hospitality

not getting to know you (sorry, Julie Andrews)

Psalm 133 pictures what can happen if we are faithful to dialogue.  In a moment, we’ll look at what constitutes dialogue, which is a critical feature of hospitality.

I’ve long thought of this psalm as a rather odd—but beautiful—piece of poetry.  The first verse is simple enough, as the Good News Bible puts it: “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people (literally, “brothers”) to live together in harmony!”

 

It’s those last two verses that might leave us scratching our heads.  When verse 2 compares this harmony to oil poured on Aaron’s head, so much that it runs down his beard onto his robe, our reaction may be one more of distaste (or even disgust) than anything else.  Picture this.  When Banu and I anoint someone with oil, we usually put a small amount on our finger, and then do something like making the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Here, according custom, an entire flask of oil is poured out on the head of Aaron the priest.  The anointing oil has a delightful smell, but my guess is not many of us would want to wind up like a greased pig!

2 ps 133The images in the psalm have several interpretations.[1]  Some literally see it as a celebration of “brothers” living together.  Others imagine “the fellowship of the Covenant community in Jerusalem.”  Some say the image of flowing down, whether it’s the oil running down Aaron’s beard—or the water flowing from Mount Hermon in the north to Zion in the south—pictures Israel and Judah coming back together.  And there are other ideas.  So there’s been a bit of debate as to what all of this means.

And on the matter of debate, it’s important to know the difference between that and dialogue.  With debate, we’re already convinced we’re right, and we’re trying to persuade others to see things our way.  It’s like a courtroom scenario, with opposing lawyers making their case.  Or it’s like the news channels doing more commentary than actual journalism!

Dialogue is quite different.  A couple of decades ago, Leonard Swidler developed “The Dialogue Decalogue” (“The Ten Commandments of Dialogue”).  They’ve been updated and renamed “Dialogue Principles.”  You can see them at the Dialogue Institute website.[2]

Here’s the first one: “The essential purpose of dialogue is to learn.”  Just as with the spiritual discipline of listening, dialogue meets its enemy in closed and narrow minds.  Those unwilling to learn need not apply!

In his book, Cultivating Christian Community, Thomas Hawkins says dialogue “involves a willingness to challenge our own thinking.  We remain open to examining our own assumptions, no matter how uncomfortable doing so may feel.”  Dialogue seeks “to open up and out toward a meaning larger than any single…viewpoint.”[3]

I’ve sometimes heard this criticism of dialogue: it requires you to waver on your beliefs.  The idea is you can’t take a firm stand for anything; you have to be wishy-washy.  However, faithful dialogue, far from asking people to surrender their beliefs, instead needs those who know what they believe.  There’s a huge difference between thinking for ourselves and refusing to entertain ideas that might call us to become bigger and more insightful persons.

An aspect of dialogue similar to this is spelled out in the ninth principle, the ninth commandment, if you will: “Participants in dialogue should have a healthy level of criticism toward their own traditions.”  It’s difficult to have meaningful interaction with people who think they have all the answers.

To put it differently, don’t be so self-assured that you’re unwilling to admit any uncertainty!  There have been times I’ve noticed this in myself.  Believe me, it’s not an endearing quality; I find it rather tedious.  Here’s one very good remedy: learn to laugh at yourself!  (And as I think I’ve mentioned before, it helps if you see within yourself plenty of material at which to laugh!)

A tricky part of dialogue is addressed by the fourth principle.  “One must compare only her/his ideals with their partner’s ideals and her/his practice with the partner’s practice, not one’s ideals with one’s partner’s practice.”  In other words, none of us is always a faithful model of what we profess.  We all fall short.  We don’t always practice what we preach.  If we point to someone else’s behavior when they don’t live up to their ideals—and then judge it on that basis—we should expect the same treatment.

I’ll mention one more of these principles of dialogue.  The fifth one says, “Each participant needs to describe her/himself.”  This aspect of dialogue is often ignored.  We can too easily make assumptions about each other.  We can see someone performing an action, maybe in support or in protest, and ascribe to them motives they simply do not have.

This past week, some of us had a quite charming dinner conversation on the PERC patio.[4]  We discussed a number of topics, such as the president, various policies, the way the news gets reported (including an overemphasis on bad news, as opposed to good news), various types of exercise, Gordon Ramsay, and so on.  By the way, if you’re wondering, things did not descend into a food fight!

4 ps 133

We could refer to each other as conservative, liberal, someone from another planet, and think we have them all summed up.  Maybe not so fast.

Related to this is the whole business of labeling.  Hawkins notes, “Labeling people denies the legitimacy of their opinions.  It makes further discussion unnecessary.  Name calling means our minds are made up.  We no longer see our opponents as worthy of respect.”  With an interesting conclusion, he says, “When we engage in name calling, we break one of the Ten Commandments.  We bear false witness against another person.”[5]  That’s a clear case of “not getting to know you”!

