Sunday, February 24, 2013


Commemoration of Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr of Smyrna (d. 156)

The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, ‘Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.’ So he returned to Balak, who was standing beside his burnt-offerings with all the officials of Moab. Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:
‘Balak has brought me from Aram,
the king of Moab from the eastern mountains:
“Come, curse Jacob for me;
Come, denounce Israel!” 
How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? 
For from the top of the crags I see him,
from the hills I behold him;
Here is a people living alone,
and not reckoning itself among the nations!
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
or number the dust-cloud of Israel?
Let me die the death of the upright,
and let my end be like his!’
Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.’ He answered, ‘Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?’  -- Numbers 23:5-12

Balak was in a spot. The Israelite army was advancing on Moab and Balak was a bit perturbed. Picking up the local paper, he looks in the classifieds under "Prophets" and finds the name Balaam of with a  "Curses are our Specialty". Just the man, it seems. So Balak, using his power as king, summons Balaam with the express intent of having him lay a powerful curse on the Israelites and save the kingdom. Balaam finally showed up (after a harrowing episode on the road featuring his talking donkey) and Balak told him what he wanted, namely curses, lots of potent curses. Balak did this three times, each time taking Balaam to a mountain peak to show him the imminent danger but each time Balaam blessed the Israelites instead. Balak was confused. His prophet for hire turned out to be a dud. "Why?" he wonders. Balaam had a simple answer, "Hey, God told me what to say so what else can I say?"  Balaam must have been impressed, because he, a non-Israelite, not only heard but obeyed the God of Israel.

There is the common thread between the reading from Numbers and Polycarp, the subject of today's commemoration. Polycarp refused to worship the authorized gods, the Roman pantheon and Caesar himself, and as such was considered an atheist. Given the chance to save himself, he was urged to renounce Jesus but, like Balaam, he had refused the pressure, saying, "For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?" Polycarp was martyred without renouncing the Lord in whom he had fully put his trust.

Two different men, two different outcomes. Balaam eventually walked away while Polycarp paid with his life. Balaam was not Israelite but obeyed God when God spoke. Polycarp was from what is now Turkey but obeyed the call of a Jewish preacher from Galilee. With God there is life and there is death, just as surely as there is without God. The shoes (sandals) of both men could have been on the other foot: Balaam could have cursed Israel and been richly rewarded by Balak but he could have been put to death had Balak ordered it. As it was, he seems to have gone back home to his people. Polycarp could have renounced Jesus and lived, but at what cost to himself and his faith?  There's always a choice -- and there are always consequences of the choices.

I don't think I'd particularly want to be in the shoes/sandals of either man, not because I doubt God but I don't know how brave or strong I could be when facing what could be my death for my refusal to stand by my belief. It's really easy to say that I'd be willing to be martyred for my faith, but the instigator of martyrdom, persecution, seems to be a cheap word these days. Lots of people claim to be persecuted because of their belief when what really happens is that other people disagree or oppose those beliefs (or the insistence that they are the only right ones). In some areas, people are literally standing their ground for their faith at the risk of their lives, so just being verbally opposed doesn't seem like much of a threat, in my opinion. The Polycarps of the world die without renouncing their faith, often unheralded by the greater world and even by the faith they share and profess. The Balaams speak the right words but then go home to their families, having done what they believe they had done all that God required. Maybe so -- I'm not God so I can't say for sure. I can say, though, that there are probably a lot more Polycarps in the world than Balaams.

Today I will think of those Polycarps of all faiths who die because of what and in whom they believe but who will be considered atheists by others who hold different beliefs. Maybe I should restrict myself to Christians (such as the real Polycarp), but I can't. Maybe I'm too much of a -- what's the word I want to use? -- believer convinced that God loves all, no matter by what name, if any, others use to speak of, speak to, or speak about God, even atheists who must have some image of a God in whom they do not believe.

Hopefully I'll never have to face burning at the stake or a king who would chop off my head (or some other gruesome means of dispatching me from this world), but if I do, I can hope to be as brave as Polycarp, or as strong as Balaam. Meanwhile, I think I'll practice thinking of opposition to my beliefs as something to build up my strength, like resistance training, not as a path to martyrdom. Practice makes perfect, I hear.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 23, 2013.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


They say a woman can never be too rich or too thin. Being neither, I take as my motto “A woman can never have too many books.”  It doesn’t work for everybody but it certainly seems to be a guiding principle in my life. I offer as proof the small abode in which I dwell. It’s not miniscule, thank heaven, or there wouldn’t be room for me and my four feline companions, although they usually look at me in much the same way the Dowager Duchess would look at the housemaid who got caught sneaking a cookie off the tea tray. I’m not companion, I’m “staff.”

