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


(Ephod of the Kohen Gadol as outlined in Exodus 28, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, April 29, 2012:
Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11)
Psalm 98 (Morning)
Psalm 103 (Evening)
Exodus 28:1-4, 30-38
1 John 2:18-29
Mark 6:30-44

Exodus 28:1-4, 30-38 (NRSV):

Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron. And you shall speak to all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill, that they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests, In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually.

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn. On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the lower hem, with bells of gold between them all around— a golden bell and a pomegranate alternating all around the lower hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he may not die. You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.” You shall fasten it on the turban with a blue cord; it shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take on himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering that the Israelites consecrate as their sacred donations; it shall always be on his forehead, in order that they may find favor before the Lord.

The description of Aaron's vestments in Exodus 28 are so detailed, I think if there are any folks reading who are into sewing, they'd have no problem re-creating them.  Probably most of us have no problem visualizing them, and that was the purpose in the time of Exodus, also--anyone walking down the street would have no problem recognizing the Kohen Gadol from a distance.

In contrast, I always think of a story my closest mentor in pathology used to tell me about the time he was traveling in New York state during the Jewish High Holy Days.  He was never terribly observant in his Jewish faith, but he did take things like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pretty seriously, and in the days before the Internet, he was scouring the midstate countryside looking for a town big enough to have a temple.  He finally found one, and had ended up there literally just in time, and even then, he was actually late.  However, the service had not started, because they didn't have a minyan.  He was met at the door by an anxious looking older man, who hurriedly asked him, "Are you a Kohen or a Levite?"

My mentor was still a little foggy from driving around desperately, so he was a little slow to answer and looked confused.  Now, actually, he was a Levite--but he hadn't expected the question and was slow to answer.

The anxious man looked even more anxious and blurted, "Well, are you Jewish?"

I think about this story when I think about each of us being part of "the priesthood of all believers."  I don't think most of us really "get" that we are great high priests of the faith in our own right.  How many of us actually feel like we are priests?  In the Episcopal Church, we tend to identify the priests as the ones wearing the black shirts and the "dog collars."  Certainly, that is the uniform of someone who submitted to the sacramental priesthood.  However, we probably all have some degree of confusion or ignorance about something more important--our fundamental priesthood as believers, which is bestowed upon us in our baptism.  

L. William Countryman explains this quite nicely in the book Living on the Border of the Holy.  A sacramental priesthood doesn't trump our fundamental priesthood--it's really more of a different level of obedience rather than power--and the church really is best served when the laity fully understand their own fundamental priesthood as believers.  There are plenty of times in the church we ought to be looking to our own fundamental priesthood instead of dumping it onto the role of the sacramental priest.

That said, laity who understand their own fundamental priesthoods--and understand obedience to God through them, rather than seeing it as "power"--can create tension, particularly if the sacramental priest is of a personality where he or she uses the identity of "priest" to bolster his or her sense of self.  One of the things I've come to discover is that clergy who rely on their sacramental priesthood for their self-image are going to have some real problems down the line if they have individuals in their parish who are very strongly in touch with their own fundamental priesthoods.

Sometimes I wonder if we'd get it if, after we were baptized and confirmed, we had to walk around in something like Aaron's Blue Ephod of Bling for 40 days.  I say that because of a piece of spiritual direction I was once given at a time I was feeling pretty shaky about my fundamental priesthood.  I am fond of banded collar western shirts, and this was noticed by someone I trust to spiritually guide me, and made the following suggestion:  "For the next month, wear one of your banded collar Western shirts every day, and imagine it's like a priest's collar.  Don't think about it all the time, but just have that idea in your head that you are a priest and this is your collar, and see how that changes you at the end of 30 days."

I found this experience really did change me.  I was slower to anger, more careful to speak, and I found myself thinking more about the souls of the people I was dealing with--whether I wanted to build up the Body of Christ in my interactions with them vs. tear it down.

What can you do in your own life that will illustrate to you that you, too, are wearing Aaron's Blue Ephod of Bling--that although it may be invisible to the eye, is very present in God's realm?


(Map of Carlsbad Caverns courtesy of

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, April 27, 2012

"Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish.  It is born of spiritual conflict.  It is a victory that suddenly appears in the hour of defeat.  It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution.  It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable."

--Thomas Merton, Ascent to Truth

"Oh, you have several choices," the cashier at Carlsbad Caverns told me.  "You can take the elevator down and up, you can take the natural entrance in and out, or you could do one going in and the other going out."

