The virtue for this month at our school is determination. When our religion team came up with this lead off virtue, we wondered if it was too secular. We pondered how determination fits into a religious studies program.
First and foremost, one is not born into Christianity; The Way requires a choice. I had a Jewish friend in High School. She didn’t choose the faith but was born into it. Her choice, however, was to practice and live out that faith, or not. So the virtue of determination was as important to help her live faithfully as it is to my choice to serve God.
Many around the world celebrated St. Mary’s birthday this past Tuesday. Happy Birthday Mary! When I think of displaying the virtue of determination, I think of Mary.
I can think of five marks of determination: sticking with something until it is finished, asking for help, believing what you are doing is important, setting goals, and resisting distractions. Mary listened to what the angel Gabriel said about how God chose her to give birth to the Messiah. She pondered those things and after discerning it said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me, according to your word.”
Imagine what it would be like for her – an unmarried 14 or 15 year old Jewish girl living in occupied Palestine in the first century. It is difficult enough for an unmarried pregnant teenager in our day and time but the difficulties Mary faced were far harsher. Joseph, the man to whom she was engaged, had the option to stone her to death (to save his name from shame) or to break the engagement. An angel spoke to him in a dream and said to stick with Mary.
Mary’s story goes far and beyond the pregnancy and birth. We have a rare opportunity in the Bible to follow a female from her teenage years until she is at least 45. She stuck with what the angel had told her. She was present at Jesus’ trial. She watched him die on the cross and held his dead body in her arms. She participated in placing him in the tomb and then waited from Friday night until Sunday morning to finish the burial proceedings, preempted because of the Sabbath. She witnessed his resurrection and, according to some, saw Jesus ascend into heaven.
She stuck with the plan. She was determined. Mary had a goal, to let it be with her as to God’s plan. She believed in what she was doing. I believe she must have prayed for help. And, she resisted becoming discouraged. They didn’t have social media back in her day, but they certainly had a social gossip system. Everyone knew she was pregnant and not married. Was Mary teased, bullied, and cut off from her friends? I imagine she was. And, let us remember that when Joseph went back to his hometown, there was no room at the inn, which, in my mind says, Joseph’s family didn’t want him to stay with them. Yet, despite all that, Mary was not distracted, she was determined.
Mary is many things to many different people. To me, she is an excellent example of living a faithful life. I venerate Mary, which means I regard her with utmost respect and honor, because of who she is and how she chose to live her life.
May it be with all of us as it was for her.
Each Sunday during the month of September, we are going to hear from the Letter of James. It is a strange letter. Sandwiched between the letters attributed to St. Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, James combines Jewish thought with a black and white approach to life in Christ. It both condemns and uplifts. There appear to be no general theme, intended audience, connection with the audience (unlike saints Paul and Peter who directly and personally connect with their hearers) or application to a particular time and place. Some call it a paraenesis – device and exhortation to continue in a certain way of life – that reads like a diatribe. On the positive side, because it has no specific audience and is removed from any place and time, it reads like it might have been written last week with many useful applications to our modern lives.
Many have asked throughout the centuries, who is the author? Three men named James are mentioned in the Gospels. There is the Apostle James who is the brother of Andrew and son of Zebedee, the second James is the obscure “James the less,” and lastly is James, the brother of Jesus. Century after century, theologians continue to assert that the author is one of the four brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The brothers seem reluctant, at best, to accept Jesus as the messiah. In fact one story shows they went to “seize” Jesus because he was “out of his mind”; the only thing that stopped them was that they could not enter the house because there were so many people. It was in that house that the well-known story takes place of the paraplegic man who was lowered down through the roof. St. Paul writes that when Jesus made his many resurrection appearances, he met with James alone. Many, including me, believe this post-crucifixion visit was the turning of James’ heart to Jesus as Lord.
After Jesus’ ascension, his brother James became a major figure in the early Christian church. He presided over a bi-lingual Greek/Hebrew congregation in Jerusalem. And, he was the pastor of both gentile and Jewish converts to the faith of Christ. In this setting, James writes about how to live and worship together. He writes, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (1:19) I wonder if James wrote this because Jesus said, “A prophet is not recognized by his own kin,” which seems to be a comment made directly at him. (Mark 6:4) It appears those were times when James was quick to speak in anger. Later on, after rising from the dead, Jesus was able to speak to his brother one-on-one. I imagine then James was quick to listen and worked past his disbelief and anger.
Do you know someone who is quick to listen? I had such a person on my discernment committee in my home church. She would listen to me and to what everyone else had to say. Before she spoke, she’d take a moment, long enough to breathe in and out. I never saw her angry. Her listening produced righteousness.
