Sunday, August 31, 2008

Proper 17A. 31 August 2008.

         "Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

          One morning in July I was thinking about this text while I was taking Peter for a walk.  If you happen to see me out walking, it's usually for two reasons.  The first one is that I need the exercise, but the second is that it frees up my mind to think about things.  As I walked, I was trying to think how many times I've preached on this text.  I think it's been about five times now.  It appears in various forms in the other Gospels, so we tend to hear it frequently.  The plain reading is that of self-sacrifice and service to the cause of Christ. 

          It's a perpetually challenging text.  Every time it comes up for preaching, I will confess, my belly sinks a little, as if I've had too much water to drink, and I ask myself, "How am I going to preach it this time?"  Because, you see, I don't like the challenge of it.  I don't like the rigorousness of the text.  It's all or nothing.  You can either follow Jesus, giving up everything, or you can go off with the crowds to the next travelling prophet. 

          The text cuts right though the attitude of the casual Christian, the occasional contributor, the ones you only see at Christmas and Easter.  Do you know what I mean?  There's no grace in this text for the person who only follows Christ when it's convenient.  If you want to be a Christian, you have to be one all the way.

           And this text cuts through the Christian establishment, too.  It is still probably impossible for a non-Christian to be elected President of the United States, and yet, can you honestly see a President washing the feet of a Christian foreign dignitary?  Can you honestly see the President of the United States "turn the other cheek" when a terrorist strikes?  No.  You can't imagine that.  Which only serves to highlight the difference between what our culture thinks a Christian is, and what we know a Christian should be from our Bible.  You see that?

          There are so many aspects of the Christian life that even devout people do not fully follow, and they all boil down to how much we're really willing to "take up our cross," and "deny ourselves," and follow Jesus. 

          When I went to seminary, I did so, obviously, as a young man with a pocketful of experience in the real world.  Since I was a very small child I have wanted to do what I am doing now, so it was a real eye-opener to meet people who had given up a lot of things.  One seminarian I knew had given up a lucrative career in the financial world; another had actually put his marriage in jeopardy by following what he felt was God's call.  Another one, who is now serving oversees, was actually shunned by his family for awhile, because they didn't understand "all this `God' business." 

          The Church for that family was like a convenience store.  Need the child baptized?  Call up the priest, we'll go down during the week and have him do it.  No, he won't mind, I'll show him a big check, he'll roll over.  Cathy wants to get married, but the country club is booked?  Fine! I'll call up the Church.  The priest knows I can buy and sell people like him.  If he doesn't want to do it, I'll just tell him we'll move our membership to the Presbyterians…he'll get the picture. 

          So in that family's mind, the clergy were just shopkeepers for religious goods and services.  They didn't want their boy to have such a low-class job, and be paid what he would be paid.

          I heard all this and I started to ask myself, "What have I given up to be here?"   

          What about you?  Do you ever feel that way about this text?  Do you ever get that little catch in your throat, or the sinking feeling in your stomach that you've actually got a long ways to go before you can honestly say you've picked up your cross?  Believe me, I'm not saying this to make anyone feel bad.  This text cuts me up in so many pieces that I almost feel like I shouldn't be standing here.  I mean God has actually let me come home to the Shenandoah Valley…there was no sacrifice there!  (Pause.)

          I think of a friend of mine who is a missionary in Sudan.  After years of parish ministry, which followed a very successful career in journalism, the Rev. Lauren Stanley, a priest of this diocese, has given her life to serving the Sudanese people.  She has been under house arrest.  She has been threatened and intimidated more times than anyone can count.  She's been forced out of the country, and  made her way back in.  She has lived close to the edge financially for years, suffered health setbacks, and yet there she is. 

          She pops up at Council and clergy retreat like a silver tray, just glistening from the good work she's been doing—hopeful, Spirit-filled, radiant.  She's pushy in ways that I can't be pushy.  She can say things I could never say, and I respect her deeply for it. 

          To my mind, she has picked up her Cross—but if you know Lauren she'd probably respond, "Oh, I've got a long way to go before I can say that."

          You see, you find that kind of attitude in people who genuinely give themselves to the faith.  It's not a false modesty—they are simply propelled by the Holy Spirit.  They don't think of themselves as living saintly lives because they don't see their personal sacrifice as a loss.  That's a big difference in the way people think about sacrifice. 

