Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, December 30, 2012


What a very rational way to begin the story of creation.

Poetic, but rational.

Word. Not "sound". That would have made it more mystical.


Not "OM" or "AUM" - which Hindus say is the sound at the beginning of the universe. Hindus believe that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration manifesting as sound "OM".

The vibration of "OM" symbolizes the manifestation of God in form. "OM" is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be "Adi Anadi", without beginning or the end and embracing all that exists.The mantra "OM" is the name of God, the vibration of the Supreme.

When taken letter by letter, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects: Bhrahma Shakti (creation), Vishnu Shakti (preservation) and Shiva Shakti (liberation, and/or destruction).

It's the Hindu expression of what Christians call "The Trinity".

It is a sacred sound, one that can be translated as meaning, "I am existence."  Not just creation, but that which preserves and liberates (and/or destroys) creation.

Or, in the words of John's Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Jesus, of course, is the "Word of God" who was in the beginning with God and is the light that shines in the darkness that darkness did not - can not - overcome.

The sound of the name of Jesus is a vibration of the sound of God which is Love.

Love incarnate. Love divine.

In the beginning was Love and Love was with God and Love was God. Love was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Love and without Love not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Love was life and the life was the light of all people. The Light of Love shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

That's a lot of words to describe what Incarnate Love is and what love incarnate can do.

I think the Hindus may have it right.

No rational thinking. No poetic words to describe a mystery.

Just a sound that vibrates throughout the cosmos, through human constructs of time, surpassing all human ability for reason and understanding.

It's the sound of Divine Love incarnate in humankind.


Which sounds enough like "Amen" for me to say, "May it be so."

Friday, December 28, 2012

In memoriam

I occasionally preside at military funerals and they always bring about mixed emotions.

On the one hand, all that rigid precision of movements kinda creeps me out - I mean, from the "half time" step march, to the "present arms' and the snap of rifles, to the unfolding and folding of the flag, and including the scripted words said to the bereaved as the precisely folded flag is handed to them - the ritual never changes. Not even an iota.

In some ways, the boys in the military are more 'catholic' than the boys in Rome.

On the other hand, I'm glad that our government and the various veterans organizations have made provisions to recognize and honor the sacrifice of the former soldier who served in one of the branches of the military.

Part of my ambivalence comes, in part, because it's easier to show up at a funeral than to provide adequate care for veterans. Especially those whose scars are not visible. Those with PTSD who 'self-medicate' at the bar of AMVETs or VFW halls that seem to proliferate in rural areas where I live (there are three of these places within a 10 mile radius of my home - 2 within less than 5 miles). Or, those who move on to stronger drugs and alienate their families, or can't keep a steady job or keep a roof over their heads or, as in one case in NYC, shoes on their feet.

I sure wish the government would show up for them. You know. While they're alive. And, need stuff. Like health care and mental health care and social services.

I'm probably most ambivalent about the 21-Gun Salute.  I mean, I'm not that dense. I get it. Veterans are about wars and wars are about guns.

There's just something kinda creepy about an honor guard made up mostly of old, retired soldiers who half-step march their way outside and fire off their pop guns. I was especially surprised when the leader of the honor guard gathered up the spent shells and presented them to the family.

Right. Just what I want to take home from my loved one's funeral: bullet casings.

To each his own, I suppose.

There are two things, however, that are always deeply moving to me. The first is the folding of the flag. The flag often drapes the casket and then is folded. If there is no casket - if the body has been cremated and there's an urn - the soldiers unfold the flag, snap it out to its full length, and then refolded precisely 13 times.

I always thought it was symbolic of the 13 original states in America but, turns out, each fold has its own meaning. One of the men from the honor guard was able to rattle them off for me, in proper order. He also told me that the folded triangle shape serves to remind us of the hats worn by the soldiers who served under General Washington and the seamen who served under Admiral John Paul Jones - the original "defenders of freedom".

And, here I thought it was folded into a triangle so it could fit into those triangle glass cases.

No matter. There is something deeply moving to see a young soldier gently and tenderly hand over the folded flag to the grieving family. I'm not certain why, exactly, but it always makes me tearful.

And then, of course, there's taps. These days, it's hard to find someone who plays the bugle who will come out to the graveside service of an old, retired veteran, so they have it on tape. Or, iPod. It's a recording, anyway, that gets amplified as if the bugle were right in the room.

It's a very haunting melody that finds its way around around one's heart strings and gently tugs until tears appear.

Here's the thing: Presiding at military funerals has emboldened me to be less apologetic about the church's rituals and liturgies. I preside at lots of Christian but non-Episcopalian funerals and I've always been reticent about doing things like blessing the urn or casket with holy water, or saying 'traditional prayers' or sprinkling the casket with dirt and saying, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

I'm not rigid about it, but I have come to understand that those symbols and rituals and liturgies bring great comfort to those who mourn. No, it may not come from their particular tradition, and - don't kid yourself - there are as many of the older generation who are as much a part of the growing demographic of the "Nones" as there are young people.

And yet, people seem to know intuitively what to expect at a funeral or memorial service. They know it as well as they expect a wedding ceremony to begin, "Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God........".

They might not darken the doors of a church at any other time of the year, but when they step through those doors for a wedding or a funeral, they have a basic sense about what is going to happen and how its going to go and what words are going to be said. The words may not be exactly the same, but the 'shape of the liturgy' stays pretty consistent.

And, they take great comfort in and from it all.

I'm thankful for the military honor guard for helping me remember what I learned so many years ago in seminary but had forgotten: We humans are ritualistic creatures who simultaneously embrace and rebel against the traditions of our human institutions.

Grief can intensify either feeling of embrace or rejection, or it can push us to a sense of ambivalence and lead us to a sense of apathy.

If the church as an institution ceased to exist tomorrow, our need for ritual and tradition and liturgy would go on. We'd just make up new stuff that will probably look and sound a lot like what we've always done.

Because that's just how human beings are set up.

Sometimes, it takes watching a rigid, militaristic ritual to remind you of the baseline, foundational importance which ritual and tradition capture: Memory.

Jesus knew that. That's why he instituted a simple meal -  the common occurrence of a meal and the common elements of that meal - and said, "Do this in remembrance of me."

Bread and wine beat bugles and flags, hands down in my book, but their real power is not in the elements themselves but, rather, in the memory - or memories - they provoke.

One of the greatest balms to sooth the sting of death is memory.

In memoriam.

As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem by the same name:
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Scrabble

I am happily, deliriously exhausted.

Christmas festivities can do that to a body.

I think my favorite part of the day - I mean, besides the opening of presents and the fantastic standing rib roast dinner and and the Christmas cookies, and the eggnog (newly discovered Lewes Dairy brand which is Out.Of.This.World.) - is when we play Scrabble.

Our daughters are smart and creative and competitive, but our son-in-law is a brilliant strategist.  And, he knows how to use the Scrabble dictionary app on his iPhone to good advantage.

His team won but, you know, it was really no contest. I mean, I'm a total, unrepentant logophile but there's just no match for a good strategist.

For example, you can probably score 15 points for the word "logophile" just with the letters alone, but you can vastly improve that score depending on whether or not, say, the H tile (worth 4 points) or the P tile (worth 3 points) fall on a double or triple letter square.

Or, you might just place the word in such a way that it builds off another word and then you get all those points, too.  IF, that is, another team doesn't use that word to build their word.

Just to add to the fun, you can use an egg timer to limit the amount of time spent on strategy. Which is really important when you've got one player who's really good with strategy.

