Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trust, a short supply necessity

The word I've been contemplating this week is the word "trust." It started with a theological reflection at my Education for Ministry (EfM) group this past weekend. Our theological reflection was based on a photograph of a bright blue sky, and in the foreground was a large rock, a small child, and a father. The child was jumping off the rock, arms outstretched, knowing that his daddy would catch him. It was a perfect example of the trust a child has for his or her parents. It was a good image, and one that people can relate to and certainly understand on a number of levels.

One thing we discovered in our discussion was that trust is not always easily come by. People, institutions, even churches, are places where trust is expected. Often, however, maybe because our expectations are too high, or maybe because of a flaw in ourselves, or maybe it's just the way things are, but often the very things that we are supposed to trust turn out to be otherwise. Often , depending on who you are, trust is strained or lost altogether because trust has been broken, sometimes  violently.   

Many of us have had family issues that have caused us to lose trust, even if the evidence seems to point the other way. I understand my LGBT brothers and sisters say they feel left out or somehow not completely accepted, or who are afraid to be themselves because of fear of rejection. Not just from families, but from the very places they should feel safe and secure, like schools and churches and jobs. I understand my Native American brothers and sisters feeling far from trusting in a government of European immigrants who forced treaties on them and then summarily broke those treaties without compunction. I understand my disabled brothers and sisters who look for help only to find physical and metaphorical steps instead of ramps.

We're taught that trust is something that we should always have, especially in God. God is always with us. God always loves us. God is always in charge. I have a problem with some of that. I don't trust God to get me out of scrapes that I get myself into. I think God gave me brains to ask for help from God or from other people, or to just figure it out on how to get myself out of the situation I got myself into. Granted, it's easier when you have support; I know it has been for me, but on the whole, I don't see God as the kind of puppet master who set me up with a test to prove my faith or my confidence or even my trust in God. I can't feel that way, because I have to have something to trust, someone to trust, and if I can't trust God, who can I trust?

It's a shame we can't all go back to being like the little child jumping into his father's arms. We can't go back to being 4 or 5 again, trusting that everything in life is beautiful, good, and a source of curiosity to see how it works. Unfortunately those days are gone for us, and we will never totally get them back. We can live them vicariously through children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but we still see what the child doesn't. We see ahead and we worry as we put the children to sleep, with prayers that they will wake in the morning and be safe and secure wherever they go.

Trust is important. It takes discernment to know whom and when we can trust. Jesus always trusted God as his Father, even on the cross. The feeling of having God withdraw from him was probably the most horrible and hurtful feeling Jesus had ever had, yet it made him to be more like us, more human that us humans, so that he might truly understand and we could see this in and through him.

This is a time when trust is really in the balance. We can't trust institutions that should be looking after the common welfare but who are more interested in making money for themselves and others like them. The poor can just work harder and longer hours, in their minds. I have heard members of government say that we shouldn't help the poor because they are lazy, just looking for handouts, or who have preexisting illnesses or disabilities that will cost too much. Even our veterans, people who went into harm's way to keep us safe and who often came home damaged in body, mind, and spirit, can't trust that their country will take care of them despite their sacrifice. I hear the same things from ordinary people in the street, people who are more concerned with themselves and their own comfort and safety than that of the homeless, the damaged, or the poor.

It's time to learn to trust someone or something. There are so many things around we can't trust and shouldn't trust, but we also need to find strong rocks to hold onto, sacred places that give us peace and tranquility so that we can sort out the mess is in our lives and the issues of trust that we have.

Jesus told us that we should have faith like a little child. We have to hold onto that, but we also have to hold on to the fact that God expects us to help ourselves and help each other to trust and to work for the kingdom of God which is the common good for all humanity and for all the earth. We have to learn to trust ourselves, our fellow human beings, and most of all God. It's what really matters in this time when trust seems to be about the last item on the menu and in very, very small print.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 28, 2017.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The measure of a man...

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. -- Martin Luther King Jr.

We are approaching Martin Luther King Junior Day, a day that has been commemorated for years but which always seems to bring forth something to ponder. As a person who lived through the time of Martin Luther King Jr., desegregation, and the years after, I look back and see how much my own personal beliefs and stances have changed, partly due to  Martin Luther King, a man I never really respected until I grew up and began to see the world not through his eyes, but through his witness. 

The quote above was one I ran into that made me stop and think how perfect it was for this particular anniversary of Martin Luther King day and also for the place where our country finds itself now And it is not just our country, but our church, our world, and all the people in it. With Martin Luther King Day on Monday and a presidential inauguration on Friday, it is something like watching the past 50+ years go by in retrospect. We look at how far we've come, how far we have yet to go delete , and how we are re going keep moving forward as we find ourselves facing a future that may be steps backward. The quote sums all of that up in a few succinct words.

