02 December 2017

The Suffering that is Life

When I read the New Testament for this Friday before Advent, this verse jumped out at me:

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.
~1 Peter 3:17

I was stirred by the idea that there is quite a lot of suffering to go around, enough that I can choose to suffer for doing good, or for doing evil, but either way there was suffering to be had.

There has been a lot of suffering in my life lately. Most of it is what I would think of as neutral suffering: health issues of my own and those close to me, politically based fear and worry, and embedded social unfairness, and economic uncertainty. None of this is suffering I chose. None of it reflects active decisions of mine to embrace good or evil. It is just there, suffering and anxiety hanging about in the background and occasionally pushing through to take over.

When thinking about making a choice to suffer for good or evil, it boils down to whether or not I take an active or a passive role in my own life. If I accept suffering as my lot and take no action, that can easily become a passive acceptance of evil.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~Edmund Burke

My own personal suffering can either lock me in a stasis of never-ending self-absorption or help me be more compassionate and to understand better the struggles of others.

My social and political suffering can either tempt me into accepting that nothing I can do is 'enough' — that I should just give up on the outside world or it can inspire me to be the drop of water that wears away the stone of injustice.

Jesus's example comes to me in the moments when I want to turn away from the world in hopes that my suffering will be lessened if I just give in. Jesus kept going in his ministry. He suffered from his own fear and doubt, he saw how his ministry on earth would end in pain and death. He even put up with foolish disciples who inflicted their doubts and fear, envy and anger, desire for status and power on Jesus as shown in the Gospel reading for Friday (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think that an on-going choice to confront suffering, to call it out and say that not all suffering is inevitable some is a product of our social structures is what is meant when 1 Peter talks about it being better to suffer for doing good.

Life has a lot of pain and suffering it in; however, life does not have to be all suffering. Suffering that is done for good can be transmuted from passive acceptance to active resistance of evil. It can be come something greater. It can be a living sacrifice to God, it can be our communion with the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

Suffering will always be thrust upon humans, the very nature of the universe means that entropy will eventually have it's way with us. However there is other suffering, suffering created by humans for humans and that we can do something about.

The prayer for the First Sunday in Advent calls us to action:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent is from the Book of Common Prayer, page 211.

24 October 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion

I have started a side-business where I finish craft projects for people who don't have either the time or skill (or both) to do it themselves.

The site is at Craft Project Rescue.

If you know of any one who has an unfinished craft project that they keep meaning to finish or wish someone would help them with, please send them my way.

21 October 2017

Perplexed

The daily office for Friday includes Matthew 11:1-6 most of which is a pretty straight-forward message from Jesus to John about the work Jesus is doing. This is in response to John asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The part that I find perplexing is verse 6 where Jesus says: And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. I understand, based on other New Testament stories that there were plenty of people taking offense at Jesus and his ministry. However, in the context of John's question-- is Jesus the one-- it seems an odd response.

I spent some time poking around on the Internet to see if there was more context to this verse and found several commentaries that mentioned that the word translated as offense (σκανδαλιζεσθαι), is more akin to hitting against or stumbling over a thing.

When I put the Greek word in Google translate for fun it gave me you're scandalizing as the suggested translation.* That translation intrigued me. Would that make the verse: And blessed is anyone who you're scandalizing.?

It is the 'Blessed is...takes no offense' structure of the verse that perplexes me. I am blessed if I take no offense in what Jesus says and does?

Thinking about it that way combined with the 'stumbling block' concept from other translations, gets me to the idea that if I do believe in who Jesus is and what Jesus does as a part of his ministry, then I am embracing Jesus and not finding him offensive or a block to my own faith.

In my experience, the phrase: don't be offended can be used as a way to shut down conversation about a topic or as a watered-down phrase that tells people how they should feel in a given situation. It doesn't seem to have the power or meaning that the verse seems to imply is there.

Or it could be me, sometimes I have to take the long way around to understand an idea.

In this case, if I believe in Jesus there is no offense to be taken, no block to stumble over, and no scandal created.

-=-=-=-=-=-

*Note to actual scholars, I know it's not best practice to put words from ancient Greek texts into modern translation software but it gave me a different way to think about the root word without being a Greek or Biblical Scholar myself.

If any Bible or Greek scholars wish to comment on this and give me more information about the concepts and context of this verse, I would love to learn more.

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

07 October 2017

Intentional Imperfection

I've written before about the importance of imperfection. Lately I've been thinking about it more and more.

Tonight I was watching a video on how to knit a fair-isle sweater by a woman who has been knitting longer than she could read, her mothers and grandmothers all knitted. It was how they earned money for the household, and how they could barter for goods, and how they kept their families warm.

By the time she made the video she was a grandmother herself and had returned to knitting for her own pleasure and to pass the knowledge on.

