Look Up

Acts 7:55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’

I have to remember to look up when I’m feeling down.  Took this pic on my drive home last evening feeling blue even after a glorious day of worship with God’s people in God’s church.  Stopped to take the pic of the skies that beckoned, testifying and witnessing to me God’s glory, reminding me that I am not alone, that I am in God’s hands, following wherever my Lord would have me.

I wonder if the skies weren’t as they were then just so I’d sync up today that reminder as I prayed the Daily Office and encountered the scripture reporting Stephen’s martyrdom.

Look up when feeling down. And be thankful.

Praise God from whom all #cloudsofwitnesses and blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 106:1-18; PM Psalm 106:19-48
Judges 17:1-13Acts 7:44-8:1aJohn 5:19-29

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Persevere in Prayer

Note:  A reminder for new readers of this blog.  I pray the Daily Office every morning and when prompted by the Holy Spirit by a pause or a thought-like bubble, I reflect in writing, here.  The reflections, thus, are spontaneous, sometimes requiring much more explanation than a daily reflection allows.  Today’s reflection touches on only one small aspect of the current child abuse and cover-up scandal in the Roman Church that erupted on Monday.  One aspect.  One moment.  One thought from the Holy Spirit.  Maybe this is one way to begin to understand, ‘how,’ and help all God’s people find a way – the right way – forward.

Amid all the discussions, reports and justified rants, I’ve heard in the last few days since the Pennsylvania  Attorney General released the grand jury report alleging decades of child abuse by hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests one question among the thousands loomed in the background – how? – how could this have continued and been covered up 16 years after the Boston Globe’s exposé of the egregious offenses in Massachusetts and a new pope that suggested zero tolerance and accountability?

Just last week before this shocking and appalling news came to light, I heard Christian History professor and theologian Diana Butler-Bass interviewed about her new book, Christianity after Religion: The End of the Church and the Beginning of a new Spiritual Awakening, in which she identifies five significant events[1] at the turn of the century which catapulted the ‘spiritual but not religious’ generation away from the institutional church – likely forever. They each occurred within the first decade of the new century, sending shock waves through institutional Christianity – Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Protestants and Catholics alike – resulting in a loss of not just attendance, but also agency. At the top of the list, following The September 11 terrorist attacks was the Roman Church’s worldwide pedophilia scandal. According to Butler-Bass the fall out was at least as significant as the Reformation and possibly the greatest seismic shift in the Roman Church, ever.

Whether or not it was then, with this most recent news out of Pennsylvania, what would Butler-Bass say of the most recent events, now?  Was 2002 simply a tremblor? Should we have seen or known it wasn’t the Big One?

One commentator at the press conference I heard said it would be remiss and blatantly ignorant of the country to assume that Pennsylvania is unique and not the norm – that we must assume that any other state that pursued the Roman church along these lines would uncover a similar sordid history of crimes and cover-ups. He added that the Pennsylvania report revealed nothing had changed in the Roman Church from the top down  – charging that  “…a cancer had a grip on the seminaries, religious houses, schools, and parishes.” He wasn’t alone advocating for radical chemotherapy killing all the ‘cells’ to restore health to the institution. If the church died in the process, so be it.

I understand the rage. I don’t disagree with the reporter or the Attorney General from Pennsylvania who pressed the public …” to eliminate the statute of limitations law that …keeps most of them (the Priests and Bishops) from ever seeing criminal charges.“ This may be one way to hold the offenders accountable simultaneously offering victims some sense of justice. But, will it change the mess inside the church? Even begin to? Hasn’t so far.

I tuned into the Catholic Radio channel to hear how my brothers and sisters of the Roman Church are talking about this and listened to a discussion between a former Franciscan, now therapist, and a Catholic Lay moderator. To the question of how the abuse and the insidious cover-ups have persisted through decades – the therapist suggested that the leadership within the communities is populated by men with personality disorders, namely Narcissistic Personality Disorder[2]. That caught my attention as I’ve known and worked with a few such untreatable narcissists through the years.  Such dysfunctional leadership strips away any hope of honesty and trust, stripping the biblical principle of obedience of its essence, virtue.  Such leaders are toxic.

The discussion moved to the question of how celibacy, the prevention of marriage, and the barring of women from ordained ministry, had mis-shaped the body of Christ, – which for most of us outside the Roman church, seems obvious – and whether or not the church should and could maintain these non-biblical requirements for clergy.

I’m not here in today’s blog to reflect upon that huge issue. Rather, my question is how did these men of God, these men who were called to proclaim the gospel, to feed the poor, the comfort the orphan and widow, to bless the little children – how did these men get so distanced and detached from God? Generation after generation?

The verse from today’s psalm (Psalm 142) was where the Spirit paused me,

3 When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; 

The former Franciscan offered that the brotherhood in all its manifestations – Religious Orders, Diocesan priests, Bishops, Schools, Missions, Spiritual Directors, Charities – the community of brothers had let slip over the years the ancient practice of the Liturgy of the Hours.  Prayer.

Perseverance in Prayer.  The practice was to keep the men of God (and women who were part of a Holy Order) in constant – hourly – contact with the Lord, keeping the Lord near enough to ‘know my path,’ and thus amend thoughts and behaviors to align rightly with the Lord.  He explained how easy it had been for monasteries and brotherhoods to just let that requirement go in favor of trusting the clergy had developed an individual prayer life that sustained them in their ministry.  Spiritual Directors assumed and presumed and just stopped asking any longer for the priest or brother to describe their prayer life.

