Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mary and Martha (and Michael)

Today’s Gospel lesson was the familiar story of Mary and Martha:

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

While Susan was preaching, I found myself thinking about whether I identify more with Mary or Martha – not an uncommon question for most of us. What occurred to me startled me a little. While I have always thought that I associate more with Mary, I found that in actuality, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, I found that if I am honest with myself, I relate to both Mary and Martha. I relate to Mary because she is where I want to be – sitting at Jesus’ feet. But I often find myself in the role of Martha, that Type A, Super J on the Myers-Briggs scale. Like Martha, I am always busy, always finding something “productive” to do. But what really startled me as I pondered this passage as it relates to my own life is that I allow the Martha side of me to take over because it is a far more comfortable place to be than sitting in silence at the feet of our Lord, listening to what he has to say to my soul. Sitting at Jesus’ feet, silent, open to what he has to say, can be a pretty scary place. Jesus might say something that I don’t want to hear, ask me to do something that I don’t want to do, ask me to go someplace I don’t want to go. More often than not, I become Martha so that I don’t have to be Mary, so I don’t have to really hear what Jesus’ is calling me to do or be.

Yet, Jesus tells us that “Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus calls us to step out of the safety and comfort of our frenetic activity and to come, sit at his feet, and to be open to the joys if we would only open ourselves up to him. And only then, energized, renewed and informed by him, can we allow Martha to do her thing.


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Friday, July 20, 2007

Peace Camp

Sunday, July 15 through Thursday, July 22, I served as a chaplain for the first-ever Peace Camp at Camp Stevens, near Julian, California. The camp was designed for middle school students (seventh, eighth, and ninth graders) and explored various dimensions of peace. We had 17 campers (18 counting the nine-year old daughter of the Peace Camp Director) from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, four counselors, three chaplains, a program director, and a camp director. In addition, two of Camp Stevens’ counseling staff assisted with a number of the activities, and other Camp Stevens staff took time off from their regular duties just to participate in some of our sessions. During the four days, we discussed such topics as conflict, violence, escalation and de-escalation, and what it means to be a peacemaker. The central structure for the camp was the Baptismal Covenant from the Book of Common Prayer, and various Bible passages regarding peace.

In the course of examining peace, we looked at racism, heterosexism (the kids brought it up, not us), economic justice, and environmental justice. We used a variety of teaching tools, including Bible study, making origami peace cranes, Dr. Seuss books (some, like The Butter Battle Book and Horton Hears a Who have wonderful moral messages), videos, the
Millennium Development Goals, and various community-building and team-building exercises.

One of the most exciting team-building exercises was an afternoon at the ropes course, where teams of two had to (if they wanted) climb up a pole to cables suspended 25 feet above the ground. The team members had to support each other as they inched their way across the diverging cables. It was amazing to see several young people who were initially terrified of the idea go through a transformation thanks to the loving support of the other participants. Several of these got up the courage to go through with the exercise and did fantastic. They looked like pros and even wanted to do it again. Alas, this chaplain and his partner did not do so well. We were a little too enthusiastic and not as patient as we should have been. In the course of trying to place our hands on each others’ shoulders, we lost our balance on our respective cables and went tumbling to the ground. In the process, I attempted to stabilize my partner and ended up scraping my arm against her cable, getting a nasty burn.

The campers also enjoyed some arts and crafts projects (including making a peace pole), hiking, and swimming (which was a big hit). The Camp Stevens staff also provided us with a tour of their organic garden and a hiking experience intended to raise awareness regarding the environment. Every evening we had community time, where we sat around and sang lots of great songs. We ended the camp with a closing Eucharist, in which the campers provided various parts of the liturgy (e.g. music, prayers, homily, etc.) After communion, we commissioned everyone as peacemakers. Their first acts was to then lay hands on and bless the peace pole they had made. We then presented the peace pole to the Camp Stevens.

I think this was a transformative week for many of the campers (as well as for the Peace Camp staff). They are still a bunch of unruly middle school students, but I saw glimmers of hope that they were getting some of the concepts, and trust that throughout their lives, what they learned at Peace Camp will inform how they live and function in the world.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Rainbow Bridge

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. Animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs are carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous union, never to be parted again. The happy kisses run upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....

(Author Unknown)


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Friday, July 13, 2007

Ministering to the Minister

Yesterday while I was at the vet’s spending my last few minutes with Lestat, Maggie, one of my UCLA students, called. I did not take the call at the time, and forgot to call her back later in the day. This morning I called her and left a voice mail message saying (among other things) that I had not been able to take her call because I was having a personal crisis. She stopped by my office a little while later to make sure I was okay. I told her what had happened with Lestat. She really ministered to me as we talked about it. Then she took her cello and played a piece by Bach, dedicating it to Lestat. It was lovely – both the music and the fact that she wanted to do that for me. I felt really blessed to have her come by and be with me in a time of personal pain, to minister to me both with her gift of presence and her gift of music.


