Monday, May 27, 2013


One of the reasons for writing is to entertain a reader. Another is to muddle about internally and come up with some kind of conflict that needs resolution and then seek out that resolution. I like the one that implies that I don't have a choice; I  write because there's something in me that tells me I need to. Except for those who crank out words in order to pay the mortgage or perhaps keep body and soul together, I think most writers write because they have a compulsion. If someone else reads it and gains something through the reading, that's all gravy. I confess that that's why I write. It releases something in me and gives my mind leave to wander down its own garden paths and see what's growing there. Whether it is weeds, orchids or just a fallow field is up for grabs at any particular moment.

Sometimes the writing flows so easily. In a short space of time a whole page is full and when I read it back (or better yet, have my British-accented Dragon program read it back to me) all I can think of is "Gad, where did that come from?"  I found some old stuff not long ago and when I read some of it, that was precisely the reaction I had. I wonder, did I even write it?  But there was no attribution and if there's one thing I believe in most firmly it's attribution. Of course, a lot of it was pure blather, strings of words put together that made sentences but without the spark that gave me the "Wow" I had hoped to find. Still, I guess that's the nature of the beast. Even the Cubs win now and again, but there's usually a lot more losses on their scorecard at the end of the season. Ya gotta love'em anyway, unless you're a fan of the White Sox or other sworn adversary.

Most of the time I just write and see what comes out.  Most of my writing lately has been essays reflecting on scripture or the lives of saints and the like. Now and again I try a commentary on a current event or maybe a book or thoughts that come from contemplating a quotation. I really have no desire to write a best-selling novel although a best-selling creative nonfiction book would be lovely. I like painting word pictures but they are mostly for my own amusement, quite often they are my way of remembering places I loved growing up like my river or the tree on  Monument Hill or Cedarbush Creek. I get homesick but as long as I can describe the images in my brain, I can remember and even sometimes feel the air or get a whiff of the scent of salt water and marsh mud. It's almost like going home again, but it fades far too quickly.

Once upon a time, a friend of mine wrote a more-or-less regular column for his local newspaper. He got to pick the topic and, being the man of words that he is, he'd come up with some doozies. While reading his stuff, all my long-suppressed wishes to produce a best-seller went out the window in favor of dreaming of being a columnist, somebody who writes stuff that, on a good day, might stir somebody up to comment in a letter to the editor or, on a better one, write that I had been brilliant in my analysis.

Now and again I get writer's block, that nasty literary disease that I hear all writers get from time to time. I've read of several "cures" and one or two of them have worked at times but not always. Sometimes the sin of procrastination storms in the door and I just can't find the impetus to put a single syllable onto paper (ok, screen).  Unlike the recommendations from various sources, I can't seem to find a set time each day to spend writing stuff, good, bad or indifferent. But then, now and again, something catches fire and I can't wait to get it down. Those are the times I live for, whether anybody else reads it or not.

I've started writing my own Bucket list and on it one item is to publish a book, another is to have a name that people I admire (but who don't know me from Adam's kitty cat) recognize. I'd also like to spend six months just tootling around Britain and win the lottery, all of which are about as possible as the first two items, but would only happen if I won the lottery, a very difficult thing to do when you don't buy the tickets. Still, the dreams give me something to go on, that plus the itch to be able to talk as long as I want about whatever I want to talk about.

Call it my therapy. At least this kind is easily affordable.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Fish Story

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ -- Matthew 13:45-52
When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time down near the river not far from my house. The river wasn’t as big as the Mississippi but we considered it a “good size” river, maybe half a mile or more across at that point. Like all good salt water rivers it had fish in it, and one of the great summer pastimes my family and I enjoyed was going out on our boat for the day to do some fishing. Mama always took some chicken just in case, but if we caught some spot or croakers or even a flounder, we could cook it and eat it right there within minutes of its being caught. When we didn't go out on the boat, occasionally a couple of us kids would get fishing lines and go down to the wharf that jutted out into the river and fish from there. It didn’t always matter what the bait was, sometimes crab and sometimes hot dogs. It was the act of fishing it was important, or maybe it was just the excuse to sit and let the river soothe all my adolescent problems and anxieties while I appeared to be doing something useful. 
Of course there were kinds of fish in the river other than the spot, croakers and flounder we usually caught, and if we happened to be fishing on the wharf and caught an oyster toad, which has to be one of the ugliest fish imaginable, or a blowfish, whose prime defense mechanism was to puff up like a balloon when threatened, we would usually bash their heads against the deck and throw them back into the water to become part of the food chain. Now and again, though, someone would see us catch one of these undesirables and rush over, asking if we would give them the fish. Evidently where they came from the single strip of meat along the spine of the blowfish were considered a delicacy. I ate one at the local high-class restaurant once, and, not knowing what it was, announced that the chicken had a bit of a different flavor. My dinner companions had the kindness to not tell me what it was until later. Even having tasted it, I never could warm up to eating blowfish although flounder was a whole different story.
Jesus knew about fishing. He knew there were good edible fish and fish that weren’t, whether because they were too bony, were poisonous, tasted awful or were considered unclean by kosher law. His audience knew about fishing too, and the metaphor would not have been wasted. Jesus was telling them that at some point in time there would be an ingathering similar to pulling in the nets and bring them to shore for sorting and separating, only this time the fish would be people. Having a fish fry or even a fish-baking on the beach is one thing, having a furnace to eliminate the undesirable or inedible fish in something else entirely. I wonder if anybody ever figured they would be considered an undesirable fish.
 We meet a lot of different people in the course of our lives, and, to use the illustration of the gospel lesson, some are keepers and others are definitely not. I’m not saying I would like to consign some people to a furnace because I don’t particularly like them, don’t agree with them or don’t find them useful in any measurable manner, but I do try to separate them from my life in much the same way we separated the fish that we caught back home. Looking at the story personally, I can’t say that I relish being hauled in by angels and then waiting to see if I’m going to be invited to dinner or become part of the heating system. Similar images of hellfire frequently populated the sermons I heard as a child and I am still uneasy with the image. Perhaps my belief that God will find a way so that nobody goes in the fire comes from a discomfort with the idea that I might be found undesirable myself. I know I’m no saint, but I’m not one of those people whom most people in the world would gladly condemn to the fires of hell because they were mass murderers, despots, or heinous criminals responsible for the slavery, imprisonment or even death of other human beings in the most callous way. I hate to add that “but” because often it is a sign of minimizing my own responsibility while maximizing that of others and I certainly have my own flaws to answer for.
I also wrestle with the dichotomy that I learned as a young child. On one hand I heard teaching that it I said the right words I would be saved and nothing could take that away while on the other hand I heard I was a miserable sinner and if I did not live right I could go to hell. I’ve still never figured that one out, and reading the fish story brings it all back. I think that is where I get what I have been told is universalism as a theology. If so, I don’t really want to change it. I want to believe in a loving God who, in the words of the King James version, says “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11 c-d). I certainly don’t intend to be a wicked person but I mess up, sometimes pretty badly. Given that, when Jesus comes to the beach to separate the catch, where am I going to be placed? Will I be a good fish, like a spot or a flounder, or am I going to be an oyster toad or a blowfish? I can repent, but will that be enough? The stakes are awfully high. I guess I will never know until the time comes. All I can do is my best and hope that will be acceptable to God.
I will probably never fish in my river again, but I will remember it and the bounty it produced, both good and (in my opinion) bad. Remembering that makes this gospel lesson for today among the most memorable and the most poignant for me.

