Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What does it really mean?

This morning on Good Morning America they rolled a story about a teacher who blogged in very uncomplimentary ways about her students. She said she had intended the blog to be read only by her friends, but now she is suspended with pay while the school district for which she works investigates. Wow!

A: On one hand, anything you put on the internet is public property. Be it facebook, twitter, blogs or even e-mail. What you say is what gets read by who-knows-who. If you air your dirty laundry on the internet everyone is going to see it. If you air someone else's dirty laundry they're probably going to see it, too, and that, in my opinion, is a violation of trust.

B: On the other hand, perhaps she wasn't airing others' dirty laundry, but rather her own. One can argue that good teachers tend to command respect from their students, and uppity students (especially a relatively green one like her--she's been teaching only about 4 years) tend to get the best of one whose capacity to control the classroom isn't stellar. Skillful teachers don't lose control of their classrooms like this woman obviously does.

C: On another hand yet, perhaps she really has bad kids this year. The green teachers tend to get assigned the bad kids because administrators tend to reward good teachers and teachers with seniority with teaching conditions they do well in...ask a teacher, it's the "I'm too new to have anything but the s***y kids." If so, a place to let off steam might even help...she just chose a s***y place to do it.

D: Or again, perhaps the reason she can't control the kids in her room is because her hands are tied by anxious legislation that is administered by an anxious administration afraid of law-suits, so that her real beef is with the people who got upset with her about it--maybe she has picked the real fight after all!

My wife is a teacher of 20 years. She's really good at what she does. I would vote for some of B, which results in C, but mostly D. I think the response of the administration is evidence of where the problem really lies.

Solution: Get teachers to write the education policy for the state, not legislators bent on policies that will get them re-elected!

Tiger Mom to Hippy Mom

On Good Morning America yesterday they interviewed several very successful youngsters about the ways their mothers had raised them. This was all part of the spin-off from the book Tiger Mom that sparked such interest and discussions.

One young Korean girl thanked her mom for being the typical Tiger Mom. Another was grateful for the hands-off, love-you-for-whoever-you-are approach of what was called the Hippy Mom. The third found comfort in the hovering care of his Helicopter Mom. I found several things very interesting.

First, they made no mention of the different personalities of the kids. Obviously if these kids were successful there was a good match between the needs of the kids and the parenting they received. This says nothing of the train-wrecks that were not mentioned.

Secondly, it shows the diversity in parenting styles in this country.

But thirdly and I think most poignantly, for once we're talking on a national level about something moral. We're talking about the "right" way to raise the next generation of humanity. We've studiously avoided moral issues since the 70's and the breakdown of a common moral consensus in our society, and now, at this particularly strategic point of enculturation of our children, all of a sudden we're deciding we need to talk again.

I profoundly applaud the effort. I don't know where it will take us, but some consensus is better than none at all, for none at all leaves us at the mercy of the most anxious people among us. With a consensus we've got a yardstick by which to measure leadership, and therefore, greatness.

Talk away! (By the way, my Mom was a Mother Hen Mom....)

Another Kind of Holy

Epiphany 7, February 20, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

This is reportedly a true story: It had snowed several inches. The family had two sons of middle-school age, just the right age to shovel snow. Dad, holding their allowance money hostage, assigned them to shovel the walk and the sidewalk—and threw in the driveway as a hopeful addition, one he didn't count on. He settled down to his paper. After an hour he decided to check on his boys. The walk was shoveled, and the sidewalk. The driveway was also crisscrossed with characteristic marks of their shovels. The boys were nowhere in sight. But he noticed that the sidewalk was shoveled down to the end of the block. Along the way he noticed the characteristic boot-print of one of the boys. They had apparently, shoveled the whole sidewalk, not just in front of their own house. As he went down the street, however, he noticed other peoples' walks and driveways were shoveled with the same characteristic crisscross marks of the shovels. At first he thought the boys were shoveling other peoples' walks to make a little extra spending money for the arcade at the mall, but then he noticed just whose drives were shoveled.

