Sunday, September 28, 2014

Difficult Conversations

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. - Luke 9:43-45

Today's reading is a very short passage that comes between the healing of a child and the argument about who is the greatest. Indeed, the previous chapter is filled with lots of things like the Transfiguration, Jesus giving power to his disciples to heal, and the feeding of the 5,000. Through it all, Jesus is repeatedly warning that he was going to have to suffer and die but that he would rise from the dead but it seems that even repetition dulled the ears of those who heard, even and especially his disciples. Jesus said something (multiple times) that they didn't understand but they were afraid to ask him outright what he meant. It would have been a difficult question that would probably provoke a difficult discussion, difficult in the sense that something needed to be said, something that might be hard to understand or unpleasant to contemplate but which would have been necessary both to the speaker and to the listener.

Nobody wants to hear that a loved one, friend, teacher, mentor or respected figure is going to die. Jesus wasn't sick, so why did he keep talking about his own death? Certainly he and the disciples and followers faced some dangers on the roads from brigands and bandits and perhaps even from the Romans who controlled things pretty much everywhere, but those were common, everyday risks any traveler leaving home would have to take. Jesus was trying to open the door to what could be a very difficult discussion on a very difficult topic, one his disciples and followers were not ready or willing to participate in or even to hear.

Sometimes someone will open the door for a difficult discussion by saying something that brings a friend or loved one up short. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, can you please explain it to me?" The blessing of a response like that is that it gives the person permission to talk about something they want and need to discuss but perhaps had never had the courage or the opportunity to do so. It also gives the listener the opportunity to really hear what someone else needs to say and, possibly, offer a way to help or support them in some way.

Some of the most difficult conversations come around the subject of death. Someone may want or need to talk about it but almost invariably the person to whom they are talking will come out with something like, "Oh, don't talk like that! You are going to be fine! You have a lot of years ahead of you!" The thing is, we don't know that for sure. We project our own hope and discomfort onto another who might need something quite different. It is more a time for listening than speaking, but it takes courage to take that step that gives that person permission to be open and honest about something they need or want. Jesus opened the door but nobody walked through. They were afraid to ask and so missed the opportunity to learn.

Difficult discussions happen every day and the thing that is almost a given is that somewhere in the conversation someone is going to hear something unpleasant or that will hurt or even point out their helplessness over the situation. How to confront a teen who has drugs in their room or backpack? How to speak to a long-time employee and tell them their job has been eliminated? How to tell a loved one that their drinking is causing a rift in the family? How to express feelings of hurt, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, at the hands of another to that person? How to begin a discussion of finances before the problem gets out of hand? The discussion has to take place, but how to begin -- and how to speak and listen so that each side is heard and understood. It's not easy having difficult discussions or opening the door to one.

The followers of Jesus had the opportunity and let it pass by because they were afraid. Fear often prevents difficult discussions simply because it makes both parties to the conversation vulnerable. Vulnerability is something we fear; it lets people get too close and strips away some of our protective armor against discovery. To be vulnerable is to be open, and being open invites hurt. It also means loss of some control and the feeling that everything is just fine, no problems, no worries at all. But at least one party in the conversation has something to convey and the other needs to hear it and respond to it in a way that doesn't shut the door on the continuing talk. The followers' fear kept them from a greater understanding, and that was their loss.

One thing the followers seemed to lack was trust. They possibly didn't trust that Jesus would understand their hesitancy and confusion and clarify what he meant, hence their fear. I wonder what the answer would have been had they trusted enough to ask their questions and let Jesus answer.

I trust Jesus enough to have a difficult discussion with him but do I trust anyone else?  What discussions do I need to have and how do I broach them? How do I respond if someone trusts me enough to want to have such a conversation?

I think I need to be more attentive and aware. Who knows when I may need to have or hear from someone else something that is weighing on them. God, save me from glib answers and the dismissing of concerns. Save me too from being afraid to speak when something needs to be said. Don't let me be afraid of being vulnerable or to let others. And if I don't understand something, give me the grace and wisdom to ask the question.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 27, 2014.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why the Episcopal Church? Why Not? - An Acts 8 Blogforce Response

When someone proposes something that involves a change, particularly to an institution or a belief or even a beloved theory, there are two responses to the idea of change: why and why not? When asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" my immediate response is "Why not?" 

