Saturday, July 29, 2006

Psalm 14

For July 30, 2006
Lectionary year B
8th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 14

What shall we do when everyone says,
“There is no God,” and the governments
are corrupt, abandoning the poor and downtrodden,
committing crimes with impunity
concerned only with personal gain?

God is looking, searching the world
to find a leader, someone, anyone
who is looking for God, who wants to learn
the ways of justice, who will act with wisdom.

God’s hands are empty, there is no one
to lift up, no one who is living right.
Everyone is breaking commandments
ignoring the law.

God cries out, “How can this be? Stop
all you evildoers who gobble up my people
as if they were bread, chewing them up
to feed your greed. Won’t one of you stop
this insatiable feeding and call out to me?”

Even if the powerful won’t stop
they won’t have the last word. God will.
God stands always with those who try to live right.
God is the refuge for the sick, the hungry
the poor, providing comfort when people won’t.

A time will come for deliverance.
God will embrace those who suffer.
God will enrich the poor. Good will lead
those who will follow. In time we will rejoice.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

National Cathedral


I spent the summer of 1981 at a University exchange program, attending classes in Washington, D.C. One Sunday, one of my dorm-mates wanted to worship at the National Cathedral. I’d never been to church as an adult. It’d been five years since I’d been inside a church at all, and only then because I was their youth janitor. I was always a visitor, an interloper. I didn’t belong and I knew it.

The Cathedral was huge and filled with so many people it was like going to the National Ballet. Men wore suits and women sported nice dresses. I had on one of my spaghetti strap California girl sundresses, my defense against the oppressive humidity and heat. There were microphones and speakers, maybe TV monitors, I don’t remember.

What I do remember, and what I found so strange at the time, was that it didn’t feel completely foreign to me. I was a twenty-year-old atheist. I thought faith was an excuse not to think for oneself. I didn’t want any part of it. I went to the Cathedral simply because everyone else went.

The Scripture was the one on love. Now I know its 1 Corinthians 13. Then I knew it was the only one I recalled hearing before. Go to a few weddings and it becomes a theme. Didn’t the Bible have anything else to say?

I didn’t get the whole looking in mirror darkly bit. But what I thought love should be and what the Bible said love should be were pretty similar. The preacher said things about love and I remember that my scalp began to tingle in that huge Cathedral.

With all those people hearing the same words about love, I expected that the world would look different to us, and that we would act differently in it. I thought that love would take over and something––I don’t know what––would happen––that traffic outside would cease, or all of us strangers would stand up and look into each other’s eyes, instead of shuffling out in our own little groups anxious to get back to our own little lives.

Afterward, people acted the same, as if we’d never heard the words about love. Or if we did, we didn’t know how to act them out in our bodies. We were just a crowd, trying not to trample each other.

©Cathy Warner 2006

On Hospitality

A Reflection

Jesus talks to me in stories because I am, like his old friends around Galilee, a little slow on the uptake.

“Sit down,” he says and I join him on the lawn under the cherry trees while pink petals flutter to the ground. He knows that I already know the image of how he’d like to gather us under wing like a mother hen, but that being raised in the suburbs, perhaps it’s not the best metaphor for me. So he tries it again with a different slant.

“Cathy,” he says, “God’s hospitality is like this––It’s like your 89 year old grandmother dying in her hospital bed, brittle as a baby chick, who pecked her way back to consciousness whenever a doctor, nurse, or chaplain entered the room, who opened her milky eyes and said with all the pride she could muster, ‘Have you met my granddaughter? She came all this way just to see me.’ And then, satisfied that the world knew how precious and beloved you are, she drifted back into the world between worlds.”

Then Jesus stands, brushes the blossoms from his hair and walks away. As he disappears from view, my first thought is that he is inordinately fond of poultry, but then I am left remembering my grandmother who actually did have a bantam hen in a corner of her San Fernando Valley yard when I was a little girl. Back then I visited her for a week every summer. She bought me the Lucky Charms cereal my mother never would, and took me to wondrous places like Griffith Observatory and Chatsworth Park.

