Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Simple Remedy

It’s almost Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. We’ve been taught that Advent is a time of patient waiting and expectation, a time to reflect and plan for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.  Unfortunately, the closer we get to Christmas, the more frantic we seem to become.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed this time of year. I know I experience it, even though I am not doing much Christmas shopping, participating in parties and events, or contributing to outreach programs or children’s activities.  The house isn’t going to clean itself, especially when three cats are busily shedding fur faster than I can vacuum it up. The tree isn’t going to redecorate itself when the self-same cats knock off ornaments oh-so-innocently. I won’t even think about the dishes that seem to dirty themselves if I turn my back for a minute. Bills still have to be paid, appointments I have to keep, and early nightfall, making the days seem shorter and shorter. It’s all part of this time of year, but sometimes it gets to be a bit too much.

I was sitting in my rocker the other night, trying to knit a scarf that should become a present but finding myself making mistake after mistake due to inattention. Trying to write didn’t seem to be any more successful, and even attempting to comprehend the latest book I was reading didn’t work.  Sitting and thinking encouraged the hamster wheel of my mind to spin nearly out of control, to the point where I was becoming less and less functional. Then it happened.

There was a commercial on TV that had a darling little boy walking down the aisle of an airplane, giving fist bumps to guys sitting on the aisle. As adorable as that was, it was the music they were playing that got to me. I heard a jazz pianist play “Linus and Lucy” from the Charlie Brown TV specials from years ago made my shoulders drop in relaxation, the hamster-wheel slow down, and a smile come to my face.  It made me feel like a kid again in a time where things weren’t so tense and scary, where I felt safe and happy, and where I could open the daily paper and find the Peanuts comic strip.

It felt like a good time to be alive, to remember what it was like not to have to worry about finances or the state of the world, and to look forward with joy to Christmas. It was fun rehearsing for the Christmas music in school and church. Mama would let me help make the cookies and cakes that made the house smell good (and be shared with my class at school and Sunday school, and friends and family over the holidays). I would flip through the vast Sears catalog, trying to choose what I would most like to see under the tree on Christmas morning.  It was a slower, more relaxed time, or so it seemed. It probably didn’t feel that way to Mama.

Still, I have been hearing that jazzy little tune in my head all day. I especially remember it in the context of the Christmas special where Charlie Brown found a very skimpy little tree and put a Christmas ball on it that almost bent it in half. Linus recited the Christmas story from Luke 2, and the tune made them happy enough to dance around. Even the little tree seemed to perk up. 

I love Christmas. I love the carols and Messiah. I love the colored lights and the smells of evergreens from the trees and wreaths. It used to seem that people were a little kinder to each other during this season, and maybe there are still times and places where that happens, or I hope it does. It was such a beautiful part of the waiting. Smiling at strangers came easily, and people were happy to be greeted, whether it was “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

Christmas can be a tough time for lots of people, me included. Each year seems to bring one more empty place around the tree or the dinner table. Anniversaries of tragic events threaten to sabotage the happiness I feel it is my right during this time of year. That’s when I need that jazzy little Charlie Brown theme. It makes the circle seem complete, even if physically there are still gaps.

Here’s a thought. If things seem to be getting to be too much, I’ll find A Charlie Brown Christmas on YouTube or cable or maybe on DVD. It doesn’t take very long to watch, but I will let myself watch it as a child would, with innocence and enjoyment. I will remember when life was simpler and kinder, a time when even a bare little tree could be made beautiful. If Christmas has painful memories, I will acknowledge them and then try to think of ways to make new memories that can be part of the present and the future, not the past. I can even use a little tune to lighten my heart and lift my spirits.

Waiting and reflecting just might be a bit easier if there’s a little jazz playing in my mind.

Two Sundays until Christmas.  Enjoy them!

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 14, 2019.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Photos and Memories

I’ve been thinking about pictures all day. It’s made me wonder what we did before cameras and digital devices that record images that we can look at weeks, months, even years later, and bring back memories that we might possibly forget if we didn’t have the photos to remind us.

One image I have in my mind today is my beloved first indoor cat. My then-husband named my little dilute calico “Dammit” because the ex- was forever yelling at her to get off the table, down from the curtains, or just on general principles. At her heaviest she weighed only six pounds, and the rabies tag she wore for years looked so huge on her. She was my trial baby, born six months before my son, and remained my beloved soulmate until her death twenty years later. I still miss that cat.

The other photo that has been in my thoughts and my heart today is a Christmas photo of my little blonde, curly-haired, blue-eyed boy that I swear was the cutest child ever born. He was born in the Philippines, and the picture I love best was one I took on his second Christmas, the first one we spent back in the States after our return. He wears his blue-and-white one-piece pajamas with the long sleeves and non-skid soles, the blue figures of the cloth being much lighter than the color of his eyes. I swear, I would have given almost anything to have eyelashes as long and as thick as his! His chubby little face had the sweetest grin as he opened a present, a Tonka Winnebago motor home. I have that snapshot tacked up next to my desk where I can see it often. He’s still adorable, some 45 years later, but this was my little boy blue.

