Sunday, May 31, 2015

Joan, Mystic and Warrior

For my first three or four years of elementary school I seemed to catch just about every germ, bacteria, and infection that came down the pike. Daytime TV was mostly geared to housewives who watched soap operas and not to young kids so it was sort of a last resort. Mama couldn't spend all her time reading me books or telling me stories, so about grade 3 I started reading books myself. I was hooked for life.

When I got a little older I found biographies of famous people, especially women. I read books about Florence Nightingale, Pocahontas, and, perhaps the most interesting, Joan of Arc. Pocahontas was a local girl, one whose story I knew just from people telling me the history of the area in which I lived. Florence Nightingale went to a war zone and worked to save lives of sick and wounded soldiers far from home. Joan, though, was different. There was a religious component to her story that intrigued me, so much so that when Mama went to an antique store where I saw a statue of a woman in armor, I asked for it. It may have been a Valkyrie, for all I knew, but to me, that was Joan and I wanted her to be a sort of guide and a presence.

Joan was a simple girl from a relatively small town, a "shepherdess on the green" as the hymn* calls her. She was basically illiterate although she could sign her name. What she had, though was a strong faith and a belief that God had something big in store for her. From a young age, she heard voices and saw visions of angels and saints, most frequently the Archangel Michael and St. Catherine of Alexandria, who gave her the challenge to save France which was in the grip of war between the houses of Burgundy and Orleans.  It was a formidable task, one that would surely daunt anyone, much less a young girl, but she had faith in God and her guides.

Joan broke a lot of the rules of normal behavior of the time. She heard voices and saw bright lights and spoke of them to others. To accomplish her task, she dressed first as a boy, then in armor. She talked with and persuaded princes and theologians, and led troops in battle. She got the Dauphin crowned Charles VII, and was captured in battle. The Burgundians  sold her to the English but she was returned to France where she faced charges of heresy and witchcraft and where she was forced to recant her statements about the voices and visions.

She was still in prison when she was tried again a few months later and this time she refused to recant, instead confessing her faith in the messages that she knew came from God and the gathering of saints. She was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1431. Twenty-five years later, her case was appealed and the Pope declared her to have been falsely accused. Almost 500 years later, she was canonized as a saint.

Today most people think nothing about girls who wear boy's clothing although boys in girl's dresses cause more than a raised eyebrow or two. Nobody thinks anything about people seeming to talk to themselves (or maybe God or someone else) because we're so used to people talking on Bluetooth or cell phones. We've gotten accustomed to hearing stories of saints and mystics who have heard voices or had visions back hundreds of years ago, but we are somewhat skeptical of people who claim the same thing today. We're much more aware of mental illness than mysticism, and possibly more comfortable with it as well.

But mystics live among us, usually unnoticed because they don't go around wearing an "I'm a Mystic" button or proclaiming their mysticism. They may not go around wearing armor and riding a white horse with a banner floating over their heads, but neither are they all hiding in dark caves or out in the deserts. What they all have, though, is faith and a desire for union with God. Even non-mystics can have that same faith and desire for union, with or with out the voices and visions.

We may not be called to lead an army, get a prince crowned king, or even something really heroic. Maybe we're called to march in support of a cause or volunteer to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Maybe we're called to help children learn to read or remind elders that they are not forgotten. We may not get the lights and voices, but we, like Joan, can find our passion and follow it, with a little guidance from God and a lot of faith that we can have a deep connection and we can find our ministries and missions.

Perhaps we can ask Joan to help us.

*Hymnal 1982, Church Publishing Corp. NY.  #293.

Originally published at on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 30, 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Going up, Coming Down

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. - Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20.

 I remember, as a small kid,  how I loved to hear Mama read and tell stories. I was sick fairly often so she spent a lot of time doing those. They captivated me, kept my mind occupied, and often sent me in to dreams where the words Mama read and spoke came to life.