I thought I had gone to my grandmother’s bedside to minister to her in her last days. Instead, just like always, I was welcomed, blessed, and made holy, gathered in by love’s hospitality.

First published in Voices and Silences newsletter of the Clergy/Diaconal Women in Ministry, California/Nevada Annual Conference, Spring 2006

Monday, July 10, 2006

Psalm 24

For July 16, 2006
Lectionary Year B
6th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 24

Everywhere you look everything is God’s.
From the big bang that began it all
to the waters that covered the earth
then receded to form oceans and rivers
and the creatures born in water that crawled
upon land and winged through the air.
Are any of us worthy to stand in the presence
of such majesty? Can any of us climb
the Holy hill and survey the creator’s glory?
Yes, is the answer! The ones who labor
to bring about good for their brothers and sisters,
not just for themselves. The ones who fill
their hearts with compassion, not vengeance.
The ones who do not feed their spirits
on power, money and control.
The ones who do not lie under oath,
nor mislead others, nor deceive themselves.
These are the ones who will receive
the blessing of God’s good company,
who will know that God is with them
in all their hours. They will walk through life
with each other, seeking the face of the Holy One.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Story Gatherer

short fiction

Once upon a time in a far off kingdom, there lived a hardworking farmer and his wife. They had twelve children, and although the man worked from dawn to dusk tending the king's fields, they often ate little more than broth for supper and were exceedingly poor. The time soon came for the eldest daughter to leave home and make her way in the world. She was so fair of face and gentle of disposition, that her father went to the king to inquire if she might be employed in the palace.

“What assets does she have to recommend her?” asked the king when her father appeared before him.

“She is a most attentive and sympathetic listener,” her father replied. “In fact, she is named Litanea, because of her empathetic hearing.”

So, the king employed her to accompany his guests at tea, that they might have an obedient audience for their tales, while he attended to important matters of the kingdom.

So good was Litanea at listening to stories, exclaiming and weeping, nodding and ahhing at the appropriate moments, she soon became in demand at all royal functions. The courtiers would present their stories, as though delicately wrapped jewels, and the young girl would examine each word gently, and then place them in her bodice next to her heart for safekeeping. The royal court began to take Litanea into their strictest confidence, for she never gossiped or revealed a word of the stories to anyone. The courtiers grew bold and told her their tales of travail, tragic stories of battles lost, villages burned, poor relations in debtor's prison, children taken by mysterious illnesses. She listened so excellently, as the tellers moaned and sobbed their sad stories that when they finished, they would dab at their eyes with linen handkerchiefs and find themselves quite refreshed, their burdens having been removed.

This being so, word spread throughout the kingdom, and young Litanea soon had a multitude of stories to carry. They filled her bodice, her apron, her pockets, and she began to carry them in baskets. She kept the tales with her always, and collected fresh stories daily. There were stories of famine and fires, of family feuds and disease that destroyed villages. The girl gazed at all these stories, memorized their details, formed their images in her mind and kept them intact for their originators.

Soon, her baskets were overflowing and she began carrying the stories in a large peddler's sack. The increasing weight on her back caused her to stoop, and with each new story, she lost her youthful beauty. She carried stories of women forced to marry and to carry the children of men who hated them. She held stories of brothers who plotted to kill each other and their fathers’ for inheritance. Years passed. Litanea sprouted hideous whiskers and wiry gray hair. She grew weary and wrinkled from dragging about stories of love lost, minds bent by power and greed, and lives stolen.

She became an object of ridicule and scorn. People ran from her, but still they threw their stories at her feet. She was banished from the village, and slept by day in a secret cave at the foot of a large mountain. Each night under the cover of darkness, Litanea climbed down the mountain and crept slowly through the streets where the villagers left their stories piled high. Quietly she gathered stories, stuffing them into her enormous bag, leaving the streets clean and sparkling in the morning light.

