Sunday, February 17, 2019

Using "I"


I have often mentioned Education for Ministry (EfM) as one of my passions. It’s a four-year study of Old and New Testaments, church history, and theology. It’s designed to be like a seminary for laypeople, although priests and deacons may serve as mentors or even as group members. The basic design is to give participants insights, information, and ways of doing things that will assist in their doing their ministries, both in the church and out in the world.

One of the disciplines or practices on which we’ve been working hard for the last few years is the use of the “I” statements.  “I” statements are used to indicate our personal beliefs, thoughts, opinions, and positions, as opposed to “we” statements which lump us in with others who may or may not share our thoughts and beliefs. It takes away, to an extent, the “us” or “we” and “them.” It’s like the difference between the words of the Apostles’ Creed vs. the Nicene Creed.  Both are statements of faith and belief, but one uses the singular pronoun while the other uses the collective or plural form.  

Using an “I” statement is often seen, at least in contemporary culture, as a sign of ego; “I have done this,” or “I have got that.” Those are statements of accomplishment, like patting oneself on the back by saying it aloud so that others will know just who it is they are dealing with and why the speaker deserves attention or admiration.  The ego demands, no matter how gently it slips into a conversation.  When someone is very forthright in using the word “I,” especially when directing others or expressing their opinions and thoughts as the only truly right ones, is where the problems exist. In essence, the ego is saying “I am important; you are not.”

A better way to use “I” is to use it as a way of communicating through allowing a person to express how words and actions make them feel without casting any aspersions on the person to whom they are speaking. “When you say this, I feel that.” It works very well as a bridge to civil discourse as opposed to finger-pointing and increased anger.

Our late mentor and friend, Ann Fontaine, was quite a proponent of the “I” statement. She was not afraid to remind us that we were to use “I” statements rather than “we” statements because we could not with any assurance speak for the group or members of the group. It was owning our own stuff, and not trying to either force it on someone else or point to someone else as if they were personally a  protagonist. I’ve tried using it with friends, and it’s created much better conversation since the person to whom I’m talking does not feel like I am pointing them out personally.  Ann was never afraid to remind us when we slipped into the “we” speech, as we do on occasion. In our sessions, at some point, someone will mention they feel like Ann’s tapping her foot at our forgetting. We laugh, and we restate our words and phrases to reflect our individual points of view or feelings. It’s almost like having her back with us.

Jesus was particular about what he said. He was not afraid to make “you” statements, especially with his disciples. They asked why they could not cure someone, and Jesus would give them an answer that indicated that something was lacking but without using a lot of judgment calls or name-calling. He wasn’t afraid of using names, as he had been known to call the temple officials “brood of vipers” and other choice epithets. Still, he didn’t use the word “I” except when speaking to others of his beliefs, his knowledge of God, and his presence in the world. “Verily, I say unto you” usually was a turn of phrase that he used when correcting something from Scripture that had been misinterpreted. Still, he wasn’t pointing fingers directly at someone and accusing them. Instead, he was making a statement that called attention to the fact that there was something that needed to be corrected.


“I” statements aren’t necessarily wrong. Some wag once said words to the effect of if you don’t blow your own horn, it won’t get blown. There are times these days when the ego wants to come out, to be stroked, and to let others know what valuable words for commendable actions the speaker has performed but of which the audience would have been unfamiliar. Some war heroes never speak of their acts of bravery and go to their graves without ever having mentioned them. Very possibly, there were those for whom the memories were too painful, but many remained silent because they considered they were doing their job, and their job was protecting others.

I found that using “I” statements in terms of making another person aware of how I feel when they say or do something is much less confrontational than pointing fingers and calling names. It’s like making a confession where the focus is on the sins I have committed and not something that someone else has done to me. Yes, people have done things to me that I have difficulty forgiving, but my confession is how I react to those things, not a condemnation of the actor. It isn’t my job to take someone else’s inventory, as the 12-Step programs emphasize, but to own my own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, actions, and shortcomings.

If you wonder why so many of my reflections use “I” statements as a basis or foundation, there’s the reason. I work hard to use it. It is how I see and feel and think, even though I may bring in the thoughts and words of others. In conversation,  I have to pause before saying something so that I can speak of how another’s actions and beliefs affect me. I take time to phrase it so that it’s not confrontational but rather merely informative.

 If you haven’t tried it, do give it a shot. And whether or not you ever knew Ann Fontaine, and many of you have heard of her or knew her, remember to say thank you to her.

God bless. 


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

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Restoration


Over the years our language has changed. We’ve added multitudes of new words, and we’ve dropped some old ones. Each year we seem to accumulate a list of newly minted words or phrases as legitimate. Whether or not they stay in the vocabulary, who’s to say? But the one I’ve been thinking about today is binge watching.

Binge watching is to find a program or a series that I like and then find a way, like Netflix or Amazon, to watch as many episodes as possible in order. I also tend to watch documentaries in groups, sometimes forensics, crime, medical, and sometimes history. It seems that lately, I’ve been on a kick where I’ve been watching documentaries on the Holocaust and World War II. I don’t know why, but it finding a documentary I haven’t seen on the Holocaust always triggers my interest, as difficult as many of the scenes in them are to watch.