It had been thirty years since I had visited the caverns, and I had all morning.  So I chose to take the elevator down and walk out the natural entrance.  I figured it was a nice mix of quiet time and exercise.

But when I started out the pathway to the natural exit, I had discovered that literally everyone--EVERYONE--I met was going INTO the caverns via this route, not OUT.  I did not see another single person on this journey going out the natural exit.  I had to maneuver past people going downhill while I was going uphill.  Some people were considerate of that; some were oblivious that going up out of it is is a little trickier than going down into it.  One woman looked right at me and very sternly announced, "You are going the WRONG WAY."  It was truly disconcerting to her!

After a while, I started taking note of the places to rest on the way out, and making use of them here and there.  I particularly remember one at a time I was breaking out in a good sweat and had ignored the previous resting place.  It was a place to sit and observe a rather open room in the cavern.  So, with my chest heaving, and the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, I just sat and observed for a while.

It wasn't long before my eyes caught a glimpse of a particular rock formation on the wall of that room--it looked like Christ hanging on a cross.  I found myself sitting there in quiet meditation for half an hour, and as the noise of my own heartbeat began to subside, I discovered thoughts in my head that hadn't surfaced in ages.  I thought about the time I was there thirty years ago.  I was 22 years old, and I had felt that I had failed miserably at my first teaching job.  The guy I was planning on marrying was now planning to marry someone else.  I was discovering that "going home" wasn't a great option because some heavy-duty dysfunction was brewing.  I was dealing with that feeling of having started out in the penthouse of elation as a recent college graduate, ready to take on the world,  and now being sent to the outhouse.  I had gone to the desert to clear my head and get my bearings on a great solo adventure.

My mind turned to other stories like that in my life, and I began to see the pattern.  My subconscious choice that day, perhaps wasn't so subconscious.  I had chosen to take an elevator ride to the abyss, wander around in it a while, and then choose to walk out uphill.  I've been told before on those journeys that I was going the wrong way, but in retrospect, it was always the best way.  I sat there and looked at that cavern wall and it suddenly hit me:  "This is the way of the Cross--to be plunged into the depths and emerge.  This is the way of baptism.  This is the path to resurrection."

As I got up to leave, I looked back the other direction.  Had I gone into the cavern via the natural entrance, the rock formation that had so captivated me was not really visible from that angle.  Had I chosen to go in the cavern that way, I would have missed it.  I would not have seen the Corpus that nature had molded.  I would have missed the most profound part of my trip.  When I reached the opening, I was surprised to discover from the ranger that going out the natural exit was the equivalent of climbing 75 stories.  Had I known that, I would not have chosen this path.  I would never have known the things I now knew were on that path.  I would have been in the dark about it rather than have been shown a wonderful light.

As much as we yearn for those inner joys of a life in Christ, the truth of Holy Week is that its uniqueness is framed by the road to the Cross.  The joys are there, but so are the sorrows--and it is in the 75 story journeys we didn't know we had in us, where we most see the presence of Christ.


(Cat afraid of a crow courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, April 22, 2012:

Psalms 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalms 114, 115 (Evening)
Exodus 18:1-12
1 John 2:7-17
Mark 16:9-20

Our Gospel reading today is from the end of Mark...sorta.

You might have noticed those odd little brackets at the end of this book in your Bible.  If you have a study Bible, you might even see it broken down as one set of brackets being labeled "The Shorter Ending of Mark" and "The Longer Ending of Mark."

Here's the slightly sordid truth about that:  Both endings are very likely add-ons.  The original (best as we can tell) Mark ends with the empty tomb and "they were afraid."

Origen's writings in the 3rd Century on the Gospel of Mark stop after "they were afraid," implying that this was, indeed the end of that gospel at that time.  Some scholars even speculate Mark died and didn't finish the story.  But somewhere down the line, it seems that someone (or several someones) got uncomfortable that Mark's ending didn't really mesh well with the endings of the other three Gospels, so they tried to improve on it with a little better evidence of the Resurrection.  For some reason it just felt uncomfortable to someone to have everyone running from the empty tomb in fear, once enough time had passed for Christianity to have understood our relationship to the resurrection a little better.

It reminds me of second year medical students.

Second year medical students are sharply honed to pick "right answers" for subjects that have distinct criteria for a diagnosis.  They often try to stuff square pegs into round holes to feed that craving to be "right." They are struggling with the transition of being, indeed, probably one of the smartest sets of people on the planet when it comes to single right answers, who now must convert to a more clinical mindset.  The clinical mindset seldom has one right answer--there are many, and it often takes time, asking the right questions, and ordering the right tests to arrive at the correct diagnosis in a patient--not to mention the disease has to evolve far enough in the patient for the classic signs/symptoms to be elicited.  It's filled with tension in the dynamic between doctor and patient (The patient doesn't always understand that the disease doesn't usually pop up with noticeable symptoms from Day One) and it constantly pushes at the young doctor's feelings of self-worth and competency.

