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

(Home Icon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
(This post originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, September 28, 2011)

If someone were to ask me to sum up the entire theme of the Bible in a single sentence, my answer would be, "The Bible is a story of humanity constantly searching for a place with God that they can call home."  We see the non-permeability of "home" for the Hebrew people and their need to create a home with God despite being slaves in Egypt and aliens in Babylon.  We see Jesus trying to bridge our physical and spiritual home through his life, death, burial and resurrection.  We see the tension of "families" working out their homes in the early church through the Epistles.  We hear the promises of home in the Psalms and assurance, particularly in Psalm 84, that we sparrows will find a nest with God.  The Bible is about finding home when home seems most elusive, and not as a luxury--we are called to find it.  Our Anglican theology, particularly in the words of Eucharistic Prayer C, reminds us that God calls us again and again to this place called "home."

Until very recently, I hadn't really thought much about how we re-enact that journey on the Internet.  What does it really mean to get on one's computer, open our browsers, and click on a button called "Home?"  What are we looking for?  What do we expect?  What seems to be expected of us? 

The recent changes in Facebook, and my friends' various reactions to it, created some interesting windows through which to view the reality of "home."  Notice I am not saying "cyber-home," or "virtual home."  We have moved to a place in our ability to incorporate connectivity to each other in a way that the Internet has become an extension of our body, albeit a less-than-fully-functional one.

I've mostly found myself more irritated than incensed about the various rounds of Facebook changes and find the people angry enough to want to leave Facebook somewhat bewildering.  Yet, I empathize with their anger, hurt, and frustration.  But what has been more illustrative to me is I believe I am getting glimpses in how each of us sees that elusive thing called "home" differently.

I am a tail end baby boomer.  I did not grow up with the Internet.  When I first discovered it, it was not a home at all--it was a mysterious foreign land that I felt called to strike out and explore.  We were pathfinders and explorers then, and having a computer in our homes carried some degree of being electronically and mechanically facile.  We preferred using handles to using our real names, and it felt exotic and cutting edge.  We were explorers, pathfinders, and risk takers--and yes, we did our share of sinning along the way.  (Literally, the day Napster came out, I had filled an entire outboard hard drive full of music.)  I've certainly had to come to grips with my own forms of Internet repentance.  There were a lot of things we did back then that we suspected weren't quite kosher, but until someone told us "no" we were not going to worry much about it. 

For me, in some ways, now that the Internet is pretty much a utility, like our light bill and phone, and social networking has created a living room within our living room, I feel a little bit like Jeremiah Johnson, the fur all trapped out, and the wagon trains becoming settlements, knowing a certain way of life I enjoyed was over.  Civilization came to the Internet.  Like the Wild West, we are in a place where the boundaries and rules are still being worked out.  Yet I have also lived here in the Internet long enough that I have experience and knowledge in what used to be foreign territory, and perhaps understand its nature of "home" in a unique way.  My own Facebook wall has seemed to become this safe and mostly welcoming place where people talk and interact and make new friends with each other--I only provide the context, the hospitality.  Dare I say "I am in the world but not of it?"

In short, my Facebook wall has become, for me and my online community, not so much my private home, but an abbey, and it's clear I am the Abbess.  I don't seem to go looking for people, they come looking for me.  It's the atmosphere and the company that people look for on my wall, and I am not so worried about the "furniture," i.e. the platform that drives the engine of Facebook.

Likewise, my physical home is in the midst of a remodeling project that has taken eleven years for me to formulate "how I wish it to be."  Only three rooms of my house are physically liveable at the moment.  I spend a lot of time outside by my chiminea in the evenings.  Privacy becomes relative when contractors show up at 7:00 a.m. on a whim.  Finding contemplative space in my own home has become a priority.

It goes even deeper.  I've discovered through making timelines of my spiritual life for my online Education for Ministry class, that I grew up accepting that my physical home was a tumultuous and rather unstable place that could very easily be affected by job loss, death, divorce, alcohol, drugs, and personal despair.  Yet I became rooted--literally embedded--in the geography of northeast and north central Missouri.  I learned early on not to depend on people and a physical address to provide me a home.  "Home" had to be something bigger and more enduring--which is why my lifelong desire has been to seek a relationship with God.

It's interesting as I observe other people's reactions to Facebook's changes.  For some, changing the platform of Facebook has been literally like someone breaking into their house and rearranging the living room furniture.  For others, there's an immediate move to tighten down their privacy settings--to "hole up."  Some of the folks younger than me, who have always had social networking, and had come to Facebook from MySpace some time back, are simply eyeing Google+ as "the next place they'll move."  Still others grouse a bit, roll with it, and discover new things in their being faithful and staying put.  Frankly, there are about as many reactions to it as there are personality types--and we are all still trying to adjust to these changes "in community."

I have this sense that changes in Facebook mimic something we've never quite discovered in ourselves about how we feel about our physical homes.  Likewise, how we feel about changes in our family homes, our worship homes, and our work homes mimic something in our stories of finding our home in God's Realm.  Perhaps all these changes in social networking are simply an invitation to explore our relationship with God and our relationships in "God's social network"--both in our life and actions, and through the Bible as our Frequently Asked Questions site.  Perhaps that icon marked "Home," is not a home--but a gateway to one we never imagined.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--Collect, Proper 20, p.234, Book of Common Prayer

Now, I have to tell you a little story before I go on with the original story.  Blogger ate my original post last week.  That's what I get for giving it the title "Non-Anxious!" Of course, I can't remember all of the original, so now you get the reworked version.  I apologize I'm discussing the proper for the week, one week late.  But here we go...

The photo above is of my latest visitor to my chiminea.  I was sitting out by my fire and what should I notice but this little fellow.  He was not in the least bit shy.  He hopped around near my chair, as I was making a fire, and once the fire got going, he hopped back under the chiminea where there was about a 6 inch space that most certainly had to be warmer than the chilly night outside.  He looked at me with half closed eyes, seeming to be for the most part, happy to share my company.

I had a bit of a conversation with him. ("Found any good bugs lately?  Shouldn't you be scoping out a place to hibernate soon?")  He was decidedly, quite non-anxious.

Now I realized I probably had not inherited a pet toad.  More than likely, this little fellow was my companion for that evening only.  I haven't seen him since.  Maybe I'll see him again, maybe not.  I hope he doesn't become dinner for some turkey or hawk or raccoon any time soon.  But I was quite struck at how comfortable he was sharing space with me, and that I was not a threat.  Perhaps it was because I was rather non-anxious myself.

But I thought about my new-found toad acquaintance, and the collect, and the notion of the "things that are passing away."  We tend to think of "companionship" as a rather long term and semi-permanent thing.  The reality is the companions we mostly meet in our life's journey are not very permanent at all.  After all, how many of us are still best friends with our 2nd grade companions?

The truth is companionship is more fleeting than we want to admit.  For most of our companions, we will have to navigate a period of loss.  When close friends move away, more often than not, even if we stay in touch, our relationship changes.  I've thought about that lately a lot.  One of my closest friends around here moved away some time back.  We stay in touch, but it is not the same, because we don't have the shared experiences in the same community from week to week.  We could always count on us having an important set of shared experiences each week.  Now there are new names and new people in each of our lives and we are going, "Who's that?"

