Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Day 1

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. – Isaiah 52: 7-10
There are few places as peaceful as sitting on a mountainside, looking across valleys with lush green forests or spectacular rock formations. It is one of those kinds of places that remind a person how small and insignificant they are, even when they sit and feel like kings and queens with all the world at their feet.
For those below, imagine a messenger coming down from the mountain bringing news of peace and good will, not just for those on the mountain but those in the valleys below as well. They herald the news with glad songs and the people join in the celebratory singing. There is comfort and redemption to be celebrated, and the everlasting hills echo the joyous sounds.
For those of us who celebrate Advent it can be a real trial going into stores and shops which are playing endless rounds of carols we don’t sing until Christmas Eve at the earliest (unless one is in a choir where they’ve probably been practicing them since before Thanksgiving!). By the time we get to Christmas and we’re ready to enjoy the music, the stores have gone back to their regular music and we’re left feeling a bit bereft. We have 12 days of Christmas to celebrate and everybody else has already moved on to Valentine’s Day!
Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with humming a carol or two before December 24th. Many expectant mothers hum and sing lullabies before the little one makes its appearance. We could be just practicing so that when the joyous nativity happens, we’re ready, in good and full voice, and more than ready to make mountains ring with sound.
We are expecting the greatest gift we could be given. We know it now, but only a very few knew it at the time before the birth of Jesus. We can anticipate, and anticipation can be a good thing. People are friendlier, smiles more ready, and kindness a bit more evident than any other time of year. Maybe we could practice lifting the hearts of those who may not feel like celebrating. Perhaps we can’t lift their depression or get them a house for their family, but we can listen and share what we can. Sometimes a cup of hot coffee is a gift that not only warms the body but the heart as well.
Let’s practice sharing our expectant hope in this season of Advent. Maybe ours are the feet that will bring good news to those who so sorely need it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A House of Prayer

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’ Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
   but you have made it a den of robbers.’
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. - Luke 19:41-48

We are always struck by the image of Jesus standing on a hill facing Jerusalem and weeping in the days prior to his arrest and execution. Although his ministry had touched many and he had gained many followers, Jerusalem remained an example of the rejection of the message God had sent him to proclaim. Like the prophets before him, the people would not listen, only continue on their chosen way and think that was enough.

It is no wonder that after the grief on the hilltop, there would be a stage of anger aimed directly at those who maintained the status quo for what was ostensibly their work for God but which, in reality, helped line their pockets as well. Jesus never got angry at the simple folk who sought him out for healing, and even his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman was more in the realm of exasperation rather than outright anger. Certainly the moneychangers and animal traders were making money, and assuredly the temple was as well. It was this desecration that was the focus of Jesus' anger.

"My house shall be a house of prayer" was a direct quotation from the prophet Isaiah (56:7d) and concerned not just the Jews but eunuchs and foreigners who observed the Sabbath and lived lives in accordance with the covenant. There is more to Isaiah's statement than Jesus quoted, namely, "[F]or my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered" (7d-8).

Recently the Washington National Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul) made headlines by offering its nave to Muslims for their Friday prayers. For decades, the cathedral has been home to a number of budding congregations of various denominations in addition to its regular Episcopal attendees. It has featured speakers from other faiths and no faith, funerals for national figures whether Episcopalian or not, prayerful nondenominational services for times of trouble such as after 9/11, and has been the Episcopal presence on many Christmas Eves on video and television.

Both before and after the Muslim Friday prayers, however, there was a tidal wave of disapproval, disgust and condemnation over allowing a non-Christian (and possibly terrorist) group to actually pray in a sacred Christian place. The definition of "Christian" seems to vary from group to group, but for the National Cathedral and its supporters, it was and remains a house of prayer for all peoples, not just all Christian people. It honors God by opening its doors freely, and encouraging people to remember that it is a house of prayer, not just a beautiful monument.

In our climate of hate, fear and anxiety, we must be grounded in faith and in the teachings of Jesus. He taught Samaritans, traditional outcasts in the Jewish view, as well as the righteous. He healed and  the outcasts -- the sick, the crippled, the notorious sinners, the unclean, even gentiles--without discrimination. I wonder, would he have refused to give an invitation to a group that has felt the backlash of public opinion based on the actions of some? Would he have closed the doors to those brave enough to accept an invitation to prayer in a space that could prove hostile to them?

