Monday, May 17, 2010


Find new and old SpiritWalkers posts at their new location.

Literally for years this blog has been written in Blogger and published to this website via ftp. This spring, Blogger decided that its blogs all needed to come home and they stopped supporting the publishing of blogs to other locations. The last few posts here have gotten here only because I have hand-coded the pages and uploaded them myself...as I am doing now.

Since part of my publishing issues have to do with the fact that this site is ancient by website standards, I am working on a complete do-over of annerobertson.com. Everything here will remain as it is, probably for quite a long time. I'm building the site myself and I don't know how to build a website. So it takes awhile.

But one thing I have done is transfer all the SpiritWalkers posts from here to the new site. I also put up a new post today on the Gulf Oil Spill that is not here. All future posts will be there. Although the posts here look the same, they no longer function properly, so comments that you leave through this site will look like they go through, but they will not show up. If you want to post a comment on an older post, please find it at the new location and post your comments there. I did copy any comments already made here to the corresponding post on the new site at annerobertson.org.

Again, please remember that the new site is still under construction. It doesn't look like it will ultimately look, most of the site is empty, and parts are buggy. But SpiritWalkers is there and (I hope and pray) working as it should. My other blogs will be the next to move.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

While It Was Still Dark

candle flame in dark "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb." John 20:1

Yes, it's the story of Easter morning, and it's a place in the Bible where you find a bit of difference in the various Gospel accounts. Aside from the differences in who shows up with whom, I was caught by the dark.

Mark's account is very specific that the sun was up. Matthew and Luke use the more general "dawn," but the implication is that it is at least growing lighter. In John, he is very specific in wanting to mention that it is still dark when Mary goes to the tomb.

If you study John, you shouldn't be surprised at this. John's Gospel is written on many levels of meaning and the themes of light and dark play a prominent role. The chances are that John had no intention of implying that Mary went to the tomb when it was literally dark. John is not about taking things literally, as the record of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 will show you. John wants us to think about what things mean and he picks his words carefully with that in mind.

John's choice of emphasizing the dark is powerful, because Mary's heart and the hearts of all the disciples at that point would have been dark indeed. Remember she wasn't expecting to witness resurrection. She was coming to a grave to care for the dead body of one she loved. She came to the tomb in grief, not in hope. She came while it was still dark in her soul. And she found something so completely unexpected that it took her awhile to realize that night had turned to day. Jesus was alive.

Many of us come to this Easter in the dark. The economy is picking up but not in a way that most of us feel just yet. As I write this my home state is under a state of emergency for flooding, the Carolinas have been ravaged by tornadoes, and about 3 feet of snow is falling in Oregon. We are involved in two wars and the grief of dark times has brought out the worst in some people who spew rage and hate in the name of patriotism. Just this week, nine members of a "Christian" militia in Michigan were arrested for plotting to kill a police officer and then mow down all the officers who went to the funeral. It is dark in many quarters, whether the sun shines or no.

In the midst of it all, here comes Easter and there is John reminding us that the way we feel on the inside does not necessarily reflect the unseen hand of God at work in the world. Mary came to the tomb in the dark--in deepest grief and probably fear and anger mixed in given the cruel and unjust means of Jesus' death. And yet when she actually got to the tomb, the reality was very different than the mood of her heart. God's work was already accomplished...the stone was rolled away...Jesus was risen. All while it was still dark.

John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John uses the dark of Easter morning to bring us back to his opening words and the reminder that, as corny as it sounds, light will triumph over darkness. God triumphs even over death. We head for a tomb and discover that God has been at work just when we thought God had abandoned us.

We come in darkness but then the light shines. It's almost never in the way we expect or perhaps at the time we would have chosen. But it is the promise of Easter and the hope that carries us in the dark.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Princess Bible

Princess Bible Cover No. Just no. I mean, come on...no.

I get the whole princess thing. I was a little girl once and although I preferred yellow and sunflowers to pink and sparkles, I was as taken with Cinderella as the next girl. And my father fed that, even referring to our family in royal terms--not relative to others, but he was the king of our castle, my mother was queen, and my brother and I were the prince and princess. I get that.

But the Princess Bible? There is actually one Cinderella-like story in the Bible. It's the book of Esther. There's a beauty contest to become the bride of the King and Esther, an orphan living with her uncle, wins it. However, rather than simply riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after, she finds herself in the middle of palace intrigue and a plot to massacre her own people. She risks her life to save them. If you want your little girl to become a real biblical princess, maybe the pink, sparkly cover should have a streak of blood smeared across the front.

