Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fall and Beyond

It's the end of October and that puts us squarely into fall. All around the country, and parts of the rest of the world, trees are having their green leaves turned to gold, orange, red, and shades in between. It's a moment of glory and beauty, and all too soon, those leaves fall off the trees and the branches will stay bare until spring arrives and the new buds begin to peek out. Fall is an interesting time of year, because it puts nature and humanity on seemingly totally different paths.

In nature, the trees are slowing down as evidenced by their leaves changing colors. Inside, this sap is pretty much where it's going to be because the tree isn't going to be growing very much. The tree is settling down for winter, and so are the flowers, the grass, and even the weeds. Of course, in the area around Phoenix as well as a few places around the country, it's still about 100° or so, which makes it hard to get in the mood for fall. We have to take for granted (or travel up to the mountains a couple of hours north of us) that the seasons have changed, but change it does and has, and we change with it.

There is a meme on Facebook that has been marking off the Fridays until certain specific dates. For instance, there are no more Fridays until Halloween since we just had Friday yesterday and Halloween is on Monday. If anybody cares, there's one more Friday until election day, after which, hopefully, the rhetoric will ramp down and we can go back to looking at pictures of kittens and other cute baby animals. There are three Fridays until Thanksgiving, so we still have time to get all the trimmings prepared, and even decide with whom we will spend Thanksgiving we went to Grandma Jones' last year so we need to be with  Grandma and Grandpa Smith this year. It can be quite a quandary. There are eight more Fridays until Christmas, so we need to start making a list of who is going to get what, and then figure a way to go out and actually get the items without some of the recipients knowing about it. Then there are nine Fridays until New Year's, when we start to plan next year with hopefully more optimism then perhaps we had this year.

There is one fall ritual that always seems to perk people up and that is the World Series. This year seems to be more a year of rejoicing than usual, since both teams playing have had very long dry spells. It's funny, there are so many Cubs fans in Phoenix Arizona. There are also Cleveland Indian fans, but the Cubs fans are the ones you hear from.

As nature slows down in the fall, human beings seem to speed up. School is in session, which means we have to make sure the kids are up and out the door on time, they have their books, lunches, and homework, and they get to their bus before it leaves. We have to get to work on time because, with the coming of the new year, there are a lot of tasks that have to be finished, and a lot of ducks to get in a row before the year turns and the books get closed for 2016. At church, if the choir hasn't started practicing for Christmas, be warned that it is imminently forthcoming.

We also plan for the season of Advent, that contemplative season of the church year where we stopped rushing around hopefully long enough to sit, take a deep breath, read an edifying book or Scripture, and think about the real meaning of Christmas which is the coming of the Christ child. It's a counterintuitive kind of season since it encourages us to slow down and be awake to what God has to say to us even as we rush from grocery store to toy store to the soccer field, the ballet class, choir practice, and all the other places we have to be.

It's a little early to be thinking about Advent much less Christmas, but they are seasons that require preparation even as they themselves represent preparation and its fulfillment. Try going into a craft store about this time of year, and the aisles will already be bulging with people getting materials for decorations and gifts to be given at Christmas. You walk into almost any store these days, at least this time of year, and face brightly-lit Christmas trees, boxes of ornaments, and all the appurtenances required to make what we have been accustomed to as a proper Christmas, and all of it cheek by jowl with Halloween candy and costumes by the score.

Meanwhile we still have time. We have time to start preparing for the things that we think are important and also for the things our soul needs to do. We so often forget to attend our souls. Were much more careful about our rosebushes, or Christmas presents, or Jilly's tutu for the dance recital or her appearance in Swan Lake. We get busy tending other things, and hope that the Sunday morning experience of church will produce the requisite soul feeding we need. For some, that may work, but for a lot of people they need more but they just don't realize it. When souls are not tended carefully, they are like a plant that doesn't get water or fertilizer. They shrivel and never reach the potential that was present when they were mere seedlings.

