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

(Andrei Rublev icon of the three angels being hosted by Abraham, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, January 29, 2012) 

Readings for the feast day of Andrei Rublev, Monk and Iconographer, January 29:

Psalm 62:6-9
Genesis 28:10-17
2 Corinthians 2:14-17
Matthew 6:19-23

Genesis 28:10-17 (NRSV): 

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Just as Jacob saw a window into Heaven and a means to provide a means for a flow of traffic between the realm of God and the realm of humanity via "Jacob's Ladder," Andrei Rublev devoted his life to creating a ladder between those two realms via iconography.  His process for writing icons is outlined in Holy Women, Holy Men, page 196:

For Andrei, writing an icon was a spiritual exercise. It involved the ritual of preparing the surface, applying the painted and precious metal background and then creating the image, first outlining it in red. Throughout he would repeatedly say the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”). He was creating a window into the Divine which he knew was always before him but which was invisible to the human eye. He knew he was able to create such an image of God because he himself was made in the image of God. His object was to be totally focused on receiving God’s love and  loving in return.

In 2010, I decided I needed an icon for my prayer corner in my house, so I turned to a modern iconographer, Luiz Coelho, to make that happen.  What I had discovered by pondering many famous icons, including those of Rublev, was that sometimes the iconographer hooked the viewer to the icon via renditions of cities or places at the time the icon would have been written--creating a ladder between antiquity and the present.  I was stunned that Luiz was able to do this by means of my Facebook photos, linking Mary as Theotokos, and the image of the young Christ as teacher, with iconic renditions of vast pasture, my church, and my red pickup truck drawing nearer to Mary and Christ on a ribbon of U.S. Highway 63.

What I've come to realize via using this icon as a window into the Divine, is that icons demand of us the same painstaking process Rublev used to create his icons.  First, we are asked to strip ourselves to our barest wood and to imagine ourselves in divine terms--to imagine God's view of us as part of God's good creation, and to allow God the Iconographer create that image in the setting of a discipline of regular prayer.  The hardest part, however, is to allow that image to be viewed by others, and to trust that they will see what they need to see when they view us.  When we are icons of the Body of Christ, we aren't allowed the luxury of projecting what we wish others to see--it requires being comfortable enough to trust that the scratches and misplaced brush strokes are part and parcel of this divine icon.  We don't get to force the image we wish, upon the hearts and minds of others.  Instead, we are invited to trust that the image is a sufficient window, and allow others to make their own choices about that window.

What is God telling you, when you feel brave enough to pray through the holy icon of you, as God sees you in Divine Creation?

(Photo of Penn State's Joe Paterno and Temple coach Wayne Hardin, 1988, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, January 27, 2012) 

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly

beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou

wouldest be pleased to make they ways known unto them, thy 
saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for

thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and

governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call

themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and

hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in

righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly

goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed,

in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers

are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve

them according to their several necessities, giving them patience

under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their

afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

--Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men, Book of Common Prayer, pp. 814-815

Truthfully, I've tried to emotionally distance myself from the whole "Penn State thing" as much as possible.  Everyone who knows me, knows I am a huge sports fan, especially when it comes to my St. Louis Cardinals and my Mizzou Tigers.  But mostly, I suspect the world of Division I college sports is a lot like politics, the institutional church, and sausage--one shouldn't really watch any of them being made if one wants to enjoy them.  But the recent illness and death of Penn State Coach Joe Paterno in the past few weeks reminded me of how convoluted and sticky the business of contrition can be.

"Contrition" is one of those words I tend to lump in with words I think of as "Roman Catholic" words.  My best friends growing up, who attended Catholic parochial schools, used the word far more than I did.  It's a word that isn't so out in the forefront of our Anglican sensibilities, although it's certainly in the Book of Common Prayer, particularly referring to the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

I've really stayed away from having opinions about the Sandusky story at Penn State, and have been content to let the legalities of this story play out, and to simply pray for "healing of all involved."  The above prayer, despite its non-gender inclusive old school Prayer Book language, is very rich in that regard--when I know wrongs have been committed, evil has been done, and I can't even begin to imagine what was going on in the minds of everyone involved.  It is hard for me to think beyond the pain of victims, and this prayer snaps me back to a fuller understanding of the things that happen in the world that are just plain wicked.

My confession is it was easy for me to throw a rock at Paterno when this broke--so I stayed as emotionally far from it as I could.  After all, I usually view legendary powerhouse teams with a certain amount of disdain.  To me, the latter part of Paterno's career was more about Paterno the Legend than it was about anything human about him.  I probably thought of him more or less as an "auto-icon" of himself, in the vein of Jeremy Bentham--really dead, mounted and stuffed like Trigger, in the museum of Happy Valley.  I am normally not a judgmental person--in some ways astoundingly non-judgmental considering I make a living judging things to be "benign" or "malignant"--but I knew to enter too far into this story created emotions in me I did not want to approach.

So I was surprised at how I felt the pathos and the discomfort of Paterno's final interview with the Washington Post.  It was clear that this scandal had an effect on him.  It was clear that we were viewing a man who knew his last days on earth were imminent, but it was too easy just to brush this off as a person cutting some deals his his last days.  The public nature of this last interview, frankly, made me uncomfortable--probably because I got more glimpse than I needed of someone else's private demons.  It felt like an over-share of grand proportions, and I found myself wanting to turn the volume down on the audio and look away from my computer screen.  I found myself wondering why he chose this public route to find his private contrition, when I knew it would do nothing to assuage the hurt and anger of many, or even change their minds about the complexity of this one iota.

But as I've contemplated this piece of the story, I've come to realize that it is part of why our Prayer Book has "A Prayer for All Sorts of Conditions of Men," and the various prayers that lead our community to pray for those people and situations and conditions that our raw pain and blind anger sever any means for us to see a picture beyond the auto-icons of our own egos.  It's also why we have the Reconciliation of a Penitent--to provide a means to humanize what our nature is to dehumanize, to add a sacramental layer to transform attrition (shame and guilt arising from fear of punishment) to contrition (from the Latin conterere, literally "to grind or to rub.")

