Sunday, July 31, 2011

Would Anyone Elect Jesus?

Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ -- John 1:44-47 (NRSV)

This part of the daily office gospel reading certainly got me thinking. In light of the political mess we have going on at the present time, my mind certainly makes leap from Galilee to America, from looking for a messiah to simply looking for a savior.

Clearly Philip had found someone of whom he certainly had an immense regard and respect. He claimed that Jesus was the person of whom Moses, the prophets and the law spoke. Obviously, for Philip, Jesus was the prime candidate for messiah, complete with the potential and ability to fulfill the expectations the Jews had been storing up since probably the time of Moses. The messiah would be a warrior like David, a leader like Moses, a prophet like Elijah, a wise man like Solomon and holy man like Samuel. It was a tall order, and, given Galilee's reputation of not being in any respect the center of learning, leadership, sophistication, trade and worship, Nathaniel's skepticism certainly seemed warranted. Still, Philip persuaded him to come and see -- and the rest, they say, was history.

Fast forward to today. We're still looking for a messiah, and every four years we try to elect one -- or a bunch of them. We elect people to our legislatures and political offices that we feel reflect our beliefs and values and try to defeat those who we feel are not. We want to believe that those we elect have our best interests at heart, that the campaign promises they made will happen and we will all live happily ever after in a safe, prosperous, Godly nation that is the one all nations look to and wish to emulate. We have hopes for these leaders, but so often we find that perhaps they aren't what we believed them to be. And we look for people "in whom there is no deceit."

I wonder --- if Jesus were standing for election, what campaign promises would he offer us? Safety? Security? Fair taxation? Preferential treatment for people of our specific religious beliefs, our social status or economic clout? Would our enemies be his enemies and his friends our friends? Which political action committees or lobbyists would be buzzing about, urging him to "do the right thing" and support what they represented? Would he even be able to get elected on a platform of honesty, fair treatment for the marginalized, dedication to the ethics of the kingdom (of God, not of the PAC or lobbyist or even "certain individuals with great influence"), and the obedience to the intent of God's laws and not necessarily to the literal interpretation of it? Would he compromise his election promises if he were faced with having to throw the most vulnerable under the bus so the upper echelons could continue to amass wealth and withhold more? Where would he stand on "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48b)?

Would anyone but the marginalized believe him? Or would he be brushed off as just another Galilean, ignorant, dirty, poor and not worth believing?

Would anyone elect Jesus? Don't say "yes" too quickly; it might be the hardest choice to make with the hardest road to walk.

July 30- Stumbling Blocks

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. -- Mark 9:33-37,42

It is no wonder that this gospel lesson appears on the commemoration of William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley Cooper, two who sought to heal the brokenness of the world by working to abolish slavery, return Jews to Israel and see to the welfare of children. Society, and even the church, had created stumbling blocks for many by denying the personhood and value of certain people and groups, and those stumbling blocks caused many little ones, beloved children of God regardless of size or age, to fall into hopelessness and despair. People like Wilberforce and Cooper worked to restore that brokenness and, years later, some of it has been healed.

There is still so much brokenness and so many stumbling blocks. There are still places where slavery of different sorts run rampant. The church has made strides to call attention to that wrongness and help to alleviate it, but the church also has remained silent in the face of other things that can and do make God's children stumble and fall.

How many children of God have been forced to their knees because of who or what they are perceived to be by others who see only rule-breakers? For centuries, African Americans were seen as not really full humans and that perception lead to their treatment as less than human. For millennia, children of any class lower than those of the rich, were considered not really human but rather to be put to "honest work" in factories that not only broke their starving bodies but their spirits as well. What now of women in the majority world countries who live on the edge of desperation because they are seen as sexual objects for men's pleasure or possessions to be used at will? What of GLBQTI folk who are no less fearfully and wonderfully made as any other children of God but who have lost faith in God and God's church because they are made to be slaves to the perception of "Christians" who "love the sinner but hate the sin." The Christians may be sincere in their belief, but so were the slave-holders, factory owners and brothel-keepers who claimed to be followers of Jesus but who put physical, mental and spiritual chains on those under their charge and care.

Love shouldn't hurt. We abhor physical violence against children, but why do we sit quietly while spiritual violence is done to those whose life and being are touted as "abominations" or whose physical body makes them vulnerable to power plays and violence?

What are we doing to keep God's children from stumbling and losing both faith and hope? Are we helping them heal --- or are we just handing them millstones in the name of God?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe July 30, 2011.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Commemoration of Bach, Handel and Purcell - July 28

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts:

praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:

praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:

praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:

praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.

