Sunday, November 27, 2011

Great and Noble Tasks

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble. -- Helen Keller

I had a lot of heroes when I was growing up, people I read about and admired and dreamed about being just like them, or as like them as possible. I read a lot of books and so met a lot of people who could, and sometimes did, serve as role models in various ways: Joan of Arc, Pocahontas,Sacajawea, guiding , queens Elizabeth I and II, Martha Washington, Anne Frank and Helen Keller. They were strong women in different ways, some making a big splash in the world, some making far-reaching waves by no more than a fingertip touching the surface of the water. None of them had an easy life although some have led very privileged ones, some led very long lives while others lives were tragically short. Still, they all made an impact on my life in some way, as have others. They did great and noble tasks but also small tasks as if they were great and noble.

As a kid, I wanted to be a nurse (until I found I really didn't like dealing with things like bedpans, emesis basins and gore), a writer and a teacher. I loved music and I wanted to sing in a great chorale like the Huddersfield Choral Society or the Roger Wagner Chorale. I liked singing but never really wanted to be a soloist; I loved the multilayer sound of singing in parts and loved singing harmony. I loved playing the piano but it was more for my enjoyment than performance. I told the preacher's kids stories that I made up or wrote and it seemed to amuse them. Most of my writing, though, consisted of a lot of very, very long letters, definitely not the stuff of a best-seller or even worth keeping beyond the time it took to read them. Oh, well.

Now that I'm over threescore and five years, I'm still looking for the great and noble task. I've taught school (briefly-- until I found out I liked teaching adults more than kids), I've worked at a museum, in a bookstore (oh, temptation!), several large construction sites, a construction management home office, Knott's Berry Farm, a short stint in a fencing company, as a temporary worker several times, several jobs at the local newspaper (which I still do), a clerk at an outpatient substance abuse clinic, as a security guard, an editor and transcriptionist for a few autobiographies of other people, and a church secretary (twice). I may have done some small things well, but certainly no great and noble deeds. Co-mentoring a couple of online EfM groups is probably the closest I get to something even remotely great and noble, but then, I'm not dead yet. Where there's life, there's hope -- I hope.

Somehow, I don't feel I'm really cut out for the great and noble. It seems I need to concentrate on doing the small things as if they were great and noble. When you know people are watching, it's often easier to be a little more particular about how a job gets done, but I have found immense joy in a couple of things that I did because I felt they needed to be done and nobody noticed them at all. I may not have done them perfectly, but they did achieve results, and I could feel I accomplished something. I've sung in choirs that pulled off great performances and the high was incredible. I've been part of a large construction management company that brought several huge construction projects in on time and under budget -- and I could say I was part of that team. I've written things that a few people have complimented and for that I feel a little pride, but I remind myself that there were typos in them or I phrased something badly that I could have done better. Still, I can enjoy the fact that someone read and liked the pieces.

I doubt I'll ever go to Africa or Indonesia as a missionary, will become a famous writer of best-sellers, sing in a choir of professional caliber, teach a class in a post-secondary situation, invent the next great invention or discover the cure for the world's greatest killer disease. What i have to learn to do, even at this late date, is to do the small things the best I can do them and to try to find satisfaction in them. A blog post may not seem like much, but if I craft it the best I can with proper grammar (well, except when I need bad grammar for emphasis -- or by accident) and spelling (knowing when to override spell-check), then whether it does a great and noble thing becomes insignificant. A thoughtful subject for theological reflection in my EfM groups may not be as great as donating a million dollars to build a school or water treatment plant in a part of the world where it is sorely needed, but it's the contribution I can make. Being respectful to customers at my job (or very civil to some of the more frothy ones who are complaining) may not be a huge thing, but if I can listen patiently to something I've heard at least 200 times in the last month, or take the edge off an upset customer with a joke or pun, I'll do it and gladly.

I need to focus on those little things. It's my best chance to do something good and noble, if not great.

November 26 - Naming

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. -- Matthew 20:29-34 (NRSV)

Three of the four gospels record similar healings of blind men (Mk. 10:46-52, Lk. 18:45-53). Matthew even puts another healing of a blind man (9:27-30). What I found interesting was that the stories had so many similarities even though there were differences -- one man, two men, surrounded by a crowd, on a roadside etc. One thing common to all of them (other than their healings, of course) was that each time, Jesus was not just called by name but by title, "Son of David."

