Acts

Lydia's listening

St. Lydia and her household are baptized in the reading from Acts 16.  Her feast day is August 3.  That just happens to be the date when I was baptized.  In fact, I still have the shirt I was wearing when I was baptized.  It was the upper half of some blue surgical scrubs.  It’s a bit raggedy now, and it has some green stains due to a summer job I had a few years later, painting machines for a factory.

1 lydiaI begin with this talk about baptism, because the story of Lydia—her story of baptism and the change of heart and mind that goes with it—is a key moment in the early church.

Here’s why.  Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9).  So Paul makes his first journey to Europe.  He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.

After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future.  There is a spirit of divination within her.  The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her!  After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, have them viciously beaten, and tossed into jail.  To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape.

In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, and they have rights.  The order that they be arrested and beaten was an illegal one, so they want Paul and Silas to leave town quickly and quietly.  (This kind of stuff ruins careers!)  But Paul says, “Are you serious?  I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize!”  That takes some guts.

After that, they still have one more stop to make.  They can’t take off without saying goodbye to Lydia.  So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us, and that’s a rarity with women in the Bible.

So who is Lydia?  The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13).  That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14).  That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.”  They were Gentiles who admired and followed the Jewish faith.  We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.”  That’s a lucrative trade, so she’s got to have some money.

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What’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means?  The scriptures say that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).  In his paraphrase called The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Master gave her a trusting heart—and she believed!”

There’s a theme of listening.  Why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?  Do we listen?  We listen to go deeper.  We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life.

What is the result of Lydia’s listening?  It’s her conversion.  In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”[1]

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our society with the word from God, however that happens).  We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality.  There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies!  “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.”  Remember verse 40, when she welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison—on the condition that they get the heck out of Dodge?

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia does.

Gallares puts it this way: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter.  As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves.  We feel like we’re in a foreign land.  We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).  As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland.

Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved.  Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism.  Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from?  This is the true spirit of hospitality.  It is not abrogated when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

3 lydiaHow can we imitate that Lydian listening here, in this church and in our community?  Remember, this involves being both mystic and prophet.  It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, on this subject of listening, mentions what he calls “three gates” through which our words should pass.[2] 

First, we have to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.”  The second gate has us ask, “Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?”  He says the third gate is “probably the most difficult,” and I agree!  “Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and more noise competing for space and attention?”

So to sum up: is it true; is it loving; and is it necessary?  Imagine how our private and public discourse would look, including the internet (including Facebook and Twitter), if we took those things to heart!

We see this modeled by our government and our mass media.  The pundits and experts sit at tables and begin debates which often turn into shouting matches.  They’re already thinking about what they want to say next.  Sometimes they are literally talking at the same time, and it can go on for a while.  I like it when they go to split screen and have two, three, four, or even more people all wanting to get their two cents’ worth in.

We talk at each other, but not with each other.

Do you remember the show The A-Team?  Mr. T played B. A. Baracus.  I don’t remember much about that show, but I do remember one of B. A.’s favorite lines: “Quit your jibba jabba!”  Using myself as an example, I’ve spewed more than my share of jibba jabba.  And shockingly enough, there is actually jibba jabba in the church!

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Again I ask, why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith.  Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we have to listen.  We have to listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion.  We must listen for the word of God.  We must listen like Lydia.

That involves more than keeping our traps shut while someone else is speaking.  There is that internal narrative, those words and images that run through our minds.  We especially notice them when we’re trying to silently pray or to meditate.  It’s best to not hang on to them or examine them, but to let them flow through us like leaves in the wind.  (It’s not easy, I’ll admit.  It takes a lot of practice.)

Imagine the reward when we take hold of that.  Look at the great gift Lydia gave to the early church—and to the world.  When we imitate Lydia’s listening, we also give a great gift to the world, to each other, and to ourselves.  However it happens, may we be open to the Spirit of Christ and listen.  Just listen.

 

[1] www.cori.ie/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/judette-gallares-rc.pdf

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.


what’s on the menu?

I’m sure all of us have had this experience.  Maybe a friend invites you to a restaurant that serves food you’re completely unfamiliar with.  Maybe it’s a Thai restaurant or a Turkish one.  You’re carefully examining the menu, reading the names of dishes you know nothing about.  Some menus are more helpful than others.  Some do a better job of listing the ingredients.  Still, food is more than its ingredients.  How is it prepared?  Who is preparing it?

