08 September 2018

Elevator Pitch

I've been a member of many organizations over the years that have had or developed mission statements. One of the concepts I learned during the process was that the mission statement should be short and pithy. It should be akin to pitching a story idea to a producer in an elevator. You have short elevator ride to get your story idea across and to get the producer interested enough to meet with you about it for a second time, aka the Elevator Pitch.

Christianity, as a religion, has had 2000-plus years to accumulate a massive backstory; starting with the basic tales of Jesus in the four gospels, adding the Acts of the Apostles, gaining a plethora of saints, staining and straining that faith by mixing it with temporal and political power, and trying to make that power accountable for the abuses that have been done in its name. There is a lot of history to explore and learn from, and it can be difficult to know what to start with when exploring even our own small branch of the Christian faith.

In the readings for the Daily Office, Year 2, Proper 17, Friday we have an example of an evangelist boiling down a huge chunk of history as a basic introduction to where Jesus sprang from:

“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’
~Acts 13:16b-25

Paul covers the history of the Jews from Moses to the coming of Jesus in one short paragraph. If not quite an elevator pitch, it is definitely a quick summary of the major events that have lead to this moment in time. This summary places Jesus in a particular context for this particular audience; paving the way for sharing the good news.

We have examples of Peter and Paul customizing the message for their current audience. Given the success of the early disciples at spreading the word about Jesus and building the early church I would guess that many of them were excellent at meeting people where they were and conveying the message of Jesus to very diverse groups throughout the region.

The fact that the ideas were shared and claimed by enough people for it to grow from a small group, to a sect, to a whole new religion that survived the fall of Jerusalem, the split between the eastern and western followers and became one of three traditions that share a beginning in the stories in what became our Old Testament says something about both the effectiveness of messengers and the longing for the message.

For a story to have an effect, two things must be in place: the story must have an internal power-- there must be something compelling about it to catch the attention of the listener; and the listener must be ready to hear that particular story-- there must be a way for them to see how they fit in the story, or how it makes sense in the context of their own lives. If the storyteller does not have a compelling tale or the hearer is not ready to listen the story dies.

Something about the story of Jesus, his experience, and his followers has caught the attention of millions of people over the past 2000 years. Some people have had Paul's Road to Damascus instant conversion experience, some have been raised in the faith and have carried it on to the next generation, some have had a long and winding journey to find a spiritual home within the Christian faith.

Given that it is flawed humans that carry the faith from the time to Jesus to the ever-moving-present, it is something of a miracle that the message of Jesus still has power to speak to new generations.

Like Paul summarizing the history that linked the past history of the Jewish people to the life of Jesus, each of us has the power to carry the message of Jesus out from our churches into the world.

This does not require showing up on strangers doorsteps and asking them about their personal relationship to Jesus Christ. Honestly, I feel nothing could be more off-putting. Instead, it requires that we live our faith and be open to sharing it with people who express an interest.

Paul responded to an invitation from the officials of the synagogue who said: "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it."

Like the script-writer trying to sell an idea, the elevator pitch of our faith will be most effective if it is customized, contextualized, and compelling to the individual listener.

Not everyone is ready to hear the Good News, some will never be ready, but for those who are: we have a humdinger of a story to tell.

25 August 2018

Silence

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job 2:11-13

Earlier this year, when I was helping my dad take care of my mom in her last weeks, there was a lot of room for silence.

One of the side effects of mom's last illness was severe shortness of breath. She was on oxygen full time and between a lack of stamina and the fact that talking was a big effort, we spent a fair amount of time with whatever baseball game we could find playing. But, even with the deluxe baseball package my dad bought for her every year, there wasn't quite enough baseball to fill the hours.

When mom didn't have the energy to talk, and didn't need me to fetch and carry for her, I would sit with her and knit. Keeping my hands busy by knitting, turned into a form of meditation. It allowed me to be present and ready at any moment for my mom-- either to talk or listen, to make her lunch or dinner, or to bring her things she wanted. I'm not very good at just being still.

Job's friends were able to be still and silent with him and for him. His suffering was so great and inflicted on him in a way that no mere human could control that their presence was the only gift they could offer their friend.

It can be very difficult to sit with someone else's suffering. But sometimes is the only thing to do. It may not help in the sense of bringing physical healing or fixing the problems a person is facing, but it can bring a person who is suffering back into the fold of humanity.

Mom had a hard time sharing the fact that she was not only ill, but that what she had was incurable. This was not because she was in denial, but because she did not want people treating her as if she was her illness. She did not want to lose her unique humanity to her illness. Most of all, she did not want people talking in hushed voices to her in the 'oh, it must be so dreadful' way.

