13 May 2019

Looking for Joy


Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth,
think of the Lord in goodness
and seek him with sincerity of heart;
~Wisdom 1:1

My mother passed away in 2018* and her funeral was held this time last year. There have been parts of the last year that have been difficult; however, both my parents taught me excellent lessons about both living in the now and not dwelling on a past I can't change. I've done my best to use those lessons.

After the funeral (during the time I was recovering from helping Dad care for Mom) I found myself flashing back to the last few days and remembering Mom in ways that she would not want. Soon, I realized that, if I let this continue, those images would wear a track into my mind and permanently become the first thing that would spring to mind when I remembered my mom.

I didn't want that. 

I was very lucky to have had a good relationship with my mom. We had our differences, but anything major had been ironed out years ago. We had gone on several adventures together to see the world in addition to our more mundane visits to each other.

To help push my many years of good memories to the forefront of my mind, I chose to redirect my thoughts each time one of the sad memories cropped up.

To help me, I kept the slide show of moments with my family (that included mom) on my computer instead of removing it because it might make me sad. That way I saw her every day in ways she would want to be remembered: healthy and enjoying life.

It was difficult, at first, to catch myself when I was tumbling down a sad path of remembrance; but, as the year went on, I got better at it. Just last week a photo of my mom, dad, and kiddo, together and smiling, cycled up on my laptop screen and I found myself spontaneously smiling at the image. 

I am very glad that I made the choice to set aside the hard, sad, and scary memories of Mom's last week and, instead, turn my focus to moments from our various travels together; or moments from my childhood; or to quiet moments sitting on the couch together with a baseball game on while we both worked (or goofed off on) our computers.

This choice** served me in two ways. One: it strengthened the good, loving, and joyful memories I have of my mom. Two: it weakened and caused to fade, many of those sad and difficult memories from her last few weeks. Some of those memories I havechosen to keep. Those few are small treasures that am glad to look at occasionally. The rest have mostly faded into hazy recollections, and that is fine with me.

There is a lot in my life that I have no control over; but I can, in part,  choose which of my memories to reinforce and which to let fade away. 

I can, in short, look for joy.

Do not invite death by the error of your life,
            or bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
because God did not make death,
            and he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
            the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
            and there is no destructive poison in them,
            and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
~Wisdom 1:12-14


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*My essay from that time last year: Come, Thou

**Note: If you are dealing with grief or any other overwhelming emotion and simple things like getting a good night's sleep or doing something distracting don't help you regain your equilibrium, please consider meeting with your doctor and seeing if therapy or other mental health treatment is necessary.  We have adopted the saying in our family: "If you can't make your own neurotransmitters, store bought is fine." So if mediation, redirecting thoughts, getting enough sleep (and enough water) don't help, see if your doctor or therapist can.


04 May 2019

Adventures in Phở

This week I am at the Oregon Coast spending time with my dad. I very much enjoy getting to hang out with him and just be a part of his routine. The big highlight of our day is usually walking into town to get the mail.

When I am visiting, I try to cook a few of the evening meals to give Dad a break from cooking for himself. He's vegetarian, but very easy to cook for, because his favorite food is meals that other people have cooked andhe's willing to eat leftovers for several nights in a row.

I'm not as easy to cook for as he is because I have a long list of foods that I can't tolerate well. Top of the list are onion and garlic. Since onion and garlic form the base for most savory vegetarian food it gets a bit tricky to cook savory dishes that we can both enjoy.

When I first figured out that onion and garlic were not good for me, it was very stressful. I was super-sensitive to minute quantities, which meant that I had to avoid almost all pre-packaged savory food. 

I wasn't much of a cook at that point in my life. I had about three dishes I could make, and I tended to set fire to things accidentally, or make a major spice errors so my food was inedible.

I started to get interested in cooking, partly in self-defense, partly because I took it into my head that I shouldbe able to cook and the only way to become a good cook would be to get cooking. It helped a lot that my roommate came up with a way to create the savory flavor of onion and garlic that I could use as a replacement in many dishes.

We have a saying in our house: "It goes faster if you start." It comes from working on craft projects. There is only so much thinking and planning one can do, eventually one needs to start work for the project ever to be finished.