If a Princess Bible really helped girls see past the pink, sparkly lens sometimes put on the Bible and emphasized the grit and determination of biblical women; If a Princess Bible emphasized the sacrifices necessary for the Bride of Christ; If a Princess Bible encouraged girls to take off that princess crown and sell it to feed the hungry--then maybe I wouldn't be ranting. I think I wouldn't even be ranting if they were selling a Bible cover that was pink and sparkly. It's the title that bugs me and the pink sparkles and crown, which show they aren't about to turn the notion on its head. It's the implications of that title. It's the fact that the title embraces the sort of self-aggrandizement and material entitlement that Jesus and the prophets rail against.

I was a very religious little girl. I read the Bible the church gave me in third grade. I read for myself the stories of rape and incest and could see that women had it rough before they dared to tell me that in Sunday School. In fact, they never did dare to tell me that in Sunday School. I still have that Bible. It is red and a boring RSV translation with no notes for kids and no pictures. I would have liked notes and pictures. I think those additions to today's Bibles are great. But that's not the point.

The point is that I read and loved my Bible not because the physical book was appealing but because I had learned to love God and therefore wanted to know more about what God wanted both for me and from me. I learned in my boring red Bible that God could use a princess for good, but also that God could use a prostitute like Rahab, or a poor but faithful woman like Mary, or a widow like Ruth, or someone who used to have seven demons like Mary Magdalene. I learned that I didn't need to be a princess to be loved by God and that if I should ever rise to such heights, God would be expecting an equal measure of responsibility from me. I learned that it was about service not privilege.

Certainly God's word is God's word and God can get around the ridiculous trappings we often use to try to conceal the power in those pages. But when the cover of a book that trumpets a servant of God who is "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," is covered with pink and sparkles and ties the word Bible to Princess--well, it's a disconnect that I find it hard to get past.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Led By The Spirit

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Luke 4:1-2

Ash Wednesday we call it, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent, and this year it begins Feb. 17. Lent is the un-fun part of the Christian year. It's the forty days we focus on things like discipline and fasting and when we read the Bible stories about the Israelites wandering in the desert and the above story about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It's a time when we remind ourselves about the brutally hard aspects of life and the uncomfortable fact that a true resurrection requires an actual death. Churches often cease using the word Alleluia during these 40 days and for good reason. It is not a fun time.

It is, however, an instructional and formative time. It was during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that a group of freed Hebrew slaves became a nation. It was the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness that gave Jesus the focus and strength needed to embark on his life's mission. In that sense, Lent is a bit like school. It's hard...and yet the harder it is, the better you turn out in the end if you put your mind to it and have the right support.

What I find comforting in both the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus' temptation is that God is present. In the Exodus story God takes the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the Israelites across the harsh desert. Luke starts off his story by pointing out the same thing. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness. God is there--even though Jesus is hungry and the devil shows up.

I also find it comforting to know that the hard, harsh desert times of our lives are not necessarily just my own rotten luck or punishment for my sins. It happened to Jesus, after all. No matter how or why those times have come, the Spirit is here with me...leading me...trying to make me into something stronger, better, and more aware than before. Too often I see the devil and fail to see the Spirit.

Around the world we are in a Lenten, desert season of sorts. Times are tough and just when we're down the blizzards come. Those who are supposed to lead us bicker like school children and call each other names. We encourage them to keep it up by voting our hatreds and keeping the ratings high for media outlets that do the same. We keep seeing the devil and failing to see the Spirit.

The season of Lent reminds us that hard times are where greatness is given birth. It was in the years of the Great Depression and World War II that the people we now call "The Greatest Generation" were molded. I would say that the Spirit led them in that time, even though some could see only the devil. I think we are in the same kind of desert now--the kind where it's hard to find water and the climate is uncomfortable and it seems like every hope turns out to be a mirage. But the Spirit is here, too, leading us to something better.

Lent reminds us that seeing that Spirit in a sandstorm requires discipline. We need to know the One we are looking for, and that requires time in prayer, study, and contemplation. Where I see a solid chair, a physicist sees a hub of molecular activity, but she didn't see that at birth. She learned to see it through disciplined training. Lent is that training for spiritual life.

We are in the desert. The devil is here and cannot be ignored. But the Spirit is leading us. Follow. The greatness of God is trying to be born in you.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Lesson of the Groundhog

"The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throught the land of Egypt there was bread." Genesis 41:53-54

It's Groundhog Day or, as I like to call it, The Feast of St. Chuck. As many of you know, I'm a fan of all creatures but have a special place in my heart for the lowly woodchuck. You can read about my most famous defense of them here.

