December 9, 2018

Advent II: Mary and Elizabeth: Journeying with Family and Friends

During Advent this year, we are following along with the Episcopal Church Way of Love Advent Calendar and curriculum*. Last week we looked at how saying ‘yes’ to God is countercultural. Really saying ‘yes’ and living a Way of Love can change us and our world.

This week, we continue by considering the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). We all need companions on the journey, no matter where we are going. The Way of Love curriculum* notes that “Mary set out in haste [to visit Elizabeth]…The life - the Word - that began to grow within her could not be contained. She just had to share her good news with her cousin Elizabeth and set out to the hill country of Judea, a long journey. By going, Mary found out that Elizabeth, too, was on a journey of love.”

She had to share her news and find out if, indeed, Elizabeth also had news to share. When we are faced with something new, we want to share it with someone. We text our friends or call them up. We post on Facebook or Instagram when we discover a new restaurant or recipe. Do we do the same thing when we read an inspiring devotion or learn a new prayer?

Elizabeth exalts, "blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." We all know the lovely prayer that Mary offers in response. It is called the Magnificat and many choral settings have been done using her words of celebration and prophecy. "My soul magnifies the Lord," she praises. Her response to the new journey she is on is to join in prayer and praise with Elizabeth. "The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name," she continues.
This image from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Seattle is symbolic of the link between Mary and Elizabeth; and between any friends who share their lives. This can be sharing joys, but also sharing sorrows. We should share both with our friends so they can walk with us.
Is my first response to good news a prayer? Not always, I must admit. Even though I might share the news with someone, I may not remember to thank God as the originator of all good things. I may not even really pause to recognize the blessings.   
The curriculum asks “What good news do you have to share with one another?... How have you experienced your faith or trust in God as a blessing?” 
How often do you share good things with friends to encourage them? Telling one another when blessings happen deepens the joy for both parties. Let's tell our stories

This week, if something good happens consider pausing to say a prayer before moving on. Remember, prayer isn’t fancy words, it is simply a heartfelt meeting with God. Think about what you have to say ‘thank you’ for this week. Share that with a friend and with God. When we pray together, we offer Blessing to each other. When we pray for someone, we are giving them the gift of our heart. In all prayer, we are meeting God and joining in creating a Way of Love.

 Again, we close with the prayer from the curriculum* suggested for use this week: “O God of Elizabeth and Mary, you visited your servants with news of the world’s redemption in the coming of the Savior: Make our hearts leap with joy, and fill our mouths with songs of praise, that we may announce glad tidings of peace and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.”

*Way of Love Advent Curriculum; By Jenifer Gamber and Becky Zartman; Copyright © 2018 by The Episcopal Church;

The Episcopal Church/ 815 2nd Ave/New York, NY 10017

December 2, 2018

Advent I: The Annunciation-saying Yes to the Way of Lovve

Last week we started our Advent Journey on the Way of Love with an exploration of what a Rule of Life is and how each individual Rule of Life might assist us in our Journey through Advent. Today is the First Sunday of Advent. This week we will look at how saying ‘yes’ to God and to the journey might change and enrich us.

We are using ideas in the Way of Love curriculum and Advent calendar from the Episcopal Church*. I’ve taken some of those suggestions and incorporated them into the Planner page for this week, along with some other ideas. The planner gives you tips for using the study in an individual way, and the Way of Love curriculum can be used in a group setting.

The Way of Love curriculum encourages us to be specific about their Rule of Life actions in each of the 7 disciplines in the Way of Love. Perhaps Centering Prayer is your Prayer practice and reading a devotional or selected scripture daily is what you do to Learn. Are Sunday church services your Worship? What do you do for the Bless, Turn, Go, and Rest portions? How do each of these practices help you say ‘yes’?

This week’s scripture is the Annunciation story in Luke 1:26-38 (depicted here in Ecce Ancilla Domini! by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1849-50). Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s call on her life is, as the Way of Love curriculum notes, “a model for our own yes to the Way of Love…one of the most countercultural things we can do today…it may be just as frightening as Mary’s. We may not know the implications of saying yes…We can never be fully prepared for the magnificent journey with Jesus…we are called to say ‘yes’ to this impossibility made possible.”

It is true. If we really LIVE a Way of Love that says ‘yes’ to God, we are being countercultural. Think about all the messages we are bombarded with. Very few of them have anything to do with love. The daily news is full of scary and bad things happening. Social media is crammed with negativity (interspersed with cat videos). There is fear and anger and hatred, seemingly, everywhere. To live as members of the Body of Christ and embody the Way of Love Jesus taught is not an easy response to those people or things that make us afraid or angry.

We must be very intentional about seeking out positive things to focus on. We need tools that will help us react in a loving way rather than in a self-protective, angry, or negative way. The Way of Love disciplines are one way to re-program our minds to look to God first and foremost as we incorporate them into our individual Rule of Life.

During this Advent journey along the Way of Love, we may just discover that by deepening our life in Prayer and Rest, Learning and Worship; and that living by Turning (or re-Turning) and Going out to Bless we can indeed be a countercultural influence in the world.

As the saying goes, “A day hemmed in with prayer won’t unravel”. That’s true. When we keep our hearts fixed on looking for God and saying ‘yes’ to the little and big ways God is calling us to live Love, we will be changed. Just maybe we’ll change the world around us, too. All it takes is saying ‘yes’ to God’s call! That sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it?

Think about your own life now and leading up to this moment. When have you heard God asking you to say ‘yes’? Where has that taken you? For me, one of the times I heard God asking me to step out was when I sat down to write my first book. And then to publish it. I would never have guessed that the simple act of putting words on paper would change me from an introvert who would prefer not to speak to groups, to someone who leads retreats and chairs committees.