 It also makes me wonder if there is some fish in the freezer for dinner. I am suddenly craving it. I know it will be “good” fish.
 Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 25, 2013.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A New Spring

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was a kid, we had a goofy little rhyme that went, "Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is?"  It used to be fairly true when I lived back east where there were really four seasons of varying lengths each year, hence the rhyme. This year in many parts of the country, people are probably wondering if spring will ever arrive since the snow keeps falling and the temperatures hover somewhere between cold and d*** cold. Here in Arizona we're enduring the all-too-brief spate of lovely temperatures that mean the summer heat isn't far behind. Oh, well. We enjoy it while we can and remember what it was like to live elsewhere where the weather was a bit more unpredictable.

Spring usually has the connotation of things waking up from winter sleep, a time of growth change and renewed activity. Ecclesiastically, this spring has marked an expected change or two along with some rather unexpected ones.  Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that he would be retiring at year's end which meant the selection of a replacement who would be elevated early in the new year. A surprising turn came with the resignation of the pope, Benedict XVI, an occurrence that hadn't happened in 600 years, and the rather quick calling-together of the college of cardinals to elect his replacement. It was rather odd, having the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, enthroned the same week that the new Pope, Francis I, assumed the throne of Peter.  It was like seeing spring suddenly opening the door and making an appearance. Hopefully, it won't be a false spring.

They are very different men in very different circumstances. Archbishop Welby might be able to go jogging without too much hassle from ordinary folks, but the pope's short forays outside the Vatican are the cause of his guards' discomfiture not to mention the raised eyebrows of those more used to a secluded pope who only appears at specified times and with extreme security. Still, both have groups of people looking to them to bridge the gaps and set change in motion, change that will be for the growth of the kingdom and the benefit of the people.

Both men face challenges, of that there is no doubt. Both seem to have liking for a less rigid, more simple lifestyle and way of doing things. Both have had experience in pastoral settings with people in the real world as opposed to a more academic, enclosed experience. Both have assumed leadership of religious groups that are far from tranquil and running smoothly through the days. Both churches face the problems of existing in and actually being part of a modern world while still holding on to ancient traditions and beliefs. Membership is declining despite some claims to the contrary. Giving is down, there are clergy shortages. Issues seem to be focused around the subject of sex and sexual orientation, one involving the rightful place of GLBTs in society and the church, the other the seeming tidal wave of pedophile cases which seem to keep appearing. Some issues are discussed openly and fairly widely, some very secretly and securely behind closed doors. There are parties in both churches who want to pull up the drawbridge and keep the tide of change out while others want to do exactly the opposite. Both churches seem to be balanced on a teeter-totter, and the respective church heads, the ABC and the Pope are the fulcrums.

How both churches face their challenges and respond to them will mark how successful a spring they have had, just like the fall harvest is dependent on the spring rains and the summer sun. Too much or too little rain, too much or too little sun and the crops will fail and there will be people starving by winter time. Spiritual famine is a deadly thing, and it isn't always that far away. If Jesus preached a gospel of hope, some of those who follow him seem to have lost the message somewhere.

But there's a stirring of hope in both churches as a result of the new leadership they have chosen, or rather that the Holy Spirit has chosen and nudged the selectors/electors into confirming. The starts look promising, but the honeymoon period is still in effect. The test will come all too soon when a bit of the newness wears off and we see how they handle the various problems they have inherited from their predecessors. A question too is how well and how closely they will work together to help bring about the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

So spring has come and with it new hope and promise. It will be interesting to see how things develop on both fronts as summer comes on. Hopefully we will not see an early winter coming before the leaves begin to fall from the trees. Meanwhile, prayers go up for both, that they have the strength and courage to face the challenges ahead and the humility to accept that change may and even should be necessary.

May the light of Christ shine on them, and on those of us who look to them for hope, guidance and a reflection of Jesus in the world that sorely needs that reflection.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, May 21, 2013, under the title "Spring has sprung."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pentecost Rocks the House

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ - Acts 2:1-11

It's sort of counterproductive to talk about Pentecost on the day after, but somehow I don't really care. You see, I went to a Pentecost service that rocked the house, something maybe even a tiny bit like the house was at that first Spirit-visited Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

In many ways it was very traditional -- the usual liturgy with familiar words and hymns, a dove on a long pole dancing over the crowd (although someone kept firm grip on its tail!), and processions.  There was a baptism and, for at least a moment or two, baby Kiera became the newest Christian on the face of the earth. We all renewed our own baptismal covenant and we took the Eucharist. Including and in between those things the house rocked. Really.

We actually heard the lesson from Acts twice -- once in English and then again in other languages. Part was read in Polish, part in Spanish, another part in Dutch, yet another in French and still another in Japanese. I'm not sure how many understood any of the languages other than the English, although I know the lady sitting next to me spoke  Dutch. Hearing the voices speaking in foreign tongues made me think of the Holy Spirit as an instantaneous Rosetta Stone on that first Pentecost but also how welcome it must have sounded to the people hearing that message in words they could understand, in their first language no matter how fluently they spoke other tongues. One other thing occurred to me later as I thought back over it.  I hadn't really thought of it across the board but each language had its own music even in the spoken words. The cadences, the sounds -- even the occasional guttural had a feeling of music about it. I've always thought French was a particularly musical language, but in that brief span of, what?, 3 or 4 minutes of reading I gained a whole new perspective on language.  It doesn't have to be sung in order to sing.

