Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Study of Liturgy

In one of my Education for Ministry ( (EfM)  groups we’ve been asked to think about liturgy and its place in our lives and ministries. I've found that I really know a lot less about it than I thought I did, and am less able to articulate what it is and what I believe about it as well.
I’ve been involved in the church for many years and in two denominations. I would have said that the church of my childhood was not “liturgical” while the Episcopal church is highly so, and I would have been wrong. What I have begun to realize is that liturgy is not merely a formal style of religion, although that can be a form of it, but rather the way people worship which differs from denomination to denomination and sometimes from church to church within a single denomination. Liturgy is about people: work, community, service and worship. The word itself is a combination of two Greek words meaning “people” and “work”, combining the two to mean either work for or by the people.

I mostly think of liturgy within the church, the rites and rituals done in community or even individually. I was surprised when discussing liturgy with an American Baptist friend some years ago. I mentioned that ours was a “liturgical” church, thinking of liturgy as the order and method of worship as we do in the Episcopal church, but she corrected me. “We are a liturgical church too.” What it boiled down to was that worship was done in a particular order and way, whether one used something like the Book of Common Prayer or not equals liturgy. Both churches used hymns, prayer, readings, a sermon and something invitational – whether an invitation to accept Jesus as a personal savior or an invitation to join in the Eucharistic meal. I can even participate in a liturgy when I read compline or join in prayers and conversation like we do in our EfM groups.

Liturgies cover all manner of things, cyclical ones like Easter, Christmas, the church seasons and the daily prayers from the BCP. They can also cover what are called crisis liturgies, those liturgies that mark a change in state or status of an individual, group or nation. When I think of crisis liturgies, I think of those that were done after 9/11, Blue Christmas liturgies or anointing when someone is in extremis and facing death. There are liturgies for traumatic events and liturgies for joyous ones. I don’t normally think of baptisms, weddings, ordinations, consecrations, confirmations or matriculations as crises, but they do mark changes in state or status. There are inward changes and outward changes, but all represent and mark milestones in the life of a person, group, church, nation or world.

Crisis liturgies have come to be very important to me, specifically the liturgy of healing. About three weeks after I received a diagnosis of breast cancer, I attended my annual EfM mentor training for recertification. It was good to see folks I hadn’t seen for a year and who I’d gotten to know over the past four years of training sessions. I was still rather foggy-headed about the diagnosis and it was never too far from my mind but I didn’t tell anyone in the group until we started to plan for the final Eucharist of the seminar. I spoke to the trainer privately, asking if it were possible to incorporate a service of healing in the liturgy, but to do it without drawing attention to my situation as I wasn’t totally comfortable with asking for prayers or speaking about the diagnosis. To make a long story short, it was incorporated and everyone was anointed by the trainer before we each gave each other the bread and the cup of communion. It was a powerful experience, one which finally allowed me to thank the group and to be open about my new state as a cancer patient. It certainly was a crisis liturgy in my mind, even though I didn’t really remember that it would be classified as such. I experienced a second one a couple of weeks later in an online mentor training seminar, and it was even more powerful. It was certainly an experiment, and even though the formula of the liturgy was fairly familiar (with a few changes), the idea of doing an anointing in a venue that is usually perceived as impersonal, somewhat anonymous and certainly remote was novel. I don’t know how it happened, but honestly, what I felt during that liturgy was almost indescribable. And the effects lasted for several days. Again, a crisis liturgy definitely had the effect of changing my state of mind and acceptance of my state, thanks to my fellow mentors and their brainstorming, willingness and creativity in adapting a familiar liturgy to work in an unusual setting.

Liturgy seems to be about doing things as well as changing status or state. It is a definite yet sometimes fluid way of doing worship, but it is also about building community among those gathered together to participate in a common activity and for the common good. This form of liturgy isn’t limited to worship but rather is more like putting worship to work to accomplish something other than a good feeling after an hour or so on Sunday morning or occasionally helping at a food bank or homeless shelter.