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Thursday, July 12, 2007


Lestat in San Simeon, California
December 2006

Today was without a doubt one of the most difficult of my life. Today Lestat, one of my feline companions for the last 15 years, was committed to God’s loving care following a brief illness.

Monday I took Lestat to get dematted and have a bath. When I got him home, he did not have hardly any energy and was not even able to jump up on the couch. Monday evening and all day Tuesday, he did not eat anything and hardly had any water to drink. He just laid around and when he did get up, he moved very slowly, appearing to be uncomfortable, if not in pain. I initially thought he was just traumatized by the dematting and bath. I figured he would be back to his old self in a day or so. Tuesday afternoon, I called a vet our parish administrator recommended and described his condition. They said it was probably just trauma, but if he didn't return to normal by Thursday, to bring him in. Wednesday morning, I stopped at a vet just down Sunset Boulevard from my apartment and asked for their advice. They said to bring him in for a check-up and happened to have an open appointment time for later that morning.

When I took him in, the vet looked at him and said he was very dehydrated. His body temp was low for a cat. He weighed only a little over 7 pounds, compared to 12 pounds the last time I had him weighed. All the symptoms were pointing to kidney failure. The doctor said that the stress of the dematting and cooler water temperatures of the bath probably resulted in his rapid deterioration. But he did say that without all that, he still may well have hit this point in a few weeks. He has undoubtedly been failing for some time, but cats are very good at masking their pain, so there was no indication that anything was wrong. The fact that he was getting so matted also indicates that he had low energy and was not taking care of himself, another possible indication of kidney failure.

They kept him overnight to run some blood tests and urinalysis to get a definitive diagnosis. They also put him on an IV to rehydrate him and to give him some nutrition, and put him on a heating pad to raise his body temperature. They said they would have the lab results back the following (this) morning and would let me know what my options are. When the doctor started talking about kidney failure, I started crying. After the initial exam, I was able to spend some time with Lestat, just petting him and crying the whole time.

The vet called me at 9:00 this morning to give me Lestat’s lab results. He was experiencing kidney failure, liver failure, thyroid failure, and diabetes. We arranged for me to go into the office at 10:00 to discuss options. I decided at that point there probably was really only one option. When I got to the vet’s, the doctor told me that there really was not much that could be done. If there were just one problem, there might be hope, but with four major systems failing, there was little possibility of recovery. He said if it was one his cats (he has four), he would let him go, because he is obviously suffering. I told him that I agreed that that was the only compassionate thing to do.

While I was talking to the doctor, one of his assistants brought Lestat into the room. After the doctor left, I spent 30 to 40 minutes with Lestat. I mainly just stroked him and talked to him, telling him what a good cat he was, how he had been a great companion, and that because I love him so much, the best gift that I could give him right now was to let him go, to end his suffering. I also told him that it was okay to give up. When I first started talking to him, he actually purred a little – the first time I had heard him purr since Monday morning. It was good to hear, and I felt like he appreciated me being there. But most of the time, he was pretty quiet, using most of his energy just to breathe and stay alive. Several times, he groaned a little, and one time meowed, apparently in pain. He just laid there letting me touch him. At one point, he got up and shifted his body so that he could be nearer to me and lay his head on my arm.

When I felt I had said all I had to say, I told the assistant that I was ready whenever the doctor was. Dr. Kumar came in a couple minutes later. He said that it would only take about two minutes. Before he gave Lestat the injection, he gently touched Lestat and softly said to him, “I’m sorry.” Within about 30 seconds of receiving the injection, Lestat was gone. He died at about 10:45. Dr. Kumar then spent a few minutes talking with me, ministering to me in my pain. I spent another five or ten minutes with him, petting him and telling him how much I loved him and what a great companion he had been. I also prayed that God receive his soul (of course, some say that animals don’t have souls, but I’m not so sure about that). He died peacefully and is now out of pain. I will miss him terribly, but am comforted (at least a little) in knowing that I gave him a blessing and a great gift by releasing him from his suffering and letting him go.

Lestat had a good life. He was born on May 2, 1992 in Grand Terrace, California. During his life, he got to travel and visit various parts of California, Illinois, and points in between -- more than many cats ever see. And he met some great people along the way. He even completed three years of seminary. All in all, he was a great and loving companion. He will be sorely missed. Lestat is survived by his sister and litter mate, Akasha.

I don't know how much Akasha understands of what's going on. But I think she is beginning to realize that things are different. She has been spending a lot of time in my lap, which is somewhat unusual for her. This will be a big adjustment for both of us.