In short, contrition is a process of being ground down, and the reason we find ourselves averting our eyes at the sight of the discomfort of others, I believe, is the memory of the times we've been ground down, even if the event in question is nothing we've ever personally experienced.  In short, when we pray for all sorts of conditions of humanity, we are praying for ourselves, because we feel the chafe, all the same.

("The Conversion of St. Paul,", Michaelangelo Buonarroti, 1542, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Jan. 25, 2011)

Readings for the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25:

Psalm 19 (Morning)
Psalm 119:89-112 (Evening)
Isaiah 45:18-25
Philippians 3:4b-11
Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10
Acts 9:1-22

"Saul/Paul and the road to Damascus" is very likely etched indelibly on the brains of most Christians, and honestly, there is very little I can say about this archetype of the Christian conversion experience that hasn't already been said, and by people far more erudite than me.  In fact, the story of Saul/Paul's conversion, for many of us, is the polar opposite of our own experience of "encountering Jesus."  It's probably the decided minority of us that have ever heard God actually speak to us and lead us to repent and change our attitudes and behaviors towards Jesus.

Really, the only conversion I know very much about at all, has to do with another of my passions--college football.  In college football, one of the most exciting things (especially in the fourth quarter of a close game) is that a kicked point after touchdown is worth one point, and one that is run or passed across the goal line is worth two points.  In fact, in the NCAA overtime format, once two teams have reached triple overtime, it's mandatory that the two point conversion be employed.

Various sources attribute the success rate of a two point conversion between 40 and 55 percent.  The two point conversion, in college football, creates a risk/reward between the win and the tie, or the win and the loss.  It has been so extensively statistically studied that in the 1970's, when Dick Vermeil was coach at UCLA, he actually developed a formula of when to "go for two" that is still cited and used in college coaching today.

Perhaps that is really the crux of the Christian conversion experience--when in our lives do we simply take the easy near-sure thing and "kick for one" rather than "run it for two?"

I'm afraid in the world of spreading The Good News In Christ, the institutional church in the past century, has been too complacent to "kick for one"--and the result is declining membership in the mainline denominations.  The non-denominational megachurches, however, "run for two" at a rate far more than their mainline counterparts.  The result is often increased membership.  However, the flip side of that is recent studies show that this "increased membership" is often the result of shifting alliances rather than new converts.  Megachurch attendees shop--and when they are no longer entertained, they move on.

Of more concern is the data in recent Gallup polls that show the numbers of people who attend church hovers at 30 percent year after year, but the number of people who never attend church continues to increase.

This is just a guess on my part, but it seems to me that a worthwhile strategy to explore in sharing The Good News In Christ and teaching people to desire that as a lifelong proposition is to first examine our own lives.  When are the times in our lives in Christ that we risked "going for two?"  What did we learn as a result of both our failures and successes?  Did we use our two point conversion attempt wisely or foolishly?

Likewise, when are the times we really needed to kick for the relatively safe point after touchdown?  Did we do that, or did we get impatient, risk going for two, and fail?

Perhaps then, we should extrapolate it into the lives of our parishes in terms of outreach and evangelism.

When is the last time your parish took a decided risk in "going for two" in terms of reaching out to the disaffected, the lonely, and the marginalized?

(Illustration from Blake's Book of Job)

The Song of Abject Disconsolation
(with apologies to Job 3)

"Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,

my hope and anticipation was palpable, but it did not come,
and now I am utterly eviscerated;

I would rejoice exceedingly,
if you would just shoot me now, Lord, and get it over with.

Why is light given to one who cannot see the big picture,
whom God has fenced in with a stubborn mind?

For my sighing comes like my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.

Truly the thing I have hoped for has been snatched from me,
and now emptiness befalls me.

No food, no movie, no liquor makes me at ease or quiet;
I have no rest and no consolation; but disconsolation comes."

Once again, my blogging pal Elizabeth threw down the gauntlet and, of course, I could not resist picking it up.  Her large and quite blended family always celebrates Christmas sometime during the season of Epiphany--"Little Christmas" is what I believe she calls it.  The plans were for all to meet up in Massachusetts.  She had already started making all the delightful dishes her kids and Ms. Conroy's kids love and look forward to eating.

Then Mother Nature had other plans and dumped eight inches of snow on the NE Corridor.

She was grousing a bit on Facebook, and I said I ought to come up with a Song of Abject Disappointment to go with the Song of Impatience I did a while back.  Her suggestion was it should be a Song of Abject Disconsolation, because it sounds more Anglican.  I had to agree there.

Well, within 20 minutes I had put the above together.  (I don't know why, but there's just something that goes, " click click...ding!" in my brain when I get challenged to parody something close to me.  I know it irks a few folks when I parody the Bible or the BCP--but I am not worried about my immortal soul on that one.  I'm pretty certain God gets a chuckle.)  Of course, nothing screams "disconsolation" like the Book of Job.

Really, it was therapeutic.  I have both a long relationship and a long non-relationship with "disconsolation."  I can go from zero to despair in 30 seconds at times.  But I realize for me, it's a sign of my recovery.  Somewhere down the line I had learned to be numb to disappointment and disconsolation.  There's a place, I think, when people you love continually make promises and continually break them, because of their addictions, or when they say "I'll help you" and they just push you down in the mud because they're psychologically sick, and they choose to pass the sickness down the line rather than allow it to be transformed, that a lot of us simply quit feeling it, because it hurts too damn much and it slows things down.

But when I became numb to that, I also became numb to the power of joy.  I became numb to the good will and actions of the people who tried to be supportive of me, and blind to their loving kindness.  I became numb to trusting God and trusting others.  I became numb to the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, God has something better in mind.  

In short, certain kinds of disconsolation rendered me numb to the potential of transformation in a way just as deep, just as piercing, as the hurt was.