To carry the work of liturgy into the world sometimes takes creativity as well. There are stories of the imposition of ashes on public transit station platforms, prayers and anointing on public sidewalks, and ecumenical services held involving groups who normally would not meet together for an event surrounded by a religious aura. People seem surprised that those liturgies have an impact on just ordinary people who might not have darkened a church door for some time. But then, what if the idea of liturgy were expanded to encompass all the work of the people – working for environmental health, good stewardship of the earth and its resources, humane treatment for both animals and human beings, equality in the workplace as well as in the home and church, promoting the safety and welfare of our children, affordable and available health care for all, especially the elderly and those with infirmities, and a whole list of other things that would fall under what could be called a liturgy of kingdom work, making the kingdom of God here on this earth and in our lifetimes.

Liturgy confined behind church doors benefits those who are also behind church doors. Liturgy done for a greater good in a larger arena benefits many, many more. Liturgy, the work of the people, needs to come out of the church and into the world, and the only way that can be done is with the intention of the people to change things, to make things better for all people and, above all, to build God’s kingdom. I need to consider for myself what liturgy I can take into the world and how I can make even a very small contribution to the kingdom work. That, I believe, will be a work of change – and for the better for all concerned.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, January 29, 2013,lunder the title "Changing the world through liturgy."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Gerasene Demoniac

Reading;    Mark 5:1-20

This story is a familiar one, one I’ve heard a number of times and thought about a number of times. Jesus comes across someone badly in need of help and healing, he healed them and then goes on to other things. This morning, though, some things about the reading made me stop and see something I probably never noticed before. I love it when that happens.

A lot of times a reading will send me off to reference material to find out more about what it is I just read. I use commentaries, alternate translations, sermons, or articles that I find online. Today I found a sermon by The Rev. Sherry Deets that brought up something I hadn’t really thought of:
Look at the Gerasene Demoniac. Jesus met him at the shore the minute he stepped off the boat. Jesus didn’t come to the middle of town, or into the middle of a settled farmland. He came into the luminal space – the in-between – between town and country, between farmland and desert, between land and sea, between life and death (remember the demoniac lived among the tombs). And Jesus spoke to the man, and the demons, who inhabited that luminal space. That space outside the community.*
I never thought of it before but yeah, what was Jesus doing getting out of the boat at a cemetery? Cemeteries were and can still  be places of great superstition. Few people go just to wander around and read the inscriptions, unless they’re looking for someone’s gravesite or perhaps just killing time. It certainly wasn’t a place anyone would really choose to hang around for very long, that is, unless that person were of somewhat unsound mind, had nowhere else to go or perhaps both. Jesus found a man who was only a shadow of his former self, a man so deeply disturbed and damaged that he lived in a city of the dead. Chains wouldn’t hold him, and neither would shackles. He could not live among people; his only companions were the dead, the wild animals and the demons in his head. Jesus was probably the only person who encountered him with anything other than fear, disgust, or malice.

Another thought came to me  as I read the passage again. Jesus healed the man before the man even spoke. Jesus got out of the boat and the man ran to him, throwing himself on his knees. Jesus was saying “Come out of him, you unclean spirits!” as he did so, apparently. Mark makes it a bit harder to see by putting the man’s identification of Jesus first, but this time I read it and realized that it was the other way around – Jesus acted and then the man spoke.

The demoniac (or the demons within him) recognized a man of power, and when Jesus asked his name, the demons answered “Legion.”  Names meant a lot back then; they were messages or indicators of something, just like the children of prophets were often given odd, awkward names dealing with the prophecies their fathers were given. By giving the name Legion, the demoniac (or his demons) gave an indicator that they, like the Roman legions of 2-6,000 men that represented the Roman empire and its control, were oppressors and servants of a corrupt and terrifying presence. By giving Jesus their name, they almost seemed eager to depart, but even if forced to leave their current host they did not want to be banished from their current locale. I don’t know what they thought they would accomplish by asking to be sent into a herd of swine, but that’s what the demons asked for and got. The pigs panicked and headed straight for the water where they subsequently drowned, taking the demons with them (or sending the demons back where they came from, I’m not sure which).

That completed the curing of the demoniac and the healing would be complete when the man returned to his home town and was perceived as once again being a complete, sane human being capable of being reintegrated into and contributing to society. His mission became to spread the good news of what Jesus had done for him among the Greek cities of the Decapolis, a fairly large geographical mission field. There would, however, be something of a shortage of ham, bacon and spare ribs in the area for a while as a result of Jesus’ act.