I found one the other day on reconstruction work going on in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It told the story of the camps and which persons were selected for which camp based on specific criteria. Birkenau was the death camp. People chosen to go there were sent to die immediately. Auschwitz was a work camp where people were stripped of more than just their clothes, their possessions, and often their families, but also of dignity, common decency, and their humanity.

As I said, a lot of the pictures and films are hard to watch, seeing skeleton-like people walking in cold weather wearing no more than a pair of striped pajamas, if that much. Naked people were lying out on the cold ground, either dead or the next thing to it. I wondered why they are rebuilding a place that has so many horrible memories, but the documentaries, especially the one on Auschwitz that I saw the other night explained to me precisely what the objective was.

During the filming, they brought some survivors of Auschwitz to visit the camp as it is being rebuilt slowly but carefully. Looking at pictures of the area as it was in 1945 and its campus now, it is like looking at a whole different world. In 1945 there were no concrete walkways, trees, or even a blade of grass. But to the survivors, it was confronting memories that have haunted them for years, but also gave them a chance to show their children and grandchildren part of their history in a way that would help them to understand where their family members had been and what they had experienced.

One thing that struck me was interviews with people involved in rebuilding and restoring Auschwitz. There were older craftsmen there but there were also a number of younger people, a surprising amount of younger people, each with a specialty that would enable them to help rebuild or restore buildings and items from those who had been rounded up and sent to that place as a final solution to what the Nazis called “the Jewish problem.” It was interesting to see a simple suitcase that came with someone, probably from Poland, 70 years ago in the hope of being sent away from a crowded ghetto to a place where they could live their lives. Of course, we know that didn’t happen. The suitcase was a bit worse for wear, as a surviving relic of seven decades would undoubtedly be. It was restored slowly and carefully but without changing its dents, dings, and scratches.

One young woman especially impressed me. She was involved with restoring some of the barracks in which the prisoners lived in the most abysmal of situations. The young woman of probably mid-20s or little older was asked what she gained from helping to restore this symbol of ultimate oppression and murder. Her response was rather simple but powerful. Her purpose, as she explained it, was to help others to know what happened in Auschwitz through accurate reconstruction and meaningful displays so that it would be a visual expression of what should never be repeated. Her mission was to help restore a part of history, and to do it carefully, honestly, and with the greatest humility, in memory of all those who had been imprisoned there.

The people restoring Auschwitz might not all have felt as that young woman did about the humility, but I think it pointed out that even bringing something back into existence or repairing something that is painful and distressing is something that can be done with care. The careful work of reminding the world that this Holocaust happened, and it could happen again if we are not cautious is vital. It’s a reminder of how much history can repeat itself, like the conflicts between the Croats and the Serbians, the Hutus and the Tutsi, or any other part of the world where one group or one race or one culture seeks to wipe out any other that they feel might threaten or gain power over them. I probably should add the Israelis and the Palestinians to this, as much as it pains my heart to do so. Surely the Israelis have known what it’s like to be persecuted, hunted down, rounded up into ghettos, and killed just because of someone of their faith and their culture.

I think I will be thinking about that young worker and her explanation of what she was doing and why. Where are places in my life that I can help to restore something that needs to be remembered and not just swept under the rug? Where can I participate in Tikkun Olam, the restoration of the earth? Where can I practice the acceptance of others who are different and encourage others to do the same?

There’s a lot to be done out there, and I hope that I’m not the only one who would like to see it done, not because it makes us look good, but because the humility that we expend in this reconstruction is ultimately for the glory of God and not for our own benefit. It’s a big job, but it needs doing.

God bless.


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

Numc Dimittis





Oscar Wilde once said, “With age comes wisdom… Usually, elders are held to be more filled with wisdom than younger folks, although, Lord knows, older people can make mistakes every bit as well as younger people can. Generally, however, by the time we reach old age, the beginning of which seems to stay ahead of us with every year we live (at least in our minds), we will have acquired some wisdom. Often we wish the young folks follow our guidance, but each generation seems to have to find its own way.

In the Bible, there are a lot of young people with wisdom. For example, Mary was a young woman who showed wisdom when confronted by a stranger in her home who proclaimed a most unexpected and perhaps unwelcome command. Her first instinct was to reject the proposal, yet eventually, she gave in. We realize that she will finally receive the wisdom that she needed to make a tough decision and to use her insight to carry her through what was undoubtedly a very trying time, probably extending to the end of her life.

But then there are elders. One of today’s readings comes from the book of Luke, and it comes as a description of the Holy Family in Jerusalem for the purification of Mary following the birth of Jesus. They had journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem and had their avian sacrifices ready to be made as part of the ritual. They thought it would be a reasonably straightforward event, but like many things in the Bible, things didn’t exactly go as they had planned.