1-menuAs we’re considering the MIF (Ministry Information Form), in particular the Leadership Competencies section we see a big list of terminology.  [FYI, the MIF is a Presbyterian ministry search form!]  No doubt many of them mean different things to different people.  For example, the term “Hopeful” has a lot of nuances to me.  But I need to look at the description, to read the ingredients to know what’s on the menu.  We need to know what the terms mean to the people who drew up the document, the ones who created the menu.

After all, we don’t want an allergic reaction.  We don’t want a bad taste in our mouth!

Under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” there are six qualities listed.  Under “Communication” there are five.  “Organizational Leadership” has by far the most—fifteen.  And “Interpersonal Engagement” is given seven qualities.

We have four scripture readings, and I want to use each of them to address a certain competency.  I’ll say right up front that none of these perfectly match the qualities that are listed.  No doubt, other scriptures and stories from the Bible might be better suited, but these readings, in one way or another, seemed to me to capture a particular feeling of the item in question.

The four categories I chose wouldn’t necessarily be my top priorities, but there was something about them that jumped out at me—something about them that spoke to me.  As I thought and meditated on them, a light turned on.  And so, I want to share with you this little light of mine!

In that first section, “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter,” I selected two for comment: “Hopeful” and “Lifelong Learner.”  First, there’s “Hopeful.”

Two of the descriptions really caught my eye: “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future” and “helps followers to see a way through chaos and complexity.”  As I just said, none of the scripture readings or the characters within them perfectly illustrate these ideas, but there is a certain connection.

Consider the story of Caleb in Numbers 13.

At this point in time, the Israelites, having fled Egypt in the exodus, are drawing closer to the land of Canaan.  For them, this is the promised land.  The Lord tells Moses to send out spies to do some reconnaissance.  Check out the place; see what’s going on.  See how fertile the land is.  Come back with some fruit, if you find any.

So off they go.  Upon their return, they speak in glowing terms about what they found.  It’s almost heaven on earth; it’s flowing with milk and honey.  However…

With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, the scouts have some serious reservations.  “It’s true; the land is wonderful.  We weren’t kidding.  But you didn’t see the people who live there.  I tell you, they’re giants!  Compared to them, we’re grasshoppers.  We’re bugs!

“You know, where we are isn’t so bad.  How about we leave well enough alone.  We’re not too excited about having our butts kicked!”

Hearing that, the spirit of the people sinks.  Their hopes have been dashed.  The grumbling begins.

2-caleb

This is where Caleb speaks up.  The scripture says that “Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it’” (v. 30).  Caleb speaks hope, and as the MIF says, he “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future.”  He presents a vision for the people “to see a way through chaos and complexity.”

He does what he can.  He lets them know “we are well able to overcome.”  The Bible just gives us that one line.  No doubt, he lays out some possibilities.  He tries to answer their questions and allay their fears.  Still, at the end of the day, it’s their choice.  He can’t force them to choose.

And it’s the same way with us.  The quality of being hopeful is the ability to present possibilities, to cut through the fog of fear and resignation.  Being hopeful in the midst of chaos means not losing one’s own head, as difficult as that might be.  It means trusting and learning from the one who gives all of us hope.

The other competency I want to address under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” is “Lifelong Learner.”

My example is from Matthew 15, Jesus in the story of the Canaanite woman.  What I’m about to suggest might rub you the wrong way.  You might think I’ve gone off the deep end.

It seems to me that a key part of the incarnation, God’s appearing in the flesh in the form of the human being Jesus, means that, like any other human, Jesus has to learn.  He has to learn about the world around him.  I don’t think there’s any real controversy about that.  But Jesus is a product of his culture, first century Judaism.  His patterns of thinking are a result of that.

Our scripture comes right after Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for insisting on unjust traditions, especially about things that defile.  He learns what aspects of his culture’s heritage, its traditions, are worthy of accepting and what is to be rejected.  It’s not something that’s learned all at once.  It takes time.

In our story, Jesus and his disciples are on the outskirts of Jewish territory.  The woman who asks healing for her daughter is a foreigner.  Notice what verse 23 says.  “But he did not answer her at all.”  She continues to plead with him.  He responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24).  Unmoved, she doesn’t relent.