It's a little like life, you know? It's not what you've got. It's how you use it. And, with whom you play. Sometimes, you've got all the time in the world. Other times, someone flips over the timer and you've only got a minute to make your move. And, sometimes....well, sometimes you just get lucky with what you pull out of the bag. 

Our whole family gets into it.  Which I love. 

I know. That's probably not what some people expect is on the "agenda" of a bunch of people who live an "alternative lifestyle".

I'm not sure what we're supposed to be doing, exactly, but as for me and my household, this "new normal" family plays Scrabble.

I can hardly wait for next year's Christmas game of Scrabble.

Thank goodness I get a whole year to rest up for it.

Have I mentioned that I'm happily, deliriously exhausted?

No matter how many points any of those words earn - or how they get played.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Gathering 'round a mystery

Christmas Day - December 25, 2012
The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Rehoboth Beach, DE

Today - this Christmas morn - while countless others gather 'round the tree and lots of presents, we gather in this church, 'round a great mystery.

The Incarnation - that God took on human flesh and came and lived among us - is one of the Great Mysteries of our lives of faith.

The Incarnation is a mystery second only to the mystery that is God.

God, who shaped and formed the world - our universe, our cosmos - and set the stars in the sky and ordered the sun and the moon to obey and rule the night and the day and the seasons and all creation and creatures of this earth, this same God created us and entrusted all of creation to humankind and gave us the gift of Free Will.

Because we do not always use this gift wisely or well, God became one of us, to walk with us and teach us how to walk with God on the path that leads us back to Paradise.

It's all a great mystery - how it all works - but here's the thing about Christmas: It's what makes us Christians.

Not Santa Claus. Not his eight tiny reindeer.  Not Frosty the Snowman or Susy Snowflake.

Christmas makes us Christians.

Believe what you will about the Virgin Birth or the Atonement or the Resurrection or even the Trinity. We have Free Will. You can believe what you want - and, God knows, many Christians do.

But, if you don't believe in the Incarnation....if you don't believe that Jesus is God incarnate....well, why call yourself a Christian?

And, if you are a Christian, why not strive to walk in His ways?  If you do, just be prepared for a few surprises to appear on the path you walk with Jesus.

Let me give you an example.

I've been caring for an elderly man in his nineties who, among his other many physical ailments, suffers from what is known as senile dementia. He sometimes doesn't remember things - important things - like, his wife's name or, some times, his own.

He recently asked me to bring him communion. This was a huge request. He has been a Roman Catholic all his life. Well, up until twenty-five years ago when he divorced his first wife and remarried a woman who is a devout Presbyterian. Because of his divorce and marrying "outside the faith," he has been denied communion all these 25 years.

As soon as we began to say the "Hail Mary" together, he began to weep. Big, fat tears filled his tired, cloudy blue eyes and rolled down his hollow cheeks.  "I've said that prayer to myself, alone, every night, for the past 25 years," he said. "It feels so amazing to say it out loud with another person."

We then said the Lord's Prayer together and again, he wept. After he received communion, the man wept and wept and wept for joy. When he was able to collect himself to speak,  he said, "You, my dear woman, have made me a new Catholic."

I smiled and said, "Well, let's not tell the Pope." And, we laughed and laughed through our tears.

And then, he cleared his throat and said the most amazing thing.

"Do you know why we couldn't eat of the fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden?"

I prepared myself for the "traditional" theology of the sin and wretchedness of the human condition. I was totally unprepared for what he was about to say.

"Well," he said, "it's because we were not yet ready to eat of that fruit of the tree. And, it's because the fruit itself was not yet ripe. We had to wander around for centuries, straying far from God, while the fruit of the tree continued to ripen. Finally, when the fruit was ripe, it hung from a tree in Calvary and finally, finally, we were ready to learn that, no matter how far we stray from God, we can always eat of the fruit of Wisdom and find our way back to God."

I sat there, astonished. Now, I've read more books of theology than is probably healthy for one body and I can tell you that I've never read anything that sounded anything anywhere near that. It's mostly about how we are wretched creatures and miserable offenders who need a savior.

Hearing that we weren't yet ready and the fruit not yet ripe enough with wisdom was astounding and marvelous to my ears.

I said to him, "Good sir, I believe you have made me a new Christian."

He smiled mischievously and his blue eyes twinkled and he said, "Well, let's DO tell the Pope!"

We gather around a mystery this morning, to begin anew our walk with Jesus. We can take baby steps at first, just as he did.  Just plan to be surprised as you walk along His path. 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself, one day, on the path that leads into a wilderness desert to confront some of your own demons.

Or, to be confronted by the poor and hungry and find yourself strangely moved to care for them.

Or, you might stumble upon someone left to die on the side of the road and suddenly find yourself organizing the community to care for him.

Or, you just might find yourself witnessing an injustice and suddenly become involved in a political battle to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

I don't know how that happens, exactly, but I know it's a mystery that begins with the mystery of the Incarnation.

I also know that it is a fearsome thing, indeed, this idea of the Incarnation - of Emanuel - of God with us. Which must be why we hear the angels say - as Mary heard and we read the shepherds heard - "Be not afraid."

Be not afraid.

God is with us.

Jesus is born unto us.

It is a mystery 'round which we gather.

Be not afraid.

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Are you still here?

According to some interpretations of The Mayan Calendar, we should all be dead right now.

Or, perhaps, sometime today.

I mean, it's been "today" in New Zealand and Australia for so long it's almost "tomorrow" there. Word is, New Zealand and Australia still exist, so, there's that.

The 21st of December is also the Winter Solstice. It is the time at which the Sun is appearing at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon. This earns this day the significance of being the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

This explains the various "Festivals of Lights" celebrated for centuries by people of various cultures and religious expressions, from Druids at Stonehenge in Britain and Celts at Newgrange in Ireland, to Jews celebrating Hanukkah to Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus, "The Light of the World".

Some are calling this "The 2012 phenomenon" - a range of escatological beliefs according to which cataclismic and apocalyptic events will occur round 21 December 2012. This date is regarded as the end-date of a 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.

Some Republicans thought the end of the world came on November 6th when President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term.

An astounding more of them thought the world as we now know it ended last night when House Speaker's Boehner's "Plan B" - which would raise taxes on those making $1 M and more and cut funding to things like "Meals On Wheels" - did not have enough votes from the Republican Party to pass the House.

So, the Speaker of the House declared a Merry Christmas to one and all and sent everyone home - on the path to go directly off the fiscal cliff.

Maybe the Mayans were right.

Truth is, most scholars believe that the Mayan calendar wasn't the "end of the world" but an end of a cycle of time and that we are entering a new period of transformation.

Mayan museum guide Karla Chan Poot said that, "(Mayan) People believe that they're going to see a change, in humanity, in our thinking, that there should be a return to nature. This won't be anything like the world ending, or a meteor crashing, or extraterrestrials arriving."

Actually, I do believe that the cosmos is conspiring with our culture to give us lots of messages about a transformation that is already upon us. We have damaged Mother Earth, almost beyond recognition.

Yes, WE - human beings - have done this.

"Climate change" is not an "act of God". It's a response of the universe to human beings polluting our environment.

The PBS series "The Dust Bowl," based on the work of Ken Burns, chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the "Great Plow-Up," followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation.

Beyond the historical facts and the powerful narrative from people who survived that period, "The Dust Bowl" is a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Apparently, we have - and, we are, in fact, in great peril. The ice caps are melting.  The rain forests have been devastated. More and more species of animals are almost extinct.