Thinking about that picture made me consider Mary, mother of Jesus. Granted, Jesus never got a Tonka truck under a Christmas tree, but Mary never had a camera to take photos of her baby boy as he grew up. All her memories would have been kept in her head, not precisely somewhere she could keep with her to pull out and show to curious neighbors and relatives who lived at a distance.  Did she have particular memories of adorable-child images that all mothers have of their offspring?  Did she think about them from time to time as something reminded her of those times?  I don’t see how she could have kept from remembering them; I think all mothers have those moments.

I wonder what her memories might have been when Jesus grew up, such as when she and his siblings went to try to convince him to come home, fearing that he would be thought insane and in need of familial care and, very probably, confinement. Did she think back to times in his life when she might have doubted whether or not he would have problems when he grew up? Did she look at him there among the crowd, and then hear that he repudiated her and the siblings? Did her heart ache for the little boy who would run to her and put his chubby arms around her in a huge hug? I imagine that might possibly have gone through her mind at the time.

And then there was when she stood at the foot of the cross, looking up at her grown-up son being executed as a criminal. Was there room in her heart for anything but the horror of what she was seeing and knowing the agony and fear he was feeling? Did she remember the first time she cradled him in her arms, wrapped warm and tight, and being safe in the shelter of the hay-strewn stable?  Did she feel the presence of the other women, crowded around her there on Golgotha, witnessing what she was seeing, and supporting her in their communal grief? Did she miss Joseph’s arms around her, and the bustling of the midwife tidying up their temporary accommodation in Bethlehem?  Did she think of the long trip to Bethlehem and then the journey to Egypt to escape the threat against her baby’s life? Perhaps she spared a thought for the three-day trek from Jerusalem when she and Joseph first missed Jesus and the rush back to find him in the Temple, astounding the rabbis with his knowledge and poise. Maybe all the memories ran through her head as she looked upwards, and her one wish was to take him in her arms again and soothe him, even though she knew it would be impossible.

I think of modern-day mothers who live in dangerous times and who hold their children close, hoping that no harm will ever come to them but fearing that that will most probably be a hope that will not happen. How many of them will not have a photo of their child to remember them in happier times, only memories of shattered, battered bodies lying amongst the rubble of bombed and burned homes? What of the children who have been ripped from their parents’ arms to be put into cages and tents far from anything familiar, and who cry for comfort and safety? How can it be possible for us to cherish our children so much but have so little regard for the children of others who are lost and afraid?

My heart aches for Mary, even as I prepare to celebrate the beginning of the journey to Bethlehem and beyond. I have the chance to look back at various times in my son’s life, knowing she didn’t have that luxury except in her memories. Right now, I honestly want to keep my eyes on that picture of my little two-year-old boy, smiling as he opens a toy under the Christmas tree. Looking at photos of migrant children and those who are incarcerated simply because their parents sought to bring them to safety as Mary and Joseph tried to find in Egypt is almost more than I can bear.

Even though I have just begun the season of Advent, the images on my wall remind me that the journey doesn’t end at 11:59 PM on December 24th. Still, I can’t help but think ahead and put myself in Mary’s place. I’ve been a mother (still am, thankfully), and have reminders of my little boy’s first home-made Christmas ornament (a reindeer made from clothespins he made in daycare at age four), pictures of him sitting on my brother’s front steps on a trip back to Virginia when he was about ten, and a graduation picture from high school. I treasure them and hope that Mary had good memories to hold in her heart through the years of her life.

Cherish the memories of the good things and times and work for those who need good things to happen for them.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 7, 2019.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

St Andrew to the Fore

A man walked by the sea where fishermen landed their boats, unloaded the fish, and worked on their nets. He summoned two men from the many present on the beach that day with a single gesture. He didn’t know them personally, but he evidently saw something in the two of them that told him that they were men he could trust, teach, and who would carry on his work. Their names were Peter and Andrew bar Jonah, and they had just met the man who would change their lives forever.

Andrew became one of the 12 disciples. Legend has it that he was the first one chosen, although Peter might have been the elder as he was already married when Jesus called him and his brother. They followed Jesus, learned from him, and took his teachings out into the world both before and after the Resurrection.  Andrew became a missionary to Greece and Asia Minor, possibly including parts of Russia and Poland. He was martyred in the city of Patras, Turkey, by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross, called a saltaire, which became one of his more customary symbols.  Following his death, his relics were gathered and hidden as per a dream given to St. Regulus, who did as the vision commanded.  In 356, Constantinus II ordered that the relics should go to Constantinople, but Regulus had another dream in which he was told to take what relics he had not sent and put them on a ship to sail to the end of the earth.  The boat wrecked on the western coast of Scotland near the town of Kilrymont, later renamed St. Andrew’s in honor of the saint.

Festivals celebrating St. Andrew have been held in Scotland since sometime around 1000 CE, and in 1320, Andrew was made the patron saint of Scotland. The saltaire-shaped cross of his martyrdom became part of the Scottish flag and was incorporated later into the flag of the United Kingdom. His relics were placed in a chapel in the Cathedral of St. Andrews, a medieval church built in the 11th century. When the monasteries and religious places were pillaged and desecrated at the time of the Reformation, the Scottish relics were shipped to Rome, where many of them remained.