Things just got better. The priest is a particularly good preacher and yesterday was no exception. Beginning with an anecdote (like all good sermons do -- except when they begin with a joke, which is also good) about an experience of unity in the middle of a bustling international airport where tired, bored passengers were drawn together by the joy and enthusiasm of just one person, it sort of encapsulated what Pentecost was about. People being somewhat isolated in their own little groups and suddenly catching fire like a spark on dry sagebrush. At the end she did her own rendition of the story from Acts featuring the church in which she was preaching and the neighborhoods around that church. Catching fire, being excited about the message and then taking it out into a world that is often tired and bored, engaging them with our own enthusiasm for what we  had experienced and were doing, as well as where we had found this fire, brought the scripture home. I'm still thinking about that and, in a way, I'm doing that as I write this. I'm jazzed. I love that church and I love what it says to the people who come through its doors. Jesus is present, God is worshipped, the Spirit is guiding. People are happy to be there and happy to participate in its life and ministry in many ways. Now isn't that a little Pentecost every Sunday and even in the middle of the week? I'd say so.

The clincher was the anthem. Those dozen or so folks in the very proper Episcopal choir robes really rocked the place. The anthem was "Joy in the House" by Mann, a gospel-type song that was accompanied by a trumpet, a saxophone, an electric  guitar and a piano that almost walked across the floor in response to the artistry of a musician who can not just play Bach superbly on a small pipe organ  but who can do jazz "wicked good."  I looked around the room as the choir sang and it was amazing. I think everybody was having a hard time sitting still and not getting up and dancing or at least moving in response to the music. I was having a really hard time myself. It was absolutely contagious, and, you know, it so perfectly fit with the celebration of this particular church feast, not to mention the spirit that is in that church.

I think I caught a glimpse of maybe a shadow of what the first Pentecost was about yesterday, probably for the first time in years. It's always been an important day in the life of the church, but it isn't often it feels like Pentecost is still happening. No, people weren't talking in tongues or rolling on the floor.  We're Episcopalians, thank you, and we have an image to maintain (said smilingly), but that doesn't mean we can't catch fire when the match is lit. It wasn't just the flames of the candles that were dancing. I have a feeling there were some hearts and minds dancing too. There was definitely joy in the house -- and not just at the anthem. That, I think, is Pentecost in a nutshell:. joy in the house of the Lord that will radiate out to a world that is tired, bored, restless and in search of something. The folks at that church certainly have found it and, I believe, will spread it throughout their other communities just like the apostles did.

Who woulda thought ... well, the Spirit moves people in mysterious ways, even very proper Episcopalians. My senses are still tingling, and that is a good thing. I bet a lot of those folks may be feeling the same thing too. Pentecost ROCKS!

Note: If you'd like to find what I found, here's where to go: the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 22405 N Miller Rd., Scottsdale, AZ.  And what their website promises, they deliver in abundance!

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
   a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the very head of the corner’,
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
   and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy
. -- 1 Peter 2:4-10

Reading the passage this morning, my brain suddenly began playing a favorite hymn of mine, "Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation." Reading the scripture accompanied by the tune in my head laid some emphasis on both and their interconnectedness.

Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord, and precious,
binding all the Church in one;
holy Zion's help for ever,
and her confidence alone.*

 There are two definition of cornerstone. One is a stone that forms the base of the intersection of two walls of a building. Often it is a decorative as well as functional part of the building, often carrying some mark such as the date the cornerstone was laid or some other commemoration. It is sometimes used to mark the official beginning of construction even though the foundations may have been poured days, weeks or months before. It's a visible sign of hope and progress.
The second definition is a bit more abstract, giving "cornerstone" as a feature or quality upon which something is based, like a thesis statement or creed. This epistle, whether written by Peter, an amanuensis or even someone not so closely related to Peter, used the imagery already established in Psalm 118:22 and also in Acts 4:11. The metaphor of a rejected piece of stone being chosen as the very thing upon which the building stands is a perfect one for Jesus, even though the Psalm wasn’t itself directly or indirectly referencing him. It is through him, however, that the church is built even though he was rejected by many of his fellow Jews and definitely by the Romans during his lifetime. We also know that as Christians, Jesus has to be the cornerstone of our faith and even though the cornerstone is strong is up to us to make the building of our faith match that strength.
Earlier this week we had a reading from Hebrews that referenced the priesthood of Melchizedek, a non-Israelite King who acted as a priest in the story of Abraham. The author of this epistle seemed to also pick up on the priesthood theme in the statement, “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s chosen people.” Unlike the Levitical priesthood of Judaism, the priesthood of those who follow Christ includes the whole of the people, not just a single tribes set apart or a heretical hierarchy of priests. Again, building on the cornerstone image, the priesthood of the entire church is given through Jesus to all people. Yes, we did develop a sacramental priesthood just as we developed a role for deacons when the need arose. Still, all Christians are priests by virtue of their baptism and that baptism is the laying of the cornerstone of Christ in each Christian’s life.
All that dedicated city,
dearly loved of God on high,
in exultant jubilation
pours perpetual melody;
God the One in Three adoring
in glad hymns eternally.

To this temple, where we call thee,
come, O Lord of Hosts, today;
with thy wonted loving-kindness
hear thy servants as they pray,
and thy fullest benediction
shed within its walls alway.

Here vouchsafe to all thy servants
what they ask of thee to gain;
what they gain from thee, for ever
with the blessèd to retain,
and hereafter in thy glory
evermore with thee to reign.
Somehow, I think that when I sing this hymn again or hear it again, I’ll have a slightly different perspective of what it has to say. It’s an invitation for God to enter the building of faith we construct in our own lives as well as the physical buildings in which we worship. It’s a request for God’s continual presence and blessing both in this life and in the world to come.
The cornerstone. Without it the building would not be a building and the Christian life would be like a tent blowing in the wind. Without Jesus as the focus and foundation stone, our faith would be just as flimsy.
You know, I think I like this hymn even better now.

*Hymnal 1982, New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, (518).

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on  Episcopal Café Saturday, May 18, 2013.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Little bits of paper...

It happened again.  Twice in one morning is a bit too much, I think to myself as I look at the blizzard of Kleenex fragments falling from the clothes I am taking out of the washer and getting ready to put in the dryer. The floor looks like the snow is sticking and I think to myself that I might be dumb enough once not to check my pockets for Chap Sticks, keys or stray Kleenexes but twice and in the same morning? 

Evidently I'm that dumb because for the second time within an hour I'm sweeping up damp clumps and flakes of whitish goo that have fallen from my jeans, my black t-shirt, my socks and the whole load.  Sheesh!  It's never money that falls out, since neither the boys nor I carry cash. Besides, money would either rattle or just become a nice wad that can be flattened out and dried, ready for use again. Kleenexes don't do that.

