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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Digging Deeper

I am reading a book on interpreting the Jewish Bible. It is fascinating because of the emphasis on letters. For example, the first letter in the Bible is bet. The letter is also a word (sort of like the letter 'B' or 'T' sound like be, bee, tea) and it means house. This leads to some wonderful and amazing connections by these ancient theologians and exegetes. In addition, each letter doubles as a number. So literally each word can also be read as a series of numbers. The numerical value of a word can be related to other words with the same value! Hebrew words are based on roots, so shared roots impact the meaning as well. The deeper meaning found in the Hebrew letters is not something which we Americans are familiar with. It is easy to overlook the amount of effort it took to write in ancient times. We also forget how few could read. Did they project greater importance to words, or have we become so familiar with them that we are blind to something greater?

One of the limits of the knowledge of "science" is positivism. When we think that the 'real' is only the measurable, and mock everything else as fairy tales, we may feel quite grown up and rational, but if we ignore the deeper meaning of things are we not being less than we could be? Science is great and wonderful, but it is still limited. (Just as math, grammar and music are limited.)

For anyone who cannot read, words on a page are indecipherable and meaningless. I am reminded of a scholar spending the night at a Greek Orthodox monastery in the 19th century. The rooms were heated with small fires, and a pile of paper sat ready to be burned. Fortunately, he looked at the writing on the paper and figured out it was the lost writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As a transition figure after the apostles, Ignatius' writings provide a rare glimpse into the church of the late first century. By the measure of keeping rooms warm, he was basically wasting fodder for fire. In a sense, what he did was unreasonable and irrational. (We can imagine a cold monk complaining, "What are you doing???It is freezing!!!) However, by understanding that the marks and scratches on the paper were an important literary find, he went to a deeper level and actually did something worthwhile. For those of us who believe in Jesus, it is more than an historic value. It is insight into our Lord and a model of faithful living (Ignatius was a martyr and early bishop). It is life giving and life shaping material.

The ancient skill of looking beyond the veil of measurable and observable data into deeper, spiritual realms is a welcome corrective to the positivism of the materialist. The materialist leads a "soul-less" existence. There are only biological processes and a cold, empty physical universe. Going deeper is limited to spinning theories about atoms and sub-atomic particles, which are also interesting, but end up being meaningless in any real sense...

The word mysticism of the ancient rabbis was a function of their world view, a world where seeking the Names of God meant encountering God. They believed that because He was the Author then He was to be found in His word. Torah means teaching or instruction (not 'Law"). God's instruction is also His Self revelation. The approach of Kabbalah shares much in common with the spiritual interpretation of the Fathers. As Brian Lancaster writes on page 30 of his book on Kabbalah: the concern of kabbalah is with truth. It seeks to inculcate an awareness of  the true meaning of Torah, understood as it concealed meaning.

Certainly there is a general meaning, available to a simple reading. Yet, the surface of a lake is hardly all that there is. To claim the real lake is what we can see from above is only partially true. It is real, but there is more to the reality than meets the eyes. And the eyes must be supplemented with other tools. Temperature, for example, is unavailable to visual observation. It requires a different tool, a thermometer. And ten thermometers could never measure the mineral content of the water, or determine its safety for swimming. We know that this is so, there are many angles and measures needed to understand the lake. But none of the scientific tools can discover that  the lake is a metaphor for life or love or the human soul. None of them can open our eyes to see that swimming in a lake is like praying as we are immersed in something (metaphor alert: Someone) much larger than we.

So perhaps the interplay of Hebrew letters is a lost level of meaning for us all---a task made all the harder because we do not read Hebrew, do we? Yet, on the shoulders of those that do, we can take a peak into the beauty and deeper truth, the majesty of revelation! We have to rely on physicists and biologists to explain to us the amazing physical realities, and we have to trust their expertise because it far exceeds our own. As a microscope shows us that our skin is a thriving garden of unseen creatures, so the spiritual reading of Biblical texts can also reveal life and Life, beyond our imagining! There are pitfalls to such things, but pitfalls are everywhere. We can exercise caution and do the mental labor. We can also just enjoy the scenery of the  beautiful world of deeper reading!

Monday, December 29, 2014

New Year's Resolution

As 2014 rolls into 2015, the question floating around is "what is your new year's resolution"? I think that I have basically had the same ones since I was 19. It is simply the case that the things most worthwhile are never ending so each year one must resolve to pursue the main thing.

How to grow into the person God created me to be?

I am a big fan of 'exercise' so physical, spiritual and mental exercise are high on the list of resolutions.

I need to improve my physical health, so obviously losing bad weight and increasing muscle is a big goal. So 10,000 steps/day for general health plus the thirty minutes of aerobics five times and weight lift three times a week. Research is clear about the value of walking and lifting weights, especially as we age. I do it now, and I need to do it more and better in 2015.

Spiritual exercise is a focus on thanks. I try to do 350+ a day, aiming for a minimum of 10,000 thanks and praise a month. A commitment to praying psalms daily and reading scripture daily seems a good foundation. Obviously, my job entails Sunday worship but that would certainly be something I recommend every week. I think I need to add a spiritual classic to my reading, so I will continue to read St. Benedict's Rule and the Philokalia. More of them in my head will definitely be a nice balance to much of what I see and hear.