I remember this same person telling me about a time in a certain work environment.  "I've never had an easy a time with a bunch of co-workers, before or since.  A couple of them had already moved away or changed jobs before me, and by the time I moved away, we already knew that this magic time we had at work was over.  It was okay, but it was never quite the same."

I've found myself grieving the loss of this particular friend, off and on, at the oddest times.  I never had a friend quite like that--one that was brutally honest, yet at the same time, incredibly sympathetic.  I have some wonderful friends, and this is not a slam at them at all.  It's just this one was different in some way--easier, free of social discomfort, much more transparent.  Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever have a friend like that again.  I guess the answer is, "Maybe, maybe not--but I also have to be open to what I have in my present friends."

I also think about, now and then, people I used to hang the moon and stars upon, and something went cold or sour.  There's only one of those relationships I ever got back, and I consider it somewhat miraculous.  How can we be so close to some people and then drift so far apart?  It's not like my little toad pal, whom I had no expectations that it would be a long-term companionship.  These are people who, at the time, it felt like nothing could come between us.  But the reality is all kinds of things can come between any of us.

When I think about this collect, I am reminded that sometimes, people are called to intersect in our lives for a season, and that's it.  There's a reason we were thrown together, and the reason ends.  When we try to hang on for a longer period, it doesn't "just not work"--it, frankly, usually gets worse.  More often than not, it gets jealous or contentious.  I'm becoming convinced more and more, when I start to see a friendship cool off, or feel a contentiousness building steam, to just back out and let it go.  Mentally say goodbye, thank God for a good run in a good season, and move on.

What endures, I believe, is not the relationship--it's the thread in the carpet of human nature that continually draws us to other human beings.  One thread ends and another begins, much like coming to the end of a skein of yarn and needing to start another.

I can't change tomorrow, I can't change yesterday.  I can only be non-anxious about today.

(Icon from

(This post originally appeared on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, September 25, 2011)

Readings for the feast day of Sergius, Abbot of Holy Trinity:

Psalm 87
Proverbs 4:1-9
1 John 2:15-17
Luke 8:16-21

When the Metropolitan Alexis felt his life was drawing to a close, he summoned Sergius to him, wishing to bless him and appoint him as his successor. Fearfully, Sergius declined. One of the symbols of authority worn by the Metropolitan was an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary suspended by gold chains. "From my youth up," Sergius replied, "I have never possessed or worn gold, and now how can I adorn myself in my old age?"

The excerpt in Holy Women, Holy Men states that Sergius was "simple and gentle in nature, mystic in temperament, and eager to insure that his monks should serve the needs of their neighbors." Our readings today remind us of several facets of what makes up a piece of the monastic lifestyle--love of God, a desire for wisdom over "stuff," and a charge in Luke's Gospel that we must seek to be active listeners in the process and to be mindful of what has been bestowed upon us--"Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away."

That part about "from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away" really sticks with me. I think back to the much more financially lean times of my life. It never failed--when my bank account was getting down to zero/zip/nada, it always seemed like I could always count on something like a flat tire, my furnace gasping its last breath, or a major plumbing leak to be foisted upon me.

In short, it's the mindset of scarcity. When our means feel scarce, we almost expect for things to become more scarce just to kick us to the curb even further.

When we live our lives like there is never enough, guess what? There never will be enough. One of the things I've mused about over the years is it never matters how much any of us make, we get to the end of the week or the end of the month and say, "Where did the money go?"

Yet when we look at the life of Sergius, this monk of very little means influenced an entire country and helped myriad people. The life of Sergius is counter-intuitive to everything our popular culture tells us.

Our culture seduces us with the delusion that our wants, are, indeed, our needs. It confuses us even when we try to do good and live more simply. We have so many choices in our society it's hard to discern what the "good" choice is.

For instance: I really don't care much for certain mega-chain stores. They fill their shelves with things made in places that I can't vouch for their labor policies, and I don't always agree with the labor policies of these stores themselves. But in little old Kirksville, MO, the big box store provides jobs for several people I know personally. It's all good to be high and mighty about our principles, but in small towns that can have tremendous local economic repercussions. My choice to stick to "green" or "fair trade" might cost my neighbor his or her job, because in a small town, I would have to buy those things online sometimes.

The impossibility of these kinds of choices brings us back to this business of "living more simply." What, really, are our needs? How many our wants morph into "needs?" Compared to the bulk of the world, we are the ones who "have," and are probably the ones to whom "more will be given." But why is it so painful to even think about what we could give up so that others can have 1/10th of what we have?

The answer, I believe, lies in that business of changing our life pattern from "a mindset of scarcity" to "a mindset of abundance."

Last time I checked, God's grace is not a finite quantity. God's mindset--one of abundance--frees us from the need to hoard. Hoarding our money, our time, our stuff, and our emotions only sidetrack us from the possibility we have enough. Once we admit what we have is enough, it actually allows us to be lavish and extravagant in our giving with few regrets--and living more abundantly, over time, makes us feel abundant.

What, in our lives today, can we risk doing without, in order to plant the seeds of a real sense of abundance?

(Enamel Plaque of Naaman washing in the River Jordan courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

2 Kings 5:1-19:

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.” But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance,

Naaman has a hard time believing his cure for leprosy could be that easy.  He almost blows it.  Really, he comes pretty close to letting his temper get the best of him.  "Whaaaa?  I could go wash in any of the nice rivers in Syria all I want, and he wants me to go in the Jordan?  That's crazy!"

I don't get a clear message from the commentaries whether the Jordan was physically dirtier or not.  Some imply it is.  It's physically possible that there's more clay in the Jordan than in the neighboring rivers.  The Jordan ran through a more fertile area of the region than many other rivers, so there would be more soil.  Also, there was more habitation along the Jordan, and to this day pollution remains a problem there.  But I think we also have to consider there is a "local pride" aspect to Naaman's reticence.  I think about if I were told to bathe in the Des Moines River as opposed, to, say, the Missouri River or the Chariton or the Little Fabius.  "Whaaaa?  I have to go bathe in some river in Iowa?  Why can't I bathe in some nice river in Missouri as opposed to one where Iowegians live?"  (We characters from the northern stretches of Missouri tell Iowa jokes all the time.  Of course the people in southern Iowa tell Missouri jokes.  In the southern reaches of the state, it's the Arkies and Okies they all make fun of.)

The medical detective in me also remembers that what we call "leprosy" in the Bible often refers to several skin diseases that, in those days, were grouped together by appearance, and all infectious.  It was a larger-encompassing diagnosis but the practical solution was to separate the victim from the community, all the same.  Clay treatments--particularly clay from regions with alkaline soil--such as places with salt flats--have been known since ancient times to relieve some of the symptoms of many itching, crusting, oozing skin lesions.

So when I read this story, I know there's probably one part ancient medicine and one part human nature in this story, and the focus is on the latter.

