08 September 2017

Now and Next

The first half of daily office gospel reading for Friday is one of a type of passage that I struggle with. To me, It implies that planning for the future is somehow wrong.

This is an issue I have struggled with since the first time I read the bible through when I was a teenager. Since I can remember, I've always been a planner and organizer (of space and time), so it is difficult for me to see any downside to planning ahead.

That said, there are definite downsides to getting locked in to a vision of how life will go.

When I was in high school, my imagined future included a spouse and at least one child (frequently a girl to be given my middle name) beyond that and vague ideas of having a 'job' my imagination did not take me.

My life has been so much wilder and richer than that imagined future. The only constant between my teen imaginings and reality is that I do have both a spouse and a, now, adult child, both of whom I delight in.

I wonder if the warnings about living too much in the future are in part warnings against getting locked in to one idea of what the future 'should' bring and thus missing opportunities in the 'now'.

One of my own weaknesses, and a flip-side of being a planner, is a tendency to get grouchy if a plan is changed without my input. That grouchiness does not add anything to my own experience or to those around me. It can drain the fun and spontaneity out of a gathering.

There are times when sticking to a plan is helpful and necessary and there are times when flexibility and the ability to 'go with the flow' are necessary. I'm just not very good at the flexibility half of the equation.

So, I take this passage as a reminder that my plans are not sacred. They are not holy writ (as much as I might like them to be treated that way), they are an idea of a future that has not come yet and if my plans don't come to fruition, is it really a good idea to stay locked into them?

Even if I have a plan, massive events like wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes are all larger than I am and can sweep both me and my plans away.

Rather that invest energy in 'how it should have been' this passage encourages me to use that energy to adapt to what is actually happening around me and to embrace events and people that are more than anything I could ever imagine.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in September 2017.

26 August 2017

The Ones Who Stay

The Old Testament lesson for Friday's daily office is a bit of a ramble for it is the middle of a series of stories of uprisings against David.

In the midst of the passage we are introduced to Barzillai, an 80-year-old man.

Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. The king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you in Jerusalem at my side.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king recompense me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, so that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and my mother.
~2 Samuel 32-37

I was struck by the idea that we can reach a point in our life that accepting the hospitality of another, even that of a king, is a burden rather than a blessing. Barzillai ends up sending Chimham in his place and David promises: "Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you; and all that you desire of me I will do for you."

At this point in the story, David is on his way to reclaim his throne after being ousted by his son Absalom. Absalom has been killed and his followers defeated.

The passage from the reading is part of a sequence of David repaying follows or redressing wrongs that came out of his flight from Jerusalem. He is trying to reward Barzillai. However, given the unsettled nature of the narrative at this point in the story, it is not surprising that Barzillai might want to stay home rather than go tramping about with a king in David precarious position.

Even setting aside the multiple reasons Barzillai might have for not joining the king at his side, I think there is a time in everyone's life where the need for hearth and home overrides the need for adventure.

Many times the stories of the bible call out for people to leave home and find a new place in the world. In the old testament alone the major patriarchs all end up leaving home, frequently at the direct urging of God or God's angels.

This is the rare story where someone articulates the value of staying home, not only because he professes that he will be a burden on the king, but because he sees his own end is coming and he wants to die at home "...near the graves of my father and my mother."

David offers what he sees as a reward to a faithful supporter, but to Barzillai the gift would be too costly. For once in his life, David listens and does not insist on having his own way.

Barzillai is old but not helpless. He has resources and is willing to use them to support the king and help him return to the throne. Barzillai still has the power to take action.

Sometimes it is easy to assume that because someone is a stay-at-home or because they can't do as much as they used to, that somehow they are completely useless.

I combat that feeling in my own life. My various weird medical issues make it difficult to engage with people, even people in my own household. Even when I 'get stuff done' the limitations I face can leave me feeling both useless and hopeless.

So this story helps me. It puts in perspective the idea that anyone is 'old and useless'. Just because Barzillai wanted to stay home did not mean he was accepting a passive role or that he was waiting around to die.

If Barzillai had not been home to welcome David and his followers and to help feed and shelter them, then David might not have been able to support his forces and win back his kingdom.

By staying home, and using his limited energy strategically, Barzillai paved the way for David's victory. We don't all have to be adventures, sometimes the adventurers come right to our door and need the help of those who stay.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in August 2017.

10 August 2017


Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
~Mark 9:24

The above quote is from the gospel reading for Friday's daily office. It struck me because it seems to contradict itself.

