Out of the Mist

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock


I’ve been intentionally silent for the last month and a half.

My brother died unexpectedly in late June and my youngest sister had a medical emergency.

This happened while I was announcing my intention to retire from parish ministry within the Episcopal Church.

If ever there was a sign from God that I’d made the right decision for the time, these two events were pretty in-my-face.

Along with memories of playing with my brother, who was two years my senior, of being tormented by him, of re-connecting when we were both out of the house and living the single life of the early 70’s, the years of silence and recently, the stilted, uncomfortable conversations as we passed one another in the tunnel at the Powell BART station or out on Market Street, came the realization that I am also mortal.  It comes on me in the early morning, just as dawn is breaking when I wake to see blue-gray walls and the many and sundry things in the room taking strange shapes.  I’ve written about this time of day many times and will continue to do so.  I wake and I think, thank you, Lord, I’m still on earth.  Still above ground.  The aches and pains I can deal with – that’s what aspirin is for – it’s the uncertainty of how many mornings I have left that scares me.

Life has its way of making me forget about death during the working hours.  Then I am in the midst of life and out of the mist of doubt and fear.  My work for others helps them in some way, whether it be editing and formatting a brief to the Court or listening to another’s joys and sorrows, or showing how something is done, or posting something snarky about whatever happened that day in the Presidential Election Campaign.  There again is God showing me something of which I should be aware – that my time isn’t up and God’s not done with me yet.  There is work to be done and I am needed in some way.

I’m not alone in coming to terms with my mortality.  We all are born and die.  Simplistic, but true.  The first we had no control over, the second we can’t avoid but can prepare ourselves for and hopefully prevent by taking steps to live carefully – like not walking on the red light when two lanes of traffic are pouring down California Street, or stepping in front of a moving cable car to get that postcard-perfect shot of the city on a clear autumn morning.  Paying attention to that lump or bump that wasn’t there yesterday morning.   With the time I have left however many years, months, weeks, days, hours, they might be, I intend to live.

Really live.

That means finding good and joy in every minute.

Taking time to relax.

To be present.

To enjoy the gifts and people given to me.

To give thanks for a relationship with God and creation.

To be Ellen.

Neither One Nor the Other

This last Sunday’s gospel gave us the story of Mary and Martha, NRSV, Luke 10:38-42, which led some of us to ask, “Are you Mary, or Martha?”

Are you an active, busy, child of God, or are you a quiet, still, child, content to listen?

These questions stem from a dinner party.  Jesus is a guest at a house where two sisters, Mary and Martha, live.  Martha is in a frantic state as she prepares dinner for her famous guest – you’re familiar with the scenario, perhaps?  An important member of the community comes to your house for dinner and you spend all day cleaning the house, preparing a meal not to be rivaled, and everything, absolutely everything, must be just so, just right, just perfect so that your guests will be pleased.  While you’re in a tear putting it all together, you notice a sibling or spouse doing . . . nothing.

Well, it’s not really nothing they’re doing.  He or she is listening, maybe participating in a discussion with your guest of honor while you find yourself covered in flour, smelling like onions, and starting to break a sweat as you wait for the gravy to thicken (no lumps!), or mash the potatoes to perfection.  And you could use some help.  How many of us on a holiday have stood at the kitchen door and shouted, “I could use some help in here!” while family and friends are watching the game, or sharing a drink while listening to carols? They’re shouting at you to come and join them, and you just want to get dinner on the table so you can relax and could use an extra pair of hands to chop, peel and stir.  Have you felt left out, resentful?  Do you feel as if it’s all on your shoulders?

In the story from Luke, Martha tells Jesus-and one can imagine the tone of voice, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus doesn’t tell Mary to quit sitting at his feet and put on an apron, he says that Mary has chosen the better part, which won’t be taken from her.


Is Jesus saying to Martha that what she’s doing isn’t as important as listening to the discussion he’s having with the other guests?


Jesus knows that Martha is worried and distracted as she tries to do what is expected of her – to be a gracious hostess – and this task has consumed her. Nothing else matters to her at the moment.  She’s got to get dinner on the table (and maybe looking, perhaps hoping, for praise for her extraordinary effort, to her activity being recognized as something right and good).

That is true for most of us, don’t you think?

