Monday, January 31, 2011

A foolish consistency....

is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

So saith Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay "Self Reliance."  Are high school students still required to read and exegete this, I wonder?  Certainly I was in love with Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Fuller as a young adult on a quest for a the meaning of life and a blueprint for living.  Solitude, self-reliance, romanticism, nature, thinking, linking the self to the higher stream of knowledge and philosophy and yet also to the woods and the birds and finally the self within both the material world and the world of idea(l)s.... this is what fuels the passion of many a young person, is it not?  It was for me, at least.

Whatever else I now think about American transcendentalism (for instance, I no longer want to go and live in the woods for a year by myself although the beach might be nice), these words of Emerson have stuck with me all my life.  Just in the way that many forget that it is "the love of money" and not just "money" that is the root of all evil, so many forget that the operative word here is "foolish."  Consistency is not a bad thing.  But being consistent for the sake of being consistent, when it comes to having to re-arrange the facts or adjust the lens so that one never evolves, never progresses, never changes, never sees the error of one's ways, never recognizes nuance, never grows - this is not only foolish, it is a waste and a tragedy.

We wrestle with this all the time.  In the public/political sphere, there is constant finger pointing about how this politician or that one "waffles."  Last month you said this but now this month you say that!  We can't trust this guy!  Does this guy see a nuance that we refuse to see?  Has he (or she - "guy" or at least "you guys" can be a gender neutral term - depending on how one uses it of course!) actually considered the two situations and concluded that a different response is needed to this one than was to that one?  Or has she (just in case you don't buy the gender neutrality opinion ventured above) been slimed, seeing as how this and that are really apples and oranges?

The parties (political, religious, philosophical, whatever) themselves are subject to the same microscope.   They're supposed to be Consistent.  Therefore all Anglo-Catholics are supposed to be anti-women clergy  if they are to be consistent with the Anglo-Catholic position.  (If there even is an Anglo-Catholic position.)  Ditto liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, Muslims, et cetera.  This quickly breaks down in real life.

A current wrestling is about Al Jazeera.  Many considered the Arabic news network to be the bad guys during the first few years of the Iraq War; their coverage contradicted what American and British governments were saying about what was happening in Iraq.  Now Americans in record numbers are glued to the English language live feed from Al Jazeera to watch (and many to cheer) what is happening in Egypt as protesters clash with police and military as the people call for government reform.

Is it Al Jazeera that has changed, or have people been able to see its work differently in this situation?

This is something we all have to work through and deal with, whether we are public figures or Joe/Jane in the street.  In these days of information overload, we understandably wish to sift through information and gather it into a size we can grasp and understand, but then we risk making it too small, losing the nuances AND the big picture in order to have something neat and orderly to carry around with us.  We being to rely on labels without actually paying attention to the whole; we don't read the book but retweet the scathing review by someone of "our party;" we grasp the elephant's tail and proclaim that elephants are like ropes.

And so a foolish consistency is a hobgoblin which threatens to diminish us as people and as a people and especially as God's people, to make us little, mean, petty, legalistic, casuistic.

What is consistent is God's love.  Of that we may be certain, even as we struggle to see and make sense of how God is working in the world today.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Beatitudes

Today I had the privilege of serving as an assisting priest at my home parish.  I love to be there and see old friends and all those who supported me with their prayers and good wishes as I was discerning my call to the priesthood (and still do as I strive to live out my vocation).  Apparently it is fun for them to see me in the role we discussed often back in the day.  What was especially lovely is that my dear friend John, who was part of my group that went through the diocesan discernment process together, was the preacher.  Today's Gospel reading was the Matthew beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the meek.

John's message was simple and true.  The beatitudes are not a list of feel-good sayings by our wise friend Jesus to be needlepointed and hung on the wall; neither are they a list of requirements that we must figure out how to meet so that we can get into heaven.

Rather, they are the message from God through Jesus that no one is outside God's embrace and blessing.  We are all blessed because we are God's creation, whether we fit into that list or not, but that list is there to remind us to know and remember that those who others push aside and exclude are also loved by God.  So we don't need to spend time worrying about whether or not we are good enough to receive God's grace.  That's just not what it's about.

Most of us think we are not good enough.  We think we need to earn grace and that really we just don't deserve it.  But John's message was simply that we are deserving because we are God's, that God did not create us to then go off and condemn us.  We just have to understand God's abundance, to claim that grace, that blessing, so that we can spend our time and energy being a blessing to others.

What a blessing it was to me to serve alongside a friend John as well as my mentor (the rector of the parish), to read the Gospel, to lay hands on those who came for prayers after the service, to see the smiles and hear more good wishes from those who have supported me for so long.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(BCP 215)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Heart Matters

I sat in the audience again today, marveling at my son and his colleagues.  This group was just put together Thursday afternoon and after three or four rehearsals played an hour of jazz for music educators from all over the state this morning.  They were terrific, and my heart swelled as I watched them, as it always does.

Both our boys are musical.  (They are athletic, too, but I admit to not knowing enough about that to have the same kind of response to their games as I do their musical performances.)  They've been in all kinds of groups for years now, including several of these two-day wonders.  But every time, I am amazed all over again at what they and their compatriots do.  My heart swells and I get all sentimental.

Although it is always dangerous to anthropomorphize God, many of us think of God in term of Father or of Heavenly Parent of Some Kind.  Sadly, some people think of God as Angry, Fault-finding Father, which is one of the reasons why the whole God as Parent thing has serious limitations.  But others can relate to a God who is infinitely patient and caring and proud of every effort, particularly those others who have such a parent themselves.  (Not that I am such a parent, I hasten to add.)

At any rate, I was thinking today that I hope that there are times when God's heart swells at the actions of God's people.  Because I certainly think that God's heart is wounded by certain actions.  Today I especially am thinking of the funeral of murdered LBGT activist David Kato in Uganda, which seems to have turned into a hate ralley after which his body was left unburied by his church and neighbors until excommunicated Bishop Anglican Christopher Senyonjo and some of David Kato's friends buried him themselves.

