Saturday, April 28, 2018

Words: Useful and Dangerous

Words are fascinating things. I remember Mama reading to me when I was little and couldn't read for myself. The stories were great, with the sound of her voice changing the black marks on the page to adventures and heroes. I learned to read in the first grade, or at least started to, but I really wasn't a fan of reading for myself. That changed in third grade when I had a series of illnesses that kept me at home and Mama didn't have time to stop and read every time I wanted to hear something. So, I learned the value of books and words. I became a voracious reader, something that's stuck to me throughout all the intervening decades.

I like to play with words, making them flow together to convey what I want to say in the way I’d like to say it. Sometimes the tone is a little flat, but that's because I have the wrong word. I used to be left to my own devices to come up with the precise word I wanted, but, thanks be to God, the Internet has saved me a lot of trouble on that one.

I have a word game on my cell phone. I’m given six letters, and a design of empty boxes like a crossword puzzle with no numbers. The idea is to connect three or more letters from those given so that they make an actual word and fill in some of the squares. Sometimes there's a bonus word that's a little harder but uses the same letters. I frequently bang my head against the wall, but I love that stupid game. It's a challenge, especially when I can't see the word pop out at me like most of them do. Sometimes that one word just won't come, so I resort to using the guessing game until suddenly, a word shows up that's correct. What's funny is that sometimes my fingers start trying to start tracing a word that I recognized before I get to the end of it. My brain won't find the words but somewhere in my mind it's there waiting for me to give it a clue.

Words often have connections. This afternoon as I was doing a puzzle one of the words that I found was “death.” It reminded me of the transience of life and how none of us can really escape it. It happens when it happens, whether natural, taken at the hands of others, or lost to disease. Birth comes, life continues, and death happens.

Then I ran into a fourth puzzle and this one, took me aback a little because it had two words related to each other — heaven and haven. It stopped me for a minute because I didn't come up with an immediate association like I had with the other words but then, heaven is a difficult concept for many of us, as much as we are assured in Scripture and in church that after we leave this earth in death we will rise again to be with God.

People have all kinds of ideas about what heaven is and what it's like, everything from angels standing around the throne singing praises to God eternally, nonstop, without end. If I were there, I'd hope they would change the tune every now and then, doing something from Bach, and then maybe from Lauritsen, then maybe a Gregorian chant segueing into Monteverdi. I'll even take a chorus or two of “Just as I Am,” so long as it doesn't last too long or happen too often.

For others heaven is a place where everyone they love will be there waiting for them, and they’ll spend a considerable amount of time greeting people that they have not seen for years and enjoying being with them once again. Some believe that if their dog

or cat, bird, or rabbit who preceded them in death are there waiting, they don't want to go. Heaven to them would be heaven unless that beloved for a person wasn't there with them

So, what's heaven like? I haven't a clue. I can think hopeful thoughts, I can read lots of books with various interpretations, I can discuss it with friends, but all in all, I have no clue. I don't know, and I won't know until the moment comes when I die. Maybe I will find the Jewish afterlife. It’s a place of eternal sleep were God watches over them. No harps, no halos or wings, just a place of eternal sleep, but a sleep that is peaceful for the righteous.

I will probably keep playing my word games, simply because I enjoy them, but mostly to help me keep my mind active and challenged. It bothers me when I can't remember a word (aphasia), and I have to grope around in the recesses of my cortex to try and dig out that word that's on the tip of my tongue, but that very same tongue can't access. Still, words are my way of conveying what I think, what I feel, what I learn, what I observe, what I hear, and the difference it makes to me.

Words are important, too important to be used like bludgeons or sharp knives. Words are too important to waste on gossip and ridicule and bullying. What if we had a world where words were used to build up rather than tear down? I wonder — what would that world be like? What words could we use to build the bridge amongst ourselves as individuals, groups, nations, and universally? If birth comes, life continues, and death happens, what word would bring heaven?

I wish I had all the answers. In a way, I envy those who have gone before me because now, very probably, they have all the answers; they can stop wondering, but they can't tell me no matter how much I ask. I guess one word I need to get used to more than anything else is “ambiguity.” I need to learn to completely trust in ambiguity, trust that I don't need to know all the answers, they will come soon enough. I don't need to understand how the Trinity works, what heaven is like, or whether or not the Cubs will win again this year. Wait, maybe I'll find that out sooner rather than later. But still, I will have words to ask questions, to ponder, to wonder, and to try and pass on what I have learned to others, just as those who have gone before me have taught me.

Thank God for words. And thank God for words that let me express love, especially for those who have gone before and whom I devoutly pray will be waiting for me when my turn comes. They have the answers like the back of the textbook used to!

