Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Political Rant

If Republicans care so much about my health care choices being mine and not the government's, why are they passing bills that do exactly the opposite?  Why are they restricting access to birth control and reproductive choice at the same time they're probably actively using (and probably subsidizing) Viagra and Cialis? Cutting medical services for half the population while ensuring the other half is very well provided-for medically doesn't seem to be allowing personal health care choices to be personal. It's corporate all the way, and the ones who benefit? It sure ain't the people most in need, that's for sure.

While they pass legislation that further pads the upper income brackets (including their own), kids at the low end of the economic ladder are growing up hungry and poorly educated. Kids who go to school hungry are much less able to focus on learning and so their grades drop, they lose interest because they can't succeed because the grumbling in their bellies is louder than the explanation of why the sky is blue or why using proper punctuation and spelling are important. Teachers too are hard-hit; programs that would enrich the lives of their students, even the amount of school supplies they are allowed has been cut and so many teachers dip into their own pockets to try to help make up the difference. And this is the educational system that is supposed to keep the United States at the top in academic achievement?  News flash -- we're nowhere even close any more.

Rights for the unborn?  What about the already-born?  It seems interest for them stops as soon as the birth canal empties. With all the advances in science that keeps pre-term neonates alive earlier and earlier in their gestation, the US infant mortality rate is still higher than most of Europe and parts of the Far East. The cost of such care is often left to the parents who often have no hope of being able to pay off the debt incurred and even with all the technologies, many of those premature births result in children with defects and life-long medical issues. Children in the US die of preventable diseases because parents fear the vaccines aren't safe, even if they can afford to pay for them. Children are among our most vulnerable citizens and Congress is making sure they stay that way with cuts in programs that those children need.

Elders too are getting the short shaft. Costs go up but fixed incomes do not. More and more are having to choose whether to pay rising utility bills or for the medication they need to survive. Same with having to cut back on groceries to afford utilities, rent and doctor visits. What happened to the dreams of retirement so many had and worked hard to achieve? Frequent travel and a life on the golf course?  Sure, some achieve that, but for many more, a trip across town is as far from home as they can get and even that has to be carefully planned and budgeted, even if it is intended to save even a little on a needed item. The world has changed. They can no longer count on being cared for inside the family unit; instead, they are shuffled off to nursing homes or retirement homes and seldom see the family. When the money runs out, they are shown the door of those retirement homes and from there it's anybody's guess where they are supposed to go and how they are supposed to get there. Yet the fat cats have made sure their cohorts in the upper economic brackets are well looked-after and protected.

Military personnel, particularly the enlisted grades, are sent out to foreign places to fight for -- remind me, what is it they were sent out to do?  Protect our democracy and national safety?  They are killed protecting the rights of Congress to cut funding for them and their families as well as those who support their missions and for what?  Not their families who often have to rely on assistance even while their loved one is deployed. Not them when they return. Their safety net wouldn't protect a gnat, much less a military family. They're more or less told to come home and just go back to normal life. How can they after the things they've seen and things they'd been forced to do? In the sanitized and sacred halls of Congress, there isn't a lot of blood and gore, unless you count the bodies of those who have been sacrificed so that Congressmen and their cronies can meet at the country club and swig scotch after a grueling 18 holes. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Or is it the land of those who sit in safety while putting other lives at risk both in foreign lands and even here at home?

Tell me again how Congress felt the need to shut down the government a few months ago because they wanted to "balance the budget" and "cut wasteful spending"? Oddly enough, the cuts they were making didn't involve cutting their own benefits. Oh, no. In fact, they insisted that they needed their health clubs to remain open because they "needed" them. They didn't cut their own health care or, if I remember correctly, anything else involving themselves. I notice that this round of cuts didn't involve cutting air traffic controllers like the last time they tried to shut down a goodly part of the government. The air traffic controllers got their jobs back very quickly when Congress realized that THEY would be seriously inconvenienced in their journeys back home for vacation!  Is it any wonder public approval of Congress is about as low as it can go and still remain in positive numbers?

