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

(Plaster fig leaf commissioned for Queen Victoria to be used for covering statues with genitalia, courtesy of Wikipedia through the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  When the Queen or other female dignitaries visited museums, this leaf was hung with hooks on the genitalia of statues that the Queen would have found offensive.)

( Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, November 29, 2011)

Readings for November 29, 2011:
Psalms 5, 6 (morning)
Psalms 10, 100 (evening)
Amos 3:1-11
2 Peter 1:12-21
Matthew 21:12-22

My Texan friends have a saying that describes people who are showy but without substance--"All hat, no cattle."  We are shown two examples of "All hat, no cattle" in our readings today.  Matthew's Gospel includes the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree that has plenty of leaves but no figs.  Our reading in Amos describes a whole cornucopia of show but no substance--roaring lions with no prey, snares with no birds, blowing trumpets with no fearful citizens.  (That last one reminds me of all the times the local tornado siren goes off in a clear blue sky--so much so that, when we really did have a tornado in 2009, we all asked ourselves, "Is this for real?")

The Gospel reading is of particular interest, given the imagery of the fig leaf.  The people who would have heard this story in Matthew's day were accustomed to fig trees being used as metaphors of Israel, but they would also have recalled that fig leaves would have been used for covering nakedness in Genesis.  The expectation is that there's something worth being covered by the leaves--in this case the fruit of the fig tree--but there's nothing there.

It brings up an interesting possibility.  Traditionally, when commentaries discuss this story, the tree is described as being barren.  But in that flip-flop way of the Hebrew tradition, is this a story less about the barrenness of the fig tree, and more about it covering absolutely nothing with its showy leaves?

Figs are from the botanical family Ficus, and the leaves can be up to ten inches long and seven inches across.  They can display hints of purple and brown, as well as green, when the leaves mature.  They are also easy to propagate via vegetative methods (methods other than planting seeds.)  When one wants to grow starts from a Ficus, one merely has to bend over a green branch, scratch the bark at the end of the branch to expose the inner green bark, and keep the branch tied down.  In a couple of weeks, roots will form.  Cut the proximal end of the branch off the trunk and--ta-da!--a new sapling is ready to plant.  Fig trees are "fecund" in this manner even when they are not bearing fruit.

In both the Matthew and Mark versions of this story, I've always been a little irritated at Jesus for cursing a tree that was unfortunate enough to not bear fruit.  (There's probably a special irritation there for those of us who never had children.)  Honestly, a Jesus who would curse something for being barren kind of creeps me out.  We all have some form of barrenness in ourselves.

However, when we think about this as an "All hat, no cattle" story, it begins to make more sense.  From the time of Genesis on, God has been shown as never being too thrilled with humankind's attempt to cover our various forms of nakedness, as if God didn't know that already.  It's precisely when we are in the throes of our vulnerablities--when we are displaying our various forms of psychological nakedness, economic nakedness, and spiritual nakedness that God can most work with us and build a loving relationship with us.  

So what if we're barren in some way?  Sometimes, I think we're not so much called to bear fruit as we are called to proliferate vegetatively.  The trick is, though, that to proliferate vegetatively, we have to allow our branches to be bent over, and, in time, be cut from our stem.  It requires sacrificial giving.

All the covering up we do in our lives simply wastes time and obfuscates the root problems in ourselves.  We waste time providing ourselves with cover for our fragile egos when we should be using that time more wisely in the act of listening for divine guidance and sharing branches of ourselves to grow roots and be removed to thrive elsewhere.  Truly, that's a curse.

(Statue of Hope in the foyer of the Paris Opera House, by Louis-Amile Durandelle, 1875, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in Episcopal Café's Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, November 27, 2011)

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011:
Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Amos 1:1-5, 13-28
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Luke 21:5-19

Historically, the theme of the first week of Advent is "hope," but our readings today present a rather mixed bag of hope and despair.  Although our Psalms are lavish with praise for the goodness of God's provisions to the righteous, our reading from Amos describes atrocities committed by Israel's neighbors, including the ripping of unborn children from pregnant women in Gilead.  Our Epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians describes a state of being spiritually asleep and unaware, yet birth occurring, along with its requisite labor pains.  Finally, today's Gospel is filled with images of war and persecution to the point of death, yet paradoxically concludes with, "But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls."

In the Northern Hemisphere, even nature seems to display this paradox of the first week of Advent.  We are entering into a season of pregnant expectation, the "New Year" of the liturgical calendar, yet all the signs of Nature feel like we are hurtling headlong into a frigid darkness.  Many of us are getting up to go to work in the dark, and driving home in the dark.  Some of us are dealing with the irritants of winter again, such as scraping windshields and failing at predicting what clothes to wear for the day.  What light we see--the strobe-like blinkings of artificial Christmas decorations luring us to elbow our way through the throngs of people shopping on Black Friday--seems insincere and false.

Frankly, it's the time of year it seems the better plan is to close down, tune out, lie down in our beds, turn out the lights, and languish in the inertia of depression.  Yet Paul urges us in today's Epistle to stay awake and reminds us that we are not children of darkness by nature, but children of light.

It's exactly when we need to ponder hope more than ever, because, you see, everything I've come to understand about Advent has taught me that Christianity is all about its upside-down-ness compared to conventional logic.  Logic tells us that people can't be raised from the dead.  Logic tells us that the universe started all compressed and is constantly moving to a more random state.  Logic tells us that the birth of a child of locally uncertain parentage in a dirty stable has no power whatsoever to change the world.  Yet how many of us, at one time or another in our lives, have cried so hard and long that suddenly the warmth of true release has overtaken us? How many of us have had some horrible work day where we've failed miserably at something, been demoted or canned, and the smile of a child has given us bravery to start again tomorrow?   How many of us have experienced some huge emotional blowout with a loved one and had our pets snuggle next to us, and we feel our anger dissipate?  I'm betting if we could all sit together and tell our stories, we have them.

Sometimes I think we miss the boat a little bit on Advent.  We tend to think of Advent solely from the Christological perspective and tend to forget its power to illustrate another piece of the Trinity--the Holy Spirit's power of creating hope from the ashes of despair, and its role of guiding us from darkness to light.  It sounds odd, but without despair, there would be no need of hope.  If we had no need of hope, we would have no need of a Savior--and if we had no need of a Savior, we would have no need of God.  It's the darkness and the broken-ness of the world, I believe, that creates the substrate for hope to even exist.

A good image we might want to carry into Advent is the classic image used in statuary for hope as a human allegorical figure.  Although sculptors generally depict her a beautiful woman of reproductive age (capable of giving birth,) she often has a rather mournful visage.  Yet she points upward.  She is often depicted as leaning against an anchor, and that anchor also has a vague cross shape.  Sometimes we see her wearing a chain around her neck--a broken chain--having escaped the bonds of sin and death.

Today, the church year begins anew--as do we, in this ever-repeating cycle that is a journey best related in our Eucharistic Prayer B--"out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life."  May we lean against the anchor of the Cross and feel the free end of the broken chain around our necks as we begin to embrace the mystery of this Advent season.

