Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Proof of God's Love

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved...through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:8-11)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gospel: Having A Windshield Larger Than The Rearview Mirror

"[Jesus] answered, "I suppose you're going to quote the proverb, 'Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard you did in Capernaum.' Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn't it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian."

That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way."

What could be worse than being thrown out of your own community of faith, especially when you were being seriously truthful...explaining the Scriptures as faithfully as you could?

Many times I've seen this sort of thing, though not to the extreme measure which these folks took in the end, in the course of my own ministry. Not every church goer who professes to be a believing Christian is able or wants to hear the honest truth proclaimed. It's not that they don't want "the message" to be spoken and's just that it has to be their version of the message. Unfortunately, most times it's a narrow, adolescent viewpoint which they perhaps heard in Confirmation class years before and which, in their insecurity in faith, they feel they must hang onto. The curious thing is that many of these folks may be people who are quite "with it" in their field of work, and don't bat an eyelash over change in the marketplace. Just don't touch their "religion"!

Luke tells us that after Jesus moved down the road from the hostile hometown crowd in Nazareth, he got a much different reception: "He went down to Capernaum, a village in Galilee. He was teaching the people on the Sabbath. They were surprised and impressed—his teaching was so forthright, so confident, so authoritative, not the quibbling and quoting they were used to."

John Indermark, in his wonderful little book Gospeled Lives, has a quite relevant passage with which to conclude this reflection: " Over the past two years, the Reverend Dr. Mark Miller has served as the Transitional Interim Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ...Mark makes light of the acronym for his title (TICM), saying he hopes his work does not lead too many people to hear it with an 'off' at the end (as in, 'tic 'em off'). His other trademark wordplay when he speaks to churches and church leaders explores variations on the theme: 'Your windshield needs to be larger than your rearview mirror.' The image is not only striking -- it is gospel." 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water

We’re almost at the half-way point in the season of Lent. The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy is the well-known story of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel (4:5-42). It’s a story about brokenness which we’ve all felt, a story of how God’s love and pardon came to a woman and her town through the man named Jesus of Nazareth.

The story begins when Jesus strikes up a conversation by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from the well, where he was sitting while awaiting the return of his disciples who’d left for a lunch-run. The well, Jacob’s well, had been there a long time. John hints that the woman came here frequently to lower her bucket and draw water. The woman is put off by the fact that Jesus, a Jew, is asking for water from her, a Samaritan. She then becomes amazed at Jesus’ offer to give her some special water, since he has no bucket. The well is deep and he process is tedious and time-consuming. A fountain or spring of “living water”, she thinks, would certainly make the job ever so much easier.There’s an immediate miscommunication, because the living water to which Jesus refers is actually the Wisdom which gives life. In the Hebrew Scriptures “living water” refers to Torah, “the gift of God”, as the rabbis called it. The will of God as expressed in Torah, and practical living according to it, was life-giving Wisdom for a Jew.

For writers of the Christian Scriptures, especially John, “living water”. the Wisdom which gives life and guides people’s lives is both Jesus’ wisdom, his teaching, summed up in himself, the “Word” incarnate; and the Spirit whom Jesus communicates, sends. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.‘ Now he said this about the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive.” The coming of the Spirit was to be the sign that the messiah = anointed [Greek, christos] One had arrived. Jesus had proclaimed in his own hometown synagogue, quoting from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...he has anointed heal the brokenhearted.

As Jesus’ conversation with the woman unfolds, we begin to glimpse how inwardly broken she is. This is a woman who, for whatever reason, has bought into the racial and religious discrimination which existed between Jews and Samaritans in first century C.E. She could be described as a person who felt “denominationally superior” because she was convinced that her people knew the “right” way to worship. We learn further that she’d apparently had her share of broken relationships in her life until now. She’d had five husbands. When Jesus mentions her husband, the dialogue abruptly shifts to the topic of “real” worship and the proper place for it. Jesus had gotten a little too close to home for her. The woman deals with her embarrassment and guilt by drawing attention away from her home situation. Jesus quietly offers her his presence and peace. He slowly, patiently, cuts through her misperceptions, prejudice, spiritual blindness, even deceptiveness, and reveals himself as the healing One, holding out to her the remedy for her brokenness, foretold by Isaiah: the living water of God’s Spirit, his very presence and peace.

Jesus accommodates her and takes up the topic of worship, but he begins to explain how he views true worship. It’s not in Samaritan vs. Jewish terms, but in terms of “spirit and truth”. Whenever spirit appears unmarked in John’s Gospel it usually refers to God’s Spirit. And truth, for John, primarily indicates Godself or is a characteristic of people who respond to God’s revelation.

In proclaiming worship in spirit and in truth Jesus doesn’t seem to be contrasting external worship with internal worship, with worship of God in the inner recesses of one’s heart. Being broken before God and yet trusting that somehow we’ll come out at the other end is God’s way of challenging us to deeper faith. When you and I stand vulnerable and open to God’s life-giving Spirit, even if grudgingly at first, we begin to have faith, to believe. Acknowledging and accepting the Spirit, Godself, and God’s will expressed in the Word -- Jesus himself and the Scriptures -- becomes the basis of true worship. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn.” The liturgical prayers, gestures, and paraphernalia which we use in worship are only aids, and are all empty and meaningless unless they lead us to make real the kind of worship of which Jesus speaks. When, in our brokenness, we approach the living God in spirit and in truth, we allow God to heal, to restore, to recreate us.

Jesus does this for the Samaritan woman. Through a simple request for a drink of water, through conversation, and through patience Jesus helps her work through her self-imposed limitations and short-sightedness, and to come to know God’s Spirit which he himself embodies. The selfsame Spirit of truth enables this woman to eventually do “surprise ministry”: to share Jesus’ story with her friends and townspeople. It’s something she’d probably never have done on her own. Like us, she’d have pled “unworthy”, “incapable”, with “not enough time to devote to it”. Her fellow townspeople would never in a million years have enlisted her as the town evangelist, the bearer of “Good News”. After all, they knew what she was like!

After the disciples return, a bit shocked to find Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman, John notes that “the woman left her water jar and went back to the city”. Why did she leave the jar? Was it just because she was so excited and in haste to share the latest bit of gossip? Or was that little detail symbolic? Could it, perhaps, indicate that in dealing with the Holy God and with each other, you and I need to leave our jars, our containers, however large or small, behind? No one can contain or put limits around God’s truth, the living water who is the Spirit. Unfortunately, don’t we often attempt to do just that: to contain and put limits on God’s Spirit, on the Spirit’s ability to deal with whatever brokenness afflicts our lives or those of others? We’re uncomfortable with life’s uncertainties and changes. We want the answers to life’s questions, the security of “the truth”. Jesus’ most radical opposition, after all, came from “religious” people who believed they had a corner on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: in a jar, so to speak. The Samaritan woman had thought that way at first, and so do we until we realize, as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians that “...we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

Thomas Merton coined the phrase which (approximately) says “God writes straight with crooked letters.” God has a way of continually smashing our jars and containers when we attempt to put limits on God’s Spirit, when we try to dictate how God should deal with those of whom we disapprove, or worse, when we try to disallow even God the freedom to change brokenness, in ourselves or in others, into a new start, a “surprise ministry”. Jesus’ gift of eternal life is there for the taking, if only we choose to be refashioned in its power, if only we believe enough to leave our jars behind and let the Spirit blow where it will.

