Paper Clip Miracles: The Children’s Holocaust Memorial

While I am a regular congregant and chorister at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the deep south of Louisiana, I have sung for my “other church family” at Temple Gates of Prayer. The setting of the season of High Holy Days is a perfect time to share with you a miracle – that to me, just goes to show (again) how much God can do with the smallest, simplest things.

 

Over two months have passed since Joshua and I visited the Children’s Holocost Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. I can still barely find the words to write about it.

 

This amazing memorial is at a middle school in the mountains of Tennessee, northwest of Chattanooga. Friends Diane and Vickie suggested we visit there after we’d spent time with the sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee. I’m glad I had that dose of peacefulness to strengthen me before visiting the memorial, which still has me in awe.

 

Over the years, the 8th grade classes at Whitwell Middle School have learned about history, prejudice, and the holocaust through this amazing project that has changed hundreds of thousands of hearts and lives.
 
Whitwell pause sign

Sign at the entrance of the Memorial.


 
“You should go see this,” said our friends. “It may not be open right now, because it’s at a school, but you could at least try” and they tried to describe the Paperclip Project. In the end, Diane sent us off with a DVD that we watched later that evening.

 

Neither Bubba (Joshua) nor I said a word as we watched this nearly 2 hour long documentary. (We are never at a loss for words.) As the credits rolled, we said in unison, “we’re going.”

 

I will quote the Whitwell website to give you an idea of the Memorial:

 

“In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust.  The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance.  As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students.  Six million was a number that  the students could not remotely grasp.  The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination.  The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper.  She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project.  After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The students began collecting paperclips, with the goal of 6 million paper clips. After a slow start, the idea exploded, with help in part from a German journalist husband and wife team who were working in the United States.

 

Over the following years, the students collected over 30 million paperclips from all over the world. In 2004, a documentary film was made (the DVD that Diane loaned us).

 

The project expanded exponentially, and became much more than just a class exercise. The project came to change the entire town, and impact everyone who has seen it.

 

The day that Bubba and I went was a quiet summer day, and Whitwell is off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions of Chattanooga and Nashville. The town and school are not diverse in population, which is initially one reason why the school chose to learn about the holocaust. In addition to learning about history, there were lessons in tolerance to be learned as well.

 

We found the school, nestled on the outskirts of town. The gates to the schoolgrounds were wide open, and they were beautiful gates with artistic butterflies incorporated into their design. As we rounded the bend in the driveway, I began to wonder aloud where the memorial (which, we’d been told, was in an authentic cattle car – yes, one of those) might be near the school, behind the school, or…
No need to wonder:
 
Whitwell LS for blog

Still, no words.


 
We drove up in silence. The car sat on a length of track, which rested on limestone. A wheelchair friendly ramp led to the open door of the car. Butterfly bushes were planted nearby, and mosaic butterfly stones and sculptures were around the car, as was an iron fence.
 

 
On a granite monument, we read the words of the poem, The Last Butterfly:

 

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto. 

 

This was written by Pavel Friedmann, dated 4.6.1942 . Pavel was born in 1921 in Prague, and was deported a couple of weeks after the poem was written. He was murdered in Auschwitz in September of 1944.
 

 
After spending a long walking in silence around the outside of the fence, Bubba finally spoke.

 

“Want to go inside?” he said. “But it’s locked,” I replied. “We can get the key. Look.” He pointed out the sign on the gate that I’d missed; the key was available at a local grocery.

 

We drove into town, sharing few words. The grocery was on the main thoroughfare, and I pulled in next to a motorcycle. “I’ll get it,” I said, grabbing my wallet. After all, they would want some ID, right?

 

“Hi, is this where I get the key to – “ the young lady smiled, said “yes m’am, here you go” and handed me a key (on a giant paperclip keychain). I stopped in midsentence.

 

“Do you need an ID, or do I need to check it out, sign anything?”

 

“Nah, just remember to bring it back when you’re done.”

 

Wow. Thank you. I got back in the car, unused to this simple, honest, open greeting.

 

We drove back to the Memorial. I walked over to an area near the parking lot, with stones lining a drainage ditch, and selected a small, smooth one. I walked along the sidewalk, and also selected a piece of limestone. We unlocked the gate, and stepped in.

 

Whitwell CCar 1
I don’t know how long we stayed . There was no sense of time. I walked around, finally getting the nerve to touch the cattlecar. It had been cleaned, repaired, and “disinfected.” The car had been used for the most nefarious of work, bringing innocent souls  to the slaughter of the camps. Blood, tears, secretions of body and of spirit were soaked into the wood. After the war, it had been adapted to use for hauling grain.

 

From hauling innocents to death, to hauling food – grain. Was it on the path to being forgotten? Or was this a metaphor as well?

