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

(Original Max Fleisher Superman courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, March 25, 2012)

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, March 25, 2012: 

Psalm 118 (morning)
Psalm 145 (evening)
Exodus 3:16-4:12
Romans 12:1-21
John 8:46-59

There's no doubt, one of my favorite comic book genres growing up included superhero comics (mystery/horror being my other favorite)--and my two favorite superheroes were Superman and Wonder Woman.  I could identify with Superman's foundling status in Smallville, where I sort of belonged to rural northeast Missouri in some ways and didn't belong in others (or were these the beginning nudges of understanding myself as a child of God?)  Growing up in the 1960's, as the status of women changed and evolved almost daily, Wonder Woman was somewhat comforting to my sense that women could do just fine, left to their own devices (how I wanted to retreat to that society of Amazons where no one said, "Girls don't/can't do that!")

Our readings today, however, take us to a place where we discover that God is more likely to send prophets out in the world revealing vulnerabilities, rather than invulnerable superheroes.  One of the signs God gives to Moses to reveal to the people is to be able to put his hand in his cloak and reveal it to be covered with leprosy, put it back, and show it healed by God--to reveal that he, a prophet, can be rendered into a state of exile, too--that only the power of God can restore us.  Paul tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice.  In John's Gospel, Jesus speaks truths about those present, and about God to the point they are about to stone him.

Once again, God is turning things upside down compared to conventional wisdom.  Superman would not willingly walk into a room full of Kryptonite--it was more likely Lex Luthor would ambush him with it.  Without her bullet-repelling bracelets, Wonder Woman is just as vulnerable as the rest of us--and how in the world can she discern the truth without her Golden Rope?

There's no doubt, if given a choice, we'd rather put our best foot forward in service to God--not our worst.  We'd rather concentrate on our future with God, not our present, and especially not our past.  Frankly, we know what we are not.  We can remember in living color all the things in our lives we did wrong or the times we behaved poorly.  We know full well our shadow side.  We know we are sinners and we can't even imagine ourselves as saints.

Richard Rohr, in his book "On the Threshold of Transformation," writes, "The hero in us wants to attack, fix, or deny the existence of our dark side. We can also be tempted to share dramatically everything about it as a way to control it (sometimes called ventilating or dumping). The saint merely weeps over the shadow and forgives it—and by God’s grace forgives himself for being a mere human."

Perhaps the way through this is best expressed in our Exodus reading, when Moses himself points out that his speech impediment is his biggest shadow in this new role as prophet, and God's answer is "Who gives speech to mortals?  Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak."

All that we are--and that includes our missteps, our defects, and our secrets--have transformational power in the service of God, if we can only let go of our death grip on them and hold them up to God's light.  If we can allow ourselves to be wrapped up in God's arms as tightly as Wonder Woman wrapped folks in her Golden Rope of Truth, perhaps we'll discover another truth--that what we thought was Kryptonite wasn't really Kryptonite, after all. 

(Icon of Cyril of Jerusalem courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, March 18, 2012)

Readings for the feast day of Cyril of Jerusalem, March 18:

Psalm 122
Sirach 47:8-10
Hebrews 13:14-21
Luke 24:44-48

Although "Holy Women, Holy Men" makes special mention of Cyril's skill in preaching, teaching, and the development of catechetical instruction, particularly with regard to creating participatory liturgies for Holy Week, I was more intrigued about another aspect of Cyril's life--he got exiled a lot.

Mostly, it seems, his exiles were related to the fact that, although he, by all accounts, was essentially adherent to the Nicene orthodoxy, he had a little trouble with totally being on board with God the Father and Jesus being totally consubstantial--he had a hard time coming around to the concept of homoousia.  This often put him at odds with people who were coming down hard on bishops who exhibited even a faint whiff of Arianism.  Out of his multiple exiles, though, the most interesting one was when he was exiled in 358 for selling some of the church furniture to feed people during a famine.

Cyril's life and exiles are a reminder of something that still dogs any of us who recite the Nicene Creed each week and on occasion, feel a little itchy about certain parts of its phraseology.  Cyril's own itchiness didn't stop him from doing what he felt God called him to do--care for the poor in his jurisdiction, and create liturgies for Holy Week that were accessible to people of his day through movement, color, expressive poetry, and beautiful hymnody. Despite his own edginess about a piece of the Nicene Creed, he kept coming back.  He kept celebrating the Eucharist.  He kept trying to think of new ways to invite people to embrace the Christian experience.  He didn't let the constant charges of heresy stop him from preaching and living the Gospel.  He's a lesson to us to hang in there, and no matter what, keep coming back to the Eucharistic table, and let the Sacraments change our hearts and actions, rather than wrangle with the inconsistencies in our minds to the point we would die in the ditch rather than worship together.