Finally, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).  We need to understand that the Jews in Jesus’ culture have a very negative view of foreigners.  (Clearly, they aren’t the only ones who have felt that way!)  One of the names they call them are “dogs.”  That is not a compliment!

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Jesus has breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry all his life.  I think it’s safe to say we in America have breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry.  As I said, examination of one’s own culture isn’t something that happens overnight.  It does take time.  I think it’s entirely likely that this is a lesson, a realization, which fits in that category.

As such, this is a lesson which Jesus learns.  We believe that Jesus was sinless. Misunderstanding is not the same thing as sin.  The need to be enlightened is not the same thing as sin.  It becomes sin when we refuse to learn.  It is sin when we cling to unjust ways.

I believe this woman serves to bring Jesus a new level of awareness.  Look at how the passage ends.  “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’  Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.’  And her daughter was healed instantly” (vv. 27-28).  I think that’s awesome.

Using the phrase from our MIF, Jesus is one of those “individuals who use every experience in life as a potential tool for growth.”  Jesus could ignore the woman and hold on to the foolishness his culture has taught him.  However, he sees that there is a better path, a sacred path, a holy path.  It’s a path in which we see God in everyone.

Another aspect of being a “Lifelong Learner” describes “those who build on strengths and seek assistance to improve weaknesses.”  Again, as a human being, Jesus builds on strengths and seeks help on weaknesses.  The woman provides the help Jesus needs.

Being perfect is not the same thing as being flawless.  Being perfect is being perfected.  It is being completed.  Jesus is the model of being a completed human.

The third competency I want to address is in the section, “Organizational Leadership,” and it is “Willingness to Engage Conflict.”  That sounds like a daunting one!  I think we can see in Acts 6 a good example of willingness to engage conflict, to address it head on.

Early on, as the number of disciples is increasing, the “Hellenists” (the Greek-speaking) have a complaint against the “Hebrews” (the Aramaic-speaking).  It appears that their widows are being shortchanged in the distribution of food.  This problem seems to have been a long time coming.  The relationship between the Greek speakers and the Aramaic speakers has been getting increasingly tense.

F. F. Bruce comments on this. “The tension came to a head (as tension often does) in what might appear to be a trifling matter.” But there’s more going on beneath the surface.  “The Hellenistic widows were said to be at a disadvantage in comparison with the ‘Hebrew’ widows, perhaps because the distribution of charity was in the hands of the ‘Hebrews.’”[1]  How convenient!

Word of the dispute comes to the apostles, and what do they do?  They decide to pretend that it doesn’t exist and wait for it to blow over.  Well, not exactly.  Verse 2 says “the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples.”  (They had a special congregational meeting.  Those things always run smoothly.)

They concluded, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”  That phrase “to wait on tables,” means “to keep accounts.”  So those are tables of numbers, checklists.  They aren’t tables in which somebody takes your order from those menus I talked about earlier!

As a result, the apostles have the people select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (v. 3).

All of the descriptions of “Willingness to Engage Conflict” on the MIF seem to be present in the story: steps up to conflicts, seeing them as opportunities; reads situations quickly; good at focused listening; and can identify common ground and elicit cooperation from others in crafting mutual solutions.

So, session members [a Presbyterian board of elders], we can look to Acts 6 the next time a conflict is looming!

Now, the final quality I want to look at is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important of all.  Under “Interpersonal Engagement” is “Self Differentiation.”  Again, there are plenty of ways to go with this, but 1 Corinthians 13 seems to really sum it up.

This is the chapter on love which St. Paul fits into his discussion of spiritual gifts.  This is real love, not the “warm and fuzzy stuff.”  When we know who we are, and we don’t need others to constantly validate us, then this is the love we have.  It is, to use a description from our document, an “emotionally mature” love.  Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (v. 11).

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen devised a concept of differentiation based on the biology of cells.  “When a cell becomes something specific, such as a heart cell or a muscle cell, it is said to be differentiated.  In contrast, a cell that remains nonspecific—a stem cell—is an immature cell.  Differentiation, therefore, refers to maturity.”[2]

The more we are self differentiated, the more we become ourselves.  We can “own” ourselves and our decisions.  The more we are self differentiated, the greater impulse control we exercise.  To revisit Paul, love “bears all things.”  Love “endures all things” (v. 7).  We become able to command our emotions, not to be commandeered by them.  Like Caleb, we become more hopeful, more able to see beyond the chaos and speak peace.  Love “hopes all things.”

