Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Day of Dilemmas (excerpt)

The following is adapted from a much longer posting on one of my personal blogs, Outpost Mâvarin:

I had an interesting day on Sunday. It was full of friendship, crises, mild stress, and more ethical choices than I normally run into in a week. Let me tell you about it.

Act One: Church

Before church this morning I rushed into my office and, while checking my email, quickly scanned a sermon by Father Douglas. I've had the thing for four weeks, but hadn't yet turned the hard copy into an electronic one. So I put it on my scanner it this morning, in the hope that later I would be able to save the file both as a jpg or something and as a Word file. I needed to do both, because when I do OCR (Optical Character Recognition - cheap software trying to "read" the words), the poor thing gets confused by handwritten edits. I have to type what it's supposed to be, and clean it all up in Word when the OCR is done.

So anyway, I had this old sermon I was rushing to get into the computer, because I was afraid Father Douglas would be there and want his sermon back. I should have done the scanning and clean-up before, but I'd put it off, first because of a dead phone line in my office, which resulted in my computer and my scanner being in different rooms; and later because, well, it's a lot of work, and I was busy! By Sunday morning, I didn't have time to do the OCR and corrections. But I did what I could, stuffed the sermon in my purse, and went to church.

It turned out that Father Douglas will be back next week. So I have more time to do this right. Whew!

See, I was already feeling guilty, because I've been a slacker on the church web site lately. I think I didn't get the first half of last week's announcements typed and uploaded until Wednesday, and the second half until Thursday. I still hadn't gotten the Advent Bazaar flyer posted. Bad Karen. No biscuit!

But when I got to church, did anyone complain? They did not. Two different people told me that because of my notice about making egg sandwiches for the Casa Maria soup kitchen, three people who Googled Casa Maria saw that announcement, and drove all the way from nearby Vail, AZ to help make sandwiches on Friday. Good thing that notice was in the Wednesday batch. Had it been in the Thursday announcements, it might not have hit Google in time.

So I got away with those two things for now, but I need to do better.

Then came the real moral dilemmas of the morning.

1. At the end of Mass, the Sunday School kids came up and sang two verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel. They were so cute! They sang very well, too.

Father John wanted me to take pictures of them, so I obliged. But I was also mindful of Internet security guidelines that I read a few months ago, that one shouldn't post pictures of other people's kids without parental permission, especially if you identify a place where predators can find them, such as at a particular school. Or St. Michael's, I suppose.

So, since I was serving as Mass anyway, and was therefore sitting behind the kids, I took pictures of them from behind. The photo has no identifying features for anyone to use to get to these children. Did I do the right thing? Should I post this picture? I'm not sure, but here it is.

2. About a month ago, two 23-year-old volunteers for a humanitarian group called No More Deaths were arrested by the Border Patrol for driving sick, dehydrated illegal border crossers to a Tucson hospital, on a doctor's advice. No More Deaths provides water and first aid to try to reduce the horrendous, ever-growing number of deaths in the Arizona desert each year, often in cooperation with the Border Patrol. But this time, two people were brought up on federal charges, and could go to prison for 15 years.

The pro bono lawyer for this group was at our church on Sunday, at all three masses. I heard her speak at two of them. The stand the group is making is that it should never be illegal to give humanitarian aid, to provide succor to suffering people in an attempt to prevent needless death. Now understand, these border crossers would have been deported after their hospital stay anyway. Nobody from No More Deaths was trying to smuggle anyone. They were just trying to save lives.

So anyway, the lawyer handed out lawn signs after church. I ageed to take one, but I didn't promise to put it on my lawn, saying only that I would talk to my husband about it. (John's stance is that he wants to know more about the specific situation from an unbiased source, before putting up the sign). But to be honest, I'm a little afraid to display the sign on our lawn. I agree with it, absolutely, but the border problem is a very divisive issue around here, with a lot of kneejerk sentiment and thinly-veiled prejudice. If I display this thing, will a neighbor take it away? Will I be harrassed? Or will nothing happen at all?

I'm such a coward sometimes. I hate confrontations and ill-will. I have no problem at all writing about this online, because I can explain the situation. I've even written about this problem before. But a lawn sign has to be its own explanation. Do I trust it to be up to the task, in a neighborhood where I don't know my neighbors?

There's got to be some irony in there, somewhere.


Saturday, August 20, 2005


No pictures tonight. I'm not in the mood.

Call me thin-skinned. Call me oversensitive. I'll even agree with you. This is a fault I've worked to overcome over the years, but I've never entirely succeeded. For example, I always get upset when a conservative Christian pops up out of nowhere to attack something I wrote online. Usually the comment is anonymous, so I can't even respond directly. Instead I look the comment over, and consider again whether the criticism has merit. I second-guess myself. I feel guilty for any deficiencies I think I see in my own writing, beliefs, or character. I get upset and frustrated for not having communicated effectively enough to be understood, to win the person over.

But really, it usually comes down to one thing. What parts of the concepts of compassion and tolerance don't these people understand? I'm not talking about all Christian conservatives, mind you, but occasionally I get a comment like this one, that basically takes me to task for loving my neighbor.