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 28, 2018.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ann's Gifts

Along with Education for Ministry (EfM), Episcopal Café, and most of the Episcopal Church as a whole, I am mourning the loss of a mentor, co-mentor, editor, friend, and incredible resource and example, namely Ann Fontaine. So many words have been written about her since her passing this past week that anything I say might seem to be just more of the same. Still, in talking to a friend recently, I realized something about Ann and her passing that gave me one of those insights that I want to hold onto and think about for a while. It was sort of the essence of Ann, especially in her last months, that has been a real learning experience for me, as well as a prime example of grace under pressure. It was also an exercise in grace-full living in her own inimitable style that has touched so many over the years.

I co-mentored with Ann for nearly 10 years and was a member of one of her online groups for two years before that. I never met Ann in person, yet I felt I knew her well enough to trust her implicitly, to learn from her, and to see her through the eyes of so many people.

During a phone conversation with a former group member a day or so ago, we were reminiscing about being in class together and things that we had learned from Ann. I remarked that my current groups have been missing Ann since she stepped down from active mentoring not very long ago. I think we all have been mourning as we read her Facebook posts and then the gentle but honest updates from her daughter Kristen, truly her mother’s daughter in word and action. We followed Ann’s journey, a journey she allowed us to share with her. It was a gift that I, for one, have only just begun to really understand and really appreciate. It was like a final gift that she gave to me and, I’m sure, many others.

The journey of her disease was one that she shared with us both in groups, on Facebook, and in real life. She told us of her doctor visits, of decreasing abilities to walk and to do things that she enjoyed doing, and even just to breathe. In our online groups we heard the sound of the oxygen concentrator that was helping her. We had heard that sound for some time and just let it go unmentioned.  it was something we knew Ann depended on, and that was enough for us. One night something was said about it, and several people said, to the effect of, “Oh yeah, we heard that and just ignored it.” I think that surprised her because she hadn’t realized that we could hear it and we felt it was a sort of sharing. Needless to say, we ignored it again and concentrated on what she had to say about whatever topic we were discussing.

Her lungs might have been weakening, but her mind and heart were as strong as ever. A real clue to her decline was when she stopped commenting “Cubs Win!” I hope she’s got eternal seats for all their games now, and I’m glad she got to see them win the World Series. It was a huge moment for her.

I think, for me, the last gift was her ability to learn to live with something that doesn't have a good ending. Granted, her death came in her sleep, something most of us wish for, and some of us will maybe never get to experience ourselves. But with her usual grace and outright forthcoming, we followed her and saw her ability to occasionally look past the disease to things that gave her joy, things like watching the birds, enjoying a short visit from a friend, notes and emails from people all over the church and probably the world that she had met at various points in her life. Having her beloved husband and daughter at her side, and her family in almost continual contact gave her strength and support. What more could any of us ask for the joy, even when facing the ultimate adversary, death.

All of us need to learn to live with something. It may not be life-threatening, but it might be life-changing in some way, or it might just be a speed bump in the road of life. Learning to live with it with grace, which truly was the gift of God that Ann possessed in abundance, is for all of us. We can all count on this grace if we allow it to work through us. Ann certainly showed us that grace. No doubt she had days where she wanted to rage or express anger at the increasing limitations and especially the lost time she would have with her family, especially the grands. But when push came to shove, she straightened her shoulders, held her head up, and moved on.

I thank God for Ann and her journey. It hasn't been easy, not for anyone who knew and loved her. I want to remember her grace in a dark time for her and for us. I want to remember to enjoy the little things, even the mockingbird mother who keeps chasing my outdoor cats off the patio. That’s trivial, and certainly the cats don't enjoy it, but in a way, it reminds me of Ann. She was never one to let someone get in the way of what she felt was right or just, even if the pecks of the beak were a little too close for comfort many times. That was her gift, and I will miss it greatly. One of our favorite lines in our groups now is to mention Ann every time we forget to use the “I” word. She was not shy about calling us on using “we” or “us” when we needed to use “I” to take responsibility for our own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

Oh, yes, she wasn’t shy about correcting people who misspelled her name as “Anne.”  She was ANN, and that was that. Those who learned the hard way never made the mistake again.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Ann. You will be missed, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see you mentioned in commemoration by the whole church in times to come. It will be a mark of something special for anyone who could say "I knew and Fontaine," and it will be a moment of joy for all of us when we see you in glory for ourselves.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 21, 2018, under the title "Continuing to Remember Ann+."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

D.I.Y. T.R.

I speak often of a group that I belong to and have the honor of mentoring in, and that is Education for Ministry (EfM). For those unfamiliar with the title, it's an educational formation program for laypeople, but is open to clergy who, it may be used as part of a diaconal process or who are already ordained. Most often studied by those who want to know more about the church, the Bible, and most importantly, themselves. It's not a self-help group to resolve problems. It is a four-year program, one year each for Old Testament, New Testament, church history, and theology. By the end of the four years people have a greater understanding of how all those things work together and how they can use what they've learned not only in their church affiliations and lives, but in their personal and professional lives.