The world is very beautiful and very broken.  It's hard to hold all that together sometimes, and it is comforting to know that God is with us in both the beauty and the pain.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Church and Community

During seminary, I took a great course called "Understanding Your Congregation."  It was supposed to be a "congregational leadership" course and I suspect that many folks who registered for the class had certain expectations about how they were going to, by virtue of participating in this class, learn how to lead congregations.   But that word "understanding" signified to the professor and to at least some students that this was not going to be a ten easy steps one minute manager sort of undertaking.

We talked about many different things in the class, and I still remember it as one of my favorites outside of the Biblical studies area.  Frankly, the course blended all sorts of interesting aspects of congregational life and congregational leadership and systems theory and evangelism and other bits from here and there, so that the professor sometimes began telling a story and we just wandered through other stories and asides, along with some practical information about such things as architecture, preservation, and problem-solving.

One of the sidebars that we talked about was the value of a church to a community, even to people who do not attend the church.  People like knowing that there area churches in the neighborhood, that people are doing the (positive, obviously) things church people do such as tutoring at the local school or running a thrift shop, food pantry, clothing closet.  Steeples in the neighborhood indicate that good is being done in the neighborhood, prayers are being said; maybe people will even become involved in that church some time if they need it.

This strikes me again as I look out our hotel window and can see several lighted steeples above the buildings and trees; the pool deck on the 2nd floor has a great view of the cathedral we visited yesterday.  I've heard church bells pealing a time or two, as well, ringing out a hymn or two at certain times of day.  I mentioned in my post yesterday that there are churches everywhere here.  We wondered as we walked around today how they are all supported.  And we wondered how much ministry they can do when they need to keep their buildings and properties up because of their historic building status or just general social status.

Obviously I can't speak to these wonderings with anything but more questions or suppositions without doing some research.   But it would be interesting to stop people on the street and ask them, "how do you feel about having all these churches in your town?  Do you appreciate that people are saying prayers in them, do you know what kind of social ministries they are doing, would you go to one if you felt despair?"

Friday Fountain Break

There are a number of fountains in Savannah, where I am today, but since I didn't remember to bring my camera-to-computer cable with me, the photos of those fountains remain on my camera for now.   Fountain photo fodder for other Fridays.

This is a fountain in Roanoke, Virginia, taken last summer on a hot, sunny day.  The whole fountain is a long rectangle filled with arcing jets of water at the end of a long, rectangular city pedestrian park that runs like an alley between two streets.  A parking garage is across the street on one side and a firehouse on the other.

Refreshing, cool water dancing upwards always draws the eyes and mesmerizes.  Of course, it provides a damper for street noises, too; in cities everywhere people like to sit beside the waters and let the splash or trickle or gush surround them and block out the other, less attractive or less restful sounds.  Even the tiniest green spots may feature a fountain around which people gather for a moment of peace.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Traveling Music

I am in Savannah, GA, where music teachers and musicians from all over the state are gathered for the state educators' association annual conference.  (My son is participating in the All State Jazz Band. The All State College groups - band, chorus and orchestra - are all here this weekend, too.) This is a huge event, taking place in a number of venues around town, from churches (where some of the choral groups will sing) to small hotel spaces (the jazz band) to the huge convention/trade center for the classes and workshops.  One may take a ferry over to the trade center, which is on an island in the middle of the Savannah River, from Savannah's famous River Street (home of all sorts of restaurants, candy shops, t-shirt and hat stores, and bars/music venues).  Speaking of River Street, we noticed that the St Patrick's Day Parade (a huge, sloppy drunk deal on said street) folks have an office near our hotel which features a digital count down clock.... only 48 days and some hours until it's St Patrick's Day again!

There is music and music stuff everywhere.... kids walking around with instrument cases, people standing on corners singing or playing something.  Even the sanitation workers were talking about the Music Educators Folks as a huge group of them were gathered at the ferry landing.  We saw a few third graders who will be singing for fifteen minutes tonight in the lobby of the ballroom.  There was a young woman playing a flute on the walk next to the river near where people get on the ferry to the convention center this afternoon.  Lots of people heard her, but it was pretty chilly by late afternoon in the shade on the water.  Savannah chilly, of course, not New York chilly.

I wouldn't exactly say we are "old hat" at this trip, but we have been to Savannah several times for one son or the other to participate in either middle or high school all state something.  Today while we were out walking, we couldn't remember which time it was we ate in this restaurant or visited that shop.  Like many cities, Savannah has its share of boarded up restaurants and shops, victims of the sagging economy.  There wasn't even a long line for Paula Deen's famous The Lady and Sons Restaurant this afternoon, but I'm betting there will be tomorrow night when we try to squeeze in a meal between rehearsals.

Savannah is a beautiful city, with a very walkable historic district that features a number of squares around which the traffic must flow.  Some of the squares are just green space with huge old water oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.  Others feature statues, sculptures, or fountains.  There are literally hundreds of churches here, too, many of them open for touring.  Today we stopped by the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, which featured a baptismal font that simply has to be seen rather than described.  But that's another post.  (You can view a streaming video virtual tour of the truly gorgeous interior here.)  And we walked through the Colonial Park Cemetery in which a number of notable/historic citizens are buried in interesting looking brick and cement mausoleums.

It's fun to be away, staying in a hotel in a very walkable city, for a couple of days at the service of our talented son.  A change of scenery always does one good.