This fall, I think my challenge is to actually stop preparing for who gets what present and start preparing for what the season of Christmas is really about. Halloween represents the feast of All Saints and that of All Souls, those who have gone before us and who have left their witness and testimony for us to learn. We need to get through Thanksgiving, which is a reminder that we have roofs over our heads, food on our tables, family around us, and an opportunity to feed the souls of the homeless and hungry just as we feed their physical bodies. Then we can be ready for Advent because we have made use of all the glorious days before its actual arrival.

Enjoy the fall. Look at the leaves and appreciate the many colors that are there for us to notice and enjoy. Prepare the flower beds with mulch to protect the bulbs and seeds that will come up at a later time. Most of all, spend some time being grateful, and thoughtful, and quiet, allowing our souls to listen for God and receive the nourishment God provides. New

Perhaps the Cubs will feed our souls just a tiny bit this fall. Who said God doesn't like a good baseball game?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 29, 2016.

PS. Cubs lost, but Cubs fans always have hope.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Fig Tree and Boot Camp

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 13:6-9

The story is one about a fig tree that for three years had not produced any fruit. The owner of the land on which the tree stood was a bit perturbed that this tree was still on his land drinking up water, taking up nutrients, and giving nothing in return. He demanded the gardener get rid of the tree, but the gardener, having maybe more faith (and good works too,) persuaded the owner to give it just one more year. If the tree bore no fruit, then the owner could cut the tree down and replace it.

I guess the man agreed to it, and that's sort of where my mind went today. The appeal for patience and the suggestion of a little nurturing would be hopefully produce good results.

I have a young friend who, after years of wanting to be in the military and working very hard to get into it, is on his third day of boot camp.  It seems that boot camp was not exactly the way he had planned it would be. Most people who have had anyone who's gone into the service or have done it themselves, know that boot camp is not a place for fun and games. Boot Camp is serious business. The military is serious business. They want to turn out people who know the rules, who can follow orders immediately without question, and who can perform to standard, which is very high.

When a young person goes to boot camp, that first week is probably the worst week of their life. I think my young friend is finding that out. He's discouraged, a little depressed, unsure of himself, and, I am pretty sure, there's more than a trace of homesickness in there as well. He had a dream about the military, but he opened the book in the middle instead of at the beginning. He saw the career that he would have, but he didn't see what he had to go through to get to that place. It's going to be an exercise in patience, something he will need to learn very quickly, like the owner in the story. 

Like the tree, my young friend wasn't quite ready to bear fruit right off the bat. Some trees mature a bit more slowly than others, just like some young people at 18, 19, or 20, aren't quite ready to be complete adults yet. Part of the job of boot camp, like part of the job of the gardener, is to provide nutrients, skills, nourishment, training, and education, to make them into proud young members of an elite group of protectors of our country who can march in perfect order, who know the purpose of the profession they've chosen, and even the risk they run of serious injury or even death. And this is supposed to be done in 6 to 8 weeks. At least the tree had a year.

 What my young friend is being asked to do is to do what the owner was asked--to be patient and not expect immediate results. Change doesn't happen overnight and radical changes, most especially radical changes, take a little endurance, but with patience, hard work, and nurturing, change does happen, from barren tree to fruit-bearing, from an adolescent to a part of a very difficult profession.  The gardener had faith in the tree. My friend's family has faith in him, and so do I. He will bear fruit, if he persists and just goes along, doing what he needs to do to make his dream come true.

Here's to the trees in our lives, the ones that grow wild in the forest, and the ones we have nurtured until they are ready to step out on their own. Here's to patience  and loving care, and belief in the dreams that can and will come true.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 22, 2016.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Climate of Fear

The other day a former coworker of mine wrote an essay that blew my socks off. I know this lady; she's a cast-iron lady and she's not afraid of anything. She says what she thinks, and the devil take the hindmost. But underneath that is a person I don't believe I ever glimpsed before, a person openly and honestly admitting to the very human emotion of fear. Her particular fear was of having her mammogram done after many years, and the chance that something might be found on it. Her mother died of breast cancer, but also fear because she too had put off getting things checked out. So it is with my former coworker, and now she waits for the results hoping for the best, yet, despite it all, expecting what might be the worst.