There was the elderly widow who had no kids of her own, but cared for her invalid nephew. There was the elderly couple who rarely got out. There were the neighbors on each side. At each house the work was done for someone special, or someone who could not do it themselves. At each house it was clear that the walk was shoveled right up to the door, but there was no indication that the boys had actually approached anyone in the house.

And so he waited, and soon they came home, bringing with them six of their friends. He made no indication that he had followed them or knew what they were doing, but he served them all hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls and gave his own boys their allowance money. As he did so one of the other boys gave him the card that they had left at each home: "Your walk has been shoveled by the Christmas Elves. There is no need to thank us. Just do something nice for someone else this week. Signed—The Elves”

From a human standpoint it is encouraging to see examples of altruism in such young men, we would hope for more of it in our world; in that hope is another hope hidden. We hope for another way of going about life itself, one in which kindness is the coin of the kingdom, rather than the selfishness that is so endemic to our economy. The early Christians were known in the pagan world for one thing above all others. They were known for their care for their own poor, and the poor in their communities. The Roman Emperor Julian in the 4th century noted that the success of the Christian movement (which he called "atheism" because it denied the Roman gods,) was its practical philanthropy. He writes in a letter,

“It is disgraceful that when no Jew ever has to beg, and when the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!”

When we read about these kinds of things we hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible calls this kind of living "holy." In today's Old Testament lesson Isaiah challenges the people and us. “Be holy for your God is holy,” and then he goes on to describe ways of being good to those around us, as if to say in no uncertain terms, that kindness is the way to be holy like God. In today's Epistle lesson Paul talks about keeping the temple holy, which is ourselves, not individually so much as collectively. It is in the different quality of the relationships between Christians that the world's "wisdom" is confounded by our holiness. Holiness is not a personal, but an interpersonal thing. Finally, in the Gospel lesson Jesus seems like he is really upping the ante on the Law. You have heard it said, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This was part of Hammurabi’s code, and also in the Old Testament law. Jesus says that's not good enough. That's not holiness. Treating people as you would be treated is holiness, loving your enemy is holiness. Doing good to those who persecute you is holiness. It is a holy thing to let the economy of heaven, the coin of the kingdom, invade that of the earth and turn it all upside down, for otherwise, what do you offer the world that it doesn't already have? And to back it up he quotes from today's lesson from Isaiah.

The church in the world is where two economies clash. This coming March 5th the Mexican Consular offices in Austin will be here. They will provide consular services for Mexican nationals in this area who need them—passports, birth certificates, etc. The people who need these services are invisible people, hiding because their paperwork is not complete. They are a needy people. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) will be providing Porta-Potties and portable copiers for the needs of the day. We will be providing a hospitable place where these people who live in fear can get help, and we will provide some shelter from the sun as they wait outside to be seen.

And we will feed them. Some of our people are going to local restaurants asking for donations of food. Olive Garden is donating two big pots of spaghetti. Another place is donating large pizzas. Others will provide paper plates and glasses.

The economy of the world is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It seems to be the only way the world can keep the strong from oppressing the weak, the rich from stealing from the poor. It is a zero-balance justice in which everyone loses something so that everyone can have something. God's economy, on the other hand, is that of generous self-giving. It invites us to a transformed and transforming way of living that only the Holy Spirit can empower, in which we live out our relationship with the Father by living that same generous giving heart out with one another and the world. Be holy, then, as your Father in heaven is holy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bearing Witness

Epiphany 6, February 13, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore; Day before Valentine’s Day

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960's changed the face of the Roman Catholic Church. Among many things, it inspired a movement to streamline worship and focus it on Christ. Colonial Catholic churches in Latin America often house magnificent statuary and paintings of people of sacred history. Many of these were summarily removed from their places of honor in the churches. The priests taught the people that they need no intermediaries between God and themselves, that they must pray at the Altar and not before the statuary. In one prominent town the townspeople all came together to visit the priest. “Why are you taking our statues down?” They demanded.