'I believe,' the father says. That seems pretty comprehensive.

'...help my unbelief!' the father says in his next breath.

It is as if in the very moment he said 'I believe' he realized that he didn't, really. However, the line just before the father's statement is: Jesus said to him, 'If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.'

In this moment, the son is having a seizure and the father is watching in anguish.

Like the hemorrhaging woman from two weeks ago, this child has been suffering for a long time with this illness.

Like Jairus, this father has been watching his child suffer, only able to watch and try to keep his child from additional injury.

He has told Jesus that the boy has fallen into flames and into water in the past.

Even in this moment of great duress, the father is honest. He wants Jesus to save his son. He wants to believe, but he can't quite get there on his own.

He asks Jesus to help his 'unbelief' and while nothing else is said of faith or belief, Jesus does drive out the possessing spirit and heal the child.

I suspect my own faith is much closer to this father's than to the hemorrhaging woman. She was rock solid in her belief that just touching Jesus would heal her. Given the number of times in the Gospels that faith effects a change (following Jesus, being healed, walking on water) it is tempting to think that Jesus only responds to those of 'true faith'.

However, in this story we see someone who understands that faith is necessary while in the midst of doubt that he could ever have such faith. I think the key to this story is that the father asks for help, not only in healing his child, but in finding his own faith and that Jesus accepts that and goes on with the healing.

The father's offering of a desire for faith was enough.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in July 2017.

26 July 2017


When Jesus had crossed again in the boat[a] to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

~Mark 5:21-43

I have read the story of the woman suffering from hemorrhages many times and heard many sermons on the topic. However, it wasn't until I read the Daily Office appointed for Friday that I realized that this portion of Jesus's ministry is two, intertwined stories.

First we have Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, who comes to Jesus and pleads on behalf of his own daughter. Jesus agrees to go with him.

On the way the woman with hemorrhages, whose name is not given decides to risk touching Jesus's cloak in the belief that Jesus has the power to make her well again.

We don't learn her name but we learn more details of her suffering than we do about Jairus and his family. She has spent more than a decade with her illness. No doctor had been able to help her. She had money to spend on her illness and had spent it all in hope of a cure. She was left with no money and no cure, she was worse off than when she had first become ill.

After having to face this disease, it medical and social consequences, and the steady diminution of both her health and her wealth for twelve years she puts faith above fear and reaches out to Jesus.

It is only after she has been healed that she fears Jesus's response. However, when he calls out in search of the person who has touched his power she does not give into her fear; she in fear and trembling, confesses her action and the faith that motivated that action.

She believed first and feared second.

Jesus affirms her faith and confirms that she has been healed. More than that, he tells her to go in peace. He makes it clear once more that she has done rightly and should have no fear going forward. He heals both her body and her spirit.

Jesus is then interrupted by some of Jairus's friends who say that his daughter has died and he should stop bothering Jesus.

Jesus tels Jairus not to fear and they continue on to Jairus's house.

Jesus gets all of the mourners and extended family to leave the house. He states publicly that the girl is not dead, just sleeping. Then he, Peter, James, John, Jarius, and Jarius's wife (another unnamed woman) go to the bedside of the little girl. Jesus calls her back into life to the amazement of the parents and the disciples.

However, where the healing and affirmation of the faith of the hemorrhaging woman was public, Jesus insists that this event be kept secret. He orders all present not to share what has happened and in his next breath orders them to round up some food for the risen girl.

Two things strike me at this point. The girl's age is given as '12' the same length of time time the hemorrhaging woman suffered. Also, she is a girl and not a grown up.

I wonder if part of the reason Jesus insists on secrecy is because this girl is still a child. Unlike the hemorrhaging woman, she did not choose to come to Jesus for healing. It was not her own faith that made her well, but that of her father.

I also wonder if the nature of the two illnesses made a difference in Jesus's behavior. With the hemorrhaging woman there were social as well as health implications to her illness, she was continually ritually unclean due to her bleeding and she had been that way for as long as Jarius's own daughter had been alive. There were probably people in her community who only knew of her as the bleeding woman. The fact that Jesus, before witnesses, proclaims that she has been healed may be an incidence of him seeing that she would need more than just physical healing to go on with life. She would need to be publicly declared clean of the taint of blood to give weight to her own declarations.

The girl, on other hand, does not need to be seen to have been publicly healed. The fact that she is alive is enough. If anything, she and her family might benefit from privacy.

