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

(Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Reubens, 1611 or 1612, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 28, 2011)

Readings for Dec. 28, the feast day of the Holy Innocents:

Psalm 2
Psalm 26 (Morning)
Psalm 19
Psalm 126 (Evening)
Isaiah 49:13-23
or Isaiah 54:1-13
Matthew 19:1-14
or Mark 10:13-16

Sometimes, our liturgical calendar relies on myth more than we care to admit.  The story of Herod ordering the slaughter of all male children age two and under is probably one of those times.  The only account of this story is in Matthew 2, with no secular history to back it up--which, frankly, throws doubt into it being a factual historical event.  One theory is that it is a "morphing" of Josephus' account of Herod the Great murdering his own sons.  However, the lack of secular history doesn't negate the possibility it happened.  It could well have been this was such a minor episode in the reign of Herod at the time--remember, no one would have had the hindsight we do, that this child is the Messiah--no secular historian worth his salt would have cared about infanticide in a little berg like Bethlehem.  Infanticide was a common way to deal with one's enemies and to put down uprisings.

All the same, the people at the time the Gospel of Matthew would have been hooked on this story, because they would have been familiar the story of the Exodus, and with prophetic statements in Hosea and Jeremiah.  They had heard of "people out to get rid of the offspring of the chosen" before, many times. Regrettably, infanticide still exists in the world, so it still has the power to hook us, too.  Killing innocent little ones who have yet to experience the fullness of life is one of the most reprehensible things we can think of, when we think about the evil that still exists in this tired old world.

Yet we psychologically kill "innocence" all the time, more than we care to admit.  It's a rare person who has lived his or her life without someone trying to kill something holy and innocent inside of us because of envy or resentment on their part.  It's also (unfortunately) a rare person who has never felt the pang of jealousy and wanted to kill it in someone else.  Cain is still with us, I'm afraid.

Worse yet, we still, like the historical Herod--implode and order the killing of the innocent offspring of joy and hope within ourselves.  There would be no need of therapists, self-help books, and Twelve Step programs if we didn't order all these "killings" of the innocence of self and others.

Our readings today take us on a full tour of the emotional spectrum--joy, rebirth, barrenness, wrath, vindication, and singing.  But perhaps the most important message is in either choice of the Gospel when the disciples are told by Jesus to stop chasing away the little children and let them come.  It's our tendency, in this busy world, to inflate everything we do into Very Serious Business and push aside innocent things like joy and wonder and the heart tug of the "gee whiz" moment.  When we see those things in ourselves, we push them away--and although we may not actively kill them, there might be a place where they simply go off and die of neglect and starvation.  When we see them in others, in our own underfed state, it's too painful--so in jealousy we try to kill theirs, too, and often in a more active fashion than the slow starvation of our own.

When we embrace our own holy innocence, we change the playing field from one of scarcity to abundance, and suddenly there's room enough for all the innocent children to sit at the foot of Jesus.  Who's the hungry self-marginalized innocent child we should let draw near to us today?

(Photo of a row of tamarisk and hedge courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This post originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 27, 2011)

Readings for December 27, the feast day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist:

Psalm 97
Psalm 98 (Morning)
Psalm 145 (Evening)
Proverbs 8:22-30
or Isaiah 44:1-8
John 13:20-35

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,” and adopt the name of Israel. Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

--Isaiah 44:1-8 (NRSV)

To fully hear the depth of our reading in Isaiah, it's important to know a little bit about tamarisk bushes.  Tamarisks are pretty amazing, actually.  They're not exactly plants that would catch your attention right away--they are rather nondescript, willowy, and shrubby-looking.  But they can grow in the most inhospitable places.  Tamarisks can be found in the deserts of Albania, the rocky wasteland of the southwestern United States,  and along coastlines of all sorts of temperature regions.  They can thrive in places too salty for most plants--in fact, they merely slurp up salty, brackish water and spit the salt out, encrusting themselves in it, gaining the nickname "salt cedar."  When they are near a good water source, such as near a river, they drink like there's no tomorrow, up to 200 gallons a day, yet they are drought resistant, with aggressive tap roots that can break rock.  They can even be burned to a blackened stub and within weeks, green shoots will appear at their charred bases.

In short, they grow in places and situations where nothing should dare survive.  Their mention in Isaiah portends new life from the impossible.

As we swing from Advent into Christmas, tamarisks are a reminder of what we heard a few weeks ago--that "nothing is impossible with God"--but that this new birth might well be in a very inhospitable environment.  Although the bulk of our readings today are in the "praise and exultation" mode, today's Gospel--the betrayal of Jesus by Judas--stands in sharp contrast.  It seems an odd place for our Gospel reading--a betrayal in a season more associated with joy.  Perhaps, though, it's not so odd if we think about the tamarisk and its powers of renewal.  Tamarisks survive because of their incredibly deep tap root and their ability to find the deepest possible source of water.  They survive and thrive because they know just how far the bottom is, and how deep it has to go to get there.

Anyone who is an alcoholic, an addict, or a family member of one knows the full depth of what "hitting bottom" is all about, and that it is only in hitting bottom that the real recovery begins.  We don't seem to see that one when we are only heading to the bottom--we are too busy with the delusion we can slow our descent.  It's only when we hit that place where the breath is knocked out of us and we are lying flat that we ever really seem to address our addictions and codependencies.  Even then, we may find ourselves drinking salt water for a spell.

Yet, there's that crazy tamarisk--growing where it's not supposed to grow, drinking what it's not supposed to drink, and covering itself with a rind of salt, thumbing its figurative nose at the fates.  Is it any different from the times we have felt the movement of God within us under the weight of our own encrusted tears?  Even more important, when we hit bottom--and discover the flowing waters of our own baptism--are we ready to drink from it like there's no tomorrow?

(Trinity Episcopal Church in winter, Kirksville, MO)

(This post originally written for Daily Episcopalian, December --, 2011)

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

--Collect at the Prayers of the People, p. 395, Book of Common Prayer

When our parish had services on Christmas Day, 2010, only a handful of folks in the congregation could recall the last time we'd worshiped together on Christmas Day proper.  We always had services on Christmas Eve, but the best recollection was it had been "a few priests ago" when we had celebrated both days.  (Never mind it being a principal feast day; the excuse we always heard was "Truman's on break, and no one will be there.")

