Thursday, September 30, 2010


I am really tired today.  There are many reasons why I might be tired, but at the moment it doesn't really matter why, just that I am.   I'm hoping for a fairly restful afternoon, even if sermon writing is on the schedule.  I mean, who says sermon writing can't be restful?

Restfulness can also be next to Godliness.  So that's my thought for the day.  

Morning Collect: Jerome

O Lord, O God of truth,
your Word is a lantern to our feet
and a light upon our path:
We give you thanks for your servant Jerome,
and those who, following in his steps, have labored
to render the Holy Scriptures in the language of the people;
and we pray that your Holy Spirit will overshadow us
as we read the written Word,
and that Christ, the living Word,
will transform us according to your righteous will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Talking Heads

We hear a lot from talking heads - the people on TV who read the news and tell everyone their opinions and speculate about this and that. Between the regular "news hour" on network television there are cable news channels that feature all talking heads all of the time. There are sports talking heads - those guys in suits who sit behind a counter and talk to us and banter with each other. And there are virtual talking heads - talk radio, blogs on the internet - and of course newspaper opinion pages. Lots and lots of talk.

Talking heads are disembodied - it's all about the talk, what's in people's heads, what they think (although I dare say not all of what talking heads do is rational). School can be talking heads, too - the teacher or professor stands behind a podium and speaks about the subject at hand. So can preachers.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. I like intellectual engagement; I like talk - both talking and listening to others talk. (My family and probably many friends will say I mostly just like talking.) I learn a lot through listening to someone speak about a subject without a bunch of distractions.

But I hear more and more that people crave something more engaging in school and church - a soundtrack (or at least a beat), visuals, experiential offerings. Movie clips with discussion, hands-on activities, interaction, use of humor and irony. My kids know what's happening in the world because they read parodies of it in The Onion or watch Stewart and Colbert on TV - examples of ironic talking heads. Why take a foreign language class, learning verb tenses, when you can travel somewhere for an immersion experience? Engage people in different ways, don't just stand up there and talk at them.

Which all sounds fun to me. (Provided the technology doesn't fail or overwhelm the message.) Sometimes we think everyone is supposed to enjoy what we do, learn like we do - and if they wish for something different, we call them immature or lazy. We had to work at paying attention, by golly. But really, I think those who pooh-pooh the younger generation are perhaps showing a little laziness themselves.

On the other hand, I really deplore the ubiquity of video screens. One can't even walk through the shopping mall or airport without passing a huge video screen every thirty yards or so. There's something about screens - we are drawn to them almost against our will. Those screens on the highway showing advertisements and clips of video are most distracting. And someone told me recently about being at a large venue where there was a famous person speaking and there were video screens in various locations so that everyone could see her as she delivered her address. And even those sitting near to the podium, who could have easily watched her "live and in person" from their seats turned to watch the screens instead. They are like magnets - we can hardly pry our eyes away from them. Yes, screens allow us to see things we couldn't see otherwise - undersea worlds, space, the unfurling of a flower and passing of the seasons, people's insides, all sorts of wondrous things. There are screens that show fabulous things that surely feed the soul and then there are screens that seek to capture us and feed us a steady diet of video junk food.

Food for the soul is what everyone wants, in one way or another, even if they don't describe it as such. A chance to be engaged with life itself and not just distantly rational, endlessly discussing theories and ideologies. There's a place for that, yes. I hope so - I love long discussions about theories. I can listen to certain talking heads for hours. But when people long for engagement, it seems foolish to suggest that they let that idea go and just get with the program.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Despite the fact that I am an extrovert, there are time when I feel that I feel the need to hide. Actually, I suspect it's because I am an extrovert - I am used to interacting with people a lot, with joy, and can hardly imagine being around people and keeping to myself. And so I tend to kind of hide out so as not to feel the weirdness of being with people but not really being me.

This is not the same as hiding from God. God knows where we are, anyway, so it seems futile. Although it apparently helps to send out a little signal every now and then - Here I am, feeling joy! Here I am, in pain.... You know, prayer.

Lots of people hide. Some can do it in plain sight, but again, that's usually not a tactic used by many extroverts. We think out loud, when we're with people. I recall a character in one of those Southern novels, I think, describing hiding out as being "under the porch." That's where someone goes, like the family dog, to lick one's wounds, to think about things really intently, to be near and able to hear others but not be seen by them. So they won't see the skinned places or tears. So they won't be asking questions. Like, what are you going to do now? The family member in the book remarked very matter of factly that when what's her name's boyfriend broke up with her or husband left her or whatever it was, and others were looking for her, she was probably under the porch, but she would come out when she felt like it.

But as I said, one can't hide from God. I think God hangs out under the porch with us, and doesn't demand interaction when we are in that place of intense thinking and pondering and wound-licking and doubt-examining. Sometimes that's where we can just be with God - not in that "contemplative prayer" sense but in that abiding at the edge of consciousness sense. Because when one is hiding, one is doing a lot of brain work. Resting in the arms of God is not the same; in fact, it's banishing cognitive processing.

There are times, though, when either God or our friends and family or all of the above say, enough. It's time to come out. Maybe not even to "face facts." Maybe just to allow friends and family and God to reach out to us, to comfort us, to interact with us, to let us just be with them. Maybe just to allow ourselves to be in relationship again, despite our fears and doubts. To allow someone else to get us a band-aid, or sit with us while we cry, or listen to us express our suspicions that we are losers, to say something funny or silly and make us laugh. To sit with us, to cry with us, and best of all, to laugh with us.

We were made to be in community. In the image of God, a God in relationship. God said, it is not good for a human to be alone. At least not all the time. But there are times when we need to take a break, to get away from it all, to sit alone to think or to feel or to rest in the arms of God (all of these, but not all at the same time). The trick is learning how to do that without breaking connections. Maybe by leaving a note: "Under the Porch. Be Right Back."

For everything there is a season. A time to dance and a time to be under the porch.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tectonic Plates

We have all, lately, been paying special attention to geological events around the globe. Particularly earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These are everyday activities in the life of Mother Earth - check here and see how many earthquakes there have been in the last seven days, and look here to see how many in the last month (this link also shows you the outlines of the seven major tectonic plates plus some minor ones, and you see the earthquake activity is concentrated around the edges of the plates). The earth's tectonic plates - huge sections of the earth's crust (lithosphere) floating on the aesthenosphere - are always moving, a few inches each year, and they sometimes collide or slide by one another, causing earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain building and forming ocean trenches. My children learned about tectonic plate theory by watching Bill Nye the Science Guy using the Chocolate Chip Cookies of Science. (He ate them at the end of the demonstration.)

The thing about the activity of plate tectonics is that it never ends. It's not like once the shaking stops, everything settles into a new normal. More shaking or lurching or upheaval is to come. Some of it might be small, just some tremors that rattle a few cups and send a picture askew, and some might be huge, the stuff of collapsed homes and bridges. Sometimes something like the Andes Mountains are the result of tectonic plates colliding. Some of the shaking and upheaval will come soon, and much of it will come later. The new normal is constantly being set and then challenged again, sooner or later.

I find personal life to be this way, too. Life is just going along, and then, boom, it gets shaken up. A rift opens, a disaster strikes, bridges fall down, walls go up. The landscape looks a little skewed or maybe completely different. After the "event," it takes some time to clean up or get over or repair things or take new routes. But being creatures that seek homeostasis, we try as soon as we can to settle into a new system, a new routine, an adjusted life. This ends up taking little time in some instances and lots of time in others. In any event, we have to learn how to incorporate them into our lives. We say, things will never be the same. And they won't. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just life.