Many people are familiar with St. Andrews, Scotland, not so much for the saint himself but for the game of golf. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious golf courses in the world. Golf has been played in various forms in far-flung parts of the world, but the course at St Andrew's is where the  18-hole game we know today was established (previously it had been 22), as well as a code of standards for the course and the game. For many golfers, a trip to and a chance to play a round at one of the four courses at St. Andrews is the equivalent of a trip to Jerusalem, and probably as expensive as a trip to the Holy City, with accommodations, and tours included.

Needless to say, St. Andrew is a patron saint of fishermen, and places such as Scotland, Romania, Ukraine,  Patras (the city in Turkey where most of his relics are now located), and Barbados. His patronages also include singers, single laywomen, anglers, farmworkers, pregnant women, and golfers. Religious medals honoring St. Andrew are for sale in religious stores, but there are also medals for those golfers who wish to invoke the blessing of their patron saint as they walk or drive their golf carts from hole to hole like a journey to a sacred shrine such as Compostela or Jerusalem. There are also golfing rosaries, with small replicas of golf balls marking off the prayers. What will they think of next?

Many of us look at St. Andrew primarily on his feast day. Churches sometimes celebrate the day with the Kirking of the Tartans. Those of Scottish descent bring a piece of their tartan to lay on the altar rail, parishioners wear their clan kilts, and often bagpipe and drum bands play processionals and recessionals, with the eerie and sometimes heart-pounding sound of the old country bouncing from the ceiling and walls. It’s been compared to the wailing of lost souls, but it is also a significant part of the Scottish identity, a soul-stirring reminder of the reason wars have been fought, brave men summoned, and the dead remembered – just not on the golf course, please!

Gum beannaicheadh Dia thu. God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, November 30, 2019.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Scents of the Season

We’ve had lots of rain this week – the remnant of a tropical storm that started passing us about three days ago and is now the tail ends of it cause occasional showers and thunderstorms. It’s been lovely, as far as I’m concerned. I miss having rain more frequently than every 3-6 months!

One thing about rain is the smell of it. Who’d think that water falling from the sky could have a scent to it, but then, maybe it’s the scent of dry earth being touched lightly by water or plants that send their fragrances into the air when touched by precipitation. Rain brings a clean smell while salt air has a tang to it. Fresh-cut grass has a scent of its own, and even dust can have a particular smell. There’s a kind of signature about the smell of rain; once you learn its scent, it’s as distinctive as a rose. 

It would be a very dull world without smells.  Without it, food would have no taste, since much of what we perceive as “tasty” is not totally a function of the taste buds on our tongues.  Without our noses to smell, we are basically limited to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.  Add a nose, and a couple of unimpaired areas of the brain, and the combinations multiply infinitely. 

My adoptive father lost his sense of smell in an accident.  He could tell which of the basic four tastes was which, but that was all. Yet to the end of his days, he would not eat a piece of apple pie without an accompanying slice of cheddar cheese because, as he put it, he didn’t “think it would taste right” without it.  It amused us no end, but he was entirely serious.  He had eaten his apple pie that way all his life until that point, so why change just because he could not physically taste it?   I think of the last time I had a severe cold.  It was hard to feel hungry because I could not taste anything.  I remembered something I had read about how to get sick pets to eat, so I tried the same thing – I added some pungent garlic to my food, and suddenly, I was not only hungry but enjoying what I ate.  That sense of smell made all the difference.

Smells are important, not only for telling us what is good to eat and what is not but also as a trigger for memories, both good ones and bad.  Things like apple pies or bread baking are not just pleasant but often bring back memories of special times.  Sometimes real estate agents encourage sellers to have one or the other cooking in the oven when the house is being shown to prospective buyers as a kind of encouragement to think of the house as warm, welcoming, and homey.  Maybe it works, I don’t know.  I know I love the smells of a wood fire, even if I can’t feel the heat or hear the popping and crackling of the burning process.  I enjoy the scents of rosemary and lavender, sugar cookies baking, hyacinths, salt air, and even the neighbor’s Chinese food (with lots of garlic) cooking. 

I like the smell of incense too. Nothing beats the scent of a high holy day like having a swinging thurible and puffs of smoke coming from incense burning on hot coals inside it. It’s a reminder of incense burned in the temple as a sacrifice or to represent prayers rising to the heavens in some other faiths as well as some Christian denominations. Native Americans often use burning sage to cleanse and purify a designated area. Hindus and Buddhists use incense as gifts to the gods and to carry their prayers upward. Beeswax candles have a subtle but clean fragrance that lingers after the flames are extinguished. I feel a sense of loss when I see oil candles on the altar and as the Paschal candle. They may be more economical, but I miss the fragrance of beeswax.

This week will be a busy one for our senses of smell. Pumpkin and apple pies, fresh bread, turkey stuffing, the tang of cranberries cooking for sauce (if one is brave enough to try to make it!), and more will be in the air as we prepare for Thanksgiving. Looking beyond, we have the scents of gingerbread, hot cider, sugar and other kinds of cookies, cakes, pies, puddings, fires in the fireplace, coffee and tea brewing, perhaps a smoked ham cooking, Christmas tree resins (or maybe fake Christmas tree sprays), fresh-cut boughs and runners, the tang of cold air – there are so many scents to look forward to. The weather may be severe and treacherous, but somehow the fragrances of the holidays cheer us up even if just a little.