Given that we are located in a college town, and most of our parishioners either work at or attend Truman State University, we have an odd demographic when it comes to Christmas.  The campus holiday break assures that a good chunk of our parish will be out of town during that time, and it's also a safe bet that our nicely prepared Servants of Worship schedule will be missing a few lectors, chalice-bearers, acolytes, and folks to do Prayers of the People.  We often find ourselves "winging it" a little bit with the various lay roles.  Since the bulk of my relatives live nearby, I'm always around at Christmas--so I often become one of the people doing the winging.  I have joked that "I've played every position at our church but pitcher."

So those of us who showed up on Christmas Day that year were not entirely sure what to expect.  We weren't sure who was in town or not. It was a small intimate bunch, but the coffee hour was magic.  There was laughter and fun we never knew we could have at 11:30 a.m. on Christmas Day.

So I started actually looking forward to this year's Christmas Day service, and the subsequent coffee hour.  Was last year just a one shot deal, or was it the start of something new?  I admit, my "looking forward" was a little apprehensive in spots.  Would I be disappointed?

Ha!  It was even better!  We laughed harder and more loudly than last time.

What I'm realizing is, "something's growing."

As we start to do a few things together in terms of mission, as we have a few new people show up, there's a different kind of relationship we are all developing with each other.  It's part of how changing the focus changes people.  It's part of how congregational development is not just "numbers."  Sure, I'd like our numbers to be bigger--but I think over time, that will come in a modest way.  A telltale sign for me is that our coffee hour goes on a LONG time when we have those "small in number" services, compared to our usual Sunday attendance.  

It's a season for "birth," and I don't know what will grow from this, but I sense that things are birthing all around in our parish.  What will next Christmas be like?

(Photo of newborn infant clutching father's hand courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, December 25, 2011) 

Readings for December 25, 2011:

Psalm 2
Psalm 85 (Morning)
Psalm 110:1-5 (6-7)
Psalm 132 (Evening)
Micah 4:1-5, 5:2-4
1 John 4:7-16
John 3:31-36

The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.--John 3:35 (NRSV)

Our readings for Christmas Day are rich in physical imagery today, with Micah referring to "the mouth of the Lord" and physical acts of peace performed with human hands, such as beating swords into plowshares, and sitting contentedly under fig trees.  These acts performed by human hands are the prelude to our Gospel image that the world and everything in it truly exists in God's hands, through Christ, despite all our best human efforts.  We've sung it thousands of times, right?  "He's got the whole world in his hands."

The metaphor of hands is perhaps one of the most powerful ones we humans have going for us--we've all heard the insurance commercial where we are told we are in good hands (provided we purchased their insurance, of course.)  We use phrases like "pass the baton" or "hand it off to you" to describe transference of authority or power.  When we are in the midst of an unfolding tragedy, and don't know anything else to say, we often blurt out "Well, it's in God's hands now," in the hope that this image can be a comfort--the image of a God with hands big enough to hold all of what seems to be spilling out from between our own fingers at an alarming rate.

Isn't it interesting, though, that what we do in Advent, that culminates on Christmas, is we have been doing all this preparation with our hands in order to let go?

We make cookies and wrap presents to give away.

We prepare delicious meals to pass them around the table and enjoy others being full and satisfied.

But most importantly, we prepare once again for a wondrous birth and take all that we are and all that we hope us and the world to be--and pass it into the hands of an infant.

What kind of fool takes something that important, and hands it off to a baby?

Baby hands are fascinating little things--and what I've noticed is there are two things where one can count on for a baby to grasp like there's no tomorrow.  Babies hold on for dear life to the things that feed them, and the people whom they love.  I never fail to be amazed at how tightly a baby can hold onto my shirt (or, unfortunately, my glasses.)

No doubt--the transformations in our lives happen, not from our careful preparation, but from the act of letting go.  Oh, the preparation is important--very important--but it's the letting go that changes us.  We prepare for the birth of babies to prepare for the day somewhere around their 18th year, to watch them leave for college, the military, or a job.  We spend lifetimes with those we love to prepare for them to leave us in death.  We make plans for our lives to let go of them in disappointment or tragedy...and on Christmas Day, we place everything in the hands of a baby to take us on a journey to the cross, where those beautiful little hands will be pierced with nails.  We will rejoice mightily to see the return of those hands in Easter, but they return with the holes still in them--in solidarity with our own humanity and the wounds life has dealt us.

Today, Christmas Day, is the day that we hand it all off to the seemingly too-tiny hands of a baby.  May we feel those hands grasp our own fingers today with a grip that says, "I'll never let you go."

(This post originally appeared on Daily Episcopalian on December 24, 2011)

"If you wish to become a person of knowledge and moderation, and if you want not to be enslaved to the passion of self-conceit, always search among existent things (i.e., creation) for what is hidden from your knowledge, and finding many and varied things that have escaped your notice, you will be amazed at your ignorance and you will abase your presumption.  And, coming to know yourself, you will understand many great and marvelous things, because to think to know does not lead to progress in knowing."

--Maximos the Confessor

One of the things I really took to heart about Maximos' quote is that concept that we are changed in holiness by searching for hidden knowledge among already existing things.  It's been my experience that most revelatory things I've discovered have been things that I came to realize, have been in front of my nose all along and simply had failed to notice them.  I had an opportunity to experience those things in a new way one recent Sunday.

We have a member of our parish who has been physically unable to attend church for some time, because of her broken hip, and the fact that our building is physically inaccessible to her--so we have been taking turns bringing at least bits and pieces of the church to her.  Our priest brings her the Sacraments, and several of us have taken turns accompanying her.  On a recent week when it was my turn to go on this visit, I ended up with a rather large hunk of consecrated bread, because our priest was headed out of town, and we had more than enough in the tabernacle in reserve.  So I was left with this daunting amount of the Body of Christ to consume, and not enough appetite to do it in one sitting.  I ended up carefully wrapping it in Saran wrap and carrying it around in the pocket of my hoodie until I had enough appetite to finish it off.  So to make a long story short, this piece of consecrated bread got to accompany me on several of my afternoon errands all around Kirksville and on my Sunday afternoon walk down and back on my dirt road that I usually take.

Even though at the time this was happening, we were still a month and a half before Advent, I found myself thinking some very Advent-y thoughts--because there I was, with the Body of Christ snuggled against my belly, going here and there and everywhere--literally the theotokos of Adair County.

