Life Equations

A Lenten Meditation

 

John 9: 1-17

As he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said.  

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

Life Equations

It was traditional in early Hebrew faith. God rewards good behavior. God punishes bad behavior. Simple equation. Probably too simple. What about all those in-between equations?

Number One:  Bad behavior that seems to go un-punished?

Number Two: Good behavior that does not protect good people from adversity. Good people who suffer illness, disability, pain. Good people who endure accidents. Good people who lose their jobs, income, homes. Good people who lose loved ones to addiction, disease, death.

Or a good person who for no good reason is born blind.  Why? That’s not fair. There is no good reason.

Except . . . That it brings us to the third in-between equation:

We see our equation in the case of the man in John’s story.  The man just happened to be begging in the spot where Jesus just happened to be passing on that very day.  What are the chances?  This was no accident. 

It was an in-between Equation. Jesus explained it to his disciples.  That man was born blind not as some punishment for sins committed by his parents, or sins that the blind man might commit if he were sighted. Rather, the man was born blind so that at that moment God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Do not misunderstand.  God does not cause adversity.  He did not create it.  Sin did, making adversity part of life on this planet.  It was Christ’s intervention at that moment in history that transformed a tragedy into opportunity to reveal God’s work.

Here are the components of the equation:

The moment.  The man.  The blindness.  And Jesus.

Let’s apply it to our own life.

The moment is now.

The man is any one of us.

His blindness is a tragedy that anyone of us has suffered.  All have carried a cross.

And Jesus. The light in a dark world where adversity knows no stranger, even the best of people.  There is Jesus, looking for the triumph in tragedy, transforming adversity into an opportunity to reveal God’s work in us.

How do we live this equation?  How do we access an opportunity to transform the tragedy in our life into triumph? How can we transform our adversity into an opportunity to reveal God’s presence?

Maybe we can do what the man on the road did.  Live our life as close to the path where Jesus walks so he will see us, maybe even stumble over us.  Put ourselves in his presence, in worship, prayer, and study.  Put ourselves in connection with each other to grow in faith and mutual healing, so that whatever cross we carry, the load will be lighter and Jesus will notice us.  He will look upon us as an opportunity to show God’s work in the world.  Maybe he will make a mud paste with his own saliva to soothe the inflammation and pain we hold.  Maybe he will heal the disease, disability, loss.   Maybe not.  Maybe when we wash our face of the mud that clouds our vision, the blindness of depression, grief, resentment, and anger at the injustice of adversity, – that blindness will be lifted, and we will be like the man on the road, stronger than he was before his encounter with Christ, and capable of seeing what others could not see.   Who, when confronted and questioned, “Who gave you your sight?  What do you say about him?”

 With the man on the road, we, too will say, “It is Jesus.  The revealer of God’s work.  He is the light of the world.  He is a prophet.  “

Amen

Who is this who Forgives?

Monday after the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Wisdom 9:1, 7-18 (NRSV)

A Reading from the Wisdom of Solomon.

‘O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
who have made all things by your word,
You have chosen me to be king of your people
and to be judge over your sons and daughters.
You have given command to build a temple on your holy mountain,
and an altar in the city of your habitation,
a copy of the holy tent that you prepared from the beginning.
With you is wisdom, she who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
she understands what is pleasing in your sight
and what is right according to your commandments.
Send her forth from the holy heavens,
and from the throne of your glory send her,
that she may labour at my side,
and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.
For she knows and understands all things,
and she will guide me wisely in my actions
and guard me with her glory.
Then my works will be acceptable,
and I shall judge your people justly,
and shall be worthy of the throne of my father.
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labour;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus, the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.’

Luke 7:36-50 (NRSV)

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.

She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

“Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Two men

Two sons

Both born of powerful fathers, powerful mothers

Solomon whose mother Bathsheba loved him and moved to ensure his place as King, bargaining with King David on his death bed to appoint their son as heir to the throne.