I wonder what Jesus might have said to a person like singer Janis Joplin, a broken woman to all appearances, often disapproved of and berated by others, ultimately a victim of her own addictive tendencies, dying alone. How might she have responded had someone sat down with her, been truly present to her, and told her about the living water of the Spirit. Amanda McBroom wrote a song called The Rose, used in the movie of the same name, a movie based on Janis Joplin’s life:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance.
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes a chance.

It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give,
And the soul afraid of dyin
that never seems to live.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mary: A Lesson In Humility & Faith

Someone has said, "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought." Frederick Buechner goes further: "...if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Some folks seen almost always at peace with their faith. Others seem to be in a state of constant questioning. 

To speak of doubt is to speak of testing or difficulty in believing, not of refusal to believe.The presence of doubt says nothing about the certainty with which we believe. A person can be torn by doubt, yet be very dedicated and firm in faith. Strong faith, in fact, can often be accompanied by great doubt. The more a believer loves and surrenders self, the more one has abandoned one's own ground, and more is at stake. A challenged faith can remain a full faith, for true faith is always full. It isn't a question of half-believing and half-unbelieving. 

The man whose son was possessed by a spirit and who cried out to Jesus, "I believe, help my unbelief," had a full faith. And Jesus healed the son. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun, often known as "The Little Flower", had painful doubts about faith even as she lay dying of tuberculosis at age 23. "My 'little way'," she wrote, "is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender." In the example of Jesus himself we can see best of all the certainty which is not crushed even by the worst difficulty or doubt. Jesus was tested in the desert. Though, quoting Psalm 22, Jesus cried out in agony on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", his surrender, his faith, his gift of himself was at its most total in his temptation and doubt.

Scripture constantly talks about people in crises of faith and confidence. One could cite such stories as that of Abraham, or of the Exodus, or of Jeremiah, or of the people after the destruction of Jerusalem. Such crises of faith take on a different form in each age. Some centuries have been called the "Ages of Faith", while others have been marked by darkness approaching despair. Many in our own day feel that any sort of belief in God's existence or Jesus or the Spirit is a complete illusion.

Doubt has its origin in many things, mostly in such questions as arise in all our minds at some time or other. How do I reconcile the cruelty and violence of the world with God's goodness? What do I do when the salvation I hear proclaimed seems to bring me no deliverance? What if I don't perceive God as part of my existence, as meaning nothing to me practically? Why do people witihout faith seem to get along just as well, perhaps better, than those who profess to believe? Many of us remember a time, perhaps, when "the faithful" were advised not to busy themselves too much with such heady issues, to simply pray to God for guidance and to go on leading a good life, with assurances that it'll all be OK in the end. Such simplistic platitudes are largely ignored in an age which constantly seeks, probes, and questions. There's no way, ultimately, to dodge honest doubts, nor should we. While it would be foolish to allow ourselves to become the playthings of every new thought or idea which crosses our mind, or slaves to compulsive notions, we should take time, make time, to thoughtfully discern the meaning of our doubts. 

Even this can be somewhat simplistic, because difficulties in faith go far deeper than simply the intellect. The real source of doubt often is that we've lost a sense of God's presence and peace, or contact with it. The testing may, in fact, be a call to deeper belief. It may be that we're not living in faith, that we're allowing ourselves to be choked "by the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things" (Mark 4:19) Sometimes we try to fit our convictions to decisions we've already made, decisions contrary to conscience. Or we may be inwardly unable to bring ourselves to love certain people, or perhaps we're feeding a hatred in our hearts.

Sometimes serious doubt spills over into actual despair. Thomas Merton described such critical times as "the absolute extreme of self-love", when a person makes a choice to turn her/his back on all help from anyone else, including God. Perhaps there's some hidden root of despair within all of us. There's a pride which raises its head as soon as our own resources fail us, which they will, inevitably, at times. Despair is the result of letting pride develop to such a point, where even despite the reality of the suffering of Christ on the cross, one chooses the absolute misery of complete separateness and alienation, rather than accept happiness from God's hands. 

The way out of doubt and despair, the way to God's presence and peace, calls for humility. Humility is primary if one is to live spiritually. It is the key to faith with which our life in God's Spirit begins. Deriving from the Latin word humus = earth/ground, humility "grounds" us, helps us see reality, things as they are, not the fantasies we wish they would be. Only when I can humbly accept the reality that I'm a creature in relation to God can I submit, surrender, myself -- even in the face of doubt or despair -- to God's presence and peace.

This feast of the Annunciation is a celebration of Mary's extraordinary humility and faith. If anyone had reason to doubt, maybe even to despair, it was this young Jewish girl of marriageable age, who, though unmarried, found herself pregnant and with no explanation which anyone could comprehend, much less accept, least of all her intended, Joseph. We can only conclude from Luke's story of Mary that somehow this young girl had learned quite early the key to wholeness and holiness. The Lord's messenger addresses her as "Highly favored one, the Lord is with you." God's presence is there, unrecognized, and the only way that could be is if she were at the same time humble, grounded: she knew the way things were in relation to her Creator. When it was made known to her that she was to be a key figure in the greatest event in history, a thousand doubts and questions must have rushed in on her. She expresses some of them: "How? I have no husband. I'm afraid. Why?" But as soon as it becomes clear to her Who is behind all this, the Most High, the Holy Spirit, she exclaims: "...I am the Lord's servant; let it be to me according to your word." We'd be very wrong to read into this scene that, for Mary, it was somehow "different", or that for her it was easy, but surely not for us. That would be to rob her of her true humanity. French writer, Jean Guitton notes that Mary might well have said of her humble and faithful "Yes" to God what the French painter, Corot, said of a canvas he'd hastily completed: "How much time did I spend on it? Five minutes -- and my whole life."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Of Potters & Clay

The passage from Jeremiah [18:11; 18-20] strikes a responsive note because it ends with a question which we’ve all undoubtedly asked: “Is evil a recompense for good?” [v.20] You and I might rephrase the question a little differently: “Why did God cause this tragedy, or whatever, to happen?”; “I don’t understand it: I pray and pray, and God never answers.” “There’s no justice in this world! The rich just get richer and the poor, poorer!

It appears that Jeremiah was a sort of “visual learner”. God’s message told him to go to a potter’s studio: “...there I will let you hear my words.” Jeremiah watches intently as the potter works at his wheel, fashioning a clay vessel. But he goofs (the potter, that is). Perhaps he pressed too hard, used too much water on the clay, didn’t spin the wheel fast enough: whatever,...the pattern he’d set out to make was ruined.

The thing which Jeremiah noted was that the potter didn’t get upset and throw the piece of clay away. Patiently, “he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do…” It was then, after the potter handled the situation this way, that Jeremiah understood God’s message which he was to give to the people of Israel.

God compares Godself to a potter working with the clay, in this case, Israel/humanity. If the people are “bad” clay, i.e., they aren’t as clay should be, God is still able to fashion them into something useful, to accomplish the divine purpose, if the clay will respond to God’s expert touch. If, on the other hand, people who are “good” clay, i.e., capable of being fashioned into a vessel of God’s choosing, willfully allow themselves to be deficient clay, then even God won’t exercise his artistry. God won’t contradict the laws of nature which are the expression of the divine goodness and truth itself. The logical consequence and result, despite God’s creative hand, will be a misshapen, disfigured vessel. The potter’s creative purpose will have been purposely frustrated by the “clay”.

“Is evil a recompense for good?” therefore? Does God cause evil in our lives? or bad things to happen to good people? Certainly not! For God is like the potter, after all. Is Jeremiah’s message, in terms of the potter, meant to convey simply that the potter has dominion? that he calls the shots? that the clay isn’t important? that the potter exercises arbitrary control over the vessel’s existence, or that he can shape evil regardless of the quality of his clay?

