What does it mean to pray to a saint?

Praying to a saint isn’t like praying to God. If you are praying to a saint, you don’t think that saint is God. It is more like you are getting a friend to help you out.

Say God is the CEO of the place you work. You are a bit intimidated by him. You need to ask a favor, but you don’t think that he will listen. You don’t think that you are high enough up on the institutional pecking order to talk to him. Maybe you can’t get an appointment. But maybe you don’t even try, because you just don’t think he’ll make time for you.

So you talk to your manager, or his secretary. You ask them to carry the message to the CEO. You ask them because you really need this favor done, or you really need to get this message across. Perhaps something isn’t going right in the organization. Perhaps you see a way that it can be done better. If only this information can get to the CEO, then some action can take place.

You don’t have the authority to make a big sweeping change, but the CEO does. So you let someone know, and they talk to the CEO. Then the change happens (or not).

Because not every time you pray to God does the change happen. Sometimes it isn’t a good thing to ask for. God has the whole picture in mind. So God knows what is best. We can put in our opinions in the opinion box, but we have to trust that what happens is what is supposed to happen.

Now, ideally, you’d go straight to God. Or, you can go to Jesus, who will go to God. But Jesus removed all barriers between us and God. We don’t need intermediaries. We don’t need priests or ministers. We don’t need saints.

Sometimes we feel like we do, in the same way that we feel like we need training wheels when we start to learn how to ride a bike. But what happens when we learn how to ride, and we still use the training wheels? We don’t get as strong as we should.

Jesus makes us worthy to stand before God. When the veil before the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn in two at Jesus’ death, all barriers between us and God were removed. By his blood we are cleansed, and by his stripes we are healed.

But this is a very human thing. People were constantly throwing themselves facedown when an agent of God (read – an angel) appears to them. They were constantly saying they aren’t worthy. There is nothing in the Bible that says they aren’t worthy, but they keep saying they are. We still do.

So we have saints, and priests, and ministers. We have intermediaries, and go-betweens.

And the message still gets through.

God wants to hear from us, no matter how. Keep praying. Keep asking. Keep knocking. Keep seeking. Keep praying. If you have to use saints, fine. You aren’t praying to them, so much as with them. They are like spiritual friends. But keep praying. God is listening.

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Alphabets

If you want to gain an appreciation for how hard it is to learn to write, try learning another alphabet. I’ve always thought that the English alphabet is fairly simple. But that is because I was raised with it. I’ve been using it for years.

When I started tutoring kindergartners, I realized that are a lot of letters that look alike. Lower case “p” and “b” and “d” and q” look a lot alike. A lower case “n” is just a “u” upside down. In one way this is useful. It is a great way to see if a child has a learning disability. If she can’t ever “see” these differences, then perhaps her brain isn’t processing them.

Part of learning to write an alphabet is learning at what point a letter isn’t that letter anymore. This comes into play when you are handwriting the letters. At what point is an “n” an “n”, and at what point is it an “h”? If you put just a little too much tail on the “n” it changes into an “h”. If you put the tail on the right it is wrong. If you put the lines in the wrong place then it isn’t a letter at all. It is just a squiggle.

Writing is just an agreed-upon set of squiggles. Teaching letters to a child is just teaching these symbols, these agreed-upon squiggles. They are symbols because they have meaning. They have meaning because we agree that they do. In and of themselves they mean nothing.

I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is for anybody to learn the English alphabet because I’m learning Hebrew these days. I’m learning to write, read, and speak it. Well, maybe not the whole language. Just now, I’m learning the prayers. I bought a siddur, a Jewish prayer book, but it didn’t show the pronunciations. It showed the Hebrew words and the translation. I want the middle bit – the how-to-pronounce-it bit. I have a book by Blu Greenberg called “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” and it has a lot of what I want. There is also a website called “Hebrew 4 Christians” that is very helpful. But none of this is portable. So I’m making my own prayer book. And this involves handwriting the prayers.

Sure, I could literally copy-and-paste, but that would make my little book not so little. Pasting paper onto paper makes the book too thick. Ideally, I’d find some way of assembling this online and then printing out my own little prayer book, but I’ve not found a way to do this. Other alphabets aren’t always supported. And, ultimately, I do want to learn this alphabet. I like learning alphabets. So the best way is to write the words onto the pages myself.

