08 September 2018

Elevator Pitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 August 2018

Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 August 2018

The People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 July 2018

The Book Written for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His offering for Psalm 40:6-7 is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 July 2018

Gathered In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway

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

30 June 2018

Saints Peter and Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway

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

16 June 2018

The Dust of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.
~Ecclesiastes 12:7
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*Mr Alter uses a different numbering system on this psalm than is used in the Book of Common Prayer.

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

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

01 June 2018

What Price Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-=-

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

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

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

19 May 2018

Endurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-=-=-

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

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

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

22 April 2018

Ann Fontaine, Rest In Peace

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

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

The site is: http://seashellseller.org



Come, Thou

As most readers already know my mom, Ann Fontaine, passed away earlier this week.

To say I will miss her greatly is an enormous understatement. I don't think I even realize how much I will miss her. I know from the many cards, emails, texts, and social media contacts that I am not the only one.

Her favorite hymn was Come Thou Font of Every Blessing". It is where she got the title for her book of reflections on daily office and it captured her feeling of being found by God.

In one of the last in-depth conversations I had with her she said she felt that her entire life, especially in the church, was all about the serendipity that was created by her relationships.

All of the opportunities she had to be active in the church came from people she already knew either inviting her to join a project or introducing her to other people.

She built relationships all her life. I knew she was ready to go the day she told me she couldn't have any more visitors.

She also said, about politics in the church, to fight the good fight for what you believe in but never make it personal and always do what you can to keep or restore relationships with people.

Her vision of the church was that you are beloved of Jesus no matter what; and there is always a place at the table for you.

She worked to help the church be a place where people could build intentional communities. She worked hard to bring Education for Ministry (EFM) to even more people through on-line gatherings, she was a strong supporter of the movement to allow for the ordination of local priests who are raised up to serve small communities that would never be able afford a full-time priest. When she ran HR Camp in the 1980's she had the kids design the rules they would live under; in the process, teaching them that many of the 'rules' in society that we take for granted can actually be changed through human effort.

The reading from the New Testament for today, speaks to the idea that it's not a bad idea to question the rules we make for ourselves, or that we become enamored of:

...why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.
~Colossians 2:20b-23

As I go forward in to the world without my mom, I hope to carry with me her understanding that much that seems fixed in the world can actually be changed with effort; that people and relationships are precious; and that standing up for what you believe in is difficult but worth doing.

I leave you with the text to her favorite hymn. She wanders no more. She is deep within God's infinite love and grace.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I find my greatest treasure;
hither by thy help I've come;
and I hope by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for Thy courts above.

~Robert Robinson set to Nettleton
Hymn #686 1982 Hymnal

-=-=-=-=-=-

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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

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

07 April 2018

In Waiting

I have settled in 'for the duration' with my Mom and Dad at their home on the Oregon Coast. I am helping my Dad care for my Mom as she is in the final stages of her illness.*

In our church year, we are in the time of the disciples just beginning to realize the the promise of the Resurrection has been fulfilled.

In the reading for Friday, 6 April we have the Gospel of Luke 24:1-12 where Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them see the angels at the tomb who tell the women that Jesus is no longer among the dead, but has risen.

I don't really have time for the story of the resurrection this year. My attention is focused on doing my best to keep Mom comfortable and to work with Dad so neither of us burn out while caring for her. No only are we living day-to-day, but from moment-to-moment, and from task-to task.

Mom and I were watching the new series of Call the Midwife and a line jumped out at me:

Waiting for a death is like waiting for a birth, we must find ways to occupy ourselves.
~Call the Midwife, Season 7, Episode 1.

Helping out in a household where someone needs full time care is all about doing the next thing in front of you: doing little jobs for them, washing dishes, making meals, washing laundry, picking up the mail, buying groceries, running errands all have to be done and done in a way that fits in around the energy and schedule of the patient-- because her comfort is the paramount reason all of these chores need to get done.

The thing I have found, which is reflected in the quote from 'Call the Midwife,' is that each of these necessary tasks becomes its own small ministry for my mom or dad.

At home, my husband does the laundry and I fold and put it away. Here, I not only wash, dry, fold, and put away, I spend time prepping the whites the way I know Mom likes (treat for stains, soak in Oxy-clean, wash on the bulky setting). I do each step mindfully and try to give it my full attention and it becomes a spiritual practice of its own.