Living as I do in a heavily Republican enclave, approval for belt-tightening, fewer and stricter government assistance programs is highly lauded. They use the Bible as their guidebook, they say, but I read what is supposed to be the same Bible and can't find the Prosperity Gospel or the "I've got mine, good luck getting yours" stuff anywhere. They hearken back to Cain's response, "Am I my brother's keeper?" rather than Jesus' "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31, NIV). They make the accusation that Jesus never meant government entitlement programs in that statement but what they don't remember is that in Jesus' day, families took care of each other, neighbors worked together and the government that was over them wasn't elected by them and wasn't even from the same country in which they themselves lived. They loudly proclaim that this is a Christian country, but somehow I wonder if the founder of this particular branch that grew out of the Jewish tradition would even recognize the Christianity they espouse.

I keep hoping and praying that things will turn around but I'm not sure that's going to happen any time soon. With the gap between rich and poor widening exponentially, the top of the economic heap isn't about to give up any of its own perceived entitlements to help others. The Horatio Alger formula, that of anyone can make it if they work hard enough, doesn't seem to work any more, or not work very well. I despair at the state of this country that used to be such a beacon of hope and promise for those who came here looking for a better life. Christian country? I think not.

God help us. It's our only hope.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

State of the Household 2014

It's the time of year when people review the year that has passed and make plans of some sort for the year ahead. The President gives the State of the Union address, churches have a state of the parish at their annual meetings, and even the IRS asks for an accounting of what we earned last year (and, incidentally tests our honesty about those earnings).  With that in mind and, as is a personal custom of mine every year on this date, I will review the State of the Household as of January 28, 2014.

On this date six years ago my world changed drastically when I woke to find the day I had been dreading for years had happened. It was the day that marked the passage from wife to widow, part of a pair to a single, and with an immense amount of confusion as to what to do, how to do it, and even if I could do it. It was literally taking life one day, one hour, even one minute at a time. Luckily I had great support from friends and family and slowly but surely life began to make a little more sense although a very different sense than I had had before. That support has not flagged once since then and for that I'm very grateful.

In the subsequent six  years I learned to do a lot of things for myself. Some of it was fun, like settling into a new (for me) domicile and finding freedom to come and go as I pleased, eat what and when I wanted, and go to bed at whatever time I felt I needed to go. There was pain too, not only the pain of losing someone who'd shared my life for over thirty years and to whom I was married to for twenty-seven, but struggling with finances (never my strong suit) and juggling things that needed doing to try to avoid swamping the canoe of my life in a current that threatened to overwhelm me. Needless to say, I survived, and, in some ways flourished.

In the past year I have continued to battle my cancer with drugs and have passed one year of survival. I've lost weight -- and gained a little of it back. I've exercised more and then less as I recovered from a broken ankle.  I've learned to ask for help when I need it and not to drive myself nuts trying to deal with everything all on my own. I've learned that real friends are around and can be relied on to give the support I need, whether physical, emotional, spiritual and sometimes even financial. Good friends are something that should never be taken for granted. I know I treasure mine.

Looking at the past year, I have jotted down a list of things I remember, not necessarily high points but things that stuck out from the everyday stuff. There were lots of doctor's appointments with a bunch of different doctors for everything from my diabetes to cancer, orthopedics to eye problems. But then when I looked at the rest of the list, I had a rather astounding epiphany: most of what I remember was good stuff, not bad. For a professed pessimist, that's quite an AHA! moment.

I found a new church where I could be in community with others. I'd known about it for years but it took one visit and I was hooked. Through that church I've been able to do things I love and haven't been able to do for a while, things like serve the chalice and read the lessons, not to mention singing hymns I adore and hear great music from a very talented group of musicians. I've reconnected with a priest friend and made a new one and those two have given me the opportunity to do something I have a passion for: adult education. I've done two classes for an adult ed program and have two more to go. I have known something about the subjects going in but in researching for the class I find so much more that I didn't know. If anybody knows me, they know I love to dig into things about which I'm passionate. That's been a great blessing this past year.

I've been able to continue with my EfM work and be part of first a pilot program and then the first year of a new curriculum. I work with three great co-mentors and two great groups who challenge my thinking and keep me investigating. By virtue of having to have a recertification class every year to maintain my certification to mentor, I can connect with several friends with whom I've shared that training for the past few years. Getting together with them once a year is like a family reunion and I love it.