Imagine how different our American culture would be if all Christians followed James’ example of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. I imagine that is the world as Jesus wants it – one that is slow to anger and always willing to listen.
On Tuesday of the first full week of school, I picked up Elijah from Kindergarten. He was hungry so we sat at the round tables in the courtyard. While Elijah ate the remainder of his lunch, we watched his brother, Ethan, and his 7th grade class in a competitive game of kickball, boys versus girls.
This year, we have our first student from China. Her name is Pei Ling. She is staying with a host family and when she graduates from Saint John’s, she plans go to one of the top high schools in the county and then off to an American college. I find her courage and tenacity awe inspiring. Although she is bi-lingual, there is a lot about American culture that she is learning, including kickball. If it’s been a while since you’ve played kickball, it’s like baseball, played with an inflated rubber ball, but unlike baseball, you can throw the ball at someone to get them out.
Pei Ling was hiding at the back of the line-up. In the second inning, it was her turn to kick. The girls were in the lead by a run, with one out and a runner on third. Coach Montijo said, “Okay, next up.” She shook her head and tried to become invisible in the group of girls. He said, “Everyone kicks; come on, step up.” The girls reassured her and told her just to kick it, “don’t worry about where it goes, just kick.” She timidly stepped up into the batter’s box. George, the pitcher, rolled a good ball to her – not fast but certainly not slow. Pei Ling put her shoulders back and kicked a bouncing line drive past George and to the shortstop. The girls yelled, “RUN!” and off she went. Ethan was covering first and had his outstretched hands to get the ball. The shortstop threw it across the infield and made it to Ethan on the third bounce but Pei Ling was already standing safely on the base. The girls cheered and then the boys joined in and everyone applauded and cheered for her. She stood on the base beaming. It was her first base hit in kickball.
I had goose bumps on my arms because of the support and cheering they gave a shy student from China that they’ve known for only a few days. The teacher didn’t tell the students to cheer and support her, they just did.
During my middle school years, I never witnessed anything like that. When I was in school, the new person would be made fun of until they tried kicking the ball and then someone trying to prove a point would go out of their way to get the new person out. Unfortunately, that’s just how things happen in most middle schools. Saint John’s is no ordinary Middle School.
How can we learn from these students? How can we act more like them in our life?
Each Chapel service at Saint John’s this year starts with the phrase from Jesus, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14, 16) I saw some of that light on the play field. And I give glory to God for being a part of it. May God give me the courage to let my light shine for others to see.
At my home church, Church of the Resurrection in Spokane Valley, there is a way to serve the church called “pig duty.” The church doesn’t have a pet pig but rather an industrial vacuum that looks like a pig. It has a short nozzle that looks like a snout and a large faded-red bag that inflates to the size of a beach ball. The bag inflates above the stainless steel vacuum canister which is supported by four stout wheels that resemble hoofs, and a curly electric cord for a tail. Someone once said it looks like a pig and the name stuck. As you may have guessed, pig duty consists of vacuuming the church. Like an usher schedule, pig duty is listed in the bulletin with a rotating schedule of five people.
One of the parishioners said that pig duty was one of the most spiritual activities that she does all month. It’s a time for her to be alone, in the house of God, and to serve. She feels refreshed and at peace when she is done.
I attended a Benedictine university which believes in St. Benedict’s rule of life, which says, in part, that praying to God and laboring for God are equally important. Fr. Killian, a professor of church history and an avid runner, would tell his students that it is important to study for a test but it’s also important to take a break and do physical exercise. One day I took him up on his offer. Instead of cramming for a test, I went for a run around the wooded campus. It worked – my test score was higher than if I had crammed. Later on, when I’d go for a run, I’d tell my roommates that I was studying.
The parishioner who enjoyed her spiritual “pig time” understands that prayer and labor are intertwined. Instead of laboring in a field (like what Benedict originally declared as labor), she was actually laboring in a church, which, in her mind, was like praying twice. That reminds me of something my seminary professor of church music said: “When you sing in church, you pray twice.”
Some changes have been made in the way that Saint John’s gets cleaned. We are using a cleaning company to clean the church for Sunday. This provides a considerable cost savings for us. It also gives us flexibility. When there is a wedding on Saturday, we can contract with the company to clean after the ceremony; likewise for other events in the church. This change has also provided us an opportunity because the company is not vacuuming the pews (because we didn’t know how often they’d need to be vacuumed and thus didn’t know if we should spend the additional $600 per year for that particular service).