(CT scan of bullous emphysema from the American College of Roentgenology's teaching slides)

Isaiah 65:17-25:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

I have had an interesting week and a half or so.  My mom, who has very severe emphysema, has been hospitalized with pneumonia.  Her CT on a good day looks a lot like the one I posted from a teaching file above.  Lungs are supposed to look more or less "spongy" on CT;   people with the bullous form of this disease look like they have a few Ziploc bags stuffed in their chest.  They exist trying to breathe with only a fraction of the lung power most of us have. My mom has existed for roughly a decade with lungs like this that worsen every time she gets pneumonia, lungs that collapse almost every time anyone puts a needle in her chest to drain off the fluid--even the most skilled physician can't help but pop one of those fragile bullous air spaces.  Every time I am shown her CT, the rational, thinking physician in me says to myself, "How in the world is she even alive with lungs like that?"

Well, the answer to that, I think, is a combination of 24/7 high flow oxygen, a bunch of steroids, stubbornness, and a lot of prayer.

But there will be a place where this thin tightrope she walks upon collapses, and that's just a fact--but none of us know where and when that place will be.  

It's hard to watch someone with emphysema struggle to breathe, but that's just a reminder to me how hard it must be to BE the person struggling to breathe.  It's a double whammy--being unable to breathe makes any of us anxious, but being anxious makes the person with emphysema even more hypoxic and scared--then their oxygen saturation plummets further.  It's a terrible cycle of fear and hypoxia.

Yes, she was a long-time smoker.  But I become more and more irritated at people who get all haughty and judgmental about her smoking history.  I am the first to tell you, nagging your loved ones does not work.  I really don't care how anyone personally feels about "what she did to herself," because no one--NO ONE--has done anything so awful they "deserve" to live like this.  My suggestion is "Go tell someone in whom it might make a difference," to those people.

But her lungs are a very stark reminder to me that, although I truly believe in a God who is constantly making all things new, her CT is one of the things that will NOT be made new in her lifetime or mine.

Our bodies, are, indeed, finite.  Every day we live on this planet as adults, even on the best day, we lose a few brain cells.  Every day our biological cellular mechanisms age a little more, and those little "clock genes" in our cells change a ribosome or a protein that brings us all just a fraction of an inch closer to the day we simply shut down, provided nothing else gets us first.

All we can do, when it comes to this life, is to do what we can, today, and trust that God makes all things new.

I had a great Thanksgiving Day springing Mom from the hospital to eat turkey dinner with friends, and she did too, and for me, those are glimpses for how even in a disease that constantly puts death before our eyes, there is life.  Things ARE being made new--just not always the specific things we want, and on our time frame.

This is another of those places where I don't get the appeal of "the new atheism."  Oddly, the fact those folks don't claim to believe in God don't bother me.  Their insistence to belittle religion annoys me, but I sort of shrug and figure, "Well, God knows folks of all religions have belittled atheists for millennia, we probably have it coming to us a bit."  I think what bugs me about them is that so many of them seem to lack any frame of reference for hope.  If they have an "evangelism," it is that they seem dead set on dragging those with hope into this black hole of hopelessness.  I don't have a problem with happy atheists; just unhappy ones--just as I have a problem with unhappy judgmental Christians.  The happiest atheists I know have this thing that seems to be a "cosmic hope" for lack of a better term--kind of a Star Trek form of hope--that human accomplishment will continue to bring us to a better place.  It's easy for me to live in their world of cosmic hope, because it doesn't exclude my theological world.

I always find it interesting that the most common barb thrown by the "unhappy atheists" is always along the lines of trying to distill Christianity or any religion down to "where you end up when you die," when I would tell you that is the part that is rarely on my mind.  I'm far more interested in Christianity teaching me how to live.

I don't know what's in store with Mom's illness; nor does she.  What she wants to think about how this all ends for her and beyond, is her business.  I'm happy to help with linking her to the spiritual support she needs and standing aside.  Too much of the distortion in my family hinged on other people's self-esteem in the family being tied to my accomplishments.  People deserve their own self-esteem.  Meanwhile, I think I'll choose to live this time over the holidays moment by moment, day by day, in the hope that all things are made new, and glad I am not in charge of the itinerary!

(Icon of Clement of Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, November 23, 2011) 

Readings for the feast day of Clement, Bishop of Rome, November 23:

Psalm 78:3-7
1 Chronicles 23:28-32
2 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 6:37-45

"Our Apostles knew also, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the dignity of the Bishop's office."

--from Clement of Rome's Epistle to the Corinthians

My bishop likes to joke that bishops are given two rubber stamps to use in the performance of their ecclesiastical duties in forming priests and deacons--one says, "Has a problem with authority," and the other says, "Has a regional accent."

I don't know if Clement of Rome had to use the latter, but he certainly had to use the former in the first century of the church.  "Has a problem with authority" probably reared its head a week after the early church was born--I have no doubt it was the one of the oldest problems in the church and continues to be so today.

In Clement's case, a younger group of members of the church in Corinth had deposed the clergy unilaterally, without Clement's authority to do so.  Clement had to put on his Big Bishop Boxer Shorts and tell the church in Corinth, "Uh, that's not how we do things around here."  His Epistle to the Corinthians affirmed the ecclesiastical hierarchy and was read, not only to the church in Corinth, but to many congregations in the early church.  It affirmed a framework of authority that we still use in various denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

"Authority" is a tricky business in the Christian community.  There's a fine line between using authority and being authoritarian--a very fine line, and often subject to interpretation.  This is a difficult balance, at times, when we are talking about a church full of lay people who see their authority as "from God" and don't always see as clear a set of rules regarding the ecclesiastical church, co-mingled with clergy who carry an additional definition of "obedience."  Clergy, by virtue of Holy Orders, vow to obey the Bishop and live in accordance with the canons of the church; all of us, lay and ordained, by virtue of our Baptismal Covenant, enter into a covenant as sacred as marriage that we will engage in relationship with God, Christ, and each other.

In other words, it's too simplistic to see it in dualistic terms--which, unfortunately, is how most people see it.  Lay people, in times of congregational strife, pull out the "I only have to answer to God--not you," card, and clergy sometimes hide behind shadows of the Bishop's coat tails or the church's canonical coat tails to push their own agenda, hoping the congregation is not savvy about the rules. I've seen parishioners claim the authority of "Jesus the rule-breaker vs. the Pharisees" in their quest to butt heads with a bishop's decision.  I've also seen clergy attempt to play the same card.

It's a tricky dance.  Are we, at times, called to question or resist authority?  I believe we are.  That calling, however doesn't come with a hall pass.  The consequences of such a decision may ultimately end up being to figuratively die in a ditch--or literally die on a cross.  Sadly, some of us are called to make that kind of a decision with God's help.

Today's readings give insight into our understanding of "informed consent" in such decisions--understanding the obligations of those chosen to attend to the temple, understanding the rules and obligations of right living as Christians, leaving judgment to God, and finally, our duty to tell the stories of these struggles.  They bring up another "A" word--accountability.

It's been my experience and observation that mostly, authority steps in when there's been a breach in accountability somewhere--and once authority steps in, we run the risk of human judgment vs. God's judgment.  It's safe to say we humans don't do it so well.  Humans make mistakes from time to time--sometimes serious ones, which also have their own set of consequences.  