For a Southern Baptist growing up and only seeing small bits of the Episcopal church  mostly through walking into the little local church (built in 1697). It seemed a bit different and a bit exotic. There was an altar with different colored cloths through the year and the addition of prayer books in the pews along with a hymnal much smaller in size (although about the same thickness as the one we used. The pulpit was on one side rather than being prominently placed in the center of the raised platforms, there was a rail separating the platform from the lower level where the pews were, and there were chairs next to the organ and facing the opposite wall rather than behind the pulpit. It was a very simple church without stained glass windows, gothic arches or pews that were in boxes like some of the other historic Episcopal churches in our area, but it was still a glimpse of the Episcopal Church in a historic Virginia settings.

My first real exposure to the Episcopal church came from attending church with a friend in Washington DC. I'd been to a Roman Catholic mass, and it was very different than what I was used to, but this -- WOW. It wasn't a huge church but it had stained glass windows, the colored panels on the altar and the vestments, and the prayer books and hymnals both in the racks on the backs of the pews, but no gothic arches. Still, from the minute the organ began playing (a small pipe organ), I knew that this would be my home.

What was it that drew me like a magnet?  We heard so much scripture in the three lessons and the psalm, far more than we heard in our little SB church on a Sunday morning. The priest actually preached on the lessons and wove them together to show some relationship rather than simply picking a totally unrelated verse or passage and preaching on it. The music was heavenly to my ears which, in my mid-teens, was already turning to the classical rather than the Victorian and sometimes more emotional hymns of the church of my childhood and the growing rock-n-roll other kids my age were listening to. And then there was the liturgy, one that could be followed in the prayer book and full of "thees" and "thous" so familiar to someone accustomed to reading the King James Version of the Bible and hearing God addresses in those terms on Sunday mornings. The whole package was irresistible and, several years later when I was in college, I took the step to make the Episcopal Church my church.

If I were asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" I'd have to answer that it's because it isn't a stage show, a group of street-corner preachers more interested in saving souls than feeding sheep, or a place where the music is very similar to what is heard on contemporary radio stations. There's a separation of what goes on in the church and what goes on outside it, although some of our churches are taking some of the indoor church out to the street corners and parks and bus stops which become places where others can be shown a bit of what the Episcopal Church is through inclusion rather than the exclusion of church walls and doors.

But the Episcopal Church is more than a liturgy and church practice. For me, one of the most important bits is the focus on the teachings of Jesus that go beyond the church walls. In church we don't hear constantly about our sinful selves and need of salvation although we do hear the word "sinners" fairly often and in a serious context. What we hear is what Jesus preached and taught: to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, the dying, the prisoners and both the resident aliens and the strangers in our midst. These are lessons we are to take out into the world with us and to not just proclaim our Christianity but show it as advocates and workers who do what they can to relieve the poverty, injustice and oppression that exists everywhere in this world.

Episcopalianism is a broad umbrella, encompassing many variations of worship style, beliefs and ministry focus. Wha binds us all together are the historic creeds, the practice of prayer and the dedication to bringing the kingdom of God to this world rather than waiting for someone to provide it for us in the next. Whether the church is bells-and-smells high with incense and formality or more conservative and sometimes charismatic, the focus is still on Jesus and what we as Christians are supposed to do in response to his teachings. Through his death and resurrection we have obtained eternal life, but through his teaching and our practice of obedience to those teachings, we help others to obtain a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony, security, health and equality go hand-in-hand and where everyone benefits.

I love my church. I'm saddened by its conflicts and problems but I see it becoming more and more aware of the needs of the world above the needs of the church. I celebrate that. I see it responding to the cries of those who most need help and advocacy and that gives me hope that we as Episcopalians can be known as Jesus followers in every sense of the word, "not only with our lips, but in our lives," as one of our prayers states.

Why the Episcopal Church?  Why not?  The world is diverse and we are a part of that diversity. It's a place of beauty, solemnity, joyous festivity, and a frequent opportunity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. It's a way of following Jesus in concrete ways, and We just have to bring those lessons Jesus taught to the world, not to convert but to heal. It's that simple and that hard.

