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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Help! I have Fallen and Can't Get Up

I think most of us recall that commercial (around since 1987). It is an elderly woman, laying on the floor, crying out for help. It is a remarkably effective commercial because it captures the horror of helplessness. The human body is a remarkable construction and it is fairly resilient In time, however, it breaks down. I am at that turning point where that breakdown gets more serious. The eyes go. The hearing goes. The muscles ache and the connective tissues break. The mental and emotional stores are more easily depleted. The future looms as a less friendly place to be.

"Help! I have fallen and cannot get up!"

That cry raises a question which is then answered: Life Alert.
Life Alert is the answer; and the question is "Who will come to my aid in my time of need?"

But, of course, some falls are beyond Life Alert's power. They can only "alert" someone, after all, they are not in the healing business. They are in the 'security' business. Security in an insecure world.

One tenant of the Christian faith, particularly in the West, is "the Fall." St. Augustine, whose feast is today, ironically, is one of the theological masterminds of this doctrine. Smart guys like him work out the implications of Biblical revelation, always in conjunction with a keen intellect (reason) and observation of real life (experience) and in dialogue with the masters who have gone before us (tradition). God's Spirit is also at work in all this, leading, guiding, enlightening...

"Fallen-ness" is both a theological datum and a human condition. We are good and bad, a terrible mix which produces all manner of blessed moments and diabolical curses. This week I read that the "Teacher of the Year" was charged with child abuse! Really??? How could such disparity co-exist in one person? A mystery beyond comprehension (but less than surprising when we consider our own inconsistencies, right?).

The daily prayer routine of any person should include the cry "Help! I am fallen and cannot get up."
I must be raised up (passive voice) by the strength of another. I need help. Period.

We are victims and perpetrators all. Damaged and damaging. Blind to our own errors and hyper-aware of  any slight we receive. Resistant to God's will and resentful that He has not done what we want!

Who can help?
Thousands of years ago someone wrote this poem/prayer. We call it Psalm 121. (from Alter's Translation)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains,  from where will my help come?
My help is from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth...
The Lord guards you from all harm, He guards your life.
The Lord guards your going and your coming, now and forever.

And in our fallen state, realizing that we have fallen and we can not get up, we must decide if, in faith, we will cry out for help. Will we trust? Will we believe that God guards our life and guards us from harm, as we lay here, fallen?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Self Gift

Last week we proclaimed that the heart of the Gospel is “God saves.” In love He created. In love He redeems our misuse of the gift of dominion. In love He saves us from the spiritual forces at work as well. The reigns of this world’s Prince and the other principalities and powers are temporary. Jesus tells us to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom each day. We pray and wait, but we live as those who have already seen the New Age begin (in the life, cross and resurrection of Jesus). We also long for the completion of that work, when all things will be handed over to the Father by Christ.
Today, anticipating that glory of perfect heavenly worship, we engage in human, earthly worship. It is not perfect, yet there is value in what we do. Before us, the Jews worshiped God in the Temple. Like the pagan religions that worship centered on sacrifice. One “returns” to God out of all that one has received. The sacrifice itself, usually an animal or some produce, was consumed as a meal by the one making the sacrifice (with parts given to the priest and the rest consumed by the flames of the sacrificial fire). So sacrifice was connected with communion and eating. The cross of Jesus fulfilled/completed/perfected) the Temple sacrifice. The cross of Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice of the Son. However, Jesus connected the cross to the Last Supper, instituting our liturgical practice since the early church.
From the beginning the church wrote of Eucharist as a sacrifice or offering [Didache, Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine and Patrick, among others)]. Eucharist, like the Passover meal, is the liturgical expression of God’s saving act. Jesus’ sacrifice transcends time and space and, therefore, permeates every place and time; each time we gather it is for the one and only self-offering of Jesus on Calvary.
But as Paul makes clear today in Romans, we are also called to make a sacrificial offering of ourselves. We give ourselves to God only once, but renew it constantly each day.
Jewish worship had a strong component of ethical demands. An offering must accompany a righteous life, especially including justice for the poor and marginalized. Jesus emphasizes this in His own teaching; if you offer your gift on the altar and remember your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there, find your brother and be reconciled, and then come back to make the offering.
The bread, wine and our time and money are tangible signs of our self-gift, but their symbolic value is measured against the reality of our life. “Take my mind, heart and soul, O Lord!” may be a perfect prayer, but it is only when sincerely lived out that its perfection has any value.
We are tempted to think hard work and effort produced our success, but in truth we must say, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” Accidents of birth play the larger part in any success we enjoy. It is all grace and unmerited blessing. If you don’t believe me, ask a mentally or physically handicapped child, or a third world villager terrorized by a local warlord about the value of working harder…
And just as the bread and wine we offer returns to us, as the sacramental Body and Blood of Jesus, so, too, we, offered to God, also come back transformed.
That transformation/ metamorphosis in Greek, is a frequently overlooked miracle. We, many individuals, are made into the ONE Body of Christ. Like the Eucharistic meal, we too are mysteriously and simultaneously both our physical, unchanged selves and the spiritually changed Body of Jesus.
This is why Paul’s talk of self-offering moves quickly to “not thinking too much of ourselves” and remembering that “our gifts are for the benefit of the Body/Church.” In the worship world of self-sacrifice, it is no longer all about me!
In a post-Christian age, even we, who claim Christ as Lord and Savior, think as a secular progressive. We measure our gifts and talents first for their potential for self-benefit, in jobs, income and personal satisfaction. We rarely, if ever, assess our charisms/gifts from the perspective of church ministry and the community of believers. (Maybe one exception is the choir) Perhaps this is because, for all the yammering about the Holy Spirit, we have not had a renewal of mind and transformation of our thinking.
In the chapters preceding Romans 12, Paul explains the nature of grace and salvation. He transitions to today’s reading with the word, therefore. Because love and grace are true, THEREFORE, make a sacrifice, an offering of your life. Offer yourself totally to receive a new mind and heart. And understand, that process of being a holy sacrifice, is an ecclessial reality—it is churchly through and through—because we are the body of Christ together! Understand it and do it, for the glory of God’s name!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