All Christians are accountable to all of humanity, and this, I believe, is our highest calling in being accountable to God. Perhaps if each of us spent more time being earnest about our exercising accountability, we'd have less cause to confront authority and less desire to exert it.

(Photo of C.S. Lewis courtesy of Wikipedia)

(This post originally written for Speaking to the Soul, November 22, 2011) 

Readings for the feast day of Clive Staples Lewis, November 22:

Psalm 139:1-9
Proverbs 23:15-18
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 16:7-15:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

--John 16:7-15 (NRSV)

Here's my confession:  Really, I've never cared much for C.S. Lewis' work.  I read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy because I was friends with the geeky fantasy and sci-fi kids, but I thought Tolkien and Ray Bradbury were far better.  I never thought his Christian apologetics held much water (and frankly, in that era of the late 70's I got tired of every hippy-dippy evangelical quoting him--Evangelicals quoting Anglicans?  Made no sense.)  I just kind of wrinkled up my nose at his trilemma as a false dilemma.  But there's one thing on which C.S. Lewis and I are two peas in a pod--the notion that conversion to Christianity is the first step in a very long journey, not an end unto itself.

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night," Lewis wrote, in Surprised by Joy, "feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

I totally understand what the feeling of being a "dejected and reluctant convert" is like.  I spent 20+ years outside the door of any church, convinced that I was, indeed a Christian, but one incredibly unwelcome in the church because of what I believed at the time to be heretical thoughts.  Those thoughts included notions of our own slice of the Incarnation residing within us, inclusivity in a way most churches were not (and many still not) ready to accept, and my own formidable stack of doubts despite asserting I was, indeed, a Christian.

Yet, when I returned in my new incarnation of "Me, as a Christian," it was almost like being a precocious child in a new school.  It was clear I had plenty of knowledge and "book learning," but I needed a LOT of formation.  I had to reconcile "The way I used to understand God and rejected," with "The way I am now beginning to understand God and can accept."  I could totally identify with Lewis' own statement about the beginning of this journey of conversion. 

John's words echo this--"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now."

When any of us first begin to "get serious about God," that feeling of not understanding, or of doubt, seems wrong somehow.  "They're going to think I'm a heretic if I say I think this," was a constant thought for me early on.  But it's important to understand it is not the end of the world with our relationship with God if we admit things like, "Ok, I am not so sure what the Resurrection really was or really means," or "I just don't really buy everything about the Nicene Creed."  I don't think when we consciously begin life anew as an earnest follower of Christ, we will have all revealed to us as if we were struck by lightning.  I think we grow into it, slowly.  (Sometimes, so incredibly slow we think we are going backward.)

The totality of how we become part of the kingdom in the "now" is hard to swallow when all we think we are doing in the beginning is hedging our bets for a slot in Heaven.  We are not ready for the power revealed in the partaking of the Sacraments.  We're not awake to the possibility that prayer is so much more than petitioning God in a dance where hopefully, our wishes are granted--that instead, being called into prayer is to be called into a deep and dangerous proposition.  If we start listening to what God's will is for each of us, we will quickly discover we've been sent to do some rather unnerving work, and that we will be gnawed upon to get off our duffs and do something about it.  We find that being sent deeply into our prayer places requires being lashed to the deck of a raft sent into the rapids.

At the beginning of this journey, we would not be able to bear these things if we knew they were coming.  It takes time.  The life of C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is no end point to learning in faith--that it is, indeed, a life-long pilgrimage.  Even when we thought we were wandering around outside the church, we could never have borne the thought that our "time away" was not really time away at all--instead, it was ongoing formation.

(Illuminated manuscript depicting the martyrdom of Edmund, King of Anglia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(This post originally appeared in Speaking to the Soul, Nov. 21, 2011)

Readings for the feast day of Edmund, King of East Anglia and Martyr, November 21, 2011:

Psalm 21
2 Samuel 1:17-27
1 Peter 3:14-18
Matthew 10:16-22

O God of ineffable mercy, you gave grace and fortitude to blessed Edmund the king to triumph over the enemy of his people by nobly dying for your Name:  Bestow on us your servants the shield of faith with which we can withstand the assaults of our ancient enemy; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Edmund was an early king of East Anglia, which is in what we now know as England.  Although most of what we know about him is myth and legend, the one thing we are told in vivid detail is his gruesome death at the hands of the Danes.

The Wikipedia description is what really caught my eye.  Granted, some of this is rather legendary, and there's certainly a distinct attempt to connect this story with the Passion of Christ, but the short version goes like this:

The Danes had invaded England in 870, led by the brothers Hinguar and Hubba, and it appears their particular specialty was looting and plundering churches.  When they get to East Anglia, they offer to cut a deal with Edmund, which really wasn't much of a deal.  They'd give him a chunk of the loot if he'd admit the Danes were superior, forbid the practice of Christianity, and continue on as a figurehead ruler to keep the peace in the area.

Some sources say that Edmund's own bishops bailed on him and told him to accept the terms.  But Edmund said no, he would not forsake Christ, which, of course, made the Danes furious.  So they proceeded to torture and kill him--first beating him with cudgels, and then tying him to a tree and shooting him so full of arrows, as the account by Abbo of Fleury relates, "until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog."  Even then he would not renounce Christ, so Hinguar ordered him beheaded.  Edmond called to Christ throughout the beheading.

Now, the historical concept is to look at this in terms of his bravery and faith, but I became intrigued at the way Sam Portaro looked at this story in his book, "Brightest and Best."  A more modern way to look at this story is to back up and see missed opportunity and a chance at reconciliation.  Pig-headedly sticking up for our Christian faith at the point of a lance (or a gun) hasn't really gotten us too far in history--the Crusades being a major case in point--and in societies where church and state were intertwined, the dominant religion becomes an oppressive force, not a healing force.

But it was that image of Edmund being covered with so many arrows he looked like a hedgehog (or, in my mind, a porcupine) that stuck with me--mostly because my own life experience has been that every time I take my ego out on a limb and try to make people see "I'm right," I also end up covered with a slew of metaphorical arrows.  Putting my ego on a pedestal usually only results in having a band of folks dead set on knocking me off.

Also, it's been my experience that, once covered with arrows, trying to reconcile with the other party starts looking like two porcupines mating.  The two parties walk around each other with a cautious shyness, each afraid of the other's prickly barbs, both desiring to be closer, but not knowing how in the world to accomplish it without being stuck themselves.

So rather than see this tale as an account of Christian bravery, what changes when we see it as a reminder of our own pig-headedness?  More importantly, where are the places we need to begin the prickly dance of reconciliation?

("The Great Day of His Wrath," 1853, by John Martin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

--by Alden Solovy

G-d of the inner journey,

Source of strength,

I’ve been assaulted by an unseen foe

And comforted by a steadfast friend,

Cut down in the name of love,

Lost in confusion and dismay,

Blinded by a wave of rage

And soothed by gentle breathing.

I live between moments of desperate anger

And days of boundless joy,

Between a heart of war

And a soul of peace.

Anger is a defense.

Anger is power.

Anger is intensity.

Holy One,

G-d whose gifts challenge my understanding,

Open my eyes to injustice

And let my anger become a source of energy

Channeled toward building and healing.

Let anger be a gateway to tikun olam

So I become a force for holiness and love.

