Sunday, August 26, 2012

August 25 - Facing a Challenge

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, -- Acts 9:10-19a

One of the most prevalent responses in the Bible seems to be "Here I am" or "Here am I." Seems like somebody's always saying it, especially when it's God calling someone and they respond verbally. It's a pretty good answer, even if it quite often it sets a person off on a very difficult journey with a lot of hard work and possibly some real opposition to overcome.

Ananias was no different. God called and Ananias, good disciple that he was, gave the proper answer, "Here I am, Lord." Now it seems funny for someone to say that to God, because, after all, God always knows where a person is. At least it gives the person the option of ignoring it or hanging out the "Out to Lunch" sign on the door. Still, most of the folks in the Bible seem to be curious about what God wants, so they do the Biblical equivalent of picking up the ringing cell phone and saying "Hello?" When Ananias heard what it was God wanted, though, he might have wanted to turn tail, run far and fast in the opposite direction and hope God would forget the whole thing. God's instruction? Go find the guy who's responsible for the greatest persecution of the followers of Jesus in all of Israel and do what?  Deliberately seek out Saul of Tarsus and calmly introduce himself as Ananias, a follower of Jesus sent by God to resolve a problem Paul had been contending with for three or four days?  How nutty is that? It's like sending a lamb into the den of a lion, but God wasn't kidding, and when God isn't kidding, there's only one thing to do. Ananias put on his Birkenstocks, wrapped himself in his cloak and set out, hoping he would return in one piece at the end of the encounter.

There are times when a person has to do what they don't want to do, or perhaps something they are afraid to do. It takes a lot of courage sometimes and often more than a little faith to step out and challenge oneself, even if it seems God is doing the calling forth. In Ananias' case, it was asking him to trust that (a) Saul was  not laying a trap, (b) Saul really needed assistance or (c) that God really wasn't playing a joke on him. Evidently, Ananias weighed the options and figured trusting God was enough, so off he went to the street called Straight and got on with what he had been sent to do.  I wonder -- what were his thoughts when he first came into the room where Saul was? Did he have a moment to pause and look at the enemy, sitting or lying there blind and defenseless, before Saul knew of his presence? Or did he just walk in, lay hands on Saul, pray and then beat feet out the door?  Saul was healed and then baptized, so did Ananias do that as well? The answers have to be left to the imagination, but it certainly makes for an interesting series of thoughts. 

I wonder what I would do if I were in Ananias's shoes (or Birks). What if I felt God told me to go to someone I saw as an enemy and to do something for them? What if it were to go to someone I feared or hated? If I saw them, weak and hurting in front of me, would I forget the fear and hate and see their humanity and their need, or only their weakness and helplessness and gloat just a bit? I have to admit, Ananias is probably a bigger person than I might be, much as I'd like to think I could do as he did.

When it comes to the "Here I am, Lord" thing, I have to ponder the power of those four words. They have the power to totally transform things, to shove aside the familiar and drop me into a whirlpool of unfamiliarity and real (or perceived) risk and danger. They have the power to force me to make a decision as to which path to follow and the potential consequences of each one. They have the power to totally reverse my direction and my thinking. Most of all, though, they have the power to open new possibilities and opportunities. They have the power to make me something more than I can be if left to my own devices, to be a help to a person, a group or maybe a world and not just a timid creature hiding in the safety of my own house or mind. "Here I am, Lord," can take me into the lions' den, like Ananias felt he was walking into, and make those lions into peaceful, purring house cats. Now house cats I can live with, provided I have enough nerve to walk into the arena in the first place.

So now my job is to listen for that cell phone or knock on the door -- and decide how I will answer.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 25, 2012.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Pool

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. -- John 5:1-18 (NRSV)

Sometimes it doesn't take much to get some people upset. A wrong word, an unintentional act, a perceived slight can be all it takes to get someone (or a group of someones) uptight and ready to fight. Families have split over who seems to get more attention (or goodies) than the others, political parties have split over how far something can go before it no longer represents what members feel are their defining principles, even churches have become acrimonious and expelled people who don't seem to toe the line doctrinally or in line with the prevailing interpretation of the church. It seems Jesus was one of those pot-stirrers who people either seemed to love or hate. In this case, John seems to want us to believe that the Jews as a group began to persecute Jesus because not only did he break the rules (doing something on the sabbath that he wasn't supposed to do) but that he was claiming a relationship that was not possible or proper. And it all started with a pool of water, a disabled man with a mat and an act of charity.

