Saturday, September 15, 2018

Cyprian's Choices

One of the things common to those we call “Saints” is that they espouse unpopular causes or an unpopular faith. Quite often, there may be only a few solid objectors who disapprove of the action of those we call Saints, but others will go along rather than tried to block the tide as it were. In this hurricane season, what happens when you usually tried to span the flow is that you’re faced with a choice of staying or going. If you remain, you risk becoming trapped under a pile of rubble or a fallen tree, shredded by shards of glass, or submerged in water and need to reach the roof of the house quickly and hope that the water doesn’t come up that far. Most people, faced with such a prospect will do what they can to board up and sandbag their houses, and the really smart ones will leave town as soon as possible.

There will always be people who feel that they are nearly invincible, well able to withstand whatever nature can throw at them, and save their houses and possessions without lifting a finger. Unfortunately, that can be a big, fatal mistake. The Saints had to use their best judgment when it came to similar situations, even if not meteorologically, and choose to remain faithful or follow the majority.

One such saint was a man named Cyprian, who was born a pagan in Carthage. He was a lawyer who presented cases in court and also a teacher of rhetoric or the art of persuasive speech-making.

Cyprian was about 46 years old when he became a Christian, and a mere two years later he became the Bishop of Carthage. Hopefully, his first year was rather peaceful, because Emperor Decius began a persecution of the Christians in about 450 BCE, forcing many into hiding, including Cyprian. At the end of the oppression, things still were not calm and peaceful. Arguments broke out about what to do about those Christians who had not remained faithful to Christianity and who had denied it under threat and stress. One group wanted to close the door to those who had broken communion by denying the faith. Another group favored bringing the apostates back into the fold with no probation or penalty. Cyprian was a moderate of sorts in this particular situation. He placed strict rules on people who were venerating uncanonized martyrs of the persecution. This position made him appear to lean towards the total forgiveness of the lapsed who had denied the faith and made him look very bad in the eyes of those who supported the reverence.

One other rather significant controversy in which Cyprian was involved was that of whether or not those involved in the schism and who denied the faith should be received back into the church and under what circumstances. Carthage had an ancient custom of reception via means of anointing with oil. Rome and much of North Africa also supported this practice. Carthage, however, had turned to a tradition of receiving the apostates by re-baptism. The Pope was very much against this, and Cyprian’s party of re-baptism failed.  So far, Cyprian was far from winning the pennant for his division.

And then came the plague. Cyprian did his best to set up shelters and medical relief for all who were afflicted, but unfortunately, many saw the epidemic as a sign of wrath from other deities who were anti-Christianity.  It sounds somewhat like what we hear today, where both sides claim to be the saints and the opposing party being the heretics and, quite often, the causes of all the disasters.

Cyprian had run away and hidden during the previous persecution, earning the wrath and displeasure of those who had stayed and remained faithful in the very face of danger.  This time, though, Cyprian stayed put and was arrested for his pains.  He was imprisoned, tried, and beheaded in 258 AD. 

Persecutions are like natural disasters, only abuses usually last longer and have a very definite human origin.  With a natural disaster, there is often a clear sign of its appearance, and there is always a choice --- stay and take one’s chances or go and significantly raise the chances of getting out of it alive.  In the case of the persecutions in Cyprian’s time, the choice was to remain faithful or swear allegiance to a god or gods and escape potential death.  

We still have the choice to remain faithful or to turn our backs. We have so many opportunities to choose how we will respond to life and potential disaster. We also have the responsibility of accepting the consequences of our choices, as Cyprian did.  Sometimes those consequences can mean public displeasure and disapproval, while other times it can result in death by trying to do good.  Jesus chose the way of death to bring us life. That is a model we can always look to, even in the worst of times.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 15, 2018.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Listening God

