two natures

What you see is the icon of Christ Pantocrator at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.  It is also called the Christ of Sinai.  The word “Pantocrator” is Greek, and it means “almighty”—literally, “ruler of all.”

1 sinai

There are plenty of details in the icon, with tons of commentary to explain it all, but the obvious feature is Jesus the “two faced.”  That’s not intended as an insult!  Reference has been made to the dual natures of Christ, human and deity.  Some speak of the side holding the Bible as divine (and stern!).  The other side, making the sign of peace, is tranquil and chill.  (I’m using proper theological language if you didn’t notice.)  Masculine and feminine aspects of Christ are also seen.

By the way, the image below reflects a mirror image of each side of his face.  (Sorry for the pun.)  It could be two different men.

A few years ago, something occurred to me about the image.  It seemed to me that the right side of his face—from our perspective—seems to have a droop about it.  I imagined a reason why.  Perhaps he had suffered a stroke or been struck with Bell’s palsy.  I renamed the icon, “Jesus the stroke victim.”  Again, I didn’t consider myself to be mocking this work.  If anything, I saw it as a sign of praise.

We are reminded of the resurrection body of Jesus, which still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  There was no reason, apparently, for them to be erased.  There was no flawless, supermodel body.  Instead, there was one modeled to look like ours.  What a statement of solidarity and identification with human weakness!  There is no rebuke, but rather an act of glorification.

2 sinai

We also have our own failings, our own vulnerabilities.  Perhaps this unprecedented time in which we find ourselves is one on a global scale, with its own host of maladies.  Might there be a fitting icon?  “Jesus the COVID-19 victim”?

crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

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When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

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[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

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

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and 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” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “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.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

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 even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

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…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy 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 a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

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.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing 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 care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

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.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  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 with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

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In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow 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.

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.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

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

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We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!


[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.

listening in the light

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, seeing Jesus in glory, along with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to set up camp.  He wants to capture the moment; he wants to stay, take this instant and freeze it.  That is his proposal.  But as Luke tells us, he doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about.

Then a voice sounds from on high, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  Peter is basically told to shut his trap.  Or as the delightful Mt. T would put it, “Quit your jibba jabba!”

1 ps 99

In Psalm 99, the poet encourages anything but jibba jabba.  The whole world is exhorted to “praise [the Lord’s] great and awesome name” (v. 3).  If Peter, James, and John are struck by elation (and alarm) by their encounter on the mountain, the psalmist does one better when he proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!  He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” (v. 1).

Peter would like to stop time; he wants to preserve the experience.

We do that as well, sometimes in trivial ways.  Some of us (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this) like to photograph the contents of our dinner plate.  But who am I to talk?  No doubt, I take too many pictures of my dog.  (Still, if I’m able to catch him yawning—with the sound he makes—I’m going to try to get that on video!  That would be an experience to preserve.)

Maybe you can understand what I’m trying to say.  We often want to freeze life, to take a timeout, for good or ill.  Life is calling our name, and we’re not always sure how to answer.  The psalmist invites us to enter in, to allow the transfiguration light to guide us.  The disciples would do well to heed what the psalmist says.  They need to listen.  That goes for us, too.

As with much of Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is well constructed.  Stan Mast, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, says something about it.  “It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.”[1]  And in three places, it points out that the Lord is holy.  (Three is also a key number.)

Structure in poetry can be important.  It imposes a certain discipline, even in limericks.

2 ps 99A few days ago, Banu and I were at Wegmans.  They had the tasting stations set up around the store.  The one at the deli had something called chicken epicurean sausage.  I was struck by the word “epicurean.”  It dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Very roughly speaking, he taught that happiness is the greatest good in life.  He focused on simple pleasures.  Today, we think of an epicure as someone who likes the fine things, especially fine food and drink.  I told Banu it reminded me of an old limerick:

“An epicure dining at Crewe, / found quite a large mouse in his stew. / Said the waiter, ‘Don’t shout, / or wave it about, / or the rest will be wanting one too!’”

Admittedly, that’s not the best example of showing the discipline of structure!  Still, structure can mean being careful to transmit the message, and it helps in recalling it if there’s good rhyme and rhythm.  After all, it’s easier to remember something if you listen to the music!

Psalm 99 is broken into three sections, each of which has something to contribute to the whole.