          Have you ever run into a living martyr?  Do you know what I mean?  They've got a long list of things to do, and they claim to never have enough time or energy for themselves.  They're "giving it all."  But they seem to enjoy their own deprivation a little too much.  If you're insightful enough to see past their acting, you can see that the joy they get is from making others believe that they're really giving it all, when in fact, they're not. 

          There's an old story about a wealthy man who showed up at his church after not having gone for years.  And they came to a time in the service when anyone could stand up and testify to what God had done in their lives. 

          So the wealthy man stood up, and said, "You know, most of you haven't seen me at church much in the last few years, but I want to tell you how God has blessed me.  When I last came here regularly, about twenty years ago, the pastor said that if we needed anything, we needed to plant a seed.  Well, I was just starting off, and I didn't have much money.  In fact, I only had one dollar to my name and it was in my pocket.  So when the offering plate came buy, I put my dollar in.  I put in everything I had, just like the Widow's mite, I put in ev-'ry-thing I had."

          "Well, to make a long story short, things started looking up after that, and now I'm a multi-millionaire. I have three houses, five cars, a boat, a beautiful wife and three beautiful children.  God really blessed me after I put in that plate ev-'ry-thing I had.  Thank you, Reverend."  And the man sat down, grinning.  He glanced down the pew and saw one of the venerable ladies of the church.  She leaned over to him and whispered, "I dare you to do it again." (Pause.)

          Have you ever heard someone say, "That's just the cross I bear?"  We use that expression, don't we?  Anything that seems like an obstacle in life becomes our "Cross to bear," but that's not really what Jesus means, is it?  No.  Having a sweet tooth is not a "cross to bear."  Having a tricky relationship with a spouse is not really having a "cross to bear."  It's not about annoyances to an otherwise, relatively speaking, easy life.  Taking up one's Cross is a deliberate act of living the Kingdom of God.  It means making the faith of Christ the dominant and decisive force in our lives—the central factor for all decisions.  (Pause.)

          I want to tell you about a dream I had awhile ago.  I don't often share dreams, because it seems indulgent.  People tend to get a little glassy-eyed when you tell them you'd like to share a dream, because a.) you don't know if you'll be able to understand it, and b.) you have no idea what to say about it.  So I promise, I won't tell you about many dreams.

          I had this dream about a very special place.  And in this place there were people who believed in Jesus Christ.  They believed that he has the words of eternal life.  They believe that he died, and rose, and ascended into heaven, and will come again. 

          And in this place the people who believe in Jesus get together regularly to share the wine and bread, and read the Scripture together, and sing songs, and pray, and connect with each other at a heart to heart level. 

          And then, when they're not together at this place, they pray for each other, they try to draw new folks into their community, they serve Christ in the places where they're employed, but they always come back to this place where they pray, and sing, and listen, and share.

          That was my dream.  The most amazing part of the dream was when this group of people knelt down to ask God for forgiveness.  During the dream, I think I cried at that moment, because it amazed me how these people felt in their conscience that they wanted to pick up their crosses more than they had.  That they weren't "there" yet, and they wanted to ask God to forgive them for not giving as much of themselves as they could have.  It was the most beautiful part of the dream.

          Well, I had this dream on a Saturday night, so as you might imagine, the next day I got up to come to church.  I have a little centering moment before the three services of the day begin, and so I was sitting on the second row, right here.  And as I prayed, I closed my eyes and I began to think about my dream.  It was a beautiful dream—all the praying, and singing, and sharing, and Scripture reading.

          The carillon started ringing 8 o'clock, so I got up from my pew, and walked up to the chancel to start the service, and I looked out at the people gathered.  And that's when it hit me.  That's when it all became clear.  It wasn't a dream.  It's real.

          What I am saying is: We might still have a ways to go.  We might not have picked up our cross as much as we should, and we know that.   But even still:  We are the Church.  We are the Kingdom of God.  It's what we are, and, at the same time, what we are becoming. 