Allergies are the pits.  Mine aren't severe but they are persistent. I don't know that they're particularly seasonal because my nose seems to be persistently running no matter what time of the year it is, hence my always tucking a Kleenex or two in my pocket just in case.  Often I use the tissue and then discard it, but I may only use one of the two I stuck in there so one remains to be laundered and then subsequently flutter to the ground when I start to transfer the clothes between appliances. I mentally kick myself but I have a sneaking suspicion that the next time I do laundry the same thing will happen again until and unless I do something to remind me to check the pockets.

Thinking whimsically, I wonder if Jesus had pockets? I know he didn't have Kleenexes but was he human enough to have allergies?  Would he have used his sleeve? The edge of his cloak? I wonder if Mary would have told him it was impolite to snuffle? I don’t think even the most complete records of ancient life ever addressed runny noses and the need for swabbing cloths. No, I'm not going to get any real answers from the tradition sources.

Culture seems divided on things like Kleenexes. There are those who eschew them entirely, preferring to hawk and spit, regardless of how disgusting or unsanitary the practice. There are those who prefer to use cotton or linen handkerchiefs, with or without lace edges depending on the gender of the user, and who either honk mightily or dab daintily on the more environmentally friendly variety. Then there are the Kleenex users who see them as more sanitary and can be seen carrying small packets in their pockets or purses in case of need when a sneeze comes on, the nose begins to run, or even a baby’s face needs mopping. I confess I am of the latter category. I do carry Kleenexes and I do use them, especially early in the morning when I’m outside walking. And that is where my problem begins.

How to resolve the difficulty of forgetting to check my pockets? In theological reflection language this would be called an action statement, what I intend to do as a result of my cogitations on the problem. I could be uncouth and wipe my nose on the edge of my T-shirt as I’m walking but I don’t think that’s much of an answer. I would feel like Mama was going to whack me on the back of head even though she's been gone more than half a century. I could always buy some handkerchiefs although I would probably have to buy them in the men’s department as I don’t remember seeing any more feminine hankies in the stores anymore. Funny, we used to be able to buy them, both plain and fancy; I remember having bought some for Mama on various occasions like birthdays or Mother’s Day. A cotton hankie may be something to consider though. Another option would be but a small sign on the washing machine noting, “Check your pockets” and then all I would have to do is remember to look at it. I tried that on the front door with a small sign saying, “Take your pills.” I usually manage to remember to take them before I get to the door, but there have been days, more than I like to think about, where I go to the door, open it and walk right through the doorway without ever seeing the sign right in front of my eyes. 

I will have to come up with some resolution or else be doomed to continue cleaning the washer, the dryer filter and the floor of little flecks and balls of forgotten Kleenexes. Either that or add another doctor to my stable, this time an allergist who might be able to give me shots or pills to render me free of the Kleenex curse.

The Kleenexes are cheaper, but I wouldn’t have to sweep up the bits of allergist off the floor and the he wouldn't cause a dryer fire either. That's something to consider.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Different Kind of Priest

This ‘King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him’; and to him Abraham apportioned ‘one-tenth of everything’. His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace’. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.
See how great he is! Even Abraham the patriarch gave him a tenth of the spoils. And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to collect tithes from the people, that is, from their kindred, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man, who does not belong to their ancestry, collected tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the levitical priesthood—for the people received the law under this priesthood—what further need would there have been to speak of another priest arising according to the order of Melchizedek, rather than one according to the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. Now the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of him,
‘You are a priest for ever,
   according to the order of Melchizedek.’
  -- Hebrews 7:1-17
Melchizedek is an unusual character who appears without fanfare. He was not an Israelite yet he worshipped God rather than the many gods of the people of the area.  This "king of righteousness" was outside the normal priestly line which was passed from father to son among the Israelites but he still acted as a priest in blessing Abraham and accepting Abraham's tithe of the booty acquired from those who had been overcome in battle. Then Melchizedek just fades from the scene as quietly as he arrived, yet leaving a lasting impact on not just Abraham but on the priesthood and the very concept of priesthood itself.
Today we usually we think of a priest as someone set apart, a person who has been ordained in a particular "line" going back to the apostles which we call the apostolic succession. We think of a  priest as a person who conducts worship, accepts gifts offered to God and blesses the people through not just the act of blessing itself but through the sacramental rites which priests perform like baptism and Eucharist. They also have duties such as running a church, teaching, preaching, visiting the sick and a whole list of other duties we consider to be the province of the clergy even though some of that can legitimately be done by the laity. Somehow priests are different, not like ordinary people, even though they do put their pants (and trousers) on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. When priests get in trouble it’s often more upsetting than if the person had been a banker, a doctor, or even a teacher. It’s that chrism of ordination that makes them special, sets them apart and calls them to a higher standard. When that chrism fails, it isn’t just our faith in priests that is shaken; sometimes it is our faith in the church or even in a God who would allow a person dedicated to God’s service to behave in such an unthinkable way.
We sometimes refer to Jesus as our great high priest yet he was not an official priest. He was not  ordained, a member of the tribe of Levi, the tribe chosen at the time of Moses to be the religious leaders, or a kohanin, a Levite and a direct descendant of Aaron. Jesus was outside that hereditary priesthood yet he had a priesthood of his own, a ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and blessing. But even though Jesus was the Son of God, he was still very human and, as such, he opened something for us that Luther and other reformers would later call the “Priesthood of All Believers,” the specialness of all of us baptized into the faith and given a charge to follow Jesus.
I’ve been re-reading a book by L. William Countryman called Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All*. I’d read it several years ago and it knocked my socks off. Reading it again tells me it still has the same impact. His thesis is that all baptized Christians are priests according to the order of Melchizedek, not just those who have undergone the training and the ceremony of ordination. We, like Melchizedek, don't have to be part of a priestly clan, don't even have to be ordained in order to act on our priesthood in the world. Each of us has some knowledge that we can pass on to others who don't already have that knowledge, and each of us can be of service to others and allow others to be of service to us. It's not an option, it's actually a fulfillment of our baptismal covenant and it's also part of what a priest does, something we ourselves can do, collar or no collar.
I've never felt a call to the sacramental (ordained) priesthood but neither have I ever really felt that I was, in Countryman's terminology, a “foundational” priest, a believer who has a priesthood bestowed at baptism. . Still, now that I’ve had a chance to take it all in, it's now a job I have to take seriously. I never thought of my job as a mentor in EfM as a form of priesthood, but, as Countryman assures me, the way I share my experience with the intersection of the sacred and the profane, encouraging those I mentor to look for the borders of the holy in their lives and to live into whatever ministry God calls them is not just a ministry but my job as a priest. It's an awesome responsibility, and a joyous one. I wonder if Melchizedek had a similar feeling when he blessed Abraham?  What is going to be harder is seeing myself in the role of foundational priest in the world outside EfM, in the world where I do my daily living and interaction with people outside the church.
As a result of the book, I'm more conscious of trying to live where the holy touches everyday life and also my responsibility to those with whom I come in contact. Like Melchizedek, I may stand outside the ordained priesthood, but I stand in a circle of priests that surrounds and supports the ordained. I have a ministry (or perhaps several ministries) and a duty given me at my baptism. Perhaps if I gave more thought to my own priesthood, I might find a deeper sense of personal value and also a sense of purpose as well as an understanding of how I can bless and serve others while offering the best I have to God.
Hmmm.  "A priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." I guess not just clergy can lay claim to those words, can they?  It definitely has a ring to it, but it also has a challenge. Now to figure out how to live it out. Living on the border of the holy can be a tricky, but with God's help, I can do it. It will just take some practice. Melchizedek found it, and now it's my turn.
*Countryman, L. William, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. (1999) Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, May 15, 2013. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Something in Common with Angelina

