Sunday, May 27, 2012


While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. -- Matthew 9:18-26

I think that of all the stories in the Bible, this one, or actually these two, are probably my favorites. They are repeated in both Mark and Luke, but this one seems like the Reader's Digest version, a condensation that hits the high spots and leaves out a lot of details, unlike the stories in both Mark and Luke. Still, the three of them all feature the same kind of "sandwich" format -- Jesus is going to heal a child, is stopped by the touch of an older woman followed by her healing, then he continues on to his destination not to heal a child but to raise her from the dead. In a sense, two women were physically raised from the dead that day, one from true physical death and one from a kind of cultural death that resulted from not only from illness but also isolation and invisibility caused by cultural norms and practices.

I was just thinking about the story when I realized that I was usually drawn to the elder woman, the one who was healed by the faith that if only she touched a tassel on Jesus' clothes, she would be freed from the illness that had plagued her life for twelve years. Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), twelve years was the same number the young girl had lived on this earth. I usually see myself in the woman, not because of her faith but more because of her age and her less-than-visible ailment. I wish I could say I had a quarter of her faith, but the truth is that only sometimes can I even come close. Still, I look at her and feel not just compassion but connection. She is my sister, perhaps moreso because in her I see some of my own struggles.

Today, though, my thoughts went to the girl-child who began and ended the scripture passage. I think too of the "rest of the story" in the other recountings. This girl was a child of promise, as all children are. She had already beaten the odds many times by surviving to the age of twelve, the very threshold of womanhood and the beginning of her life as wife, mother and probably grandmother. That was her promise, and now she lay sick unto death with something the physicians could not cure. Her father had the faith that Jesus could heal her if only he would come to her bedside since she could not come to him. The delay with the hemorrhaging woman must have been agonizing to him, risking the life of his precious daughter to cure some unknown woman of something that still allowed her to walk around, had been with her for years without being imminently fatal and surely could have waited a few hours if not a day or so for a cure. But Jesus chose to stop and the father had no choice but to wait.

I wonder about what the girl-child was thinking as she waited for her papa to return to her. Surely no matter how close to death she was, she would wait for someone who had loved and protected her all her life to return to her and make her better. Kids have faith that their parents can do that; I know I thought mine could. I trusted that they could take the pain in my legs away, which they did with hot water and leg rubs, both of them sitting up with me until the cramps subsided and they could put me to bed and then return to their interrupted slumbers themselves. Maybe the girl-child didn't have faith that Jesus could heal her but I bet my bottom dollar she had faith her daddy could.

Two women, two stories, two cures, two lives turned completely around by the God-given power of one man, the presence of God and the faith that Jesus could do what human beings could not do and cure what they could not. I have to ask myself what can I learn from the story that I haven't learned before?  Where is my faith, in my papa or in my Parent/Brother/Guide? Of what do I need to be healed, a physical ailment, an emotional breakdown, a spiritual desert?  For what am I looking, a cure or a healing?  They are different things-- one removes a disease or difficulty while the other removes the need to fear it or let it define me. Cures are wonderful things but healings are priceless.

Today I can see myself as both women at various times in my life. Their stories become mine and I learn from both of them. I can ask for what I need and I can have faith to believe that even the unasked will be answered in some way, even if not exactly the way I would want it to be. The person I reach out to touch might be the one who helps to heal something in me, and the one I pray for might be the one who again proves to me that prayers can change lives.

Pretty powerful lessons for a morning's thoughts and eight short verses of what amounts to a Reader's Digest version of a story. It makes me want to examine my life to see where the cures and the healings are. Am I one of the walking wounded or am I lying there waiting for someone else to bring me help?  Most of all, in whom and in what do I put my faith? 