So now I understand that I have to feel it.  When I began to have deep feelings again on a more regular basis, it was very difficult at first.  Sometimes it felt like being attacked with knives.  But I have come to understand, that when disconsolation shows up on my doorstep, I have to go through my awful morose-ness, and like Job's friends, I have to put up with my well-meaning friends telling me to stop it.  It feels so empty for a spell--not a numb kind of empty, but a probing, deep form of empty.  

But then one day, somewhere down the line, when I'm not looking, hope springs up, green and beautiful, like catching a glimpse of the first crocus of spring.  Then I look at it and go, "Huh.  Well, I'll be damned."  Then I laugh long and hard, and rejoice, and say, "Oh, you're such a putz sometimes.  You had given up on this happening."

Disconsolation is a crappy houseguest.  It eats the last piece of cheesecake in your fridge, leaves crumbs on the coffee table, and doesn't change the TP roll in your bathroom.  I'm not even sure it flushes.  But it only stays as long as you feed it.

("Abram and Lot depart out of Haran" from Figures de la Bible, 1728, illustrated by Gerard Hoet, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, January 22, 2012)

Readings for Sunday, January 22: 

Psalm 63:1-8, (9-11)
Psalm 98 (Morning)
Psalm 103 (Evening)
Genesis 13:2-18
Galatians 2:1-10
Mark 7:31-37

Genesis 13:2-18 (NRSV):

Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. He journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord.

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.”

Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

In a time that we are hearing a lot of discussion about "the 1%" and "the other 99%," the story of Abram and Lot takes on new dimensions.  We are shown right off the bat that too much of a good thing is...well...too much.  Both Abram and Lot seem to be doing quite well in the livestock trade--so well, in fact, that it's creating a strain on the area resources, and causing a lot of tension between Abram's herders and Lot's herders, which almost certainly had to create tension between Abram and Lot.  This isn't even a case of "The farmer and the cowman should be friends," it's a case of "The cowman and the cowman should be friends." (Or shepherd...or goat roper...take your pick.)  

But somehow, the topic of "Maybe we don't need so much livestock, and we should both manage this land more responsibly," never came up.  After all, that meant either Abram or Lot might have to have less, and I suspect each one was making book on the other's inventory as much or more than his own.  Only until the land is depleted does Abram get around to approaching the problem.

At the time of this story, by rights, Abram should have first pick of where he will choose to take his people.  But he gives Lot the choice.  To the left are the plains of the Jordan, home of at least five major cities, and it's no coincidence that this is described in Genesis in Eden-like terms.  To the right is the hill country of Caanan--a more rugged and secluded territory.

As Lot surveys the scene, we're once again shown what too much of a good thing can do to a person.  Lot hastily takes dibs on the "better" territory.  Of course, we'll find out later in Genesis that heading towards Sodom might not be the best choice, but we have the advantage of hindsight on that one.  It's also important to consider that human nature reveals at times our "magnanimous" behavior isn't always as magnanimous as it seems.  I call it "The Mismatched Pieces of Pie Gambit."  I admit that there are times I really would like the larger of two pieces of pie with a guest in the house, and that little "greed critter" in my brain gets an idea.  "I know," I think to myself.  "I'll offer them the choice.  If they're a 'good' guest, they'll take the smaller piece and leave me the bigger one."  But every now and then, the doggone guest goes and takes the bigger piece, and then I feel a tad put about about that.  How dare someone take my generosity at face value and choose accordingly when I was really trying to outfox them a little!

I imagine after Lot made his choice, Abram felt a little like I do after a failed attempt at the Mismatched Pieces of Pie Gambit.  I suspect Abram looked over at the dust devils swirling around in the Hill Country of Caanan and felt rather put out about that--a lot more than I do about a slice of pie.  One can almost feel the resentment building up as we read the story.  But God steps in and essentially tells Abram, "Don't sweat it.  It doesn't look like you got a good deal at the moment, but remember--I'm the God who makes all things new, and your people will eventually be better than good with this, when it's all said and done."

There are a lot of places that "too much of a good thing" can take us, and most of them are not good.  It can take us to a place where we deplete everything around us and cause strife.  It can take us to a place where "reasonably happy" is not good enough, and even pales in the light of our desire for "supremely happy."  It can take us to a place where we choose the greedier choice at the other person's expense.  It can blind us to our own greedy nature and make us think that playing The Mismatched Pieces of Pie Gambit is really "generosity."  Yet, God has a way of working with all that and transforming us just the same, if we let God take control.  Ultimately, the facts are that Abram gave Lot the choice and Lot took it.  How is God working with both your "offers" and "choices" today?

(Originally written for Jan. 21,2012 Daily Episcopalian)

(Photo:  Prostate needle biopsies as they appear stained for routine microscopic examination)

"Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again--then, at last, we are ready to worship God."

--Barbara Brown Taylor, from "When God is Silent"

One of the most basic, crucial parts of my job, in terms of what matters to the patient, are the words I speak into our dictating system that create the written record of the surgical pathology report.  Until the moment my thoughts and impressions leave me and become words that can be shared, they are useless to the patient.  Once spoken, dictated and signed, the patient and I have entered into a covenant.  The patient has offered up a bit of flesh and I honor that by creating words that name it.

So you can imagine the office-wide consternation a little while back when my transcriptionist met me at the door with what I call the "Now, don't blow a gasket," look.

She took a deep breath and blurted out, "All your 'grosses' from yesterday are gone.  They can't find them in the dictating system anywhere!"  She was referring to what's known as the "gross dictation"--where I actually open the various biopsy and specimen containers, describe what's in them, state what is submitted for processing, to be turned into paraffin-embedded tissue blocks and, subsequently, slides for microscopic examination.  We had been suffering massive computer woes in the office and the files of what I had dictated had disappeared from the server, beyond retrieval.

Needless to say, it was incredibly frustrating that words I've come to depend on, were suddenly absent.