 

Whitwell door

 

I expected the wood to scream at me, saturated with grief and terror. Yet, it didn’t scream as I’d anticipated. It whispered, and I couldn’t quite make out the whispers. It wept. I walked around the outside of the car, the open doors eye level with me. I left one piece of limestone on the outside of the car, and saw where many other visitors had left their stones of remembrance.

 

Whitwell rocks

 

I saw life in the butterfly garden. One memorial stone was placed in honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis. Coincidentally, about the same time as I visited this memorial, my mother was back home, having coffee and visiting with a relative from New York – the daughter of a cousin who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
 

I finally walked up the ramp and into the car. The doors were both open, and the sides were partitioned off by plexiglass.

 

Behind the plexiglass were 11 million paperclips.

 

Whitwell not forget you

 

Clearly, the paperclips were from all over. Not all were “standard American paperclips.” There were plastic ones, differently-curved ones, from all over the world. Tucked in with the paperclips were other memorials:

 

~A vintage, battered suitcase from a school in Germany filled with letters from German students, written to Anne Frank.

 

~Kippahs from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, adorned with paperclips.

 

Whitwell kippahs

 

~Books, and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

 

Whitwell Mourners Kaddish
~A beautiful Mezzuzah, sent from a Jewish Congregation (in Ohio, I think) was on the door of the car. God’s word welcomed all who entered, regardless of faith.

 

Whitwell Mezzuzah

 

Above the paperclips, a sign read:
Whitwell inside

Sign above the paperclips, and the suitcase from schoolchildren in Germany. My own reflection, witnessing.

 

Standing in this car, I wondered how many thousands of souls were forced to ride it, in misery and terror. Today, this cattlecar stands as testimony and reminder: Never again. It serves as a focal point for former, current, and future students who are all involved in the Paperclip Project. Students greet visitors, give tours, answer questions. The heart of this project has grown to encompass the entire community of Whitwell, and people all over the world; art blossoms at this Memorial, reflecting the desire to be a part of this reminder, this hope, this healing.

 

Whitwell my rock

 

I left another stone at the edge of the paperclips, and prayed. As much of the Mourner’s Kaddish as I could remember,  Hail Holy Queen, and the words of my heart. (After all, what else is an Episcopalian with Catholic roots who says “my other church is a synagogue” going to do?)  It’s all God, after all, and prayer is prayer. I prayed, and I listened, actually somewhat confused at what I was feeling and at what I was not feeling. One thing was certain: I will not forget. 

 

I was anticipating angst, fear, horror.
I felt horror…but also some calm, peace, hope, and healing.

 

The lives lost can never be regained. Yet the healing power of this project which grew into an international effort cannot be denied. I was left awestruck by the power of a simple paperclip and a desire to make a difference, no matter how small.
Whitwell touch
As I write, I recall reading something about a man who bartered his way to a house, starting with only a paperclip. The students of Whitwell Middle School started with an idea, and a simple paperclip. Even the smallest thing, teamed with love and vision, can make a huge difference.

 

We were leaving, and had locked up the gate when another car drove up. Somehow, we found our voices to greet the newcomers.  “Get ready,” Bubba said to them. “It’ll hit you.”

 

“I know,” replied the young woman. She told us that she was a teacher, who came to visit the Memorial every summer.

 

We unlocked the gate for them, and brought the key back to the grocery. “We unlocked it for someone who got there when we were leaving,” I told the young lady at the register. “They said they’d lock it when they left, unless someone else came by.”

 

“That’s fine,” she said.

 

“Thank y’all for keeping that key available,” I said as I left. “Being able to walk inside was – incredible.” She smiled. I had no words; it was hard enough to find those.
 
Whitwell childrens sculpture

Artwork at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial

I’ve thought of two words to describe the Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Healing Miracle.

 

Beyond that, you’ll have to visit it yourself, and I urge you to do so.

 

The Last Butterfly accessed from:
For information, visit
and

 

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Submitted to the DAR Women’s Issues Essay Competition. It received state honors (Louisiana). OK, Charlotte, here it is. 

I suppose I’ve come to that “wise woman” part of my life, even though I don’t feel wise. I am a wife, mother, office manager for my family business, songwriter, and vocalist. I am occasionally asked for advice by young singers.

I tell them that a vocalist can never replace their instrument. If it gets damaged or broken, we can no longer sing – or we must find a way to deal with the damage.

sing 1

This is the story of my own damaged instrument. Not my voice, but my ear. My advice to young vocalists has expanded to include: If you ever experience sudden hearing loss, it is a medical emergency.  I tell them about the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease.

I juggled singing with job and family life. I sang with my blues band, at my church, at our local Jewish temple, and with my music partner in our Gospel duo. God makes each of us an instrument, and I did my best to learn to use and care for my musical instrument. Call me “Queen of the Earplugs;” I treasure my ears.

sing 2

Earplugs don’t help with allergies, though. For years, I’d have occasional bouts of clogged ears and dizziness during high allergy seasons. One December day a few years ago, my ears clogged.