Jesus whose mother was courageous enough to accept an angel’s assignment that could have led to life as an outcast, shunned for adultery, or worse yet, stoned to death.  She was the mother who never left her son’s side, who loved him to the end, and remains hallowed to this day.

Their sons . . .

Solomon with Wisdom at his side, empowered to make wise, life and death decisions, and to build the holy Temple

Jesus with the Holy Spirit at his side, empowered to speak, to reinstate life from death, to forgive.

Both with a secure place in history.

I am not suggesting at this point to set up a competition between these two giants, rather to draw from scriptures the blueprint, the path for life they have given us.

Looking at Solomon, the builder of the Temple.  He gave us a blueprint for a Temple built to the glory of God.  Churches continue to build temples to the glory of God for worship; and for God’s work in the community at large, providing education, food, comfort, refuge, and support to those in need.

Then there is Jesus, an itinerant preacher with no resources to build anything, rather possessing resources to raise the dead, to provide generously education, food, comfort, and support to those in need.

And to forgive.

Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee.  He is sitting at the table when quietly a woman enters and stands behind him.  She kneels at his feet and overcome by the dark chasm of her life in the presence of the holiness of god, she cries.  Her tears are so great that they give her what she needs to bathe his feet.  She releases her hair from its covering and dries them.  Then with perfume from the alabaster jar she has carried with her, she generously anoints and soothes his dry tired feet with the rich oil.

Silence falls over the room.  Only Simon’s inner voice criticizing the woman and Jesus breaks the reverie.  Jesus hears.

And in the tradition of Solomon, Jesus tells a story of wisdom that traps Simon in his own error.  Jesus then turns to the woman at his feet, and speaks, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  That’s it.  No caveats.  No pre-existing conditions.  No “only ifs.”  No “yes, buts.” Just forgiveness.

“But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

The pharisees do not ask, how is it that he can forgive?  Who gave him the right, the power to forgive?

No.  They ask who is this who forgives?  Obviously and profoundly, it is Jesus who forgives.

And in the prayer he taught us, he made it obviously and profoundly clear that we are to forgive as well. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray not for the ability to forgive, but the willingness to forgive.  And not just once. Not just seven times, but seven times seventy times, generously!

Jesus knew the results of a stinginess to forgive, — a seething burning wound gnawing away at the core of one’s being, eroding slowly but surely all quality of life.

He knew the results of being held in the grip of going unforgiven, –isolation, shunned, an outcast with never a chance at life, never a new day with hope.

To forgive or not to forgive.  That is the question, a life or death question.  It is a life or death decision, to build or destroy, to give life or to withhold it.

This temple we call life is not built of bricks and stones.  It is a life built or destroyed by our willingness or unwillingness to forgive others or ourselves.  It is why we pray in the same breath for food to survive, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus knew the powerful act of forgiveness.  He knew what he was giving to the woman at his feet and to all sinners:  the opportunity to go in peace, fully forgiven, to awaken to a new day filled with hope and to live fully in his light.

May we steadfastly follow his steps in wisdom, generosity, and forgiveness to guide us and direct us in all that we do as well.

  

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Easter

Wishing you a Blessed Easter Monday and all Seven Easter Sundays

John 4:2-3 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

One of the things I love about being an Episcopalian is, as a group, we enjoy a good time. Any excuse is good for a party. If you don’t believe me, look at the church calendar aka Our Social Agenda.


Take Christmas. Most people celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and Christ-mas Day. Then it’s done. Take down the tree and decorations. Put them away for another year. Not us. We start four weeks in advance of Christmas, celebrating the preparation for Christmas. We call it Advent. And then, we celebrate all 12 days of Christmas. No one-day wonder for us!


And then there’s Easter. Today is Easter Monday. Notice it’s not the Monday after Easter. It is Easter Monday. When it comes to Easter, we start preparing six weeks in advance. And, as if that’s not enough, we even have a party to celebrate the beginning of the preparation for Easter. We call it Fat Tuesday, followed by Lent, then Holy Week when we walk through the dark days of Christ’s trial, torture, and crucifixion to reach the glorious light of Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, and six more Sundays of Easter! Seven in all! If you don’t believe me, check out the Church Calendar!