One night, the weight of her story bag grew so immense that Litanea was forced to crawl up the hillside to her home. The sun was rising when she finally pulled the monstrous story bag in behind her. The bag was so huge and heavy that it lodged in the entrance completely sealing the cave. But, by this time Litanea was so exhausted from gathering stories, she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke, she found that her heart had hardened and she refused to listen to the stories calling to her from the bag. Litanea closed her ears, listened no more and the stories became stone, sealing her inside.

Litanea sat in the cave alone with the stone stories and her hardened heart soon spread to her eyes, her ears, her mouth, her hands and her feet. Until, one day, she had turned entirely into stone. There she remained for seven years. Then, one day, a man appeared beside her. He shone in the darkness like an opal in sunlight and addressed her.

“My beloved Litanea,” he said. “Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for your caring. Thank you for carrying these stories.”

He sat next to her and touched her stony hand. “These tales you have heard, these burdens you have carried, they were never meant for you to keep. This is what comes from trying to hold all the world’s ills in your heart. You have only the power to carry your own stories, to change your own life. I have come from the one who has all power. I have come from the one who has created all stories. I have come to teach you how to let go of your stories, how to let go of your fears and your pain, so that you might have life, and be freed from this prison of stone.”

Then the man told Litanea story upon story. He told her stories of lost coins found under rugs and rejoicing, of lost sheep found by shepherds and rejoicing, of lost sons returned safely to their fathers and rejoicing. He told stories of a different kind of kingdom. Stories where the weak were lifted up and the mighty brought low, stories in which children were wise, and wise ones were fools. He told Litanea stories of cups and bread shared among friends, of kings becoming servants. He spoke of followers, critics, betrayal and death. But even these dark tales ended with new life and great rejoicing. All the while he spoke, he held Litanea's hand, and slowly, she turned from stone back into flesh.

Then the man stood and began ripping loose the stories Litanea had carried into her cave. Each stone story he pulled from the wall became water that flowed from his hands onto the floor of the cave. The stories formed a puddle that rose to Litanea's ankles. The puddle formed a pool that reached her waist, and the pool became a pond, which rose to her chin.

Litanea wanted to cry out for the man to stop, surely they would both drown in the lake of stories, but she could not open her mouth to speak. And, just as the water rose to her nostrils and it seemed they would surely drown, the stone wall burst from the water's force. The flood of stories broke open the cave, and stones were swept away, forming a river with its headwaters at the man’s feet. Then all was quiet. Litanea looked at her reflection in the still pool below, and saw to her amazement that she had been restored to her original form. Her wrinkles, her whiskers, her wiry hair and bent back had vanished. She threw back her head and laughed, for the first time in many years.

Then she ran down the mountain, following the path of the river, which lead to the village. “Come bring your stories to the riverside,” Litanea shouted. “Lay your tales before the one who can take your burdens, your sorrows and turn them into waters of joy. For I have been healed by this man and his story water.”

The people came streaming out of their houses; their arms piled high with stories. They followed Litanea up the river, up the mountain, until they saw the man, radiant and beautiful, standing in the river with his arms open wide.

“Come, follow me,” he said.

And the people jumped into the river with their stories of stone.

They let go of their stones, and watched them sink. Their pain, their sickness, their injury, floated away. And the stones remained, scattered along the bed and banks of the river. They had become smooth where they were once jagged and beautiful where they were once ugly.

The people emerged from the river, rejoicing and wet, shouting and dripping and free. They returned again and again to that river, to that man, story after story, year after year. The people waded in the water, sprinkled it on infant brows and gave thanks. They raised their cups, shared their loaves of bread and gave thanks. They raised their voices in song and praise for the man and the gift of life he gave them and they whispered the story in the quiet places of their hearts.

And then, one day, out of thankfulness for all he had done for them, the people began to bring the man gifts. They brought new stories. Tales of relationships restored, of fences mended, of hopes for peace between enemies. These stories became wood, and with the wood, the people built a bridge across the river.

