Saturday, November 27, 2021

Waiting for Advent

 


Thanksgiving night, I sat at my desk, trying to keep the cat from tipping over my glass of iced tea while waiting for the fresh apple pie to cool enough to eat. I had no leftovers, as I’d eaten Thanksgiving dinner with friends on Wednesday, due to work schedules. That dinner was magnificent. I have never seen a turkey more golden brown. The vegetables were wonderful, and the company was the best a person could have. My friend promised to deliver leftovers in a day or so. (The prospect of turkey sandwiches and pumpkin cheesecake makes my mouth water.)

I like Thanksgiving. I like fall. I love almost anything pumpkin and can’t wait to have real turkey, rather than the deli-sliced kind. I love the cooler temperatures this time of year, and as I lay in bed, a breeze came up that set my tube wind chimes ringing. The chimes reminded me to be thankful for family, friends, my cats, the roof over my head, food in the fridge and favorite dishes to come, and really, all the blessings of life. I try to do that every day, but somehow it is much more important to be thankful for specificities of life, not just ‘Thanks for everything, God.”

One thing I always feel grateful for on Thanksgiving is that Advent is close at hand. Advent is my favorite church season. Oh, I love the exuberance of Christmas, the searching of Epiphany, the penitence of Lent, the joy of Easter, and, although not nearly as much, the length of Pentecost season. Still, it is Advent that I love the most. 

Advent is a time for reflection, meditation, and expectation. It is a time that when I hear of Mary’s pregnancy, reminding me of my own, both of us anticipating our births. My “baby” is grown now, but I have pictures of his blond curls, bright blue eyes, and chubby cheeks when he was a baby and toddler. Advent reminds me of these things more poignantly than any other time of year. 

Advent is a quiet time, though people seem busy, buying gifts, decorating, baking cakes, cookies, and pies for gifts and entertaining, attending the kids’ concerts and sports events, and extra meetings and rehearsals. Sometimes it feels hard to catch one’s breath with all the busy-ness around. And yet, Advent begs us to take time to sit and simply be – something we don’t do very often, much to the potential detriment of our spiritual lives.

Advent focuses on the coming of Messiah. It is a history lesson of the teachings of prophets and wise people who weren’t necessarily speaking of Jesus. Christians have been taught these prophecies were fulfilled in Bethlehem and the manger. Still, the stories in Matthew and Luke are the ones we have been taught since childhood, perhaps not factually accurate, we look forward to hearing them again through Advent and into Christmas.

The word “Advent” means “Coming,” as in the first or second coming of Christ. It indicates a forthcoming event or celebration. Purple was once the color for Advent, treated as a shorter penitential season, like Lent. Now a medium (serum) blue is often used, the Virgin Mary’s cloak. Blue represents purity, the sky, and the cloak of an Empress in the Byzantine tradition.

The Advent wreath seen in homes and churches during the season, with three blue or purple candles lit week by week, and a fourth candle being, for “Gaudette Sunday.” On Gaudette Sunday, one takes a breath to lighten before the big push towards Christmas Even and the Christmas season. The larger white candle in the center of the wreath is lit on Christmas Eve, the “Christ candle,” for the arrival of the Christ child.  

What might it take to spend a few minutes every day to meditate on the coming of Christ and what his coming might means to us as Christians in a secular world? What might we give up doing to make time for that meditation or reflection? What might we gain by it? What might we lose by ignoring it?

I’m happy Advent begins tomorrow. I may put my tree up early instead of waiting for a time closer to Christmas, but our family tradition means something to me. I will contemplate traditions and what they mean and quietly try to sit so God has time to get a word in edgewise. I invite you to do the same.

Happy Advent. Celebrate well! And Happy New Year to the church whose liturgical year begins the same day.

God bless.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

A Tale of Socks -- and saints

Once upon a time there was a small city, an ordinary small city, full of people, ordinary everyday people.
 
One morning the people of the city woke up to find dirty socks all over. They were in the trees in the park, they were along the sides of the streets in front of the banks and real estate offices and department stores and even the school. There were dirty socks on the steps of one church and draped over the tombstones in the cemetery at another. They were under the overpass and over the underpass. Some flew from car antennas like flags while others lay on the well-manicured lawns of the city's wealthier citizens and on the front steps of the modest homes further out, looking from a distance as if someone had planted a haphazard carpet of flowers everywhere across the manicured grass. Granted, they were colorful socks, all the colors of the rainbow, plus argyle, patterned and even some that looked as if the rainbow had been put together with a Mixmaster. But they all had had things in common: they were dirty, they were everywhere and they didn't belong where they were.