I thought it was allergies, or possibly I’d caught my husband and daughter’s virus. I had things to do at the office and two sick ones to care for. I knew what this was, took ibuprofen and antihistamines, but it got worse.

I couldn’t hear anything clearly in my left ear. While it had been several years since my last “spell,” I’d had a severe dizzy day recently, so I saw my ENT, who was familiar with my history. I expected the usual cortisone pack, but this time he looked at me with concern when I told him this had lingered for three weeks.

I knew from his expression that something was different this time. This should have run its course by now, he said. He prescribed cortisone and an antifungal.

“When will my hearing return?” I asked.

“Let’s wait and see what the medication does,” he replied.

I took what felt like a never-ending course of cortisone and Valtrex.

After a month of medication, Dr. Robert ordered an MRI. Fortunately, there was no tumor, but no answers either. I went to the audiologist for a baseline audiogram. There was nothing but noise and pain in my left ear. Results? My right ear was good, but my left ear showed a profound hearing loss. I took a copy of the report home, filed it away, and cried. I cried me a river, as the song says. How ironic.

sing 3

I told only family and closest friends. I quit scheduling band gigs; even with earplugs jammed into my ears, I was afraid to take any chances. Meanwhile, a bizarre group of sounds had moved in where my hearing used to be: Tinnitus. In different keys. All at once.

Dr. Robert had told me that we needed to wait a year, as there was a chance that my hearing would return with time. Meanwhile, I had this invisible, sudden, crippling loss that I couldn’t even talk about or escape. After asking my husband to repeat something for the third time one evening, he voiced his frustration. “Are you DEAF?” he cried.

I fell apart.

“YES, I AM.” I replied. “In one ear. Half of everything I hear is GONE.” He felt terrible. So did I.

I began telling a few people about my loss. I was shocked at some of the responses.

“Well, I guess so, all that loud music you play!” A laugh. “I could have told you THAT was going to happen!”

Really? I’m the one wearing earplugs, remember? I have the small band that is known to be considerate of noise levels.

My response was anger. Then, there was the well-meaning advice about earwax, about this doctor, that diet, this treatment, etc. No, a cochlear implant would only destroy the way I hear music.

That year was one of adjustment, resignation, and hope. In many ways, I had to relearn to sing because I had to learn how to hear again. Our brains are wired for stereo, and that was lost to me. I quit going places where a large group of people gathered because I could no longer discern voices in a conversation. I quit going to movies and concerts and any live presentation because they were hard to follow. Everything was a wash of noise, coated with a blanket of anxiety and occasional panic.

I considered hearing aids, although I had no idea how to pay for them. We had two children in college. This was hope, though: One day, I can get hearing aids. 

I longed to hear in stereo. I wanted the safety of knowing where a sound originated. If someone called my name, I had no idea of where to turn. I don’t know where a siren or horn is coming from in traffic.

I wanted to hear music in stereo.

When the year was up, I went back to Dr. Robert and the audiologist. I was hopeful, as Erica, the audiologist, had successfully fit my father with hearing aids. I was determined to put up with whatever adjustment was needed. Surely no hearing aid noise could be more obnoxious than tinnitus!

The testing was similar to a routine audiogram. Erica explained that the noise and sounds and speech I would hear in the headphones would be adjusted just as it would be with a hearing aid, so we would find out whether or not a hearing aid would help me.

Whether or not? I hadn’t realized there was a chance that this wouldn’t work.

Today’s hearing aid technology is phenomenal. From what I knew about audio engineering, the ability to adjust amplification of specific frequencies in a device so tiny was nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, this miracle was not to be mine. No amount of amplification or adjustment made a difference – only physical pain. I sat in Erica’s office and sobbed as she held my hands and offered tissue, understanding, and honesty. The cilia, the microscopic hairs of the inner ear that enable us to hear, were dead. No diet, supplement, medication, procedure or technical device would restore them. I faced a life in monaural, but at least I had one functioning ear.

She also offered a tentative diagnosis: Meniere’s Disease. My decades-long history of periodic dizziness was a clue. I’d had several particularly violent dizzy periods in months preceding the hearing loss. During the worst dizzy periods, I always spun to the left. I had become so used to a dizzy period during high-allergy months that they just became a part of life, diagnosed previously as “Benign Peripheral Vertigo.”

I learned about Meniere’s Disease, and saw my history written in what I found. Dr. Robert’s suggestions to address the vertigo were basically the same as for Meniere’s, but I felt defeated as I learned that no one knows the cause of the illness, and there is no cure. My years of periodic spells, interspersed by periods of feeling normal, had a name. Interestingly, it affects more women than men, and the possible causes include infection, allergies, head injury, stress, fatigue, migraines, respiratory infection, and an autoimmune response. I wasn’t too surprised that women experience Meniere’s more than men. It usually affects one ear, but sometimes attacks both over time. I cannot dwell on that. It is critical for me to maintain my balance, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally.

balance

Balance.