Now, some might think this is a bit much, but I don’t. Think of it as extended intensive training. You see, Jesus didn’t resurrect only once. He has never stopped. He promises that every time one of us comes to the end of our life, He will come back for us. And that’s not the only time he comes back., so we need to be ready, spiritually fit.


I believe He resurrects every time we walk into a church to worship; every time we sing Amazing Grace, and every time we bow our head in prayer. Every time we share the Eucharist, we call upon him to send His Holy Spirit into the bread and wine that, as we take in this precious meal, He is resurrected within us.
I believe he comes to us in our everyday life. I believe He is resurrected in the early morning hours when I sit in the rocking chair in the kitchen with the dog in my lap, and my thoughts drift to prayer and meditation.


I believe He is resurrected every time we touch a baby’s cheek to our own. Every time we welcome the smile of a friend. Every time we embrace a loved one. I believe that Christ is resurrected in those moments. And I believe that when our life comes to an end, He will resurrect in our death to take us to His home in heaven. I believe it. He promised and Jesus keeps His promises.


So here we are. Time to put on our dancing shoes. The party is just beginning! It’s Easter and He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen!

Who Shall We Be?

A Lenten Meditation

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take hm by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.  John 6:15

In a recent sermon, Bishop Curry cited Abraham Lincoln’s closing words of his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln addressed a country in crisis, in great danger.  A country torn apart by a war within itself, brothers killing brothers, flailing in the bloody chaos of discrimination, violence, and hatred. 

It was a time for decision. Who shall we be?  What kind of people, what kind of country shall we be?  Do we persist in the chaos?  Or do we become the compassionate community Lincoln envisioned?  More than a hundred years later, we still struggle to find answers to these questions.

Two thousand years earlier, Jesus faced the same politics of chaos, lies, and brutality.   And he lived the answers.  The reality was and is that there is no choice.  Chaos is not a choice.  Lincoln knew it.  Jesus knew it.  They knew that the only viable option for individuals and for society was to take the path of compassionate community.  In our scripture today, Jesus took compassion on the multitude who came to see him and to hear what he had to say.  As dinner hour approached, Jesus did what any good host would do.  His company was hungry, and he fed them.  That’s community.

Jesus lived the path of love, unselfish, sacrificial love. He took the way of the cross seeking good in and for others.  And “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  He turned his back on the temptation of earthly power and prestige, and what most certainly would have ended in chaos, in a bloody civil war. 

Instead, he stayed true to his path of sacrifice.  That is the way of love that can heal our hurts, our losses, and our land.  That is the way we become a compassionate community, filled with instruments of God’s peace, agents of God’s love, blessing others along the way, and praying, God of grace and God of glory, Grant us wisdom, and grant us courage for the facing of this hour.  Amen

This meditation is a combined effort, inspired by Bishop Curry’s Lenten sermon and my own thoughts.  Thank you, Bishop

Epiphany Moments in a Pandemic Time

Epiphany 2021

1 Samuel: 3-20

The Lord Calls Samuel

3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God,[a] and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”  Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

                                                          * * * * * * *

Epiphany Moments in a Pandemic Time

For those who know me, you know that Epiphany is my favorite season of the year.  The reason I love it is because, as much as people consider me the master of efficiency, there is a subtle lazy streak in me.  That lazy streak is why I love this church season!

 Unlike Epiphany, the two seasons preceding it, Advent and Christmas come with extensive to-do lists.  Epiphany on the other hand has none.  I don’t have to cook.  I don’t have to clean. I don’t have to move furniture, find extra beds for company, or take on mountains of laundry.  There is no planning, no shopping, no cooking and baking, no decorating, no putting up a tree, and no dragging out gifts in the middle of the night.  No heavy lifting for me, because you see, God does all the work.