Angelina Jolie is not one of my favorite Hollywood figures but these last couple of days I have to hand it to her, she's certainly been up front about a very serious health risk and the steps she took to ensure she'll be around not just for her own sake but for that of her partner and more importantly her kids.  Given that a lot of women (and a number of men as well) see breasts as a major part of their identity, the idea of deliberately deciding to have them removed, even with reconstruction, is the stuff of nightmares. To have a major Hollywood star admit to scar-producing surgery and reconstruction with implants for more than enhancing their pulchritude (and their cup size) is almost a refreshing change. Yes, she may have done it to save her life -- but going so public about it is, I think, an act of heroism. Sooner or later it would probably have come out, Hollywood secrets usually do, so Ms. Jolie gets kudos in my book for having the courage to spill the secret before someone could do it for her and probably with a lot more negative publicity.

I talked to my friendly neighborhood (ok, internet neighborhood) pathologist about this just as I have asked for her very sagacious advice in my own encounter with breast cancer. She tells me that just because the gene is there doesn't mean cancer is a certain thing. It depends on a lot of factors and, I am sure, Ms. Jolie's doctors went over all the options and possibilities with her before she made her decision. Having the surgery doesn't completely remove the risk because those little cancer cells can still show up, to quote the doctor's email, in "...breast tissue [that extends] damn near to the back of the shoulder."* So Ms. Jolie isn't completely off the hook, and neither am I.  In that way, we have something in common, probably one of the few things other than the fact that her mother and my adoptive mother both died of breast cancer or a related cancer far too soon.

One thing, though, is that with Ms. Jolie going public about the prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction, she's sort of emphasizing that she has (a) money to pay for the procedures and/or (b) really good insurance who accept her history and familial relationships with their outcomes as proof that it was a medical necessity rather than a whim. There's nothing wrong with that, really; I'm glad she does. I have to think, though, of the countless women who aren't as fortunate; they don't have the money for testing, surgery and reconstruction and often don't have insurance that will cover even most of the cost. I had Medicare and thank God I did, although the 20% I still am paying for the mastectomies is not exactly chicken feed. Ms. Jolie says she has some tiny little scars. I have some noticeable ones that, along with some lymphedema,
cause me some cosmetic angst, but I'll live with them. Mama did, and hers were worse than mine, so I can't really kick too much.  I have the option -- at a price -- for cosmetic surgery and/or reconstruction, but there's always a price, isn't there, no matter what kind of situation we find ourselves in? Ultimately it's what works for the individual that has to be the guide.

I read too where Brad Pitt has been strongly supportive of Ms. Jolie's decisions about her heath care and the process under which she went. It's good that she has such a strong support network. That's something I wish every cancer patient/survivor had.  It really makes all the difference, having someone or some people standing with you as you go through something like this, family and friends who allow you to rail at fate (or God), curse your body for its weakness, feel the depression and angst of a mutilation (and it is a mutilation, I don't care what they say) that will leave you feeling like less a woman in this world where there's a lot of emphasis on looks, including boobs. Bless those friends who stick by and not just help you work through all the "stuff", not by offering advice but by just being there, letting you do what you need to do without trying to minimize it or tell you, "It's over now, so now you can just get on with your life."

Mastectomies, even with reconstruction, can be a grief-producing event, just like a death, that has to be gone through at each person's own pace, in their own time and way without a cookie-cutter response that encourages them to stop thinking about it and focus on other things. Boobs are a more or less visible part that says "female" to the world. Losing part of your identity is not an easy thing, so dealing with it is complicated. There are some who can get lumpectomies rather than the mastectomies and who may not have to deal with quite as much grief or angst, but there's still some pain and some cosmetic issues to be dealt with. Reconstruction helps ease some of the feeling of being less feminine, perhaps, but not everyone opts for or even has the option for it. Sometimes prosthetics are the only answer -- but they are an answer, of sorts.

I wish the "just get on with things" folks had to look in the mirror and see what we see. Maybe they'd see past it -- or not see it at all but I do, and I don't think I'm the only one in the world who does. I'm grateful to those in my life who allowed me to do what I needed to do and handle it as I needed to handle it. They gave me a great gift and enabled me to heal emotionally as well as physically. I am glad Ms. Jolie had people to do the same for her.  We're both luckier than a lot of women.

I wish Ms. Jolie well.  I'm glad she spoke out, even if it points out the chasm between rich and poor when it comes to health care.  I'm glad she has family support and the opportunity to live with a bit less worry about the threat of possible breast cancer hanging over her head. I may never be a real fan, but I do respect her for making her choice and sticking with it. I hope others can read her story and take some hope and a bit of comfort in it. I think I do, regardless of how different we are and our lives are, because under the skin, we're both women, both looking at a disease and both looking to beat it, one way or another.

 *Personal email from Maria L. Evans, 5/15/13, used with permission.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Rumor has it....

NOTE:  Updated from the original publication to reflect new information provided by Susan Snook on the calculation of Average Sunday Attendance and a couple of extra comments I thought of after this was published.

Today being my furlough day from work, I had a little more discretionary time after I got up than I usually do. I found a video I’d been meaning to watch and promptly sat there mesmerized for nearly half an hour. The video featured the Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, speaking to the convention of the Diocese of Delaware on “the Myth of the Decline of the Episcopal Church.”* He was articulate, spoke directly and without ducking his head to check his notes, was charismatic, amusing, animated and it didn’t hurt that his English accent was lovely to listen to. Over and above those characteristics however, what he said made me do a lot of thinking on my morning walk after watching the video.