I think about Cyril sometimes in light of what seems to happen every time we get a pile of Anglican bishops together worldwide and it seems some of them want to exclude others of them from the table, or when they start having notions that two X chromosomes make someone incapable of balancing a mitre on one's noggin.  Pretty soon, people start throwing the H word around--heresy.  Cyril's life and ministry reminds us that some of us are called at times, to rub the status quo the wrong way, and to truly follow Christ and obey his teachings, we may well suffer exile for our faithfulness.  Time might even show us we were wrong--eventually Cyril capitulated about that whole homoousia business--but even when we are on the wrong side of an issue, it doesn't have to be a deterrent to our going about our business as a person who builds up the Body of Christ.

(Photo of my gutted kitchen showing part of the original frame of the house)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, March 14, 2012)

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 

--Psalm 139:14-16 (NRSV)

Sometimes, I think, "Fearfully and wonderfully made," means "I can't believe it held up this well, all things considered."

Such was the case when my kitchen was gutted for Phase II of The Never Ending Story of My House Remodeling.

"Come here, you gotta see this," my contractor called out to me.

Now remember, as best I know, the original parts of my house were built during the Depression.  Most folks could not afford new lumber--so in those pre-building code days, they just sort of framed a house with what they had.  In the case of the original occupants of my house, it was "extremely used boards."  The original west side of my house was framed with wood scrounged from old pallets.  The original east side (which ends at the kitchen--my living room was added in 1995) was framed with boards that looked considerably older than Depression-era, with big notches cut out of them, and nail-holes galore, along with a few old handmade square headed nails sticking out in odd places.  They had reinforced the notched out parts by flanking them with smaller boards.  Some of the boards looked like they had been exterior boards.  Some were splotched with tar.

My first thought was, "How in the world has this house stayed in one piece?  It should have blown over in a thunderstorm decades ago."  I had been entrusting my life and my safety, night after night, in a house literally framed with scrap wood.  But as I examined it, I realized that they had been rather ingenious, all things considered, in how they did the best they could with what they had, at a time in our history when no one could afford anything.  It held up well enough until the day came my contractors would re-frame it.

The very physical and experiential process of remodeling my house continues to take on metaphorical aspects.  As I stared at that old lumber, I realized I was staring at a process that many of us can speak to at the beginnings of the second half of our lives.  Many of us, like my old house, were not framed in ways that would "pass code" now.  Too many of us spent our growing up years in some form of dysfunction or family turmoil, and like my kitchen wall, we used wood that shouldn't have been used, or used wood full of holes and notches, and we patched and spliced things together so that, from a distance, it looks like as sturdy a frame as any.  Then we covered it up with siding and drywall, and perhaps layer after layer of wallpaper and paint over the years.  We begin our relationships with God and with other people using this frame.  

Then, at some point, we know in our hearts that this frame cannot go the distance, and to be at that next place in our lives, we turn to the process of mending our insides.  The problem is we have to live inside of it while this is going on--we can't just level it and start over.  We see things in this process that make us shake our heads in amazement that it should have ended in catastrophe.  Almost everyone who takes on remodeling a house makes choices that make it more functional--things like easier to clean floor coverings and more counter top space.  Likewise, when we mature as spiritual beings, we tend to choose actions and behaviors that simplify our lives.

As I studied one of the boards, I got to thinking about how the God of Genesis was into leveling things--the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Noah and the Flood immediately came to mind--but then Jesus came along and changed that, by introducing us to a God who will work with us, even when our faults are exposed bare.

Interesting he chose a carpenter for the job, isn't it?

(Chalice and purificator courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, March 11, 2012)

Daily Office readings for Sunday, March 11, 2012:

Psalm 93, 96 (morning)
Psalm 34 (evening)
Genesis 44:1-17
Romans 8:1-10
John 5:25-29

Our Genesis reading today centers on Joseph's ruse to detain Benjamin and thereby reveal Joseph's identity to his brothers for the purpose of reconciliation.  Joseph tells his steward to fill the men's sacks with food but to put his silver cup used for divination, in Benjamin's sack--then to let them get a little ways out of town, catch up to them, and expose that the cup is in the youngest brother's sack, in order to detain them.