In her last weeks, mom had a lot in common with Job. She most need just a few trusted friends and family who would treat her as a person and her illness as just a practical thing that had to be dealt with. Dad and I did our best to keep her and her choices about how to live in the center of our own lives and sometimes, what she needed most was our constant and silent presence.

11 August 2018

The People

Often in the stores told in the bible there is a main character the story revolves around and it can feel like it is their actions or their sole relationship with God that is driving the story.

However there is another, sometimes misguided, sometime powerful voice in the stories of the Old and New Testament: the people.

In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the bible, there are 1558 references to "the people" listed in the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament. Sometimes 'the people' are just background characters, there to give flavor to the story. Other times they are critical to the path the story takes.

'The people' as a character in the story, are very often foolish and make terrible choices. The entire book of Exodus is full of the people as a whole making choices that irritate and enrage God; misunderstanding God's purpose for them; or sometimes, more rarely, thanking God for giving them what the needed, praising God and promising to be ever-faithful.

The people in the New Testament are just as fickle. Some days they are following John and Jesus around hanging on their every word. In others they are calling for Jesus to be put to death.

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood;[a] see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
~ Matthew 27:24-26

Later, in Acts, 'the people' have swung around to another opinion and oppose the "...rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family" (Acts 4:5) when these high-status people want to punish Peter and John for healing and speaking in Jesus's name.

There is no way to know if this group of 'the people' was composed of the same folks who shouted for Jesus to die.

After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.
~Acts 4: 21

What we do see over and over in stories in the bible is that 'the people' are an actor in the narrative and that they frequently drive the powerful, be it God or human leaders, to distraction.

The people, either when acting as a concerted mob or just as individuals that happen to support a specific goal in the moment, often change the course of the story.

The people, by their presence in the stories, also serve to remind the readers that the 'named' characters weren't the only actors in the unfolding drama of the relationship between God and humanity.

It is never just Abraham and Sarah, or Aaron and Miriam, or Saul, or David; it is not just Peter and John, or Mary and Martha, behind all of those named in the stories is a universe of unnamed people who are sometimes central and some time peripheral to the story, but who will all be impacted by the choices made in the stories.

Just like the named characters, sometimes 'the people' get to act directly in the story and make terrible choices that must be recovered from or atoned for.

To me, the fact that 'the people' are not just passive background in the stories is a reminder that God's relationship is not just with the named characters that appear in the bible, but with all of us. The new covenant God made through Jesus is not just with the disciples but with everyone.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
~Matthew 4:23

-------------

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayunless otherwise noted.

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.

28 July 2018

The Book Written for Me

Because I am one of the many people who cannot read any of the ancient languages the books of the Old and New Testament are written in, I depend on the scholarship of others to translate those books into English.

Translators work hard not just to capture the meaning of ancient words that we no longer have context for, but also to phrase the meaning using a structure readers can understand. It doesn't take much of a change in wording to change the sense or emphasis of a biblical passage.

The first biblical translation I ever read was the King James Version (KJV). Here is the King James version of Psalm 40: 6-7, part of one of the readings for today.

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.

Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me,

Here is the same passage from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the translation that I default to.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
  but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
  you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
  in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

Other than updating the language from Early Modern English to Modern English, the change that catches my attention is the one from 'Lo, I come' in the KJV to 'Here I am' in the NRSV. This may only be an artifact of my own limited understanding of Early Modern English, as 'Lo, I come' might mean exactly the same thing as 'Here I am' to a native speaker of Early Modern English. However, to me, there is a difference in the energy of the phrases. 'Lo, I come' indicates movement, a sense of departure, and a decision to take action on the part of the speaker; while, 'Here I am' indicates stopping, a sense of arrival, and a past decision brought to completion.

The King James Version was published in 1611 and the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. In the 378 years that elapsed between these two publications there were advances in biblical scholarship and an increase in the number of original sources discovered that scholars could use. That discovery and scholarship continues to this day.

In 2007, Robert Alter published his translation and commentary of the book of psalms. His commentary includes explanations of his translation choices, notes about the meaning of some phrases, and notes of areas of the text that are fragmentary or challenging to translate.

His offering for Psalm 40:6-7 is:

Sacrifice and grain-offering You do not desire.
  You opened ears for me:
    for burnt-offering and offense-offering You do not ask.
Then did I think: Look I come
  with the scroll of the book written for me.*

The changes of note between this translation and that of the NRSV are the phrases: 'opened ears for me', 'offense-offering', and 'the book written for me.'

