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

(Icon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Mark 5:18-20:

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

When I was reading the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene Demoniac as one of my readings in the Daily Office a few days back, I got to thinking about Jesus' instructions to the now demon-free man: "Go home to your friends."

My first thought was "What friends? The guy was crazy! He was out running loose, naked, in the cemetery, and the only friends he had were the dead! What in the world does Jesus mean by this?"

I thought about the various observations I have made about people with chronic mental illness that I have known for some period of time, and my own interactions in their process. One of the things that happens many times is they might have started out with a set of friends, an intimate partner, or, at the very least, a network of people who care about them and have some degree of love and affection. As their illness builds, they either push their friends and loved ones away, or they simply "wear out" the people who do care about them and they just can't deal with the person any more and remain sane, themselves. The friends find themselves being sucked into their own situational psychic pain as a result of the chronically mentally ill person in their life. They end up behaving in ill ways because of the other person's illness, and unlike the chronically mentally ill person, they know it has to come to a stop somehow.

So in this Gospel story, I sat one evening and pondered just who those "friends" were, and I thought about the times I had been involved in the mental illness of others, and when being in the middle of that drama led to times I behaved erratically myself, and caused others to push away from me.

I've had some interesting dealings with people with chronic mental illness. I've been involved with suicide attempts of friends and relatives. I had someone try to kill themselves by flinging the door of my truck open at 55 mph and threaten to jump out. (I was amazed at how, while still driving my truck, I managed to grab that person by the shirt with one hand and yank them back in the truck. Then I became ashamed how then I became the "crazy" one, pounding this person's head against the back window of the truck repeatedly, yelling at the top of my lungs, "You go kill yourself on your OWN time, if that's what you want to do, but don't you ever...EVER...use me as the means to do it ever again!"

I once had a bipolar medical student who I had befriended to do some "grunt work" around my house for extra money, and this person had mistaken my generosity for being "best buddies," and suddenly found this person in my house all the time, literally living in my house, using my hidden spare key. When I re-established my boundaries for this relationship, this person suddenly launched into game-playing about threatening suicide, always dropping hints of suicide, of which I was supposed to respond in a push-pull relationship fashion.

I had another student many years ago who was stalking me, who became obsessed with little details of my life to the point it was seriously creepy, who implied that we had a psychological intimacy far beyond reality, and when I reported this behavior to the authorities, it triggered malicious stalking and destruction of my property, and I constantly feared my pets would be harmed.

I think about a time I "finally did what had to be done" in alerting the right people about someone's mental illness, but it was complicated by other transgressions by this person, and complicated by my own reticence to tell, because I had been sucked too psychologically far into the situation, and "telling" would reveal that I had concealed the reclusive and erratic behavior, and I had sins of my own in that situation.

I also help monitor impaired physicians, and I have been involved of many phases of impairment and recovery--and that has involved reporting impairment when I knew that my reporting would make me the "bad guy" or being involved with the intervention and telling that person the truth of how they had harmed me.

But what I've learned from those situations is that these things can have a ripple effect. The illnesses of others can trigger our own harmful psychological tendencies, and our own broken pasts, and affect our relationships with others, even when we are not the chronically ill ones. Whatever we are prone to, can "rear up"--whether it's family of origin issues, attention span issues, obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, or simply a sense that we are not firmly grounded in reality. We can end up "wearing out" other people as a result of someone wearing US out. If we have severed ties with the chronically mentally ill person, there's a place we really just don't want to deal with that person and we are trying to move to a healing place beyond that relationship, yet we might have created pain in the lives of others while we were doing it. At times, it can create feelings of hopelessness, of failure, of resignation. It's messy, it's never pretty, and it only rarely has "the happy ending we wished for," although there are other ways it can eventually be reconciled.

So in our Gospel story, I came back to "who are his friends?" Here is a man whose world shrunk so far in his illness, that he very likely went from being a social creature like the rest of us, in his community like anyone else, to a frightening, dark world of the dead, where even wearing the trappings of humanity--his clothes--was too painful. He had reached a place where he couldn't even bear the reality of his own humanity. Yet, by a miracle, he was healed of what most of us with a modern medical eye would clearly recognize as schizophrenia.

No wonder he wanted to go with Jesus instead of stay in his town. Now healed, he knew it was far easier to move on, start over, and simply "leave his past behind" to follow Jesus. After all, there was a precedent of sorts. The stories of how the disciples came to follow Jesus was full of just "picking up and going with him." I don't think it would have been out of character for Jesus to have let this man do that.

But that wasn't what Jesus had in mind for him. He was to go home to whatever he perceived as his "friends." My guess is the man knew exactly what that meant--going directly to the people he had harmed, the people he had worn out, and the people who tried to help him but he had pushed THEM away. That's a hard assignment, and one bound to illustrate that some of his relationships would remain forever broken in this world. We're only human. Hard memories can make it not worth the mental pain to "kiss and make up," to start from scratch, to start anew as if nothing ever happened. Things where rules and laws stepped in may even make it illegal to do so. For instance, it doesn't matter how "healed" a person is, a restraining order is a restraining order. Everyone suffers consequences for his or her actions.

We are not privy to the details of how this man did that or exactly what he did to, as Jesus commanded, to "tell people what the Lord had done for him and the mercy he'd been shown," but we do know two things. We know he traveled around the Decapolis in his attempts to do that, and that "everyone was amazed."

So what did that mean to travel around the Decapolis? Wikipedia tells me that this represented several cities that are now in modern Jordan, Syria, and Israel: Gerasa, Scythopolis, Hippos, Gadara, Pella, Philadelphia, Al Husn, Capitolias, Canatha, Arabella, Raphana, and Damascus. Some of these cities have changed names. (For instance, Philadelphia is what now is known as Amman, the capital of Jordan.) Gerasa is more or less in the south end of this group of cities. Only Philadelphia was further south.

I was joking with one of my Facebook friends when discussing this reading, "Yeah, I bet he started way out on the north end and worked his way back south, all things considered." Obviously, we don't know his route map. But this is one of those times I like to let my spiritual imagination loose to "let Scripture read me," rather than me read it.

Human nature being human nature, it was probably easiest to start telling this story at a distance, rather than in the town where "everyone knows your name." After all, even Jesus knew a prophet was without honor in his home town. I like to think that as he got better at telling his faith story in the more distant towns, he was able to gain confidence and experience, and began to be healed and strengthened by that "amazement" in the eyes of others...and, after a spell, he came back to Gerasa.

We don't know how many years or months or weeks it took him to do all this preaching. So it's hard to say if he was still telling this story weeks later or years later. But I have no doubt, his story was the hardest sell in Gerasa. It could be something as simple as "Hey, aren't you the guy who ran around naked in the cemetery at night, crazy as a bedbug?" or it could be more complicated. I'm sure he ran into the people he'd hurt or harmed as a result of his illness, and got a cool reception, ranging from "I believe you have changed, but I am done with you. You hurt me too much. I can't ever let you back in," to "I don't believe you," to "I don't care." (I realize the Gospel says "everyone," but I also know we use the word "everyone" in a colloquial fashion, that usually means "most everyone," or "the bulk of them." I also imagine Scripture is reading me a little here, too--that I am showing my own hesitancy if I were in such a situation.)