He picks the time and the setting; he provides the content.  He sets up the scene, supplies the decorations and the props.  He auditions and picks the players; he writes the script. God is fully in charge, you see.  We cannot make one.  It is what we experience.  Which is why I love this reading.  Samuel did not have to do anything to experience an epiphany moment of message in the dark quiet of night.  All he had to do was go back to bed.

Forgive me!  I’m jumping into the middle of our story.  Let me give you the context and history.  Samuel is the son of Hannah and her husband, Elkanah.  For years, Hannah struggled with infertility. Her in-laws were no help.  They taunted her as barren and convinced Elkanah to marry another woman who could bear him many children, which she did.  She also taunted Hannah, reducing her to tears repeatedly with her cruelty.  Even her husband failed her with his clumsy attempt at comfort, “Am I not better for you than ten children?”

On a yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah went into the Temple to pray.  Grieving, moaning, sobbing, she begged God to give her a child.  And in a desperate attempt to up the ante, she promised that when the child was weaned, she would give him to God to serve in the temple.  While she prayed, Eli observed her behavior and misinterpreted it, “Ma’am, you can’t be in here drunk.  Leave!” She explained through her tears that she was not drunk, rather praying for God to lift her infertility and bring her a child that she would consecrate to his service.  Upon hearing her story, Eli sent her on her way with his blessing.   

God kept his promise. He gave her a child she named Samuel, “asked from God.”  She kept her promise.  Once Samuel was weaned, she took him to Eli.  Every year after that at pilgrimage, she visited and gave him a new coat.  She later bore three more sons and two daughters to Elkanah.

  Our supporting actor, Eli, head priest at the Temple in Shiloh was a good man, honest, caring, and kind.  For Samuel, he was an intuitive, clear spoken loving father figure and a spiritual guide.  In our story, he never fusses at Samuel for waking him three times in the night.  If it had been my kid waking me with some cock and bull story that I’d been calling him to my room, I am sure I’d have been less than kind.  Eli on the other hand was gentle the first time Samuel woke him.  The second time, lovingly he calls him, Son and urges him to get some sleep.  The third time, instead of exasperation clouding his epiphany, he says to Samuel, “The Lord wants to speak to you: go, wait, listen.” 

Once, twice, three times, Samuel hears a voice calling to him.  The third time, he listened, and in the silence, God spoke, giving him powerful words of strength and painful words of tragedy.  Following this epiphany, Samuel was still.  He let it sink in.  He didn’t distract himself.  He did not start playing with his phone.  He didn’t go out to take a walk or to shoot baskets.   He waited.

By morning, he was ready for his first lesson in leadership.  Eli asked him to reveal what God had spoken.  Even though he was afraid, Samuel in his new-found strength, spoke the hard truth, a characteristic for which he would be honored as he grew into the strongest prophet and judge of the Hebrew nation.

In the season of Epiphany, we are called to be like Samuel, in quiet communication with God.  For some, the pandemic has given us more time on our hands than ever before to do just that.  Finding time for a daily ritual of meditation and silence has been easy.  Others have no spare time at all, consumed by the responsibilities of a full-time job, working from home, supervising children’s virtual education, and keeping the family afloat.  Add shelter in place guidelines keeping all of us from our friends, co-workers, church and extended family, we found ourselves searching for new ways and sources of companionship.

That search spurred a run on animal shelters and breeders all over the country.  Everyone wanted a kitten or puppy to keep them company at home, including me.  To secure a puppy, I had to pay a deposit before my little bundle of joy was even conceived.  July 9, 2020, he was born, one of ten siblings.  Labor Day, he came to our home.  He is now seven months old, weighing in at forty pounds, and still able to curl up in my lap which he does every morning.  He greets me bedside as I awaken.  He follows me to the kitchen and waits patiently by the rocking chair while I empty the dishwasher and make a cup of coffee. 

Before puppy, I would have gone on to fold a load of clothes and wipe down the counters.  Now I sit down.  The puppy climbs into my lap and nuzzles his head on my shoulder.  And we rock. That’s it.