In the temple there was an old man, Simeon, a fixture in the temple, having served there for a number of years. We don’t know how many, but we know he was righteous and devout and waiting for a Messiah who would unify the two parts of Israel. He was not dressed in rich robes, wasn’t a high-ranking member of the temple staff, but yet had wisdom, and had been promised that he would indeed live to see the fulfillment of his greatest dream.

A small family of mother, father, and infant, walked into the temple and Simeon immediately understood that this was the moment for which he had been waiting. Perhaps the couple was a little unsettled by a strange person approaching and holding out his arms for the infant, but they put the baby in his arms and listened as he spoke:

Master, you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

in which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for the revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.

Mary and Joseph were probably dumbfounded by what they had heard, although why they should have been who knows. Still, it was reinforcement that this was just no ordinary child that they had been given to raise. Simeon had confirmed what Mary and Joseph already knew, that this was a gift from God in every sense of the word.

Also in the temple, there was an old lady, Anna by name, who had been in the temple for decades praying and fasting as a holy woman. She too held wisdom that she needed to pass on to the young family and to others who were listening. Her message was praise to God for teaching her to see the vessel by which redemption would be accomplished. This too was a message for Mary and Joseph but also for all those who read this part of Jesus’s story.

In Rembrandt’s painting, Anna has a wrinkled face although her hands look very strong. Her face is partially shadowed, but it shows a life lived long and perhaps not always comfortably. Simeon is likewise shown as an older person with a balding head and gray or white beard. I find it interesting that the passage identifies Anna by her age, but nothing about Simeon’s. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but I do find it curious.

As I listen to the wisdom being given forth in the passage, and as a person who is approaching the final days, whether it be tomorrow or 20 years from now, I take heart in Simeon’s words of “Now let your servant depart in peace.”  I do love that phrase, not only because I have seen the salvation that Jesus offered but that I have felt that salvation and know it to be true. With that affirmation, I believe I can accept the end of my days in peace and confidence.

Every time we recite or chant the prayer of Simeon, also known as the Nunc dimittis, let us think of what those words mean to us. Without seeing a golden halo or some other physical sign, Simeon knew who this child was and what his mission would be. Perhaps it is an invitation for us too to look for the invisible signs, the signs of faith, that we have seen through the life and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps it will also be an affirmation for us and a comfort as well. 

I think this week I will be meditating on the Nunc dimittis, and probably chanting it to my not quite receptive cats. Still, I will be listening as well as chanting, and I will see what else God has to show me in this beautiful, submissive prayer that has come to be such a part of our Christian tradition and liturgy. I invite you to join with me in such meditations.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, February 2, 2019.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Fog


There was a pleasant surprise awaiting me outside the other morning. I didn’t look out the windows right away because I had things that had to be taken care of first, but when I did there was some fog! Granted, it was not a thick fog, not really much fog at all, but the fact that there was any fog was a real pleasure. I was glad I didn’t have to drive anywhere. Arizonans are not always noted for their weather sense. The fog was just another reason to keep going as fast as possible to outrun it.

Fog is very uncommon in this part of Arizona. I’ve only seen it maybe half a dozen times in the 38 years or so that I’ve lived here. I remember we had fog back home, and it was nice when we didn’t have to be out fighting traffic. There’s something peaceful about fog; it seems to wrap itself around something or, as the Carl Sandburg said, “… comes on little cat feet.”* That is one of the most accurate lines of poetry I have ever heard.

I remember when I worked in San Francisco. We rode the bus from the town I was living in into the city every morning. Quite often in the morning, we would get to the top of the Waldo Grade, and there would be banks of clouds with only the tops of the tallest buildings and the and the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising from these billowing clouds. It was so beautiful that it was almost ethereal. It was like a floating city, even though I knew that there were quite a few floors of those buildings beneath and among the clouds.

Fog can be a menace. It prevents us from seeing things too far away. We can only see a short distance in front, and that phenomenon disturbs a lot of people. They want to see what’s ahead of them and allow time to make plans for how to adjust or react. It is impossible with fog; we take what we are given, which is anywhere from 3 to 10 feet in front of us, maybe more. It’s like pushing our way through cotton balls. Still, if we take care, we can make our way through it.

I know I’ve experienced a kind of brain fog when in shock from something like an accident or sudden death. I know that I see the world clearly because my glasses are not blurred, but my brain is. My mind also jumps frantically trying to find a clear path, but the fog won’t allow it. Some might call it a lack of faith, but I don’t think it is. It’s possibly my brain trying to protect me from something I’m not ready to handle, something that has nothing at all to do with my faith and everything to do with how my life is going. With time, however, the fog gently lifts, the brain starts functioning normally again, and I think I’ve been grateful for the cushion that the fog gave me at a time when my brain surrounded itself with cotton balls to protect it until I was ready to meet whatever the situation was.

