Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

("John Wyclif reading the Bible at Gannet," by Ford Madox Brown, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This post originally appeared on the Speaking to the Soul blog, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011)

Readings for the feast day of John Wyclif, October 30:
Psalm 33:4-11
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 43:26-33
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 4:13-20

John Wyclif was noted for his belief that believers had a direct relationship with God, with no requirement for the church or the priestly caste to act as intermediary, and this is most manifest in his translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into English.  Through this contribution to the Anglicanism, he most personifies the opening words of today's reading from Hebrews--"Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (NRSV)

I first learned about the business of separating joints from marrow around age 10, when it became one of my household duties to "cut up the chicken." Now, this was one of my favorite tasks, because I was allowed to use large, sharp knives with very little supervision and very little admonishment other than "Don't cut your finger off."  My mother, to save money, usually bought a whole chicken at the grocery store rather than pre-cut parts.  I learned very quickly there was both a bit of skill and a great deal of satisfaction in learning to cut through the joints of a whole fryer.

One of the tricks I learned was to let the weight of the chicken help me.  I quickly learned to hold up the whole chicken by the wing, find the joint space, and "pop" it through the dangling chicken, letting it fall on the cutting board.  I also learned to cut the breast in such a way there would be a "wishbone piece" in it.  Having the ability to get to make a wish every time we had fried chicken was a real treat.

Having a relationship with God through the living and revealed Word is not much different, really.  We can sit in the pews on Sunday and have Scripture served up for us, like a plate of fried chicken, and enjoy a very fine feast, courtesy of the lector, the deacon, and the priest, but it's just not the same as when you are allowed to "cut it up yourself."  Nothing opens up Christianity quite like taking up the Bible as a daily spiritual discipline, and it's pleasantly surprising how easy it becomes in a short time.  The Episcopal Church's Daily Office allows us to go through the bulk of the Bible in two years' time (and the Psalms every seven weeks!)

Granted, our initial attempts at regular Bible reading may feel clumsy, and our ability to cut into it incisively at first might seem a little tentative, but a good commentary, study Bible, or study group can act as a whetstone for the knife edge of our spiritual imaginations.  In fact, there are several sites on the Web that make use of the Daily Office readings.  Help is readily available--there's no chance of "cutting our fingers off."

What we discover over time is once we stop worrying that we can't wrap our minds around the Bible in the same way a seminary graduate can, the words start miraculously wrapping around our hearts.  Hearing the Psalms over and over causes certain verses and phrases to stand out, and hearing the familiar words of the Gospel begin to knit themselves to our own sinews.  Suddenly, the stories are not about ancient people in ancient times, they are about us, in the present moment.  There's something spiritually satisfying about popping through the joint of a parable and feeling the relief of the weight of the world drop from us, with a lighter heart.  Most importantly, it becomes as much of a daily habit as brushing our teeth, and we will begin to miss it, if circumstances cause us to accidentally omit it.

Then, when we do hear these words on Sunday, they take on new meaning and allow us to become more discerning oracles in our community of faith.  We start seeing everyone else's faults a little differently, forgive ourselves a little more easily, and begin to reach out to others in ways we could not imagine.  Because we allowed the people of Biblical times into our imaginations, the people we used to think of as "the other" begin to look and feel more like "us."

Thanks to the life and efforts of John Wyclif, we can taste for ourselves the white meat and dark meat of the revealed Word, and live in the hope that there's always a wishbone.

(Taken on my walk between the lake cabins and Campground #1, Mo. Highway 157, Thousand Hills State Park,  Kirksville, MO, October 7, 2011)

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

--Therese Martin (Therese of Liseaux)

One of the most amazing things about my "stay-cation" in the first part of October was deciding--literally on a whim--to spend the night in one of the cabins at Thousand Hills Lake.  Turned out I was there literally during the peak foliage week.  I could not have planned it.

I'm beginning to be a believer more in the unplanned than in the planned.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  I love it when the things I've planned turn out just right.  There's a pleasure in that.  But there's also an apprehension.  All planned things have a dose of the "what if?" in them.  In all planned things, we have to at least think ahead on them enough so that if something doesn't go perfectly, we have a fallback option.  If, for some reason, imperfections occur, they can overshadow the good, and instead of seeing the good, and instead of a reasonably pleasant experience, we see failure.  It really brings home that old saying, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Now, that's not to say I didn't plan this overnight foray at all.  I made my list of what to bring on short notice, and decided I would accept the fact that, if I forgot something, well, I just forgot it, and I would live with the consequences.  I would use my wits to have an acceptable alternative.  I did forget to bring paper towels.  But I solved the problem by inviting one of my friends to a dinner that I grilled on the fire, and the "price of admission" for her was a few paper towels.

Years ago, I used to plan my vacation weeks right down to where I'd stay on which nights, and have expected destinations and set itineraries for each day.  For the last three years, my vacations have been, "I'll go there and see what I see, and do what strikes me."  The only timetables have been tickets for planes and trains.  I've discovered I like this better.

It's also not to say some things DO need precise planning.  For instance, it would be foolhardy and potentially fatal to start across Death Valley--even in a car--without water, or to set out into the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota with no survival gear, no food, and no compass.

But what we discover when we let ourselves be just a little less planned and a little more vulnerable about it, is that we will undoubtedly see and experience things we did not expect.  Whether those things are good or bad is not the point.  It's being aware of the experience and being awake throughout it that matters.

This is true for our spiritual lives as well.  I've thought about Sundays that I have attended worship in times of strife, or turmoil, or uncertainty with a preconceived notion of "what I need to get out of it" on that particular day.  I almost never get it.  Yet, even if I have the same kinds of stressors in my life on a different Sunday, and I go with the notion that I will go simply to see what shakes out that is of value to me, and see it and accept it for what it is, I almost always find I got more than I imagined I would from the experience.  Sometimes, emotionally overwelmingly so. 

That phenomenon is not just about worship.  It's about every single thing I've offered of myself in service to God, and about most of the times I've actually felt the presence of God.  God doesn't tell us, "I'll meet you at 10:35 by the food court and I'll have a red shirt on."  

What I have come to understand is this:  In my plans, I generally have one perfect outcome.  When I give them up, and accept God's plans--plans that do not require either/or decisions or everyone in the story doing my will or following my desires--the possibility opens up for multiple perfect outcomes.

(Icon of St. James of Jerusalem courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This post originally appeared on the Speaking to the Soul blog, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011)

Readings for the feast day of James of Jerusalem:
Psalm 1
Acts 15:12-22a
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Matthew 13:54-58

Acts 15:12-22a:

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’ Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers,

The topic in the reading from Acts is whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised.  James' statement that we ought not to "trouble" them is quite an understatement, all things considered!  But the story brings up those "seven little words" we too often hear in church communities--"But that's how we've always done it"--and its sibling, "We've never done it like that before."

