything else, except maybe a cup of hot tea, to make life better. I’ve tried to recapture that moment, and I’ve almost succeeded. I have allowed myself to feel happy, although it hadn’t reached the point of total contentment that I had previously. Still, it was something that I could retain in my mind and work towards once again.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Some men fish all their lives without knowing it is not really fish they are after.” So many people, including men and women of my acquaintance, enjoy fishing, whether in a freshwater lake, in the mountains, on a beach, from a boat, or even off a pier. Many of them would say, “I fish because I like to catch my dinner and I like the fresh fish.” But a lot of those people are also catch-and-release fisherpeople;  they enjoy fishing, but let the fish go back to its natural environment, hopefully, to live another day. There are some that are fly fisherpeople who continually flick their rods and reels to make a fly on the end of the line attractive enough to a fish to get it to jump joyfully upon a pointed barb that pierces its mouth before dragging the poor fish through the water and put in a net. It sounds little brutal, but then, so many things in life are.

A third kind of fisherperson is one who calmly sits either in the boat or on the beach, throws the line out, and sits back to enjoy the gentle lap of the waves against the boat or the pier, and feel the pure enjoyment of just being outside. They may appear to be doing something productive, but mostly they are just letting things go, resting and relaxing. In that case, a fish for dinner is a bonus.

I am one of those third type of fisherpeople.  I don’t care if I catch a fish; I am just as happy if I don’t. The important thing is putting the line in the water and patiently waiting for something to happen or not happen. It’s a time to think, to contemplate, to just let the mind go blank, and perhaps even fall asleep. It’s a time of tranquility, a significant component of the state of being content.

I wonder how many of us really can say this was a moment where we felt perfect contentment. The circumstances for someone else would probably be entirely different than what I experienced, but then all of us are different, and it would be rather presumptuous of me to say that my way was the only way.

Good old apostle Paul, once again he has given us some words of wisdom that we might apply to the issue of contentment. “… [Be] content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.’ “ (Hebrews 13:5b). That brings to mind another experience of contentment when I was much younger. I would go to the Revolutionary War monument in my hometown. The column overlooked my river, my favorite sacred place, and one which I enjoyed visiting often. There was a particular pine tree just over the brow of the bluff on which the monument stood, and I used to go and sit underneath that pine tree to watch and listen to the river and feel utter contentment. Sometimes I’d take my Bible along and find myself reading Psalms, which added another dimension to my happiness, but just sitting there with nature all around me and a kind of invisibility to the rest of the world was a place of comfort. Even more than half a century later, I can still return to that place in my mind, l to try and recapture that contentment. There was a knowledge that God was there. It wasn’t that I saw God sitting on next to me or across from me or even under the same tree. I knew God was not a person that would do any of those things, but I knew that God was always present. And I think that’s what added to my contentment at that time.

I think this week I need to try to recapture those moments of contentment and put them in a faith-based context. After all, tomorrow is the first day the first Sunday in Advent, and we must be content with waiting for the Nativity of a small child will change the world. Perhaps the fishing metaphor might be appropriate for people we can help or ideas we can foster during this coming season.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 2, 2018.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Coming Soon!

Thanksgiving is over, the leftovers have either been consumed, frozen for later, or transformed into some other edible form. Most of the company has gone home, and if anyone’s lucky, there is still at least one piece of pie left in the refrigerator for whoever snags it first. For one day, we seem to thrive on gluttony, with big meals, and lots of friends and family around to trade traditional stories and laugh together, even if some of the laughs are just a bit frayed on the edges. Still, we’ve given thanks for families, friends, those who’ve we’ve lost, those who are new to us, for help or for strength to go through tough times, and just about every reason we can think of to be grateful. Now the march is on to Christmas.

But hold it. Wait just a moment, please. Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday, a day that celebrates Jesus in his role as ruler and King of the Universe. It was first marked by Pope Pius XII in 1925 and is mostly celebrated in Roman churches, although Anglicans may observe it as well.  It puts a period on time we call the Pentecost season, and the Romans call Ordinary Time. We aren’t ready for Christmas just yet; we still have another season to go.

