Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Family Next Door

Commemoration of Joachim and Anne, Parents of Mary

1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
They were probably an ordinary family, just like the rest of the families that made up the neighborhood. The families knew each other quite well although those outside the neighborhood or perhaps the local synagogue would have known them from Adam's pussycat except, maybe, by reputation. They were probably a quiet family, going about the daily job of living and doing the various jobs that were assigned them by their gender, age and station: some would go to work like the father, learning his trade and contributing to the family income while some would stay at home, either because they were still too young to be of help (an time that would not last long as children went to work early in life) or because they were learning the art and craft of managing a home and a family. They were observant in their religious duties and taught the kids to do the same. They were no different than dozens of families in their neighborhood or even billions of families throughout the centuries since then.

Things were going well for this family. Perhaps they had a number of children but we only know of one. She was their daughter, of marriageable age and already betrothed to a man the family hoped would support her well and treat her with kindness. She was a very good girl, obedient to both her family and to her faith. Everything was moving along just as expected but then there was a fly in the ointment -- or, rather, an angel? She was just sitting there, perhaps mending or sewing a new garment, when out of the blue someone (or something) appeared out of nowhere with a message so preposterous she could hardly believe her ears. But, trained to be meek and obedient, she agreed to what was being proposed to her and then the angel/being left her. She was probably awash with emotion and probably more than a little afraid of how all this was going to work. 

I wonder how the young girl told her family. I also wonder what the family's reaction was. Did they think she was having a hallucination when she said an angel? By the time she got to what the visitation was about the family would probably be in a state of shock. Their daughter, the one whose virginity they had protected for her almost-husband, was announcing that she was pregnant by God (not pregnant, by God!) and would have a son. Did they think she and Joseph had jumped the gun just a little, which, I believe, they were entitled to do as formally betrothed? Did they think she had slipped out to meet a secret lover and it had caught up with her? Or perhaps that someone had raped their daughter under their very noses and this story was to cover the daughter's own shame and guilt? How about their own shame and guilt at having a pregnant daughter who wasn't married yet? What would the neighbors think?

We know the young girl's name was Mary and we know that she had parents although we don't really know their names. They were called Joachim and Anne, names that first appeared in the Protoevangelium of James, an early Gnostic gospel in which Anne was childless and advanced in years when a miracle from God made her pregnant by her husband of many years, Joachim. The child was taken to the temple at the age of three to be devoted to the service of God but by the time she was twelve the priests decided she needed to be married and so, though a process of divine guidance, Joseph, an older man with sons already, was designated to be her husband. Did it happen? Probably not although it was a way of explaining a number of things the gospels of Luke and Matthew left out.

Whether or not we know their true names isn't important any more than we can remember the names of the parents of the latest sports hero or the most brilliant scholar in the world. They had a task to perform, namely raising the child, and after that they sort of vanished from sight. Mary's parents were never referred to at all, but in order to make a story complete there has to be a starting point and the Protoevangelium of James provides a bit of that, a sort of Christian midrash.

What I still wonder is whether Mary's parents promptly packed her off to her cousin Elizabeth, herself a bit of a scandal after having been barren for many years and suddenly was as pregnant as could be, or whether it was Mary's idea to visit in order to let the furor over her own pregnancy die down a bit before returning to take up her life as best she could. Whichever it was, we know the story well as we feature it every Advent and celebrate the fruit of Mary's labor at Christmas.

Parents have a huge responsibility to raise their children. Some are more successful than others, probably just as it was in Mary's neighborhood in Nazareth. I'm sure the lessons she learned from her parents didn't cover an unorthodox pregnancy, life as a refugee in Egypt to escape the possible execution of their infant son, and then watching that son grow to be an itinerant rabbi and healer that the family, including perhaps Mary herself, considered crazy. However Mary's life proceeded from that moment when she, an  ordinary girl preparing for marriage and her own home, was confronted by something greater and larger than anything she could have imagined, she became the parent the world would remember, one who birthed a son and then watched him die.

We commemorate Joachim and Anne, honoring them because of their daughter, an absolutely normal human being whose assent to an incomprehensible offer changed the world. To those living in Nazareth, though, they were just the family next door, just like almost everyone else and, at least, living seemingly unremarkable lives.

It makes a person wonder, doesn't it, about the neighbor next door and what exceptional things they might do?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 26, 2014, under the title "Joachim and Anne, parents of Mary."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Making Judgments

 Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. - Romans 14:13-23

Isn't it amazing how misdemeanors, felonies and trials of famous people (or even sometimes one-step-removed-from-total-anonymity people) attract and hold our attention?  I bet most people over the age of 20 or so would remember following the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. Martha Stewart's stock trading misdoings were big news in 2004 while just about every day there's a story somewhere about someone, well-known or not, who has done something we would consider dastardly and we wait like Mme. Defarge at the foot of the guillotine for them to lose their heads, or, at least, their freedom/money/fame. When it fizzles we are disappointed and when our personal judgment is upheld by a court or jury, we feel vindicated ourselves. If there's anything we like better than judging other people, it's judging famous other people.

