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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Contemporary Mystics

 Shortly before I began to discern my sexual orientation, I had a dream.

I don't know what the dream was. I don't remember a thing about it. I just woke up remembering that I had had an amazing dream.

As I pushed myself through the thick fog between the Land of Sleep and the Land of Awake,  the first words that came to me were these: "Every man I've ever truly loved has been married, gay or dead."

When I reported that dream to my therapist, she was pensive for a few, long uncomfortably silent moments and said, "Well, at least these men are safe, right?"

I'm not so sure. 

There are two such men who are, for me, contemporary mystics: Howard Thurman and Jack Spong.  I love them both. Indeed, I have been taking them to my bed every night.

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church. Thurman was married twice. He had two children.

I first fell in love with him when I read that he had made this statement:
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
In explaining Jim Crow laws to his daughters, he said:
"The measure of a man's estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place."
And, of course, his poem about Christmas happily finds its way onto at least one Christmas card that comes into my mailbox each year:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

The Search For Common Ground; An Inquiry into The Basis of Man's Experience of Community.
John ("Jack") Shelby Spong (born June 16, 1931), is now 83 years young, is alive and well and living in New Jersey and is, perhaps, one of the leading liberal Christian leaders alive today. He has been married twice. Together with his beloved wife, Christine, they have five grown children.

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with Jack Spong. It was at a clergy day in 1989 in the Diocese of Maryland where I was working on the front lines in the early days of the AIDS pandemic.

I can not tell you what it was like to hear a bishop in the church say these words:
"We've got to deal with the fact that the church has been violently prejudiced against gay people. We've murdered them; we've burned them at the stake; we've run them out of town for something over which they have no control. And, that's immoral."
Remember: This was 1989. America was in absolute turmoil over the AIDS crisis. Not only was this bishop not equating AIDS with being gay, he was affirming that particular sexual orientation. Not only that, he was calling the church "violently prejudiced" as well as "immoral" for what it had done to LGBT people. All in the name of God and Jesus, of course.

If I hadn't been there myself to hear the words come out of his mouth and someone had reported it to me, I would have gasped right out loud and called them a liar right to their face.

Jack has said a number of equally amazing things, most of which have to do with scriptures, which he still reads and studies voraciously. And, for his troubles, he has been called the Anti-Christ.

For saying things like this:
I think that the best way to view the Gospels is to view them as a magnificent portrait being painted by Jewish artists to try and capture the essence of a God of experience that they believed they had with Jesus of Nazareth.

And, this:
I believe that is what the God experience does for us. It calls us beyond the limits into the fullness of life - into a capacity to love people we are not taught to love - and into an ability to be who we are.
And, this:
Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order. 
And, for all this and so many other reason, he has been called "The Anglican Nightmare" - a moniker he wears proudly.  Because he's earned it. 

These two men have kept company with me of late, as I lay in my bed in some of those long midnight hours when morning seems but a dream vaguely remembered. 
I have found myself reading over some of their books, especially the passages I long ago underlined in pencil or pen or highlighted in rude neon yellow.  
Perhaps it was the hour and my exhaustion, but I think I've detected a scent of profound similarity in their words. It's just a puff of a whiff of a hint which carries the same suggestion of deep calling out to deep, of study called into further, closer examination, of of thought and emotion called into action.

Which is odd, actually. One man could not be more different from the other in terms that go beyond the superficial obvious of their racial differences.

Both men have been described as being prophetic. However, Thurman's method is much more akin to the work of the prophet Nathan than to the public performative prophecy of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both Nathan and Thurman offer an alternative; a prophetic word that is aimed at inspiring and convicting individuals who will then go on to live lives of influence for justice.

Spong has been said to be more like Elijah and Daniel, who know how the story ends and call on the whole of society for a more just society. His early work of preaching and teaching was far more confrontational, with deep roots in the social gospel. 

And yet, that which they share is so profound as to obviate their dissimilarities.

It is their love of God as they know God in Christ Jesus which prompts them to move beyond cultural and racial and religiously imposed boundaries of thought and definition and propriety that, paradoxically binds them together. Well, at least in my mind and in my heart.

I have called these men "Contemporary Mystics" by which I mean to describe a person who "seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect".

Can it be that mysticism  moves a person to a place beyond mere spirituality and into a place where we might actually find and then love mercy and, in doing so, find and then do justice?

Does the prophetic call of Micah to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God" have the order reversed?  In order to be faithful to that prophet's call which Jesus embraced, must we first walk humbly (I prefer the translation 'attentively') with God before we can, in fact, arrive at a place where we are able to be both compassionate and just?

I think I've always known this.

I know it more deeply now.

As I begin to understand that I am, in so many ways, in the spiritual infancy of my soul's development, I am coming to believe that religious institutions, at their best, help people develop, nourish and sustain their spirituality - the process of personal transformation in accordance with religious ideals.