I think the National Cathedral upheld Jesus' "house of prayer for all peoples" in the very words and spirit of the text. I also think that the Muslim community was both gracious and brave to accept the invitation and truly make the Cathedral a place for all, not just Episcopalians or even Christians, but for all who wish to worship there.

I wonder--in the upcoming season of Advent, how can we as Advent people prepare for the coming of the Christ Child by opening our doors and inviting the world in? How can we share our sacred space with those of different beliefs but who are sincere in both their own faith and interested in closer ties with our communities? How can we make a house of prayer for all people in our own neighborhoods and areas?

Have a blessed and prayerful Advent.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Song of Thanksgiving

Reading from the Commemoration of Cecelia

Then the three with one voice praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace:
‘Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors,
   and to be praised and highly exalted for ever; 
And blessed is your glorious, holy name,
   and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,
   and to be extolled and highly glorified for ever. 
Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne on the cherubim,
   and to be praised and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom,
   and to be extolled and highly exalted for ever. 
Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven,
   and to be sung and glorified for ever.

 ‘Let the earth bless the Lord;
   let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you springs;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 
Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle;
   sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever. 

All who worship the Lord, bless the God of gods,
   sing praise to him and give thanks to him,
   for his mercy endures for ever.’  - Azariah 1:28-34, 52-59, 68

When I first became an Episcopalian, we were using the 1928 prayer book. It was one of the things that drew me to the church in the first place. Another was the corporate chanting the canticles for Morning Prayer, including one called Benedictus es, Domine which was one our parish used after the reading of the first lesson. Standing in the little church, built in 1697, it was like being surrounded by all those who had stood where I did, chanting the same words. It was a feeling of being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

We only chanted verses 28-34 of this morning's reading. but then, we didn't hear a lot about the apocryphal writings. It has been a joy to discover the origins of one of my favorite chants and find that there is so much more there.

The Song of the Three Young Men was an addition to the book of Daniel, and was said to be praises to God as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood in the fiery furnace where they had been thrown by Nebuchadrezzar for refusal to worship an idol. Instead of seeing them die horribly, those who witnessed saw not three who had gone in but also a fourth, and none of them had so much as a hair singed. The song reported here was sung by Abednego (Azariah) and was a catalogue of creation, animate and inanimate, and which blessed or conferred on God a part of their own beings and not just mere words. In the concluding verse, Azariah calls for those who worship God to bless, praise and thank God. That part about thanking is particularly important this week when we celebrate the holiday we call Thanksgiving.

Think of Thanksgiving and most folks will visualize a big, golden-brown baked turkey on a platter surrounded by dishes of various sorts from mashed potatoes to green bean casserole to jewel-like cranberry sauce. A few will be industriously making lists and checking newspaper ads for Black Friday sales the next day. The intent of Thanksgiving, however, is focused in the word itself -- giving thanks for all the blessings we enjoy (and maybe some we don't really consider joyous but for which we feel we should give thanks anyway). We are encouraged to stop and give thanks not only to God but for those who surround us daily: our families and friends, a roof over our heads when so many go without, clean air and water (which again, so many do without), the ability to go to church (or not) at the church of one's own choosing, the ability to disagree and debate without fear of imprisonment or death, and so many other things. Once a year we are reminded to be thankful for what we have, and encouraged to not just sit down to a long table surrounded by family and great quantities of food but to also remember the homeless and hungry by volunteering at soup kitchens and food banks.

It is also a time to bless God and be thankful for the gifts we have received over the past year -- or even years. Among the things I am grateful for are health which, even if not perfect, is still far more than so many deal with. I am grateful for friends who love, support and accept me, even when I'm cranky. I am grateful for the four furry kids I call my boys (even though one's a girl) who give me a reason to get up in the morning (a demand, really), and for the roof we have over our heads, the food on our plates and bowls, a furnace that works in the winter and an air conditioner in the summer. I'm grateful for the Episcopal Church of the Nativity which feeds and supports me spiritually.

Included in my thanksgiving this year is gratitude for Episcopal Café, Daily Episcopalian, and especially Speaking to the Soul where I have been able to share my  reflections on scripture and other topics. I am grateful to Jim Naughton, who allowed me to share in this unique and respected site, and for Ann Fontaine who encouraged, questioned, edited and illustrated what I wrote. I am thankful for Jon White, our new chief, and for those exceptionally talented people with whom I work and who have offered so many "AHA!" moments. Most of all, I am thankful for the people who read and have read what I've written, whether or not they comment or "like" what I've said. It is a feeling of awe that comes knowing that my words are heard beyond the front door of my house and that perhaps someone might find something of value in them.

