Sunday, June 18, 2017

Trinity Sunday sermon

Preface:
May the words I speak be only truth; let them express the love of God for all of us.
There are three verses in the Bible that I fervently believe should be taken literally.  The first is “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The next is “God is love.”  And perhaps my favorite, from the Gospel of John: “God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”
Note the common theme here: LOVE.
Recently I explained to a friend why the message of God being LOVE is so important to me.  My friend has dealt with a lot of unspeakable heartbreak in his life, and at his recent loss of his foster child, he messaged me with the cynical quip that “the man upstairs must have something out for me.”
He was kind of shocked when I told him that the image of some bearded guy in a big nightgown is not a realistic image of the God I know.
When I explained to him that God is LOVE, and love is all around us, he got quiet.  Of course he asked “kind of like The Force in Star Wars?”  I had to say yes to God being invisible and powerful, but I also had to tell him that God would not hide the droids he was looking for.
God is love.  Not a man upstairs with a long beard in a nightgown, not a George Burns-type character, not even Whoopi Goldberg.  Love.  Pure and simple.  God. Is. Love.

But what about this trinity business?  3 persons, one God? But God is LOVE?  How can we assign three “persons” to a conceptual and omnipresent element such as love?

Well, there are so many different ways that we can love.  If you break it down, those types of love are shown to us explicitly in the relationship of the Trinity: the love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  What types of love they are -- and more importantly how these loves relate to each other -- in the concept of the Trinity.

God the Father.  Think about the love of a father; if not a father, of a parent.  This love is protective, tender, intense, hopeful, and eternal.  It’s the love that wants only the greatest for us, even if it means making sacrifices for the sake of us: “God so loved us that He sent into the world His only Son that WE may have life.”  We often talk about what a beautiful and incomparable sacrifice that is.  Those who have children know that the kind of love a parent has for a child is a love unique unto itself, and no one can replicate it.  The “you won’t understand this love until you have your own children.”  Wanting the best for them, encouraging the best in them, but ultimately having to watch them grow up and be themselves.

God the Son.  Think about children.  When a baby cries, what is the parent’s first action to try to comfort them? They hold them.  Touch.  Corporeal love.  Love that is literally tangible, in our own human form, that we can understand.  Jesus came to Earth as a human – as a tangible being! – that we might understand the love of God in a way that we can touch and hold.  Mary Magdalene loved Jesus tangibly by pouring expensive perfume on His feet and wiping them with her hair.  The woman in the Gospel of Matthew who said to herself “if I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.”  Jesus who rubbed mud on the blind man’s eyes – touched his eyes! – and made him able to see.  Jesus, the tangible emulation of the love that God the father has for us.

And then there’s the Holy Spirit.  Come, Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the FIRE of your love.  The holy spirit came upon the apostles as tongues of fire, and the apostles were able to speak the languages of all of the persons from all over the world, allowing people to come together to hear the message of the Lord. 
People come together in groups around fire.  Think of how many times we use candles in church: candles on the altar, the Easter candle, the candles we light in prayer for ourselves and others.  Novena candles you can find in the Hispanic section of the grocery store.  My favorite moment of the church year is during the Great Vigil of Easter when the Pascal candle enters the dark church and suddenly the entire sanctuary is bathed in a light brighter than one would expect.  Of course my love for everyone holding their lit candle while the Exsultet is chanted isn’t too bad either.  All of these candle experiences are expressions of LOVE.

There is beauty and love in gathering around fires also;  I heard a story of a Cursillo retreat; the first night was silent (as is always the practice).  The power went out, and the leader of the retreat entered the common room to find that the candidates had built a fire, all without speaking.  How beautiful a representation of the Holy Spirit at work, both literally in the fire and spiritually in the silent communication of starting it, and the LOVE that was involved in doing so.

And how do these all relate to each other?  LOVE.  God is love.  Therefore, let us emulate God in loving one another, especially after this Pentecost; after all, Pentecost charges us to spread the message of God – LOVE – into the whole world.

Amen.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gardening

This morning I found myself in my garden space; the one that I hope to be pretty excellent this year, despite my previous record.

The last tenant at our home was quite messy and didn't do much of anything with the house and/or yard; hence the garden area is a veritable command center for dock weed.