Second year medical students often deal with this by blaming everyone else--their teachers, the school, their significant other.  It's a test of intestinal fortitude to teach them on some days, because they will nitpick an instructor to death for the sake of one point on a test that nets them a gain of 0.01% on their course grade.  

So it is with the meaning of the empty tomb, I think.

I suspect that probably one of the most deep-seated feelings about our life and self-worth is that when we die, we simply flicker out like a candle and that's that.  We are intimately attached to our sense of self, and we simply can't wrap our heads around the non-existence of our selves as we know them.  Oddly, for many of us it's the Easter season that pokes at those fears rather than Lent--possibly because we celebrate something we don't understand and the odds of us disappearing from the cemetery three days after our death, or sitting bolt upright at the funeral home are pretty slim.  We might even lie in bed staring at the ceiling thinking what I call the Seven Words of Abject Despair--"Maybe this life is all there is."

All of us desire assurance that we are "right."  So did the writers of the Shorter Ending of Mark, and the Longer Ending of Mark, I think.  Perhaps, though, the original ending of Mark was meant to be just what it is--a reminder that part of our spiritual growth is to simply accept our fears and live out the Gospel anyway.  What can each of us consider this Easter season that moves us beyond fear, into acceptance of the gift God has bestowed on each of us?

(Japanese yellowtail, broiled and served with teriyaki sauce, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I had supplied for the Presbyterians this morning, and was asked for a copy of the sermon, so I decided to post it.  Here 'tis!

3rd Sunday of Easter—First Presbyterian Church, Kirksville, MO
April 22, 2012
Acts 3:12-19—Psalm 4—1 John 3:1-7—Luke 24:36b-48

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
  Have you noticed that so many of the Gospel stories about encountering the resurrected Christ initially seem to be full of fear, confusion, and doubt?  Last week’s Gospel centered around Thomas desiring physical evidence to believe this was, indeed, the risen Christ.  (Now personally, I never thought Thomas was a doubter.  I prefer to think he was the first pathologist because he needed to document the wounds.)  This week, our reading in Luke illustrates that Thomas was not the only one who desired physical proof to move from doubt to belief.  The fact remains, recognizing the risen Christ doesn’t appear as easy as one might think it would be—which begs the question, “How many times have we failed to recognize the risen Christ, or act like we’ve just seen a ghost when we did?

Let’s examine the process of this particular encounter.  The New Interpreter’s Bible describes the framework of this story using five words, all starting with the letter E:

Encounter (the disciples encounter Jesus)
Explanation (or really, the lack thereof)
Eating (Jesus proves he’s corporeal, not ghostly, by eating some fish)
Enlightenment (once the disciples believe Jesus is real, their minds are opened to receive knowledge)
Exit (Jesus departs, but not before charging them to fulfill the Scriptures.)

This outline might well parallel our own encounters with the resurrected Christ.  Let’s look at these one at a time.

Encounter.  I think it’s safe to say that generally speaking, that discovering someone alive that we were certain was dead is…well…kinda startling.  I remember some while back, my dogs Boomer and Little Eddie were carrying on over a motionless possum.  Now, I wasn’t sure that possum was dead, or just playing possum.  I waited what I thought was a sufficient amount of time to declare it dead, then I went out and grabbed that possum by the tail to go fling it in the ditch.  (Ok…you know what’s going to happen here…)  Yep, that possum started wiggling and hissing, and there I was, holding it by the tail.  I let out a yell and flung that possum into the pasture—and let’s just say I’m certain the name of Jesus Christ was uttered.  Now, I am normally not afraid of a possum.  Why was I afraid that time?  Because I was absolutely certain it was dead.

Likewise, in those times we encounter the risen Christ, it can startle us just as powerfully because we carry our own “certainties” (and I’m going to use that word certainties in quotes, here) about that.  The certainties of our mind about what’s alive and what’s dead make it hard for us to wrap our brains around a Jesus who is both startlingly alive and fatally wounded, who lived two thousand years ago, yet lives in the present moment.  Our culture has taught us that Jesus looks like that guy in the truck stop gift shop—the picture I call “Jesus’ high school graduation picture.”  So, again, it should come as no surprise that when we catch a glimpse of the risen Christ in another person, particularly if that person is “not like us”—that it confuses us.