Sometimes it’s not completely clear what God is asking, or where it will lead. There is a recent contemporary Christian song by Hillary Scott. In her song Thy Will, Scott admits, “I’m so confused/ I know I heard You loud and clear/ So, I followed through/ Somehow I ended up here/ I don’t wanna think/ I may never understand/ That my broken heart is a part of Your plan.”

This week’s planner asks us to consider our 'yes' to God by asking what part of Worship fills your heart and why. The planner invites us to really listen to someone else’s point of view, and to do a random act of kindness. We are also called to consider where we might have fallen short and invites us into Rest by doing something that feeds the soul. Each of these is a way to say ‘yes’ to God’s call and invitation to live a Way of Love. We don’t know where that will take us, and being out of control is usually scary.  

As Hillary Scott sings, “Sometimes I gotta stop/ Remember that You’re God/ And I am not…Thy will be done.” Often the best we can do when we are faced with God’s answer to our ‘yes’ is to admit we aren’t God, or in control, and just pray ‘Thy will be done’. We have to trust, with Scott, “I know You hear me, Lord/ Your plans are for me/ Goodness You have in store.”

Whenever we say ‘yes’ to God, we’ll go places we didn’t ever expect. As things change around us, we are can be assured that God is in control, no matter what. As a way of submitting to God, you may want to add this closing prayer from the Way of Love curriculum to your Way of Love prayers this week.

Holy One, who makes the impossible possible, open our ears to hear you calling us to birth new life into the world. Grant us, through the power of the Spirit, the courage of Mary to respond with “yes” so that your Word may dwell in our hearts; through your son Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.*

*Way of Love Advent Curriculum; By Jenifer Gamber and Becky Zartman; Copyright © 2018 by The Episcopal Church;

The Episcopal Church/ 815 2nd Ave/New York, NY 10017

November 25, 2018

Toward the Way of Love

Last week I mentioned the Episcopal Church, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s, Way of Love. What exactly is that, you might ask. It is simply a form of a Rule of Life encompassing: Worship, Go, Learn, Pray, Bless, Turn, Rest. You’ll notice there are 7 parts, and there are 7 days of a week. That’s so the Rule of Life fits neatly into your week.

First, though, what is a “Rule of Life”? Often, we think of monastics, or priests, or other ‘religious folks’ as the only ones who have a Rule of Life. This can be something set up by their Order or ordination. However, each of us has a Rule of Life, whether you’ve ever thought of it that way or not. If you read your Bible, or a devotional book, or do some journaling, or have a quiet few minutes to pray then you have a Rule of Life.

According to the Journeying the Way of Love, Advent Curriculum (by Jenifer Gamber & Becky Zartman; Copyright © 2018 by The Episcopal Church, 815 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10017) a Rule of Life is “not just a set of rules to live by; rather, it is a gentle framework to guide and support us on our way [that] It helps us clarify our most important values, relationships, dreams, and work.” The authors point out “a rule of life [is] commitments to regular practices.” It can include, so called, secular activities like exercise or eating dinner as a family.

The Way of Love as outlined by the Episcopal Church is a Rule of Life with the goal of helping us grow in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. According to the Advent curriculum, “The Way of Love invites us to a rule of life that leads to incarnating Divine Love in the world, so it is appropriate to initiate a journey on the Way of Love during Advent, the season we slow down to get ready to welcome Jesus, God incarnate, anew.”

Let’s review the seven parts of the Way of Love Rule of Life and what they mean.

Sunday, we are invited to Worship as an intentional way to gather in community with and before God. “As we break bread, our eyes are opened to the presence of Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made one body, the body of Christ sent forth to live the Way of Love.”

Monday calls us to Go across boundaries and live like Jesus. “He sends us beyond our circles and comfort, to witness to the love, justice, and truth of God with our lips and with our lives…to join God in healing a hurting world [and] to become Beloved Community, a people reconciled in love with God and one another.”

Tuesday reminds us that we must Learn. The authors of the curriculum note, “When we open our minds and hearts to Scripture, we learn to see God’s story and God’s activity in everyday life.”

Wednesday, the middle of the week, is a time to remember to Pray. Prayer is an offering of our thanksgivings and concerns to God while listening for God’s voice in our lives. “When we pray

we invite and dwell in God’s loving presence.”

Thursday is a time to Bless by sharing our faith and unselfishly serving. The authors note, “We are empowered by the Spirit to bless everyone we meet…and to share our stories of blessing and invite others to the Way of Love.”

Friday is a day to Turn and take a break. “With God’s help, we can turn from the powers of sin, hatred, fear, injustice, and oppression toward the way of truth, love, hope, justice, and freedom. In turning, we reorient our lives to Jesus Christ, falling in love again, again, and again.”

Saturday is a day of Rest when we can be restored by God’s grace and peace. This is an invitation to an intentional time “for restoration and wholeness…[because] by resting we place our trust in God, the primary actor who brings all things to their fullness.”

In preparation for Advent, consider what your current Rule of Life is-both secular and spiritual. To help with that, you can download the weekly planner page for this week. You’ll notice the theme for the week is Preparation. Isaiah 40:3 calls us to Hear “the voice of someone shouting, "Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!

Are there parts of your life that might be called ‘wasteland’?

Can you make a straight ‘highway’ for God to enter your heart this Advent?

What changes might you want to make or include in preparation for Christmas?