It might appear to observers that nothing is happening in that silence.  They would be wrong.  I am convinced that the cozy scene in my kitchen was orchestrated by God setting the time, the players, and the content for an epiphany. God gave me the silence, the place, the puppy, the light, and the moments with no words.  In that silence, I felt God’s assurance that His presence, warmth, and love are filling my home.  And here, all will be well.

Out there, we are challenged with the incessant noise of information coming at us from all directions. While we are helpless to stop it, we are not helpless to do something.  Samuel was helpless to save Eli and his ne’er do well sons from the consequences of their sins, but he was not helpless to do something.  He went back to bed.   He waited in silence.  He received an epiphany challenging him to grow into a man of God, always speaking the truth with strength and power.

God sent Jesus into a world filled with sin, violence, and conflict, much like Samuel’s and our own.  God revealed Him as His Son when Simeon recognized him in the temple. He empowered Him in his baptismal epiphany, affirming his identity.  God strengthened Him in the isolation of wilderness as he stood up against the evils of temptation.  God provided Jesus with one epiphany after another confirming his destiny and preparing Him for his long and treacherous road to the cross.

 God continues to orchestrate epiphany moments preparing us for our own Lenten path, leading us on a spiritual journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He provides us with one epiphany after another because we need them.  Make space for them.  Make time for them.  And, when they come, be still.  Don’t think.  Don’t dismiss them.  Just be in that moment of light.   It will come.  God knows how to do this.  He is fully in charge, remember? Besides, He is used to the heavy lifting and his strength is limitless! 

We pray.  O Lord, allow your epiphany to identify us as your own, to prepare us for whatever lies ahead, and to equip us to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, as he would have us do. Amen

Poetry of Power

150 Days into the Pandemic

July 26, 2020

Psalm: 119: 129 ff

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Poetry of Power

In my last blog entry, I introduced you to poet, Lynn Ungar and the new, powerful, and relevant words in her poem, Pandemic.  Today I introduce you to another poet whose collection of poetry, while ancient, is equally powerful and relevant.

We know that collection of poems as The Psalms.  The acknowledged author is David, musician, poet, and king along with other musicians and poets, and generations of scribes who preserved an incredible collection of verse for us today.

To experience fully the power of poetry, the rule of thumb is to read the poem out loud. To read this one, we may first need to familiarize ourselves with the some of the words David used. So, let’s take it one line at a time, study those words, and apply them to the context of today.

“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

So, what are decrees?  A decree is a law, a proclamation, a commandment.  It is an order, that creates order when obeyed.  For example, “Treat everyone as you would have them treat you.”  That is a decree from God that inspires virtually all laws governing human behavior.  All people are to be treated as equally deserving of a good life.  It is the core of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we live in a world darkened by racism.  It is a world where the decree to treat all people as you would wish to be treated counts only for certain people, not all.  There is no sense of order in its application; rather, groups are randomly picked by race, age, place of birth, gender, or mother tongue to be treated as unequal and not deserving of the pursuit of happiness.

David knew that God’s decrees overlook no one; they are equally applied.  Because of this, David is not only willing to obey God’s rules, he obeys them with all his heart!  With enthusiasm and wonder!  There is no dictator or despot in charge in David’s world.   God is!  God is the one who created the world and loved his creation and everything and everyone in it equally.  His rules are a clear reflection of love and responsibility.  David relied on the Ten Commandments as the written decrees.  A thousand years later, Jesus summarized those commandments into a single statement, “Love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Imagine with David for a moment what the world would look like if everyone embraced and obeyed the decrees of God; the decrees to lift and honor all people to live in harmony, mutual respect, and community.  What a glorious world it would be!  It is no wonder that when David led the procession into Jerusalem carrying the Ark and the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, that he “danced before the Lord with all his heart.”  This would not be some grudging obedience; it would be a heartfelt opportunity to participate in a grand social experiment.  Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

“When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

God’s decrees provide light in a darkened world.   We need that light from the Word if we are to find peace and understanding.  Without it and clear rules, we can lose our way.  We can do all the wrong things, or worse yet, do nothing, feel nothing, pray nothing, worship nothing.  We can live in a void with no conscience, empathy, or sense of justice.  Light is vital to our understanding of God’s plan for us.  It strips us of any excuses for ignorance, it is so simple.