I have to admit I love Christmas. I bought a new tree this year, and I have just put it up and turned the lights on so that I can see where lights need to be replaced or a branch shifted to cover up a bald spot before I even start decorating. But then I stop and think okay, just because my family tradition is to put the Christmas trees up on Thanksgiving weekend, it doesn’t mean I need to jump ahead straight to Christmas. I’ll have a week to work my way into Advent, four weeks of reflection, contemplation, and meditation on what this whole Christianity thing is about. Yes, it celebrates the time between the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary about the forthcoming child and runs up through the eve of that child’s birth. There’s a lot that goes on in the meantime, but there isn’t much in Scripture that describes that, so we left to think about things in detail, like why was Mary chosen? What characteristics made her the one God shows to be the mother of Jesus? What happened after Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s, and what happened after she left Elizabeth’s to return home? There’s so much to think about that I’m glad I have a week to prepare for it.

I know it’s early to be talking about Advent, but we’ve been seeing Christmas trees and decorations in some of the stores since Labor Day. This week they’ve added the songs like Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls that are not really Christmas carols but seasonal songs that we’re accustomed to hearing this time of year. Starting about December 1, the local classical station will begin playing more Christmas music every few days. It will start with one every three or four hours, then work its way to Christmas Eve day, so that it is all Christmas music for 48 hours. Come the Feast of St. Stephen (or Boxing Day), you never hear another thing about Christmas. It’s cut off for those of us in churches that observe the whole season of Christmas, and it’s a bit of a bummer. We don’t sing Christmas carols during Advent; we wait until Christmas to start celebrating, and we do so until Epiphany on January 6. So by the time we’re ready to celebrate, others have already gone past that and are into Valentine’s Day.  We rush things and we don’t take time to anticipate the reality.

I remember as a child, the church I went to didn’t celebrate Advent. I never heard about it until my first year or so in the Episcopal Church. I learned that it did balance to the year in a way,  like Lent, only a little less penitential. Advent is a season of looking ahead but not so far that my feet aren’t grounded in today.

 I think I will enjoy this advent season, just as I have almost every year since I first came across Advent. I don’t have an Advent wreath, mainly because the cats would either try to eat it, singe their fur on the candles or try to knock it off the table. But there’s an Advent calendar inside me with a proper number of candles lit for each week and my reading will help me keep on that path to not rush into what is coming.

I’ll still enjoy my Christmas tree, and as I sit in my rocking chair and watch the fake flames in my little fireplace,  I feel contentment. I can put away the anxieties. I can practice being contemplative and calm, practice patience and enjoy what I have. I’m thankful for Thanksgiving, which reminds me to be grateful for so many things.  I’m grateful to celebrate Christ the King Sunday, but I’m grateful to have the season of Advent to look forward to. I hope you do too.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 24, 2018.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sabbath Killing and Healing

Jesus was going to the house of a very high-status Pharisee to have a Sabbath meal. The Sabbath was a required tradition, with lots of things that you could and could not do on the Sabbath. There was no work allowed, human or animal, although the animal must be fed before you yourself ate.  If a person wanted to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, either after sundown on Sabbath eve or on the Sabbath itself on Saturday, they must walk. Meals were prepared before sundown, and to have someone invited to share your Sabbath dinner meant considerable work must take place before dark.

Jesus knew that the Pharisees were keeping a very sharp eye on him, but yet, in front of him, appeared a man with dropsy. Dropsy was the word for people with edema, swelling of tissues caused by water retention. It was painful and could be life-threatening. Knowing that he would be severely questioned and possibly worse for breaking the Sabbath prohibition on work,  Jesus turned the tables and asked the Pharisees and the lawyers if it was legal or lawful to cure people on the Sabbath. People often asked the Pharisees questions since they were the ones who clarified the law, yet this man, a Nazarene, was asking them something them they weren’t sure how to answer. Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way. Then he turned to the group and said words to the effect that if they had a child or an ox that fell in a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t they immediately go and pull them out even if it meant work on the Sabbath?  The gospel notes that the Pharisees and lawyers said nothing.

Just a week or so ago, an angry man went into a synagogue on a Saturday morning and began shooting people peacefully carrying out their Sabbath duty to gather, pray, and learn. The angry man’s motive was hatred of the people in the synagogue, simply because they were Jewish.  Eleven people died within a very few minutes, three police officers were shot, and the gunman also received multiple wounds from police fire. It was a terrible, gut-wrenching tragedy.  Yet, while we try to comprehend it all, we remember the story of the Jewish nurse, himself concerned about the safety of his parents at the synagogue, who treated the gunman who had taken so many lives with kindness and respect, despite the man’s antisemitic statements and the knowledge of how far that hatred had gone.  Still, we remember the example of the nurse who cared with compassion and love a man who hated him and his people. 

