Sunday, March 30, 2014

To Rest and Be Remembered

 Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly. Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were one hundred and forty-seven years.
 When the time of Israel’s death drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favour with you, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.’ He answered, ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said, ‘Swear to me’; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself on the head of his bed.
After this Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took with him his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to you’, he summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, ‘God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, and said to me, “I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring after you for a perpetual holding.” Therefore your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are now mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are. As for the offspring born to you after them, they shall be yours. They shall be recorded under the names of their brothers with regard to their inheritance. For when I came from Paddan, Rachel, alas, died in the land of Canaan on the way, while there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath’ (that is, Bethlehem). Genesis 47:27-48:7

Jacob was dying. He had lived a long life, 147 years if we’re to believe the statement of scripture. It had been a life full of ups and downs, a life where he was his mother’s favorite, husband to two wives (and two concubines) and buried both (nobody knows about the concubines), father to twelve sons (and one unfortunate daughter who was named and probably a number of unnamed ones), the source of a family breakup (stealing Esau’s blessing and having to skedaddle out of town), and the victim of another (his son Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers). That lost son had done well for himself in his exile before his father and family came  to seek refuge from a famine back home and, incidentally, found some measure of healing of the family breach. All in all it was a pretty colorful life. Did I mention he also wrestled with God -- and lost?
There were two things, other than approval from God, that Jacob sought: remembrance of his good name and the continuation of his family line and estates. He already had twelve sons by his two wives and two concubines yet while in Egypt he came to know the two sons of Joseph by an Egyptian woman. Ordinarily the foreign mother might have put those sons out of the family picture but Jacob chose a different way. Almost in exchange for a promise, Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons and ensured that they would inherit their rightful share of his estate. He had lost Joseph for so many years, it was almost as if he were getting back his son three times over.
The promise that Jacob required of Joseph had to do with remembrance as much as anything else. In some cultures, a person is not considered truly dead until up to a year goes by without anyone speaking their name or remembering them in some way. For many people, visiting a cemetery where a family member or friend is buried makes it a place of remembrance, keeping that person’s memory alive. For Jacob, it was important to him to have his body returned to his homeland and be laid to rest with his ancestors. It would be a kind of homecoming for a son who had been away a long time. It would also be a place where descendants could go and remember their ancestor, ensuring his memory would stay alive.
When I was growing up, one of the fairly frequent Sunday afternoon events was visiting this or that relative. When we went to visit the Gloucester part of the family, the day almost always included a visit to the little cemetery where my adoptive father’s parents and others rested, a place where my adoptive mother was also laid to rest. It’s a small cemetery, down a country road and in a clearing with an ancient forest on one side. During the Sunday visits the adults would tidy up the various graves, removing dead blooms, replacing them with fresh flowers or even planting annuals to add life to the place of the dead. I usually wandered around, recalling some and reading the names of others of whom my family occasionally spoke. For me, no journey back home is ever complete until I have visited there, walked again among the tombstones, remembered the departed, perhaps had a word with them or a prayer, and saw who has been interred since my last visit. I can understand Jacob’s desire to be in a similar place and also the wanting to lie forever in a place that feels like home.

Jesus was in a tomb for less than three days people more than two millennia later still make pilgrimages to one or both of the sites which allegedly held the body after his death and before his resurrection. They go to the Holy Land, visit the designated place of his birth, see the Jordan River where he was baptized, explore Gethsemane and walk the Via Dolorosa to the place where legend places his death. His name is still spoken and remembered after all these centuries yet there is something about being at the side of a tomb where perhaps his body lay that brings out the poignancy and desire to be close to him. That’s what cemeteries do – give the bereaved a place to grieve, speak, apologize, even pass on family news and, very possibly, heal from the breach. Jesus isn’t there in any of the purported tombs, but for some, something about it makes him closer than many other places. 
Centuries after his death, Joseph was carried out of Egypt and returned to the country where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather lay. While it had probably taken days, perhaps several weeks, for Jacob’s body to arrive at Machpelah, it took 400 years of waiting followed by 40 years of wandering for Joseph’s body to arrive at its final resting place in Shechem. Both came “home” to the land of their birth and their inheritance. While we remember them more from the Bible stories than from direct knowledge or tombstones in a cemetery, the fact is that we remember them because of who they were, what they represented and the fact that their names and stories were preserved by their descendants even before scripture was written.