The people of the city had different thoughts about what to do. The Mayor gave a press conference promising to call the City Council into session immediately to study the problem and formulate an appropriate response, hopefully without raising taxes too much in the process. At the morning prayer services the minister and the priest prayed for deliverance from the potential health hazard the socks could pose as well as for the safety and well-being of those who would have to clean up the mess. 

Teachers kept the children inside for fear of air-borne pollutants causing asthma attacks. The Senior Citizen's lunch brigade issued face masks for their delivery people and the hospital emergency room geared up for a full-fledged epidemic. The drug store sold out of antibiotic hand cleaner within minutes. Arguments broke out as to whether someone ought to go pick up just socks of one color or one pattern but leave the rest for someone else. The police called out the forensics team to investigate, take samples and rush back to the lab to perform their arcane rites over possible bits of epithelial cells or stray cat hairs. All in all, it was a gigantic mess and nobody seemed to know quite what to do.

Meanwhile the socks just sat there. People from the golf club looked at them, looked at their own preferred style of socks and decided it wasn't their problem because the ones lying around weren't their socks and wandered off to the bar to at least play the 19th hole since the other 18 were covered in multicolored socks. The mothers in the SUVs taking their children to piano lessons, soccer practice, dance class or karate tried to dodge the ones in the street and warned the children not to touch the socks on their way to and from their various venues. The service workers' union looked at the situation and found a clause in their contracts that precluded their participation in an activity not specifically enumerated as "their job" like fire, rescue, transportation or refuse pickup of items not placed inside the specified containers or community-approved plastic bags.

Even people on the street had their own reactions. Some walked by, looking anywhere but where a sock was and pretending that there really wasn't anything wrong at all. Some trod a careful path through the socks, being careful not to step on any or come in contact with them at all. Some looked out their windows at home and decided they really didn't need that milk from the store and even those who had unbreakable appointments they'd waited months to get thought that perhaps the sore tooth or the routine examination could wait another day or two. 

Many of the office personnel at the various offices called in sick or claimed they couldn't get out of their driveways due to the piles of socks the city's snowplow had tried to use to clear paths for busses and truckloads of emergency equipment and supplies to use. After all, they all thought, those socks didn't belong to them, they weren't responsible for the socks being there so it was up to someone to find out whose socks they were and compel them to clean up the mess. And so the socks sat.

Then somebody noticed something odd. Someone was walking down the street, bending over and actually not only touching but picking up socks and putting them in a brown paper sack. It didn't happen just once but over and over again, one sock at a time. Then there was a little kid pulling a red wagon, also bending over and picking up socks, one at a time, and putting them in the wagon. They weren't even separating them according to color if washing them were their intent. Knee socks, ankle socks, novelty socks, plain, fancy, basic white and wildly colored, they were all the same and all went into the bag or the wagon.

Sighs of relief went up all over town. Everybody returned to their more or less normal busynesses. Almost everybody, that is, all but the person with the sack and the child with the wagon, both of whom, had anybody taken time to notice, weren't wearing any socks at all --- or even any shoes.


Essay originally published on Jericho's Daughter, October 31, 2009.
Published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, November 13, 2021.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Prayer and Study

 

When I pray, I speak to God, and when I study Torah, God speaks to me. – Rabbi Louis Finkelstein

We as Christians talk about prayer often; it's one of the basics of our faith journey. What we don't always think about is the need to study. For us, it isn't just Torah (the first five books of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures), but also the prophecies, poetry, writings (the Tanakh), gospels, epistles and all.

It is one thing to read the Bible straight through and think we've covered it. We read strange stories with people doing things we can't understand and can't figure out how such things got into the word of God. But through study, consultation with commentaries, pastors, theologians, and the like, we begin to understand that there is more here than just a simple reading will provide. 

Through study, we gain an understanding of the world of the Bible as it was. We learn why people sometimes did unthinkable things and how God could condone it, much less authorize it. We learn that even though some of the stories might not be 100% factual (CNN hadn't been invented yet), and many stories were not written down until centuries or even millennia after they were first told, there is a profound truth lying underneath them for us to discover, examine and take to heart. 

The process of theological reflection allows us to work a process where we look at something in four different ways – through the lenses of culture, tradition, personal position, and actions that can be taken. Sometimes, we find a new light on something we've not understood before, or perhaps something we had not considered through prayer and meditation. Prayer can be incorporated into this process, as we invite God into our deliberations, whether personal or communal. 

We shouldn't give up learning just because we've completed high school or college or any kind of formal or informal schooling. If we stop learning, we stop growing. We pray to communicate with God, but we study to understand what God has to tell us through the words of the Bible and prayer.   

