Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good Shepherd Sunday

As an Episcopalian, I heard one very fine sermon today from our lectionary about Jesus as the “good shepherd,” and now I’ve read other good sermons online. 
We have a marvelous stained glass window in my church.  My photo may not be great, but the window is.  There’s a beautiful Jesus, tenderly carrying a beautiful lamb. 
This window got personal for me a couple of years ago during a “quiet retreat” in my parish.  I happened to sit just below this window.  In my long, quiet time of prayer and reflection, that window, that image spoke to me.  I found myself identifying with that beautiful, vulnerable lamb, and I wished to be cradled and carried in safety and love. Internally, I found myself shouting in anger at that tender Jesus in the stained glass window: “Where the hell were you when I needed to be cradled and carried??”  I’m not delusional. I’m not given to visions.  But, my friends, it was like I heard Jesus quietly responding to me out of that glass: “And when did you give up your ego and your pride and allow me to carry you?”
Wherever it came from, that voice of response was scathingly true.  Much as I long to be nurtured and tended and carried and cared for, my stiff necked ego just can’t give in and let myself be nurtured and carried.  I want it.  Oh, God, how I want it!  But the thought of yielding – the thought of being vulnerable and needy and meek and defenseless – it scares me to death.  It scares me to death!

So about three years after that “silent retreat” in my parish … 3 years after that “conversation” with this image …  I still confront this stained glass window every Sunday.  Jesus and I are still arguing.  I  with my conflicted desires, and Jesus with his invitation. 

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Screaming in Pain

Over two decades ago, I was close to a couple in Texas whose infant had a terrible form of leukemia.  During one of my visits, the mother took the little girl (about 2 years old) to the hospital for yet another treatment, and I accompanied them.  The treatment involved shots. I cannot forget how that little child responded.  She lay still on the table.  She had had so very many injections that she knew what was coming and knew how to behave.  But the pain was real, and she knew it all too well.  I remember being with her when the shots were administered.  She lay quite still as we held her little hands, while she moaned an incantation: “OWEE! OWEE! OWEE!” over and over and over again, but barely moving.
Years later, I had my own pain, emotional and psychological.  I remember holding my arms around myself, and echoing that little girl’s cry.  I couldn't be more articulate than to say “owee” again and again and again as I rocked back and forth, back and forth against the pain.
Yesterday, I had to take my cat Neko to the vet.  A week ago, I had noticed she seemed to have a sort of abrasion near one of her eyes. Yesterday, I noticed it was dotted with blood.  I called the vet and made an appointment to take her in.  Based on past experience, I gave her "kitty Xanax" 3 hours before the appointment. When I bundled her up for the appointment, she was seriously stoned, barely able to walk.  I thought that meant this would be a stress-free vet visit.  But, no.  Once we got there, she turned into Linda Blair.  Much blood was shed by me and the vet assistant. The vet determined we would have to sedate her fully in order to do an exam.  In the process of trying to subdue Neko for the sedative injection, Neko screamed like I can't describe – like a woman being flayed alive. The volume and pitch of it were something I’ll always recall but can’t describe.  I wish they'd given me a sedative, for I couldn't help crying when I saw her so terribly stressed.  
Today, I've found myself thinking about the emotional and physical pain we suffer and how we respond.  How I respond. To physical pain, I generally just whine, but pain meds take care of that.  But my response to emotional pain?  Sometimes I’m able to respond like that little toddler, crying “OWEE” over and over, rocking myself.  I have never had the nerve to respond to emotional pain like Neko did yesterday.  She was screaming in fury and outrage.  Her behavior was primal and true.  I've never had the courage to do that. 
Mostly, I just weep quietly and alone.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Bicycle v Car