Then the people themselves crossed the river and became story spreaders. Their stories were uttered from tongue to scribe to typewriter and traveled over heartland and heartache, across landscapes and landslides. Their stories survived the eyes of sentries and centuries as word spread into kingdoms far and wide of the man who turned stone into water and sorrow into seed. And the people came from all corners of the world, from North and South and East and West. Generation after generation they came. They came to meet the man who was sent to bring life and hope to all who were in danger of being turned to stone. Always the people found him, standing in the water with his arms outstretched.

“Come, my beloved,” the man forever said. “Behold the river and its source."

©Cathy Warner 2oo4

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Psalm 48

I've begun a project to write the Psalms in my own words. It's a daunting endeavor, so I decided to follow the Lectionary. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Lectionary is a series of Bible readings used by many denominations for Sunday worship. It is designed to take us through much of the Bible in a three year cycle.

Lectionary Psalm for July 9, 2006
Year B 5th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 48

Great is our God who created the universe
and the natural world of our planet.
Such a designer is worthy of our praise
our wonder our awe and marvel.
Let us bow our hearts and heads
in the places of human design
that beckon us to remember
God’s mighty hand in all that we do and are.
Fortresses and castles, kingdoms and ruins
the terror of the armies as God was invoked
to the battlefield to destroy or defend
each one in their belief.
The joy of the victors, the dismay
of those conquered, the grief of all
mourning their dead.
God bore witness to it all
and God exists, the foundation of all
we construct––Temples, museums, marketplaces,
trade towers, galleries, churches, mosques.
If you walk all about them, attentive
to detail you will find sacred in the space.
Take the next generation by the hand
guide them to the signs you have seen
both subtle and shouting
and say with all confidence,
“God dwells here!”
God dwells in our structures, our scriptures,
our hearts, our minds, our memories.
This great God of history is also the God
of your story. Forever and ever.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Saturday, July 01, 2006

That Jesus and Me

short fiction

Some folks, they say Jesus lives in your heart. I don’t know about that, but I know that he lives in my hands like they’re burning with fever and he curls up in the back of my neck. Sometimes, when he’s happy, he makes the skin behind my knees and elbows shrink up. Sometimes, he crawls right up my scalp and it itches like the head lice. I know exactly when he moved in. It was mid-September because the pippins were ripe and I kept sending my oldest boy, DJ, up the ladder and we filled my apron. It was Friday night because I always made apple pie on Fridays, and it was 1950 ‘cause I was with child––for the fourth time.

I’d wiped the baby’s nose and sent her to the porch with the kitten and a saucer of milk. I was alone in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes, trying to be real calm and breathing deep after Bull stormed out yelling that my pie wasn’t fit for the chickens. My hands were all red and chapped and I broke a glass in the soapy water and cut my finger. “Oh, Lord, just what I need.” I wrapped my stinging finger up in the dishtowel and pressed it against my chest.

And then there was this thought: not a voice coming out of a burning bush at Moses or out of the clouds at John the Baptist, but this thought that sure wasn’t mine. It arrived all at once: Why are you persecuting me? My hands felt like they were burnin’ up. I told the thought I wasn’t persecuting no Jesus, but it just said back to me: Why are you trying to poison your husband?

My scalp got all crawly. Ipecac isn’t really poison I argued, just gives Bull the stomach cramps and makes him vomit so he’ll leave me alone. I don’t care what the Bible says, I thought back, I just can’t submit to my husband no more. O you of little faith. He told me––without words you understand––to take the towel off my hand. The cut was gone; the towel was clean. Then he curled up at the back of my neck and went to sleep for a long time.

When he woke up again, about a month later, Bull was dead. I didn’t kill him; I put away the Ipecac after Jesus came in the dishwater. Jesus didn’t do it either. It was a train: smashed Bull and his truck all to hell. Bull had been sparkly like crystal but with all the cuts sharp as broken glass and he’d hated me for being soft and soaking up his hard words. I didn’t cry over him until Jesus woke up and he was so sad, he weighed down my shoulders, thinking: Bull, if only you’d taken a different road.

