Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Care For Your Mother

Blocks away from our house is the brand spankin' new Cascades Park.  It is absolutely beautiful, and it has become not only an attraction for our neighborhood that allows us to meet each other on the pathways; it has become a lovely walking trail for many of those working in downtown Tallahassee.  

So, imagine my heart sinking when I saw the floating plastic bottles gathered along the bank at one end of the park's man-made lake.  And suddenly, I felt myself wanting to cry like the indian in the 1970s ad.

Is it really too much to ask that people put their plastic bottles into a recycling container?   If they have bags that are all oily and greasy from food, is it a difficult concept to put the bag into a trash can?  I wonder sometimes if people live like this at home.  Do they just throw their empties on the floor and figure somebody else will take care of the clean up later?

There are so many issues confronting our planet that are beyond the control of individual people.  We, the people, are not able to enforce clean air and water standards, or force companies to comply with environmental regulations that protect habitats for endangered species.  We can demand that these things happen, and vote for politicians who share our common concerns.   But that's all the big picture.  There are things that we can do, right here and now, to make our contribution to caring for our Mother Earth.  We can strive to lessen our dependence on cars to get us everywhere.  We can change out our lightbulbs to use more energy efficient compact florescents.  We can compost coffee grounds, banana and orange peels, and other vegetation.  

And, for crying out loud, recycle your plastic, paper and throw away the disposable garbage.

Earth Day Prayer: We see you  

God of light and life,
we see you in the rising sun,
the golden fields of new daffodils,
and the feel of a spring shower.
Help us to see your light reflected throughout creation.

God of compassion,
you are there with those people
who are facing the effects of a changing climate,
and are affected by floods, droughts and famine.
Show us how to be there with them too.

God of truth and justice,
you hear those people around the world,
who struggle to make their voices heard.
Open our ears, and the ears of those in power
to hear the cries of those living in poverty.

God of hope,
we see you in people who refuse to give up,
who will not lose faith and keep on fighting,
for your earth and for your people.
Lift us, so that we may never lose hope.

(prayer by Michaela McGuigan and published at foodgrainsbank.ca)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Woman, Why Are You Weeping?" Easter 2014

This is the year of the Matthew Gospel readings, with angels and earthquakes at Jesus' tomb.  But, in a departure from what I normally would do with a reflection, I am reverting to the "other Gospel passage" that is on the docket for Easter Sunday: the account of the resurrection from the Gospel of John.  In that telling of the story, Mary Magdalene has stayed at the empty tomb of Jesus, weeping.  From the Scripture:

As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew,"Rabbou'ni!" (which means Teacher).--John 20: 11b-16

Rather than go into a heady and strictly intellectual  theological reflection on this moment, I'm going to just say that I, too, have been weeping pretty much on and off all day today.  It began this morning when I woke up and slowly let it sink in that today was Easter.  How would this Easter feel in comparison to other Easters?  Would I have that jolt of energy and excitement, the euphoria of feeling at long last freed from whatever has held me back?

No.  What I had were tears.  Sometimes in heavy chest-heaving sighs of distress.  Because what came to mind about Easter was the traditional phone exchange between me and my mother.  She'd call me and say, "He is Risen."  And, good Episcopalian that I am, I would respond, "The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!"  That phone call didn't happen last year because she had just had her stroke.  But this year, the realization that I would never have that call again dissolved me to tears.  The singing of "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" was another toughie.  That had been the recessional hymn for my mother's funeral and I still remember marveling that a room of people, some of different faiths or, perhaps, no faith at all, were belting out that tune in all its joy in February.

And I thought about that question: "Woman, why are you weeping?"

Because my mother is dead, and I miss her, that's why!  Because the woman who raised me, loved me, believed in me, and defended me is gone.

But then again... the question, "Woman, why are you weeping?"  

This question gets asked of the grieving Mary who believes something terrible has happened to Jesus' body.  Was it not enough that he was killed? Do they have to abscond with his remains as well?  Jesus reveals himself to her, but she doesn't recognize him at first.  Once she does, she is overcome with awe and wonder and attempts to take hold of him, something he says she shouldn't do because he hasn't ascended to the Father (I have written on that idea before).  It is when he says her name that Mary has her recognition.  

For me, I feel much the same way I imagine Mary did.  I'm not so much worried that my mother's body has been stolen.  But I recognize that I am missing her in her bodily form and that ability to hear her voice at the other end of phone line saying, "He is Risen!"