I think it's going to be an interesting contemplation for the rest of today -- and beyond.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul </a> on Episcopal Café Saturday May 26, 2012.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

May 19 -- A Biblical Business Plan

So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ -- Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29

The Israelites are still wandering around, but the bloom is clearly off the rose insofar as their joy at being freed from the bondage they had in Egypt. In the part of the reading that was omitted, the people moaned and groaned, griped and moaned some more about being so tired of eating manna. They wanted meat, lots of meat. What God promised them was that they would have meat, indeed, they would have meat so plentiful and so often that they would literally have it coming out of their noses. That part always makes me smile, but it isn't part of today's lesson.

Moses had found that being the go-to guy for this group had its drawbacks. Not only was he on call with God but it seemed everybody else wanted his ear (as well as his attention and his judgment -- in their favor, of course). Moses probably felt like he was losing his mind. But then came the brilliant plan to delegate; any good businessperson worth their salt today comes pre-programmed to do that but for Moses and the Israelites it was a new concept. Instead of Moses being the sole arbiter, now there were seventy elders who were given the authority to be the go-betweens, solving the problems where they could, and bringing the big stuff for Moses to discuss with God.  Moses must have felt a huge weight off his shoulders.

But then there's almost always a fly in the ointment. Two of the designated had stayed in the camp instead of attending the conclave. Worse yet, they were actually prophesying in the camp, something that evidently at least one person thought was beyond the pale. "Moses, Moses, those people over there are doing something they shouldn't be doing." Joshua was all for rushing back to the camp and taking care of the problem right then and there, but Moses stopped him. "Let them alone. They are doing what they should do and I would to God there would be more like them!" 

This story reminds me of the one about Jesus' disciples who griped about people who weren't part of their group doing the same things the disciples were -- preaching, teaching and healing.  Jesus and Moses both responded in pretty much the same way, "Let them alone. They are doing what they should do."

Nobody really likes a snitch, and often the snitch ends up getting the worst of it because the boss often agrees with the snitch-ees rather than the snitch-er. Too often it's micromanagers and disgruntled people who run to management and complain about someone else's (real or perceived) flaws, faults and shortcomings, often to cover or redirect attention away from their own. I know I've been guilty of it, and I suspect I'm not alone in that boat.

Ken Blanchard is credited with coming up with the phrase "Catch them doing something good." Instead of focusing on what is wrong, give folks a pat on the back for doing good things, right things, positive things. Like most parents, I didn't praise my kid enough for doing the right things because I was busy trying to get him to fix the things he did wrong. I've worked for people who are pretty much the same -- much more focused on pointing out every error while never really saying much about the 99 things I did right. I realize now how focusing on the wrong thing affected my son, because I see how it affects me in my daily life and work. It does make me a bit more aware of fault-finding and the destructiveness of a constant diet of negative feedback where a little positive feedback might be a whole lot better.

Jesus and Moses might not have had a handy phrase for what they wanted the disciples and the elders to model, but I think the general idea was there. Clean your own house before you start cleaning someone else's. Don't be quick to judge another's doings because they might just be doing precisely what they were supposed to do. Even if you aren't part of the inner circle, take the example Moses and Jesus set and follow them to the best of your ability.

Now there's a business concept. I think I'll have to try that at work next week, at least try a little harder to look for the good and catch someone doing it. And I have the perfect place to start looking...  just don't tell my boss!

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday May 19, 2012.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

May 16 - Why?

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.   -- Matthew 22:41-46

What is worse than a question?  Perhaps it is the question to which one doesn't have the right answer, or any answer at all. The Pharisees, guys who thought they had all the answers, found that this was one where the answer they had was wrong.
In my humble opinion, questions are what make the world go around and keep it turning. Every time we think we have answers, it is like the questions change and we're back at square one, looking for answers again. The image of the toddler who is just beginning to wander around comes to mind, along with the inevitable and unending questions they always ask, "What's that?" or worse, "Why?"  There are a lot of times we don't have an answer to that "Why?" but we still get our feet held to the fire by a three-year-old for whom "Because" is not a sufficient answer.
I wonder if God gets tired of "Why?" prayers. Why is there suffering in the world? Why do ducks fly rightside up instead of upside down?  Why did I survive an accident where someone else died? Why are there mosquitoes?  Why was this person born with physical or developmental challenges?  Why can't I ever remember where I put my keys or parked my car? Why do I have this illness when I didn't do anything wrong to cause it? I don't think even Solomon could stand up to an onslaught like that.  Luckily, God's got patience and, incidentally, all the answers -- the right ones.