Now, this mindset is not the sole province of churches.  Twenty years of teaching medical students and having gone through "the training years" myself have taught me those seven little words are uttered a lot in medicine, too.  I learned many things a certain way for no good reason other than "That's how the people who trained me learned it."  Yet, if we look at this literally, we would still be having students draw intricate line drawings of cells with colored pencils in their Histology class, we'd have students procure their own teaching material for Gross Anatomy via the "Resurrection men" and late night trips to the cemetery, and interns would be on call every other night--a situation we now know is dangerous to patients.

I remember when the school I worked for first considered using prosected (already professionally dissected) material rather than have students dissect "their" cadaver from stem to stern.  The hue and cry was palpable.  People gave all sorts of reasons why this was something all medical students "must" do for themselves--but as I heard all the reasons, I wasn't hearing very much "them" I was hearing "I"--"I, an anatomy professor, won't get to work with them in a certain way."  "I, a surgeon, had to do that, and even though I don't really believe working on a formalin fixed body is the same as a live one, this was a rite of passage for me."  The actual educational basis for the change (the students could be learning something else essential to their learning to become physicians, rather than be doing "grunt" work in the anatomy lab for hours at a time every day) became overshadowed by all these "I's."

At some point in a church's life cycle, change occurs that creates anxiety in a parish.  Sometimes it is internal to the local parish (a new priest, the death of a beloved parishioner, or financial trouble, for instance) and sometimes it is external (The consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop, and, prior to that, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and prior to that, the ordination of women.)  The tendency is to take three steps back, and say some version of "the seven little words," and make the hurt about us.  The problem is that anxious people in anxious parishes tend to react in a way to relieve their own anxiety, rather than act for the good of the parish.  Times of change in the shared life of a parish are precisely the times we should be giving up control and allowing God's process to take control rather than reacting through individual control to relieve anxiety.

It is for this reason, I believe, that our BCP has many prayers specific for the life of the parish.  It's obvious that "parish anxiety" has been with us in our Christian history since the first days of the early church, from this passage.  I'm sure the decision that the Gentiles need not be circumcised was met with great anxiety among part of the church (and great relief among another part of the church!)  We historically call St. James "James the Just," but it might, in this day and age, be more valuable to think of him as "James the Non-Anxious Presence."

How often in the day-to-day life of the parish--in vestry meetings, before worship, together as committee members--do you actually sit down and pray about your shared life in the parish, as opposed to reacting to it?  How frequently do you use the tools already available to you in our beloved BCP?

And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day
The heavens and the earth were finished, the whole host of them
And on the seventh day G_d completed his work that he had done
and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done
And G_d blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it
because in it he had rested from all his work that G_d had created to do.

--From the Jewish Kiddush prayer for the eve of Shabbat 

It started with my Facebook status yesterday:

(I) had one of those "2x4 to the head" realizations today. I realized I use Tuesday (my scheduled "day off") to do errands, and Sunday I am often doing "church stuff." On Saturdays, whenever possible, I don't like to do a frickin' thing. Oh, I'll go eat a meal and take a walk with someone, or help a friend, but the best Saturdays are like today--be with myself, read, do essentially nothing. Heh. I think they call that "Sabbath."

When I was a kid, I had totally no concept of why the adults in my world didn't want to "do stuff" on the weekend.  I thought that business of lounging on porches and people coming over to the house and sitting and talking about nothing was really stupid.

Now, truthfully, this used to be more of a Sunday thing than a Saturday one.  In Missouri, we had something called the Blue Laws that saw to it, when I was growing up.  I always wondered why they were called the Blue Laws.  I was told growing up it was because they were originally printed in New England on blue paper or in blue-backed bound books, but I've since learned that's not the case.  They were called the Blue Laws because they simply made people feel blue, having laws on Sunday to restrict other activities so that people would be encouraged to attend church.

When I was growing up, it wasn't until I was a pre-teen that one could buy groceries or liquor on Sunday at all.  Then it opened up to where one could only buy groceries, but no liquor or non-food items.  (There is a hilarious story in my family where my mom bullied a teenage grocery store clerk on a Sunday over a box of um..."female products."  Short version:  She walked out of the store with them, saying, "I promise I will come back tomorrow and pay for them.  If you want to call the cops on me, be my guest, son.")  Nowadays, there are still vestiges of the old Blue Laws in Missouri.  One can't buy liquor in Missouri until 9 a.m. on Sunday, and it's still illegal to buy, sell, or trade a car on Sunday.

But even this experience makes me part of a shrinking set of generations--the generations where we at least experienced doing little or nothing on an appointed day.

I look back and realize I was bored to tears as a kid, but now am actually glad I was bored as a kid, because now that I am middle aged, I realize at the top of my "to do" list in life is, make more time to do apparently nothing.

These days, more than ever before, "doing nothing" has become more anathema than ever.  For starters, so many people are economically depressed to the point that they are working weekends to make ends meet.  For working people, weekends seem to be the only days that things like errands and housework even have a chance of getting done.

But look at what we've been doing to ourselves in America since the old Blue Laws were lifted.  Our consumption of goods has skyrocketed--there's the very real possibility that we are working to pay for stuff we think we "need," we?  We live in houses (and try to take care of them ourselves with no domestic help) that are of a size that 100 years ago, would have almost certainly required a maid, a cook, and a gardener.  Our standard of "cleanliness" in our personal hygiene has moved from a world where there was the "Saturday night bath" and numerous days of washing with a rag in front of the sink, to at least one shower a day, so that the average American uses far more water per household than most places in the developed world.  Our children are in more and more structured activities that demand more and more of our weekends.  Although I found a wide variety of numbers on this topic, best I can tell, the average American monthly home mortgage payment runs between $1050 and $1300.

The easy availability of credit cards in this country have created a situation that few families can come out from under the looming shadow of debt.  The average American has 2.7 credit cards and 80% of Americans have a debit card.  Only about 30% of credit card holders pay their balance off every month.  Here's the scariest stat of all:  Americans with credit cards have an average credit card debt of $15,799.  

Now, remember, that's at somethingteen to 20something percent interest.

In short, we don't give ourselves any room to back up and slow down.

In many of our churches, this is stewardship month.  The problem is, talking about stewardship is hard.  Our tendency is to look at everyone else, take their financial inventory, but not our own.  I am betting right now, if I say how my sacrificial giving and my lifelong quest to have more time instead of money have created greater peace within myself, your first thought will be, "Well, yeah, you can afford it.  You have no kids.  You have a better paying job.  You have, you have, you have, and I don't have that.  I have this and this and this to pay for."

The truth is none of us know a blessed thing about what anyone else has to pay for in their life, and we are so self-absorbed about our own we can't hear it.  If we react from the mindset of scarcity, that is all we see.  Everyone else has abundance, and we have scarcity.

I can only say one thing--changing one's attitude from the mindset of scarcity to the mindset of abundance changes lives.  It changed mine.