We have Pharisees among us, people who watch us to see where we have faults and where we don’t follow the law according to their interpretations of it. We also have a model that we are urged to emulate, the man Jesus, who preached love and compassion rather than legalism and often shallow piety.

Now we have another shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks, California, where the targets seemed to be young college students out having an enjoyable evening with their friends.  In between the two events are other shootings, random and targeted killings, and suggestions for us to carry more guns to prevent more murders by gunfire.  It’s hard to think of a church or synagogue, a place of peace and worship, as being needful of armed guards inside to protect it. Just as at the shooting at the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015,  my question is whether a place dedicated to the Prince of Peace be somewhere where a militia or guards should be placed to protect that peace?  What would Jesus do?

But we have forgotten the man with dropsy. Maybe he didn’t realize the place into which he was putting himself – between two people or groups of people who saw things differently and not in an amicable way.  The man just went to Jesus to ask for healing, whether it was on the Sabbath or not.  Pain and danger don’t seem to keep to the calendar marked with sacred days.  Today a person would go to a doctor or clinic, no matter what day it was, and expect to be healed, or, at least, be given a prescription that would make them better in a short period. They would expect to be treated with respect, kindness, and compassion, no matter how cranky or crabby they were, and despite how overworked, tired, sad, or frustrated the nursing staff and doctors were at the time. How frustrated might the Jewish nurse and doctor have been on that Sabbath morning of the shooting?  Yet they did their best and treated the patient they had on the table in front of them.

I think it’s a lesson that I can certainly learn from.  Had these medical workers been Christian, we would be declaring them prime examples of how Jesus taught us to be and do. We forget that Christians and Jews share a good many things and teachings since Christianity grew out of Judaism – with an itinerant Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer.

May we all have a peaceful and blessed Sabbath, a Shabbat shalom. 

G-d bless.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café on Saturday, November 10, 2018.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Wool Jacket

It’s beginning to get chilly here in this part of Arizona, close to Phoenix. Of course, people will laugh when I say it’s chilly at anything between 60 and 80°F, especially when snow was falling in some places around the country. Okay, people can laugh, but I don’t laugh when the temperature is 115 or so in the summer and others are at about 80, so I guess it all equals out. Today felt a little nippy for me, so I was looking in the closet for a light sweater or jacket, and I happen to come across a favorite wool coat that had belonged to my late husband. I always loved that jacket, and even though I’d don’t wear it, I like to see it in the hanging there. I did take it out and look at it, only to notice that it seems to have attracted some moths, judging by the little holes in various parts of it. That’s funny. I haven’t seen any moths in years, but here was proof that there were some in the house somewhere. I’m still not going to get rid of that jacket.

I was reading about Elizabeth of Hungary, who is commemorated today. I looked at her Scripture and lo and behold, what do I read but “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. ”  (v.33). Now if that wasn’t timely!

Elizabeth certainly did not waste her time and energy. She was a princess by marriage but was concerned about those who were poor and sick. She used her dowry to help the less fortunate and even sold her jewels to found a hospital where she assisted in nursing the sick herself. When her people were hungry, she opened the granaries of her country to feed them during a famine. Her husband died in 1227, and his family was not pleased with what they considered her wasting of the family wealth and expelled her from the family and home. She became a Tertiary Franciscan, a lay vocation, where she sewed clothing for the poor and went fishing to feed them.  She also resumed nursing as well as other charitable works. She didn’t sit and wait for the moths to take over or the thieves either. She did what needed to be done.

Even though Elizabeth died in 1231, some hospitals around the world have been named St. Elizabeth hospitals, many of them in honor of Elizabeth of Hungary. She seems to have taken the verses from Luke very seriously and taken to heart stories like the one of the rich young ruler who, when approaching Jesus, was told to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. He couldn’t do that, so he walked away. Another young man sought to follow Jesus and was told to leave everything behind and come. The man said that he needed to bury his father. He went away as well. Each of the two men had their own priorities. These priorities did not fit Jesus’s, because it focused the men on earthly things rather than heavenly ones.

It’s something we see quite often these days, where instead of laying out treasure in heaven, many seem more interested in laying out treasure in banks, on Wall Street, or in investments that they hope will pay off hugely. They seek to increase their own wealth by taking from the poor and legislating in favor of the rich. This is not what Jesus preached, not what St. Elizabeth of Hungary did, and not what we have come to understand of the Gospels as it’s true mandate of loving one’s neighbor. I can’t love my neighbor if I have my hand in his pocket and take his money because I feel I am entitled to have it.