When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women came to the tomb with the spices they had prepared for the body of Jesus they were dealing with the practical reality of the work a death entails. In Luke's telling of the story, the women had seen Jesus at the crucified. They had watched as his body was taken down and given to Joesph of Arimathea. They had seen it laid in the tomb and they had gone home to prepare what was needful for such a burial.

They had gone from task to task, maybe not thinking beyond the needs of the immediate moment, until it was time to go to the tomb and do the work of preparing the body of Jesus according to what was proper and would do him honor in death.

When they got to the tomb, all their plans and ideas were thrown into disarray. The body of Jesus was gone and here were two angels telling them that the promise of resurrection had been fulfilled.

I wonder if some of them weren't angry at this revelation. Grief is a strange beast and I, personally, am not great about having my plans upset-- especially if I am emotionally invested in them. I could see myself being bewildered and angry at Jesus for upending my plans for the day by not staying dead.

I don't know what feelings the women had as they saw the angels and heard the good news of Jesus' resurrection; just as I don't know how I will feel when my Mom eventually becomes to weak to stay in this world with us.

I am pretty sure she won't rise on the 3rd day. (If she was planning on it, she would have told me in no uncertain terms by now.) Other than that I have no idea of what life without her will be like.

For now, I don't have to think about that. Mom, Dad and I have a pact: We live in the present moment and don't think much beyond the needs of the day.

Like the women who went home and prepared the spices after they had seen Jesus laid in the tomb, I am occupying myself and not thinking about the moment I must go to the tomb.

-=-=-=-=-

*I am very lucky to have a husband, housemate, and daughter who support and encourage me in this. I am also lucky that my Dad, my Mom, and I all seem to work well with each other in various combinations.

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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

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

24 March 2018

My Own Personal Holy Week

I am writing this week from my parent's house on the Oregon Coast. I've been down helping my Dad care for my Mom for the past two weeks. This week she entered hospice care.

Uncertantly is all around me.

I am wondering if I am feeling like the diciples felt when Jesus told them:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
~Mark 10:33-34

The disciples had seen Jesus doing miracles. They had seen him make the lame walk, free the demon-ridden, and bring Lazarus back from the dead. Suddenly he's telling them that he will be betrayed, beaten, spat upon and killed and that it will all happen very soon, when they come to Jeruselem.

None of them really knew what was going to happen. They had the words of Jesus but had not yet experienced the reality of his death and resurection.

I face my mother's inevitable death but I don't know when or how it will occur. Like the diciples I have been told what is to come but I have no actual experience of the reality. I won't know it until I meet it.

My Dad has been studying Buddism for years, working to let go and live with impermance. It has revealed his wise, kind, gentle self. I'm doing my own best to live in the moment and not worry about what is to come. This is made easier by being with my parents and being able to help from moment-to-moment.

Jesus disciples were able to stay with him until he was betrayed and taken into custody. From that moment on they could only be onlookers as Jesus was taken around the city, shuttled from authority to authority until he came before Pilate and was condemed to death by the crowd.

It is that way with my mother. She has started a journey that I can not join her fully in. I can stay by her physically and help where I can, but I can't truly understand how she is feeling and where her spirit is going.

She has always been good about living in the moment, it is natural to her. I'm trying to follow both my parent's examples and not worry about the future, but be fully present now.

Maybe like me, some of the disciples tried to live in the moment when they realized their remaining time with Jesus was short.

Based on the story of the betrayal, none of them were really prepared for the end when it came. The moment in the garden when Jesus was taken from them seems to have come as shock, even though he told them in advance that it was coming.

In the past, when I have read the gospel passages where Jesus tells the disciples about his death to come and the ressurction that is to follow, I have had the luxury of focusing on the resurection. The resurection has been a fact of my faith since I first learned to sing "Jesus Loves Me" in Sunday School.

My mom's entry into hospice care reminds me that the disciples didn't know how their time with Jesus would come to an end. Even though he told them he would rise again in three days they didn't really accept it.

We see that in the moment when they didn't believe Mary Magdalene when she told them she had seen Jesus resurrected. Nor were they any more open to the idea when the two disciples saw him next.

According to the Gospel of Mark, it was only when Jesus appeared to all eleven of them and told them to: 'go out into the world and proclaim the good news' that they believed.