This has some carry-over in our own lives, too. It means, when we have harmed others, and are in the business of being transformed and restored, it means we are called to at least try to reconcile it. It means when we are the one who was harmed, that we are called to at least try to understand that person in love, even if things will never be put back "the way they were." I think about one of those situations I was in where I had to tell the truth about someone else's mental illness even though I had been psychologically thrown under the bus by that person. I said, "I am, have been, and ever will be this person's friend. But I'm pretty sure what I'm about to tell you won't be perceived as friendship by this person, and I'm pretty sure I'll never be spoken to by this person after I say this." I think about the times I went to someone to apologize and as much as I wished that person would say "all is forgiven," I was pretty sure that was not going to happen, and odd on, my efforts would be rebuffed. I was usually not disappointed there. It's only the rare time someone can start over when I've harmed them.

But in those painful things, we have to remember "God's time is not our time."

As I mentioned earlier, we don't know how long this process took for our man in the story. Time has a way of softening old blows. God has a way of working on people over time. Even in the things that don't turn out "right" by our way of thinking, we are invited to hope that time changes things and God's time will become evident to us--if not in this life, in the life to come.

("Show Me Your Keys," courtesy of stopnlook's Flickr photostream, via a Creative Commons license)

Matthew 16:13-20:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

It's probably true that, in addition to my fascination with hands, I also have a fascination with keys. Of course, keys are used by hands. They probably tag-team each other very nicely in my mind.

But a lot of my fascination with keys stems from the fact my late grandfather, who I called Yogi, owned a route of coin-operated machines--jukeboxes, pinball machines, coin-operated pool tables, and, later, video games--and it seemed that there were more keys in Yogi's possession than anyone on earth. I've blogged about his keys before in the summer of 2010--you can read it by clicking on the link here.

There is no doubt--I thought his keys opened all the doors of the universe. He could always keep me fascinated as a child by letting me play with the keys on his key ring. Every time I see the scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird" when Atticus is putting Scout to bed and she is bemusing herself by playing with Atticus' pocket watch, I think about how that is how Yogi's keys were for me.

I still have the ring of keys that was in Yogi's pocket the day he died of a heart attack in November, 1990. I have found myself at times, when I am feeling alone in that way where we feel disconnected from our past, detached from all we came from, holding those keys in my hand as a prayer object, and working my way through holding each key on the ring much as how one would handle a rosary. There are still times I miss him terribly, and holding his keys helps me feel not so far from him. Just as we are told in Matthew that Peter will be the rock upon which "Christ's church" will be built, Yogi's keys are the rock upon which my life was built

This passage in Matthew is one that is related many times from the pulpit and in commentary. The interesting juxtaposition in the English translation of this for me is we are told that the keys are the keys "of the kingdom of heaven" as opposed to the keys "to the kingdom of heaven." I dug around in my Greek Lexicon a bit, (and remember, I have never formally studied Biblical Greek, I am sort of a "I can kinda figure it out like I'm reading the back of a Cracker Jack box" Greek student) and as best as I can tell, the article τῆς is truly "of." (I won't be offended if someone tells me I'm wrong. It won't change the mental exercise I'm about to undertake--it's worth doing even if I have no justification from the lexicon.)

So in my mind, it changes my attitude of what these keys are meant to do. I don't think they are "a set of keys I own here on earth to unlock the treasures of Heaven." I think it might be the other way around. Perhaps these are keys from Heaven that are meant to belong to locks here on Earth, and their purpose is for us to go out and find the corresponding locks.

In other words, there's something bound, imprisoned, and locked up on Earth, that God has assigned us to find, unlock and let free--not necessarily for any great treasure or reward on our part, but simply because it needs to be unbound so Heaven and Earth can intermingle and we can all experience God's Kingdom on Earth. It's an assignment that calls us to use not just our reason, skill, and intellect, but our faith and our desire to be a part of that kingdom ourselves. It requires us to go forth and find these locks for the glory of God, not for ourselves.

However, we should not see it as martyrdom, but rather an amazing display of trust.

I think about how hesitant I am to give up my truck keys or my house keys. I am more than happy to give someone a spare set of my keys, but when it comes to my keys--the ones I carry around in my pocket--I really truly hate for the person to get out of eye-shot. What if they forget? What if they get in an accident? How will I open my home? How will I drive my truck? If I so much as misplace them in my own pocket I freak out.

I know I am not the only one who feels that way. Some of the worst misunderstandings I have had with others, involved keys. Times when, despite my best efforts to be careful, I lost someone's keys because I had a hole in my pocket. Times when someone with dementia misplaced my keys and it was all I could do not to be angry. Times when I went out of my way to help find someone else' keys and ended up feeling somehow "accused of taking them." Times when I've accused others of taking my keys. Times when I thought I had given someone the "right" key, and they got to their destination only to find I had given them the "wrong" key, and there they were, stuck outside and angry. Times when I've dropped someone else's keys in the snow and can't find them (always a risk in NE Missouri in January!) Losing one's keys is almost always charged with raw, sharp emotion. So I realize giving up one's own keys is way different from giving up a spare.

In the context of this passage, these stories of my own life make me realize that these "Keys of the Kingdom" are the keys out of God's own pocket. Yet, we are allowed to keep them for God's service, and God not only "seems not to mind," but encourages us.

That level of trust, alone, should be enough for us to want to run out and joyfully search for their corresponding locks!

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Blog friend Klady has just recently suffered a hard drive crash. I offer this for her:

The Computer Owner's Creed

We believe in one Hard Drive,

the Motherboard, the Almighty,

maker of all that computes,

of all that is, online and offline.

We believe in one Operating System's Data,

whether Windows or Mac,

eternally begotten of the Univac,

Computer from Computer,
OS from OS,

true Computer from Computer,

begotten, not made,
 of one Being with our hard drive.

Through it all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

computers down from heaven:

by the power of the Internet

they became incarnate from the CPU chip,

and were made functional.

For our sake Data was crucified under power surges and viruses;

it suffered death and was buried.

On the third day it rose again

in accordance with recovery software;

it ascended into heaven

and is seated in our replacement laptops.

It will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and its kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Backup Hard Drive Data,
the Lord, the giver of life, 

who proceeds from the Hard Drive and the Data.

With the Hard Drive and the Data it is worshiped and glorified.

It has spoken through the Fire Wire.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Internet.

We acknowledge one backup for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the Hard Drive Data,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

(Niagara Falls at night, photo by Sujit Kumar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Psalm 17:3 (RSV)

Weigh my heart, summon me by night, melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.

I don't often choose the RSV over the NRSV, but the RSV version of this verse in the Psalm seems to have a more powerful imagery of this phenomenon.

Have you ever had one of those nights, when it seems like the minute you put your head on the bed pillow, that the events that you've been walking through during the day seem to rush through your head in a torrent, just like Niagara Falls?

Yeah, I thought you had. Me too.

Our tendency is to fear those torrents of thoughts. After all, a quick Google search on "racing thoughts at night" would show that this is very quickly identified as one of the symptoms of anxiety, that it can be one of the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, can precipitate panic attacks, to one of the signs of schizophrenia. Quite honestly, there are medical reasons to fear them, and when one finds him or herself troubled by racing thoughts at night constantly or frequently, one should seek the help of a medical or mental health professional.

However, when this happens once in a while, or in response to a situation, and we know that it is situational or temporary, we probably shouldn't fear them as much as we often do. What we are probably experiencing are simply compulsive thoughts that are rooted in one of those three things that so often separate us from the light of God--shame, guilt, fear. St. Maximus the Confessor calls these "the passions," but he is not using passion in the same way you and I use it in the modern sense. We tend to think of "passion" as a virtuous thing, the thing that deep love awakens. His use of the word refers more to compulsive thoughts that sidetrack us and create repetitive loops that paralyze us. So when we talk about the "passions" in the philosophical sense, it is not quite a one-to-one correlate. To deal with that disconnect, I will use words like "compulsions" and "compulsive thoughts" instead.