Perhaps it sounds silly, but I need to remember to thank God for giving me a reasonable sense of smell so that I can enjoy the smell of the rosemary bush I brush past as I go to get into my truck, the scent of rain, the delicious anticipation of good food cooking, the comfort of natural wood fires on the hearth, and the faint recollection of the scents of the church during the holidays. It’s enough to make my heart lighter, despite the lengthening of the nights and the chill of the air this time of year.

Come to think of it, I should thank God for the candles, colored lights, sounds of music of centuries past, and the taste of seasonal foods (and everyday food as well). I think this year, I’ll have to have a piece of apple pie with a sliver of cheddar cheese for Daddy. I’ll thank God for memories that are evoked by things I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch because they are gifts that give the world dimension and texture. It would be a very dull, bland world without them.

Happy Thanksgiving and God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Running Out

Drat.  I had a recipe all set out to make up this afternoon and had my mouth all set for the delicious product I had hoped to produce, but I lacked one ingredient and really didn’t have a substitute for it.  Running out of things is getting to be a habit. Last week I ran out of bread, eggs, and canned cat food. As someone I know on Facebook would say, <le sigh>. I had bought some groceries this week but didn’t remember that the milk was getting old and I didn’t know I needed currants or raisins. Well, the Welsh cakes I wanted to try will have to wait until next week. At least I’m not out of bathroom tissue, eggs, or cat food!

It’s always inconvenient to run out of something just at the time it’s needed the most, like gas in the tank, tape to finish wrapping a present, paper towels to clean up a mess, or another skein of yarn to finish a shawl, sweater, or scarf.  It’s inconvenient to have a month that lasts longer than the money available to last through it, but that’s something many of us try our best to keep from happening. The tires on the car will last another year or so, we hope, but we do need to have the oil changed soon or face possible calamity. There are lots of things we can do without, but it’s more pleasant if we don’t have to.

Luckily for us, God never runs out of things except for maybe patience now and again. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures portrayed God as being a bit grumpy from time to time, but then, we have to remember that God was trying to teach creation and the descendants of Adam and Eve (and any other people or creatures) the rules of life and obedience. I wonder, though, did God run short on things when God made the platypus with a bill and tail without fur?  Was there an excess of beautiful colors that God wanted to use when the peacock, parrot, hummingbird, tropical fish, and other colorful creatures’ turn came for painting?  Were the shades of trees selected so the leaves of specific species turned a particular hue in fall? Did God take pleasure in creating all the kinds and colors of cats and dogs, as well as their different environments and temperaments? I wish I could have been there at creation; I might have tried to talk God into making a few real unicorns.

But that brings us to the thought of God as infinitely nearly everything we could name. Patient, creative, boundless, generous, caring, protective, and loving – and those are just some of the attributes of God.

Does God loose natural disasters on humankind and innocent creatures on a whim, knowing that none of them are prepared for such calamities?  The ancient Egyptians would have said yes, based on the plagues God sent so the Israelites could be free.  The victims of epidemics, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like might say yes, based on the losses of life and property as a result.  Even some Christians would say that God was responsible for teaching the modern world the same lessons the Egyptians and others had to learn about who God is/was and what the rules were. I don’t even want to think about a God who makes wagers on a person’s faith as if his life, family, and possessions were a prize to be won or lost on the toss of a die.

Unlike us, God doesn’t run out of things. Commodities are nothing to God except to be recognized as temptations that can change good men to evil as the Emperor turned Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. God gave humankind almost limitless freedom, except for a few rules (which humans didn’t waste time observing). Ok, there were really 613 by the time of Leviticus, but by then the Ten Commandments needed updating.  It sounds a lot like the way our government operates today, at least to my way of thinking.

Does God weep when seeing homeless and hungry people and animals?  When disaster overwhelms farms, towns, and even cities?  Does God rejoice when a new child is born, or someone acknowledges God’s love?  I can’t imagine God not loving to watch kittens wrestling, birds singing, or seeds sprouting.

God’s highest abundance is grace, the ability to receive regeneration and sanctification through divine influence, to be strengthened to endure and resistant to temptation, and to be given particular virtues or gifts. Christians recognize grace as God’s gift to us, but often it is applied to those fitting particular beliefs and parameters.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that God’s grace is boundless, unlimited, and available to all, whether or not they accept it. There is no expiration date, number of items, coupons, or anything other than a willingness to be open to it and receive it. It never runs out. If somehow someone makes a mistake and feels that he or she has lost God’s grace, an acknowledgment (and possibly amends) is all it takes. Unlike cupboards and cabinets, the supply is endless and renewed in times of need. Now how much better can something get than that?

Thinking about that grace makes being out of milk and things like that pretty paltry (except for cat food – my boys would never forgive me!).  Sure, running out of things is inconvenient and sometimes makes life very difficult, but the cupboard full of grace is always there. And God is never going to send a bill for taxes, overdrafts, or past due amounts.

That, my friends, is a deal I can’t turn down. 

God bless.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, November 16. 2019.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Repairing the Broken

In 1847, Margaret Wolfe Hungerford used a phrase in a book that she authored that, in part, has become well used: “…Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Perhaps she wasn’t the initial author of the phrase, but she used it in a modern context to explain that what appeals to someone as something beautiful may not always appeal to everybody else in the same way. Most contemporary and post-modern art is, to me, incomprehensible, while others find it profound, penetrating, and, yes, beautiful. Oh, well, different strokes for different folks.