I invite you to join me in journeying the Way of Live this Advent using the Advent calendar incorporated in the weekly planner pages available, with some additional hints, from this blog during Advent. Download the first page to get started on the journey. 
Or gather in a small group to follow the curriculum itself. Perhaps you would prefer to simply download the Advent calendar  follow it through the next four weeks with the following topics:

Advent One: The Annunciation: Saying “Yes” to the Journey

• Advent Two: Mary and Elizabeth: Journeying with Family and Friends

• Advent Three: The Birth of John the Baptist: Journeying with Community

• Advent Four: The Birth of Jesus: Journeying with the World

November 18, 2018

Pentecost: Transitioning to a Way of Love

We’ve been talking about Ordinary Women since September. Each of them responded to something in their lives by making a change that affected more than just their immediate circle. Frances Perkins left us the legacy of fair labor laws. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton both improved nursing because they were faced with crisis during wartime. The Bible women Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Judith, Mary of Magdala, and Mary of Nazareth faced the demands of their lives with courage and faith that made them heroines in their lifetimes and beyond. Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, though separated by about 400 years each impacted the church of their time with their insight and teaching.

For each of them, there was a transitional moment in their life. The time when they were faced with something that demanded a response. For each of them, the response was a form of love of their neighbor. They gave of themselves as Jesus commands in the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” Each woman looked beyond seeming differences and found something to love. These saints didn’t ask ‘does the soldier, the worker, the seeker, the endangered, the hurting, the lonely look or think like me?’ They simply reached out and cared for those who needed help.

How do we deal with the changes and transitions in our lives? Do we reach out, or lock ourselves away? Each day we have the opportunity to choose a response when confronted with a co-worker, a stranger, an inconsiderate driver, bad news, or a myriad of other things. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is calling for a change-to be the Jesus Movement in our environments. This is a call for each of us to love God and love neighbor. As Bishop Michael Curry noted in a recent sermon, ‘there is no asterisk’ in this commandment.

In his recent book The Power of Love, and in all his sermons, Bishop Curry issues a call to love. Love is the foundation of dealing with the changes and challenges around us. In his well-known Wedding Sermon, Curry calls us to remember the “redemptive power of love”. He says, “there is power in love to help and heal…to lift up and liberate…to show us how to live.” Living love is to “change not only their lives, but the very life of the world itself.”

The Episcopal Church has issued an invitation to The Way of Love. This includes 7 Practices: Turn to Jesus, Learn from Scripture, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. I invite you to join me during Advent with some of the exercises and activities outlined in the Way of Live Advent Calendar and Curriculum. You can use the Advent calendar incorporated in the weekly planner pages available from this blog during Advent. If you prefer, gather a group together to do the study as outlined online. Next week we’ll look more closely at the 7 Practices of the Way of Love in preparation for Advent.

This week, in all the bustle of Thanksgiving preparations, I invite you to consider how to love God and neighbor in a life changing way like the women of God we’ve learned about over the past couple months.

Does any of them inspire you more than the others? What in your life is like hers? Can you make changes to live more fully committed to what you believe in?

November 11, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Mary of Nazareth

This week we come to the end of our series about Ordinary Women by meeting Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. Over the past couple months, we’ve looked at reformers, saints, and Bible heroines. What they have in common is that they said ‘yes’ when God spoke to their hearts. They felt the same Spirit that was present at Pentecost move them to do surprising things. They each, in their own way invited God into their life. The George Herbert poem Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life, is one way to offer your life to God.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.

This past weekend was filled with many images. I was part of the team that worked on the Ordination of Bishop Hunn as the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. It was a busy and yet uplifting trio of days (tridium, if you will) that was the culmination of over a year’s work. My mind is still processing the ministry, joy, music, worship, community, and glory of the weekend. With Herbert I can praise with a heart that ‘joys in love’.

I wonder if Mary of Nazareth was filled with similar emotions at the highlights of her life. She experienced great highs and lows of emotion, as we all do. It all started when she said ‘yes’ to God. We first meet Mary as a teen girl confronted with the angel Gabriel who has an astonishing message: ‘you are going to bear the son of God, even though you are not married.’ What must have gone through her mind at that moment? We know she had questions. ‘How can this be?” she asks. Confusion and fear and perhaps some anticipation probably swirled around in her head and heart.

Then she rushes off to see her much older cousin, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. We might expect that relief, joy, and even prayer flooded over her as she and Elizabeth visited and bonded over their shared miracles. Perhaps she and Elizabeth felt the truth of the second verse of the poem by affirming that God is “strength as makes his guest’. With God’s strength all things are possible.

Nine months later, as she holds the infant Joshua/Jesus in her arms, she is visited by shepherds with stories of angel choirs. Then she ‘ponders all these things in her heart’. What things did she ponder? Adoration, surprise, awe, and like all mothers-love. Surely her heart overflowed:

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.

Over 30 years later, she again holds her son’s body. This time as a lifeless corpse. How might she have struggled to reconcile all the images in her life and heart with the death of her child? We can be sure that grief, despair, and fear were among the feelings she felt at that moment.

Then he arose! How does a person comprehend the incomprehensible? Astonishment, fear, confusion, and probably joy came to Mary at that time. We know Thomas had his doubts. Did Mary or the others in that upper room also wonder, at first, if such a thing could really be true? Perhaps it is only then that she knows the truth of the first verse:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.

Saying ‘yes’ to God’s call doesn’t mean that we know all the twists and turns of the journey ahead. Mary didn’t know how her life would be when she agreed to bear the Son of God. She simply had to trust God even when things were frightening or confusing. She could offer praise and adoration in the wonderful times. In the scary times, she could offer her fear and confusion.