Sometimes I wonder if God isn't doing a little of the shaking up. Not the disaster part, but maybe a little jostling here and there. We get in ruts; we take life for granted. As irritating or difficult or upsetting as change is, change is part of life and we need to be shaken loose from the things we're gripping to death or sometimes even to lose our mooring so we can go out to sea for a while. Change opens up new vistas and exposes things that were previously hidden.

Lots of people ask if God is doing the big shaking up, too. Causing the earthquakes or tsunamis or hurricanes. We've seen some high profile religious leaders say such things since forever. To that, I simply say no. See this post I wrote about the earthquake in Haiti for more on this subject.

Change is constant. Weathering it is part of living a full and satisfying life. It keeps us flexible and open and gives us new eyes as well as bringing us sorrow and feelings of grief and loss. Signs of change are always all around us and it helps to be able to see change as just something that just "is," that has no inherent positive or negative value. Change can be life-giving and creative and it can be catastrophic.

I suppose either way, chocolate chip cookies might be appropriate.

Gathering Together

I am off to a gathering with friends and colleagues for the next couple of days, an annual event I always look forward to and enjoy, extrovert that I am.  I'll post prayers in the mornings, and reflections will be re-runs.  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Steeple

I read once several years ago that even among the large segment of the population that doesn't go to church on Sunday mornings, those same people like it that there are churches in their towns and cities and neighborhoods.  They believe that the churches do good things in the community, maybe host a preschool or a food pantry or offer some kind of assistance to people who need food or help with their utility bills.  They believe that the people in the churches pray and that their prayers are good things for the world - like the people long ago who knew that it was the monks' jobs over at the local monastery to pray for the community.  Even if they don't do those things themselves, even if they don't support them with their money.  They just think it's good to have churches around, to see steeples rising above the trees in their neighborhoods; they think the community benefits from that.  I read this several years ago.

I wonder if that is still true.  I wonder if people who don't go to church still think that churches are doing good things in their communities; I wonder if they think that the church people's prayers are good things for the world.  It seems to me that that vague monolith "people" might call The Church - because those people don't have a particular singular church or denomination to call their own - is not doing too well in the P.R. department theses days.  The Church seems more and more in the public eye to stand for hypocrisy, intolerance, injustice and downright criminality; The Church is known for fighting to keep certain people out (of church altogether or maybe "just" out of the priesthood/pastorate); The Church is known for fostering sexual exploitation and sometimes for working harder to blame others and/or cover it up than to confess and repent of its own sins; the Church is known for fighting one another within the church instead of fighting for the oppressed and the downtrodden in the world.

Back in the Sixties, we were all about sticking it to the man.  Since then, we've become the man, most of us, and many of us have come to appreciate that institutions, which we wanted to shout down back then, have a place and function in society that can be positive.  Institutions can be the vehicle through which more people can be served better and more efficiently (think how a hospital can serve a community better than a single country doctor with a horse and buggy no matter how good or caring that doctor might be).  But we still have that nagging feeling that institutions are just bound to be corrupt, are bound to stomp on the little guy, are bound to become havens for bad actors, are bound to become focused on self-preservation, sometimes at all costs.

It saddens me to know how little most people really know about their local church, about how the people there struggle to understand how to respond to the world's ways - war, consumerism, abuse, power-mongering, worshipping at the altars of money and fashion and power and trivialities.  How they struggle to be faithful.  About how the church is made up of real people with real problems and real questions and real faith that God is faithful and wants us to be healed and made whole - in a word, saved.  Sometimes people need to be saved from church, from church people or church leaders, it's true.  But other times people have been saved through church, through church people - that's true, too.

I still like to see those steeples rising above the trees.  They represent something to me that is still precious, still worthy.  The steeples are still a sign to me that people can know where to come to gather and struggle together to find meaning, so that they can be healed themselves, so that they can go out and live out the Gospel in their communities.  I know I'm not alone in this sentiment.  But I fear that many have consigned the church to a place of irrelevance, and I can see why.

We all need to go out there and be the face of the church in a world that does not know the church any more.  Do good, be kind, live out the Gospel, be love.  Not for the institution but for God's beloved people.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Uh-oh, politics and faith.

There has been a lot of coverage about Stephen Colbert's testimony before Congress today about illegal immigration and the plight of migrant workers.  Most of the coverage has been about his jokes.

But at the end of the testimony, Colbert, who is a Roman Catholic in real life as well as on TV, had this truly heartfelt thing to say in answer to Congressman Chu (D-Cal)'s question as to why he chose this topic:  (really, you gotta see this)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is it Fall Yet?

The calendar says fall.  The thermometer says summer.  My inner body clock says dessicated - dried up, summer gone on way too long.  Where are the cool nights that I expected by now, the breezes gentling through the trees?  Where is the respite, the relief?  The foliage in my yard is rustling not from the inevitability of fall but from being nearly parched to death.  What will fall even look like, I wonder?  Just a slightly more colorful shade of dead?

Of course it always comes, season follows season just as the sun rises every day whether we can actually see it or not.  But one feels a tiny bit wary of trusting completely - the seasons seem just slightly askew, out of whack just a tad.  The polar ice melts, there's a hole in the ozone layer, the snows of Kilimanjaro are predicted to be the snows of yesteryear soon.  Just as I can no longer totally trust my body to do what I always used to take for granted, might the earth's rhythms also be faltering ever so slightly?

No wonder it's so hard to have real faith in God - faith in what we cannot see or know completely.  We can hardly have faith in anything - we are let down, things fall apart, the centre does not hold.  We are let down by so many things - people, systems, ideologies.  Someone put their own interests above mine, someone left me holding the bag, someone didn't show up.  Many of us are frustrated about many things, and the heart of our frustration (if we can let go of the anger part) is usually disappointment.  We had hopes, and they were dashed.

I've been reading Isaiah, that wonderful prophetic book in which disaster and hope are ever presented side-by-side; there is certain disaster and yet always there is hope - a stump, a remnant, light, cool springs.  But first, yes, the disaster.  

And so how do we hold on to faith in the face of disappointment (why didn't God answer my prayers?), dissolution (what happened to my marriage?), disaster (why did I lose my job and what if I don't get another one?  why is there war?  why did my beloved die?)?  How do we let ourselves feel disappointment, which is inevitable but not fatal, without moving directly either into anger or depression?  How do we live in hope instead of lashing out in frustration or sinking into the mire of defeatedness?

It it a significant stretch to connect the disappointment that it's still so hot and dry here in the Southeast with the disaster that was the destruction of Jerusalem, but what I'm really concerned with is that problem of trust.  Trusting that the seasons will follow the seasonal rules; trusting that God will make good on God's promises.  Sometimes it appears that neither is happening - the natural world experiences disturbances, and so does our spiritual world.  How much of what happens to us is natural process and how much is true disaster?

No answers here.  But the prophet attests to the hope that is always there, just in the next breath.  The hope of the olive branch, the hope of the rainbow, the hope of the child, the hope of the overflowing vineyard, the hope of the breath of God that animates all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Be Nice, part II

I have already talked about how I wish people would be nice (here), but it's still on my mind. I still spent some time feeling less than thrilled with the state of our common life. But there are people who are nice, and here's a story about one of them.

