Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Joy of Hospitality

It's always interesting to read back things that you've written in a diary or a blog or just on a piece of paper somewhere that you run across and it starts to make you think. It seems that subjects seem to have a span of time in which they are talked about on an almost daily basis, while others fade away only to be resurrected weeks, months or even years later. The funny thing about topics of interest, especially topics that seem to be the talk of the town now, is to see how a viewpoint or train of thought can change with time, and how subjects seem to come around in cycles.

Think about hospitality for a moment. Several years ago, it was a great topic of conversation in Episcopal circles, particularly regarding how our churches and parishes exemplify Christian hospitality.

The first thing that happens when a person walks into a church is usually something that sticks with them even after they leave after the service. When they walk through the door, did someone offer to shake their hand? Did someone smile at them and hand them a bulletin or service booklet? Did someone engage them in conversation, ask if they were new and perhaps how they found this particular church? Those are different levels of hospitality.

Thinking about that brings me to the thought of the first time that I walked through the doors of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale. I was a person who'd been hurt by the church in general and who decided to visit this church where I knew a couple of people. The church had just moved into a new building, and so I set up my GPS to take me there. The sight that struck my eye as I drove towards it was that this was a slightly different looking church, something I'd call industrial Gothic. It had pointed windows that covered nearly the whole expanse. Lots and lots of bright light came in through the clear but lightly tinted windows that let in the light but would help keep the inside from being an oven or a foretaste of a place that we don't mention too often except in the Creed. Anyway, I thought this was going to be an interesting experience.

I walked through the door and was greeted by this very personable lady and the biggest smile in the world. She introduced herself as Joy and asked if I was new. Yes, I said, but I knew the Rector, and one other lady who was a member of one of my Education for Ministry (EfM) groups. Joy drew me over to the visitor's book, had me sign, gave me some information on the church, and welcomed me as warmly as I could have wished. This lady had an immense gift of not only joy to match her name but the gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome and a part of the congregation five minutes after they walked through the door for the first time. To me, Joy represented the perfect kind of hospitality ministry that every church should have. People who walked in with children were welcomed warmly and introduced to the people who cared for children in the nursery, Sunday school, and children's chapel so that they would feel comfortable leaving their children in safety with good, kind people. Older people were welcomed and assisted, if necessary, to seats in the church where they could meet and greet others around them, not just shuffled away in the back of the church where they could be overlooked. They were asked if they needed assistance in going to communion, or if they would like communion brought to them. Note was taken of where they were sitting and identifiers that would allow the altar party to find them and make them a part of the Eucharist at the Lord's table. 

There were other members of the hospitality ministry there, all doing many of the same things Joy was, it was just that I met Joy first. Imagine my surprise when I went back a couple of weeks later and she remembered my name! I loved Nativity the first time I went there, but the second time, in large part because of Joy, I felt like a member of the family.

I wish there were more Joys in the world, especially now that the shift in hospitality has gone from the world of the church to the national scene. It's become a topic that is controversial and rather painful for many on both sides. There are those who feel their safety is being imperiled, as well as those whose safety is truly in danger. We talk of building walls to keep people out, and we exemplify that by the number of walled housing developments that we have now with gates that require passwords or special decals and membership cards that must be swiped to allow admittance. The hospitality door seems to have slammed shut. The same is now beginning to slam shut on our national borders, or at least, to the one to our southern border.

So now maybe this is time for the church to start teaching the country. Yes, we have a number of churches that put on their signs in the front that they are a welcoming and affirming congregation, or that all people are welcome and the ones that they love are welcome as well. We welcome people of color, those who are American-born and those who have fled horrendous regimes around the world. We are establishing congregations within congregations, the services of the Eucharist and various ministries aimed at other ethnicities other than Caucasians. We host groups like Integrity, scouting, various twelve-step groups, and services and classes in other languages. Now, more and more groups are finding ways to help those who have come to us as new brothers and sisters, people who can contribute to the church and the world, without fear of their status, orientation, or any other perceived difference. All we need are 1 million Joys at the doors of our churches and the fences and gates of our borders rather than a few thousand AK-47s pointed across that short space between us and the rest of the world.

Joy still greets people, still smiles, and, with brightly-lit eyes, welcomes people to our little place in the Episcopal Church and our little corner of Christianity. This world needs a lot more like her. They need people who take joy in hospitality and extending hospitality. We need more who make us feel welcome rather than not.