In these times, where the stock market fluctuates up and down regularly, where the price of things continually rises, and where people in the lower end of the 98% are squeezed ever tighter, I have to wonder what Jesus it is that they profess to follow. It seems unreal to me that, like moths on a wool jacket, they keep nibbling away at the fabric of our lives and all to feed themselves more richly. I wonder what St. Elizabeth would think of this. I’m pretty sure I know what Jesus would say.

I really like the prayer for Elizabeth that accompanies today’s readings:

Almighty God, by your grace your servant Elizabeth of Hungary recognized and honored Jesus in the poor of this world: Grant that we, following her example, may with love and gladness serve those in any need or trouble. In the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

It sounds like a good prayer for me to contemplate today and to seek out where I can do more, even if it’s in a tiny way, to help others who are not as fortunate as I. I think it’s Jesus’s invitation, not just to me, but to others as well. I am encouraged to try to lay out my treasure in heaven because, in heaven, I won’t have to worry about moths in a treasured wool jacket.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Friday, November 16, 2018.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Of Saints and Souls

Dear Abba,

It’s Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day and with All Souls’ Day the day after. It’s always a tricky time of year for me, with the leaves dying on the trees, the shortening days, and the anniversary of Mama’s death.  My mind was already full of thoughts about separations and goodbyes, and this just focused those thoughts.  I have learned about saints in the liturgical calendar, have known a lot of souls and some I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend for sainthood, and some just ordinary folks.

Throughout my life, there have been a large number of goodbyes.  Some have not been too hard; those are the folks who have briefly passed through my life and then we have both moved on to other things and other relationships: my school friends, people I knew in the various places I have lived and worked, and even some internet friends.  Some, like the friends from school, I rather expected to keep in touch with, but it did not happen as I expected.  I never really expected to see some again, like college, military friends, and most people I worked with.  Honestly, most of those I did not want to see again anyway. 

There were some that I expected to see again but who died before that happened.  Those were more traumatic losses because even though I knew, in most cases, that they were ill or aged or even both, and that there was a chance that I might never see them again. There was always the hope that I would because they were people dear to me, and it did not seem to matter whether I was a child or an adult.  I still grieved their loss and missed them very much, even when we did not have a contact that often.  There were some that I never really had a chance to say, “I’m sorry” or a formal goodbye, and those I regret.  Some losses have left gaping holes in my life that still feel raw and some that have taken a long time to heal.  There’s a feeling of separation there, sometimes enough to make me feel the need to be very much apart from people, fearing more loss and more hurt. Many of these are my personal saints, people who have touched my life, often for decades, and who I can only pray for or talk to in my mind. Luckily, I have some who are still with me, and some very supportive souls to help keep me focused and supported.

I sometimes wonder about Jesus.  He was a part of life, interacting with people, being intimately involved in the sense of sharing daily life with them, but did he ever feel connected with them?  Did he feel an apartness there?  I know that his connection with you was total, but even though he preached, taught, ministered, healed, and traveled with people, did he feel a part of the whole or was he too conscious of his separateness, his role as your son and representative, to feel bonded with the mere humans with whom he interacted?  Of course he felt compassion for the marginalized ones, the disabled, the ill, but did he sit and joke with his companions?  Did he share just plain conversations about any and everything like friends do? 

I understand that he was fully human, or that is what I have been taught, but in his humanity did he not have that sense of the divine that made him a person separated from others, even those who loved him and followed him?  Did he welcome human companionship or did he act humanly without taking it to an emotionally intimate level?  I wonder how Jesus was, beyond the preacher/teacher/healer that we read about in the Gospels.  Did he need defense mechanisms to preserve his personal and emotional safety?  Was he truly fully human?  Or did his divine nature give him that detachment from many of the everyday things that those of us who have no claim to divinity deal with on a daily basis?

I know that Jesus accepted separation from his followers when he experienced his betrayal and trial.  I know that the crucifixion was the final act of separation from them and from the life they had all lived before.  He rose again, but it seems he never again indeed returned to the relationships he had had previously, at least, not in the same way.  How could he?  He had done what no one had ever done before.  How could he go back to the pre-Easter style of life in a post-Easter situation?