Stories also serve as vehicles to convey information: the history of the people, important events, hero stories. the Bible is full of those stories conveying that kind of information in a way that people could learn from and pass on to the next generation. The reading today is only part of a much longer story, the story of the exodus from Egypt, but even part of a story can have a lesson in it.

There are a lot of stories in the saga of the exodus. This one is part of the run-up to the giving of the Ten Commandments; it sets the scene. The journey has taken them to the base of Mount Sinai, where God will give them the Law, but first God has a few words with Moses about a message to be given to the Israelites about what God had done for them and would do for them if they agreed to obey God and keep God's covenant. They had been freed from Egypt and could be God's chosen people if they just agreed to do as God wanted.

Three days after that, God woke the people with a rather spectacular reveille that certainly got their attention. They gathered at the very foot of the mountain and there they watched as Moses talked with God and God replying with thunder and trumpets. Then God summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.

Whether or not we have ever climbed a real mountain or not, we use metaphoric mountains to describe stages of our lives. Any worker who began at the bottom and has worked his or her way up the corporate ladder could just as easily have said they climbed the corporate mountain. Same with sports figures and performers of all kinds. Climbing the mountain is work, hard work, but the view from the top is breathtaking. Often intensely spiritual experiences are called "mountain-top experiences."  Jesus had several mountain-top experiences beginning with his temptation in the wilderness and probably culminating with the meeting with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration.

Moses surely had a mountain-top experience as he climbed to meet God. There seem to have been several such journeys up and down, going between God and the people, hearing God's words and taking them down to the Israelites below. It must have been a sort of physical elevator ride, the constant going up and coming down, but it was necessary.

Reaching the mountain top is a feeling like none other.  It's exhilarating, energizing, perhaps reverential. From the mountain top a person feels like they can see what seems like the whole world and they own it. There's a closeness to heaven in that place, whether one is actively seeking a closeness to and with God or not.

One thing is certain, though. No one can stay at the top of the mountain forever. Like Moses, the person must come down and go about the daily life they had left when they began their ascent. Chances are, though, there is a bit of change in them somewhere as a result of the journey, something that remains with them that they could share with the world, like Moses' bringing the words of God to the people. He had to come down the mountain to do the work he was given to do; he couldn't do it from the top.

We all have work to do, especially after we visit the mountain top. We have a new perspective, a new job description, a new calling that needs our attention, study, and sharing. Perhaps we found our faith a bit deeper and richer, perhaps we found God a lot closer, perhaps we found some answers to questions we didn't even know we had. But just think -- what if we had never gone up that mountain?

As Newton once said, "What goes up, must come down."  We all need trips to the mountain top now and again, but we also need to remember that our work is done on the plain below, or perhaps in some valley that has needs we can fill. God doesn't always speak with thunder, lightning, and trumpets. Sometimes God speaks in a breeze that rifles the hair or in the wide vista from the mountain.

Moses went up and came down, once with a glow that was so bright he had to wear a veil so that people wouldn't be blinded. We may never encounter that phenomenon, but we can be so changed inside that people can see it. Or, better yet, we can see it in ourselves and our actions reflect it.

I think it's time for a mountain-top experience. There are enough mountains, literal and figurative, around for everyone to go up, experience and come down renewed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 23, 2015.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

True Martyrs

Commemoration of the Martyrs of Sudan

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 116:10-17
Hebrews 10:32-39
Matthew 24:9-14

It's a bright, sunny day with comfortable temperatures. It's the kind of day where it is hard to think of anything but good things like cute babies, fluffy kittens (or frolicking puppies), vacations at the beach (or the mountains), hot dogs at the ball park, or beer at the 19th tee. It's a nice day for kids to be playing soccer or baseball, or biking with their friends around the nice, safe neighborhood. It's a good day, the kind people daydream of as they go about their normal work week.

It's hard to think about people in places that are very different, places where kids can't play outside because the area isn't safe for them--or for anyone really. They are homeless because someone whose politics or religion were far different decided that there needed to be changes, either governmental ones and/or religious conversions, either by choice or by force. Their homes and businesses are in ruins, they may be living in the midst of rubble or an overcrowded tent city with inadequate food, water and sanitation. The people there would probably like to think about baby animals, soccer games, and safe neighborhoods, but their reality is something very different.