I've done quite a bit of writing and that's something I've loved doing since I was a kid although for many years I only wrote letters to friends and relatives. Now I have a weekly meditation on a website called Episcopal Café and occasionally contribute an essay on some topic in which I have an interest. I've been blogging for ten years now, and I've come to think of it as a work in progress. I've got a bunch of old stuff I wrote years ago that I'm thinking of editing (a bunch) and possibly publishing the essays as a group of epiphany meditations. I may do it although I haven't had much time to work on  it since summer ended. Still, there's another summer ahead . . .

I took some online courses in writing, copy editing and churchy topics. I'm happier when I am busy and never happier than when I can combine reading, writing and research all in the same package. I bought myself a new Kindle tablet and have read quite a few books in the past few years. Thanks to a lady I knew a long time ago, I've kept up an annotated bibliography of the books I've read for the past 10+ years. The synopses helped me remember what the books were about and I now have an index to help me find the book I'm looking for quickly. It's probably the one place I'm really organized and it's kind of fun to add yet another book to the thing. I think I'm up around 293 or so as of today. Oh, and all but four or five are all on the subject of religion. I've found I'm passionate about theology, church history, Bible study and all that stuff. It takes longer to read the books than it did when my passion was British and American cozies and thrillers, but the subject matter seems much more enlightening.

Financially I'm sort of okay. I need to be more frugal and a lot less into instant gratification. I struggle with that since so many years of my life have been spent squeezing every penny until it hurts and still not having quite enough that when I get $10 I want to spend at least $9.95 of it. That's a place that needs work, but on the plus side, last year I paid off my very own mortgage on my very own place to live. I don't own the lot on which it stands, but at least I own the building. That's a good feeling.

The boys, my cats, are still with me with the exception of Whitey, my beloved outside cat, who went to Rainbow Bridge a couple of weeks ago. The inside cats -- Domi, Gandhi, Sama and Phoebe -- alternately drive me crazy and give me a reason to get up in the morning. Somebody has to earn the cat food around here. Still, they're company and there's nothing like the warm body of a cat and the sound of a purr to help make things better.

All in all, I can't complain a whole lot about the past year. I've gotten myself in trouble and most of the time gotten myself out. A few times friends have come to the rescue so I've never gone completely underwater, thank God. I don't know what this year will bring but I hope that next January 28th I'll be able to say again that I remember more positive things than negative. It's a good thing.

Now on to 2014.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Paul's Epiphany

The Conversion of Paul, evening reading
A couple of weeks ago I saw two pictures that really caught my attention.  One was a painting by the eminent Chinese painter He Qi entitled Calling St. Paul . Like all He Qi's paintings, it is full of color and unexpected angles, but what arrested me was Paul turning around to see a bright light that blinded him. I'd always thought of Paul as seeing the light in front of him, but after seeing this, I can see that it was more than a spiritual turning around that he had to do, it was very much a physical turning around. The second picture was a photograph by Mario Gerth from a series shot in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. It is called "It Could Be Moses, Right?" but it reminds me of Paul as well. Paul did a lot of journeying, and this one could have been a vision of what difficult terrain, physical and spiritual, he would have to traverse.
Paul had a major epiphany, a sudden "AHA!" moment, where in the blink of an eye everything seems to turn around. It wasn't without cost, however. For three days he could see nothing, he was helpless and at the mercy of others just as early followers of Jesus had been at his mercy but with very different results. Usually with an epiphany a person sees things in a different way but with Paul, he saw nothing at all once that bright light had struck his eyes. His ears still worked, as did those who were with him, and what he heard changed his life totally. He spent three days in darkness, not eating or drinking but probably doing a lot of thinking and, perhaps, praying. Evidently he had reached some conclusion because at the end of three days, another vision of Jesus came to him, this time with Paul responding with the traditional formula used by those called by God throughout the Hebrew Bible, "Here I am, Lord." The three days of blindness and silence was also symbolic, reminiscent of Jesus' three days in the tomb.
Epiphanies don't always come as blinding flashes of light that can knock a person off their donkey (and it's all I can do to keep from adding "and on their ***") like Paul. Some of the most profound can be simple everyday things that happen that have about the same result as the famous "Wow! I coulda had a V-8!" slap on the forehead at the realization that something has either given rise to a change or resulted in a change itself. Every great idea for an invention or the latest, greatest novel or the movement that changes the world probably began as a small epiphany and grew from there, but even the tiniest ones, personal ones, are important. I think of them as little God-flashes that come through the static of my everyday life, letting me know that there is more to life than me or what I'm doing on my own.
When Ananias came to heal Paul, he did it with great reluctance, given Paul's history and the reputation he had. Still, Ananias went because it was his duty to go; God said so. Perhaps once he saw the result of Paul's experience on Paul himself, Ananias may have had a small epiphany that the healing he was helping with was going to result in great things for God, but maybe, he saw that even the most feared of enemies can be as helpless as babies and need help. That would have been an important epiphany in and of itself.