Praise ye the LORD.

-- Psalm 150 (KJV)

There may be other psalms that reference music, praise and worship, but for this particular day, this one tops the list. The day commemorates Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell, two Germans and an Englishman. Anyone with any familiarity with church music will almost genuflect at the name of any of the three, me included. Of course, to this day I would add Tallis, Byrd, Monteverdi (gotta have one Italian for good measure) and Palestrina (ok, two Italians). All were composers par excellence and worthy of our thought and commemoration.

I confess that my musical taste runs to the period when these gentlemen composed, performed and conducted. The interplay of words and music, of many voices weaving in and around, the power of trumpets and pipe and tracker organs played like organs should be played, heck, for me there's no greater spiritual experience --- unless it is participating rather than just listening.

Some of the happiest days I have spent in church have been with a choir where music such as Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Handel and Bach were unabashedly done as well as more modern stuff like Rutter ("I can't believe it's not Rutter!"), Duruflé or Vaughn Williams. Something about church music that has texture, depth and just enough dissonance to keep things interesting just gives me shivers. Sitting in a building where the acoustics are beautifully balanced and not muted by excess soft furnishings and carpeting, listening to music like theirs is almost worth trading my hope of heaven to hear. Having sung quite a bit of it, I can identify what quite a few of the pieces in Latin are about, even if I have never had a course in Latin. But it isn't so much about what the words say, it's how beautifully they are said. The German, however, is another story. I have no idea what is being said, but the harmonies and counterpoints are more than enough to make up for the lack of familiarity with the libretto.

While they all wrote things other than church music, and much of what church music they wrote was at the behest (and commission) of members of the aristocracy, unlike painters who made figures from scripture look like the patrons who commissioned the work, musicians don't throw in "This music composed for ..." into the composition although the names of the patrons appear in the dedication or even the title. That leaves the music to speak for itself, to speak to the listener.

I believe that scripture was inspired by God even if not dictated by God. I also believe that the music of Bach, Handel, Purcell, Byrd, Tallis, Monteverdi, Palestrina and their contemporaries and successors were divinely touched by God, and first performed by angelic choirs and musicians. Somehow I don't think an eternity of "Holy, Holy, Holy" won't be boring; there are too many wonderful pieces with just those words for it to be boring. I'm also sure God won't mind a few interludes between versions of "Holy, Holy, Holy" that might include other pieces -- chorales, masses, canticles, hymns, doxologies, prayers, and the like. I don't think God will get bored, nor will the company of saints who will join the heavenly choirs, even if they couldn't carry a note in a bucket on earth.

To me, that will be heaven indeed.

Commemoration from Holy Women, Holy Men, authorized provisionally by General Convention 2009, Traditional language:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, who dost teach us in Holy Scripture to sing thy praises and who gavest thy musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell grace to show forth thy glory in their music: Be with all those who write or make music for thy people, that we on earth may glimpse thy beauty and know the inexhaustible riches of thy new creation in Jesus Christ our Savior; who livest and reignest with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Collect for Church Musicians and Artists

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. -- BCP , p 819.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Just one of those days...

Wiper blades shot from 2 years of sun and heat. Truck dirty. Haboob last week left dust all over. Rain immediately followed, turned dust to mud.

How come rain can move tons of earth but not one ounce off dirty truck?

Had enough yesterday. Got new wiper blades. Got truck washed. Looked nice, clean windshield. Got monsoon. Truck now muddy again.

Then there's budget mess and maybe social security checks won't go out next month. But bless Wal-Mart for $10 wiper blades and free installation. That I can afford.

Easier to worry about mud on truck than whether next month bills will get paid.

God, forgive me (and a lot of us) for living paycheck to paycheck.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 24 -- Struggling with Love

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. -- Romans 12:9-21

Oy. I have to confess that this is one of the passages that gives me heartburn. I know that it is an ideal and I don't think it was really all Paul's idea, but his list is pretty daunting.

Love, the genuine kind and not just the fairy-tale "happily ever after" is the stuff that means that I love someone else more than I love myself. I must be more dedicated to their well-being and honor than my own, and, if my love is genuine, it is no struggle or strain to be so dedicated.