Having been healed by Jesus might cause unwanted attention. I wonder if Jesus had groupies like modern media stars do today and if ordinary people who had brushes with him and his disciples wound up with early-day Jesus-groupies camped on their lawn hoping to get a glimpse of people whose lives had been touched by Jesus.

I've always wondered why, in some stories, Jesus is insistent that the people touched by his power and those of his followers that witness the resultant miracles are told to keep silent and not proclaim to all and sundry how they have been healed, while in other stories, word is spread far and wide of the miracles of Jesus.

It is in this story that I see for the first time that the condition that each person brings to Jesus is a combination of physical, social, and spiritual suffering. Like a careful doctor or therapist, Jesus seems to tailor his approach to each person's needs.

At no point does Jesus say that the people he heals must worship him. He does not have a cookie-cutter response to each person, or to their family and friends who are frequently witnesses.

The one thing he does seem to say in most cases is 'your faith has made you well'.

It is the choice of those who have come to him that brings their healing. It is their action that saves them. If they had stayed home, or given into their fear and turned away as Jarius almost did, then they would not have been healed or seen their loved ones healed.

Time and time again Jesus heals those to come to him. He frequently gives more than they ask for: forgiveness of sin, public confirmation of healing for example. But the one thing he does not do is go in search of people to heal.

They come to him in both fear and faith and by that faith are healed and told to fear no more.

It is the message to 'go in peace' that comes through in this reading. The hemorrhaging woman took on her own healing and Jesus gave her that and peace.

The girl was lifted out of death into life and Jesus insisted that her family give her peace through their silence about his part in her healing.

It is embedded in our worship via the Song of Simeon in Morning and Evening Prayer, in the service of Compline, and in the Daily Devotionals:

Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised;

We can say it at the end of every Eucharist:

Deacon: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God.

Jesus strove over and over to show us that our own faith is was brings us closer to God. Like the hemorrhaging woman or like Jarius upon hearing of his daughter's death, we still experience fear mixed in with our faith as we try to figure out what our faith is impelling us to do.

Jesus sees our fear and reminds us all to 'go in peace'.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in July 2017.

12 July 2017

Incidental Details

David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper...
~1 Samuel 17:20
David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage
~1 Samuel 17:22

It is not a new thing to say that we are all bit players in the lives of others. In the section of 1 Samuel for this Friday's Daily Office we see David heading to Elah where Saul's army is fighting with the Philistines. He has been sent by his father to deliver a care package to his three older brothers and to their commander. He is also charged with bringing home some word of how his three brothers are faring.

This is simlar to 1 Samuel 9:3-14 where we see Saul sent off by his father to find the missing donkeys.

In each of their stories, both young men were sent on an errand that changed their lives forever.

In this story we are not to that point, yet.

David must first leave the sheep with a keeper before he can set out on his errand.

Then once he has arrived at the camp he must find the keeper of the baggage and leave his things in the that person's charge before going to find his brothers.

Both of the keepers in this story are mere bit players. They have no names, only duties that allow David to go further into his own story.

While David is talking with is brothers he hears, for the first time, the challenge of Goliath. He begins asking questions of the men around him.

David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” The people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done for the man who kills him.”

His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men; and Eliab's anger was kindled against David. He said, "Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.”
~1 Samuel 17:26-28

One thing about siblings, they sometimes know more than you do about your motivations. It is interesting that David's focus is more on what 'a man' might get from defeating Goliath, than on what it might take to do so in the first place. I wonder if the focus on the spoils of victory was one of the things that alarmed Eliab?

Whether Eliab knew his brother was going to challenge Goliath or not, he does seem to be trying to put his brother back in his place as a bit player in Eliab's own story and not as a principal in the narrative.

This reading ends with David asking:

David said, "What have I done now? It was only a question."

Which I personally tend to imbue with a certain whiny, self-justified tone that I can't figure out how to convey in writing. However, I think most folks have either used that phrase or had it used on them (especially by the above mentioned siblings) that it is not a unique experience.

Later in the story we see David rise from youngest son in a large family to King of Israel in Saul's place.

However, for those inside the story, nothing is certain. David is still the annoying youngest brother who seems to be more interested in what is going on at the front than in accomplishing his twin errand of delivering goods and then returning home with news of his brothers for his father.

His brothers don't yet know that David will slay Goliath. There is much that they know of David that is not in this story.

