Monday, January 18, 2021

Jesus and the Law

 

Mark 2:23-3:6

 

Another week of 2021 has passed. We are still cringing from the raid on the Capitol building last Wednesday and the promise of more of the same to come if the insurgents have their way. Hopefully, things will calm down somewhat, but there’s no cast-in-stone guarantee.  It seems almost humorous that we were so eager to see the beginning of 2021 and a rising hope of things getting better. So far, we’re still waiting for the better. Oh, well, change comes slowly, no matter how much we wish it to be otherwise.

Reading the gospel for Saturday’s Daily Office, it seems Jesus may have been getting the same kind of vibes from the time, place, and religious-governmental groups of his day. The first part (23-28) tells of the hungry disciples walking through some cornfields on the sabbath. As they walked, they broke off some heads of grain to eat. Simultaneously, the Pharisees began to question Jesus as to why his disciples were disobeying the sabbath law regarding doing no work on that day. Jesus reminded them that the great David and his men had once eaten the bread of the Presence from the house of God. Jesus considered that supplying food for hungry people was more important than making them wait until the sabbath was over to eat. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” (27b) he told them. Caring for the hungry was more crucial than merely rigorously following the law.

The second story speaks of Jesus entering the synagogue and meeting a man with a withered hand. A withered or missing hand was a serious matter. Each hand had a specific function to perform; one was for eating (usually done with the right hand), while the other was used for personal hygiene only. The Pharisees who had followed him were waiting to see what Jesus would do. Jesus called the disabled man to him before turning to the Pharisees, asking, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” It wasn’t a question the Pharisees wanted to answer. Jesus then healed the man’s hand as the Pharisees scuttled out to meet with the Herodians and form a conspiracy to destroy Jesus.

The stories reminded me of some things that we’ve been going through for some time. More people have been going hungry, homeless, sick, and held back. In contrast, others have gathered together to conspire against those who have tried to help the less fortunate. The rich have gotten richer while the middle class has shrunk, and the group called lower-income have grown larger and larger in numbers.  It doesn’t seem like things have changed all that much, have they?

Seeing pictures of guards and police battered by fire extinguishers, sticks, flagstaffs and other implements, office doors breached, and personal and governmental property carted away makes me wonder. If Jesus had been standing in the Capitol, would the mob, especially those who claimed to be “Christians,” have been so full of hatred that they would have attacked him too? Would they even have noticed he was there? Jesus was ruthlessly beaten himself before his crucifixion and didn’t fight back. I feel, though, had he seen been there in the Capitol building, he would have done what he could to save and comfort the victims off the crowd’s wrath or even submitted himself to the mob’s anger to save others. Maybe he would have stood with Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, diverting the rioters away from the Senate, undoubtedly saving many from injury or worse.

Undoubtedly, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were convinced of their own rightness and righteousness. I’m sure they were confident they were doing the right thing in God’s eyes. I wish I could feel the rioters in DC had the same motivation rather than just fighting to preserve a status quo against those who are not of a certain race, color, creed, ethnicity, orientation, and political persuasion.

Perhaps looking at the Markan stories through the lenses of what life was like then and comparing it to what I see now makes me draw the comparisons I make, unfair though they might be. I hope that those who seek to live as Jesus taught will continue in that mission of living. I also hope that those who sought to do evil and damage might see what their actions have brought about and repent. Maybe then we can join in reconciliation and unity to bring about the Kingdom of God.

I can dream that this happens, as well as hope and pray that it does. I know for sure that I’m praying for a peaceful week, a safe transition, and the beginning of a new period of kindness, love, and helpfulness.

I’m putting in prayers for safety, sensibility, and also for those impacted by the violence we’ve seen. I will remember those who have been affected by the pandemic and its offshoots, and for those who help the rest of us stay safe and healthy, even at the risk of their lives.

God bless.


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

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Year and Vision

 


We’ve reached 2021, finally and with hope. We groaned, suffered, despaired, and grieved our way through 2020 with all its trials, tribulations, wrong turns, a pandemic outbreak still with us, and increasing violence. For almost everyone, it was a disaster in one way or another. 

My optometrist reminded me the other day that I need to make an appointment for my annual examination. Given my age and a couple of medical issues that could potentially damage my vision, I have to be careful with my eyes. I’m too fond of reading, needlework, and television, and I don’t want to go blind. Although I might see in a normal range with remedial lenses, I notice each year, I see a little less well. Even with new prescriptions, I doubt I will ever be able to see 20/20 again for longer than a few months at a time. Still, I am grateful for even slightly impaired vision most of the time, that is except when trying to read street signs further away than half a hundred feet.