Self differentiation means just that.  We differentiate ourselves from others.  We demonstrate “strong and appropriate personal boundaries.”  We don’t become enmeshed with others.  We have “a healthy appreciation of self, without being egotistical.”  “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way” (vv. 4-5).

Our sense of self-worth does not come from others.  The love from others, as sincere and strong as it may be, eventually does not fill the emptiness in our souls.  That explains why love can so easily turn into hate.  We put unrealistic expectations on each other.

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Carolyn Pyfrom, “Now We See Through a Glass Darkly”

To sum up, this list that we go through is intended to draw a picture in what we want from a pastoral leader.  And well it should.  But pastors are also broken human beings, working to be perfect, to be perfected, to be completed.  The model for all of us is Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus is the model of hopefulness, of continuing to learn, of willing to meet conflict in courageous and loving ways, of differentiating oneself and knowing who we are.

When all is said and done, it’s a question of whose we are.  Despite whatever trials we endure, we are in the hands of God.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (v. 12).

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 [1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954 (reprint 1987), 128.

[2] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, Chapter 9, section 2, paragraph 1.


confusing cooperation

Recently, I returned from a conflict mediation training event hosted by the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I won’t pretend to give you a synopsis of the entire week—partly because my brain is still trying to decode the stuff that was fed into it.

But I do want to introduce a little of the stuff we did in today’s sermon.  I want to use the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, with its confusion of languages, and the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, with its speaking in tongues, as an arena of conflict (and perhaps conflict resolution).

One thing we did I would like to mention was looking at how we manage differences.  That is, a little more strongly, how do we deal with disagreements?

Of course, there are plenty of ways to look at it.  One was a self-assessment that deals with several scenarios of different, and often competing, viewpoints.  It looks at the way we typically deal with those situations.

Very quickly, the inventory has four categories.  One is Accommodating / Harmonizing.  This approach values peace and harmony above all else.  Being sociable is very important.  Concern for the feelings of other people is high on the list.  A motto for this one might be, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Another one is Achieving / Directing.  These are the go-getters, the ones who take the initiative and dive in.  These are the risk takers.  This one’s motto could be “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Then we have Affiliating / Perfecting.  This one puts a great emphasis on relationship.  Being team oriented is very important.  A pursuit of excellence is highly valued.  This might be a fitting motto: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!”

Finally, there is Analyzing / Preserving.  This approach values gathering information.  Very important is a chance to think things through and not be pressured to make a snap decision.  “Look before you leap!” might be appropriate here.

This is the category I scored the highest in.  I think it speaks to the comment I made earlier about my brain trying to decode what was put into it.  (Give me a break.  I haven’t had enough time!)  One problem with this approach is “analysis paralysis.”  (Hey, I first got to get this stuff worked out!)

In reality, we use all of these approaches when dealing with differences, when dealing with conflict.  It’s just that we’re built—we are hardwired—to favor one or two over the others.  We have to stretch ourselves to operate in ways we would rather not.  Some people are better at stretching themselves than others.  I really have to work at it.  I can stubbornly insist on my own way, even if God is calling me to be more.

As today’s prayer of confession says (it being Pentecost), “We confess that we hold back the force of your Spirit among us.”  That easily becomes my prayer!

image from www.eikongraphia.com

There’s a certain group of people who are holding back the force of God’s spirit among themselves.  These guys are the builders of the tower of Babel.

Some see this mythical story as explaining how the human race developed many different languages.  That’s part of the mix at the surface level, but there’s so much more to it.  As today’s declaration of forgiveness says, “God confused the language of all the earth to keep the people from idolatry.”

Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  One language and the same words.  That goes beyond the sounds that come out of our mouths.  More importantly, that also can apply to various viewpoints, to different ways of looking at the world.  If everyone speaks the same words, the difficulties of disagreement are ignored, even repressed.  The danger of groupthink sets in.  People are “encouraged” to think the same way, to have their values dictated to them.  That becomes an idol.

What actually happens in the story?