It’s not always obvious that I have a hearing deficit, but an astute observer will notice. I’m getting better at lip-reading. In music, I seek the right position to hear what I need to hear in order to sing. In any group seating situations, I tell the person on my left “I’m deaf in this ear. If you say something and I don’t respond, it’s because I didn’t hear you.” I’ve learned to deflect the still-painful topic of hearing aids by saying “it’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be fixed by a hearing aid.” I’ve learned that such queries are usually out of concern.

I also tell others that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency, even if you’ve had it before and you think “oh, allergies.” I also tell them about Meniere’s Disease.

On the positive side, the dizzy spells have mostly stopped; this, too, is typical of Meniere’s. As for singing, I’ve had to hyper-focus my sense of pitch, which has strengthened my vocals. I’ve heard of other vocalists who have experienced a similar hearing loss who have quit singing.

I can’t not sing. I have found a new way of listening, and a new way to focus on the experience of singing. It is a whole-body expression, as you must feel the vibrations and melody in your body. Your mind, throat, ear, mouth, lungs must know how the notes feel as well as how they sound. Perhaps it’s similar to the heightened sense of hearing that some vision impaired people have; I am partially deaf, so I have an enhanced sense of certain facets of singing that some take for granted.

Cedartown680

How can I keep from singing? At a Women at the Well concert. Photo by Rev. Kemper Anderson, at St. James Church in Cedartown, Ga.

About three years into this journey, my music partner and I were preparing to go on a short tour of several churches in the mid-Atlantic states, performing our original Gospel program about Jesus’ women disciples. We had recorded several of the songs from the program, and I longed to re-record some vocals and add harmonies.

Singing overdub harmonies is a challenge when you have only one functional ear. I managed by notating the harmonies, placing the headphone behind my one good ear, and forging ahead in spite of fear deep in my soul. What if I couldn’t do it?

But I could, and I did. A few days later, after the vocals were mixed, we shared the tracks with a friend. Danny is a gifted pianist who tours worldwide and has done a lot of recording and harmony vocals. He knows of my hearing loss, and was floored when he heard the harmonies.

“That’s a miracle,” he said, “that you could do that.”

It is a miracle, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. I still ache over the loss, but on the other hand, I now sing more sacred music and chant. Sometimes frustration still rises to the surface. That’s when the words and music of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing sustain me:

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing

            It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?                      

Those rascally quanta!

This morning, Fr. Matt delivered a sermon that had several of us standing outside after church talking about it. Now, that happens…but this one really struck a chord. It was on a subject I’ve thought a lot about (and alluded to, just a bit, in previous posts) but it’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one wandering into what I’m calling the “physics of prayer.”

Like most of us, I hung onto my concrete childhood concepts of prayer. Asking God was like asking mom or pop.

girl praying

Somewhere in high school, I listened to my inner self that said that prayer could be something more, and could be found throughout everyday life…and of course, my cynical teen self didn’t buy everything from religion class, either. For example, I had never bought the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation. (Perhaps I had an overzealous religion teacher or two. Or three.) And when I heard the my catechism teacher explain that “Jesus could never deny His mother anything, so pray to Mary” I thought that was pretty much along the lines of “if daddy says no, go ask mama.”

As I reached young adulthood and attended a Jesuit university, my concept of prayer expanded to, well, “hanging out with Jesus” and trying to listen to the quiet voice of the Divine. The Zen courses I took at Loyola helped with that (as did my physics and philosophy classes), and partly because of Zen, the book The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav appealed to me. I finally read it in my late 20’s.

dancing wu li

Now, why hadn’t physics been like this in high school and college? The concepts were fascinating, and made actual sense. Yes, on the “macro” scale everything is totally different from the teensy-tiny-itsy-bitsy quantum scale. Those rascally little quanta! Just when you’re not looking, there they go…. but I digress.

Suddenly, the power of prayer and prayerful intention that I’d learned about and tried to practice in some fumbling way started to make some weird sort of sense.

In his sermon today, Fr. Matt spoke of this. He spoke of quantum entanglement. Put simply, quantum entanglement is when two particles interact at some point and then are separated…except that they can never be truly separate again. Their quantum state is such that they can no longer be described separately. It is as though they have a “forever connection,” and that connection is not dependent on space or time. (That’s my 2 cent summary of quantum entanglement; just don’t ask me to do the math.)

quantum formula

No, please do not ask me to do the math.

So what does this have to do with the power of prayer? Well, think about it, because at the very foundation of who and what we are is energy, and we are all “entangled.” Each encounter we have with another human being has an effect, however slight, on our spirit. How can it not?