This week I somehow began thinking of the contrast between the two numbers representing last year and perfect vision. If I were to gauge the past year (in my own opinion, of course), and if I were to put that gauge onto a Snellen opthalmological scale, I’d put it at about 20/200. I’d practically have to put my nose to the mirror to be able to see a clear reflection. Anything else would be a blur.

We seemed to have had a lot of prophets last year. Many people listened to those prophets that spoke from whatever point of view most closely reflected their own. For some, the year went pretty well, and by well, I mean their jobs were secure, their taxes neutral or decreased, their stock portfolios solid, and their health solid (with access to the best healthcare). Others were not quite so well off, but at least they were working, could put food on the table, and could access health services when they needed. Still more were at the margin. Their salary might provide the most basic needs but not medical care, vacations, repairs to houses, vehicles, and appliances.

Last year’s prophets did not prophesy a pandemic that would turn the world upside down. With the unexpected pandemic, life suddenly became restrictive and frightening. Not many disasters are predictable – pandemics, hurricanes, fires. Just when 20/20 vision is needed most, it fails us, or so it seems. Or, do we simply live in a world where our status quo is enough, but everyone else needs to look out for themselves?

I don’t think Jesus wouldn’t have cared for that approach. He talked about caring for one another, paying attention to God’s commandments, tending the earth and its creatures, and the like. We read various stories about his life and teachings, even if taught through the lenses of different times, locations, languages, and translations, and try to follow them as best we can. Still, we see through our own experiences, education, and beliefs, the lenses through which we see and judge life for ourselves. 

We can look back and perhaps gain some objectivity concerning the impact last year had on our lives, and try to look ahead to this new year to see how the past now influences the present and probably at least some of the future. Hopefully, we can see where we’ve gone astray, mainly from being too long- or short-sighted concerning trends and possibilities. 

Perhaps we might recollect and return to the General Confession of the Book of Common Prayer, “…[W]e confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”*  Perhaps if we confess enough, our field of vision might change. It might not give us clarity in advance regarding pandemics and other natural disasters, but it might help us live in love with our neighbors and our world. It might encourage us to see through the eyes of others and try to understand their perspectives – and their needs. 

We can’t re-live 2020, and I doubt we would want to. I can hope, try my best, see 2021 as a chance to do better, and try to look beyond the surface, what “they” say, and see only what I want to see. I think that might go a long way to making it less of a “2020” year and more of a “20/20” one. We can all pray for that, can’t we?

God bless. 


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, January 9, 2021.  Edited by Rob Gieselman.


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Stephen and Wenceslaus

 


Finally, it's the last Saturday in 2020. It has been a long, anxiety-producing, isolating, fearful year, one that most of us are glad to see the end of. We don't know yet what 2021 will bring, but we can only look forward and hope for better things to come.

In addition to being the final Saturday of the year, it is also the day after Christmas. It's usually a reasonably laid-back day (except for those who insist on rushing out to grab up specials on Christmas items to be put away for next year and to exchange the awful sweater Aunt Louise gave us or the duplicate of something we already had). Otherwise, it's a day to sit around, watching football, letting the kids play with their new toys, eating leftovers, and perhaps wondering where the packages are that were supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas. Although Christmas Day is over, the Christmas season continues for another eleven days.

The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen. He was an early convert to the group of followers of Jesus the Christ based in Jerusalem after the Ascension. The apostles who headed the group were swamped with preaching, teaching, healing, traveling, and counseling. Those duties included arranging for the care of the widows and the elderly by making sure they were adequately fed and clothed. The apostles finally decided it was all too much, so they decided to create the office of deacon to take over some of the more hand-on duties.

One of the first in the elected group of deacons was a man named Stephen, who had been both caring for the poor and elderly as well as preaching. His work came to the attention of Jerusalem's hierarchy, thanks to Saul of Tarsus. Stephen was arrested and tried for being Christian, which meant denying Caesar's divinity and following what the Jews felt was heresy. With Saul overseeing the event, Stephen was stoned to death and has been commemorated ever since as the first martyr for the faith.

Perhaps the first line of the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslaus" with its notation of "…on the feast of Stephen" sets the stage for the story of the King who saw an old person gathering wood on the day after Christmas. Wenceslaus, the Duke of Bohemia (b. ca. 911, Duke 921-935), was known as a Christian who religiously followed the teachings of Christ, especially through caring for the poor and elderly. His piety and kindness won the hearts of his people. His brother and his faction assassinated him because of envy, jealousy, and his Christian faith. His legend and hagiography were such that the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, gave him the title and style of King, which is why Wenceslaus is referred to as "King" in the 1835 carol by John Mason Neale.

The cult of Wenceslaus increased after his death not only in Bohemia but also in England. Perhaps that is where the British Commonwealth countries' custom began to celebrate December 26 as Boxing Day, a national holiday. In the past, it was the custom for masters of the households to give their servants the day off from work. The workers were also given food and clothing boxes as thanks for their service during the year, especially Christmastime. The custom of providing boxes has somewhat died out. However, many still thank milkmen, postal workers, newspaper deliverers, and the like with small gifts of money on Boxing Day. Thus the legacy of both Stephen and Wenceslaus carries on.

We do a lot of giving at Christmas and often at Epiphany, but what about the rest of the year? Stephen and Wenceslaus gave not only during the winter holidays. Hunger, poverty, and such are year-round problems. Jesus's teachings included the care for the less fortunate whenever and wherever it was needed.  

As we go through the Christmas season and look forward to Epiphany, let us remember to give to others. It doesn't necessarily have to be money or tangible things; it can be as simple as a welcoming smile or hug, a period of listening, helping with rides to doctor's appointments, or meeting whatever needs might present themselves. Opening a door, giving a hand to steady someone on a curb or step, or maybe paying for a cup of coffee for the person behind us in the queue might start a chain that reaches others.

Happy St. Stephen's Day and a continued blessed Christmas season. Even if the snow isn't deep or even if the leaves on the trees are just now falling, be kind to one another, today and every day. Love your neighbor – wear your mask

God bless.

P.S. Love your neighbor – wear your mask!


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 26, 2020.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Leveling Mountains, Exalting Valleys

 


Tomorrow is the fourth Sunday of Advent. It's almost Christmas, with only six days to go. I wonder, how different is this last week from the more usual weeks before Christmas in times when we don't have to worry about pandemics, masks, social distancing, and statistics about new cases and deaths? I'm sure there's a lot less running around, looking for the last few gifts to be purchased and the trimmings for the family Christmas dinner procured and prepared.

One thing that is missing this year is the annual Christmas presentation of Handel's Messiah, the oratorio written and first presented 279 years ago. Although only half of it is directly related to Christmas and the prophecies surrounding the coming of the Messiah, the entire three-part oratorio is presented most often during the Christmas season by professional choirs and orchestras as well as volunteer church choirs and musicians. It is a marker of the season and a tradition that has continued for centuries.

The daily office gospel is a familiar passage from Isaiah 40:4, "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain." The first three verses of the chapter are sung as a tenor recitative and continue with the singer continuing with the lovely and melodic aria with the fourth and fifth verses.  

In the gospel of Luke, John the Baptist repeated Isaiah's words to reiterate to the crowds that he was not the Messiah, nor was he the prophet Elijah, the one said to be the forerunner of the Messiah on earth. John was a messenger, like the master of ceremonies who sets the stage for the leading performer. His job was to encourage repentance and cleansing that came from ritual immersion in the living water of the Jordan river. He was to get the crowd ready, and he was successful at it.

I find that hearing the tenor air makes me think of what the world would look like if the mountains and valleys were suddenly equal. I know I've watched enough documentaries on mountains' geology and the various natural phenomena that either build them up or tear them down. I also remember seeing images of villages wiped out through avalanches and mudslides so that the valleys where whole villages suddenly became elevated by mud, rocks, and sometimes snow. It is impossible not to think of the loss of human life and the destruction of decades or even centuries of domestic inhabitance.

Still, the metaphor of the mountains flattening and the valleys rising reminds me of how perhaps God wanted the earth to be: an even playing field with no rich and poor but only equals in every sense. The early church tried this utopian idea by putting all their wealth and worldly goods into a repository for the common good. There have been many civilizations and groups who have attempted this since then. Still, most have not succeeded for one reason or another. Yet the dream remains, and the metaphor continues to be food for thought.

With its geological and meteorological drifts, the earth is diverse. Its different climates and cultures have adapted to those cultures and locations.  I know that diversity is an unshakeable reality, but too many seem to find this unacceptable to their beliefs or status. Just as there are mountains and valleys, many status divisions depend on culture, religion, economic and financial positions, even health or disability. How do we lower the mountains and raise the valleys to make all equal without destroying some of the very things that make diversity in our world today? Perhaps the key to the solution is found in the words of the prophet Micah, "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (6:8)." Or, as Jesus taught, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37b-40).

As we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we might give some time to personally reflect on what all this means, what loving neighbors, humility, being merciful, and above all, loving God with everything we have inside us. Perhaps the leveling of mountains and valleys is an internal job that we need to do to get ready for what is to come.

We can't change the past, only repent of whatever wrongdoing we have done. However, we can resolve to try to live as God wants us to, even sending God's Son to earth to provide us an example. If we can watch videos to learn how to do new things, reading scripture, and using Jesus as a model can help us become the people we are intended to be.

COVID-19 or not, we can still celebrate Christmas and resolve to be present to God throughout the season. We can also be mindful of the needs of others and work to meet those needs. We can do some interior landscaping with our prejudices, faults, and sinfulness to make them grow less as we grow in grace and attitude. We can't wrap that and put it under the tree. Still, we can accept those two gifts, especially the grace, and use it to change our mountains and valleys to peaceful, useful, and godly plains.

Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent and Merry Christmas.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 19, 2020.


riginally 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Imperfections of Advent

 


It's almost the third Sunday in Advent and the sort-of halfway point through the season. We're still lighting the candles every Sunday, reading the Bible stories that lead up to the birth of Christ, maybe listening to Advent carols along with YouTube or Zoom church services, and so forth.

Probably many Episcopalians and others have been busily shopping online with the hope that gifts will arrive on time while shielding themselves from the virus that has plagued us for months. Kitchens are beginning (or continuing) to fill the air with scents of sugar cookies, pies, different kinds of bread, and all sorts of goodies. Probably every flat surface in the house sports candles, wreaths, swags, elves, or other holiday decorations, or perhaps is covered with boxes, wrapping paper, ribbon, bows, and other gift-covering materials. Christmas is coming soon. Everything has to be as perfect as an imperfect holiday can be, given our need for masks, social distancing, and isolation this year.

Usually we are almost always searching for perfection, whether it is a car, house, outfit, shoes, gift, or presentation of self or surroundings. The table has to look just so. Each impeccably-chosen gift wrapped exquisitely. The tree must be symmetrical to a fault and faultlessly decorated with nicely spaced ornaments, enough lights but not too few or too many, and ribbons and garlands strategically placed to bring the whole together. Heaven forbid that there should be a hole in the tree's foliage left uncovered by an ornament or some other concealer.

I confess that my tree has been slow in being decorated this year. It sat in its scuffed box for several days before I could get up the energy to put it together on the bachelor's chest in front of the window. It took even longer to add ornaments, a job I've only partially completed over many days. Almost from the beginning, I noticed that I could look at the tree when I sat at my desk and see a hole straight through to the window frame. Since it is an artificial tree, I can always bend the branches in an attempt to cover such things. This year I didn't have the strength or the enthusiasm to move the chest to get to the gaping part to fix it. I couldn't find an ornament to cover it sufficiently, and so I still have a hole. It's an imperfection that, even though I realize the tree is just for me and that I love it for the colored lights and white crystal-like ornaments, it is still not the tree I would typically have for Christmas.

That tree has made me think a lot over the past two weeks about imperfection and how I've come to accept it in one sense. Granted, the pandemic has had a lot to do with it. The continuing hijinks of the current administration have far from reassuring me that come January 21, life will hopefully start to change for the better. I think I've just lost that lovin' feeling, to quote an old song.

During Advent, we do a lot of focussing on Mary, the expectant mother of the Messiah. She must have been a perfect candidate—pure in body, soul, spirit, and mind, obedient, knowing her place in the household and society, and so on. Why else would God have chosen her as the vessel for such a miraculous child? We concentrate on her song of humble acceptance, "Let it be according to Your will." We are encouraged to be like Mary, accepting whatever it is that God wants from us, and we may expect to do whatever it is perfectly. How could we do less?  How could we present a less-than-perfect gift to God, who has done so much for us?

Thinking of the Bible's characters, there seem to be a lot of flawed people contributing whatever their gift might be. Noah, Abraham, Abraham's sons and daughters-in-law, Saul, David, Solomon, many of the prophets, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and more were imperfect people acting in imperfect ways which seemed best to them at the time, even if unaware of what the bigger picture was. Those imperfections helped us understand that they were people like us and that even Jesus was a human, although more spiritually guided and obedient than we are.

Leonard Cohen wrote a song some years ago that said in part:

 

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,

That's how the light gets in. * 

This portion of the complete poem brings us a metaphor that reminds us that perfection isn't everything. The story of the cracked waterpot that the gardener faithfully fills every day and, in so doing, waters one side of the path so that flowers might grow and bloom is another reminder. Some who practice various crafts leave tiny imperfections in their works to remind admirers that nothing made by humans is perfect.

For the rest of Advent, I'm going to focus on recognizing the importance of seeing imperfections not as blemishes to be covered up but as places where the light shines in. Of all the gifts I could give God, the one God seems to want most is my putting my imperfect self in God's hands. Like the hole in my tree's branches, it lets in the light of the world outside, not just colored electric ones that I plug in when it gets dark. It's a reminder that even if Mary had some imperfections that we don't hear about, but that doesn't make her gift any less valuable or perfect. It's the offering of self that is the most wanted gift of the season.

Have a blessed Rose Sunday.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, December 12, 2020.


Saturday, December 5, 2020

Scotosis vs. the Teachings of Jesus



I have always loved words, I believe, quite often the bigger, the better. I was better than most of my classmates in spelling bees. I learned words like the term for the miner’s lung disease or silicosis (Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicosis) in about fifth or sixth grade for extra credit. Reading lots of books of different types, from textbooks to science-fiction, historical, fantasy, thrillers, and sometimes religious tomes increased my vocabulary, as did my work. I worked for a priest once who not only became a good friend, but consistently drove me to open a dictionary at least once a week to learn a new word he’d thrown out in dictation or conversation. That was the best job I’ve ever had.

Education for Ministry (EfM) has taught me many things, including lots of big, sometimes exotic words. I had somewhat run across the term scotosis quite a few times throughout my EfM life. This year, somehow, it struck me because of its applicability to the world we seem to be living in now.

Just about every dictionary I consulted defined scotosis as “intellectual blindness” and “hardening of the mind against unwanted wisdom.” After living through the year 2020, with its pandemic, political and social divisions, speeches full of hatred and encouraging violence, protests over brutality and racial stereotyping, and more examples of other kinds of divisiveness than I can count, I would have to say scotosis is a word all too applicable.

In the theological sense, scotosis usually refers to factionalism that refuses to acknowledge common ground or even the possibility that more than one belief, opinion, or stance. The Reformation began with Martin Luther’s 95 theses, but also with translations of the Bible being made and printed in the language(s) of the people, changes in the language and performance of the liturgy, and even rejection of some aspects of doctrine and replacement with new ideologies and teachings.  Scotosis still shows itself in the theological realm with the splitting of traditional denominations into conservative, liberal, and moderate forms. Nondenominational churches are growing by the bushel basket full.

In our cultural life, treaties are made and broken. Ancient wars continue, and the hope of unity of thought and purpose seems to have flitted away like a butterfly in the breeze. Our country used to pride itself on being a melting pot of people seeking freedom and what we called the American Dream. Now it builds walls and reduces the quotas of refugees. Some groups seek to marginalize those already here in any way possible through denial of aid, healthcare, employment, housing assistance, education, and even social programs.

Scotosis gives me a word to describe those I feel are unwilling to be open to the concept of equality of any sort. Even something as simple as wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease is something that some people flatly refuse to do because they feel it infringes on their lives and freedom. Never mind that they risk infecting others – or even themselves. What is worse, in my opinion, is that when they gather, whether for church events, a party, dinner out, or even shopping without a mask, other like-minded people are infected and can become critically ill or even die, just because they wanted to assert their right to freedom from governmental, medical, or even common-sense restrictions.

Jesus met up with many people on his journeys and in his teaching sessions who exemplified scotosis. The Pharisees and many Jews, both religious hierarchs and laypeople, rejected his teachings because Jesus’s words didn’t agree with the orthodox tradition and practice of Judaism. Jesus used teachings such as the Good Samaritan to show how the common teaching of “love your neighbor,” also a fundamental concept in Judaism, should be displayed. The idea of an unclean and unorthodox Samaritan helping a Jewish man while priests and their followers walked by the injured man on the road, expanded the idea of who one’s neighbor truly was.

I wonder how Jesus would view our current situations were he to walk the earth right now (as he might be, who knows?) Would he approve of the hard-heartedness, greed, in-fighting, cruelty, and ignoring of just about every teaching he gave? Would he find the intellectual blindness simply to be being human? What would he think of the homeless, especially the homeless veterans, sleeping under bridges in the cold winds of winter? Or the children going hungry at school because social programs to help feed them have been cut?  What about the penalizing of churches and organizations that set up feeding stations for the hungry? I seem to keep thinking of the same situations, time after time, and wondering why nothing ever seems to change – much, if any.

During Advent, as we wait to celebrate the birth of the one who taught love, kindness, and empathy, could it be a project simply to love without requiring reciprocation or expectation? Could we help calm the anxieties and tone down the rhetoric that have been so much a part of our year so far?  Could we remember to give to the needy instead of focusing on how many gifts we can pile under the tree at our own homes? Can we crush the scotosis and open the minds to peace and hope? Can we practice the teachings of Jesus without regard to the race, culture, religion, political affiliation, orientation, or any other box we would typically put others in?

Scotosis is a kind of disease we need to cure, and its victims are those we need to heal. What better time to start than now?

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 5, 2020. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

An Expectation of Advent


'Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.' -- Luke 21:34-36

 

This year, one that has been so fraught with anxiety, fear, anger, and hopelessness, is finally coming close to its end.  Tomorrow marks the beginning of Advent, the start of the liturgical year, and a season of anticipation, preparation, contemplation, and plain old hope. It comes around every year, but this year it seems more welcome than ever.

Advent helps us to get ready for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas, visits of angels, shepherds, and eventually magi to that child, and several other celebrations during the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany.

This year, Advent brings us hope in the form of the easing of hopelessness on the political front, at least for a majority of people. While the pandemic still rages and strikes back just as people were beginning to believe its end was in sight, Advent will be more critical than ever. It seems that a season where quiet, meditative spiritual practices are most encouraged seems like an antidote for four weeks of fighting crowds in retail stores, overspending on gifts, more struggles at airports, bus stations, and trains, and party after party.

Heaven knows the pandemic hasn't been easy, especially on the elderly who live in care centers now sealed off to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to a most susceptible population.  Sometimes the Advent and Christmas seasons are the only ones where distant relatives can visit their elders. Still, now the closest they can come is perhaps standing on the outside of a window to their family member's room. Same for those hospitalized with COVID and other diseases. Small children, newborns, and those with impaired immune systems are also severely at risk. Parents and guardians bear a heavy burden of watching without the ability to help. They must have faith and trust in the caregivers who are entrusted with their charges.

It seems that this year, the verse "Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man" is truly applicable. We've had to be alert for so long already, but the things for which we have to be vigilant are still present. There is some hope on the political front. The COVID pandemic is worsening; however,  but increased use of masks, attention to social distancing, and avoiding crowds, plus the potential of vaccines being available in the reasonably near future, are also subject for hope.

We need to be increasingly prayerful for those we usually remember – family members, friends, the sick, the grieving, those in prison, those who are addicted or mentally ill, first responders, the medical personnel who treat the sick and injured, the police, ministers, and so on. We also need to pray that we will have the strength to continue to face those things that come our way every day. We have to learn to care for ourselves before fully helping, caring for, and supporting others.  We should also ask for patience, inspiration, and faithfulness to do the work God asks us to do. Besides prayer, we need to look for ways to make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. One day we will stand before God and Jesus and will need to give an account of ourselves – a report they already know but will be testing our truthfulness in our own reporting.

Advent is my favorite season. While I don't have an Advent wreath, and I do put up the tree very early (an old family tradition), I think about the various stories that make up the journey toward Christmas, the meanings of Advent traditions, the songs of hope and expectation. This year the songs will be from YouTube or my iPod, but they will be welcome nonetheless. The stories and traditions will come from various religious sources and blogs and devotionals that give me new insights.

I will try to use this Advent to lift my heart from the depth of depression that it has been in for so long and pretend this Advent is like every other, just with small modifications. I will practice thankfulness and do what I can to help others. Like every year, I will wish it lasted a bit longer at the end of the season.

A Blessed Advent and Happy New Year to you all.  


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 28, 2020. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Telling the Story




In our Education for Ministry (EfM) group, one of our members presented us with a theological reflection (TR). TRs are studies based on objects or metaphors representing things we encounter in our lives and ministries (and we all are ministries, a job we inherited upon our baptism). The person who presented the subject is a great storyteller, and he began with a story as told by M. Scott Peck called "The Rabbi's Gift."

The story starts with a group of monks who left their home country to seek peace, silence, and solitude. They found a place and began to build a new monastery. New people found the monastery and grounds to be full of serenity and sanctity. New postulants also came, increasing the numbers of the monks. For years, the place grew, but the monks noticed that fewer new people were entering the order over time. Fewer pilgrims were coming to their monastery. It puzzled them for so long that finally, they took their problem to the Abbot, who confessed he didn't have an answer either. Then they remembered a wise rabbi who visited occasionally, and they sent the Abbot to ask the rabbi for wisdom. I'll leave it to you to read the rest of the story.

How many stories do you remember from your childhood? I'm sure there was a lot that you still remember and probably have told to your own children and grandchildren.  Robin Hood, the Easter Bunny, Mary and her little lamb, Jack and Jill, King Arthur, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and so many others are parts of childhood. When we share them with the next generations, we pass along not just the stories but often our responses to them and what we gained from hearing them ourselves.

We also tell stories of our own lives, descriptions of what we did or said, or some accomplishment we had reached. Sometimes we exaggerate just a little or leave out bits that don't make us feel good about our selves. Our stories began when we were born, with the tales our parents and grandparents told us about what we did and were like before we had any conscious memories of them. Family gatherings are generally story-fests, because everybody has a favorite story of what family members had done that was funny, odd, adventurous, or informative. We incorporate these stories into our life story just as we continue to add to that process with each year that we live.

We learned stories in Sunday School too. There were heroes like David the Shepherd, Noah's ark, Moses, Joshua, and Elijah. Sometimes we heard of Miriam, Delilah, Bathsheeba, Deborah, Esther, Sarah, Rachel and Leah, and Rebecca. We learned of them at various stages of our lives and were often taught to understand the stories as truth and as lessons we should learn from each one.

Many of us subsequently learned that there was truth and being true.  We learned that a story could not be entirely true yet contain a lot of truth from which we could learn. We learned the lessons of Jesus, often told in stories (parables). There were specific teachings and truths that the listeners could hear and understand without needing the information to be 100% true. It's only been in the last 200 years or so that we've added a layer of literalism to stories that the original hearers (and Jesus) never meant. The story of the Good Samaritan probably never happened. Still, nonetheless, Jesus used it to illustrate helping someone, even someone of another grace, religion, group, or whatever, because it was the right thing to do. The story of the Pharisee loudly praying in the Temple or synagogue was a contrast with a man who stood quietly in a corner, offering his prayers to God without trying to impress anyone. Jesus used masters and servants, women, children, the rich, the sick, and the workmen with whom the neighborhood would be familiar with the work they did as subjects of tales that conveyed messages and lessons he wanted them to get, lessons about trusting God, doing good, loving justice, and caring for one another more than ourselves.

Often, we illustrate the stories we have learned by how we act to one another. If we have been taught love, then we see the world as a place where love is abundant. If we learned to be wary of others if they try to get more than their share of something, then we will be suspicious and greedy to make sure our own share is bigger and better.  Suppose we understand that we are different from another group and that the other group is somehow inferior. In that case, we don't learn to treasure diversity and attempt to understand the differences and respect those who are different.

What is the story your life tells about you? What stories from your childhood and youth still linger in the way you see the world and react to it?  Where are the examples of Jesus and his words in how you live your life? What do others see in you that would lead them to seek what you have, faithwise?

I think this week, I have to work on how I portray my story, especially the part where Jesus should be present. I should remember the early church's account of how new converts sought out the underground church because of the stories told about how they showed their love of one another through care, concern, and obedience to God's will.

Think about your story this week. Where does it go from here?

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, November 21, 2020.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Sleepless Nights and Earworms



Ever have one of those nights where the body desperately desires sleep, but the mind decides to act like a hamster on a wheel, endlessly running, running, running, but never getting anywhere?  It happened to me the other night and was thoroughly aggravating, frustrating, and exhausting. It wasn't helped by an earworm I got from somewhere. Through my hamster-brain, my head was running an old hymn, "Standing on the Promises." It was a great favorite in the Baptist church of my childhood and youth and was a rousing hymn I had learned by heart early on. Still, it wasn't exactly welcome with its exuberance when I tossed and turned, trying to sleep.

 

1 Standing on the promises of Christ, my King,
Through eternal ages let his praises ring;
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing,
Standing on the promises of God.

Refrain:
Standing, standing,
Standing on the promises of God, my Savior;
Standing, standing,
I'm standing on the promises of God.

2 Standing on the promises that cannot fail.
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God. [Refrain]

3 Standing on the promises of Christ, the Lord,
Bound to him eternally by love's strong cord,
Overcoming daily with the Spirit's sword,
Standing on the promises of God. [Refrain]

4 Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
List'ning ev'ry moment to the Spirit's call,
Resting in my Savior as my all in all,
Standing on the promises of God. [Refrain]*

 

I certainly had been going through some times when "[T]he howling storms of doubt and fear assail." I think I probably had several million companions in that feeling. However, even though the election was over, the pandemic was still here, finances were always tight, the allergies were going nuts, and I felt like the weight of the world had been lightened but not removed entirely. I hadn't slept well the past several nights, and along comes this hymn that I hadn't thought about in decades but which popped up unexpectedly and repetitiously.

Then my mind took a turn. Just what promises had I not been standing on?  It made me think of promises I'd learned about in Sunday School about God promising Noah that God would never again destroy the whole earth with floods.  God didn't promise that there wouldn't be floods at all, just not one to cover the planet with water and destroy everything on it. We still have surges of water that decimate populations and destroy towns, cities, and whole countrysides. But still, we stand on that promise to Noah every time we see a rainbow.

God promised Moses and the Israelites that they would have their own land. Although it took some centuries, God watched the Israelites (with Moses looking on from afar) move into their new home. It was taken away several times in Biblical times, but the people now called Jews found their way home again. Even though strife divides the land and rockets and bullets are frequently heard and felt through the ground, Jews hold on to and stand on that promise.