Even if our lives aren't as colorful as Jacob's or important as Joseph's, may we all come to rest at wherever we consider home and be remembered for the good we have done. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 29, 2014.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What About Fred?

Fred Phelps is dead. The founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died in Topeka, Kansas, Wednesday, March 19th, of an undisclosed illness. He was 84 at the time of his death. Fred Phelps and his church are highly recognizable names to much of America, and that was (and is) the way they want it.

Phelps and his followers are most known for their picketing of funerals of those with whom they vehemently disagree:  those who died of AIDS, young gay men like Matthew Shepard and even the very straight Jerry Falwell who, in the opinion of the WBC, didn’t go far enough in condemning homosexuality. They picketed the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that God struck them down for defending the US and its increasing acceptance of homosexuality.  

Their fame, or notoriety, grew through those outrageous public acts which they claimed as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  The church, mostly made up of Phelps’ family members, included a number of lawyers all too ready to file suit against anyone who curtail their appearances or rights to be as vocal and obnoxious as they chose.  One case against them went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that they could not be sued for monetary damages resulting from mental or physical anguish caused by the WBC’s demonstration at a family funeral.  The WBC was guaranteed the right of free speech – but the door was also opened for other groups, on any side of a given issue, to have their say, no matter whether or not they conformed to what was generally considered the religious or social norms of the majority.  

As Phelps aged, he went out less and less, leaving the active demonstrating to his family. Gradually, it seems, his influence with the church also waned and leadership of the congregation changed to non-family members. According to some news reports, Phelps was excommunicated from the church he had founded because he had endeavored to create a kinder relationship among church members. Somehow, given the images of Fred Phelps, the word “kind” does not seem to fit. Who knows? Away from the spotlight he might have been a real prince.  

Members of the WBC appeared to indicate that Phelps would not have a funeral because the church does not believe in “Worshipping the dead,” as they stated it.  How ironic that the man who picketed so many funerals would not be having one of his own, but then, perhaps it is just as well. For some, the opportunity to retaliate in kind might just be too strong to resist. 

One thing I wonder, though, is if there is anyone who is really mourning Fred Phelps?  His family seems divided between those who left the church years ago and were estranged from the patriarch and those who stayed on and carried on the mission he had laid before them.  There are reports of abuse from some of Phelps’s many children, but others say he took a Biblical view of punishment and did it strictly by Biblical standard.  But do any of them mourn his passing?  Certainly the WBC isn’t draping itself in funereal black and planning a grand sendoff for the founder of their congregation. The communiqué on their website is a scripture-laced (if highly selective choice and interpretation of text) condemnation of much of what mainstream (and even outside-the-mainstream) Christian communities stand for.

 The GLBTI community, people who have probably more reason to rejoice than just about anybody, has those who have expressed joy and relief that Fred is no longer among the living. On the other hand, there are also a number who have expressed their belief that God will judge Phelps and that they had no need or right to do so. There have been prayers offered for him, just as for anyone who has died.  Some too have offered forgiveness for the unrepentant Phelps. They take the words of Jesus very much to heart and forgive for their own soul’s sake as much as to release any ill will and resentment against him.

 In a way, it is said that Fred Phelps did gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and intersexed persons (GLBTIs) a kindness with his rhetoric of hate and outrageous public behavior. People looked at the WBC and its antics and began to see GLBTIs in a slightly different light, especially as family members and friends began to come out. How odd that the current climate of growing acceptance of equality between straights and GLBTIs began with such hatred and malice. There is still a long way to go before globally and even here in the United States that GLBTIs can enjoy all the rights and benefits their straight counterparts already enjoy, but it getting closer. It seems almost ironic that such progress could begin with someone like Fred Phelps and his religion of hatred and judgment.

 So what now for poor Fred?  Is his fate to be laid in a wooden box and whisked away to an undisclosed grave where he will become part of the regeneration of the earth but without any kind of marker to attract unwanted attention?  Will he become another resident in a local cemetery that will grow into a tourist attraction? Will he be cremated and his ashes scattered to the four winds? Has he reached the pearly gates and had God say in a kindly voice, “Hullo, Fred, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on over here; I have a few things to explain to you …” or perhaps he’s been met by Matthew Shepard and all those whose funerals he tried so hard to disrupt?

 Still, I have to wonder, is there anyone to mourn Fred and to grieve for the man who made a decision to fight the civil law instead of defending it and instead to push for his version of God’s law instead of following the footsteps of Jesus?  Will anyone regret his passing and miss his presence in their lives? 