Are we to stop there? Being shaped and formed only in accordance with religious ideals? Is there a deeper, more profound call in the formation and reformation and transformation of our souls and minds and bodies so that we might be reconciled with our selves, our neighbor and our God?

No wonder there is very little place in the institutional church for mysticism.

Mysticism is a dangerous path to follow, leading those courageous pilgrims to places which lead not down a lovely primrose path for a closer walk with sweet baby Jesus meek and mild; rather the journey of mysticism often leads to a cage where one is locked into a fierce struggle with a wild, unknown creature, only to emerge with a new sense of self and a heart ablaze with a need to teach others what we have experienced and learned.

And, perhaps with a limp, but at least a new way of walking and carrying oneself in the world.

No wonder religious leaders throughout the centuries have despised the prophets who call people into the personal transformation of mysticism.

Mostly, we just like to talk about prophets and quote them and tell their stories - not (God forbid!) actually live into the prophetic call. Or, admit that they make us uncomfortable.

However, when we discover mystics in our midst - contemporary mystics - we often mock and ridicule them,  or wrinkle our noses and describe them as bitter and angry and call them "Anglican Nightmares" like Spong or attempted to diminish the importance of the work of Thurman because he was not on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

Which is why I love these two men. Neither one gay. Both married. Twice. One dead. One alive.

Neither one could be described as "safe". 

Both affirm for me the new path on which my soul has been traveling of late, more deeply into that "mystical sweet communion" that our faith sings about and points to but rarely dares to venture and explore and more fully discover.

It's a strange and dangerous and new but vaguely familiar terrain.

Thurman describes it for me in a short reflection he called "22. Indebted to a Vast Host" in his book "Meditations of the Heart".

He describes a chance observation of a "very ordinary-looking man" who was walking near the close of the day on a nearby sidewalk. Not three feet from the curb, a group of birds was pecking away at a small opening in the side of the paper bag. They were quarreling as they pecked as they tried to figure out the best way to get into the crumbs that were held inside.

The man walked over to the bag which set the birds flying off into a respectful distance to watch what he would do.  Turning it first with his foot, he then picked up the bag and dumped its entire contents onto the pavement. Then, without so much as a sigh or a shrug, he continued his journey.

No sooner did he leave than the birds returned, overjoyed to discover that a miracle had taken place. "Instead of a bag full of hidden crumbs, only a glimpse of which they had seen, there was before them now a full abundance for satisfying their need."

And the man? He just kept walking, oblivious to what he had done. He did not stop to look back over his shoulder. Neither did he stop a safe distance away to observe the fruits of his effort. He had no idea that his seemingly random gesture had been an enormous kindness to those birds, nor did it seem to matter. He took no opportunity to congratulate himself on his generosity or sensitivity to the plight of these little ones.

No, he just kept walking.

Thurman writes:
Any careful scrutiny of one's own life will reveal the fact that we have been in the predicament of the birds again and again. The thing one needed was somewhat in evidence but out of reach. With all of one's resources, one worked away at the opening, trying first one attack and then another; then some stranger, some unknown writer, some passing comment from another, did the needful thing.

We all of us are indebted to a vast host of anonymous persons without whom some necessity would not have been available, some good which came to us, we would have missed.

It is not too farfetched to say that living is itself an act of interdependence. 

However strong we may think we are, we are constantly leaning on others. However self-sufficient we are, our strength is always being supplied by others unknown to us whose paths led them down our street or by our house at the moment we need the light they could give.

We are all of us the birds and we are all of us the man. It is the way of life; it is one of the means by which God activates Himself (sic) in the texture of human life and human experience. 
In his last book, "The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic," Jack writes:
"I resonate significantly with the retired bishop who once said to me, 'The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have."
I do believe more and more in the mutual interdependence at the heart of the human enterprise as well as our utter dependency on The Divine which calls us beyond our limits and into the fullness of life, making us, paradoxically, more liberated to love and care and serve and to become more and more who we are and were created to be from the beginning.

Which is why I choose, less and less, to put my faith or belief in the human-made structures that attempt to hold faith and belief in place. 

It's a dangerous thing to be in love with contemporary mystics.

The risk is that you just might place yourself on a path that leads to becoming one yourself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A lesson in Hospice ministry.

I was notified this morning that a new patient had been admitted yesterday to our Hospice Care.

I called the Primary Care Giver (PCG), in this case, his wife, to see how they were doing and to set up a time for me to visit and explain the Chaplaincy part of Hospice care.

This was how that phone call went:

Me: Hi! My name is Elizabeth and I'm one of the Chaplains with Hospice.

PGC: A chaplain? Are you a pastor?

Me: Yes, ma'am. I am.