Names were important. Knowing the name of something or someone gave a person a certain power, authority or even just a kind of equality with and over the named. Doctors quite often refer to patients by their first name, ostensibly to promote a feeling of comfort, ease and "I'm going to be your friend and help you out of whatever is bothering you" but seldom do patients return the favor. It has to be "Doctor" so-and-so and that puts the patient in a more inferior position. Using "Jesus" would have acknowledged their equality, "Lord" put them in the position of petitioners, but by adding "Son of David" they appealed to not only Jesus' ability to heal but his authority. Since all the stories contain this detail, it must have been a very important one.

In England and France during the Middle Ages and a bit beyond, those afflicted with a disease called scrofula, a tubercular swelling of the lymph nodes, primarily in the neck area, called it the "King's Evil." They believed that only the touch of the monarch could cure it. Kings (and queens) held public ceremonies where literally hundreds of people would be touched individually by the monarchs and then presented with a coin called an "angel" as part of their healing. Even though David did not have such powers and Jesus' power came from God rather than from the anointing that would have made him a terrestrial ruler, still, appealing to the ruler or monarch or his descendant would acknowledge the power and authority, and demonstrate their faith in his ability and power to heal.

When we pray, we are told that whatever we ask in Jesus' name we will receive it (Matt. 18:19, Jn. 14:13-14). That's our justification for using "through Jesus Christ, our Lord" as part of our collects and prayers, whether we are asking for something or giving thanks. Unlike the blind men, we don't ask for help in the name of the Son of David because, as Christians, we acknowledge that the power comes directly from God.

Most of the requests I make of God, Jesus and the Spirit are about things that are important to me but not all that much an impact on the greater scheme of things, as the world would view it. I ask for help finding my keys, getting through an unpleasant situation, help for a friend or something on that order. For the blind men, it was asking for their very lives - their ability to be productive members of their families rather than dependents, their ability to take their place in worship and move about without having to rely on pure memory or the kindness of a neighborly guide. Theirs were important requests, for themselves and their families anyway, and so they pulled out all the stops, all the titles of Jesus that they could. For their reward, they were healed, made able to return to a full, normal life.

 For me, I often find my keys, get through the situation more or less intact or see my friend helped. The answer isn't always "Yes," but I do try to remember to say "Thank you" when it does. Maybe my faith isn't as strong as theirs or my need as great. Still, if it doesn't work out, I look at it not as "No," but as "Well, it's like this..."  I don't see prayer as a test for either me or God and the result being the grade on my report card. It's more an exercise in trust, in humility. Asking for help is often very hard, but is anything ever really improved by trying to do it all myself?  I may never ask the "Son of David" for assistance, but I will have to think more about asking at all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, November 26, 2011.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

November 25 - Doing What Momma Says...

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, .‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; .then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ -- Matthew 20:17-28 (NRSV)

Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his upcoming trial and death. I can almost hear them give the usual platitude, "Oh, don't talk that way. You aren't going to die for a long time yet. You're still a young man." Jesus, of course, knew better but the disciples weren't ready yet to pay attention to such talk. I have the same sort of problem myself. I don't really want to think about death and crucifixion just as I'm preparing to enter the season of Advent, the preparation time leading up to the celebration of his birth. This reading sort of feels like putting the cart before the horse.
But then I read about the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. She's a bit brazen in her request but then, what mother doesn't want to see her children get ahead in the world?  Jesus' own mother Mary rather nudged him into the miracle business at that wedding, didn't she?  "Go ahead, son, it's all right. In fact, it would be a mitzvah to save the family the embarrassment of running out of wine. You can do it, you know you can."
James' and John's mother is another one of those nameless women in the Bible who play a part but not be important enough to merit identification by anything other than her position as somebody's wife or somebody's mother or even somebody's daughter. There are so many like that in scripture yet in many cases, they are the pivot around which the story unfolds. John and James' mother is one of those. She produced the boys and she's going to do whatever she can to help them get ahead in a very competitive arena, that of favored disciples over the other ten. Of course, the ten are having none of that, and even Jesus turns her down. The places aren't his to give out; God will have that right. Still, Momma can't be blamed for trying. It would also be some prestige to her to be able to say, "My boys are important men, they're sitting on either side of the Rabbi."  It's a lot like mothers today who brag about "My son the doctah" or "My son the lawyer, priest or rabbi." Also, if you don't try, you'll never know if you would have been successful or not.
James and John seemed to feel they could fulfill the requirements of the job of right- and left-hand men, but Jesus doesn't quite see it that way. He tries, gently, to put the job in perspective, but, as usual, they don't seem to catch on. Boy, I can see myself in the middle of that situation. I may think I know what's required and what's what, but when push comes to shove, I don't have a clue, any more than the disciples seemed to.
Jesus lays it out for them:  if you want to be the leader, you must be willing to be the servant. If you want to be great, you must humble yourself and wait on those who may sit lower in the table seating than you. That's a hard thing to accept. Once I get to the head table, I (and probably a lot of other people) don't want to go sit down near the kitchen door with its heat and steam and constant back-and-forth traffic. Once I get to the head of the line, I don't want to step aside to let somebody, child, elder, disabled person or even just someone a rung or two below me on the ladder go ahead. I don't have a Momma to put in a few words, but somehow I don't think that would matter much in the long run. What would matter would be my willingness to stop thinking of the top of the ladder (or either side of the main speaker or top leader) and start thinking about how to do what needs to be done to benefit the whole ladder-full of people.
Then it occurs to me, what else is the upcoming Advent season about but the coming of the Messiah, the one who came to serve the whole world even though he was the apex of the discipleship triangle. He was like the original "undercover boss" who shed the three-piece suits, put on work clothes and went out into the company to learn what the ordinary people, those far from the corner office with the window and the mahogany boardroom table, who manned the machinery, materials, conveyors and finished products knew and could teach him. Jesus, the guy who was born in a stable and whose mother rather pushed him into the limelight, was not only the leader but the servant of those who needed healing, comfort or words of wisdom. 
Maybe Jesus would have eventually done his first miracle and started accumulating disciples who wanted to sit next to him in the boardroom of the disciple world, and without the nudging of his mother. He couldn't say yes to James' and John's mother but he couldn't say no to his own. He couldn't practice political power when his whole mission was to serve God and his fellow man.
I'd probably do just about anything to help my son get ahead in the world, but at this time in our lives, he's made his own way and is doing it his way, without Momma's interference. He knows I'm proud of him, no matter what, just as I guess Mary and James' and John's mother were. As a mother, its our job, just as surely as it was Jesus' job to teach and to serve.
His momma must have been very proud of him, even as he portrayed the most humble of servants.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcoal Cafe on Friday, November 25, 2011.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 19 - A Challenge from Paul

Commemoration of Elizabeth of Hungary

Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between our present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’ -- 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Paul is writing to a group who has done well in many things, praiseworthy things that benefit their community and the mission Paul has set for them. One thing remained, that being to  finish what was started and finish it with enthusiasm, love generosity, and, most of all, wisdom.

One way of describing a generous person is to say that they would "give you the shirt off their back". Generally, people take that to mean that the person can be counted on to give generously of whatever they have that someone else needs. Of course, they might not literally remove their shirt in public if someone else needed it (although there are people who have done that in emergencies) or give up their house to a homeless family, but if it is possible to give without depriving themselves too severely, they are the folks who can be depended upon to give.

The generosity has to be genuine but also has to be tempered with wisdom. I have heard people urging others to "Give until it hurts." To a certain extent that might be a worthy goal, but that isn't what Paul is telling the Corinthians to do. Paul suggests a balance: giving from the abundance but not so much that the givers themselves become persons with needs. Maybe that sounds a bit selfish, but in Paul's world, there were only so many resources to go around. What one person had more of meant that someone else had less. Paul is suggesting that there be equality, the rich sharing from their abundance to help make the lives of those less fortunate better.

Paul also asks the Corinthians to finish what they started. It is so easy to dive into something very enthusiastically when the need is first presented but unless the situation is one where a quick fix works, enthusiasm can wane until it dries up altogether. The need might still exist, but contributors have found new enthusiasms and fresh needs to try to address. In the case of a disaster, the  need recognition is immediate and usually extensive, so charities and individuals rush in to try to fill those needs. Yet as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer charities and individuals continuing to work to bring the world of the disaster back to a place of normalcy and safety. New disasters have occurred and help is needed to begin that recovery process. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it seems it would take the wisdom of Solomon to decide what to do, when and how.

The questions I have for myself are how do I respond to Paul's challenge? How do I respond to the needs of the world with generosity but also with wisdom? And, probably most importantly, am I willing to sustain my giving until the problem no longer exists or am I going to quit before I get to the finish line?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, November 19, 2011.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

November 12 - Peter and Pastoral Ministry

Commemoration of Charles Simeon

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. -- John 21:15-17 (NRSV)

I was looking for something else and ran across this passage in the search. Oddly enough, it fit what I was looking for far better than the original object of the search. I think I hear God chuckle whenever that happens.

