Richard Rohr

freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle 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.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

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How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


the testing of Job

Let me tell you something that happened one day when I was in high school.  We were sitting in class (I forget which), and the discussion somehow turned to the Bible.  One of my classmates voiced his problems with believing it.  Referring to Genesis, he demonstrated God gathering some dirt, and—presto!—a human being.  (To be honest, even then I had my doubts that it happened quite that way.)

Then he mentioned the book we’re looking at today.  “God tortured Job!” he said.  At the time, I felt the need to open my mouth and say something.  My very enlightening response was, “It was a test.”  That’s all I had.  Of course, that only seemed to confirm what he had just said.

1 jobDuring all of this, our teacher was looking a bit nervous.  I don’t suppose it had anything to do with his theological viewpoint.  I imagine he was visualizing a conversation with the principal of our public high school as to how our class turned into a Bible study!

The book of Job, admittedly, is a challenge.  It’s mainly a series of poems, with Job, his friends, Elihu, a young man who seems to appear out of nowhere, and the Lord taking turns at speaking.  The long section of poetry is bracketed, front and back, by passages of prose.  The introduction and the conclusion have been recognized as a sort of legend about a saintly man who loses, in sequence, his wealth, his children, and then his health.  This ancient story sets the stage for the book of Job as we have it.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that or heard that question.  The frequent unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  Some of what that means is that we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  And Job certainly fits into the category of “good people.”  That’s how the book begins.  Besides being extremely wealthy (indeed, the richest man in all the East), Job is described as a good man—more than that, as a righteous man, one who reveres God.

It seems that something more fundamental is going on than the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The book challenges a key notion of how God deals with the human race.  It calls into question something that the orthodox faith of the day held about divine reward and punishment, which was: the righteous prosper, the wicked suffer.  Period.  Case closed.

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There are plenty of scriptures saying that very thing.  Here’s just one example, from Psalm 32: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (v. 10).

Don’t we all believe something like that?  You will reap what you sow.  What comes around goes around.  That’s what Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—keep telling him.  (By the way, there was a news report about an archaeological discovery.  A tablet was unearthed with an engraving of Zophar’s last name: apparently, it was Zogood.)

Our tendency is to feel that people ought to get just what they deserve.  That does seem to be the way of justice.  People should be praised or punished, based on what they’ve done.  That’s only fair.

Our scripture reading speaks to that.  I want us to notice something in the conversation between God and Satan.  In chapter 2, the Lord says that Job “still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (v. 3).  For no reason.

It can be hard to remember that sometimes…stuff happens.  Pain, disease—something suddenly going wrong with the car—can leave us feeling like all the forces of the cosmos are arrayed against us.  It’s not that God is ticked off at us; it’s that we live in a world with a lot of complicated things going on.  The more complicated a system is, the more there is to it that can go wrong.

(I’m especially fond of cars nowadays that are almost completely computer-run.  That’s good until it isn’t.  I like having a car with a stick shift.  I sometimes think of it as an anti-theft device, since there are lots of people who can’t drive stick!)

There’s something we should note about the character called “Satan.”  Actually, in the book of Job, this creature is known in Hebrew as הַשׇׂטׇן (ha-satan), “the satan,” which means “the accuser,” “the adversary.”  In legal terminology, he would be a prosecuting attorney.  Actually, given his stature, he would probably be the district attorney!

3 jobThe decision to capitalize the word gives the wrong impression.  (By the way, the Hebrew language doesn’t have upper and lower cases.)  At this point in time, “Satan” is not considered to be a name; it’s just a title.  To the early Hebrews, he fits a necessary role.  “The satan” isn’t really seen as evil.  After all, God approves his plans, which might seem to bring us back to my high school classmate.

This “satan” says something we should notice.  In chapter 1, Job loses his wealth and his children.  Still, verse 22 tells us, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”  Now, in chapter 2, here’s what the Accuser says: “All that people have they will give to save their lives” (v. 4).  Thus, the attack on Job’s health.

“All that people have they will give to save their lives.”  Is that true?  In the story, Satan refers to Job’s wealth—and even to his children.  It’s an unflattering picture he paints of Job, and for that matter, of everyone.  What would we give to save our lives, to save our skins?  What is our price?  How about our integrity?  It’s hard to say what we would do until we’ve walked in Job’s shoes.

Job’s friends hear of the horrendous things that have happened to him, and wanting to comfort him, they set out together to go and see him.  That right there says something.  They choose to put themselves out and go to their suffering friend.

The scripture says, “When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him” (v. 12).  I, like others, have had the disconcerting experience of seeing those who’d been, so to speak, through the meat grinder—and at first, not recognizing them.

That really hits home for some of us.  Several years ago in a different church, we visited our hospitalized organist, and I thought we’d entered the wrong room.

Job’s friends go through the ritual of mourning, of grief.  They weep; they tear their robes; they throw dust in the air, and they sit down on the ground with Job.  No one says anything.  According to the text, this goes on for “seven days and seven nights,” a poetic way of describing the long time they keep a silent presence with him.

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Remember my “Zophar Zogood” attempt at a joke?  Well, let me say that for Job’s friends, it is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They are being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s done that understands the difficulty—but also the love.  It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving unwanted advice that Job’s friends earn the description “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Hearing them go on and on and on seems to help Job realize he’s now grown beyond the level of faith and understanding at which they’re stuck.  He’s been forced to do it!