As the video progresses and she gets to one of the fiddly finishing bits, she offers these words of encouragement if your work is less than perfect:

My golden rule is will the man on galloping horse notice.

To me this was a reminder that even the most skilled among us don't require perfection at every stitch in their work.

I believe their is a paradox in the level of mastery that someone can attain in a skill. That paradox is that it is not the people who require perfection of themselves that become masters, it is the people who realize when and how rarely perfection actually matters.

If anything, the desire for perfection can prevent mastering a topic or a skill because people who give up after making a mistake or because their work is not perfect don't hang in there long enough to get more skilled.

Also, humans only have so much time in a day. To get better at something we have to spend time doing it. To even maintain a skill we have to keep putting time into it.

I know at times I can be hesitant to do something because I can't do it up to a standard that I think is important, mostly because I'm afraid of being judged and found wanting. However, my experience has been that when I step up and act (or knit, or sing, or suggest a political action) people around from friends to strangers on the Internet respond positively.

We were not created to be perfect beings, yet part of us seems to yearn to be perfect.

Again and again, my own experience is that there is no perfection this side of heaven (if there is a heaven & I don't actually count on that).

Waiting to do something until my skills are perfect or the moment is perfect or until I have found the perfect words, results in me missing opportunities to be active and present in this world.

And since I'm a little shaky on the existence of any other world after this one, I'd better not waste my limited time waiting around for something that can never come.

Just yesterday I was participating in a webinar with a yoga teacher and the phrase the came up over-and-over again was:

Something is always better than nothing.

One woman shared that her yoga practice when she was suffering from severe fatigue was to visualize herself doing the poses and to move one hand to link her visualization to her living body.

Another shared how she had slowly built up from using a chair to do yoga poses to being able to do the full pose.

Both of these women would have no yoga practice at all if they hadn't started where they were with what they had and not waited to be perfect to begin.

This is true of everything in life from flossing to comforting someone in grief and distress. There is no one right way to act, there is no one right way to be, there is no one right way to learn but failing to act while waiting for the perfect moment is always, to me, a sign of fear.

When fear disguises itself as a desire for perfection, I need to remember the grace that my faith gives me.

I see in the New Testament that none of Jesus's followers were perfect. None of them had a sense of the 'right time' for an action. They sometimes made terrible choices, they frequently didn't understand what was going on around them.

Still Jesus choose to be with them. From disciples to tax collectors, from the anointing woman to the hemorrhaging woman to the woman at the well all had something to learn and something to teach and Jesus opened himself up to everyone of them (sometimes with a little prodding). The thing they all had in common was in taking action either by responding to Jesus's call or by approaching Jesus on their own and asking for what they needed.

Jesus, incarnate, welcomed all of the imperfect, foolish people who came to him and encourage them to act more, not less. He might have gotten frustrated with them at times, but he carried on and loved them to the cross and beyond.

For me Jesus becoming incarnated in the world as a person is God's reminder that we were made in an image of God and that God joined us in that imperfection to spur us on as the prophet Micha said:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
~Micah 6:8

Can a man on a galloping horse see the imperfections in your work, your skill, your words, or your love?

If not, your work is good enough. Go out and do what you are called to do, imperfections and all.

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

23 September 2017

Logged Hypocrisy

A little over a week ago, Senator Ted Cruz's twitter account 'liked' a porn video. There were many reactions to the 'like' and subsequent denial on the part of the Senator that he was the one active on the account at the time.

The part of the story I found most interesting were claims that the reason this should be a big deal were not because 'porn is bad' but because Senator Cruz has been an outspoken critic of everything from gay marriage, the right of consenting adults to use sex toys, and generally acting as if he should have control over the sex lives of adults.

So he was being called out not because 'a staffer accidentally liked' a porn video on twitter, but because for years he had a log in his eye about human sexuality and how and when the state should have control over adult sexual expression.

For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?
~Matthew 7:2-4

One of the interpretations I used to put on this quote from Matthew was that when I have a log in my eye, I can't even pretend to see the speck in another person's eye. That is fine as far as it goes.

However, with Senator Cruz's story as an example I think that the log is more than just something that blinds me and makes it difficult to take action on another behalf. I don't see the log in my eye because, I only see it as a speck (or even the entire log) in the eye of the person I am looking at.

I project my log on to them.

When I do that, it is difficult to realize that it is my log that I am seeing. Every effort I make to pull it out fails because I am reaching beyond my own eye and waving my hands around uselessly (or worse, accidentally hitting bystanders).

Once I finally realize that all the splinters I am seeing are really my log it becomes easier (but not necessarily less painful) to pull it out and put it in it's place.

And like many mountains made of molehills, logs can turn into tiny splinters when they are removed and looked at in perspective.

All of this takes work and self-awareness and sometimes I need help figuring out that what I keep seeing is my own log. However, even with that help, I'm the only one who can remove the log and see more clearly from that point on.