Mary’s choice, to sit and listen to what was probably instruction from Jesus about the new life he was bringing about with his revolutionary way of thinking and acting, responding, was the better choice for that moment.  Perhaps Jesus was trying to get Martha to slow down and listen, and then go back to getting the dinner party started.  You have years ahead of you to prepare dinner parties and impress others; you don’t have that luxury with Jesus.  He wants Martha to understand that what he is offering, what he has to say, is  as vital to life as the food that she offers.

Is he asking you to stop and be present with God in the middle of your latest crisis at work, or when you get your priorities mixed up?  That’s when you accept the invitation to turn the burners on low and sit down in the living room to listen.

I used to think that one had to identify with either Mary or Martha.  One either was active or contemplative in faith and life.  To be active meant being industrious and therefore, important.  To sit and do nothing was lazy.


There are times when being active is necessary for our faith to grow, and it is just as necessary to be present and listen.  If all we’re doing is rushing about trying to please everyone around us and getting stuff done, when will we hear the Word?

Over the years I’ve watched people work themselves into the ground with activity because it is part of our culture to be constantly in motion, always doing something.  Anything less meant you weren’t serious about your life or work – and besides, stopping for a breath of air would give someone else an opportunity to get ahead of you and you’d lose.

Does God care who dies with the most toys?

I don’t think so.

God cares that we love one another as we are loved and when it is necessary, to work in such a way that our work is valued and it produces something beneficial to ourselves and others, and when it is necessary, to listen, so that we can share what we hear.



Maybe a little of both.  Depends on what day of the week it is and what God is calling us to do.

Image Courtesy of Adobe Stock.





My Neighbors​

Preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016 from the pulpit of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Berkeley.  Offered by The Rev. Deacon Ellen L. Ekstrom

Loren Ahrens
Philandro Castile
Micah Xavier Johnson
Michael Krol
Michael Smith
Alton Sterling
Brent Thompson
Patricio Zamarripa

These are my neighbors. None of them should have died violently, whether by bullet or robot and without due process of law.

How many more will have to shed their blood in our streets and give up their lives to gun violence in this country?

All were victims of a society that has yet to learn the lessons from our recent past about racism, discrimination, and inequality. We fought the Civil War to end slavery, and a half-century ago it looked as if there was a glimmer of hope, that we would have a country truly united by a common belief and Constitutional Amendments, that all of its citizens, all, were created equal. But the bigotry and discrimination, the racism, the inequality, all of which never left Society, crept back to the surface.  This ugliness became more visible.  Unfortunately, some people chose to pretend it wasn’t there, or a problem. As long as routines, dinner hours, Saturday afternoons weren’t disturbed, bigotry and racism weren’t something to lose sleep over.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, the men murdered this past week are my neighbors.

You are my neighbors.

Our desperate times demand that we who have ears to listen, heed the lesson Jesus of Nazareth offers to us in this morning’s Gospel.

Moments ago, you heard me proclaim the Gospel of Christ according to Luke.  Today we heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It begins when a lawyer confronts Jesus, and in response to a query about which of the laws is the greatest, Jesus does what he does best – he turns it into a question and throws it back, usually on its head. Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer recites the Shema, a prayer that restates the first Decalogue commandment in a positive form:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and will all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

He has answered well.

This would have been the time to say thank you and walk away, but the lawyer decides to display his righteousness and right way living by asking Jesus:

“And who is my neighbor?”

Did the lawyer think Jesus was going to give him the answer he wanted?

Not so fast, Counselor, you can’t trip up Jesus.

A time-honored way to ignore what God commands is to frame it as an academic or legal argument; this is what the lawyer was trying to do.

“And who is my neighbor?”

Perhaps he was really asking, “Who is worthy of my love?” or, “Who deserves my time, talent, and attention? Who gets my billable hours?”

Maybe the lawyer was hoping to hear that the Pharisees, the Saduccees, the rich, and powerful, those with whom he worked and lived, were his neighbors.  Certainly not the poor and common folk.

Jesus answers first with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story of how the least likely of persons, a foreigner to Judea, acts as God would have him act. He sees to the needs of a man beaten and robbed on a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, by clothing him, tending his wounds and takes the man on his horse to an inn where he pays for lodging and care and sees that his instructions are carried out.

After telling this story of a good man’s actions, Jesus then asked the question, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The lawyer -maybe after a few minutes of deliberation and head and beard scratching -answered, “the one who showed compassion.” Jesus replies, “go and do likewise.”

Wait a minute!  Is he saying what I think he’s saying?  The original question was, “And who is my neighbor?”

Go and do the same, says Christ.  There are no special conditions, no rubrics, no special clauses about your neighbor.  So that means everyone.


“Go and do likewise.”

This is a story about God’s unconditional and unwavering love.

God makes no distinction in who receives love.  There is no line for deserving people and another for undeserving.  We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  God climbs down from the throne on the marble dais or wherever we’ve put God and is made real, accessible, and human in Jesus.

And in us, when we go and do likewise.

The Gospel this morning addresses exactly what has been going on in America and the World for some time.

It is not too late to turn this country around, to turn the World around.

I have faith in our neighbors that this will be so.

My hope is that we, as Americans, as Christians, toss out the notion that the norm is to respond to violence with violence.  Why is it that the only way people take notice is when something horrible occurs?

Let’s change that, shall we?

To make a real impact will require speaking loudly, boldly, living out the Gospel, until that is the norm and not the exception.

Let us make certain that our voices will be heard in the voting booths in November. Let our voices be heard in the halls of the Capitol in Washington. We can tell the NRA that they will not hold us hostage any longer; we can tell people filled with hatred and contempt for others because those ‘others’ do not fit their image, that we, all of us, all are made in the image of God.

We the people are equal.

We shall proclaim that it is not acceptable, it is not the act of a child of God, to harass and harm immigrants, nor those that espouse other faiths.

When people are presumed guilty before innocent because of the color of their skin or their economic status, we will and must speak out against that.

There is no Eleventh Commandment, ‘Hate Thy Neighbor.’

My friends, I will continue hitting that ‘send’ button with messages to legislators and leaders, to engage in conversations with them, about what needs to be done to end this cycle of racial profiling, bigotry, inequality, and discrimination. I had hoped, after witnessing the civil unrest in the Sixties, that when I was in my sixties, we would be past all that, and we would be at peace with one another.  That we would be a model of life as lived in the Gospel.

Yes, I’m a dreamer – and dreams come true.

I will continue to meet with my brothers and sisters of other faith to work for equality and love, to seek, as so many do, peace in our neighborhoods. I seek equality that is real, tangible, not just a privilege for one percent of our population. I know you do as well.

Until black lives matter, it doesn’t matter if others’ lives matter or not. And until that time, my friends, we are only waiting outside the gates the Kingdom of Heaven, peering in between the grating and bars, and not standing within it with Christ and our neighbors.

I conclude with this familiar charge, for it speaks to our life now more than ever.  Let this be your morning prayer:

Go forth into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast to that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the faint-hearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor all persons;
love and serve our God,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

My Anchorhold.

Thank goodness that nothing in life is static.

If you’re thinking, wait a minute, what about rocks, how they’re just there, think.  The weather and nature keep them in constant change.  Don’t believe me?  Go out to your yard or a park and check out that rock you see every day.  Check to see if there isn’t some dirt, or moss, or an insect crawling across the surface, that wasn’t there yesterday.

That’s my point here.

I don’t believe people (okay, me) are meant to just stay in one place, wed to one way of life or vocation and that is why, after fourteen years of service, I will no longer serve in a parish.  My current health and events played a role in the decision, but to speak truthfully,  the joy and excitement of serving in the liturgy went away a while ago and service became as  tedious and automatic as the morning commute.  The flame was burning down and I was burning out.

The epiphany came as I walked to the office from the train one morning.  I was drawn to the people around me – fellow commuters, homeless people camped out on Market Street, people going about their business, tourists.  Glances became observation and soon the words of scripture started to come to mind.  From these words came meditation and contemplation and a new life force.

In the middle of a busy, noisy, city, I am called to be an Urban Anchoress – to be still and contemplate the Word while working at a secular job, while living out my vocation as a deacon (that is to serve Christ and the people of God out in the world) walled up in a virtual anchorhold where I discover the mystery of God in Christ, the Spirit, all of Creation, and continue to discern what it is I’m being called to do.

Perhaps the peace which passes all understanding will wash over me and I will kindle a new fire.