This St. Michael's Arts blog is ancillary to the main church (news) blog, started so that parishioners can contribute photos, essays, prayers, poetry, art--well, pretty much anything, as long as it is compatible with the fact that it's a church's blog. But nobody sends me (or the church) anything for it, so rather than leave it completely neglected, I occasionally post something on it, usually adapted from something in my personal blog, Musings from Mâvarin.

Tonight, someone left a comment to this blog. (Actually, it's the second one this week. The first was commercial comment spam.) It was posted to an entry of pictures and a tiny bit of text provided by Ila Abernathy, about her annual trip to Guatemala to help displaced Maya in remote villages with medical supplies and training. That happened to be the oldest entry on the face of the blog at when the comment was posted. The newest entry at the time, the one this anonymous person was talking about in the misdirected comment, was my rant from June about how poorly a Wiccan friend of mine is treated by doctors, social workers,etc. because of her affiliation with a fringe religion. The commenter felt that I --and St. Michael's generally--was betraying God by advocating compassion and tolerance toward this friend.

But for me, the story of the Good Samaritan, the edict to love one's enemies, and any number of other passages from the New Testament, demand no less. The idea that you can and should be mean to someone, discriminate, condemn, maybe even beat up or kill that person, all because he or she is not one of Us, not a Christian/ Muslim/ Jew/ Democrat/ Republican/ American/ Whatever, is exactly the sort of thing that leads to suicide bombings, the Holocaust, and really, most of the evil in the world. Not that the commenter was advocating anything of the sort, but clearly, my plea for tolerance was being condemned. So what is the person advocating, if not intolerance? The difference between that and those other horrors is one of degree, not one of concept. A person can be wrong about something, terribly wrong, but that doesn't give us the right or the responsibility to treat that person with hostility.

So as I said, it's appropriate for me to disagree with my friend's religion, but it's not appropriate for her pain doctor to refuse to see her, or someone to label her a troublemaker and deny her services, solely on the basis of religion. And really, how does preaching at her, shunning and mistreating her, and implying that anyone who defends her is betraying God...how does any of that follow Jesus's teachings and examples, or convince D/S to become a Christian again? How does the song go? They'll know we are Christians by our hate? Of course I want her to find her way back to Christianity eventually, but this is no way to accomplish that.

Maybe I'm being harsh here. Maybe it's a mutual misunderstanding between me and Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. Maybe I made this person feel attacked, and this was the response.

But either way, I'm feeling all hurt and insecure here. I want to go in a corner and whimper. You don't like me! You think I'm bad! And in this case, I was already feeling a little guilty. I wanted to post something early in the week about the losses St. Michael's has recently suffered, the deaths of Janet Womble and Sherwood "Woody" Bowker. I wanted to say that in the midst of death we are in life. Ila is back from Guatemala, school is starting at St. Michael's, and the choir will soon be singing for us again. Life goes on, and no doubt in the coming months we will have new arrivals, baptisms, renewal. But I got busy with work and other parts of my life, and didn't post in time to give you a heads-up for Janet Womble's funeral on Wednesday. Woody's Mass and reception is on Saturday, August 28th at 8AM. So even before I saw this comment, I was feeling guilty about my recent performance as Webmaster. I could have, should have done more, posting at least an announcement to the news blog if nothing else.

But the comment was not about that kind of shortcoming. It struck at the heart of what I believe as a Christian. And have you ever noticed that saying you will pray for someone can sometimes be a passive-aggressive attack on a person with whom you disagree? The implication is that I'm on the fast track to Hell, and only your prayers can turn me around, so that I will agree with you and go to Heaven after all. Yes, sure, go ahead and pray for me, and for my friend. I pray each night for everyone everywhere, no exceptions. I pray that we will all come to know that God is real, that God cares, that we will all understand better what God wants fromeach of us, and for help to get through the difficult times in each of our lives. I pray that we will learn to live up to our potential, using our talents well. I pray that we will learn to truly love and help one another, not just our particular insular groups but everyone. But don't tell me you're praying that I will see the error of my wicked ways. I'm far from perfect, but I'm not all that wicked. Your prayers will neither keep me from Hell nor send me there.

One of the commenter's criticisms was the claim that I had posted an "evil symbol" on a church blog. This confused me at first. I looked at the entry where the comment was posted, and saw pictures of Guatemalans, and a picture tha a child in Guatemala drew. Was this person seeing something in the drawing that wasn't there? But no, I later noticed that I had a right-side-up pentagram in the entry about my friend, mostly because I didn't have any other illustrations for it. This symbol is not Satanic, but perhaps I should not have put it on the church blog, even as an illustration of the beliefs of others.

Understand: I am not a minister, priest or deacon. My only formal course in religion was nearly thirty years ago at Syracuse University. I've read much of the Bible but not all of it, and I've read some modern translations of rejected (non-canonical) scriptures and other modern scholarship. I am the church webmaster, and I help out at Mass in minor ways, mostly as crucifer and lector. But I don't speak for the church, except to post announcements, mostly written by others. The opinions I post on the Arts blog are my own unless otherwise marked. They're intended to be one person's opinions and spiritual journeys, to be interspersed with the contributions of others. Unfortunately, others don't contribute.

So what should I do? Should I let this comment spook me, again? Should I stop posting to the Arts blog until I find others to contribute, so it's not all me, assuming an authority I don't have or want?