It's an amazing thing to see someone so strong admit to such a fear. Fear surrounds all of us, but to many of us, mostly women, the specter of breast cancer is one that we try to forget about, but we can't quite seem to do it. The month of October is Breast Cancer awareness month, and everywhere we go there are pink ribbons, pink T-shirts, including one that is probably my favorite which says, "Of course these are fakes. My real ones tried to kill me!" Somehow the gallows-type humor just tickles me as I am a little over four years after my diagnosis.
My heart hurts for my former coworker, because I know what she's going through. I watched my mother go through breast cancer, and even though she was my adoptive mother and I knew if there was a genetic component, I wouldn't have it from her. But from the moment I heard that word cancer as I sat across the desk from my doctor, all I could think about were the scars that she bore and that now I would share.

It's hard to acknowledge fear. Sometimes people tell us that we shouldn't be afraid of anything because Jesus is right there with us. I'm glad. I realize Jesus is with me, but sometimes I need a shoulder, or a hand, or even just a "Hey, how are you?"  
I'm still afraid of cancer, and I know too many people who have seemingly beaten one kind only to come down with the same thing again, or having it spread somewhere else unexpectedly. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it, I guess, but it's always at the back of my mind, like a bad case of heebie-jeebies. .

Jesus told us not to be afraid, but I have to wonder. Did he change his mind maybe as he stood in front of Pilate knowing that God was far, far away, further than God had ever been from Jesus,. For once, Jesus stood alone as a completely human being facing the unthinkable. Did he have fear on the cross? I can't imagine that he would not because he was, at that point in time, so entirely human that he was just like us. He had to face his fear, and try to work through it although he didn't have much opportunity to do that.

We seem to be in a climate of fear these days. Everything we hear and see and read about seems to deal with some reaction to a fear, rational or irrational. People are shot because somebody else was afraid. People are ostracized because some people are afraid of them. Some people are left to struggle alone because others are afraid poverty and homelessness is catching. Little kids go hungry because some of us are afraid to give even a little bit of money to help provide meals for them. People will say that is the parents responsibility, and yes, that's true. But what if the parent is unable to do so because of the job climate ,or that they have a prison record, or even that they are of a different race. What are they to do?

Jesus tells us not to be afraid. Had he said that a few more times, maybe more people would have heard it. We haven't lost any fear, in fact, if anything, I think we've gained a lot of fear. We fear immigrants, we fear those of other religions, we fear people whose beliefs are not like ours, whose political ideals are not ours, who live in places unlike ours, and so on down the line. It's hard to be afraid, but yet we live in a climate right now where fear is like a forest fire. It keeps growing and growing, and the flames are being fed even as we speak.

I wish that Jesus would get on a giant microphone so that everyone in the whole world could hear "Don't be afraid!" People would hear the sound, but I wonder but would they listen to the words? Or would that be just one more thing for them to be afraid of?

I wish my coworker the best. I wish I could relieve her fears, but that's not something I can do right now. I think about her, I worry about her, and I have asked Jesus to take care of her, and that's about the extent of what I can do at this particular moment in time. I think about all my other friends who are in the process of identifying, treating, or surviving a disease that everyone fears. I keep looking to Jesus and hoping to hear that "Don't be afraid."

It's all I really have to cling to. Somehow, I hope my faith in that one simple statement will be enough.

You can read her essay here.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 15, 2016.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Paul's Innocence Project

 Acts 25:13-27

The epistle reading from Acts on October 8 is one of those stories that rings kind of true even though it supposedly happened 2000 years ago. It rings true because it is pointing out something that we still deal with today, and that's the beauty of the Bible. We can draw parallels from what we read to what we experience and where they meet we form our position, look at our culture, and plan our actions. The actions in the reading were taken by a man named Festus,  and the indirect actor was the Apostle Paul. The cultures of both Jerusalem and Rome had a bearing, as did the traditions of each and dictated the action.
Paul been accused by the Jews in Jerusalem of high crimes deserving death, but Festus, a Roman official, told them that they were not going to put Paul to death because he had done nothing that deserved that kind of punishment. Of course, the elders and priests of the Jews were not happy about this, so Festus did what any good Western Marshall would do under the circumstances, and got the heck outta Dodge, taking Paul with him. Paul had appealed to the Roman Emperor for judgment, and it was Festus' job to get him there.