Years ago I spent a lot of time searching for and finding little epiphanies in everyday life. It surprised me at how many I encountered, if I really looked for them and was open to their being revealed. I never got a call to go and heal someone of blindness but I learned to see even people that I perceived as enemies (of whatever kind, personal or corporate) as having moments of weakness. I saw Jesus in a homeless man pushing his rusty grocery cart piled with boxes and bags that represented his entire worldly wealth. I began to see silence as a great communication tool, allowing me to hear God more clearly and others as well. There were so many little things that I now seem to take for granted or overlook entirely.
Perhaps this reading is a kind of epiphany for me that it is time to start looking again for those little God-moments where I least expect them. If an epiphany can change an enemy of Jesus' followers into a person who almost singlehandedly built the Christian church, what can they do for just an ordinary person like me? That may be my greatest epiphany of all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 25, 2014, under the title, "The Conversion of Paul."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

To Whitey

He was just an outdoor cat, or so he appeared. He was a bit dirty, a bit shopworn, and as thin as a rail, but those flaws couldn't hide the remembrance of what he had been when we first met. 

His name was Whitecat, Whitey for short, a rather unimaginative name for a pure white cat with pale blue eyes. The man who had lived in the house here before me had seen him as a very young feral cat and had gradually won his trust and companionship. Whitey went for walks with the man and his dog, kept  them company inside and out, and generally was a member in good standing of their little family. When I bought the place, Whitey was part of the package. I didn't mind a bit; he was a beautiful cat, a lovely gentleman and I am nuts about cats anyway. 

Whitey was part of my share of the neighborhood for the past five and a half years. He only came inside once; I brought him in one night last winter when the temperature was well below freezing. He wasn't happy and wanted out first thing next morning. He had a pal, Tigger, who was often curled up next to him or sitting next to him on the front step. I made sure they never went hungry and, I'm afraid, in the process, attracted a few more cats. I tried to keep them away until after Whitey ate but I noticed that if there was a pregnant female or almost any female, for that matter, he would back off and let them eat first, no matter how hungry he was.

He was a gentle cat, not a fighter by any stretch, but he would defend himself if need be. Occasionally he got the worse of the match and I wouldn't see him for a few days. That was worrisome because I was always afraid he would never come back. Sooner or later, though, he would show up, sitting on the doorstep when I opened the door, and things would be back to normal.

About six months ago he began to go downhill. He clawed at his mouth after he ate like someone who needed a toothpick. I couldn't get close enough to him at that point to check to see what it was, but I could see it bothered him. Then he started looking a bit unkempt. His beautiful white coat got dirty and never really got clean again although he did wash his face diligently after every meal. He lost weight and, about a week or so ago, he was almost skin and bones except for a badly bloated abdomen. Four days ago he sat on my doorstep and meowed at me, following me closely when I went outside, checking the water dish and putting out food for him. He would eat a tiny bit, then go off under the truck or wherever it was he went when he wanted to be alone.

Thursday he was much worse and meowed continually when he saw me. It was like he wanted help and I felt totally helpless. He would let me pet him, even brush him gently as he ate the few bites he wanted to take. The look in those pale blue eyes and that quiet little meow, a sound I had almost never heard in the whole five and a half years of our association, told me something had to be done and it was time to do it.