I know I have too much stuff but I have to confess I accumulate books the way some women accumulate lipsticks or shoes. I have several pairs of shoes but one or two favorites that I alternate depending on the season .I don’t do makeup, and as for clothes, I have lots of t-shirts and jeans but that’s about it for my sartorial splendor. Aside from cat hair, which my house seems to have an overabundance, the things most in evidence when you walk in the door are books. Everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere but a lot of places, for sure. Most of them live in one or the other of the bookcases I brought from my former house, tall lush red mahogany-finished six-shelved wooden containers that stand on the same wall but at different ends of the living room/kitchen/workroom/den/family room that occupies most of the floor space of the house. There are books piled on my desktop, usually the most currently-being-used reference or textbooks that frequently form a stack where my Kindle can rest on top, having a fairly sizeable library of books contained in its mechanical innards that are encased in plastic and between the protective leather covers of its case. There are books on the bookcase attached to my desk, in the black wire mesh file container on the floor next to the desk, on top of the seldom-used scanner, and even piled higgledy-piggledy on the same shelves of the bookcases as their more neatly (and conventionally) displayed peers. Of course, the bookshelves have some other things on them too, things like knick-knacks, a stack of coasters, a video or two, a slinky that is a reminder of a long-ago classroom discussion and even stuff that is simply in transit but just hasn’t been picked up for delivery to its proper location yet. Some of it has been waiting quite a while, unfortunately. But over and above all, the bookcases are full of books, books, books and more books.

The books aren’t uniform like bound leather sets of classics we used to be able to buy a volume at a time and which presented an imposing façade on the shelves. Some of mine are tall, some are short, some thick, some thin, but each one is there because I either want to read it, am reading it, have read it, plan to read it again or because it has some special meaning. It’s so hard to part with a book; I should know as I had to part with 35 boxes of them when I moved from my former house to this one. I kept as many as I could, too many perhaps, but a girl has to have some kind of vice and books are mine. I revel in the sight of them, finding enjoyment in the visual of their diverse colors and textures. There is the plain turquoise-covered hardback of Ginger’s book that I edited for her cheek-by-jowl with the rather exuberantly plaid dust jacket of Jean’s book that her family chose for it. There are a few somber black covers with brighter, busier ones mixed in. There are dull covers and glossy ones, hard covers and more pliable ones, each one a tactile treat to handle when taken down from the shelves. They even have their own scents. Most have a faint reminder that the paper and even many of the covers were once part of a forest mixed with the slight aroma of ink that has been applied to the pages. Most of them seem to have a hint of dust but one in particular reminds me of home. I bought that book second-hand and when I opened the package in which it arrived, there was the smell of damp and mildew, much like the air of the little library in the basement of the Customs House in my home town, a room with brick walls almost three centuries old and only a pair of tiny windows near the ceiling of the room for ventilation. I’ve aired that particular book out fairly well, but even though I haven’t read it yet, I still go to it now and again and open it, just to take a mini-vacation back home and to a simpler, perhaps happier time.

My books are my oasis, my university, my art gallery, my passports. I could no more live without them than I could live without air – or cats. It’s almost time to pare down the collection again and I am beginning to dread it. How to choose which books with which to part so that there is room for new additions? There will be new additions, that’s for certain. Maybe I could get rid of something else first? Now there’s a thought….

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Feb 16 - Dinner Parties

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’ - Luke 14:15-24

The shopping's been done, the food prepared, the wine's in the cooler, the table is set, silver perfectly aligned with the good china, crystal glasses spotless, flowers arranged carefully and not so tall as to block conversation across the table -- seems like everything's set for a very nice, very special dinner party. Whether in a modest house in small-town America or a grand hall in Buckingham Palace, dinner parties have to be planned out and not just thrown together any more than the guest list. A dinner party can make a reputation -- or create an entirely opposite one. 

Imagine you've gone to all this trouble for a dinner party and then, at the last minute, people you've invited begin to beg off for one reason or another. You can't always say, "Well, just bring your new bride along," when you've carefully prepared enough for just the number of invited guests, nor can you just take away plates and chairs and spread everybody out a bit more to cover the missing. Besides, it can be very disheartening to throw a party and have everybody be too busy to show up, not to mention it can get very tiring eating the leftovers for a week rather than waste the food.