As we read in Sirach, "How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High!" (38:34).  Prayer lets us talk to God, but study allows us to be open to God's messages to us.

God bless. 


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, November 7, 2021.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Learning Wisdom

 

Matthew 13:54-58

When I was in college, I remember what a big deal it was to go home, even for a few days or a couple of weeks.  It was good to be back in familiar surroundings, with family members who remembered me from my earliest days and friends I'd grown up with.  I ate things I loved and which were appropriate to the date of my homecoming: turkey and Waldorf salad at Thanksgiving, Smithfield ham, greens, and sugar cookies at Christmas and Easter, and whatever was cooked during spring break. I never went to Florida or Cancun or even Virginia Beach during spring break; we didn't do that in those days, at least, unless our families took us on some trip to visit relatives who lived away from our home. 

During the breaks at home (Except spring break), we were expected to study, write some papers, or practice our instruments or vocal exercises and jury selections. I can't speak for others, but there were too many things going on and too many people and places to visit to do much of any of those. Still, people asked me about what I was learning at school and how I was doing. It was amazing how many inquired about dining hall cuisine. Still, most had never been to college themselves and were curious what they might have missed. 

In Jesus' day, only boys were educated at all, and then it was primarily religious education. It was vital for them to learn scripture and the history of the Jewish people. Practical education was usually done within the family, like learning to mind a store, craft wine, pottery, bricks, fabric, and farm or raise livestock. Girls learned household crafts and how to live frugally. I'm not sure whether girls were taught to read and write. However, if they did, they would have been members of the upper classes. These people would need someone to run a large household or perhaps marry a rich man with many servants she would need to oversee. 

Imagine Jesus coming home from his wanderings for a break. He started teaching in the synagogue, and people were amazed by what he knew and what miracles (deeds of power) he could do. They muttered about Jesus' social standing and his family. While they may have accepted that Joseph was his father, calendar counters would undoubtedly have been whispering behind their hands. The people knew how much Jesus had learned while living at home, so where did he learn all these things? Surely it was not somewhere that taught him to speak of things priests and prophets did not.  Even trained as physicians could not instantaneously heal many of the injuries and conditions Jesus could. 

Jesus, as usual, had the perfect answer. "Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house." Prophets often had to make hasty exits from various locations because they said things the people wouldn't accept. Sometimes they did things people felt were the works of evil spirits or devils and rejected the message and the messenger to the point of death. Perhaps Jesus had had that kind of education while he was away, just as folks at home sometimes questioned some of the lessons I had learned at college. Lord knows, I wasn't a prophet or a doer of deeds of power, but because of my studies, my views and beliefs changed, sometimes radically. It was easy to identify with Jesus when I remembered that passage. 

Sometimes we find ourselves changing how we think or act based on new information or new experiences. The verse, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man" (Luke 2:52), came after Jesus had been found in the Temple by Mary and Joseph, where he was talking to the high officials. Already he had the knowledge to astonish them, so perhaps he was born knowing. Perhaps spending time with John the Baptist taught him new thoughts and perspectives. Maybe God used Jesus's experiences to suggest new wisdom and experiences. 

At any rate, we continue learning throughout our lives. Our minds change a thousand times on things both great and small. Sometimes they are drastic changes, more often small ones. Still, we know so much more than we did when we were six, or sixteen, or even thirty-six. We'll be wiser still when we become the elders for those younger than ourselves. 

Where would you wish your wisdom would come from? What kind of wisdom would you hope to have gained? How would you use that wisdom, and to what purpose? How can we increase our knowledge now on subjects that will be very important in the future?  What wisdom would you ask God to provide you?

God bless us all on our quests for wisdom.


Original format.  Edited copy originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 23, 2021.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Promises, Laws, and Faith

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’  - Romans 4:13-18

Abraham is one of the most notable figures in the Hebrew Bible for many reasons. He was shown as an obedient follower of God from the time of his young manhood in Ur of the Chaldees until the day of his death. He was a prosperous man who took in his orphaned nephew, Lot and provided him not only goods but land in the new place God had shown Abraham. He exemplified the desert hospitality by receiving and feeding three strangers who happened upon his camp, not knowing the celestial origin of those visitors.

The visitors gave him a bit of news he could scarcely believe, namely, that he and his elderly wife Sarah would indeed have a son, something that would be unbelievable given their ages. Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, by Sarah's handmaid Hagar. God told Hagar that her son would be the father of multitudes. God later made the same promise to Ismael, which Muslims believe is the founding of Islam.  Jews hold to the second blessing, where God specified that the promise of descendants more numerous than the stars would come through Abraham and Sarah's child. God had promised this, and now was the time for it to become more than just an oral promise.