He notes that: "'You opened ears for me' literally means, 'You dug open ears for [or, to]'--that is, vouchsafed me a new acute power of listening to the divine truth. In later Hebrew, this idiom karah 'ozen comes to mean 'listen attentively.' It is also possible to construe this--because 'ears' is not declined in the possessive--as God's listening attentively to the speaker."

It is interesting that the other two translations give the ears to the psalmist while Alter shows that the ears have just been opened. There is no clear ruling on whose ears they are. That opens up many possible meanings for this on phrase. The newly opened ears might be those of the psalmist, those of God, or even those of a third party or parties. I love the visceral power of 'you dug open ears' giving the sense as it does of a lot of work going into getting those ears to open.

The other change of Alter's that speaks to me is the change from a book written 'of me' and a book written 'for me'. A book written 'for me' by God that I carry with me has a different sense than a book written 'of me'. If the book is 'for me' it is a gift given directly to me, something I can refer to and use as a reference going forward in life. If it is 'of me' then it is about me, making me an object of the book rather than an active user of the book.

Spending time looking at different translations made to fulfill different purposes, allows me to embrace and analyze the text from different points of view.

King James gave his committee of translators instructions that "intended to ensure that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of, and reflect the episcopal structure of, the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy."+

The guiding principal for the New Revised Standard Version was: “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

Robert Alter is trying to capture the compact and unique poetical structure of the psalms in English while using modern scholarship.

Each of these translations is impacted by the underlying goal brought to the translation process by the people working on the project. I think there is great value in looking a different translations, not only because it is interesting and expands my idea of what a particular passage might mean, but because this multiplicity of voices reflects how difficult it is to hear the voice of God.

We are so very tiny in the vastness of the Universe and therefore in the Vastness of God. As we see in the the story of Moses in the Old Testament, meeting God face-to-face changes a person irrevocably. God is too big for us to fully comprehend first-hand.

Jesus, coming to us 'incarnate from the Virgin Mary' as we say in the Nicene Creed is something we can comprehend, even if we aren't great at always following his teachings. Through Jesus, God shows us how we can live in relationship with God and with our fellow humans.

For me, translations of the biblical texts, helps add to that faceted nature of God. The Old Testament God is one facet, Jesus another, and the stories humans have told about both of those facets are further expressions of the nature of God. There is a fractal nature to it that allows for infinite expression of our understanding of God.

The book written for me, is not just one book and not just one understanding of that book. My book is is shimmering multifaceted jewel that reflects one understanding of a story when the light hits it one way and another when the light changes.

What does not change is the stone itself, my understanding that while God, while vast, is the at the heart of the book written for me.

-----------

*Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms:: A translation with commentary (pp. 142). New York: W.W. Norton.

+Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4. via Wikipedia

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayunless otherwise noted.

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.

14 July 2018

Gathered In

Today the Daily Office reading that caught my attention was from the Old Testament.

In Deuteronomy 31 we have reached the point in the story where Moses must hand over power to Josuha as God has made it clear that Moses will not live to cross the Jordan into the promised land.

For some reason the assigned reading skips the most poignant part of this story. Not only has God already told Moses he will die soon, but God keeps referring to Moses's imminent demise throughout the conversation between God, Moses, and Joshua.

Earlier this year my mother died. I was with her through her final weeks as she slowly released each of her responsibilities as she found she could no longer do them. The one she held on to the longest was co-ordinating Speaking to the Soul and while she did not want to give it up, she reached the point that she just wasn't mentally able to work that used to be easy for her. Letting go was made easier because a new editor volunteered and Mom got to see that the project would carry on with out her.

Still, it seemed to me that the hardest part of the process of dying for Mom, was when she reached the point where she had given up all of her responsibilities and regular interaction with friends.

Reading the passage from Deuteronomy, I wonder if that is how Moses felt in this time of transition. The time of his death had been appointed. He was, with God's encouragement, giving up his primary role and was seeing something he had been involved with for most of his adult life moving on without him.

As my mom was going though the same process, I was impressed with her strength and grace. Yes, she was mad this was happening to her, but she never took that anger out on me or Dad as we cared for her. She took care to let go of things when she could no longer do them and kept her own failing powers from sabotaging projects she loved. She didn't hang on until the bitter end and that made the end more full of grace.

In reading, Moses had one last job to do before he died. At God's direction, he wrote the Song of Moses and he and Joshua, together, recited it to the people.