There have also been many times when I read the Bible in kind of a fog. I want it to make crystal clear sense, but I’m not always sure where that sense can be found. The teachings of Jesus are reasonably clear, but what cultural twists are there in those teachings of which I am unaware? What contextual things am I missing when I read? A course of study in cultural and biblical anthropology was quite helpful in showing me some things that I hadn’t really considered. I’m richer for having had that exposure, but I don’t know everything, so there’s still some foggy spots.

Somehow I think about the road to Emmaus. In my mind’s eye, I see people walking on the road, including two people who had just come from Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. They are still stunned and fogged by the thought of losing the master, but what of the stories of him rising from the dead and being seen by the disciples and the Mary’s? Could they really, honestly trust in what they had heard? Then, when they were joined by a single gentleman also traveling that way, they could talk about it among themselves because the stranger had asked for enlightenment as to why they look so sad. The fog for them lifted when they sat down to dinner in Emmaus, and Jesus blessed the bread and wine. The fog utterly dissipated and they realized who was there with them and yes, the stories that they had heard were absolutely true.

In times of personal fog, I keep waiting for Jesus to appear and wipe away the blur. Sometimes it doesn’t take long; sometimes it might take months, depending on the depth of the trauma and the remembering to breathe before taking one small step at a time. Also, I still have to trust that I will make it through the fog. Jesus is good for that. He only asks that I trust him, even if it’s not 100% trust. Even a baby step will bring him closer and able to wipe the fog away.

I can’t say I like having my brain fogged. It’s like waking up from surgery and wondering where I am, or getting up in the morning and wondering what I’m supposed to do that day. The fog outside the window I like, fog of the brain I don’t, but both are things that can help me find God and deepen my trust because in the mist I am alone until I remember to invite God in. God is just waiting for that invitation because God’s been there the whole time just waiting for me to ask.

This week I think I will remember the feeling of being in a fog, and then practice trusting myself and the Trinity. The three bases are covered, all I have to do is hit the ball and start running.

God bless.



    *Fog by Carl Sandburg, found at www.poetryfoundation.org/poems.
     

l    Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on http://www.episcopalcafe.com, Saturday, January 26, 2019.
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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Old Year, New Year


The new year has begun. I admit to wondering what this new year is going to bring. Last year was bad enough, could this year be worse? Could it be better? Could it be just a repeat of the old year?

We expect New Year’s to give us a new start. We hope that it will be a good start, but many times it isn’t. Loved ones who have celebrated Christmas with us suddenly die soon after New Year’s is over. Crises that we have experienced in life don’t stop at 11:59 PM on December 31 and at 12:00 AM everything is swept clean. Usually, it feels like it’s just more of the same, or at least that’s our perception of it.

Today we commemorate three medieval mystics and writers that aren’t the most commonly heard of or read. Richard Rolle, who lived between 1290 and 1349, was English as were the other two mystics. Rolle wrote religious texts, translated the Bible, and was a hermit. He was also a mystic, and people of his time read or heard his books and used them as guides on how to be closer to God.

The second man, Walter Hilton, was born in 1340 and died on March 24, 1396. His writings were widely read during the 15th century and were considered guidebooks for a spiritual journey to Jerusalem.

The third is Marjorie Kempe, who was born around 1373 and died sometime after 1438. Her writings or dictations were mostly concerned with her spiritual journeys around England and the continent. She reported that she met with Julian of Norwich and Julian accepted that Marjorie’s visions and her profound spells of weeping were manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Oddly enough, people still read the writings of these three, even though they are centuries old, and are sometimes difficult to understand. However, people still look to them for guidance in getting closer to God.

It seems that not everything old should be put by the wayside and only the new or the contemporary should be accepted. We look at the stories of Jesus which are over 2000 years old. Even though these stories are written down after Jesus’s death, we still read them for spiritual guidance on how to live a Christian life. We look at stories such as the one for today about Jesus eating with the tax collectors, and we translate it into a context that we understand. The tax collectors were considered traitors and thieves who made their money by overcharging those who owed taxes. They were a very unpopular group. Today we would see those as probably the homeless, or those living in extreme poverty, or even people who just aren’t like us. There are people we wouldn’t share a table or a bus seat with, or even a neighborhood. We build walls to keep those people out. That’s nothing new; humankind has been doing that since the dawn of time. The only thing that’s changed is which groups are being blocked and which are being allowed through.

So where my going with this? I’m asking for myself because it seems to be rolling around in my head that there are things that are old, that I feel are important, and there are many new things that I think are essential as well. When I read a translation of the book of Marjorie Kempe, most of the time I wanted to shake the woman and tell her to quit making such a ruckus in public places with her wild outbursts of crying. Her tears were a reaction to feeling the suffering of Jesus which was strongly emphasized at that time. I couldn’t take a steady diet of Marjorie Kempe as a mystical example, but I can read her as well as other mystics and learn from them just as surely as I can from modern writers like Bishop Charleston or Joan Chittester. They use old stories and make them seem new. Their use of ancient traditions as guides to forming new ones help us to understand the concepts we need to learn and practice.