Jesus throws a shift into the story, just as he does with all his parables. Instead of wringing his hands or bemoaning the ingratitude of friends, the party giver tells his servant to go out and invite people who would probably never ever be invited to such a party, people who were the opposite of the normally-invited guests. The poor, lame, blind, crippled folk would not only not have normally been invited because of their infirmity or their social status but because they could not reciprocate the invitation. To not repay invitation for invitation would have heaped more shame on them than they'd already have to bear because of their infirmities or situations. So they probably followed the servant into the hall with some trepidation. When there were still places at the table to be filled, the servant was set out again to bring in anyone else he found, including, very probably, travelers, tradespeople, maybe even the possible law-breaker. The table had to be full.

God is the party giver and one thing is certain. God's already gone out and invited people to the table, people who might not fit the image of those who would be expected to sit at a great banquet of "rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear" (Is. 25:6) but they will be there. The thing about it is that those invited are invited without any expectation of their being able to reciprocate the invitation and without being in the least worthy of the invitation itself.  But the invitation is there, and God is looking for company. There are places enough for every person on the planet, me included. God's an equal-opportunity partygiver.

You know, I have a feeling that this banquet is one where I won't have to worry about using the right fork for the right dish or that I'm not properly dressed for the occasion. I'm invited because I'm wanted. That's a very comforting thought.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 16, 2013, under the title "The Dinner Party."  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lending to God

There's an old joke about a newly married couple whose wedding night (and the next few) are not quite what the bride had envisioned. The groom explains that it is Lent. The bride's comeback is, "To whom is it lent and for how long?"  With Lent beginning this week, it seems to me to be a more than appropriate question (even for a punch line).

The easy part is "how long." Answers range from "Ash Wednesday until Easter" to "A period of time before the first full moon following the vernal equinox." It is forty days -- excluding Sundays which are always little Easters, even during Lent, -- a season of penitence and reflection leading up to the glorious celebration of the resurrection at Easter itself. Many mark the Lenten season with the custom of giving up something like chocolates or desserts or the like. Others may instead take on something like extra church attendance, Bible reading or prayer instead of or, occasionally, in addition to, giving up some particularly enjoyed activity or food. It's supposed to remind us of what Jesus gave up for us and to identify in some very small way with Jesus in his suffering. We can't really identify with the depth of Jesus' suffering because we aren't Jesus, but the giving up of something is supposed to be a sort of martyrdom by pinpricks; we have little twinges of temptation to give it up and just eat that Cadbury Egg or drink that beer. Me, I've never had any success giving up Peeps during Lent (the only time REAL Peeps are sold) until last year, but that's another story.

As for "To whom is it lent," it seems to me that that's a much deeper line of thought.  Of course, the obvious answer is "the church" or "Christians" but I think there's more to it. While we're meant to use the giving up as a sign of love for Jesus, one thing that isn't always stressed is that we are encouraged to take the money we'd normally spend on whatever delicacy we're giving up and either save it to make an Easter gift at the church, to a favorite charity or toward a particular need somewhere in the world. I usually have a problem just giving up something without remembering that second part of the equation. 

But there's another thought going through my head. Lent, besides being the name of the season, is also the past tense of "lend" -- giving something with the expectation of having it returned at a future time. We voluntarily give up something with the full plan to dive back into it as soon as we hear the first "Alleluia!"  We can say we're doing it for our spiritual growth, or maybe for our health's sake, or even just because it's easier to give up something when there are other people around also voluntarily offering to sacrifice a personal habit or indulgence. Mutual support makes the road easier, there's no doubt. But I wonder, is it just for us that we're doing this?

What if we thought of "to whom is it lent" as putting our endeavors in God's hands, "lending" them, as it were. As Christians we believe that all that we are and all that we have is God's anyway, even though we're given the stewardship over the things we are and have, much as the servants in the parable (Matthew 25:13-30, Luke 19:11-27) were given various amounts of money to care for during their master's absence. The expectation of the master was that the servants would use his money to make him even more money, and two of the servants did that, each roughly doubling the original amount given them. The third, though, gave the master exactly the amount the master had entrusted to him. Calling him lazy and unprofitable, the servant was punished for not taking a chance, not thinking that the money was lent for a purpose and not just to hang onto with clenched fist. I wonder, do we see the small sacrifices we make for Lent as giving God back a bit more of what has already been entrusted to us and with which we are supposed to show a profit?  Peeps and beer seem like a pretty poor return on God's investment.