I couldn't help but make the connection between this cup and the Eucharistic chalice--because in my own life it was probably the single most important thread that held me to God in the two decades or so that I was among the great unchurched.  I felt perfectly happy in my young adult period to be shed of so many parts of "church life" as a young adult--a theology that constantly beat me over the head about my sinful nature, people judging me for my appearance/clothing/haircut/etc., and a lot of varieties of "church people" in general.  I could think about God as I chose with no interference, no tension, no judgment.  

Yet, even in those days, I found myself still yearning to participate in the Eucharist now and then.  Once or twice a year I'd sneak into someone's Christmas Eve services, or if I was visiting a cathedral while a Mass was taking place, I'd just march up with the faceless crowd and receive the Sacraments.  If I went to someone's wedding or funeral that included a Eucharist, I marched right up and helped myself, when most people not from that particular faith tradition hugged their pews.  I didn't want a thing to do with church--but I still craved the Sacraments.  I found ways to get myself fed without totally starving to death.

When I think back, I was probably doing a variant of Joseph's ruse--I suppose I was subconsciously hoping someone would stop me on my way out the door and say, "Hey, isn't that our chalice you have in your sack?"  But almost no one ever did.

Maybe it wouldn't have been over 20 years for me to find my way back if someone had.

Our story in Genesis--and my own story, linked to it--are reminders to me of just another reason why we need to engage visitors with a little more than a nod and the Peace of Christ.  It's not that hard to engage without being annoying--Simply a "Hi, my name's whatever, and you are...?" and an invitation to coffee hour is a good start.  I have learned more things about visitors in the line to get food in the undercroft than I ever have in the back of the nave.  Seems like even shy people can get chattier when the conversation turns to food.

Joseph used his ruse with the silver cup to create the milleu for reconciliation with his family.  It's a good reminder that, perhaps, that unfamiliar people in the back row might be thinking about walking out with the chalice representing their participation in the Sacraments, in the hope someone notices and detains them.  What opportunities for reconciliation are we missing by letting them quietly go out the door?

(Inglesham box pews, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, March __, 2012)

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious
to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them
again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and
hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ
your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218

Recently the Barna Group released some rather striking data on "What people get (or more accurately, don't get) out of worship."  They surveyed church attendees (it was not clear in the web overview of this how this got broken down exactly, just that they "had attended church in the past") and perhaps the most distressing part of the data was that only 26% of those polled felt that their lives had been changed or affected “greatly” by attending church.  Additionally, 46% of them stated that their lives had not changed at all as a result of their churchgoing.  Even more distressing was that even among those who attended church in the prior week, half admitted they could not recall a significant insight they had gained.

One could postulate that some of the folks that are "astray" are sitting right in the pews.  We talk a lot about mission and evangelism, but as with all dysfunctional families there might be a need to look to ourselves a little bit.

On the other hand, some more heartening info from the study showed that 68% of them felt that attending church made them “part of a group of people who are united in their beliefs and who take care of each other in practical ways.”  Sixty-six percent said that feel they have had “a real and personal connection” with God while attending church, although the data does show this to be a sporadic occurrence and rather infrequent.

When I ponder this data, what comes to mind for me is how I've seen many people over the years in churches that have experienced a difficulty in the shared life of the congregation and are not particularly happy, but hang in there and stick it out.  Another phenomenon that comes to mind is when something comes along to really rattle one's faith in God that has nothing to do with the congregation per se, but stay in the hopes that this somehow rights itself.  They are occupying a pew, they may even be participating in the work and worship of the congregation, but it is, in so many ways, going through the motions.

In my own shared life in our parish, I have thought many times in the past about people I know that are going through some form of loss, yet seem unapproachable, or the people I don't always see eye to eye with, but find myself respecting their hanging in there and sharing the Sacraments with me.  I've thought about the people over the years who rearrange themselves in line to avoid getting bread and wine from certain clergy or certain Eucharistic ministers, or the people who moved around a certain way at the Peace to minimize the chances they'd have to share it with certain people.  On rare occasions, the person being avoided was me.

What I've come to recognize, in looking at this data, that what at first seemed depressing might only reflect that as much as we want our Sunday services to be the epitome of shiny and happy, perhaps it's not such a terrible thing that they reflect the dry and mundane in our lives.  I remember a time in my own life when my faith had been shaken so deeply to the core, to be able to say "I attended church on those Sundays and nothing insightful or revelatory came from it," was, really, a victory--because I hadn't run.  I hadn't left.  I showed up and went through the motions, and over time, slowly, imperceptibly, something began changing.  Eventually it did, and I began to have the occasional episode of insightful joy again.

But when I think back, and I think about the earliest that it could be viewed in retrospect, and people close to me knew more of the story, I could not really claim any bravery or gumption when those close to me thanked me for "sticking it out."  I remember looking at one of them and saying, "I wasn't brave at all--I just had nowhere else to go."

This collect is a reminder that there are so many times, so many people, and so many situations that we are powerless to "bring someone" to a place that one can embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of the Good News in Christ.  This is business between God and that person.  We neglect to remember, however, that each of us in the gathered body on Sunday is the base material for sacramental transformation--even if we provide the means for another to simply be in place, because they have nowhere else to go.

(Song sparrow nest courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, March 4, 2012)

Daily Office readings for March 4, 2012:

Psalms 24, 29 (morning)
Psalms 8, 84 (evening)
Genesis 14:41-45
Romans 6:3-14
John 5:19-24

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah

Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.

O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

To this day, I still follow the pattern of my grandfather and hose the nests of sparrows and swallows off my house.  I still hear his answer when I asked him why swallows and sparrows were unwelcome, when we had let other bird nests, such as orioles, remain undisturbed.

"Because sparrows are messy, and swallows terrorize the dogs."

I had seen both, so I really had no argument.  I remember my childhood mind thinking there sure were a lot of inconsistencies when it came to birds.  Sparrows sang beautifully, but everyone complained bitterly about their unattractiveness at the bird feeder and their penchant for fecal mayhem around the patio.  I was told swallows were "good" birds in that they ate mosquitoes and other nasty flying bugs, but they swooped mercilessly at me and my rat terrier dog Peetee.  All said, though, the bottom line was that swallows and sparrows were not going to find a home under the eaves of my grandparents' house--and I have to admit that to this day, they don't find one under the eaves of my house, either.

The ancient Hebrews, at times, must have felt like they were constantly getting the hose, too, as often as they found themselves in exile.  Psalm 84 was very likely one that was sung by pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, according to some scholars, as well as one sung in times of exile.  From the opening line onward, we are invited into a sense of yearning for a home that transcends physical boundaries, and invited to willingly go on pilgrimage, even if that journey goes through Baca (literally, from a Hebrew word for "weeping," or "tears.")

The Hebrew word that is generally translated as "sparrow" in English actually means any nondescript little bird, whereas "swallow" has a more specific counterpart in Hebrew, often used to emphasize a nomadic or migratory quality.  It's a particularly interesting pair of birds to ponder in the early days of Lent--a time when we are often feeling a tad unsettled and drab as we are trying to adjust to a new spiritual practice or address our sense of withdrawal or craving over a chosen Lenten sacrifice.

It's a reminder that God's altar is a place of worthiness despite our own inconsistencies and incongruities.  We are welcome at God's table, no matter how drab our feathers are, or how pitiful our songs sound.  We are loved and cherished no matter how badly we've been mauled by the neighbor cat, or no matter how many white cars we've plastered with mulberry-stained droppings. We have a home safe enough to lay the eggs of hope and feed the hatchlings, if only we choose to fly there.  Are we ready to stretch our wings and find our way home?


(Photo of Dirce Beauty butterfly courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Written for Daily Episcopalian, February 29, 2012)

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and
earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and
strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

--Collect at the Prayers of the People, p. 394, Book of Common Prayer

This is going to sound a little strange, but I had to understand quantum physics a little better in order to believe in intercessory prayer.

Here's my sordid confession:  When I returned to the institutional church after over two decades in the unchurched wilderness, I thought intercessory prayer was absolutely, completely bogus.  I would just stand and grind my teeth during the Prayers of the People.  In fact, it felt downright icky.  In my mind at the time, it smelled of negotiating with God with all the schmooze of a Persian rug trader.  "Hey, God, have I got a deal for you!  I've got these friends here, and we're all gonna pray about this thing hear and surely the sheer numbers of folks I have rounded up on this will swing you over to seeing this my way."  That just seemed to not work with why I thought I was back attending church.  

