Sunday, November 26, 2017

To Rise Above

There are a lot of film buffs in this world, folks who can’t wait for the next Star Wars or cult classic, and who sometimes stand in line for hours just to get in to the first showing of a new “sensation.”  I’m not one of those; I dislike sitting in theaters where someone six feet seven inches sits in front of me, the backlight of the cellphone in the next seat is blinding, and a child persists in kicking the back of my seat.  I prefer to sit at home and wait for it on Netflix or Amazon, when I can sit in my rocking chair with a lap robe, snack, and a cat on my lap to enjoy a peaceful viewing.

I don’t watch many movies, but I do have favorites. Probably my greatest one is a 1951 black-and-white perpetual favorite, “The African Queen.” Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) was very upright and uptight missionary, who had to be rescued from a bad situation by a rather uncouth and definitely irreligious boat captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). It's quite an adjustment for Rose’s character, and she frequently resorts to rather pithy statements to attempt to alter Mr.Allnut’s  rather rough character traits. One of the pithiest and greatest comments she uttered was, “Human nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above." I can still hear that line spoken in a very proper British accent as she looks down her nose at the man who undoubtedly saved her life.

The beauty of the statement is that I can see a lot of truth in it. We all have a human nature inside of us, consisting of many factors including our upbringing, our environment, our heredity, our physical and mental health, educational level, financial status, and our class in society. “The African Queen” is a meeting of stiff and starchy middle-class English morality versus a lower-class but much more freewheeling and happy-go-lucky personality. Personality clashes abound, but gradually each finds the need to change, to rise above their differences to not just wreak havoc on the Germans in the area but to survive themselves and, ultimately, to fall in love.

We show our human nature every day. We are judged or at least categorized by those with whom I come in contact, by what we say, do, and how we act. We learned certain things from our families, some things are just ingrained my shyness or extroversion. Some are fond of books and reading while others would rather spend time kicking around soccer balls or playing baseball. Some seem to have a rather perverse human nature who relishes hurting people and animals, and who may or may not, depending on many factors, either grow up to be a serial killer or find a way to change their predilections. Human nature gives us some adaptability and a lot of choice in the matter, and those choices are what are important.

As Christians, we are brought up to believe in God, in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, although the spirit gets relatively less publicity than the former two. We go to Sunday school and we dutifully absorb the stories like Noah's Ark, where Noah obediently builds a large boat to save those whom God deemed worthy of salvation, namely his family and animals of various species and numbers. We don't hear that much about Noah not really wanting to do this and grumbling the whole way, that is, until the rain started coming and God told him to close the door. He built the ark, endured his neighbors’ jibes and sarcastic comments, but he did the job, and that's what we're supposed to learn.

We learn stories about Jesus, about how at age 12 he went to the temple with his parents for a very important holy day, and, as they were on the road for three days, all of a sudden, the parents missed the boy. What is always confusing to me is how can a parent forget a child, even 12-year-old child and travel such a distance without realizing that Jesus wasn't with them. It seems they should have noticed and stayed to look for him, or that would have been the natural thing for parents to do. Jesus was showing his human nature by willfully staying behind and talking to the rabbis and the elders and amazing them with what he knew and what he observed. Two different kinds of human nature the focused child, and the forgetful parents, give a portrait of a very unusual family.

One of the messages of Jesus was that we needed to overcome our basic human natures and rise above them as we listened to his parables and his stories and learn to subdue the parts of us that don't work to benefit others for glorify God. It's hard to change; just ask anybody who's been in a 12-step program. They will tell you it is very difficult. It is becoming more and more difficult all the time, because our culture has changed, and it seems now that is all right to be selfish, it's all right to put “Me first,” and it's all right to ignore others if they get in our way or if they aren't better than we are.

That’s not the way Jesus wanted us to do. It's the result of our own willfulness and it is not loving one's neighbor as oneself or taking care of each other. I wonder, if Jesus came and stood in front of us just out of the blue, and we responded, how would we look in his eyes and feel we had done our share, or done our best to live up to what he asked us to do?

I think this week I will have to work with Miss Rose’s line about rising above my human nature. I don’t think I can become a saint; I think I'm so far beyond that possibility that it's ridiculous, but if I try, even just a little bit harder, who knows? I may find my human nature can rise a bit higher than I originally aspired to. And who knows, I may become a better Christian because of it.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 25, 2017.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Mentor and Foster -- Hilda of Whitby

Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a noble family in Northumbria. The baby was named Hilda but was most often called Hild. She had a very close relationship with her sister Hereswith, and when was about 33 years old she resolved to go to France to join her sister in becoming a nun. Just about this time, Hilda was summoned by Aidan, a dedicated missionary and bishop of Lindisfarne.  He sent her to the Wear river, gave her a bit of land, and asked her to build a monastery for women who would practice the traditions of Celtic Christianity as taught at Lindisfarne and Iona.  Needless to say, the venture was a success.