Archaeologists have found what appears to be the site of Beth-zatha, called in other tongues and translations Belzatha, Bethsaida or Bethesda. There aren't five porticos in the excavation site, but never let a few porticoes get in the way of a discovery. Luckily, the imagination can provide what is scientifically missing, so therefore in my mind's eye, I see some pools of water sort of like swimming pools or spas, surrounded by porticoes and with edges wide enough to accommodate several rows of people as well as walkways to lead them down to the water. Periodically the waters would roil and bubble and people who were ill or disabled or injured would do their best to get into the water to get the benefit before the waters stilled. Was it an angel? A place where the air was vented from the pipes that heated the water? A geological vent that, like those in Yellowstone and other places, occasionally bubbled and steamed? It's above my pay grade to decide about that. All I can do is picture the waters moving and let the ambiguity do its own thing.

The picture that builds itself in my mind is of the water beginning to move, and people crowding down the steps or the edge to get in. I see lots of people, some who were able to step into the pool by themselves and others who needed a lot of help getting to the water. Of those people, only those who had servants, family or friends to help them get there are able to immerse themselves in what was a healing place. Then there's this guy, all alone, unable to move very fast or even very far, but who kept trying, year after year, to get to the water only to find others who were more able take the place in the water that he had hoped to have for himself. Still, he kept trying, kept getting pushed out of the way, kept getting more and more isolated and in danger of losing hope of ever being cured or healed of his infirmity. Then this man shows up, asking if he wanted to be made well. I'm sure the guy with the mat thought to himself, "And why else would I be here?" but he was polite and explained the situation to his questioner. I wonder what he thought when all of a sudden he hears, "Stand up, take up your mat and walk" and felt sensations in his limbs that he hadn't felt for thirty-eight years. He did what he was told and the story moves on.

I can't stop thinking about the scene at the pool, though. In my mind I see the guy with the mat struggling and people getting in his way as if he were invisible or some sort of bug to be ignored or stepped on by his betters. I think of the great pool of life that stretches out in front of all of us and look to see who gets in the pool and who is pushed aside. It isn't hard to imagine at all. I see people of all races and ethnicities whose way to the pool has been deliberately and sometimes maliciously blocked. I see women victimized by rape and slavery because of their gender, because they offended a male family member or because they were of the wrong village or clan. I see Native Americans and other indigenous people pushed off their lands and spiritual homes by conquerors who saw material benefit to be gained from that same land. I see children and the elderly punished for their inability to actively contribute to the family, their inability to fight on one side or another of a conflict, or caught in a gap that leaves them without the ability to secure good schooling, access to medical care, or security from abuse, neglect or external threat. I see GLBT folk who are encouraged to pay taxes and work to contribute to the economy but who are denied many of the benefits their heterosexual brothers and sisters enjoy simply by virtue of their heterosexuality. I see religious people, bishops like Oscar Romero and women like the American nuns, who were/are being silenced or threatened or even marginalized because they follow a reading of the gospel of Jesus that others claim to follow but whose actions belie their words. There are so many wanting to get to the waters and be healed and so many others equally determined not to allow them to get there, often stepping into the vacant places themselves, whether or not they need the healing. Again and again, my mind turns to those people and why it is so hard for so many to not see their plight and do something to help them get to the pool.

And then I wonder -- who have I stepped in front of on the way to the pool who might have needed the immersion more than I? Lord knows I'm no saint, much less Jesus, who can do great things (and sometimes the small things that often mean more than the big ones) but where could I have done more to clear a path or offer a shoulder for someone to lean on? I can think of dozens of incidents where totally unaware of what I was doing I did block someone else's path and the shame is a heavy burden. Knowing that I need healing too, and even if I think I can make it to the pool myself, I find I can't do it alone and need some help. Can I expect mercy when so often I have denied it to others by my silence or my actions?

In my mind's eye I see Jesus approaching, asking if I want to be made well and to pick up the mat and walk, just as he did to the guy at the pool. That's what God's grace does for a person. The thing is, I know that this is a changing moment and one which is not a figment of my imagination. It is as real to me as it was to the guy with the mat. Now I face the challenge as did he - do I have the courage to actually get up and walk? More important, what am I going to do to help others to get in the pool, take up their mats and realize that they are whole persons, beloved and welcomed as full and complete members of the family of God, worth being heard and valued for who they are.

The water is starting to bubble.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 18, 2012, under the title "Boiling Water."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Church and the Two Halves of Life

There was a saying going around when I was in my late teens and early twenties, "Don't trust anyone over 30."  Maybe that was the reason I was so miserable on my 30th birthday, or perhaps it was just a combination of events that, like conjunctions of planets and stars in the night sky, seemed either portents or markers of the way my life was going at the time. At any rate, on my 30th birthday, I felt like I was on the downhill side of life, especially when I got to the next saying, "Over 40 - over the hill." Sigh. It seemed at the time to go from bad to worse, age-wise.