Making Headlines

 Now there was a Jew in the citadel of Susa whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away. Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in the custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in the custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women.
 When the turn came for Esther daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised. Now Esther was admired by all who saw her. When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign, the king loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favour and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet to all his officials and ministers—‘Esther’s banquet.’ He also granted a holiday to the provinces, and gave gifts with royal liberality.
When the virgins were being gathered together, Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate. Now Esther had not revealed her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai just as when she was brought up by him. In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. But the matter came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. When the affair was investigated and found to be so, both the men were hanged on the gallows. It was recorded in the book of the annals in the presence of the king. - Esther 2:5-8, 15-23

One of the best things about the Daily Office is that it often gives us readings we wouldn't ordinarily hear or read for ourselves. I can't remember hearing about Esther in church maybe more than once or twice in my life and it was more a passing mention than an in-depth exposition. Still, we have the opportunity to read the whole book over the course of several days.

Esther was named Hadassah at birth, a name meaning "myrtle" or "myrtle tree,." a symbol for righteousness.  When she was taken to the harem, however, she took the name "Esther" to cover her religious identity. Esther in Hebrew means "hiddenness" but in Persian it can mean "star." Both names give us a clue about Esther and her story.

Oftentimes a young person will leave home and become a star -- a media star, sports hero, musical genius, esteemed performer or learned expert in a given field. When that prominence happens, quite often the local paper will run a feature article with a title somewhat akin to "Local Boy/Girl Makes Good." With the story of Esther, the local girl definitely did that.

What's a king to do when his queen refuses to honor his request for her presence at a major banquet?  That was the predicament Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) found himself in  and he was not pleased. His queen Vashti had disrespected him in public and so a replacement found. The king had his minions search the kingdom for the most beautiful women and had them brought to the court so that he could choose. It was probably a terrifying experience for girls who had thought their lives would be lived out in their towns and villages with family close by. Instead, they found themselves in a harem, waiting to see if they pleased the king or not.

It's kind of a coincidence but in today's world, young and impressionable girls deliberately put themselves in the path of their heroes, hoping that they will catch their eye and the love story of the century will take place. That "love story of the century" encounter  most often results in a one-night stand and the girl is then dismissed. That this could happen seldom if ever occurs to them, or, if it does, they don't really care. They want the fame, the glamour and the rich lifestyle that goes along with being Mrs. Hero-of-the-Hour. It's pretty certain, however, that Esther wasn't like that. She had grown up sheltered and obedient to what her uncle and adopted father, Mordecai, and her teacher in the harem, Hegai, told her to do. The upshot was that Esther's beauty and demeanor won the king's heart and a crown as well.

Esther's is the kind of story of which Hollywood movies were made. That plot has been used dozens of times in stories and movies and it still fascinates us. The Cinderella story is as old as the hills but it seems people still believe in it. Almost every little girl wants to be Cinderella when she grows up, and some of them never really outgrow that desire.
The plot continues with various machinations against the king, one of which is part of today's reading. Luckily Mordecai overheard some plotting, then told Esther who told the king and the plot was foiled. Esther gave the credit to Mordecai which earned him a place in the court and a measure of trust with the king. It didn't hurt her standing either.

Esther is a very different kind of book of the Bible. God is not mentioned directly at all and only once referred obliquely by Mordecai. It is a story of Jewish people in Persia during or just after the rest of the Jewish captives had left for home following the captivity. It gives the story behind the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by Esther's courage. The chief adversary, Haman, is considered to be a persecutor of the Jews and, when the book of Esther is read in synagogue during Purim, whenever Haman's name is about to be read, the assembly stomps, shouts, boos and rattles noisemakers to keep his name from being heard. Instead of just writing him out of the story, they simply cover his name with noise.

Esther had hidden her Jewish origin from Ahasuerus but, when it was necessary, she revealed it in order to try to save the lives of her people through the love the king had for her. Today, paparazzi would almost certainly ensure that any breath of scandal, possible unsuitability, or even a youthful indiscretion would be quickly found out and would be exposed to the light of day again and again as if it were the most important and, indeed, only fact that people needed to judge the character of the person being exposed whether or not it was really true or only partially so. The once-lauded headliner "Local Boy/Girl Makes Good" becomes "Local Boy/Girl Found Guilty" or some other such less-welcome front page mention in 48-point type.