The story of Job is probably the oldest part of the Bible. It’s a story that we’ve been reading in the Daily Readings, and we come to see that sometimes being the good guy doesn’t pay off. When the Shaitan, which we often call Satan, makes a wager with God and God accepts, Job becomes the pawn in a giant chess game. Job is set up to lose if he curses God for killing his children and animals, plagues him with boils, and makes his life generally miserable as he sits on an ash pit scratching his sores, using pieces of pottery that were once used on his own table. We feel sorry for Job, mostly because he is an innocent. All of this happened to him not through any fault of his own but because of a wager, a wager between God and the adversary that seems a bit strange.
Usually, good friends will come and commiserate when bad things happen. They’ll bring flowers, a casserole, an offer of prayers, or to do something that the afflicted person is unable to do for themselves. Well, Job had three friends, and those friends were what we call Job’s comforters, although we wonder if comfort was actually what they were offering. They did their very best, in long passages, to expound on how Job must have been at fault for doing some vast wrong that would make God punish him this way. One after the other they took up the topic of Job’s unfaithfulness or perceived unfaithfulness. Instead of trying to help, what they were doing was making things worse while trying to make Job see the error of his ways.
Job finally got a chance to respond to Eliphaz.  He did not acknowledge wrongdoing because he had not done anything wrong. He was merely confused as to why this was happening and wondered where God was so that he could go to God and plead his case. I bet any person finding themselves in a similar situation would do the same thing.
When things happen, people always want to know why. The eternal question seems to be, “Why me?” Most of the time there is a pretty simple answer: it happened because I did something wrong, something stupid, or even something that I knew I shouldn’t do but decided do anyway just for the heck of it. Sound familiar to anyone? I bet that at some point in time, each one of us can say we had asked “Why me?” when in actuality we really knew the answer but honestly didn’t want to hear it. Job didn’t want to listen to the spiel of his friends because they weren’t listening to him. They focused only on their agendas and preconceived notions of what the problems were. They didn’t hear when Job tried to explain what he thought and knew. What good is a friend who doesn’t listen?
What Job didn’t realize was that God was listening to us the whole time. That is something that we often forget when things go sour for us. We send our prayers to God and hope for an answer, but sometimes there isn’t an answer. I know a 29-year-old young woman who was diagnosed with cancer several weeks ago, and who, as a result, had to go through surgery to remove the disease from her body.  It impacted not only her, but also her husband, very young son, and her entire extended family. I’m sure she asked, “Why me?” I have a feeling most of us, at some point in time, especially if we faced life-threatening illnesses, have asked the same question. Like Job, we want to present our case to God as to why this really shouldn’t happen to us, and we wait for an answer that may or may not come – at least with a clarity we want and feel we deserve.
One of the purposes of prayer is not just to place petitions before God but to also be able to verbalize to ourselves what it is we want, need, or question. Prayer is as much for ourselves as it is an appeal to God.  When we confess wrongdoing to God or another person, it is as much for ourselves as for the other person. We need to acknowledge our fault to ourselves, with no equivocation or blaming of others.  In the case of Job, he didn’t need to confess a weakness because he had not committed one. What he didn’t realize was that God was listening to him the whole time and had unshakeable faith that Job would not waiver in his faithfulness. The Adversary had lost before the game even began; in his arrogance, he couldn’t conceive of losing.
We may never be in the situation Job is in, but as the young woman, it isn’t always the guilty who have to suffer. Granted, I’m sure she sent up lots of prayers and also has had lots of us praying with and for her. God doesn’t say it’s not okay to storm heaven with prayers because God hears all prayers. If the result turns out well, God gets the credit; if it turns out badly, it’s laid down to God’s will. But is it really?
Job went through his ordeal, suffering and yet continued to trust in God.  In the end, Job was the real winner as his trial was over, and his losses restored many times over.  In the end, the young woman will experience greater faith and greater trust in God. She will cherish her life even more than she had before, and will be grateful for God’s blessings. It may take a while, but it will happen. I have faith in that.
You see, I know God is listening to, loving, and supporting all of us, without qualification or reservation. God wants us all to know that to the deepest fiber of our beings.  “Why me?” Maybe it is because those in some form of trial need that love and support the most. That includes sinners, those in pain, grief, as well as the righteous, all inclusive, 100% guaranteed.
Believe it. 
God bless.

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

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Humanity of Heroes

I spent part of the morning today looking at film clips of something I watched live a long time ago. It was May, 1973. My son was about 7 months old, and we lived on a small military base on the South China Sea.  Armed Forces TV was broadcasting a very special event that day from the Air Force base about an hour south of us. Even through the TV I could feel an edgy excitement as I watched the crowd at the Air Force base gathered to greet three military flights.  It was the day the first of the prisoners of war who had been held in Vietnam for varying lengths of time were going to finally touch down, completing the first leg of their journey home at last.

It seemed to take forever for the plane to taxi down the runway and finally pull up parallel to the crowd who burst into cheers. The door opened and the first man walked down the steps to a microphone. He addressed the crowd and the dignitaries gathered there to honor him and his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. He gave a simple speech, mostly about how grateful they all were to be free and heading home. The one time his voice trembled was when he uttered the concluding words, “God bless America!” There probably wasn’t a dry eye anywhere on the runway, the gallery, or the audience watching the proceedings.

Twice more the ceremony was repeated, once for each of the other planes. All in all, there were probably 300+ men tasting their first real breaths of freedom that day. I can’t say I remember any of them specifically, but among those being greeted was a thin man, walking with a slight limp and greying hair. He was John Stanley McCain III, a lieutenant commander and bomber pilot, who had been shot down over Hanoi in 1967. It was a high point in an otherwise frustrating and frequently unpopular military conflict.

In 1981 I moved to Arizona.  Within a few years, a new but familiar name came on my screen as a newly-elected Congressman. After 2 terms, McCain ran for the Senate and won a seat, which he held for a further 30+ years. He became a household name, and one of the most frequent words used to describe him was “hero.” This was not just because he survived 5-1/2 years of captivity. He continued to display discipline, and love of country over party throughout the rest of his life. Granted, he had his low moments, times when he made serious mistakes in judgment that affected many others, but he also wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it when he was wrong, wasn’t afraid to speak his truth as he saw it, and was not afraid to extend his hand across partisan borders in order to achieve a greater good. A man of great faith, he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that faith as something that helped him through his life, through the torment of captivity, and his life since his liberation.

We quite often put people on pedestals and call them heroes, although not always for the same reason McCain was put on a pedestal for his heroism in Vietnam and in the US government. We love to build people up only to enjoy equally tearing them down when a flaw is discovered in their dealings or their character.  Noah, Abraham, David, Paul, and countless others were put on pedestals and then seemingly knocked down. We have to have our heroes, but we really don’t want them to be “better” than we are. We take these people, make saints and idols of them, and then when we discover their feet of clay, it’s all over but the shouting. We don’t seem to want to take into consideration that they are people too, just like us. We want to use their humanity to make us feel better when we too fall down.