Morning Collect: John Chrysostom

O God, you gave your servant John Chrysostom grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name:  Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching, and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Sermon about Gates and Shepherds and Sheep

This is a sermon preached to a group of Episcopal seminarians and their friends and family at the Candler School of Theology on the Feast of Timothy and Titus (Companions of Paul).  The text is John 10:1-10

There is a reason why there are so many churches named The Church of the Good Shepherd, as well as The Church of Our Savior and The Church of the Redeemer, but not any that I know of named The Church of the Gate.  It just doesn't have that great of a ring to it - the Church of the Gate.  In addition to there not being much personality to a gate when compared to a redeemer, a savior, a shepherd or a saint, the image of gate also carries some rather negative baggage with it.  
Imagine the logo of the Church of the Gate on your business card.  Hmmmm.  Perhaps it even has a big sign smack in the middle of it with "Keep Out!" scrawled across it - maybe in one of those nifty Gothic fonts to keep it churchy.  Or maybe it could be the post-modern Church of the Gate with the more up to date keypad on a stick next to the fence, perhaps a stick in the shape of Jesus with the numbered buttons on his tunic, a la your typical suburban gated community.  Doesn't really work, does it?
On the other hand, shepherds get a lot of play in the church world.  Everyone loves the idea and image of the Good Shepherd, the one who goes after the lost sheep (which we imagine always to be ourselves) and brings it home lovingly draped across his neck.  In practically every Christian denomination, the ordained leadership is called, either directly (as in Pastor Inkfest of Lake Woebegone fame) or indirectly,  the pastor of a particular flock.  Our Bishops carry shepherd's crooks, we provide pastoral care to our parishioners, we study pastoral theology in seminary.
But when we look around at what is happening in the church, we see that some pastors may call themselves pastors, but they function as gates.  They set themselves up to say whether someone is in or out, they insist that the flock go through them in order to reach safe pasture.  Some of these pastors decide who is called and who has access and that certain sheep are not welcome in church or as colleagues.  I remember from my CPE days a heartbreaking situation involving a pastor who did not think he needed to come to visit a church member in the hospital because that member's family had not been active lately and was not caught up on its pledge.  This church leader was not a shepherd but a gate.  And he was a closed gate.
But here's the thing.  Not every text in the Bible is all about us, and this one today from John is a great example of that.  Jesus says, I am the gate.  The gate that protects the flock.  I am the shepherd that the gatekeeper has authorized to call the sheep and lead them both to pasture and to safety.  I am the one who knows my sheep by name and calls to them and they know me and follow me.  And just a few verses later, in case anyone didn't get it before, Jesus says plainly:  I am the good shepherd.
Or to put it in Old Testament terms, The LORD, the great I AM, The Lord is my shepherd.
Not you.  Not me.
Not you if you are ordained now, or will be ordained later, or have been commissioned by virtue of your baptism to minister to God's people.  In this story, John is not talking about you or me as the shepherd or the gate.  
But, you will protest, there's so much imagery about being a shepherd in the Bible, and we use it so much in the church, surely we are called to be shepherds?  Yes, there is that wonderful imagery, and it can pertain to us, but our model in John comes later.  After the resurrection, in that wonderful story of reconciliation where Jesus will say to Peter not once but three times to feed his sheep.  That is why Bishops carry shepherd crooks and Pastor Inkfest is called Pastor Inkfest.  That is why we study pastoral theology and practice pastoral care.  Because Jesus said to Peter, watch, here's how we do reconciliation.  You be a force for reconciliation.  Know that you are forgiven yourself and if you love me, then you go out and  "feed my sheep."  
Feed MY sheep.  See?  It's still about Jesus.  Our job is not to be Jesus, it's to point to Jesus.  It's to remember that Jesus is the gate, not us; that Jesus is the way, not us; that Jesus is the one who offers life and salvation, not us. 
Otherwise, we risk turning ourselves into the gate.  Just as the Pharisees turned into gates and gatekeepers when they drove out of the synagogue the man born blind, whom Jesus had healed of his blindness, and the Pharisees had objected, in the story directly preceding this text.
Otherwise, we risk thinking that the community gathers around us, that it is our voice to which the sheep are supposed to tune in.  You see the danger, I hope.  Next thing you know we think we are the ones calling that sheep Mary Magdalene by name in the garden, calling that sheep Thomas by name in the locked room, calling that sheep Lazarus by name out of the tomb.
Well, what are we supposed to do then?  What does Jesus have to say to us sheep, for that's what we are here in this text, sheep like everybody else.  (You don't see any assistant shepherds in this story, after all.  We may be set apart to do particular ministries, but priests or pastors or ministers of any sort, ordained or lay, are not set above the sheep.)  So, in light of what Jesus is saying in this text today, that he is the gate, that he is the shepherd who calls his sheep by name, what are we supposed to do?  
We're supposed to listen.  We are supposed to listen for our shepherd to call our name. We're supposed to discern the voice of our shepherd from all those other voices out there, the voices of thieves and bandits who try to stand in for Jesus, from those who think themselves to be the gatekeepers or those who wish to take our lives for themselves.  We're supposed to listen for and identify the voice of the shepherd for ourselves and to encourage our fellow sheep to hear that voice, too, and respond with us to his voice.  
We're supposed to know and understand that Jesus gets to call whomever he wants to call - in a few verses he will go on to say that there are other sheep who do not belong to this fold but they are his sheep too and he will call to them, too.  And we are not to get in the way of that.
We’re supposed to know that Jesus as gate is not about keeping sheep out but for protecting the sheep, for keeping them safe, for giving them a place of rest and refuge against those who wish them harm, who wish to take away their life and their lives, who wish to bind them into service to those things and those gods that do not give life.  And we are supposed to reassure our fellow sheep that we are safe because Jesus is our gate, Jesus stands between us and all those things that would destroy us.
We're supposed to remember that the shepherd is always the one who brings life abundant and to resist the voices that bring a different message, messages of limitation and diminishment and fear and scarcity and status quo and death and a preoccupation with rules and gate keeping, like the Pharisees in the story about the man blind from birth, to whom Jesus is responding here in this text, those who have taken on the divine role for themselves.  
And we are always to point to Jesus as the shepherd and the one who stands between us and death, that as it says in our prayer book only in him do we live in safety.  To amplify our shepherd's voice, to underscore his message, that Jesus came to give all of us, everybody!, life abundant. To remember and live out that message in all that we do, and we say, as ministers of the Gospel in whatever place God calls us to exercise our baptismal or ordination vows.  
Yes, we are called to serve, to be about reconciliation, to feed the sheep.  Many of us are called to lead in some way and all of us are called to participate in being friends to the friendless, bringing hope to the hopeless and food to the hungry.  But let us not take this text for our model for OUR pastoral leadership lest we begin to believe that it is our voice that matters, that we are somehow set above the sheep, and that we have been appointed to be the gate.
Jesus says, I AM.