 Fred Phelps was and is not the only person of his kind, but was undoubtedly the most openly vocal and visible about it, saying loudly and often crudely things that some think but dare not express aloud. There are still those who openly agree with every word he said and applaud every public demonstration of those words. Conversely, there are some who are on the exact opposite end of the scale with most others falling in between the two.

 The Westboro Baptist Church will go on with its same activities, under new leadership,  raising up a new generation to follow in its footsteps.  The world will continue turning and life will go on, sometimes changing laterally, sometimes regressing, sometimes progressing.  Fred Phelps is now a part of history and, as a baptized Christian, part of the Communion of Saints although I suspect he will never be listed in the bracket for Lent Madness*. I wonder if, in a hundred years or even fifty years, people will look back and wonder about Fred Phelps and pray that he has received the justice and mercy God promises to all.

 Rest in peace, Fred. 


 *Lent Madness is a wonderfully informative and highly amusing Lenten practice from the publishing house that brings us the daily devotional Forward Day by Day.  It features  saints both ancient and modern pitted against each other in a format much like that of the NCAA.  To see it in action, please visit Lent and join in the contest.


Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 23, 2014, under the title "Fred Phelps is dead."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why I am Episcopalian - the Elevator Pitch

Ever walked into a place you’d never been and felt at home almost immediately?  I did the first time I entered an Episcopal church and it changed me for life.
Why was it so great? From the opening procession with the cross in front to the recessional again following that cross it was an exercise for all my senses. I heard and read prayers and liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. I spoke to, shook hands with and occasionally hugged my neighbors. I smelled the beeswax and incense. I tasted the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It involved my whole body and spirit.

There was a wealth of scripture, three or four different texts every week, not just a single text for the sermon. The BCP is rich with scripture in which the whole assembly participates. Episcopalians take the Bible very seriously, just not necessarily literally.

The Episcopal Church encourages me to not just sit and listen but to engage with scripture, tradition and the community of the church plus my reason and experience to know what I believe, why I believe it and how to share it. It encourages me to be like the Samaritan woman at the well, running to tell everyone some good news. It encourages me to go out and serve others in Christ’s name and for his sake.

And it reminds me that I am not just some wretched hopeless sinner but God’s beloved child.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. -- Mark 5:1-20
The image is like a scene out of an old black-and-white Hollywood horror flick: a desolate graveyard near some nearly bare and rugged mountains, an animal-like howl that no human voice should be able to utter, and a dirt-encrusted human figure with unkempt hair and scars from shackles and chains. As I sit in my warm little house with the desk lamp providing light that breaks the darkness inside while keeping at bay that which surrounds the outside, it's almost as if I can hear the cries of a soul tormented almost past endurance. It seems an appropriate time of day to read the story of the Gerasene demoniac who lived a life of darkness even in the brightest of noonday suns.

To the people of the time, he was a person who was afflicted with one or more demons, something that made him unfit to live in any kind of proximity to any but the carrion birds and the occasional shepherd or swineherd who probably came no closer than they had to. Did they blame him for his condition? Did they whisper about what monstrous thing he must have done to have deserved such a punishment?  Did they blame the parents for evil doings so that their son was forced to live almost as a wild beast? People can be so cruel, and this village was probably no different than any other when faced with something they couldn't understand or that disturbed the peace of the population. 

The coming of Jesus probably gave the demonic intense pain; someone was coming and invading what little sanctuary he had and for what purpose?  To torment him more? To try to re-chain him and restrain him from running to try to escape the turmoil within himself? A man stepped out of a boat and the demoniac moved toward him, perhaps to try to chase him away before he, the demoniac, could be hurt again, perhaps in response to something that had broken through the madness and spoke of help that had come in the person of this stranger.

The modern equivalent of the Gerasene demoniac is present among us even in the middle of a big city: the returned soldier haunted by dreams and visions of conflict in which they saw, heard and maybe even did too much, the person who walks around in dirty clothes who dialogs with an unseen partner, the woman  trapped into a life of bingeing and purging as the whitewashed tombs of what culture defines as beauty  builds up around her and seemingly cuts her off from reality. These are the Gerasenes among us, those who have no hope much less sight of Jesus getting out of the boat and approaching them to heal the brokenness within them. That lack of hope is just one more demon.  