We make judgments all the time. This peanut butter is better than that one. This pseudo-Tudor house is more ritzy than that small-frontage ranch. This denomination or political party is superior to all others which are misguided/mistaken/bigoted or just plain so wrong as to be laughable. The same act can be applauded or castigated, depending on which side a person happens to be and how strongly they believe in the efficacy or the heinousness of the act.

Take the recent influx of children from Central America. Some people want the little criminals sent back to wherever they came from as fast as they can stick them on a plane or a bus or a train. Others see them as refugees from poverty, crime, and a dozen other things no child should ever see or hear of much less experience. "Take care of our own here first before we start letting those kids in here." How funny that kind of statement is, in a very tragic sort of way. Yes, we have too many homeless, poverty-stricken, sick, desperate, needy people in this country already, but we aren't taking care of them very well, are we?  No, we're busy telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies, urging GLBTS to just forget about equal rights and the ability to get married to the person they love, brushing off kids who come to school hungry and often go home the same way, and insisting veterans who volunteered to help protect our safety at risk of their own lives and sanity to just get on with life as usual. We've judged the world and it's become an "I've got mine, too bad about you, just work harder" kind of judgment that we give out.

When Paul wrote to the Romans about making judgments, he used the image of food to get his point across. If eating that pork barbecue sandwich is going to make someone else feel sick or even dirty for having been in the immediate area, then they shouldn't eat pork barbecue sandwiches, at least, not in the presence of those for whom it would create a problem. That's a bit simplistic, but it gets the point across, I think. In short, don't do something that will make someone else's life more difficult. If a friend is an alcoholic, we wouldn't offer him or her a beer as soon as they step across our threshold, would we? We wouldn't, if we're (a) a good friend and/or (b) have any idea that the person has a problem saying "No" to alcohol.

Paul asks them to make judgments but make them based on what is good for the other, not necessarily just for themselves. Whatever is done should be done in love, and there's where the problem begins for us. To love someone a person has to be able to get close enough to them to see them as real people and, even if we can't walk a mile in their shoes, we can, at least, follow close enough behind that we can see where the footsteps those shoes made are leading. To love means to see the humanity in another person, not just the parts we think need to be changed. To love means to want the best for them, whether it is what we think is best or not. To love means to see a need in a fellow human being and do what we can to fill that need. We shouldn't make them stumble because we insist that ours is the high road they should take, we go back to get them and take part of their burden to make their walking easier even if it takes us out of our own way to wherever we were going.

We make judgments every day, many times a day. What we need to consider is whether we're making right judgments or wrong ones. Are we making them based on legality or on love? Are we seeking the best for ALL people, not just the ones like us, or are we judging some as unworthy of our time and attention? 

Today I have to look to see where I am judging unfairly and where maybe my judgments are causing someone else to fail in some way. I think a few prayers for the gift of mercy, compassion and ability to love even those folks I really don't like very much are in order because I know I'd like the same kind of treatment from a lot of folks who don't like me all that well either. If I hear of someone making some error in judgment, their own judgment, whether they're famous or the most invisible and unknown person in the history of the world, may I commend them to God with a prayer or them and for any whom they have harmed in any way.

That's a full day's work just in itself but one I think is very necessary. Then to go to work on those judgments I've been making...
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Awe and Wonder

There are certain days where everybody remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing. Dates like December 7, 1941, 9/11 and the dates heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK were assassinated. I remember the Sunday morning when Mt. St. Helens erupted and half the sky turned black as coal while the remainder was a brilliant, cloudless blue. I remember the sinking of the Andrea Doria, even though I was just a child. There were others, like the abortive attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran that happened just before my birthday one year or the famous low-speed chase featuring a cast of what seemed like dozens of police cars and one white vehicle carrying an allegedly suicidal OJ Simpson. Each one brings up memories of where and what and also how it felt, or how I did, anyway.

It's funny but it's so easy to remember tragedies. Oh, it's extremely simple to remember the day I got married or the day my son was born, but on the whole, I notice that most days and events that I remember are personally tragic or that affected millions who had no direct connection to the people most involved but who had some sort of strong reaction to the event. And then there was July 20, 1969.

It's been 45 years, but part of that day is engraved on my memory. My new husband and I were visiting my family at home, a sort of saying goodbye because we were moving west, me to LA to stay with his parents and him to a tour in Vietnam. That afternoon we were visiting an elderly cousin, my beloved Aunt Mabel, who, contrary to the practice of turning off the television when company arrived, kept the set on because something momentous was going to happen and she didn't want to miss it. Neither did we, truth be told. So we visited with one eye on each other, one on the screen until...

It happened. Down a spindly ladder came one large, booted foot and then another, slowly taking step after step. We saw the shape of a space-suited man emerge from the edge of the screen and, in one heart-catching moment, place one booted foot on the surface of another world, a seemingly empty, dusty, rocky place with a black sky for a background and a monotone gray-brown for a foreground. We continued to watch and I remember turning away from the screen to see Aunt Mabel's rapt face, totally involved, totally amazed, and with wide blue eyes full of wonder. It's a memory I will keep forever.