I know the story is usually more a stewardship-drive kind of scripture, but I think we're supposed to find epiphanies in whatever we read and whenever we read it. Yes, we are supposed to make regular returns to God from our life and labors, as the exhortation goes, and so we chuck in a check or some bills and coins when the alms basin goes around. We volunteer to help tidy up the church and grounds a couple of times a year or we go and help feed the hungry at the local soup kitchen on Christmas and Easter. Those are our returns on investment to God, but during Lent we're called to do a little more. God has lent to us our lives, what we lend to God are little habits and pleasures we think we can do without for forty days (excluding Sundays). Seems like a small return on investment, no matter how much we really want those Cadbury Eggs or that cup of coffee.

I ask myself, what am I lending to God this year?  How much of a sacrifice will it be to my life, and how much benefit will I accrue from it? It's like a time-limited New Year's resolution -- can I really keep the promise I make to God about this one thing or these few things?  How much will it hurt, but what will I learn as a result of it?  I have a feeling the answer will be both surprising and enlightening.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian  on Episcopal Café Thursday, February 14, 2013, under the title "To whom is it lent and for how long?"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Help my unbelief....

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ - Mark 9:14-29.

I read this passage this morning and thought it sounded familiar. I thought I had come upon this not long ago and yes, I had. The same story was told in Matthew 17: 14-20 in slightly different words. In both the disciples tried to heal a child, but couldn’t, so the father turned to Jesus.
Last time I was drawn to the parental thing of what wouldn’t I do for my own child but this morning my attention was drawn to the part where the father asked Jesus to heal the boy saying, “If you are able to do anything. have pity on us and help us.” It sounds to me as if the man recognized Jesus as his last hope. It echoes in some of the other stories of the gospels where there were people have tried everything and have not been able to get relief or a cure from doctors, magicians or anyone else from whom they sought help. For this man, like the others, Jesus was the court of last resort. The statement, “If you are able,” gives me the feeling that the father has just about given up hope. When you’ve been disappointed many times it’s sometimes very hard to work up a lot of enthusiastic hope and risk yet another disappointment. I can’t fault the man; he had hope, but he wasn’t able to fully throw his heart into that hope because of his fear for both his son’s health and of his own tentative faith. In that light Jesus’ reply seems a bit snippy. I can hear in his voice something that sounds perilously like sarcasm or scorn. I guess by then Jesus was a little tired or maybe frustrated with his disciples not getting the lessons he had tried so hard to teach them. They had tried to heal the child and couldn’t, so something hadn’t sunk in. At any rate, he told the man that anything can be done for one who believes, in short, if you want or need it enough and have enough faith, it can happen.
The man’s reply to Jesus echoes something I’ve experienced off and on throughout my life, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I, like the man, want badly to believe something good will happen, but there is a fear there that disappointment will come. What’s so terrible about that?  It reminds me of an old saying I heard from somewhere where someone described snow in April as “a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.”  Yes, disappointments happen, but often they happen when hope is at its lowest. When things are going well it’s easier to take a disappointment that it is after there have been a whole series of things going wrong. When hope fades often faith does the same thing, and I think, in a way, this is where the father was when he finally got his son to Jesus. It’s a feeling I have had and will probably have again from time to time.
Faith never fails me completely, and when it seems to be about ready to die, there’s always a little reserve left that can grow again. There is a tree stump at a lot just up the street from me. Every time a new trailer or RV pulls into that space any growth gets chopped back to bare stump, but, within a couple of weeks, new shoots start appearing at the bottom and begin to grow from the stump that I thought was dead. I have watched it happen multiple times over the last four years and always amazes me. I’d like to think my faith is kind of like that, tenaciously clinging to life, even when it seems that there is nothing left alive. I have a feeling the father in the story had that kind of faith.  Maybe that is the lesson I am supposed to learn today.
It isn’t the physical proximity to Jesus like the disciples had that may create miracles and healings, it’s the faith and the belief – even if it is just a tentative faith and a flickering belief. When in doubt, the prayer to say just might be “I believe, help my unbelief.”  I’ll remember that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 9, 2013, under the title "I believe, help my unbelief."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Nostalgic Celebration of Sorts

The sun hasn't been up long, but I have been up a couple of hours already.  The sky is a mixture of cloud cover and blue sky, sort of like my mood today. Looking at the calendar reminded me that this would have been my adoptive mother's birthday, her 108th, had she lived. As it was, she spent 55 years on this planet, gave birth to one son and grafted a daughter onto the family tree, lived a Christian life and died too soon.

