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"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, December 23, 2017

Prophets of Advent IV: Bathsheba the Righteous

Bathsheba is the fourth woman named in the lineage of Jesus recorded in the first chapter of Matthew. (Matthew 1:6)

Her story is told in the Hebrew Scripture of the Second Book of Samuel. Like, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth, her scriptural sisters before her, she comes with a complicated, troubled past. And, like her sisters, Bathsheba also acts righteously, although the biblical narrative about her is often tarnished in the telling by her extramarital affair with King David.

Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, one of King David’s generals. David had made quite a name for himself having slain “18,00 Edomites in the Valley of Salt” (2 Sam 8:13). 

The very next chapter contains an endearing story of Samuel that ought not be missed. David takes in Mephibosheth, the crippled son of his dearest friend Jonathan and grandson of Saul. Mephibosheth eats at David’s table and is treated like “one of the king’s own sons”. 

The story makes abundantly clear the love between Jonathan and David. It is an interesting prelude to the story of the darker side of the King in this next chapter of his life. 
Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is near Rabbah on the front lines of the battle with the Ammonites. 

David, on the other hand, is back at home, feeling invincible. 

Even though it was “the time when kings go out to battle,” (2 Samuel 11) David decides to stay home. Perhaps this sense of invincibility is the reason he makes no secret of his lust for Bathsheba, sending his men to fetch her after he sees her bathing on her rooftop.

Like the story of most women, opinions about Bathsheba vary widely on a continuum between two extremes. She was either a temptress who seduced David or she was an innocent victim and David raped her. 

No matter. Both the culture and law of the ancient times in which she lived were stacked against her. If she succumbs to David, she is guilt of adultery. Deny him and she is refusing the King. 

Either way, both actions are punishable by death. Either way, she knows the ancient shame of women which continues to haunt women to this day.

The whole illicit affair probably would have gone unnoticed except that Bathsheba becomes pregnant. Now, David has to put on his big boy pants and become responsible. 

Except, of course, he doesn’t. He sends for Uriah to come home from the war to be with Bathsheba. It’s the only way to protect his reputation and save Bathsheba’s life.

It is believed that Uriah must have been onto David’s plot because he refuses to come home. (2 Samuel 11) His decision heaps judgment on David’s head. While David is relaxing at home, sleeping with other men’s wives, God’s ark is in a booth on the battlefield. He is not on the battlefield during “the time when kings go out to battle.”

And, just like that, the situation is no longer about Bathsheba and the pregnancy. 

It’s about the King’s authority. And, the King’s pride. 

David devises a plot to have Uriah and others killed in battle against the Ammonites by sending Uriah and others too close to Rabbah. David’s nefarious plot is successful and he does the "righteous" thing and marries Bathsheba.

But, what David has done “has displeased the Lord,” and God sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke him, predicting that the child will not live because of “the sins of the father” (2 Samuel 12:14). 

Even though David repents, the child dies.

Consider, then, the lowly estate of Bathsheba. Her husband Uriah is murdered and her first born son taken from her as recompense for David’s sin. For her whole life, she must endure side-glances and whispers and rumors of scandal and shame. 

How much grief and suffering must one woman bear for the sins of one man?

Eventually, Bathsheba bears another son, Solomon, of whom Scripture says, “the Lord loved him”. (2 Samuel 12:24). David even promised that Solomon would be his heir.

But, Bathsheba isn’t out of danger yet. When David is old and his house is in shambles, his son Adonijah tries to take over. If he becomes king, Bathsheba will be viewed as an adulteress and neither she nor her son Solomon will be recognized as “legitimate”.

The prophet Nathan understands well the implications not just for Bathsheba and Solomon but for all of Israel as well. He also understands that Bathsheba has special authority to intervene with David. 

Bathsheba appeals to David:
“My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying, “Solomon your son shall reign after me, and he shall sit on my throne.” And now, behold, Adonijah is king, although you, my lord the king, do not know it…And now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you, to tell them who shall sit on the throne of my lord the king after him.” (I Kings 1)
Bathsheba cannot know at the time that Solomon’s reign will be the most peaceful and prosperous time of Israel’s history, and she does not know that the Savior of the world will be born through Solomon’s line. 

Bathsheba’s action saves her life and makes Solomon King, ensuring God’s favor on Israel. Bathsheba went to have four more sons with David (Solomon, Shimea, Shobab, and Nathan) and two of them are listed in New Testament genealogies. Joseph, Jesus’s earthly father, was a descendant of her son Solomon (Matthew 1:6) and his mother, Mary, was a descendant of her son Nathan (Luke 3:31).

So, when you light the fourth blue candle of your Advent wreath this evening, remember the story of one of the women in the genealogy of Jesus.

Remember Sister Bathsheba and how she transformed her lowly status of vulnerability and shame as well as the deep grief of the murder of her husband and death of her firstborn son into a vehicle of the redemption of Israel. 

Through her righteousness came not only the wisest leader of the most peaceful and prosperous time in that ancient land but also the Incarnation of Ancient Wisdom.

Remember and tell the story to your children that your children's children from generation to generation may know that the glory of God is the human person fully alive.