          I think that's pretty special.  Don't you?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Heading back

Vacation ends tomorrow.  I'm back at the Altar and Pulpit for another year, starting tomorrow.  We didn't really go anywhere.  In fact, since we're so busy with Maggie and Peter, most days have been virtually identical in rhythm.  We stick to a pretty strict schedule for the children's sake.  It would not be a stretch to suggest that this sort of behavior lends itself to a kind of madness.  Four people in six rooms, or outside, living the same schedule day in and day out.  All this to say that I'm looking forward to going back to my office during the week, and I absolutely can't wait to get back to seeing the people of Beckford Parish. 
There will be a sermon tomorrow, again, on the blog, and in the email inboxes of those who receive them directly.  During the walk this morning I wrote (in my head) a draft of the one to come next Sunday.  My head's already back in the game...but then was never really out of it.  The little squirrel never stops running on the sermon treadmill.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Here, we wave

In the Shenandoah Valley, as in many, many other rural southern areas, it is still a venerable tradition to wave at people, regardless of whether you know them or not. I grew up with this tradition. I don't remember at what age, but I remember as a boy asking my father why he waved at that man, and did he know him. No, he said, you just wave.

I did that a lot growing up, but when I went to Alexandria for seminary, well...those big city people don't wave at anybody. Even if you know them, they only wave reluctantly. So, on from Alexandria to Stafford. Stafford County has grown so quickly that it's technically suburban, but with a country culture. Still, Stafford is so close to Quantico that the place is simply crawling with Marines. If you don't have a Marine decal on your car or truck, no wave for you. On to Gordonsville.

In the Piedmont they wave, as long as you drive a pickup truck. Car people don't wave. Well, I should say if you drive a car that isn't fifteen years old, they don't wave. To get a wave from anyone while driving a car that was made during the GW Bush years, you'd better have a sticker from the North American Hunter's Association, or the NRA, at it better be a domestically made car. But if you drive a VW (guilty) or a BMW, or a Volvo, don't look for anyone to wave at you.

But see, here in the Shenandoah Valley, God's country, (Address? Well, you would ask. I don't know for sure, but I think he picks up mail somewhere in the Lantz Mills/Wakeman's Grove area. A friend of mine swore he had a pied-à-terre in Jerome, and honestly, I wouldn't be surprised. If you ever get out that way you'd swear it could have been original site of the Garden of Eden.) But see, here in the Shenandoah Valley, where Apple Butter is not a condiment, but a serving of fruit. (Actually, it's a way of life, but I digress...) And where Barbeque Chicken from the Lions, the Rescue Squad, the youth groups, any town anywhere tastes exactly the same. And where people actually have secret recipes for ham...Here, we wave.

We wave at you whether you're in a Lexus that just pulled off the lot, or an F-150 that goes back to Nixon. We wave on the way to church, and on the way to Wal-Mart. We wave even if we've got a cup of coffee in our hands. It's simple, really. You don't actually need the other hand. Simply using the hand that rests casually on top of the steering wheel (where it belongs), extend your index finger as the opposing car drives past. If you know them, and like them, extend both index and second finger. The two fingers together can be somewhat too familiar if you don't know them that well, but it happens so quickly, no one will call you on it. If you are a lady, of the female persuasion, you'll probably use a full fingered, full hand wave. That's just fine. But guys, you keep those fingers together, and just pop the hand out, hold it a split second, and then pull it back. That's how it's done. If you don't want a wave, get your espresso and your copy of Architectural Digest and drive on. In this demi-paradise, this other Eden, well....We wave, darnit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Son laughs

Meister Eckhart, that Dominican monk, is reputed to have said, "Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us."

I have variously liked and disliked this quotation. I have disliked it because I'm a pretty strict Trinitarian, of the Thomistic school that there are three persons, undivided, yet without confusion, of single substance and purpose, but with their own subordination. In other words, the Son, Spirit and Father are all three persons with no hierarchy. The Father is not greater or less, likewise the Son, likewise the Holy Spirit. Yes, that's what I believe as a member of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

In fact, this day began with the recitation of St. Patrick's Breastplate, which I like to pray many'a morning, "I bind unto myself this day the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the three in one and one in three." I pray a little litany of the same during my walk with Peter each morning, "Blessed be the Trinity. Blessed be the Son, Blessed be the Holy Spirit. Blessed be the Father. Blessed be the Son's birth, death, and resurrection. Blessed be the Father's love. Blessed be the Spirit's fire." Etc.

