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

(Bart (short for Blessed Red Truck,) the 2010 Ford F-150, meets Hindeleh, the 2012 Ford Escape, in what one of my Facebook friends dubbed, "Matchbox car meets Tonka Truck.")

2 Corinthians 5:17:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Well, it wasn't exactly "becoming new" but there was a lot of new going on at my house a few weeks ago. 

I had figured out the Mitchmobile's days were over.

Now, everyone knows I am a pickup truck kind of person, but for several years I've owned Mitch's old 1999 Dodge Caravan.  I bought it after he went to assisted care when his dementia worsened to the place he could no longer live alone.  The plan was to use it for road trips, and to save gas by not taking the truck (which, frankly, seems pretty much settled at 16 mpg.)

Of course, I sort of forgot that all the vehicles I ever knew Mitch to own were a piece of crap.  I think I deluded myself by saying, "Oh, but I have been more involved with maintaining this one than his other ones."  Well, that much is true--but the van was still crap.  I just managed to maintain crap better than he could.  So most of the time it sat with a dead battery (it had some electrical problem I never could quite figure out what it was) and it was singularly un-handy to get it running--so it sat some more.  

Over the winter, I decided I would trade it in for something smaller, with four wheel drive (since I do live on a gravel road that is prone to being quite muddy).  

Let me start by saying I've never owned a 4 cylinder vehicle in my life.  I've always had a big ego about that.  I thought about doing the unthinkable--buying something other than a Ford, AND buying something that wasn't red.  I've also only owned two vehicles in my life that were not Fords.  I owned both of them under duress.  I've only owned one vehicle in my life that wasn't red, it was dark blue--and a non-ford (1981 Buick LeSabre.)  I REALLY owned that one under duress--it was only a "backup car" and I had it less than a year.  I compromised--I'd still get a Ford, but I would entertain the possibility it would not be red, and let the sales folks find "what's out there on the computer," and let the color choice fall to some degree of chance.

So I decided on the Ford Escape, and told the sales guy, "Ok, here's my wish list--4 cylinder, 4WD, navigation package/Sirius Radio, and NOT black, and NOT white."  As it turned out, the best deal was the red one--it was $900 cheaper than the steel blue one and the exact same vehicle--in addition to my wish list, it also had the "moon and tune" package--deluxe stereo, and an automatic moon roof.  At the time, I was like "so what" about that.

It was harder to part with the Mitchmobile than I thought it would be--even though its parting shot to me was for the battery to die again.  I found myself strangely morose all day.  Turns out I was surprised to recognize it as grief.  For almost 20 years of my life, I'd been embroiled in the never ending drama of Mitch's crappy cars--picking him up when they broke down, fussing at him to maintain them better, riding in them and grousing about them for some reason.  I had lost another piece of Mitch.  Dementia is such a strange state.  The person is alive, but in a way, they begin to die and we grieve by inches.  I had loosened another tile in the flooring of grief.

Luckily, new vehicles have a way of mending that sort of thing, and it was a joyful day, indeed when I picked up the Escape.  I ended up giving it a Yiddish name, since it was from the line of nice Jewish Mitch's vehicles--Hindeleh, which means "little chicken."  It reminded me of a little red hen.

Of course, then comes that "getting used to a new vehicle part," and the problem when old things pass away.  We become so used to the familiar.  I am used to something with a bigger engine.  After a few expeditions with it, all the things that were NOT familiar started showing up in spades--the wind blows it around on the highway more.  The shift knob is on the floor, not the steering column.  It has a lot of different buttons compared to the truck.  Figuring out how to make the seat comfortable was a trick--it's not as "sit upright" as a truck--and the biggest blow of all--I was no longer one of the bigger things on the road, except, of course, for semis.

So we had a few days of "Hmmmm...I'm not sure I'm gonna like this."  I was seeing everything it was NOT.  I think that tends to be how many of us view change when old things pass away.  We are not ready for anything to be made new, because we have to adjust to it.

Then, on the first warm day of those wonderful little "false spring" days we have in Missouri in February, and the thermometer crept up to about 60, I was driving along and thought, "Hmmmm.  Wonder what it feels like driving around with the roof open..."

I've never owned anything that even part of the roof comes off.  Have hardly even ridden in a convertible, other than in a parade, sitting on the trunk and waving.  But having the sun come in through the roof did seem rather pleasurable, even with it closed.

Well...that open moon roof was exhilarating in a way I did not expect.  There's a freedom, a turning back the clock, even, to days when the open road was an adventure--old memories of Spring Break, vacations long past, childhood memories when none of us had A/C in our cars and the only break we got was what we called "470 air conditioning--four windows open, going 70 MPH."

Turns out the thing I did not care whether I had it or not, was the thing I began to love the most about the Ford Escape.

Seems like this is the transformational part of old things passing away and new things coming into being--the discoveries of joys which any previous knowledge or experience escapes us.  Seeing things anew.  Surprises which managed to evade our oh, so careful plans, our negative scrutiny, our cynicism.  We're so cognizant of what we lose, we don't even comprehend what we don't yet know, and if we can let go of the old, we have the opportunity to embrace the new.