Now, generally speaking, I am already a person who tends to want to be obedient to the rules and the customs of the church, so I did not really expect to be changed by this exercise.  But as the afternoon played out, I kept noticing all the little things I was doing differently, simply because I was carrying a large wad of the Sacraments around.  I thought about how just looking at me, people would not know what I had in my hoodie pocket.  I found myself subconsciously keeping a hand on it, in my pocket, so it would not fall out.  I didn't have my usual verbal outburst at the person who cut me off in traffic.  Things just seemed unusually calm and peaceful that afternoon, even when I was dealing with the usual irritations of my life--and in a strange way, I felt...well...honored that I was entrusted to give the proper liturgical care to such a large remnant of our home Eucharist.  I called a friend of mine and even told her about the experience.

Then, all of a sudden, a giant recognition slammed into my brain without warning.  What I was being shown was a teeny-tiny glimpse of what Mary felt like when Gabriel told her the news that she was pregnant!  I had even subconsciously recapitulated telling Elizabeth (although I'd called a friend, not my cousin.)

In Advent seasons past, I've frequently thought about how unbelievable Gabriel's visit to Mary must have seemed, and had been puzzled that she was merely "perplexed," according to Luke, as opposed to the outright fear most people in the Bible get when they encounter angels.  I never understood why she was not full of disbelief, acting out, or even downright despair.

I sat there in my truck, I pulled out the bread, and stared at it in the Saran wrap, laughing to myself.  "I GET it now!"  Being told to take care of the bread by my priest was not a fearful thing, because I was pretty sure she trusted me with it and I was happy to honor that trust.  I walked around the streets of Kirksville unnoticed, but quietly protecting a treasure inside my hoodie pocket that would not have appeared to be a treasure.  I didn't feel the need to show it off because I did not want it to be mishandled or treated irreverently.

Suddenly for the first time I could identify with a Mary who understood somehow that Gabriel, an agent of God, trusted her on sight.  I could imagine her, as the Christ Child grew inside of her, being protective of him, and being a little grateful that she was rather inconspicuous.  It must have felt comforting to not have to deal with other people's projections of the unlikeliness of such a prospect.  The attention of such a thing would have been uncomfortable and would have put both of them at risk.  She would have told Elizabeth simply because she felt pretty good about the whole thing, and that's the kind of thing one only admits to folks one feels close enough to reveal such a thing.

When I finally got around to eating that bread, it was with gratitude to God for such a unique, yet ordinary way to come to that knowledge.

Advent is the time that we prepare for new births, new possibilities in our lives.  The trouble is, our habit is to tend to imagine those things in grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille terms.  The more likely possibility is that they exist in the tiny, mundane things of our existence.  Are we open to being awake to that possibility?

("The Prophet Amos" by Gustave Doré, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Readings for Sunday, December 18, 2011:

Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11)
Psalm 98 (Morning)
Psalm 103 (Evening)
Amos 9:11-15
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 13-17
John 5:30-47

Amos 9:11-15 (NRSV):

On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this. The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.

In our excursion into the Book of Amos today, I'm reminded of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."  These are, indeed, interesting times to be studying the words of the prophet Amos, as they reveal several weighty matters of social justice in his time, and ours.

At the time of Amos, roughly 750 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was enjoying relative prosperity, but not without a price.  The prosperity was partly due to the ruling classes exploiting and oppressing the poor and needy members of society, and much of Amos' prophecy consists of the condemnation of those in power for their ill treatment of the more defenseless, while the powerful lounge in the lap of excessive luxury.  Its message of social justice carries some spooky parallels with the news of today.

Today's reading, the last few sentences of the book, represent the one glimmer of hope in both Amos' "interesting times," and ours (although these last few lines, most scholars admit, were probably not authored by Amos, but rather from someone with perspective of Judah, the southern kingdom, and after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.)  If anything, they at least say, "It gets better."

The striking part to me in this passage is the revealing of something we don't always like to think about--restoring the Kingdom of God, is, at times, drudgery.  "Mission" is not always pretty nor is it always a feel-good proposition. Mission is often plowing brown earth with no green in sight, dropping in little brown seeds that don't even look edible, and stomping on grapes until we're purple up to the ankles, and not being around to see the finished product.

I think about some of the various forms of mission in which I've been engaged, both as an individual and as a member of my parish.  They've been things like cleaning moldy insulation and lying on my back with creepy crawly bugs under a recently flooded house, or helping a man sift through his tornado-leveled house searching for his cat.  The man with the cat still haunts my mind now and then.  I can still hear the hope in his voice that the cat was still around somewhere ("One of my friends is sure he saw him two days ago, right here at the house") and me looking around at the devastation, thinking, "Dude, I can't even begin to believe your cat is anywhere near this place."  Yet I kept looking with him simply because it was the one hopeful thing within a hundred yards worth grasping.  I still wonder if he ever found that cat.

I think sometimes about what we want mission to be, and what it is.  Our parish participates in a summer program that provides lunches for school-aged children during the summer.  In our "happy mind's eye of mission," I think a lot of us envisioned these reasonably well-behaved, polite, grateful little kids--cute little six and seven year olds--enjoying their lunches without complaint.  Well, we certainly had several of those, but I don't think all the carrot sticks we picked up at the end of the day, or all the peanut butter blobs we cleaned off the picnic tables were part of that fantasy.  We didn't think about the fact some of these "kids" were 15 year old girls with babies. (Yeah, that's "babies"--with an "s"--as in pleural.)  What we experienced and saw was a very stark reminder that we Middle America small town types hide our poor very well.

It's so easy, when we're tired, or grouchy, or in the mood to separate "us" from "them", to wish for a big fix to these problems, and think these little things we do are for naught, and even rationalize that we are only doing these things to make ourselves feel better.  We can take that line of reasoning and depress ourselves even further by saying all the good in the world we are trying to do is merely a cork in an ocean.  We can adopt a "blame the victim" mentality and say, "These people will never change.  Why bother?"

Amos' prophecies, however, call us to a different place--a place of restoration.  A place where the Kingdom of Interesting Times inches just a little pencil mark closer to the Kingdom of Heaven with every dirty hand and every stained grape-squashing foot.  We don't always recognize that the rambunctious child that flung her carrot sticks halfway across the park thirty years ago, might be the person who now delivers our mail, or fills our prescriptions, or teaches our own children.  We may not always see the fruits of our own labors, but we are certainly living in the midst of the labors of those before us.

Do we choose to be unaware of that possibility, or do we choose to make the best of the little things we do for others in the hope that something might change?  Perhaps when we choose the latter, "living in interesting times" becomes less of a curse and more of a fulfilled modern prophesy.

