Total Pageviews

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Downton Abbey and Prayer

We are watching the DVD of Downton Abbey. Apparently it is one of the most watched tv programs in the world and well it should be. The acting is wonderful and the setting, following the lives of a noble family and their staff in England during WWI, is interesting for historical reasons. Characters keep talking about the "new" times in which they live, there is a sense of transition as the old ways give way to new ideas about the role of women, the hopes of the underclass and other cultural assumptions. With few exceptions, the characters have that British control (coupled with a subtle and devastating wit) which leads to understatement. Communication is often blanketed. (It is not terribly different from Jesus' teaching through parables.) One must pay attention and give heed to understand.

The one glaring absence, in my mind, is the Church of England. The patriarch of the family, while totally invested in the class differences, is also a very good man. While he may be criticized by those who reject social status hierarchy, he cannot be faulted for a lack of respect for others, especially in his treatment of his servants. To be a servant in this world is to also have status. The butler is probably more status conscious than any of the others. But for all the obvious virtue and culture, there is next to no indication that these people have included God in their lives. Perhaps faith in England was already so paltry one hundred years ago, but I doubt it. It is more likely that this reflects the secularity of the (contemporary) writers and producers.

There was one scene, however, which proved the point by its exceptionality. One of the daughters was caught on her knees beside her bed in prayer by her sister. In a somewhat mocking (or was it merely shock and surprise?) tone the "discoverer" accused, "Why you were praying!" The "discovered" sister dismissed the charge in no uncertain terms (think of Peter in the courtyard when Jesus was on trial) and, as she does not like her sister, quickly dismissed her as well. Then, speaking out loud, she voiced a prayer. While acknowledging that she had poor standing with the Almighty, she did say "if I have done anything good" (or something to that effect) "then I hope you will hear me and protect Matthew" (a soldier on the front with whom she is in love). For a brief moment the horizon is broadened and we glimpse eternity and the God who rules over all.

The content of the prayer, an acknowledgment of sinfulness coupled with a desperate plea for God's intervention is classicly Jewish. The Ancient Covenant (OT) texts reflect Israel's prayer in the same terms. Face it, we are all, however committed or not, far from the Lord in terms of our love, obedience and service. Yet our need, which is also total, cannot be ignored. We cry out because we live in a dark world (and WW I was particularly dark, especially in the killing fields of the trench warfare) and only in God is there light and hope. However, where the young woman goes off the tracks is in thinking that somehow it is her status which would generate\s a positive answer, rather than the grace and mercy of the Heavenly Father. "If I am..." "If I have.." Aahh, the fault dear lady lies in the assumption that we can come before God with anything which entails His indebtedness to us, better to cling to His kindness than our goodness!

The irony is that people who live in a multi-leveled society should be even more keenly aware that the hierarchy of human society (from royalty all the way to the lowest rung) reflects a grander hierachy in the universe (Where the Godhead and all manner of angels occuppy the places above us). The woman, had she been shaped by the Anglican worship and prayer book, would have encountered, daily, the recognition of penitential prayer but also the centrality of Jesus. Herein, lies the problem. It is Jesus who is the Great High Priest. It is Jesus in Whom and through Whom God reaches into the dark world and the people in darkness reach back to His wonderful light. The sad truth is most of our media is run by people who do not know Him and cannot serve Him. So even the finest productions (once again, it is a marvelous show) have a gaping hole at their center. People without God are merely animals (hairless apes who can play piano and softball, but apes nonetheless). People without God are tragic entities, able to do little more than create memories for others as they age and die, unable to extend life's grasp beyond a century (and in many cases expiring in a matter of years or decades). The beauty of the earth fades, the wonders of nature wear out. It is all so temporal, so fleeting. The flawless face of the young woman is etched soon with wrinkles, the bright eyes and lusterous hair give way to cloudiness and grey. (recall Ash Wednesday: you are dust and to dust you shall return) It is all so tragic, yet not. For if the Triune God remains unseen (and unspoken of) in our midst, even some texts of the Ancient Covenant (OT) do the same (Esther and the Song of Solomon!). And He is no less present and no less active for our lack of recognizing the Holy, Invisible One in our midst.

"God is." Whether He is recognized or addressed matters not for His being. It matters greatly for our own. In our Lent we are called to pray, study and serve. Prayer is the key. The constant prayer of the heart allows us to ever live in the conscious (or semi-conscious) awareness of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The absence of prayer and the absence of God diminishes us and draws us from our truest identity and our purpose and destiny. Living without God, even in the magnificence of Downton Abbey, is life in darkness. All light is man made, passing and insufficient. The uncreated Light of Lights has come into the World. Encounter Him each day, over and over, in prayer, Scripture (New and Ancient Covenant texts) and in study and the works of God. If God reigns in your heart, then your home, however humble, will be more glorious than the Downton Abbey Mansion---for it will be a Temple! [addendum. Last night I watched several more episodes--this stuff is addictive-- and am happy to report my favorite characters, Anna & Mr. Bates, visited a church to pray. In addition at war's end the whole house gathered for silent prayer and a priest appeared on the scene for a death bed wedding. Most importatntly, a funeral scene included a declaration that Jesus is our hope for resurrection, couched in the language of the English Prayer Book. SO it appears that my concerns were heard, before I uttered them...]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Faith and Works

Lent is a season of renewed commitment to discipleship. This is our work, yet we recognize it is God Who has accomplished all that we have done. This Sunday I preached on Abraham. In Genesis 15 we  have the famous verse which Paul uses in his argument for faith. Abraham believed  the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. My point, tying it into Fr. Rene's homily the week prior (on lies, see  yesterday's post) was that Abraham may have had faith, but it was not of such sturdy stuff to be unassailable. In fact, in Genesis 16 Abraham, following Srah's lead, impregnates her hand mainden Hagar to assure an heir. Abraham may have had faith, I explained, but he also had Plan B in the event God did not act quickly enough. The Genesis text never says that Abraham doubted or lost faith. However,  he certainly acted like someone who did. And while his faith was reckoned as righteousness, his works (outside of that faith) brought great suffering to many. Had Abraham done the works of faith consistently world history could be different!

In my two weeks of preparing to preach on faith and faithfulness, I found that "faith-works"  was a sort of background noise in my soul. [It is hard not to think about such things through the prism of the Western Church's Civil War (reformation).] To make it more intense, last Friday we discussed the book of Hebrews, where the words faith and obedience are used interchangably. One almost is led to think that they are, in Hebrews, one and the same; or at least two sides of the same coin.

With that in mind, it was interesting as I prayed on the exercise machine at the YMCA yesterday. (We  have computer screens so I went to Bible Gateway) So as I am doing my aerobics I can also read Scripture privately in public. Anyhow, we are now reading Romans in MP so I went back to review the first chapter. There I read among the opening words this phrase "to bring about obedience in faith" [ ἐλάβομεν χάριν καὶ ἀποστολὴν εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως can also be translated obedience to the faith]. I was struck by the close connection I  had seen in Hebrews. Later as I prayed some psalms I was reminded of the centrality of faith in the Jewish Bible (Tanak). The ancient covenant texts emphasize faith so often. Psalm 32:20 steadfast love surrounds those who TRUST in the Lord; 33:18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love. Psalm 34 picks up on similar theme, proclaiming the salvation of those who seek the Lord, who take refuge in the Lord, fear the Lord--yet clearly sees a behavioral component as it says those who keep from evil, do the right and are righteous will find salvation.

All of this stirred up rabbi Leman's answer to a question on our retreat day the first Sunday of Lent, "How do Jews think they are saved?" His answer (including the discalimer that there is not a single Jewish belief) was that they believe that all who "cling to God" as part of His people can trust in His salvation. I think that such trust is at the core of Paul's teaching on faith. And I think such clinging includes the expectation that one is busy with the works of obedience, justice and faithfulness. In the Jewish Bible and in the early church it seems faith and works were seen more organically.

I am not much troubled with the faith vs. works debate any more. I think it is a false argument. It misleads. It is like debating what keeps us alive when breathing: inhaling or exhaling? Bringing in oxygen or expelling carbon dioxide? Failure to accomplish either is deadly, we must achieve both to live. Sort of like faith and works, trust and obedience, faith in mind & heart and faith in word & deed. In Lent we pray for faith and commit to more faithful works. We see both as composite parts of the life of discipleship. Rather than ponder the relationship and engage in theological debates about it, we are better off to trust God, hope in Him and believe. And believing we should then do the works of righteousness which also save!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lies, Lies and the Damning Lie

Sunday I preached on Lent. Day 10. Lent's 40 Days are one fourth over and 25% is a signficant chunk of the time given us to do the holy work of spiritual preparation for the Passover of the Lord Jesus and His death, resurrection and glorification.