PCG: Oh, blessed be! You know, I know they told me something about that at the hospital yesterday but I just plum forgot! Oh, this is wonderful! Praise God!

Me: I'm calling to see how everything is going and to set up a time when I can come visit.

PCG: Wait? What! You'll come to the house? Oh, Lord! This is amazing! So incredible! Such a blessing! When can you come by?

Me: Well, whenever it is convenient for you and your husband. I can be there as early as, well, within the hour, actually. Or, if you prefer, I can come at a time that's most convenient.

PCG: In an hour? Here? Oh, that would be such a blessing! Oh, I can't believe this! A pastor! Coming to our home. To minister to us! I thought only pastors in churches did that and then, only when they can fit you in. You know?

Me: Yes, ma'am. Well, I can be there within the hour. Would that work for you?

PCG: Oh, it would! That would be wonderful.

Wait a minute! I'd really like it if he had a bowel movement before you arrived . . . . Hold on! ....

(The sound of footsteps on the hardwood floor).

Honey, do you feel like you have to have a bowel movement?


No? Did you say No? Just shake your head, darlin'. Okay, no bowel movement yet. Good!

Okay, then, I'm going to have the pastor come by.


(The sound of footsteps on the hardwood floor)

Okay, Pastor. You can come by. He's not going to have a bowel movement just yet. Besides, praying is more important than pooping. That's what I always say.

Me: (Sending up praises to God that she can't see my face and prayers of thanksgiving for the mute button on the phone.) Well, yes. There it is, then. Okay. So, I'll be seeing you in about an hour, then?

PCG: Oh, thank the Lord. We are surely standing in the need of prayer, pastor. Praise God you are going to be here soon.

So, it was just another day of ministry in the Fields of the Lord in Lower, Slower Delaware.

Because, you know, when you are looking into the abyss, all filters are off.

Which is great.

And, if they never really worked well, it can be hilarious.

Anyway, sometimes - not all the time, but sometimes and for some people - praying is better than pooping.

That's what I always say.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Fall Hospice Interfaith Mini Retreat

The Hospice Tree of Life
 Note: It's been a particularly difficult Fall for our Hospice Team. Some of the Psych-Social-Spiritual-Bereavement staff got together and planned an hour-long Interfaith retreat, an opportunity for staff to connect and reflect in a meaningful way on the patients we have, the patients we've lost and the work we do. Then, we shared a pot luck buffet. We also compiled a small booklet of this service which also included some information about recognizing burnout and some important elements of self-care.

I share this service with you in the hopes that, if you are a Hospice professional, you might find some comfort and hope. If your work is not in Hospice but you have suffered the loss of a loved one, I hope this helps you to find some solace and peace. If you are so inclined, please feel free to use with your staff, with proper attribution, please.

Welcome: Creating ‘sanctuary’ – a safe space.

I ask you to join me in creating a safe space - a 'sanctuary' - into which we can bring our sadness and our joy, our tears and our laughter, our memories and present realities. I ask that you bring your whole self into this space and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling without judging yourself. I ask that you allow your coworkers to bring their whole selves into this space to feel whatever they are feeling without judging them, knowing they will not judge you. In this way, together, we will create for each other a sanctuary, a safe space to be and meditate and pray.

There is no right or wrong way to pray, but I will share with you one prayer that I use every day, before I enter a patient's home. If prayer is a response to God - The Holy One, The Divine, The Cosmic Intelligence, The Higher Power, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Adonai, Yahewh, or however you name the Divine in your life - then the most ancient recorded prayer is the one made by Adam as written in Hebrew Scripture in the first chapter of Genesis in the book known as Torah.

After Adam had eaten of the forbidden fruit, he was walking through The Garden and God called to him, "Adam, where are you?" And, Adam responded, "Here I am."

"Here I am." A most ancient prayer which calls us to be fully present to God and centered in the knowledge of ourselves. Before I enter a patient's home, I touch my forehead and then my heart, take a deep breath and say, "Here," and then I exhale and say, "I am". 

So, try that with me now. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths and say, "Here I am." 

Find your center and bring your whole self into this sanctuary as we listen to this music.

Meditative Music      “They are falling all around me”  by  Sweet Honey in the Rock
They are falling all around me They are falling all around me They are falling all around me The strongest leaves on my tree  Every paper brings the news that Every paper brings the news that Every paper brings the news that The teachers of my life are moving on  Oh, death comes and rests so heavy Death comes and rests so heavy Death comes and rests so heavy Your face I will never see, never see you anymore  But I’m not really gon’na leave you I’m not really gon’na leave you You’re not really gon’na leave me  It is your path I walk It is your song I sing It is your load I take on It is your air I breathe It’s the record you set that makes me go on It’s your strength that helps me stand  You’re not really gon’na leave me  (oh…)  I have tried to sing my song right (I will try to sing my song right) I have tried to sing my song right (I will try to sing this song right) I have tried to sing my song right Be sure to let me hear from you. 