Wednesday Fun: Grand piano found on sandbar in Miami bay

Click the link to see...

Grand piano found on sandbar in Miami bay | accessAtlanta

Normally I don't post too many links to news items.  But I rather love this one!  Wonder who put a grand piano on a sandbar in Miami bay?  And now it's going to stay there, because it's not anybody's job to remove it.  Except perhaps whoever put it there in the first place.....

Finally, a way to combine my love of music with my love for beaches.

Morning Collect: Timothy and Titus

Almighty God, you called Timothy and Titus to be evangelists and teachers, and made them strong to endure hardship:  Strengthen us to stand fast in adversity, and to live godly and righteous lives in this present time, that with sure confidence we may look for our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ride

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April may be the cruelest month but January is a roller coaster.  

First, we have the weather.  It snows, it blows, it rains, it warms up and cools down.  The sun shines and then disappears for days.

And the plants - all is brown, except, look! green crocus tips are peeking through the mud and the yellow January jasmine is blooming its head off along the side of the house where the neighbors park their car, even while frozen camellia buds, red but fading to brown at the tips, dangle on the bush next to the front door.  And I know that by the end of the month the lenten roses will sport fat, bulbous buds.

But more than that, we have the paperwork.  All the stuff for taxes starts rolling in from everywhere - here's how much you made in interest in this account, here's how much you made in salary, here's how much you already paid in.  And all this other information has to be ferreted out of various files, or more likely, piles.  All those papers piling up for a year.  Here's the insurance file.  Except, wait, there are only a few months' worth of papers in the file so where are the other months' papers?  Here's that paper you were looking for back in May!  And now it's too late to do anything about it, your six months has run out.  And which account is this, and which account is that, and do I still owe something here?  Oh, and do I owe over there, too?  And the sudden surprise - yes, this is covered by insurance but no, that is not.  

I can be organized - very organized - and I can also put things in a pile, meaning to get to them later.  And later has arrived.  Ducks must again be gotten into a row - 2010 needs to be filed before getting mixed up with 2011.  The good thing is that my office is at home.  The bad thing is that my office is at home.  The clock ticks.

Thank God for wonderful customer representatives who have walked me through some of these piles today and helping me understand where I stand amid the flurry of papers and files.  

Oh, January is the cruelest month.  April will be glorious with its lilacs breeding out of dead land.  

Monday, January 24, 2011


This is an architectural detail on the music building at Brown University, but for some reason it looks like an artsy, flowery (perhaps even female) R2D2 figure to me.  The Jetsons may have had Rosie, but this is Rosie after a makeover.  A Rosie who stands ready to help in an old-fashioned, Secret Garden kind of way, with her hands clasped just so.

There are times when I think it would be good to have a helper of this sort.  One that could do the ironing, shop for groceries, basic cooking, buy stamps and mail packages, and clean the piano - stuff that needs doing but I just find tedious. 

Of course when we think of such helpers, or at least when I think of such helpers, I only think of how they can help me.  That's the beauty of the robot part.... this Rosie doesn't need to be taken care of, small talked with; she will not wish to borrow money or have a drinking problem or take time off when it's inconvenient or park her car behind mine in the drive way.  She will exist solely to help me.

Now, let's look at the robots we know.  Rosie, R2D2 and CP3O, HAL, and Robot on Lost in Space.   They all ended up being anthopomorphized.  They have faces and personalities (HAL was not very nice, Robot even played the guitar and sang).  They think for themselves, and act according as if they have their own wills rather than limited and specific programming.  I suspect most of us really wouldn't really be that interested in a robot without a personality - that would just be a Roomba.

As I often say, this is because we are made for connection.  We are made for relationship.  We don't have a Trinitarian God for nothing.  Like infants, we look for faces everywhere (I love "happy chair is happy" photos like this one!) and try to relate to them or at least read their expressions.  Cars have eyes instead of headlights.  Airplanes sometimes have faces literally painted right on them.  We draw :-) and :-( and :-/ on our emails and Facebook comments.  Give me some(one)(thing) to relate to!  

If I had this Rosie at my house, we'd have tea, we'd watch movies, we'd cook together; she would listen to me and I would listen to her.  And maybe we'd do the tedious chores together, to make things less tedious.  Ah, that would be nice.

Morning Collect

Kindle in our hearts, O God,
the flame of love that never ceases,
that it may burn in us, giving light to others.
May we shine for ever in your temple,
set on fire with your eternal light,
even your Son, Jesus Christ,
our Saviour and Redeemer.

(St Columba
from A Celtic Eucharist)

Sunday, January 23, 2011


For many years now, our family has eaten Sunday lunch at the same restaurant nearly every week.  This habit started when the kids were very young and we were finished with church and Sunday school around 11 a.m. and needed to find a place that was open that early on Sundays so that people would not get cranky about being hungry. (I'll leave it to your imagination as to whether or not the cranky people were the adults or the children).  We quickly became known to the proprietors and the various wait staff, since we were often the first customers, and we came every week, and we always ordered four sweet teas.   New waitpersons would sometimes quickly arrive at our table with four glasses of sweet tea (a Southern delicacy) and with a slightly questioning look announce that s/he was told to bring it to us, obviously wondering if s/he was being subjected to some sort of restaurant staff hazing or at least having a joke played on him or her.