To me, the story of the diciples in the lead up to the death of Jesus shows me how very human it is to not really comprehend a thing until it is actaully happening.

There is a huge uncertain gap between theory and practice. My mom and I had many discussions about death after she was diagnosed but now that we are walking the actual walk much that seemed certain is no longer so.

What does give me comfort, is the fact that the disciples, for all their faults, fears, and disbelief managed to muddle through it all.

If they could do it, so can I. I will live on 'in sure and certain hope of the ressurection', one of my favorite phrases in our Book of Common prayer.

Even more so, it is my hope that I will be able to live on in my mom's example. To live as fully as I can in the moment, to let the future take care of itself, to speak truth to power, and to try to make the world we live in now a better place and not wait for the hereafter.

10 March 2018

Active Atonement

TW: for discussion of sexual harassment and abuse.

I've been thinking a lot about atonement and forgiveness in the light of #MeToo movement. It was horrifyingly unsurprising to see the magnitude of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our culture through a twitter hash-tag. Unsurprising because, at least in my experience all of my female friends have stories about being harassed or violated. Some of my male friends do as well, and I don't know how many more might have been but are afraid or ashamed to share their own stories.

Horrific because the fact that sexual violence permeates our culture is not news to most women, LGBTQ people, or people who are marginalized for any reason. Sexual harassment and abuse is an expression of power, rage, and/or control and is never really about sex. The people who wield sexual harassment or abuse already have the power (though they may not admit it to themselves).

#MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein scandal seem to represent a tipping point in our culture. We, all of us, have been made aware of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, and are finally ready to listen to the survivors and take action.

Some actions will be taken in the courts, some in public, some at work places, and some of the work will be done in the church.

This brings me to confession, atonement, and forgiveness. Sometimes, as Christians, there is a temptation to skip right from confession (or sometimes accusation, if the abuser is caught rather than confessing) to forgiveness. In particular, survivors of abuse who report it are sometimes pressured to 'forgive' the abuser-- to let it go and move on.

This is not an act of faith or a way to 'heal' a community. This is yet another form of abuse the survivor endures at the hands of their community and the people who should be acting to protect them.

I think this emerges because people are fundamentally lazy and the work of atonement, the real work needed to bring healing to the survivors and, hopefully, to find a path back to humanity and grace for the abuser, is difficult.

It means calling people, people we might otherwise love or respect, to account. It means listening to survivors (some of whom are not as charming or loved as the abuser). It means disruption in the short term, if the abuser is a priest or person of power in the congregation. It means fear of loss, that not only might the community be damaged by this but that it might be lost all together.

However, if we skip the all-important work of atonement we only invite further destruction further on down the road.

Secrets kept in a community can eat away at it like acid; over time destroying bonds of trust.

The survivor of abuse who is told to forgive instead of having their claim fully investigated and action taken against the abuser is further damaged by the community.

Frequently they are forced out of their community by this failure of atonement. The community is further damaged both by rumors that spread in such situations and by the survivor taking their story out to the world and sharing how they were abused and then driven out.

In the short term the lazy impulse to skip atonement may seem like the easy way to solve a problem; however, like an untreated stain that sets in the dryer, failing to tackle the sin of abuse right away only makes the problem worse and much harder to fix in the future.

Jesus didn't call us to take the easy road. He showed us how hard the work of atonement can be when he died a painful death on the cross. He didn't shortcut the process and skip right to the resurrection. We can't have the resurrection without the death.

We can't have forgiveness without confession and atonement. Atonement must take place and like the death on the cross it will be messy and painful.

However, Jesus gave us another gift. He gave us the grace of God to sustain us through difficult times.

There is no shortcut to justice and true forgiveness for the sinner, but there is the promise of grace and the hope of resurrection if the work is undertaken faithfully and with a true desire to atone.

No one can force this work on another and even if an abuser starts the work of atonement the community should act to protect the survivor(s) first.

This may mean taking difficult steps to remove an abuser from a place of power or to evict them from the community. Allowing an abuser to stay in power just because they say they are working on atoning is not atonement, it is enabling them to escape consequences.

We must not use the idea of the importance of forgiveness to shield abusers. We must not give into the temptation of laziness to make our own lives more comfortable in the short term by asking the survivor to be the scapegoat carrying our sins away from us.

We must confront abusers in our midst, call them to account, and remove them from power.