For many of us, we have sat in comfort and convenience for decades and longer. We have seen the struggle others have undergone to try to attain a level of equality, and some of us have assisted in that struggle while others have made the struggle more difficult and more deadly. For every step forward there seemed to be one or two steps backward. MLK experienced this, and yet kept moving ever forward, being the voice crying in the wilderness until he was finally heard, however faintly. The movement grew, and with it the danger. He died a martyr, still proclaiming the vision of equality and justice for all. For that, if nothing else, we remember him.

Over the years since his death, his message and vision have inspired more and more groups to claim their own desire for freedom, equality and justice. The world of what is called "White privilege" is shrinking, and many do not like that one bit. They see their power and prestige threatened, and they strike back. White privilege is something I never considered having enjoyed most of my life until I went to a third-world country and became the "different" one who experienced a very small but very educational bit of what discrimination was like. Later I learned to see where I had experienced discrimination without knowing it, and it changed my way of thinking totally. I did not like the feeling of discrimination, so why should I insist on others being discriminated against, simply because they wanted a life like I had?

This week we will also see the inauguration of a new president, one that people either seem to idolize or hate. Privilege seems to be raising its head once again, and so many of our brothers and sisters, and possibly ourselves as well, are fearful that gains that have been made will be turned back. We will have to raise up new MLKs and others to encourage us and remind us of the vision we have had and need to hold on to. Jesus spoke of a kingdom of God on earth, and charged us to make it happen. It has not done so yet, and the imminent threat that what progress we have made so far will be drowned in a tidal wave of privilege. It is not comfortable to contemplate, but MLK has left us words of encouragement. He knew the price of struggle, challenge and controversy. He not only saw it, but lived with it, encouraging where he could, supporting when it was needed, leading when a light in the darkness was required.

We can use his words as a measuring stick for where we go from here. We still have to hang on to the vision of the kingdom where the playing field is even and the results are not stacked against one group or another. This is no time to sit weeping and wailing, it is rather a time to get busy, to show our mettle by fighting against those who would try to force all of us back to a time where THEY were comfortable and never mind anyone else.

We have the example of Jesus. We have the example of MLK. We have examples of people speaking prophetically, and we have examples of people who hear the prophecy and promise and who work to achieve them. Let us not sit in complacency and comfort, let us follow the examples of those who have gone before us as well as the new voices of modern-day prophets and followers of Jesus.

Where is my complacency and comfort? Where do I see challenge and controversy?  What am I going to do about them?  There is prayer, of course, but I need to become a walking, living, breathing prayer, a prayer with hands to help and heart to open. Anybody with me?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 14, 2017.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Party at Cana

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. - John 2:1-11

People love parties. It's a  chance to get people together, have a good time, dance, play games, and enjoy good food and good drinks. It's usually somewhat hectic for the host and hostess, who have to make sure that everything is just right. The house has to be perfectly clean, there has to be enough food, there has to be just the right ambience with music and table settings and what have you, and there's a need to make sure there's enough to drink. Now whether the host is serving eggnog or punch or mixed drinks or even wine, they have got to figure how many people they will have, how much each one is going to drink, and then figure how many servings that can be gotten out of a bottle so that the host knows how many bottles of wine to buy. It's hair-raising, but it's part of being a party giver.

Today's story is a familiar one about the wedding at Cana. Jesus and his mother were present at this party, which, in those days, often lasted more than just one day. The party was rolling along merrily when Mary comes to Jesus and tells him they're almost out of wine. This must've been a family event, because why else would Mary be telling this to Jesus? If they were just guests and not family, would have been so common for her to go and say, "By the way, we are out of wine.". They had already gone through a number of 20 or 30 gallon water jars of wine, and now they were looking for more. Why was it Mary's and Jesus' problem? I'm not sure I have an answer to that, but I have a feeling it was a family affair.

Mary approached Jesus about the wine problem. Did she already know he was a miracle worker? Did she think he was going to run down to the nearest shop and have them toddle up with more vats of wine? And who was going to pay for it? Jesus told her that it was his time to be doing stuff like this, but Mary took no notice. Like a typical mother who thinks her kid can walk on water, she turned to the servants and said, "Do whatever he tells you." And of course we know the result. Suddenly a much better grade of wine filled those existing water jars and everybody was amazed. It isn't normal to the best stuff until everybody's already probably past the point of being able to make distinctions as to the quality of the wine there drinking.

The important thing was that Jesus changed the water to wine, not the quantity or quality of the wine that Jesus miraculously made. Jesus would be any hostess'  star guest. Run out of wine? Ask Jesus. Out of food? Jesus could probably do something about that. After all, he did take two loaves and five fish and fed 5000 people, and that was just the men, not counting women and children. Anybody that can produce all of that certainly would be welcome at just about anyone's party.

So what lesson are we supposed to get from this story, and what is supposed to mean in our own lives? I can tell you it's probably not to expect someone at a party that you are giving to make up any deficits that may occur. Maybe it's that no matter how well you plan, there's always the unexpected, something like running out of an important ingredient. Maybe the lesson is found in the words of Mary when she told the servants to do what Jesus told them to do. Jesus had already tried the "Oh, Ma!" but Mary, like a good mother, paid no attention. She had confidence her boy could solve the problem. "Do whatever he tells you."