Our younger son would usually be wearing his name tag from church, his name first neatly printed by teachers and then scrawled in his own hand.  One of the waitpersons, Soula, became like a godmother to him, always calling him by name and occasionally arriving at the table with a lovely dessert called a moussemouse (complete with M&M eyes) or sometimes a piece of baklava for him to share with us.   Everyone knew us, probably including the cooks because for years we ordered fried calamari for our appetizer as soon as we arrived. 

As time went on, the children grew, I had to switch to unsweet tea (just not the same, I know, sigh) and cut back on the calamari, and I went to seminary and became a priest, and so my Sunday lunches were often eaten elsewhere, but the family continued the tradition.  Sometimes I would come on other days, with other people, but I was always welcomed the same way.   I can miss seventeen Sundays in a row and be greeted by Soula with a kiss on each cheek whenever I do return. 

And then one son went to college, and came back, and went again, and different wait staff came and went, and daughter and son in law sometimes came, and our neighbors sometimes joined us and somehow the whole thing still worked like family.  One Sunday a couple of years ago, before older son went to college, both my husband and I were away, and so our boys got into the minivan and drove themselves to church and then to lunch at Athens Pizza because that's what they do on Sundays.

From the very beginning, while we ate, we always talked about the morning - what did the kids do in Sunday school, what did they think about the church service - the music, the sermon, the great organ, and then later the escapades around the altar as both boys became acolytes.  We talked about Bible stories and about what we thought about the difference between history and mythology, about foundational stories and illustrative stories not only in religion but in family and country; we talked about postures and liturgical stuff; we talked about music and their desire to be part of the music and to assist around the altar; we talked about their relationships with their teachers and priests and choir and youth directors and friends.  We talked about moral and theological questions - why we don't make fun of others, why we tolerate opinions different from ours, why we go to church every Sunday whether other people do or not (and then why we are not "superior" because of that), why did God tell Abraham to kill Isaac, what's up with the Virgin Birth and the Holocaust.

Today, my younger son and I went to church and lunch together, with him driving; my husband is taking our older son back to college this weekend.  At lunch the waiter greeted us, asked about the others, brought us our tea, and Soula came over to give us a hug and say how she missed me over the holidays but knew I was working at church.  My son and I talked about his confirmation class on the Old Testament and how he was glad that he knew a lot of it already but also learned something new.  Just like we always do.

I am eternally grateful for the church that nurtured me and my family as we have grown in stature/girth/age as well as in our faith.  I am glad that I still occasionally get to participate in Sunday mornings there.  I am also truly grateful for our restaurant family in whose bosom we have been nurtured in another but also important way.  Relationship is what we all live for - to be connected to one another, to be known, to be welcomed, to be missed, to be fed.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I just read Ian McEwan's latest novel, Solar.  I'm a big fan of McEwan and have read most of his novels.  I haven't liked all of them but I have enjoyed reading them.  Not all the reviewers I read praised this one..... the protagonist is not at all likeable and sometimes there seems to be too much dense scientific language, some say, while others agree that the main character is the only one who is really fleshed out (literally - he's quite large) but is annoyingly unpleasant and unsympathetic, plus the plot relies on borrowed jokes and is rather light.  An interesting concept - dense language filling out a light plot.  

But there you are.  One simply has to sit back and marvel at McEwan's ability as a writer, whether you like what he writes or not.  The way one can watch sports and marvel at the other team's star player without bitterness as he or she rips through your team, maybe.  I marveled at the book but like everyone else, I didn't care for the protagonist, Michael Beard.

McEwan is an avowed, but not a ranting, atheist.  Unlike Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., he doesn't try to find new ways to go on television to rail against a straw god that most thoughtful Jews or Christians I know don't believe in either.  Like many people (religious or not), he sometimes treats religion as monolithic and is disgusted by "religious leaders" who suggest that somehow God was working in mysterious ways when this or that disaster struck as if they speak for all religious people.  He wishes to be spared the god whose mysterious ways were intertwined with the events of September 11th, for example.  (See his interview, in which television sought McEwan out to speak about his atheism, on Frontline here.)  

And so what I often see in and find fascinating about McEwan's books are his working through what are usually considered religious themes - atonement, as the title of one of his most popular books, being the most obvious one, but also redemption, the power of love, and evil - in a world that is all about people but without any God.

McEwan simply isn't going to let evil be sloughed off on some supernatural power.  He wants us to understand that evil is done by people and that if there is a god, it's an indifferent god as he calls it, one that stands by and allows the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, that either cannot intervene or refuses to intervene.  This is not a new question at all.  It's pretty much THE question for believers and doubters alike.  What kind of God is this, who either is powerless in the face of evil or refuses to act to stop it?  (That's a topic for another post, really.)

No, it's all people he says.  That's all there is in life.  What amazed him about people and life is how so many people, when they knew they were about to die on September 11, were determined to call their families to say, "I love you."

And so for McEwan, evil is done by people, and the world bends to their wills where they are able to exercise their power to do evil and other people are victims or innocent bystanders.  There is a very dark side to human nature, he says.  

But good is done by people, too, he acknowledges.  People love each other and this is the good thing in life.  It must be the biggest thing in life, in fact; he wrote in an article about September 11, "Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murders."  And love is transcendent somehow, even in the face of death.

[Sidebar:  Mr. McEwan hasn't asked me, but I don't believe that God had anything to do with September 11th or the Holocaust, and yes I too ponder the mystery of a God who does not seem to intervene to stop such horror.  This part of our story is truly a mystery.  Ask Elie Wiesel.  But I also believe that in the end, love is all we have against evil and death, too, love transcends death, love takes us into the heart of God who wipes away every tear.]

