Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thursday's Birds are in the Mist

Venice is home to many pigeons. There are fewer than there were a few years ago, thanks to some local legislation banning the feeding of pigeons in the city. But there are still many of them. Here are a few on a misty, moisty morning in Venice a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Traffic Jam

There are many small canals (rios or rivers) in Venice that wind through all the neighborhoods. This was "our canal" at the end of our "street." There are always a lot of boats coming and going and lots of folks riding in the gondolas, despite the exorbitant price.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Good Morning

At long last, I am getting a handle on my many, many photos from the Italian adventure. So for the next few weeks, I hope to post one every day.

You might guess that I took this one in Venice. The weather while we were there was often cloudy and even rainy, but there were a couple of times when the sun shone. Venice is pretty magical in any weather, but I liked how the water sparkled on the sunny days.

The striped mooring poles on the left are for tying up your boat when you come to the front door. Families had their own colors and the wealthier ones had the striped poles to mark the "parking places" in front of their palazzos. Now with water levels rising, some of those ground floors are abandoned because of frequent flooding.

Here's the Psalm for this morning:

Psalm 123

1To you I lift up my eyes, *
to you enthroned in the heavens.
2As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
3So our eyes look to the LORD our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
4Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
5Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Night Prayer

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy 
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the
love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

(BCP 133)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Being there.

Mosaic of beardless Jesus over the altar in the nave of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

I recently returned from a trip to Italy. It was not the kind of vacation my husband and I normally take. Because we have long been city dwellers, we often choose to go away - to vacate - where we can get away from it all.

But this year, we went INTO it all. We took an art and architecture trip to three cities chock full of everything: people, cars, Vespas, and bicycles dodging each other on the narrow streets/sidewalks; vaporettos, topettas, water taxis, gondolas, and the UPS delivery boat all jockeying for space on the Grand Canal; where the lines to get into the museum, even when you’ve made a reservation, snake around the plaza for an hour. Where tour groups squeeze into a tiny ancient building, following a guide carrying a stick with a toy on the end of it who regales everyone in French or German or Japanese with a quick history and notable details before everyone snaps a few photos and files out again. 

And we joined in. We walked along with the throng, through the streets and museums and the churches crammed full of masterpieces. We took in the storied sights from recommended vantage points and posed for selfies with our gelato.

At some point, Tom asked me where did I see the sacred in all of this. And at first, I admit, it was hard to see. It was different in Ireland and Scotland where we’d experienced thin places out in the wilds, among ruins that only whispered their half-forgotten histories. Now we were in a place where everything was shouting its story, in competition with - or at least side by side with - all the other stories.

But I did begin to see that there were two places in particular where people were experiencing the holy amid the busy. Places where people could really be attentive and intentional, could really be “there.” 

One of those places was, happily, in churches. In most every church, small and large, there was a section roped off, often a side chapel, with a sign saying “for prayer only.” A place where you left your Nikon in the bag and went to light a candle and be present to God right in the middle of the crowd - which was also in the middle of exquisite beauty created and displayed for the Glory of God. There were always people sitting quietly, contemplating the icons, mosaics, altarpieces, tuned in to the undercurrent of centuries of prayers that permeate even the beautiful and worn tile floors, oblivious to the crowd streaming up and down the main aisles. They didn’t have to go to a remote ruin to open themselves to the Divine.

The other place where I became aware of this kind of sacred intentionality was at the dinner table. Dinner was always a two-plus hour occasion. Here was a time to sit and savor, to connect, to pay attention with delight, to be thoroughly nourished. One perfectly proportioned and presented course arrived at a time, with no rush to get to the next. Every bite was to be enjoyed in every way - with the eyes, nose, and mouth. And everything was prepared with such care and presented as a gift. Some of the most precious time we spent was over a beautiful, leisurely dinner, all senses engaged, with no thought about needing to finish up and go somewhere else. As one who, at home, sometimes eats standing up or in my car, I felt such deep gratitude for the time, for the taste, for the nourishment, for the beauty, for the gift of being lovingly fed. And looking around, it was obvious that other people were having the same experience.

