30 December 2015

Call to Action

As I was reviewing the readings for December 30th, the Feast of Frances Joseph Gaudet (Educator and Prison Reformer) I was struck by how often God requires a human act before God's power is loosed in the world.

In the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, God doesn't act alone to part the waters for the Israelites and then bring the water down upon the Egyptians, God requires that Moses "Stretch out your hand over the sea" (Exodus 14:15 & 21) before God will act.

This is the case in many of the old testament stories where God is called upon. Before God acts, God requires that the agent perform a specific action.

The gospel appointed for this feast is Matthew 25:35-46 where we have the tally of actions that are signifier of 'the righteous':
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
(Matthew 25:35-40)
It is the choice to do, to reach out, to act that sets the righteous apart in this situation and the failure to act condemns the others to eternal punishment.

I personally don't worry to much about what will happen after death, and tend to think of heaven and hell as present among us now and brought into being by our own choices.

One of my favorite works of fiction is "Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold. It is the first in a fantasy series in a world of five gods. The gods can only act in the world through humans and saints of each god are really just people who are willing to open their souls to let the gods reach through them into the world.
Umegat [a saint] grinned, and desisted. "But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods may not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act. They can seep in through the minds of animals, sometimes, with effort. Plants… require much foresight. Or—" Umegat turned his cup upright again, and lifted the jug— "sometimes, a man may open himself to them, and let them pour through him into the world." He filled his cup. "A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He— or she— freely gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible."

"If the gods are making this path for me, then where is my free will? No, it cannot be!"
"Ah." Umegat brightened at this thorny theological point. "I have had another thought on such fates, that denies neither gods nor men. Perhaps, instead of controlling every step, the gods have started a hundred or a thousand Cazarils and Umegats down this road. And only those arrive who choose to."
I find this idea of a god needing a willing vessel to be helpful when I think about God; and a good counter to the idea that "God let X-bad-thing happen." God doesn't let things happen. God asks us to invite him in to our lives.

Like Moses or Aaron-- we must stretch out our hands in order to allow God to act in our world. If we fail to act, if we stand to the side, then there is little God can do for us or with us in our world.
So consider giving your hands and mind to God as we stand upon the cusp of a new year.

How is God calling you to act?


  "Curse of Chalion" quotes from:
Bujold, Lois McMaster (2009-10-13). The Curse of Chalion (p. 199 &p. 228). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Bible quotes from https://www.biblegateway.com

24 December 2015

Finding Stillness


av: Inger Hagerup (1905 – 1985)

Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede
Det står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede
Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede

Så tenner vi to lys i kveld, to lys for håp og glede
De står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede
Så tenner vi to lys i kveld, to lys for håp og glede

Så tenner vi tre lys i kveld, for lengsel, håp og glede
De står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede
Så tenner vi tre lys i kveld for lengsel, håp og glede

Vi tenner fire lys i kveld og lar dem brenne ned
For lengsel, glede, håp og fred, men mest allikevel for fred
på denne lille jord, hvor menneskene bor*

On 2 April 1904 my grandfather and his mother arrived in New York from Oslo, Norway. They had $5.00 and a train ticket to Portland, Oregon and were on their way to join my great-grandfather who had come over with his brother in March of 1903. My grandfather was 10 months old when his father left Oslo for the United States and was 19 months old when he arrived in New York with his mother.

All of this is information that I learned in the years after his death in January of 1979. The only part of his heritage that I had from his own lips was that Friday the 13th was lucky for him because he was Norwegian.

I had not had a lot of experience with death at that age and was devastated by his loss. In 1976, a friend of mine died of leukemia. She was 9, I was 7. I don't remember much about her illness. I remember playing with her (and looking up to her-- she was the oldest of four siblings and my oldest friend at the time). I do remember being taken to her grave and not understanding why she didn't have a headstone. It was my first experience with some of the logistics of death, namely that it takes time to have a headstone made.

(Something I never realized until researching dates for this essay is that both my friend and my grandfather died in the month of January just 8 days apart-- which might explain a lot about why I tend to feel down this time of year.)

In contrast to my foggy memories of my friend's death, I remember exactly where I was when my parents told me my grandfather had died. I remember sitting down on the steps that led up from our basement and crying. I also remember being enraged at my parents for not letting me go to the funeral. This was my first experience with the complex feelings that come as a part and parcel of grieving.

As an adult, I now understand my parent's reasoning. We lived in Wyoming. My grandparents lived in Oregon. It would have been expensive to take me and they thought at the time for a number of reasons that made logical sense, that it would be best if I didn't attend the funeral. However, for all that I understand things now, at the time I was angry. I felt that my parents didn't understand how important my grandpa was to me. I had this weird sense that he might not really be dead and it took me a long time to really 'believe' in his death.

As I grew up, I became fascinated with my grandparent's story. My grandmother was a 1st generation American. Her mother, my great-grandmother, had emigrated from Scotland in 1888 when she was 13 years old.