I jokingly refer to Saturday in my life as "sacred space Saturday."  Now, I don't get that every Saturday, I admit.  But I get a lot of them, and the most I end up doing on most of them is the Liturgy of the Laundry.  When I look back on my life, every move I've made from age 39 onward is to create more time for myself.  When I moved to Kirksville from Columbia, it was for slightly less money and more time.  I have made other choices that were "time over money." Each time, it seemed very scary and counter-culture, but as it played out, it has created more happiness and contentment in me.  Striving for more Sabbath time in my life opened up room for me to begin sacrificial giving of my money as a way of life.  It opened up room for forgiveness of others.  It changed what I viewed as a "necessity of life."  It helped me understand better what giving to help "extreme poverty" really was.

It sounds corny, but it's true.  It's brought me closer to God.  I can't explain it any other way.

This notion, at first, sounds radical, dangerous, and foolhardy.  It feels like we are not "living up to what's expected of us."  It seems lazy and non-productive to say things like, "I am going to do nothing but read this book, or write in my blog."  It requires breaking our codependent bonds to a society that drains us dry and kills our soul as thoroughly as an abusive parent or spouse.  Frankly, I think the American way of life is the equivalent of an abusive parent or spouse.  It creates impossible expectations that constantly change.  The problem is, I don't think most of us are even brave enough to break those bonds until middle age, when we see life truly is a finite proposition, and that each of us has squandered that a bit.  Sometimes I fear our present economy will do that for us, but then I wonder if that's not as bad a thing as it looks, in the long run, if we looked at it as an invitation to slow down and consume less.

All I can say is that giving yourself an opportunity to work towards Real Sabbath in your life is worth it.  I can't tell you how to do it.  That's your path in life, and I can't even begin to propose a road map.  All I can say is that the more I do it, the happier I am.

"The largest thing I've learned is the enormous grip that this game has on people, the extent to which it really is very important. It goes way down deep. It really does bind together. It's a cliche and sounds sentimental, but I have now seen it from the inside."

--A. Bartlett Giamatti, former Commissioner of Baseball

Baseball is the closest thing I understand to "immortality." 

It's also the vehicle by which I most connect to understanding the meaning of the word "faith."

I grew up a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan.  Now, granted, I had no choice.  My grandmother willed it.  She was born in 1917.  She was nine years old when they won their first World Series in 1926.  She was in high school during the era of the Gas House Gang, and a junior in high school when they won in 1934.  During the season, the Cards were always on--if not on TV, on the radio.  I can remember sultry summer nights out in the yard with the game on, and falling asleep with the radio on in my bedroom during the "West Coast Swing"--when they were playing the Dodgers, Giants, and later the Padres--and the two hour time difference was just too much.

I learned no matter how bad things are, there will always be another game.  Even when the season was over.  There would be that day in late winter that opened it up all over again with the magic words, "Pitchers and catchers report."

It was as much a part of my heritage as my family tree.  I grew up knowing all about Enos Slaughter's mad dash in the '46 Series, about Paul Dean pitching a no-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader which called his brother Dizzy to remark, "If I'd a known Paul was gonna pitch a no-hitter, I'd a pitched me one too."  (Diz "only" pitched a shutout in the previous game.)

In my lifetime, I had just missed Musial in my own memory banks, but there was Gibson and Brock, Cepeda and Maris, Flood and Shannon.  In later years there was Forsch and Ozzie, Tudor and Sutter, Jack Clark, Mark McGwire, Jose Oquendo.

Only the names changed; the drama did not.

There were those awful seasons, too.  The early 70's, some pretty lean years in the 90's.

But for all the tension in my family, I knew I could always talk baseball with my grandmother, no matter what.  One of the most wonderful days of my life was the day in 1992 when she and I traveled to Dyersburg, IA, to the actual "Field of Dreams."  We actually played catch on the field, among other pilgrims there from all over the country.

But my life with my grandmother and baseball taught me more about faith than anything I ever learned in church.  Faith that the rain would let up, faith that the the latest trade or change in the lineup would somehow work out, faith that you could go from a goat to a hero in the blink of an eye.  Faith that there was always another game tomorrow.  Faith that a day of rest or travel could change things.  Faith that once in a while, you really could be on the top of the world.

If only our church could consistently send those messages of faith, think of where we might be!

One of the questions we are often asked in our theological reflections in my EfM class is "What is is like in the world of the (fill in the blank?)"  The more I study the Bible, the more I ask myself that question.  Baseball makes me ponder Heaven sometimes.  In the world of my life with baseball, I see a world where the sun is shining or even in the darkness, there is light enough to do what needs to be done.  I see a world where no one is counted out of the game even when it's the bottom of the 9th with two out.  I see a world where the main objective is to find "home."  I think the Bible also points us to a world like that.

In the movie Field of Dreams, the question "Is this Heaven?" posed, and the answer is, "No, this is Iowa."  Granted, the native northeast Missourian in me could never quite stomach that, but I can certainly buy that baseball is, for some of us, a window to the Heavenly Feast of the Kingdom of God.

(Photo of screaming human newborn courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)  

"A church with a crying baby is a church that's alive, with a promise of tomorrow."  --Greg Kandra

My Roman Catholic friend Fran always posts some really thought provoking pieces on her blog and her Facebook wall, and I have to admit I read this one a little shamefacededly.

You see, I used to be one of the biggest complainers about screaming babies and unruly toddlers and precocious but somewhat obnoxious small children in church.  I used to sound a lot like the woman in the story Fran posted.

I've since changed my mind.

Now, I will put one caveat in there.  People, in general, should be considerate of their neighbors when a child is inconsolable, and it's probably not going to endear adults to other adults in a parish when your child runs around doing things that are distracting.  But I've decided those are best handled as teaching moments.  I simply decided about two years ago that I no longer had a desire to be the parish equivalent of the person who stands on the porch and yells, "You kids get off my damn yard!"

You see, first of all, I realized it wasn't my yard.

I've thought about all the various ways churches traumatize kids.  I've thought about the ways churches traumatized me and others around me, that couldn't help but be a factor in my two decades of un-church-ed-ness.  The two pieces I've linked are both about the Roman Catholic church, but that's just coincidence.  I've seen it happen in plenty of Protestant churches, too, right down to having been sitting in the pews as a guest with a friend at a church where someone stopped the service and informed the congregation that "Satan is making that child cry, so you can't hear the Word of God that I'm trying to tell you.  Get thee behind me, Satan!"  I looked over at that mother, and I swear, there was fear in her eyes.

What's more relevant to the Eucharist than a live demonstration of how we all feel at times to the broken-ness of the world?

The longer I rediscover myself as a person of faith, the more I am into inclusiveness.  The more I get to know our parishioners with small children, the more I think about how harried and unpredictable their lives are.  I'm sure even Mary had to deal with a fussy baby Jesus--I don't think it was like all the Renaissance paintings all the time (probably almost never, in fact.)  That family probably needs my prayers, not my irritation.

I've also come to realize if those things knock me off my feed at church, it doesn't say much about the solidity of my faith.  If my faith and worship experience is so fragile I can't stay connected through a little noise or activity, that doesn't speak much to how strong I feel in my faith.