He did his last job to the best of his ability and didn't rail against his fate or sabotage the succession of Joshua to his place.

Once the recital was finished, God told Moses to Mount Nebo where Moses would die and be gathered to his kin.

Having seen my mother give up one responsibility after another, all of them things she had loved doing, it did not surprise me that she died only a few days later. Maybe it should not then surprise me to see Moses make a similar end.

I will always miss my mom. I think of her every day. However, one of many great gifts she gave me was living into having the grace to let go. She, like Moses, did her last jobs and then left us to be gathered in with all those who went before.

-----------

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway

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.

30 June 2018

Saints Peter and Paul

The idea I took away from my Sunday school days, was the idea the saints Peter and Paul were very much like brothers. The fought like cats and dogs about the fundamentals of the nascent Christian faith but both passionately believed in what they were building. That shared passion is reflected in the letters that tell their stories.

Today's lessons for their shared feast day encouraged me to broaden my understanding of the ideas Peter and Paul brought to the communities they worked with.

In the reading from Acts, Peter tells the story of two visions that brought him to a Gentile family. He had a vision in which he is told, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 11:9b). At the same time, men from Caesarea had their own vision of an angel who said: "Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved." (Acts 11:13b-14)

When Peter met and spoke with them, he saw the Holy Spirit come down on them as it had with his fellow disciples. He tells this story to help his fellow apostles and the believers in Judea who were critical of him for eating with the uncircumcised.

I had always thought that it was Paul that lead the way among the Gentiles and who opened up Christianity for all who wished to follow the teachings of Jesus and that Peter was deeply opposed to it.

I think part of that idea came from the other New Testament reading for their shared feast day. In this reading, Paul comes right out and says: "On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised..." (Galatians 2:7).

Given their histories, it makes a lot of sense that Peter, one of the first disciples of Jesus, would work among the circumcised; while, Paul, a Roman citizen with his 'road to Damascus' conversion, would serve the uncircumcised. They had very different life experience and had come to their faith in very different ways.

However the passage from the book of Acts is a good reminder that these two saints, while being so different, did work in tandem. The shared the goal of getting the Good News of Jesus's message of the Grace and Love of God into the wider world.

I wonder if Peter had taken to heart the experience Jesus had with both the Samaritan woman at the well and the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter.

Peter had also had the experience of hearing Jesus's parables first hand, and it would not surprise me if the vision he related in the book of Acts sprang directly from from the parable found in Matthew 15.

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” ... But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
~Matthew 15:10, 15-20

So while Paul would later come to see his role as that of the main missioner to the uncircumcised, Jesus had already planted the seed in Peter's mind that his message had the potential to reach far beyond the original disciples.

The story Peter tells also acts as a conversion experience for his audience in Judea:

And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
~Acts 11:16-18

The apostles and the believers in Judea go from criticizing him for spending time with the uncircumcised, to being stunned into silence by the power of Peter's story, to praising God for giving the Gentiles such a gift.

I suspect this conversion effect could only have come from Peter. Peter had a shared background with the group in Judea and a rapport with them that Paul probably didn't have. Paul had, after all, spent the first part of his life persecuting any Christians he could get his hands on. If the same message prompting acceptance of Gentile believers had come from Paul, even if by then the Christians in Judea trusted his conversion, it might not have had the same underlying power that Peter's telling of the story had.

Peter and Paul figured out that the messenger can matter in their shared ministry of spreading the Good News. There were communities that Peter could more easily reach because of his Jewish background and his direct connection to Jesus. There were communities that 'got' Paul better because he was a citizen of Rome (and therefor of the Known World at that time). There were communities that would trust Peter because they had known him all their lives and there were communities that better related to Paul's 'road to Damascus' conversion story.

For all that the narrative of Peter and Paul can be one of battling it out for the soul of the early church, from the passages appointed for their shared feast, it is clear that they agreed on at least three things: the message of Jesus was important enough to spend (and risk) their lives on; all are welcome to follow Jesus and enter into the community of believers; and sometimes, the messenger matters.

-----------

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway

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.

16 June 2018

The Dust of God

There is a lot to work with in the readings for Friday in the season of Pentecost, Proper 5. Not the least because it is interesting to look at the difference and similarities in translation between the Book of Common Prayer and Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms.

Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
  Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me,
  O God of Israel.
...

The afflicted shall see and be glad;
  you who seek God, your heart shall live.
~Psalm 69:7, 34 Book of Common Prayer

Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me,
  Master, O Lord of armies;
Let those who seek You be not disgraced through me me,
  God of Israel.
...

The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
  those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
~Psalm 69:7, 33 The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter*

The words that arrested my attention are similar in both texts. The psalmist is suffering from many afflictions in this psalm and is calling out to God to save them while also naming all of the suffering and uncertainly they are experiencing.

However in the midst of their own suffering, they take a moment to hope that their shame does not reflect badly on other people who wish to follow God. They express the hope that their visible suffering will not dissuade others from finding a relationship with God.

I think of this in relation to my own private theology and in a modern context. For example, I don't believe in prayer as a vending machine: put prayer in, get results out. I believe that prayer is a way to talk to God about what is going and, in the process, to bring my thoughts and desires into line with what I believe. Prayer doesn't change God, or make God act. Prayer changes me.

I also don't believe that God saves people from harm. If I believed that, it would mean everyone who dies or is hurt does so because God chose for it to happen. To me, that negates the entire concept of free will. If God is doing the choosing then nothing we can do has any meaning.

That does not mean that our will can override our circumstances or the randomness of the universe. If I die from getting run over by bus, or get cancer, or live to be 99, none of that is in my direct control, but neither is is God's choice for me. I think that God hopes I will make good decisions with my life, but in order for it to be my life, God can't step in and 'save me' from myself or from just plain bad luck. I am tiny, the universe is unfathomably large and will affect me in strange and unpredictable ways-- it the same way that a breeze blows a dust mote around. I can't choose actions of the breeze, but I can choose to remain in relationship with God while being blow along.

Going back the psalmist: if people know that I worship God and try to live by the rules God gave me, and I still visibly suffer, how can I hope to be a helpful representative of God to others?

I think the psalmist answers their own question in verse 34: The lowly have seen and rejoiced, those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.

The path to God is not easy. Life itself, with God or without, is hard. It is full of 'the slime of the deep', 'the water depths', and '[our] folly.'

But God, while respecting the boundaries of our free will, can still be a companion in our distress. The psalmist calls on God's kindness, clear sightedness, steadfastness, and compassion. God's attention to our prayers can help us rescue ourselves, not from death and destruction as that comes to everyone in time, but from losing our faith in God's abiding love for us.

One day we will all return to God. But while we are here on Earth, God lets us all find our own way, painful though that process might be. God always "listens to the needy" (Psalm 69:35a) and makes space for us inhabit as we offer ourselves in prayer.

...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.
~Ecclesiastes 12:7
-=-=-=-=-

*Mr Alter uses a different numbering system on this psalm than is used in the Book of Common Prayer.

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayor the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

01 June 2018

What Price Love

In reading for the daily office for today, I found verse 15 of Psalm 31 speaking to me.

My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
~Psalm 31:15

I noticed how the psalmist made a distinction between 'enemies' and 'those who persecute me' and it made me think about how often the worst damage done to people is not by enemies by friends or family.

How many of us actually have 'enemies' in reality? I would guess very few.

On the other hand, how many have had a relationship go bad, or had to learn how to create and enforce boundaries with people we thought we could trust, or had to cut off contact with a family member or friend because the relationship had become toxic? I suspect a great many more people have gone through this than have ever had an enemy.

The Psalms have a lot to say about enemies. There are over 80 references to enemies in the NRSV translation alone. Interestingly there are only 11 references to 'friend' and nearly all of those are the psalmists complaining about friends who have done them wrong*.

Looking at this, it feels like it was easier for the psalmists to complain to God about all of the evils their 'enemies' were doing to them, than to bring up issues they were having with their friends.

This is not surprising to me. It is much easier to dehumanize someone from a distance and put them into the category of 'evil enemy' than it is to stand up to friends or family who 'done you wrong' especially if those people are deeply enmeshed in your life. It is feels easier in the moment to make excuses for their behavior and hand wave it away than it is to confront them.

This is very true in close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else and risking being the one to speak up can mean risking, not one, but all of your relationships in that group. It gets even more complicated when that group is a faith-based community that tries to take seriously Jesus's command:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
~Matthew 22:36-40

If we are called to put love first, what do we do when someone in our community acts badly? The temptation is try to preserve the community by sweeping the issue or behavior under the rug and pretend that it didn't happen.

Or, if you were ever like me as an earnest 20-something, spend hours working with the person and the group to try to find a solution. Not realizing that in some situations there is no good solution that will work for everyone-- especially if any of the people involved are acting in bad faith.