Once I started cooking, I never looked back. Cooking confidence led, in turn, to baking. After years of trying to get bread to rise and learning to watch my bakes so as not to set fire to the oven, I can now reliably bake bread and pastries. I have even developed a sense of timing and can wander off and do other things and come back to the oven just as the timer is about to go off.

All of this work has given me the ability to look a recipes and plan how to alter them so as to get results that not only I can eat (because they cater to my own limitations) but that taste good to other people.

So this week, my dad mentioned liking Vietnamese Phở and I was inspired to come up with a recipe that was both vegetarian and onion/garlic/ginger free. After reviewing several recipes on-line, I made a list of ingredients and substitutions, went grocery shopping, and spent the next several hours cooking. 

Dad and I had the final result for dinner, and it was very tasty. I don't know that it is anything like real Phở, but it is at least Phở adjacent.

While I was working on the various steps to make the Phở broth, I thought about how impossible a task this would have been for me ten years ago. What is easy for me now, would have been overwhelmingly complicated for me then.

However, if my past-self hadn't suddenly decided that cooking as A Thing I Should Know, I wouldn't have the skills I do today to alter a recipe on the fly and have the result be edible. 

Every journey starts with a single step and every project (learning skills included) goes faster if you start.

The thing I have found myself saying most often in my life is: "Why didn't I do X sooner?" There is almost no example of a project, skill, or activity that I wish I had postponed starting for a longer time.  Once I made the transition from thinking about the idea to actually doing the work, I more often wished I had gotten started sooner.

Everyone is different and at different stages in life. However, in my experience, time waits for no one. Procrastination is frequently fear in disguise, but my fears come true so rarely that I'm really trying to learn not to listen to those fears.

If I had put off learning to cook because I got discouraged at how often I set off the smoke detector or made inedible spice choices or because I feared that no one would everlike my food; I wouldn't be where I am today, having fun adventures in Phở.

20 April 2019

Perspective


I was working in my garden and set a tool down near me and got up to take my bucket of weeds to the compost bin. When I returned, I realized that while the tool was easy to find when I was nearby, it became nearly invisible when looking at the entire garden.

That shift in perspective was dizzying.

As we move from Lent into the events in Holy Week, we enter one of the busiest times in the church year. Between the plethora of church services that lead up to Easter and the packed lectionary that includes some of the most powerful and exciting scriptures there is a lot going on physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Add to that social and cultural Easter events such as Easter egg hunts, making Easter baskets, and brunches with family and friends and it can be easy to be caught up in running from one event to another.

I see bits of this in the scriptures as the story moves from last Sunday's triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palms waving to the upcoming crucifixion, death, and resurrection stories.

There are the details of two disciples who are sent to get a specific colt for Jesus to ride. It is not just any old colt; it is one that in a particular location and that has never been ridden before. There are the details of the crucifixion story that give us the Stations of the Cross.

It is easy to get caught up in the details of day-to-day tasks; just like when I am weeding, all I see are weeds, and I feel that there is no way I can lose my tools. However when I stand up and take a moment to stretch, those details fade quickly into the new perspective of the garden as a whole. The tools and the weeds are in there somewhere; but, for the moment they are no longer the focus.

As we move through the story of Jesus in this Easter Season, it can be good to take a break from the details of the story, the services, and the events.

Look up, and see the wholeness of the Easter story and the grace we receive through it.


15 April 2019

Righteous Anger


Then Jesus entered the templeand drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

               ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
               but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heardthe children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

               ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
               you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
~Matthew 21:12-17

Throughout the gospel readings we see the story of Jesus play out; and, while he often seems to be vexed or frustrated at the disciples and other followers who don't seem to understand his message, we only see him incandescently angry once, and that is in today's reading where he confronts the money changers in the temple.

As a Christian, I frequently got the message, both explicitly and implicitly that I wasn't allowed to be angry and that I was supposed to love everyone and not be confrontational.

I don't think my experience was unique, but I do think it was amplified by my being female. There was additional societal baggage that said that girls should be quiet and well behaved and never, ever angry. So even if I was angry, I should never show it and I should, in particular, neverconfront someone* with my anger.

Due to the two-fold message, from the church and from the world, that it was wrong for me to feel anger, I spent much of my teens and early adulthood mistaking anger for sadness. I didn't even really know how to identify anger as separate feeling. Over time I went from identifying anger in myself, to realizing that anger was just a feeling. It was not good or bad in itself, it was what I did with it that mattered.