Also, if we come after the noisy kids, who's next?  The people whose tattoos peek out from behind their neck?  The people in flip-flops?  The people who smell a little ripe?  The people who can't carry a tune in a five gallon bucket but sing louder than a foghorn?

No doubt, when I'm acolyte, I dearly love for things to work liturgically perfectly.  But I have also come to love those moments of imperfection.  I have come to discover how they are opportunities for prayers I did not plan to think or speak.  I neither can control the Eucharist nor break it.  I can only play my role in it and trust to God for the rest.

But ultimately, what did it for me one day, that changed my heart forever about screaming babies was I was at church one day with one, on a day my own heart was feeling quite friable.  I was slumped over in my pew with that "I am not looking at any of you, I am looking at the floor, don't bother me," look.

I looked at that baby, and thought to myself, "I wish I could cry like that in church right like that, this very minute...because I'm feeling pretty miserable at the moment."

Oh, I've cried in church before.  But we are talking "squawling at the top of your lungs, so loud and long you end up gagging on your own spit" kind of crying here.

I thought back to the snippy remarks I'd said over the years about people controlling their own kids (in that superior way only someone with no kids can do) and realized I was a total putz of the highest order (yeah, I know putz is Yiddish for the male member but it literally means "decoration" and the implication is "useless decoration" in old German.)

It was not a good day.  I was heartsick from my wounds, I was shamed over my piety being a useless decoration, not the deep and real thing I wished it was, and I was jealous that this baby could cry in a way I only wished I could.  There was only one thing to do--change my crappy attitude about it.

So I mugged at the baby.  Made some quiet goofy noises and faces right there in church in the middle of the sermon.  I silently prayed for the baby and the mom and the church family we have that I love so much, and suddenly felt...well...grateful.

What'dya know...that baby cocked her head and started slowing down her crying!  More faces.  More improvement.  Pretty soon she was sucking on her pacifier and no longer was so upset.

In the years that followed that moment, I've found new places for acceptance and forgiveness.  Oh, don't get me wrong.  I am no saint.  I still have a volcanic temper at times.  But I have found that the more things I remove from the list as "no longer all that important," the volcano mostly sleeps.

I've come to believe in the live playing out of our own vulnerabilities as humans to be sanctified things in themselves.  Crying with intent is a sign of life.  It's a sign the Good News of the Gospel will be heard and carried forward.  Those are just new voices trying it on!

(This piece originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, October 16, 2011)

"I believe in the sun even if it isn't shining.  I believe in love even when I am alone.  I believe in God even when He is silent."

--Author unknown, allegedly found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany which was a hiding place during the Holocaust.

Just north of my driveway, in a little rectangular tongue of my pasture, is an incredibly large and stately cottonwood tree--about 70-80 feet tall.   Once upon a time there must have been other trees near it--it is not entirely straight but cants about 20 degrees to the east--but it presently stands alone in its magnificently imperfect beauty.  One of the greatest joys in my remote country "home in the hayfield" is hearing the distinct flapping of my granddaddy cottonwood tree.  I have a couple of smaller ones in other parts of my pasture, but they are not particularly close to the house.  In the years I have lived here, it's served occasionally as both a home to Baltimore Orioles, and a singles bar for un-mated male mockingbirds who carried on well past midnight.  But its primary function in life has been simply to make the wonderful heavenly applause that only a cottonwood tree can make.

The waning days of fall always bring an auditory sadness to my day-to-day life.  Each spring begins a cycle of sound to my world.  The first cottony dusting of the seeds on my truck reminds me the leaves will be sprouting soon, and I start to train my ears to hear them.  The first day the leaves have developed enough to be heard is always a joyful day in my life, no matter what tasks I have before me.  Summer brings the constant companionship of its leafy song--so constant (the wind ALWAYS blows in Northeast Missouri) that I almost forget it's there.  But it's fall--as the leaves begin to thin out and drop--that reminds me the most of the sound it makes.

Cottonwoods don't drop their leaves all at once.  My tree undergoes a roughly five week process of leafy alopecia, getting thinner and thinner, green first mixed with yellow and then brown, my driveway turning browner and browner from the leaves.  As it wanes, it seems the remaining leaves get louder and louder as they vigorously flap more openly without their neighbors--or is it my hearing that has become more and more keen?--until the day comes I step outside and hear nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Every year, that silence grips my heart.  What if for some reason it dies over the winter?  What if we have one of those late season tornadoes we are known for and it crashes to the ground, or into my garage, or even my house?  I simply cannot do without the noise of my cottonwood tree.

I have come to changing the conversation of this silence in the last couple of years to take away my fear.  When that fearful moment begins to tighten around my rib cage, I have started to loosen that grip with a single thought:  Advent is coming.  

One of the things I appreciate about the wisdom of our liturgical calendar is that it contains two seasons of planned silence--Advent and Lent.  Both seasons remind me of a very important piece of the Biblical cycle of Creation-->Sin-->Repentance-->Restoration/Resurrection--that for things to be reborn, they must often die to themselves.  That we don't get to choose the nature of the restoration.  That we will be given enough to make it through this time of silence.  That what springs forth in the new season will most likely be better than we could have imagined or chosen for ourselves.  That it is precisely when things seem the deadest is when the most diligent work of restoration is taking place.  My cottonwood tree is not uncomfortable with its silence.  I am.

The waning of Time after Pentecost is the perfect time for us to, like the slow five week thinning process of my cottonwood tree, ease into the silence of Advent with anticipation despite the dread.  If we only focus on the dread, we deafen ourselves to the tiny stirrings of life inside the womb of Advent.  I remind myself that when my cottonwood tree is silent, much is taking place in its outermost limbs, beneath the scaly plates of the little brown buds at their tips, and before long, those buds will swell to bursting and re-open.  Even when I imagine my worst case scenario--what if my tree meets its demise?--I hear a voice asking me, "When you can no longer hear the rustle of the cottonwood leaves, what tree will you hear, that you've never heard before?"

What might God tell each of us in the silence, that we've never heard before, because the noise of the familiar was too comforting?

(You can also see this video on YouTube here)

(This post originally appeared on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, October 16, 2011) 

Readings for October 16:
Psalms 148, 149, 150 (morning)
Psalms 114, 115 (evening)
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Acts 16:6-15
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Our readings today, particularly the ones from Acts and the Gospel of Luke, remind us of the unpredictability of "welcome."  Paul and Timothy find an avid listener and true hospitality in the presence of Lydia and her family-but our reading from Luke depicts Jesus instructing the disciples in the possibility that they will be poorly received at times, and to not take it personally or to linger any longer than necessary, should that be the case.