The older I get these days, the more I look for things that address where my life is at the moment. I'm more likely to bookmark an AARP site than Jillian Michael's hardbody kind of athleticism, a medical site that has info on diabetes, arthritis, memory loss and catastrophic disease than pre-natal care, athletic injuries (not that I ever had any of those!) or exercises that feature turning one's body into a pretzel in the search for harmony and health.  Sure, I search for harmony and health, but increasingly I see the focus moving toward younger folks, a different demographic, the "future" of our country, our world, or our church. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti- youth. Far from it. I was supremely touched by an essay on Episcopal Café the other day by Jacob Nez with help from Jeremy Blackwater and Jay Begay called "Why ARE Youth In Church?" It spoke of their search for welcoming places in churches, churches that not only accepted them as youth but as Native American youth and full members of the Body of Christ who honored both their Christian faith and the respect of God's creation through practices from their traditional faith. They really made me think about how valuable such young people are, and how much we need them in our churches, our neighborhoods, and our lives.

On the other hand, I found an article on another site entitled "Aging Well: Practical theological reasons to value older people" by Missy Buchanan that also made me stop and think about people and the church, this time on the other end of the age spectrum. The article referenced work by Dr. Stephen Sapp who, among other qualifications, was a former chair of the governing council for the Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging. One point was a reminder that all of us are getting older, and that getting older does not mean valueless, even though the emphasis of culture and, at times, even the church tend to somewhat marginalize the elders in favor of attracting and attempting to retain families with children who presumably will grow up to be good members of the church themselves. In the time when seniors are encouraged to continue being active, keep fit, find new hobbies and interests and ways to interact with people, it is sort of the message that "You've had your turn, now please just sit down and leave things up to the young people." The article states that in less than 30 years "...there will be more 85-year-olds than five-year-olds," and Dr Sapp wonders how churches that don't really offer a lot for seniors and seem to have little interest in them will attract those very people into their congregations. It's a good question.

In many cultures and societies, elders are respected as keepers and sharers of wisdom acquired through living their lives. To be fair, there are homes and churches of all cultures and ethnicities where senior members are not shuttled off  willy-nilly into "retirement communities" or hospitals, and who live at home, often with assistant from all the members of the family, participating in and sharing their wisdom through their presence. Senior members have that wisdom to share, stories to tell and lessons to teach. It's not about having them make all the decisions or have everything go their way; it's about allowing them the dignity and the respect to listen to their opinions and viewpoints, consider them as offerings of wisdom and experience, and allowing them to participate in any way they can. Prayer groups are wonderful experiences, but if it could be coupled with some sort of activity that produces something tangible, like knitting or crocheting a prayer shawl, then it is a contribution that a senior can make, even if they no longer have use of their legs. Listening to the children and youth, even young adults can be a pastoral activity that can be a lifeline to both. Quite often it is those in the second half of life who have the time, the patience and the experience to really listen and hear what is being said. Much of the time a person doesn't want a solution, just a shoulder and a sympathetic ear. Churches can probably come up with more activities that can utilize and maximize the benefit to not just the seniors but to the whole congregation as well.

Rather than shuffling seniors off to the side once their health starts to fail, their earning power is greatly reduced and they require more assistance rather than being able to render assistance, perhaps the church should realize that the Body of Christ consists of all ages and conditions: young, old, healthy, infirm, wondering, experienced, foolish, wise and the whole spectrum. When someone, anyone, youth or senior, looks beyond themselves and looks for guidance and spiritual growth, the church should be there with open arms and open minds to welcome them and bring them in. The ideal church should not be a museum for saints but rather a hospital for sinners, and all of us are sinners.

I really respect those Native youth who wrote so eloquently about their search and their desire to belong to the Body of Christ in a full, fruitful  and accepted way. I'm glad there are places where they are not just welcome but embraced because they are so deserving of both. I also feel for the seniors who have been displaced in the life of their church simply because they are not seen as growth-potential. I dream of a church, a congregation, a place where value is not seen as the monetary or even the energy level a person can bring but rather the gifts they have inside them. Wisdom is not limited to the old, and searching is not limited to the young. The church that claims to follow Christ is one which honors and nourishes both in harmony and balance.

That, I believe, is a part of the kingdom work Jesus set for us to do - for all sorts and conditions of humanity.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul >  on Episcopal Café Monday, August 13, 2012, under the title "Don't Trust Anyone Over/Under 30."

What If...

Another one of those nights I've been having over the past several weeks. Ever since the phone call came that confirmed an uneasy feeling I'd had, I can only seem to sleep in maybe two-hour segments, waking and then lying there trying to shut my mind off.  What if.... what if... what if....

After my doctor found something I'd been aware of for several months and categorically stated I needed to get it checked, I made the appointment and got the tests he recommended. These were more than the usual one they tell you to get every year or two, this one was more x-rays, more manipulation, more and different testing. I left there, glad to have that over but with it came the uncertainty. What if... what if... what if...

The test results came back and it indicated that there was more testing, more invasive and painful testing, to be done. Maybe that's where the nightly disruption began, wondering what if... what if... what if...

