Getting to know Paul

Several months ago I participated in step one of the wider diocesan process of electing a new bishop in what is called ‘Walkabouts’.  The purpose of Walkabouts is for clergy, delegates and members of the Episcopal Church in one region (Diocese) to meet and hear from the candidates face to face.  It is the candidate’s first and only opportunity to answer questions and tell the people about themselves before the diocesan-wide election. It is a ‘getting to know you’ occasion.

A ‘getting to know you’ occasion as I understand – one as depicted in the 1956 musical,  The King and I, when the teacher addresses her students with these opening lines of the song, Getting to Know You:

It’s a very ancient saying
But a true and honest thought
That if you become a teacher
By your pupils you’ll be taught

The candidates for bishop were with us for the Walkabouts that we might get to know them.  But I was most curious if any, all or some might allow that they were curious to know us or, perhaps appropriately, were we incidental to their ambition to become a bishop in The Episcopal Church?  Any number of searches are underway in the national church for bishops.  I knew all five candidates to be worthy and qualified.  What did each of them know of us?

Our diocese is geographically large so five different walkabouts were scheduled over five days.  At each, clergy met with the candidates over dinner before the public forum was held.  This gave clergy, who will take a vow of obedience to the new Bishop, some one on one time with each of them, followed by a randomly selected table seating for dinner with just one. I knew none personally and only one with whom I had a loose 6-degree-of-separation connection.

After the Walkabout and before the electing convention I attended a gathering of the clergy in my region to share notes.  Of the five candidates, three emerged as most favored (Candidates X, Y, and Z).

The person with whom I had sat at the Walkabout dinner, Candidate Y, was one of the three, though as the discussion went on, I was struck by how differently I had perceived  Y than my colleagues.  None of them had sat with Y at dinner and some had sat with one of the other favored candidates X and Z.

I recalled how when I heard Y’s presentation to the wider body in the Open Forum, I was linked right back to our table talk wherein I had heard some of Y’s backstory. In that introductory moment to the larger gathering, Y’s words were more than words, Y’s story more dimensional than the others I was hearing – it went deeper, taking me past what Y does/did to who Y was/is.  With the others, I had no backstory and so their introductions laid there on the surface, intimating an authenticness, but not one I yet, could access.

My colleagues who had sat with Candidate X or Z had similar experiences.  Feeling a connection with the one with whom they had had a conversation, had heard some backstory.

No news here, but simply an observation – a recognition – of how significantly our perceptions of all things in life are informed and persuaded by personal experience and how blind and deaf we are to the deep waters that run below the surface.

It is really hard to perceive or know something or someone just by the resume, the story presented, the introduction made or the questions answered.  When there’s no backstory it is personally harder to connect with the bigger story.

Backstory is a ‘thing’ in story development and nothing that comes out of Hollywood these days comes without one.

My daughter is a professional screenwriter for movies and TV.  Every new feature or series she writes includes a script and a backstory.  A character’s backstory is the stuff behind the script that tells the actor what happened from birth to how they became the character on the page.  Included in each character’s backstory is a secret.

The audience may never know the secret exists, but the actor does. It’s the key to giving that character a full and real life. We all have things in our lives that remain a secret for as long as we can bear to hold it silent. But it’s there. It affects your life, even though you’ve buried it beneath layers of life experiences.[1]

Knowing the backstory to the character helps ensure that the integrity of the larger story is maintained through each episode and every potential season.

This is why I think I heard Candidate Y more deeply than I heard the others.  I had been given access to Y’s backstory in our short conversation over dinner.  No deep dark secrets were revealed – only some of Y’s vulnerabilities which were a meaningful part of Y’s story,  but not necessarily part of Y’s resume.  This allowed me to relate to Y differently than to the others.

All this came to mind this morning when the Holy Spirit paused me at Paul’s letter to the Philippians.   For the first time in long time, I just feel Paul here – feel his heart for the church in Philippi.  So dear, he is.  He is responding to a petition we don’t have access to  – a letter they have written him that must have included something to the effect, “Sorry to bother you Paul – we know you’re in prison and have a long ‘to-do’ list, but in your spare time might you clarify something for us?”  Our brother Paul, begins a final paragraph in this letter so sweetly, going on to explain – again – how we gain life when we die to self.  Here’s how he starts that letter:

Finally, my brothers and sisters,* rejoice* in the Lord.

To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.

I have wrestled with this passage that follows  – the one that recounts his fantabulous resume virtues – and so many of Paul’s teachings over the years for Paul’s own presence in the writings.  I’ve argued that Paul just needs to get out of the way for us, the reader, to get to the heart of the matter.