Maybe some of us can relate to Job.  Maybe you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain, in which the supports of the past have failed.  Old certainties have turned out to be illusions.  (By the way, that’s not an entirely bad thing!)  Life has led you down paths that you never would have chosen.  The testing of Job is the testing of ourselves.

I want to finish with some words from Richard Rohr, who wrote a very interesting book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections.[1]  He speaks to that lonely feeling when it seems like the whole world has tossed you out like trash.

5 job“When you are feeling abandoned,” he writes, “pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.

“Often, that’s the only way out of self-pity and a preoccupation with our own feelings.  We have to choose solidarity and the ‘communion of the saints.’  There, we realize we are carrying the weight of our brothers and sisters, and they are carrying ours.”[2]

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996)

[2] Rohr, 94.


wearing the bandana

On the night of November 12, 1995, I walked home from the Baskin-Robbins where I worked while at seminary in Philadelphia.  Banu and a friend of ours were in the apartment.  I went to the bedroom and sat down.  Very soon, I entered what was like a waking dreamlike state.  The air seemed almost tangible.

I’m not sure how much time went by, but the next thing I knew was Banu looking at me, saying she had been calling me.  She had a look of concern on her face, and before I knew it, paramedics were taking me by ambulance to the hospital.  By the time we arrived, I was completely lucid.  After examining me, the doctor suspected I might have a blood clot.  After testing, they discovered I had a brain tumor, so that meant surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy (a lot of chemotherapy).

1 acI was left with a scar on my head where the incision was made.  I took to wearing a bandana, first to protect the incision, and then to hide the scar.  (By the way, I had bandanas of many different colors!)  Three months later I was in our apartment with Banu and another friend, and the same thing happened.  It turned out to be a staph infection—so another surgery, with the incision in the same place.  This time, the scar was more pronounced.  It was quite visible.

(I took to dividing my life into BC and AD, based on that first surgery on the 14th: Before Cancer and After Diagnosis.)

As I mentioned, I would wear a bandana on my head, and I did that for two and a half years, well after it was medically necessary!  Of course, the radiation caused me to lose my hair, but that wasn’t the main reason I wore them.  I didn’t like that scar, and I didn’t want other people to see it!  Even after we went to Nebraska to serve our first church, I still wore them for over a year.

I think I could describe that time with the bandanas as a liminal time or a liminal space.  What, you may ask, is “liminal”?  It comes from the Latin limen, which means “threshold.”  We’re familiar with the word “subliminal”—below the threshold.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “Liminal space… is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…  It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way.  In such space, we are not certain or in control.  This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.”[1]

His friend Sheryl Fullerton says of liminal space, “The old touchstones, habits, and comforts are now past, the future unknown.  We only wish such a time to be over.  We may be impatient to pass through it quickly, with as little distress as possible, even though that is not likely.”[2]

Liminal space is often not much fun at all.  We might compare it to the pain of growing up.

If we handle this liminal space well, we are more open to developing, to discovering.  We allow “room for something genuinely new to happen.”  Actually, it’s going to happen anyway.  It’s a question of will we welcome it, or will we be dragged kicking and screaming!  I think my refusal to discard the bandana was a sign of kicking and screaming.  I was reluctant to say goodbye to that part of my life.  (The BC.)  I would never be the same again.  But guess what?  That’s okay!

I began with this rather lengthy introduction, as trivial as it might seem.  I want to draw an analogy to a passage in the book of Acts.  The story of Stephen reflects a dramatic shift in the life of the early church.  There is indeed a liminal space, an in-between time, in which change darlin’, is a-comin’.  The church will never be the same again.

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In chapter 6 we see what’s coming down the pike.  Verse 1 says, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek speaking believers] complained against the Hebrews [who actually spoke Aramaic] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”  The ethnic balance is shifting; the demographics are changing.

The church leaders see trouble on the horizon, so they arrange for “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to whom they can entrust this ministry of social justice, this ministry of compassion (v. 3).  One person stands out, our dear friend “Stephen, full of grace and power, [who] did great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8).

He draws the wrong kind of attention.  Stephen is becoming a pain in the rear end for many of the powers-that-be.  He is hauled in to appear before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, and give an account for himself.  For most of chapter 7, he gives a history lesson, starting with Abraham.  Things are going well until he gets to the temple, saying, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (v. 48).  The folks he’s talking to do not want to hear that.

But he goes even further.  “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (vv. 51-52).  They really do not want to hear that.

And so we get to the point where they see red and start grinding their teeth.  Things are looking grim for Stephen.  He’s in for a world of hurt.  That change in the church I mentioned earlier—that liminal space and time—is now coming into sharp focus.

Joel Kime comments on this.  “Right at that moment, something amazing happens, an astounding event that can help us learn to think differently when we are in the middle of pain.  Stephen, as we read in verses 55-56, has a vision of God.  And what’s more, he has the audacity to tell the people what he sees!  What can we learn from this?  Though he was facing a perilous reality, Stephen is 100% focused on God.  In the midst of his liminal moment, he was still attuned to God.”[3]

3 acThat’s what I touched on earlier.  That “not yet” time can bring with itself confusion, anguish, suffering, maybe even embarrassment.  Stephen is a good role model.  “What can it look like for us to focus on God, right in the middle of the uncertainty, the pain, the struggle?”