Think of it, being born in a time when cars were so scarce as to be almost non-existent in some places, like where Aunt Mabel grew up. People still got around mostly in wagons or on horseback, or they walked where they needed to go, like church. She'd watched many things over the course of her many years, even made a bit of history of her own by leading the effort to rebuild Patrick Henry's last home and law office  which had fallen into ruin. Seeing her reaction to a man landing on another planet, even a planet as close and familiar as our moon, was like nothing else except the memory of the face of a small child looking in a toy store window around Christmastime. Kids don't look that way now, but they used to, and that's just how Aunt Mabel's face was, full of awe, wonder, joy and amazement.

When we finally could tear ourselves away from the television we had a nice visit but I don't remember any of the conversation or much else about it. I don't even remember my own reaction to what I'd seen. While I wasn't used to people landing on other worlds, I grew up in a different time than she, and while it was exciting and inspiring, it was another event in a world that had become increasingly complex and confusing. Now I look at a tablet computer and remember when the Dick Tracy comics featured a wrist radio that seemed as alien to us as --- well, I don't know what today's kids would consider unthinkable. Or do they think anything is unthinkable? I really wonder what, when they have reached their 50s, 60s or 70s, will they look back on and say "I never thought I'd live to see the day when..."

We remember a few joyous events when we look back on our lives but we remember the tragedies and the destructive events. Maybe we should look for more of the joyous ones, the celebrations of achievement whether ours or someone else's. Maybe we need to work a little harder so there are more of those awe-filled moments to remember. Would we feel that way if we learned that poverty, hunger, plague, Alzheimer's and cancer had been eradicated and that as of a certain day and time, the world was no longer a home to one or all of them?

When I was growing up we never thought of space travel as a reality but, while it is still not common, it is almost routine. I wonder -- what will become routine if not common in the future. We have a lot of problems in this world to overcome, so I'm wondering what we will consider important enough to focus on and actually do something about. Or will we just continue to think of them as someone else's problems to solve while we sit at home and watch people on the other side of the world set world records or protest some inequality--or maybe land on Mars?

I guess it's up to us to make our own awe and wonder and memories.

Never Say "Never"

 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
 Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”
But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples.
- Matthew 26:26-35

I grew up in a small but historically important town on the East Coast. It was a beautiful place, probably one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. There were trees everywhere and roads lined with almost virgin forest. There was my river, my sacred place before I knew what a sacred place was. It was beautiful, but it wasn't where I really wanted to spend the rest of my life.

Through my travels I lived in several places, like Southern California, the Philippines, and then a period in Eastern Oregon. Now everybody thinks of Oregon as green, wet and mossy but that's basically the western side of the state. Much of the east is a high desert with sparse vegetation, dry climate, very hot summers and cold winters that can feature an occasional goodly bit of snow . Even though I lived near the Columbia River, it wasn't MY river. I lived there for seven years before I escaped, and as I left,  I swore I would never live in another desert as long as I lived.

Fast forward about three years. I met and married a man who worked in construction as I did. I was in San Francisco and loving it but he was in Arizona. You see where this is going, I'm sure. I ended up just on the southwest edge of Phoenix in a high desert surrounded by sparse vegetation, very hot summers and little rain. So much for saying "Never."

I thought about all that when I read the passage this morning, especially the part after the institution of the Eucharist. That Last Supper was like a banquet given to soldiers going out to fight, a kind of royal send off before things get bloody, beastly and deadly. When Jesus reached the Mount of Olives, he gave his disciples a vision of what was to come beginning that very night. It too was going to be bloody, beastly and deadly. They really had no clue of what was to come, although Jesus had given them some pretty broad hints from time to time. This time he got a little more specific, telling them that despite their faithfulness during his ministry, they were going to desert him and his cause. Of course, Peter led the charge, "Oh, no, I don't care what anybody else does, I'll never leave you, I'll never desert or deny you."  

There's no doubt he really meant it--at the time, anyway, but we know how it all ends with Peter in the courtyard during Jesus' trial, pointed out by someone as a follower of Jesus. He didn't just deny it once, he did it three times! So much for saying "Never." His fellow disciples weren't much better. Peter and most of the boys holed up somewhere in Jerusalem as Jesus was hung on a cross and suffered for what must have seemed like forever. Only one unnamed disciple, his mother, Mary Magdalene and a few other female supporters were actually brave enough to not just show up at the crucifixion but to stay through the whole thing and close enough for the crowd to see them as family to the guilty man hanging there. He had to be guilty, right? They wouldn't crucify innocent people would they?  Meanwhile the deniers were safely hidden, wondering how it could have all gone so wrong.

"I'll never do that again."  We say it almost without thinking when things don't go well. "I'll never shop there again!"  "I'll never speak to Bob (or Sue) again!" "I'll never smoke another cigarette/take another drink/drive recklessly/shop at that store..." The list goes on and on and quite often we who have been so adamant about something we'd never do again find ourselves precisely in that predicament of having done it, are doing it, or getting ready to do it without thinking about the "never" we swore probably not that long ago.
The disciples, especially Peter, had no inkling of how quickly his "No, I'll never deny you" would be put to the test. I also wonder how long it took him to not only get past the shame and guilt of doing what he swore to his teacher and friend he would never do but the added shame and guilt that he hid out to save himself while Jesus was dying.

