Monday, July 29, 2019

Toe-in-the-Water Sunday

Life was almost always pretty good when I was a child. We didn’t have to lock doors, and nobody ever heard of bad things (other than alcoholism, dancing, playing cards and the like) except in church (or if the neighborhood alcoholic, a member of a GOOD family) walked by. Our family lived in a very safe neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else, and I couldn’t get into much trouble before somebody turned up to get me out of it and take me back home. The preacher at our church lived in our back yard (and also was a frequent pair of knees under our dinner table). I got occasional spankings and slaps from Mama, but it was usually because I had been naughty, like running off to visit a neighbor on our street without telling her where I was going. There were some bad things in my life, like verbal taunts and mean words from a relative, but it was never discussed or called “abuse.”  It hurt, but I learned it was just something I had to learn to live with.  In the church, about the closest thing to abuse we experienced was being shut in a room and told we couldn’t leave until we had signed a pledge not to drink alcohol ever. I think I was about ten then.

Lots of people weren’t as lucky in their childhood and adolescence as I was. For some of them, the home wasn’t a safe place, and abuse was not unheard of. Nobody ever talked about it, though. It was one of those things that “Just wasn’t done.”  Perhaps it should have been.

Abuse means more than physical or emotional punishment. It is cruelty, violence, or improper use of a person or animal (and sometimes of an object, such as forcing it to work harder or longer than it is intended to bear). It’s an all-too-familiar word to us today and has grown to include places where abuse takes place that seem as if they should be free from such evil, places like schools, offices, and most of all, churches. There’s scarcely a denomination where it has not been a suddenly “discovered” or “uncovered” offense. Often it is known about but simply swept under the rug to preserve the good image of the Christian faith.

About eleven years ago, I left a church I loved, not because I disagreed with its theology or positions, but because I felt I was verbally and emotionally abused by a member of the clergy. I had been very active but gradually dropped out of everything because it seemed I was under increasing scrutiny and was unable to meet expectations – or perhaps it was just a power trip for that person. I felt hurt, disrespected, and worthless. I should have developed a tougher skin and let such things bounce off me, but I couldn’t. I knew before I left that others felt the same way, so it wasn’t just me. Still, it was hard not to blame myself as much as the one who, I felt and knew, was the cause of it.

I loved my church. It was my community and like a family to me. But there came a time when I had to do as Jesus said in Matthew 10:14, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet (NIV).”  It put me off the church, but not off God or faith.  I went by that church every day going to work or shopping, but I could not bring myself to go back in or even ask for help when my husband died, I had cancer surgery, or anything else. I still had friends there, but I didn’t have a home.

Fast forward eleven years.  I’ve gone through a lot and grown in the process. The offender has left the parish; there are new people in charge. I was invited to return by a person enrolling in my online Education for Ministry (EfM) group who happened to be from that parish.  I took my reluctance in hand and made an appointment with the new rector. He seemed to be someone I could trust and who would respect me as an individual (and that I could respect in turn).  I felt God tugging on my heart, and my mind was full of possibilities.  It was time.

So tomorrow, I’m celebrating what will be a “Toe in the Water” Sunday. I can’t commit unless I am convinced that this is the place I should and need to be.  I won’t be asked the first Sunday which ministry I would like to join, although there are a couple in which I am very interested.  I have amends to make to several people for various things, but most of all, it is time for me to do what God has told me so often to do – “Go. Sit. STAY!”  God knows I’m not a dog, but I do need to be reminded that I was led to the Episcopal Church many years ago, and that’s apparently where God wants me to be. I need to be reminded of that once in a while, it seems.

I’m nervous, yes.  It’s not easy to go back to a place where abuse has taken place, not just of me but of many others as well, just like it’s not easy to jump off the end of a pier into deep water without learning how to swim first. What I’m doing is like sticking a toe in the water to check the temperature and then gently wading out, deeper and deeper, until I am comfortable and once again a participating and contributing part of a community that accepts me and whatever gifts and ministries I can bring them.  It’s not rebirth—once was enough for that—but it’s like a reception or hopeful return home. It’s an acknowledgment that I need community, and this one is offering me that. So I’m straightening my shoulders, holding up my chin, and sticking my toe in the water, hopefully for the last time.

Still, I could use a few prayers for courage, please?

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 27, 2019.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Professions of Faith

Television is a marvelous thing. I remember a child being mesmerized by cowboys and Indians, and their sidekicks: dogs, horses, female friends, and jeeps. Television has never stopped being something amazing and almost necessary for me because I learn things from programs it presents, from forensics to religion to history to travel to places I’ve never been or will ever see for myself.