Or should I still express my opinion from time to time, and hope that most people will see Christian values in my words, instead of anti-Christian ones?


P.S. Obviously I took the advice of readers, and posted a version of this entry, originally written for Musings, to the SMAAARTS blog. This probably pushes the entry with the comment off the front page, but it's still there to be seen in the Archives. I also emailed Father Smith, who was also attacked in the original comment, asking for his input. And I received a lovely, loving email today from a self-identified conservative Christian and fundamentalist, saying that I was right to love others, to keep my chin up. Thank you, and God bless you all--whether you agree with me or not.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Ubi Caritas Et Amor - Or Lack Thereof

Run for the hills, because Karen is going to talk about religion again.

I always get nervous about entries like this one. Some so-called Christians will probably be angry, if they ever read this; and non-Christians who come across the similar entry on my personal blog will probably skip it. I may even get a hateful comment or two--it wouldn't be the first time. Still, I'd prefer that you stick around. It may not be quite the sermon you expect.

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I've known for fifteen years. This friend has numerous problems--multiple physical and mental illnesses, family and money problems. She also happens to be Wiccan.

Now, I'm not a big fan of Wicca, especially as practiced by 21st century Americans. In my extremely limited experience, it seemed silly and fake, more like a self-conscious fantasy role playing game and snubbing of the prevailing culture than a deeply held set of beliefs. I could be totally wrong here, and probably am, but the only Wiccan ceremony I ever witnessed left me with that impression.

Still, D/S believes in it, probably more deeply than I would be inclined to credit from my one brief encounter with the religion. She does absolutely no harm thereby: does not curse or sacrifice or worship the devil, or partake in any other evil practices of which witches have been falsely accused over the centuries. Wiccan, as I understand it, is predicated on a respect for life, human and otherwise. She commits no crimes or atrocities, and is therefore entitled to her consitutional right to freedom of religion. It is appropriate, perhaps, to briefly express gentle disagreement with her, but she should not be subjected to discriminatory treatment, harrassment, hatred, or neglect because of her beliefs.

Nevertheless, as she moves through the patchwork system of government social services and government-sponsored health and rehab programs, my friend frequently encounters all of the above. She is labeled a troublemaker and treated with hostility by people in authority, or expected to change her ways if she wants to be helped. "They wanted me to move to a facility that has three hours of Bible study every night," she told me. A former Christian, my friend is already familiar with the Bible, but that's not the point. The implication is that she would receive nightly pressure to recant and change her mind about religion, as a condition for receiving government-sponsored treatment. Sorry, but that's just plain wrong, on several counts. It's unconstitutional, it's unfair, and it's unChristian.

Equally wrong is the treatment she gets from her pain doctor--or rather, lack of treatment. Having seen a "Goddess Bless" sticker on my friend's mobility scooter, the doctor immediately expressed his disapproval. My friend has since been told by the doctor's staff that she never will be allowed to see him again, and will only deal with the nurse practitioner instead. Aside from the insult, and possible violation of the Hippocratic oath, the treatment itself is inadequate. My friend's pain medication was changed to a famously addictive drug that's "as cheap as dirt," as a result of which she recently spent time in the hospital with withdrawal symptoms.

Not right. Not fair. Not Christian.

I just posted Father Smith's sermon from earlier today on the St. Michael's sermons page. Two brief quotes are appropriate here:

Doesn't that look welcoming?In this age it is not enough to throw biblical statements to the outsider. For God’s words remain empty until they are lived. But when the word is demonstrated in our lives, relationships, lifestyles and loves, it becomes "alive and active," manifesting the living Christ in the world so that the unbelievers or the enemy themselves are forced to ask: where do those Christians get this love and this peace?

But it's never an easy peace. Jesus goes on to say to His disciples, "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter in law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household." In Jesus’ time, Semitic peoples had a striking way of expressing the love they felt for different people. Instead of saying, "I love you more than I love him," they would say, "I love you and hate him." This was their way of expressing preference in relationships, and did not mean the second person was hated. So when Jesus said these words it was not meant that we should hate our families but, that our love for Him should come as a priority. Some of you live this reality: a family member doesn't believe in Jesus, but you love them and would do anything for them, but your belief in Jesus Christ and knowing Him as Lord and Savior is a priority. You still love them and help them, but you won't follow their beliefs.

This sermon follows on a recent Gospel reading at St. Michael's, in which Jesus eats with tax collectors, 1st century pariahs who were considered sinners and collaborators. In a choice between the self-righteous or the sinners, the rich and powerful or the humble laborers, Jesus always chose to hang out with the lowly ones: the pariahs, the fishermen, the tax collectors and the lepers.

My friend is as close to being a metaphorical leper as you'll find in the modern world. She has no husband, no money, and lots of illnesses. Her own son seldom consents to see her, although he lives nearby. She is terribly lonely. My friend is fat because of her disabilities, and a vegetarian in a McDonald's world. She wants to work, but even self-employment seems to be beyond her at this point. She furnishes her small apartment mostly out of dumpsters. To top it off, she's an adherent to a minority religion that is little tolerated and less understood. And yet she is intelligent and generous and kind, with a keen sense of justice.