One thing about being an EfM mentor is that I get to ask questions, lots of questions, in our TR sessions. What's even better is that I don't have to have the answers because each person's answers are usually different and geared to their own personal journey. The best thing, though, is even though I go into a TR with an idea of how I think it should go, quite often it goes in a totally different and totally unthought-of direction but I still end up having my own insights as well as sharing in the insights of others.

Humankind has always questioned and I don't think that's ever going to change. The disciples had a lot of questions for Jesus, but what they got weren't cut-and-dried, easy answers. We still ask questions of all kinds, silly ones, ponderous ones, wishful ones, even agonized ones at times, but we ask all the same. The answers I get aren't always ones I want to hear, just as sometimes I don't really seem to get any answer at all, which personally drives me nuts. Still, I question, I look for answers and I try to be open to whatever comes from the search.

My question now is what am I supposed to be doing in my life -- oh, and where do those stray socks go when only a single sock of a pair comes out of the dryer?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday May 16, 2012.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Reflection on Laundry

One of the most important parts of our EfM group is the TR, the Theological Reflection. We consider a word, a text, a picture, video, movie, experience or issue, form a metaphor encompassing what stands out for us from the topic or artifact (objects), and then consider the world of the metaphor through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. It's a way of teaching us to look for God, faith, meaning and opportunity for learning and ministry in everyday things. The discussion varies from week to week, sometimes very focused and sometimes, as we call it, like herding cats, but the beauty is that something comes out of it no matter how scattered or tightly focused the discussion. That something often goes with us through the week and makes us see things -- people and situations-- in new ways.

On this occasion the metaphor we were using involved considering a washing machine, how it worked, what it did, what could go wrong with it, what could put it right. We spoke of feeling the thunkety-thunkety of the unbalanced load, the noise of the spin cycle and other metaphors for life as a washing machine or the clothes in it. Then someone brought up that packing the washer too tightly resulted in wrinkled clothes. Hadn't really considered it in that light but it gave me something to think about, something that said any time something is crowded it often gets crumpled and not able to stretch and breathe. It gets unhealthy and, in the end, produces something wrinkled that doesn't look good or seem clean enough. Someone asked if those clothes got ironed and that's when the fun (and the "AHA!" moments) began. Some owned irons and used them, whether sparingly or frequently. One knew someone with an iron they could borrow if necessary but hadn't felt that need as of yet. I have an iron but am not precisely sure where it is.

I can see myself as a washing machine as well as the clothes in one, but when it comes to an iron and what happens when it is used, that's something else entirely. I'm one who ignores the wrinkles for the most part and just wants to get on with whatever has to get done. I snickered to a classmate that for me, ironing was like the doctrine of substitutionary atonement: I just didn't believe in it. Maybe that's a bit whimsical, but that's how I feel about it. That's just talking about the physical act of ironing --- like clothes, church linens and the like. The metaphorical ironing is a bit different.

I have a wrinkled soul. I know it, God knows it and quite a few people know it as well. Some can deal with it, some can't see how I can deal with it, and occasionally I wonder the same thing myself. In terms of a ministry, the wrinkles show up as wanting to do things but not being able to or not being willing to step out in faith and try. In terms of my personal life, it's in the relationship with different people. With God, however, I sort of look at it as God accepting that I'm wrinkled and ever so gently touching me up with an iron to smooth out the rough spots, but only when I notice and am uncomfortable enough with the wrinkle to really want it gone. God will do that for me, but only if I really want it to happen. I have to invest in it myself for it to have value, just as I have to invest in the right detergent and softener to get my clothes and things both clean and soft. Some wrinkles are unavoidable but most can be, if I care enough to do the things that will help prevent them.