One of the basic things that EFMstresses is a concept called theological reflection. It's a way of using tools to examine a potential problem, something that a person would want to think more deeply about, possibly a different way of looking at a familiar Scripture, or as a way of recognizing a position or an action that a person can have or take on a given topic. TR's, theological reflections, come in a lot of forms, but basically, they start at a point, identifying something the person wants to consider and to examine in an organized manner. The goal is to find either an answer or a direction pointing in a direction, often one or the other being something that hadn’t been considered before. This is my personal description of Do-It-Yourself Theological Reflection (DIY TR).

One way of beginning to think about something, once someone has decided they need to think about this a bit more, is to just write down what it is they want to think about. Sometimes it's clear, and sometimes it requires perhaps a little refining. A way EfM does this is to encourage people to create or use a metaphor to visualize the situation they want to work on, whether with others or just with themselves. It doesn't have to be a fancy metaphor. I have used a picture of a man riding a quad runner over a jump when the back wheels come off. To me, that represents a part of my life that is out of control and that I need to deal with. It can be something funny, like the cute YouTube about cat herding, one of my personal favorites, for times when things are going every which way instead of in a general direction. It often helps to find metaphors to use, for instance, when contemplating a piece of Scripture.

We then go into the four areas that we want to examine in relation to our discussion or conversation. Culture, contemporary culture that is, is a way of examining what the world around me thinks about the subject that I am contemplating. For instance, how does culture perceive the problem of safety in schools for children and young people? How does culture reflect the ethics of life that we see in our contemporary world? How do books and magazines represent our culture and how does that affect us? It can also be expanded to include different types of cultures, such as those bound together by country of origin, religion, or perhaps even socioeconomic, racial, or almost any group where community is a group of people who are joined together, whether loosely or tightly, by common goals, interests, and sense of comradery. It's also possible to examine this one area in terms of what socio-cultural life was like in Biblical times if one were considering a TR  based on a passage or piece of Scripture. It may require some research, but research is learning, and learning is a good thing. That's one reason we use theological reflections.

A second area of interest in and examination is the tradition. Generally, we think of it as the Christian tradition, incorporating the Bible, the church traditions of feasts, seasons, and liturgies, the lives of saints, hymns, and religious reading that we have done. One question I can ask is where in Scripture have I found a similar situation to the one that I'm contemplating. Sometimes I have to Google it, other times it springs to mind. There is also the question of where is God in the situation? That is one of the core questions to be brought out during a theological reflection.

There is a third area of reflection, the position statement, which is an "I" statement of what I believe, I think, I feel, and the like. It's the trench I'm willing to die and, more or less, the line in the sand that I don't want to cross. It's how I perceive the situation in relationship to myself and my world around me. It's usually one of the most important parts of the TR because it requires us to articulate very clearly where we stand on the issue under reflection and why. Did we learn it from our parents? Is it the result of study and experience? Does it come from the culture that surrounded us? it could be any one of several ways.

The fourth area is action: What are we going to do about this? This reveals impact on our ministries both in the church and in the world. People don't always realize that the work outside the church is every bit as important as the work inside and is most often a ministry itself. Stay-at-home mother? Someone who helps with the food banks and the homeless shelters? A cheerful receptionist at a busy office? An orderly in hospital? Dishwasher in a restaurant? All have ministries, even if they don’t think of them that way. Even the people who pick up the garbage can be ministers because they are serving a community in a job most of us wouldn't want but which is necessary and can be done cheerfully and thoroughly. So, when we think about our action, we think less about the salary we make and perhaps more about the pleasure and satisfaction we take in doing our job well. What we do is see is God in the world around us, and we become the hands of God to others, even if we never mention religion. It's vital to find God working there with us.

So, what's a TR and how do you know you’ve got one? You have a TR when you think about things in a somewhat structured manner. It takes areas of your life and places the question in the center and then seeing the impact or the change of direction as one progresses through the four areas of interest. How do you know you've got one? That's easy. You find a way for God to work through you, and you understand what you are meant to do to make the kingdom of God appear here on earth. When you figure out the answer to the question, or even a direction towards the answer, then you have probably done so in some sort of reflective way. Remembering to put God into the picture and adding tradition plus culture, position, and action can bring you to a greater understanding of the Bible, the church, the community, the world, and yourself and how all of it works together for the good of all.  Try it; it’s a very spiritual experience.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 14, 2018.

Saturday, April 7, 2018


It seems that our language changes rather rapidly and frequently. There are words we use commonly today that in my childhood 50-60 years ago were never really heard. I'm talking about words like ecology, internet, media, and community. Today, the word community comes more to the forefront of my mind than the others, although there is a relationship between community and media, community and location, community and association, and so on.