Explanation.  Like the disciples in our story, we have none.  Honestly, our cerebral cortex has a hard time distinguishing the difference between a resurrected Christ and a resuscitated one.  Our brains are too small to conceptualize a Christ who is more real than our concept of physical reality.  A few of us have been lucky enough to see a resuscitated person, but it’s a pretty safe bet that none of us, in our lifetimes, will ever see a three days dead person extricate himself from his burial trappings and walk out of his tomb, not just resuscitated, but transformed.  

However, lack of an explanation does not preclude interpretation of its effect.  It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for “believe” comes from the same root word as the word for “creed”—credo—and that word, until the last three hundred years or so, almost always meant “belief in another person” rather than “belief in a concept or fact.” Believing in a person is much different than believing in a process.  Our Gospel writers were faced with the impossible task of documenting the experience of a resurrected Christ with their equally too-small brains.  Very likely, all human language pales in the face of that experience.  But I know from our Gospel accounts, the book of Acts, and the Epistles that this experience was enough to cause those disciples to go out in the world and be martyred in his name for it, and that the reality of the Resurrection began to spread throughout the world.  That is pretty doggone real.

That brings us to that third “E”—Eating.  In our Gospel, Jesus illustrated his reality to the disciples by eating a piece of broiled fish.  One of the ways Christian communities have demonstrated the reality of Jesus to others, almost since day one, is to feed people who don’t have enough to eat.  You folks at First Presbyterian continue that tradition in several ways, through endeavors like the Christian Community Food Bank and Food 4 Kids here in Kirksville, and through your generosity to my friend Susan Presley’s work with Micah Ministries in Kansas City.  You illustrate it liturgically in your communion service.  You definitely illustrate it in your delicious coffee hours!  (One of my favorite things about supplying for you all is to enjoy your coffee hour, then hot-foot it over to Trinity for another delicious coffee hour.)

But all kidding about coffee hour aside, this is the place where, as we grow in faith, it becomes impossible to keep Jesus only inside our head, between our two ears.  Encountering the real and resurrected Christ seems to trigger something in us that calls us to feed others, both physically and spiritually, and it’s a call that only gets louder as we draw nearer to Christ.

Next is our fourth E—Enlightenment.  Enlightenment is not just for the Buddhists.  As we move from doubt to belief, when we no longer look at Jesus like he’s a ghost and accept the reality of Christ being present among us, in the here and now, our hearts open in new ways, and we have no way of predicting what those ways might be.  We might discover the strength to make a big decision or accept a big hardship in our life.  We might find the beginnings of common ground with people and things “not like us” or “not our kind of people.”  We might give up a bias or prejudice.  Enlightenment brings with it intense feelings—not just intense wonder, joy, and awe—but also intense remorse, grief, or sorrow.  When the disciples finally recognized Jesus for who he fully was, that must have been full of intense feelings—joy, disbelief, tears, maybe even anger.  But when they were able to release those intense feelings, they were able to better hear and understand what Jesus was telling them.  As we grow in faith, we too, discover that this isn’t a process where everything becomes la la peachy keen hunky dory in our world, but rather we can coexist with the intensity of a broken world in a new way.

Finally, we arrive at that last “E”—Exit.  Not only does Jesus himself exit, in the Ascension, he reminds them that they are witness to the fulfilling of Scripture and charges them with the job of proclaiming it.  They are also to exit.  As good as it must have felt to be in that place, at that time, with Jesus upon his return, he pointed out that there was much left to fulfill in Scripture and that staying put in the enjoyable moment wasn’t going to get it accomplished.

Fear and doubt are natural initial responses, when we first encounter the reality of the risen Christ.  I think sometimes, we, too, look like we had just seen a ghost when we see Jesus in all his reality.  But fear and doubt are responses based on our life experiences with finite resources and times of scarcity.  So many times, when we are presented with a challenge of proclaiming the Good News in Christ, we see very quickly what we are NOT.  We know our faults and foibles all too well, and we fear we are “not sufficient” to carry out the task.  But perhaps our comfort is in our Epistle reading today—to remember that “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  Now THERE’S an interesting thought—what if the possibility exists that, just as God’s love is infinite, God’s power to begin to shape and form us NOW into who we will become as inhabitants of Heaven is ALSO infinite, when we accept the challenge of bringing the Kingdom of God closer to the reality of now?

Oh, we may well have seen a ghost—but perhaps that ghost is only a snapshot of ourselves—the shadow of the glories of who we can become when we accept the invitation to live more fully in the belief in a real and resurrected Christ.  AMEN.