But then, isn't that point?  My mother, who has risen herself in glory, has become one with Christ and the communion of saints.  Her spirit can now testify to what that means to be with Christ in glorious resurrection.  If there was ever a time that she could say with confidence, "He is Risen!" I imagine now would be the time.   And so it becomes all the more  important for me to confirm her truth with my own: The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!  I believe my mother has ascended into heaven and is seated at the Southpaw end of the table.  I believe she is at peaceful rest until its time to shake things up.  And I believe that she lives on in some other time and space that is beyond our knowing in this realm, but known only to God.

Woman, why are you weeping?  I'm not now.  God has dried these tears.  He is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed: Alleluia!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: The "In-Between" of the Triduum

In the chapel of St. John's hangs the Corpus Christi.  On either side of this rendering of the crucifixion are windows depicting Mary, His mother, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.   This scene was part of the Passion Gospel of John read this evening:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Jesus, as he is dying an agonizing death, is bringing together two people into a familial kinship.  Before this moment, Mother Mary and Disciple John may have been, at most, acquaintances.  But Jesus is providing the bond that draws two strangers together in Love.  

Another verse in the Gospel passage from tonight also caught my attention:

There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

John's Gospel doesn't elaborate on this moment in the way that Matthew and Luke feel the need to discuss the ones hanging along side Jesus.  Matthew would have us believe that the criminals, who we believe are justly accused as opposed to innocent Jesus, join with the crowds in mocking him.  Luke, on the other hand, gives us a more hope-filled moment where one criminal is mocking Christ, and the other criminal comes to Jesus' defense and asks Christ to remember him.  And Jesus, again in the midst of his own physical pain, assures that criminal that today, he will be with Christ in paradise. 

Jesus' arms, stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, is reaching out to those condemned to die with him.  That reach, extending forward to us today, invites us, too, to die with Christ to all those various sins of failure to love more fully, pay attention to those around us, reach out to those in need.  This is the day of recongition, reconciliation, and repentance. 

It seems fitting, then, that Good Friday represents the day that hangs in-between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil proclamation of that Christ has conquered death.  It is the middle ground between Thursday night's shared meal, foot washing, and final instructions to love one another as Christ has loved us, and the ultimate victory of Christ on Easter when he shows us that nothing, absolutely nothing, will destroy Love.   The solemness and the hard wood of the Good Friday cross remind us that we must endure and pass through this pain before we can celebrate on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  And Jesus place, in between two acquaintances and two strangers, is the constant reminder that even as we are in pain in our Good Friday moments, we are not exempt from reaching our hands forth in Love to the other, all of those we call "other."     

The Naked Altar: Maundy Thursday, 2014

Let the marathon begin.

Tonight marks the start of the period called the Triduum (I'm told it's pronounced "TRIJ-oo-um"), the three Holy Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (which begins with the Easter Vigil usually late Saturday or very early Sunday morning).  For me, these are typically days of deep reflection and examination.  A sort of reckoning.  

This was my first time experiencing Maundy Thursday at St. Thomas in Thomasville, and the first time I'd participated in an adult choir singing at the service.  It ended up being a rather intimate time complete with the foot washing and the Eucharist.  Interesting that the collect emphasizes the latter, while the Gospel lesson emphasizes the former.  Our priest, Fr. Varas, made the point that the words of institution said at the Eucharist, "Do this in remembrance of me," should also be in our heads as we participated in ritual footwashing.  Just as with the Eucharist, cleanse the feet of your fellow parishioner and think, "Do this in remembrance of me." 

Those words stayed with me toward the end of the service.  After the Communion hymn, the choir was instructed to fan out among the congregation for the singing of "Sing my tongue, the glorious battle" done a cappella.  The cross, and the reserved sacrament, were processed around us as we sang.  As the final note was trailing off, the altar guild, half of whom were choir members, ascended the steps and began the ritual stripping of the altar.  Candle sticks, torches, crucifix, fair linen:  all taken away.  I kept waiting for someone to lead us in Psalm 22.  Certainly, someone would start that.  

No. We were to sit, facing forward, and watch all the finery go away.  

For me, this was the most moving part of the service.  I have been struck before when the altar is stripped.  But the enforced silence made it even more powerful to witness.  And it served as the metaphorical reminder that the process of Lent for me is one of a stripping away until we come to Good Friday and I am faced with seeing what has been hidden within me.  It is truly humbling.  