One of the things we discover after we've grown in our Christian faith for some time, is that there will suddenly be a time that the words we've come to depend upon in the Bible, from the pulpit, and from each other in the gathered community, are also suddenly absent.  Perhaps we've encountered a tragedy that has shaken our faith.  Perhaps it is the departure of a rector whose homiletic skills hooked us in an authentic way to God.  Perhaps our best friend in the parish died or moved away.  Perhaps it's simply that little edgy gnawing that our prayers seem to be going nowhere and God is silent.  We look up and realize the screen on our spiritual GPS is blank, and the little voice in it is going, "Recalculating...recalculating."

For most of us, our first reaction is panic, and all the subsequent actions that go with it--fight, fright, or flight.  "Sit still and work with this" is generally NOT the action we take.

I know what I would probably be doing if that were my GPS.  I'd be yelling at the little voice, for one thing.  I would project that it was displeased or irritated with me.  I would be calling it some rather foul names (I've been known to do that with my GPS)--and I'm pretty sure when it got absolutely intolerable, I'd grab it from its cradle and bang it up and down on the dash.  But I also know I'd never have stopped the truck--I'd have kept on going in whatever direction I was headed and possibly be endangering other people with my multitasking.  Not exactly the brightest move in the world, is it?

I would have been carrying on at how IT is not talking to ME, yet not hearing what it WAS saying to me..."Re-calculating," as it dug into its memory and got instructions from the satellites.

On the day I lost all my gross dictations, I had to re-create my "grosses," relying on my memory, coupled with what I could perceive from what I had available.  Now, with the larger specimens, that's fairly easy--I could always go back to what's left of the actual specimen and do things like re-weigh, re-measure, and re-look.  But with the smaller specimens--the small biopsies that were entirely submitted for processing--I could only look at the slides we made, and estimate the number of pieces and the size of them, which isn't entirely accurate.  Tissue shrinks about 10-15% during processing.  They are no longer the color they were at the time I saw them.  I am trying to recall them in three dimensions based on a rather two-dimensional slide.  I could only make my best guesses based on that and my memory, and the factual truth is that these re-created dictations are not as accurate, but luckily that level of accuracy is not all that germane to the diagnosis.

 In short, once I signed the report, the "truth" about those gross descriptions was no longer their actual physical measurements and appearance of the tissue; it was the memory of them that went into the signed record and became the legal and medical truth.

Recalled truth--a truth forged from memory--has transformational power.  In fact, we engage in such an exercise each time we celebrate the Eucharist.  We hear in the Words of Institution,  "Do this for the remembrance of me."  The times we are spiritually dry or blank invite us to enter into an ever-growing collective memory that stems from the memory of the Last Supper and continues to expand each time the Eucharist is celebrated.  We are not required to remember anything on our own--only to trust its own power to transform--and accept the revelations that emanate from it.  Are we brave enough to sit still and let it re-calculate for us?

(Illustration of the Maldives Islands folk tale of the heron, by Xavier Romero-Frias, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Psalm 37:1-18:

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *

do not be jealous of those who do wrong.

For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.

Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *

dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

Take delight in the LORD, *
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *
and he will bring it to pass.

He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *
and your just dealing as the noonday.

Be still before the LORD *

and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *

do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

For evildoers shall be cut off, *

but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more; *

you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land; *

they will delight in abundance of peace.

The wicked plot against the righteous *

and gnash at them with their teeth.

The Lord laughs at the wicked, *

because he sees that their day will come.

The wicked draw their sword and bend their bow

to strike down the poor and needy, *

to slaughter those who are upright in their ways.

Their sword shall go through their own heart, *

and their bow shall be broken.

The little that the righteous has *

is better than the great riches of the wicked.

For the power of the wicked shall be broken, *

but the LORD upholds the righteous. 

I have to admit; I've been in a mood.  I have had three or four things brewing in my life that feel like "people plotting against me," or at the very least, "the mean people plotting against the good guys."  I particularly find myself becoming more and more that way at election season, particularly at certain candidates.  But once in a while, I get that feeling that there are vandals at the gates.  There have been some difficulties at work, at church, and in my personal life, and it's easy for me to start thinking that I have a target on my back.  It's all I can do, sometimes, to focus on simply changing myself rather than chase down the motives of others.

I wonder sometimes if that is also part and parcel of the mood that often precedes Annual Meeting in Episcopal parishes all over the country.  Annual meeting is, frankly a lot of work--especially for clergy, senior wardens, church secretaries, and church treasurers.  Among the people I lovingly call "my Episco-geek" friends,  I have heard dozens of horror stories about Annual Meeting.  They range from carefully scripted clergy attacks (both the kind where the clergy are attacked or the clergy is doing the attacking,) to influential lay folk pushing an agenda, to factions in the church going medieval on each other.  At the very least, Annual Meeting is when some difficult truths sometimes are revealed in a more public way--budget cuts, pledge shortfalls, program eliminations, or serious and straight talk about "mission vs. maintenance."

Annual meeting, for me, is this weird mix of good food, hopeful planning, and occasionally painful revelations--and it's always too long.  That is no one's fault, that's just me being impatient.  I am so used to the carefully scripted hospital committee meeting where everyone understands everyone has to get back to the clinic or the operating room, or in my case, back behind the microscope.  We tend to work all our business behind the scenes, one on one and in small groups, via e-mail and hallway conversations, so the goal is at the meeting itself it is very businesslike and fits within the time allotted.  I am not accustomed to meetings where things come up I may not have known about or are asked to consider with no advance notice.  I am not very good at it, honestly, because I know myself well enough to know my initial reaction is not always my final opinion.  Mistakes I have made in the past by displaying my initial reactions have taught me that my poorly thought-out reactions have created a level of polarization that doesn't need to happen.

When emotions fly around the room, it's hard for me to discern "what's real" in a short period of time.  I think all of us in parishes hold some things in the life of the church closer than others.  To question their value or utility or expense feels a little like those evildoers the Psalm above mentions.  Sometimes an honest, but perhaps slightly blunt question feels crass and personal.  I think about how maybe all of us who attend an Annual Meeting need to simply accept what might fly out of someone's mouth (or ours) might not be their last word or final thought on something, that we just let those emotions or reactions sit on the table and cool off a little.