We now have major snow storms in October in the Northeast part of this country. Hurricane Sandy completely and forever changed the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and parts of the waterfront of New York City, bringing great torrents of water into the NY subway system.

I can tell you that, in the past ten years of owning a home on Rehoboth Bay, that the water levels are changing dramatically.  As I write this, there are piles of sea grass in my front yard from the severe wind and rain storm last night. My bird house is now lying on the ground, the pole that held the Christmas banner on my deck snapped off, and a piece of flashing on the roof has blown off.

That didn't happen during Sandy.  It happened last night.

That never used to happen in December. Not on Rehoboth Bay.

Clearly, the change and transformation of the earth is already in process.

Deena Metzger has written movingly of the Winter Solstice:
Our very sun, around which we circle, will be, with other planets, in a direct alignment with this dark hole, this place of birth and death, the heart of the universe, at 3:12 am on December 21st. The light of the sun aligned with the dark at the center.

Or so it is said.

How will we meet the demand? How will we meet the Heart of the Universe? How will we step out of our involvement and enchantment with the details of our own little lives, the bloody sacrificial altar to which we have been relentlessly bringing the earth, so as to meet this sacred challenge, the great possibility of our collective and community lives?

Everyone who is reading this is has been met by spirit and called to some awakening. How will we treat and take care of each other, human and non-human, and the earth in the 5th world?
I wonder if the shootings and killings - seven this year, including the horrific killings last week in Connecticut - aren't also cosmic and cultural messages that prompt these questions.

Will we be able - finally - to awaken to the depth of violence and corruption in our culture? Will we be able to take an honest look at the disconnection, isolation and pain in America that not only wound the human spirit and soul of this country but are devastating to Mother Earth?

How are we to make the dream of freedom and justice a reality when everything in our society is translated into the language of money and power?

Can we each, individually, shift our thinking away from greed, ego and self-centeredness towards a more compassionate understanding of how we are all interconnected with all of life?

Will we be able to find and create beauty in the wounded places of our earth and our lives? Can anything good come after Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and Sandy?

Mother Jones - Make that 155
As I write this, the Associated Press reports that a shooting rampage near Altoona, Pennsylvania, has left four people, including the shooter and two state troopers, dead. If those numbers are confirmed, the incident would add to the victim count for a year that has already seen a record number of lives lost to mass shootings.

Mother Jones reports that, since 1982, there have been at least 63 (now, possibly 64) mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.  All of these murders - with the exception of one - have been committed by a lone, young (average age 35), male shooter, more than half of whom were considered mentally ill.

Instead of blaming the movie industry or the people who produce violent video games, might we take this opportunity to take a look - a long, hard look - at ourselves? Might we consider our own penchant for violence and why some of us seem to need to own assault guns?

Might we take a long, hard look at the invisibility of people with mental illness in our midst and the shame of our seeming inability to find effective treatment modalities for them?

Can anything good and noble be created after the mass shootings this year in Colorado, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, California, Washington, Connecticut and Pennsylvania?

What if the universe is conspiring towards a great turning?

What if we decide to act as if that's true?

Might there then be reason to hope, to awaken, and to be open to a new alignment?

Perhaps the world as we now know it is, in fact, coming to an end.

Maybe what we've seen in the November Election and again last night in the House of Representatives are all part of the process of the dying and death of the old way.

Perhaps a new world is in the midst of the hard labor of birth.

We can only hope and pray that we might be co-creators and spiritual midwives to this new world.

Because maybe, just maybe, we are the light we've been waiting for.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

O Antiphons

I look forward to them every year. 

Even more than lighting the Advent Wreath.

Beginning December 17th, the O Antiphons are sung. One each day for 7 days, during Vespers/Evening Prayer or, if you're like me, during Compline. 

They are sung immediately preceding the Magnificat. A new one each day. Right up to Christmas.

The antiphons bring us closer to the incarnational event that is Christmas. Not to worry, we are still in Advent, but our journey to the birth of Christ comes closer and closer to 'emanuel' = God with us.

The O Antiphons are each named with the prophecy of Isaiah as a backdrop, and each one calls out a name for the messiah.
  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
The first letters of the titles taken backwards form a Latin acrostic of "Ero Cras" (Emmanuel. Rex. Oriens. Clavis. Radix. Adonai. Sapientia.) which translates to "Tomorrow, I will be there", mirroring the theme of the antiphons. (Clever, right?)

If you're not a liturgical junkie and don't know about the O Antiphons, you probably know the hymn "O Come, O Come, Emanuel". The hymn is a lyrical phrasing of the antiphons, which are best when chanted.  Of course. 

If you can't chant and Latin isn't your thang, as it were, then it's perfectly acceptable to sing the appropriate verse of the hymn before saying (or singing) the Magnificat.

To be honest, this Advent has been so frenetic, the only Advent discipline I've been able to keep is chanting the O Antiphons before the Magnificat when I say Compline. Then, I put my head down on the pillow and I think I fall asleep 30 seconds later.

No, my Christmas shopping isn't done. Not all my cards are written. I haven't started baking. I did make some Ghanian Peanut Soup last night for the staff Christmas Party this afternoon. I also wanted to make bread but, well, best laid plans and all of that.

I'm not sure how it works but the O Antiphons help me to keep the focus of my anticipation on the coming of Christ, which frees me up to stay focused on today.  This day. This present. Not the presents I've yet to buy and the things I've yet to do.

It's really quite wonderful and magical the way it lowers my stress level - well, enough for me to let go and get to sleep. 

If you haven't started saying the O Antiphons, I recommend it highly. 

Here's today's chant of the O Antiphon "O Root of Jesse" from the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, which you can hear by clicking this link
O Root of Jesse, standing as
protector of the people; silencing
rulers, inspiring the people to make
supplication. Come, do not delay,
deliver us.
Here's Sr. Joan's meditation on the O Antiphon.
December 19

It takes generations to build the
Christ vision in the world, just as
it took generations after Jesse to
prepare for the coming of the
Christ. It is our task to root ideas
now that will bring the next
generation to wholeness.
— Joan D. Chittister, OSB
And here's a lovely Healey Willan arrangement of O Radix Jesse.

It's never too late to have a Blessed Advent.

Monday, December 17, 2012


"Do you believe in evil?"

It was a serious question from an earnest-looking, middle-aged man who had a strangely haunted look about him.

"Yes," I said, "Absolutely."

"Really?" he asked, "Why do you say that?"

"It's simple logic," I said. "If there is any balance in the world - and I believe there is - then, it follows that, if there is good in the world, there is also evil."

He considered this for a moment before asking the next question.

"The Governor of Connecticut said that they had been visited by evil. Do you agree?"

"No," I said, just as confidently. "That was not the result of evil. That was the result of psychosis. Mental illness. We used to think mental illnesses - and things like epilepsy - were demon-possession. A manifestation of evil. We also used to think the world was flat. We know better now."

"So, the murder of 20 children and eight adults was not evil?" he asked.

"It was not the result of evil. Not any more than the hundreds of people who died during Hurricane Sandy or the thousands of people who died in Japan after the tsunami or any other tragedy of unfathomable numbers of deaths of innocent people," I said.

"We used to think that earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes were 'Acts of God', or retribution for some transgression or 'sins of the fathers'. We know better know. But the person who did this was not 'evil'. I feel that very strongly," I said.

"But," someone else said, "Mike Huckabee says that the reason we are having all these shootings in school is because we've stopped allowing prayer in school."