In Matthew 7, Jesus also weighs in on this.  Labeling others is a way of passing judgment on them.  We put ourselves in the position of God.  Jesus warns against this, saying “with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (v. 2).

Dialogue is about much more than the proper way to have conversations.  At the end of the day, dialogue is about our relationship with God.  It necessarily involves other people, because it’s a discipline essential to fostering Christian community.  But as Hawkins reminds us, “The practice of dialogue reminds us that we and our opinions are not at the center of community. Christ is.”[6]

Just as Christ is at the center of community, so Christ is at the center of dialogue.  What Jesus calls us to do can feel really uncomfortable; it can even feel dangerous.  It can almost feel like we’re betraying someone or something.  That’s why we might come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid dialogue.  We can tell ourselves about that certain person, “I’ve done all I can to understand them”—but in our heart of hearts, we know we really haven’t.

Are there any people—or any group of people—with whom we refuse to dialogue?  Can we imagine the possibilities for our lives, for our communities of faith, for our society, if we simply let go of the excuses?  Something that plagues our country, and the church, is our practice of only giving a hearing to those with whom we already agree.  We only listen to what reinforces our opinions.

In many ways Jesus fought against that impulse.  There’s something I’ve mentioned on occasion, and I did so again at our lovely dinner.  Notice the people he called to his inner circle.  Among people of various backgrounds, he included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

Here’s the story about the tax collectors.  They are hated, not just because they collect taxes, but because of who they are working for.  They are employees of the empire, and what’s more, they gouge the people in doing their job.

If the tax collectors are collaborators with the Romans, the Zealots are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the government, to send the Romans packing.  The differences between Matthew and Simon make the differences between Republicans and Democrats seem nonexistent.  I think it’s safe to say Matthew and Simon do not have similar opinions.  Left to their own devices, they probably wouldn’t be interested in dialogue.  They would make poor models for the picture our psalmist is painting!

5 ps 133

Jesus isn’t interested in labels.  No matter what we call each other, Jesus is having none of that.  He died and rose from the grave for everyone.  He calls us to knock down the foolish walls we build.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.  That’s where the Lord ordains blessing, running down everywhere.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary, Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 885.

[2] dialogueinstitute.org/dialogue-principles

[3] Thomas Hawkins, Cultivating Christian Community (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2001), 48.

[4] www.percatthemansion.com

[5] Hawkins, 49.

[6] Hawkins, 52.


good guys and bad guys

When we’re kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and quite cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize people don’t simply wear white hats or black hats.  We see that the hats we wear are shaded in gradations of gray.

1 3 jnTo be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  And it seems like some folks change hats, depending on which way the wind blows.  But life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were young.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

In the Third Letter of John, the author calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is no doubt someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, it would be just as fitting to call him “the presbyter.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First is a desire to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth,” John says, “namely how you walk in the truth.”  And if he hasn’t made his point, he follows with, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (vv. 3-4).

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become…let’s call it “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

2 3 jn

Last week I asked, “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  I mentioned a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escapes me, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never openly challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive response on my part.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[1]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

This guy is a pain in John’s rear end!

All of this needs to be seen in context.  We have a glimpse of the early church as it’s moving out of the apostolic era.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  Churches are becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.  And, not surprisingly, as things get more structured, there are more opportunities for power plays.

It’s very likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise: with mindless chatter, with the television, with the phone, with the computer, with all kinds of gadgets.

3 3 jnNow, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first.”  He spreads “false charges,” and prevents others from welcoming those he doesn’t like.  He’s the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates “to support [our brothers and sisters], so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts…and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond these walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[2]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

4 3 jn

“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

“What counts in your life and mine are not successes but fruits.  The fruits of your life you might not see yourself.  The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses.  The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land.  God wants you to be fruitful.

“The question is not, ‘How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?’  The question is, ‘How can I prepare myself for total surrender, so my life can be fruitful?’”

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see John as portraying Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

As I prepare to conclude, I want to include one last quote.  This is from Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Irrational Season.[3]  She speaks of how she betrays her Lord in her “strange love affair.”  She says, “Not only do I listen to wiles of the dragon, I become the dragon, and then I remember [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s words:[4]

“‘How should we be able to forget those ancient myths [that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths] about dragons that at the last [moment] turn into princesses…who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.’

“I know that when I am most monstrous, I am most in need of love.  When my temper flares out of bounds it is usually set off by something unimportant which is on top of a series of events over which I have no control, which have made me helpless, and thus caused me anguish and frustration.  I am not lovable when I am enraged, although it is when I most need love.”