I wonder if Peter, when he saw and knew the risen Lord, wept and humbled himself before him, confessing things Jesus already knew? I wonder if Peter felt a bit like Isaac after Abraham had untied him and sacrificed a ram found in the thicket instead. I wonder if Peter and the others reflected on what they had done and tried to find ways to make it right. I wonder too, how often do we?

"I'll never deny you" as a statement to Jesus is far higher on the list of things to regret than "I'll never live in another desert" but the word "Never" is there in both of them, a common thread of being something we would normally consider as impossible. It's when it becomes not just possible but actual that it gets noticed for what it is--a broken promise whether to self or to God.

Jesus was forgiving of those who said "Never" to him and then turned around and did that very thing. He is even forgiving when I promise "I'll never...," no matter what it is, whether it is failing to reading more scripture, praying more prayers, or remembering to be mindful about the things I should do. He forgives before we ask, just as he forgave the disciples before they expressed regret and repentance. Sometimes forgiving oneself is far harder but just as necessary. 

I think I shall have to be more careful about the use of "Never" in my thoughts and words. The thing I say I will never do may become the very next thing I will do, or will have to do, no matter how ugly or hard or dangerous. It's the same for any of us, whether it is something like never smoking another cigarette or never denying our faith because it could be dangerous to us if we don't.

But we never know...

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 19, 2014.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Who Is Responsible?

Like a lot of other people, I've been reading and watching various reports and commentaries on the recent Hobby Lobby case. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Hobby Lobby should have the right to refuse to cover birth control for its employees on the grounds that it violates their (Hobby Lobby's, or rather, Hobby Lobby's major stockholder's) religious beliefs. The Court has said that in this case, a corporation run for-profit and without a direct affiliation with a specific religious denomination (like a Roman Catholic or Baptist hospital, clinic or even bookstore) can claim religious grounds in refusing to cover specific medical procedures, devices or prescriptions. It's got folks up in arms, in a manner of speaking, almost as much as the open carrying of assault rifles into stores and churches.

Perhaps the best summation came from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who noted in the minority dissention that allowing Hobby Lobby to prevail set a precedent for anybody to claim something someone else did or was doing conflicted with their religious beliefs and should not be allowed. There have been a host of spin-offs on that, including those who say that since they paid their federal taxes and some of that tax money went to fight a war they felt was unjust, they should be able to sue to have the government not include their tax money in any such conflict. I don't think that one has a prayer (pardon the expression) of getting anywhere legally but it does make me stop and think, how far can this go?

My employer has forbidden smoking on the premises, even in private cars parked on the premises. It isn't so much a religious thing with him as it is a health one. People work for him with the understanding that if they smoke, they will have to go across the street or down the block. He doesn't go so far as to say they can't smoke anywhere, including in their own homes, like some firms do, just on his own property. His responsibility is to give his employees a clean, safe environment in which to work, and, to him, smoking does not contribute to that as well as being a personal dislike. It makes sense and the employees go along with it. But what if he were Hindu or Jewish or Muslim?  Could employees be forbidden to bring sandwiches containing beef or pork?  If he were a Jehovah’s Witness doctor, could he refuse to give someone a life-saving transfusion because his religion forbade him receiving one himself? Maybe that's a frivolous example, but it could happen and very possibly be legally upheld.

What I think it comes down to is judgment, not necessarily one person judging the actions of another but rather the judgment of God. Religions usually give a list of thou shalt nots because their holy texts or great teachers or clergy say that these are the precepts that God (or a god, or an authoritative figure) has declared to be the rules and to be a believer and a member, those rules should be applied to a member's daily life. If they don't follow the rules, they could be (a) punished or (b) expelled for their sins or perceived sins. In some cases, including school honor codes, if someone is aware of some wrongdoing and do not report it, they are equally guilty and should be punished the same as if they did the deed themselves. I think this is a key to the Hobby Lobby thing; the owners who do not want to cover birth control believe that by providing it they are going against what God expects and that they will ultimately have to face judgment themselves for allowing someone else to do something they, the owners, believe as clearly against God's will.

And there's the rub -- God's will. The Bible says to be fruitful and multiply. It also equates a form of birth control as evil in the story of Onan (Gen. 38:8-10). Of course,  at that time sperm were considered to be very tiny but fully formed infants who just needed to be implanted into a woman to be incubated to full infant size. What  got Onan in trouble was that he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law so that his deceased brother would have a legitimate offspring, a duty Onan was supposed to do to preserve his dead brother's inheritance and line. Onan's punishment was for selfishness more than anything else, and his punishment was meted on the basis of that. People use Onan as a figurehead for opposing any form of birth control without thinking that there might be something else more important that caused God's wrath.
When I stand before God to be judged, am I going to be judged on what I did or what I allowed other people to do? I don't believe in the death penalty but will I be judged for paying taxes that contribute to the continuation of such a practice? Am I going to be held responsible for the cutbacks in education because people I didn't vote for decided we needed to cut school lunch programs, arts programs, and a curriculum aimed at teaching kids to think rather than just answer standardized test questions? I believe God wants me to pay attention to things that benefit all people, not just major financial contributors, powerful conglomerates, or even people who think like I do. I think I will be judged on that more than what I make other people do to fit my particular religious beliefs.