Most of my time is spent in reading and preparation for homilies, Bible studies and Sunday school, but I do plan to take some time to read history again. The problem with only doing preparation is that you never get a chance to ponder. It is too functional. We all need time to savor and reflect on what we read.

Like I said, this is pretty basic; not a "revolution resolution." In real life, small, steady steps are probably best. Whatever your plans for 2015, I hope they include some exercises which benefit you greatly!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas: Other Angles

There are twelve days to Christmas (it is a season) in the church. The  birth of Christ needs to be celebrated because it is so important (the exact date is not). 

The connection of Jesus' birth to the beginning of Winter is all about light entering darkness. The darkest day of the year is now behind us. Each day we are adding a few minutes of more sun. There is hope for better, brighter days.  The physical world reflects the spiritual reality!

The meaning of the birth of Jesus (Light has come into the world) is a transcendent truth which shapes our celebration. This is why there are twelve days of Christmas! No single day can contain His incarnation...  It is a season of celebration!

Today's Gospel reading from John 1 conveys that timeless and transcendent sense more obviously than Luke does. There is nothing subtle about the Fourth Gospel and there is no focus on any biographical information either. It is a big time declaration of something amazing:

Jesus is God Incarnate!!!
The Word was God from the Beginning
The Word is Creator
The Word is Light
The Word is Life
The Word became flesh
The Word alone reveals the Father

That is who Jesus is. It is is why we say "no salvation outside of Christ." Jesus is God. Jesus is God. So, if God saves it is only in and through Jesus. There is no other way because there is no other God except the one incarnate in Jesus...

I would like, however, to look at this salvation from another angle. What it means, here and now, for us. What does Jesus do in John 1? He comes to His own, and whoever receives (lambano) Him He gave power (exousia) to become/be made (ginomai) the children (teknon- is a neuter) of God.

Or, as Paul says, God sent His son to redeem us, so that we could receive adoption. We are no longer slaves--i.e. people in society without status or rank--but children of God. So we can say "Abba! Father!"

The word 'Abba' is Aramaic and hearkens back to Jesus' native language. It is a strong memory of the actual words of Jesus. Paul is saying, we can call God by the same thing intimate term as Jesus does.

Knowing Who and What Jesus is we must also understand who and what we are! As a child of God, your status has been changed. Jesus, our brother, is also our model. Too often we live our lives base on our neighbors, many of whom have no faith. You are a creature in process of being 'divinized'; some day you will share in the fullness of God's life.

Do you understand what it means to say, "I am God's child"? It is something to be pondered long and deeply. In the face of such a sublime gift, "how then shall we live?" If Christmas is a season of gift giving then understand what the gift of God in Jesus means for you.

No matter how flawed and imperfect you are. 
No matter how you may have been abused or rejected. 
No matter how unworthy you might feel, or afraid. 
No matter what evidence there is to the contrary.
Nothing matters more than this:

You can call God 'my Daddy' and know that He says to you, 'my beloved child'

Friday, December 26, 2014

Redeemer and Hope

I think that I have broached this several times in the past, but I have reason to believe that it runs counter to the prevailing assumptions and needs to be repeated. 

What is God's basic attitude toward the world (kosmos in Greek) which He has created? In light of that, what is our basic response?

One stream of Scripture says that all things are in God's hand. He controls everything. If it happened, God did it. There is truth to this, because, after all, if God created all that is then He is ultimately the source of all that is. God sustains creation as well. He "thinks/speaks" it into being. Creation is dependent on God to exist, it is "contingent." Many texts of Scripture go so far as to say that God creates weal and creates woe. Obviously, many Christians believe that God controls every single event, some go so far as to negate human freedom.

On the other hand, the Scriptures also refer to human response to God (whether faithful or sinful). Human culpability would seem to imply God is not controlling everything. We are not merely "sock puppets" but have, to some extent, freedom. We make choices and we have regrets for things we have done or left undone. 

For me, the primary image of Scripture is "the God Who saves." Salvation, or redemption, is God's rescue operation. It seems that God has made a creation from which He is withdrawn (a common feature of Biblical Revelation) and into which He intervenes. When bad things happen we turn to God for rescue and safety. At times, God's wrath (negative judgment) may be behind it all. This can be seen in places where we read that God has 'sent' a punishment (in the form of a foreign invader or a drought, for two examples) because the people are unfaithful. If God saves, and I would argue that is the primary thing He does, then all things are redeemable (potentially).

Human illness can be healed. This is a Divine intervention (whether miraculous or through more ordinary channels) where God 'saves' one from death. However, eventually, death wins. There are times when sick people die. Resurrection is the ultimate redemption. God takes life back from death's grasp. So, St. Paul, who lived in third world conditions and was very familiar with suffering and death, was able to say "Death where is your victory? Death where is your sting?" How could a man who suffered so much and saw to much able to think such a thing? Because of his experience of resurrection.

In the end, salvation makes sense of it all. Not now, certainly, when we see through a glass darkly and live only by faith. Someday, however, it shall be clearer.