We should confess to survivors that we as a community failed them by allowing an abuser the power to hurt them.

We can atone as a community by taking action to remove the abuser and accepting the messy disruption that such an action will entail.

Given the prevalence of harassment and abuse in our culture, we, above-all, need a plan in place to deal with it.

-=-=-=-=-

Originally posted at The Episcopal Cafe on 8 March 2018.

24 February 2018

Let the Lower Lights be Shining

One of my friend's writes personal essays. Today he titled his 'When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical'.

Even before I read his essay the song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder started playing in my head and rapidly turned into an earworm. I had to open my Johnny Cash gospel playlist to dislodge it while I was working.

The song that next caught my ear was his rendition of Let the Lower Lights be Shining by P. P. Bliss.

1 Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Chorus:
Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2 Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

3 Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

I loved the image of God's powerful steady light shining on us while still expecting us to shine our own, much smaller lights, out into the world.

This got me thinking about one of the bible passages that I have always had a hard time with, the parable of the ten bridesmaids:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
~Matthew 25:1-13

This passage has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me. It is the delay of the bridegroom that causes the so-called foolish bridesmaids to lose their chance to come to the banquet.

Maybe this is because I see myself, not as one of the wise bridesmaids, or as the bridegroom, but as one of the foolish bridesmaids. I am, perhaps, organized enough to show up for the wedding and I might be able to afford enough lamp oil to last until midnight, but maybe not.

I understand why the so-called wise bridesmaids might not share their oil. It makes sense to take what they do have and make it last as long as possible, but there is no reason in the story why the wise could not have paired up with the foolish. After all, the arms of the wise might have gotten tired holding the lantern all night. If they paired up with the foolish, they could take turns and not have sore arms the next day.

If we are commanded to be prepared to go with Jesus even though we know not the day or the hour, it seems to me that it is also our duty to reach out with the little bit of light we do have to help our fellow mortals find their way back to shore in safety to and into the the house of the bridegroom in joy.

In the gospel for Friday. We see Jesus calling Levi the tax collector. He doesn't just call Levi he pulls him away from his work in the tax booth. Like the other disciples before him, Levi walks away from his work to feast with Jesus.

Unlike the bridesmaids of the parable, the various followers of Jesus weren't waiting around for someone to come and call them into service. They were living and working and, like the foolish bridesmaids, weren't expecting the call to come when it did.

I wonder if the parable of the bridesmaids is almost wishful thinking on the part of Jesus. None of his own followers were exactly waiting for him to show up. None were buying extra lamp oil because he was late. He wasn't expected at all.

Still, they found a way to follow Jesus and to use their own, feeble, and wholly mortal lights to bring others to him in their own life and beyond through the writings the early church left behind.

So as the song says, "Let the lower lights be burning,". It takes all of our tiny lights to bring the steady beam of God's light in to the world and even foolish bridesmaids and silly disciples can contribute for as long as their lights last.


-=-=-=-=-

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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

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

10 February 2018

Wanting What We Do Not Have

I read through the service of Morning Prayer for Friday at Mission Clare and found that the part of the reading that caught my eye from from the Old Testament.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
~Genesis 28:13-14

There are multiple times in the Old testament where God promises to spread the offspring of the person God is talking to across the face of the earth.

Back when the stories of the bible were told instead of written and even when the Old and New Testaments were compiled in written form, rewritten, and edited the human population on earth was much lower than it is today.

Today, would being told to 'be fruitful and multiply' really be a blessing?

In year one of the common era the entire human population is estimated to be between 150 million to 300 million depending on the source used.

For reference, in 2017 the entire population of Russia was estimated at 144 million (almost the low end of the year one range) and the population of the United States was estimated at 324 million (the high end of the range for year one). The world population was 7.6 billion or 25.3 times the size of the larger estimate of the human population in year one.

That means that for every one person in year one there are 25+ people today. So the place Issac stood when he dreamed of the ladder would have 25 of his descendants roaming around.

From the frequency with which the idea of one's decedents covering the ear occurs in the Old Testament it is clear something that the men conventing with God desire greatly. None of them say to God, "perhaps covering the earth with humans is not such a great plan" or "what will we all eat if there are so many of us?" or "what happens when we do cover the earth, and the population keeps growing?"

More humans, and in particular more humans who are their direct descendants seems to be a good thing from their point of view.

I wonder why?