What the Supreme Court has decided is that religion and religious beliefs have more weight than health and safety issues. It has decided that one segment of society can be discounted because of religious beliefs. And, as so many have pointed out, it opens the door for a lot of pain and suffering to come from lawsuits and decisions where a person or corporation decides it can make the rules reflective of their religious preferences, whether or not those who work or associate with that person or corporation have religious beliefs of their own that may or may not coincide with their employer's or associate's.

The final decision is going to be up to God. Meanwhile we all have a responsibility to  "[D]o justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8d). That doesn't necessarily mean we are responsible for our neighbors lives and choices other than helping them meet their needs for adequate food, clean water, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, safety and equal access to all of those things as we have ourselves. We're responsible for caring for the widows, orphans, prisoners, the sick, the dying, and even the resident aliens in our land (check the Bible, it's in there more than once!); we're not responsible for forcing them to attend our particular church on Sunday (or any other day declared a religious duty) or to obey tenets of a faith to which they don't subscribe themselves. That's simply not in our job description.

Where I think we do have responsibility for which we will be judged is if someone else comes to harm because of our insistence on adherence to our own religious beliefs. We can't just wash our hands and say, "It must be God's will" or "The Bible clearly states..." when in fact it actually doesn't. God has given us a job to do and that job isn't to put stumbling blocks in the way of people who are already crawling because they don't have the strength or resources to walk. The Hobby Lobby decision will keep a lot of people crawling and put a lot of stumbling blocks in the way. There are already reverberations that restrict others even more, especially women.

What part of "Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" don't we get? Aren't we responsible for believing that?

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Friday, July 11, 2014.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Belonging To What? Belonging to Whom?

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

I grew up like an only child since I had a brother twelve years older than myself. That meant he was around a lot when I was an infant and toddler but by the time I got to kindergarten age, he was about ready to fly the nest. It was sort of lonely since there weren't really any neighborhood kids so I played alone a lot. Ok, I had our family dog, Bitsy, as a part-time companion. Luckily she accepted bit parts as Rin-Tin-Tin and Bullet although her interest didn't last long.

I lived in a community where everybody knew each other, warts and all, but nonetheless, it was a place where a small child could play safely. If I got bored with imaginary people, I would go visiting to any house in the neighborhood and be entertained by whoever was home. That did not go over well with Mama, who expected me to stay in the front yard, which was the proper thing to do. I knew how much trouble I was in by how many of my names she would call. When she got to first, middle and last, I knew it was time to head home, to be greeted with "You get back in this yard where you belong!" It worked, for a while, but I would always escape again; I never quite stayed where I belonged.

Belonging is a primary need along with air, food and water. Belonging means safety and has ever since the first hominids watched animals in packs or groups or herds and figured out it was safer to be part of a group than to be on their own in a predator-laden world. Belonging means being a part of something, a group or a place where a person or thing fits, where they are accepted. Things belong to people, and, as our lamentable history has shown us, people sometimes were believed to belong to other people in a sense that had nothing to do with being a true part of a group, only as a convenience for that group.

People belong to families, groups, organizations, and whatever other entity of more than one person could be called. It could be said that each person belongs to a lot of different things on different levels. Being an accepted part of a family means something quite different than being part of a large corporation where 95% of the others there wouldn't even know your name. People use their sense of belonging to define themselves as well. "I belong to the _____ party." "I belong to the _____ church." "I belong to the (Masons/country club/American Legion/bowling league/PTA/class of ____/Troop ___, etc.)." It gets to a point where belonging is an identity, something that tells others about who another person is, what they think or believe and/or where their loyalties lie.

It was that way with the people Paul was writing to in this passage. The Corinthians were playing a game of one-upmanship by claiming to belong to a group that followed any of several religious figures to whom they looked as leaders. Paul seemed to indicate that Chloe was the top person, with several others recognized as people of influence, namely Cephas and Apollos. Naturally, each group of followers thought their teacher or mentor was the best, and there's where Paul's verbal strike was aimed. They were focusing too much on earthly leaders and not the true one, Jesus.

When we are baptized we are set apart as belonging to Christ. We reiterate that bond at our confirmation and again every time we participate in witnessing the baptism or confirmation of others or on specific Sundays when it is a part of the liturgy but there are no baptisms. We make a set of promises and are reminded of those promises each time. It identifies us as belonging through an individual and corporate rededication to the common goals and promises shared by all.

So what does that belonging cost us? If we do it right, quite a bit, it seems. We are supposed to renounce evil and in this day and age, that can be really hard to do. There's a lot of different evils running around rampant -- hunger, violence, fear, anxiety, money-grasping, inhospitality, denial of services, poverty, inequality, greed, and a host of others. Jesus calls those who belong to him to give up those things not just for themselves but to try to build the kingdom of God here on earth where that was the original plan. We are called on to trust Jesus, his love and grace, and to follow and obey him. Oops!  How can we obey Jesus when we allow all those evils to continue to exist?  How can we who belong to Jesus let others go hungry, homeless, rootless, even country-less (remember the resident aliens we are supposed to treat with kindness)?