In today’s world, even though we may not classify them as demoniac, we see the Gerasene man’s brothers and sisters in almost every town and city. Many of them suffer from the result of poor choice or unforeseen circumstance. Many, however, do suffer from mental disease or disorders as well as addictions beyond their control or even sometimes their desire to control. They have seen too much, felt too much, experienced too much for them to handle, or they suffer from internal demons diagnosed as chemical imbalances in the brain. Whatever we choose to call it or believe about it, we generally treat them about the same way people of his home town did with the unnamed man, by stigma, captivity or outright shunning. I doubt very seriously that the demoniac enjoyed his status, nor do our contemporary “demoniacs.” None have or had the ability to heal themselves and society wasn’t/isn’t usually about to help them either. We are afraid of them, whether physically afraid of what they might/could do, or afraid that we will somehow be infected or be contaminated, made unclean and impure by contact with them.  Jesus saw beyond the contamination and fear, but then, he was Jesus. He could do a lot of things ordinary human beings couldn’t do. What he did do that we are also able to do, if we are open and willing,  is to see beyond the exterior manifestations and see the child of God that lurks below the surface, in the very breath of the body and the imprint of the Spirit.

Pastor Deets stated in her sermon something I think is important for me to remember as I think about the demoniac and the places he and his descendants inhabit.  “We may… be called to seek out those dark places- not simply to bring the light of Christ’s love there, but to meet Christ there ourselves.”  Isn’t that what we are all called to do as Christians and as children of God ourselves?  Isn’t it our job to work toward not just the healing of the earth but the healing of God’s children as well?
Now to figure out how to do my part in all this. 

*Deets, The Rev. Sherry, The Gerasene Demoniac, a sermon preached 6/24/2007 at the Episcopal Church of the Trinity, Coatesville, PA.  The full sermon can be found at Trinity Episcopal Church sermons .  Quotations used with permission.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 26, 2013.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making a Difference

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. -- Mark 2:23-3:6

It seems there were not many places Jesus could go without being under surveillance. In the synagogue, on the road, in Jerusalem, even in the middle of a corn field, it seems someone was always watching, and generally that was not a good thing. Jesus walked in a sort of mine field with the Pharisees, the Herodians, the priests, the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the whole lot of them. In a way, it's sort of like famous people today who are constantly under scrutiny of paparazzi and others just waiting for the person to make a misstep or say the wrong thing. In Jesus's case it wouldn't just be public humiliation, it had the potential of being much more serious than that.

The gist of these two episodes in this reading is observance of the Sabbath. It was serious matter as it is mentioned at least twice to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." It was a remembrance of the seventh day of creation when God rested, and no work was supposed to be done on that day. Of course we can look back to the story of King David using the sacred bread to feed himself and his followers, but maybe the Pharisees and those looking to catch Jesus doing something wrong needed to be reminded of that. What could or could not be done on the Sabbath was strictly delineated and seriously taken as a sacred duty. But even then, there were questions of "what if... ."

For me, the episode of the man with a withered hand stands out as indicative of not only Jesus' ministry but also his message. The man's disability was more than a matter of cosmetics, it was literally a matter affecting his entire life. Then, as now, there are places in the world where people don't sit down to dinner at a table with knives, forks and spoons, eat off porcelain, pottery or even paper plates and use serving utensils to retrieve what they want to eat from serving dishes. Eating is done from common dishes with everyone dipping their hands (or a morsel of bread) into the dish and then conveying it to their mouths. But it is only the right hand that is used for this. No two-handed fried-chicken-an'-corn-on-the-cob eatin' here; the left hand for them was/is exclusively for an entirely different purpose, one we would associate with Charmin or Angel Soft. To lose a hand (and if I were a thief, I would lose my right hand for punishment) meant effectively that I would either starve to death unless I were fortunate enough have someone feed me, or part of me would never be completely clean. We don't know which hand on the man in the story was affected but it is obvious that it was a very serious matter. Healing him on the Sabbath was an act of mercy but was it work? That's a good question. Did Jesus consider it work? Obviously the Pharisees thought so.