I loathe dock weed.  I can't dig it up (easily broken tap roots), I can't kill it.  I've resorted to all kinds of eco-unfriendly methods, including but not limited to pouring an entire bottle of RoundUp CONCENTRATE on the one plant at the base (after making sure it went downward into the roots).  That darn plant came back after a week.  The only damage it seemed to display was that a couple of its leaves were a little misshapen at first... then it was back in its full anti-glory.

So my amazing husband got me a 500,000 BTU weed torch.  (It doesn't kill the dock either, but it's kind of fun to blast.)  It really helps me clear the ground before I plant all of those annual veggies and replace a few of the herbs our puppy decided to dig up earlier this spring.  (Lesson learned: never let a 3 month old vizsla puppy loose in the yard if you're not paying complete attention to him.)

I started doing a little blasting with the torch yesterday and then again today.  Today I felt an almost profound experience as I watched the flames obliterate all of these weeds to nothing but ashes.  I want to honor God and God's creation in this activity, so that I can eat and share the bounty that I cultivated with my hands and by the generosity of God.  How am I honoring God's creation if I am busy obliterating and trying to obliterate the plants that I find "undesirable," just so that I might grow the plants I want to?  Is that really  honoring God?  Is it really honoring the Earth?  Or is it just honoring my desires for tasty food?

I still don't know the answer.  But I am still torching the weeds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Closer to God?

Yesterday our dog walk through the woods was through a veritable ice-rain shower, one that made my face feel like it was being pelted by miniature ninja stars.  I was cranky anyway, as I'd been having stomach issues all day and felt like garbage.  By the end of the walk, I was downright... bitchy.  I said something short to my husband, and he replied that for an aspiring clergy member, my words and behavior were not very reflective of that.

I wouldn't be surprised if you heard my eyebrows slam together just by reading that.  I hate when he does that.

I mentioned it to him today, once I'd gotten into a better place, asked him why can't clergy be human and have mistakes and instances of bitchiness.  He replied "because you're closer to God."

Nope.

I hate to think of any person as closer to God than another person.  (Unless you're being the smart aleck who says someone older is closer to God than someone younger because likely the older person will die first... which husband also said.)

"But isn't the job of clergy to be closer to God?"

No.

I don't think anyone is closer to God than any other human being.  People may look at clergy as closer to God, but I disagree.  Clergy, to me, sometimes function as intermediaries simply because they are more schooled, more studied on the documents and histories of spirituality.  I do think it is the job of clergy to be well-read on documents of multiple spiritual philosophies/religions.  So, closer to God intellectually?  Possibly.  But not actually closer to God;  God is always with us, in us, around us.  Can't get much closer than that.

Amen.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

On rocks and religion

About a month ago, I started noticing something beautiful on our dog-walks.  Along the trail we walk (it's in the woods in a state park), I noticed some rocks at the base of trees, on fallen logs, etc.  Each rock was painted a rather neutral color to fit into the woods, and each rock had a positive message on it.  I remember "ah, songbirds -- the love song of the morning" as one of them.

(I've made my Cursillo, and I immediately thought of these as palanca, but I refused to take them because I wanted them to make other people's days better too.)

One night the rocks disappeared.  I thought the park maintenance workers had taken them, and when I asked them (they know us well), they said they hadn't, so I hoped more would come.

Meanwhile, I started making rocks of my own, and thought I'd add Project Semicolon work to these rocks.  Project Semicolon is a mental health initiative (see link above), and I thought to myself that maybe having the semicolon on them would help people who encounter these on the trail, maybe people who are suffering from depression or even just having a crappy day.  I wrote things like "The universe is glad you are here" and "thank you for being."  I made sure to plant a few that said "your story is not over"... and I put a large semicolon on all of the rocks after the message I wrote.

People started adding them and it was wonderful.  Until someone started adding religion.

This might be unexpected -- I, the Super-Episcopalian, didn't want to see religious messages spread across the trail?  You're darn tootin' I don't.

Here's why.