“Because you do not need them,” replied the priest. “You have access to God through Jesus Christ, and you need not pray to the saints.”

“But you don't understand,” said the people. “Jesus always went around in a group!

Why do you take away His friends?” Indeed, the Spanish word "amigo" means more than just "friend" in English. It means companion, one who walks along side you, who shares your joys and sorrows, and, to borrow a phrase from the movie "Shall We Dance", to "bear witness to one's life." Bear witness...bear witness to whom, before whom, and on behalf of whom? These are the questions that scribe out the margins of community. We to bear witness before the universe, to say that this person was not alone, they had context, they had reference points, and therefore they had meaning and purpose. Community is at the heart of being human. Our homes are at the heart of our community.

Homes are like chickens. The chicken you buy in the store wrapped in cellophane is raised in a barn with thousands of other birds, all bread for large breast muscles and small strength, and growth so fast that they can hardly stand. They are scooped up at 6 weeks of age, and butchered and packaged while the growers earn $18,000 a year for their efforts. This is NOT what I mean.

I mean like the chickens my mother had when I was a child. These chickens provided eggs and meat for our table, and not a little bit of entertainment. They were scrub chickens that would go broody. The hens would suddenly start to get grumpy, they would seek out the roosters like there was no tomorrow, and begin laying eggs like mad. My mother would select 10 to 12 good eggs, and put the broody hen in the henhouse and lock the door until she began sitting on them. She would leave them only briefly for 28 days, and then emerge with a fluffy flock of chicks. We learned quickly that a hen with chicks is a force to be reckoned with!

Why did Mom do this? Well, for one reason it was virtually impossible to get a hen to get un-broody without going ahead and sitting her, but mostly, it replenished the flock. This is community. It is life-giving, it is self-sustaining, and it is beautiful, if not a bit hard to handle!

Life-giving, self-sustaining and beautiful, if not a little hard to handle, is this not exactly the essence of living in community? Is this not exactly the essence of our relationship with God? Hence we call marriage a sacrament, because in it is communicated to us the grace of relationship with God, which relationship is the basis for all holy relationships on earth.

It is life-giving. Maybe we don't have that "soul friend" feeling about our spouses, or maybe we do. Nonetheless, there is one person in the world outside of my Maker that knows me better than anyone else, and I know her better than anyone else, and that is Karisse, my spouse of more than 32 years. What does it mean to bear witness to her life? It means to be involved where it is appropriate, and to watch from the sidelines when that is best, to facilitate, encourage, and support, to be an essential part of the context of her life, in short, to encourage her full humanity, whether that is to nurture or challenge, and to take joy in that emerging humanity. The home is the womb of humanity.

It is self-sustaining. My mother always gave us chickens to raise ourselves. I had a big hen with no feathers on her neck. She was a great mother hen. Her chicks were well cared for, the threats to their wellbeing were summarily and vociferously contested. I learned to feed them every day, to make sure they were safe every night, and to dutifully contribute her eggs to the family’s needs. I learned animal husbandry, but I also learned altruism, discipline, and responsibility. These are life-skills that reflect the nature of our Creator. The home is the crucible of godliness.

It is beautiful, if not a little hard to handle. Our Bible and our Prayer Book define marriage as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. The author of Ephesians writes a beautiful piece in the 5th chapter about husbands and wives. It gives different instructions to husbands and wives. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ has loved you.” “Wives…” the Greek word is translated, "submit" or "obey," but in today's world the best word would be "respect" your husbands. The beautiful thing is, wives need loved, and we men are better at respect, so we are wisely admonished to do what is hard, but necessary. Husbands need respect, but wives are really good at loving, so they are wisely admonished to do what is hard, but necessary. As each of us learns to give what is needed rather than what is natural, we become more fully human ourselves! The home is the loom on which the tapestry of society is woven.