This particular passage often read to me like some of the holier-than-thou preachers out there on the airwaves – I was all that, now I’m all this – preachers that talk at you from a stage where their personality turns a sermon into a solo act.  For the longest time, every time I’d read Paul it was as if his ink well of personality had been spilled over all his letters, smothering what is truly some of the most compelling, imaginative, historical, mystical, dot-connecting, metaphor-making, holy spirit-inspired writing found in scripture.

And through all those years of struggling to get to the theological significance of one letter or another, to get to the practical application of losing self to gain Christ, to hear what the Spirit was saying through Paul, it never occurred to me to get to know him, really get to know his story.  To sit with Paul at a dinner table and hear his backstory – to know some of his vulnerabilities and what was and is behind his super-qualifying resume to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and with Peter, the apostolic father of the Christian church as we know it today.

Perception or lack therefore of

It’s as if like the woman in this Bizarro panel from Dan Piraro, I sat across from Paul for years with an eye patch on, unable to perceive his depth, so sure I was that his all-about-me-persona I had come to love, was who he was – there was no there, there. No depth.

Though I have earnestly peeled the patch off with every encounter to find application in his writings, I have to remind myself to do so – it just hasn’t come naturally.

I knew his biography. I studied his ministry routes and learned on some level enough to think of him as the zealot he was before Damascus and the zeal for which he went after Christ, after. Heck, in seminary I took an entire semester class on Paul and with the Lutherans, no less! where I learned much about his ministry.

But boy, did I miss his backstory.  One piece that  I’m just learning about is what took place in Paul’s life immediately following his personal encounter with the risen Lord.  I had the timeline wrong, thinking Paul went very soon after to Antioch.  But he didn’t! God gave him reflection time – time to assimilate the reality of the Messiah come and resurrected into what up to that point had been a Judaic world view – one that didn’t include a guy on a donkey, nailed to a wooden cross.

I’ve been learning that after Damascus, Paul bounced to Jerusalem, then back to Tarsus, his home town.  And he’s there maybe up to 10 years – a decade! –  before Barnabas comes to Tarsus to pull him to Antioch, where he, Barnabas, needs a bible-guy to help him with the diverse community in Antioch eager to hear about the risen Lord.

This is the secret I hadn’t thought about in Paul’s backstory.  The secret that in his own home town and for maybe 10 years he had been sifting through the scriptures as he had always understood them and seeing how to figure Jesus Christ – this new reality – into the world he had known.  He was doing some heavy duty theological reflection – rethinking the prophets, Abraham, Moses, the exile, all through the lens of the fulfilled prophecy of the Messiah, Jesus the Risen Lord.  While he’s doing this?  He’s in his hometown where presumably his family and friends are living.  He’s likely sitting with them, trying to bring the good news to them, to persuade them to know Jesus the Risen Lord.

But here’s something I had never thought about – there is no mention of Tarsus in Acts or anywhere else in the canon that indicates a home-church or church of any size was planted by Paul.  And, in addition, on Paul’s first missionary trip that began in Antioch the most likely route on that or any subsequent missionary trip up to Galatia would have naturally included a stopover in Tarsus.

First Missionary Trip

But Paul never did return and seems to have intentionally avoided Tarsus in all his missionary travels.  Which says what?  It says to me that Paul had struggled in those first years of his new life in Christ to convince, persuade, enjoin any of his family or friends.

And that gives me an insight into him that peels away his bravado before my eyes.  My heart aches for him.  Only in humility – and maybe even despair – could he have left his hometown, family and friends to have gone to Antioch with Barnabas who needed basically a bible nerd to help him out.

Sigh.  I’m just beginning to peel back these layers as I get to know Paul, better – getting to know him as I briefly got to know Y for who Y was/is, not what Y does/do.  I’m getting to know who Paul is and was.  I am blessed in so doing.  I hear the Spirit so much more fully than I have in a long time.

I wonder how many of us non-bible nerd Episcopalians know a fraction of the backstory of not just Paul, but, too, all the biblical characters and storylines, hyperlinks and connections of salvation history.

I’m thinking of all the attention paid to the Game of Thrones premiere last night – how the hundreds of thousands who tuned in for the first episode of the last season of the 7-season HBO series had prepared by revisiting previous episodes, the books, blogs, and Social Media sites to be sure they had the backstory straight to ensure full engagement and enjoyment with the new season.

How does that passion compare with how we read a new episode or chapter or even book of the Bible?  What kind of backstory are we inclined to pursue before concluding one way or another what the Spirit is saying?

As the importance of backstory is to the integrity of a Hollywood product, as the importance of backstory is to knowing of a bishop candidate, is the importance of knowing the stories of our ancestors and the human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Bible.

Well, actually.  More.  More important.
How about you dig in?