(Picture of Mr. Magoo courtesy of Wikipedia)

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, April 17, 2012)

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our
necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have
compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those
things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our
blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

--Collect for Proper 11, Book of Common Prayer, p.231 

In the spring of 2010, I took a train trip to central and upstate New York to visit some blogging friends. I had an opportunity to upgrade to the sleeper car from the Utica to Chicago leg of the trip, and jumped at the chance.  Although I find sleeping in coach fairly easy, these days my neck doesn't always agree with that decision.

Now, if you've never ridden in a sleeper car...well...there's not a whole lot of room, especially when it's the kind that has the toilet right in your compartment.  I did a very foolish thing.  I put my glasses on top of the toilet lid when I went to sleep for the night.  (I bet you are already guessing what happened next.) the middle of the night, I got up to use the facilities, and without thinking, flipped up the toilet seat in the dark, and pulverized my glasses.

Now, I can't see doodly-squat in front of my face without my glasses.  I am farsighted and astigmatic, and these days, presbyopic, with progressive bifocals.  I can see the landscape, but my arms stopped being long enough to read without them long ago.

In short, I was totally plunged into a blindness right in front of my face.

I couldn't read the screen of my cell phone.  I couldn't read a book.  I couldn't see my watch, and when I returned home, I realized I wasn't safe to drive because I can't see my own dashboard without my glasses (and I have a "glasses only" restriction on my driver's license anyway.)

To be able to see the big or distant picture but not what's right in front of one's nose is a frustrating thing.  It requires being dependent on a lot of people just to move off the spot in which one is standing.  It requires thinking about things one normally doesn't think about, and in advance.  The hardest part for me was not being able to entertain myself by reading.  I was stuck only with my own thoughts when there was no one carrying on a conversation with me (and I wasn't really hot to sit in the club car and have a conversation explaining I broke my glasses, and "would you please help me read this?")

I had to have other people help me read menus, dial the phone, and get a friend to meet me at the train station in Ottumwa, IA with a spare pair of glasses.  The most unsettling part was trying to get someone in Union Station in Chicago to help me figure out which gate I needed to make my connection.  Were they really giving me the right directions?  Did they even know?  Were they messing with me?  Was I going to end up on the wrong train?  Were they stealing stuff from my suitcase as we spoke?  I was also sure for all my best efforts, there were things I was missing or forgetting because I knew I was not seeing them, and all my efforts were trained on the most basic means of getting by until I got home.

Our collect reminds us that, despite our best efforts in making our way through the world, there are times of blindness--both blindnesses we suddenly find ourselves in, by accident, and blindnesses where we're so blind we don't even know our vision is impaired.  We only know "our way of seeing things."  It's hard to trust another way of seeing things.  One of the highlights of real spiritual growth is that there is a place in our growing process where we begin to get a glimpse of how blind we've been and not even know it.  It can create periods of guilt and shame, and if we're careful, we can remain there too long, and can become paralyzed--both afraid to move off the spot where we're standing (after all, we know where we are, even if it's a very tiny corner of the world)--and too prideful to ask for help.  After all, our culture prizes independence over all things.

We have a terrible tendency to dwell on what we perceive as our unworthiness.  But what if we trust the notion that Jesus' worthiness covers the playing field?  What if God is not bothered in the least by our asking for things where we clearly don't see either the big picture, or what's right in front of our noses?

I remember decades ago as a high school student preparing to take the SAT and the ACT.  I spent a lot of time learning how "failing to answer questions" or "wrong answers" affected one's score.  Now, I can't remember which was which anymore, but I remember that in one test, your score was only based on your correct answers, and on one, wrong answers and omitted answers counted against your right ones.  That knowledge changed how I approached each test.

Our relationship with God, I believe, is one where the things we ask in our blindness don't count against us--I suspect God considers the source and loves us in our blindness--even humors us in that way we laughed at those old Mr. Magoo cartoons.  Mr. Magoo's blindness got him in some pretty laughable places, frankly.

Asking God for direction when we are blind to outcomes can be a rather scary proposition--but no scarier than asking strangers to help us change trains when we've crushed our glasses.  Can we step forward in the next leg of our spiritual journeys with that kind of faith?