(Trinity-Kirksville's newest of the newly baptized, along with Bishop Stephen Dokolo and Bishop Wayne Smith, photo by Julie Seidler from Trinity-Kirksville's photostream.)

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

--Prayer in Times of Conflict, Book of Common Prayer, p. 824

Sunday, December 11 was a magic day in the life of my little parish.  Not only was it the day of our annual Bishop's Visit (it's always fun to have our bishop here to preach and preside,) he brought along three special guests--his wife, Debbie; Bishop Stephen Dokolo of the Diocese of Lui, in the Republic of South Sudan; and Bishop Stephen's wife Lillian.  The Diocese of Missouri and the Diocese of Lui share a companion relationship.  It was especially exciting that our visitors sparked something in us--a desire to connect with our companion diocese in a closer way.  There was talk at coffee hour of connecting us with a particular parish in Lui, and even more exciting talk of us asking ourselves if we dare consider the possibility of a group of us going to Lui in the future. 

There was one moment I actually felt a little sorry for our bishop.  We had two Communion stations so that Bishop Stephen could help distribute Communion.  I'm afraid most of us dissed our bishop to get in Bishop Stephen's line.  (I did.  I'm pretty sure Bishop Wayne likes me anyway.)  But it was important to me.  Many of you have heard the high stock I place on human hands when it comes to the Sacraments--I've blogged on it in all sorts of contexts.  It was important to me to have our visitor's and my hands and the consecrated bread to all have those few nanoseconds together.

Now back up a bit and you'll see why.

Y'all did hear me mention South Sudan, right?  As in the Episcopal Church of Sudan?  You know, those guys.  However, it's important to know that Bishop Stephen has a personal connection with the Diocese of Missouri.  As part of our companion relationship, he was brought to Missouri to Eden Seminary for part of his education a few years ago.  He lived in our diocese for a spell.

It's also not a state secret that Trinity-Kirksville is an Oasis congregation in the Diocese of Missouri.  We are very much an LGBT-affirming parish in every sense of the word.  

Yet, there we all were together, in the same worship space, at the same holy table, at the same coffee hour table, and talking of more possibilities of ways to share and learn from each other--because really, when you come right down to it, the things that Lui needs to be more present in God's world are things like water wells, and teachers, and health education regarding childbirth, infectious disease, and HIV, and grinding mills so women don't have to grind grain for hours on end in order for their families to eat.  Truthfully, I'm not sure the average Christian in Lui would think much at all about homosexuality except for certain people in their own church keeping it on the radar.  There are far bigger fish to fry in Lui, it seems.

I don't know what this most recent development between the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and our own Presiding Bishop means, just a mere week after South Sudan met Kirksville; nor can I possibly know what it means in terms of the future of all companion relationships between ECS and TEC.  I am sad--incredibly sad--about the news of our Presiding Bishop's "disinvitation" from the ECS--but it does not erase what I saw in my own church one week prior.

It's a complex and convoluted thing, this relationship our two dioceses share.  It was an issue at our Diocesan Convention in November--whether we wanted to continue this relationship--not just because of "the Sudan thing" but simply because some asked if the money wasn't better spent at home, or whether it is effective.  I wasn't at Convention, I can't speak to it first hand.  But what I've learned from someone who has had a dog in this hunt for a long time, my blogging colleague Lisa, is that her trip to Lui in 2006 transformed her--and she would have had every reason in the world not to be transformed.  One of the more eloquent explanations I've ever seen of why this relationship is valuable is this post she wrote in 2009.  Granted, it's a little dated, but I've yet to hear anyone explain it better.  

I'm also going to be up front that "the topic" never came up at our coffee hour forum, because, frankly, people were more interested in the relationship we were having with Lillian and Bishop Stephen.  We are who we are at Trinity-Kirksville--if you didn't know it outside the door, you'll know it in the narthex, because our Oasis proclamation is on the south wall of the narthex, right inside the door, in front of God and everyone.  On Sunday, December 11, it just didn't matter to the Dokolos and it didn't matter to us.  

No doubt--it's downright crushing to see what is going on between these two churches at a level far above me, because what I see from the altar at Trinity-Kirksville is that all things really are possible with God.  I can only ask God to hold all these things in his hands--hands big enough to hold the joy of Dec. 11, 2011 and the animosity of this shunning that ECS has inflicted on TEC.

What mattered to me personally was simply for our hands to briefly meet between a little hunk of consecrated bread, on a Sunday in Advent--the season of crazy, unreasonable hope--and what's crazier than thinking something like that has the power to do what all the press-inches online and purple shirt proclamations cannot, in bringing the Reign of God to this weary old planet?


(John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 1490, from The Edge of the Enclosure)

John is indeed a forerunner. He precedes without sure and certain knowledge of whom or what he is serving. He may not himself share the immediate experience of the salvation that has become present in Jesus; he longingly foretells it. What he awaits and expects overtakes him without really catching up with him in the sense of his seeing clearly what he was aiming at.

Surely we are all forerunners! We are all pilgrims on the wearisome roads of our life. There is always something ahead of us that we have not yet overtaken. When we do catch up with something, it immediately becomes an injunction to leave it behind us and to go onward. Every end becomes a beginning. There is no resting place or abiding city. Every answer is a new question. Every good fortune is a new longing. Every victory is only the beginning of a defeat.

Aren't we always dispatching messengers from the dungeon of our compulsions and disappointments? We send them to find the real thing, that which is ultimately valid, even though we do not really know where to direct these messengers of our unassuaged longing.

Everywhere, always, we are no more than predecessors. The goal of our journeying seems always to remain far ahead of us, to stay beyond our power and always to fade into new perspectives of distance, even when we think we are approaching it.

-Karl Rahner 1904-1984
Meditations on Hope and Love
Second Sunday in Advent (Year C)
quoted from The Great Church Year

This was the picture we used recently in a Theological Reflection in my online EfM class--a striking one to the ones one usually sees of John the Baptist.  I think it captures a lot of things that are part of what connect me to him.
There's no doubt whatsoever I dearly love John the Baptist.  He and Peter are my two favorite folks in the Bible. John the Baptist appeals to the side of me that loves inner fearlessness--the part of me that attracts me to the voyageurs, the mountain men, the Jedi knights.  These kind of folks have both an earthiness and a connectedness to the world around them that I have admired since childhood.  They are larger than life in some ways.