I have thought a lot lately about a folk tale that comes from the Maldives about a heron.  It goes like this:

On the scenic island of Maakana Fushi in the Maldives, a heron was standing on the beach when suddenly his dropping was washed away by the sea. "Hey sea!" he shouted, "why do you take away my turd, it's mine!" 

The sea was surprised, but answered: "Well, bird, it's true I took your dropping, but I will give you a wave instead."

Splash! The bird took on the wave and settled down on the beach. Not far from him a group of fisherman were trying to push their boat into the sea. This upset the heron. "Where is my wave?" he demanded to know. The fishermen replied, "Yes, we used your wave, but instead we shall give you a fish."

Whack! The fisherman slapped the fish on the wet sand, and the heron took it in his beak. 

He sat down next to a group of youngsters enjoying themselves while making music. They had been playing drums for hours, and were hungry. "Hey guys, look," said one, "that bird has a fish. Let's take it and make fishcakes."  

So they snatched the fish from the heron, and of course, the heron complained again: "That is my fish you took!"

In exchange, the youngsters gave the heron an old drum. The bird was now very keen to hide the object so that nobody would take it away from him. 

So he flew onto the highest branch of the tree, and started playing the old drum with his beak.  "Dah-dam, dah-dam, dah-dam," went his beak on the drum.  He played it harder and harder, faster and faster.  He played so enthusiastically that he fell off the tree and broke his neck...and there he lay, dead...the old drum lying next to him.

It reminds me that none of us own anything in a parish.

We so often talk about ministries in "my" and "our" terms.  We talk about "our" money in stewardship.  If any of the things dear to us are threatened, we act like it's been taken from us personally.  We take things like a budget cut cutting a program close to our hearts as a statement that our efforts are not valued.  But none of it was ours to begin with.  It was God's all along.  We don't ask if things build up the Body of Christ as much as we fret about us not getting to do "our" thing.  We lose track of the big picture.

Is it worth breaking our necks over?

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian on Jan. 15, 2011)

My heart is pounding, my strength has failed me, 
And the brightness of my eyes is gone from me.

--Psalm 38:10 (from the BCP Psalter)

Psalm 38 seems to be one I hear in my parish's Morning Prayer service each Wednesday more than most.  For some reason, as the Daily Office works its way through the Psalter, Psalm 38 often falls on a Wednesday.  The main reason I notice is because I'm always on the lookout for verse 6--"I am utterly bowed down and prostrate..."--if I'm the least bit sleepy or distracted, I slip and say prostate instead of prostrate...and when I hear verse 10, I almost invariably think, "Hmmm.  Sounds like anemia to me."

One of the constant medical truisms I try to pound into medical student, intern, and resident heads is that even though anemia has a diagnosis code in coding and billing systems, anemia is not a "diagnosis" in the true sense of the word.  Anemia is a symptom.  When we encounter anemia in patient, it's important to remember that it's a symptom of something else gone wrong, and try to figure out its underlying cause.  Is someone anemic from iron, Vitamin B12, or folate deficiency?  Is there a gastrointestinal bleed?  Is the patient elderly and chronically ill, with an ever-dwindling functional bone marrow, simply because our functional bone marrow is replaced by fat as we age?

The other thing about anemia--particularly the more chronic, insidious forms of it--is when someone is chronically anemic, their body adjusts to some degree to the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cells.  Chronically anemic people "get along just fine" if they live a sedentary life, at hemoglobin levels that would leave most of us dead dog tired and feeling terribly run-down.  They don't even notice they are becoming more anemic until it is so severe they are short of breath and their heart rate is increased--and then they often thing something more terrible is wrong.

I know there are two particular times in the liturgical year where I am prone to being spiritually anemic.  One is in Time After Epiphany, and the other is in that draggy time of what I call "The long green season"--the tail end of Time After Pentecost.  

For me, the first one is more of an acute anemia--like that caused by blood loss--where I think all the waiting of Advent, followed by hubbub and hoopla of Christmas and Epiphany, pitches me into a place where I know I'm tired, and need a nap, and I spiritually crash and snooze.  A lot of times, I'll drop or get lazy about a spiritual practice.  This scared me at first.  I was afraid I'd drop a practice and then just push it aside.  But over time, and with the work of a good spiritual director, I had this put in perspective.  Just as I used to crash and sleep for hours post-call in the days of my clinical training, I have come to realize that's just a "post season" thing.  It's a fact humans eat when they're hungry and sleep when they're tired, and relieve themselves when their bladders and colons are full.  We probably do these things in our relationship with God, too.  Lent becomes a time I "get back in spiritual shape."

The second one--that tail end of the "long green season"--for me is more of a chronic anemia.  I have slowly "adjusted" into minimally unhealthy thoughts and occasionally find myself "zoning" through my prayer time and Scripture reading.  I don't mean "zoning" like when I am in the deep prayer place--it's more like "I'm sleeping standing up."  That is a type of anemia where it's dangerous for me to just think I'll nap and get over it on my own.  I have come to learn that is the time I most need the interactions with my faith community, and need others to inspire and buoy me (and occasionally kick me in the shin and yell, "WAKE UP!")

The fact is, every person of faith goes through anemic times.  Perhaps they cycle with the church year, as mine seem to do, or they are more insidious dry or plateau-type segments in our lives.  It's important to understand that this is part of the cyclic nature of life, and not a failing or a pathology on our part.  Anemia is not always a sign of loss or "drainage," or "deficiency."  After all, people get anemic when they're pregnant, too.

It's more important to see anemia as an invitation to spiritual self-awareness, and to consider what we need to do (or not do!) when it comes upon us.  It also begs the reverse question--when we are feeling spiritually robust, how are we available when someone else feels spiritually anemic?  Are you called to be the transfusion someone else needs?