An Excerpt from “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” by Leo Buscalgia

Spring had passed. So had Summer. Freddie, the leaf, had grown large. His mid section was wide and strong, and his five extensions were firm and pointed. He had first appeared in Spring as a small sprout on a rather large branch near the top of a tall tree.

Freddie was surrounded by hundreds of other leaves just like himself, or so it seemed. Soon he discovered that no two leaves were alike, even though they were on the same tree. Alfred was the leaf next to him. Ben was the leaf on his right side, and Clare was the lovely leaf overhead. They had all grown up together. They had learned to dance in the Spring breezes, bask lazily in the Summer sun and wash off in the cooling rains.

But it was Daniel who was Freddie's best friend. He was the largest leaf on the limb and seemed to have been there before anyone else. It appeared to Freddie that Daniel was also the wisest among them. It was Daniel who told them that they were part of a tree. It was Daniel who explained that they were growing in a public park. It was Daniel who told them that the tree had strong roots which were hidden in the ground below. He explained about the birds who came to sit on their branch and sing morning songs. He explained about the sun, the moon, the stars, and the seasons.

Freddie loved being a leaf. He loved his branch, his light leafy friends, his place high in the sky, the wind that jostled him about, the sun rays that warmed him, the moon that covered him with soft, white shadows. Summer had been especially nice. The long hot days felt good and the warm nights were peaceful and dreamy. There were many people in the park that Summer. They often came and sat under Freddie's tree. Daniel told him that giving shade was part of his purpose.

"What's a purpose?" Freddie had asked.

"A reason for being," Daniel had answered. "To make things more pleasant for others is a reason for being. To make shade for old people who come to escape the heat of their homes is a reason for being. To provide a cool place for children to come and play. To fan with our leaves the picnickers who come to eat on checkered tablecloths. These are all the reasons for being."

Freddie especially liked the old people. They sat so quietly on the cool grass and hardly ever moved. They talked in whispers of times past. The children were fun, too, even though they sometimes tore holes in the bark of the tree or carved their names into it. Still, it was fun to watch them move so fast and to laugh so much.
Guided meditation: A reason for being.

Begin with the Centering Prayer we just learned. "Here I am". 

Now, take some deep breaths and become conscious of any tension in your body. Inhale and exhale as you release that tension into the universe and let the cosmos bring you relaxation. 

Now, from the place of your center, go to a place in your memory that is a safe space for you. It could be a bedroom, a place in your yard, a place on the beach or in the forest, in a school room, at the home of a relative. Take the time to notice what's in that safe space, the colors and textures, how it looks and smells and makes you feel. 

Now, invite the faces of some of your patients into that space. Consider some of the things they taught you in your care for them that has helped you to be a better Hospice professional to other patients. Make note of those lessons. Thank them for what they have taught you. 

Now, come out of that safe place and back into your center. Stay there for a moment. When you are ready, come back into this sanctuary and consider what you will share about what you have learned. 

When you are ready, on each leaf, write a word or a sentence or a symbol that stands for a lesson you have learned from one of your patients which has shaped and formed your understanding, in this moment, of your reason for being a Hospice professional.

An Excerpt from “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf”

But Freddie's Summer soon passed. It vanished on an October night. He had never felt it so cold. All the leaves shivered with the cold. They were coated with a thin layer of white which quickly melted and left them dew drenched and sparkling in the morning sun. Again, it was Daniel who explained that they had experienced their first frost, the sign that it was Fall and that Winter would come soon. 

Almost at once, the whole tree, in fact, the whole park was transformed into a blaze of color. There was hardly a green leaf left. Alfred had turned a deep yellow. Ben had become a bright orange. Clare had become a blazing red, Daniel a deep purple and Freddie was red and gold and blue. How beautiful they all looked. Freddie and his friends had made their tree a rainbow.

"Why did we turn different colors," Freddie asked, "when we are on the same tree?"

"Each of us is different. We have had different experiences. We have faced the sun differently. We have cast shade differently. Why should we not have different colors?" Daniel said matter-of-factly. Daniel told Freddie that this wonderful season was called Fall.

One day a very strange thing happened. The same breezes that, in the past, had made them dance began to push and pull at their stems, almost as if they were angry. This caused some of the leaves to be torn from their branches and swept up in the wind, tossed about and dropped softly to the ground. All the leaves became frightened.

"What's happening?" they asked each other in whispers.

"It's what happens in Fall," Daniel told them. "It's the time for leaves to change their home. Some people call it to die."

"Will we all die?" Freddie asked.

"Yes," Daniel answered. "Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We first do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. Then we die."