Saint John’s offers many ways to serve Christ, the Church, and the world. And now, we have a new way – Pig Duty. We have a special, hand-held unit that vacuums the pews. It’s small, portable, and while it looks nothing like a pig, you can use your imagination to identify with Resurrection up in Washington. If you are willing to labor thirty minutes a month in service, and therefore prayer, maybe this is the opportunity for you. Friday afternoons from 3 pm to 5 pm is the window and if you are interested, let me know.
God calls us to labor and to prayer. After all, Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” I think this includes parishioners who care for our rose garden, folks who labor making food for the needy, those who raise their voices in choir, our ushers and acolytes, those who deliver donated food, our knitters and prayer blanket makers, committee, group and Vestry members, those who volunteer their time in the office, Sunday school, and for fellowship set up and clean up; it’s all serving God through labor.
What do you like best about vacation? Is it traveling to a new location, relaxing, being with loved ones, reading a good book or all of the above? The Marshalls had a week-long vacation on the coast of Baja California, 73 kilometers south of the United States, in a rental house. The compound was big enough to sleep all twelve of us – my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who graciously underwrote the rental, Christi’s sister, a brother-in-law and our nephew, our daughter Victoria, her husband Douglas, their almost-three-year old Dougie, and the four Marshall crew. The main attraction of the compound was the deck and a short, sandy walk to the beach.
Of all the things I love about vacation, and in particular this one, spending time with family is number one. A close second, however, is television. The house had a fifty inch TV with a monstrous sound system, quite a set up with two amplifiers, one inside and another for outside speakers. The owner walked me through how to access the various components that could turn this sleepy Baja fishing village into a beach party scene to rival MTV. Although the sound system was on for most of the day and night, the television never made an appearance. My kids saw it, were impressed but then realized it was a “Mexican TV” so nothing would be in English. I did nothing to dispel that thought (even though I knew it was connected to a well-known American satellite company which offers hundreds of English-speaking channels). Likewise, I brought a converter that would take a Samsung tablet or smartphone and display it through an HDMI cord. I could have shown their favorite shows on the giant TV through Netflix or YouTube. But I did not tell them I had the cord. Does that omission make me a bad person, parson, or papa? Regardless, it was an easy decision to spend an entire week with my boys with no TV interruptions.
The result of having no television was awesome. Our evenings were spent on the spacious deck watching the waves roll onto the white sandy beach, enjoying the stars at night, and having meaningful conversations (and one crazy night when someone, I won’t mention who, bought fireworks). We had mornings with no TV – so no reminders of the tragedies of the world to start our day. Instead, we played card games, made Play-doh creatures, walked on the beach, played pool, listened to music, drank coffee, and talked. … while pondering where to buy more fireworks.
There was a Cantina five houses down the gravel road, just past the massive security gate. There is a shuffleboard game there that the boys enjoyed playing. Oddly enough, we went during the recent presidential debate which was shown on several televisions placed strategically around the darkened room. It was the first bit of television that we saw in a while. It looked and sounded jarring and alien in small Mexican village cantina.
When we arrived home, no one noticed our own television. It didn’t get turned on for a while. We had gotten used to not living around it.
Vacations are important. It’s good to get away and spend time with loved ones. Although we have settled back into our routine, which includes television, one thing that remains is the time spent together. It reminds me of Mary and Martha – the latter spent time in the kitchen while Mary spent time at Jesus’ feet. Time spent with family is short but, as Jesus said, it is the better part, the one thing that remains.
Parenthood is not a spectator sport. One of the joys (and frustrations) of parenting is watching children choose what to eat and what not to eat. I am really happy when they get excited about a particular food, especially when it’s healthy. On the other hand, I get frustrated when one of the kids says, “I don’t like it,” which usually prompts me to say, “But you haven’t even tried it yet.” Never, ever has that logical argument worked.
When Elijah was an infant, he had difficulty sleeping in his crib. A parishioner gave me The Scientist in the Crib, a book about babies. It did nothing to help. We found out later Elijah had acid reflux. With nightly medicine, and blocks to prop up the head of his crib, Elijah began to sleep. The Scientist in the Crib theorizes that babies are little scientists who test everything, including food. This “testing” is pre-programmed into the brain to avoid ingesting poisonous things. A different parenting book suggests parents introduce new foods by placing them on the child’s plate and on theirs. The child supposedly will see the parents eating it and, after several days the child will eventually try it. Wait, did I just hear you sigh while reading that? Yeah, me too. In the real world, that plan might work just before the child heads off to college after 18 years of hot dogs and chicken nuggets.
