Sunday, October 30, 2011

October 29 - Leavening

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’ --Matthew 13:31-35

A pair 'a parables, two stories about ordinary things on the surface but underneath having greater import. A mustard seed, a large bush, a bit of yeast, a large quantity of flour -- ordinary things that Jesus turned into lessons that we can still study today. Those parables served as a kind of starter for people's beginning to think in a new and different way.

Human beings have used parables, allegories and the like since the dawn of civilization,using common things to teach lessons in morality, tradition ethics, behavior, and religious tenets. Jesus used them to teach about the kingdom of God. It might be invisible now, but properly tended and used, it could become a mighty (and filling) part of life.

I bake bread now and then, or rather, I assemble the ingredients and my R2D2-shaped bread maker does the mixing and kneading. I put in the flour, the shortening, the milk and/or water, the tiny bit of sugar, the eggs and a small quantity of yeast. I turn on the machine and it begins the process of taking those raw ingredients and turning them into a fresh, hot loaf of homemade bread. At the beginning it just sort of sits there, looking like nothing but a lump of stuff with no particular shape or anything. Over a period of several hours, though, it grows and expands, gets punched down and kneaded again, then allowed to rest again while the yeast continues its work of growing and rising until it nearly reaches the top of the breadmaker. hen the heating element turns on and begins to bake the loaf to a lovely golden brown. And the scent -- what can smell better than the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread. The yeast might have been invisible but look at all it did.

Jesus was undoubtedly familiar with the leaven that went into his mother's loaves of bread, and the bread of Passover which contained no yeast at all. One was the bread of haste, the other a bread of normalcy. One little ingredient can make all the difference.

I kind of look at life that way too. There are lots of people in my life but only a few add the leaven that makes my life more expanded and fragrant. I think God planned it that way. I can also see the action of just a little bit of yeast in society when someone stands up for those who can't stand for themselves or who are ignored by the majority because they seem small and insignificant. God planned that kind of thing too; Jesus taught about it and those who speak out exemplify it.

Sometimes these days it's hard to get the full picture since so much of what was normal and open for people in Jesus' day are out of sight and out of mind for us in our world. Sheep? Lots of city kids (and adults) have hardly ever seen a live sheep much less know about shepherding Jesus used as an illustration or a parable. Making wine? Yeast plays a part in that too, but unless I make wine at home or know someone who does, I probably don't really know the full process other than what the movies show of people standing in tubs of grapes, stomping them into pulp and releasing the juice to be fermented. Sowing and reaping? Well, I certainly know what weeds are and what grass is, so I have some basis for understanding parables about that kind of thing, but I don't have the everyday familiarity with the process that a farmer would have. It all begins with a small seed or ingredient, tended and fostered, that grows into something many, many times the size of the thing that started it.

I'm suddenly tempted to go grab the ingredients and make a loaf of my favorite Sally Lunn bread. I have the flour and the other ingredients, and I have the yeast. Perhaps now I have an even greater respect for the tiny granules in that packet that I open and add to the mixture. As I do that, though, I will consider where I can add leaven to the mixture of the kingdom. I may be only one grain of yeast, but that one grain has potential, if I just release it to do its work.
And with the warm bread and cheese I'll enjoy when its done, perhaps just a dash of mustard.....

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 29 -- God, a Psalm and a Perception

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.; My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. -- Psalm 139

I have trouble writing about the Psalms because even after years of reading and studying them, I still don't like them all that much. Ok, call me a heretic. Don't get me wrong, I have respect for them and even a deep love for some of them, but most bother me. There are times I read and I'm inwardly yelling at the psalmist to quit the bellyaching about the enemies and get on with life. I know that the psalmist wanted God to do something about them but at times it reminds me of a whiny child, nagging the parent to get what it wants. Ok, confession time over.

This psalm, though, is on my "like" list, along with parts of 95 that we call the "Venite", 100 (the Jubilate), 150, 121 and a few others.

The psalmist is in a praising mood. His insight this time is that no matter what happens or where he goes, God's already there. Even when he, the psalmist, is invisible, as in his mother's womb, God sees and knows not just of his presence but also his very essence. That kind of thought is really rather comforting, especially since there are times when I'm sure the psalmist felt God was nowhere around and he was really and truly stuck, in trouble or causing it. Ok, I can identify with this as I often feel the same things. I may not always recognize it or acknowledge it, but God is there regardless of whether or not I recognize or acknowledge it.