So it is with Lent, I believe.  We get so bound up in "giving up"--avoiding our vices, shunning our treats, and thinking "no pain, no gain."  It's the opposite that should be our goal.  What new thing do we uncover that might bring us joys we never had the means to know, because we cling so tightly to what we do know?

(Image of Emily Malbone Morgan from the Holy Women, Holy Men blog)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, February 26, 2012) 

Readings for the feast day of Emily Malbone Morgan, February 26:

Psalm 119:137-144
Exodus 1:15-21
Romans 16:1-6
Luke 10:38-42

When I first started learning more about Emily Malbone Morgan, my first stop is almost always the Episcopal Church publication "Holy Women, Holy Men."  At first, she didn't seem all that attractive an alternative to the "regular" Daily Office readings.  In my mind was this image more like the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, but with an American twist--some never-married moneyed do-gooder from one of the old, fine families of New England who went about flinging philanthropy all over the place, to the point she had even bought her way onto our Calendar of Saints.  Honestly, I didn't want to be interested in her.  It was only until I stumbled on another biography of her in Project Canterbury that I began to have an open mind.

What I discovered is that, although she is still a little obscured by history to me, there are parts of her life that might have more to do with 21st century realities of life than I thought.  Her parents, were, indeed, from the more moneyed families of New England--but one wonders if the marriage of her parents was more about that than it was about their personalities complementing each other.  Her mother was described as "otherworldly;" her father, a man of mercurial, volcanic temper outbursts--and it appears Emily's mother set out to "reform" her husband.  Any of us who have lived under the shadow of alcoholism, drug abuse, or a family member with a personality disorder can perceive some recognizable patterns there.  Emily and at least two of her siblings gravitated to the "helping professions"--she had a clergyman brother and a physician brother, and she devoted her life to philanthropy and prayer, creating Girls' Clubs and the Companions of the Holy Cross.  Her dearest companion, Adelyn Howard had a "fatal hip disease" (which sounds a lot like chronic osteomyelitis to me, not so uncommon in the pre-antibiotic era.)

Our Gospel reading is the story of Mary and Martha, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to see that Emily Malbone Morgan was a woman with both streaks of Martha and Mary in her--and possibly constantly had to juggle the two roles in her own life.  She saw visions.  She was deeply committed to the value of intercessory prayer, and her companion Adelyn--an invalid who understood her own power as a dynamo of prayer even in her fragile condition--was key in Emily's understanding of these matters.  Yet she was firmly a woman doing good works in the world, and used her wealth to discover places of holy wonder throughout the world.  Emily shunned her own ability to provide creature comforts for herself at times, and was known to sleep on floors and in cupboards in her younger days.  She chose the least attractive spot in her home, Adelynrood, for herself.

Suddenly, I began to see her life in a different light.  At first, I couldn't see anything this woman had to offer me, because of the money.  I grew up more or less running three steps ahead of poverty.  But as I begin to read her family story (or should I say "hear" it?) I began to see who she was in the light of family dysfunction, and how many of us live lifestyles "below our means" at times, when we start to hear the call of living in Christ, and how many of us end up in the pull of the "helping professions" like the pull of a magnet.  I thought of a key player in my own life in terms of learning to serve others with love--my late friend Ben, who had muscular dystrophy.  I spend a good portion of my 20somethings accompanying him and chauffeuring him various places because he could not walk or drive.  I used to push his wheelchair into amazing places in the pre-handicap-accessible world of the early 1980's, even goofing up a few times and causing him a few bumps and bruises, which he stoically bore as a result of my enthusiastic over-estimations.

Perhaps this is the hidden story of Emily Malbone Morgan--that she is a lesson in how our hearts and minds can change under the influence of God's mercy and grace...which brings us back to why she has a spot on our calendar, her absolute devotion to intercessory prayer.  The more we are connected to the rest of humanity, I believe, the less we feel different from the nebulous "other"--whoever "the other" might be.  Gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or lifestyle all begin to be less of a barrier the moment we begin to see things in others, that are like ourselves.  Praying for others, praying for all sorts of conditions of humans and humanity, praying for those we don't even know all are gentle waves that lap at the seawall of what divides us.  Instead, those prayers link us like gossamer threads to people and places that are beyond our capacity for reason or recognition--but without it, we become more Dowager Countess-like ourselves--it's all beneath us.

Is it possible--just possible--that the things we believe that we have changed our hearts and minds about, have actually been answers to to prayers of others, and it was never about "us" at all?

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012)

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his
disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith,
that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives
and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

--Collect for Wednesday of Easter Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 223

Although Easter Week still seems light years away, I had a recent experience with my contractors that brought this collect to mind, and opened my eyes about the way we open doors to behold the glories of God's realm.