The people migrate to the land of Shinar, which is in modern-day Iraq.  A decision is made to build bricks and use them to construct a city.  They begin work on a tower.  It’s probably what was known as a ziggurat, which looked like a pyramid.  Last week, in my sermon on Revelation, I mentioned “a palace that was a city”—the joyful grandeur of what a city can and should be, looking to the New Jerusalem that descends to earth.

Maybe that’s what these people are about: getting into the palace building business.

So things are going along; deadlines are being met.  The chamber of commerce is rolling out the red carpet for tourism and hosting conventions.  But hold on a minute!  With verse 5, things take a sudden turn.

“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (vv. 5-8).

What is the deal?  Why is God being such a party pooper?  Why is the Lord throwing a monkey wrench into the works?  “This is just the start.  Nothing can stop them now!”  It sounds like God is scared!

A few moments ago, I mentioned the idea that having one language and the same words has turned into an idol.  But does that necessarily have to be the case?  What’s wrong with everyone understanding each other?  Doesn’t that help foster unity?

It looks like motivation makes a big difference.  What is driving them?  Look at verse 4.  “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  Let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise…  That’s not the prelude to a confident affirmation of faith!  It’s not God who is scared; it’s the people.

They are motivated by fear and distrust.  They fear and distrust God, and even if they don’t want to admit it, they fear and distrust each other.  Fear and distrust is what shapes their society and culture.  Of course, fear and distrust begin within ourselves.  We are in conflict within ourselves.  Without reconciliation, we project that outward into the world around us.

Having said that, can we see the Lord’s act of confusing the people’s language and scattering them throughout the earth as something other than punishment?  Can we see this as an act of love and grace?

Old Testament professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford says, “God scatters humankind so that they might fill the earth, but fill the earth with different voices, different cultures, different life experiences.”[1]  God is no enemy of diversity, no enemy of difference!

On that point, let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, a student approached the rabbi and said, “Teacher, I have a question.”  “Go ahead,” said the rabbi.  The student said, “You have taught us that we all are created in the image of God.”  The rabbi replied, “That is correct.”  “Then why,” responded the student, “do we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages?”  The rabbi said, “Because we all are created in the image of God.”

Remember the story of creation.  God creates the universe by making a difference!  Light and darkness, day and night, earth and sea, and so on.

Our friend Nancy continues, “Look around us; consider our world.  We’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling the creation command.  But we have also, over the millennia, done a very good job of creating our own towers—towers of isolation.  It is easier to be around ‘our own kind,’ those who speak our language, share our history, act and react as we do.  But our towers are no different from the tower of our ancestors in the faith.”

Like those builders in Genesis 11, we also often act as though our differences and disagreements are somehow a flaw in God’s design.  We act as though conflict is not normal.

image from wp.jsstatic.com

One of the first things we did at the mediation training was to look at this idea of conflict.  The presenter asked us what images come to mind when we hear the word “conflict.”  I think all of the answers pictured conflict as something undesirable, even sinful.  My response was “red faces.”

Conflict is normal.  Without conflict, life itself is impossible.  Without conflict, there wouldn’t be a food chain.  Without conflict, human innovation would be close to nonexistent.  So it’s not a question of conflict being good or bad, it’s what we do with it, how we deal with it.  That partly goes back to those categories I mentioned earlier—the ones with the different mottos.

Here’s a good one on conflict: what is God saying to us in the midst of it?  Admittedly, that’s a tough one to keep in mind when anxiety kicks in.  Let’s not forget: Jesus engaged in plenty of conflict!

Looking back at God’s scattering the people and confusing their language, this is being done to save them from themselves.  This “tower with its top in the heavens” is the perfect example of human technology gone adrift.  Here, it’s a rejection of the joyous, divinely created diversity that is there, if we have the eyes to see it.

Looking ahead to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see another case of confusion of language.  But there’s something different here.  Instead of people making a name for themselves, we have people inspired by the Holy Spirit, praising the name above all names.

We have folks from all over the Roman Empire, and places to the east, who have no earthly idea what the others are saying.  It looks nuts.  Some of those watching all of this decide, “There’s no other way to explain it.  All of these people are drunk as a skunk.”  That’s the cue for St. Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, to explain that this was the vision of Joel the prophet.

Some confusing cooperation is going on.

Just as with the tower of Babel, at the surface level, the Pentecost event is focused on the confusion of languages.  But the meaning is deeper.  Even if we don’t understand each other at the surface level, there can be unity of spirit.  And in this case, that’s Spirit, as in Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for our disagreements today?  What does this mean for our own arenas of conflict?  Can we not find that what we have in common with enemies, however we define that, is far greater than our differences?

Peter talks about the Spirit being poured out on all manner of people, all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages.  Creation itself is in turmoil.  But those who call on the name of the Lord find salvation.  They find liberation and reconciliation during conflict.

The faithful people of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, are called to listen beyond the confusion of tongues.  We need not build towers to make a name for ourselves.

On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t diminish the diversity among the nationalities, the ethnic groups.  Those groups include both friends and foes.  Instead, the Spirit works through and with them.  Remember the student and the rabbi!  God is the author of difference, diversity, and dare we say, of conflict.

One more note from deClaissé-Walford.  “Diversity, differences between me and you, between us and the members of our families, between us and others in our faith communities is something to be welcomed, honored and celebrated…  If we do not, cannot, will not acknowledge our differences and live and work together in our diversity, then we commit the same sin of fear as the original ‘tower builders.’”[2]

image from practicingparadoxy.files.wordpress.com

The Spirit who tumbled the tower builders’ plans is the same Spirit who on Pentecost orchestrated the clamor of confusion into a concert of cooperation.  That same Spirit is here to bring composure within the conflict in our own lives.

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down…and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace?” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 413.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 414.


crafting a new way

Would you believe that one of the key ministries mentioned in the book of Acts is a prayer shawl ministry? Well, not precisely shawls, but something close to it. It’s mentioned in chapter 9, all because of the woman who excelled in making “tunics and other clothing” (v. 39). In any event, those who are involved in ministries like prayer shawls have a noble heritage!

Luke, the author of Acts, includes plenty of “local color” in his writing. That applies to Tabitha, whose work leaves everyone positively glowing!

She lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), and she is called “a disciple” (v. 36). It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while Peter is in nearby Lydda. It’s about ten miles away. While visiting there, he presides over the healing of Aeneas, a man who has been paralyzed for eight years. Sadly, while people there are celebrating and turning to the Lord, Tabitha falls ill and dies. The disciples in Joppa, knowing that Peter is close by, send for him.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas). Maybe that’s because he’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile. He has a perspective on bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile that many others do not. And it’s also likely that Tabitha herself has lived a life that has bridged that gap.

image from www.lds.org

In her ministry, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” she no doubt had the opportunity to work with people of various backgrounds. This doubly named woman, Eric Barreto suggests, is “herself a cultural hybrid of sorts.… That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.”

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity. She can relate to more people. And she has done this in a loving way. And that’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

As we’re looking at this story, I also want us to keep in mind something that runs throughout the book of Acts. It is a list of the developmental tasks of the congregation during a time of transition. The early years of the church, which we see in Acts, were most definitely times of transition! Of course, this is only a rough comparison to what a congregation in interim times tries to achieve.

I’ll go through these very briefly.

* The first one is coming to terms with history, or celebrating the history. In a way, Peter does this on the day of Pentecost when he talks about where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses the prophet Joel’s words about the Lord pouring out the Spirit to help him out.

* The next one is discovering a new identity. That goes along with the reality that change is happening anyway. We see this with the welcoming of the Gentiles and recognizing how, quite literally, people are speaking different languages. Today’s scripture, with Luke the Gentile, telling the story of Tabitha / Dorcas is a very good example of that.

* We also have the allowing and empowering of new leadership. In chapter 6, the church saw the wisdom of appointing deacons to assist the apostles in the work. And again, in today’s story, we have another hint of the rising profile of women in the early church. Making room for new leadership is especially important in terms of injecting new blood into the system, and also for giving a voice to those who previously were voiceless.

* The next one doesn’t fit quite so easily, since there weren’t exactly denominations then—though that doesn’t mean there weren’t groups of like-minded believers. We have a sort of reconnecting with the denomination, with the wider church, when Paul goes to Athens and appeals to the Greeks with the broader faith traditions. (But admittedly, that might be shoehorning that one in!)