What is work? Most of us would say it was what we do to make the money we need in order to pay the bills for things we see as necessary for life. We often define ourselves by what we do to earn our living rather than who we actually are inside. Work is defined as something physical or mental done to achieve a result. We work to earn money; Jesus worked to bring the message of God's kingdom to humanity and to demonstrate God's love for the world though his words and his actions. Was this physical or mental activity? Was healing the result of mental activity, physical activity, both or neither? It definitely had a purpose, and whichever it was, the Pharisees saw it as work. We see it as an example and a lesson, but to the man with a withered hand it undoubtedly represented a life-saving and life-changing event. To him, whether it was physical, mental, both or neither was not important. The important thing was that it was done.

I wonder what would happen if we paid less attention to what we felt we had to do in terms of earning a living and did more of what we felt we needed to do for the world. Unless we are doctors, healthcare professionals or scientists, or we are great world leaders, we don't feel we really have much impact on healing the world. Certainly we're not Jesus. Even so, every healing act, every great idea, every big project starts with a single person and builds from there. We don't have to be Jesus, we just have to act when we see something that can be done to give another person or another group of people a life-saving and life-changing event.

My challenge to myself is to identify what I can do and then to actually do it. Jesus knew his act would make a difference, and he knew that he had the ability to perform this act. I need to have the confidence to try to make the effort. Will it actually make a difference? I won't know until I try.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 19, 2013.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Strength, Faith and Life Preservers

Dear Abba,

I know I said I was going to try to write more this Epiphany, but sometimes the best laid plans -- well, you know that reference. Anyway, today I did have something I wanted to talk over with you about an epiphany of sorts I had.

The other morning I was driving to work. It was still dark, it was really, really cold and I'd struggled with another night of broken sleep. I remember thinking that it's been nearly five years since my husband's death, and I'm still here, still functioning, still maintaining a roof over my head (and a home for the boys--and Phoebe), and, despite some rather unexpected and life-altering diagnoses in the past year, I'm still upright and not really depressed or melancholy about the whole thing. I have my moments when things seem to be almost too much to deal with, but so far I've been able to work through it with a little (hell, make that a lot) of help from my friends and what I devoutly hope is a mature but not ostentatious faith.

The thought that stuck with me was that I am a stronger person than I thought I was. I've grown into it, in a manner of speaking, and, Lord knows, it's taken me long enough. The old saying that "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" seems to be the case for me. I am surprised to have gotten through a lot of changes and shifts and growth spurts, and when I look back at where I was, I can recognize that I'm a stronger person than I thought I could be. My faith seems stronger too, but then I wonder, is my faith stronger because I am stronger, or am I stronger because my faith is? 

Somehow I got to thinking about faith and life preservers. Someone in the water can hang on to a life preserver for quite a while but sooner or later, through intent or circumstance, they will have to let go and either sink or swim on their own merits (or get rescued by someone in a very convenient boat).  Even so, to get in the boat would still require letting go of the life preserver. Now is faith the life preserver that holds the person up, or is it the ability to let go of the life preserver and reach for the boat? 

I don't think I have a fatalistic faith, the kind that would say that you're in charge of whatever happens, and whatever happens does so for a reason and mine is not to question why but to work through it with faith. I don't think you punish me for messing up, nor do I think you put things in my path to make me stumble and learn what it is to fall.  I think I have a purpose in life, but I don't seem to be able to determine precisely what that purpose is. I do know, however, that I am more accepting that I don't have all the answers, I can't do things all by myself, and I have to rely on you to keep an eye on me and be there for me both when I'm standing tall or when I'm about to crawl on the floor. I don't think I have to understand everything; I can leave that to you with no problem. I don't even have to understand much other than that actions have consequences, and I have to pay the consequences when I screw up. I accept that because I think that is the way it is supposed to be.

Jesus was scornful of those about whom he said, "Oh ye of little faith." Somehow the Greek, ὀλιγόπιστος (oligopistos), "of little faith," has a bit more kick to it than the English translation. The point is that the phrase Jesus used indicated that most of those folks were still hanging on to the life preserver (or, like the disciples other than Peter, staying firmly in the boat). I have to stop and think -- would I get out of the boat and try go walk on water or would I stay in the gunwales, knowing I would probably sink like a rock if I did try getting out?  How strong is my faith, and how much is my faith based on my perception of my own strength?  How much can I trust you?  Having trust for and having trust in seem to be worlds apart. I trust you -- but how much do I have trust IN you?  Am I just talking semantics or is there really something there?