So, today the litany, which is improvised, went on for most of the walk. Peter always knows when I'm praying, and amazingly likes to play quietly and not interrupt Daddy. The day has gone pretty much to plan, and after a good nap, His Nibs and I decided to go outside to play. I set up my chair underneath the weeping cherry, where there is shade, and Peter began to play around. At one point he hurt himself on his little truck, and came over to Daddy for some comfort. I held him for awhile, and then cradled him--big as he has become--in my arms. His face looked up at me, grinning in the dappled sun light, and I looked down at him, grinning also. For a moment, frozen in time, we just stayed that way, the light playing games on his face grinning at me, and I was grinning at him, looking into each other's eyes. And then, he laughed. And I laughed back. And the father laughed at the son, and the son laughed at the father, and well...maybe Meister Eckhart was right after all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Daddy, I'm hungry...

I'm reading Angela's Ashes, and the steady refrain of McCourt's narrative is that of his father squandering all his money on booze, leaving the author, his siblings, and mother hungry.  It's a painful memoir. 
I remember a Fred Craddock story about a woman who got up to speak at a church gathering and said only three words per sentence, each time in a different language, until she finally got to the last one, in English, letting the congregation finally know what she had been saying.  The three words (actually two and a contraction) were, "Mommy, I'm hungry." 
Usually, when Peter asks for a snack he's specific.  He'll say, "Daddy, can I have some fruit snacks?"  "Daddy, can I have some animal crackers?"  There is never an emotional response to that in me.  I just get him the crackers.  But recently, instead, he said, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  It really got me.  I mean, I almost started crying, because I know I can provide for him, but it tears me up to think that children all over the world are saying those words to parents who cannot, for many reasons, give them anything. 
Of course, there is hunger, and then there is "being hungry."  Very different.  Being hungry, peckish, a little munchy, is very different from not having much food, ever.  Or not knowing when the next meal is coming, or if it will be safe to eat.  Hunger is serious.
I once was going in to a meal with others, and casually asked a friend, "It's dinner time, are you hungry?"  He said, "I haven't been hungry for many years...not since I was a boy in Scotland.  Then I was hungry, but I haven't been hungry since."  I don't remember what we had for dinner that night, but I do remember not being able to taste the food.
At the top of this page there is a button for "The Hunger Site."  If you click on that button it will take you to a page where, everyday, you can click another button to give food to the world's hungry.  It won't cost you a dime, and you can do it everyday.  Next to that button there is another one for the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund.  I commend these buttons to you.  And I ask you to think, pray and give so that fewer parents have to cry over their starving children, and fewer starving children have to say the words, "Mommy, I'm hungry," to parents who have nothing to give them. 
And tonight, when you bow your heads to give thanks for food God has given you, know that it has come from a kind and generous father who has responded to a prayer you probably haven't prayed out loud in a long time...probably not since you were a child.  You know that prayer, right?  No?  Let me help you. 
It's just three words.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Everybody needs a flower bed

Okay, I'll admit that I'm a little obsessed about marigolds. Marigolds are wonderful. They are traditionally grown in honor of Mary (Mary's gold) around monasteries, churches, and residences of devout Christians, but I think I would love them even if they were called Poopy Pansies. They are beautiful; they bloom all summer, they smell great, and when the bloom fades, the whole flower head becomes a treasure trove of seeds for next year.

But regardless of what flowers you decide to plant, everyone needs a flower bed. Everyone needs the anticipation of seeing little flower heads break open. Everyone needs to water and tend and care for little flowers. Everyone needs to sit next to them and ponder how something so beautiful can come from little tiny seeds, and know that it is by the collaboration of God and us that such things come to bloom. Everyone needs a flower bed.

