22 April 2017

Two Visions

I was at Norwescon 40 Easter Weekend. The Science Guest of Honor was Ethan Seigel who is both a a theoretical astrophysicist and a costumer. I saw him in his "Neptune" costume on Friday of the convention and in his "Rainbow Dash" costume on Saturday.

Norwescon is an all-volunteer fan-run convention that has been going since 1977. I've been attending regularly since 2006 and went a few times in the 1980's when I was in college. One of the best things about it is that it is full of 'both/and' people. Everyone there has a day job from baristas to, well astrophysicists. We are at the convention because something about Science Fiction and Fantasy media speaks to us on a deep level. For me it is the fundamental hope for a better future that was embedded in much of the science fiction I read as a teen combined with the wealth of creativity I see in the fan community.

Fans of all ages from toddlers to great-grandparents attend the four-day convention. Many (me among them) wear costumes they have made (or talked friends in to making for them). I love seeing what everyone has come up with.

One of my best moments of the convention was seeing Mr Seigel in his "Rainbow Dash"* complete with having dyed his beard rainbow hues. While he was walking through the convention I saw one child spot him and squeak excitedly "Mom, Look! It's Rainbow Dash." Less than 30 seconds later another child about age 6 came up to Mr Seigel and said: "Are you the science-man?" Mr Seigel said yes, he was. The second child said, in an solemn, passionate tone, "I love physics."

In an instant, two children saw one man dressed as a make-believe pony in two different lights. They were both thrilled to see the embodiment of something they loved manifest before their eyes and their joy lit up the hallway around them.

The best thing was that the child that loved science was not disappointed that 'science man' was blue with a rainbow colored beard and the child that loved Rainbow Dash was not disappointed that Mr Seigel was also a human theoretical astrophysicist. In that moment he embodied the concept of 'both/and', enchanting two children (and many surrounding adults) simultaneously.

I don't really know what this has to do with the scripture for Friday. The daily office readings didn't speak to me this week. However, I do think that we all can get locked in certain roles in our lives and forget about other aspects of ourselves that need our care and attention.

Fear can play a part in locking down parts of ourselves. Some are rational fears-- society isn't always a very safe place for folks. Some are irrational fears-- that we carry with us that none of our friends or loved ones would suspect because we mask those fears so well-- but in masking them we lock away critical parts of ourselves that we need to be present in the world as Jesus would have us be.

Christ comes to tell us over and over that God does not want us to fear. God wants us to love. To love is to be vulnerable. To love is to put your tenderest self out in the world like a spring flower sending up fresh green shoots. Sometimes we will become beautiful daffodils and sometimes the deer will eat us.

But when we get that moment to flower, when the child comes up and says, in an awed voice: are you the science-man?, or are you the beautiful pony? not only will our own heart fill with joy, but bystanders on all sides will be able to receive the joy of that moment of open vulnerably, and open a little more themselves to love.

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* Rainbow Dash is a character in the animated series "My Little Pony, 2010".

25 February 2017

Family History

I was reading about Saint Matthias and was struck by how little we know about this disciple.

 Since he was chosen to replace Judas he falls in a an odd place in the New Testament. He was not one of the 12 during his ministry, though he had apparently been one of the people who followed Jesus during his ministry. We can infer, then, that he and Joseph (called Barsabas) were both trusted followers as they were both nominated to become disciples. It is interesting that the custom of drawing lots did not 'take' as the way to select the leaders of the church. This is a recorded instance of someone being elevated to a leadership role but did not evolve into a tradition like many other things in the church. 

 That is a side issue to my main thought. I have observed the culture wars that revolve around the interpretation of the bible and the desire some people have to treat the bible as the literal word of God. I reject that. 

 In my experience, the bible is a lot more like a family scrapbook. Such a book can contain news clippings (especially birth and death notices), photographs of family and friends, prize ribbons, programs from professional concerts and plays, ditto sheets of children's recitals and other flat (or pressed flat) memorabilia. 