When do we reinforce a child’s testing of new foods and when do parents simply insist? I had a co-worker who would wrap up the plate of un-tried dinner food and put it in the fridge. The next day, that plate was brought out for the child who refused to try it (folklore/office gossip on this is that she and her son had a stalemate that lasted five days). I know another parent who sat patiently with the child every night because she could not get up from the table before eating her green vegetable… for hours the mom sat and waited with the child. By the way, green beans do not get better after an hour on a cold plate.
When do we trust our taste buds and when should we just dive in and try something new? When should children be encouraged to use independent thinking and control what they eat and when should they simply trust their parents?
The Psalm for this Sunday has the phrase, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who trust in God!” Fewer and fewer people in our country are willing to taste and see what the Psalmist declares. That might be because so many Christians toward the end of the 20th Century wanted to tell everyone else what tastes good and what is not. I think that makes people unhappy, for the most part, and I believe people who taste God are happy when they do it on their own rather than under explicit instructions.
I’ve seen and experienced the God-of-all-patience who places a little bit of his goodness on a plate and waits. God never forced me to eat. In fact, God is so patient we are allowed to eat even of the sweet and poisonous food of self-righteousness, resentment, and greed; all the while God waits at the kitchen table for us to return to see that God is good.
Have you heard humans only use 10% of their brains? I’d like to say for the record that statistic is untrue. Our brain does a number of functions and at times only 10% of it is activated but the reality is we need all 100% of our brain. Imagine your brain is like a computer processor. If the processor is running at 100%, the computer will probably freeze up. Luckily that doesn’t happen to our brains, unless we happen to sneeze while driving.
The brain is fascinating to me. Did you know that there is a section of the brain that just holds onto nouns? If you’ve ever had difficulty remembering a noun, chances are that all nouns are inaccessible at that same time. When this happens to me, I use the word “thing” a lot, like, “Could you put this thing onto that thing over there?” Maybe that phrase sounds familiar to you. In this instance, I was talking about the phone and the recharger base. There is another section of the brain that holds names. Chances are if you are telling a story and you forget one person’s name, you’ll have difficulty recalling other names, too.
A couple of weeks ago, the Marshall family went to the Museum of Man on a free Tuesday. It was a good experience. The boys enjoyed looking at the full skeletons and interacting with the exhibits. One of the exhibits is an exact replica of “Lucy” a 3.2 million year old hominin skeleton. Lucy’s actual skeleton is held in the basement of my seminary. It was nice seeing an old classmate again, even if it was just a replica. The Museum of Man seems to have a meta-narrative which is that humans evolved from primates. That is fine, I suppose, as long as I have the opportunity to ask questions. One display shows the size of brains. There was a representation of a gorilla brain next to a human representation. The human brain is roughly three times the size. I wonder if gorillas have the same problem with remembering nouns and names? Do they get “brain-bubbles” (or whatever name you call them)? Does the human brain size advantage enable us to do algebra, direct a symphony, create a cartoon, write poetry, make a nuclear bomb, or preach a sermon?
Some scientists believe the human brain is larger because of food, that the diet of raw food eaten by primates has held back the size of their brains. Humans have had a more complex diet, which includes cooking food, and thus have been able to grow larger brains. Maybe that’s why we prefer bacon cheeseburgers over raw carrots. Lucy’s skeletal remains offer scientists an impression of what she ate; they say she preferred seafood and would wade into a salty marsh to dig up clams and grab fish with her hands. Apparently she did not cook things. As one who appreciates sushi and the occasional oyster, maybe I have more in common with Lucy than originally thought.
In this week’s Gospel lesson, I hear Jesus saying, “You are what you eat.” If you eat of the food that is eternal (“I am the bread of life”), you will have life. For as much as I love a cheeseburger or a nice fatty tuna sashimi plate, Jesus reminds us that of all the dietary options we humans have, that we should remember to feast on God’s eternal goodness, love and grace. Now that’s using 100% of our brain.
My son Ethan has taught our cat, Pancake, to walk on a leash. Pancake, who gets lost easily because of a chronic nose infection, loves to go outside. We got tired of searching for our loveable cat so we confined him to our catio (a backyard enclosure that keeps a cat from escaping). Most nights, Pancake would sit on a living room easy chair and stare longingly at the street. Occasionally he’d voice his feelings with a mournful cry and then offer a long stare and swish of his tail at his mean owners. I’d then drop the curtain and usher him to the backyard. That would only make his tail swish at me using words not suitable to print. As I closed the sliding door, I reminded Pancake to not use such language in front of the children. His tail, in other words, tells lots of tales.
Something drew the Marshall family to purchase a red harness decorated with a smiling cat in white embroidery and matching red six foot leash. The leash is made out of an elastic material which seems to be suited to pull a cat over different outdoor surfaces – grass, concrete, beauty bark and landscaping sand. I say “pull” because most cats when wearing the harness prefer to flop down on their side which, on the somewhat positive side, highlights the smiling kitty image on the chest strap. If one wants to walk with one’s cat, the only way to do it is to take the cat for a drag – across the lawn, the street and the landscaping. And that’s how it was with us until we finally caught up to Elijah who was pulling Pancake. The two of them looked like the paddle and ball game with Elijah as the paddle and Pancake as the ball.
After a lot of patience and diligent work, Ethan trained Pancake to walk all the way around Eastlake on a leash. No dragging, no running, the two of them walk all the way around with a few breaks here and there to enjoy the view. Many folks are surprised and energized when they see the smiling couple, a 12 year old holding the leash of a cat. I know that cats don’t smile in the traditional human sense, but Pancake is happy when he’s walking. No longer do we have the mournful cry of a cat who wants to be outside and no longer does his tail swish in an insulting way.
Saint Paul writes that perfect freedom is found in Christ. This is not the type of freedom we might expect. It’s a freedom that is like following a path. Pancake has found happiness with Ethan and the leash. The cat is harnessed to someone who will protect and guide – away from dogs and joggers. At the same time, Pancake is where he dreams to be, outside.
Freedom in Christ involves a leash, you on one end, Christ on the other. He won’t let you walk too far ahead, or fall too far behind. He’ll keep you on the safe path, steer you around overzealous dogs, away from oblivious joggers, and will give you a rest on a rock overlooking a calm lake (and maybe even let you chase a few ducks). Freedom in Christ also shows God’s patience with us. God will train, train and train more. As we flop on the ground and refuse to be led, God will be patient.
For those of us who long to be outside, yet get lost easily, Christ will patiently guide us.
I worked for the Fraud Unit of the Attorney General’s office in college. It was a great experience and helped me learn about the law and discern whether or not I was called to be an attorney. We followed up on consumer complaints. A few of my cases went to court where the State and consumers won. This was the front line of the AG’s office and got us a lot of positive press. Imagine my reaction when I was told to meet with a manager of the Weights and Measures division – boooooring! And, when I met with the middle-aged manager, he said up front, “You Fraud Unit guys always think what we do is boring.” True, I did. But then he asked, “The last time you put fuel in car, how much did you put in?” I told him it was eight gallons. He then asked, “How do you know you put in eight gallons? What if it really was 7 gallons, or six and a half?” He paused and then said, “but I bet you paid for eight gallons.” He said that someday I would want to buy a house and would compare homes with similar square footage. How would I know that one 1,800 square foot home is the same size as another 1,800 square foot home. How could I know?
Later on, I worked for a home electronics retail company (it was not as glamorous as the Fraud Unit, but paid better). I quickly figured out that not all measurements were the same in the industry. Most people thought that a 30 inch television was measured across, not diagonally. Very few realized some manufacturers include the plastic border in their measurement. Likewise, some 100 watt stereos were twice as loud as other so-called 100 watt stereos. Each manufacturer had a different way to figure how their product compared to others, like wattage, viewable screen size, processing speed, low-light sensitivity, to name a few.
Have you noticed lately that it is difficult to buy a pound of bacon? It’s easy to find 12.5 ounces in one package, but not one pound. Have you noticed that food manufacturers seem to be putting empty space in their containers to make their boxes look bigger but their product remains the same? At a Fourth of July party a couple of years ago, a friend was excited about the good deal he got on a six pack of beer only to find out that they were 9.8 ounce cans. I found out today that ground beef has ice mixed into it. Ice. Some mixes put in 20% ice. When you pay $5 for a pound of ground beef, some is water, not meat. Or how about the Hershey’s new “air delight” chocolate bar. Yeah, it’s literally air mixed into the chocolate – less chocolate, more air, same price.
This is not how it is with God’s love and God’s promises. When God promises peace, it’s not a container with 32% air and 68% peace – it’s all full of peace. When God became human it wasn’t mostly human, with additives, corn syrup, and maltodextrin (whatever that is). When Jesus says he loves you, it’s not with ice mixed in to increase the weight, it’s not including some of the love for your neighbor, it’s all you and God’s love. And yes, I do add water to the chalice of wine before our Eucharist celebration, but it’s not to water down God’s love – it’s out of tradition. I don’t think there’s anything I could do to water down God’s love out of the chalice. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s all in there.
As the weights and measures of our economy seem to be in flux, please remember that God’s love for you remains the same today as it was on the day you were born – 100%.