Each of us has the same chance. When things are glorious and beautiful, we can offer praise and thanksgiving to God. In the dark times, we can come to God with our fears and doubts. Through it all, we can, as Presiding Bishop Curry reminded the congregation at the ordination, love God and love our neighbor. We are to be the bridge that brings God’s love to the hurting world.

We are called, like the other saints, be instruments of God. As the hands and feet of God to the brokenness around us, we must trust God. We are those who love our neighbor, even when they are ‘different’ than us. The Presiding Bishop suggested a retelling of the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this. He asked us to imagine that rather than a Samaritan and Jew, it was a Republican and Democrat… A good reminder in this week when we are having elections. It doesn’t matter what labels we put on others, the truth is that each of us is a beloved child of God. We must learn to see each other that way-through the lens of love!

Just like Mary and the other saints we have learned about, we experience a variety of emotions every day. We may find ourselves slipping from joyful praise, to frustration, to prayer, to sorrow, to doubt and back again in the course of a day, or even an hour. The poem by George Herbert reminds us that God is ‘the truth as ends all strife…the life that killeth death’.  

Are there times in your life that resonate with the words of Herbert’s poetry?
Can you use this poem as your prayer when the news is troubling? Or is there another prayer or hymn that helps you remember God is love and God is in charge?

October 28, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Hildegard of Bingen

This week we look back to the Middle Ages to a woman who stood up to popes and kings 400 years before Teresa of Avila. Hildegard of Bingen was influential in her time. She was the youngest child of Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, born around 1098. Nobility, the family was in the service of Count Meginhard of Sponheim.

Hildegard’s life might be summed up in James 3:13-18. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

Throughout her life, Hildegard had health problems. Like Teresa, it was during these episodes that she experienced visions. As often happened with younger children, she was sent to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest of Germany. She took her profession with Jutta, daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim around 1112. The pair was the core for a community of women who joined the monastery. Jutta taught Hildegard to read and write. Hildegard also learned to play the 10-stringed psaltery and started creating music around that time.

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected magistra of the community. Although Abbot Kuno of the Disinbodenberg monastery asked Hildegard to take the position of Prioress, she declined. Preferring independence for her community, she requested a move to Rupertsberg to establish a separate community. Despite the Abbot’s refusal, she persevered and received approval from Archbishop Henry I of Mainz. However, it was not until 1150 that the nuns moved to St. Rupertsberg monastery. Fifteen years later Hildegard founded a second monastery at Eibingen.

Hildegard knew that her visio, her visions, were a gift from God that helped her see all things in the light of God through her senses. She shared them with only a few trusted friends, like Jutta and her confessor. Then in 1141, she received the instruction to “write down that which you see and hear”. She didn’t want to obey and became physically ill as she tells in Scivias (Know the Ways), “But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. (...) And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out therefore, and write thus’.”

As James 3:17 notes, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” Hildegard’s works of writing, music, and art came from her devotion to God. Pope Eugenius learned of Hildegard’s work and gave Papal approval in 1148. This gave her credence and fame. She went on to author 3 books of her visions, 2 books on natural medicine, music for liturgy and a musical morality play (Ordo Virtutum). She was an avid correspondent and nearly 400 of her letters survive. Her recipients ranged from popes and emperors to abbots and abbesses. Hildegard drew many of her visions as mandalas and these remain popular today.

Hildegard died September 17, 1179. Although she was one of the first persons to be put forward for canonization as a saint, the process was never completed. However, in 2012, she received “equivalent canonization” and she was the 4th woman named a Doctor of the Church. The Church of England lists her as a saint with the feast day of September 17.

Hildegard was a multi-talented woman. Her leadership of the nuns, and her correspondence with the rich and powerful had wide ranging effects. She did not see herself as important, though.

What can we learn from Hildegard’s life?

Look up some of Hildegard’s mandalas and make one of your own.

Next week there will be no post. The following week we’ll conclude this series with a look at Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. 

October 21, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Teresa of Avila

Our Pentecost series about ‘ordinary women’ has looked at modern women and Biblical women. We’ve learned about a couple of nurses and a labor activist, along with a queen, and a mother with her daughter-in-law. Now we turn from Mary Magdalene and Judith, two Bible women who have stories of radical response to God’s call in their lives, to a woman of the Renaissance.

Earlier this week was the feast day of Teresa of Avila, at 16th century nun who reformed the Carmelite order. An insightful meditation on her life was written by Dana Kramer-Rolls for Episcopal Café. Kramer-Rolls notes that we don’t always “like words like “obedient,” “humility,” and we distrust “passion.”  We are much more comfortable with “justice,” “protest,” “resist,” which certainly have their place. But subjection to God also has Gospel approbation, and obedience and discernment ought to precede action or a contemplative life.” She goes on to say, “We face Teresa’s tension. For us the power of the Church now resides in the State, and we still struggle with discernment…the path of humility and obedience, however unpopular and painful, offers a path to peace beyond words, and a friendship with and passion for our Lord and our God beyond anything which the world offers.”

Teresa was a woman who lived the Sermon on the Mount. She knew that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3-4)

She was born in 1515 in Avila, Spain to a wealthy wool merchant, Alonso Sancez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas. After her mother died when she was 11, Teresa was sent to the Augustine monastery at Avila where she was often ill. During her sicknesses, she experienced religious ecstasy. She insisted that she rose to the ‘devotions of ecstasy’-perfect union with God. As promised, she found comfort in God’s presence in the visions.