Yesterday my mom realized that she was almost out of some of her necessary daily medications and was worried about how she was going to get more since she is in the process of changing doctors since her move and hasn't seen either of the doctors who will be monitoring the two conditions these medications treat. When she realized that she still had some refills left on each of them, I just took her to the pharmacy right across the way from where she lives, and explained to the young woman in the pharmacy that Mom was new to the area and needed some medications refilled. She first checked to make sure she had the medicine and then assured Mom that she could take care of transferring and filling her prescription within fifteen minutes if we'd like to wait. There was some paperwork to complete, which I did for Mom since she doesn't see well, and the pharmacist noticed that I had done it for her.

When it was time to check out, the pharmacist told Mom about their free rewards program and showed her the card and said she would use it right away and that since she already had Mom's information on file now she would just fill out the form for her and she could be on her way. She told Mom to be sure to bring it with her every time because she'd get some discounts on over the counter stuff by using it whenever she buys anything. She also said she noticed Mom's address and that the pharmacy offered free delivery to Mom's retirement complex and so next time she could just call and they would bring her medicine over to her. Then she helped Mom navigate the debit card swipe machine (which Mom has never used before).

We thanked her and turned to leave and she said, "You're welcome, and welcome to Atlanta. I hope you'll like it here."

It was so nice to see someone taking so much time to be helpful in really concrete ways. I'm sure they get many of the retirement set at this pharmacy since it's nearly across the street and I was impressed with how easily this young woman picked up cues and found ways to be specifically helpful directly to Mom and not through me (because that happens sometimes, especially if I do the talking first as I did this time).

After I took Mom home, I went to the bank to deposit a check for her; as I drove up to the window, the teller complimented my flowers in my Beetle's vase. I recalled that the last several times I've been to the bank, the tellers have been unfailingly polite. It's as if they actually appreciate my business. And yes, I know that banks probably are deliberately trying to be nice because people are kind of hacked off at banks these days. But whatever the reason, I appreciate it when people are nice.

Once again, my faith in people was restored.

But the thing I noticed most in both of these encounters is that the people in the bank and the pharmacist as well all seemed to be happy themselves. It could be that they are all just naturally happy, helpful people, but I think, too, that being nice just makes you happier. I know I feel better when I am nice to people.

So go out there and be nice. It makes the world easier to live in.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Who is Waynel, and why is (he) writing on church walls?

A few weeks ago, my son and I visited St Thomas Episcopal Church in (Historic) Bath, NC. St Thomas was built in 1734 with walls two feet thick. This photo is of an area of the old brick exterior walls upon which people have carved their names. It appears to be the church's designated (if unofficial) graffiti wall.

What is it about letting people know we've been somewhere? There's Kilroy, the legendary WWII character who was ubiquitous and symbolic (and there are a number of legends about the origin and scope of the Kilroy Was Here graffiti legend), and then there's Waynel, and all those people who write on the doors of bathroom stalls stating that they were here, and those who paint on rocks along the interstate. Like dogs who mark territory by peeing on every bush as one walks them around the block, people have this thing about letting others know they have been here before us.

I sound prejudiced, and I guess I am. But I'm also truly curious about this. Are we marking territory, or are we trying to connect with others across time and place, are we advertising something or trying to spread information/rumors/lies, or are we vandals? Why are we (some of us at least) not able to pass by a place without leaving our mark? Are we advertising or are we trying to connect?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Memory Lane

We love to go along with folks down Memory Lane. Especially in books. The memoir as a genre has grown explosively over the last decade or so, particularly the memoirs of those with troubled (sometimes fantastically so) childhoods. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina; Mary Karr's The Liars Club; Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes; Alexandra Fuller's Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight; and Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle come immediately to mind. We read these books almost compulsively and like watching a train wreck, we can't look away, we can't put them down and when we finish we go on to the next one. And there always is a next one, to humanity's great shame. For all of these books describe children who were simply born to parents who could not, for a variety of reasons, care for them and they suffered and many were damaged.

In fiction, the journey down Memory Lane is no less compelling for many of us. Many of us book-lovers consider fictional characters real in some way, anyway. Mme Bovary, Emma, Lizzy Bennett are more real to me any of my ancestors, except for the one who kept diaries. I remember how many people I knew who were convinced that The Bridges of Madison County was a true story about a real National Geographic photographer.

Memory is an odd thing, though. We filter our memories, we arrange them so as to make sense of them, we forget some of them for long periods of time. I often wonder, where are these memories stored exactly and why is is that, as so famously illustrated by Proust and his madeline, suddenly something (a sight, a smell, a sound) triggers memories that have long lay dormant in our memory storage boxes. Sometimes people are accused of "making up" memories or of being persuaded by others to "recall" certain memories. Sometimes we have a memory of a memory; sometimes we remember the things that actually happened to other people and have been appropriated by our own memory-making equipment.

Kazuo Ishiguro's haunting novel The Remains of the Day is one of the great examples in the exposition of memory filtering. His next novel, The Unconsoled, was firmly rooted in the questions about memory and the reliability of memory and of people as rememberers. It also was his least successful novel (I could hardly finish it myself).

I just finished reading Jane Gardam's novel Old Filth, another fictional trip down M.L. An exceptional read, told from the perspective of a now elderly man as he nears the end of his life, it is one of those books in which memories are all jumbled up and not at all sequential - things just pop up in the middle of other things, thoughts, stories, people, events, feelings - they tumble all over one another in and out of time, sometimes being reframed much later as maturity allows a new understanding or new information is revealed that casts the memory into a different light. Memory is a slippery thing, always changing and evolving, and it is intensely personal. Gardam subsequently wrote another novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, this time written from the perspective of Old Filth's wife. Some of the same stories are in there, apparently, and I am looking forward to reading it and seeing how her versions differed from his. I don't know if it's also told in the jumbly memory style of Old Filth or if it's more linear. We shall see soon enough.

We all look back; we all have our memories. It may be upsetting to think of them as things that slide around and change as we grow and reframe them, but I think it's true. And in a way I think it's a good thing: it means we are still growing, too, if we can reinterpret our own memories again and again as we learn more about ourselves and about others in our lives. As we learn about our parents' childhoods, so we reinterpret our own because we begin to understand what was going on with our parents when they were raising us. And we may understand something that felt like one thing to actually have been another.

That being said, and going back to the memoirs I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is no point in putting lipstick on certain pigs. Abandonment and cruelty and neglect and abuse are not things we ought to explain away. People spend lifetimes trying to get past some of those things, and it is appalling what tragedies reside in so many families. But there is also a letting go, if one is not to be consumed and ruined, which is healthier than many other ways of coping (emotionally shutting down; addiction; suicide; abuse of the next generation).

Of course, that's another subject for another day. For now, I continue to ponder how powerful memory is, our own memories and the memories of others and the memories of people we have never met and even the memories of those who were never absolutely real in the first place.

Monday Morning Collect

Practitioners of Memos

Here we are, practitioners of memos:
We send e-mail and we receive it,
We copy it and forward it and save it and delete it.
We write to move the data,
and organize the program,
and keep people informed -
and know and control and manage.

We write and receive one-dimensional memos,
that are, at best, clear and unambiguous.
And then - in breathtaking ways - you summon us to song.
You, by your very presence, call us to lyrical voice;
You, by your book, give us cadences of praise
that we sing and say, "allelu, allelu."
You, by your hymnal, give us many voices
toward thanks and gratitude and amazement.
You, by your betraying absence,
call us to lament and protest and complaint.
All our songs are toward you
in praise, in thanks and in need.