It's easy for me to love lovable people; likewise it is nearly impossible to love unlovable ones. I've never met Desmond Tutu, but I love him. He is a good man and obviously one of God's particularly chosen ones. I've never met the across-the-road neighbor whose penchant for loud parties is so annoying or the dude with the big honkin' pickup truck with the big honkin' subwoofers rattling my house as he drives by, but I have a really hard time even liking them much less loving them. Yet by Paul's standard, I'm supposed to love them despite the fact that they put my nerves on edge, upset my cats and rattle my windows, doors and floors. I wonder what Paul would have made of them?

It's hard not to want to see some folks get what I think is coming to them. No, I don't believe in capital punishment but there are times I cheerfully contemplate creative ways of allowing a specific person or persons to experience first hand martyrdom by pinpricks (or maybe claw marks). That's not what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be forgiving of things that hurt me, understanding of people who lash out in frustration and hit me even though I had nothing to do with the original aggravation, and I'm supposed to honor those small achievements of someone else as if they were the winners of the Nobel prize. I confess I can't put too many check marks on the list of Paul's positives but I can put an awful lot of x's next to the negatives.

Somehow I don't think Paul could completely live up to his own list. I don't see how he could and still be human, but he was writing to a church that needed an example to follow, and the letter got left as part of our legacy to be an example for us as well.

Reading the passage, I hear the sound of the English of the KJV recited in the voice and accent of the veddy British dean of King's College Cambridge, "Rendah to no man e-vil for e-vil." It makes that part of Paul's exhortation an ear-worm that circles 'round and 'round in my head. Perhaps that is the genius of it: a whole set of laws and practices reduced to a soundbyte that sums up the whole in a way that is easily and quickly retrievable in time of need.

I have a feeling I will hear that ear worm for the next day or so. I hope so, anyway, because in that period of time I am sure I will run into one of the unlovable, haughty, un-honorable, downright aggravating and egotistical people I have been enjoined to love, honor, serve and try to both understand and accept as a friend, fellow human being and God's beloved child.

I think it's a tall order. God help me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Musing on the Reading -- Simplify! Simplify!

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. - Mark 6:6b-13

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!" - Henry David Thoreau

One thing that is often heard in churches where there is turmoil or discord is the injunction to "shake the dust from your shoes and move on." The implication is that struggle is not an acceptable way for a church to be; all should be sweetness and light. Unfortunately, without some struggle, no growth takes place. Sometimes, however, growth does take time, patience and sometimes distance.

Jesus understood this. He gave his disciples instructions on being good guests, but also knowing when to leave. He also instructed them to travel lightly, trusting God and the people of the place they would visit to extend hospitality to them. Still, to take more than necessary would be not only disobedient and lacking in faith but also costly. Why take stuff that would have to be jettisoned if they had to make a quick getaway? Simplicity was the best solution, simplicity and faith.

Looking at my house, I see a lot of dear things that give me great pleasure, but I also see things that accumulate dust (and cat hair). Part of me screams to hang on to what I have because as soon as I let go of it I will have need of it or will feel keenly yet another loss of something precious. The other part of me urges me to shed unnecessary things and enjoy a simpler life.

Sometimes shaking the dust off my Birks is a way of encouraging my own growth. Whether it's leaving a church that feels like it has somehow lost its way or acknowleging that "stuff" is getting in the way of my own growth and serenity, the trick is to travel lightly and simply, that and knowing that if the tiger appears, I'd best be light on my feet and I can't do that with a lot of extraneous baggage.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. You never know when the tiger is going to show up.... or you need to get out of town in a hurry.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Miryam the Thrice-Redeemed - July 22

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid. When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ -- Mark 15:40 - 16:7

My name is Miryam, and I come from a place called Magdala. You may have heard of me, but what you have heard is not necessarily the whole truth. I cannot tell my whole story here, but I will tell you that I had an illness, "demons," they were called, and people said I had seven of them, a huge number. I will not tell of the life I led before I met this healer from Galilee, but with one touch he redeemed me from the sickness and from the chains of whispers, innuendoes and shame my so-called "neighbors" had cast about me as surely as if they were of cold iron. That was my first redemption. I was a woman of means; I had no father, no husband, no son or brother to lay claim to me and what I possessed. I was free to make my own choices, and my choice was to follow this healer and to support his ministry as did several other women.

We were only women, but to Jesus, we were humans and people with gifts to give, over and above the purses of coins we paid for food and lodging. I listened to him, more intently than any, probably, for soon he began teaching me as well as his male disciples. He spoke to my soul and I drank in his words like my thirst would never be quenched. His male disciples were jealous that Jesus often sought me out to talk and to teach, and they muttered about me, but out of his hearing or he would have silenced them. They were jealous that I, a mere woman, would be privy to the secrets of the kingdom, secrets that they often could not comprehend. I did not gloat over them; I simply accepted their jealousy and anger and tried to speak softly and graciously, as Jesus had taught me to do.