5 3 jnIn Banu’s and my article for the May newsletter, we include these words: “Deal gently with each other.  Be forgiving—we all have heavy loads.”  That, more than any clever ideas any of us can concoct, shows the Spirit of the Lord in our midst.

Just like Madeleine, when our temper gets the best of us, we are, more than any other time, demonstrating our need for love.  Although at such times, we are far from easy to deal with!

I once did a devotional in which I mentioned Hazel Bryan, the young white woman who in 1957, shouted insults at Elizabeth Eckford, the young black woman walking toward the Little Rock high school which was being desegregated.  The two are pictured in one of the iconic photos of that era.  I asked the question, “What if the photo of that outburst is all she’s remembered for?”  Would that sum up her entire life?

(As it turns out, years later the two met and had a sense of reconciliation, although they didn’t exactly become best friends.)

The point is, as I mentioned earlier, we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

6 3 jn

[1] Revised English Bible

[2] www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html

[3] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 153.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton), 69.


by this, we know love

Some of you may have heard this.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the shortest sermon ever preached was delivered by John Albrecht, an Episcopal priest in Michigan.  Apparently, he walked to the pulpit, paused for a moment, and then uttered a single word: “Love!”  He then sat down.  And, as the story goes, some of the church’s members claimed it was the best sermon he ever preached.[1]

Thinking about that one-word sermon, two possibilities come to mind.  The first one is here’s a guy who was definitely not prepared for Sunday morning!  The other possibility is here’s a guy who wanted to take being concise to a whole new level!  He picked a word super packed with meaning.  In fact, the word “love” is so full of meaning it’s almost impossible to define.

 

Ironically, because “love” is difficult to define, something else might be said about Rev. Albrecht’s one-word sermon: he picked an easy topic.  Some might suggest that one could offer any greeting card sentiment, any saccharine sweet emotional goo, when addressing the subject of love.  Fortunately, the epistle reading in 1 John 3 gives us some indicators to show what love is.

Near the end of the first century, the author (John the apostle or someone in his circle), deals with several issues, one of them being the question of love.  By this time, there increasingly is a belief that love is an inner, private matter.  That parallels a belief that salvation belongs to those possessing secret knowledge.

The Bible has a slightly different take.  Contrary to those who claim otherwise, and in harmony with the scriptural witness from the beginning, John describes love as something visible; it’s expressed with action.  Neither is it the private domain of some secret society.  That wasn’t the way of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Right before today’s scripture reading, verse 15 says, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers.”  Contrast that with verse 16: “We know love by this, that he [speaking of Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  That is the way of the Good Shepherd.  Love doesn’t take life.  If anything, it lays down its life.

That’s followed with a fairly detailed example.  “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (v. 17).  John sums up his point in verse 18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  The Revised English Bible says, “love must not be a matter of theory or talk.

I’m from the South.  One of the cultural features of that part of the country is what’s been called “that southern hospitality.”  I suppose that means different things to different people.  One example might be the somewhat stereotypical request, “Come along over here.  How about a coool glass of lemonade, or should I get y’all some sweet tea?”  That reflects the slower pace of life in the old South.  Of course, as people from other parts of the US have migrated to the South—as well as people from around the world—that slower pace has speeded up a bit.  (But sweet tea is served in almost every restaurant we went to!)

2 1 jn 3

Still, amazingly enough, hospitality wasn’t invented in the American South!  There is a very long tradition of hospitality in the church.  It’s the source of our word “hospital.”  Hospitality even precedes the church.  For example, the ancient Middle East insisted on the duties of a host.

I mention the subject of hospitality because it’s a perfect expression of the love described in our epistle reading.  Hospitality, much more than making sure we’ve offered our guests coffee or tea, is a deeply spiritual reality.  And as our country becomes less hospitable, it’s all the more noticeable by its absence.  At its heart, hospitality is about welcoming the stranger.

My wife and I are Benedictine oblates.  (Very quickly as a side note: those are people who read and live by the Rule of Benedict and who have a relationship with a particular Benedictine community.  Of course, there’s more to it.)

When we lived in Jamestown, we made frequent visits to the Benedictine monastery in Erie.  We were introduced to the Rule of Benedict, a document from the sixth century which provides insights for life together.  Chapter 53 of the Rule begins, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35).’”

Speaking of Benedictines, there’s a Benedictine monastery in eastern New York, not far from Poughkeepsie.  One of its residents, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, tells this story in his book Blessings of the Daily:[2]

“A few years ago, I was awakened in the middle of the night by two women, mother and daughter, crying by the window.  I got dressed and descended the stairs to open the doors.  When we had a chance to sit down, the mother explained that they desperately needed a place for the night.  She explained that her present husband usually got drunk after work on Fridays and then would return home to abuse her daughter.  This was a Friday night and he had called, already drunk, saying he was on his way home.  Fearful of what might again happen, she got her daughter into the car and drove with her to the monastery.  She had never been here before, so I asked her why she chose to come here instead of going elsewhere.  She answered, ‘I read about you in the newspaper, and I knew that if I came here I would not be turned away.’