Abba, I know that I can separate myself from other people by choice just as death or choice can separate me from people about whom I care. I can also choose to separate myself from you.  I can stand outside the group of people with whom I interact, and I realize I can also do that with you.  You give me the free will to do it, even if it would cause you pain if I followed that path.  Of all the relationships I have had or ever will have, the one I have with you is the one that I really cannot afford to sever and from which I cannot walk away.  I may not enjoy being separated and isolated from other people, but to separate myself from you would be death to me. 

Selfishly, I am not ready to die yet – not physically, not emotionally.  I can be a part of this world yet separate from it, but I cannot exist separately from you.  I can have relationships with other people from time to time, but the one ongoing relationship that I must have is with you so that I can live and not be just a shadow.  I can trust you even if I cannot do so with other human beings.  I can cling to you and not overwhelm you.  I can love you and have it be quite appropriate.  I can be myself with you because you already know all my flaws and weaknesses.  And with you, I never have to say goodbye.

Please help me to keep that connection with you firmly in my mind and heart.  Without it, I am totally lost. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 3, 2018, under the title, "Small Epiphanies."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Frogging and Life

I love fall. The weather has cooled down, at least insofar as the temperature is below 90 in the daytime and reasonably fresh, 70 or so, in the evenings. What deciduous trees we have near where I live are thinking about changing colors, although most of them will not be completely gone from the trees until sometime just before Christmas. It’s been a standing joke that the leaves don’t fall until Christmas Eve.

With the cooler evenings and the earlier twilights, it’s nice to sit in my comfortable rocking chair, with a cat on my lap, either reading or knitting in front of the fake fireplace that’s the best I can do in a tin can for a house that would catch fire in a heartbeat. Still, even the dancing of fake flames makes things seem more cozy, even if I don’t get the scent of burning wood, and who needs extra heat when the air conditioner turns on because the indoor temperature is still above 80 degrees?

As I sat here and knitted this evening, I suddenly discovered that I had committed an egregious error in my knitting some rows back. Drat. I was going along so well. The stitches were even as were the rows,  I was making progress, and then calamity. Complicating the whole situation was that I was knitting with three colors and that makes for another problem. As it turns out, I had to frog at least six rows, including a number that has alternating colors in the row. I hate frogging because it’s a failure. It takes some time to get the stitches pulled out down to the spot where the stitch is wrong, the error needs fixing, and then I have to go back to where I was initially. I wish I were a better knitter.

It made me think about life. I put the knitting down and look at what I’ve gotten done for a moment.  It looks nice now that I’ve gotten the mistake out, but now I’ve got to put all those stitches back in that I had to remove. I think about the times of my life when I have had to go back and try to fix errors that I have made, and if I can’t take them out, I need to try to fix them and learn from them. It’s not easy. It is much harder in life because there’s no real way to frog it like there is in knitting, to take my life back to a point in the past and then relive everything from that point onward.

Scripturally, I recall verses that tell me that if I acknowledge my sin, I will be forgiven. Even if I don’t admit it, I’m forgiven in God’s eyes. In my own, that’s an entirely different story. The error feels like it gets bigger and bigger. I look at it until I wish I could rip out the whole of my life and either start over again or forget the whole thing entirely. It’s difficult to forgive someone who has wronged me, but it’s so much harder to forgive myself for what I’ve done to myself and others. I can apologize, I can try and make amends, but somehow those amends don’t seem to get as far as my own inner workings. Like a botched piece of knitting, it sticks out like a sore thumb, even if I’m the only one who notices it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café on Saturday, October 27, 2018

I’m sure that the disciples had occasions where they wish they could have gone back and changed things, like the times that they didn’t catch on to what Jesus was trying to teach them,  even though the model was right in front of them. Jesus didn’t use whiteboards or PowerPoint presentations, but they had the example of his life. They were with him every day, so how could they be so dense? How could they miss so many things when he tried to teach them new ways of looking at things, new ways of doing them?

It’s odd. I think of the women in the New Testament, like the woman at the at the well, the one with the hemorrhage, Mary and Martha, the woman who argued with Jesus about the crumbs under the table, and others. Instinctively, they seem to get it when Jesus talked. They weren’t afraid to speak to him, and they weren’t necessarily slow at understanding what he was saying. They didn’t have to frog anything, because their patterns were knit correctly. Just sayin’.