Jesus came to earth to be a human pointer to God. As long as he performed miracles, crowds loved him. Those same miracles, as well as the messages Jesus brought, irked, irritated, and angered the hierarchy from both Rome and Jerusalem. The pedestal they knocked him off of was actually a cross that led to his death.  From that day, Jesus ceased to be a human being and became visibly and actively the Son of God in his full glory.  After that, people tended to forget his humanity and focus only on his divinity, from the day of his conception to the day of his resurrection.

It is time to recognize humanity in all people, especially the ones we look up to and want to emulate. It’s so easy to fall, so easy to make a mistake that causes the whole tower we have built to crumble like dry sand.

To remember only Jesus’s divinity is to negate the humanity that was so necessary to his message.  McCain was very human, clay feet, flaws and all, and with a message that transcended party lines and bickering.

Perhaps we should remember our own humanity and foibles as we try to judge others for theirs. That’s something Jesus wanted us to learn from him. We are all children of God, all of us, no matter what. And we are all human, subject to failure, but with a loving and supportive God beside us to help us get up and try again.

Rest in peace, Senator McCain. Thank you for your service both in the military and in civilian life. Rise in glory to the throne of God where surely you will be welcomed with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 1, 2018.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Shout from the Rooftop

My phone rang this afternoon, an uncommon occurrence which usually means confirmation of an appointment, notification of a prescription that is ready, or someone wanting to sell me something.  This time, my caller ID showed me a number that didn’t look familiar, so I was hesitant about taking it. It was my daughter-in-law, and she seemed quite excited.

She’s usually a rather fast talker, but this time it was at a kind of supersonic speed, and her first thing was, “Guess what?”.  She’d called to share good news was they had just signed the final papers for a house. She was so excited; how could I be anything but tremendously enthusiastic for her and my son. The neat thing is things seemed to fall into place as if it were planned out that way. It’s a house that they have rented for the last 12 years, and it the landlord informed him that he was interested in selling the property about the same time that they had been discussing buying a house. Up until then, they were happy renting, but they’re getting older and figured it was time to contemplate purchasing a home. The fantastic part about it is that they love the house, the area, the neighbors, the proximity to places where they go frequently, and that that they don’t have to move a single piece of furniture unless they want to change which wall it is against.

Getting news like that is fantastic, like getting news of a new grandchild (I have a grand-cat, and that’s fine with me!), someone I know won the lottery or had some other wonderful things like that happen.  It’s the kind of news I’d like to yell from the top of my trailer or call everybody I know to tell them. I didn’t do the former, but I did do the latter.

Getting good news seems to be like getting a breath of fresh air. Reading the local and national news is frequently rather depressing. It appears as if disasters and violence are abundant, and good news stories don’t seem to be anybody’s priority. Occasionally there is something fantastic, but it doesn’t last in the news as a school shooting, a false arrest, or something scandalous floating around the news stations that they can fill focus on.

We claim that Jesus preached the good news. We Christians believe that indeed it is good news, that Jesus came as a human being to live as a human being and also to invite us to share in the message of salvation and of the beauty of God’s kingdom. In some places, however, it would be hard to think about Jesus message as good news. The hope that Jesus brought and the joy of his words often get overlooked, just like the Bible verses, and there are many of them, that repeat “Love God and love your neighbor.” That’s good news, but we don’t always hear that when we listen to preachers and speakers talk to us about the wages of sin, how evil the world is, and how the kingdom of God is in heaven, which we can attain if we say the right phrases.

It’s difficult to focus on good news like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” when we seem to hear condemnation and the like from people who profess to be Christian.  Where is the good news if someone is told that by just being who they are, they are condemned by God. What always amazes me is that people who often proclaim their Christianity the loudest are the ones who we later find have been adulterers, thieves, bearers of false witness, perpetrators of crimes against women and children, and any of a number of other crimes and misdemeanors. It’s no wonder the term Christian often brings scorn and disgust when someone brings up their faith.

Like buying a new house, good news deserves to be spread, allowing others to share in the happiness and the depth of feeling that goes with it. Like having a new baby, people forget about the cares of the world as they look over the new infant, hold it, and touch its little cheek or hand and feel the warmth. It’s good news when two people get married. It’s good news when our kids succeed in life and that they grew up to be responsible, loving, and contented people. It’s good news when we speak and act in such a way that helps others see the kingdom of God in their lives and the lives of others.  It should be worth shouting from the housetops.

I’m happy for my kids; in fact, I couldn’t be more thrilled for them. I would like to think that there would be lots of good news around to cheer up a world that seems to be getting more cynical, sarcastic, and mean-spirited. Jesus didn’t teach those things. The focus of his message was love, and it seems to be that love is in short supply in lots of places.

The kingdom of God isn’t a goal to be achieved once I take my last breath. It’s something that is as close as my next breath and as available as God’s grace.  It’s not something where I can add up points for righteous living like points for a gas discount by buying X number of dollars of groceries at a specific store.  It’s a no-strings thing, unlike a buy-one, get-one-free offer.  It does require some effort, difficult things sometimes, like loving my neighbors, even if they are very different from me. Still, I don’t have to raise a sweat to work on loving, or kingdom-building.

It could be as simple as shouting the good news from the rooftops.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 25, 2018.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Love and Betrayal

The story of Samson and Delilah is one of those stories that we don’t hear often, but we know it when we do listen to it. It’s a story of love and betrayal, all the characteristics of an epic that pits love against guile.