May all of you have a blessed Thanksgiving next week, and may we all remember to join all of creation in blessing, honoring and thanking God for our many blessings.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 22, 2014.
Happy birthday Ann!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Electing Mercy

My brothers and sisters,do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet', have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement. -- James 2:1-13

The recent mid-term elections are over. The campaign rhetoric is done, the back-slapping of the winners has died down as surely as the campaign posters of the losers have disappeared from the roadsides and front lawns of supporters. Dissection of the electoral process has pretty much ended and now comes the period where the work has to begin.

Reading the lesson from James this morning, I couldn't help but reflect on the election through James's lens. What I saw in the last electoral process was a combination of what James was talking about -- the choosing of the rich to the detriment of the poor, disenfranchisement of people who should have had the right to vote but who were denied it, and promises to further shut down or cripple programs designed to help the neediest in our society. To say it is somewhat disheartening is a bit of an understatement; it is more like a feeling that the collapse of the Roman Empire was nothing compared to what is coming for us.

Everybody has ideas and beliefs that firmly endorse and for which they stand. Be it a favorite color, drink, book, fashion designer or whatever, there are things we like and things we definitely don't. Usually, though, choices of colors or drinks or designers won't affect the rest of the world, unlike choices between political ideologies or religious beliefs. Those two things have caused a world of hurt for millennia and it hasn't stopped.

Even when it comes to the Bible we have parts we like and take very seriously and other parts we ignore or pay lip service only. There are lots of passages in both testaments about taking care of others -- the poor, widows, orphans, prisoners, the hungry, the sick, the dying -- but nothing about "Me first, then maybe somebody else if there's any left over." Is salvation about saying the right words once and then going on as usual, or does it involve a change in thought and behavior? Is grace only for the rich who contribute liberally to the church but not much if any to outside organizations  who tend to the poor and oppressed elsewhere?  Is our giving tinged with a bit of "There but for the grace of God go I" or is it a matter of image, our image in the eyes of others who are watching us?

Then there's that tricky thing called mercy. We thoroughly expect mercy to be extended to us, but are we as careful to extend it to others? What about to those of a different race, religion or orientation?  What about to those who may not dress as well or whose vehicle is older, shabbier and of a cheaper brand? Do we value people based on their income or their humanity, something we all share?

What would Jesus do? He never put himself first and I don't think he expects us to do it either. When Jesus spoke the parable of the lost sheep, I don't think he had in mind that the one sheep represented the rich while the ninety-nine were the poor and even middle-class. But then, maybe that one lost sheep  needs the shepherding because it is determined to go its own way while the ninety-nine stay together for mutual help and support.

We can hold on to the hope that eventually mercy will overcome judgment, but it's for sure that it probably isn't going to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, it might be a good thing to extend mercy to those with whom we come in contact who may have experienced a dearth of it. One person doing one small act of charity or mercy may not change the world but it may change another person. What if that were multiplied by 10 or 100 or even 1000 small acts?  Like ripples in a pool, mercy could spread outwards and help change what one person surely could not.

It's worth a shot. Maybe in the next election mercy could be on the ballot?

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Needing a Little Help

Reading from the Commemoration of James Theodore Holly (alt. date)

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  Acts 8:26-39

Sometimes we all need a little help. I've had times in my life where I've felt like I was banging my head against a wall trying to figure out something, being too stubborn to ask for help with what I thought I should be able to figure out on my own but couldn't. In the end, it took someone else who could not just solve the problem but tell me how and why that solution worked.

The Ethiopian eunuch needed some of that help. As the overseer of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia, he was undoubtedly an educated man and evidently multilingual in both speech and text. He was puzzled by the passage in the book of Isaiah (53:7-8) and, as is often the case, someone came along to shed light on the problem. Philip, a deacon and evangelist, followed instructions from an angel and the Spirit to go south along a certain road and there he heard the Ethiopian reading. When asked about his understanding, the Ethiopian admitted he needed help so Philip joined him in the chariot and began to explain the prophecy as it applied to Jesus. As a result, the eunuch asked for and received baptism from Philip before Philip was whisked off and the Ethiopian resumed his journey home.