But what I love about this painting is there is no "larger than life" to John here.  It's clear this is not exactly a picture of John the Baptist.  It's just a picture of John--and it looks a little like he's simply trying to find himself a little bit, away from his legendary status.

I get that, in a very small way.  I have taught medical students for two decades.  There's a small legendary aspect to that.  There's a larger than life side of me than that.  My life has intersected with darn near 3000 students and residents in my career, roughly.  That's a small town.  I imagine many of them think they "know" me.  I have heard them tell me I taught them something or told them something, and when I hear what it was, I am pretty sure some of it, I never taught them that particular thing, or said it that way.  My clergy friends have told me that happens with preaching, too.

There's a place where if a person doesn't really stay in touch with him or herself, one starts trying to live up to the legend, and will always fail at it eventually.  None of us can live up to the larger than life people we make others out to be.

When I was a kid, I was hungry for role models, for various and sundry reasons.  I have always hung the moon and stars on those people.  Some of them were people I'd never meet--people like Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, and other various St. Louis Cardinals, or Katherine Hepburn.  Some of them were dead--like Harry Truman and Amelia Erhart.  Some of them were very real--like my grandpa.  With all of them, one eventually finds they have feet of clay, because, after all, they were human.  It wasn't always easy to deal with that.  I think about how kids are feeling now about Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels.  I get their disappointment.  I remember trying to get Stan Musial's autograph once when I was about ten or eleven years old and he was back for an Old Timer's day at Busch Stadium.  So much has been made about what a nice guy and a gentleman he is.  I think I got him on a grouchy day.  I didn't get his autograph.  Didn't even try.  I saw he was getting fed up with the autograph seekers in front of me, so I thought, "Why bother?"  I didn't want to risk the hurt of being groused at by a legend.  That kinda hurt--to see he actually could be crabby.  To this day, when they were showing him on TV attending the 2011 World Series, I still think of that.  Oh, it's no longer a big deal...but I still remember the sadness that realizing one of your favorite baseball legends is really, just a human being...and one who probably gets tired of signing autographs.

I imagine John the Baptist had to deal with some of that, being a charismatic sort of prophet and all.  All of us, at one time or another, have enjoyed our few moments of feeling bigger than life now and then...and then we realize it's easy to let our ego get in the way.  

But look at what else we see in this picture.  Behind and to the left, is the Lamb of God...sitting quietly...waiting patiently.  I like to think, "The Lamb waits patiently for us, even when we're being a horse's ass."  The Lamb will wait for John to get over his consternation of loss of sense of self.  The Lamb will wait for our big egos.  The Lamb will wait for our self-abasing beratement when we realize we've been a little too full of ourselves.  The Lamb waits when our patience is shot.

What's the Lamb waiting on you for these days?


(18th century Spanish compass courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As a lover of the outdoors, I'm fond of "Four Directions" prayers--where I face each of the compass point and utter part of the prayer.  I discovered some time after I was doing that, the Shoshone have been doing it for much longer than me.

After returning from an Advent Quiet Afternoon last weekend, I wrote this, and simply want to share it with you for your Advent prayer time.

Advent Prayer in Four Directions

(Note:  Although this prayer is designed for a time when one is outdoors, facing each of the directions of the compass with each stanza, it certainly can be said indoors, facing the four directions.  For the last stanza, you may face any direction you choose, or all of them!)

Come, Lord Jesus, from the North:
Come to me amidst the cold icy blasts and blizzards;
Come to me in the foggy dark grey cloud of unknowing;
Come to me in the pristine white snowflake;
Come to me in the guiding wink of the North Star.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Come, Lord Jesus, from the East:
Come to me as strangers came to you, bearing gifts;
Come to me with the new days and possibility of the dawn;
Come to me cloaked in the uncertainty of the shifting East wind;
Come to me in the dense habitation of the life I've led;
Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Come, Lord Jesus, from the South:
Come to me in the warm, gentle breezes;
Come to me when I am parched in the baking, dry, desert heat;
Come to me in the drenching, humid stickiness of my existence;
Come to me in the long, lazy evenings of summer that never seem to end.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Come, Lord Jesus, from the West:
Come to me in the prevailing winds, bringing what they may;
Come to me in the thunderstorm, with mighty lightning;
Come to me in the whirlwind's destructive power;
Come to me robed in the expanse of unexplored territory.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Come, Lord Jesus, from the vicinity of your choosing:
Come to me from the place you'd will and not from mine;
Come to me in my joy and in my sorrow;
Come to me in my peaceful serenity and my anxious strife;
Come to me in my shallow self and my deep holy longing.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!

(Pink Advent Candle courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, December 11, 2011)

Readings for Sunday, December 11, 2011:

Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11) 
Psalm 98 (morning)
Psalm 103 (evening)
Amos 9:11-15
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 13-17
John 5:30-47

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

--2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 13-17 (NRSV)

The Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes colloquially called "Stir-up Sunday," because of the collect.  ("Stir up your power, O Lord...") 

Here's my goofy little confession:  When I hear that collect, I always think of James Bond, who wanted his martinis "shaken not stirred."  I suppose James Bond would have preferred this to be "Shake up Sunday."  (Interesting aside:  Did you know why James Bond ordered his martinis that way?  At the time Ian Fleming was writing the Bond novels, most vodka was made of potatoes rather than grain, and the potato-made vodka left an oily residue on the top of the martini if stirred.  Shaking broke up the oily layer.  But I digress.)

Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, however, admonishes us as a body of believers to avoid shaking things up.  He seems to recognize the fragility of the church in Thessalonica.  One of the important aspects to remember about this body was that a significant number of its members were converts from traditions other than Judaism.  Its "Gentile-centricity" meant that aspects of Christianity rooted in Judaism could not be assumed in this church, and that significant teaching had to take place.  This was definitely a body of believers that needed to be stirred--not shaken.  They came from a variety of traditions.  Yet Paul shows a great deal of affection for the Thessalonians, addressing them as brothers or sisters fourteen times in 1 Thessalonians, and twelve times in 2 Thessalonians.  He uses endearing terms such as "beloved," to them.  He displays parental affection, both fatherly and motherly.  He describes his relationship to them as being like a "nurse tenderly caring for her own children."  It's easy to imagine Paul seeing this body as a sensitive child, one which needed a little more watchful supervision from a quietly safe distance.

