Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Fig Tree

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”   - Luke 13:1-9

This is really disheartening.  It isn't even Halloween yet, but stores and catalogues are starting to advertise Christmas trees, wreaths, etc.  I realize a lot of people make their Christmas presents and that can take months, but really now. I'm betting it won't be long before I walk into a store and hear "Now bring us a figgy pudding."  I have a feeling not everybody knows what a figgy pudding is; Fig Newtons are pretty much as close as some can get.

I can say I've ever had a figgy pudding, but I've certainly had Mama's fig preserves. One of my aunts had a big fig tree in her side yard and always shared the fruit with us when it got ripe. It wasn't a big tree, but I remember the leaves were huge. They also had a hairy back that sort of made me itch, which is why I wondered why Adam and Eve would choose fig leaves for clothing.

Figs in biblical times were important. There are several references that refer to fig trees and having people sitting under them in the cool of the day. Aunt Edie's fig tree would certainly have shaded several people from the sun for sure. Figs were also a staple food, like grapes and olives. They have their own growing seasons, two a year, and it takes a while for a new tree to start bearing fruit (most sources I checked said 2-possibly 6 years). Like most growing things, you can't hurry them along too much.

The owner in the story and watched his fig tree for three years and had still not found a single fig. Aggravated to have a stubborn tree occupying space and using up water but not producing anything useful (except maybe shade on a hot day), he was all ready to have the thing chopped down and replaced with something more profitable. His gardener, though, knew the value of patience; he begged the owner for one more year, one in which he, the gardener, would tend the tree and fertilize it. Hopefully that would get the tree to produce figs. Maybe a little extra care would make the difference.

Patience is a wonderful thing, but sometimes what is needed is patience plus something else. There are a lot of things that could be added, like love or maybe extra elbow grease or both. Sometimes we have to be reminded that "To every thing there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven," as Ecclesiastes reminds us. And sometimes it takes something else -- like fertilizer.

Every gardener knows that fertilizer in some form is necessary to a plant, a garden, a lawn, or a crop. It may not be the most fragrant of substances, but fertilizer can help bring out the most fragrant of flowers or the most luxurious of lawns. Figs require a little bit of care and fertilizer, like almost everything else in this world, including people.

I wonder -- what in our lives serves as fertilizer for our growth?  We are like fig trees and rose bushes and grain crops; we require a place to grow and also nourishment for our roots to provide us with the elements for life. We often say we are nourished by our spiritual lives and our reception of the Eucharist. We are nourished by our families and loved ones, by the beauty of nature, even reading, study, volunteering and just sharing time with others. There's even nourishment in times of solitude, away from the noise and bustle of daily life.

 But there are times when we feel like life has put us in a less than optimal situation. Suddenly we're figuratively squelching through a manure pile.  It stinks, it draws flies, and it's icky. But wait -- what if that exposure to fertilizer provides impetus for growth and/or change? What if we, like the fig tree, needed some cultivation and feeding?  Perhaps the thought of being given a dose of fertilizer isn't the most pleasant of thoughts, but it could have its value.

Like most of Jesus' stories, we don't know how it ended -- whether the fig tree bore fruit the next year or was cut down. It is left to us to figure out what happened and then apply it to our own lives. I know that when I'm handed a load of fertilizer in my life, it's up to me to spread it and water it in well so that I can grow and flourish, like I hope the fig tree did.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 24, 2015.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


True friendship is when this silence between two people is comfortable. -- David Tyson Gentry

Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, we had hymns that seem to get repeated over and over and over again until I had them memorized. Every now and again one of them will start running through my head like a particularly irritating earworm, and that I usually can't shake for some period of time. I have to look at those and see what about it made it come to mind 50 or 60 years later. There's always a connection, I just have to find.

Today's earworm was a hymn with the title, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." It was about taking everything to Jesus in prayer including our sins, troubles, and tribulations. It had a good message, I guess that's why I remember to this day although it was a it was far from a favorite. The word that stuck itself in my mind was the "friend." Friends are always good things to contemplate.

I've been lucky to have friends throughout my life. Some were there for a reason, some for a season, and some, thankfully, for a lifetime. The ones for a reason were usually people who could help me with the problem or at a certain phase of my life where I needed outside help but only for perhaps a short time. Those for a season were like school friends with whom I associated until I went to college. We all lost touch and I've never really been all that anxious to renew most of the acquaintances I had. Those for a lifetime were the true treasures I appreciated most and still do. Some have gone on to greater glory, and those have left holes in my heart that have scabbed over but will never truly heal. Some have been there for years, and some for a much shorter period, but all are like precious stones in a beautiful bracelet.