“I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.”

In these Texas summer days, by the time my dog and I finish our walk, he is dehydrated, hot and tired, panting for his water bowl. I understand fully.  By the end of my everyday, I too feel psychologically hot and tired.  I am emotionally dehydrated, panting for a cool soothing cup of water for myself, for my friends and family, and for the demands we endure in this pandemic time.  We struggle with depression, isolation, and anxiety brought on by newscasts filled with the latest COVID-19 body count and stories of random violence against innocents.  These stories cry out for the orderliness of God’s decrees, where life makes sense and sudden death does not.

”Steady my footsteps in your Word:”

Today’s decrees are made and changed, remade and changed again.  Information is updated daily with new acts of violence that perpetuate division, new assaults by an invisible enemy that ruthlessly and randomly kills; and new proclamations based on ignorance and political deception.  This simple statement tells us that nothing is trustworthy except God’s decrees, “Steady my footsteps in your Word.”  God’s Word gives us a firm place to stand.  You can trust that your feet will be on solid ground when you live in synchrony with God’s Word.

 “Let not iniquity have dominion over me.”

 So what keeps us from stepping out in confidence?   And what can keep us from that firm place? David suggests it might be the presence of Iniquity.   He prays that God keeps iniquity from having dominion over us.  What does that mean?   

Iniquity is sin, yes; but much more.  It implies evil, gross immorality, and wickedness.  Iniquity occurs not only when we sin, but when we willfully sin and even find delight in it. When iniquity becomes a way of life, it sears our conscience.  Our conscience loses it voice and we are left without the quiet troubling reminder when we have done wrong.  It dulls our yearning to return to God’s way of justice.  Iniquity blocks our access to his light, and we are abandoned, drifting in the dark, searching for someone to follow.  If we follow in the unsteady steps of leaders who do not lead with compassion, intelligence, and ethical principles, we may find ourselves drifting into the dominion of Iniquity.  Beware.   Plead with God for protection.

“My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.”

Finally, our poet takes us to a place with which we are all too familiar.  While we can call upon God to keep us focused on the Word, we cannot command him to give us the power to eliminate COVID-19, systemic racism, educational dilemmas facing working parents of school age children, or the financial carnage afflicting so many families who have lost their jobs. 

Instead, we are left helpless.   Unfortunately, the typical human response to helplessness is anger, a weak and convenient emotion that for a moment makes us feel big and strong, until it erupts into aggression and violence.

Our psalmist shows the courage it takes to feel a pure and powerful grief. “My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.” This is not a matter of sadness for one person or another.  It is grief for a society’s failure to see the goodness in God’s decrees and follow them.   It is a grievous rejection of the gifts God gave us in his love and generosity. As a culture, we have failed to trust the Word as our path to a life well lived; a life lived in love, equity, and peace.  Instead we have chosen hatred, betrayal, and chaos.

And for that, David’s eyes shed streams of tears, not some tears, not buckets of tears, but streams of tears; streams that flow into rivers and fill the lakes that nourish the land.  We cannot let our tears fall on hard ground.  They are needed to fill the dried souls of families whose sons and daughters lie dead in pools of blood on the streets of our cities, and whose families suffer as their loved ones die alone in hospitals of a virus that shows no mercy. 

Poem 119, with its power and relevance, does not leave us with easy platitudes.  Instead we are called to grieve the dead and the dying, that their lives and sacrifices will remain alive in the soul of our society.  And forever, we will shed streams of tears to soothe the suffering world as it yearns to live once again, governed by wonderful decrees and strong leaders who will obey them with all their hearts,  and with enthusiasm and wonder!

We pray.  Oh sweet Jesus, turn to us in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.  Amen

Now, read the poem out loud, and let the relevance and power of Poem 119 move your soul.