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, April 15, 2011)

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, April 15, 2012:
Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Exodus 14:5-22
1 John 1:1-7
John 14:1-7 

"Never trust a man who says, 'Trust me.'"--Blaze Starr's mother, from the movie Blaze (1989,) starring Paul Newman

"Do you trust me?" seems to be the theme of our readings today.  Psalm 146 exhorts us to trust God, but not the people of the world.  In Exodus 14, we hear how quickly people give up trust in the face of fear ("Was it because there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?"  One can almost hear them saying, "You know, it really wasn't that bad when we got whipped for not putting enough straw in their bricks.")  We are told in 1 John to suspend what we know about dark and light ("This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.")  Finally, our Gospel is Jesus saying what Blaze Starr's mother warned against ("If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?"  Shades of "Would I lie to you?")

Trust me.

Don't worry.

I've got your back.

Our experience in the world is "don't believe it."  Even the people we love the most have betrayed us now and then, or, at the very least, let us down--and we haven't even gotten to the places where the evidence is that God let us down, too.  Every single one of us can recall a place where God was pretty darn silent.  We've all had those times where we prayed earnestly for something--so earnestly we had tears, cracked voices, and tremors--and the exact thing we feared came to pass anyway, despite our prayers.  Every single one of us have felt our trust shattered by what appears to be Jesus' inability to keep a promise.  When people try to explain around that one, from some kind of weird need to let Jesus off the hook, sounds really lame and disingenuous.

For some of us, the feeling was so strong we walked away from the church--temporarily or forever.

Honestly, I don't have an easy answer for that one, other than the only thing I know is that our understanding of anything is two-dimensional--it's based on our past and the present moment--where, in contrast, God's understanding of things is three-dimensional, and includes the future along with the past and the present.  I suspect that third dimension of the future includes after our deaths.  Trusting in "we just don't know the whole story," might be more palatable than trying to rationalize the reasons for the prayers that seemingly go unanswered or contrary to our desires.

It's probably not a coincidence that John 14's "Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me," might be the second most popular funeral text in my neck of the woods, right after, "In my father's house are many mansions."  The Greek word for "believe" in this verse is rooted in the word pisteuo.  What gets lost in translation is that it can also be used in the imperative, so it might be more accurate to say, "Let not your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, you also believe in me."  So it's very possible that the intent of this passage is actually more like, "Don't worry.  You have a belief in God and also a belief in me"--suggesting that this part of the discourse in John is more about our belief being a survival manual than a celestial soda machine, doling out soft drinks if only we plug it with the right number of prayer quarters.

In that sense, rather than being told our belief will magically make our troubles disappear, we are told that our belief will help us through grief and loss.  As overused as it is at funerals, it might well be the best way to fully understand its meaning.  Perhaps the question is not, "How can I believe the message in this text when I know for a fact that I've felt let down by God?" but "When do I learn to accept what I may not yet understand in its entirety?"


(Natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns from the inside)

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

Daily Office readings for Easter Day, April 8, 2012:

Psalms 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalms 113, 114
or Psalm 118 (Evening)
Exodus 12:1-14
or Isaiah 51:9-11
John 1:1-18
or Luke 24:13-35
or John 20:19-23

Look carefully our Gospel readings for Easter Day.  Notice anything missing?

It's not an accident that even with three readings to choose from in the Daily Office today, that none of them directly proclaim the Resurrection.  My understanding of that is because of the importance of Easter to our faith, the direct proclamation of the Resurrection is reserved for the Eucharist on this day.  The Epistle is also omitted from the readings so that both Morning and Evening Prayer will proclaim the Gospel.

Admittedly, that little uppity layperson voice in me, says, "That's not fair."

Don't get me wrong.  I think all three readings are great readings that indirectly proclaim the Resurrection.  I admit, though at first, reserving the direct proclamation of the Resurrection for a Eucharistic service only smelled a tad like clericalism to me.  However, the more I thought of it, the more I got to thinking about the deeper meaning of what might be behind it--something more than elevating the solemnity of it via ecclesiastical hierarchical means.

The truth is, in 2012, none of us were an eyewitness to the event itself.  Not even Jesus' contemporaries witnessed it directly.  No one saw Jesus sit up, unwrap himself from his burial clothes, and wander out.  They witnessed the outcome--the empty tomb, the confusion, and, yes, the resurrected Jesus.  It puts all of us in the rather odd position of believing in something that we can't even make sense of, something that defies all what we observe by experience, and what we know about the rational, factual, biological, and physical world.  Yet, if we look, we can see evidence of the Resurrection all around us.

The closest way I can understand Resurrection is through a story about my childhood dog, Peetee.  Peetee was a stocky 20 lb. rat terrier/God only knows what else mutt that was bought for me before I was born and was my companion until I was 13 years old.  One of his quirks was that he would never--NEVER--play with a ball.  He did plenty of "rat terrier" things--he chased little furry critters, dug for moles, and killed snakes with all the skill of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.  But throw a ball at him, and he just let it go by without a thought.  We always said that Peetee knew a ball was not a real live critter, and he wasn't going to waste his time on anything that was not a real live critter.  He was a serious little dog with a serious job to do.