(Medieval woodcut of a female physician making a cut for bloodletting and scarification, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(This post originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, January 15, 2012)

Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Then he went home;

--Mark 3:7-19 (NRSV)

Most of the time, when I've read this passage, it's never one that garnered much of my attention, but this time something new shot to the forefront of my mind--there's at least a possibility that more than twelve people went up the mountain, and what we do know is that twelve were chosen as apostles.

It gets one's spiritual imagination going, doesn't it?  What transpired from that day in the lives of the ones who "didn't make the cut?"  We don't know how many Jesus called to come up the mountain that day.  We just know twelve were chosen to follow him.  We don't know if others were chosen for different tasks, such as returning to their home towns and telling about the miracles, and this man Jesus.  What we know, is, perhaps only a small part of the story.

Thinking about these possibilities can lead each of us back to a time in our own lives when we were not chosen for something we desired.  I remember a time towards the end of my residency when I was courted by a department chair with a national reputation as a pathology textbook author, at a prestigious teaching hospital.  I began to already imagine myself in that position.  It was a time not long after I had returned from three months in Washington DC at the now-defunct Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.  Living in DC, even temporarily, was enjoyable and exciting (although expensive.)  I was ready to try my hand living somewhere else other than Columbia, MO.  I was already imagining the move and looking at real estate ads in that city's paper.

As it turned out, the position never materialized.

It was one of my first lessons in how even people with powerful national reputations don't get everything they want, which, in this case, meant I didn't get what I wanted.  I was crushed for a spell.  I was already assured a job at the University of Missouri, but I also knew this job would come with the baggage that accompanies "staying where one trained," and that there was very little year-to-year job security with it, and very little pay, comparatively, and one where I would never find a real "niche" that is so necessary for advancement in the large academic medical setting.  It was a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none position, and non-tenure track, and most likely the first to go in a budget cut.

Yet our Psalms appointed for the morning reading speak to great joy, and unending praise.  Where's the joy in seeing our heart's desire disintegrating?  Our emotions in such things are closer to our reading in Genesis--a giant flood that seems to kill everything inside of us.

Perhaps the key lies in today's reading from Ephesians.  Paul reminds us of the power of gifts of the spirit--that the gifts of some benefit all of us in the building up of the Body of Christ.  Sometimes we have no way of knowing whose gift is building us up, and we also have no way of knowing how the things in our lives in the present--even the disappointing things--are slowly, unknowingly equipping us for building up that body in a way we cannot even imagine.

In my own case, the "lesser" job I took because I had nowhere else to go, brought me the gift of a particular senior pathologist who was a patient teacher, a man who often looked the other way at my inexperience, and became my most trusted and beloved colleague.  The irony in it was during medical school and residency, I thought he was a fool.  He equipped me in many things I use in my present position today, and there's not a week that goes by in my life and work I don't think of him in the frame of something he taught me.  That "lesser" job gave me the tools to have the breadth and confidence to feel comfortable and secure in my present position--one where I am solo many days of the week and have to exercise diligent self-awareness of what my strengths and limitations are in my present practice environment.

By swallowing my ego, and becoming the willing pupil of the person I originally brushed off in the job I felt was a losing proposition, I became transformed.

Failures, delays, broken dreams and disappointments often comprise the dough from which transformation arises--if we are willing to trust in the possibilities of a God who continually makes all things new.

(Picture of pocket lint courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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

When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away, saying, as it were, “Why weren’t you this for me? Why didn’t life do that for me?”, we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God.

When we set out to seek our private happiness, we often create an idol that is sure to topple. Any attempts to protect any full and private happiness in the midst of so much public suffering have to be based on illusion about the nature of the world in which we live. We can only do that if we block ourselves from a certain degree of reality and refuse solidarity with “the other side” of everything, even the other side of ourselves.

--From "Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr," pages 5, 7

One of the odd roles of the inner office space of the hospital pathologist is best described as "pastoral space for physicians under the guise of coming to get biopsy results."  I can't remember the number of times the conversation on the other side of my two-headed microscope started out being about "the biopsy," but by the time the other physician leaves, I've heard way more than what I needed to make the diagnosis about the patient.  I've heard a shaggy dog story about the patient's family, the chain of events that brought the patient to this place, and mostly, the physician's own frustrations about it all--particularly when the patient is what we call "The non-compliant patient."

I particularly find myself functioning in this pastoral role with the young interns and residents and clinical medical students--young and eager and full of knowledge, oh, so very sure what the patient needs to do, and incredibly exasperated that the patient is not doing it, or was in such denial that things are a total mess at the time the patient is admitted.  Yet it's the rare patient who is even 50% consistent with the instructions the physician gives.  My mind often wanders back to bits and pieces of the hundreds of prospective medical student admission interviews I've conducted over the years.  I've yet to hear a candidate for admission say, when asked to describe a day in what they think life will be like as a doctor, "I'll go to the office some days and have to deal with patients who don't listen, patients who are late for their appointments, patients who are upset about the bill, and patients who display drug-seeking behavior."  Without fail, they always describe a shiny, happy practice, with a waiting room filled with people, who, as my late grandmother used to say, "have sunshine streaming out their butt."

It's interesting that, even though the doctor-patient relationship is really a covenant, we use that term "compliant"--as if the patient's responsibility is the sum total of the relationship.

Although Rohr's quote above is intended for the setting of Advent, and Lent is nipping at our heels, it's very appropriate when we ponder that little demon of "failed expectations."  All we see is a sliver of another person's life at the time we encounter them--and in the case of the non-compliant patient, we have little to no clue of the complexities life has dealt that person.  Perhaps the patient missed the appointment because she was up all night with a sick child.  Perhaps the patient isn't listening because his thoughts are distracted by the worsening health of an elderly parent.  Perhaps the drug-seeker is so enmeshed in his addiction that he is becoming violently physically ill.  Perhaps the person angry about the bill just lost a job, or cutbacks are coming.