The stories in the bible are like the ephemera those of us over a certain age we keep in scrapbooks (the younger generation might wind up with digitized collections of similar items). Each photograph, poem, or flower represents a story that the person who assembled the scrapbook wanted to remember. 

Each story in the bible from Adam to Zaccheaus, from Eve to Priscilla from Israel to Carthage is a snapshot that the various people who compiled and edited the various books in the bible wanted to keep so it would be remembered. 

 However, like a scrapbook the stories get muddled, changed and reinterpreted with each generation that inherits them. 

 A personal example from my own life: My great-great-great grandmother Susan was born in Scotland. Her daughter, Jemima emigrated to the US with her family in the 1880's. Her daughter Annie married and had 4 children, one of whom was my own grandmother, who always hinted that our family was some sort of landed gentry that had to leave Scotland. 

 Part of this was driven by her own grandmother Jemima's perception of Americans as unwashed and uneducated. The family had benefited from excelling schooling that was avalalbe to Scots. (Fun fact, the Scots as people had a higher literacy rate than their English neighbors of the same time period.) The fact that her daughter, Annie, probably didn't have anything to say about being forced to move to America, likely encoraged a longing for civilization (Scotland) in both mother and daughter. 

 While I was going through my family's history documents, I found a invitation to a 21st birthday ball for the son of the local lord. This may have added fuel my grandmother's romantic version of our family history. 

 The reality, as far as I have been able to work out was quite different. Jemima listed her mother and her father on her own marriage license, but not only is there no record of Susan's marriage, she lived with her own mother for much of her life and she, her mother and Jemima are all on the census together without a man in sight. My best guess is that Susan and Jemima's father never married. He died with Jemima was a child and was listed as living with his brother. 

About 10 years after Jemima was born, Susan had another daughter. That daughter had a son who emigrated to the US with Jemima's family. 

The entire family worked in Scotland. Jemima was a 'jute weaver' her husband was a 'slater' (roofer). The house where the family lived was owned by the mills and when the mills closed the jobs dried up. 

 My family were, like so many others, economic refugees. I don't know how much of my own grandmothers stories came from her parents, how many were driven by the pressures to be of 'good class and breeding' when she was growing up in the 1910-1920's. I do know that my grandmother was status conscious all her life. She worried about what other people would think. Being ladylike and having good manners were very important to her. All of that, combined with lack of easy access to historical documents, informed her own interpretation of her family history. 

 I took that same fragments of information that she had and made them into a different story. One that comes just as much from my on biases and romantic notions of the past as hers did. For me, the bible is like that: fragments of family stories that we each pick up, investigate to the limit of our interest and ability, and re-tell to our own family with our own spin on the story. 

 My own line of stories runs through Isabella, Susan, Jemima, Annie, Dorothy, Ann, and finally me. The stories that I tell about these women and their families, like the stories I tell about the people in the bible are informed by my history, education, and culture. The people who come after me will carry a bit of my interpretation with them, but will go on to create their own. 

 That is what makes history live. The stories we tell. I will never know if Annie wanted to come to the United States in 1880 or if she resented leaving Scotland for the rest of her life. I will never know if Susan wanted to marry Jemima's father and couldn't, or if she never wanted to see him again, but I can tell myself stories based on the fragments that remain. 

That is what give us a personal connection to the faith-- seeing our own life and experience in the fragments of stories our ancestors-by-faith thought were important enough to pass down to us. We give them new life with our own breath. Matthias, who ever he really was, lives on in the story of Jesus that was left for us by the church's early scrap-bookers. 

 There is no 'one right way' in storytelling. The only wrong way is to stop telling the story.

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This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 24 February 2017.

10 February 2017

The value of "yes"

Over the past 30 years I have worked with a variety of organizations as a paid employee, volunteer, or church memeber. 

I was never the primary leader, but have been a board or vestry member, secretary or assistant, or a trainer within the organization. One of my own skills is organizing information so I frequently wound up working directly with the primary leader of the organization on reports, manuals, and databases. This has let me see the way small organizations function over the long term. 