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your Word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Pandemic Time

During this time of sheltering in place, we look for reason, consistency, and guidance. And when we don’t find it, we create it in prayer, song, art, and poetry, like the poem I offer you today.

The poem, “Pandemic” was written by Pastor and poet, Lynn Ungar. I was introduced to it by Bishop Michael Curry in one of his Monday meditations and since then, I have introduced it to others. You may wish to do the same. You may also wish to read more of this talented woman’s work in her recently published book, “Bread and Other Miracles” available online at lynnungar.com

Now, it is your turn to experience Ms. Ungar’s poem.

May I suggest that you find a quiet, private space where you can read it out loud and hear the power of her words.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
 
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
 
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
 
–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

See what I mean?

Amen

This poem was published with permission from Lynn Ungar.

Easter 2020

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We pray.

Oh God, just as Jesus made his resurrection known to the disciples by gathering together with them, touching and being touched, sharing a meal, and extending the peace, so let us share our love for each other by protecting them from harm until it is once again safe to touch, embrace, and sit together at the dinner table. Open our eyes to know your love in our actions and thoughts as we wait for this time to pass. Amen.

Welcome to Easter Season 2020-Style

This has been an Easter unlike any we have ever experienced. We are in the midst of a pandemic and there is no escaping its impact.   It has affected our community, state, country, and planet, altering the way we live, shop, share, and work, if we are lucky enough still to have a job.  It has affected how we educate our children, socialize with friends and family, conduct business meetings, plan weddings, funerals, graduations, honeymoons and vacations.  It has affected us medically, financially, professionally, socially, and psychologically.  No one is unscathed by Covid-19. In its invisible stealth, it spreads through our community until most of us know at least one person who has been afflicted.  While one friend tagged the mandate to shelter in place as the introvert’s dream come true, the rest of us are getting a little tired of hovering in solitude under the threat of infection. 

One group in particular that comes to mind includes folks like me, who anchor their week in corporate worship. We gather in church sanctuaries every Sunday, singing together, praying together, listening together to scripture read aloud and preached.  For us, much has changed.  For the past five Sundays, we are not attending church surrounded by people, music, and liturgy. Instead, my husband and I sit at the dining room table in front of a laptop transported to a quiet sanctuary holding empty pews, two priests, an organist, and a camera guy.

I remember the Sunday before shelter in place was mandated.  It was March 8, 2020.  Our priest announced before the service began, that in light of the novel coronavirus, we should not touch anyone during the Exchange of Peace.  For those unfamiliar with the Exchange of Peace, let me explain.  It is a short break in the middle of the service when we stand and turn to each other to shake hands, hug friends and family, and say something like, Peace be with you, or God bless you, or Good morning, God’s peace.  It is when the quiet style of worship we Episcopalians love breaks into a cacophony of noise, voices, laughter, and affection until we are called to quiet down and return to our seats, or as one priest put it, “All right!  Enough!  With all this hugging and shaking, we’ll never get outa here!” 

On March 8, 2020 at 10:30 a.m., we were told to extend God’s peace to our neighbor with our eyes, with our smile, and with our words but, “Do not touch!”  I could feel myself stiffen.  I had not realized how much I valued that brief ritual until then.

I know we Episcopalians have a reputation.  All churches do and we are no different.  I’ve been told that people think of us as an elite group with roots to the royal family in England.  It was after all our Bishop Curry who preached at the wedding of Kate and Harry.   I don’t know about the elite business, but it is true that we love our ceremony filled with rituals, music, and liturgy. Our priests and acolytes wear robes; we are traditional and formal –   and we are physical.  In our services, we stand up.  We sit down.  We kneel.  We pray out loud together.  We read prayers and psalms responsively.  We stand and turn to our neighbors to Exchange the Peace with handshakes and hugs. Every Sunday we share a common meal of bread and wine kneeling side by side at the altar. We are not a passive audience.  We are active worshipers.