This is why the birth of the Messiah matters, we are able to understand the means and mode of that salvation. God become human, God taking into Himself our human situation and condition, including suffering and death--this is how He does it. We await that deliverance in its final form, but here and now, today, we have a foretaste and a reason for joy and hope!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas 2014

below is the homily I wrote for tonight, but did not deliver. Instead, I shared a moment of 'revelation' holding my three year old son prior to the children's service. He has curly blond hair and a smile which captures human hearts on a regular basis. He has some very special challenges but also has a presence which captivates people. His job was to be a lamb, which he was not too sure about. As I held him to calm him, I looked at him and suddenly in a flash I sensed God's message.

He is your little lamb, your beloved child. You cherish him.
Jesus is my child, my son, my beloved. He is my lamb, offered for you, for your son, and for everyone else's children in the whole world.... I love my baby boy, and the thought of offering him up that way... God's gift: Jesus. That is the meaning of Christmas. 

Luke 2:1-20 provides us with a built in interpretation of the what the birth of this baby means. An obscure Jewish couple, under compulsion of an oppressive foreign empire, are made to travel a great distance at a most inopportune time. However, they are part of David's line, the once and future King of Israel. She gives birth in exile, there is no room for her. The baby sleeps in a food trough--subtle allusions to the upper room, the eucharist and the tomb of Jesus are a reminder of the rest of the story.

Shepherds, another allusion to David, are nearby. There low social status and high symbolic meaning are at home in this paradoxical tale of the birth of the Messiah. An angel brings an evangel/ good news message. Angelos is a Greek word, it means messenger and refers to anyone who serves as an emissary for another. These particular messengers are from God so their message is more important and totally trustworthy.

There are two components which I want to emphasize.
The baby is Savior, Messiah and Lord. These three words carry a great deal of baggage, they are 'heavy' words full of deep meaning.

The angels, the heavenly host, give glory to God and declare peace on earth. Peace is understood in its Hebrew sense: tranquility, safety, security and prosperity. Shalom. It is the way of life in God's Kingdom.

Because of Who Jesus is (Savior, Messiah, Lord) we can rest assured in the assurance of rest. We can rest in peace, even in the midst of this present strife. If the night is dark the light of God's glory is still real.

The message of Christmas, the true meaning of Christmas is found in these words. To you is given a savior who is Christ/Messiah and Lord. All will be well, days of peace and prosperity are coming, in the mean time you need to believe.

and be an angel.
a messenger. an emissary. someone sent by God to tell this good news to others, especially people in difficult circumstance who need a reason to hope.

John's Friend

a funeral homily for a special friend, John Fry, the founder of Ardent studio. Over 400 people gathered yesterday for the Memorial Service which was graciously hosted by St. John's because St. Andrew is too small.

They say one measure of a man's life is the number of people who come to his funeral. I would add that the type of people who come matter, too. I think, however, the reason that they come is the best measure...

Why are you here? Are you here because John is in the Hall of Fame? Because he was an acknowledged genius at what he did? Are you here because he was an important guy with Ardent Studios? Are you here because he was, in a quiet sense, a celebrity? Maybe, but my guess is many of you are here, because you loved him...

I was John's pastor, confessor and counselor. Most of what I know about him is under the seal. What I can say is that the John I knew was a wonderful guy. His death is a personal loss for me and our parish. You all knew him in other ways, but suffer that same sense of loss. We wish he were still here with us...

John, however, did not want me to talk about him today. He wanted me to share a story about a guy he knew. This guy was from the third world man. He grew up in abject poverty with limited formal education. He was a day laborer. Yet, despite this, He was a remarkably bright, insightful and wise person. John's friend was actually a popular teacher in His homeland. He traveled around from place to place and gathered crowds wherever He went.

John knew that one reason why his friend was so popular was that He had an uncanny gift for making people better. He could heal sick people with a touch of His hand and pull people out of dark places. He gave them a freedom. And He loved everyone. He really loved everyone. I think John tried to act in similar fashion.

John's friend did have one major flaw--He was totally honest. He loved people too much to lie to them, so He always told the truth. He was, therefore, very irritating to people. He expected high morals, including sexual and financial behaviors. He said taking care of the poor and needy was a required for justice. He said family should take the back seat to loving God and the church community. He said that you should be kind and merciful to others, and be truly sorry for the wrongs you have done and grateful for the gifts you received.

John's friend was also willing to confront folks in power. He got cross ways with the church leaders and government because He said they were abusive and hypocritical. Needless to say, no matter how much good you do and how much you love people, when you start pointing out their faults, well, folks just get angry. And if they tell you to shut up, but you keep talking, well powerful folks figure out a way to shut you up. And they did.

John's friend was arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, tortured for several hours. What they did to Him was so brutal that it would have killed a lesser man; but John's friend was physically and spiritually strong and he survived the ordeal standing firm on His own two feet. So they were able to kill Him, slowly and publicly. On a cross. He lingered a few hours, hanging there alone. Then He died.

Obviously, John's friend, the guy he wanted me to talk about, is Jesus. Jesus died in a very gruesome and public manner. Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they did perfect it. It was a brutal death and it was death.