 One issue I have observed in several of the organizations I worked with was how important it was that the main leader be they a director, a supervisor, a president, or a priest communicate well with their staff and find ways to say 'yes' more often than 'no'.

 This was especially important in organizations where there might be one paid staff person to 50-100 volunteers in both secular and religious non-profit groups. Harnessing the skills and enthusiasm of a group of volunteers can be tricky. In my experience, there are some things leaders of such organizations can do to engage that enthusiasm.

 Don't kill enthusiasm by waiting months to respond to a suggestion or to an offer to help solve problem. If you know you are a slow decision maker, ask the person making the offer when they need a decision by and then get back to them no later than that date. Don't feel you need to be rushed into a yes or no in the same hour an idea is proposed to you. But don't kill it off by your failure to respond. I have seen 3 different organizations wither and die as volunteer interest dried up due to a lack of good communication from the group's leader.

Saying 'yes' can be scary, especially if, like me, you are a control freak. However, there is no way a single leader or even a small team can keep up on or be everything to an organization like a church or a secular non-profit. If your first instinct is to say 'no' to requests, ideas or suggestions then you will cut yourself off from the energy and enthusiasm of your volunteers. They are approaching you because they see a need and want to help. Honor that impulse by reining in the automatic no. Find a way to say at least a provisional 'yes'. 

Find a balance between training volunteers to be effective in their roles and killing initiative by mirco-managing. This is a bit like having a child and training them to clean or do laundry. When the task is new, there is value in showing the child how you do the tasks to get good results. There comes a point where as long as the results are close to what you desire how they get that way is best left to the person doing the work. There are many right ways to get a job done-- be open to saying yes to a way that is different or unexpected but gets the job done. 

Be respectful of the skills and expertise of members. Many volunteers bring very specific skills to an organization. With those skills comes the knowledge of what they need to do be effective and how much time they need to do a good job. If someone with niche skills offers to help solve a problem with those skills make sure they have the time and resources to do a good job. The only pay they are getting is joy in a job well done for an organization that they support. Don't kill that joy by being exasperating to work with. 

There are steps a board of directors or vestry can take to support the leader in doing these things. One is to have a clear idea of what the organization's main focus is; and, given than focus, what roles volunteers can fill what roles require paid staff. Not every job in an organization can be covered by volunteer labor. 

 Another step is to define some volunteer roles so that it is easy to say yes to offers of help. In churches, things like altar guild, flowers, lay ministers, cleaning crew, bulletin production, and newsletters are common tasks that volunteers do. In this modern age other roles might be: social media, webmaster, and computer/tech support. Identifying potential roles and the training or guidelines needed for those roles can allow a volunteer to step into a job without having to reinvent the wheel. 

There has been a cultural shift that has changed the nature of volunteering. Vestries and Boards of Directors need to ensure that they the are not working from outdated assumptions about how much time people can volunteer with organizations when they identify roles for volunteers. 

Lastly, a board or vestry, needs to be willing to both support the primary leader and hold them accountable for engaging volunteers. No one person can keep an organization going on their own for long. If a volunteer board leaves the primary leader to do all of the work, that leader will either burn out or develop bad habits-- neither of which is good for the long term heath of the organization. 

The organizations that I worked with that lasted the longest had a responsive leader, a supportive, engaged board, clearly defined roles, and training for volunteers. Planning ahead and being able to say "Yes, and we will train you!" is one one the most effective ways to welcome the enthusiastic volunteer and help them find a way in to your organization. If you don't find a way to say "Yes" to an offer of help the potential volunteer likely won't offer a second time. If they feel their contribution is not welcomed, they will find a place where it is. 

 A volunteer's only reward is joy of service. An effective leader can deepen that joy and awaken further excitement by appreciating what a volunteer has to offer. In volunteer organizations, you don't always get the help you want, but that doesn't mean you should ignore the help that is being offered. 

 Say "yes" and find joy.

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This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 10 February 2017.

06 January 2017

Well-meaning Christian

I'm supposed to be writing an essay for Friday but am so happy about some news that I have been waiting for that I'm having difficulty sitting down to write.

For the past two years we had a friend living with us. He was on the edge of becoming homeless after extended under/unemployment. A group of our friends chipped in so he could finish out his lease at his old place. There were an even smaller number of folks in that group who had homes that were large enough to fit one more person into. Of those, the only one in an area with transit and access to job opportunities was ours.

When we got into to this I thought it would be for 6 months or so. Our goal was to give our friend time and space to get back on his feet. He found a job within a month of moving in. At the end of the first year we set up an agreement that he would pay rent and plan to find his own place by the end of year 2.

Today it is almost 2 years to the day since he moved in with us and my husband and son have spent the day helping him move into his new place. To say I am thrilled is an understatement.

Part of my desire to help my friend came from my faith. I believe that those of us with more have a Christian duty to help those with less. I don't believe in a 'prosperity gospel'. I do believe that God calls me to help make earth Heaven for those who share it with me and not to help create a hell-scape of unending poverty and despair while I look on.
Also, my luck could change in a moment. We are all just an accident, illness, economic recession, or natural disaster away from losing everything. The only thing that can help us through the bad times is other people.

I would rather their was a reliable safety net so my friends and family did not have to face poverty and homelessness if luck turns on them. But, aside, from a few overstressed programs, that is not current reality. The stress of poverty, unemployment and unstable housing can make it very difficult for people to climb back up to economic stability after a crash.

After consulting with my family, we agreed to be the support network for our friend. We offered him a stable place to live while he re-built his life.

There are differences between being a well-intentioned Christian and providing effective help that prepares a person for re-entry into having their own housing. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way:

If a person is really down to their last dime, it is going to take at least a year of stable employment and minimal housing expenses in order to start saving. Plan on at least 18 months (and that only if they have good credit). Two years is really the minimum for someone with no resources left.

Folks who are near-homeless frequently have debts run-up during the time they tried to hold it together. Something I would do differently is insist from the get go that the person moving in get some sort of financial counseling and tell someone (it doesn't have to me) all of their outstanding debt and make a plan to repay it. This back-debt will affect things like the ability to get a new place even after they have had a job and built up savings.

It is difficult to know how long the person will be staying with you. However, make sure that the person knows from the get-go that this is only temporary, and once the immediate crisis is past, make a plan (in writing) for how long they can stay and what your expectations are. Expectations can be: saving a certain amount, getting financial counseling, taking steps to connect with agencies that can help. Offer to help with networking and time consuming research.

It is important to have a written agreement because, depending on where you live and your housing laws, you could accidentally create a tenancy agreement with the person. While many housing laws favor owners who are renting out a room in their home, it can be messy and expensive to get someone out if they refuse to go. We didn't consult a lawyer but that is because of circumstances in our background and our relationship with the person who moved in with us. At the beginning of the 2nd year we did have a written agreement that stipulated that it would not be renewed and set a move out date.

Working with agencies that help low income, disabled, or seniors takes time. The have a lot on their plate and response time is slow. Start finding and working with them as quickly as possible. Be firm with the person moving in that this is a requirement. Things that take a week in the commercial world will take 4-6 weeks in the non-profit world. Adjust expectations and time-lines accordingly.

Be clear in your expectations with the person moving in. In our case he was joining a complicated household with 3 adults and one teen. We have a lot of 'house rules' after 20+ years of living together. I wrote them up when he moved in and was surprised to find that they covered 5 full pages. These 'rules' were really the unwritten agreements that evolved over the years we have lived together. It was eye-opening to write them all down. 

Expectations for living with you can include: quiet times in the house, cleaning responsibilities & standards, what areas of the house the person has access to without having to ask, how appliance work (especially if you have any ones that need special treatment to keep working), how trash and recycling should be dealt with. It sounds like a lot, but if you are up front with the person it will be more helpful than if you keep springing 'but we always do it this way' comments on them.

We are very glad we could help our friend avoid homelessness, but it took work and active effort on everyone's part (not just our friend) to make it happen. My husband in particular did a great deal of networking to try to find resources.

Well-meaning Christianity can provide an opportunity to "Seek the Lord while he may be found" in our actions towards our fellow beings, but having a plan and following through will make that well-meaning Christian impulse that much more effective.

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

This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 6 January 2017.

03 January 2017

Clearing the decks

The readings for 3 January didn't speak to me this week. They are at Mission St.Clare for those that are interested.

What I have been thinking about is clearing the decks, physically, mentally, spiritually. This is fairly typical of me, I harbor deep impulses to get rid of things when I am stressed. There is no doubt that 2016 was a stressful year for me personally, medically, and professionally. The details of that stress are less important than there effect. I'm ready to start the new year with a clean slate.

I want to let go of books I've been keeping because I might read them someday. The reality is that I do most of my reading in short form on electronic devices these days. I used to be an avid long-form book reader, but that part of me is gone and keeping the left-overs adds unneeded weight to my mind. My mental inventory of my stuff becomes clogged with such items.

Un-read books* are just one category of physical things that weigh heavily on my mind and cause me to think "I ought to do X" and then feel bad that I'm not doing X. I suspect the coming year is going to be difficult without X in it.

What I am really doing when I clear my physical space, is clearing my mental space of outworn ideas, things I thought I wanted to learn, or concepts about myself as a person that no longer fit who I really am.

My self-concept used to include being a voracious reader. Years ago I couldn't imagine not being that person, but here I am in 20167 and I read two hard-copy books and a small handful of e-books. That was it, from someone who used to read a book a week and could devour an entire book in a night. Some of that shift was cultural and some internal to me but the net result is that my habits and what I enjoy are different than they were when I was in my 20's. My 20's reading self is, for all intents an purposes, dead.

One of my on-going projects has been to encourage people to get their estates in order. As part of the work I have done on that topic I have learned how little our personal possessions mean to the friends and family we leave behind. I am the person in my family who is the most into family history and all of the objects I have from various grandparents and great grandparents would fit in one small room with space to spare. That is multiple full households of belongings boiled down over the years to a few keepsakes. Most of what they owned may have meant something to them, but without the web of their life the meaning falls away.

If I have things in my own life that no longer hold meaning for me, letting go of them will make more space both physically and mentally for the things I want to do and the ways I want to think.

If the present is a boat in the rough seas of the past and present, it behooves me to think about packing only that which will nourish me on the journey.

So for 2017 I want to pack in daily prayer for my spirit, yoga for body and mind, political action for the future, and knitting, baking, and music to feed my body and spirit. Hopefully these things will give me strength to do the work I have been given to do personally and professionally in the year to come.

What do you want to pack on your own boat and what would you choose to leave behind?

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* And if I do feel the need to read a physical book, I have a physical library within 3 blocks of my house with amazing inter-library loan options (and ebooks!). So not only can I read all the books I want, I can do it for the cost of the taxes that support our library system-- for which I pay anyway.

Originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 3 January 2017

14 December 2016

Three Lights

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
~Isaiah 9:2
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
~2 Peter 1:19
When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.”
~ Luke 22:55-57

There are references to light in all three of the readings for the Tuesday of the Third Sunday of Advent.

In the first reading from Isaiah, we have light shining on people who have been in darkness, and from the context, it is understood that this is a good thing. The world is coming into joy, the rods of the oppressors have been broken and a boy child has come to bring peace to the throne of David and establish justice and righteousness for ever. This light is a joyful light of revelation and removal oppression.

In second Peter, we have passage in a letter that insists that the story of Jesus, and in particular God claiming Jesus as God's son, really happened on the holy mountain. It was not a 'cleverly devised myth'. In this case the completed prophecy, Jesus's coming, has been confirmed by the eyewitness. The fact that the prophecy has been fulfilled is to be considered as a lamp in a dark place. This struck me, because I have used an oil lamp when the power was out and when I have a single lamp burning in a dark room I cannot help but be aware of it. Unlike the steady ambient light electricity provides, an oil lamps flame glows as a point in the dark and flickers like a living thing in the moving air of a room. The idea of the lamp in the dark place seems to me then, to be something so obvious that it cannot be overlooked. It is something that would either take an effort of will to ignore or that one could become used to after it was lit and only think about it when it went out. The coming of Jesus is the light in the darkness that I should not take for granted.

In the Gospel of Luke, the light is a fire that is lit in the courtyard of the high priest's house. It is by this light that Peter is recognized by a woman and two men as a follower of Jesus and it is in that light that Peter denies his relationship to Jesus three times. The cock crows, Peter realizes what he has done, and the sun can rise-- giving a greater light than that of the fire. The light of this fire is not the joyful light of Isaiah or the persistent light of a prophecy fulfilled.

In this crowd, he is the only one who knows of Jesus's prophecy that Peter will deny him three times this night. When he hears the cock crow and realizes what he has done Peter weeps bitterly. He holds himself to account. The light of the fire he was revealed to others as a follower of Jesus and in that same light he was revealed to himself in a way that he does not like.

The great thing about Peter is that he does not accept this failure on his part. He owns up to it (otherwise we wouldn't have the story). He is disappointed in himself, but, while he denies Jesus those three times, he goes on to follow Jesus to the cross, death, and resurrection. Peter spends the rest of his life sharing both the life-story and the words of Jesus. The firelight of his denial galvanizes him into action. The dawn-light of weeping bitterly is transformed into a lifetime of service.


-=-=-=-=-=-

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

23 November 2016

Persistent Confusion

But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
~Luke 18:34

This one line among all of the readings for Tuesday, Proper 29 lept off the page a me. Like the disciples in Luke, I struggle in my understanding of things and fail to grasp what is said.

Once, when I was a teenager, I was invited out by a friend. He asked if I would like to see teachers, which I took to mean a social visit with actual teachers. This was not beyond the range of possibility in the small town I was from, so I said sure. I was completely confused when we arrived a the movie theater and went in to see the movie "Teachers". I was too embarrassed and confused by the mis-understanding to back out, and so I saw my first R-rated movie when I was 16. I remember nothing of the movie, so terrified was I that I would get caught for breaking the rules.

I wonder how much of the disciples confusion and failure to grasp what was being said came from something like that. They each have their own expectations of who or what Jesus is and what he has come to do. It is easy to let those expectations fill in for understanding resulting in confusion and min-understanding when the other person's words or deeds don't match the preconceived notions.

The thing that struck me about the disciples, however, it that no matter how confused they get they still act. They continue to follow Jesus and he continues to upset their preconceived notions of what he should be doing. He patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explains parables, encourages them in their own missions, and gives them guidance that seems to be contrary to the social mores of their time.

They suffer great fear and doubt when the death he foretold for himself comes to pass, but they don't stop hoping that it will all be for something greater than themselves. They are not perfect advocates for his message. They are somewhat messy messengers, and they go out and do the work anyway.

Jesus has this to say about the power of persistence:

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
~Luke 11:5-8

Do the thing that you can do. Be persistent in faith and in action and follow in the best tradition of the slightly clueless disciples who paved the way for a whole new faith.

-=-=-=-=-

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

19 November 2016

Lowly and in Pain

Save me, O God,
 for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
 where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
 and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
 my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
 with waiting for my God.
More in number than the hairs of my head
 are those who hate me without cause;
many are those who would destroy me,
 my enemies who accuse me falsely.
What I did not steal
 must I now restore?
O God, you know my folly;
  the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,
 O Lord God of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,
  O God of Israel.
It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
  that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my kindred,
 an alien to my mother’s children.
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
 the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting,
 they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
 I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
 and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
 At an acceptable time, O God,
 in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help rescue me
 from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
 and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me,
 or the deep swallow me up,
 or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;
  according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Do not hide your face from your servant,
 for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
Draw near to me, redeem me,
 set me free because of my enemies.
You know the insults I receive,
 and my shame and dishonor;
 my foes are all known to you.
Insults have broken my heart,
 so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
 and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food,
 and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Let their table be a trap for them,
 a snare for their allies.
Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
 and make their loins tremble continually.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
 and let your burning anger overtake them.
May their camp be a desolation;
 let no one live in their tents.
For they persecute those whom you have struck down,
 and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.
Add guilt to their guilt;
 may they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
 let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
But I am lowly and in pain;
 let your salvation, O God, protect me.
I will praise the name of God with a song;
  I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the Lord more than an ox
 or a bull with horns and hoofs.
Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
 you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
For the Lord hears the needy,
 and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
Let heaven and earth praise him,
 the seas and everything that moves in them.
For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah;
 and his servants shall live there and possess it;
 the children of his servants shall inherit it,
 and those who love his name shall live in it.

~Psalm 69

The Psalm appointed for Friday speaks directly to me in a way that nearly made my hair stand on end. If you skimmed over it to get to the text of my reflection, take a few minutes to read it through line by line. I'll wait right here.

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This psalm opens with a cry for help, listing out the deep trouble the psalmist is in which range from feeling under attack to worrying that those attacks will not only harm the psalmist, but will aslo harm the psalmist's community: Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me.

Then, after the psalmist reaches the end of the recital of woe we see a change from calling out for rescue to calling out for vengance: Let their table be a trap for them.... This to me felt very 'real' after a week of tumultuous emotion. I do not known anyone who has indulged in a revenge fantasy or two when feeling as the psalmist does. However, after spending some time fantasizing about the retribution God could meet out, the tide of the pslam turns.

But I am lowly and in pain; the psalmist writes. From that moment on instead of calling for vengance and retribution, the call is for raising voice in song and rebuilding hope amoung the oppressed and needy.

I did not know how badly I needed this psalm until I read it. The way it both powerfully connected me with a human who wrote over 2000 years ago. These feelings are not new feelings and humans have been grappling with them for much of recorded history. We lose family, loved ones, status, elections, material goods, and we mourn that loss, we feel anger at loss, we wish for vengeance or retribution, but most of all we keep on trying to build and rebuild.

That is what this psalm says to me: don't stop at the wishing for vengeance stage of grief-stricken anger. Sing, put hope into words, share that hope with others and find a way to live into God's love for us, now and always.


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

24 October 2016

Facing Mortality: Do you have a will yet?

I've been writing about the need to have a will and related documentation since my housemate's mother passed away in June of 2014. She had a will and things have gone mostly okay but it is only now that my housemate is ready to close probate.

This is mostly because my housemate has very limited time to work on her mother's estate. It was recently complicated by finding out that not all of the property was transferred to her mother's sole ownership after her mother's husband passed away. It became necessary to find a copy of his will to prove that the deeds and titles should transfer to the estate and then from there to my housemate and her siblings.

All this came to mind when I read an article about an eight-five year-old gay widower who faces eviction due to improperly witnessed will. He and his partner lived together for 50+ years and now due to a will that was not witnessed by two people he stands to lose his home.  The partner's nieces and nephews stand to inherit instead by the laws of New York (which apparently doesn't allow evidence of 'intent' in the case of an invalid will).

Even if you are married and think that you are covered by intestacy laws of your county or state, not having a will means that a court gets to make all of the decisions about where your property goes. In addition, it means that probate can take a lot longer and the costs can eat into anything that was left.

Pay the money up front and get a real will done by a real attorney who specializes in wills and estates. Most will have up-front pricing so the cost will be predictable. It is the last gift you can give your loved ones. Don't leave them a mess to remember you by.