Matthew 5:5 says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Even though she did not seek it, Teresa found herself acting as a reformer. At 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. She almost immediately began to feel that reform was needed. As Kramer-Rolls says, it had become more like a social club. It wasn’t until she was 45 (in 1560) when the Franciscan Saint Peter of Alcantara became her spiritual advisor. With his support, and funding by Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth, she established the monastery of San Jose in 1562 on the model of absolute poverty. She received papal sanction to the prime principle of absolute poverty and renunciation of property. She revived strict rules; and added ceremonial flagellation each week. In 1567 she began to establish new houses around Spain.
Teresa is well known for her visions. Throughout her life she was felt “hunger and thirst for righteousness”…and felt “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:6, 8). Starting in 1559, she had two years of visions of Christ present in bodily form, though invisible. Her most famous vision is immortalized in The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, found in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. She explained, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...”

Teresa was not just a person given to visions. She was a hard worker. Her life and witness convinced John of the Cross and Anthony of Jesus to found Discalced Carmelite Brethren houses for men in 1568 and others over the next 8 years. As the Sermon on the Mount notes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5: 7, 9)

Teresa offers a path toward union with God as outlined in her work The Interior Castle. She died in 1582. Forty years later she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV and in 1970 she and Saint Catherine of Siena were both named as Doctors of the Church by Pope Paul VI. They were the first women awarded this honor.

Her life was not without struggle, though. Jesus promises, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

Teresa perhaps found comfort in those words. Her paternal grandfather had been Jewish but was forced to convert to Christianity, and in fact was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for reverting to Judaism. He was able to refute the charges and reassume a Christian identity when her father was a child. The stigma lingered in the family, though, prompting her mother to be especially fervent in securing Christian teaching for her daughter.  

Not everyone approved of her work and even other Carmelite orders persecuted her. In 1576 she was forbidden from founding convents. The Spanish Inquisition even considered whether she was a heretic. The trials continued until King Phillip II of Spain intervened and the Inquisition charges were dropped in 1579.

Even though the poem Christ has no body now but yours is attributed to Teresa, there is no record of it in her writings. Another prayer that was found in her books, in her own handwriting, could be a summary of the Sermon on the Mount and a hymn of praise to trusting in God.

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.

— St Teresa, The bookmark of Teresa of Ávila

Are there parts of the Sermon on the Mount that apply to your life?

Does the prayer above comfort you with the idea that ‘God alone suffices’? Is there another phrase in the prayer that seems important to you?

October 14, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Mary of Magdala

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some women who are, on the surface ‘ordinary’. They are simply women who were going about their daily lives when God stepped in and transformed them. They responded to the needs of the world around them and made a difference in social justice, in nursing, and in standing against oppression. Last week we saw that even a woman who might not have actually lived can inspire us to make changes and stand up for what is right.

This week, we come to a rather misunderstood woman. Mary of Magdala. I’ve written about Mary several times on this blog over the years. She is a fascinating woman, even though there is not a lot concrete known about her.

Although blackened by Pope Gregory as a prostitute, there is no evidence of that in the Biblical record. A more likely scenario is that she was a woman of some wealth from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. We know that Jesus cast out 7 ‘demons’ from her. Whether this was some sort of massive possession or a way of explaining a dramatic healing of insecurities and fears that kept Mary enslaved, is not clear. 

In any event, Mary became one of the women who followed and ministered to Jesus ‘from their wealth’. The women were the fearless ones who stood at the foot of the cross and went to the grave after the Sabbath to complete the anointing of the body. Consequently, Mary was the one who first met the Risen Lord and to whom was given the directive ‘go and tell my brothers’.

It is said that after the Resurrection she continued her evangelism, even to the Imperial Court.  Far from being a behind the scenes operator, Mary was called to be part of the action. She was not afraid to tell her story. Mary invites us to be activeparticipants in our world, to look and see God everywhere. 

Mary reminds us that Jesus can cast out our demons of insecurity, fear, the past, and whatever else can trouble us. God is for us at all times.  

As you enter into the world of Mary, you might do this exercise from 2015 using images to see which way you see her. This one of Mary turning to see who has called her name is one of my favorites.

Then take a minute to consider what pictures you might use to represent yourself. Maybe a butterfly or an eagle. Perhaps, like me, a turtle is your 'totem' animal, reflecting the need for security. Lately, however, a hawk has taken up residence in a nearby tree and I see her as symbolic of strength and resilience.  

What images of yourself do you have? Do these images truly reflect how God sees you?
Can you start to see yourself like God does-as God’s own beloved?

October 7, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Judith

In this series, we’ve been looking at women, who made a difference in the world because they said ‘yes’ to God. Another woman from the Biblical record who, though ordinary, reacted in an extra ordinary way is Judith. Her story is found in the Apocrypha in the book that bears her name.  She was one of the women we studied at the August women’s retreat.

The Apocrypha is books that didn’t make it into the “canon”-the list of books chosen to go into the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Fourteen of these books are found in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. This was the translation done by 70 Jewish scholars in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries BCE. The Roman Catholic church calls these books deuterocanonical (or second canon) and includes them in translations of the Bible like the Jerusalem Bible. Most Protestant churches do not include these books at all, except in a separate section or separate book. The books in the Apocrypha, in general, cover stories in the time between the end of the Old Testament and the start of the New Testament. There are stories of the Maccabees who reestablished the independence of Israel and formed the Hasmonean dynasty, from which the Herods of the New Testament were descended. Additions to the Book of Esther and Daniel are also in the apocryphal books, as are some other assorted stories, including the Book of Judith.

The basic story is that Judith, whose husband has been killed by the Assyrians, goes to the Assyrian camp with her maid. She pretends to be an informant, gaining the trust of General Holofernes. Then one night, as he lies drunk, she beheads him. Her action demoralizes the army who retreats from Israel. Meanwhile, Judith returns home with the head of Holofernes to prove that God has saved them by her hand. The Book of Judith records that she was courted by many men, but chose to remain single.