I packed up the kids and moved out to my cousin’s in Carson City and met Billy who sold insurance and sang in the choir at the First Methodist Church. His hands and temperament were softer than mine and he married me on February 14, 1951 down at the courthouse a month before Little Billy was born. I had that Jesus tingle a lot when Billy sang, and when he kissed me, and when we delivered barrels of toys to the Salvation Army at Christmas. We were mostly happy for thirty years until he died. I still go to his little church on Minnesota Street. Jesus, he loves church, stretching down my back sometimes, in a hurry to float me up through the pressed tin ceiling when everybody’s praying Our Father, who art in heaven. I keep my eyes open so God can’t play tricks. I’m not levitating in church, I’m always telling that Jesus. I smooth my hair a lot and people tell me, “Etta Mae, you’re so vain about your hair.” It’s not that; it’s them crawly spirit lice.

That Jesus, he’s been with me nearly fifty years and I keep waiting for him to say Give away all you own and become a missionary to Africa. But instead he just tells me to make my famous coleslaw for the potluck supper, to smile and shake hands with the visitors, and bake a casserole for the new widows.

In the Bible, Jesus says, “I am the vine.” I’m dead sure he meant ivy. Ivy crawls over rusted bicycles with bent rims, burned out cars and broken lawnmowers. You leave that ivy alone and the suckers cling and creep and take over. In a couple years you got this big hedge, hiding all the ugly stuff underneath ‘til it rots away, like it was never there. Jesus, he just came in and covered up my old rotten life with Bull and before that, too, so all I remember is Carson City, like I came to life here.

It’s not all peach cobbler and hymn sings. I was kinda aimless after Billy died, 'til the Methodist Women got me knitting afghans for the orphans in Romania. Little Billy died last year of a heart attack. My other three and the grandkids moved back to Missouri and don't visit much, and I have arthritis something terrible. Still, every night I read my Bible and thank Jesus.

Lately, I been praying for Rita. I kept flinching when I read where Jesus says, "Love one another." Lord knows I try, but the thoughts I have about Rita aren’t always charitable. She ran around on three husbands and wouldn’t take advice from Old Reverend Brady before he retired. I wanted to tell her, “You got to follow Jesus for things to get better,” but I didn’t know how. A year or two ago she hooked up with Spencer. He would remind me of Bull if I allowed myself to think back on it. Well, I could see she got on the wrong of side his fist some.
She said she was just clumsy, tripping over tricycles at her daycare and the like. She sat next to me in church last week, wouldn’t take off her sunglasses, said she had a migraine and the light hurt her eyes. The Jesus in me woke up full force, shouting Open your heart. My hands were burnin’, all of me went white hot and faint, like sure this is when I’d float to the ceiling and call down from on high. Don’t make me do this Jesus, I thought. But he flashed pictures in my head of dirty dishwater and healed cuts.

“Reverend Henderson?” I stood up in the middle of her sermon. She stopped talking and everyone looked at me. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but our sister Rita here needs healing, and she needs it now.” I sort of pulled Rita up and hugged her, long and swaying and the Jesus energy flooded through me, making me crawly, but something else, too. I could feel Rita’s stiff back and hard arms sighing down and she started crying while we pressed our chins into each other’s shoulders. Reverend Henderson said something and then I felt hands on my shoulders and knew they must be on Rita too. Jesus poured through me, out and in, and I saw pictures. The cripple being lowered through the roof on a mat and being healed, Jesus spitting into his hands and touching the blind man’s eyes to restore his sight, and the bleeding woman touching the hem of Jesus’ robe. Then I saw Jesus smile through his tears as the people slowly peeled off me and Rita. Then he shrunk down and settled in this pit at the center of me.

I sat down and Rita reached for my hand. She took off her sunglasses and I could see her black eye. Reverend Henderson walked back to the pulpit and started preaching again. I can’t even remember what she said; I felt all aglow like a firefly. That Jesus curled up in my neck and went to sleep but I swear I felt something prickly like cactus needles pokin’ around my heart.

©Cathy Warner 2003