Enter King Agrippa and Bernice. They heard what Festus had told them, but they wanted to hear for themselves what this Paul was saying that caused so much hatred and such a strong desire for his execution. Festus had a good line of reasoning when he said "... [B]ut I found out that he had done nothing deserving death and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty I decided to send him."  Having King Agrippa and Bernice as his hosts gave Festus an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. In his appeal to the King, Festus stated, "...[B]ut I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I am I have brought him before he all of you, especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write for it seems to be unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him."

That last line that got my attention. I read a story online a day or so ago about a man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, yet the one man who could set him free refused to do so. This isn't the only case where innocent people languished in jail because justice was not done. Prisoners are convicted, but sometimes the evidence is mishandled, or testimony is perjured, or the person is inconvenient, somehow, to the community.

That was Paul's crime, talking about the risen Jesus, the Messiah who rose from the dead, which just about everyone with any common sense in those days knew was totally impossible. It seemed that way to the Romans, but Jesus was no longer giving them problems, if indeed he ever had. It was the high priest and the elders in Jerusalem that were most bothered by Paul's assertions. It went against all Jewish teachings about death, and also managed to hit a lot of the laws about blasphemy as well. 

Was Paul innocent? Maybe not. But was his crime one that should cause his execution? While we are asking, how about Jesus? He was not guilty of the crimes he was accused of and he got executed in the most public and demeaning way. Think, though, about sitting in jail, not knowing what fate will hand you, knowing you are innocent but seemingly unable to convince others that you truly are. After all, just about every prisoner in jail swears they are innocent -- and in our cynical age, we don't believe any of them, even the ones who really are.

I think about groups who work on cold cases, looking into the evidence that convicted people and examining it using new technology and new science to determine the truth that had been hidden, or covered up. It seems to me that whether or not those groups are Christian, they do exemplify what Micah spoke of, "... [D]o justice, love mercy..." They may not think of the people they serve as children of God, but they think of them as people needing help, people in trouble, and deserving of the best defense they can get, to be believed until they are proven 100% guilty.  

A lot of people will say that the prisoners deserved what they got, but looking at the rate of innocent people who have been found, it's a little hard to paint everyone with a very broad brush. We are taught that through our faith we are to forgive, and we are to love justice, not just expediency for some. Paul was depending on justice, just as most of the people in our prisons are depending on justice, yet many are not getting it. Their color, their race, their orientation, even the nature of their crime, puts them in a hierarchy that is more like Dante's seven circles of hell than it is a Pilgrim's progress toward redemption.

Festus was unwilling to abandon Paul to the executioners when he had: (a) appealed to Rome for justice, and (b) Festus wasn't convinced that the charges were correct and even proven. "Tell me what to write," he asked King Agrippa. "Tell me if the charges seem reasonable enough to send to the Emperor along with the prisoner." At least Paul had someone to speak or him, unlike Jesus who had to undergo it all by himself.

There are victims of our justice system who inhabit our jails and prisons, accused and convicted by false evidence, incomplete investigations, or even because they are inconvenient, like Paul and Jesus. That does not mean we should turn our backs when someone acts as a Festus and attempts to find the truth, even if he has to do some digging to do it.

Imagine if you were in jail for something you didn't do. Wouldn't you want someone to help you? I'm sure Jesus would have, and I have a feeling that Paul was grateful for the help he received. We want mercy for ourselves -- but we are often very slow or very busy trying to avoid giving mercy to others.

