Sunday, July 31, 2016


When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away. But when he confides in us that he is 'acquainted with grief,' we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own. -- Emily Dickinson*

It seems like the world is getting smaller and more deadly all the time. It's like a bad dream that we keep hoping that we will wake up from. It is all so confusing, and also so intense. We don't seem to have time between events process and to begin to understand one event when in hours or days we have to process something else just as awful.

The list of cities goes on and on:. Paris, Baghdad, Orlando, Dallas, Nice; all of these are just the most recent mass killings, and that is not counting the individual murders of young men, predominantly African Americans, who come to our attention almost every day. It's almost too much to bear, and yet it raises the fear, anger, and attempted justification as to why this happens.

Emily Dickinson gave us something to think about in times like these. She reminded us that Jesus often talked about his Father, and his words were of love and trust and security. His encouragement was for us to love this God, and to do those things that God had told us we should do but avoiding harmful, destructive ones. Somehow it seems like we did not believe him.

Jesus spoke about his home; not the one in Nazareth, which he shared with his mother and father and probably siblings, but the one where his Father was. He spoke of that house, one with many mansions, and one where peace, love, and safety reigned. We did not seem to believe that either.

One thing we can be assured of though, is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as, "...A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:3b).  He lived in a tricky time, one when the political atmosphere appeared fairly calm on the surface, but boiling just underneath was a resentment of the Romans who had occupied and now governed the land. There were factions within and without Judaism, each believing that they had the truth (sound familiar?). There were those who had money, position, and power, and there were many more who had none of those. Theft, robbery, bribery, just about every known sin, as we care call it, was found there. This was Jesus' world, not some antiseptic happy place. Jesus saw things for what they were. He saw all the bad things that happen to good people, and sometimes he intervened in those situations and thus we have the miracles. But he must have seen far far more than he ever spoke about or helped.

We understand this Jesus. His frustration at not being able to help everyone might have been a part of his mission on earth. In order to be fully human,  he had to understand all of humanity, not just the pleasant parts, and not just fixing everything that he could see was wrong. People could not do that themselves, and he had to learn to see how humanity existed without benefit of power and privilege power. It is that grief, the one that sees and is helpless to do anything, that makes Jesus someone we can understand, at least in part. He, like us, lives through turbulent times and probably listens to the crowds as they go about their daily business and muttering about how bad things are.

Granted, Jesus didn't have to worry about crowds being mowed down by big trucks, or people being shot by snipers, or even people being blown up with bombs or attacked with assault rifles. I imagine he stands in the crowds were these things happen. Our grief is his grief, and even though he is divine, I'm sure he has not forgotten what it feels like to be human.

He stands with the mothers who cry and wail for dead children. He stands with young people who stare down at the body of a friend they were just talking or riding with, who now lies on the ground, dead. He stands with the men of valor who wear badges and swear to protect the innocent and themselves are salted shot and killed by someone with a grudge. He stands with all this as we witness horror after horror, and he weeps with us because he too is acquainted with grief.

Jesus is there for and with us but that does not relieve us of the necessity of trying to do something about it ourselves. We so desperately want something to believe in, something that offers a solid ground in a very shaky world. If we did not listen to Jesus talk about his Father, did not trust when he talked about his home, maybe we should hold on to Jesus as grieving just as we are.

We all grieve, Jesus grieves with us. We must acknowledge this, and then begin to hand out Kleenexes and start to do things that will help the world overcome the evils we find in it. Jesus is counting on us.

*Quoted in Norris, Kathleen, The Cloister Walk, (1997) New York: Riverhead Books; p. 27

Sunday, July 24, 2016


He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. -- Matthew 13:24-30

I'm amazed that living so close to Phoenix, one of the country's major cities, we have such a range of agricultural areas around us. We have cotton, millet, corn, alfalfa and various other crops . It's interesting to watch them grow and see the greenness of the fields which make such a change from the brown of the desert. Most of the time the fields look perfect but occasionally there will be something that looks out of place, something green but a different shape or perhaps towering over the growing crops. Those are weeds, and weeds are no respecter of persons. Ask anyone with a lawn.

I've heard weeds described as simply plants and flowers growing in the wrong place. Granted, dandelions are such pretty yellow flowers and, for children, the seed heads are so inviting They pluck them from the plant and blow on the globe, sending the fairy-like seeds to propagate somewhere else. There are lots of beautiful weeds, but they are still weeds, especially if they're not in a place where they wanted.

Jesus knew about weeds. I think it's a surprise to me that he would understand them. I doubt seriously that he had done very much in terms of gardening or growing food, but then there a lot of years that Jesus lived that we don't know anything about. At any rate, he tells the story, the parable, about the kingdom of heaven being like a crop field. That is the whole word right there — like. This tells us he's creating a simile, a familiar object or scenario that has a deeper meaning to it.