We, like the eunuch, can read scripture and not always understand what it means. We can have our own ideas or understandings we gained listening to sermons and Bible studies. Sometimes we read or hear something that challenges the way we understand a particular passage and it can confuse us. There are times we reject the challenge out of hand, but sometimes it makes us dig deeper and in new directions, showing us a new way of seeing that we hadn't considered before. The eunuch was open to receive what Philip showed him and it changed his way of thinking and understanding.

It isn't always necessary to accept a new way of thinking or new interpretation, but I think it is important to give it fair consideration. Should we reject it simply because it's not the way we've always heard it or believed it? Is it out of the question because we've never heard or done it that way before? Is it a message that takes us forward or backward? Does it build the kingdom of God or tear it down? Who is our teacher and to whom should we listen?

Everyone needs help at some point in time. In a time and culture where individualism is stressed and everyone is supposed to be self-sufficient, able to solve their own problems without outside assistance. Of course, it isn't that way at all, but we try to maintain the façade because that is what is expected of us. Sometimes it takes a healthy dose of humility to ask for help when we need it, and humility is a rather unpopular virtue in this day and age. When we do bring ourselves to ask for help or guidance, we run the risk of rejection which is something none of us ever really wants. On the other hand, though, we may open the door to a new understanding or new skill, and we have given someone the opportunity to be the teacher, to share their own wisdom and show us a different way of solving a problem we couldn't solve on our own.

When we ask God for help in understanding, sometimes we find someone has been placed in our path who will give us just what it was that we need. For the eunuch, it was Philip. For us, it could be a priest or pastor, a co-worker, a good friend, a family member or a total stranger. The thing is,  as we journey along our everyday lives, we may encounter a Philip who will give us an answer to a question that perhaps we didn't know we had.

Today I need to be open to the Philips I meet, people who may in some way make me see and understand things differently than before. I may not ask for or even know I need that answer, but it will be there if I am paying attention.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 8, 2014.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Whose life is it anyway?

Not long ago, the House of Lords in London undertook a consideration of physician-assisted death and whether or not it should be made legal in Britain. It has also been a topic here in the US, most recently about a young woman, newly married, who has an inoperable and incurable form of cancer and who has indicated she will pursue physician-assisted suicide (PAS), Death, however, is not a topic not discussed easily or often. It's not usually a topic for dinner-table conversations, lessons at school or even mentioned at church. It is, though, a very important topic because it is something we all have in common: all of us will ultimately die, and avoiding the topic does not make it any less final.

The objective of physician-assisted death is to enable people to have some control over their lives when there is really not much anyone, including physicians, can do to either postpone the inevitable or mitigate its effects on both patient and family. We hear stories of people passing quietly in bed with little fuss and seemingly no pain and that's the way I think most of us would like to go when our time comes. It doesn't always work that way, though. Death can be very painful, prolonged and, unfortunately, messy. That in itself, as much as for the sake of everyone being aware of the wishes of their loved ones, is all the more reason we need to talk about it while it is still distant enough for us to be objective about it, or as objective as we can be about confronting our own mortality.

The older we get, the more we think about death, willingly or unwillingly. Young people may think they are invincible but they die too, mostly due to accident, murder or even suicide. Older folks, though, see family and friends pass, and their own declining health makes the specter of death more real, whether or not they want to consider it any more than a teenager would. We don't like to think of being incapacitated, dealing with excruciating pain, being frozen in immobility, having to have people change diapers for us like we were infants, or losing the mental acuity that made us who we were. We are told that palliative care, care that allows us the greatest quality of life possible at the time through medications and sometimes machines, should be sufficient to get us through death's door with as little loss of dignity as possible, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes we just want to feel we still can make decisions for ourselves about how we want to live -- and how we want to die.

In the US, several states have already given electoral approval to physician-assisted death, where it should be available, under what circumstances, and with what restrictions. Their laws are fairly clear: the person must have their full faculties but have been diagnosed as terminally ill with  six months or less left to live, and having made a clear declaration of their desire to have control over when they feel their life is no longer bearable. A form stating the desire and intent has to be witnessed by two separate medical professionals who have no relationship, professional or otherwise, to each other or to the patient so there is no chance of ulterior motive in the death. The medications must be self-administered or administered on the direct orders of the patient. It sounds pretty straightforward, but nothing this side of heaven is totally straightforward it seems.