Even in greatness or a seemingly transparent life, there can be a hiddenness. We've seen that with the death of comedian Robin Williams whose brilliant wit concealed a darkness inside that, like a black hole in space, absorbed him and cost him his life. Most people have something hidden inside that they don't want the world to know about but, quite often, that hiddenness becomes too great to be contained and it spills out like crude oil from a ruptured pipeline, staining and ruining all it touches.

With Esther, the hiddenness was turned to good. Who knows what hiddenness in each of us could also be turned to good if need and opportunity arose? Today might be a good time to look around and see if the possibility is there and waiting. It may not save an entire nation, but it could save one life or maybe make that life more bearable for another whose hiddenness is pain and suffering.

We may never make the headlines as "Making Good," but perhaps a hiddenness within us might be turned to something good that will benefit someone who really needs a hand. That revelation of our hiddenness may never make us a star in the conventional sense, but I'd be willing to bet there'd be an extra star or two in our crowns one day.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 20, 2014.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Anniversary of Survival -- of sorts.

Yesterday I had a delightful lunch with three of my very favorite friends and co-workers. This was the second year we'd all gone to lunch together at this particular restaurant, the first being last year on the first anniversary of my surgery for breast cancer. I wanted to thank them for helping me get through a trying time and for being my cheering section and support group. I was going to buy them lunch to say "thank you" and they ended up buying mine.

Today marks the second year since my surgery. It hasn't been far from my mind for most of the day, not in a depressing or self-pitying way, but nonetheless there. I wondered, will cancer every be far from my mind?  I've had basal cell carcinoma on my nose and breast cancer so that's two forms of it right there. Is there any truth to the saying that bad things come in threes? 

I went to see a new primary care practitioner this week and her assistant asked a bunch of questions including one that just about floored me. "You're two years in remission?" I didn't know what to answer. Nobody had ever used that word "remission" and, frankly, my mind doesn't work with "remission" very well. "Remission" usually brings to mind the cancellation of a debt or forgiveness for sin. It's also used to mean that during the course of an illness an improvement is noted, whether or not it is permanent remains to be seen. It's that "during the course of an illness" that gives me pause. There are an awful lot of people with cancer who have lengthy remissions but, quite often, those remissions go out the window, sometimes after the course of treatment is complete and sometimes days before that five-year mark that is used to change "remission" to "cured."

A friend and I were talking about it today. I told her that, frankly, I was very hesitant to claim the word "survivor" yet. Yes, I've made it through two years, but I still have that little nagging thing in the back of my mind that says, "Where are you hiding and when are you going to be exposed?" Survivor is a powerful word; to survive means to have made it through a dangerous time, a severe trial or even a lengthy process that takes courage, strength, and, yes, probably more than a little faith. I live with cancer, whether or not I actually have any malignant cells in my body at all. That's what I call "cancer brain."

This afternoon I read Facebook and ran headlong into an article called "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" that I couldn't pass by. Ashley Makar is an editor on the blog Killing the Buddha and also is fighting metastatic cancer. She made a statement at the beginning of the article that grabbed me. "I didn’t want to wear the label that tends to be on the winning side of the battle we make of cancer in this country. For me, battle is not a good metaphor for a fatal disease that lives and multiplies and recurs in the bodies of so many." *

Oh, sweet Jesus, I know that feeling. I know it so well and it was precisely what I was trying to describe to my friend today when we were talking about it. Granted, I don't have a diagnosis of Stage IV or anything even close to it (right now, anyway), but I'm still afraid of jinxing myself by claiming survivorship too soon. So I celebrate the anniversary of my surgery and think that I have survived two years which, tomorrow, will be two years and one day. That's the best I can do. I think it's enough, at least for me.

I thank Ashley Makar for expressing so well something that was just a nebulous thought in my head. And I thank her for giving me something I can think about with some positivity -- each day I live I'm one day further along in my survivorship.

I also thank my friends, those with whom I had lunch yesterday and the others without whom I wouldn't have gotten through the past two years. They've given me space when I needed it and they've been right there when I've needed that too. They don't give me pity; they are just friends with whom I can have sometimes difficult conversations about where I am mentally and physically, and who allow me to feel I can ask for help when I need it, as much as I want to be able to do it all alone. There are lots of people who can name two or three really good, close friends like that and I have so many more than that. Thank you, JJ, Mouse, Shannon, Julie, Alex, Rene', Rachael, Margaret, and Billie, for being there for me. I couldn't have made it this far without you.