Joy has found her gift and we at Nativity are the beneficiaries. I hope other congregations find their own Joy and share her enthusiasm that can lead to both church and kingdom growth. Just look for the little lady in the brimmed hat with streamers.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 30, 2018.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yes, No, or But

I have always liked the book of Matthew. It is one of the synoptic Gospels, sharing similarities with both Mark and Luke, yet with some differences. Matthew and Luke both seem to have copied bits of Mark but put in different emphases and different viewpoints. Matthew was written for the Jewish people, while Luke was written for the Greeks.

Much of the reading today is about swearing vows, especially vows to God. Today we hear a lot of swearing but it's not necessarily religious vows or even polite words or phrases. Matthew looks back to ancient history and the instructions to carry out any vows that they made to God, not to make the vow and then forget about it. Matthew also talks about swearing upon one's own head because there's nothing about our physical selves that we can really do a whole lot about. Of course, now we've got Clairol and other products that will change white hair to black and black hair to white and all the shades of red and brown in between. They had some of that stuff back in Jesus's time since Egyptians had used it when Israel was in exile in Egypt. But still is difficult to change the color of one hair and without aid of cosmetics. Matthew's point attests to the impossibility of changing without going to great length and great difficulty, and even then, it's usually not 100% successful.

But the part that really grabbed my attention was the very last verse, "Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no.’ " I find it very interesting that it is an instruction to be definite in one’s answer. Since this was a lesson from Jesus, it makes it even more interesting.

It’s apparent that Jesus neither left out a word or ever intended for to be there, and it's a word we often hear in context of a yes or no answer. It's a simple little word that can change the entire structure of the answer.

In this passage, Jesus never inserted the word "but". The man with the dead father wanted to join Jesus yet he fell even more deeply into the mire when he said, “Yes, but let me go bury my father first." That little word “but” changed the whole thing. The man was serious in wanting to follow Jesus, although he felt he had a prior commitment that had to be taken care of first, making following Jesus of secondary importance.

Politicians are great about throwing in silent “but” words along with their yesses or their nos. They are fond of saying, “Yes, we will do this for you, but we will do more for this group over here.” They will say, “No, we will not raise taxes or make these other changes," but just listen for a while. You'll find there is a real or implied “but” somewhere down the road.

Jesus never intended for there to be a “but” when a person makes a vow to do something or refrain from doing something. Statements were unequivocal. Love your neighbor as yourself, not love your neighbor but not if they are _____ and then fill in the blank with whatever the current target is. Jesus never said that if you see a person without a coat, to give them yours--that is, unless it’s expensive, super high quality, or necessary to indicate the status quo of the owner.

Jesus used the word, but in the context of “rather.” One of the phrases he often used was, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” He was redefining words, beliefs, and practices that had been in place for centuries. Jesus presented those ancient words and practices to the people who already understood them in one way, and suddenly turned it around to be something different. He was teaching them a new way, built on the old.

There are times when we can unequivocally say yes or no; we do it by the way we vote, the way we acquire goods and services, saying yes to this one but no to that one based on economics or political position or the like. We've gotten so used to “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” We wait to hear that little word because we are so used to hearing it and we know it's going to happen in there somewhere.

Jesus attributed the things like the “but” to something that came from the evil one. It's easy to understand because what it is becomes an entry for the shaitan to win others to the dark side, as it were. He is all too interested in attempting to thwart God by corrupting God's children, and, unfortunately, a number of them seem to be all too willing, even as they insist they are trying to do God's will and have no truck with evil. You can tell the ones that say yes to God because they do God's will as they were taught by Jesus.

The next time you watch a crime show or courthouse drama, listen to the oath that each witness must give, ending with "…So help me God." That's the end of the vow. If you notice, there is no “Unless I might incriminate myself,” or “But I can’t tell them about A or B.” Listen to that and see how much different it sounds when you mentally add those things on, because there are a lot of those implications in a courtroom. The oath may end with “... So help me God,” but there's often more that could be said.

This week, I'm going to try to work so that my yes is yes, my no is no. I need to learn to see where a gray area is truly justified, and where the answer must be solid and substantive. It’s going to be a long week…

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 16, 2018.

A Personal Prayer

Great God, Father/Mother, Creator,

Loving Jesus, brother, teacher, savior,

Gentle Spirit, powerful guide,

I honestly don’t know where to start. There are so many things to say that they all seem to be whirling ab out like numbered balls in a bingo cage. Everybody prays the right number will fall out when it stops, but usually the cage quickly spins again before the mind can focus on more than the fact that the last number didn’t match the empty space on the bingo card that would have made for a winner.