God has promised to be with us and protect us, but God also expects us to help with those promises. God never promised that we would be without troubles and worries. Still, we have the responsibility to help ourselves and others.  If we knowingly build a house in a flood plain or area where avalanches are expected, then we must make plans for contingencies that floods or avalanches will occur, and we will be in danger. Making plans for evacuation and the like are necessary, just as watching the weather forecasters or paying attention to the ground shaking more often than usual.

We learn to stand on our own feet, yet we have the hands of God beneath us to hold us up. We believe that, and we trust that those hands will never let us fall. I think my earworm was my reminder of that and that God won't let me down. Now I have to remember my share of the deal is to not let God down by not doing what I can for the earth and its peoples, as much as my single, solitary self can do.

I have to remember to stand on the promises, rely on Jesus, and listen to the Spirit. I think that's what my earworm wanted me to hear, as after a few repeats and some meditation and prayer, I went peacefully off to sleep for the remainder of the night.

God bless.


Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 14, 2020.


Saturday, November 7, 2020

Can Mountains Move?




 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, 'Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.' Jesus answered, 'You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.' And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not cast it out?' He said to them, 'Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there", and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.' – Matthew 17:14-20

 

I'm not sure what brought this passage to mind today, but it has stuck in my mind. When that happens to me, it generally means there's something in there that I need to think about or "get."

I don't think I can be a part of healing a person with epilepsy. I know what to do if someone around me begins a fit, but beyond that, it's a matter of waiting for the seizure to be over. I learned that in EMT training decades ago and am reminded of it with every emergency medicine episode I watch on TV.

I'm sure Jesus was upset, not just at the man asking him to cure his son, but at the disciples who, after all their time with him, should have gotten it by now. Suppose a person wants to be a pilot on an airplane. In that case, that person can't push control off to the First Officer when a mountain suddenly appears in the windscreen. If ever there were a time when one would literally want to move a mountain, I'd say that would be the time. Yet no one has succeeded in doing that yet.

Mountains are both literal and figurative. We love looking at the literal mountains, rough and rugged or old and smoother, topped with snow or sides covered with the multicolored leaves of fall. There's something substantial about a mountain. Granted, rocks roll down the sides from time to time, or mudslides or avalanches can come roaring down to smother everything in their path. Still, we look at mountains as stable things, and sometimes even sacred places, such as Moses found on Sinai.

The mountains Jesus is referring seems to me to mean mountains of another sort – the rough places and challenging climbs we have to make in our individual lives. There are times when life seems to be nothing but a sheer cliff with no way to get up except to free climb using our hands and toes to find crevices in the rock and slowly and carefully make our way from one toe- or hand-hold to another until we reach the top or fall backward to our detriment.

For me, I know that most of this year has been a slog through an almost impenetrable swamp or a trip up Mount Everest without Sherpas or supplementary oxygen. The pandemic was bad enough but still manageable if I obeyed the rules about masks, distancing, and staying home as much as possible. Then came the folderol and fiddle de dee about the election races and their subsequently increasing violence, name-calling, finger-pointing, and accusations.

I refused to turn on my computer or watch any news this past Tuesday night and all day Wednesday. I spent the day reading, knitting, and watching streaming videos of favorite programs plus getting some housecleaning done. Thursday morning, when I got up, I did turn on the computer for the news and to see where we were in the madness. I realized that I felt a lot more cheerful, a lot more relaxed, and a lot more able to handle things that morning simply by having stayed away from the contention for those two days. Issues still weren't resolved, races were still not entirely resolved, and talking heads were still talking. Still, it was easier to pass them by and look for pictures of cuddly kittens and the like. Perhaps the mountain I had created about all the negative stuff had gotten moved simply by not looking for them or feeling I had to climb them by myself.

If faith can move mountains, why can't we do it?  The disciples couldn't, but perhaps it was because they were looking for mountains they could see instead of interior mountains (or perhaps molehills that seem to be mountainous). Maybe they were trying to move the wrong things?

Perhaps we see molehills as mountains. People can move molehills with shovels and a bit of hard work. Moving interior mountains can be a lot harder, simply because much of the time, it's hard to judge the mountain's size because our imagination inflates it to Godzilla-like proportions. Maybe we too are trying to move the wrong things in the wrong ways?

Things I learned from my brief sabbatical from network and print media are that it wasn't as hard to do as I had thought. I had more time to do other, more productive things, and it gave me a much-needed breather.

I also noticed I had more time to listen to God. I think I've come to the decision that when it comes to media news, I'll take God every time.  God helps make the mountains manageable. I can deal with that, and besides, I don't feel like throwing a shoe at the TV or launching a tirade when there's something I can't entirely agree with.  God never lies or makes me want to punch something or someone. Now that is a providential mountain-mover.

God bless. 


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, November 7, 2020.