She was next asked to succeed the late abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool. Again, her humility, wisdom, patience, learning, and ability to work with all manner of folks ensured the continued success of the monastery.  About 2 years later, she was given a piece of land at a place called Streanaeshalch (later called Whitby by the Danes) to become the abbess over a mixed monastery, males and females living in the same community but in small houses of 2 or 3 males or females each who came together only for prayers and worship in the Celtic fashion.

Hilda was known for her ability to appeal to, work with, and identify people of all stations in life, some more exceptional than others. She met a sheepherder who had a vision of writing poetry and singing hymns to God. Hilda fostered his talent and thus gave the world a poet named Caedmon, who wrote poetry dedicated to God, including the earliest known poem/prayer written to God in the English of the time.  Five other men of her community became bishops and two of them later were canonized as saints. 

Her best-known achievement, however, was the hosting at her monastery of a gathering of both Celtic and Roman Christians.  While the two groups had many things in common, including many doctrines and traditions, the Celtic focused more power in the monasteries and wandering bishops while the Romans were more strict in observance and followed the bishops.  While the meeting of the two didn't resolve every difference, it did resolve a major question which was the establishment of a way of accurately dating the observance of Easter in both groups.  It was a major achievement, and Hilda's guidance, patience, and ability to foster agreement, even to the point of agreeing to follow the Roman fashion instead of the Celtic which had been her training and choice in the matter.

Mentoring is a word we hear a lot these days. It is a valued and valuable service that one person does for another or for a group of others. Simply put, a mentor is one who fosters the talents, abilities, and professional trajectory of another, in essence, showing them the ropes and how to succeed, not by lecture but by grooming them with exercises, practice, and gentle advice. It happens in business frequently, even if the word mentor is never mentioned.

In Education for Ministry (EfM),   a mentor or mentors meet with a group of members of a class with the aim of developing not only their knowledge of church history, the Bible and theology, but fostering their spiritual lives by encouraging them to explore those spiritualties through reflection and use of tools like spiritual autobiographies. The great thing about being in EfM mentor is that they don't have to have all the answers. In fact, it's a blessing not to have to answer all the questions. Group members and even mentors practice a system of guidance that allows people to learn by investigation, with no answers at the back of the book, but rather with open eyes, minds, and hearts. It is a rewarding experience for a mentor to see the group began year one with lots and lots of questions and progress through all four years without the questions ever stopping. As one learns to answer or a reasonable answer, an opinion, or a belief, there is always something else a little further down the road that builds on that and encourages the person to take the next steps and to tackle the next questions that they need to explore. Watching this progress both in oneself as a mentor and in the members of the group shows the benefits of fostering faith and spiritual journeys and the blooming of ministers, both lay and clerical.

Hilda may not have been in EfM mentor, but she certainly was a mentor to those in her monasteries. She encouraged, and I believe she led others to find answers without relying on her to be the final arbiter. If she could successfully manage to groups as disparate and yet is similar as the Celtic and Roman churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland, then her talents must have been formidable. It is for those things that Hilda of Whitby is remembered and honored, because to mentor is to foster and Hilda was a master of both.

Who has mentored you? Who have you mentored? Who fostered you? Who have you fostered? What was the gain? What was the loss? Every person has the ability to foster someone else in some way, shape, or form. The mentor needs to be a good example, a guide rather than a book of rules, and the person with the great interest in watching another person become a skilled and well-rounded individual. I imagine Hilda got immense satisfaction out of watching all the different people that came out of her monasteries because of her recognition of their abilities, her guidance and wisdom.

Hilda makes an excellent example of Christianity in action as someone who was perhaps ahead of her time. She would probably have quite an adjustment if she came back in this time period,  but I feel she would recognize the role of the mentor and I think would fall right back into patterns of mentoring and fostering folks just as she did in her own lifetime. I think she deserves a bit more study than we might possibly give her. Just because someone came from far back in the distant past, it does not mean that there is nothing that can be learned from this person. After all, Jesus was born 2000 years ago, and we are still trying to learn from him about what it meant to be a Christian, a mentor, a guide, and a fosterer of others.

Time to take a deeper look at Hilda of Whitby. She's a good example to follow.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, November 19, 2017.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Flanders Fields and Beyond

Ninety-nine years ago today there was a an event that signaled the end of something horrible and unthinkable  and the beginning of a new hope for worldwide peace. At 11:11 AM on November 11, 1918,  a state of truce  began to exist between Germany and the Allied nations, France,  England, Australia, Canada and other commonwealth nations. It marked essentially the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, a war that killed 150,000 and traumatized a large part of the European continent. The day was marked as Armistice Day, after the process that occurred that morning of that day in 1918.