In our most recent Education for Ministry (EfM) class, we used a picture of a cup very similar to the one above. First, we looked at it as an interesting object, determining what it was, what kind of world it would come from, how it was created, and what it meant to the culture that made it. We were off and running.

This teacup started life as a lump of clay, formed by hand, painted, glazed, and fired. It became an everyday, useful cup that could possibly be found in thousands of homes in Japan. Somehow it got broken into pieces. In our culture, it probably would have been thrown out, but in Japan, someone took the time and expense to repair the cup very carefully, using gold resin rather than ordinary glue. Suddenly, the plain broken vessel became something unique and beautiful, a piece of art that was now worth much more than the original unbroken cup had been. It became a treasure, a thing of beauty in the eyes of many beholders.

In our Theological Reflection (TR), we moved to the tradition questions as a way of looking at the object slightly differently. Where was the brokenness in the image? What reminded you of redemption or restoration?  Where in our Christian tradition (scripture, hymns, lives of saints, stories, etc.) could we recall that might illustrate what this cup could be a reminder?  

We thought of someone taking the time and effort to restore the cup, and that brought us to God taking all of us who are broken in various ways, and healing (if not curing) us so that we could continue our lives in God’s service to the world. We reflected on the healing ministries of Jesus, who took strangers, all broken, and healed them, not to prove his legitimacy as the Son of God but as an example of the power of God and God’s love for the broken of the world.

We are taught to hide our flaws and brokenness. It would make us look bad in the eyes of the world if they could see the cracks and fragments of our inner selves as well as our outer ones. Our self-image, our pride, and our image to the world would be harmed if others could see our internal messes. We are taught to use invisible tape to try to repair things like a torn piece of paper, super glue for just about everything, and an internal form of duct tape to patch the inner flaws and brokenness so that we appear to be whole and healthy. God doesn’t bother with invisible patches (or duct tape, which is far from invisible).  God uses love and care to fix the broken, and if it is visible, it makes it much more beautiful than the original was.

What is more, God doesn’t wait for us to bring ourselves for healing. We present ourselves to God for our own sake, not for God’s. God forgives us even if we don’t ask, but speaking of our sins and brokenness makes it more real to us and helps to bridge the gap left by whatever it was that we did. God uses the bridge to bring the pieces together, stronger than before, because we had the strength to ask and the wisdom to realize that God’s forgiveness is guaranteed. That’s not just a gold resin, it’s pure gold, and it’s available to us without reservation.

The mended cup may not be used for tea or saki after it has undergone the kintsugi process. Instead, it becomes a work of art, to be displayed singly, not buried in a cupboard, or in a collection of other pieces.  Most often, it has a pedestal or tabletop all to itself to prevent anything else from detracting from the object. It is allowed to be studied and appreciated for itself alone, not as a manufactured or cookie-cut piece like thousands of others. Each piece breaks in its own way and is restored to its original shape but with a beautiful pattern of repair that invites reflection and appreciation.

Perhaps we need to see ourselves in terms of kintsugi. God repairs us because of love, just as the artist who restored the cup did, only God does it with so much more than love and resin. Maybe if we thought of ourselves, and others, in that way, we might become closer to the Kingdom of God people we promise to try to be in our baptismal covenant. Perhaps it would be easier to focus on others rather than staring in our own mirror, looking for brokenness to hide and flaws to cover up. Possibly exposing the flaws God has mended would give someone else the strength to seek God’s forgiveness and grace. It’s much more valuable than gold baubles and perfect images, and it is beauty in the eye of the beholder who may just need some beauty in his or her life.

Think about it.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 9, 2019.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All Souls 2019

The ghoulies, ghosties, and spooky noises have disappeared for another year, although many houses still have a pile of candy either left over or gained by family trick-or-treaters.  

Yesterday was the first day of November, the official beginning of the new church year and usually listed as All Saints’ Day. This year, churches will celebrate tomorrow as All Saints, as it is celebrated traditionally as a major feast day on the Sunday closest to the calendar date.

Today we celebrate All Souls, a commemoration that usually follows All Saints but which this year is between the actual date of All Saints and the celebrated feast in the church. It is not celebrated as lavishly as All Saints, except in cultures that mark el Dia de Los Muertos, a Mexican and Central-American fiesta unrelated to Halloween. Families decorate the tombs of their loved ones, and often spend an entire night at the gravesites, eating and drinking and remembering the ones who have gone before them. Flowers are abundant and painted caricatures of skeletons and skulls decorate family altars and even shops. It is truly a feast of the dead rather than a fun holiday where children can dress up and ask for candy at neighborhood houses. Many other predominantly Roman Catholic countries decorate the family graves and spend time in prayer and remembrance, sometimes feasting and sharing with their loved ones.

For the Episcopal and some other churches, All Souls is a celebration of the small-s saints, those who have died in the faith but not canonized by the church and given a commemoration day of their own. All Saints belongs to the Big-S Saints like Francis, Catherine (the multitude of them), Augustine, Hildegarde, and others who we know by name. All Souls belongs to the ordinary people; the faithful departed who might not have done significant miracles but who were present in the lives of those who knew and loved them. They are the mothers, fathers, family members, beloved friends, inspiring teachers and leaders, and heroes who do thousands of small miracles every day, often unrecognized.