I think about our culture. Where I live, we have a plethora of gated communities, where more affluent people live in an atmosphere that seems to be a bit more exclusive and a bit safer, as it were. We have community churches, community hospitals, community banks, or even community parks, kindergartens, community HOAs and clubs.

Culture uses the word community as a great thing, that is, if the insiders get to define what “community” is. I realize that not everyone would agree with me, but I see community as a group of people who are interested in being connected to neighbors, coworkers, fellow church members, people in the neighborhood, and even people we encounter in the neighborhood like shopkeepers, barbers, and service workers. Granted, I am not sure I would consider a garbage collector to be part of my community, but he, or possibly she, really is, as they provide a service that benefits the community I live in. Once I think about it, community is more than just people I know and/or associate with.

There is a negative side of community that we see on almost every newscast, and that is the community of violence, gangs, bullying, drug abuse, and slavery (usually sexual). These communities are exclusive but want to make sure everybody else understands their superiority. It’s a difficult situation, and it isn’t limited to the lower income areas of a city or suburb. It exists on street corners and school grounds, and among both rich and poor, just not in the same groups. Still, it’s a kind of community we need to be conscious of, and remember that these too are children of God, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves (and often we don’t acknowledge it either!)

Thinking of tradition, I wonder how the Israelites would have seen community. I wonder, would there have been a community each of potters, brick makers, weavers, farmers, or the like? Living in a community of people with similar backgrounds or jobs would be beneficial, and there would be a sense of commonality and camaraderie based on a similar occupation. On the journey from Egypt, would each of these individual communities have stayed with their group as the entire Israelite nation left Egypt for an epic journey to which, for them, was God knows where? The priestly class was more prominent, and so I'm pretty sure they would have stuck together, usually around Moses and Aaron, but as for the common people? Who knows.

In the New Testament, Jesus set up a community of disciples, a community which included people who were not simply students, but were supporters, and people needing help that Jesus could provide. After healing, most went back to their original communities and were restored to full membership in those communities because their disability, their disease, or their afflictions, had been relieved and they could now assume a viable and active presence in community life. There were Gentiles who formed their own communities in the land of Israel, and the Romans certainly held themselves aloof from the conquered people, excepting the highest level of Jewish hierarchy.

When Paul and Peter went out into the lands of the Gentiles to preach and convert, Paul dove in, having an understanding the Greek culture and being able to teach in such a way that Greeks could learn from them about Judaism, Jesus, and the Jesus movement. Peter was still somewhat of an impetuous figure. So long as none of his contemporaries from Jerusalem were around, Peter accepted the Gentiles and interacted with them, particularly at meals; but as soon as someone from Jerusalem showed up, suddenly eating with the Gentiles was forbidden, and disapproval of even the more social of contact came into play. How quickly impressions of community can change.

In the present, we who call ourselves Christians attempt to practice our form of community in various ways. Some churches and denominations are very open, welcoming, and inclusive to those who are in some way different, while others want to maintain their separatism as a way of proving that they are following Christ. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, dislike, and even verbal bombs such as heretic, spawn of Satan, unchristian, or unbeliever.

Some communities have begun and continue to take action, looking to and studying continuing icons such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, César Chavez, and many others, all the way back to Jesus himself. For instance, look at the people who, whether Native American or not, joined those who protested the pipeline across Native American land and desecration of Native American holy places. Look at the children who marched just a couple of weeks ago for gun control so that they might have an opportunity to go to school without worrying about whether someone was going to enter their school and take their lives. What about the African-Americans who joined Martin Luther King and others on their marches for equal rights, just like the women who, early in the last century, did their own protest marches to call attention to the fact that they could not vote. Each one of those communities took it upon themselves to bring attention to things that were wrong, things that went against the very idea of community. There are many other illustrations, too many to name here, but if I think about it, I'm sure anyone could come up with a lot more.

Community demands action. Like a marriage, it can't be static. There are always ups and downs, and those ups and downs that must be worked out and compromise arrived at to strengthen the bond and to work communally for better life. In Education for Ministry (EfM), we are reading a book by Verna Dozier in which she puts a perspective on community that would do for most of us to take to heart and really contemplate.

The very essence of God's gift is community — a people called out to witness to the dream of God. The rejection of community is individualism, deified in the American ethos as "rugged individualism.” *

Community, the dream of God, was the reason God created Adam and Eve, the original community that God made to provide help and support. I think the quote is one that I really need to think about even as I continue through Dozier's book and beyond. I wonder, does that quote say anything to one who is seeking to understand community?
Something to think about this week.

I also wonder—if Heaven has gates, does that make it a gated community?

God bless.

* Dozier, Verna, A Dream of God. New York: Seabury Press, 2006. Digital.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 7, 2018.