Holy God, as we begin to turn our eyes toward the lowly manger in Bethlehem where we await the birth of Jesus lying weak and vulnerable in the midst of the harshness of the world, help us to turn our hearts toward hope and trust in your goodness. 

Give us the strength and righteousness of Bathsheba that shame, vulnerability and grief may be transformed and through us wisdom and salvation may be born again. 


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Prophets of Advent III: Ruth of Moab

Ruth is the third woman named in the lineage of Jesus recorded in the first chapter of Matthew. Her story, told in the Hebrew Scripture of the Book of Ruth is familiar to many of us.  Well, at least the part where she refuses to leave her mother in law Naomi.

The fuller story of Ruth’s courage and faithfulness and tenacity to the family she married into leads her to begin an entirely new family, one which also leads to a religious conversion and will place her in the lineage of the House of David and elevates her lowly estate to an ancestor of the Messiah.

The story begins when a family of four, Naomi with her husband and two sons, leave Bethlehem to travel to Moab to escape the famine which has brought hardship and tragedy to the land and its people. It’s important to note that the nation of Moab was descended from Lot’s son of the same name. These families had been separated for many generations. Moab had a long history of conflict with Israel and intermarriage between the two countries was frowned upon.

Even so, Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah – but tragedy strikes and all three men die, leaving the women destitute in that ancient culture. With absolutely no hope for the future, the three women leave Moab and head back to Bethlehem where Naomi at least has family.

Along the way Naomi has a change of heart, and urges Orpah and Ruth to return to their families (releasing them from their marital obligations). Orpah turns around but Ruth stays, pledging the words which have become a familiar if not romantic part of wedding ceremonies “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (1:16).

Unfortunately, no one in Bethlehem is able to help the three women so Ruth comes up with a plan to work gleaning in the fields which are owned by Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s late husband. 

Ruth’s hard work catches the attention of Boaz, who begins to take an interest in her welfare and offers her protection and extends her some privileges.

Ruth works there until the end of the barley and wheat harvest, which is about two months. Still, no one comes to help them. 

Naomi develops a plan to help Ruth secure a marriage proposal from Boaz and instructs her to go to him privately in the dead of the night. But Ruth appeals to Boaz, asking him to assume the ancient tradition of taking on responsibility for destitute relatives. Boaz is rightly impressed by Ruth’s character and loyalty to Naomi and agrees to her proposal.

Arrangements are made – with great delicacy and finesse since there is a closer relative who must be dealt with first and money, of course, is involved – but Ruth converts to Judaism and marries Boaz and they have a son, Obed. This makes Ruth an ancestor of David, Israel’s most illustrious king.

On this third Sunday in Advent, Ruth’s story also sets our eyes, like the shepherds and wise men from the East before us, toward Bethlehem.
  • It was in Bethlehem that Judah’s tribe settled (See Advent I: Tamar.)
  • It was to Bethlehem that Naomi returned with her daughter-in-law, Ruth, the Moabite, bringing reconciliation to two families separated for generations.
  • It was in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz (a descendant of Rahab - see Advent II) married and had a son, Obed.
  • It was in Bethlehem that Obed raised a family, even a grandson who would be king (and who would marry Bathsheba whom we will meet next week.)
  • It was to Bethlehem that Joseph traveled with his very pregnant wife, Mary.
  • It was in Bethlehem that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was born
  • It was in the fields of Bethlehem that angels appeared to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.
So, when you light the third – pink! – candle of your Advent wreath this evening, remember the story of one of the women in the genealogy of Jesus.

Remember Sister Ruth and her courage and strength, her valor and faithfulness to “the tie that binds” all human hearts in love over the ancient hurts that separate us. And, say a prayer for Sister Naomi whose generous heart took in her daughter-in-law even though she had many reasons that mitigated against that act of sacrificial love.

Remember and tell the story to your children that your children's children from generation to generation may know that the glory of God is the human person fully alive.

Holy God, as we begin to turn our eyes toward Bethlehem, help us to turn away from ancient fears and follow the light of Love which leads to hope and reconciliation. Give us the faithfulness and strength of Ruth to take the risks of love that we may become Children of Light and Hope and Love. 


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Prophets of Advent II: Rahab, Canaanite of Jericho

Rahab is the second woman recorded in the genealogy of Matthew ( Matthew 1:1-17)

She is called a prostitute in both Hebrew (Joshua Chapter 2 & Chapter 6.) and Christian (Hebrews 11:31) scripture, but the more we learn about human trafficking in ancient and modern times, the more we understand that this was most likely not a woman living a "lifestyle" of her own choosing.

What is clear is that she was three times an anawim - one of the social outcast beloved of God: a woman, a foreigner - and, a Canaanite of the city of Jericho at that - as well as a woman in the sex trade, probably then as it is now, not always a voluntary industry.

Rahab is also a woman geographically on the margins. The house in which she lives is on the outskirts of the city. Her rooftop was adjacent to the wall of the city. As the story unfolds, we will see that she uses her both her demographic and geographic locations to her distinct advantage.