"Mike Huckabee," I said, with absolute certainty, "is an idiot."

We laughed and then I continued, "The God I worship and adore is not capricious or malicious. God doesn't get his/her nose out of shape because we're not praying in school. Until Mike Huckabee can prove he has a direct line to God, I don't believe he can speak for God."

I didn't even get into the report that the Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket the President's visit with the grieving parents in Newtown. Members of Fred Phelps' church say that America is being punished for its acceptance of gays and lesbians. In recent days, Phelps family members have sent tweets about the Connecticut shooting that have said "God sent the shooter."

Maybe Mike Huckabee should talk to Fred Phelps so they can get their story straight about exactly what God is up to in all of this.  Is it LGBT people or is it 'progressive left-wing teachers who don't say prayers in school?

Inquiring minds want to know, but we may have to wait for Pat Robertson to weigh in to get the most accurate read of God's mind. My guess is that he'll say it's feminists and all who support abortion. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". It's right there in the bible, after all.

"So," my friend continued, "Is what happened on 9/11 the result of evil?"

"Yes, absolutely," I said.

He looked surprised and asked, "Why do you say that?".

"Because it was a carefully planned and executed, intentional theological and political and violent act to take down the symbol of capitalism - The World Trade Center - without regard - and in fact, with great purpose - for the innocent lives that were lost in the process."

An unmistakably pained look came across his face. "I was three doors down from the World Trade Center on 9/11," he said. "Of the 300 people I worked with, more than 90 died. I think what happened on that day was evil. I don't think what happened in Connecticut on Friday was the result of evil."

Suddenly, I understood his haunted look. We briefly talked about his experiences - and mine - of 9/11. Neither of us knew much about what happened in Newtown, CT - we still don't know all the details and may never fully understand what happened that day or why - but we knew, after having experience 9/11, that 12/14 was very different.

I'm sure it feels the same to those who lost children and siblings and relatives and friends in the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, but I think we name as 'evil' that which we feel is outside ourselves and not even a remote possibility of human behavior.

What I think may well be a manifestation of 'evil' is our inability to accept any responsibility when tragedies like this happen. We also deny our complicity in creating events like this.

We have failed to ban assault weapons - not hunting rifles but automatic or semi-automatic weapons used in combat. We have accepted the false narrative that the NRA is all-powerful and unbeatable. Somehow, the now almost routine death of innocent people in malls and schools and theaters has become the price we pay for constitutionally guaranteed freedom to 'bear arms".

Our mental health system has failed miserably.  We have not made psychological health a priority for research and/or treatment.  The diagnosis of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder has become a waste-basket term for "we really don't know what to do" except provide medications that cloud the mind and dull the senses and make life for some of those who are affected not worth living - not on medication, anyway.

We do not even bother to understand the difference between a disorder or disability or mental illness.  Adam Lanza, the man who was the shooter, is reported to have Asperger's Syndrome - part of the spectrum of Autism. Many people who have never heard about Asperger's Syndrome will now erroneously connect it with pathological violence and murder.

Here is an essay written by a person with Asperger Syndrome. It reads, in part:
"Asperger's does not determine the content of your character - it simply channels whoever you are into unconventional and sometimes highly enlightening pathways. If it is indeed the case that the gunman had this disability, then he was a psychotic who happened to have Asperger's, not someone who was psychotic because of that condition. I hope very much that this is not how people are first introduce to the disability, because there couldn't be a starker departure from its actual nature." 
Even so, there will be people who will not - can not, indeed, can't be bothered to - make the distinctions between a disorder / disability and psychosis / mental illness.  They just need a handy wastebasket into which to throw their confusion and guilt - a handy hook on which to hang conflicting emotions.

Anything to not accept responsibility or systemic complicity when tragedies happen. 

We all want to be innocent. We are not.

We all want our hands clean of horrid tragedies. They are not.

So, we rationalize ("Thousands more children die outside of schools than inside." "More children die of hunger than at the end of a gun." "Seventy children were shot to death in Norway which has some of the toughest gun control in the world").

We blame others.  Or, the personification of parts of ourselves we'd rather not admit we have. Evil. Satan. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Mammon. The Son of Perdition. The Devil - who made me do it.

People who are mentally ill are not evil. They are just as capable of doing evil as people who are not mentally ill, but their mental illness does not make them evil.

Here is an essay written by the mother of a mentally ill child. She tells the story of one incident with her 13 year old son and then writes:
I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
It's difficult to talk about guns. It shouldn't be, but it is.

It's difficult to talk about mental illness. It shouldn't be, but it is.

And, it's time to talk about both of these issues.

My friend asked, "Why, then, does evil exist?"

"Because I believe there is good in the world. Because I believe there is balance in the world - between good and evil. Because I believe the world sometimes get out of balance and bad things happen to good people and good people do bad things. Because it is the terrible, awful price to pay for the gift of free will."

I believe that with all my heart.

Which is also why I don't think Adam Lanza was evil. I believe he was ill. I think the social stigma and isolation he experienced because of his disorder (Asperger Syndrome) must have been impossible and overwhelming for him.

What happened to those innocent children and adults was a a terrible, awful tragedy.  Adam Lanza is not evil. I do not believe he did - or, could - make a choice for evil.

The world got out of balance because good people sometimes don't know how to deal with people who are different and disordered.  Good people want to be innocent.  And, evil had the opportunity to outweigh good.

As Edmund Burke once said,
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (sic) to do nothing."
Fred Rogers of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" has some wonderful advice for parents of children in the midst of disasters like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
In the days and weeks ahead, let us look for the helpers. They are the ones who are choosing good over evil.

Indeed, in the days and weeks ahead, be one of the helpers who work for sanity in legislation about weaponry and help for those who are mentally disabled, disordered or psychologically ill.

Choose good. Choose life. For yourself and others.

In so doing, I believe we will help the world find our balance again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Like White on Rice

UN Ambassador Susan Rice has more credentials and qualifications to be Secretary of State in her back pocket than most people have in their entire portfolio.

She is a Stanford grad, Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholar who earned her M.Phil and D. Phil from Oxford.  An American diplomat and former Brookings Institution fellow, Rice served on the staff of the National Security Council and as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during President Bill Clinton's second term.

Rice was confirmed as UN ambassador by the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent on January 22, 2009. She is the first African American woman to hold that office.

Yes, she is a strong, smart, highly educated, skilled and accomplished Black woman. 

It's no wonder, then, that President Obama strongly hinted that he would name her as the next Secretary of State in 2013, after Hillary Clinton steps down from that role. 

However, Rice  has faced months of criticism from Republicans over how she characterized the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. She also has come under fire for her approach to dealing with African strongmen.

On December 13, 2012, she announced that she was withdrawing her name from consideration saying that if nominated "the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive, and costly."

Ain't that just like a woman? Putting the greater good before her own career?

And, ain't that just like White Republican men to make that confirmation process 'lengthy, disruptive and costly'? Meanwhile, we rapidly approach the 'fiscal cliff' and cuts to Medicare and Medicaid amazingly remain Republican bargaining chips as a defense against raising taxes on the rich.

I mean, it's one thing to have a Black man in the White House - especially one who is also strong, smart, highly educated, skilled and accomplished - but who also won two historic elections as President of the United States.

You can't have that AND a Black woman as Secretary of State. It's bad enough that she's a woman, but a Black woman? Can't happen. Won't happen. It just ain't right.