I think about those friends and loved ones I've lost to this damnable disease, people who I needed and loved and who left this world too soon to my way of thinking, especially Mama, who had two bouts of breast cancer. Her death certificate didn't list cancer as a cause of death, but I have a feeling it was a contributing factor somewhere. I remembered her scar tissue as I contemplated my upcoming surgery and now, two years later as I look in the mirror, I see somewhat the same thing but not as thick, ropy and angry-looking. I think of her then, and I'm grateful she showed me how to live with what amounted to a disfigurement that could be hidden but never forgotten.

So tomorrow I begin year 3. I think it's good to have a reflective day about something like this. It makes me more aware of where I've been and where I am as well as giving me the opportunity to maybe gently look forward a bit, not too far and not too optimistically, but to still think more about life than death. I'll die of something one day, but perhaps not tomorrow or next week or even next year.

I may live with cancer brain but not necessarily cancer. Even if I do have it, it will be something to fight, something to work through and something that hopefully will not prevent me from continuing to put one foot in front of the other as long as possible.

Onward, ever upward -- or maybe just walking on somewhat rocky but fairly level ground. I'm surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, living and not, who are keeping me company on the journey. For that I am most grateful. Yeah. I am a survivor.

*Makar, Ashley, "Am I a Cancer Survivor?" found on, accessed 9/20/14.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Do You Know?

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings
shouted for joy?

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
   and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
   and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
   and it is dyed
like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked,
   and their uplifted arm is broken.

‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?  - Job 38:1-17

Job, a once prosperous and healthy man, had been reduced to sitting on an ash heap, scratching his sores with shards of pottery and being regaled by his wife and friends who urge him to either curse God or confess to wrongdoing which had brought this punishment against him.

Today, though, the reading takes a different turn. We hear from God who proceeded to bombard Job with number of questions to which Job had no answers. How could he? Job was a man of his time whose travels were probably limited to maybe a few dozen miles from his home, and who had probably no knowledge or expertise in geography or astronomy or even theology. It seems as if God had joined Job's friends in trying to wrench some sort of confession from Job, whether it was a confession of guilt or one of ignorance.

The questions put to Job would probably confound many of us who live in an interconnected and technologically advanced world. Children are taught about basic science and geography in elementary school while  physics, chemistry, astronomy and higher math are taught in secondary education. Colleges and universities delve deeper into more specialized bits of astrophysics and microbiology while television brings explanatory and exploratory programming  to viewers right in their homes about subjects that even a few decades ago were not even commonly heard words.

But for all our technology and information dissemination, we are still in sort of the same boat with Job. We can quote theories and hypotheses about how this and that happened as well as formulas and facts about when, where and perhaps why things are the way they are. What hasn't changed, though, is that despite the Big Bang and whatever theory has come after it, whatever  satellites and exploratory vehicles penetrating far beyond what we could ever imagine in the heavens, whatever sophisticated equipment capable of computing millions of figures and billions of pieces of data in the time it takes to blink an eye, and no matter how advanced and specialized things are or how much knowledge we have attained, we still don't have the answers. We know something happened but what, how and when?

Even if the Big Bang is an actuality, what caused that initial spark that began it all? Nobody's been able to give a definitive answer to that one yet. What really causes cells to go wild and form cancers?  We think it is partly environmental, partly hereditary, perhaps even partly the result of diet or some other physical factor like smoking, but why do some who have never smoked or been around smoke get lung cancer?  Why are young children stricken with brain, blood or other cancers when they obviously haven't committed any of the "sins" we would expect a cancer victim to have done. What causes the earth to move when it does? We can often speculate or sometimes even pinpoint  where the weaknesses in the earth's crust are and where an earthquake (or a volcanic eruption or a landslide or any of a number of natural disasters) is likely to happen but we can't tell for sure precisely when or where those things will occur and, as a result, many people lose their lives while we smugly call it "God's will." I wonder if we'd be so blasé about it if it happened to us? Wouldn't we want God to fix it for us?