Paul's letter to the Romans stated that the promise made to Abraham did not come through the law but through faith. Yes, some laws came from God, but the law considered most binding did not really come about until Moses brought the commandments down from the mountain. It was generations later before the entire body of law was set forth. Abraham obeyed God through faith and not just because the law said he had to. For this reason, God appointed him as the foundation of a people who would be dedicated to God and obedient to Him.

We have lots of laws supposedly designed for the protection and well-being of all. Too often, we choose to ignore laws because they are inconvenient or because we feel we have a pressing need to disobey them. The speed limit sign says 45, but we're pretty sure we can get by driving 54 unless we have an emergency when we try to speed up to 60.

There were eventually 613 commandments that descendants of Abraham were supposed to follow. Some were reserved for certain people, namely the priestly clans. Some were positive, like "thou shalt do this…" Others were more negative, such as the injunctions against eating certain foods like shrimp, which probably most of us ignore today. We also wear blended fabrics, and we grow more than one crop in a plot in our backyard gardens. We feel these laws don't apply to us, and they may not for the most part. It isn't so much that God wants us to be slavishly obedient to the law as we are to be obedient by faith instead.

Faith is a tricky word; it means different things to different people. Some have faith that nothing bad will ever happen because they believe in God and/or have made a proper profession of faith using specific words and phrases. Some are more cautious and believe that bad things happen to good people because somehow they have transgressed badly. They must have broken a law, took some action they shouldn’t have or used words that went against what God wanted them to do. Some, though, simply go on faith that God is with them and that God will continue to be with them no matter what happens.

God never told Abraham that if he didn't do this or that he would be punished forever. God never said what would happen if Abraham had not obeyed and taken Isaac to the mountain to be sacrificed; God said to do it, and Abraham obeyed. That obedience was faith and a very tough test of that faith. Faith can mean doing what is right whether we understand the consequences were not. Jonathan Myrick Daniels moved in front of an African American woman as a shotgun blast rang out, and he died in her place. There was no demand from the law that said he had to do what he did. Daniels didn’t think about his action. He simply put his faith in that it was the right thing to do, the belief it was something God would want him to do. He paid for that with his life.

Faith is like just about anything else; it needs to be practiced regularly. We need to review the law periodically as we do in church from time to time by hearing the law and the prophets. It's a way of taking stock, reviewing where we are vs. where we need to be, and readjusting our paths to put us in alignment with what God wants. But we need to practice faith, taking action where necessary but in all things trusting God to be with us. That doesn't mean bad things won't happen to good people; it simply means that God won't make us go through anything alone if we merely look and trust that God is there.

The number of Abraham's descendants may never have reached the number of stars in the sky. He never saw that many people, but he had faith that it would happen if God said it would. That was practicing faith, and it offers us a lesson in it.

I don't think God would tell me to play the lottery if I didn't have enough money to pay the electric bill. No matter how much faith I had, I don’t believe God would choose the winning numbers for me 0r supply the extra cash. I may seem to lack faith in divine protection when I try to cross the street against the light, and cars are coming at me. It's not that I lack faith that God is with me, but I seriously doubt that God would have given me common sense and a sense of consequence if I were not to use it.

I do have faith that God is present and as close as my next breath. That's the best reason I can think of for continuing to breathe.  I don't obey civil law because it suits me; it's more about making things safer for others and myself. I try to obey God's laws, particularly the ones Jesus emphasized, for the same reason. It's a way of loving my neighbor as myself and caring about others more than myself. I wear a mask for that reason, just as I try to drive carefully or treat others with respect and compassion. My faith informs me of what I should do -- and how I should treat others. I may fail often, but God always gives me another chance. 

That's my basic statement of faith -- God gives second chances. For everybody. Always.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, October 16, 2021.

 


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Books, Willow Trees, and Heaven

 


I remember the night a hurricane blew close enough to our town to do considerable damage to vegetation around town. Leaves, small branches, and occasional blowing debris cluttered yards, roofs got their share of wind damage and loose shingles. My beautiful willow lay on its side, with roots exposed to the air and its trunk crushing the fence and completely blocking the lower end of our street. I was inconsolable. Today, I can still remember seeing those exposed roots as much as I can the tree as it stood properly, shading that part of the yard. Had it blown down in the opposite direction, it would have fallen on my bedroom and very probably hurt me very badly, physically as well as emotionally.

It occurred to me today that I felt some of the grief I had when I awoke that morning and saw my friend dying and waiting to be cut up by the cleanup crew and hauled away they could open the road. It was a feeling of disruption, loss of something precious, and a signal of change that was strange and unsettling in the eyes of a child. Mostly I remembered how beautiful it was and how much I would miss it. The world would never be quite the same again.