The part about God's enemies rather jars me as I read through this psalm. It's almost like the psalmist had built up this beautiful hymn of praise and trust and then has to try to get some extra favor from God by declaring himself on God's side, as God's defender and one who desires to protect God's honor. It puzzles me that the psalmist feels that God is unable to protect God's own honor, especially since God can be and is everywhere, seeing all, knowing all.

I guess this is the part that puzzles me about a lot of modern religion, Christian and others. So much pain and bloodshed has been caused by people needing to defend God or God's honor against those who, they felt, failed to respect or honor God in the way they themselves did and do. Utter something that someone takes as a diss and in the wrong place, time and company, I could end up tongueless, handless, skewered, shot, or made very crispy. Even if I express my faith in the boundless nature and power of God, someone else could seemingly, in my eyes anyway, put themselves forth as God's warriors and punish me for not following their precepts and understandingsm. Their God needs protection from the likes of me, even as they proclaim how great their God is. It feels a bit like they have God is in a box, made to require defense because of the need of God's worshippers to render judgment in God's name for perceived crimes against a being they feel is limitless, all-knowing and all-powerful. Seems a bit like a real contradiction to me.

The God I understand is the God of the first part of the psalm, the part before the bit about the enemies creeps in. I believe in the God who surrounds me, covers me, holds me up, and goes before me. The Lorica of St. Patrick has much the same feeling, especially the part:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. (trans. Cecil F. Alexander)

I think maybe the psalmist would appreciate St. Patrick's view. It's a slightly different focus, but it expresses the same kind of embracing care and faith. It isn't God (or Christ) in a box but rather active and present, powerful and protective.

Lord, you were there at my being knit together, be there also at my unraveling.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October 22 - A Letter From a "Godfather"

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that wemay do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your
consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
-- Philemon 1-25

Back in the mists of time, back when I was growing up, there were certain television shows that my parents wouldn't miss. One was Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights and the other was Perry Como. He had a very pleasant voice and interesting people on his program, but the thing I remember most was a tune that had the lyrics, "Letters, we get letters/ we get stacks, stacks, stacks of letters,/dear Perry, would you be so kind/to fill my request and sing the song I like best?"

With Paul, we have letters, we have fragments of letters, and we have mis-attributed letters (or at least, letters from his associates, signed with his name to lend veracity and weight to what they wrote). We have stacks of letters, but we also only have one side of the equation. What provoked (or promoted) the letters we don't really always understand, and so we are left hoping we're reading them right or, at least, not mis-reading them.

James Kiefer, in his biographical sketch , drew the picture of a worried Onesimus hanging over Paul's shoulder, knowing that his fate might well rest on what Paul wrote to the man from whom Onesimus had fled. Meanwhile, Paul writes words that would do Tony Soprano proud. Poor Philemon, no matter what he did he couldn't win. Philemon was a worm on a hook and he probably knew it as soon as he opened the letter.

I wonder -- what would I do if I got a letter like that? I'm not talking about one from the sheriff's tax enforcement force reminding me that if I don't pay my property tax I could lose my house but rather one from a friend and mentor telling me that I need to do something that goes against the grain, to not just forgive someone who has wronged or harmed me but to welcome them back into my house and my life. Oy, that's a tall order, but it's one that is fully compatible with the teachings of Jesus, Paul's boss. Paul's letter to Philemon might have been a more-or-less gentle twist of the arm (or an iron hand in a velvet glove), but Jesus was a bit more direct about forgiveness and the requirement for it.

I wonder how it all turned out. Did Paul ever get to use Philemon's guest room? Did Onesimus receive the welcome Paul wanted for him? Did Philemon maybe fall a little short of killing the fatted calf for his returning slave-now-brother or did he accept that the whole relationship had changed?

Now I have to ask myself -- am I Onesimus or Philemon? Am I the wronged or the one who wronged? Am I asked to be forgiving or to forgive? Am I a slave or am I free?