I was watching a program on the travels of the apostles after Pentecost. One of the stories that they presented was the story that appears in Acts 8:26-39 that we know as Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Philip was following the instructions of an angel to travel along a particular road. He came across a foreign man sitting in a chariot reading a scroll. Philip went to the man and asked if he understood what he was reading, which happened to be the book of Isaiah. The man, a eunuch and a high official of the Queen of Ethiopia, said that he was unable to do so because how could he understand unless someone taught him. Philip proceeded to talk to the Ethiopian, explaining that when Isaiah referred to the Messiah, he was speaking of a man named Jesus. As they walked along, talking of Jesus, the eunuch expressed a desire to be baptized. He and Philip went into a nearby body of water, and Philip baptized him. Philip was taken away by the Spirit to another land, and the eunuch proceeded on his journey home.

Something about this program got me thinking. The script had the eunuch utter the words, “I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God,” and that served as his profession of faith. The book of Acts reports instead that the Ethiopian remarked that there was some water and asked what prevented him from being baptized.  That made me wonder about whether or not Philip had required a profession of faith, and what is sufficient for us to be baptized now?

In the church of my youth, each service would be geared towards the last few minutes when the preacher would come down from the pulpit and stand in the center of the aisle as we sang a hymn, usually “Just As I Am.” Between each verse, the preacher would urge us to open our hearts to Jesus and accept him as our “Personal Savior.” The calling would go on for several minutes before he started the next verse. After the second verse, there would be another pause and encouragement to come forward.  The third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth verse followed the same pattern. 
He reminded us of our sinfulness and how Jesus had come to save us, but we needed to accept that and be baptized for it to become a reality. Becoming a Christian could only be accomplished by publicly accepting Jesus as a “Personal Savior.” Then, several weeks later, I was immersed in the baptistry at the front of the church at a Sunday night service.  I did what was required, got dunked as a sinner, and walked back up the baptistry steps, soaking wet and able to proclaim that I was now a Christian. I was saved from my sins and with a hotline to God to ask forgiveness for any fault, great or small, that I might commit in the future, something like a “Get out of jail free” card.

What came to my attention through the television program was the simplicity of the affirmation of faith the eunuch pronounced. There was no personal savior involved; it was an acceptance that Jesus was the Son of God, and that was all that was necessary to believe. Perhaps the writer of Acts didn’t feel a specific affirmation of faith was required. The formula for such professions would come later as the church grew, and the times became more perilous. Still, the Ethiopian’s statement caught my attention and made me do some thinking.

At this stage of my life, I have pretty much rejected the idea of a personal savior. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I can say the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers more than once at a phrase or two. I can identify fundamental (as opposed to Fundamental) Christian beliefs, recite things like the Beatitudes and a number of the Psalms. I can retell the stories and parables, and explain them with some understanding, but I can’t claim Jesus is purely my personal savior.

I believe that when we say that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, he didn’t only come for a few people, like his disciples and his followers that came with him on his journeys. He came not only for the Jews, but also the Samaritans, even the Romans, and, as time went on, for the Gentiles who encompassed everybody who was not Jewish. To me, that is a much more significant and more powerful belief than merely claiming a personal savior. Either Jesus came to take away the sins of all the world, or he didn’t come to take away the sins of any. That phrase, “the sins of the world,” makes all the difference to me.

I believe that Jesus Christ was, is, and will always be the son of God. His mission on earth was to teach us how to live in relationship with God and with each other. I would say that that is my statement of faith and the reason I am a Christian.

Each of us has to come to our own statement of faith. As I contemplate my particular statement of faith this coming week, I will be looking deeper to see where I am in relation to that statement of faith, and where I can find God as well as Jesus in it. Give it a try yourself. Make a statement that embodies your belief, not necessarily using the language of the church but rather the language of the heart. See where it takes you.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 20, 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lesson from a Baby Blanket

The baby blanket I was knitting was going well. The knits were where they were supposed to be, and the purls were in their proper place. Things were nicely,  and I thought, “I’ll get this thing done in no time,” and then disaster struck. I got a little too comfortable with a simple pattern that I was doing, and all of a sudden, I had a mess, or what I consider to be an error. It only takes one stitch put in the wrong place to really mess up a pattern;  it seems to stick out like a white rabbit amid a crowd of black cats.

One thing is for sure, none of us goes through life without somehow messing up the pattern, whether a craft item or a something else, leaving a distinct error either visible or invisible. It’s frustrating, but it happens to all of us. Sometimes we get a little too comfortable with the way things are going, and, in turn, we make a mistake and things get out of whack. Sometimes the error can be erased or unraveled, and the correct configuration put in place, but sometimes, that error is just plain there for good.

I know for sure that God watches my errors and mistakes, and very probably clucks God’s tongue at how I could mess up something so badly. So I purled four stitches instead of three, or perhaps I did five instead of four. Whichever it is, it throws off everything. God notices those errors a lot sooner than I do and it all comes down to whether I am willing to rip out however many rows or rub out however many mistakes I’ve made in my work to redo it. The thing is, though, that God loves me anyway, and sympathizes with when I get frustrated at making the same error over and over again, no matter how careful I try to be. The tendency to make mistakes does not make me any less lovable to God, and thank goodness for that.