Then, one day, when he was about ten years old, I went outside to play and saw something I never thought I'd see.

Peetee was playing with a ball.  Not just rolling it around, mind you, but tossing it in the air from his jaws, wagging his tail, pouncing on it and chasing it all over the yard, all the time barking at it in his distinctive "Yark, yark!" bark that I can still hear in my mind to this day.

In utter disbelief, I took the ball from him and tossed it--and he ran like the wind to get it, fetched it, and brought it to me, tail pumping and urging me to throw it again.

No one had taught him to play with a ball.  He just woke up one day and had the desire to play with a ball, and for the remaining three years of his life, when he wasn't chasing critters, he would entertain himself and others with a ball.  Even in old age, when congestive heart failure was about to bring his life to a close, he wanted to play ball, even a little, even if it wore him out.  Overnight he went from a Very Serious Little Dog to one who could also be playful.  He grew into his fullness as both a child and a great high priest of the Kingdom of Dog.

Really, when you get right down to it, everything the priesthood of believers does in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven closer to the reality of Earth, indirectly proclaims the Resurrection.  All that we do to bring us closer to the reality of our own fullness of self and to be fully present for others, as both child of God and great high priest, is a piece of the proclamation of the Resurrection.  The Resurrection of Christ invites us with no notes, no experience, and no instruction to play ball with God.  It invites us to believe in what's not possible in the highest rationalities of our mind, and it invites us to do it with the selves we inherited--not to be someone else, but to be the fullest "us" that God created.

Play ball!

 (Photo of grotto from Carlsbad Caverns, NM)

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

"Truth is what is true, and it's not necessarily factual.  Truth and fact are not the same thing.  Truth does not contradict or deny facts, but it goes through and beyond facts.  This is something that it is very difficult for some people to understand.  Truth can be dangerous."
--Madeleine L'Engle

On a recent trip to Carlsbad Caverns, I was lucky enough to be visiting on a weekday with few visitors.  My last visit there was on a Saturday in 1982, and that day the caverns were packed with visitors.  The dearth of visitors allowed me to see something that I had not seen on that first visit--all the various grottos along the cavern walls.  I was struck that they looked like miniature views of the main room--little dioramas nested within the walls.  It was almost as if one could look at the grotto for a while, then turn around and see a larger recapitulation of the shapes and patterns of the rock formations in the grottos.  It was almost as if they were trying to tell a story--the story of how this cave came to be, lived and grew over eons.

I still can recall vividly the first time I saw a diorama.  It was on a childhood trip with my family to Florida, and we had stopped along the way near Chattanooga, TN, to a site that described the Battle of Lookout Mountain.  There was a huge diorama in the main room with flashing lights and explosions and row upon row of soldiers in blue and gray.  The diorama told the story by using lights and sound to direct one's attention to a different part of it, as the pre-recorded story of the Battle of Lookout Mountain unfolded.

We don't think about things much in terms of laying them out on a diorama.  Now, we discover the unfolding of stories at tourist sites via higher tech means like IMAX theaters and computer simulations.  But what I've always loved about dioramas are that they are a collection of details, and although the story is the entry point for the experience, they become personalized by the details we choose, so the experience can be different for us each time we view it, based on the details we choose.  That doesn't tend to be our pattern when we watch a movie, where the more we see it, the more we wait in baited anticipation for the parts we most enjoy.  "Oh, oh, here it comes!  I LOVE this part!"

Most of the ways we see the world are linear and dichotomous.  Either/or.  Up/down.  Right/wrong.  Good/evil.  With this tendency for duality and linearity in our thinking, stories have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and the characters are generally either good or bad (although sometimes one has to wait till the end to see whether someone was ultimately good or bad.)

L'Engle's quote, however, invites us to see spirituality and religion in a non-dualistic way--as a diorama--thereby making the stories of the Bible "our stories."  She invites us to consider the details--the facts, as the portal to truth rather than the definition.

As I looked at those grottos in the cavern walls, they started to remind me of the Stations of the Cross.  Although it's one of the oldest forms of devotion used in Lent and Holy Week, it's also the one that can really bring out a visceral negative reaction in people.  "It's too Roman Catholic."  "I don't like the blood and gore."  "There's unsubstantiated myth in it, like Veronica--there's no evidence a woman gave Jesus a cloth."  "Jesus really didn't say some of the stuff in the Stations in the way it's told."  "There's too much talking and not enough silence."  "I'm not into Jesus' death, I'm into the Resurrection."  