I need a flower bed.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Blessed be God

I have many favourite parts of Episcopal Church liturgy, but the one that reverberates in me is the opening acclamation.
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever.  Amen.
Blessed be his kingdom where the poor are rich, the sick are healed, the sinner finds pardon, the world is refreshed.
The other day, Karin, Peter, and Maggie took off in the double stroller for a walk, and I was on the way to catching them up.  I was admiring the beauty of the street we live on, and its sister on the other side of the stop sign.  It was just about to rain.  In fact, I knew that sometime after we reunited and before we got home, the sky would unzip.  As I gazed up at the storm cloud, the majestic trees waving as the rain moved in, my heart sang out, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and blessed be his kingdom now and for ever. Amen."  "And blessed be the Mother of God, Mary, ever blessed; blessed be womb that bore the Word made flesh.  Rejoice and be glad O Virgin Mary, for the Lord has truly risen!"
When I think of her, learning for the first time that Jesus was no longer dead, I see her joy, and I see that joy in the faces of mothers who continue to check their babies, children, adult children, to see that they're still okay.  You see, she is not as mysterious as you think.  Her face might be yours from time to time.
There came Karin and Company walking along.  And the rain started to fall.  Blessed be God.  Blessed be his holy Name.  Blessed be Mary, virgin and mother.  Blessed be Joseph, her loving husband.  Blessed be all the Saints, Angels, and all the Faithful Departed.  Blessed be the Kingdom of God, the Family of God, now and for ever.  Amen. 

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"By this my Father is glorified..."

I am terrifically blessed to live next to a retired Toro equipment sales rep, who mows my lawn for free. He actually asked me if he could mow for me. (Cf. It takes all kinds) He's great guy. He has helped me take two loads of branches to the dump.

Yesterday, I got a little crazy and trimmed every tree in our yard, completely removing about five saplings and a huge overgrown bush in the back, as well as significantly pruning a forsythia that had been overgrown for years. This house used to be a rental property, and I think for years and years the landlord simply made sure the grass was cut, but no real yard maintenance was done.

Everything looks a whole lot better now, but I've got truck loads of piles. I told my neighbor's wife that I'd take care of it, and thank goodness I have an uncle who's going to show up tomorrow to help me cart all this stuff away. We'll probably be working the whole afternoon, if you'd like to come help?!

I have become very fond of pruning, propagating, trimming, uprooting, planting and all. It's great exercise. You see your accomplishments (which you never really do in ministry) because they are concrete. You can point to this tree or that and say, "You see that...I trimmed that up...looks a lot better, doesn't it?" And the Rev. Mrs. MacPhail will nod, and then with painful honesty say words to the effect of, "Was it that bad to begin with?"

While trimming the forsythia yesterday, I had an interesting experience. I would cut away dead and dying branches, and as if by miracle, I would discover these beautiful, young, green branches behind them. I began to see this bush not as a single plant, but as a community of shoots, all striving for the light, all with differing maturities and sizes, all trying to live.

It was a painful thing to think about, quite honestly, because I began to think of them in anthropomorphic ways. Cutting away the old branches became cutting away the longstanding parishioners, making a way for the younger fellers. I didn't like that. Those branches were old, and on the way out, but did I have to cut them? Did I have the right to cut them?

It became a rather emotional chore all of a sudden. See, I don't like the idea that things that grow old are no longer useful, because I don't want some young feller elbowing his way into my pulpit someday, even though I understand that that's the way of the world.

I trimmed away the dead branches, pruned up the sagging elderly branches, and then I got out my baler's twine and tied up what remained. Did those shoots need to be tied up? Well, maybe not. I reasoned with myself that it was to support the bush in the wind, but it might have been simply that the parish priest that I am had to do something to hold that bush together. The young needed the strength of the old; the old needed the support of the young.

I looked at that bush this morning with the orange twine absurdly wrapped around its middle. The breeze was blowing, and the branches swayed together. It looked healthier...but I still feel a little uncomfortable about it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Angela's Ashes

I've been reading (please don't tell me how it ends) Angela's Ashes, the heartbreaking memoir of Frank McCourt. The perspective is Frank writing as a little boy, being taken care of by a striving mother left helpless by a selfish, arrogant, alcoholic father. It's a bitter tale. At least the father is not abusive physically (so far), but I simply can't imagine watching one's father work for a week, get his pay, and spend all of it (that's right ALL of it) drinking at the pubs before coming home late at night--essentially leaving his wife and children to starve. He won't carry anything home, whether it's money or food.

The book makes you want to find this man and beat him to within an inch of his life, get him sober, and then beat him some more. I am deeply grateful that none of this book reminds me of my own family or childhood, but the anger I feel vicariously for the author--whose voice is strangely absent any frustration--is frightening.