Verses 1 to 3 praise the Lord for reigning worldwide—being king of the world!  Verses 4 and 5 praise the Lord for justice.  Verses 6 to 9 praise the Lord for entering into relationship.  Moses the lawgiver, and Aaron and Samuel, perhaps prototypes of priest and prophet, are highlighted.  Of course, the starting point throughout is the focus on Israel: in Zion, in Jacob, in the pillar of cloud—with each of them expressing a different stage in its history.

I won’t go into great detail, but I do find verses 4 and 5 especially interesting.  After the first section urges all nations to praise the Lord, we now get a sense of who this Lord is.  “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4).

What does justice mean here?  What is justice for this Lord?  The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is an ethical God.  By that, I mean this God cares about ethics; this God cares about how we behave.  This God is not like other gods, the blood drinking gods who lash out in blind fury if they don’t get their sacrifices.  As long as they are appeased, they don’t care what their worshippers do.  (Sometimes we treat our Lord the same way.  If we pay our dues, what we do doesn’t mean quite so much!)

3 ps 99

Reinforcing that idea is verse 5: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  We are called to worship a holy God.  Verse 9 agrees: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”  We are called to worship twice in Psalm 99.  We are called to listen to these words.

Stan Mast comments, “Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear.”  God speaks through visions and dreams and written words and through his servants, the prophets, and of course, through Jesus the Messiah.  God speaks through the still, small voice of prayer—the sound of silence.  We are called to listen, like those early disciples.

Listening is easier said than done.  Listening is hard work.  Prayer and meditation are hard work.

There’s a concept originating from Buddhism, but I think it applies to everyone.  It’s called “the monkey mind.”  It refers to a sense of restlessness, thoughts bouncing from one thing to the other, constant chattering.  It’s called “monkey mind” because it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch to another.  One thought leads to another and another and another.

4 ps 99Whenever we enter silence, it is inevitable that thoughts will surface.  “I need to do that today.”  “What’s that dog barking at?”  “I wish I could get that stupid song out of my head.”  Thoughts will come and go, but the trick is to not hold on to them.  Let them pass through.  I believe that, at least in some way, it’s expressed by St. Paul’s comment on “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7).  We can hear the voice of transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I will not claim to be an expert practitioner of what I’m saying.  As I said, it takes work—and patience.

As I said a moment ago, the psalmist calls us to worship.  We are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks” [ευχαριστεω, eucharisteō].  It appears all throughout the New Testament.)

Today being Transfiguration, it provides the theme.  Part of the service is the Great Thanksgiving.  It’s the prayer reciting the story of salvation, the history of salvation.  Here’s part of the prayer:

“You are holy, O God of majesty, / and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. / On a lonely mountain / his human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. / In his face, we have glimpsed your glory. / In his life, we see your love.”

Here’s a question: how does listening tie together worship and the justice the psalmist is talking about?  Does worship lead us to seek justice outside these walls?

Our friend Stan says, “This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should.  We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment.”  He does say “many” Christians focus on God’s mercy and not God’s righteousness and judgment.  In reality, all of those things go together.  You can’t have one without the rest.

5 ps 99However, it’s definitely not “all” Christians who take that approach.  There are many who think of God’s judgment as someone wielding a sword preparing for execution, rather than someone making sure all is put right—all is restored to proper balance.

I’m sure none of you have ever encountered this: the one with a scowling disposition, harshly critical, the finger-wagging party pooper.

Still, the point is made.  We who live in warm houses, who have plenty of food to eat, who live in safety, too often can’t relate to those around the world and those here at home who do not have such things.

Listening to the voice from on high, listening to the voice within—that still, small voice of the Spirit—we are called to move into the light leading us into action.  We listen in the light; we listen to the one who is called the Beloved, the Chosen.  We are guided by the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.


[1] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms

the art of blessing

Trinity Sunday is the only major holiday on the church calendar that isn’t based on the life of Jesus.  Instead, it’s based on a theological doctrine.  That might sound dry and academic, but the Holy Trinity is infused with life and joy and beauty and even humor.

Trinity Sunday doesn’t commemorate a single moment, but rather an eternal moment.  It’s not something in the life of Jesus the human, but rather the eternal life of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, one with God and the Holy Spirit.