Church is like a movie. It can lull one into spectator status. You sort of hunker back and watch it all (word and sacrament are a performance after all). Most Christians tend to see Easter as the big event, so they are like folks who come into the movie and watch the last fifteen minutes. They see all the loose ends tied up, the hero emerge victorious, all's well that ends well. In many cases, already familiar with the story they feel no need for any more than the bright sunshine to end the day.

Lent is a time not only to watch and listen, but also participate. It is a movie in which we have a role. We incarnate in our (broken) lives the same story which Jesus recapitulates (He takes our life story into Himself; He is in us and we are in Him). In Lent we hear and we put into action. We eat and drink and are consumed by the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood. And we do the works of the Kingdom (proclaim, teach, heal, exorcise--in myriad ways) until the Kingdom comes.

My associate in ministry, Fr. Rene, preached a wonderful sermon on the temptations of Christ. Using contemporary language, he said that there are three temptations which we struggle with. They are LIES! They are the words of The Liar (satan) and we are tested (the Greek word means both; tempt and test) by the demonic as it seduces with the lie, filled with half truths.

  • If it feels good, do it
  • look out for number one
  • live for the moment
Each of these lies, as I said, has some truth. The problem of lies is that is their nature. They are perversions, a deadly twisting of truth which takes something wholesome and helpful and makes it destructive. Today's Morning Prayer reading from Jeremiah sums it up well. We have left the true God to worship gods of our own making. It is good to worship God, but not all gods are God.  The result, to quote the prophet, is "they have forsaken Me (God), the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." There it is. Our replacement gods and our choices (living out the three lies above) result in our own damnation. Our own loss of everything. Our own sorry and broken condition.

  • It is good to do what feels good, except sometimes (many times) we have to do what is hard and difficult for a higher good.
  • It is good to look out for number one, but we have to have the right ranking system. If we put the wrong person (me) at number one, then we will not serve the true number one. As Brian Piccolo's story reminds us God is first, others second, I am third.
  • It is good to live for the moment, but it is vital to factor in the future. What other example to American's need beyond the pending financial collapse under the billions of dollars of debt. As politicians debate about "what we can afford to cut" they ignore the cold, hard facts of math. Eventually, debt is too great and it all collapses. Same for our sinful decisions.

Rene concluded that our willingness to embrace these three lies is fueled by the Mother of all Lies: Do not trust God and His pomises.

There it is. Jesus promises to die and rise again. His apostles fail to trust. They will betray and desert Him. If part of our discipleship is Sunday worship (and it is, in spite of what people say) then it is clear that on any given weekend some 50% to 70% of us are deserting Him. If prayer and study are the life breath of Christian faith, then each day we betray Him (and ourselves, those useless cisterns again). The Triune God offers us a share in His/Their Divine communal life. Jesus is the gateway to that. Incarnation, Life and Ministry, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Enthronement and Eternal Priesthood are all aspects of God's saving work. Eventually, The Kingdom will come. In the meantime, all we do and all we are is best spent in preparation for the Kingdom. Where it will feel good all the time, where we will be taken care of perfectly, where the moment is eternal and where the promise of God is fulfilled. That is the truth.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Celtic Way

During Lent I have committed to the discipline of the Jesus Prayer and am reading the book about the Russian pilgrim called The Way of the Pilgrim. Steeped in the Russian Orthodox spirit, the book resonates with a sense of sin and unworthiness. The pilgrim indicates that regular use of the Jesus Prayer has led him ever deeper into an awareness of his own humble state. There is a gloomy darkness to it all, yet permeated with great light and joy (because the focus is even more on teh good and holy God qnd our Lord Jesus). The paradox (gloom and light) is hard to wrap one's mind around. Part of that may be because I read his words through the lense of my cultural experiences and assumptions. Even so, my journey with the Pilgrim has been a blessing. I have seen concrete evidence of the value of praying without ceasing by employing the Jesus Prayer these last two weeks. In addition, I  have noticed in myself a desire to create alternative prayer forms which, while similar to the Jesus Prayer, have a different emphasis. One of these, repetitive thanksgiving, has truly blossomed in the last week.

I shared my experience with the baby yesterday. The insight into my limited intellect and limited insight and limited understanding has led me to understand why I must pray thanksgiving more constantly (with less petition and intercession). For many years I have criticized the concept of prayer as a "to do" list for God. At our healing conference last Fall the import of thanks and praise (rather than begging and pleading) opened my mind to more deeply understand that trust in God implies the belief that He desires to bless us. Thanking God for His kindness and mercy transforms one from "a manipulator of the gods" (human religion in its lowest form) to a son/daughter in the household of a gracious Father (the model which Jesus displays). To voice one's gratitude is to recognize that one is a baby in the arms of God. It is also to acknowledge that our cries are enough for, as God revealed to Moses, He sees, He hears, He knows, and He remembers His covenant. He is a God of redemption, salvation, healing, renewal and life-giving love. Content in that knowledge, how can I keep from a torrent of praise and thanks, even if (maybe especially if) He is not doing what my less developed mind thinks best?

In preparation for a retreat I am leading for our parish in a few weeks, I have been rereading George Hunter's THe Celtic Way of Evangelism. Going back to the mission work of St. Patrick (providentially the date of our Sunday afternoon retreat is Patrick's Fest day) Hunter provides information on the the first great missionary effort of the post-Apostolic Christian church. Patrick and later Celtic Saints, bishops, monks and laity were the drivng force for Christianizing pagan Europe.  Perhaps in the days ahead I will share about his book (and tip my hand on the retreat content!)

What I want to look at today was (p33) Celtic prayer. Quoting from Ray Simpson's Exploring Celtic Spirituality, Hunter says that the Irish approach to prayer is less structered and more focused on the middle way (between the two poles of "ultimate concerns" which are philosphical, theological and the stuff of liturgy and at the opposite end, the concrete, functional world of science and technology) The Middle Way has to do with negotiating life and its daily challenges. Things like taking care of the kids, doing our job, keeping up the house, interacting in relationships. Celtic spirituality permeates the every-day with an awareness of God-among-us (Emmanuel) and expresses that faith lyrically in its prayer.

Hear Hunter: "Contemplative prayer is the way we fulfill St. Paul's counsel to 'pray withous ceasing.' It is an ongoing or very frequent opening of the heart to the Triune God, often while engaging in each of the many experiences that fill a day." Like the Russian monk, Patrick and his followers, seek to take St. Paul literally. The Celtic model is more Trinitarian, using poetic turn of phrase rather than repetition of the Jesus Prayer. However, in the simple nature of the words, there is a degree of repetition. In Patrick's famous prayer, for example, we say, "Christ above me, Christ below me, Christ to the right, Christ to the left, Christ behind me, Christ before, Christ in all I meet this day." It is repetitive in its theme even as it provides multiple pespectives on the one presence of Christ. This makes sense of my own drive to add additional titles to the Jesus prayer. [Lord Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary, Son of David, King and Lord, Messiah and Savior, Lamb of God, Great High Priest, Conquering Warrior, Word made Flesh which then leads to employing other verbs in addition to the cry of mercy; heal us! save us; rescue us; pray in us; use us; glorify your name in us; etc. Such prayers can develop into an endless combination of praise, thanks and small petitions, which when said over and over (maybe with the aid of prayer beads or rosary) can fill the mind, heart and soul with attentiveness to the Triune God and openness to God dwelling within and ruling us.]

Obviously, one cannot say which of the two ways (Russian or Celtic) is right. Each grows out of a human context. And neither can easily be co-opted by a middle class, white guy in America shaped and formed by the assumptions and beliefs which have so deeply influenced how I think and believe and practice my faith. I am praying ilke someone else as I embrace either model. Yet I can learn from each and waken within me that which does resonate with the two approaches. After all, my Scriptures are ancient and Hebrew, later (NT) Jewish mixed with Greek culture. I stand outside when reading my Bible as well. Yet I know by analogy with my own world that God Who revealed Himself to them back then, over there, can and does speak to us (&me), in and through these words. And the holy men and woman of different places and times, reading and living those same Biblical words, provide me a wealth of spiritual teaching. we are different, but we share much as humans inspite of cultural differences. And following their way can help me know and understand how better to live the faith in my/our way.