In that baptismal covenant we share, we are asked if we will continue with the apostles' teaching and fellowship, table hospitality and prayers, but then come the zingers: "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" "Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"*  Each time we assent by saying, "I will, with God's help." We get a feeling of togetherness, rededication, and belonging--and then we walk out the church door after the service and return to the same life we've been leading with little or no change.

When was the last time you bought a bottle of cold water and carried it until you found a homeless person on the street and just gave it to them instead of just walking by and drinking it yourself? When did you last spend time on a weekend (or evening or even part of a weekday) working at a food bank or animal shelter or Habitat for Humanity? That's belonging to a group of volunteers, but also a sign of belonging to the one who preached loving one's neighbor and doing good things for those who can't do them for themselves. And it represents a small sacrifice of either time or treasure (or both) to help someone else belong, whether to a home, a family, or even just a recognition of another as a human being.
Belonging has benefits but it also has responsibility. I hope I have a bit more sense of that responsibility than I did when Mama had to call me home every day from some unauthorized visiting. Still, I know that I don't fully live into the belonging thing, at least the belonging to the Body of Christ. A sign that reads "Free kittens" means that the acquisition of a small cat costs nothing at the time but in the end will cost a lot in food, vet bills, scratching posts and sometimes heartbreak. Belonging may not cost anything monetarily but there are always costs incurred.
Belonging can be the easiest, nicest thing in the world but it can also be some of the hardest work a person can ever do. Am I up to the challenge?

*The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979 (304-5).
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, July 12, 2014, under the title, "Belonging."

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Part of my childhood that I remember fairly clearly is Saturday morning TV, full of cartoons and adventure stories like The Lone Ranger, Bugs Bunny, Rin-tin-tin and Roy Rodgers (especially Dale Evans!). Occasionally the excitement of each week's program would build to what felt like the edge of a tall mountain and then stop abruptly with the immortal words of cliff-hangers everywhere, "To be continued." Of course the next week as soon as the name of the program and the stars were named, there would be a brief "In our last exciting episode..." that recapped the action so far. Then it was time to see where that sheer cliff we'd been hanging onto all week was going to take us.

In this episode of the story of the Israelites, the travelers were getting close to their new home after years of wandering and camping in the desert. The opening chapter of Deuteronomy is a retelling of what has taken place so far, at least, from their seemingly long encampment at Horeb. Moses is reminding the people of how they got here, why, and how they acted and reacted to what they were told to do. The rest of the chapter isn't all that favorable towards the Israelites; Moses doesn't really mince words about their faithlessness to God, their griping and grumbling and their fear. It's quite a tale.

Even without cliffhangers, periodically it is both good and necessary to reflect on history, how we got where we are, where we came from, who our leaders were, when important events happened and why. We have to know where we've been before we can go forward. We have to have a plan for forward movement, even if that plan has to be altered slightly, altered quite a bit or scrapped altogether in favor of something else. The purpose of history is not just to remind us of the glory days, the times when things went well and everybody was behaving themselves as they should have. History also has to call to memory the disasters, natural and human-made, that marked the landscape of our journey. We also have to recall the lessons we did (or should have) learned from the experiences.

Moses spoke of how the burden of sole (or almost sole) leadership had gotten to be too much for him and so he appointed leaders in a hierarchy so that every person would have access to a problem-solver or judge. Like the Supreme Court, Moses himself was the top of the pyramid, the final arbiter if things couldn't be resolved lower down. Of course, if Moses got stuck, he had God to call on.

We put a lot of faith in our courts and judges. We hope that they will truly be fair and impartial but sometimes we really wonder to whom they are being either or both of those things. Of course, if we don't like the verdict in a municipal court we can always take it up a notch to the next highest court and so on until we reach the Supreme Court who often kicks the decision back to a lower court for final adjudication. Still, there are going to be times when even the best case doesn't come out the way we hoped it would or wanted it to. Someone (or some entity) always has to lose and losing isn't something we do gracefully. Justice is supposed to be blind, but sometimes it seems it is not just blind but also deaf and with it's mind already made up. The judgments don't always seem fair to one side or the other.

Every good TV drama, especially crime shows or courtroom but even westerns or daytime soaps, has its cliffhanger when things reach a climax and we wait for the conclusion. The history has been told, the evidence has been presented. It's the "To be continued..." time. Moses and the Israelites are on the last episode of their journey and heading toward a new life in a new land. They will make mistakes, big ones, but they will have experience and they will have leaders to help them stay on the right path. "To be continued" will soon change to "The End." It will be the end of the journeying in the wilderness, anyway, and a new series of begins with "In today's episode..."

Life is like that, full of starts, stops, journeys and changes in direction. If we are wise, we will have leaders who will be good, fair and impartial, and who will judge what is best not just for us as individuals but for us as a community or a nation.

Moses may not get to the Promised Land but his story will go on in the memory of his people. He has been judged, for all his faults and flaws, as a prophet and a man of God. There's no higher accolade than that.