Out of curiosity I perused a genealogy site just to see what I could find.  I knew she had been born in Idaho. Her father was a construction worker who subsequently worked in Florida and Louisiana, probably among other places. I have no idea how she came to meet my adoptive father, a native of Virginia who never lived more than 30 miles from where he was born. According to the genealogy site, she spent at least a while living with her husband's extended family of mother, brother, sister-in-law and their kids in the rural area where her husband had been born and grew up. They moved across the river to a small town called Yorktown -- short on amenities, long on history. They lived in that town until she died and her husband remarried a number of years later. That town became my home town because of them.

While looking through the site I came across so many familiar names, some mangled by others trying to read the handwriting on the census forms and without intimate knowledge of the people who inhabited that town. Many of those in the census forms were parents of adults I knew as a small child, still living with the same neighbors that I remember. Most have since died, but I remember them as friends, neighbors, acquaintances and sometimes almost legends. The town was old South for the most part, but African-Americans and whites lived cheek-by-jowl and, as near as I can remember, close enough to borrow a cup of sugar but maybe not close enough to sit down at the kitchen table for coffee and a bit of neighborhood talk.  We lived separate lives with separate schools and separate churches, but were still residents of the same streets and neighborhoods. It was a good place to grow up, supported by parents who loved me and put up with a very active and imaginative child at ages when they might have looked forward to their son (then a teenager) being grown up and out of the house. When I showed up, there went retirement. They had their prejudices and dislikes, and even without being blood relation I inherited those although I was taught to always be polite and kind, no matter who I encountered.

There are a lot of things I don't remember, like her voice. I do remember her hands -- well-kept hands with always-manicured nails polished quite frequently with a nail color called "Lilac Champagne."  Those hands could orchestrate a festive dinner fit for a king or curl a small and wiggly girl-child's hair with waxed paper from bread wrappers. She could sew all sorts of clothes and furnishings, clean just about any kind of mess and arrange flowers perfectly, like the dozen red roses she arranged in the silver Revere bowl every wedding anniversary. She was devoted to her family and to her adopted church, the one across the street from our house and where the preacher lived in the garage apartment next to our house for a number of years. His knees were under our dinner table as often as his own, and Mama considered him a member of the family, as did we all. I also remember those hands could be very hard when I misbehaved, but mostly I remember how beautiful they were. In fact, I still look at people's hands and remember hers.

I had a great childhood. There was a fly in the ointment, namely an aunt who took pains to remind me that I really wasn't a REAL member of the family on a number of occasions, but Mama never treated me any differently because I had someone else's DNA and genes. It was a shock when, at the age of six, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. That meant she couldn't wash my hair or sew clothes or do a lot that she'd done before for quite a while due to the surgical incisions. Three years later she had a second mastectomy and never really regained her former health and vigor. To this day, I remember her scars, scars that haunted me when I myself was diagnosed and chose to have a bilateral mastectomy myself for the same disease. She died about five years after her second surgery, after having been hospitalized and/or bedridden for nearly three years with transient ischemic attacks and increased weakness. I remember the date of her death more frequently than her birthday, for some reason, but this year I celebrate her life and what she gave me in the way of life lessons.

I look at her china and remember that food is something to be enjoyed, especially in an extended family setting. I remember those gorgeous red candied apples she made for my class in school at Halloween. I remember rolls and rolls of Life Savers she went through, slipping them to me one by one in church as she tried to keep my wiggling to a minimum. I remember Saturday matinees at the movies, usually Disney flicks, but also seeing Grace Kelly in "The Swan" when I asked to see it. I remember shopping trips to Richmond at Christmas, complete with tuna salad sandwich lunches at a drug store counter and the special Christmas windows at Miller & Rhoads. When I need comfort, I still have tuna salad sandwiches on toast like I had on those trips. I remember a pair of earrings she always wore for "good," small gold jack-in-the-pulpits with a tiny pearl for the jack and her double stranded pearl necklace. I remember her engagement ring that she wore, a ring I wore for years myself. I remember fried chicken on the boat during fishing trips and baked rock fish from Daddy's rare excursions to the Bay with the "boys."  Cakes?  Pies?  Cookies?  She was a master baker. I look at the mementos I have around the house -- her wooden box with the bird on top, her tattered cookbook, even a casserole dish (sans lid) that she bought from the Jewel Tea salesman that called at our house as regularly as Mr. Morse stopped by with his pickup truck full of fresh vegetables. All those memories come flooding back, sort of a nostalgic journey but oh, such a pleasant one for the most part.