My mother is a typical mother. Her dream is always to have all the family together for Christmas. One year we planned to gather at my nephew’s house (he was stationed at Fort Bliss.) Our oldest son, Leni, was driving down from Wyoming where he was in school. He called eventually from northern New Mexico. His car had died on the highway, and it wasn't possible to get him there for Christmas, so he was the one who we missed most. Mom felt it more than anyone else, perhaps, highlighting the fact that when one is missing the community hurts. This is true of the family, of the church, and of the world. Perhaps God hurts most of all when one of God's own isn't in relationship with God, with God's world and with God's family.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation

Epiphany 5, February 6, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

A number of years ago I visited a Tsachi Indian friend of mine in Western Ecuador. He knew of my fascination with hawks, so he was proud to give me one. It was a Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris,) very common in the area. He had shot it with his muzzle-loading shotgun. One pellet had pierced it through the fleshy part of the neck, dropping the bird to the ground, but not killing it. He had it wrapped in a rag, it had been almost 2 weeks. The bird was languid, but still breathing—amazing. I took the bird and assessed the damage. I dropped a few drops of water down its throat. Within minutes the bird struggled to get out of its raggedy strait-jacket. It was weak, but more than anything it was dehydrated, and a little water revived it. I took it to the city, rehabilitated it, and gave it to a falconer friend of mine.

I am an Episcopal priest, this Indian man is a farmer, our lives could hardly be more different, yet we share a friendship since childhood that just won't go away. I spoke to him about the hawk. “Don't you realize, my friend, that the health of the environment on which you depend is measured by the health of its top predators, that the air they breathe is the air you breathe, the water they drink is the water you drink, and the earth they live on is the earth you live on, and if they’re in trouble so are we?” Point granted...he’s not stupid. “So why did you shoot it?”

“Because that kind kills my hens’ chicks that I sell in the market.” Point granted...

John Guare wrote a play called "Six Degrees of Separation," based on an idea put forward by the Hungarian Friyges Karinthy. It claims that we are all linked together through no more than six degrees of separation. It is a radical call to a sense of community. If that is true of hawks and farmers, how much more true is it of the Church.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are a city on a hill.” In each of them He makes the negative comparison. Salt that is no longer salty is thrown into the gutter. A lamp serves no purpose under a basket. You cannot hide a city on a hill. His meaning is clear. The faith is personal but not individual. The faith is one's own, but also belongs to the world. We as Christians are connected to all the rest of creation by far less than six degrees of separation.

Therefore, “If your righteousness does not exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom.” The Scribes and Pharisees were anally retentive about all the little jots and tittles of the law. So what does Jesus mean? Isaiah describes it. What is the fast required of by the Lord? Loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed to free, share your bread with the hungry, clothe the naked, and don’t hide from your own kin. The life of the community of faith is inextricably bound up with the life of the community at large. We normally think of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees as making an outward show of perfection while hiding the brokenness within. In reality, they were individually perfect while the world around them was none the better for it! If our world around us is a mess perhaps it's partly because our faith has not seeped out past the boundaries of our own skin.

The Church is a place where we as a body gather up the whole world and offer it to God. This happens as each of us lives our faith at home, at work and at play, but it must also happen by the way we as a body live in this place called Planet Earth. Last week I was at the deployment support dinner, a wonderful ministry to the families of our deployed service men and women. I stood in line and picked up the divided Styrofoam plate. Annoyed, I turned and said (rather harshly, I admit,) "Who brought in the Styrofoam?"

The guilty party (a person for whom I have the highest respect and regard) humbly approached me. “I did, sir,” she replied, “but I will not stay after and wash dishes!”

“Can we use paper?” I retorted.

So graciously she said, "I'll see what I can do."