May we all live so that when we reach the end, people will remember us as good leaders, wise judges and men and women of God. It wouldn't be a bad way to be remembered, would it?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Seeing My Neighbor

...[A]nd one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ - Matthew 22:35-40

It seems that Jesus was always under scrutiny, especially from the religious hierarchy who saw him as a rabble-rouser and troublemaker but who could never pin enough on him to do away with such a nuisance -- well, not yet, anyway. In the passage from which the excerpt above is taken, Jesus is being tested by the Sadducees about a woman who married seven brothers (consecutively, of course) and which husband would claim her once they got to heaven. Jesus answered that rather neatly (none of them, because in heaven there isn't such a thing as marriage), but then he attracted the attention of a lawyer, a Pharisee to boot, who asked a question that got an answer we still wrestle with today.

We are told to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We intellectually understand the loving God part although it's hard to love God as fully as that when there are so many other things vying for our devotion: money, sex, material goods, personal safety. We can sit in the pews on Sunday and feel we've shown God how much we love and honor we give God, but by the time we reach the parking lot we've gone back to who we were before we walked through the church door. Oh, there are lots of very good, very faithful Christians who honestly and truly do try to live up to the loving God part of Jesus' words and there should be many more like them, but they are more scarce than we can imagine. You can usually spot them not by the Bible tucked under their arms or by their mentioning Jesus in every other breath (and not as an expression of injury, an expletive or an indicator of surprise) but by the quiet way they project the gospel message. It's not how many times a person goes to church a week, it's how many times God is immediately present in their life.

Then we get to the "[L]ove your neighbor as yourself part. This is probably a bigger sticking-point than even loving God with everything we have. A neighbor is traditionally considered to be someone living next door or even in a fairly close proximity to one's own home. Each neighborhood used to be like a small community where people knew each other, would bring over casseroles and meals when there was an illness or death in the family, and generally looked after one another. That's changed over the past few decades. Now most of us don't even know our next door neighbor's name much less anything about them other than perhaps what kind of car they drive or that they have a dog that barks at all hours. How can you love someone you don't know?  Jesus seemed to think it was a given, and no mention was made of exclusions.

If everyone is our neighbor, then everyone should have value in the eyes of those around them. Sunday morning I talked with our parish youth leader* who told me about the just-completed mission trip where the teens spent time helping at a very short-staffed adult day care center in another state. She mentioned the various activities like helping the elders with bingo and preparing for a real Senior Prom by making corsages and boutonnieres for the event. She also mentioned that some of them had  thanked the teens for helping them, one even saying thanks for looking at him and seeing him as a human being, a real person. It validated their humanity as well as forged a connection between two people who were neighbors for only a short time.

We often walk through life like we do when walking down the street or through the mall. Generally we keep our eyes straight ahead or looking down, perhaps noticing things in the shop windows but not really noticing the people we pass. We don't notice the beggar sitting with a hopeful look. If he weren't so lazy he would be working for a living, we think. We never meet his eyes or even hear his voice but we judge him based on what? By keeping our eyes away from him we make him merely a part of the landscape like walk/don't walk signal or a sidewalk trash bin. Is that how we are supposed to see our fellow human beings? Is that what Jesus was teaching?

As we avert our eyes from others we are not only rendering them invisible and of no matter or concern to us. The problem is that as we marginalize them by not really seeing them, we marginalize ourselves as well. We are protecting ourselves but from what?  Challenges to our personal safety and integrity? Exposing some vulnerability that could be taken advantage of? We risk someone seeing something in us we don't want others to see and we're uncomfortable. We consider it giving others privacy as we would like them to do for us, but what it does is create a barrier, making a neighbor or potential neighbor a nonentity, a nothing.

It's impossible to love what isn't acknowledged, and a human being can't be acknowledged if they aren't seen, face-to-face and eye to eye. Loving our neighbors means being open to them, trusting them, really seeing them and not just scurrying by, eyes downcast, as if they were not present. We have to see them to acknowledge their humanity and their status as fellow children of God. If we do that, then we can't ignore them and just walk by. Perhaps that is the part we want the least: the need to engage with people we don't know. If we ignore them, the beggars, the street people, the immigrants, the handicapped, the wounded warriors, the children, we truly cannot call ourselves Christians because these are all neighbors of ours and we are called to love them, not ignore them because they make us feel uncomfortable. I don't think comfort was a very big deal to Jesus whether with his disciples or with the crowds who came to see and be healed.

Jesus didn't heal everybody, I'm pretty sure, or the gospels would have been the size of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary or larger. What he did, though, was acknowledge that even people like Samaritans, Romans, or people from other parts of the middle east were neighbors to be met, face to face and eye to eye, to be comforted, taught, and healed.  Even Jesus had to be reminded by a marginalized person whom he had rebuffed that even the dogs got the crumbs from the table. A crumb can make a big difference to a starving person or a hungry neighbor, just as it did to her.

So my job today is to really look at the people I pass, not just scurry by as if I were late for the second coming or something else equally urgent. I need to see each person as my neighbor and want the best for them as I would want for myself. Who knows, I may see the face of Jesus in one of them -- or maybe all of them. Now wouldn't that be something?