I do think it is helpful to look at the one piece of information about David that comes from his brother: 'I know your presumption and the evil of your heart'.

Given the messy and complicated nature of David's time as King, Eliab may have given us insight into the future king.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in July 2017.

29 June 2017

Serendipity and Saul

Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, had strayed. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the boys with you; go and look for the donkeys.” He passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then he passed through the land of Benjamin, but they did not find them.

When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to the boy who was with him, “Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.” But he said to him, “There is a man of God in this town; he is a man held in honor. Whatever he says always comes true. Let us go there now; perhaps he will tell us about the journey on which we have set out.” Then Saul replied to the boy, “But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What have we?” The boy answered Saul again, “Here, I have with me a quarter shekel of silver; I will give it to the man of God, to tell us our way.” ... Saul said to the boy, “Good; come, let us go.” So they went to the town where the man of God was.

As they went up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and said to them, “Is the seer here?” They answered, “Yes, there he is just ahead of you.... Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.” So they went up to the town. As they were entering the town, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the shrine.

~1 Samuel 9:3-8, 10-12, 14

In the Old Testament reading for the daily office for Friday we see Saul setting off to find his father's donkeys. At the end of their resources, when they are out of travel food and out of ideas for where to look, the way his helper suggests going to see the 'man of God'.

Saul resists initially and it is only through the helper's persistence that they go into the town and meet Samuel. Out of that meeting, Saul becomes the ruler over all of the people of Israel.

On the one hand, the story later tells us that God had warned Samuel that Saul was coming; however, Saul had no inkling of what was in his future. He was just searching for lost donkeys and feeling a bit lost himself after not finding them after a long search through Ephraim, Shalishah, Shaalim, Benjamin, and finally Zuph.

Serendipity plays a role in Saul becoming King. It has played a less critical but possibly more fun role in my own life.

In 2000, my mother and I made a sort of pilgrimage to Norway. Her father, my grandfather, had been born there in the early 1900's and when his mother and father emigrated to the United States they left family behind. Mom and I first visited our cousins, including the man who was first cousin to my grandfather and who had visited us in the 1980's. Our cousins' took us around the greater Olso area and showed us some family landmarks, including the apartment building where my great-great grandfather and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and 7 siblings.*

After visiting with them, we were on our own for the rest of our trip. While in Oslo, we walked around downtown with no particular plan in mind. We went to a modern art museum which featured half of a cow embalmed, which was not our thing. Then we stumbled up on the Postal Museum which used dioramas to tell the story of the development of the postal service in Norway. All of the displays were in Norwegian so we both tried to guess what the real story was and made up our own stories based on what we were seeing in each diorama.

It was a little like theological refection, in that we engaged with the material and then thought about what was speaking to us in each story. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon. When we reached the end of the museum, we realized that they had handy little brochures in English that provided translations of the text at each diorama. I was actually glad we hadn't found those at the beginning of our tour as our way of going around and telling stories to each other was much more fun.

It was after that time spent wandering around a museum that we never knew existed that we decided to intentionally embrace both spontaneity and serendipity in our travels. Mom has always been better that that than I have so it was a great lesson for me.

Saul's search for donkeys that ended up in his being anointed ruler of all Israel reminded me of the power serendipity can have in my life if I let it.

Later, on another trip, mom suggested that we take a boat to the Isle of Staffa and see Fingal's Cave. I'm not the best on the water and was initially resistant, but then I remembered that trip through the postal museum and also that the chances that I would ever get even the opportunity to visit Staffa were nearly zero. So I said yes to something that wasn't planned and wasn't something I would have tried on my own.

Like Saul's helper, my mom encouraged me to try something I was resistant to, she answered my questions, and made it easy to say yes and I went on to have an amazing adventure that I will treasure for the rest of my time on earth.

Without his helper, Saul would have given up the search for the donkey's and would not have met Samuel. And while his reign did not end in glory, he had an amazing opportunity that he would have missed out on if he had not allowed himself to be persuaded to visit the holy man.


*What is known in my immediate family as the "nostalgia tour".

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in June 2017.

17 June 2017

Competition for Perfection

Nearly 2 years ago, during the last General Convention I learned a phrase that I have found very useful in my life:Perfect is the enemy of good. In the context of general convention the quote was intended to point out that, with some legislation, the desire for perfection in wording can lead to nothing getting done at all.

Sometimes that drive for perfection comes from a sincere desire make something the best it can be. Sometimes the push for perfection masks a desire to kill all initiative.