You Say Who You Are

What is the pressing word in your heart?

As you live each day, what spontaneously bubbles up, sort of on its own? What word or phrase just forms on your lips with minimal effort or intentionality?

  • do you say "thank you" as you live the different moments. Are your eyes focused on the gift?
  • are you a "Why?" person, tossing and turning life's questions about, constantly scrutinizing what takes place and demanding an explanation, be it from the Creator or your next door neighbor?
  • ":what about me?" some find themselves consumed with, greedy for more, envious of others, or maybe feeling on the short end of things, cheated and mistreated.
  • "o my!" some exclaim, overcome by the beauty of  the sky, a child's face, a delicate butterfly or the miracle of each breath.
  • "#!&$@% You!", perhaps, summarizes your thoughts and feelings, as others seem always to be at odds, out to ruin our day, in the way.
  • "I am sorry," riddled with grief for things done and left undone, too conscious of our own darkness and longing for absolution.
  • "I hunger/thirst/want" an endless desire unfulfilled, always looking for the next thing or person to consume to fill the aching hole.
  • "Jesus" or "God", perhaps as a prayer, perhaps as a curse, perhaps without reverence and void of content
My goodness, I find myself thinking of dozens such questions. And I think of the different types of characters who ask them, and I am aware that in different times and places all of us ask one or another. We are not singular homogenous creatures after all.

But perhaps in our prayer and quiet time we can consider which type of word springs forth spontaneously. What word we would want printed on "our personal" tee shirt to be read by anyone, known or unknown. What word would be chiseled on our tomb stone to be read one hundred years hence by wandering children, the last communication we make.

I was thinking about the words that I say, and I wonder if, when held accountable at the Judgement Day for each one spoken, I will wish I had worked harder to say better words...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Have I Got a JOB for You?

The last two days we started reading Job in church at Morning Prayer. I was asked "the" question, so might as well address it first. "Do you think Job was a real person?" I said, "No." But I want to reconsider that answer, "Yes. Job is a real person, because Job is you and I (at least in our innocent suffering). It is about human suffering, and that suffering is very,very real."

There are lots of theories about the book of Job, but it seems fair to say that it reads like Wisdom literature. The ancient Jews, like most peoples, probably had folk tales and fables as part of their oral collections. The tale seems to be a convenient way to introduce in depth argumentation known as Theodicy (explaining God and evil). The historical issue really does not matter [I think lots of contemporary Christians would give Jesus a hard time about His parables ("Who exactly was the farmer, Jesus, and where did he live?"). Personally, while a real live human Jesus seems pretty important, I cannot say the same for Job.] So, as we start, let's say that whether or not this is thoroughly factual, it remains a  TRUE story which reflects upon the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people" or "What the heck is God up to?"

