Down in My Closet to Pray

Down in the Valley to PrayMatthew 6: 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

I don’t know which version of the Bible you did your memory work in growing up. We used, as I’m sure many of you did, the King James translation which, although we no longer speak like Shakespeare (which, verily, I thinketh a pity) has no parallel for the beauty and majesty of its prose. There is a tradition that Shakespeare had a hand in the translation because in the 46th Psalm of the King James, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” You can look it up. There’s good reason to suppose that Shakespeare as a leading and highly favored playwright of the day (his company was the official theater group of James I, and writers of the time were fond of leaving little hints as to the writer of a piece. And Shakespeare was 46 years old when the King James came out in 1611.
Anyhow, while the King James Version is a literary masterpiece, the meaning sometimes gets fogged up by the passage of time and the differences in culture between us and seventeenth century England.
Take the Matthew 6:6 as an example. I wanted to follow the letter of Scripture, being rather large on rules and legalism at that time, as opposed to forgiveness and grace, so when the verse commanded me to pray in my closet, I did. I lived upstairs in our little house at the time, under the dormers where my parents kept me so I wouldn’t harm myself and others. They let me out to go to school and church, but other forays out of the neighborhood required a parent or two if were a particularly bad day for me. At home, my brother and I were encouraged to spend as much of the day as we could outside, coming in only for meals, bathroom breaks and sleep. My mom told us doing so enabled her and my dad to live in a house that didn’t look like the barbarian hordes had just swept through. In fact, when I studied European history some time later, I read the story of the tribes that rampaged across Europe in the fifth century and recognized some similarities between their activities and ours.
Anyhow, back to closets. It never occurred to me (and it shouldn’t have) that the meaning of the word “closet” was different. Up until the eighteenth century, no one had closets. The thought of having a protected space for storage was unknown, so they stored their “goods” as they called them in trunks, barrels, baskets and the like. When closets came along later, taxes were based on the number of rooms in a house, and a closet to the tax authorities was a room. In fact, that’s what it meant in the seventeenth century. Jesus was saying to go into a private room, not burrow among your shirts and shoes to pray. I did that for a year and I’m here to tell you it isn’t comfortable. And so, not for the first time, I did something based on a good intention and an incredibly high level of ignorance.
Nonetheless, I think God honored my effort to follow the commands of Jesus and my prayers. and. And God does so with all who call upon his name. Praise God for his tender care, his justice faithfully given and his ongoing and all-embracing love.

Doc Watson and some friends doing his version of “Down in the Valley to Pray,” which was the basis for “Down in the River to Pray” in the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Advertisements

Resting in the Everlasting Arms

 Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 32:27: Our eternal refuge with Our Creator eternal, and God’s almighty arms underneath are everlasting.

I am almost three weeks into my radiation treatments for prostate cancer (my prognosis is positive and the treatments are quick and painless, and I am thankful that so far I have had no adverse effects), and share a ride with a woman whom I’ll call Sharon from our church. It’s nice to have company on the 32-mile round trip drive, and I’ve gotten to know Sharon better over the past couple of weeks.

The past couple of weeks, Sharon has shared a number of stories from her past with me. She grew up in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire and went to the local high school, where Robert Frost taught for a while. (She told me she did not have him as a teacher.) The population was so small that one school bus covered the entire attendance area. And I thought I had a long bus ride in high school! Sharon went on to say that buses were only for students through grade eight. After that, they were on their own. Her father went to work at 6:30 AM and dropped her at a traffic circle about a half mile from school. The janitor lived at the school so he had the building open and stoves going when she arrived. I imagine it was a glimpse of Paradise to come in to a warm building from the New Hampshire winter.

Sharon’s older brother was born in 1930. While he was still an infant, his mother stood holding him in their living room while an electrical storm raged about them. Lightning struck the house, traveled into the room and hit the baby, not harming the mother at all. Of course the infant suffered neurological damage and had seizures and other medical problems the rest of his short life. He passed away at age seven when Marge was four, and she spoke with great tenderness of taking care of this unfortunate child.

I had never heard of a babe in arms being struck by lightning, much less while being held in loving arms. It seems to me a parallel to how God treats each of us as God’s eternal children. We are babes in this world, and as the storms of life rage about us, sometimes we are struck by any number of destructive forces. But no matter how we are harmed or the extent of our injuries and diseases, the arms that hold us are everlasting. Let us praise God for God’s goodness, care, compassion and eternal vigilance over us, who are to the Creator as babies to their mothers.

 

 

High and Lifted Up

Road Leading to High Mountains

Isaiah 6:1: In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

I don’t know that many of us think about escalators and elevators. They’re there and we use them, and a few people aside who have claustrophobia or a fear of falling, most of us think they’re convenient. Evensong Bells thinks an elevator in this building would be a gift from God, and while God’s time is best, my hope as someone who plays bells and, as part of the job, schleps cases around when we play in the front of the sanctuary or take our bell songs on the road. It takes either two bell players to carry one of the two largest cases, but Jim Harris can carry both at once. He is one strong man. And here ends the commercial from Evensong.