The ordained promise to their Bishops and the Church to keep the Liturgy of the Hours. And they don’t. And everyone from the Pope down to the local Spiritual Director allows.

Daily prayer – whether every five hours or not – is the essential practice of the Christian life.  The psalm today cannot be uttered, let alone written, had the psalmist not had a healthy, robust prayer life with the Lord, one in which s/he has been before the Lord every single day of her/his life.

1 I cry to the Lord with my voice; *

to the Lord I make loud supplication.

2 I pour out my complaint before him *

and tell him all my trouble.

3 When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; 

in the way wherein I walk they have hidden a trap for me.

Daily Prayer is also a promise the ordained in The Episcopal Church make to their Bishop and the Church. Not specifically to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, though praying one from our version, the Daily Office (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline) is my practice.

During the part of the ordination called The Examination, the Bishop asks,

Bishop Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in
private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for
others, offering all your labors to God, through the
mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification
of the Holy Spirit?

Persevere in prayer. How could these men of God not? Their spirit languished but they were not before the Lord to be put on the right path.

For today, this little pause and whisper helps me begin to comprehend how this travesty against God’s church persisted while it was going on and after it was exposed.  And the pause is before me – and you the reader, to ask about our own prayer lives.  Is every day of your life beginning with God? In prayer? Every single day?  God help us all that if not, it be so from this day forward.

Praise God to whom all supplications are prayed every single day of our lives and from whom all blessings flow.

AM Psalm 140, 142; PM Psalm 141, 143:1-11(12) 
Job 2:1-13Acts 9:1-9John 6:27-40

[1] The events referred to here, “revealed the ugly side of organized religion, challenging even the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort, and creating an environment that can rightly be called a religious recession. (77):
  • 2001: The September 11 terrorist attacks.
  • 2002: The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal.
  • 2003: Protestant conflict over homosexuality. The Episcopal Church election of Gene Robinson to Bishop, right theology but wrong way, from top down forcing schism
  • 2004: The religious Right wins the battle, but loses the war. …the real victory of the religious Right has been to alienate an entire generation of young people…conservative evangelical politics may have been the worst marketing campaign for the word “Christian” since the Salem witch trials. (81)
  • 2007: The Great Religious Recession. As the Great Depression of the early twentieth century paralleled a religious depression, so too the Great Recession has twinned with a great religious recession. (82)
[2]Narcissistic Personality Disorder: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
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Courtesy Calls: how do you pronounce ‘Chrysostom’?

During the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood, I attended a weekend with others who were discerning the same call. These ‘discernment weekends’ are scheduled annually for the coming together of aspirants (that’s what I was) with a committee of folks, lay and ordained, whose vocation was to help discern for the institutional church whether or not each of us should continue – cross over to the other side of the Jordan – or whether we might consider a different path for ministry. The name of the committee is, the Commission on Ministry, and in The Episcopal Church they serve a critical function of …

…assisting the bishop “in determining present and future needs for ministry in the diocese” and to assist “in enlisting and selecting persons for Holy Orders.” …they interview candidates prior to their ordination … (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/commission-ministry)

Many such interviews and weekends occur in the journey of seeking Holy Orders, but during this particular one, I found myself to be a sort of foreigner. I was new to all the people present having moved into a different diocese and starting the process all over again – a three-year process I had nearly completed, elsewhere.

As welcoming as everyone was, including the four other aspirants, I felt like I often had – not so much a fish out of water, but sort of like a fish dumped into the San Francisco Bay from the ballast of a ship that had come from the English Channel. That might be stretching the metaphor too far but bottom line, I knew that though I received my seminary education at a more progressive seminary, (gratefully, by the way!) my thoughts about God’s church and its mission landed more on the conservative end of that spectrum. And so, I entered the weekend with some wariness – how would I be received? Would my experience in ministry thus far be accounted for?  How would I be judged?  Would there be any sort of litmus test?

At the end of the first day, I was paired with another to lead Evening Prayer. This was to be expected – all the aspirants would lead one worship gathering or another over the course of the next days.

My worship partner – a young man who had only just entered Holy Orders, having come from a different tradition entirely (Baptist) and only in the first year of his divinity degree, asked me – the older, cradle-born, MDiv graduate, GOE completed, aspirant – to introduce at the end, the Prayer of St Chrysostum[1] admitting that he had not yet learned to pronounce the saint’s name properly.

I recalled the challenge of mastering pronunciations in seminary – of learning to say names and prayers correctly – the right intonations, pauses, accents, etc. I was somewhat prepared when I entered having learned the liturgy phonetically as a cradle-born.  But ugh – not this name – I hadn’t learned or mastered Chrysostom even though his prayer I prayed nightly at Evening Prayer in seminary chapel.

It was crazy how I was flooded with all the feelings of inadequacy when my liturgy partner asked me to lead. Was this the litmus test?  I didn’t belong here on this weekend I wasn’t ‘the stuff’ of ordained ministry.   Who was I kidding?

As a seminarian, I felt woefully inadequate. I thought differently than my fellow seminarians and professors, not as critically, not as deeply or objectively. Seminary was hard for me on every level but most especially in thinking and writing and reading as an academic.