I sit here in my chair, looking at the western sun shine through the green leaves of the tree and the light making the white brachts of the bougainvillea glow like miniature light bulbs. It is such a beautiful sight, and it brings me peace. There are so many places on earth like that, and I’d be willing to bet that just about everybody has a place of beauty that brings them peace. Well, perhaps not everybody, because as beautiful as this wonderful planet is, there are so many places where war, famine, natural disasters, human-made disasters, human cruelty, rape of the earth and of humans who inhabit war-torn areas exist and seem to flourish. There are places where the ground is soaked in blood, and the air screams in pain from the sights and sounds of barbarity.  This is not the earth that I believe You planned. This earth is far from the Eden where life began, and all was in harmony, and it has been this way for thousands of generations.

It seems as though we reel from disaster to disaster. Children who should be safe in their schools are traumatized, shot, injured and killed on almost a weekly basis. A concert or a nightclub becomes a focus for hate and the body count rises rapidly. Before we can completely digest these atrocities, there is a flood, a fire, an eruption, a plane or train crash, a wrong-way driver who takes out innocent people and leaving other innocents mangled and suffering. The daily news is full of lies and half-truths, new proclamations that benefit a few at the expense of the many. Now we have young children, far from home, torn from their parents’ arms, thrown into cages, and given mats on the floor with a scratchy, noisy blanket that doesn’t wrap securely around their small bodies. Their captors probably don’t speak any language or dialect the children could understand, even if they weren’t so frightened they cannot take in the words being spoken to them by people wearing uniforms, sometimes like the people in uniforms their parents struggled to get away from in their native country. These children undoubtedly will suffer with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives. Think of that: a 3-year-old with PTSD, a hell-like mental prison that even grown soldiers can’t conquer.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we are at the mercy of people who are determined to be like dogs on a walk, making sure to mark every possible tree, fence, rock, or sign that another dog has previously marked as his own territory. Maybe that isn’t fair to the dogs of the world; they are doing what nature programmed them to do. As for the humans, anything that disagrees with their philosophy, religion, or cultural identification seems to need to be stripped from the world, no matter how many people those programs aid or how many lives they save. We seem to have slipped into the “I’ve got mine, too bad about you” mode of thinking and doing, and again, this isn’t the way the world was planned to be, was it?

The prisms in the window have now caught the flashes of light of the setting sun and there are rainbows all over my ceiling. It’s beautiful, but transient, just like the peace that the twilight sun brings. In the time it has taken me to write these words, the rainbows have disappeared, taking the joy with them. Another news story, another disaster, another atrocity, another planned cruelty comes across the TV or computer screen. How long, O Lord, how long?

Jesus gave us such a beautiful lesson about blessings for those who are kind, merciful, good to the poor and needy, accepting of the strangers, welcoming of the aliens in the land, loving to all, including those who have wronged them. These are the people we should be seeing rather than focusing so much on those who are busy dismantling what is left of Eden on this earth. More than that, we should be doing our best to fight back, to be the crusaders for those who have no voices no matter what their age is. Honestly, I wonder if it is even possible. It seems so disheartening.

Ok, so there aren’t rainbows on the ceiling every minute of the daylight, and nature can be planned for if not controlled. Those are things we can’t do anything about. What we can do is to see where we can make a difference, no matter how small. One grain of sand doesn’t make a beach but get enough grains together and they can put a buffer between the land and the restless sea. Get enough individuals involved and seeming miracles can happen.

I wonder if I could replace the darkness in my life with not just the sight or memory of things that bring me joy or peace but with some sort of action in some direction and some way. I know writing these reflections and prayers help me to refocus and re-purpose my life, but is there more I can do? Of course, there is. I just must be aware of it and also be willing to do something about it. I have to find another passion and work at it. 

I keep saying I need to do this, so maybe now the sight of those little children torn from their parents and caged, those mothers who cry and feel the desolation of empty arms, those who are innocent yet sit in prison waiting for who knows what?  What about those who are shut in or perhaps dying who need a friendly face or a few kind words to make life a bit more bearable?  What about cuddling crack-addicted infants in hospitals, or playing and loving puppies and kittens at the shelter awaiting adoption?  Maybe replanting burned-out areas or volunteering at a soup kitchen?  The possibilities are limitless – I just need to find my niche and get to work.