Following him up that hill that morning, watching his struggle with the cross beam resting on his bloody shoulders, seeing him stagger and fall, were among the worst moments of my life. Here was my saviour, my redeemer, and I could do nothing to help him, nothing other than cry out in grief and support his mother whose grief was surely more deep than my own since her body had borne him and her hands had guided his baby steps. We mourned togeher there at the foot of the cross where he hung until that terrible moment, the moment when he cried, "It is finished!" I didn't know how I could live with the grief; indeed, I wished to die as well, but I had one more duty to do, so I thought.

The three of us came to the tomb on the day after the Sabbath to do what the men could not -- ritually bathe and anoint his dead body. For the men, it would have made them ritually unclean for a time yet for us it was more permissible since we were merely women. We got to the tomb but the stone was moved and we could see the darkness inside. What manner of thing was this? We looked inside and the grave-clothes lay flat on the place where his body had been. Then a shining being told us not to be afraid, but it had quite the opposite effect. Who would not have been afraid, seeing such a thing and such a person. Had I told someone they would have backed away from me as if my demons had returned. Still, we believed, and that was my second redemption.

After the ascension, I spoke to Peter and the disciples about the things Jesus had taught me, taught them too, but that they had not understood. I tried to teach them but not all of what message Jesus had given me was received. I was only a woman; how could I understand the teachings of the rabbi when the men closest to him could not? They listened, but I could tell they did not truly accept my words, the words Jesus had given me. I tried, I truly tried, but they began to withdraw from me and so I was gradually isolated and removed from the presence of those who claimed discipleship.

My final humiliation came several hundred years after my death when one of the so--called "Church Fathers" took my story and interpreted it to mean that I was a prostitute saved by Jesus from the life of a common whore. I swear to you, I was never a whore, I never sold myself, nor did I give myself to any man save one, and him I shall not name. I was not, as some claim, Jesus' wife, although in many ways I was closer to him than any wife, and there was no impropriety between us. He loved me, but he loved God more, and so he followed God's wishes and commandments and that was enough for me. Still, the shameful label and brand was laid on my soul for centuries after that.

Not until a few years ago was I redeemed a third time, redeemed and restored with my name intact and my own, without the label "prostitute." I regret only that my voice was silenced for so long. I had words from Jesus that should have been passed on but were passed over instead. Still, I can serve as a guide, a mentor, to women who find themselves disbelieved and devalued.

I can ask that you, as women, seek to cast out the demons of prejudice, mysogyny, toxic patriarchialism and sexual exploitation. I can ask that you help me to follow the path of the Healer who taught me that all of God's children have value, something many of the "righteous" and "church fathers" had and have forgotten in their quest for power and prestige. I ask, no, I pray that you will seek the redemption of others, not just of their immortal souls but their very beings, their bodies, their brains as well as their wombs. Let them no more be degraded and dishonored but raised to places of equality and strength.

I opened my eyes, ears and heart to my Healer and he healed more than my "demons." I stood at the cross when the men were afraid to show their faces. I went to the tomb to give cleansing and honor to a man who bore a dishonorable death. I taught until I was silenced by those who had other motives. God finally turned the hearts of those who robbed me of my honor and my good name. Do not rest until all those whose honor and good names have been ruined have been restored and redeemed.

It will be my fourth redemption - and the redemption of millions with me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I have several plants in my office. I've had them for almost 4 years and I've watched them grow. Inevitably, plants outgrow the pots they're in and that means it's time to move'em. That time came for one of them this weekend, a nice little palm that was telling me that it needed something more than it had. Ok, I got the hint. I bought it a nice new pot and, in spite of 110° on the patio, I stood there and repotted it before bringing it back into the house to wait until we both go to the office tomorrow.

While potting this plant I found an outdoor one that was starting to look scraggy and had roots coming out of the bottom of the pot it was in, so I found another pot and bunged it in. It looks happier now too.

Oddly enough, this afternoon I was sort of dozing in front of the TV when the channel I had selected began talking about pots, the kind found on archaeological digs, and what they represented. Whether whole or in shards, pots tell stories, perhaps incomplete ones, but still there are stories there. Did they contain oil, or water, or wine? Did they contain dates or grain or raisins? Were they works of art with decorations on them or were they ordinary pots perhaps with nothing on them or perhaps just a scribble or a cartouche or some sort of mark. Just a squiggle on a pot shard can tell an archaeologist a lot about how that piece got where it was found. Did it come from a local potter or from far away? Was it part of someone's kitchen or some storekeeper's stock? What can it tell us about when it was made as well as where? What can it tell us about the world in which it existed?

The shards that they showed were mostly just plain pottery, pottery that could have been from any time in the last 4,000 years or so. Some of the shards, though, had markings that identified the time period (no, they didn't say "Made in China, 3582 BC, Lot #46283, QC #4182, Inspected by Yu Ling, Not for use in microwave or dishwasher"). Whatever had been in the pot before it was broken was no longer there; it was just a piece of broken pottery, yet it bore testimony to a long-ago time, a time that we can only imagine from the bits and pieces that are left behind as either grave-goods or simply trash. Just think of it, a piece of dry pottery speaking volumes from thousands of years ago. It's mind boggling.

In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. (2 Tim 2:20)

Archaeologists seldom find things from antiquity that were made of gold and silver. Let's face it, to poor people, something of gold or silver that they can dig out of the ground and sell is often a prize to be sought. It can make the difference between starving and feasting. Most of the gold and silver that had been left behind in graves and tombs has been looted, its context lost to the future and its story silenced. Pottery, though, had much less value although unbroken pots could still find a market for the looters. Broken pottery? It was worth nothing so it remained where it was, a silent testimony to what had been, when it had been, and waiting for someone with the wisdom and understanding to look and see the story it had to tell.

I got to thinking about pots and what kind of pot I would be. No, I'm not planning to be a bright, shiny, perfect pot like the one my little palm plant has moved into. That's not my style. A plain pot, perhaps; that's a bit more believable. A shard of a broken pot, that's the most likely. I've been broken and mended so many times that I'm not sure how much is original and how much is glue. There are squiggles and letters carved on the various pieces, some out of sequence, some with the markings worn off, some with no marks at all to identify that this reconstruction that now exists was actually where this piece belonged.

See, before God I am as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay. - Job

If I think about it, everybody is a pot of some kind. Each has a context, a story and a message to leave to the world. There will be some gorgeous fired pottery with beautiful designs and colorful images, there will be some with lots of identifying text and there will be some plain and serviceable, more or less. It is God who makes the pots and God who disposes of them. I am as I am made, I am to serve in whatever capacity I find myself.

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making”? or “Your work has no handles”? - Is. 45:9

Mine is not to question my fashioning, mine is simply to work within it, whether I am to hold a plant or a liter of water. Mine is simply to be the best pot I can be, because I am of God's fashioning and my Master's use.

July 16 - The Workin' Girl

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.’ So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, ‘Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.’ Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.’ But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, ‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’ She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said
to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’ The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’

Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. She said to them, ‘Go towards the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there for three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterwards you may go on your way.’ The men said to her, ‘We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.’ She said, ‘According to your words, so be it.’ She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window. -- Joshua 2:1-21

Rahab was what is commonly known as a "workin' girl." The word "harlot" gets thrown around a lot in the Bible, usually about women who were somewhat outside the normal sphere of wife and mother, decently hidden away in the house just waiting for the man to come home from work. Rahab had a family to support, and apparently no husband to bring home the bacon so she could cook it. Harlot? Maybe. Woman with a lot of mouths to feed and a roof to keep over her head? Definitely.

The story picks up with the entrance of two spies who just happened to choose Rahab's house as a place to hide. I mean, do you walk into a strange city where your clothes, accent and even lack of local knowledge or language would point you out in a New York minute and ask for the nearest prostitute who happens to live in a house with access to the outer wall of the city? That seems a bit far-fetched but in the world and words of the Bible, far-fetched things seem to be almost routine.

Sometimes God picks the oddest people to do the toughest jobs. Most of the heroes of the Bible (you know, the biggies like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the major prophets, the 12 disciples, Paul...) weren't what you'd call star material for the gig God had planned for them, but they took the challenge and did their turn. But what of the women? Rahab is a prime example. Her quick wits sent the Keystone Cops of Jericho in the wrong direction, got the gates shut and everybody looking outside the walls for a potential danger that was already inside scoping out the territory and hiding in what was probably rather plain sight. Rahab's house was part of the city wall and so anybody looking over the parapet should have been able to see her rooftop fairly easily, one would think.

We know how the story ends: the spies are hidden on the rooftop, they promise safety for Rahab's family when the Israelite army gets there, and she lets them out of the city by means of a rope which would also undoubtedly have been visible to anybody patrolling the wall, hearing a strange sound or just happening to look over the parapet. That rope might have been made by Rahab herself from flax like that which hid the spies. Anyway, the spies shinny down the rope and scamper off to report to Joshua about Jericho and Rahab goes back to life as normal -- except with a certain piece of red rope hanging out the window of her house.

Rahab was resourceful, quick-witted, and trusting. She also had faith, faith in the word of spies (and men) whose very lives at that point depended on stealth and prevarication, and faith in a strange God who, as the local newscasts had it, did wonderful things. She took a risk, and harlot or not, it gave her a legitimacy that made her one of the ancestors of a certain child of another unlikely heroine of resource, quick wits, trust and a whole lot of faith. She may have been a workin' girl, but this time she was workin' for God in a totally different capacity.

There's a special spot in my heart for Rahab.

(Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, July 16, 2011.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 9 - Wearing Someone Else's Clothes

Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’
- 1 Samuel 17:38-49 (NRSV)

“Little David was a shepherd boy/He killed old Goliath and shouted for joy..” (from an old Spiritual)

This is one of those Bible stories kids love. It has a character they can identify with (a young boy) who is sent out on a perilous quest (all good stories have an impossible quest in them) and who comes out the winner and hero (name one story other than Jesus that really turns out like that). The kids may have the equipment wrong; David’s slingshot didn’t have a rubber launcher between two uprights with a handle – but they get the general idea.

People who buck the system are also said to be “out to slay Goliath,” --big business, government corruption, global issues, neighborhood crime, even local HOA restrictions. Goliath is someone or something big, ugly, strong, powerful and almost unbeatable, a threat to security and liberty and a voracious beast set to devour us, our security and our financial stability. The Davids who go often seem like a lamb set in front of a hungry lion and with about as much chance to come out of it in one piece. Yet the David of the story isn’t that innocent a lamb. He’s had experience fighting down and dirty with predators who are out to steal his sheep and take him down with them, if necessary. He had a couple of keys to success in what would have been his back pocket, if’ he had had pockets!

One of David’s keys to success was going with what he knew. Helms? Breastplates? Double-handed swords? Shield? Greaves? They were chunks of metal designed to protect the wearer, if the weight alone didn’t drive him to his knees. David had a much simpler (and lighter) ace up his sleeve. Appear defenseless, lure the predator into range, and then let go with a plain ol’ river rock shot with speed, force and accuracy gained by lots and lots of practice. Goliath didn’t have a chance. He trusted his armor, size and ferocity but got bested by a guy who went with a simple solution to a big problem.

David’s second key was his trust that God was in charge of the whole show and would not allow David to be bested by an uncircumcised heathen who didn’t know God. David believed, and I think that gave him the confidence to think on his feet, choose his moment and strike, all in the name of God.

Whether a David fighting the Goliath of the Philistines or a lone figure standing up for the rights and well-being of those the world would just as soon shovel away somewhere and forget about, the key is knowing your strengths, choosing your moment and trusting God to have your back.

(originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe, July 9, 2011)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cat Voices

In the world I live in, just about everything has a voice. Granted, trees, rocks and the like don't have an audible "voice" -- most of the time -- but they speak to me in different ways. Other things do have an auditory quality that I can physically hear and to which I can respond. Voices of familiar people, friends, family, co-workers, even people I've never met but whose voices I can pick out without seeing their faces, like HM the Queen, JFK, our Presiding Bishop, or any of a number of personalities such as Oprah, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite or Desmond Tutu. Dogs bark, birds chirp (or trill), cows moo, chickens cluck and cats meow --- well, most of them do, anyway.

My three boys all have different "voices". Yes, they do make sounds that sometimes sound like "meow" but usually there are more subtleties. My late Maggie always showed her British disdain with a single comment, "MEH!" Come to think of it, that was her only comment to just about everything but her little folded ears made up for any linguistic shortcomings. Of the current clutter, Domi, the smallest, has the highest pitch and usually only speaks in no more than two syllables or less. Most of his conversation takes place about 4am when he thinks I should get up and start fixing breakfast. He punctuates his statements by stomping across my midsection or leg just for emphasis but as a conversationalist, he's a man of few words.

Gandhi is a bathroom singer; he generally prefers the acoustics in there for his occasional bursts of vocalizations although he seems stuck in a rut with repeating the same phrase over and over, seldom changing a whisker of inflection. His only other conversation is a "mwrooowf" while jumping up on the desk, anticipating a distribution of cat-communion in the form of treats or the sound of a cat food can being ripped off.

Sama, however, is the true singer. I swear, this cat has a range of nearly an octave and often incorporates four or five notes on each utterance, no matter how simple. In the world of cat singers, he is the Pavarotti, the Caruso, the Bocelli and the Josh Groban all rolled into one. Ok, so there may only be a half-step between notes, but it's a far cry from a one-note, one-syllable call or response. Like his brother, he seems to feel that between 4-5am is a proper time to begin at one end of the house and comment with every step to the other end where my bedroom lies. The announcement that he is jumping up on the bed (often right on top of me) is a five-note, 4-inflection sentence that continues as he marches up to check out my nose before batting at his brother and then taking off at top speed across my leg (complete with my own two-note, 3-curse response to the pinpricks of claws on said leg) before starting the whole thing again a few minutes later. Sleep late on weekends? What's that? I'd be happy if I could teach him that the alarm clock WILL go off in plenty of time for him to get fed before he expires of advanced starvation since dinner last night and the emptying of the bowl of kibbles as snacks during the night. I could throw the alarm clock out and just use the cat; he's just as reliable about going off at a specified time -- his specified time.

It doesn't take much to start him singing. "I'm gonna get you, brother!" "What are you doing, Mom?" "Where are you?" (that one usually part of the 4am ritual and he knows darned good and well where I am! I'm SLEEPING -- or trying to). For all I know he could also be doing a running commentary on everything from the fact that the hummingbirds out on the feeder are getting rambunctious to the latest loss by the Cubs or his opinion of politics (I think he's more of a Republicat than a Democat). He can't just say one sentence; he has to make a whole speech about whatever it is. Most of the time I let him talk, but after about the fourth reiteration of whatever is on his mind I just start yelling, "I GET it already!!!!!!!!" It never works. He stops singing when he gets finished. Threats, occasional squirts from the water sprayer, nothing stops him until he's finished the speech, aria or candid comments. And all this done in a series of utterances, often quite different from the one before or the one after, and all on a series of notes that, transcribed, would be the equivalent of a Mozart aria. Ok, maybe a Josh Groban ballad.

All my boys have different voices, but none have the flair for conversation Sama does.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Musing on the Reading - July 4

My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
Do not grieve the hungry,
or anger one in need.
Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
or delay giving to the needy.
Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
or turn your face away from the poor.
Do not avert your eye from the needy,
and give no one reason to curse you;
for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,
their Creator will hear their prayer.

Endear yourself to the congregation;
bow your head low to the great.
Give a hearing to the poor,
and return their greeting politely.
Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor;
and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
Be a father to orphans,
and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
and he will love you more than does your mother.

-- Sirach 4:1-10

Scriptures read on certain days, like holidays, are often rather pointed. July 4th, Independence Day, commemorates the establishment of a new and free country, born of struggle and good resolutions. Growing up as I did in a small town where the war for that independence was all but finished and where a major leader and his troops surrendered to a group of colonials and their foreign allies, it's hard not to think of those events and their motivators, especially when facing the physical reminders of that conflict like the fortifications and grave markers. The war for American independence resolved some problems -- taxation without representation, second-class status and citizenship, and the like -- but left many others intact.

Americans pride themselves on their country's prosperity. yet in the midst of that prosperity there is still corruption, poverty, homelessness, hunger, oppression, abuse, and many more things that belie the words of our Declaration of Independence, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Sirach challenges us to not forget that we have a duty not just to people just like us or who we like or with whom we identify - religiously, economically, politically, socially, emotionally, intellectually or any other -ly.

While we wave our flags, share food and companionship with friends and relatives, watch fireworks and celebrate who we are and the country in which we live, it would probably be a good idea to look to Sirach's admonishments and to remember those Americans who are fighting to make the world safer for people under oppression, whether on our soil or that of places far, far away. We should do more than remember those who have no back yard in which to barbecue burgers, hot dogs and ribs but whose back yard is concrete, broken glass bottles, blowing trash, a cardboard box for shelter and food scrounged from dumpsters. We should do more than just give a passing thought to what equality means -- and to whom it applies. We should do more than write a check to a charity and then pat ourselves on the back for our generosity. True, it is a generous act to share what we have been given, but for this nation to really consider itself the "Christian" nation that many claim, we also have to follow the words of scripture -- like that of Sirach and also of the One who gave his name to a movement and his life to save the universe, not just the Jews, not just the fledgling group who would come to be known as Christians, or even residents of a single country. Jesus told us to take care of the poor, the widows and the orphans, in essence, to grant them the same kind of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that we desire and have as our own portion. With blessings come responsibilities, as Sirach reminds us. Charity is not just a Christian ideal, it is a concept shared by Jews and Muslims as well, commandments from God to care for those who can't do it on their own, who lack someone to protect them, keep them fed, clothed and housed, and who need a hand up, not a handout, and certainly not platitudes and scorn for lacking the basics of life.

A nation is only as great as its commitment to the well-being of its citizens. A faith is only as great as its commitment to the tenets and teachings it proclaims, among which is that of kindness to those in need. "‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’" That includes sisters too - and children, cousins, the angry old man down the street, the scrunched-over old lady with rag-tag clothes pushing a shopping cart with all her worldly goods inside, the Sikh gentleman in the third seat over on the bus, the Muslim woman in her headscarf, …

Happy Independence Day. May it be a day where we all declare the world free and all people receiving the benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in equality and harmony.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rahab and the Questions She Poses

Ancestor of Jesus
Woman of mystery
protector and provider
for family and foe.
Tell us your story.

keeper of the Inn
in the walls
listens to the news
from travelers
watches the ways
of the world
knows what she
must do
acts to preserve
her family --

-- Ann Fontaine, Streams of Mercy

Rahab is a woman of great interest to me. The story in Joshua indicates that she was a prostitute, hid some Israelite spies, confessed her faith in God, helped them escape and, as reward, her request that she and her family be rescued when the army took Jericho was granted. It's an interesting story with just enough detail to make it a good tale and yet there's a lot that is left to the imagination -- or the translation.

Was she really the harlot the scripture labels her? She had a house, one built beside and partially incorporated into the city walls, but was it a house or was it a "house"? There's no husband in sight, so was she an "independent contractor"? Was she a widow? Her story indicates she had a father, so why was she not in his house, under his roof, being sheltered and taken care of by her parent or even one of her brothers? Why was she a prostitute, if she was really one and not just labeled that way because a "good" girl would have been under some man's roof and protection, if not a husband's then a father's or brother's? Was she a temple prostitute? Or was she just another victim of gender profiling?

The house fascinates me. It was described as " ... her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself." Interesting. Somehow I picture a box stuck onto a wall with a window cut in it. There's one problem with that --- the window would have been fairly close to the ground and not really something conducive to the invulnerability of the wall. After all, if someone could get OUT of the window and reach the ground without much difficulty, it would be only a bit more difficult for someone to get IN the same way. Archaeology has discovered that Jericho's walls did, in fact, have houses that abutted the outer of two walls, and that part of the wall did not "tumble down" as the rest of the wall did. Could one of the shells of brick that remains be Rahab's own house?

Rahab had flax drying on her rooftop. Why? was it the custom for all households to purchase harvested flax and then do the manual work of stripping, cleaning, spinning and weaving (or twisting) it into whatever the family needed? There was rope made of flax, so was Rahab a rope-maker? Did she also spin and weave? Did she twist the rope that let down the spies? Did she twist and then dye the red thread that was the signal to spare her house?

Then there is that red cord. It seems so full of meaning over and above it's simple being as a piece of twisted something, probably flax, dyed red. Did it resemble a sort of umbilical cord between Rahab and her former life that was severed when she first acknowledged the God of Israel as a god of power over and above anything her own religion could match? Did it symbolize her rebirth as a "righteous" woman? Why red? Was it a red cord that acted like the scarlet letter in Puritan times used to mark an adulteress or notorious sinner? Red for shame? Red for the blood of martyrs, one of whom might have been Rahab had she been caught helping the Israelites? Red for an ordination of Rahab into the community of faith? Red for the birth-blood of her offspring who would eventually, many generations later, culminate in the birth of a seemingly innocent babe who would shake the foundations of the world as the earthquake shook Rahab's home and helped to tumble its walls?

Rahab, you have left me so many questions, questions I can't answer. Yet you have also left me with an image and a presence of you as a woman, courageous, smart, quick-thinking, resourceful and trusting in a God and a people you had only heard about.

Rahab, you stood behind the city walls and spoke your confession of faith to the spies -- and to the wind. You were heard and saved for greater things.

Rahab, if my blog has a patron saint, you're it.