I’ve been dreading this new year. So far I haven’t been disappointed. It seems to be picking up right where the old year left off, and that’s not what I was hoping would happen. But as the old saying goes Rome wasn’t built in a day, and change for the better certainly hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps it will just take time, that and work on behalf of those who were excluded it Jesus’s time and who are excluded now. It isn’t going to get done unless we do it, and that means speaking, actually working to make the world aware that old problems are not solved without everyone understanding what’s at stake. Hopefully, we will learn in this new year that we are the change that God wants us to be

So in this new year, I guess it’s time to look at the old, to take the important things that we find there and moved with them into new settings, new words, and new understandings. Still, we should treasure the old because we are people of tradition, and we should appreciate that which has gone before us as well as what is going with us now. Maybe New Year’s is a good time to consider that.

With hope, trust, and work, we can make a difference in the world.  It’s an old dream renewed.

God bless.


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

Windows


I admit to being a binge watcher on television. I find a show I like, and I watch it from one end to the other and, quite often, start back over again and do the same thing. Usually, I watch something else for a while and then return to an earlier binge just because I liked the show so much. Sometimes two or three viewings is enough; sometimes it isn’t. Once I find a show that I do like, however, I want to see it again. I’m glad Netflix and Amazon both offer me the opportunity to do that.

My latest binge is The Crown. Okay, I realize it’s two seasons old already with the third season coming up. I watched the first couple of episodes some months ago and just didn’t like it, yet,  the other day I needed something new, and so I started watching the first season again. It was a little rough going for one episode or so, but then I got hooked. I just finished season two, and I’m ready to watch it again.

Royal things fascinate me; they have since I was a little kid. I remember pouring over the National Geographic that came out featuring pictures of the coronation, the crown jewels, and and the whole shebang. It fascinated me, and it hasn’t stopped. I read biographies and just about anything else I can find, and feel like I know the royal family fairly well for somebody who has never been closer to England than postcards and souvenirs from friends and folks who have. I realize that The Crown is a work of docu-fiction--part truth, part fiction--but I still think there are a few things that I can take away from this particular production.

There were several things I noticed about the actor portraying the Queen. She’s no Helen Mirren, but she is credible in the part. I also saw that she spends a lot of time looking out of windows, no matter where she is. She looks out of windows to see who’s driving up to the castle/palace/wherever she is. She looks out when she’s thinking. She looks out when she’s distressed, and sometimes perhaps she merely likes the view. The thing is that she looks out of windows just like we all do.

I have several windows that I like to look out of in my house. There are two in the bay window where I can see the mulberry tree on the one corner of the house and watch it through its various seasons. I can watch the leaves flutter in the breeze, and I can watch them burst out of their buds, grow,  and then fall. I can watch the kids riding their bicycles up and down the street; then I can watch hummingbirds coming to swill the nectar from the cape honeysuckle on the other corner. I look at them to see what’s going on, sometimes to think, and sometimes just as a focus to let my mind roam were it will or needs to go.

Windows in churches are lovely things. Growing up in churches that had plain glass, there was always something to look at when sermon sometimes got a little boring, or just because it was something that pleased my eye. When I got into churches that had stained-glass, the more intricate, the better, and the happier I was. The light coming through the windows during the day and going out the windows when the candle or electric lights were on at night were beautiful; they had so many colors and so many designs, it was like an almost never-ending feast.

The windows, especially the stained glass ones, were not always illustrating Bible stories, or stories of the saints, or events commemorated by a family who donated the money for some kind of imagery of their family crest, illustrious ancestor, commemoration, or their businesses. I keep going back to the idea that the light comes in and then goes back out as the day turns to night. I think that’s really exemplary of how we need to see the church, not necessarily in terms of ornamentation but where the light goes. We go into a church in the daytime, and we see the light coming in from one place or another, with the colors deepening and glowing as it does. It gives us something beautiful to look at, it provides us with a story or merely a shape to focus on and reflect upon, and it turns even the colorful clothing of the parishioners into richly-colored garb. At night, like on Christmas Eve, we leave the church and go back out into the world, but even though it’s dark outside, we don’t lose the light because it follows us out and shines through the darkness so that we can still see it a long way away.

That’s what we’re supposed to be. Jesus said he was the light of the world, and we take him at his word. Still, he expects us to be candles that may not be huge, but are still lights in the world.

Lights in the window indicate a welcome home and a light to shine in the darkness to guide people. We need to be windows with candles inside. As Christians we need to obey Jesus, to spread the good news, and that means to be joyful, to be eager, and to be welcoming.

Sometimes windows get grimy, but almost always they can be cleaned so that the world looks clearer through them and the candlelight and color can shine brighter. That’s a thought I think I’d better take with me this week. Windows are not just to peer out of but to invite others in.

God bless.


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

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Epiphany - A Day and a Season


Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the appearance of the wise men to the Holy Family, bringing them gifts from far away. It is a familiar story, and one often added to church Christmas pageants, although some churches will stretch it out and present that portion of the nativity play on the Sunday closest to January 6.