12 October 2016

What is essential is Invisible to the eye

 Magrat’s arm tingled as the power flowed up it.*Granny’s broomstick jerked forward.
 “Leave me a bit,” shouted Magrat. “I’ve got to get down!”
 “Shouldn’t be difficult,” screamed Granny, above the noise of the wind.
 “I mean get down safely!”
 “You’re a witch, ain’t you? By the way, did you bring the cocoa? I’m freezing up here!”
Magrat nodded desperately, and with her spare hand passed up a straw bag.
 “Right,” said Granny. “Well done. See you at Lancre Bridge.”
 She uncurled her fingers.
 Magrat whirled away in the buffeting wind, clinging tightly to a broomstick which now, she feared, had about as much buoyancy as a bit of firewood. It certainly wasn’t capable of sustaining a full-grown woman against the beckoning fingers of gravity.
 As she plunged down toward the forest roof in a long shallow dive she reflected that there was possibly something complimentary in the way Granny Weatherwax resolutely refused to consider other people’s problems. It implied that, in her considerable opinion, they were quite capable of sorting them out by themselves.
 Some kind of Change spell was probably in order.
 Magrat concentrated.
 Well, that seemed to work.
 Nothing in the sight of mortal man had in fact changed.
 What Magrat had achieved was a mere adjustment of the mental processes, from a bewildered and slightly frightened woman gliding inexorably toward the inhospitable ground to a clearheaded, optimistic and positive thinking woman who had really got it together, was taking full responsibility for her own life and in general knew where she was coming from although, unfortunately, where she was heading had not changed in any way. But she felt a lot better about it.
~Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters
The above quote from Terry Pratchett's novel "Wyrd Sisters" is the best description of prayer that I have ever read.

I have never believed in the slot machine version of prayer; where you put your request in the slot and either hit the jackpot or wind up with two lemons and a banana. Belief in a slot machine god leads to things like the prosperity gospel. It also leads to trying to fit God into the box created by our own desires and shaving off the bits of God that don't fit.

No matter how tenuous my relationship with the physical church has been I have never lost the impulse to turn to God in prayer. However that impulse is tempered by two contrasting ideas.

One comes from a mis-hearing of the words of a hymn. For years I thought the hymn "There's a wideness in God's mercy" by Frederick William Faber was "There's a wildness in God's mercy" this corresponded so well with the image of God conjured up in C.S. Lewis's "Narnia" books ("Not a tame lion" is something said by many of the creatures that Lucy meets when they describe Aslan to her) that it was only in the last year when my mom heard me singing it, that I learned what the words really were. I still like my own mis-heard version better.

The other comes from my understanding of free will and that God has given us all that we need to make heaven on earth. We just make bad choices as a species. A tongue-in-cheek encapsulation of my thoughts on free will and tension between wanting to talk to God, but feeling like I should also just be getting on with my work in the world is embedded in the lyrics of Andrew Ratshin's song "Just One Angel".
Why would we have free will
if he thought we'd always call
Maybe its a lack of sleep
that keeps him feeling vengeful
Mabye he'd be sweet and soft
If he could have his Sunday's off
~Andrew Ratshin, "Just one Angel"
Even with these contradictory feelings about when I should pray and what the result of that prayer might be, I come back to it more than any other spiritual discipline. Sometimes my prayers a filled with rage and loss, sometimes with unbearable joy, when my heart is full it spills out in prayer.

Like tears, prayer ends leaving me feeling both spent and calm. Prayer gives me a quiet place in the universe to pull back from the storm of the moment and put what is happening in perspective. Like Magrat, from the outside, there is no change to my aspect or circumstances after prayer. What there is, is a change in my own mental landscape.
One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "The Little Prince"
 Prayer is fundamentally a way for me to look at myself and my actions in the world. It is a place where I can remind myself to strive to be the best person I can. When I fall short, when I experience injustice, when suffering touches me or those I love, prayer helps me find my courage and step back into the world, unchanged in all but the most essential ways.

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Pratchett, Terry (2009-10-13). Wyrd Sisters: A Novel of Discworld (pp. 168-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

Faber, Frederick William (1862) "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy" 

Ratshin, Andrew (2012) "Just one Angel" 

 de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine (1943) "The Little Prince"