Today those who suffer from serious mental illnesses, as a result of trauma or chemical imbalance in the brain, be captive to fear of those who try to help. The medicines and/or treatments can seem almost worse than the illness itself.  I wonder, would or even could those suffering the isolation, confusion, and altered reality of mental illness and disability do what the Gerasene demoniac did by walking toward someone instead of running away and trying to hide? Would they know deep within themselves somewhere that this was a person who could heal them, not hurt them?

The demons we all have inside us can be little unheard voices that push us to buy that new car because (a) we really need a flashier ride, (b) would be cheaper than fixing up the older model we already have, and possibly (c)  would impress the neighbors and promote a feeling that we are successful and things are going great for us. They nudge us to buy that wonder pill that will dissolve all our physical lumps and bumps without changing our diet or exercise level, or to trade our hard-earned cash for that celebrity-endorsed beauty product that will make us look years younger without doing more than applying a cream or perhaps getting a few injections. They also encourage us to think of ourselves as a lot better than we are or a lot worse than we are by magnifying our perceptions of our virtues or our sins, depending on the circumstances.  

For Christians, Jesus is almost always the answer yet we tend to forget where to find him. We don’t realize that he is as far away as the whitened tombs of our fractured egos, unfulfilled desires and frustrated dreams will keep him and yet as close as our next breath and one unuttered word, “Help.”  

It’s our choice and we have to make it before we can begin to heal and, as part of our recovery, to look about for the opportunity to help others. We can’t heal them, but maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to let them see we are there to help, and that there is someone greater than our puny demons who can help them too. It’s worth a try.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows, and they grazed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. The ugly and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. Then he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk.Then seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them. The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Pharaoh awoke, and it was a dream. In the morning his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.’ - Genesis 41:1-13

Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers at least partially in response to his recounting a dream that included them in a not-very-flattering way. His release from prison in Egypt was also accomplished because of a few dreams, two from a couple of Pharaoh's employees and two from Pharaoh himself.
The dreams of the employees dealt with their jobs, one as a cupbearer who dreamed about three vines producing grapes which he gathered and pressed into Pharaoh's cup while the baker's dealt with three baskets of baked goods which birds were eating. The baker's dream was seen as a portent of death, but the cupbearer would be restored to his position. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him and help him get out of prison, but the cupbearer forgot about  Joseph for two whole years. It took the dreams of Pharaoh that no one could figure out to make the cupbearer suddenly remember Joseph.  He was brought out of jail, successfully interpreted the dreams and was made the Number Two man in the whole kingdom. Of course, Joseph didn't claim all the credit for the interpretation; God had given those interpretations to him.
Whether then or now, dreams are thought to be a form of communication, perhaps between the spirit world and the real one, a prophetic vision, or a window on what the dreamer had experienced the day before. Those who could interpret dreams were very important because they could unlock the secrets the dreams exposed. Some cultures sent out their youths to the wilderness to seek dreams which they bring back and recount to the elders and which could fashion the path of the rest of their lives. Some would call them hallucinations, some fantasies, but to the youth and their tribes, they were communications with the spirit world that surrounded them yet was invisible and often unnoticed. The youths were been sent out as boys but returned as men.
Everybody dreams, but not everybody remembers their dreams much less know what those dreams mean. It is possible to walk into any library or bookstore (or browse and find a number of books on what dreams mean. Every culture and society has dreamers, people who see what could or should be and who recount that vision to the tribe, the town, the country, the world. Martin Luther King Jr., in his "I have a dream" speech, placed himself in the sandals of Moses leading his people. He dreamed of a promised land of equality and justice for all, regardless of status, race or anything else that created a barrier between people. It was inarguably one of the most powerful speeches of all time, and it became the motivation of millions of people to seek what Dr. King had dreamed. Sometimes, like Joseph, Dr. King and his dream are forgotten for a time, but, just as suddenly, his vision is renewed and reinvigorated for the benefit of not just one person or even one group but for the world.
A lot of people will say that dreams are just fantasies. They believe that dreams of what could be just never come true so they're all put in the realm of the mind dabbling in fantasy while the rest of the body sleeps. Even if we aren't asleep, though, we can dream. Sometimes we scoff at those dreams too, the ones where we do something great, some good fortune comes to us, we land the job we've always wanted or find the soulmate we've hoped to find. Do we remember those dreams when they happen? Or do we use them to more actively work to make them realities? 