The creche is usually in its place although other trappings of Christmas ornamentation may be gone. The figures of the kings have frequently been placed some distance away from the creche,  and every day or every Sunday they are moved closer until on January 6 they appear at the manger to offer their gifts.

Some things bring questions to my mind, such as how many magi were there? The Bible story doesn’t specify, and, after all, how important is it? We are told that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three gifts but not necessarily how many presenters there were.

Another thing is that since these magi, wise men, kings, or astrologers came from far away, did they show up between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day or even a day or two later? Maybe as much as a year or so? Could it have been that they found the Holy Family somewhere else other than Bethlehem? Does that really matter either? Probably not.

Where they kings? The term often used for them is magi. There often called wise men in some Christian traditions. There also referred to as kings, which may or may not have been the proper term, but their strange and exotic appearance would undoubtedly give the locals an idea that these were royal personages. Also, we don’t know how many retainers and companions and the like that came with the magi. It could have been quite a caravan, which would further instill in the minds of the locals that these were kings. Most probably they were astrologers who read stars and who interpreted the events of the future through their readings. However it was, over the centuries we have ended up with three kings following a celestial event that was very unusual and deserved investigation.

We are told that on their journey to the Holy Family, they stopped at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem to ask where they could find the child who was born King of the Jews. Herod would hardly have liked hearing about that since he considered himself King with the approval of the Romans, and so he would have questioned them about how they had come to Jerusalem and how they had known of this birth that Herod was unaware of. The magi told of a star that they had been following and then Herod decided to be cagey. 

“Tell me where to find him,” said Herod. “I would like to come and worship him.”

The Kings resumed their journey and ended up with the Holy Family. Having accomplished their task, they were warned by an angel to go another way back home because Herod wanted to kill the boy. Being wise men, they took the word of the angel and never returned to Jerusalem.

We know what happens after the kings departed because we see the story of Herod’s command for the extermination of all Jewish boy children under the age of two years. That surely should get rid of the problem Herod had with a potential rival. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt, and undoubtedly the gold, frankincense, and myrrh help them along the way. Now whether that part happened within a few days of the magi’s departure or months or maybe a year later, we don’t know. We merely recognize that there was a tragic result of the wise men asking directions.

Epiphany is also a season that leads up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. I love the word epiphany because it has a meaning over and above a specific day that is part of the Christian calendar.

An epiphany is one of those moments that make you want to go “Wow!” It is a lightbulb moment, one of those times when something suddenly shifts in the thinking, and a new understanding comes in for inspection. It’s an amazing moment and one that encourages us to see the world in new ways.

I can’t plan an epiphany, but I learned that they could happen at any time, anywhere, and about almost anything. It’s a joyful moment, and it’s a discovery that changes my perceptions.

Just as the wise men had their epiphany when they saw the star and then followed it to the baby Jesus,  It was a change in their thinking, I like to look for these little flashes during the Epiphany season, but I find they come when they come, not when they are demanded or even expected. It can be as simple as looking at a poor person pushing a grocery cart full of boxes and tatters of clothing and blankets on the city streets and realizing that could be Jesus. It’s as simple as, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I probably didn’t think of it because the situation wasn’t ready or right for me to have that shift in the way I saw things.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to this Epiphany season, not expecting any great flashes of light, but instead being alert to some new thought or some new insight that will make me see something in a new way.

I invite you to experience small epiphanies this season. Be open, because at some time, when least expected, that little lightbulb will come on. Just be awake and aware.

God bless.



PS.  For our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Blessed Christmas to you!

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Sunday, January 6, 2019.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Twelfth Night


It’s hard to believe it’s 2019 already. Christmas came and went too fast, even though we are still in the Christmas season, at least for today. Most of the Christmas lights and decorations have been taken down around the neighborhood, but my tree stays up — at least until tomorrow.

I was interested in learning that January fifth or sixth could be considered Twelfth Night, the twelfth day of Christmas, depending on when you start the countdown. If Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas, then Twelfth Night appears on the fifth like it does tonight. If Boxing Day, or the feast of St. Stephen, occurs on 26 December, then Twelfth Night comes on the sixth. Mostly, however, it seems that if it’s celebrated, it’s usually on the night before Epiphany. The last night of Christmas becomes the last hurrah of the Christmas celebration and a bit of transition to the season of Epiphany.

Twelfth Night has been celebrated for hundreds of years. It was a celebration of food, wine, hijinks, and cake. The King cake, which is one of its names, is an old tradition. The cake is sometimes a rather dense one with fruit and molasses or treacle and honey among other things, or a lighter brioche-type that is frosted or drizzled with frosting. In either type, a bean is hidden, and sometimes a pea may be added.  The King cake is cut and served, and the man who finds the bean is considered King of the festival, or, in some traditions, the Lord of Misrule. The lady who discovers the pea is crowned Queen. The Twelfth Night royalty can suggest songs to sing, games to be played, hijinks to be performed, and the like. In a sense, it’s a little bit like Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. The King cake on Mardi Gras however usually contains a small figure of the Christ child. Still, both are evenings of merriment before the solemn feast of the Three Kings, or, in the case of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

But why would Christians celebrate Twelfth Night? There’s certainly nothing about it in the Bible, per se, except we celebrate it in commemoration of the coming of the three wise men (or however many there were) to find the baby Jesus. We don’t know precisely when the wise men came, how many there were, or even where they found the family. Still, like Christmas, somewhere between the evening before Christmas or Epiphany and the next evening, something happened that is cause for celebration.