A couple months ago, I watched a documentary on PBS about the historic pubs of Dublin. I thought it would be interesting, and it was, and it was hosted by Frank McCourt. It might have been watching that documentary that led me to read his book, I don't know. But what continues to confuse me is how Mr. McCourt is able to host a documentary on Irish pubs, having been a childhood victim of an alcoholic.

I want to call him up to ask how he is able to write so dispassionately about years of his father's drunken negligence, and then, just as dispassionately be the host of a documentary on the pubs. I think I know how he can do it, but my suspicion going to sound awfully cynical:

The check cashed.

Monday, August 11, 2008


For the last two Sundays we have worshipped at Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), and are looking forward to Lutheran and Methodist churches before the month of vacation is over.  The two Christian churches are those of colleagues/friends of mine who are pastors of those congregations.  It has been very refreshing to worship in another denomination, just to see how things are different.
I grew up in the Church of the Brethren and I have to say that the liturgy in the Disciples of Christ churches is very similar.  We didn't do Communion every Sunday with the little cups of grape juice and bits of bread, but that was the method.  The silver tower of trays brought back a lot of memories.  In the Episcopal Church, of course, we have a very different theology of Holy Communion, and method for receiving it.
It is fascinating to me that in the Disciples, and as I recall in the Brethren Church, all receive the bread and grape juice first and then consume.  It is a memorial.  The action is not sacramental, but very egalitarian.  I do prefer the sacramental consecration/anamnesis, but it is an interesting experience to receive the elements at the same time as everyone else.
It's also somewhat wild to have singing, lesson, offertory, Communion, reading, sermon, and benediction.  In the Anglican/Episcopal and Roman Catholic world, the word benediction can mean a final blessing at the end of the service, but it can also mean an entire service (Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament) when a priest blesses the congregation with the reserved sacrament as it is exposed in a monstrance.  It is a lovely and deeply moving service that I would love to conduct some day--Bishop allowing and people consenting.
As I sat there thinking about the wildly different theologies in the whole Church Universal, I had to smile.  It is still just eating and drinking, but my gracious! how there is room for us all to think of it in different ways.
We refer to the world-wide collective of Anglican provinces as "The Anglican Communion," precisely because we understand Communion as both a sacramental sharing, but also a bond of affection.  For Anglicans/Episcopalians, this and Holy Scripture is all we really have to keep us together.  And, I believe, the only things we really need.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Saturday, August 9, 2008

For those of you who read

If any of you actually saw this space this morning during the precious few minutes between 8 and 9am, you would have viewed a posting that not longer exists.  This happens to everyone from time to time.  You write something that, upon reflection, you know you simply shouldn't.  It's an occupational hazard for people who deal in words and thoughts. 
I once got myself seriously in trouble with an email.  I labored over it to make sure it couldn't get me in trouble, and yet, it promptly got me in trouble.  Sometimes things just shouldn't be communicated.  And quite often either God's voice, or our little boy or girl inside, says, "Uhm...ek-hem...`scuse me...but, really shouldn't have written/said/thought that."  If you're lucky, you can avoid damage: the email not sent, the blog entry deleted, the letter shredded.
Have you ever read some of Paul's letters all the way through?  St. Paul had some interesting things to say.  In the letter to the Philippians he's talking about this and that, and then suddenly he writes, "Euodia and Syntyche need to get along and stop fighting." 
Philippians is one of those letters that probably sat on the desk for a couple days.  I would imagine that even once it was sent Paul probably paced the floor wondering how that was going to play out.  Euodia and Syntyche were two women who were leaders of the church in Philippi.  Paul is essentially calling them on the carpet.  "Suck it up, ladies...the Church cannot afford your fighting."  It was a pretting big bomb to drop on that little `ole church.  You can almost see the congregation sitting there, listening to the reading of the letter.  Suddenly the reader falls silent, not sure if he should read what's there, and then he reads it, and eyes start to dart around.  People glance at Euodia and Syntyche, who where probably studying their sandals at that point.  Wouldn't you have loved to be the priest at that service?!!  Imagine coffee hour afterwards.
But there's a big difference between being necessarily corrective and just being opinionated.  Funny though...speaking from experience...when it's your proverbial tuckus on the line, they feel an awful lot alike.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Story time

Before my son's naptime and bedtime, I always read him a story. Lately he's become very attached to Dr. Seuss, which I believe is mostly because he knows that Daddy prefers the works of Mr. T.S. Geisel to any other children's authors. He knows this because I become somewhat animated when reading them. Lately it's One Fish Two Fish, but a consistent favourite is certainly Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Today at the library, Master MacPhail actually picked up The Butter Battle Book saying with some excitement in his voice: "Docka Soos! Docka Soos!"