I have spent the last ten months of my life living in the middle of a major remodeling project that can best be described as happening in fits and starts, mostly because I'm trying to keep it as a "Pay as you go" process.  One of the surest marks of middle age is probably best expressed in the fact that the room I most desire to be perfect is the master bathroom.  (I think when one cares more about the bathroom than the living room, kitchen, and yes, the bedroom, it's a sure fire sign one has moved into the second half of one's life.)  I came home to discover that the contractors had installed the shower stall door with no consideration of my "minority status."

You see, I'm left-handed.

The door handle on the shower stall was as far right as it could be, with the splash panel on the left.  A left-hander opening it would have to turn right 90 degrees, facing the wall, open the door, walk around the door, avoiding the linen cabinet, while turning 180 degrees back to the left--and then would be facing backwards in the stall.  

Right-handers have no idea how many things we southpaws have to adjust to in the world.  (Try fanning playing cards in the natural direction left-handers would to hold a hand of cards, and see how many of the numbers in the corner show up. Pull the handle on the footrest of your recliner.  Use a potato peeler in your left hand.  Let me know how that works out for you.)  Mostly, we grin and bear it.  We learn to do some things with our right hand.  We turn things upside down.  We crook our hands like a "U" to see what we are writing and write more or less upside down.  Sure, there are many left-handed implements out there, but they are not always available everywhere we go, and they are useless if we want to share a task with a righty.

We even have to endure a form of language discrimination that will probably be with us for millennia.  The word sinister is derived from sinistral, from the Latin sinus, or pocket.  Roman togas had their pocket on the left, the open flap tilted so one got in the pocket by reaching with the right hand in a "cross draw" fashion to retrieve the contents of the pocket.  Hence, the left side became the "sinful" side.  In many cultures, the right hand is used for eating and the left for butt-wiping, so that eating with the left hand becomes a gross insult to the host or cook.  Even the language of the Bible, and Jesus' parables themselves, put the good things on the right and the wicked things on the left.  In my grouchiest moments, I sometimes feel even Jesus stacked the deck against me.

As I stood there, fuming, recalling the amount this shower stall cost me, I also recognized I was not the only misaligned group that would have trouble with this configuration.  Folks on the more portly side of life would probably not be appreciative, if they were house guests, doing contortionist moves in my bathroom.  I knew that I would have to have a word with my contractors (after I finished snarling and stamping my feet.)  When I caught up with them the next day, I explained (more calmly,) "You know, I really would like this so anyone who used my shower would find opening this door reasonably okay.  There are so many things about this bathroom that are perfectly glorious, but when the first thing I do--open the door--hacks me off--it kind of ruins the rest of the experience, you know?"

The following Sunday, in church, as I looked at the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal, and the bulletin, I got to thinking about how visitors shuffle and fidget these items nervously while we the faithful, sometimes obliviously sing or speak on.  I thought about how so many of our historic churches are small, with no sound system, and have no means to assist the hard of hearing.  I thought about how I've never seen large print items in most of our churches I've attended.  (They may well have some, but they are not usually where they are obvious, when I enter.)  That can't be a very endearing first look at an Episcopal church for a first-time visitor.  

I found myself grateful that we recently began seriously examining the first steps in hospitality and accessibility--both physical and spiritual--in my home parish, but the shower door incident really brought home to me how important these seemingly insignificant and invisible touches were, and how there is much to do for all of us.

Sometimes, the first look at an Episcopal church doesn't even involve church.  Perhaps it's the Twelve Step group that meets in the undercroft, or the Scout troop, or the quilting group.  How often do we leave the tools of quiet evangelism in plain sight--flyers and friendly tracts--in the undercroft, as well as the sanctuary?  How effectively do we use the internet and social networking as another form of invitation?

The Shower Door Incident also reminded me that I hardly ever think about being left-handed unless something comes up that reminds me that I am NOT right-handed--and then my initial response is to feel put out at some level, maybe even angry.  It reminded me of the various other forms of "minority" in my community--not just ethnic, racial, and gender orientation, but also the single, the special needs community, the wounded, the lonely, the recently incarcerated, those in recovery, and the displaced.  If grappling over a shower door can make me feel excluded, in what ways am I unaware of how my community and I are making others inadvertently feel excluded?  How is that projecting to others that God is excluding them?

Opening the eyes of our faith can be painful.  It sometimes reveals glimpses of things about ourselves we'd rather not address.  Yet one of the recurring themes of the Good News in Christ is that the God that calls us again and again to return is also the God of do-overs--and that our open eyes of faith have the power to open doors for others to view the glories of Heaven on earth.

(Photo of solar glory courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, February 19, 2012)

Readings for Sunday, February 19, 2012:
Psalms 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalms 114, 115 (Evening)
Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11
2 Corinthians 3:7-18
Luke 9:18-27

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

 --2 Corinthians 3:7-18 (NRSV)

Of particular note in our Epistle today is the fact the word "glory" appears fourteen times in our passage from 2 Corinthians, and the remainder of the readings have "glory" sprinkled around a few more times for good measure.  Wow.  That's a lot of glory.