Think about it. To whom should we extend the mercy we ourselves hope to get? To Paul? To Jesus? To a total stranger who claims innocence? Where does judgment come in? Where is our responsibility? And who will be our Festus?

For information on the Innocence Project, see their website here.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 8, 2016.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Where is home?

It's fall, and with it we began another year of Education for Ministry (EfM), a program of theological education geared basically for lay people although we have deacons in discernment and priests as part of our groups from time to time. Each year starts off with a disparate group of people who are scattered, at least in my group, from one end of the country to the other and never see each other much less form any bond with them. Over the course of the first few weeks, we work on what we call spiritual autobiographies (SAs), a way of looking at one's life, each year focusing on a different aspect of how we have lived those lives and what events have come our way that have changed, taught, or serve as a fork in the road our life. Another thing about SAs is that it is a very good way to get to really know people. We can't share something like an SA without investing ourselves, at least a little, in what we're saying.

Spiritual autobiographies always starts at a base point, usually where a person was born, or a place where the family has lived, or with a group that represents a place of comfort, safety, trust, and love. For some people, home is where the family is regardless of the physical location. For some people it's the actual physical location.  For other people, it is someplace they have been and would like to go back to, or maybe a place where they have deep friendships and a lot of fond memories that make them feel happy and content. Each person has their own base point, that place where it all begins.

One thing that I hear in SAs just about every year is the story of how we became part of the Episcopal Church. It's surprising how many people have said that they once walked into an Episcopal Church and immediately felt it was home. Whether it was the music, the liturgy, the friendliness of the people, or whatever, they felt right at home right away. A lot of them came from other churches where they didn't feel they fit, or they felt they had grown past the point where they could accept where that church was leading them is in terms of formation. The church didn't fit, so they went looking, and lo and behold, they found the Episcopal Church.

Jesus was a wanderer. He said in one of the gospels that he had no place to lay his head. What a predicament. He could have claimed Nazareth as his home, or wherever his mother Mary and the grown children lived, but he didn't. The earth was his home only for a time. His real home was with God, and since God was always present, Jesus was always at home in a manner of speaking. 

We learn the value of home when we have to leave it. We have to go out into a strange world, full of strange people, and were made uncomfortable by that. Our security and comfort is gone, and we have to rebuild it, if we can. I'm sure it's that way for missionaries, who leave such civilized places as New York or Kansas City or who knows, maybe even in a very small town in the middle of nowhere. They go into a different world, and, for many of them, that world becomes their home. I think of a priest that I greatly admire, who works among the Native Americans in what is left of their tribal lands. They are her people, and she is part of their extended family. Each one accepts the other in love, respect, and mutual concern. It would be great if the world had a few more of those people, a few more people who might leave their home and pitch their tents in new places with new people, growing roots that will produce great trees or fields of flowers.

Walking in the church door is like a mini homecoming. We all consider the dwelling places in which we live to be our home, or at least our house. Even if the place we consider home is thousands of miles away, stepping through a church door, our church door, we find ourselves at home with people we can trust, people we are comfortable with, and people who share beliefs with us. That is, if we are in the right place. Those of us who felt at home in the Episcopal Church when we first entered most likely still feel that way. We are home, our family is around us, God is present among us, we have gazillions is of saints and angels about us, both live and celestial,
 we are there for a similar purpose of sharing of his body and blood in the most intimate kind of family meal that one could imagine.
I wonder, where is home? Each of us has an answer, and the answers are as varied as the people being asked the question. But thinking theologically for a moment, is being part of a church like being at home? Is the door open for more relatives or potential relatives to join the family?  Can we find trust there? Is there a sense of spiritual power there? And most importantly, is there a sense of "Come see what I've found!" there?

Take a look around. Where is your home? Are you willing and able to share that home with others? Try inviting them to dinner. Our particular church family meals are the Eucharists that we celebrate together. That's how most of us found our new homes.

Invite someone to one of our special family meals. You might just be helping them find a home.

Image: The Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, AZ. Used with permission from the Rev. Susan Brown Snook

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 1, 2016.