Again, that can involve us as individuals, a family, a church, or indeed the whole world.  This time of coronavirus is a time of wearing the bandana.

Stephen rips off his bandana.  As he prepares to meet his Maker, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And then, in Jesus-like fashion, while drawing his final breath, he cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vv. 59-60).

While all of this is going on, we’re introduced to “a young man named Saul.”  He’s keeping watch over of the coats of those throwing stones.  He gives a thumbs-up to the entire affair.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way: “Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.”

Here’s where we get to another of those liminal spaces, those liminal times.  Brutal persecution breaks out, with Saul doing his part by hauling believers to prison.  Again, here’s how Peterson put it: “And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.”  I often wonder how I would fare under such vicious treatment.  Would I cave in and renounce the faith?

After this baptism of fire, “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (v. 4).  When all is said and done, the forces of evil cannot defeat the forces of good.  It might take a long time.  It might take a great deal of perseverance, but those who stand will be empowered by the Spirit.

In these strange times, we are being called to persevere.  We are leaving one way of being and will be emerging into a future that has yet to be revealed.

Fullerton says, “Like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, we are led where we do not want to go—not once, but many times in our lives…  In the unknown space between here and there…life happens.  And, if we attend, we can feel the Holy Spirit moving with us in a way that we may not be aware of in more settled times.”

Is it possible, in some bizarre, unwelcome way, the coronavirus can actually be seen as a gift?  Please believe me, it’s not a gift I want!  But it’s here, and there’s not much we can do about it.  We can’t take it back to the store and get a refund.  (Partly because very few stores are open!)

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We’re told by Fullerton, “we can learn to let reality—even in its darkness—be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own.”  We encounter “a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

I again find myself being challenged.  Maybe I am wearing that new bandana presented by the pandemic.  Maybe I want to cover up a new scar.  Maybe I’m too slow to deal with the new reality that’s unfolding.  Maybe I’m not the only one wearing a bandana.

However, there are opportunities.  On Easter, my mother and sister, who live in Tennessee, tuned in.  My newfound family in Florida did the same.  And of course, we’re joined by the folks in Cohocton every Sunday.  Many of you have friends and family joining us.  That’s just one aspect of these crazy, strange times.

One thing we’re being taught is to slow down.  That comes with its own challenges.  We are being forced to make connections in new ways.  We need to stay true to that, to “live in it with [that] fierce aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of [holy] Presence.”

As we accept that unwelcome gift, we can join with Stephen as he proclaims, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

 

[1] cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26

[2] cac.org/the-liminal-paradox-2020-04-29

[3] joelkime.com/2020/03/25/what-to-focus-on-when-you-are-in-pain-acts-68-83-part-3


a large spirit

“I hate it.”  That was what Banu said to me when I asked her, “What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word ‘patience’?”  She said that it’s usually thought of as being patient while suffering.  I can understand that.  I’m hardly a fan of suffering myself.

Richard Rohr defines suffering as “whenever you are not in control.”[1]  That casts a wide net, but it might actually get to the heart of it.  He adds, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…  If we do not transform this pain, we will most assuredly transmit it to others, and it will slowly destroy us in one way or another.”

Over the past few years, even the past couple of decades, we can see this dynamic at work in our nation—and in the church.  We seem to be more divided than ever, and it is destroying us.

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Rohr continues,If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somewhere in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down…  The soul does not need answers, it just wants meaning, and then it can live.”

He’s on to something when he talks about the pain that we all experience.  Clearly, for some, pain is more intense than it is for others.  But if we do not transform our pain—or perhaps better, allow it to be transformed—we will definitely transmit it to others.  We will become agents of destruction.  We can quite literally become a pain in the rear end!

Some people transmit pain in a less obvious way.  Instead of primarily projecting it outwardly, they direct it inwardly.  They might want to bear their pain, their suffering, in silence.  They might feel like they have to.  This can lead to an inward spiral of self-pity, or maybe self-hatred, which inevitably leaks out.

Suffering doesn’t have to be so agonizing to do damage.  Our patience can be tested by something less than a life-threatening situation.

It has occurred to me that traffic makes time slow down.  It must be true!  While driving down the road, sometimes my car is the last in a line of cars.  There’s no one behind me.  On occasion, someone will pull onto the road right in front of me, forcing me to slow down—sometimes very quickly.  If the other driver had been willing to wait for ten more seconds, even five seconds, there would have been no drama, no temptation for road rage!  Apparently, five seconds feels like five minutes.

(You do understand of course, I have never pulled out right in front of someone!)

Waiting in line can also test one’s patience.  I especially enjoy being in line at a buffet restaurant, waiting for someone who is shoveling mountains on his or her plate.  Evidently, there’s a fear that the restaurant is about to run out of food.

In his letter, St. James does indeed link patience with suffering.  He doesn’t need to invent that connection; the community he’s writing to knows about suffering all too well.  This is real suffering.  It’s not the suffering that comes with slow internet service—or lamenting the terrible season that your team is having!