I’m learning a lot of the letters look the same. Some look like just slight variations on other ones. I don’t quite know what makes one letter different from another. What must be included to make sure this letter is this letter? What is too far? What isn’t enough? It is the same as with the “n” and the “h” – what is the line that makes this one different from this one?

I want it to be perfect, but it isn’t going to be perfect without practice. I’m sure that if a reader of Hebrew looks at this, she might be able to figure out what I’ve written. Sure, I could practice on my own, away from this book. I could try to write the prayers and the letters out by hand and then copy them over to this book when I feel that I’ve gotten it – or I can just do it. I think there is something honest about that. I think God likes us to just try, to open ourselves up to being able to make mistakes.

You’ll never learn to walk unless you let go of the table you are holding on to. You have to try to take a few steps on your own. And when you do, your parent is overjoyed. Your first few baby steps are beautiful to her. They are awkward, and wobbly, but they are beautiful. They are beautiful because you are doing it. And with every step, you are walking closer to your parent’s open arms.

I think God thinks the same about my little prayer book. The letters are awkward and wobbly, but they are beautiful. I’m trying. And with every stroke I’m getting better. And with every stroke I’m walking closer to God.

Jesus in the stacks

I was in the stacks getting paging slips. I see this guy using his laptop. He has his legs up on a stool. It is against the rules, but I don’t say anything. I’ve just gotten challenged about the rules for what we are going to allow as proof of address for library cards, so I leave it.

This guy calls to me. Sort of. “Becky!” he says. “Becky!” I’m not Becky, I’m Betsy, but he’s close. I have “Elizabeth” on my nametag, so maybe I’ve told him my name and he’s half remembered it. I tell my name to people I like.

The only problem is that I don’t recognize him.

I look, and look, I and I think maybe he’s a regular, but he has cut his hair? Nothing.

So I think about it, and because he sort of knows my name, I come closer. He says “I’ve got something for you.” and he pulls out a box of cookies and starts opening them.

I’ve just finished a piece of banana bread, and I’m trying to not eat a lot of snacks. You don’t keep 50 pounds off by eating snacks. Plus, I don’t know this guy. Sure, the box was sealed, and they aren’t homemade, so I’m not worried about being poisoned. But something doesn’t feel right.

I tell him I can’t, that I’m trying to stay fit, so I can’t eat extra calories. He tells me he just walked several miles. I point out that I haven’t.

I walk away.

And then I think, is this Jesus in disguise? Did I just refuse to share a cookie with Jesus? Is this communion in the library?

And I think of this verse.

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

And I start to wonder. Am I doing the right thing? There are a whole lot of boundary issues with being a follower of Jesus. More on that later. At what point do I protect myself, and at what point do I realize that I’m safe all along?

Paul isn’t the Messiah

I just got into an argument with a minister. Well, that isn’t uncommon. I get into arguments with Christians and their leaders all the time. The issue is when we follow Paul and not Jesus. Plenty of Christians use the words of Paul to harm others, and to exclude them. This is contrary to the message of Jesus, and damaging to the reputation of Christians as being Christ-bearers.

Sure, if we discount the words of Paul, we discount the majority of the New Testament. But do we really need more? We have the Gospels. Isn’t that enough?

More does not mean better. If Paul’s words add to the message of Jesus, then great. It is when they take away that is the problem. Paul’s words have been used to attack and divide for centuries. They paint Jesus as aggressively intolerant – and that is not Jesus. The Jesus I met when I read the Gospels on my own wasn’t the Jesus I was introduced to by people who said they were Christian. The more people use the words of Paul when they are counter to the words of Jesus, the fewer people will find the real Jesus.

Our job as Christians is to bring Jesus to people. We are to bring that same healing love, that same forgiveness, that same compassion.

I remember thinking the same way as that minister. I remember taking a women’s studies class and a female minister was invited to talk to us. She said “Paul said…” – and I said “You mean Saint Paul?” She looked down her nose at me, as if I’d just offered her dog doo and said “I don’t call him Saint.” I thought, how dare she attack a leader of the church?

At the time, I was going to a church called “Saint Paul’s”. We heard Paul’s words almost every week. The Bible readings during the service are always one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, one from the Epistles (Letters) and one from the Gospels. So we heard a lot from Paul, because Paul wrote a lot of letters. Paul wrote while he was in prison for preaching about Jesus. It wasn’t considered Scripture at the time.

It is now, and that is the problem.