For naptime we read The Butter Battle Book. If you are unfamiliar with it, it's a pretty thinly veiled criticism of nuclear proliferation. (I think TSG was a Democrat, what do you think? Read TBBB and The Lorax...I think it's pretty obvious he was a bleeding heart liberal.) But that's not the point.

The point is that this evening followed a day of no nap, meaning that he was put down for a nap, but never fell asleep. So this evening's bedtime followed an afternoon of crankiness on the part of myself and my son. We sat down together, both exhausted from a day of testing each other's love, and after a reading of One Fish Two Fish. I looked over and asked, "Do you want me to read Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?" "Yeah," he said. "No," I said, "Do you really want me to read it, or what?" Head nods, "Yeah," he said. So I read it.

Mid-way through I look over at him. He grins. I continue. He straightens up, and hugs me, planting a kiss on my upper arm.

Now, let me explain, again, it's been a loooooong day. Time outs were had. Daddy was very close to the edge. Things had been said that could not be taken back. Stomping and whining had been a source of constant frustration. Still....Daddy clearly loves to read this book to Peter, and somehow, the fact that the cycle repeats itself despite the time-outs and the foot stomping, the head bonks and the diapers, somehow the repetition is a reminder that Daddy loves Peter and Peter loves Daddy, so it's okay to go to bed again.

You see how that works? It works by repetition. Another diaper, another snack, another meal, another reading of the same book, another diaper, another juice, another story.

Day and night, sin and repentance, discipline and blessing...

What do you call it? Life? No, dear, no... It's faith. Faith that the same story that was true tonight will be true tomorrow. That crucifixion joins hands with resurrection, Morning, Evening, Morning, Evening...on and on...and on. And God continues to sit down, open up the book, and read the same story. Do you see how that works?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The chance of thunderstorms

It was supposed to rain today.  On the website I checked for a local forecast, which usually gives a percentage of our chances, no percentage was given.  It just read, Thunderstorms, Rain.  It was a very authoritative forecast, and yet, except for a few sprinkles, nothing.
The website said 30% chance in two days.  Doesn't seem like much to go on.  I wonder what it would be like if we functioned like the weather. 
"Hi, David?  Yes, I'm looking forward to your birthday party next week, except, well, I'm afraid I can only give you a 30% chance that I'll be there.  What?  No, I can't give you a reason.  I might be there, but 70% of things look like I'll have to be somewhere else.  I'm sorry about this."
You go into the doctor's office for an appointment.  And you say to the nurse, "I suppose the doctor will be by in a few minutes, right?"  The nurse responds, "Well, she's with someone else at the moment, but I'd say there's a 45% chance she'll see you before she heads home."  "That's okay," you say, "there's probably only a 7% chance I'm going to pay the bill."
You see, the laws of quantum physics are not entirely without humor or benefit. 
By the way, I can give you 3% chance that I'll write a blog entry tomorrow.  At present, 97% of things look like I'll be busy with something else.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


I have loved gardenias for a long time. So has my mother. My mother gave me a gardenia bush shortly after we moved into our house in Woodstock, and I have researched its care. There is a lot of conflicting advice about keeping gardenias alive. For instance, the little tag said not to fertilize when blooming, but lo!, it has responded beautifully to tea leaves and plant food (1/2 strength, of course.) The direction that annoys me to no end is this: soil should not be too wet or too dry. Well, how do you make sure?

My mother gave me a tester that tells me how wet the soil is and it lives in pot with the root system.

When I was a boy, I went to a wedding where gardenias were absolutely everywhere. In fact, I remember fresh blooms were on the cake. Ever since, I have associated gardenias with that crisp, fresh, yet sensuous feeling of weddings.