I just know that if I'm in trouble, I hope Jesus writes as good a letter for me as Paul did for Onesimus. Somehow, I think he would, no matter what. Then all I would have to do would be to live up to the letter.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Cafe  under the title "Living Up to the Letter" on Saturday, October 22, 2011.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


A while ago I was reading in a social-science commentary about high- and low-context societies and how they worked. High-context societies were those where the audience knew the context and customs of the stories and where little explanation was required in order for people to understand and react to them. Low-context societies, it explained, were like those of us in the 21st century reading the Bible stories and looking at them through 21st century eyes. We miss something in the translation, the loss of intimate knowledge of the context and custom. We need a lot of background information, and the scriptures don't provide that depth. Why should they? The scriptures, and the stories from which they came, had very specific audiences with specific experiences and knowledge; they weren't written with the idea that two or three thousand years later people would be reading the same stories and scriptures and using them as guidance but without the intimate detailed information their ancestors possessed.

A friend and I were talking not long afterwards about our parish and how it has changed over the years. She had attended a dinner with a small group of people, some of whom were new to the church and some very old timers. Talk ranged widely but some of it, of course, seemed to be about the church and the people in it. Some of the older members spoke of things that had happened years ago and their contemporaries understood immediately the context and the connection. The newer ones laughed in the right places but clearly were missing something apparent to the older ones. It reminded me of what I had read just a day or two before about the context societies and how the same sort of thing applied. I now find out that it's often used in the realm of international business.

When a person begins to study the Bible, one of the things they need to learn is that there is a world behind each story -- a location, people, events, traditions, a culture, even a language -- that is not familiar to us. To say we can take a story and translate it immediately into modern understanding of the words and concepts is like taking War and Peace (in the original Russian) and turning it into an equivalent of Mother Goose in English. It loses something in the translation and the context behind the characters, action, interaction and plot of the book is missing. It is like seeing not with two eyes but with only one, and that one has a cataract. A businessman who goes into a foreign country without bothering to study not just the economy but the vocabulary and even the social customs will risk making a gaffe so severe that not only does he not get the business he came to woo, but could potentially affect any future relations with other businessmen who might visit that country for a similar purpose.

I have heard it said on more than one occasion that "What it says is what it means." Well, yes -- to a point. A cat is a cat, unless you live with a cat and understand that there's a lot more there than fur, whiskers, four paws and a meow. Say "cat" to someone who doesn't have a relationship with a cat and there is probably some information missing. There have been countless verbal battles (and some actual ones too, no doubt) about whether Jesus was divine, human, or both -- and when he was which. To consider Jesus a shepherd gives an image but if you were a shepherd yourself you would catch a lot of nuances in the image and the words that built the image that John Q. Ordinarycitizen would not only miss but not know he had missed them. In the Bible, a "foot" was not always a --- well,--- foot just like an inn was not like a Motel 6. Only when we dig into the story, image, words or culture do we find that "AHA!" moment that tells us we've actually made a connection with the past and that it is now part of our understanding.

We have to teach our newcomers what our high-context community is about, and that includes our vocabulary, tradition, and customs. We have to learn what they already know about their context community, high or low, and how we can learn to not simply occupy the same pew but actually have a meeting of the minds about who we are, what we are, where we are going and how we are going to proceed. We can talk all day at the same table, but until we can look at the words we are saying and know that the other side understands precisely what we mean by those words, and we learn what those same words mean to them,  we're like paddlers in a canoe, facing opposite directions, both paddling like mad and not moving the canoe an inch.  There must be a shared context.

So how do we share the context?  Like Jesus with his disciples, we keep repeating the same themes using different pictures and different words until, hopefully, they finally get it. And we listen as others do the same for us.

That mutual context, that meeting of the minds, will be when we can finally stop arguing and getting frustrated that the other folks over there just don't get it. We could both use the same context and work together. Wouldn't that be a great change? 

It might just change the context of the whole world -- or it might change just one person. What if that one person was me?  Or you?

October 15 -- Spirit-ual Comfort

Commemoration of Teresa of Avila

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. -- Romans 8:22-27

I grew up in a faith tradition where saints weren't really a major deal unless they said something that the preacher learned about in seminary and it bolstered a point that he wanted to make in his sermon or lesson. I remember meeting kids from other traditions at school and being intrigued that they considered someone other than God and Jesus to kind of be there overhead to take care of all kinds of things. I remember Mama telling the story of going to school in New Orleans with kids who went to kiss the toe of the statue of St. Peter and request good grades on their tests and exams while she went home and studied. The saints, to them, were like part of the family - visited often and consulted frequently. At the time it did make me feel that my faith tradition was definitely lacking in something both interesting and important. Eventually I did graduate to a tradition where saints were a regular part of the faith, and I turn to St. Jude (my personal favorite) or St. Anthony (who has found my cell phone and car keys with some regularity) from time to time with no hesitation.