There are so many things in this world that we let "stupid pride" get in our way.  Especially when it comes to shame and guilt.

How different is Naaman, really from many of us?  How many of us hide behind our image as a "whatever?"  I think about how sometimes, our woundedness drives us to being overachievers and hyper-perfectionists.  We create an unreasonable image of ourselves to live up to impossible expectations.

I can just see Naaman hollering, "Does he not get who I am here?  I'm an important person!"  (It's been my experience that most times I am yelling, "Who do they think they are?" or "Who do they think I am?"  I am thinking I'm not worth a hell of a lot at the moment.) 

Even the backdrop to the story itself has a wonderful incongruity to it.  Naaman is a great man--the commander of the king's army.  I'm sure his walk, his tone of voice, his demeanor almost yells respect at anyone who gets a glance at him.  But he has a shameful secret--a skin disease that, for most people, means being cut off from the community.  His power gets him nowhere, there.  Anyone taking a look at him discovers his flaw.  So his secret really isn't that secret, and I'm sure little has been left unsaid in the commuity about it.

When are we Naaman?  When are we too stubborn to do something that's incredibly easy, if we just get over ourselves and do it, will find healing?  When do we walk with the swagger of the powerful, when, in fact, we are powerless?  What changes in us when we finally break down and do that easy thing that's been placed before us?  Good questions!

(St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin,  Guercino Barbieri, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

"I used to feel the dissonance whenever I heard Mary described as both Virgin and Mother; she seemed to set an impossible standard for any woman.  But this was narrow-minded on my part.  What Mary does is to show me how I indeed can be both virgin and mother.  Virgin to the extent that I remain "one-in-myself," able to come to things with newness of heart; mother to the extent that I forget myself in the nurture and service of others, embracing the ripeness of maturity that this requires.  This Mary is a gender-bender; she could do the same for any man."
--Kathleen Norris, "Meditations on Mary," p. 22

We've heard it thousands of times.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, or "the BVM," for short.  We say it in that same way we roar through the Lord's Prayer, almost a mumble.  "Theblessedvirginmary."  We literally call her name by rote, yet we Episcopalians have a hard time figuring out where to put Mary in our minds and hearts.

She is more than the wholly Protestant version of Mary to us, yet she's not quite the same as the Roman Catholic version of her, In a way, she defies categorization.

I totally hear where Kathleen Norris is coming from.  It's been decades since I've been a virgin, and I'd say my chances as a mother these days are slim and none. Historically, I had always been, at the least, troubled by Mary.  For one thing, from the moment I found out what a virgin was, I was pretty sure "perpetual virginity" was an awful lot to ask for.  Oh, sure, it's possible, but it's not exactly a high finite number.  The "motherhood" thing has always been lost on me, not being a mother.  Yet she is a revered figure in our church, and not to be treated trivially.

I couldn't imagine her as statuary and art shows her--the eternally youthful, eternally demure, eternally beatific beautiful young woman.  (As much as I love Michelangelo's Pieta, I still look at that statue and think, "You are way too young looking to have a 33 year old son.")  I can't figure out as much from the Bible about her as I'd like.  She speaks volumes in the Magnificat, but then she pretty much clams up from then on, Biblically speaking.  We hear about her more or less in the third person from that point on.

So how do I learn to render my own picture of Mary, when I have so little fact to go on, and so much cultural iconography?  

One way I do this is think of her as the theotokos--the God-bearer.  But that doesn't help so much in terms of really exploring that virgin business and this mother business, and what that means to me.  This is where Norris' words are the most helpful thing I've seen yet.  

Hmmm.  Virgin as "being able to start over again and again with newness of heart."  Now, at first glance, I am not Little Miss Newness of Heart.  Most of the time, I am a little on the jaded and skeptical side.  Not very good Mary-like qualities.

However, the longer I sit with Mary (or more accurately, with images of her in front of me,) the more I come to realize I am selling myself short on my abilities to have newness of heart.  I do that more than I let on.  I try starting over with a sense of awe, in the possibility that all things are made new.

When I believe all things can be made new in the Realm of God, I find I become more forgiving of myself.  Mary calls us to be open to the possibility of change within ourselves and to be receptive to that change.  When these changes are new, they take on a timelessness to them.  Mary calls for us to be a part of that timeliness.  To enter into that timeliness brings a sense of naivete with it.  In that sense, we all can be made new  We can be part of helping others be made new, through our changed lives.  The seemingly impossible can happen.  In that sense, we can begin to believe in miracles again.

But what about that "mother" business?

I think of what is common to all of us when we take care of babies.  We become so engrossed, so attuned to that baby's needs, and so understanding of its helplessness, that we literally lose ourselves in the process.  Any perceived danger, any untoward noise, we are all over it.  Our needs become less important and the baby's become sacrosanct.

How often do we ever lose ourselves in anything else, in quite that way?

To become like Mary is to lose ourselves that deeply, where we don't even notice and it doesn't even matter.  This is far different from being a "helicopter parent," a codependent, or an enabler.  An infant is truly helpless and vulnerable, and needs our care.  Helicopter parents hover over children who need to experience things on their own.  Codependents need other people to fulfill their needs in the name of giving themselves to that other person, and desire to control another person who doesn't always need our care and should be caring for themselves.  Enablers always stop people before they are about to learn a life lesson.  No one wants to stop a baby from growing, or rolling over, or crawling or walking.

Becoming a mother in the Mary sense means to give ourselves away without fear, expectations, resentment, or guilt.

I discover when I can trust God to handle the time frame and the process, when I can give myself away to a true need in a broken world, I begin to "get" Mary--her iconic visage begins to flesh out and grow real skin and have real expression on her face--but the minute I get away from that place, she ceases to be a real person in my mind and slowly morphs back to the painted statue with the beatific wooden smile, whom I can never be like because I'm simply not good enough.  She's like trying to tune in a distant TV station by twisting the antenna.  Yet I discover the longer I can hold my focus on her as a reality, the easier it becomes, and the further I lose myself in the art of finding Heaven on Earth, the easier it becomes to depict Mary as real.

Job 14:1-6: 

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.

We are in the time of year in Northeast Missouri where the days are winding down faster and faster, and I am waking up in the dark (at least until the time change, and then I'll be waking up in the dark again for "the duration" until the winter.)

Something that happens this time of year, when I walk along the dirt road past my house, is there is this last ditch explosion of color before the landscape fades into the browns and grays of late fall and early winter.  Just a walk down my road reveals brilliant gold from at least four different varieties of sunflower, vivid red from the turning of the sumac leaves, and little hints of purple from three or four flowers.

The one i enjoy the most is ironweed.  Ironweed is an interesting plant.  It gets its name because it's nigh onto impossible to tear out of the ground.  Yet in early fall it sprouts these delicate but complicated little flowers like you see in the picture.  It's a weed close to my heart because of its paradoxical combination of toughness and delicate-ness.  When my grandmother died, and I had to order the spray of flowers for her casket, I had cultivated ironweed as the background flower in the spray.  I thought for a woman who had lived through the depression and WWII, lost a son to a hunting accident, outlived a husband seven years her junior, and looked forward to the millennium simply "to see if the world really was going to hell in a handbasket at midnight" (she was secretly disappointed it hadn't)...well, I thought it was a fitting flower.