Job is portrayed as Mr. Perfect living the "Good life." He is blameless and pious, and his children (7 boys, 3 girls) are in harmonious relationships with one another. Job has extensive holding and is very rich. He also makes constant sacrifices 'just in case' there have been hidden sins.

God is portrayed anthropomorphically. He is a king who asks questions of His angels. "Where have you come from?" He asks The Accuser (literally ha satan in Hebrew). Like an overly enthusiastic DA, the 'satan' is quick to question God's positive assessment of His servant Job. To paraphrase, "Well he is rich so of course he is pious, but let his fortunes turn and he will turn on You as well." So God let's the satan/accuser test Job. All his holdings are stolen, his servants killed and his children die in a collapsed house.

Job's response to the annihilation is a well known verse: "Naked I came from the womb and naked I return, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

This is called worship. It is faith. It is indifference to the benefits of living a righteous life.
It is the starting point for reflecting on our own response to misfortune, not so much looking at the actual losses from a psycho-emotional perspective, but rather in terms of God in Himself, versus God in all that He does for me.

When the accuser unleashes round two on him, festering sores and affliction, Job still maintains that holy indifference. "We take good from God, why not bad?" It is that second question each of us must ask in the face of life's cruelty and personal loss; the question after "Why me, Lord?"

Why NOT me?
Why should I not endure what others have suffered? Why should I be spared?

Asking questions about justice and fairness, or the nature of God, will follow in the chapters ahead.
I think, however, we must pause first to ponder our own response, irrespective of our circumstance.

Why do I believe in God?
How do I love God?
and is it solely a function of the accidents of my circumstances?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

One Man's Efforts to Save At-risk Kids

"Ya got trouble, right here in River City...
Trouble with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for pool..."

Would that such lyrics summed up the depth of the trouble our River City (Memphis) had to deal with. We are long past pool hall problems, and the ones who know that best are frequently helpless to do anything about it.

St. Andrews has had a long standing and ever deepening relationship with inner city youth and families thanks to our friendship with Norman Redwing. I have known his family since the late 1980's and my work at Holy Names Catholic. I have known Ron a long time, but did not meet Norman until working downtown Memphis at St. Mary's Cathedral. He served at the local middle school (Humes, where Elvis himself attended in the day!). Norman was an energetic worker who sought ways to reinforce the kids making an effort to better themselves and I was able to connect him with some generous donors who supplied his kids with funding for materials and activities. Schools in poor neighborhoods are doubly burdened because there is a lack of local resources available and the surrounding neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and rarely supportive to academic success. The efforts of people like Norman are literally a life saving work. I ended up serving with a teacher group in attempting to make improvements. One was struck by the overwhelming challenges faced.

Sadly, what appears to have been an inside burglary cleaned out the audiovisual materials, television and other things. To this day I cannot understand how someone could have stolen from those needy kids. Soon after, hired by St. Andrews, I bid farewell to St. Mary's Cathedral and drove thirty miles east to (the once rural small town, now a growing, thriving suburban jewel) of Collierville and its 110 year old church. One thing I carried to this parish was a commitment to do something for folks in need. My relationship with Norman continued.

In recent years we have not only given them significant sums of money, but more importantly time and relationships. People here and there have made connections to their mutual benefit. A yearly shared meal is a time of deep blessing and joy. VBS, picnics, prayer meetings and other shared activities have been relatively easy to pull off. The remarkable difference that small things make is a reminder that we can make a bigger impact than we realize.

Norman and I speak at least weekly. I hear his joy with every success. I get reports on what happened for kids who went on a trip we sponsored, or the benefits to families at a dinner we provided. He is always focused on what redemptive works God is doing on the micro level. I hear the joy and gratitude and it is wonderful. Here lately, however, it has not all been upbeat. Two children have been shot and killed recently. He told me that there were five shootings in Memphis last night. One young man was a bystander, but he had been dabbling in gang related activities. The other child, aged 11, had the back of his head blown off. Norman repeated those words a couple times, a poignant indication of how deeply it had affected him. This was not a news story for my friend, it was his life and someone whom he knew and loved. He spoke about the shootings in Chicago and several other cities, repeating over and over "we cannot figure out what is going on and why." For some time the violence had seemed to be abating. "They are doing drive bys again," he said. He has theories. Perhaps it is a way to grab media attention. Gangs, now called "organizations" may be expanding. "Crazy initiations" may be part of the problem. He isn't sure that in some cases they are trying to kill folks, just shoot them. He wonders if police are undermanned and overworked. He and others like him are involved with information gathering and solution creation.