God goes on for quite some time in his speech to Job, the whole thing taking up three entire chapters and one verse of a fourth, but Job still has no answers and God doesn't seem to be willing to let him off the hook. It wasn't that Job lacked faith; he had plenty of that or he would have fallen prey to his wife's and his friends' suggestions that he confess to something, anything that would allow God to accept his repentance and fix things.

I don't deal well with this kind of God. I am somewhat glad to read that Job is not a real character but rather a work of fiction to get certain things out in the open and some great poetry written. I don't like to think of God as playing games with people's lives either to prove a point or to possibly pull the puppet strings and make a person do precisely what God wants them to do. If that was how God wanted it, why would there have been this thing we call free will built into our DNA?

One choice I have is to read Job as a story, much like the stories our mothers told us as children, stories that had good plots and characters but which were designed to teach something without coming right out and saying it. It is possible to teach in ways other than stories, but stories are usually more fun and people are more inclined to remember fun than they are strictly factual (or presented as factual) ones.

I still can't answer God's questions, but then, part of what I learned from the reading is that I don't have to answer. I think it is enough to think about them and the wonders of the world they represent. It's always good to have a little mystery in our lives, it keeps things from being too predictable and boring.

And one more thing not having all the answers does: it makes me think more about God. I think that's a pretty good thing all by itself.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 13, 2014.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lord of the Sabbath

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.  But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”   Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?   He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”   Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” Luke 6: 1-5 (NRSV) (Eucharistic Reading)

What do you do if you’re on the road to somewhere, you absolutely have to be there at a particular time (say, before sundown), and you’re hungry?  That seems simple enough; you head for a restaurant (if you have the spare time) or you hit a fast food drive-thru and grab something to go. It seems almost counter-intuitive to think of doing anything else like going hungry, doesn’t it? 

That’s precisely what Jesus’ disciples did. They were on the road and got hungry so they dropped by the nearest equivalent of a drive-thru and gathered some food. It wasn’t as if they had messed up the entire field; grain on the edges of the fields were traditionally reserved for the poor, widows and orphans when the time for the harvest came. What was a few handfuls of grain when it came to a whole field?  No, the owner wouldn’t have a problem, but the Pharisees did. (How did they get there anyway? Did they have members of that sect following Jesus around like paparazzi after Hollywood royalty?)

Snapping the head off a stalk of grain was work and rubbing them in their hands to remove the husks so that the inner kernels could be eaten was work. It probably wasn’t the plucking as much as the husk removal that got the notice of the Pharisees. They weren’t shy about questioning why a law-abiding Jew would allow such behavior and on the sabbath as well, when all work was forbidden unless it meant saving a life, whether animal or human.

Jesus had an answer that recalled an incident (1 Samuel 21:1-6) when David was on the run and he and his band were hungry. It happened that the closest place was at Nob, at the place where Ahimelech was the priest. David let on that he was on a secret mission and he and his men needed food, so could Ahimelech please give them some bread?

Ahimelech wasn’t too sure about this, but there was some day-old bread which had been on the altar since yesterday and was just that morning replaced with fresh loaves. It wasn’t as if God was going to miss some slightly stale bread. Besides, when a man with a reputation like David’s looks you in the face and wants something, you are probably going to give it to him, aren’t you? But that was a side issue; Ahimelech had bread and even though it was consecrated, it was probably more prudent to give it to David and not risk his taking it by force, which he might do if he were hungry enough. It wasn’t so much that the bread was wanted on the sabbath but that it was holy bread that was supposed to be reserved for the priests and not for ordinary people.

Jesus’ point was that sometimes rules are meant to be broken, especially if they involve hospitality or saving a life. It seems people need rules so they know what is permissible and what isn’t. As a culture develops, there is the need for more and more rules with tighter and tighter regulation of something or other. There needed to be clear-cut delineations as to proper vs. improper. In the story of Jesus and the grain, the law dealt with the sabbath, a day instituted by God in the Big Ten given to Moses on Sinai and which became a defining event for the Israelites. Egyptians certainly didn’t give their people a day off every seventh day just to rest up and relax; no, they worked seven days a week.