I don't know what others came up with as insights, but for me, it was a change of perspective that I probably need to consider. That's one thing about this part of EfM that we call a TR: it makes me look at how I see things and begin to discern what works and what doesn't, what I need to learn and also to unlearn, what I think, what I believe, and what all those mean to me in my life. The trick now is to take that insight and actually do something with it, along with being glad God is there to help me get rid of the wrinkles.

Now to just remember not to overcrowd the washing machine or overcrowd my life with inconsequentialities. Oh, and I must learn to sort more carefully so the socks won't fade on something important. Come to think of it, black socks are like sin -- they kind of leave a stain, no matter how carefully I think I've sorted it out. I don't want my clothes coming out looking dirtier than when they went in, or more wrinkled than they need to be. Small wrinkles may be easily overlooked like small imperfections, but dingy or spotted clothes are a lot more obvious, like the sins I accumulate during a day or a lifetime.

Gotta love a device that allows me to put my feet (and my mind) in a different place with a different perspective. That's what TRs do for me.

Now if I could just use a TR to help me figure out how to always have socks that come out of the washer in pairs.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café under the title "A Wrinkled Soul" Tuesday, May 15, 2012.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 12 - Festivals

   The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the LORD.
   The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the LORD; you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the LORD your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin; and whoever does any work throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people. Do no work whatever; it is a law for all time, throughout the ages, in all your settlements. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath.
   The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people:
   On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the LORD, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the LORD; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.
   These are the set times of the LORD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the LORD--burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it--apart from the sabbaths of the LORD, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the LORD. 
   Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.
   So Moses declared to the Israelites the set times of the LORD. -- Leviticus 23:23:44 (Tanakh*)

Leviticus is a book of law, ritual and practice, things with which the person we call the Priestly writer was intimately concerned. It is a book that is probably one of the harder ones in the Bible to read and to really get into, but it is important because it transmits not just God's wishes and commands but also establishes the way life is supposed to be lived, with God and the worship and reverence of God at the center of it all.

In this passage, God gives Moses instructions on religious observances that are to become annual events, feasts that will become hallmarks of Israelite and later Jewish religious life. The first and second days of Tishri, the seventh month, are called Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of the beginning of the new year. It arrives with the blowing of the shofar and was an opportunity to examine mistakes of the past year and resolve to do better in the new one. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes eight days later (the tenth day of Tishri) and is the most solemn day of the calendar, a day of fasting, prayer and repentance. The fifteenth day of Tishri marks the beginning of Sukkot, the festival of booths, a joyous time when the harvest is celebrated but also where the people build simple shelters reminiscent of the temporary ones the their ancestors made on the journey to the promised land. Sukkot is also called the Feast of Tabernacles, although the only Tabernacle was the temporary structure that went with the Israelites and served as their temple during the journey.

It seems from all the activity that Tishri was a really busy month. God planned out a lot of days where sacrifices were to be made, and a lot of time for repentance and rejoicing. What strikes me, though, is that it seems that there is a lot of down time, times when anything to do with any creative work was forbidden. There are actually 39 different classifications of "work" which include things as varied as gardening or growing crops, sewing, ripping out, slaughtering animals for meat, shearing, spinning and weaving, cooking anything that wasn't started before sundown on Shabbat, kindling a fire, using a hammer, carrying things in a public area, or even writing two letters (like A and B, not whole missives) as well as eliminating or erasing two letters. Sabbath is serious business, and the holy days and festivals of Tishri contain all the regular weekly sabbaths plus more.