"I won't die!" said Freddie with determination. "Will you, Daniel?"

"Yes," answered Daniel, "when it's my time."

"When is that?" asked Freddie.

"No one knows for sure," Daniel responded.

A Reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) – Read together      
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
 An Excerpt from “Freddy the Falling Leaf”
Freddie noticed that the other leaves continued to fall. He thought, "It must be their time." He saw that some of the leaves lashed back at the wind before they fell, others simply let go and dropped quietly. Soon the tree was almost bare.

"I'm afraid to die," Freddie told Daniel. "I don't know what's down there."

"We all fear what we don't know, Freddie. It's natural," Daniel reassured him. "Yet, you were not afraid when Summer became Fall. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?"

"Does the tree die, too?" Freddie asked.

"Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That lasts forever and we are all a part of Life."

"Where will we go when we die?"

"No one knows for sure. That's the great mystery!"

"Will we return in the Spring?"

"We may not, but Life will."

"Then what has been the reason for all of this?" Freddie continued to question. "Why were we here at all if we only have to fall and die?"

Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact way, "It's been about the sun and the moon. It's been about happy times together. It's been about the shade and the old people and the children. It's been about colors in Fall. It's been about seasons. Isn't that enough?"

The In-gathering of Leaves

Please feel free to share what you feel you can or wish to about the lessons you have learned from the patients you have served which helps to shape and form you as a Hospice Professional.

Place your leaf on the Hospice Tree of Life. 

An Excerpt from “Freddy the Falling Leaf”
That afternoon, in the golden light of dusk, Daniel let go. He fell effortlessly. He seemed to smile peacefully as he fell. "Goodbye for now, Freddie," he said.

Then, Freddie was all alone, the only leaf on his branch. The first snow fell the following morning. It was soft, white, and gentle; but it was bitter cold. There was hardly any sun that day, and the day was very short. Freddie found himself losing his color, becoming brittle. It was constantly cold and the snow weighed heavily upon him.

At dawn the wind came that took Freddie from his branch. It didn't hurt at all. He felt himself float quietly, gently and softly downward. As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. How strong and firm it was! He was sure that it would live for a long time and he knew that he had been part of its life and made him proud.

Freddie landed on a clump of snow. It somehow felt soft and even warm. In this new position he was more comfortable than he had ever been. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. He did not know that Spring would follow Winter and that the snow would melt into water. He did not know that what appeared to be his useless dried self would join with the water and serve to make the tree stronger. Most of all, he did not know that there, asleep in the tree and the ground, were already plans for new leaves in the Spring
 Musical Meditation  "Wanting Memories"  by Sweet Honey in the Rock

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

You said you'd rock me in the cradle of your arms.
You said you'd hold me ‘til the storms of life were gone.
You said you'd comfort me in times like these and now I need you.
Now I need you...
And you are -

So, I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
Since you've gone and left me, there's been so little beauty,
but I know I saw it clearly through your eyes.
Now the world outside is such a cold and bitter place.
Here inside I have few things that will console.
And when I try to hear your voice above the storms of life,
then i remember all the things that I was told.

Well, I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
Yes, I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I think on the things that made me feel so wonderful when I was young.
I think on the things that made me laugh , made me dance, made me sing.
I think on the things that made me grow into a being full of pride.
I think on these things, for they are true.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me.
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.
I know a "Please", a "Thank you", and a smile will take me far.
I know that I am you and you are me, and we are one.
I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand.
I know that I am blessed,
again, and again, and again, and again,
and, again.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Virgins, Foolish and Wise

Pentecost XXII – Proper 27A – November 9, 2014
All Saint’s Episcopal Church – Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Let us pray: 
(sung) “Mother said, 'straight ahead, 
Not to delay, or be mislead.' 
I should have heeded her advice. 
But he seemed so nice.”  
In the name of the Triune God. Amen.

So, that little ditty is from a song sung by Little Red Ridding Hood in the Broadway Play, “Into The Woods”. I thought of it as I considered this Gospel of the Five Wise Virgins and Five Foolish Virgins.   

Well, “virgins” is the King James translation. Today’s translation refers to them as “bridesmaids,” who, as we know from the tradition of that ancient culture, were all supposed to be virgins.   

So, right off the bat, I have issues with this Gospel text.

It goes downhill from there.

I mean, who the heck has a wedding in the middle of the night, anyway? How in heaven’s name are you supposed to be prepared for that?

And, what kind of groom turns up late? I have to tell you, I’ve done more weddings in the past 28 years than I care to remember and not once has the groom been late. A few have been a little tipsy, maybe. Others arrived with a bit of a hangover. 

But, late? No, not once.

The bride? Well, that’s a different story.

In one congregation I served there were a lot of Africans and Afro-Caribbean people who, I learned, operate on a different sense of time than we Westerners do. Things were always running late, it seemed. 