Samson was the seventh judge of Israel, a leader of his people for 20 years. He was born to a barren couple, dedicated at birth to the Nazirite life, and only as he grew did he realize the strength that he had was a gift from God. God promised him that as long as he lived the Nazirite life (which consisted of avoiding grapes and wine, and never allowing a razor to touch his head), his strength would be invincible.

The scripture portion for today opens up with Samson visiting a prostitute, who was approached by other Philistines in an attempt to gain the secret of his immense strength. The Israelites and the Philistines had been at war for some time, and, like many other tribal wars, each side tried to get the best of the other, and if it required a bit of spying and treachery, that was just a cost of doing business. Philistines tried to catch Samson in the morning after he had visited the prostitute, but Samson had slipped out at midnight and so was gone by the time they went to arrest him.

Samson then fell hopelessly in love with another Philistine woman named Delilah. The men of Philistia offered her 1100 pieces of silver from each if she could discover how to humble Samson and give him into the hands of the Philistines. It seemed to be an offer too good to be passed up. Delilah, far from using feminine wiles, wasn’t afraid to approach the subject of how Samson strength could be curtailed. She tried these three times, and each time Samson gave her a different answer. When she tried the various things he had told her, and then tried to wake him up by crying loudly that the Philistines were coming, Samson merely snapped whatever was holding him and proved that that was not the answer. That’s where the story ends today, but you can be sure there is more to come.

The offering of such a significant amount of money to Delilah was indeed an impetus for her to attempt to secure the reason for Sampson’s strength. He had already killed thousands of Philistines, at one time killing a thousand using a jawbone of an ass. He was a force that had to be subdued, and the Philistine men realized that the way to do it was through Delilah.

Delilah may have been attracted to Sampson, but it certainly seems as if the money that she would receive for betraying him was more important than a continuing relationship with the strongest man in the world. Perhaps she didn’t like the idea that he was an Israelite. Probably Samson represented a possible disaster for her and her people. Maybe she was trying to save her people from a traditional (and immensely strong enemy. However it happened, Delilah was determined to find out Samson’s secret and then betray him to her own people.

Love and friendship have always been components of stories of triumph and tragedy. Some spies have betrayed their country because of either a false loyalty to an alien ideology or perhaps just for money. How many have been killed because they were deceived by one person who never knew them, but who put his or her own good above that of thousands of others? Maybe Delilah did it for love, at least the love of her own people and their well-being. Who knows?

We have to be careful about people who want to know things about us. There are so many warnings out these days about scams were people call or knock on the door asking for information and offering to provide plans and programs that could benefit the person to whom they are talking. It’s only when it is too late that most people realize that they have been scammed, as it were, and that their savings have been lost. We listen to campaign promises from politicians saying all the things that they are going to do for their constituents, and some of them actually do come through, but it seems that many don’t. They put the benefit of themselves and their fellow congressmen, business partners, and golf club fellow members ahead of what’s actually right for the constituents.

This is not what Jesus had planned. Loving one’s neighbor doesn’t mean taking advantage of them. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean betraying them for personal gain. Loving one’s neighbor does not mean making false promises and ignoring them when the time comes for payment. Loving one’s neighbor means doing things that would benefit them.

Then the question comes to my mind, wasn’t Delilah doing something that she felt would benefit her people by learning the secrets of an alien from another tribe proposed a very significant threat to the Philistines? Maybe it wasn’t all the money. Perhaps she honestly thought that she was doing the right thing by gathering up his secret and passing it along to those who could implement the actual entrapment.

Maybe Judas was doing what needed to be done when he betrayed Jesus, as much as we would like to think it was purely monetary. We’re taught to focus on the 30 pieces of silver and the idea that Judas was greedy. But is that the whole truth?

We have to be careful. A betrayal can mean something as simple as letting out a secret that wasn’t ours to voice. Betraying our superiors’ trust in us when we “borrowed” pencils and paper from the office or even money out of the cash box. We can say to ourselves, “Oh, well, they’ve got plenty,” but it’s still a betrayal that can cost many thousands of dollars to employers who trusted that the employees would do right. I have been totally surprised by the number of people I’ve known who have taken funds from employers, betraying them, and going undetected and unpunished.

Samson eventually lost his life, but he actually took a lot of people with him. I wonder if Delilah was in the Philistine temple the day that Sampson pulled it down in his final act of strength and appeal to God? I don’t know, but maybe that would be payment for betrayal?

We have to learn to be faithful and honest and most of all, aware of who and what is around us. We need to take care that we avoid betrayal of friends, family, business associates, and even God. We must be aware that our duty in life is to honor God by following the teachings of Jesus and living honest, upright lives. It may not be the easy way, but it’s God’s way, the only way.

God bless.             

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 18, 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Clare and Francis, Special Friends

Luke 2:32-37 , gospel reading for the commemoration of Clare of Assisi

The story of Clare of Assisi, whose feast we commemorate today, is one that almost sounds like a fairytale, but not quite. Claire was born into a rich family, and grew up living almost the life of a princess. She was educated, taught needlework and household skills that highborn girls were expected to have, and she was expected to marry well. That’s where Clare and her family held very different viewpoints.