Sen. John McCain, who, still stinging from his loss to Obama in 2008, led the charge. Honestly, McCain sounds more and more these days like an angry, bitter old man in a tattered sweater, yelling to the kids in his front yard, "Get the hell off my lawn!"

Oh, I've heard the arguments about why Rice was such a controversial candidate. I'm sorry, but it all sounds more like character assassination to me. Can't get the Black man? Go after the Black woman.

Sounds to my ears like something George HW Bush said after he felt he had won the Vice Presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro. "We kicked some ass tonight."

Such big, strong men, eh?

Rice was gracious and generous in withdrawing her name from consideration. She 'took one for the team' because she knows that the fight to get the budget passed and the debt reduced without doing major harm to Medicare and Medicaid will take all of the energy and skill this administration possesses - which, by the way, is no small amount.

I'm sure she will be richly rewarded in the future for her act of generosity. That's not the point.

My point? The Republican War on Women continues unabated. It's not a myth. Need proof? Just look at the battle to pass the Violence Against Women Act passed.

The hold up? Native American women.

Specifically, the law, based on recommendations by the Department of Justice, expands tribal authority over cases that include non-Indian perpetrators. Indeed, non-Indian men account for an estimated 80 percent of rapes of Indian women.

What? Indian men having legal authority over non-Indian men concerning Indian women?

Have you lost your mind?

It's bad enough that a man with the name like Barack Obama is President of the United States.  You want a man with a name like Anthony Two Bulls to prosecute a man with a name like William Smith just because a woman with the name of Rebecca Fly Hawk "claims" he raped her?

Republican leaders will not be having any of that.

The whole thing makes me sick. What really drives me 'round the bend is that these White men don't see their own transparency. Maybe they do, but their arrogance blunts their concern.

Yo! Republicans! News flash: You lost the election! You don't have a mandate. It's not just that you had a lousy candidate - well, truth is, you did - but you also had a platform that was rejected by a healthy majority of the American public.

I know you're not used to being in the minority, but you've really got to get a grip on reality.

Some White Republican men and women have. Word is out that 10 House Republicans broke ranks Tuesday to urge the leadership to support the Senate version which includes Native American women, immigrant and LGBT victims of violence.

And, Speaker John Boehner is in a lose-lose situation and he knows it. Cutting spending for Medicare? Seventy-four percent of voters said no way, including 68 percent of Republicans. How about raising the eligibility age for Medicare? Nope, 59 percent of voters – and 56 percent of Republicans – don’t like that idea, either.

Even the GOP’s preferred means of raising taxes – by eliminating deductions rather than raising rates – appears at least somewhat problematic with its base. When asked if they’d support eliminating the home-mortgage deduction, 66 percent of Republicans said no.

So, Susan Rice has become the sacrificial lamb so that Republicans can "negotiate" without losing face and still feel like they "kicked some ass".

They'd best be careful from here on out. Women and minorities flexed their muscle in the last election. The only demographic base that the Republicans won in the last election were White men.

The tide is turning, and if the Republican Party is smart, they'll try to get ahead of the wave.

Because then, women and minorities will be all over the Republican Party like, well, white on rice.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

It's beginning to feel more like Christmas

They're coming in daily now. A slow but steady trickle. A few every day.

Turns out, some people still actually send Christmas cards. In the mail. Real envelope with a stamp and handwritten address and signed by the actual person and everything.

Years ago, I used to send out hundreds of Christmas cards. No, really. Hundreds. It was crazy. These days, I send out very few Christmas cards. I only send to people I know I won't see during Christmastide and/or to those who send to me. I just can't justify the cost of postage and using all that paper makes me uncomfortable.

But, oh, my goodness, I love getting the cards that are montages of pictures. Especially of the little ones. They tell a better story than any letter ever could.

Sometimes, Christmas letters are important. I especially love the ones that express gratitude for all the gifts that have come the past year. I was so inspired by one of them, that I decided to write a Christmas gratitude letter of my own to tuck into my Christmas card.

Not everyone will get this letter.  It was only to a select group of people.

A little background story: When I moved to DE, I arranged with my NJ doctors to stay in relationship with them. I mean, I've been seeing my primary care physician for the past 15 years. I've been seeing the others for 7-14 years. We have a relationship, you know?

I don't mind the schlep up the Jersey Turnpike.  Besides, I'm very healthy which is due, in equal parts of taking care of myself - a healthy diet, moderate exercise, vitamin supplements, an annual physical exam including mammography, pap smear, etc. - and having confidence in the skills and abilities of my doctors and nurse practitioners.

Now, I'm fortunate. I have health insurance. I have a car and the finances and the time and the ability to choose to schlep to NJ for my health care. Furthermore, the way the "system" works these days is that, if/when you are admitted to the hospital, you never see your primary care physician. You see the doctors who are staff in the hospital. Your primary care docs get the report after the fact. And, s/he sees you over the period of recovery, so might as well stay with the docs who know me.

But, it seems that there was a bit of a dust up of sorts between my health insurance and my health care providers. For some strange reason, certain counties in NJ - the ones farthest from the NY border, were excluded from coverage. Indeed, my primary care physician was in one county that was excluded, by my GYN nurse practitioner and two other specialists were not.

Well, that's what it said on the website of the medical group where I saw my physicians. When I called my insurance company, however, the "customer service agent" informed me that she did not have them listed. She said I should check with the medical group. When I called them, the "customer service agent" there said I should check with my insurance company.

After weeks of this sort of back and forth, I finally threw my hands up in the air and decided to start looking around for a new primary care physician here in Delaware. After a lengthy search and interviews, I finally found one. She comes very highly recommended and I'm sure she'll be great, but after I made the appointment, I knew I had one more thing left to do before I could move on.

I couldn't just send my health care providers a Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanza / Generic 'Holiday' Card. I knew I had to write a letter of gratitude for all they have done for me over the years.

This, in part, is what I wrote (after explaining the situation as I wrote it above):
The Affordable Care Act has done a great deal to fix a broken system between health insurance companies and the health care profession, but it’s obvious to me that the system is still broken, apparently driven by profit margins and not patient care.

I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for all of your care over the years. Thank you for your thoroughness and skill. Thank you for your warmth and compassion. Thank you for never missing an opportunity to educate me about my own health. Thank you for the occasional reminders that I need to lose some weight or congratulating me when I succeeded in doing so. Thank you for asking about my professional life and my family members. Thank you for training your staff to be efficient without compromising a sense of warmth and concern. Thank you for your condolences when one of my family members died. Thank you for listening – really listening – to me when I had a health concern and taking it as seriously as I did. Thank you for those times when you shared a little bit of your own personal life with a few stories about your children or your spouses.

I will miss each and every one of you.
May God continue to bless you in your lives and in the work that you do. Never doubt for even a moment that you are making a real difference in the lives of those you serve.
Yes, I sent a copy to the ED of the Medical Group as well as my health insurance provider.

Yes, I needed to write that letter in order to "let go". To "move on". You know, for "closure".

More importantly, I needed to express my gratitude to my doctors and nurse practitioners with whom I've had such a significant and important relationship over the years.
I believe that it was in the late 90s when I read a study on the life expectancy of people living with AIDS which had been conducted at Johns Hopkins. As I recall, there were four consistent factors to those who were living “long and well” with AIDS: compliance with medical regiment, being part of a supportive family/community, having a sense of spirituality and having a good relationship with one’s physician(s). 

Obviously, I don't have AIDS or a diagnosis with life-threatening implications, but I feel as if one of the legs of the four-legged stool of my health care has been removed. 