I had grown up in a large extended family of older folks, so I was no stranger to an aunt or uncle “going to be with Jesus” every year. It was an opportunity to see all my favorite relatives at one event instead of visiting them individually every few Sundays in rotation. I would miss the one who was being buried, but there were so many living ones to enjoy, even if I were only four or five or six. I knew death meant I wouldn’t see them again until I died and went to be with Jesus myself and had a large group of relatives waiting for me at the Golden Gate. Still, I never learned that favorite things, like pets or trees, would be with those relatives. 

I could never have articulated the difference between Christian souls and those without them. I knew people who weren’t “Christian” in the same way my church taught, the ones who would go to hell because they didn’t “Know” Jesus.  But the idea of dogs, cats, trees, rocks, or rivers and creeks going to be familiar again in Heaven never occurred to me. It seems they didn’t have souls, and besides, Heaven would be so much more glorious than anything earth could produce. We’d be so busy praising God that we wouldn’t think about things we’d left behind – or that had left us.

Maybe it is fanciful, but I wonder from time to time what Heaven would be like. Oh, I know the Bible talks about many mansions, streets paved with gold, and such, but I don’t want a mansion. Am I sacrilegious to ask for a room large enough for some books, cats, plants, and not far from woods with familiar trees and maybe a willow tree outside my window?  It would be a place where our dog during my childhood, Bitsy, would lay down comfortably with all the cats I’ve had and loved, the windows would have prisms that scattered rainbows all over, and comfortable chairs to sit and entertain (and be entertained by) friends I’ve missed for so long? I’ll happily sing God’s praises in chant, Baroque polyphony, and familiar hymns. Still, I’d also hope there would be a saltwater river nearby with waves lapping on the sand to walk in and think or pray or both.  

God, if wishes count, could my willow tree be there too? And maybe the pine tree overlooking my river where You and I met so often when I was an adolescent? Oh, and could there be a village like Three Pines with warm and friendly people, a sense of history, and a little Anglican church, for meditation and occasional concerts? By the way, I’d love to have about half the town I grew up in as neighbors as well? I hope that what I believe is really true, that hell will be empty, and all that I loved would be in Heaven. I don’t think it would genuinely be Heaven without them, human, animal, deciduous, evergreen, and all.

Thank you for listening, God. 

 

* Penny, Louise, How the Light Gets In, (2013), St. Martin’s Press, New York. Kindle Edition.


 Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, October 9, 2021.

  

 


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Prayer Conscious and Subconsious

 

I was shopping in the grocery store not long ago, and something occurred to me. I suddenly noticed that I slowed down when approaching an intersection with another aisle. Then I looked both ways to make sure nobody turned toward my cart or crossed my aisle to another. I found I do the same thing in buildings with hallways. While I cross the intersection, I check out what's happening in the walkways to my right and left. I guess it comes from driving, where constantly watching for other drivers is not only necessary but a safety precaution.  Looking both ways is imperative while driving but pretty much an automatic response in different situations.

I've been thinking about other things I do automatically. Walking to the refrigerator to get a pitcher of iced tea may be a conscious thing, but I don't have to direct my hand to grasp the handle and lift it. I don't have to tell my lungs to work harder and faster when walking and getting out of breath. They do it as a response to my heart pushing blood and my brain keeping track of how much oxygen that blood is moving to the rest of the body. I stumble, and my inner ears tell the labyrinth to respond to attempt to keep me upright – at least, most of the time.

What else may I do subconsciously?  I trip over something and subconsciously reach out for something to grab onto to keep me upright. The cat knocks something off the desk, and I unconsciously reach to catch it (the cat usually wins). I put toothpaste on my brush and begin brushing my teeth. I don't have to consciously direct my hand to move around my mouth, getting my gums, my teeth, and all the crevices between.  I do many things without thinking a lot about it, things I do every day or many times a day. Is it a habit? Subconscious thought? Or something else?

Some years ago, I had an automobile accident where a ladder run over by an 18-wheeler in front of me on the freeway hit the side of my car. I found myself in a sliding skid, foot on the brake pedal (where it shouldn't have been) and saying, "Jesus, help me!" It worked; I wasn't hurt except for a bit of whiplash and a very slight concussion. At that time, it wasn't a conscious prayer, although I remember saying it and meaning every word. There have been other times when I have consciously prayed, such as when I heard the news of disasters, illnesses, deaths, or dangerous situations. Sometimes it was an arrow prayer to St. Anthony to help me find things like my glasses, keys, or something else I had lost. Usually, my conscious prayers are directed to Jesus, although I often write prayers to God when reflecting on something. I wonder, why don't I pray to the Holy Spirit? 