With the Holy Trinity, we have the very definition of community.  We have the perfect example of κοινωνια (koinōnia)—of communion, of fellowship.  In this community, everyone abides by the law of love.  No one prefers self before others.  This is the model for human family, for human society.  There is no grasping for power.  The desire is to be a blessing.  The Trinity lives out the art of blessing.

Speaking of blessing, the last verse of 2 Corinthians should be familiar.  It is to me, since that’s the benediction I like to use at the end of services of worship.  This is the Trinitarian benediction, with all its simplicity and depth.

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It’s included at the end of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church, one that has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they haven’t been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, he tells them how “the God of love and peace will be with” them.  That’s ultimately what verse 11 is all about.  First of all, when he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not being a tidiness Nazi.  The apostle wants to avoid the disorder that has so often plagued them.  The word used, καταρτιζω (katartizō), can also mean “be restored.”  So he’s not browbeating them.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where our “kiss of peace” comes from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they also had concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (There are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

2 trinity
Ryan Gosling does some theologizing.

In any event, maybe you can see why this epistle reading is used for Trinity Sunday.  With the Trinitarian benediction, we get a triple blessing.  Something similar is going on with our gospel text in Matthew, the so-called “great commission.”  The baptismal formula of “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” fits nicely for today.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is one I suggested earlier—the Holy Trinity as the example of the perfect community of love.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

I must confess, though; I don’t know what I’m talking about!  I say the words, “perfect community of love,” but I have only the scarcest idea what that means.

Well, it’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words.  And it is a picture, more specifically an icon, that I want us to consider.  It’s “The Trinity,” by Andrei Rublev.  This icon is a prime example of the art of blessing.  Rublev was inspired by the visitation of the three men/angels to Abraham when they announce that Sarah will have a child (Genesis 18:1-15).

The word “icon” (εικων, eikōn) appears many times in the New Testament.  It’s usually translated as “image.”  The apostle uses it in Colossians, when he says Christ “is the image [the icon] of the invisible God” (1:15).  We Presbyterians, as well as Protestants in general, tend to be suspicious of icons.  They seem to be too “Eastern Orthodox,” like the Armenians I spoke of a few moments ago.  You know, there’s nothing wrong with being in an Orthodox Church!  (We all have our plusses and minuses.)

Icons are considered to be windows into heaven, windows into the eternal.  This one features, from left to right, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  They show mutual deference to one another.

Over the centuries, many gallons of ink have been spilled over descriptions of the icon and what the various parts of it mean.  As you might guess, there is far too much for us to deal with right now.

Briefly, we can see the Father wearing a shimmering robe, reflecting many colors.  One writer says it “seems transparent,” it “cannot be described or confined in words.  And this is how it should be.  No one has seen the Father, but the vision of him fills the universe.”[1]

The Son is the Incarnate one, and his garments unite the brown of earth and the blue of heaven.  “In his person he unites heaven and earth, the two natures are present in him.”

The Holy Spirit is clothed in “the clear blue of the sky…with a robe of a fragile green.  So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.  All living things owe their freshness to [the Spirit’s] touch.”

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There is so much here.  We can go riffing, waiting to see what inspires us.  There’s the house behind the Father, maybe the one Jesus says has many mansions.  There’s the tree behind the Son—maybe the tree Abraham sat under, maybe the tree of life.  They all have wings; they all are carrying staffs.  They’re seated around a table featuring a chalice, which has been surmised to hold the lamb slain for us.

Maybe you get what I’m talking about.  All kinds of meaning can be seen in it.

In his excellent book, Praying with Icons, Jim Forest says this of Rublev’s work: “If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word ‘love.’  The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.  All creation is a manifestation of God’s love.  The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls ‘a harsh and dreadful love.’”[2]

At first glance, I wondered what the big deal was.  Why all the fuss about this image?  But it was just that: a first glance.  I hadn’t taken the time to be with the icon, to pray with it, to let it speak to me.

Forest finishes his discussion of the icon in what I thought is a surprising way.  He says, “‘Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,’ wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, ‘that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook.  It may be summarized as follows: “Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists.”’”[3]

Imagine that: a work of art, the product of human hands, being given such lofty praise.

In a few moments, we’ll sing the hymn, “O Lord, Our God, How Excellent,” which is based on today’s psalm reading, Psalm 8.  The second stanza goes, “The heavens shout Your handiwork; / We stand beneath in awe, / To think the One who made all things / Should care for us at all.”