Praise God from whom all blessings – and backstories – flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 51:1-18(19-20); PM Psalm 69:1-23
Jer. 12:1-16Phil. 3:1-14John 12:9-19

[1] https://medium.com/the-mission/the-power-of-your-backstory-in-knowing-who-you-are-and-who-youre-about-to-become-988cbc33ac63

 

 

 

 

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For from him and through him and to him are all things

From today’s readings, Romans 11:

Romans 11:36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

Wildflower protected California Poppy and “Weed-to-some” dandelion growing side by side.  The natural world bears witness over and over to God’s church where all are one in Christ.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and flowers and beauty – flows.

#cloudsofwitnessesinthegarden #galatians3:28 #dandelionisbothflowerandweed

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 137:1-6(7-9), 144; PM Psalm 42, 43
Jer. 31:27-34Rom. 11:25-36John 11:28-44 or 12:37-50

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Lent 5 Year B Sermon

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Clouds of Witnesses: Down from heaven

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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“…because he delighted in me”…ugh, not feeling it

Psalm 18:20 He brought me out into an open place; *

A year ago this week I paused at Psalm 18 to reflect in my personal scriptural journal on this first line of the last couplet and specifically at the phrase, an open place.  The ‘open place‘ (elsewhere in scripture referred to as the ‘broad place’) as a biblical metaphor is one of that has captured my imagination – opening doors to my understanding of the intention in God’s creation – one that allows that though the passageway to union with God might indeed be narrow, the land – the geography – the space where life is best lived in harmony with God and where God’s will be done, is broad and open and with room for all of creation to dwell.

I paused at these words last year because my experience of the open place, and specifically God drawing me into it, was different than the promise suggests.  I was newly ordained and serving in a parish I thought to continue serving for a very long time.   But the message I was receiving from my superior conflicted – thwarted? – that plan.  I was told that the congregation was too small for two paid clergy and that my preaching and teaching was better suited for a different kind of congregation. It was all said with a smile and couched in comforting words like “you know we love you here, but….”

So, last year when I encountered this psalm in Epiphany 2 I was rethinking what the open space meant in terms of my own ministry.  I thought I had discerned God’s hand in bringing me to this particular parish, but I was hearing just the opposite from the person who had initially welcomed me into the fold.  Had I discerned wrongly?  Again?

I hadn’t remembered that I had paused here last year and was surprised to find this reflection in my journal when I went to it this morning to reflect not on the first line of the last couplet but on the second line,

20 He brought me out into an open place; *
he rescued me because he delighted in me.

“…he delighted in me” Ugh.  How I do not feel it to be so.  Pause.  Breathe.  Hold back the tears.  That is what happened when I prayed the psalm this morning.  Pause. Breathe. Think.  Go deeper, think more deeply.  Why does praying this bring up tears and why does my heart begin to race a bit?

I am no longer serving God’s church in the parish I referenced above.  I now reside in that open place the Holy Spirit had me contemplate last year.  Since Advent 1 I have floated from one congregation to another, in and out of my current home state, trying to discern God’s hand.  Is he leading me out in an open place?

Or am I here in this open place, untethered to a particular church because that is where I was intended to be all along?  Was the priestly ambition mine alone?  It is difficult for me to consider otherwise right now.  The spirit landed these words, ‘because he delighted in me’ right on my heart and my first utterance at reading them today, was

…ugh.  I hear your word, Lord, I know it to be true, God, that you save and delight in each of your children, but I cannot honestly say I feel this – I do not feel that with me you delight.

Before Christmas I was having a heart to heart with a loved one.  She was sharing some of her recent trials – things that had happened over the previous year that had set her back towards her goal of getting free from unhealthy habits.  I had suspected that she had lost her way but I hadn’t known how far it had gone.  When I asked why she hadn’t come to me sooner, why she had ignored all my texts, phone calls and emails that had offered a hand, she said, “Because you make me feel badly about myself. I didn’t want your help.

Words alone don’t make something so, even divine ones that a believer may know to be true but haven’t dropped into the heart-feeling-through-every-cell-of-their-being territory.  Maya Angelou is quoted as saying something along these lines, something to the effect,

You are not remembered for the words you write to someone, nor are you remembered for the deeds you do for others.  You will be remembered for how you make people feel.

My loved one has not experienced unadulterated love from me.  Over the years she has received many words from me, many good deeds, but at the end of the day, she doesn’t feel that I delight in her.

I’m beginning to comprehend this disconnect between words, actions and experience-feeling.   I think about all the people in my life who may or may not feel loved by me, no matter what words I have used with them over the years.  I think, too, of how I have felt loved or delighted in by others and realize that if I have a hard time feeling delighted in and loved by my Lord, I have likely made it hard on others to love me.  Sorta kinda really makes me sad and grateful at the same time – that the spirit paused me today to think on these things.

To live the gospel, to preach the gospel, to share the love and good news, it has to be felt – embodied.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and smiles and tears and feelings and open places  – come.