Blessed are You, Source of Wisdom,

Who created anger to illuminate the path to justice.

I was recently musing on my friend Fran's Facebook page about the topic of "anger."  It's a topic with which I have struggled mightily.  In text message language, "Anger?  I haz it."  But it has been only recently I have come to realize I've been dealing with it all wrong.  I was reminded recently that wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; anger is not.  Wrath is misguided anger; anger gone haywire; anger that destroys the good in its path as well as the bad.  Being angry for the right things, the right reasons, is okay, and doing the right things to help heal the world because of it is okay.

I have struggled for years--no, make that decades--about my anger.  It came out in weird places--like the time I had to go to Anger Management classes because I had too many traffic tickets.  It's really only been in the last year or so that I can say, "You know, I had a right to be angry," with a straight face.  "I grew up in an alcoholic household.  I was denied things that every child should have--like the right to go to bed every night and feel safe.  I had to grow up too fast.  I'll never have those things back.  That's worth being angry about, and it's worth being sad about, and having the right to grieve them."  But finally, I heard other people tell me that--and I heard it and took it to heart.  Until only recently, no one looked me in the eye and said, "You have a right to be angry about that."  For decades all I heard was a bunch of put downs.  "Don't be angry--it's not right to be that angry."  "I can't deal with YOUR anger."  "What the hell is wrong with you?  Get over it.  Grow up."  People mostly met me with guilt and shame to get me to curb it.  In all fairness, I probably didn't listen much in the Anger Management classes.  I had to do them to keep my driver's license...and really, the whole class was a bunch a people who had been "put" there.  No one was there because they wanted to be.  So I think we all just sat quietly and seethed and bided our time till we could say we "did" it.

I had been dealing with my ability to become angry as if it were a character defect, a sin, something to be blotted out.  But when I tried to suppress it or push it away, it just got worse.  Even more difficult was I began to realize that there were some people in my life who were using me by manipulating my anger.  One had me flat out in an abusive, psychologically incestuous situation where on the surface it looked like the roles were reversed as to who was "perp" and "victim."  Because of my anger (which really was suppressed resentment for the abuse and no visible "way out" at the time) I always looked like the "perp" because I was the angry one.  Meanwhile the real abuser got off scot-free and even, in some ways, got rewarded.

The hardest part was I was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.  I was stuffing my anger because I came to think it was a sin, that I wanted to be rid of it so I could be more "Christian."

All that ever happened when I stuffed my anger was I became more resentful.  All that ever happened with other people was I would launch on the wrong person for no apparent reason.  it was loaded, volcanic, and lava-hot just like the picture I posted in this post.  It was wrath.  Not anger.

I have come to understand what I needed was not anger management, but wrath management.  Anger, really, is neutral.  It's not unchristian.  In fact, my present priest has been really helpful there, as was our interim.  It was pointed out to me that Jesus got angry.  He got angry at the money changers in the Temple--angry enough to chase them all out.  It wasn't wrong to be that angry.  Once I was pointed to some good resources for entering communities where our stories are shared and our goal is to hear them in a vulnerable place and build each other up, I started feeling less and less need to "go volcanic."

Anger's like fire.  I can either use it to keep everyone in the room warm and safe, or I can burn the whole house down with me in it.  I have found the remedy to my anger has been to do my best to channel it into some form of tikun olan, as the poem says.  Tikun olan means "The repair of the world."  My extrapolation from this Hebrew phrase, as a Christian, is to build up the body of Christ rather than tear it down--the body of Christ for me, meaning all of the created world.  You can't imagine how much peace it has given me to accept that anger is also part of God's good creation--just one that is very flexible in its use for good or evil.  I no longer have to feel like a demonic thing lives inside of me.  I no longer have to feel shame for it.  Guilt only comes when I misuse it.  I have literally gone from feeling like an untamed demon lived inside of me to feeling like I've been given a very precious gift--the gift to really care about a broken world.  As a result, I've not had a volcanic outburst for over a year.  It's not that I am not capable of it, but it's that I am finding more and better things to do with that energy every day.  Now, it's up to me, with God's help, to use it to help heal the broken-ness.

(Photo of Wilmette, Oregon sewage treatment plant courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This piece originally appeared in Episcopal Café's Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, November 13, 2011)

Readings for Sunday, November 13:

Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)
Psalms 19, 46 (Evening)
1 Maccabees 2:29-43, 49-50
Acts 28:14b-23
Luke 16:1-13

Luke 16:1-13:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is not on most people's short list of "My Favorite Parables," because, frankly, everyone in the story is a tad on the slimy side.  We're well acquainted with the pattern Jesus tends to use when a parable has a rich boss in the story--by and large the rich bosses tend to care about making money and not so much about doing the right thing.  Another tip-off on the boss' character is that he shows his admiration for the manager's "shrewdness."  We are told from the get-go that the manager is a bit of a scuzzball--he squanders the boss' property--and when he gets canned, he goes about the business of making friends one last time at the boss' expense.  Finally, the clients are not entirely on the up-and-up either--it's obvious they're getting a real deal and it's clear they aren't asking any questions about it.

This parable tends to leave a bit of an acrid taste in our mouths.  Our tendency is to think, "Whaaaa? Jesus is telling the disciples they need to be more like this manager guy?  Wait a minute.  That just seems so "not right" here..."  We strain for a shred of allegory to glean at least a bite of something virtuous, and it's just not there.  It's also a parable unique to Luke, so we don't have anything else in the Gospels for comparison.

One of the things to remember about looking at the parables through the lens of Luke is that unlike Matthew, who loves to turbocharge parables with a heavy dose of allegory on the side, Luke is more into illustrating lessons for the next world with examples from this world.  There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to the fine art of "making friends with someone else's money," and our manager in the story does it flawlessly.

Also, the fact of the matter is, none of us are immune to the flaws in the story.  When we've been the boss, have we ever looked the other way at an employee who was a bit less than forthright as long as no one gave us grief for it, or we weren't losing money or good will on account of it?  How many times have we been a little on the loose side with someone else's money compared to our own, or tried to look good for ourselves on the company's dime?  Have we ever had the cashier at the Big Box Store ring up the cheaper item by mistake and not uttered a peep? In the case of the latter, we might even rationalized it by thinking, "Well, I don't like that company anyway--it's not like they aren't making money," or even morphed that one into some sort of Robin Hood fantasy--the little folks putting one over on the big rich corporation.

The hidden nugget in this parable, however, is in the diligence of this dishonest manager, and the reality of our own diligence for the wrong reasons, sometimes.  As my late grandmother used to say, "When you go into the cesspool, don't act surprised if you come out smelling like sewage." (Well...she didn't exactly use the word "sewage.")  But what we learn from our foray into the sewage is we can have a surprising diligence about dealing with other people's money for our gain, we have an ability to avert our eyes from wrongdoing, and we can keep our mouths shut if we are getting a deal.

But let's flip this upside down and backwards, in the way Jesus tends to do with confusing parables.  Jesus asks the disciples, "Well, boys, if you haven't been shrewd in your dishonesty, how in the world can I expect you to be shrewd in acquiring the good things of the Kingdom of Heaven?  If you don't know a deal when you see it with the cheap stuff, how will you understand a deal when it comes to the good stuff?  You can't have it both ways.  You can't just stop the bad behavior and do nothing for the service of God."