We are surrounded by blessing, even if you’re like me and really don’t understand!  Trinity Sunday reminds us that we are not alone, in fact, we are enveloped by love.  In one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Jesus says in our gospel reading to “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  The blessing given to us—the benediction pronounced over us—both reassures us and calls us to action.

In our stumbling, halting way, we try to envision the Holy Trinity.  We use geometry, such as a triangle.  But that’s not the only way to picture the Trinity, with the inner being separated as points.  The Trinity can also be envisioned as a circle, ever flowing, never ending, encompassing all that is, existence itself.

I want to close with this.  It’s a question and a challenge.  How can we choose blessing over cursing?  How can we model the art of blessing?  How can we do that even today?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Amen.


[1] www.sacredheartpullman.org/Icon%20explanation.htm

[2] Jim Forest, Praying with Icons (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1997), 99.

[3] Forest, 100.

the dark side of Christmas

Newtown, Connecticut (14 Dec 2012).  Bethlehem, Judea (Matthew 2:16).  Christmas has not yet arrived.  Still, our proximity to it prompts an observation.  The dark, and usually overlooked, reality is that the Christmas story carries within it the slaughter of little children.  Two weeks from yesterday, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Pointing out the reality of the massacre of young ones doesn’t explain or excuse it.  How could anything?  But what it does do is to show how Jesus was born into a world with the same hatred and insanity that still plague us.  Our challenge is to work for the “peace on earth” that the angels proclaim—to ask for and use that courage.

[originally posted on 15 Dec 2012]

it's a dark night

The Confessions of Jeremiah represent a unique contribution to the book whose namesake has been called “the weeping prophet.” In these passages, we read of plots on his life, his anguish at rejection, the taunts of enemies, more plots on his life, and his feelings of betrayal by God and his regrets that he was ever born.

In his book, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods, Klaus Koch calls the Confessions “poems of extraordinary lyrical beauty.” They are, he says, “The night of despair.” (38)

Probably more than any other prophet, Jeremiah reveals his inner self. We get a better shot at armchair psychology! In today’s terminology, we might say that he struggles with depression. Like so many other spiritual figures, he experiences a dark night of the soul.

the best of gifts

There’s a short story from the desert monastics from the 4th and 5th centuries that I really like. I can identify with it. These were people who went out into the desert (mainly Egypt, but also other places) to develop their spiritual practices. Many of them fled what they saw as the corruption of the city.

“Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 75.)

I don’t know that we have to believe that there literally are demons bent on keeping us from prayer, but when you—if you—try to enter into prayer, thinking of it as “warfare to the last breath” is a pretty good description! I think my experience is a fairly common one, which is: if you want to dredge up the most random thoughts and impulses…if there’s a song you’ve been trying to forget…if there’s a task that you just have to do and need to make a note of…then spend some time in prayer. All kinds of mental distractions will appear. We don’t need demons to keep us from prayer!

What’s so important about prayer, anyway? Why would demons, literal or figurative, want to keep us from it?

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comIn Luke 11, we see Jesus praying. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus praying again and again. Jesus is presented as a man of prayer. He understands where his strength and his life come from.

Luke 11:1-13 give us three themes to the request, “Lord, teach us to pray” -- The Lord’s Prayer,” a parable about a midnight visitor, and lessons to be learned about the parable.

The Lord’s Prayer is brief in Luke's version unlike Matthew's... It isn’t meant to be recited robotically without any thought to what the words say. Chapter 20 of the Rule of Benedict, has something to say about this:

“We must know that God regards our purity of heart…not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief.”

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but sometimes it seems like prayer is a beauty contest. We can feel challenged to come up with the most eloquent language. Or sometimes it seems like an athletic competition, with the goal of going on and on and on. (It’s like the long distance runners.) When that stuff happens, we’re actually praying to ourselves, not to God. Our inner life isn’t strengthened by showing off, least of all, by showing off during prayer.

Some translations have a footnote in verse 2 that indicates an alternate, or a variant, reading. In this case, when Jesus prays, “Your kingdom come,” the alternative reading is, “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.”

I really like that. “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” What does it mean for the Spirit to cleanse us, to purify us? I certainly don’t have the final word on this, but I would think it has a lot to do with the well-known phrase that it substitutes for: “Your kingdom come.”