3 1 jn 3
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette

“After making sure they were all right, I led them into our small guesthouse and quickly prepared their beds.  They were safe for the night.  Unfortunately, there was no more I could do except to pray for them.  The following morning, after breakfast, I suggested that we call social services and seek the advice of a social worker.  After making an appointment to see the social worker, they left and I never heard from them again.

“People like these are no different from some of the guests and pilgrims who, for reasons of their own, request to partake of our monastic hospitality.  The important thing, however, is not their diverse motives but that during the short time they spend here they come to experience something of the peace of God—the peace that everyone seeks, even when not aware of it.”

We have that opportunity here.  We have the opportunity to welcome the stranger, to extend the peace of God.  And I’m not just talking about welcoming people into our worship services.  And by the way, welcoming means more than just saying, “How are you doing?”

What do people experience when they visit here?  Do they encounter the peace of Christ?  (And I’m talking about more than the part of the service when we shake hands and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.”)  Do they encounter a frosty or dismissive environment?

Still, I’m thinking of other ways we can extend hospitality.  Life is, after all, an endless series of hellos and goodbyes.  Every time we encounter someone, there’s the invitation to welcome them as Christ.

I’ll admit, I’m not terribly fond of rude, ungrateful people, but the goal is to receive them as Christ.  No matter who is standing in front of us, the point is to remember that it’s Christ we’re serving.  It might also help to remember when we ourselves have been rude and ungrateful!

Certainly love requires patience with each other, bearing with each other’s faults.  Within ourselves, this is a near impossible task.  We need help.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about this.[3]  “God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.

“On a practical level such experiences will feel like a new freedom to love, and you wonder where it comes from…  Clearly, you are participating in a Love that’s being given to you.  You are not creating this.  You are not generating this.  It is being generated through you and in you and for you.”

As I draw near my conclusion, there’s a paradox of love I want to mention.  It’s this: love is, by its very nature, voluntary—it can’t be coerced.  Yet at the same time, failure to love isn’t an option!  Our scripture says the Lord commands us to “love one another” (v. 23).  Without love, the very fabric of human social existence falls apart.  The power of force, the power of law, isn’t sufficient to hold us all together.  Love has its own ways of being an enforcer.

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For our own sake, for the sake of everyone else, for the sake of our planet, we’re compelled to freely choose love!  Only then can we be accountable to each other.  Only then can we be hospitable to each other.  Only then can we welcome each other as Christ.

 

[1] christchurchepiscopal.org/?p=3042

[2] Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, Blessings of the Daily (Liguori, MO:  Liguori/Triumph, 2002), 300-1.

[3] lovewins.us/1203/freedom-for-love


be a man

Be a man.  That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man.  He says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28).

And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance.  People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10).  He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him.  He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).

1 be a manHaving said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ.  One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12).  That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts.  It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!

You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”?  Most translations don’t use that phrasing.

There are four commands in 16:13.  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  And it literally means, “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.

“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

2 be a manI think we definitely can see some parallels with our society.  We even see it mentioned sarcastically in the psalms: “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (Ps 49:18).

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Still, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way!  He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that.  For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11).  These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles!  (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)

Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).

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Has there been a leader in recent history who better defined magnanimous than Nelson Mandela?

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).

It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.

What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!)  Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.)  And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.

4 be a man

Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times.  For him, it simply means “mortal.”  It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.

However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ.  Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human.  It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God.  He is “the human one.”  To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.

Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness.  Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women.  He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women!  That’s a big no-no.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14.  “Let all that you do be done in love.”  That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

What does all this mean?  Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.

The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission.  He’s given quite a task.  “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3).  Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going.  Is there anything else?

“The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4).  It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.

Hostility is not the only reaction.  Later in the book, we see him being disregarded.  In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32).  These folks aren’t mad at him.  They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.

Even so, Ezekiel loves his people.  He demonstrates loving courage.  Love is no easy thing.

What about Jesus?  He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them.  He lets them know what is in store.  Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified.  Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.

Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.

What does loving courage mean for us?  What does loving courage mean for me?  I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love?  How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music­­—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me?  How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?

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What does loving courage mean for all of us?  Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers?  When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things?  Do we make room for others?

These are questions to ask the person in the mirror.  Do I help others to be courageous?  Do I help others to be human?

In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22).  Maranatha means two things.  “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”!  May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


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.


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.