So how would Jesus treat a woman like that? Certainly not with disdain and hostility and neglect! He would bring her love and peace and healing. This is what we should also try to do.

But contrast this with the text of a banner I saw last night on a website that a Jewish friend of mine considered absurd enough to be funny. The web page was primarily about Noah's sons riding dinosaurs. Frankly, I was too angered by the page's header to be amused by the pseudoscience:


I totally missed the fact that the page was satirical, no more in earnest than The Onion. The words on this banner are more blatant than most of what one sees from the religious right, but I found it all too plausible. Churches all over the country struggle with issues of tolerance, and all too many come down on the side of exclusion. I'm thinking particularly of the gay issue here, but it also extends to the denial of communion to politicians who don't want to pass secular laws to enforce church doctrine. Admittedly, there's a serious issue of morality involved here, but it seems short-sighted to place that single issue above all others, especially since reasonable people disagree on the subject. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, birth control or abortion, but that's all some people seem to care about, not the "love your enemies" stuff that Jesus did talk about.

Some groups of Christians routinely declare that other Christians aren't really Christian at all, because they don't pass some sectarian litmus test. Come to think of it, I suppose I'm doing that myself here. It's not that I think that the most homophobic, intolerant Christian conservatives don't believe in Christ. It's just that they have a twisted way of showing it, informed more by Us and Them mentality than by the Beatitudes.

It galls and astonishes me that after all these centuries and all we've learned, after crusades and pograms, burnings and persecutions and an Inquisition, people still use Jesus to promote hatred and discrimination instead of love and peace. My friend will never be inspired to return to a religion that's supposedly about love and peace, when its practitioners primarily exhibit the opposite qualities in dealing with her.

Welcome - even if you don't conform.Reminds me of the Whos of WhovilleFather Smith's sermon today pointed to a much better approach, and St. Michael's sets a much better example. This church and its parishioners feed the homeless, help the sick, and welcome refugees and the marginalized. Despite the current strife over the gay clergy issue, the graphics provided by the Episcopal Church USA send a better message than those who hate others in the name of Jesus. They tell us we are welcome. We are here for each other. We are one.

When religion and hatred and intolerance go hand in hand, neither God nor humankind benefits thereby. Instead there is evil and malice. This is true whether the religion in question is Islam, some form of Christianity, or anything else.

If, on the other hand, a person practices peace and love and tolerance, helps others and does not judge them harshly, that person is following Jesus's example. This is true whether the person believes in Jesus or not. These principles are universal ones, taught by many religions as well as secular ethicists. The Ten Commandments are not a Christian invention, although certain presentations of them may be. Even the numbering of them varies by denomination. But the basic principles of honesty, kindness, and fairness are acknowledged the world over in one form or another.

Myself, I'd rather eat lunch with a kindhearted Wiccan, or Jew, or atheist, than someone who claims to love Christ and yet treats non-Christians (or gays, or any other category of "Them") with hostility and disdain.

And so, I think, would Jesus.


Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est. - "Where charity and love are, there is God."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Beyond the Door: A Peek at the Antiphonal Division

Note: I originally wrote this as part of a photo challenge on my personal blog. If it has a few odd references to "mysterious doorways," that's because that was the theme of the challenge. . - Karen

There goes the bride--at least in theory
Mysterious Doors

The doors I seem to pass most often without ever going in are all at St. Michael's. This one, for example, the one to the Bride's Room, is mysterious in a couple of ways. What's inside that a bride needs before a wedding? Why is there no "groom's room?" More important, going through that door means that one is about to embark on the much greater mystery of married life itself.

I've never been through that door. There could be anything in there. But I imagine that it's basically a dressing room. There was nothing like that at St. Patrick's in Syracuse when I married John--not that I recall, anyway.

THE mysterious doorBut for me the main mystery door at St. Michael's is just to the right of the main ones that lead into the church itself. It's usually locked and barred, but not on Sunday mornings. Just as Mass begins, Proscovia or someone else opens it and pulls on one of the two ropes inside, setting off the (probably electric) church bells. I always wondered whether there was a real bell pull, or just a button to push. And was the space beyond the door just a closet-sized chamber with the bell controls in it, or something more? It didn't look as if there could be room for more than the bell mechanism, whatever it might be, and maybe a broom or something. Oh, and a fire extinguisher. The red and white sticker in the window says, "Fire exinguisher inside." I don't know how you'd get to that fire extinguisher in a hurry, except when the door is unlocked for Mass. That makes sense, though, because that's when acolytes and deacons and priests are lighting matches, carrying candles and burning incense.

Well, on Sunday, May 22nd, totally by accident, I found out what else was beyond that mysterious door. And it was much more than I could have imagined.

It happened like this. That afternoon, a nationally-recognized organist named Todd Wilson was going to play a concert on the church's Æolian-Skinner pipe organ. This pipe organ rededication performance was to celebrate the fact that the antiphonal section of the organ (the part in the back loft of the church) had been installed by the organ builder and is now operational. I'd been seeing those shiny copper-colored pipes for months, and had tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to get a good picture of them. It's hard to get a good angle on the "choir loft" (except that the choir never goes up there, as far as I know!) from ground level in the rather dark church.

Anyway, I was pretty sure that I couldn't make the concert, but I wanted to get a picture of Todd Wilson for the church web site. So I left coffee hour and Eva's gingerbread and went back into the church. Wilson was warming up with a truly glorious and complex piece that reminded me of a (much simpler) Christmas song I sang in choir many years ago.

I waited a few feet away in an empty pew of the almost empty church until he finished playing. As he played, another man was walking around, checking the openings to the main banks of organ pipes, adjusting doors and the evaporative cooler to control heat and humidity--in short, tweaking. This was the organ builder, Grahame Davis. He's important to the rest of this story, and deserves recognition for his work.

When Mr. Wilson finished his organ solo, I introduced myself as the church webmaster and asked to take a photo of him for the church blog. He recognized me from Mass (I got to read Genesis, Chapter One on Sunday) and graciously posed for me. He's a very nice man, and clearly very talented and dedicated to his craft.

As we chatted about the organ, I mentioned that I'd been trying unsuccessfully to get a good picture of the pipes in the loft. Wilson immediately suggested that I go up and get a closer look at them! Grahame Davis agreed, and immediately took me off on a private tour. And guess how that tour started? Yup: he led me through the mysterious door to the right of the church entrance!



From there we went up narrow wooden steps to the loft where the new Antiphonal division of the organ was installed. From the back of the loft, there's not much to see, at least under normal circumstances. Most of the pipes are housed in a big wooden box structure. The builder explained that this was to help mute the powerful pipes within, so that they can be played softly and still have the proper tone and pitch. When the organist (usually Jane Haman) wants to play them more loudly, foot pedals can be used to open wooden flaps behind and between the pipes, letting more of the sound out. Grahame Davis opened a couple of doors, one in the back and one on the side, and I took a bunch of pictures of this hidden treasure.

Inside the antiphonal section. Inside the antiphonal section.

When I came around to the front of the pretty copper ones, I got to hear at least one of them, up close and personal!

This is the part that can be seen from the church.  But not at this angle!

The last of the interior pictures is of the upper door to the loft, and the completely unimpressive room beyond it. If you didn't pay attention to that long duct-like pipe thing on the floor, and the giant wooden box thing on the right, you wouldn't know there was anything special here.

Inside the antiphonal section.

I didn't take a picture of the tiny room where the bell pulls are. I forgot / didn't have time. Besides, we should preserve a few mysteries!

the door to the second floor - but how would you get to it?Now, the main reason I never knew that door went up to the loft was that I always assumed that this other external door was the way up to the choir loft (except that the choir never goes up to the loft). This door is on a balcony above the main double doors. I don't know how you would even get up to this door to go through it. Perhaps a ladder? And if you do, I'm still not sure what you'd find on the other side. I didn't see that door from inside the loft. Maybe it's where the bells are. Or maybe I just didn't notice it. Either way, the mystery of the upper door remains unresolved. I could ask Father Smith or Alicia, but where's the fun in that?


Sunday, May 08, 2005

Just some pictures

Here are some previously unposted pictures (I think!). I'll try to write something for this page soon.


An open-door policy.

Looking out


Father John Hooker

Choir rehearsal

Monday, April 11, 2005

Karen's Sermon

The pulpit at St. Michael's(reprinted from Musings from Mâvarin)

Today after church, I asked to borrow Father Douglas's sermon to put on the St. Michael's Sermons page. He agreed to loan me the sermon printout, and sent me to the pulpit to get it. So for the first time ever, I ascended the steps to the pulpit at St. Michael's. I was carrying a sickly lily left over from Easter, and my silly pink purse; and I had to turn sideways a little bit to get past the narrow opening at the top of the steps.

The church was well on its way to empty by then, but I felt a little guilty, as if I were sneaking into a special place where only a few people are entitled to go. I suppose I was doing just that. Yet at the same time, I was tempted so say something while I was up there, to proclaim a little unauthorized sermon of my own. I didn't say a word, though, so now the online world gets my sermon instead.

Confessions of a "Cheesemaker"

Yesterday, I found myself mediating a dispute between someone I like a lot and another person who is a complete stranger to me. I was glad to attempt this, because I hate to see people in emotional pain, especially when the source of the problem is essentially a miscommunication or misunderstanding. It's all so tragically unnecessary. When I see this happening, and I have an opportunity to try to make peace, I usually go for it.

My favorite line in Monty Python's Life of Brian is "Blessed are the cheesemakers." In the movie, this is how people toward the back of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount mishear the words, "Blessed are the peacemakers." John Cleese explains to others in the crowd that it should not be taken literally, but can be applied to "all makers of dairy products." I like this bit a lot. For me it's a self-deprecating reference to my own fumbling attempts to be a peacemaker. My contributions may be trivial, foolish, ineffectual or misunderstood, and yet, as with Jesus saying the right words a quarter mile away, it's worth the attempt.

I'm not going to mention here what yesterday's misunderstanding was. That's not the point. The point is that it happens all the time. That's why the snappy sentences of "My Philosophy (Your Mileage May Vary)" on my woefully out of date home page include the following:

Far too many friendships are damaged or ruined by miscommunication. Try to stay on the same page.