What if, when those torrents of nighttime thoughts came over us, we started by simply recognizing that compulsive thoughts come to the forefront when the bulk of our mind is at rest?

We spend our waking days working, doing, solving, and attending to the cares of our lives--our jobs, our families, our friends, our personal needs. At bedtime, when our activities of the evening are over, the only thing we attend to is our physical need for sleep. Our natural rhythms are converting from "movement" to "rest." So it's quite understandable why these thoughts bubble up. There's nothing to distract us. Because of the "repetitive loop-like nature" of compulsions, what can start as a ripple on a calm pond can begin to seem like a river, a raging ocean, or a waterfall, and suddenly our focus changes from shrugging off getting a wet hand or foot to feeling like we are suddenly plunging in a barrel over the heart of Niagara Falls, to be dashed to our messy deaths by the rocks at its base.

What if, instead of seeing these compulsions as "oppositional forces to our sleep," we recognized them as something within ourselves where a thought somehow got amalgamated into the deep hooks in our soul that recognize fear, shame, or guilt?

I think time and time again about how one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings is illustrated in a rather obscure part of the Genesis creation story--the ability to give things names. One of the first tasks Adam gets from God in that story is to name all the animals. Sometimes I like to think silly things like "How does one figure out to call a possum a possum?" when I reflect on that story. But other times I think about it in a much deeper way. My ability to name things also allows me to be open to what something truly is, at its essential level, and rule out what it is NOT.

St. Maximus saw our compulsions as an aspect of sin, in that misuse of God's good creation is taking place. When we fall prey to our compulsive thoughts, they prevent us from engaging in the ongoing work of loving God and being followers of Christ by example. He talks about how we can overcome our compulsions by "separating the thought from the compulsion." One of the ways we can do that, I imagine, is by naming which one of the "big three"--fear, shame, our guilt--is "behind" the compulsion. That's simply a matter of coming to God with our own sins in the situation. Sometimes for me, that is simply acknowledging that the situation is one in which I have no control, and accept my powerlessness in it. It can be something as basic as actively choosing serenity over a desire to control--it doesn't have to be some big looming transgression.

When we give these compulsions names, we often discover that once they are separated from our thoughts--our thoughts to seek and serve God in a most holy way--it turns out we were not headed down Niagara in a barrel to our doom, but were sitting in a john boat on a lazy river. Not always, of course, but more than we might have thought at the time.

This is also where the knowledge of the prayers of others can be a comfort. Of course, many of us have no problem praying for others, but asking for the prayers of others on our behalf may feel "selfish" or praying for ourselves seems self-centered. Honestly, I am just terrible at asking for prayers for myself. It feels a bit manipulative. Over time, I've gotten a little better at it, but I'm not great at it. But I have come to realize lately that prayer is an ongoing, living, breathing hand of God all its own.

We conceptualize that concept in the Episcopal church through the Prayers of the People. The book of Common Prayer has a rubric that, during the Prayers of the People:

"Prayer is offered with intercession for:

The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble
The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate.)"

That, by example, swings a pretty wide net.

Now, I don't think we do this because if we insert prayer concern A into tab B, in precisely this way, something magically happens. I think we do this to illustrate the breadth and depth of this "net of prayer."

But what it means when we are lying on our beds with those thoughts racing through our minds that seem on the verge of sweeping us away, is to remind us that we are held safely in this net of prayer, cast by a God who will not allow us to become hopelessly enmeshed in it, even in our physical sickness and death. It can help us, as we hear in Psalm 4, to hear God speak to our hearts in silence upon our beds.

(The Lord's Prayer, Pater Noster Chapel, Jerusalem, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

--The Lord's Prayer, p.97, Book of Common Prayer

"…we can attain to the unitive knowledge of God only when we become in some measure God-like, only when we permit God's kingdom to come by making our own creaturely kingdom go."
--Aldous Huxley

Every once in a while, I look at things that have been relegated to the world of "religious kitsch."

Like Psalm 23, The Lord's Prayer is one of those things. It shows up twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, and they are not identical. We don't do much better. Protestants tack on the Doxology (the last two lines); Roman Catholics and Orthodox don't, and Episcopalians do most of the time, but with exceptions in things like The Great Litany. I always remember the time we did a joint service with the Presbyterians, and you could tell who's who because we said "trespasses" and the Presbys said "debts."

Really, the purpose of the Lord's Prayer was as a showroom demo. In both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, Jesus used it as a model of how to pray--the first Christian prayer rubric, as it were. Yet we use it AS a prayer in its own right.

When we look at it in an interlinear translation of Koíne Greek, it's far less flowery and far more confusing:

Father of us (the one) in the heavens;
Let be sanctified the name of you.
Let come the kingdom of you,
Let take place the will of you,
As in heaven also upon earth.
The bread of us for (the day) being give to us today;
And let go off of us the debts of us,
As also we have let go off to the debtors of us;
And not should you bring us into temptation,
But rescue us from the wicked (one.)

I blogged about a year ago about the cryptic issues with that "bread of the day" and the Greek word epiousion; you can read it here. But this post is more about that business of "thy kingdom come," or perhaps more accurately, "Let come the kingdom of you, God."

Here's my radical proposal:

Is it possible that elusive thing we call "God's kingdom" is actually already right in front of our noses, but veiled by that thing we know as our own ego?

We grow up thinking "Heaven's up there, and we're down here." I think it's probably because since the first thinking human looked up at the night sky, and could not wrap his or her head around its vastness, we humans have been prone to thinking that God is far away from us, in a vast place. Add to it the fact that this tired old world has plenty of broken-ness in plain sight--both human broken-ness and the broken-ness of natural disasters, disease, etc. There are plenty of things around us that scream "premature death." It's hard to imagine anything of God coexisting in that mess.

But, sci-fi geek that I am, many years ago, I started postulating the possibility that our temporal lives are merely a cloaking device--that we actually live them in a physical world that physically coexists in the middle of that place we call "Heaven," and the moment of our deaths is more like an unveiling, or a curtain rising on a new act of a play. I like the notion that sort of tag-teams with the Jesuit notion that "at the moment of death, all is revealed"--that the shell of our broken battered physical and temporal selves shatters and we expand into the vast majesty of all that we conceptualize as "Heaven."

The father of osteopathic medicine, A.T. Still, once postulated a century or so before me that our human selves are like eggs in an incubator, being prepared to "hatch" into our full selves--a rather agrarian version of what I like to imagine.

So what if, possibly, we are sitting smack dab in the middle of "God's kingdom" already, and when we are asking for its coming, we are really asking to see what is already in front of us? To tag-team on our friend Aldous Huxley's quote above, what if the key to seeing God's kingdom is to let go of our kingdom? What happens when we let go of our security blankets, our stashes and hoards of creature comforts over and above what we really need to live in this world, and become better stewards of our money, our throwaways, our "stuff?" What happens when we recycle, or buy only what we need, or use Earth-friendly products? What do we see of God's when we give up a tithe of our money to our church? In whose face do we see the face of God when we tithe our time to feed the hungry, minister to the sick, or visit the incarcerated? What do others see when they see our attempts to live God-centered lives?

What if all these things we do to both respect God's creation and each other punch little holes in that temporal, physical veneer that covers us? When is the last time you got a sneak peek at God's kingdom? In what setting was it? What happened? Sit with it. What did you see? How was the light of God manifested? These are questions each of us can only answer for ourselves, with God's help.

I encourage you to spend some time pondering these things. My guess is they will reveal the parts of our own kingdoms that need a dose of "letting go."

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

--3rd verse, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," Martin Luther

Some of you on this blog know that, despite my complete and utter joy in finding the Episcopal Church, there are times that the little Martin Luther that sits upon my shoulder whispers in my ear and reminds me of my Lutheran upbringing.