To be sure that the Israelites realized that they were now under a new ruler, the sabbath was instituted for them and they were expected to relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, then came the finer and finer definitions of what was allowed and what was not. People could eat but only food that was prepared the day before. I guess the dishes stayed dirty until the next day as well. Jesus made what seemed to be an outrageous claim when he said that he was “lord of the sabbath.” 

The Pharisees following him probably came close to cardiac arrest with that one. Mark tells a similar story of Jesus, the grain and the Pharisees (2:23-27) where Jesus didn’t claim to be Lord of the sabbath but rather that “...[T]he sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath.”  God had taken that seventh day of creation for a rest day to sit and admire the handiwork of the other six days, and offered that same day of rest to God’s people so that they could relax and enjoy the day, the peace and quiet, the relief from stress and in God's company.

Christians acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all that is – including the sabbath. We go to church on Sunday (which has become the Christian sabbath except for a few denominational groups) and that’s one thing the sabbath was designed to do, to give us time to really think about and worship God. Of course, these days we go grocery shopping, play golf (which involves walking further than the Jewish law would allow not to mention using a vehicle), go to movies or football games, even cook, clean, do yard work and just about anything that is done on any other day of the week.

Perhaps we need to remember Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath and not just Lord of one hour every Sunday morning. It might be a good thing to try, anyway, that taking time to breathe and think of God for one day without multitasking.  The dishes will still be there tomorrow.  

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 6, 2014.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


It's nearly nightfall and I sit looking out my front windows at clouds on the horizon and trees being buffeted by gusty winds. Somehow it seems to mirror what's going on inside me tonight, the eve of one of those anniversaries.

Tomorrow would have been our 33rd wedding anniversary and, had he lived, Ray's 94th birthday. Even though he died over six and a half years ago, those two anniversaries plus the anniversary of his death still have power to send me into a funk. Not a huge depressive funk where I don't think I can get out of bed tomorrow, but one that says I'm still grieving and, even though our marriage may not have been the best in the world, it mattered and still does.

We never made a lot out of birthdays or anniversaries. There wasn't a whole lot of spare cash for most of our marriage so presents were few and cards almost as scarce. Still, I don't think either of us ever forgot a birthday or our anniversary. If we did find a card at some time during the year, that we thought the other might think funny or enjoy, we'd buy it then and put it away, usually forgetting where we'd put it. So we started a sort of tradition where if we found a card we gave it to the other as soon as we got it home. That way we wouldn't lose it before it was needed.

Maybe we would only have Hamburger Helper for dinner that night or perhaps something special that he especially liked such as biscuits and gravy or liver and onions, but it was what we did to celebrate. He always had a birthday cake, most often a pineapple upside down cake which was his favorite and which, fortunately, was one of my specialties. I still make those cakes, for several friends who love having one for their birthdays, but I always think of Ray when I make one.

So I'm feeling a bit maudlin as the evening grows darker. I had hoped to take tomorrow off from work just to stay home and maybe grieve a bit on my own or perhaps just relax, but since that isn't possible, I'll go to work as usual and save the other stuff for afterwards. Dinner will be simple, there won't be any cake, but there will be memories.

He annoyed the heck out of me a lot of times, and things weren't always peachy, but, you know, I really do miss him. Happy birthday tomorrow, Ray, and happy anniversary.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"But You Don't Know Me"

Often when I read the readings for the day I can't easily make a connection between them or, if I can, it's a very tenuous one. Today, though, with each of the three lessons all I could think of (and hear in my inner ear) was a continuing line from a song sung by Ray Charles, "You Don't Know Me."* It's a song about someone who loves another but who can't quite get up the courage to tell them until it's too late and they've gone off to marry someone else, leaving the singer mourning the unrequited love. Ok, it's hard to picture Job, Peter and Jesus in a romantic triangle and suffering unrequited love, but the last line of each verse of the song really sums it all up, "But you don't know me."

Job is doing what, in Yiddish, would be called a kvetch, a complaint (Job himself could be called a kvetch). In short, it's a variation on "Why me, God?" He's not cursing God, just calling attention to the fact that he really didn't deserve all this-the itching, pain, loss of home, family and just about everything that made life worthwhile. Most of us in much less drastic situation would have the same "Why me?" question.  Job wasn't being punished for who he was or anything he'd done. He'd been a model citizen and his prosperity grew. The Adversary had approached God with the notion that taking away all the prosperity stuff would make Job turn against God. What Job endured was to prove a point. Job had friends, however, who try to get him to see the error of his thinking, to confess the reasons why he's being punished in this way. To them, Job's short response would be, "But you don't know me."