Much has been written about the Episcopal cleric who struck a cyclist in her car this week.  I don’t know the facts about that case, and we probably won’t know about them for a while.  But I can say this for myself.
I’m a cyclist.  I love riding my bicycle.  I am fortunate to live near the Katy Trail, where I can ride on a trail and have very little interaction with four-wheeled vehicles. 
I also live just 1.5 miles from my office.  I could ride my bicycle to work, but I don’t.  Because there are very steep hills, on which I could easily gather up a great deal of speed … and I would be sharing those streets with 4-wheeled vehicles that are equipped with seat belts, air bags, side curtains, and hundreds of pounds of metal.  As a cyclist, I am protected by nothing more than a little helmet. Frankly, I am afraid to ride on the streets. 
As a cyclist who is also a driver, I am very attentive to cyclists. I give them the right of way. When I pass them, I give them a wide berth, for I know that a cyclist feels closer to a car than the car driver does to the cyclist.
In short, I think of myself as a very bicycle-friendly car driver.
Last week, I was driving my car out of an alley onto the street.  As is usual, I looked left and right, then left and right again, to be sure no cars were coming.   I pulled out, believing it safe to do so.  To my horror, as I pulled out, I saw a cyclist falling on the sidewalk to my right.  I hadn't even seen him!  He was so small on the sidewalk, when I was looking for cars on the street. Despite what I thought was my careful look, I had utterly failed to see him cycling down the sidewalk.  I immediately stopped, rolled down my window, shouted my apologies, then shouted my concern as to whether he was ok.  He was.  He had managed to stop before striking my car and before hitting the ground.  I hope he heard the concern and grief in my voice.
I was utterly shaken.  After getting out of the car and being sure he really was ok, I proceeded on.  But not easily.  And not without anxiety about “What if …?”  I could so easily have injured him had our paths been just a couple of seconds different.  Cars are so big and so easily seen.  Cyclists are so small and not so easily seen … even for someone like me, who cares for cyclists.  
Please, let’s be careful out there.

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Giving up Christmas

Very, very many years ago I gave up the secular holiday called “Christmas.” I do not like its cloying sentimentality.  I abhor the enforced gaiety of the season.  What is this mania that seems to grip the dominant culture of the U.S., as if we’re all supposed to be joyous and carefree, evidenced by massive expenditures during the consumer orgy that reigns from “Black Friday” through Christmas? 

I am not joyous when I consider my personal status, including the economic fact that I haven’t had a significant salary increase in over a decade.  I’m not joyous when I learn that the homeless population in our small town is growing dramatically.  I’m not joyous when our state legislature ignores the cries of the poor and hungry and sick, while they suck at the teat of Rex Sinquefield.

I’m not carefree when I watch what’s happening in the world around me.  The re-emerging racism in our country, often directed toward President Obama, and the systemic racism manifest in the death of Michael Brown and the aftermath in Ferguson.  The Ebola crisis that continues to grip countries including Sierra Leone, where many of my fellow parishioners still have family and friends.  The seemingly insoluble problems in the Middle East. The miserable chasm between rich and poor in the U.S., where “the American dream” now rings like a hollow joke. 

I can’t begin to count the number of people who, in the past two days, have asked, “How was your Christmas?” The question comes from co–workers who don’t really know me, waitresses, and shopkeepers.  Do they really want an answer?  I doubt it.  It’s like the co–workers whom I pass in the hall who, as they pass me, ask, “How ya doing?”  Do they want a real answer?  No, they do not.  If they did, they would pause and meet my eye as they ask the question.

What do they mean when they ask “How was your Christmas?”  I have no idea.  I had a rich and blessed Advent.  I was blessed to serve as crucifer at my parish’s midnight mass.  I was grateful that a couple of women in our parish decided to make Christmas dinner for all who wanted to come.  It was a blessing to share a Christmas Day meal with so many people whom I enjoy and treasure. 

I had a blessed Advent, while most of the populace was on a spending spree.  I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the church family I treasure.  That made it a “good Christmas” to me. That’s more than I could have hoped for. 

As for the economic American “Christmas.”  No, thank you.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Unrest in Ferguson: What Are We To Do?