Eventually I learned that there was a place for expressing anger and for confronting others. That place is in standing up to oppression and injustice.

When Jesus confronts the money changers. It is with the righteous anger of one correcting an injustice. He overturns the tables of the money lenders and drives them away using anger and fierce confrontation; but that is not the end of the story.

The confrontation, in driving out the money lenders, has made space for the blind and the lame to come to the temple. Jesus welcomes them and heals them. They can come to him freely without the need to change money to buy a sacrifice. Jesus has removed a barrier between an oppressed and disadvantaged group by using his anger to confront an injustice.

Like comedy and workplace gifts, anger should always flow upward. If I'm going to use my anger as fuel to confront a person or an institution, they should be more powerful than me or the group I am trying to get justice for. 

I see this in the reading. Jesus directing his anger at those who have monetized worship and who are profiting, in particular, off of the poor and disadvantaged. He then directs his service and compassion to the blind and the lame who come to him for help. Jesus does not spread his anger about or explode in a rage at the person nearest to him. He channels his rage at a specific target, and to effect a specific result.

Anger, when used as a motivating force to act for justice is not bad-- any more than pain motivating one to go to the doctor is bad. Anger is a sign. Anger can be prophetic.  Anger, when used a tool, can be a powerful force for positive change. 

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*Just to be clear:  the 'someones' I shouldn't confront were usually white, male, and authority figures.

Bible citations are from Bible Gateway using the NRSV text.


06 April 2019

Scarves for All Seasons

Seven years ago, my mom, daughter and I went to France. It had been on mom and my list of places we wanted to visit, and mom suggested that my daughter should come with us. 

Overall it was a great trip—especially considering we had a 13-year-old, a 43-year-old, and 70-year-old travelling together. We were there in September so Paris was not as crowded as it might have been. 

There were many highlights (and a few lowlights) to our travels together. One of the great things was that mom had arranged for us to stay with an American friend of hers who was living in Paris. Thanks to her generosity we were only a bus-ride away from central Paris. Each day, we would get up and see the sights while the friend was off at work. We had to stick together because mom had the key to the apartment, I had the cell phone, and my daughter could speak French. 

September in Paris is a lot like September in the Pacific Northwest. It can be rainy and cold or bright and sunny; but there is always an undercurrent of cool air, even on the warm days, just to remind one that winter is not far off. We had packed accordingly, but once Mom's friend saw our gear, she suggested that we get scarves to keep ourselves warmer. Apparently, the French wear scarves a lot more than we do (or at least my family). We wear scarves in the winter when it's really cold, but it hadn't really occurred to us that they could be worn year-round andthat they would make such a difference.

It was a revelation. If I was chilly, I could wrap my scarf around my neck and suddenly I would feel much warmer and more comfortable. If the wind was blowing, I could wrap the scarf over my head and ears. 

By the time we left France, all three of us had acquired the scarf habit.

Since that time, I have acquired more scarves.

It is a tiny thing, but it has made my life more comfortable. Just today, I was feeling chilly, so I wrapped up in a small silk scarf a friend gave me for Christmas. It is a wisp of a thing, just perfect for a spring day where it's not quite warm enough out unless I was working vigorously in the yard. Even so, it kept the chill off easily.

A regular spiritual practice can be like wearing a scarf. It doesn't have to serve the same purpose throughout the year (or even throughout the day). 

The habit of doing it regularly makes it easier to adapt to changing conditions. It also doesn't have to be a big production. A ritual of prayer can be as simple as pausing for a moment to be fully present, or it can be a habit of giving thanks for the little joys of life. Like a scarf it can be warming and comforting, and can help take up the strain of daily life. 

I know I have sometimes fallen into the idea that there is a right way to have a daily spiritual practice and evolved complex rituals and rules for myself. What I found, over time, was that those rituals and rules got in the way of daily contact with the divine. Now, instead of waiting until I have time to get out my prayer book and a candle (and whatever else I felt was necessary at the time to pray properly), I pause and pray in the moment. I give thanks for the flowers that are opening on my apple trees, or I share my worries and concerns with God. 

In the past, I limited my use of scarves to very cold winters and didn't see a use for them during the rest of the year. Then I learned how much better life could be if I embraced them year-round.