* The final developmental task of the congregation can be seen in committing to new directions of ministry, looking to the future. I give the example of the early missionary enterprises. We might see a hint of new direction of ministry in today’s story. So let’s return and see what Peter’s up to.

We’re told in verse 40 that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Some people notice a similarity between that and Jesus’ raising the daughter of Jairus: “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mk 5:41). Tabitha…Talitha…perhaps?

In the lectionary, this text is read during the Easter season. On that note, John Holbert says that “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.” In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately. It speaks to the sense of art and beauty we see in the book of Acts. Besides the creativity and sharing of Tabitha’s work that earned her so much love, we also meet Lydia in chapter 16. She is a dealer in purple cloth, something that is both colorful and lucrative. Lydia is a model of hospitality.

And what about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples are speaking in tongues? They’re not out there asking traffic directions; they’re singing the praises of God! And one language just isn’t enough!

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That wouldn’t be a bad name! The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure. The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that was her life.

When we welcome the Spirit in crafting a new way, the result is not only beautiful, but it’s also practical!

Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the real power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from different backgrounds demonstrates in their life together. Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”

Why is that? “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life. If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life. People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have. That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich. And that is their message to us as well.” (131)

One of the amazing things about the Spirit is that there is always more than enough. Can we trust that? Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be Pentecost people? Too often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do. We miss out on largesse of Spirit, generosity of spirit.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

I think Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage. I like the way he closes the chapter. After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin. Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke tosses this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). What’s going on with that? Why should we be interested in his lodging accommodations? Maybe we can see a bit of that new direction of ministry I mentioned earlier.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work. That’s “unclean” in a literal sense—handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky. But it’s also “unclean” in a ritual sense. According to Leviticus 11, contact with a dead animal requires ritual cleansing (vv. 39-40). But if that’s your job, you’re never going to be clean, at least as far as the priests are concerned.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random. Peter, quite knowingly, is staying in an unclean place. Luke is foreshadowing the story of Cornelius the centurion, who we see in chapters 10 and 11.

Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job. But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ. It hasn’t been an easy transition. To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

(And it’s while he’s staying at Simon’s house that he has the vision of unclean, non-kosher food, which leads him to Cornelius the Gentile, the Roman centurion. Entering his home is also a ritual no-no.)

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them. In addition, they are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it. Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, it’s probably not a good idea to rush the job. When we hinder, or even abort, the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

During intentional interim times (with both of the words “intentional” and “interim” being important), our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized. As I indicated, at times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome, but the Spirit is indeed crafting a new way.

[originally posted on 21 April 2013]


Lydian listening

I have a special affinity for St. Lydia. Her feast day is on August 3rd, which was the date of my baptism! We find the story of her conversion and baptism in the book of Acts chapter 16:

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us.

The story of Lydia is a key moment in the early church. Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). So Paul makes his first journey to Europe. He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.  After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future. There is a spirit of divination within her. The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her! After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, stir up the crowd to beat them, and have them tossed into jail. To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape. In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that they have illegally ordered the arrest and beating of Roman citizens. Relatively few residents of the empire are citizens. And they do have certain rights. The magistrates want Paul and Silas to get out of town quickly and quietly.

But Paul says, “Are you serious? I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize in front of everyone!” It’s only then that they agree to leave. But they still have one more stop to make. Before taking off, who do they insist on seeing? Lydia—and the young church that is now meeting in her home. So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us. (That’s a rarity with women in the Bible.)

So who is Lydia? The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13). That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14). That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.” They were Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith and followed it as best they could. We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.” That’s a lucrative trade, so she must have some money.

So what’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means? While we’re finding out who she is, we also find out what’s happening with her. She “was listening to us” and that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” There’s a theme of listening.

Why is listening so important? Why do we listen? Do we listen?

We listen to go deeper. We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life. What is the result of Lydia’s listening? It’s her conversion.

True conversion is an ongoing conversion. In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our world with the word from God). We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality. There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies! “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.” In Acts 16:40, Lydia welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison. 

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia finds. Gallares frames hospitality in these terms: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter. As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves. We feel like we’re in a foreign land. We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).

As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland. Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved. Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism. Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from? This is the true spirit of hospitality. It is not [removed] when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

How can we imitate that Lydian listening in the Church?