We sing and figure and image and parallel and metaphor.
We sing thickness according to our coded community.
We sing and draw close to each other, and to you.
We sing. Things become flesh. But then the moment breaks
and we sink back into memo: "How many pages?"
"When is it due?"
"Do you need footnotes?"
We are hopelessly memo kinds of people.
So we pray, by the power of your spirit,
give us some song-infused days,
deliver us from memo-dominated nights.
Give us a different rhyth,
of dismay and promise,
of candor and hope,
of trusting and obeying.

Give us the courage to withstand the world of memo
and to draw near to your craft of life
given in the wind.
We pray back to you the Word made flesh;
We pray, "Come soon."
We pray, "Amen."

Walter Brueggamann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 51

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tag, You're It

Text: Luke 16:1-13

You may be wondering this morning, along with folks at every other church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, what on earth is going on in this Gospel story. Four out of five preachers I talked with agree, this story has components that seem to be unintelligible not only to us but to Biblical commentators everywhere. (The fifth preacher told me he wasn’t preaching this week anyway.)

I myself am wondering why I used up my “let’s sing during the sermon” card last week instead of saving it for today. We could have sung “There is a balm in Gilead” in response to the question voiced by the Prophet Jeremiah.

But here we are, and in the face of such a difficult Gospel reading, as tempted as I might be to change the subject and talk about some general topic like love, we probably ought to try to see what we can discern about our life of faith through this story from Luke. And actually, in addition to some true head scratchers, there are some things here that connect and resonate with other things that Luke has been emphasizing or will emphasize in his telling the Jesus story.

We might consider the story as if it were a mosiac, a scene or image made up of tiny pieces, that we sometimes have to back away from in order to make the whole image out. And yet at the same time, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle in which we gather all the pieces that are similar in color or pattern together - the blue ones and the flowered ones and the yellow ones -in order to make the picture whole.

So let’s dive in.

First off, we find that the trouble begins because other people tell the master that the steward is squandering the master’s property. Other people think the steward is not managing the master’s stuff properly. They disapprove. Now, in the previous story in Luke, which we didn’t read this time but you all know it, there is a younger son who goes out and squanders his inheritance. Same word - squanders. That son realizes what kind of trouble he is in and comes up with a plan by which he might be able to save himself and at least have a place to live - by returning to his father and asking for a job as a hired hand.

Perhaps the younger son was shrewd enough to know that his father was too generous to allow his son to work as a hired hand, but at any rate, his plan worked even better than he had imagined, and he was received into his father’s home with great fanfare. His own debts were cancelled and everyone except for his older brother, who disapproved of the father’s generosity toward the younger brother, joined in the rejoicing....

So now we can see some things that match other things - squandering, people disapproving, seeking after a secure home, someone recognizing that he is in trouble and devising a plan to get out of trouble, a plan that hinges on generosity and forgiveness. Could it be that in contrast to the prodigal son, who squandered his father’s money on wine, women and song, all for himself, the steward has squandered his master’s property by forgiving the debts of others, and by lessening their burdens?

The text doesn’t tell us what his particular brand of squandering was, but the path he takes when he moves into action after he is summoned by the master is to use what power and influence he still has to make things easier for others, knowing that by his actions he is assuring a place for himself in the future when his current situation is history. ...

Jesus seems to draw that connection. See how he says to the disciples, for he is addressing them in this passage and not the Pharisees, who Luke tells us are lovers of money, “Make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth so that when your current life is history, you’ll be welcomed into an eternal home.”

And now here comes Jesus’ punch line, his explanation for what he means by making friends with worldly wealth in order to be welcomed into an eternal home, He says, “Because if you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, then who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? Remember that you can only serve one master and that master is God, not worldly wealth.”....

Now let’s recall some other things we know about Luke. How one deals with money is a real live issue for Luke. At the very beginning of this Gospel, Mary sings in the Magnificat that God will lift up the lowly
and send the rich away empty. In Luke we find a warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom, which Jesus mentions as commentary when the rich fool builds barns to keep all his grain for himself. Today Jesus sternly warns the disciples: you cannot serve God and Mammon, (or worldly wealth or dishonest wealth or unrighteous wealth, depending on your translation). And next week we will come upon the famous line “the love of money is the root of all evil.” ...

Here’s another story about money that we know only from Luke: the story of Zaccheus, the wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree in order to see Jesus passing by. Zaccheus was a wealthy tax collector, and Jesus called him down from the tree and told him he would be going to eat at his house that very day. And Zaccheus, having been sought out like this by Jesus, at once declared that he would give away half his money the poor and make restitution to anyone he has cheated.
And Jesus responds by telling everyone gathered around that salvation has come to Zaccheus as a result. Zaccheus, having encountered Jesus, makes proper use of his money - that is, he gives half of it to the poor - and now will freed from his bonds to his wealth and will be able to enter the kingdom.

It may be hard to enter the kingdom if you have wealth, but it’s not impossible, as Zaccheus shows. It’s not money, but love of money that is the root of all evil. That love, that urge to serve money, is the bondage that keeps one from being free to enter the kingdom. So Zaccheus must do something for others with his wealth, not keep it all for himself. He must make friends by way of his money - that is he must use his money to support the poor, the lost, those who have no one to stand up for them.

This is how he can and must be faithful with worldly wealth, to use it for the benefit of others - to free them from their own bonds - so that he will not end up trying to serve money as if it were his god.
For if he is faithful with worldly wealth, then he can be trusted with the true riches of salvation...

So the picture begins to take shape. We must not serve worldly riches - money, power, influence - but we should use those things to the best of our ability for the benefit of others. To lighten the loads of those who are burdened, who are under the thumbs of the powers that be. Our salvation, our place in the kingdom, our common life, depends upon this.

Even so, we will face the disapproval of others, others who will see our generosity as wastefulness, who will equate the prodigal son’s squandering with the squandering his father engages in by throwing a feast for him instead of throwing a fit, which is the kind of squandering we’re being asked to emulate.

Jesus tells the disciples, yes, the stuff of this world - money, influence, power - is nothing compared to the riches of the kingdom. But while you are in this world, use this world’s stuff to come to the aid of the poor and the powerless. Don’t just pray for them, don’t just remind them that while they may be oppressed in this world they’ll be rewarded in the next. Jesus is telling us that salvation depends upon our using our influence and power and our riches of every kind, including the coin of the realm, to lighten the load of others.

Jesus said he came to free the captives and announce good news to the poor. That good news to the poor is not only that God loves them, but also that we are here to help.

The great Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, although he was not Jesus, said that in every age, possessions are a trust and we must account to God for their use. Like the steward, we too will be called to account, and we will be praised for using our power to help others. Archbishop Temple also said, the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. This is the mission of the church, to be for others.......

And so, perhaps we can see the picture more clearly now. The way to keep from serving money is to give it away. (Hmmm, didn’t I say that last week?) Jesus says that the world’s riches in whatever form we posses them, whether they be power or influence of cold hard cash, are to be freely given away so to ease the burdens of others who are oppressed by the powers of this world.

Others may accuse us of squandering, of giving help away to the undeserving, but our salvation and theirs depends on it. We are all tied together, the haves and the have nots, and if the Scriptures are truly the Church’s book, then the Church is to be about this business of proclaiming in both word and deed good news to the poor. And since the Census Bureau has just released figures showing that ranks of the poor in our country last year rose to their highest level in the fifty years that the census has been tracking poverty in the U.S.,
I’d say there’s no better time to do so than now....