Today, Armistice Day is still celebrated in the United Kingdom and her commonwealth. It is a day of solemn remembrance not only of those brave young people who served in the military and fought so bravely yet who were killed in the conflict. Eventually it became a traditional day to remember not only the dead but those who fought and also those injured in service to their country. At 11:11 a.m. on Armistice Day, a traditional wreath of red poppies is laid at the base of the Cenotaph, a memorial to the war dead, by the Queen, herself a veteran, or her representative All across the country, at the sound of a bell, everything and everyone stops for two minutes of silence in tribute to all veterans.  There is also a Remembrance Sunday on the second Sunday of November which is a day of quiet celebration, church services and other commemorations. In France,  Remembrance Day is solemn, with church services and many businesses closing to honor the fallen. In Belgium, visitors come to see thousands upon thousands of crosses and other symbols which  marked the graves of the fallen. Close by, blood red poppies bloom as if a reminder of the blood that was shed to make freedom for those at home.

In the United States we celebrate Veterans Day, honoring all who have served, the living and the dead alike. There are frequently parades, and businesses offer free things from food to haircuts to discounts on some items. It's also a time for big Veterans Day sales which feature big-ticket items like cars and appliances go on sale along with clothes, electronics, and almost everything. It is kind of a run-up to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Sometimes it makes the body wonder what the relationship is between a refrigerator and a veteran painfully walking on crutches, or wheelchair-bound, or walking with a service dog -- or lying in a coffin. It's almost incomprehensible.

Stories have always glorified warriors, especially those of one's own nationality or culture or religion, who came back to honor and glory from their admirers. These became stories that would encourage others to be heroic themselves. Stories like Joshua, who led the troops and also the priests who marched around the city of Jericho with shofars blaring so that the walls, as the song says, "… Came tumbling down." Whether it actually happened that way or not, who knows, but it is a story we remember, and we can all use it to motivate ourselves to do a little marching and a little tooting. Yet not often are those immortalized were among the dead left behind or buried hastily in the place where they fell.

Jesus never actually came out and endorsed  warriors, although David was certainly a warrior as well as a king. Instead Jesus talked about peace, bringing the world to the peace that originally existed when God finished the creation. Jesus talked a lot about that kingdom, and also cast it in, what was to him, modern visions of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, wisdom, good feeling, and mutual caring that were all parts of Eden, parts that were shattered by a serpent's words and a couple's willingness to disobey. There's always been an image of re-foraging and recasting weapons like swords and shields into instruments of peace like plowshares and reaping scythes. It's still a dream, but it seems farther away now than ever before.

Now we not only think about those who sacrificed themselves so that others might be free, but we also think about victims of domestic violence and terrorism, terrorism from home-grown people as well as foreigners. We think of all the recent incidents of violence against crowds of innocent people just because someone wanted to make a point. How many hundreds died this year at the hands of others who, with some sort of skewed ideology or even theology, walk into churches, perch on top of buildings, break glass windows in hotel towers, and simply walk the streets with guns blazing and automobiles racing through crowds. It is becoming all too familiar, and the more familiar it gets, the less impact it has because we get so used to it.

Jesus would not like that, not at all. I pray that Jesus will keep reminding us that in order to bring peace we need to reestablish an environment where peace can flourish, peace as a place where people respect other people including the aliens and their land, as was the custom in Israel among the Israelites and the Hebrews. We must cultivate a sense of caring for those who fight their own battles against disease, criminal acts too easily done, hunger, homelessness, in prison but who are innocent (and even the ones who are guilty). It needs to be  a world where we comfort the dying, not to ship them off to some clinic or hospital and let them die alone and possibly uncared for. There's a whole lot that can be done, and as surely as we can wear red poppies on our shirts for Veterans Day to mark the bloodshed for us and in our name, above it there should be a visible or even invisible cross to remind us to that Jesus was a victim of violence himself and died as a result of the ideology and theology of others.

Let's let Veterans Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day be a day for all of us to think seriously about what freedom means and what the kingdom of God is really about.

To veterans, alive and those on the other side of the veil, thank you for your service and bless you for your sacrifices.

For the rest of us, let us never ever forget what others have done for us and in our name. Then let us go out and tend to them in the name of Jesus.

God bless.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.   -- 
John McCrae (1872-1918) (Poem in public domain)

Sunday, November 5, 2017


There's something unnerving about having the phone ring early in the morning, far earlier than one would normally expect. It happened to me the other morning, and I immediately went into "Oh my God, who and what is it?" It was my daughter-in-law, a girl that I have seldom had a chance to talk to for very long, but who has been an excellent wife for my son for nearly a decade and a half. She went on to tell me that my son had become very ill on the evening of Halloween, so ill he was even willing to go to the hospital. That told me this was nothing to fool around about.