At this moment on this important discernment weekend, perched at the river bank desiring to be ‘one of them’ on the other side, all my insecurities about my critical thinking skills, worthiness, and scholastic shortcomings flooded my head. “Why don’t you lead the Prayer of St Chrysostom, since I’m just a newbie at this,” my partner suggested.  Ugh.

How that moment came back to me upon the reading from Judges, this morning.  The tribe of Gilead used a word to help them determine ally or enemy, to judge whether or not those attempting to cross the Jordan were worthy – all based upon their pronunciation of the word, Shibboleth.

…the tribes of Israel were divided by the Jordan River—some located on the west and some on the east. The eastern tribes, including Jephthah’s, had adopted certain pronunciations and practices of foreign nations, distinguishing themselves from their brothers in the west. The word shibboleth was an example. Those in Gilead pronounced it “shibboleth,” but those in Ephraim, west of Jordan, pronounced it “sibboleth.” The dialect was different – [2]

‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, 6they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Pronunciation, vocabulary, cadence all matters when God’s people gather to worship together – not as a test of worthiness as it was used in Jephthah’s story, but simply to feel comfortable and be a part, no matter from whence you came and landed in our pews.

I wonder what it is like for people new to our parishes and liturgy. Does the liturgy itself make a newcomer feel inadequate? A friend who worships in a non-denomination church once commented to me how the cadence of our worship was strange and how difficult it was to keep up with the prayers – that they seemed to be ‘said’ and ‘recited,’ and not prayed.

I hope that all of us in the pews alongside someone we see struggling to stay with liturgy, might pause and show them the way across the Jordan. Take note of the fish who have landed in your congregation from a different bay. And worship leaders might do well to announce before worship the location of prayers in the bulletins, pronunciations, page numbers and the like – sort of like providing at the doors a Courtesy Call phone, as depicted in Dan Piraro’s Bizarro strip I have included here.

I think we need to be reminded to do this over and over, and not presume that even return worshipers know the ‘correct’ pronunciation. Our liturgy should never be for anyone a test of worthiness.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 89:1-18; PM Psalm 89:19-52
Judges 12:1-7Acts 5:12-26John 3:1-21

[1] Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one
accord to make our common supplication to you; and you
have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two
or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the
midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions
as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of
your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

[2] https://www.gotquestions.org/shibboleth.html

 

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On trees, the language of God and the Book of Common Prayer

Judges 9:8 The trees once went out
to anoint a king over themselves.

Of all the parables found in scripture, only eleven [1] appear in the Old Testament (Jesus tells 46 parables in the New Testament). Today’s passage from Judges contains one of the longest, perhaps oldest, parables in scripture titled alternately between the Parable of the Trees the Parable of the Bramble.

The parable is a subtle critique of those who clamor for a king as much as it is an explicit critique of those who would be king. Here’s a brief background of the context – it’s the age of the Judges (before Kings) and specifically the age of the Judge, Gideon who had been called by God to rout Midian, testing God and asking for signs to do God’s bidding (for the full story of Gideon, read Judges chpts 6-8).

  • The people tried to make Gideon their king and he refused…but he allowed them to put up an idol of himself, which the Israelites worshipped, which was abrogated the Hebrew’s relationship with God
  • After Gideon died, the people went back to their Canaanite idols
  • one of Gideon’s 70 sons … was a man named Abimelech, which literally means “my father is king” in Hebrew who went to live in Shechem with his mother—a concubine of Gideon.
  • They conspired with the people of Shechem to make Abimelech king, and they did so by capturing and putting to death all of Abimelech’s brothers (though one, Jotham, escaped).  Thus Abimelech was made king.
  • When Jotham heard what had happened, he went to the top of Mount Gerizim and told this parable
  • it is a cry for judgment for the unfaithfulness of God’s people

Ok, so that is the context. But what paused me at the reading was how the language and poetry of parable work only when the hearer shares an understanding of what the ‘things’ are in the story. In this parable, it is our understanding of the tree and the different species of tree which allow the parable to work.

Knowing the species of the trees desiring a king – the cedars of Lebanon – is necessary for a clear understanding of Jotham’s intended message. For the first tree approached is the olive tree, the second is the fig, third is a non-tree, the grape vine, and finally the bramble. All are significantly smaller than the cedar of Lebanon and thus incapable of fulfilling the request to “reign over” or “wave over” the cedar by virtue of their relative size.

Got it.  I understand this parable more deeply because I understand the significance of the types of trees and their relationship to the mother tree, the cedar of Lebanon. The illustration expands my understanding of God as it is written.  Neutralize the language of this parable and I won’t get the breadth of understanding.  Take out the species reference and it makes no sense.  A tree by any other name is ?

I’ve just begun to do some reading about the proposed changes to the Book of Common Prayer underway since the Episcopal Church voted at General Convention to begin revisions.  Revisions intended to move the text towards more inclusive, gender-neutral language for God.

In a recent interview, and in response to the question, How does expanding our language for God impact the (sic) struggle for gender equality within the church? the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, a scholar, known expert on the Book of Common Prayer and a leader in the revision process for The Episcopal Church, says:

…we have a strongly masculine image of God, a strongly patriarchal understanding of God, that creates a world and a worldview that is more patriarchal and hierarchical. This then allows for abuse of women, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and a sense of entitlement by men to women’s bodies.

It creates a whole structure and world view. Our prayer is really quite powerful and seeps in in ways that we aren’t necessarily consciously aware of and yet shapes the way we understand reality. [ We need to] expand our language about God, draw on riches of tradition, and find the quieter voices that are still there.