My most recent experience with perfect being the enemy of good came in the form of spiraling expectations of myself.

After the 2016 presidential elections, I resolved to become more politically active. I succeeded in getting in the habit of reading the news intentionally, making donations to organizations and candidates, writing informational posts for groups I belonged to, learning more about social justice, and of calling and writing my state and federal legislative members about issues of concern to me.

This success lead me to increase not only how active I was but the quality of my activism. For example, instead of just calling when I was awake and leaving a message*, I tried setting aside time to call during normal business hours.

I made other resolutions about improving the 'quality' of my activism. I put quality in quotes because I was the only one who was judging that quality. I have learned before that just about any non-violent activism is better than doing nothing but somehow the sneaky competitive streak that wells up in me from time-to-time decided that I needed to do better and better as I went along.

My competitive streak has gotten me into trouble before. I'm good at a fair few things but not great at any one thing but I have a dysfunctional desire to win. Over my 48 years on this earth that desire has damaged relationships with my nearest age brother, made it no fun to play games of skill (or sometimes even luck) with me, and generally wound up leaving me feeling inadequate.

I have learned to avoid competition, and when I can't, to laugh at myself when I find my anxiety rising and my stomach churning. So when I roll a bowling ball into the gutter, or make a bad play in Pinochle I to try to let go of that desire to be the best; of that dysfunctional feeling that it is my right to do well, and of the echoing feeling of disappointment when I do poorly or when I lose.

However, it still sneaks up on me in the oddest ways. This time it was in the form of competition with myself, to continuously beat my previous 'record' of activism.

In one way it sounds like self-competition could be a way to motivate myself to do ever-better. However, in practice, I've found it never works that way.

Like most everyone else, I have limited energy and fair amount of everyday work and household tasks that need to get done. I only have so much time for activism and if I make increasing demands on myself for 'more and better' I eventually start putting off the activity all together because my goals for it exceed the time and energy I have.

This is where Perfect is the enemy of good. comes in. In my case perfect (or even 'better') can cause all activity to come to a halt. I stop calling, because I'm not making calls to my standards. I stop writing, because the list of things I want to write about is too large for me to manage. I forget the lesson that I learned in the past that sometimes done sloppily is better than not done at all.

Now that I've realized what is up with me. I've gone back to a simple plan that I think I can keep up with. I'm going to keep an eye on my desire for increasing perfection and give myself permission to just be good enough for today.


*I'm usually asleep during most normal business hours. It's a huge effort to have my brain working enough to call before 5pm on most days.

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

03 June 2017

Being Real

I have been writing stories, keeping diaries, and thinking of myself as a writer since I was in elementary school. As I got older, it was normal for friends and family to refer to me as 'the arty one'-- which was not always a compliment. In High School when I took fiction writing classes most of the people around me regarded writing as a chore. They few that didn't were rare.

I grew up in Wyoming and at least in Wyoming in the 1980's there was a strong streak of anti-intellectualism. Being smart and worse liking things like reading and writing, and frankly, school, that were signifiers of being smart made me the target of snide remarks. However, books, both the reading and writing of them, were so central to my identity that hurtful words weren't going to stop me. Also, reading was actually one of the few things I was good at. I could read fast and retain what I read. I loved words and was terrible at just about everything else.

When I went to college I made friends with other people for whom reading and writing were central to their lives. It was as if my world had suddenly opened up. Here were people who wrote stories. I joined fandom for the first time in my life. Before that I had no idea that people connected by mail and wrote stories about characters from fiction that they loved. I learned more about writing from fellow Elf-Quest writers than I ever did in any class I ever took. I learned how to edit other people's work. I learned how to give and take feedback. I learned how to co-write with another author. It was amazing and I thought I wanted to do it professionally.

I started subscribing to writing magazines (this was before the Internet). I worked on my writing. One day I was reading one of the magazines and there was a list of what made up a 'real' writer. I didn't match any of the things on the list. It was my first encounter with the idea that someone else might try to define what made up a 'real' anything. Needless to say I was angered by the piece. The author had attacked my 'realness' they had said that something that was central to my identity didn't exist, that I didn't exist.

I thought of that today when I was thinking about the gospel reading for Friday. It is the old dichotomy of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and Martha busily working and Mary sitting at Jesus's feet listening.