I'd never really considered Teresa of Avila, though. I could understand nuns and appreciate their calling to the religious life, but Teresa just seemed like one of those pious cards with a coiffed nun, eyes uplifted to heaven in an adoring gaze, hands precisely folded to indicate prayer and looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Then I read James Kiefer's biography and found something interesting. When Teresa was ill she was very diligent and fervent in her prayers, but when she got better she sort of slacked off, sometimes being very "lukewarm." Now this is something with which I can identify.

I pray when I am expected to -- before meals, in church, in meetings/groups where prayer is part of the regular process and often in the middle of a sleepless night -- but when it comes to ordinary life, I'm a bit lax. Oh, I do remember to say "Thank you" (most of the time) when the light stays green just long enough for me to get through the intersection, a parking space opens up right near the door of the store or when something actually works when I don't particularly expect it to. Perhaps that's simplistic, but there you have it. I did it just this afternoon when I was running late to an appointment and that light stayed green just long enough for me to get through the intersection without stopping. But it's when I'm wading through stuff, especially the really deep stuff, that I tend to pray more and express it less clearly. I can't always come up with words to say what I feel I need to say.

I am grateful for the Book of Common Prayer which so often has something that covers what I need, but there are times when I don't have a BCP handy or I'm struggling just to breathe, totally unable to remember that page 810 holds the list of available prayers and page numbers. I believe I do pray at those times, but if you asked me to say what words I was praying or what I was praying for, I don't think I could tell you. That's one reason the passage from Romans seems so important to me.

These are times when I rely on the Spirit to sort out what is going on and send it on in some sort of proper, logical, reasonable order, or, at least, that's what it feels like it should be. I feel that Spirit understands the twists and turns of my female mind and makes sense of it (which Lord knows, a lot of people, even females, can't always do!). Perhaps what I need to learn from Teresa is to persevere in prayer, in health as in sickness, with full attention, full intention and full participation.

I'm never going to be in the running for a holy card of my own, no uplifed eyes, beatific expression and properly folded hands, but perhaps a bit more attention to the prayer area might help with more than hopeless cases, lost causes and missing keys and cell phone. I just know I trust that the Spirit is there, assisting, guiding and, I guess, being a real part of the "family."

It's a comfort, it really is. I think Teresa found that out as well.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Secrets and Shame

I've had a love/hate relationship with Oprah Winfrey for years. I've watched her show avidly and then for long periods I avoided it like the plague. Recently, though, I've found that I'm watching and I'm learning. That, in my humble opinion, is never a bad thing.

Tonight's program dealt with secrets -- shameful things we keep locked away because we're afraid that if anybody knew they would reject us, think less of us, or find us fakes and frauds, living a life that isn't authentically us but rather a scripted show where we're on stage in the spotlight but then retire to the dressing room to take off the makeup and glitz.  They have their idea of who we are based on what they know and observe, but there's possibly someone else down underneath that is a stranger to them -- and the shame in us wants to keep it that way.

Twelve-step groups have a program of progressive uncovering of unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and replacing them with authenticity, openness and honesty. One of the really hard things is doing a personal inventory, sitting down with pencil and paper and "Making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves," including all the things we've done that we've hidden from the world and buried as deeply as we can possibly make them. The next step, though, is just as hard if not harder: "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." I did those steps, several times, if truth be told. The problem was that I wasn't willing to do the next steps after that, to be willing to ask God to remove my defects and then actually giving them over to God and releasing myself from them. I thought I had, I'd tried to, but I never really did.

Tonight while watching Oprah I had an "AHA" moment -- I have to let go of shame that I've been holding in for things I've done. I have to admit what I've done and resolve that I will work hard to keep from repeating those serious lapses in judgment. What I don't have to do is tell everybody in the world what that shame is. If one other person knows, then I have shared it and if that person accepts me just the same, then I don't really need to carry the shame. If I can share my shame with several people and their reaction is the same, then why am I hanging on to it?  Even if I tell a whole bunch of people and some of them don't accept what I say and reject me because of what I shared, then it's their problem. I'm probably not someone they would want to know anyway -- and they are probably not people I really want to associate with either.

I also have to tell God about them, and I have to be willing to lay them in God's lap and let them stay there. I don't need them any more and I don't want them any more. Why should I keep on picking them up?  I never picked up the dropped clothes in my room as a kid (which I should have done) yet I keep picking up garbage that I should have gotten rid of some time ago.