Then I have to wonder, do I ever pray subconsciously, without verbalizing or even thinking of prayer?  I know I have considered things I do as a wordless prayer, such as knitting a prayer shawl or scarf for someone in particular, but what about those I knit without anyone special in mind? My mind can wander once I have a pattern in my fingers and don't have to pay close attention to it. Does it still count as a prayer shawl if I'm not actively praying at the time? 

I know that I have subconsciously prayed as I walked in particularly familiar or breathtaking places. I have also prayed when hearing or even participated in making music, particularly religious music. I never wanted to be a soloist, but small or large groups seem to magnify my prayers' strength and sincerity. 

But my mind goes back to subconscious prayer.  I think of places like monasteries and convents where people deliberately enter to devote themselves to lives of prayer and service, a form of prayer in action. People go into churches at all hours to pray and seek comfort, and very possibly some go in just to sit in a quiet, dry, warm place. But who can say that as they sit, they aren't in some kind of prayer, even if they aren't really familiar with what prayer is?

Come to think of it, how familiar are any of us with prayer? Is it a habit reserved for Thanksgiving dinner or "Now I lay me down to sleep"?  Is it like an arrow being shot toward heaven to get us out of trouble or ask for something we need urgently? Is "Our Father, who art in heaven" the only prayer we can say when we feel we need to pray? Do we have particular Psalms or verses that we use when we are in distress? Do we consider those prayers, whether conscious or unconscious? Do objects like rosaries or strings of beads help focus our prayers or become almost subconscious as the beads slip through our fingers like water over rocks in a stream?

Do we feel we have to kneel to pray?  Can we do it sitting or even lying down? Can we do it when we're moving around, or must we stand still? Must we do it aloud, or can it simply come from the voice of our hearts and minds? Can we sing it? Can we even dance to it as David danced before the altar? 

How do you pray? What do you get from it? How do you feel when you pray? Does just sitting and meditating feel prayerful? When you do or make something for another person, do you also offer it to God as a prayer? 

Think about it. 

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café  Wednesday, October 6, 2021.


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Agnus Dei

 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. 


Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.


Now that I’m retired, I watch a lot of TV. Well, let’s put it this way – I use TV as background a lot of the time.  I love my British mysteries, thrillers, cop shows, reality emergency stuff, and documentaries. Some of them I have watched so often I can practically recite them from memory. But I’m frequently doing something else as I watch, things like washing dishes, knitting, reading a cozy mystery (usually British in origin), or whatever housework I can’t avoid any longer. 

Last night I felt I needed a break, and lo, I found the Last Night of the Proms for 2021 from Royal Albert Hall on one of my British subscriptions. The place was packed! Everybody seemed glad and more than ready to celebrate the end of the isolation and return to a more normal life.  I was knitting during the first couple of selections when suddenly the announcer gave a familiar title. So I listened a bit more carefully while continuing to make my needles move. That didn’t last long, though.

The BBC Orchestra and Choir began playing “Agnus Dei,” written and arranged by composer Samuel Barber. He had written the original theme as a movement in a string quartet in 1936 but added the vocal score in 1967. It quickly became one of the most identifiable and loved scores. Usually performed as a very somber piece in movies, TV programs, concerts, occasions of mourning like memorials for 9/11, funerals of famous people, and as a change of pace in concerts, it is an intensely contemplative piece, as it was at the Proms. 

The words Barber chose for the vocal parts were an ancient part of the Latin mass.  The Agnus Dei was a supplication that has been applicable through the many centuries since it was added to the Latin mass by Pope Sergius (687-701), who imported it from the Orthodox. It is used in every Eucharist, coming between the Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharistic prayer that precedes the consecration of the Eucharistic Elements. It can also be used as a prayer of meditation, much like the repetition of the Hail, Mary when saying a rosary. 

I think I knitted through the first few bars of the presentation as it was played and sung so softly it was almost like an extended silence. Then it became a little louder, and my needles stopped. The music drew me into itself, leaving no room for stray thoughts or distraction. The whole piece took about eight minutes but was so intense that for perhaps 30 seconds after the music died quietly away, the audience was silent before erupting into thunderous applause. 

Perhaps many were praying the supplication along with the music. I saw several mouths moving as the camera scanned the large audience, possibly fellow singers familiar with the piece itself and its power of drawing people in. Perhaps some there had never heard it before or didn’t know what the lyrics meant since it was sung in Latin. I think the silence in the seconds after the piece concluded was a respect and a willingness to let go of the emotion that the music brought forth. I know I sat there as mesmerized as the audience. I know it has been a part of the Last Night at the Proms for some years, and I have a feeling it will continue to cast its web of beauty, reflection, and grace over many audiences to come.