One week ago Saturday, 18 year old Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson (in St. Louis County).  I've been watching the news, which was first local in St. Louis and has now become national.  Even PBS and NPR (my go to news organizations) are covering it.  Yet another young, unarmed black man has been killed in our streets.  I grieve his death.  With his family, I also grieve the violence and looting that some people have perpetrated in that St. Louis suburb.

I was grateful to see so many clergy, especially Episcopalians whom I know, march in the streets Thursday in a peaceful protest.  Our bishop, Wayne Smith, was there.  The dean of our Cathedral, Mike Kinman, was there.  I also spotted my friend, the Rev. Marc Smith, there.

With the kind of national attention this is receiving, I assume all black people in Jefferson City are also aware of what's happening in Ferguson. I want to share a bit personal reflection. 

I run errands on Saturdays.  I generally don't pay much attention to anyone I encounter, unless I happen to know them personally. I am focused on my tasks. 

As I ran my errands around town today, a weird thing happened.  Of course, I encountered black people on High Street when I went to lunch downtown and in the stores where I shopped.  I found myself making a point to nod and smile at the black people today.  While I was waiting at a stoplight near home, a group of 8 or so black children [some on bicycles and some on foot] started crossing the street in front of me "against the light" just before the light turned green.  I smiled and gave them a wave, rather than being peeved and asserting my right to proceed the moment "my" light turned green.  

Because of what's happening in Ferguson, I felt a special need to acknowledge them all as persons.  And I probably wanted my nods and smiles today to convey "I'm not one of Those People."  Maybe these were empty gestures of White Guilt.  I don't know.  But I feel that people who enjoy White Privilege [and there's no doubt it exists, and I benefit from it] must do something to express our common humanity with black folks, many of whom surely must be wondering afresh who is "friend" or "foe." 

I know that's not enough.  But I'm too far from St. Louis to march with the peaceful people in Ferguson.  What can a person here do to express solidarity with the people of Ferguson? More particularly, what can someone like me do to express outrage that unarmed black people are gunned down in our streets?  

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dear Diary: August 13, 2014

I had a bit of a drama Wednesday, which landed me in the Emergency Room of the local hospital.  I was able to come home that evening.  Here's the account I sent to my sister and a couple of friends. 

Long story short: I just got home from the ER.  I'm ok, but doc tells me not to get far from home for the next 5 to 7 days.  So, alas, I will not go to Springfield tomorrow & Friday for the training.   
I woke up this morning feeling "weird."  Kinda shaky, dizzy, queasy, unsteady on my feet, and with a headache. I had had a rotten night of not good sleep.  Called in sick to the office and went back to bed.  Got up at noontime, not feeling a whole lot better, but determined to get to the office to prepare for the Springfield trip.  Finally went into the office about 2pm.  
While meeting with the Conservators in the lab from about 3 to 4pm, it got worse.  Got up from chair to get a pencil, and stumbled and nearly fell.  It happened again a bit later.  They were concerned, and I was increasingly concerned.  
Sandy suggested maybe it was low blood pressure, and urged me to go to my doc's office at JCMG, because they'll check blood pressure for walk ins.  I did a few more chores in the office.  I made it to the doctor’s office just before 5:00.
You need to know this about my blood pressure:  I joke that I have "lizard blood pressure."  The top # is usually in the 100 to 120 range, even when I race to the doctor because I'm running late.  In my life, that number has never been above 130.  
So they took me in.  BP was 160/82!   Then listened to my heart, and the nurse (glancing at me while listening), asked "Afib?"  I said, "No, not that I've ever known. Do I have it now?"  She kinda nodded and left the room.  She came back after talking with my doc, and told me to go straight to the ER.   
So I drove myself to St. Mary's and signed in.  I had to wait about 20 minutes before getting into triage.  I spent that time doing my best imitation of a Zen Buddhist: all calm and breathing deep. I think they called that "bio feedback" back in the day.  A way to calm your body's systems. Meanwhile, I was also terrified I was going to have a stroke or heart attack or something while waiting.  
Then they took me into the triage area.  Now my BP was 179 over 80'something.  Crap!  Nurse came and got me settled into a room, hooked me up to monitors, did the usual interview about symptoms.  
ER doc comes in.  Dr. Parks.  This is the same doc I saw several years ago when I woke up one morning with total paralysis of my right hand from the wrist down.  I'm sure she didn't recognize me, but I remembered her.  Liked her a lot.  
Over the course of the next two hours, they did an EKG.  Also monitored various things, like one test where they monitor you while lying down, then sitting up, then standing.  By this time, I was feeling better.  BP was down to the low 150s.  Still pretty darn high for me, but I wasn't feeling as horrible as I had been. 
There were long periods where they just left me alone, while continuing to monitor.  Dr. Parks comes back, having reviewed everything, and says she sees nothing critical.  She says I can go home.  She told me to (a) not travel for the next week and (b) check my blood pressure daily for the next week.  
I asked what the heck could cause my blood pressure to spike nearly 50 points higher than it has ever been.  She really didn't have an explanation.  Said that's why I need to do daily BP checks for the next week, to see if something's happening.  She also encouraged me to come back ASAP if it recurs.  
So here I am at home.  With no idea why this happened.   