I'll rebuild it. I'll be fine.

I'm better, however, for having taken the time to write out a letter to each of my health care providers and expressing my gratitude to them.  On real paper.  Placed in a real card Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanza / Generic 'Holiday' Card as appropriate, in a real envelope written in my handwriting with a real stamp on it and everything.

That, to me, is part of the "Spirit of Christmas". It's what Jesus is all about: Teaching us to be aware and alert and conscious and attentive. To be thankful. To make Eucharist from the common stuff of life. To take the humble mangers of our lives and build them into altars of sacrifice and praise. 

Call it part of my Advent Spiritual Discipline. 

Yes, it's beginning to feel a little bit more like Christmas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Signs of faith

I pass by a lot of churches in my travels around Lower, Slower Delaware.  While there are lots of little Methodist and Baptist Churches here, with an occasional medium sized Episcopal and Lutheran church, a few Church of God in Christ's and large Roman Catholic churches, the majority are non-denominational, evangelical, as well as Pentecostal and Charismatic. 

Without even seeing the church building or reading the denomination on the sign, you can pretty much guess the denomination by looking at the sign.

For the most part, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal Church have very tastefully painted wood signs with the name of the church carved into the wood, highlighted in gold or a color that coordinates with the background color.  It says "permanence" and "order" and "style".  It also immediately communicates a level of income and class status.

The Methodist and Baptist Churches say something very different with their signs, which are, more often than not, those manufactured signs with the letters behind a glass case.  

They often have the name of the church written along the top - which may or may not be illuminated - and often the denominational logo or a cross or a bible - just so there's no question.

The glass enclosed part contains the times of Sunday worship and Church School, along with any other weekday events like bible study. The part that changes is the "message", usually the sermon title or a pithy, often funny, spiritual message - like: "To Err is Human. To Arrrrh is Pirate". Or: "Honk If You Love Jesus. Text If You Want To Meet Him." Or: "Sign Maker On Vacation. Come Inside For Message." Or - the not-so-funny-and-just-a-tad-threatening: "Many Who Seek God At The Eleventh Hour Die At 10:30".

I look forward to seeing the sermon titles - which are mostly a Methodist thing, but some Baptist churches have them, too.

There's a Methodist Church at the top of my street that previews the sermon title every Thursday. I can hardly wait to drive by to see what the sign says.

The few I remember reading and thinking, "I'd like to hear that sermon" include: "Hiding In Plain Sight". And: "Resurrection: Trick or Treat? You Decide". Or (my personal favorite from last Christmas) "Who's Your Daddy?".

Then, we get to churches that are either converted prefab houses or sad little shacks in great disrepair or concrete buildings with fallen gutters and rust stains down the side of the building.

They have names like: "Church of the Greater Prophecy." Or:  "Church of Deliverance." Or: "All Walks of Life Church of God in Christ." Or: "Bible-Believing Pentecostal Church." Or, simply: "Try Jesus."

Most of these also have the name of the pastor in large print. Some of the ones I remember are "Pastor Butch Hastings," "Pastor Leon Wiley, Chief Servant," and "Prophet Buella Means, Founder".  

These are the churches with signs in front that don't try to be clever or funny. There's usually a quote right out of scripture or, perhaps, just the book, chapter and verse. I often get 'Siri' on my iPhone to help me look them up. 

Like: John 3:16 (of course). Or: Matthew 10:28 (Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.). Or: Luke 4:12 (Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.).

I went by one church today which I've passed several times but hadn't read the sign. This day, however, I was behind a truck hauling some farm equipment which was moving Veeerrry Sloooowly.

It's an old sign, one side sinking because the wood is rotting.  It certainly looks as if the church has been closed - or, at least, there isn't a congregation that has worshiped there in a while. Interestingly enough, there is no pastor's name anywhere on the church or the sign, which obviously hasn't been changed in a long time. Indeed, a few of the letters have slipped a bit and some are missing. Which lead to this unintentionally humorous message.
Faith Without Work_
I s _ _ ed.
Poor Ed, right? No faith. No wonder he has no work.

Or, is it that, when he lost his job, he lost his faith, too?

As I thought about it, I wondered if the church hadn't closed because it didn't have a mission - a way to put their faith to work. Might the sign have been prophetic?

Perhaps it was the 'parting shot' of a pastor who had tried to move the congregation from a "rural country club at prayer" to a church in service to the community? Was this a "message from the grave" of a church that had died?

Intentionally or not, church signs send interesting messages about their congregations and faith life - perhaps even some messages they didn't want to send or even know they were sending.

I've always found Episcopal Church signs that say thing like "8 AM H.E. I   10 AM H.E.II  Fifth Sunday MP I" to be fascinating examples of churches sending loud and clear messages that, if you can read and understand that sign, then, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." If not, perhaps you shouldn't bother.

If you are a member of a church, perhaps you haven't thought much about your sign. What it says about you. Whether or not it really is a "sign" of your faith.

Whether you know it or not, other people think about that sign in front of your church. Probably more people than you realize. Perhaps more people than there are people in your church.

Which, when you think about it, might just be the most important message your sign is giving you. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I hab a code in by node

It's not the flu.

I know that for a fact.

When you have the flu, you can't move. You can't lift your head off the pillow. Your knees suddenly turn to jello. Every bone, every joint and every muscle in your body hurts. You're afraid you might die and then sometimes wish you would.  And, with the flu, you just might.

No, it's not the flu.

It's not allergies.

I know that for a fact.

I have been seeing an allergist for almost two years now and have been getting a series of allergy shots - first three times a week, then once a week. Now, it's once every two weeks and, in March, I'll start getting my shots once a month for a year and I'm done.

So, I know my allergens and it's not the season for any of them.

No, it's not the flu and it's not allergies.  Which both suck, but it's not either of those two.

This is an old fashioned, regular, boring, very annoying head cold.

It still sucks.

I know THAT for a fact.

I have a low-grade temp which sometimes causes the most annoying chills. I sneeze. Loudly. And, when I least expect it. My throat is a bit scratchy, but not sore. I have a slight dull headache. I'm just ever so slightly and not consistently woozy, which limits my abilities of observation and analysis - and, sometimes, speech.

My nose is stuffy, when it isn't runny at the most unexpected and inappropriate times.  I mean, I'll be talking with a colleague about a patient or a person in the grocery store and all of a sudden, I feel this trickle mid-point in my nose. And even though I get my hand into my pocket to fetch a tissue in reflexive action that would rival Annie Oakley, it still manages to feel as if it is dangling from my nose, leaving me to feel like a 4 year old whose mother isn't around to wipe her nose properly.

And, my energy level has gone to the lunch room, found the time clock and punched out, taking with it my appetite. All I want is cold stuff. Popsicles. Frozen fruit pops. Ice cream.

I keep forgetting. Is it "Feed a cold and starve a fever" or "Starve a cold and feed a fever"?

And, what, exactly, do you feed either a cold or a fever? Whatever. I'm just drinking lots of fluids. Water, mostly, but juice. Blueberry. Pomegranate. Cranberry. Apple.  Along with chewing lots of Vitamin C gummies and some Vitamin B for a bit of an energy boost.

Oh, and Zicam. On my tongue. Allowing it to melt. Which seems to be working.  I don't know how it works, exactly, but it does.

I'm just trying to keep it from going to my chest.