More generally and more seriously, I have always believed that God's first revelation came in the created order and that everything in Creation has something to teach us. Which begs the question...what does God hope we learn from the groundhog?

The life of a groundhog is relatively straight forward: Eat all you can, get as fat as you can, sleep for several months together, wake up, predict the weather, repeat. There are times when that seems like an ideal life! But the gluttony of the groundhog that gets so many of you gardeners upset is not like the gluttony of people. There is a purpose for getting so fat. The groundhog hibernates for the winter. If a groundhog does not get fat enough, there is no spring awakening.

During hibernation, a groundhog's body temperature drops to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C) and its heartbeat drops from 80 beats per minute to 4-5. As it sleeps from roughly October - March, there is no nighttime raiding of the fridge. The groundhog lives off the fat accumulated in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, often even after waking back up, since the ground is often still snowy in March, with little to eat even then.

In short, the groundhog knows to store up during the times of plenty for the lean times ahead. It knows that some winters are longer than others and prepares for the worst, while popping back up in March, hoping for the best.

It was that wisdom that allowed the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, to move from being a prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon to being second in command in all of Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and Joseph, while still in prison, gave the correct interpretation: The land would have seven years of plenty and during those seven years, Pharaoh should store up all the extra grain because seven years of famine was coming on its heels. Pharaoh did just that and when the hard times came, Egypt was the only place with food. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to leave the land of Canaan and go to Egypt in order to survive.

It struck me how similar the plenty/lean cycle was to our current situation and how dissimilar was our preparation. When times were good, we did not look ahead and store up for the lean years. We were gluttons, yes, but for gluttony's sake--consuming anything and everything, whether we truly needed it or not. We neglected to remember God's lesson in creation that winter follows the harvest. While the groundhog dug his burrow deeper and prepared for hard times, we lived as if the abundance of summer would last forever. And it didn't.

The groundhog teaches us that hard times are a part of life. Some may be harder than others, but we can survive them if we remember that they will come and prepare. God sent that message through Joseph to Pharoah, allowing Egypt to prosper even in a time of famine. God sends that message to all of us who see a groundhog. Maybe we should put down our guns and traps and listen.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Keeping Watch

Matthew 26:38b "Stay here and keep watch with me."

Over New Year's I was visiting friends in Florida and, as you know if you've been watching the news, Florida has been having record cold temperatures. New Year's morning began with forty-degree temperatures and pouring rain, starting about 5:30 am and lasting all morning. So we got up late, felt lazy, and figured we'd shower and get dressed sometime after the Rose Bowl parade.

Then Dorothy said, "I just saw a dog." Understand that the home I was visiting is out in the middle of nowhere. You drive until the pavement turns to dirt and the dirt turns into their front yard. A dog out there meant a lost dog. It was about 9:30 am, it was still pouring and miserable and cold. I went out on the porch.

Shortly, she came around the corner--a chocolate lab, soaked through and acting as if she had been shoed away from a number of other homes, perhaps with force. But I could see she had a collar and tags, and after some persistence, she came to me. It took awhile, but I managed to get her up on the porch and got the information off her tags. Dorothy called while I stayed with the dog. Her name was Hershey, and her owner was out driving around looking for her when we called. She would come soon.

And so we waited. We got a towel and dried her off and fed her a bit of leftover steak from the night before. We looked down the road and we waited and we watched until Hershey's owner came to claim her. Then, having added "muddy wet dog" to my personal scent, I finally took a shower just in time for the parade.

Waiting with Hershey reminded me how frequently simply sitting and waiting with someone is the best form of ministry. When we sit with someone who has a loved one in surgery; when we keep vigil at the bedside of someone in their last hours; when we visit someone whose house has been empty of company far too long--what can seem like time doing nothing is actually time being Christ for others, being God with skin on.

That's all Jesus wanted during those last few hours before his arrest and death--someone to sit and watch with him. The disciples fell asleep and failed that simple request three times. We often fail as much or more. But with each new day and each new year, there is a chance to get it right--a chance to be there for the frightened, the lost, the wet and the cold. A chance to make a call, to get a towel, and to wait and watch until the One we wait for comes.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Man Who Forgave Debts

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Matt. 6:12

Most people have never heard of Edward Tuckerman, Jr. I never had either, until I started researching the founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society for our bicentennial this past year. Artists might know him, since his portrait (pictured here) was painted by Gilbert Stuart, but the only other people who might know him are those who have studied the history of bread.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. was a baker. He was born Dec. 27, 1740 and spent 50 years as a baker in Boston's south end, taking just a bit of time out to be a second lieutenant of the train of artillery in Boston during the American Revolution. What set Mr. Tuckerman apart as a baker, however, was not his longevity in the field, but the fact that he discovered how to keep biscuits fresh on long ocean voyages.