This afternoon one of my parishioners called to see how I was doing. Last night after our book study group I was telling some people about Lestat’s medical problems. I told her what had transpired today. I said that it is sort of strange being here without him. I am usually aware of the location of the cats, even when they are in another room. Her response was that it is a “very present absence.” I thought that was a perfect way to describe it. After having been with me for a full third of my life, his loss will most certainly be a very present absence.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Solo Flight

Today was my first solo flight as a priest. With multiple clergy, none of us generally has to do it all – we split up the responsibilities, with one presiding and the other preaching. But today, with Susan on vacation, I presided and preached at both the 8:00 and the 10:00 services. I was a little nervous about running the whole show, but did fine. And it felt really good. It gave me a foretaste of what things will be like when I someday have a parish of my own and have to do it all by myself.


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Crucified to the World

Proper 9 – Year C (Sixth Sunday After Pentecost)
Isaiah 66:10-16; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:(1-10)14-18; Luke 10:1-12,16-20
Sunday, July 8, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Have you ever heard a story that grabbed your attention, that you couldn’t stop thinking about – a story that claimed your soul? I heard just such a story a little over a week ago on NPR. It was the story of Michael Sparling from Port Huron, Michigan. Michael has a son, Joshua, who is an Army Ranger. Nearly two years ago, Joshua was stationed in Iraq. His tour of duty was about to end. He only had one more foot patrol to complete before being shipped back to the States. While on his last patrol, he came across an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device, or roadside bomb. The bomb went off, seriously damaging Joshua’s leg. Joshua was shipped back to the States, but not to Port Huron. Rather, he was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. He had been in touch with his father, and by the time Joshua arrived at Walter Reed, Michael was there to meet him. He wanted to be there to take care of his son as he underwent the numerous surgeries that would be needed to save Joshua’s leg, and during the months of physical therapy that would be required before Joshua could resume a normal life.

Two years ago, Michael quit his job in Michigan so he could be with his son. During that time, Joshua has undergone nearly 40 surgeries on his leg. About a year ago, a year after the explosion, surgeons had to amputate the damaged leg. Since then, he has undergone additional surgeries, and had to begin the long and painful process of adjusting to life as an amputee. Throughout this time, Michael has been there to help get his son to his medical appointments and the help him with his daily routine. Michael admits that it has been a financial hardship, that his savings are nearly depleted. But he quickly adds that his motto has always been that family came first, God came second, and country came third. Despite the personal hardships he has endured, Michael says that if he had to do it over again, he would not do anything different.

While giving up his job, his livelihood, to be with and to help his injured son is a noble act, that was not what really moved me about Michael’s story. Michael continues to spend his days helping his son, as well as a couple of other amputees in Joshua’s ward. But when the day is over, and there is nothing else that can be done to help his son, Michael turns his attention to the families of other soldiers being treated at Walter Reed. He spends time with these families, listening to their concerns and fears, providing encouragement, giving them information on how to obtain Social Security and other medical benefits for their injured loved ones. He runs errands for these families, making trips to the airport, getting groceries, and making himself available to do whatever else they might need to make their life a little easier as they attempt to cope with the fact that their spouses, children, or parents are seriously injured. All of his free time is devoted to helping other soldiers and their families cope with and adjust to the tragedies that have befallen them.

In his actions, Michael Sparling can stand with Paul, who in today’s lesson from Galatians says “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Biblical scholar Richard Hayes notes that in this statement, Paul recognizes that “his previous identity has disappeared altogether, and his new identity is given him only through his participation in Christ, who animates the life he now lives” (Hays, 344).

The cross was the transformative event in human history. On the cross, Jesus took on the sinfulness of humanity. On the cross, he died for our sins, so that we would be forgiven and made whole. On the cross, he turned the world upside down and made it something entirely new – a new creation in which we, his followers, are called to take part, to be co-creators. To boast in the cross means that we recognize that we cannot go it alone, that we must rely on God’s grace, of which the cross is sign and symbol. To boast in the cross is to recognize that we have a new identity and new way of being in the world. To boast in the cross is to recognize that the world is made new, and that “we live in the presence and hope of the new creation” (Hays, 345).

As followers of Christ, living in the presence and hope of new creation means that we do our part to bring about the new creation. It means taking seriously what Paul said about the world being crucified to us, and us to the world. In his crucifixion, Christ demonstrated that the ways of the world, the ways of selfishness, self-centeredness, of looking out for number one, are no longer valid. Those ways of the world have been crucified to us, they are dead to us, they no longer have meaning for us. And because of this, we are in turn crucified to the world. The world that still believes in this way of living and being doesn’t know what to do with us. That world doesn’t understand how we can live the way we do, concerned with the other, particularly the other who is a stranger. One Presbyterian minister explains that because of this, Paul’s statement illustrates the “perennial struggle between those who view the world through rose-colored glasses and those who recognize the reality of the human predicament” (Norwood, 51). We see the reality of the pain and hurt that is in the world. But because of Christ, we see the other part of reality, as well. We see that “God has entered the human situation and redeemed it by the cross of Jesus Christ” (Norwood, 52). We see that by virtue of being crucified to the world ourselves, we also have a part to play in redeeming the world.

Whether he knows it or not, for Michael Sparling, the world has been crucified to him, and him to the world. Michael has put aside his own concerns to take care of the needs, to help diminish the pain and hurt, of his son and the numerous other soldiers and their families he has encountered in the last two years at Walter Reed. Wanting to take care of your son is one thing. That’s understandable. But to do so at the cost of his income, his savings, his financial well-being is quite another. That is a big sacrifice. But, in the time when he does not need to be helping his son, he could have gotten a job to at least help with the finances. But that is not what Michael chose to do. He chose to forego any thoughts of his own concerns, of his own well-being, to help others in need. That is not what the world says we should do. Acting in such a manner is asking for crucifixion – to have the world crucified to oneself, and to be crucified to the world. That is what it means to follow Jesus to the cross, or at least, to live in it’s shadow.

Living in the shadow of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world, does not mean that we necessarily have to engage in such monumental actions and sacrifices as those undertaken by Michael Sparling. When we understand what it means to live in the shadow of the cross and to share in Jesus’ crucifixion, our actions are naturally informed by that deep understanding, one which we do not even have to consciously think about. And it happens in all sorts of ways, both large and small – most often small – in ways that we would not think extraordinary.

One such example occurred in this very parish last Sunday. Several of us were sitting in the Upper Lounge between services doing Bible study. From the hallway, I heard a woman, slightly panicked, exclaim “I need help.” I got up to see what the problem was. I found the woman, Laurie, our temporary nursery worker, in the sacristy. Her right hand and forearm were cut up and she was bleeding. She had been opening windows in the nursery, and when she pushed on one of them, it shattered, cutting her in the process. When I arrived on the scene, Vivian was already tending to the woman. When I found out what happened, I went into the Upper Lounge and summoned Helen, figuring a nurse might be needed. Vivian and Helen cleaned and bandaged the woman’s wounds and helped calm her down. And while all this was going on, Barbara got out the broom and vacuum and went down to the nursery to clean-up the broken glass.

After the 10:00 service, I saw Laurie and inquired how she was doing. She assured me that she was feeling better and appreciated everyone’s help. The next morning, I received an e-mail from Vivian giving me an update on Laurie’s situation and telling me that both she and Helen had advised her to go to a doctor for a more thorough examination, as there may have still been a piece of glass in one of her wounds. Later that morning, when I arrived at the church, I discovered that Nancy, our parish administrator, had been apprised of the situation and had already called Laurie to see how she was doing, to assure her that we would pay for her medical examination, and to suggest that she get a follow-up exam in a week or two, just to make sure that everything is okay.

I’m sure that none of these women, Vivian, Helen, Barbara, or Nancy, stopped to think, “should I help this woman?” or “what is my Christian duty or obligation in this situation?” They just knew. As Christians, they were living into the baptismal covenant and helping another of God’s children who was in need. As people who live in the shadow of the cross, they recognize, maybe not consciously, but certainly on a deeper level, that when one of God’s beloved children is hurting, all creation is hurting. As our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori writes, “Traditionally, we’ve often understood ministry or service as putting another’s needs ahead of our own, but the truth is actually bigger and more comprehensive than that, for ministry has to do with healing the world. Our own healing is bound up in the healing of all.” She then goes on to explain, “The work we do every day, our daily baptismal ministry, is about healing the world . . . Much of the time, our work focuses on the nearby and close at hand—our families, fellow citizens, co-workers, and parishioners, but we are part of a much larger whole. After all, when one is in pain, all suffer, and when one is healed, the whole world breathes a bit easier” (Jefferts Schori, 47-8).

This is what it means that the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world. We don’t stop to think about our own needs, our own concerns, our own well-being, our own schedules and agendas. We see as Christ sees. We see the pain in others and, just as Christ took our pain and suffering onto himself through his crucifixion, we take on the pain of the other, doing what we are able to relieve it, or at least, to reduce it. The world may be crucified to us and us to the world, but that does not mean the world has the last word. Freed from the constraints and expectations imposed by the world, freed through the cross of Jesus, in which we choose to share, we are freed to live in the presence and hope of new creation that God has promised us; we are freed to help make it a reality for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Hays, Richard B. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Jefferts Schori, Katharine. A Wing and a Prayer: A Message of Faith and Hope. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2007.

Norwood, M. Thomas. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 1. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

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