Thank you for listening, God, Jesus, and Spirit. I know you are always there for me, it’s just that I need an overabundance of tragedy like today to really understand that.  Thank you for being there.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 23, 2018.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sacred Spaces

Today we celebrate the commemoration of St. Columba, best known for his missionary work in Ireland and Scotland and his establishment of three religious communities, perhaps the most famous of them at Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. Columba set up Iona to use as a base for the mission work of converting the Picts and the Scots. At Iona, Columba ultimately baptized both the King of the Picts and the King of the Scots. Iona became known as the “Holy Isle,” a title which is still used today.

Iona, as Columba had established it in 563, was destroyed by Viking marauders around 806, around the time of the creation of one of Iona’s most famous works of art, the Book of Kells. Through the centuries since, it has been a place of pilgrimage, a place where even when thinking about it, one wants to take off one's shoes because it's holy ground. Was it because of the martyrdom of the victims of the marauders while upholding their Christian faith? Very possibly, or perhaps it was because of the sanctity of Columba and his influence, which, by the time of the destruction of Iona, had spread across Scotland and northern Britain, converting many and continuing to spread.

I've never been to Iona. I've read a lot about it, and I've known some people who've been there. The consensus is that it is a very holy place of peace, quiet, tranquility, and inspiration, among ancient ruins and large stone Celtic cross carvings. That's what is sacred space is: somewhere were all those ingredients come together to make individuals aware holiness all around them in the ground they walk on, the air they breathe, and the sky that covers them. Iona is a prime example. Pilgrims are still drawn to it.

Sacred spaces are all around us, if we just have the sensitivity and desire to find them. For me, I have several. One is on the hill in my hometown overlooking my river. God and I met there a number of times as I was growing up. God may not have physically been sitting there, but I felt the presence. I also felt it as I walked along the beach of that river and heard the waves as they lapped against the shore. That was a holy place.

Another sacred space of mine is the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I haven't visited it since it was finally completed, but I remember it as a building that was growing even as I watched. It was a slow process, building something like a Gothic cathedral, even with modern equipment. It isn't something that's put up in a week or a month or even a year. Yet, even with black tarps and scaffolding, the whole place felt like a sacred space with God present there in the chapels, the nave of the church, the choir, the wonderful stained-glass windows, and the solidity of the massive stone columns. There's so much sacred about that place that I still mentally take off my shoes when I take myself through it and remember.

I remember visiting a mosque in Washington DC many years ago. It was a place where women had to cover their hair, and all had to wash their hands and take off their shoes. I didn’t think about it so much then, but I understand now that the rows of shoes outside the doors indicate that the people are entering a sacred space, just as Moses did when he met the burning bush. I didn’t recognize the mosque as a sacred space, full of beautiful calligraphies on walls and tiles, and thick, rich carpets. There was a feeling of something special there, but I just didn’t know what precisely it was at that time.

For some, mountains are sacred spaces, where the immensity of rugged crags pointing toward the blue sky, large boulders, and trees meet like a scenic, invisible cathedral. Some find sacred spaces by watery places like mountain streams or the great wide ocean. I think people find a sense of peace and a sense of wonder in nature. For them, it's a sacred space because one feels different when one is there. There is a consciousness of the grandeur of nature, but also of creation and the Creator. Again, it's something that makes God present, far more intimately than is usual in life.

Sacred spaces don't even have to be big. They can be as simple as a single seat in a church or a small corner of the room set aside for meditation and prayer. Sacred space is somewhere where a person can feel blessed and where awe and mystery come together in a moment in time.

Where are your sacred spaces? What draws you to those places? What feelings, emotions, and insights come to you there?

Look for new sacred spaces. They can be found in lots of unexpected places, like a hospital or hospice room, a desert, or a park. Look around. You just might meet God in a sacred space you didn’t know existed.

God Bless.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Three Little Words

We see it on the news quite frequently. Someone is walking or driving somewhere and is stopped and asked personal questions, like “Who are you?” "What are you doing here?" It is an uncomfortable situation and one that quite often escalates very quickly, sometimes with the horrible finale being the death of an innocent person because that person did not answer quickly enough, or perhaps did not answer to the question in a way the authority thought that they should. It is a tragic consequence, and there have been so many over the past few years.