Beginning perhaps a week or so before All Souls, churches ask people to submit names of their departed, especially those who have died in the past year. The individual submissions are combined to form a list that rests on the altar until it is read aloud during the prayers at a mass held on November 2nd.  

All Souls is an important day in my calendar.  I have so many people on my list that it would take several minutes just to read them.  There are my birth father, adoptive father and brother, lots of aunts and uncles both related and honorary, and neighbors and friends who have loved me and helped me at various points in my life. Some were friends only for a few years, while others remained friends for decades. There are some people inspired me in so many ways, and some who supported me through difficult times. All of them feel very close to me on this day, and although I am not able to cry, the tears are just below the surface simply because I miss them so much.

One particular saint was my adoptive mother. She and the family took me in when I was about five months old and made me part of that family.  She was a two-time breast cancer survivor who died when I was fourteen, a time when it felt like I could do with a mother even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. Many of my saints were women who filled her shoes from time to time, making sure I had what I needed, whether clothes, advice, a place to visit when I got lonely, and more than occasionally put an extra potato in the pot for dinner just for me. 

I miss Mama more the older I get. Knowing she and I had suffered the same disease made me miss having her advice and experiences so that it wouldn’t be so frightening. Luckily I had a friend who filled in, going to the doctor and surgeon with me and even taking me to the hospital and picking me up after my surgery. Another friend took me to some medical tests and stayed until I was ready for a ride home. Those two have been priceless.  Fortunately, one of them I can still rely on; whatever I need, she seems to be able to supply.  

When I visit back home, I always manage to visit the cemetery where many of my family lie. I wish I could visit that cemetery today, but it’s on the East Coast, over 2,300 miles away, so I will have to content myself with looking at their graves from a distance on Google.  Still, in my heart and mind, they will be with me today as they are whenever I think of them and probably many times when I don’t consciously have them in mind.

I love it that my church has a commemoration where my saints can be remembered, even by those who never knew them, merely by hearing their names read on a list. I appreciate that I can join with others in remembering their saints along with mine, making our community stronger and more connected. Not all denominations have such a remembrance, but since I have found it, I have gained comfort and a designated time to celebrate all of them together. The night of All Souls becomes a thin space, a veil between the world of the living and the dead which is almost able to be penetrated so that the two worlds can join together.  It’s a precious and priceless feeling, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. 

Who are your saints?  If you haven’t made a list already, sit for a few moments and write them down. Then remember why they are your saints and thank them for their gifts to you, and thank God for having put them in your life at just the right times.  It won’t be a wasted few moments, I assure you.

May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace, rise in glory, and remain with us in spirit until we can join them in the glory of God and the heavenly kingdom. Amen.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Day of Celebrations

I don’t know how many people have stopped to think of it, but have you ever stopped to think about which month of the year has the most birthdays in your family and family circle? Or which months have a collection of special events like local holidays, or even celebrations?  It’s interesting to write down the months in a column and then list birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, and events in each month to compare them and see where the busy part of your year falls.

I tried it and found my calendar was fuller in several months than in the rest of the year. April has two birthdays, an anniversary, and the death of a dear friend. August has three family birthdays plus one more for my first babysitter, my best friend’s birthday, and her father’s and mother’s as well. Then comes October, with many family birthdays (from the 17th – 22nd, if I remember correctly), but three significant dates I mark in red every year.

The date is the same as today, October 19. The church commemorates Henry Martyn, a priest and a missionary to Muslims, born in 1781 and who died in 1812, but I confess I haven’t got him on my list of very special days.

The first commemoration I treasure is an event celebrating the date of October 19, 1781, when Lord Cornwallis of Britain had his adjutant surrender his sword to Gen. George Washington’s aide to conclude this part of the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis couldn’t bear to surrender his sword of nobility to a paltry general (even though that General belonged to one of the most notable families in Virginia as well as a revered statesman). The revolution wasn’t entirely over, but it ended the warfare in the south, and soon after, the north also was able to celebrate peace. In Yorktown, Virginia, my home town, it’s a day of celebration of patriotism, international and interracial cooperation (African Americans, French, Hessians, and Poles, were instrumental in the victory), thanksgiving, and dare I say pride.

Although Washington and many others are now branded as slave owners (there is no denying that), I still can’t help thinking of the sacrifices he made for this country and the risks he took to make it free from British rule, even if freedom for everyone didn’t come until long after 1781, and for which some are still waiting.

The second commemoration is more personal. After sitting on the corner of our street, watching the parade of bands, soldiers, sailors (including some French ones with those endearing red pompoms on top of their hats), and speeches, my sister-in-law went into labor and a few hours later gave birth to my first niece and my brother’s first child. We all thought that it was a splendid day to be born. After all, the celebration of the day didn’t involve presents, so she didn’t get cheated on any of those, and it did have bands, parades, and fireworks, which she could say was to celebrate her natal day.

The third event was the birth of my son, some 17 years, 8 hours, and some odd minutes, as well as half a world away, of my brother’s firstborn. My then-husband and I were in the Philippines at that time, and the hospital nursery had lots of brown-haired, brown-eyed babies when my blue-eyed cherub with blonde curls joined the crowd. I’ve always wished I could have taken him back home for a birthday with the same celebrations my niece had enjoyed. I’ve always reminded him of the importance of his birthday, both personally and historically.

So, what spiritual connection can I make of this mishmash of more or less personal celebrations? I guess growing up in a town so full of history (and so close to Jamestown and Williamsburg) plus the proximity of relics of both the Revolution and the Civil War made me conscious from an early age that hallowed ground doesn’t necessarily mean blessed by the church or a minister. Among the many graves both in the churchyard and along the rustic paths through the battlefields, there are small plots of land with crosses and plaques that commemorate people who died there, many fighting far from their homes and native lands, but who still gave their lives to help a new nation be born. Some of those crosses and plaques memorialize those who fought on the opposite side, just as fiercely protecting their own country’s interests as the colonists and her allies did for theirs. The blood of all of them and all the non-combatants who also lost their lives in those conflicts sanctified that ground forever.

I celebrate two lives, both born on that same day, who are so dear to me and who are the recipients of the blessings of liberty that the battles and skirmishes of the Revolution brought to all of us. We haven’t finished the campaigns yet; there are still battles of equality and justice to be won so that all Americans, regardless of race, creed, nationality, ethnicity, or orientation, can enjoy the blessings of liberty and freedom.

The fight for freedom goes on here as well as many places around the world. The goal of world peace seems perhaps further away than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we stop fighting for it. We celebrate the heroes and mourn the fallen, whoever and wherever they are, and try to remember that Jesus told us that there would be wars and persecutions, but, as Isaiah said, we can beat our swords into plowshares. That goes for all humanity, for we are required by Jesus to love one another as we love ourselves (and our families and friends).  Jesus reiterated that over and over, even though the translations of his words never specifically told us we had to like those who opposed or who injured us even unto death.  Just as those crosses and burial places of so many unnamed casualties of wars with two sides, we must pray for them to be at peace as surely as we ourselves wish to be at our own end.

Happy Yorktown Day.  God bless all who died for us and for those who still fight.  Amen.

And celebrate with me. It’s a good day.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 19, 2019.

The Wind and the Spirit

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.

                        --- Christina Rosetti

It’s a quiet evening. Leaves are barely moving on the trees which means it might be a reasonably quiet night. Last night it was a bit different. The winds picked up and moved quite fiercely, causing branches to rub against the siding of the house and make the blowing dust hit against the exterior wall like Mentos dropped into a Coca-Cola. It comes up, and it goes away. With last night’s dust storm, we got some much-needed rain following the wind. That happens quite often here in the desert and is as welcome as the rain is, although the wind that precedes it and sometimes accompanies it can be a bit unnerving.

As I lay in bed, I thought about what I was hearing. I was pondering whether the wind is visible, or do we only see the results of it? We know the wind and/or its effect on the shaking of leaves as in Christina Rosetti’s poem, and we can also see one, the other, or both in a tornado as it swirls and destroys. We hear the wind howling, but is that the wind itself or is the wind blowing through or against something that makes sound? However it goes, the wind, like many forces of nature, can’t be controlled, summoned, or dismissed.

Last night I also thought about that verse from John 3:8, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit has been described as a wind like the gust that blew through the congregation on Pentecost and endowing those present with the gift of tongues which enabled them to speak to those whose language was not Aramaic or perhaps Latin or Hebrew. The Spirit, like the wind, can’t always be summoned, controlled, or dismissed. As a member of the Trinity, it is God made manifest in ways that often can’t be seen but only felt and experienced. 

We frequently say that the Spirit calls us to tasks and missions that perhaps we previously had not thought about much less considered. The call is significant to Christians. It is, in a way, the stamp of approval of God upon an individual or even a group. Sometimes the Spirit seems to choose the most unlikely persons or groups, but yet to those who experience it, is a genuine thing, and something which changes them much as the angel on the road to Damascus turned the man who persecuted Christians into the most influential person in the early church.

One thing that struck me is that we can’t always see the Spirit working on and in a person. Sometimes we may judge that a person doesn’t measure up to what we may consider a measuring stick of a Spirit-filled life. Perhaps the Spirit uses different criteria for judgment, and it is our hubris that makes us question that person’s qualification. Like the wind, the Spirit goes where and to whom she wills.

The wind is not always a gentle thing, particularly in cases of natural disasters like cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, and the like. Neither is the Spirit always a soft, guiding and sustaining image that we often consider. 

We learn in church that the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, or the third persona of that group, is equal to but not the same as God or Jesus. Together they form God, the Holy Trinity, although we often consider them, like Rublev’s famous icon, to be three individuals sitting down together at a round table. The Spirit is frequently portrayed as a dove and is probably the least understood, yet an essential part of what we call God. The Spirit does come among us, speaking to some, choosing some, and guiding many. Sometimes I think some of the best ideas are inspired by the Spirit, whether or not the person to whom the idea comes is aware of it or not. Like the wind, it’s something that can be felt or experienced but not seen and seldom heard.

Tonight may be a quiet night, but later, when the sun goes down, and the air grows cooler, it may pick up and once again make itself known by the movement of the branches, twigs, and leaves. We will know when it is here, and when it leaves. I think with the Spirit, it’s probably best for me to assume that the Spirit is always present in one way or another, and for me to be constantly aware of that presence, whether or not I feel a gentle breeze against my cheek or my house shakes with the force of it.