Well, and there's no doubt I take a bit after her, myself.

As I take these walks, I find an interesting combination of exhilaration and sadness accompanies them.  I am exhilarated because these days are, in some ways, the most perfect days of the year--blue skies, green trees just barely starting to turn, hinting to salmons and yellow, a palette of colorful weeds, gently warm temperatures with a cool breeze.  The last warmth of summer combined with the cooling down of fall.  They are wonderful evenings for sitting by my chiminea and making a fire, watching the sun ebb at an angle that produces gorgeous purples, pinks, and orange.  I can hear crickets and coyotes, birds and bugs.  These are great sleeping nights, as well.  There's no need for the heat or the A/C, as long as one doesn't mind a cozy blanket on the bed.  It's an exhilaration of a brief, but very palpable perfection.

This exhilaration, however, coexists with twinges of sadness.

In that cool breeze, the smell of winter wafts up.  The world will be colder and darker.  Night will come too soon for a spell.  The green things will die.  The colors I am enjoying so much will be gone.  My pasture world will sport dullness instead of a rainbow of hues and smells and sounds.  The silence I hear in the air at the end of fall is perhaps the heaviest silence of the year--even the "dead of winter" doesn't sound as dead as the late fall silence.  Not to mention the months of September through November have not historically been the easiest months of my life.  It seems that my life carries a lifelong pattern of stuffing the most tragic events into those three months for some reason in a way that in more than one year of my life, I got to December 1 without a major death, crisis, loss, or change befalling, and went, "Whew!  Dodged the bullet THIS year!"  There's a pervasive apprehension that I have to navigate each year at this time, and some years I have not been terribly successful at it.

As a near-lifelong resident of Northeast/north central Missouri, I am attuned to the changes and the seasons here in an almost innate way.  It's almost like I feel them day by day.  I think it's why I love the liturgical calendar so much.  I think there is a cluster of cells in my pineal gland that create a peace inside of me simply by being outside and aligned with the seasons.  The liturgical calendar does this same kind of thing to my prayer and worship life.  I've said many times, the tail end of the "long green season" (Ordinary Time after Pentecost) creates a restlessness in me.

But the last few years, I have learned to look forward to Advent in a new way.  What once was a season for me filled with secular holiday baggage is now a season of expectation and surprise.

The Scripture I posted out of Job is a very real reminder to me that, for all things to be made new, it requires something rather difficult--to watch the old things pass away.  As much as I love the colors in these weeks, I am reminded that their brilliance is de facto evidence that these things are simultaneously living and passing away.

One of the things we are told in the Rule of St. Benedict is to always "keep death before our eyes daily."  This, frankly, is one of the times of year I do that best.  But Benedictine spirituality is also all about "balance" and "stability."  What I am also called to remember is that the Kingdom of Heaven is now.  The Kingdom of Heaven is among us.  Right here.  Right now.  I have written many times about how I don't really understand "the Resurrection," but one thing I do understand about what the Resurrection means is this:  Death never wins.  So in my edginess, my apprehension, my sadness about the death of 2011, and the thoughts that 2011 passing away is just another year closer to my death, whenever it is, I am reminded that the Resurrection transcends every loss, every tragedy, every death we've ever experienced.  I have seen many things die in my lifetime only to be made new in some way, and it all more or less work out in the end.  In nature, the death that comes with fall is simply a reminder that it is a state we must pass through to get to next spring--and in the Kingdom of God, "next spring" is always at hand.

(Drawing of Edward Bouverie Pusey courtesy of the Florida Educational Technology Clearinghouse)

(This post originally appeared on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, September 18, 2011)

Readings for the Feast of Edward Bouverie Pusey, September 18:

Psalm 106:1-5
Ezekiel 36:24-28
1 Peter 2:19-23
Luke 3:10-14

Several of us in the Episcopal Church self-identify as "Anglo-Catholic" and are not a bit embarrassed to admit that we are drawn to the bright shiny objects of "smells and bells" liturgy like magpies. We have Edward Pusey to thank for much of that. He, along with John Henry Newman, were two of the brightest lights in the Oxford Movement, the period of time in Anglican church history where we first began to grapple with the more catholic roots of our Angican theological heritage. Unlike Newman, though, who packed his bags for Rome, Pusey remained Anglican, despite some serious opposition within his own theological scholarly community.

The end result of his faithfulness in remaining Anglican is now reflected in our 1979 Prayer Book, when we moved to Eucharist, rather than Morning Prayer, being the norm on Sunday mornings. It's hard to conceptualize what seems routine to any of us who came after the 1979 BCP, as once being highly controversial.

Pusey had to feel, at the least, disappointed, and at most, betrayed, by Newman's defection to Roman Catholicism, yet he stayed the course in a time of theological upheaval. His fidelity is reflected in the Collect of the Day:

Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your presence and obey your will; that, following the example of your servant Edward Bouverie Pusey, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect, as well as Pusey's story in relation to the Oxford Movement, is a good reminder that many things in the history of the Episcopal church started out as minority opinions but, over time, became the face of the church. Decrying slavery and ordaining women were just as unpopular notions at the time they were introduced. The "three legged stool" of Anglican theological process--scripture, tradition, and reason--is not the fastest way to move the direction of the church, but history has shown us that it is a reliable one. Most of us in 2011 can barely imagine Sunday worship without the Eucharist, but the people of the time of the Oxford movement (1833-1845) went to their grave never seeing what they had brought to the pulse of our denomination. As we moved from a more penitential theology to a more incarnational one, it opened the door for us to "live Eucharistically" in the world outside our red doors.

One of the more striking coincidences is our reading today from Ezekiel is what Claude Akins, as the Rev. Jeremiah Brown, quoted in Inherit the Wind, but with a different tack. He quoted parts of this passage in the scene when he was concerned about "saving" his daughter's soul from the perils of being in love with evolution-promoting Bertram Cates, and her refusal to believe the Stebbins boy died outside of a state of grace:

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (NRSV)

The fictional Rev. Brown chose to use this verse to justify his self-righteousness, rather than to focus on the healing qualities of being bonded to each other in the waters of baptism. In contrast, Pusey never undercut Newman for his differences in opinion. Instead, he focused on Eucharistic worship being a unifying facet of our varied shared lives.

As we live in the tension of the newer struggles of our denomination with regard to controversies such as inclusivity, or interpreting the vagaries of the Bible in a popular culture that prefers a more literal interpretation of Scripture, let us remind ourselves to keep the focus on the transformational process of our own faith in community. Many a sermon delivered from an Episcopal Church pulpit points to the power the Eucharist can generate in both self and in community; because of the steadfastness of Edward Bouverie Pusey, we can celebrate that Eucharist more frequently.

 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Proverbs 8:32-36:

And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways. 

Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it. 

Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors. 

For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;

It all sort of started when Forbes had a recent article about "The ten happiest jobs and the ten most unhappy jobs."

In this article, clergy were listed as #1 in terms of "the ten happiest jobs."  I posted (rather tongue in cheek) on Facebook that I was sure my clergy friends were snorting liquids all over their computer screen after seeing that.

I did not expect the variety of directions the comments ran.

Predictably, several clergy and clergy spouses jumped in to affirm how happy they were.  (Hmmm.  The speed and emphatic-ness of that makes me wonder if a little guilt in being unhappy now and then weren't involved.  Probably the most realistic clergy answer I got was "I think with lots of clergy, you'll find high job satisfaction in a job that makes them crazy"--which, I'd say, is true in many of the "helping professions.")  Another person pointed out many of the "happiest" ones were in "helping professions," and that helping others seemed more important than money.  Another person tag-teamed that the "unhappiest" ones were very well paying, but had feelings of worthlessness attached to them.  Someone else pointed out that several of the "happy" jobs also, paradoxically, carried low pay and increased risk of alcoholism.  Still another raised the question of whether "happy" was really happy, but, rather, "content."

Now, in reality, I think most of the clergy I know are relatively happy.  Oh, I think there's some "situational unhappiness" out there, and I think there are good days and bad days for them, but I raised the question, "How much of the "happy" is the job, and how much is the person?"  I think there's a certain commensal relationship in the helping professions there.  People who feel that what they do has value, will be happy about that even when they are not happy at the moment.  (For instance, I don't think vestry meetings are a favorite clergy activity--and in contrast, I would be really concerned about a clergy person who was unhappy presiding over the Eucharist.)  I certainly see that in medicine.  I love what I do and I love that I am serving in an under-served location--but I can spit nails at the insurance companies and go medieval on them in a heartbeat.

What it seems is that knowing oneself and giving to others is a positive combination, no matter what one's vocation.  If there is one advantage clergy have on the happiness track, I believe it is the heavy emphasis placed in various forms of discernment throughout the process towards ordination, and the carry-over from that is that they tend to be life-long "discerners."  Oh, it's not that any of us can't do that, but it is not inherently built into the process.  Most secular vocations involve goals to a much greater degree.  But the amount of "know thyself" that happens in the process is staggering compared to most other vocations.  I can't recall a single time in my process of medical school and residency that ever addressed my feelings about being a physician.

I think the bit I posted above from Proverbs sums it up nicely.  Happiness is about hearing God's call for our lives, and that call extends far beyond calls to ordained ministry. 

("The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard," by Rembrandt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew 20:1-16:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The parable in this coming Sunday's Gospel is one that always punches my "not fair" button. There's a part of me that chafes that one group worked like a dog all day, and another group did hardly anything and got the same amount of money. I totally get the anger and jealousy of the group in the parable who worked all day.

The story, though, is not really about the workers, in my mind. It's about the owner. It was the owner's prerogative to be as generous as he chose to be. The first group agreed to the stated wage. They didn't dicker or argue before hand. They and the owner entered into a covenant together. The workers agreed to work all day, and the owner agreed to pay them X amount of money. Their covenant has no effect on any future ones. The next one is between the owner and the next group.

What's interesting is the grumbling group didn't take it out on the nine a.m. group of workers; only the 5 p.m. group. So really, their grumbling was selective. Perhaps they were willing to ignore the very same "slight" in the 9 a.m. group in the hopes of gaining allies to the 5 p.m. group.

This past weekend, I was reminded of a variant of this story, but a bit in reverse.

For our church work day at Trinity-Kirksville, we needed mulch. Another person and I went to buy 20 bags of mulch at the place it was on sale, for $2.27 a bag. The guy inside did not know they were out of the $2.27 mulch. When I got out to load my truck, the workers outside told me that they were out of the $2.27 mulch--the next cheapest one was $2.77. So I trudged back in and waited in line to deal with the register about it.

Now, I'll admit...I was hoping the guy at the register would say, "Oh, gee, that was our mistake, you can have the $2.77 mulch for $2.27." Nope. No such luck. I had to make an exchange, and re-run my credit card, and pay the $10.89 difference after sales tax. Granted, it was only $10.89. But I won't lie, I was irritated I had to pay extra. But I also didn't want to run around town mulch shopping on a day I had done enough.

As I drove back to church, I thought to myself, "Well, you know, the guy inside simply didn't know they were out of the cheap mulch...and really, I agreed to buy the $2.27 mulch--not the $2.77 mulch. The mistake was pointed out to me prior to loading the truck. They did exactly as they were capable of doing--selling me the mulch on hand. I guess I should not be irritated because I didn't get the deal I wanted, and I got the deal that was there. Yeah, I think it would have been good business sense for them to eat the $10.89, but it is not in my control because I did not get a special deal."

Here's a pair of facts: We don't always get what we want. We do, however, get what's there.

Or as my late grandmother used to say, "It ain't what you want that makes you fat--it's what you get--and sometimes that don't make you fat. But it always makes you fatter than what you want and don't get."

What God promises is to always be with us. We did not enter a contract that it would always be good, or be easy, or always seem fair. But we won't be abandoned.

The other thing I thought about, in the whole "last shall be first and first shall be last" business is that God's love is limitless, and how that limitless-ness plays out is God's choice, not ours. Now, those people in the parable who showed up at 5 p.m., it wasn't like they were sitting around outside saying, "Hey, let's go work late in the day because we know we'll get paid a whole day's wages." They admitted they were looking for work. Had they gotten their way, they would have been hired by someone early in the day. Their ending up on the short end of the job-hunting stick was not of their making nor by their control. They were most likely not expecting to be paid a day's wages. What they got was grace. We don't control grace, and we don't control the jealousy of others if grace is doled our way but not theirs.

When we find ourselves jealous, we need to remember we don't always know the other person's situation. We shoud, instead, invite ourselves to a place where we accept that the recipient of grace has a need for it, rejoice in it for their sake, and trust that our needs are simultaneously being fulfilled--because we never know when we might end up on the short end of the stick, ourselves. We are one paycheck away, one freak of nature away, one loss away from being the 5 p.m. laborers ourselves.

(Photo of cross-shaped debris that was discovered in the center of the U.S. Customs House at 6 World Trade Center, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

(This post originally appeared on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, September 11, 2011)

Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;

for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah

One of the wonderful mysteries of lectionaries, whether we are talking Daily Office or Revised Common Lectionary, is when the lectionary readings for the day seem to have been given a whopping dose of divine serendipity. Anyone who does the Daily Office or RCL readings as part of his or her spiritual practice has witnessed this. A reading "jumps out" in relation to a certain day or event.

I am incredibly struck that one of the Psalms for September 11, 2011--the tenth anniversary of events in three locations that struck us dumb with fear and grief--is the Psalm from which a portion of Handel's Messiah is derived. On the tenth anniversary of one of the most horrible days in our nation's history, we are told (in King James English,) "Lift up your head, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors! For the King of Glory shall come in..."

