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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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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