Psalm 13 9:14b speaks of, “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Every knitter who is a Bible student knows that one. And, come to think of it, it is a good thing to think about. We don’t just suddenly appear out of our mother's uterus in the same state in which we began. We did a lot of growing in the nine-month period of incubation. Just like knitting and colors, slowly we grew fingers and toes, eyes and a nose, our heart began to beat, and other organs start to work until finally at the end of all those months, we emerge as an entire being.

Of course, there’s heartbreak in there too: babies born with life-threatening conditions, others born with severe diseases, life-altering disabilities, and some who never make it out of the womb. Bad things sometimes happen due to genetics, environmental issues, any one of a number of things. Some of those things we could fix by merely frogging some of our ideas and inventions and redoing them in a cleaner, healthier way, though we are too in love with progress.

While I knit, I think about what I’m doing, but I also think about what I’m learning. I’m practicing patience, something that’s in better supply than it was when I was 10 or 20 years younger. I’m a little more adventurous, trying stitches and patterns that are more complicated than I had tried before, and not being afraid to frog as many rows as I need to fix what I did wrong. Now if I can do that in my life, I would be much better off, wouldn’t I? If I could approach life with the same care and attention, I might come out of this thing with a lovely garment. And if I live the way I should, with constant attention to what I’ve been taught about and by Jesus, then I may get to the end of my earthly garment and find myself queuing up for a place in the heavenly kingdom, were no frogging will ever be needed.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 27, 2018. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Psalm to God and Man

Psalms have been considered poetry for millennia. Many of them have been ascribed to David, king of Israel, but there is some doubt as to his authorship of all of them. In fact, some have other authors. Psalm eight for today has no named author, so we don’t know who to thank for this lovely bit of poetry. It’s one of the Psalms that’s easy to read because it captures so many thoughts and emotions that we all share.

The Psalm starts with an exaltation of God as Creator and governor of all that is. It goes back to the Genesis stories of creation, where God put everything in motion.  According to the Psalmist, even infants and children praise God’s majesty.  God is also the protector against those who would seek to overpower or strike back at the people of God.

I love verse four, the one that talks about “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses.” That one verse pops into my mind just about every time I go out at night and look up at the few stars I can see from here. We must have our city lights which blank out most of the stars in the sky, but enough can be seen to remind me of all the others,  Like a little diamonds on a deep plush velvet.

The next verse is a bit touchy, mainly because it is something that I feel can be misconstrued, especially in this day and time. “What is man that you should be mindful of him? the son of man that you should seek him out?” The problem I have with it is the question “What is man?” Now, I realize that we often think about correctness and use the term human instead of man to be a little more sensitive to the fact that it there are women in this world. Many would possibly use the verse instead to accentuate that power was and is in the hands of men, especially when reading verse seven where it says, “You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet.” There’s also the problem of verse six, “You have made them but a little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor.”

The part about making man a little lower than the angels part bothers me because, throughout most of my life, power has been the sole property of males. Women were to be subservient, meek, and present only, as the old  German saying goes, for “Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church.) Even the angels were male. Honestly, it was a man’s world.  Still is, in some places.

Perhaps I am petty about this, but from my experience throughout my life, especially growing up in a very different time than we live in now, I have a somewhat jaundiced outlook on certain things. I remember the first time I heard the Eucharistic prayer that included Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel along with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was as if I heard it as a new story, one that included essential people that had never been mentioned in that way before. It was the beginning of my awareness that women indeed had significant parts in Biblical history, whether it was acknowledged or not.

We have had women scientists, astronauts, poet laureates, Nobel prize winners, conductors of major orchestras, artists, and heads of corporations. There are a lot of places we haven’t been yet, but I am sure they will at some point in time. I hope I live long enough to see it.

I have no problem reading this Psalm in the way in which it was written, because I look back at the time of the writing, the context of it, the culture from which it came, and understand that it was a reflection of the way things were. God was male, Father, governor. Men made all the decisions, but when women controlled something, even as small as a tavern or even their own body, it seemed to point to them being prostitutes.  Not very heartening for women at all.