The contribution to the brokenness of the world by my harsh tone must be duly noted, but Styrofoam contributes much more to the brokenness of the world than it does to its health. Must we break the world on purpose before we offer it up to God? Going green is not just popular, it also happens to be a light in the darkness of what we've made of the planet.

The Church is a place where we consciously and intentionally design our life in such a way that we are salt, we are light, and we are obvious about it! All of our ministries, from outreach to worship, seek to bring about that integrity between the corporate life of St. Christopher's and our "footprint" in our world. If the world doesn't come to somehow reflect more of the nature of God because we walked this road then we have truly lived in vain.

One of my seminary professors this semester told this story in our first class. His grandfather belonged to a Holiness church. The Holiness Tradition at its most extreme believes that we can achieve a state of sinlessness in this life. His grandfather’s brother was a minister in that tradition. One Sunday afternoon the two brothers were watching some boys play ball on a Sunday afternoon, leaning on a fence together and discussing life. The ball went wild and ended up at their feet. Now working on Sundays was considered to be a sin, and returning the ball would be work. So the uncle says, "Arthur, throw that ball back to those boys. I haven't sinned in 20 years and I'm not about to start now!"

How is it not a sin to ask someone else to do it for you? No, sin is like everything else, it breaks us all by no more than six degrees of separation. Therefore the Church should be about being goodness in the world—all the way out through six degrees of separation.

What do you get?

What do you get when you mix 2 and a half pints of water dripped through ashes and boiled down to six pounds of a mixture of venison and pork lard? My first batch of truly home-made soap, I hope!

I got the inspiration from the abundance of tallow and fat on two animals I harvested hunting. I rendered down the combined fatty tissue and thought it might make interesting soap. Now we'd made soap back in dark ages when our oldest son's skin took a dislike to commercial laundry soap perfumes and conditioners. We used cloth diapers on his little heiny (yes, we were really old-fashioned!) and the best soap to use was stuff we made out of the left-over frying fat from a local cafeteria that they were glad to give us, and Red Devil Lye. We've still got some of our last patch, and after almost 30 years it's snow white and super-mellow!

But I didn't want to buy lye for this batch. I had obtained the fat from the natural world, I wanted to get all the ingredients that way. Online I found you could leech lye from ashes, so I got a 10 ft. piece of 4 inch PCV drainpipe, put reducers on one end of it down to where the exit hold was a quarter of an inch, filled it with ashes from the fireplace, and dripped filtered water through it (we have an RO filter in the house.) I recycled the water about four times. It turned out the color of light tea, but according to my sources it wasn't strong enough. It should float an egg high enough to expose a piece of shell the size of a quarter. So I set it to boil. After reducing it to a little less than half the volume I had the right strength.

But now I needed to know how much lye to mix with how much fat. Online it gave such unspecific things as "mix it together a small amount of each until it 'trails,'" that is, leaves a trail of fat behind the spoon as you mix. Finally I stumbled on a ratio of 2 1/2 pints of lye to 6 lbs. of fat. I measured the lye--it was 2 2/1 pints! I then melted the fat again and weighed it out--I had just over 6 lbs. Ah, it was meant to be.

I mixed the fat into the hot lye water and stirred. I had to heat the mixture to melt some of the fat that had not melted, but in the end it turned into a thick mixture the color of dark hot cocoa. I mixed it for our five times over the next hour and went to the office.

That evening it was a bit lighter, had the consistency of soft oatmeal, and looked like the cocoa had curdled. I mixed it and mixed it and slowly it began to homogenize together into a light-brown thick soup, and it began to thicken more. I lined a cardboard box with some cloth, and when it seemed it wouldn't just all run out I poured it into the mould.

This morning it was the consistency of play-dough, so I turned it out on a board and cut it into 38 small bars. I rearranged the pieces on the board with the cloth underneath them and put them on top of the freezer in the garage to cure. In about 3 months we'll see what we've got!

Ever heard the song, "Grandma's Lye Soap?"