If we look at the beginning of chapter 5, we see him issuing a warning.  “Come now, you rich people,” he scolds, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten” (vv. 1-2).  It’s the old story of the wealthy beating down the poor, but as we see, their day in the sun will soon be over.

2 ja“Listen!” the scripture says, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (vv. 4-5).

Part of that in another version goes, “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves” (v. 5, Revised English Bible).  The unrighteous rich are fattening themselves up, like turkeys destined for Christmas dinner.

Still, with all of that in view, as we get to today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7).  (There’s a note for Advent.)  Even though being told to be patient might test our patience, it is the fruit, the evidence, of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5.  It goes along with love, joy, peace, and several others (vv. 22-23).  The word in Greek for “to be patient” (μακροθυμεω, makrothumeō) literally means “to have a long, or a large, spirit.”

The letter of James has many nuggets of wisdom.  In chapter 4 he says, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).  The secret of having a large spirit helps us to take a deep breath and to realize that maybe the sky isn’t falling!  (I freely admit, it’s easier to say that when you’re not in the midst of the storm, or if you’re not Chicken Little with the acorn falling on your head.)

Apparently agreeing with the idea that suffering means being not in control, William Loader says, “The alternative to patience is some kind of panic.  This usually assumes that everything is in my control or should be.  So I become anxious and I fear that not everything will get done.  I then push myself and others around me.”[2]

Drawing on James’ image of the farmer, the idea that “we can make the seed grow by worrying about it is an accurate enough parody of the way we sometimes behave.  Our anxieties will not add anything.  They will diminish us and those around us.”

Why is James so interested in seeing that his beloved audience gets the message to be patient?  Why insist on patience?  Why insist on having a large spirit?

James is deeply concerned about the community of believers; he’s concerned about the church.  Under the pressure of their suffering, he implores them, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9).

Susan Eastman has a few thoughts about this.

She says, “James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their ‘groans,’ against each other.  It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter…or simply to stop going to church.  How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises…?  How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?”[3]

The prayer attributed to St. Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” can be very difficult to live.  The part I find especially difficult is the section which goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”  That bit about seeking to understand, rather than being understood, I especially dislike!  I’m not terribly fond of being misunderstood, of being misrepresented.  I imagine I’m not the only one who feels that way.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time we think we know someone’s motives.

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Still, Eastman says that “patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker.  The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them.”  Silencing people is the method of a bully, which means we must resist the temptation to shut somebody up by smacking them upside the head—whether physically or emotionally!

If you look at the rest of the passage, James uses the prophets and Job as examples of patience.  Even though he finishes by saying “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” Job doesn’t quietly suffer (v. 11).  He questions God.  He yells at God.  Job might even say that the Lord is guilty of bullying him.  In that respect, he really is the picture of patience.

Sometimes change is defined as what happens; transition, however, is how we react to change.  What do we do with change?  Transitional times, especially in congregations, can be quite restless.  One of the challenges is to be patient with the process.  We might find there’s great wisdom in it.

Here’s another reason why this fits the season of Advent.  James says, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8).  We are counseled to be patient, to have a large spirit.  That results in trusting God, trusting in the one who comes.  We learn to trust in the one whose advent continues to lead us in casting a vision for the future.

It takes practice to cultivate a large spirit.  I spoke earlier about healthy religion.  With a spirituality that is nourishing, we recognize our pain—we own it!—but we’re able (eventually) to let go of it.  As noted earlier, it also involves recognizing the pain of others.  It involves recognizing the suffering of others and acting!

One way of doing that is by collecting donations of often overlooked items, such as toilet paper.  Not at all to make light of it, but lacking toilet paper represents its own kind of suffering.

I’ve sometimes thought if I had to do without, what would I miss the most?  Toilet paper, for sure.  I would also miss brushing my teeth, applying deodorant, using Q-tips!  It’s those little, basic things that wind up meaning so much.

Kristy Burmeister talks about a friend of hers named Melissa who has a story from when she was in church youth group.[4]

She says, “The youth minister had $10.  He said, ‘We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts.’ [including tax].  The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better.  In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.

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“None of them understood what it was like to be poor.  They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes.  I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor.  I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before.  I cut into the discussion.  ‘I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box.  I’ve lived that life.  As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store.  We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.’”

She says she was outvoted.

I have a crazy idea.  Has anyone thought of buying some brand new items, and then donating them to the thrift store?  (Now that I’ve said it, I better put my money where my mouth is!)

Speaking of the mouth, we come to verse 12:Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

First of all, there’s a long history of debating what swearing by an oath is all about.  It would seem, by a simple reading of the text, that swearing by any oathtaking is forbidden.  Sometimes, as these things go, conditions (maybe accommodations) have been made.  What is prohibited are rash or careless oaths.  Casual swearing (and understand, that’s not swearing in the sense of uttering expletives or “cussing”) is banned.  Taking an oath in court seems to be okay.

Here’s how the Passion Translation puts it.  (Although, it should be pointed out, it’s more a paraphrase than a translation.)  “Above all we must be those who never need to verify our speech as truthful by swearing by the heavens or the earth or any other oath.  But instead we must be so full of integrity that our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is convincing enough and we do not stumble into hypocrisy.”

My main point deals with the second part, that is, “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”  That word “condemnation” is from the Greek word κρισις (krisis), which means “separation” or “judgment.”  (I’m not sure why the Passion Translation calls it “hypocrisy,” but that’s a matter for another day!)

Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no.  Or to quote my mother, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”  Speak the truth; live the truth.  We might ask, “What does this have to do with patience during suffering?”  How do they connect?  What is the relationship between a large spirit and a truthful life?

As we saw, James uses Job to help make his case.  What was one of the bitterest parts of Job’s suffering?  Those lovely friends of his.

At first, they prove to be loyal companions.  When they hear of his misfortune, they travel from great distances to be with him.  They stayed with him, as the scripture says, for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).  They exercised what’s known as the ministry of presence.

They honored him in his suffering.  They didn’t offer any unsolicited and unhelpful advice.  That is, not until Job started protesting against God.  That was too much!  They were insistent that Job must have done something wrong.  Why else would he be suffering?  “Repent, Job,” they say, “and your troubles will go away.”

What happens when God addresses Job’s friends?  Does God say, “Nice job, guys, you got it right!”  Not quite.  They are chastised; they weren’t truthful, as Job was.  They are found guilty.

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What does James say?  “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not turn your pain against each other.  Live a truthful life.  Indeed, honor each other—honor each other’s pain and suffering, especially in these days: “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Well guess what?  It’s not so wonderful for everyone.

Our loving Lord, whose Advent is nigh, calls us to show that large spirit to bear each other up.  We all carry heavy burdens.  Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

 

[1] myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--What-Is-Suffering-.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=J5f-pdASkgU

[2] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpAdvent3.htm

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11

[4] www.patheos.com/blogs/waystationinthewilderness/2019/12/1467


a (humble) observation

I know my comments might sound snarky to many.  With God as my witness, I don’t intend that, but our president’s latest dust-up has me yet again concerned.  His repeated words and actions continue to have the (deliberate?) effect of encouraging the divisions that plague us as a nation.  I do pray for his administration to help foster wisdom and compassion.  (Although I must confess, my prayer hasn’t been as diligently pursued as it should have been.)

Some of his supporters in the church have noted, “We didn’t elect a pastor.”  Fair enough.  However, the only president who “sort of” was a pastor was James Garfield.  He was not ordained but did some “pastor” like stuff.  (On an unrelated matter, his presidency lasted less than a year, due to his assassination!)

Still, one need not be a pastor to be a model of decency.  He seems to enjoy giving people nicknames—and they aren’t flattering nicknames.  Authoritarian language like “the enemy of the people” doesn’t help.  I could go on.

Something that continues to be a thorn in my side is the advice of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, advice which has its origins in the Sufi tradition.  He speaks of the three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.

Here’s the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.  The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?  And the third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?

SufiNow those are words of wisdom.  Assume the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?).  At some level, I hope they are!

We come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.  It isn’t God’s truth.

Then we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

Based on all of that, I offer my reflections with a bit of humbleness—because Lord knows we are woefully in short supply of it.

[Richard Rohr’s words come from On the Threshold of Transformation, p. 341]


offering with Spirit

Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate.  In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard.  At least, I didn’t hear it.  I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.”  Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church.  (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)

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Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology.  It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists.  It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith.  Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds.  The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap.  Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet.  I need this jet.  Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”

(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)

We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much.  Still, it’s really not anything new.  It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet.  Take Job, for example.  When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned.  (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.)  He must have done something wrong.  If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.

There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up.  We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.

One more note about Job.  If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends.  “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.

2 lvIf that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?

Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities.  Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves.  It’s the vending machine mentality.

And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures.  There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path.  There is the vending machine.  Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.

In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart.  The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.

That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23.  The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.  He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).

If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong.  In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits.  Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.”  There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.”  Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.

I wonder if that applies to donations.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away.  There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin.  Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal.  It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!

3 lvHere’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!

But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.  Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).

Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love?  By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone.  By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.

Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society.  The foreigner is to be held in esteem.  The refugee is to be held in esteem.

Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do.  Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect.  Richard Rohr addresses this.[1]

“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure.  Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’  They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either.  A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important.  Jesus did this masterfully…”  We will see an example of that in a few moments.

Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice.  This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”

The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.

In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach.  He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6).  He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5).  He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system.  He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people.  The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.

4 lvIn Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  He has lived there almost three years.  They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.

Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up.  He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34).  Paul gives them a challenge.  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35).  He shows the proper use of money and resources.  As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.

And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels.  They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings.  For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great” (v. 35).

Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said.  These words of wisdom are among them.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  There isn’t enough room in all the world!  I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.

We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill.  They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:

“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).

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In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow.[2]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  Indeed, she is left destitute.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!

But it’s true.  Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal.  But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.

Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.  Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.

Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed.  We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love?  Do we share our resources in that spirit?

We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days.  Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center].  She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it.  (She gave me permission!)

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[This photo was not taken in the summer!]

She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.”  But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC.  There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing.  It is home and family and rest.”

She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life.  I needed to come to refocus and renew.  I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”

When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming.  Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”

Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”

Friends, that is what sacred space is all about.  Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space.  We are seeing that happen at the PERC.  We are seeing that happen right here.