The purpose of the Psalm was to glorify God. It does that very clearly and very poetically. It reminds us of all that God has done and all that has benefited us throughout the millennia. It’s something we forget, though, especially now. We seem to have replaced the God of Psalm eight with the god of money, power, and privilege. No longer is God our governor, or exalted in all the world. Instead, the moguls of industry, the captains of real estate, the lawyers, bankers, corporate CEOs, and politicians have taken the place of God. We hear the teachings of Jesus on Sunday morning, but then it’s off to the links, a nice restaurant, or home to watch a football game, forgetting what we were told in church, sometimes before we even reached the church door. That’s why we have scriptures like the Psalms. They are supposed to be reminders to us of the way things should be. Hopefully, we’ll go back to remembering that. Maybe one day, when the kingdom of God comes, we will see this kingdom of equality and glory under God.

I hope it’s not too much to wish for.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 20, 2018.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

When a Woman Speaks

The lectionary for the Daily Office sometimes amazes me. There is a list of readings for each day, morning and evening plus Eucharistic readings, and possibly additional readings for commemorations of holy people and saints or holy days or the eves before them.  It makes for a lot of choices, but the usual option is for the morning and evening of the day.  This time, though, it was the gospel for the Eucharist that struck me.

I wonder who selected which readings to go with which times of which days. The texts are always timely, but sometimes they are like a baseball bat between the eyes. They seem to say something about our modern life just as much as they do the continuing story of what happened next through the Bible. Looking at the past few weeks, the gospel for today for the Eucharist hits the nail on the head.

Jesus had been giving a series of teachings which included the Lord’s prayer and then several other lessons. This short passage we have today interrupts the instructions with a woman making a statement and Jesus dismissing her verbally. Two verses that sort of sum up what we’ve been hearing a lot about over the past few weeks in the news. A woman says something, and a man redirects or shuts her down. It’s hard to say that about Jesus, but that’s how I feel about this particular passage

The woman in the crowd made a statement that blessed the woman who bore Jesus and nursed him. Without mentioning Mary’s name, the woman seemed to express that Mary was blessed through bearing this Rabbi. Most women would probably be delighted to have something like that said about them because it recognizes one of the roles of women. But Jesus had something else to say: “…[B]lessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” In short, it seems that he exalts the people who did the same thing that his mother did, namely hearing the word brought from God and obeying it. It makes me wonder.

Over the past few weeks, the news is then overflowing with episodes of women coming forward with stories of abuse of all kinds including sexual harassment. Many have spoken out who had never done so before. They were afraid no one would believe them. Even those who had reported a crime and had spoken about it had undergone additional trauma of not being believed, being accused of asking for it,  received more abusive treatment, or hearing that it probably was their fault the situation happened. It seems to give a pass to boys, young men, and even older men to do as they will with women as if the women and girls were under their control to take or leave as they chose.

Women face a lot of negativity by speaking out. People, even family members, may shun them, call them by degrading names or disbelieve them. All this for enduring something over which they had no control and no say in the matter.

These past few weeks have been especially difficult, especially for women, because it has been brought so forcefully to our attention that despite the progress women have made regarding equality, we are still seen as most probably liars and manipulators. And why? Because some dared to speak out against the wrong done to them but which others referred to as “letting boys be boys.”

I’m a little taken aback by the way Jesus spoke to the woman in today’s passage, but I have to allow him to express himself as a human and sometimes say unpopular things that I find it hard to believe he would say. Still, he was a man of his time. I think about his visits to Mary and Martha, speaking to the woman at the well, healing of Jairus's daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage, and even his gentleness with the woman taken in adultery. So many of his stories and miracles were involving women whether they were named or not. So why would he say something like this to a woman who sought to bless his mother?

I think I’m going to have to think about this for a while. There are so many good men in this world, men who treat women fairly, as equals, with respect, and who defend them in troublesome times. Yet more and more we’re hearing powerful men making offensive statements about women as if the women were property to be spoken to and treated in whatever way they want. Some of these speak or present themselves as followers of Jesus although their actions make that presentation questionable. It makes me wonder what Jesus thinks about all that.

Yes, Jesus wants us to bless those who hear the word and do it. I can understand that. Praising his mother might be putting her above others, but I don’t think that was what Jesus meant. Jesus was pointing to one fact that we should all hear the word of God and obey it, and those who follow it show it in their actions.

Be careful. God is always watching, and so are the neighbors.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 13, 2018.

Unrecognized Tribes

I ran across an article online a couple of days ago that piqued my interest. It was a welcome diversion from what has become the usual fare of finger-pointing, name-calling, blame, shame, and incivility. It also made me think of my history – bound in the history of the place I called and still call home.