 

St. Lydia Purpuraria

It involves being both mystic and prophet. It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

One time I had a quite curious dream. Or to be more precise, it was in that in-between land where you’re just about to go to sleep, but it feels like a dream. Anyway, I seemed to be aware of what I was talking about a moment ago: why we listen. I imagined that I was living on the surface of life, like floating on water, and that I needed to go deeper. I’m reminded of something Thomas Merton wrote in the 1950s. It’s in his book, The Sign of Jonas, which was a journal he kept during his first years after moving to the monastery in Kentucky.

Praying to God, he laments the noisiness he finds within himself. One might say that he recognizes his own living on the surface of life and his need to go deeper. “You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence,” he says, “but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires. My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction. And I do not possess my house in silence…

“I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!” (47)

Ruined as the house that all of us are, God lives there.

Hearing these words coming from a monk lets me know: I am not alone in my noise and refusal to listen. Many times in our culture, politics, religious discourse we see the refusal to listen—people talking at each other, but not with each other. As a consequence, people get hurt. It looks like people will continue to be hurt.

Using myself as an example, I can be so darn convinced that I’m right that I wind up doing some pretty terrible things. So, again I ask, why is listening so important? Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith. Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we must listen. We must listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion. We must listen for the word of God.

As oblates of St. Benedict, Banu and I pay special attention to how he begins his Rule:

“Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for Jesus, the Christ.”

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.

We must listen like Lydia.


being with and doing for...

An article written a couple of years ago speaks well to our situation today. In “Bearing Witness to the Pain of Violence,” Yonat Shimron speaks about the murder rate in Durham, North Carolina, which is more than twice the state average. (The large majority being young African-American men killed by firearms.) Members of the faith community tried various approaches in response. They worked on policies to resist gun violence. They enlisted the help of police and other officials. Unfortunately, the state legislature outlawed efforts by cities who wanted to regulate guns. As important as public policy is, it became clear that something else needed to be done.

In 1997, a vigil was held after yet another citizen was slain. The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham began employing vigils as a way of standing with those touched by violence. Around the country, groups use vigils in their own communities. One example is the Benedictines for Peace in Erie, Pennsylvania. Whenever someone in the city of Erie is killed by an act of violence, they organize a vigil at the site of the death.

Too often, we like to turn this type of work over to the professionals—social workers, psychiatrists, police officers, and others—and then wash our hands of the matter. The folks in Durham think that’s a mistake. It’s noted, “Those professionals are trained to ‘work for’ the individual or family. They can’t offer the kind of relationship that comes when people of faith provide what psychologist Carl Rogers called ‘unconditional positive regard.’ These kinds of relationships perpetuate inequality and keep people strangers to one another. The coalition’s experience is that when people are treated as equals, they form deep and abiding bonds of trust.”

Of course, this applies to all kinds of situations, not just cases of murder. In the Bible, the friends of Job provide a classic example of what to do—and what not to do! After Job loses his children, his possessions, and his health, his best friends get together and see if they can help.

Chapter 2, verses 11 to 13 tell the story.

“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Job’s suffering has been so intense that at first they don’t even recognize him. Some of us can relate to that, perhaps during a visit to the hospital. The person we’re there to see might have been so ravaged by illness that we think we’re in the wrong room. “Who is this?” we wonder.

Visiting

Job’s friends understand that the best thing they can do is to do nothing at all. Just being there is what’s required. They keep vigil with him. Sadly, we know what happens after that. When Job speaks and shouts out his anguish, his buddies decide to engage him in theological debate. At that point, things go south in a hurry!

The point is that when we’re faced with questions which are sometimes literally matters of life and death, can we see the difference between “being with” and “doing for”? Both are important, but there’s no doubt that “being with” is usually so much more uncomfortable. We want to do the good deed, and then get the heck out of there.

In our own case, with St. Lydia’s Place, we want to make real-world contributions. As vital as it is to teach and reflect, if it stops right there, it’s hard to see how that helps anyone else. Taking Lydia as a model for ministry surely involves the hospitality we see in Acts 16. Her conversion demonstrates both a mystical listening to God and a prophetic standing with the apostles in the midst of opposition.

We know that humility is required. We confess our ignorance and shortcomings. We want and need help from others. Those who read this might be moved to reach out. Can we hear from you? Maybe we can help each other.

What are ways in which we can “keep vigil” in our communities?