*Personal discussion with Shelley Anderson Byrnes, Director of Children's and Youth Ministries, the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, AZ, 6/29/14. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café


Friday, July 4, 2014

Prophetic Witnesses

Commemoration of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis, Prophetic Witnesses, (1918, 1918, 1914)

One thing I really love about the saints chosen for our Episcopal calendar is that they don't have to be canonized by some church organization, produce verifiable miracles, or even be Episcopalian. Oh, they do produce miracles, not necessarily healing through intercession, but miracles that help change the world and some of the people in it. Take Rauschenbusch, Gladden and Riis; one was a Baptist minister, one a Lutheran preacher and the third a Lutheran turned Methodist. Each of them in their own ways saw the world as it was and also as it could be and then did what they could to make that "could be" into a more concrete reality.

Rauschenbusch rejected the substitutionary atonement doctrine which he had been taught as a child in favor of a belief that Jesus' death was because of "social sins" he committed against the powers that were in control at the time. For him, the Kingdom of God wasn't about a place people would go after death but rather could be present here on earth as the result of what we call the result of the social gospel. Gladden also preached the social gospel, exposed corruption in the state (New York) political system, supported labor unions and was an early proponent of integration. Riis was a writer and photographer which brought the images of poverty and crime to the attention of people who had, deliberately or not, refused to acknowledge that such things existed.

The three men are considered prophetic witnesses. A prophetic witness is a person who sees people hurting, notices where that hurt comes from, whether caused by individuals or corporate bodies, and not only calls attention to it but works to fix what is broken. The Episcopal calendar has a number of these prophetic witnesses, some ordained, some lay, but all concerned with the bringing of the Kingdom of God to life now through repairing the damage people have done to each other and to the earth itself.

We normally associate prophets with the Hebrew Bible, guys like Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel and Jonah. These and others were called specifically by God to do speak to the Israelite people about the errors of their ways, namely, their forgetting God time and time again. Prophets shared in the punishments meted out, exile, long journeys, perilous times, and brought comfort to the people, reminding them that God was with them and would remain with them. All they had to do was change -- and we all know how hard that is to do! They simply had to turn back to God, treat everyone with respect and justice, keep the laws God set up, and, most of all, put God first.

The Bible is full of examples when they did -- and when they didn't. The prophets merely acted as agents for God directly to the people, and it was often a very thankless job indeed.

Prophetic witnesses may not feel they have a direct call from God such as we expect from ministers, priests and deacons, but somewhere deep inside them there is a tiny spark that lights a passion to fix something, change something, encourage people to do something to make life better for others. I doubt anyone given the title "prophetic witness" would have deliberately gone out and used it as a qualifier for what they felt they needed to do but we see the result of what their passions achieved and we give them the accolade they would probably not claim for themselves.

Prophetic witnesses speak to a number of issues. They speak of equality among all people regardless of race, color, creed, gender, orientation or origin. They proclaim the need for care for the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows, the aliens among us, and those who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves or make themselves heard in the halls of power. They remind us that this earth, our mutual home, is not just for us to despoil at will and without thought, but to be treated with respect and healed of the indignities we have visited on it through our greed, avarice and selfishness. They call us to explore the ways of peace rather than conflict, forgiveness rather than bitterness and hatred, and respect for others rather than the "me first!" mentality which seems to affect so many of us.

Rauchenbusch, Gladden and Riis used words and pictures to call attention to the wrongs they saw in an effort to change people's thinking and way of behaving. Thanks to them we have seen improvement but we haven't got the job finished yet. We have uncovered dozens of things that need to be corrected: immigration reform, prison reform, increased emphasis on quality education for all children, healthcare every person can afford, wages that allow everyone a decent quality of life if not a luxurious one, equality of opportunity for all people and not just those who look, talk or believe like us.

Prophets still exist. Some churches have an office of prophet which indicates a leader who must guide the people well and righteously. Many Christian denominations don't have such a title, believing instead that Jesus was the last prophet but that others can be prophetic witnesses such as our three honorees for today and also people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., the bishops in the book I just finished reading,* and, in my personal opinion, voices like those of Jane Goodall and others who call for a change in how we go about doing things so that others might have a better life. Time will tell if they are the prophetic witnesses I believe them to be, but in the meantime they have voices that should be heard.

Anyone can be a prophetic witness; it just takes a passion to make needed changes. Heaven knows I don't believe I have that calling but I know several people who I believe truly have it, whether or not they see it as such. Maybe the world would be a better place if we recognized the prophetic witnesses around us, the ones maybe we have overlooked or dismissed as just somebody with a cause to proclaim.

There are a lot of issues out there in the world crying for someone to take notice, and there are lots of opportunities for prophetic witnesses to step up. No fancy resume needed, no huge war chest of contributions, no particular degrees or honors required, just passion, a vision and an inspiration of how it can be achieved.

Sounds like a God thing to me.

* Smith, Kirk, ed., Bishops on the Border: Pastoral Responses to Immigration. (2013, Kindle ed.). New York: Morehouse Publishing.
    Four bishops and a mission co-worker from different denominations write about their experiences at the border and with those who risk everything to enter the US. Also covered in the various essays are the history of immigration from Mexico and Central America to the US along with legislative and legal efforts to deal with undocumented and unregistered workers and their families. The book offers evidence of what the churches are doing to fulfill the Biblical mandate to care for the widows, orphans and the aliens in the land.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Thursday, July 3, 2014, under the title "Miracles for the world."