Have you ever been lucky enough to see a solar glory?  A solar glory is a halo-like phenomenon caused by the observer being directly between the sun and a cloud of refracting water droplets.  Light tunnels through air and is emitted backward, causing a "reverse rainbow" effect against the clouds--the red is on the outer ring of the glory, and the violet is in the center.  Often, this is accompanied by a giant sized shadow of the observer's body against the clouds, known as a Brocken spectre (Brocken is the name of the tallest mountain of the Harz Mountains in Germany.)  When the Brocken spectre is part of the phenomenon, it appears that a reverse rainbow halo is emanating from the observer's head (the Buddhists call this "Buddha's light.")

It strikes me that in order to see a solar glory, we have to have the light on our backs and our head aimed at the clouds--really, not so much different than what Paul describes how the people of Israel could not look directly at Moses' face after he had seen the Glory of the Lord.  Looking directly at the Glory of the Lord appears to be a big no-no in more than one place in the Old Testament.  Moses veiled his face, not just so the people could look at him until the glory faded, but one could postulate it was also for the people to be obscured from the fact it was fading.  I imagine Moses want to get all he could on that one with the people, while the getting was good.

I remember as a child, the first time I remember another natural solar phenomenon, a solar eclipse, how my grandpa cautioned me ad nauseum, ad infinitum that I could not look directly at it.  He showed me how to make a little pinhole in a piece of white cardboard and project the eclipse on another piece of white cardboard.  Always the ingenious sort, I took this one step further by making a box with a pinhole and a white piece of poster board taped on the other side so I could put the box over my head and have the eclipse all to myself and not have to share.  But after a while, I realized it was pretty boring to look at it by myself (not to mention my entire family was teasing me about having a box over my head,) and cannibalized my contraption for parts to share the fun with others. After all, other people could see it with their own pinhole contraptions.  I wasn't really controlling it for myself, it turned out.  But the glory of that moment faded, too, with the fading of the eclipse.

The glories of the Lord are as mysterious as solar glories and solar eclipses.  I don't think any of us wakes up and says, "Today, I plan on seeing a solar glory."  They just happen and if we are awake enough, we might get to see one.  We do get a little luxury in planning for eclipses, but the fact remains that we don't see either phenomenon by direct intent of looking at the source of light.  In both instances, we have to turn our backs to the light and trust it will do what it will do.  Our role in this is to face forward and look ahead of our own noses, and hope.

When we are faced with the presence of the Glory of the Lord, do we try to stare at it and burn out our spiritual retinas?  Do we try to keep it all to ourselves by putting a box over our head?  Or do we trust there's enough there to share with the whole world?  When we sense the glory fading, do we try to squeeze down on it in a last-ditch attempt to control its duration, only to have it smoosh out between our fingers?  Or do we savor this time together in the presence of God and live in hope for the next one?

(Logo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, February 12, 2012)

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

--From "Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," by Wendell Berry

Last Lent, I did something that many of my friends thought absolutely, positively did not compute as a Lenten spiritual discipline--I fasted from my personal e-mail and Facebook for "a meal a day"--the eight hours between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., with Sundays off as feast days, of course, and one exception--I would work on the parish weekly e-newsletter every Thursday night.

Several of my friends and connections in the social networking and blogosphere thought I went absolutely, positively, stark raving mad.  They know me (and rightly so) as a bit of a staple in those spheres.  But it was such a successful Lenten practice I am repeating it for 2012.

Now, I admit, once upon a time I was all about "penitence" in Lent--and I still think penitence is an important aspect of Lent--but it's now merely an aspect rather than the aspect.  I have come to discover, through the various Lenten practices I've engaged in over the years, that feelings of penitence--as well as feelings of awareness, openness to change, recognition of the sufferings of others, and a whole host of other feelings are supposed to evolve as a result of doing Lenten spiritual disciplines.

In my younger days--even when I was estranged from the institutional church--I still "gave up something for Lent."  It was one of the threads I never seemed to cut from my two decades in the unchurched wilderness.  In fact, I was doing it all wrong--I was using it as an ego thing.  I would pat myself on the back for giving up things and being as Spartan as an Airborne Ranger about it, and pride myself for being more disciplined than "church people."  It was part of the "Me and God and Jesus and I don't need anyone else" attitude I cultivated in those years.

When I returned to the church, this strange evolution began--the notion that my Lenten discipline ought to be equal parts of "empty" and "full."  I would pick a spiritual discipline that had a sacrificial quality to it, but I would also pick its counterpart discipline, one that would add to my spiritual life.

So last year, I took a deep breath and announced I was going to be absent from my personal e-mail and social networking from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on a regular basis, and instead I was going to work on more time connecting with my friends face to face locally, and over the phone for my more distant ones.  My time in front of the computer started being replaced with walks and dinners with friends, and phone calls, and various loving gestures towards my friends.  The responses were interesting.  Some of my friends argued with me that it was impractical--that I had lived near my Amish neighbors too long.  "Why don't you just shut the electricity off for 8 hours?  It's just as dumb," one remarked.  Some of my connections complained of their own social withdrawal--that I was isolating myself from them.  I saw some of their own insecurities come out.  A few even suggested I was suffering from depression.