Religion divides.  As soon as you say "Jesus," a whole bunch of people who think of the bad things about Christianity are automatically repelled from the underlying message.  Same if you say "Allah" or any other specified-by-religion name the world uses for that force of love that is the most universal message of God: it repels those who are automatically repelled by the thought of established religion. (Cases in point: my father, my husband, and me when I was going through difficulties with my faith...)  And suddenly the rocks have chances to generate negative emotions instead of positive ones.

Love unites. Using love without specified religious terms makes these messages more accessible to everyone, religious or not, spiritual or not.

I do not want anyone to be repelled/put off/offended/negatively affected by these rocks in any way.  I'm sure someone will find something to be offended about, but I think that if the specified religious wording is kept away from the rocks, people of different or struggling or nonexistent faiths will feel more comfortable seeing these rocks, and possibly the message of Love will enter more hearts.

And that's what God's all about, no?  It/He/She is about LOVE.  All are welcome.  Why wouldn't we want to welcome everyone no matter what?  And to do that, I don't think that making something feel off-putting will make someone feel welcome.

All are welcome.
Amen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On Confirmation and Reception

Two years ago this past May I was received into the Episcopal Church.  My particular reception liturgy was awkward and chaotic for me.  Our priest-in-charge at my church had just stepped in at that point, and so I missed some of the information that I needed before the liturgy.  So I came in late and wound up walking into the meeting with the Bishop when it was halfway through; 10 minutes before the mass my priest hadn't shown up yet owing to getting stuck at the doctor, and he was in a flannel shirt and jeans when he did.  It was in a tiny church in a tiny town, and the music consisted of a single organist who meets every stereotype of the classic little-old-lady-set-in-her-ways organist who makes so many mistakes that it threw off all the people who actually read music.  All in all, quite the "rinky-dink" service.  It was my mother's first exposure to the Episcopal Church, and I'm afraid that it wasn't the best possible impression for someone being completely uncomfortable walking into the nave (especially someone as well-versed in liturgy as my mother).

This past year was the Reception/Confirmation/Baptism liturgy of my dreams.  It was in one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the Diocese, it had a 40 person choir made up of different choirs from the district (mostly made up of the people from said large and gorgeous church -- which also boasts a phenomenal music program), and there was incense and amazing organ music and phenomenal choir music... I was honored to sing in the choir.  And I got to watch the beauty of the liturgy in one of the most beautiful environments possible.

My first thought was how much I wished I'd waited.  How awesome would it have been to walk down the aisle to Grace Church as a confirmand and see the magnificence of that environment.  And hear the choir!  And have my priest actually in clericals!

But as I watched from the choir stalls, I got to thinking: I've always loved the high liturgy, but how many times do I get lost in it?  (One of the ways I explain the contrast between Episcopal vs. Roman Catholic is to say that Episcopalians in general are a lot more easygoing but they still like to have fun with all the ritual stuff.)  I inherit this probably from my mother, who is so well-versed in liturgy that she knows that you're supposed to genuflect on TWO knees on Maundy/Holy Thursday after the Eucharistic procession (RC church).  Her appreciation of the beauty of the rituals is not lost on me, but how many times do I wish that she missed that one little misstep/wrong order of something so that I wouldn't have to hear about it later and then have my view on the liturgy tainted?

So: was "my" liturgy a message from God, a forced situation of humility for me to learn to appreciate?  I mean, my first exposure to the Episcopal Church was in a very High church (which is what ultimately made me fall in love with it -- the poetry of the Ordinary, the beauty of the hymns, the awesome organ blasting, all of it!), but not all churches of any denomination are "high."

A forced humility.  Sometimes we need this.  We need to see things stripped to their essentials to show that there is something greater at work than incense and loud organ music and magnificent choirs.  The poetry was still there.  The sincerity was still there.  So what if my priest was in a flannel shirt?  God sees what's in the heart, not what is on the outside.  God loves us for us, no matter how we come into a church.  Isn't a church a place of refuge for the fouler, darker parts of our hearts, where we can let it go to God and know we are not judged but LOVED for our not-quite-beautiful clothing and possibly dirty hands?

It took 2 years and seeing this year's really impressively elaborate liturgy to realize what God was telling me and teaching me.

And I'm glad He did.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Lent

"so what'd you give up?"

Invariably we hear the ubiquitous: sweets, chocolate, junk food, cursing... and so many non-observers of Lent leave their knowledge at this.