I know that I’m in the minority who think the language of scripture with regard to God should be the language of worship and the language of scripture about God is often, not always, gender specific.  And while I agree that our prayer shapes our understanding of reality,  I don’t know that a particular context or reality should amend the language of God as received by the Holy Spirit in God’s Word.  I just do not think of God as gendered, as male, when we pray, Our Father, or any other prayer that utilizes the male pronoun. It was Jesus, not some patriarchal society, who called God, abba Father.

As the parable of the trees works only if we agree that there are a variety of species of trees, defined, ‘gendered’ if you will, for specific purposes according to the Creator – what happens when we decide otherwise? If our experience of one tree type is different than that of another tree type?  How is the parable altered?  Does it continue to point us to the truth intended?

In a recent short story heard on This American Life, a young boy was known to be in touch with the spirit of ‘things’ and could locate lost items by sensing a sort of tug from the thing – like a beckon call that it is in the wrong place and needs to be found.  Of trees so displaced,

…He felt the tug of a tree in the front yard, which had been uprooted from Virginia to be replanted here …

The boy felt the tug because it felt the tree’s true nature.  What if in the future we have genetically engineered all trees to be like the cedars of Lebanon so that the disrespected and offensive bramble is eradicated and the olive tree is now able to bear grapes, the cedar bear olives, and so on.  What does it mean to our understanding of reality to rename something specific to something generic?

I don’t mean to belabor the metaphor (pun intended), I’m simply paused to think about what my church is considering doing with the language about God, and what the changes communicate theologically and what rabbit hole we are diving into that might be taking us further and further away from God’s Word.

I write this as I stare out at a canopy of Monterey Cypress, a species of cypress native to the Central Coast of California. Though now grown in other regions of the world they remain called, known and named as a Monterey Cypress.  Is the spirit of the tree, its created essence,  any different as it grows in Great Britain or Kenya or New Zealand? I think not.  It is known as the Monterey Cypress.  Does renaming it something neutral change the tree?  Change the reality?

I am just left to wondering how the language about God will change to be more inclusive and gender neutral. What are we revising? The language? Or our own understanding of gender? I am not sure.

Praise God from whom all blessings and trees and parables and language and prayers flow.

Daily Office Readings Year Two: AM Psalm 88; PM Psalm 91, 92
Judges 9:1-16,19-21Acts 4:13-31John 2:2-12

[1] OT parables: Of Balaam – Concerning the Moabites and Israelites.Num 23:24 Jotham – Trees making a king. Jdg 9:7-15 Of Balaam – Concerning the Moabites and Israelites. Num 23:24  Jotham – Trees making a king.Jdg 9:7-15 Samson – Strong bringing forth sweetness.Jdg 14:14Nathan – Poor man’s ewe lamb.2Sa 12:1-4 Woman of Tekoah – Two brothers striving.2Sa 14:1The Smitten Prophet – The escaped prisoner.1Ki 20:35-40 Jehoash, King of Israel – The thistle and cedar.2Ki 14:9Isaiah – Vineyard yielding wild grapes.Isa 5:1-6 Ezekiel – Lion’s whelps.Eze 14:2-9 The boiling pot.Eze 24:3-5The great eagles and the wine.Eze 17:3-10

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Your faithful servants bless you

Psalm 145:9 The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.

10 All your works praise you, O Lord, *
and your faithful servants bless you.

11 They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;

Just as Holy Communion was coming to a close and right before the Post Communion prayer, the Bishop leaned over and asked if I knew I’d be asked to offer blessings, First Blessings, as a newly ordained priest at the conclusion of the service. No, I didn’t know about the tradition, but yes, of course, I was blessed to be asked and grateful he tipped me off in time. I had been to ordinations before but had not witnessed such blessings.

The tradition of Priestly Blessings goes back to the first century (and before that to our Hebrew ancestors and to Moses’ brother, Aaron), tied to the Roman Rite following the Eucharist utilizing Trinitarian language of “May the blessing of almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, come down on you and remain with you forever.” This, the blessing addressed to the congregation at the conclusion of communion and one as a seminarian, then postulant, then candidate, then Transitional Deacon I had mastered and known to expect at my ordination in the context of the Eucharistic prayer.

But so focused was I on the ordination liturgy itself that removing the blessing from its context just didn’t occur the moment the Bishop alerted me that I’d be asked. The simplicity of “May God’s blessing be upon you” while placing my recently anointed hands upon the head of the person asking, just didn’t come forth. Instead, while I did place my hands on their head with a newly found – authority isn’t the right word, but something along the lines of weight – a divine weightiness, I offered a blessing in ‘Jesus’ holy name’ preceded by a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing that person had been to me and to God’s church. Nothing wrong with what I prayed – the words were of the Holy Spirit – but at the same time, by not using the Trinitarian language of blessing, I am left these few days later to wonder how it was received by those who asked.

I’m left to ponder because now as an ordained priest in God’s church I am feeling the responsibility to respond to the expectations of those with whom I work, pray, and live. I’m no different in terms of what I do to serve God’s church this week than I was last week, but I’m aware that others look at me differently, now – ordained clergy and colleagues but also friends and family who I’ve known in every other context but God’s church. I came upon an article this morning by a recently ordained person who said this about that:[1]

They look at me differently now, though.  As much as I’ve tried to assure them that I am still the same person, we all know it isn’t so.  I do all the same things, …but, it is not the same person doing them.  Though they might not articulate it, in some way, I believe my colleagues and friends do not want me to be the same as before.  People long to know the holy is present among them, even if they wrongly attribute special holiness to priests.  On my best day, I simply represent the Holy in a particular way, and that may be enough for all of us.

I’ve often included in my sermons and in my teaching and in my writing the call for each of us to be “God’s person” in every aspect of our lives – our homes, our work places, our schools, our travels, our hospital rooms, our communities. We are called to bless the space we are in and between us – to represent the Holy in a particular way.

This is what the psalm reminded me today as I opened the day feeling a little anxious that I didn’t serve God well in those private blessings last Friday. I’m thankful that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and God’s Word, continues to bless me and bless the space between us.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings, Proper 13 :AM Psalm  145; PM Psalm 85, 86 
Judges 8:22-35Acts 4:1-12John 1:43-51

[1] http://anglicanpastor.com/first-blessings/

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God is love, God loves you more and you are God’s favorite

Psalm 87: 1 On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded; *the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

God. Loves. Fill in the blank. More.

Over the years to ones I have loved, I have abbreviated the sentiment expressed in the psalm to one word – ‘more.’ Sometimes as a response to their expression, I love you, I reply, “More.” And sometimes upon seeing them or writing to them, I’d say or sign off with “More.” The one word has functioned to say more to the loved one than the three words, I love you, could.

Children use the comparative often. Mommy loves me more than you. The more-than comparison always begs the question of ‘favorites,’ and that line of thinking stays with us into adulthood. The youngest is the favorite or the first born, etc. My beloved niece recently hit the jackpot when visiting my dear aging father who apparently told her she was his ‘favorite granddaughter’. Whether he said so or not, it is what she heard and she is boasting like the psalmist boasts today about the Lord loving more than the other. Of course, we all know, as do each of my dad’s five granddaughters, that God’s love is not comparative – God loves us all, none more than the other, but, differently.

God loves us each uniquely and differently. God puts people and experiences and pets and rainbows and sunsets in our lives so that we may feel his love in all its depth – we are not alone, as Dan Piraro’s Bizarro panel here so tenderly illustrates.   Differently, not more than.  My dad loves my niece’s sense of humor – one quite similar to his own – and he loves her for even wanting to be his favorite, for boasting that she is.  That means something to her and to him.  God likes when we boast of his love for us, too.

When my children were young one of (the many) bedtime routines – after books and prayers – was to settle into a sort of litany of love. Laying beside them I would ask, “Who loves fill in the blank?” And my child would name someone, like their brother or sister. And I’d respond, “Yes, your brother loves fill in the blank.” And then I’d ask again, “Who else loves fill in the blank?” And on we’d go asking and naming all the family, friends, pets, teachers who my child knew loved him or her. I was always the penultimate one named, “Yes, I’d reply, mommy loves fill in the blank.” And at that prompt, my son or daughter would have settled in for the night – eyes closed, waiting to respond to the last, “Who else loves fill in the blank?” “God” he or she would say. “Yes, God loves you, sweet one.”

I can’t be sure but I believe this ritual gave each of my children a way to ‘feel’ God’s love, personally. Laying there all snug as a bug in their beds, my arms wrapped around them, recalling all the people God had put in their lives to love – it was a way to experience God’s love that the word alone, without modifiers or context,  doesn’t often deliver.

St Augustine wrote that God is love.  Yep, true that. But as much as I know this I don’t always feel through every cell of my being, God’s love. Perhaps because the word ‘love’ is so inadequate on its own.

There are so many ways to experience love – to love and receive love. Robert Johnson, author, psychotherapist, and former member of a Benedictine Monastery has written extensively about the inadequacy of the English word for ‘love’.  In his book, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, he writes:

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”

It is helpful to remember that when speaking or writing or hearing anything about God’s love, our word for the truth doesn’t really function.  We have to employ modifiers such as ‘more than’ and contextualize to get the point that God is love.

The psalmist found one way to express the depth and dimension of God’s love for the chosen people of Israel – he employed the modifier:  The Lord loved us more than the people of within Jacob’s gates.

Ok.  But as I might say to my child,  “who else loves God?’   “The people of Jacob love God.”  And who else does God love?  God loves the people of Jacob.

God. Loves. Fill in the blank. More.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and love – flows.

Saturday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 87, 90; PM Psalm 136
2 Kings 11:1-20a1 Cor. 7:10-24Matt. 6:19-24

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Fine Robes, Copper Coins and Naked Ladies

Looks can be deceiving and blinding.  How often we need the eyes of the other to see God’s presence in God’s church.

In today’s gospel Jesus points to the scribes and priests fancy vestments as a way to distinguish them from the unadorned poor woman who quietly, without fanfare and position in the temple, contributes to God’s church.

‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

A couple of days ago I was driving my father to a doctor’s appointment.  Of late, my dear dad has not been the conversationalist he was in years past as he struggles to recover physical strength lost after an extended stay in the hospital for aspirational pneumonia. Cognitively as sharp as ever, but a little slower getting a thought or observation from his head to his mouth to express.

So, there we were on our way to his doctor visit.  I had turned on some music knowing dad wouldn’t be chatting it up, short drive though it was.  He is hard of hearing and sitting in the passenger makes hearing me a challenge.