It got so bad that I foolishly felt compelled to establish a policy that I would allow the wedding to begin 15 minutes late; after that, I charged $25 more for every 15 minutes the wedding was delayed.

I told that to one couple and the bride-to-be rolled her eyes, nudged her husband-to-be and said, without any emotion in her delightful Caribbean lilt, “Paay da wo-mon.” 

He pulled out a crisp Benjamin, shrugged his shoulders as he handed me the $100 and said, “Back home, the bride is at least an hour late, lest anyone think she’s too desperate to get married.”

Brides? Late for a wedding? Even in the middle of the night? Check! 

Bridegrooms? Well, not so much.

So, there’s all that in my way, even before I get into the context of the parable.  The best thing I can say about this is something my dear friend and colleague Bob Morrison told me. “What I always remember about this parable,” he said, “is the notice I saw outside a Scottish Church many moons ago: “Would you rather stay awake with wise virgins or sleep with the foolish ones?”

Okay, don’t answer that, because that’s not the point of this Gospel.  

 Which – surprise, surprise – is something else with which I have difficulty. 

Apparently, Jesus likes weddings. You may remember that it was at a certain wedding feast in Cana in Galilee that Jesus chose to perform his first miracle – changing water into wine. There are two instances where Jesus talks about weddings as a way to talk about getting ready to meet God.  

In another wedding story, he talked about the guests who didn’t show up and the strangers who were brought in suddenly, and how even they were expected to prepare themselves for the occasion so as not to insult their host.

In this wedding story, it is clear that Jesus is saying that, if one does not prepare to be ready at any time – even in the middle of the night – to meet God, one is “foolish” and will not be allowed into the festivities.

I’m sorry, but, I’m having a  really hard time here, believing that those words came out of the mouth of Jesus. I’m thinking that was something his disciples preached to the early Followers of The Way to underscore the point that they felt that Jesus was coming back at any moment and they needed to be ready for his return.

Reminds me of a refrigerator magnet someone once gave me. It reads: “Jesus is Coming! Quick! Everybody Look Busy!”

I mean, didn’t Jesus tell other stories, other parables, about being overly prepared? 

How about the parable about the priest and the lawyer who were so busy traveling to the temple on the road to Jericho that they totally missed the opportunity to care for the stranger who was laying half-dead on the side of the road? 

You know, the one where the Samaritan stopped what he was doing and took the risk to stop and help a stranger – even though it was costly – and, in so doing, became a symbol of the way to get to Heaven?

Or, how about the parable of the so-called prodigal son? Remember how his prodigal father spontaneously prepared a feast for his returning son? Remember how it was his other son, the one who had been so faithful and careful that he missed the big celebration for his brother because his blind obedience to duty had snuffed out the love he had for his brother and all he could feel was resentment and jealousy?

I’m reminded again of a line from that song from Little Red Ridding Hood 
And he showed me things, many beautiful things, 
That I hadn't thought to explore. 
They were off my path, so I never had dared. 
I had been so careful, I never had cared. 
And he made me feel excited.. 
Well, excited and scared.
Sometimes, you know, we can be so careful, we can forget how to care. That’s a danger, you see, of being overly prepared. It can be paralyzing. In 12-Step Programs they have a term for it that I love: “Paralysis by Analysis.”

Then again, maybe this whole Boy Scout “Be Prepared” thing is my just my issue.  Maybe it’s yours, too. I have no trouble with being prepared. In fact, I’m the one who always ‘over packs’ for a trip. 

A few trips to England, Europe, Africa and Thailand pretty much cured me of that. There’s nothing like “discovering” that there isn’t a working elevator in a “developing nation” (Duh!) and ending up lugging a heavy suitcase up a train platform to convince you that there is a real cost to being prepared. 

Or, perhaps, if I’m honest, being ‘over prepared’.

Truth be told, there are so many gestures I’ve wanted to make and not gotten around to, there are so many risks I meant to take and shied away from, there are bold steps I failed in and ordinary moments I’ve missed. All because, ironically, I was so carefully prepared. 

It seems to me that most of us spend a lot of time nagging at ourselves that we should be doing more.  Often it’s hard to sit down and relax because that’s when the self-nagging really shifts into high gear. We get so wrapped up in being busy that we miss opportunities to be good. Or, better. And, lose the occasion to, say, commit random acts of kindness.

Of course, most of us try to err on the side of wisdom, but oh, my goodness, aren’t some of the sweetest moments in life brought to us by the amazing  foolishness of serendipity?

I remember one of the first weddings at which I was privileged to preside. The bride was 19 and the groom was 20. Both students at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Poor as church mice. Too young, I thought, to be married. 

So did their parents, who decided to show their disdain and disapproval by boycotting the wedding. The bride and groom decided that they would get married, anyway, and walk down the aisle together and give each other away.