What I think God had in mind for those extra days when work was forbidden wasn't just to give people time off,  like vacation days or what is occasionally called in today's working world as "personal days." No, God had those extra days put in for people to stop and have time to really consider what was important -- where they were, what they had done, what needed improvement in their personal relationships with God and their fellow human beings, and what they could do about it. Yes, repentance came into it, but it wasn't the same kind of repentance that most Christians think about, the sackcloth-and-ashes kind of repentance that makes us call ourselves "miserable offenders" and feel like totally unworthy creatures. Repentance such as that practiced on Yom Kippur is more a reorientation toward God and living in harmony with the earth and its inhabitants. Sabbath time gives a person the opportunity to do that in a Godly-mandated way, a way that doesn't make it fight for time and attention with all the other things of life; it's built into the schedule.

Something the people of this world really seem to need but seldom take is time off from work to just rest and recuperate. Most of us have weekends off from work, but the weekend hours are often filled with stuff we didn't have time to do during the week and activities that we have been waiting to enjoy when we can sandwich it in between the kids' soccer games and karate classes, getting the lawn mowed and the laundry done. If we make it to church, it takes a a while to settle into the quiet and a lot of effort not to think of what has to be picked up from the grocery store on the way home or has to be finished up before Monday morning comes around again. There's really very little time to really think about God much less actually spend terms cultivating the relationship.

For each of the Jewish festivals and holidays in Tishri, there are designated sabbath days that are like bookends, days before the festivals to contemplate, repent and return, days after to firm the resolve, rejoice and go out to live a more God-connected life. I wonder what life would be like if we all had those sort of mandated Sabbath days where work was forbidden and only rest, refreshment and worship were permitted? I wonder how much better we'd not only feel but actually be For those who practice a rule of life, a discipline such as the Daily Office can be a bit of Sabbath time that one consciously chooses to do, despite whatever else is going on in life at the moment. What it does is add balance, a chance to slow down and breathe as well as connect with God. Instead of shoe-horning time for God into an hour on Sunday morning,there's a little time every day that is as important as watering the plants or tidying up the kitchen. It puts things in order and encourages growth. That, in God's wisdom, is what we are offered with Sabbath and sabbath time.

I wonder -- how might I more consciously and constructively use Sabbath time in my own life?  What would it mean to me, my health and my faith? I have a feeling it would bring nothing but good, and the world would move along just fine without my having to spend every waking moment being busy, keeping the world, or at least my little part of it, humming along. I have a feeling there might be at least a few less heart attacks and stress-related illnesses as well.

But then, I have a feeling that's what God intended, just as surely as the opportunity for connection through prayer, fasting, worship and good works were.  God had it all planned out; all we have to do is to do it.

Shabbat Shalom.

*Reproduced from the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1985 The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  under the title "Shabbat Shalom" Saturday, May 12, 2012.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

May 11 - Beams, Motes and Lessons

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. --  Matthew 7:1-12

There are days when the readings for the Daily Office sort of leave me scratching my head and wondering that all that means to me. Then there are days when there is so much that it feels almost impossible to take it all in. This is one of those passages. There are four paragraphs and enough there to keep a mind busy for years contemplating them.

There are so many familiar lessons here: as you are judged, so you will be judged; the log in your own eye vs. the speck in your neighbor's; don't throw pearls before swine; ask, seek and knock; do to others as you would have them do to you.  These were all precepts I was taught in Sunday School as a child and still haven't been able to master despite hearing them again and again for years. They don't seem difficult, when I read them on the page, but why are they so difficult, even impossible, to live out so much of the time?

Take judging. I have an awareness that I am doing it but control it? That's something else. So why do I do it?  Very possibly because it ties in with the next bit about the beam and  the mote. In one situation, I feel judged because there are notes all over the databases I work in, pointing out errors that individually wouldn't amount to a hill of beans but collectively feel overwhelming. I judge in return, partly to remind myself that the person leaving the notes is far from perfect themselves. I know I'm wrong, but I seem to do it without really thinking. Why not just be more careful?  I do try, but I still make mistakes. I judge the log in their eye because I feel that they don't seem able to see it; I also don't forget I've got a rather large one in my own.