We get our hands dirty building homes for Habitat for Humanity; then we clean them up to deliver food to the homeless. We take care of babies and toddlers and educate pre-schoolers.  We grow gardens and invite our neighbors to harvest and enjoy the fresh food.   Episcopalian priests, chaplains, lay eucharistic ministers and lay preachers are in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted and independent living facilities and Hospice.  Holding the hands of the sick and dying, the lonely and discouraged, we pray with them.  And suddenly we are not allowed to touch?  

As alarming as it sounded at the time, it has become our new reality.  In response, I see churches everywhere reaching out to touch without touching.  On-line streaming of church services.  Small groups meeting online throughout the week, study groups, support groups, meditation and prayer groups; all finding ways to do God’s work and maintain connection with each other and with Jesus.

It is from Jesus we learn that worship is an active and physical business.  Jesus didn’t sit around passively in his ministry.  He stood up in the Temple.  He knelt to pray in the Garden. He squatted on the floor to wash the feet of his disciples.  He walked from village to village touching, comforting, feeding and healing the hungry, diseased, tormented, and blind. He ate with pharisees and sinners.  His was a physical, hands on, dusty feet ministry, culminating in bloody wounded torture and death on the cross.  And then he came back in a physical resurrection with the scars to show for it 

Today, Jesus is no longer in our midst.  We cannot reach out to touch the scars that Thomas was invited to touch.  We can’t touch his robe in a crowd and be healed.  We can’t invite him for dinner and sit at table side by side, inches apart.  We can’t sit at his feet, and wash them with our tears, dry them with our hair, and anoint them with essential oils.  Instead, we are left with a virtual relationship that we call Faith.  It is a connection more powerful even than the internet. It is spiritual and profound, and it will be good enough until we too share in our own resurrection to join him in heaven.

And it will be good enough for us now in our communication with each other.  Until we see the resurrection of life as we once knew it, we will attend church at our dining room tables, seated in front of a laptop.  We will use our phones to call loved ones.  We will write letters and emails; and employ every online technology available.  We will use our eyes and words and smiles.  Our salutations will be waves or a hand on our chest. We will maintain a six-foot safety distance; and wear a mask whenever we enter a space with others.  We will hold all those impacted by this virus in our prayers and outreach.  And we will wait, until it is once again safe to gather with friends and families in our homes and restaurants and coffee shops and happy hours, . . .and in our churches.

Till then, take care and be safe.

Amen

Lost and Found

Luke 2:41 – 52

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.

Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Lost and Found

We know this story and we know exactly how Mary and Joseph felt.  Say, you lose your kiddo in Wal-Mart.  When you finally find him in the toy aisle, do you say, “Oh!  I love you!  I am so happy to find you?”

No.  In fear and anger, we fuss just like Mary and Joseph did when after three terrifying days of searching, they finally found Jesus in the Temple, “How could you do this to us?!”  And like our own kiddo might explain, so did Jesus when he told them he was just hanging out where he wanted to be.

When distressing events strike, whether an illness, an accident or losing a kid in Wal-Mart, we strike out in anger, often accusing God, “How could you have let this happen!?  How could you do this to me!?””

God knows we live in an irrational world where bad things happen to good people.  Tragedies are everyday occurrences, not the work of God.  His work employs our faith to give us hope, stamina, and perseverance to endure whatever happens, good or bad. That is the power of faith so that we, like Jesus once found, can go home to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor.  That is what prepared Jesus for the adversity he would face as an adult, and that is what prepares us to live in this world.

We pray.    Oh Lord, you are in the midst of us and we are called by your name.  Do not forsake us, Oh Lord our God.   Amen

Why Lent?

Lent gives us forty days and forty nights ~

To read

To pray

To listen

To consider

To grow in the darkness of Crucifixion

So that we might

Burst into the Easter light of Resurrection.

May God bless you in this season.

*****************

Lent 2020 begins Wednesday, February 26, Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is marked by services throughout the day, services of deep reverence when worshipers share the Eucharist then leave in silence, bearing the cross marked in ash on their forehead.

Thus begins Lent.