The visceral nature of some of those negative responses I've heard over the years reminds me how we describe our own pain, or a painful chapter in our lives.  When we can finally break the silence, things tend to rush out of us in list upon list of "the very specific details of how we were hurt or harmed."  This tends to be linear, and dichotomous--because we are venting in order to control.  We control the facts in an attempt to control the truth.

I did not exactly grow up with the Stations as part of my religious tradition, but it was part of the religious tradition of the family of my best childhood friends.  I never really got the point of the Stations until I wrote my own a couple of years ago.  It was only when I wrote a set of Stations that I began to understand their purpose--that each station is a diorama that urges us to hear our stories within the story of Christ's passion.  Who was our Simon of Cyrene, carrying our cross?  Who has wept for us by the roadside?  When have we encountered Christ in the simplest action of wiping another's face?

Perhaps, just as the cavern had written its own set of Stations of the Cavern, the Stations of the Cross invite us to see our life within the context of a series of dioramas of Christ's passion.  What detail will we choose to let the story unfold around us and lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth of the Good News in Christ?


(Statue of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Church of Santa María de la Navidad, Tamazulapan, Oaxaca, Mexico, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, April 1, 2012)

Daily Office readings for Palm Sunday:

Psalms 24, 29 (morning)
Psalm 103 (evening)
Zechariah 9:9-12
Zechariah 12:9-12, 13:1, 7-9
1 Timothy 6:12-16
Luke 19:41-48

Zechariah 9:9-12 (NRSV):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

My two donkeys, Miss Sylvia and Miss Topaz, would accuse me of being quite remiss in my duties as a donkey owner if I did not mention donkeys on Palm Sunday.  (I am of the belief that there is a certain set of base pairs of donkey DNA that has gifted donkeys with more innate knowledge about Advent and Holy Week than humans will ever know--it's evident from the glint in the eye of every long-eared equine I've ever met.)

Most of us are quite familiar with the Palm Sunday narrative of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but may not be as familiar with the significance of the donkey, outlined here in Zechariah.  Zechariah chapter 9 is subtitled, "An Oracle."  It's the back story of the basis of the Palm Sunday narratives of all four Gospels.  

Now, most likely Zechariah was expecting a Davidic sort of king, rather than predicting Jesus as Messiah--but the authors of the Gospels are well aware of this prophesy (even quoting it in their narratives,) as is Jesus.  This is precisely where equus asinus fits right in.  A common triumphal entry for the ruling class, following wars, was on a donkey, rather than a majestic war horse, signifying peace.  It also signified the return of the king or emperor to the masses, by riding a simple beast of burden in that awkward, legs-hanging-down-too-far way everyone displays riding a donkey--"See, y'all, I'm just one of the common folk, like you."  (After all, one of the ways the ruling class remained the ruling class was to engage now and then in an obsequious gesture of false humility, and, as in election years today, when political candidates wear too-clean and over-pressed work clothes to press the flesh at the local café, it often worked.)

So when we add this knowledge to what we now about the Palm Sunday narrative in the four canonical Gospels, it adds a story within a story.  The Palm Sunday narrative is not just about "they all love Jesus and cheer his arrival," it is that prior to the awful events that are about to take place, Jesus is actually subliminally telling the people, "The war is over, and peace is at hand."  It's the beginning of our understanding of Jesus as Prince of Peace.

Unfortunately, over the years, donkeys have gotten a reputation for their negative qualities--namely stubbornness and obstinacy--which really stems more from their strong sense of self-preservation.  In the wild, donkeys tend to travel solo, and are very cognizant of danger.  Any donkey owner would tell you these negative qualities have a basis in truth--but would also tell you of a serenity and unflappability that donkeys possess in comparison to their shorter-eared equine kin.  The crowds that must have mobbed Jesus that day could easily have spooked a horse--but the lack of any runaway donkey incidents in the Gospel narratives suggest that our Palm Sunday donkey thought nothing of ambling through the plethora of people who must have welcomed Jesus.  The symbolic meaning of the donkey in antiquity as a symbol of peace is just as equally based in truth.

Perhaps it is this same unflappability that we need to embrace as we plunge into Holy Week--to remember that the Peace of Christ is already among us, and all we have to do is claim the victory that is already there.  This is not a comfortable claim, because it invites risk--the risk of accepting the path of humility, and trusting in the power of the Resurrection at the very time we see trouble and death looming before us.  Dare we attempt it?



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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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