Being aware of God’s kingdom, longing for it to be realized in our lives—that has everything to do with desiring the Holy Spirit to come upon us and cleanse us.

Jesus continues his teaching on prayer with the parable about the midnight visitor. Here’s a guy who himself has received a late night visitor, and unfortunately, the pantry is running low. But he says, “Wait! I know what to do! I have a good buddy nearby! He won’t mind giving me something. You don’t have to go to bed hungry!” Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan.

Upon hearing the knock at the door, the friend whose food has been volunteered drowsily grumbles, “Go away! The whole family is in bed. Come back at a decent hour!” The knocking continues. Finally, amid some muttered expletives, the bread is delivered to the neighbor who it seems is determined to prevent any sleep from occurring! This lack of courteous behavior doesn’t go unnoticed by the scripture text.

The word in verse 8 translated as “persistence” (anaideia) comes from two words meaning “without shame” or “without respect.” So, Jesus could also be translated as saying, “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his audacity (or, “his shamelessness”) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Does that mean that it is rude to persist in prayer? Does it display a lack of good manners? No, but we should still be shameless and act like it does!

In the third section, where Jesus expounds on the parable, he seems to be saying the same thing. He makes the point in verses 9 and 10: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

When Jesus speaks of asking, seeking, and knocking, he’s not saying to do this in a half-hearted way. He’s not suggesting that we be timid or nice. There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Niceness exists at the surface; kindness plunges into the depths. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22).

Jesus is talking about giving oneself over completely to this business of loving God with all of our being. When we maintain that as our focus, as our goal, we avoid the trap of viewing God as a vending machine. It helps to avoid seeing our Lord as Santa Jesus. It can be easy to take these scriptures, as well as others in the Bible, and use them to turn prayer into a business agreement. That mentality is one of the key parts of what’s known as “prosperity theology.” A less flattering description is “name it and claim it,” and even less flattering, “blab it and grab it”!

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Jesus finishes up with scenarios that would definitely keep you out of the running for being named parent of the year: serving your child a snake sandwich instead of fish filet or scorpion soup instead of scrambled eggs! He says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v. 13). There’s a parallel with Matthew 7, which says “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (v. 11).

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts. The Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is God. Just as Jesus, Emmanuel, is God with us, so the Holy Spirit is God within us. There’s no contradiction with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). There’s no contradiction because God is love.

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is all that is beautiful and courageous and inspiring. The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit is the fire within us that burns away the fear and hate that would keep us small.

The Holy Spirit is the best of gifts because the Spirit enables us, not to be nice, but to be kind. Like those disciples of long ago, we also have that need: “Lord, teach us to pray.” It is warfare to the last breath.

masters of our domain: a Pentecost reflection

Throughout human history, there have been numerous times when our intelligence outran our wisdom. This can be seen in many different fields. For example, a few days ago I saw a commercial for Pizza Hut’s “Crazy Cheesy Crust” pizza. It features a ring of cul-de-sacs in which they pour even more greasy cheese. But hey, it’s what the people want!

Unfortunately, and more seriously, our intelligence outrunning our wisdom is often seen in weapons of warfare. Or maybe I should say, if there’s been a way to militarize an invention, we’ve been very quick to do so.

But there is one event in human history that I want to especially highlight. It’s still within the living memory of a very tiny number of people. In the late nineteenth century, great strides were being made. Among many other things, radioactivity and x-rays were discovered. The field of psychology was blooming, with the birth of psychoanalysis. On a multitude of fronts, science and technology were making unheard-of advances. At the dawn of the twentieth century, a whole new world was being born.

Here’s that bit about intelligence and wisdom! A feeling began to grow that there was nothing that the human race couldn’t accomplish. It might take a little while, but nothing was beyond our reach. The problem with that type of mentality is that, as a whole new world is emerging, it’s easy to forget just how fragile it is.

We can be seduced by our tools. We can easily become arrogant, and this brings me to the event I mentioned a moment ago: the First World War, the most vicious and bloody conflict the human race had ever seen.

I have a history book which reads, “Throughout Europe jubilation greeted the outbreak of war. No general war had been fought since Napoleon, and the horrors of modern warfare were not yet understood.”* The very discoveries and advances which inspired a new way of thinking were tragically turned upon us: in this case, airplanes, submarines, tanks, mustard gas. It had been almost a century since any major war was fought in Europe. So, we are masters of our domain. We will fight this war, the war to end war.