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Give with holiness, justice, and love.  Give what the Lord lays on your heart.  Amen!

 

[1] cac.org/the-edge-of-the-inside-2019-07-09

[2] www.dougpagitt.com/writing


watery welcome

The 3rd of August 1986.  The Assemblies of God church in Tennessee I used to attend.  Suddenly, I’m immersed in warm water; I’m being treated to a full body bath.  (Fortunately, my bladder is not overflowing!)  I’m being held by my pastor, who is intoning words about the Holy Trinity.  (At least, I trust he is.  I can’t hear him under water.)

1 lk 3In case you haven’t already figured it out, I’m describing my baptism.  I was 21.  There were two people before me: a boy probably 8 or 9 years old, and a woman roughly 40 years older than me.  The three of us participated in what we Presbyterians and many other churches refer to as the sacrament of baptism.  My old denomination calls it an ordinance.

Very briefly, an ordinance is a practice that demonstrates a believer’s faith.  A sacrament (in this case, baptism) is a practice, that through the means of the Holy Spirit, grants entry into the church universal.  Infants and young children are baptized with the understanding that God sends the Spirit, welcoming them into the covenant of the family of God.

Our Book of Order puts it this way: “Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith” (W-3.0402).  At some point in time, of course, they should respond in faith, however that happens.

And maybe that provides a good transition.  We are claimed in love.  Ultimately, that’s the most important reason to enter the waters of baptism.

As we read today’s gospel text, St. Luke’s version of the baptism of the Lord, it looks like love is completely off the table.  Earlier in chapter 3, John the Baptist unloads on the people approaching him.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (vv. 7-8).

I like how the recently deceased Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase The Message.  He had some fun with it.  “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”

2 lk 3Okay, so where’s the love?  Let’s back up a little more.

The story of the baptism is torn from its context.  At the beginning of the chapter, we see Luke, as he likes to do, giving a recitation of who is currently in the government.  Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod, and so on.  He provides the political framework.  In response to John’s message, the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers all ask, “What should we do?”

Luke doesn’t go into this, but we learn from Matthew and Mark that John wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt—dressed like prophets of old, especially Elijah.  He ate locusts and wild honey, which are nutritious, but being in the desert, not a wide variety of food is available.

In describing John, Mark Stenberg starts right there.[1]  “In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick.  He is a political prisoner…  Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy.  He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people.  He was teaching people to share their stuff.  All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system.  So The Baptist is locked up.”

Herod doesn’t take kindly to John’s upsetting the apple cart, to his baptizing and making waves!

Luke gives a very specific reason for John’s arrest.  John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.  But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (vv. 18-20).  John told Herod marrying his brother’s wife was a no-no.  His criticism of Herod could have provided the pretext, the perfect excuse, to toss him into prison.

It might seem strange to have this note about Herod in the middle of the passage.  We’re talking about baptism before and after it.  What’s going on?

Some people say there’s no problem with the sequence of events.  John’s been baptizing and saying he’s not the Messiah; the Messiah is yet to come.  Herod throws him in jail.  So who baptizes Jesus?  Is John paroled and then arrested later on?  I don’t know if there are many people who go along with that.  The explanation commonly given is that the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus, however that happens.

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Another viewpoint is Herod is inserted to show the result of John’s ministry—and that he refused to back down.  By extension, with our baptism and baptismal promises, we might find ourselves in trouble.  To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely we would get tossed in jail!  Still, there are places in the world where that happens.

Having said that, it’s simply a question of Luke not mentioning John’s name as the one who baptizes Jesus.  And this does matter.  Luke emphasizes the role of the Spirit in baptism.  All four gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—include the story, but they present it in different ways.  The one major commonality is the descent of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in our theology of baptism.

We observe the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  It’s a time of remembering baptism and the promises made at baptism.  It’s a time for renewal.  Included in the prayer of thanksgiving are the lines, “We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born anew.  By your Holy Spirit renew us, that we may be empowered to do your will and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”[2]

That connection of the Spirit with baptism is especially made with the epistle reading in Acts 8.  We’re told that the apostles Peter and John laid their hands on baptized believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.  At least in this case, something visible must have happened, since an onlooker named Simon wanted to pay them for the power to do that himself.  There was some kind of sign, possibly (or probably) speaking in tongues.

Our scripture passage ends with all the people being baptized…  Jesus is baptized and is praying…  the heavens are opened…  the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove…  And then this: “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 22).

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Father Richard Rohr

It’s that final bit I want to look at.  Last of all, there is a heavenly voice, claiming Jesus as the Son and the Beloved.  “With you I am well pleased.”

We have wonderful words of welcome and acceptance.  Earlier I said the best reason for baptism is being claimed in love.  (Where’s the love?  Here it is!)  It is the ultimate claim in love, the claim God extends to us.  It is the ultimate welcome and acceptance.

Regarding welcome, Richard Rohr speaks of what he calls “the first permission.”[3]  He wonders if we’ve ever met someone who didn’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  He suggests, “Maybe that person seemed to possess an inexpressible sadness, or was unusually apologetic, or was possibly surly and brittle.  Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, he [or she] was not given the first permission—permission to exist.

“Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken.  No one ever held their face, looked in their eyes, and said, ‘Welcome to the world, dear little one.  I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist.  I love you.’”