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Health Care Inequity

Some of you may remember the story of when I spent two years in Philadelphia and worked in a job I loved but which had no benefits.  No sick leave, no vacation, no health care.  I was also profoundly depressed during that time. So I  informed everyone around me that if I was sick or injured, they were not to take me to the hospital  I preferred to die rather than to rack up medical bills that I could never pay. Fortunately, I had no such illness or injury.
Now I have a job with health insurance.  One condition of that insurance is that we must get annual physicals.  This year, it also required that we get glucose and cholesterol tests. I’ve been keeping the statements about what it would have cost me as an uninsured person versus what I’ve had to pay.  I can’t make a table on Blogspot, but I hope you can see the numbers.

Date                                      Amt Billed             Amt I Owe          Service
April 25                                 $126.00                $0                           glucose/cholesterol tests
June 3                                   $315.00                 $0                           shingles vaccination
June 3                                   $206.00                 $0                           annual physical exam
June 3                                   $6.00                     $0                           some sort of diagnostic lab

This is not fair!  Because I have the good fortune now to be in a job with health insurance, I received $653 in medical services over a five week period, for which I haven’t paid one penny.  But if I were unemployed or working in a job without health insurance, I would owe $653 to my doctor.  Need I tell you how much $653 means to an uninsured person in a low paying job??
And it’s going to get worse.  My mammogram showed “something suspicious” earlier this month, so I had a 2nd mammogram and an ultrasound.  I’ll let you know how those numbers appear.
It makes my head spin that the “Christianists” on the right wing of the political spectrum oppose the expansion of health care. Those people supposedly follow Jesus Christ, who healed the sick. But they have no compassion toward those whom Jesus healed.  And, frankly, it disappoints me that President Obama and the Democrats caved on the Affordable Care Act.  It is patently unjust that those who are least able to afford health care get charged more than I do.  And, finally, I reserve my utter contempt for the Republican oligarchy in the Missouri Legislature, who refused to extend Medicare to the least and most desperate of our citizens … while most of them claim their “Christian” credentials.  Shame on them. A pox upon them.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