Friday, with a very heavy heart, I put him on a new blanket in a cat carrier and took him to the vet. They wrapped his body up in the new blanket and I took him over to the man who used to be his caregiver. Whitey was buried under a tree in his yard, next to the dog with whom he and the man shared walks. I think he would be happy to be there.

I still drive around the corner where my house is and when I pull into my driveway I still look to see if he is there waiting for me like he was so many times. Tigger is looking too, but neither of us see him. I can't explain to her what happened, but I so wish I could. That's the curse of being human and not feline; I can't communicate with them more than on a certain level. I hope I conveyed to Whitey how much he was loved, though.

I miss him. I still have my four indoor cats and I love them dearly, but Whitey was in a class all by himself. I miss my gentleman cat.  I have to take heart, though, and deep down I have a feeling that Whitey and I will meet again one day, just as I will meet the others I have loved. If I get to heaven and Whitey, Jane, Maggie, Nick, Tinker, Dammit and Emerson aren't there, I'm not going in. It wouldn't be heaven without them.

A friend sent this poem to us, Whitey's family:

The earth will never be the same again
Rock, water, tree, iron share this grief
As distant stars participate in pain.
a Candle snuffed, a falling star or leaf.
A dolphin death.  O this particular loss
is Heaven-mourned, for if no angel cried,
If this small one was tossed away as dross
The very galaxies then would have lied.

How shall we sing our love’s song now
In this strange land where all are born to die?
Each tree and leaf and start show how
The universe is part of this one cry.
That every life is noted and is cherished.
And nothing loved is ever lost or perished. 
         -- Madeline L’Engle from “A Ring of Endless Light”

Rest in peace, Whitey.

More Than a Confession

Confession of Peter, evening lesson

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ -- John 21:15-22

What an interesting beginning to a story, "They had finished breakfast." It sounds so ordinary. The disciples had been out fishing all night but were coming up empty. Someone calls them from the beach and tells them to throw the net off the other side of the boat. What difference could there be from one side of a fairly small watercraft to another?  Obviously, there was a lot of difference for they could hardly pull the net up for all the fish in it. Meanwhile, Jesus is on the shore, waiting for them and preparing breakfast of bread and fish. It sounds a lot like the same menu as that for the 5,000.

After breakfast Jesus initiates a conversation with Peter, a rather serious one. "Peter, do you love me?"  I bet Peter never saw that one coming, any more than anyone would when someone asks them that same question. Often it is a question born of insecurity or doubt, looking for a reassurance and hopefully a positive response. Jesus had a pretty clear idea of people and their motives, even sometimes their very thoughts, it seems, so why did he ask that question of someone who had travelled with him, eaten with him, laughed with him, even watched him do incredible things? Did he want to see how Peter would respond as a test of his honesty? His dedication?

Peter, of course, gave him an answer in the very definite affirmative, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." I have no doubt Peter meant it; why would he have followed Jesus so long and so far if not for love? It must have puzzled Peter as to why Jesus was asking; I'm sure Jesus must have asked rhetorical questions or questions designed to stir up discussion that would lead to new insights on the part of the disciples, but this question seems to go just a bit beyond that. Peter was confused and more than a little hurt. How could Jesus question his love and loyalty?  All he could do was keep answering, "Yes, Lord, I love you" in various ways and each time with more emphasis.

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, so we know that Peter denied Jesus three times, precisely the number of times Jesus asked if Peter loves him in this story, but there's something else about this story that is more immediate: "Feed my lambs, "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep."