Claire was a devout girl, and one who was eager to explore the spiritual side of herself. She was not interested in getting married and told her family that. It was not what her family wanted to hear, and especially after Clare had heard an itinerant preacher in the town, and was persuaded by his simplicity, eloquence, and his faith. She began to speak with Francis of her desire to live a life totally devoted to God and service to the poor.  Her family had arranged a marriage for her when she was 15, but she was having none of it. One night, when she was 18, she ran away to attempt to live the life to which she was called. She met some monks who took her to Francis who accepted her as a follower.

He cut off her long beautiful hair, gave her a stiff homespun shift and a coarse rope to serve as a girdle. He then sent her to a cloistered Benedictine house. It is said her family attempted to remove her from the house, but she clung to the altar and finally ripped off the veil to reveal her shorn head. The family gave up, and Clare remained in the house for 41 years.

She continued with both visits from and correspondence to Francis, and their relationship deepened, not in a sexual way, but in the role of close friends who are comfortable with themselves and each other. Claire grew and blossomed under the discipline of the Benedictines and the discussions that she had with Francis. The friendship they shared lasted for the remainder of their lives. As Francis lay dying, Claire was by his side as his nurse and support. After his death, she returned to her duties in the Abbey where she had been made Abbess when she was only 21. She died in 1252 after a long illness.  In 1255 she was made a saint, based on several miraculous events and a lifetime of dedicated to the service of God and God’s children.  She is considered the patroness of a number of occupations and conditions such as needleworkers, goldsmiths, laundry workers, gilders, and also of television, telephones, and those with eye disorders.

I think the thing I like about this story is not the miracle of turning back a marauding army simply by standing in the window of the church, holding up a monstrance with a consecrated host which stopped the marauders in their tracks and saved not only the Abbey but also a number of local people. The thing I like most is that here was a woman in a time when women were seen as possessions and almost chattel.  This woman was intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated, had a friendship with one of the great theological figures of the time, re-wrote the Benedictine instructions the nuns were ordered to live by, and was the first woman to have done so. With Francis, nothing suggests that it was a master- servant relationship, or a father-daughter relationship; it seems to have been more a meeting of great minds, two people with the same goals and the same approach, and the same faith in what they were doing. It’s a good reminder that men and women can have deep friendships without it necessarily turning into something more carnal.

Both Francis and Clare were dedicated to caring for the poor. Francis and his followers went about preaching and evangelizing but also helping to raise awareness that God loved the poor. Clare, in her turn, created the Poor Clares, who lived very austerely, and did all that they could to help others to live more godly lives. The nuns slept on the floor on burlap with a burlap coverlet every night. They wore course habits and went barefoot. They ate only food that was donated, and shared it with those who came to them hungry. They gave up any form of luxury for themselves in order to help others, including caring for the sick, elderly, and infirm. The lesson from Luke was about serving others while remining as humble and invisible as possible. Clare and her nuns did their best to live lives that exemplified that teaching.

With Claire and Francis, we see the partnership that can be beneficial to both parties while at the same time leading them to follow what Jesus had preached so much about, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and in so doing, making the world better. They didn’t focus on the material things. If they had to live on bread and water, they lived on bread and water, but they didn’t do it begrudgingly. They gave this as a gift to God and a gift to their fellow human beings. They worked together, as did their individual houses and followers, and, as a consequence, they both were given the accolade of saint. Claire’s beatification came only two years after her death.

The order of Friars Minor and the order of the Poor Clares gave us a glimpse of living a Christian life the way Jesus explained and taught. They didn’t have Jesus to go to in the flesh as the disciples did, but yet Francis and Claire both seem to catch on to Jesus’s message far more easily. With them, it was a partnership with God, a meeting of the minds, the joining of the hearts, and a gift to all the generations to come after them.

I think Francis and Clare together helped to change the world, even if only a little. I think Claire shows us what being steadfast and open to the will of God can do, regardless of gender or economic status. Sometimes it is the strength of love rather than the strength of arms that make things change.

Now to go out in the world and not fear to make a change. Claire was one person, and a woman worth admiring and emulating.  I may not be of her caliber, but I can always try my best to be even a small force for change.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 11, 2018.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Watching the Money

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests* had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So, they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15

Part of the gospel for today seems to be another one of those tales that echo down through the ages as a model of what not to do. Granted, looking back at it from our point of view, it seems almost contemporary. The story is familiar; only the cast has changed.

The chief priests and the Pharisees convinced Pilate to put guards on the tomb of a man considered to be a revolutionary and who had been crucified in the most public and shameful way. A respected man had given his own unused tomb to hold the body, and then a big stone was rolled across the front. Now who was going to break into a tomb and steal a body? Evidently enough powerful people thought it was not only possible but probable as well. After all, whoever heard of someone rising from the dead and disappearing? It was just too hard to understand and believe. The guards seem to have been witnesses to the appearance of Jesus, the “dead criminal,” over whose tomb the guards were expected to stand watch, after his resurrection and his meeting with two Marys. Upon their return to their barracks, some dared to go to their employers and report what they had seen.

Anxious to keep the true story a secret, the priests and the Pharisees together decided that the men who were guarding the tomb should say nothing, but if they were pinned down, they were to say that Jesus’s followers had broken into the tomb and stolen the body while the guards were asleep. That’s when some money changed hands, just to ensure the guards had enough motivation to do as they were told

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a similar situation in our contemporary society. In fact, if I look hard enough, I can undoubtedly find lots of examples of payoffs covering things that the higher-ups do not want known. It’s almost a way of life. Today, however, it seems to be a way of life in certain quarters, not just in the gangland societies, where if you slip some dollars under the table, it will get somebody’s legs broken, a family member of an important person kidnapped, or just about anything else. It seems that money makes the world go around. The “haves” are always happy to have a group beholden to them and upon whom they can call to do certain little jobs for pay that will keep the higher-up’s hands clean, at least until somebody figures out who is behind whatever the action was.