Now back to Solar.   Michael Beard, the unlikeable protagonist, is not evil.  But he has a dark side.  He doesn't know how to love, and he goes through life using people and coasting on the accomplishments of others and feeling entitled to as much food, booze, and sex that he can get.  He resists love, actually, turning away the love that is offered him again and again.   He absolutely does not wish to have children, seeming to understand that a child might get to him in a way that nobody else ever could.  And so he sinks further and further into the mire, finding himself moving between the things he feels he simply must have - food, booze, sex, and also recognition of his power - and leaving all sorts of human casualties in his wake.  Because he cannot love and he cannot accept the love that would give his life meaning.

Critics have mentioned that the conclusion of the book seems rushed.  It is true that everything finally catches up to Michael Beard in the last fifty pages or so.  He simply could not go on the way he was forever, it was all going to catch up with him, and it does quickly.  But at the very end, there is this tiny, tiny glimmer of redemption.  I won't tell you what it is, in case you want to read the book, but the last word of the novel is "love."

Now, a last word.  Some of my book club friends hated Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.  They didn't like any of the characters; several of them never finished the book.  And so they missed the redemption.  There's this thing about redemption.  We like it when it's about us and the people we like, but we don't feel the same way about slogging through the long story of meaningless and destructive life and then at the end the sudden redemption of people we don't like.  This is a struggle for many Christians - God loves those we don't love or even like.  Michael Beard, of Solar, is not likeable.  But the last word is love.  And love is salvation.

Morning Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures:  Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth ay be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(BCP 99)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday afternoon fountain break

Continuing our theme of North Carolina today (see previous post), here is a fountain (you have to look for it!) in the formal gardens around Tryon Palace in New Bern, N.C.  The gardens are really lovely with their serpentine paths, statuary, and floral specimens.  I took a little issue with their fountains, though, as the insides are painted swimming pool blue/green, which just doesn't go with the ambiance of the gardens.  But, if you are sermon writing today - or running errands - the whole scene of brick paths winding around lush greenery should be just the Friday afternoon break you need.

Book Club

I have books on my mind today, for several reasons.

First, the news this morning reports that Reynolds Price has died.  I loved Reynolds Price; for one thing, he grew up just a few miles away from where I grew up and lived and worked his whole life (except for his three years at Oxford) in North Carolina.  For another, he wrote good novels, mostly about people from my neck of the woods.  I loved Kate Vaiden and Roxanna Slade, particularly.  And he was very interested in Biblical scholarship and wrote about that, too:  A Palpable God was his own translation of thirty Bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments along with essays about the power of narrative, and Three Gospels was his own translation of John and Mark together with a third, original "modern Gospel."

Price was one of those old fashioned "men of letters" - learned, curious, passionate about storytelling - who brought his considerable intellectual skills to bear on his mission not only to teach students about the great stories of the world and how to be great writers themselves (Anne Tyler was one of his first students), but to reach outside the academy and offer his stories to the world.  He was also a survivor of spinal cancer, treatment for which left him in a wheelchair for the last thirty years.  Price was not a church goer (perhaps he figured the church would not welcome an intellectual, outspoken homosexual) but clearly spent a lot of time with Biblical texts.  He taught classes on the New Testament and assigned students to write their own Gospels, as he did.  The New York Times lovely obituary is here.

The other reason I'm thinking about books today is because like many people who love to read, I belong to a book club, and we met last night.  Because most of the members are busy women with at least some children still at home (and several work outside the home as well), we only meet every other month during the school year and once over the summer.  This has its plusses and its minuses.  We meet infrequently enough to be able to do other reading besides the assigned book (which is particularly good if you hate the book you're supposed to be reading).  But sometimes scheduling conflicts mean that some members don't make meetings for months on end.

Like many book clubs we also are heavier on the wine and cheese and discussion about what colleges the kids have applied to or the exotic vacation for the twentieth wedding anniversary one couple took than we are on the discussion about the book.  Sometimes several folks haven't read the book, or read it so long ago that they don't remember details.  But, whatever.  The rule is that if you haven't read the book, you might hear spoilers at the gathering if you come anyway.  We also spend time talking about what other books we have read/are reading and make recommendations about them.  (Last night, one of our members brought a children's ages 8-12 book called "Poop Happened:  A History of the World from the Bottom Up."  It got great reviews, not only by our friend but over at Amazon.)

I suspect that the truth is that our book club is a deliberate attempt to gather a circle of friends who like to read and visit with one another but/and need a schedule and a purpose to do so.  Most of us have known one another since our children were in preschool (together) but we no longer travel in that orbit.  Everyone is busy.  But book club becomes a way to stop being busy for a couple of hours.

Last night we met to discuss Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose.  I'd read it many years ago, and I meant to flip back through it or at least read some review on Amazon to remind myself about the story, but I never got around to it.  Enough people had read the book to have a decent discussion, and things came back to me as I listened.  But the beauty of the evening was sitting by the fire with a glass of wine and a couple of brownies (alternated with steamed asparagus with a really wonderful tart dip) with women I've been friends with for twenty years.

Being scheduled almost to the hilt (or worse) seems to be a way of life for most of us.  Dropping by the neighbor's for a cup of coffee is a thing of the (probably television - I'm thinking Lucy and Ethel) past.  So if book club is a pretense for just sitting around together, so be it.

Thank God for friends, and thank God for writers, and thank God for books!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tyger, tyger, burning bright

Well, I've certainly heard a lot about the Tiger Mom (aka Amy Chua) in the last few days.  I haven't delved deeply into this particular chapter of the perennial child raising discourse/debate/handwringing, I admit.  I have a bit of fatigue on the subject, actually.