In Genesis 11 we find the human tendency to trust our technology. It’s understandable if that seems far-fetched. At first glance, our story looks like it’s about something totally different. It begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1). Well, apparently there’s no need for translators! Everyone can understand each other. Except, that’s not really the case.

In chapter 10, we’ve just been told about the various “languages,” “lands,” and “nations” that have arisen (v. 31). Just as today, the words that come from people’s mouths are only understood by some, not by everyone. The “one language and the same words” of chapter 11 shouldn’t be taken in some wooden, literal way.

What’s in view is not linguistics, or even history in the way we think of it today; it’s about theology—it’s about God and how we relate to God. We have a picture of a group migrating from the east to a plain in Shinar, an ancient name for a place in Mesopotamia. It’s there that they consider a building project. They have the necessary material for bricks and mortar.

Here’s what they decide: “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” (v. 4). We know that the Mesopotamians built pyramid-like structures called ziggurats. Some people say that the tower is one of those. Still, the concern here is not an analysis of architecture.

As one writer has said, “The issue here is not the building of the tower itself, but the reasons for building it.” So why do the people build a city and a tower with a top that reaches up to “the heavens”?

Actually, just as the case was with them, there are those today who have the same ideas. Let us make a name for ourselves. We are masters of our domain. But there’s more to it than that. They are insecure. There’s a fear that if they don’t get this done, they will be scattered. They will not achieve the unity they desire. And who is it that frustrates the unity that they’re striving for? What keeps the builders of Babel from their ribbon-cutting ceremony?

“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.’”

What is God’s deal? Is the Lord afraid of competition? Surely not, so what’s the plan? “‘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. 7-8).

We might symbolize it today as breaching their firewalls and crashing their computers. Anyway, what’s going on here? Why is God punishing them? That would be one way of looking at it, especially for those who believe that God does indeed ladle out punishment.

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Another way of reading the story is to see God’s grace at work. When the Lord says that “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” there’s that sense of intelligence outrunning wisdom. When people put their trust in the wrong direction, there can be a feeling that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” God acts to save us from ourselves. Nazarene minister Dennis Bratcher says, “This expresses the idea that when human beings go against the purposes of God the result is confusion.”

In Hebrew, the word for “Babel” sounds like the word for “confusion.” It’s a joke built into the scriptures. (Actually throughout the Bible, we see the comedic art form of the pun, the play on words!) Bratcher goes on, “The arrogance and self-centeredness that compels us to define the world in our own terms results in a world in which we can no longer even talk to each other.” That makes sense.

We can use the same words and still not connect, especially if our main interest is making sure that our opinion gets heard. “Even when we try to be united,” he says, “if the basis of that unity is only ourselves and our own ambitions and goals, we will find that we cannot even communicate adequately. There is left nothing but babble, confusion, and disorder.” We can see “the ‘one language’ [in the story]…as a metaphorical way to talk about that false unity,” the way we foolishly assert that we are the center of the universe, that we are masters of our domain, that we need nothing outside of ourselves to guide us.

Pentecost is a reversal of Babel. With Pentecost, there are different languages, but a single heart. With Pentecost, there is a diversity of speech which is embraced and affirmed, but there’s also a unity of spirit, a unity of Holy Spirit. This prompts a question: are there any towers of Babel that we are building? If so, what are they?

Remember, the question doesn’t concern the structure (be it a literal structure or a figurative one), the effort put into it, or whatever else we set our hands to. Rather, the question concerns our motivation, our reason for doing what we do. The focus shifts from “what are we doing” to “why are we doing it.”

Bratcher finishes his thought this way: “We do need the same [Pentecostal] infilling of our hearts that will so fill us with the love for God and each other that there will be no more room for pettiness, for selfishness, for arrogant ambition, for sin.” You know, all of the skills that we spend too much time honing!

But instead, “When we wait for that enabling power from God, and employ it for [God’s] purposes in the world rather than ours, it may just be that ‘this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”

A divine infusion of wisdom is ours for the asking, so that our intelligence doesn’t run away with us. What a wonderful and awesome thing that would be; and indeed, it is!

* The Western Heritage, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds.