Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Hurricanes Within and Without

It seems like this week the topic about which a lot of news media attention has been given as been the East Coast hurricane, Dorian, which created havoc in the Bahamas and then moved up the eastern coastline of the United States. Some places that were expecting a lot of wind and rain got wind and rain, but not enough to destroy whole towns and cities with wind damage and flooding while others were not so fortunate. Hurricanes, like many other natural disasters, are nothing to fool around with. They are dangerous, cost lives and property damage, and tempt people to risk their lives unnecessarily by thinking nothing will happen to them and that they will be just fine. Silly people.

I remember hurricanes coming through my hometown at various times in my childhood. The howling of the wind and the force of the rain frightened me because I could feel the gusts of wind pushing on the sides and roof of the house. We never lost a window or even very many shingles, but branches from the trees and the total loss of my favorite tree in the front yard, a lovely weeping willow that was like my kindred spirit, broke my heart, and it still hurts today, over 50 years later. I still remember that after the hurricane passed, there would suddenly be the sound of lots of frogs croaking in a temporary pond in a depression of the landscape at the end of my street. The pond didn’t last very long as it was only there until the water soaked into the ground. With that drying up, the frogs soon quieted down, but I remember hearing that amphibian choir in much the same way Noah might have greeted the rainbow. It was a reassurance.

Hurricanes are real physical dangers but I think they can also be internal ones. I think through my life and consider times when it felt I was in my private and personal hurricane, being drenched by pounding water and blown about like leaves on a tree in a high wind.

Personal hurricanes have blown through my life figuratively and literally, each one making me feel battered and in some cases torn apart limb from limb. For me a lot of it dealt with death of people I loved and lost, incidents of my life that I learned to regret, and sometimes I still feel the battering of the wind that comes from time to time only to fade for a while and then rises again with the next storm in my life.

I think about the times in the Bible where there are real and symbolic winds and rain concerning the relationship between God and the people of the Bible. Job certainly endured a lot of battering when God and the Shai-Tan, the adversary, had a small wager on whether Job would turn on God if all the blessings that Job had received would be taken away suddenly. Job’s crops and herds were decimated,  all of his children died when a house fell on them,  and then Job himself was left sitting on an ash pit, covered in boils, and with friends trying to console him by demanding that he confess what sins he had committed that would make God punish him with so many losses. Of course, Job was innocent of such charges, and eventually God restored not only Job’s life but everything that had been lost. I wonder what Job’s three friends thought of that.

I would truly hate to think that the God I know would punish anyone except me for my sins. I would hate to think that because of the sins of humanity, the Amazon would be burning, the animals would be caught in natural disasters and maimed or killed, and children who were so innocent and pure would be snatched away by a God who felt some parents needed to be punished and punished heavily. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I really can’t reconcile myself to the fact that I used to believe that that was the cause of disasters in the world. Yes, I learned that in church as a child, and I accepted it. After all, the people who were teaching me were adults, supposedly much wiser than I and who were my teachers and my guides.

Today I can’t do it. I think if a child is ill, it is due to circumstances, not God. If a child is murdered, it is because some person, for whatever reason, wanted to take that child’s life. Their children who die of diseases not because of their sins, but of causes beyond their control or even their knowledge. I think that people sometimes cause their own internal hurricanes, and choose to visit that disaster on innocent people solely for their own reasons. I don’t think God has anything to do with it; I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes. The people choose to do evil things, and none of those thoughts come from God.

I pray for all those who have been and are afflicted with the hurricanes of the past and the present, and even those who will suffer from them in the future. I pray for the people whose lives will be impacted by storms and tempests caused by the climate change that we refuse to acknowledge and try to correct. I pray for all victims of both natural and human-made circumstances. Most of all, I pray that those of us who reside in relative safety have the goodness of heart and the inspiration of God to help in any way we can to make it possible for people who have lost so much to rebuild their lives and those of their neighbors. I pray that we will learn that we have a God who loves us and who doesn’t punish us for the sins of others or punish the innocent for our sins.

We are God’s hands on earth, and if we think we can do nothing, remember the joke about the person who was stuck on a roof after a flood and who prayed for safety and rescue. After several opportunities, such as floating boards and other floating objects but which were rejected because person expected God to take care of him. There was even a man who came by in a motorboat offering help, but again the man on the roof rejected the offer. When God appeared in front of him, and God asked him why he had rejected all the offers of help that God had sent. The man was speechless. He didn’t see that God often uses other things and people to effect a rescue.

Think about it. Where has God sent help to us only to be rejected because we expected some miracle with a notice signed directly by God rather than a mere man in a boat?

Be the boater. Offer help, because that’s what God has in mind, whether or not it’s the kind of rescue someone else expects from God. Love your neighbor enough to help in times of trial. Don’t be a Job’s comforter; grab a boat, and start paddling.

Now where did I put my oars?

God bless.

PS – God bless those who work to keep us informed of the current conditions surrounding such storms as Dorian, and the first responders and organizations who rush in where fools fear to tread, being God’s hands in time of tragedy.

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

King of the Hill

Luke 22:24-30

When we were children in kindergarten and elementary school we spent a lot of time on the playground. We had organized games and less organized games, but we played a lot together. That was a good thing because many of us didn’t have siblings at home who were of an age to play with us as equals, so it was essential for us to learn to play with people our age and size, more or less. One of the organized games that frequently became disorganized was one called “King of the Hill.” I don’t remember a large mound, but the whole idea was to get to the “top” and proclaim that one of us was King of the Hill. It didn’t matter whether you a boy or girl, and we usually didn’t play more than one round of it during recess, but there was a feeling in the one who had won the game that was a sense of self-confidence and pride. The next day someone else might win, but for that day, they were the king of the hill, even if the feeling was just inside them.

Today is the commemoration of St. Bartholomew, one of the disciples that we don’t hear a lot about. He certainly wasn’t prominent like Peter, or as persistent as James and John, the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to know who was going to be on his left and right side when they came into power, and who even had their mother ask Jesus for those positions for her sons. Now, really! To most people, it would be utterly embarrassing, but if it got the job done, then that was what it took.

I have a feeling that because Bartholomew is seldom heard of in the Gospels and not often mentioned outside the Gospels either, that he was probably a very humble man. He didn’t take the spotlight, and he didn’t push his way into situations that would bring him into prominence. Traditions have it that he traveled to India or Armenia to do mission work and was martyred by being flayed alive and then beheaded.  Some scholars consider him to be the apostle Nathaniel, a friend of Philip. There isn’t much more known as to his history, but because he was one of Jesus chosen, he is commemorated and the Eucharistic gospel for this day is the reading about being humble.

Today, humility doesn’t seem to have a lot of push to it. It’s all about status, social position, financial status, and a corner office with glass windows on the top floor of the corporate building. Is what it’s about a waiting room full of client or patients who have come especially to see this particular person who has such a reputation for solving problems and taking care of business. It can be hard to find anyone who thinks that humility is a good thing. Okay, maybe we can count Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, and John Paul II. We have people like Jimmy Carter, Dorothy Day, Fr. Mychal Judge, and many others who did a lot in their quiet way to make the world a better place.

 Humility is about going around doing good and not trying to call attention to oneself; no pictures in the paper, no soundbite on a TV newscast about some heroic act or something similar. Humility merely is seeing something that needs to be done and doing something about it without calling a lot of attention. That’s the kind of humility Jesus practiced and taught his disciples and the crowds to follow.

It seems these days we’ve got lots of people screaming about their being the king, or, in some cases, queen of the hill.  We have people among us who not only try to make that claim to be the chosen or even possibly the King of a significant religious group.

Those today who claim to be the king of the hill seldom show any humility at all. Instead, they proclaim their powerfulness and prestige, much of which seems to be somewhat exaggerated if not significantly so. But what can a body do? Anybody can claim to be the king of the mountain. Not everybody wants to or can claim to be the humble one at the bottom. 

Jesus was humble man, although he was known for his very occasional acts of temper and his occasional displeasure with his disciples when they were slow in catching on to something that he had tried so hard to get across to them. He was kind to people, even people he didn’t know, or people with whom it would not be reasonable for him to interact, like the woman who washed his feet with her hair. Was it really Mary Magdalene? Was it Mary of Bethany? Who knows, but what we do know is that it was an act of humility and an act of love, and Jesus recognized it as such.

Humility is a quiet virtue. It is difficult and not always seen as a popular position, but it is what Jesus consistently taught as the path that we need to follow.

This week I think I need to look at humility in my own life. The Lord knows I never really have attempted to be king of the hill (at least since elementary school). I still need to look at those experiences where I have fallen short of the humility goal and see what I need to do to make it a more integral part of my life and to contribute more to those around me rather than looking for my own self-glorification. Anybody care to join me?

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 24, 2019.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Suffer the Children

Matthew 19:13-15

The Eucharistic gospel for today is a familiar passage about the disciples trying to decide who can come close to Jesus and who can’t. This time it is children. When the disciples tried to shoo them away from Jesus, he very firmly told them to let the children come to him because they had faith and trust that adults didn’t and that the kingdom of heaven would be theirs. I wonder how long the disciples pouted and pondered that particular bit of information.

It’s interesting to look at the verse in several different translations. I was brought up on the King James version which read, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Others use “Let” or “Allow” or something similar. The Greek translation uses the word aphete, which is translated as “permit” or “let.” Regardless of which version a person reads, Jesus’s intent seems to be to have the children approach him and be blessed.

Reading this passage today, and thinking about the translation of my youth which uses the words suffer, it made me think about the kids in this world, all the little children that Jesus would welcome and bless. He didn’t specify their state of health, wealth, lawful residence, or religious purity. Instead, I am convinced that had there been those who were hungry, sick, in cages after being seized from their parents, or who die because of lack of care and because people refuse to help them, Jesus would have welcomed them with open arms.

It’s hard these days not to think about the children of the immigrants who were ripped from their parents' arms and still have not been reunited with them. Many of them have not received placement where hopefully they sleep in beds, have clean clothes, basic hygiene, medical care, and a chance to be like children they should be. It’s hard to look at pictures of those children, just like it’s hard to look at images of children suffering anywhere. The eyes of children so often reflect hopelessness the children shouldn’t have enough. Their eyes glaze as they realize people approaching them are not there to help but to move them around, shuffle them to a different place, or even abuse them. I confess that looking at those eyes tears my heart apart. Instead of suffering the little children to come, I see them made to suffer, and I have to ask myself if that’s the Christian way? What would Jesus think?

So how do we change things? How do we help the hundreds of children in our country, no matter where they came from, to allow them to be children again and not prisoners of some undeclared war? Somehow I feel God’s heart is breaking because, despite all the words about helping the poor and needy and treating the alien in your land as one of you, we quite often forget them, ignore them, or both.  There are many times in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that reiterate again and again the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. How can we say we love our neighbors as ourselves when we allow children to be held hostage? That s not love.  

We saw what happened in Germany, Austria, Poland, and other countries in Europe during the Nazi era. We saw children being made to leave their parents, some to be made guinea pigs for inhuman so-called medical procedures. We saw children rolling up their sleeves for a camera to show the numbers that had been tattooed on their arms to indicate that they were somehow dispensable and deficient, whether or not they had any physical or mental disorders. It seems we have forgotten those pictures if we ever saw them or paid attention to them at all.

The kids that are held in custody came with their parents to look for a better life. Listening to the stories of some of the parents, all they wanted was to keep their children safe, and hopefully to give them a more secure life than they would have in the countries that they fled. Those children will be marked for life because of their experiences Yet many who have made that safety and better life almost impossible claim to be Christian and followers of Jesus. What would Jesus say about that?

Let the little children come; let them learn to trust us as they would learn to trust Jesus. Let them be sheltered and housed as befitting children of God, not children of unwanted aliens. We have an enormous problem, one we need to address and need to solve now. Let the little children come to us and let us be the blessing that Jesus would like us to be. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and if we want to share in that kingdom of heaven, it’s up to us to make sure that all of God’s children are welcome.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 17, 2019;

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Moving Mountains

As I was reading the Eucharistic gospel for today, I read the part about the man who brought his epileptic son to Jesus because the disciples couldn’t heal him. Jesus sounded a little terse because the disciples didn’t seem to catch on the way they were supposed to. Jesus, however, spoke more gently to the father and healed the boy instantly. That appeared to wrap that part of the story up very neatly with the crowd, the father, and the son having a happy ending.

Then I read about the disciples wondering why they couldn’t do that? Jesus wasted no time telling them it was because they had very little faith. That was part of Jesus’s whole message. Faith was and is a necessary component in making things happen. The disciples simply didn’t seem to get it.

Jesus then went on to talk about faith moving mountains. It’s a familiar story, and a saying we hear fairly frequently. “If you have the faith the size of a mustard seed…” A mustard seed isn’t tiny, but it’s undoubtedly not a coconut. It represents something little, much as Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut represented a whole world in her vision. It didn’t take a lot of faith, but it took a solid faith, and I think that was Jesus’s point.

I sometimes wonder if things don’t happen because we either lack enough faith, have a belief that isn’t solid enough, or maybe something else? Lord knows we’ve asked for people to be healed or even cured, and nothing seems to happen. We simply sigh and say, “Well, it must have been God’s will.” Was it? Really?

When I think of things that are going on right now, the shootings, the stabbings, the deaths of children, the painful and fatal diseases, the traumas of losing children and parents, it makes me wonder how anyone can say that a loving God wills things like this to happen. All those scenarios seem to be huge mountains, and we don’t seem to have enough faith to move it, even if we were able.

Having faith doesn’t mean that I should sit in my comfortable rocking chair and focus my mind on moving Mount St Helens to the desert just outside of Phoenix. What would be the point of that? What would be the point of moving anything? I think it deals with something other than relative size. If I take a mustard seed out of the container in my spice cabinet and hold it up to my eye and look across the horizon to the Mogollon Rim about 200 km away, they seem relative in size even though I know the Rim is immensely more substantial than that mustard seed. I need to move the mustard seed out of my line of sight, my eyes from the mountains and concentrate on what is doable, reasonable, helpful, useful, and that needs doing? Then I start looking at problems through a different set of lenses. 
I may not be able to cure cancer (I know I couldn’t heal my own), so I put my faith in my surgeon and my oncologist. I just left the rest up to God. That was the only thing I could do. I have friends with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I want so much for them to be cured because they are dear to me. I need them in my life.  I don’t want to lose them but lose them I will, whether it’s through physical death or just the ravages of disease. I wish I had faith enough to cure them. I guess my point to myself is to ask how I can judge the disciples for not having enough faith when I have to confess that I don’t have enough faith either?

I think each of us has to look around and find things that we can help change. Perhaps it is doing something like helping at the food bank, or rocking newborn babies born addicted to drugs to help comfort them and make them feel safe in a world that they don’t understand and that is extremely painful for them. Maybe it’s knitting a shawl for someone who could wrap it around themselves when they need a hug but there no human arms around to give one when they need it, or praying for someone in pain or need. Maybe those don’t require a lot of faith, but it does put it in action. It’s a way of loving my neighbor as myself, attempting to help in a way that I’m able and that will benefit them. Perhaps the mountain I need to move my own weak faith.

I may never be able to reread this passage without thinking about mustard seeds and mountains and comparing them in the light of the amount of faith required. Jesus said if we had that much faith, we could do anything. Maybe I need to stop trying to move Mount St Helens and get rid of an anthill in the front yard, or reach out and hug someone in pain, or give a cup of cold water to someone who is outside in the desert heat and in genuine danger of dying through dehydration. Maybe the difference is removing things (like beams in my own eye) rather than a mountain that has no need (or perhaps desire) to be moved in the first place.

What are your mountains, and how can you move them?

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, August 10, 2019.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Learning About Discrimination the Hard Way

I walked outside the other night, and there was a smell of wood smoke in the air. Suddenly, it took me back 40-some years to my first sight and smell, of the Philippines, where my husband was stationed, and which would be my home for the next three years. We passed through small villages with bamboo huts built on stilts and saw women using short, but thick brooms made of twigs to sweep their yard. When they got the debris piled up, they would light the leaves and bark and burn it. That, to me, was the smell of the Philippines, and I think of it every time I smell that particular odor.

I learned a lot from living in the Philippines. I had always lived in the United States, in the Southeast, as well as in the West. In the south, we had African-Americans and almost no Hispanics at all. In the West, on the other hand, we had lots of people of both ethnic and racial groups. It didn’t bother me; I figured I could adapt to just about anything.

Then I got to the Philippines. One of the first things I learned was that even though I was in the minority, namely light-haired, light-skinned, with blue eyes, I was considered a person of wealth. I would have children follow me around the local market, and even on the streets of Manila, calling out, “Hey Joe, give me one peso.” The peso was only a few pennies in American currency, but the kids looked at me as if they expected me to ride a carnival float and toss out coins the way carnival cruise toss out beads. It was uncomfortable, and it was tough to say no sometimes. The second thing was that when I walked into us a store or a stall at the market, the price automatically doubled. Jeepney rides to the market that would cost a Filipino the equivalent of 20 centavos cost me the equivalent of two pesos. Not only that, but I was not permitted to share a jeepney with Filipinos and pay the 20 centavo price. The third thing I learned was that even if I could say a few phrases in Filipino, or even in the local dialect, people in the market and the town or the city, would switch to a dialect I didn’t know. It was a form of isolation, and it was frustrating because I was only trying to learn to fit in. They took it another way entirely.

There were many more lessons, but I remember those in particular; I think it is because it was my introduction to being “different.” I also got a taste of how being singled out because I was different felt. It was a kind of racism, although not nearly as damaging to me as the racism that I see about me today towards nonwhite people. It was a big lesson to learn.

We are so used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a light-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed man with a beard neatly trimmed and clean, dazzling clothing. Since I was young, I’ve been exposed to that kind of Jesus.  I wondered how he got his robes so pure and so white, without having bleach, tied, and blooming and being on the dusty roads so much. I’ve come to I came to realize that how Jesus was perceived was in the eye of the artist, and often those for whom the artist painted. I remember seeing some virtual eyebrows raised when a bust of the first-century man from the area around where Jesus lived, appeared through the magic of forensic sculpture. He had brown skin, brown eyes, short curly blackish-brown hair, and no beard. It wasn’t a Jesus we were accustomed to, but it was more like the Jesus who probably was. I think it still causes some raised eyebrows in some places, right here in our own country. He looks too much like people we are told to block from immigration because they are crooks, killers, thieves, rapists, and every negative thing that dehumanizes them.

I go back to my experience in the Philippines, and while the people were mostly very kind, I still could not forget who I was, a guest in their country, a person whose standard of living was considerably higher than most of theirs, even though ours was not rich by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I have to remind myself of how it felt and wish that others could see it as I have. Perhaps they have but simply didn’t realize it. If they had, maybe then they could understand what white privilege really is and how there is absolutely no place for it in Christianity. Love thy neighbor as thyself doesn’t mean loving just people whose skin tone is the same as ours. It means loving our neighbor, no matter the color of their skin, as we love ourselves.

Wake up America. There are people who need help, who live in abject fear for their lives every day in countries where armed gangs and even national armies create terror and slavery, and who have learned of the words on the Statue of Liberty and taken that as their dream and symbol of freedom. I am ashamed of those who find ways to exclude others who seek only to make new lives in this country. The National Cathedral and its faith leaders have issued a call to America to speak out against discrimination–whether racist, ageist, gender-based, economically-based, or any other division that stops us from seeing us all as human beings and beloved children of God. I think they have made a courageous and honest prophetic call.

God bless us and help us all to see all people as equals and as neighbors, not inferiors or “others” who are beneath us and our privilege.  Otherwise, the kingdom of God will remain a far-off dream for all of us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 3, 2019.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Toe-in-the-Water Sunday

Life was almost always pretty good when I was a child. We didn’t have to lock doors, and nobody ever heard of bad things (other than alcoholism, dancing, playing cards and the like) except in church (or if the neighborhood alcoholic, a member of a GOOD family) walked by. Our family lived in a very safe neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else, and I couldn’t get into much trouble before somebody turned up to get me out of it and take me back home. The preacher at our church lived in our back yard (and also was a frequent pair of knees under our dinner table). I got occasional spankings and slaps from Mama, but it was usually because I had been naughty, like running off to visit a neighbor on our street without telling her where I was going. There were some bad things in my life, like verbal taunts and mean words from a relative, but it was never discussed or called “abuse.”  It hurt, but I learned it was just something I had to learn to live with.  In the church, about the closest thing to abuse we experienced was being shut in a room and told we couldn’t leave until we had signed a pledge not to drink alcohol ever. I think I was about ten then.

Lots of people weren’t as lucky in their childhood and adolescence as I was. For some of them, the home wasn’t a safe place, and abuse was not unheard of. Nobody ever talked about it, though. It was one of those things that “Just wasn’t done.”  Perhaps it should have been.

Abuse means more than physical or emotional punishment. It is cruelty, violence, or improper use of a person or animal (and sometimes of an object, such as forcing it to work harder or longer than it is intended to bear). It’s an all-too-familiar word to us today and has grown to include places where abuse takes place that seem as if they should be free from such evil, places like schools, offices, and most of all, churches. There’s scarcely a denomination where it has not been a suddenly “discovered” or “uncovered” offense. Often it is known about but simply swept under the rug to preserve the good image of the Christian faith.

About eleven years ago, I left a church I loved, not because I disagreed with its theology or positions, but because I felt I was verbally and emotionally abused by a member of the clergy. I had been very active but gradually dropped out of everything because it seemed I was under increasing scrutiny and was unable to meet expectations – or perhaps it was just a power trip for that person. I felt hurt, disrespected, and worthless. I should have developed a tougher skin and let such things bounce off me, but I couldn’t. I knew before I left that others felt the same way, so it wasn’t just me. Still, it was hard not to blame myself as much as the one who, I felt and knew, was the cause of it.

I loved my church. It was my community and like a family to me. But there came a time when I had to do as Jesus said in Matthew 10:14, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet (NIV).”  It put me off the church, but not off God or faith.  I went by that church every day going to work or shopping, but I could not bring myself to go back in or even ask for help when my husband died, I had cancer surgery, or anything else. I still had friends there, but I didn’t have a home.

Fast forward eleven years.  I’ve gone through a lot and grown in the process. The offender has left the parish; there are new people in charge. I was invited to return by a person enrolling in my online Education for Ministry (EfM) group who happened to be from that parish.  I took my reluctance in hand and made an appointment with the new rector. He seemed to be someone I could trust and who would respect me as an individual (and that I could respect in turn).  I felt God tugging on my heart, and my mind was full of possibilities.  It was time.

So tomorrow, I’m celebrating what will be a “Toe in the Water” Sunday. I can’t commit unless I am convinced that this is the place I should and need to be.  I won’t be asked the first Sunday which ministry I would like to join, although there are a couple in which I am very interested.  I have amends to make to several people for various things, but most of all, it is time for me to do what God has told me so often to do – “Go. Sit. STAY!”  God knows I’m not a dog, but I do need to be reminded that I was led to the Episcopal Church many years ago, and that’s apparently where God wants me to be. I need to be reminded of that once in a while, it seems.

I’m nervous, yes.  It’s not easy to go back to a place where abuse has taken place, not just of me but of many others as well, just like it’s not easy to jump off the end of a pier into deep water without learning how to swim first. What I’m doing is like sticking a toe in the water to check the temperature and then gently wading out, deeper and deeper, until I am comfortable and once again a participating and contributing part of a community that accepts me and whatever gifts and ministries I can bring them.  It’s not rebirth—once was enough for that—but it’s like a reception or hopeful return home. It’s an acknowledgment that I need community, and this one is offering me that. So I’m straightening my shoulders, holding up my chin, and sticking my toe in the water, hopefully for the last time.

Still, I could use a few prayers for courage, please?

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 27, 2019.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Professions of Faith

Television is a marvelous thing. I remember a child being mesmerized by cowboys and Indians, and their sidekicks: dogs, horses, female friends, and jeeps. Television has never stopped being something amazing and almost necessary for me because I learn things from programs it presents, from forensics to religion to history to travel to places I’ve never been or will ever see for myself.

I was watching a program on the travels of the apostles after Pentecost. One of the stories that they presented was the story that appears in Acts 8:26-39 that we know as Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Philip was following the instructions of an angel to travel along a particular road. He came across a foreign man sitting in a chariot reading a scroll. Philip went to the man and asked if he understood what he was reading, which happened to be the book of Isaiah. The man, a eunuch and a high official of the Queen of Ethiopia, said that he was unable to do so because how could he understand unless someone taught him. Philip proceeded to talk to the Ethiopian, explaining that when Isaiah referred to the Messiah, he was speaking of a man named Jesus. As they walked along, talking of Jesus, the eunuch expressed a desire to be baptized. He and Philip went into a nearby body of water, and Philip baptized him. Philip was taken away by the Spirit to another land, and the eunuch proceeded on his journey home.

Something about this program got me thinking. The script had the eunuch utter the words, “I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God,” and that served as his profession of faith. The book of Acts reports instead that the Ethiopian remarked that there was some water and asked what prevented him from being baptized.  That made me wonder about whether or not Philip had required a profession of faith, and what is sufficient for us to be baptized now?

In the church of my youth, each service would be geared towards the last few minutes when the preacher would come down from the pulpit and stand in the center of the aisle as we sang a hymn, usually “Just As I Am.” Between each verse, the preacher would urge us to open our hearts to Jesus and accept him as our “Personal Savior.” The calling would go on for several minutes before he started the next verse. After the second verse, there would be another pause and encouragement to come forward.  The third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth verse followed the same pattern. 
He reminded us of our sinfulness and how Jesus had come to save us, but we needed to accept that and be baptized for it to become a reality. Becoming a Christian could only be accomplished by publicly accepting Jesus as a “Personal Savior.” Then, several weeks later, I was immersed in the baptistry at the front of the church at a Sunday night service.  I did what was required, got dunked as a sinner, and walked back up the baptistry steps, soaking wet and able to proclaim that I was now a Christian. I was saved from my sins and with a hotline to God to ask forgiveness for any fault, great or small, that I might commit in the future, something like a “Get out of jail free” card.

What came to my attention through the television program was the simplicity of the affirmation of faith the eunuch pronounced. There was no personal savior involved; it was an acceptance that Jesus was the Son of God, and that was all that was necessary to believe. Perhaps the writer of Acts didn’t feel a specific affirmation of faith was required. The formula for such professions would come later as the church grew, and the times became more perilous. Still, the Ethiopian’s statement caught my attention and made me do some thinking.

At this stage of my life, I have pretty much rejected the idea of a personal savior. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I can say the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers more than once at a phrase or two. I can identify fundamental (as opposed to Fundamental) Christian beliefs, recite things like the Beatitudes and a number of the Psalms. I can retell the stories and parables, and explain them with some understanding, but I can’t claim Jesus is purely my personal savior.

I believe that when we say that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, he didn’t only come for a few people, like his disciples and his followers that came with him on his journeys. He came not only for the Jews, but also the Samaritans, even the Romans, and, as time went on, for the Gentiles who encompassed everybody who was not Jewish. To me, that is a much more significant and more powerful belief than merely claiming a personal savior. Either Jesus came to take away the sins of all the world, or he didn’t come to take away the sins of any. That phrase, “the sins of the world,” makes all the difference to me.

I believe that Jesus Christ was, is, and will always be the son of God. His mission on earth was to teach us how to live in relationship with God and with each other. I would say that that is my statement of faith and the reason I am a Christian.

Each of us has to come to our own statement of faith. As I contemplate my particular statement of faith this coming week, I will be looking deeper to see where I am in relation to that statement of faith, and where I can find God as well as Jesus in it. Give it a try yourself. Make a statement that embodies your belief, not necessarily using the language of the church but rather the language of the heart. See where it takes you.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 20, 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lesson from a Baby Blanket

The baby blanket I was knitting was going well. The knits were where they were supposed to be, and the purls were in their proper place. Things were nicely,  and I thought, “I’ll get this thing done in no time,” and then disaster struck. I got a little too comfortable with a simple pattern that I was doing, and all of a sudden, I had a mess, or what I consider to be an error. It only takes one stitch put in the wrong place to really mess up a pattern;  it seems to stick out like a white rabbit amid a crowd of black cats.

One thing is for sure, none of us goes through life without somehow messing up the pattern, whether a craft item or a something else, leaving a distinct error either visible or invisible. It’s frustrating, but it happens to all of us. Sometimes we get a little too comfortable with the way things are going, and, in turn, we make a mistake and things get out of whack. Sometimes the error can be erased or unraveled, and the correct configuration put in place, but sometimes, that error is just plain there for good.

I know for sure that God watches my errors and mistakes, and very probably clucks God’s tongue at how I could mess up something so badly. So I purled four stitches instead of three, or perhaps I did five instead of four. Whichever it is, it throws off everything. God notices those errors a lot sooner than I do and it all comes down to whether I am willing to rip out however many rows or rub out however many mistakes I’ve made in my work to redo it. The thing is, though, that God loves me anyway, and sympathizes with when I get frustrated at making the same error over and over again, no matter how careful I try to be. The tendency to make mistakes does not make me any less lovable to God, and thank goodness for that.

I know how frustrated I get when I make a mistake, whether it’s in writing, knitting, or just about anything else. I know that in some cultures, it’s customary for an error to be made somewhere in the product to show that a person made it and not merely a machine. I love that concept, but in my own work, it’s hard for me to make a mistake I can see and not fix it. It may not be visibly apparent to someone else looking at it for the first time, but I have to live with knowing that there are flaws in my work, no matter how hard I try to get them out.

I'm glad God loves me, even if I'm an inattentive knitter sometimes. I'm happy that I'm old enough to realize that God loves me no matter what, even if I make mistakes and grieve God by making those mistakes. But by being willing to try and fix them, or ask forgiveness for them, shows God that I understand what is expected of me and acknowledging my humanness. I have come to realize this more and more as I grow older, and it's more and more comfort each passing day. So what if I have to pull out some stitches, I can always put them back in and do it correctly. If I make a mistake in my life, I may not be able to pull it out and correct it, but I can do my best to make it right, whether it's rubbing out a bad sum or a wrong word, or expressing regret to someone I've harmed. It gets less stressful each time I do it. I also find it's a great deal easier to take responsibility, and then give it to God and let God take it from there.

So now I will go back to my knitting. I only have about a foot left to go, and I will try to be careful not to have to rip whole rows out again and again because I didn't pay attention. I may be doing this baby blanket as a gift for someone, but I'm also offering God’s love in it, the love comes from God who forgives all my mistakes and loves me in spite of them.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


Isn’t it amazing that you can read a passage from the Bible a hundred times and each time there seems to be something new that you haven’t considered as much as you might have? That was the case for me reading the passage from Matthew about the bridegroom being present and also the part I think more people remember, which is the cloth, wine, and wineskins part of the story. Jesus reminds us that new wine is not put in old wineskins because those skins might burst with the fermentation of the wine. While wineskins and cloth could both be patched, it had to be done very carefully to preserve the usefulness of everything.

It made me think about patches as I’ve experienced them. I remember when holes and slits were covered carefully by pieces of cloth that made the garment it last a little longer, but you would never put a patch on a dress you would wear to church or school unless there was absolutely no alternate item of clothing to wear. In my grandparents time, and for many centuries before that, patches were often seen as a mark of frugality. Getting one was a symbol of getting a little more wear out of an otherwise useless dress, apron,  or pair of pants. Patches were very carefully done to be as neat as possible, and, when the clothing finally wore out, the cloth could be cut out and made into patchwork quilts which prolonged the life of the fabric while producing something quite useful to the household.  It was an example of “making do,” especially when times were hard and money was tight.

While I was reading, I thought of patches and remembered going to college for my freshman year. I had carefully packed just about everything I owned, and one of the things that I took with me was a wool blanket from my Aunt Edie’s house. I loved that blanket. It was scratchy, and it had a scent of wool and some other things. Of course, it had moth holes in it, so Aunt Edie had run new seam binding around the edges and patched the gaps with more of the same brown satin seam binding to make it serviceable. I unpacked my stuff and made up my bed before my new roommates came in, friends who had been together for years, and who came from a considerably higher social status than I did. They unpacked their new sheets and blankets and then decided we would go downtown to buy new bedspreads. I could see that they were looking askance at my patched cover, but I didn’t care. It was a link to home, and I was in a strange place, learning to live with people who were unknown persons that I had never met before, and the blanket spelled comfort. I didn’t really care about the patches, but I sometimes wished they weren’t there.

In Jesus time, there was very much a belief in the scarcity of goods. If someone had more of something, then others would have less to balance it out. If a wineskin got a hole in it, it would be patched with the hope that it would hold the wine added to it. Just because something had a hole in it did not mean it could be discarded and a new one procured to replace it.

It occurred to me that there are times when trying to put new ideas into rigid minds is very much like putting new wine in old and patched wineskins. The patches will shrink and leak, but the memory will simply slap another one on and hope that it will hold.

I noticed that as I get older that there are many times when it’s tough for me to change my mind about something, a kind of keeping old and patched ideas wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket with moth holes. Then I realize how many times I have come to new ideas and even beliefs that have opened my mind. It was like putting new wine into new wineskins so they can ferment and be stored safely. I think of that as a God moment. It makes me stop short and think about the transfer of this new knowledge this new wine into a wineskin put there just for it. Yes, the wine changes a bit, and the wineskin has to make a few adjustments, but still the new thoughts are there, the container is there, and it’s a perfectly natural process.

We never see Jesus with patched clothes, but maybe he had angels to patch them for him, or maybe artists and sculptors never considered that he would wear out the garments that he wore every day to travel and to preach in. Perhaps we should put a few patches on Jesus clothes. Maybe it would remind people that work wears things out, but if they are tended carefully and repaired regularly, they are a lot more useful for a longer time.

I may be old, and have plenty of patches on my soul, but if I allow Jesus to carefully patch those inside my soul, heart, and mind, then I can hopefully extend my usefulness into the project of bringing the kingdom of God here and now. I don’t even mind if Jesus uses very bright patterns of cloth. I’m planning on being a patchwork quilt when I go to meet him.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 6, 2019.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Love, Sheep and Lambs

As we go through the Gospels in the Daily Office and the Eucharistic services of the year, we run into the same passages again and again so that even though we may not know exactly where we found them, we know we have heard them. The Eucharistic reading for today, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, offer us a familiar story that seems so applicable this go-around.

To begin with,  it seems to start as an ordinary day, with Jesus and the disciples having breakfast. Funny, I never really thought about Jesus having breakfast. It certainly wasn’t raisin bran or Cap’n Crunch out-of-the-box, but I wonder what he did have? That’s just an idle question; there’s more serious stuff to be thought about.

Jesus begins to question Peter with the words, “Do you love me…”. Of course, Peter is going to affirm that yes, indeed he does love Jesus more than than the others in the group. Then Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. I wonder if Peter caught the real meaning of that statement. He knew that there weren’t any actual sheep around to be herded, but did he understand that Jesus meant those who were still learning about him and his message.

Jesus asked Peter again if he loved him, and Peter, of course, said a bit more forcefully that of course, he did. Then Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.”

Then Jesus does it a third time, asking again if Peter really loved him. The rating tells us that Peter was hurt. He had told Jesus twice that he loved him, so why did he ask a third time? This time he was a little testier when he replied to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” After that, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus then went on to talk about how Peter and the other disciples had passed their youth where they could put on their belts and go where they pleased. The time would come where someone else would put a strap on them and force them to go where they had no desire to be. Of course, Jesus was talking about how the disciples would end up just as he would soon be, in death, probably very painfully. He also wanted to make sure that Peter and the others knew that their mission now was to tend to, feed, and teach as many as possible, both young and old. Death was coming for all of them, and they needed to realize that and be ready.

I think the phrases “Feed/tend my sheep/lambs” are probably as relevant now as they ever have been. We see daily pictures of children forcibly separated from their parents by human jailers rather than armies and rebel groups. We see those children packed into detention centers, many of them mere tents, far from their parents, lost, alone, frightened, dirty, sometimes sickly, and probably hungry. These are lambs, and lambs are supposed to be tended, fed, and cared for because they don’t know how to fight for themselves.  They have been denied soap, toothbrushes, clean clothes and diapers, blankets, warm places to sleep, and so many other things that our own children take for granted. It’s enough to break anyone’s heart, especially those who take the words of Jesus very seriously. These lambs have not been fed and tended. They are lost sheep, lost lambs, who don’t know where they are, or what’s going to happen to them.

Their parents are probably not much better off than their children, although the parents have many more coping skills than someone between the ages of a few months and ten years. Again Jesus has told us to feed/tend those people who have sought green pastures and safety in a land far from their own troubled homelands. We don’t seem to be doing a very good job of following Jesus’s words, and this is not an isolated case. Victims of famine and starvation, warfare and mistreatment around the world face the same problems. Even though the children may not be separated from their parents, the families still have to fight to exist in lands where plenty is a word no one knows.

I wonder what Jesus would say if he came back right now. There would be many who would rush to touch him or to speak to him or to even worship him, but yet who have ignored many of the lessons that he taught us through the Gospels. They may have good excuses, or so people will think, but I don’t imagine Jesus would approve of those excuses. He would recall to them stories of how the Israelites were mistreated in several exiles and to have, in essence, returned the favor with the Palestinians. I think there are a lot of things Jesus would take exception to, especially proclaiming oneself to be Christian but ignoring all the lessons that deal with relations with Gentiles, children, women, aliens, weak, or sick, but especially those who claim to follow Jesus but who do so by mouth only with no heart in it.

Please, God, could we have a week where the children are taken care of in the way they should be, no matter whose children they are? Can they not be warehouse like cattle, or treated like enemies instead of as lambs. Can we feed and tend the sheep and the lambs as we should? Once we try it, we might find our hearts are a little more open, our vision a little more acute, and our brains more filled with thoughts of love and not suspicion and hatred. Please God, help us to tend the sheep and lambs, in Jesus’ name.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 28, 2019.