One thing I learned about true friends is what I always called comfortable silence. the friends know them to know each other so well that conversation can have an flow like tides on a river. These are also people with whom I can totally be myself, perhaps with only the thinnest of masks to my total transparency. They accept me and love me anyway

I think where the hymn fits in is that with God, I'm usually doing the talking. Sometimes they are organized prayers, sometimes arrow prayers shot up in desperation, and sometimes just scattered thoughts that come out addressed to God. My brain is usually racing at any given moment so that sitting and just being there is difficult unless I'm with another person. I think God wouldn't mind if I practiced a little of that with God.

I haven't yet learned that it is less important to God that I address my sins and wickedness is whenever I talk to God or pray that it is if I put it in more of a dear friend relationship, the kind where every day details are important in silence is a breathing space for both of us to just sit quietly until something needs to be said. I used to be able to do this, back at home sitting under a particular pine tree on the side of the bluff overlooking my river. It was one of my thin places, and it was as if God were sitting there with me as we watch the wind blow the needles and ripple waves on the beach. It was a comfortable time and I wonder now how I lost it just as surely as I have lost the ability to sit and look at that river.

I have friends with whom I can enjoy comfortable silences. It's nice to just be able to set and not have to worry that I have to entertain them or they me. It feels like life is just too busy for me to just sit quietly and enter into a companionable silence with God. I think of gotten out of the habit. Perhaps that's what the hymn is trying to remind me of – that I need to regain something lost: a friend with whom I can share not just conversations but companionable silence.

That sounds good.

What a friend we have in Jesus, lyrics

Dedicated to friends here and in heaven.  You know who you are. J

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 17, 2015.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  Matthew 9:35-10:4

It's been quite a week - hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and a blood moon, accompanied by bombings, plane crashes, and murders. It's almost overwhelming, although why it should be I haven't a clue. Things have been going this way for quite some time now, and it appears to be getting worse rather than better. Mother Nature on her own can be bad enough but humans add their own brand of catastrophe to it. It makes me want to go find a nice quiet island somewhere.

Jesus probably knew the feeling; his job as a teacher, itinerant preacher, and healer kept him pretty busy. I'm sure the human Jesus walked through his world and probably felt overwhelmed at times at what was going on. The divine Jesus probably wanted to fix everything and everyone he encountered, but then there would be no work left for others to do, and others would have to carry on his work after he left them. He gathered a group of followers to do precisely that: to take up the challenges, preach, teach and heal and to pass the ability on to yet other followers who would come after them. The whole idea was to bring the kingdom of God to life on earth.

Jesus' followers were named and also some were given identifiers that made them memorable - James and John, sons of Zebedee, Peter and his brother Andrew, Matthew the tax-collector, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas the betrayer. There might have been others, those who came, those who went, those who supported them in some way but who were not necessarily named.

I wonder -- if Jesus were on Facebook, how many followers would he have?  How many names of those followers would people know or even care about? If he posted the ideas he proclaimed in his sermons and stories, how many likes would he get?  How many dislikes?  And how many comments about how the messages should read or how stupid and simplistic they were?  I bet some would even quote the Bible to prove him wrong, but then, that's something followers might do.

Facebook seems to be a game of numbers: how many "friends" (read followers of what that person writes) they have and how many likes they can accrue on any given post. How many comments and what kind?  How many people can't wait to share any given post and so it spreads to people with no  connection to the originator at all.

This week I think about the shooter at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. He became the 10th victim, although it seems to trivialize the other nine that he killed by including him with the "victims."  Whose ideology and teaching was he following?  How many followers did he have? I have read his name but choose not to remember it because that gives him more power and recognition than he deserves. His victims deserve that recognition yet so  those who commit horrible acts such as this are familiar to most of us if not to the world. Roseburg has asked that this murderer not be named, that he be exiled from memory. He won't be, of course, but there are followers, probably unknown and hopefully never named, who will see him as something he wasn't -- a hero, a role model, one who stood up for something, even if we never really know what that something was.

We Christians claim to be followers of Christ. We'd put him on our FB friends list in a heartbeat, but what would our words and likes tell him about us? What would it tell our other Facebook friends? What would we say that others would share and what message would they get from a soundbyte probably taken out of context and served up as a tidbit? 

Think about it. Who is following us and what are we saying to those people? Does it give them something to think about or is it just where we're eating or shopping? Are our comments things that would make people want to hear more or would it be just hitting a like button? 

I don't think Jesus intended for us to mention his name in every conversation, but I do rather believe that he wanted us to show by our actions and even our words that we stand for something more than how many likes we get or how many friends we have. Most of all, what are we doing that might influence others?  Maybe people won't remember our name even if we are like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi, but what we can do that helps make the kingdom of God more real and more present for those most in need of it.