I remember having this mind-blown feeling when I first learned about quantum entanglement. This meant that intercessory prayer had a legitimate foundation beyond “I don’t know why it works, but it does work.” Here was an explanation for the power of prayer, especially of group prayer and group intention.

My inner cynic/skeptic loved it. For the first time in my life, I realized that Transubstantiation seemed possible. Intention is critical. I’m not going to wander down a rabbit hole of discussion on under what exact circumstances Transubstantiation may actually occur. I’ll use the all-encompassing answer that I learned from the Sisters of Mercy: “It’s a mystery.” (This is why I prefer the explanation that Christ is uniquely present in the Eucharist.) Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum theory, said something along the lines of “all the stuff we think is real is made up of stuff that isn’t real.” That’s not “new age woo-woo,” that’s a Nobel Prize winner. In physics.

niels bohr

Niels Bohr. (Image from famousscientists.org)

We don’t know exactly how the power and intentionality of prayer connects to quantum mechanics. There’s really no way to measure for this connection, either, unless you subscribe to superdeterminism, a group of theories that says that everything is determinable. Taking the quantum physics thing a step farther, Bell’s theorem says that basically…there’s no way to measure absolute outcomes in this quantum landscape because you can’t know all the variables; in other words, free will. (Take THAT, superdeterminism! It occurs to me that I am skating dangerously close to discussing Predestination and the paradox of free will. Physics, theology…is it really that different?)

Free will. Mystery. (Let’s not forget the Uncertainty Principle.) Starting to sound familiar?

No matter what we pray for, we – and the one(s) being prayed for – are dealing with free will. How do things happen? How are prayers answered? Why do we see those mind-boggling flashes of coincidence that Jung called synchronicity (meaningful coincidence)?

How many times have we been thinking of someone when they called us? How many times have we been reunited in a completely unexpected way with someone we haven’t seen in decades – right after we were thinking about them? I experienced synchronicity just yesterday when, at a luncheon, the keynote speaker used the very same quotation I was planning to use in my summary remarks.

I’ve written of some synchronistic events that clearly had a “God touch” to them. There’s the story of finding Nancy’s lost earring, and another one about finding my singing bowl.  I wrote about the power of joined intention at Pentecost.

I recently picked up another copy of one of the God Winks series by Squire Rushnell. I love his books about synchronistic God-winks. A departed friend, Janette, used to call such synchronicities “cosmic post-it notes.” These are those odd coincidences that let you know you’re on the right track (or gently steer you onto the right track).

christ project

What is the right track? Well, we all have a “Christ project.” (I used to hear it called “God’s plan,” but I really like “Christ project.”) How can I become more fully a part of the Body of Christ? This is my Christ project, and those God-winks are like…well, little cosmic post-it notes that remind me about my Christ project, and remind me what I’m supposed to be doing.

rascal quanta

Somehow, through quantum entanglement and through the ripples of energy sent forth by our actions, thoughts, prayers and love, we get back on track when we wobble. We hold each other up, and help each other out.

Following the terrorist bombing in Brussels last spring, I wrote about the power of prayer. News media was sneering about calls for prayer, but I posited that the need for prayer is real. It always is, and always will be; for through prayer we are entangled with others, and entangled with God, working on our Christ project.

We often use the term “quantum leap” thinking it is a huge jump. Well, it’s actually a miniscule jump on a subatomic level, but it results in a jump from one energy level to another. How does that fit with prayer, with being a part of the Body of Christ, and with our Christ Project?  I’ll leave you to ponder that – that, and the nature of those rascally quanta!

 

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

A couple of years ago I wrote about singing at Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, La. There is a small Jewish congregation here, and I have been blessed and honored to sing for their rabbi-led services for some time.  Fall is the season of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.

This is a Reform congregation, who uses the New Union Prayerbook.  There are many beautiful prayers within the covers of the regular book as well as Gates of Repentance, used during HHD.

Monday, during the morning service for Rosh Hashanah, these words leapt off the page at me:

“Be among those who cherish truth above ease, and whose prayers are shafts of light in the darkness….Aspire to be loving, compassionate, humane, and hopeful.  Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.” *

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

Sounds deceptively simple.  It’s certainly challenging.  I know I am often overwhelmed with day-to-day minutiae, and tend to get onto the “just get-it-done” track.  I’m not rude, cruel, dishonest or treating anyone badly, I’m just…getting things done.  Work. Errands. Housekeeping. Paying bills. Doing laundry. Autopilot.

peace-window-temple-gates-of-prayer

Peace window in memory of Jack Wormser, who was a man whose life was his prayer of peace.  Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

The apostle Paul wrote:

Rejoice always, pray continually. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17

What if we were to become the prayer?  I cannot bring peace to the world, but I can be peaceful.  I may not be able to cure someone, but I can be a healing presence. Kindness towards others – even a smile – can be prayerful.