We had been on route only a couple of minutes before stopping at a 4-way intersection when he uttered something.  It was nearly inaudible so I thought he might be saying something to himself.  But as we came to a complete stop at the sign, he repeated and pointed across the intersection to the corner house – a house I had observed before and wondered about.  It was poorly taken care of in an otherwise neat and tidy neighborhood. It was a cottage like the others but had no wine-country, farmhouse charm. Eclectic is the best way of describing – bright, neon colors painted on some sections, funky stone work and an unkempt, overgrown yard.  I had surmised it housed, at best, a 70’s bohemian – maybe a poet or artist – and at worst, people dealing in drugs.

As he pointed to the house, he repeated his utterance but more clearly, “Naked Ladies.” I heard him but had no clue what he meant.  Hmm, I thought, maybe this odd looking cottage housed ‘naked ladies’, not drug dealers – and maybe they were in front and I didn’t see them? Or maybe dad was telling me something he knew and I didn’t?  He was smiling and repeated again as I searched for them.

As we proceeded through the intersection and passed the house in question, he said, “I haven’t seen those since we moved here!”  “What haven’t you seen, dad?”  Those flowers – those right there – those beautiful naked ladies.” And indeed, that’s when I saw the enormous border bed of flowers that completely surrounded the cottage. Naked Ladies[1] as in the Belladonna Lily.

Looks can be deceiving.  When dad pointed across the street my mind’s eye took in only the house.  I didn’t know to look for the flower – gardener that I am I never learned the common name of the flower. So I heard him literally – naked ladies – and tried to connect dots with what I had pre-known or judged of the little cottage – concluding in that very brief moment that it just might have been a house of ill repute, housing a bunch of naughty naked ladies (these pictures to the right are not of the bed in front of the cottage my dad observed, but of blooms I spied on my morning walk in my neighborhood).

I had assessed wrongly relying upon my impression of such an ‘oddly dressed cottage’ to make sense of my dad’s smiling face while uttering, “naked ladies.”

The sight brought the sweet smile to my dad’s face because of all the years he had spent in Southern California where the lily blooms happily and heartily every summer.  And the sight of a that smile brought a smile to my face because of all the years my dear father has helped me see and know God’s presence and transcendence in our world.  My dad’s eye for beauty, for color, for design, and harmony has opened my eye to this otherwise ugly, colorless, shapeless world I sometimes feel I live in.

Sort of like Jesus did with his disciples today. Pause – stop and sit here with me loved ones and take in this beautiful little moment. Don’t be blinded by the robes and the rituals and the surrounding temple – all distractions to the beauty of this moment.  Look upon the poor widow with her copper coins, here in God’s church, doing the work we are all called to do.  That should bring a smile to your face.  

Praise God from whom all blessings – and Copper Coins and Naked Ladies – flow.

Friday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 140, 142; PM Psalm 141, 143:1-11(12) 
2 Samuel 19:24-43Acts 24:24-25:12Mark 12:35-44

[1] NAKED, BUT NOT NAUGHTY If you’re a warm weather gardener you’ve probably heard of naked ladies. It’s a name that one tends to remember. And the blossoms are pretty unforgettable, too. These big South African ladies are happiest in hot, dry locations so they’re custom made for the southwest and other warm places where conditions can be controlled by moving containers around. Belladonna lilies come into their full glory in the late summer, a time when many other flowers have passed their prime for the year. Plant some this fall and they’ll delight you with big, aromatic blossoms for years to come.

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Thy will be done..AUGH!!!!

If you attend a church that follows the first track (Track 1) of the Sunday lectionary, you have been hearing from Genesis the story of Joseph and his brothers.  For several weeks his story was broken into sections and closely aligned with the all the parables of the gospel readings from Matthew.  The threads of the Old Testament readings that wove into Jesus’ parables were many, but two stood out.  Trust and patience.  Trust God’s plan – he has one – and abide in that trust and it will come to pass.  In God’s time.  Which in Joseph’s case was decades.

The psalm today tells this story so beautifully.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

16 Then he called for a famine in the land *
and destroyed the supply of bread.

17 He sent a man before them, *
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.

18 They bruised his feet in fetters; *
his neck they put in an iron collar.

19 Until his prediction came to pass, *
the word of the Lord tested him.

20 The king sent and released him; *
the ruler of the peoples set him free.

21 He set him as a master over his household, *
as a ruler over all his possessions,

22 To instruct his princes according to his will *
and to teach his elders wisdom.

All the ups and downs of young Josephs’ life, the family dysfunction of brothers who would toss him aside out of jealously, the rescuing of him by Ishmaelites who export him to a foreign land, the opportunity provided while enslaved to use his Holy Spirit inspired insight to find favor with the leaders and people of Egypt to lead, later offering forgiveness to his brothers, saving the family from starvation, to ultimately ‘instruct his princes according to God’s will, teaching them wisdom.’  All this reported in these few verses of Psalm 105 to record this particular season of salvation history – of God’s story. Thy will be done.

Perhaps because we are coming into the fall football season, I was put to thinking of Joseph’s story as a quarter in football game.  The psalm read as a Post Game report. Always so much easier to see a game and its outcome in hindsight, don’t you think? Oh, that’s what God was up to in that season! All those first downs, those incomplete passes, interceptions, time outs – that was all part of the game plan, Joseph, to get you to Egypt! Because it is in Egypt where my next quarterback, Moses, will rise.  Let the next quarter begin.