Fast forward to 2011.  The Episcopal Church is at a place in its own life where most of its members have either come from another faith tradition, or no faith tradition.  Many times, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, talks about the importance of the "non-anxious presence" in our life together as Christians.  We are more like the church in Thessalonica than we are different.  Too many times in the history of the institutional church, "shaking up" was the modus operandi--but it's clear that as the census numbers of mainline churches decline, people are weary of being shaken up.  The various permutations of the Great Awakening traded heavily on shaking up--particularly when it came to making people feel shaky about their salvation, their eternal destination, and their sinfulness.  But the more I read about the places we are seeing signs of life and growth in mainline Christianity despite the decline in numbers, it's clear to me that it comes from ministries that stir rather than shake--ones who fold in the flavor of the communities in which they exist, along with the spice provided by empowered laypeople who understand their own fundamental priesthoods outlined in our Baptismal Covenant--along with clergy who are master chefs at mixing the ingredients.

James Bond's martini aside, let's ask the hard questions of ourselves this "Stir-up Sunday:"  What needs stirring up in our faith communities?  What ingredient are we as brothers and sisters in Christ?  How do we plan to take our turn at the handle of the spoon?

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 9, 2011)

Readings for Friday, December 9, 2011:

Psalm 31 (morning)
Psalm 35 (evening)
Haggai 1:1-15
Revelation 2:18-29
Matthew 23:27-39

One of the themes that jumped out for me in our set of readings today was "houses in disarray--" but I have to confess I probably have a personal reason for that.  I have been undertaking a major remodeling in my home since April--so it should come as no surprise that I heard the phrase from Haggai, "Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses," in a rather up close and personal way, not to mention the line in Matthew's Gospel, "See, your house is left to you, desolate."  As I write this, I have roughly 2.5 rooms in my eight room house that I would even dare to call "liveable."  The rest are either filled with boxes that I tried to label and now can no longer reach anyway, or gutted, awaiting my contractor's next move.

Now, most days I've survived this reasonably well--but there are days I've just been weary of it.  I'm tired of all the dust and dog hair--there came a place where "cleaning" just became a pointless exercise.  I'm tired of eating off of one set of dishes that I wash over and over in the sink, like it's the only dishes I have to my name.  (Well, they ARE about the only ones I can find.)  I'm tired of coming home to annoying surprises like the breakers flipping off or the furnace not working, and I'm tired of being unable to invite over anyone but my most intimate friends, who would not run screaming from the dirt and clutter and tell the entire town I'm one of those "hoarders" like they show on TV.  Those wonderful plans in my head of this rather monastic, but hospitable home I envisioned last winter seem so far away at times, I can barely remember them.

This remodeling project has been a very vivid reminder that "getting my house in order" is really hard emotional work, even when I am not doing the actual physical work of it, and some days the best I can do is simply bear it and start over again tomorrow.

Today's readings also speak of a great deal of the angst involved in misfortune, grief, and loss.  In Psalm 31, the Psalmist describes the angst of those times we feel abandoned and scandalized; in Psalm 35, that angst is transmitted into some heavy duty "smite my enemies" stuff that we can all identify with, but feel a little queasy that we can abandon our sense of political correctness so readily.  Revelation 2 reminds us of our own codependencies and what we will sometimes tolerate to the point we have lost the navigational frames of reference in our own souls.  Matthew's Gospel reminds us of the monuments we erect to self and ego, which in reality are merely whitewashed tombs, while the innermost core of ourselves goes hungry.

As much as the world focuses on the "happy" of the December holiday season, the icky truth is for many people, it is a time of despair and remembering loss--the popularity of "Blue Christmas" services attests to this.  I think the hardest thing for me, when I have been in that dark place of loss and despair, has been to resist the pressure of the world for me to simply shut up and act happy, ignoring my own pain and angst.  Likewise, when someone I love is in that place, I find it difficult to see them in that place and my mistaken tendency is to try to cheer them up or get them to ignore it, when in reality what they really need is to be in that place and exit it in their own time, and for me to merely sit with them quietly.

Yet, today, it's our Old Testament reading that shows the glimmer of hope, the light shining in the darkness.  We seldom venture into the Book of Haggai, but it's an incredibly interesting little gem in the books of the Minor Prophets.  Haggai dates from around 520 BCE, at a time the Jews had returned to their Holy Land from Babylonian exile.  The temple was in shambles, and various other problems--lack of sense of identity, drought, and a poor local economy--had delayed the rebuilding of the Temple.

Haggai enjoyed an unusual position as a prophet--folks actually listened to him!  As they began rebuilding the Temple, at first they only had his prophetic words by which to cling to hope. But as they began to work on the Temple, they began to see their fortunes change.  The Twelve Step programs have a saying--"Fake it till you make it."  With God's help, the Jewish people really did fake it till they made it.  Somehow, they were able to see both their past glories and their dark days with a certain kind of clarity, as well as hope in the progress of rebuilding.

Putting our houses in order can never be an angst-free or despair-free proposition--nor will their rebuilding be perfect--but we can learn to appreciate the special clarity darkness provides as a backdrop for seeing even the tiniest glimmer of light.

(Lithograph of the 1883 eruption and explosion of Krakatoa (now Krakatau,), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

About a month ago, I had posted about my ongoing relationship with anger.  This month, I'm dealing with anger's cousin--impatience.  Of course, leave it to Advent--the season of expectant waiting--to have something in me bubble up and bother me.  The worst part about it is, when Impatience pays me a visit, she often starts by reminding me--even congratulating me--for how long I have been patient.  Then she starts using phrases like, "codependent," "chump," and "doormat."

I have been known to really rail at God after one of my visits from Impatience, "You know, God, I've been doing ok with this thing here, but are you like, really getting that I'm truly impatient about this situation that's been bugging me?  I really have been patient--patient for longer than I'm usually able.  I've been pretty good with it.  But how much more of this can I take?  I have not blown a gasket.  Not yet, anyway.  But you're pushing it, here.  You're not answering.  This is NOT FAIR."

I was recently expressing my impatience over this situation that is bugging me to my blog friend Elizabeth.  What started as a vent ended up with her saying that she saw some form of liturgical parody in me brewing, and I had to laugh, because she had seen right through me.

She's right--one of the things I have started to do with Impatience is turn the tables on her.  Make fun of her.  Try to simply wave at her, make fun of myself, and move on.

Many of you who read my blog know I often express sentiments by re-writing bits of the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter, and various canticles.  I learned a long time ago that parody is the great equalizer.

So without further ado, I give you...

The Song of Impatience (with apologies to Psalm 13)

How long, O LORD?
will you forget me for ever? *
    how long will you hide your face from me?