There was and still is a lot of controversy surrounding such a law or bill, mostly from those who claim religious beliefs and strong pro-life convictions. It is claimed that it is a slippery slope which, once passed, will allow others to euthanize relatives and others who they deem as unnecessary, too much of a burden or too expensive to care for. Statistics have shown that not all who are facing fairly immediate end-of-life issues have an interest in physician-assisted death and of those who are, even fewer request the service. Of those requesting, not all go through with it. Some die naturally without any intervention and others decide to opt out of it. So the actual number of such deaths is a few percentage points of total deaths, but it gives the terminally ill the choice they may  want and feel they  need.

It is compared, in a simplistic way, to taking a suffering cat to the veterinarian to be put to sleep when there seems to be little else to do other than watch the cat die in pain that could be alleviated by euthanasia. It is often said that we treat our sick and dying pets with more compassion than we do our fellow humans.

Religion-wise, those who object most to the bill are those with religious convictions they claim are firmly pro-life. They are very much against abortion, usually not approving of any form of birth control, and unwilling to allow women and their doctors to make decisions about the continuation of a pregnancy caused by (a) rape or incest, (b) a fetus with severe birth defects that will lead to a very short and painful life after birth, and (c) when the life of the mother (who may have other small children to consider) is at risk due to the pregnancy. Now they are also focused on how aged, infirm and/or terminally ill adults should live out their final days, whether or not they know the patient, the circumstances, the patient's wishes or religious beliefs. It comes down to who gets to make the decisions about how that patient's life should be lived -- and how it ends.

In the case of the House of Lords' consideration of the matter, what is somewhat surprising is the stance of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lord George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quite conservative on most issues; however, he is firmly in favor of passage of the bill. At odds is the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, who is very much against it. A third archbishop, Desmond Tutu, formerly of South Africa, is equally firmly in the pro camp. I wonder if his battle with cancer gives him a clearer view of the ramifications as much as the prolonged treatment and death of his friend Nelson Mandela.

No doctor can say for certain when a person is going to die. They can guesstimate, based on symptoms, test results, and experience, but doctors are not omniscient. They tell a person that they have six months and that patient may die by week’s end or go on for years. It’s a crapshoot. PAS is intended to give the patient some control over when they feel their quality of life is compromised beyond any hope of redemption. It allows them to make a decision while they are still of sound of mental state, to say, “Here is my line in the sand; beyond this I do not want to go.”

There is a lot of concern that if a general physician-assisted dying law is passed, it would  mean a wholesale slaughter of the mentally incompetent, the disabled, and others deemed unworthy of life, and that is a slippery slope nobody wants to go down. There are some families who, burdened by the care of an elderly, handicapped or terminally ill member, take the decision in their own hands. They usually end up in court for murder, no matter whether their intentions were in accordance with the patient’s wishes or not. There are also many doctors who believe their Hippocratic Oath holds them to preserving life at all costs, not ending it, even if their patient actively asks for it.

In the House of Lords, the outcome of the recent debate was a 65 to 63 vote in favor, not enough to make it law but enough to continue the discussion in another session. In the United States, PAS is legal in three states, Oregon being the first to pass the legitimization of Death with Dignity in 1994. So far people have not been beating down the doors in Oregon, Washington or Vermont (the other two states in which it is legal)  to have either themselves, a loved one, friend, or even someone they barely know ushered gently out of this world and into the next. Quite a few people don’t seem to mind using physician-assisted death when it comes to executing criminals, but when it comes to the elderly, terminally ill, disabled, living in extreme pain, or even just lying there hooked up to machines without thought processes, it is a different story.

Where I think faith comes into this is in the realm of compassion. It is compassion that allows us to take our pet to the veterinarian for euthanasia. When it comes to human life, though, it is a different ball game. People take “Thou shalt not kill” seriously, and that becomes a place where the discussion dies. What place does compassion have when faced with this commandment although most are perfectly comfortable breaking or ignoring the other nine? When should a person be allowed to make their own choice? Should the religious beliefs of some take precedence over all, including those who have no religious beliefs on the subject at all? Who makes the decisions as to when life is worth living or is merely an existence? Would God really eternally punish someone who has been tried beyond their limits? Is that the kind of God we have?

What I think it comes down to is who has the right to make a decision about their own life? Who knows what the person is experiencing and how much they feel able to bear and for how long? Ultimately, the questions that have to be asked is, "What would God expect us to do? Whose life is it, anyway?"