My Introduction to the United Thank Offering

This will appear in my parish newsletter on June 1st, but I decided to share it here.
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My Introduction to the United Thank Offering
In late 1998, I packed up my worldly goods from my Atlanta home and drove a moving truck to Philadelphia.  Not because I had a great job opportunity, but because I had friends who had given me a safety net.  Financial ignorance had wrecked my world.  I was broke, and I would have been homeless if not for those friends who found me a place to live “free” in exchange for labor.
During that time, the Episcopal Church found me, as one of my friends was a parish priest there.  I – who hadn’t darkened the doors of a church in two decades – began attending church regularly. Before long, someone gave me one of the little coin boxes from the United Thank Offering [UTO].
I took it to my tiny room, and an odd thing started happening.  While deeply grieving my great fall, I started noticing little blessings in my life.  And I began to drop coins into that box every evening when I had coins, along with some little prayer for a blessing that the day had brought.  
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little coin box was a powerful force in teaching me the habit of gratitude.  I had been spared the horror of homelessness.  The little UTO box became the way I could give thanks with a penny or dime or nickel or (occasionally) a quarter.  And every one of those coins was bathed in a prayer of thanksgiving.  I wasn’t homeless.  I wasn’t living in my car.  I had found a faith community to support me.  I had found a place that would accept me and my two cats.  I was safe, and I was warm in that cold winter.  I saw many other people in Philadelphia sleeping on subway grates; at least I had a warm room in a house. 
Over the next few months, the Grace Stewardship Team is going to write about UTO and its “Little Blue Boxes,” into which we are invited to drop coins and say prayers of thanksgiving. We will distribute those boxes in June and explain more about what the UTO supports.
The UTO is neither a fundraiser nor a stewardship campaign, and none of the coins received will remain at Grace.  The UTO and its “Blue Boxes” invite us to give thanks to God every day for the blessings we receive.  At its base, it is an invitation to a spiritual discipline of gratitude.  

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Those Darn Protestants ... a.k.a. Rushing the Liturgical Season Along

When people ask me if I'm Catholic or Protestant around here, I can't answer. As an Episcopalian, I think I am much more Catholic than Protestant. 

Case in point: Here we are in Tuesday in Holy Week.  I went to get the sacrament of St. Arbuck's today, and this is what I saw on the gigantic billboard of a local Southern Baptist Church: 

HE IS RISEN! 
HE IS RISEN INDEED! 

I kid you not.  We haven't even reached Good Friday, but those dang Baptists are Jumping the Shark over all of Holy Week, straight to the resurrection.  

I am gobsmacked. 

Fundamentalists generally slobber and waller all over the cross.  But not this one.  They're just jumping straight to Easter ... 5 days early.  What the heck's up with that?  

Frankly, I think it's a cheap Christianity that fails to spend time in this Holy Week,  spending time with Jesus through Good Friday ... and then imagining what his followers must have felt through Friday and Saturday. I think we must let our imaginations dwell deeply with it all before we come to Sunday.  That's what I'm doing this Holy Week.  Walking with Jesus.  

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Another Palm Sunday

I’ve been in The Episcopal Church since it found and rescued me in 1996.  And I have never been comfortable with this Sunday. Some call it Palm Sunday.  Some call it Passion Sunday.  For me, it is always a Sunday of deep grief and mixed emotions. 

I love our liturgy and our lectionary!  I really do.  But this day – called “Palm Sunday” or “Passion Sunday” depending on where you are – just tears me up. We start with the marvelous procession with palms and hosannas out on the street.  Then in the long reading of the Gospel, we crucify him again. 

I always have liturgical whiplash at the end of this Sunday’s service.  Today was no different. 

I’m reminded of these lines from Richard Wilbur’s poem
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls
To shake our gravity up.
And surely this young man from Galilee has shaken up our gravity.  He has turned the Torah upside down.  He has brought the outsiders inside.   He has brought promise of a whole new reign of justice and caritas

And this week we’ll go liturgically through his death. Again. Yet again. Just like we do every Holy Week.   Year after year after year. 

Today, as all our parishioners gathered on the sidewalk outside our little parish, with palm fronds in hand … and then processed into the church singing “All glory, laud, and honor,” it was difficult for me to join in the joyful chorus.  Because I knew where the Gospel reading was going to take us.  Where it takes us every year. It was going to take us to a man abandoned by his closest friends.  To a man crying, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  To a man dying a horrible death. 

We go through this cycle every year.  Advent.  Christmas. Epiphany.  Lent.  Holy Week.  And it’s always the same.  We wind up killing this sky-blue juggler who shakes up our gravity.  The weight of it today was almost more than I could bear …  as the liturgy moved from “All glory, laud and honor” to “O sacred head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn.” 

And so I wept through too much of today’s service. 

When will quit killing the sky-blue juggler who shakes up our gravity? 

Lord, have mercy.