He spoke of sowing good seeds but then having enemies sneak in and spread seeds like dandelion fluff, while everyone else was asleep. The plants grew and so did the weeds. The servants were puzzled when they asked the master, "Should we pull these up?" The master told them to just leave them for now. So why not pull them up? The unwanted plants were right there taking nourishment and water from the main crop. But the master had some insight that the servants hadn't thought of: if they pulled up the weeds, the chances were they would pull up some of the good plants as well, or damage their roots and cause them to die. The master decided that it would be best to just let the weeds grow and then, at harvest time, the separations would be done.

In these past few weeks we have seen people make judgments as to who is what. We have felt grief and sadness over the number of shooting deaths of good people and we wonder what has to be done to make the world safe for our children and our grandchildren. We read about #BlackLivesMatter, and #BlueLivesMatter, even #AllLivesMatter. Are we excused the from listening to others because we are of another race or another occupation or another persuasion?. We need to listen to each other with open minds--and hearts, not adamant adherence to what we already know, or think we know.

There are times we have to make that decision, but it should be made judiciously and mercifully. Sometimes the decision is made in five seconds or less--an awfully short time that can make the difference between life and death.

It's time for us to stop worrying about the harvest and get on with the process of living and growing, even if we share a row or a field with weeds. To be honest, we might be the weeds ourselves. Let's not be complacent. Let's not think more highly of ourselves than we do our neighbors. Let God take care of gathering in the crop.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 23, 2o16.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Righteous Gentiles

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. -- Edmund Burke

The Great War, known as WWI, was over and the world breathed easier. Things went back to normal in a Downton Abbey-ish kind of way. The rich were mostly still well off, while the working class people continued to work. Those wounded in the war were helped it as much as possible but maimed veterans mostly preferred to stay out of sight. For some, the internal scars of war ravaged the minds of those who had seen too much and experienced too much. It left their dreams in tatters and their rest disturbed. On the continent, it was not much different from Britain and the other Allies, including the United States. It was the "War to end all wars."

Beginning in 1933, the specter of war began to raise its ugly head once again. Movements against Jews and groups such as homosexuals, those with disabilities and mental defects, and gypsies, among others, began to feel a tightening noose. Yellow stars appeared on clothing, branding the wearer as one of the despised Jews who had, it was said, grown too powerful and were corrupting the towns, villages, and even countries in which they lived. Eventually the final solution of mass extermination was put into place. 

The world only gradually learned the word Shoah, a term meaning "destruction," and what that destruction meant. By the end of the war, over 6 million Jews alone had been exterminated or died, whether from starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, or as the result of torture and inhumane medical experiments. Despite their penchant for accurate records and counts being kept by the Nazis, it is still impossible to give the actual total number of victims of what we have also called the Holocaust.

In the midst of the horror and fear, there were those individuals and small groups who refused to go along with the Nazis and did what they could to save the lives of Jews before they could be rounded up and exterminated. In 1953, years after the war's end, Israel's Knesset established a memorial called Yad Vashem, commemorating those who, whether successful or not, tried to save Jews at the risk of mortal danger to themselves and for humanitarian reasons only, not for profit. As of now, there are approximately 19,150 individuals honored as "Righteous Gentiles" although there are many more who tried and failed.

Today we commemorate several of the Righteous Gentiles: Raoul Wallenberg [Swedish, d. 1947] Hiram Bingham IV [d. 1988, American]; Karl Lutz [d. 1975, Swiss]; C. Sujihara [d. 1986, Japanese]; and Andre Trocme [d. 1971, French]. Because of these men, many thousands of souls were saved. Of course, there were others, like Oskar Schindler, who hid Jews in his factory as workers before they could be smuggled out.  Miep Gies, and three other employees of Otto Frank saved their employer's family and others at great risk to themselves. There were many more, some known but to God.

The Righteous Gentiles were an example of what one person, or one small group could do to help others. Whether they were practicing Christians or not, they exemplified not just Christian values but also the commandments of God given to the Jews themselves. As the number of survivors of the Holocaust grows smaller each year, it is important for their stories to be recorded and remembered. Along with those stories, their tales of those who helped them should be remembered as well.

Today the swastikas have begun to appear in larger numbers than at any time since the end of WWII. Jewish cemeteries and synagogues are vandalized, Muslims live in terror, homosexuals are targets of hate crimes, and African American youth are in mortal danger just for being Black. The same rhetoric of hate used by the Nazis is wildly applauded in rallies around the country, and the culture of fear is palpable. It seems we are moving backwards rather than forward when it comes to peace, justice, equality, and respect.

