Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Greatest Enemy

     "Have mercy on me, O God, for my enemies are hounding me; all day long they assault and oppress me…"
          – Psalm 56:1
     Using the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer for both morning and evening prayer has been my spiritual practice for many years. You go through the entire Old Testament in the year, twice through the New Testament, and the complete book of Psalms spins by at a dizzying pace every month. Frequently in the Psalms, there is talk of "enemies": Enemies who oppress us; enemies who plot against us; enemies who wish to take our lives. I've always had a hard time with this kind of talk. Jesus said that we are to pray for our enemies, not beg God that their blood be running in the gutters. So, I get to a Psalm this morning that is all about enemies, and I really can't think of any. Maybe I can think of hypothetical enemies such as vague terrorists plotting half a world away, but I don't want them destroyed; I pray for their hearts to soften and for the unjust social structures, such as grinding poverty and loss of hope that give rise to terrorism, to be undone. It isn't that I can't think of people in my life who don't care for me – Lord knows I'm an acquired taste; part of achieving maturity is recognizing that not everyone is going to think I'm wonderful. Still, I would never describe such people as "enemies".

     But I do have enemies I deal with on a daily basis that "hound, assault, and oppress me all day long." It would be so much easier if they were the kind of enemies you could punch in the mouth, but they're not. My most fearsome enemies are the voices of that dire Greek chorus in my head. You know the Greek choruses? When a hero in ancient Greek plays was about to attempt something heroic, the oh-so-helpful chorus behind him would be singing something cheery like, "He's going to fail! He's going to die horribly!" A great way to add suspense to a theater production, but a lousy way to live your life. I suspect we all live with those Greek choruses in our heads. You go through your day, and they manage to fit in a nice little musical interlude whenever you try to make positive plans. It goes something like this:
      "I've really got to get back on my diet today."
           "You're going to fail again! O, you're going to fail again! Geez, what a fatso!"

     "I need to apologize to Michael. I was kind of short with him this weekend."
           "You're a horrible person! O, you're a horrible person! How can you be so horrible?!"

     "I can't believe I didn't get the laundry done today. Oh well, I'll get it done tomorrow."
           "You're so lazy! O, you're so lazy! And did we mention you're a fatso?!"
     It sounds ridiculous writing it out like that, but I'll bet if most of us would admit it, we say these kind of things to ourselves and probably even worse things.

     So when I read Psalm 56 this morning, and think of my real enemies, the Greek chorus in my head, it really seems to make more sense:
     "They hound me all the day long; truly there are many who fight against me, O Most High. Whenever I am afraid, I will put my trust in you… All day long they damage my cause; their only thought is to do me evil… You have noted my lamentation; put my tears in your bottle; are they not recorded in your book? Whenever I call upon you, my enemies will be put to flight, this I know, for God is on my side."
      As God calls us day by day into His light, and invites us to see ourselves and others more and more as made in His image, it is truly the Greek chorus that is our greatest enemy.

A Gentle Soul Gone Home

     This morning, I heard of the passing of Sam Caldwell, a priest in our diocese. Sam was a gentle soul who served at my church Trinity in Reno for many years after his retirement as rector in Carson City.

     He was a kind person who never took himself terribly seriously. I was in the choir for many years at Trinity before becoming a priest. Every Christmas Eve as we were preparing to process, Sam would tell the same joke to me privately. I suspect he told many others too. He'd come out of the sacristy splendid in his robes and cope, and lean over to me and mutter, "Years of seminary to be called Father, and here I am dressed as mother." He told the same joke every year, and I laughed every year. It didn't seem like Christmas Eve without Sam's joke. He left Trinity a number of years ago to go into retirement, but I still think of his gentle humor every Christmas Eve.

     Rest in peace, Sam. Rise in glory!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nevada Sunsets

     There's something special about a Nevada sunset. The sheer lack of humidity in our desert climate seems to make the edges of the clouds sharper and the colors more vibrant. Ours are not the sunsets that fade into gray because of the reflected grime of a megalopolis, nor are they the gentle watercolor sunsets of Florida or the Hawaiian Islands. Nevada sunsets are defined and shot through with slashes of gold, fiery orange, deep red, and purple. They're the kind of sunsets you can ride off into at the end of the movie.

Friday, January 21, 2011

God, Dentistry, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

     I hadn't read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in years, but the prospect of having to spend a few hours in the dentist's chair over the past couple weeks, made me decide to buy the audiobook. It seemed like the perfect distraction to whatever would be going on in my mouth at the time.

     We all think about the purpose and meaning of our lives, and the following dialogue between two of the characters in the book struck me:
     "The chances of finding out what's really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied... I'd far rather be happy than right any day."
     "And are you?"
     "No, that's where it all falls down, of course."
     "Pity, it sounded like quite a good lifestyle otherwise."
     Life does seem completely chaotic and random at times, but in Morning Prayer today, the ancient prophet Isaiah had a different outlook:
For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
‘Seek me in chaos.’
I the Lord speak the truth,
I declare what is right.

                              – Isa. 45:18, 19
     God seems to say to us in this passage, "No, I made the world to be what it is. Stop making it all so complicated. I didn't create a system where you have to wade through chaos to find me. I did not speak in the darkness. I am here with you. I always have been."

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pogonip Descends on Reno!

     Praise the Lord from the earth… hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
– Psalm 148:7, 8
     This morning, we awoke to find the valley shrouded in icy gray fog. Every pine tree, fencepost, and skeletal vine was covered in what we in the West call pogonip. Pogonip is our word for the rare ice fog that produces dramatic and beautiful spiked frost covering everything. It's almost like overnight, snowflakes were magnified a thousand times and then attached to everything, and now with your naked eye you can actually see their intricate crystalline structures. Conditions have to be just right for pogonip to form: temperatures have to be below freezing, and humidity has to be at about 100%, which is a rare occurrence in the high desert. It's a spectacular, yet eerie sight.

     The first Americans found it difficult to see any beauty in pogonip. The word comes from a Shoshone word meaning "white death" or "frozen death". The Washoe Indians who summered at Lake Tahoe, but wisely wintered here in the valley where it's usually warmer, often saw weaker or older persons in their tribe carried off by respiratory diseases during such extreme weather.

      Still, pogonip's delicate white splendor remains, and this morning's rush-hour seems somehow hushed… muted, as though even busy commuters recognize they are in the presence of some of God's finer handiwork.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Keepers of the Heart Know Words Become Bullets

"For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure."
– Matthew 12:34,35
     Does it seem that more and more angry and hateful words uttered by people are becoming bullets? I'm not just talking about hateful and angry words spoken by a radical imam far off in the Middle East, but by people as part of our national daily dialogue. Here's a sample of what I mean:

• Angry words about immigrants from Mexico have now translated into increased deaths in Arizona: Link to Salon
• Hateful words about gays have directly translated into the deaths by suicide: Link to Dallas Voice
• Glenn Beck's hateful words about the Tide Foundation, an organization that facilitates charitable giving, almost ended in a blood bath: Link to Salon

      Yes, yes, I know all about the First Amendment. Still, I can't help but think of the words of Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1919: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic…" Have we really become a people who believe that because of the First Amendment nothing we might choose to say has any real consequence? Have we so forgotten the power of well-reasoned discourse and carefully chosen words that we believe the only effective remedies are "Second Amendment remedies"? When did we become so powerless as a people?

      Rather than try to reach back to a time of civility in American life and politics I'm not quite sure ever really existed, I would suggest the kind of angry tirades we hear on talk radio, from leaders in our government, from consumers who feel they have been wronged by a store or restaurant, from drivers irritated by traffic, and sadly sometimes even from our own mouths, are not in keeping with the Christian path.
"Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." – Proverbs 4
     We, as Christians, are to be keepers of the heart. If we want to change the world, it is not done with legislation or wars or sparkly new scientific inventions – it is done by changing hearts. The simplest barometer of the state of our hearts are the words we speak. I may not be able to change the tenor of the national dialogue, but I can be vigilant to keep watch over my own heart and encourage others to do the same. Oh, neither you nor I will ever do it perfectly, but it's a start. If those who are not Christians can't see any difference between the way we talk and the way everyone else talks, how then will they recognize us?