As Jesus says, there is good news for the poor, and you, my brothers and sisters, are it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Even Keel

I've had a couple of quiet days this week, which I needed for various reasons, but as always happens after a spell like this, I suddenly become irritated that I am not getting out and doing more things. One can only do so much, of course, and one must occasionally have some down time, but I get all over myself about it anyway. Suddenly I see my neighbor's beautiful pots full of begonias on her front porch and then look to my empty ones (the hot summer having taken mine out when I neglected watering them). I see other people out walking or running, I hear the sounds of yardwork being done down the street, I notice the boxes that have been sitting in my living room for a month. At the gas station, I imagined that everyone else there had a well-organized to-do list on the front seat that each was checking off systematically, getting things done on a Saturday morning.

Even though I'm an extrovert, I've learned that I need some time alone and periods of unstructured time. I get crabby if I don't get it. But I also get crabby when I get too much of it. Oh, how I wish I could tell when I was getting close to the edge of my patience so I could make a small and quick readjustment and be on my way. But no, I go in fits and starts. Suddenly I see that I have at least four full days of yardwork to do when yesterday I didn't think I had any (because I had my nose in a book). I seem seldom to be able to keep it on an even keel (as they say in boating) but tend to rock side to side. Which I guess, truly, I prefer. But I find fault with it nonetheless.

The other day I actually wondered to myself, when will I get this right? When will I figure out what I'm doing in my life? Which is silly as I am doing all sorts of good things in my life. I just couldn't remember them at that moment. When one is not in a system that provides a schedule that organizes and manages one's time, one can find herself at sixes and sevens.

Sigh. It seems as if I need to make some lists again. I do not want to be a person who is tied to a list, who can't function without a list; I rebel against lists! But I could probably use one.

I shall put "plant something in my pots" near the top.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Big Storm Rolls In

There's no better place to watch an approaching storm than the beach, with its open view out over the water (although I suppose any flat area without buildings would do as well - it's just that I have this prejudice about things being better at the beach). If one has been watching and attentive, then the drama is easily followed step by step. The clouds gathering, the sky getting darker, and if there is a well-organized storm approaching, the edge of it will move steadily forward like The Starship Enterprise cruising through space and into view. The edge is clear - but as it gets closer the one huge, dark cloud shows itself to be not a single blob but a conglomeration of roiling and rumbling and menacing movement that swirls and unfurls and oozes within it - along with maybe some flashes of lightening. The wind goes before it like a herald, whipping the flags and banners and hammocks, and the sea oats bend in unison. Umbrellas are uprooted and tumble end over end down the beach and anyone who is still outside clamps one hand over his or her hat and the other clutches a jacket closed as he or she trudges resolutely on before finally breaking into a run as huge raindrops begin to fall, first sporadically, driven by the wind, and then as a deluge unleashed, a curtain of grey wet that quickly soaks all it touches.

It was a safe thrill to watch this storm's arrival from the balcony of our motel room. Not so if one is out in it or if one is in a city like New York yesterday where it is trees being uprooted rather than umbrellas, trees that crash onto cars and houses instead of umbrellas tumbleweeding it into the water.

The storm clouds remind us of the awesome power of the forces of nature and how small we are in the face of such awesomeness. How easily we can be tossed about ourselves, how stability and permanence are mocked as the storm rages on.

(It is no wonder that the ancients imagined stormclouds as the chariots of El, the supreme god of all the gods in Mesopotamia who was portrayed as a stormrider, swooping above the earth in the swift and terrible storm clouds. This motif was appropriated by the worshipers of Ba'al in Ugaritic literature, as Ba'al began to replace (his father) El as the chief God of the Canaanites, but YHWH also was described (see especially Ps 68; Ps 104; Deut 33:26) as rider of the clouds. YHWH and Ba'al were rival gods, if you will, and the OT writers freely appropriated Canaanite symbolism and motifs and stories to show that YHWH was the true and powerful God, not Ba'al.)

The power of storms is fascinating and frightening. Its beauty and its terror are opposite sides of the same coin that echo the numinous experience of the divine - the mysterium tremendum (the overwhelming mystery that invokes fear and trembling) and the mysterium fascinans (the fascinating mystery that attracts and compels). We, just as the ancients did before us, stand before God and experience the numinous, which is at once mysterious, awesome, and urgent.

Morning Prayer

Pondering the Small Ways
(On reading Zechariah 4:10)

We ponder you in your greatness.

We bless you in your wonders of creation.

We magnify you for your miracles of deliverance.

We relish the news of your gift
of newness give us in Jesus of Nazareth.

We make our doxology as large as we can,
in order to match your
massive presence in the world.

But then, in slow times and in lesser venues,
we know you to be the God of small things:
one widow and one orphan,
one touch of healing,
one lunch turned to much food,
one small temple for a small people in a small city,
one small scroll to power the small city.

On good days we are among those,
who do not occupy ourselves
with things too great and too marvelous.

It is enough that short of glory and magnificence,
you hang in to make small places your venue for governance.

We are grateful for your "tidbits"
that bespeak life among us.

(Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 101)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Butterflies are Free

So said Mr. Skimpole, an endearing if mischievous character in Charles Dicken's great novel Bleak House while he was happily plying his trade upon Richard and Esther, a couple of well-intentioned generous people who turned out to be simply two of the multitude of people Mr. Skimpole regularly and cheerfully convinced to pay off his debts du jour. Mr. Skimpole only wished to be free - and so convinced others to support him in that effort with genteel delicacy. Mr. Skimpole is simply childishly irresponsible, and he relieves Richard of a bonus and Esther of all of her savings, but he is such a delight, and so delighted to be placed in the hands of so many lovely people, and so everyone presses upon him the funds he needs to remain childishly irresponsible - a free butterfly.

Many of us worry about being "taken." About being tricked into giving away our time, our support, our expertise, and especially our money, by those who claim to be butterflies, a la Mr. Skimpole. We worry that someone is trying to sell us something we don't need or is defective; we worry that someone is trying to gain favor so that they can then take advantage of us in some way. They want to buy our property so they can turn it into a trailer park; they want to marry our cousin so they can get ahold of his bank account; they want to have lunch with us so they can get free legal advice; single women want to have babies so they can get money from the government. If the alleged trickster is a family member, the issue is encircled by even more angst. Should we be understanding or should we be practicing "tough love?"

These are legitimate concerns and questions, and there is certainly a place for tough love, but there is also a real danger that these concerns, if they become the lens through which we consider all of life's both large and small transactions, will form us in a negative way. We should be reasonably careful and circumspect in our dealings with others, and yet we risk becoming hardened and crabbed, suspecting everyone of attempting to take advantage in some way, and unable to experience either generosity or joy for ourselves or others. If we are always suspicious of being taken advantage of, always imagining others as freeloaders or people with negative motives, then we have become warped like a board that is constantly subjected to harsh weather. No doubt some of us have been subject to harshness that has understandably had the effect of hardening our hearts.

For myself, though, I'd rather be taken advantage of than to live as one who is constantly suspicious. I'd rather impute positive or at least neutral motives to most people most of the time. I'd rather be generous than stingy in all my thoughts and actions. These are things I must work at all the time, both because most of us just do have to work at being generous but also because we are constantly tempted to not be generous by being around others who are constantly sounding the alarm.