I am a baby. Too ignorant and too simple minded to understand fully the ways of God. But I do think and feel and if not enough to grasp God in toto, surely enough to be able to know, love and worship Him. Not as He deserves but as I am able. So I listen to the words of other babies, Russian and Celtic. And I fill the hours of the day with thoughts of God, with meditation on realities which i try to integrate in my living each day (that middle way!). I concentrate on simpler prayer, prayer focused more on thanks and praise, prayer focused on awareness of the Triune God who is (invisibly) near and whose care and kindness can be trusted. And I share this journey of faith with you dear reader. The more we pray the more our world is open to His Kingdom!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Visions and a Baby

My wife and daughter are on a college preparation visit all weekend. As a result I am home alone with the boys. Big brother has baseball and buddies so I have seen little of him, most of it in those brief moments shuttling him to and from practice or church youth group. Baby boy, on the other hand, has been a constant companion. At 21 months he is decidedly more dependent upon me for everything. He eats a lot and he produces a great deal of waste. It is quite a time for daddy and his little boy.

Baby's godfather has been along for the ride. His wife is also out of town preparing for their daughter's wedding next weekend; he will join them midweek. In the meantime he and I have announced we are filming our own movie: "Two Men, No Wives, and a Baby." As I am pretty engaged with my little fellow when I am home, this time is not dramatically different for me with one glaring exception. On Saturday, when I left for work, baby was in tow. No one home to watch him. On a typical Saturday we meet at 3:00 to pray, study and discuss the healing ministry. Saturday at 5:00 we have our vigil mass which includes a component of healing prayer and annointing. It is truly one of the most focused and prayerful times of my week. My plan was to bring the baby with me so that we could do an extended time of prayer with and for him. [He has some challenges] My only concern was how he would react to a group of adults laying hands on him, or trying to!

As we drove to church he quietly sat in his car seat; drifting off to sleep as I pulled into the parking space. I fully expected the blast of cool air would waken him as I took him from the car. It was not what happened. Instead he remained sound asleep. At our meeting we moved to the prayer period and had an extended time of praise and thanks for the healing power of God let loose in his small body. Not all of the healing is manifest yet, but we trust him to God and look toward the day. At any rate, I am confident that God hears our cries. My first and most frequent prayer, "Lord make him holy," will not go unheeded.

At the end of our time we sought a vision. This is a prayer exercise which we do periodically. I learned of it at a conference years ago and it is remarkable. We did a variation of it, and basically it is a time of quiet resting in the Lord and opening ourselves to any word or image which he wants to provide. Sometimes it is mysterious, sometimes obvious, always it is a gift. In general, I am not prone to such things. My mind is more intuitive than sensate so visual images are less common for me. However, as I sat with my baby, now awake but quiet and stirring minimally, a "vision" of sorts came to me. I share it here for your own reflection.

I am a baby in God's arms. Like my toddler aged son, I have a mind of my own. I think, feel, desire and try to impact my environment. I beseech my Heavenly Father even as my baby son seeks to control me. Like the baby, I get grumpy and frustrated when my will is not done. Like my baby I think I know what I want and I trust that I know best. Like my baby, I am way lower in function than my Father. That was the insight. God has said in the Scriptures a number of times that we are not able to grasp His ways. He is a mystery. In Isaiah's words (paraphrased) "As high as the heavens are above the earth so far are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts." We all know it, we just don't factor it in when we ask those (devastating!! insightful!!) critical questions that begin with "If...why?" If God is good, why does He let bad things happen, etc.

Seeing my baby in my arms, struggling to have his way, confused and frustrated when his father does not do what he wants his father to do, I am seeing myself. I do not know or understand near enough to question God. My intelligence is insufficient. And Saturday that came clearer for me. It is time to trust more and love more, it is time to be humble and acknowledge my limitations. Such things are scarey, but made less so knowing I am in the arms of The Father, the God of Jesus Christ. The Creator Who loves me (and YOU!) and Who is always at work making this work out to the best.

It was a good vision. I hope it shapes me in days ahead.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Reading the way of the Pilgrim and came across the Eastern, in this case Russian, Orthodox discipline of fasting. They abstain from meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, oil and wine. Obviously that leaves grains, vegetables and fruits. The act of fasting occured numerous times a year including what we know as lent and advent, plus the first two weeks in August, the between one and six weeks between Pentecost and June 29th and numerous one day fasts associated with various holy days.

Ironically, in our own day when we have so much more food, fasting is less popular as a discipline. One is reminded of the adage, those who have little can easily embrace nothing, those with much feel the discipline more sternly. While fasting is a helpful discipline for our prayer life (and according to many a healthful practice as well) it is often times neglected.

I am aware of the dangers of fasting as an empty discipline. I also know that in the Scriptures our God calls for us to fast from injustice. Sometimes it is easier to be hungry than it is to create a God ordained social order. Even so, it seems that fasting, which aids our prayer, would be a welcome addition to our lenten practice. One who prays more deeply is more open to a spirit of justice, right?

Perhaps someone needs to hear this, perhaps it will serve as a motivation or a divine affirmation of an impulse to fast. I know that fasting does quiet the soul and makes prayer easier for me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jesus Prayer

To pick up on yesterday (The Way of the Pilgrim:The Jesus Prayer Journey) note that some are critical of book. provides a more thorough assessment from a Russian Orthodox blog. The best of the three, it goes into greater detail about the book and offers a stern reminder that the speed of transformation by this prayer is SLOW and that the goal is to offer each petition intentionally and reverently.

One practice of the Pilgrim was frequent use of the sign of the cross. The use of the sign of the cross is met with resistance in some quarters. However, this action can be a physical expression of sincere faith. As such, at times, I am trying to include signing myself with the cross each time I say the Jesus Prayer; mind, lips, heart, body all focused and in sync on the singular event; calling out to Jesus for His mercy.

One immediate fruit of the repetition of this prayer has been the time consumed by praying is no longer available for less helpful thoughts. I do not know about you, but I find my mind constantly ruminates upon unhelpful things. For example, if there is something in my experience which disappoints, let's say my kids leave dirty dishes on the table, I often find myself outwardly being a faithful servant (I put them in sink) but inwardly I engage in a spontaneous process of destructive thinking (I am irritated and think of other times they  have been thoughtless, I think about all I do for them and how ungreatful they are, I think of punishments which I want to dole out to them, etc.). Now maybe I am the only one with this type of free flowing thought, but I doubt it. By reviewing (constantly) reasons to be disappointed and frustrated, I add fuel to the fire of anger and resentment. It is just plain hard, however, to call on Jesus, over and over, while thinking such negative thoughts. He emptied Himself of His divinity to take on our humanity. He died on the cross. He freely loved, reconciled and blessed sinners (like me) and invites us into the Father's Kingdom. Can I go to Jesus to seek mercy without being merciful? Can I go to Jesus, the great servant of humankind, without a servant's heart? Can I repeat the holy name and then blaspheme it by being petty and self-seeking? Obviously, no, I cannot.

So this simple prayer leaves no room for a more bitter alternative practice. It fills up the empty minutes of my day with holy thoughts and leaves less room for thinking about things which do me (and others) no benefit.

Now is every utterance of the prayer sincere and focused and completely perfect expression of my heart? No. Obviously, there are times when it is just a repeated phrase. Yet, even then, in those unrecollected moments, I am saying the right words and not thinking about things which do not benefit. I should seek to be sincere and focused, I should seek to make my heart more authentic but I can take solace in knowing if I am not doing it as well as I would like, I am still not doing negative things...

There will be spiritual assaults upon us if we choose to go deeper with God. It is not a practice which we slip into easily (here the book must be read with caution. One should not assume that in a few days one will be a practiced expert). Doubts and concerns and worries will push all the harder. The world, the flesh and the devil are real adversaries and like any institutions will fight to the end to sustain themselves. And lest we think that this pilgrim is so different from us, a being from a time and place unlike our own where prayer makes sense, hear his words (p 45) about a fellow traveler in the journey of prayer:
Listening to him [the other pilgrim] speak I sympathized and thought to myself: they say that only the educated and the intelligent are prone to freethinking and belief in nothing. But here is one of our own--a simple peasant--and what doubts he is capable of ! It appears that the powers of darkness are allowed access to everyone, and perhaps it is easier for them to attack unsophisticated people. What were these doubts? A brief list: Is it really true what that book (Bible) says--that dead men will be resurrected...who really knows if there will even be a one  has come back from the dead...maybe the book was written by some clergy...just to scare us fools...Life is full of hardships as it is, without any consolation--and there won't be anything in  the next life. So what's the point? Isn't it better to take it easy, at least in this life, and to enjoy yourself?