This Psalm, on this day that will be commemorated with speeches and prayer and a certain amount of controversy a decade later, a day where people on the East Coast still feel acute pain and people in other parts of the country feel, at times, secretly bewildered about the intense feelings of their East Coast neighbors, is speaking loud and clear:

"The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it."

Time has a way of bringing the world closer to the Realm of God. Not too long in the future, and maybe, in some situations, already, September 11, 2001 is slowly moving to a place where much of the acuteness of our pain, grief, and fear has dissipated, and is becoming relegated to the world of "Where were you when (fill in blank with tragedy of choice.)" Someday, the gut-wrenching fear we felt at the collapse of the World Trade Center, the events at the Pentagon, and the crash of a plane in a lonely field in Pennsylvania will fade as surely as the celluloid prints of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the sinking of the Arizona in Pearl Harbor have. Grass already grows in a field in Pennsylvania, I-beams from the Twin Towers placed as memorials oxidize and rust, and the Pentagon has been physically repaired.

Much of it, frankly, will die when we die, and when the last person who was there at these events dies, these events will become dessicated versions of what we remember, stuffed away in dry history books for seventh graders to remember right answers on exams they don't care to take.

We say "never again," over and over, but our psalm reminds us that all of our "never agains" will randomize into the entropic leveling power of God making all things new.

A Psalm we sing during Advent, in the melodies of Handel's Messiah, heralds the stark truth that "The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle," fights his battles with the love of a helpless child born in a dirty stable to parents whose own premarital story was, in the eyes of local gossip, sketchy at best. To borrow from another portion of the Messiah (and from Isaiah,) "Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill laid low, the crooked will be made straight, and the rough places made plain."

Today, as we commemorate the events of this day, ten years ago, let us remind ourselves that the most powerful weapon against evil is not fear-based retaliation, but love. May we lift up our heads and "be ye lift up"--and when we do, may we see the King of Glory come in.

(Photo of William Stringfellow from Wikipedia)

"I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God --as is everyone else--to the vocation of being human...Within the scope of the calling to be merely, but truly human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline, or employment, as such, is a vocation."

--William Stringfellow

One of the books I've been reading lately is "A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow," edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann. My vicar, almost casually, asked me if I'd ever heard of Stringfellow. As a relative newbie to the Episcopal Church, I had not. She sort of dryly said, "Well, he was probably one of the most influential lay theologians in the modern history of the church, you ought to read him."

When I started Wiki'ing him, I realized I'd been had. She knew that I'd be absolutely captivated by this iconoclastic, yet very orthodox Anglo-Catholic persona. When I confronted her with that in an e-mail, she replied back, "I stand guilty as charged on all counts," followed by a smiling emoticon.

I've been reading this book "a tiny piece at a time" because I want to hear each of the short essays in the book in their entirety, each standing alone and not getting mixed up with each other.

The essay from where my quote today is from, made some things fall into my head like interlocking puzzle pieces.

Stringfellow was a Harvard trained lawyer, and also a graduate of the London School of Economics, who practiced law in Harlem and lived in a tenement. He could have had the pick of any plums in the world of high powered law practices. Yet that was the life he chose. He devoted his whole life to parts of what we now call "the social Gospel," and he lived out in the place where he was needed. He sort of mixed and matched with all the personalities on "the block" (the part of Harlem where he lived) without ever losing his own sense of self. He saw no higher calling than to live out our lives according to God's call for us as baptized individuals.

I guess you could say I "get" a lot of where he's coming from, since I am a person who lives far below my own means.

Stringfellow also acquired diabetes later in life, and this forced him to shift his priorities. He was a person who thrived on "living in the tension" and this life had taken its toll on him. In this sense, theology became a piece of his therapy.

Although disease didn't push me into a corner, middle age and a few psychic tensions, likewise, made me turn to theological blogging as therapy. I "got" that, too!

This has been an interesting time in my life (and yes, I do know the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times.") In Feb. 2010, I began to start the ball rolling to the possibility that I was called to ordination by obtaining permission from our Bishop. I had no idea how big a ball it was and how slowly it rolls. As of today, my committee has still not been finalized, trained, or met. I have come to realize part of it was because my parish (and I) were all in a dozen "odd places." What started out as a giant frustration for me (in the world of healthcare, if I'd taken this long to start a process, I'd be castigated, frankly) I have come to realize has actually been for me "a period of formation."

"Formation" is not something we talk about much in the secular world. Our secular world is all about "goals." Formation is the process of letting something cook, like a stew, and letting the batch have its own unique flavor, with no expectation of what that flavor will be. I have come to realize that for me, part of this formation has been simply understanding how I've been called to be me, no matter what the outcome of this discernment and possible ordination process is. Had we plunged headalong in it, the stew would not have been as flavorful. We would have taken it off the stove too soon.

I've been captivated by Stringfellow and his ability to hear his own call at these various stages of his life. What I discover, by reading his first person accounts, is that no matter where we're called in the life of our church, one of the most grievous errors we can commit is to abandon our fundamental priesthood as one of the baptized. Oddly enough, the church can probably cause us to do that in a horrible way. Lay people can abandon their fundamental priesthood to please clergy as an authority figure. Ordained people can abandon their fundamental priesthood and hide behind the authority of their collar and the psychological power differential it can impose on the laity. Even bishops can hide behind their ecclesiastical authority to everyone under them on the ecclesiastical food chain.

I've come to realize that the paradox is that the institution we have created to worship God, should never become our God. This period of formation has taught me that in an odd way, I feel both lucky and blessed. Some of the most profound moments in my spiritual self have happened during worship or doing some of my tasks in the life of the church. Yet, at the same time, some of the worst psychological beatings I've received have also come within the sphere of the life of the church. I am in a strange but wonderful place. I have been given the gift of seeing the church as human--and just as I see the divinity of Jesus in his humanity, I realize I now see the divinity of institutional worship in the sphere of its humanity. I feel blessed that this gift was given to me, and I feel lucky that I was formed by this experience, not torn to shreds.

I believe this formation will continue, in some ways, for the rest of my life. May I be open and brave enough to sit in the tension of it.

(Two of Kara Hobbs' goats, named Eudoia and Syntyche. BTW, Kara does some amazing things with yarn, and how many people can attribute their sweater or hat to the animal that produced it?)

Philippians 3:17-4:7:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

One of the things that started intriguing me both in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's Epistles are the various folks who hold "cameo roles" in these books. They are often mentioned once, and we never hear anything more about them. Eudoia and Syntyche are two rather intriguing characters to me in this way. Sometimes, it's a disappointment to me that we know so little about these people, but I have come to the conclusion these people exist in the Bible as a window to our own spiritual imaginations--to take what we know about human nature and our intuitions about people in general, and combine it with our own life experiences to come up with plausible scenarios for how their situation must have been. I have found when I reflect on these cameo players in the Bible, "reflect" is the accurate statement, because it always bounces back to me, and my life, and I almost always can see another situation in my life that parallels it.

Well, let's start with what I know about the church in Philippi.