How do you experience the Spirit? Is a gentle breeze, an angry twisting form, or something that moves the waves on the ocean, whether ripples or giant waves?

This week I will work on sensing the Spirit, however she may manifest herself. I invite you to do the same.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café August 31 and October 26, 2019.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Spiritual Salad

The shortening off of days and the cooling temperatures always put me in the mood to do more reading. Oh, I read all year, but it seems like longer evenings and nights spark more opportunity and more reason to sit in my rocking chair, with a lap robe over my feet, a cat in my lap, a cup of tea next to me, and a good book in my hands.

One of my latest reads has been Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor. In it, she describes teaching a college class on world religions and what she has learned herself through teaching, discussing, and experiencing the similarities and differences among a variety of world religions. Her class sounds fascinating; I wish I could attend a term or two of it.

In reading the book, I encountered a thought I’ve had before, namely that it would be interesting, challenging, and stimulating to be part of a religion other than the one in which I grew up. I did do some denominational dancing at several points in my life, wishing I was something besides Southern Baptist. Roman Catholicism offered rituals, lots of saints, and repetitive prayers rather than a lot of emotion, long sermons, and confusion teachings.  I liked the formality of the mass and that (at that time) it was in Latin was eye-opening. Besides, I had a school friend who was RC and had attended Catholic school for her first four years. She always put a small cross at the top of her class papers and exercises, which seemed rather exotic and yet very meaningful to me, so I did it too – for a while. I wonder now why I stopped?

Throughout my life, I have read lots of books of different types and persuasion. I read all the Rabbi Small mysteries, which made me think about Judaism and be curious enough to do some research on it. The prayers (in Hebrew) intrigued me, and hearing the music as well as the chants struck me as a longing for a God in whom I could have faith, even through the most trying of times. Reading Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede made me want to join a Benedictine monastery, with its rules, silence, and chants. Of course, my family would have had a collective stroke if I even mentioned such an idea to them.  It was hard enough to tell them that I had found the Episcopal Church and undergoing confirmation before my next birthday.  The gasps were audible, some of the arguments bantered back and forth got tiresome, but in the end my adoptive father gave me his permission, and I followed my heart to the altar for confirmation and my first communion as an Episcopalian.

Over the years, there were more books, more new experiences, and more wanting to sample other faiths. It was like going to a salad bar and choosing bits of this, that, and the other on the plate and covering it with dressing to bind it all together.  I had Mormon downstairs neighbors once, so I did some reading up on that. It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t for me, but it was a little dash of something to add to my salad. I tried Roman Catholicism for several years, but it didn’t seem quite right either. I still loved books about Jewish characters from Rabbi Small to Anne Frank. I continued to add small dabs of new things to my salad until I had nearly a plate full.

I’ve learned to appreciate Buddhist meditation, Jewish traditions, prayers and music, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Native American feeling of oneness with Creation, respect for the elders, and the practice of walking in beauty. There are times when I wish I could do more than try to practice their beliefs in more than a superficial way, to truly belong to them as do the believers of each of them.  Still, even a contemplation of and attempt to follow some of their customs, as different as they may be, bring peace and satiation, like a well-balanced salad with lots of different flavors and textures.

I know many people have had some of the same experiences as I have, that of wanting to experience as a member and true believer rather than just a Christian trying to enact an authentic Seder or sit in meditation for hours without moving or having the mind stray. I know Christianity offers me a channel for meditation, good works, ritual, memorized prayers for various occasions, and encouragement to respect creation and all parts of it. Christianity offers me God as the dressing, by whatever name a person calls God, that binds the salad together and provides many different flavors to tempt the spiritual palate.

I’m glad I’m Episcopalian. After some journeys to other spiritual paths, I find myself returning every time to the Episcopal Church. When I come back and first sit in the pew after an absence, either long or short, it’s as if God is putting a hand on my head with the commands, “Sit! Stay!”  Maybe those are the bacon bits or scallions to garnish the salad?

The world is not monochromatic, single-flavored, or even of one texture. God made creation with an infinite amount of diversity, so would that same God say that only one way could be enjoyed, believed in, or practiced?  Is Buddhist meditation going to make me less of a Christian?  Am I going to be harmed by reading Harry Potter because it talks about spells and magic? Will I to hell because I read the Qu’ran (in English) or the Talmud of Judaism?  Am I sinful to bless trees, flowers, cats, rocks, or rivers?  Am I diluting my faith by watching a program on the Kaaba of Islam, appreciating those who maintain it as well as the millions who save for years to afford the one Hajj of their lifetime required by the Five Pillars of their faith? Am I unChristian to want to see the good in every single person and thing in creation, even if I fail at it much of the time?

I’m grateful to have the ingredients of a spiritual salad available to me to study, learn, perhaps practice, and appreciate. It keeps me spiritually fed and nourished as well as going my heart good to acknowledge that God is present all around and within. Whether God is called God, Allah, Elohim, Abba, Mother, Center of the Universe, or any of a million names, they acknowledge the Higher Power that enables us to live, breathe and have our being.

Try some new ingredients in your spiritual salad. You might find some great new additions to the life the Spirit has given you.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 12, 2019.