We tend to be pretty quick in judging "the other"--probably because, as with all complexities in this life, there's just enough of a kernel of truth in there to affirm our judgments.  The fact is, a certain percentage of the time, the non-compliant patient is, indeed, non-compliant because (s)he hasn't learned a certain core set of life responsibilities, or doesn't want to learn them.  The fact is, sometimes people smoke and drink too much because sometimes they simply would rather smoke and drink than change.  The fact is, some people are morbidly obese because they like eating too much to stop.  The mistake, however, is believing these attitudes are carved in stone for a lifetime, and the worse mistake is claiming any power or authority to fix them.  Although being a doctor gives me insight in how to live a healthy life and a call to spread a gospel of the good news of health, it gives me no authority whatsoever in forcing my beliefs and choices on others.

As my spiritual director pointed out to me one day, when I was annoyed at someone not living up to my expectations, "You said yourself this person isn't normal in this regard; so why are you angry when this person doesn't act normal?"

The non-compliant patient, in this view, becomes a mirror--what do I need to consider about my expectations of others in light of a God who probably finds me rather non-compliant?

(Photo of Will Rogers courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."--Will Rogers

I had to chuckle at both this story and the mention of it in The Lead.  We recently had a bit of a theological quandary about the prayer list.  Without going into the story too deeply (I really don't care to "out" anyone, because I think it was all done with a sincere heart and great earnest-ness) the short version is this:  I am the editor of our parish weekly e-news and one of the "keepers of the prayer list."  What is a person supposed to do about a dog showing up in the prayer list requests?

Now, bottom line was that the dog was not placed on the prayer list, but the owner was.  But there was a staggering amount of discussion I ended up entering into and a discovery that this was a very visceral topic.  I found out a lot about who in my parish thinks that dogs and cats at least, have souls.  (We did not extend this conversation beyond dogs and cats, so mercifully, we did not get into the eternal ensoulment of white rats, goldfish, and boa constrictors.)

But what this discussion did was really ask me some very basic and unanswerable questions about the nature of the soul, the nature of my relationship with God's creation through my pets, and what it really means to be a keeper of the prayer list and the trust I have been given about the souls of the individuals in our congregation.

Let me start with my own viscerally held belief.  I truly believe that my dogs have souls.  I believe that all created beings have them.  (One of my friends and I can be irritated at the drop of the hat over a line John Spong once used in one of his books about saying dogs didn't have souls.  We laugh that out of all the controversial things John Spong has said over the years, that's the one we want to fight with him about.)  Unfortunately, the Bible is rather mute on the topic.  It's clear that the Bible speaks quite openly about people having them, but it's a little vague about the rest--only a couple of references like in the Psalms with lines about man and beasts being saved, things like that--which tells me whatever we choose to believe on the topic is not a deal-breaker with our own salvation.

However that belief comes with some incongruities, then, on how well I acknowledge the ensoulment of all living beings.  It means I believe cows have souls--yet I eat them.  It means I believe skunks have souls, yet I shoot them when they are too near my house.  It means I believe mice have souls, yet I gleefully set out mouse traps and live to hear the snap of their demise when the little boogers have invaded my house.  It means I believe ticks and spiders have souls, and I squash them with no guilt or shame whatsoever.

What it all boils down to, I think, is that we are not simply stewards of creation--we are all part of creation and we interact with the rest of creation in a variety of ways.  Some of these interactions are good, some bad, but probably most are rather indifferent, really.  Perhaps it's not so much about the brass tacks of that interaction than it is how we change our interaction with humans as a result of these intersections with creation. 

My two dogs are a window into what I'm capable of in loving others, and the unconditional love that dogs have for "their" people influence me in how to love unconditionally.   Worrying about their ensoulment (or not) should be a lesson in how we cannot control and micromanage others.  Are we ready for this kind of radical inclusion?

(German woodcut of a monk using a scribe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian on January 9, 2011)

“There were times when I was amazed by my own boldness in expressing my views about the novel, and still more amazed by the indulgence with which a brilliant writer used to listen to these almost childish remarks and opinions.”

--Anna Grigorievna, transcriptionist for Dostoevsky's book The Gambler, from her Reminiscences

Not long ago, I began to realize in a new way that "Dictation and transcription" is fast becoming a lost art.

I'm pretty spoiled in my little office.  I have a transcriptionist who has been translating spoken ruminations from behind microscopes into surgical pathology reports for over 40 years.  Really, she knows what I say, and how I say it on the most common types of specimens, that on occasion she will stick her head in my office and go, "You said such-and-such on that skin lesion you dictated but when I heard the description, didn't you mean this-and-that?" and most often she is right.  She and I also both have the skill of starting to read through an old report and, before we get to the signature line, know which pathologist signed out the case--even when it's an old case done by my former associates.  We have both worked so long paying attention to what folks say and how they say it, we know things between the lines.  I can go back through one of my present associate's reports and tell if she is feeling hesitant or edgy about a diagnosis.  She can tell the same with me.  There's an odd little intimacy in how we speak words for the world that betray bits and pieces of ourselves.

Modern voice recognition software, and transcriptionist work outsourced to transcription pools in India, is changing this into a less intimate production in some ways.  Yet I can see a trend moving back to a few old things in communications in general--the business of speaking our words rather than keying or writing them.

Many of the memoirs penned until the invention of the typewriter were not penned at all--they were spoken to scribes.  I even discovered a great term from antiquity for this function--amanuensis--from the Latin servus a manu, literally, "Slave at hand."  The slave was literally supposed to write exactly what was said.  I suppose, ideally, the slave was supposed to do this with no input, but my guess is it was more what Grigorievna described--or what my own transcriptionist does--stop and go, "Say WHAT?"  I am sure a good amanuensis created a layer of community and accountability to the speaker.  It might also surprise us that many cultures at the time of the Bible used female slaves as scribes.  We tend to think of women of that time as largely unable to read and write, but for slave women, this was a pretty good job, I imagine, and it brings an interesting possibility to light--that some slave women became more educated via osmosis of their job description than the more privileged or "free" ones.  The relationship they had with the person doing the dictating would possibly have been a position of influence.