Philippi, in Macedonia, was, in a lot of ways, a retirement town for Roman Army veterans. The church there had a distinct "episcopal" way of overseeing itself, which made sense, because that was the "military way." It had overseers and deacons. It was probably a rather culturally diverse church, and Paul spoke often about the need for them to be like-minded. It seems from his Epistle that Paul had a fondness for the church there, and it was mutual. But it seems there might have been a lot of strong willed people in that church. My guess is Eudoia and Syntyche were two of them. It seems that they were not subservient people in the church at all, because Paul gives them the same consideration he gives men in his letters.

I imagine Eudoia and Syntyche were two women in the church in Philippi who were, in their own ways, movers and shakers. Perhaps they didn't have all that much in common with each other except their love of the church, and that each of them was rather strong-willed in their own way. They probably each took their role in the church very seriously. Perhaps too seriously at times. I wonder sometimes if they were wives or daughters of military men--brought up in a rigid way to do things. (I can just hear them say, "But that's the way we've always done it!" or "We've never done it that way before!" Maybe they were the first Episcopalians!)

My guess is Eudoia and Syntyche were both beloved people in the church there, and there was certainly room enough and love enough for both of them. Perhaps the other people in the church saw each of them as women of great faith and leaders--which makes me wonder if each of them, sometimes had the burden of "appearances." When things were rattling in the church, they had to look not rattled. When no one knew what to do, they had to look like they knew what to do when they really didn't. There were times they had to be leaders when they were secretly scared to death, or people didn't have a clue what stresses were going on in their real lives outside the church.

My guess is they developed rather high and unreasonable expectations for themselves in times of stress, and somehow, they projected those unreasonable expectations on each other rather than dealing with their own stuff.

We don't know what caused them to go at each other. They might even had been a close "dual force" once upon a time. They might have both been duped by another leader in the church that they were opposites, when, in fact, they were more alike than different in their love and desires for the church. But my guess is, whatever it was, it made them incredibly suspicious of each other, and they probably never gave the other slack when they would have given slack to anyone else in the church. I bet they "counted coup" on each other's transgressions and even made book on anything that even looked out of line. In a parallel universe, each was blaming the other for things of their own they were not addressing in themselves. I would bet my house payment that they had "seen" transgressions in each other that were not actually happening anywhere but in their minds, and no matter what the other did, it was "wrong." "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" is one the oldest recipes in the world for driving people apart.

I also bet neither of them was truly "the culprit." I bet they both were in some things, and neither of them were in others. I bet over time, even when things were going well, people in the church at Philippi would say to one or another of them, "What's up with you and Eudoia/Syntyche? You're both such good people in the church and we love you both. Why can't you two just make up? It's like an elephant in the room." They probably sat way far away from each other. If they had to sit together, you probably could have driven a Mack truck between them. But to the casual observer, everything was "fine."

We never know if they ever made up, either. If they did, we are not shown how they did.

If they did make up, it probably looked like two porcupines mating. I can just imagine the two of them dancing mental circles around each other, both actually wanting to make up, but not knowing how to start. I imagine in their hearts what they really wanted was to hug each other and cry and even yell at each other a little bit, but how in the world could either of them be the one who said the thing that "broke the ice?" If what drove them apart was something that damaged their self-worth to a mere shred of what it used to be--or they chronically struggled with their self-worth--how did they ever reveal their vulnerability to each other?

How can any of us make up to anyone when one simultaneously fears being attacked by the other, or attacked by the image of what drove them apart?

It's been my experience that something else comes into play when people in this situation finally make up. Something that neither of them planned. Something that neither of them can control or cause. If it happens, it's because the willingness for them both to let that thing be revealed and use the opportunity happens. I have found that particularly true when the inciting "cause" of the rift was a third party. It's almost like "An outside force caused this division; it takes another outside force to heal it." Something from the outside has to be bigger than the "You started it/No, you started it!" dynamic.

But just as we never know how the rifts in our own lives turn out until the end of the story, we will never know what happened with Eudoia and Syntyche. However, we can use their story to ask God for the awareness for the windows of opportunity in which we can heal our own rifts with others.

"The one who speaks dispassionately about the sins of a companion speaks for two reasons: either to reform the friend or to benefit another. If the person speaks outside of these reasons either to himself or to another, she speaks either to reproach or to ridicule. That person shall not escape divine abandonment, but rather he will in every way fall into the same or another error, and, being reproached and put to shame by another, will be dishonored." Maximos the Confessor, Centuries on Love III, # 72

We must be careful when we criticize other people, especially noting our reason and rationale for criticism. Maximos cautions us about criticizing others. He acknowledges that there is a "dispassionate" critique of other whose aim is to assist the other in the reformation of his or her life or to assist others in the reformation of their lives. This is a legitimate basis for criticism. The goal of our relationships is the nurturing of others to grow and develop in a divine way, fully connected to the divine energies and struggling to be united to God in action, word, and thought. So we assist one another in the endeavor by critiquing each other for reformation and mutual benefit.

But there is another side of criticism of another, which ends in ridicule or reproach. In this mode of criticism the one criticizing stands completely apart from the other by assuming a more superior status or achievement. The result of such criticism is not to reform or benefit the other but to show his error and foolishness. We have all experienced this sort of humiliation in criticism, especially those who have gone through advanced or doctoral studies at a university. The problem with this kind of negative and ridiculing critique is twofold: it breaks the union of people in the divine energies; and it creates more emotional problems for both the one criticizing and the one criticized.

The wisdom of the ancient contemplatives tells us that the one doing negative criticism will at some point fall. It is not divine energy that informs the critique, but a kind of personal obfuscating of interior dynamics and flaws that will eventually result in the negative critic's own sin and error. This is how I understand the term "divine abandonment" in this saying. It is not that God abandons the negative critic, but that the negative critic ceases to cooperate with the divine energies moving people toward reformation of life and divinely healthy benefit. By cutting the self off from the flow of divine energy the negative critic sets the self up for a fall similar to those the critic criticizes. And the end result will be a dishonor and reproach of the negative critic.

So we must be careful in our critique of others, being very much attentive to our motives and to the divine energies. Our care does not mean that we do not critique others, but that in our critique of others we aim to assist others to live in the divine energies and to find their place in the divine economy. We cannot criticize in order to enhance our own status or to advance our own ideas, because that kind of criticism will eventually lead to our own failure and fall. But working together for the greater glory of God, working together for the mutual divinization of all people, we may criticize as a means of assistance for others. We criticize for the sake of divinization, and such criticism will in the end make us all divine.

--Richard Valantasis, Institute for Contemplative Living's "Thought for the Week," Sept. 5-11, 2011

I snapped this photo on my way to Edina, MO to get my hair cut (the person who cuts my hair moved there, and rather than deal with the hassle of finding a new person for this relationship, I started taking a road trip to get this done.)

I came around the bend and was transfixed by the breadth of this field of gold--tickseed sunflowers everywhere. After taking the picture, I just stood and took it all in. It was one of those situations where I just happened by, the right week of the year.

On the other hand...