I came home understanding that the holy is not confined to certain times and places nor is the possibility of experiencing the Divine. I can find space to contemplate beauty, to be nourished and fed, to experience gratitude by being mindful and intentional, no matter what is going on around me, be it a traffic jam or a tour bus invasion. God is always there, everywhere, waiting for me to notice the holy shining through, like the light catching on that one 800-year-old chip of golden glass plastered into the ceiling among a whole 8000 square feet of mosaics above me; like, as Wendell Berry says,* the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

* The Peace of Wild Things, a poem by Wendell Berry.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Caturday! I ain't afraid of no cats.

We're back from our WONDERFUL trip to Italy and I've been sifting through the photos for the last week. That has been something of an overwhelming task, of course. I took a lot of pictures and once the fuzzy ones and doubles are deleted, then comes going through the rest of them one by one. If I were a more focused person, this might happen within a certain time frame. But I am not. 

At any rate, I do have a fair number of photos of lions, which are appropriate for "Caturday." The lion is a frequent subject in classical sculptures and there are lots of lions in the city of Venice owing to the connection with St. Mark (the Evangelist whose symbol is a lion).

This particular lion, however, lives in Florence, in the Palazzo Vecchio at the base of a 16th century statue of Hercules and Cacus, by Baccio Bandenelli. As I walked by and noticed all the pigeons walking on its head, it seemed as if the pigeons were asserting their power while the lion was looking a little uneasy.

Meanwhile, you may be wondering about Bella and Sally. They survived being without us for two weeks none the worse for wear, although Bella appeared to have become a little lax about grooming. They quickly forgave us for being away (apparently they were happy with the cat sitter who came to feed them every day and spent a couple of nights at the house as well) and now we are all back to normal.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sermon about our Awesome God

I once had a colleague, a very bubbly coordinator of children’s ministries, who had a repertoire of upbeat songs she taught the elementary-aged kids, and the favorites were the ones that had hand motions to go with them. 

One of these songs is called Our God is an Awesome God. The refrain goes: "Our God is an awesome God, he reigns from heaven above, with wisdom, power and love, our God is an awesome God."

The kids liked the power part and made their best Superhero faces while they showed their strongman poses. It was so much fun to be with them while they sang with such glee.

Because, of course, our God IS an awesome God who is certainly powerful. Our God’s power is even greater than the power of death. And so we rejoice in that.

We all know that there are many kinds of power out there in the world and that people - as well as institutions and even nations - use power in different ways and for different reasons. 

One look at the news and all the posturing and power-mongering that goes on pretty much every day underscores this fact. Some of us may see this going on in our workplaces and even our families. Of course, there are - and this is, I think, key - many different motivations for the use of power.

One of the hallmarks of OUR awesome God is that our God’s motivation for the use of power is not for power in and of itself, as a display, but is the result of compassion.

The stories in the Bible show over and over again how God sees us in our weakness, our frailty, our vulnerability and has compassion on us and comes to us to give us new life. 

Compassion, also called tender mercy in the Bible, is a word that literally means “suffering with”and that “suffering with” is the motivator for God’s powerful work in our world and in our lives.

And that powerful work is healing and restoration, binding up wounds, restoring dignity. Compassion is not a simple niceness. It is much stronger, and it is borne from holy creative fire.

That’s what we see today in the Gospel. The story is simple, really. Jesus and his followers are just walking along - they’re actually on a road trip - and they happen to come upon another group of people walking along. That group is a funeral procession. The only son of a widow has died and she is weeping - because now she has lost everything. It’s not just that she has lost the people she loves. In her day, her loss of husband and only son meant that she was now completely vulnerable, with no protectors and no livelihood.

And Jesus looks at her, this unnamed woman whom he has simply come across, and really sees her. He really hears her weeping. He understands the situation at once. Her very survival depends on his response to her.

And his response is one born of compassion. Perhaps he was thinking about what he had said in his sermon on the plain at the beginning of his ministry: Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

And so he stops, and he turns aside to not only see and hear, but to act, there at the intersection of life and death, and he restores the woman’s son to life with just a word. All it takes is a word, and that is enough to give new life.