There are many areas of the world where the different reality is clear, but today we mark the commemoration of people in one particular place, Sudan. Until it gained independence in 1956, the British had ruled the country with an arbitrary border intended to keep the peace but which, in fact, lead to much of what we see today, namely religious conflict. The British assigned the northern section to the Muslims and the south to more diverse ethnically and religiously-based groups. After the independence, the uneasy tension between the two halves of the country began to tighten and civil war became the name of the game for the next forty years. Beginning in the 1980s the Islamic government of the north increasingly enforced Sharia law and extended that influence into the south. We still see the results on the news almost nightly.

The Sudanese Martyrs represented all levels of society from military and religious leaders to ordinary people, all who refused to give up their Christian beliefs and convert to Islam as they were being pressured to do. Over the last few decades, Christians like them have tried to survive in what is now South Sudan, but in the course of that struggle two and a half million people have died as martyrs, four million have been displaced, and another million have been scattered around Africa and in other parts of the world, including the US. Religious buildings and schools were razed, and safety for Christians was  and is almost nonexistent.

The conflict continues with no end in sight. The Sudanese martyrs chose to follow Christ, as did the early Christians of Rome and the Mediterranean area. They followed to the death, just as many Christians around the world as well as in South Sudan are still doing today.

We hear people talk about others as martyrs, mostly because the ones under discussion are doing something difficult or unpleasant without a lot of complaining or boasting. Another popular use of "martyr" is from those who insist they have all the right answers and beliefs and feel put-upon because other people disagree with them and refuse to join with them. The verbal conflict can get very loud and heated, but usually the war of words does not cause fatalities that would truly make martyrs. Words, though,  often escalate into action.

There are Christians under very real attack around the world and we watch, horrified, as churches, temples, shrines, and schools are bombed and burned, children are murdered along with their parents and grandparents, and survivors are uprooted and forced to flee to places where survival is a genuine struggle. All refugees are not Christian nor are all martyrs Christian. Many die for their particular faith, unlike those who claim martyrdom because others won't accept their beliefs or faith. That pseudo-martyrdom seems like a copy from a printer that is almost out of ink.

We have had our martyrs, people who have died because of their beliefs and their following of their beliefs when others were intent on crushing their visible practice of those beliefs. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the little girls in Birmingham who died when someone bombed their church. They weren't intending to be martyrs but they became innocent ones. Martin Luther King, Jr? Definitely a martyr. Fr. Mychal Judge, who ran into the maelstrom of the 9/11 disaster? He chose to face possible death to practice his faith and bring help and comfort to those most in need at that moment. Nuns earned the crown of martyrs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Liberia because others felt they were dangerous as did Bishop Oscar Romero. The list goes on and on.

There are lots of examples of true martyrs, including many outside the Christian faith. We must never feel we have a lock on martyrdom. We have to be careful to make sure we use the word not as a cheap play for pity or agreement but rather as an accolade for those who have truly given their all rather than simply giving in to pressure. The martyrs of Sudan are our reminders today of the price Jesus has called us to pay, a price he paid himself because a he was thought to be danger to them the Temple and the Empire. He was just living his faith and teaching about it, and that, to his enemies, was dangerous.

Today's collect reads:
O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Those are words to carry with us today and every day. We never know when we may be forced to make the choice the martyrs made. May we be as strong, brave and faithful.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 16, 2015, under the title "The Martyrs of Sudan."

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction
.  - Wisdom 7:7-14

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate book. It's a rule of life,  an authoritative guide, a library,  a source of teaching, and, even though the word is used overly in the Bible, a source of wisdom. Solomon is considered to be the inspiration if not the author of several books considered in the category of "Wisdom books" although the Wisdom of Solomon is considered part of the secondary canon (deuterocanonical) by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, non-canonical but approved for study if not for doctrine by Anglicans and several other mainline denominations, but totally without approval or even mention in a great number of protestant churches.