Dean Markham spoke of two bishops who had been visitors to the Seminary, almost polar opposites on a number of topics, the direction in which the Episcopal Church should go at or near the top of the list of differences. As far apart as the bishops’ theological differences are or could be, their common theme seemed to be that the Episcopal Church is dying. They take opposing sides on the same issues, each assuring us that the opponent’s supporters are causing the decline; however, they agree that the Episcopal Church numbers have been going down and they are sounding a death knell. Dean Markham, on the other hand, doesn’t see it that way. As a result of this video, I have begun to think about what that means to me as an Episcopalian. I hear that our numbers are declining and I have something of a sense of acceptance that such pronouncements are gospel, causing me to figuratively wring my hands and think there’s nothing I can do, short of suggesting the church offers bread and circuses and hope people are searching for those same kinds of bread and circuses. I think perhaps we as a church have allowed a lot of what we see in the culture around us to dictate how we see our church in terms of numerical growth, or lack thereof, around us, namely fear, despair, anger and overwhelming helplessness in the face of it all. There’s a lot to fear in this world around us, judging from news reports and commentary on the sad state of things such as the string of disasters and events that seem to be plaguing our world recently: threats, famine, drought, explosions, earthquakes, shootings, and so on. It seems to me that culture and the church are somewhat like the two bishops, very different in outlook but with one single negative vision as an outcome.

Our numbers, whether declining, improving or flat lining, are based on Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) which is calculated based on reporting from each parish in every diocese as to attendance on Saturday evenings - Sundays during the church year. We’re not counting a lot of Episcopal church experiences that don’t happen on the particular Sundays upon which the ASA is calculated. For instance, the Dean pointed out two specific examples of these missing numbers: attendance at worship services held during the week at Episcopal schools and colleges, and those in Episcopal retirement communities. His total came out to something like 16,000 people involved in worship each week that didn’t happen on those four Sundays and therefore weren’t counted in the ASA. That made me stop and think that he’s right and that maybe we need to find a new way to count the number of people who join us not only on Sunday, the most active day of the week for our churches, or even the growing number of Saturday evening services, but also all those services we hold during the week where we may not have a huge attendance but we do have people joining us for worship, whether in a church building or not. What if our churches came up with an average weekly attendance instead of just counting "regular" Saturday-Sunday services? Granted, it would probably involve more math, which a lot of people try to avoid, and it would be a little more inconvenient perhaps, but it would probably give us a more accurate number of those for whom we provide worship services and in which people participate.  I wonder how many people we are really not counting?

Something else he brought out was the fact that Episcopal churches usually have two services and they often differ in flavor, in a manner of speaking. It isn’t always so, especially in smaller, more rural congregations, but usually if the church has two services, they generally offer one using Rite 1 and another using Rite 2 (or possibly Rite 3 in combination with one of the others), and each have their own communities within the church. There’s the old joke about an 8 o’clock worshiper showing up at a 10 AM service and being greeted as a newcomer even though they’d attended the same church for 30 years and never met anyone from the other service. Churches sometimes offer additional worship opportunities, like Taizé or drumming or meditation, and those services sometimes attract people who don’t come to other services. Shouldn’t their worship experiences count? Granted, we count those attending weddings and funerals, but we wouldn't use those figures in the general count although a number of attendees might be regular worshippers in that particular parish.

As a corollary to that thought, I believe that perhaps if a certain kind of worship is something that nourishes my connection with God, I will attend one that features that particular kind and not some other as a general rule. The church may offer different worship experiences at different times (even sometimes in the time when I am accustomed to a particular style or manner of worship), but that doesn’t mean I have to attend it – or have the right to veto it for others who might find it to be their connection to God. That’s one of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, this variety of worship that is possible.  Variety is the spice of life, and the Episcopal Church definitely offers that spice in many different forms and at many different times. It’s almost a trademark of TEC and the “broad umbrella” we like to think of as our particular way of doing church, one which is not always shared by other churches or denominations where there is a “one size fits all” that works for them.

As a personal statement, I love the Episcopal Church. I have flirted with others since my confirmation forty-eight years ago, but I always seem to end up back in the Episcopal pews with the feeling that God is saying, “Sit! Stay!” Even though I’m more cat than dog, I get the message. I’ve listened to the despairing talks about the dying church and after listening to the Dean, I decided I’m not going to listen to them anymore. I refuse to acknowledge the thought that this church might cease to exist due to the perception that my generation and the generation that preceded me are dying and not being replaced in the pews. That refusal fits with what I observed last Sunday when I went to relatively new church that had been planted in 2006 by a priest-friend who had a passion and a mission. I looked around the congregation on Sunday in a well-filled the worship space, and I noted adults of varying ages, singles, couples, children, teens, and even a babe or two in their parents’ arms. It didn’t look like a church in a dying denomination to me, in fact, the energy level was amazing. People were there because they wanted to be there, they belonged there and they seemed to enjoy being there; they were invested in the mission and ministry of that church. I think that when I see or feel despair, I need to think about the Church of the Nativity  in Scottsdale. It’s a success story built around contagion – a contagion for the gospel and service. There should be more of that kind of contagion around.

I’m Episcopalian. I’m proud of it and I want people to experience what I have with the Episcopal Church. Most of all, I want this church that I love so much to continue on for many centuries to come. It’s gone through rocky times and it’s gone through relatively tranquil times. The thing is that growth is not a painless process; sometimes something has to hurt in order to grow, like a callous on a guitar-playing hand or new skin and nerve endings over a healing wound. Our church has gone through some painful times over the last few decades, seeing (or not seeing) the need for changes in our liturgy, in our clergy, in the way we see others, and the way we work with others. Some have adapted and some, regrettably, have chosen to leave for places more suited to their beliefs and feelings. We’ve wished them well and moved on in the direction we believe the Spirit has led us. We undoubtedly will have rocky times ahead of us again. In the meantime we have the opportunity to grow simply by refusing to bow to the climate of despair and by seeking to present ourselves to the world as a church that cares about people more than a cares about how much money they have, what their social status is or even whether their beliefs are totally in synch with what some might consider orthodox beliefs.

Another old saying is about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day while teaching him to fish will feed him for a lifetime. I think the Episcopal Church is in the process of learning how to teach people to fish rather than simply giving them fish. That, I believe is a key to keeping our church alive and growing. I’m betting on it.

*The video is in two parts, both of which plus a very excellent commentary, can be found here and here .

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Friday, May 10, 2013, under the title "Rumors to the contrary." Updated Sunday, May 12, 2013.


AM Psalm 87, 90; PM Psalm 136
Ezek. 3:4-17
Heb. 5:7-14
Luke 9:37-50

I don't always see the hookup between the readings but today wasn't one of those days. It's spelled out so clearly that it's impossible to miss the connection. 