Peter was often a plank-head, a bit slow on the uptake, and it isn't hard to imagine that he felt pretty confused by this whole exchange. What did one thing have to do with the other?  What did loving Jesus have to do with feeding and tending sheep? Peter probably had a bit of cogitating to do on that one to try to figure it out. Jesus didn't always make his teachings easy to understand.
Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, so we know that Peter denied Jesus three times, precisely the number of times Jesus asked if Peter loves him in this story, but there's something else about this story that is more immediate: "Feed my lambs, "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep."
Sheep aren’t the most brilliant of God’s creatures. They have to be moved from pasture to pasture and they don’t usually do this too well if left on their own. If one goes off it’s likely that a few companions will go along as well and that can lead to trouble. Sheep don’t have many defenses against predators;  without some security and oversight, one sheep or a dozen can become either a nice dinner of mutton for one or a banquet for a predator and packmates. Sheep need tending: protection; guidance; a bit of stimulus to get them going in the right direction and keep them that way. That is the job of the shepherd, the pastor, and that is the job Jesus was telling Peter and the other disciples to do.
People don’t like to be called sheep; it’s generally a sort of insult meaning that they can’t make good decisions, cam wander into dangerous territory without seeing or knowing the signs of danger, will follow a group because it’s going somewhere and they don’t want to be left out if any goodies like good grazing land. Unfortunately, sometimes people are just like sheep and the pastor, the shepherd, has to be there to protect them from themselves as much as from predators intent on an easy meal. In laying the job on Peter he also laid it on all of us to take care of the flock, to feed them when they need food, care for their injuries, keep them safe from predators, help them in birthing, and ensure the whole flock stays together because there is safety in numbers, or so we are told.
The world offers a lot of temptations -- pastures that look greener somewhere other than where we are, great ideas proposed by individuals and corporations that assure us we'll make fortunes if we invest in this or buy that, even "Say these words and..." we'll be assured a seat at the heavenly banquet when we die. It's very easy to say, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you" on Sunday in church, but what happens when we stand on the front steps of the church and face a world that entices and coerces us in directions away from that affirmation. We are told that poor people are poor because they're too lazy to work hard. We hear that the crazies on the street are all drug users or prostitutes, even if they are simply people damaged by war, corporate downsizing or just some really bad choices in life. We are taught to fear and mistrust people who aren't "like us" even though they too are members of Jesus' flock. Those who aren't Christian?  Jesus wasn't a Christian and he accepted marginalized people into his inner circle, he healed and befriended outsiders not of the Jewish faith. In short, he showed us what we were supposed to do. But are we paying attention?
The commemoration today is Peter's Confession of love to Jesus, but I think the bigger story is the directive to take care of the people of the world, God's children, and even the world itself. A healthy flock needs clean water, a sufficiency of food, and a level of care that provides safety, security and healing. Jesus was speaking not to just Peter but to all of us. "Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep." 
"I love you" can be nothing more than words, but real love, real pastoring, real tending and feeding involves action. More than just Peter's confession, it is a call to action. The flock is hungry, thirsty, tired, banged-up and confused. It's time to pastor them, not with "Say these words and..." but "How can I help you?"
I have a feeling that those words, spoken quietly and privately to another, are louder than all Peter's protestations of love could ever be.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 18, 2014.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. - Galatians 3:23-29, 4:4-7

Paul has written one of those passages that seem to click with a lot of people, me among them. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female. . ." is one of the most profound statements of Paul's message. It is interesting that Jew and Greek as well as slave and free are connected by the word or but male and female have and between them. It denotes an equality that we're still trying to work out. It is a hopeful statement, with a lot of promise.

But then I come to "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Every time I read this passage I have to stop at that last phrase. It's like the needle on the record stops and I have to go over it and over it again and again until someone, God perhaps, nudges the needle to the next groove so that I can go on. It all stems with the word "adoption" because I was an adopted child.

Adoption in Paul's time was a common thing, just like it is now, with similar methods of going about it and even some of the same wording on the final decree that makes it legal. A child (or, in Paul's time, even an adult) was adopted and from that time forward all ties and claims to the birth family were severed and the person was considered as much a part of the adoptive family as a child of their own blood would be. It was a good thing for the adoptive parents because there would be someone to care for them in their old age as well as inherit their wealth and property but most importantly, their immortality would be assured since their name would continue on in new branches of the family tree. For Paul, acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God dissolves our ties and claims to earthly things like sin and makes us co-inheritors of the kingdom of God. We become heirs to the promise God made to Abraham, even if we aren't blood kin. And all we have to do is accept the grace of it, which is a lot easier sometimes than accepting that you don't look like anyone in the family or that you have two fathers.