In the early 1990s, I accidentally ruined a friendship by saying something online that deeply offended someone I'd known for a couple of years, and liked a lot. She thought I'd called her a liar, and I was too distracted by my own problems to defuse the problem. In the mid-1990s, a club I was in split in two for a while, because two groups of people misunderstood each other's words and intentions. Then in the late 1990s, my best friend was hurt because we were both working on the same project, and unaware of each other's efforts. That only exacerbated a strained relationship already damaged by a miscommunication over a dinner invitation.

Those are just three examples. I'm sure you can come up with more from your own life, in which someone's words were given the worst possible interpretation, resulting in anger and hurt feelings.

So what do we do, when someone says something that seems hurtful or unfair? Most of the time we lash out defensively, saying things that others will find equally hurtful or unfair. Both sides see other's position in the worst possible light, which sets off another round of angry remarks. This happens whether the other person is a stranger, a friend, or even the person you love the most. It's a very human thing to do, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. In my case, though, I tend to worry about whether I've offended someone somehow, giving misinterpreting the other person's words and actions as evidence that they're mad at me for saying...well, whatever I just said. Other times, I blame the other person, while still feeling guilty myself.

None of this is good for us. So when something like this starts to happen, I suggest the following procedure:

Seven Steps to Resolve Misunderstandings

1. Check the facts. Look for any mitigating factors you may have missed. Did she really say that? Is a different explanation of the evidence possible? Do the research, and ask for clarification.

2. Be charitable. In light of #1, go over what the other person said or did, and find the best possible interpretation of it. Can it be that the person really meant no harm? Was it a simple mistake? Was the person merely thoughtless or forgetful or angry, rather than malicious? Could the person be partly reacting to some other problem--health, drugs, relationship problems, etc.? Is there a way of looking at the person's words and actions, and seeing just an ordinary person, trying to get by, and messing up as we all do from time to time?

3. Check for reasonableness. Now, think about your original interpretation of the other person's words and actions. Is it really that much more likely, in light of the facts, than the more generous interpretation you've just worked out? Does it make more logical sense? Is it in character for that person?

4. Critique yourself. Take a look at your own words and actions. Is there a way they could be seen as mean or unfair? Did you overreact, and say something hurtful? Could the other person have found a way to see malice or unfair accusations that weren't really there?

5. Put it all together. Try to see the other person's point of view. If at all possible, assume the best rather than the worst, and be aware of how your own words and actions may have contributed to the problem. Explain your position gently and dispassionately as possible. Apologize if you know you've been at fault, and try not to demand an apology yourself. The other person may still be convinced he or she did nothing wrong--and may even be right!

6. Let it go. Once you've done all that, let the conflict be over and done. Don't let the fight escalate with accusations and attacks, even if you've inescapably concluded that the other person really is mean and selfish and unpleasant. You will probably want to disengage from the other person for a while (or forever), which is almost certainly a good idea.

7. Be nice. When you must deal with the other person, be polite. It will all be strained, but it doesn't have to be actively unpleasant. After enough time goes by, you may be able to rebuild what you've lost.

End of sermon. Go in peace!


Friday, March 25, 2005

Palm Sunday Heresy, Good Friday Reflections

Reprinted from Musings from Mavarin, Sunday, April 4, 2004

Good Friday 2005When I was about six or seven years old, I used to hold my own little mass in what my family called the game room, the library-shelved, leftover furniture-filled finished room next to the basement, in which my mom met with her patients in private practice. I would put a purple towel on my mom's desk, set up a statue of Mary that my godmother had given me, and read through the Weekly Missal, very fast. I didn't quite credit, at that age, that it didn't count unless there was a real priest present, and that only men were priests. In those days, no women served at Mass at St. Ann's in Manlius, New York. Acolytes were called altar boys, and even the readers were male deacons at least.

By the time I reached high school, some of the altar boys were girls, and there were lay readers, some of them women. I wasn't among them, although I still sat in a pew every Sunday. I was in my Jesus Person phase, illustrating a Jesus Christ Superstar album cover for art class with a somewhat graphic depiction of the crucifixion, singing songs from Godspell at Area All-State, going up to the front at the War Memorial when invited to do so by David Wilkerson protegé Nicky Cruz, where some disciple wrote down "H.S" as the reason I came forward. Despite everything, though, I didn't get what I was looking for, a little spark of feeling in my soul that I knew for sure to be God, waving and calling out, "I'm here. I'm real."

I kept looking for that through college. I went to church at St. Patrick's across town to see Father Ed Van Auken, who once said, "Theology's not my bag." I attended get-togethers at Newman House where a priest whose name I've forgotten preached against the Pill I was taking. I had long discussions about God with a close friend who wanted to be among the first female Episcopal priests, but who was rejected. I agreed less and less with the Catholic Church and the Creed. I wasn't sure what I believed any more, in something, certainly, but not in "the resurrection of the body." Then I married an agnostic, soon to be an atheist, who liked to say, "one man's religion is another's belly laugh." That was the end of my churchgoing, except for the occasional Christmas, for many years to come. If I didn't believe it, why go to church to say it?