As with my scarf use, I learned it was comforting to connect with the divine every day. I didn't need to wait until Sundays, or the and the big seasons in the church, or follow a complicated prayer ritual a home. I could wrap myself in God's love and grace and be comforted.

23 March 2019

Get on my knees to…


The season of Lent is frequently seen a time of preparation, penitence, fasting, and sacrifice. In my experience as a young Episcopalian it was also a time of more kneeling. This may be, in part, because I was already eleven years old when the new prayer book came out, so I already had several years of experience of the church with the 1928 prayer book which had a more penitential tone, especially in Lent.

Since I was a child, I can remember I have struggled with kneeling in church. In part because I associated kneeling with being penitent when I didn't feel that I'd done anything wrong and then later as a teen because I had a bad back. I was thrilled when my home congregation slowly transitioned to less required kneeling and more of the optional stand or kneel instructions.

As an adult my thinking changed and expanded. For one thing, my back got better thanks to a clever physical therapist. For another, I spent a lot of time thinking about the order of service, what ritual story was being told, and how moving my body helped me feel the rhythm of the readings, prayers, and hymns of the service.  I still tended to resist kneeling. 

Some of my struggle with kneeling comes from my issues with having 'be humble' thrust upon me when people wanted me to perform humility in a certain way because I was young and female. In an age where women were learning to stand up for their rights as fully independent human beings the idea that girls were supposed to be meek and humble rubbed me the wrong way. One way I could resist that social force was by standing before my God.

I figured God knew if I was feeling humble or proud and I didn't need to bow (literally) to human social pressure and kneel. (I will say for all of my rebellious thoughts; I was never disruptive during worship. God was likely the only person who knew how much thought I was giving to the idea of when to kneel and when not to.) I didn't need to performfor God.

Recently I was out in the garden planting some ground cover in a new terraced area of our front yard. My daughter had arranged some very large rocks to level out a small area where we put a bench and I decided rather than letting grass take it over I would put in some native ground cover to make the new area more a part of the entire yard. I was on my knees digging holes, freeing pot bound roots and racing to get the plants in the ground before full dark, when I realized that there are some things that I do on my knees that give me great joy.

I garden, getting down on my knees to weed and plant. I play with young children, getting down on hands and knees to play their games. 

In short, I realized that I could also kneel in an attitude of playfulness and joy. The action of kneeling did not have to be solely one of penitence and sorrow, it could also be full an act of that deep joy and awe that can cause me to cry tears of happiness.

The first part of psalm 95 captures some of that spirit for me. It is full of a joyful exuberance, such that even when it calls for us to bow down it seems to do so in a spirit of joy.

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95: 1-7


Sometimes it's important to kneel down in an attitude of humility, penitence, or petition; sometimes, however, I think it's helpful to kneel in an attitude of joy.

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Bible citations are from Bible Gatewayusing the NRSV text.

16 March 2019

Shining Grief

Many years ago my housemate* badly broke her ankle. This was in the days before social media, so while folks might have had cell phones or email, there was no easy way to set up a central location to asynchronously share information on demand. 

On the day she went into surgery, my husband was the contact point at the hospital. He called me at home with updates so her family and friends could then call me to see how she was doing. It was a stressful and worrisome time.

I spend the day down in my workroom, with the landline phone close to hand, and ended up spending 8-10 hours sewing between phone calls. A few days later, with my housemate safely home and recovering from surgery, I realized that the furious energy I put into sewing on that day was an outlet for the stress and worry.

It was a powerful realization that I could take the fizzing, negative energy of worry, stress, and anxiety and turn it into something positive and useful (pants, in my case).

Throughout the years I have embraced this tendency and tried to harness such nervous, scattered energy to power positive actions that make my life better. Every time I've been able to consciously propel myself to do something rather than sit around and dwell on all of the things that couldgo wrong, I have had a more fruitful experience. Instead of fretting about things outside of my control, I take some of that energy and put it into a creative pursuit. In my case it's been activities like baking, sewing, beading, knitting, gardening, and most recently, metal work.

There are limits to this strategy. It only works for me if the thing I am doing is a physical activity that requires concentration and focus and is hands-on. Other projects that I like to do like writing, reading, and research don't absorb the negative, jittery, energy that comes from my stress and worry. Exercise alone also doesn't work; it leaves my brain too free to obsess about whatever is generating the stress and worry which only amplifies the problem.