The questions are posed to us: “Did I receive the first permission?  How have I given the first permission to others…?”  Has anyone (and how have they) expressed joy that we alive?  Can we look at the people around us and say, “I am glad that you are alive.  I welcome you!”?

I mentioned the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.  There are pastoral dimensions to the reaffirmation.  It’s not just something we do because today is Baptism of the Lord.  We saw how God extends promise and welcome to us in baptism.

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posted by Katie Klosterman on Pinterest

There are also promises reaffirmed which we make to each other.  At a baptism, the congregation is asked if they “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those to be baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”[4]  That’s no small thing.

Extending that watery welcome comes with a price.  If we welcome someone, it means we have to follow up on it.  Maybe that’s one reason why John the Baptist (in his cantankerous way) rebuked the people, calling them slithering snakes.  He wanted to let them know what baptism means.  It’s not a ritual to undergo to deflect public pressure.  It’s not something to just “do.”

Is there love involved in his ranting and raving?  One thing we can say is he doesn’t make it all about himself.  He isn’t boastful; he doesn’t take the credit where the credit is not due.  “I’m not the one you’re looking for,” he tells them.  “I’m just paving the way.”

So those promises are difficult.  In my own baptism, I knew I had walked through a door, but I hadn’t arrived.  I was just at the beginning.  Every day, we’re just at the beginning.  That also applies to those of us who were baptized as infants.  We are welcomed by God into the family.  Becoming aware of that when we’re older means learning that we’ve walked through that door.  The Spirit has led us, and we are always at the beginning of the adventure.  It’s a wondrous adventure, with the joys and sorrows that go with it.

With the ears to hear, we hear that voice extending those words of welcome and acceptance.

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[1] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/baptismofourlordcgosepl

[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 470.

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 58.

[4] Book of Common Worship, 406.


love in the mirror

When I was a little boy, there was a time when I was afraid of mirrors.  Mind you, it wasn’t because I was afraid of my reflection, though I wasn’t in love with it, either!  No, my fear was based on the boogeyman of youthful imagination, the boogeyman of horror movies.  One reason I think horror movies are so scary to little kids is because they live so much in the moment, and they think—no, they know—those things in their nightmares really exist!

Anyway, after becoming familiar with vampires, besides drinking people’s blood, a quality I found especially creepy was their invisibility in the mirror.  Especially at night, I dreaded looking in the mirror.  A vampire could be standing right behind me.  And what really freaked me out was the thought of something tapping me on the shoulder.

1 jaBut I was also terrified that I would see something behind me.  It could be anything: some grim beast or somebody wielding a dagger.  Who knows what one’s mind can conjure up?

In today’s epistle reading, St. James has his own thoughts about mirrors.  His fear however, is not that people are afraid to look at them.  Rather, his concern is their power to deceive, or maybe it’s better to say, the power people have at self-deception.  Hold that thought; we’ll do more reflecting on mirrors in a few moments.

The epistle of James, in some respects, is unlike anything else in the New Testament.  It has characteristics similar to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  That includes the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, and much of the book of Job.  Like those works, James has many lessons and words of wisdom.

(By the way, Jesus Christ is only referred to twice.  Only 3 John has less, where he isn’t mentioned at all.)

Our passage begins in verse 19: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  On that bit about “slow to speak,” the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard makes an embarrassing confession.

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Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

“I have just returned from a party,” he says, “of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit—[inserted in the text is a dash taking up almost half the page] and wanted to shoot myself.”[1]

He knew he’d been behaving like a horse’s (fill in the blank).  Has anyone here ever felt like that?  I know I’m not the only one who’s had a moment of sane and sober self-reflection and thought, “I really wish I hadn’t said that”?  I sure made of fool of myself.

Speaking of being a fool, Father Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before) outlines what he calls three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.  This is basically his take on a saying from the Sufi tradition regarding speech: “Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?”

So for him, “the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.

“The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?

“The third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?”[2]

Now those are words of wisdom.  Assuming the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?), we come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.

Our Book of Order begins with a section called “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”  Believe it or not, it has all kinds of good stuff.  Under the heading “Historic Principles of Church Order” is the lovely little paragraph on “Truth and Goodness” (F-3.0104).  It begins by saying, “truth is in order to goodness.”  That means even the truth must serve the good.  It must promote goodness.

3 jaAs just suggested, it is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.  It isn’t God’s truth.

So we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

There’s plenty to say about being “quick to listen,” but right now I want to be “slow to anger.”

There are many ways it can raise its hopping mad head, but there’s one I want to mention, infecting our culture.  Our beloved news networks, particularly the ones on cable, seem to enjoy generating plenty of heat, but not much light.  They don’t seem to be overly interested in actually educating their viewers.  Too often they seem interested in hammering home their viewpoints in red-faced rants.  “Where’s the outrage?”

It might help for everyone to take a deep breath, count to ten, and then think before we speak.  How’s that for being “quick to listen”?

Our friend James adds, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (vv. 20-21).  There’s plenty to say about that, but as promised, I want to move on with our reflection on mirrors.  Please bear in mind, we need to carry all of that wisdom we just heard when we gaze into the mirror.