The Eucharistic gospel reading for today is a little bit of the same story. Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples, and as he walked in the temple, authority figures, namely the chief priests, scribes, and elders came up to him, and questioned him: "By whose authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus had simply been doing what he was supposed to do, but here was a group of people questioning his right to exercise the gifts God had given him.

Jesus was a fast thinker, and he had played this kind of mental chess game before. His advantage was having nothing to hide. Usually, we think of fast thinkers as people who are getting trapped in situations using words and questions, and they don’t always have the right answer. So, instead of answering truthfully or directly, they sometimes to try to prevaricate, which is like trying to do it two things at once: remembering what was just said and remembering what the truth was.

Jesus used the tactic of answering a question with another question, asking if the baptism of John came from heaven, or was it of human origin? And then he demanded an answer. I can just see the powerful group moving back just a little, huddling together to try to come up with the right answer. If they said that the baptism of John came from heaven, they would be asked why they did not believe him. But if they said the baptism was of human origin, they would be forced to acknowledge that John was a prophet, which is what many people believed him to be. Either way they were stuck, and being stuck in a situation like that is never a good thing. So, they answered in the only way they knew, and probably felt shame and anger as they were forced to say, "We don’t know." That one statement sealed their defeat; they lost face with the crowd, just by saying those four little words.

Sometimes those facing authorities don't really understand how to answer questions flung at them. Everybody wants an answer, they want it now, and they want one that they expect. People who are being questioned are afraid to say that they don't know because that could indicate that they could be guilty of doing or saying something for which they are being questioned.

We are ashamed to say we don't have an answer to a question, whether it is at work, facing authorities in a delicate situation, or even trying to answer the question of a four-year-old who wants to know why there are all those stars in the sky. We have answers that we could use. We could use a scientific reply, such as stars are in the sky because they are individual planets, satellites, and galaxies that have moved from the center of a gigantic explosion billions and billions of years ago, or we could say that God liked pretty lights so God sprinkled some in the sky, so we wouldn't be so afraid at night. The one thing you don't want to say to your kid is "I don't know." It is as if by saying those words we will lose credibility, especially with the people we most want to be truthful with, to be trusted by, and to be accepted as someone with knowledge to share.

It is difficult to say, “I don't know.” Somehow it would make it a little easier if we could say “I don't know, but I'll be glad to go and look it up and report back.” In a stressful situation, though, we don’t often think of doing that, especially if we are stopped by authority figures when we are walking down the street or driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and we are stopped by somebody wanting to know who we are and what we are doing there. It is very easy to say “I'm sorry. I got lost and could you please give me directions.” Or we could say “I am taking a walk. I live several blocks over and I'm on my way home.” Of course, we could be there for a nefarious reason, sizing up who is at home and who is not, who leaves expensive items lying around outside like a bicycle or a car. We could be an assassin or a burglar, or we could just be a person taking a walk. The authority doesn't know what we are doing, hence the question. In the light of that, they don't take kindly to perceived prevarications and the situation can escalate from there.

Jesus himself, at one point at least, used pretty much that same phrase when questioned about when God would come to restore Israel. This takes place in Matthew, and in that query, Jesus replies by saying no one knows, even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but only God has the answer. If Jesus could admit something that he didn't know, why should we be so embarrassed about saying it? Granted, the circumstances are a lot different, but still, there are times when it would be so much better to just admit to not knowing then to try to come up with some sort of plausible or implausible answer to a question.

None of us likes to look like we are lacking in total possession of information that others might want. Parents and teachers especially get this, because someone is always asking them questions. Sometimes they are not prepared the question, but they feel it creates problems for the for the person asking if they don't get an answer. It is a tough situation, whether it is life-threatening or not. No one wants to feel like they are uneducated or lacking in knowledge, but if an answer is given that isn't correct and the person who originally asked finds out, wouldn't that be the same as losing credibility by saying, “I don't know?” So, what is a person to do?
Some people never reach the point where they're comfortable saying that they don't know something. Others, quite often older folks, reach a point where they feel comfortable saying that they don't know. I find it is really a rather freeing thing to be able to admit to another person that I don't know everything. I can offer perhaps an example of what I have found in a similar situation, but many times I just don't have an answer. What I’ve also learned is that I don’t necessarily always have to have an answer. Sometimes just listening attentively to the questions is enough. That’s when wisdom kicks in.

I’m practicing the “I don’t know” response more often these days. Perhaps there are times when that is the most Jesus-like thing I can do.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, June 2, 2018.