This past year I have learned that this is also how I process grief. When my mom entered the final stage of her illness, I put all of my fear, grief, and loss into helping her and Dad. I was very lucky that they both let me stay and help once it became clear that Mom would likely die in the next month to six weeks. They gave me the gift of being able to serve, of being able to act instead of being 200 miles away worrying about them. I hope that my being there gave my brothers some peace of mind also. 

Everyone reacts to fear and worry and stress and, most powerfully, grief, differently. 

As we move further into Lent and see how the story of, not only Jesus, but all of his disciples play out, we see how they react to the call of Jesus, and ultimately to his death and resurrection. We see how Peter denies his relationship to Jesus in his grief and fear, we see how 
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary witness the crucifixion and, in their grief, try to ensure that Jesus has a proper burial. We see all of these witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection go through the process of loss, fear, and grief that is common to everyone. 

We all lose ones we love. We all experience the shock and loss of the death of people we know or people we never knew who died in horrific acts of violence. Sometimes death comes suddenly, with no warning; sometimes it comes slowly. There is no way for us to know how death will take us; just as there is no way to know how we will experience grief.

There is no wrong way to grieve. 

Like the disciples we are forever changed by the experience of having, and then losing, the loved ones in our lives.

Like the disciples we can take that love out into the world and let it shine.

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* context: my housemate has lived with my husband and I for over 30 years, starting in college, through buying a house, helping to raise our daughter, and is much more a family member than justa housemate. Our daughter calls her Auntie.

09 March 2019

Ritual Danger

I have always had a fondness for the more quiet and contemplative services of the church year. I often manage to attend Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services. In part for the practical reason that they are in the evening and thus compatible with my own idiosyncratic schedule, but mostly because they are two liturgies that really speak to me. 

I was in church for this year's Ash Wednesday service and part of my time was spent just looking around and absorbing the atmosphere of the worship space as I settled in for the service.  Looking at the candles, stained-glass, and crosses covered in purple cloths, I was reminded of both the power and danger of using physical objects to understand the mysteries of God. 

I know some of the power of the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services comes from the ritual acts both contain that are only done once a year. The imposition of ashes and the washing of feet are actions that are rare and special and thus may contain even more power to move and mystify than the weekly prayers and communion.  

Ritual actions such as lighting candles, processing with the cross, bowing, kneeling, crossing oneself, receiving the ashes, and taking communion are all ways to make a physical connection with the deep and vast mysteries of God.

When I imbue everyday objects or actions with ritual meaning, I give those objects and actions power to help me deepen my understanding and relationship with God. However, being human, it can be easy to take it too far. I can forget that the candle* is not holy, that the candle is not my connection with God.  That any power it has comes from the place it holds in the ritual. The candle is not God, the leaping flame is a way to evoke the complicated mystery of God in a way that my small self can grasp. 

If I treat the candle itself as holy and start to worship the ritual of lighting and extinguishing it then God is no longer the focus at the heart of the ritual. When that happens, I drift toward magical thinking.  'If I light this candle X good thing will happen, or, I will be protected from Y bad thing."  

If I give into that temptation, I reduce God down to a vending machine or an accountant. This narrowing of God into something that can grant wishes or who balances the books after death is the dangerous side of the power of ritual. It is where ideas like the prosperity gospel come from (if you obey god and are a good person you will prosper, if you don't you will suffer and, more insidiously, if you suffer it is because you must be a bad person).  From there it is a short step to the idea of: 'everything happens for a reason'.

I know that some folks find the idea of everything happening for a reason to be helpful. I think of it as bad theology. Things, good and bad, do happen to us and we may or may not reflect on them an learn something. 

However, the universe is big beyond understanding. Putting myself at the center, letting my ego convince me that everything, good, bad or indifferent, that has ever happened to me was on purpose, and that I was the target of specific actions by God or the universe so I would 'learn' is stepping into the shoes of God.

I may never know why something happened to me. I may come up with a reason. I may even learn something from the bit of 'everything' that falls on me but that doesn't mean that I am the center of the universe. Just as the candle is not God, neither am I.  When I use the candle's flame to explore the vast mystery of God then the candle and I are both in the right place:  focusing our attention on the expansive mystery and overpowering wonder of a God who loves all of creation.