Paul lived in a time when blood was a very important thing. A number of the rules of the Old Testament like who could marry whom or who could inherit what and how much of it were based on blood kin and birth order. The rules were put in place to ensure that the wrong person didn't inherit something to which they were not entitled. Haven't we seen that enacted in the courts in recent years? Yet adoption said that relationship could be more important than blood. A piece of paper could change a relationship so that a person totally unrelated to them in any way could be considered a full member and inherit the lot. There was to be no difference between blood and adopted kin. Yet today there are still children stigmatized by their peers and sometimes looked down upon by adults because they are adopted and thus are somehow seen as not quite so good as the family tree upon which they have been grafted.

I've never really understood why our adoption as heirs of Abraham was so important. God created us and we are all called God's children, right? God has lots of children including some who call God by a different name or who pray in a different languages or have different color skin or live in some other place, no? So why are we so busy separating the blood kin from the adopted ones in our society and even our faith? Is an Episcopalian more acceptable to God than a Southern Baptist?  If a Seventh-Day Adventist calls on God, is that any less valued or acceptable than if done by a Roman Catholic?  Are Christian prayers and claims on the family more correct than Jewish or Muslim ones? Are People of the Book more loved by God than Hindus, Buddhists, or even atheists?  If God had a refrigerator, whose pictures would be on it? I like to think God's refrigerator is big enough to hold a picture of every person on earth and every person who has now departed this life at any point in time. Is it adoption or is it just acknowledgement of the relationship that is important?

Paul often gives me headaches, and today's reading is no different. I'm still the birth child of my father (may he rest in peace) and the adopted child of my adoptive family (may they rest in peace as well). Above all, I'm God's kid because God chose me to have a relationship and I have accepted that, even if it is a bit tentative on my part because I don't feel good enough or close enough or even important enough for God to care. I don't think it matters a whit to God; the relationship is there, whether or not I am always conscious of it. I'm still wrapping my mind around the fact that my picture's on God's refrigerator and on God's desk as well.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 11, 2014.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blindness at Siloam

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. -- John 9:1-12, 35-38
It looks like such a simple story: blind man suffers, Jesus heals, blind man is no longer blind. But, like a lot of scripture, there is stuff going on underneath, things that are left out by either the writer or the group who chose only a portion of John 9 for the daily reading. There is also a lot of symbolism to unpack, symbols being John's way of saying things that weren't perfectly clear but that lead to deeper truths.
It opens with the disciples asking whose fault was it he was born blind. How did they know he was born that way?  Did he wear a sign? Most people in those days couldn't read signs. Did they know him personally?  Hardly likely since the action takes place outside Jerusalem and Jesus and his people were from Galilee to the north. Did "John," writer of the gospel, interview the one healed or someone in the crowd? Who knows? What we are told is that there was a question about punishment for sin, whether it was inherited from the parents or was it personal. Jesus' answer is reassuring: it isn't punishment for sin but so that he could be an instrument to show God's mercy. I wonder, would that be comforting to parents who have learned their beloved and more or less impatiently waited-for child is somehow not quite perfect? We know that genetics often plays a part, but then there are times when genetics has nothing at all to do with it; it just happens. Punishment? I don't think so.
Jesus saw the man, spat in the mud, plastered it on the man's eyes, then told him to go wash in the pool at Siloam, Siloam being a word that means "sent" or "the one sent." How appropriate that name is for someone who is healed and sent out to demonstrate God's mercy. The man's neighbors saw him after his ritual bath and couldn't believe their own eyes, orbs that they felt had always allowed them to see clearly. They took him to the Pharisees who questioned both the man and his parents. The Pharisees seemed less interested in the man's healing as they were in (a) that it was done on the Sabbath, healing being a form of work forbidden on that day, and (b) who had done it. Evidently the Pharisees had proclaimed that anyone who professed the messiah or testified to his presence would be thrown out of the synagogue. The formerly blind man was so testifying and so ". . . they had driven him out. . . ," revoking his membership and forbidding his presence in the synagogue and its community. That would be a hard price to pay for being an instrument of God's mercy, but John used it to remind his listeners that it could happen to them and that they were to go on doing what they were doing, namely spreading the good news about Jesus.
A lot of things get healed these days that would have been unthinkable in Jesus' time. There are surgeries and treatments that can take something like cataracts (which can be present at birth) and often cure them. What would have been miracles to the people of the first century are commonplace for us, so much so that we hardly ever think of them as miraculous. In those days, though, things weren't so simple. Jesus healed a lot of people and cured a number of them.
There is a difference between a curing and a healing. A person can be cured of a disease or disorder but never healed from its aftereffects. A woman who is raped may be cured of any physical damage or disease caused by the violation but may never be healed from the experience. A soldier may return from the war zone looking perfectly healthy but be so traumatized by the experiences he had seen and undergone that he can barely function in the "normal" world. The blind man at Siloam was cured, but what of the trauma of being cast out of the synagogue because he spoke of his healing at Jesus' hands?  He believed in Jesus, but what became of him after the story in John ends? We don't know. Perhaps he too became an itinerant apostle, spreading the word of what had happened to him and how. Perhaps in that he found his healing.
There's a bit more to the story after today's reading stops:
Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. (39-41)