Well, I have to admit that when I read this post by Sarcastic Lutheran, that little Martin Luther on my shoulder started whispering in my ear, "Now don't forget--you know in your heart you love to shout down evil--and that it has value."

Now, I'm going to be up front--I really don't believe in "the devil" in terms of an evil hobgoblin hiding behind lampposts who skulks around actively trying to trip me up. Personally, I believe what Luther and many others call "the devil" is composed of the darkness between our own two ears--those little thoughts that prey upon our minds and make us feel less than a complete and beautiful created child of God.

But I do believe the individual darkness in each of us can coalesce into things such as the tragedy in Tuscon--and in that sense, that collective darkness becomes a force...the force we know as "evil."

I have been slow to respond to the main story in the news from a week ago--the gunning down of people at a political town hall meeting--simply because it takes time for me to process "darkness." Pondering darkness is not easy for me, because I hear the noise it makes as it tries to suck us into it.

Until Sarcastic Lutheran reminded me I have the tools to shout down evil, I was feeling too powerless to respond. But now, being reminded of a slice of the church of my childhood, I feel strong enough to stand up to it. Not because I, myself, am so big and strong and imposing, but because I have been reminded of the power greater than me in my own baptism.

Ultimately, that force we know as "evil" resides most prominently in those two little letters i-f. As Sarcastic Lutheran points out in her sermon, when we read the Gospel stories of Jesus being tempted, Satan throws that if word around..."If you are the Son of God, well, then, do this, that, and the other." Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, would have been just as susceptible as the rest of us in the power of that word if to cast doubt in our hearts. If, as tiny a word as it is, has the power to cut to the marrow of any of our beliefs.

The word if, I believe, is the word that leads people into becoming atheists and agnostics. I have many friends who simply don't believe in God. So many times when they explain it, their explanation is framed in terms of the broken-ness of the world..."If there really was a God, why do good people die in floods/mean people get away with things/serial killers exist/good people get cancer, etc. etc. etc."

Well, and when you come right down to it, what I hear them saying, is something very heartfelt: "This is the God of my understanding/the God that I've been taught about/the God that got crammed down my throat, and that God really disappoints me. I can't believe in a God like that. So I'd rather just not believe or not deal with it."

I've never understood why the statements of non-belief of atheists, or doubt by agnostics, gets some Christians angry to the point of being incensed. That statement above is one that Christians should feel true compassion when they hear it, because it's a statement that the word if generated. We should feel love and compassion for those statements, because they are based in a very accurate observation that a force of darkness does exist in the world.

What I've seen as a result of the Tuscon tragedy is something similar to post 9/11, but from the other end of the political spectrum...a call to once again seriously look at gun violence in this country...a call to name domestic terrorism for what it is...hard conversations. Conversations that touch all the hot-button topics in each of us.

I think these conversations are so heated and so contentious, because they underscore the deepest ways in which we show where the word if has defeated us. Ultimately, if is manifested in our desire to control something we fear. Every single hot button political issue that we feel strongly about, is about our self-defeat that the word if generated. That's human nature, and it's never going to change. Our fear-based passions will always be there.

But here's a thought--what if we re-frame the power of if? What if we do take a page out of Martin Luther's playbook? Sarcastic Lutheran's sermon tells a story of when Martin Luther felt dogged by the darkness while holed up in a castle translating the Greek Bible into German. He wandered around the castle literally yelling at the darkness, "I AM BAPTIZED."

Notice the other two letter word here--AM. Not "was."

We are not talking about an "over and done" event, here.

We are talking about a continual work in progress that can be active all the days of our lives if we choose to let it be so. A power greater than us also has the power to re-frame if.

One of the things promised at our baptism, that we re-commit to every year when we renew this covenant, is to "persevere in resisting evil," and when we "fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord."

The prayer that is said over baptismal candidates asks "that all" (not just the one being baptized at the moment) "who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection."

We need to stop saying, "I was baptized," and start saying "I am baptized." We need to stop acting like it's all over and done with, and re-align our thinking to accept we are part of a constantly moving, growing, living thing..

Baptism is not stasis. It's moving, flowing, running water. I laugh at how we all fuss about "dunking vs. sprinkling." What I love about baptism in the Episcopal Church is how the priest pours water on the person's forehead and it runs down his or her head. Moving water.

That image that we are riding along together in moving water, has the power to resist evil. We cannot do it alone, but we can do it corporately.

We have the power to re-define if. It starts with changing our attitude from "I was baptized," to "I am baptized."

(Medieval tapestry dragon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected:
a huge lion coming slowly toward me.
And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night,
but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer.
I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon,
I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn't that kind of fear.
I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it -- if you can understand.
Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes.
And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn't any good because it told me to follow it."

"You mean it spoke?"

"I don't know. Now that you mention it, I don't think it did.
But it told me all the same. And I knew I'd have to do what it told me,
so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains.
And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went.
So at last when we came to the top of a mountain I'd never seen before and
on the top of this mountain there was a garden -
trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well. . . .

"Then the lion said -- but I don't know if it spoke --
'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws,
I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now.
So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.
And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt.
The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of
feeling the stuff peel off. You know -- if you've ever picked the scab
off a sore place. It hurts like billy -- oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."

"I know exactly what you mean," said Edmund.

"Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off -- just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt -- and there it was lying on the grass:
only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly-looking than the others had been.
And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.
Then he caught hold of me -- I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath
now that I'd no skin on -- and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything
but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I
started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.
And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again."

--From "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C.S. Lewis, one of the Narnia series, pp. 115-116

Matthew 3:13-17:

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

The reading from C.S. Lewis was the topic of my Theological Reflection last week in my online EfM class. We juxtaposed the story of Eustace Scrubb with the scene of Jesus' baptism in Matthew, the lectionary reading for that week.

Now, if you've never heard of Eustace Scrubb, here's the very very short version from the story above. He's a boy who's rather geeky and not very likable. Eustace discovers a hoard stashed away by a dragon, falls asleep, and awakens to find himself a dragon. This is not easy for him, there are some hard parts to this, but he actually does some good things as a dragon, things that the old Eustace would not have done, kindnesses that the old Eustace would not have shown.

But when it comes time for the Dawn Treader to leave, there's no room for a dragon.

As it turns out, Eustace meets the talking lion Asian, who changes him back to a boy. Now, as it turns out, Eustace is improved, but he's still annoying. The rest of the Narnia series follows that along.

Years ago, I read the Narnia series. Most 13-year olds do. I never really became a Narnia-phile. I never really developed any huge love for C.S. Lewis, either, unlike some of my more fundamentalist friends. Honestly, a lot of Lewis' spirituality doesn't hook me.

But revisiting this story had some lessons just the same.

All of us, at one time or another in our lives, had to be "a bit of a dragon" to accomplish something. Maybe it was to follow a career path. Perhaps it was to have the strength to deal with a family crisis. Sometimes it involves leaving abusive situations, changing jobs for less money but more happiness, breaking the grip of addictions, or any situation that requires fortitude.

Like Eustace, there may well have been some good deeds emerge from those changes.

But then as a result of those changes, we no longer "fit" in that skin. We grow, and change, and mature. But we feel locked into our old skin, and it takes the hands of others to help extricate us.

This is what the business of spiritual transformation is all about.

Like Eustace, somewhere we had to fall asleep on that dragon's hoard. We slept through the things that created the dragon skin, and the new skin is numb to some things. But when it is time to shed that skin, again, like Eustace, we are awake and in the present moment. We don't get the luxury of sleeping through it like we did the formation of the dragon skin.