There are people out in the world who know some of my secrets and shame, and who aren't adverse to using a pick axe to "expose" me to the world as a fraud and a fake. Having had that happen on more than one occasion, it has caused me to internalize the shame and be reluctant to let people see me, warts and all. I will be honest, there are a lot of things I've done that I'm not proud of, in fact, I'm very much ashamed of having done them. Those I have trusted with those secrets have not rejected me, though, and, indeed, have been rocks that have given me strength to keep going when I thought I couldn't.

The long and short of it is that in order for me to heal completely, I need to acknowledge what I've done,  give it to God, and once and for all, let go of it! 

That's a lot of insight for one evening. I think I need a nap -- or better yet, a night of sleep with maybe some dreams to add a bit more clarity?  We'll see.

Monday, October 10, 2011

When an insight comes...

sometimes it comes from odd places. That's the beauty of epiphanies, they show up almost unbidden and totally unexpected but once they are there, it's like a spotlight shining on what had been a dark little corner and now there is something significant that has been hiding there.

I was poking around on Oprah's website this evening. Quite often I find quotes that resonate with me, or suggestions that feel like something I should try or the like. Today I found a "Loneliness Quiz" that had been in her magazine in 2006. It asked a series of questions such as "How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?" or
"How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?" and I was asked to rate the question with never, rarely, sometimes, and always. Of the 10 questions, I rated 7 of them as "rarely" and only 3 as "sometimes". No nevers, no always, just rarely or sometimes. It surprised me when I scored a 23, and told I had a "high level of loneliness". The average score was 20.

Reading through the questions, though, I thought of some of the questions to which I had answered "rarely" -- like rarely feeling starved for company (with four cats? ) or waiting for people to call or write (I have a phone that dials out as well as lets people dial in -- and I have email that goes both ways too). I like being alone. I actually WANT to go home, can't wait to get there, most days when I leave the office. There are times I go in my front door at 5:30 on Friday evening and don't go any further than my patio until 7:30 on Monday morning. It doesn't bother me; I really do relish it.

The question that really popped the "AHA!" moment was "How often do you feel completely alone?" I was surprised that I could answer that as "rarely."  It does happen now and again, but I realized that I don't need physical company to feel like I'm not alone.

There have been a lot of times in my life when I felt completely alone, like right after the Spousal Unit died nearly 4 years ago. I had known it would happen sooner or later but knowing the possibility is there and realizing the possibility has become an actuality are two very different things. I had friends, of course, who were supportive, but I was in my head, trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel, the right direction to go and not being sure what or where that was. Looking back, I remember how lost I felt and how incapable of making decisions that I knew I had to make. Luckily people helped me along and now I can feel grateful to them for loaning me their strength when I had none of my own.

Now I realize that, the boys and Phoebe aside, I'm never really alone, even when there is nobody else in my house but us. I have friends who are as close as the other end of the phone line whenever I need them. Even if it isn't a good time for them to talk, it's okay because the connection is there and they will get back to me as soon as possible. I have friends I can call and suggest lunch or an early dinner and if they can't do it then, we just plan some other time and that's okay too. When I'm facing something I can't seem to work through myself or just need a little support, I know those friends, scattered across the US, are there for me and as close as a thought, a phone call, a card or an email.

And then I realized that there was One who is always here, no matter what, and that's God. I may not be conscious of it, but somehow I know God's there and I feel supported. It feels a bit weird, to be honest. I mean, I've been Christian most of my life and I've been taught about this, have even felt it from time to time. This time, though, is different. This is a certainty, something like a slap on the forehead. I'm still exploring the feeling, but I know it is genuine. I should answer "Never" to all those questions on that quiz.

In fact, I should say that I am probably one of the least lonely people you'll ever meet. I think that doctor who did the quiz might need to recalibrate. It's possible to be alone without being lonely.

God and good friends make that a certainty.

Quiz, by Daniel Russell, PhD, found  here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

October 8 - An Invitation to Hope

The commemoration of William Dwight Porter Bliss and Richard Theodore Ely

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
-- Isaiah 61:1-4

Many passages of scripture speak of God raining down punishment on disobedient people, individuals, families, tribes or nations. Depending on one's church's emphasis and theology, those might be passages that are heard often -- or almost never. Some relish those passages, particularly in times of uncertainty or disaster. It is proof to them that God is enraged at something and it's all the fault of those who are now experiencing whatever uncertainty or disaster that is going on at the time. Of course, if it happens to be themselves who are suffering, well, then it's God's test of faith and prayers go up for the strength to pass that test. It's all in how you look at the situation.