Dreams have built kingdoms and also destroyed them. The dream of one person has been able to change the world for good or for ill The deluded dreams of despots have caused great suffering and death to countless souls just as dreams of the more beneficent have helped millions through new visions of social programs, medical research and technological advances.
In Joel (2:28 NRSV) and also in Acts (2:17, NRSV), God promises that God's spirit/Spirit will be given to all people and that "[Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." The old may dream of the past or even the present but they can also sometimes see the trajectory of those paths and the effect they have had on the world. The young can dream of what they want the world to be relative to where it is now and work toward that goal. What the two ages have in common is the present, the time to work, to build, to continue dreaming and looking for the vision to move ahead.
God uses dreams sometimes to get messages to people that they may not have noticed in their waking moments. God sent a dream to Abimelech the king warning him not to mess with the beautiful Sarah who was actually Abraham’s wife, and not his sister. Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels moving up and down, reminding him of God’s promise to continue the line of God’s chosen people begun with Abraham through and now moving through Jacob. Daniel, like Joseph, was able to interpret dreams and portents. Even the New Testament Joseph, who was contemplating calling off the wedding to Mary because of a mysterious pregnancy in which he had no part, had a message from God in a dream and so became the earthly father to a child named Jesus.
Whether dreams while sleeping or daydreams (or visions) while we are wide awake, let us pay attention and not dismiss them out of hand as pure fiction. Some undoubtedly will be (like winning the lottery without buying a ticket), but some may just be the spark from the match that lights up the world as it passes from candle to candle.

May we have those moments when we, like Dr. King, can face the world prophetically and say, “I have a dream today.” May we follow those dreams to make the world a better place.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, March 15, 2014.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Who's Got Your Back?

 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. - Philippians 4:10-20

Reading old letters is almost always interesting. They are like windows into another's life, time and place. They can record very mundane events or world-shaking ones, seen though another pair of eyes and another's experience. Many continue a conversation that has been going on for a while, a conversation very much like hearing someone talk on the telephone; we can only hear half the discussion and must guess at the rest. The letters of Paul are this kind of correspondence. It's almost like putting together a picture puzzle with no picture on the box and half the pieces missing.

Paul's thank you note commends the Philippians for their care and concern in the past. It can't have been easy for him to move away from the familiar into the unfamiliar, even with a divine directive to do so. Luckily he had a trade to practice that could help sustain him. He had learned a lot of things over his life, including how to live with plenty and get by on nearly nothing. The latter is a far-from-usual talent, one that many never learn in our own day. Like teenagers who indulge in risky behaviors on the premise that young people don't die, people who have plenty seldom realize that it can be lost in a heartbeat. It's in the moments after that heartbeat that a person finds out who his or her real friends are: the people who have their backs when trouble arises.

The Philippians had indeed had Paul's back on several instances, as he writes in his letter. He hadn't asked for help but they sent it anyway. That's the kind of friend everyone should but doesn't always have around them, the friends who see a need and help to fill it without being asked. That's also the kind of action Jesus taught, the lesson of responding to a need whether it is friend, family or almost total stranger. It's all part of the "Love your neighbor" in those teachings. Every person on earth our neighbor and our job to help as many of them as we can, not for our own glory but for God's.

Paul also makes a curious statement, "I seek the profit that accumulates to your account." There are a lot of times people do things for others and the recipient will say, "I don't know how to repay you for your kindness." That may be all the payback the giver will receive but, according to Paul, the true payback will be added to their account in heaven. I know friends have helped me many times when I knew I couldn't repay them adequately, but I too counted on their goodness being recorded on their behalf by God.

We also have a saying, "Pay it forward," meaning to do a good deed out of the clear blue for someone else and, when we receive thanks, we tell them to just do something good for someone else. It isn't going to buy anyone's way into heaven, but it sure can make earth a tiny step closer to heaven right here and now.

Paul's letter gives us a glimpse at of a life under the guidance of God but very much dependent on his own wits and skills as well as the generosity of others to bring the mission to fruition. While we'll never know the other side of the story, we can take note that thank you notes are always appreciated,  good deeds have rewards above and beyond immediate thanks or paybacks, and that help, especially when it comes unasked, can be a very great blessing. It's an indication that people are watching and listening and that they see a need or sense one and offer what assistance they can. Consciously or not, they've got each other's backs.