The part about "do unto others" sounds so easy to do.  If I want to be treated politely then I need to be polite myself.  If I need a hand, I have to not only ask for it but also have to be alert to the potential needs of others that I can fill. If I don't want to be judged --- well, that's harder because it is putting a behavior on someone else that isn't mine to put on them. Perhaps if I look at it a little differently, maybe looking at it as judging others as I would expect God to judge me.  Is it fair for me to expect God to use a six-inch ruler when I use a yardstick?  If it weren't a challenge, it would be automatic and everybody would be doing it. As it is, it is a challenge I need to take up as I start my day and prepare to go to work to face it head on.

Jesus didn't give these lessons just to hear himself talk. He expected them to make a difference in the lives of those who heard him. Because more than two thousand years have happened between then and now doesn't dilute those lessons or excuse halfhearted hearing and little action. Sunday School lessons have a way of applying to the whole life, not just an hour on Sunday mornings.

I think I need to go back to school. I can recite the lessons but I hope God grades on the curve when I actually get to the test based on those lessons. I pray for the grace to grade others on that same curve I want for myself. I've got some lessons to relearn and homework to do to practice those lessons.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Friday, May 11, 2012.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Real and Virtual Place

I'm proud to be part of EfM, Education for Ministry. I've been a student and am now a co-mentor to two fine groups of intelligent, inquiring, contributing souls who meet weekly to worship, chat about goings-on in our lives, study and be involved in both theological reflection and a ministry of prayer. They are not much different than most EfM groups except that the folks in my groups have, for the most part, never laid physical eyes on other members of the group. My groups meet online and represent people from all over the country. Even if they are not at home, many fire up the laptops while they are traveling in order to join in the session. It's a unique and very great way of learning, interacting and preparing for ministry both inside and outside the church walls.

One question that often comes up when talking about EfM online is "How can you possibly be a community of you have never met anyone else in the group? How can it be a community when all you see are words on a screen with no body language, facial expression or tone of voice?" The answer is simple, "We can and we do."

What exactly is a community? It's a group of people with similar goals even when there are very different ideas of how to achieve those goals. It's a group where each person is important and where each person's talents and abilities are honored and their thoughts and beliefs, even if not shared by any or all in the group, are considered valid for that person and respected as such. Whether or not the group is all under one roof literally or figuratively is less important than that they all subscribe to a set of norms upon which they all agree. It is a place where confidentiality is respected and participants feel safe to express ideas, beliefs and concerns in a place where no conversation is complete until every voice is heard with respect and openness.

So how can this be achieved when even in places where people meet face-to-face have difficulty doing so? For one thing, groups online have to work a little harder since there are no visual or auditory cues to follow. One of the most important lessons is to assume good intent; what someone reads in a person's words might not be precisely the same thing that the speaker meant, so it behooves us to read generously. That might not be such a bad idea when reading the Bible as well, since what we try to read into it is far from what the original writer or speaker intended it to mean. For another, seeing the words rather than just hearing them enables us to go back and reread statements that we might have otherwise missed. But, like every group, community is achieved by the weekly reporting in of events of the week that are part of what we call the "onboard" question such as "If your week were a bookstore, which section best describes it?" or "Where was God present or absent in your week?" It is also built when prayers are sought for friends, loved ones, mere acquaintances, people impacted by tragedy, world events, illnesses, deaths, thanksgivings for the group or for blessings received. As we learn each other's stories, we form bonds that transcend distance. They truly do become a community, as real and as bonded as any face-to-face group can be.

Last week I had the pleasure of having dinner with two members of one of the groups I co-mentor. One was a lady whom I had met several times before, a delightful person and a fascinating person with whom to talk. The second person was someone whose writing I had read for some time before "meeting" her in class during her first year of EfM. The three of us sat down and the conversation flowed as if we had always met around a dinner table in person rather than being names, pictures and words on a computer screen. We simply picked up a conversation we might have just discontinued an hour, a day or even a week before. It was a testimony to the power of community that can be built in a virtual world.