Even in our transformations back to "more human," again, there is a lesson from Eustace. He is still "annoying, difficult Eustace" in some ways after becoming a boy again. Just not all of them. Even in our new skin, there will be parts of us that are "same ol', same ol'"--but we will have new opportunities to react differently to it.

So, how does this fit in with Jesus' baptism? He, being fully divine as well as fully human, couldn't be much of a "dragon," now, could he?

I thought about that in terms of a Facebook conversation I had the other day. A Presbyterian minister friend was teasing me in terms of having "pathology" as a calling and "ministry" as a calling, and how do the two possibly meet? We got to discussing how the "fully human" parts of Jesus still would be susceptible to colds and flu, vomiting and diarrhea, indigestion and gas. He might have been able to handle the emotional parts better than we mere mortals, but he still had them.

So in that sense, simply consenting to our own humanity in the form of "God in a human body" had to be a unique dragon skin all its own. So, I think, in that sense, Jesus probably needed baptism as much as we do. His "dragon skin" had to be shed, perhaps, for him to fully embrace all the aspects of the ministry on which he was about to embark. He consented to be one of us in baptism just as we consent to be united with him in Baptism.

At that moment, our relationship with God became commensal instead of parasitic.

Our relationship with God got redefined in a new covenant, where the Great Commandment moved ahead of the Ten Commandments. I always like to imagine the Old Covenant was the other way around--"Keep my laws and you will discover how to love one another." The New Covenant became, "Love one another, and you'll find my laws easier to accept."

I talked a little in an earlier post about the "memory" part of "we celebrate the memorial of our redemption" in Eucharistic prayer A. This business of shedding our dragon skins, initially painful as it is, is about that word "redemption" in that prayer--and honestly, that redemption can be "perfectly delicious" if we allow ourselves to feel it.

("The Wedding at Cana, Taddeo Zucarro, from the Bowyer Bible, 1616, from Wikimedia Commons)
John 2: 1-11:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The story of "The Wedding at Cana" is always a fun one for imagining all the characters. In fact, it's one St. Ignatius used in his Spiritual Exercises, and it's often one of the first ones participants do in the 30 day Ignatian Retreat. The servants' points of view in this story are priceless.

I'm sure in the beginning, as they filled the six water jars, their thought was, "This guy is nuts! He's nuts, his mother is nuts, the whole family is nuts!" But they did what they were told, because, after all, they were servants, and after all, Mary and Jesus were guests at the wedding, and their job was "serve the guests." Do what the guests tell you. Don't argue with the guests. Don't offend the guests. Chances are, the servants did this act with an attitude. Perhaps some of them thought these two guests were messing with them. Perhaps they were already anticipating bringing these water jugs to the steward and having the steward chew them out for bringing jugs of water when they were out of wine, and being played for idiots.

But somewhere in carrying these jugs over--perhaps one sloshed over a bit--one of them noticed, "Hey, there's wine in there!"

No doubt they tasted the wine before they brought it to the steward (after all, if you just had your water jug turned into a jug of wine, wouldn't you taste it?) and already realized what the steward soon discovered--that it wasn't just wine, but good wine.

Somewhere in the middle of the action of serving--and quite frankly, in this story, serving in a very mundane way, and very possibly, serving with a bad attitude--came the miracle. More than likely no one noticed it at the moment it happened, but in my mind, it probably became noticed when some of it simply spilled over in the act of carrying the jugs.

The Greek word for "servant" in this text is "diakonos"--what we would now translate as deacon, and what we in the Episcopal Church generally see as an ordained call. Our Book of Common Prayer says that the deacon is to "make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you life, and work, and worship." The deacon is to "interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world." The deacon's life and teaching is to "show Christ's people that in serving the helpless, they are serving Christ himself."

But our "deacons" in our text are far from "ordained." They might very likely had been slaves, or indentured servants, or day wage workers. They're pretty ordinary, actually, and their job is basically to schlep stuff. They are being called upon to do the most menial of tasks--but in the middle of this incredibly menial task of schlepping jugs of water, the water is turned to good wine.

This story is a reminder that it is within our servitude in which grace flows and abounds. There's a miracle that can occur in the middle of our serving God through serving others that happens independently of our attitude about it. We are freed from the burden of stressing over whether we have a good or a bad attitude about it--what a deal! The only requirement is that we remain aware. The only problem with "bad attitude" is it does close us down somewhat to that awareness. But miracles, being miracles, have a tendency to slop over the rims of the jars in which they occur, because miracles don't seem to have a need to stay within boundaries.

Furthermore, we don't have to feel a call to be an ordained deacon to have a diaconal ministry. The "ministry of the baptized" comes with prepackaged priestly and diaconal ministries. I have always found it useful to sit with both the ordination vows in the BCP for priests and deacons and ask myself "what's out there where I can exercise these promises in my own life? I don't have to kneel in front of a bishop to do this."

So I invite you to simply read the story of the Wedding at Cana, and start by imagining yourself as the servant. Then sit with the ordination vows for deacon and simply ask these questions:

"Who are the helpless in the world I see around me? What is my interpretation of the needs, concerns, and hopes within this world? How can I best serve Christ by serving them at this time in my life?"

Simply go inward and listen, then step outward. Happy trails!

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

"Listening to John forces you to experience the narrative more like a symphony than a book."--William Hamblin, "Introducing John"

It's not news to any of my usual blog readers that if you were to ask me to rank the Gospels in order of my "likes," it goes like this:

Mark (it's raw, uncut, full of naked emotion, and the chronologically closest Gospel to the actual events of the life of Jesus)
Luke (a very close second--I love the emphasis on healing, being a physician myself, and it's a wonderful "point-counterpoint" to the pathos in Mark)
Matthew (too "chattery"--I like the parables but there's just too much conversation in Matthew)
...and a very distant fourth...


Historically, John is just too much "out there in the ether" for me. I've always had a problem with the fact several stories in it are not in the Synoptic Gospels, and I've never liked the...well...attitude...Jesus seems to have in John. In the Synoptics, I feel like we are allowed more humanity to Jesus. I wonder to myself, "How much did Jesus really "get" that he was the Messiah? When did he figure it out? How did that feel to him?" I feel Jesus' stress about this more in the Synoptics. Jesus as portrayed in John is a bit of a know-it-all about it, and he's kinda haughty in spots about it. It's clear in John that Jesus is divine from the get-go, and the fact so many people in the stories don't get that he is, sticks out.

I've also never historically liked how some fundamentalists seem to treat John like it's a "Why you need to get saved," kit. I've heard it called "salvation in a box." Fundamentalists often treat John as a "larger" Gospel than the other three. But in all fairness, I think for one to embrace a more evangelical outlook, one needs a Jesus that is a little larger than life than the Synoptics can offer. So, I can be okay with that--for them. But not for me.

This was always a bone of contention between one of my former priests and me. He'd get all wide-eyed gooshy about John and I'd just sort of wrinkle up my nose and go, "Oh, there's just too much existential BS about John." Then he'd more or less pat me on the head and say, "Oh, well, John is a pastor's Gospel. Not so much a lay person's Gospel," which of course, my bruised ego, the part of my ego that likes to be the smartest pupil in the room, (Yeah, I admit to that little devil sitting on my shoulder), would interpret as, "You're just too dumb to get it, because you don't have my theological education," and my ears would burn...I would just clam up and scowl...and I liked John even less.

This year, in my EfM class, I had to go head to head with the Gospel of John for two weeks.

It was not a pretty two weeks.