Society says I should be this way or that way, depending on my condition in life. As a widow, I'm supposed to be a bit sorrowful, but able to get on with life alone. As a cancer patient, I'm supposed to be frightened and unsure (which, I admit, I am sometimes) of the future and what it holds (which I do question sometimes).  As a woman, I'm supposed to have to either be ballsy enough to do things that women traditionally aren't supposed to have to do (like be the breadwinner of a family, even if that family consists of cats!) and do it relatively successfully or be reverential and deferent to the male of the species as the stronger who can do things I can't. I don't live in a house with an alarm system and/or umpteen locks on the door like some ladies of my acquaintance. I am not vain about my appearance; I dress for comfort rather than fashion, and I admit my favorite couturier is Wal-Mart (because I can afford their clothes). Society would look at me as a somewhat lesser success simply because I don't spend hours at the gym doing exercises to make me look fitter, hours at the salons and spas to make me look better, take botox treatments, color my hair or even care if I put on my prostheses or not most of the time. I am a success in their eyes only because I am not totally dependent on social programs and do pay my taxes. Beyond that, I'm not a social success, but that's okay with me. A lot of what society sees as success is what I see as more false than the prosthetics I have. But what I have that they maybe don't see (or don't care about) is that I get up every morning, go to work, take care of myself and the boys (and Phoebe), and then do it all again the next day, whether I want to or not. That's a kind of success in my book.

And what they don't see is that I write about what is important to me, like life and faith and theology and that kind of stuff. I write to try to come to an understanding of what I believe, where I got that belief, why I believe and how it impacts my life, which brings me back to the original question I began with, is my faith stronger because I am stronger, or am I stronger because my faith is?

I still don't have an answer, but I think simply being able to ask the question and want to know the answer is an epiphany of sorts. I guess you and I will have to talk about this and other stuff more before I maybe "get it."  I definitely don't see my self in the "Oh ye of little faith" camp, but ... I don't know, some might see me in it and most don't give a flip whether I am or not. As for me, I want to know for sure -- I think. Mostly, I just want to know whether I really am on to something or whether I'm just mouthing platitudes and being "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." 

So there is where I am, still driving in the cold, dark morning of my mind, wondering. Guess I will need to work out an answer eventually -- with a little help (ok, a lot of help) from my friends and, of course, from you. Think that's a possibility?