EfM online offers a course of study in topics usually not covered in a local parish or in a place other than at a seminary or theological school. What it also offers is a place where one can attend class in pajamas or business suit, never miss a discussion or theological reflection, comment on a topic that was written several weeks ago, and feel a part of a community of others who care about one another and who are committed to bringing out the best in each other. So can a virtual study group become a community? Indeed it can -- and it does.

Originally published on Daily Episcopalian at Episcopal Café   Tuesday, May 8, 2012.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

May 5 -- Cheek Turning

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. -- Matthew 5:38-48

You know, sometimes Jesus makes it almost too hard to be a follower, a "good" one, anyway. This is one of those passages that I really have to struggle with, and, I'm afraid, most of the time I fail miserably at it.

The law about "an eye for an eye" was a definite improvement over what had gone before. No matter what the offense at that time, it could be a death sentence. Steal something? If the owners of the stolen property caught the thief they could kill him, even if it nothing more was taken than a handful of grain. Cause a scratch on someone's arm? Well, that could get you just as dead, under that legal system anyway. Lex talonis, the law of "an eye for an eye" was a great improvement. Hammurabi, the Mesopotamian king known for setting up a whole code of laws (of which this was one), limited the punishment to that of being equal to the crime. If I ran over your foot with my ox cart, you could run over my foot as punishment, but no more than that. It was an ideal of equal punishment for the crime or offense. In the Bible, the same principle showed up in Exodus 21:23-24  which states, "[i]f any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." There were other laws that had some gradations, such as those involving injury to a slave or a pregnant woman, but on the whole, it was a pretty equal law. I could live with that, but Jesus took it to the next level.

Thinking about this "life for life" thing, it occurs to me that that's the law in this country -- at least at times, for certain people, and covering certain situations. It seems to me that quite often who commits the crime and their ability (or not) to afford a top-notch lawyer to defend them (or to prosecute the one or ones who wronged them). Justice is no longer a thing of "You can only hit me as hard as I hit you in the first place."

I wonder what the courthouse would be like if we honestly and truly did the Jesus thing of turning the other cheek?  We talk a lot about being a "Christian" nation, but when push comes to shove, you push me and I'll push you back twice as hard. Being Christian has nothing to do with justice if it means getting our own back (with a little extra for our pain and suffering, of course). We accept that the saints were, probably on the whole, a more forgiving bunch, like Francis of Assisi who, when confronted by his father, took off his clothes and walked off starkers rather than fight over them. Incidents like that are probably the reason that the ratio of saints to less-than-saintly people is rather low.

I have to ask myself how often I turn the other cheek to people who, in my view or in fact, have injured me in some way. The answer is a paltry "Not very often." There are times I fight back and other times when I simply just walk away, saying some not-so-nice things under my breath. Prayers for them? Usually I fall into the case of the Psalmist who prayed that God would do some pretty hefty punishments on his enemies. How many times do I at least think of how I could get even -- or better yet, ahead?  The answer to that is far more often than is good for me, even if I never actually act on it.

Jesus gives us some really tough assignments. I wonder what would happen if I were a little more "turn the other cheek" and a little less eager to get my own back plus a bit?  What would this country be like if we who claim to be Christian were little less quick to claim that we're a "Christian nation" and a little quicker to actually practice what we hear preached and preach ourselves?  What would that mean in my life it I were to concentrate on that homework and less on getting even? I have a feeling that writing a research paper or balancing my budget would seem like child's play compared to that.

Perfection may be totally out of my reach, but that that doesn't excuse me for not trying a little bit harder in the forgiveness area. I think God and I need to have a conversation about a few people right now. I'm sure glad God doesn't work 8-5, Monday thru Friday only.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 5, 2012.