If I were a person who was farming for a living, and this was my field, I'd see it as a failure. A nice spot of tillable land or pasture land was being overtaken by weeds. After all, in the world of arable land, tickseed sunflowers are weeds. It would not be a thing of beauty but a threat to my livelihood or a failure of some sort. It would evoke an entirely separate set of emotions in me.

I am reminded of a recent conversation with my friend Renz. We were discussing how certain animals evoke certain emotions in us, based more on iconography than ecology. In particular we were talking about the re-population of wolves, and how people seem to want that, but not to the point that sheep rancher's lambs are eaten. Part of the discussion is the "threat to one's livelihood" aspect, but part of the discussion was that fish farmers work under the assumption that raptors will eat a certain percentage of their "crop" because that's what raptors do in nature. We mused about the iconography and cultural thoughts of "wolves" and "lambs" and wondered how much that plays into it. What we criticize or who we criticize has a certain amount of cultural iconography to it, whether it is a geographical, ethnic, or internal personal culture. One wonders if we ought to take the tack of the fish farmers and accept a certain amount of disappointment or loss in our life as the result of the actions of others as a "given."

But the fact is, my beautiful flowers are someone else's weeds, and that's where looking at "criticism" comes in. The concept of "dispassionate criticism" is a place I've been trying to take myself lately. Do I criticize to assist others to live in the divine energies, or do I criticize because I see something as a threat? Historically, it's usually the latter.

I've seen a similar problem with my medical students in terms of having them do peer evaluations in lab exercises. They rank a person's participation in the exercise from 1 to 5 where 1 = was disruptive to 5 = very productive. I discovered right off the bat that the students who got anything but a 5 had a fit. Almost to the person, they said, "It's not fair I get marked down because someone doesn't like me." They equate anything but perfect as being a personal thing. They seem blind to the concept that what they didn't do perfectly might be something they need to work on, and not a personal attack.

It's hard to remember, I think, that the person who marks the other one down may truly like and care for them--but they still don't get a perfect score because there is something they need to address that could help them in their career.

Unfortunately, it only took them a quarter to learn to write down a 5, no matter what, and trust that everyone will obey "The code of the west" in the endeavor.

I'm pretty sure a loving God, at times, criticizes us. But in this criticism we are usually shown something better, not chewed out and put down. We are loved unconditionally, but that doesn't give us a Get Out of Jail free card for being shown the error of our ways. Like our medical students in my story, we tend to go personal. "Why don't you like me, God?"

Can we be brave enough to accept God's dispassionate criticism, or God's love in the midst of turmoil?

(Photo of skunk courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Psalm 45:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.

Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right; let your right hand teach you dread deeds.

Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;

you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;

your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;

daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house,

and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;

the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people

with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;

in many-colored robes she is led to the king; behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.

With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons; you will make them princes in all the earth.

I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.

Ok, I admit, I burst out laughing this morning on verse 8 when I did my Daily Office readings: "your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia."

That's because my house, my yard, and my dog Boomer faintly smell like skunk.

So reading a psalm about the wedding and love of a prince and a princess, complete with beautiful sights and smells, has a hilarious irony to it this morning.

I am reminded of a common admonishment that my grandparents used to tell me when I'm a kid, regarding things that are bound to cause trouble: "Don't poke a skunk."

The problem, of course, with skunks is that one can deal with the lingering evidence of the skunk's ire for days or weeks. Poor Boomer had to sleep outside last night. He might have to sleep outside tonight. I am ending up throwing all the plans for my day off to the side to de-skunk him.

But here's a fact about having dogs and living in the country. If you own dogs and live in the country, and you reside in any of several states in the "lower 48," you are going to have a dog get skunked once in a while. Dogs are kind of funny about skunks. They never seem to have a memory of being skunked. My late dog J.R. got skunked at point blank one time--so close it turned the white parts of his fur faintly green for a few days--but the very next skunk he encountered, he made a bee line right to it, with the very same results. J.R. was, without a doubt the smartest dog I ever owned in some ways--maybe the smartest dog I will ever own--but there's something about a dog's hard wired instinct of "Little critter...must attack and kill..." that even the memory of a hard lesson doesn't seem to take. I've read several articles that dogs don't experience linear time like we do, and literally retain no memory of things related to "time"--but one would think a dog would remember a critter encounter that went wrong. Interesting.

I, unfortunately, have poked more skunks in my life than I ought to have, and once in a while something totally unrelated will happen that brings to mind one of those skunks I poked, and the regret of those things will pop up now and then. Oh, the reality is that I am just as human as everyone else. I think every one of us pokes several skunks in our lives, as well as accidentally encountering a skunk who's determined to spray us even though we are not bothering it.

Regret is also a funny critter. I think the regrets in my life that are the more nagging ones, the ones that tend to pop up and revisit me, are the ones that have two ingredients to them. The first ingredient is my recognition that, as a rather intense person sometimes, I probably "turned the heat up" on the situation and, rather than being patient and letting the situation cook, like a pot of beans on low heat, I cranked up the heat and scorched it, ruining the whole batch. It doesn't even matter how much in the wrong the other person was--I cranked up the heat and ended up looking like a sick or crazy person...and really, in sick situations, we all get sick and crazy, temporarily.

The second ingredient is an incomplete sense of having made amends. That sense of having tried to apologize or seek forgiveness from the other person, and they can no longer trust me, and it all comes out hollow. I am generally über-reliable, and über-trustworthy, and to be distrusted becomes one of the strongest forms of abandonment for me. I can become obsessed with "proving" my reliability and trustworthiness, and well...we're back to that looking crazed and sick thing again.

Probably the one that drives me straight up the wall is the situation where there's been a "mutual hurting" between me and someone I care a great deal about, and I have been ready and willing to accept their apologies in it, as well as make a few of my own, and they'll have nothing to do with it. I'm ready to talk it out, emote it out, and truly start over, and it seems they'd rather have nothing to do with me because it's simpler. My guess is, the other person is thinking the exact same things about me, but there never seems to be a good place to start this process. So many times there seems to be a power structure attached, where the upper end of the power structure feels a need to still be "in charge" of the process, and the lower end of the power structure fears repeated triggerings of perceived slights that may or may not be real. I think that's why the rifts between parents and children are so profound, and so many times, the two parties independently, but mutually, choose to exist in this place of "fake niceness" instead, which only seems to drive the chance of true reconciliation further and further away.

But one of the things I thought about, today, as I read this psalm, and thought of that paradox of "beautiful smells" in the reality of the skunky smells in my yard, in my house, and on my dog, was just what perfume has in it. One of the ingredients in the most expensive perfumes is...yep...skunk or civet cat oil--a substance called butyl mercaptan. It's what "holds" the scent in the perfume so the wonderful smells don't disappear over time, and even sometimes enhance over time.

That odd thought gives me hope for all those things that have come in my life with painful regrets and incomplete amends. I like the idea that the same thing that skunked me has the power to hold enticing and enrapturing scents. But these things only come with time--time for the smell to die down--and they don't get improved by poking the skunk again. I can only pray for those things to reveal themselves.



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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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