It is unlikely that Judith was a real person, although some writers try to identify Judith with some historic female leader like Queen Salome Alexandra who was the only female queen of Judea, and last ruler of the independent nation. (76-67 BCE)

Throughout history, Judith has been depicted in art, like this image of Judith with the Head of Holophernes by Christofano Allori from 1613. I saw a special exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas a couple years ago,  featuring the story of her life, which was quite impressive although I don't recall the artist's name. (The museum also has a wonderful Via Dolorosa sculpture garden, works by Ron DiCianni, and art pieces created from weapons of war.)

Even if she was never a real live woman, Judith can teach us about courage and acting to rectify injustice. We may not want to cut off someone’s head, but we can speak out against evil. We may not have to pretend to be a traitor, but we can confront wrong.

Some might say that Judith was ‘over the top’ in her actions. As women, we are often urged to not be outspoken or take a stand. AnnVoskamp advises, “Don’t take it down a few notches. Take risks — and take all of you to the table. It can feel terrifying — but it is far more terrifying to live anything less than being fully seen…

Because the world’s much too apathetic, the world needs how you ferociously feel much. Because the world’s much too distant and indifferent, the world needs how you passionately and compassionately give much of your attentive soul. Because the world has lost much of its heart, the world needs more of us to come with so much of our heart instead of so little. And it’s better to feel much than to feel much of nothing at all. It’s better to love with your whole broken heart than to love anything half-heartedly. Those who are told they are too much — are those who awaken the world in much needed ways.”

Is there something that you think needs to change? Maybe God is calling you to take a stand.
Are you willing to take risks and give more of your heart to ‘awaken the world’?

September 30, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Florence Nightingale

A couple weeks ago, in this series, we met Clara Barton, one of the women who inspired me as a child. Another woman who fascinated me was Florence Nightingale. Born to a life of privilege in England, she nonetheless become the ‘lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War. Nightingale’s work formed the basis of nursing as we know it.  

Florence was born May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy to William Edward and Frances Nightingale. Her father had only inherited his great-uncle’s estate and name (Nightingale) five years earlier. She was their second daughter. The family returned to England in 1821, where they lived at Embley Park in Hampshire, with a summer home at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire. As members of the aristocracy, they also spent the social season in London.

In an unusual move, her father taught her history, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. She was also fluent in French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin, and even engaged in political discussions with her father.

Her religious upbringing was in the Church of England, although some sources list her as Unitarian. As a teenager, she felt called by God, noting in her diary, “On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to his service." By 1844 she began to believe that her calling was nursing. During a tour of Egypt in 1850, she wrote, “I like Him to do exactly as He likes without even telling me the reason…Today I am thirty--the age Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage. Now Lord let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do. Oh Lord Thy Will, Thy Will.”

For Florence, religion strengthened people to do good works and she encouraged her nurses to attend church calling them “handmaidens of the Lord”. She noted, “Religion is not devotion, but work and suffering for the love of God; this is the true doctrine of Mystics.” She also believed that “To be a fellow worker with God is the highest aspiration of which we can conceive man capable.”

Although her father encouraged her learning, the family was not as enthusiastic with her choice of nursing as a profession. Eventually she convinced them and enrolled in two weeks training at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserswerth, Germany in July 1850. She returned a year later for 3 months. At the Institute she learned the nursing skills of the time and hospital organization.

Three years later, she was superintendent of the Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances in London. This hospital for governesses gave her a chance to hone her administrative skills and improve nursing care for the patients as well as conditions for the nurses themselves. 
When the Crimean War started between Russia and the Ottoman Turks in October of 1853, Britain and France entered the conflict as allies of Turkey. British journalist William Howard Russell reported that the wounded lacked supplies and that care was incompetent. Faced with public outcry, the British secretary of war Sidney Herbert, a family friend, wrote to Florence Nightingale asking her to take nurses to the hospitals at Sutari. Nightingale left England with 38 women on October 24, 1854. They arrived on November 5 and five days later casualties from the Battle of Balaklava (memorialized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade*) and the Battle of Inkerman overwhelmed the hospitals. A measure of the catastrophic nature of the battles is that of the 600 soldiers in the Light Brigade alone, 127 were wounded and taken to the hospitals. Another 118 were killed and 60 taken prisoner. Less than 200 men still had horses at the end of that fateful, and misguided, attack.

There were, as Russell had reported, not enough supplies available. Nightingale bought equipment using monies provided by the London Times. Under Nightingale’s command, sanitary conditions were established. Soldiers’ wives were put to work doing laundry, while the nurses cleaned the wards. As Clara Barton did a few years later, the nurses wrote letters for the soldiers. Florence earned the title “Lady with the Lamp” by visiting the patients at night (as depicted in this lithograph of The Lady with the Lamp from 1891 by Henrietta Rae). Her work paid off with lower mortality rates. She returned to the Crimea several times, even after falling ill herself from conditions there. When the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict on March 30, 1856, she remained at Scutari until the hospitals closed. She was hailed as a heroine upon her return to England in August of 1856.

Nightingale continued to work on reforming healthcare and nursing after the war. At a meeting with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in September of 1856 she presented her records about the military hospitals, staffing and supply problems. This resulted in reform in the military medical systems. Faced though she was with death and pain, Nightingale said, “And she noted, "Live life when you have it. Life is a splendid gift-there is nothing small about it.”

In 1859 she began the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. By standardizing nursing training and procedures, Florence made nursing a respectable form of employment for women. She realized that women, “dream till they have no longer the strength to dream; those dreams against which they so struggle, so honestly, vigorously, and conscientiously, and so in vain, yet which are theirs.” She had a vision herself of a world where women could follow their dreams.