After a week like this one, I know I could use a bit more kingdom and a lot less bad news.  I would like to have a world where not only schools and churches but front yards, communities, and roadways are free of not just the sound of gunfire and the cries of the injured and grieving, but that there be no homeless, veterans, minorities, children or anyone else in need be ignored and left nameless.

I wish the world could follow the Prince of Peace. I wonder how many "likes" he'd get on Facebook? I wonder how many of them would really follow him? 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, October 10, 2015.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

An All-or-Nothing World

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’  - Matthew 8:18-22

I've been involved with a program called Education for Ministry since 2005. EfM is a four-year program of Christian education for lay people although it can be part of a discernment and/or educational process for clergy-to-be or even ordained clergy. Over the four years, a person studies the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Church History, and Theology. At the end of my four years, I wasn't ready to stop learning so, at the suggestion of my mentors, I took my first training and then began co-mentoring with them. Six years later, I'm still learning and still proud to be associated with this program.

One of the great things I gain is new ways of looking at familiar things. Take, for instance, this past week. Laurie Gudim, a friend and one of my co-mentors,  posted on our discussion board about learning new things about the culture and times of the New Testament, such as that there was no middle class in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but would have to give up everything was told to do a very traumatic thing. Laurie commented, "...I've always kind of thought poorly of him. But what if he was looking at was a poverty so severe it might have killed him?"* That got me thinking.

The story in Matthew is a bit more abbreviated and had a young man wanting to go bury his father. Both stories involved giving up something important. For a son not to bury a father was a sign of ultimate disrespect and rejection; to give up one's wealth threatened his life, his well-being, his position, even potentially his family. Remember-- there was no middle class. It was all or nothing.

Imagine an all or nothing world. People either had more than they needed but never as much is they wanted, or they struggled every day just to provide the absolute necessities for themselves and their family. The rich young man was told to give up everything he had ever known, including the security he had always had, in order to follow Jesus. The same with the man in today's reading; not burying his father and coming to follow Jesus would have meant giving up absolutely everything he had ever known in the hope of finding something better. I have a feeling that most of us would probably fail that same test if it were given to us directly by Jesus standing in front of us. It's easier to do it at a distance.

It makes us able to ignore poverty around us and to think that somebody else will take care of the problem. In the world of Jesus, that just doesn't fly. We have a middle class, a place where people are comfortable but not rich, and where their basic needs and a bit more are met. There are many who have never really experienced what it means to truly be in want, or, in a better word, need. It's one thing to want a BMW two-seater convertible and only receive a sedan than it is to want to provide needed extensive medical care for a loved one and not be able to do it. It isn't unheard of in our world to have some catastrophe rob us of just about everything we had and knew; thirty seconds or so in the path of a tornado does that. If we're lucky and have good insurance, we can come back from the disaster, but our lives are forever changed.

It occurs to me that Jesus made that a condition of following him, not just giving things up but using them to help others as a test of faith and of desire. It is like a person standing on the high diving platform and looking down at the water below, realizing there was an awful lot of space between the two and where there was no changing their mind about what was going to happen next. The person has the choice of either turning back and going down the ladder or taking the plunge and launching themselves into the air, hoping that they enter the water painlessly and not flat on either belly or back. Life puts us on that platform every day, and we have to choose which way to go.

Jesus' message is not that it is necessary to live in abject poverty or live the itinerant life that he and his disciples did. It is to choose what and why it is truly important. That is not to say that some who are wealthy are not good Christians because they have more than perhaps they actually need. Many of these share generously and willingly to those who are less fortunate. There are some who have just what they need but still choose to share to help others. There are some impoverished who perhaps cannot give from the treasure they don't really possess but who give generously of their time and talent to help others. It is a form of trickle down economics and service, and if more people contributed, more would benefit. But there is always the dead father to bury or the security to be maintained that gets in the way.

We are not all called to be a Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi. We see the good that they have done and we admire those who follow them closely enough to try live the lives they did. Still, we are called to follow Jesus, and that means to take risks and to lose the fear of life without total comfort and total security. We are called to help others to find lives with more comfort and more security. Giving away some of our own does not mean we are in want, it means that we want others to have what we have. In a way, it's the same as what the early Christians demonstrated to outsiders. The outsiders saw the love the Christians had for each other and wanted some of that love. It's really that simple.

But the only problem was simplicity is that sometimes it is too simple. It asks us to take a small risk that can point to a large one, but we're not even comfortable taking the small one. I know I am.

What would it take to get me past the fear? That's something I'm going to have to think about for a while. Perhaps I can start with the love part -- even if that may be among the hardest things to do.

*Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer, teacher, mentor and preacher. She shares her meditations and reflections on the Thursday Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café. Her name and words are used with permission.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café