Daily Office Readings Year One, Thursday:  AM Psalm 18:1-20; PM Psalm 18:21-50
Isa. 41:17-29Eph. 2:11-22Mark 2:1-12

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No conversation, angry or loving = No relationship

A loved one recently texted to me, “no more,” adding that they “didn’t care or want to talk any more.” They had reached a point – the point – where they just didn’t have the patience to connect with me whenever the stars might align to do so.  To their way of thinking I was just too busy for conversation, spontaneous or otherwise.

I apologized.  I owned that certainly over the past few weeks I have been otherwise occupied and busy.  I didn’t make excuses but I did try to explain that I had intentionally carved out me-time to take care of a long overdue ‘to-do’ list and to begin the process of discerning new vocational settings – of landing a new job.  I texted,

So sorry to miss you tonight – I know I’ve been out of touch for the past couple of weeks – been holed up with church biz and trying to get a grip on healthy daily habits food, sleep, excercise wise- so I’ve been going to yoga a lot, spending time in prayer and trying to write and get caught up on stuff calendar wise through the end of November – I hope we can touch in and talk tomorrow or Friday xo

My loved one pushed back,

Forget it.  I am fed up with everyone’s busy schedules. Really forget it.

Ouch.  Then they wrote,

What is everyone here waiting for to connect? When things are perfect?

I thought it was an opening and responded,

…a good thing to talk about when we talk – hope we will in the next couple of days – love you

To which I received this reply,

Stop being overly sweet and  understanding…just forget it – it doesn’t matter.

I didn’t reply back.  And we haven’t talked.  If they were now indifferent, how to move forward?  The text-conversation hung with me hovering in the background like a shadow in my study, reading, praying time (searched for a Word all week in the lectionary readings – none to be found until this morning) in the yoga studio, in my ‘church biz’ administrative work, reminding me that this relationship was wounded.

My loved one is angry – not just with me, but with others – others they have loved or have an ongoing relationship with and find connecting and conversation on a regular basis hard to come by.  In the language of therapy, anger = hurt.  If you feel ‘hurt,’ if your feelings are hurt, if you feel dissed or dismissed, you’re angry.  Maybe with the person, maybe with yourself – but you are angry.  And if conversation about that anger is cut off – ‘forget it, it doesn’t matter,’  there’s little hope of resolving, let alone healing.

Conversation is essential for relationships to thrive.  Cutting off conversation intentionally or not, signals the end.  That was the Word that finally came to me this morning in the Old Testament reading from Job.

We’ve been reading Job all week and most of us know his story well, but it was at today’s opening verse that the Lord sent me the Word I needed to hear to attend to the hovering shadow of the relationship I had injured.

Job, as angry as he was with God, as justified as we think he might have been to be angry with God, keeps the conversation going. Just look at how he hangs in there with God, engaging, provoking even, God to keep talking,

‘I loathe my life;
I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  Job 10:1-2

Think of how easy it would have been for Job to have sent a different text message, something like this, instead:

‘Forget it, God, you just don’t care, it doesn’t matter…’

That would have ended the conversation right there.  No more headache for Job trying to figure out this or that, or  ‘why,’ all these bad things had happened to him and his life.  Instead, Job stays in conversation.  And conversation keeps him in relationship with God.

I like how theologian and writer, Walter Brueggemann in his book, Finally Comes the Poet, writes about Job his healthy relationship with the Lord, God:

Job pushes his attack on God as far as a voice in Israel dare push. In chapter 9 Job asserts not only that God is unrelaible, but is in fact a liar (20-22). Job never pushes to God’s nonexistence, for then he would quit speaking and be reduced to silence. Muteness is practical atheism. Job keeps believing and speaking; he lives for the dispute. Likely that is why in ancient Israel there are no atheists. The conversation of faith is the best action in town. Job is characteristic of Jewishness that finds dispute a viable, crucial form of faith. Job delineates his experience of negation, of God’s absence and silence, of God’s refusal to deal with his issues. Job yearns most for an answer, any answer, because he prefers harsh dialogue to an empty monologue. (Finally Comes the Poet, pg 61, 62)

Muteness is practical atheism – humorously depicted in Dan Piraro’s panel from Bizarro, to the right – no conversation to be had, nothing believed in to be discussed.

This goes for personal relationships, too.  When we cut off the conversation, resign ourselves to the dispute and don’t deal or talk about it with each other, we – I – am basically saying, “I don’t believe in this relationship anymore.”    It’s a blank pamphlet – an empty thing.  There’s no there, there.

But I do believe in the relationship – so I will keep speaking and asking and trying.  Avoiding each other, “forget it, it doesn’t matter” ain’t right.

Cutting this short.  Gotta make a phone call.

Praise God from whom all conversation, angry and loving, and blessings, flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 20, 21:1-7(8-14); PM Psalm 110:1-5(6-7), 116, 117
Job 9:1,10:1-9,16-22Acts 11:1-18John 8:12-20

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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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