I remember the morning of the wedding, looking down the aisle and watching the two of them nervously sharing a cigarette at the entrance to the church and, just as they put it out under their shoes and clasped hands to walk down the aisle, their parents appeared at the church door. 

There was a great emotional greeting and many happy tears. And then, as if we had rehearsed it, I cued the wedding march –Handle’s Water Music, as I recall – and the six of them locked arms and processed squeezed themselves up the aisle, laughing and giggling and smiling, with more than enough joy in their hearts to fill heaven and bring joy to the very heart of God.

Oh, BTW and PS. Last time I checked (a Christmas card last year) that couple was still married. Twenty eight years later. Three kids. He’s a musician with the Boston Symphony and a successful and sought-after music teacher. She illustrates art for medical text books. And, they said it wouldn’t last!

I have other wonderful memories of the grace that comes from spontaneity, but one doesn’t need an “event” for serendipity to happen and to get a glimpse of heaven. 

Can there be anything more wondrous than turning a corner and finding a tree – one that you had never particularly noticed before – completely ablaze in the colors of autumn splendor? 

I regularly experience having my breath taken away when I gaze out my window to see what the weather is like outside and, to my utter amazement, watch a Blue Heron taking flight over the marsh.

Our youngest daughter and her husband are expecting their first child – our sixth grandchild – in April and, each week, she sends us a text message of the life developing in her womb. 

Yesterday’s message was this: 
“19 weeks! Could be halfway if this baby comes on the early side of full term! The baby is at least ½ a pound now and 6 inches curled up or 9 inches full length (that’s a tomato or eggplant according to my apps). Sensory pathways are being developed in the brain, hair is sprouting on the head, and movements are becoming more intentional ;). This coming Friday is our anatomy scan when they look closely at every single organ, including all four chambers of the heart, and we get to find out the baby’s sex.”
I’ve gotten one of these texts every week since she told us of the pregnancy at 10 weeks, and I can tell you that I weep at every single one. I weep with unexpected joy at the miracle of life, even though, I, myself, have experienced it several times myself. 

I weep at the mystery of deeply loving someone who isn’t even yet fully formed and is not legally a person. 

I weep that even though I have imagined each development of this new little being that I will be totally unprepared for the joy I will feel at the moment of birth, just as I did for her mother.

It is a mystery and a miracle to me how your heart can expand to be filled with so much love for each and every one of your children and grandchildren. It’s not something I was ever prepared for and did not know I could ever achieve. 

And yet, this surprise and mystery, to me, is a sign and symbol of what Heaven must be like.

Apple founder, Steve Jobs, who once memorably described death as "very likely the single best invention of life", departed this world with a lingering look at his family and the simple, if mysterious, observation: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." 

That, to me, is the joyful hymn of a man who is totally prepared to be unprepared for the inestimable joys that await us when we see God face to face.

It’s scary and exciting, as Little Red Riding Hood sings, to be prepared to be unprepared. 

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about being scared and being excited. The body’s response to fear and excitement are exactly the same. Palms get sweaty. The pulse quickens. The B/P increases. A lightheaded feeling can lead to dizziness.   

Scared or excited. Your body responds the same way. It’s your brain that decides how you are going to respond. Wise or foolish, scared or excited, whether you are prepared or unprepared, know this: we’re all going to heaven.

So, I’ll leave you the way I began, with the wisdom of a foolish little girl, Little Red Riding Hood (“I know things now”)
And I know things now, many valuable things, 
That I hadn't known before. 
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you the way that they should. 
And take extra care with strangers, 
even flowers have their dangers, 
And though scary is exciting, 
Nice is different than good. 
Now I know, don't be scared.   
Granny is right, just be prepared. 
Isn't it nice to know a lot?
 ..And a little bit.. not.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Saints of God

A Sermon Preached at St. Paul's, Georgetown
November 2, 2014
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Note: This will be my last preaching "gig" for a while for this small but wonderful aging community of faith. Until their rector needs another Sunday off. I will most certainly preach without notes but, rather, from a "prepared heart".  It's a real challenge for me - the lover of the sound and shape and meaning of words - to stand in the midst of them and preach the Gospel from my heart, but their trust in me allows me to trust myself. They are saints of God, and I am blessed.

Today is 'All Saints Sunday', a day when we honor ALL the saints, who from their labors rest. So, I'm curious to know: How do you define 'a saint'? Is is just someone the church determines meets the criteria?

Or, are saints more like the people in the hymn 'I Sing A Song of the Saints of God'? You know, 'one was a captain and one was a priest and one was slain by a fierce, wild beast'? Or, is that a fierce, wild priest?

What is a saint? Who is a saint?