Here's the story: Joshua, son of Nun, has led the Israelite army across the river Jordan. Before entering the land west of the Jordan River, Joshua sends out two spies to check out the city of Jericho, the most important and fortified Canaanite city in the Jordan Valley.

The king of Jericho heard that two Israelite spies were within his city and ordered them to be brought out to him. 

Rahab, the woman with whom the spies were staying, protected them by hiding them on her roof. 

She told them how the citizens of Jericho had been fearful of the Israelites ever since they defeated the Egyptians via the Red Sea miracle (some 40 years prior). She agreed to help them escape, provided that she and her family were spared in the upcoming battle. 

The spies agreed to her request, giving her three conditions to be met: 1) she must distinguish her house from the others by hanging a scarlet rope out of the window so the Israelites would know which home to spare; 2) her family must be inside the house during the battle; and 3) she must not later turn on the spies.

The two spies safely escaped the city and returned to Joshua. They reported to him that "the whole land was melting with fear".  

The Israelites crossed the Jordan into Canaan where they laid siege to the city of Jericho. The city was completely destroyed, and every man, woman, and child in it was killed. Only Rahab and her family were spared. 

Eventually, Rahab marries Salmon, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah. Her son was Boaz, the husband of Ruth. Joseph, the legal father of Jesus, is her direct descendant.

Rahab is not someone we would expect to defy a king, save Israelite spies, and play a part in God’s people taking the Promised Land. But this is exactly what happens.

Rahab is the first occupant of the foreign lands to show loyalty to Israel and Yahweh, and is welcomed in as a new member of the nation of Israel.

In Joshua 2:8-11, Rahab reveals herself as a prophet of God. She gives a declaration to the spies that Israel will successfully take over the land of Jericho.

The Israelites do not yet know this to be true, but her words bear weight with them and they carry her message back to Joshua.  Rahab’s foretelling of the work of the Lord causes Joshua to move into action.

Rahab plays the temporary savior to Israel by protecting the spies, declaring their victory, and eventually becoming part of the lineage of the House of David.

In traditional religious literature, much is made of the "fact" that Rahab is a prostitute whom God lifted high. She is more likely an oppressed and marginalized outcast, forced into human trafficking industry in order to survive, in whom God saw great potential and ability.

So, when you light the second blue Advent candle this evening, remember the story of Rahab, the Caaninite of Jericho.

Remember Sister Rahab and her ability to use her demographic and geogrpahic location, both concidered morally suspect and sinful, as courageous rescurer, bold prophet, and humble vehicle of the royal lineage of The Messiah.

Remember and tell her stoy to your children that your children's children, from generation to generation, may know that the Glory of God is the human person fully alive.

Holy God, give us the ability to use all that we have been given, no matter how humble or seemingly inadequate or inferior, to your glory and in service of your love for all your people. 

There will always be pie!

Advent II: There Will Always Be Pie!
A Sermon Preached at St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

I love Advent. I wish we could observe it without all of the razmataz of Madison Avenue, pushing Christmas carols and Holiday Cheer and, of course, the latest gadget or toy or jewelry or perfume or tool or article of clothing past the point of tolerance and sanity, but I’ve come to think of those things as just background music to a busy season of preparation.

Advent is a time for waiting and watching and, as this morning's prophets, Isaiah and John the Baptist, proclaim, "Prepare the way." 

This can sometimes turn into a time of melancholy, especially when the inevitable memories of Christmas Past come to visit. Sometimes, we can get lost in what was - or what will never be. 

Sometimes, waiting and watching means we get stuck in the impossible rather than look for the unexpected.

I have a friend who has gone through a rough patch. A few years back, her husband left her and her three children for another woman. It’s been really, really hard. She’s moved to a new home, gotten a new job, made new friends, put down new roots – none of those easy tasks.

We all thought she had come through the worst of it but we’ve noticed that, of late, she’s gotten a bad case of the holiday blues. 

Well, it started a bit before the holidays but the commercialization of Christmas wants us all to achieve the “picture perfect” holiday – which has absolutely nothing to do with all of the imperfections of the Nativity Story.

Depression is tricky to deal with. It can run the range from being annoying to just flat-out dangerous, and that can turn on a dime. You don’t want to ignore it, especially when you know it exists – and, especially when that can be your impulse.

A few of us got together on the Friday after Thanksgiving for a “Left Over Turkey Day”. We all brought our leftovers. I made a huge vat of turkey soup and a couple of Turkey Pot Pies. Others brought desserts and veggies. Everyone brought their own holiday cheer.

When it came time to eat. I asked for a pie server to slice and serve the pie. You know. It’s that triangular thingy that makes serving up slices of pie a whole heckuvalot easier.

One of her sons started rummaging around the utensil draws to find it.  “Mom!” he finally yelled in exasperation, “Where’s the pie server?”

“Oh,” she says, “I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?” he said incredulously. “Mom, we always used to have a pie server! Everybody has a pie server! Why don’t we have a pie server?”

“Well,” she says, “I knew I’d be moving here alone. I didn’t think I’d ever need it again.”