She also published Notes on Nursing: What it Is and What it Is Not, which has been in continuous world-wide publication since 1859. Florence died in 1910 and is buried in the family plot at St. Margaret’s Church, East Wellow, Hampshire. The Episcopal Church has designated August 12 as her feast day in Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

Throughout her life, Florence Nightingale lived out the Parable of the Grain of Mustard Seed. “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’” (Matthew 13:31-32) She even stated, “So never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.” In the face of family, political, and military opposition Florence Nightingale planted a seed that blossomed into a new vision for nursing. Her work inspired women, and men, across the world to pursue that career. Her innovations in nursing were used during the American Civil War by other nurses like Clara Barton, and her legacy continues today.  
What 'mustard seed' idea do you have that you have never acted on? 

More info about Florence Nightingale:

*The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

September 23, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Ruth & Naomi

We are continuing the series on Ordinary Women. Women through whom God acted. Women like you and me. Today we go back 4 millennia to a time not long after the Exodus ended and the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land.

Ruth and Naomi are an amazing pair of women. The Bible book is named for the younger woman, but without her mother-in-law, she would not be known. It was the older woman, Naomi, who bore the brunt of the loss of husband and sons in a foreign country. It was Naomi who decided to return to her hometown of Bethlehem hoping that the Mosaic tenet to care for widows and orphans would apply to her. It was Naomi who allowed Ruth to return to Israel, even though she was a foreigner. It was Naomi who encouraged her to seek out Boaz and force his hand. It is Naomi at the end of the Book of Ruth who names the child Obed. Naomi, despite her grief clung to some dim hope that God would help her.

Most people know the story-or think they do. They know that Ruth told someone “where you go, I will go…your people will be my people…” If you did a poll many would respond that she was talking to a man because that citation is often used at marriages. They may not know that she was speaking to Naomi, her mother-in-law, or the circumstances that led to the conversation.

In the Biblical Book of Ruth, we hear that “in the days of the Judges” there is a “famine in the land”. It was then that Elimelech, “a certain man of Bethlehem…went to sojourn in the country of Moab [with] his wife and his two sons.” (Ruth 1:1) Elimelech and Naomi go back across the Jordan and settle somewhere in Moab. Elimelech dies and “she was left with her two sons”. (Ruth 1:3) The the sons meet and marry women of Moab but after 10 years they, too, die. 
Naomi then hears that “the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). She sets out for Bethlehem. She tells her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to go back to their families. Orpah does eventually turn back, but Ruth ‘clung to her’ and recites her famous lines. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-18)

Naomi gives in, and the pair travel to Bethlehem. It would not have been an easy journey for two women alone, and likely they joined some caravan going in the right direction. Upon arriving in Bethlehem Naomi bewails her fate, saying “Call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” (Ruth 1:20)

In chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth we learn how Ruth goes to the fields around Bethlehem to glean (gather the leftover bits of grain at the edges of the fields) and encounters Boaz. Boaz, it turns out, is actually a distant kinsman of Elimelech (and son of Rahab of Jericho). He takes an interest in the stranger. This prompts Naomi to send Ruth to ‘lay at his feet’ during the threshing. Obediently, the young woman does so and Boaz says, “I will do for you all that you ask…I will do the part of the next of kin for you.” (Ruth 3:10-13).

Sure enough, in the morning, at a meeting of the town elders, Boaz offers a fellow kinsman “a parcel of land which belonged to our kinsman Elimelech…if you buy it you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of his inheritance.” (Ruth 4:3-5) The other man defers his right to Boaz who then marries Ruth. Ruth then has a baby. Then “the [village] women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin…he shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:14-15). “They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David”… and subsequently the ancestor of Jesus.  

What can these two women of faith teach us? Ruth remained faithful to her mother-in-law and together they persevered through hardship. Naomi trusted the word of God, spoken in the law given to Moses. She used that law to her benefit to ensure the future for Ruth and for herself. By gaining a son-in-law and then a grandson, she was assured of being cared for.

Naomi’s griefs from the deaths of her husband and sons were healed in the new life of her grandson. She may have let herself feel despair when returning to Bethlehem, but she didn’t let it stop her from acting to secure Ruth’s future.

Have you ever persevered through hardship and seen good come out of it?

Would you have had the strength to do as Naomi did and journey back home, hoping that something good might happen? 

September 16, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women: Clara Barton

Welcome back to our look at Ordinary Women, who were called by God to act bravely and make changes that impacted their world, and the lives of others for generations. We met Frances Perkins, who was instrumental in labor rights and Social Security. Last week, we visited the world of Esther, queen of Persia who stood up to racism and saved the Jewish people.

Today, we meet Clara Barton. From the very first time I learned about her, I have been fascinated by this woman who risked her life on the battlefield to help wounded men during the Civil War and who started the American Red Cross. I was probably in 4th or 5th grade when my grandmother sent me a biography of Barton. Her courage is inspiring. Early on, Barton realized, “we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) She followed the path God set before her, even through danger and opposition.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in Oxford, MA as the youngest of 5 children. Her first experience with nursing was as a girl when she tended her older brother who had a head injury. At 15 years old, Clara became a teacher and in 1948 founded a free public school in New Jersey.

After that school board replaced her with a man, she moved to Washington DC, where she became a clerk for the U.S. Patent Office. Surprisingly, she was paid the same as the men in the office. She noted, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.