From my perspective the human impact on the earth and all of God's other creatures has not been good overall. We have driven creatures like the woolly mammoth to extinction by over hunting. We have destroyed other creatures by eliminating their habitat, killing them for their fur or feathers, or introducing invasive species into their habitat who either eat them or out-compete them.

What benefit did Abraham, Issac, and Jacob see to an expanding world population of humans? Was it just their own posterity? Was it that they saw more humans as creating a better life for everyone (more hands to make work easier)?

These thoughts make me think of two songs that are in my music library. The first is by Sinead O'Conner and the second by U2. Both have similarities to psalms. Ms O'Conner's song "I do not want what I have not got" reminds me of plain-sung psalms in church both in the plaintive melody and the repetition in the lyrics. The song by U2, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" starts with the idea of following an individual to find something and grows to thoughts of a more universal nature.

Ms O'Conner's song has a sad feeling to it, almost a sense of loss and longing that contradict the words that say she has what she needs. However, she does focus on the idea that what she currently has is good and has value.

U2's song has an upbeat melody, implying that even though they have not yet found what they are looking for, they might some day.

Both reference ideas from the bible in their lyrics.

It seems to me that wanting what we have not got is a part of the human condition. There is the old adage that "The grass is always greener on the other side..." However, once we get to the other side the way back might look better than it did when we left.

I wonder what Issac would think of the world if he could see it today. Would he still want his descendants to cover the earth like the dust does? Would he rejoice in our numbers? Or, would the world he grew up in seem like a treasure he had lost among the sea of humanity that live in modern times?

There is no way to know.

What we can do is acknowledge our human tenancy to want what we do not have and to not fully value what we do have. This can lead to greed and avarice as we see in the story of Exodus and throughout the bible. If we have God, why would we need idols of gold?

Instead of looking to the new and novel, and wishing we had that we can look at what we have now: our bread, our wine, each other, our faith and rejoice in them.


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Song: I do not want what I have not got by Sinead O'Conner (lyrics here) Song: I still haven't found what I'm looking for by U2.

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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

27 January 2018

Taste and See

Reading just the snippets of text provided by the Lectionary or the Daily Office gives me the chance to focus my attention on a small part of the bible. This frees up my mind to look closely at the text instead of skimming over entire sections.

However it can also be confusing or remove important context from my view. In the readings for Friday, 26 January about half of Genesis 17 is used for the reading.

The first part starts out clearly enough-- we see God telling Abraham about God's plan to give Sarah a son and Abraham's reaction (verses 15-22).

In the second half of the reading we have Abraham suddenly deciding to circumcise all the males in his household including his 13-year-old son Ishmael and all of the slaves in his house.

The reading as presented gives no context for Abraham's actions. The text says that God had said for him to do this, but that instruction is not included in this section so it seems to come out of the blue.

I ended up skipping back to the beginning of chapter 17 in order to find out what was going on.

This is not a bad side-effect of reading a small portion of the text. For me, the bible can be a bit mind-numbing to read. If I try to approach it like a modern book my eyes start to glaze over. Reading a small snippet and then expanding my reading to text on either side helps me engage with that text. I go in search of answers questions the original text has raised instead of passively absorbing the words as I go.

In the text for Friday reading just the text provided encouraged me to read further and to really think about what I was reading.

I ended up wondering about the choice the writer of this section of Genesis (and all the editors who came after) made to focus on the idea that the child-to-come would be first and foremost Sarah's child. Several times in this short passage the wording points out that the child that God will make a covenant with is the child that Sarah will bear, Abraham is almost an afterthought. If anything, Abraham spends his time in this passage pleading that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, not be forgotten.

And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!”
~Genesis 17:18

Ishmael was Abraham and Sarah's idea and solution to the problem of their barrenness. God does not accept their solution. I find it interesting that the child God wants to make a covenant with must be the child of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah must be included as far as God is concerned. God is willing to listen to Abraham's plea and to make a place of Ishmael but God's focus is on the coming child by Sarah.

I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’
~Genesis 17:16

If I had read through all of Genesis in one go, I might have skimmed over this passage. I would have missed the opportunity to think about the exact words used and to come up with my own interpretation.

A year or three from now, I might re-read this section of text and come up with a new interpretation, a new understanding of the words presented for that day's reading.

Like a rich dessert, I find it helpful to take the Old and New Testament in small bites.