The piece never fails to move me, even though I have never had the privilege of being part of a choir that sang it. Still, it is as familiar to me as any music I have rehearsed and performed multiple times. I sometimes hear it in my head when I’m sad or needing some comfort. I often play it on my portable music device. It provides soothing and calming when I am stuck in traffic, late for an appointment, or frustrated over something. It’s one of my go-to pieces. I am grateful that Barber wrote it and arranged it to maintain its integrity as a concert piece and as a prayerful one.

What music has that kind of effect on you? Do you ever find hymns or other pieces popping up in your head? I know many like more contemporary and livelier, often more dissonant things. If you are one of them, do these pieces connect you to God in any way? What is your favorite work? Do you hum or sing it as you work or walk? Do you find peace in it?

Think about the role of music in your life, both ordinarily and spiritually. Is there room for music in your prayer life or meditations? Would you share it with others, hoping that it might bring them the same emotions you find in it? 


Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday October 2, 2021.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Curiosity

 

People have always been curious about what is happening around them, particularly in their neighborhoods, groups, or even churches.  Have a police car pull up in front of a house on the street and curtains twitch, blinds get lifted just a bit, and suddenly the table in front of the window needs dusting desperately. Phones start ringing from house to house as people check with their neighbors to see who can see what and if they know anything about what’s going on. Ambulances provide the same sort of thing, although often there is some concern about what has happened.

The curiosity factor,  I think, is due to instinct. Before the days of home security systems, police or community watch programs, watchtowers, and even a single person from a small group tending a fire and being vigilant for attacking enemies, thieves, and ferocious (and hungry) wild beasts. The sound of a small rock falling, a twig or small branch breaking, or some unfamiliar noise could mean the difference between life and death.

Indeed, this inquisitiveness has brought us almost every advance in our cultures and technology, from harnessing fire to land on distant moons and planets. Science is suspicion or questioning harnessed to attempt to understand how the world works and how to use nature and natural substances to make life better. It also creates the search for new and better ways of doing things, making things last longer, and cure more injuries and diseases. Sometimes necessity drives curiosity, like searching for vaccines like those for COVID and other diseases and conditions.

There’s the old saying about “Curiosity killed the cat,” not one of my favorite sayings. Still, there have been lots of animals (and people) who got nosy about something new and different or, like a crow, seeing something shiny and taking it back to the nest. People pick up a shiny rock or seashell, turn it over and over in their hands and either toss it back to the ground or put it in their pocket to take home and investigate more closely with a magnifying glass or more focused light.

Sometimes, I think it is a bit funny that the term “Intelligence,” meaning knowing what others are doing, thinking, planning, or building, is really a semi-sanctioned form of nosiness about what’s going on in the neighbor’s back yard. We love watching Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey snoop about, picking up clues, and eventually solving murders and other mayhem. Curiosity about how something works or learning a fact about something new can lead anyone to the library (or Google) to dig up information on a topic that develops into either a passion for a new subject or, at least, enough information to satisfy the itch the initial fact or report began.

I’m pretty sure curiosity about Jesus was one of the main reasons people journeyed, sometimes long distances, to find out who this person was that they had heard about through word of mouth from others.  Perhaps they heard someone quote one of Jesus’s teachings, or maybe it was the recounting of a miracle he had performed that caused them to want to hear and see more. Even after they had experienced Jesus for themselves, they weren’t always satisfied that somebody had scratched the itch they had initially felt.

Many came back, and others followed Jesus from place to place. It wasn’t only men who joined the followers. Women of means also traveled with Jesus and the disciples, buying them food and perhaps lodging. In return, all they asked was to continue hearing these words that spoke to them so clearly and deeply.  Chances are, the women had done what Jesus told the rich young man to do – to sell all they had and follow Jesus, supporting the poor and even the Master himself. Their initial curiosity had been satisfied, and it became the focus of their lives.

What drives your curiosity? Have you ever had a moment of inquisitiveness that piqued your interest and led to a change in your life? What made you take an interest in the Bible, Jesus, or religion in general? Have your questions been answered, or have they fostered more questions to which you are still seeking answers? How could you promote a curiosity about Jesus in others?

The disciples’ and others’ initial curiosity about Jesus eventually led to death for some of them, but they stayed faithful. Thousands are still facing death every day for their faith. I’ve noticed that many Christians are positive about Heaven and their desire to be there, yet they do whatever they can to prolong their lives here on earth. I wonder – what would Jesus think about that?

I’m curious about many things, many of which I may never have my itch relieved by some type of intellectual Benadryl. I still have my inquisitiveness and often raise a prayer of gratitude for computers that allow me to check things without going to an extensive library far away or even getting out of my pajamas. I’m ready for Heaven whenever God pushes my “Eject from earth” button. Meanwhile, I will investigate, like my cats, any new thing that comes across my path. That includes matters of faith, human nature, culture, and deficiencies in what we preach and what we actually do. That should keep me busy for a few decades.

Be curious.

 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 11, 2021.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Thinking Ahead to Harvest

 


One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.  But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?'  Jesus answered, 'Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?'  Then he said to them, 'The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.'— Luke 6:1-5


It's September! Summer weather will be with us for a while yet, but we've only had 20 days of 110°F or over (compared to 50 for last year). We've had more rain than all of last year's monsoon, and there is a possibility of more to come. Halloween decorations (as well as fall ones) are up in the stores, which assures me the year is moving on. While most of the trees around here don't turn color, some do have leaves that fall – eventually, even if it's Christmas Day!

September also reminds me that the time for seasonal fruits and vegetables to change. I know it isn't the strawberry season, but I can still get them in the store if I really crave them. I saw some mincemeat in a jar at the store the other day, which reminds me I can now have tarts whenever I want to make them. It's time for Glade and Febreze to start pushing their fall and winter scents to make up deficits (and cover others) in our homes. And it's time to start thinking of harvesting grains and the like that will be ripening more by the day. 

The story of Jesus going through the cornfield reminded me of September, even though I'm a few miles from the nearest cornfield, which will soon be a Halloween maze.  Corn is always a welcome food, boiled, grilled, creamed, or used in succotash or cottage pie. It's best when it's fresh, and people in the store rummage through the bins of unshucked corn, checking for readiness. The disciples must have found ripe corn or even corn beginning to dry on the stalk because they rubbed the ears in their hands to loosen the corn for eating. 

Naturally, the Pharisees were on hand to check for any rule-breaking or blasphemous or heretical teaching. I wonder, didn't they ever get tired of following a group they felt were troublemakers, studiously writing down everything they felt had been said or done wrongly, and getting sore feet for their trouble? Anyway, They caught the disciples doing work on the Sabbath, and that was a major infraction. 

Jesus, as usual, had a reply for the accusers. He reminded them of David on campaign with a group of his army, taking the Bread of the Presence* from the tabernacle and eating it. Looking up Bread of the Presence, I was surprised to find that in addition to bread that did not get stale or moldy for a week and that each loaf (of which there were 12) weighed about five kilograms or eleven pounds! The point was that hungry men deserved to be fed and that some of the grain (and probably corn) in the field were left for gleaners, poor people who could gather up what they could to help them feed their families until the next crop. 

We don't usually see farmers leaving a portion of their crop at the edges of the field for poor people to salvage. If they don't grow it themselves or have the money to buy it at the store, then they don't deserve it, at least, in the minds of a good many contemporary people. Most of the harvesting is done by machine, and another device gathers the crop. Machines don't usually leave much behind as they cover the field, several rows at a time. 

Food pantries have replaced gleaners, and they have fresh food and canned, dried, and packaged types. For the poor, those pantries are lifesavers, but those who use them are shamed at having to ask for things their meager budgets won't cover. It isn't only the holidays that food banks and pantries need help from those who can afford their groceries and still have money left over, but from donations from kind folks who know that hunger goes on 365 (0r 366) days a year. Corporations donate from their stock, churches, schools, and stores hold food drives. Even children canvass their neighborhoods, asking for help for those who sorely need it.

It's time to start thinking about those who can't walk through fields and gather leftover grains and vegetables. Jesus reminded the Pharisees that he, as Lord of the Sabbath, permitted feeding those who were hungry. If we remember our Gospel stories, we will think of other times when Jesus fed hungry people, using food given by others.  

What if we were ourselves hungry? How would we cope? Saying that people in that condition should get a job, but is that the solution? Think of those working several jobs at low pay because that was the only work they could get. Think of working mothers who have the burden of paying for child care along with bills to pay. Think of the disabled and elderly who have limited resources. Is asking for cans of food, boxes of pasta and cereal, jars of peanut butter and jelly too much? Jesus said it was not just okay but necessary. In fact, it's all through the Bible for those who care to look and to hear.

God bless. 


*For more information on the Bread of the Presence, please see the article at Chabad.org. 

PS. For more info on corn, please see Wide Open Eats. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, September 4, 2021.