I think that perhaps Twelfth Night is something to remind us to have fun. Just because Christmas is coming to an end, the Christmas season anyway, isn’t a reason to be gloomy, dour, or unhappy. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the company of family and friends, and to do things together, creating laughter and joy, even though it’s time for the greens and the trees to come down and to begin the new year.

Many people become somewhat depressed this time of year. There’s still a lot of darkness, and, coming home from work or basketball practice at school or evening events, it’s dark out, and quite often cold. That’s hard on people, especially people who suffer from a condition that makes life difficult because of the darkness. I know it at least two people who have this condition, and even after days and days of sunshine in Arizona, a partly cloudy morning will render them gloomy and out-of-sorts.

For some of us there is another form of depression, sometimes so deep it makes it almost impossible to do anything. For others, it requires effort to get through the day normally. Situational depression at this time of year can be caused by the loss of family members or loved ones who seem to have made it through the Christmas season but who just drifted away after the new year. It’s as if they wanted one more celebration, one more family get together, and then they could go in peace.

 Twelfth Night is the last hurrah of Christmas. That’s not to say we can’t carry Christmas with us all year. It would be lovely if we could or would. It would be lovely if we thought about those two suffer through the remains of winter and into spring from whatever cause. It would be lovely if we remembered to donate regularly to food banks and charities that often are deluged at Christmas but forgotten for most of the rest of the year. People are homeless, hungry, sick, and hopeless all year round. The Twelfth Night should remind us that there’s joy in giving, just as surely as we are reminded of the gifts of the wise men tomorrow as we celebrate.

I think tonight I may not have the King cake. I doubt if the cats would fall into playing games or getting into any organized shenanigans (they are quite capable of thinking up things on their own, it seems), or even wine drinking and feasting. But still, even though the tree with its colored lights may come down tomorrow, there’s this evening to enjoy the glitter and glow, and the knowledge that for one more night, it’s still Christmas.

Happy Twelfth Night. Enjoy!

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Caf é Saturday, January 5, 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Continuing Christmas




Merry Christmas!

Since it is now after December 25, we are officially in the Christmas season. You might not know it from the stores since they're already displaying Valentine's day paraphernalia and even a bit of Saint Patrick, but we as Anglicans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and others, are in the season of Christmas that lasts until 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany.

Gone are the Christmas carols from the radio although, thank God, there are still CDs and YouTubes that we can listen to. We hear the progressing Christmas story in church, and we're still watching the kids play with their new toys and enjoying the Christmas tree. It’s a nice time of year.

This year Christmas has been tinged with worry and concern and fear. The stock market went down like a rocket just last week, the government shutdown has frightened many people who have money invested, and the government shutdown, even partial, causes problems for those who depend on government services. We still have refugees on our borders begging to come in, but who are detained or turned back. Two children, separated from their parents by immigration, have died without their parents to hold them or to fight for their health and safety. It’s a lot to take in, and it makes for a very sad run-up to Christmas which supposed to be joyous and happy. It probably was joyous for most of us, but for others, it hasn’t been a happy Christmas.

In the Christmas story, it probably wasn’t a happy time for Mary and Joseph as they journeyed the miles to Bethlehem. Having been pregnant myself, I can only wonder that Mary could have borne such a journey on donkey-back or foot at a time so close to her delivery date. When they arrived, they found that there was no room for them in the inn, as the story tells us. Whether or not that is the way it happened, who knows? They could have had a space that was reserved for animals attached to that a house, or a spare room in the home of a relative, or any one of many possibilities. All we know is what the Gospels tell us, and, like news today, Bible stories can be slanted in favor of one opinion or belief over another. The Gospel stories were written by different authors for various groups of people, and so they differ even as three of them are very like in content.

We are still singing Christmas carols it at church, and still are wishing people Merry Christmas, although wishes for a happy new year are coming up quickly. The greens and the poinsettias are gradually disappearing, but for many of us, the trees remain, the vestments and paraments are still white and gold, and we’re still rejoicing. That’s a good thing. Meanwhile, we hear the Christmas story with one eye on the news, and we wonder how far have we come with our reactions to that story and how we relate to it. How our actions guided by what we believe about that story?