I could ignore it for most of the time, but the worry always seemed to come in the form of those 2 o'clock devils that can strike at 10:30, 1:30, maybe 3:30 in the morning. I would be asleep, sometimes dreaming, sometimes dreaming interesting things, when I would awaken, dream forgotten and the mind whirling like a hamster on a wheel.  What if... what if... what if...

The test results came back and it was not totally unexpected (my mind had already explored that possibility) but still, when that word hits a conversation, things just seem to stop for a heartbeat or two and it is hard to really absorb much of anything after that.  Make an appointment, get a referral, make an appointment, then see another doctor. I had an idea what to expect, but once there, the information I was presented (and, I may say, presented with tact, honesty, empathy and practicality) suddenly made my options much more limited. What if... what if... what if...

Night after night, I've faced and tried to overcome that semi-insomnia, turning on the TV (which usually puts me to sleep in minutes) only to find I'm still awake at the end of a program I really wasn't all that interested in and couldn't really remember much about. I tried reading a very (to me) dull book on the Augsburg Confession (an attempt to understand more of the Lutheran path a dear friend had taken), but although it made me sleepy, once I turned off the light the wakefulness returned. What if... what if... what if...

I have made some decisions about how I am going to handle this. Much will depend on something about six weeks in the future -- whether anything further is found than they have already noted, the extent and the like. I'm 99% comfortable with the decision my doctor, a friend and I had discussed and I had made although I know there are going to be times when I second-guess myself and see-saw back and forth about using this treatment vs using another, less invasive, less disfiguring, less intense. What about afterwards? Even though I don't have to make any decision right now and can change my mind about the one I've already made, I still am left with the inevitable.  What if... what if... what if...

One thing that I have in my corner is a group of people, dearer to me than they can know, who support me in a hundred ways. One of the gifts of this journey is that I think I may finally have learned that I can ask and the requests will be honored. I do not have to go through this all alone as I often thought I might have to. With them, I don't have the what if... syndrome. I am who I am with them, I am where I am, and they understand and walk with me. If anything blessed can come out of this it is that I recognize that I'm not alone, even when I feel most detached from things.

Still, in the wee sma' hours, the mind keeps whirling, having, it seems, a mind of its own, following a warren of rabbits each diving down a different burrow and each just out of reach.  Prayer helps a bit, especially remembering people I sometimes forget to pray for, but most of the time the effort of trying to retain coherent thoughts is much more difficult than what passes for "sighs too deep for words."  I try putting my what ifs... in the hands of God but my mind keeps wanting to take them back, to hang on to them obsessively, compulsively, with an iron grip. What if... what if... what if...

The next hurdle is six weeks off. Meanwhile I have lots to do, things to prepare for like EfM training and the beginning of the next term, a house to clean, cats to feed and care for, a job to go to, bills to pay, meals to fix, laundry requiring attention, all thousand and one things that make up normal everyday life. But there's always that twist at the odd moment, the squeak in the wheel that won't go away but only in temporary abeyance.

What if... what if... what if.....

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Commemoration of St. Clare of Assisi, nun

Psalm 63:1-8
Song of Solomon 2:10-13
1 Peter 4:1-2
Luke 12:32-37

What you hold,
may you always hold,
What you do,
may you always do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step, and unswerving feet,
so that even your steps stir up no dust,
may you go forward securely, joyfully, swiftly,
on the path of prudent happiness,
believing nothing
which would dissuade you from this resolution
or which would place a stumbling block
for you on the way,
so that you may offer your vows
to the Most High
in the pursuit of that perfection
to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.

-- St. Clare in her second letter to St. Agnes of Prague (1235)

Clare (1194-1253) was the daughter of a wealthy family. She was eighteen when one day she heard a local friar preaching in the marketplace and was moved to not only take his words to heart but to follow in his teaching of following Jesus in a life of poverty, prayer and service. Of course, her family did not approve and forcibly brought her home, but she escaped with a companion and fled to the preacher whose name was Francis. Together they founded a convent for an order of women following the rule of Francis. The order, called the Order of Poor Ladies and finally the Poor Clares, attracted young women from well-to-do homes despite the rigorous life required by the rule that Francis had established and Clare strengthened. They were strictly cloistered although they nursed the sick, wore homespun brown robes, went barefoot, ate no meat, slept on pallets of twigs, prayed for the world and practiced silence except for necessary speech. Of all the sisters of the order, none was more rigorous in her observances than Clare. She wrote to other abbesses as the order spread beyond Assisi and some of her letters to Agnes of Prague, a correspondence lasting over twenty years, are still in existence. In the last months of his life, Francis, now blind and ill, came to her convent at San Damiano and Clare cared for her long-time friend and mentor until his death. She herself died in 1253 and  was canonized two years later. St. Clare is considered the patron saint of goldsmiths and those who work with gold, those with eye diseases, laundry workers, embroiderers, telephones, television, and television writers.