What are we doing to change things, to turn things around?  Isn't the thought of border fences, forced deportations of innocent and legal immigrants because there might be a drug dealer or terrorist among them, assault weapons being carried openly and sometimes used indiscriminately against perceived enemies, and wholesale distrust of police by African Americans and others while the police actively distrust those same groups. Where are the equals of the Righteous Gentiles today?

In Jewish cemeteries, it is customary for those visiting graves to leave a small rock or pebble on the grave. It symbolizes a bond, a remembrance of someone who has left us. Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians on January 17, 1945. Whether he was executed in Lubyanka Prison, died in captivity, or net some other end, his grave site is unknown. In Budapest, however, there is a memorial to Wallenberg and other Righteous Gentiles, including Carl Lutz. The many stones that surround the memorial express the connection, gratitude, and bond with all those whose names are carved on the stone.

May we live as not just Righteous Gentiles but as people who work to save others, even at risk of our own lives. May we be worthy of many pebbles and stones on our graves, signs that we have done God's will for God's children. It's asking a lot, but then, God never said that it was going to be easy to live that kind of life.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 16, 2016.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Where is the Love?

 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   -- Matthew 22:34-40

Another bombing, more shootings, more violence. It seems like every time I think things can't get worse, they can--and do. Between those and the campaign rhetoric, it's almost enough to make me want to get in a hole and pull it in after me. Lacking a hole, I close the door to my house and stay inside, foregoing news reports and radio broadcasts as much as possible. Maybe I'm trying to retain my sanity rather than giving in to fear, hate, and distrust  that seem so rampant..

One of the passages we hear frequently is part of today's gospel, especially the part about "Love your neighbor as yourself." There are lots of people don't like Muslims,  Hispanics, or much of anybody who is not like them. It's becoming a world where "love your neighbor" is becoming unheard-of, unless it is a neighbor who looks, acts, thinks, believes, and votes the same way we do. A neighbor, in short, is somebody we're comfortable with. Heaven help us if the neighbors are GLBTQ, wearing a turban (a Sikh, often mistaken for Muslim, or of a different skin color, speaking a different language, or, God forbid, never being seen to enter a church.

It amazes me that these things are now so prevalent that there is no escaping it. There are groups, individuals, churches, and communities, who were trying to make a difference. Organizations, established primarily for the reason of loving their neighbor and showing that love, do exist, but we don't always hear about them; we sort of have to stumble over them. That's in line with Jesus' teaching about not doing good works in the public spotlight lest they be seen as braggarts. 

Jesus put more emphasis into trying to explain and demonstrate loving our neighbor than he did to judging our sexual preferences, upholding the upper echelons of the rich and powerful, or overthrowing the Roman government. He was about love, maybe not always using the word, but definitely exemplifying it: helping the centurion's manservant or perhaps his shield mate; Jarius'  daughter; the woman with hemorrhage; the woman taken in adultery; and more.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus were walking around on our streets today. What would he say about the homeless, the veterans who were brave enough serve and who were promised benefits when they got home, only to find their government didn't know who they were, what they did, and, as far as benefits went, they didn't give a rip about that either. Yet those same politicians are never shy about raising their own benefits, salaries, or anything else that benefited them or their friends. That's not love, it's greed, and greed is the opposite of compassion.
Jesus fed the 5000 with two loaves and five fish. He fed everybody-- young, old, male, female, seniors, children, the whole works. He didn't turn anyone away because everyone there was hungry. He didn't make them sit through a sermon before he fed them like some places do; rather, he fed them until they were full and ready to listen. As any parent or teacher knows, people are able to concentrate more on what they're hearing and experiencing when they don't have that specter of an empty stomach rumbling loudly enough for a neighbor to hear. 

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Two very simple commandments that incorporate not just the 10 Commandments within them, but also all 613 mitzvoth, rules that were to be followed. Some were only for priests, and others for everyone. They are pretty important, I think. And those two commandments are simple enough a child could understand them. So why do adults have such a problem with them?

It's our job to love our neighbors. There are things I don't like about neighbors, like their loud music, or mowing the lawn it 6 a.m. on Saturday when I would like to be sleeping late, or revving their motorcycle engines and shaking the whole house. Except for those things can I can love them, and that said without patting myself on the back unduly. You can't collect Workmen's Compensation for patting yourself on the back, although I think Congress has tried that.

God loves us. Jesus loves us. The spirit loves us. All that is asked of us is that we love God and we love all God's children. Love not hate. Care for, not ignore or take away from. Help, not hinder. It's a very simple, so why are we not doing that. We permit fear, harsh rhetoric, name-calling, and finger-pointing to be such an integral part of our lives that we don't even really realize what were doing. We call ourselves Christian, but doesn't that mean doing what Jesus told us to do? Are those things Jesus asked us to do? Really?

Love your neighbor and love God. Maybe it's not going to change the entire world for one person to step up and say, "Okay I'll take that challenge," but it sure is a start. Yes, we have people who do hate us, some because we don't believe as they do, some because of our corporate arrogance and greed, and some because they watch our actions and those actions don't match the claims we make about them.

So, for the next week, my challenge to myself is just stop and think. What message am I giving when I run somebody down verbally or mentally, or look with disfavor on certain people who support things that I find unimportant or detrimental to the common good. They are all neighbors of mine, whether I like them or not.

The question is clear: where is the love? And what am I doing to find and show it?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 2, 2016.

A Place in the Story

In the gospel stories the story doesn't end--writers leave it to us to figure out what happens afterwards. What happens? Where are we in the story? -- unknown

Summers when I was a child were usually marked with Vacation Bible School. I remember the one- to two-week sessions, complete with learning songs, doing crafts, memorizing Bible verses, Kool-Aid, cookies, and lots of Bible stories. The Bible stories were the main event of the day, quite often the familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as well. All of them had a moral or ethical (or theological) point we were to think about and then use what we learned in our own lives. We didn't get any of the stories like Jephtha's daughter, the sacrificed concubine, the murder of Uriah, or any one of a number of others, but somehow the horror of Noah's Ark or the Akeda disappeared in rainbows, replacement rams, and evidence of God's love. It worked. We believed it.

The older I get, the more I realize that what I learned then wasn't the whole story. It began to feel like a Reader's Digest version--I had gotten the meat of the story, but there were still the skin and bones that were missing. It's a bit hard to explain, but it felt like I needed to know what was before the beginning of the story. Oh, sure, most of the time there's some buildup to the story, something about the time or place or people, but often that's not quite enough. What's more important to me, though, is what happened after the story.

Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The run up to the story is the introduction of the Jew who was on his way from here to there but who ran into robbers on the way. We know the part of the story where people passed him by, and then came the Good Samaritan who picked him up, brought him to an inn to be cared for. The Samaritan then went on his way, promising to return to pay for whatever other needs the injured man had required. It's a very familiar story, and one with a great moral, but I can't help but wonder why the Jew was traveling. Why was he alone? Most people traveled at least in pairs if not larger groups because there was safety in numbers. Was his traveling alone that made him a tempting target, or did he have something obviously worth stealing?  Or was it simply because he was a Samaritan? So it was a parable, probably not a real event; however, that doesn't make it less valid for questioning.

A second question that comes to mind with this story is what happened afterwards? Did the Samaritan return as he promised? And what about the injured man? Did he recover? Did he go on with his life? Did he repay the man by helping someone else? If he did, was it someone who was not of his faith? Again, the parable doesn't say; the important part of the story had already been told.

A third question is where am I in this story? What character most draws my attention or what part of the scene represents where I am now in relation to the story? What would I do? What would I learn from the situation? How would it affect my life?

The gospel writers wrote down the bare bones, telling enough of the story or parable to get the point across, but there was no need for elaboration or "What happens next." The people knew the area, the risks, the daily life that the stories contained but without description that would be what we expect today. The writers' main job was to present stories of miracles and the teachings of Jesus to people who had probably not heard him preach or who came to the faith after his death. They were written for a purpose, and that purpose was not pure entertainment.

We are used to endings like "And they all lived happily ever after," even though most of our books no longer leave us with that kind of conclusion. Certainly in the Bible the endings were often far from happily ever after. Although many stories like those featuring healing certainly point to a kind of happily ever after, they healing is always a way to point out Jesus's mission and the glorification of God. That was the whole reason for their writing, not to be like CNN reporting or some sort of social study of the result of Jesus's actions.

Just because the writers had a specific task in hand does not preclude our thinking about and using our imagination to get deeper into the stories. Take the woman with the hemorrhage. She had spent all she had on doctors who couldn't cure her, but Jesus did. What happened to her afterwards? She apparently had no male relatives, she no longer had wealth to keep her, so what happened to her? How did the rest of her life go? The same with Jarius's daughter who shared the same story. After her miraculous recovery, did she go on to live a happy life, marry well, and have many children to hear the story and believe in Jesus's power? It's to be hoped that she did. We'll never know for sure.

Life is a series of stories for each of us, but, unlike the gospel writers, the stories fall on a timeline. They have a beginning, an action, an end, and then life continues, sometimes on the basis of the events of the story. Perhaps we saw or were part of a traumatic and tragic event that radically changed the pathway of our lives, or perhaps we saw or heard something that someone said that changed us in some small but significant way. The event might be over, but because something intervened, life goes on a different tack than it would have otherwise.

Try putting yourself in the story. If nothing more, it will be a good exercise in imagination, a gift God gives us to inspire our creativity and stretch our thinking. But there is always a chance of that exercise bringing us new insights, new thoughts, new beliefs, that will take us on a whole new track. It might change our lives--and then, it might just help to change the world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 9, 2016.