My son is known to be a stubborn person although he has almost perfect manners, a pleasant speaking voice, a nice smile, good looks, a work ethic the far surpasses most people in his generation, a generous spirit, and is a damn fine guy, if I do say so myself. But he is stubborn. He gets it from me, I guess, because I'm stubborn too. His wife and I have been trying for years to get him to go to the doctor about symptoms that he had had that he just decided to ignore, namely severe and almost constant headaches. Well, as of Halloween, it turned out to be something he couldn't afford to be stubborn over and something he will have to pay attention to probably for the rest of his life. Otherwise he's fine, more or less.
I always thought of Simon Peter as a stubborn person.  Was he was born under the  zodiacal sign of Taurus the bull? Bulls represent stubbornness. It's one of their chief characteristics, if astrology books are anything to go by. Peter would bull his way into something, whether he understood it or not, and often cause himself a bit of grief and a sharp thwack across the knuckles from Jesus to get him back on the right path. I think about him jumping over the side of the boat to walk to Jesus because Jesus walking on water. Naturally, Peter started to short to sink like a rock, which is in very apt term since Peter meant stone, and the disciple is often nicknamed "Rocky." Jesus stretched out a hand and Peter gathered enough faith to get himself out of deep water, so to speak, but it took help from Jesus to do it, help that Peter had to accept. Even then he didn't totally get it. Several other times he had to be reined in for he would rush into something before considering it and often, the thing that he rushed into created an opportunity for Jesus to teach the rest of us a lesson.
James and John were considered Sons of Thunder, and they also had their streaks of stubbornness. They even had their mother go to Jesus to ask that they be given positions of preference at Jesus's right and left hands. I would think twice before asking my son's boss to give him a promotion even though I believe my son is more than worth it, has the knowledge and the ability to do the job I am pursuing for him. I'm stubborn, but that one goes beyond my level of bull-headedness.

It's easy for any of us to be stubborn, especially about things we care about the most and things we believe in to the very core of our being. For some people there's an inherent belief in a symbol such as the American flag being something sacred and to be defended in any and every way from defilement or even perceived disrespect. For some stubbornness is a religious faith and belief in a supreme being who watches over them and protects them and cares for them, but sometimes lets them get into hot water and then get themselves out.

There are some who have a stubbornness about politics, or the role of economics in our society, or societal norms that they believe we should be upholding, whether or not we agree with them. There's so many ways to be stubborn. The old metaphor of stubborn people being like mules who have to make up their mind that they want to do something before it'll actually do it. I have a friend who could probably deliver at least a two-hour sermon on the habits and traits of mules, with plenty of anecdotes to prove the point.
It is stubbornness to insist my way is the only way, which is only partially correct because it might be the only right way for me, nobody else. It stubborn to ignore good medical advice. It stubborn not realize that one day old age will arrive and following that will be the final chapter of life whether we're ready or not. Sometimes it's our own stubbornness that keeps us trapped, like cigarette or drug addictions, or alcoholism, or feelings of supreme egoism, or any of the many terms thrown around today like despotic, narcissistic, or hedonistic.

Sin boils down to stubbornness. We don't like the words sin. It may feel dirty, and heaven knows, we don't like feeling dirty. The thought of sin makes us uncomfortable while frequently the action has exactly the opposite effect of making us feel exalted, happy, enthusiastic, relieved, and so many others I can hardly think of enough words to cover the subject adequately. Sin is a form of stubbornness, the idea that I can do what I want, when I want, to whom I want to do it, and in the manner I choose to do it. It is setting myself up as judge, jury, executioner, and like Mme. Defarge, who sat underneath the guillotine, knitting  away as imperial heads rolled, instigators, nonchalant observers, and potential victims of their own hubris.
I'm trying to let go of the stubbornness, and to some extent, I'm getting somewhere with it. I've learned I have to listen to the doctor, I have to obey traffic laws, I have to treat other people with the same respect I'd like to have be treated with myself, I have to trust that God has given us good rules to learn to play by, and a beautiful playground to play in. Still, I and others like me still managed to bring in mud and rocks and things that clutter up the landscape and make it dangerous.

I pray my son will moderate his own stubbornness just a little bit, enough to convince him that giving up control is just giving up having to be 100% right all the time. Needless to say, I love him dearly anyway, stubborn or not, because of flaws I see in him I know are in me too. I have a feeling I'm not alone in that.  Probably James' and John's mother felt the same way --- and undoubtedly Mother Mary, who had a sometimes very stubborn son of her own.
God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café  Saturday, November 4, 2017.