At which point, I found myself swirling around and saying, “Woman! Get a grip! Don’t you know? There will ALWAYS be pie! No matter how bad things can get, no matter if it’s even made up with the remains of Thanksgiving Day – my grandmother said it and I know it to be true – 


Here’s the thing: I didn’t know that I grew up poor until I was a teenager and studied sociology in high school. I’m a first generation immigrant and every member of my family worked in the mills and factories in New England.

We lived in a tenement apartment but we had a clean, safe, warm, dry roof over our heads.

Our clothes were all home made or hand-me-down but we had clothes - clean clothes. 

Our food came from my grandparents garden and the chickens and goats and pigs and rabbits they tended, but we never went hungry.

Even when times were tough, there was always pie. Ironically, my favorite was the one pie that was made to stretch the food in the cabinets and larder. 

It was my Grandmother's should-have-been-world-famous Onion Pie. 

My grandmother would sauté up some onions and garlic in butter. 

If she had it, she would add some thinly sliced potatoes. She would always try to add some slices of a hard boiled egg. Sometimes, she would add some grated cheese. She'd sprinkle it all with her seasonings. Then, she’d make one of her amazing, flaky pie crust and pour the onion mix into the crusts and bake.

Ohhhhhh. Muuuuhhhh Gudddd!!! It was double-deeeee-lishous!

And, for desert? Pie. Of course. Sometimes, they were made individually in washed out cans that had formerly held tuna. We’d have apple or peach or blueberry pie from the fruit my grandmother grew in her orchard which she canned and kept in the cellar.

No matter how bad things got, there’d always be pie.

So, here’s my Advent message to you. Granted, it's not the one that was foretold by John the Baptist, but it's in that same spirit.

Let’s just consider it a modern translation of the ancient Hebrew script from Isaiah about  "comforting my people" and “preparing the way”.

Advent is a time to prepare the way – to make a two-way path – to be able to both receive and give love and hope, comfort and joy, on the road to finding peace on earth, good will to absolutely everyone.

Advent is the time to prepare the way for miracles – for possibility in the existence of oppression – for hope in the face of despair – for light in the presence of darkness.

Advent is the time to prepare the way for good things – for ourselves and others – for the anticipation of and participation in the pure delight and of simple things and the joy of possibility.

Yes, like a sweet newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

There are also other simple things to anticipate and in which to participate. Like the feel of the first new-fallen snow of the season as it crunches under your boot or lands softly on your face or tongue.

Like Christmas cards or letters or, yes, even emails – but especially phone calls – from family and friends we haven’t seen or heard from  in years.

Like the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg in the holiday treats as they bake in the oven. Yes, like pie. A bit of goodness held together by two crusts. Some things gathered from the fruits of the earth and reconstituted to make a meal for more.

Advent is a time to proclaim that even in the midst and cold of winter, the goodness of God is promised to us. There are many signs and symbols of that promise: Splashes of the royal colors of gold and red, blue and purple – promising the arrival of the Prince of Peace; the lighting of each candle on the Advent wreath, one by one, against the darkness.

This year, I’m getting a special Christmas present for my friend. You guessed it: A pie server. Because, you know: No matter how bad things get, there will always be pie.

Even if you live alone. Even if you can’t imagine eating pie by yourself. Make a pie, anyway. If you don’t know how to make a pie, or don't have the energy to put one together, BUY ONE!! Don’t eat it alone if you don’t want to. Use it as an occasion to invite your friends.

It’s a natural born fact that you can’t be unhappy when there’s pie in the room. And, having a pie in the room makes you want to call your friends to share the pie. That’s just how pie works.

And, isn’t that how God’s love works? It’s like that kid’s song: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…… That’s how it is with God’s love. Once you experience it, you want to pass it on.”

We know how the Advent story ends. Ready or not, Jesus will come.

Even so, let us prepare all our hearts to celebrate the excitement of anticipation, the certainty of hope, and the goodness of love.

Prepare the way! Jesus is coming!

And, yes, Virginia, there will always be Christmas!

Hold onto your pie servers! 

Because yes, Virginia, there will always be pie!

Amen? Amen!

PS: For those of you who asked, no, I don't have my grandmother's recipe. However, this one comes close to the recipe I remember.  There's also this one from Nigella Lawson I don't know what kind of cheese my grandmother used - probably a soft cheese like the Portuguese version of Mozzarella or maybe some Cheddar but you can use whatever you like. My grandmother sometimes added slices of hard boiled egg. The onions, as I remember, were yellow and sweet. And she used real butter. Of course. But, it wasn't like a quiche like Paula Dean makes. It was just straight up onions and garlic and maybe some slices of potatoes. And, it had a top and bottom crust. So, so, so good.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Prophets of Advent I: Tamar of Judah

Tamar is the first women mentioned in the genealogy record in Matthew 1:1-17.

Her story is sandwiched in between the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers in Genesis 37 and his encounter with Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39.

Tamar's father-in-law, Judah, was one of Joseph's older brothers. Her story really begins in Genesis 38, when Judah leaves his father's house and marries a Canaanite woman who bears him three sons.