Throughout the years, we kept in contact with the Norwegian side of the family. My great-grandfather returned to Norway once in the 1960's to visit his family. My great-grandmother was an only child of a single mother and never saw her family again after coming to the United States. In the 1980's my grandmother brought my grandfather's cousin, Rolf, and his wife to visit us in Norway. For several years afterwards Rolf and I wrote letters back and forth. He sent me a collection of Norwegian coins and he always put little stickers of the Norwegian flag on his letters.

In 2000, my mother and I decided to go on a family pilgrimage to Norway. We met my Rolf, who was then in his 80's, and his children (who were of age with my mom). We had a grand time touring Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim and meeting family and friends that mom knew from her time at Harvard. Rolf scared us to death driving us around Oslo in his car that had a tendancey to just stop running at random stop signs.

I came home with a love of Norway and a desire to learn the language. I found a community school in Ballard and started taking classes and learning not only about the lanuage but about the culture as well (both Norwegian culture and Norwegian-American culture).

It was there that I learned about the tradition of lille juleaften. Celebrated on the 23rd of December, it is the day that Norwegians spend in preparation for Christmas. In the past it was the big day to clean the house, take a bath, and put on clean Christmas clothes. Now it is frequently the day when Norwegians decorate their Christmas trees and settle in for the Christmas season. It is also a celebration of Thorlákr Thorhallsson (Saint Thorlak, patron saint of Iceland), bishop of Skálholt in Iceland from 1178 until his death on December 23, 1193.

In 2005, I returned to Norway after 3 years of community classes and a summer intensive course at the University of Washington. I spent 3 weeks immersed in Norwegian life. I stayed with my relatives in Oslo for part of the time and they took me around with them to meet friends, attend events, and generally share in their life. I spent time in Bergen on my own and managed to stick to speaking Norwegian the entire time. My best memory from that visit was sitting with Rolf in his garden, having coffee while he quizzed me on Norwegian nouns. He was tickled that I knew some of the trickier plural noun formations. It was a delightful afternoon, and I felt as if the spirit of my own grandfather was there with us.

At this point in my life I am about as Norwegian as I am Episcopalian, they are both tribes that I am descended from and they both have influenced my life greatly. In the past 15 years, as I have learned more about Norway, I have also learned more about my faith and the ways I choose to express it.

From what I have learned, the idea behind lille Juleaften is as the deep breath before plunging headlong into the celebration of Christmas. According my my Norwegian teacher, it was customary in Norway for lille Juleaften to signal the last day of frantic preparation before Christmas. All the food would be baked, the cleaning done, and everyone would take the 12 days of Christmas off from much of their daily routines. It was a time of rest and relaxation after the harvest and the rush to get everything secured for the winter.

So, though I came to it late in life, and through a very circuitous route, I invite you to celebrate lille Juleaften with me this year. Finish your chores, put on your Christmas finery, and take a moment's rest before the feast to come.

Advent *rough translation by me:

So light we a candle this night, we light it for joy
It stands and shines for itself and for those who are present
So light we candle this night, we light it for joy

So light we two candles this night, two candles for hope and joy
They stand and shine for themselves and for those who are present
So light we two candles this night, two candles for hope and joy

So light we three candles this night, three candles for longing, hope, and joy
They stand and shine for themselves and for those who are present
So light we three candles this night, three candles for longing, hope, and joy

We light four candles this night and let them burn down
For longing, joy, hope, and peace, but most of all for peace
for this little earth, where people live

A Norwegian teacher reciting the poem in both english and norwegian: "Advent" (this video is in four parts)

Little children singing another variation on this Advent theme "Nå tenner vi det første lys"

And finally, just because it is so pretty (and because we are still in Advent), a danish choir singing another song on the theme of lighting the four candles in Advent: "Det første Lys" (the first candle).

22 December 2015

Fear Not

For the lead player, for the Korahites, a psalm.
Here this, all peoples,
hearken, all who dwell in the world.
You human creatures, you sons of man,
together the rich and needy.
My mouth speaks wisdom,
my heart's utterance, understanding.
I incline my ear to a saying,
I take up with the lyre my theme.
Why should I fear in evil days,
when crime comes round me at my heels.
~Psalm 49: 1-6*
One of three possible Psalms for the Wednesday of the third week of advent, Psalm 49 is fundamentally about how death makes rich and poor, wise and foolish, famous and obscure, all equal. We all spend eternity in our graves an our lives are just brief moments by comparison.

In the midst of this psalm is the phrase: "Why should I fear in evil days, when crime comes round me at my heels." or from the Book of Common Prayer: "Why should I be afraid in evil days, when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,".

That phrase caught my attention, to the point that I had difficulty concentrating on the rest of the psalm. There has been a lot of evil, crime, and wickedness in the news this year. There are times when I feel like a guttering candle that has been left in a strong breeze-- at any moment a strong gust will put out my flame.\
Then I read a passage like this one and I realize how easy it is for me to take on the fears of the world and forget to see the beauty and love that continues even in dark days.