I'm not going to go into how divisive this passage can be, instead I'm going to pretend that each woman did the thing that spoke to her in the moment. Mary sitting and listening, Martha cooking and cleaning. They both contribute something real to the moment. The gospel writer has Martha ask which way is better, her's or Mary's and Jesus backs Mary.

However, in truth, the dishes need to get done or the rats and ants will come and make an even bigger mess. The guest should be welcomed and listened to because that is the point of having guests over in the first place.

Jesus was a guest in their home, sharing a moment in time with them but by saying that Mary had chosen the better part, the gospel writer has him deny that the things that are central to Martha's life are of real importance.

This is in contrast to Jesus's other encounters with women. In those he heals them and their children, he accepts their rebuke (both his mother and the Canaanite woman), he defends them against others (the anointing woman). In those stories he rejects all attempts to deny the reality of the women who come to him. He accepts their suffering, he listens to what they have to say, and in some cases he changes his approach to his ministry because of what he learns.

I need that Jesus. I know how painful it can be to be told that I'm not real, or that I'm 'not doing it right.' Writing is central to my life, it is how I express myself, it is how I make connections, it is how I make friends. I write even when no one but God is watching.

There is no one right way to go through life, but letting other's define if we are 'real' enough is surely one of the wrongs we can do to ourselves.

A synonym of 'real' is true. We should never loose sight of our true selves, what ever that might me. For me it is the importance of the written word in my life and in my faith. I am truly a person of the book and without the written word my relationship to God and God's works would be greatly diminished.

When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.
John 16:21

19 May 2017

Perfection Not Required

I was driving around with my son and another driver or a pedestrian did something that was ill-advised right in front of us. There was no major problem, my son is an excellent driver and very aware at all times of what is going on around him on the road. (It is one of many reasons why when we go places together, I let him drive us.)

The incident led to him grumbling about the other person's lack of good decision making (perhaps not in so many words). I mentioned that people doing random things is one reason to build slack into any system. Tolerance for errors helps a system be flexible.

Yesterday, I was reading a friends Facebook post where she mentioned that she would be getting new prescription lenses from her eye doctor because she needed to move to progressive lenses. I wrote back that progressive eye-glass lenses were like a miracle you could wear on your face. Mine allow me to drive, or watch TV or knit, or many other things that I would not be able to do with out them.

That got me to thinking about how humans were not create perfect. We may be made in God's image but apparently perfection was not something God felt should be included. Instead God gave us brains and creativity so that we can find ways to both work around our own imperfections and help others do the same.

I've needed glasses since I was 10. Hundreds of years ago a human figured out that a transparent lens could bend and focus light. Other humans figured out that this bending property could be used to bring things into focus for people with weirdly shaped or aging eyeballs. A miracle made by humans for other humans to wear on their face.

Flexibility in the system allowing me to function without perfect sight.

This evening I was driving home from my adventures visiting parts of Puget Sound that I had never been to before, and I stopped for food before heading home.

At the restaurant I misunderstood what the cashier was asking me and got charged less than I should have for my meal. After I was done eating, I realized what happened and tried to pay the remainder. The cashier thanked me but didn't accept my money. I suspect that is in part because the accounting software isn't really set up to deal with that situation and honestly. The fact that the cashier had the flexibility to deal with the situation meant that I feel affection for the restaurant and will certainly be back (and now that I understand the system, pay full price).

All of these encounters with flexibility contrast with some of the things I have seen in the news lately about systems being allowed to run amok with no apparent flexibility built in.

It reminds me of Jesus taking the Scribes and Pharisees to task for following rules but not the spirit that may have originally engendered the rules.

When people follow rules blindly and forget about the reasoning behind the rules it can lead to terrible disasters, to injury and death, to wounds that will never heal. I think that God built imperfection into humans, animal, and (as it says in the Book of Common Prayer) the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.

Imperfection and flexibility go hand-in-hand. When humans begin to believe they (or their rules) are perfect then their is no room for humans left in the system and it can grind us up-- using other people as the grinders.

In order to avoid being either the grinder or the grindee, God has give us a great gift. The gift of Grace. The gift to be messy and imperfect. The gift to make space for others to be messy and imperfect.

It is out of the mess and imperfections of our lives that some of the greatest love, inventiveness, and creativity can come.

We may long for perfection-- but that is not what God gave us in our incarnation. We are born imperfect and we die imperfect and if we let that bother us we lose sight of the messy flexibility that is our birthright.


Quotations are from 2007 PDF edition of the Book of Common Prayer, page 370.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in May 2017.