Tamar had married Judah's eldest son, Er, who, we are told, so grievously offended God that he died before the two could have any children.

According to custom of that day and time, Tamar is entitled to an heir, so she was given to the next oldest son, Onan. Unfortunately,  Onan also does not live up to his obligations and he, too, dies an untimely death.

Judah has one more son but he is too young to marry. This places Judah in a dilemma and he actively seeks to get out of his obligation to Tamar.

It would have been acceptable for Judah himself to serve as a surrogate.  But rather than recognizing that the deaths of his sons are the consequence of their own choices, Judah blames Tamar (hmmm . . . do we recognize a pattern of behavior here?)

Judah goes against custom and sends Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s house. As time passes, Tamar realizes Judah is not going to do the right thing. In fact, he has chosen not to act at all, making no provisions for her future and putting his own family in danger of extinction.

In those days - as still is in some places in these days - women had no legal recourse when the men who controlled their destiny chose to mistreat them. So Tamar is faced with a serious choice: submit to Judah’s authority or come up with a way to conceive within his family.

Tamar devises a plan to trick Judah into helping her conceive a child. She disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah - well, what's a man to do? - takes "advantage" of her offered .... "services".

Tamar asks Judah for a good faith sign of his willingness to compensate her. Judah leaves her with his signet, cord, and staff. (This would be the Near Eastern equivalent of legal identification by today’s standards, and this evidence will prove her innocence later on, saving her life and the lives of her children.)

When it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah is incensed at the shame brought upon his family and calls for her to be burned.

When Tamar sends him his seal and staff, he realizes what has happened and admits that he is the father.  Not only that, Judah actually praises Tamar for her actions.

Of course, the story has been told by the church fathers as a story of "adultery" or "revenge" or "common prostitution" and, of course, Tamar is the one who is wicked.

Truth is, when you understand this story in the light of its ancient cultural context, you understand that what Tamar did, while perhaps morally suspect, was the only path open to her to seek justice for herself and to secure the inheritance of the family of David.

Tamar was then doubly blessed for realigning the House of Judah with God's purposes, giving birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah, both of whom are named in Matthew's genealogy (Matthew 1:3).

So, when you light the first blue candle of your Advent wreath this evening, remember the story of one of the women in the genealogy of Jesus.

Remember Sister Tamar and her courage and tenacity, her intelligence and bold imagination which led to her ability to achieve justice for herself and her family.

Remember and tell the story to your children that your children's children from generation to generation may know that the glory of God is the human person fully alive.

“From Judah will come the cornerstone.” Zechariah 10:4a

Holy God, give us the strength and courage and bold imagination and intelligence of Tamar, that, when the path of justice has been blocked, we might find a way to overcome all obstacles, even if by risking travel on different - if even questionable - road.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

OSH Retreat Reflection #2 The Ancestors

I've been thinking quite a lot these past few days about "spiritual formation" while I'm on retreat here at OSH (Order St. Helena) in the beautiful countryside of North Augusta, South Carolina.

"Spiritual Formation" was an important buzzword 40 years ago when I was first considering a vocation to the priesthood.  I hear it today, from time to time, being spoken by folks on various Commissions on Ministry.

They say the words as if they really know what they're talking about. I know I thought I did, back when I was serving in that capacity.

Truth of it is, I have come to know that a "commission on ministry" is about as close to an oxymoron as "spiritual leadership".

To understand what I'm saying we'll have to start with the fact that I wasn't so much "called" as I was "pushed and shoved".

I remember sitting at a "Visiting Day" at ANTS (Andover Newton Theological School) and being asked - repeatedly from other, more enthusiastic 'potential seminarians' - "So, when did you get THE CALL?"

"The Call?" Does that really happen? I mean, for real? I suppose it does, but it did not for me.

For me, it wasn't one wonderful "magic moment" like some sort of spiritual or religious orgasim other folks made it sound like; rather, it was several really uncomfortable moments that I remember as clearly as I remember the name of the woman how gave birth to me.

The background music to those events, which are like pictures cascading before my eyes, is a choir of monks and nuns chanting Psalm 139: 7-12

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave,[a] you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
    stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
10         even there your hand would guide me;
        even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
11 If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
        the light will become night around me,”
12     even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
        Nighttime would shine bright as day,
        because darkness is the same as light to you!
Yes, there were moments when reality hit me like a 2x4 in the back of the head, or tripped me up like an unseen rock in the hard ground and down I went, either right on my backside or face first in the dirt and dust.

And yet some of these experiences of formation, I hasten to add, had their unpleasantness mitigated by the lessons learned - lessons, I should note that, as a bona fide hard-head, could not have been learned any other way.

I mean, it wasn't like I was in a financially lucrative job to begin with. Healthcare is only really financially lucrative for pharmaceutical and medical supply companies and some physicians in certain specialty areas.

It was the mid to late 70s. I couldn't even get a credit card on my own without having my (then) husband or father or brother co-sign for me (Yes, children, it's true!). Neither could I hold a mortgage on a home or property without a male co-signer. That wasn't just because the pay for women was (still is) so much less than men. It was simply because I am a woman.