While you're thinking about that, let me tell you this story. It's about a little boy who was looking at the Memorial tablets on the church wall. One listed all those church members who had died during WWI and a second listed all those church members who had died during WWII.

The priest came up behind him and said, “Those, son, are the saints of this church. Do you know what a saint is?”

The little boy said, “No, what’s a saint?”

The priest said, “Well, saints are people who lay down their lives for others. These particular people are those who died in the service.”

The little boy was quiet as he considered the names in light of what the priest had told him, and then he asked, “Which service? The eight? Or the Ten?”

We often think of saints as extraordinary people, but if you read the lives of the saints, you will quickly see that they are, as that hymn says, “just folks like you and me.”

Sometimes, people say, "Oh, she's a real saint," when they talk about people who take care of the elderly or special needs people."

We have an adopted daughter who is profoundly challenged, mentally and physically. When she was a small child, people used to say to us, "Oh, you are saints." When, what they really meant was, "Oh, I could never do that! I could never taken in a special needs child."

Well, they didn't know Katie. We were the ones who were blessed.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus gives us a wonderful list of attributes that the saints of God have. 

Now, we might be tempted to guess that the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation might be spiritual super heroes – men and women of impeccable credentials, morally, spiritually and every way possible.

But, he didn't do that.
It could very well be that Jesus didn’t pick out those people because, well, he knew that they already get special note and that is their reward. Or, maybe he didn’t pick out those sorts of people because, well, he didn’t happen to know any. I mean, he did hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes and all sort and manner of sinners.

So, these are the ones he picked out*:

Jesus said, blessed are the  “poor in spirit”. You know, the ones who have absolutely nothing to give and are in need of absolutely everything. You might think of several biblical characters like are like this, but I think of Ruth who had absolutely nothing to give to her even poorer mother in law except her love and fidelity and, in so doing, created a family. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn, he said. Yes, Jesus taught that through him was eternal life, but he also knew that, when people mourn, they do so because they know just how precious a gift life is. So, when life on this earth has ended, we weep. And, our tears are evidence of our gratitude, they are little drops of thanksgiving for life.
Blessed are those who mourn.

Jesus said, blessed are the meek.  These are the people who do not let their sense of being righteous delude them into thinking that they are always "right". They don't let their righteousness get in the way of their ability to listen to others, to be open to the thinking of others. Perhaps they disagree, but they are open to listening and affirming the perspectives of others and not insisting on their own perspective as "The Truth".

Blessed are the meek.

Jesus said, blessed are the merciful. Blessed are those who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and do not see a perfect person looking back at them. These saints are the ones who know that evil exists in every single person, including themselves, and are merciful when they find it in others and, perhaps, in that way, may attain an even greater triumph. 

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus said. Not the totally pure – those who strictly adhere to the Levitical (or purity) Codes – but those who are “pure in heart”. These are the ones who are as flawed and as faulted as the rest of us, but somehow always seek and find the goodness of life.

Blessed are the pure in heart.

Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers. Not necessarily those who have found the fullness of peace, but those who try, in little, seemingly insignificant ways, to make peace within themselves, their neighbor and God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Jesus looks into the faces of his listeners and says, “Blessed are YOU” whenever you err on the side of heaven and look the fool for your troubles. 

Blessed are YOU when you do good when doing bad would be easier. Blessed are you when you do not return evil for evil but good for good.

Blessed are YOU when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, are poor in spirit and mourn, are meek and merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers, or a fool for Christ's sake.

Blessed are YOU, he says, and you can almost see those ancient people looking back at him with surprise and delight. I’m guessing no one ever considered themselves in their poor estate ‘blessed’, much less blessed with that which the world would consider invaluable.

So, the next time you are feeling down and worthless, I suggest that you read The Beatitudes again.   

Read them and know that God as revealed in Jesus is an extravagant God, filled with abundant mercy and kindness, full measure, pressed down and overflowing.

And know that you are loved unconditionally by God, with all your shortcomings and failings, all your blemishes and warts. You – YOU – are a saint of God.

Know that Jesus can and will take all of what you have to offer – even the things you think have no value – and take them to his very own sacred heart and transform them use them to the glory of the one and the same God.

I'm going to leave you with one last story about saints.

This one is about a little girl who was standing in the church looking at the people depicted in the stained glass windows, much like the ones here, in this church.

The priest walked in and asked her, "Do you know who those people are?"

"My mommy says they are saints," she answered.

"Do you know what a saint is?" asked the priest.

"Yes," she said, her voice full of awe and wonder, "They are people who let in the light in their own special way so that all of God's colors come together in a beautiful way."

So, as you consider all of the ways God has blessed you, try to be one of those saints who lets in the light of Jesus in your own special way. 

Help all the wonderfully different colors of God come together in a beautiful way and make the world a better place.


* Inspired by Frederick Buechner  ~ originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words