All of us must decide, based on the same set of data. Do I believe or not? If I do believe, how then shall I live? For a believer, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is a most helpful and fruitful practice, especially when accompanied by attendance at worship, faithful community life, study of Scripture and the teachings of holy men and women, and a life poured out in obedience to God, serving the needs of others, and hanging on to Jesus for all you are worth! I hope you find time each day to practicing the Jesus Prayer (or some form of it which resonates with your own faith expression) and that in setting aside this time, and filling idle moments with repetitive prayer, you find yourself less able to engage in unhelpful practices of thought or behavior, and more inclined to love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Journey With a Russian Mystic

During Lent, I have used our church mission statement (lifted from St. Benedict) which serves as a pretty thorough overview of the Christian life: To be a worship community committed to prayer, study and work (work is defined as inreach to other disciples and outreach to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed). I challenge everyone to focus deeply on one aspect of the mission and to use the forty days of Lent to prepare to be a new creation for Holy Week and Easter. My commitment has focused on prayer (the Jesus Prayer) and study (reading The Way of the Pilgrim:The Jesus Prayer Journey).

I have in the past worked with the Jesus Prayer, usually with mixed success. Now as I am making a serious effort to integrate the Jesus Prayer into my life I am finding some blessing. It is hard to know why things go that way. I want to share briefly that I have not found late adulthood to be an especially fertile time. I would hesitate to share this (in part because it does not speak well of me) if I did not  hear the stories of other men in similar straights. My theory is that having lived for many decades there is a sense of "been there, done that." We are also tired, less energetic and less hopeful that we will get better. Perhaps the best part of this stage in life is a deep and abiding awareness of my own need for salvation, my helplessness to become the man I long to be and my certitude that if there is any hope, it is in God alone.

Combining study (of The way of the Pilgrim) and prayer (constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer) has proven to be helpful. The book, first published in 1881 (he dates to our own Civil War period) is very simple and relatively short. The Skylight Illuminations version ( is 131 pages, half of it text and the other half informative notes (on opposite pages).

The Jesus Prayer is defined as "the uninterrupted, continual calling upon the divine Name of Jesus, with the lips, the mind, and the heart, while calling to mind His constant presence and beseeching His mercy, during any activity with which one may be occupied, in all places, at all times, and even while sleeping." (p. 15) The prayer phrase he uses is Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. He also refers constantly to the Bible and to the Philokalia (I wrote on the latter in the past. It is a collection of teachings from Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers dating to the early church.) As the pilgrim says, the Philokalia teaches one to read the Bible as it reveals the deeper truths. [In fairness, most of us secularized, rationalist Westerners struggle with such an approach, even when we think of ourselves as spiritual.]

Many are put off by the idea that a Russian mystic can inform contemporary folk about prayer. The Jesus Prayer is more at home in the spiritual enterprise of monks or solitaries, people removed from the frenetic pace of our lifestyle with its endless demands and distractions. Perhaps, too, we wonder if God really wants us to spend so much time repeating any prayer, over and over, even if it is such a sweet sounding prayer. Aren't we supposed to be busy proclaiming the kingdom, serving the poor, bringing the lost to Jesus?

Well, in honesty, as much as we talk about doing such things, truth be told we spend precious little time doing them. We are self deceiving creatures. We reject a way of prayer because we say a life of service matters more, and then we rarely get around to the service. At least based on my experience and observation.

Perhaps the words of  the monk (called a staretz, a wondering teacher in the ways of holiness which were widepsread in 19th Century Russia) can address our concerns. This is found on page 13:

Many good works are required of a Christian, but it is prayer which must come first and foremost, for without prayer no other good work can be performed and one cannot find a way to the Lord. (he goes on to list the fruits: acquiring truth, crucifying lusts and passions and union with Christ and being filled with His light)...perfect prayer lies beyond our abilities. The Apostle Paul says, 'For we do not know how to pray as we ought.' (Scripture is always the source of the teachings)... the frequency and the regularity of prayer are the only things that lie within our abilities."

Then this take away line: First learn to pray, and then you will easily perform all good works. The spiritual master points out that we see things backwards. Many people treat prayer in an inverted way, thinking that it is one's efforts and preparatory steps that give rise to prayer, rather than the prayer itself giving birth to good works and all virtues. In this case , they mistakenly see the fruits and resulting benefits of prayer as the means to its end, thereby denigrating the very power of prayer.

More on this to come, but I want to point out two things. First of all, the phrasing varies from teacher to teacher. It can be longer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It can be any variation of additions. In shortest and simplest form, Lord Jesus, mercy or perhaps your own variations the key is focus on the Divine Name, the Lord Himself and the invocation. The beauty of the cry "have mercy" is it covers a wide variety of circumstance (mercy= forgive our sins or help us in our need). The repetition frees us from the need to create some beautiful sounding prayer (so that we focus on our own creativity) and the repetition does have impact. I know that repetition has an impact as habits create character. A person constantly aware of a need for Jesus' mercy will find it easier to become merciful. It is harder to sin when one is regularly invoking the Lord Jesus by name...

Driving to work, meditating on the daily readings, sitting in a chair breathing for a few minutes, walking to get a drin of water; whatever, whenever, the repeated use of this prayer does have an effect. But it takes time and discipline. And faith. I will share more on this in the days ahead. I pray God will deliver you in your Lenten disciplines from all evil and into the hands of Jesus His Son.

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary, Son of David, Son of Man! Jesus, Lamb of God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Savior and Redeemer! Jesus, Messiah, have mercy on your people. Come Jesus to guard and guide us! Come Jesus to rule and govern us! Come Jesus to heal and forgive us! Come Jesus, today, again and again, to make us yours, one with You, just as You are one with the Father! Thank You Jesus, Thank You, Bless You, Praise You. Amen. (say that one hundred times a day and see what happens)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lenten Sacrifice

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The way we worship here will change. In place of a hymn to begin the service we will do a litany of repentance. It is taken from the Ash Wednesday service and intended for that day, but I have found it is a good weekly reminder of the season. It makes things a bit more solemn and allows an opportunity for reflection. We then cry out for mercy as we identify various areas of our life which fall short.

Another change is the absence of the word "Alleluia." There are usually a few folks who out of habit continue to say the word. They quickly recover and we all are aware. It serves to reinforce the fact that in Lent we are not celebrating in the same way as we will at Easter.

The biggest change, though, is the second collection. It is for outreach. Each week, the church gathers up offerings from the membership. The offering is intended as a gift to God, paying back a small portion in thanksgiving for all the blessings He has given us. Commonly at the time of offering we all say together, "All things come from Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee." In theory, the more people have the more they should give. In reality, giving is harder as one gets more. When you have nothing, what difference does it make? When I was low paid and living hand to mouth it seemed easier. But as one advances and income increases, suddenly 10% adds up to real money. The twenty-five or thirty dollars a week can soon become two or three hundred as a person achieves success. A Lutheran pastor once preached on this at a parish where I served. He was the one who pointed this out to me.

We do not bring animals to be sacrificed that ended with the fall of the Temple. Nor, like the ancient Christians, do we bring concrete goods: bread and produce. In the early days their ingathering of foodstuffs was used to provide for clergy, poorer members of the parish (inreach), and the poor and needy served by the church (outreach). It was understood that these gifts were given to God in and through the Church. To be generous with God was an act of faith and love. It was also thought to have salvific impact. [Following the Jewish practice of alms, the early Christians shared the belief that giving opened one up to God's saving work.]

The word sacrifice refers to giving it over to God. In animal sacrifice, in most cases, the animal sacrificed was eaten as a meal. Part of the meat went to the priest. Part of the animal was wholly consumed in the flames. But the giving to God (what was consumed in the flames) was complemented with the communion meal--eating together. In our own time, the word sacrifice has taken on a different connotation. Now it refers to suffering in most minds. So we talk about the sacrifices we have made in order for our children to have what they need. Therefore, we use the expression "sacrificial giving" to mean "giving until it hurts." In reality, all giving is sacrificial because all giving is a gift to God. Yet, I think we all get the point. The term sacrifice means giving in a signficant way. It means giving in a way that is consistent with the One to Whom we give. It is giving in an awareness that EVERYTHING is a gift and we need to be as generous in giving as we are "excited" about getting. We need to want to pour out blessings as enthusiastically as we celebrate receiving blessings.

Each Sunday in Lent we will take up a second collection. Every cent will go to outreach ministries. The act of taking up the collection serves multiple purposes. It reminds us that our mission and ministry is meant to extend beyond ourselves. It allows us to "heal and exorcise" by combating the Kingdom of Darkness with Light and Love. It gives us a chance to make sense of the typical Lenten exercise of "giving up ..." by transforming the absence (what we give up) with a presence (translating it into a gift). So if a person "gives up cokes" for Lent, the cost of those cokes is set aside and on Sunday the amount (five or ten bucks) is tossed into the basket. It gets translated into gift. Pretty simple process and multiply it by a couple hundred people and suddenly you are talking about real money. Literally thousands of dollars each week. So on Easter day we will have five, seven, maybe ten thousand dollars to distribute. That is a blessing.