Fast forward nearly 20 years, during which I hardly ever went to church, hardly ever looked at a Bible. In all those years of waiting for inspiration to hit, waiting to find out what I believed, I never really worked at it. I thought going to church and saying the creed would make me a hypocrite. I did, however, build a rather impressive collection of Madeleine L'Engle books, including a bunch of religious nonfiction. I've never read most of them, but I got the impression from what I did read that the Episcopal Church, a cathedral of which L'Engle attended, was worth a try. It seemed to have all the things I liked about the Catholic Church, and none of the stuff I didn't. That's an oversimplification, but it proved to be fairly accurate.

So I went to the church up the street from me, the one with a socially conscious sign out front. I've been going there ever since. It turns out that faith, for me, at least, is more a function of doing in public than of thinking in private. I was never going to find faith (much less prove anything to myself logically) by ignoring the subject most of the time, never going to church, never reading the Bible or any other books on the subject. I had to go to church, read the readings, listen to the sermons, think about the prayers, and maybe have a cup of ice tea in the Parish Center afterward. Once I started doing these things, I discovered that the Nicene Creed didn't bother me nearly as much at age 40 as it did when I was 20. I don't believe every word on a literal level, but I believe them on some level. And I learned that maybe there is a little spark inside me that says that God is there, God is real, even if I don't feel it every second, even if I don't understand, even if I don't know exactly what to believe.

These days I act as crucifer about twice every six weeks, and read to the congregation about once every ten weeks. I never quite get it right, somehow. When reading, I go a little too fast, or lose my place and blurt out, "Wait a minute...," or stumble over a word. Carrying the crucifix on a long pole near the front of the procession, I walk a little too fast, or too close to the thurifer (incense-bearer), or let the candles (candle-bearers) get ahead of me, or knock into something, especially outside before and after Mass. Up in the sanctuary, I forget to go get the stand for the readings, or to put it back, or to retrieve the cross during the prayer over the catechumen, until Proscovia nudges me or gives me a look or says my name. So I don't do it perfectly, ever, but I get by. Afterward I eat high carb food at coffee hour, and go home and update the church website at http://smaa/mavarin/com/smaa.html, or more likely just the schedule page.

Why do I forget to do what I'm supposed to do? I'm thinking about what I believe, or the parts of the ritual others perform, or the pain in my knees as I kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer. I'm trying to sing a hymn without the hymnal, because I never have one when I serve as crucifer. I'm wondering whether 98-year-old Eva's okay, because she didn't come to Mass, or she fainted, or she just stepped outside. I'm thinking about the readings, and the prayers, and the styles of the different priests and what they each have to say. I'm thinking about my novels, or my school work, or my stomach ache. So my mind wanders, until Proscovia nudges me or my mind wanders back on its own.

It's not good enough. I know it's not good enough. I'm not attentive enough. I still don't know exactly what I believe. I don't do much to save the world or feed the hungry. I don't have faith the size of a mustard seed.

But at night I go to bed and pray my repetitive, idiosyncratic prayers, full of gimme and give us and not at all full of praise, because I'm not good at it and don't know how to say it sincerely. I think about Heaven, which I neither understand nor reject entirely. And I talk to God, as I've always done. He never really answers, but I know he's there. He's real. He's listening. There's no ecstatic revelation, just a feeling, the same one I've always had.

And, because of Him, it is enough after all.

******* Update: 2005 ******

Karen does the first reading on Maundy Thursday 2005It's been a year, almost, since I wrote this. Eva is 99 now, almost 100. I'm done with school. I've gotten better at being lector, and I don't make quite as many mistakes as crucifer. But really, overall, not much has changed. I haven't accomplished much this Lent, in terms or fasting or readings or special devotions. Nor have I learned anything much about my faith, such as it is. I still don't understand what Father Smith calls "the scandal of the cross." I don't understand the reason for what happened on Good Friday all those years ago. Oh, the human reasons - jealousy, politics, power, and sectarian disagreement - seem clear enough, but God's reasons remain obscure to me.

But I know that something happened, something that matters, something that resonates through 2000 years of translations and interpretations, of the same or similar words repeated so often that meaning threatens to slip away. It matters, whether or not I understand it, whether or not I'm clumsy or distracted.

And I pray that by next year, I'll understand why it matters and what it means, at least one percent better than I do now.


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

New Camera

Anyone who looked at the pictures I uploaded recently from Confirmation and Bishop Smith's visit probably noticed that they were, well, terrible. My five-year-old Mavica digital camera just doesn't handle the church interior well. Everything comes out too dark, and when I lighten the image it just ends up grainy.

However, my wonderful husband (you haven't met him; he's an atheist) gave me a new digital camera for my birthday. It's smaller and lighter, and it measures its resolution capability in megapixels (4.0). Best of all, it's capable of taking reasonably well-lit photos in the relatively dark church interior.

Here are some samples, taken March 13th, 2005, before and after the 10 AM Mass. More will follow: I hope to photograph the choir and parts of the 10 AM liturgy on Palm Sunday.

The main altar during Lent. Photo by KFB.
The main altar.

the coals for the incense.
the coals for the incense.

Proscovia lights the candles.
Proscovia lights the candles.
Father Smith
Father Smith.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Random Thoughts About Lent

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, of course, the first day of Lent. "Already?" some of you may have thought. "Isn't it awfully early this year?" Well yes, it was about as early as it gets. Due to the complex and rather confusing method used to calculate when Easter is, which has to do with the interplay of the lunar and solar calendars, Easter can be as early as the first day of spring, or as late as April 18th. This year, Easter is at the early end of the range, so Ash Wednesday was, too.