I know how frustrated I get when I make a mistake, whether it’s in writing, knitting, or just about anything else. I know that in some cultures, it’s customary for an error to be made somewhere in the product to show that a person made it and not merely a machine. I love that concept, but in my own work, it’s hard for me to make a mistake I can see and not fix it. It may not be visibly apparent to someone else looking at it for the first time, but I have to live with knowing that there are flaws in my work, no matter how hard I try to get them out.

I'm glad God loves me, even if I'm an inattentive knitter sometimes. I'm happy that I'm old enough to realize that God loves me no matter what, even if I make mistakes and grieve God by making those mistakes. But by being willing to try and fix them, or ask forgiveness for them, shows God that I understand what is expected of me and acknowledging my humanness. I have come to realize this more and more as I grow older, and it's more and more comfort each passing day. So what if I have to pull out some stitches, I can always put them back in and do it correctly. If I make a mistake in my life, I may not be able to pull it out and correct it, but I can do my best to make it right, whether it's rubbing out a bad sum or a wrong word, or expressing regret to someone I've harmed. It gets less stressful each time I do it. I also find it's a great deal easier to take responsibility, and then give it to God and let God take it from there.

So now I will go back to my knitting. I only have about a foot left to go, and I will try to be careful not to have to rip whole rows out again and again because I didn't pay attention. I may be doing this baby blanket as a gift for someone, but I'm also offering God’s love in it, the love comes from God who forgives all my mistakes and loves me in spite of them.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


Isn’t it amazing that you can read a passage from the Bible a hundred times and each time there seems to be something new that you haven’t considered as much as you might have? That was the case for me reading the passage from Matthew about the bridegroom being present and also the part I think more people remember, which is the cloth, wine, and wineskins part of the story. Jesus reminds us that new wine is not put in old wineskins because those skins might burst with the fermentation of the wine. While wineskins and cloth could both be patched, it had to be done very carefully to preserve the usefulness of everything.

It made me think about patches as I’ve experienced them. I remember when holes and slits were covered carefully by pieces of cloth that made the garment it last a little longer, but you would never put a patch on a dress you would wear to church or school unless there was absolutely no alternate item of clothing to wear. In my grandparents time, and for many centuries before that, patches were often seen as a mark of frugality. Getting one was a symbol of getting a little more wear out of an otherwise useless dress, apron,  or pair of pants. Patches were very carefully done to be as neat as possible, and, when the clothing finally wore out, the cloth could be cut out and made into patchwork quilts which prolonged the life of the fabric while producing something quite useful to the household.  It was an example of “making do,” especially when times were hard and money was tight.

While I was reading, I thought of patches and remembered going to college for my freshman year. I had carefully packed just about everything I owned, and one of the things that I took with me was a wool blanket from my Aunt Edie’s house. I loved that blanket. It was scratchy, and it had a scent of wool and some other things. Of course, it had moth holes in it, so Aunt Edie had run new seam binding around the edges and patched the gaps with more of the same brown satin seam binding to make it serviceable. I unpacked my stuff and made up my bed before my new roommates came in, friends who had been together for years, and who came from a considerably higher social status than I did. They unpacked their new sheets and blankets and then decided we would go downtown to buy new bedspreads. I could see that they were looking askance at my patched cover, but I didn’t care. It was a link to home, and I was in a strange place, learning to live with people who were unknown persons that I had never met before, and the blanket spelled comfort. I didn’t really care about the patches, but I sometimes wished they weren’t there.

In Jesus time, there was very much a belief in the scarcity of goods. If someone had more of something, then others would have less to balance it out. If a wineskin got a hole in it, it would be patched with the hope that it would hold the wine added to it. Just because something had a hole in it did not mean it could be discarded and a new one procured to replace it.

It occurred to me that there are times when trying to put new ideas into rigid minds is very much like putting new wine in old and patched wineskins. The patches will shrink and leak, but the memory will simply slap another one on and hope that it will hold.

I noticed that as I get older that there are many times when it’s tough for me to change my mind about something, a kind of keeping old and patched ideas wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket with moth holes. Then I realize how many times I have come to new ideas and even beliefs that have opened my mind. It was like putting new wine into new wineskins so they can ferment and be stored safely. I think of that as a God moment. It makes me stop short and think about the transfer of this new knowledge this new wine into a wineskin put there just for it. Yes, the wine changes a bit, and the wineskin has to make a few adjustments, but still the new thoughts are there, the container is there, and it’s a perfectly natural process.

We never see Jesus with patched clothes, but maybe he had angels to patch them for him, or maybe artists and sculptors never considered that he would wear out the garments that he wore every day to travel and to preach in. Perhaps we should put a few patches on Jesus clothes. Maybe it would remind people that work wears things out, but if they are tended carefully and repaired regularly, they are a lot more useful for a longer time.

I may be old, and have plenty of patches on my soul, but if I allow Jesus to carefully patch those inside my soul, heart, and mind, then I can hopefully extend my usefulness into the project of bringing the kingdom of God here and now. I don’t even mind if Jesus uses very bright patterns of cloth. I’m planning on being a patchwork quilt when I go to meet him.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 6, 2019.