How long shall I have impatience in my mind,
and irritation in my heart, day after day? *
    how long shall my impatience triumph over me?

Look upon me and answer me, O LORD my God (right now, if possible;) *
    dampen the fire in my eyes, lest I spontaneously combust;

Lest my irritation say, "I have prevailed over you," *
    and my temper rejoices that I have fallen.

But I put my trust in your mercy (reluctantly;) *
    my heart is joyful because of your saving help.

I will sing to the LORD (rather grumpily at first), for he has dealt with me richly; *
    I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High--

But I am singing, "Lord, give me patience*,
and give it to me now.  right now, right now, right now."

(Icon of St. Nicholas, 1294, Lipnya Church, Novgorod, Russia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 6, 2011) 

Readings for the feast day of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, December 6:

Psalm 145:8-13
Proverbs 19:17, 20-23
1 John 4:7-14
Mark 10:13-16

In reality, we know next to nothing about Nicholas.  We know he was a bishop.  We know he was tortured and imprisoned under the emperor Diocletian.  We have modest evidence that he could have attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325.  That's pretty much it.

We do, however have intimate knowledge of the modern permutation of the legendary Nicholas, in the guise of St. Nick, aka Santa Claus.

Most of what we attribute to our modern Santa comes from legend involving Nicholas--things that endeared him to sailors, pawnbrokers, and most importantly, children.  Many of the stories involving him are about giving money to those in need.  The most spectacular legend about him (and my personal favorite) is the one where he raises from the dead three boys who had been killed and stuffed in a barrel.

We say we know who Nicholas was, but really, we know his larger-than-life, legendary shadow.

Our readings today focus on the disenfranchised--the poor and children--in both our Old Testament reading and from the Gospel.

We certainly know some legends about poor people, don't we?

Poor people are lazy and don't want to work.
Poor women are promiscuous and have lot of babies by different fathers.
Poor men are irresponsible and can't be depended upon.
Poor people by definition, do drugs, and drink a lot.  They smoke a lot, too.  They are poor because they spend the money they have on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.  They go to the ER and have drug-seeking behavior.
Poor people really aren't THAT poor, because in the U.S. they are often fat.  They have cell phones.  Some of them have bigger TV sets than mine.  Some of them drive nicer cars than mine.  They're not poor.
Poor people will always be poor.  They don't want to help themselves.

There are two things I know for sure about legends.  One is that somewhere in the legend is a kernel of truth.  The other is, legends are easier to buy into when I have never met or interacted with the people of the legend.

That's the problem with legends.  Sometimes there's a lot of baloney wrapped around that kernel of truth that obscures why the kernel of truth got there in the first place.  Unraveling the baloney is tiring, a lot of work, and the amount of work involved is daunting enough to discourage us from ever accepting the possibility that there are other ingredients in this roll, and that there is a possibility that by changing some of the ingredients, the lives of individuals trapped in the legend can change for the better.

Now, as it worked out, the legend of St. Nicholas worked out to be one mostly used for good.  It's good to have a legend where generally, it encourages us to be kind and generous to others, and it comes at a time of the year where I always hope the generosity of the season sticks with all of us.

But there's a problem with the St. Nicholas legend.  The world of St. Nick's evolved character, Santa Claus, is also a world where all we have to do is make a list of our wants, be nice for a little while, leave out some cookies and milk, and we will get what we want.  After all, we were "deserving" because we could manage to be nice for a little spell, right?

Happy legends are comfortable.  They make us feel better.  We don't have to move much outside ourselves to exist within them.

We can get that way a little bit about Legendary Jesus, too.

Legendary Jesus--rather white and fair for a Middle Eastern kinda guy, in a clean white robe, and with more teeth than a person of that era ought to have.  Wouldn't hurt a fly.  Loves the little children.  All the children of the world.  Oddly enough, it's those truck stop gift shop prints of "Jesus and the children" that distress me the worst.  Oh, these days those kids come in various colors on that print, but it's what is NOT in the picture that bugs me.

There are no mentally challenged kids.  There are no kids with physical deformities.  There are no kids scarred by abuse, no kids dirty from neglect, no kids fearful of Jesus because a man who looked a little like him sexually abused them.  There are no kids with bruises because the other kids bullied them.  There are no kids wondering about their sexual orientation.  There are no visibly malnourished kids.

The obscurity of Nicholas reminds us that there was probably much, much more to his life that was real, that would ask us to go deeper to love him the way we love Jolly Old St. Nick.  In that, we should be reminded there is much to following Jesus that goes much deeper to feeling good as Christians about Legendary Jesus and calls us to get a little dirty searching for the truth of the message of Real Jesus.

(Photo of the new US 63 bypass in Kirksville from the dashboard of my truck)

(This post originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, December 5, 2011)

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

--Isaiah 40:3-5

Not long ago, one of the most exciting things for me in my rather sleepy rural northeast Missouri lifestyle was the opening of the new US Highway 63 bypass near Kirksville.  As a child, one of my secret pleasures was getting to ride on a new road the day it was opened.  It always seemed futuristic, full of opportunity and promise.  New roads almost always cut through a rather sparsely inhabited area, and with no billboards up yet, it always had a rather pristine quality to it.  It was like seeing an unlimited future of potential sprawled in front of me.

So it should not surprise anyone I thought about the new bypass a lot.  Really, it was overdue for decades.  Making a left turn on US 63 had become impossible in Kirksville at certain times of the day, and many stoplights on the road could easily be filled from traffic light to traffic light.

Unfortunately, it only took me about a day to get around how this new road was going to change things that had become my routine for eleven years.  Every day, for eleven years, I drove to work by getting on US 63 and driving for about six miles, turned right on Potter St., turned left on Osteopathy St., and taking Osteopathy to the hospital complex.  Every afternoon was the reverse--Osteopathy to Potter, to 63.  Suddenly my routine was changed to US 63, including the new bypass, turn right at Route P, continuing on Route P (which changes names to Northtown Road,) and then turning left on Osteopathy.

I had no trouble making these changes going TO work--it was coming home FROM work that was the trouble.  Every day, for weeks, instead of crossing Potter St. to get to Northtown Road, I would instinctively turn right onto Potter and then left on what is now the "old" 63, and without fail I would forget to turn right at Route P.  I would get past the P turnoff, and invariably forget, and be heading north on "old" 63.  Unfortunately, the northernmost access point to the bypass is not finished, and the "old" 63 temporarily dead-ends.  So day after day I would realize I had gone too far, turned around, and headed back to get on the bypass the way I was supposed to.  I was always thinking about some leftover from work, and miss my turn flat.  I would then spend the rest of my trip home berating myself over my stupidity.