As it turned out, though, there was also a small group that started postulating these and other ways to fast from technology...and a tiny cluster tried some variant of it themselves.  I can't speak for what they learned, I can only speak for what I learned from my practice.  I tend to be a bit of a loner anyway, so the "aloneness" of being unplugged for eight hours was not as big a thing for me as I thought it might be.  Oh, I suffered a few twinges of "is anybody out there?" but it wasn't bothersome.  What I discovered was it wasn't what I was without that changed me, as much as the things that I had never bothered to notice when I was regularly interrupting myself to answer an e-mail or comment on someone's status.  

I found myself listening more and talking less with my friends on meals or walks.  I caught myself focusing on the words in books I was reading without my self-interruption of looking up at my screen to see if anyone had sent an e-mail.  I embarrassed a friend at dinner by saying, "Please don't think I'm sucking up to you, or coming on to you, but you know, I've never noticed what marvelous eyes you have.  You have absolutely joyful eyes, and I am sorry I never noticed it until just now.  I was wrong not to notice that."  I learned that there were things in my yard I had never bothered to notice.  I had thought I was actively practicing a "fast" at first, but instead uncovered the converse--that my attention to the cyber-world was causing me to fast from the small joys in life at times.  More than once I found myself moved to tears over something mundane, or shouting with enthusiasm into the sky at how there really are fleeting moments of perfection in this broken world.

In short I discovered the last two words in the Wendell Berry poem I quoted above--"practice resurrection."  

In that upside down, backwards and sideways path living the Gospel takes us, the real spiritual practice that cries out to be uncovered by our Lenten spiritual discipline, is that we are actually practicing resurrection.  Resurrection demands stripping off layers of the varnish and polyurethane we've heaped upon ourselves over time, and exposing our natural grain.  Resurrection insists on having us dig our own graves, crawl inside them, and look out at the sky a while, smelling the wet humus surrounding us, in the hopes that when we are lifted out, the light we've been exposed to all along, looks somehow just a little different.  Resurrection gets in our faces during Lent like a red-faced baseball manager and an umpire, nose to nose, never laying a hand on us, but kicking dirt on our shoes.  We strive to live in the stillness of Lent, to hear the thunder of Resurrection.

What are you doing this Lenten season, that does not compute, but helps you feel Resurrection burrowing beneath your feet?

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, February 12, 2012)

Readings for the feast day of Charles Freer Andrews, February 12:

Psalm 113:2-8
Deuteronomy 15:7-11
Ephesians 2:13-22
Matthew 23:8-12

If we know of Charles Freer Andrews at all, we probably have an image of the rugged looks of Ian Charleson--"Charlie" of the movie Gandhi.  A quick Google Images search, however, yields photos of a man who looks a lot more like a mad monk than the lean, handsome Charleson of Richard Attenborough's movie.  Often pictured in traditional Indian garb, the real-life Andrews was noticeable by his moderately long beard and his intense, piercing eyes.  The Mahatma himself claimed that Andrews' initials stood for "Christ's Faithful Apostle" because of his tireless work in India's independence and in the abolition of indentured servitude.  Although the British Empire had abolished slavery, the practice of indenturing servants was alive and well in Britannia's empire.

Andrews never married--but what I have read about him led me to believe he was married to India.  He was married to his sense of justice.  He was married to the Christ-like notion of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  The British political hierarchy and the Church of England ecclesiastical hierarchy found him to be quite a prickly character in that regard--Englishmen who sided with the struggles of "the colonials" were generally thought to be traitors for questioning their motives and their methods.  Some went to far as to denounce him as a traitor to the land of his birth and the church that had ordained him--even a traitor to the very faith he had been sent to preach.

It is surprising, in these precarious economic times, that his words and his prophetic words have fallen into relative obscurity--a quick search on shows several out of print (and slightly overpriced) works.  He was a proponent of the Christian Socialist movement, which followed a very strict definition of the word "usury."  Usury, if looked at in a biblical and historical sense, was defined by "the accumulation of wealth beyond what is required to meet the responsibilities of station"--not just as it applied to interest rates.  He questioned the morality of his own Church of England's Western/Eurocentric view of Christianity, demanding it to fully embrace humanity, not just the "white races."

"If the desire of possession in a man is stronger than the sense of brotherhood," he wrote, "he may be a tyrant or a slave, or both in one.  He in whom a sense of brotherhood is uppermost may suffer, even to death, but he will preserve society from destruction.  Through that suffering he will surely rise to the conception of one common humanity, called into existence by one Father, redeemed by one incarnate Savior, quickened by one infinite Spirit."

Our readings today call us to truly embrace "the other," in a way far beyond money and lip service.  Our Psalm praises a God who "raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people."  Our passage in Deuteronomy reminds us "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”"  Paul, in Ephesians, exhorts us that we are "no longer strangers and aliens," but are "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone."  Finally, Matthew's Gospel calls each of us to servanthood, reminding us that "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Are we ready to embrace the radical discipleship of the Gospel as it was understood by the real Charles Freer Andrews, or is it easier to watch the dashing and likable Charlie in a re-run of Gandhi?