Ash Wednesday kicks off the "40 days of Lent" that precede Easter, but the numbering of that is odd, too. Lent is actually about a week longer than that, because the Sundays in that period don't count as part of the 40 days. Weird, huh? No wonder Lent has always seemed longer than it ought to be.

As a friend mentioned to me many years ago, Easter either coincides with Passover (as well it should historically), or misses it by about a month. This is because the two religious calendars differ in the way they calculate the moon's contribution to the dating of their respective holidays.

Obviously, since it was Ash Wednesday, I spent part of my evening at St. Michael's. Unfortunately, I didn't bring the camera along. The place has a very different feel to it on Ash Wednesday and other Lenten evenings than it has on Sunday mornings: quieter, more solemn and peaceful and even a little sad. Part of this is because of the darkness one steps out into afterward, the front walk under the trees strung with lights. There is no coffee hour or other distraction, no final organ solo to play us out, nothing to do but go home in silence. I like it.

Lent is an interesting time in other ways. For one thing, it begins and ends with reminders of death. Lent starts with the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross, a reminder that on our own we are "but dust." It ends with the crucifixion and Jesus in the tomb.

The end of Lent is another example of weird dating. Have you ever wondered how Friday afternoon to Sunday morning counts as three days? I often have, until Father Ireland finally explained it a few years ago. Since first century AD didn't have the concept for zero, Friday was the first day, Saturday the second, and Sunday the third day, although the whole period comes to less than 48 hours.

Another interesting thing about the season of Lent is what people do during that time, aside from eating fish on Fridays. People talk about "giving up something for Lent," but that's only part of the story. Sure, I may avoid hi-carb delights and blogging at work for the next 40-days-excluding-Sundays, but Lent isn't supposed to be about dieting or being a good employee. It's about repentence and reflection, bringing body and brain under control rather than giving in to them all the time, and dedicating that change in behavior to God as part of an effort to prepare spiritually for Easter. I can't say I completely understand this, but one of the things it means is that part of Lent can be in what one does, not just in what one avoids. Last year (it doesn't seem that long ago!) I read my way through the Gospels during Lent. If I were braver and more outgoing than I am, and less broke and busy (that's right; let's pile on the excuses!), I might volunteer at Casa Maria or some other soup kitchen or shelter, or head down to Guatamala with Ila. But I'm no good with that stuff, as I've mentioned here before, so I guess I'll just give blood again, and donate some more stuff to the Salvation Army or whatever.

updated the St. Michael's Seasons page for Lent, by the way. I have a feeling I may have missed Epiphany on that page, but I'm caught up now. Check it out!


Monday, February 07, 2005

Photoblogging the End of Epiphany

I took my camera to church today. I was also crucifer today, so I didn't take pictures during Mass, only before and after. Here are the best of them:

The Labyrinth as seen from the sacristy

the rack of red albs

candles and crosses

The Epiphany Trunk - filled again!

the Samaritans table at coffee hour


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Few Thoughts about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Earlier this week I looked at a couple of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most famous speeches, and was impressed with him all over again. That guy was an amazing orator, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. I urge you to take a look at some of the things he said. Typing key phrases into Google will bring up lots of copies.

I was eleven years old when he was murdered, and even I knew I was a secondhand witness to important history, in an amazing, often horrible year. Vietnam was a big mess and getting bigger, RFK's murder was still to come, and George Wallace was running for president. It was a violent, divisive time, and yet with hope for a better world to come. In his last speech, King spoke of that better world as the promised land. "I may not get there with you," he said, "But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

Around the end of that summer, my Mom staged her musical and political revue They'd Rather Be Right. The most touching part of it was a slide show, featuring pictures etched on our memory: the assassinations and funerals of JFK, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. These were accompanied by the Association song Requiem for the Masses, which probably explains why a member of that group was in the audience for one of the perfomances.

Mom's major source of pictures for the slide show was Life Magazine. One of the shots was of the cover about King's death, titled "The Murder in Memphis." Mom's slide cut off the right edge of the cover, so that it said, "The Murder in Me." When I objected to this, Mom said she liked it that way, because it would encourage people to consider their own murderous impulses.

Dr. King was a freedom fighter, seeking justice and equality, but he was more than that. He believed in non-violent means of achieving his ends, a collaboration in which people of all colors could work together peaceably to overcome ignorance and ill-will. It's an ethic in which the ends do not justify the means, and skin color is no excuse for hatred.

All these years later, his words are still words to live by. Too bad that so many of us today are too cynical, too parochial, too angry, to look from his mountaintop or share in his dream.


"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
August 28, 1963


Here are a few more Guatamala pictures, courtesy of Ila Abernathy.

Child's drawing, El Tesoro 31 de Mayo, Uspantán, Quiché

Guatemala Project remains an ongoing, open ended, head-in-the-clouds and toes-in-the-mud, practical exploration of the provocative question asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Its strengths are continuity (the "intercambio" began in 1993), flexibility, respect for indigenous cultures and indigenous self determination, the collaborative nature of the work, and you. --Ila