Today's reading is about wisdom and the treasure that wisdom is. Wisdom is something that most people equate with being smart or being intelligent, but a lot of intelligent people don't seem to have a lot of wisdom while some of our most innocent members, small children, seem to have unexpected wells of it.

To the writer of the book, wisdom is the ultimate goal. The pursuit of wisdom was more important than anything. Christians often say, "Oh no, salvation is the most important thing."  That might be, but we need wisdom  in order to be able to live out the rest of the biblical mandates that are certainly a road to the kingdom Jesus wanted us to build on earth.

I remember being a teen who thought I knew a whole lot more than my parents. I don't think I was the only teenager my generation to have that thought, nor do I think I invented the concept either. Wisdom frequently comes with age. We don't like to admit it but, "We grow too soon old and too late smart," as the Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes.

Many societies treasure the elders, their oldest people, because they have lived life and they have accumulated wisdom about how to live and be in the world they inhabit  even though they don't or didn't have what we would consider book learning at all. They were treasured because they knew a lot, and could  pass this on to the younger generations, who, hopefully would listen and pass it on in their turn. This ensured the survival of the group and their particular way of life.

 I compare this traditional kind of respect for elders and their wisdom to what we seem to be addressing today in our modern world. Elders today are often seen as useless idea-blockers who resist almost any kind of change,  seeing it as a threat to their power, prestige and position. Jesus represented change and new ideas, hence he was a threat to the existing power structure. Change isn't necessarily bad, not if it evens the playing field or advances what can be done to benefit all people, not just a select few. Still,  new ideas may need to be tempered with the experience and wisdom of those who have learned through living, making mistakes, and finding solutions to those mistakes.

No single socioeconomic group has the corner on the wisdom market. Some of the wisest people in the world may not be able to read textbooks or pass exams but they know their territory, know how to survive and thrive in places and situations that their more educationally-advantaged brothers and sisters probably don't.  On the other hand, being poor doesn't equate being wise because a lot of poor people make a lot of poor decisions, based on what's most expedient, or that it is simply the only thing they know to do. More education can lead to better choices. Better choices make for greater wisdom. It's that simple.

That our generation is  willing to risk our children's future on cutting important things like education budgets, food programs, health care for the poor, Medicare, veterans' services and others, shows that we are not really very wise stewards of what we have been given. It also goes against pretty much everything that Jesus taught which we, as Christians, are supposed be wise enough to pick up on and follow. "A workman is worthy of his hire," fair wages for all, care for the women, children and orphans, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners, burying the dead -- the Bible is full of such precepts. It is about living for and with others, not what each individual can grab for themselves.

Where is the wisdom to be gained in denying children and young people, even older ones as well,  the road to wisdom to which one component is education. Tribal elders taught their young people the important things: the precepts,  morals,  practices,  faith, prayers, crafts, and all the other things that they needed to know to enable the younger members to understand who they were, where they were, how they got there, what they were expected to do, and how to build on that to advance or even just to exist successfully in their world.

 Wisdom is something to be sought, like the pearl of great price. Wisdom means taking the long view of things instead of the short term. Wisdom is balancing the good of all people against the good of the few and the detriment of the rest. What is our track record of obedience to that challenge from God? Not very good.

To truly follow the Bible we have to use wisdom, and we have to be wise enough to understand what we do in fact the affects the world around us whether it's tossing a pebble into still water or making decisions that will affect the lives of billions globally with trade, disaster relief, or even just coexist peaceful coexistence.

I wonder – where is today's wisdom to be found? What elders do we listen to for their wisdom gained by education and experience? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps it's time to stop trying to be so smart and concentrate on being wise. It would be our best investment and, I believe, something God wants and expects of us.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 9, 2015, under the title "A Road to Wisdom."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Value of a Life

and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. - Matthew 10:22-32

Recently some friends and I paid a visit to a small zoo near where we live. We walked for miles, saw lots of animals, fed a giraffe (their tongue feels like a cow's, one person said), and were surrounded by lots of trees and birds, thousands of birds, both as exhibits and just plain ordinary everyday birds doing what birds do. There were really BIG birds, like the ostriches, and very colorful birds like macaws, peacocks and parakeets. There were lots of little birds too, flying free and resting in the thick foliage. They weren't colorful or particularly interesting, but they were there and very much a part of the panorama of life.