Ezekiel was to go to Israel, his own people, not to strangers who spoke a different language or even an unfamiliar dialect but people whose language and idioms Ezekiel knew well. Of course, Israel wouldn't pay any attention but God already knew that. The passage speaks several times of "hard": "...all of the house of Israel have a hard forehead"..."I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads... Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead..."(3:7c-9b). God was giving the message that Israel wouldn't understand, wouldn't want to understand, the message Ezekiel was to bring them but he was to go and speak anyway. His very name, Ezekiel, was a clue to his mission because in Hebrew it means "God strengthens", a hardening process Ezekiel was going to need because the people he was to go and see definitely didn't understand very much -- and seemed not to want to understand very much.

In the reading from Hebrews, Paul wasn't mincing a whole lot of words in telling his correspondents that they had "become dull in understanding," not really living up to the standard he clearly expected. They needed to go back to the basics, relearn the original lessons, practice discernment. Not bad advice when someone reaches a point where they can't understand what's being presented to them, myself included.

Jesus healed a young boy with seizures and everybody was amazed. The disciples, though, seemed to be flunking Jesus 101 yet again, not really listening or comprehending what Jesus was telling them. Instead of talking about what Jesus had told them, they went off and started quarreling about which of them was better than the rest, acting more like schoolboys on the playground than disciples of a master who had tried to teach them greater things. They didn't understand and didn't really even seem to care that Jesus had called them on that lack of understanding.

Now there's understanding and there's understanding. There are some things a person can understand instinctively, like a fear of falling even in infants who've never even taken their first step. They learn to trust that their parents won't drop them, but that makes use of the other kind of understanding, the kind that comes through education and most of all, experience. A lot of kids sit in math class doodling the name of a boyfriend or drawing pictures of cars, just knowing that they'll never use all that stuff they're supposed to be learning. It's always a surprise when they grow up a bit and have to figure out how to add up the hours they've worked on their time sheets, or figure out how many square feet in the lawn they want to spray with Weed 'n' Feed so they can buy enough to cover it. I have to confess, I'm really math-challenged. If I have to do more than add two and two, I'm in trouble. I figure that's why God made calculators and computers and smart phones to do a lot of that stuff for me, but I still have to understand what question to ask it to answer.

A lot of times when people don't understand they stop listening. The Israelite people had stopped listening to God and they had stopped listening to the people God sent to try to get them back on track. The Hebrews stopped listening because they figured they knew it all when they didn't really even comprehend the basic teachings. The disciples might not have stopped listening totally, but they seemed to only listen on the surface; there was a lot that was being said underneath that they didn't understand because they were just taking the words at face value. 

So I have to ask myself, how much do I really understand and how much am I just listening on the surface? How much am I listening for what I want to hear instead of what I need to hear?  What am I doing to help others to really understand something and how much am I saying just to make myself feel important or smart or whatever? Who is an example for me of someone who not just understands but makes others want to understand as well? 

There are a lot of things this world needs to understand, things like how to get along with others, the value of all human beings and not just members of one gender or one country, even the value of education. I think that's all encompassed by one lesson Jesus continually taught, and one that seems to be almost impossible to understand, much less accomplish. The lesson?  "Love your neighbor as yourself."  When we all understand that lesson, the world will be a safer, saner, healthier place, a place where God can come again and walk in the garden in the cool of the evening. And we can walk along.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 11, 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.  -- Luke 9:28-36

What an amazing reading. It's the kind of plot that could be expected in maybe something like science fiction, fantasy or maybe someone's dreams, but here it is laid out, asking us to read, mark and inwardly digest it.

Jesus and his chosen three disciples had gone up on a mountain where Jesus could pray. Even though he could pray anywhere, really, maybe the crowds were too thick for him to have any peace on flatter territory, maybe he just wanted to get a little closer to heaven, who knows? The disciples were tired but managed to stay awake, unlike later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was mass hallucination, but Jesus began to change to a dazzling being and then there were two others with him. Did they announce themselves as Moses and Elijah?  Were they the two most logical beings to appear in such a setting?  It's beyond my pay grade to figure that out, but there they were, talking to Jesus while the disciples rubbed their eyes again and again and probably pinched one another to see if the other saw the same thing.

After the conversation ended, Peter the Impulsive suggested they do something physical, namely build some shrines to the three of them but then a voice spoke up and told them to pay attention to Jesus' words instead. God actually spoke to the disciples and it was recorded. This time, unlike at his baptism, there was no question of whether or not others heard God acknowledging Jesus as his son, beloved and chosen.

Something that strikes me is that there were several sets of three in this story.  The number three was a common occurrence in the Bible, literally hundreds of threes such as Job's three daughters, Noah's three sons, Jonah in the fish for three days, David praying three times a day, Peter's vision of the sheet repeated three times, three sacred items in the Ark of the Covenant, three young men in a fiery furnace, the three levels of cosmology (Sheol/abyss, earth, heavens), etc. It was a number that signified completion like the three sides of an equilateral triangle. In terms of the transfiguration, I see another three: Moses and Elijah as representing the past leading to Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise of a messiah; Peter, James and John as representatives of the future and continuing story of God's relationship to humanity; and all of them meeting in their present, the period of time that keeps the past and the future from running into each other as someone once put it.

The other thing that strikes me is that after such an experience, nobody said anything to anybody else who wasn't there. If you saw something like that, wouldn't you want to tell someone if not the whole world?  Or maybe it would seem just too crazy, too unreal for anyone to accept without thinking of you as a nut case or on some kind of mind-altering substance that was probably illegal. Maybe they needed to digest the experience, "process it," as the current lingo goes. Whatever it was, it was another secret that didn't get told right away, much as the secret of the women at the tomb at the end of Mark. Eventually, though, it did come out and appears in the gospel reading and in the other synoptic gospels although with slight differences. The basics, though, remain the same.

I've seen minor transfigurations, faces of people lighting up when seeing or hearing from a loved one, the face of a newly-ordained person, the face of a new mother seeing her child for the first time. There's a glow about them, even if their clothes don't turn whiter than a properly laundered altar cloth. Still, there's something awe-some about the experience, maybe not as powerful an experience as Peter, James and John had, but maybe enough to be give me a hint of what they felt. It sort of gives me a minute point of entry into the story, even if at the very furthest margins of it as I read and contemplate it.

Maybe I want to have the disciples' experience of the mystery, the continuity of history made visible and the very stamp of God's presence in the whole thing.