He talks about “the implanted word,” and it’s the word of which we need to be doers “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22).  Here’s where that self-deception I mentioned earlier comes into play.  A mirror, figuratively speaking, can show us the way we wish to see ourselves.  Looking into it, we can highlight some qualities in an unrealistic way.  (Unfortunately, it’s often true we can see ourselves as less than, as worse than, we truly are.  We can beat ourselves up.)

James’ call to be quick to listen must also be translated into action.  We can behold ourselves in the mirror and get a good look, and upon walking away, forget what we just saw.

There’s a reflection on these verses called, “Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of the Word.”[3]  Our good friend, Kierkegaard—the one with the embarrassing story about the party—is quoted in it.  Stephen Evans, a professor at Baylor, is an expert on the Great Dane.  He says, “The fundamental purpose of God’s Word is to give us true self-knowledge; it is a real mirror, and when we look at ourselves properly in it we see ourselves as God wants us to see ourselves.”

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Inserting the world “properly” makes a big difference.  As just said, we can see ourselves for better or worse than we really are.  Perhaps seeing ourselves as better, as overinflating, means we have arrived; there’s nothing more to learn.  Seeing ourselves as worse might lead us to think there’s no point in trying; we’re going to fail anyway!

Continuing with his thought, “The assumption behind this is that the purpose of God’s revelation is for us to become transformed, to become the people God wants us to be, but this is impossible until we see ourselves as we really are.”  By the grace of God, we have a clear image of who we are—or at least, as clear an image as we mere mortals can have.  We aren’t left in the dark like those vampires.

Here’s verse 25: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”  What is “the perfect law, the law of liberty”?  James says in chapter 2, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 8).  The royal law, the perfect liberating law, is the law of love.  Love makes demands of us like none other.

It can be awfully easy to look into that mirror and say, “Okay, that’s who I am,” and then walk away and forget all about it.  But I know, nobody here has ever done that!

Still, if we hold to it, if we keep at it, we will be blessed in our doing.  I like the late Henri Nouwen’s take on blessing and being blessed.[4]  “To bless means to say good things.  We have to bless one another constantly.”

(That is “bless one another”—not “bless one another out”!  And as some folks say in the South, “Well, bless yo’ heart!”  Please note: that is not an affirmation!)

5 jaNouwen continues, “Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends.  In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings.”

What does that blessing look like?  James describes true religion, true faith.  We’re back to the bit about “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Bridle your tongue; don’t deceive your heart.  Care for those in need.  What about caring for those who do not know the Lord?  Or maybe, do not know in a way that makes the Lord a reality in their lives?

So much requires change—not something we readily embrace.  Still, life is, by its very nature, change.  Something that doesn’t change is dead.  The law of liberty, the law of love, is reflected in that mirror held before us.  That calls us to change.  What happens after that?  As the chapter ends, again by the grace of God, we “keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (v. 27).  We have a resource, a substance, to clean up the uncleanness we accept from the world around us.

The hymn, “What Can Wash Away My Sin?” does a pretty good job explaining it.  Here’s the refrain: “O, precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know, / Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  Oddly enough, with the blood of Jesus we are washed white as snow!  Our stain is removed.

We are shown the mirror of the word, and we find love in the mirror.

 

[1] A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 7.

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

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/174976.pdf

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/blessing-one-another


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!)

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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.’

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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


herd mentality

On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice.  When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves.  In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes.  He’s there to lead them against the Romans!

Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey.  Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).

In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).

1 palm sunday

Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples?  What would that mean for them?

I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday.  Or does it?  In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated.  Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is.  In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head.  In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.

Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word.  In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”  The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught.  God has given me the tongue of a disciple.  That word is also at the end of the verse.  “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”  Those who are taught:  to listen as disciples.

According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple.  The disciple is a teacher.  This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned.  We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”[1]

The path of discipleship is one of endless training.  It is one of endless training of others.  That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord.  Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ.  That requires both meekness and courage.

On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about.  It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.

In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin.  Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place.  It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!

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Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on.  As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road.  You could feel the hatred in the air.  It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.

It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks.  Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home.  There was more than one bloody face among them.  (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).

When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows.  It was the final angry act of the day.

There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me.  At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions.  I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!).  Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me.  He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.

He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me.  There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do.  And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!”  He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.

I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important.  Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence.  (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)

The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them.  Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism.  At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists.  It was the onlookers who were violent.  And I was a part of that violence.  In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality.  That’s not a good feeling.  I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.

For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart.  One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on.  We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.

There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about.  It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality.  Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this.  There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions.  There can be cult-like behavior.  Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.

Many studies have been done about herd mentality.  As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet.  No one knows who we are.  Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.

This doesn’t have to work for the bad.  When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.

For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice.  With others, we are heartened in an amazing way.  By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing.  But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.

In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down?  When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly.  They get anxious, with a vengeance.  (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)

3 palm sunday

When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive.  A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.”  It’s automatic.  It doesn’t take any thought.  When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.

Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives.  If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options.  Get your hand off the stove!

Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity.  (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”)  Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.

Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness.  Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else.  If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy.  Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.

Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict.  He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”

At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.

So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we?  (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”[2]

Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd.  At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.

But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints.  We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.

4 palm sunday

So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1965), 201.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 276.