When I was a kid, my grandmother went into warrior mode every October. We'd have to take Fr. John's Medicine - a horrid tasting stuff that was a mixture of cod liver oil and licorice. Yes, you read that right. Cod liver oil and licorice. Gross. Horrid. The very taste of Evil, in fact.

We'd have to take a tablespoon of the stuff every day. In the morning. Right after breakfast which we'd wash down with a glass of juice. Didn't help. It still made me wretch just thinking about having to taste it.

In addition to that, we had to take Brewer's Yeast. Which, if you didn't know, is a fungus which is also sometimes used to make beer.  And, it tastes bitter. Very, very bitter.

You can now get it in pills and swallow it down without so much as holding your nose. Then, my grandmother would slice some off of a large, stinky cake of Brewer's Yeast which my grandfather used to make beer and dissolve it in small saucer of hot tea laced with lots and lots of sugar.

It wasn't as bad as the tablespoon of Fr. John's but there was more of it. And, the aftertaste was so bad that my siblings and cousins and I thought that the reason we never got a cold was because no self-respecting germ would ever dare enter our mouths and get anywhere near that horrible stuff.

However, if you DID catch a cold (AKA "Catching your death of pneumonia"), my grandmother had a "cure" for that, too.

First, she would make something called a "Mustard Plaster" - a poultice of ground mustard seeds, spread on a torn piece of one of my grandfather's or uncle's flannel shirts. Then, she smeared it on your chest and wrapped it into place with a large piece of flannel so you looked like a victim of the Civil War. I can still hear her ripping the flannel, making two "tails" on the piece of flannel which she used to tie it all in place.

"You've got to sweat out a cold," she would say. And trust me: with that Mustard Plaster on, you would sweat like a pig.

Next, you would spend some time hanging over a large bowl of steaming hot water into which my grandmother had added a few huge globs of "Vick's Vapor Rub".

She would drape a towel over your head and the bowl, and you would spend 20-30 minutes inhaling the menthol until you thought your nasal passages would be cleared out straight back into your brain.

Then, she would take some of my grandfather's home made red wine and heat it with a sprinkle of sugar and a slice of lemon.  You would slowly sip that sucker down and sleep for the next three days.

When you woke up, your cold was miraculously gone.

Oh, I remember waking up long enough to sip a mug of chicken broth or slurp some chicken noodle soup ("Portuguese Penicillin") but it always felt as if I was doing so while sitting in a thick haze.

In between the soup and the sleep, we would be allowed all the Popsicles we could eat. And, I think I ate a ton of them.

Quick medical alert: If you have not yet gotten your flu shot, please do. No joke. It's important. The life you save could be your own. And, a few others.

My primary care physician says, "If you treat a cold, it will go away in seven days. If you don't treat a cold, it will go away in seven days." The deal is to manage the symptoms.

I'll make it through the next week without any of my Grandmother's home remedies.  Colds happen.  Even to the best of us. I'll survive. We all do.

But, it helps to complain about it a bit. Sympathy is a wonderful antidote to feeling miserable. Please do feel free to fuss over me a bit, and tell me how sorry you are that I'm not feeling well.

If you could hear me, I would elicit tons of sympathy from you.

It's the one time an adult is allowed to whine and I, for one, relish every moment of it.

It won't cure my cold but it will make me feel like someone cares. Which, I suppose, was the real "medicine" in my Grandmother's War on the Common Cold.

Lots of love in the form of warmth and care and sugar and Popsicles.

It also cut down considerably on the whining.

But when you get right down to it, when you hab a code in da node, lobe is all you need.

I know that for a fact.

Friday, December 07, 2012

All God's Children Got Shoes

No matter whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, it was a near-perfect 'miracle' story for the holiday Season. On November 14, NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo was photographed by an Arizona couple touring New York City giving a pair of boots and some warm socks to a homeless man.

"I had two pairs of wool winter socks and combat boots, and I was cold," said DePrimo, age 25, as he recalled the encounter with an unidentified, shoeless man on the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue near 44th Street. DePrimo offered to get him socks and shoes.

"I never had a pair of shoes," the man replied, according to DePrimo, who is assigned to the Sixth Precinct and has been on the force nearly three years.

The officer walked to a Skechers store on 42nd Street and shelled out $75 for insulated winter boots and thermal socks. He returned to the man, knelt down and put the footwear on him. "He smiled from ear to ear," DePrimo said. "It was like you gave him a million dollars."

The officer asked the man if he wanted a cup of coffee, but he graciously declined and went on his way. "I didn't think anything of it," DePrimo said of his generosity.

The tourists posted the picture on their FaceBook page, which went viral, and well, so did the story. The Media were on it. DePrimo even got a spot on the Today Show, where he said, "People are saying their faith in humanity is restored and that's the biggest thing I can take away from all of this."

There, you see! Doesn't that just warm you heart? Don't you want to rush right out and buy a homeless man a pair of shoes? And, not know that anybody would even know about it, except for the fact that it's NY City and people usually snap pictures for evidence of police brutality so this was an especially nice story.

Except...... that's not the end of the story.

Just days after DePrimo bought the homeless man the shoes (said to be worth around $75), the New York Times reported that the man was out on the streets without shoes again, claiming he hid them because they were "worth a lot of money." What's more, the man wanted a perceived "piece of the pie" from the viral photo.

A few days later, it was reported by the Daily News that the man, whose name is Jeffrey Hillman, is not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. What's more, the New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft, and more.

So, what's the moral of the story? Don't give to the homeless on the street? He's just evidence of one of Mitt's "takers", right? He'll just keep taking. The more you give, the more he'll take.

What then are we to make of the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan? Near as I can figure, the Samaritan didn't ask for a background check or do a social inventory before he took care of the man left half-dead by the side of the road. Instead, he tended to the man's immediate needs and then sought out the only "social service agency" of that time: the local tavern.

Caring for those who are poor and homeless has always been a situation that is fraught with complicated ethical questions. This one is certainly exemplary of my experiences.

I am constantly amazed at the creativity and tenacity of those who are desperately poor to get what they need in a world where the odds seem continually stacked against them.

I remember a day, years ago, sitting on a park bench in Newark, NJ, enjoying the sunshine and my lunch. My eye was caught by a young woman who was carefully watching a nearby line at a the local  ATM or "Automatic Teller Machine". I saw her carefully making her selection and focusing intently on a young man in a business suit.

As the young man stepped up to the ATM and inserted his card, she started to move toward him. As he was taking his money out of the machine, she approached him and said, politely, "Excuse me, sir, but I have AIDS and I just started my period. Could you help me buy some sanitary pads?"

The man recoiled in horror and threw a $20 bill at her before scurrying away.

I couldn't help it. I laughed out loud. The young girl looked at me and smiled. "Hey," she said, "a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

"Honey," I said, "people have been doing a lot worse than that for $20."

Like I said, it's ethically complicated.

Here's what I think. If you see a homeless man on a frigid night without any shoes and you are moved to do something about that, then I say, "God Bless."  Do it. Anytime human compassion is allowed to be touched and enacted, I think the angels sing and Jesus smiles.

I think a direct encounter with suffering changes the human soul. Being able to give without controlling the outcome takes real courage that not only reflects morality but strengthens it.

I also think that asking, "Should I give shoes to a homeless man?" is asking the wrong question. The question to ask is, "Why doesn't the homeless man have shoes?" Indeed, "Why is the man homeless?"

This is why I think the story of the Good Samaritan is the model for Christian ethics. Take care of the immediate need and then refer to the appropriate community agency.