Who or what is it that Jesus is asking Peter about? Does Peter love him more than what? His boat? His family? His possessions? His friends? His fellow disciples? Whatever it is, Peter says that yes, he does. This happens three times, recalling the three denials Peter made on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial. Jesus then gives him three instructions: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. They sound similar but there can be a multitude of facets to them. And oddly enough, Jesus gives these commands to feed his sheep and lambs right after Peter had finished breakfast. Teachable moments can come at any time but it's easier to absorb the lesson when one isn't listening to one's borborygmi.

How I understand Jesus' message to feed his sheep and lambs can depend on how I perceive the message through denominational lenses. The church of my youth would say it meant telling me of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, my own complete unworthiness of such a sacrifice, and the need for me to acknowledge Jesus as my personal savior, thus ensuring my place in heaven. The church of my later years tells me it means to look after not just the spiritual well-being of others but also their physical well-being with food, shelter, safety and clean environments. I won't argue with either as I believe both have a part of the message.

All living things need feeding and tending, some more than others. Sheep aren't particularly bright although the lambs are endearing. Sheep have to be herded to where the pastures are, kept away from cliffs and precipices, protected from predators and often assisted during birth. They have to learn to accept the shepherd as part of the flock, allow him to come close enough to get them out of trouble, shear them or lead them to a new pasture. It is the shepherd's job to tend those sheep, the job of a pastor.

Commentaries point out that this is Peter's call to pastoral ministry, to care for those Jesus would leave behind and to lead the group of disciples Jesus has formed, keeping them safe, on track and fed spiritually. I wonder, was Peter really the best Jesus had to choose from? Was Peter really the pastoral type, or was he more of a person who operated by fits and starts, thick as rocks at times and sometimes so insightful?  I can see him going along, doing the right thing and then getting distracted in the middle of it, leaving the sheep to get along as best they can until Peter recalls what it was he was doing before he interrupted himself. Peter couldn't wear Jesus' mantle because he wasn't Jesus, but evidently Jesus felt Peter would do the best he could as a fully-human,impetuous, often flawed pastor to the flock, feeding and tending it, being present at the birthing of new members of the flock, teaching them by word and example as Jesus had, and caring for them to the best of his ability.

The call to feed and tend the sheep and lambs isn't only for shepherds and pastors. Peter was never formally ordained in the way we understand it today. I believe each person who is a member of Jesus' flock is called to pastoral ministry by virtue of their baptismal covenant. Some may be called to feed others in soup kitchens, feeding or hydration stations, or as part of their ministry at their regular jobs. Some are called to tend the flock as priests and pastors, public safety officers, librarians, judges or legislators. Everyone, though, has a ministry to do, whether they recognize it as such or not. Not all ministry is done by ordained people nor should it be. Ministry, pastoral ministry, can be a calling for many who will never attend seminary or seek ordination. Pastoral ministry can be simply a way of people tending each other's needs, seeing Jesus in each other, and being present to the opportunity placed before them.

The question I must ask myself today is, have I been a shepherd to someone today? Who has been a shepherd for me? What difference have we made in the world? Could I face Jesus and say that yes, I loved him more than anyone or anything?  Could I tell him who I have fed or tended today in his name? I wonder how I could respond.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, November 12, 2011, under the title "Feed My Sheep."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

November 12 - Denial and Stumbling Blocks

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ --Matthew 16:21-28
Poor Peter. He often has a good heart but sometimes I wonder what was between his ears. This time he is trying to deny what Jesus is saying about having to go, suffer and die. Peter was a great deny-er, it seems. This time he went far enough that Jesus called him a stumbling block to him and had his mind on the wrong things like earthly human feelings rather than heavenly truths, revelations and prophecies.

I guess it's normal to try to minimize or negate what I interpret as a negative thought in a friend. I find that I usually have two reactions, one being on the order of "Oh, no, it can't be that serious, can it?" or the other, "I know what you mean as I had that same kind of thing just recently." It drives me nuts when someone does that to me (which some do more often than others) so I know my protestations and denials must do the same to them. I mean it to be comforting but often falls very short of that. Looking at Peter, I can see where it could truly be a stumbling block for someone facing something dire and struggling to accept the reality of it. I don't want to think of something awful going wrong in the lives of friends, so I know Peter didn't want it to be so for Jesus either. Maybe Peter and I are more alike than sometime I want to admit.

Peter and I are stuck at the "feeling" level, the level where the heart and emotions often override any mental or logical reaction. Peter can't think about losing his mentor and friend, I can't think of losing those in my life either.

Jesus had a reminder in the passage, a reminder that may seem harsh but it sometimes takes a harsh word or gesture to get the point across. "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me..." Words like that are like a hard slap to the face. There are times when that kind of blow is the only way to get someone's attention and get their mind in the present, not reeling with shock or stuck in denial. Still, one wants to be kind, to be compassionate and empathetic, to be a positive presence, not a stumbling block.