So, why in heaven's name (in heaven's name, indeed!) would I seek to follow a vocation where I would end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and be so poorly compensated that I would most certainly remain in debt for decades?

Ah, yes. That's right. The psalmist says, "Nighttime would shine bright as day, because darkness is the same as light to you."

But, there were other times which were more like gentle nudgings, a quiet awareness, a sudden, silent insight - some of which made me gasp, "Where could I go to get away from your spirit?"

One of the ways my discernment was affirmed and strengthened was whenever I stopped and considered those God sent to me, to shape and form my understanding of what it means to be priest, and deepen my awareness of the challenges of being a spiritual leader in community.

Let's stop here for just a moment and think about those words for a moment: Spiritual. Leader.

Steve Charleston, one of my mentors, used to do this exercise. He'd put the word "Spiritual" on the board and ask the group to free-associate. Up would come words like "prayer," and "serene," and "gentle," and "peaceful," and "contemplative," and "humble".

Then, he'd do the same thing with "Leader". Without hesitation, people would offer words like "strong," "decisive," "bold," "visionary," and "trailblazer"

You know what's coming next. Put the two words together and you get as classic an oxymoron as "jumbo shrimp," "the same difference" and "clearly confused".

It is, as John Snow wrote, an "impossible vocation" to be what Henri Nouwen called a "wounded healer".

See also: Moments when a spiritual 2x4 hits you in the back of the head.

See also: "Where could I go to escape your presence?"

Those who were part of my "spiritual formation" did so not so much as direct "lessons" taught as a professor to a student in a classroom.

Rather, they did so more by example - by modeling behavior, even though they weren't necessarily aware that that's exactly what they were doing.

Oh, yes, there were times when wisdom came in words. For example, the notion of "Divine Sandpaper" came to me from Sr. Cornelia, OSH, my spiritual director for over a decade.  She said that there were people who were just flat out annoying, who "rubbed you the wrong way".

"When you find yourself in the presence of those individuals," she would say, "stop for a moment and consider that God may have sent that person to you for the exact purpose of rubbing you the wrong way."

"How else, " she would ask, "would your 'true grain" come forth? How else would you find your own sheen? "

She often demonstrated her own capacity for being "Divine Sandpaper".

I remember the time I told her that I was discerning a call to a monastic vocation  - mind you, this was me with a spouse and six kids!

She immediately recognized it for what it was - just a touch of transference and more than a soupcon of s/hero-worship - and tried not to let a wry smile cross her face. It didn't work.

She sat forward in her chair, liften her left eyebrow and said, "Can you imagine living under the same roof with 15-20 other women, all of whom are in love with the same man?"

She studied my face for a response before she sat back in her chair and said, "Well, you're neurotic, all right, but not neurotic enough for that!"

Many - most - of them, like Sr. Cornelia, are gone from my sight. But, only my sight. They are with me, still. I hear them whisper to me the words or images of the lessons they taught me.

Those who were best at my spiritual formation were the gay men and African American men and women who died in the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Boston and Baltimore. I learned more from them about how to be a "spiritual leader" than anyone in seminary or in an official capacity of spiritual formation.

I remember them and call them all by name often, but especially yesterday, December 1st, the 29th Anniversary of World AIDS Day.

I spent some time in the convent cemetary this morning, visiting with the saints.  I don't know all but I do know many of them, there, the "saints who from their labors rest."

They are among the ancestors on whom I call when I need to live into the oxymoron of being a "spiritual leader".

I am grateful for them all, these ancestors, who are gone from my sight but with me still.

I am calling on them today, as the Super Moon rises, to set my feet on the path to further discernment and that imposible vocation of spiritual leadership as a wounded healer.

I do not know where they will lead me but I I know that wherever path I am on, they will be with me, walking as fellow pilgrims.

I share with them and with you the song from CoCo - the newest film from Disney/Pixar - about a little boy, his love of music, his search for his great, great grandfather, and his expperiences with Dia de Muertos, a multi-day Mexican holiday that focues on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and help support their spiritual journey.

I am so deeply grateful for the Ancestors I have known.



Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don't let it make you cry
For even if I'm far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart
Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I'm with you the only way that I can be
Until you're in my arms again
Remember me

Friday, December 01, 2017

On Retreat at OSH: #1 Monastic Chant.

Some things I’ve re-learned about monastic life: #1 Chanting

I haven't been on a retreat with my sisters at the Order of St. Helena since they moved here to North Augusta, SC from Vail's Gate, NY. That's 9 years. That's a long time. Too long. 

My spiritual director, Sr. Cornelia, has died in the meantime. I will visit with her tomorrow at her gravesite, but she's already let me know of her presence here. 

It has taken me longer than I thought it would to get back into the rhythm of a community life of prayer. I mean, not so long ago - okay 9 years ago - I used to spend one weekend a month with them - from Thursday night to Saturday morning. 

I was actually at the point where I knew my way around their Breviary (inclusive language, check it out) and could actually join in chanting some of the psalms and hymns. (Check out Compline here.)

I've found that I've had to spend the past twenty-four hours relearning some things I thought I'd never forget. Like riding a bicycle. Turns out, that's not so. 