We've come a long way from "do what he tells you." It's hard now to see such a confidence and also such obedience. After all, Jesus may have been God's son, but he was also Mary's, and when mama says to do something, it's probably best to just do it, whether you like it or not.

"Do whatever he tells you." Jesus told us a lot of things that we should be doing, like a loving our neighbors, doing good to those that may seem like the rottenest people on earth, caring for the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the prisoners, and most of all, loving God enough to do what God wanted you to do. It seems like lately we've forgotten a lot about that. It's become more of a case of "Do unto others before they do unto you." I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.
If  I were approached at a party and told that they were almost out of wine, or maybe tiny beef cocktail sausages, or some other comestibles, I would probably go down to the store and pick up a reasonable amount of whatever it was and then bring it back to the party. Don't ask me to produce it out of thin air, or clear water. I'm not Jesus. Maybe my job is to be Mary, who reminds people to do what he tells you. Maybe that's the job I need to consider. It doesn't preclude me doing something myself, but it does mean that I have a mandate to remind people that Jesus gave us a lot of lessons and a lot of ways to be God's people. One of them is to do what Jesus told us to do. 

Nobody said is going to be easy, and it usually isn't. It's not just being a guest at a party, but sometimes being a servant, or someone who makes sure everybody is served and cared for -- like any good host/hostess. Like Mary -- and Jesus.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 7, 2017.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A most beautiful word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.  - John 1:1-18

I've always been a fan of languages. I enjoyed learning them, even though I've hardly ever used them and have forgotten most of what I knew. In school I took three years of French and two of Spanish. I can remember more French than Spanish, even though I live in a place where Spanish is almost as common as English. I used to visit a friend in Washington DC for a week or two in the summer. She too was a language nut.  One of our games was to listen to people talking foreign languages and try to figure out which language they were speaking. We tried that once in the cafeteria at one of the museums at the Smithsonian only to have the ladies turn around and address us and tell us that they were speaking Lithuanian or something like that. It was embarrassing in a way, but we had a very nice conversation with them while we waited to get our lunches.

A few years ago I got the itch to learn biblical Greek. Right. Learning the alphabet was hard enough, even though I had learned in college when I was pledging a music fraternity and the Greek alphabet was one of the assigned tasks for us to learn. But learning it and actually using it are two very different kettles of fish. I bought several books to help me learn. Several times, one of the first things they taught you after the first few vocabulary lessons was to read was part of the reading for today from the first chapter of John. That was fun.

I must've recited that first verse 100 times to get it in my head that this word meant this,  that word meant that,  and then putting it all together with the correct pronunciation so that it actually sounded like  it was supposed to. I especially remember the first verse, "In the beginning was the Word." It still gives me chills when I hear it because it encompasses so much — from the beginning of time until now. In the beginning was the Word, the word we know to be Jesus Christ. 

In Greek the word "word" is logos (λόγος), and has become one of my favorite words, right up there with wisdom (sophia). For John, it was an important word, one which he used three times just in the first verse alone of his gospel. It makes it very easy word to remember in Greek since we hear it referenced in sermons, meditations, and religious books.  But Jesus has a number of what you might call aliases. He's been called the son of God, light of the world, Lamb of God, the good Shepherd, and now we see him called the Word.

I guess the word logos means a lot to me simply because I love words. Even studying the Greek captivated me, until I got to the tenses, which is been my downfall and languages all along. But just reading that first verse of John and reading it in Koine, the kind of Greek spoken in the world Jesus lived in, has had an impact on me that few other things have. It was like finding an undiscovered country and seeing how beautiful it is.

Granted, that's maybe a little fanciful, but I remember learning to know Jesus as a kid. I fell in love with that too, so learning to love the Word representing Christ was just an extension of a love story that started a number of years ago.

Words are basic things. Our world is made up of things, and those things have names. There are words to describe them. If one says tree, people understand that they are referring to very possibly an outdoor or indoor form of foliage consisting of a trunk, branches, and leaves or needles. Of course, a tree can also be what you hang your coats and hats on in the winter, or the drawing of the relationships between members of a family. One word, three different definitions.

When John uses Word, he was using a metaphor for an eternal truth, the logos that existed from the beginning of time. Now God made the world and since God is one of the faces of the Trinity, then the other two, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, must've been around as well.

Jesus was the Word of God on earth, teaching and preaching and sharing the message that God wanted us to have. Jesus was still the Word, but he was also a very human being, and who took on that humanity so that we might better understand God. Jesus reiterated the messages God had been sending through the centuries and millennia, but this is the Word made flesh, made visible.

I may never learn much more Greek, but logos will stay with me, the word will be with me, in English, in Greek, or even just in the sound of the wind in the trees, the waves lapping on the shore, or maybe just the song of the word. I think I'll look for new ways to see the Word in the world this week. It's a good way to start off the new year I think.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 31, 2016.