I’ve always been fond of any device that can transport me to a higher level be it airplane, funicular, ski lift, rescue basket, and of course escalator and elevator. (I’m talking physically being lifted up here–hold on for the spiritual transport. You’re on your own for the emotional version.

Now, if you’re claustrophobia and must avoid elevators, I can’t help you much. But I can do something about fear of an elevator cable snapping as it seems to in the movies and a car packed with people falling to their horrible demise. In our local writing group, Write by the Rails we had a visitor one evening who was an elevator inspector. Normally we go around at the end of the meeting and talk for a few minutes about what we’re doing and what help we may need, if any. When our guest’s turn came up, someone asked about falling elevators such as those we see in disaster movies. His answer was that it’s physically impossible for an elevator in good repair to fall because of the way they’re designed. Think about—how many times is there a story about an elevator falling with multiple fatalities on the news? I can’t ever remember seeing one. Not that that proves anything, but if you find out about such an accident, please let me know.

Escalators fascinated me from an early age. If I had to choose between them and elevators, I would choose the moving steps. The engineering is fantastic, and while you’re more likely to be injured on an escalator, if you tie your shoes, watch where you’re putting your feet and hold on to the handrail, you’ll be fine. (The preceding announcement was brought to you by your mom, who also wants to remind you to wear a raincoat, eat healthy food and not talk to strangers.)

On teacher workdays in elementary and intermediate school, our mom would take my brother Ron and me to what was then called Parkington and now Virginia Square. Parkington was so called because of the large multi-story parking garage behind the multi-story Hecht Company building, whose façade was made up of large glass windows. It was an imposing sight and sported escalators which, while new and made of steel, lacked the soul of the ones in a store at our next stop, McCrory’s in Clarendon. For most of my pre-high school career, they had wooden escalators. I wish I could tell you what kind of wood they used, but I didn’t develop an appreciation for different kinds of wood until high school. The escalators at McCrory’s were old and funky, and our mom would leave us to ride the escalators up and down while we shopped. We would have ridden all day had she not threatened to leave us and see how much we would enjoy walking the thirteen miles to our house in Fairfax. Somehow, we managed to never make that walk, which would have spoiled a nice day of riding elevators.

Now, it seems to me that sometimes God lets us carry the heaviest hand bell cases over all kinds of terrain, including high mountains. At other times, he provides a nice wooden escalator to take us to new heights. And at other times, we have those rapid breathtaking ascents as we do in one of those glass elevators that pop out from the building and we feel there’s nothing holding us up but the floor. All these experiences are part of the journey we’re on, and whether we’re toiling up the mountain on foot or riding in style to the top the God who created us and loves us so much is there with us and ahead of us. Thanks be to God for God’s eternal presence and care!

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Boy Flier

Matthew 5: 12: Be filled with joy and be happy…
Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. -Denis Waitley
I don’t know if you heard about an editorial in The New York Times by Arthur Brooks, president of The American Enterprise Institute, who wrote explains happiness stems from three sources: genetics, events and values.

While half of one’s happiness is genetic, Brooks wrote that 40 percent of happiness can be attributed to events in one’s life and 12 percent boils down to circumstances well within one’s control.

“Everybody’s got these cheerful co-workers who are very annoying, and you think they must have some sort of secret potion. ‘What are they drinking, man?’ But the truth is, half of your happiness is genetic. And understanding that only about 12 percent of your happiness is under your control … you really can control it.”

What are these circumstances one can control to achieve 12 percent of total happiness? Brooks noted that there are four: faith, family, friends and work.

“Don’t waste your time on money, don’t waste your time on these things, spend your time on faith, family, friends and work, making sure that your work serves others and creates value. And if you do those four things, you’re going to get the maximum amount of happiness.”

While a promotion at work, a new house and even a chocolate sundae bring joy, Brooks wrote that the resulting state of euphoria is fleeting — a temporary feeling.

“People will work for years, just to make a boatload of dough and buy that dream house, and six months later, they’re back to their old bummed-out ways,” Brooks wrote.

So while 40 percent of happiness is attributed to events in one’s life — such as that new house, or a professional accomplishment — the happiness experienced from these milestones is short-lived.

Because of this, Brooks advised not to “bet your well-being on big one-time events.” Instead, investing energy in faith, family and friends is a better investment for long-term happiness.

“Knowledge is absolute power in this case. It’s so important. Every time I write about (happiness), it reminds me of the things that I am doing wrong, and it makes me a better dad.”

Mr. Brooks’ reminder is an important one, but it is only a reminder. An itinerant rabbi told the world the same thing over 2000 years ago when he sat thousands of people down on a hillside in Palestine and reminded us of the source of joyful living. Praise God for the gifts of joyful living and for his one and only Son.