With much love,


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Family Ties

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.  -- Galatians 3:23-29, 4:4-7
This is one of those passages that has always resonated with me on a number of levels. The part that seems to reach a lot of people is "There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female" to use a shortened form. It seems to say that in Christ there is equality, no matter what the national origin, economic and social status or even gender. It sets up a universality of all humankind under Christ in a passage that people quote and seem to say they believe in, although sometimes there is a person or a group they just can't seem to see fitting in that equality category.
Another part of this passage that hits home with me is the part about being adopted. I was adopted as a child but I grew up knowing one of my birth parents. Some years ago I took a class in Biblical anthropology and did my research paper on the Biblical custom of adoption. What I found was somewhat different and yet so very similar to the adoption I knew from my own experience. The Biblical adopted child was often given a home by childless couples who needed someone to care for them in their old age as well as to inherit and continue the family name, line and business. An adopted child was exactly equal with a child born to the family, and upon adoption, all loyalty and responsibility to the birth family ceased and the adoptive family became the group to whom the adoptee owed life, loyalty and responsibility.  I was surprised at how similar adoption was given the differences in time and culture. I also knew, though, that there were often people who did not accept the adoption as wholeheartedly as might be.  There was always one person who used the phrase, "You aren't really a member of the family. They had to take you...." 
Some of this comes up for me when I hear the arguments about the consecration of women bishops and those who consecrate them. A faction of the church simply cannot accept chromosomally XX people wearing mitres, ordaining priests, confirming confirmands and leading a diocese. Bishops must be XY, just as Jesus was XY and so were all his disciples (of course, Mary Mag and others were XX and were part of the group surrounding Jesus and supporting his ministry, despite the angst that might have caused by uppity women in those days).  I'm not sure how they can read the passage from Paul and draw some sort of boundary around what he says about belonging to Christ, heirs of Abraham and fully children of God. It seems to me that any and all of those described as adopted are full members of the family, regardless of what Aunt Maggie or a faction of the church says.
The church has, for generations, had a skewed idea of what Paul's message of equality meant.  First of all, if they weren't Jewish males, they were not eligible for discipleship. Then Jesus had a coterie of women surrounding him in his ministry and Paul acknowledged the gifts of women like Junia, Prisca and others as co-workers. Either they were equals or they weren't. As Christianity spread, this group or that was considered "unequal" to the task of answering God's call; if you were a member of a certain ethnic group, or national group, race or even gender, you were not suitable and any protestations of a deep and heartfelt call from God was simply preposterous. In our own church, how many decades did it take to accept not just the personhood of African Americans and Native Americans but their very ability to answer God's call to ministry and position in the church? It took quite a while, and it has only been in recent memory that they have been accepted fully. It took longer for women to be able to answer the call to ordination. XY was ok, XX was still suspect. Then the argument turned to women in the episcopate of the Cof E (and other national churches). Are they equal or not?  Their baptism covenant says that they are, but there are still nay-sayers that say they are baptized members but they can't possibly answer a call to the priesthood or episcopacy because Jesus didn't have women disciples and traditionally women have been relegated to the back pews and instruction from their spouses, teachers, priests, bishops and officials -- all male. If baptism makes us all heirs, and adoption makes us all part of the same family, why are we still making distinctions between who is acceptable and who is not, based only on gender, race, orientation or any other single characteristic that is a part of who they are? At least here in the US, the adoption seems to have taken and the adoptees, male and female, are all in the will as equals even if sometimes they are still further down the dinner table than they could be.
If God has adopted us, and God calls us, who are we to say we find this or that one unacceptable?  Are all baptized people members of the family or not?  I think Paul had the idea that they were, and he operated in a world where differentiation was very much a part of life. God -- well, God has God's own set of rules but at the outset, "Male and female, he created them." Sounds like they were part of the family to me. Granted, we're not going to like everybody equally; there are some families where this one doesn't like that one and that's that, but that's human nature. God doesn't call us to like everybody -- just to love them. I'm closer to some family members than to others, but they're still family, whether or not we share the same gene pool, blood type or blood relation.
I have to look at who I accept and who I relegate to a lesser position, who I consider really a member of the family and who is just there because the family had to take them in. Come to think of it, having to take someone into the family isn't such a bad thing; it makes me realize that there are some who need the ties, the home, the relationships a family offers, and in turn, they can add a lot to the mix in a positive way. Maybe I just need to remember that a family is a family by choice, individuals can choose to belong or not. I also need to look at who is I think is suitable and who is not -- and why.  Is it just because tradition says so? Or is there something in tradition that says yes but that that can be ignored because more of history and tradition says no than says yes. 
Most of all, who am I to say "God, this just won't do. This person just is not suitable."  Sounds like the height of hubris to me.  I wonder -- if God calls'em, can we (or I) really say no?  Sometimes a graft onto a root stock makes for a much stronger, healthier plant. Bet that works for families (and churches) too. I bet God thinks so too.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 12, 2013.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Letter to God on Epiphany

About a dozen years ago, long before I discovered blogging, a priest asked me to consider writing meditations for Epiphany as she'd liked the ones I did for Advent. This was my first effort, and I'm hoping that revisiting it will help me to remember to look for the small epiphanies that happen every day, and that I learned in that time to see for maybe the first time in my life.

Dear Abba,

I’ve been thinking about epiphany. I know we just celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, but honestly it hadn’t really occurred to me that Epiphany is more than a day. It’s a whole church season! Well, of course I knew it was a specific period of time in the liturgical year since the hangings and markers change from the white of Christmas to green.  Here, in the middle of winter, we have a “green” period, a good reminder that spring always follows winter and that the earth comes alive again after the winter’s dormancy.  Is that why the green of Epiphany so much less irritating than the green we see for such a long time after Pentecost?

 But Epiphany as a liturgical season is a thing I’d never really considered, Abba.  For me Epiphany was a season that kept Christmas and Lent from running into each other.  Yes, I noticed that Epiphany had specific readings and hymns and all, but the significance of it never really rattled the bars of my mind or let the fridge light come on (probably because I never opened that particular refrigerator door!).  I’ve been thinking, reading, studying, and contemplating, and I think I’ve finally begun to wrap my mind about what Epiphany really is.