Deny yourself, follow me, lose your life if need be... rough words. How to apply it to my life as it is now, how to keep myself from being a stumbling block? There is a place for silence, for just being present when someone tells me of a hard or sad or impossible situation in their life. They may just need an ear, not a solution and certainly not a denial that such a thing is possible or could happen. Stop putting my own needs and wishes forward when someone else needs the air time. Think of the human Jesus laying out the situation to his disciples and having them support him, not deny his words. It's hard, but it can be done.

It must be done -- with God's help.

HallowThankMas, a Reflection

I went to church one Thanksgiving morning some years ago and heard a sermon by a very wise woman, a retired priest, who spoke simply but eloquently about what has become a trend in our modern society that has been born in the lifetimes of most of us  HallowThankMas.

You won't find the official acknowledgement of HallowThankMas on any catalog or advertised in any store, but if you look, you'll find it. It is the period from just before Halloween, when all the stores are packed with pumpkins, costumes and decorations suitable to a season featuring weird creatures, horrific sights and dark things that are usually shunned the rest of the year. It extends through Thanksgiving, which is overshadowed by the introduction of Christmas decorations (some of which made tentative appearances not long after Labor Day), strings of lights and trees, increasing to a frenzy on Christmas Eve. In HallowThankMas the seasons all run together like a modern painting with swirls of color but no discernable pattern or change from one area to another. It can be quite unsettling.

It used to be, in my memory anyway, that the Halloween season started about the first of October and ended on Halloween itself.  Thanksgiving decors featuring pilgrims, more pumpkins, colored leaves and turkeys went up immediately on November 1 and remained until Thanksgiving Day, after which Christmas became the celebrated season, pumpkins and pilgrims retired in favor of elves, brightly colored balls and tinsel. You knew when you were then. Each season got its share of attention and could be enjoyed fully for itself, not for what it was leading to. It isn't that way any more, and it's a shame.

Our church, among a few others, doesn't officially recognize the presence of Christmas until the evening of December 24th with the overwhelmingly joyous, colorful, fragrant, and glorious services of Christmas Eve. Advent has led up to it, taking the step-by-step path from the first Sunday in Advent and the lighting of the first candle to the time when candles blazed all over the place, incense makes its appearance, and the reflective blue or penitential purple of Advent turns to white and gold in celebration. Still, Advent gives me (and us) time to think, to reflect on what is really going to be celebrated -- and when. There are years when the 4th Sunday of Advent in the morning becomes Christmas eve in the evening, but that's okay. We have prepared for it. We know where we are in the church year, and it's a comforting, comfortable place, very much like the inward contemplations a pregnant woman  as she caresses the bulge in her body that shelters a new life that will soon enter the world, including the world of HallowThankMas.

HallowThankMas is a frantic time, and what's more, Christmas Day no sooner arrives than all traces of it are wiped away (except for the sale table) and Valentines, hearts and frilly nightwear appear. On Christmas Day culture has already moved into a season that lasts nearly as long as HallowThankMas. Fortunately the church allows us to celebrate Christmas for a full two weeks, even though the world outside the church walls has already moved on. We begin singing Christmas carols just as the commercial (and much of the rest of the non-commercial ) world packs up the "Ho ho ho" CDs and breaks out with whatever strikes the store's fancy (or the chain's, for that matter).

I think that if I had one wish, I'd slow the world down just a little and turn back the hourglass to the time before HallowThankMas became part of our culture. Let the kids enjoy the anticipation of being little ghoulies and ghosties before we tumble them into pilgrim outfits and the stores start reminding them that Santa Claus is comin' to town. I would like to enjoy November as November, not as anticipation of overindulgence on Thanksgiving Day and the overindulgence in shopping on Black Friday (which, if I read it right, has been replaced this year by after-Veterans-Day-sales). I'd ban Christmas carols and decorations until at LEAST the day after Thanksgiving and to remain  up until at least New Year's Day if not the feast of the Epiphany. I'd like to have the reminder that Christmas is about more than how much a family can cram under a tree or how quickly they can move from one season to another, and how chubby little cherubs on Christmas cards holding harps and wearing halos turn into chubby little cherubs holding bows and arrows and aim at heart-shaped targets.

I often think of Anne, the priest who spoke that day. She had it right, in my opinion, I never pass a year since I heard that sermon that I don't remember her introduction of the season of HallowThankMas to me and the rest of the congregation. It's made me more aware of a lot of things, including how I and the culture in which I live see time -- and how rushed it becomes. She made me see that it's time for me, anyway, to slow down, take each season as it comes, and let each season have its time before moving to the next.

That's an insight I can use all year -- although I will admit I do look forward to the introduction of Peeps for Easter about the time Lent starts......   Oh, well. I'll work on it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

November 5 - Stormy Seas

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. --Matthew 14:22-36

We had a boat when I was a child, an old converted Coast Guard boat with a big inboard engine and a canopy over the "cabin". It wasn't a luxurious boat like a lot of them on our river, but it was ours. Often on weekends we would pack up the little camp stove, the picnic basket, the lawn chairs and the fishing poles and off we'd go primarily to do some fishing but also to be together with family and enjoy being on the water. If we hadn't caught fish, Mama could pull out the fried chicken and always packed enough food to do more than keep body and soul together. At the end of the day, we'd disembark, slightly (or more than slightly most of the time) pinker in complexion than when we'd embarked on our journey, but tired, refreshed and, somehow, soothed by a day being rocked by the little ripples and the waiting for the fish to jump on the hook we dangled for them.

There was the day, though, that a sudden storm caught us. It was a typical eastern thunderstorm but somehow on that little boat it seemed like we were in the fiercest hurricane in the world. The boat rocked and bounced, and even though we pulled down the oiled canvas curtains that could enclose the cabin and keep us dry, we could still see the grayness through the front windshield and feel the anger of the wind and waves in the constant rolls and rising and falling of the boat's hull. My sister-in-law, pregnant with my first niece, regretted ever taking this trip and was miserably seasick. I, of course, had all the faith in the world that Daddy wouldn't let us get into something he couldn't get us out of, and my big brother was strong and as capable a mechanic and waterman as Daddy was. All in all, except for the retching of my poor sister-in-law (with whom I had not a lot of sympathy at that time and which I now regret), we got home safe and sound.

The disciples, a lot of them, anyway, would have been familiar with storms on the water when they were out fishing. How could they help it? Storms happen, and they didn't have NOAA to warn them to stay home and let the fish fend for themselves because a storm was due. In this case, though, it wasn't the battering of the boat in the stormy waves that frightened them but rather the sight of someone actually walking on the water, heading in their direction. Now THAT was something you don't see and not doubt your own sanity.

Jesus was constantly challenging their thinking and their perceptions. Stories that should be simple took an entirely different direction when Jesus told them. Sometimes it seemed he talked about one thing when he really meant something quite different that was the thrust of his words. Now here he comes, walking on the water as if out for an evening stroll, shaking his disciples' perceptions to their cores. But then there was good old solid as a rock while sometimes seeming to have concrete between the ears Peter, jumping into action before really considering all aspects of the situation. He did just fine — until he realized what it was he was doing and then he sank, sort of like a rock.. Luckily for him, Jesus saved him, getting him safely back into the boat he'd so precipitously left. Peter's enthusiasm got the better of him until he realized what he was doing and that it went against all the rules of normalcy. He had Jesus to pull him out of his predicament, though.

When things get stormy in life, it's hard not to try to figure out ways to get out of the boat and walk off to find better, safer, calmer waters. Sometimes I get out of the boat only to realize what I just did was really stupid and clamber back in. Sometimes I get out a bit further and have to swim like mad to get back to the boat that suddenly seemed like so much better a place than it had just a minute or two before. Sometimes there's a piece of flotsam to grab on to and hold on until things calm down and I can get back to my boat, and sometimes a kind soul will fish me out of the water and into the safety of their boat, carrying me safely to land.

Jesus was demonstrating to Peter that if you have faith, you can walk on water, maybe not always literally but figuratively. I know that if I try to walk across a mud puddle, I will be up to my ankles in wet stuff. Still, it's a worthy thing to consider how strong and how deep my faith is when it comes to bouncing boats and rolling waves, the ones that I encounter in the course of my daily life if not in actuality.

I also have to ask myself a question that I don't think Peter thought of -- "Who am I testing, Jesus' power or my own faith?" I wonder what his answer would be. I wonder, what about my own?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soulon Episcopal Cafe Saturday, November 5, 2011.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Exile in

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests: Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their kin with them. And I weighed out to them the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king, his counsellors, his lords, and all Israel there present had offered; I weighed out into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, and one hundred silver vessels worth . . . talents, and one hundred talents of gold, twenty gold bowls worth a thousand darics, and two vessels of fine polished bronze as precious as gold. And I said to them, ‘You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy; and the silver and the gold are a freewill-offering to the Lord, the God of your ancestors. Guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests and the Levites and the heads of families in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of the Lord.’ So the priests and the Levites took over the silver, the gold, and the vessels as they were weighed out, to bring them to Jerusalem, to the house of our God.

Then we left the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem; the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way. We came to Jerusalem and remained there for three days. On the fourth day, within the house of our God, the silver, the gold, and the vessels were weighed into the hands of the priest Meremoth son of Uriah, and with him was Eleazar son of Phinehas, and with them were the Levites, Jozabad son of Jeshua and Noadiah son of Binnui. The total was counted and weighed, and the weight of everything was recorded.

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. They also delivered the king’s commissions to the king’s satraps and to the governors of the province Beyond the River; and they supported the people and the house of God. -- Ezra 7:27-28,8:21-36 (NRSV)

The Babylonian Exile was ending. Seventy years in Babylon was finally over and the descendants of those taken from Jerusalem in the conquest were headed home. Not just headed home but with lots of gifts from Artaxerxes, king of Babylon. Never mind that Aratxerxes had an ulterior motive in allowing the return, what counted that Ezra and the captives were heading back to those left behind so many years before. Motive, shmotive -- the letter Artaxerxes sent giving permission for them to leave and to take the goods with them was enough. They were headed home, even though any non-Israelite wives and children had to be left behind because they were considered "impure" to a prophet who was determined to regain the religious purity of the chosen people of the true God.
I have lived in Arizona for a number of years but to me Virginia is and always will be home. I have roots in Arizona, roots I never expected to grow and which took a number of years. Still, the lure of what I consider home remains strong. I know Virginia isn't the cure for my problems, and I know it, as a commonwealth populated by a large number of very diverse people, isn't perfect. I also know that if I went home again it would not be the same place from which I left so many years ago. It has not remained static, even though it's dedication to its early history and a number of its landmarks have. The home of my memory isn't what is actually there, but perhaps the essence of it still remains.
Exile is a state of being but also a state of mind. The Israelites undoubtedly thought the Jerusalem to which they returned would be unchanged -- and, by modern standards, it probably hadn't changed all that much. What was different was that people who claimed Jerusalem as their home now had to meet and learn whole new relationship patterns with those whose forebears had been left behind. It must have felt something like an invasion to the people of Jerusalem to see this horde of people headed in their direction and not knowing if they were coming to wreck the place again or what. 
The returning Israelites probably felt that they were indeed coming home and would be an integral part in rebuilding what had been destroyed when their ancestors had been taken. The current inhabitants, though, probably saw some of this as a very different sort of invasion, one without swords and armor but almost as devastating to the lives they had learned to lead after their leaders had been taken away. Honestly, both sides probably took a long time to get reacquainted and even slightly comfortable with each other. That's what happens.
Today I think of returning, and the feeling of returning. I will probably never return to the place I consider home, not even for a short visit much less relocation, but I will think of both sides of the return of the Israelites in light of my own life and experiences. I will remember the times I went home bearing gifts for the family (although not gold, silver or bronze to rebuild, refurnish and rededicate the temple) and brought back gifts for those I left here. Still, I will live with the feeling of exile, no matter how accustomed I have become to my life in the place where it is lived now.
I have no doubt God was with the exiles as well as the remnant. I have no doubt that wherever I am, at home or in exile, God is also there. That is the commonality I have with the people of Ezra's story, and that is the belief that I must hang on to, no matter where I am or in what condition. Really, I think it is the only anchor any of us can have, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever circumstances we are in. There are a whole lot worse things than that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beloved Souls and Scoundrels

The end of October and the beginning of November is always an unsettled time for me. When I lived back East, it was the time between still being fall and winter setting in. Here in Arizona, it's still somewhere between 75-90 degrees during the day but as much as 30-40 degrees cooler at night. Most of the leaves remain firmly on the trees. They have just barely started to turn and probably won't be finished dropping until sometime around Christmas. There are years when the buds of the next crop of leaves are already starting to pop out while last year's crop is still waving in the breeze on the same limbs. 

One day in that October-November transition that sticks out with me is All Souls Day. The day before, All Saints' is celebrated with joyful hymns and recollections of holy people the church has declared saints. All Souls, though, is a day to remember personal saints, those who once lived among us and who made a positive impact on us but who have since passed through the veil. They probably haven't left miraculous healings, although some have pulled off some near-miraculous things, and they haven't really been celebrated for their extreme piety, although some of them were virtual pillars of their local churches (and some larger church groups).

All Souls commemorates ordinary people, folks who struggled along, doing their best, helping their neighbors as well as caring for their homes and families. It also commemorates those who maybe went a step beyond and helped folks they didn't know in places they had never been before. And, I'm sure, some will be remember scoundrels who so successfully hid good qualities that possibly even they didn't recognize them as being there. All were God's children, although probably a good many never recognized the relationship. Those who did probably didn't often consider serving a meal to the kids or helping a shut-in neighbor get groceries or bringing a stranded motorist a gallon of gas and a bottle of water as ministries or as particularly Jesus-like actions, but the impact they made was there.

I remember my own Souls, those who passed through my life and left their marks on my own soul. Mostly, I remember the woman who didn't give birth to me but who gave me nurturing. It is she I most remember on All Souls, and now fitting that it should be the day of her death.

I also recall the ever-lengthening list of those I commend to God's grace and mercy, not for their sakes but for mine. It is a bittersweet remembrance, but also has the promise that one day I will see them again and thank them for who they were to me. They are all souls, but they are also personal saints.

May the souls of all the faithful departed (and even those scoundrels) rest in God's peace and rise in glory. May, in the hour of our death, we too be commended to the mercy of God through the prayers, thoughts and memories of those who loved us.


One news clip that caught my attention the other day was the revelation that the Duchess of Cambridge has a scar on her head. There was a picture of her at a charity event she was hosting in place of her father-in-law, and she looked very royal and very competent. She looked lovely but, try as I might, I couldn't see the scar. I thought about it all day and finally, that evening, I found a picture that seemed to show a scar just inside her hairline .  That was the scar there was so much hoop-la over?  It was barely noticeable, and, I'm sure, she didn't care that it showed a bit. After all, she's lived with it all these years, William has undoubtedly known about it for some years, and it doesn't seem to matter a hill of beans to them, so why should the rest of the world care so much? 

Scars most usually evoke notice, if not comment. If we encounter someone with a visible scar, I'd venture to say most of us would take a quick look and then look away as if we had never seen anything at all. If the scar is severe, it's hard not to look away. How hard it must be for someone with visible scars to know that people are pretending not to notice or are staring outright. I've got several -- chicken pox, a scar from a removed hemangioma and now I'm cookin' up a good one after surgery for skin cancer. I'm not in the public eye, and it's a good thing or I'd probably have to buy stock in Mederma®.

I'm wondering if the Duchess' scar is going to continue to make waves -- or attempts to find out what precisely caused the scar. Is it going to be like other people we've put up on pedestals only to find their feet are made of clay or something in their past has left something visible behind?  Then I think about people who have scars but which are internal scars, hidden from view but impacting their lives as surely as if it were the largest scar in the world. Kids who have been bullied certainly have them, as do soldiers coming back from a war zone or hazardous duty. Battered women have them (as well as exterior ones quite often) and people who have suffered discrimination and harassment because of their race, ethnicity, religion, social status or any one of a hundred "qualifiers" that we use to separate "them" from "us." That we ourselves have scars makes us want to point the fingers at someone else's before they notice ours, and it's as old as Cain and Abel.

There's no perfect person. I bet if we could check Jesus' knees, there'd be scars from a few childhood accidents, or perhaps a scar or two from learning to use the tools Joseph taught him to use, not to mention that one from the village mohel. Granted that was a deliberate thing, prescribed by God, and so a bit different than skinned knees or chicken pox scars. Still, a scar is a scar --

Some scars are beyond curing; the best that person can hope for is healing from the event that caused the marks, a healing that allows them to be at peace with who they are, priceless children of God whose worth is measured by not their outward appearance but their inward strength and grace. Some of the invisible scars may also be incurable, and perhaps healing might never take place. Prayer may not be answered immediately, but who knows, God may be waiting for just that one particular prayer, and it certainly won't hurt us any to spend a moment or two. Besides, perhaps the prayer helps the healing of the one for whom we are praying and helps us as well?  Can we turn our backs on that possibility?

Sometimes we have to embrace the scar, acknowledging the fact that in some way we were damaged and different than we were before. Still, we can learn from it, even if the lesson is bitter. Jesus acquired some wounds that stayed with him, but because of them, the whole world changed.

It may sound awful, but I'm glad the Duchess has a scar, not because it represents something traumatic that happened in her past, or because it is something that mars her beauty, but because she is confident enough in herself that she can carry that scar as part of her but not her identification. Perhaps that would be lesson enough for us to contemplate, but we could learn more.

Jesus had wounds. He probably also had scars from living as a human being. He didn't identify himself as a scarred person but rather as a nurturer, a teacher, and as one God had sent to guide and ultimately redeem the world. Through his scars, we are all healed.