Or does Jeremiah’s message, rather, have a different thrust: that a potter is one whose delight is in creating, in giving things the possibility to be; that potter is careful, precise, patient; that a potter puts something of her/himself into what is created; that a potter fashions objects which are useful, things which delight us with beauty, which benefit and serve others?

Is evil a recompense for good?” No. But to say this doesn’t mean that it’s a complete answer, or that you and I understand or can ever fully grasp the mystery of evil in the world and in our own lives. It’s not a complete answer, but it’s a firm and sure answer, one based on the Word of God.

The reality of being human and limited and of being the inheritors of selfishness is that, sooner or later, we’ll each find ourselves as spoiled vessels in the Divine Potter’s hands. But faith tells us that God can and does rework us, if we allow it, into other, and more magnificent vessels, “as it [seems] good to the potter to do.” No one, I think, has expressed this more beautifully than St. Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"I Set My Heart"

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: 
Be gracious to all who have gone astray from 
your ways, and bring them again with 
penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace 
and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your 
Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you 
and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,one God, 
for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel for Lent 2 (John 3:1-17) is a familiar one. It redefines the life of faith in Christ. It speaks of being born into a new life of the Spirit. Inasmuch as you and I are transformed, we're called to trust in God's promises.

James Adams' book, So You Think You're Not Religious?, written for modern skeptics, is a favorite of mine for the definition of faith which he suggests in it. Adams tells of an incident which he witnessed at Oxford University, where Robert Morgan was giving a series of lectures on Paul's Epistles. Morgan came to the text in Romans 10:9 where Paul says: "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." "Then", Adams recounts, "he looked up and said, 'Believe in your heart. That is the only kind of believing that matters. As you probably know the Latin word 'credo', from which we get our word 'creed', is usually translated 'believe', but it means literally 'to set the heart'." Adams notes that this stunned him, for it suddenly solved for him how a skeptical person might, with integrity, pray the Nicene Creed. "'Credo'...'I believe in', really means 'I set my heart'. It does not mean 'I set my head'."

In John's Gospel passage Jesus and Nicodemus have an interesting conversation, "by night", John says. I think it helps to put that conversation into some perspective by reading the preceding three verses: "When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone." John makes this observation in light of a challenge flung at Jesus by Jewish religious leaders in vv. 18-19, after he'd "cleared the deck" of moneychangers in the Temple just before that.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, now approaches Jesus (note again, "by night"), opening with rather unctious words of praise about Jesus' skill as an authentic teacher, and alluding to the "these signs that you do" as evidence of that. Jesus who "himself knew what was in everyone", including this man, cuts right to the chase: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above." That phrase, "the reign of God", by the way, appears only here and in v. 5 of John's Gospel. Jesus' statement whizzes right over Nicodemus' head as Nicodemus puzzles over the mechanics of how someone might be born again once the person has "grown old", as he himself presumably has. But Jesus is relentless, and says again, "You can't be part of God's reign without being born from above, that is, of water and Spirit." Water is a symbol with several meanings: a cleansing agent or a refreshing liquid. But also, in sufficient quantity, such as an ocean or the tsunami which devastated Japan last week, with rippling effects even here in our own state of California, it's a source of power, of undoing and destruction. Spirit is the principle of life. We might draw the implication that eternal life, which is the essence of being part of God's reign, is possible only through a rebirth, a transformation, a humbling, even an undoing or destruction, in a sense, of our human ways of knowing and understanding, and being given the gift of God's life-giving Spirit.

Jesus continues with a beautiful image of wind, breath, blowing where it chooses. Of course, the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma = breath, spirit are both applied in Scripture to Holy Spirit also. As wind blows around us we can hear its sound, its voice, but we don't know where it comes from or where it goes. "So it is", says Jesus, "with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Well, poor old literal Nicodemus, "a teacher of Israel", as Jesus describes him, still doesn't "get it". Not so subtly, Jesus singles out the crux of the Nicodemus' problem: "We [the majestic "We" of the Trinity?? or "We" who've learned to set our hearts on God??] speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you [those who either haven't learned the necessity of setting their hearts on God, or those who've deliberately chosen to live in the darkness of blindness to what's right in front of them??] do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"

Jesus then draws a parallel between Moses and "the Son of Man". There's a vertical ascent involved: "...just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness [cf. Numbers 21:4-9], so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. There's also a vertical descent: "...God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." And this descent, the sending of the Son by the Father to humankind, was done so that all human beings themselves could ascend, be raised up, "that the world might be saved through him." In this passage, John, through Jesus, addresses you and me who are the Church. If Moses' action brought life to the Israelites, Jesus' actions, indeed everything which he did and said, brings eternal life to us. In the whole mystery of Jesus' crucifixion on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and his being taken back into and glorified in the presence of the Trinity, you and I, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who sets our hearts on God, are ourselves raised to glory. "The reign of God" becomes our new way of existing. The only way this cannot happen is if I refuse the Holy Spirit ["blaspheme", according to Mark and Luke; "speak against", according to Matthew], if I choose to live in darkness and lack of understanding, thus withholding my heart from the very Spirit who is Love.

Hazel Jean Spire wrote the following in the January/February issue of alive now!:

"Florida. August.
    I leave my husband to cast his line again. I point my new camera at the palm trees. Click. The wading birds. Click. The Miami skyline. Click. I shield my lens against an unusually bright glare from the ocean.
   A fishing boat glides in to the wooden jetty. A young man steps out and calls my name. Who on earth knows me here?
    'Yes?' I respond, feeling my toes sink into the wet sand while he makes a half hitch around a cleat.
    'Did you think you could escape from me, Hazel?' The man is laughing now, and walking toward me.
    I squint. 'Roger?'
    'No, not your ex. Your first love. Remember the youth retreat, south coast of England?'
   I want to hide. Instead I stammer, 'Oh, it's you.'
   With a glance at Mark, who is reeling in a branch of seaweed fifty yards down the beach, I say, 'You know I've remarried.'
   'Of course,' he says, and my old friend invites me to sit with him on the jetty. His hair and skin are a lot darker than in the mental picture I've been carrying.
   'I'm sorry I cut off communication,' I tell him. 'No excuse really, though I did try to blame Roger.'
   He smiles, but his eyes reveal the pain of rejection. 'I've missed you,' he says. 'You didn't reply to any of my messages.'
   I shake my head in shame as well as disbelief that we're having this conversation. 'I was looking through some of your messages the other day. I've been through so much change lately, I was trying to find some words to help me. But they didn't make sense any more.'
   He sighs. 'You used to be able to read my thoughts.'
   Retrospect sweeps me back to those early steps away from my first love. All I can say is, 'I guess I wasn't ready to promise you anything at fifteen.'
   'But you did accept my gift and that made you mine.' His look penetrates my soul.
   'I still have plans for you.' His tone is gentle, persuasive, but I hestitate.
   My husband wades to the top of his boots, casting again.
   'What about Mark?'
   'Oh, he's coming too, but I still want first place in your life.' My friend stands. 'It's not the first time I've been betrayed,' he says. 'I always knew you would choose your own way for a season. But I wouldn't force you to stay. I can only draw you back with my love.'
   He reaches down and pulls me up with his strong brown arm. Now I notice the ugly scars. I remember what he did on a dark lonely hill outside Jerusalem. My guilty verdict is washed away by the tide of grace.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

St. Joseph & The Church

From a sermon by St. Bernardine of Siena:

"...A comparison may be made between Joseph and the whole Church of Christ. Joseph was the specially chosen man through whom and under whom Christ entered the world fittingly and appropriately. Thus, if the whole Church stands in the debt of the Virgin Mary, since it was through her child-bearing that it was able to receive Christ, surely after her, it owes special thanks and honor to Joseph.