I even avoided jumping in as a pinch-hit intercessor by fibbing to my priest at the time a bit.  I claimed that I had "anxiety issues" about being an intercessor.  Lector, no problem.  I read what was in front of me at a lectern like teaching a class.  I said I could do that, but I could not do the "stand in a middle of a group thing," doing the Prayers of the People from the pews.  I poured it on thick.  It worked for quite a while, actually.  But the truth was, I did not want to admit to someone with a collar that I didn't believe in intercessory prayer.  Over time, I stopped grinding my teeth, but I just more or less had come to a blank form of acceptance/non-acceptance that "Intercessory prayer is what we do in the liturgy and it doesn't last very long, and if I just don't think about it, it will be over soon enough."  Eventually, I could at least pinch-hit on the intercessions--mostly by imagining someone else was doing it in my voice.

Switch gears to another end of my parallel universe.  I was growing ever-more curious about the strange weather and the weird seasons we were experiencing.  Huge snowstorms.  Hurricanes that dumped inches and inches of water on northeast Missouri, turning it into a sea of mud.  Days on end of 100 plus degree heat and (by my account) 120 percent humidity.  Clouds of bugs I was not used to seeing at certain times of the year (a patio full of June bugs in March seemed just wrong, somehow.)

These odd weather phenomena got me to reading a lot of lay press about meteorology, which led me to something we now call "the butterfly effect."  The short, highly distilled version is this:  Meteorologists have been frustrated for decades that their most scientific methods still only allow the ability to predict the weather only a few days in advance with any significant reproducible accuracy.  The phrase, coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, refers to the possibility that, in an atmospheric system, every single thing in the system and what it is doing has a very small effect on the initial conditions of that system.  His catch phrase was "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Well, not exactly.  The butterfly does not cause the tornado--but the butterfly flapping its wings is part of the initial conditions of the atmospheric state, and what it does, matters.

The idea that every single thing going on around me, matters, was a new concept.  I've always felt so much of what I did in my life didn't matter much at all.  Who cares what I ate for breakfast?  What does it matter to you if I get five hours of sleep or seven?  Then again, how do these things affect my "best" day behind the microscope versus one of my more disjointed days?  How do the actions of other people hold me up on those disjointed days?  I thought of all the times my office staff has reminded me of meetings, or reminded me a case was still pending.

This led me to read another book, "How God Changes Your Brain," by Andrew Newberg, M.D.  It gave me pause.  This guy was not some magic crystals and copper bracelets crackpot, he was (by my way of thinking,) a "real" neuroscientist with academic credentials that would be respectable in any large teaching hospital.  He wasn't trying to "prove" God by means of science.  He was only saying that people who devote a certain amount of thought to God, no matter what their religious tradition, experience neurobiological changes in their brains that are visible on PET scans.

This led me to one simple thought--"What if I pray in intercessory fashion, if only for the purpose of changing my own brain with relationship to my understanding of God?  What if I don't even worry about whether I believe in it or not, but I merely concentrate on doing it?"

So I did.  I did it in that way I learned to dribble a basketball with my off-hand or poke an outside pitch to the opposite field, or hit a golf ball out of a bunker.  I just did it over and over and over with no thought to a single thing but to do it, do it repeatedly, and do it because I wanted to do it.  (No obsessive-compulsive behavior in this house, nosiree Bob...)  I would take the bulletin insert home from church on Sunday and pray that list of intercessions every day, sometimes two and three times a day, sometimes getting on one of those "light a virtual candle" sites and compulsively clicking on candle after candle and keying in name after name on the prayer list.  Then I would go off about my business and not give it another thought.

Then one day, I heard the story of someone's experience with being the object of intercessory prayer, and for the first time, I actually listened to it.  Then I realized what had not happened.  I had not felt that twinge of irritation.  I did not feel the urge to prevent my upper lip from curling into a sneer.  I did not fight rolling my eyes.  I listened, and felt calm and realized I had accepted what was said, with no sense of needing to challenge it, somehow.  I backtracked my thoughts--did I just do that?--and then got smacked in the nose with another epiphany--I had actually started to look forward to doing the intercessions, in the previous week or so, and had actually started to feel odd if too much time elapsed between sessions!

One could say it was my own brush with a very personal Butterfly Effect--and perhaps that is where the real message lies.

Is it possible that every single thing we've ever experienced, good or bad, wonderful or awful, has the potential to bring us not just individually closer to God, but brings us microns closer to bringing in the Reign of Christ?  We are told in various places and a variety of ways in the Gospels that God and the Kingdom are here, now, within us, and among us.  Are we caterpillars, smack in the middle of a Butterfly Effect beyond our wildest imaginations?  I can't answer for God, but it seems to me that quantum physics leaves that door wide open.  All we have to do is choose to walk through it, believing or not believing--and let the butterflies do their thing.



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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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