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, we still have the opportunity to do things that perhaps we just didn’t have time for before the holiday began. Did we intend to contribute to a worthy charity, or help in a food bank, or supply gently used clothing and shoes to places where the less fortunate could obtain them? It’s not a matter of it’s time to do the housekeeping and clean out the closets; it is an opportunity to extend Christmas and the spirit of giving a little while longer. Just because Christmas Day is over for many of us, doesn’t mean that people aren’t still hungry, still needing warmer clothes or even toys for the children. I can’t think of anything sadder than a child for whom Christmas is just another day, wondering if there will be enough to eat, a dry blanket, or something to play with. They exist, in the homeless communities, in the slums, and other places where often the most miserable people are forced to call home. Jesus certainly didn’t get new toys. Mary and Joseph didn’t get each other expensive or romantic gifts unless you count the mutual love they both had for this miracle child. Families today don’t always have that opportunity either.

I can’t give up on Christmas yet.  There’s still stuff to do, stuff that continues even after the Christmas season yields to Epiphahytide and beyond. I think I need Christmas to remind me that all year, even without beautiful colored lights and smells of evergreens, there is still a bit of Christmas inside, like the coals of a banked fire just waiting to be fanned into life again. 

I’ll hang on to that metaphor for a while.  Christmas is more than a pile of presents under a tree or huge festive meals. It’s about giving and receiving, just as we are supposed to give to those in need. After all, Jesus is a gift we receive all year long.  We’re just trying to pay that gift forward as he told us to do.

God bless.


Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 29, 2018.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Thin Places and Christmas




Twas the night before Christmas … oh, wait, it’s a little early for that, isn’t it? After all, we still have Advent 4 to prepare for the main event next week which is Christmas.

I’m a huge fan of Christmas. I love the season, but I just don’t show it in the exuberant, deck-the-halls, ho-ho-ho kind of way as I used to. I still love the lights and the carols and most the trappings of Christmas, but, now that I’m a lot older,  it seems that my exuberance has given way to patient waiting, and peaceful enjoyment.

I remember the years where I lived right across the street from the church of my childhood. Their traditions were different than the traditions I enjoy as an Episcopalian, but still, one thing I always loved was to walk out my front door, through the gate in our white picket fence, move down the street to see the candles burning in the windows of the church. We never really turned the lights on full inside the church for this service, except on the choir and the pulpit, so the rest of the church was basically in semidarkness. We sang Christmas carols; we prayed, we listened to a sermon, and then still in semidarkness walked out the church door to return home. For me, it was a very short walk, but somehow there was something about the walk back that was different than any other walk home from church at night. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I felt it, that difference.

I’ve since learned that that particular feeling corresponded very nicely with the definition of what people call thin places or spaces. It means a place, time, or both that is invisible but can be felt in an almost tangible way. It’s a feeling that there’s only a step or two between heaven and earth, and any second you could take that step through what some call the veil of heaven. It wasn’t like anticipating death, but rather an illumination or a joining.

Christmas Eve wasn’t the only time I experienced thin places or times. Quite often in my later years, I have experienced it in certain areas like the National Cathedral, or walking through some of the cemeteries, and on the Eve of All Saints, as well as times on All Souls Day when  I unexpectedly encounter this thinness as an immediate, intimate presence of God. Christmas Eve, though, was something similar, just more intense.

When we moved to Arizona, we bought a house that was a similar distance to the walk I used to take as a child. Luckily I was old enough to stay out and walk to the midnight service, unlike the 7 pm Candlelight service of my childhood. We didn’t have candles in the windows, but we did have a semi-dark nave with lights for the choir the pulpit and the altar.  It was almost as if I could feel the gathering of angels and holy souls around me.

I loved it when the high service for Christmas Eve began about 11 or 11:30 at night. The streets were quiet, most of the Christmas lights that people had put up had been turned off for the evening, and traffic was sparse. Coming out just after the Eucharist, my thin space would be waiting for me. I would look up in the sky and see some of the stars, not as many as if I were out in a dark field, but certainly, more than I usually saw when stepping outside after dark. The crisp air added another dimension, sharpening my senses and urging my feet to walk faster while my heart begged to go slowly to savor every possible second.

The whole thing was the feeling of God being right there, right next to me or in front of me or behind me perhaps. Maybe God was all around me, but the veil between heaven and earth was so thin that it would almost send chills down my spine. It was the holiest night of the year, the night of the Nativity, and here I was, walking through the darkness, on my way home.  Still, I felt I carried within me a light that felt like gossamer and yet a steady flame that would only be extinguished when the night was over.

Every Christmas Eve, whether I’m in church or not, I look for that thin space. Sometimes I can walk outside my house and look up at the sky and see stars that remind me of the ones that I saw on my midnight walks to church. It is different to drive home at that time of night, and most churches have now begun to hold their services much earlier in the evening. It’s not quite the same, even though it celebrates the same holy event.

This year I will look for the thin space. I will listen to a recording of King’s College doing their lessons and carols.  I will sit with just the lights on the tree lit, and join in with that experience listening to the readings and the glorious music that they present. I’ll look for that thin space because it represents a precursor of heaven to me. Like something I need from time to time, but which always or almost always shows up unexpectedly.

During this upcoming Christmas season, think about finding a thin space somewhere in your life whether it’s in church, walking around the neighborhood to see the lights, or even in your own home sitting quietly and opening up to God. Find the thin space. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

God bless.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, December 22, 2018.