Yet he is always upbeat. He believes in God and loves the Lord. His own challenges (a young son with a medical condition, a job downsizing which cost him his insurance and income) are always minimized; "God is good, God is good!" That is why the folks at St. Andrews are so generous to his requests. We know Norman is doing God's work. He is the front line and we are his support team. His laughter and smile, and openness and honesty are a great gift to inner city kids and folks in the suburbs.

He was enthusiastic about me writing this blog today. He wants you to know and search your own heart for how you can help. We ask for your prayers for his work and for the children and families he serves. At core, that is what this is all about: our shared human condition.The need is so great. Please spend some time today asking the Father to bless this work. And maybe find your own angel to support in such godly work, or send Norman a bit to help him and his. There are a million stories in River City, some of them are "Trouble", it is our decision to be part of the solution.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guiding Narrative

I am asking you to chose a novel to read. You are given four options:
1. A love story about a young woman in a forced marriage with an older man, who falls for another man. The triangle is intensified because the two men are the closest of companions.
2. A story of warriors engaged in heroic battles, culminating in a brutal war where most of them die.
3. A story of a leader who is attempting to create a utopian society. The political principles for each stage of progress are all identified.
4. Two young boys, each the illegitimate son of a national hero, come to grips with their questionable birth and their lives are tied to the future of their nation.

"None of the four sounds interesting," you say, "I would prefer something with fantasy and magic and talking animals." No problem. You can read the same book as the other four. The same book, in this case, is The Once and Future King

The story of King Arthur and Camelot (choice 3) and the exploits of his mighty knights (choice 2) begins with a fantastic tale of the education of Art ("Wart") in numerous adventures with animals (the fifth preference). At the heart of the story is Lancelot and Guinevere, who betray Arthur and are the excuse for Arthur's illegitimate son, Mordred, to lead the rebellion which destroys Camelot, but not before Lancelot's illegitimate son (Galahad) arrives to almost save the day (choice 4). One's take on the story is going to shape one's "hearing" of the story.

Most great stories are big and complex enough to contain numerous "sub" stories, lots of narrative themes. I think we all know that. So the little boy wanting action skips over the "yucky" parts (the love story). We also know that the book experience is influenced by our own experience. If your wife left you for a close friend, perhaps Lancelot would be less tragic to you and more despicable. Or if you feel your father did not love you, maybe Mordred is more justified in your mind.

Real life is not a novel. But real life experience is guided by narratives. Narratives are the summaries which we carry around in our head which are interpretive. They lead us to focus on this or that. They lead us to overlook some details and hone in on others.

Last week in a Memphis magazine I got at Kroger, there was a touching interview with our Police Chief, Toney Armstrong. He had promised his momma to return home after his stint in the military, which he did, and he went to college and became a police officer. He describes policemen as the people who, hearing about a man with a gun endangering others, rush to the danger to protect and serve. Toney Armstrong is a Black man. He is also a "Blue" man.He lives in both worlds.

The narrative of his article was police man as protector and friend. It is the narrative I learned as a child. My grandma and mom told me, "if you are ever in trouble find a policeman." I grew up waving to police as they drove by, something I continue to do this day. This does not mean that I haven't had negative experiences. It does not mean that data about police corruption, police abuse and other problems are not part of my mental model. It means that I tend to assume cops are good guys, even if some do bad things. It means that my assumption is innocent until proven guilty. Now all cops are not good guys, some cops are actually bad guys and even the best cops do bad things. In other words, there is lots of evidence which negates my thesis that the police are heroes. It is the problem with summary statements and generalities.

There is a cop in my parish. He has told me stories about his experiences. What they deal with on  a daily basis (for what is hardly a lot of money) is pretty awful. I love the guy for his faith and courage and treasure his friendship. I also know that relationship reinforces my assumptions.

There are other narratives. Each is the narrative of people with different assumptions based on different experiences. These narratives are also valid. Some children are taught "the police want to shoot you, so do not give them an excuse." We need to hear those from the perspective of another.

Politics and beliefs enters in as well. One's view of social authority and personal rights are part of the discussion. What is the cost of safety? And there is also the problem of thinking things are much easier than they really are (why didn't they just "XYZ" instead of what they did?).

It is why we hear some complain, "another racist cop executes an unarmed Black child" on the one side, while another is "huge thug robs store, assaults small employee, disrupts traffic, assaults cop before being shot and killed." It is why some make up their mind when they heard about what happened, before getting any information. They question the reliability of the witnesses whose stories do not support their preferred narrative. And race is a factor but it is not determinative. I listened to two Black men on a Black radio talk show who said things I very much agreed with. Ironically, when I write those things a white man says it is because I am afraid of black people and a racist. So where is the truth? The truth is our narratives are helpful but reality does not fit our story lines. The truth is there is blame to go around for the WHOLE mess of racial conflict.(as for the particular event, let me make clear, I do not know exactly what happened and I am not on the grand jury) The truth is that it is there are things each of us can do differently to prevent tragedies.At least most of the time. The truth is the truth is hard to come by, in part, because it messes up the clarity of our own narratives.   

So perhaps we need to ask "what are my narratives?" What are the stories which guide my hearing and inerpretting?

I think praying for peace and justice is a better use of time than arguing.
I think nurturing loving relationships with "the other" (of all different classifications) humanizes the debates.
I think knowing what our narrative is helps us to see our assumptions/prejudices.
I think listening empathetically to the narratives of others can broaden our perspectives.
I think some problems are bigger than us, and we need saving.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On Resisting God's Spirit

Got to discuss my homily with my oldest son yesterday after church. He had, ironically, talked to me last week about the issue of God "controlling everything" because of a conversation he had had a few days earlier. Basically, some one who was DUI had hit and killed an elderly man. Apparently, that man had been talking about wishing his life was over, so the statement was made that God caused the wreck so the man could die. The logic of this left my son unimpressed. I told him I was preaching on that topic in a few days; so after I had, I followed up to get his view. He is a smart and thoughtful kid and it is interesting to me to hear his insights.

He said that what I said was what he thought as well. Then he said, "When people tell me 'but God has a plan" I say, 'I believe He has a plan, but I do not think we follow the plan.'" I think that is a good summary of a very complex reality. Obviously, much more can be and needs to be said, but it is facing the right direction, as I see it.

There seems to be constant confusion about the difference between "God's plan" and "God micro-manages every detail of everything that happens." An analogy (all talk of God is analogical...) might illustrate what I am pointing towards. As a father, I have plans for my kids. I plan for them to be faithful Christians, decent human beings, hard working and successful. To that end, I have raised them in a particular environment, prayed constantly, and set down expectations (torah). Part of the plan is go to college. I do not follow them around all day and tell them what to do, although there is periodic feedback with consequences for behaviors (good and bad). God, at least in many books of the Bible (let's take Genesis) seems to be similar. He has given us freedom to choose, given us dominion, and given us space (i.e., He is not "around" all the time). Of course, He has not orphaned us and He has communicated with us (Torah, Prophets and in these last days, His Son). He works among us, He is "with us" as the Hebrew Bible says over and over; yet that presence is Spirit.

So God's plan for us includes this element of choice, a choice we can and do exercise. In MP today I read Acts again, a continuation of Stephen's last sermon. In it I read You stiff necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit... That resistance is at the core of our problem. God's "control" seems to be less than complete (because God wants us to be free to choose). The reason why seems obvious, God made us out of love and for love; love requires freedom of choice. So God chose to give us the option, Outside of time with an eternal knowledge we cannot fathom, one assumes that He knew the cost of that choice. Those who believe in the incarnation and crucifixion have an idea as well.

Yes God does punish and discipline us, yes some things are His hand at work--discernment is needed. Yet, our freedom is real because He does not control everything all the time. Tthere are times when He goes to plan B because of choices we made and things that happen (and plan C, D, X,Y,Z!) How it all works, I do not know. I just know that if God is for us we have every reason for trust and hope. We should try to obey Him and follow His plan, but we can be grateful for  Redemptive Love whenever we fail.