But in a parallel universe to Hamblin's article and its suggestion, having always had the feeling John read like an epic Greek story rather than a more rabbinical, Talmudic-type story (as the synoptics tend to read), I asked myself, "I wonder if it's meant to be heard rather than read?" I thought to myself, "Maybe I am projecting a little in this dislike of this particular Gospel. Maybe I am reacting more to how I feel when people try to "save" me, and how I felt put down about not "getting" John

So I found a series of dramatic readings of John on YouTube. You can link to the first one here, and follow the links to the successive ones on the YouTube page.

So several hours later, when I had gotten through the dramatic readings, something had changed inside of me. I liken it to sticking a Jamshedi needle into the hip bone to get a bone marrow biopsy. Something about the dramatic readings--about hearing the Gospel of John rather than reading it--allowed my thick bony cortex of "attitude" about John to be breached and the marrow of it finally aspirated and put on slides so I could "see" what John was about.

Here's what I had missed from merely reading it:

1. I missed the message of hope in John. Hearing it caused a feeling of connection to worm its way into my heart--that there was nothing inside of me or any of us that was not capable of resurrection. I had been too busy staring at the characters like a train wreck.

2. Having just recently been to the theater to see the remake of True Grit, I was reminded how this remake of the Charles Portis novel is closer to the way the novel reads (I read it years ago.) One of the things that sticks out in the novel and the remake is that contractions are rarely used in the dialogue. This, of course, is nowhere near to "reality" of how people spoke in this time frame of American history. All of a sudden it dawned on me: The characters in Portis' novel take on a new sort of reality because they have been stripped of the reality of the language at the time. The Gospel of John takes on its own reality because we see a Jesus stripped of the encumbrance of his human reality, and see his divinity more clearly. What I had chalked up to an "unlikable attitude" was actually the reality of his divinity.

3. Finally, I came to a new notion of "The Beloved Disciple" (and possibly a slightly heretical one at that.)

It is this third point on which I wish to expand a little more.

So much commentary has already been written on "Who was The Beloved Disciple," and most of it eventually is most suggestive that it was John himself, whether that's really true or not. Hamblin makes some points in his article about why it may not be John. But our "default mechanism" is that it was John, and John was more or less trying to be modest.


What if...

What if the author (or authors) of John, whomever they may be, kept the identity of this beloved disciple vague for an entirely different reason?

What if the identity of this disciple is hidden on purpose so we can think of ourselves as the Beloved Disciple?

Think about this one a spell.

When we attend worship, in some ways we tend to think about how we are bringing our most human parts to be in the presence of God, but we are also bringing that spark of our divinity along for the ride. We tend to ignore our own divine sparks, but rather, connect to the corporate-sized divine spark we see in the worship process. Our humanity tends to blind our own divinity, and in some settings of Christianity, we are told to even consider our own divinity is a bad thing.

Well, no.

It's only bad if we revere IT more than God himself. The sin is in disconnecting it from the rest of divine Creation.

One of the things I have learned as a lay worship leader is to never undercut the presence of people bringing their most holy selves to worship. That yes, I am leading the worship, but I am not the central focus point of the worship. God is. As the 12 step people say about the leaders of 12 step meetings, the leader is the "trusted servant."

But that piece of ourselves that we use to worship God, when we are worshiping in a group or in private, loves Jesus every bit as much as The Beloved Disciple did. We desire to connect to all that is Divine. In these moments, when it all seems to be working right, we truly feel that our sins have been forgiven. Yeah, we might step outside and feel them again, but there's no denying that feeling when we feel weightless in the presence of God rather than the usual weight of our sins on any random day.

So in that sense, I believe The Beloved Disciple is us.

Yeah, John is still my least favorite Gospel. I still have to work at "getting" John. But the gap between it and Matthew for me got a lot narrower.

(Keith Haring, "Radiant Baby" from his work, "Birth," 1986)

Psalm 34:5:

"Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed."

I was reminded of another funny phenomenon in the world of "collective memory" the other day.

A little background: One of the miraculous things that happened when I started becoming a piece of the life of Trinity-Kirksville is that I went from being a "don't go to church at all" person to one of the most regular churchgoers you ever did see. Honestly, I don't know how that happened. But it did.

What I've discovered, is people are simply so used to me being there, when they start telling stories about our shared life in the parish, their memory is that I was there...even when I wasn't.

In the space of the week, three different people have told a story about the parish in front of a group of people, where they started with "Well, you remember when we..." and went on to tell the story. Well, truth is, I wasn't there. There are times I actually was out of town and not at church. Not very many, but there are a few just the same.

But they were telling the story, and they were so happy and animated telling the story, and they didn't ask me to add anything to the story, so I decided, " correct say I wasn't there, sidetracks their story, and I am enjoying their story so much, as is everyone else...well...there's no point in interrupting the flow of this."

Once in a while, when it's just me and the other person, I will correct them, and when I do, they get this quizzical look and say, "Really? You weren't? That's funny. I remember you there. I could swear you were there."

This has been both a source of amusement and a source of comfort to me. I have come to accept that people just sort of have this collective memory of events in our parish, where I am included as a "fixture," just like the pews or the altar or the holy hardware. It has made me realize that even if I suddenly dropped dead, there is a presence, an "aura" that is me, and it would live on for some time in the collective memory of the parish, as long as there is someone who remembers the story. Whether I was there or not at a specific function is irrelevant. Even if no one remembered anymore, I'm still there.

Sometimes when I am alone in our sanctuary, I look at the walls and say to myself, "Old girl (my nickname for the building,) who's stuck on these walls that I don't know, but they talk to me through the Holy Spirit? What prayers were uttered here decades ago that link to mine? Would I feel I "know" those people? Will I recognize them in Heaven? I sure hope so. Open me up to them, Lord. Let me hear them through you, if there's something I need to hear from them."

That became a comfort to me at a time when I was feeling pretty unsure and down about my presence in the parish. There have been times, frankly, I wish I'd never set foot in it. But these times have been temporary, and they are almost always assuaged by thoughts of all the people who have sat in the pews since 1917 that I don't know, but they are part of my collective history. I get to thinking there has to be at least one of them who felt the way I do now.

This is what I get to thinking about when we hear both the story of the Nativity and the Epiphany.

We all have this collective memory of the Nativity and the Epiphany that has "three wise men." But do we really know there were three? We attribute it to three because we know they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We assume there is "one wise man per gift." The Gospel account of it in Matthew only says there were "wise men from the East." We believe there were three because every Nativity set we ever saw has three little figurines in it.

But really, for all I know, there could have been as few as two, or some unnamed number past three. There could have been even more gifts, we just know of three. But to get bogged down in the details detracts from the central focus of the story; namely, they traveled to see Jesus, and when they got there, they saw this radiant baby. They saw a light and a radiance so pure, the image stuck with them and it made them radiant. It made them want to give both the treasures of the world, and the treasure in their hearts to this baby. This radiance was carried out on their faces and for a time, they felt no shame, no guilt, no righteous justification, no fear. It was so good, they knew it could not be brought back to Herod; that it could induce jealousy and coveting, and could be their undoing, as well as the child's.

But the central theme of this story is simply to describe the light of this radiant baby. To obsess over the factual details of this truth detracts from the central truth in the same way my interrupting parish stories to insist I was or was not there at the time, detracts from that person transmitting the radiance of the story. The central theme of parish stories is to transmit the light of what is Trinity-Kirksville as an image of the light of God.

When you get right down to it, I do remember these parish moments where I wasn't physically present, because I remember the story tellers telling it. For instance, I was not at the ordination of our Priest Associate in 2006. But I remember it, because I heard some parts of her story as it happened for her, and I remember the stories of two different people in the same car who traveled to see it, and some adventures surrounding it. Their memories have become mine.