In the end, I try regularly to remind myself that God is gracious and generous - to a fault, some would say, and to that I say, "Thanks be to God!" - and that in response it behooves me to be as gracious and generous as a flawed, limited human being can be. If I am to be a follower of Jesus, then I am to be generous in the manner of the woman who lost the coin, the generous and loving father of the "prodigal" son, the good Samaritan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


We all know that laughing is good for us. And we all know that some things are just funnier when they're told to us by old friends with whom we've shared many laughs before.

There's a group of women I've known for twenty years and we get together every so often, and boy do we laugh. For a while, we got together in restaurants because then nobody had to cook and we could get out of the house and away from the kids and the disasters of laundry piles and pet throwup and wear clean clothes. But nearly every time, we would laugh so hard and so loudly that the people at nearby tables would start to shoot us dirty looks. I always wondered if they were jealous that we were having such a good time together but also remembered times when I'd like to have a quiet dinner with grown up conversation and I could understand their pique.

So we tried to meet at one another's homes. The kids and dads would head off to the basement or wherever and when everyone was gone would come out and ask what on earth we were talking about that was so funny - so hysterically funny for three whole hours?

Off and on now some of this group is part of a book club and the "new" folks have been able to fit right in. So it's the same thing. Lots and lots of laughing and meanwhile exiled to the basement dads and kids wondering what is so funny about all the books we read. Is Jane Austin or Sebastian Junger really that funny? Maybe they'd been missing something....

There's just something about being with people one has known a long time, people who have shared our lives and heard our stories and we can just let loose with them and they with us. We know that some of us are dealing with difficult family situations - children or parents or both at the same time - or with personal illness. We have been with one another as parents died or became incapacitated, as children go off to college or off the deep end, as jobs got cut or husbands got sick or houses had trees fall on them. We've celebrated anniversaries, birthdays, pools, vacations taken, vacation homes bought, job successes, advanced degrees earned. And so we really know one another, even if we go for months without seeing one another.
We can just pick up where we left off and before long someone tells a story and we're off.

Laughing is good for you but laughing with old friends is the best medicine.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Little People

Many buildings of a certain age and/or style feature stone heads of people at the doorways or elsewhere. Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin has all sorts of these stone folks peering at worshipers from the tops of columns - some of them laughing, some solemn, some quite fanciful, some almost grotesque. This lady graces one of the archways in a building on the campus of Georgetown University in the District of Columbia. I am always looking for these architectural features and so I see them often. To me, it's almost as if there is another realm populated with little stone people whose heads periodically poke through into our realm, especially around doorways and archways and columns.

The people of our age don't think too much or too seriously about spirits or creatures of another realm, visible or invisible, except for in the movies or books like Harry Potter or other tales. Moominland exists only in books, as do hobbits. The idea of another realm is simply fantastic. And yet these stories and books and movies are hugely popular. We are completely fascinated with the idea of another realm in which fantastic things happen all the time, often just under our noses. We love the idea of a magical world, the world over the rainbow or through the looking glass or accessed by a special train on a special platform or through the fur coats in an old fashioned wardrobe.

But spirits? Nope. Only in horror movies. A world filled with angels and demons or other spiritual beings is not quite so interesting.

An exception, I think, is the movie Wings of Desire, a German film by Wim Wenders, about angels who live in the sky over Berlin and listen to people's thoughts. They're not messengers who bring news from God to humans as angels do in the Bible. They are often helpless to assist humans, but they do abide with them. Eventually one of the angels falls in love with a human and discovers that he can become human himself, which he does. It's a lovely movie and it presents a much more ambivalent (and to me interesting) portrayal of heavenly beings than, say, a TV show like "Touched by an Angel" or even that elegant angel played by Cary Grant in The Bishop's Wife who is interesting mostly because he's that gorgeous, elegant, suave Cary Grant.

The Kevin Smith movie Dogma presents a more varied realm, with evil spirits breaking into reality as well as heavenly messengers who have gone somewhat amok. Smith's movie entertains some interesting questions but the existential queries end up trumped by the characters and an outrageous (in a good way) plot line. The questions are there, but unlike Wenders, Smith does not press them particularly thoughtfully. He goes for laughs and shock where Wenders goes for what one reviewer called "sheer visual poetry and deep emotional resonance." I think it's resonance that best describes how one might apprehend a spiritual being.

I myself am ambivalent about a spiritual realm filled with, well, spirits. Sometimes I do feel as if there are angels who visit and even guard us. I'm not sure I feel the same about more dark or shady spirits. Sometimes I feel it's all a rather romantic fantasy in which I indulge. Sometimes I think we rational humans have lost our ability to imagine and to inhabit a "place" of alternative possibilities, to our detriment.

What about you?

Prayer for the Future of the Human Race

O God our heavenly Father,
you have blessed us and given us dominion over all the earth
increase our reverence before the mystery of life;
and give us new insight into your purposes for the human race
and new wisdom and determination
in making provision for its future in accordance with your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 828)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Seeking Wisdom

Unlike many people, I love Mondays. (Most Mondays, anyway. There have been exceptions.) Shiny new things make their debuts on Mondays. Monday is often the day that brings the surprise phone call or email or the response from someone you've been waiting on. Monday is the day that I can hope for a new start on something. Monday is the day that I imagine, rightly or wrongly, that I have plenty of time left to write that sermon, prepare for that class, or make that response or decision. Monday is, or at least can be, the day of possibility.

By Monday night, I am often seeking wisdom. As the day rolls along, I begin to see what I need to know, what I need to do to respond to the surprise phone call or email or the long-awaited response both in a timely manner and having put some real thought into the response. If left to my own reactive self, I'll fire off a hardly-thought-through response in ten minutes. As I get older, I'm learning the wisdom of the more considered response. Preparation and thoughtfulness is good, in addition to spontaneity and playfulness. Thoughtfulness includes listening for God and looking for God's hand in all this.

As it happens, today is one of those Mondays. I've heard from people I wanted to hear from, I've heard from people out of the blue, a sudden invitation has appeared for a family member, and I'm still imagining I've got all week to write a sermon and prepare for two classes. The calendar is out and thoughts and plans are zooming around in my head. All of it goes into the pot to simmer now. And as it turns out, I'm attending an ordination tonight too, a bonus opportunity to gather with colleagues (a fountain of wisdom from which I can drink!) as we welcome a new priest into the church.

I love Mondays.

Morning Prayer

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

(Enriching our Worship 2, 71)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Open Hands, Open Hearts

Sermon, Proper 19 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)
Luke 15:1-10

So who among you, if you were a shepherd, upon learning that one of your sheep had been lost, would leave all the rest of your sheep to manage for themselves in the wilderness and relentlessly search for the one until you’d found it and restored it to the flock and then called all your friends and ask them to rejoice with you for searching out and finding the sheep instead of cutting your losses and leaving it behind. All of us would do that, right?

And who among you, if you’d lost a some money, wouldn’t search high and low for it and then when you found it throw a big celebration party for your friends that costs more than the money you found? All of us would do that, right?

And who among you would drop everything - leave your job or your family or your errand running or your baseball or football game and accept the invitation to come over and rejoice with someone who has found something that was lost, something you didn’t even particularly know or care about? All of us would do that, right?

And who among you would gladly sit at the table and eat and make friends with people that the rest of the world considers notoriously sinful and generally bad company? All of us would do that, right?