While it is necessary to look at the tough passages from time to time, it's always a relief to look at one that speaks of hope, reconciliation and restoration, especially in times of stress, anxiety or fear. Whether one is living in the ruins of a city destroyed by flood or earthquake, through a personal medical problem, a family crisis or the economic crisis of country and its trickle-down effect on individuals and families, there are definitely times when Isaiah's words are needed as a reminder of what God seems to have in mind.

Something I noticed about Isaiah's words, though-- they are not spoken to those who have much but rather to those who have little. The words don't speak to the status quo or those who espouse a theology of limited resources and who are busily accumulating their own wealth and security while trying hard to fend of any attempt to even the playing field with those who have less and actually need more. There are no words here saying it is okay to look out for oneself and let the other guy take care of him/herself. When Isaiah speaks of "the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God," the vengeance will be on those who have laid the burdens, not on those who bear them.

There is one other thing about Isaiah's words. To me, it feels like they are not just words about what God has in mind or will do, but it is also an invitation for those hearing the words to participate in bringing all this about. If we all just waited for God to swoop down and, in the blink of an eye, right all the wrongs, we would have learned nothing except that we have no responsibility in the matter; we can and do make a mess and then someone else has the job of cleaning it up, including God. But is that the way it is supposed to be? Is that what we teach our children to do or do we inform them that they threw all their toys on the floor and now it is time for them to pick them up and put them away?

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

God is inviting. What will be our response, individually and collectively?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Cafe Saturday, October 8, 2011.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thinking About Cemeteries

The other night in our EfM group we were doing spiritual autobiographies. One of the questions we asked each other was to name a sacred space, a holy place, that was special and why. Along with responses such as "in the mountains," "by the ocean or river", "places like the National Cathedral" there was one that sparked some conversation  -- cemeteries. Never having thought of it that way, it made me stop and think about the sacredness of places I'd visited over the course of my life but never recognized as holy.

I grew up in a large family of people much older than myself, so from my earliest memories, I recall the at least annual or biannual funerals in the family, complete with church services, trips to the cemetery for the interment, then back to the home of the deceased for what passed for a family reunion. The cemetery was a place visited from time to time, to the family cemetery much more often after Mama died, when we would go sometimes weekly, sometimes a little less often, to visit the grave and leave flowers or plant new ones or tidy up a bit. I would wander thorough the cemetery, a little family one next to a little Baptist church near where my adoptive father grew up. There were familiar names of aunts and uncles I had known in my lifetime and who were now together with others of the family who had died before my time. Some of them went back to the previous century, and their tombstones told more of their story than merely stating their names or dates of birth and death. Sometimes I would ask about who this or that person was, but often I just wandered, reading the headstones and following the line of virgin forest that marked the boundary of the cemetery. Not all the relatives ended up there, but enough of them did.

There was another cemetery that I visited often, the cemetery of the church in the little town in which I grew up. Like the family cemetery, the church stood at the edge of the graveyard and provided a context to the whole. This cemetery, however, was much older and a bit bigger. One of the graves belonged to a signer of the Declaration of Independence; he had a brick and mortar vault a bit above ground with a heavy stone lid that covered the vault. The inscription was long, giving information about his life and his family as well as the requisite dates, and so worn that the town had the inscription copied in bronze and attached to the lid so that even strangers could read and know the history of the man whose bones lay inside. There were all sorts and shapes of grave markers -- stone crosses, crooked carved slabs, more modern granite markers for husbands and wives, the occasional shape of a stone urn, and even a few carved animals and cherubs. It was a place that had a history and a feel of history that was palpable, but until the other night, I never really thought of it as a sacred space or holy  ground. A thin place, perhaps, but not the other two description.

There are several large cemeteries not many miles from where I sit right now. Most of them are like big parks with lush grass, occasional trees and flowering bushes, an occasional fountain and individual and identical flat little concrete bases with small brass plaques noting the name of the deceased, the years of birth and death. During the conversation that arose after class, the person who originally brought up the idea of cemeteries as sacred spaces remarked that their parklike-ness was often the only bit of nature that people had to visit in large cities. They were islands of calm and quiet and serenity in the midst of a concrete and steel ocean. As I thought about his description, it occurred to me that well, yes, that was one way of looking at it, and I could appreciate that viewpoint. I just couldn't share it totally.