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Tuesday, November 4, 2014,

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saints and saints

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, ‘Who are these, my lord?’ He answered and said to me, ‘These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.’ Then I said to the angel, ‘Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?’ He answered and said to me, ‘He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.’ So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord.  - 2 Esdras 2:42-47

Last year I was delighted to teach a session of the adult formation dealing with hagiology, the study of the saints and their writings. I had a passing acquaintance with the major saints like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Nicholas and some others, but I had never really dug down deeper. This year I found a quotation from Oscar Wilde that set me thinking, "The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." Now there's a thought.

Saints were ordinary people who lived extraordinary or, at least, memorable, lives. Many had what we would consider to be at least one major character flaw or major sin in their lives yet they weren't defined by that flaw or sin. Some were preachers and teachers, some theologians, some  missionaries and mystics. A few, like Gabriel and Michael were archangels, part of what is called the heavenly host and who played a part in our salvation history by proclamation and sometimes intervention. A number were members or founders of religious orders, others were from the greatest order, the laity. There were those who lived holy and exemplary lives and then there were the martyrs who died either for their faith or for the stances they took to live their faith. They came from all socio-economic strata from peasants and shepherds to kings and queens. They were soldiers, philosophers, anchorites and public servants. Some were canonized, some were not, yet they are remembered especially on November 1st for the witness that they made in the world.

One thing I learned was that saints walk among us but we often don't recognize them until later. Often they are opposed by the rich and powerful because the saints see the world with different eyes, not necessarily accepting the way things are as the way things are supposed to be. They often have a very prophetic way of looking at the world and seeing things that the prophets saw: poverty, pain, victimization, avarice, exploitation, sickness, abuse of all kinds including that of the use of power, and hopelessness. At some point, someone or a group of someones recognized that these individuals saw a better world and, guided by whatever faith they practiced, they worked to make that better world a reality. Some, like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edith Stein, were martyred for their attempts to make that possibility a reality and, even though none of them was a perfect human being, they each made an unwitting sacrifice to that cause.

In the Daily Office reading today, the writer, probably using the name "Ezra" as a pseudonym, is seeing a vision of what Paul's letter to the Hebrews called "so great a cloud of witnesses" (12:1a) receiving honors from Jesus for their witness on earth. A favorite hymn, "For All the Saints," gives a similar vision: "O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old/ and win, with them, the victor's crown of gold./ Alleluia, alleluia."* While not all saints were soldiers or martyrs, I think most of us have a vision of each saint, no matter what their calling in life, being welcomed into the presence of Jesus who invests them with the mark of their witness, the crown of gold. I wonder... if I were looking at such a vision, who would I see being crowned that I would least imagine as a saint, canonized or not? Who had a vision and made a significant contribution to making that vision a reality?

We've all heard someone refer to another as a saint, whether because they have endured various illnesses in themselves or as caregivers for others, because they are always cheerful and helpful, or because they seem to have their feet firmly planted on a holy path, even if they seldom set foot in a church. There are those who have a concern for those outside the church walls and work seemingly tirelessly to provide shoeboxes of comfort for our military in combat zones, backpacks for underprivileged children in the neighborhood, work in food banks and soup kitchens, or who just seem to know who needs a bit of attention and TLC. Sometimes we notice these saints, sometimes we don't, and that is our loss.

There are times a big name from the entertainment industry like Bono or even a multi-billionaire like Bill Gates come into the news because of a gift to a charity that will help countless others. We sit and think, "Well, they can afford it! Look how much money they have and they probably just did it for the publicity." We have made a judgment from our own perspective, but to those whom they help, they most likely are saints as are the countless much lesser-known contributors who make malaria nets, clean water stations, and microloans possible to help others they don't know to have a better life.

I think this All Saints' Day I need to look around and see if I can spot an unrecognized saint or two. I quite often forget to do that, even if I am rubbing elbows with them or I come across them in odd places. And then I need to remember the line from another favorite hymn for All Saints, "[F]or the saints of God are just folks like me, and I mean to be one too."**

That sounds like a goal to work towards not just today but for the rest of my life. I'll never be a Saint, or even probably a very good saint, but the attempt might help make the world a better place. I think that's what following the gospel is about.

I may end up being just a bystander at the red carpet to heaven's gates and not a recipient of a gold crown at a major awards event, but if I have done my best to live out that gospel then that is all I can do. That's what is expected of me and, indeed, all of us. I have a past but I also have a future. That's a comfort and a challenge.

* Church Hymnal Corporation, Hymnal 1982, (1985) 287.
**ibid., 292.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 1, 2014.