There was a ripping sound.  Apparently, the altar cloth is secured by Velcro.  That jarring noise recalled for me the way that Jesus is stripped of his clothes before his execution.  Our artists have always given our Lord some modesty by depicting him with a loin cloth on the cross.  But if the Scripture is to be believed, he wasn't even granted that dignity.  He was naked.  And now, so are we who witness this ritual.  I felt that way.

To be reconciled to God is to strip away all illusions of control and to trust that the promise given, "Remember I am with you always until the end of the age," is true.  Even as the hour of His ritual death approaches.

Do this in remembrance of me.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Theft and Loss in Holy Week

Well, I don't know about anyone else, but my Holy Week started off with my bicycle getting stolen from our carport, and the reality as I filed my tax extension that my business hit a big bump in the road this past year resulting in a loss of income.  The two are not necessarily related, except that they are.  I had been intending to sell my bike to recover some of the income I lost traveling to and from New Hampshire.  It was in good enough condition that I could ask a good price for it.  Now it's gone.

The theft happened while I was at St. John's leading Morning Prayer.  As I pulled into our driveway, I noticed my partner's motorcycle helmet and my bike helmet on the pavement of the carport.  I thought, "That's strange."  Then I realized that the bicycle, which had been holding these two items, was not there.  I ran into the house to ask my partner if someone had come to pick up the bike, or borrow it, or something.  "No?"  And so, a call to the police, a report filed.  And I was told I'm not likely to get it back.  Ever.

I was angry, not just about the theft, but that I had so stupidly left the bike unlocked (they also took the lock with them).  I was hurt that someone would just come up into our carport and take what was not theirs.  And I was frustrated that this happened just as I was making arrangements to put it up for sale.   My partner suggested that maybe a homeless person took the bike, and perhaps whoever stole it really needed it more than I did.  If that were the case, I might feel a little differently.  But it is just as likely that it was stolen for the purposes of a joy ride, and a trip to the pawn shop, so the thief might get a few bucks.

Theft and loss.  Those were the words that bubbled up to the surface for me as I lay in bed contemplating the state of my mind.   And so imagine how I felt as I listened attentively to the collect for the Wednesday in Holy Week this morning:

O Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his back to
the smiters and hid not his face from shame: Give us grace
to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full
assurance of the glory that shall be revealed; through the same
Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with
thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I thought about that line of taking "joyfully the sufferings of the present time..."  and lined that up against my past 48 hours.  I can't say that I take any joy in "the sufferings of the present time" at all.  This prayer sounded to me almost like those martyrs of the early church who earnestly believed that they had to endure a gruesome death in order to achieve glory, a mentality that, in my 21st century ears, sounds an awful lot like the mindset of a religious zealot turned suicide bomber.

I then thought about this idea of Jesus being beaten and whether he really "joyfully" accepted those sufferings.  I somehow doubt it.  I believe that Jesus felt the injury, and while we don't know from Scripture if he cried, or shouted, or had any emotional response to being abused so badly.  I believe that each strike to his back could be seen in his face, even though he did not hide his face in shame.  How terrible to think that his hurt was so visible, and yet his abusers continued to beat him.  Those who are abusers, sometimes, seem to lose track of the humanity of those they are injuring.

So, what could be meant in "taking joy in the sufferings of the present time?"  I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm thinking that "joy," in this particular context,  is not meant to be "happy" or "light-hearted" or even having any kind of enjoyment and pleasure in what's happening at all.  "Joy," I'm thinking, may be a notion of letting go of fear or trepidation in times of trouble and sorrow, and recognizing that there is some truth in the old adage, "This too shall pass."  This collect has its roots in much of Isaiah 53 and the feelings of being "cut off" during the Babylonian exile.  But the prophet  notes that the suffering of Israel was not in vain and, despite what they may have thought, God has not abandoned them but is redeeming them even in the midst of their woe.  This, I'm thinking, is where "joy" might enter the picture. 

Put this along side my feelings of "theft" and "loss."  There is no pleasure in my bike getting stolen or the economic vagaries of being a self-employed massage therapist.  But to dwell in the hurt or anger or fear or trepidation will not get me anywhere.  A bike is a thing.  And my business goes through cycles of economic downturns and upswings.  But "theft" and "loss" go deeper for me at this time than either of those two things combined.  As I contemplated "theft" and "loss" I found that it took me back to my grief.  I have had to grieve the death of my mother, changes in some friendships, and the continuing sadness of leaving a church family.  Examining those things has pointed out to me how my grief, or more accurately, my hurt and my anger has been cutting me off from God.  How can I be reconciled to God when I am wallowing in the sufferings instead of  letting go?  I can shed tears, but I shouldn't drown in them.