The interest, the joy even, of reading a short passage and really thinking about my own thoughts and feelings about that passage and seeing how they change over time as I learn and grow.


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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

06 January 2018

Hero of the Moment

In the readings for Friday's Daily Office three of the major figures of the bible are mentioned. First, in the Old Testament reading we have the introduction of Noah. Then, in the New Testament, we have a mention of Moses. Finally in the Gospel we have Jesus himself in doing his first official miracle-- changing water into wine.

All three of them share, not only mythic status, but a life of ups and downs in their relationships to their followers. They are heroes one moment and goats the next.

Noah listens to God, builds the ark and saves a selection of birds, animals, and humans. He demonstrates his faith. However, once the boat is empty and the vineyard is planted he drinks to excess and ends up at odds with his youngest son, who has seen him at his worst and gossiped about it with his brothers. He divides his own family into slaves (Ham's son Canaan), masters (Shem), and people to 'make space for' (Japheth). A fine dysfunctional ending to a story of a man who saved his family from a flood, only to wind up dividing them after giving into his own weakness.

In the New Testament reading Moses and the disobedient people who followed him are referenced. I was reminded that Moses, as a result of his own disobedience, was not allowed to enter the promised land. It was his successor Josuha who lead the people across the Jordan, leaving Moses buried in Moab.

Finally we have Jesus who initially refuses his mother's request that he help out, but who changes his mind. However, he uses the stone water jars that are intended to hold water for the Jewish rites of purification. I wonder what the owner of the jars though when he found them full of wine? Was he grateful for the wine or dismayed that the jars were used. Would they have to be cleaned after such a use? Would Jesus go from hero of the hour to someone who made a lot of work for other people? As he goes on in his ministry we see him struggle, like Moses, with recalcitrant disciples and women who call on him to be even more than he intended.

This past summer I saw the movie Dunkirkin the theater. One of the things I kept noticing throughout were moments of heroism that went unnoticed by those around the hero. It occurred to me that being a hero is not a permanent state, it is the action of a moment and after that moment has past the next decision needs to be made.

This is much like Moses and the people who followed him into the Exodus: one day they affirm their relationship to God and their determination to make it through the desert, the next they are dancing around a golden calf because they think they have been deserted by both God and Moses.

After seeing the 'Dunkirk', I stumbled upon the saying: Failure isn't fatal and success isn't final. Which seemed to encapsulate the feeling that the movie had evoked.

For some of Moses's followers failure to follow God was fatal. But in most cases in our lives failure isn't fatal, failure gives us a chance to change and make new decisions in the future.

The other half of the saying: 'success isn't final.' is a reminder that a moment of success is not permanent, we can fall just as easily as we rose. We see that in Noah-- he succeeded in bringing his family and the animals he was charged with saving safely through the flood-- only to experience disgrace and loss while rebuilding his world.

Jesus has several failures, both of his own faith in his ability to carry through his work and in his ability to communicate his vision of God's Kingdom to his own followers. However, he persists through those failures to redeem us all at the end through his sacrifice. He finds success and resurrection through his choice to persist and hold to God's plan for him.

All three of these figures had tough rows to hoe and none of them made it through their complicated relationships with God, their followers, and their own understanding of their lives without falling and failing. They had their moments of being the hero and doing the right thing at the right time. Then that moment passed and they had to make their next choice.

So it is with all of us. Hero or Failure is not a permanent status while we live. We will have moments when we rise to the occasion and moments when we fall on our face.

There may be times when we, like Jesus, are tempted to say that our hour has not yet come. It is work to take action, to find the jars and fill them with water. It would be easier to put things off to another day. Heroes become so by choosing to act, by making a choice to do. They may still fail but failing to act guarantees failure.

Noah, Moses, and Jesus, in their most heroic moments choose to act, to accept the job God had given them to do in the moment. They may have failed to be heroes in every moment but they got the bulk of their jobs done. Noah saved his family and the animals that God asked him to. Moses got his people out of Egypt and to the banks of the promised land. Jesus consented to death on the cross and brought God's grace to us all through his death and resurrection.

Our own role in God's creation is likely much less grand but no less important. Our own doubts and fears link us to these great ones who failed at times to be all they could be in the eyes of God. When we fall we can follow their example and try again to find our relationship with God and the right choice to make in the next moment.


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

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf