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

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Camino: Dateline Porto, Portugal

 

My first view of Porto, across the bridge, at 6 PM

Good Saturday morning, comrades! It's the first day of October and I think the worst of jet lag is behind me. I am writing you from the beautiful city of Porto, Portugal where "a river runs through it" and the city is a very hip mixture of old European charm with modern international accommodation.

The church where I hope to attend mass early tomorrow morning is St. John's, which bills itself as "an International Church in the Anglican Tradition".

At least, I hope to attend early mass. Tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, I am leaving with some pilgrims I just met to check out the Douro River Valley. 
 
We will be visiting two different wineries and doing some wine tasting at Quinta do Seixo - and having lunch there - and Quinta da Roeda. In between, we'll cruise the Douro River in a typical "Rabelo" boat.

I couldn't be more excited.


Today, I'm going to explore more of the city of Porto. I hope to meet up with the friend of a mutual friend for a bit of an afternoon tea.
 
Tonight, I meet up with my fellow Peregrino/a at 5:30 and we will walk to a theater not far from here to attend a wonderful (or so I hear) Fado Concert.

Fado pronounced: [ˈfaðu]; "destiny, fate") is a music genre that can be traced to the 1820s in Lisbon, Portugal, but probably has much earlier origins. Fado can be about anything but must follow a certain traditional structure. It is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholy.
 
You can hear the influence of the Mores and the laments of the sea in every note.

Here's an example of my favorite Azorean singer Mariza singing one of my favorite Fados "Barco Negro"


It is the musical expression of "Saudade" that some who read this page or my blog may remember. It is a longing, symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).

My grandmother played her guitara and sang Fado, something of which my grandfather was very proud, not only because of her beautiful voice and soulful playing but because, under the growing conservative regime that birthed the dictatorship of Salazar, and aided and abetted by the (Roman Catholic) church, at one point in time and in some towns, only men could sing Fado.


That my grandmother could sing it in this country was the manifestation of the freedom they sacrificed to attain for themselves and their children and their children's children.

But, there was always this longing for "the old country" - like the Israelites having been blessed with liberation from slavery and headed for The Promised Land but longing for the pomegranates in Egypt.

So, it's off into my day. I'm so excited to have conversations with people on the streets and in cafes. I want to learn more of why people from America seem to settle here.

I am already learning that Fr. Koumranian was right and "people is people" all over the world. My hostess at breakfast was a young woman named Rita, who talked about the Great Rush at 7:30 AM of "bus loads" of people - so many she couldn't seat them all at the same time. "So, what I'm going to do? I give them place in line. When one table finish, I fast clean, clean, clean and then another four people sit. Whew!"

I said, "Well, when you go home, you'll put your feet up and rest with a nice cup of tea."

"Oh no," said Rita. "My boy will say, "Mommy, Mommy, we go play ball. He's 5. His dad is . . . um . . . work until late today. So, I be Mommy and Daddy until tonight."


It was ever thus, eh Ladies?

Make it a great day, everyone.

Bom dia!

Barco Negro (Black (sail) boat) Translation
(The lament is "They are crazy")
 
In the morning, how I feared that you could find me ugly
I woke up trembling, laid on the beach's sand

But immediately your eyes told me the opposite
And the sun entered into my heart

Then I saw a cross stuck on a rock
And your black sailboat dancing under the light

I saw your hand waving goobye among the ready loose sails
Old women of the beach tell me that you will not come back

They are crazy... They are crazy...

I know, my love, that you, in fact, did not leave
because, everything around me tells me that you are always with me

You are in the wind, which spreads sand on the glass (of the windows)
You are in the water, that sings into the dying fire
You are in the warmth of the rest from empty seabeds
You are forever with me, into my heart/chest.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Camino: Dateline Fatima

 

Fatima and Faith

I saw a woman holding a baby. She was on her knees and she was praying the rosary as she held her baby. Her friend was walking alongside her, I suppose to take the infant if they started to fuss or need a nappy change.

It was only speculation but I had lots of questions about the “back story” to this obvious expression of piety.

Had she had difficulty conceiving or with her pregnancy? Had the fetus experienced some sort of health threat in utero or the neonate a physical insult at birth?

Was she there to give thanks or was she there, with her infant child in her arms, on her knees, saying the rosary, to make a special petition to the Blessed Mother who made a series of special visitations to three small children in the small, insignificant farming village in Portugal?

I was impressed that she, along with so many others, were there at Fatima not as tourists but as religious pilgrims, seekers on a path made by millions of others over the decades, to put their feet - or their knees - in the same place other pilgrims and seekers had before them.

I was surprised by two things: The vastness of the place and the sincerity of the people I saw and spoke with there, at the shrine.

I don’t know what I was thinking. I had this romantic expectation of a small grotto in the place of the apparitions. Maybe a statue of Francisco, Jacinta, Lucia, and, of course, Herself, the BVM.

But no. The grotto is a piazza- a HUGE piazza, bigger than the Vatican - with a Basilica of the Rosary on the hill at one end, and a chapel (ahem) that is able to seat 9,000 of the faithful.

In between is a place where you can buy and light candles, right next to a very small chapel which seats about 250 where the rosary is said and Eucharist is observed daily. In front of the Basilica is an outdoor chapel that seats about 150 but can be heard and observed by 10,000 in the piazza.

Very impressive.

What’s even more impressive than the vastness of the place is the sincerity of the people. These are not tourists. These are pilgrims. Straight up. Rock solid seekers.

The whole feel of the place is holy. Set apart to bring people together in prayer. Spiritual but also Religious.

There’s no one there hawking religious tchotchkes. No one trying to press rosary beads in your hand for a small price, just in case you forgot yours at home. Or urging you to buy candles or flowers to place at the base of the statues.

Oh, there are places like that. Lots of places. Just not there. You have to go up the hill and around the corner, away from the shrine and the faithful.

The people at the shrine are sincere. Let me tell you about that word that was told to me by a man named Richard, an Episcopalian and retired engineer.

When I used that word several times he told me that the origin of comes to us from the arts: sculpture, In fact.

The word sincerity comes from Latin. A statue that had no flaws and required no patching was hailed as a 'sculpture sin cera' or a 'sculpture without wax. ' The artist would sign the certificate of the piece “sine (without) cera (wax)” which meant it was genuine.

The phrase eventually came to mean anything honest or true. The English word 'sincere' reportedly evolved from the Spanish sin cera—'without wax’.

The folks I met or observed in Fatima are sincere, in the full meaning and sense of that word. They are the real deal.

No, it’s not my spirituality or theology. I do not feel the need or desire to, as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
That does not mean, however, that those who do are wrong or bad or feeble-minded or have an inferior life of faith. Neither is it more excellent or pious nor does it please or displease God. The way they express their faith is different from mine but they are sincere in their expressions and I think that has worth and value in and of itself.

However, it does raise some interesting questions for me, questions that have been asked since people have been studying the great variety of religious expressions. Like:

Where does faith end and fanaticism begin? Is it okay to light candles to pray but does it then begin to cross a line when those candles are in the shape of a hand or a foot, an eye, a breast or an intestine and pray for an end to the pain or disease in that body part? (see the pictures below of the wax forms for sale)
 

 

What is inside the need to concretize belief? Was God onto some deeper, more complicated understanding of human need when the idea of the Incarnation was conceived? Is that not also what is behind religious figures and symbols in all religions, such as Ganesh and Shiva, Buddha, King David, or the Prophet Mohammad? 


What is a miracle? What constitutes a miracle? Did the three children – Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia, ages 10, 8, and 7 – who were tending the family sheep when they saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mother make up a story? 

 

Were they just seeking attention? Were they hallucinating? Were the government officials in Fatima justified when they jailed and threatened the children with being boiled alive in olive oil if they did not recant their story?


As a good pilgrim, my journey to Fatima raised more spiritual questions and bid me follow those questions to the answers that lie deep within my soul. I may never get an answer, but that's not necessarily the point.

The question is the point. And, following it faithfully, even if doubts are raised. As Fred Buechner once said, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith."

I am so glad I came here to Fatima as part of my Camino. My grandmother told me this story as far back as I can remember. It was pretty amazing to be here for that reason alone.

No, Fatima isn’t on the Camino path, but it has set my heart and my mind on The Way.

I am in Porto tonight, having had supper with four other pilgrims at The Majestic Café, one of the famous gathering places for artists here in Portugal since 1922. I’ll tell you more about that in the morning. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful city. I could honestly live here. I’m going to sleep in tomorrow and then explore more of Porto for myself.

I may not write every day but I will try to share my reflections with you. Truth is, sometimes considering and reflecting on the experiences and the questions they raise take up more time than I have to write about it.

Which, actually, is a wonderful problem to have, eh?

Buen Camino, my friends

Camino: Datline Lisbon

Bom Dia from Lisbon, Portugal. At least the sun is out and we're all eating breakfast so I'm assuming it's morning. I got about 3 hours of a fitful "cat nap" on the plane from Charlotte to London.

They don't call it "the red eye" for nothing.

I thought I might catch a few winks in the lounge at Heathrow but that just wasn't going to happen. After a long layover and a flight delay, I finally got into my hotel room a little after 1 AM. I think I finally fell asleep around 2:30 and then up at 7:30 to shower and get myself organized for breakfast and the trip to Porto.

I'm going to head out in a few minutes, after I finish my coffee, and walk around this part of the city. Then I meet up with a few members of my group before we head off to Fatima. We'll visit the shrine and attend mass then lunch and off to Porto.

I'm hoping to meet up with a friend of a friend (all Americans seem to have a friend of a friend) in Porto. I'm so looking forward to discovering a little more about that city and why so many American ex-pats live there.

I've made some time at the end of my Camino to come back to Lisbon where I'll do a little more exploring here. I want to check out the Fado Museum and go to a Fado concert. But, once again, I'm getting out ahead of my skis. It's in my DNA.

One last thing before I head out for the day: It's amazing to me to be in a place where so many people look like me. Seriously. The waitress this morning could be my cousin. It's not just her coloring or her facial features. It's the way she tilts her head when she smiles. It's the inflection in her voice - even in English. It's the commitment to hard work - to go the extra mile and consider it just part of the journey.

I think I'm home. I think I found "my people".

Sleep? Who needs sleep on Camino?

More later.

Bom dia.
 

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Camino Thoughts from Heathrow


“Hey Rev,” said the note. “I hope you get this. I lost your phone number. I wanted you to know that Mom passed on Monday. She loved you. She always said, “Rev. was the priest who loved us.” And, you did. You really loved us. So, I wanted you to know that she passed. Here’s my phone number. Please call when you get this.”

That was the message hidden in my Messenger. I usually don’t bother with Messenger- especially with those with whom I’m not friends on FB. Too much junk mail.

Something told me to check this one. I’m glad I did. What a great way to start The Camino.

I called her on my way to the airport. Lord, she sounded just the way I remember her about 30 years ago.

I had been called to the St Barnabas AIDS Resource Center. Well, +Jack Spong asked me to take the position of ED of that agency. And, he said, "You’ll also be the Vicar of St. Barnabas Church. It’s a little congregation that you’ll help have a good death, and you’ll write a grant to keep the Resource Center going."

This was Newark, NJ. It was around 1991.

AIDS had landed in Newark and it was hitting the Black community. Hard. Women and children mostly.

The wives and kids of “recreational drug users,” and/or guys “on the down low” but also some hardcore addicts. Some of the women were Ladies of the Night. They also doubled as Ladies of Afternoon Delight in the front seat of the BMW and Porches that came up from Broad Street where the “suits” – the bankers and Million Dollar Round Table men – worked before going home to their wives and families in the wealthy “bedroom communities” in the suburban towns of Summit and Morristown, Bedminster and Chatham.

I’ve got stories to tell about my work with those ladies and what they taught me but they are going to have to wait while I give props to Ms. Louise. They won’t mind. They loved her, too.

Ms. Louise was affectionately known as The Matriarch of the church. Texts in Congregational Development title that position “The Gatekeeper”. She was all that and more.

From her porch on 11th Street, she pretty much ran the church and the neighborhood. She knew who needed help and who was running a scam. She knew which husband was running around on which wife and vice versa.

It was Ms. Louise who first brought me to the Saturday morning neighborhood hair parlor - held in the living room of someone’s home - where you could get your hair straightened, colored or a “weave” while your friend got a bootlegged copy of the latest movie on VCR.

You could also get a dress or shoes that “fell off the back of the truck” along with cosmetics “brought in from NYC” which were specially made to help black skin when it got “ashy”.


But you also got “kitchen table socio-political analysis”. Let me give you an example.

I remember a conversation about Bill Clinton and how “he was actin’ the fool”. It was 1993 or ’94, I think. Example after example was given about his behavior which was met with concerned tut-tuts, groans, occasional rueful laughter, and some serious eye-rolling.

After the women had expended themselves, a hushed silence fell over the room while the women waited for one of the wise, older women to render her socio-political analysis.

“The man’s been into the hooch,” came a high, thin voice from the corner. It was Ms. Louise, whose comment was greeted with a chorus of “Uh-huh,” and “Amen,” and “You know it,” and “Tell it, sister.”

I was amazed. Now, they loved Bill Clinton. And, Hillary. But, all these rumors around him being “a lady’s man” were starting to be a distraction. I don’t know if Bill had a problem with alcohol. He sure had a problem with women.

But, those women knew. They knew the same way they knew when their husbands had been unfaithful or one of the kids had snuck out of the house after midnight or come in at 3 AM, but never said a mumblin’ word.

I have so many memories of Ms. Louise, but the one I’ll never forget is the Easter Vigil we had my first year at the church. I had convinced them that it was a beautiful liturgy and worth the effort.

When I got there in June, the year before, there were 15-20 or so people in the pew. In a little less than a year, there were between 45-50 in church every Sunday.

That Easter Vigil there were 90 people in the pew and I baptized 12. I had only planned to baptize 8 but four people I had never seen before felt moved to be baptized and presented themselves at the baptismal font.

As a fairly newly ordained priest I could hear my seminary professors and field education supervisors warning me about “proper preparation for the Two Great Sacraments of the Church,” but, you know, as Ms. Louise used to say, “When the Spirit say, do, you gotta do.”

And so, I did. It was glorious and exhilarating and it was well with my soul.

Which reminds me of sitting on Mr. Louise’s porch with her husband, Frank, on a Sunday afternoon, having had a wonderful lunch of fried chicken wings and greens and cornbread, just talking about this and that and greeting neighbors as they walked by who told the story of their day. Sometimes – well, often – as my visit would be drawing to a close, we’d sing some hymns.

Ms. Louise loved “It is well with my soul.” Frank would join in, singing the low part and sometimes the neighbors would come in with some of the sweetest harmonies that were enough to make the angels weep.

I was delighted and not at all surprised when her daughter assured me that they would be singing that hymn at her funeral. She said she sang it to her on her deathbed, which made me weep right there in the car on the way to the airport in Salisbury, Maryland.

I’m not going to be able to be there in person for the funeral, the date for which has not yet been set, but it will probably be while I'm on Camino. I will be there in spirit.

I’m writing this in the airport lounge at Heathrow. I got maybe a 3-hour catnap on the plane. I have absolutely no idea what time it is in my body, but it’s a little after noon here in London. I have a 9-hour layover so I’ll be here for a while. I wanted to get down these thoughts before I take a wee bit of a nap. Or, at least close my eyes.

Everyone who has ever done The Camino will remind you that the pilgrimage really begins when you leave your door. I think The Camino begins when you begin to think about walking The Camino. At that point, the universe begins to send you messages, loud and clear, about the stuff that is deep in your soul that is yearning to be seen and acknowledged and appreciated.

I have slowly been reaching the decision that this is my last stint as a parish priest. Oh, I will still help out here and there. I will cover for my colleagues when they are ill or on vacation. I am sooOOoo looking forward to being a member of a healthy, stable congregation where I can help when and if needed.

But, interim ministry? “Part-time pastor”? “Regular supply” or, as some call it here “Supply plus” (sounds like a box of laundry detergent, right? Grrr . . . )? No. No thank you. I’ll pass. Or, at least, the time for doing that for me is passed.

As I settle into the reality of that decision, it is well with my soul to have this reminder that a family to whom I served as pastor (Vicar) over 30 years ago, still remembers me. And, they remember me as “The priest who loved them.”

I would like to think every congregation I’ve served would remember me that way. Maybe some do. Probably some don’t.

But the truth is that I have truly loved every congregation I’ve served. Even the difficult ones. Loved ‘em with tough love.

Even the ones with sheep that attacked. Even the ones that needed their organizational infrastructure rebuilt from the ground up and had no idea what that required and were like “sheep without a shepherd”.

And yes, even the ones I had taken as far as I could and had to leave like Moses, never to see the Promised Land.

I was the priest who loved them, even if they don’t remember me in that way.

Well, one does. And, you know, that’s more than I expected.

One is enough for a lifetime.

It’s certainly the best way I know to start The Camino.

It is well with my soul.

Buen Camino!

Sunday, September 25, 2022

What does it take?

 

 

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

Pentecost XVI - Proper 21 

September 25, 2022


Luke’s gospel presents us with some complicated and complex and often confusing parables. What are we to make about this morning’s parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus?

Lazarus – not the friend of Jesus raised from the dead in Bethany but another man named Lazarus – (that Lazarus) ends up in heaven, and the rich man in hell. We don’t know the offense committed by the rich man that landed him in hell. Scripture tells us he had nice clothes and ate well and expected the poor to wait on him. Is being wealthy and arrogant sin?

 

Lazarus was poor, sick, and hungry; that’s really all we know about him. Did that, alone, land him a place in heaven? Or, did he do something great, something altruistic and noble that cost him everything he owned and resulted in his poverty and ill health? We don’t really know. Jesus doesn’t mention that the rich man became rich by stealing or embezzling, or that Lazarus was a great spouse and self-sacrificing father.

 

Morally, how are they different? The answer is, we don’t know.

 

Perhaps it’s not about being a scoundrel or a saint. Perhaps this is about being human and, despite how much money you have or how nice a person you are, people are just people, and God loves us all, no matter what.

 

On my last Sunday with you, I want to share one of my favorite stories about the early days of my ordination. I’ve told this story many times over the years but, for me, it never gets old. 

 

It was 1986. I was a newly ordained priest, a Chaplain at the University of Lowell in MA. And, I admit, I was feeling, well, maybe not in control but at least on top of the word. Truth be told, after three years of seminary and having passed the rigors of the ordination process, I was pretty full of myself.


It was in my capacity as a university chaplain that I first met Fr. Koumranian, the pastor at the Armenian Orthodox Church in Lowell. For some reason unknown to me, Fr. Koumranian took a liking to me – or, maybe he was simply intrigued by a “woman priest” – and decided that I should learn the “real” liturgy of the church. So, he took me under his wing in one of the most delightful and important mentor relationship I have ever known.

He was called “Father” so I, of course, became known as “Mother”. That’s not what I wanted; it’s what he insisted. He would call me and, in his heavy Armenian accent, begin, “Mother? Dees is Father. We are having baptism at church. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Mind you, that wasn’t so much an invitation as an expectation. I was thrilled. I went. Every time. No exception.


One evening, he called. “Mother? Dees is Father. Der is funeral Wednesday. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Nothing was so important that couldn’t be rearranged so that I could be there.

There was smoke. There were bells. There was chanting. I admit that I loved it all in that beautiful mosaic tile sanctuary.


When it came time for the eulogy, I looked around the church and saw that it was filled with lots of old Armenian men and women, all dressed in black. 

 

I thought sure the eulogy would be spoken in Armenian and I could meditate quietly while he preached. To my surprise, Fr. Koumranian walked into the aisle, near the casket as he began the eulogy.

“Der are people in dees world,” he said, “who are always making you happy. You see dem walking on de street and your heart leaps for joy, for dey are making you so happy.”

He put his hand reverently on the casket and said solemnly, “Dees . . . is not one of dos people.”

I was, in a word, stunned. I shut my eyes tight. All I could think was, “Don’t let my face show what I’m thinking.” Which was, “What in the heck is he doing?” When I opened my eyes, I could see the front row of women, including the man’s widow.
They were all nodding their heads in agreement.

Fr. Koumranian continued, “But, isn’t God – our God – so wonderful, dat now – even now – even one such as dees is resting eternally in de arms of Jesus? Because, you know, eets true: People is people. And, God is God.” And then he said, “Ah-min,” and sat down.

 

Sometimes, when you least expect it – but, often, when you need it most – God brings people into our lives to help put us right into our place. Fr. Koumranian, for me, was one of those people. He died many years ago, but lives on in my heart.

 

Over the past 36 years, whenever I’ve felt just a little too big for my britches, I remember this important lesson from the early days of my priesthood, and I think about the lesson Jesus taught his disciples through many parables – especially The Rich Man and Lazarus.

 

Fr. Koumranian’s greatest lesson to me was one the Rich Man neglected to learn. It is the lesson of Servant Leadership: I am – you are – here not to be served, but to serve.  Our baptism in Christ makes that clear. Those who are ordained to the priesthood – as the reading from the Book of Hebrews (5:1-10) reminds us, “according to the order of Melchizedek” – are to lead the people of God in servant ministry.

 

As Jesus himself has said to his disciples, “ . . . .whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

 

That has been my goal since my very first day with you – to model for you what it means to be a servant leader and lead you into servant ministry. I may not have always done that with grace and style – there have been times when my frustration has gotten the better of me, especially before I realized just how decimated the organizational, corporate infrastructure had become here at St. Paul’s – but I have always done it with the heart and mind of a servant leader.

 

I know that the leader – laity or ordained – sets the tone. I have always tried to be optimistic, energetic and enthusiastic about what I’ve seen here: The possibilities. The potential.

 

As I hear the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, I have come to understand that the moral measure of each person does not factor into the lesson Jesus is trying to teach. What if the most important thing on your early report card is not having been right? Or, experienced? Or, the one with the best attendance or the longest record or served as Warden or sat in the pew?

 

What if the most important thing is not being morally impeccable, but how you treat the poor? What if the worst sin is to get rich and complacent and forget about those who are suffering? To have food and shelter and be impervious to those who are hungry and homeless?

 

What if it’s not going to matter to God where we worship or even how we worshiped – whether the vestments were the right color for the liturgical season, or that there was a HVAC (heating or air conditioning) system throughout the church, or there was a state of the art sound system, or a fully functioning, professional choir – not HOW we worshiped but THAT we worshiped?

 

What if all that is really going to matter to God is that we pray, in the words of Great Thanksgiving in the Service of Morning Prayer in the BCP, “not only with our lips but in our lives.” That there is at least some shred of consistency and integrity in what we say on Sunday and what we do on all the days of the rest of the week?

 

At the end of the day – or, at least, at the end of this parable – it doesn’t matter to God whether you are rich, fat and arrogant or poor, sick and hungry. It doesn’t even matter what you say you believe. What matters to God is what we do with what we’ve been given. 

 

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite children's authors, Shel Silverstein. In his book, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," he writes:

How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live 'em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give 'em.

 

Or, as my dear friend, Terry Parsons, often asked, “What do you do with all you’ve been given after you say, ‘I believe’”? 

 

Whether you are a scoundrel or a saint, here’s the Gospel truth: God loves you more than your wildest imagination. 

 

And, God loves us more than any of us deserve.

 

Because, in the words of one of my favorite priests, ordained according to the order of Melchizedek, “People is people. And, God is God.”

 

Amen. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Things earthly and heavenly

Things earthly and heavenly

St. George Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

Facebook: Sirach 26:10

Pentecost XV - Proper XX

September 18, 2022

 

It’s not always the case, but this week’s Collect prayer really sums up beautifully the point Jesus is trying to make in that complicated and complex parable of the Unjust or Shrewd Manager. Jesus says,


“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
 

Let me remind you of the beginning of that beautiful autumnal prayer, as things are passing away: “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly . . .”

 

Not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly.

 

Let me tell you a little story about something that happened to me this past Monday.

 

I had just made a visit to one of our Hospice patients over at Atlantic Shores Extended Care Facility. I was parked in that small, unpaved, unofficial, pot-hole filled parking lot on the east side of the building, which, because of the rain the night before, became the autumnal version of what ee cummings described as “mud-licious” and “puddle-wonderful”.

 

Well, if you’re a kid and it’s spring, it’s wonderful. When you’re an adult and you’re working and you’re on a schedule and you feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, well, not so much. To make matters worse, I put my key in the ignition and . . . . nothing.

 

The radio went on, the lights went on, but the engine made absolutely no sound. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Bupkus. I tried a few more times. Silence.

 

My stomach flipped. No, no, no, no, no, NO! I don’t need this! C’mon, universe! Cut me a break here! I’ve got two more patients to see and it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Ugh! I finally broke down and called Triple A and, after being put on hold and listening to that Gawd-awful muzak punctuated by commercials about the wonders of Triple A, was told by the nice lady that there was “heavy congestion in that area; it will be at least an hour before we can get a tow to you.”

And hour! It was hot. It was humid. It was muggy. The sweat was dripping off my brow. I was annoyed and angry but tried to sound calm and chipper as I called my supervisor and my colleague and my two scheduled patients to tell them of my predicament.

 

The good news is that, an hour later, almost to the minute, the tow truck arrived. Oh, it wasn’t just a truck. It was a HUGE flat bed truck. I looked at it and the small parking lot packed with cars and thought, “OMG! How in the world is he ever going to get me out of here?”

Out hopped the driver, a skinny, scrawny, scrappy young Sussex County man in maybe his early to mid-20s who introduced himself as “Jess.” He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and he looked like he had probably caused his momma a few sleepless nights of walking the floor.

 

He quickly sized up the situation and saw the exact same challenges I saw. So, he first asked me for my keys to see if he could start the car. He tried a few times and then looked under the hood. It took him a few seconds to locate the starter – which is what I had feared it was – and said, “Yup, probly the starter. Welp, lemme see if I can get you outta here.”

 

I held my breath as he walked around the car, sizing things up. He looked at the other cars, then looked at the entrance to the parking lot. He paced a bit and then sort of jumped up as the solution seemed to hit his body and then he jumped into action.

 

He put my car in neutral and then pushed it out of the space. Then, through some miracle of physics or geometry or calculus he probably never took in high school but was just born knowing it, he was able to maneuver his tow truck on the street on the side of the parking lot and then, without jack-knifing it, backed that puppy in so that the flatbed was facing the front of my car. He quickly got the chains attached, artfully dodging all the puddles, and then set the hydraulic into motion to move my Jeep onto the flatbed.

 

And, just like that, we were ready to rock ‘n roll and head up the street a short distance to the JEEP dealership which I had already called and they were already waiting for me.

 

I pulled myself up the side of the cab of the truck, put all my gear in front of me, took a seat beside him and fastened my seat belt. When he came in the truck I said, “Well, Jess, I don’t know how much they pay you for this, but it’s clearly not enough.”

 

He smiled and said, “No, ma’am. No, they don’t. But then again, not too many of us get paid enough or what we’re worth. Not even you, and you’re doing God’s work.” He shook his head at the injustice of it all and said, "So, you know, I just do my best. Anyway."

 

I don't know why. Maybe it was the heat and humidity. Maybe it was that combined with my anxiety and anger and frustration and annoyance about the situation I was in. At any rate, my eyes started to sweat. (I'm not crying. You're crying.)

 

So, as he was paying attention to the traffic on the way to the dealership, I fished through my wallet and found two ones and a ten. I shoved the $10 into my pocket. He dropped me off at the service entrance and brought my car round the back. When he came back to give my keys to the service agent, I thanked him for his professional service, pressed the money into his hand and said, "Here, I just want you to keep doing your best."

 

I wish you could have seen the smile on his face. This tough, scrappy, skinny, Sussex County boy who has probably made his momma weep with worry more than a few nights looked at me and smiled like a very angel. Forget the $10. Two ones would just not have done. No, I couldn’t afford the $10. Then again, I couldn’t afford not to.

 

Heavenly things vs. earthly things, you see.

 

Jesus said, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of taking the easy way out, to throw up our hands and cave to the prevailing cultural values which always devalues the common worker, the one who is often more concerned with that which is of value in the heavens more than on earth – mostly because he has to work with his hands and the sweat off his brow and the smarts he’s picked up along the way of the rough road of life he’s had to travel.

 

Things like just doing your best, even if your compensation doesn’t reflect your value and worth. Anyway.

 

Things like stepping up to a challenge, standing up to those who say it can’t be done, and risking being called a fool because you knew the risks and, in the end, didn’t live up to your own hopes and expectations but you gave it your best. Anyway.

 

To love knowing that the love your give may not be the love you get and yet to love. Anyway.

 

Is that being ‘shrewd’? Is that, somehow, ‘unjust’? Personally? I don’t think so. And, I don’t think – not in a million years – that Jesus would have titled that particular parable using words like ‘shrewd’ or ‘unjust’.

I think it’s being human. I think it’s being the best human being we can be. I think it’s like what Jesus did in risking his life for the debts we owe and paying for them on the holy cross.

 

I think it’s like French scientist and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, once wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

 

Anyway.

 

It occurs to me that our collect prayer for today is also perfect to say and, perhaps, remember on this beautiful autumnal Sunday; this, my second to last Sunday with you,

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

And let the church say, “Amen.”

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Lost and found

 

Image: Dominico Fetti

Pentecost IV - Proper 19 - September 11, 2022 
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Facebook: Sirach 26:19 

Lost and found. Jeremiah’s “foolish … stupid children”. The psalmist’s song of the atheist fool. Timothy’s gratitude for the mercy of God. Jesus telling the stories of lost coins and sheep. Those are the dry bones of today’s lesson from holy scripture.

 

One group of the religious leaders of his day – the Pharisees, this time – were grumbling about Jesus. It seems that this is actually one of their favorite pastimes. They always seem to be grumbling about Jesus. This time, it was about the company he kept at dinner. Sinners and tax collectors. Imagine! Why would a Holy Man, a Teacher of Religion, associate with riff-raff?

 

My father used to warn: “You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. Like it or not, fair or unfair, you will be judged by the company you keep.”

 

As many of you know, I spent a week with my cousins who gathered in the Pacific North West to honor and celebrate the life of my last remaining aunt, Aunt Alice.

 

Well, we did that in grand style but we also shared lots of stories and memories – some of which had been lost to me in the sands of time, but were surprisingly easy to find once the memory banks were activated by good food, laughter and, perhaps, just a few sips of wine.

 

My cousin Fred – known in my childhood as “Junie” because he was a Junior and that’s what my grandmother called him – reminded me about one story in particular that I had almost forgotten. He had built what he called a “go cart”, which was really a prototype of the motorized vehicles we see at amusement parks today.

 

His go cart featured a wooden box in which my grandfather used to store potatoes. The frame was fashioned together with some pipes that had been tossed in the rubbish, along with some long-ago discarded wheels from our first bikes. A seat from . . . I think it was an old cushion.

 

Fred told me that he had checked out the whole thing with my grandfather for safety and had received his stamp of approval. So, the next thing was to take it out for a test drive.

 

Always the clever entrepreneur – even to this day – he brought it first to me to admire his handiwork. Which I did. I mean, I was very impressed at his accomplishment. A coat of paint and an appropriate name like “Wind Rider” or “Trail Blazer” and this thing would be the envy of the entire neighborhood.

 

Would I like to take it out for its first test drive? I had to shake myself to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Would I – moi? – like to be the first one to drive it? I could hardly believe my ears! I wasn’t sure what I had done to deserve the honor but I certainly wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by.

 

Which was exactly what Fred was counting on. He, himself, was very nervous about the whole thing. I mean, he had had it safety-checked by my grandfather but still. If a wheel were going to pop off or the seat not hold, better to have someone else driving it, right?

 

So, it was set. I was to take it down our street – Renaud Street – at the place just before the crest of the small hill so that Fred could give me a good push and then let momentum carry me the rest of the way, cross the intersection of Jefferson Street to wherever it was that the momentum would carry me.

 

I was so excited and honored I could barely contain myself. I didn’t think about that intersection at the bottom of the hill. Neither did Fred. We were just both caught up in the excitement of test driving his amazing creation. Our heads were filled with the admiring looks and jealous glances of the kids in the neighborhood when they saw it.

 

That’s what I was thinking, anyway, as I got in – no helmet, of course, who wore helmets in those days, anyway? My grandmother, however, had come to the front of the house to water her hydrangeas and roses. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear her voice faintly in the background, calling my name. What I really heard was the anxiety in her voice. And suddenly, I was anxious.

 

Well, as the go-cart went down the crest of the hill, it did start to pick up speed at an alarming rate. It was going so fast that it started to rattle. I could feel my back teeth clenching in my mouth. That’s when I heard my grandmother yelling, “Elizabeth! Turn right! Turn right! Turn right into the Avila’s lot!”

 

And, that’s exactly what I did. At the intersection of Renaud and Jefferson St the Avila family had an empty lot where we used to play stick ball when they didn’t have family gatherings. I turned a hard right and turned right into the empty lot, my body bumping hard into the hard wood of the potato crate as it went over the dirt and grass.

 

When I finally came to a stop and looked up, I saw a car coming down Jefferson Street, approaching the intersection of Renaud. The driver looked angry. His fist was balled as it pumped the air and he yelled something that sounded like, “Stupid kids! You’re going to get yourself killed!”

 

The next thing I remember is my cousin Fred arriving just minutes before my grandmother who  picked us both up by the ears and marched us back to the house where she sat us in the kitchen and gave us a what-for lecture about safety and common sense and “Well, if he told you to jump off the bridge, would you do that, too?”

 

Part of what was lost that day was innocence. Blind trust was replaced by caution and careful consideration. I was pretty shaken after that incident and pretty angry with my cousin for putting me in that situation. It took a long time for me to trust again. Trust myself. Trust my own judgement. And, trust others.

No wonder I had buried that story.

 

Innocence was replaced by anger and defensiveness that was always lying in wait, just under the surface, along with the self-imposition of self-made rules. I didn’t want to be anyone’s fool again, so I developed a kind of hardness that my anxiety could easily transform to harshness and a kind of aloofness.

Don’t get too close to me, was my vibe, unless I invite you in.

 

That eventually evolved into being very careful about how I chose my friends. My father’s warning about being judged by the company I kept suddenly hit a cord of truth. That whole thing hit about the same time as pre-adolescence when kids naturally develop cliques and posses and gangs. Some of that insider-outsider stuff can be pretty brutal on fragile, developing egos.

The loss of innocence can be a devastating, life altering event.

 

And then, we grow up, don’t we? Life presents us other challenges, other tests, that make test-driving a homemade go-cart down a hill look like, well, child’s play. In that testing, we learn something more about who we really are, not just the careful story our egos have to tell.

 

In that suffering, we learn compassion. In that compassion we learn kindness. In that kindness we learn to reach out and include others who have been considered the outcast and misfits of their culture.

 

That is what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s gospel. He’s teaching the Rabbi’s – the teachers of his religion – as well as his disciples, about the value of every human being in the eyes of God. He’s saying, essentially, grow up! Open your eyes! See the value in all of God’s creation.

 

If God cares about lost sheep and lost coins, how much more does God care for you? How is your precious reputation going to be harmed by sharing a meal with tax collectors and those described as sinners?

 

That’s not to throw all caution to the wind but to understand God’s unconditional love for us. There’s a maturity that helps us tolerate differences and respect others without putting our lives at risk.

 

To that point: Today is the 21st Anniversary of what we’ve come to remember as 9/11. That was the day 19 young men hijacked three planes and killed 2,977 people at the World Trade Center in NYC, the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, and a field outside of Pittsburgh, PA.

 

9/11 stole our innocence as a people. It hardened us. Some of us became unrecognizable to each other. We willingly surrendered some of our constitutional rights in the name of freedom and something we called ‘patriotism’. We have forgotten some of our own history – what it really means to be a patriot – what it really means to be an American.

 

We have grown suspicious of those who look different or sound different or pray differently that we do. And, that process has slowly eroded common civility and has seriously damaged our ability to feel compassion for those who our society has always considered “lesser children of God.” 

 

It's been 21 years. Time to grow up. Time to listen to the words of the Great Rabbi who has a lesson or two to teach us about who we are as children of God. Time to listen to “old family stories” of lost coins and lost sheep so we can remember not only WHO we are but WHOSE we are.

 

Next week, we’ll hear the story of the Prodigal Son and remember that all of us – each and every last one of us – are precious in the sight of God.

 

Lost and found. Coins. Sheep. Wayward children. Here’s the truth: like my grandmother calling to me on her front porch when I was headed for certain disaster, we are never really lost.

 

Turns out, the lost do not find their way back to God any more than the lost sheep finds its shepherd or the lost coin finds its mistress.

It's the other way around...God finds us.

 

Amen

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Mill Girls and the Disabled Woman

A Facebook Reflection:

Good Sunday morning, good people of the mid-summer. It is a glorious, foggy morning here on the Delmarva Penninsula. The present temperature is 70 degrees, with the high expected to reach the low 80s. Air quality is good at 27, the UV index is as low as it's going to get at zero, and the wind is coming from the NNE at a lazy summer 2 mph.


There is still a fog advisory for our area so the driving is slow going but, I'm told by those who know, that the fishing will be grand. Apparently, fish like the fog. Who knew? It does explain why the boats have been going slowly by my house since just before dawn.

I know there's a lot going on in the world but I'm going to jump right into the lectionary page. There's something about the woman with a severe disability in Luke's gospel that has been sitting with me all week - whispering to me, calling to me - but the preacher has a completely different pastoral task over at the congregation she serves so she's gone in a very different direction.

Let me explain. As many of you know, I'm from New England. I was born and brought up in one of what became known as one of the Mill Towns of the Industrial Age.

These were places of manufacturing "Making What America Needs" - mostly the things that supported the relentless pursuit of the future - a better future - and modernity as the means to the end.


The genius of modernity was thought to be the assembly line. One, Mr. Ransom Olds, invented the concept but it took Henry Ford in 1913 to put it to practical use in his factories. He was able to take the time to produce an automobile from more than 12 hours to one hour and 33 minutes.

This, it was said, was a revolution that put the capital I in Industry.

The same theory was applied to the making of dresses. The process of the ancient art of dressmaking was deconstructed into distinct parts with certain people making certain parts in great quantity and other people sewing the parts together until, in rapid time, a dress (or skirt, or shirt) was produced, also in great quantity and in a fraction of the time.

Men worked in the factories that made the metal and rubber of cars and machines. Women worked in the factories that made dresses and shirts and coats. They were immigrants, all of them. First brought over from the poor, mean backstreets and farming villages of England and then Ireland. Then, they were brought down from Canada.

All of them were blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and English-speaking. The women were known as "The Mill Girls", working long, monotonous hours, doing the same task over and over again on the assembly line, often in crowded, unsafe conditions, with poor ventilation and no escape routes, and for pennies a day - a few dollars in an envelope on Friday.

Modernity came at the expense of humanity. It was demeaning, monotonous, dangerous, work that was poorly compensated. It was enough to have broken the backs of most human beings. It certainly broke many spirits.

Not in the women of my family.

I grew up the granddaughter, daughter, and niece of Mill Girls. They were immigrants from Portugal and the Azores who couldn't speak the language when they first arrived. They were also dark-skinned with thick, dark, curly hair.

A pecking order - a hierarchy of oppression - soon emerged. As the daughters and granddaughters and nieces of the original Mill Girls had gotten an education and become teachers and librarians, or had simply moved "up" from the factory floor to the factory office to be secretaries, the Portuguese immigrants took their place.

Since they were not of fair complexion and did not speak the language, they were easy marks for the cruelty of those who had forgotten what it was to work in the mills. Or, perhaps it was, in fact, because they remembered and were "doing unto others as had been done unto them."

It was brutal. And yet, the women in my family, in my neighborhood didn't get mad. They got even. They were part of the founding of the ILGWU (International Lady Garment Workers Union), local chapter 178, which eventually built its headquarters at No. 38 Third Street in Fall River, MA.

While many of the women in my family and neighborhood suffered from disabilities common to assembly line workers: painful, debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome or plantar fasciitis, arthritis, respiratory illness, deafness, cancer, and asbestos-related illnesses, and although the burdens they carried were enormous, no one was stooped or bent over, not even in their old age.

Mind you, these women worked hard, long, monotonous days in the factory and then came home to their husbands and children and cooked meals and cleaned the house and did the laundry and slept with their husbands, and, because they were mostly Roman Catholic with no access to birth control (and abortion, if available was illegal and unthinkable and most likely meant that they would die), they had more babies.

Even so, the Mill Girls always stood tall and proud, even when they were weary and exhausted. I remember my mother falling asleep standing at the counter, stirring her coffee or tea.

What was the difference, I wondered, between the disabled woman in this morning scripture and all those mill girls? Clearly, she must have had a medical condition. She was probably not old but after so many years of living in debilitating pain, she looked older than her years.

Or maybe, just maybe, she was bent over by her burdens. Her shame at being less than. Her poverty. Her lack of opportunity. Her life in antiquity was without any hope of a better life for herself or whatever family she had.

Something happens, I think, when women help women. When women work together in community. A spirit emerges. Something ignites them that keeps the flame in them flickering through yet another dark night and allows them to get up again in the morning, after tending to the children in the middle of the night and feeding them in the morning before work and school. A mini-resurrection, day after day.

There's safety in numbers, my mother and aunts used to call out to us as youngsters when we went out to ride our bikes or to catch the matinee at the theater. Stay together, they warned. Keep an eye on each other.

Yes, they were talking about safety and they had reason to worry (some things never change for girls and women), but they were also relating a philosophy that had gotten them through life standing straight and tall even though their work was back-breakingly hard.

I wonder what really bent the back of that nameless woman in the Temple that Sabbath Day. I'm thinking it was a dis-ease called hopelessness. I'm thinking that, without a dream, without a vision of a better day, a better future, a person's spirit can get worn down to a raw nub, which doubles her over in pain.

I'm thinking that the greatest gift Jesus gave to the world, besides unconditional love, was hope. I'm thinking that Jesus may have physically healed that woman, but what helped her to stand up straight was hope.

I've been thinking a lot of the Mill Girls. The woman with the disability in Luke's Gospel has brought back their memories and with them, enormous gratitude. I would not be where I am today without them. I continue on through modern adversities - which pale in comparison - with their spirit within me.

They allow me to stand straight and tall and demand respect. They help me not to get mad but to get even by getting help. They give me hope for the future. The strength of my faith is part of their legacy which I hope to pass on to my daughters and all the women in my life.

Well, it appears I've gone on a bit, haven't I? It's time for me to get ready for church. We'll be broadcasting live from Sirach 26:10 around 10 AM. Join us, if you've a mind to.

Please be safe. COVID is still lurking about and its variants are highly contagious but, if you are vaccinated, not as deadly. You know the drill: Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Wait a safe distance.

And as the Portuguese immigrants used to say on the streets of the Mill Towns of New England, "Bom dia!".

Make it a great day, everybody.