For in him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. In him the noble line of patriarchs and prophets comes to its promised fulfillment. What God in his goodness had offered to them as a promise, Joseph held in his arms. Clearly, Christ cannot now deny to him the same intimacy, respect and high dignity which he gave him on earth, as a son to his father. We should rejoice that in heaven Christ completes and perfects all that he gave to Joseph in Nazareth..." 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Circumcising The Foreskin of One's Heart

The Office reading this morning from Deuteronomy 10:12-22 urges: "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer." It's a very graphic image, one that I'm sure I've read before. Surely there are many biblical references to circumcision which I've read before, but not really thought about. It occurred to me that I'd never actually seen a male foreskin, either for real or in pictures. It was pretty easy to imagine that cutting off the foreskin in circumcision must be a painful, bloody process. I'd heard a lot of jokes about the "bris", the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day after a male child's birth. Again, I've never actually seen the ritual performed, nor did I know much about it.

The ritual of circumcision, as explained to me in seminary Scripture classes, was God's command to Moses and the chosen people of Israel, a largely patriarchal society, to set them off as God's own with a sign in the flesh. The blood involved, the human symbol of life, was understandable in light of the sacrificial use of animal blood to signify a sharing of life between God and the people. Because of its uniqueness in the surrounding early culture, there was also an element of the solidarity of the people.

I've learned, in pursuing this today, that b'rit mi'lah = covenant of circumcision is the correct Hebrew term [בְּרִית מִילָה], and that bris is the Yiddish term used. Bris milôh is the Ashkenazi variation. This Jewish religious ceremony is performed on 8-day old male infants by a mohel, and is followed by a meal, seudat mitzvah, literally, commanded meal. A mohel is a Jewish man trained in the ritual of circumcision according to the precepts outlined in classical rabbinic texts. Today they generally receive medical training also, and it is very common to find mohelim who are also doctors.

Judaism views body and soul as holy partners in serving God. So, the Brit is performed on the most physical part, for all of man is holy before his Creator. Brit milah is understood to join the forces of body and soul together in serving God.

The kabbalistic writings teach that seven days represent the physical world of creation. In having lived for eight days, a child is seen to have transcended the physical to the metaphysical. The covenant joining body and soul, physical and spiritual, can now take place.

Brit milah includes three main parts: the blessing and circumcision; the Kiddush and naming; and the 
seudat mitzvah, or celebratory meal. Not counting the latter, the entire ceremony of Brit milah takes about 15 minutes.

The child is brought into the room where the ceremony will take place, and as the baby enters, the guests greet him by saying "Baruch haba" = "Blessed be he who comes. This greeting wasn't originally part of the ceremony, but was added as if to express a hope that, perhaps, the messiah had been born and the guests were greeting him. It's customary to honor and invite family and friends to participate in holding the baby at various parts of the Brit. The ceremony begins when the mother hands the baby to the Kvatterin, the Jewish equivalent of a godmother, who then takes the baby from the mother and hands him to the Kvatter, the Jewish equivalent of a godfather. The Kvatter then brings the baby to the mohel.

The highest honor of the ceremony is to be the sandak. The Sandak is the person given the honor of holding the child while the circumcision is performed. If the Sandak is a righteous man, he can help in drawing down a holy soul for the child. In fact, the child takes the good character traits from the Sandak and shares a spiritual connection with him. Since this is the highest honor bestowed at the Brit, many choose the grandfather, brother, a close friend of the father, or some other revered individual for the role. Sometimes the Sandak sits in a special chair called the Chair of Elijah. The prophet is thought to be the child's guardian at the circumcision, hence there is a chair in his honor.

The mohel then recites a blessing over the baby, saying: "Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us in the ritual of circumcision." The circumcision is then performed and the father recites a blessing thanking God for bringing the child into the covenant of Abraham: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to make him enter into the covenant of Abraham our father." After the father has recited the blessing, guests respond with "As he has entered into the covenant, so may he be introduced to the study of Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds."

Next the blessing over the wine (Kiddush) is said and a drop of wine is put into the baby’s mouth. A prayer for his well-being is recited, followed by a longer prayer that gives him his name: "Creator of the universe. May it be Your will to regard and accept this (performance of circumcision), as if I had brought this baby before Your glorious throne. And in Your abundant mercy, through Your holy angels, give a pure and holy heart to ________, the son of ________, who was just now circumcised in honor of Your great Name. May his heart be wide open to comprehend Your holy Law, that he may learn and teach, keep and fulfill Your laws." Ashkenazi-European Jews have the custom of naming a child after someone deceased, a beautiful tradition of immortalizing a close relative or friend. Sephardic Jews customarily name the child after the living. A child may have one or more names, depending on the parents' wishes.

Finally, there is the seudat mitzvah, a celebratory meal required by Jewish law. Through it the joy of a new life in this world is connected with the joy of sharing food with family and friends.

What's the reason for this circumcision of the flesh? The most obvious answer is found in the Hebrew Scriptures: "And God spoke to Abraham saying: ...This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your seed after you -- every male child among you shall be circumcised." (Genesis 17:12) For 3500 years, since the time of their forefather, Abraham, the Jewish people have observed the ritual of circumcision as the fundamental sign of the covenant between God and Israel. It is "the Covenant of Circumcision", much more than simply a medical procedure. Brit milah is the sign of a new-born child's entry into the Jewish tradition. For millennia, in every country where Jews have lived, they have always practiced this ritual, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other ritual, Brit milah is the ultimate affirmation of Jewish identity.

In Of the Special Laws, Book 1, the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC - AD 50) also gives six other reasons for the practice of circumcision. He attributes four of them to "men of divine spirit and wisdom". These include the idea that circumcision:
- protects against disease;
- secures cleanliness "in a way that is suited to the people consecrated to God";
- causes the circumcised portion of the penis to resemble a heart, thereby representing a physical    connection between the "breath contained within the heart [that] is generative of thoughts, and the generative organ itself [that] is productive of living beings";
- promotes the future man being prolific by removing impediments to the flow of semen.
To these, Philo added two of his own reasons:
- it "signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure";
- "it is a symbol of a man's knowing himself".

Contemporary Talmudic scholar and professor, Dr. Daniel Boyarin, of the University of California, Berkeley, offers two other innovative reasons for circumcision. One is that it's a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter yud from yesod. The latter is a Kabbalistic term, translated as foundation, the ninth of ten sephirot (emanations). Yesod is associated in the soul with the power to contact, connect and communicate with outer reality, represented by the sefirah of malchut = earth. The foundation (yesod) of a building is its "grounding," its union with the earth. In Christian kabbalah, yesod is compared to the Christian concept of Holy Spirit, that aspect of God that descends upon and sanctifies earth and humankind.

Dr. Boyarin's second reason for circumcision is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the Covenant represents a marriage between Jews and a symbolically male God.