So, let's reframe the questions with a different objective in mind--the objective of building up the Body of Christ rather than playing along with the ways of the world.  When we are the boss, can we use the same blind eye we used with the shady employee to create forgiving space for the employee who made a mistake because of inexperience or confusion?  How might we use the resources available to us to give other people the credit for their good works or open-heartedness?  Is it possible to keep our mouths shut about the times we feel slighted by others and trust it was an honest mistake, rather than assume it was a personal dig and take on the mantle of victimization?

Our parable challenges us not to discard the wisdom we learned while wallowing in the cesspool, but to transform it--to create sapphires from sewage--a magnificent alchemy, indeed.

"What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?"

--Psalm 27:17 from the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer

One of the things I like about reading the Psalms in different translations is that sometimes I see things in a different way in familiar settings.  The NRSV version of Psalm 27:17 says, "I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord..."  It's more of a statement than a question.  The BCP version, in asking me the question, puts the reflection back on me..."What if?"  The St. Helena Psalter says, "What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of my God..." and takes it one step further, personalizing the relationship between me and God.

I've had reason to reflect on this line some lately.  There's been a convergence of some things happening in the lives of some people close to me that have caused me to think back of some times I was in similar situations myself.  In all these present episodes, there is really not much I can do for any of the other people in the stories, except be a listening ear and and affirming voice.  I am sometimes surprised how people approach me, thinking I have something for them, when the unsatisfying truth is I really don't have any "advice," just a memory of my own similar past, and how I might have journeyed from Point A to Point B in a similar, but not always applicable, situation.  That memory, frankly, may not be totally accurate--it is always laced with "my analysis" of the situation, and over time, the little details get lost.

In these situations lately, issues of broken trust, betrayal, and out and out having been lied to have bubbled up for these other people.  I've noticed that all forms of dysfunction--no matter what the root cause--have some similarities.  One is that the universal human tendency, when hurt, is to avoid the "land of the living."  All of us, when hurt, shut down in some fashion--physically and emotionally.  Early on in this process, even thinking about "the land of the living" is painful.  Yet many of us "buck up and carry on"--zombies at work or with our families.  We function on the surface, we concentrate on the things we must do to keep our jobs or to keep up appearances.  I think part of the reason zombie movies are so popular these days is because far too many people are living their own Night of the Living Dead in the daylight of their lives.

When I think back, at the times I had to move from the pit of despair, with little to no trust in humanity, I think the only thing that ever did keep me going was that little glimpse of God in the confines of humanity.  Let me be real here.  Trust issues?  I have 'em.  If I had to trust humans as humans, I'd never leave my house.

I have, however, learned to believe in the Incarnation--and if the Incarnation is real, then it stands to reason there will be glimpses of God in this morass of humanity.  I think every time in my life I had to crawl out of the abyss of my own despair, I could only do it by agreeing to accept the glimpses of God that showed up in broken, flawed people.  Most of them would start out coming from people I would never have suspected.  Over time, those glimpses taught me to slowly begin to trust people closer to me.  This has never been without casualties.  Every time I crawled from the abyss, some people who used to be close to me were lost.  Sometimes it was just too messy to ever repair.  But what I would see in the places I could gave me enough hope that maybe, just maybe, all would be made right in the end.  I could at least trust enough to let go, to trust that God would heal those people I was no longer close to without my intervention.

The other place in those times I had to accept seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living was within myself.  I have a terrible tendency to think it's always my fault somehow, and to not forgive myself.  Crawling from the abyss for me has always included learning to trust myself again--to trust that I am worthy of God's love and capable enough of hearing God's call for my life.

I only know one thing--accepting what I see of the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living is the only thing I know that allows me to move beyond the comfortable confines of the seduction of self.  It's the only thing I know that keeps me from propping myself up as my own little shallow version of God that looks more like a ventriloquist dummy than a real, loving, feeling person.  If I had not seen it, I would have no hope of ever being free of the chokehold the broken world has on people.

(A view from Campground #1, Thousand Hills State Park, Kirksville, MO, Oct. 7, 2011)

The Canticle of Brother Sun

Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor
And all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy
To pronounce your name.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.
All praise be yours, My Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods,
By which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how gay! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of you; through those who endure
Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those She finds doing your will!
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.

--St. Francis of Asissi, roughly around 1225

That line about "...and fair and stormy, all the weather's moods" really stood out for me today.

What a difference the time change makes.

Last week, I was taking a walk around 5:30 p.m. and distinctly thought, "Well, this is getting on to being the last time I'll be able to take a walk after work for a few months."

In just a couple of short days, we've moved from one of the most perfect, bright, colorful falls we've had in a few years, to the gray, slick, heavy, wet strains of November.

November is one of the "mud months" in northeast Missouri.  It's a fickle month when it comes to Mother Nature.  We get a couple of unseasonably nice days in November, but most days tend to be on the gray side--gray and with a cold dampness.

It's very easy to get negatively seduced by the bad weather.  But in looking at the Canticle of the Sun, I see many good things in nature--and even her fickle-ness is to be praised.  After all, it's like the old joke about Missouri weather:  "Don't like the weather in Missouri?  Wait a couple of hours, it will change."

But it's true.  Even if the "good" weather is only a few hours or minutes.  The fallback position is to appreciate the "neutral" weather.  "Oh, wow, the wind stopped blowing!"  "Cool, it's not raining anymore.  Okay, it's still gray but it's not gray and raining."

St. Francis even finds a means in this canticle to praise Death--because in new life, Death has no power over us.

I think about Voltaire's line, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

I'm afraid a lot of us are recovering hyper-perfectionists.  What's worse, is I think sometimes the church is hyper-perfection's greatest enabler.  When we dwell too much on "sinless Jesus; rotten, sinful us," frankly, we set ourselves up.

Now, that's not to say we shouldn't address the problem of sin--particularly our own sins--we should.  But we should not give sin so much power that it fosters in us an attitude of hyper-unworthiness because we can never, in this world, achieve perfection.  None of us do.  From the worst incarcerated criminal to the little old lady who never does much wrong except for a wicked or uncharitable thought now and then, we are all imperfect.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God--and last time I checked, we don't get triaged into first, second, or third class sinners.

Hyper-perfectionism paralyzes us from turning around and doing good for the sake of doing good--if we can't be perfect, we won't do it at all.  It ties us down to the bondage of our false selves--the self that acts like we really can achieve perfection.  The desire for that constant hyper-perfect, hyper-happy life can become an addiction, so that we never see "good enough" ever again--because we are working too hard to be perfect.  We will never have enough.  We will see things through the lens of scarcity rather than the magnifier of abundance.

When I read the Canticle of the Sun, I am reminded of the spectrum and changeability of Nature, and how it reminds me there is much in which to rejoice.  Even on my bad days I can be reasonably happy--and on a gray November day, reasonably happy is good enough!

(Painting of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This piece originally appeared in Episcopal Café's Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, November 6, 2011)

Readings For the Feast Day of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, Sunday, November 6:

Psalm 119: 97-104
Exodus 22:21-27
Ephesians 3:7-12
John 1:9-18 

In recent days, as I've been following the "Occupy Wall Street" movement spreading across different cities in the U.S., I keep thinking William Temple would have something to say about it.  In fact, were he alive today, he might have been in the midst of them.