It took me a long time to learn that not every relationship is worth saving. Part of what delayed my learning was the idea that I should love my neighbors, all of my neighbors. In part, my issue was a lack of understanding of the complexity and fierceness of love. My early ideas of love were a lot like the fiction I wrote at the time: everyone hugs at the end and feels better. That rather one-dimensional view of love left no room for dealing with the damage a close friend or family member could do. If there was no way to 'hug it out' because the relationship was toxic, the person was spiraling out of control, or they were abusive, what then?

How to protect myself from "those who persecute me" when those people are my friends and family and not an isolated 'enemy'?

The key, I think, is in Jesus's command itself-- we are to love others as we love ourselves. We are to love our neighbors, yes; but not at the exclusion of caring for our own needs. When we find ourselves in a relationship that is damaging, then we need to love ourselves enough to take action.

Embracing love as Jesus calls us to, does not mean embracing being passive. I firmly believe that the love Jesus talks about is an action not a feeling. It is something we are meant to do not just experience. Part of loving our neighbors and ourselves is setting healthy boundaries and calling out destructive behavior when we see it.

Jesus called us to make heaven on earth through love. To do that we need to make it clear that abuse, bad actions, and bad faith are not, and never have been, any part of love.

-=-=-=-=-

*Which makes me think that the Pslams and the Blues have a lot more in common than I ever realized.

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway or the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

19 May 2018

Endurance

They shall perish, but you will endure;
they all shall wear out like a garment;
as clothing you will change them,
and they shall be changed;
~Psalm 102: 26

Once, long ago, I wrote ElfQuest fan fiction. I fell in love with the stories as a young adult and they were some of the first comics I ever read.

When I started college, one of the first friends I made came from our shared interest in the ElfQuest series. This was before the Internet, so finding people with shared interests was more a matter of luck than diligent searching. This friend introduced me to the idea of fan fiction: that people could like something so much it would inspire them to write their own stories set in the same world.

Some of the characters we were writing about were both artists as close to immortal as makes no never-mind. I became fascinated with the idea that they would outlive any artwork they made. More than that, that their subjective experience of time, might cause them to feel like a tapestry they spent years making turned to dust in the blink of an eye.

Would they go back an re-make a favorite piece that had been destroyed by time? Would their aesthetic have changed so much in the intervening decades that they would not be able to imagine re-creating something, even if it was beloved? Would they even miss something that had vanished while their attention was elsewhere?

At the time, I had a lot less life experience and a lot less knowledge about how fragile most art is. Thirty-years on, I have seen moths go through my closet and snack on handmade woolens, I have worn favorite socks until they can no longer be darned, and I have made garments that I have worn until trying to patch them leads to the results cited in the Gospel of Matthew that is part of today's Daily Office:

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.
~Matthew 9:16

Nothing tangible can endure in its original form forever, even million-year-old fossils are rock-shadows of more transient forms of life.

Like our garments, we will wear out in time. The things we make, the events we plan, the actions we take will all fade away from the world; sometimes before we ourselves do.

I wonder if that is the reason that in the same passage from Mathew that is cited above, Jesus says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Matt 9:13)

Sacrificing an object, an animal, or even some of my time to God may be seen as transactional and short term. In this moment, I do X in exhange for Y. The relationship does not have to persist past the moment of sacrifice. Both sacrifice and relationship are transitory and temporary.

When Jesus calls for mercy rather than sacrifice he calls us into a state of being. Instead of giving a thing that moth and rust can destroy, he asks us to give our attention and focus; to use our energy to show mercy rather than to judge.

When we judge we put a wall between ourselves and other people. This wall of our own opinion can make it impossible to see people as human. As with the Pharisees, judgment turns fellow humans into "tax collectors" or "sinners" instead of Zacchaeus or Mary or any of the other followers who Jesus called to him by name.

We shall all perish, we shall all wear out like our favorite pair of socks but until then we can take on Jesus's request to hear and show mercy to those around us.

Doing so might be harder than making a one-time sacrifice, but it has a great potential to open our hearts and allow us to hear Jesus call us into his love by name.

-=-=-=-

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

The psalm is from the Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer containing both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

22 April 2018

Ann Fontaine, Rest In Peace

My mom, Ann Fontaine, passed away peacefully on April 18th at home after several weeks of hospice care.

We have set up a Memorial site where I can post the latest on the plans for her memorial service,  friends can share memories of her or post the dates of any local celebrations of her life they are hosting, and where we can preserve her "What the Tide Brings In" blog posts.

The site is: http://seashellseller.org