The truth is that in this story we read today, most of us only like to see ourselves as the lost sheep whom Jesus has found. We want to be the ones that everyone rejoices over.

And some of us at some point in our lives may well have been the lost who were found.

But a whole lot of us are the ones who were not lost, who weren’t the notorious sinners, but were the ones who did what we were supposed to do and who end up just a little miffed and grumbly that other people, people who had not always been doing what they were supposed to do, people who were maybe the black sheep, got parties thrown for them. Parties we were supposed to attend for people we were supposed to rejoice over even though we knew they had been at best ignorant, and at worst stupid enough to get lost in the first place.

The truth is that in this story we read today from the Gospel of Luke, we may want to be the found sheep coming home around Jesus’ neck, but we’re more likely to be the grumbling Pharisees who complain that Jesus always welcomes people we don’t want to associate with. Jesus restores us as a community by bringing in those people we don’t want and plopping the down at the table with us. And then expecting us to rejoice about it.

Jesus shows us God. Jesus befriends the outcast and shows them hospitality and generosity. This is how God is. But the Pharisees show us ourselves. Ever since Cain got mad about Abel’s sacrifice being pleasing to God, this is what we do, grumble and resent and worse. And yet God keeps on inviting everyone to parties, the lost and the never-were-lost-to-begin-with, all together. The question is, will we - can we - join in the rejoicing? Because that’s what we are being asked to do here in this parable.

Paul once told the Corinthians that God loves a cheerful giver, but the truth is that God is the cheerful giver and we often have to be convinced.

And yet, this week the United Kingdom based Charities Aid Foundation, using data from the Gallup Poll people, released the results of a study showing that people are happiest when they give away money. This echoes a study done in 2009 by the Harvard Business School showing that while people can’t buy happiness by spending money on things for themselves, they are much happier when they spend money on gifts for others, including entertainment and dinner parties, and/or give money to charity. And this follows up on a study done in 2008 at the University of British Columbia showing that giving money away makes people happy - no matter how much they have to begin with or how much they give away. It’s the giving away itself that makes the difference.

Every year economists, psychologists and God tell us that opening our hands and hearts to others will make us happy. And every year I hear someone complain, often it’s me doing the complaining, that someone else got the job, got the raise, got the credit and the accolades, got the party thrown for them while I worked hard and tried to be faithful and got no party; and no thank you I would rather not contribute to the festivities or come to their party, thanks anyway, but no. Every year I find myself standing huddled with the ninety-nine, feeling left out and edging toward resentful.

Why is it so hard for us to open our hearts and open our hands? Why is generosity so difficult a practice? Why do we act as if love - God’s love or our love - is a limited resource that we have to fight over or parcel out in pinches? Why do we act as if we don’t believe what God has told us and tells us over and over again, that God will provide, our needs will be met, we will be rescued from bondage, even the bondage we impose upon ourselves, and that we should not be anxious about what we will wear and what we will eat: for just look at the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin and yet not even Solomon in all his glory is clothed as one of them. Why do we act as if we don’t believe that there is enough for everyone - when there is more than enough, there will be seven and also twelve baskets left over - while we go through life with pinched hearts and clenched hands?

I don’t know why, but I see it all the time, in myself and all around me. Our cloudy national economic climate no doubt makes us even more anxious these days, but the truth is that we were already anxious but now it seems more ok to talk about it.

But I believe that even if we are not called to be the Savior, for Jesus has already taken care of that job, we are called to be generous, to practice generosity, generosity of spirit and generosity in action.

A couple of years ago I led a women’s retreat on the topic “Generosity as a Spiritual Practice” and engaged with some Episcopal women in trying to focus on generosity as something we need to deliberately practice, to do, not just try to feel, to help us manage our anxieties about scarcity and our tendency toward pinched hearts and clenched hands. We acknowledged that generosity doesn’t come easily to many of us and so we need to practice, practice, practice if we are going to be able to rejoice with Jesus when the party is about someone else.

We talked about things like letting someone in in traffic, about sitting with strangers at church events and really listening to them instead of talking about ourselves, we talked about giving away money when we feel anxious about money and discovering that we still have enough ourselves and how we feel good when we participate in the common good in a concrete way. And we talked about how we are formed by the things that we do and that regularly practicing generosity of spirit and generosity in giving away our time and our talent and our treasure will slowly but surely transform us.

What we do, how we act, forms us and transforms us. This is at the heart of our practice of common prayer in the Episcopal Church. We are formed and transformed by our praying together, our sharing the sacred meal, our doing God’s work in the world together in mission. We are transformed by opening our hands and our hearts to one another even when we don’t want to. And that takes practice.

And so as an act of practicing, literally, physically, in prayer and petition, I’d like for us to sing together about opening our hearts. Whoever wants to do it with me please join in, but if you’d rather, you can just sit back and listen.

[And then we sang the song Open My Heart (in three parts) by Ana Hernandez.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

New York Eyes

In 1998 about three hundred mosiacs featuring eyes were installed in the subway tunnels/passageways underneath the World Trade Center at at the Chambers Street /Park Place Station complex (take the A or the C; or the 1 train) as part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Arts for Transit program. The artists used the eyes of people they had photographed in New York and each of them is different. The tunnels were mostly untouched by the events of September 11, 2001, and when one goes to visit the Ground Zero area via subway, one will come upon these mosiac eyes on the walls and columns along the train platform and tunnels between stations and between tracks and street. You can read about it here.

The project was conceived and put into place three years before 9/11, but I felt when I visited the area five years ago that those eyes on the walls really spoke to me about the tragedy of that day. They were eyes of many different people, different kinds of people who had round eyes or blue eyes or dark eyes or almond shaped eyes who all begged me to remember the different kinds of people who were killed, who were in the thick of the recovery efforts, who were residents or workers or guests, who were family members and loved ones of those who were killed. They put more than a face on the tragedy - they put the window into people's souls (as sometimes we describe eyes) out there to gaze upon us and to invite us to return the gaze. To remind us that what matters in our world is not ideology or buildings or politics but people, all kinds of different people, all beloved by God and usually beloved also by other people and their mothers and fathers and children and even their pets.

We all have the tendency to see (or want to see) eyes on things that don't have eyes. Cars' headlights become eyes in our own minds, not just in cartoons. Some airplanes have eyes painted on them and I've seen staplers with eye stickers above the "mouth" where the stapling actually happens. There is an entire Facebook group dedicated to stickling googly eyes on inanimate objects (check that out here). We like things to have eyes - the eyes give them a personality and makes them friendlier and inter-actable-with.

Those mosiac eyes in the tunnels haunted me for days after my visit to New York, but not in an accusing way. Yes, they reminded me of the people who had died, but the haunting was also an invitation to use my own eyes to see people instead of ideas and to look into the eyes of those I love and those I hardly know but do engage from time to time and remember that they are people instead of objects or props or representatives of things, even precious things. Looking into someone's eyes signals to them and to you that you acknowledge them, and they acknowledge you back as they return your gaze, however short - a fleeting look, a look away, a penetrating gaze. We say to each other, I am human and I recognize you as human, too. This is the language of the eyes, one that can be curious or questioning or veiled but is often frank and open and unashamed if we will be see and translate and thereby relate.