William Temple was born in a setting of genteel Victorian privilege--his father served as Bishop of London, and, later, Archbishop of Canterbury--and he seemed destined for a similar kind of life.  He was a sickly child, suffering from gout and bad eyesight (he became blind in his right eye by age 40,) and by all accounts, an excellent scholar.  His road to ordination, however, was not entirely smooth.  His initial application for ordination was turned down by the Archbishop of Canterbury because he had "unconventional" notions about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.

Turns out that was not the only "unconventional" notion he'd have.

Temple became president of the Worker's Education Association in 1908, while tutoring at Queen's College, Oxford.  This organization was highly influenced by the philosophy of Anglican theologist Frederick Denison Maurice, the pioneer of the Christian Socialist movement.  Temple also joined the Labour Party around that time.  Over the next two decades, despite his privileged upbringing, he would become a champion for worker's rights, as well as social and economic reforms.  In his famous book, Christianity and the Social Order, he outlined six propositions for a Christian society:

Every child should find itself a member of a family housed with decency and dignity.
Every child should have an opportunity for education up to maturity.
Every citizen should have sufficient income to make a home and bring up his children properly.
Every worker should have a voice in the conduct of the business or industry in which he works.
Every citizen should have sufficient leisure—two days' rest in seven and an annual holiday with pay.
Every citizen should be guaranteed freedom of worship, speech, assembly and association.

Our readings today focus on several elements that speak to reform as a nidus of spiritual transformation.  Our Psalm speaks to the love of the law and the value of wise teachers.  Exodus discusses the evils of abusing the more vulnerable elements of society.  Paul's letter to the Ephesians reminds us of the virtues of servant leadership, and hearing the call in our Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all people.  Finally, John's Gospel proclaims the power of phos--the luminous power of the Light of Christ's grace to illuminate the darkness of a hurting, broken world.

The life and personal theology of William Temple calls us to our own self examination as agents of the Light of Christ, changing the world, one act of kindness at a time.  How are each of us called to respond to the love of those who teach us about grace and tolerance?  How have we personally stood up to the abuse of the powerless?  How are we servant leaders in our parishes, our schools, or our communities?  How does the life of William Temple influence us in our tasks to be bearers of this true Light?

Perhaps the answer is in one of Temple's more famous quotes:  "It is a great mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion."


(You can also see the video on YouTube here.)

If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember
that your brother has something against you, leave your gift
there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your
brother, and then come and offer your gift.

--Offertory sentence, Book of Common Prayer, p. 376

I have to admit, when I was a kid, the "Dollar bill on a piece of fishing line" was one of my favorite pranks.  I was always amazed at how many grownups would bite on that one!  People will fall for that one again and again.  There's just something about a dollar bill that can tempt the most unobservant of us.

I think we also tend to be that way about truly letting go of the things that wound us.

Oh, we really DO desire to leave it on the altar...and maybe we even take it forward and place it there...but it is sooooo human nature to also tie a piece of monofilament line to it, and then give that line a pull and jerk it off the altar.  Maybe even more than once.  Sometimes we are as bad as Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football like that.  We'll take that old hurt, or that old resentment, that we placed on the altar, and yank it back to us, repeatedly...and like that old dollar bill on the string trick, once in a while someone else will grab it, so to speak...and we'll go around and hurt that new person with the same old resentment, even if they had nothing to do with the original one.

I started thinking about this in a different way lately.

That business of intending to leave my resentments on the altar, then having something bubble up and me snatching it back, is an old habit of mine.  That old compulsive nature of mine wants to nurse those grudges, or stew with those resentments, rather than truly leave them on the altar.  I remember a time that I was trying to give up my resentments about a particular situation by taking the advice of someone I trusted---his advice was to pray for that person for two solid weeks--wish him or her every good thing and every blessing I'd wish for myself--and I'd get part way through and darned if another resentment didn't pop up.  When it was all said and done--when I had actually managed to pray for that person two solid weeks and feel no resentment--it had taken nine months.  It was not lost on me that this was the same time period as a pregnancy.

I have to admit, the advice worked--but I think it took a little longer than usual.

Something I've come to realize now that I've thought about this process of bringing our gifts--even if our gifts are, on any given day, a resentment or a piece of our woundedness--is that the moment we mentally placed them on that altar, they become consecrated along with the bread and the wine--they are no longer made of the same stuff.  They are covered with holy stuff.  To take them back and nurse them and hold onto them, is really taking something holy and not treating it with the respect a holy thing is due.  I'm generally not a person who wants to mistreat holy things.  So by thinking of it in this way, I find myself being able to put it back and leave it be more quickly.

It's better, I think, to leave our resentment there and instead focus on the messy business of reconciliation.  When we are spending time toying with our resentments instead of reconciling, we're just sort of spinning our wheels.  When we can leave it on the altar, I'm learning something that is just the opposite as the dollar bill on a string occurs.  Oh, there's a string all right.  But instead of us yanking the string, when we can truly leave something like that on the altar, IT pulls on the string and draws US closer to the altar--and isn't that where we should have been all along?

(Lance Berkman's 10th inning game-tying single, Game 6, 2011 World Series, October 27, 2011, courtesy of Yahoo Sports)

(This piece originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian on Tuesday, November 3, 2011) 

From the opening lines in our Book of Common Prayer's Rite II Holy Eucharist, and in several of the BCP prayers and collects, we affirm that God's kingdom is "now and forever."  But the truth be known, I suspect we are usually thinking "forever" more than "now"--well, really, more like "Sometime later that I don't really understand, after I'm dead, and I'll think about that one later."

Most of us know that "living in the now" or "living in the moment" is a highly prized spiritual discipline.  For folks in various twelve step programs, "Just for today" is a key facet of their recovery.  Many of us have read Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" more than once.  I imagine many of us with spiritual leanings like to claim at least novice, and maybe even intermediate, mastery of this discipline.  The evidence in our minds is that it allows us some degree of spiritual peace, so it's our tendency to have, or at least fake, passable knowledge in the concept.

Yet the fact remains that it's way easier to think about the Realm of God as being a "later" rather than a "now" proposition.  If anything, the world tends to scream its broken-ness at us on TV and in the news, as well as our own personal relationships.  How can God's kingdom exist now, when the world is rife with violent crime, abject poverty, personal failure, natural disasters, and constant disappointment?

We find ourselves in a paradox--we can intellectually sign on to the concept of the "now" of holiness, but our heart tells us otherwise too many times  It seems to be an acceptance of risk we dare not bear.

I only know one place in my experiential realm where I really, truly understand the "now" of "now and forever"--it is in the final half of the final inning of an important baseball game with two out, and the home team behind.  Sporting events with clocks teach us there's a place where the outcome is academic, and our best efforts become for our own self-esteem rather than affect the outcome.  The clock-less aspect of baseball, however, reminds us that we truly are building God's kingdom as we speak and it reminds us that it requires living in a tension we'd rather avoid.

I was reminded of this in an almost unfathomable place--the tail end of the sixth game of the 2011 World Series.  As a loyal St. Louis Cardinals fan for all of the cognitive aspects of my 51 years, the product of my grandmother's loyalty prior to that, going back to 1926, I can no more fathom "not being a Cardinals fan" any more than I can fathom being any religion than Christian--because I was reared that way.  It's who I am.  So right from the get-go I have a barrier to the "now," because the past is a tap root to my groundedness.  As I watched David Freese at the plate, wearing #23, I could not help but remember that was Ted Simmons' number in another era of my Cardinal-ness.

Additionally, baseball is filled with "tomorrows."  Rain delay?  We'll play tomorrow.  Disappointing series against the Cubs?  There will be another.  Lousy year?  Simply adopt the motto of the old Brooklyn Dodgers--"Wait till next year."

It's easier to live in the glories of the past, or fantasize about the projections of the future, than to simply breathe and be alive during that last out in the last inning. I thought about how stressful it was for me, a mere fan to watch David Freese stand in the batter's box with two down in the 9th and tie it up, and my palpable disappointment in stranding the go-ahead run in that inning.  If that wasn't enough, I was not even given the mercy to live it once and be done with it--I had to repeat the same process with Lance Berkman in the 10th, but with a different outcome--Freese's walk-off home run that followed.  Every pitch became excruciating.  I wanted to turn off the TV and go to bed, to save myself the stress.  I wanted to distract myself with junk mail or get a snack and have the possibility of loss not be in my direct vision.  But I didn't, because I could not, and remain loyal to myself.  Even then, in my faith, I wavered--more than once I thought, "Well, just don't strike out looking.  Be swinging if you strike out."

That's also true with our spiritual lives in community.  It's just way easier to think about how God interacted with people in Biblical times, or brush aside any of our pains, paradoxes, or puzzlements with a wave of the hand and a curt, "Well, it will be different in Heaven."  We don't like to stay too long in the idea of what we are doing right at this moment in the here and now has the ability to help shape and form the Heaven that will be--even in the act of our failures and disappointments.  We don't like to do mission and consider the possibility it will fall flat, while we are doing it.  We don't like to come to church in difficult or uncomfortable parish times when there's the risk we could actually be snubbed at the Peace.  We don't like to throw our heart into a new activity for the Glory of God and find that almost no one came.  Those things hurt--brutally so, in fact, and there's just no good way of saying otherwise.  

I think that's true from the clergy side, too.  I can't imagine the priest or deacon of an angry or dysfunctional parish relishes stepping into the fray every Sunday.  The pain of following a call, that ends with the curt vestry meeting and the call to the Bishop to ask to "dissolve the bonds of pastoral affection" can't possibly feel like God's plan is working at that moment.  

But when I am sitting in a good place in my spirituality, and look back, I discover that the good parts of who I am at this moment and who our communities are at this moment would not have been the same, had these awful things not occurred.  When we open ourselves up to the possibility that these times are merely lessons in formation, rather than things where our control yielded "right" and "wrong" choices, we discover that it wasn't about "us" at all.  We just happened to be that batter in the lineup at that time, and what we did simultaneously mattered and didn't matter.  It was not an "either/or" proposition, but instead, it was "now and forever" working simultaneously.

I believe we are probably most fully in the now of "now and forever," not when we feel secure and confident about seeing God in everything, but when seeing God in everything is the hardest.  The faith to the notion that we are continually loved by God--that our striking out or getting on base does not affect this love, it only affects how we view each other in community--is a fearful proposition.  But if we can merely stay in the batter's box, it is when we begin to see our own shape and form within the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Heaven of Forever gets a little closer to the Heaven of Now.

"Live this life and do what ever is done in a spirit of thanksgiving. Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile. Give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning. Quit the search for salvation, it is selfish. And come to comfortable rest in the certainty that those who participate in this life with an attitude of thanksgiving will receive its full promise." 

-- St. Benedict

Recently, I watched the movie "Wit" again, in a rather paradoxical week centered around "health." It's hard to believe it's been almost ten years since I saw it.  The first time I saw it, I had not been relocated to Kirksville for long, and it was before I found my way back to the church, and in some ways, my life was starting over.  But it was very easy for me to identify with Emma Thompson's portrayal of English professor Vivian Bearing--an early middle aged, solo woman, tough and acerbic, who paradoxically taught about "love" through the poetry of John Donne with a very analytical, dispassionate surface.  In the movie we see that this journey from the world of the healthy living to the world of the terminal cancer patient is more solo than we would like, simply because it's a journey others cannot physically take.  But we also see how her personality makes this even more solo--she is involved with a clinical research trial in which very few people can withstand its rigor.  Her toughness, I believe, is a part of her ability to endure it.

Yet, we discover she endures it to die anyway.  We feel the futility in that, although there are many layers more than simply "futility."  It's also what we don't see that is important.  We don't see her reaching out to a support group, we see relatively few people in this movie other than the health care team.  There is no sudden need to embrace humanity in a different way.  This might not seem fulfilling to some watching the movie, but as a person possibly cut a little bit out of this mold myself, I get that.  I saw it more as "this is kind of who she was before her ovarian cancer, and this is who she chooses to remain to be in this journey."  She stays more or less true to herself.  We see a few regrets in the flashbacks she experiences, the times she realizes she was a little less than kind to others, at times she yearns for a little more kindness.  Yes, she is transformed in this experience, but it's a transformation that remains true to her deepest essence of self.

This most recent time I watched it, I had just finished my annual run of "health maintenance" with its usual paradoxes.  Once again, in some ways, this year, I am the picture of health.  It's not typical these days to be over 50 and be on no medications whatsoever.  But in other ways, my chronic demons still dog me.  I habitually get "run around the barn" over my mammograms, partly because of the problem with small, dense breasts, and partly because of a family history of a mother who had a significantly sized breast cancer with positive nodes at age 48.  I had to deal with additional mammos again this year; in years past, this has also included ultrasounds and breast MRI's, and visits to breast cancer specialists.  I am no fool--although I've managed to escape biopsy year after year, I realize I have a high chance this will not happen forever.

I had a little fun bragging about not being on any meds at my age on Facebook, but I also was being quite mum about the mammogram run-around.  Oddly, I don't have much apprehension about that anymore and am rather fatalistic about it.  I have given up worrying about it.  It's out of my control.  I find myself more irritated about the hassle associated with it than anything.

But this time, I keyed up on something entirely different in the movie.  It was the part towards the end of the movie when the decision is made by Vivian's oncologist to put her on a morphine drip rather than patient-controlled analgesia (PCA.)  The first time I watched the movie, I felt anger over her doctor not giving her an option to control her pain herself.  I felt a sense of betrayal to her on the part of the physicians.  It felt like, "Well, she's no good to them now because the chemo failed, so they just don't care how she feels about it."  

I'm no stranger to dying people and what "morphine drip" means.  Once someone is put on a morphine drip, he or she is basically no longer going to be functioning in our world.  It's a time that death is imminent.  It's the beginning of being in a very thin place between this world and the next.  When I watched it this time, I no longer felt that anger.  What I came to realize is all Vivian wanted was for the pain to stop.  What I saw was Vivian's nurse's projections about the PCA.  Her nurse was wanting the option.  I'm not sure, now, seeing this again, that Vivian herself truly cared.  I heard her physician say something that I glossed over the first time I watched it--"She's earned her rest."  What I came to realize this conflict was as much about the fact her nurse had begun to feel a caregiver's intimacy towards Vivian, and she was not ready to end the relationship.

What I realize has happened in the ten years since I first saw this movie, is that I have changed.  Ten years ago, when I projected myself in the place of someone with terminal ovarian cancer, I would have wrestled for every shred of control I could have bargained for in this scenario.  I would have wanted the illusion of control of the PCA pump for as long as I could have withstood it.  You see, there's some control with PCA, but there is also an illusion.  Once you reach the maximum dose per time, you push the button, you hear the "ding," but it doesn't give you any more morphine beyond the programmed limit.  It's a placebo.  It's an illusion of control.  It may or may not control the pain.

Also, ten years ago, I think I would have been more alone in this journey than I believe I would now.  I would have kept everyone at arms' length.  I would still do that to some extent now, but I believe there would be more people allowed closer now.  In the ten years that have elapsed since I first saw this movie, I have entered into community in a different way.  I think when I project myself in this scenario now, I would opt for control of my pain only until I had the opportunity to sacramentalize moving to that thin place in the world of the morphine drip.  I think I'd get the folks I care about the most to be with me, we'd celebrate the Eucharist together, and then, when we all said our goodbyes, it would be time for the morphine drip.

I used to think that "bravery in the face of terminal illness" meant fighting as long as I could.  As the years go by, and I watch people I know move from this world to the next, I have come to realize the true bravery is more about making the best choices--best not just for self, but in the way that creates more lasting meaning for those left to carry on.  I have become more willing to accept that the true bravery is knowing when to enter the thin places with an accepting heart.

The other striking thing about this movie is just before her death, the return of her mentor, now quite aged, for one last visit.  In the end, it is not the multilayered, complex words of John Donne that give Vivian comfort--in fact, even in her opiated state she makes it clear it is NOT what she desires.  Instead, it is the words of the childhood story, "The Runaway Bunny."  Yet we see the multiple metaphorical layers just the same.

It is why I am grateful I have many modest-sized chunks of the Book of Common Prayer embedded in my neurons.  I think even if I were in a state where my sensorium was clouded, some of those would never leave me.  In that sense, I would never be alone in the thin places.

Ten years later, this is still a fascinating and deep enough movie to move me to tears--but in different places now.  I feel less of the anger I used to feel about the dance of medicine, terminal illness, and self than I used to--and I am now reminded that as children of God, we should never fear the thin places.

(This post originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, November 1, 2011)

Sometimes the saint is loved not simply for his closeness to God but for his patent humanity.  The saint has a temper, flies off the handle, loses his or her cool in pursuit of a great ideal.  St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin, was famously irascible, once writing that one of his detractors "walked like a tortoise."  To take another example, St. Peter is beloved not only because he was a great apostle, but for his many flaws: denying Jesus three times before the crucifixion, among them.  Holiness makes its home in humanity.  That insight says, “They’re not perfect.  Maybe I could aspire to this level of achievement.”

--James Martin 

Nothing separates "The people who are good at crafts" from "The people who are ordinary at crafts" quite like an origami bird.

Now, at its most basic level, an origami bird is a rather simple thing.  After all, children do origami all the time.  But give some origami paper to adults, and it can suddenly morph from a child's fun pastime to a relentless exercise in self-browbeating.

One of the things we decided to do for All Saints Sunday was make strings of origami cranes that folks could write names of the departed "saints" in their lives and string the birds around the sanctuary, as if they were winging their way through the gap between Heaven and Earth.

Easy, right?

Two of my best friends in the parish decided to take on the task of folding the cranes.  Now, they are both what we call "crafty women" in these parts.  Not crafty like devious or sneaky, but they are really good at those little crafts that lots of women like to do.  They take to that stuff like a duck to water (or should I say a crane to water?)

Well, one of them went out of town on vacation and the other one was feeling a little challenged by the number of cranes that needed to be made.  Quintessential dummy me, I blurted out, "Oh, I made origami birds in grade school all the time!  I know how to do that!"  Next thing I knew, I was meeting her at the store to buy paper that met her approval, and was given a sheet of instructions and one made by the person who left town, to use as a model.

I gulped.  Hers was perfect.

As I looked at that crane, I started feeling the weight of every flashback I could muster from grade school art class.  Nothing I ever made in art class was ever "the best."  I think only one time was any of my art ever shown in the display cases in the hall, and I think the art teacher felt sorry for me that time.  When we had fundraisers at school using "kid art," no one bid on my creations (the fact my own family never bid on it, either, ought to have told me something.)

I realized I was doing this because of loyalty to my two friends, and possibly so that their slightly imperfect cranes would look "good enough" next to my definitely imperfect cranes.  Mine looked fairly okay, but they chronically seemed to have a bill problem.  Some of them could have passed for pelicans.  Some of them, it looked like a cat had grazed their tails.  I had some problems with blowing gently into them to "puff them up."  I had to trash a few of them from blowing so hard their spines exploded.

It was another of those times I was reminded there was a reason I went into a medical specialty that the job was to take things apart rather than sew them together.

The other important thing I learned was "Don't make origami cranes when you're watching the Cardinals blow a lead in the fifth game of the World Series."  My cranes met with a couple of casualties--a few got tossed at the TV, and hapless, unfortunate member of my paper aviary got his little head ripped off.  (Interestingly enough, I decapitated a red one.  Coincidence?  I think not.)

But after a while, I realized when I looked in my plastic bag of imperfect cranes and feeling a little grumpy that mine "were not as good," they looked back with quite a few colors.  In my compulsion to make "perfect" cranes and setting unrealistically high expectations for myself, and over-obsessing about each and every little fold, I had neglected to notice that, subconsciously, I was choosing paper from every shade and hue of the rainbow.

Suddenly, another flashback came to me from those grade school art years.  A long buried memory emerged--I used to love to try to use every color that was given to me in an art project.

Historically, on All Saints Day, we focus on the "perfection" of the saints--that they are models of holiness, and we feel we can never attain that kind of perfection.  But the more I read about the lives of the saints, the more I recognize they were wildly, crazily IM-perfect.  St. Ignatius of Loyola is my favorite case in point--he was on his way to kill a fellow for profaning the Blessed Virgin Mary, and had it not been for his mule taking a particular fork in the road, he would have been a murderer instead of a saint.

When we over-focus on that illusion of perfection in holiness, we miss the bigger and better message--the spectrum of hues and tones and bright and muted colors that make up the Company of Heaven.  We forget to see the holiness within irascibility--incredible holiness, actually, because it is when the Light of Christ streams through the cracks and fissures of our caked-on layers of human irascibility that it is most noticeable and intense.  We don't always want to believe that the saints, more often than not, are clothed in a robe with grease stains, wear rusty, crooked halos, and have muddy shoes.  Those muddy shoes?  Feet of clay--exactly like our own.

When we accept that possibility, the saints lose their two-dimensionality.  They can no longer remain monochromatic.  Much like the citizenry in the movie "Pleasantville," they gain the power of living color and depth, as the revealed truth washes over them.  They truly become, as the old hymn proclaims, sacred people that you have met "in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea."



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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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