Paul isn’t the Messiah. When we follow Paul instead of Jesus we are going to get mislead.

Paul is for telling people they are sinners, and for making women be silent in church. Paul is against anybody who isn’t Paul. Paul did a lot to spread the message of Jesus, and that is great. The problem is when we start to think that Paul’s words ARE the message of Jesus.

The only way to differentiate between the two is to read Jesus’ words first, then Paul’s. Then we have to separate the wheat from the chaff. What agrees? What builds up? What strengthens and clarifies? Then – what takes away? What is added in that wasn’t there?

The philosopher Descartes talked about the color teal. He said he could explain what teal is by telling you that it is sort of green and it is sort of blue, but you really won’t know what teal is until he shows you what it isn’t. At some point it is peacock blue. At some point it is emerald green. It is seeing the line of what it isn’t that shows you what it is.

So, yes, read the words of Paul. Read them, so you can learn what isn’t the message of Jesus. Read them so you can learn what God’s message looks like through a fully human filter. And then learn from that. Learn how easy it is to take the message of Love and turn it into judgment and condemnation.

The minister had said that we need to “Speak the truth in love”, that a “sincere sin seer” should point out the sin in others. Because of my readings, I knew that “Speak the truth in love” is not from Jesus, but Paul. I said this, and said that Jesus tells us to take the plank out of our eyes first. Our sin is greater than the sin of someone we are trying to “correct”. The minister brought up the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. He said that Jesus said to “Go and sin no more.”

That was all he mentioned. If I’d felt awed by the fact that he is a minister, it would have stopped there. But Jesus came to take away all such distinctions. Jesus didn’t ordain anybody. We are all ministers. So we all need to think for ourselves.

Here’s the full text. It is John 8:2-11 (HCSB)
2 At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them. 3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. 4 “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?” 6 They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him. Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. 7 When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. 9 When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. 10 When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, Lord,” she answered. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

See? When the minister just quoted “Go and sin no more”, all he was focusing on was the sin. He left out the line before that – “Neither do I condemn you.”

I mentioned this, and said that we cannot point out other’s faults, that we must show love without fail. He said we should point out people’s faults, that it is called intervention. He also then said that I was pointing out Paul’s faults, so I was contradicting myself.

I’m not pointing out Paul’s faults. I’m pointing out the Church’s fault when we take the words of Paul as the Gospel. I’m pointing out the danger of following Paul as the Messiah.

I point out where Paul deviates from the words of Jesus. We cannot base our faith and our lives on the message of Paul when it does not harmonize with the message of Jesus. Remember the hymn “They will know we are Christians by our love”? Sadly these days it is more judgment and condemnation that we are known for.

Intervention indeed. The Church needs one.

Playing rich

I talked with my Mom while I was baking today. And of course, I didn’t talk to her in the normal way. She’s been dead for 20 years. But we talked, just the same. You might understand.

I asked her about “real” cooking, instead of basically reheating frozen food. A lot of what we ate came from boxes, and tasted like it. A lot was brown.

I said, if you’d practiced more, then cooking wouldn’t have been such a burden to you. It wouldn’t have been so hard.

She pointed out that they didn’t have much money. My Dad was chronically underpaid as an English teacher. He never got his full professorship. He never got tenure. Every semester it was a challenge to see if he had three classes to teach or none. He had started to teach long-distance. This was in the days before the internet. He couldn’t teach at home with everyone Skyping in. He drove. He drove long distances and late in the day, so that he could teach adult students who were juggling college with a career. They met in high schools after hours. Sometimes he taught in prison. He taught wherever he could – in part because he loved to teach, but also in part because we needed the money.

So we didn’t have much.

But it also wasn’t spent well.

I remember that Mom lived rich. She didn’t get much love from Dad. It was a cold marriage, one of duty. They didn’t have to marry, but they had married fast, without much time to get to know each other. She certainly didn’t know that he was mentally ill and not properly medicated. Not like the medications back then were any good. Mostly they turned you into a zombie, a shell of your former self. No wonder the compliance rate was so low.

My Mom stayed with the marriage out of a sense of obligation, and perhaps out of fear. What was a woman with no training supposed to do on her own? How was she supposed to support herself and two children? So she stayed. It wasn’t bad enough to leave. They didn’t yell at each other. They just didn’t speak either.

So she got what she felt she was owed through material things.

There were expensive perfumes. There were jewels. There were nice clothes. There was even a mink stole.