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


This essay was originally published in September 2017 at The Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul

08 September 2017

Now and Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-

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


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

26 August 2017

The Ones Who Stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 in August 2017.

10 August 2017

Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

26 July 2017

Contrasts

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

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

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

~Mark 5:21-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

She believed first and feared second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can say it at the end of every Eucharist:

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

12 July 2017

Incidental Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This reading ends with David asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-

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

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

29 June 2017

Serendipity and Saul

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-

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

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

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

17 June 2017

Competition for Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

----

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

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

03 June 2017

Being Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 May 2017

Perfection Not Required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


-=-=-=-

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

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

06 May 2017

Humility and Hubris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

-=-=-=-=-

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

06 April 2017

Ceasefire Prayer

A few weeks ago I participated in an online yoga class. The teacher is a member of the body positive movement and the class was being offered as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness week so the teacher said a few words before the class started.

One of the things she said that stayed with me was that she treats her yoga mat as a ceasefire zone. All of the negative cultural messages about being fat, all of the disordered thinking around what shape she 'should' be are left behind while she is on the mat. She focuses on what she can do and on being present in her body as it is now.

I've been thinking about her words for weeks now and they inspired me to start a home prayer routine. In the past, my prayer life has been sporadic and impulsive.

My relationship to prayer has been complicated because I don't believe that God gives us things, or heals us, or any of the other tropes about the power of prayer. I believe that prayer is more like going to a therapist. It is a way to work on personal issues and to open myself up to opportunities to be brave in my life. It is a way to gain courage and a way to think about what I have done wrong and what I could do better in the future. Giving that all to God as part of prayer helps me remember who I want to be.

Much as I feel I don't need a therapist when I'm healthy and happy, it is hard to remember to make time for prayer when things are going well. However, therapists, be they mental or physical, frequently give patients homework to do to improve their lot.

Daily prayer for me has be come like doing my physical therapy exercises, if I do them every day I become stronger and less prone to injury.

Prayer keeps the muscles of my faith strong which in turn gives me the spiritual energy and resilience I need to be in order to be present and active in this world even when it is painful. Prayer reminds me to be my best self, to be brave, and to do things that are out of my comfort zone.

My prayer routine has become my own ceasefire in the cycle of news, stress, and anxiety. It is a time when I can give my worries to God with no expectation that God will do anything more than listen-- and that is enough to give me strength to go on.


-=-=-=-
This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in April 2017.

09 March 2017

Rest

The gospel for Daily Office for Year 1 of the first Friday in Lent is from the Book of Hebrews 4:11-16. It starts by encouraging its readers to do all they can to enter God's rest.

Earlier in chapter 4 of Hebrews the writer gives examples of God's rest and how people have been both denied and allowed 'rest'.

I find this passage interesting because the writer regularly uses the phrase "enter into rest". This phrasing moves rest from a passive act to an active one. To enter something is 'to do' an action, whereas I tend to think of 'rest' as ceasing action, stopping whatever I am doing. 'Entering into rest' makes it into an active choice; not just stopping because I am out of energy or exhausted, but because I choose rest as my activity instead of the multitude of chores, work, hobbies, or gatherings on my schedule.

The writer of this passage seems to be addressing the importance of, not only keeping the sabbath and the intentional rest it provides, but of doing it during the right time. The writer hearkens back to both the creation and the story of Joshua and makes the point that God set a day for the sabbath and that it is not negotiable-- even for followers of Christ.

While I don't keep a regular day of rest, I like the idea of making rest an intentional practice. I meditate, and that time where I try to let go of my busy mental state is my 'day of rest'. I'm not very good at it, but I try to do it anyway. I was recently inspired to go back to intentional resting by a piece of art by street artist Banksy. It says:If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit. This encapsulated the importance of intentional rest, be it daily or weekly. If I do not enter into rest with intention, my body and soul will force the issue and not at a time of my choosing.

Perhaps that is why God set a specific time for rest and was not interested in negotiating a different time with Joshua. God knew that if we were allowed to move our time of rest, we would keep putting it off indefinitely, to our cost.

Hebrews 4 also gives me the idea of rest as a place. Going back to 'enter into rest' and verses 3-5 of Hebrews 4:

For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God[a] has said,

“As in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.”

The writer seems to be saying that God created 'rest' as a place on the seventh day by showing that people can be denied entry into rest.

If rest is a place that I enter, what does that look like?

The writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about the role of God as our judge. We stand naked before him. He sees us as we are.

But we are not alone:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
~Hebrew

If I am uncertain about what the rest of God is, I have an advocate in Christ. He has been where I have been. He has felt the uncertain life of the flesh and blood person. God the Father may see us in our nakedness, but Jesus knows what it is to be naked. Through him we can appeal for entry to rest in God.

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All bible citations are from the NRSV at Bible Gateway.
This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in March 2017.

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.