This morning I was sitting outside next to my gardenia bush (pictured above) with Maggie in my arms and Peter playing around us. As a gentle wind blew over the seven new blooms we were treated to the heady fragrance that I love. With the temperature at just 74, and low humidity, no bugs, it was a near perfect way to wait for the Rev. Mrs. MacPhail to ready herself for church. I had that gardenia experience thanks to my mother.

As I was enjoying this experience, I remembered a couple years ago reading a story about an unmarried woman who, since she was a teenager, received a single gardenia bloom every year on her birthday, The man from the flower shop would stop by with a tiny box. The woman writing the story said, "I knew every year, exactly what it would be. No note. No idea who could be sending them." She went on to talk about the romance of it, wondering if they were from a secret admirer from childhood. Again, no note ever accompanied the box. They could be coming from anyone.

The mystery gardenia came year after year, and soon family members from the generation before her began to die. She knew it couldn't be her grandmother when the gardenia arrived after her death. Or maybe it was. She mused that it was possible that some endowment might be set up to continue the tradition, but who knows? Grandmother had been the prime suspect.

Her father died. That was a blow, of course. And amidst the sadness of that year, on her birthday, there it was: a single gardenia. Couldn't be Dad. Friends, relatives, classmates, all began to fall ill and die, and still, the little box arrived on her birthday.

Almost every year she asked her mother, "Do you know anything about these gardenias?" Her mother would slowly shake her head, wishing she could respond with something more helpful. She said, "I'm sorry, honey, but it must be someone who loves you very much." Another couple years rolled by, until one year her mother died. That was the hardest year. Her brother had been unable to help with the arrangements for some reason, so she was left to bury her mother without his emotional support. The months dragged by. And one morning, she woke up late. It was her birthday. She got up and threw on some clothes, because the gardenias always arrived around 9:00am. She sipped her coffee, waiting at the window for the yearly bloom to arrive.

I'm sorry to have to tell you. It never did.

Hot Air: Part Dos

Another sighting this morning in the backyard...spooooky.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Grandfather's Chair

My grandfather's easy chair bit the dust a couple days ago. It was not as emotional a moment as I expected it to be. I had lugged it from Bridgewater to Stafford. Stafford to Gordonsville. Gordonsville to Woodstock. Grandfather brought it down from Pennsylvania to Bridgewater back in the early 80s, and it was possibly twenty years old then. So, the chair was a child of the 1960s, perhaps 50. I don't know for sure.

I have many memories of seeing my grandfather after a long day wood-working, or working in the garden sitting in that chair, listening to Beethoven, peeling an apple with his pocketknife--the peels dropping between his knees onto an old newspaper. I have memories of sitting in his lap on that chair, kissing his cheek and telling him I loved him. He was never comfortable with that. He was from a generation when children didn't get too close to their grandparents, or say anything quite as emotionally vulnerable as "I love you." He never knew how to respond, except that I do have a memory of him slightly betraying a grin and saying, sotto voce (lest my grandmother might overhear), "I love you, too."

I was leaning back in the chair. You had to because the base had somehow lost the ability to center the weight of an occupant, and I heard the sound. You know the sound. It's the sound of something significant. It's a sound you don't question, because it's too loud, too definitively final, (ironically, perhaps) like the last note of a Beethoven symphony.

The man on the phone down at Public Works assured me that if I put it out with the trash that they'd take it. "Really?" I said, "It's a easy chair, not a folding chair." "Yes, sir, I understand," he said, "We've even taken couches...if we can't get it in the truck, we'll come back for it with something else, but we'll get it for you." So, out went the chair, next to the trash bin. I was watching for the men to come this morning. Peter was sitting on my lap, happy to see the big truck with the men in reflector jackets. The men picked up the chair, like any other piece of waste, and heaved it into the compactor. There it went.

I really thought I might be moved to tears, but no. I kissed Peter on the forehead, made a second cup of coffee, and the next minute came and went. There was a twinge of regret about letting it go, but the stuffing had molded, the seams in the side had split, and the arm covers were completely shredded.

My guess is that Grandfather would probably be proud of me for getting rid of it. I can almost hear him saying, "I never cared much for that chair anyway."
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