So, I've been reflecting on some of the aspects of religious community life and thought I'd share them here.

This first reflection is on monastic chant.  

These are the initial steps to re-learning how to chant the psalms and prayers:

First, remind yourself that chanting is not singing. Let me say that again: Chanting is NOT sining. (I confess that it drives me crazy when I hear people "singing" a chant. Worse when they "croon".)  

It's chanting. And, it's Anglican at that. It's ancient and proper.

Unlike Buddhist chant which can come from the head or throat or chest, chanting comes from a different, deeper part of your diaphragm – from a place of truth and authenticity.

It’s breathing with sound – music.

It’s praying with music – notes.  

It's setting the words of your prayer to rest on the musical notes from the breath and beat of your spirit to be lifted and carried and floated to the heart of God. 

It changes the way you process your thinking about words because you hear them differently. You hear words differently because they don’t just come from your head, but from your heart and your lungs and your soul – and because you are chanting them with others in rhythm, you are paying closer attention to the words and the meaning.

And then, there’s that little asterisk at the end of the first line of the psalm. It’s there to remind you to pause. Listen. Let the words sink in deeper than just letting them remain on the surface of things so that your prayer may be set free to float to the heart of God. 

It's a paradox, I know. I don't know how it works, I only know that it does.

Remind yourself that chanting is not the means to an end. It doesn’t take you anywhere necessarily, but helps you appreciate where you are - right here, right now - so you can take the risk and let yourself go to where you need to be – or, follow where you believe God wants you to be.

So, now close your mouth and your eyes and open your ears and your heart. Listen for the beat of your heart. Then, listen for the sound of your breath. Then, listen to the sound of others chanting. Feel the rhythm and vibration of the sound in the chapel.

When you are ready – and even if you’re not but you’re ready to risk – open your mouth and join others in a single soft note. Now, open your eyes. Look at the music. Follow the note up and down the page with your eyes (and, if you want, your fingers) while you listen to others.  Join in on a note here and there. Do this as quietly and softly as you can. 

Don’t worry. It takes time and lots of practice.

Years, actually. 

I’m beginning to remember but no where near ready to join in yet. I’m sure I won’t be by the end of the weekend. And, even then. Which is perfectly fine.

As the sisters say, even the learning process is a form of prayer.

Indeed, I think it may be one of God’s favorite kind of prayers - especially when you're just learning.

Learning how to chant is not just an esoteric religious exercise. Chanting has many practical applications in our daily lives. 

Imagine if everything we had to say came from a different, deeper place of truth and authenticity.

Imagine if we opened our ears and listened to others first before opening our mouths.

Imagine if we joined in – meeting people where they are – before trying to be heard or take over the lead. 

Imagine if we never took over the lead but led by joining in where people are.

Imagine if you paid attention to little things - say, just as tiny as  an asterisk - so that you could listen for the larger, deeper meaning of things rather than just staying on the surface.

Imagine if the means were the end – that the life was not the destination but the journey.  (Or, as James Taylor sings, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”)

And, imagine if we could better appreciate the present moment, where we are – right here, right now – and all the people in the room, all connected by beat and breath, all giving glory to God in the very same room.

How might our lives change? How might we change the world?

Sr. Faith Anthony says that to live the monastic life is to earn a PhD in love. "You learn how to love and how to be loved," she said. 

Just think about that for a minute. Breathe through those words. Let them sink in. 

Well, years ago, I designed a T-shirt that read:

On retreat with the sisters of the 
Order of St. Helena.
Warning: These are professionals
Do NOT try this at home.

It just looks and sounds like a bunch of nuns chanting in the chapel, right? 

There's so much going on in that chapel, such intense spiritual energy and focus and yet such an easy, gentle, floating, serene sound.  

Here's what a believe: convents and monasteries are one of those "thin places" described in Celtic spirituality. It's a place very close to "the veil" between heaven and earth. 

I've become convinced that chanted prayer places a protective sound barrier around the "thin place" which lets prayers arise and keeps bad energy from entering.

I'll tell you something I had forgotten: It really is not as easy as it looks.

But, when you do come to the convent and stay with the sisters on retreat? Oh the things you will learn and the places in the heart you will go.

Here's an absolutely glorious antiphon for Advent, used as an O-antiphon beginning December 16th. O Virgin of Virgins is an Anglican addition, used on December 23rd.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither was there any like thee before thee, nor shall there be after:
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Pope's Nose

Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1919

It’s funny the memories that the holidays bring.

The Thanksgiving tradition and menu at my childhood home were as predictable as the conversation, each intensified by liberal amounts of alcohol.

I don’t have horrible memories of explosive arguments or slimy uncles to stay away from.  I do remember that the women gathered in the kitchen and the men stayed pretty much in the garage where my grandfather had his own kitchen. The men played cards around the table and smoked cigarettes and cigars and talked sports and the war and cars. The women talked food and recipes and shared stories about what was happening with other women or relatives and their kids.