But I did read the letters to the editor in the New York Times today and found them encouraging.  You can read them yourself here.  One thing I found encouraging was that several letter writers were suggesting that "success" ought not to be measured in terms of personal achievement but that parenting ought to be about raising children who have a sense of community (and a commitment to it), and that parenting should include a focus on creativity, empathy, conflict resolution, community building and the like.

The other encouraging thing was that personal friends of the Tiger Mom or her daughter Sophia wrote in on their behalf to report from the "family and friends front" and keep the discussion based on reality and not allow it to just float out into the land of the theoretical, unattached to actual parents and actual children in actual families.  So often we have these national discussions on theories that become free-floating and incredibly general, without regard to real people.

So, yay letter writers!  Thanks for keeping it real.

Morning Prayer: Traveling/Going to College

My firstborn and his father are headed up the East Coast on a 1200 mile (one way) trip to take my son back to college, from which he has been away on leave for a year.  There's a snowstorm in the forecast and maybe just a little anxiety on everyone's parts that all will go well in the short run as well as the long.

Here is a prayer from the Changes:  Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage for today.

Gracious God, your Holy Spirit instructs our hearts in the ways of life.  In going to college, your child B has set aside a time of learning and preparation for his life's work.  Through all the years ahead, make him hungry for wisdom tempered with love.  Help him discern the truth in all that he learns, in the people he meets, and in the choices he must face each day.  Keep his mind alert for the rigors of study and exams.  Keep his body safe and well.  Give him a heart bold to question, yet alive to your wonders.  And assure him always of your love and ours; through Christ, your Wisdom made flesh.  Amen.

(Changes, 22)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday afternoon glamour shot

On the run today and no time to write.  So here is an exquisite rose photo from warmer days.  This is Ducher, a white china rose, and it is the nautilus of roses, if you will.  It also smells divine and sort of glows at night the way fragrant white flowers do on summer evenings.  Thank you God for roses.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter

Things can always change, but it appears that the kids' school break is really over now.  Two-plus weeks for the winter holidays, three days of a new semester (one of which was getting schedules figured out), a week of snow days, the MLK holiday.  Parents are no doubt cheering everywhere in our city.... and most of the kids seem ready to go back to school, too, if only to see their friends and show off their new clothes they got for Christmas.

It's pretty quiet, but not the snow quiet.  The city trucks are supposed to be inching through the neighborhood to pick up trash and recycling today, and I dearly hope that the mail service will be restored today as well.  We haven't gotten mail since Saturday the 8th (I think).  My neighbor is working on a project again which includes some kind of generator or something, but it's a drone sound rather than a banging sound.  My house is finally clean (sort of) and many items put away to make space for Christmas decorations are either back in their places or in new places.  One likes to shake up the decor a bit.

And so it seems time to get back on a schedule that gives some structure to the day.  Gym, reading, work, chores, errands, family time, friend time, lunches out.  I have made a list, which started out rather short, and I wondered what I was forgetting, but as yesterday went on more things came to mind.  Oh, yeah, I meant to do that..... replace burned out lightbulbs (with compact fluorescent ones), donate outgrown clothing to the thrift shop, do something about that pile in the closet, work on those church-related projects, schedule appointments now that everyone's back in the office.

As someone who needs regular change, if only change of scenery or decor, I also find that it's time to redirect my spiritual work.  I will continue to post prayers and reflections here, and I have a couple of new books I am reading that I will report on later, but I also have begun tuning in to The Virtual Abbey on Twitter for daily morning prayer and compline.  If for nothing else, to practice just putting everything aside while still looking at my computer, which I realize is an issue for me.  I am happy to gaze at my screen for large chunks of time (especially in winter) but am always bopping around from this thing to the next.  I can use a new way to help me with focus and with maintaining focus in that environment.

I don't do resolutions, but I do do frequent "new starts."  This feels like another one, at least for these next weeks of winter.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the day we honor the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  All around the internet and on the news we will have an opportunity to hear some of his words again - his Mountaintop speech, his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (read it, with commentary, at Padre Mickey's Dance Party here) particularly.

Dr. Brian Purnell at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, posted an excellent essay for today.  He begins:

January 17, 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of the first observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that commemorates King's birthday (January 15, 1929). As with any commemorative celebration, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. through a national holiday is an exercise in historical amnesia. As the nation honors the assassinated hero, we oftentimes choose to forget almost as much as we remember regarding who King was and what he stood for.
For the most part, commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. condense his life and the history of the civil rights movement into a narrative that emphasizes American progress. This is especially true regarding the country's history of racism. Annual celebrations of King's life show how he lived and died so that America could finally move past the iniquities of racial slavery and Jim Crow segregation that shaped so much of the country's history. The holiday remembers the Martin Luther King who was a pacifist, a minister of the Christian Gospel, a human rights activist, a Nobel Prize winner, and, in his own words, a "drum major for justice."

Dr. Purnell goes on to talk about Dr. King's work as an advocate for the poor, his understanding that poverty was no respecter of race, his outspoken abhorrence of war - parts of Dr. King's legacy that are sometimes forgotten (for instance, a claim I saw in the news the other day that Dr. King would have approved of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).  It's a worthwhile essay to read and ponder today, as we consider that while we do have a black President of the United States, we also have crippling poverty and high unemployment, we are fighting two overseas wars, and political violence continues to be part of our national story.  You can find it here.

Morning Collect for the Human Family on MLK, Jr. Day

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son:  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(BCP 815)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Live from my house, it's Sunday Night!

When I was growing up, we ate a large meal after church - roast beef with vegetables or maybe spaghetti with Mom's rich meat sauce or occasionally one of those casseroles she found a recipe for in a magazine that might include "surprise" in the name.  And so, the large meal having been eaten at noon, a favorite Sunday night supper consisted of waffles.  Sometimes with bacon or sausage, but often just waffles and syrup.   A big pile of them.

When I was more grown up (i.e., not living at home any more), but still many years ago, I asked for a waffle iron for Christmas one year.  My older brother wondered out loud to my mom what I'd been eating for dinner on Sunday nights all those years!?!  I used it until it wore out.