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*or any other object or action used in ritual worship

18 February 2019

Walking the Walk

I was watching the Netfilx show Tidying Up based on Marie Kondo's books and saw a section on working with kids to go through toys and it reminded me of lessons I learned from working with my daughter on cleaning her room when she was little.

1. If she went through her toys, books and stuffed animals and wanted to get rid of something that I was attached to, then I had to own that attachment and move the item to my space instead of requiring her to keep it when she was ready to let it go.

2. It was always unpredictable what she would keep and what she would want to get rid of and I needed to learn not to assume that what I thought she would value was what she would value. It was important to let go of my preconceptions and let her process and choices stand on their own.

3. (and an over-arching theme of the first two) I had to let go of my own ego when it got in the way of her process. Even at a young age, she knew if she was ready to let something go. Any time I second guessed her I risked undermining her developing clear ideas of how she wanted her space and what was important to her. She knew, and her choices were right for her.

In short, I had to learn to walk my own talk. I wanted her to learn how to clean up after herself, how to maintain her own space, and how to manage her possessions in a way that served her.

I came to the task of teaching her with preconceived notions of what she would want to keep based on my own experiences and my own emotional needs. I ended up learning a lot more than I ever taught.

In one of today's lessons from the Daily Office Lectionary we have a reading from John:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.
~1 John 1:3-11

It is difficult to walk my talk at times. I may think that I want to bring my daughter up to be independent, to be able to make her own decisions; but in that moment, when she was little, it was very hard to realize that if I really wanted to teach her those lessons I would have to let go of my own ego, my own idea of the Right Way to clean, or to live.

If I sabotaged her process by telling her that she had to keep a certain book or toy, then I would be crippling the very independence I hoped to foster.

That was a very hard lesson to learn.

So, in today's reading we have a simple instruction: look for people who walk their talk when it comes to following in Jesus's footsteps.

I would say that the process of learning to have one's ideals match one's actions is lifelong. It's very easy to think about living into the words and life of Jesus and a lot harder to actually do the work to make it happen.

As a kid, I used to wonder why we said the confession of sins every week. How much trouble could I get into in one week? I tried to be a nice person and not be actively mean to anyone, why would I need to confess?

As an adult I realized that the ritual of confession does more than wipe my slate clean for the week. It, and the entire communion service, serve to remind us of the things Jesus asks us to do in our daily life. The process of reading the lessons, saying the prayers, making confession, and celebrating the eucharist brings us back to the essentials and reminds us of the fundamental relationship between us and God.

Learning to live into the ideals that Jesus gave us, is like me trying to teach my daughter how to clean and maintain her space. We come to it with preconceived notions, with our own egos, with the desire to be right.

Letting go of all of our egos and expectations is an on-going process. Having a ritual that reminds us of the ideals we are trying to manifest in our lives can help us more consistently walk in the footsteps of Jesus and learn the lessons he tried to teach while he was on earth.

If we have drifted away from the two great commandments, if our work out in the world has ground us down, then coming to church or engaging in deliberate ritual of prayer can be a touchstone, a way to reset our relationship with God and the world.

It acts a reminder that our goal is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to walk his walk.

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Bible citations are from Bible Gateway using the NRSV text.

09 February 2019

Who Gathers the Outcasts

The Old Testament reading for the Friday in week 4 of Epiphany spoke very strongly to me. I am used to thinking of the Old Testament as the historical documents of Christianity. They inform my understanding of the history and tradition that Jesus and his immediate followers would have been exposed to, but they are not the focus of my own faith. That said, the inclusiveness of this passage, startled me:
Thus says the Lord:      Maintain justice, and do what is right,for soon my salvation will come,      and my deliverance be revealed.Happy is the mortal who does this,      the one who holds it fast,who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,      and refrains from doing any evil.Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,      "The Lord will surely separate me from his people";and do not let the eunuch say,      "I am just a dry tree."For thus says the Lord:To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,      who choose the things that please me      and hold fast my covenant,I will give, in my house and within my walls,      a monument and a name
      better than sons and daughters;I will give them an everlasting name      that shall not be cut off.And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,      to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
      and to be his servants,all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,      and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain,      and make them joyful in my house of prayer;their burnt offerings and their sacrifices      will be accepted on my altar;for my house shall be called a house of prayer      for all peoples.Thus says the Lord God,      who gathers the outcasts of Israel,I will gather others to them      besides those already gathered.
~Isaiah 56: 1-8
What struck me the most were the particular examples used of 'outsiders' who could be gathered in were eunuchs and foreigners. From the context in the poem, both groups are 'outcasts of Israel'. Now God says that the eunuchs will be given: "a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;" and the foreigners: [God] will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar."