Now, our modern permutation of this, via things like Dragon Dictation for the iPhone, doesn't do this (well, it does excise the curse words...) but it does bring back an old, almost lost distinction in communication--the notion that what communication that springs from our mouths is different than what comes from our hands.

What the modern permutation lacks, however, is what I'm going to call "the amanuensic process."  Things like Dragon Dictation only have a twice-removed human layer in which the programmer worked on certain assumptions that may not be true in an individual case.  

It dawned on me that when we read or study the Bible, we don't really consider the amanuensic process of how it came to be, very much.  We also tend to forget that these stories were told to each other multiple times before anyone bothered to write them down.  I think many of us have this notion that these words shot out of God's mouth into the author's ears and they were transcribed verbatim (in King James English, of course.)  Even if we don't really believe that, it's a pervasive mindset that these were a series of solitary inspirations.

Thinking about the amanuensic process of how the Bible came to be, really opens up an interesting door in how we understand it.  It means that from its very beginnings, this set of books that we come to regard as the heart, soul, and backbone of our faith, were forged in relationship with each other, even if these relationships carried a power differential.  It also raises the reality that these relationships weren't perfect--I am almost certain there are probably spots in the Bible that are the equivalent of Celie spitting in Old Mister's lemonade from The Color Purple.  But I'm just as certain that there are places where the "good scribe" looked up and said, "Are you SURE you want to say it like THAT?" and a discussion ensued, that made those words more understandable.

Could it be that, as we begin to return to the idea of speaking our words to the electronic scribes in our smartphones, that we are going to become more attuned to the relationships that created the words of the Bible?  Could it be that this notion was the part of the Bible we were supposed to understand more fully rather than quibble about the words themselves?  It's an interesting proposition, isn't it?

(Logo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, January 8, 2012)

Readings for Sunday, January 8, 2012:

Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Genesis 1:1-2:3
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:29-34

Evolutionist that I am, I can still never say enough about the story of the Creation in Genesis, and never fail to hear it as a story of absolute beauty.  It is still one of the most marvelous set of strings of words in all of written thought, both for its simplicity and complexity.

So my next sentence is going to sound incongruous:  I believe in the story of Creation with all my heart.

Oh, not in the sense of days and order and "Poof!  There's a horse!" but in the sense of believing in a God who is intimately in the creation business.  Every time I read this passage, there's something new to see--not just what is said, but what is not said.

Ever notice the one big "no comment" in this story?  It's here:

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

We see that the light is good--but the darkness is "no comment."  Now, we are not told the darkness is bad, either.  The darkness just is.  Two paragraphs in, God separates the two.  The illustration is that they are two entities--one good, one neutral.  But then a few more paragraphs down the road we see:

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

The darkness does not remain entirely separate in this story for long--it is punctuated by light.  Oh, there's still an ultimate separation of light and darkness of some sort, but where the Earth is concerned, there is never total darkness, but only periods of greater and lesser light--which, as far as Earth is concerned, insures that light will always prevail.  It reminds me of the words of the Taizé song La Ténèbre, "Our darkness is never darkness in his sight, the deepest night is clear as the daylight."

Each of us have a different notion of what we fear about "total darkness," but for me it's this:  In total darkness, one cannot even tell if one is alone or not.  I could be six inches from someone else, but enmeshed in the delusion that I am alone, deluded in a lie that I am separate from all creation, and from God.

In this story, we are reminded of one of the most simple, yet profound truths about the relationship between God, creation, and us--The Light of God is always with us, even if it's a mere trickle from our vantage point.  Believing in the story of creation has far more to do with believing in the constancy of light and the presence of each other in it, than it does worrying about literal days and disappearing dinosaurs.

What changes for us, in our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other, when we accept the truth that there is no darkness, only greater and lesser views of light?

("The Three Wise Men Going to Bethlehem," by Franz Xaver Merz, fresco on the ceiling of Windberg Abbey Church, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing
By Jan Richardson

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.

We've known about the Magi since childhood, if only from singing "We Three Kings."  (Or, the version I used to entertain myself with as a kid:  "We three kings of Orient are, tryin' to smoke a rubber cigar.  It was loaded and it exploded, that's how we got this far!")  But do we ever think much about the Magi except for part of the supporting cast of the Christmas story--and what, really, do they have to do with us?

When I sit and ponder the Magi, I often think of how their journey parallels our own journeys "looking for Jesus"--sometimes started off by people we later learned we should not have trusted, sometimes convoluted and slow, sometimes with unexpected results.  Their gifts to the Christ Child remind us that we desire to give God our best--the treasure in our hearts.  They came from the East and moved westward--it's an American tendency, because of our history of westward expansion, to see "West" as looking towards a vast expanse, filled with potential.

But lately, I've been thinking about how they wise about one thing in a practical sort of way.  They knew enough not to return to Herod when they realized the magnitude of what they saw.  They returned home by another route.

Gregory the Great probably said it best:  "...having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came."

We may return "home" many times in this mortal life of ours, but we never get back by quite the same route.  Each time we encounter the living Christ, and experience transformation, we are changed in subtle, yet profound ways.  It's impossible to go back with the same heart and mind we had prior to the transformation.

In addition, our desires to seek and find Jesus lead us to recapitulate this journey in other ways--namely by seeking and finding Jesus in each other.  As I think back, I have been visited by many Magi in my life--people bearing their gifts of the Spirit, who found me and wanted to give me their best.  It seems these people only rarely become a fixture in my life, but, like the Magi, head off into the horizon.  Yet I think fondly of them from time to time.

A more difficult concept for me is the possibility I have been one of the wise people for someone else.  That one's always a little hard to swallow, because I don't think of myself as overly wise.  But it's certainly a very real possibility.

Who have been Magi in your life?  More importantly, when have we been the Magi for others?



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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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