 It's a long-standing joke that Episcopalians are uncomfortable with the "E-word"--Evangelism.  Many of us are survivors of "traumatic evangelism" in other denominations that made it very clear we were unwelcome.  So it should come as no surprise that many Episcopalians, by and large, are evangelism-squeamish to the point that even issuing someone an invitation to church feels edgy.  We find ourselves at a bit of a quandary at times.  For many of us, this church and its progressive, inclusive, incarnational theology has changed our life.  We have found within the walls of our sanctuaries a certain degree of acceptance that perhaps we did not find in other denominations or in the secular world--yet we fear rejection or disapproval if our invitations are rebuffed.  In our hearts we wish for a moment like Paul and Timothy found with Lydia.  In our mind's eye, we see ourselves being scorned or ignored.

How, then, do we honor our Baptismal Covenant and "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" when "evangelism" in the traditional sense gives us the heebie-jeebies?  how do we move from, in the words of church consultant Andrew D. Weeks, from "friendly fellowship" to "risky hospitality?"

Our Gospel reading provides a bit of insight here.  I'm sure those seventy disciples, after hearing Jesus more or less tell them, "You can't control how people will react to you, and sometimes the reaction is that you'll be made unwelcome," didn't feel really great about their prospects.  Yet we are told later that they were incredibly joyful upon their return.  We don't control the joy in this proposition, either.  Jesus speaks of the disciples' authority in his name in this passage, but it's important to remember that the authority of Christ came from a Jesus who went out of his way to reach out to the skeptical, the quizzical, the misaligned, and the scorned.

If you could create a joyful new ministry in your own parish, what would it be?

Have you ever shared that pipe dream at coffee hour?

(Teresa of Avila, by Peter Paul Reubens, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

--Teresa of Avila

You might recognize this prayer as a Taizé song, Nada te Turbe (in fact, it's one of my favorite Taizé songs...)

The version I know goes like this:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
Those who seek God shall never go wanting.
Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten,
God alone fills us.

For those who appreciate contemplative prayer, Teresa of Avila was a person who had "figured it out" as early as when she was eleven years old.  What she called "mental prayer" was one of the roots of what we would now call contemplative prayer.

Reams and reams have been written on what it is.  I get to laughing because many high-credentialed folks get into great detail about what it is, how to do it, how long to do it, etc., and the thought that keeps running through my mind is, "Excuuuuse me, I think it's important to remember that this was first practiced by an eleven year old child--I really truly doubt it's all that detailed."

I think the only legitimate definition is Teresa's own definition:

“Mental Prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.”

If I were to describe it in one line, it's this:  Mental prayer is a silent conversation with God.

It's simply a matter of reflecting and actively listing to what comes up in our minds and heart in the presence of full trust--that no thought in the matter is a stray thought, or a bad thought.  After all, don't we let our guard down in the presence of trusted friends and vent, break down, or reveal innermost things?  It's the idea that no thought is "too much" for God.

What I find interesting about many of the mystics, and Teresa in particular, is that they become known for their mysticism and asceticism but their actions and deeds following these inner revelations doesn't get as much press.  Teresa ended up founding a whole new order of Carmelites.  That took action, leg work, and elbow grease.

I truly believe that the rhythm of contemplation is an inward/outward one, like the waves of the ocean.  Yet our tendency is to only "see" the inward movement.  Think for a minute, if you will about ocean waves on a beach.  We tend to, in our mind's eye, see the waves crashing IN--but we tend not to focus on the part where the wave recedes and goes back out into the sea.

I spent a long time learning to even be halfway contemplative, and what I discovered is I was only taught about the "in" part.  I was not taught much at all about the "out" part.  Yet I kept wondering why I kept feeling so stuffed full of things to the point I felt I was going to explode.  Then one day, I realized I had to breathe out with the Holy Spirit, as well as in.

I discovered when one sits in the nothingness too long, it will be filled with something, and in that time we will be shown what to do with it, and where to take it.  Another way to think about it is we have to be emptied in order to be filled.

Remember, the prayer below was also a prayer of Terese's...

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

When we allow ourselves to be filled, we truly find union with God, and that union can take us out into the world as Christ's emissary.  We are free to pour it all out on the world, because in our contemplative spaces we will always be fed.  There is no need to hoard what we receive in this union.  We are called to give it all away.  There will always be more.  We will never go wanting.

(A view from my hammock, Oct. 5, 2011)

Psalm 139:1-12: 

Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.


In just the few days between now and when I took this picture, most of the leaves on this tree have fallen. My back yard is mostly full of ash and maple trees, and in the leafy season they make a nice canopy of shade for lounging around in my hammock.  But come fall, as the picture shows, the canopy starts to "open up" and more of the sky starts showing through, and at certain times of the day now, the light is getting in my eyes and annoying me a bit.  I become wistful over the waning fall and the impending winter, and the distinct lack of time I will want to lie around in my hammock in the yard.  Before long, I'll be bringing it in the garage for the winter.

In a way, it reminds me of the psalm.  Now, it's clear God knows all about us--but I don't think we think about that much.  Given the fact so much of our ability to perceive our relationship with God seems, at best, a little indirect, and at most, non-existent at times, it's a lot like that canopy of leaves.  We can lie back, stare at the heavens, and feel a little shaded from it all.  We may full well be enjoying the full protection of the "shade," but we also get to carry with us the delusion that we are somehow obscured from God.  We like to be deluded with our notions of self, and that God neither sees nor really cares what we are up to.  Not that most of the time, we're up to anything "bad."  More like "we just want to pretend we are in control of it all."

Probably the most consistent thing that "hooks" me in the Bible are the dark/light images.  From Genesis on, we see there is allegory in dark and light in terms of humans and the world.  But we tend to forget with God, there's no distinction.

So as I was lying in my hammock, I was contemplating the "holes" in the picture above me, where I was seeing more sky peek in at me than usual.  At a certain point in the afternoon, the sun streamed right in and it was--well, frankly--annoying.

People of faith don't always like to admit this, but sometimes God's annoying, too.

It's a real catch 22.  Sometimes, we stretch, we reach, we ache, we yearn to see a glimpse of the intimacy of our union with God.  Sometimes, we have that nice little open patch of sky--those little "gee whiz" moments where it feels really good, and we feel just close enough to God we can sit comfortably in in.

But then there's the time the light streams in so brightly, we squint and find ourselves annoyed...truly irritated, in fact.  Now, I'm not talking about the times when we are anxious and that light is fearful.  That's a different blog post for another time.  But the light makes us squint.  We shield our eyes.  Worst of all, it makes us feel overheated.

I think though, that's part of the deal...often times that overheated feeling is, because a tiny part of us really wanted to change something or do something that we have an inkling we'd like to do differently in our service to God, or make a change in our lives, but we would rather have inched into it.  Instead the sky opens and there it is.

But what my canopy of fall leaves over my head reminds me is that something usually has to die for the new open spot to be revealed.

Fall always fills me with a longing.  I enjoy parts of the beauty of it immensely, but what I do not like about fall is the feeling of impending death and dormancy in the air, followed by cold and wet and gray.  But by the same token, I think it is what causes me to see the beauty in the beautiful days of fall.  The annoyance of the sun, I think, reminds me of how these things are not done on my time, that control is an illusion.