(Photo of wild geese in flight at sunset courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, February 8, 2012)

May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God 
the Holy Spirit give you strength.  May God the holy and 
undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and 
bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and 
reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

--Blessing for Health and Body of Soul, Book of Common Prayer, p. 460 

One of the lifelong oddities of my life has been my penchant for stumbling into the middle of "other peoples' crises" and suddenly being their "go-to girl."  (In fact, just now, as I am drafting this reflection, I just got a text message from a friend who wants to talk to me about her dog's emergency surgery.  Seems her dog has been eating roofing nails and other metal debris...I rest my case.)

Not long ago, all I did was show up at one of my "country hospitals" for my regularly scheduled visit, which is normally a rather staid and boring half hour or so of signing my name on the various pieces of lab quality control data, and visiting with the laboratory supervisor over coffee about issues in the hospital lab.  I knew it wasn't going to be one of those visits when the laboratory supervisor met me in the hallway, hugging me and crying.

The short version was this:  One of the employees in the lab had, three days prior, been handed a very serious diagnosis which required immediate treatment if there was any hope of survival.  Rather than initiate treatment, he had chosen to return to his home country for treatment--an 18 hour total flight time and probably more like a little over a day's journey, total, and the flight did not leave for another day--putting about five days total between the moment of his diagnosis and his potential arrival home.  My supervisor's plea was to "talk some sense into him."

Believe me, I related every single medical reason I could think of--most of them involving the various permutations of how he could die in his untreated state in a five day span--as well as difficulties entering and exiting the various countries en route, the fact that his choices potentially affected the lives of others on the trip, and for the final push, that he could be "too ill to treat" when he arrived, possibly delaying life-saving treatment and putting him further at risk.  But he would hear none of it.  He was going home and that was that.

All of us have times in our lives where despite our best efforts, our good intentions, and our fears for those we love, they will make their choices and we are left with no other tasks but to let them go, and "pray them home."  I realized I had tried my best, and did what I could.  As I left to go back to my office, I told him, "God be with you.  I mean that."

Over the next several hours, my mind kept being drawn to the prayer cited above.  I have found when I am out of words, or my words seem insufficient, our Book of Common Prayer has words enough for me in my times of inarticulate-ness.  But as I read it, I started wondering, "Who was I asking to be blessed?  Him, or me?"  I recognized the answer probably was, "both," and everyone else who was fearing for him on his journey.  I then enlisted the help of other friends as co-pray-ers.  I've come to realize that co-praying is key to our spiritual health.  Let me make it clear that I don't sign on to the notion that sheer numbers of pray-ers have any influence on God, whatsoever--but I do believe they have influence on us and our own faithfulness in prayer.  It's easier for me to focus on my own prayers when I can see others praying with me, in my mind's eye.

As time unfolded, so did an image in my mind's eye--the image of a flock of geese, traveling thousands of miles, called by voices in nature that our human brains have somehow become blunted in their recognition.  I thought about how every goose in a "V" of geese flies along without question, trusting only in the sense of the lead goose, and with the only view of the trip being the rear end of the goose directly ahead of it.  Our gravely ill traveler was responding to the same kind of pull that the lead goose is called to obey, and I was simply a goose in the formation, staring at the tail feathers of the goose ahead of me, irritated I could not see a Google Maps overview of this trip.  I had started this journey thinking I was supposed to play the role of lead goose, and in reality my role was just "one of the flock."

Our lead goose in this story did, indeed, find his way home.  I may or may not ever learn the ultimate outcome with his diagnosis--but I have to let that one go, too.  I imagine geese don't always take the trip North or South with the same flock, and have one-time companions on the trip, from year to year, as well as familiar ones.  Such is the nature of pilgrimage.

When we embark on pilgrimages of prayer, we are being invited into an intimate space within "the cloud of unknowing."  We fly in formation with familiar faces, new faces, one-time faces, and faces we will never know in this world.  We are powerless, not only to the outcome, but to the choices of companions--flocks of geese flying to a home we've never seen.  To never be bold enough to fly at all, I believe, is the greater loss.

(Elevators at the Empire State Building courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, The Lead asked loyal Episcopalian leaders, "What's your elevator speech?"

"Elevator speech" is roughly defined as a statement that distills your organization down to statements the length of what would fit on an elevator ride.

I was a little disappointed that the comments I've seen, both initially in the article, and around the Internet were...well...longer than an elevator speech.

Here's mine about the Episcopal church:  

"I was away from organized religion for over 20 years.  I thought I'd never go back to church in a million years...but when I found the Episcopal Church I found a place that God knew I could call 'home'."

What's yours?

(Illustration of the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs of Japan, Nagasaki, Feb. 5, 1597, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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

Readings for the Feast Day of the Martyrs of Japan, Feb. 6:

Psalm 16:5-11
Lamentations 3:46-48, 52-59
Galatians 2:19-20
Mark 8:34-38

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; 
you hold my lot. 

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
I have a goodly heritage. 

I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; 
 in the night also my heart instructs me. 

I keep the LORD always before me; 
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; 
my body also rests secure. 

For you do not give me up to Sheol, 
or let your faithful one see the Pit. 

You show me the path of life. 
In your presence there is fullness of joy; 
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

--Psalm 16:5-11 (NRSV)

It's absolutely horrifying to think that the story of the 26 Martyrs of Japan represents the focal point of the annihilation of a Christian community that, at least numbered 300,000 (some scholars estimate it up to just under one million.) However, the more fascinating part of this story, to me, is "the rest of the story"--when the underground remnants of this community were re-discovered by Fr. Bernard-Thadeé Petitjean on March 17, 1865.  (Actually, the covert Christians introduced themselves to Fr. Petitjean--but only after he and other missionaries had passed certain tests posed by the Japanese Christians, to confirm that these visitors, were, indeed, Christians themselves.)

For roughly two hundred and fifty years, the remnant of the original Japanese Christians, and approximately seven successive generations of their descendants had managed to keep the Christian faith alive, and relatively intact.  Although a few documents and relics had been passed down, most of the faithful carried the tenets of their faith orally through snippets of remaining documents and the creation of the Tenchi hajimari no koto, a sacred book they created themselves that had an amalgam of Bible stories, elements of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, and Japanese folk tales.  Many of them committed much of this to memory.

Another clever feature of their survival was that they had split among the community various sacramental duties that normally would have been under the scope of a single priest.  They understood the Roman Catholic rubrics for emergency baptism and penitential rites in the absence of a priest, and divided these duties up among the community.  Other duties overlapped among community members, such as the keeping of the liturgical calendar, the prayers and liturgies known as the orashiyo (from the Latin Oratio) and preserving various relics.  Rather than worship as a large group, they created numerous roughly five-household cells, which interconnected to larger confraternaties or sodalities, that interconnected with each other.

But perhaps the most ingenious practice of these crypto-Christians was their creation of everyday objects indistinguishable to the eye from Buddhist tradition that were actually Christian objects of veneration.  One example is a statue known as the Mariya Kannon.  To the untrained eye, it appeared to be a female Buddha embracing a child--but to the faithful it was obviously the Blessed Virgin Mary and the young Jesus.

Although there were gaps in their understanding of some Sacraments (namely ordination and confirmation, since they required a bishop,) they still transmitted the knowledge of several Sacraments (particularly baptism) with amazing fidelity.  When questioned by the missionaries upon their return in 1865, one woman remarked, "We celebrate the feast of our Lord Jesus on the 25th day of the month of frost.  We have been told that on that day, about midnight, our Lord was born in a stable, that he grew up in poverty and suffering, and at the age of 33 he died for the salvation of our souls on the cross.  Now we have the season of sorrow.  Do you also have these celebrations?"  (Fr. Petitjean remarked in his writings that, indeed, they were in the season of Lent at the time this story was told.)

It staggers the mind to see the complexity and detail these hidden Christians kept intact for seven generations.  They re-wrote a rudimentary form of the Bible mostly from memory.  They baptized their descendants.  They created hidden objects of worship.  They did what had to be done to keep the church alive--because their Christian faith meant that much to them.  I doubt anyone would argue that even with their mistakes, gaps, and merging of Japanese folk tales into the tales of the Hebrew people, that these people were undoubtedly Christian.

As we remember not only these 26 brave martyrs, but the seven generations of crypto-Christians that carried on their legacy, let's participate in an imaginative spiritual exercise.  If space aliens came tomorrow and began to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth, what would we believe were the most key aspects of our faith that we would be bound and determined to preserve?  How would we disguise it?  What pieces of our liturgy can you regurgitate from memory? What are the stories in the Bible that matter most to you?  Perhaps those are exactly the features we should be displaying to younger generations that are struggling to decide if the church--and God--has any relevance to their lives.

(Antique set of autopsy instruments courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, February 5, 2012)

Readings for Sunday, February 5, 2012:

Psalms 93, 96 (Morning)
Psalm 34 (Evening)
Genesis 24:50-67
2 Timothy 2:14-21
Mark 10:13-22

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.” In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.

--2 Timothy 2:14-21 (NRSV)

"Special utensils" have always been one of the small joys of my life, whether they are commercially made, fashioned by my imagination, or invented by others in my life.

To understand my penchant for gizmos and special tools, you have to remember I grew up with the infamous Ron Popeil commercials blaring on the TV as a child--the Super Veg-O-Matic (It slices!  It dices!  It chops!  It makes julienne fries!), the Cap Snaffler (Snaffles caps off any size jug, bottle or jar!), and Mr. Microphone ("Hey good lookin', I'll be back to pick you up later!"), just to name a few.  (Okay, so I admit I thought Ron lost it, though, with that spray-on hair, GLH-9.)

So, as you can imagine, it wasn't that hard for me to sign on to the concept of being fashioned into a special utensil for use in the service of God.

However, as those old Ron Popeil commercials used to say, "But wait!  There's more!"

As we start looking over how these special utensils are made, we are cautioned in this Epistle to "avoid wrangling over words."

Unfortunately, when it comes to our faith, it seems the words we most wrangle over are the words of the Bible.  At last count, over 450 versions of the Bible translated into English are available to the modern reader.  It's a safe bet that there are at least 450 theological opinions as to the meaning of any significant passage from the Bible in one version alone.  We can't even agree as Christians on the meaning of words like "salvation," or "grace," let alone hot-button issues such as our understanding of sexuality in the Bible as it pertains to same-sex relationships.  As Marcus Borg says in the introduction to his book, Speaking Christian, "Christian language has become a stumbling block in its time.  Much of its basic vocabulary is seriously misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike."

The end result is exactly what we see in our reading--it not only does no good but it ruins those who are listening.  We have an increasing number of people in this country who would rather choose no religion--the group of people that Elizabeth Dreschler describes in her book, "Tweet if you Heart Jesus" as The Religious Nones.  I suspect much of it is because they are, frankly, tired of watching the faithful wrangle over words.  They're tired of having so-called Christian words used as knives to stab and slash at their innermost parts.  They're tired of watching us filet each other with them and shred each other apart like julienne fries flying through the blades of a Super Veg-O-Matic.

Of far more importance is how these words transform us, rather than argue with each other over their meaning.  When we look inward, and really sit quietly with God on this one while reading the words in the Bible, we are very likely to be shown those places where our impious words are stumbling blocks to ourselves.  If they are stumbling blocks to ourselves, they are liable to be stumbling blocks in our interactions with others.  The nuances of Biblical translation pale in comparison to the positive changes others see in us when we actually live the words rather than fight with each other about them.  When we allow ourselves to be transformed by the words of the Bible, more useful stories emerge--stories of how we are changed as a result of following at least a few of the words of Jesus.

Rather than feel a need to be superior and "right" about the words in the Bible, what would happen if we reflected more on their potential to change us?  As the old commercials used to say, "Operators are standing by for your call."

(Photo along the MoPac Trail, between Walton, Nebraska, and Eagle, Nebraska, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, January 30, 2012) 

Readings for January 30, 2012:
Psalms 56, 57 (58) (Morning)
Psalm 64, 65 (Evening)
Genesis 19:1-17, (18-23), 24-29
Hebrews 11:1-12
John 6:27-40

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one? —and my life will be saved!” He said to him, “Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.

But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.

--Genesis 19:15-29 (NRSV)

In the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Lot manages to eke out one last-minute deal with the angels--to spare the city of Zoar from impending destruction and allow him and his family to take refuge there.  Of particular interest is the name of the town itself--Zoar--literally, in Hebrew, "insignificant." Out of the five cities on the plain of what is now Jordan, the most insignificant one was spared.

Those of us who grew up or live in small town America are pretty well acquainted with the meaning of "an insignificant town."  In fact, we often brag in the most colorful phraseology we can think of to tell others how small our town is, such as, "My town's so small, we have the "Welcome to" and the "You are now leaving" signs on the same signpost."  We call it "a wide spot in the road," or say the sum total of the town is a gas station and a tavern.  My all time favorite is the one used by a friend of mine who grew up in a little town in the southeast Missouri bootheel--"My home town?  Two stores, two whores, and a cotton gin."

Well, my guess is Zoar, in comparison to the other four cities, was about that speed--except the cotton gin hadn't been invented yet.  Excepting, of course, the unfortunate demise of Lot's wife, the salvation of Lot's family was destined to be in an insignificant place.

Our human judgmental tendency is to always belittle the smaller of the two.  People in St. Louis make fun of Kirksville, people in Kirksville make fun of Macon, and people in Macon make fun of people in Bevier.  Most of us from small towns, when we hear the line in John 1:46 of "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" we are usually mentally plugging in the name of our small town.

However, as we study the Bible, we discover God makes fairly good use of insignificant places, right down to using an insignificant place for the birth of the Savior.  By all accounts, Bethlehem was somewhere between a berg and a shtetl on the significance scale, and Nazareth wasn't much better. But as it turns out, in the upside down world of God's Economic Scale, bigger is almost never better.  

Instead, God works mystery in the world of insignificance--a dazzling alchemy, indeed, and it calls us to look at the insignificant places in our lives with a new wonder and a new awe if we are willing to accept, as John Calvin called it, "a teachable spirit."  From the Lot story we learn that too much longing for the big significant things in life will petrify us as surely as Lot's wife was stiffened into a pillar of salt, and our salvation rests in not just journeying to, but fleeing to the insignificant places.

Maybe it's best summed up by Arundhati Roy, in "The God of Small Things:"  “Perhaps it's true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house---the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture---must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”

Where are the insignificant places where you've fled, that became the skeletal frame of who you find yourself becoming, as a fully-fleshed out child of God?



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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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