Intention is the difference.

Now, more than ever, our country and our world are torn by voices of division.  We hear so much about what’s wrong, about oppression, aggression, unfairness, shaming, blaming, hatred.  Individual pain is exploited for political gain, and groups and individuals become game tokens in power plays.  Individuals wonder what can I do?

snail-1

Make a difference.  Even this snail makes tracks.

Do what you can. Be open and aware.  Set an intention for kindness. Show gratitude.  Smile.  Pray continually.

Then, become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

~~~~~~~~ * 1984, Central Conference of American Rabbis: Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe.  P. 187.  (New York)

Armor of God

I recently met a lovely woman, V, in a centering prayer group. The group meets during my workday, but I attend occasionally when I can slip out for a while. While the group attendance fluctuates, we stay connected through the internet. I, a newcomer, have been welcomed with love, open arms and many emails.

During the recent flooding here in south Louisiana, several group members’ homes were flooded; V’s was one of them.  I’d only met her a few times, but my heart went out to her, as to so many.  Flood recovery is a wet, stinky, moldy, yucky mess and there are no words that accurately describe it. Part of the process of post flood repair is replacing soaked sheetrock.  The ruined parts are cut out, exposing the studs and timbers beneath. An email went out with a request from V to send scripture verses that would be written on the exposed beams before covering them again.

a-scripture

I thought of the V’ahavta:

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. ~Deut. 6: 4 – 9

Favorite verses were shared, then an invitation – Monday, we’ll gather at her home to help write these verses on the exposed beams.

Monday arrived, and a small group of us had gathered.  We waited, but V never appeared.  One member tried calling, but got her voice mail. Well, phones and voice mail had been very messed up since the flooding, and we just thought that something had come up or AT&T had freaked out. Plan for another day.

Later that afternoon, I heard a news story on the radio that a car had crashed through the wall and into a local post office.

My phone began buzzing with emails.  V wasn’t at her house because she had been at the post office when the car crashed.  She had been pinned between the car and a desk, both of her legs broken.  We stormed the gates of heaven with prayer, waited for news of her surgeries – and continue to pray.

a-glass

Then, in the middle of this, I read a blog post from Beauty Beyond Bones; she is a young woman with a history of an eating disorder.  Prayer and Divine help got her beyond the bleakness of her deadly illness and into recovery.  In her post, she described how her identity had been stolen recently, and spoke of Ephesians 6 – about putting on the full armor of God.  Sometimes you need it!

What is it with these obstacles that fall into the way when one is seeking to fulfill Divine Purpose?  Is it “Satan trying to mess things up?” Or is it something within one’s self, deeply hidden in the unconscious mind that fears and hinders forward movement? I have heard both explanations – and all in between.

If I look at the first option, then “it’s not my fault.” It is something completely beyond my control, and I am a helpless, powerless victim.

If I consider the second, “it’s ALL my fault, but I don’t want this!” Yet on some deep unconscious level I must invite failure. I am responsible for my own downfall.  Gee, I have a lot of power, don’t I?  (haha)

Neither extreme makes much sense to me. It is probably the oldest question ever asked: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Well, we don’t know.  Sometimes, sh*t just happens.

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In spite of everything, God’s world is still a beautiful place.

Perhaps instead of trying to figure it out and control the outcome, we can just roll with the punches.  When you think about it, no matter what you believe, your response can be the same:  Get up, show up, keep going. Don’t stopPut on the full armor of God, and lean on the Spirit which is greater than us and keep going. You – alone – will sooner or later run out of steam, but if you tap into God’s love and power, you have an infinite source. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk it alone.

Somehow, some way, it will work out – and usually in a way that surprises us.  It may not be the way we would have chosen, but sometimes we have an outcome that is more amazing than we ever could have imagined.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I know I won’t get the answer anytime soon, and I’m not even looking for it anymore because I don’t think we can understand the answer (at least not in this lifetime). We cannot understand with our minds, but with our hearts and our souls.  Such things are of faith, and not of reason. I am inspired and deeply moved by faith such as V’s.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13

Faith. Hope. Love. This is what the armor of God is forged of.  Put it on, and – like V, and  Beauty Beyond Bones – keep going.

Mary, Apostle

July 22 has long been recognized a feast day for Mary Magdalene in the Episcopal Church and as a commemoration in the Roman Catholic church.  This year, Pope Francis officially promoted July 22 to a feast day for Mary Magdalene.

There is so much to be said about her, and so much more that we don’t know. Today I’ll write a bit about the gospel that bears her name.  This gospel was unknown and forgotten for about 15 centuries, and even today, we have only about half of it.

MM POxy 3525

A fragment of the Gospel of Mary

I’ve wondered not only what was in those missing pages, but also why they are missing.