The followers of Jesus knew that He died. When He died, every hope was shattered. After all, lots of "Messiahs" had been crushed beneath Roman power. There was not any reason to believe that Jesus was anything but a deluded dreamer with a gift for healing. Yet, something happened which made them willing to suffer torture and wretched deaths themselves. Something happened which blew their minds and re-ordered their priorities. Something happened which made them think the crucifixion was not the last word: The resurrection.

The enemies of Jesus did not like this resurrection talk. And so the ones who believed in the resurrection were also hunted down and silenced. One fellow, Saul of Tarsus, was especially zealous in this. It was he who wrote today's letter. He wanted to kill anyone who said Jesus rose, until one day Jesus appeared to Him.

"Why are you doing this?" the Risen Lord asked Paul. Unable to refute such concrete evidence, Paul submitted: Jesus was risen. Years later he was killed for announcing that Jesus, a crucified nobody, was the Risen Lord and Savior of the World.

John Fry told me, "I would like the primary text to be 1 Corinthians 15, abbreviated as you see fit." I have done that. Now you know John's parting message to you. If you want to know what John wanted you to know read 1 Corinthians 15.

Why are you here? Why did you come? John wants you to know, whatever the reason, death is not the last word, life is. Resurrection is our hope and joy. It sustains us, even as we weep and mourn this loss, for it is a reminder that all is not as it seems. We, the ones left behind, will all die, but death is conquered. Jesus is Victor.   

Monday, December 22, 2014

Keep the "Mass" in Christmas

Christmas is literally the celebration of "Christ's Mass." It is a eucharist in honor of His birth/incarnation. The eucharist is the table meal which connects us sacramentally (through faith and love) to the cross/sacrifice of Good Friday.

Christmas is, of course, the Christening of pagan holidays. Paganism predates Christianity and Judaism, no way around it. Trying to be free of anything pagan's did in the past is futile. Celebrating light and gift giving and love are pagan, but certainly not foreign to Christianity either. Sacred words and sacred meals are pagan, but the Bible and eucharist certainly have taken them to the fulness of their meaning. Truth be told, every Christian is a baptized pagan, so anything human is pagan, but potentially redeemable in Christ.

Keeping Christ in Christmas means that we remember that whatever its pagan roots, the season has been Christianized and its meaning changed for us who believe. Keeping mass in Christmas means making worship the center. Family matters. Gifts matter. Happiness and joy matter, but Christian and Christ centered worship matter more. It holds all the other things together.

Christianity is an "us/we" faith. We worship in community. That is why keeping mass in Christmas is so important.

Friday, December 19, 2014


A myriad, which is literally 10,000, means innumerable. Sort of like when your momma said, "I have told you a million times!" The number 10,000 occurs over fifty times in the Bible (or so I read) and it is just one of those numbers like 3, 7, 12 which convey much meaning.

I have shared in years past my growing attachment to repetitive prayer. It allows one to be present to God with more focus on Him and less on self (and spinning words). Over time, I have combined the practice of praying "thanks and praise" with a rosary. Holding beads is a helpful activity which requires just enough energy to sort of block some distractions. So I began integrating the practice into my life. A few months ago I began thinking of 10,000 and based on quick math realized saying "thanks" to God 350 times a day would produce 10,000 thanks a month (actually a few more) and over the year it would be a myriad times twelve, which seems wonderfully Biblical.

I figure lots of folks never tell our Lord thanks, so it seems fitting to cover for them... Besides, He deserves it and I need a Gratitude Attitude. Being thankful is healthy and helpful. I recommend it. And there is plenty to be thankful for, from big things like creation, redemption, sustenance of the earth to more personal things like health, food, family, friends. Would you miss your skin? Then why not thank God robustly that you have skin. Are you glad to see, or hear, or walk? Thank Him. A good rule of thumb is to decide how much you would complain if something were not there and try to be as thankful that it is. If you lost a leg would you be upset every day? Well, are you a fountain of gratitude each day you waken and your leg is there?

One ministry of the church is worship: praise and thanks. We should do it corporately. We should do it privately.

Which is another reason why I feel sorry for atheists. They do not believe in creatures, because there is no creator. They do not believe in the gift of life, because there is no Giver of Life. When something amazing and wonderful happens, the birth of a child, a lovely sunset, deliverance from distress they can never see a Guiding Hand providing a blessing. How sad and pitiful to never be able to say "Thank you" for so many of the things which matter most, because there is no one (in their mind) to thank and, in a real sense, nothing to be thankful for (things just happen and there are no blessings).

So Christians need to stop acting like atheists, taking it all for granted and not regularly turning to The Heavenly Source with gratitude and praise.

Thank you, Father
Thank you Lord
Thank you, my King and my God

Repeat 10,000 times! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Writing the Bible, A Follow Up

Wednesday is Bible Study day, we are looking at Gospel Parallels. This is a book which places Matthew, Mark and Luke side by side (and in their individual order) so as to provide an easy tool to analyze what each (final) author wrote. Last night we looked at Mark 4:35-41 (//Lk 8:22-25 and Mt 8:18, 23-27) which is the story of Jesus in the boat when there is a big storm.

While saying "the Bible is written words" is obvious, the obvious is not always factored in. [One example, it is obvious that third world people live differently than we do, yet people are still overwhelmed by what they "already know."] Jesus lived in "Third World" conditions yet how often do Middle Class Christians read the Bible with little awareness of Jesus' living conditions?

Writers write for an audience, and often times they write for future audiences. Mark is written for a number of reasons (few of which we can know for sure), but what he writes is in dialogue with "The Bible" (and in his day that means the Jewish Bible only!). This means that when you read the Gospel for history, you are missing out on the most important communication: the theological (God-talk) and spiritual.

The eye witness details, especially the ones which are not integral to the story (like 'other boats' were there), make it clear to me that the miracle on the stormy sea actually happened. I believe Jesus did it and I believe it happened. However, when Mark wrote about it, there was so much more he wanted us to know. One issue is the raging storm on the waters connects with numerous psalms (Ps 107:23; 65:7; 89:9; 93). Mark may have shaped his wording to connect with those images. In addition, there are verbal parallels with Jonah. Jonah is about a prophet fleeing from the mission to Gentiles, while Mark says Jesus is going to "the other side" which is Gentile territory. Subtle communication is not an American specialty. We are pretty straightforward and outspoken. Nuance is wasted on us, many times, because we are not attuned to it. 

It seems that the nature miracle is drawing a connection between Jesus and God. "Who is this?" the disciples ask. Perhaps the most important purpose of the question is for the reader to ponder the answer. We need to ask it ourselves, not worry about which apostle asked it for "historical purposes." However, the theological connections of the story to the Jewish creation story and pagan creation myths (Psalm 89 speaks of Rahab, the ancient serpant), the salvation story in Noah, and Jonah and Gentile Mission are no doubt also to be included in our reflection. This is the deeper study which feeds the church in every age.

Since earliest times, Church Fathers saw us in the story: Boat=Church, Storm=Tribulations, Sleeping Jesus=Absent Lord in Heaven, fearful Disciples=Doubting Church. 

The sad truth is we all face storms. Jesus sleeps, unaffected by the turmoil. We wonder, does He care if we perish? I have met many atheists who decided the sleeping Jesus does not save. These atheists are to be pitied. Their sad, desperate lives are, in the end, hopeless. The storm is too big. The other response, faith, clings to the hope of deliverance. Jesus has done it before, He will do it again. He is even now doing it among us.

Sleep, in the New Testament, can refer to death. In Mark's Gospel, the death of Jesus is the central theme. Resurrection is a promise, Death is a reality. Is Jesus dead? I believe He lives. Sometimes, though, the storm is pretty bad and the boat is taking on water....  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ancient insights on Today's Racial Conflicts

The recent stories about Police and the deaths of two Black citizens has led me to much reflection. I saw on TV Friday that government employees had walked out of their jobs. Many of them held their arms in the air, an obvious reference to Michael Brown. So what does this have to do with the Ancient insights and the Bible?

The Bible is literature. It is written words. In many cases, those written words are narratives. Certainly the two stories in the news are also narratives (probably multiple narratives). How do narratives function?

The church Fathers say there is a literal, plain, straight forward meaning to narratives. In ancient times, this was viewed as the most basic but perhaps least important. In our own age the literal is held in higher regard (though arguably it shouldn't be). Here is why: The literal has to do with objective facts, the 'event' as a pure, unfiltered, occurrence. When we ask, "What really happened?" this is what we usually mean. The problem is "real" means physical, concrete, "meaning-less" fact. It adopts the (assumed) tools of physical science (I say assumed because actual science is much less that way then most of us think) as the most accurate way to talk about our world.

"What really happened?," however, is not simply objective fact. Unfortunately, much of the literal and factual cannot be known. Experience is always subjective. It is meaningful because people find meaning in the event. Humans are not machines (and even machines measure from an angle or viewpoint which impacts the measurement!). In a real sense, "what really happened?" must include the subjective element. The subjective/objective together comprise the 'experience' of the event, and are, therefore, a deeper "really happened." "What really happened?" also includes "what does it mean?"---and it is that question of meaning that goes deeper than the literal sense of things.

The Fathers know that the moral, the sacramental/mystery, and the spiritual (typological, allegorical, symbolic, etc.) are inherently part of what "really happened." They also know that those are more important than the literal.

Let's consider the "hands up, don't shoot" issue.
The forensics say that Michael Brown was not executed as he knelt on the ground. However, some eye witnesses say he had his hands up in surrender, others say he did not. Some say he was charging at the officer. So what happened?

What if Michael Brown did put his hands up and say "Don't shoot," at one point and then later charged the officer. Is it possible for someone to do that? (I think so) Michael was under duress and we know he was not having a good day based on the store video. Perhaps he began to surrender and then changed his mind and charged (maybe the cop said something to trigger it, who knows why he did it?). If so, both are true. Based on myriad reasons eye witnesses are focusing on and remembering events (the unreliability of eye witnesses is well known) the way they do. No way to avoid that, so facts give way to 'truth' and 'meaning.' What does the shooting mean for us?

Truth and meaning are "spiritual." Michael's tragic death is being experienced and interpreted in different ways by different people. I have written about this a number of times.

Racism is real because prejudice is real. Generalizations occur all the time. It is easy to see it in others, not so much in ourselves. "Cops think all Black young men are criminals!" or "Black males are dangerous and thuggish!" many are heard saying. Those blacks.... Those whites.... Those young men.... Those cops.... Those media..... Those protestors..... Yet we pause to ask ourselves: All of 'them' are the same? You cannot generalize about "us" but we can generalize about "you"?

Clearly, the reality of racism in general and actual racist cops in particular is real. There is personal racism and there is institutional racism. It is one of the manifestations of sin. And racism, real and perceived, has been discovered/projected all over this particular case.

The story of Michael Brown, however, like it or not, is no longer about him alone. He was already a 'sacrament' and 'a type' and that aspect has only grown larger and larger. He represents more than himself. He is a symbol of youth and the Black race. He is a symbol of black people who have been victimized in this country for centuries. He is connected to every injustice from slavery through the civil rights movement to the latest incident of cruelty and death. His story now symbolizes thousands of stories. He taps into the rage, the despair, and all the other experiences, beliefs and feelings of people. There is a mythic element to this narrative which has a life of its own and is bigger than the story of what happened to Michael Brown. So in a real sense, it does not matter, in terms of the narrative, if Michael Brown had his hands up or not. Others have. Others have been gunned down begging for their lives. Other stories are making their presence known in this narrative. When protestors have their hands up it is an expression of that bigger narrative. Arguing data points and facts is missing the meaning of it all.

But that typology cuts both ways. There are others who see from with different assumptions and beliefs. The competing narratives make their presence known in the voices of those folks. Where one person states that police are the most dangerous gang in our city (I heard it) others think police are the thin blue line which saves us from mayhem. The problem is there is no simple objective way of seeing things. Right and wrong are debated. Victim and Perpetrator are also in the eye of the beholder. "Cold blooded murder or justifiable self defense" are swallowed up in a larger debate on justice and fairness. What happened here becomes the symbolic center of what has happened (time and time again) in other places. The desire for "someone" to pay for the crime (even if that someone is a scape goat) is driven by our need for a better world. "What is true" shapes "what must have happened" and that shapes the narrative.

We need to be aware of the mythic/spiritual/allegorical reality of any narrative. We need to be attentive to the "typology" which drives our interpretation. If facts shape the truth, then truth shapes the meaning of facts as well. When we talk about "this" (whatever this event may be) we are tapping into so much more at the same time. Sometimes "this" is less important to us than what "this" symbolizes. Insight into the Michael Brown story will help us understand how all stories, even Biblical ones, come into being and are shaped and reshaped over time. The Ancients understood this in ways that many of us do not, to our own detriment. And understanding this narrative process may give us deeper insight into the construction of Biblical texts, as well.     

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent 3 2014

Advent 3

The Gospel reading (John 1:6ff) today is probably the original beginning of the fourth Gospel. If we look at the Gospel of Mark, the similarities are obvious. Most telling is the verb used in each case:  ‘ginomai.’

At a later point, an ancient hymn about “The Word” was woven in by a second contributor resulting in the Gospel we have today. The Gospel now begins with contrasts. The Word is contrasted with John.

The Word (we heard) is with God and the Word is God. The Word is the creator of life and light.

John on the other hand is an ‘anthropos’ (translated as man, but meaning a human being) sent by God to witness to the light...

The contrast between John and Jesus could not be clearer. Both are sent (apostle in Greek) by the Father, but Jesus’ origin is different from John’s.

There is a second contrast as well, the one in our reading today. Listen carefully.

1.    The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “who are you?

2.   There was a man, sent from God whose name was John.

Both are sent, but they come from different places. One is heaven sent, another comes from the city Jerusalem which is “His (Jesus/God) own people who did not accept Him (Jesus/God).” In the Fourth Gospel, “Jews” is a theological term. Like “world” it has a negative connotation, because it reflects unbelief.

We know his name is John and he is a Witness. They do not know the truth so they ask “who are you?” The expression “in the dark” means to be ignorant. The one who does not believe in Jesus is literally in the Dark. Jesus is the Light and those who believe in Him walk in the light. The blindness of unbelief is darkness.

John is sent by God to testify (martyr) to the Light so that all might believe. The Fourth Gospel is making clear that Jesus was greater than John. In the Fourth Gospel he is not even called the Baptist, he is just John, and his role is a witness. John says that he is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet---he is the Voice.

Historically and theologically that is important. It gives us insight into the past. But there is also the need to hear this word and interpret it today. What is God saying to me and you? I think that each of us must see our own story written here; you and I, like John, are humans sent by God to witness and testify.

I am the voice and so are you.

We are sent by God, but we are always at risk to embrace the spiritual “Jerusalem,” the city of doubt and cynicism. The unfaithful harlot who crucifies the Messiah. The tool of the demonic….

You and I are not the Light and we are not the Messiah. In a sense that is what the Garden of Eden is really about, right? I want to be King and rule in God’s place. That is the true meaning of sin: I choose what I want.

There comes a point in time when we have to come to that realization that “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Light. I am darkness in need of light.” It is a moment of clarity: “If I am not the Messiah, then who is?”

The reason the church exists is to point to Jesus. Our primary purpose is to testify to Him so that all will believe.

DO you understand “who you are?”

Do you understand what you have been sent to do?

Are you doing it?

Friday, December 12, 2014

I Can't Breathe

I saw where numerous NBA teams are wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts. I understand that they want to raise awareness. Certainly if it diminishes the problems of inappropriate police techniques that would be a good thing. You can love the police and still want them to do better.

Of course, systems theory reminds us that there are unintended consequences. The NBA is allowing a precedence which may lead into future conflicts. What if a team wanted to stand against abortion? If they all wore tee shirts declaring it to be murder would the media still applaud? Or if other players agreed with the grand juries and wanted to put the message of Charles Barkley on their shirt ("without the cops we would live in the wild west")? Is free speech okay in that case? And if endorsing causes is okay, can players wear political tee shirts advertising a candidate? I understand how difficult it is to decide what the right thing is, but the people saying "free speech" is at stake here need to be consistent. My guess is the NBA will reign in any attempts to expand the 'rights" of players to break the dress code. Very, very complex issues....

In an interview a Black leader complained that the TV news only seems to highlight crimes done against white women. I agree with him. I often wonder how one particular girl (out of so many tragedies) becomes the total preoccupation of the news cycles, sometimes for months and years. Obviously, news reporting is connected to ratings, and pretty white girls seem to be more valuable to increase viewership, or the type viewers advertisers are seeking. The media is about making money, and news is not pure...

The words, "I can't breathe" resonate at another level in my parish. We have two parishioners with lung diseases which are slowly suffocating them. One died last week. I am counseling with the other. My mom died that way. It was awful. Reading psalms 56 & 57 yesterday I was thinking about that
have mercy on me O God for my enemies are hounding me...
whenever I am afraid I will put my trust in you...
be merciful to me O God be merciful for I have taken refuge in you...
he will confound those who trample upon me... 

We all share in that experience, in various ways. Overwhelmed and helpless, crying out "I can't breathe!" (literally and figuratively) and waiting for God to deliver us.

Our parish is moving to respond to those who "can't breathe" in inner city Memphis. We are working with a minister and are funding a shelter. The ministry of Jesus, God's response to people crying out, is done in and through humans. A white suburban church funding a black church will not solve every problem, but the people who are saved will think it worthwhile. Pray for God's mercy on this project. Helping people 'up and out' is challenging work. We appreciate the opportunity God has given us to do something positive.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hope and Salvation

I watched the final episode of a TV program which I have followed for years. It was not the sort of show which was pious or uplifting. Most all of the characters were vicious and criminal, and there were very few who were lights shining in the darkness.

One reason I find it interesting is because I have had a lifelong interest in evil. I spent ten years as a social worker. Rapists and murderers were my clients. Violent people and unsavory folks were my daily companions. I am familiar with the concept that "everyone is a sinner" but I have known personally some folks who have taken it to the next level. The question for me has always been, "How can people become so bad?" I pondered it often.

The general approach to ending a series (rather than being cancelled) is to tie up loose ends. The main characters have to be dealt with, and when the characters are not good people, there is usually a need to bring 'judgment' upon them. The need to have a "fit" end and the challenge is to find a way to write that ending in a satisfactory way.

Amazingly there was some overt Christian/Catholic images present in the last few shows. A woman character who had done much evil listens to "Jesus music" as she drives her car and at another point she calls herself a Christian. (Years ago she mocked the Catholic faith). She visits her father, who apparently is suffering from mental decline and memory loss. She is told that she must wait because he has not returned from his visit to the local Catholic church. He does not recognize her as his daughter, but sees she is distressed and actually tells her, "God forgives." "I hope so," she responded, aware of the pain and suffering she has caused throughout her misspent life. She is killed later at her father's house in a garden. We had learned earlier that  she loved that garden in her childhood, but there is more here: the image of "garden and lost innocence" is Biblical to its core (Adam/Eve) and this woman was a fallen mother figure at many levels. Last night, the main character, her son, met his end. He crashes his motorcycle with his arms outstretched, in an open embrace of death(?); but he also looked like Jesus on the cross. Perhaps more interesting was the presence of a street person who was eating bread and drinking wine and a final seen of a bird eating similar looking bread while the blood of the man enters the frame. Bread/Wine/Body/Blood....

His death was his way of saving his two very young sons from the evil life which had he embraced. "I am a bad man and there is no way to change that," he had declared. This is the true meaning of despair. Hopelessness in the face of sin. He gave up his life in the hope that he can save his sons, but we know that his boy has his ring. It is possible that destiny may other plans for the little fellow who is already deeply scarred by his family's dysfunction.

At Morning Prayer we read from Isaiah 6. In this chapter the ancient prophet shares his vision of God in heaven (which looks remarkably like the earthly temple). It is overwhelming (angels cry out 'holy, holy, holy!') and Isaiah sounds like one who is hopeless when he says, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" But despair is not the last word. The angel touches his lip with a burning coal and declares "your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven." Redemption is always a gift from God and it cannot be earned.

The Gospel today, John 7:53ff, is the well known account of the woman caught in adultery. They drag her before Jesus to trap Him, but His response, "Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone!" is perfectly constructed. He does not deny sin nor the Scriptural demand; He only makes it impossible to enforce it. Then He asks the woman, "Has no one condemned you?" When she replies in the negative, He says, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more." [note exhortation not to sin]

Sin is real. Sin is bad. Sin is death. I pondered this as I watched the show last night. What is our hope in the face of sin? How can we escape? The Bible today spoke of God's mercy and forgiveness. All have sinned and no one has hope, unless if the hope rests in God.

The Garden, the bread and wine, the confession of sin and the need for mercy--all were present in that TV show. They are also present in our lives. In the TV show despair and death 'won' over and over again, but it need not be that way in our lives. God says to us, "Choose life." He offers life. There really is hope!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Waiting (Advent 1)

The Advent theme echoes in the words of Jesus in Mark 13. It could not be more clear.
Beware. Keep alert. You do not know the hour!
Keep awake, you do not know the hour!
and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!

To be awake is not the passive absence of sleep, it is active and alert. It is anticipatory and it involves our whole person.
 It is the role of the watchman, the lone sentinel on a tower or ship, engaged in the protective work of scanning for threats.

Paul says that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we WAIT for the Lord. We are no simply watchmen with flashlights and cell phones. We are armed and dangerous! The enemy dare not rear his head among us for we have EVERY GIFT of the HOLY SPIRIT as we wait and watch for the Lord.

Waiting is a natural part of human existence. All of us have treasured memories of "the big day." Countdowns to the arrival of family or friend. I recall in middle school, living in an apartment outside Philadelphia, the day my Aunt, Uncle and cousins were to arrive. My brother and sister and I would gobble down our breakfast and sprint out the door, my mom's warning "they won't be here until late in the afternoon" a useless sentence. We did not care, we were going to watch and wait, and wait we did, sometimes for seven or eight hours. But when we saw the car the wait melted away. The joy! The joy! A joy which only a child's heart can understand.

Then we grow up and there is another kind of waiting. It is a more anxious waiting, and in its way more intense. Something is wrong with the baby, the parent, the friend, the spouse; we go to the doctor and endure the poking and probing. We wait, and wait. First for a diagnosis, then for a prognosis, then for medicines, then for the outcome. We wait. We hope, we do whatever they tell us, including sitting outside in the freezing cold at three in the morning because the doctor says the croop likes cold dry air. SO we sit and wait, waiting to hear the cough go away, the lump go away, the bleeding to stop.

Which brings us to the third kind of waiting. The final wait. We gather around the bed, our loved one a wasted shell of the person who carried us in his arms, nursed us at her breast, held us close in the night, entertained us or educated us. The breaths are shallow, so shallow. too shallow. we are amazed at how long a person can survive with so little air. Then it stops. It is over. Death.

These are all types of Christian waiting. The joy of the Kingdom. The sometimes painful process of healing/salvation. The required death to enter life. 

If we are not waiting for Jesus, then for whom or what are we waiting. Is it possible that this is the most important question? Not, "do you believe?", but "DO YOU WAIT?"

Isaiah screamed to his God; O that you would tear the heavens apart and come down among us! Isaiah professed, You are our Father, we are the work of you hands.

In the New Testament those words are summed up in one Aramaic expression: maranatha, come Lord

 Who can pray, come Lord
The one who watches, the one who longs, the one who waits. stay awake. wait on the Lord. 

And while you wait live like someone who has received every spiritual gift and use them as the Lord's Watchman!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What We Want to See, What we Expect to Hear

It was Thanksgiving Day and we were in a family gathering feast. My wife was feeding my youngest, who surveyed the tables stacked with various foods. Suddenly, his eyes grew large and he doddered over to the table with one of his favorite foods, bread. It got me to thinking about the fifteen of us, as we entered that space, our eyes dancing from one thing to the next.... What were we honing in on?

Often we see what we are 'looking for.' We might not even notice something that does not appeal. There is nothing profound about this, it is how things work. 

A couple days ago I went on Facebook. I do not go there much at all. What I saw disturbed me. There were a series of posts by people whom I have known for thirty years or more. While few of those people are part of my daily life any longer, there is no doubt that there is affection and positive regard shared. The posts were expressions of rage about this and that. There was a tendency for certain kinds of comments to come from certain kinds of groups. As they looked at various events, they tended to hone in on those aspects which reinforced their thinking. No surprise, and this tunnel vision is not limited to any particular group.

Like my son, our eyes get big and we are very enthused when we can identify particular events which are examples of what we believe. We need to ask ourselves, "What would I want the truth to be?" and, perhaps, ask ourselves, "Why?"

Reality is bigger than our capacity to capture in words. The narratives we construct are necessarily truncated (and therefore inaccurate). We edit out details, sometimes very important details. By definition we can not see what we are blind to. 

Segmented truth can also be a partial lie. Reality is complex and difficult. We are not always clear on what "just, fair and loving" looks like for everyone. Power and demands for "me/us" are impacted by what we see and hear, and what we see and hear is twisted.

Maybe that is why Jesus came as a slave to die on a cross? Maybe we can only be freed from ourselves when we die to ourselves?