The reading this morning reminded me of not only the countless little birds I saw at the zoo but also the ones that live in my neighborhood. Sparrows, pigeons, and doves are plentiful here, and their calls are like morning talk shows when I go out walking around dawn. I read the familiar "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?" and began to wonder -- why would anyone go to such trouble to catch such ordinary little birds, much less sell them to someone else?

By using the word "sparrow," Jesus could have been referring to any small grain-eating bird including swallows. They would be have had their feet tied and hung up in the courtyard awaiting the poorest of people for whom a penny's sacrifice was all they could afford. The Romans taxed their homes, lands and crops, the Temple taxed their membership as the chosen people of God, and then the sacrifice for sin, cleansing, atonement, substitution, or thanksgiving had to be made from temple-approved birds and animals, thus sort of a God-tax, since the sacrifice was given to God even though the money to pay for the sacrifice went into the Temple treasury.

The point Jesus was making was that everyone and everything was important, not just the wealthiest or the most eye-catching or the most powerful. Even the most casual perusal of the TV or media news is a series of disaster stories, whether man-made or nature-made. The news is full of death, damage, threat, reactions to threats and death tolls. At the end of each newscast, however, there's almost always a "feel good" story about a person or group doing something to help others in some way or who were rewarded for their service to others at a risk to themselves. It doesn't seem like enough -- maybe 1/20th of what we see and hear being something that encourages us to go out and help, to fight fear with action, to speak up for those who are voiceless.

If the lives of two sparrows are worth a penny, how much more would our lives be worth?  What is the value of a human being?  Depending on when in time you asked that question the answer would vary. Slaves had value, even though it wasn't their lives so much as their ability to work and produce income. Still, their lives had value to them. What about the innocent children killed in drive-by shootings in a turf war?  What are their lives worth?  What about the veterans who fought in wars and saw too much death and carnage to protect our freedoms?  The Native Americans, African-Americans, the differently-abled, the elderly, the orphans, the immigrants, the homeless, the GLBT?  What are their lives worth? How much do we value the invisible, the ones with nothing or little?

A human life is worth far more than a whole flock of sparrows to God, and it should be to us as well. Whenever a human is devalued,  it is like telling God that God's own measure of worth isn't accurate. The students are telling the master what is important and what is valuable.

What is the value of life?  What is the value of a forest, clean water, abundant wildlife, human dignity? What about honesty, trustworthiness, compassion?  Do we value those, especially in our fellow human beings? Or do we only care about our own interests, whether or not they are in accordance with God's teachings?

If God values the life of a sparrow, or anything else, how much more can we as humans be valued in God's sight? Do we have the right to say that this person or that one has little value to us because they aren't like us in some way -- physically, culturally, educationally, financially, religiously-- and therefore have no value to God? Would God prefer us to others who are not like us? Or would God take exactly the opposite position?

Jesus told us we have value. When are we, you and I, going to learn to see that value in all of creation and try to make it the kingdom of God on earth as Jesus taught us to do and God wanted us to do from the beginning? We may laugh at tree-huggers, but what would happen if we actually did it ourselves, hugged the trunk, felt the bark, touched the leaves other than to rake them up so the yard would look tidy?  What if we offered a homeless person a sandwich and coffee and not just a buck or two with the hope they weren't going to spend it on dope or booze?

There are millions of ways to celebrate life all around us, to validate the value of life in this world. We all have value -- so spread it around. Find someone and validate their value as a friend, co-worker,  mentor, family member, even a stranger as a person and a beloved child of God.

We don't have to be martyrs, just committed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 2, 2015.