Whether it's a fragrant offering, like Paul received (whatever that was), a financial contribution or even just a willing ear and available shoulder, we can make a difference in the world, one deed, one life at a time. Today the job is to find just one place where help can be given quietly and without thought to what reward we will receive for doing it. After all,  the neighbor we never met may need someone to watch his or her back and God may be taking notes . . .
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday March 8, 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Crowns and Haloes

 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. - John 12:20-26

Not long ago I had the privilege of leading a class on saints and mystics called "the Great Cloud of Witnesses." When I start preparing for this kind of work I feel I know something about the subject -- until I get into it and realize how little I know, how much there is to know and how feeble my brain power seems to be when I really want to remember everything I read about it. It's an exercise in both pride and humility. I'm proud to be allowed to present the topic but humbled at the same time. Will I do it right? Will it be worth the time they spend listening to me and participating? There's always something I could have done better, I'm positive, but how to make this time informative, interesting and somewhat entertaining at the same time is the trick. Still, teaching is always a shot in the dark: some will take away something, some will be bored and some will catch fire and do some digging on their own to learn more. 
One of the themes that seems to come up through these sessions (all of which are on Christianity, church, Anglicanism/Episcopaliansm, discipleship, history, etc.,) is prayer and the role of prayer, especially prayer disciplines like Lectio Divina. There are several forms of it, but all are based on four steps: lectio (reading a scripture, focusing on an object, picturing a scene), mediatio (reflecting on the scene, putting oneself into the world of the reading, mulling over a word or phrase that jumps out), oratio (prayer for guidance and inspiration), contemplatio (resting in God's presence and listening for God to speak). A fifth step comes with actio which means taking what we've been given through the process of lectio divina and making use of it in our daily lives. I found that to be very much the case in the lives of the saints and particularly the mystics. 
 Among the saints I studied I found the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early centuries of Christianity, ascetics who moved out into the wilderness or desert in order to pray, live simple, quiet lives, and be free to live with God and God's messages as spoken in the Scriptures. They were considered local saints and were revered for their wisdom and discernment. Often visitors would come simply to ask the Abba or Amma, "Give me a word." What they wanted was something to take with them to think about as they went on their daily lives, something that would help them in their religious growth, help ensure their salvation, or even resolve a problem. The "word" they would be given would be usually something short and pithy, a few sentences at most, but it's easier to remember a proverb or short saying than a sermon. In today's reading, Jesus gives us a "word" to think about and act upon. 
Whoever serves me, the Father will honour." A lot of people will jump to the word “honour” but skip over the very necessary qualifier “serve.” Jesus isn’t asking for us to be Carson the butler bringing tea to the drawing room, he’s asking us to be of service to our fellow humans wherever we are and in whatever way we can. Serving Jesus isn’t necessarily a church job like consecrating the elements for the Eucharist, making sure the brass and linen are spotless, or welcoming people when they enter and inviting them to coffee hour as they prepare to leave. Serving Jesus, the way Jesus used it here in this passage, meant doing what he had so often preached and taught: take care of the sheep and lambs, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, care for the widows and orphans and people in trouble of any kind, tend the sick and comfort the dying. To get a halo in heaven one needs to wear one on earth, even if it is invisible. 
Those who serve Jesus best are the ones who see him in every person they know or see or with whom they share life on this planet. As I learned with my study of the saints, most of the greatest were the ones who were the most humble and unobtrusive. Yes, many did very great deeds and left us a rich legacy of writings and examples, but they didn’t seek honour. In fact, most of them shunned it as a distraction from their real work. That humility and simply doing what needed to be done, though, gained them honour here on earth after their translation to a new and greater life as well as honour in heaven from God.
The church encourages us to look to the lives of saints as examples of living a Christian life. Often we look for the big stuff like miracles or exceptional bravery in the face of torture and imminent death, but what is more important is to look to the person quietly doing the things that may be distasteful or seemingly demeaning but who themselves simply see a need in the world and fill it as best they are able.
Maybe they can't quote a specific passage of scripture that covers whatever service they happen to be doing, but they actually do better than just being able to snap out a Bible verse or passage. They may never have heard of St. Francis of Assisi or heard his statement of "Preach always, sometimes use words," but they do that instinctively, preaching the gospel of Jesus through their care, concern and service.  
I have to ask myself, where have I done a saintly deed this week or even just a kindly one meant to help someone else? Where do I need to try to stop trying to wear a halo and simply earn one? I think I have a job ahead of me this next week, trying to do just that. Honour here on earth is often very fleeting; God’s works on a much longer time scale. That’s something to work towards.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 1, 2014.