Whenever I encounter summaries of salvation history – Post Game Reports (most often in located in the Psalter) I think how nice it would be to have such a perspective of my own life – the hindsight perspective – wherein I could see the ups and downs as part of a grander plan, wherein I could see God’s hand trying to move me here, but me pushing it away to move there. Thy will be done as it is being done, lived – or not.  Like Lucy here, inviting Charlie Brown to play, but intending otherwise. Augh – such a selfish one, Lucy. How Charlie Brown continues to trust her, is patient with her.  I’ll bet Charlie Brown wished he could see read the Post Game report just once before he agreed to play again with Lucy.

I don’t want to belabor the whole football game metaphor.  Point is, the Holy Spirit pauses me often at these history lessons to think about how my story would or is being written. My story as a player on God’s team, a follower of Jesus Christ.  My story but God’s glory. How I long to know that the moves I have made so far are really and truly part of God’s plan for me and those with whom I am playing in this season of salvation history.

I appreciate the prompt from the psalm to think on these things, once again.  As much as I desire a Post Game Report of my life the past years and going forward as the psalmist does with Joseph’s story, a report that makes really, really clear what God had in mind for me this in this quarter, this season of God’s big game, I appreciate the peek at the game plan that God’s Word affords me.

God’s Word is the Post Game Report, the uber post game analysis.

By the power of the Holy Spirit I am paused to sift my life as a follower of Jesus Christ past, present and future, through the sieve of God’s Word.  Have I made any plays like Lucy?  Served myself, gone against game plan? Or am I like Charlie Brown?  AUGH!  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me. Trust and Patience?  Am I abiding? Discerning?

Today the pause has me trusting that though I have wandered, I am not lost.  I was served a glimpse of the play book and I see that I am still in the game.  Maybe on the bench for a play or two.  But I’m all suited up patiently waiting for the call to go there, stay here, pass, kneel, hold the ball, defend.  Well, you get the point.  Just happy to be on the team.

Praise God from whom all blessings – pauses – flow.

Thursday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 105:1-22; PM Psalm 105:23-45
2 Samuel 15:1-18Acts 21:27-36Mark 10:32-45

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Mark’s post on the Transfiguration: LIKE! That cloud though!

Any number of biblical images capture my imagination and put me to thinking of the power of the Holy Spirit to connect the dots of all things seen and unseen; images that speak a thousand of God’s words.  But the image that grabs me every time – whether I am dwelling in God’s Word, worshiping in God’s church or making my way through another day in God’s world –  are clouds. I am simply captivated by the image of clouds the evangelists and scribes of the Hebrew Scriptures draw upon to describe God’s presence, God’s habitat, and God’s voice.

That being said, I don’t read scripture, worship, or go through the motions of my day with an eye towards clouds.  I don’t seek the image for a sense of the Holy, but the clouds do show up and most often where I least expect it to jar me out of a routine – even the routine of praying the Daily Office.

So it was this morning.  I really hadn’t allocated a bunch of time for praying the Office, so I entered hastily with a very very long list of TO DO’s at my right hand.  But golly gee – moving quickly through the scriptures was not what the Holy Spirit had in mind for me today.

The first was the pause at Psalm 34.  Ugh.  I have a history with this psalm and found myself recollecting how the verses have been a God-sent over recent years, how they have comforted me, and how they have continued application:

17 The righteous cry, and the Lord hears them *
and delivers them from all their troubles.

18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted *
and will save those whose spirits are crushed.

Comforting, but also reminding me of how my spirit still feels crushed and how undelivered I am as of yet from my troubles.  I found myself hanging out in this space reading over past reflections from my journal.  I was tempted to cut the rest of the readings short.  Maybe I should rest with the reality check of the whispers of how little progress I have made, how my brokenness continues to need healing I thought to myself.

But as I read my reflections, I relaxed and allowed myself to be comforted by God’s reassurance articulated in the psalm and also to be comforted by my own words. After all, I am still here reading, praying, reflecting, allowing  the Holy Spirit speak to me and looking at my troubles through the lens of scripture.

So, despite the desire to wrap up early and get on with things, I moved ahead with the readings, landing at the gospel and the familiar story of the Transfiguration.

The Feast of the Transfiguration was this past Sunday, so honestly I thought I might have a good excuse to cut things short, after all. I was disinclined to read Mark’s version.  But. Well.  I read the gospel as if I didn’t know and hadn’t heard.  What might the Spirit be saying to me at this reading?

And there it was.  Hovering above.  In the clouds.

 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

What first came to my mind’s eye wasn’t the cloud itself, but oddly enough social media photo posts wherein someone is featuring a moment or a quip, and someone else comments back, “Those shoes, though!” or “That look, though!”  or “That sunset, though!” their eye noting something in the picture that trumps the thought posted.

I recently posted this snap of our family’s new addition accompanied by the comment that his parents had dressed him as a dragon for some event and that I wasn’t sure he was thrilled with the idea. A friend commented back, “Those eyes, though!”  Made me smile.  So on point.

Well that’s how I would comment on the Transfiguration moment if it had been posted on the Lord’s Instagram account.   A snapshot of the scene would have Jesus in white, Peter and James stupefied and even frightened, and Moses and Elijah chatting with one another, and I would have LIKED, then commented, “That cloud, though!”