Both groups are assured of not being separated or cut off* from God's people as long as they keep the sabbath and the covenant and refrain from doing evil.

I wonder if part of the reason they would have a 'name better than sons or daughters' is because, presumably, they chose the relationship with God and a commitment to the covenant. Unlike the children of Israel, who were raised in the faith and learned from birth all of the rituals and rules of the faith. The outsiders bring other traditions and life experience with them, and yet still choose to bind themselves to this particular God and the way of life that entails.

I was raised as an Episcopalian, not quite from the cradle since I was a toddler before my mom got around to baptizing me, and other than a brief experiment with Tarot Cards when I was in college, I've been an Episcopalian my entire life. To some extent, I have always been 'in'^. At least, I've always known the rituals, what books to use, when to stand, when to come up to the altar, etc. There has never been a time when the ritual life of the church was foreign to me. However, I think that, similar the way that learning a second language can enrich my understanding of my first language, coming to an understanding of God and with God later in life can enrich that relationship.

The closest I have come to that feeling, is to attend Anglican worship services in other countries and in languages that I am not fluent in. The structure of the worship that I am familiar with is still there, but all of the little details are different. The cues I am used to aren't there and it changes the experience of worship for me. Nearly every time, it has made the experience both more powerful and awesome. It has given me a window into the massive mystery that is God, in a way that going to my home church did not.

For me, this reading has a similar effect. Just when I think I've got God in a box and that I understand everything about my faith and relationship with God; God unfolds another aspect of gods-self and enfolds me in a Mystery.

For all of the complexity of God, the relationships are always simple: Love and inclusion are at the heart of them.
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*Apparently either the translator or the original writer couldn't resist a little word play.
^With the exception that as a queer/bi person there have been times when I had to stand up for my place in 'my' faith.

© 2019 Kristin Fontaine

12 January 2019

Unpacking from the Journey

In denominations like our own Episcopal Church, each new church season is a chance to set out on a journey. In Advent we journey with Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph through the season of preparation. From there we set out for the 12 days of Christmas, starting with the birth of Jesus and ending with the arrival of the wise men and the beginning of Epiphany.

So it goes, through Lent and Easter and into the summer of Common time (and Vacation Bible School* for some).

I just came home from a visit with my dad where I help him put away the nativity set, pack up the ornaments from the tree (making sure to pick up every last bit of tinsel since it turned out dad's cat likes to try to eat it), and stowing the lights until next year. 

As I was unpacking from my trip, it occurred to me that many time in the liturgical year I spend a fair amount of time preparing to set out but very little time reflecting and unpacking from a season as it comes to a close.

When I get back from a trip, I put my clean laundry away, put the dirty laundry in the hamper, unpack my computer, and my knitting, and put away all of the odds and ends that I end up hauling around with me. Sometimes I bring home projects to work on for my dad. My latest project being a cover for a chair. When I do, I spend some time making a plan for the project so I don't forget to work on it between visits.

All of this is important maintenance between journeys. If I didn’t unpack, do the laundry, and put things away, packing for the next trip would be a lot more work. Also, I learn things about how to pack and how much, or little, to take with me the next time. 

This makes me think that making a spiritual practice of 'unpacking' from a liturgical season before setting off on my next metaphorical journey might deepen and improve my experience of each season. 

Perhaps this year, I can take some time as each season ends to reflect on what I experienced during that season and what I can take with me as I 'pack' for the next one.

Jesus was on the road a lot during the time of his ministry on earth; but even in those few years he took time to rest away from the crowds. He didn't just jump from one experience to another.

Taking time for quiet reflection helps solidify experience and helps clear the decks to make space for the next adventure.


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*I know, it's not an official part of the liturgical calendar, but Vacation Bible School was a bit part of my life growing up and for the people who put it on. It is a season of work unto itself.

© 2018 Kristin Fontaine