The large cemeteries we have now are, in my opinion, show places. They seem more like warehouses for the dead than holy ground consecrated to the memory of and eternal rest of those interred there. They feel sterile, without character or even the charm of other, older, less uniform burial areas. They are nice to look at, but they aren't places where people's stories are told for passersby to read, note and, perhaps, pray for the deceased one. They are much like the housing developments we have now -- clusters of identical or nearly-identical size, shape, color, roofing, lot size and decor. It's hard to tell one house from another -- or one grave from another.

There are cemeteries back home that are little more than mass graves in clearings in the woods that are only marked by a large white cross and a sign noting that here lie X number of French or British or American soldiers from the Battle of Yorktown. That feels so much more sacred to me than the large and popular burial park close to downtown Phoenix. Even Arlington Cemetery, with its uniform grave markers, tell more about those who lie under the markers and who help to make it a very sacred space. It's odd. Perhaps it is more than uniformity (or lack thereof) and well-manicured grounds that make a cemetery a sacred space.

Perhaps it is the intent, the context of the cemetery that encourages it to be considered a sacred space. I only know that this is something I will need to sit with for a while, perhaps in the little Pioneer cemetery not far from here with the whitewashed vaults and stones, the murals on the walls that mark the boundary between it and the world of the living outside, and the dirt that surrounds each grave. It may not be as old, but somehow I think it will be a place where, dirt or not, I will feel I should take off my shoes before walking there.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October 1 - Choosing

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead. -- Matt 8:18-22

Jesus needed to get away to recharge his batteries, but even when he tried to make a polite but firm retreat, there are always a couple of hangers-on who needed to have their questions answered right now, sorry, can't wait until tomorrow. The answers they got, though, were probably nowhere near what answers they expected, but then, Jesus was kind of an unexpected guy with an unexpected message and way of looking at things.

Jesus was an itinerant - a person who roamed about, migrating from place to place. No little brick house with a white picket fence in Galilee or pied-à-terre in a nice neighborhood in Jerusalem for the season, no place to settle, put down roots and become part of the community. Following him meant accepting that kind of lifestyle, definitely an alternative lifestyle, that might not be all that scandalous in those days, given the travels of traders and prophets and the shepherds, but which would definitely raise eyebrows today.

Most of the itinerants we see today are people not very well-thought of: homeless people, undocumented immigrants, migrant workers. It's not that they like being homeless, rootless, overlooked, spoken of slightingly but otherwise ignored. They aren't rock stars; they don't require a lavish lifestyle with occasional retreats to rehab centers or private islands. They simply want what all of us want -- a place to call home, running water, electricity, food in the fridge and safety for themselves and their families. For the homeless, those dreams and hopes are often too far out of reach. Home is often a cardboard box under a bridge, running water is a water fountain six blocks away, food is found in soup kitchens and food banks, and safety is a pure illusion. They truly have no place to lay their heads. It isn't even that they don't want to follow Jesus. Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but before they can accept the kingdom they have to feel able to leave hell.

Perhaps this wasn't hell to the disciples who did choose to follow Jesus. Running water, electricity, supermarkets, soup kitchens -- none of those existed. Jesus didn't spend nights in Motel 6, eat at the Four Seasons or even McDonald's, or anything resembling a constant state of comfort and ease. Following Jesus was certainly uncertain, but there were those who did choose to walk that road.

"Let the dead bury the dead"? Oh, now I get it. Those who look to their own comfort and safety but who ignore those who are poor, sick, homeless, widowed, orphaned or imprisoned for little or no cause, are still breathing but have a dead place inside them. They're interested in their own welfare but are far from actively concerned with the welfare of others. This goes fundamentally opposite to the message Jesus brought and emphasized, a message that the prophets brought long before Jesus' incarnation. Let those who are dead inside take care of those who are physically dead because those whose body has ceased to pulse with life have no need for compassion or assistance, except enough reverence to place the body in a place where it could rest undisturbed.

I wonder what happened to that scribe and that follower. The story stops just at the moment of greatest impact and the reader is left to wonder what became of those two questioners. Did they follow or did they return to their homes? Did duty to family take precedence over duty to fulfill God's expectations? Did they choose the kingdom or the little house in Galilee?

Which one would I choose?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, October 1, 2011.