Certainly, Christ is aware of the theft and loss that happens in life.  He knows about death, and he has been in that dark place of grief.  But Christ's life and death also point to his resurrection and ascension.  I'm counting on Him to be the reminder to me that the meanness of the world will hurt me, but it will not break me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pesach Meets Monday in Holy Week 2014

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

The Pursuers DrownedThen the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:21-29)

At tables in Jewish homes this evening, families and friends are gathered to remember the deliverance of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  There will be ritual remembrances of having to leave quickly before their bread could rise, dipping parsley into salt water, a symbol of the tears shed by the Israelites and eating bitter herbs to recall the hardships endured under the Pharaoh who did not know their ancestor Joseph.

Did the escape from Egypt happen exactly as outlined in the Book of Exodus?  Not likely.  But Jews still tell this story because it isn’t so important whether it literally happened.  Its ultimate lesson is still the same: oppressed people will be made free and those who wield power unjustly will be toppled.  

We incorporate the Exodus story into our Easter Vigil as a reminder that we, too, were part of that history.  And while our stories diverged and traveled in different parallel paths, we both are striving to live our lives in the freedom that comes from the justice and mercy of God.  

The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ is the Christian’s deliverance from a different kind of slavery.  Not one in which we are fleeing a tyrant who forced hard labor of making bricks with less straw and longer work hours.  In Christ, we are graced with a freedom of our hearts, minds and bodies which can become enslaved to many other “gods”: money, status, power, or a belief that God’s love has limits. 

At the table, on this first night of Passover, the question is always posed to the youngest at the table,“How is this night different than other nights?”  This is how they begin the examination of their struggle for freedom from Pharoah, and recognizing that even in today’s world, they must still commit to the work of liberation for all.  We, in Christianity, might ask ourselves this same question, “How is this Week different than other weeks?” as we embark on this journey toward the cross of Good Friday, and the hope of the Resurrection on Sunday. 

“How will this Holy Week change me?” 

“How am I still living as a slave to old habits, patterns of thought, beliefs that no longer serve as helpful in my coming to know God through Christ?”

“How do my actions present a stumbling block to others in knowing God?” 

“How can I allow myself to experience spiritual freedom that comes through Christ?”

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
(this was the closing worship reflection I offered at the Education for Ministry group this evening.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry,
and my words of distress?--Psalm 22:1

Today, we begin the sobering walk toward Good Friday.  Of course, in Episcopal Churches across the country, we plowed right through the week in a span of 20 minutes.  A celebratory walk inside the church with palms and singing, "Hosanna! Hosanna!" goes quickly depressive when we launch into the Passion Gospel reading in which we crucify Christ.  I have already made my thoughts known on this one in past entries, and my theological viewpoint hasn't changed: I don't care if it's convenient for people to get Good Friday on Palm Sunday, so they don't have to come back to church at the end of the week.  If the chuch can't communicate to its people why this is an important set of Holy Days, and important enough for them to come back one extra time, then the church is undermining its own relevance.

That gripe aside, when I thought of the reading today, and I thought about Jesus dying in a most grusome and agonizing way, I thought those words of the start of Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

I suppose Jesus could have been lifing those words upward toward God, the Father who sent him.  He could be lodging his complaint against the Almighty for leaving him to this fate.  He could be feeling quite alone in this time.

I also wondered if those words are directed to his disciples.  They beat feet when they realized that the authorities were coming for Jesus rather than face guilt-by-association and wind up nailed to a tree, too.  

And then I thought how these words of Jesus and the psalmist not only speak for us (afterall, how many times has anyone of us felt abandoned at a time of need?); these words speak to us.  They level a certain accusation at us for our own behavior and the ways that we, who profess to love and follow Christ, veer off the path to follow any number of other desires.  To actually follow Christ requires an emptying of our self, not something that is encouraged or rewarded in the larger society... and not practiced very often even in the church.  This walk toward the cross is a painful reminder for me of how I can forsake Christ simply by not remembering his commandment to love as he has loved, and by failing to pay attention to the least among us.

My God, My God, I don't know why I have forsaken you.  Forgive me for when I have failed to follow you and your path and recognize your presence which is nearer than I think.   May I spend this week paying attention to what it is you ask of me, and striving to follow you, even to the cross.  Because the cross is never the end of the story but the beginning of something new.