Peter was confronted about eating with non-believers by the church hierarchy in Jerusalem. Peter then told them about the vision of the sheet with all the animals, birds and reptiles that came down from heaven and the voice telling him, "“What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 9b). The voice wasn't talking just about pork chops or shrimp cocktails; it went a lot deeper than that. It was about reaching out to those whom tradition and culture said they should shun. Peter's version of "But you don't know me" was that when it looked to others that he'd simply been misbehaving while away from home, doing things like people do when on vacation that they'd never do when at home and back under scrutiny of family and neighbors. He was actually doing precisely what he was supposed to be doing. It took a bit of persuasion, but then, Peter wasn't always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
The gospel reading comes right after the story of the woman taken in adultery as Jesus was teaching in the temple. Jesus' moment of "But you don't know me" was in response to the Pharisees who questioned his right to judge the woman and release her from the threat of stoning. Jesus' response was that if they knew him, they would know the Father who sent him, and if they knew the Father they would then know the truth of why he, Jesus, was here and why he was doing what he was doing. The Pharisees were quite knowledgeable about the law but when it came to the actuality of belief, they didn't get the point. Of course, it was their job to enforce the laws given to Moses by God, but somehow, over the millennia, something had gotten lost in the translation it seemed.

Each of us has our own "But you don't know me" experiences. Sometimes things have happened that shouldn't have and we've been judged by others on the basis of what they knew (or thought they knew) when that  was or wasn't really what happened. Reputations have been ruined, relationships have been rent asunder, families torn apart, communities embroiled in conflict, all because there was a gap in what people thought they knew and the truth. I think Ferguson, Missouri, is a case in point. We hear different stories, one from witnesses, one from the police, another from the forensic findings of a boy/man who could no longer speak for himself in any other way.

Both Michael Brown and his police shooter could say, "But you don't know me," and both would be perfectly right. The intersection of their lives was brief but bloody, and neither one really knew what the other was about. The community has been left with questions that seemingly have no immediate answers, and public opinion is polarized by defenders on both sides. It's created an atmosphere of distrust, hard feelings, even violence on both sides, and one can only pray for calm and for answers that will help to begin the healing, bring the two sides together for the common good and, hopefully, bring about an end to whatever inequalities and racial tensions that were present in the community but not completely exposed until the day of Michael Brown's murder.
The event shines a light on something we don't like to think of, even those of us who are only observers from a distance. Everyone has a "But you don't know me" side to them, and, for many, how they feel inside about things like race, orientation, gender, social or economic status, even religion or lack of it, remains under the surface. Sometimes it will fester until it is accidentally lanced and the poison will be released and sometimes it will be a partially-healed scar that is ripped open. Sometimes something will happen that causes us to realize that we had a shadow side we weren't even aware of and which we now have to examine in the sunlight. That's when the "But you don't know me" becomes a personal "Now I know me."
"Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle"** is something we might need to keep in mind especially when it comes to our own judging of others and their motives. Even those for whom life seems good, and pleasant and worthwhile, there might be a painful struggle going on of which we know nothing until later, as we found with the tragic death of Robin Williams. What appear to be small challenges might be camouflage for deep chasms of inner pain and turmoil.
The lesson today is that we will never know everything about everyone. We could become like Pharisees or the Jerusalemites or even the Job's comforters, or we could be open to a greater compassion and understanding. The choice is ours. The readings definitely give us something to go on and the news we hear offers us further opportunities. Today would be a good day to remember "But you don't know me," both in ourselves and in everyone we meet.
It's worth a try.
*Walker, Cindy (composer and lyricist) and Arnold, Eddy (title, storyline) 1955. First recorded by Arnold in 1956.  Ray Charles recorded it in 1962 and a host of other artists before and since have likewise recorded it and used it in live performances. 

** Quote attributed to Rev. John Watson, writing under the pseudonym Ian MacLaren. Found at The Quote Investigator

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 30, 2014.