At the moment of transfiguration when the light emanating from our Lord was so intense as to have made Peter and James see things before unseen, God sends in the clouds. Covers the scene as to soften the shining white light enough for them  – for us – to see Jesus alone standing before them and to hear God’s voice.

God as in or of the clouds is an image that keeps me connected to what is already and always there – in scripture, in worship, in daily life.

I am grateful for the long pause at the psalter this morning.  For the tears I shed over the recollection that my brokenness is yet unhealed and the assurance that it will be.  And for the encouragement my own words offered to continue with the readings today all the way to gospel, where I encountered anew our loving God, hovering over us, softening the light around us enough for us to hear and hearken to his voice.  I delight in resting here today under the cloud cover where I will be delivered from my troubles.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and all the clouds – flow.

Thursday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm [83or 34; PM Psalm 85, 86
2 Samuel 11:1-27Acts 19:11-20Mark 9:2-13

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The Feeding of the 5000 mis-reported?: The significance of numbers in God’s Word

During this week’s bible study in which we prepare for the upcoming week’s worship by praying and discussing Sunday’s lections, (this Sunday, The Feast of the Transfiguration though our parish will hear Proper 13 instead)a parishioner was taken aback at my comment that the gospel story from Matthew  (14:13-21) has been mis-named as ‘The Feeding of the 5000.’  I was making the point that the number, in actuality, was probably closer to 10,000 or even above, because 5000 referred only to the men.

21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The feeding was far more than 5000.

But the parishioner was taken aback because she considered the number 5000 simply symbolic of ‘a large crowd’ stating, who cares?  Why does it matter? Surely there weren’t even 5000 present – probably closer to a few hundred.  Do you really believe that numbers in scripture are anything other than symbolic?  

The discussion brought to mind the recent Inauguration and the story put forward by the incoming administration regarding crowd size – the largest ever, they claimed – citing numbers that were later invalidated.  It was a typically large crowd so what was the point of a head-count and drawing comparisons with previous Inaugural events?  It seemed to me the administration’s attempt was revisionist history in the making, believing that the largest crowd ever story line if recorded would somehow legitimize the new President’s purported popularity in a way that the general election hadn’t – at least in his mind’s eye. The storyline put out by the Administration worked at cross purposes and rather than elevating and instilling confidence in him as our country’s leader, his fragile ego now exposed introduced a tone of insecurity and suspicion that would shade all future stories coming from the Oval Office regarding leadership.

Numbers and head counts work differently in scripture.  Accuracy and symbolism are powerfully connected.  Yes, I replied to the parishioner – yes I believe that the crowd was enormous and may have even topped 5000. By calling the miracle the Feeding of the 5000 I suggested we miss the opportunity to talk about the significance of the number beyond the impression that a large crowd was fed.  Matthew was breaking with convention by reporting not only an actual number – instead of a phrase ‘a large crowd’ but also reporting that number didn’t include everyone present. The accepted practice of head counting a crowd by men only was not adequate to report the number of people who followed Jesus. Jesus broke all records so that even the record keeping methods had to be changed when the gospels were written.  And, the number had a deeper significance related to history and the Hebrew Scriptures[1].  I am not going to go down that bunny trail right now but suffice to say that all numbers found in the Bible have a deeper significance than we often pay attention to or acknowledge.

Both and.  Numbers are symbolic and they are literal, too.  Which brings me – finally – to today’s readings and the spot where the Holy Spirit paused me to wonder.  It was in the Hebrew Scriptures and the passage from 2 Samuel that recounts David’s anointing and kingship over Israel. My first thought was how the passage was populated with numbers – numbers that felt familiar even though I do not know David’s story in a familiar way. I know the outlines of his story, but the duration of his kingship, his age, the time he spent fighting the Philistines, I haven’t studied him enough to know these details.  Details which felt familiar but associated with Jesus, not David.

That was the pause.  The story line found in 2 Samuel about David’s anointing and Kingship over Israel align perfectly, number-wise, with Jesus’.  David was 30 years old – as Jesus was the start of his public ministry and served for 40 years (7 in one place, 7 a holy number, and 33 in another, 33 the age Jesus was at his crucifixion).  A total of 40 years. We all know the significance of ’40’  – those years in exile, those nights Jesus spent in the desert.  Here is the passage:

5Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ 3So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years5At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

So.  Personal application?  Simply to appreciate the depth of God’s Word.   To pause and mine the depths and appreciate that each word, each number is given to us for a reason, as my favorite cartoonist (and I believe, theologian) Dan Piraro illustrates here.

Numbers are significant in scripture not simply to symbolize, but to connect and legitimize and have us take seriously, even literally at times, the truth of Jesus Christ.

The evangelists weren’t weaving some story together to make their guy look good, look like a leader. They were reporting actual events, actual numbers, and connecting the story of Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures and to history.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and crowd sizes – flow.

Friday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 69:1-23(24-30)31-38; PM Psalm 73 
2 Samuel 5:1-12
Acts 17:1-15Mark 7:24-37

[1] 5000: The officers of the Levites gave 5000 from the flock (2 Chr. 35:9); 5000 men sent into ambush on the west of Ai (Josh. 8:12); 5000 men of Benjamin were overtaken (Judg. 20:45); 5000 fed (Matt. 14:21; Matt. 16:9; Mark 6:44; Mark 8:19); 5000 men (Luke 9:14; John 6:10); about 5000 men believing (Acts 4:4); 5400 articles of gold and silver (Ezra 1:11).

 

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