And so I felt an invitation and try to look at the eyes of the grocery cashier as we say hello before he scans my lettuce and I get out my debit card; to look at the eyes of my children when they are telling me something about their day; to look at the eyes of homeless man in the park and say hello instead of looking away; to allow someone to look at my eyes when I confess my shortcomings and my fears. To take the occasion again and again to engage with people and allow myself to be engaged with as well. To remember that eyes smile, eyes search, eyes invite, eyes show pain and hurt and damage, eyes say hello and goodbye and I know you and I am here and that I would do well to learn to read the language of eyes or risk utter blindness that eventually would reach my heart and turn it to cold stone.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Photo Caption/Reflection Contest

On our adventure to Cape Lookout a couple of weeks ago, my son and I were driving through the little community of Harker's Island, NC, and we came upon this sign. Any ideas for a reflection based on this picture? Please post your thoughts in the comment section here so we can all enjoy them and cogitate/meditate on them into the weekend.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


There are a lot of people out there in the world. There's a lot going on. We're all bumping into one another all the time. I'm particularly struck today by the differences in people and their behavior and speech.

The people who are talking and yelling in the press - in print and on TV - and that guy who wants to burn Korans and everybody who is running for office and a bunch of other people are just about on my last nerve.

As Barbara Streisand almost said, people need people. And those folks who are getting on my nerves seem to have forgotten that.

Those folks need to pay attention to the people I saw today as I accompanied my mother from her apartment in a retirement center to a doctor's appointment. This was her initial appointment with one of the doctors she is going to be seeing regularly now that she has moved here. When I went to pick her up, she was sitting outside with some other residents, chatting. A middle-aged man had just come to pick up another elderly lady resident, and one of the group sitting with my mom asked him if the woman he was picking up is his mother. He replied that she is. The woman then went on to tell him that his mother is a very nice person and that they all like her very much at the retirement center.

We then drove over to the doctor's office, which is located in one of the many parts of The Emory Clinic, a vast network of doctors of all types associated with the Emory Healthcare system, which is part of Emory University in Atlanta. The retirement center provides transportation for residents to visit doctors at The Emory Clinic, but since Mom was a new patient and would have lots of forms and things to deal with, and since she is visually impaired, I am taking her to all her first appointments. She was very pleased with the visit, saying that both doctors she saw (an intern and a professor at Emory's Medical School) and the nurse were all very patient and thorough and that they listened to her (she has a big gripe about doctors who do not listen to her) and explained everything they were doing and changing about her treatment to her clearly. At the end of the visit, Mom needed some phone numbers and things she didn't have written down, so the nurse came out to get me. The nurse told me that any time Mom needs to see them I am welcome to come in with her and ask any questions I'd like to ask as well. She said that she understood how difficult it might be to be dealing with all new doctors and a new place to live and all that and that she hopes I will feel comfortable with my mom's medical care.

We checked out and I drove Mom back to her place. The medical transportation van was just pulling in ahead of us - this is the way by which Mom will go to her next appointment. There were two or three residents on the van, one of whom was in a wheelchair and we had seen her at the same doctor's office just a half hour before. The van driver took great care in helping each of them out of the van and into the building in turn, smiling and talking with them and making sure they were steady. Mom turned to me and said, "The people who drive the vans are very nice."

In this day and time, people sneer about people who are "nice." We don't want to be labelled as "nice" because it means we are not particularly special and maybe we're lacking in the excitement and interesting and intellectual departments. But those people whom I mentioned earlier in this post, the ones who are getting on my nerves, could use some "nice" in their lives. So much of the conversation is about ideology and theories and big generalizations (like Islam or Big Government or Liberals/Conservatives) and actual people just don't even figure into the equation most of the time. (Archetypal people, however, do - the people who "personify" or stand in for the theory or group - these people are talked about. But they are by their nature not "people.")

People need people and we need people to be nice and we need to be nice to people. The big sophisticated, supercharged world out there ought to be listening to the lady at the retirement home complimenting someone's mother and watching the patient guy who drives the van helping elderly people back into their homes and learning from the nurse who wants the whole family to feel good about Mom's health care. Those are the people who understand how we need one another, and how we need to be with one another, and how we ought to talk to one another.

So listen up, people: Be nice.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Poetry for the Nativity of Mary

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary; although not everyone celebrates this feast, it has inspired some beautiful art and poetry.

Do yourself a favor and read Denise Levertov's beautiful poem Annuciation over at Bishop Alan Wilson's (Buckingham, UK) blog.

Click below to go over to Bishop Alan's Blog:
Bishop Alan’s Blog: Akathistos Hymn

Stop, Stop, No Outlet

Do you ever feel like you're at this spot in the road? Stop signs in two directions and a "no outlet" sign in another? The only way to move seems to be to go back the way you came?

In actuality and literally, in the case of this picture, the road backwards from these stopsigns and dead end goes through a rather yucky area of phosphorous mining. The only way out was to get on the ferry and go across the sound to the other side, where the road is pleasant and heads for home. Which we happily did.

I've been in this place many times. (I mean physically, metaphorically, and especially while talking.) Partly this is because I am a digresser. I'm just going along and then decide to peel off onto a side road and just tool along to see where I end up. Sometimes this works out where I reconnect with a main road and sometimes it ends up with a bunch of dead end signs. I'm not always cautious enough to stick with the main road; I'm sometimes craving a digression, a short-cut or a scenic byway, an adventure. Sometimes I'm surprised when I come upon the end of the road, and sometimes I correctly interpret the hints along the way that the end is coming soon.

Sometimes I imagine that God is the one who drops these signs onto the road, to keep me from plunging headlong into the muck. Other times I wonder if the world is out to block me from going where I want to go. So I can come upon these signs with relief that someone is watching over me, or I can come upon them in great frustration and anger.

Over these last months, I've often felt as if I were in this place. I don't think I want to retrace my steps backwards. I've wondered what road goes in some other direction, but I have been a little afraid to try to explore other directions. What if there are just going to be more roadblocks? What if I don't have what it takes to boldly go down a new road? What if I discover there is a ferry, but I have already missed it? And is this a case of God sending me the signs, or is it something human?

But more and more I feel the need to move on. I'm looking to see if there is a map, or if I must blaze my own trail.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I've been reading some books about writing these last few days. All of them exhort those of us who fancy ourselves writers, whether we are published writers or not, simply to write every day. Books published a while back suggest we use a nice pen and notebooks and keep the hand moving. More recent advice reminds us to back up our work lest it be lost in a computer crash. But the advice is the same. If you are a writer, write. Every day. Even if what you write is terrible. It's practice and a learning experience and a way to hone the craft.

This blog has been my daily writing venue for a while now, and I find it ironic that as I am reading books about writing and especially reading the exhortation to write every day, I'm finding it harder to do now than ever. I have a wealth of raw material due to taking August to travel and move my mother and prepare for a new work situation among other things. But I am not finding the time to sit and write right now and also I feel that the raw material I have is still not cooked enough to even begin to write about it. Life is moving along quickly and my inspiration seems to still be on vacation. I seem to have too much on the plate, including needing to catch up on reading, much reading, reading missed while on vacation or doing other things, reading which is the basis of all writing for me anyway. I read, therefore I write. Or something like that.

And so here I am, writing about writing. I confess, however, that writers who post a lot about the difficulty of finding time or energy or creative juices needed to write bore me. And here I am doing it. I want to see the fruit of my efforts! Just like I want to see the fruits of other writers' efforts!

But, sadly no fruits today. Stay tuned and keep checking - the muse has not abandoned me but she has apparently come down with a stuffy head or something because her voice is seriously muffled right now.


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