So in that sense, each of us is allowed ownership in remembering the Nativity, the Epiphany, the life of Christ, the trial, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection. When we hear, "We celebrate the memorial of our redemption," in Eucharistic Prayer A, we are allowed our own "memories" of it through our spiritual imagination.

Epiphany gives us the opportunity to tap into that collective memory of a journey that resulted in the glimpse of a radiant baby. Glimpses that changed lives and thoughts and hearts. Today, I simply invite you to look to that baby and be radiant.

(from the Hitda-Codex, 11th century, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

John 8: 3-11:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

The Gospel story of the woman who had been caught in adultery is one of the best known stories of the ministry of Jesus, and is one that has an over-used and sometimes misused quote that gets lost in its over-use: "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." (Let's face it, we tend to hear it in the King James Version language.)

But I've been thinking more lately about the story itself, in terms of "What if?"

I've always been amazed in that story that no one--not in a fit of pique, or in self-righteousness, or just to cause trouble--threw a rock. That little irreverent part of me remembers the old joke where this scene is played out: Jesus says the tag line, and suddenly from the back of the crowd a stone flies through the air and clobbers the woman upside the head.

"MOM!" Jesus yells. "Sometimes you really hack me off!"

Whatever Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger must have been a really effective piece of written communication. But we also have to remember when he wrote it, everyone at the scene also had full benefit of his demeanor, simultaneous verbal communication, his facial expressions, the tone of his voice, and his body language.

I shudder to think what might have happened had this all been left up to a group e-mail. I'm pretty sure an e-mail rock would have been tossed, and when it was all said and done, it would have gone viral and the woman would have been lying there dead as a doornail.

Jesus managed to keep a potentially explosive crowd under control--that time. However, when we get to Holy Week, we see how the crowd mentality can go haywire.

I've had some interesting musings in the last couple of weeks about "the power of mis-communication," in terms of the now-firmly-entrenched-and-here-to-stay world of e-mail and social networking, combined with some recent experiences with anonymity. They were situations where I realized the world of "instant communication" is a two-edged sword, and how the bottom line is this: To communicate with intention often takes time--but our expectation in the electronic world is for an instant answer.

It caused me to re-think some things about my own self-perceptions of my ability to effectively communicate, and how the magic of electronic communication is a two-edged sword.

I'm going to go a little "shaggy dog" here, but bear with me.

The thing that got me started thinking about this was a recent round of anonymous student evaluations. I'll be blunt--some were just downright nasty and demeaning, yet when they rated aspects of the course numerically, they were good. At first, I thought it was just me. But I really have not changed my style or demeanor or expectations of what I expect students to be responsible for in their own lives in the past decade. I've always pretty much been of the "Ultimately, you are responsible for your learning," school. I'm responsible for showing medical students HOW to get in a pattern of learning it, but I am not responsible for how much of it sticks in their brains. That may not be what students like to hear, but there it is. I've always been the "mean" teacher at the beginning to them, but over the course of the year they usually soften on that stance and get that I was consistent with my boundaries between "your responsibility" and "my responsibility." But this year, there seemed to be no signs of some of them getting that. The comments oozed resentfulness, both with me, and with each other.

But I got to talking to one of my colleagues in another department, and discovered that department got blasted just as badly as mine did. We both agreed it was the most vitriolic set of evaluations we'd ever seen. We've pondered the duality of how people who are going to spend their careers allegedly showing compassion to others can be downright vicious when handed the cover of anonymity.

Then I got to pondering a weird pair of dual relationships I have on Facebook. One is with a friend I'm very close to in real life, and find an incredibly kind and caring person, yet this person is always hacking me off on Facebook for sounding flip and calloused in the comments. I've had to step in and back this person off of some of my other Facebook friends because these comments are often misunderstood by people who don't personally know this person. Yet in real life, we are talking about a funny, clever, helpful, go-the-extra-mile type of person.

Another Facebook friend is the polar opposite. It is a person I debated for a long time to accept or ignore the friend request. In real life, I find this annoying, opinionated know-it-all whose history has been to antagonize people I have to deal with on a daily basis. I had to step in and set some limits in my live-time life on how this person interacts with people whom I depend on their good will. But, as it turns out, this person is the epitome of utter charm and helpfulness on Facebook. My fears were unfounded. In fact, I wish I did not have to deal with this person in real life, and only on Facebook!

But it got me to pondering the duality of "the electronic relationship," vs. "the real life relationship." Two Facebook friends who seem like four separate people. Medical students who mostly speak to me with respect and courtesy, who go Jekyll and Hide on people when given the cover of anonymity.

A little bit of Googling got me this article on an aspect of "the psychology of cyberspace." It's an old article--1998, revised in 2003--but it has some very valid points and I invite you to read it when you have some time to digest it.

What it taught me was the tag line of our Gospel story--"Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone."

I came to realize three big things in the way I tend to use electronic communication:

1. I had recognized that others do some degree of transference in the fact I tend to keep work and play separate in my e-mails, with a work account and a personal account, and try to clarify things to minimize that, including setting rigid boundaries on what goes on with my work account, but I did not realize I do some transference based on other's lack of response to me.

I tell medical students, "I don't check my school e-mail on weekends, I don't answer questions about the test from 48 hours prior to the exam up to the exam, and I don't respond to Facebook messages that are thinly disguised trolls for what's on the exam." I tell them that because this generation tends to expect me to drop everything and answer them instantly, and they don't really see how easily they can blur the boundary between my work life and my personal life.

But what I did not realize is why other people's e-mails with "no subject" put my teeth on edge. I have come to realize I tend to let "no subject" e-mails intrude into my life, because I don't know what they want. Is it important or urgent? Or is it just small stuff? Then when I open it, worried it's "important," and it's not, I get irked. I also realized that although I don't do the "no subject" thing, my mind gets to rambling, and I tend to stray from the subject--sometimes repeatedly in the same e-mail. So it's possible others think I am slipping one in on them, with a subject that turns out not to be the bulk of the e-mail.

I also did not realize how deeply, when I am feeling hurt, angry, lonely, or tired, I can tend to transfer a delayed response to an e-mail as "They're ignoring me" (when in reality they're busy or maybe haven't even seen it) or perceive a terse answer as a curt answer, when maybe they were just being terse because they're busy, or it's 2 a.m., or they're distracted.

2. I tend to use e-mail more than the phone partially because I desire to let the other person deal with something at their convenience rather than interrupting them, partially because I am projecting my dislike of being interrupted by the phone, and paritally because I am insecure about my spoken language skills--but sometimes that gets mis-interpreted as "I am being evasive."

This probably has more to do with my compulsive nature. I tend to get frustrated when I am interrupted "in the middle of something" by the phone. Two decades of frequently being "on call" also have trained me to be somewhat resentful if the phone interruption is not work-related. Like Pavlov's dogs, I have been trained to have that adrenalin rush when I am on call and the phone rings. Coming down off that rush when the interruption is not urgent has a certain amount of strain with it. I am so resentful of being interrupted by the phone, I tend to project others will have that same irritation. So I tend to prefer to let the other person answer me in a way that is at their convenience.

But that begs another question: If it wasn't important enough for me to call that person, was the e-mail that important? Well...sometimes yes, sometimes no. But maybe I ought to self-filter the "no's."

3. I tend to over-divulge and over-explain in e-mails when something feels uncertain, or when the recipient's feelings or opinions are not totally "readable" because I know the other person can't see me--which can be over-interpreted as a level of distress or unease above my actual level, and then I get in trouble for "crying wolf."

That might have been the most bitter pill of all to have to swallow in this whole pondering.