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for the second week in Advent often have the theme of "repentance."  In Biblical Hebrew, the words used for repentance literally mean "to change" and "to feel sorrow"--in Biblical Greek, "to change one's consciousness."  My nightly error became a regularly repeating reminder that changing one's consciousness is not as easy as one would expect.

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly adaptable and flexible person, and quite frankly, a bit smarter than average.  My chosen career rewards me for solving puzzles accurately and quickly (although not fast enough by some surgeons' standards, at times.)  So this nightly gaffe became my latest exercise in sheer frustration.  I would find myself cursing a blue streak at myself the moment I passed the P turnoff.  Normally, my fifteen-to-twenty minute drive home is the treat of my day.  It's a time I generally unwind and leave my work behind me and switch from the business of being the busy professional to the quirky hermit.  Instead, I was ruining my evenings by fuming all the way home.

Then, one day, I remembered a frustration in my residency twenty years ago--learning to cut a frozen section.  For the uninitiated, a frozen section is when the surgeon sends out a piece of fresh tissue from a surgical case and asks the pathologist, "What is it?"  We freeze the tissue in a device called a cryostat, then cut the tissue in the cryostat on a device called a microtome, stain it, and render a diagnosis.  The patient is asleep, and time matters.  The answer may change the course of the surgery.  In my residency, I remember how for ages I couldn't cut a slide to save my soul.  I felt the weight of all the pressure of doing this in a timely fashion.  Then one day, miraculously, I walked in and cut a frozen section like I had been doing it for decades.  I simply had done it enough times that I could do it without thinking.

So, in like fashion, I quit putting pressure on myself.  I decided that I'd simply laugh at my gaffe, turn around, and go home.  Within a couple of days, my brain and body had made the switch.  I was driving home the "new" way.

The problem with repentance is we have this tendency to think it's a one-time process, and that at the end of that one time we should have it all figured out, and we can move on.  That's almost never the case.  Our intent and our will is for it to be over and done with, and instead we find ourselves repeating the same misguided act or mentally dredging up what led us to repent in the first place...over and over...and over and over some more.  We berate ourselves for our stupidity.  We curse the darkness.  We begin to place more and more pressure on ourselves to be "good," or tack an insanely short time frame goal for it to happen.  Only until we accept our own humanity do we actually begin to repent, and only over time do we begin to take the new way home without thinking.

If only our Gospel accounts of John the Baptist had been written down--just once--with John saying, "Repent!...again...and again...and again some more...and don't plan on getting it right the first time."  How much turmoil would we have saved from being schooled in this simple fact of the process of change?

Eucharistic Prayer C tells us that again and again God calls us to return.  It only stands to reason that if we generally don't hear it the first time, we should not be surprised if we don't "get" it the first time when we respond to what we've heard--and the first part of "getting" it is being able to forgive ourselves and leave enough room to do it.  If we do it enough times, something is bound to change.  After all, we humans are creatures of habit.

When we prepare a highway for the Lord, we need to remember it wasn't built in a day--nor will we get used to it in a day.

("Zechariah Writes Down the Name of his Son," by Domenico Ghirlandaio, from the Icons and Imagery blog)

(This post originally appeared in Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, December 4, 2011) 

Readings for Sunday, December 4, 2011:

Psalm 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalm 114, 115 (Evening)
Amos 6:1-14
1 Thessalonians 5-11
Luke 1:57-68

Luke 1:57-68 (NRSV):

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. 

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them."

One of the more interesting parts of running a hospital laboratory has to be the variety of names attached to the various specimens and samples.  Sometimes I can roughly guess the age of the person by their name.  It's a safe bet that someone named Pearl is likely to be Medicare-aged.  The name Tab is a dead giveaway that the patient was probably born sometime in the late 50's or early 60's, and a person named Karma is apt to have been born around 1969.  There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but it's a fun work pastime.

Then there are those names that I can't help but think, "You named your kid THAT?"  In my career, I've encountered a woman named Velveeta, a whole family where all the boys were named Otis, and enough unusual spellings of common names it sounds like a sci-fi convention.

The Bible, it seems, has an unusually high number of stories where the story revolves around something or someone being named--whether it's the initial naming, or people who get a "new" name once some dramatic thing has happened to them.  Our Gospel reading is one of those stories.  What strikes me in this story is that it is clear Elizabeth knows what the name of this child will be; yet well-meaning friends and relatives keep telling her otherwise.  

It does seem a little odd that they want to name the child Zechariah--generally, modern Ashkenazic Jewish custom disapproves on naming children after living relatives--a long standing superstition suggests it will either invite ill health to the elder relative.  At the very least, if the elder relative misbehaves, the child's name is stained by it.  However, Sephardic Jews don't follow that custom, so the significance of this is uncertain.  (Or is this part of the story signifying that when Zechariah could no longer speak to God in the temple, he was "dead" in some way?)

Once again, we are shown the power that exists in the act of naming.  Nothing in life is more disquieting than uncertainty.  But when we know the names of things, we begin to deal with them.  People go in for biopsies and don't know "what's wrong with them."  When I examine tissues and make a diagnosis--give it a name--even if the name is attached to a bad diagnosis, the person with the illness at least "knows what they have," and can begin to move to a place of completion with it.

Imagine Elizabeth's frustration in that she knows what this baby's name should be.  She knows the "diagnosis," and everyone is telling her otherwise.  How many times have we been stuck in situations where we have a name for what is going on, or we know what our feelings are about it, but everyone else tells us otherwise, or chooses to assign feelings to us, or project their own stuff on us?

The other striking thing in this story is that Zechariah is the only one who believes in what Elizabeth is saying, and even though he cannot speak, he writes "His name is John" in support of her position.  One can imagine poor Zechariah, wildly gesticulating for someone to bring something for him to write with and upon, looking like he's having a seizure--even pounding the tablet with his finger for emphasis and glaring at everyone.

When Zechariah does this, a miracle occurs--his muteness is removed from him.  It's a reminder that believing--and acting--on another's conviction has the power to free us from our own paralyses of speech.

As we ponder this story during Advent, in the light of our own stories, where are the places that we know the names of things but others keep telling us otherwise?  Where are the places we need to believe in the convictions of those we love even if it seems we have been struck mute?



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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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