That discovery meant that his business grew by leaps and bounds, and soon he had over 300 employees and was serving all the ports of New England. He had many notable accomplishments, was a founder of several charitable societies and was even a state senator, but I'm writing about him here at the threshold of the New Year because of what Edward Tuckerman, Jr. did every New Year's Day.

If you owed Mr. Tuckerman money as the books were closed out for the preceding year, you got a call from Mr. Tuckerman. If any delinquent borrower, whether an individual or a business, could show that they did not have the ability to pay, Mr. Tuckerman forgave the debt. Large, small, didn't matter--every dime was forgiven. Not put on a payment plan, not deferred, forgiven. Debtors prisons would not be abolished until the middle of the 19th century, but Mr. Tuckerman took a higher road, perhaps because he followed a higher law.

Edward Tuckerman was an Episcopalian, active in Trinity Church in Boston as was his father before him. He would have known the Lord's Prayer since childhood. As a baker, I have to wonder how often he thought of "Give us this day our daily bread" in relation to his business, and of course the very next line is "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

While many churches, including my own, substitute "trespasses" or "sins" for "debts," the word in Greek is an economic term. As hard as it is to forgive sins, I think there are more people willing to forgive sins than there are willing to forgive debt. Not so with Mr. Tuckerman, and if it had a negative impact on his business, it was not enough to impact his ability to give generously to the Massachusetts Bible Society, the Charitable Mechanic Association, his church, and others in need.

Edward Tuckerman was able to forgive all his debtors every New Year's Day for two reasons. The first is that he was not deeply in debt himself. He did not need to collect the debts of others to pay off his own debts. He built a business through persistence and creativity over 50 years, not through a capital loan overnight.

The second reason he was able to forgive debts, however, is because he knew that neither the bread he made nor the money that came as a result really belonged to him. He was a steward of God's resources, and knew that the opportunities and inspiration that made him a successful businessman were God's gifts to him. God gifted him so that he might in turn pass God's gifts along to others. So for 50 years, Edward Tuckerman, made the daily bread upon which people depended. And when they could not pay, it became a gift. He did not just pray the Lord's Prayer, he lived it.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. died on July 17, 1818 and his obituary called him "one of Boston's most worthy, useful, and respectable citizens." I'm sure he had his flaws and, like all of us, I'm sure his life knew sin as well as the good. But I'm also sure that when he met God face to face, it was all forgiven, even as he had forgiven others.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Card

Nope...not a reflection about Christmas cards, although there's plenty to reflect on when you look at them all. I find it a stretch to think that Mary looked that refined after a 70-80 mile ride on a donkey that ended with giving birth in the smelly stable of an over-crowded inn. But hey...we think what we think, and the sentiment of this e-card is certainly what I wish for all of you.

Click here for your e-card.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

When the Church banned Christmas

"It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
From the Records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659

It's that season again when communities get all worked up about holiday displays and what can be shown there and retail clerks get ulcers worrying about whether or not they can say, "Merry Christmas" to those who come into their stores. In churches there is often the angst around who gets to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, whether a Christmas tree should be in the sanctuary and, if so, how it should be decorated.

Church programs are at full tilt, pastors prepare for multiple services, choirs are hard at work on cantatas, and church leaders fret that town regulations no longer allow hand-held candles at their candlelight services. And of course most everybody, both inside the church and out, is participating in keeping the economy afloat by buying things for people who, in most cases, don't really need them.

As many Christians get all worked up over "Keeping the Christ in Christmas," I've come to wonder if Jesus really would want his name associated with the holiday as it stands. And as I wondered that, I remembered my early experience as a Reference Assistant at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The JCB is a rare book library specializing in Americana up to the year 1800, and in my time there I volunteered to work on a Christmas exhibition for our reading room. What I discovered in my research, however, was that Americans did not celebrate Christmas before 1800. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was actually banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating had to pay a five-shilling fine.

And who got it banned? Why, the Christians, of course.
The ban lasted 22 years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century before Christmas celebrations were really accepted as appropriate in religious circles. Consider this statement by the Rev. Increase Mather in 1687:

"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."

Consider also the very earliest Christians. Christmas was not an important festival in the Church for several centuries after Christ's death. The three big Church festivals were Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Jesus' birth was relatively unimportant compared to the events that revealed his nature (Epiphany), his death and resurrection (Easter), and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

All of that makes me wonder if Christians perhaps should quit worrying about keeping the Christ in Christmas and simply let it be the time of warm sentiment, festive parties, and economic activity that it has become. Suppose we took the Christ OUT of Christmas and instead put Him back in Epiphany where He belongs?