Last Christmas, my mom gave me one of those fancy Belgian waffle makers, the ones you see at motels that feature breakfast buffets - you pour the cup full of batter in, wait for it to beep, turn it over, and wait for the light to come on to let you know the waffle is ready.  My brother got one, too.  We don't use it a lot, but it's always fun when we do, and it makes the house smell so yummy.  The boys occasionally get it out and make a huge pile of waffles and the kitchen is always sticky for a while afterwards.

Currently, too many people in the family are trying to watch what they eat for us to have regular Sunday night waffle meals.  And in fact, we've never had regular Sunday night waffle meals.  We probably didn't eat them when I was a child nearly as often as I think we did, either.

And so we are having roast chicken.  I am grateful to have a roof over my head and clean water and good food to eat; I am glad we have heat and good health.  But I don't think my kids will look back on Sunday nights and say, boy, wasn't it great that we had chicken so often?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Life Transformed

Isn't it odd how life goes on?  The weather has been wild and woolly here in the south but also all the way up the East coast, and the midwest has had another storm, too.  

This week was the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti.

The climate of another sort - the national climate - is in flux this week, too, or at least people are talking about that possibility.  Are we to become more thoughtful in our public discourse?  Can we stop and think and care about our words and the effect the things we do and say have on others all the time and not just in the aftermath of high profile violence?  

And yet, life is going on.  Babies are being born, kids are playing rec league basketball, bus drivers are ferrying passengers around, students are doing homework, parents are grocery shopping, cows are grazing, waves are crashing and birds are flying.

When I was young and dramatic, I couldn't understand why everything did not stop when something horrible or huge or happy happened.  Time needed to stand still, everyone needed to suspend their mundane activities and pay attention.  Rapt attention, if the subject was moi, as Miss Piggy says.

  Otherwise, won't we forget?
If we don't stop and mark the occasion by spending some real time with it, instead of quickly moving on to the next thing, won't we forget how we felt, what we said, what we saw, what we did that time we were in crisis, were in pain, were in the throes of exquisite but delicate joy?

It takes a while for one to mature enough to be able to go on after something big.  But the way we go on is not to ignore it.  Rather it is to allow the new/big/sad/happy/experience to become part of us, incorporated into our being in ways that affect nearly everything - world view, habits, understanding, knowledge, wisdom.  
We grow - or at least we can grow - from all of our experiences, personal and corporate.  

And so we can't set them in the curio cabinet, separate, disconnected from life.  We carry our joy, our grief, our worry, our contentment with us as we go on with life, if we are willing.  We are certainly capable.  We have an amazing, God-given capacity for growth, for stretching, to accommodate all kinds of new experiences, feelings, insights, knowledge, wisdom, abilities and capabilities.  
We become better people, we grow into what God made us to be, by incorporating all that we do and see and hear and live out into our own beings.  To take it all in and be changed - by love, by grief, by knowledge, by joy, by wisdom.

Be ye transformed, Jesus says.  That's what going on, but going on differently because of our experience or insight or wisdom, is about.   It takes courage to be transformed, though.  
Courage is going on despite our fears, now allowing our fears to rule us, to hold us back, to imprison us and make us smaller and smaller.

So, are we different after this week? 
Have we been transformed in some way by what we have experienced, individually and corporately?  
Will we go on as if nothing happened 
or as if the world as we know it has irrevocably changed?


Morning Collect for All Sorts and Conditions

O God, the creator and preserver of all humankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of women and men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations.  More especially we pray for the holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.  Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions.  And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake.  Amen.

(BCP 815)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Being Prickly

It appears that there is such a thing as too much togetherness.   Five days of being cooped up together in the house have caused tension, if Facebook stati are to be believed.

Mature ways of dealing with this tension include going out to shovel snow and ice - your own driveway and sidewalk or the neighbors' or just out in the street.  Shoveling is a great tension-reducer.  And it is neighborly to boot.  As temperatures rose today and a little thawing began, such an activity was a real possibility for many neighbors this afternoon.

Another coping mechanism is to go in your room and shut the door and stay in there, no matter what you hear going on elsewhere in the house.  Those of you who need to heed this advice know who you are.

I personally went to the grocery store for a little time away today.  It was crowded, but people were happy to be out, especially those in the caffeinated beverage section.  People were happy to see other people, whether or not they actually spoke to them.  It was just nice to see other faces!

I bought some birdseed while I was in the pet food aisle.  Our birdfeeder is mostly broken (thanks to marauding squirrels) and our neighbor has a couple of very popular birdfeeders plus the neighborhood cats often stalk ours, but I was moved to buy it when I remembered a scene from thirty years ago.

I was living in New Jersey, and we had a major winter storm - it was predicted to be, and ended up being, something like sixteen inches of snow.  I'd never seen that much snow in my whole life.  My apartment was just a block or two away from a grocery store, and as the snow was beginning to fall, I walked down there to buy the usual snow day supplies (Why do people always stock up on bread and milk?  I don't even drink milk.).  The store was just jammed full of people and the aisles didn't really accommodate all the carts, and some shelves were already cleaned out (probably bread) and frustrations were running high.  Everyone wanted to get checked out and get home and could we all just please hurry up with it?

Carts were piled high, and I was in line with my milk or bread, but there was one man in our line who seemed to have very little in his cart and he was moving rather slowly (he was elderly).  Someone ran into him with their cart, trying to go around the end of an aisle, and he was polite, and she was less than polite and wondered loudly as she rattled by why he needed that big cart for just one item.  Curious, I leaned around so I could see what his one item was.

It was birdseed.

"All of them look to you to give them their food in due season.
You give it to them; they gather it;
You open your hand, and they are filled with good things."
Psalm 104:28-20 
(BCP 737)


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