And, work with the system at local, state and federal levels to change the system to be able to provide real help to those who are in need.

The complications are that the ethical issues are both immediate and local as well as long term and universal. As Mother Theresa responded when asked what we can do about world hunger, "One. One. One. One. One." In other words, if one person takes care of one person we can abolish world hunger, one person at a time.

Officer DePrimo said, "People are saying their faith in humanity is restored and that's the biggest thing I can take away from all of this."

In this ethically complex, increasingly cynical world, that is a pretty big thing, indeed - no matter the time of year.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Miserable Offender

Miserable Offender.

It's such a deliciously wicked term.

Not just an "offender" but "miserable" about it.  Now, that's "true repentance"!

Some of you know that one of my favorite singing groups is The Miserable Offenders, an internationally known dynamic duo of two New Yorkers, Ana Hernandez and Deborah Griffin Bly. During the time they were active, they sang throughout the Anglican Communion, from diocesan conventions and parish celebrations for the 1988 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.

They also sang for my installation (Instillation? Institution? Whatever we do to launch a new ministry) as Canon Missioner to The Oasis and they absolutely, positively brought the house down with drums and singing bowls and stunningly guhgeous voices that so beautifully harmonized so as to make the angels weep. 

They are reuniting after a too long hiatus and I can't wait to hear them again.

I confess, however, that whenever I hear the term "miserable offender" I get a wicked case of the giggles. Some think it a wonderful, quaint, poetic term. I just think it's so .... overdone .... such ..... overstated .... dramatic ..... hyperbole that, well, it just makes me giggle.

For those who don't know, the term is part of the "General Confession" in the service of Morning Prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  In that context, the term totally works.  At other times, it sounds more like something a Shakespearean actor would say rather than a priest.

I understand. It was 1928. This is 2012. We don't talk like that anymore. But, once, we did. Or, "they" did. And, we don't any more. Except, of course, in places where the 1928 BCP is still used. And, trust me on this, in some places and on some occasions, it still is.

I was thinking about the term today, after talking with someone who described herself as "miserable" about the "offense" she had committed. She is a fairly flamboyant, dramatic person and, given my perception of the fairly insignificant nature of what she considered her "offense" ..... well, I had to raise an eyebrow.

In what was, no doubt, terrible form, I gently interrupted her and asked, "Can I ask you something, before we go on? Were you raised in the Episcopal Church on the 1928 BCP?"

"Why, yes," she said, rather dramatically surprised. "Why do you ask?"

"Just a guess," I said, trying not to smile and suppressing an urge to giggle. Which would have been antithetical to the compassionate, holy listening I try to practice. I pulled it together during our time together, but I confess, I've been giggling about the term "miserable offender" ever since. 

As our kids would say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima nisson stanza."

Morning Prayer in the 1928 BCP begins with Opening Sentences such as:
Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.  Isaiah lvii. 15.
And, proceeds to a call to confession which invites "Dearly beloved brethren" to "acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness".

Okay, so it sounds very poetic and eloquent and probably even majestic, but, you know, it's a bit heavy on the groveling for my particular taste. Especially for a corporate (vs. private) confession.

I was remembering a time in seminary when one of my classmates went out on a fundraising mission for an inner city soup kitchen to one of the more affluent suburban congregations. She went of a Sunday morning and was going to be part of a three person Adult Forum to discuss the particulars of the ministry, and hopefully, loosen some change from the pockets of the affluent "tweed and natural fiber suburban set".

Finals were rapidly approaching and no one was getting much sleep. We were writing papers and studying for exams while still tending to our families, working part time to keep the student loans as low as possible, as well as working as interns in our respective congregations.

She was seriously sleep-deprived which, no doubt, negatively contributed to the situation. The congregation was a remnant of the "Morning Prayer Congregations" but had compromised by continuing to use Morning Prayer from the 1928 BCP on the fifth Sunday of the month - or, about four times a year.

Because God has a sense of humor and the Holy Spirit is a trickster and Jesus had the Sunday off, my sleep-deprived colleague walked into a situation that just begged for disaster.

The rector was straight out of Central Casting. Tall. Statuesque. Gray haired. Impeccably dressed. Eloquent and articulate. Exuding confidence and status. Possessing a professional, FM radio-announcer sonorous voice with clipped tones that wasn't quite British or faux-British but clearly not the way most people talked - even then.

He looked like he wouldn't know sin if it were staring him in the face.

Above it all, thank you so very much.

My friend, a fairly new convert to The Episcopal Church from Roman Catholicism had not experienced the 1928 BCP. Initially, she was a bit taken aback by the Opening Sentences, but as she listened to the dramatic cadence of the rector's voice, she began to be amused.

Then, he called the congregation to confession and began to intone,
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
The report I got was that, my friend started smiling broadly around the words "lost sheep".  By the time she tried to get her exhausted brain to cooperate with her mouth to say, "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done".... well, there was no health in her.

By the time she got to "miserable offenders" she was giggling so loudly she literally fell off the hand-embroidered kneeler. Her two companions pushed her down under the pew, one hand over her mouth, while her body melted in waves of exhausted hilarity. Tears rolled down her face.

She explained later that it wasn't so much the words - although, there was that, to be sure - but that the priest saying them was so unbelievable to her that she simply couldn't bear the tension of hearing the words of a dramatically penitent sinner coming from the lips of a man who sounded as though he thought more of himself than God.

In her experience, it was performance, not prayer and, given the dramatic gravity of the words of the prayer of confession, she experienced the whole thing as absurd. Which, no doubt, it was.

That being said, she had, herself, become a "miserable offender" - an occasion of sin for which her two companions could forgive her and which they later confessed they knew God would, too. They thought Jesus probably had great compassion for her in her exhausted state and ensuing bad case of the giggles, especially given that he didn't have to show up in that church that morning, anyway.

They were also convinced that the Holy Spirit had, in fact, shown up and was, without a shadow of a doubt, the culprit. They chalked it up to what happens when the Trinity is out of balance. Their only concern was to keep her out of the rector's sight so as not to do any harm to the possibility of financial support for the work of their ministry.

That, in there estimation would have been an unforgivable sin. 

Some people prepare for Advent by considering it a "mini-Lent".  Their emphasis is less contemplative and more penitential. Indeed, the church once considered Advent in that way.

I know one local priest who uses the penitential opening sentences at Eucharist during Advent. (v. "Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins." r. "His mercy endures forever".)

Makes me cringe but, you know, some old habits die hard. Especially in the church.

Whatever your Advent preparation, amidst all the hustle and bustle and frenetic pace of the 'holiday season', I hope you find some way to find moments of joy in life.

I hope you don't have to get exhausted to see that life can sometimes be absurd and the human condition is often hilarious and that, no matter what we do - even when we make fools of ourselves, especially when we think we are being 'meet, right and proper' - God's love for us is unconditional and God's mercy is beyond our human comprehension.

Yes, even in those moments when we, ourselves, can be "miserable offenders".

I mean, how else do you expect to be joyful about the Incarnation - Emanuel, God With Us, God robed in human flesh - if you aren't able to laugh at your human self once in a while?

I'm convinced that being able to not take yourself so damn seriously is the fuel that keeps the divine spark within each of us shining brightly.

And, that divine spark is how the wise will seek and find the Christ within the humble manger that is our hearts.

Prepare ye the way, O thou miserable offender. Lo, he comes on clouds descending!

Or, in the words of Absolution from the 1928 BCP:
ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
    Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
 See? It's all about the joy.

So, somebody say, "Amen."