At our table - as happened, I'm sure at hundreds of thousands of tables around the country - the kids fought over the wishbone; precisely, who would get to break it after it had dried out on the kitchen window sill. But the real prize of the day – coveted by the adults as well as the adolescent children who were eligible for the competition – was The Pope’s Nose.

If you don’t know about The Pope’s Nose, let me correct that immediately. 

The common narrative is that Protestants called it The Pope's Nose and Catholics called it The Parson's Nose, but we were devout Roman Catholics and it was, for us "The Pope's Nose". 

To be honest, I have always suspected it had something to do with the heated conversations I overheard some of my older cousins having about birth control.  I should note that my grandmother had 20 pregnancies and 22 children, 15 of whom made it to adulthood. I should also note that while my grandmother loved all her kids, she never made it a secret that she would have preferred a smaller family brood. And, my grandfather often talked about how difficult it was "with all you kids".

So, here's what I'm talking about: The Pope’s nose is the fatty end of the turkey’s .... um .... end. It’s the round, bulbous, fatty piece from which the turkey’s tail feathers emerge. 

Indeed, when you cut or bite into it, you'll find several strong, quills there, in and among the gelatinous fat and the few strands of dark meat. 

It's gross, actually, but I was always told that it was a "delicacy". 

I came to understand that, for the most part, 'delicacy' is what adults of my youth called food when they didn't want kids to eat it, mostly because it was expensive.

For example, in my house, you were not allowed to eat lobster until you made your First Communion. And then, you got a lobster roll for your First Communion lunch. 

But, The Pope's Nose? Ummm . . . yeah, but no. 

I came to understand that the real reward for getting The Pope's Nose was that you got to be a clown at the dinner table, without any adult reprimanding you to "behave". 

The deal was that my grandfather, who always carved the turkey, got to determine that year's recipient of The Pope's Nose. I'm not sure how that determination was made. Or if, in fact, it was any kind of logical, reasoned 'determination'. 

At that point in the day, he and my father and uncles had already consumed many beers, some of which were "boilermakers" (with a shot of whiskey at the end), so any semblance to an informed choice was strictly coincidental.

But, if you were chosen, well, that was cause for much celebration, accompanied by great, loud laughter and back-slapping among the men.

And, oh, by the way, it was always the boys or men who got awarded The Pope's Nose.  Sometime after my grandfather died, girls got to share the award, too.

You got to put the slippery blob in front of your nose and pretend to be the Pope. You might repeat part of the Thanksgiving grace in "pontifical tones". Or, put a napkin on your head in a point, stand up and bless the table the way the Pope stands at the widow of the Vatican and blesses the crowds below at St. Peter's Square. 

I do remember the time my cousin "Junie" - his real name is Al but he was named after his father so this was a short term of affection for "Junior" - was favored by my grandfather as that year's recipient of The Pope's Nose. 

I remember that, after the prerequisite prayer parody and mimic of the pontifical blessing of the Thanksgiving table, he held it up, pointed it and said, "And, this is what the Pope's "galo"  - a play on the Portuguese word for a male rooster or 'cock' - looks like after all those years of celibacy."

Well! I mean, he was 15 or 16 years old at the time. He had "made his Confirmation" as was said in my family. He was eligible to have The Pope's Nose. But, while the men laughed and slapped their thighs, for most of the women at the table, he had crossed an invisible line of table manners.  

I'm pretty sure it was not an original thought. Indeed, I'm sure he had heard the men in the garage speak of it for years. What was fairly new and bold and daring is that he said it out loud - in public - in front of the men and the women and the children. 

What I do remember is that my grandmother shot an angry look at my grandfather and then gave the "olho mau" - the evil eye - to each and every son and grandson around the table. There was a dramatic silence as she rose from her place and slowly and gracefully but deliberately made her way over to my cousin, whose smile had fled his face along with the color.

She looked him in the eye for a few unbearably long seconds and then smacked him right upside the head. "Oh!" "Owh" and "Hey" came the male voices around the table, as if they, too had been hit.

She leveled them all into silence with a glance before looking back at my cousin and said one word - in English - which underscored and punctuated the meaning.

"Respect!" she said, pointing her finger at him and then around the table. 

She slowly returned to her seat - back straight, head high - and sat down again to silence until she took a few deep breaths, picked up her fork and knife and said, "Eat!". 

The clatter of silverware and dishes slowly rolled into a few indiscernible words here and there, then, sentences, then laughter, and then it sounded, once again, like a family holiday meal.

I hadn't thought of this incident in years. I suppose, given the present cultural #MeToo climate, it's really no surprise that it popped up again after all these years. 

I'm thinking that's what's really wrong with the world today. We don't have strong grandmothers who are able to silence a holiday meal with a glance or stand up to an offender who had violated a societal boundary and smack him soundly upside the head.

What I do know is that it is when memories like that make a holiday appearance, it's probably no coincidence. 

"Respect!" said my grandmother. It wasn't a request. It was a demand. 

Sometimes, holiday memories bring warm memories.

And, sometimes, even warm memories bring important lessons.

Consequence - of some measure - can be a powerful deterrent.

It's not that we didn't know that. Sometimes, we just have to re-learn it.

Funny how that happens.