You may have never heard of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, as it only hit mass publication within the past 20 years or so.  Here’s a (very) abbreviated introduction: There are quite a few non-canonical writings dating from the early Christian era, as you probably already know. Some were found among what is commonly referred to as the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” and others have come to light in different ways.  This particular codex, written in Coptic, surfaced in the late 1800s via an antiquities dealer who didn’t have much information about its background. (“oh, it was found…er, in a niche of a wall….by um, a peasant…oh, out in um…Egypt.”)

Which might sound a bit shady, but such stories aren’t uncommon. The section of this gospel was part of an otherwise complete codex from the 5th century. The (incomplete) Gospel of Mary was but a small part of this book, which also contained the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and the Act of Peter. This book, incidentally, was in excellent condition – which lead at least one expert to question the “found in a wall niche” narrative. (The image above is from a later find of a smaller fragment.) The only thing wrong was that the first 6 pages and 4 other pages from the middle that are missing – from The Gospel of Mary.  According to historian and author Karen King in The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, “It took…some time to realize that the book was nearly intact and must therefore have been found uninjured.”

MM by Guido Reni

Mary Magdalene by Guido Reni

Over time, two additional fragments were found, fragments that held parts of the same passages.  In 1917, a Greek fragment was found in Northern Egypt.  It dates to the early 3rd century CE.  Another Greek fragment of approximately the same age and severely damaged, was also found.  Different languages and dates indicate that this is a book that had been copied, so its influence was somewhat widespread.  Also in the mid 20th century, there was a discovery of manuscripts near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, and there were copies of the other texts found with the Gospel of Mary – but no other Gospel of Mary.

At the present time, only these 3 partial copies are known to exist. (Another possible fragment has surfaced, and to my knowledge, its authenticity is still not certain.)  King states “Because it is unusual for several copies from such early dates to have survived, the attestation of the Gospel of Mary as an early Christian work is unusually strong.  Most early Christian literature that we know about has survived because the texts were copied and then recopied as the materials on which they were written wore out.”

MM Dolci Carlo

Mary Magdalene by Dolci Carlo

Today, we may think that the only early Christian texts were those of the New Testament, the Apocrypha, and a few “heretical” gnostic texts found in the middle of a dessert.  (The process of how the books that made it into the New Testament is a whole ‘nuther subject…) Well…there were likely more than that. Christianity – the Gospel, the “good news” – was spread by word of mouth first.  The early Christians had no bible, no catechism, no Sunday school, no confirmation classes, no chain-of-command, no church hierarchy, not even a creed to guide them.  Rather, they had Jesus’ disciples sharing the wonder of their experience of the risen Christ (which sounds more interesting than the creed), and met in homes.  Over time, the Jesus movement spread beyond the Jews to the Gentiles and to other lands…and interpretation doesn’t take place in a cultural vacuum.

Hence, all these gospels and writings were views of Jesus by different groups.  Instead of being fearful of anything “unorthodox,” why not dive into such writings with curiosity?  We have a chance to look at Jesus through different eyes, through the eyes of those much closer to the historic event of the risen Christ. I don’t know about you, but I find that fascinating! (And then, there was the big question of who wrote it down!)

MM sculpture

Artist unknown.  Found at www.juniaproject.com – which looks like an interesting blog.

I wonder what happened with the Gospel of Mary.  The section that exists tells of a scene that takes place after the resurrection, and in it Mary Magdalene is sharing (at Peter’s request) teachings from Jesus that are unknown to the apostles.  They aren’t too happy about that, by the way.  Some of these teachings sound familiar, but some don’t.  Mary comforts the disciples, and begins teaching, sharing what Jesus has shared with her.  Her role as “apostle to the apostles” now includes “teacher of the apostles” through the authority of Jesus.

As such, it underscores the legitimacy of women’s leadership in the early church. While the books that would become the canon were slowly “rising to the top of the heap,” others were fading into obscurity. No one was copying them any more. At the same time, certain strains of Christianity were fighting it out, so to speak, and a hierarchy was beginning to emerge. Can you say power struggle?

I suppose the final blow to Mary Magdalene’s status as a teacher and possibly a church leader came when Pope Gregory I started that nasty prostitute business with a sermon preached in 591 in which he described the 7 demons (that Jesus had cast out of her) as the 7 deadly sins. The fact that some folks kept getting her mixed up with the “sinful woman with the alabaster jar” didn’t help.  The rest, as they say, is history; resulting in a case of stolen identity that not even Lifelock could fix.  For centuries, she has been portrayed as the repentant prostitute rather than a loyal disciple, apostle and teacher.

saint_mary_magdalene_by_karmievarya

A woman with a mission! from Karmievarya on DeviantArt.com.

Although the Roman church officially abandoned the prostitute idea in 1969, the damage was deep and long-lasting.  Even today, the image of her as a repentant sexual sinner lingers on. (Just ask Hollywood!)