Most of the above explanation is a long way of getting back around to the question which arose in my mind this morning as I read the passage from Deuteronomy 10:16: "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer." What would that mean for me in practice? It would certainly imply the recommittal of my mind, soul, and body, indeed, all my powers, to the living God. Along with that it would involve inwardly sacrificing, "giving up", to use a common Lenten term, letting go, anything standing in the way of growth into maturity in the ways of God, primarily in love. Circumcision of the heart would also, of necessity, conjure up the living memory and reality of all those signficant people in my spiritual life, past and present: "honored people" similar to a Kvatterin, Kvatter, Mohel, and Sandak, who have helped bring me to where I am, spiritually, today. It would also certainly lead me to examine my commitment to the baptismal covenant which I've made and renewed so often in the presence of God and the community of faith, to appreciate and participate with greater devotion in the Christian "commanded meal", the Eucharist: "Take, eat...This is my body...This is my blood...for you." Finally, it would lead me to recommit myself to the Holy Spirit of Love, the foundation and inspiration for study of the Holy Book, for relationships with others, for the doing of good deeds.

Lord Christ, our eternal Redeemer, grant us such fellowship
in your sufferings, that filled with you Holy Spirit, we may
subdue the flesh to the spirit, and the spirit to you, and at
the last attain to the glory of your resurrection. Amen. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Shepherd of Erin: St. Padraic of Armagh (c. 390-461)

"I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity...

...And therefore for some time I have thought of writing, but I have hesitated until now, for truly, I feared to expose myself to the criticism of men, because I have not studied like others, who have assimilated both Law and the Holy Scriptures equally and have never changed their idiom since their infancy, but instead were always learning it increasingly, to perfection, while my idiom and language have been translated into a foreign tongue...

...But why make excuses close to the truth, especially when now I am presuming to try to grasp in my old age what I did not gain in my youth because my sins prevented me from making what I had read my own? But who will believe me, even though I should say it again? A young man, almost a beardless boy, I was taken captive before I knew what I should desire and what I should shun. So, consequently, today I feel ashamed and I am mightily afraid to expose my ignorance, because, [not] eloquent, with a small vocabulary, I am unable to explain as the spirit is eager to do and as the soul and the mind indicate...

...I am, then, first of all, countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.

Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me, truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be—if I would—such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.

According, therefore, to the measure of one’s faith in the Trinity, one should proceed without holding back from danger to make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, to spread God’s name everywhere with confidence and without fear, in order to leave behind, after my death, foundations for my brethren and sons whom I baptized in the Lord in so many thousands.

And I was not worthy, nor was I such that the Lord should grant his humble servant this, that after hardships and such great trials, after captivity, after many years, he should give me so much favour in these people, a thing which in the time of my youth I neither hoped for nor imagined.

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time...

...And I know in part why I did not lead a perfect life like other believers, but I confess to my Lord and do not blush in his sight, because I am not lying; from the time when I came to know him in my youth, the love of God and fear of him increased in me, and right up until now, by God’s favor, I have kept the faith...

...Now I have put it frankly to my brethren and co-workers, who have believed me because of what I have foretold and still foretell to strengthen and reinforce your faith. I wish only that you, too, would make greater and better efforts. This will be my pride, for ‘a wise son makes a proud father’.

But I see that even here and now, I have been exalted beyond measure by the Lord, and I was not worthy that he should grant me this...But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere... 

...Behold now I commend my soul to God who is most faithful and for whom I perform my mission in obscurity, but he is no respecter of persons and he chose me for this service that I might be one of the least of his ministers...

...Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.

For the sun we see rises each day for us at [his] command, but it will never reign, neither will its splendour last...We, on the other hand, shall not die, who believe in and worship the true sun, Christ, who will never die, no more shall he die who has done Christ’s will, but will abide for ever just as Christ abides for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time and now and for ever and ever. Amen.

Behold over and over again I would briefly set out the words of my confession. I testify in truthfulness and gladness of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason, except the Gospel and his promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty.

But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die."

(From The Confession of St. Patrick)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Are You The One?"

During this morning's meditation I happened onto Matthew 11:2-6, which turns out to be extremely relevant to what's going on in the world currently. As so many others, I've been agonizing over the horrendous aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami for the citizens of Japan, and for the set-back of the freedom movement in Libya for the people there. Not to mention situations which appear regularly in the local newspaper and other media, and situations in my own family. So much suffering and sorrow!

John the Baptizer, in Matthew's passage, was in a similar dire situation: imprisoned and about to be martyred. He sends his friends to Jesus to ask a point-blank question, "Are you the One, or are we to look for another?" The implication is that John was in a bit of a doubtful mode. He'd spent the whole of his short life and ministry as the one who prepared the way for this man, who apparently was his own cousin. Early on, John was convinced that Jesus was Messiah, the One who, with fire and judgment, would set things right with the corrupt Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem. Jesus hadn't, so far, displayed that sort of dramatic action. These days, however, John wasn't so sure if Jesus really was the One. So he sends his delegation to Jesus to seek clarification.

Jesus never gives him a "Yes" or a "No". He simply advises John and the others to look around and see what was happening, what was being done among the people: the blind were seeing, the crippled and maimed were regaining their mobility, those considered unclean were being completely restored. The answer to John's question, and surely to us who often ask the same question, seems pretty obvious. Or is it?

John Indermark makes this thoughtful observation:
"We may not ask Jesus outright, 'Are you the one?' Although occasionally when things go haywire at church or in our personal lives or in the world at large, maybe we do indirectly. Maybe we imply 'Are you the one?' when the question on our lips or minds is 'Is this all there is?' Maybe we wonder 'Are you the one?' when innocents perish or relationships unravel or health deteriorates, and all we can get out of our mouths and spirits is 'What's up with this?' For if Jesus is the one, they why all of this? Should we be looking for something or someone else? 
Challenging questions, to be sure -- as challenging as life itself. God in Christ is not offended or angered by our asking them, any more than Jesus was offended or angered by John's inquiry. God in Christ responds in turn with the summons to hear and see the answer for ourselves. To hear and see, in the most marginalized of places and persons, the signs of Messiah among us: in the restoration of wholeness, the renewal of life, and the gift of hope.
Do you hear and see such things? And if so, do you trust your life to the One who does them, who then bids you come and join him in Messiah's work? God does not tell you what your answer will be. The challenge of faith is to answer for yourself.
'Are you the one?' What say you?"  (From Gospeled Lives, Upper Room Books, 2008)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Empty Words

A couple of days ago on Facebook, one of my nephews made an observation about his college instructor's habit of ending a lot of explanations in class with the words "...and so forth...". I suspect that all of us probably use empty words such as these, more times than we're aware.

I'm struggling right now for motivation to complete four talks for a retreat in May. Try as I might, the thoughts that come and the words I write feel very much like the photo at the left..."Blah, blah, blah." It's not a particularly new feeling. It appears quite a lot in my daily attempts to pray. Has for a long time, come to think of it! The only way, so far, that I've managed to deal with it is to"keep on keepin' on".

The liturgy's readings for today (Isaiah 55:6-11; Psalm 34:15-22; Matthew 6:7-15) deal with words. I find the Psalm wonderfully consoling, given what I just said above: "When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears...and saves the crushed in spirit...the Lord rescues them...He keeps all their bones..." "Keep on keepin' on"! Both Isaiah and Matthew discuss words, Isaiah reminding us that, especially when we're at a loss for words, it's probably because God's thoughts and ways aren't our thoughts and ways...or his timing, our timing. He uses that beautiful image of snow and rain pouring down -- a very graphic one as I look out my window and see it in action! -- but not returning until "they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater..." So it is that God continually rains the Word down upon us in abundance. It's there even though we don't feel it, and if we continue to "keep on keepin' on", that Word "shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it", far beyond anything we could strain to imagine.

Matthew's advice is to "keep it simple". "When you pray, don't heap up empty phrases...your Father knows what you need before you ask..." He suggests using the prayer which Jesus taught the disciples, what amounts to the first alternative of two forms of the Lord's Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.
I find that even too wordy, and prefer the second alternative used in The St. Helen Breviary:

Our loving God in heaven, holy is your Name,
may your reign come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.

Perhaps this is all simply to say what the Collect urges us today: "Grant to your people, Lord,...grace ...with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only True God..."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"The Winter Of Our Discontent..."

There’s an old Bengalese proverb which says: “The heron is a saint as long as there are no fish in sight.” How well that describes our human inclination to temptation! On this first Sunday of Lent the Scriptures raise questions about testing/temptation, and our response to it. What kept coming back to me as I thought about the proverb in regard to the human situation and to the Lenten season was the phrase from Act I of Shakespeare’s play, Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” What more easily frustrates and discontents you and me than our constant state of being tested, tempted, and even more, our willingness so often to give in?

The writer of Genesis (2:15-17; 3:1-7) reflects on this. His account, rather than being a chronicle of how evil began, is really a story about relationships: good relationships which go sour because of temptation and selfish choices. God carefully, caringly, creates man and woman, personally breathing into them God’s breath, God’s spirit, the fullness of life. What becomes possible, because of God’s initiative, is a relationship between the Creator and the creature.

God surrounds the man and woman with every created and uncreated good, symbolized by “the garden”, a sort of park -- the Hebrew calls it bliss = eden -- and God enjoins the humans to take care of it all and to keep it. God makes them aware of only one thing with which God will not, cannot, endow them: and that is God’s own divinity, God’s all-encompassing wisdom, symbolized by the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is off-limits. And that becomes the “fish in sight” which tantalizes the heron. A moral factor is thus introduced, for the humans are created beings, who live and labor as the Creator determines, not simply as they choose. To disobey God would be to violate the fundamental relationship boundary between being a creature and being the Creator.

But rather than really listening to God, the humans, aided and abetted by the doubt-creating serpent, are enticed to believe that they can improve on the Creator’s designs and actually cross over the boundary which God set up. Eve’s reply to the serpent’s question is a classic human instance of embellishing what God actually says. She says to the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But God was very direct: “Any tree in the garden? Eat away. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, don’t eat -- or you’ll die.” No mention of “fruit”, or of a “middle” area, or of any command not to “touch” the tree. By embellishing and adding to what God actually says, the human falls into the constant temptation that we all do, of presuming to dictate to others what God “really” says or what God “really” means, thereby allowing ourselves to skirt around God’s actual will for us; or to absolve ourselves from the great effort and painful honesty that it takes to discern God’s will, ambiguous as that always seems to be.

Further, the woman and the man just can’t resist the allure of being “like God, knowing good and evil”, nor the insatiable thirst of knowing everything, nor the will to be independent and self-sufficient.
Having already been given everything by God which a human being would ever need to live fully, they still aspire to all that’s desirable and compelling to the human spirit, to all those impossible dreams held out by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. “...She took of its fruit and ate, and...her husband who was with her...ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked…” Thus begins the “winter of our discontent” as human beings, through testing, temptation, and vulnerability.

The Evangelist Matthew (4:1-11) tells us another story of the experience of temptation. Here, too, the test is to refuse to let God be God, to dis-obey, literally, to “stop one’s ears”, as the Latin root of the word implies, and to act contrary to what we, in fact, are: creatures whose being comes totally undeserved from the loving Creator.

Matthew portrays Jesus as the trusting and faithful Beloved of the Father. As one who is fully a human being, Jesus, instead of trying to usurp God’s place, professes his absolute and unshakeable trust in God. Again there is a dialogue, a conversation, this time between the Adversary, Satan, and Jesus.

In quick succession the tempter poses three tests. He first dares Jesus to prove that he is God’s Son by miraculously turning stones into bread. Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, counters that God provides his every need, just as God did for Moses and the Chosen People in the Exodus wilderness. “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…” (8:3)

The scene then shifts to Jerusalem, to the top of the Temple: the place of the Divine Presence. In a pious sham, the tempter quotes from Psalm 91, blasphemously suggesting that Jesus can prove how much he absolutely trusts God, as well as just how trustworthy God is, by simply throwing himself off the roof. “[God] will command his angels concerning you...On their hands they will bear you up…” Borrowing again from Deuteronomy (6:16), Jesus warns the tempter: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

In the final temptation, Satan transports Jesus “to a very high mountain”. [Notice that Matthew has a propensity for mountaintop settings to proclaim important teachings!] Here the tempter offers a crass bribe of all the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only Jesus will abandon God and worship him. With a third and final quote from Deuteronomy (6:13) , Jesus repeats the definitive commandment: “Worship the Lord your God; serve God alone!

The season of Lent and today’s Scriptures remind us that the disobedience of the humans in Genesis, thankfully, wasn’t the end of the story. “As by the one man’s disobedience,” Paul says to the Roman Christians (5:12-19), “the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made right with God.” Jesus, a human being like us, “tempted but without sin”, yet also a divine being, God’s beloved Son, makes it possible for us humans once again to recapture the original blessing, the deep reality of which we look forward to celebrating with all our hearts in Holy Week and Easter.

But it’s a hard-won reality. The “winter of our discontent” is a life-long warning of what cost the human race continues to pay for things to be set right again, of the cost which Jesus paid in giving his Blood, his human life, and of the cost which each of us must, in turn, pay as we struggle every day to be reborn from above.

Archaeologists tell us that the probable place where Jesus underwent his testing was near Jericho, the oldest town in the world, dating back more than 10,000 years: on a mountain named Jebel Quruntul, the “Mount of the Quarantine (= period of 40 Days)”, the “Mount of Temptation”. This harsh, bare mountain overlooks a winding road once used by Levitical priests. Jericho was and is a beautiful lush “paradise”, if you will, of food -- vegetables, dates, bananas, and citrus fruits -- and of water, from the Jordan River, four miles to the west, and from the underground tributaries. When Jesus wandered about during those 40 days atop Jebel Qurundul, he could see Jericho and all its wonders below. It would have taken him only minutes to go down and satisfy his hunger and quench his thirst. But his food, as he said, is “to do the will of the One who sent me.

So here we are, at the beginning of another Lent, also being driven by the Spirit of truth, with Jesus, into the wilderness, the desert of Lenten discipline. The desert is the place of essentials, of the bottom-line. God bids us to withdraw to this place of spiritual inconvenience; in fact, God is wooing us to it. It’s the place of the unexpected. God doesn’t tip us off in advance as to what the desert of Lent has in store for us, and no two of us will encounter our desert in exactly the same way.

In her 1935 mystery novel, Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers captures what this all entails when one of her characters recalls “the ex tempore prayer of a well-meaning but incoherent curate, heard once and never forgotten, ‘Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be…’” The desert of Lent has its rigors. If you and I are really listening to the Spirit of truth, really obedient to the Spirit groaning within us, then we’ll face up to questions which need to be asked and answered:
- At this point in my life, what are my relationships like: with God? with others? with myself?
- What is it right now which particularly cries out and demands my spiritual attention and energy?
- How committed am I, really, to truth and honesty about who I am, humanly and spiritually?
- Where or from whom or what do I draw strength for coping with my day-to-day living?
- To what kind of ongoing conversion/transformation/redemption is God calling me at this time, especially in my relationships with others?

We enter Lent with the hope that, by God’s grace, we may each be able to pray the Easter Collect with full awareness of what it means when it says: “Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his Resurrection.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Who Am I?"

One time when Jesus was off praying by himself, his disciples nearby, he asked them, "What are the crowds saying about me, about who I am?"

They said, "John the Baptizer. Others say Elijah. Still others say that one of the prophets from long ago has come back."

He then asked, "And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?"

Did Jesus always pray by himself? Did he kneel? sit? pray with hands extended? What did he say to his Father? Luke says that his disciples were "nearby". Nearby, as in setting themselves off from him? watching him? not engaging in prayer, but talking quietly among themselves? about him? or about what was going on among them, their families, politics, the weather?

The area in which Jesus lived and worked certainly was abuzz about him, according to the Gospel writers. The disciples indicate that some people had the idea that Jesus was someone other than himself: like the Baptizer or one of the memorable prophets. Why did they think that? Was he that different from them? After all, he was kind of a "local" boy!

Then the big question from Jesus: "What about you guys? Who am I?" How, do you think, they reacted? a double-take? nervous chuckles? embarrassment?  Simon Peter, says Luke, broke the silence:
"You're the Messiah of God." Did he really say that, out of deep conviction? or did Luke write those words for Peter to speak, in order to make a point?

The obvious consequence of the story for each of us is to hear Jesus' question as addressed to us: "And you--what are you saying about me? Who am I?" I wonder if you feel as tongue-tied as I do in honestly answering that at times? I mean, it's hard enough to try to answer that question about myself, much less Jesus! And I say "at times" because I don't think we answer it all at once, with one glib, pat answer. At any given time, I believe, we see different sides of Jesus, depending on our own situation/emotion of the moment. In a sense, I guess we're all trying to answer Jesus' question all the time, without ever really coming up with a 25-words-or-less response.

Hopefully, our living through the blessed days of Lent will help you and me get at least a little closer to some coherent response.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Make In Us New And Contrite Hearts"

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made 
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: 
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, 
worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, 
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

"You are dust, and to dust you will return." With this ancient formula, heard by Christians all over the world on Ash Wednesday as the sign of the cross is traced in ashes on their foreheads, we begin Lent. This symbolic act is both a solemn reminder of our being marked in Baptism "as Christ's own, forever", as well as an invitation to renewal. Ash Wednesday and, indeed, the whole Lenten season is a special time of repentance. Repentance, however, isn't some sick form of regret about past mistakes. Jesus, at the outset of his public ministry, preached: "Repent, for the reign of God has come". The Greek word for repentance literally means a change of mind, of heart, a change of spiritual presence in the heart. In Baptism we began to live in Christ, as Paul says. Jesus hints that to live in him is to be part of and to live in within the reign of God, for he says "The reign of God is within you." You and I know that we need to be called back continually to change our minds, our hearts, and to live within the reign, the presence of Jesus the Christ. 

Hopefully, this Lent will be a special season and time for us together to discover or rediscover the presence and peace of Jesus in our lives. The beloved prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (BCP, p. 833) expresses this theme so well, and can be a particular help to focus our thoughts during Lent.

One of Lent's traditional disciplines and the chief way in which we come to find God's presence and peace is to pray for it. We pray for all sorts of things: a sick relative, a dying friend, for inspiration on an exam, for the relief of suffering people throughout the world. St. Francis reminds us that, above all, in praying we need to pray for God. The focus of prayer isn't asking God for something, but asking that God be there, that God be present, in everything. Augustine of Hippo, a thousand years before  Francis, had exclaimed: "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Andrew Weyermann says, "We have a spirit that curves us into ourselves so that our every want becomes an insatiable need." We feel all sorts of compelling urges: to put ourselves first; to outdo any who oppose us or differ with us; for power and possession; to be needed. Even, and perhaps especially, when all those emptinesses have been filled and satisfied, at least momentarily, we still find ourselves reaching out for something more to ease the void and loneliness. But how do we ask for it? How do we pray? "We do not know how we ought to pray," Paul says.

As we journey through Lent, then, anticipating the joyous celebration of Jesus' Resurrection, we let the Holy Spirit of God and Jesus plead for us in groans which words can't express. We pray for a special measure of his presence: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
In praying thus, we ask two things: 1) "Make me in your presence. We've often used and heard these words "make me" as words of defiance, as a declaration of a war of wills. But in praying to our gracious Father, the words "make me" take on a new meaning. They express our choosing to hand ourselves over to God's presence, to allow ourselves to be created anew. Paul discovered such rebirth in the presence of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. For Francis, God's renewing presence took the form of a loathsome leper whom he nevertheless embraced. In Baptism each of us has become a new creation in God's presence. Each time we turn back to God and change our hearts, God stands with us, present, there. "Make me, Lord -- create me anew." 2) "Use me for your presence." No one likes to be "used", in the sense of catering to someone else's needs and desires, and being taken advantage of. Yet there's a sense in which we need and choose to be used for God's purposes. "Make me an instrument of your peace." It's similar to the player on the bench who asks the coach, "Use me." All of us need the assurance that we and our life count for something, that we're here for a reason. Paul expresses the reason thus: "God...through Christ...has given us the ministry of reconciliation...We are ambassadors for Christ..." We're bearers of the message of his presence and peace to all who come into our lives. Perhaps we can resonate with the thoughts of Thomas Merton's poem, The Candlemas Procession, as we embark upon our Lenten renewal:

Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle.

And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.

...Nor burn we now with brown and smoking flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Woodbine Willie"

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy came into the world in 1883 at Leeds, England, son of an Anglican vicar, William Studdert Kennedy. Geoffrey graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a degree in classics and divinity, then served parishes in Rugby and Worcester.

Kennedy volunteered as a military chaplain on the Western Front after the outbreak of World War I. Along with his ministry to the wounded and dying, he was remembered for his doling out Woodbine cigarettes to the soldiers, thus earning the nickname "Woodbine Willie".

Even a cursory reading of some of his many poems gives a clue to his literary skill. He published several volumes of religious poetry, one of them called Rough Rhymes of a Padre, based on his experience as a chaplain. A good example of his strength of character, compassion, and respect for his fellow soldiers comes through in his poem Woodbine Willie:

THEY gave me this name like their nature,
Compacted of laughter and tears, 
A sweet that was born of the bitter,
A joke that was torn from the years.

Of their travail and torture, Christ's fools,
Atoning my sins with their blood,
Who grinned in their agony sharing
The glorious madness of God.

Their name! Le me hear it -- the symbol
Of unpaid -- unpayable debt,
For the men to whom I owed God's Peace,
I put off with a cigarette.

In 1928 Kennedy published I Believe: Sermons on the Apostle's Creed. The Christian socialism and pacifism which influenced him during the war years was evident in his later poems and prose. He worked for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, on a speaking tour for which he became ill and died in Liverpool in 1929.

I was introduced to Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy's poetry almost 20 years ago by my late beloved friend and devoted evangelist in the Diocese of Northern California and elsewhere, Bill Hickinbotham. Bill was blind, but spoke eloquently and movingly from the heart whenever he addressed people. He memorized a number of Kennedy's poems, as well as some of the Epistles, which he could recite by heart. Whenever we shared a meal at a restaurant, Bill would inevitably great the waitress, kid her a bit, then ask "How are you?" He was predictably given the usual reply, "Oh, I'm fine." And Bill would gently look directly at the person and say, "No, I mean,...really... how are you?" It was amazing to see the rapport he often established that way, and how, even momentarily, it would become an opportunity for the person briefly open up and share something that was bothering her. Bill would always leave the person with a comforting word, not preachy, but very sincere, and a smiling demeanor. Much, I suspect, like the way Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy related to his soldiers.

Monday, March 7, 2011

SS. Perpetua, Felicity, & Their Companions (d. 203)

"If ancient examples of faith, which testify to the grace of God and give us encouragement, are honored and recorded for posterity in writing, so that by reading them the deeds of God are glorified and others are strengthened, why should we not in our generation also set down new witnesses which serve these ends. One day their example will also be ancient and important to our children, if at the present time, because of the reverence we accord to antiquity, they seem less weighty to us..."

We could easily apply this quotation from The Martyrdom of SS. Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to many modern witnesses to the Christian faith: Bishop Janani Luwum, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Matthew Shepard, to name but a few.

The moving account of these early 3rd century African martyrs stirred the imaginations of and deeply touched many Christians who lived at the time of their deaths and in subsequent centuries in the early Church. Vibia Perpetua was 22 years old, "reared in a liberal manner" of a noble Carthaginian family, a young married woman, "wedded honorably", according to The Martyrdom. She had two brothers, one of whom, Saturus, was a catechumen also and who died with her.  Her seven year old brother, Dinocrates, had died of diseased facial ulcers. It's interesting, however, that there's no mention at all of her husband in the account. Felicity was her personal slave and was pregnant at the time she was arrested. The baby was safely born and provided for. Felicity, along with her martyr companions, Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and Saturus, Perpetua's brother, were all catechumens and were baptized in prison. The group was sent into the public arena to be mauled by animals as a public spectacle. Perpetua, especially, faced the challenge with great evenness of spirit and deep faith. Part of the record of The Martyrdom is this account by Perpetua herself:

"What follows here she herself shall tell; the whole order of her martyrdom as she left it written with her own hand and in her own words. 'When,' she said, 'we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: Father, said I, Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?' And he said, 'I see it.' And I said to him, 'Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?' And he answered, 'No. So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.'

Then my father, angry with this word, set upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. Then because I was without my father for a few days I gave thanks to the Lord; and I was comforted because of his absence. In this same space of a few days we were baptized, and the Spirit declared to me that I must pray for nothing else after that water save only endurance of the flesh. After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by care for the child.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, the blessed deacons who ministered to us, obtained with money that, for a few hours, we should be taken to a better part of the prison and be refreshed. Then all of them went out from the dungeon...I suckled my child who was now faint with hunger. And being careful for him, I spoke to my mother and strengthened my brother and commended my son to them. I pined because I saw they pined for my sake. Such cares I suffered for many days; and I was permitted to have the child abide with me in prison; and straightway I became well and was lightened of my labor and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else.

Then my brother said to me: 'Lady my sister, you are now in high honor, even such that you might ask for a vision; and it should be shown you whether this is a passion or else a deliverance.' And I, as knowing that I conversed with the Lord, for Whose sake I had suffered such things, promised him nothing doubting; and I said: 'Tomorrow I will tell you.'  And I asked, and this was shown me.

I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all sorts of iron objects:,,,spears, hooks, and knives, so that if any who went up weren't careful or failed to look up, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there, right at the ladder's foot, was a serpent, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first, he who afterwards had of his own free will given himself up for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us, and when we were taken he had not been there. And coming to the ladder's head, he turned and said: 'Perpetua, I await you, but take care that the serpent bite you not.' And I said: 'It shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ.' And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step, I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: 'Welcome, child.' And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me, as it were, a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, 'Amen.' And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet. And at once I told my brother, and we knew it should be a passion; and we began to have no hope any longer in this world.

A few days after, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: 'Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you. If with these hands I have brought you to this flower of youth and have preferred you before all your brothers, give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother's sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.'

This he said, fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father's welfare because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: 'Whatsoever pleases God shall be done at this tribunal. For know that we are not established in our own power, but in God's.' And he went from me very sorrowful..."

The account also speaks of Felicity: "As for Felicity,...because she was now eight months with child when she was taken, she was very sorrowful as the day of the games drew near, fearing that for this reason she should be kept back (for it is not lawful for women that are with child to be brought forth for torment), and that she should have to shed her holy and innocent blood after the rest, among strangers and malefactors. Also her fellow martyrs were quite upset lest they should leave behind them so good a friend and, as it were, their fellow-traveler on the road of the same hope. Therefore with common and united supplication they poured out their prayer to the Lord, three days before the games....After their prayer her pains came upon her. And when, because of the natural difficulty she had at eighth months, she was feeling the pain of her travail and made complaint, one of the servants of the keepers of the door said to her: 'You complain now: what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you disdained when you refused to sacrifice?' And she answered, 'I now suffer what I have to suffer, but there Another shall be in me who shall suffer for me, because I am to suffer for him.' So she delivered a daughter, whom a sister reared up as her own daughter..."

"The day of their victory now dawned, and they went from the prison into the amphitheater as if into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance. If they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at her piercing gaze all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne her child safely, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. And when they had been brought to the gate and were being forced to put on, the dress of the priests of Saturn for the men, and the dress of the priestesses of Ceres for the women, the noble Perpetua remained adamant to the end, and would not put it on. She said: 'We came willingly to this, in order that our freedom might not be obscured. We devoted our lives to this cause, so that we might do no such thing as this, as we agreed upon with you.' Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune simply allowed that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado. Perpetua began to sing,...Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus piercingly gazed at the crowd which looked on. When they came into Hilarian's sight, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads, they said to Hilarian: 'You judge us, and God judges you.' At this the people became enraged, and insisted that they should be soundly scourged before the line of gladiators, those who fought with beasts. Then truly the martyrs gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord...

But for the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow...They were stripped, therefore, placed in nets, and thus brought forth. The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing. So the women were called back and clothed in loose robes. Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her back. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful of her modesty rather than of pain. Then, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair, feeling that it wasn't appropriate for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, which would make it appear that she was grieving in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity on the ground, she went over and offered her hand, raising her up.. Both of them stood together and...were called back to the [gate called the] Gate of Life. There Perpetua was supported by one named Rusticus, then a catechumen, who stood close at her side, and as now awakening from sleep...began first to look about her. Perpetua than asked, 'When are we to be thrown to the cow?' When she heard that this had already been done, she would not believe it till she noticed some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother and the catechumen to her, and spoke to them, saying: 'Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Don't let our suffering be a stumbling block to you.'

Saturus, at another gate, encouraged Pudens, the ajutant: 'Indeed, as I trusted and foretold, I have felt no assault of beasts until now. Just believe with all your heart. Behold, I'm going out there and I shall perish with one bite of the leopard. Immediately at the end of the spectacle, the leopard was released, and with one bite Saturus was covered with so much blood that the people, seeing his second baptism, cried out to him: 'Well washed, well washed!'...Saturus then said to Pudens the soldier: 'Farewell, remember the faith and me, and don't let these things trouble you, but rather strengthen you.' So saying, he removed from Pudens' finger a little ring, and dipping it in his wound gave it back to him again as an heirloom, leaving him a pledge and memorial of his own blood. As Saturus' breathing became labored, he was thrown down with the rest in the accustomed place where their throats were to be cut. And when the crowd demanded that they be brought forward...the martyrs rose by themselves and moved forward...first kissing one another, so that they might complete their martyrdom with the kiss of peace. Without resisting and in silence, each received the sword. Saturus had already...gone up earlier, and now waited for Perpetua. But Perpetua had yet to taste more pain. Pierced between the bones, she cried out, and when the gladiator's hand fumbled still, for he was a novice, she herself set it upon her own neck. Perhaps so great a woman could have been killed in no other way, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, unless she herself gave her consent...

O most valiant and blessed martyrs! O ones truly called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!"