For now, though, I'll enjoy my ever opening piece of sky over my head--and put up with the glare.

(Photo, "Coming out of the Closet" by the Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Gifts of God for the People of God.
--p. 364, Book of Common Prayer

I have been honored to be the "test drive" for many, many coming out experiences over the years, when people were working up their courage to publicly come out.  (Now, in all fairness, sometimes I think some of them came out to me by "The butchest straight woman you ever did see," I think sometimes I got mistaken as "one of the tribe."  Well, I'm only kinda one of the tribe.  I pass for one of the tribe.  But what I used to see as a "problem with myself" I now see as a blessing, because it has taught me many things about what the tribe feels, in a smaller way, and I can have empathy and compassion for that in a way I might not have otherwise.)

On this National Coming Out Day, 2011, I want to spend a little time encouraging folks for what I often see as the "hardest hurdle" in the coming out process, based on what people in the coming out process have shared with me.  Sometimes, it's not parents or siblings that are the hardest--it's the business of being okay with "Coming out to God."  In fact, I believe it's why a lot of GLBT folk become atheists--they have received so many misguided, (and I belive, un-Biblical) messages from people that God hates their "sin" of homosexuality, it's just easier to not believe in God rather than come out to God.

Now, I can't even begin to presume to be God's Mouthpiece.  But I can share with you something in my own life that I have discovered is very universal with every single person of faith.  I can also share my experience as a parishioner in an openly GLBT-affirming community of Christian faith.  

Well, let's start with what I see as a major universal truth.

Guess what?  Every single person of faith who desires a closer relationship with God comes out of the closet to God with something.  Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is just one thing on a list that stretches into infinity.  Every one of us has something about us that we think the world thinks is awful, or we're somehow broken or un-fixable, or so terribly unworthy for some reason, or are carrying some big secret that we think the world will blow to bits if we reveal it.  What we discover is these secrets usually weren't all that secret, and we discover when we really attune the ear of our hearts to God, that God loves us--like the old hymn says, just as we are.

Our sexualities are part of God's good creation.  Sexual sin is when we harm other people with our sexual desires, like being unfaithful to our spouses, or engage in sexual relations with others for the sole sexual gratification of ourselves, and no thought to the intimacy of our relationships, or when our sexual desires directly or indirectly harm children, or when we are addicted to pornography that we treat people like objects and our addiction keeps us from being our full, authentic selves.  Two loving people in a committed same-sex relationship harms no one.  Homosexuals do not have a "lock" on sexual sin.  Far more churches have been harmed by the minister running off with the church secretary, the fried chicken, and the money than they have by the minister coming out of the closet. 

So, surprise, surprise, God already knows more about our sexual desires and proclivities than we want to admit.  This is more about us being authentic with ourselves in a variety of ways, our sexual orientation just being one of them.  The things that burn inside our souls are not usually our "sins" per se, but our inauthenticity as human beings, knowing we are loved by God, and something doesn't feel honest about that.

When people have talked to me about this in their coming out process, what I've learned is that sometimes, when they say they "don't know how God feels about this," what they are really saying is, "I know how people in the faith of my family or friends, or my worship community are going to feel about this, and they are not going to like it."

I am reminded of the movie Yentl, when Yentl's father is closing the curtains as he prepares for her Torah lesson and she asks, "If we don't have to hide my studying from God, then why from the neighbors?"  Her father replies, "Why?  Because I trust that God will understand.  I'm not so sure about the neighbors."

Well, that's possibly true.  I have friends that I love very much, and think are really earnestly trying to live a Christ-centered life, but have this big disconnect when it comes to homosexuality.  They can quote Leviticus and Paul's Epistles chapter and verse and tell me why, in their heart, they think homosexuality is sin--and I simply recite my reasons why I believe those reasons are subject to interpretation.  First, there are many prohibitions in Leviticus we choose to ignore--things like getting tattoos and haircuts and eating pork chops and shellfish and wearing "cloth woven of two fibers." (There goes all the cotton-poly blend!)  Those are all things of the Old Covenant, and I am a person living in the New Covenant.  As for Paul's writings, as best as I understand the times and the translation of the words in the vernacular of those times, Paul was referring to the Roman practice of pederasty--taking young boys for sexual slaves--and various forms of sexual activity where the implication was it was happening outside of marriage.  Even if by some chance Paul meant exactly what it sounds like, what he got, he didn't get from the words or life of Jesus, because Jesus, when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, said absolutely nothing. Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.  Maybe folks ought to listen to what he did say about divorce, and loving one's neighbors, and the sick, and the poor, rather than go to all this fuss about same-sex relations.

But the short version is I simply lovingly disagree with them, and continue to try to live my life in a Christ-centered way, best I can--I look to myself and what God tells me in the small still voice, and what I hear is "don't worry about that one."

The good news is there are religious communities of faith who are openly GLBT-affirming and welcoming to both you and your partner.  In fact, in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, my parish--Trinity-Kirksville--is an OASIS congregation, a congregation who specifically pledges to be intentionally welcoming.

Now that I have belonged to an intentionally welcoming community for several years, I can say I could never go back to any other way to live in a faith community.  I think of a conversation I had with a dear childhood friend of mine who asked me one time what an OASIS church was.  When I told him, he said, "Well...I don't know how I feel about THAT."  I thought that was particularly funny because I know at least three openly gay people who go to HIS church, but I looked at him point blank and said, "Well...I don't really care how YOU feel about it, it's how I feel about it.  All I can tell you is the gay and lesbian people in my church are every bit the light of my life as the straight ones, and the same sex couples we've had in it over the years...well, they're just couples."  End of discussion.

I will be up front--being openly GLBT (or even openly supportive of GLBT equality) in a community of faith is not always easy.  I urge anyone in the coming out process to download the helpful brochure about this from the Human Rights Campaign website.  I think one of the things a person in this situation has to discern is where one's spiritual home in the community ultimately lies.  But I want to reiterate the four talking points on page five of the brochure--"Why be open in a faith community?"--with my own experience as a parishioner in an openly affirming church community.

1.  To affirm the whole of you.  This is why any of us should be coming to church--to learn to be our most authentic selves in the eyes of God within a community of people seeking the same thing, and to spread the light of Christ in the world as a result of that transformation.  It has been my experience that the more I become that authentic person, the more blessings I discover in life, and the more open I become to the blessings other people give us.

2.  To help your congregation grow in love and compassion.  My life as a parishioner in Trinity Church has been enriched by the dialogue that has taken place as the result of being an openly affirming parish.  Open secrets in the church are not pretty.  They are messy, and they hurt people.  Over the years, I've learned a lot of this the hard way.  I like this better.

3.  To change the conversation about GLBT people of faith.  I think the strongest counter-measure to the accusations that homosexuality is a sin, are the faith stories of individuals--whether that person is a GLBT person, a relative of a GLBT person, or a friend of one.  The loving stories of enriched lives are an unmistakable and un-challenge-able testament to God's work in the world.

4.  To build religious institutions that are true to their missions and values.  The institutional church moves slowly.  I don't always like it, but that's just a fact.  But I have come to understand in recent times why that is.  Things that have the potential to touch our deepest selves must be handled with care.  All in all, "too slow" is probably better than "too fast," when we are talking about people's relationship with God, and the fragility that has sometimes.  Change only occurs when both the minority finds a voice, and enough of the majority signs on.  It takes all of us.  But when it happens, it makes the church stronger, and it brings us closer and closer to having the Realm of God in our very midst.

The quote I used at the top of my post today is the invitation in the Eucharistic Prayer just before we come forward and receive the Sacraments.  You know, when my priest says that, and displays the bread and wine, she doesn't say for "the white people of God," or "the straight people of God," or "the men of God."  It's for all the People of God.  If you are a person on this National Coming Out Day considering the possibility of such a thing, I just have one thing to say--you, too, are a Gift of God.  Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise or ever have reason to think otherwise!

(Photo of Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(this post originally appeared at the Speaking to the Soul blog on Sunday, October 9)

Readings for the feast day of Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, October 9:

Psalm 107:23-32
2 Kings 2:19-22
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Mark 6:45-56

"The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is himself a traveler; that the purpose of this world is not 'to have and to hold' but 'to give and serve.' There can be no other meaning."

"Theology is what one comprehends, religion what one does."

--Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

When one begins to look at the life of Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, it becomes clear that he put both his theology and his religion to good use, and probably "paid his rent for his room on Earth" many times over.

Grenfell, a surgeon, qualified for both his MRCS and MRCP medical degrees from the London Hospital Medical College in 1886, graduating in 1888. One of his mentors in surgery was Sir Frederick Treves, most commonly known as the physician who cared for John Merrick, "The Elephant Man." In an era when surgeons literally collected patients as medical oddities and exploited the hospitalized poor as personal guinea pigs for innovative and radical surgical treatments, Grenfell chose a completely different path. He had the credentials and connections that could have landed him a lucrative Harley Street practice or a prestigious spot at one of London's famed teaching hospitals; instead he devoted his life to the care of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Early in his career, he joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen, both becoming a master mariner, and outfitting the mission's first hospital ship. He served from Iceland to the Bay of Biscay. In 1892 he traveled to Labrador, where he found the poverty and disease of both the English and native population astounding and troubling. A prolific fund-raiser, he used both his medical collegial connections and his social connections to garner money for the establishment of hospitals, nursing stations, schools, orphanages, and social welfare centers throughout Labrador, as well as a seaman's institute in St. John's, Newfoundland. Grenfell was clear that these facilities were to be available for not only the Caucasian inhabitants, but for the native Inuit and First Nations populations there, a move which often provoked criticism by his peers. In more recent years, however, the criticism has been that Grenfell's centralized services and emphasis on a static community changed the culture of Labrador's First Nations people, who were originally nomadic. Nevertheless, the Grenfell missions were well received by the residents of Labrador at the time.

Grenfell's theology was, to be sure, a practical one. He saw service to the needy as a form of faith that opened us up to greater moral power and freedom, as well as something that transcended dogma. He saw emulating the life of Christ as far more important than debating theological principles.

"Then, if you are 'losing faith in the Gadarene pig story,' you won’t miss that one miracle so much if you have to abandon it," he wrote. "For, if it is not irreverent to say so, you will have a dozen solid facts you could swear to in a court of law from your own personal experience, which will be ten times more helpful to yourself and to other men today than your final decision as to the fate of those unfortunate animals. If you have the evidence of 'that which you have seen and heard' to give, instead of being ruled out of court by the majority of men because they appraise your evidence as unconvincing and inadmissible as mere book knowledge, you will be the most valuable witness for the Christ, and the most dangerous foe to the devil of doubt.... If you are anxious to help others to retain faith, get out and do something for Christ’s sake."

Our readings today reflect Grenfell's connection with the sea in three places--in the 2nd Kings reference to the "wholesomeness" of salt water, in Psalm 107's imagery of the power of the sea invoking us to call out the name of God, and in Mark's Gospel, where Jesus gets in the boat with his terrified disciples and calms both them and the raging wind upon the waters. Our Epistle reminds us of the myriad talents that can be used to exalt the name of God by doing the work of the world to bring about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good.

We are living in a time where nature bares her teeth throughout the world, through vicious hurricanes and tsunami-producing earthquakes--and can live out Grenfell's vision of spreading the Word of God by spreading human care and kindness to the victims of nature's wrath. God is, indeed, present in human form amidst nature's violence. How will you choose to be a slice of God's presence in the storm today?

(My grandmother, taken in Busch Stadium in the late 1980's.)

Psalm 27:13:  

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

My grandmother used to say that the most important baseball games were best listened to, not watched.

Marshall McLuhan defined radio as a "hot" medium, because it did not involve the complete involvement of the listener.  His theory was often illustrated by using a light bulb as an example; the light radiated from the bulb creates its own environment, thereby enabling people to create spaces during nighttime that otherwise would have been dark and empty.  Radio, he claimed, put the onus on the listener to create meaning, rather than a "cool" medium such as TV, which provided all the input and meaning to the viewer.

I wonder what Granny would have thought about McLuhan, and I wonder what McLuhan would have said about social networking.  What I have recently discovered is that the two of them together have the potential to create a truly thin space.

In case you're not familiar with the concept of "thin spaces," the term comes from Celtic Christianity.  It describes a place where the boundaries between heaven and earth are so thin we can catch a glimpse of the glory of God--a place where the walls are broken and the light of God fleetingly streams through the cracks onto us.  This glimpse is almost never a function of our desire or through our control.  It shows up when it shows up, and disappears as mysteriously as it appears.  That said, the Bible still shows us that sometimes those thin places can also be connected to physical places--mountaintops and wilderness are two places that seem to give humankind a slightly better chance than usual to discover a thin space.

I believe that when Major League Baseball met radio for the first time, on August 5, 1921 (the date of the first game ever broadcast, Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies, on KDKA,) it created a "thin space enhancer" as real as Mt. Sinai.  There's just something about listening to a game on the radio, whether it's while driving, working, eating, or sitting out on the porch at night, that seems far more entrancing than watching one on TV.  When I think back to some of my warmest childhood memories, it's of listening to St. Louis Cardinals baseball, and particularly at night.  I can remember riding through the night in the back seat of the car to the static and crackle of games on AM radio, or falling asleep to the late games during their "West Coast Swing" with the two hour time difference.  It seemed that some of the best conversations I ever had with my grandmother were during ballgames on the radio.

Even in my adult life, I have magical memories of this--particularly during September and October, in both the September pennant drive season, and the playoff season.  It was not uncommon for my grandmother and I to be miles apart physically, but both listening to the game, and phoning each other multiple times during the game to discuss what just happened.  When we did that, we were no longer separated, but literally in the same living room.  Of course, from my vantage point, she was in my living room, and from her point I was in her living room, and it created this thin place where two people, in a very real sense, were two places at once.  Actually, make that three places at once--we were also at the game itself.

One of my more recent ponderings has been how social networking re-creates this in a new way.

When Granny died in 2002, one of the things I mourned was that there'd never be another person in my life that I could just call and interrupt and start chatting about what was happening in a baseball game as it was happening.  I would be mostly listening or watching baseball alone.

Facebook has changed that for me.

Last night, I was listening to the fifth and final game between the Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of postseason play.  The winner would be facing the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL championship.  

I knew this was an important enough game that I would prefer listening to watching it.  So I cranked up a fire in my chiminea and put the radio out with me.  I already knew I was in a place that radio takes me where TV does not.  I tend to become more physically active when listening to a game as opposed to watching it, doing things like pacing the yard, looking up and railing at the sky, and then sitting down and hunting up facts and statistics on my laptop.

As I started nosing around on Facebook, I realized four or five of my friends were also tuned to the game (although I'm betting they were watching it on TV.)  I found myself commenting and agonizing along with them, even though we were all several states apart.  The Cardinals took a one run lead in the first inning, and that was the score when it ended.  With each inning, I realized that I was not alone at all.  My yard was truly filled with my friends...and in that thin place, I also strongly felt my grandmother's presence, as well as all those years she and I had spent analyzing and agonizing over baseball.  It was, if you can imagine it, an even richer and fuller community than when it used to be "just Granny and me, talking baseball."

What used to be just the two of us became a piece of the company of Heaven.  Win or lose was not so much the issue (although I'm ecstatic the Cardinals won.)  It was about this community of shared emotions, and in it, my grandmother was alive and well.  I felt a huge peace in the middle of the storm of emotions I often carry around during important ballgames, a place where like-hearted people can share their emotion, in a place where geography normally separates us.  It doesn't replace face-to-face interaction--nor should it--but it creates a level of in-between space where a certain level of personal intimacy never existed until recently.

Last Saturday, I had attended a Diocesan workshop on "social networking and the church" and realized a handful of those attending, I knew first from social media.  We also learned at the workshop that studies show that positive reactions in social media--commenting or "liking" something on Facebook--releases endorphins--the same endorphins that make certain face-to-face interactions like smiling and waving generate.

In retrospect, I see now, despite all the fears people drag along about social networking, another in what has become a long series of reasons why we truly should carefully embrace this medium as a tool in our life as spiritual people in spiritual communities.  If this is what social networking can do with multiple folks watching a baseball game, what can it bring to our prayer and fellowship lives?

Truly, the goodness of the Lord is in the land of the living--and perhaps social media is simply another manifestation of how those thin spaces pop up, shining the light of God onto people hungry for it.

(Stained glass window of Dorcas, St. John's Church, Healy, UK, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Acts 9:36-43:

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. 

This was the reading in the Daily Office a few days back, and what always strikes me in this story from Acts is something we think more about in Russian novels--keeping all the names straight.  The woman's given name is Tabitha, but in the Greek speaking world of the day, she is known as Dorcas.  We are in the city of Joppa, which we now know as the Israeli city of Jaffa, or Yafo.

We know very little of Tabitha/Dorcas other than she was an early disciple, she did good works, and there is an assumption that she is a widow--the business of her making clothing was considered "widow's work" in those days.  Well, and we know in this story, she's quite dead.

But the thing that always piques my interest is that we are talking about the same person here, yet Dorcas made the robes, and Tabitha is raised from the dead.  It sort of seems that everyone in the room is talking about Dorcas--Dorcas sewed this, Dorcas embroidered that.  Yet Peter does not say "Dorcas, get up;" he says "Tabitha, get up."  

Now, one could make the argument that Peter simply used the name to which she'd most likely to respond, and that makes perfectly good sense, but we also know there are backstories all over the Bible, depending on the writer, and we also know Luke (the author of the Book of Acts) loves a good backstory.

So, my hunch is that Luke does this on purpose, and what calls to me in this name interplay is the possibility that we are seeing the dynamic of our false selves vs. our true selves.

Really, even people close to us never really know us--that inner core of ourselves, anyway.  They know a persona.  The persona certainly is part of us--the part we dare show the world--but it is also mixed with what other people project upon us.  But depending on the situation, and depending on the roles of the other players in our life situations, we have multiple personas.  I do want to make that clear it's not exactly "acting"--that persona has a reality all her/his own--but it's an incomplete self, and it's a self partly defined by others, so ultimately it is a false self.  Yet this false self is not necessarily a "bad" self.  I sort of hedge at using the word "false" because it implies a negative connotation.  These false selves are very useful for getting along in the world, simply because except for a very tiny fraction of people in our lives, well, everyone doesn't need to know everything about us.  They need to know enough to get the job done, complete the transaction, or succeed at a particular task.

So what we see in this story is not just a "Look!  Peter raised this woman from the dead through the power of Christ!" story, but in this interplay of names we are invited to entertain the possibility that this woman was resurrected into her truest self--the self signified by her most longstanding and intimate name.

It begs a question--how many of us wander around through life so much as Dorcas, we basically become Dorcas?  Have we lived our lives in a pattern that we now cater to our most dominant persona rather than us?  We dress, walk, talk like how we think people expect Dorcas to act, and somewhere, we left Tabitha by the roadside for dead.  We gave up on Tabitha because she was not the person who would get us where we needed to go--Tabitha wouldn't help us get the promotion at work, or that new client, or that next special relationship.  Tabitha was too flawed, too raw, too blunt, too shy, or too insecure...but now Dorcas, that's another matter.  Dorcas, the talented one, the charming one, the shrewd one would help us go far in life.

What would it be like to resurrect the Tabitha inside of us?  What would change?

The other thing we need to consider in this story is that Dorcas/Tabitha is not a young woman.  This is a resurrection in the second half of life.  When we think back to the Gospel stories of people raised from the dead, many of them (although not all) involve younger people where their loss greatly affects the family dynamics or the status of the survivors--such as the widow of Nain.  The death of her son puts her into the realm of outcasts and undesirables--regaining her son gives it back.  But in the case of Dorcas/Tabitha, the implication in the story is the room is not full of relatives, but friends and clientele.  Her return from the dead really doesn't change anyone's status.

It's not unusual at all for many of us to find our true selves in the second half of our lives.  Now, I'm not talking about the dude who leaves the wife and five kids at 50something or 60something to run off with the bimbo, claiming he had to "find himself."  I'm talking about something much deeper than that.  I have known many people over the years who, once the last kid left the house, discovered their true passion in life once the financial burden of raising children was lifted.  I have known several people who seemed firmly entrenched in their careers suddenly do a 180 and spend the next 15-20 years of their life doing something entirely different.  I have known people pack up and move to totally unfamiliar surroundings.  They have that one "big thing" they need to discover, somehow.  In fact, I think I may end up being one of these people.

The possibility of being resurrected into a truer form of ourselves can be both exciting and daunting.  But one thing is clear.  When we hear God calling us to do it, we will be called out of our death to false self by our most familiar, most intimate name.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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