Money, or the love of it, is said to be the root of all evil. Scruples can be overcome if the amount of money offered is sufficient to make the scruples of even an honest person totter a bit, or even fall completely. Gangland bosses know that, politicians know it, captains of industry and chieftains of commerce know it, the government knows it, even the church knows it. In short, it far from an uncommon thing to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news broadcast and not hear something that someone has done for which they were paid to deny that it ever happened. It’s almost become a farce, and it runs through all levels of society, although the poor are usually the ones that are set up to take the fall while the rich go on about their merry business with the most innocent faces in the world. Somehow, I think things like that would probably make Jesus cry – or at least face-palm.

Jesus understood money. He spoke of it from time to time and always in the sense that money is not something that should be the be-all and end-all of things. Wealth is to be shared, not hoarded and not paid out to accomplish something criminal or even slightly criminal. Proof of that was in Jesus’s own disciples; Judas betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Now whether it was something that Judas had to do or whether it was offered to him and made into such a good offer he couldn’t refuse, Jesus himself betrayed because someone paid money to get rid of a pesky problem and to make sure that the originators of the plot looked as innocent as newborn babes.

I think I’m going to have to look at the news a bit more critically and to see where the money trail goes. I may not be able to find out much, but I think if I see where that money trail is leading, I’m going to find that it’s not leading to God’s kingdom on earth but rather to the enrichment of those who are already rich and the increased marginalization of the poor who, we are told, are always with us. I think I have to choose whether to follow Jesus or follow the money. The truth is that Jesus was a poor man, killed by the rich, and by people who bought off others to betray and to lie. I don’t think I’m going to have to look very far to find who the Judas is and where the tomb guards are operating in the world I live in.

Look for yourself. Remember that the kingdom of God may require money, but not at the price of someone’s life, freedom, or beliefs. It’s time to get serious about this kingdom business and doing things the way God wants us to, not with the ways of the world.  It’s time to watch the money and see where it goes—and where it should go.

God bless. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August , 2018, under the title "Moneychanging."

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Boys in the Band

There is a line in one of my favorite British thriller series where a highly educated detective sergeant is listening to a distinguished professor of English literature at a very respectable college in Oxford. The professor is discussing some of the great poets of Britain, referring to several of them by name. The DS, being of a somewhat lugubrious demeanor, stated that during his time in college, the students referred to them as "The boys in the band." The professor nearly had a stroke, although sometime later in one of his lectures when the DS happened to be present while on duty, the professor did refer to the poets as “Boys in the band.”

As a teenager and a college student in the 60s the boys in the band meant groups like the Beatles. Granted, I'd never heard of those particular boys in the band until I went to college, but I liked rock 'n roll, and listened to it quite frequently. But my heart belonged to an entirely different genre and an entirely different time.

My late lamented husband, a definite pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, encouraged me to go to church with him when we were first married. I went, but two things made me stop within a year or so, which did not please my husband at all. I told him that for one thing I couldn't accept some of the theology that they preached, and I was specific about which ones. Growing up Protestant, actually Southern Baptist, it was hard to accept things like the adoration of Mary when in the church of my growing up she only appeared at Christmas and Easter and maybe, maybe a couple of times if the preacher decided to mention her in some other capacity. The second thing I disagreed with was the music. There was very little of it, and most of it was, to be honest, unpalatable to me because of the repetition of just a few favorite songs, and the fact that a lot of times, there was no music at all. I grew up in a singing congregation, and I missed the music. When I became an Episcopalian, long before I met and married my late spouse, one of the things that drew me to the church was the music. I couldn't give up on something that important to me.

I looked at names of the commemorated for today, namely JS Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell and I started to smile. To me, these are the guys in the band. All three of them were noted church musicians, although they did compose music for other occasions such as operas, plays, court music, and commissions for the rich and noble.

 Purcell has left us with some great anthems, Handel has left us a number of oratorios (like operas only set to Biblical or theological themes), and Bach, well, there might've been a lot of Bachs, but there was only one Johann Sebastian. These three people left us with a legacy of music that was rich, powerful, and interesting. It wasn't just singing the same word over and over without doing something different with it, it wasn't a repetitious type of music, most of it was far from simple to sing, and it layered voice on voice to create intricate harmonies that were almost like a taste of heaven.

They all lived within a relatively small time frame. They were born in 1685 for Bach and Handel, with Purcell being estimated as 1659, just a short time earlier. It was a very prolific time when these boys (plus lots of others) were active all at the same time, yet they had their differences. Bach wrote for his Lutheran church using the Germanic chorale-type harmonies as well as counterpoint. With the chorales, the congregation usually sang the final verse with the choir in a simple block type of harmony which we notice in chorales like “A Mighty Fortress.” Start singing that in a Lutheran Church and there will seldom be a dry eye anywhere. But that was only one tune out of so many that Bach wrote for the church and it has been adapted and incorporated into many other faith traditions, such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others. To me, Bach is the highest pinnacle of organ music and cantatas, and I will be very disappointed to get to heaven and find him not in a place of great honor.