Then came the Civil War. Barton was appalled by the conditions for battlefield hospitals. Starting in 1862, she traveled with the Union Army bringing surgical supplies, cooking, and tending the wounded. The tale is told of Barton holding an injured soldier when a bullet ripped through her sleeve and into the man, killing him. She later pondered, “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”

One essential service Clara performed was to record personal information of the soldiers. She wrote to family members of missing, wounded, or dead soldiers. Even after the War, she continued this task as Lincoln’s General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. She could not do this alone and formed the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. With her team of 12 clerks, she researched the status of tens of thousands of soldiers. In 1869, her final report to Congress noted that although 22,000 missing soldiers had been identified, she thought there were at least 40,000 more.

Barton then traveled to Switzerland for rest. It was there that she learned of the International Red Cross. She helped this group in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Upon returning to the United States, she lobbied for the formation of an American branch, which happed when President Chester Arthur signed the Geneva Treaty in 1882. Originally the organization focused on disaster relief during the Johnstown, PA flood and after hurricanes in South Carolina and Texas.

Clara Barton had her own vision of what the Red Cross should be, which put her in conflict with others in the growing organization. In 1904 she resigned. She died 8 years later in Glen Echo, Maryland at 91. 
She supported equal rights and was willing to help anyone regardless of race, gender, or station. She lived out the Galatians 3:28 reminder, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Her tireless work brought aid and comfort to men on the battlefield, to families in disasters, and helped provide supplies for first responders during her life and beyond.

Clara Barton inspired me when I first read about her as a child. She did not let being a woman in the mid 1800’s prevent her from following her path. She persevered, trusting that “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished…” (Philippians 1:6)

Have you read about someone whose work inspired you?

Is there someone who you would like to emulate?

Do you have a vision for helping in some way that you haven’t acted on?

Sources and further info:

September 9, 2018

Pentecost: Ordinary Women-Esther

As we delve into the lives of some Ordinary Women for the next few weeks, we’ll consider some Bible women and some saints, like Frances Perkins last week. This week, our focus is on one of the two Bible women who has a book in the Bible that bears her name.

Esther is an unusual book to be in the Bible because nowhere is God’s name specifically mentioned. Some commentators doubt that Esther was a real person. The same, of course, is said of other men and women in the Bible. There are some who categorize the Book of Esther as a comedy. Not a comedy that makes you laugh. Esther is a comedy of improbabilities, based on the characteristics of the Hebrew culture.

How could a young Jewish girl, who’s uncle is known to be Jewish have hidden her ethnicity? How did she gain the favor of the king to the extent that he raised her above all others in the harem? Why did the King ‘happen’ to look up and extend the royal scepter to give her entry to his presence? Why was Haman so obsessed with Mordecai that he hated all Jews?

Let’s think about all this for just a minute. If Esther wasn’t a real person, then perhaps this story is an elaborate parable or allegory about God and us? Maybe it’s about being " as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

Esther certainly was wise beyond her years. Rather than condemning Haman right from the start, she invites both the King and Haman to a banquet. Then she has a second party. Only then, after Haman is sufficiently prideful, does she throw herself on the King’s mercy.

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, ‘What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’ Then Queen Esther answered, ‘If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’ Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’ Esther said, ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’ Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’ As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:1-8)

Esther carefully choses her words. She states that if the Jews were only to be enslaved, she would not have spoken. It is only because their death was decreed by Haman’s racism that she asks for the King to intervene.

According to Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, “The idea of the serpent as symbolizing wisdom, seems to have entered into the early parables of most Eastern nations. We find it in Egyptian temples, in the twined serpents of the rod of Hermes…Here we learn that even the serpent's sinuous craft presents something which we may well learn to reproduce.” The priests of Pharaoh battled with Moses before the Exodus using snakes. Moses’ rod became a snake, devouring the Egyptian serpents.(Exodus 7:11-13) I would note that the serpent is also important in Meso-American cultures. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent is prevalent as an embodiment of the sky and a helper presenting Maya kings with visions. Many other cultures as well have snake symbolism in their history.

In the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary we read, “Alone, the wisdom of the serpent is mere cunning, and the harmlessness of the dove little better than weakness: but in combination, the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger; the harmlessness of the dove, from sinful expedients to escape it. In the apostolic age of Christianity…there was a manly (sic) combination of unflinching zeal and calm discretion, before which nothing was able to stand.”

St. Paul, notes that he was shrewd, yet guileless, to win converts to Christ. “To those without the Law I became like one without the Law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the Law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (I Corinthians 9:22)

In learning to be ‘shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves’, we might do well to consider our battles before we act. Our actions are always to point toward God, yet sometimes we need to be circumspect about how we do that. Sometimes we need to ‘become weak, to win the weak’. Esther was not weak. Indeed, she showed great courage in being a whistle-blower about the great evil Haman planned. Esther had to confront her fears, and face the possibility of death at the worst, or just disbelief. She prepared for her test by prayer and fasting for three days, in concert with all the Jews in the city. (Esther 4:16)

Esther, the Jewish exile in a foreign court, pretended to offer a simple invitation to a feast. However, she was using wisdom from God to save her people. We may think we have to act immediately to confront an injustice. Perhaps, like Esther, we would be well served to pause and pray first. Then we can act wisely, yet with sincerity.

In the early church, the Philippians are urged to “become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” (Philippians 2:15)

As we seek wisdom to deal with situations, we must look to God first. The first part of the Matthew 10:16 verse says, “I am sending you out [as sheep among wolves].” It is God who sets the course. It may seem to be dangerous, but we can trust that God is with us in and through it all, just as God worked through Esther’s courage to save the Jews in Persia.

Is there a current situation where you need to be both wise and circumspect?

How can you be a child “of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation”?