What do I have to fear? More importantly of those things I might fear, what can I do anything about?
Someday I will die, but I don't know when or how. The only thing I can do is make sure my legal affairs are in order so that those who love me will have one less thing to deal with during their time of grief. There are a few things I can do that might help my quality of life should I be one of those who lives to their 80's or 90's but while there are many things I can do to hasten death, there is very little I can do delay it once it is time.

Someday I will likely be seriously ill. I've already dealth with the after effects of childbirth, major mouth issues, a wonky gall bladder, a sezuire disorder, mystery fatigue, and several broken bones and I'm only in my 40's. However, other than a weird sleep schedule, I'm not currently ill or injured. There is little I can do to plan for future illnesses-- with the exception of making sure to keep up on my routine doctor visits for screening.

Someday something terrible will happen to me and my family. The mere fact that everyone dies, means that someday I will loose people close to me through illness, violence, accident, or just plain age.

However, that day is not today and that day will come in a way that is outside of my control.
One thing I think this psalm is saying is that I should be careful about what fears I give life to. There is so much to be afraid of in life that it can seem overwhelming at times.

I have a teen-aged son who is on the cusp of adulthood and adult responsibilities and the sheer number of things I am afraid might happen to him can be paralyzing.

Add to that modern media that can show me all the wrongs in the world, regardless of if I can do anything about those wrongs and I feel weighted down by the feeling that all is darkness and death.

I must remember that this is the time in our liturgical calendar when the angels said "Fear not" to everyone they met. From Zechari′ah and Elizabeth to Mary and Joseph, and to the shepherds watching their flocks the angels say over and over again: do not fear, fear not, do not be afraid.

I think I need to take the angels at their word and let go of fear in order to fully live the brief life I have on this earth.


*Translation from "The book of Psalms" by Robert Alter, pg 171
This essay was originally published at Speaking to the Soul: Fear Not on 16 December 2015.

03 December 2015


I first read the bible cover to cover when I was 13 years old. To this day I am not certain what prompted me to do it. I was into Shakespeare at the time and the version of the bible I choose to read was the King James Version-- so maybe it was the language that attracted me.

I do remember deciding to read the entire thing, because I remember the moment I hit the first of the 'begats' and feeling my eyes roll back in my head. It was the first time I had to, force is the wrong word, choose to read. I don't remember learning to read and I have never not read what was in front of me, from books, to magazines, to cereal boxes to lists of ingredients on lotion bottles. So for me to hit a wall while reading was a new experience. As was choosing to read on.

As I grew up, I encountered the bible in different ways. In my Junior High Sunday school we spent an entire year on the gospel of John (which oddly was featured as the verse of the day at Biblegateway when went to look up which gospel it had been). The opening verse has stayed with me all these years as a result. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, NRSV)

During the summers I would attend Vacation Bible School where we played endless rounds of a game where the leader gave you the book, chapter and verse and whoever found it first in their bible won. I got really good at it and it was a useful skill later in life.

In High School I took a "Bible as Literature" class and while I didn't learn a lot of new things in that class, it did give me a foundation in writing about the bible and exploring my own thoughts about what it was saying in a secular classroom. I wrote my final paper on books of the Apocrypha and had a great time actively looking for stories that featured women.

A few years ago I helped my mom edit her book, "Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible" and I spent many days checking each of her quotations against the bible to ensure that we had transcribed them correctly. That meant that I put my bible racing skills to the test as I flipped back and forth from New Testament to Old and dove deeply into the Psalms.

All this has given me my own take on the bible. I don't take it as the literal word of God and I try very hard to balance my modern take on the stories with information we learn from archaeologists, historians, and cultural anthropologists about what the context might have been for the people who lived during the times certain parts of the books of the of the bible were written.

Reading the bible in it's entirety gave me an understanding that there is more to it than just the verses that get read in church on Sundays. Three of my favorite stories get very little air time during the church year. They are the story of the Judge Deborah who said: "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." (Judges 4:9), the story of Ester who risked everything to save her people, the story of Judith (and her unnamed maid) who not only cut off Holofernes head, but had to stand up to her own people to do it.

In addition to finding stories that spoke to me, reading the bible cover-to-cover (including the begats) gave me an appreciation for how much of the story we fill in from our own experiences. In some cases, the stories are mere sketches, just a broad outline of events, in others they are oddly detailed and include references to customs and things that I have no personal experience with.

In the church, the bible not only gets read, the stories with in it get re-told and re-interpreted, to the point where we sometimes need to strip away hundreds of years of our own story-telling to see the old stories in a new light.

I encourage everyone, regardless of their faith, to read the bible through for themselves at least once. There is so much of our received culture that, much like Shakespeare, is influenced by it to this day.

As we say in our family, the more you read, the more jokes you will get.

Reading the bible gives access to a cultural touchstone and exposes the reader to stories that have been told for centuries. And reading the bible oneself rather than hearing stories about what the bible says can be it's own form of revelation.

 This essay was originally published at Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 2 December 2015.