This isn’t the place for a full discussion of the Gospel of Mary – the work itself is small, and you can find it online (along with plenty of discussion about it).  Karen L. King’s book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle is not just a translation, it  places the book in historic context and discusses the contents.  There are countless other books and online resources on Mary Magdalene as well.  I can think of no better way to honor this great early Church Mother and Saint by taking some time on her feast day (July 22) to learn more about her, and to let her love for and commitment to Christ inspire our own discipleship.

God provides.

Someone asked me at a recent church performance, “how did you find us?”

Ah, the wonders of the internet.  I’ve been contacting people for years about Women at the Well. I have used clergy directories, word of mouth, mailed postcards and letters, called, emailed, and have visited many websites to search for and connect with congregations that might be interested in the music and the message of Women at the Well.  Music partner Joshua (aka Bubba) and I have met some wonderful people and visited churches and congregations of various sizes over the years.  I can’t exactly compare us to the early Christians, but hitting the road and visiting other churches, groups and denominations is an awesome experience, and is teaching me whole new lessons about God providing what we need.

Last spring we visited several Unity churches as well as Episcopal churches.  Rev. Sandy Boyer of Unity of Hagerstown, MD helped us to make connections with other Unity congregations – all of this done by distance and online.  I was so happy to meet her and visit in person!  At that time, their congregation was meeting in a temporary space; since then, they have begun meeting in space provided by St. Mark’s Episcopal church in Hagerstown.  While intention, prayer and love can bring holiness to most places, their intention, prayer and love put ripples into the cosmos saying “we’re ready for a new home!” I’m delighted that they have found a space that is more, well, worshipful! God provided.

On that same trip, we also performed at Unity of Palmyra, Pennsylvania.  They were gifted with a church building.  Yes, gifted.  Given.  Someone gave them a building – a church building. This particular church building had been built by a different Christian denomination about a hundred years ago.  That congregation grew until they needed a larger space.  Rev. Julie Vance told us that the church had been purchased by local contractors with the intention of giving it to a congregation.  Other groups had applied for the building, but the Unity congregation received the gift. God provided.

Unity Palmyra

Interior of Unity of Palmyra, PA. They were given this church building. Wow!

I wish I had some better photos, but this should give you an idea of the gift. This was taken as we were setting up and early birds were trickling in for the concert.  (Alas, taking pictures isn’t high on my list when we are setting up and running sound checks – I guess that’s why I don’t have an Instagram account…)

I love the stories of buildings, especially places of worship. They carry the spirit and intention of generations of prayer and community.

St. James Episcopal Church in Cedartown, Georgia is such a place.  It’s not a big church, and it’s over 125 years old.  In the 1880s, an Episcopalian couple from New York began having Episcopal services in their home.  The congregation grew, raised funds for a church, and the funds were matched by the couple, Mr. & Mrs. A. G. West.  As their home church in New York was St. James, the name St. James was chosen for this church in Cedartown.

st james cedartown exterior

St. James Episcopal Church in Cedartown, Georgia

The current rector of St. James, Fr. Kemper Anderson, came to the priesthood after 3 decades of work as an emergency medical technician, police officer, and Coast Guard Reservist.  We found common ground as he also plays guitar and sings – and while in the Coast Guard, he came to Louisiana to assist with hurricane cleanup and recovery.  His wife Phillipa is a member of a vocal group that I want to hear live one day: Vintage Vocals.  (Heck, I want to sing with them live, too! The CDs will have to do for now, though.)  The congregation didn’t need a building – but the rector seems to be just the right fit.  The blessing works both ways: What a wonderful, welcoming congregation! God provided.

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B & B on the Rock at St. James Episcopal Church.  Photo by Fr. Kemper Anderson.

God always provides, but we have to be ready to receive! Sometimes what we’ve prayed for doesn’t look quite like what we anticipated or hoped for, and we might miss it when it shows up. (Then again, there are times that an answer to prayer or a wish fulfilled arrives so quickly and so exactly that you are blown away. Like my singing bowl.)  It’s important to trust, and to keep your eyes and mind open. I think that an attitude of “OK, God, however and whenever you want to deliver it is fine with me, because I know you have it all figured out” is important.  But boy, sometimes that’s a challenge!

I’m reminded of a true story that friend/author/teacher Lynn Woodland shares in her Miracles Course.  A man in one of her classes was praying for “a wonderful relationship with Mary.”  Mary was his wife, and they had been having problems.  They finally wound up divorcing.  He let go of the prayer, because – well, they were divorced, right?  He went on with his life, and over time began dating again.  He met and formed a wonderful relationship with someone new, and his life was richer than ever, in large part because of this relationship.

Her name was Mary.

Yes, God has a sense of humor.  And God provides.