What would make a young woman give up a life of luxury to live in a manner every bit as dire as the poorest of the poor, as Mother Teresa called them? Most of us today would scramble to live a life where the food was good and plentiful, clothes were rich and fashionable, houses large and roomy (although without indoor plumbing like we know it) and parties, dinners and entertainment were frequent. It's hard to understand but then, many young women today give up everything to enter the religious life, work hard, pray often, sleep rough and own nothing (or next to it). Many try, not all succeed in following the vocation that they believe God set before them, but enough do that religious orders still exist, still follow the rules set down centuries and more ago, and still make a difference in the world. It's a call from God to do something special -- and anyone who answers a call from God whether to the religious life, ministry or even as a committed lay worker shares in that specialness.

Religious orders have rules for living and practicing their faith, rules that are binding on each individual within or seeking to become part of the community. Rules are often seen as restrictions on freedom, telling what may be done and what is not allowed. The more rules, the more restrictions. Yet rules sometimes offer freedom itself. When the boundaries are firmly understood and accepted, it can free up the mind and body to go about life, doing what needs to be done and serving where service is needed. We often chafe at restrictions on what we consider our freedoms, but if we think about it, without rules we would have anarchy -- and nobody really wants that (except anarchists, of course).

I seem to live in a world where people are concerned with themselves and their possessions/entitlements. It's a world of having to have the biggest, newest, fastest, most expensive or most fashionable. I have to stop and remember that also there are nuns who are in this world and yet removed from it. They don't acquire, they serve instead of demanding to be waited on, they spend their lives taking care of the people most others would either ignore or try to keep out of their neighborhoods, and they pray often for those who, for some reason or other, cannot or will not pray for themselves or others. The lives of nuns used to be not so different from how they lived in the world, but today, religious life is a very different thing. That there are still young (and some older) women who voluntarily choose to live a communal life and one that demands poverty, chastity, obedience and often un-Godly hours is, in my humble opinion, more than just a ministry or just a vocation. It's living Jesus' teachings and dedicating oneself to the work of the kingdom, whether enclosed behind monastery walls or living in a community outside.

Clare and her sisters in religion, regardless of the rule they follow or the order to which they pledge themselves, show me what it means to really be willing to empty oneself and be filled anew. They give me an example that the young man who could not sell all and follow Jesus couldn't do, and yet they do gladly and willingly. They show courage and strength, and many, like Clare, weren't and aren't afraid to stand up to authority when necessary. I have a feeling that if she were here today, Clare might not be on a bus but she might be encouraging her nuns to do what they believe is right and God's will for them as women, as religious, and as citizens of a broken world that needs more healing and not more fractures. Whether behind monastery walls, walking about a busy city or standing up for what they believe God wants them to do, there is something admirable and, yes, compelling about them. It isn't always easy to follow God because sometimes God leads in some pretty non-traditional and unworldly ways.

Sometimes I almost wish I had the call and the strength follow their path.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday August 11, 2012, under the title "Clare of Assisi, nun."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Special Occasion Socks

Picture it:  Galilee, sometime in probably May, somewhere between 29-34 AD.  Jesus is talking to his mother, who sits and knits rapidly. 

"Ma, I know you're still trying to figure this resurrection thing out, aren't you?"
"Of course, son. Good Jewish boys don't walk out of graves after they've been put in. It just isn't done."

"Well, I told you years ago I had to be about my father's business, and it was his idea, after all."

"Nonsense. Joseph never told you any such thing."

"No, Ma, not THAT father. You know, the OTHER one", (pointing index finger at the sky and looking up).

"Oh, all right. I get that part, the father thing, but Joseph was a good father to you, you know."

"Yes, Ma, I know that. It's just that now it is time for me to go up to God and be with him again. I have to ascend to my father in heaven. It's my job."

"You are not going anywhere, young man, until I finish these socks. You know how cold your feet get when you walk around on mountains." 

"Ma, in heaven it isn't cold. It's..... it's...... comfortable. And I won't be walking around mountains, I'm going to be rising up, you  know, ascending, like you do in an elevator."

"Rise, schmise. And what, pray tell, is an elevator?"

"It's a box that has pulleys and ..... oh, never mind, Ma. I'm going to ascend on an invisible rope going up to heaven to be with God."

"You're still not going anywhere until I get these socks finished; I'm only at the turning of the heel on the second one. And furthermore, you haven't got your hat with you, you know, to keep your head warm so you don't catch cold."

"Ma! Haven't you been listening?  I'm going to heaven. There's no cold there, no heat, just perfectly comfortable temperatures and weather, no rain, no snow, no drought, no... nothing weather-wise. It's just a perfect place."

"Right. Now you just sit down and wait while I finish this. I wonder -- do these white and gold stripes look all right? If you'd given me more notice I could have knit a nice scene of feet with clouds under them. Or made them a nice cheerful bright red. Red doesn't show the dirt as easily. Couldn't you, you know, just switch it like you did the water for wine that time?  That was a nice thing."

As angels hovered and disciples milled about, Mary knitted, purled, yarn overed, decreased and increased as fast as her stiffening fingers would allow. No son of hers was going out half-shod, not if she could help it.  After all, mothers are like that, ascensions, mothers of the son of God or not.

(Inspired by KF, an inveterate knitter, who briefly considered such a project as rising feet and clouds depicted on a pair of socks. Who knows, she might try it yet!).

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Seeing Is Believing

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ -- Matthew 28.11-20

The tomb has been opened and the angel has pronounced it empty. The witnesses have scattered, the guards to report the incident to the priests and the women to tell the male disciples hiding in the city. The priests gave the guards bribe money to tell a fabricated story that implicated them of sleeping on the job (never a really good explanation for why something did or didn't happen on their watch) while the disciples listened to the women and actually went where they were told to meet him. What a meeting that must have been!

There's an old saying, "Seeing is believing," that pretty much says something isn't really true unless someone witnesses it for themselves. Even the word of someone else, no matter how trusted a someone else, is always open to a bit of skepticism and sometimes outright denial. Eleven men, followers of Jesus who had been with him for years, gathered on a mountain in Galilee and there met Jesus, the Jesus who had been crucified and pronounced dead just a few days before. Now you would think that seeing should be enough (unless you're Thomas in the upper room -- but that's another story), but evidently somebody (or several somebodies) weren't sure their eyes weren't playing tricks on them.

It reminds me of the story of the three children from Fatima, Portugal, who saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary a number of times. The word got around about the visions and many followed the two girls and the boy as they went to the designated spot to meet Mary. For those who did so, all they saw were three small human beings, kneeling with faces and eyes uplifted to heaven. Many in those crowds believed Mary did appear, even if they didn't see her themselves, but then, there were probably some who just couldn't make the leap of faith without visual proof. There are always doubters, whether or not they trust their eyes, it seems, but there are also those who believe, again whether or not they trust their own vision.

There are lots of ways of expressing incredulity, whether stating belief or disbelief. The reading today said that "some doubted," evidently more than our friend Thomas who was openly disbelieving until offered visual proof. I have to wonder, who else had doubts? And after being with Jesus for some time, seeing miracles, signs and wonders, what about his appearance still made them doubt? I wonder, would I be one of those "I'll believe it when I see it" followers or an "I just can't believe it!" one. How much do I believe based on what I observe and how much because of what I feel?  How much do I trust my instinct and how much do I require visual (or tactile) reinforcement when it comes to believing something?

The gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus pronouncing what is called the Great Commission, the instruction to go out and evangelize the whole world, but also put in words of great comfort, " [R]emember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  What a great last line -- leaving on a word of hope with an open-ended promise. Hope can't be seen, but it can be most powerfully experienced. That is what Jesus offers us, even if we don't see him walking down the street or living next door. He is still as close as a breath and as present as a heartbeat. It can't be seen, but only experienced -- and passed along.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 4, 2012.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Changing Paradigms

Going to the doctor is never my number one favorite thing to do, especially when it involves certain exams. There's always a little stress involved with visiting a primary care doctor; either you're sick and need to know how sick or you're trying not to be sick and the doctor will probably give you advice you really don't want to hear like "you need to lose weight" or "you have to stop ______ (fill in the blank with one of your favorite things or even your addictions (which you never think of as addictions, just things you really enjoy and don't want to give up))." Let's face it, doctors are there to help you stay alive as long as possible, in as good a condition as possible, and if it means a little pressure, even downright pain, then so be it. It's like Mama saying "It's for your own good" as she administered a lick or two or some other punishment.

When a doctor doing an exam pauses, gets a certain look on his/her face and then says "Uh..." your mind starts racing. When it's followed by "How long have you _____ (seen this, felt this, had pain here, noticed this)?" then it can be a sign that a serious freak-out is coming. When it goes on to "I think you really need to have _____ (this test, that procedure, this evaluation)" then the brain goes into overdrive. You get the test, procedure or evaluation done and then sit on pins and needles until the doctor calls and either says "Hey, it's nothing, it's fine, it's benign, it's something to watch but no need for anything else right now", "Can you come in to see me as soon as you can?" or even delivers the news via "Your test results came back and there's good news and not-so-good news." If you get the second or third form of notification, it might be time to either brush up on your Medicalese or find a friend in the medical field who can translate because it's a sure-fire bet that 90% of what you're going to hear is probably going to be unintelligible, especially if it contains certain words.

Funny how a single word can numb the brain and render it almost incapable of maintaining any kind of retention of what comes after the introduction of that word. "You're pregnant" or "You have a comminuted fracture of the femur" are pretty clear; you may not know what a femur is, and comminution really doesn't sound like it's going to get on a bus and go somewhere, but if your thigh is screaming in pain, you can probably figure out that the femur the fancy name for the place that hurts and the comminuted fracture is what is making it feel that way. You can't see diabetes or a coronary heart disease although you might notice some things that just feel wrong in your body, but when your doctor actually uses the words to explain why that wrongness was a sign, then you can put two and two together. You're going to have to start changing your life to accommodate this new partner or things will not go well for you.  And then there are the BIG words -- words like cancer. Once a doctor interjects the word "Cancer" in a sentence, the brain compartmentalizes it and a lot of what comes after that is lost in a blur, especially if the doctor uses words that are common in his/her  world  but which are like her/his speaking in Urdu to you.

I wish doctors had to go through a training where they actually had to put their professional knowledge aside and try to make sense of something sort of on the same level that their patients have to do when they talk to a doctor. I watch a lot of medical shows, and on a lot of them I hear doctors talking about illnesses and injuries using medical terms that an ordinary layperson wouldn't know or even comprehend in moments of high stress and anxiety. The doctor always asks, "Do you have any questions?"  and I keep waiting for someone to say "Yes, what did you just say and please put it in plain English." Who can think of a question when you or a loved one have just been handed a diagnosis or notified of an accident or other emergency and the brain just isn't capable of coherent thought much less an intelligent or even inane question such as "Can you say that in English?"  You will have questions later; hopefully, if you have a really good doctor, you can ask them and get answers you can understand and from whom you can get information that you can use to make decisions that need to be made.

I'm lucky.  I have several doctors like that -- one on the payroll, one who did a procedure and one who's a doctor and a friend who is a really good translator. I had a procedure earlier this week that involved biopsies of some rather sensitive portions of my anatomy. The doctor that did the biopsies answered my questions in plain English and put me at ease at what was a sometimes painful experience. The doctor on the payroll (my primary) delivered the "there's good news and bad news" over the phone in words I could understand, even though the ones that came after "cancer" I don't even remember. I can honestly say that my world changed in the blink of an eye. It wasn't like when I got the diagnosis of diabetes. That could kill me if I ignored it but I could deal with it even if I didn't like the things I had to change in order to get things back in order. Cancer, though, is a word that I think everybody dreads hearing, especially when it is applicable to you. I saw my primary yesterday and got a couple of things checked out, including my pathology report which, reasonably so, was a document written totally in Medicalese and of which I understood really about one word in three of those over three letters and maybe possibly two syllables. That's when the friend/medical person comes in, thank God. Just translating it into English helped a lot to understand what's going on and enables me to come up with questions I would like to have answers to when I go to my first visit with an oncologist, sometime in the fairly near future, I imagine. Trust me, always have a doctor or lawyer in your circle of friends; you might need them to explain the difference between A and B or what C really means when you need to know.

One word changes a whole view of life. In a way, there's something different about my life that has changed it and made it feel like I'm a bit detached from reality or looking at it through a gauzy curtain, much like those Mama put up in the summer to cover the windows but still allow light to come in and us to look out at the world but with a slight distortion.

I now return to the world a somewhat different person. It will all become even more real as time goes on, but for right now there's a reality but there's also a not-quite-reality going on. It's hard to explain; I don't think it's shock. I've had several days to get used to the idea, and have begun trying to put things in order so that I have some understanding of what this journey is going to entail.

I have a feeling my understanding will grow, develop and change as time goes by. I have a feeling too that even as the physical ramifications will become apparent and life-changing, the mental and even the spiritual will undergo changes as well.

Perhaps it's just as well I can't know the whole picture right now. Maybe it's a time to sit and look at what's important, and perhaps to learn that patience is what is going to get me closer to where I want to be inside myself with less anxiety, less anger, less a lot of stuff.

It's a helluva way to learn a lesson, I'll tell you, but learn I will.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Personal Gethsemane

Many people experience Gethsemane moments. -- Arthur Middleton.

The story is familiar. Jesus goes to the garden to pray, not an unusual thing for him, but this time it was not to recharge his spiritual batteries or to thank God for another day where he could be of service. This time Jesus was facing what he alone could see happening and was asking God to take it away. He had asked some friends to stay awake and watch with him but it was late at night after a full meal and they went to sleep. Twice Jesus woke them up to ask them for support and twice they went back to sleep. The third time, the corner had been turned; nobody got any more sleep and Jesus got his answer from God.

I think of that part of Mark's gospel now as I sit in a sort of Gethsemane of my own. THere have been other moments like this, but each time I have prayed for God to perform some specific thing -- stop the pain, show me which way to go, resolve whatever problem seems overwhelming. They were the "let this cup pass from me" kind of prayers, often accompanied by wild promises to never forget to say my prayers again, go to church every Sunday, be nicer to people, stuff like that. It's a bargain: God, you do this for me and I'll do that for you.  Jesus didn't do that, but I'm not Jesus and not even close to being Jesus. I never seem to have the faith, the trust, the -- I don't know -- ability to put things in God's hands and then LEAVE THEM THERE. I keep taking them back and the anxiety, fear and uncertainty. I ask to have the cup pass from me and sometimes the answer seems to be "Yes," but I don't always remember those last-ditch bargains I tried to use. I'm just glad to have disaster averted.

The past several weeks I've been dreading a medical procedure that is necessary but with frightening implications. I didn't know which I dreaded more -- the possible pain of the procedure itself or the possible diagnosis derived from the procedure. Luckily I had friends to help me keep watch, as it were. We all went through our normal days, but I felt their presence and their prayers. I got through the procedure, the trial, and now I await the verdict. Once again I am in Gethsemane.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.” I've been meditating on that today, off and on, as I try to be patient, waiting for the phone to ring. Last night, in one of my periods of wakefulness, I realized that my prayers this time were different than usual. Instead of asking for a specific outcome I found myself praying over and over, "Lord, please give me the strength to bear whatever comes, and the wisdom to handle it in the best way." This time I don't want to ask for a specific outcome; I'm well aware that it could go either way and I guess I'd rather be pleasantly surprised than crushed if it doesn't work out. Maybe I'm finally learning tha I can't control the outcome, and keeping on taking it back after saying I'm handing it over to God just causes more problems. Oddly enough, even though it could potentially be life-threatening, I am relatively calm (with occasional moments of antsy-ness) and willing to give up trying to second-guess what that phone call will bring.

Jesus asked three times and accepted that it wasn't up to him, it was up to God and that he accepted whatever God decided. I keep asking but this time, I'm just waiting to see what the answer will be. At any rate, I know God will still be there. Gethsemane will end, one way or another, and it's out of my hands as to how that end will come out. So far prayers have been answered, and so I'm grateful. Now it's time to repeat that prayer again, for strength and wisdom, and continue to wait.

Ignatius Loyola, -- Imagination, Action and Trust

Commemoration of Ignatius of Loyola - (1491-1556), Monastic, theologian, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)


Psalm 34:1-8
Proverbs 22:1-6
1 Corinthians 10:31 - 11:1
Luke 9:57-62

Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God. -- Ignatius of Loyola

Growing up a good little Southern Baptist girl, we didn't hold much truck with eople who had "Saint" in front of their name. Ok, the gospel writers were big names, as were the disciples, Paul, occasionally Mary, Jesus' mother, and Mary Magdalene (in the role she was assigned in the 5th century, not the 1st), Valentine and, of course, Saint Patrick. In fact, I think Patrick was the only one I ever heard of referred to with the name "Saint." Likewise I never heard of Benedict, Francis, Dominic, and Ignatius who were all monastics and whose words still touch the world today. I've come to begin seeing the saints, including the monastics, as friends and guides and I'm glad I've found them.

Iñigo Oñaz López de Loyola was born in privilege and followed the path of many of his contemporaries by joining the army. At age 30 he was critically wounded in the leg and returned home from the wars. During his convalescent he needed to keep his mind occupied so he asked for romance novels to read but the only books available were religious ones. He read them and reached a crossroads that changed the whole focus of his life. Over the next years he studied, made friends, preached, was a prisoner of the Inquisition twice, and finally, with the approval of the Pope, formed the Society of Jesus, known familiarly as the Jesuits, as an order devoted to poverty, chastity and obedience and with a focus on mission and education.

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius are the foundation of the Jesuit order, just as the Rule of St. Benedict guides the Benedictines and the rule written by Francis does the same for the Franciscans. The Spiritual Exercises are a four-week series of meditations, reflections and practices that encourage the person to perfect their own life and mold it to more completely to reflect the true image of Christ. One exercise that I find particularly interesting is the one where I imagine myself in the middle of a piece of scripture, see who is standing where and saying what, who is responding, who is acting and how. It's not just about seeing the scene, it's finding insights and asking God where the lesson is that I am supposed to learn from the story and the insight I gained from it.

The quote from Ignatius sounds like some pretty good advice, particularly in light of reflecting on life and mission. "Christ has no hands but ours," as Teresa of Avila, another monastic, once said. Ignatius was getting at the point that one person can--and should--make a difference, acting as if fixing the world's problems depending solely on them, but with the caveat of believing that God can be trusted to give all that is needed. I'm sure Mother Teresa didn't think she could solve all the problems of the world, but even in her darkest moments, she acted as if helping the poor was her job, making life better for them was her mission, but trusting that God would help to accomplish all that needed to be done. Ignatius seems to have invented the "act as if" statement long before it became a slogan and a way of describing a path to follow.

I think the lesson I learn from Ignatius is that imagination can lead to insights, insights can lead to understanding, understanding can lead to action, and action can be built on trust. I can also pray a prayer attributed to Ignatius:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday July 31, 2012.