Having the double collection in Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, has made a mentality in this parish. People value doing this. People are more sacrificial because they see the purpose. In Lent we are called upon to be transformed. We are invited to take on the Jesus approach to things. As Jesus said, "What you have received as a gift, give as a gift." It is all a gift, even that for which we labor. It is still a gift. Give to the glory of God!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Telling Simon

I am the rector of St. Andrew's Church. There is a small banner which hangs in our sanctuary. It has our name on it. On the back side, in stitiched lettering, it tells of Andrew finding the Messiah and telling his brother Simon about Him. Each year (the last few years) on Ash Wednesday, I flip the banner around . It is a visual cue to all who enter the church that we have a mission. This year I flipped it around and moved it to a more prominent place. Now it is viewed throughout the entire service by the entire congregation.

Now, I have shared the regular experience of having Morning and Evening Prayer lectionary readings connecting with things I teach or preach on a day or two before. It happened again this week, though I did not write about it. I alluded to a Scripture (like the author of Hebrews I often find myself saying, "somewhere it says...") which we read the next day. These amazing connections are a sign of God at work, as I see it. The lectionary and psalms are predetermined and run in cycles. The law of averages says that such coincidences would be far more rare. So when I reference a Scripture when teaching and the next day it pops up in the service I am doubly aware. Aware of the content and aware of the God who weaves the word into our lives.

On Ash Wednesday I preached on our purpose as church. The reason we exist is to tell people about Jesus and then draw them into the fellowship. The fellowship is disciples (followers). Telling folks is being apostles (sent). The word 'evangelize' is overwhelming to most of my folks. They are not sure exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing. And there is reason for that. I was on a website six months ago where the question was asked, "What is the Gospel?" The variety of answers was stunning. Everyone has their own take. Lets make it clear, there is not a great deal of clarity. Be that as it may, there is still much common ground. While we are not all in the same room of the same house; we are certainly in the same neighborhood, and at worse same town. There is much in common despite our differences. The story of Andrew, which I preached on, is one such a common feature and, therefore, a good starting place to talk about evangelizing.

My paraphrase: Andrew was with John the Baptist [Note well, this story is very different from Mark where Jesus calls them from their nets.] Andrew is probably relatively young, perhaps in his teens or early twenties. There is no filler story on Andrew's  discipleship relationship with John. It is just stated that he is a disciple (and I bet darn few of us ever remember that tidbit). We do not know very much about Andrew. What we know is John says, "Look there is the Lamb of God." So Andrew follows Jesus. Now, one can assume there was all manner of instruction prior to the event and that there well could have been more discussion than the Fourth Gospel records. The brief outline is intended to move the story along, and the multiple meanings of the text invite the reader to reflect deeply on what few words we have. Jesus asks Andrew "what do you seek?" On one level it is another way of asking, "What do you want?" It is also raising the question of our purpose in life. What do we seek, we humans so busy with so many things? What does our heart hunger for? The word  seek (zeite in Greek) occurs 121 times in the NT, 33 of them in John (The other three Gospel Mk9x, Mt 14x, Lk 27x--Lk has the most common features with John). The last appearance of the word is in the Garden, on Easter morning, when Jesus asks Mary "whom do you seek?" So the motiff of seeking can be read at a deeper level.

Andrew responds, "Where do you dwell?" The Greek meno means to stay, to abide, to dwell, to not depart, to remain, etc. John uses it 34 times, once again over a fourth of the total NT usages and three times as many as the other three Gospels combined (11). There is frequent reference to Jesus abiding in the Father, believers abiding in Jesus, or Jesus abiding in believers. So a deeper meaning is also possible here.

Andrew goes and sees. And he decides that Jesus is the Messiah, that he has met The One whom God sent to free (redeem, save) His people. So Andrew goes home to his brother and says, "Simon, you will never guess whom I met!" He had the same excitement that we would have when we see a famous personality.  He had the same excitement that we have when something interesting happens and we want to share.

"I met the Messiah!" I met the One promised of God long ago. I met the One who will save us from our sins (teh Lamb of God). And Andrew invited Simon to meet Him, too.

That is preaching the Gospel, or to use more normal language, that is announcing to someone else some remarkable information. Preach or announce or tell---the verbs do not matter. Gospel or Good News or just plain "something pretty cool"---the noun does not matter. What matters is that we met Jesus, we encountered Him, that we believe He is The One, and so we tell others. We tell people when we find a good deal on shoes or tickets to a movie. We tell people about interesting occurences with weather, or our kids, or our team. We tell all manner of people all manner of things about all manner of people, places, things and events. We are always sharing something. So IF Jesus is Messiah and we know that, should we not share that story as well?

That was in my Ash Wednesday homily (or sermon). And the next day I read the Gospel of the day and it was about John the Baptist. And I read the Gospel assigned for today and it was the exact same story, the story of Andrew meeting Jesus. And on Friday in Lent we gather after Morning Prayer to discuss the readings. So we will do that and I already know that it will tie into my preaching and tie into our mission focus and it will tie into our banner and once again God weaves His web and I am amazed.
How does He do that?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Fourth Watch

It is Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday. Yesterday is the busiest day of the year for me in my ministry. Nothing compares to it. We start at 6:30 am and end after 8:00 pm. In between we celebrate eucharist and distribute ashes at three services, prayer Morning and Evening Prayer, conduct two Bible studies. In addition I had two counseling sessions and a staff meeting. In the open hour in my schedule I went to the Y to exercise and wake up. This is not a complaint. It is, in fact, one of my favorite days as a priest. It is focused on calling people to repentance and redirecting their lives. It is  the beginning of a journey to Easter, a time of renewal leading to a joyful celebration of God's mercy and grace.

One of my Lenten commitments is to reflect on conversion during this holy season. My model for that is our parish mission statement. We are a worship (eucharistic) community committed to pray, study and work to the glory of God. Yesterday I shared insights from a friend. He drew me to a realization that the work of holiness is God's work, received as a gift. That reception seems to be my own work, certainly great effort is required to die to self, but the deception is a failure to recognize that all my efforts are in vain without His grace and mercy. We give glory to God because it is all about the Triune Deity.

Yesterday in Bible study we looked at Mark 1:35-38//Lk 4:42-43. At first sight it does not seem to be a particularly rich section of scripture. Jesus gets up early in the morning, goes off to pray, people find Him and He says let's move on because that is why I am here. Turns out it is very rich. We spent the better part of an hour on this....

Our parish is committed to prayer. In theory, that means that corporately we establish a regular prayer routine (daily Morning Prayer, Wednesday evening prayer, prayer groups, eucharist twice on week days). However, most members have never ever come to any of that. So, it is important that they have their own discipline of prayer. At the begining of every day we should pause to give thanks and to consecrate ourselves to the Lord. Many prayer books are available, most of the good ones date back hundreds of years. The psalms are also ideal. Perhaps, this Lent, you are inspired to write your own morning prayer of consecration. During the day we are better able to pause to talk, listen and commune with God if we begin with a time set aside.

Much of our reflection on Jesus' prayer centered on the mystery, why does Jesus pray? So often people tell me that they do not pray because God already knows what they have to say. Certainly, there is some truth to that. Yet the conclusion is not accurate. God's knowledge does not preclude spending time with God. Perhaps what needs to change is our attitude about prayer. Did Jesus give the Father a "to-do" list that day? Probably not. My guess is Jesus is more concerned with living into deeper union with the Father. He no doubt expressed His love and worship of the Father. He no doubt enjoyed the love and glorification from His Father. It is a deeper prayer. It is a model for us. Even if at times it seems illogical and pointless.

Jesus prays. Jesus prays early in the morning, way early. In fact, He prays during the fourth watch. This is 3 am to 6 am. The day before He had been in the synagogue. He was preaching when a demon upset the morning service. Jesus exorcised the demon. Then He went to Peter's house and healed Peter's mother-in-law. That evening all the sick and demon possessed in the village were outside His door. Imagine the ruckus. Imagine the need, the despair, the hope. How long did Jesus heal? What was each interaction like? What mercy and gentleness, what strength and power and authority were manifest? How exhausted was the Lord when He finally went back into the house, falling asleep, the deep sleep of One Who had poured out Himself for love of others.

As we reflected on Jesus' day, Rick made a comment, "sort of like your day today." We all laughed. Yes, it was a long day and Jesus' day was similar. Through the Holy Spirit there was some  healing yesterday, most of it spiritual and emotional. Through the Holy Spirit some folks were shaking off Satan's grasp a bit, I assume some territory was recaptured for The Kingdom of God in the hearts and souls of those who spent the day here. Certainly there was teaching and proclamation. So, yes, Jesus' day was much like our day yesterday. Long, draining, yet a blessing.

I told them, yesterday, that the difference was I would sleep while Jesus got up to pray. I fully expected to do just that.... Instead, at 3:30 am I woke. I lay in bed reciting the Jesus Prayer waiting for sleep to recapture me. It did not. At 4:30 I got up. As I sat doing my meditations on the daily office readings (from Deuteronomy, Titus, and John) I suddenly realized that I was awake and praying in The Fourth Watch. It was not a discipline, it was a gift. It was not my choice, it was just what happened. It is a sign. Jesus is at work here, in me, in you. There are opportunities to be grabbed and taken advantage of. Perhaps we are aware, perhaps not. What I know is I said to the folks, I won't be up tomorrow in the Fourth Watch. And I did not expect to  be. But God changed that. And so I prayed, I read, I reflected, and I witness, to you, dear reader, that God is active in our world. Calling you to consecrate yourself to Him. Calling you to pray, study and work in His service. Calling you to proclaim the Kingdom, teach, heal and exorcise. Calling you. Calling again and again.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

And So It Begins

In the movie "Lord of the Rings" there is a moment right as the invading army arrives that Gandalf says, "And so it begins, the battle for middle earth." It is a stunning moment both for its simplicity and brevity, on the one hand, and the monumental import and meaning of the words, on the other. Great and sublime moments have a beginning. The birth of a child. The opening of a new business. A marriage. The first day of school. Each beginning contains a mystery, what will happen?

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the Christian day of repentance above all others. Some find such a concept offensive. Times and seasons, to them, are an empty practice. For others it is a way to focus more intensely. We are not able to do everything all of the time. Multi-tasking is limited. Seasons provide a support system for our overwhelmed mind and heart. A time of focus on one or another aspect of the Christian life with greater intensity allows us to go deeper.

Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, begins the season of Lent. Lent literally means Spring. This is the Springtime of the church. A time of new growth. Lent began at midnight, 00:00 on the clock. I spent the first five hours of Lent asleep! (Sort of a symbol of my spiritual life?). At 6:30 we had eucharist with the distribution of ashes. Some 25 of us gathered. The first day of Lent was 1/4th over before our liturgical kick-off event. There are many themes from the Scripture readings assigned today and many themes in the prayers and exhortations in the Prayer Book. It is not always easy to combine the different themes and balance them. One task of a leader is to do that for the group.

Our parish focus will officially be our mission statement. It is something much influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict. It is also a description of piety (or godliness), understood as "the spiritual life" or "the spiritual disciplines." Our parish is a eucharistic worship community, committed to pray, work and study. The purpose of this is to glorify God. The major work of the church is two fold (inreach to disciples, outreach as apostles) and is modeled after the ministry of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, He taught, healed and exorcised. Our lenten practices (self denial and discipline) need to be conformed to a Gospel inspired mission statement. If you do not have a mission statement maybe this Ash Wednesday is a perfect day to construct one.

In light of our limitations, it is best to focus on smaller areas and do them well. I was reminded this morning by a dear and holy friend, that we live in a culture of "self-improvement." We see the world from a stand point of self perfection. Even the church is busy with programs, exercises and processes which will make us more efficient and more effective. While not bad, this is not the Gospel. He reminded me that our goal is not self-actualization but self-gift and self-denial (the Cross). He reminded me that our goal is not perfection (like we ever reach that!) but redemption and sanctification. It is not about what we do as much as it is what God does with us.

Outcomes are certainly not bad. Any reading of Scripture includes a multitude of stark reminders that we are to be judged, that what we say and do matters, and that God wants us to be our best self. It is, however, vital that we are clear on what "best" means.

I intend in the days ahead to reflect on the Lenten journey with a focus on the things above (in bold). It is not the only way to envision the life of faith, but it is a good way. Today's theme is God focused. In the end, glorifying the God Who made us and loves us needs to drive all we do. It is in His hands. We are never able to completely become who and what we should be. Yet, our failures acknowledged and repented from, we have hope and joy because the Triune God will transform us. A little bit at a time, but eventually wholly (&holy) and completely. What better thought on this "first day of church Spring" and what better source of peace and joy as we begin the journey of Lent?

Sunday, February 10, 2013


From time to time in Jesus' life there were moments of transcendent glory. It is hard to know, today, what is historical 'fact' and what is 'based on historical events' and what is 'theological history.' Trying to convey all that Jesus did in a few short words is, as John's Gospel makes clear (twice! 20:30 and 21:25) impossible. The Gospels are, therefore, a compilation of the basic story.

What is the Transfiguration? When we read about Jesus on the Mountain top become a bright shining light, manifesting God's glory (shekinah) we are encountering an event of magnitude. This is not a regular day in the life of Jesus. It is an apocalypse, an unveiling (and in the Revised Common Lectionary that very phrase is found in the reading from 2 Corinthians). In and through the human flesh of Jesus God's Divine Light is manifest (which is Epiphany). That revelation of His identity is the central focus of our text from Luke 9:28ff. Some speculate that the three Gospels are transfering a resurrection appearance to this moment, emphasizing that when Jesus predicts His passion, death and resurrection the resurrection is an unveiling of Divine glory (this is not unthinkable; and having an event out of sequence may be theological history but it is certainly still true). Others (including me) think it more likely that it was an actual occurence in the human ministry of the Lord. I believe this because I know such manifestations do in fact occur, rarely, but with some regularity. It is like people running a sub-four minute mile. Billions of people cannot do it. Billions of people could never do it even if they trained hard. Heck, only a few people can run a quarter of a mile in under a minute (much less keep that pace up four times as long). The rarity of such an event and the unlikelihood of seeing such an event (I never have seen it in person) only means that it is rare and unlikely. It does not mean it is impossible, though.

Why does the transfiguration matter? Well, as I said, because it MANIFESTS (epiphany) Jesus. It shows Him to be "THE Son, the ONLY, the ONE to Whom we should listen." Throughout the ages others have manifest the divine light. While I limit myself to Christian history, such phenomena are reported widely across religious expressions in other faiths. [I will not discuss that here.] What I know is Christian art (from an earlier time) has often employed "the halo" (often a ring of light or an illuminating light around the head). I knew a woman (in 1976) at the church of my youth who said she saw such light. The lights were different colors, based on the type person she was looking at. Was she nuts? No, she was a school teacher. Ordinary in the way kind, loving and good people are ordinary. She did not say or do things which led one to question her sanity. She did not talk much about it, in fact, and only spoke to me about it once. Is it possible that she was able to "see" something others could not. (Q. Are there some people who have unique abilities? A. Yes) Whatever the case, countless numbers have spoken of a Being of Light (named as Jesus by many) who came to them during the time that they were clincally dead (the NDE or Near Death Experience). The story resonates with the experience of many others.

The Light of Jesus is also a symbol. We call Him the Light of the World. It is a literal and also figurative truth. The problem, and this was a major focus of my preaching today, is our vocation is to be THAT light today. We are the Body of Christ. We are the one who (manifested in glory or not) incarnate the Lord Jesus in the world. And in Luke 9 that means we proclaim, we heal and we exorcise. This is the function of the church. If asked, "Do you go to a good church?" I do not know how you can answer "yes" unless those three things are manifest. Proclaiming (sometimes translated "preach") is a herald's work. It is announcing to the world that in this present darkness, in this time of God's apparent absence (i.e. under the rule of satan), a brighter future is promised. And it is already at work among us in and through the ministry of Jesus (today in and through the church). I have often complained that the current state of my church is a heresy riddled joke. What I also want to make clear is that the more "orthodox" expressions of faith found in more "faithful" churches are equally inept at the work of proclamation (and MIA in healing and running the other direction in exorcism). Face it, our churches are empty because the power and authority over demons is not obvious. Churches are not a place where most broken people feel welcome and they are not places where most broken people experience healing.

I am not transposing my homily to the blog, just picking up a theme or two. I close with a heartfelt confession. The failure of the church to herald the kingdom effectively has led to all manner of confusion (especially in the political realm). Mistaking politics (whether right or left) for God's Kingdom is not a good thing. In addition, our neglect of the healing ministry and works of exorcism has given Satan and the demonic freer reign in the world around us. Make no mistake. Like the father and his son who met Jesus at the bottom of the mountain, their suffering is unbearable to them. The pain of being under delusion, suffering illness of body, mind or soul, the horror of brokenness and dissolution are never a minor deal. We are authorized and empowered to make an impact. It is Jesus' plan. One might say His dying request of us. And every failure of ministry leaves in its wake another shattered life and broken heart. And we can do so much better! Some day the church will get it right. We will be like the 12 and the 72 in Luke's Gospel. And when we are we will know that Jesus lives among us, rules among and is continuing His work with signs and wonders. And that will be a better day!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Homeless Christian Shelter

One of the great challenges facing contemporary Christians (at least in the West) is our comfort level with being alive on planet earth. Now, reading the Ancient Covenant text (OT) one senses that this terrrestial life was "all there was" in the hopes and dreams of Israel. So, I am hesitant to  make too big a deal about the settledness of Western life. Yet, we are also readers of a New Covenant text and are called to read the more ancient writings in and through the Jesus story. Jesus, Jewish to His human-divine core, was pretty consistently against the idea of loving wealth too much, family too much, earthly existence too much.

It is said that people who are destitute generate more "other worldly" hope as an escape mechanism. Worldly wise scholars knowingly wink as the deconstruct the childish hopes of the poor as mere projection. I admit, on a logical level, this makes sense. I can see how their point makes sense. But, ironically, by the same logic the inverse is also true. It is also the case the full and wealthy are so stuffed and distracted that they ignore the "far horizon" and do not ponder its meaning. If poor people pro-ject and rich people re-ject as a function of economic (in)security then we are left with the question unanswered. What is the right relation to this world and what is a legitimate hope about the world to come?

I fall into the category of the well-to-do. The resources available to me and mine are unimaginable to most people who have ever lived or are currently living on planet earth. For example, each day people from Germany, Russia and a dozen other nations read my blog. What King had such an instant reach in any age before 1920? we eat fresh produce from various countries, even in the dead of winter. I have food in abundance, a wonderful community and educational resources to rival the greatest libraries in history at the tip of my fingers. So many blessings...

I am also a middle class American, which means the one resource I do not have is time. Between work and home commitments I rarely relax. Most weeks I have several days when I sleep less then 5 hours and when I do it is frequently broken up. I would feel sorry for myself but everyone I know seems to be in a similar situation. Blessed and busy, my mind rarely drifts into contemplation of eternity. Not because I do not believe, but because I cannot find time.

Such a situation is not helpful for forming a proper and well ordered attitude toward the world in which we live.
IF we are sojourners on earth, then we are foreigners here as well.
IF our home is the Kingdom of God, then we are exiles in this present condition.
IF all things are not fully reconciled, healed and restored, then we are living in an environment hostile to our true nature.
IF we are homeless, then we need a homeless shelter...

I would offer the church is, among other things, called to serve that function. A group of displaced people, regardless of socio economic condition, we need a place to gather for the essentials of life. A place to eat (eucharist), interact (community), learn how to live into the new life (Scripture and study and living together), find support (care and counseling) and order our lives under a banner that is worthwhile (piety and worship).

Calling my parish a homeless shelter would not resonate for many of my folks here, they do not feel like they are homeless. Yet, toward the end of life many catch on. The body (even of the rich and famous) breaks down. The thrill is gone from the distractions which occuppy so much time. We don't find the same excitment getting up each day and doing the things we do (even if there is still fun and laughter). And our eyes are open to see a better place. And if we do church right, we will awaken that hunger earlier and more intensely. And our churches will be places of great generousity and kindness. Because who wants to hoard their stuff when they are living on the road? Especially a road to the Kingdom of God!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Butterfly Circus

We had our annual clergy pre-Lent retreat on Monday night-Tuesday morning. One of our shared promises with each other was confidentiality. I want to honor that and will not post any of what transpired among us, beyond saying it was a good time together and I am greatful to the Bishop and the two presenters.

We watched a short movie, The Butterfly Circus, and it was the basis of our meditation. The film takes about 20 minutes and I have provided the link above. I can say it is worth seeing. If you want to see it without knowing what will happen, I suggest you click and watch right now and do not continue reading.

[Spoiler alert: really.... watch it....]
The movie is set in the Depression. It begins in a car with a child and two men. It is interesting to me the reaction I had at the beginning. I felt some foreboding and wondered exactly what was going on. I think my reaction was fueled, in part, by previous movies that the driver had been in. I googled him and found out that he is frequently in science fiction and horror movies. As you saw in the film, he is a contortionist.  This leads to my first point, the power of assumptions.

Years ago E.T. was a huge box office hit. My dad commented afterward that the early scene when the young boy is looking around in his back yard (the first encounter of the boy and the ET) would actually have been terrifying in most movies. However, we knew it was a kids' movie and so it was played for laughs. In any number of other films similar scenes have been percieved very differently. This insight was the genious behind several faux movie commercials which were generated 5-7 years ago. They took popular movies (e.g. Sleepless in Seattle) and recast them as a different genre (from Romantic Comedy to Drama-Horror). Then the over voice provided a new scenario and the exerpts from the movie took on a different twist. It was all wonderfully creative and wildly entertaining to watch. And it perfectly illustrated the power of context for seeing and interpretting.

Watching this beginning, my mind was a flutter. I knew a retreat would not have a slasher movie! Yet I found myself half expecting something bad to happen. When the car heads to a carnival the glances between characters made me wonder if they planned to rob the place. It wasn't long before a character I recongnized appeared. He is a Christian evangelist, a man with no arms or legs. I have heard him speak and he is a powerful speaker. Once again, the context matters. A man with no arms and legs evokes all manner of feeling in his hearers. Seeing him, my expectations shifted. I knew this was headed in a more traditional retreat-setting direction.

The film-parable unfolded with an actual caterpillar in a jar enterring a cocoon, even as various characters were presented as human caterpillars. As is the case in film, the story was neat and clean. In a 20 minute film it has to be. But the story was very powerful and the message resonates. "You are magnificent," the leader had proclaimed to the limbless man (whose shocking reaction served to demonstrate his unbelief that it was true). The word God occurs three times, but each time in the sentence "A man whom God Himself has turned His back upon." The limbless man, called "a man, if you could even call him a man" reminded me of the Elephant Man, a much longer movie but similar in its stunning portrayal of the humanity of those whom we would call freaks. In the end, the leader of the butterfly circus challenges the limbless man by saying, "you believe it." And then the freak becomes "every man" and the story unveils the lies for which each and everyone of us have fallen. Sometimes unbelief is not the problem, sometimes it is wrong belief.

The demonic world, the present darkness under the dominion of the Prince of this Age (satan) has provided us with distorted and perverted understanding. We do not see clearly. We see dimly, through a darkened mirror (recall ancient mirrors do not have the clarity of modern ones). So we fall victim to half truths, lies and deceptions. We use the wrong scales to measure our worth and the worth of others. We see from below and lose sight of what is seen from above. The movie's central image, the butterfly, was the dominant symbol of Jesus in the 1970's and 80's of my church life. It was a time when banner making was all the rage and most Catholic churches of my memory included at least one huge butterfly banner. The connection to resurrection was foremost. The Lord Jesus' body in the cocoon (tomb) of death gives way to the glorifed new state of his resurrection body. I never saw the butterfly as a symbol of my own journey. Yet, in truth, that is also a central message of the Gospel. We too shall be raised into a new state of being.

While not limbless, I and you gaze into a world where we each feel, from time to time, that we are a freak on display. We are beaten down by faults and failures which raise the taunt, "if you can call me human." Like John Merrick's Elephant Man, we have to clutch our God-given dignity and cry out "I am not an animal" (even if pop-science and pop-culture would say that is all we are, though more highly evolved). Like Will, the limbless man in The Butterfly Circus, we must believe the (ring) Master's declaration, "You are Magnificent!" (and with greatful hearts thank God, in Whose face we have spit, over and over again...what else is sin?) Our duty as Christians is to proclaim the Kingdom. To tell an unbelieving world that God IS and God loves His creatures. That duty is a burden for those who do not believe it and perhaps our uncertainty is why teh church does such a poor job proclaiming it.

Believing sets us free. Believing lets us see. Believing makes it possible for even the limbless one to soar and swim and become a sign of hope; light in the present darkness. I am keenly aware that many of us have not had the clarifying moment where all doubt of God's good favor and love embrace are ours. [Part of the reason is because there are numerous more ominous streams of revelation which have themes of expectation and harsher judgment.] I do not know how to balance it all out. My critics have yet to convinve me that God's love is blind to all we do. After all, much of the time we are the gaping, mocking crowd, enjoying the misfortune of others who serve as the butt of our jokes (or "better him than me" sighs of relief).

Even so, the God who demands and punishes is the same God who rescues and saves. In the end, it is His whispered "You are magnificent" (or, in Genesis, "God saw it was good", or, in Isaiah "I will never forget you, I have carved your name in the palm of my hand, or from Jesus "I have chosen you...I have loved you"). We are challenged to look beyond our flaws and errors and to embrace the promise of a fuller life. If this little movie makes it a bit easier today to do that, then it was worth watching. If you do not have time, then I hope reading this provides the same relief...
I hope you enjoy the film!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bible Reflections

Today in the Revised Common Lectionary we have a section of Jeremiah (1:4-10) where we hear of Jeremiah's calling to be a prophet. Jeremiah is unique among the prophetic literature in that it contains so much biographical information about the man himself. Perhaps no other figure mirrors Jesus as well from the Ancient Covenant (OldTestament) texts. While Jesus' miracles have echoes in Elijah and Elisha stories and there are clear "fulfillment" allusions to Moses (see Matthew especially), it is Jeremiah whose life experiences most obviously look like Jesus. Both preach to a people under threat of annihilation. Both uttered warnings which went unheeded. Both were found guilty of offenses against the ruler of the land. While Jeremiah is rescued from death, of course, Jesus is not. Jeremiah lived to see the fall of the city and the leveling of the Temple. Jesus was forty years before that event in 70AD at the hand of Rome. Even so, knowledge of Jeremiah gives insight into Jesus.

Jeremiah's response to being called was negative. "I am only a boy" he said refusing the divine invitation. Such excuses are not uncommon in any age. It is most helpful to know that the greatest heroes of the Bible share our struggles and reluctance. Jeremiah reveals his despair on a regular basis in his writings. God gives him a rough time for it, too. The God of Jeremiah reminds me of the Father-Buck in Bambi, who stands over the wounded young deer (in a blazing fire) and bellows, "Get up, Bambi!" [Side note, Bambi, while an awesome name for a baby deer seems too cute for a full grown male...] That harder edge is not a big part of the world I grew up in (though it very much was for my dad; and his father seemed to know nothing of gentleness at all). The God revealed to (and by) Jeremiah is hard. His message is hard. There is strength and power there ("to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant") and a stern reminder "Do not be afraid of them." Not being afraid is a central theme of the entire Bible.

Lest the combativeness be seen as the central message, Paul's contribution from 1 Corinthians 13 (among The Bible's most famous sections) is a laser focused song of praise to love. I recently read a book which I have been asked to review on a date certain. It is about the experiences of people who have died and come back. One common feature of those experiences has been the judgment by the criteria of Love. In Paul's reflection today, one hears the words of Jesus as well. When Jesus forgives a woman in sin, He says that she has many sins which are forgiven because she has loved much. This is a stunning claim by Jesus.  ttp:// And Paul seems to use this insight as he declares the relative uselessness of tongues, prophecy, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, faith, generosity, even martyrdom---without love they are empty and meaningless.

Paul makes it clear, right now things are not clear! we do not see yet, not the way things are. Sitting with the mystery is no excuse for fuzzy thinking (adults put aside childish ways), but it is a reminder that under the current set of circumstances, we can never fully grasp the mystery. I think the best evangelism includes great humility. We see in a mirror dimly now, it is not helpful to act like we know more than we do or see better than we do. I recall the former Archbishop of Canterbury preaching once and he said, "We know precious little about God, but what we know is precious." I love that. Pauls' focus on love as THE central act (for it is an act, and much more than a feeling) of the faithful life is actually a summary of the entire letter. I led my first Bible study at St. Andrew's on this letter in 2001. I did so because it addressed many of the issues which tear the church apart today. I recall then that the themes of this chapter recapitulate the previous chapters and reinforce what he had said. [side note, this is not about married love nor is it intended as a marriage reflection, even if it is the most popular marriage text.]

Today our church will collect money for "Souper Bowl," a clever pun on the football event which has so many folks astir. The thought is if everyone included some percent of their "game snacks" budget to donate to the hungry, we could make a huge hit on the problem. So we will toss some cash into the soup buckets and at the end of the day there will be hundreds of dollars to send to our local food pantry. Probably enough to feed several families for several days. Love in action. And hopefully that awareness will make us kinder and more loving to those around us, especially the ones we see face to face.

Courage from Jeremiah. Love from Paul.
And a reminder to worship the God Who reveals Himself in these words.

Friday, February 1, 2013

If God Wrote the Bible and Competition

My last two entrees, it seems to me, have come together in my mind, so I would like to tie them together.
So without any delay (an inside pun for a friend) let's take a look.

Competition is something we are born into. The act of survival is based on effective competition. Watching pups go at the mother's milk supply, we quickly learn that those who cannot fight their way to the meal are soon pushed aside. The proverbial 'runt' of the litter is always at risk of being slowly starved to death. Human culture is similar.

All competition is not life-or-death, but some people treat it that way any how. All of us have our competitive juices flow in different settings. I admitted to being pretty worked up (and surprised by how much) at our recent Trivia Night here at the parish. The drive to succeed and the desire to win overlap. And in the heat of battle we often lose sight of our values as we make every effort to emerge victorious. I was reading once about the effectiveness of sexual morality teaching. The findings were pretty convincing that when a person is stimulated the brain begins to lose its capacity to function. Young people were much more likely to engage in "at risk" behavior when they were aroused. In other words, context changes behavior. This makes sense (hence the admonition to "avoid the near occassion of sin"). I assume that, similarly, our behaviors are impacted by psychological factors in other areas. I did a google search and found numerous studies to confirm this assumption.
[The Psychology of Rivalry ]

The existence of "rivalry" lends an emotional element to conflict. The relationship we have with a competitor impacts how we respond (and react). In sports it is the desire to figuratively "kill" the despised rival. We want to beat them 100 to nothing! Some rivalries are so fierce that we hear people say that they would be fine losing all their games as long as we beat them, or conversely, the near perfect record meant nothing because they beat us. Subjectivity and emotions can muddy up our cognitive function.

So what does this have to do with Divine Authorship of Sacred Scipture?
Well, the two sides of this debate have a long history or rivalry. It is full of harsh condemnation and bitter animosity. When you get sucked into the debates they quickly become personal, and the emotions clouding our thinking make it increasingly hostile. Sadly, the quest for truth is waylaid by the desire to smite the (evil) opponent. Winning becomes all we care about and crushing the opposition becomes our sole goal. We misrepresent and overstate weakness in their beliefs and ignore weaknesses or inconsistencies in our beliefs

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Wars have been raging for over one hundred years. The demonization is incredible. The Modernist disdain for "Fundies" is as vicious as the Fundamentalist condemnation of the "unbelievers." In truth, I think much of it is a function of personality styles as well. Liberal/Modernist Christianity, for all its lip service to love and tolerance, has treated the more traditional expression of the faith horribly. And no one is meaner than a traditional evangelical Christian tearing into someone who "does not believe in the Bible." And it seems that some people are predisposed to their beliefs based on their personality and temperment.

While I have a high view of revelation, I am not a Literalist. Unfortunately, those two (high view and Literal) are wedded together in the "competition" so it is assumed that if you are one you must be the other. And like all competitions it easily becomes a simplistic choice between two options. And because of the relationship history we tend to let our 'competition' and 'rivalry' influence our thinking. Many of my friends are deeply troubled by my reading of the Bible because it doesn't sound like I believe in "inerrancy." Others, being more "progressive" call me a "hater" or a "Fundamentalist" because I use too much Scripture.

Perhaps being both an Idealist (which means I approach words more sumbolically than significantly) and a Traditionalist (which means I conserve older values) and a Catholic (which means I have high regard for God's revelation in and through the church, reason and sacrament) and am influenced by evangelical Protestant thought (because I live in Memphis and it is in the air) and because I tend to want to get along (so I try to integrate different approaches even if it makes me crazy because I want closure and consistency) my approach to Scripture is broader? At any rate, I am still aware that I am driven by the culture wars and that has led me to "have to" make certain mental steps because "they" are doing what "they do" so I need to do what "we" do.  As I try to engage the actual text (like yesterday with the word "immediately") and not do so as "A Defender of the Faith" or "A Champion of a New Reading for The Cause" but simply as a fallible human struggling to see the light of the face of God in this present darkness I find it is more life giving.

I wish my own experiences of the battle inside the church had not misshapen me. They have. Too late. But my readership may well reflect the reality that others want to engage the text as DIVINE REVELATION, but do so outside the paradigm of the concrete/utilitarian thinkers who demand that "IF God wrote the Bible then it must be understood in the literal way which we are espousing." I see much reason to believe that more and more folks are actually reading what the Bible says, not what it "needs" to say because that makes it fit into my preconceived ideas about divine authorship. There maybe two sides in the Modernist-Fundamentalist debate, but that debate does not need to concern us. I prefer the Ancient Church and the ancient Jewish approach. I guess that means I am in the Ancient vs. Contemporary Wars now, but those battles seem less charged. And in the end, engaging the ancient reading of the texts is so time consuming it is hard to pay much attention to the disdain and negative comments. And it seems to lead to prayer, worship and service, which are the best antidote for healing the "wounds of war."

May God be praised and blessed and may His servants serve faithfully!