For many people, Epiphany is a letdown time.  All the hype and whoop-de-doo of  Christmas and its preface are over. That can be a real bummer because Christmas is supposed to be such a joyful time.  For many, it can be the saddest, loneliest, most trying time of year.  They wander around, wondering why everybody seems so happy and felicitous and full of Christmas cheer. They may even try to put on a happy face too, because that seems to be what is expected.  If you look behind the joviality, frivolity and bustle, though, you’d find they are almost all feeling empty; they’re just putting on a good front so they can appear “normal”.  By the time Epiphany comes the grandkids have gone home, the house is quiet again, the decorations are back in their boxes, and now the bills start coming in.  All reason to look cheerful and happy seems to be gone and the emptiness still remains. 

Since the basic theme of Epiphany is your manifestation among us, maybe what we need is a new idea of what that means --- small insights and awarenesses every day to show us that Epiphany is more than a “little” season between two big ones.  Maybe we need small epiphanies to make us think and let the light bulbs of our minds light up with a mental, “WOW! I never thought of it that way” kind of thing.

Abba, show me the epiphanies you want me to see.  I know I can’t come up with them on my own.  You have a way of showing me, though; you use things I read, things I see, and people with whom I talk.  You always manage to whack me between the eyes when I really need to pay attention.  So, let me pay attention much more closely this year to the messages and manifestations you have for me to see.  I’m looking forward to this new journey.

I love you.

Welcome, Epiphany

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit
. -- Romans 15:7-13

Next to Advent, Epiphany is my favorite season of the church year.  The expectation is over, the event has been celebrated, and now like the party after the really great party, the church relaxes slightly, kicks off its shoes, has a little more champagne as it talks over the events of the party and enjoys taking a break before it gets into the penitence of Lent and the unrestrained joy of Easter.

One year I wanted to really welcome Epiphany and celebrate it to the fullest. Being the wordy person that I am, and also wanting to try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, I decided to write a letter to God every day of the season, looking at ordinary, everyday things and trying to see the sacred in them. It worked. I noticed so many more things I certainly would have missed. It also taught me about something I would later come to know as theological reflection and its look at an event, a text, a picture, a movie or an experience through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. I welcomed the discipline of writing, and I continued it for quite a while. Maybe I should take it up again. The attitude of gratitude has worn off a bit and needs to be re-honed.

But thinking about welcomes, I have to recall the Sunday I first tuned in to a stream of a service at All Saints', Pasadena.  My stepson had encouraged me to watch to see if I could see him and his partner in the congregation but mostly, I think, to show me "his" church and the kind of place that drew them both in. I watched, and honestly, I felt more welcome through the computer monitor than I have in most churches I have visited in person. If that first visit online was any indication, I thought, it's no wonder that church is growing and flourishing. It reminded me that welcome doesn't mean just shaking hands at the door and offering coffee or a short blurb in the break between the liturgy of the word and that of the table. It's an ongoing theme, expressed again and again as if to make sure the message sinks in: you are welcome here, no matter who you are, where you come from, where you are in faith or in no faith, and what you've done in the past. If it weren't for the distance, I'd probably say "Sign me up now!" I felt like I was seeing how the future of Christianity could be assured.

Paul's words to the Romans encourage them to welcome one another, practicing the kind of greeting and attention that Jesus offered not only to the Jews but to the Gentiles -- the Syrophoenician woman, the Roman centurion, the Gerasene demoniac and others. Not the hospitality of house and home, not even the extending the gifts of food and good conversation, rather it was the sense of his attention focused on them and their problems, his interaction with them to heal them, and his willingness to do this again and again for people who were complete strangers and who he would undoubtedly never see again. He embraced them into and with his presence and eased their burdens. What more radical welcome could there be?

Whether on paper (or electrons), in person, on the road, in church, at work, on the phone, there are a hundred ways to show welcoming every day to both friend and stranger, believer and unbeliever. When I write I invite people into my mind and heart just as I feel invited into the minds and hearts of those whose words I read. I can feel welcomed by a friendly clerk at a grocery or department store or a priest standing before an altar in church. I can look forward to the welcome into heaven when the time comes, and I can welcome Jesus into my heart every day. And I can enjoy the time of each church season with its particular gifts and insights.

Welcome, Epiphany. I am looking forward to your visit and your lessons.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 5, 2012, under the title "Eve of Epiphany."