The article, dated January of 2018, was distributed by the National Park Service. It introduced some tribes of Native Americans as newly state-recognized tribes in the State of Virginia. As I read the list, I saw familiar names like Chickahominy and East Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Nansemond, and a few that were new to me: Nottoway, Patawomeck, and Monacan. All of these tribes had existed since long before the English had touched land at Jamestown in 1607. They were among the first to encounter the English, trade with them, and teach them to grow new and unfamiliar foodstuffs. There were also struggles and battles. The English pushed to extend the land and resources that they saw as theirs, and the Natives pushed back. And so it went.  

Of note, one of the objectives of the colony was to Christianize the Native Americans.  There were converts, like Pocahontas (of the Powhatan tribe), but many did not. The English used the same tactics on the Native Americans that was used on countless other expeditions: if the opponent wasn’t compliant, they could be compelled – or exterminated. It happened, from both sides.

What surprised me is how little I knew about the tribes that lived near me. In school, I don’t remember reading much about the Native Americans after the pre-Revolutionary period. Maybe there was an occasional mention, but nothing significant enough to remember. Looking back, it is as if they just disappeared. I know now that most of the remaining numbers of each tribe are small, with only two tribes living on their reservations. The others have small villages where they may offer roadside stands where travelers can buy local produce and crafts.  The second thing that surprised me was that the tribes that had lived in the same areas, sometimes for thousands of years, were not officially recognized by the state as existing. How can people be overlooked this way? And what difference does it make?

To answer the second question first, in some states it doesn’t matter a lot. There aren’t a lot of benefits like assistance programs, education aid, and the like. What difference does it make? In many places, it can be the difference between life and death, something most of us don’t spare a moment thinking or worrying about. As for how can people be overlooked, sometimes the answer can be so simple it’s almost laughable. It boils down to economics and privilege. The Haves want to keep what they’ve got and acquire more. The Have Nots have neither the money or the opportunity to push for recognition and assistance. Thus it has been for millennia as it is today.

As Christians, what should be our response to these unrecognized tribes? What about the homeless, the hungry, the children deprived of educational opportunity, the poor, those lacking medical care, those who see no other way to cope other than to end their own lives to stop the pain? Where do they go for help? Perhaps that is the real question.

Jesus gave us some clues we are to pay attention to unless all we have been taught is nothing but nice words. That sounds shocking to me, and it came out of my head. I certainly don’t believe it, but I look around and see a lot of demonstrations of precisely that.  When was the last time I saw something about the people living on shoestrings in Appalachia?  How about Native tribes in the Southwest forced to relocate to areas where their usual foods do not grow?  How about those same people developing large populations of overweight members with an extremely high rate of diabetes as a result?  How about those who are still trying to repair hurricane damage from years ago? Then there are the veterans living under bridges because they can’t forget what their dedication to this country cost them in terms of what they saw, heard, and did while following the orders of that country. What of them?

Jesus’s “clues” were directed to all Christians. All Christians were and are advised to love one another, to care for the people who needed care.  Historically, those same rules were common to the Jews and before them the Hebrews, who were the roots of Christianity. They were still in the Bible when the English landed at Jamestown, the Spaniards took over Mexico and Florida, the French set up their colonies, and any other “Christian” country used a strong-arm kind of evangelism and privilege. 

Who benefits from obeying the things Jesus told us to do?  Well, it depends.  State recognition of Native American tribes may or may not gain them release from any of the problems that plague them now, but acceptance of them as God’s children, in need of help as instructed by Jesus might give them a real sense of what that recognition means. John F. Kennedy said at his inauguration in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  That quote inspired a couple of generations to put the welfare of others ahead of their own.  Jesus has inspired millions throughout the millennia to do the same.  Perhaps we need a revival of those lessons.

The kingdom of God will never come to fruition on earth as long as there are unrecognized tribes, no matter where or what they are.  And who are we Christians to deny others the benefits recognition gives, far more than just physical, economic, and educational benefits?  Who are we to deny their personhood by making them invisible?  Is that showing what the kingdom of God is about?

I’m happy Virginia finally recognized the tribes in my home state. I’m glad several of them are now seeking Federal recognition, which will make them more eligible for aid and programs that will help them improve their standard of living. I’m still ashamed of how little I know of these tribes who breathed the same air and in some cases, walked the same ground I did. Right now, though, I think I need to find the unrecognized tribes, Native and Non-Native, that surround me and help them to a better life in the kingdom of God on earth.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café   Saturday, October 5, 2018.