And the people recognize that this is God’s work. They understand that God’s work is about giving life. They understand that this is how the Lord is known in this world, by his acts of compassion toward those who have desperate need. 

And so they tell everyone what an awesome God they have, who brings life even to the lifeless, who sees the weeping and brings them joy. They know that the way you can tell if something is from God is if it brings life.

I can think of no better example in our own day of this kind of creative, born-of-fire compassion than the work of Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest and founder of Magdalen House and Thistle Farms, who was just this week named a CNN Hero, a distinction given to, as CNN frames it, “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world.” 

The people at CNN, like the people with the grieving widow, recognize the life-giving work of God through Thistle Farms toward those who have no livelihood and no protectors.

Many of you know about Stevens and about Thistle Farms, about the community of healing created to help women escape from from a life of abuse, addiction, violence and prostitution. You may have met her when she visited here at St. Stephen’s a few years ago, and we sell some of the Thistle Farms products in our book store. 

It’s an incredible enterprise with an incredible story - many incredible stories - of how weeping was turned into joy through the healing power of love. “Love Heals” is the tagline for Thistle Farms, and that is the truth. Love does heal.

Listen to this story by one of the women of Magdalene House from “Find Your Way Home,” a book of meditations based on the Benedictine Rule, adapted for their community. 

“Before I came to Magdalene (she writes), I used to walk [as in work] around the neighborhood where one of the communities was located. I was scared to go near the house and so were the other women [fellow prostitutes and drug dealers. 

Then one day someone from Magdalene offered me a soda and a bag of chips and told me if I ever got tired there was a place for me [to come and rest]. … It was the greatest example of hospitality I have ever witnessed. … One day I crossed the street and made my way up the steps and knocked on the door. When I left two years later with a full-time job, a car, and an apartment, I thought about how it had all started with someone offering me a bag of chips.”

And that is how this woman got her life back, how she got new life, born of the compassion of ordinary people like you and like me. The only superpower that Becca Stevens has is compassion and a willingness to use the power she has as a person who has a home and a good education, much like many of us, to offer new life through love. 
Her strength comes from the fire she has inside her to suffer with those in desperate need. It comes from her compassion.

This is something it behooves me to remember. In my “travels” around church, around the neighborhood, the grocery store, at the hospital or nursing facility where I’m just walking along, I often come across people who are weeping - 
if not on the outside, then on the inside. 

I come across people who are grieving, who are sad, who are feeling defeated, lost, fragile. And I have the power to respond to them with compassion. To really see and hear them and to respond in a life-giving way. Sometimes all I need to do is say “Hello, I’m glad to see you.” Sometimes all I need to say is “Tell me how you are.” To say “God loves you just the way you are.” To say, “I understand.”

Sometimes all it takes is a word, or the simple offer of a soda and a bag of chips, to make a difference in someone’s life, to bring joy where there has been weeping. We all have that power. Not just God, not just Jesus, not just a clergy person. You have that power, too.

You have the power to bring life, and that can change the world. That’s pretty awesome.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Caturday Blues

Bella comforts Sally when they realize that Mom and Dad are going to be gone for two weeks.

We will miss them. And also we will wonder what kind of trouble they are planning.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Music Two-fer: Sinister Minister and Life in Eleven

We saw these guys last night - this was the encore piece. Sinister Minister (for which they won a Grammy). I'd heard some of their music before but the live performances are awesome.

They played this one too - it pretty much blew me away. Life in Eleven:

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Bela Fleck, banjo; Howard Levy, piano and harmonica; Victor Wooten (bass); Future-Man (Victor's brother Roy playing the Drumitar, an instrument of his own invention).


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Poem for the Traveler

In the U.S., Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, including the beginning of travel season. I myself am going on a wonderful trip to Italy in a few days for two weeks. I may or may not post anything while I am away but I do hope to take a few photographs. 

Perhaps you, too, are preparing for travel.

So here is a lovely poem from John O'Donahue to get us all in the right frame of mind:

For the Traveler
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
~ John O'Donohue ~
(To Bless the Space Between Us)



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