Honestly, are even our Christmas Eve services accurately described as "holy"? They are sentimental, to be sure, and that is fine. I love a beautiful candlelight service as much as the next person. But I wonder sometimes if all our cooing over a baby Jesus isn't a way of guarding ourselves against the older Jesus. Jesus as a baby can't make us uncomfortable. He can't overturn our tables or tell us to love our enemies or to put away our swords. He just smiles at drummer boys, receives expensive presents from important people, and (if you're to believe the carols) doesn't even cry! Who wouldn't want a baby like that?

But the baby grows up, and as he does, the crowds of Christmas dwindle. Those who want to keep the Christ in Christmas often do not want him intruding at other times of the year. Like tax time, for example. We're only back again when Jesus has gotten through His life and that nasty execution and is safely resurrected and ready to offer us eternal life. Presents given to Him at birth are returned to us in Easter salvation and we get to avoid all those difficult lessons in-between.

Keep the Christ in Christmas if you will, but personally I think it's more important to put Him back in the rest of the year.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Keeping the Faith Alive

Judges 2:10 "Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel."

"Anne Robertson!" I turned around at the large reception to see the man who had been my homeroom teacher in the seventh grade. "I thought about you just this morning," he said. "I was looking through old faculty pictures for tonight's celebration and I saw your parents' pictures. I remember you came a year early. Seventh grade and only 11 years old, but smart as a whip. 1970."

I was stunned. I knew many of my teachers very, very well. With parents on the high school faculty for their entire careers, my teachers were often friends of the family as well, and there are many I count as friends today. But my 7th grade homeroom teacher was not on that list. I don't remember even seeing him after I left middle school. But here he was at the 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of Coventry High School remembering me, the year I was in his class, and even my age.

It was an evening of such memories: The best principal on the planet, Jim DiPrete (pictured with me here), who talked about my mother's amazing skills and reliability as a colleague. The oh-so-patient Chemistry teacher and Student Council Advisor who was first taught by my father before he came to teach me. The teachers and students gone but not forgotten. The teacher who had never met me but who was consistently beaten by my father in ping pong.

Those people are why I went--to remember who I was and where I came from. To be among those who carry memories and perspectives of both me and my parents that I can get in no other way. To remember that our school motto was "Ad astra per aspera," "To the stars through difficulty," and to realize how true that was and is.

We all have our own memories, but it takes a community to keep them alive and vibrant. And of course there are those like my mother whose mind and memories have been taken from her. It is the job of her community to remember for her, just as we remember for and with each other. And memories were passed along. The most recent graduates were there along with a woman from the very first graduating class of 1935. We heard about her class and about the classes of the 40's, 50's and every decade since. Our own experiences were reinforced and given meaning and our memories were expanded both forward and backward--putting our lives in a greater context of shared community.

The Bible is full of places where God has people set up markers to hold the memory of events. Sometimes it was a physical marker, like a pile of stones or a special altar. Sometimes it was a festival like Passover or Pentecost. Sometimes it was the instruction to keep telling future generations, as in Deuteronomy 6:4ff where God instructs that the command to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, be said every morning and every evening and taught to all children. And of course there is the Bible itself, with scores of authors wanting to be sure that events and people and principles were remembered in certain ways.

The above passage from Judges stunned me when I first read it. How was it possible that a generation grew up that "did not know the Lord?" It was a catastrophic failure of community memory. For whatever reasons, a generation stopped sharing their memories, or shared them only with themselves and not with new generations. We know from the Bible itself that there were long stretches of time when the festivals were not celebrated and nobody even knew the Torah existed.

As our culture both inside and outside the church goes through a paradigm shift, it would be all too easy to allow another generation to grow up that "did not know the Lord." That doesn't mean our traditions can't change, but it does mean that if the pile of stones that used to mark an event has crumbled, the stones should not be tossed but should be reformed into something new. We are the keepers of the faith memory, both for those who have set it aside or had it beaten out of them, and for those just being born who do not know.

We need to gather to remember the stories and the people and our own "Ad astra per aspera," which might be translated to faith as "Take up your cross and follow me." When people return to faith communities they should be filled with the memories of why they came, not with flashbacks of why they left. We must help each other remember who and whose we are.

At the anniversary party I learned that my beloved principal was on Facebook and the minute I got home I sent him a friend request. Our churches should inspire us to do the same with Jesus. Rekindle the memory. Share the stories. Teach the children.

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