Perhaps it is a question we need to ask ourselves, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" When we see someone in need and do nothing, aren't we being blind with regard to that person? When something is wrong and we don't try to help fix it, aren't we being blind to what that breakage means to others who depend on it? Where do we need curing and where do we need healing ourselves?  Where can we help cure and where can we help heal others, whether they be relatives, friends, or total strangers?
I think it's a question Jesus can ask any of us. The Son of Man is waiting to put clay on our own eyes and tell us to go wash it off. Are we listening and following his instructions or are we like the Pharisees, sure of our own salvation and righteousness and casting aside any who don't measure up to our own perceptions of who and what is acceptable to God?
In the beginning of a new year, it might be a good time to reflect on blindness of the heart as well as of the eyes.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 4, 2014.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day 2014

It's New Year's Day, the beginning of  a new year, the start of new courses of thought and action, the open door for new disasters and exultations. The door of 2013 with all its trials, joys, disappointments, questions, trial balloons and monumental decisions and actions is now closed, only to be reopened in order to look at its results in hindsight. Now it is 2014 and all its possibilities lie ahead. It's a challenge -- a daunting one.

Before the year turned, many people practiced an old tradition, namely making resolutions for the new year. A lot of them will resolve to live healthier lives, exercise more, eat less, and take better care of themselves. Some will quit smoking, others will give up other vices, larger or smaller ones, and start over. Some will resolve to pray more and others to volunteer more. Others will just ignore the whole thing,

Resolutions come from the word resolve, which, as a verb, means to find a solution to a problem or dilemma or to make a decision to follow a course of action. In debates, the question posited for discussion begins with "Be it resolved that..." just as do many documents with legal ramifications and which indicate an agreement to abide by the terms of the document has been reached. When the church approaches Lent, it encourages people to make resolutions of another kind, personal resolutions to give up something of importance or value to them and/or to take on additional duties or practices such as prayer or service to others.

For some Christians, New Year's Day can be almost a practice session for the beginning Lent which, this year, begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5. Lent might then be a second, more successful attempt at whatever it was that was resolved. Whichever, generally there is a personal gain to be sought in making and keeping resolutions, as well as the potential for failure and feelings of defeat when humanity overtakes and surpasses resolve.

Personally, I don't "do" resolutions. No matter how good my intentions or how enthusiastically I begin the process, somehow it never quite works out. Forty days of intentions are about as much as I can manage most years; to think of a whole year boggles my mind. I know there are certain things that I have to do in order to maintain some semblance of health, like take my pills, eat healthier stuff and (groan) get more exercise. Most days I can try to do those things but it's strictly a day-to-day commitment. I can resolve to pray more, do more volunteer stuff, put some extra in my church's alms basin and the like, but when I end a day, I usually can say I have failed in my resolution. It's not a good feeling, even though I know I can start again tomorrow.

So on this New Year's Day I've done stuff other than make resolutions. Half the leaves in the yard are raked and bagged, most of the laundry is done, I've watched some borrowed DVDs, done a bit of reading and thought about resolutions and what I would resolve if I were a resolution-making type of person. On reflection, I've decided to skip the resolutions and go make myself a nice cup of tea.

Happy New Year.