But then, I have the Eucharist.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Friday, May 10, 2013.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Power of a "Little Thing"

Commemoration of Julian of Norwich

Psalm 25:5-11
Isaiah 46:3-5
Hebrews 10:19-24
John 4:23-26

In this little object I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second that God loves it and the third is that God keeps it. – Julian of Norwich*

I'm fascinated by Julian of Norwich, a medieval English mystic and anchoress. Her biography is somewhat sketchy -- we don't know the name given her at birth or anything about her background. We really don't learn anything about her until she is about thirty and following an extreme illness. During that illness she had a series of sixteen visions or revelations which she wrote down twice, the first and short form right after the visions and the second long form  with greater depth and reflection about twenty years later. As an anchoress she did not leave her cell which was attached to the church of St. Julian of Norwich, from which her name was derived, but it did not mean that her wisdom and influence did not extend beyond those four walls. She was much sought after as a woman of wisdom and great spirituality, something that we can still feel today when reading her words.

Hers is an amazing voice, a woman's voice from a time when the voices of women were seldom counted for anything. The message she brings to the modern world is one that both women and men can hear and take comfort in,  namely that God made everything, God loves everything and God keeps everything, just as Julian saw in her vision of the “little thing” that was no bigger than a hazelnut.  It was a tiny ball yet it represented all that exists. What a great metaphor. Instead of making us work for a metaphor to represent something so immense it can hardly be imagined, she hands it to us and explains it in such a way that we can catch on fairly easily. I bet Julian would have been a great facilitator of theological reflections.

Her theology was a gentle one, rooted in God's love and care for all of creation. She often referred to the motherly characteristics of God and Jesus but always used the masculine pronoun for them. It's an interesting juxtaposition, but for Julian, and for many of us, it works beautifully. It's also a reminder that God is not always the stern judge (a very masculine figure) but also a nurturing mother figure. I think that is something we need to be reminded of from time to time.

Another of Julian's revelations contains one of her most notable quotes,  "... but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Prefacing it, however, is the acknowledgement that Jesus is speaking with regard to sin. "… sin is the cause..." Really?  When I think about it, maybe it is. How else can we know the love and care of God unless  maybe if God sent us a Hallmark card or personal note?  The only way we can truly experience the depth of God's love is to realize that it is tied to our sins -- my sins, your sins, -- and the forgiveness of those sins before we even ask for that forgiveness. In the story of the returning prodigal son, the delinquent stammered his repentance but the father, embracing him in what I imagine was a great bear hug, ignored it as if it were unnecessary and immediately called for a party instead. I know I often forget that even though it is a parable, the truth is there and written large for me to see: I ask forgiveness for myself, but God's already planning a party for me before I can even form the first word.

In Julian's revelations, the suffering and death of Jesus were for a purpose and that  was to prove God's love for us, not God's need or demand for a sacrificial victim to atone for the sins of the world. Atonement plays a part, but undergirding everything is love. I wonder why that is so hard a concept to grasp?  Maybe it's easier to think that we deserve punishment from God when I miss the mark, and certainly I grew up with enough of a belief that it was because of my sin that Jesus had to die on the cross -- substitutionary atonement, to use big words about it.  But Julian's "most courteous Lord", even in his suffering, exemplified pure love. It was all done for love, and her writings emphasize that fact. I think it's a theology I could work my way into very easily. 

"... and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."  That's something to hang onto.  Oh, and would you believe, Julian is sometimes depicted with a cat.  I knew I liked that lady for more than her theology!

*Parke, Simon, ed., Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich,  (2011; Kindle ed.) Guildford, UK: White Crow Books.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Putting Up with Community

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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 15:1-13

It happened again. Sitting at a stop light that seems to be permanently stuck on red while some yahoo in a car one or two places back or maybe to the side has his radio blasting with sufficient force to penetrate my vehicle with the windows up and the radio playing Mozart. It jangles my last nerve, and it happens at home too. A car half a block away starts my windows to rattling like a minor earthquake before finally resuming relatively peaceful quiet when it reaches and passes the half-block mark in the opposite direction. I know we have a constitutionally mandated right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but why must my happiness be infringed upon by someone else's pursuit?  Oh, I could probably retaliate -- maybe play the 1812 Overture at a volume that would make my ears bleed (love those cannons and carillon) or perhaps Buddhist chants with those basso profundo notes played at maximum volume and reverberation might be better --

We all have to put up with stuff, things that bug, bother, irritate, aggravate, and a lot of other similar verbs. It's part of being in community with other people. There's supposed to be some give-and-take, even if sometimes it feels like all give and  no take, but that's life, isn't it? Even Paul mentions that we have to "put up with the failings" of others, even though he is talking about matters of faith rather than car stereos.

Community living is tricky, whether in the neighborhood or in the church. There are strong people and there are weaker ones. Strong ones often set the pace and the direction and often the weaker voices are left unheard. Paul's words offer encouragement to the strong to encourage the weak, to build a strong community by mutual love and support. I wonder what would happen if we did that today?

I think about my neighborhood where I grew up where everybody knew everybody else, knew who was sick, who was in need, who to go to when something needed fixing. People helped each other and everybody took part. I look at the neighborhoods I have lived in recently, ones where I didn't even know the next-door neighbor's name much less feel able to count on them for anything. It's a different world now and I think it's a worse one. Even in churches it's sometimes easier to find strong people (or perhaps wealthy ones) controlling things while those who need support and encouragement are left to straggle along or quietly leave to search for a more nurturing place. I wonder what sort of letter Paul would write to our communities now? What would he think of our worship of the I, individualism and individual rights? Idolatry perhaps?  That's another I word, and one that Paul may have used to describe the modern emphasis of the individual rather than the community.

So what can I do about it? What am I willing to do about it?  I try to live peacefully with my neighbors and the people I work with, I try to be encouraging when it feels like someone needs a few good words, try to see where help is needed and give what aid I can. I fall short a lot too, and there are times when I need support and encouragement. It's funny -- Paul talks about strong and weak, but what just came to me is that inside each person or group who is strong and who is weak can change from minute to minute or day to day. Like that old saying about "Some days you're the dog, some days you're the hydrant," a person isn't always stuck in the same role all the time. Since communities are made up of individuals, a community needs to be elastic enough to deal with both strong and weak, whoever is which at any given time. Sometimes the poorest person in the group can be the richest in everything but money, and the strongest can be the weakest spiritually and emotionally. In community each helps the other to be better. Sounds like a Jesus-thing to me.

What challenge lies ahead for me today, who needs me to be strong, who props up my weakness? I had better keep my eyes, ears and heart open because I'm sure something will come along. It isn't all about me. It's about community. I'll have to remember that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 4, 2013.