She didn’t feel loved in a non-tangible way, so she demanded it in a tangible way. This is so sad. It was like she was a prostitute in her own marriage.

So we were shortchanged on actual nutrition because my Mom felt slighted. She didn’t feel nourished, so we didn’t get nourished. I know this wasn’t intentional. I know she didn’t think of it like this. She didn’t see the connection at all.

If she’d worked on the real problem, she wouldn’t have had to supplement with things. If they’d gone to marriage counseling, then there might have been something real there.

And then she reminds me that they did go to marriage counseling. It was through their church. It was with the priest, who had taken a vow of celibacy. This man knew nothing about how to live with another person. He’d never been married. They didn’t get the help they needed. So instead of finding a real counselor, they just left the church.

And just existed, together, in a sad way. For years.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, true. And happiness sometimes is hard work. It is hard to fight for yourself. It is hard to stand up for yourself when you feel beaten down. It is hard, and it is tiring.

The more I dig, the more I uncover. The more I uncover, the more compassion I feel for my parents. The more I understand why they made the choices they did. The more I am determined not to make the same mistakes.

I’m sure I will. Not all, but some. Nobody is perfect. That is impossible. But intentional living and mindfulness are showing me things I never saw before. Perhaps things I never wanted to look at before.

McNugget Communion

One reason I became a chalice bearer was to see things up close. There are things that happen at the altar that the church members don’t ever see. You can remove the “gate” at the communion rail all you want to make the church seem more open and inclusive, but there is always going to be a sense of “us” and “them” when the altar is twenty feet away from the nearest person, and at least a hundred feet from the furthest one.

One part that nobody knows about unless you are up there is the hand washing bit. Even the acolytes usually don’t even notice it. It is a ritual hand washing, and only the priest does it. This is done right before the elements of communion (the wafers and the wine) are handled.

Another member of the altar party, sometimes the crucifer (the person who carries the main cross), sometimes just another chalice bearer, will bring over a cruet of water, a small metal basin, and a linen cloth. The priest puts out his/her hands and the other person pours a little bit of water over the fingers, catching the water in the basin. The priest dries his/her hands with the linen cloth. The priest says some words quietly during this time – quietly enough that other person cannot hear them.

None of this is in the prayer book. The congregation has no idea this is going on from the “script”. I asked once, and the priest wouldn’t tell me what the words were. Like it is a secret.

It isn’t a real hand washing. There is no soap. There is no scrubbing. It is ritual.

So what is it?

It is straight from Passover, and thus straight from Shabbat.

At the beginning of Shabbat, you are to wash your hands and say the Netilat Yadayim prayer. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us about washing the hands.” Everybody does this – not the “leader”. All are equal.

The more I read about Judaism, the more I realize what a cheap thing the Christian Communion ritual is. The two candles on the altar? They are the two candles on the Sabbath table. The communion wafers? On the regular Sabbath table it is challah, which is nice fluffy egg bread. At Passover, when the Last Supper took place, it would have been matzo, which is unleavened bread. Why are the pieces so small for communion? Because an “olive sized piece of bread is the smallest piece you can make a blessing over.” There is always wine at the Sabbath table if it can be afforded, and always enough for everyone to have at least a glass. Not a sip.

These things are mandatory for a Sabbath meal – bread, wine, and two candles. There are different blessings for each. The candles are always lit first at Sabbath and at the beginning of the church service. At Sabbath there is always a nice meal, using the best linens and plates. The meal is always a real meal – homemade. No leftovers.

We’ve mass produced the Sabbath. We’ve reduced it to a snack, not a meal. We’ve packaged that snack with so much pomp and puffery that we think it is really awesome.

It is the difference between Mama’s fried chicken and chicken McNuggets.

It is the difference between Granny’s pecan pie and a Tom’s mini pecan pie you bought in a gas station.

Me? I want the real thing. I’m not able to settle for the replica, the ritual any more.

Poem – we were raised by an incompetent bully

Both of the days when we were
gone are in my head.
We were raised by an incompetent bully.

Perhaps that is redundant.
Perhaps he was incompetent at being a bully
so that means he wasn’t that bad
after all.

But then, we were young
and together
and that was all that mattered
to us.

We were alone, together
wild eyed, barefoot
screaming, and mute.
But we were happy
because we didn’t know enough
to know we should be miserable.

Perhaps that is the secret.
Don’t compare.