Purcell wrote a number of works for the church and as a youth sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal, for which he later wrote a number of great pieces. He wrote music for the coronation of James II and music for commemorations such as St. Cecilia's day. He was an all-around composer, but he also made significant contributions to church music in general.

And then there's George. What would Easter or Christmas be without a group singing of Messiah, his oratorio that combines prophecy, gospel, epistles and even Revelation. He also wrote music for the court and his Water Music and Royal Fireworks music have become standards of orchestral performance and features at modern royal venues. Although he was born in Germany, he spent much of his time in England and became a British subject. It is, however, the music of Messiah that brings all sorts of people into the church for a listening experience and is perhaps one of the best examples of vocal evangelism. At least, I think so.

When it comes my time to hopefully rise to the pearly gates and the Golden Street stretching forth to the throne, I hope there's a lot of music going on and not just “Holy, holy, holy” sung by a group of angels singing in plainchant. I think God would probably enjoy the variety of music composed in God's honor and also as part of the worship of the church, so I'm hoping that there'll be plenty of concerts featuring the boys in the band with perhaps an angelic choir as backup singers and perhaps a choir that even us less than angelic folk can join. After all, it's all going to be praise, and, as someone once said, the person who sings prays twice.

I can't wait to hear the glorious sound that will be there. I'm glad we commemorate these three together and on this day. It's a reminder to me of the value of music and the opportunity for it to be an uplifting and inspiring form of prayer.  And that also goes for a lot of other great composers too – but they will have their days.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 28, 2018.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lot's Wife and Me

Last week, for the first time since before the turn of the century (I've always wanted to say that), I left the state of Arizona to travel. It meant leaving my cats for four days, the longest I had ever been separated from them since their birth 11-1/2 years ago. Although I knew my best friend, who loves them dearly, would make sure they did not suffer a lack of attention during my absence. Still, I looked forward to my trip, despite the rigors of things like getting to the airport on time, getting through the TSA checkpoint, and flying to Portland, Oregon. Still, I made it through, and only got lost when I got to Oregon. I forgot that north, south, east, and west are a little different there than they are here in Phoenix. My bump of direction was completely turned around.

I had gone to visit my old friend Mouse, I say old friend because we've been good friends since we worked at the same construction site in the late1970s. We both like to read, we both love cats, love all things British, and being able to sit in our own living rooms and not be bothered by anyone other than our cats. I hadn't seen her in a long time, and I was really glad to have the opportunity for even a few days of her company, and believe me, she is excellent company.

I lived in Oregon before, but I had lived over on the eastern side, in a high desert environment that I hated. I swore I would never live in another desert as long as I lived. Surprise. Guess where I've been for the last 38 years, and where I will likely end up for the rest of my natural life. Going to the west side of the Cascades, which I'd never spent a whole lot of time in, was a treat. It was green, oh, so green, and so many shades of green. It was a bit more humid, but it cooled off at night so that sleeping was a pleasure instead of a sweaty mess. Driving up to Mouse’s house, I couldn't see the house from the road because of all the trees. Now to me, having that kind of environment is second only to having a river nearby like I had at home. But hundred-foot-tall evergreen trees, nice little flowers and plants, and an almost monastic silence except for an occasional car going by on the road was like heaven. There were no boomboxes, nothing really but the rustling of leaves and branches and the occasional chirp of the bird or other small critter. I was in tree-lover’s heaven.

One of the highlights of my trip was a journey of about 60 miles away to the ocean. I hadn't seen the ocean in so very long. I visit my river every time I go home, and spend time just enjoying it and feeling peaceful there, but I had not really spent a whole lot of time near the Pacific Ocean since about the 1970s. When we got there, it was a long walk over the dunes, and even my favorite trick of walking flat-footed on loose sand didn't prevent my shoes from accumulating a certain amount that I only found when I got home. But I walked through dunes covered with sea grasses and tiny flowers until finally there was the ocean in front of us. Another quarter-mile walk, and we found the packed sand that we could stand on and listen to the ocean.

It was a glorious day. The temperature was lovely, the sky was blue with occasional puffy white clouds, and the ocean a deep, rich blue. I was transfixed. There were people playing games around us, but all I could think about was that ocean and the peace that I felt there, and the feeling of being at home there. We stayed for some minutes before we needed to leave to get home again before dark.

As I turned and started to walk away, I felt a compunction to turn around and look just one more time. I actually did it several times. Each time I thought how hard it was to leave a place that I loved so much, and then I thought of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt because she turned around to look at a place she had lived in, loved, and would never see again.

I think we all tend to want to look back at some place that we love as we leave it, knowing that it may be a very long time, if ever, before we return to it, and even then, it will be different than on that day of departure. I can understand why Lot’s wife wanted to turn around and take one last look. Granted, God had said not to turn and look, but she did. God punished her for it, but it's always been hard for me to understand why such a drastic punishment for loving something and wanting just one more glance.

Of course, Sodom and Gomorrah, which was the area where Lot and his wife lived, was not exactly a place of godliness. It was a place where hospitality was not a rule, even though the desert dwellers expected a certain amount of hospitality from people they came across, whether in the cities or in tents. Two angels came to visit, and the men of the town, wanting to show their superiority and their power, wanted to get to know them in a way that was not common. Lot got the angels to his house and the crowd followed. Lot even offered his wife and his daughters to the crowd, but it wasn't sex they wanted; they wanted to show their contempt for the newcomers in a carnal sense. They didn't want sexual release, they wanted to shame the visitors.