So what of this "giving stuff up" business that is the first thing "muggles" think of Lent?  Are we masochists?  Are we glorying in our own martyrdom, so that everyone can see what devout Christians we are? 

I never like to think that Lent is about "giving up."  Giving up implies sacrifice, yes, but it also implies resignation.  Why would we ever want to give up?  Give up on our faith?  Give up on our convictions?  Why not come at Lent stronger, more willing to take on the challenges of this beautiful time - a way of NOT giving up.  Lent is not a season of deprivation.  It is a season of sacrifice, but that is not its focus.  Lent is so, so much more.

In Lent we remember.  We remember those 40 days that Christ spent being tempted and tested by the fallen angel Lucifer; we remember the incredible strength it must have taken to experience this: strength of mind, strength of body, and -- arguably most importantly -- strength of heart.  These spiritually Herculean tasks of the Lord are definitely something to remember; what perfect Love God the Son could have and did have to do all of this for us.

In Lent we reflect.  We reflect on what we do, and what we feel, what we are -- outside and in!  In our reflection, we repent also.  This is why, in my Roman Catholic upbringing, there were so many more people going to confession than any other time of the year: they/we reflected, repented of our wrongdoings, and resolved to serve God better in every way we know how.

In Lent we prepare.  Lent is the season leading up to the both solemn and glorious Passiontide -- the most holy week of the church year; that most holy week that culminates in Christ's resurrection from the dead.

We are not here to "give up."  If anything, we are here to do the opposite: to remember, to reflect, to prepare ourselves to journey head-on into the joy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, bearer of all our sins and savior of the world.  And we ask that our actions show our deep love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On Depression and Jonah

In the novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Gail Godwin creates a narrative of a priest who is prone to bouts of depression, who earns the nickname “Father Melancholy” from his parishoners.  Throughout the book, Father Melancholy describes his depression as getting lost behind a Black Curtain, and he can’t find his way out.  When encouraged by his wife to take antidepressants prescribed by his well-loved doctor, Father Melancholy says that he wants to get to the bottom of it, to “look the damn thing in the face… to help me see… well, I don’t know what,” so that he could emerge triumphant.

His emergences in the novel are always sudden.  The passage that struck me most about his emergence was when he told his wife that “these mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, the ham is tasty, and I have a new book from the library I’m looking forward to reading later.”  And as a firsthand sufferer of bouts of depression, I can assure that these sudden emergences sometimes happen; you don’t realize how much better you feel until the moment hits you like a smack to the head that life is, indeed, a beautiful and blessed thing.

What strikes me most about Godwin’s novel, though, is that she never draws Father Melancholy’s bouts of depression to the story of Jonah and the whale.  It seems so obvious: Father Melancholy gets lost behind his Black Curtain, much as Jonah was swallowed by the whale.  They both spend a time in darkness, aching and wishing for light to come, and desperately praying.  And suddenly, the whale vomits Jonah onto shore, just as one evening Father Melancholy realizes that his mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, and that he is looking forward to reading his new book.

And what about our need for these dark moments, for these times in the belly of the proverbial whale, that we may eventually emerge on the shore to see the world in a different way?  So much research has been done on diagnoses of “mental illness” – be it depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. – in those involved in the arts.  Nancy Andreason, a physician-neuroscientist who has studied the correlation between creative persons and mental illness states an interesting perspective to our need for these dark moments: “Did mental illness facilitate [their] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship?  Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties?  Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?”

So is mental illness – depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, or even alcoholism and drug abuse – a precursor to creativity or simply something that comes with it?  Do artists of any type spend their time in dark periods so that they may be spit upon the shore and gain a new perspective with a beginner’s mind?  Is this why people of such creative genius are able to make amazing connections that many have never thought of before?  Does mental illness allow creative persons to feel more deeply and bring those feelings to the rest of the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways?  Do our dark periods, as Jonah in the whale’s belly, ultimately become a gift to us so that we gain a new perspective?


Perhaps we all need to be as Jonah; take a dark period to really examine ourselves with no distractions, no light – just ourselves in an enclosed, quiet, and completely solitary environment.  And once we realize the Lord’s call for us, may we be spit upon the shore and see the world with clearer eyes and a more open heart.