So today I remember Mama's life and her contributions. I don't know that I became the daughter she (privately) hoped I'd be, but she tried her best to make me a little lady with good manners and good grades. I generally messed up both, but she loved me anyway. Oh, the manners improved over the years, and the grades depended on how interested I was in the subject (I excelled in English, was abysmal in math). I wonder, though, what she would think of me now that I am older than she was at her death by over a decade. I hope one day I'll find out, because as sure as I am of my own redemption, I'm equally sure that she will be waiting for me on that other shore and in that different light.

Happy birthday, Mama. I miss you more every passing year.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. -- Luke 2:22-40


The church calendar says that today is the Feast of the Presentation. The Eucharistic reading speaks of Jesus being presented in the temple as a first-born son, one who by virtue of his birth status was to be dedicated to God. The trip to the temple and the offerings were to acknowledge this and to offer a sacrifice for redemption.
“Presentation” is a word with a lot of meanings.  Someone is presented at their baptism as the newest member of the Body of Christ, a new couple are presented as “Mr. and Mrs.”  following exchange of their wedding vows, people are presented as the winner of an award or after having achieved a diploma, degree, ordination or consecration. Young daughters of high society families used to be presented either at court or at a debutante ball that marked their entrance into society as a adult and their availability for marriage, while some specific birthdays are still marked with ceremony and/or an elaborate party, like a quinceañera or a bar or bat mitzvah that mark their acceptance as adults. In Jewish history, the firstborn son was special, like the firstborn males of flocks and herds; God had claimed them as God’s own(see Num. 3:13). This was in memory of the deaths of the firstborn in Egypt and encompassed both humans and animals. With some exceptions for certain groups such as the Levites (Kohanim), each firstborn male child was to be presented to God on the thirty-first day of life, or as soon as possible after that day, and redeemed by payment of five shekels, a total weight of about 100 grams of silver, about $100 in today’s US currency. Even if each shekel had the value then of $5, a redemption price of five shekels would equal about half a year’s wages for an average workman. In short, it was a high price, but then, offerings were and are supposed to be about giving something of great value, and what could be of more value than the life of a child?

Jesus’ presentation in the temple, like those of the bar/bat mitzvah, ordination, baptism, consecration, award or marriage, marked a change, usually of status. A little oil, some words, a laying on of hands and one changes from a lay person to a deacon. A few exchanged promises and two single people become a married couple.  In the church of my childhood, a short walk up the aisle, answers to a few questions, and approval of the congregation meant that I was approved for baptism and inclusion among the “saved.”  Years of study, work and examination, a walk across a stage, a handshake and a person can claim the title of doctor and officially serve as a healer, educator in the higher educational institutions or administrator. A 13-year-old studies and on a given day, is called up to read from the Torah and becomes an adult in the eyes of the congregation. Changes like these almost always mean the trading of something valuable – time, money, effort – in order to earn something that will improve their lives or their world. Jesus’ presentation signified his redemption by his family, his place in the family inheritance and his status, none of which he really earned except by being the firstborn son of his mother through natural childbirth, not a Cesarean one. Even though Jesus was God’s son and not Joseph’s biological child, Joseph redeemed him and made him his heir with all the rights and responsibilities that entailed in those days. But just as Jacob outfoxed his older brother Esau for his birthright, those rights and responsibilities along with the blessing that transferred them to another person could be managed, by fair means or foul. Jesus must have done something to transfer that responsibility of his birthright to whoever was next in line because he didn’t stay home to look after the family and the family business but went about doing the work of God’s firstborn son, a higher birthright.

So what am I to learn from this reading?  What presentation or redemption do I have to make or undergo in order to become what I want, need or am supposed to be?  I’ve been baptized, confirmed, married, divorced, and completed high school and four years of college. I’ve studied and worked to learn to do both my day job and my avocation as a mentor in a program that continues to educate and inspire me. Perhaps what is required of me is to simply present myself to God and wait to see what comes.  I’ve already been redeemed, so whatever comes next has to be reflective of that status and a change, growth perhaps, into one who really reflects that status of redeemed and changed as a result of that redemption. 

I guess what it comes down to is to use that time-honored biblical response, “Here I am,”  then to keep my eyes and ears open.  This earth and its people are part of my birthright and part of my job is to care for them.  That should keep me busy for the remainder of my lifetime if I work at it.  After all, I will have one more presentation to make, one more great status change, and I want that one to be my final redemption. The consequences if I fail might make me long for the comparable coolness of the summers in this desert in which I live. 

So okay, “Here I am.”    

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 2, 2013.