I tend to lack self-esteem about my ability to communicate certain feelings "in person." I have a tendency in spoken conversation to simply resort to profanity when I feel frustrated or can't immediately put a name on an emotion. When I am unsure or uneasy, I tend to come off as "angry" in my speech when I'm not. I tend to say nothing when I am not sure "what the appropriate response" is and my silence is sometimes interpreted as resistance or defiance when in reality it's "fear of saying the thing that will make a tense conversation worse." I had several nervous tics as a child and tense conversations bring them out.

So to accept the possibility I can be mis-interpreted just as badly in my written communication floored me. I was kind of indignant about it, actually. "What do you mean?" I thought. "I make a living transmitting written information through a pathology report--and I'm good at it. I blog and people connect with it." But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized I'm not as effective with written words as my ego wanted me to think I was--and I have strings of communication failures to show for it, involving a variety of people.

But ok...back to where this is in terms of our Gospel story.

Jesus averted a tragedy for this woman because he communicated the presence of God in a way that was effective because he communicated with intent--both in his words and in whatever mysterious thing he wrote in the dirt. How often do we "communicate with intent?" Or do we just "communicate for the sake of making noise," and let whatever is communicated, unintentionally blow where it may?

Although I've focused on electronic communication pitfalls, the messages we speak can also be unintentional and misread no matter what the medium. What can result is a "duality" in how we engage the world. As children of God, it should be unity that is our goal, not duality--that the person who engages various aspects of the world is the same person who engages God. We have to be the person in the story who is reminded "go, and sin no more"--not the person who is itching to throw the rock. Before we complain about the duality of how others communicate with us, we need to consider the duality of our own communication with others.

We have been given the gift of the most powerful and instantaneous two way communication that has so permeated the culture, a generation ago the possibility was unthinkable. It gives us the choice to read AND respond. But do we act with intention when we use it, or do we react unintentionally with it? In what ways do we honor our Baptismal Covenant with it, and in what ways do we misuse God's good creation with it? Are we using it to love our neighbor as ourselves, or are we using it to be one up on our neighbor? Are we using it to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ through our lives and actions, or are we using it to separate people from it unintentionally? Are we using it to affirm the dignity of others, or are we using it to save our own dignity at the expense of others?

I have never been one for "New Year Resolutions," but I am one for "new goals." I have decided for myself this year that an admirable goal for me would be to "communicate with intention, not with reaction." Intention takes time, and it's important to remember that just because the technology is instantaneous, it does not demand that my response be instantaneous. Will I actually "go and sin no more?" Nah. I'm human. But can we endeavor to try? As we say in our Baptismal vows, "We will, with God's help."

(Statue of St. John mourning the death of Christ, Sépulcre Arc-en-Barrois, St. Martin Church, Haute-Marne, France, 1672, from Wikimedia Commons)

Isaiah 25:8:

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.

This one verse from the Daily Office reading from Dec. 30 is worth a post of its own.

Now, this is Christmas, right? So what's up with a post about "tears?"

After I had read and posted my previous post, I could not totally let go of the reading. This verse kept jumping out. What stuck out in my brain was this:

We're being told here that God will wipe the tears away from our faces. We're NOT being told, "Don't cry." We're not being told that life with the Almighty God is so perfect there will be no cause for tears.

Then another thought slammed into my head like a brick:

The lack of tears in situations that ought to produce them--whether it's tears of sorrow or tears of joy--in any normal person is also a type of separation from God. It's a lack of willingness to turn our wills over to God and trust that God truly does have a Cosmic Kleenex quality, and can wipe them away and clear our eyes.

One of the things that has really hit home for me in the recent discussion about the bullying of children in this country is that time and time again, those who grew up and got past the bullying often tell a story about themselves that go like this:

"I used to go home and cry myself to sleep every night. Then one night, I just stopped crying."

I've heard that line used by abused spouses, and every sort of recovering "adult something or another."

It reminded me how many people trade certain emotions for emotional numbness as a survival skill. It wasn't wrong to do it. At the time whatever was happening in their lives was going on, oftentimes it was the numbness that allowed them to grow beyond themselves. But there's always Newton's Law, you know. For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction to having to use emotional numbness to survive is an inability to feel those emotions again without pain--and it's hard for that person to decide whether to choose to close off from it or try to accept to feel it again, even though it's painful.

I thought of my post from a while back where I recalled the times in my life I had "stopped singing." I think for a lot of folks, there are places where we stopped crying, too.

Truthfully, I have a very uneasy relationship with tears, myself. We get so many messages in life that say, "Don't cry." Children learn early on whether tears are positive or negative currency in family relationships. Boys and girls get very different messages about tears in some families. Some cultures are more emotionally labile while others are more stoic. Those of us who had relatives who survived the Depression often heard some variant of "Crying never solved anything. It doesn't put food on the table, so what's the point?" growing up.

Sometimes, in some families, the messages get mixed. Children who were told in various ways, "Don't cry," sometimes grow up to become adults who then end up somehow being in trouble for not crying as adults. On one hand, they are expected to be the "strong" one, the "tough" one, but then get blasted in different family and extended family interactions for being the "cold" one and the "hard" one. There are so many lose-lose situations that revolve around "not crying."

Society sends mixed messages, too. It's suddenly now chic for male Republican politicians and conservative talk show hosts to cry publicly; but it's never been cool for female Democratic politicians and liberal pundits to cry.

The reverse can also be true. People who learn for various reasons that "crying gets results" in their circle, can learn to manipulate with tears. They can create barriers that keep others from broaching the hard topics--after all, who wants to bring up something that will make the other person cry?

There's also an uneasy dynamic between people who cry at the drop of a hat and the stoic. The stoic tends to feel resentful of the person who cries easily--that somehow the crier is allowed to "be weak" when the stoic person feels he or she cannot be "weak." The person who cries easily feels the stoic is unsympathetic, hard-hearted, or cold.

Honestly, one of my life lessons has been three simple words--"Tears just are."

Think about the things our faces do, that most of the time, we display freely. We smile. We frown. We wink. We roll our eyes. Only in the most socially awkward or pathological instances do we withhold the bulk of human facial expressions. Yet we often struggle against crying, or against crying in front of some people, like it's not a normal human response to fear or despair or joy or relief.

But there's the key word--response. The fact of the matter is, where there are tears or when we are standing at the brink of tears, the tears themselves are not the central focus. There's something behind the tears that is screaming to be heard.

Tears are just one response to an intense feeling. That's all they are. Just as screaming a four letter word is a response to hitting your thumb with a hammer, or jumping backwards is a response to being startled. The lack of them is not a blue ribbon testimony to one's iron will, nor is the presence of them proof of one's love or grief.

In my own case, I've come to the conclusion that when I feel like crying, and hold tears back or swallow them, it's a statement that I am unwilling in that moment to give up control--and in my own case, refusing to relinquish control is a common way I self-separate from God's love. I am saying in my dry-eyed state that I can't even trust God to wipe my face!

The first time I thought about it in that fashion, I stopped and asked myself, "Do I trust God to have enough kindness and good sense to wipe my face if I needed it?" My answer to myself was, "Well, duh, yeah."

That thought changed my attitude. Mind you, I didn't turn into the grand champion of blubbering--I still have issues totally "crying things out to the end"--but being able to think of it in terms of having a loving God who is perfectly capable of wiping my face with his hand, or his sleeve, or his shirt tail became a gift. It allowed me to at least entertain the possibility of being able to cry and not have the world come apart at the seams.

All of our emotions are a gift of creation--they are part of our humanity. We probably only get to enjoy them in the form we have them in the time we have been allotted on Earth. I've decided it would be a shame to squander such a gift.



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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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