06 May 2017

Humility and Hubris

It was a combination of a television show and a novel that started me thinking this week.

I have read and listened to the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers more times than I can count. Her writing is exquisite and Ian Carmichael's narration of many of her books is the only thing that got me through a past health crisis.

Back in the early 1990's my husband and enjoyed watching The Father Dowling Mysteries. Recently I discovered they had been released on DVD and decided to buy a set and see how they held up after nearly 30 years. While they are definitely a product of their time, the first few episodes at least are still enjoyable to watch. The series features a Catholic priest, his nun assistant, and the vicarage housekeeper who work together to solve murders. The thing I remember liking about the show back when I first watched it was that the show at least touched on some religious themes and complications of being an active Christian (which was and still is usual for prime time TV).

In Unnatural Death Lord Peter talks to a vicar (Mr Tredgold) about his involvement in pursuing a murderer and what his ethical and moral duties are in this case. He is concerned that in investigating a death he has stirred up the murder to take action. After Lord Peter has left, the priest thinks to himself:

" I wonder what brought him here. Could it possibly be--No!" said the vicar, checking himself, I have no right to speculate. He drew out his handkerchief again and made another mnemonic knot as a reminder against his next confession that he had fallen into the sin of inquisitiveness.

This action of the vicar's, to call attention the way his thought were straying speaks of a mindfulness on his part.

When I first read the book, I was struck by how seriously Mr Tredgold took what I considered to be normal curiosity on his part as a transgression. The desire to know everything is such an all-consuming drive in our modern culture that the contrast of the vicar's self-enforced reticence to pry into another persons affairs (even in the privacy of his own mind) to our modern 24-hour news cycle where rumor can rapidly be reported as fact and where their seems to be no pause for thought before the 'publish' button is pushed.

This never-ending cycle of news, rumor, and speculation gives the illusion that we can know everything that is going and, further, encourages that thing which most of the ancient Greek plays warn against, hubris. If we begin to believe that we can know all, then it is easy to slip in to the idea that we should be able to influence and control the world around us.

When that illusion of control breaks down because we are confronted with illness and death, with injustice and greed, and with disasters that bring us up short our inflated sense of control is punctured and not only do we feel despair, we feel that we have in some way failed.

When I was watching the first episode of the Father Dowling Mysteries, I was struck by a quiet moment of prayer. Father Dowling is praying in church after witnessing a man seemingly commit suicide right in front of him. He had been trying to talk the man off of a ledge and was distracted for a moment and looked away. The nun comes in and chides him for taking the blame for the man's death on himself.

While she does not use the word 'hubris' it becomes clear that part of the point she is making is that Father Dowling is falling into the error of believing that he could control the actions of another person.

It was in this moment that something I've been struggling with for years came into focus. When I was growing up in the church, it felt like a great deal of stress was always laid on the idea that humility was a virtue. Between the be-attitudes in the new testament and the teachings in Sunday school, the importance of being meek and humble seemed to be everywhere--especially if you were a girl.

My mother, from my early teen memories, was determined that I would be able to take advantage of rights that women had only gained in her lifetime (and some in my, then young, life). In particular, I remember her telling me that I should always have my own credit and bank accounts because it was only in the 1970's that women could have their own credit cards independent of the men in their lives.

Needless to say the idea I was getting from the church that girls should be meek and humble was in direct opposition to what my mother was teaching me. She stressed the importance of being independent to stand up for myself. As a result of this conflict and aslo of the churches own abuse of the 'Mary meek and mild' stereotype to keep women in their place, humility, as a concept has been contaminated for me. I was never able to see it as a good thing.

What I realized through the fictional exploits of Mr Tredgold and Father Dowling is that humility can protect us from hubris.

It is so very easy to slip into the idea that if we just know enough we will be able to have some measure of control over our lives.

Jesus comes to tell us to put down that burden. Only God can know all. We are imperfect and so our understanding is also imperfect and prone to error.

It is one of the reasons we say the Confession of Sin every week. Our own imperfections combined with a sometimes misplaced enthusiasm can lead us astray.

Embracing the idea that we can not know all, that we can not be all, and that we definitely can not control anything but our own choices is my new working definition of humility.

Like Mr Tredgold, I hope to go forth with knot in my handkerchief to remind me of the protective qualities of true humility.

As the celebrant says during the Great Thanksgiving: In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

May we always choose to be brought out of error into truth.