That in itself makes it hard to perhaps understand why Lot’s wife would have wanted to turn around and look again at her hometown. Undoubtedly, she still had family there, and it's not easy to think of the family going up in flames as the buildings, the trees, and everything that lived in Sodom and Gomorrah did. Maybe she had to look to believe what she had been told would happen, maybe even while praying that it wouldn't. Still she turned and looked. Back at the ocean, even though God never told me not to turn around and look back, I still felt that to keep my heart from breaking I should just walk straight ahead.

Hopefully one day in the not too far future. I'll be able to once again go visit Mouse, the lovely trees, and the ocean. It was hard to walk away from such beauty, power, and feeling of God being all around. I'd like to be there still.

I know I want to go back because I know God's there just is as God is everywhere. It's just God's a little closer when I smell the salt air, hear the gulls cry, see the seagrass waving in the wind, and watch the waves roll onto the beach, and I have a very dear friend standing next to me. I hope you have some place that is as special to you as the ocean is to me.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Caf é Saturday, July 21, 2018.

Friday, July 20, 2018

When Moses Died

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (RSV)

Every life has to defining moments -- that of birth at one end, death at the other. Whether one is a Queen or the poorest of the poor, life is bordered by those two events. Of course, there are other milestones in each life lying at various points along the journey, and each life has a number of those points differing by age, culture, education, religious beliefs, and happenstance.

Moses definitely had an unusual beginning. Because Israelite babies were not welcome in Egypt, midwives were instructed to kill all newborns. Two midwives who attended Moses' birth disobeyed the orders and quietly let the child live. The birth mother told her daughter, Miriam, to take  him to the river and put him in a waterproof basket, hoping someone would find him and adopt him. That's precisely what happened. Pharaoh's daughter came for a bath in the river and went home clean and with a new baby, which she raised as her son.

In the course of Moses' life, he was raised as a prince of Egypt, but killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite to death. He fled to Midian, where he met his future father-in-law and married his wife. He took care of sheep and had a life-changing event on a mountain where a mysterious bush caught his attention. It was a turning point in his life.

Fast forward a few decades. Moses had returned to Egypt where he became God's spokesman to Pharaoh. He warned Pharaoh of the coming plagues and trials, but God had made sure Pharaoh wasn't buying it -- until they happened. Eventually the last plague was the last straw. Pharaoh's firstborn son and all other firstborns, whether human or animal, died, but all the Israelites (who had the lintels of their doorposts painted with blood) survived intact.  Moses was  permitted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt on a journey that would take them 40 years and with not a few adventures of various kinds.

There's an interesting thing about that journey taking so long. They could have gotten there in probably a quarter of the time, but God had other plans. During the time of the exodus, the whole 40 years, those who had lived in Egypt the longest and had been most infected by the long stay and the exposure to the religion and culture of the Egyptians would die on the trip, and their influence would be weakened. By the time they were ready to cross into the Promised Land, new generations would be ready to follow God. Moses, though, was another story.

Moses had been a faithful follower of and transmitter of God's will to the Israelites. He'd made one big error by doing something other than God had told him to do (striking a rock twice rather than speaking to it). As a result, Moses was told he would not be permitted to set foot in the Promsed Land with the Israelites he had led for so many years. Still, God was merciful. Moses was led to the top of a mountain where he could look into the Promised Land from a distance, and there Moses died. His body was never found lest it become a place where the people would stop and create their new land there where Moses' body would have been entombed. It's happened before and also since with other great leaders.

People become attached to places where loved ones or martyrs have died or where they have been buried (or even believed to have died or buried). That place becomes a shrine, much like the little ones we see along the road where a person has been killed in an accident or a murder. There's a little white cross with a name and imitation flowers placed around it. It's a reminder to the family who visit it on significant dates, and also to the public, who need to be reminded of the deaths automobile accidents and murders can cause. Memorials like those of the Unknown Soldiers in various countries memorialize young men who have paid the final price for their country, and becomes a place where families whose children probably never came home for a regular burial can go to pay their respects and remember their lives.

The death of Moses was a big thing for the Israelites. For years he had led them, put up with their grumblings, brought them through hardships, and kept their focus on God and the Promised Land. Suddenly he was gone, and their GPS, internet, wi-fi, and smart phone that he had been to them had disappeared with him. They didn't really have a place to memorialize him, like we do for people like Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy. Even a family tombstone in a local cemetery becomes a place of memorial to those we have loved and lost, although we often need to move away from their locale because of circumstances like job relocation and the like. Still, those tombstones are there for us to visit whenever we return.

The death of a leader can mean the death of a group or a movement. Most often, though, it means a change. In the case of the Israelites, it meant a new life in a new place along with new leadership. We have seen the results of this type of situation throughout history and still see it today. It is not always a death of a leader that produces such changes, and often there are a lot of mistakes that accompany a learning experience.  Moses and Aaron had worked hard to keep the Israelites' eyes on God, and now it was the job of a new generation to continue moving forward.

The lesson of the death of Moses is that life does not stop because one life does. There is a time for mourning the loss, but the world continues to turn, and changes happen. As Christians, our job is to keep our eyes on God, who has given us the tools to carry on and to continue to build God's Kingdom on earth. Human changes may let us down in some way, but with God's guidance and attention to that guidance, will carry us through. The Israelites made mistakes, just as we will when changes threaten us. Still, God's there and with us, if we stay faithful to God.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 14, 2018.