 

Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

The Ladies of the Church

Church Ladies
 
1 Timothy 5:1-3 (selected): Treat…older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters… (and) give proper recognition to widows…

 The title of this piece this is not a reference to Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, a hilarious send-up of an uptight, self-righteous judgmental church lady on Saturday Night Live several years back. No, these church ladies are a group of ladies of a certain age at my church who are at opposite poles from uptight and self-righteous. Many (though not all) of them are widows, and they are faithful supporters of the church and its people. I see them sometimes sitting together in services. They are always immaculately dressed and well turned out and don’t seem to change or age that much.

 The ladies of the church have been through more than most of us. They have suffered the deaths of spouses, children, friends, and losses of all kinds from financial reverses to illness. I would not minimize their sufferings, but they have an indomitable faith, and a spirit that bears them up and carries them on. I feel better just seeing them wherever they are, and they are in most places around town—at plays, concerts, restaurants and sporting events, making a contribution to the life of the community just through their presence and good cheer.

 The ladies of the church have children and grandchildren of their own, and they are actively involved in supporting their families. They baby sit, take the kids to rehearsals, attend performances and games and celebrate birthdays. In some cases they are raising the grandchildren because their children are not able to do so.

The ladies of the church have a wide range of interests. One is involved in a book club that has run for years; she always has a good recommendation for me of a book to read. Another is a Nationals fan like I am and we share in our team’s suffering. One coordinated and taught in our ESOL program for decades. She lived all over the world and has a deep appreciation of other people and their culture. Another oversees a quilting ministry at the church which involves dozens of people. Another is a master gardener and leads the effort to keep the church grounds beautiful.

 I have identified the church ladies by their interests instead of their names because they would not like the attention. In fact, some of them will probably smack me in the head for implying that they are any more special than any one else. But they are, and I value their good sense, insight, sense of humor and their wisdom, although they would not claim any special qualities for themselves.

 When there is a funeral, they are there in the kitchen, making sure the family and friends are fed and insuring that they will have enough food during the trying days after the service. They supply food and help at church dinners—and you’re lucky if you come to a meal where they help provide the food—they are all excellent cooks.

 They are women of faith, with beliefs that have been tested by trial and trouble. They are involved in the Sunday School, music program, missions activities, women’s ministry and senior adult program, just to name a few. They serve without notice, but they are the quiet mainstays of the fellowship.

Of course, there are many other groups within our church family—the smallest babies, the children, the young people, the couples, the singles, those who are middle-aged and the seniors. They’re what helps make a church a church. Every church seems to have them, and each group contributes something special to the community. This time, though, I want to salute the ladies. I hope you’ll recognize and encourage them as well.

 So, here’s to you, ladies of the church. May you prosper, and may you continue to inspire and lead the rest of us. May you keep on keeping on for a long, long time.

 

 

 

Dining Alone

Dining Alone

I don’t know if you have occasion to do much by yourself, including eating at a restaurant alone. Some people don’t like to do anything alone and have problems being themselves, while others, of course, prefer to be alone. As someone like that, I would still have to say that I don’t like eating out in public by myself. It feels awkward, even if I take a book. I do see people regularly come in to eat by themselves carrying a book. I try to see what they’re reading or even ask them what the book’s about because I can be nosy like that.

We were at Aston Avenue Diner for lunch Tuesday, and I saw three people come in alone with a book. Now, I didn’t have a chance to quiz them on their reading preferences, which I found disappointing, but after all into every life a little rain must fall. The people sat down and contentedly read their books after they had ordered. I’m always glad to see people reading. Readers are, after all, good-looking, intelligent and kind to small animals.

As we were leaving, I had an idea: I’m sure there are people who sometimes find themselves having to eat alone, and maybe they would like to go to a nice restaurant from time to time. My idea is that the restaurant could offer what the railroads call “community seating.” If the table seats four and you’re with someone else, you’ll be seated with someone you don’t know. My dad and I experienced this the summer we took a train to San Francisco. Even a shy person like me found it a good way to meet some interesting people. Of course, we also met some people I didn’t want to see again, but you pays your nickels and takes your chances. Anyhow, the restaurant could offer community seating for people who want it. Or, to make it work, they could require everyone to sit with someone else. I have to confess that I wouldn’t want to go to a restaurant which required me to sit with someone I didn’t know, but that’s just me. Some of you might like that, especially when the choice is between sitting with someone you don’t know and sitting with a book. Come to think of it, don’t look for this concept to be implemented any time soon.

The spiritual application for this is, I think, that as Christians, we are never alone even when we are. God is always with us, and we are part of a community of believers. So, while we may feel alone at times, we never truly are. That is part of the great Good News and part of being the family of God. Praise God for his presence and for his placing people in our paths to bring us company and comfort!